Inflation, like most society-wide monetary happenings, is always complex and often incompletely grasped. At least this is true of its causes; of its effects, most of all its social effects, there is now little doubt.
We learned much about inflation during the twentieth century, when the advent of permanent fiat money made hyperinflation possible for the first time. But as this book shows, the infamous German hyperinflation of 1923 was poorly understood by those who lived through it. And whatever we understand now, the past several years, and in particular the past few months, have demonstrated that we still often ignore what we know. When Money Dies shows what happens when reality reasserts itself. It’s not pretty.
This classic study by Adam Fergusson, first published in 1975, thus has new resonance. Whether and to what extent we face the same fate as the Germany of 1923 we will discuss later. One key to understanding Fergusson’s history is that a society, or at least some societies, can absorb a lot of punishment and keep functioning. The author points out that for half a decade after 1918, looking at German diaries, newspapers, and diplomatic dispatches, a common theme was that things could not go on “like this” any longer. Yet they did, and they got worse, month after month, year after year. Many Germans, Fergusson says, became convinced “that because conditions had been getting worse for four years they could go on getting worse forever.” The lesson is that things that once seemed impossible can easily become the new normal, and there is rarely any obvious fix.
As with most modern inflations, the process began some time before it spun out of control. It started during World War I, when the German government decided that borrowing, not taxation, would finance the war. Borrowing in the form of war loans from the populace constituted sixty percent of German spending on the war, at a time when a gold mark was, by iron definition, equal to a paper mark, and any variation was inconceivable.
The Bank Law of 1875 had required currency to be backed one-third by gold and two-thirds by loans to adequately-capitalized borrowers (i.e., if I understand this correctly, fiat money was limited to being sent into circulation by borrowing by those who could repay).
During the First World War, gold redemption was suspended, but more important for inflation, newly-created loan banks were allowed to simply create money by first printing it, then lending it to practically anyone who asked. Moreover, and most important, limitless fiat money was created by having the Reichsbank accept government securities as security for loans to the government and others—in essence, bootstrapping the money supply (an early form of quantitative easing).
Today, of course, United States government securities are regarded as risk-free, and presumably German government bills were so regarded as well, though that’s not the way it turned out. But this system removes any limit to the amount of money that can be created by government mandate.
The effect of this increase in paper marks in circulation was inflation. This seems obvious to us today. But it wasn’t to the Germans—not to the average person, and not to banking experts or the government, either. Hard as it is to believe, almost nobody, and nobody in charge, recognized at the time that what created inflation was increasing the money supply. Today we cite Milton Friedman, “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” But that Friedman said it, and we remember it, implies that truth was not always recognized.
In postwar Germany, all those responsible for the government’s responses, politicians and bankers, believed that the problem was not that the mark was losing value through increased supply, rather that it was depreciating against foreign currencies due to Germany’s postwar economic struggles, most of all crushing reparations demanded by the French. People thought that goods were becoming objectively more dear, not just subjectively, so their prices were rising.
This belief held at the highest levels of government, where Rudolf Havenstein, the president of the Reichsbank, held that his most important duty was printing more money, since, after all, the people clearly needed it to make purchases, and that could only be done, in those days, with physical money. Naturally, this only made the problem worse.
But since stock exchanges were closed, foreign exchange rates were not published, and shortages and chaos also raised prices, the real source of inflation was opaque. In a vicious circle, monetary velocity sped ever higher, further increasing inflation, since nobody wanted to hold cash that would quickly devalue, instead spending it as quickly as possible, preferably on something that would hold value. And the law permitted what were, in effect, private currencies, further exacerbating the increase in the money supply.
Fergusson narrates the gradual descent to hyperinflation, through 1922 and 1923, month-by-month, blow-by-blow. He extracts the flavor of the time through German diarists, who grasped what was happening, but not why. Tellingly, Germans first assumed the value of their war loans, still owed by the government, was secure, and were aghast when it became obvious that what was formerly a small fortune was not enough to live on anymore. But that was merely a small element of the pain and confusion.
To some observers, Germany’s economy seemed in great shape, because its heavy industry, geared to exporting, boomed immediately after the war, in part because of the mark’s weakness. As a result, and because of their tight organization, wage workers suffered little initially, since employment was high and wages kept pace with inflation, due to the threat of work stoppages. By the end, though, wage workers suffered too.
For different reasons, the rural populace also did not suffer much at all—yes, their war loans might have become worthless, but they had food and shelter, both rich and poor. (The rural populace appears very little in this book, except as the object of distrust from city dwellers for refusing to sell food for worthless paper; I am sure there are detailed studies of the country dwellers, which perhaps give a more nuanced picture.) It was the traditionally silent middle and upper-middle classes, the backbone of the society, who suffered.
The people did what they could to secure their positions, even as those positions eroded daily. The stock market rose as money was dumped into anything that seemed it might have tangible value. The purchase of foreign currency allowed hedging, since the mark depreciated continuously against all foreign currencies.
Soon enough, average Germans thronged all the shops, buying anything for sale that might hold its value. And as things fell apart, city dwellers had to sell anything they had in exchange for food—profiting those who had food to sell. Often these were speculators sharp enough to profit by, for example, borrowing huge sums from the government, immediately converting it into foreign currency, then, after a few weeks or months, re-converting into a vastly greater quantity of marks, repaying the government loan, and using the profits to buy and resell goods.
The inevitable impact of this was social corrosion, as every man looked to himself. The great industrialists, best able to both move large amounts of capital and engage in cross-border transactions, lined their pockets. (The now-forgotten Hugo Stinnes, once the greatest magnate of Germany, gets a lot of play in these pages. He’s forgotten mostly because he died, young and unexpectedly, in 1924, so he played no role in later German history).
Those with dollars or other foreign currency to spend lived like kings, eating and drinking at fine restaurants while thin and hungry men, not long before the social elite, passed bitterly by. Middle-class apartments emptied as books, pianos, and furniture were exchanged for food. Petty crime soared and political stability plunged. Fergusson does not discuss the political turmoil in detail, other than to note that the left-wing and right-wing parties both benefited from the chaos and dissatisfaction, leading, among other events, to the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. But there was plenty of political turmoil, and let’s not forget, putting down Communist revolts by force had been necessary only a few years before, so the political fabric was still fragile.
Much else was happening in 1922 and 1923—for a time, Germany pulled together during the occupation by the French of the Ruhr. But the general path, financially and socially, was clearly downwards, and rapidly. The government tried to plug the ever-increasing gaps in its budget, and meet French reparations demands, by taxation—leading first to tax evasion, and then to failure to collect any but a fraction of the value taxed, as inflation eroded tax receipts to nothing between the passing of a law and the collection of the tax.
But the government, perfectly aware of the problem, though not of its roots, refused to take any real action. They did not stop printing money, nor did they stop various forms of subsidies that the government could no longer afford. Politicians and bankers were caught between two stones: aware that reversing inflation, if they could, would cripple German industry, resulting in massive labor unrest and likely chaos, but also aware of the deleterious effects of the inflation on the rest of the German populace.
In essence, to the extent there was any coherent policy, the government tried to steer a non-existent middle path, hoping to muddle through, while looking for foreign help to stabilize the currency through loans, which were not forthcoming. As with most middle paths, this accomplished nothing.
By September 1923, though, with inflation accelerating to inconceivable speed, the desperate government took measures to suspend the constitution and passed laws to confiscate foreign currency, gold and other precious metals, and increase the penalties for evasion. Warrantless house searches were authorized and “incitement to disobedience” led to prison. City dwellers began organizing expeditions to loot the countryside.
The government tried halfhearted schemes to issue money backed by agricultural goods such as rye or mortgages on agricultural land. None of this had any effect at all on the core problem, which is that everyone did what he saw that he had to do. Whatever respect for the government was left disappeared when its resistance to the French in the Ruhr crumpled and “[c]ontempt for the Republic and its servants became almost universal.”
So, what solved the problem, given that something that can’t go on forever, won’t? In essence, an agreement by everyone to accept their losses and pretend that things were normal again, through the device of a new currency, the Rentenmark, brainchild of Hjalmar Schacht, the new Commissioner for National Currency. One Rentenmark, put into circulation in October 1923, was again equal to one gold mark, and Rentenmarks were put into circulation at the point where one gold mark precisely equaled a trillion paper marks, for easy figuring of conversion.
The Rentenmark was backed not by gold, which had all disappeared from government coffers (most of it gone to the French), but by mortgages on landed property and bonds on German industry. (I don’t really understand this. It appears that money was put into circulation by those with property borrowing money using their property as a guarantee, such that the amount of currency was limited by the value of those properties, and the value of those properties acted as a type of fixed index against which the currency could be valued, though not exchanged).
The effect of this conversion was, however, to eliminate all assets denominated in paper marks, which mean that savings were now completely gone, with no hope of return, as were all debts based on paper marks—whether the debtor was the government, as with war loans, or a business, or a private individual.
The Rentenmark was a collective delusion, however. It is not clear how much this was understood at the time; as with inflation being a monetary phenomenon, they understood less than we do. The mortgage “guarantees” were essentially illusory, yet the Rentenmark’s value held steady, because the populace either willed it to be so, or did not really understand. In fact, the Rentenmark was not precisely legal tender, and not convertible into any hard asset. Paper marks and private currencies continued to circulate and be printed, on a reduced scale, though.
On the positive side, Schacht ensured some degree of confidence in the new currency by forbidding government borrowing through central bank discounting of government bills, which had been the major initial cause of the hyperinflation. Regardless of the precise mechanism, things began to return to normal, because of the Rentenmark.
The new normal was not like the old normal, though. Social ruptures are hard to cure, and when they are cured, the new society is much different. Trust was in short supply. No surprise, there was a lot of irrational thought and scapegoat-seeking, and again no surprise, much of this was directed against the Jews, whom most people viewed as in some uncertain way responsible. Some Jews did profit, of course, having liquid assets and cross-border connections, but so did many non-Jews, yet blame attached to Jews in general, not specific Jews. (The peasantry, unwilling to take paper marks for food, called them “Jew confetti”).
Many people to whom poverty had been a mere abstract concept were now desperately poor with no path to get back their social status. Of course, not all societies are equal, and Germans are, or were, much better at recovering than nearly any other society in history. Various laws were passed to try to offer a few pfennigs to those with worthless mortgages and bank accounts, and to adjust taxes, all of limited real benefit to the populace.
It was a hard road, made harder by many businesses shuttering and unemployment soaring, since businesses had artificially expanded during times of distorted credit and foreign sales based on the weak mark. Nonetheless, the economy strengthened, and continued strengthening for a few years—until the Great Depression. But that is another story.
So, could this happen here? Probably not, no matter how much money we borrow or print to cover our government’s sins, as long as all currencies are fiat currencies and the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. As with the Rentenmark, though, continued faith in fiat currency is in large part a collective delusion.
If that ever fails, probably from some collapse in faith in both the government and the future, perhaps combined with a new reserve currency, all bets are off. In the modern world, too, it’s not necessary to run physical printing presses (thousands of which worked around the clock for the Reichsbank in 1923); infinite money can be created by pushing a button, and velocity accelerated to hyperspeed by the internet and credit cards. What a hyperinflation would look like in a modern, advanced society, I don’t know. That Zimbabwe has experienced a recent hyperinflation is unlikely to lend us much of a clue. But I do know that we’re not Germans, and our social cohesion is already on the ropes, so our society would likely fracture permanently, and not weld itself back together like the Germans.
In fact, such a scenario is the backdrop for Lionel Shriver’s excellent dystopian The Mandibles, where a new global currency backed by commodities, similar to John Maynard Keynes’s proposed bancor, underwrites a new Chinese hegemony. In that book, the United States can do nothing, since it has become a stupid stew of irrational and hate-filled identity politics where the ruling classes reject any attempt at objective excellence and achievement and insist that their failures are due to racism and wreckers. A silly fantasy, though, of course, since we know that such a thing could never happen here. We know that only an idiot could read history and conclude that an unstable, unaccomplished society run on an extractive, tribal basis is the natural state of humanity, and only a very bad person would let himself see that lately quite a few people in America seem very eager to turn America into such a society.
Perhaps the key lesson to take away from this book is that in any society experiencing massive economic trouble, those tasked with fixing it, no matter how earnest and hardworking, are almost always incapable not just of fixing the problems, but understanding them.
That’s true not just in economics, but in every area of life in a complex modern society, even one cohesive and competent, even more so one fragmented and anti-reality. Thus, in every crisis, every man must look to himself and his family, not hope for safety and stability from above. If he relies on those in charge, sooner or later, he’s going to be disappointed, perhaps fatally so. Maybe it won’t be hyperinflation here, but it’ll be something.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows a caricature by the illustrator, Erich Schilling, from the satirical magazine, Simplicissimus, 1922. The caption above reads, “Gutenberg and the Billions Printing Press.” The caption below, spoken by Gutenberg, reads: “Not what I wanted.”
We all know religious devotion has declined precipitously in America. Most of what religion remains is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is the sherbet of religions, an unsatisfying imitation of the real thing. No doubt this decline is temporary, since the human religious impulse, toward transcendence and final meaning, is too strong to remain unsatisfied.
The success, or at least the visibility, of Scientology, a scam with falsifiable and internally incoherent beliefs, shows this clearly enough. I’m not going to beat up on John Travolta and Tom Cruise, though. I instead want to explain the religious principles and structure of a well-run state, and in particular, of the Foundationalist state.
As everyone knows, Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, who died in 1986. Hubbard was an archetypical cult leader: an inveterate fantasist who at some level probably believed his own lies, and who had the charisma to hoodwink those who wanted to believe and were willing to suspend common sense. In short, Scientology claims that it is the path to universal peace and happiness, a cure for everything that ails the universe.
As its name implies, Scientology tries to have it both ways. For tax purposes, and for the avoidance of government interference, it claims to be a religion. But internally, it claims to be a set of scientific discoveries, and its cosmology is purely of this universe. There is essentially zero concept of God, or of an afterlife other than a reincarnated one. Its theology, notoriously, is essentially a science fiction story, and it offers its adherents the chance to enter that story.
The core goal of the devout Scientologist is to be “clear.” Scientologists believe the brain is split into the “analytical” brain and the “reactive” brain. The latter absorbs and reflects traumas and similar bad events, clouding the abilities of the former. (As with one hundred percent of Scientology’s scientific claims, this is one hundred percent provably untrue). When a Scientologist is clear, he is freed of the influence of the reactive brain, and when his analytical brain is thus freed, he gains the potential to exercise superpowers, such as the ability to manipulate time and space, and to leave his body entirely, to “go exterior.”
Although, infamously, actually acquiring those powers requires innumerable sessions of instruction offered on the “Bridge to Total Freedom,” a device used to free Scientology members of their hard-earned cash, by achieving various levels of “Operating Thetan” status.Needless to say, nobody ever evidences actual superpowers (although the endless guided introspection on the Bridge does seem to often lead to a high degree of mental discipline, even if that discipline isn’t used for anything useful).
On the surface, Scientology is a very modern belief system. It claims that the truth is relative, trumpeting to potential converts that “If it is not true for you, it isn’t true.” I don’t think this is actually a core Scientology principle; it’s just presented to possible initiates because it resonates with modern man. Devout Scientologists don’t say anything of the sort; they are convinced that they are crucial participants in the most important work in the universe, about the truth of which there is no doubt. That is to say, as with all religious believers, Scientologists seek transcendence—both internal, but even more the feeling that they are “the vanguard of the struggle to save humanity.”
Not just now, but for trillions of years into the future. Scientology gives them purpose and mystery, and apparently offers not infrequent psychedelic experiences, which, as Michael Pollan notes in How to Change Your Mind, are achievable without drugs. It is not all that surprising that a slick belief system packaged for and targeted to a certain demographic, in essence those seeking secular apotheosis, attracts some adherents.
Going Clear is a fairly standard exposé. It’s well written, if a bit dry, and the reader is suitably appalled. The author, Lawrence Wright, seeks to appall, but there are really two distinct lines of appalling behavior. The first is the scam element, the lust for money, power, aghnd control, represented by David Miscavige, “Chairman of the Board,” Hubbard’s successor, and proud owner of an extreme Napoleon complex. The second is the lengths to which church members will go to abase themselves to earn salvation, signing billion-year contracts to perform menial labor at forty cents an hour, spending years in de facto prison for imaginary “ethical violations,” and severing ties with any person not supportive of Scientology, “Suppressive Persons.”
But these are pretty standard cult manifestations, and as I say, I’m not here to abuse Scientology. Wright will do that for you, as will innumerable websites run by Scientology apostates. And Scientology has a lot of apostates. Most just have an epiphany that they have been hoodwinked. Some have a substantive dispute with the Church. For example, Going Clear, and the subsequent documentary by the same name (which I also watched), is organized around the time in Scientology of screenwriter Paul Haggis, who joined in 1975 and left in 2009. As a celebrity, he was highly desirable in Scientology’s eyes.
By his own admission an extreme progressive, he was attracted by the “what’s true for you is true” shtick offered him in the 1970s, but he departed over a political dispute, when two of his daughters decided they were lesbians and the Church, to its credit, refused to follow the current political winds by endorsing their choice (though several years later, claiming their very own Satanic Verses, the Church apparently began to argue that Hubbard’s repeated condemnations of homosexuality were somehow inserted in his writings by his enemies). Regardless, the net effect seems to be that the Church has a lot of money and relatively few members. It is unlikely to give Mormonism competition as a successful modern religion; no doubt it will go the way of most cults.
What struck me reading this book is that there really hasn’t been a successful new religion since Christianity. What about Islam? Nope. It’s for good reason that Islam was originally considered by Christians another Christian heresy—the doctrines and stories of Islam are just a mashup of Christianity and Judaism, combined with associated folktales and various already-existing pseudo-gospels, with Muhammad’s imaginings acting as glue. (It’s also fairly obvious that Islam only took on a closer resemblance to an complete alternative religion when the Qur’an was cobbled together two hundred years after Muhammad’s death, when variants within the religion were suppressed, no doubt with wholly new writings added at that time and passed off as originals, in order to better differentiate Islam from its obvious sources). As Hilaire Belloc said, what Muhammad “taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, oversimplified. . . . [H]e, like so many other lesser heresiarchs, founded his heresy on simplification.” Islam is not new in the way Christianity was new, or even more so that Judaism was new—which is, surely, why Muhammad claimed not to be new, but to be the perfection, or clarification, of those earlier Abrahamic religions.
Since then? Not much. In the modern era, we have, for example, Mormonism. But Mormonism is in this way similar to Islam—it’s remixed Christianity with fantasy elements added by Joseph Smith. As with Scientology, many core claims of Mormonism are overtly falsifiable, but that does not deter believers. Scientology is just another example of something that seems like a new religion, but isn’t. Rather, it’s the science fiction Hubbard churned out to earn money in the 1930s, mixed up with the 1950s feeling that science was our new savior, combined with, as Wright says, “Buddhism, Hinduism, magic, General Semantics, and shamanism,” along with a generous dose of Hubbard’s fantastical and self-contradictory imaginings to stick it all together.
I suppose one could argue that it’s a new religion, because people believe in it and its actual doctrines are mostly new as a belief system. True enough, the dividing line is blurry. What if I decided today to worship my dog, claiming he was the sun god Ra and gave me the ability to turn lead into gold? Is that a new religion? I suppose so, although I’d also be importing Egyptian concepts, so it’s also a mashup. But it’s not a successful new religion. Nor, really, is Scientology—its numbers are inflated, and it probably has only a few thousand adherents. The celebrity focus and the controversy is what makes it seem successful.
You can always find a small group of people to believe nearly anything; that proves nothing. Perhaps the only successful new religion since Christianity, as Hilaire Belloc wrote in The Great Heresies (though he denominated it a heresy), is Modernism, in essence the worship of Man himself. But Modernism isn’t truly a religion, because it fails to satisfy the human desire for transcendence, which is why adherents to Modernism inevitably fall either into aimless anomie or into vicious ideologies, from Communism to environmentalism, that do offer transcendence in precisely the same way as a religion.
Properly viewed, Modernism is simply the philosophical ground of all modern ideologies, from the French Revolution onward, not an independent belief system—although certainly, as many have noted, those ideologies are often largely indistinguishable from religions in many of their aspects. Will there be a successful new actual religion in our future? I doubt it. But I am quite sure that religiosity will return in the West, though my bet is that there will be a great deal of upheaval before that happens, and the new society will not much resemble the old, but the dominant religions will likely be very old indeed.
In America, it is said we have freedom of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment. This is false. In practice the Constitution has long protected mainstream religion only, which, given human nature, is really no surprise. Ask the Mormons, or for that matter, the Catholics. America, until sixty years ago or so, was a very successful society, and you can’t run a successful society without a dominant religion, especially among the ruling class. In this, as in all things, diversity is the opposite of our strength. A society without a dominant religion is necessarily a low-trust society, and therefore incapable of being successful.
That’s fine by me; as I discuss below, the state shouldn’t permit all religions, and should prefer some to others. But the practical problem for me, and for my political project, is that we already have a new, and bad, dominant religion in America, or rather a dominant religion of the ruling class—the Modernist cult of globohomo. That cult is exalted today by state and society, and other, incompatible religions, most of all by a huge margin Christianity, are attacked and suppressed. Christians, in an ironic twist, are the new Mormons.
Suppression of Christianity has always been a core project of the Left (we can ignore silly people who see the modern Left as itself Christian in inspiration). In the past fifty years, Christian freedom of both belief and worship has been successfully attacked (even more so in Europe), such that the space outside our own minds for any belief that contradicts the premises and goals of globohomo is now forcibly limited by state and quasi-state action. The latter is really more important, in a new departure in America—yes, there is effective formal erosion of the First Amendment (which would be completely a dead letter if one more leftist was on the Supreme Court), but even more suppression of religious belief is outsourced to corporate America.
Nobody can deny that if anyone working a white-collar job at nearly any large business in America, or in academia, expressed, even in personal, outside-of-work communications, the unexceptional Christian belief that homosexual activity is a sin, he would be immediately severely punished, and likely fired. On social media and other forms of private communication controlled by the new common carriers, it is the same. Public Christian belief that contradicts globohomo is anathema to today’s ruling classes. No aspirant to the ruling classes or the professional-managerial elite can even belong to a church if it is known to hold unacceptable opinions, regardless of what the individual expresses (though a mosque is a different question).
The persecution is open and unapologetic, and it is a mistake to think it will not increase to violence when scapegoats are needed for some future catastrophe. Hatred of Christianity already leads to jail time for Christians who say the wrong things in Europe, and the Scots just this week proposed a law with a seven-year jail term for blasphemy against globohomo. Remember the Mormons, and buy guns, and practice with them.
The Right, or at least the Right as currently organized and led, refuses to recognize this project of their enemies, as always hobbling themselves and dooming their goals to defeat without even a battle. For example, the magazine First Things recently published a long article parsing Supreme Court cases on school prayer. It was erudite and accurate, and correctly pointed out that the Constitution is now bizarrely interpreted to forbid any religiously-based rationale for a public policy (or at least it’s bizarre if you maintain the delusion that Left interpretation of the Constitution has anything to do with interpretation). It criticized the relevant Supreme Court decisions as incoherent, which of course they are.
But so what? As with all Left court decisions that impose policy, by which we are largely ruled today, it is the end achieved, and the power the Left can wield, that matters, not coherency, and to spend any time at all talking about coherency, as if that was what mattered to the Left or as if a demonstration of their incoherence might turn them from their evil purposes, is dumb. Rather, such articles, and action, should be focused on what pressure and punishment can be put on Supreme Court justices, and judges and legislators at all levels, in order to ensure that they impose our views and suppress the views and desires of our enemies. We should stop pretending that the Constitution is anything but a fig leaf used as propaganda while the stronger side imposes its will; the Left stopped pretending a long time ago, and we just cripple ourselves by pretending there is any value in originalism or, for that matter, Constitutional jurisprudence of any sort.
What we need is a religious establishment, not just informal as we used to have in America (something on which Matthew Schmitz has some thoughts in another recent excellent article in First Things, though I don’t think he wants to take his thoughts where they inevitably lead), but formal. Why pretend, especially when our enemies have already destroyed the original American system, and imagining that we can return to a time of ruling class virtue without a prior fracture is fantasy? There is not going to be a Great Awakening and subsequent renewal as long as we allow our enemies to rule. We need a new ruling class, neutering the old entirely and permanently, and a new system of government. We need my pet project of the Foundationalist state. So, the question is—what religious structures will replace Modernism in the Foundationalist state, and how should its religious goals be accomplished?
True, Foundationalism is crucially not a rigid confessional state. Its core principle is that it does not offer an ideology; it is a state of limited ends with unlimited means, and transcendence is not offered through the state. Yet, neither is it a minimalist state. Achieving virtue in the people, both the ruling classes and the masses, though especially the former, along with driving accomplishments that will echo down the ages of Man, are among its ends, and right religion is a key component of both. Only one religion, Christianity, has ever been associated with success in both areas—and, of course, it’s true, which is a bonus. Therefore, the Foundationalist state will explicitly favor Christianity.
