…the revolting, revolting masses. The Revolt Against the Masses is the latest book from Fred Siegel, former editor of City Journal and an estimable figure in contemporary conservative thought. It is a quick read (225 pages, Encounter Books), and well worth your time. Siegel anatomatizes the emergence and evolution of twentieth-century liberalism as a literary and cultural force. In this regard, he is ill-served by his editors’ choice of a subtitle, How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class, which makes the book sound like an economic analysis. Liberalism’s Contempt for the Middle Class is much closer to Siegel’s thesis.
Siegel begins by discussing those he considers the fin-de-siècle and early-century “Progenitors” of American anti-Americanism: E.L. Godkin, founder of The Nation; Henry Adams; H.G. Wells; Herbert Croly; H.L. Mencken; and perhaps least familiar, Randolph Bourne. Bourne was a mad Germanophile like Mencken, offering moral-equivalence defenses of the Kaiserreich’s war on the west, like “the parity between ‘the horrors of capitalistic peace at home’ and ‘the horrors of war in Belgium.’” Bourne was the prophet of Youth-with-a-capital-Y, the necessity of “thinking emotions” and “feeling thoughts.” Dead at only 32, Bourne got the Who’s “hope to die before I get old,” and thus never had to face the madness of his religion of youth. A proto-fascist, a militarist, and a narcissistic would-be victim of a soulless country, he died of the 1918 influenza epidemic decrying the war malevolent Americans had brought upon his beloved, wronged, idealistic, philosophical, masterful Imperial Germany.
Next, Siegel discusses what he believes to be the birth of American liberalism the post-war, post-Wilsonian disillusionment of the 1920s—an elite, anti-American phenomenon distinguishable from the Progressive Movement, a populist, middle-class, Protestant thing. Post-war liberalism believed America’s culture and democracy to have been revealed as moronic and evil. “America had failed the liberals,” writes Siegel, “and they would never forgive” her.
The meat of the book begins with “‘Randolph Bourne Writing Novels’ About Main Street,” a reading of Sinclair Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Waldo Frank, Walter Lippmann, et al., and makes the acute point that their literary success mainstreamed contempt for middle-class America into a broad swath of the reading public, where it has remained de trop down to today’s massively dumbed-down Daily Show poseurs.
“Three Trials,” on Leopold & Loeb, Scopes, and Sacco & Vanzetti, shows the emerging mythology of liberalism on the side of science against an imaginary mob of murderous, xenophobic know-nothings, and points to the connivance of Comintern propaganda and the weakening resistance of the American left to the blandishments of Bolshevism, and “Giants in Decline” shows Croly and Wells’ floundering in the 1920s.
“Red Decade” describes the American left’s pro-Soviet turn in the 1930s, finally having found the god with which they could worship and cleanse themselves of the original sin of being born American. In “The Passing Glory of the Vital Center,” Siegel describes the brief, pro-American moment among liberals during and after the Second World War, though he prefaces it with Bernard DeVoto’s prophetic 1935 utterance, “‘The literary man associating himself as with brothers of one heart with the democracy who were yesterday the boobs, the suckers, the fall guys, the Rotarians, the coarse-souled materialists of all the world. Well, maybe…but probably not for long.’ Soon enough, ‘one-eyed literary folk will once more be beholding the land of broken promises, inhabited only by inferior people who destroy individuality and break the Artist’s heart.”
The Artist, or at least the pretentious, couldn’t handle America’s full-hearted embrace of high culture in the ’50s, and so literary and intellectual élites led by the Frankfurt School led a murderous attack on the “inauthenticity” and “suburban fascism” of contemporary life. Intellectual discourse championed irony, kitsch, and contempt for “the middlebrow,” that is, middle-class people embracing exactly the high culture their forefathers had pilloried the middle class of their day for ignoring.
The Sixties saw the victory of the intellectuals over the people, with a tag-team of New Left rabblerousers and, more influentially, New Class bureaucratic technocrats, established a new system by and for the best and brightest. The sixties and seventies also saw this New Class make mascots of minorities, using them as cudgels with which to beat the mainstream they hated. Their fundamental lack of interest in those they claimed to love meant, “They wanted to help blacks in the worst way, and that’s just what they did.”
Siegel takes the tale through the more familiar terrain of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s with insight and subtlety, persuasively trace the roots of today’s “gentry liberals” who combine reactionary attitudes, and contempt for their perceived inferiors with philosophical nihilism and a religious certitude in politics.
Overall, Siegel has penned a persuasive history of the literary, and latterly social-scientific and philosophical current in American politics which has come to be known, somewhat ironically, as liberalism. The book is packed full of fresh and interesting analysis and enormous numbers of vivid, entertaining, and enlightening and damning quotes (“Europe has its Hitlers, we have our Rotarians.”). It is very much worth your time and money.
By way of critique, it can be remarked that Siegel’s bright line between Progressivism and liberalism is not defensible. The two may be distinguished, but the continuities in personnel and political-philosophical ideals and policy ideas can’t be disentangled. But Progressivism was a political program; what Siegel shows is that liberalism was—and is—an attitude—a literary, cultural movement, a beating heart, an ideaphoric brain, a soul, a thanatos, and ultimately, most profoundly, a hate. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism spent a lot of time careful tracing the long continuities in left-wing political philosophy. Siegel reviewed Jonah’s book condescendingly and poorly, and goes out of his way to discuss H.G. Wells’s 1924 disparagement of fascism, but curiously never addresses Jonah’s seeming smoking gun of Wells’s call for, literally, liberal fascists. It would be interesting to read Jonah’s take on the book, but Siegel’s work largely complements rather than contradicts Goldberg’s. The two are usefully read in conjunction, with Goldberg the better guide to political philosophy and Siegel deeper on culture and literature.
Another negative note: Siegel’s book appears not to have been copyedited at all. If I were he, I’d never work with Encounter Books again—and any author considering doing so should take a look at the colossal litany of typos which Encounter allowed into print, most spectacularly, “Wilson placed George Creel, a journalist and a Socialist who had strongly supported child-labor laws and women’s suffrage, in charge of the Committee for Pubic Information, an agency intended to sustain morale during wartime.” I’ll bet it did.
Other screaming typos include Comtian (for Comtean, which appears elsewhere), Zivilization, a Sid Caesar-esque version of the German Zivilisation, “Saco” & Vanzetti (a few lines before the correct spelling appears), Harvey “Kleher” [Klehr], “Eric” [Erich] Fromm, “Africa-American” (more than once), “AIDs”, “for De Man” when “Yale professor Paul de Man” was a few lines above, “John” [Jon] Stewart, etc. A handful of sentences seem similarly to have either lacked an editor or been screwed up by one. Caveat author.
Dreadful editing aside, The Revolt Against the Masses is an exceptionally interesting, consistently fascinating account of a history liberals would rather forget…were they aware of it in the first place.
Don’t ask impertinent questions like that jackass Adept Lu.