Jacques Barzun, Historian for All Time

Karl Marx sculpture in Chemnitz, Germany. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)
The wisdom and relevance of his salvo against Darwin, Marx, and Wagner endures, 80 years later.

Eighty years ago, in that ominous year 1941, the Franco-American historian Jacques Barzun (1903–2012) published a work of cultural history that has retained power and relevance when most such books, however worthy, live a life of temporary influence and then are occasionally consulted on the shelves of university libraries. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage has had a longer and deeper subsequent influence, being republished in only slightly revised editions but with new prefaces in 1958 and 1981 and frequently reprinted in paperback. It is a great, antiseptic book, almost as necessary now as it was at the high tide of German National Socialist “racial science” and Soviet Communist “scientific socialism” in 1941, and just as these two ferocious states and ideologies commenced their terrible war on the European Eastern Front, caused by the unexpected betrayal by Hitler of the Nazi–Soviet “nonaggression pact” that had been in effect since August 1939 and that had allowed these two totalitarian predators to conquer, divide up, and devour the small, free states of Eastern Europe.

Barzun’s book was very timely as the political and even allegedly scientific prestige of Nazism and Communism was at its zenith all over the West, and one or other of these two novel, hypermodern ideologies seemed to many people of all classes to be the wave of the future that the economically depressed, morally bedraggled states of Western Europe and North America could only look on with envy and trepidation. France, Britain, and the United States had gone through an intellectually “Red decade” in which Marxists had not taken power but nevertheless occupied the high ground in public debate. Roosevelt’s New Deal had not achieved American recovery, whereas Japan and Italy had taken the Fascist-Nazi-Nationalist-Imperialist road so spectacularly, vigorously, and apparently unstoppably pursued in the conquest of most of continental Europe by Hitler and his high-tech War Machine between 1938 and 1941.

Barzun’s targets were three thinkers whose works and perspectives had acquired in the period after 1859 an immense influence, leading at first to what Barzun’s teacher Carlton J. H. Hayes called, in a fine political and cultural history also published in 1941, “a generation of materialism” (referring to the period 1871–1900), and then to a deepening application of its materialistic and deterministic theories of “the struggle for survival” and “the survival of the fittest” of races, nations, and classes, transforming the theories into the ferocious modern totalitarian ideologies of the early and mid 20th century — Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.

Though the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) may seem to us an anomaly in this connection, his prestige and glamour in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were immense and a key part of the German nationalist-Nazi “Kultur” mystique, and his aestheticism (the artist as hero, art as salvation, aesthetic experience as the highest truth) was widespread throughout the West, and in fact has left a toxic residue on Western — and now world — culture ever since. The English musicologist A. E. F. Dickinson wrote reverently of Wagner in 1926: “He has virtually discovered the means of expressing the character of man and god in pure form, in the form most congenial to his nature, music.” Art had become a religion.

Barzun himself was a French emigrant to the United States, along with his cultured, Parisian parents, in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic World War I, which affected them all deeply. His father was a poet and art theorist and his mother a sophisticated modern woman — and the younger Barzun would become a distinguished scholar of music and art as well as of literature and history at Columbia University, where he was educated and spent a very distinguished career as professor of history and as an administrator (dean of graduate faculties, provost) for a half century, ultimately winning major recognitions as one the country’s most outstanding humanistic scholars and public intellectuals — president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art (1973), recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush (2003), and the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama (2011). The American Philosophical Society created the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History in 1993 and an endowed chair was named in his honor at Columbia.

The human person’s “supreme pleasure and prerogative,” he was to write, “is to feel himself at once a moral being and a natural philosopher.” It is precisely the idea that all persons are ultimately “philosophers” and must make evaluative judgments and decisions in the many areas of life that made Barzun, from early to late, a philosophical historian — our greatest — and one with a great respect for republican and democratic institutions and for public literacy and civic discourse. (In late life he called himself “a Chestertonian.”) It is the very clarity of his prose and his critique of mystification and corrupting jargon that make all of his books, however vastly learned, a pleasure to read. Deploring the massive educational influence of John Dewey, whom Barzun had as a teacher at Columbia, he said late in life that Dewey “could not talk coherently, in intelligible language. He would eject phrases. His books are little better than his conversation and lectures. He was revered because he rendered William James’s conclusions in a more abstract way — worked them out for the academic mind, which mistrusts clarity” (emphasis added).

