Classic Essays

The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman (Part 15)

As part of our commitment to the celebration of forgotten classics—i.e., great works of the past which have been intentionally flushed down the memory hole by our Orwellian overlords—National Vanguard is proud to present a condensed edition of Lothrop Stoddard’s pioneering treatise The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman, originally published in 1922.

To appreciate the significance of this work, one must understand that in his day Stoddard was a certified member of America’s (now-former) WASP establishment. An old-stock Yankee from Brookline, Massachusetts, Stoddard held a Ph.D. in History from Harvard University and was one of the most prominent intellectuals in the country prior to the Second World War. It is only because of the triumph of Jewish propaganda from that war that racialists like Stoddard have since been relegated to obscurity.

By Lothrop Stoddard


THE REVOLT AGAINST civilization goes deeper than we are apt to suppose. However elaborate and persuasive may be the modem doctrines of revolt, they are merely conscious “rationalizings” of an instinctive urge which arises from the emotional depths. One of our hard, but salutary, disillusionments is the knowledge that our fathers were mistaken in their fond belief about automatic progress. We are now coming to realize that, besides progress, there is “regress”; that going forward is no more “natural” than going backward; lastly, that both movements are secondary phenomena, depending primarily upon the character of human stocks.

Now when we realize the inevitable discontent of individuals or groups placed at cultural levels above their inborn capacities and their instinctive desire to revert from these uncongenial surroundings to others lower but more congenial, we can begin to appreciate the power of the atavistic forces forever seeking to disrupt advanced societies and drag them down to more primitive levels. The success of such attempts means one of those cata- clysms known as social revolution, and we have already shown how profound is the regression and how great the destruction of both social and racial values. We must remember, however, that revolutions do not spring casually out of nothing. Behind the revolution itself there usually lies a long formative period during which the forces of chaos gather while the forces of order decline. Revolutions thus give plenty of waning of their approach — for those who have ears to hear. It is only because hitherto men have not understood revolutionary phenomena that the danger-signals have been disregarded and society has been caught unawares.

The symptoms of incipient revolution can be divided into three stages: (1) Destructive criticism of the existing order; (2) revolutionary theorizing and agitation; (3) revolutionary action. The second and third stages will be discussed in subsequent chapters. In the present chapter let us consider the first stage: Destructive Criticism.

Strong, well-poised societies are not overthrown by revolution. Before the revolutionary onslaught can have any chance of success, the social order must first have been undermined and morally discredited. This is accomplished primarily by the process of destructive criticism. Destructive criticism must clearly be distinguished from constructive criticism. Between the two there is all the difference between a toxin and a tonic. Constructive criticism aims at remedying defects and perfecting the existing order by evolutionary methods. Destructive criticism, on the contrary, inveighs against current defects in a bitter, carping, pessimistic spirit; tends to despair of the existing social order, and either asserts or implies that reform can come only through sweeping changes of a revolutionary character. Precisely what the destined goal is to be is, at the start, seldom clearly described. That task belongs to the second stage — the stage of revolutionary theorizing and agitation. Destructive criticism, in its initial aspect, is little more than a voicing of hitherto inarticulate emotions — a preliminary crystallization of waxing dissatisfactions and discontents. Its range is much wider than is commonly supposed, for it usually assails not merely political and social matters but also subjects like art and literature, even science and learning. Always there crops out the same spirit of morose pessimism and incipient revolt against things as they exist — whatever these may be.

A fundamental quality of destructive criticism is its glorification of the primitive. Long before it elaborates specific revolutionary doctrines and methods, it blends with its condemnation of the present an idealization of what it conceives to have been the past. Civilization is assumed either to have begun wrong or to have taken a wrong turning at some comparatively early stage of its development. Before that unfortunate event (the source of present ills) the world was much better. Hence, the discontented mind turns hack with longing to those pristine halcyon days when society was sound and simple, and man happy and free. The fact that such a Golden Age never really existed is of small moment, because this glorification of the primitive is an emotional reaction of dissatisfied natures yearning for a return to more elemental conditions in which they feel they would be more at home.

Such is the “Lure of the Primitive.” And its emotional appeal is unquestionably strong. This is well illustrated by the popularity of writers like Rousseau and Tolstoy, who have condemned civilization and preached a “return to nature.” Rousseau is, in fact, the leading exponent of that wave of destructive criticism which swept over Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century — the forerunner of the French Revolution; while Tolstoy is one of the leading figures in the similar nineteenth century movement that heralded the revolutionary cataclysms of today. In discussing Rousseau and Tolstoy we will consider not merely their teachings but also their personalities and ancestry, because these latter vividly illustrate what we have already observed — that character and action are mainly determined by heredity.

