YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 27, 2014

George Orwell pitied Hitler but hated the money power

Orwell passport photo, undated

Orwell passport photo, undated

I have already posted blogs on George Orwell (https://clarespark.com/2012/11/17/index-to-orwell-blogs/), but had not yet read his essays from the early 1940s. I now have a clearer and bleaker idea of his politics, which are more clearly expressed in such essays as The Lion and the Unicorn, which dismayed me as the meandering thoughts of an anti-modern populist than that of the democratic socialist portrayed by recent leftist intellectuals. (For my most recent essay see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/.)

First, there is his pity for Hitler, published in his review of Mein Kampf in New English Weekly, 21 March, 1940. [Orwell:] “I should like to put it on record that I have never been able to dislike Hitler. Ever since he came to power—till then, like nearly everyone, I had been deceived into thinking that he did not really matter—I have reflected that I would certainly kill him if I could get within reach of him, but that I could feel no personal animosity. The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photographs—and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is there. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.

“…Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life…. However they may be as theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their people….” [End, Orwell excerpt]

Second, there is the strongly embedded populist antisemitism in his declaration of his own English brand of Socialism in The Lion and the Unicorn, published in December 1940. For he not only wants a distinctively English Socialism (think of IngSoc in 1984), he is adamant about the outrageous role of usury, the domination of the money power, and the resultant income inequality derived from the English class system. He means to expropriate the English aristocracy and their unearned wealth, all along believing that his statist plan is part of the English tradition that spreads itself uniquely into past, present, and future. I.e., he believes in English national character, defined as vaguely Christian, but not observant.

And his view of Jews is often characteristically European. Nowhere, though he believes himself to be an anti-antisemite, he fails to understand that Jews represent modernity and its endless intellectual combativeness. Indeed, he professes great admiration for the admittedly reactionary poets whose anti-Semitism is too little noticed by literary historians: Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Yeats, even Kipling (on the latter see http://www.heretical.com/miscella/kipling2.html).

Finally, there is the homoerotic and misogynistic poem of his own that he quotes in Looking Back on the Spanish War, published in 1943. I quote only the first two verses of a longer poem written to an Italian militiaman “two years after the war was visibly lost.”

[Orwell:] “The Italian soldier shook my hand/ Beside the guard-room table;/ The strong hand and the subtle hand/ Whose palms are only able/ To meet within the sound of guns,/ But oh! What peace I knew then/ In gazing on his battered face/Purer than any woman’s!….”

What may we infer about these excerpts? Putting them together, we must ask, given Orwell’s ambivalence about Trotsky, what should we make of “Emmanuel Goldstein”? “Emmanuel” is a synonym for Christ, while the populist animus to gold is all too apparent. In combining these names, is Orwell rejecting Jesus as Jew? Is Eric Blair (Orwell’s birth name), perhaps, the crucified Christ he projected into Hitler?


And yet conservatives frequently cite Orwell in their general critique of “totalitarianism”—a term that I have criticized as outdated and historically incorrect, as the various fascisms and communism have nothing in common but their use of terror as a method of disciplining the masses. Still it should be kept in mind that some of the essays I read (1940-43) were written during the shocking Nazi-Soviet Pact; moreover Orwell predicted that if Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the Russians would not resist. So his initial views on “totalitarianism” are not so surprising. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/.)

I continue to find George Orwell as problematic as in my earlier blogs, and am disgusted with the British Left’s failure to cite these obvious motes in the great man’s eye. Might it be his own sadism that is most salient in the Orwell biography?

Eric Blair with Mother, 1903

Eric Blair with Mother, 1903


June 1, 2014

The Hunger Games trilogy: reactionary and postmodern

Catching_Fire_Katniss_Everdeen_WallpaperI am going to try not to have any spoilers in this blog, so will be more general in my critique than usual.

I have now read all three volumes of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, at the request of my daughter Jenny who studied with Jacques Derrida and Samuel Weber, champion promoters of postmodernism. It was she who made the connection between the film version of The Hunger Games and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, especially in its posing of the question “Real or Fake?”

