The following address was delivered to the HL Mencken Club's annual meeting in Baltimore, October 22, 2010.
Let me do a little scene-setting. It is March of 1910 — just 100 years and change ago. William Howard Taft is in the White House; Edward the Seventh, very nearly Taft's equal in girth, was on the British throne. China's last Emperor was in the Forbidden City, and the Russian Empress was under the spell of Rasputin.
Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy were still alive. The population of the U.S.A. was 92 million, including 450,000 veterans of the Civil War (North and South) and 162 households recorded in the census of that year as "living in polygamy." Thirteen percent of us were foreign born. Total government spending was eight percent of GDP.
The automobile was settling in, airplanes were still a novelty, Picasso was painting, Mahler was composing, Nijinsky was dancing, Caruso was singing, H.G. Wells was writing, and Mary Pickford had just started in the movies. The year's hit pop song was "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."
Adolf Hitler was living in a homeless shelter in Vienna, Lenin was writing angry pamphlets in cheap rooming houses, Stalin was on the run from the Tsar's secret police, FDR was a lawyer on Wall Street, Churchill was Trade Secretary in H.H. Asquith's cabinet, Gandhi was agitating for civil rights in South Africa, and Mao Tse-Tung was in high school. Barry Goldwater was in diapers and Ronald Reagan was a twinkle in his Dad's eye.
There was a lot of 20th century still to run.
H.L. Mencken was 29 years old, in his fourth year at the Baltimore Sun. He'd been a reporter and drama critic for the Baltimore Herald, which went belly-up in 1906. He'd also contributed some light, jokey pieces to the Herald: not quite opinion columns in the modern sense, but that was because Mencken had not yet invented the modern newspaper opinion column. He'd published a book of verse, a book about Shaw's plays, and a study of Nietzsche.
In March of this year, 1910, he published another book, Men versus the Man. Terry Teachout, in his 2002 biography of Mencken, gives the book the merest passing mention, thus:
He … conducted an epistolary debate on individualism with a socialist acquaintance that eventually appeared in book form as Men versus the Man … Men versus the Man shows how his political thinking had solidified — hardened, really. The law of the survival of the fittest, he declares, is "immutable," thus making socialism an absurdity; human progress is the product of the will to power, and all social arrangements failing to take this fact into account are doomed to failure; inequality is natural, even desirable, both in and of itself and as an alternative to mob rule; the world exists to be run by "the first-caste man."
That's not a bad summary. I am, however, a lazy and inattentive reader, and had forgotten all about Men versus the Man probably even before I set down Teachout's biography.
Then in early September this year an occasional e-correspondent of mine sent me an email with some comments on, quote from him, "a fun book that I hadn't heard of before." It was that same book, Men versus the Man.
These comments piqued my curiosity more than Teachout's had. Off I went to the second-hand book websites, and there it was. It cost me $21.85, much more than I'd normally spend on a book. If I want a new book, I cadge a copy from a literary editor or from the author: if I want an old book I log on to Abebooks.com, and consider myself cheated if I pay more for the book than for the postage. With Mencken though you can be sure of a decent intellectual return on investment, so here it is.
The book I got is actually a photo-scan of the copy from Cornell University library, the text now being in the public domain. Our university libraries seem to be doing a fair amount of this kind of thing, and I can't think of a better use of their time.
Well, what's it all about? As Teachout says, the book is laid out in the form of an epistolary debate. There are twelve letters altogether, around twenty pages per, six from Mencken's socialist friend and six responses from Mencken himself.
The friend is Robert Rives La Monte. An entire hour of Internet browsing turned up nothing about this gentleman other than that he was the author of a handful of books and pamphlets on socialism in the early 20th century. (I shall quote from another one of them in a little while.) In desperation I even tried using his name as a search argument in Google Images: it's surprising how often you can find nothing written about a person, and yet turn up a picture. Google Images did offer some rather pleasing erotic paintings by an obscure French artist utterly unrelated to my quarry, but nothing else.