Barzun’s case against both Darwin and Marx is that both are writers of evasive, convoluted, confused prose that obscures not only truth itself but their own scientistic, mechanistic premises about the meaninglessness of mind, free will, and purpose in human affairs. He himself had started out his own academic career by writing a strongly anti-racialist book in 1937, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, at a time when Darwinian “racial science” was riding high not only in Germany but throughout the West, leading to eugenic laws in several American states even before the Nazi national policy of eliminating “lives unworthy of life.” Four years later, in Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Barzun went on to write: “No doubt the ‘favoured races’ mentioned on the title page of Darwin’s Origin of Species referred to pigeons, but the extension of the term to man was easy to make; indeed it seemed to receive Darwin’s own approval on many a page of [his] Descent of Man, where the struggle of races was a part of evolutionary advance.” In 1999, Terence Kealey, lecturer in clinical biochemistry at Cambridge University, noted that “the only professional group in Germany to register a greater than 50 percent membership of the Nazi Party before 1933, when the careerists joined, was that of academic biologists. Hitler believed in the state planning of society and in eugenics, and so did they.” The English man of letters A. N. Wilson, author of a recent book on Darwin, wrote in 2006: “Darwin, the product of British imperialism, was surely the father, among other things, of European fascism.” And the American historian Richard Weikart has made this argument clearly and in documented detail in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004; see my review, “Murderous Science,” in NR, March 28, 2005).

In the aftermath of Barzun’s own groundbreaking 1941 critique of mechanistic Darwinism and its sociopolitical uses and effects, and clearly influenced by it, two other powerful books were published that lucidly covered the relevant and related issues — Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s exhaustive, detailed Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959). Like Barzun himself, Hofstadter and Himmelfarb are among the great American historians of the last 75 years, both recipients of the highest honors and commendations; yet the books are oddly neglected in our time, when renewed conceptions of “sociobiology” and “evolutionary psychology” are again widely promoted and uncritically taught.

Following on the efforts of historians such as Hofstadter, Himmelfarb, and Weikart, philosophical and scientific accounts of the deficiencies of Darwinism have been made by philosophers such as Thomas Nagel (Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, 2012; see my review, “Rationality vs. Darwinism,” NR, November 12, 2012) and by scientists such as the award-winning English science writer and physician James LeFanu (Why Us?, 2009; see my review, “Science Illuminated,” Modern Age, fall 2011) and the geophysicist and historian of science Stephen C. Meyer in three major books that have attracted great attention: Signature in the Cell (2009), Darwin’s Doubt (2013), and, most recently, Return of the God Hypothesis (2021).

Regarding Marx and Marxism, in 1980, before the fall of Western Communism, the émigré Hungarian-American physicist and historian and philosopher of science Stanley L. Jaki wrote that “the enthusiasm for Darwinism of the advocates of the dictatorship of the proletariat . . . is all too understandable. Marx was quick to notice the usefulness of Darwinist theory for promoting class struggle.” The discrediting of Marxism has mainly been done by the course of large-scale human history since the fall of Western Communism in 1990, including firsthand, first-rate Russian documentary literature by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Nadezhda Mandelstam, and by exhaustive historical surveys such as the French Black Book on Communism (1997) by Stéphane Courtois and his associates. In the same vein, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their biography Mao (2005) have examined the crimes of Communism in China, and the theoretical pretensions of the political philosophy have been decisively analyzed and debunked by the great émigré Polish ex-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski in his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (1976).

But Barzun’s short anatomy of Marx and Marxism, quietly devastating, is permanently worth reading for its clear understanding and lucid explanation of the self-contradictory and damaging character of Marxism and all forms of reductionism. He insists on the perennial need for an at least minimally accurate description of human personality, the reality of the human mind, and the scope of human free will. (Reductionism, he wrote in 1964, “is congenial to the modern temper, and what it reduces is the individual.”)

