A Reviewer's Notebook - 1978/2

Bruce Mazlish, in his The Revolutionary Ascetic: Evolution of a Political Type (McGraw-Hill, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10036, paperback, $4.95), has made a fascinating book out of a most tenuous theory. He begins by invoking the support of Freud and Max Weber, neither of whom was particularly preoccupied with the subject of political upheavals. Freud was concerned with "libidinal ties," and noted that the strong man of the original "primal horde" was usually ego-ridden and able to put aside love for individual or family to serve a group which he identified with himself. Max Weber, using a different terminology, discovered a connection between Puritanism and capitalism—the strong man, able to forgo self-indulgence, was in a better position than his lazy and roistering—or even merely family loving—fellows to build a business career.

In short, asceticism can obviously contribute to success of any sort. So Mr. Mazlish has a look at successful revolutionary leaders to see where they conformed to the psychology of the potent tribal chief or the great entrepreneur.

Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung are the revolutionists who sit for the Mazlish portraits. But whether it was asceticism as such, or simple fanaticism in pursuit of an abstraction identified with an ideal, that drove this "big four" to accept blood and terror as the price of change is still an open question as one puts down the Mazlish book.


The Protestant ethic was undeniably a work ethic, and the more one works the less time one has for "libidinal ties." But this is only to say that a day has twenty-four hours. Actually, how basically ascetic in nature was Oliver Cromwell? Mr. Mazlish notes that Cromwell, who was spoiled a bit by his mother, had a fear of death, since he was an only surviving son. His temperament was splenetic. Up to the age of twenty-eight, when he had some sort of conversion, he was addicted to horseplay and practical jokes that were not in the best of taste, and he "lived up" to the dissipating nature of a wastrel uncle. However, his teacher, a Puritan divine named Thomas Beard, who lectured against the dissoluteness of the age, eventually prevailed with him.

Cromwell got control of his temper and began to exercise a leadership of men that came natural to him. No doubt this involved asceticism of a sort. But Mr. Mazlish has to admit that Cromwell, throughout his life, liked his ale and wine, and continued to indulge the sporting tastes of the country gentry from which he came. He fathered nine children, continued to provide a home for his mother, and was prostrated for two weeks after the death of a daughter. None of this suggests that he ever cut himself off from the "libidinal ties" of a normal life. If he insisted on discipline in his Model Army, the justification was as much pragmatic as it was Puritan.

Mazlish, in the end, has to qualify his report on Cromwell by saying that he put his "asceticism, insofar as it existed," at the service of an ideal. The qualifying phrase is surely quantitatively inexact.


With Robespierre, the "voice of virtue" of the French Revolution, Mr. Mazlish has an easier time. Robespierre was ascetic to the point of viciousness. He glorified the People but cared nothing for individuals. But others besides Robespierre made the French Revolution, and asceticism figured very little in the lives of some of the revolutionists. Danton, for example, horrified Robespierre when he defined virtue as what he did with his wife in bed at night.

Mr. Mazlish has to bring in Jeremy Bentham, with his theory of utilitarianism, to explain the Russians who studied the French Revolution to see where it went wrong. Robespierre failed because he never managed to build a party, not because of anything that had to do with the question of asceticism. Chernyshevsky, a forerunner of Lenin, wanted a "pitiless" New Man to take charge in Russian revolutionary politics for utilitarian, or instrumental, reasons, but he did, not live up to his own ascetic ideal. As Mazlish says, he was an eclectic thinker who, at one time, said the "idea of a wife" afforded some protection against "revolutionary conviction." In his own life Chernyshevsky wanted both the "protection" and the "conviction."


Lenin may have been "low-keyed sexually," but his asceticism was never an ideal in itself. Lenin married, presumably for companionship. He always believed in the family. He had his softer feelings, and could have listened to Beethoven every day. For ten years he carried on an unconsummated affair with the beautiful Inessa Armand, and he broke down when Inessa died. But he never let his love for Inessa interfere with his revolutionary duty.