Before this latest read, I had thought primarily of the anticapitalist, antimodern aspect of postmodernism: its emphasis on indeterminacy/uncertainty, the fallibility of the human senses, its critique of science as a bourgeois plot to snare the unwary mass man and woman (misappropriating Thomas Kuhn), but above all its assault on the ordinary, overly credulous reader of “texts.” And for the “pomo” everything is a text to be “deconstructed” for the purpose of revealing the silences of official language, the relevant clues pushed to the margins or entirely submerged. I find postmodern theory useful in many cases; see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/08/postmodernism-cultural-pluralism-and-the-will-to-power/–retitled “Reading between the lines.” Also https://clarespark.com/2014/08/07/modernity-versus-modernism/.

Postmodernists believe they are enablers of the voices that have been submerged by official inhuman modern cultures—worshippers of consumerism and nature-killing technology. Hence their primitivism, celebration of the archaic and/or tradition (potlatches!), including the empirical wisdom of hunting societies, but also peasant cunning and use of herbal remedies for injuries and disease, and above all the celebration of Greek popular culture as I laid out here: https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/.

Especially read this paragraph:”Think of the good king, the paternalistic welfare state, the touching loyalty of its servants, fatalism, magic, the intervention of wise god figures in daily life (grey-eyed Athena or a wise Latina), superheroes, shape-changing creatures, gorgeous tall women and men, the glitter of gold and silver along with artisanal triumphs designed for the aristocracy, the increasing blending of gymnastics with dance, but most of all, the aestheticization of violence that Walter Benjamin described as the culture of fascism and Nazism in his famous defense of modern mass media “The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction.” Writing at the same time as Freeman and Crossman, Benjamin declared that such artists as Marinetti had glorified war to the point where humanity was contemplating its own destruction as an aesthetic experience. What would Benjamin have said about the humanizing beauty of Odysseus’s slaughter of the suitors and the female slaves who had slept with them?– A slaughter that left the poet in awe of the “lion” figure of Odysseus, covered as he was with the blood and gore of his enemies.”

Has not Suzanne Collins aestheticized violence in her trilogy? And why do so many of our young people live without hope, expecting to die young?

During the second wave of feminism, there was a strong tendency on behalf of matriarchy and Amazon- or Goddess worship: the long-dead and discredited Bachofen was de rigueur in some circles. The left feminists thought that goddesses were bogus and reactionary, but to the extent that the audience for The Hunger Games is “feminist,” it is the goddess-worshipping counter-cultural tendency that has prevailed.

Suzanne Collins, a Roman Catholic and an admirer of Greek antiquity, the daughter of an officer in the Viet Nam war, probably set out to write a dystopian novel attacking war, income inequality, and modern mind-control, in the spirit of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four. But she has instead arguably added to modern paranoia, and undermined the confidence of the ordinary people she ostensibly wishes to protect, like the Übermenschen (Gale, Peeta, and Katniss), oddly (given the multicultural times we live in), all white people of apparently Northern European extraction. (And who are the agricultural workers in District 11, obviously all black people, like Katniss’s pet “Rue”?)

By naming the President of the rebels “Coin,” Collins takes her place among petit-bourgeois populists of the past.

Prometheus, once the friend of humanity, is vanquished, along with world-destroying and Nazified industrial capitalism: Oh so “Green” Katniss Everdeen has taken their places. Has anyone noticed that the novels and movies are culture war events that deserve our close attention, especially as its target audience won’t know how to read its sub-text? For more on reactionary nostalgia see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/03/elie-kedouries-nationalism-am-i-stumped/ (retitled “The Good Old Days”).

The author in her favorite color

The author in her favorite color

March 16, 2013

Blogs on Freud and anti-Freudians

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 6:28 pm
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Michelangelo's Horned Moses

Michelangelo’s Horned Moses


https://clarespark.com/2013/03/11/do-paleoconservatives-want-a-theocracy/ (some authoritarian anti-Freudians)


https://clarespark.com/2013/02/23/peter-gays-freud/ (Freud’s map of the mind as possibly influenced by the French Revolution)






https://clarespark.com/2012/03/26/henry-a-murray-and-the-tat/ (index of blogs that abuse Freud to grow state power; Freud was about emancipation from illegitimate authority)



https://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/ (aristocratic views of “the People”)



https://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/  (on the pervasiveness of S-M in popular culture)

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/  (anti-Freud in The Nation, 1919)

https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/ (Lippmann read Freud).