Take first the case of Rousseau. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is a striking example of the “tainted genius.” He was born of unsound stock, his father being dissipated, violent-tempered, flighty, and foolish. Jean-Jacques proved a “chip of the old block,” for he was neurotic, mentally unstable, morally weak, sexually perverted, and during the latter part of his life was undoubtedly insane. Together with all this, however, he possessed great literary talents, his style, persuasiveness, and charm captivating and convincing multitudes. He accordingly exerted upon the world a profound — and in the main a baneful — influence, which is working indirectly but powerfully even today.

Such was the champion of “noble savagery” against civilization [45]. Rousseau asserted that civilization was fundamentally wrong and that the path of human salvation lay in a “return to nature.” According to Rousseau, primitive man was a care-free and wholly admirable creature, living in virtuous harmony with his fellows till corrupted by the restraints and vices of civilization — especially the vice of private property, which had poisoned the souls of all men and had reduced most men to ignoble servitude. It is perhaps needless to add that Rousseau was a passionate believer in “natural equality,” all differences between men being in his opinion due solely to the artificial conventions of civilization. If men would again be happy, free, and equal, asserted Rousseau, the way was easy: let them demolish the fabric of civilization, abolish private property, and return, to his communistic “state of nature.”

Put thus baldly, Rousseau’s gospel may not sound particularly alluring. Clothed in his own persuasive eloquence, however, it produced an enormous effect. Said Voltaire: “When I read Rousseau, I want to run about in the woods on all fours.”

Of course, Rousseau’s teaching contains a kernel of soundness — that is true of all false doctrines, since if they were wholly absurd they could make no converts outside of bedlam, and could thus never become dangerous to society. In Rousseau’s case the grain of truth was his praise of the beauties of nature and simple living. Preached to the oversophisticated, artificial “high society” of the eighteenth century, his words undoubtedly produced a refreshing effect; just as a jaded city man to-day returns invigorated from a month’s “roughing it” in the wilds. The trouble was that Rousseau’s grain of truth was hidden in a bushel of noxious chaff, so that people were apt to rise from a reading of Rousseau, not inspired by a sane love for simple living, fresh air, and exercise, but inoculated with a hatred for civilization and consumed with a thirst for violent social experiments. The effect was about the same as though our hypothetical city man should return from his month in the wilds imbued with the resolve to burn down his house and spend the rest of his life naked in a cave. In short:

Although Rousseau’s injunction, ‘Go back into the woods and become men!’ may he excellent advice if interpreted as a temporary measure, Go back into the woods and remain there’ is a counsel for anthropoid apes. [46]

The effect of Rousseau’s teaching upon revolutionary thought and action will he discussed later. Let us now turn to the more recent champion of the primitive, Tolstoy. Count Leo Tolstoy came of a distinguished but eccentric stock. His mature philosophy of life, particularly his dislike of civilization and fondness for the primitive, is clearly accounted for by his heredity. The Tolstoys seem to have been noted for a certain wildness of temperament, and one of the family, Feodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, was the famous “American,” the “Aleute” of Griboyedoff, who was so obsessed by Rousseau’s teachings that he endeavored to put Rousseauism into practice, had himself tattooed like a savage, and tried to live absolutely in the “state of nature.” Leo Tolstoy’s life was characterized by violent extremes, ranging from furious dissipation to ascetic frugality and from complete scepticism to boundless religious devotion. Athwart all these shifts, however, we may discern a growing distaste for civilized life as a morbid and unnatural complication, a will to simplify, a metaphysical urge backward toward the condition of primitive man. He repudiates culture and approves all that is simple, natural, elemental, wild. In his writings Tolstoy denounces culture as the enemy of happiness, and one of his works, “The Cossacks,” was written specifically to prove the superiority of “the life of a beast of the field.” Like his ancestor the tattooed “Aleute,” Leo Tolstoy early fell under the spell of Rousseau, and was later deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism. In his “Confessions” Tolstoy exclaims:

How often have I not envied the unlettered peasant his lack of learning. . . . I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand. Instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail . . . Simplify, simplify, simplify! Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one, instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.

