A Reviewer's Notebook - 1976/8


In his monumental history of the conservative intellectual movement in America since 1945, George Nash makes two references to a little magazine called Plain Talk, which was edited by Isaac Don Levine from 1946 to 1950. Since he had such a vast tapestry to weave, Mr. Nash could hardly have done better by Mr. Levine without unbalancing his chronicle. He does say that Plain Talk modulated, so to speak, into The Freeman. The Freeman, in turn became the seed pod of many phases of the conservative efflorescence. So Don Levine gets the credit for being the Honorable Ancestor of the movement, which Fabian-style, is providing the coming alternative to the collectivist "liberalism" that must be routed if individual freedom and creativity are to prevail throughout the West.

Plain Talk was a Cold War publication, devoted mainly to combating the encroachments of Stalinism both on the domestic and world scenes. It had to struggle for attention in a postwar America that had grown tired of foreign commitments and lax about accepting the possibility that "it could happen here." The illusion, that somehow the victors in World War II—the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union—could fashion an enduring world peace with the aid of the United Nations, maintained its incredible persistence in spite of Red encroachments all the way from Czechoslovakia to Manchuria and North Korea. Our State Department, though it was formally committed to support the Truman Doctrine (which saved Greece and Turkey), was riddled with people who wanted us to desert an old ally, Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang, in China. The wish here proved father to the reality: as Alfred Kohlberg, the merchant "angel" who supported Plain Talk, wrote, "a large part of the arms shipped to China under lend-lease before V-J Day and more than half the ammunition were destroyed by the American Army before delivery to the Chinese… Not a single firearm, from revolver to cannon, has been permitted to be shipped to the Chinese Government since V-J Day:

With Kohlberg’s help, Don Levine launched Plain Talk at the critical time when the Communists were developing the world’s most fearsome Fifth Column as their answer to the temporary U.S. monopoly of the atom bomb. He found scores of well-informed writers to attack the problem of exposing the machinations of Red infiltrators. Many of the articles they turned out from 1946 to 1950 have now been reprinted in Plain Talk: An Anthology from the Leading Anti-Communist Magazine of the 40s, edited by Mr. Levine (Arlington House, $12.95).

A Contemporary Ring

As might be expected at a time when we have suddenly been reminded by Solzhenitsyn that the Communist leopard has not changed its spots, practically every article in this anthology has a deeply contemporary ring. Mr. Levine tells us the reason: "if you substitute the name of Brezhnev,"he writes, "for that of his master Stalin; of Kissinger for that of General Marshall; of President Ford for that of James E Byrnes; and if `the Molotovs and Vishinskys’ be replaced with ‘the Gromykos and Suslovs’," the scene today is exactly parallel to what it was thirty years ago. Then it was, as a Ralph de Toledano article says, "Stalin’s hand in the Panama Canal"; today it is Castro’s hand in the agitation to get us out of the Canal Zone. Thirty years ago Communism threatened to overrun Asia; today, as Angola proves, it is Africa that is under the gun.

The truth is that the Cold War merely went undergound for a while. Detente was always an illusion, something that was fostered by Khrushchev and his successors as an insurance policy designed to protect the Communist gains in eastern Europe while Marxist wars of "liberation" were being pushed to completion throughout the old colonial world.

Don Levine’s biggest coup was an article called " `Gulag’—Slavery, Inc." He wrote it back in the middle forties from data that had been brought out of the Soviet Union by Polish soldiers who had been released from prison camps by Stalin to compose the Polish armyin-exile that fought so valiantly at Monte Cassino in Italy. Along with the article, which explains that "Gulag" is the acronym for Russian words meaning Office of Penal Labor Camps, went a terrifying map of scores of penal colonies scattered, archipelago-fashion, from the White Sea in Europe to Kamchatka on the far Pacific side of Siberia. Thus Levine anticipated Solzhenitsyn by thirty years.

Everyone knows what "Gulag archipelago" means now: Solzhenitsyn has put it firmly in the western vocabulary. But Levine got there first, as the inclusion of his article and map in the anthology reminds us. Other coups reprinted in the anthology include Eugene Lyons’s pioneer expose of the Katyn Forest massacre by Stalin’s NKVD of the flower of the Polish officer corps. Fourteen thousand Polish officers, taken when Stalin and Hitler connived to carve up Poland, simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Many of them were unearthed from shallow graves by the Nazis after Hitler had invaded Russia. The Soviets tried to prove the Nazis had done the killing, but the evidence, from dates in diaries taken from the corpses, points clearly to the Communists as the mass murderers.