Mencken, in a remark I'll quote at the end of this talk, speaks of La Monte in passing as living on a country estate, so perhaps he was an early specimen of the limousine liberal; but Mencken is not very reliable on matters relating to people he disagreed with, so we cannot say for sure.
La Monte therefore remains a shadowy figure to me, and so must to you.1 The important thing about him for our purposes here tonight is that in 1907 he had published a book preaching socialism; Mencken must have read it; the two of them engaged in these six exchanges in 1909; and the following year they put them out in book form.
Plus ça change …
So here we have six letters from La Monte, a Marxist socialist, and six letters in response from H.L. Mencken, a Nietzschean individualist, the correspondence conducted 101 years ago.
The intellectual fun of reading material like this is in sorting out what, after the lapse of a century, has changed, and what has stayed the same.
The thing that has most obviously changed is socialism. La Monte is preaching the old-time religion of unmodified Marxism, with its iron-clad faith in modes of production as being prior to every aspect of human nature and human history.
Everything about human society — everything we should nowadays call "the culture": law, religion, ethics, customs, science, literature, crime, the family, the nation — is mere superstructure, built on the foundation rocks of property relations. Quote from La Monte:
So long as science was a mere shuttlecock tossed hither and thither by varying class interests nothing worthy of the name of science was so much as possible. Not until the Social Revolution shall have wiped out class lines forever, will a true science, that is a broadly human, instead of a class, science, arise. [p.144]
Here, we Socialists have the advantage of you, for we do know, in the language of Friedrich Nietzsche, "how ideals are manufactured on earth." We do know that human ideals are determined by the modes of production and exchange; and, therefore, we know that the commercial ideal of boundless wealth will persist just as long as the means of production and distribution remain private property, and we do know that the Social Revolution, now close at hand, which will transform these into common or collective property will usher in the new and glorious ideal of social service … [p.211]
If you change the economic fundamentals, therefore, you will transform society, and liberate human nature to flourish in freedom, fulfilling the potential it always had, and always has, in every one of us.
The working people of the industrial world of course know this. How can you be oppressed and not know it? They are gathering in strength, and will soon come into their birthright.
It all sounds preposterously naïve to us now, a hundred years later. The naïvety of it in fact became apparent to socialists rather soon. The disillusioning event was World War One, when the workers of the industrial world, instead of responding to the crisis by casting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting the meek and humble, obediently, and in fact enthusiastically, marched off to war under their upper-class officers, singing patriotic songs.
World War One was a terrible shock to socialists. La Monte himself recorded the shock in a book he wrote in 1917, title The Socialist Attitude on the War.
Most of us have realized at least subconsciously, that we were at heart dreamers … The choicest product of our uncurbed imaginations was a kind of Marxian Economic Man, a sort of … marionette without red blood or emotional impulses, who responded solely to economic stimuli. Just show this curious monster where lay his economic interest … and he could be depended on to pursue it ruthlessly . . . Since August 4th, 1914 even the dullest of us are beginning to realize that men and women of flesh and blood do not act like economic marionettes.
That belongs to what my friend Roger Kimball calls "the literature of disabusement." It was obvious that Marx had not gotten things quite right.
The way Marxists recovered from this blow, and the subsequent history of socialism in the Western world, are I think sufficiently well known to all of us here. Through the 1920s all sorts of awkward questions were tackled by theorists like George Lukács and Antonio Gramsci. Was Marx right in his methods but wrong in his data? If all non-economic facts were part of the secondary, transformable superstructure, then wasn't Marxism itself part of that superstructure too? Most of all: If the consciousness of the working classes was formed by their economic condition at the bottom of capitalist society, why had they so eagerly marched off to fight for their bourgeois masters?
Much brainpower was devoted through the 1920s and 1930s to working out satisfactory answers to these kinds of questions — answers that would leave intact the essential Marxist critique of capitalist society and the even more essential (one cannot help thinking) dream of a New Jerusalem populated by New Men.