Its overarching goal in favoring Christianity will be to seek the common good and a realistic amount of virtue and flourishing. The state, very much a non-liberal state, will directly and deliberately encourage and enforce standards of virtue, but not on a purely confessional basis—even if most of those standards will be derived from Christianity. Christianity will be explicitly preferred, certainly, because on average Christian belief leads to the best outcomes for the state and society.
For example, teachers in any state-supported lower school or high school will be required to be practicing Christians (just as now they are effectively required to be practitioners of globohomo), and Christians will, all else being equal, receive state preferment, as well as, no doubt, preferment in the private sphere, from jobs to social status. Personal advancement in the state and society would thus certainly benefit from conversion to Christianity—a feature, not a bug. It might be objected that the result will often be Christians in name only, but that’s fine—the goal is to weld together a society, and most of all a ruling class, and while there will always be variability of belief, over time a strongly dominant religion will do the welding, and that welding will lead to an increase in devout belief, in a virtuous circle.
But the Foundationalist state is not a policer of the practice of belief. Rather, it will encourage and incentivize moral behavior, with punishments when necessary, not of disbelief, but of actions that corrupt virtue. Thus, it will forbid most divorce, not because it is a sin, but because it destroys society. It will frown on adultery and homosexual acts, and disincentivize both, but not criminalize either. It will punish graft, theft, and sharp practice; the unfettered free market will no longer be thought of as some special good or moral in itself. Gambling will be mostly illegal; there will be no lotteries. The state will corral and curb prostitution; it will flog pornographers; and it will execute abortionists and other murderers. (In general, crimes will only be the crimes recognized at common law, malum in se.
Crimes that are merely malum prohibitum will almost completely disappear). And so forth, in organic development that will depend on what can be accomplished at any given point while maintaining a proper balance of cost and benefits. (An interesting question is the role of social media and other related platforms, such as Amazon, now used to suppress Christianity, advance Modernism, and defend the ruling class—will they instead, under their new owners and administrators, be used to suppress the enemies of Christianity, or returned to their original promise of free speech and free use? I will let you know).
At the same time, freedom of religious exercise for all will be allowed to the extent not actually in contradiction with virtue. Thus, any non-pernicious religion, any religion that is not a proxy or bridgehead of external enemies of state or society, will be permitted freedom of worship, without any attempt to make worship difficult (such as Islam has always imposed on Christianity in the lands it has temporarily conquered). Paganism and polytheism will be allowed, and even preferred to the extent that virtue is their focus (I subscribe to the Orthodox view that paganism does not worship fake gods, rather real entities who are not deserving of worship, but as I say the Foundationalist state is not a rigid confessional state). Naturally, wholly pernicious belief systems, such as Satanism, will be directly suppressed. Open atheism will be strongly discouraged and socially anathema. This is what I call “pluralism lite.”
In pluralism lite, what of religions that are not pernicious enough to be directly suppressed, but are corrosive of the body politic? If the people aren’t moral, the state cannot make them so; you can’t impose a culture from the top down, although you can certainly influence it from the top down. So, Scientology and similar not-overtly-destructive religions will be permitted to exist, despite strong arguments they are destructive. But the state will confiscate all their assets above a certain basic amount—as Wright notes, Scientology has amassed billions of dollars, all tax-exempt, which it uses to attack its enemies. If a religion can exist as a house church, or storefront church, and is not affirmatively evil, it makes little sense to suppress it, and it is likely difficult to suppress. Yet we can do without the massive, gaudy palaces that Scientology uses to advertise its silly beliefs.
Of course, getting from here to there is a big challenge. Still, it’s important to have a good idea of where we’re going—without trying to answer all questions of structure in advance. Broad strokes, then organic implementation, not ideological implementation. That will be the order of the day, in religion as in all other matters, coming soon to a state and society near you.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “The Triumph of Bacchus” by Ciro Ferri, painted in the 17th-century.
Among the many tools of the superbly effective Left propaganda machine, is its able control of publishing. Leftists use this to ensure that innumerable books fitting the Left narrative stay in print indefinitely, primarily for use as indoctrination tools in schools, as a glance at any modern curriculum at any grade level will show you.
On the other hand, books not fitting the Left narrative disappear—never republished, expensive to buy used, and impossible to read online because of the stupidly long terms of modern copyright law. Thus, the reprinting, by Mystery Grove Publishing, of this excellent book, by an Englishman who volunteered to fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, is a great service.
Peter Kemp was born in India in 1915; his father was a judge in what was then called Bombay. As I have covered at great length elsewhere, the Spanish situation deteriorated from 1933 through 1936 (really 1931 through 1936, as the Spanish Left attempted to consolidate permanent power).
During this time, Kemp was studying at Cambridge to be a lawyer. His politics appear to have been quite conservative, but he makes only passing reference to his own beliefs. Kemp’s main reason for going to Spain seems to have been a desire common among young men throughout history, to seek adventure through warfare, although he was also horrified at the widespread atrocities of the Spanish Left immediately prior to the Civil War.
He acknowledges his desire in the title, which comes from an A. E. Housman poem used as an epigraph: “The thoughts of others / Were light and fleeting, / Of lover’s meeting / Or luck, or fame / Mine were of trouble / And mine were steady, / So I was ready / When trouble came.” If he had been a man of the Left, no doubt he would have joined the International Brigades, the collective organization of those non-Spaniards who fought for the Spanish Communists, the Republicans.
It would have been far easier and socially acceptable for him to join the Republicans, too, since they had an active, successful, and extremely well-funded propaganda operation that blanketed Europe, while the Nationalists made almost no effort to persuade others, aside from occasionally arranging curated tours for newspapermen, incorrectly believing their cause was self-proving or that foreign opinion was unimportant.
Thus, polite opinion in England favored the Republicans, something that troubled Kemp not at all. His complete lack of Spanish did not deter him either. And in those days before the overweening state presumed to dictate to us the smallest details of our lives, it was easy enough to go fight in a foreign war. True, as today, the Left was better organized, and every country in Europe had official, open recruiting stations for the International Brigades. Kemp simply got a letter from a newspaper editor friend saying that he was authorized to send back wire copy, as a cover story, and off he went across the French frontier.
This was November 1936. Kemp offers a thumbnail sketch of the first four months of the Civil War, which had passed by the time he arrived. At this point, Francisco Franco had not yet assumed supreme command, nor had he amalgamated the different political factions of the Nationalists under his personal control. As a result, the Nationalist military was organized in a fragmented and ad hoc manner. (The Republican military was too, but the Nationalists were much better as the war progressed at welding together the disparate components of their forces, helped by not being subject to the Moscow-directed purging that bled the Republicans).
The core of the Nationalist fighting forces was the Army of Africa, consisting of most of Spain’s land forces that actually had experience fighting. One part of this was the Spanish Foreign Legion (which meant Spaniards fighting abroad, in Africa; it was not a collective of foreigners, like the French Foreign Legion). The other was native Moroccans, the Regulares.
Two political parties also raised separate forces. The first was the Carlists, one branch of the Spanish monarchists (favoring a king other than Alfonso XIII, who had resigned in 1931 to avoid the civil war being fomented by the Left). The Carlists were dominant in the north of Spain, in Navarre and the Basque provinces, and were old-fashioned, happy to die for King and country. The second was the Falange, the small Spanish fascist political party, who had little in common politically with the Carlists (and in fact in later years squabbled violently with the Carlists). Franco, of course, was not a fascist or a member of the Falange; most Nationalist military officers were not political.
Kemp joined the Carlist forces, the Requetés. The Falange Kemp treats with some disdain; he seems to regard them as less than competent, brave enough but prone to scheming in preference to honest fighting, and too often substituting ideology for honor. And he was warned away from joining the Legion, which was regarded as extremely tough and demanding, and less than welcoming to a foreigner who spoke no Spanish. So the Carlists it was, and they were very welcoming, if highly informal, bordering on lax, in their organization.
From here, Mine Were of Trouble is personal narrative of Kemp’s experiences. For the most part, the Spaniards were glad to have him fighting with them, though sometimes he was the target of suspicion from military bureaucrats. He fought with the Carlists in various skirmishes and battles, including the Battle of Jarama (February 1937) and the Battle of Santander (July 1937).
He very much enjoyed his time with the Carlists, and was quickly promoted to alférez, a junior officer rank, sometimes translated “sub-lieutenant,” meaning in practice he commanded part of a platoon, apparently ten to twenty men at a time. But he disliked the Carlists’ lack of discipline and technical training; they substituted suicidal courage for better entrenchments and the use of modern guns and gun techniques. Kemp wanted to learn “first-class soldiering.” So, late in 1937, he joined the Legion.
The Legion was divided into twenty banderas, and Kemp was assigned to the 14th, a new bandera composed of disparate parts. His welcome was frosty – he was viewed with suspicion, as a foreigner, and as a Protestant, something the Legionnaires associated with Freemasonry, one of the main avenues by which leftist poison had entered the Spanish body politic.
Still, using time-honored tools to overcome such military suspicion, hard work and bravery, Kemp soon enough became accepted by his men, and by most of the officers, even though some of the latter never warmed to him, less from suspicion and more because they felt he could never truly understand the existential evil of the Spanish Left, which drove many of them personally, since nearly all had had relatives murdered in Republican-held Spain.
Kemp led a machine-gun platoon, with four obsolete guns with zero spare parts as their only rapid-fire weapons, so soon enough, it was three guns, and then one. In November 1937, his unit moved southeast, to the Guadalajara front close to Madrid, as the Nationalists successfully liberated more and more of Spain.
The book’s narrative is compelling, and not just the battle scenes. Kemp does an excellent job of describing the landscape of the various areas in which he spent time, initially in the north, and later both west and east of Madrid. The reader gets a good feel, in particular, for the rugged nature of much of the terrain.
He also describes the towns and villages in which he was billeted (as with most wars, waiting occupied much of his time), as well as their inhabitants, nearly all of whom strongly supported the Nationalists, both in general and especially after roving bands of Republican militias had come through early in the war, tortured the local priest to death, killed other citizens, and moved on. At no point does the book drag. You might even call it a page-turner.
Occasionally Kemp diverges to discuss events to which he was not personally a witness. Notably, he discusses the April 1937 bombing of Guernica, which took place not far from where he was then stationed, and was the supreme propaganda triumph of the Communists and their international supporters during the entire war.
Kemp strongly believed that the Republicans burned the town themselves, as they had many other towns from which they had been expelled. That was the Nationalist line at the time, in opposition to the massive global campaign spreading the lie that the Nationalists, with the help of the Germans, had bombed a non-military target to terrorize the population.
No doubt Guernica was a wholly legitimate target, and the bombing wholly appropriate, if not executed entirely competently. (Bombing civilian towns without a military presence was actually a Republican specialty; Kemp notes that early in the war, Toledo, a Nationalist town, had been so attacked). But objective modern historians (as opposed to Communist mouthpieces like Paul Preston) generally conclude that the Nationalists were lying that the destruction was caused by the Republicans burning the town, in a crude and unsuccessful attempt to counter Republican propaganda.
Kemp offers all his experiences with no sugarcoating. In the Legion, there was extremely rigid discipline, with corporal punishment for minor infractions and the death penalty for any insubordination. The good result of this was that looting and rape, commonly committed by Republican forces, was nonexistent.
The bad result was that in Kemp’s bandera, though it was against Nationalist policy, many prisoners, and all of certain categories, were shot out of hand. Those categories included members of the International Brigades, blamed for prolonging the war by preventing the early liberation of Madrid. Of course, Kemp would have been shot too if captured; he knew that at the time, and he quotes a British captain in the International Brigades whom he talked to after the war who leaves no doubt.
Early in the war, both the Republicans and the Nationalists took few prisoners, but by this point the Nationalists had mostly stopped that practice, and the Republicans, consistently losing, didn’t capture that many fresh prisoners, having murdered most of them already, along with any Nationalists they could find in the cities, towns, and villages they controlled. (Kemp notes that when international bodies such as the Non-Intervention Committee began to organize prisoner exchanges, they found almost no Nationalist prisoners held by the Republicans, and large numbers of Republicans held by the Nationalists).
Tactically, of course, this is a poor decision—as Niall Ferguson wrote in The Pity of War, refusing to accept surrender needlessly prolongs wars. Regardless, Kemp thought that his own superior officers were perniciously fond of killing prisoners, and relates at horrified length how an Irish deserter from the International Brigades presented himself, claiming he had been impressed into the Brigades. Kemp got permission from his immediate superiors to send the Irishman away as a POW, but the colonel above them curtly ordered Kemp to shoot the prisoner, which he did (or rather he had two of his men do it), something he found extremely difficult.
Back at the front, the war ground on and the Nationalists implemented Franco’s slow strategy. (It was later called plodding and unimaginative, which perhaps it was, and also called an attempt to kill as many Communists as possible, which perhaps it also was. We’ll never know; Franco was famously taciturn).
Kemp fought in the Battle of Teruel, which was bitter and more of the same, featuring hand-to-hand fighting in olive groves and the intermittent appearance of light tanks, often turning the tide at the last minute, including once when Kemp’s unit was about to be overrun. Many of Kemp’s friends died; he gives full credit to his opponents for bravery and competence.
He was stationed for a few weeks in Belchite, a village that had been destroyed earlier, which was left destroyed after the war and was used as the backdrop for the BBC series, The Spanish Civil War. It is here, late in the book, where the most jarring passage of book occurs. Kemp relates how four Western journalist friends of his, two American and two British, were driving near the battle when a shell hit their car. Three were killed. The fourth, the survivor, he mentions only here: Kim Philby.
Of course, in 1957, when this book was published, Kemp could not have known that Philby, a traitor since the 1920s, was one of the most evil men of the twentieth century, responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of millions. He was in Nationalist Spain masquerading as a journalist in order to spy for the Communists, and in fact this incident, since it brought him to the favorable attention of the Nationalist authorities, strengthened his ability to spy, bringing him into direct contact with Franco, with the goal of furthering Franco’s assassination by the Communists. But Kemp knew none of this. It is strange how history works, and how it could have been different had we been more lucky, and Philby killed in 1937.
Kemp was wounded several times, and had to recuperate, but was back in action by May 1938. Not for long, though. Fighting near Aragon in July, a mortar bomb exploded next to him, shattering his jaw and hand, burning his throat, and nearly killing him. Recuperating for months, he asked permission for leave to return to England to convalesce, which was granted.
First, however, Franco asked to see him, and he had a thirty-minute interview, consisting mostly of Franco talking about the dangers of Communism. Franco concluded by asking Kemp what he would do after the war, to which Kemp said presumably he would fight in the British military “in the coming war.” Franco responded, with a “wintry smile,” “I don’t think there will be a war,” to which Kemp’s response was, “I wonder what he really thought.”
By March 1939, the Spanish war was over, and Kemp did not return to Spain for some time, although he fought with great distinction in World War II and thereafter. But that is another story, told by Kemp in other books.
Today, of course, the modern successors of the Spanish Communists would ensure that a man like Kemp had no peace after the guns fell silent. Those who fought for the International Brigades received nothing but lionization, and to this day are unjustly and foolishly praised, but even in his time, Kemp was threatened by his local police chief in England that he “might find [himself] liable to prosecution under the provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1880, or some such date.”
Kemp died in 1993, but we can be certain that if he had lived longer, the European Left, both in Spain and England, would have tried to prosecute him as a “war criminal,” by which they mean any person who opposed their totalitarian aims of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I often complain about this, that the Left ensures that its enemies are hounded to the grave and beyond, while the Right fails to do the same and, an equally great failing, fails to fight back adequately. Maybe this is a historical anomaly and in the decades to come the roles will be reversed; one can hope.
You will not find here new lessons on the Spanish Civil War, but you will find lessons that are not commonly known. This book is interesting in its own right, and a quick read. I highly recommend it. Most of all, it’s a vivid exposure to the reality that the side that deserved to win the Civil War, and fortunately did, was the Nationalists, who bore little resemblance to the caricature that nearly a century of Left lies has planted in the rest of the West. More people should know this, and Mine Were of Trouble is a good place to start.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “I will join up with my companions,” a poster by Carlos Saenz de Tejada, from 1940.
Years ago, I lived in Budapest with an elderly Hungarian relative, my grandfather’s cousin. She had lived through World War II as a young woman. One day, as we were eating lunch, she reminisced about the Russian invasion and conquest of Hungary in 1945, which she survived.
She looked at me and said (in Hungarian), “Always remember, when you are grown and are a powerful man, that war is a terrible thing.” We all know this, but it is easy to forget the personal impact of war—both on soldiers and on everyone else in a society. This uneven book is a reminder of those costs, and an opportunity to ponder when they are worth paying, as civil war slouches ever closer to us.
I’ve been on a Spanish Civil War kick for some time now. No points for guessing why. This is the first book on modern Spain that I have read, however. Well, it’s half about modern Spain. It is an odd book, by an author apparently famous in Spain, Javier Cercas. Half of it is about Cercas, his family, his emotional states, and his quest to explore the brief life of his great uncle, Manuel Mena, a soldier who died in the Nationalist cause.
The other half is about Mena himself, where Cercas teases what little definite history exists into a narrative, and then extends the narrative to structural failure by wishful thinking that Mena was really not who he was. These two halves repeatedly cross over into each other, in a choppy narrative that contains entirely too much navel-gazing by Cercas about himself. But hey, it’s his book, and maybe this is what sells in Spain.
Lord of All the Dead is tightly focused on the village in which Mena lived and in which Cercas was born, and in which their extended family all lived, until mostly leaving in the 1960s, during the massive economic boom brought about by Francisco Franco in the third act of his life, as dictator of Spain for nearly forty years.
That village is called Ibahernando; it lies in the west of Spain, in Extremadura, always an impoverished, rural province. (Fleeing from there to places where one can make money has a long pedigree—many of the most famous conquerors of the New World came from Extremadura, including Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro). In Cercas’s description, it is today nearly empty and irrelevant to the nation as a whole, though I can’t tell if that’s true. It would certainly not be surprising, in these days of urbanization and plummeting populations.
We do not learn until near the end of the book why the title, though I should have caught it on my own. It comes from the famous response given by the shade of Achilles, asked by Odysseus how it goes in the afterlife. Achilles responds that he would rather be a penniless farmer than lord of all the dead. Although this book is framed as an exploration of the life of Mena, as the title shows it is really an attempt by Cercas to rewrite his sacrifice as a tragic waste, in contradiction to what Mena himself very obviously thought.
What Cercas is selling is that although Mena, and many of his relatives, saw Mena’s death as a kalos thanatos, a perfect death, really it was stupid, not just because it was a young man’s in war, but most of all because he was ignorant of his actual interests, which, Cercas lectures us over and over, as with everyone in Ibahernando, lay entirely with the Republicans, for whom they all would have been fighting if they had had any sense. Yes, this is really his claim.
We will get later to the interests of the villagers. I am not going to discuss the whys and wherefores of the Spanish Civil War; I have already done that elsewhere. What I’d like to explore is two things. First, what drives civil conflict in small polities far from the centers of power? Second, ignoring Cercas’s attempts to impose his own views on Manuel Mena, at what point should a society be willing to sacrifice its young men in battle, and its young women at home if they lose to the wrong adversary, along with much else, to a cause? Or, put another way, at what point should the costs my own aunt related be borne?
For the most part, I am therefore going to ignore that Cercas unreflectingly parrots standard left-wing propaganda about the war, which is doubtless the norm for his social class and standing in Spain today. In this view, the Spanish Republic brought low by Franco was a pure and wonderful democracy that came to power by democratic means. It represented all Spain. It committed no wrongs, except a few minor excesses in response to right-wing rebellion.
Cercas says nary a word about the massive violence and atrocities against conservatives and the Church that resulted in Franco’s entirely rational and moral rebellion against an illegitimate Communist-dominated regime. (Cercas delicately refers to violence and atrocities encouraged and permitted under the Republic as “confrontations produced by the Republic’s efforts to modernize the country”).
Words in this book are carefully chosen for propaganda effect; the name “Hitler” appears early and often attached to Franco; the names “Stalin” and “Soviet Union” do not appear a single time anywhere. I assume all this is mainline modern Spanish leftism. To be fair, it’s not over the top, not like Communist apologists, such as, Paul Preston. It’s more like Cercas has just absorbed the party line and regurgitates it as he goes along, focused primarily on creating an alternative history of his uncle that will be palatable to his social circle.
The story of Mena is fairly straightforward, though Cercas manages to make it somewhat difficult to follow by making the story not about Mena, but about his own gradual unearthing of facts about Mena. He couples this with endless maundering about his own emotions as they relate to Mena and to the rest of his family. Run-on sentences and the use of directly translated Spanish idioms making little sense in English do not contribute; nor does a lot of talk about his filmmaker friend whose wife left him for Viggo Mortensen, though that’s a little bit amusing. She probably left him because he had annoying friends like Cercas!
I will impose some order on the narrative. The core figure in Cercas’s exploration is his own mother, still alive and a major character in this book. She was eight years younger than her uncle, Mena, her father’s brother, to whom she was very close. In a village community of this type, large families were the norm at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the families tended to intermarry, with second cousins marrying each other.
We forget, in these days of sad wine aunts and atomization, that this kind of tangled, extended-family web used to be the norm for most people. Thus, through his mother Cercas is introduced to all those still alive who can shed light on Mena’s life. Other than in the village, where a main street is named after him, nobody at all remembers Mena.
Starting with his mother, Cercas gradually expands his circle of interlocutors. He does not talk to a single person who supported Franco or the Falange. Rather, he talks to elderly leftists, none his relatives, and to younger leftists who are all cousins of one type or another, most of all one who is today a socialist delegate to the European Parliament.
This is also bizarre, for in his own telling everyone was a Francoist until the 1970s, yet Cercas does not offer a single word from anyone in support of any Right political position. He talks of “Francoist families” and how they still remember Mena’s funeral, but does not talk to any of them. Rather, his project is to signal to his readership the illegitimacy of any support for Franco, so it is no surprise that he offers no Francoist perspectives. Instead, he offers the unconditional self-abasement of a Maoist struggle session.
I lost track of the innumerable times Cercas refers to Mena’s, and his extended family’s, “shame” and “dishonour,” while never once specifying in what way they were shamed and dishonored. (On one page the words show up eight times, along with an incomprehensible reference to the “defeats” of his shamed ancestors, who, after all, won the war).
I can only assume that in the left-wing circles in modern Spain in which Cercas lives and breathes, it is presumed that any connection, no matter how faint, to Francoism is somehow shameful and dishonorable. His social class, represented by his cuckold filmmaker friend, tells him as an established fact that opposing the Communists was “a mistaken cause” and “unjust.” None of this is true, and Cercas even tells us the cliché that victors write the histories, ignoring the obvious falsity of that here.
But let’s turn to Mena. It is a short enough story. When the time for political choosing came, Mena was, like many young men, attracted to the Falange, with its blend of traditionalism and modernism. Cercas unearths some speeches written by him for delivery to the local Falange youth group, which are standard boilerplate.
When the war broke out in 1936, Mena volunteered, at age seventeen. He was made a second lieutenant, in the Ifni Riflemen, a regiment of the Regulares (mainly Moroccan enlisted men with Spanish officers) and fought in several battles. He was killed in 1938, at age nineteen, at the Battle of the Ebro, in Catalonia, shot in the abdomen. His body was brought back to Ibahernando and buried, an event of great significance in the village, and one of the defining events of Mena’s mother’s life – although, strangely, Cercas never asks her any of her opinions, just for the facts.
Cercas is very focused on the political situation in Ibahernando, and as we will see, it is through this prism that he interprets the meaning of Mena’s life. I find this fascinating, because it says much about politics outside the centers of power, once you strip away the distortions Cercas creates while twisting history to fit into his frame.
The author views the politics of the 1920s and the 1930s in Ibahernando through a tired Marxist lens. In Cercas’s telling, most of the land in Ibahernando was owned by absentee landlords, nobles of one sort or another, who lived in Madrid. Until a few decades before the war, everyone was essentially a serf who worked the land. But at some point, enterprising farmers began renting land from the nobles, and even were able, after some time, to own a modest amount of land.
In other words, they became what Stalin called kulaks – farmers a little better off than their neighbors, as a result of their own initiative and hard work. Others remained landless farm laborers or tenant farmers. Cercas tells us this introduced class stratification into Ibahernando, and that rather than being united against their real oppressors, the absentee landlords, a type of local aristocracy, a very modest type, emerged. A key member of this aristocracy, he says, was his own family.
Whatever the accuracy of this history, which so far probably is pretty accurate, such stratification is completely unsurprising. In any human grouping, an aristocracy naturally arises, because people are not the same, and some people’s talents are better suited to any given situation, so rewards and leadership flow their way.
