For those who grew up on the history of liberalism and liberal thought in America as it appeared in the writings of such historians as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Richard Hofstadter, and Louis Hartz, historian Fred Siegel’s The Revolt against the Masses will come as something of a shock. The old consensus, as Hartz argued, was that the American ideology was that of liberalism, and the arguments to the left and to the right of liberalism were heard only on the fringes. For these liberals, the United States might shift at times too far in one direction toward the fringe, but wise liberals of the center would keep it under control, and there would always be a movement to a progressive future, in which advanced liberal thinkers would present ideas and policies that would pave the way to a more just social order.
The group that started what we today call liberalism were major intellectuals who emerged as popular writers in the period of the disillusionment that followed World War I. It included Herbert Croly, founding editor of The New Republic and author of the bestselling book The Promise of American Life; the anti-war activist Randolph Bourne; the British writer H. G. Wells; the novelist Sinclair Lewis, who made the name “Babbitt” synonymous with the image of the boring middle-class businessman; and H. L. Mencken, whom Siegel treats not just as a witty popular journalist but as a writer enamored of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany as a model for the West’s future. His discussion of this group forms the heart of his book, and is a tour de force of reinterpretation of their pioneering role in the forging of liberal ideology.
Siegel’s book is nothing less than a brilliant frontal assault on our understanding of the very nature of liberalism. Liberalism is not, as some conservatives would have it, a continuation of Progressivism into the mid 20th century and beyond: Many of the Progressives, Siegel notes, did not support the New Deal, which they found to be statist and corporatist. Rather, it is an ideology of elite intellectuals, who believe that the ideas they pronounce are not only inherently profound, but are in fact the roadmap to a good society. As Siegel writes, the term “liberal” was “coined by writers and intellectuals who defined themselves by their hostility to the middle class and the moralistic Progressives who had imposed prohibition in 1919.”
What held the liberals of the 1920s together was their similar belief that men like them were born to rule, and to ensure that power would not be taken by the heathen and backward regular people. Hardly enamored of the concept of democracy, they hoped that men like them would develop policies that would save the country from the common people. Siegel calls them the architects of “gentry liberalism,” who criticized the middle class and their dull lives, and who could elevate themselves above the masses. American democracy, as Mencken said, was nothing less than “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” One of the achievements of Siegel’s discussion of the famed journalist is his detailing of Mencken’s pro-Germanism, his desire that the kaiser win World War I, and his total contempt for American culture and politics.
Turning to three key trials of the 1920s — the Leopold and Loeb trial in 1924, the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in 1926–27 — Siegel ties them together and explains how the treatment of these events became a major part of the “liberal ethos.” To Clarence Darrow, arguing in defense of Leopold and Loeb, the two young men who murdered an innocent child for the thrill of it, his clients’ act was caused by events in their childhood explained by science — and hence the killers were the actual victims.
Darrow became the hero as well in his role in the Scopes trial, while William Jennings Bryan, the prosecuting attorney, became the fool in liberal mythology. Siegel argues convincingly that Bryan actually represented the sentiments of most Americans, who suffered in an economy dominated by giant corporations, while the prophets of liberalism and the new order it created attacked him as the representative of the Babbitts and the peasants (or “yokels,” as Mencken called them). In the case of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were most likely guilty of the robbery and murder for which they were convicted, the nation saw a new alliance fighting for the defendants. It was the first example of the coalition of upper-class reformers with Communists and anarchists who came from the working classes.
It was hardly surprising that these critics of the middle class, who wanted elites to rule, would in the 1930s become the most ardent supporters of the Bolshevik myth. Planning became a mantra, because they believed that the best-educated elitists could run America. In their eyes, that was what was taking place in the new Soviet state. As Lincoln Steffens famously had said, he had been over to the future, “and it works.” In turning to Communism, the intellectuals of the 1930s were still fighting the bourgeoisie, but trading in their old bohemianism for what Eugene Lyons termed “proletarian bohemianism.” While living the same high life they always had, they were — as they saw it — representing the interests of the oppressed working classes, who on their own were too stupid to know what was in their best interest. The two streams of liberalism — a critique of the culture and the liberalism of the planners — now came together. What they shared, Siegel points out, was an enemy: “America’s middle-class business civilization.”
#page#To the new liberals, the “urban masses” were also an enemy — which is why, in the 1920s, they took to Randolph Bourne, whom Siegel dubs “the first prophet of the youth culture.” By turning to Bolshevism, they could pretend to be in favor of those very masses they actually disdained, while understanding that elites would still be in power and make all policy in the name of the great unwashed.
One of them, H. G. Wells, got an interview in 1934 with Stalin himself and returned to Britain proclaiming the wisdom of the Soviet Communists. At first he disliked what he saw as a narrow orthodoxy and intransigence in Stalin. However, he praised him in the pages of the left-wing New Statesman: “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest.” Wells made it clear that he felt the “sinister” image of Stalin was unfair or simply false. During his interview with Stalin, he debated with the Soviet dictator the merits of his brand of reformist socialism over Marxism-Leninism. Yet on his return to Britain, he referred to Stalin’s Five-Year Plan as an effort of “mental stimulation” that could serve as a model of how economic science could plan a society — evidently missing the irony of his previously having disdained both Fascism and Communism as too democratic for him, believing that “the common uneducated man is a violent fool in social and public affairs.”
Turning to the great influence of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and his theory of “the vital center,” Siegel treats the late historian as emblematic of the failures of liberalism. Concentrating only on the ever-moving pendulum between left and right, he missed, Siegel argues, the growth of specific interest groups that future politicians would cater to, which was itself a threat to moderate liberalism. Moreover, as with his predecessors, his solid advice on some things was always within the context of hatred of business and the role it played in a modern society. Here, Schlesinger carried on the anti-business views of the first generation of liberals. Referring to what he called “the veil of Rotarian self-congratulation,” the historian wrote that, underneath everything, “you are likely to find the irresolute and hesitating figure of George F. Babbitt.” Quoting Churchill, Schlesinger said that modern society needed “the advantage of an intelligent aristocracy,” by which he meant people like himself.
Today, we all live in an America that is in many ways the fruit of those who adhere to liberal ideology and patterns of thought. The 1950s, often viewed as a period of cultural backwardness, was in fact a period of the democratization of culture, in which average Americans bought serious and learned books and expanded their intellectual horizons, and in which even television ran major plays, operas, and symphonies. NBC spent $500,000, for example, to broadcast in 1956 a three-hour production of Shakespeare’s Richard III that starred Laurence Olivier. Cultural critics such as Dwight Macdonald led the opposition to the effort of regular people to elevate themselves culturally, fearing the end of high culture and its takeover by people whose only standards were “those of the mob.”
In our present age, as Siegel writes in his concluding chapters, we live in an epoch in which the liberals have achieved their most cherished aims, signified by the alliance of public-sector unionism with the group he calls “gentry liberals.” The Obama administration carries this out on a national level, as the White House opposes Main Street and fights for policies emanating from the East and West Coast elites, all people of great wealth who support those policies as being in the best interest of the people, as they overlook every bit of evidence that contradicts their assumptions.
It is the power of Fred Siegel’s dazzling intellectual history to have shown us how we got here from the beginning of the modern era. The 1920s, it seems, are still with us.
– Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media, is working with Allis Radosh on a book about the presidency of Warren G. Harding.