Obviously some sort of feedback loop was present and had somehow been missed by Marx. The culture of bourgeois society might be a flimsy and malleable "superstructure," but once in place it worked on the minds of the proletariat somehow, giving them "false consciousness," a notion already found in an embryonic form in the works of Engels. Instead of being a marionette who, once his economic interest had been pointed out to him, "could be depended on to pursue it ruthlessly," the proletarian became, in the Western Marxism that developed through the middle decades of the 20th century, a dumb marionette helplessly lost in illusions foisted on him by bourgeois culture.
Since Johnny Prole wasn't capable of bringing forth the New Jerusalem in this sedated condition, some surrogate proletariat had to be found. It accordingly was, in groups so marginalized and oppressed that they, or at least useful numbers of them, were immune to false consciousness: women, blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, and so on. Recruitment into these legions of the oppressed continues to the present day, with "immigrants" the most recently enlisted. Speaking personally, as an immigrant myself, I find this baffling; but no doubt I am suffering from false consciousness.
There has thus been a great change in the nature of socialism since 1910. From the naïve romanticism of La Monte, via the great disillusioning of World War One, to the reconstructive efforts of Lukács and Gramsci in the 1920s, the labors of the Frankfurt school through the thirties and forties, to the sixties New Left and the Political Correctness, romantic xenophilia, and deference to transgressive sexuality of our own time, it's been a long hundred years for socialists.
What of Mencken's ideas? They belong more to a tendency, an outlook, than to a systematized school of thought like Marxism; but is that tendency still with us? If so, has it undergone any modification since 1910?
Well, plainly the broad tendency Mencken represented is still with us, or else why would we be assembled here under his name? And yes, its actual expression has undergone some changes this past hundred years, though I think in scope and scale nothing like those that have been forced upon socialists by the repeated muggings they have suffered at the hands of reality. Being rooted at least approximately in reality, Mencken's ideas have been more robust, much better able to take care of themselves.
But modification, yes. The most obvious change has been in our thinking about the relations between biology and human society. The modern phase of that thinking had been fired off by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species fifty years before the Mencken-La Monte exchanges.
Just dwell on that span of time for a moment. Fifty years separates us from 1960, so that Mencken was to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection approximately as we are to the first stirrings of the sociobiology revolution in the human sciences, taking that revolution as having begun with William Hamilton's papers in 1964.
The rediscovery of Mendel's work on inherited characteristics was, for Mencken and La Monte, in the very recent past, too recent for them to have assimilated it. Mencken doesn't mention Mendel at all in this book, and La Monte only mentions him to betray the fact that he completely misunderstands Mendel's discoveries. The actual biochemical mechanisms of inheritance were of course completely mysterious to both writers, the discovery of DNA 40-odd years in the future.
In these kinds of circumstances, and among people like Mencken and La Monte, neither of whom had any real scientific training, scientific ideas tend to get misappropriated for emotional, polemical, or political purposes. In Mencken's case this most conspicuously happened with the collection of ideas that later came to be called "social Darwinism."
Herbert Spencer is the villain here. If there is a prize awarded in Hell for the coining of phrases that lead men into gross error, Spencer must be the winner in the nineteenth century division for having given us the phrase "survival of the fittest." The subtle and fruitful notion of Darwinian fitness, which you actually need a lot of math to appreciate in all its elegance and explanatory power, got dragged over into economics and politics and was soon synonymous with robber barons and Nietzschean blonde beasts. (That latter, by the way, a confusion which would have infuriated Nietzsche, who actually understood Darwin quite well.)
Mencken was a social Darwinist in this regrettable sense, and freely deployed the phrase "survival of the fittest" in defense of his social ideas. Nobody would do that nowadays.
Unfortunately this is not because, or only very partially because, proper understanding of biology is now more widespread. It is much more an aspect of what my friend Peter Brimelow calls "Hitler's revenge." We defeated the Nazi armies and killed their ideology; but the horrors that ideology had generated left us terrified that it might rise from the dead. To prevent that happening, we ruled out of polite discourse all the intellectual streams that had fed into the Nazi pond, of which social Darwinism was certainly one.
That we might be throwing out some babies with the bathwater was not considered. That the ideas of social Darwinism — however wrong-headed the implication that they had something to do with actual Darwinism — that those ideas might have some merit, was no longer a thinkable thought.