But Cercas obviously can’t accept that; it contradicts left-wing doctrine of emancipation and equality, and thus reality must be denied, or rather simply ignored. Still, he is puzzled, because he doesn’t have an alternative explanation for the development of this split. He didactically instructs us that “the interests of the community were the same,” without making any effort to demonstrate it. It’s obvious the villagers didn’t think so.
For example, Cercas talks several times about agricultural wage laborers forming “right-wing unions” early in the Republic, which would suggest that they didn’t see their interests as the same as everyone else’s, and he also talks briefly about how Ibahernando had a significant Protestant minority, although otherwise he ignores the importance of religion. Anybody but a Marxist can see that Ibahernando, like any other polity, had many competing interests, and only a few of them were economic ones.
That doesn’t mean his family was conservative in Spanish political terms. His grandfather, one of the most prominent men in the village, was a Socialist when he was mayor for a brief time in the early 1930s. What seems to have happened is that much of the village did in fact view politics, for a time, though the lens of class, and supported the ending of the monarchy and the establishment of a republican form of government.
But when it became evident what the real program of the Left was, agreed to at the infamous Pact of San Sebastien, most of the village rejected it, especially when the Left unleashed violent attacks across the land, whereupon most of the village, from the meanest laborer to Cercas’s grandfather, turned against the Left. Bizarrely, Cercas denies any of this leftist violence happened, at the same time he says that it caused a political earthquake in the village. “[T]he memory many elderly people in Ibahernando have of the Second Republic is a memory poisoned by confrontation, division, and violence. It is a false memory, a memory distorted or contaminated retrospectively by the memory of the Civil War that swept the Second Republic away.”
There is indeed a falsehood here, but we don’t need to go to the history books to see that Cercas is either lying or fooling himself, for his own history shows the lie.
Cercas narrates how in 1933 the local Communists demanded suppression of religious festivities and repeatedly tried to burn the local church; how they collected weapons and shot at their enemies; how in 1935 they put together a plan to take a list of “people on the Right” and “proposed taking them one by one from their houses and murdering them” (a plot only stopped by the mayor’s intervention); and how they tried to assassinate his maternal grandfather in 1934, by shotgunning him in the street. And when men on the Right asked for state protection, they were “advised to protect themselves.” So they bought guns – and immediately after the February 1936 elections, the new Left governor of the province put both of Cercas’s grandfathers in prison for “stockpiling weapons.”
No wonder there was “growing anxiety.” But there was only one source for that anxiety—the violence and hatred of the Left, and their open desire to exterminate their political opponents. Cercas, though, speaks constantly of “Francoist terror,” without naming a single example prior to the war. There was some, later – as in all these divided Spanish villages, when the war broke out, the Right punished those who had been attacking them for years, and often people took the opportunity to settle personal scores.
But Cercas, even though his own facts contradict him, treats Right violence as the only problem, when in reality it was purely reactive and defensive, and perhaps inevitable after years of Left threats and violence, and in an atmosphere where the town expected Republican army attack at any moment, such that the town square and the houses surrounding it were entrenched and sandbagged.
That doesn’t mean the villagers who rejected the Left became Falangists, or even Francoists. Outside the centers of power, most people aren’t driven by politics, or at least to the same degree, and this is a lesson for today. They just saw the Left as the greater evil, and they had to pick a side, because of what men of power far away had done.
Many of the men of the village, rich or poor, fought in volunteer militias for the Nationalists in the first few months of the war, including Cercas’s paternal grandfather, but they were sent home by the end of 1936, as the Nationalists consolidated and professionalized Franco’s initially ad hoc army. Cercas throws up chaff to obscure their choice, condescendingly claiming that the poor disliked “disorder.” They had a “superstitious love for order and tradition”; they were “addicted to order,” so they joined the Nationalists.
His argument is that if the Left had simply been more communicative about the reasons they were killing people the village would have supported them. But the truth is pretty obvious, if wholly unpalatable to Cercas—his village was mostly, or nearly all, Franco supporters, including his great uncle, and presumably including his mother, about whose political beliefs Cercas says nothing. But, as I say, we never get any detail or discussion about Right political views, in fact, other than the bare narration that many of the author’s relatives fought for the Nationalists.
Cercas marches on, though, trapped in his own frame. He quotes his socialist cousin at length, that it is incomprehensible that villagers didn’t unite with the Left to fight their “true enemies,” the landowners. He studiously ignores the complexities of the Spanish Right, such as that the Falange’s philosophy actually had many left-wing, populist elements, and, as Cercas himself discusses in the context of Mena’s pro-Falange writings, “preached the harmony of classes.”
Cercas has to do this, because he is aiming at his main goal, to “prove” that Mena, a vigorous Falangist, was self-deluded, but he couldn’t help it. He was just a kid “intoxicated by pernicious idealism”; all that he believed was merely an “ideological concoction devised by the oligarchy to halt socialist and democratic equality.” “He had lost everything fighting for a cause that was not his but that of others.” No doubt Cercas buys into Marxist delusions like “false consciousness,” though that phrase doesn’t appear here.
And, finally, desperate for an arc to his story that contradicts the story of a young hero who died for his ideals, Cercas constructs a fantasy in which Mena became wholly disillusioned by the war. No doubt, after much direct experience with war, he was disillusioned – only some men, a minority, enjoy war, although for many it is a mixed bag, never all bad or all good.
Cercas builds up to what he thinks is the culmination of his book – an elderly uncle suddenly remembers, although he never told anyone before, was not there, and cannot remember who told him, that in his last visit to the village Mena told someone that the war was hard and that he had done his duty; that he didn’t want to go back to the front, but was going to anyway, because if he didn’t, another uncle would have had to go to war. Cercas responds “Are you saying that Manuel Mena was fed up with the war?” To which the old man replies, “Exactly. Fed up.” This is what is called in law the rankest hearsay, along with leading the witness. It’s meaningless.
But not in the context of Cercas’s project, which seems to be primarily to exonerate himself to his social peers today for the fact that his family was Francoist, and Cercas treats the old man’s words as a revelation comparable to Prometheus bringing fire to Man. Oh, it’s probably true. I bet Manuel Mena was fed up with the war. I bet most soldiers in his position were fed up with the war and would far prefer it be over. This is a commonplace throughout history. But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t also know that the only way home was to win against the Communists, or that he had changed his mind about what was necessary for Spain to flourish and thrive.
So what does this say about our own political divisions? Less than one might think. In Spain, there were clear and unbridgeable political divisions among the ruling classes, which inevitably led to war. Here, there are no such divisions – our ruling classes, Democrat and Republican, are united in their contempt for the deplorables, many of whom bear a suspicious resemblance to the poor citizenry of Ibahernando. Trump may talk about fighting the ruling classes, and they do hate him because he threatens their cushy position by the chaos he creates and the positions he theoretically espouses, which if unchecked might empower the deplorables, but Jared and Ivanka, and the rest of those who influence and limit Trump, aren’t really opposed to George Soros and Gavin Newsom politically.
All these people are just fighting over the spoils, not fighting about principles with each other. Their collective vision is a continuation of the neoliberal atomized hell with leftist social policies in which we live (which, to be fair, has been very, very good to me, but I am a traitor to my class).
To the extent there are real divisions outside the ruling class, Americans, with their comfortable lifestyles, addiction to safety, and facing the overwhelming power and reach of the government, aren’t going to fight for anything, among themselves or against the government. Claims otherwise, anywhere on the political spectrum, are all LARPing for the social media cameras. People on the Right point to Antifa as a budding locus of violence, but that’s not true in any meaningful way. Antifa is a clown show, performance theater.
They only engage in violence because they are protected by the police and judges in the places they do it; if they showed up any other place but a few friendly urban locales, they would regret it, and quickly. Look at them. They are fat losers. In a real civil war they would run and hide as fast as their tubby little legs could carry them. No, like most people in Ibahernando, the average American just wants to get by, and enjoy life, and isn’t, for better or worse, going to actually fight about politics.
At least they’re not going to fight yet. The Wuhan Plague, and more the government overreaction to it, has turned the ratchet a few more turns. Someday the ruling classes are no longer going to be able to print money and make promises to keep the peasants from becoming restless, and they will be thrust to the side as the political currents of Left and Right rear their heads and assume shape under leaders yet to be named. Or perhaps we will have a tripartite split, with the ruling classes fighting simultaneously against a newly organized, competent, and risk-taking Left and Right. We will then see, in every locale, what Ibahernando did—that no, we can’t all just get along, because one vision of the good must rule, and incompatible visions are, well, incompatible.
And, finally, back to my great aunt, who told me that war is a terrible thing. This same sentiment runs throughout this book, although without nuance or understanding, since Cercas has apparently taken no risks in his life, and he cannot escape his ideological prison when viewing the past. He seems to want to think that war can both be brutal and evil, and noble and necessary, but cannot bear to apply that principle to his great uncle.
Cercas would do well to read Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, which lays out what war really means for modern men, and explains, aside from politics, why, perhaps, Manuel Mena fought and died. I think that the idea of a kalos thanatos should not be encouraged; it is a pagan ideal, after all, and as the father of three young sons it does not appeal to me. But sacrifice combined with seeking a transcendent goal has a key place in any society that is going anywhere.
What is true for a man is true for a society—there are worse things than war, as terrible as war is. Far worse for Spain, for example, to have been ruled by the Communists, both in terms of the number of dead and in the ruination of the nation. Sometimes, often, we must choose between two unpalatable choices.
My own aunt was not saying that Hungary was wrong to fight in the war; given history and circumstance, it was both necessary and inevitable. Rather, her point was to remember, when and if a man of power, I should count the cost, and not idly or blindly feed the little people into the maw of the machine. This is a universal truth, untied to ideology. But Cercas’s book fails because he views everything through ideology.Lord of All the Deadcould have been a fascinating exploration of the Spanish conflict on a local level, but instead, it’s just claptrap.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “A Nationalist Soldier on the Santander Front in a Captured Concrete Dug-Out with ‘Marxist’ Inscriptions – ’Death to Spain!’ and ‘Long Live Russia”, by Carlos Saenz de Tejada, Illustrated London News, 20 Nov. 1937.
A few weeks ago, I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino’s movie delivered to me what I have been seeking. Namely, the exact point America careened off the path to flourishing, abandoning our long, mostly successful search for ever-increasing excellence and achievement. It was 1969.
As the shadows lengthen and the darkness spreads, perhaps it does not matter when twilight fell. But why twilight fell does matter, and much of the answer can be found in the pages of Amity Shlaes’s new book, Great Society, which narrates the decade’s massive expansion of government, and of elite power, all in the service of the Left, that we were told was certain to give us Utopia, but instead destroyed our civilization.
That America was being destroyed was not completely obvious at the time. In fact, America sixty years ago could absorb a lot of abuse—until the early 1970s America still seemed mostly on track, just more colorful around the edges, as shown in Tarantino’s movie.
In it, the older America, of a sense of duty and a desire for achievement, tempered by human foibles, is contrasted with the new America, of thieving, murderous hippies, emancipated from unchosen bonds by the social changes imposed on us during the 1960s, and acting badly, as men and women always do when so emancipated. A society composed of such cannot succeed or accomplish anything at all, something known to wise men throughout all ages, but which we were made to forget, to our harm and sorrow.
The movie ends differently than real life—in real life, the hippies won, and as a result we have accomplished nothing of any importance since 1969. Do not forget—it has been fifty-one years since 1969, when we landed men on the Moon, and 1969 was sixty-six years after men first flew. Compare the eras, and weep, for we now know that 1969 was our apogee, and that ever since, we have blindly stumbled along a crooked path that leads nowhere.
But in failure lies opportunity. I think that if we play it right, the 1960s will merely have been a detour off the path. We can now return to the straight path—but only if we have the will to make hard choices, to sell the present, for a time, to pay for our future. As the Wuhan virus spreads through our hollowed-out society, perhaps, indeed, now is the time. We will see.
That the 1960s spelled the effective end of America is not, to the perceptive, news. For fifty years, our ruling class has used their control of education and tele-visual media to indoctrinate our children and hoodwink our adults by painting an utterly false picture of the 1960s.
The party line has been that the decade was a shining time for America, when we overthrew old verities and emancipated everyone in society, resulting in a coruscating new dawn of liberty for America. And by unfortunate coincidence, our elites had, and gladly used, a peerless tool to silence objections, because it was in the 1960s that African Americans, the sole American group worthy of any type of emancipation or the subject of any relevant and unjust oppression in American history, actually got the civil rights promised them in 1865.
This allowed any objection to any aspect of the Left edifice built in the 1960s to be cast as racism and ignored—which it still is today, hugely reinforced by new, malicious Left doctrines such as intersectionality, thereby creating the very real risk of racial conflict in any American rebirth. I do not have a solution for that, yet.
On to the book. Shlaes is known as a historian of the early twentieth century. Her biography of Calvin Coolidge and her history of the Great Depression (The Forgotten Man) are modern classics. This is straight history, with no ideological overlay. Shlaes is not really here to criticize the 1960s, or their most visible manifestation, the so-called Great Society. Yes, the hubris of the men at the nation’s helm is on pristine display, but Shlaes presents the facts almost without comment, letting the reader draw his own conclusions.
The author organizes her chapters by short periods, months or years. She also pulls through certain themes, among them the television series Bonanza, which first aired at the turn of the decade, and went off the air a few years into the 1970s. Bonanza, reruns of which I watched with my grandfather as a child, was an optimistic show, reflecting an optimistic America—one where anything could be accomplished with hard work and the right attitude, most of all knowing and doing one’s duty.
In 1960, Americans correctly perceived themselves as strong and the federal government, which had vastly less reach than today and directly touched the average American’s life nearly not at all, as a partner in continuing that strength. Big business, labor, and the government openly cooperated to everyone’s perceived benefit.
True, there was always some tension about how the pie got distributed, with intermittent conflicts between labor and management, and fears in many quarters that socialism was lurking just around the corner. In 1960 through 1962, there were some rumblings of economic discontent, and, almost unnoticed, the pernicious adoption by President Kennedy of an executive order allowing government employees to unionize. But there was little to suggest new problems ahead.
Trouble was being brewed by the Left, though. Of course, the Left had long been striving to get a grip on America, but had never managed to dominate even the most obvious areas, such as factory workers. The unions were, in fact, mostly ferociously anti-Communist, and a key part of the necessary and heroic suppression by Americans of Communism during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Realizing this, the traditional American hard Left had switched to dominating the culture, the institutions, and morphed into the New Left. Shlaes acknowledges this was a multi-decade program of the Left: “The ‘long march through the institutions’ that Antonio Gramsci sketched out and Rudi Dutschke demanded had succeeded.” (In America, this was the project of the infamous Frankfurt School). In effect, therefore, this book is a history of how the New Left took power, and ruined America.
Shlaes focuses on the Port Huron meeting of June 1962, which sowed the seeds of much of the rest of the decade. Port Huron was a meeting of well-to-do young New Left activists, organized and paid for by the United Auto Workers, naively eager to enlist young people in the goal of helping keep the pie properly divided.
Politics was nothing new for the great union leaders, such as Walter Reuther, but what the UAW and its elders did not realize is that the young leftists they recruited believed pies grew on trees, and anyway were less interested in pies, and more interested in destruction of the American system and its replacement by something entirely new.
The older American Left, exemplified by Reuther, wanted social democracy in the European mold. The New Left wanted, as the ideological Left has always wanted since the 1700s, a complete reworking of society to achieve a new, Utopian paradise of justice and equality. But Reuther and his compatriots could not see this.
The degeneration heralded by the New Left did not manifest itself into sudden existence, it had long been in preparation, and had multiple parents, not just the Frankfurt School.
It began in earnest sixty years before, among the Progressives who rejected America and demanded its replacement by a technocracy. Such men took advantage of, in sequence, crises to implement their vision—first World War I, then the Depression, then World War II. To the observant, by the 1960s signs of the rot created by the Left were all around, from the destruction of classical architecture to the perversions of higher education William F. Buckley called out in God and Man at Yale.
The clear-eyed among us, such as Ronald Reagan, warned us, but even then, the elite rained contempt on Reagan and his message, thereby strengthening those actively seeking to undermine America.
Why the Left has the will and ability to execute such a strategy over a century and the Right has, so far, not, is a topic for another time. But that reality is on full display in this history, beginning with the Presidency of John Kennedy. It was those young Port Huron-type leftists, along with their slightly older leaders, such as Michael Harrington, who in 1961 quickly began to strongly influence the direction of America.
Kennedy surrounded himself with men who were open to left-wing goals, and insufferably utopian, though most were still not wholly of the New Left. (Shlaes narrates how an obsessive topic of discussion among Kennedy’s White House staff, immediately after Kennedy’s inauguration, was wondering how they would spend their time in the last two years of Kennedy’s term, after they had solved all the nation’s problems during the first two years).
But when Kennedy was shot, and Johnson came to power, it immediately became clear that Johnson wanted nothing more than huge federal programs, in the mold of the New Deal, only bigger and better, to cement his legacy—programs that the Left, with its infrastructure in waiting, could and did easily use for their own purposes.
Shlaes deftly sketches Johnson’s tools—his solid Democratic majorities in Congress, his own political abilities, the manufactured sense of emergency used to circumvent democratic checks (always a favorite tool of the Left). We go through 1964, with a cast of characters once famous who have now left the stage—everyone from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Sargent Shriver.
Right off the bat Johnson and the men who advised him rammed through massive “anti-poverty” legislation based on New Left principles. In November, Johnson was elected to the Presidency in his own right by a landslide. This cemented Johnson’s desire and ability to execute the now-named Great Society, which meant fountains of cash distributed at all levels (along with many other pernicious non-monetary changes, such as huge increases in legal immigration).
One level was the federal government, where massive new programs sprouted like weeds. But a second level was handouts of tax dollars to states, most of all to large cities, where poverty and Democrats were concentrated. Shlaes goes into great detail about these various programs, everything from the massive new housing developments to Head Start.
Some of the mayors, especially Republican mayors, resented that the price of free money from Washington was toeing the line that Washington set, but they had no real choice, and Johnson’s compliant Congress changed the laws whenever necessary to ensure that local control was a mere fiction.
And a side effect of money sluicing down from, and controlled from, above was more erosion of America’s intermediary institutions, a bulwark against leftist domination, but already in decline due to government expansion of previous decades.
These Great Society programs all had as a primary goal the funding of the Left as an institution, and were the beginning of the massive self-sustaining ecosystem of the modern Left, where to this day enormous sums flow from government, business, and private individuals and entities to fund a galaxy of leftist pressure groups.
In 1965, for example, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was handed money for a “community action program” to hire one thousand full-time “community action representatives” at a salary of $4,070 each (about $35,000 today). Such “representatives” were instructed from Washington, in the form of a 262-page book that encouraged organizing the poor to protest to demand handouts, using the techniques pioneered by Saul Alinsky. (In later years, an ambitious young man, growing up in Hawaii, would move to Chicago and slot himself directly into this by-then long-existing ecosystem, ultimately leveraging it to make himself President).
This funding and support from well-connected elders has always been lacking on the Right, which is a problem the Right must solve in order to achieve any of its goals.
Shlaes also touches on the importance of the radical leftist judiciary in cementing the Great Society, creating law out of whole cloth that fit with the ideology being implemented. Such decisions included Goldberg v. Kelly, deeming government handouts a property right; Reynolds v. Sims, rewriting the Constitution to ensure states with big cities were ruled by those cities; and many other Supreme Court decisions.
And on a lower level, thousands of suits were brought by the government-funded Legal Services Corporation, created to serve the poor in their minor disputes such as divorces and property, but weaponized to instead frustrate any legislative choice that did not conform to the goals of the Left, and still used for that purpose (joined today by nearly all the top law firms in America).
Such domination of the judiciary by the Left, on display most recently in the practice of federal district judges immediately blocking any action by Donald Trump not approved by the Left by issuing illegitimate nationwide injunctions, is another major problem blocking future Right victories.
Only by crushing such Left judicial opposition, and restoring the federal judiciary to its proper extremely modest role, or by having Right judges finally use their power in the same way as Left judges have for sixty years, can the Right win.
Meanwhile, Tom Hayden and other firebrands of the New Left were moving even further leftward, unhappy that the Great Society was not radical enough. In 1965 and 1966, openly supporting Communism in North Vietnam became the new chic, and Hayden and his compatriots traveled to North Vietnam, receiving the usual Potemkin village treatment and eagerly believing the lies they were fed. (Later, Hayden and his wife Jane Fonda would name their son after a Vietnamese Communist assassin who had tried to kill Robert McNamara by bombing a bridge over which his motorcade was to pass).
This drove a wedge between the leftists in the White House and the even more radical set outside it, but also ensured that further movement Left continued, as the younger generation of leftists replaced the older.
Soon enough, no surprise, it became evident that the desired and expected Utopian results, by whatever measure, were not forthcoming. The poor were worse off and violence among the poor swept the nation. This frustrated Johnson and all the men surrounding him, so he turned to housing, in 1966 and 1967.
The result, in an explicit attempt to achieve “human flourishing,” was disaster, with the building of massive Le Corbusier-inspired tower blocks of public housing that immediately become festering hellholes, such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, which Shlaes profiles up to its demolition in 1972. Meant as a Utopian solution that would prevent rioting by the dissatisfied poor, such housing instead exacerbated the Great Society’s destruction of black communities.
And such housing, long a pet project of the Left in its desire to remake human nature and create “scientific” solutions to intractable problems, would have been even more widespread and destructive, were it not for the efforts of people like Jane Jacobs. (Nowadays, bizarrely, we are often told that such public housing projects were the acts of racist conservatives, in an act of historical mendacity that would be breathtaking were it not the norm for Left “history”).
Among all this, Shlaes covers the rise of inflation and the move away from the gold standard, along with other economic matters, as the socialism of the Great Society inevitably led to stagflation. She narrates Johnson’s choice not to run again, and how the cultivation of the New Left in the early 1960s resulted in the takeover of the Democratic party by the New Left at the end of the 1960s.
She talks about the sclerosis in the once-peerless American auto industry (and other heavy industries), and the effect this had on the labor/management cooperation found earlier in the decade. Wound in between are what are now commonplace government behaviors, then new: massively underestimating the costs of government programs; using word salads and names as propaganda; ignoring regulatory costs on society; failing to perform, or care in any way about, cost-benefit analysis. We are used to it all now, just as a man living next to an open sewer becomes inured to the stench, but Shlaes does a good job narrating how it all came into existence.
It is particularly interesting that Shlaes discusses a document written by Moynihan, 1962’s “Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture.” In itself, this one-page memo was not particularly objectionable, but its call for “efficient and economical facilities” combined with a call for “contemporary architects” to direct the federal government’s buildings, not vice versa, resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars of ugly federal architecture.
This did not have to be, but was inevitable in context because of the pernicious dominance of architectural Modernism. Shlaes’s mention of this memo is interesting because only a few weeks ago, this now completely obscure document was prominent again, when it was leaked that the Trump administration was considering, after sixty years, revising this document to call for a return to classical architecture.
The usual suspects shrieked “fascism!”, and nothing has been done yet, but I certainly hope it will—though it needs to be part of a much larger and comprehensive rework of the federal government, of which new architecture will be a key demonstrative element.
By the time Nixon took over in 1969, the cracks were starting to show, but Nixon eagerly continued Johnson’s policies, and often expanded them. In part this was because he didn’t much care for domestic policy (Shlaes quotes him after his 1962 gubernatorial loss, “At least I’ll never have to talk about crap like dope addiction again”); in part this was simply adherence to leftist pieties that had already addicted the mainstream of the Republican party. (George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, features frequently in this book as an eager toady to the Left, just like his son is today).
Nixon, in fact, tried to expand the Great Society to include a universal basic income, and fell just short, because Vietnam and the fact the Left had hated Nixon for decades for his anti-Communism precluded the lockstep forced cooperation that had allowed the early Great Society to be rammed through by Johnson—not to mention the economy was not doing well, and the feeling of shared prosperity had already, not coincidentally, begun to disappear.
Shlaes ends with the beginning of stagflation and the end of the gold standard, with, shades of Donald Trump, Nixon agitating against the Federal Reserve’s unwillingness to loosen the money supply to help his re-election. Of course, one immediate result of the Great Society was economic catastrophe in the 1970s.
Shlaes nods to this, although it is outside the scope of the book proper. That was, ultimately, however, the least important effect of the Great Society. Its most important effect was to encourage the undeserving to believe they are being unjustly denied what belongs to them, while rejecting that any person has any duty that counterbalances freedom. This fragmented our society, and thereby destroyed the unity and purpose that made it possible for America to accomplish great things.
All this is a sad history, but instructive. A basic principle of mine, and of Foundationalism, is that a well-run government should have limited ends and unlimited means. Because elites love power, and rotten elites love power dearly for what it can give them that they cannot earn, expansion of government in practice means expansion of ends.
So it was with us, but worse, since our elites combined love of power with a noxious and wholly destructive ideology. The answer is not incremental changes; it is to defenestrate our entire ruling class and strip the Left permanently of its money and power, by almost any means necessary; then to rebuild a virtuous society that takes advantage of America’s unique history and place in the world, and what I believe is still a unique attitude among many of its people.
