This is an excellent book, doubly excellent in that the writer, George Hawley, has written a book both even-handed and superbly accurate in detail about a difficult and controversial topic. I am personally deeply familiar with nearly all the facts covered in this book, and Hawley has not fallen into any significant error. Moreover, his analysis is generally excellent, so as a package, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding what I call the Great Fragmentation—the splintering, and reforming, of what until recently was a relatively monolithic instantiation of mainstream American conservatism. Finally, this book implicitly poses a fascinating question—should the Right adopt a new principle, in imitation of the Left, that there are no enemies on the right?
Among the many gaping holes in American historical knowledge is any grasp of the French Revolution (and that includes my own knowledge). As an abstract matter, this is unfortunate, but nothing notable, given that the historical knowledge of modern Americans is essentially one large gap. As a concrete matter, though, it is a real problem, because in our own troubled times, the French Revolution offers critical, universal lessons, which we forget to our peril. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to the Terror, the rule of the twelve-man Committee of Public Safety, from 1793-94, the subject of this classic 1941 work.
Billed as a continuation, this book is really the chiral image of Michael Walsh’s earlier book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. That book was an attempt, with limited success, to outline and discuss the poisonous Frankfurt School of political philosophy, Critical Theory, through the prism of art. This book, on the other hand, aims to discuss art, with Critical Theory as the subtext. It is a largely successful attempt to outline and discuss the unparalleled genius of Western art, in its historical context and with its historical implications, and thereby to “restore Western culture to its proper place.” That restoration is necessary for our culture to cauterize the venomous bite of the Frankfurt School, whose view of art as politics, and of Western culture as worthless and evil, must be rejected if the West is to regain its path.
I stay away from the shouters, such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. Sure, they’re right in their conclusions, most of the time, but the lack of nuanced thought annoys me. There are plenty of ways to get easily worked up today, without seeking out more that don’t offer a corresponding benefit. Angelo Codevilla is not a shouter, but this is at least a half-shouter book, as shown by that Limbaugh wrote the Introduction. As is the case with most books of conservative woe, it has nothing of substance to offer about how to fix the problems it identifies. Still, it has one interesting insight, and one cautionary lesson. And I am here to offer the solution to the problem Codevilla talks about. It’s not even radical!
This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.
As will surprise nobody who is paying any attention, I am preparing for war. Why hide it? Although only a fool or someone with a distorted moral sense would actually wish for war, what we wish has little to do with it. Intermittent war is the natural state of man, whatever Steven Pinker may say, and as Trotsky said, more or less, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” What follows today’s Age of Stupid will, we can be certain, not be endless tides of more stupidity, because that is impossible. And to get from here to there, whatever “there” is, will most likely requiring passing through what the Chinese call “interesting times,” in which hot, flying metal will play a prominent part.
In this brief book, or rather pamphlet in the old political, Tom Paine-ish use of that term, law professor and well-known blogger Glenn Reynolds offers some thoughts on how the class structure of the judiciary affects judicial decisions. Rather than focus on the general class divide in American society, Reynolds focuses on that divide in the judiciary, which he shows is deeper than that in America as a whole. He believes the judicial divide is especially pernicious to our political system, and he offers some constructive solutions to the problem, although I think that those solutions both would be ineffective in practice and that the problems are deeper than Reynolds believes.
When we think of the Soviet Union, we mostly think of it as a fully realized totalitarian state. We think of Stalin, of World War II and of the Cold War. Lenin is a shadowy figure to most of us, usually lumped in with the chaos that preceded and surrounded the Russian Revolution. As a result, biographies of Stalin and histories of the Cold War are a dime a dozen, but there are few objective biographies of Lenin. Lenin, though, was the true author of Soviet totalitarianism, and, more importantly, he, and he alone, was the indispensable man to the creation of Communism as a realized state, even if he did not live to see it. His life, therefore, is important, in that it illuminates history, and also in that it provides, in some ways, an instruction book for those seeking change today.
In the middle part of the twentieth century, before The Walking Dead, the historiography of civilizational collapse was dominated by Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, with his “challenge and response” dynamic. Before that, stretching back into the nineteenth century, other analyses analogized the lives of civilizations to the lives of humans, most notably in Oswald Spengler’s enormously influential The Decline of the West, published in 1918. And many other writers over many centuries have, in different ways, examined why civilizations fail, the classic early modern example being Edward Gibbon’s analysis of Rome. Joseph Tainter arrived in 1988, with this book, to offer an alternative—namely, total economic determinism filtered through a framework of his own devising. Not a very successful framework, to be sure, but at least one that provides some food for thought.
Poor Francis Fukuyama. He has been a punching bag ever since he unwisely declared the End of History, more than twenty-five years ago. Fukuyama, of course, meant that the globe had, at the end of ideologies, reached an equilibrium, an even, calm sea of liberal democracy, and all that was left was cleanup. Patrick Deneen is here to kick Fukuyama some more, and to announce that not only is liberalism a defective ideology, it is doomed just as were the other, more flash-in-the pan ideologies. The systemic failure of liberalism is on the horizon, or underway, and Deneen’s project is to offer thoughts on how we got here, and what is next. Thus, Why Liberalism Failed fits squarely into my current interest, Reaction—the call for the creation of a new political order built on the ashes of the old.