Artifacts of a Historical Scavenger Hunt

Today we suffer from a sort of historical myopia due to our obsession with social media. In our struggle to stay abreast of what’s happening in the here and now, we neglect the past. Instead of going back and examining the source material for ourselves, we leave it to others to interpret it for us. These interpretations are commonly bowdlerized to fit a preferred narrative. It’s a shame, because the past holds a rich mine of material relevant to the present. Pick up and old book, or an old magazine, and you’ll often find that they bring the reality of today into sharper focus. Nuggets of insight will pop up in the strangest places, often in articles that ostensibly have nothing to do with the insight in question.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt from the October, 1842 issue of the Edinburgh Review, one of the dominant British journals of literature and politics in the first half of the 19th century. It came from an article about the recently published autobiography of one M. Berryer, a prominent lawyer and eyewitness of some of the worst atrocities of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. In one of the opening paragraphs of his review, the anonymous author offers the following general comments about human nature:

Few men know the fluctuating nature of their own character; – how much it has varied from ten years to ten years, or even on the recurrence of similar events. Few men attempt to distinguish between the original predispositions and the accidental influences which, sometimes controlling and sometimes aggravating one another, together formed at any particular epoch their character for the time being. Still fewer attempt to estimate the relative force of each; and fewer still would succeed in such an attempt.

Amazing, really! That passage might have been lifted from an introduction to a book about the latest advances in Genome Wide Association Studies. It demonstrates that people were perfectly well aware of the existence of “original predispositions” almost 200 years ago. This brief passage shows more insight into the nuances of the entanglement of “nature” and “nurture” in our species than the vast majority of the tomes of psychology, sociology, and anthropology published during the hegemony of the Blank Slate. It puts in sharp relief the extent to which we managed to dumb ourselves down in the service of ideologically motivated truisms. To read it is to wonder at our success in willfully blinding ourselves to the truth in an area as potentially critical to our survival as self-understanding.

Perhaps most prominent among the ideologies that required an imaginary version of human beings rather than the real thing was and remains socialism. By reading old books one can gain an appreciation of how familiar “Marxist” ideas had become long before Marx became a household name. Consider, for example, the following passages from “Sybil,” published in 1845 by Benjamin Disraeli. Most remember him as a British Prime Minister during the reign of Queen Victoria, but he was also an outstanding and prolific novelist. Sybil, the heroine of the novel, is the daughter of a leader of the proletariat, and speaks of him as follows:

When I heard my father speak the other night, my heart glowed with emotion; my eyes were suffused with tears; I was proud to be his daughter; and I gloried in a race of forefathers who belonged to the oppressed, and not to the oppressors.

According the Devilsdust, one of Disraeli’s working-class characters,

We’ll clean out the Savings Banks; the Benefits and Burials will shell out; I am treasurer of the Ancient Shepherds ( a trade union), and we passed a resolution yesterday unanimously, that we would devote all our funds to the sustenance of Labour in this its last and triumphant struggle against Capital.

Later Devilsdust is recorded as saying of Stephen Morley, a labor journalist who might have served as a prototype for Lenin,

…if ever the great revolution were to occur, by which the rights of labour were to be recognized, though bolder spirits and brawnier arms might consummate the change, there was only one head among them that would be capable, when they had gained their power, to guide it for the public weal…, and that was Morley.

In short, the idea of class struggle culminating in a proletarian revolution was already well developed before Marx wrote “Das Kapital.” What he added was a “scientific” theory distilled from Hegelian philosophy according to which the revolution was inevitable, and the proletariat would emerge victorious and establish a worker’s paradise by the force of historical “laws.” The conviction that one was fighting for the Good, and must inevitably win the fight, served as a powerful intoxicant for already radicalized fanatics, and, as we now know, would culminate in a nightmare.