With a new ruling class organically arising from the most talented and dedicated, combined with a complete restructuring of education, the termination of any unearned benefit (especially one based on any immutable characteristic), the sharp restriction of the franchise to those with an actual stake in society, and other radical changes, we may have a chance. I have been saying for some time that history will return. 2020 is looking like the year; let’s take advantage of it, for as Lenin said, “Timing is all.”
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows the Woodstock concert poster, from 1969, by Arnold Skolnik.
Almost always one reads a book of future-looking political theory long before or long after its substance has been proven or disproven. It is quite another experience to observe theory offered just yesterday, as it morphs today into reality. So, it is with The Decadent Society, released in February, a month ago. It sharply identifies our problems, and speaks abstractly of possible futures for both America and the rest of the world, in which our problems are solved, or not.
But all changed futures require a mechanism of change, that in February we were lacking. Now, the Wuhan coronavirus, and, much more importantly, its knock-on effects, have delivered a possible mechanism, and a changed future rises in the shadows. History has, perhaps, returned.
That’s not to say this book is very good. It’s not. I mean, it’s not bad, and the author, Ross Douthat, a prominent conservative, is an excellent writer, but he says nothing that I and many others have not been saying for years; and he is trapped within the rusty confines of High Conservatism, itself decadent under his own definition.
Moreover, iron bars may not make a cage (as the Cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace, a distant collateral ancestor of mine, said). But being the only conservative employee of the New York Times, whether Douthat admits it to himself or not, makes for house arrest, where the author makes sure his thought stays within a narrow band. Still, Douthat is a smart man, and his analysis is a starting place for bolder lines of thought.
Douthat uses Jacques Barzun’s classic definition of decadence, which is hard to boil down to a single sentence, but Douthat distills it to “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of prosperity and technological development.”
Decadence in Barzun’s definition is not eye-catching, dissolute behavior or massive inequality. In fact, decadent periods are often periods of considerable activity—just not original or useful activity. “Repetition is more the norm than innovation . . . intellectual life goes in circles.”
As Douthat notes, this definition, by emphasizing economics and observable repetition, allows some degree of quantification and precision, and largely takes out moral elements. That’s not to say that decadent periods don’t often show moral degeneracy; but in this view degeneracy is not the main marker of decadence, and is essentially ignored by Douthat (though, strangely, the cover image is one of gluttony).
To justify his diagnosis of degeneracy, Douthat identifies four symptoms: economic stagnation; human sterility; institutional sclerosis; and cultural repetition. Each of these gets a chapter, taking up half the book total, and then Douthat turns to what might change, and how we might escape decadence.
By “we” Douthat means Western civilization, primarily America and secondarily, Europe; although he nods occasionally to two Asian cultures now advanced because they have adopted elements of Western civilization, Japan and South Korea. As we’ll see, Douthat does a good job showing that “we” are decadent under Barzun’s definition, although it would be a more interesting (and much longer) book if he tied this analysis to other societies in history.
We can see no forward movement, no future, when our society is viewed with a clear eye. Trying to cover all the bases, Douthat looks high and low for a silver lining, arguing that perhaps living like this, eking out the ruin in a nation, isn’t really so bad. It’s better, he says, than submitting to violence and war for their own sake, in the manner of some pre-World War I thinkers. But as we will see, that is a false dichotomy, and it’s pretty clear Douthat thinks so too.
A key element is missing in Douthat’s analysis, however. He ignores how we got here. He doesn’t say it was inevitable; he does not claim there is a cycle in every human society. Instead, he treats the West’s descent to decadence as a passive event, something that somehow happened to us for unspecified, perhaps unknowable, reasons. He ignores the possibility that it was an active event, something that was done to us by specified people for specified reasons. Or, put another way: did we fall, or were we pushed? You won’t find Douthat addressing that question.
Douthat begins with 1969, the apogee of America. That apogee seemed, Douthat accurately points out, like a beginning, the foothills of the much greater mountains that America would soon conquer. It is obvious in retrospect that the rot was far advanced even then, but not surprising that escaped most people at the time. Douthat focuses on the landing of men on the Moon; this focus prefigures that Douthat’s solution for decadence is a renewed outward-looking vision, celebrating, as I have said, the works of Man under the eyes of God.
This is not a history of the space program, however. Douthat’s initial point is that very soon after 1969, we became resigned to the closing of all frontiers. He speaks of the search for “God and gold and glory,” making the interesting claim that the “ideology of exploration and discovery” in the modern, industrialized world offered “a new form of consolation to replace what faith and tribe and family and hierarchy had once supplied.”
In Douthat’s telling, it substituted for the impermanence of the modern world. I am not sure these things are properly contrasted; the great earlier ages of exploration and discovery combined the two very successfully, and most who sought the American frontier were very much about faith and family, and hierarchy too, if uncomfortable with distant overlords. And the space program itself was a perfect example of a hierarchy, one based on competence—just look at photos of astronauts or of Mission Control.
Douthat’s claim has a superficial appeal, but upon a little thought it’s obvious that accomplishing the new does not necessarily result in evanescence, and I suspect a close historical analysis would disprove Douthat’s claim entirely. Regardless, America did not seem decadent in 1969.
Next, we get four chapters on the four symptoms of decadence, beginning with economic stagnation, or more precisely, stagnation of real economic endeavor that actually adds value. Douthat adduces large businesses that turned out to be frauds or hollow shells, such as Theranos and Uber.
His point isn’t that all businesses are frauds; it’s that when a rich society can’t find legitimate and high-return places to invest wealth, the consequence is stagnation, the cessation of forward movement. It becomes “let’s-pretendism.”
The glossy pseudo-success of Silicon Valley today conceals a laundry list of massive defects and problems pointed out by other writers, from Robert Gordon (on the modern failure to truly innovate) to David Graeber (on jobs that are not real) to numerous writers on income stagnation in real terms for the masses and the decline in social mobility (Richard Reeves, and James Bloodworth). Douthat doesn’t claim there is one single driver of this stagnation. He cites analyses ranging from libertarians through Thomas Piketty (though it doesn’t lend confidence that he keeps citing the very lightweight Tyler Cowen, who for some reason many on the Right view as some kind of guru), and settles on some combination of aging populations, debt overhang, limits to further education, environmental limitations (making here one of his many required obeisance to the gospel of global warming), and, perhaps most of all, the failure of technological innovation.
He points out that, the internet aside, our world is not very different than the world of several decades ago, but that world was vastly different than the world of a few decades before it. This is partially cloaked by the modern ultra-high speed of communication, but that is not a real difference. Nor is there any sign whatsoever, as I am also very fond of pointing out, that any of the marvels we are promised are imminent are indeed actually imminent, from driverless cars to artificial intelligence to life extension. Far more likely that in thirty years nothing much will have changed.
Following is sterility, human sterility. Here Douthat summarizes what any realist knows—that our actual problem is underpopulation, not overpopulation. I covered this in great detail in my review of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet and will not repeat it here; Douthat does a competent job of summarizing the problem and linking it to his overall theme. He clearly points out all the bad things immediately resulting from an aging population, most of all a total lack of the dynamism that is the lifeblood of any society that is going anywhere. And by the end of the chapter, he nods in the direction of the truth—a society that is focused on nothing greater than maximizing individual choice will, given modern birth limiting options, always die, and die quickly.
He does not, however, advert to that this is an active choice, not something that passively happened to us, and the reader begins to sense that Douthat is either hiding or ignoring a key truth that explains his analysis—that we bought into, and allowed ourselves to be controlled by, a destructive ideology.
Next is sclerosis, in essence, the inability of our institutions, primarily our government, to do anything competently. We can all agree this is true, and it’s unnecessary to recount examples. But why is this? Again, Douthat treats it as something that just happened. Douthat ignores that increasing sclerosis is, over time, directly correlated with the expansion of the state demanded by leftist ideology, while at the same time non-governmental institutions have been deliberately reduced to almost complete irrelevance except as arms of the government or tools of leftist programs.
He says nothing about the administrative state, a creation and instrument of the Left. Worst of all, he makes claims that suggest he either has no idea what he is talking about or is bending over backward to protect the Left from its primary responsibility, such as making the bizarre claim, offering no examples because there are no possible examples, “[T]he conservative movement has become comfortable with judicial activism in reverse; with using judicial power aggressively on issues where conservative legislators have either been defeated or (more often) simply fear to tread.”
I wish that were true, but it’s not, even a little. And I have nearly as much contempt for the Republicans in Congress as for Democrats, but as we have seen this week in Nancy Pelosi holding hostage the “relief” bill for the Chinese coronavirus with a laundry list of unrelated leftist demands, and that the Left benefits from legislative sclerosis by its control of the judiciary and the administrative state, institutional sclerosis is a problem that could be largely solved by smashing the power of the Left. The reader begins to realize who the active agent of our decadence is—the modern Left, and its Enlightenment values of unlimited autonomic individualism and coerced equality.
Finally, we discuss cultural repetition. Douthat makes the point often made (he makes almost zero original points in this book, but he does not claim he is making original points), that the world of 2020 is basically indistinguishable from the world of 1990, but that any other thirty-year gap in modern American history shows massive changes, both visually and under the surface.
True enough, but he glosses over that our culture’s descent in the past fifty years is again directly correlated with the rise to total cultural dominance of the Left. From his Acela corridor perch, Douthat, a movie and television buff, can’t see this. (Oddly, he entirely ignores high culture, such as music and architecture, though of course those have also been destroyed by leftist ideology).
Douthat makes farcical statements, such as that among those pioneering “a richer and more daring approach to televised storytelling” is—Lena Dunham. He claims that Princess Leia using a blaster in Star Wars is the same thing as the men clad in female bodies who now dominate all action movies.
He tells us that five percent of the population is “homosexual or transgender”—which is false, and by including the mentally ill “transgender” he signals his burning of incense at the most recently erected progressive altar. He claims, with a straight face, that “the first season of Mad Men” is a “primary source,” apparently not realizing the entire series is slick leftist propaganda.
Winding up, Douthat points out that the culture war is mostly stalemated for the past few decades, since 1975 or so, hence we are repeating our past cultural battles. True enough, but what he fails to point out is that that stalemate has been a setting in amber of total victories by the Left, the only changes in which have been to add fresh victories for the Left.
So, yes, we do have cultural repetition—but that’s because we have calcified Left victories. The obvious answer, as with sclerosis, is that the Left is to blame, and if we destroy the Left, we increase our chances of being able to restore the future.
So, in these four chapters, Douthat proves, adequately enough, that our society is decadent. But it appears stable, or appeared so last month. Douthat next turns to why that is, when decadence is typically seen as leading to instability. He ascribes it to drugs, pornography, and the internet. Yes, political fighting appears vicious, but it is mostly playacting.
This is not the 1930s. Nobody is manning the barricades or fighting in the streets. The likely result, short and medium term, Douthat says, is a Huxley-ite soft despotism, where the government works to make us feel safe, and nobody even dreams, much less dares, great things. Think China without the annoying Chinese cultural attitudes and behaviors, like eating bats. Think, instead, James Poulos’s “pink police state,” a decayed world where the only thing that cannot be tolerated is intolerance, or rocking the boat for others’ desires, whatever those may be.
This is a reasonable vision. But again, Douthat bizarrely claims that this “coercion to freedom,” in Ryszard Legutko’s words, is some kind of organic modern happenstance, not a deliberate program of the Left. He never ascribes any malignity to the leftist program that has been so successful over the past hundred (really, two hundred) years, and wildly successful over the past sixty.
In Douthat’s Stockholm Syndrome-tinged vision, campus repression is merely something colleges “groped their way to . . . out of a kind of commercial necessity,” and campus speech rules are only “mildly repressive.” Right-wing engineers are “occasionally fired for wrongthink,” rather than every major business totally repressing all socially conservative speech. Western Europe’s violent punitive measures against any activity that challenges Left wholesale importation of alien invaders are neutrally “aimed at policing the tensions between natives and new arrivals.”
In Douthat’s fantasy, the pink police state affects everyone equally and in the same way, for both Left and Right are completely equal in the degree and types of censorship and persecution they suffer. This is ludicrous, and everyone paying attention knows it. Yet again—smash the Left, and you may not solve decadence, but life will get a lot better immediately, and there will be a lot more options for renewal.
But what is Douthat’s solution? It’s not the barbarians, given as an answer in C. P. Cavafy’s famous poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” where a decadent people are disappointed when the barbarians fail to show up to sack the city, for “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”
Douthat sees no force capable of “overthrowing the liberal order and inheriting the world.” Not Islam; it’s not coherent and it’s decaying on its own (more accurately, it’s been decaying for twelve hundred years). Not Russia; it’s a fake throwback to the Tsars. Not the illiberal democracies of Poland and Hungary; they are not a real alternative, and won’t be unless they remake themselves as “Christian monarchies” (hmmmm . . . .). Not the Chinese; they’re sterile, and going nowhere. Not populist movements in the developed world; they are “disturbances, not transformations.”
Yes, maybe “the right leader, the right crisis, the right combination of man and the moment [will lead] to actual regime change.” More likely, we’ll instead see global “convergence-in-decadence.”
What, then, are the alternatives? Well, there’s unexpected catastrophe, exacerbated by modern technologies. Douthat sets this to the side as unforeseeable, and I don’t think the Chinese coronavirus is such a catastrophe, although it highlights the possibility of such.
There’s economic collapse, leading to a real resurgence of 1930s-style political chaos. There’s global-warming making large sections of the globe uninhabitable. And there’s chaos resulting from all of these together, most of all the unchecked migration of those from the Third World into the rest of the world, leading to Europe becoming “neo-medieval” in order to resist this invasion, while America might resemble late Rome.
All this is rather a hodgepodge, though not inaccurate as far as it goes. Out of the listed problems, of course, you could construct many possible futures. We can generally, agree, though, that most of those futures are bad. I’m not sure they’re necessarily as bad as Douthat thinks—I could construct a future reached after widespread violence, in which the power of the Left, always fragile because based on unreality, is broken, and a competent, clean, outward-looking new society fashioned from the skeleton of the old. In fact, “neo-medieval” sounds pretty good to me. Maybe we should give that a try, not reject it out of hand.
Douthat, too, desires renaissance, the topic of his last chapter. Correctly, Douthat sees little possibility for internal renaissance in the West, without total or near-total collapse first. He does offer an intriguing idea, one I have touched on myself in the past—perhaps a new synthesis of Africa and Europe might lead to a new vibrant culture.
I’d like to think this is possible, but little suggests it is. Robert Cardinal Sarah, Douthat’s exemplar, is mostly a product of European culture, not African culture. No culture of world importance has ever come out of Africa, except perhaps Egypt, and that was four thousand years ago. But maybe that will change; no doubt even introspective Romans did not think it likely that illiterate, uncouth Franks in the dark forests of Gaul would create the greatest civilization the world has ever known.
Other than this, Douthat rejects that science alone will lead to a renaissance, even in the unlikely possibility that unprecedented scientific breakthroughs begin again. There is not going to be a Singularity, although it is possible that, say, Chinese scientists may create superhumans by genetic engineering and unleash the Eugenics Wars of Star Trek’s imagining.
He also rejects the modest post-liberal vision of authors such as Patrick Deneen, correctly recognizing that localism and subsidiarity, if effective in remaking parts of the world, will not be tolerated by their enemies, although he fails to correctly identify that their enemies are our current masters, the Left, and a Right post-liberal government, of unlimited means and limited ends, would likely coexist just fine with such communities, of the Benedict Option type or any other.
Douthat seems unable to contemplate such a realist-based, rightist post-liberal government; his limited vision only allows him to consider a nationalist-type state on the model of Israel, not one that wholly rejects the Enlightenment, which, after all, is the root of the decadence the Left has imposed on us over the past sixty years. He briefly analyzes a religious revival, but, as with catastrophe, drops it as impossible to predict.
And, ultimately, he concludes, rather unsatisfyingly but with some truth, that any renaissance will depend on “a lot of things happening at once”—though, as I do, he comes back again and again to Space as a backbone of any such renaissance. “I suspect that a truly globalized civilization cannot help tending toward decadence so long as it remains earthbound, so long as there is no hope of finding actual new worlds to leap toward, conquer, or explore.”
Let’s try something different. Let’s imagine another twentieth century, at the end of which did not lie today’s decadence, which, contra Douthat, was not in the least inevitable. Alternative history is both fascinating and largely pointless, but what if the West had, a hundred years after the French Revolution, somehow wholly rejected the pernicious Enlightenment vision of destructive ever-greater emancipation?
What if the Enlightenment had never reached its logical end, woke so-called liberal democracy that is really a dying quasi-totalitarianism? We might have lasted longer, and accomplished more. We might have been Venice writ large, expanding already beyond the Earth, firmly grounded in reality, not ideology, and lifting ourselves upward and outward.
That’s not what happened. And we can’t go back. But maybe we can go forward, not simply by magically refocusing on common outward-facing goals, as Douthat would have it, though that is surely needed, but by first cutting out and cauterizing the cancers at the heart of our civilization. The coronavirus has made most of the many asleep realize, at least a little bit, how badly off track we are, by slapping all of us in the face with reality.
Any recognition of reality undermines the power of the Left’s pernicious vision, which relies on a combination of iron exercise of power and the casting of a mass delusion. A little more reality, hard reality, and those who hold the levers of power are likely to be thrown down. We can hope.
And if so, the key is to rebuild on the foundations that made us successful earlier, not the destructive combination of the visions of John Stuart Mill and Maximilien Robespierre that has led us to where we are now. Through the fire, probably, but then onward to new lands.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” by Fritz von Uhde, undated.
Oh, but this is a fascinating book. Written in 1930 by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, it is one of those books that is occasionally mentioned, especially recently, but rarely actually read. 1930, in Spain, was the hinge of fate, and it has been nearly a hundred years since Ortega wrote. That means we can see where he was wrong, and where he was right, and what he wrote says to us today.
First, though, we have to hack our way through two misconceptions that both seem to attend any modern mention of The Revolt of the Masses. The first, simpler, misconception is that this is a book about class, about how Ortega favors the bourgeois, or the rich, over the working class, or at least that it is an analysis of their conflicts.
Given that class was a hot topic in 1930, this is a reasonable guess from the title, but it is totally wrong. This misconception cropped up repeatedly after Trump’s election, and, for example, the review by David Brooks in the New York Times of J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was titled “The Revolt of the Masses.” But Ortega was a political moderate, and seems to not have been exercised by questions of class at all. Rather, this is a book about human excellence, what it can accomplish, and how it can be destroyed.
The subtler, more pernicious, misconception is that Ortega’s call for excellence is a call for masses to defer to experts—supposedly, according to various chatterers, Ortega’s main point is that experts are ignored. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Ortega thinks all, or almost all, modern experts are the definition of mediocrity, and the masses deferring to them is like deferring to a mirror.
Instead, people should defer to a natural aristocracy, not of blood, but of focus and accomplishment. Those people are not experts, who are narrow, but are instead broad people of taste, judgment, and discipline. We will return to this misconception later, with specific recent examples, but now that we are past the reef, we can sail into the open ocean of Ortega’s thought.
So, if this is not a book about class, who are the “masses”? Ortega divides every society into “minorities,” a small set of people who are “specially qualified,” and the “masses,” everyone not specially qualified. The key question is who is average and who is not. A mass person feels as if he is “just like everybody,” that he is not particularly special, and not only does this not concern him, he celebrates the fact. (Thus, someone who examines his talents and concludes he is mediocre, and feels that is a problem, is not a mass man).
But this, of course, begs the question—what makes a person above average or, in Ortega’s term, “specially qualified”? They are those who make personal demands for excellence upon themselves, and live in that way. This makes them the minority, by definition. They may not fulfill those demands; it is the demand being made, that alone, which makes the person a minority. In contrast, mass men “demand nothing special of themselves, but […] to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection.”
The minority, the elite, are thus not coterminous with traditional aristocracy or a ruling class. Ortega acknowledges that in traditional social elites excellence is more likely to be found, but mere heredity does not make a person place demands on himself, so an aristocrat by blood can be a mass man just like a peasant or a steelworker—and a peasant or a steelworker can be a member of the minority.
The class of intellectuals, in particular, fancy themselves to be above the masses, but are often vulgar pseudo-intellectuals, swept along by lazy, commonplace thinking, and therefore mass men. Children of the excellent frequently ride on their parents’ accomplishments; they thereby become mass men themselves.
Ortega wants “nobility” to mean not nobility of blood, but to restore the meaning of “noble” as “well-known, that is, known by everyone, famous, he who has made himself known by excelling the anonymous mass.” Anyone can do this, from any walk of life, but few do, human nature being what it is.
Having gotten definitions out of the way, Ortega’s first substantive point is that in the past, the mass was content to exist in the background, ceding to the minority such higher-level societal functions as art, government and political judgment. No more. Now, the mass assert their right to dictate in all such areas, without having to demand from themselves, much less achieve, excellence.
In politics, this is “hyperdemocracy,” and Ortega thinks it a degradation. In other areas, such as philosophy (Ortega’s specialty), it means that readers (and, today, listeners and YouTube watchers), do so “with the view, not of learning from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head.”
It’s not that the mass man thinks he’s an expert. “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. . . . . The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.” Mediocrity rules, and does not care that it is mediocre.
All this is a new thing in our history, but not in world history. It can be found in the declining years of Rome, among other places. Ortega ascribes its modern growth, though, not to decline, but to liberal democracy, to the discovery of the abstract sovereignty of the individual.
He doesn’t dislike liberal democracy—quite the contrary, he thinks both that it’s great, and that it’s inevitable and broadly irreversible, as I discuss further below. But if the individual is sovereign, we should not be surprised if each man treats himself as if he is indeed sovereign.
None of this implies decadence—contra Spengler, Ortega thinks that relative to the nineteenth century, which viewed itself as a time of “plenitude” when the destination of society had been reached, the twentieth century, viewing the future as open-ended and in flux, is in many ways superior. (At this point, you have to remember, it’s 1930; look around you at the world of 2018, as well as the past hundred years, then chuckle grimly and draw your own conclusions).
But the twentieth century takes it too far, because the mass men dominate, and they have “lost all respect, all consideration for the past.” Thus, the mass men both see the future as open, but assured, and themselves as perfect and satisfied. That’s a dangerous combination, for it leads to a world “empty of purposes, anticipations, ideals.”
It was those things the minority supplied, and it was those things that drove the world forward. Now, with the triumph of the masses, nobody supplies those things. So the twentieth century is an apogee—but the nature of apogees is there is nowhere to go but down.
Thus, the nineteenth-century, for all its accomplishments, also gave us the rise of the mass man, and the mass man will, unless his rise is constrained, within thirty years, “send our continent back to barbarism.” (This is a book quite explicitly about Europe. America is treated as close to a non-entity, with thinly veiled contempt. And Europe is defined as France, Germany, and England—it does not, for these purposes, really even include Spain).
The mass man, for example, feels that he himself is qualified to decide, and should decide, political matters, rather than his vote “supporting the decision of one minority or another.”
That will lead to the disappearance of liberal democracy, which Ortega regards as man’s highest political achievement (“legislative technique”), but it will also lead to the end of “industrial technique,” since the pursuit of technical excellence by minorities drives industry forward, just like other pursuit of excellence drives political organization forward.
It is this latter “industrial technique,” this combination of “scientific experiment and industrialism,” that Ortega names “technism.” Technism has allowed the mass man to escape the feeling that dominated all prior societies, that of material scarcity and restrictions. At the same time, liberal democracy makes the mass man believe that he is master of his psychic and political destiny.
Thus, the mass man feels in his bones that life is now “exempt from restrictions” on every level. That is to say, in modern parlance, he is emancipated. “The world which surrounds the new man from his birth does not compel him to limit himself in any fashion, it sets up no veto in opposition to him; on the contrary, it incites his appetite, which in principle can increase indefinitely.”
Ortega’s objection is not that appetites increasing is bad; he did not foresee the logical endpoint of total emancipation, which is total autonomy combined with total tyranny and a denial of basic reality. Instead, his objection is that the mass man fails to appreciate that all this, that benefits him, was created with great toil by the excellence of minorities; he thinks it manna from heaven.
What characterizes the mass man is inertia—the opposite of the ceaseless, self-generated search for excellence that characterizes the truly noble. And this failure to understand the sources of the bounty that blesses him, his “radical ingratitude,” combined with the new dominance of the mass man over society, means it will all disappear, and barbarism will return, as excellence flees.
For Ortega, such barbarism isn’t of the type that, looking backward, the twentieth century actually delivered. Rather, “barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.” That seems like not a fatal problem, but it is. No standards, no progress, only regress. Certainly, mass men are the creators of such tripe as Syndicalism, Fascism (explicitly in the Mussolini sense) and, Communism (“a monotonous repetition of the eternal revolution,” oblivious to history, like all these movements).
