by fred siegel
encounter, 240 pages, $23.99
There once was an influential group of American intellectuals and activists who held what many nowadays would consider strange and even reprehensible ideas. They were elitists, who believed that the republic should be ruled by geniuses and great-souled men. They were mistrustful of democracy, and some of them didn’t even believe that all Americans should be allowed to vote. They were cosmopolitans, influenced by the beliefs of foreign thinkers. They were deeply critical of many aspects of the United States: the irrational religious enthusiasms and dangerous sectarian passions of its people, the chaotic nature of its governance, and the materialism of its middle and lower classes, with their vulgar interests in making money and advancing themselves.
These men were, in fact, the Founding Fathers of the country. But the description would also fit many prominent liberal thinkers of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Times change, and some things that past generations took for granted appear bizarre to us now, just as many of our beliefs probably will seem strange to future generations. But in his new book, The Revolt Against the Masses, Fred Siegel insists that the essence of liberalism has always been snobbery. Liberalism’s eternal enemy, in his view, is the American middle class and its traditional views of capitalism and mass democracy. President Barack Obama’s “top-and-bottom coalition,” pitting the rich and poor against the middling sorts, is no new innovation but has defined liberalism since its origins.
Siegel states at the outset that he does not intend to offer “a comprehensive history of American liberalism.” Rather, he aims to rewrite that history by showing how the snobbery of liberalism has developed since its origins among the writers and thinkers who grew disillusioned with American society in the wake of World War I.
Siegel claims that liberalism did not originate in progressivism, which he considers to have been a moralistic and middle-class Protestant movement with little relevance to liberalism. Instead, it began with a small group of intellectuals and writers, mostly based in Greenwich Village, who were inspired by Henry Adams’s patrician resentment of America’s common-man culture and by H. G. Wells’s view that the rulers of the future would be an enlightened gentry.
Like communism and fascism, liberalism was a rebellion against “the failings of the rising middle class,” according to Siegel. Liberals “had a quarrel with the industry, immigration, and economic growth that had produced unprecedented prosperity in the United States.” The founding fathers of the ideology were Herbert Croly, a cofounder and editor of the New Republic, and Randolph Bourne, a young writer and polemicist. They argued for “a secular priesthood that could Europeanize America”: a cabal of experts, social scientists, and disinterested intellectuals that would reject the Constitution and democracy in order to repress middle-class capitalists. When a split developed in the nascent liberal community over President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to take the country into World War I, liberalism developed from those who, like Bourne, broke with Wilson and progressivismbecause, Siegel insinuates, they wanted Germany to win. Where progressives had sought democratic reforms, the new liberals “saw the American democratic ethos as a danger to freedom at home and abroad.”
Liberalism found full expression in the 1920s, when its leading writers and thinkersincluding H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens, and Edmund Wilsondeveloped the contempt for American culture and politics, and hostility toward the middle class, that in Siegel’s view has defined the ideology ever since. By the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, many of these liberals had fallen under the influence of communism, which influenced liberal designs for economic planning and social regimentation and fit neatly with the liberals’ view of themselves as an enlightened vanguard.
Siegel makes some telling criticisms of the preWorld War II generations of left-leaning intellectuals. They often were dismissive of the heritage and unique qualities of the United States, clueless about capitalism, too ready to see small-business owners as a proto-fascist petty bourgeoisie, and too prone to thinking of big business as an oppressive force. Siegel is right that Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which took this line of left thinking to its logical conclusion, wasn’t a plausible or even particularly well-written book. And the political naivete of these intellectuals, combined with their underestimation of the strength of democracy, inclined many of them toward Stalinism in the 1930s and communist apologism ever after.
The “vital center” liberalism of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other midcentury figures seemed to represent a “brief reconciliation between liberals and their country,” but according to Siegel this was mostly an illusion, since Schlesinger and others of his ilk were still elitists and anti-business snobs. Liberals went on to kill high culture, lay waste to America’s cities, expel the white working class from the Democratic party, destroy peaceable relations among the races, bankrupt government at all levels, and splinter society. The only reason liberalism survives despite its unbroken record of policy failures, according to Siegel, is its “concatenation of crony capitalism, credentialism, and contraception.”