The Trotskyists of my college days, defending Marxism against the charge that it inevitably led to tyranny and mass murder under despots like Stalin, Mao, and Castro, used to chide us that "an idea should not be held responsible for the people who hold it." That Hitler was, as he undoubtedly was, a variety of social Darwinist, killed off social Darwinism stone dead. Somehow the fact that Stalin was, as he undoubtedly was, a variety of socialist, did not kill off socialism. These are the paradoxes of intellectual history.
To show how sensibilities have changed, here is Mencken writing in a way nobody, not even Mencken's greatest fan, would write nowadays.
As a matter of fact, the typical low-caste man is entirely unable to acquire that power of ordered and independent reasoning which distinguishes the man of higher caste. You may, by dint of heroic endeavors, instil into him a parrotlike knowledge of certain elemental facts, and he may even make a shift to be a schoolmaster himself, but he will remain a stupid and ignorant man, none the less. More likely, you will find that he is utterly unable to assimilate even the simplest concepts. The binomial theorem is as far beyond his comprehension as an epigram in Persian. And this inability to understand the concepts formulated by others is commonly but the symptom of a more marked incapacity for formulating new concepts of his own. In the true sense, such a being cannot think. Within well-defined limits, he may be trained, just as any other sentient creature my be trained, but beyond that he cannot go.
The public school can never hope to raise him out of his caste. It can fill him to the brim — but then it must stop. He is congenitally unteachable. A year after he has left school, he has forgotten nearly all that he learnt there. At twenty-one, when the republic formally takes him into its councils, he is laboring with pick and shovel in his predestined ditch, a glad glow in his heart and a strap around his wrist to keep off rheumatism. [p.160]
We're some distance there from No Child Left Behind.
This is not even to mention Mencken's opinions of, for instance, the "foul, ignorant, thieving, superstitious, self-appointed negro preacher of the Black Belt, whose mental life is made up of three ambitions — to eat a whole hog at one meal, to be a white man in heaven, and to meet a white woman, some day, in a lonely wood." [p.234]
… plus c'est la même chose
So much for what has changed this hundred years. What, on the evidence of Men versus the Man, has stayed the same?
The short answer is: underlying notions. Human thinking about human nature and human society has only a small number of modes, most of which first showed up among the ancients. The actual expression of any mode is to some degree a creature of time and fashion, but the fundamentals really don't vary.
The most fundamental of the fundamentals in La Monte's case is the faith he expresses, using the language of original unmodified Marxism, in innate human equality. To be sure, he says, we observe much inequality, both in men's conditions and in their capabilities; but those observed inequalities are distortions brought about by an unjust social order.
That was by no means a nonsensical opinion in 1910. My own mother, just sixteen years later, though an intelligent and bookish child, had to leave school at age fourteen and go into domestic service. Mum was one of 13 children of a coal-miner, and her family needed her to generate some income. Many a talent was stunted by social deprivation in Mencken's time, though I believe this was less true in the United States than in England, or perhaps anywhere.
It does not follow that every coal miner's daughter was a stifled genius. That was the implication taken by the socialists, though. Human nature, they believed, has no structure, human capabilities have no relation to biology. Released from the constraints of late-capitalist society, the human spirit would blossom — not merely in general, but in every single particular human being. Every person would be a Shakespeare, a Mozart, a Faraday … though it was left unclear which one he would decide to be: perhaps all, either in series or in parallel.
This conception has survived all the intellectual storms endured by 20th-century socialism, all those muggings by reality. It's on display at a theater near you right now, in the movie Waiting for Superman. Here I bring forward my favorite quotation on this subject. It is New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon, interviewing Charles Murray two years ago on the publication of Charles' book Real Education. Quote from Ms. Solomon: "Given the opportunity, most people could do most anything."
La Monte agrees.