They are created by “the type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the ‘reason of unreason.’ . . . Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words. . . .” (Ortega would not have enjoyed spending time on Facebook, much less Twitter).
When mass men of politics say they are “done with discussions,” this is what they mean. It implies also that “direct action,” that is, violence, becomes not the ultima ratio, the final argument when all others are through, but the prima ratio, the first argument. This is always true, “at every epoch when the mass, for one purpose or another, has taken a part in public life.”
In all areas, what is recognized by the excellent, the minorities, in all times as “civilized,” from literature, to sexual relations, to art, to manners, to justice, decays. It is those standards for those things that make “the community, common life” possible. Result of their end: barbarism, if we don’t change course.
We can certainly see this degradation of all standards today, to a degree that makes Ortega’s prescience startling (although he was far off the mark on one matter, which I talk about last). Not only is the mass man as Ortega defines him far more dominant, over the whole Western world, than in Ortega’s time, but we see the barbarism Ortega identifies has long since arrived. Certainly almost nobody demands excellence in any field; instead, the mass men who rule demand such rubbish as “diversity and inclusion,” the wholesale granting of unearned benefits on the basis of (preferred) immutable characteristics.
The very idea that there is such a thing as excellence is denied as a matter of course. Similarly with the political processes Ortega identifies. We hear all the time, mostly from the Left but also from the Right, that the time for discussion is over, and the time for action is here, by which the speaker means “conform to my unreasoned and emotion-driven demands or be crushed.” (Such language is all over the latest push to confiscate firearms, for example, along with other forms of knuckle-dragging political behavior that would have horrified Ortega, with his focus on high rationality and political liberty).
And, more broadly, what characterizes everything in the West is a call for total autonomy implemented, if necessary, by government tyranny, and a rejection of any standards as an offense against emancipation.
Ortega believed that as long as the minority of the excellent dominates, progress is inevitable. And the reverse is also true. Therefore, Ortega would, perhaps, not be surprised by the situation today. Moreover, since barbarism has arrived in the form of the domination of mass men, it is natural that a portion of those mass men hold themselves out as the minority, as the elites.
But, of course, they are merely the rulers—they do not actually demand of themselves any pursuit of excellence at all. The names of categories are maintained, in art, politics, and culture, but they are hollow, for the standards are set by mass men clothed in false skins. So, it is entirely possible, if standards have decayed and barbarism returned, for there to be nobody at all to whom the masses can turn for guidance. The polestar may simply have winked out, to, perhaps, be restored at a time to be announced, when the world is remade.
Thus, The Revolt of the Masses feels surprisingly fresh, given not only its age but all the water that has passed under the bridge since it was written. Yes, Ortega does display a simplistic, if touching, faith, in liberal democracy, which has since his time shown its deficiency.
The Europe of 1930 is the triumph of “liberal democracy and technical knowledge,” shown by, among other things, a tripling of the population of Europe. (Ortega is wrong here, of course—there is no necessary, or actual historical, linkage of liberal democracy with the rise of technical knowledge or its impacts in the Industrial Revolution).
He concludes that “liberal democracy based on technical knowledge is the highest type of public life hitherto known,” and though it might be possible to imagine a better, anything better must continue to embody both liberal democracy and technical knowledge, and that it would be “suicidal” to return to any pre-nineteenth-century form. It is the “truth of destiny.”
That was a supportable argument, maybe, in 1930, but not now. True, the term no longer means what it meant for Ortega. For him, it meant political liberty, “consideration for one’s neighbor,” “indirect action” (i.e., a rejection of violence), and, explicitly, universal suffrage where the mass of voters chose among programs offered by their betters.
Today, it means, as Ryszard Legutko says, “coercion to freedom,” where no political liberty is offered to those opposed to unbridled autonomy, and democracy means only being allowed to vote for what today’s elites, who are not Ortega’s minority, allow.
Ortega thought liberal democracy “announces the determination to share existence with the enemy.” Those who today howl “I can tolerate anything but intolerance” can have nothing in common with this sentiment. So perhaps we can say that Ortega may have been right, but liberal democracy as he used the term is dead, a casualty of the barbarism he feared, replaced by its zombie equivalent (although probably such zombification was inevitable, in the nature of liberal democracy, as several recent writers have claimed).
As I promised, let’s turn back to the second misconception about Ortega’s thoughts, regarding “experts.” In the past few years, there have been minor outbreaks of renewed interest in Ortega’s thoughts, always facile. For example, in the Atlantic, a colloquy recently appeared between a staff writer and a reader, where the statement was endorsed by both, that Ortega “describes a movement that appeals to a cross-section of non-intellectual people across class lines that seems to parallel Donald Trump’s cross-cultural appeal. There it seemed to lead to Fascism.” Ortega would have a conniption.
His objection is not that the mass man fails to be intellectual; it is that the mass man does not pursue excellence. For the most part, Ortega loathes modern intellectuals as the very worst type of mass man. Nor does he make any suggestion at all that mass men lead to Fascism; rather, he says that the domination of mass men leads to regression in political organization, one possible end of which is Fascism.
The Atlantic colloquy continues, with such gems as “[T]he digital age seems to have trouble accepting ‘elite’ consensus regarding complex topics such as climate change (and gun control, evolution and tax policy, among many other subjects where the vast majority of scientists, economists, etc., accept certain basic facts that are rejected by large swaths of the public).”
Ortega did not care about what scientists and economists had to say. At all. He would call them ignoramuses, narrow men whose narrow learning did not qualify them to say anything at all to society at large, especially about topics not subject to rigid calculation. His “elites” were men of excellence and broad learning, not sophists and calculators.
To Ortega, “special qualifications” are not those of experts. Our experts are scientists and similar types who are narrow and ignorant outside of a tiny area, yet presume to think otherwise. His leaders, to whom the mass should defer, are men of great mind, not technicians. They are aristocrats.
In fact, Ortega despises the “ ‘man of science,’ the high-point of European humanity,” as being actually “the prototype of the mass man.” This is because the days of scientific discoveries by generalists, like Newton, are over, and the days of narrow specialization by each scientist are here. Science itself is not specialized, and in fact must be informed by areas outside science—but scientific work, today, must be specialized.
The days of encyclopedic minds are gone, and what we have are specialists, each only knowledgeable in “the small corner of which he is an active investigator.” Given this hyper-specialization, men who are overall mediocre, rather than excellent, can actually keep science advancing (this is today called the “Ortega Hypothesis”), because “a fair amount of the things that have to be done in physics or biology is mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone, or almost anyone.”
But such men think they are excellent, even though each “knows very well his own tiny corner of the universe; [but] he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” He is a “learned ignoramus,” which is bad enough, but worse is in store, for “By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty. The result is . . . that he will behave in almost all spheres of life as does the unqualified, the mass-man.”
This is what we see, most of the time, when people demand that the public listen to “experts”—that we listen to specialists in one area who are thereby presumed to be competent to lecture us in areas either only loosely related, or, more often, wholly unrelated.
The names are endless, but include everyone from Bill Nye to Stephen Hawking. It is these specialists, Ortega says, who exist in a state of “ ‘not-listening,’ of not submitting to higher courts of appeal,” a characteristic of the mass man. That is, the experts we are told today we must listen to are, for Ortega, the archetypal mass men, whom we should ignore, and to whom we listen to at our peril.
Finally, Ortega veers off the mark in his last chapter, which covers a third of the book. Here, he extols the need for a European superstate. This chapter has various insights, including that force follows public opinion, and that if Europe does not rule the world, it is not clear that anyone will or can, leading inevitably to “universal barbarism.”
His analysis of nationalism is interesting (“In defending the nation we are defending our tomorrows, not our yesterdays”), but his idea that all states proceed to fusion of social classes (which seems in contradiction to the rest of his book) is demonstrably false. The biggest problem, though, is that he extends this idea of fusion, or consolidation, to extend beyond the nations of Europe, to a true fusion of Europe.
We have seen the zenith of this idea in our lifetimes, and it was not a very high zenith. It has been falsified that “The more faithful the national State of the West remains to its genuine inspiration, the more surely will it perfect itself in a gigantic continental state.” Nor is it true that “Only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent [will] give new life to the pulses of Europe.”
Quite the contrary, in fact, as we have seen. The so-called great nation is about to be no nation at all, as all can clearly see. It is not the failure of prediction that bothers me, but that the reasoning and analysis on which it is based, which is conclusory and fantastical, is far inferior to that in the rest of the book.
Despite the last chapter’s failings, this book is very much worth reading and pondering. (I read it because my mother asked me to, on the grounds that she would likely never get around to it herself, and I would do her a service by reviewing it). It does not offer a program to fix the problems identified—that is something we will have to come up with for ourselves.
I don’t know if Ortega had anything to say about that in his other writings. My guess is that he would not be surprised by Europe’s terminal decline, or by that America was able to extend his thirty-year deadline for the West by a few decades, yet is now in the same leaky boat of the Europe of 1930, but with more holes and more fat people in the boat.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “De landverhuizers” (the Emigrants), by Eugène Laermans, painted in 1894.
I often say that the Crusades were a high point of Western civilization. And they were, but they were also an example of flawed glory. Certainly, the goal of the Crusades was peerlessly laudable, and the virtues shown by Crusaders admirable.
At the same time, the Holy Land Crusades illustrated key weaknesses of the West, and, after all, if nothing succeeds likes success, nothing fails like failure. In Roger Crowley’s The Accursed Tower all of this is on display, though Christian valor is probably the dominant theme, as it should be. In a sane society, the events of this book would be used for a blockbuster movie featuring the Christians as doomed heroes. Not in today’s society, to be sure, but maybe in tomorrow’s.
The book’s focus is the final years of the Crusader States, which were founded after the epic success of the First Crusade in reconquering Muslim-occupied Palestine in A.D. 1099, and are generally deemed to have ended with the fall of the ancient city of Acre to the Mamluk sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291.
The Crusader States had been in decline since Saladin’s victory at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, and what intermittent respite the Crusaders had gotten from Muslim pressure came from Muslim disunity, not Crusader gains. Then as now, Muslim discord was the norm (Frederick II took advantage of it to regain Jerusalem by treaty in 1228; it was lost again in 1244).
But off and on, due to religious fervor or political consolidation, which usually went hand-in-hand, pressure on the Christians spiked, so the writing had long been on the wall. In the end, it was simple: the Muslims were both rich and close to Outremer, effectively surrounding it, while at this time the West was relatively poorer and farther away.
The book’s title comes from one of the towers defending Acre, a sea port defended on its landward side by extensive fortifications, including a double wall and numerous barbicans and towers. (It mostly could not be approached from its seaward side, and its harbor was protected by the chain formerly guarding the Golden Horn in Constantinople, stolen by the Crusaders sacking Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, in 1204).
As Crowley notes, much of the precise layout of both the city and its fortifications can only be conjectured at this point, but all agree that the Accursed Tower (a name of uncertain origin) lay at the crucial bend in the walls, and thus was the key pressure point during the Muslim siege. Acre had belonged to the Crusaders since it was retaken from the Muslims in 1104 (who had taken it from the Eastern Romans in the late seventh century), except for a two-year period after Saladin conquered it in 1187—it was retaken in a brutal siege in 1189, part of the Third Crusade.
But the Third Crusade failed to free Jerusalem from its occupiers, and the Crusader States for the next one hundred years were sadly diminished, consisting of a string of principalities and fortresses, the latter typically operated by the military religious orders, most famously the Hospitaller citadel at Krak des Chevaliers, north of Acre, near Tripoli (the Outremer Tripoli, not the one in North Africa).
Acre became de facto the center of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, the south end of the Crusader States, both for trade and war, thus becoming a very wealthy and cosmopolitan city. It was also, in the way of rich port cities at the crossroads of civilizations, a pit of vice, although no doubt this was somewhat exaggerated by pious Western churchmen shocked upon their first arrival. And like most of the Crusader States, Acre debilitatingly lacked coherent political leadership.
The King of Jerusalem was an absentee landlord and the strongest power was the Pope’s representative, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (who lived in Acre, not Jerusalem), but other powers, including the Templars and Hospitallers, were nearly independent.
Acre’s existence as a Christian stronghold throughout the century was therefore tenuous, but daily life not all that different from a hundred years before, or from any other Mediterranean port. Muslim and Christian merchants struck deals; the Genoese and Venetians traded with everyone, including the enemy, and fought each other; everybody got along in some years and not in others.
The Christians talked about retaking Jerusalem and did nothing, but on the other side, chronic Muslim civil war, and the threat of the Mongols, kept the Muslims from concentrating on permanently dislodging the Crusaders. And, often as not, the trade brokered by the Christians was of great benefit to Muslim rulers, reducing their incentive to do more than issue vague endorsements of jihad and in practice to curb Muslim fanatics eager to fulfill the Prophet’s commands for ceaseless war against the infidel. All in all, no doubt daily life was fairly pleasant for most people, contrary to the myth of medieval suffering.
The first half of the book is a lively narration of the thirteenth century in Outremer. Crowley covers the mid-century Seventh Crusade, where Louis IX’s armies came to grief in Egypt. He covers the Mamluk defeat in 1260 of the Mongols at Ain Jalut, Goliath’s Spring, neither hindered nor helped by the Crusaders, who at least gave the Muslims safe passage to the battlefield.
He narrates the takeover of Egyptian power by the military slave Mamluks from their Ayyubid overlords, and their welding into a disciplined conquering force under the sultan Baybars, the “Lion of Egypt,” a puritanical Muslim like so many successful conquerors. (As Crowley notes, because the Christians of Damascus had dared to drink wine and ring bells when the Mongols were admitted to Damascus, Baybars collectively punished Christians by, among other crimes, destroying “the hugely significant church of St. Mary in Nazareth, the supposed site of the Annunciation”).
Most relevantly for the current narrative, Baybars systematically increased pressure on the Crusader States, killing peasants in the fields and intermittently besieging and conquering towns and cities. These included the southern towns of Caesarea, Arsuf, and Jaffa, and the critical northern city of Antioch.
He made life difficult for Christians, who were incapable of mounting a unified response, and lacked the military manpower to do much more than man their fortresses and battlements. And he didn’t care much that the Christians provided economic benefits to his realm; jihad was far more important, and this was what sealed the fate of the Crusader States.
The Christians in Europe were well aware of what was going on, but as so often, mustered only a feeble response accompanied by a great deal of hot air. Henry III’s son, Edward Longshanks (later Edward I, made famous several years back by the movie Braveheart), along with Louis IX, led the Ninth Crusade.
Edward landed in Acre with his knights in 1271 (shortly after Baybars finally managed to capture Krak des Chevaliers), and won some major victories over Baybars, but soon enough departed (though he left behind several men who were critical to the final defense of Acre), changing nothing.
The second half of the book narrows the focus to the Fall of Acre. In 1280, Baybars died (probably poisoned), to be succeeded as sultan (after the usual civil war) by another Mamluk general, Qalawun, who continued what Baybars had accomplished, following much the same religious and political policies. He prepared to attack Acre, but died in 1290, to be succeeded by Khalil, who again continued his predecessors’ program. Men and material, called to jihad with its dual rewards of paradise and booty, swarmed to Khalil from every direction, and he began the siege in April, 1291.
Unlike towns earlier conquered by the Muslims, however, Acre was very strongly defended (though, due to internal conflict, the defenders had not beefed up the defenses adequately before the siege) and had a full garrison, of infantry, mounted knights, and such ancillary critical personnel as Pisan siege engineers.
It could be re-supplied from the sea (the Mamluks never had any navy to speak of) and thus had to be taken by force, not by starving out the defenders. On the debit side of the balance sheet, though, the defenders had unclear military command, and failed to coordinate properly, a problem the Sultan did not face. The man effectively in overall charge was the Patriarch, Nicolas de Hanapes (the only canonized Crusader), but his hold was persuasive, not dictatorial. And, the biggest problem of all, Khalil had functionally infinite resources with high morale and strong incentives, so the result was largely inevitable.
Crowley does an outstanding job of narrating the siege and the Fall. Attacks and counterattacks; siege machines; mining; sorties by land and sea. He uses fascinating stories from contemporary sources, both Muslim and Christian, most interestingly from the “Templar of Tyre,” an anonymous Arabic-speaking knight who was probably not a Templar but was included within the councils of the Templars.
On both sides, the heroism often found in such battles, ancient and modern, was on display—the men from the book Red Platoon, fighting in twenty-first-century Afghanistan, would fit right in here, and the men fighting in Acre would fit in there. Over several weeks, the Muslims wore the Christians down; not enough men arrived to replenish losses, and the Christians grew short of ammunition.
By mid-May, the battle was nearing its end. On May 18, after bombardment and mining broke in the walls, Khalil’s troops, coming in endless waves of heavily armored, highly disciplined men, overcame Christian resistance at the Accursed Tower, and thereby entered the space between the double walls, which allowed them to spread out to attack the gates. Last-ditch resistance of the city itself was organized by the Marshal of the Hospitallers, Matthieu de Clermont, who is depicted on the cover of the book in a nineteenth-century French painting (note the double walls).
Clermont and his men rode out and died in the streets, and the Muslims then slaughtered and raped their way through the city, killing or enslaving everyone not able to get away by ship. (Such behavior was the norm in medieval warfare, of course, but is always talked about nowadays as if it was only something Christians did, so it is refreshing to see historical honesty).
A few of the internal citadels, such as the Templar’s castle, held out for a while, but were soon ground down and the same treatment meted out to the survivors. Khalil then demolished much of the city, though its skeleton was a landmark for passing ships for centuries.
So ended the Holy Land Crusades, mostly forgotten in the East until resurrected as part of resistance to colonialism in the nineteenth century, and remembered mostly only in distorted fashion in the West, a propaganda tool for Protestants and atheists up to the present day.
But today I am less focused on politics; today is mostly straight history. One reason I very much enjoyed this book is that I have long had a fascination with medieval weaponry and siege equipment, and Crowley also appears entranced by siege weaponry, especially catapults and trebuchets, about which he talks a great deal.
Why I have such an interest, I have no idea, but it has always been true. I had castle-building Lego analogues as a child, with which I played endlessly. I had toy soldiers, knights in armor, one of which now stands by me as I write, wielding a morning star (a real, if rare, weapon, despite occasional modern claims to the contrary).
I know from reading Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron at the age of five what a glaive-guisarme is (a weapon consisting of a blade on a wooden pole, used to slash and stab, with a hook on the other side, used in the novel in the climactic duel by the underdog). Perhaps my personal interests made this book more gripping to me than it would be to others, however, so if this type of thing bores you, maybe this book is not for you.
Accuracy is key for Crowley, to the extent that a narrative of any ancient event can be made fully accurate. Unlike many modern writers, he does not ascribe to Muslims inventions they did not make. He notes that the Chinese invented most of the catapult-type siege weapons used by Khalil, including the traction trebuchet, which the Byzantines had also used.
The more powerful counterweight trebuchet, a vital weapon in Khalil’s arsenal, able to topple stonework like the Accursed Tower, was probably invented by the Byzantines, though the record is unclear. (With both stonethrowers and, later, gunpowder, the Europeans took the basic idea that had existed for hundreds of years with incremental improvements, and proceeded to reinvent and massively improve the technology within a few decades.
No doubt that is why many of Khalil’s catapults were ifrangi, “Frankish catapults”). The only error that Crowley does make is to claim, repeatedly, that the Mamluks used Greek Fire, by giving that name to all incendiaries, not actual Greek Fire, a liquid that burned on water and was dispensed under pressure, the secret of which was probably lost by this time even to the Byzantines. But that’s a pretty small and common error, that does not detract from the book.
Crowley wrote an even better earlier book, Empires of the Sea, which centers on the 1565 Siege of Malta, where the Christians won. I have been to Malta, and there is no experience like standing where such an epic battle took place, seeing in your mind’s eye what it must have been like. That’s not really possible in Acre, anymore, but reading this book nearly puts you there.
Strangely, Crowley mentions modern Acre quite a bit, but never once mentions that it is in Israel, and most of its modern population is Jewish. Which goes to show that times change, I suppose. I won’t predict the future for Acre, but looking backward allows the reader to grasp, in outline, the life and death of the Crusades.
The Fall of Acre is in many ways a microcosm of that age of action, showing both the good and the bad: heroic men performing acts of glory, and bad men betraying each other and indulging in vice. Often it was the same men. These are the sorts of stories we should tell our children, and, as I say, make movies about. One can hope.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows, “The Siege of Acre,” by Dominique Papety, painted ca. 1840.
We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons.
Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.
Milosz, a world-famous poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, revolves most of his core analysis around the motivations of artists, usually artists of the word, presumably because that was his own milieu during World War II and afterwards. He was living in Warsaw, working in radio and writing well-received poems, participating in the active cultural life of the time, but not in politics to any significant degree (he seems throughout his life to have been neither Left nor Right, though tilting slightly left), when the Germans and the Russians invaded.
It was the Germans who occupied Warsaw, and Milosz survived the war there, living largely underground and participating in mild subversive activities such as writing for forbidden newspapers, although he did not join the Home Army or fight in the Warsaw Uprising. But he saw firsthand all the horrors of the German occupation, and of the Uprising, and he returns to them again and again in this book, even though its main focus is the so-called people’s democracies of the immediate postwar period.
During that time, Milosz worked as a cultural attaché for the new Polish government put into power by the Russians. He never joined the Party, but was able to maintain this position because the Communists loved to tout their association with artists, and the Polish government, like the other countries captured by Stalin, had a few years in which it could pretend to not be fully under Stalin’s thumb.
But by 1951, Milosz had had enough of Communism, and fled for Paris, then the United States, where he lived until 2000, when he moved home to Poland, dying in 2004.
This book is best read not as an attempt to precisely clarify and classify the natures of those who cooperated with and advanced Communism, but as a set of insights gained from people Milosz knew as they interacted with history. (It is also profitably read in combination with Mark Lilla’s very good The Reckless Mind, which nods to this book while expanding its analysis). The Captive Mind focuses on intellectuals, specifically poets and other writers, because they were whom Milosz knew most intimately.
His book says nothing about other collaborators, such as those strictly out for personal gain, and it also says nothing about the working class, which is ignored as irrelevant, as indeed it always was under Communism.
Instead, the book shows how mental gymnastics, rather than coercion, caused writers under Communism to adhere to Communism. Thereby, indirectly, it congratulates writers who believe their minds free from such, or other, contortions. It is perhaps no wonder, therefore, that this book was popular among Western writers of all political stripes.
Milosz begins with a fable, taken from a Polish science fiction novel, about how a new Sino-Mongol Empire conquers Poland and, instead of terrorizing the bitter and unhappy population, satisfies them with “the pill of Murti-Bing,” which ensures that each person is internally happy no matter his external circumstance.
The pill makes reality, no matter how bad, bearable, even joyous. In the novel, this leads to general social satisfaction, except for some, who develop schizophrenia, unable to reconcile their inner character, their creative spark, with the false art that their chemically altered brains produce. Milosz says that under Communist domination this vision “is being fulfilled in the minutest detail.” (Presumably the schizophrenics are those who, like Milosz, ultimately reject Communism entirely).
The West incorrectly sees “might and coercion” as the reasons those in Eastern Europe submit to Communism. But, rather, unwilling to face either physical or spiritual death, many choose instead to be “reborn” through taking these metaphorical pills, because “[t]here is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction.”
Intellectuals, and artists especially, do not want to be “internal exiles, irreconcilable, non-participating, eroded by hatred.” So they swallow the pills and adopt the “New Faith” (a term Milosz uses throughout the book) which offers the intellectual the certainty he is both correct and virtuous, and therefore gives him a sense of belonging, gives him a feeling of being “warm-hearted and good . . . a friend of mankind—not mankind as it is, but as it should be.”
The metaphor of Murti-Bing, forgotten for a few decades, is remembered today. Murti-Bing’s explanatory power for the behavior of modern intellectuals under modern ideological tyrannies seems universally applicable.
It has been recently cogently used, for example, to explain how very many in the intellectual class of Americans, and Europeans, have accepted and embraced the totalitarian agenda aptly and accurately known as globohomo, a toxic mutating stew of neoliberal globalist corporatism and moral degeneracy, the reward for consuming which is being forced to consume more. (I am curious if Murti-Bing also explains the behavior of twenty-first-century Chinese artists, about whom I know little or nothing, although I suppose today the Chinese tyranny is less ideological and more nationalist).
After an interesting chapter on how intellectuals in the new people’s democracies view America, Milosz returns to another concept for which he is remembered, that of Ketman. This is, we are told, a pleasurable psychological state obtained when one deceives those in power about one’s true motives and beliefs, while nonetheless strictly obeying the orders of those in power.
It is described as extremely prevalent in nineteenth-century Islam, where heretical believers practiced Ketman. As a historical matter, I don’t know how true this is (Milosz ascribes knowledge of it to Arthur Gobineau, inventor of “scientific racism,” which does not lend confidence); it may just be a description of the Shiite practice oftaqiyya. But that doesn’t matter for the metaphor.