The Positive Case for Freedom

To those who might argue that it is nonsense to think of an anti-Communist magazine as a progenitor of the conservative movement in America, there is a good answer in section seven of Mr. Levine’s anthology, called "On Freedom and Its Enemies." Here the positive exposition of what Leonard Read calls the "freedom philosophy" takes over. We have Ludwig von Mises’s "The Philosophy of the Pseudo-Progressives," a notable analysis of Marxian, Veblenian and Keynesian misrepresentations of the capitalist position, which Mises defends as the appropriate expression of free "human action." We have Edna Lonigan’s strong defense of the American conception of democracy (the right of the individual to the fruits of his "performance") as against the French conception, which means "control of some citizens by others, whenever the majority wishes:’ We have Ayn Rand’s "Screen Guide for Americans," a warning against Hollywood codes that belittle the American enterpriser. We have Henry Hazlitt’s analysis of the defects of our political primary system, a system that runs counter to the sound basic principle that the office should seek the man.

The point is that Levine, as an editor, knew what he was for as well as what he was against. He used to describe himself as a "mutualist," meaning that he was a believer in voluntary as against compulsory cooperation. "Mutualism," in the Russia where Levine was born, derived from Kropotkin, the philosophical anarchist. In America it means free association, a wider conception which Levine has heartily embraced.


A GANG OF PECKSNIFFS by H.L. Mencken (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1975; 206 pages)

Reviewed by Edmund A. Opitz

Some writers live serene on the slopes of Mount Olympus, immune to the passions that agitate their fellows. Goethe comes to mind, a man whose monumental detachment may be gauged by his response to a young friend with a painfully swollen jaw: "You have a toothache? Live in the All."

It was otherwise with Mencken. Henry never even looked at Olympus in public, except when he wrote about music. Music, Beethoven’s works in particular, evoked the only religious emotions Mencken ever manifested, and his writings on this subject are those of a true believer. His friend, Louis Cheslock, deserves our gratitude for making them available in book form. In almost everything else Mencken played the role of provocateur; he disturbed the peace of the over-complacent America of the 1920′s and shakes us a bit even today.

Mencken was a critic of our culture, and a critic counters, allowing his themes to be chosen for him. Mencken was set off by the imbecilities of politicians, the stupidities of businessmen, the idiocies of churchmen, the chicanery of lawyers, the quackery of doctors, the ignorance of academicians, and—in the volume under review—by the canting hypocrisy of the fourth estate. (How one would love to see Mencken in his prime turned loose on television!) The follies and stupidities of the American "booboisie" during the twenties were made to order for a man of Mencken’s talents, and he assaulted them with more gusto than pinpoint accuracy. Criticism, he wrote to a friend, "must be done boldly, and, in order to get a crowd, a bit cruelly?’ The culture’s crassness, its sentimentality, its religion of progress and Babbittry, its hubris, were lampooned, caricatured, ridiculed, and hacked to pieces. But once his opponent was unhorsed, Mencken never drove in for the kill; more than likely the fallen foe was helped back into the saddle.

There was a private side, quite different from the public image Mencken cultivated. A fine book by Mrs. Mencken’s friend, Sara Mayfield, The Constant Circle, reveals Mencken as gentle, thoughtful, gallant, and somewhat shy. As an editor, he was a never-failing source of help to promising young writers. When the occasion warranted, he would ladle out avuncular advice to aspiring authors to steer clear of wine, women and song. His own work load went beyond the Puritan ethic, but he was never too busy to answer pestering letters from admirers, gravely and by return mail. He was delightful company, as his friend Albert Jay Nock relates: "There is no better companion in the world than Henry; I admire him, and have the warmest affection for him. I was impressed afresh by his superb character—immensely able, unselfconscious, sincere, erudite, simplehearted, kindly, generous, really a noble fellow if ever there was one in the world."