Why do I come down on the side of the Freudians, when it would be more expedient to join in the demonization of Freud so common all along the political spectrum?  Here is what Freud wrote about his teacher Charcot, in an obituary: “‘He was not a reflective man, not a thinker: he had the nature of an artist—he was, as he himself said, a ‘visuel’, a man who sees. Here is what he himself told us about his method of working. He used to look again and again at the things he did not understand, to deepen his impression of them day by day, till suddenly an understanding of them dawned on him. […]. He might be heard to say that the greatest satisfaction a man could have was to see something new — that is, to recognize it as new; and he remarked again and again on the difficulty and value of this kind of ‘seeing’.” [Quoted in Ilse Grubrich-Simitism, Early Freud and Late Freud, p.17]

Prometheus as shown by a "white nationalist"

Prometheus as shown by a “white nationalist”

March 2, 2013

“Free Speech” and the internet

Moreau's Prometheus

Moreau’s Prometheus

This is not the first time I have broached this subject. See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/.

When Melville’s Captain Ahab exclaimed “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” the author left the exact meaning of “truth” undefined. For many Christian readers of Moby-Dick, truth signified the truth of Christ the Saviour and Redeemer, hence Ahab must be a wicked blasphemer and opponent of God. But for secularists (including deists), truth signified empirical fact, ethical universalism, and human rights. In my view, the “fighting Quaker” Ahab was another Father Mapple, an abolitionist. Many “anticlericals” of the 18th C. railed against censorship by authoritarian religious institutions, but their notion of the truth was intended to protect their own writing; such as Voltaire scrambled, using either pen names or publishing anonymously.

Sometime during the research for my book on Herman Melville’s resuscitation between the wars in the 20th century, I read the collected letters of Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was clear that for these three icons of U.S. history, free speech was not about libel or slander, but about the search for worldly truth. Similarly, Alexander Hamilton, in the Crosswell case, argued that “truth” should be the standard in cases of libel and slander; that plaintiffs had to prove that their targets were actually lying before crying foul. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/.)

Several centuries later, Walter Lippmann, worried about the propensities of the new mass media to spread propaganda distortions, suggested that a special class of intellectuals be developed to determine who was lying in controverted matters: controversies where the facts were faraway and otherwise hidden from citizens who would then be asked to vote on problems that were foreign to their direct experience. (Update 5-14-17: And yet Lippmann is dismissed as a T.R. type progressive!) (See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.)

When I was appointed Program Director of KPFK-FM (the local Pacifica station in Los Angeles) in February 1981, I was asked immediately to discipline a late-night young programmer who was enamored of punk rock music, and who was allegedly using language that could have cost us our broadcasting license. After warning him, he resisted, and I cancelled his show, irritating his listeners. This action was the least of my troubles at Pacifica, but it got me thinking about our using the phrase “free speech” as a rationale for supporting our famously “non-commercial” radio station.

Now with the internet and the widespread use of fake screen names to shield individuals from litigation or any exposure at all as they vent their dissatisfaction and hatred of individuals and policies, along with pressure from organized groups to control speech in public space ( see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/26/who-is-a-racist-now/) the question of free speech remains a live, controverted issue. What do I think about it?

It seems to me that venting rage, either directly through insulting one’s opponents, or through catharsis by listening to or playing raucous music or watching horror films, is no substitute for the careful analysis of problems, whether these be personal or social in scope. Indeed, it may be counter-revolutionary and  destructive apart from the relief of yelling at one’s enemies du jour. Venting and kvetching is no substitute for thoughtful analysis and the labor of organizing opposition.

I used to warn my Pacifica radio listeners that contributing to the radio station was only the beginning of a lengthy process. Later I read Stephen Eric Bronner’s book on the political limitations of German Expressionism that made the same point. There are numerous intellectuals and would be journalists and bloggers who hope to make a living wagging fingers (on both the Left and Right), and some succeed brilliantly at it, but following them accomplishes nothing apart from feeling entirely alienated from their targets, whose different life experience and opinions should be understood as a required prelude to social/political action.