In essence, one practicing Ketman is, to an outside observer, compliant with his rulers, yet he generally hopes for different, but similar, ends. Milosz describes several types of Ketman and suggests there are others, many and varied. For example, those practicing “national Ketman” praise Russia even though they have contempt for it; they still love Communism, though, just think it better done through their own nation.
Those practicing “aesthetic Ketman” create lifeless socialist realist art on command, because otherwise they would be left with nothing, no property and no position in society, yet in private use their position to surround themselves with real art. Those practicing the “Ketman of revolutionary purity” believe that Stalin betrayed the Revolution, yet only through him can the Revolution now be realized, so they must do as he says.
In all cases, the basic point is the same—Ketman is a form of doublethink, in which people tow the Communist line, making no waves and rocking no boats, and trying to avoid reifying the contradictions. The man practicing Ketman suffers, yet he would suffer more if Communism disappeared, since he defines himself in this way. “Internal revolt is sometimes essential to spiritual health, and can create a particular form of happiness. . . . Ketman brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.”
On the surface, Ketman seems similar to Ernst Jünger’s concepts of the forest rebel and the anarch, someone who keeps his mind free from the rulers while largely adhering to their commands. But, in fact, the concepts are very different, for Ketman is a form of self-delusion, something that Jünger absolutely forbids.
Ketman instead sinks deep into the soul of the practitioner, making, for example, the men Milosz profiles later in the book convinced that they freely chose to adhere to Communism. They become unable to say who is their true self. Ultimately, Ketman is a poison.
What ties Murti-Bing and Ketman together is that those under the power of either are not truly unhappy or oppressed, at least subjectively. Moreover, both seem to be confined largely to intellectuals, those who care both about ideas and their position in society.
Rod Dreher, for example, has pointed out how common both are among today’s so-called conservative writers; the entire staff of National Review, to the extent it is actually conservative, is probably practicing Ketman and washing down Murti-Bing pills with vodka, in between grifting money out of elderly donors, the whole staff pretty happy on balance.
It’s not just conservative intellectuals, though. Intellectuals on the Left, faced with the dominance of globohomo, may think the frenzy for conformity to insane ideas like identity politics, intersectionality, gender fluidity and the like has gone too far, and damages their core concerns, such as those about economic inequality.
They join the chorus, yet still hope that the stupidity will burn itself out and allow their goals to again surface, meanwhile getting a frisson of pleasure from the camaraderie of joining the latest Two-Minute Hate against some Christian pizza parlor.
On the other hand, a social conservative working at a big corporation, crushed by woke capitalism and forced to wear a “Pride” pin to show his “allyship” on pain of losing his job, is just oppressed and unhappy. Since he has no ideological goal himself, he cannot practice Ketman, and he does not want to be a friend of abstract mankind, merely provide for his family and to lead a decent life, so the pills of Murti-Bing also have no effect on him.
Milosz then profiles, under pseudonyms, four men well known to him who bowed to Communism, analyzing why in each case. (He ignores those who, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, did not bow). Alpha, the Moralist. Beta, the Disappointed Lover. Gamma, the Slave of History. Delta, the Troubadour. Who these men were is easy to determine.
Originally, I thought that of no importance, and anyway I can’t pronounce Polish names, so I figured I’d go with the pseudonyms entirely. But it turns out that to some degree who they were, and their later history, matter, and Alpha is the best example of this.
Alpha was Jerzy Andrzejewski, a prose writer. In Milosz’s telling, he had a “tragic sense of the world,” drawn to Joseph Conrad’s novels, with their moral conflicts and dense storytelling. Before the war, he received laudation for short stories that featured archetypical characters, black-and-white, with a Catholic focus.
He, however, realized that he did not really deserve the laudation, since his stories were simplistic morality tales, lacking nuance—yet he was eager to be regarded as the best writer in Poland. During the war, as their friends disappeared, often shot by the Germans, Alpha became regarded as a moral authority within the Warsaw community of writers, among other things speaking out against the slaughter of the Jews, and he and Milosz lived through the Uprising together, something Milosz spends some time describing. Alpha’s morality was not that of Christ, despite his putative Catholicism, but rather a belief in a largely abstracted loyalty, generically to the Polish people.
After the Uprising, he rejected his old belief in loyalty, seeing it led to nothing but death, instead coming to believe that History had an arc and that social goals should be the focus. His new morality fit well with the new Communist regime, eager to have artists under its wing to “bridge the gap” between the tiny number of Communists in Poland and the rest of the population—and Alpha was well known for his devotion to Poland.
The Communists gave him a new moral frame, and praised him to the skies, and he published an excellent novel, though one, again, with archetypical characters divorced from real human experience, and established himself, as he desired, as a writer of the first rank.Within a few years, however, as the Communist Party tightened its grip, Alpha, like all other artists, was required to make a choice—join the Party and create tightly defined social realist art, or be cast into the outer darkness.
Alpha, without hesitation, joined the New Faith. He became a Soviet propagandist, referred to by his old friends as “the respectable prostitute.” He still had a moral frame; it was merely different. Milosz is dispassionate about this apparent end. “It is not my place to judge. I myself traveled the same road of seeming inevitability.”
Alpha is clearly drawn. But he is incomplete, because Andrzejewski stepped off the path that he was on in 1951. In 1956 he quit the party, and in the 1970s and 1980s he was a strong supporter of anti-Communist movements, dying in 1983. So, in the end, he partially redeemed himself. What this says about Milosz’s thesis we will consider later.
Next is Beta, in real life a man named Tadeusz Borowski. He was another writer, a young man with nihilist tendencies. Arrested by the Germans, he survived two years in Auschwitz, then Dachau. After the war, he wrote a book in which he celebrated his cleverness at surviving by working the system and being an accessory to various evils in the camps.
In Milosz’s analysis, Beta is not amoral; instead, he has a disappointed love of the world and of humanity. He is unable to see any nobility in humanity, even when in front of his eyes, as it was at times in the camps. Rather, he became full of hatred, and the Communists, again collecting artists, convinced him to use that hatred in their service, by convincing him the eschaton was upon us, earthly salvation from the evils Beta saw everywhere.
The price was that he could only write socialist realism, with stock Communist heroes and their evil enemies, divorced of the raw human emotions and perception of universal human degradation that had featured in his writing before.
By choice, therefore, he reduced himself to writing undistinguished and indistinguishable political propaganda rants. Perhaps, like some of the takers of the original pill of Murti-Bing, he realized the contradiction, so, in 1951, a few days after his first child was born, he killed himself, by gas, at age twenty-eight.
Third is Gamma, who long before the war was a convinced Communist. He fled to Russia during the war, and returned in the train of the conquering Red Army, in which he was a political commissar.
He was given great power over other Polish writers, and he enjoyed it. In Milosz’s analysis, “he considered himself a servant of the devil that ruled History, but did not love his master.” Yet he never wavered from his choice. “But sometimes he is haunted by the thought that the devil to whom men sell their souls owes his might to men themselves, and that the determinism of History is a creation of human brains.”
And fourth is Delta, a writer who only wanted to amuse under the eyes of the adoring multitude, and under Communism, could only do so by toeing the Communist line—just as he had always toed whatever line was in power at the moment.
These sketches are compelling and provide a lot of food for thought. They do not provide simple answers. What strikes the reader most of all, other than the applicability of the same concepts to any ideological tyranny, not just Communism, is that the feeling that pervades this book, more so than any other emotion, is resignation.
Milosz, like many other anti-Communists of the 1950s, saw the conquests of Communism as effectively permanent. He was, perhaps, less pessimistic than others, such as Whittaker Chambers, who saw future global triumph of Communism as inevitable, and believed he had joined the losing side. But Milosz did not seem to see any non-Communist future for the conquered nations of Europe.
Thus, Milosz tells us that those who say “a change must come, this can’t go on” merely hold “an amusing belief in the natural order of things.” However, Milosz implies, there is no such natural order. “The man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are. . . . Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be ‘unnatural,’ and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword.”
This connects to a related, half-contradictory theme that that runs throughout the book: how what seems like the permanent natural order can so swiftly change for the worse.
Milosz returns again and again to the horrors the Germans wrought; it is no more natural, “if both are within the realm of one’s experience,” for a man to go about his daily life in the bustling city of Warsaw than it is for him to live underground eating rats in the destroyed city of Warsaw.
Combining these themes together suggests a deep pessimism on Milosz’s part, a view that ideology was leading history to be a one-way ratchet ending in total ideological tyranny.
But, of course, Milosz was wrong. Communism lasted only thirty-five years more—thirty-five long years, to be sure, but in retrospect the cracks were growing within early in that time. Milosz, however, could not see them, nor could nearly anyone else. He could not see that, within a few short years, Alpha would reject Communism, and perhaps Beta or Delta would have too, had they not died young. Why is that? Why do modern ideologies that gain power seem to implant defeatism in the minds of the righteous?
This has been much on my mind recently, since for post-liberals, it’s important that we evaluate how we get to “post,” and what that looks like. Most of the wealthy portions of the West are, of course, currently in the grip of a totalitarian ideology—a new religion, a combination of neoliberal, corporatist extraction economics, the erasing of the West’s culture and cultures, and ever-nastier moral degeneracy, collectively enforced with an iron hand by our ruling classes, who control all the levers of power.
It seems inevitable that this headlong flight from reality, with its fractalized manifestations, from the mendacious falsification of history in the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” to the physical and mental mutilation of children to advance insane transgender ideology, to funding mindless blinding consumerism with Chinese debt and pumping up the money supply, is going to be ultimately caught and thrashed by reality.
Yet most post-liberals, and in general most people of good faith, like Alpha, Gamma, and Delta, find themselves viscerally unable to believe in a clean future with renewed human flourishing, and either despair or conform. At most, we who see clearly adopt a waiting stance, half-bored and barely flinching at the latest outrage imposed on the righteous.
I think this is an error, or a partial error. True, direct action against globohomo is generally useless, though participating in holding actions such as electing men who throw sand in the gears is both amusing and somewhat profitable. But history always provides an axis, a point around which it turns, a point of weakness of the now-existing and then-passing order, which cannot be predicted with specificity and is often only obvious in retrospect.
Rather than simply waiting, we should be preparing to, when the opportunity presents itself, pour our fire upon that axis, at its moment of appearance and exposure. For that, three things are necessary: friends (as Bronze Age Pervert often says), resources (intellectual, monetary, and military, all preferably shielded as much as possible from attack), and will.
Milosz erred by not seeing that the end of Communism was, even in 1951, within sight. But he nonetheless lived to see it, and though what Europe got afterwards has not turned out much better, maybe the second time will be a charm, both here and across the ocean.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows a poster for “The Captive Mind” by Stasys Eidrigevicius, created in 1990.
Few Americans know much about Francisco Franco, leader of the winning side in the Spanish Civil War and subsequently dictator of Spain. Yet from 1936 until 1975, he was a famous world figure. Now he is forgotten—but not by all. Franco is, and has been for decades, a cause célèbre among the global Left, seen as the devil incarnate for his successful war against Communist domination of Spain.
To successfully delay, or worse, block, any Left attempt to establish their permanent rule, thereby revealing that history lacks a progressive direction, is the unforgivable sin. Naturally, therefore, my own impression of Franco was generally favorable. But after reading up on him, my impression of him has changed. Now it is positively glowing.
It is very difficult to grasp the controversial figures of the past century. By “controversial,” I mean right-wing, since no prominent left-wing figure is ever deemed, in the common imagination formed by the left-wing dominance of academia and media, to be “controversial.” Instead, such people are “bold” or “courageous.”
The only way to get at the truth about a right-wing figure is to absorb a great many facts about him. It doesn’t matter much if the facts are slanted, or are disputed, or even if lies are told, as they always are about any right-wing figure. Reading enough detail allows the truth to come into focus, which mostly means ferreting out where the Left is lying or where one’s impression has been formed by propaganda or half-truths.
Even though facts matter most, the first thing to do when reading a book about any right-wing figure, or any event or happening important to the Left, is to check the political angle of the author, to know the likely slant. Somewhat surprisingly, most recent popular English-language general histories of the Spanish Civil War are only modestly tilted Left.
The best-known is that by Hugh Thomas (recently deceased and a fantastic writer, mostly on Spain’s earlier history), which I’ve read; Antony Beevor, specialist in popularized histories of twentieth-century war, also wrote one, which I have skimmed. Several others exist, and voluminous Spanish-language literature, as well, about which I know essentially nothing other than as cited in English-language texts.
Reading biographies of Franco, rather than histories of the Civil War, pulls back the lens to see Spain across the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, not just in the years between 1936 and 1939. Any history revolving around Franco in that period is necessarily both a history of Spain and the history of Left-Right conflict.
This is useful because my purpose is not just to understand Franco, although that’s interesting enough, but what Franco and his times say for our times. While my initial intention was just to read one biography, it quickly became clear that more detail would allow more clarity. I deemed this amount of effort important because I think the Spanish experience in the twentieth century has a lot to say to us.
Therefore, I selected three biographies. The first was Franco: A Personal and Political Biography, published in 2014, by Stanley Payne, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Payne has spent his entire long career writing many books on this era of Spain’s history, and he is also apparently regarded as one of the, if not the, leading experts on the typology of European fascism. Payne’s treatment of Franco is straight up the middle, neither pro nor con, and betrays neither a Left nor Right bias—although, to be sure, a straightforward portrait contradicts the Left narrative, and thus can be seen as effectively tilted Right, whatever the author’s actual intentions.
The second was Spanish historian Enrique Moradiellos’s 2018 Franco: Anatomy of a Dictator, a shorter treatment generally somewhat negative with respect to Franco.
The third, Franco: A Biography, was by Paul Preston, a professor at the London School of Economics, who like Payne is an expert in twentieth-century Spain. Unlike Payne, or Moradiellos, he is an avowed political partisan, of the Left, and his 1993 biography of Franco is vituperative, but it was also the first major English-language study of Franco, and is regarded as a landmark achievement offering enormous detail, even if it is superseded in some ways by later scholarship.
Preston also published, in 2012, the dubiously named, The Spanish Holocaust, analyzing through a hard-Left lens the killings of the Civil War, which I have read in part and to which I will also refer.
In addition, I have consulted a variety of other books, including Julius Ruiz’s recent work on the Red Terror in Madrid, and repeatedly viewed the five-hour 1983 series The Spanish Civil War, produced in the United Kingdom and narrated by Frank Finlay, available on YouTube, which while it has a clear left-wing bias, offers interviews with many actual participants in the war.
Unlike my usual technique, which is to review individual books and use them as springboards for thought, I am trying something new. I am writing a three-part evaluation of twentieth-century Spain, through a political lens, in which I intend to sequentially, but separately, focus on three different time periods.
First, the run-up to the Civil War. Second, the war itself, mainly with respect to its political, not military, aspects, and its immediate aftermath. Third, Franco’s nearly forty years as dictator, and the years directly after.
Using multiple books from multiple political angles will highlight areas of contradiction or dispute, and allow tighter focus on them. True, I have not read any actually pro-Franco books—I would, but, as Payne notes, there are no such English-language books, though he mentions several in Spanish.
The American (and English) Right has always been very reticent about any endorsement of Franco. Part of this is the result of ignorance combined with the successful decades-long propaganda campaign of the Left. If you’re ill-informed, it’s easy to lump Franco in with Hitler, or if you’re feeling charitable, Mussolini, and who wants to associate himself with them?
Part of it is the inculcated taste for being a beautiful loser, on sharp display for some reason among modern English conservatives, not only Peter Hitchens in his book The Abolition of Britain but also Roger Scruton in How To Be A Conservative. But a bigger part, I think, is distaste for the savagery of civil wars, combined with the feeling that Christians should not kill their enemies, except perhaps in open battle in a just war.
On the surface, this seeming pacifism appears to be a standard thread of Christian thought. But examined more closely, it is actually a new claim, since the contested dividing line has always been if and under what circumstances killing in self-defense is permitted. Whether the killing occurs in the heat of battle is a mere happenstance, now incorrectly elevated by some on the Right to the core matter, probably as a backdoor way of limiting killing by the state. The effect, though, is to repudiate killing in self-defense outside of battle, even by the authorities, ignoring the admonition of Saint Paul, that the ruler “beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
Competently illustrating this weak-kneed and incoherent line of thought among the modern Right, Peter Hitchens wrote a recent piece in First Things about Franco. Hitchens was, in fact, also reviewing Moradellios’s book, and his review exquisitely demonstrates this intellectual confusion and theological incoherence.
He goes on at great length about the evils of the Republicans and how their victory would have been disastrous for Spain. But then he goes on at greater length telling us that Christians cannot look to Franco, because he committed “crimes,” none of which are specified in the review (or, for that matter, in the book being reviewed), probably because to specify them would make them seem not very crime-like.
We must therefore reject Franco, Hitchens tells us, for an unspecified alternative that was most definitely not on offer in 1936, and is probably not going to be on offer if, in the future, we are faced with similar circumstances.
This is foolishness. (It is not helped by Hitchens’s self-focus and his repeated attempts to establish his own personal intellectual superiority, sniffing, for example, that Franco watched television and “had no personal library,” though if Hitchens had read Payne, he would know that was because the Republicans destroyed it in 1936). And Hitchens whines that Franco “hardly ever said or wrote anything interesting in his life,” which is false (and if true would be irrelevant), though in part explained by Franco’s oft-repeated dictum that “One is a slave to what one says but the owner of one’s silence.”
Hitchens squirms a bit, though, when he (at least being intellectually honest) quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s ringing endorsement of Franco. “I saw that Franco had made a heroic and colossal attempt to save his country from disintegration. With this understanding there also came amazement: there had been destruction all around, but with firm tactics Franco had managed to have Spain sidestep the Second World War without involving itself, and for twenty, thirty, thirty-five years, had kept Spain Christian against all history’s laws of decline! But then in the thirty-seventh year of his rule he died, dying to a chorus of nasty jeers from the European socialists, radicals, and liberals.”
Hitchens, for no stated reason, seems to think that Moradiellos’s book proves Solzhenitsyn wrong, when the exact opposite is the case. Hitchens even ascribes Solzhenitsyn’s praise to “infatuation on the rebound,” whatever that means, though the quote is from the late 1970s (from the recently released autobiography, Between Two Millstones), long after Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the Gulag.
Probably realizing how weak his argument is, Hitchens then switches gears without acknowledging it, dropping the “crimes” line and claiming that since Franco’s work was all undone rapidly after his death, Franco was bad. Which is even more intellectually sieve-like.
The lack of mental rigor in this line of thought can be seen if we switch the focus from Franco to any one of scores of Christian heroes of the past. Once you leave Saint Francis of Assisi behind, any Christian military hero plucked at random from the pages of history did far worse things to his enemies, and often to his friends, than Franco.
Try Charlemagne. Or Saint Louis IX. Or Richard II Lionheart. Or El Cid. Or Don Juan of Austria. All wars fought to decide ultimate questions are unpleasant and involve acts that endanger the souls of men. It is merely the proximity of Franco to us in time, combined with the lack of steel that has affected many Christians for decades now, that makes Hitchens shrink from endorsing Franco and his deeds, all his deeds.
In two hundred years if, God willing, the Left and its Enlightenment principles are nothing but a faded memory and a cautionary tale, Hitchens’s complaints will seem utterly bizarre, like a belief that the Amazons were real. Would I care to stand in Franco’s shoes before the judgment seat of Christ? Not particularly. But I am far from certain that it would be an uncomfortable position.
In astronomy, there is the concept of “standard candles.” These are stars of a known luminosity, whose distance can be accurately calculated, and against which other celestial objects can then be measured. I think of events that regularly recur in histories as standard candles: happenings about which certain facts are not in dispute, but which different authors approach differently, either by emphasizing or omitting certain facts.
By examining each author’s variations, we can measure him against the standard candles, determining, to some degree, whether his history is objective, or a polemic, in which latter case its reliability becomes suspect.
For many Americans, the thought of historical Spain conjures up images of ships carrying gold across the ocean, or for the literary and somewhat confused, Don Quixote riding with his lance across a dusty plain. But in 1892, Spain was a country with no gold and no knights, though plenty of farmers. Franco was born in that year into a naval family, when the Spanish military, and particularly the navy, had also fallen far from its former glory (in part the result of recent defeat by America in the Spanish-American War).
Not a promising physical specimen, he enrolled as an infantry cadet at fourteen. He asked to be posted to Spanish Morocco, the only place Spain had any fighting military, and went there at nineteen, quickly establishing himself as a courageous, unflappable leader of men, as well as a disciplinarian and martinet.
Franco asked for the most dangerous assignments (of the forty-two officers assigned to the “shock” troops in 1912, only seven were alive by 1915), and his mostly Muslim soldiers were in superstitious awe of his luck. His luck wasn’t perfect—he was gut shot by a machine gun, and only survived because the bullet happened to miss all his organs, a most unlikely event. But even that contributed to Franco’s reputation, and to his own later belief in his providential mission.
All this brought much attention from the prominent, including the King, Alfonso XIII (Spain was a parliamentary monarchy at the time), and rapid promotion. Although Spain was politically in turmoil during these years, Franco (like most officers in the Spanish military) was strictly non-political. He married in 1923 (and unlike most men of power, was unfailingly faithful to his wife his entire life). Continuing his service in Morocco, he was promoted to general in 1926, at thirty-three the youngest general in Europe—though by European standards, he had little modern war experience.
He never commanded more than a brigade, and experienced only relatively primitive warfare with relatively primitive weapons, since the Spanish military was never well-equipped. After being promoted, he “retired” from combat, becoming director of Spain’s main military academy, until 1931.
It was toward the end of this period that politics became impossible for Franco to ignore. In 1930, the Spanish left-wing parties all managed to ally under the Pact of San Sebastián, collectively adopting the label “Republican” to denote their left-wing goals, a nomenclature that stuck, and agreeing to overthrow the monarchy by any means necessary.
This is the origin of the term Republican as denoting one side in the Civil War; it means both revolutionary leftist and necessarily exclusionary of any non-left parties, rather than being derived from “republican,” meaning devoted to representative government. (For this reason, Payne uses the terms “Republican” and “revolutionary” interchangeably in his book.) Even among this group of Leftists, there was a range of opinion (ignoring the outlier viewpoint of the Catalan separatists, who were also involved).
The key principle, as with all such groupings, was that there could be no enemies to the Left, and no compromise with the Right; total power to the Left and the disenfranchisement of the Right was the permanent goal.
After the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, which lasted from 1923 to 1930, was succeeded by the even softer dictatorship of Dámaso Berenguer, the Republicans quickly initiated their first political violence, a small military revolt, the “Jaca revolt.” The revolt was put down quickly, but not before the Republican rebels had killed several other soldiers who refused to join them. (One of the Republicans involved, though not in the killing, was Franco’s brother Ramón, a political radical who fled Spain as a result, but who returned later to fight for Franco, and died in the war).
As Payne notes, “These totally unprovoked killings opened the steadily accelerating cycle of leftist violence in Spain that would eventually bring civil war.” That was the goal, naturally—one theme of Payne is that the Left wanted civil war, figuring they would win and that would cement their power permanently, since, as Moradiellos points out, Spain was not only sharply divided, but without any group having notably more power than the others, such that the result was political deadlock without some deus ex machina.
The Jaca revolt is revealing, and usable as a standard candle, because as the earliest such event, it begins to show the pattern of ideological distortion found in different histories. At least in the mainstream, English-language works I have read, there is little dispute as to facts.
But what you find is that the left-leaning authors, Preston in particular, solve the problem of inconvenient facts by simply omitting them. So, here, Preston never mentions that the rebels killed anyone; they were unjustly executed as “mutineers,” and their subsequent adulation as Republican martyrs is portrayed as entirely reasonable.
In 1931, the monarchy ended and the Second Republic was declared. This wasn’t the result of any democratic process, but the result of the total collapse of support for the monarchy from its traditional supporters at the same time the Republicans had prepared to seize power, combined with the King’s unwillingness to risk civil war. In practice, the first government of the Second Republic was merely the self-named “revolutionary committee” of the Republicans.
But despite these unpromising beginnings, and the open participation of many anti-democratic, revolutionary elements, the Second Republic managed, at the beginning, to be actually republican, more liberal than leftist, though there were plenty of leftist actions taken, most prominently open violence against the Church and extensive anti-religious legal measures, along with open persecution of the religious.
Preston ignores all this, referring instead to the “hysteria” (one of his favorite words) of anyone opposed to leftist hegemony. Still, as Payne notes, the first Republican government, under the “left Republican” Prime Minister Manuel Azaña, “held that the Republic must be a completely leftist regime under which no conservative party or coalition could be accepted as a legitimate government, even in the remote possibility that one were democratically elected. . . . Such an attitude made the development of a genuinely liberal democratic regime almost impossible.”
