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The Menace of the Herd, or Procrustes at Large

A book by Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

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Another K-L title to return to again and again

  • Mar 2, 2008
Rating:
+5
I'm a big, big fan -- I should say, a devoted student -- of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909-1999), author of a great many articles and books, including "Liberty or Equality?" and "Leftism Revisited," books I've been putting off reviewing for many years for fear I couldn't do them justice. "The Menace of the Herd," published under a pseudonym in 1943 (when Americans were not too interested in reading books by authors with Germanic names, and people from occupied countries had families to protect), is less well known than the two books just mentioned. But it, too, is a fascinating read -- especially for other K-L fans, but for any student of history, politics, religion, or culture. The invaluable folks at the Mises Institute are to be commended and thanked for making it available once again.

Anyone familiar with K-L's later works will find many of the themes of those works being developed here. Although (as I realized with a shock about half way through the book) K-L was just 34 when this was published, his distinctive style is already fully developed: assertive, contrarian, polyglot, unapologetically Catholic, and richly sourced and documented. He already has his favorite quotes, his favorite examples, his favorite turns of phrase.

And yet, while this book is recognizably K-L, there are many valuable arguments in "The Menace of the Herd" that make it far more than just a first-draft of "Liberty or Equality" or "Leftism." His central point is a dramatic challenge to "herdism" and mass democracy (or "ochlocracy," as he calls it), in which all positive virtues are overwhelmed the lowest-common-denominator of simple majoritarianism. The positive virtues, for K-L, include piety, aristocracy, responsibility, personalism (which he distinguishes from "individualism"), and, of course, Catholicism.

Within this argument, K-L makes many smaller points that any thoughtful reader will want to turn over in her mind carefully. These include a fascinating discussion of the classical Christian view of rewards in eternity versus happiness in the here-and-now (and how this affects life in predominantly Catholic nations); the harm caused by the modern educational focus on "how" (science, math) instead of "why" (philosophy, theology); the myth of militarism and nationalism as conservative or "rightist" movements (K-L calls this, in caps, the Great Error of the Century); and much more. Just as intriguing and thought-provoking are his asides and footnotes, including the relative sinfulness of despotism versus mob rule, the differences between "statism," "nationalism," "racialism," "patriotism," and "imperialism," and this gem: "Neither are the progressivists, in present-day America, revolutionaries or enemies of the order. Being 'radical' or 'progressive' they merely want to continue with greater speed and determination along the established, wrong trail" [p. 218].

At the same time, K-L posits some arguments that may well make his conservative and libertarian fans uncomfortable. These include a strong argument against "capitalism" as a "herdist" instinct, and the above-mentioned opposition to "individualism," as distinguished from "personalism." At one point, K-L argues that advertising increases the cost of consumer goods -- a point Mises effectively took apart in chapter 15 of "Human Action." Interestingly, in some of his later writings K-L backed away from some of these earlier arguments, concluding that the elusive "third way" between capitalism and socialism was not in fact possible.

Finally, since this book was published in the middle of World War Two, I should note that it contains a fascinating discussion of German and Austrian history, and a study of the cultures and characteristics of "the Germanies," that put both world wars in a new and highly intriguing light for me.

"Liberty and Equality" and "Leftism Revisited" are both, as I've noted elsewhere, books that I return to again and again, trying to absorb the learning and the perspective and get my mind around arguments and insights that are highly counter-intuitive for many Americans -- even contrarians like me -- steeped as we are in a culture that worships "democracy" and the "common man" above all else. "Menace of the Herd" now takes its place beside those other books. I strongly encourage any of my fellow K-L students to add this to your library. It more than repays the time and money -- especially since it is now so much easier to find, and so much more affordable, than it used to be.

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Andrew S. Rogers ()
Ranked #363
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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Wiki

This exceeding rare book is by one of the great men of the 20th century. Written soon after his immigration to the United States, he signed the book "Francis Stuart Campbell" because he was a refugee from Austria and didn't want to endanger them. The contents: a relentless attack on the idea of mass government based on the egalitarian ethic, and its tendency toward the total state of Stalin and Hitler. And yet there is more here, more than can possibly be recounted in a paragraph. The author was a remarkable 19th-century-style liberal intellectual, startling in his erudition and wisdom. A bit disorganized, perhaps, and not as friendly to the market as it might be but a book overflowing with insight into the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds. To read him is to experience something of an intellectual liberation from every sort of conventional wisdom. This is a dazzling work from a man who seemed to be an impossibility in the modern age. 414 pages, 6" x 9", paperback
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Details

Author: Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn
Publisher: Ludwig von Mises Institute

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