In the May 31 issue of Human Events a special feature appeared that has already been widely and vituperatively noted, on “The Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.” As a participant in this ranking, my name is appended, along with the monikers of other judges, to a list of this supposedly dangerous reading matter. The project-organizer also prepared a commentary for each of the books listed. No sooner had the final product gone into print and onto the internet than local newspaper editors called me to find out why I had participated in this ranking. One especially troubled critic, who is the President of the Corporate Performance Artists, deplored the “anger” that had led me and the other judges into endangering his craft. Supposedly the publication of our ratings signified an attack on artistic and expressive freedom. The President of the CPA showed his anger by exploding at my statement, that given the inquisition of political correctness the Left was unleashing, it had no “moral right” to complain about intellectual or artistic intolerance. Besides, as I explained, I had joined in the rating activity as an intellectual-historical exercise — and not as a call to ban books.
Having stated why I find Human Event’s decision to compile such a list defensible and even commendable, allow me to explain why I strongly disagree with most of the picks for the top-ten “most harmful books.” Only two of my least favorite authors, John Dewey and Betty Friedan, made the negative hit parade, although two others, Theodor Adorno and Margaret Meade, did appear as “honorable mentions,” having garnered fewer votes than those above them on the list. Although I failed to think of either, both Herbert Croly and Alfred Kinsey deserve to be listed — and Kinsey’s fraudulent sexology has surely a justified claim to its number 4 ranking.
In my considered opinion, and with due respect, most of my co-judges were not thinking outside the box. No one but a madman or ignoramus could believe Betty Friedan incited more brutality than Adolf Hitler, yet Hitler’s autobiography, which is sloppily written and turgid almost to the point of unreadability, had in all likelihood little to do with bringing him to power. It is entirely likely that far more people were influenced by The Feminine Mystique‘s declaration of war against women’s traditional roles in the family, or J.S. Mill’s indictment of all societies that fail to enact his feminist program, than became Nazi activists after looking at Mein Kampf. Although the Nazi state made energetic efforts to distribute Hitler’s scribbling, even at weddings, it was hard to get people to read it. The present crusade by the German government and the EU to remove from circulation all available copies of Mein Kampf has zip to do with the popularity of the work being feverishly hunted down. It is an exercise in the widening thought control of Eurocrats and German “antifascist” state censors. The fact that a book is written by or ascribed to an unpleasant tyrant does not mean that it has been decisive in creating his tyranny. This might apply to the sayings of Mao and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done as well as to Hitler’s autobiography.
Other books that appear on the list, e.g., by Auguste Comte, Nietzsche, and John Maynard Keynes, epitomize the attempt to be loyal to the “conservative movement” by appealing to its inherited demonologies. Is Keynes’s General Theory, which went into print after the New Deal was already underway and long after the introduction of European social democracy, one of the ten most harmful books of the last two hundred years? And even agreeing with Friedrich Hayek, that the faux sciences that are taught in academic social science departments are both unscientific and ideologically driven, is one of Hayek’s examples, Comte’s Introduction to Positive Philosophy, wicked or important enough to be listed as one of the most harmful books around? I doubt that Hayek would have ascribed such significance to this particular Comtean illustration of the “counterrevolution of science.” In any case by now there are legions of far more egregious examples of what Hayek called attention to, ideologues hiding behind “scientific” labels to palm off their versions of totally controlled societies.
The attack on Nietzsche as an inspirer of the Nazis and as a moral-relativist is likewise a recycling of movement conservative dogma. One might have hoped that by now sensible conservatives would have forgotten Allan Bloom’s risible chapter from The Closing of the American Mind “The German Connection,” which blames without documentation both the academic New Left and Nazism on rightwing German thinkers. Bloom goes specifically after someone who was H.L. Mencken’s favorite social critic, and one of my favs, Friedrich Nietzsche. But a long list of scholarly works since the Second World War suggest the difficulties of portraying Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi, and it seems far from clear that the work condemned in Human Events, Beyond Good and Evil, has produced a single “moral relativist.” Although I’m not sure what “moral relativists” look like, they certainly do not inhabit the present multicultural Left. When was the last time a feminist, socialist, or gay activist made the argument that a conservative Christian’s values were as good as his/her own? Moral fanaticism and not the equal acceptance of all value-systems has become the hallmark of the cultural Left.
The placing of The Communist Manifesto on the top of the list and the appearance of Marx’s Capital and Quotations from Mao in the sixth and third slots and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? among the honorable mentions point to another trip down memory lane. One of the few constant characteristics of the conservative movement since the fifties has been anti-Communism, and most of the judges might have had trouble abandoning old hates in favor of more relevant ones. As I stressed to the Human Events organizer, I was hoping (alas in vain) that the committee would look at current dangers to Western freedoms and traditional social morality rather than drag out those authors whom anti-Communists were likely to execrate during the Cold War. Although Marx in The Communist Manifesto attacked but also defended bourgeois capitalism, can one reasonably compare the poison found in this Victorian document to other later polemics, e.g., Catherine MacKinnon’s or Theodor Adorno’s expressions of hatred for normal gender roles as well as economic freedom? Beside later socialist authors, who advocate a state-enforced war on the bourgeois family, Marx was a mid-nineteenth-century sweetheart. And are Mao’s flinty aphorisms about revolution, which were distributed after Mao had become the “Great Helmsman” in Communist China, consuming today’s Western society? To all appearances, Mao did not generate a widespread Western movement against traditional social morality and constitutionally limited government — unlike our “antifascist” and diversitarian academics and journalists. I am putting these questions out as queries that movement conservatives might do well to consider. Totalitarian movements that once prospered in the Old World deserve to be condemned but it may be more useful to notice the sources of pollution in the sensitized, transformed America of the early twenty-first century and among its multicultural European imitators. At least in this case, Nietzsche was right when he urged those fixated on the past to “let the dead bury the dead.”