To anyone paying attention, this is merely the usual tactic of the Left—the ratchet must only go one way. It can go Left, but however far Left it goes, it can never go any less Left, no matter how many democratic votes the Right gets. If the Right threatens to disturb the ratchet, violence is the acceptable solution to keep Left dominance.
Until recently, this was a purely Continental phenomenon; its most recent manifestations have shown up in France (with the National Rally, what was the Front National) and in Sweden (with the Sweden Democrats). Since 2017, it has shown up in the United States, as a reaction to Donald Trump daring to actually try to govern in a conservative fashion, something no Republican had tried to do since Calvin Coolidge.
The same beginning low-level violence led by the Left against the Right is already in evidence here, as well, unfortunately (as well as occasional higher-level political violence, such as James Hodgkinson’s attempted assassination of the Republican Congressional leadership, which has been memory-holed by the Left using its control of the media—one difference between then and now, as I discuss below, is that the Left now controls far more of the levers of power).
Political violence was the new norm in 1930s Spain. Payne estimates that nearly 2,500 lives were lost to political violence from 1931 until the beginning of the Civil War in 1936. Most of those people were killed by the Left, but not all, and both sides tended to dehumanize the other side, though again the Left led here—as Payne notes, early on one of the favorite Republican words was “extermination.”
Here again, we see this type of language rising on the mainstream American Left—last month Democratic freshman Representative Ilhan Omar, the bigoted new flower child of American progressives, publicly referred to Donald Trump as “not human,” and prominent Democrat Paul Begala publicly called Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner “cockroaches” and “a different kind of species,” in both cases without any apology or consequences.
One might object, if one were a Leftist offended by the truth, that there is also right-wing political violence in America today, adducing, say, Dylann Roof killing black church parishioners in 2015, or, stretching abroad, last month’s killing of mosque worshippers in New Zealand. You have to draw a pretty big circle to claim those killers are “right-wing,” but it’s not totally implausible. They certainly weren’t left-wing, in any reasonable read of their confused politics.
Still, the “political” angle, and tie to concrete politics, of Hodgkinson was far more evident. But the key difference, that makes right-wing high-profile attacks different, is that Hodgkinson was part of the ecosystem of the Left, and the right-wing killers were not part of the ecosystem of the Right.
Such killers being part of the Left ecosystem is a necessary consequence of the mandatory Left principle that there are no enemies to the Left; you cannot plausibly maintain both that principle and that you are not responsible for fringe actions, and Hodgkinson was merely following the very many open calls for violence after Trump’s election by progressive leaders, none of whom even thought once about apologizing or trying to dial back their violent rhetoric afterwards. (In the Spanish context there was even less ambiguity—all Left violence was an acknowledged part of the Left program; the question was only whether any particular act was prudent).
On today’s American Right, which aggressively polices its borders (probably too aggressively), there is no legitimate claim that the Right in general is responsible for fringe actions. Which is not to say that, with the Internet and the persecution of conservatives, that such fringe actions will not occur more often, as sociopaths seek meaning and transcendence through violence.
Naturally, the Leftist media inverts this reality, without any claim to logic or reason, in order to attack the Right and wholly excuse the Left. In the fevered imaginations of the Left, or so they claim, murderous white supremacists, for example, are key and important components of the American Right.
But the true reality is inevitable and inescapable. Just as inescapable is leftist propaganda and lies, for exaggerating right-wing violence and demanding a response from the Right is both a successful way to ask a “have you stopped beating your wife?” question and a way to avoid talking about the evils of the Left. They offer not reasoning or argument, but shrieks that the Right must abase itself and surrender for no apparent reason other than that it is desired by the Left. The correct response is simply to refuse to engage in such discussions, and instead demand the Left clean its own stables.
However, this entire analysis is somewhat beside the point, because it
ignores that high-profile political violence, whether of Hodgkinson or Roof, is
not the core of political violence today. Such violence may be, as it became in
Spain, the main event. But today the core of political violence is rather the
daily violence visited exclusively today by the American Left on the Right, on
the streets, in restaurants, and in schools. And that core is what will, and
should, cause a justified reaction on the Right, at which point violence will
likely become part of the ecosystem of both Left and Right, though the fault
will lie primarily with the Left, as always.
Anyway, back in Spain and eighty years ago, the Azaña government also immediately implemented another inexorable feature of leftist rule, the legal prosecution of their political opponents—in this case, those who served under the monarchy during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, and those involved in prosecuting the “Jaca martyrs.”
The euphemism for this was the “responsibilities program.” (Yet again, we see this occurring in the United States, with the witch hunt against Trump and his associates, and when the Democrats regain executive power, we will doubtless see an enormous explosion of such prosecutions, as well as a growing number of state-level attacks, both of which grew lushly under Obama).
Some military men fell before these attacks, but Franco, although he was prominent, was well known to never engage in politics, so he was not attacked. Still, he was demoted and ostracized by the new government, which (correctly) saw that his basic orientation was conservative.
Franco took no part whatsoever, however, in the failed 1932 revolt led by General José Sanjurjo, subsequent to which the Republicans arrested thousands of conservatives and closed hundreds of newspapers, and continued their policy of blocking conservative political meetings and generally obstructing Right political action, though Sanjurjo himself escaped, to play a part in the Civil War. (Such activity has its modern parallel in the shutting down of conservative speeches across the nation, by violence with government complicity, and the massive and expanding coordinated deplatforming of conservatives from the public utilities that are the main method of communication in America today).
Seen, therefore, as generally reliable, Franco was appointed commander of the strategic Balearic Islands, where, in his leisure time, he began to become more politicized, though not visibly. The main targets of his ire were a perceived conspiracy among Freemasons, big business, and finance capital, which, if you leave out the Freemasons, makes him not dissimilar to Tucker Carlson. (Anti-Semitism was not part of this; Franco was not, then or later, in the least anti-Semitic as an ideological position, and probably no more personally anti-Semitic than, say, Franklin Roosevelt).
A new center-right party, the CEDA, gained political ground. In the 1933 elections, in a trial run for 1936, violence was used to suppress the CEDA vote, and when the CEDA got the most votes and was the largest party in parliament, the Republicans attempted to simply cancel the results. While the president, Niceto Alcalá-Zamora, a Leftist somewhat more moderate than most Republicans, though an active participant in the Pact of San Sebastián, declined to comply with his fellow Leftists’ demands (there was always a spectrum on the Spanish Left), he ensured that the CEDA was barred from any participation in the government and denied any share of political power. (Preston delicately refers to this as the Left resisting “electoral disunity”).
By 1934, though, this became untenable, so some minor ministerial offices were granted the CEDA. The response of the harder left side of the Republicans, led by the Socialists, was to launch a widespread revolt (often today euphemistically called a “general strike,” but called at the time by the Socialists a “revolutionary strike,” with the avowed aim of “overthrowing the government and taking power”), passively supported by the rest of the Republican parties.
Only in the Asturias mining regions did this succeed, for a time, with the Republican revolutionaries killing around a hundred of their local political opponents out of hand, burning churches and stealing millions from local banks.
The revolting miners, as Hugh Thomas points out, were very well paid; “[t]heir action was politically, rather than economically, inspired.” The Asturias rebellion was put down by Franco, using Moroccan troops; Payne says “the army units also committed atrocities, and there may have been as many as a hundred summary executions, though only one victim was ever identified, despite the vociferous leftist propaganda campaign that followed for months and years.”
It is worth spending some more time on the Asturias rebellion, for a few reasons. For one, it was the first time Franco came to be seen as an enemy of the Left, and his successful defeat of the Left meant that he became a permanent target of the Left’s hatred.
The Asturias rebellion is also an example of the propaganda machine of the Left, which for nearly a century has used this as the supposed inception of the Civil War, conveniently ignoring not only that it was a Left revolt to overthrow an already leftist government, for the sin of allowing a center-right party to participate in the government at all, and that violence had been a stock tactic of the Spanish Left, by 1934, for several years.
Finally, and related to the second reason, the Asturias rebellion is a good way to gauge how susceptible an author is, himself, to propaganda; it is a standard candle.
Payne, as I say, offers specifics—maybe a hundred dead leftists in summary executions—but he offers a footnote, “Within only a few months leftist spokesmen were permitted to present charges of atrocities before a military tribunal. The resulting inquiry produced concrete evidence of only one killing, though probably there were more. The most extensive study on this point is [a 2006 Spanish-language monograph].”
Hugh Thomas gives the figure as about 200 killed “in the repression,” though he offers no support for his figure. Overtly Left mouthpieces commonly talk of “thousands” killed. Preston offers no figures, he merely complains for pages about “savagery,” “brutality,” “howling for vengeance” and such like, while making racist statements about Franco’s Moroccan troops.
This pattern continues in almost all high-profile events in the Civil War—all of which are high profile because they were specifically chosen by the Left at the time as the most susceptible to use for their global propaganda campaign.
This was all run-up to the fatal elections of February, 1936, in which the CEDA contested against a “Popular Front” of rigidly leftist parties. The election was called by the President, Alcalá-Zamora, specifically to prevent the CEDA leader, José María Gil-Robles, from becoming Prime Minister.
The result was probably an extremely narrow victory for the Popular Front, marred by extensive pre-election violence (almost exclusively by the Left, as Payne notes) and leftist mobs in numerous areas “intefer[ing] with either the balloting or the registration of votes, augmenting the leftist tally or invalidating rightist pluralities or majorities.”
Rather than wait for the normal processes for handover of power, the Left immediately seized power wherever it had the ability, releasing their compatriots from jail, and illegally and forcibly “unilaterally register[ing] its own victory at the polls.”
The Left’s behavior with respect to the CEDA is similar to the electoral behavior of the American Left today. It is not quite as dramatic here, because in the American structure the tools are lacking to actually deny power to a party that wins seats.
The American system is more cut-and-dried in that way. Therefore, when conservatives threaten to gain any actual power, other actions are instead taken. The first line of defense is to allow neutered conservatives “in the government,” like John McCain or Mitt Romney, on the condition they never, ever, attempt to actually deny any victory to the Left.
The second line of defense, against those who are not, like McCain and Romney, quislings deep in their souls, is to use the press, dominated by the Left and able to wholly determine what is considered news, to open propaganda campaigns to delegitimize conservatives who threaten to actually exercise power.
The third line of defense is legal attacks by either civil suits or the organs of the state. And the fourth line of defense, the trump card (no pun intended) is to use the courts, in particular but not limited to the Supreme Court, to simply, much as in the old Spanish Republican way, to illegally deny the exercise of power to conservatives.
This last strategy is wholly successful in only a few areas, related to claimed emancipatory autonomy (notably abortion and sexual license), because the Left does not control every aspect of the Supreme Court as it so dearly desires.
The Left’s response to not being able to completely control the Supreme Court has been, when this fourth level of tactic is needed, to drag every conservative attempt to exercise power through legal molasses, by suborning low-level federal judges into issuing ludicrous and unlawful decisions based purely on the desire to advance Left goals, and imposing nationwide injunctions mandating the desired result.
After many months or years, if the Supreme Court has time to add such a case to its docket, the lawless decision is reversed, with no consequence or sanction to the original judge (quite the contrary), but the Left goal has usually been mostly or totally accomplished.
This system is intolerable—conservatives should find a good issue and declare a refusal to adhere to such an injunction, and such lawless judges should be severely punished. But that is a discussion for some other time.
Back to February, 1936. Whether the election was truly won by the Left is unclear. Hugh Thomas thinks it was, though by a slim margin. Payne is less sure, and emphasizes that vote totals can’t tell the whole story when votes were suppressed by leftist violence and fraud.
Payne notes that “There were runoff elections in several provinces in March, but in the face of mounting violence the right withdrew, adding more seats to the leftist majority. Late in March, when the new parliamentary electoral commission convened, the leftist majority arbitrarily reassigned thirty-two seats from the right to the left, augmenting that majority further.”
Elections in conservative provinces were declared invalid; and in the re-runs, conservatives were violently prevented from running.
Payne’s conclusion is that “In a four-step process, electoral results originally almost evenly divided between left and right were rigged and manipulated over a period of three months until the Popular Front commanded a majority of two-thirds of the seats, which would soon give it the power to amend the constitution as it pleased. In the process, democratic elections ceased to exist.”
But both Payne and Thomas agree that after the initial vote, the Left manipulated the system to try to expand a dubious majority. The details of this episode are glossed over by Moradiellos, who prefers to simply claim that the Popular Front won a “slight” victory and move on, and simply ignored by Preston, who says the victory was “narrow” but resulted in “a massive triumph in terms of seats in the Cortes,” without any explanation of how that could be.
(It is about here in reading Preston’s book that one realizes that his normal tactic is to lie by omission, while burying the reader in mounds of irrelevant detail, making his account seem complete.) At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, since the Left’s goal was the permanent seizure of power, and this was the handy trigger. If it hadn’t been this, some other pretext would have been used to violently cement power and permanently, or so they thought, destroy the Right.
The Republicans immediately unleashed a nationwide assault against the Right. Payne asks, “How bad was the situation by July 1936? The frequent overt violations of the law, assaults on property, and political violence were without precedent for a modern European country not undergoing total revolution.”
These included looting, arson, massive theft, “virtual impunity for criminal action by members of Popular Front parties, manipulation and politicization of justice, . . . and a substantial growth in political violence, resulting in more than three hundred deaths.”
The military began to actively plot overthrow of the government, though Franco was not initially actively involved and hedged his bets (his calculating, and some thought cold, manner of approaching such decisions was not pleasing to his Army compatriots).
But on the night of July 12, 1936, José Calvo Sotelo, the charismatic chief Monarchist in parliament, was brazenly assassinated by the government’s Assault Guards (indirectly assisted by the Republican Minister of the Interior), in revenge for the murder of an Assault Guard prominent in anti-Right violence, José Castillo, by the Falange, the small Spanish fascist party.
The Republican government’s reaction was to arrest nobody but two hundred rightists and to continue its campaign of repression. (Preston characterizes this as “immediately beginning a thorough investigation” and then does not return to the matter).
For many or most on the Left, most prominently the Socialist leader Largo Caballero, a military revolt was desired, since they believed the Republicans could crush it and thereby permanently seize power without further pushback.
And regardless of desirability, most on the Left now believed in the “necessity” of civil war. “Thus, in the final days neither the government nor the leftist parties did anything to avoid the conflict, but, in a perverse way, welcomed military revolt, which they mistakenly thought would clear the air.” (Their mistake, actually, was not that it did not clear the air, but that the fresh air was not to their liking).
Logically enough, Payne pegs this as the point at which the generals, and Franco, realized that it was more dangerous not to revolt than to revolt, so the war was on. The generals (not yet under Franco’s leadership) launched their revolt; the government handed out weapons to the Left. And the war came.
The Civil War
All Franco biographers cover the war in detail. It lasted three years. Soon Franco was granted supreme military and political control by the other counter-revolutionary generals, in part because he had the best troops, in part because he managed to be the conduit for equipment from Mussolini, and in part because of his dominant personality and the near-universal admiration in which he was held among the military.
The Republicans held several of the major cities; the Nationalists others and the countryside, where they had broad-based support, especially among poor peasants. The Nationalists, in the areas they controlled, deliberately implemented a counter-revolution to end leftist and liberal domination; they “embraced a cultural and spiritual neotraditionalism without precedent in recent European history.”
In their political theory, following Joseph de Maistre, arch-opponent of the French Revolution, a counter-revolution was not the opposite of a revolution, which would make it Burkean, but an opposing revolution. The Spanish Civil War showed that Burkeanism has very definite limits, after all; appeals by American conservatives to him and to Russell Kirk, past a certain point in the polity, which we have not reached yet, are only of any relevance or use once the smoke clears and the bodies are buried, and serve before then only to hamstring conservatives in their reaction to those who would destroy them.
Despite their far superior organization (though the Republicans improved theirs over time), the Nationalists were inferior to the Republicans in domestic propaganda, and far inferior in international propaganda. In part this was because the people in charge on the Nationalist side were military men, both disinterested in and contemptuous of propaganda.
Their idea of propaganda was to broadcast choleric and threatening radio addresses into towns they were attacking. In part it was because the Left has always been master of propaganda, a fact on display both inside Spain, where morale was kept up by inspirational posters and mass rallies (though the Nationalists used posters too), and even more so outside of Spain, where the international Left eagerly created a distorted perception of the Nationalists and the war.
The Falange, the Spanish fascists, are rarely a significant focus of discussions about the Civil War, except in propagandistic discussions. This is because they were not notably powerful; they were merely one part of the mix of Nationalist politics, which included many military men not aligned with a party, monarchists (in two brands), and Catholics (who opposed the Falange generally, and violently opposed modernist foreign right-wing political movements, especially National Socialism).
The Falange, in any case, lost most of their independent power when Franco forcibly took over the party as the vehicle for his “National Movement,” cramming, in theory, everyone into his personal party and blurring the lines between himself and the Falange. During the war and immediately after, Franco identified himself publicly with the Falange.
He was happy to accept their support, and encourage the cult of their leader, executed early in the war by the Republicans, José Antonio Primo de Rivera (son of the dictator)—as many have pointed out, it was convenient for Franco to only have to compete with a dead man. After the war, with his typical cold calculation, Franco suppressed what power the Falangists still retained, seeing them as adding no value to his neotraditionalist Movement, and being far too interested in radical modernism.
Nobody who is serious contends that Franco was fascist in any meaningful way—that is, under any actual definition of fascism, rather than under its use as a flexible term of abuse. (Moradiellos offers a detailed analysis of the use of the term in modern Spanish scholarship.) Nomenclature can be misleading if transposed without thought into today.
To take another example, Franco regularly used the term “totalitarian” as a positive, something inconceivable to us after seeing the results of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century.
But when Franco described the Movement as totalitarian, he meant not that it would attempt to control every aspect of life, even people’s thoughts, which is the meaning we imbibe from Communism and from works like Orwell’s 1984. Nor did he mean that politics would continuously invade and dominate all areas of life; Mussolini’s famous definition of fascism as “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Rather, he meant a system “that would dominate the public sphere but otherwise permit a limited traditional semi-pluralism.”
By way of example Franco offered fifteenth-century Catholic monarchs. Moreover, the Movement was meant explicitly to advance a flexible plan, not a program. “It will not be rigid or static, but subject, in every case, to the work of revision and improvement that reality may counsel.” Franco looked backward, not forward to ideological rightism.
The same distorted nomenclature is true of “dictator,” originally a Roman term used not as a term of opprobrium, but of description, and until the modern era, seen as simply another possible method of political organization, useful in certain circumstances but, like all political organization, subject to abuse.
Franco was a sovereign dictator—but that does not imply that his rule was arbitrary or despotic, the meaning we typically take from the modern use of the term. Franco had very definite and very simple core principles. But beyond those, he was politically flexible—not, for example, wedded to a monarchy after his death, and when he decided that was the best course, not quick to decide which monarchical line should ascend the throne (left vacant after 1931). And Spain under Franco was very much a country of the rule of law.
There is no need here to rehash the details of the war. In short, Franco gradually rolled up the Republicans, after trying and failing to quickly capture Madrid and end the war. It is fairly evident that Franco did not mind a longer war; as Moradiellos emphasizes, this enabled him to permanently repress the Left by killing his opponents and scaring the rest into final submission (shades of Sherman’s March to the Sea). Both the Axis and Stalin supplied the Nationalists and Republicans respectively, but that almost certainly did not change the end result of the war. By 1939, it was over.
Immediately upon the beginning of the Civil War, both sides began systematic executions of their political opponents in areas they controlled. Contrary to myth, this was organized on both sides, though as with all things better organized by the Nationalists.
It was not some kind of excusable spontaneous excess on the part of the Left, as they have often tried to pretend during and since, the line that Preston uniformly takes as well. Other than being factually wrong, such a claim is laughable on its face when viewed hindsight from the twenty-first century, since in, without exception, every other Left accession to power, organized mass killing of opponents in order to create the “new world” has been an absolutely essential and central part of the plan, invariably carried through if and to the extent power is gained.
As with many other Left actions and claims, from denying the evil of Lenin to the guilt of Alger Hiss to who was responsible for Katyn, they may have been plausible once, but current belief brands one as either a liar or a fool. In fact, such violence had openly been part of the Left’s plan in Spain for years.
True, on both sides the organization of killing outside of battle was mostly locally organized, not centrally organized. Payne says “It is now generally agreed that the number of executions by the [Republicans] totaled about fifty-five thousand, while those by the Nationalists were more numerous, with estimates ranging from sixty thousand to one hundred thousand or more.
The higher figures appear to be a demographic impossibility, so that the low estimate appears more likely. In the long run, the Nationalist repression became more concerted, was the more effective of the two, and claimed the most lives, particularly with the extensive round of executions after the end of the Civil War.” Preston agrees with these numbers, though his estimate is on the higher end, which suggests, at least, rough agreement across the historical spectrum.
Of course, this is comparing apples to oranges, because it ignores two critical elements. First, the Left killed fewer because since they conquered little territory, killings were mostly confined to the cities they held when the war began, and therefore could not accomplish their goal of wiping out all those on the Right, merely those unfortunate enough to be trapped with the Republicans (including a high percentage of the country’s Army officers). (And, as famously narrated by Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, soon enough the Communists turned to stamping out former allies on the Left).
Second, it ignores the certainty that the Republicans would, like all Communists coming to power, have slaughtered enormous numbers of people after the war for many years, so including post-war executions in a comparison is a distortion.
It would be far more realistic to assume that the Republicans would have executed some double-digit multiple of those the Nationalists executed; it would have been like the Jacobins in the Vendée. And, critically, unlike Left regimes, which are always focused on killing by class and status in order to achieve utopia, not the punishment of specific crimes, Franco’s repression quickly became less radical, not more radical.
As Payne notes, “Once the major actors and criminals of the Spanish revolution had been prosecuted, there was no need to repeat the process.” That would not have been true if the Republicans had won.
Thus, such killings by the Nationalists during the war had nothing in common with the ideological killings of the twentieth century, whether by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, or many others. Rather, they were conducted under a semblance (sometimes dubious or even specious) of the rule of law, through military tribunals, directed either at those known to have committed significant crimes (as the Republicans had in every area they controlled) or, a smaller number, those who were leaders of the revolutionary opposition.
I find the latter hard to morally justify, sitting comfortably in my twenty-first-century seat of luxury and security, but in context, I do not find them hard to understand (and I understand the Republicans’ killing of political opponents as well); nor do I find the “victims” in any way blameless (although there must have been mistakes and excessive severity in many cases, as is always the case in wartime situations).
Regardless, this was not the type of class- or race-based killing common in the twentieth century, sweeping up without specific accusations and guilt men, women, and children. It was political and executive judgment on actual enemies working to destroy their countrymen, and that’s what happens in civil wars.
Preston, in 2012’s The Spanish Holocaust, addresses killings during the war. But unlike his magnum opus, his biography of Franco, this later book is a work of unhinged propaganda, designed to whitewash and excuse all Republican killing, and to magnify the horror of all Nationalist killing. Words such as “savage” and “vicious” appear with metronomic regularity, never once applied to Republicans.
The default mode is the passive voice when, infrequently, Republican killings are described, always in the context of excusing them. Preston makes truly ludicrous claims, such as that during the entire Civil War, there took place (he cannot bring himself to use the word “rape” by Republicans) “the sexual molestation of around one dozen nuns and the deaths of 296,” a low toll he attributes to the “respect for women that was built into the Republic’s reforming programme.”
Naturally, he does not mention the roughly 7,000 other clergy executed by the Republicans, except obliquely, without numbers, and to excuse them as unfortunate, but understandable, excesses by zealous heroes. On the other hand, as I say Preston uses the same numbers of dead as Payne and other unbiased scholars; his fault is in propagandistic presentation and the use of anecdotes that are mostly almost certainly lies, not statistics (in fact, Payne uses higher numbers for those executed after the war, 30,000 instead of Preston’s 20,000).
There is not much more to say about this book, but if you’re interested, you might try reading Payne’s bloodless evisceration of it in a Wall Street Journal review. “Mr. Preston, rather than presenting a fully objective historical analysis or interpretation of violence against civilians during the Spanish conflict, is recapitulating civil-war-era propaganda. . . . Rather than implementing some radical new Hitlerian or Pol Pot-like scheme, the essentially traditionalist Franco followed the policy of victors in civil wars throughout most of history: slaughtering the leaders and main activists of the other side while permitting the great bulk of the rank and file to go free.”
Franco did not care what it took to put the Republican revolution down. Such was Franco’s personality—practical, tending toward icy, in his political relations. Really, though, Franco’s personality was somewhat opaque; he kept no journal and what few personal papers he had are still mostly in the possession of his family and not public.
He was, in both personal and military matters, straightforward for the most part. He took counsel from others, but was decisive when the time came to make a decision. Most importantly, he shared two crucial characteristics with me. He fell asleep immediately upon going to bed, annoying his wife because she wanted to talk, and he hated rice pudding. Beyond that, though, it is hard to say in many cases what Franco thought.