Perhaps most prominent among the public intellectuals who sought to warn us of the perils of listening to the Marxist siren song was Herbert Spencer. For his trouble, he was vilified as a “social Darwinist” and forgotten. That’s ironic, because Spencer was never a Darwinist to begin with. His ideas about evolution were much more Lamarckian in character. His brilliant critique of socialism, however, was based on insights about human nature that are seldom equaled among modern scholars. It turned out to be a prophecy of uncanny accuracy about the reality of Communism. Consider, for example, the following passages, written in the introduction to a collection of essays published in 1891 entitled “A Plea for Liberty.” The first refers to an earlier summary of some of the more prominent features of the innate human behavior denied by Blank Slaters, then and now.

The traits thus shown must be operative in any new social organization, and the question to be asked is – What will result from their operation when they are relieved from all restraints? At present the separate bodies of men displaying them are in the midst of a society partially passive, partially antagonistic; are subject to the criticisms and reprobations of an independent press; and are under the control of law, enforced by police. If in these circumstances these bodies habitually take courses which override individual freedom, what will happen when, instead of being only scattered parts of the community, governed by their separate sets of regulators, they constitute the whole community, governed by a consolidated system of such regulators; when functionaries of all orders, including those who officer the press, form parts of the regulative organization; and when the law is both enacted and administered by this regulative organization? The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until, eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

Astonishing, no? If your education about the reality of Communism doesn’t extend beyond what’s taught in the public school system, by all means read Orwell’s “1984,” or, better yet, “The New Class,” by Milovan Djilas, one of the most brilliant political writers of the 20th century. If that’s not enough to impress you, check this out:

Misery has necessarily to be borne by a constitution out of harmony with its conditions; and a constitution inherited from primitive men is out of harmony with conditions imposed on existing men.

These seemingly obvious facts, that we possess innate behavioral traits, and they evolved in conditions radically different from the ones we live in now, are seemingly beyond the grasp of virtually every prominent public intellectual today. They speak of morality, community, and politics as if these salient facts didn’t exist. We continue this type of self-imposed obscurantism at our peril.

The above historical artifacts all bear on the reality of the here and now, characterized by the hegemony of equalist dogmas. Equalism started out benignly enough, as a reaction to the gross exploitation and abuse of a majority of the population by an elite distinguished by nothing but the accident of birth. It has now morphed into a monster that demands that we all pretend we believe things that are palpably untrue on pain of censorship, social ostracism, and loss of employment and educational opportunity.  From the first item cited above we can see that the interplay of innate human nature with experience and learning was a matter of common knowledge to an anonymous book reviewer more than a century and a half ago. Even children have a rudimentary familiarity with human nature and have acted based on that knowledge for millennia before that. It is all the more astounding that the Blank Slate orthodoxy required denial of the very existence of human nature for upwards of half a century, and virtually every academic and professional “expert” in the behavioral sciences meekly went along. This orthodoxy was eventually destroyed by its own absurdity, strikingly portrayed to a wondering lay public in a series of books by a man named Robert Ardrey. Now Ardrey is remembered, if at all, as a bete noire with which to terrify young associate professors. Today the Blank Slate is well on the way to making a comeback. Now, however, instead of making themselves laughing stocks by denying the existence of human nature, its resurgent clergy merely see to it that no research is done in anything of real relevance to the human condition.

As for Communism, we can count ourselves lucky that we’ve been there, done that, along with “democratic” socialism, national socialism, and a grab bag of other versions. These repeated failures have at least slowed our progress towards stumbling off the same cliff yet again.  Of course, they haven’t stopped equalist ideologues from claiming that the only reason socialism has been such an abject failure to date is because it hasn’t been “done right,” or that previous versions weren’t “real socialism.” Fasten your seatbelts.

Meanwhile, I suggest that you take the time occasionally to read old things; novels, magazines, newspapers, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll find that the self-imposed stupidity and politically correct piety of modern societies aren’t inevitable. There have been other times and other cultures in which people could speak their minds a great deal more freely than under the secular Puritanism that prevails today. The fact that the culture we live in today is a “natural” outcome for our species doesn’t mean you are obligated to either accept it or refrain from fighting to change it.

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