In regard to Wagner and aestheticism since Barzun’s book joined the critique of them to that of Darwin and Marx, a great deal of value has been written, but at least three volumes deserve mention — Frederic Spotts’s copiously illustrated Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2003) being the most recent. The other two are by Barzun himself — his 1973 A. W. Mellon Lectures at the U.S. National Gallery of Art, published by Princeton University Press as The Use and Abuse of Art (1974), and his final masterpiece of cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000), many years in preparation and published when he was 93 years old.

From his first major publication, the 1937 anti-racialist book Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, through his many other books, to From Dawn to Decadence 63 years later, Barzun developed and deepened his analyses, but he also stayed true to a few central insights that remain perennially relevant, and particularly so in our own time when a combination of unhealthy and unhelpful factors have conspired to obscure or occlude from us certain central human realities and the implications of the apocalyptic character of much of human history since 1914, when World War I began what Sidney Hook later called “the second Fall of Man.” Documenting Darwin’s own convoluted logical and rhetorical twists and turns in the various editions of The Origin of Species (as Himmelfarb would do in more detail in 1959), Barzun says that “the gladiatorial conception of the struggle for existence was here to stay” — surely daily newspapers made the point throughout 1941. And he quotes and approves a then-recent biographer of Darwin, Geoffrey West, about neglecting the irreducible and unique moral and metaphysical dimension of the human person. By pointing out this neglect, Darwin’s old Cambridge teacher and sharp critic, the geologist Adam Sedgwick, West writes, “leapt . . . right to the heart of the matter in a prophetic passage whose insight should be more apparent now, when the increasing brutalization and degradation of humanity are no more to be denied than detached from concepts of evolution and natural selection.”

What “the generation of materialism” succeeded in doing was to debunk and help render less and less visible and credible that “moral and metaphysical part” of the human person in the interest of “gladiatorial” individual, national, class, and racial strife, brutal realpolitik, cynical “realism.” This had — and has — of course always been a human possibility — “homo homini lupus,” man the ruthless, wolfish devourer of man, who whom?, subject-object, exploiter-exploited; social Darwinism in its various forms. In Virtue Politics, the Harvard Renaissance scholar James Hankins has recently pointed out anew that the sly Machiavelli was the great betrayer of the ethical traditions of medieval civilization and Renaissance humanism alike. Professor Jeffrey Collins writes: “The Florentine’s ‘demoralizing’ redefinition of virtù as a manly capacity to master fortune was directly aimed at the humanist [ethical] tradition that Hankins” writes about.

The novelty of Darwinian “natural selection,” “survival of the fittest,” and “racial science,” and of vengeful, illusory Marxist “scientific socialism” and class war, is that both posed as truly empirical, scientific descriptions of reality. But they aren’t: they are speculative inferences, theoretically contradictory and historically false, as 20th-century history has catastrophically and tragically shown.

As early as his 1941 volume Barzun had seen profoundly into the real dynamics at work in Darwinism and Marxism:

It is no longer possible to view the storm around the Origin of Species merely as a battle over evolution — “man’s descent from the monkeys” or the literal truth of Genesis — much less as the victory of unprejudiced inquirers into Nature’s secrets over the forces of bigotry and darkness. It appears, rather, as a major incident, neither the first nor the last, in the dispute between the believers in consciousness and the believers in mechanical action; the believers in purpose and the believers in pure chance. The so-called warfare between science and religion thus comes to be seen as the warfare between two philosophies.

The true historian (or philosopher) needs by all means to define and identify the features of chance and necessity operative in reality; but the very capacity and process of doing so gives evidence of his own consciousness and rational purpose. By doggedly and eloquently making and applying this kind of perennial argument, Jacques Barzun became the greatest of American cultural historians and an enduring resource in the arsenal of sanity and virtue.

M. D. Aeschliman (Ph.D., Columbia) has written for National Review since 1984 and has taught at universities in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. His father, Adrien R. Aeschliman, saw frontline combat against the Japanese in 1944–45 in New Guinea and the Philippines in the 32nd Infantry Division, one of the most battle-hardened divisions of the U.S. Army in any theater of operations in World War II.


The Latest