Socialism will abolish poverty and satiety, and make joyousness the dominant note of humanity; it will make it impossible for self-interest to clash with social welfare, and will thus make the Golden Rule work universally and automatically. "May we not expect," asks Kautsky, "that under such conditions a new type of mankind will arise which will be far superior to the highest type which culture has hitherto created? An Over-man (Über-mensch), if you will, not as an exception but as a rule, an Over-man compared with his predecessors, but not as opposed to his comrades, a noble man who seeks his satisfaction not by being great among crippled dwarfs, but great among the great, happy among the happy — who does not draw his feeling of strength from the fact that he raises himself upon the bodies of the down-trodden, but because a union with his fellow-workers gives him courage to dare the attainment of the highest tasks." [p.223]
This faith in the infinite malleability of the individual human being has survived all these decades unscathed, from the Taft presidency to Obama's, from Mary Pickford to Miley Cyrus. And of course it long predates La Monte. In the form of the tabula rasa concept, it goes all the way back through intellectual history to Avicenna and Aristotle.
It was socialists who carried it forward through the 20th century though, and made it into an obscurantist hindrance to our understanding of ourselves. E.O. Wilson pointed this out in his 1978 book On Human Nature:
The strongest opposition to the scientific study of human nature has come from a small number of Marxist biologists and anthropologists … They believe that nothing exists in the untrained human mind that cannot be readily channeled to the purposes of the revolutionary socialist state. When faced with the evidence of greater structure, their response has been to declare human nature off limits to further scientific investigation.
And if equality between individuals is a cherished principle, how much more equality between populations, however isolated and inbred. The socialist propagandist Stephen Jay Gould laid down the marker here, in a 1984 essay:
Say it five times before breakfast tomorrow; more important, understand it as the center of a network of implication: "Human equality is a contingent fact of history."
Mencken is having none of that; and as as today's race deniers, world-uplifters, educational romantics, and enthusiasts for unlimited immigration from absolutely everywhere all share their core assumptions with Robert Rives La Monte, however naïve his faith in the proletariat, so today's race realists, anti-globalists, educational reductionists, and immigration restrictionists can draw nourishment from Mencken, however coarse his disdain for what he unabashedly calls "the low-caste man."
Having introduced there Mencken's favorite term for the persons at the wrong end of his social Darwinism, I had better let him explain what he means by "caste." First, the "high-caste" man:
What virtues do I demand in the man who claims enrollment in the highest caste? Briefly, I demand that he possess, to an unusual and striking degree, all of those qualities, or most of them, which most obviously distinguish the average man from the average baboon. If you look into the matter, you will find that the chief of these qualities is a sort of restless impatience with things as they are — a sort of insatiable desire to help along the evolutionary process. The man who possesses this quality is ceaselessly eager to increase and fortify his mastery of his environment. He has a vast curiosity and a vast passion for solving the problems it unfolds before him. His happiness lies in the consciousness that he has made some progress today in comprehending and turning to his uses those forces which menaced him yesterday. His eye is fixed, not upon heaven, but upon earth; not upon eternity, but upon tomorrow. He enters the world infinitely superior to a mere brute … By his life and labors, the human race, or some part of it, makes some measurable progress, however small, upward from the ape. [p.113]
This is in contrast to the "low-caste" man, whom Mencken characterizes by "chronic and ineradicable suspiciousness, orthodoxy, stupidity, lack of foresight, and inability to learn." [p.109]
It is interesting that Mencken uses the word "caste" in this context. He was a writer who chose his words carefully, and it seems to me odd that he chose this one. The essence of caste is social separation and endogamy; yet Mencken makes it clear elsewhere that he favors social mobility.
Dealing thus with countless individuals, it sets them off, roughly, into castes, but there are no palpable barriers about these castes. A man born into the lowest may die in the highest. A race as generally inefficient as the African may produce an occasional Hannibal or Dumas, and a race at the top of the scale may have its hordes of idiots. In one century, when the general environment of humanity puts a premium upon a certain kind of skill, the race best displaying it may rule the world, and two centuries later, when changes in environment make some other kind of skill more valuable, that same race may sink to practical slavery. The great reward is always to the race, as to the individual, which best masters the present difficulty and meets the present need. [p.239]
This is a generous and broadminded view of social structure. While individuals have their particular inborn traits, and races their general ones, a person of great ability might rise from any kind of background, and there is no sign that Mencken would wish by any means to prevent that person's rise.