No surprise, however, at some point Franco, at least to some extent, began to believe his own press. He did not become puffed up, much less behave badly—he was always punctilious in his personal behavior, and did not fly into rages or otherwise show lack of self-control like many dictators.
But he did become convinced that he was an instrument of Providence, always a dangerous belief. He also prided himself on some minor abilities he did not have—for example, he believed he was an expert in economics, whereas everyone knew he was not. Regardless, Franco developed a charismatic form of leadership, and was never challenged for leadership. Payne’s conclusion is that “the effort to achieve legitimacy [was] thus more praetorian or Bonapartist than Fascist.” That seems about right.
In any mention of the Civil War, another standard candle, the 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Condor Legion, always comes up. This is not because it was the only, or the most damaging, aerial bombing of the war, but because the Left chose it as the focus of a propaganda campaign. Aerial bombing was then highly inaccurate (my grandmother’s house in Debrecen, Hungary, during World War II, was partially destroyed as the result of American bombs missing the railway station).
Payne notes that far from the “planned terror-bombing” of leftist fever dreams, the bombing of Guernica was a routine strike on a military target (and as Payne notes, “indiscriminate attacks on cities, almost always small in scope, were in fact more commonly conducted by the Republican air force,” giving the example of the bombing of Cabra, which killed more than a hundred civilians, but of which you have never heard).
Preston, of course, ignores these facts, and accepts at face value high-end, propagandistic claims for the number of dead. The inept and mendacious Nationalist response, including the suggestion that the Republicans had burned Guernica themselves to deny it to the Nationalists (it was a largely wooden town), made things worse for the Nationalists. But it was propaganda gold for the Left, who inflated the casualty figure, Payne says, “approximately one thousand percent” (the real figure was around 200, maybe somewhat more or less, and only that high because an air-raid shelter took a direct hit).
How many Spaniards died in the war? All in, maybe 350,000 by violence, including battle deaths, executions, and civilian deaths, with maybe 200,000 or 300,000 more due to “extremely harsh economic and social conditions.”
But, as Payne says, “[I]t would be hard to exaggerate the extent of the accompanying trauma the war inflicted on Spanish society as a whole. The complete destruction of the normal polity, the ubiquity of internecine violence, and the enormous privation and suffering left many of its members shell shocked and psychologically adrift.”
This in part explains why Franco faced nearly zero domestic opposition during his lifetime—nobody wanted to go back to that. They were reminded of that by a low-level terroristic Communist insurgency in the late 1940s, which killed several hundred people, mostly in train and train station bombings (and which Preston characterizes as heroic resistance).
After The War
After the war, Franco and the Nationalists cemented their power. As Payne says, “Franco planned not merely to complete construction of a new authoritarian system but also to effect a broad cultural counterrevolution that would make another civil war impossible, and that meant severe repression of the left.”
Forceful action to that end was characteristic of the immediate post-war period, with nearly 300,000 imprisoned in 1939, though most were released in 1940. “The Francoist repression, despite its severity, was not a Stalinist-Hitlerian type of liquidation applied automatically by abstract criteria equivalent to class or ethnicity. The great majority of leftist militants were never arrested, nor even questioned.”
The death sentence was reserved for political crimes involving major violence. Still, there were many executions after the war, much along the same lines as during the war, but with more due process, and quite a few jail sentences—though unlike today in America, when multi-decade sentences for relatively minor crimes are the norm, the sentences were relatively short and soon enough even those convicted of being involved in political killings were released from jail, certainly by the late 1940s.
Preston does not talk much about postwar justice in his biography of Franco, moving quickly to World War II and contenting himself with occasional references to “savage repression,” without much more detail, which superficial treatment by omission reinforces Payne’s more detailed account.
Franco’s goal in 1939, and onward, was to not only complete the
conservative counter-revolution and create neotraditionalism on a social level,
but to economically modernize the country and make Spain relevant on the world
stage. He saw no contradiction between those two things, a failure of
prediction, though understandable through a backward-looking prism. In other
words, Franco wanted to make Spain great again, by which he meant forgetting
the entire previous 150 years.
By economic modernity, Franco meant mostly autarchy, not development relying on foreign trade or foreign investment. And by global relevancy, Franco meant an authoritarian regime with an international presence, mostly at the expense of the French in North Africa. Retrospectively, both these goals seem half-baked.
But from the perspective of the time, both autarchy and authoritarian regimes, of left or right, were the coming thing in Europe, so Franco was not swimming against the tide. In fact, as with many people across the globe, including in the United States, Franco believed firmly that, globally, “the democratic system is today on the road to collapse.” He was wrong, although perhaps his prediction was premature, not wrong.
Still, Franco claimed to be democratic. What that meant was what he, and the Spanish political scholars of the time, rejected “inorganic democracy,” consisting of pure majority rule. Instead, he wanted “organic democracy,” where voting was organized around groups (e.g., family voting; syndicalism); local institutions (including, but not limited to, the Church) had significant power (in essence, subsidiarity); and, naturally, a strong executive power, in the form of himself (as “caudillo”) or, later, a return to monarchy.
As Moradiellos cites the Spanish legal theorist Luis del Valle Pascual, it was “based on the basic social forms (corporations, families, classical municipalities) and formulated by a ‘command hierarchy’ according to a ‘fair principle of selection.’ ”
If the Nationalists had won quickly, as was widely expected, nothing would have been settled. The irony is that the Civil War sought by the Left to permanently destroy the Right ended up doing the opposite. Both because of the smashing of the Left during and after the war, and because the great mass of Spaniards never wanted to return to the dark days of the war, Franco was able to remake Spain after the power of the Left was permanently broken.
True, Spain was ruined after he died, but not in the way that would have resulted if the Nationalists had not launched their counter-revolution, by mass slaughter and establishment of a Communist utopia. Those elements of the Left, as in Greece, were destroyed, and most of their successors took a different, Gramscian tack, resulting in Spain taking the same path to decay as the rest of Western Europe.
Franco’s governmental system therefore involved an “indirect and corporatist scheme of representation.” Whatever the specifics, which changed somewhat over the decades, the regime was widely supported by most of Spanish society (although foreigners could be forgiven for not realizing that, given the ongoing global Left propaganda campaign).
Nobody wanted to go back to the war, and most people, with the usual exceptions of some urban workers and radicalized agricultural laborers (along with Catalan and Basque separatists), saw that the Republicans having won would have been very bad indeed.
The majority of the revolutionary/Republican leaders had been executed or fled the country, and the rest of the remaining Republicans kept their mouths shut (although they were not persecuted). Franco emphasized the country’s Catholic identity, and he used the Movement to keep a firm lid on all segments of Nationalist support, gradually downgrading the Falange and keeping a firm lid on the monarchists.
From 1939 to 1945, Franco tried to get as much benefit as he could from the Second World War without becoming directly involved. Spain couldn’t actually join the Axis without imploding, since it depended on British-supplied oil and was in dire economic straits.
But Franco wanted to expand Spain’s possessions in North Africa, and when Hitler and Mussolini were at the height of their power, he was only too happy to curry favor—while refusing to actually offer anything meaningful, trying to keep up his balancing act of not overly angering the Allies. Certainly, Franco resonated with some aspects of National Socialism and Fascism, but was never interested in such systems being imposed in Spain, and refused to participate in persecutions of the Jews, accepting thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing France and ignoring the protests of the Germans and the Vichy French.
The major contribution to the Axis was that thousands of volunteer Spaniards fought against the Soviet Union, in the Blue Legion. Soon enough Franco realized that Hitler had reached his apogee, and delicately sidestepped away, trying to pretend that he was never really that serious about it anyway, and don’t you know that Communism is the real enemy? Still, this is probably the least attractive period of Franco’s career, though I suppose people who allied with Stalin shouldn’t really find too much fault with Franco’s choice of wartime friends.
Thus, Franco would have gotten autarchy even if that hadn’t been an economic goal of his, because after 1945, Spain was wholly isolated, due to its association with the Axis, and due even more to the global hatred of the Left for Franco and his success against the Left. Such rage dominated the American perspective, as well as pretty much every other major country other than England (where Churchill was very open that were he Spanish, he would have been a Nationalist).
Soon enough, though, between hard diplomatic work and the aggression of Stalin, relations with the United States improved. Under Eisenhower they became positively warm. Therefore, with his usual luck, Franco managed to emerge from World War II with Spain in a reasonably good position, and without the recurrence of the Republican threat.
Still, the 1940s mostly consisted of Spain staggering along economically. Moreover, this, along with Franco’s excessively relaxed attitude, encouraged widespread corruption, always the hallmark of a system with troubles (although Franco himself did not build a fortune, nor did his family get especially rich, at least by the standards of most authoritarian regimes).
Postwar Spain very much had the rule of law. Franco never interfered in the judicial process, which was uniformly applied (even though technically supreme judicial power was vested in him). The Cortes had free discussion. Every so often there were still death sentences, such as that imposed on Julián Grimau in 1963. Grimau was a Republican police officer who had been in charge of an infamous Barcelona prison where many were executed (mostly leftists in disfavor, but some Nationalists too).
He returned to Spain (why is not clear) and was arrested and sentenced (somewhat dubiously, using an obscure statute to get around the expiration of the statute of limitations).
This incident would not be important except for what it says about the Left and its lies. “The Communist leader was painted in the international media, however, as an innocent oppositionist, a peaceful organizer, about to be executed exclusively for being a political opponent. A massive clemency campaign got under way. . . . The Spanish embassy in Paris was firebombed.”
Nonetheless, Grimau was executed, causing more howls of rage from the Left, which succeeded in imposing another short period of international ostracism. Why this matters is that it shows that any claim made by the Left, that is, any claim in mainstream currency that makes the Nationalists look bad, has to be examined not only for its tilt, but for whether it has any truth at all, or is simply a pack of lies. Since the Left is so often able to control the narrative, and never has to pay any price for lying, it is encouraged to lie.
Franco maintained political order, and dropped his demand for autarchy, not so much because he had changed his mind but because he was convinced of the need to do so by his technocratic advisors (most of them Opus Dei members, including Franco’s closest advisor for decades, Luis Carrero Blanco, assassinated by a Basque bomb in 1973).
The idea that Franco ruled “with an iron hand” is silly; he actually didn’t spend much time ruling at all, and most governing was done by his cabinet, which he carefully balanced among competing political interests and periodically reshuffled to that end. “Franco was a ‘regenerationist’ who sought to economically develop his country while restoring and maintaining a conservative cultural framework, contradictory though those objectives were.”
Political controls, whether over the press or the political activity of unions or individuals, loosened over time, which was criticized by the Right and taken as a sign of weakness by the Left. That said, the political controls were never very aggressive; Solzhenitsyn was widely criticized by the Left when he visited Spain after he was exiled by the Soviets and snickered at the Spanish Left’s claim that they suffered under Franco; he pointed out that they could buy all the foreign newspapers they wanted, move wherever they wanted, and only suffered the lightest censorship. He was not invited back.
“The last twenty-five years of the Franco regime, from 1950 to 1975, was the time of the greatest sustained economic development and general improvement in living standards in all Spanish history.” GDP rose an average of 7.8 percent per year through the 1950s.
Payne compares Spanish economic policy in the 1960s to that of China today, noting that “the two main differences are that there was greater freedom in Spain during the 1960s than there [is] in China and that the proportion of state capitalism was much less.”
But, as Payne also notes, “Modernization resulted in a profound social, cultural, and economic transformation that tended to subvert the basic institutions of Franco and his regime.” The birth rate was deliberately, and successfully, encouraged to stay high. Land reform was gradually introduced, as was universal education.
All in all, Spain was made great again, although no doubt the carping Left managed to convey a different picture to the world of the time. But as this happened, in the 1960s and 1970s, Franco became somewhat out of touch, and more out of sympathy, with the new booming, glitzy, consumerist Spain, even if that was the inevitable result, at least in that era, of the economic dynamism he had sought and achieved.
Franco died in his bed in 1975, slowly and painfully but with no complaint, with his rule never having been challenged, and having carefully arranged the succession of political power to a restored monarchy, in the person of King Juan Carlos, grandson of Alfonso XIII, deposed in 1931. What Franco wanted was a strong monarchy, an avoidance of a return to political parties, which had caused so much trouble in the early twentieth century, and continued neotraditionalism.
He got none of those things. All the things that Franco had tried to do, except to prevent a Communist takeover, were largely and swiftly overturned, many even before he died. Materialism and consumerism ruled Spain; the birth rate plummeted; even the Church, long a bulwark of Francoism, turned left, with younger priests engaging in subversive activities and even encouraging violence (a harbinger of the corruption that has now swept over the Roman church).
King Juan Carlos, although he was more liberal than Franco hoped, but probably no more liberal than Franco thought likely, ensured that the Left was not able to immediately retaliate against Franco supporters as they gained power. So for some years Francoism was mostly ignored. Some writers, including Moradiellos, contort themselves to derive meaning from this silence.
They attribute it to a tacit agreement to move on. But silence is the default for all the great leftist crimes of the twentieth century; this attempt to derive meaning is merely an expression of surprise at the Left’s inability to successfully persecute anyone associated with Franco and Francoism after the end of that political system.
More likely this silence is indifference by modern Spaniards, who refused then and still refuse today to endorse the Left’s usual campaign to silence and punish their opponents of decades before.
Political memory is the essential fuel of the leftist engine of destruction, which requires delegitimizing any regime opposed to the Left, and that, as Moradiellos complains, a third of Spaniards choose “none” as their “personal political attitude to the immediate collective past,” simply shows that, for whatever reason, Spaniards generally refuse to buy into the Left’s hysterical demands for rewriting the past and using it for oppression in the present, which is to their credit.
In recent years the silence has been broken, because the Left in Spain has been running an aggressive campaign against Francoism, since the Left never forgets, unlike the Right. A key component of these campaigns is always the elimination of any agreed-upon amnesty that was offered the Right (the Left has a permanent amnesty in all cases, whether or not the law says so).
This campaign gets occasional notice in English-language media. One element of this has been to attack the mausoleum for Civil War dead Franco erected at the Valley of the Fallen (where he is also buried, although he did not specify that wish). The claim is made that it was built by “slaves”; Peter Hitchens echoes this claim.
Payne disagrees, and as always offers specifics as opposed to the generalities of leftist propagandists. “Such accusations are exaggerated. Between 1943 and 1950 a little more than two thousand prisoners convicted by military courts were employed, but they received both modest wages, as well as fringe benefits for their families, and a steep reduction in their prison terms, ranging from two to six days of credit for each day worked. Each was a volunteer for the project, and there were rarely more than three to four hundred at any given time. They worked under the same conditions as the regular laborers, and some of them later returned to join the regular work crew after completing their sentences.” The Pyramids this was not.
And a few weeks ago the Spanish government announced that Franco’s body would be disinterred. At least they are reinterring him in a government cemetery, rather than throwing his body in the river, though wait a few decades, and maybe that will happen too.
What Does This Imply?
We have now reached the point where, inevitably, I try to derive lessons for today. As always, one should not try to shoehorn the present into the past. Much is different between 2019 America and 1936 Spain, and not just that people are a lot fatter now.
The specific political issues of the day are quite different, in part because everyone being wealthy by historical standards long ago destroyed the mass appeal of Communism and true socialism (even if it appears to be having a resurgence of sorts), and anarchism is not on any relevant menus. Such specifics are less important than the basic divide between Left and Right, however, which remains exactly the same as it was in 1936.
The atrociously low level of public discourse today also adds to confusion; it is difficult sometimes to grasp the nub of arguments with the tremendous amount of chaff flying around in the air. But beyond these, there are two differences that really matter.
First, the divisions are much more poorly demarcated in America today. In Spain, who was Right and who was Left was clearly evident to everyone. Today, who is Left is mostly evident, though somewhat vaguer than in Spain, with more spread-out power centers and leadership, as well as more fragmented issues of focus.
But there is no equivalent in America today to any part of the 1930s Spanish Right. There is no powerful, organized opposition, or any organized opposition whatsoever, to the Left. The closest thing to an opposition is the masses of “deplorables,” who are denied all power by both the Democrats and Republicans in America, the latter group existing mostly to provide a pseudo-opposition to the Left, by promising the deplorables what they want and then reneging on even trying. No equivalent exists to the monarchists, or the Falange.
There is no powerful media that advances the Right agenda; there are some outposts of conservative monologues, and some Internet stars, but they are not allowed to set the narrative, which is wholly within the grasp of the Left or its enablers, as are the universities, the schools, all big corporations, and the entertainment media. Intellectual groups of conservatives in America are ineffectual, with no actual power or influence and no path to achieve it (although some could offer intellectual heft if there were an actual Right).
Second, and a consequence of the first difference, the specific enemies of today’s American Left are less clear. Spain had Right institutions staffed by people who could be easily targeted: the Church, the Army, the right-wing press, right-wing academics.
The Left focused on winning by eliminating those people. Today’s Left could not do that; if the Left were going to conduct a campaign of violent suppression, the targets would merely be occasional individuals who form the beginnings of a threat to the absolute Left hegemony (e.g., Jordan Peterson), not Right institutions or classes of people staffing those institutions, since there are neither such institutions nor such classes of people.
True, today’s Left does not need to do that, since it has gathered all power to itself, but either way, it makes attacks such as the Left conducted in Spain mostly pointless.
These two differences imply that a civil war here, today, of the type fought in Spain is very unlikely, whatever dark mutterings about the possibility keep cropping up on both the Right and Left. Even if the Right wanted to start a violent counter-revolution, it is not even remotely clear how that could be organized, or what the practical goals would be.
And the flashpoints that actually started the Civil War, private killings sanctioned by the government, are, despite the prevalence of low-level violence by the Left, really totally absent in America today. One can predict that they’re coming, but there’s little actual evidence of that, even if the normal historical arc of the Left is to converge on the desirability of physically eliminating opposition.
Sure, there is plenty of evidence of soft totalitarianism, where the Right is actively suppressed by denying prestigious education and remunerative employment, as well as membership in the ruling class, to anyone who dares to challenge the Left. It’s very hard to organize, or justify, high-level violence as a response to that, though. So yes, someday the grasp of the Left may exceed its reach, and result in civil war, but that does not appear imminent.
Such optimism, however, if that is what it is, depends on wealth, which can paper over a lot of sins and structural problems. The Left in power inevitably destroys wealth, because it always wants to enforce equality, by taking from the haves and giving to the have nots (hence the resurgence of true socialism).
The neoliberals who are only hard Left on social matters, while maintaining some semblance of economic reality (at the same time oppressing actual workers), will likely give way to the more attractive religious beliefs of the Marxists, while even on social matters they eat their own—both processes we see beginning in the current Democratic race for President.
At root, the Leftist program always has as its ultimate aim the achievement of utopia through the accomplishment of two concrete goals—remaking of society for “equality,” and the destruction of all core structures of society and their replacement by celebration of various forms of vice, this latter process labeled “liberty.”
It appears that people will, if it’s done non-violently, tolerate the former so long as their cup of consumer goods is full. When the music stops because the money runs out, whether because of economic irrationality or some externally imposed rupture, all bets about civil war are going to be off, because, I predict, the demarcations, and the leadership of groups so demarcated, will immediately arise.
The problem is that such demarcation will likely result in civil war, unless reality defeats and discredits the Left first, which is certainly possible. If not, it will have to be defeated permanently, as Franco very nearly did. It does no good to put the Left down if they will simply rise again; it is pointless to play Whack-A-Mole.
The Left must be stripped of all power and fully discredited, and to be discredited, it must be viewed by future generations as the intellectual equivalent of a combination of Nazism and the worship of Sol Invictus. I am not sure if that is even possible, since what the Left offers is so very, very seductive.
At a minimum it would require in the present day the equivalent of denazification; or perhaps the same kind of successful forgetting of the past implemented by King Charles II after the Restoration (not the typical Left forgetting of the past, which is just biding time until their past enemies can be destroyed). But it would also require offering something attractive as an alternative to the Leftist poison dream, which Franco did not do—he offered the past, which while better, does not inspire, and cannot be returned to. History has no arrow, but it does not go backward, either. The future must be what we make it.
Thus, at this moment Franco seems irrelevant. Or we are schooled to believe he is irrelevant, because we are conditioned to believe that the inevitable end of a regime like Franco’s is, well, like Franco’s—the return of left-wing dominance, at a minimum, the end of neotraditionalism, and triumph of liquid modernity.
We are so conditioned both because that is what has happened in all instances so far, not just of the ending of regimes like Franco’s, but also of the end of Communist regimes, which were replaced by “liberal democratic” regimes friendly to the philosophies that underlay Communism, but offering more Coca-Cola. We are further so conditioned because it is in the interests of, and a core belief of, the Left that history does have an arrow, and their triumph is the way it must be.
But this is really merely a glaring example of the error that George Orwell ascribed to James Burnham, to always be predicting “the continuation of the thing that is happening.” The opposite is actually true: the modern world of so-called liberal democracy is based on a fundamental denial of reality, and therefore it cannot continue.
Franco was not wrong that “inorganic democracy” is a silly system, something long recognized but forgotten in the modern era (and leaving aside that we don’t even have that anymore, as can be seen most clearly in Europe). Past performance is not only no guarantee, but no indicator, of future results; the Enlightenment project is played out.
So let’s predict the future. One possible path is the one we’re on: where Leftist oppression wears a smile and offers maximal freedom, that is, corrupt license, to everyone except those opposed to offering maximal freedom, and allows democracy as long as votes are for more of the same. Such is “liberal democracy” today; as Ryszard Legutko says, consisting of “coercion to freedom.” I imagine that as long as the money holds out, this could go along for a long time, even though collapse is a step function and no society at this point of degeneration has ever done anything but rapidly collapse.
Which leads us to the other possible path, getting off the path we’re on, pushing through some brambles, perhaps, and setting our steps on a broad and sunny path the contours of which were set, and the road itself paved, a long time ago. Franco proves it can be done, and just because Franco’s vision was shattered on his death, doesn’t mean the next entrant in the contest to bring virtue back to the West will suffer the same fate.
Even today, there are leaders pushing in this direction. In many ways, Viktor Orbán and his extremely popular Fidesz party in Hungary, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland, are the philosophical heirs of Franco, and are highly successful, which explains the hatred and vitriol directed their way by the global Left.
As Franco said in 1961, and as I am sure Orbán would agree, “The great weakness of modern states lies in their lack of doctrinal content, in having renounced a firm concept of man, life, and history. The major error of liberalism is in its negation of any permanent category of truth—its absolute and radical relativism—an error that, in a different form, was apparent in those other European currents that made ‘action’ their only demand and the supreme norm of their conduct [i.e., Communism and National Socialism]. . . . When the juridicial order does not proceed from a system of principles, ideas, and values recognized as superior and prior to the state, it ends in an omnipotent juridicial voluntarism, whether its primary organ be the so-called majority, purely numerical and inorganically expressed, or the supreme organs of power.” Exactly so.
This implies that the Left can be permanently defeated without war. But the only way out is through. As David Gress said of conservatives of the nineteenth century, “[T]hey were pessimists because they understood on the one hand that liberalism was the destiny of the West, and on the other that this set of doctrines was unable and unwilling, by its very nature, to restore the sense of self, of continuity, of belonging, and of tranquility that they considered essential to any civilization with a pretense to last.”
But liberalism has had its day; it is no longer the destiny of the West, but a played out set of empty and destructive doctrines. Through that reality, the future looks different, and brighter. We have rarely seen the Right offering this as an alternative, instead offering pabulum and the prayers that they will be eaten last. But we do see it being offered more often: in Hungary, in Poland, in Brazil, in Russia (though in dubious forms in those latter two).
In America, too, though without the organization or leadership found in those countries. It is not clear who could lead such a movement here. Certainly, nobody in evidence now. But the maelstrom births new creatures, some demons, some angels, some in-between. The right person at the right time can both defeat the Left and offer the future. Instead of offering that we will be as gods, he will offer that we be mighty among men, and he will offer human flourishing, rather than human destruction and depravity, the gifts of the Left.
What should be the goals of that man? His first step should be administrative: to create the organization on the Right that is lacking. This will be a new thing; the Man of Destiny will not rise through the Republican primaries and kiss Mitch McConnell’s ring, before settling into his seat in the Russell Office Building. Beyond that, though, what?
Franco, for all of his virtues, had a vision that was far too narrow. For the most part, he wanted to re-create the past, which is by definition impossible, and the attempt is both self-defeating and breeds unexpected consequences. He was the man to win the war, but really, he was not the man to lead the future, even Spain’s future.
What we want, what we need, is a new system drawing on the same roots, but not an insular, autarkic, inward-looking one. Rather, one dynamic, that can renew the shrinking human race. Perhaps it will renew the dying culture of the West, by far the best the world has ever seen. Or perhaps it is too late for that, and some form of synthesis to create a successor culture is necessary, as the West rose from Rome and the barbarians.
All doors are open, or will be, soon enough, and it will be the job of the new Franco, and his acolytes, to both unlock the correct door, and to step through.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows a poster of Franco, from the 1940s.