So I end up with a typical 18th C. Enlightenment (classical liberal) view of “the truth.” It is about discovery and innovation, especially the willingness to swim against all currents and to cherish memory and a more accurate history, letting chips fall. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/02/21/discovery-anxiety/.) If this be romantic defiance or an attack upon “unity” as many an order-loving leftist or conservative would have it, so much the better for romantic defiance. The urge to forget and to conform knows no ideological boundaries. But we warned: as fictional detective Bobby Goren warned at the end of one of his episodes on Law and Order Criminal Intent: “The search for truth is not for the faint-hearted.” It was an Ahab/Hamiltonian moment.

1960s Berkeley radicals

1960s Berkeley radicals

June 29, 2012

The Neutered State

Statue of Freedom, 1863

For a start, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statism . My blog looks at different things.

Competing visions of the authoritarian state

  1. It is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, and is dependent upon finance capital  (Lenin). It should be overthrown in the interest of the working class (workers and peasants) and led by politically conscious communist intellectuals/planners, who represent and give voice to the exploited masses.
  2. It is, or should be, the embodiment of popular will and the voice of the people (progressives, left-leaning social democrats, sociologist Maurice Zeitlin for instance). The Obama  administration is more and more a blend of numbers one through four.
  3. Owing to rationalization  and the development of “experts,” the modern state is not dependent on any  one class, but is an autonomous entity with its own power drive to persist  (Michael Mann, Max Weber?).
  4. The state and the nation are indivisible (fascism). There are no dissenting individuals; all citizens are merged in the state, which may be organized through syndicati (Italian Fascism, i.e., the corporative state). Multiculturalism or identity politics create little “fascisms” in which blood and soil inheritance or rootedness supplant the roving, evolving,  reconfiguring mind of the Enlightenment.

Versus the minimalist state, advanced by Founding Fathers. Unlike the authoritarian states, there are no mystical bonds to provide “cohesion.” The Constitution, assuming that human nature was imperfect, was designed for a representative republic, not a “democracy” that signified democratic rule by, for instance, debtors seeking to evade creditors, not to speak of post-New Deal layabouts (e.g. the newly “entitled”).

Prometheus (Rubens)

By contrast, in the progressive dispensation, the mediator has become a central figure. The notion that all conflicts can be reconciled with the perfectly rational mediator, who, with artfulness and certain techniques, can bring the warring parties to their senses, restoring “community” or “common ground,” originated in management-labor conflicts in the 1920s. In this case, the State is held to be neutral, above the fray of quarreling classes, genders, or nation-states. The United Nations was designed to serve this antiwar purpose. The notion that all conflict can be settled through mediation by the neutral state or the United Nations would be funny were it not so dangerous. For those who have succumbed to the neutral/neutered State, there can be no creative vision, no conversation that goes beyond trivia, no fertile innovations, no fruitful conflict leading to a new consensus.

(For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2010/04/04/what-is-truth/, but also https://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/. The political tactic of displaying rescued victims diverts attention away from the growth of state power and its increasing opacity.)

June 3, 2012

Connecting vs. connecting the dots

George Wallace, ca. 1960s

In this campaign year, pundits are constantly complaining that Romney is not “connecting” with the electorate, because he is wealthy (but lacks “the King’s touch”?). The same accusation was directed at him by his populist competitor Rick Santorum, who did “connect” with Pennsylvania coal miners, because, he stated, it was in his blood. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/.) This emphasis on a vaguely stated  blood and soil “connection” should scare us, for it evades the question of policy, and which candidate offers better economic and diplomatic policy recommendations to maintain American institutions and national security. In the blog that follows, I will try to show how two major books, in their zeal to keep America steady,  fail to inform us of lingering irrationalism in American political culture, an irrationalism that is characteristic of the middle, not the “extremes.” These books are

Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, The American Communist Movement: Storming Heaven Itself  (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), and Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab: The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1970).

Here are two meticulously documented books written for the general reader. The first, by Klehr and Haynes,  concludes that although the communist movement was messianic and directed from Moscow, it was never a substantial threat to the American consensus; indeed, Communism did itself in through such errors as the blunder in running Henry Wallace for president in the Progressive Party campaign of 1948, preceded of course, by the zig-zagging moves of the late 1920s-early1930s, as it veered against the New Deal (seen as “social fascism”), followed by the Popular Front of 1935 onward, then the shock of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 (that killed the Popular Front), then after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, shifting back to Popular Front politics, only to be sunk once again by the revelations of Khrushchev in 1956. Klehr and Haynes see the years from 1960-1990 as “twilight years.”