The celebrated Russian novelist and critic Dimitri Merezhkovski thus analyzes Tolstoy’s instinctive aversion to civilization and of the primitive:

If a stone lies on top of another in a desert, that is excellent. If the stone has been placed upon the other by the hand of man, that is not so good. But if stones have been placed upon each other and fixed there with mortar or iron, that is evil; that means construction, whether it be a castle, a barracks, a prison, a customs-house, a hospital, a slaughter-house, a church, a public building, or a school. All that is built is bad, or at least suspect. The first wild impulse which Tolstoy felt when he saw a building, or any complex whole, created by the hand of man, was to simplify, to level, to crush, to destroy, so that no stone might be left upon the other and the place might again become wild and simple and purified from the work of man’s hand. Nature is to him the pure and simple; civilization and culture represent complication and impurity. To return to nature means to expel impurity, to simplify what is complex, to destroy culture. [47]

In analyzing Tolstoy we become aware of a biological problem transcending mere family considerations; the question of Russian folk nature comes into view. The Russian people is made up chiefly of primitive racial strains, some of which (especially the Tartars and other Asiatic nomad elements) are distinctly “wild” stocks which have always shown an instinctive hostility to civilization. Russian history reveals a series of volcanic eruptions of congenital barbarism which have blown to fragments the thin top-dressing of ordered civilization. Viewed historically, the present Bolshevik upheaval appears largely as an instinctive reaction against the attempt to civilize Russia begun by Peter the Great and continued by his successors. Against this process of “Westernization” the Russian spirit has continually protested. These protests have arisen from all classes of Russian society. Peasant sects like the “Old Believers condemning Peter as “Antichrist,” or, like the Skoptzi, mutilating themselves in furious fanaticism; wild peasant revolts like those of Pugachev and Stenka Razine, reducing vast areas to blood and ashes; high-born “Slavophiles,” cursing the “Rotten West,” glorifying Asia, and threatening Europe with a “cleansing blood-bath” of conquest and destruction; Bolshevik Commissars longing to engulf the whole world in a Red tide surging out of Moscow — the forms vary, but the underlying spirit is the same. Not by chance have Russians been foremost in all the extreme forms of revolutionary unrest: not by chance was “Nihilism” a distinctively Russian development; Bakunin, the genius of Anarchism; and Lenin, the brains of international Bolshevism.

Dmitri Merezhkovski thus admits the innate wildness of the Russian soul:

We fancied that Russia was a house. No, it is merely a tent. The nomad set up his tent for a brief period, then struck it, and is off again in the steppes. The naked, level steppes are the home of the wandering Scythian. Wherever in the steppes a black point appears and grows larger in their vision, the Scythian hordes sweep down upon it and level it to the earth. They burn and ravage until they leave the wilderness to resume its sway. The craving for unbroken distances, for a dead level, for naked nature, for physical evenness and metaphysical uniformity — the most ancient ancestral impulse of the Scythian mind — manifests itself equally in Arakcheyev, Bakunin, Pugachev, Razin, Lenin, and Tolstoy. They have converted Russia into a vacant level plan. They would make all Europe the same, and the whole world the same. [48]

Economists have expressed surprise that Bolshevism should have established itself in Russia. To the student of race history, it was a perfectly natural event. Furthermore, while the late war may have hastened the catastrophe, some such catastrophe was apparently inevitable, because for years previous to the war it was clear that the Russian social order was weakening, while the forces of chaos were gathering strength. The decade before the war saw Russia suffering from a chronic “crime wave,” known collectively to Russian sociologists as “Hooliganism,” which seriously alarmed competent observers. In the year 1912, the Russian minister of the interior, Maklakov, stated: “Crime increases here. The number of cases has grown. A partial explanation is the fact that the younger generation grew up in the years of revolt, 1905-1906. The fear of God and of laws disappears even in the villages. The city and rural population is equally menaced by the ‘Hooligans.'” In the following year (1913) a leading St. Petersburg newspaper wrote editorially:

Hooliganism, as a mass-phenomenon, is unknown to western Europe. The ‘Apaches’ who terrorize the population of Paris or London are people with a different psychology from that of the Russian Hooligan.

Another St. Petersburg paper remarked about the same time:

Nothing human or divine restrains the destructive frenzy of the untrammelled will of the Hooligan. There are no moral laws for him. He values nothing and recognizes nothing. In the bloody madness of his acts there is always something deeply blasphemous, disgusting, purely bestial.

