Untimely Observations

Canon Wars


I’m happy that Jim Kalb has gotten the conversation started about the “conservative canon” in preparation for next year’s HL Mencken Club meeting.

I’ve never felt at home in the American “conservative movement.” Sure, I agree with conservatives that income taxes are too high and Big Government is bad etc. etc. etc. But that’s the easy stuff. I’ve always sensed that, deep down, movement conservatives and I are informed and motivated by drastically different worldviews. No more have I felt this way than when I encounter various movement certified “reading lists.”

The lists of recommendations usually strike me as decent, if deficient and myopically skewed towards writers whose views are consistent with contemporary Christianity and Republican egalitarianism.  (The best of these “to read” list is Chilton Williamson’s Conservative Bookshelf).

The movement’s various Indices Librorum Prohibitorum, on the other hand, have seemed to me deeply philistine.

Paul Gottfried told me that he was actually asked to suggests titles for a “Ten Most Harmful Books” lists put out by Human Events. His editors were expecting him to suggest Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, but Gottfried proffered The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom instead, for the charge of perverting American conservatism. (It didn’t make the cut.)

Anyway, these lists of “Stuff Conservatives Don’t Like” reveal quite a bit about them. Let’s look, for instance, at Benjamin Wiker, author of 10 Books That Screwed Up the World (2008), and a man who’s made a career out of wagging his finger at bad, bad thinkers, most of them European, whose works are incommensurable with the “conservatism” he prefers. (Conservatism = democracy + free markets + God (or rather contemporary Christianity) + civil rights  + the Constitution – Darwin – abortion – race. Got it?)

Here’s Wiker’s list of forbidden titles:

  1. Machiavelli, The Prince
  2. Descartes, Discourse on Method
  3. Hobbes, Leviathan
  4. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men
  5. Marx, The Communist Manifesto
  6. Mill, Utilitarianism
  7. Darwin, The Descent of Man
  8. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
  9. Lenin, The State and Revolution
  10. Sanger, The Pivot of Civilization
  11. Hitler, Mein Kampf
  12. Freud, The Future of an Illusion
  13. Meade, Coming of Age in Samoa
  14. Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
  15. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

Thomas Woods Jr. blurbs, “Benjamin Wiker has read the worst books in Western Civilization so that you don’t have to.”

Okay...  I, for one, would expect any educated person to have read and studied titles 1-9 and 12, and to have at least a working knowledge of the ideas in 10-11 and 13-15.

Putting that aside—Conservatives love to repeat that “Idea Have Consequences,” but is it true that these books “screwed up the world”?

A lot of books that make lists like these are propaganda tracks—Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao, What Is To Be Done?—whose influence died with the dictators who published them. To say that Mao’s “little red book” caused the Cultural Revolution is to seriously mis-wire the lines of historical interpretation. Whether the “Kinsey Report” and The Feminine Mystiquecaused the sexual revolution and feminism—or were themselves symptoms of a deeper problem—is a serious question—and one that “banned books” lists don’t help much in answering. (One should also make distinctions between books that are insidious and far-reaching, and those that are merely bad and wrong.) 

Anyway, using Wiker’s list as a starting point, I’ve made a go at a reading list. I’ve limited myself to philosophy, political philosophy, and sociology, and I’ve also focused on the last 200 years of Western history (though I’ve made some obvious exceptions.) I’ve also divided these titles into sections to give an idea of the perspective from which one should read them. I don’t consider good books to be an unending sequence of Holy Writ. One must not only “know the enemy” but be educated by him as well.

I. Books that probably set the stage for egalitarianism, but which you should read anyway

  • Rousseau
  • Mill
  • Hegel (Needless to say, there is a right-wing Hegelian tradition—and it’s likely the textually correct one. I’ve heard one quip that the final battle between Left and Right Hegelians took place at Stalingrad!  Whatever the case, the Young Hegelian army has been far more influential.)

II. Illiberal Political Philosophy (Americans are unsympathetic to all these people, which is quite telling; this bug of an idea that sovereignty must be legalistic and democratic is deeply embedded in the American mind.) 

  • Machiavelli
  • Hobbes (Jim and I disagree on Hobbes)
  • Carl Schmitt

III.Gods of the Left. (These are the people one must read in order to understand the left-wing mind—and that of the current regime.)

  • Marx
  • Freud
  • Critical Theory—Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse
  • (Post-)Structuralists & Co.—Foucualt, Levi-Strauss, Levinas, Bordieu

IV. The Left We Can Learn From (By this I mean leftists whose strategic and tactical insights are useful, due, in part, to the fact that they existed in similar social positions as rightists find themselves in today.)

  • Lenin
  • Gramsci

V. The Reactionary Tradition

  • Edmund Burke
  • Juan Donoso Cortés
  • Joseph de Maistre

VI. Confronting Modernity (These thinkers should be juxtaposed to the “reactionaries” in that they sought to think through the full implications of modernity and attempted to overcome it—push through it to the other side—as opposed to return to the past.)   

  • Schopenhauer
  • Nietzsche
  • Heidegger
  • Spengler
  • Julius Evola

V. Biological Realism (American conservatives really, really hate this.)

  • Darwin, Francis Galton
  • Richard Lynn, John Philippe Rushton, and Arthur Jensen
  • Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard

VI.  Economic Realism (Traditionalists like to disparage economics. Applied logically, however, it is the only social science that is valid a priori. (E.g., increasing the quantity of a good will lower its marginal value in all possible worlds.) Hans-Hermann Hoppe has mentioned that no one can talk seriously about society without a working knowledge of economics (one that could be obtained by reading Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, for instance.) I agree.)

  • Mises
  • Rothbard
  • Hans-Herman Hoppe

VII. Contemporary Currents

  • Gottfried (After Liberalism)
  • James Kalb (The Tyranny of Liberalism)
  • Thomas Fleming (The Morality of Everyday Life)
  • “12 Southerners” (I’ll Take My Stand)
  • Kevin MacDonald (The Culture of Critique)
  • Murray Rothbard (Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays)
  • French New Left and Allies—Alain de Benoist and Giullaume Faye
  • Traditionalism

I consider this list a start—something to provoke discussion. And again, it is highly limited in that it omits the ancient and medieval worlds (and most of the early modern one).

We should also work on lists for essential historiography, including intellectual history, as well as poetry and novels. We also might want to create a list for “Non-Canonical Classics,” that is, great books that are timely, journalistic, and not written as philosophy—but nevertheless must be read. Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation, Patrick Buchanan’s Death of the West are excellent examples in this regard, but not the only ones.