I remember reading Ellen Schrecker’s book, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford UP, 1986), when I first started my dissertation research.  She claimed that communism had always been relatively weak, and that the crusade mounted against it by the Right and by Trotskyists, had over-reacted to the detriment of our political culture. When I finished the Klehr-Haynes survey of (now defunct) communism in America, I had the sinking feeling that their book was not incompatible with Schrecker’s argument; that two scholars I greatly admired had not deviated from the “moderate” line of liberal anticommunism, which, while stigmatizing Marxist-Leninism as a religion, did not demand that it, along with its statism/bureaucratic collectivism, be banished from the democratic pluralist spectrum of competing interest groups; nor were they alarmed by the arrival of New Leftism and black nationalism from the 1960s onward. Such a drastic erasure would have linked the authors to the dread anti-intellectual, paranoid extremism of the far right, i.e. to the subject of Lipset and Raab’s survey of irrationalist social movements in the U.S.

In my own experience, both as programmer and for 18 months as Program Director at a Pacifica  radio station (KPFK-Los Angeles), then in graduate school at UCLA in the Department of History, I felt the sting of Communist ideology and organizing: Stalinists were entirely entrenched at Pacifica, and CPUSA organizing got me fired when I put a few Trotskyists on the air, programmers who were complaining about the Spanish Civil War and other insults to the amour propre of such as William Mandel, who used to read from Pravda as a legitimate source of news. Trotskyist intellectuals called their “progressive” competition Stalinoids, and that is an accurate term, though the CPUSA, directly and indirectly, continues to influence mass media, alternative media, and the humanities departments of the major universities, not with a nod to Stalin, but rather to Third Worldism and what they insist is the lamentable history of crooked capitalism in America. In other words, Klehr and Haynes did not consider the penetration of communist ideas into the progressive mainstream, though they point out several times communist initiatives that were taken up by the Roosevelt administration, also the general communist/populist hostility to “finance capital.” While at UCLA, there was no animus directed against Stalinism; rather I met many famous Communist academics, and those (Leninists) on the faculty supported separatist ethnic and women’s studies, just as 1930s Communists supported a Black Belt in the American South to compensate the descendants of slaves; i.e., the racialism of the multicultural discourse did not discourage Communists in the UCLA Department of History, and the most anti-imperialist students were rewarded with fellowships and jobs.

Moving on to Lipset and Raab. These authors come out of the Harvard school of sociology and social relations as it developed from about 1939 onward, linked most famously to the cultural anthropology  (or “structural functionalism”) of Talcott Parsons and the political science “typology” of Max Weber, along with the diagnosis of urban anomie postulated by Durkheim.  Here are the liberal anticommunists who contrast “democratic pluralism” with the “patterns of prejudice” they see as a continuing theme in U.S. political culture, all too given to hysteria. They too are progressive pundits, though, unlike journalists, as academics they were at the top of their profession and remain hegemonic. Among their targets such easy prey as the anti-Masons, the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society, and George Wallace. They are big on how conservative elites ensnare unwary little people suffering from status deprivation. (And it was the “moderate” line after WW2, that the Nazis won by capturing the lower middle class, atomized by “mass society.” Democratic pluralism is their antidote to “mass culture.)

It was in their big book from 1970 that I saw multiculturalism/groupiness in action, with the notion of multiple group affiliations as the heartfelt solution to excessive cerebration by such “economic determinists” as Ralph Bunche in his late 1930s memoranda to Gunnar Myrdal (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/).  Lipset and Raab’s most important revision of class analysis was to redefine class altogether. Whereas Marxists defined class as a specific relationship to the means of production, analyzing power as distributed in given institutions, these Parsonians define class as a ladder, as “status” (i.e. “caste”) encompassing life style and income. What such a definition does is remove the question of contracts and their potential asymmetry from consciousness. All of mass media buy into this Lipset and Raab managerial definition. This erasure of classes as standing in a particular relation to each other, instead of “life style choices” demonstrates to me that such intellectuals have taken on the task of managing conflict by defining everyone who sees structural problems in our society as extremists. They cut out the anti-statist libertarian right who see free markets as wealth creators and the road to opportunity, and they cut out what is now called “the hard left” who make their case on the premise that capital/capitalism exploits not “labor” but a vaguely defined “middle class.”