And the well-known Russian writer, Menshikov, drew this really striking picture of social conditions in the pages of his organ, Novoye Vremya:

All over Russia we see the same growth of ‘Hooliganism,’ and the terror in which the Hooligans hold the population. It is no secret that the army of criminals increases constantly. The Courts are literally near exhaustion, crushed under the weight of a mountain of cases. The police are agonizing in the struggle with crime — struggle which is beyond their strength. The prisons are congested to the breaking-point. Is it possible that this terrible thing will not meet with some heroic resistance? A real civil war is going on in the depths of the masses, which threatens a greater destruction than an enemy’s invasion. Not ‘Hooliganism,’ but Anarchy: this is the real name for that plague which has invaded the villages and is invading the cities. It is not only degenerates who enter upon a life of debauch and crime; already the average, normal masses join them, and only exceptionally decent village youths still maintain as much as possible a life of decent endeavor. The younger people, of course, make a greater show than the elderly peasants and the old men. But the fact is that both the former and the latter are degenerating into a state of savagery and bestiality.

Could there be a better description of that breakdown of the social controls and upsurge of savage instincts which, as we have already seen, characterizes the outbreak of social revolutions? This was precisely what the Russian Nihilists and Anarchists had been preaching for generations. This was what Bakunin had meant in his favorite toast: “To the destruction of all law and order, and the unchaining of evil passions!” For Bakunin, “The People” were the social outcasts — brigands, thieves, drunkards, and vagabonds. Criminals were frankly his favorites. Said he: “Only the proletariat in rags is inspired by the spirit and force of the coming social revolution.”

Referring once more to the matter of Russian Hooliganism prior to 1914, there is good ground for believing that the “crime waves” which have afflicted western Europe and America since the war are of a similar nature. Recently a leading American detective expressed his conviction that the “gunmen,” who to-day terrorize American cities, are imbued with social revolutionary feelings and have a more or less instinctive notion that they are fighting the social order. Mr. James M. Beck, solicitor-general of the United States, has lately uttered a similar warning against what he terms “the exceptional revolt against the authority of law,” which is taking place to-day. He sees this revolt exemplified not only in an enormous increase of crime but in the current demoralization visible in music, art, poetry, commerce, and social life.

Mr. Beck’s last assertion is one which has been made for years by many keen-sighted critics in the literary and artistic worlds. Nothing is more extraordinary (and more ominous) than the way in which the spirit of feverish, and essentially planless, unrest has been bursting forth for the past two decades in every field of art and letters. This unrest has taken many shapes — “Futurism,” “Cubism,” “Vorticism,” “Expressionism,” and God knows what. Its spirit, however, is always the same: a fierce revolt against things as they exist, and a disintegrative, degenerative reaction toward primitive chaos. Our literary and artistic malcontents have no constructive ideas to offer in place of that which they condemn. What they seek is absolute “freedom.” Hence, everything which trammels this anarchic “freedom” of theirs — form, style, tradition, reality itself — is hated and despised. Accordingly, all these matters (sneered at as “trite,” “old-fashioned,” “aristocratic,” “bourgeois,” or “stupid”) are contemptuously cast aside, and the “liberated” soul soars forth on the unfettered pinions of his boundless fancy.

Unfortunately, the flight seems to lead backward toward the jungle past. Certainly the products of the “new” art bear a strange likeness to the crude efforts of degenerate savages. The distorted and tormented shapes of “expressionist” sculpture, for example, resemble (if they resemble anything) the idols of West African negroes. As for “expressionist” painting, it seems to bear no normal relation to anything at all. Those crushed, mutilated forms, vaguely discerned amid a riot of shrieking colors; surely this is not “real” — unless bedlam be reality! Most extraordinary of all is that ultra-modern school of “painting,” which has largely discarded paint in favor of materials like newspaper clippings, buttons, and fish-bones, pasted, sewn or tacked on its canvases.

Almost as extravagent is the “new” poetry. Structure, grammer, metre, rhyme — are defied. Rational meanings are carefully avoided, a senseless conglomeration of words being apparently sought after as an end in itself. Here, obviously, the revolt against form is well-nigh complete. The only step which seemingly now remains to be taken is to abolish language, and have “poems without words.”