A socialist would say that we all have the same innate abilities in potential, but that those abilities wither and die under conditions of social oppression. You may not wish — Mencken plainly does not wish — to hold down any person from expressing his ability, but (says the socialist) the unjust society that you and Mencken so smugly accept will do the holding-down anyway. These are the same notions we see today in cant denunciations of "our failing schools" and the like.
While much has changed, therefore, much has stayed the same.
Will this argument ever end? There is some prospect that it might, possibly within our lifetimes … or some of our lifetimes. Information science, neurophysiology, molecular and computational genetics, population studies, and paleoanthropology are probing deeper and deeper into human nature. Some of the results have been over-sold and some of the difficulties — I think I'll say most of the difficulties — under-estimated, but there is visible progress in our understanding since technologies like brain imaging and gene sequencing came up this past twenty years.
The argument of Men versus the Man is one we are still having today. The content of the argument is the relative desirability of two approaches to our social life. On the one hand is proposed a society of men: a society in which none is allowed to rise too high above another, a society that subtracts great resources from the more able in an effort to raise up the less able. On the other hand is a society of the man: a society in which individuals are left to do what they can with their inherited capabilities, in conditions of maximum personal freedom and minimal state control.
The argument has been going on in one form or another for a couple of millennia. It is reasonable to hope that we might soon — in less than another century, I'd hope — attain sufficient understanding of our species to know beyond doubt which kind of society is more stable and enduring, which less likely to foster cruelty and injustice.
Mencken versus Men versus the Man
Nine years later, which is to say in 1919, Mencken made a passing reference to Men versus the Man. This was in an essay on the Norwegian-American sociologist Thorstein Veblen, the man who gave us the phrase "conspicuous consumption." La Monte was quite taken with Veblen and had quoted him many times and at length in his sides of the exchanges with Mencken.
I'm going to read you Mencken's 1919 remarks, in part because they makes a nice coda to my talk here tonight, and in part because I just love the sound of Mencken's voice, and it seems fitting to send you to dinner with that voice ringing in your ears. Here we go: Over to you, Harry.
Back in the year 1909, being engaged in a bombastic discussion with what was then known as an intellectual Socialist (like the rest of the intelligentsia, he succumbed to the first fife-corps of World War I, pulled down the red flag, damned Marx as a German spy, and began whooping for Woodrow Wilson and Otto Kahn), I was greatly belabored and incommoded by his long quotations from a certain Prof. Thorstein Veblen, then quite unknown to me. My antagonist manifestly attached a great deal of importance to these borrowed sagacities, for he often heaved them at me in lengths of a column or two, and urged me to read every word of them. I tried hard enough, but found it impossible going. The more I read them, in fact, the less I could make of them, and so in the end, growing impatient and impolite, I denounced this Prof. Veblen as a geyser of pishposh, refused to waste any more time upon his incomprehensible syllogisms, and applied myself to the other Socialist witnesses in the case, seeking to set fire to their shirts.
That old debate, which took place by mail (for the Socialist lived in levantine luxury on his country estate and I was a wage-slave attached to a city newspaper), was afterward embalmed in a dull book, and got the mild notice of a day. The book, by name, Men vs. the Man, is now as completely forgotten as Baxter's Saint's Rest or the Constitution of the United States. I myself am perhaps the only man who remembers it at all, and the only thing I can recall of my opponent's argument (beyond the fact that it not only failed to convert me to Marxism, but left me a bitter and incurable scoffer at democracy in all its forms) is his curious respect for the aforesaid Veblen, and his delight in the learned gentleman's long, tortuous and (to me, at least) intolerably flapdoodlish phrases.
Here tonight, ninety-one years further on, I am glad to have brought to light, even under these regrettably obscure circumstances, that book Mencken believed "completely forgotten"; and to have tried, at least, to illustrate that even so slight a production of our patron's mind, so long left to gather dust on the high back shelves of university libraries, might have something to tell us today.