Prometheus, Heinrich Fueger, 1817

Say what you will about the failures of the Soviet Union. At least its better advocates saw the communist experiment as the culmination of the Enlightenment and the realization of individuality. The best that the moderate men came up with has been “the inherent tension between social egalitarianism—the democratic impulse—and political liberty—democratic restraint.” (Lipset and Raab, p.514) By restraint, the authors mean the stamping out of excessive moralism and resentment, a moralism exemplified by the awful romantic New England Puritan. Moderates like us do not storm heaven, do not copy Prometheus, are generous of spirit; indeed our groupiness is spirituality personified. Orwell anyone? (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.)

January 15, 2012

Prometheus Bound, but good

Rubens's Prometheus BoundThis blog responds to a heated interchange this last week over whether Republicans or Democrats were more “anti-science.” I complained bitterly about the foolish framing of the question, but since few non-scientists may understand my own indignation, I thought I had better explain.

There is no such thing as a “science” that encompasses all the worldly, materialist efforts to grasp the facts of life and death, thence to intervene to enhance life and forestall death. What the electorate is debating is the power of ultraconservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics to roll back the achievements (or, in their views, atrocities) of the modern world, a modernity that is held responsible for decadence and mass death, owing to the mistaken notions of progress and “enlightenment;” a secular wasteland that is gleefully responsible for “the death of God,” or, failing that, banishing Christian symbols from public space. Such a dive into the muck betrays “life” itself.  In other words, the question regarding “anti-science” serves culture warriors in both political parties and is intrinsic to the current polarization.

Scientism versus science.   In my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, I made a distinction between the Radical and Conservative Enlightenments. The Radical Enlightenment (a 16th century development that educated and raised the morale of “the lower orders”) was co-opted by anxious elites fearing the leveling tendencies of science and its alleged worship of the Goddess of Reason. These “moderate conservative” elites formed the progressive movement, and used “scientific management” to forestall servile revolts, arguing that free markets, left unregulated, would generate mobs who would abolish private property tout court. Similarly, social psychology was harnessed to the New Deal, using statistics and other scientistic (i.e., pretending to scientific method) strategies to get a consensus behind the ever more powerful federal government and the authority of the presidency.  I call this co-opting of “science” the Conservative Enlightenment. The social bonds it advocates are based on mystical bonds between leaders and the led, not upon the convergence of real interests within groups. Such are the methods espoused by the troops of the allegedly “pro-science” Democratic Party.

Science versus Magic. Scientific method, i.e., relying on material evidence and following facts wherever they lead, does not come naturally to a growing child. As an infant and toddler, and even into adolescence, magical thinking will dominate the psyche. Seeing “things as they are” may be fraught with fear, pain, and conflict. In my own examination of Herman Melville’s writing, I have seen the anguish with which the idealizations of childhood are relinquished. His kaleidoscopic imagination, that constantly reconfigures the world we think we see, so apparent to readers who have gone that route themselves, is generally suppressed in the scholarship, or dismissed as “incoherence,” or as a pre-Freudianism that is easily dismissed as bogus, carnal, and hence “Jewish.” Melville himself never resolved his inner war between science and religion, at times demonizing his “dark” Promethean characters, including “Margoth” an apostate secular Jew, who bears comparison with Twain’s Yankee.

Dialectical materialism versus materialism. Realism and naturalism in the arts have gotten a bad rap because of their association with the marxiste notion of dialectical materialism. The latter is a form of Hegelianism that banishes the real world in favor of an unalterable march toward communism/the reign of Spirit, a march supposedly led by the politically-conscious working class, but in practice, guided by intellectuals. These same intellectuals decry (undialectical) “materialism” as atomization and hyper-individualism of the most hateful “bourgeois” variety. I have been called that atomic bomb by more than one Leninist. As culture critics, they purportedly espouse “realism,” which for them consists of unveiling the mystifications of the bourgeoisie, pulling back the curtain to expose exploited masses and wily magicians in the urbanized land of Oz. Where these mystical anti-mystics go wrong is in their condemnation of the Promethean bourgeoisie, a class that relies on science and technology to improve the world and the life chances of its inhabitants.