Now what does all this mean? It means simply one more phase of the world-wide revolt against civilization by the unadaptable, inferior, and degenerate elements, seeking to smash the irksome framework of modern society, and revert to the congenial levels of chaotic bar-barism or savagery. Normal persons may be inclined to laugh at the vagaries of our artistic and literary rebels, but the popular vogue they enjoy proves them to be really no laughing matter. Not long ago the English poet Alfred Noyes warned earnestly against the wide-spread harm done by “Literary Bolsheviki.” “We are confronted to-day,” he said,

by the extraordinary spectacle of 10,000 literary rebels, each chained to his own solitary height, and each chanting the same perennial song of hate against everything that has been achieved by past generations. The worst of it is that the world applauds them. The real rebel to-day is the man who stands by unpopular truth; but that man has a new name — he is called ‘commonplace.’ The literary Bolshevism of the past thirty years is more responsible for the present peril of civilization than is realized. One cannot treat all the laws as if they were mere scraps of paper without a terrible reckoning, and we are beginning to see it to-day.

It has led to an all-round lowering of standards. Some of the modern writers who take upon themselves to wipe out the best of ancient writers cannot write grammatical English. Their art and literature are increasingly Bolshevist. If we look at the columns of the newspapers we see the unusual spectacle of the political editor desperately fighting that which the art and literary portions of the paper uphold. In the name of ‘reality’ many writers are indulging in shabby forms of make-believe and are reducing all reality to ashes. [49]

In similar vein, the well-known German art critic, Johannes Volkelt, recently deplored the destructive effects of “expressionist” art and literature. “The demoralization of our attitude and sentiment toward life itself,” he writes,

is even more portentous than our declining recognition of artistic form. It is a mutilated, deformed, moron humanity which glowers or drivels at us through expressionist pictures. All they suggest is profound morbidity. Their jaded, unhealthy mood is relieved only by absurdities, and where these cast a ray of light into their rudimentary composition, it is only a broken and joyless one. Likewise, that which repels us most in the poetry of our younger school is its scornful stigmatizing of the past, without giving us anything positive in its place; its pathetic groping in its own self-wreckage; its confused, helpless seeking after some steadfast ideal. The soul is exhausted by its ceaseless chasing after nothing. Is life a shallow joke? A crazy dream? A terrifying chaos? Is there no longer sense in talking of an ideal? Is every ideal self-illusion? These are the questions which drive the soul of to-day aimlessly hither and thither. Calm consciousness of power and mastery, the unaffected glow of health, threaten to become lost sensations. Overalert self-consciousness associated with a mysterious revival of atavistic bestiality, and extreme overrefinement hand in hand with slothful love of indolence, characterize the discord which clouds the artistic mind of the period. [50]

As might be expected, the spirit of revolt which attacks simultaneously institutions, customs, ideals, art, literature, and all the other phases of civilization does not spare what stands behind, namely: individuality and intelligence. To the levelling gospel of social revolution such things are anathema. In its eyes it is the mass, not the individual, which is precious; it is quantity, not quality, which counts. Superior intelligence is by its very nature suspect — it is innately aristocratic, and as such must be summarily dealt with. For the past two decades the whole trend of revolutionary doctrine has been toward a glorification of brawn over brain, of the hand over the head, of emotion over reason. This trend is so bound up with the development of revolutionary theory and practice that we had best considerit in the chapters devoted to those matters. Suffice it here to state that it is a normal part of proletarian philosophy, and that it aims at nothing short of the entire destruction of modern civilization and the substitution of a self-directed “proletarian culture.” Above all, the onward march of our hateful civilization must be stayed. On this point proletarian extremists and “moderates” appear to be agreed. Cries the “Menshevik” Gregory Zilboorg:

Beyond all doubt the progress of Western European civilization has already made life unbearable . . . . We can achieve salvation to-day only by stopping progress! [51]

Yes, yes: “civilization is unbearable,” “progress must be stopped,” “equality must be established,” and so forth, and so forth. The emotional urge behind the revolution is quite clear. Let us now examine precisely what the revolution is, what it means, and how it is proposed to bring it about…


45. Of course, Rousseau is merely representative of a whole trend of thought and feeling. He was not a pioneer but a popularizer.

46. N. H. Webster, World Revolution, pg. 2 (London and Boston, 1921)

47. Dmitri Merezhkovski, “Tolstoy and Bolshevism,” Deutche Allgemeine Zeitung, 15-16 March, 1921. Quoted from the translation in The Living Age, 7 May, 1921

48. From the article in the Deutch Allgemeine Zeitung previously quoted.

49. From Mr. Noyes’s lecture before the Royal Institute of London on “Some aspects of Modern Poetry,” February, 1920.

50. From the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, 19 April, 1921.

51. Gregory Zilboorg, The Passing of the Old Order in Europe, pg. 225-226 (New York, 1920)

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Source: Dissident Millennial

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