With the passing of "the era of wonderful nonsense" went many of the kinds of targets Mencken needed. He despised the New Deal, of course, but how do you burlesque a burlesque? The only memorable thing to come out of this period was his celebrated polemic, "Three Years of Dr. Roosevelt." So Mencken in the thirties returned to his scholarly exertions in the field of philology, and in 1936 Knopf published the enlarged and rewritten fourth edition of The American Language, to be followed by two more volumes containing additional material. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations appeared in 1946.

These projects, and a few others, occupied Mencken’s mind during the dismal forties. It was not a happy time for him. He regarded World War II as further evidence of mass insanity plus poltroonery in high places; the U.N. was "that monumental obscenity?’ He was persuaded to cover the 1948 presidential sweepstakes and that gave him a lift, for he regarded democracy as the most amusing form of government, and the three candidates of that year were choice specimens all. And then, in November, 1948 came the stroke, and this most gifted stylist of our time, this virtuoso with words was crippled in both speech and writing. He bore his fate with a kind of gallows cheerfulness; the inner man never surrendered till Death fetched him in 1956.

Mencken had a lifelong love affair with his job as a newspaperman, and we have, in A Gang of Pecksniffs, a collection of his articles on the press. Only one has appeared before in book form, so this excellent volume will appeal to every Mencken buff, but also to a wider audience interested in an assessment of contemporary journalism by its ablest practitioner. The compiler is an editorial writer on Mencken’s old paper, and has contributed a knowledgeable thirty-page introduction and added a half dozen photographs of HLM at work.

NO LAND IS AN ISLAND: Individual Rights and Government Control of Land Use by various authors. (Institute for Contemporary Studies, 260 California Street, Suite 811, San Francisco, California 94111, 1975; 221 pp.)

Reviewed by Brian Summers

This book is a collection of fourteen essays, most of them critical of the political drive to regulate land use.

The arguments against government control of land are well covered. Several authors, particularly W. Philip Gramm and Robert B. Ekelund, Jr., offer economic theory. Others, such as Bernard H. Siegan, John McClaughry, and Connie Cheney, present case studies. Siegan considers the case of Houston, a booming city with no zoning. McClaughry gives a blow-by-blow account of the struggle over land use in Vermont, complete with political power plays and skulduggery. Connie Cheney concentrates on the victims of land use regulation, the forgotten people who find their futures zoned away by the government. Some of the authors, such as M. Bruce Johnson, take a more general approach, weaving together economics, case studies, and common sense.

Several contributors raise a particularly disturbing point: Land use regulation is often directed against the poor. The most blatant example is zoning. Zoning is often designed not to keep trees, grass, and squirrels in, but to keep poor people out. To give the reader an idea of the arguments being put forward by proponents of regulation, the book includes an essay by a leading advocate of Federal land use legislation.

The only flaw in the book is that several contributors seem intent on making government regulations work better, rather than relying on the free market. But, on balance, it is a fine book with much ammunition for those preparing to do battle with the proponents of land use regulation.


OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPERTY by Bernard H. Siegan (Lexington Books, D.C. Heath and Company, 125 Spring St., Lexington, Massachusetts 02173, 1976; 147 pp.)

Reviewed by Paul L. Poirot

Those who have followed Professor Siegan’s several short articles in recent issues of THE FREEMAN will recognize that the focus of his book is on the use of land, to the conclusion that: "Government regulation of land use should be minimized, and we should rely instead largely on the restraints inherent in individual freedom and competition to control the use of land."

John Chamberlain said of Mr. Siegan’s Land Use Without Zoning (Lexington Books, 1972) that it "will stand as a landmark for the rest of our century." But, he added, "it needs translation into a less complicated idiom if it is to have the maximum effect." And that is precisely what Bernard Siegan has been doing in his newspaper and journal articles since 1972, simplifying and popularizing the case against government planning and zoning and land use regulation and the case for private ownership and control of any scarce and valuable resource, especially land. Those columns and articles, written for the layman, are organized and collected in Other People’s Property in a way that should be most helpful to anyone seeking maximum use and enjoyment of his own property.

As Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, Mr. Siegan teaches courses in land use and law-and-economics. He is without peer in his understanding of the seen and the unseen consequences of the land use controls which increasingly plague town and country, in the USA and throughout the world. We welcome his leadership forward in freedom.