Science is not dogma, and is constantly self-correcting in the collective criticism of the community of scientists (unless they are bought off by patronage). But that is not the view of those relativists who now study the history of science in order to discredit is as “essentially, a swindle.” (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/ or https://clarespark.com/2010/01/03/this-witch-is-not-for-burning-science-as-magic/.)

In the world of true science, quacks are driven out, and commonly held beliefs subject to alteration in the face of new evidence. Would that our political culture were as discriminating in extruding frauds.


January 13, 2012

Mark Twain’s failed Yankee

Soviet poster

When a writer chooses a name suggesting that two personas occupy one body (as in the nom de plume Mark Twain), the reader should take this self-definition seriously. Years ago, Dr. David James Fisher, psychoanalyst and intellectual historian, wrote a short paper on Twain’s difficulties with writing Huckleberry Finn. As I recall, in the scene where Huck, after determining that he feels as bad doing right (obeying the law) as doing wrong (risking a link to abolitionism), and hence will not turn the escaped slave Jim in to slave-catchers, Twain put down the manuscript and did not pick it up for several years. In any case, in the published version, the paddles of a looming steamboat capsize the raft and both Huck and Jim are in danger of drowning.

The next Twain fiction was A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), with pointed illustrations by Dan Beard, the latter said to be even more of a radical democrat than Twain. As for the plot, briefly, a 19th century weapons engineer, an ex-worker risen to foreman of the Colt factory, after a blow to his head, wakes up in 6th century Britain, where he introduces modern science, weapons, factories, modern communication including railroads, education, and newspapers in order to rescue the oppressed masses and to institute a Republic, modeled after the Northern U.S., perhaps New England. This blog reacts to my third reading of the novel, with some thoughts regarding ambivalence in the Missouri-born author, with special reference to the ways some 20th century critics have appropriated the novel, in my view, missing what is most interesting about it. Here comes a brief meditation on my response to the novel.

Mark Twain was heavily promoted in the Soviet Union, for more reasons than his objection to the Spanish-American War. Reading CYKAC, one can see why. The narrator of the tale, Hank Morgan states that, regarding the French Revolution, though he started out as a Girondin (a moderate bourgeois, like Condorcet), he ended up as a sans-culotte! Moreover, both Twain and his fictional persona believe that armed struggle is the only route to revolution. When you tote up the casualties of the Terror, they are as nothing compared to the crimes against humanity inflicted by the heartless aristocracy. Soviets elevated Robespierre and other Jacobins, while many conservatives and centrists alike have drawn a straight line between Jacobins and 20th century Fascists and Nazis.

Moreover, Marx was a great admirer of the American Civil War, as are his followers among left-liberals. It was one of the great world revolutions and the most radical moment in U.S. history, they aver. And Hank Morgan’s modernizing animus against the medieval Catholic Church, allied as it was with the vicious, predatory aristocracy, would sit well with Soviets and their supporters. Morgan’s graphic descriptions of medieval barbarism, which many communists associate with the equally savage Gilded Age bourgeoisie, surely endeared Twain to those Soviet propagandists who associated late capitalism with fascism and imperialism. (See my notes on Henry Nash Smith, below in bibliography.)

Mark Twain ca. 1889

One wonders what communist readers would make of the following passage from Twain’s fantasy. I wonder if he was not disclosing one aspect of his own white-suited psyche as he complains that the common people buy into caste position, without a murmur of dissent or complaint: Twain suddenly returns to the present, in my view, defending his manhood, called into question by his youthful folly in briefly joining a Confederate militia, which he then deserted. But recall that Hank Morgan admires the manly gait and elegance of King Arthur. Part of Twain may admire the aristocracy he so vehemently rejects:

“[Referring to ‘the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor’] This was depressing—to a man with the dream of a republic in his head. It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the ‘poor whites’ of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were pusillanimously ready to side with the slave lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of the very institution that degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history, and that was, that secretly the “poor white” did detest the slave lord and did feel his own shame.  That feeling was not brought to the surface, but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out under favoring circumstances, was something—in fact it was enough, for it showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all, even if it doesn’t show on the outside.’” (UC Press, Mark Twain Project edition, 1984, p.297)

One can almost hear Gyorg Lukás applauding Twain’s/Morgan’s reference to false consciousness, a failing that could be rectified by re-education by a communist vanguard or the “cultural Marxism” of the Frankfurt School critical theorists.