Like Spiro Agnew, Siegel has a way with consonance and a knack for vituperation. But while he makes some perceptive criticisms of liberalismand it has offered ample reason for criticismhe fails to offer anything approaching a coherent definition of “liberalism.” He simply assumes that anyone on the left is a liberal.
Yet most of the people he identifies as liberals were actually radicals, socialists, Marxists, communists, New Leftists, or adherents of other ideologies that were actively opposed to liberalism. The critic Dwight Macdonald, for example, at various times described himself as a Trotskyist, a pacifist, an anarchist, a conservative, and a New Leftist, but he would have been horrified to have been called a liberal. Of course, some non-liberal ideologies did have some influence on some liberals at some times, but Siegel does not trace these connections. He is content to suggest that such disparate figures as Wells, Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Malcolm X, Susan Sontag, and Frantz Fanon collectively define liberalism.
Conservatives who applaud this sort of thinking can make no principled objection when liberals equate mainstream conservatism with the John Birch Societyor Hitler, for that matter. In The Reactionary Mind (2011), Corey Robin claimed that such dissimilar figures as Burke, Hayek, Nietzsche, and Reagan were all essentially alike in their repression of change and dissent. One wonders whether Siegel noticed the liberal acclaim for that book and decided that he wanted to be the Corey Robin of the right.
The fact is that intellectuals think about and respond to ideas without necessarily adopting them outright. For example, some liberal readers of José Ortega y Gasset’s work The Revolt of the Masses (1930), which Siegel’s book plays against in its title, may well have been taken with Ortega’s warnings about the dangers of conformism and consumerism. But others found it of more value for its speculations about the nature of scientific discovery, and Schlesinger seems to have been most interested in its use of generational analysis as a historical tool.
Condemning Ortega’s work as the essence of liberalism also runs up against the problem that William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the modern conservative movement, was one of the most ardent admirers of The Revolt of the Masses. Indeed, Buckley worked for several years during the early 1960s on a book, eventually abandoned, to be entitled The Revolt Against the Masses, in which he would endorse Ortega’s condemnation of mass-supported statism, commercialized culture, and universal suffrage. Buckley’s conservatism, at that point, bore a rather close resemblance to Siegel’s caricature of liberalism.
At times Siegel genuflects in the direction of objectivity, as when he concedes that “liberalism at its best” has occasionally reverenced the ideals of free speech and pluralism, or that Schlesinger correctly understood communism and the Cold War. But even these concessions typically carry some qualifieras with Siegel’s charge that liberals support free speech only when it benefits their sideor reveal some historical misunderstanding. Siegel claims, for example, that liberals were at the forefront of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s since it was “the very alienation of liberals from the mainstream of American life that made them far more sensitive to the injustices of racism and segregation than other Americans were.” But liberalism at that time was the mainstream; that was the bedrock assertion on which the conservative movement was built.
One might also point out that Siegel never defines the “masses” that liberals allegedly despise, gathering under that rubric groups that at various points seem to constitute the proletariat, immigrants, the middle class, Main Street business owners, and/or titans of industry. Or one might wonder why a book about liberalism gives such scant mention of the Depression, the New Deal, Keynesianism, or the rise and fall of the craft and industrial unionism that, under liberal auspices, did much to elevate the white working class into the middle class.
But such criticism seems beside the point. Those who seek a hard-hitting but level-headed analysis of the failures of modern liberalismits love of bureaucracy, its incomprehension of the people it purportedly seeks to assist, its sentimental egalitarianism on racial matterswould do better to read Siegel’s earlier work, The Future Once Happened Here. By contrast, The Revolt Against the Masses suggests an author too maddened by liberalism to make a coherent case against its ideologists.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.