In the brief time that I have looked into recent appropriations of Twain’s text, I have seen only these two points brought out: First, the novel created a sub-genre of science fiction: the time traveling narrative; and second, that Twain was primarily objecting to the medieval revival of his period, and blaming the Southern rebellion as the consequence of besotted readers of Sir Walter Scott’s medieval romances. (Marx also read Scott, incidentally.)

But, such a (culturalist) reading misses one of the most obvious themes of the novel: that modern technology, especially modern weaponry, has changed the nature of warfare; that such innovations as the Gatling gun (mentioned many times in the text, and occasionally deployed in the Civil War), plus the shocking and unprecedented casualties of that conflict, had led, combined with the passivity and herd-behavior of the masses, turned Twain against the very optimism with which “the [Nietschean?] Boss” had begun his innovations. By the end, the would-be republican Twain has killed off his protagonist; he is no radical, but a bohemian who been fantasizing freedom, but finally bows to the all-powerful masters. Hank Morgan’s modernizing efforts cannot stave off the all-powerful Church and its befuddled masses. He has assumed the tragic, nihilistic demeanor of the author of The Mysterious Stranger. No Soviet commissar would have approved such disillusion and cultural pessimism, although Henry Nash Smith, remarked that Morgan’s top-down modernization plan was Soviet in conception.

Many a historian has studied the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Few, if any, would disagree with the notion that it is impossible to modernize without movement toward  mass literacy and numeracy, competitive markets and the scientific world-view that markets encourage, except those Leninists, perhaps, who believe that the dread bourgeois phase of development can be leaped over straight into heaven on earth. To them, I recommend Twain’s famously ‘failed’ tragedy, with the proviso that the author, in Life on the Mississippi (1883) had hard things to say about soul-less machines and even mentioned Frankenstein. Henry Nash Smith erred in identifying Twain with Hank Morgan (ostensibly a laissez-faire capitalist), although there is something of Hank in Twain’s character.


Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee” (Rutgers UP, 1964). While the quasi-socialistic William Dean Howells and Melville-admirer Edwin Stedman thought that the novel was Twain’s masterpiece,  Smith makes the book an evasion of the true nature of class struggle in the laissez-faire Gilded Age; a product of “Promethean” Twain’s regrettable Anglo-phobic “jingoistic nationalism”; and finds philistine folk humor too weak a reed to carry the immense project of the novel. Twain was simply not up to the challenge, and problems with his own finances explain the unconvincing and depressing finish. He does not note a possible reference to Civil War casualties, nor does he associate the knightly class with Southern slaveholders, but he does see Twain as sympathetic to some noble aristocrats. He is also put off by Dan Beard’s naughtily [Jacobin] illustrations, that had no basis, Nash says, in the text. I disagree with that judgment. Beard’s affinity with Tom Paine was obviously shared by Twain throughout.



http://www.twainquotes.com/19600306.html. Joseph Wood Krutch on how the Soviets got Twain wrong.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Takaki, author of Iron Cages: Race and Culture and 19th Century America (Knopf, 1987). Takaki associates  Hank Morgan with Melville’s Captain Ahab.

http://tinyurl.com/7y8usec. Richard Nielsen quoting Max Weber. Teaches at Boston College.

http://tinyurl.com/7wxxnnf. E-Book version of Connecticut Yankee with introduction, including social views


http://tinyurl.com/7kw4n77 Daniel Aaron on Mark Twain’s Civil War politics

[Tom Nichols translation of the illustrated Soviet Poster:] “And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.” (http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/twain.html)

The Soviet poster says:  “We can set up a special flag, just the same flag with the white stripes black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones. — Mark Twain”  Then at the bottom: AMERICA – THE NATION OF TRAMPLED RIGHTS.

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