Lenin loved the revolution more than he loved anything else, but does that make him an "ascetic"? He didn’t suppress his "libidinous ties," he merely subordinated them to the overmastering passion of his life, which was to bring Communism to Russia.

Mao Tse-tung

Mao Tse-tung, like Lenin, married a revolutionary. According to Andre Malraux, he loved his wife and referred to her in a poem as "my proud poplar," which was a play on her name of Yang K’ai-hui. She was executed in 1930 by the Kuomintang. Mao later remarried twice. None of this reflects a "displaced libido" during the time when Mao was not leading the Long March or hiding in the caves of Yenan while Chiang Kai-shek took the brunt of a Japanese attack that continued for years.

The truth would seem to be that revolutionaries are very much like other men save in the choice of the causes they embrace. Some, like Robespierre, are basically ascetic. Others, like Lenin, are Benthamite utilitarians who suppress their no ascetic characteristics because they have more compelling demands on their time. As for Mao Tse-tung, who knows? Maybe the loss of his first wife to a Kuomintang executioner had more to do than Marx with his revolutionary sticking power. In such a case, Mao would be one leader of a revolution who gained strength from the memory of a lost "libidinal tie."

Mr. Mazlish’s book suggests more important themes. A Chinese proverb has it that a great man is a public calamity. Certainly this is true when a great man resorts to force and fraud as the prime movers of social change. Why do good men fall for delusions, giving first rate loyalties to methods that bring endless woe to human beings who have a right to resent the confusion of politics with religion? The question of displaced loyalty is more important than displaced libido.


ESSAYS ON INDIVIDUALITY edited by Felix Morley

(The Liberty Press, 7440 North Shadeland,

Indianapolis, Indiana 46250) 380 pages

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld

Twelve distinguished writers and educators met in Princeton, New Jersey at a "Symposium on Individuality and Personality" sponsored by the Foundation for American Studies. The meeting took place in 1956.

These were men whose specialties ranged over the humanities, the physical and social sciences, history, politics and economics. Two among them—Friedrich A. Hayek and Milton Friedman—have since received Nobel laureates in economics.

The essays, initially prepared for that 1956 meeting, have now been reprinted by The Liberty Fund in a volume which is worthy of the serious consideration of all those who are concerned with a free society—how it can be constructed and how it can be maintained.

Arthur Kemp, in his foreword, reflects on "the fortunate, perhaps fortuitous, selection of a group of men who had both the courage and the intellectual capacity to transcend the limits of their respective specialties in order to consider the problems of society as a whole, particularly those relating to individual privacy, individual responsibility and individual freedom of thought and action."

Among the contributors are Roger J. Williams, Joseph Wood Krutch, John Dos Passos, Helmut Schoeck, Richard M. Weaver, and James C. Malin.

In a discussion of the political philosophy of America’s founding fathers, John Dos Passos notes that, "If men could be found to apply to political problems the sort of first-rate rigorous thinking which we have seen applied to physics in our lifetime, and if the study of the science of state building should thus come into its own again, the great formulations of the generation of 1776 would still be found valid. . . . It is one of the magnificent ironies of history that the zealots for total bureaucratic rule, whose dogma provides them with boots and spurs to ride the mass of mankind, justify themselves by the same political phraseology which the men of Jefferson’s day hoped would make forever impossible the regimentation of the many by the few."

Few societies have attained liberty. Dos Passos writes that, "It is always well to remember that the commonest practice of mankind is that a few shall impose authority and the majority shall submit. . . . The liberties we enjoy today . . . are the survivors of the many liberties won by the struggles and pains of generations of English-speaking people who somehow had resistance to authority in their blood. Their passion for individuality instead of conformity was unique in the world."

The clear connection between free enterprise and other freedoms is discussed by a number of the contributors. Milton Friedman declares that, "A necessary condition for individual freedom is the organization of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprises operating in a free market . . . there are only two ways of coordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving use of coercion—the technique of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary cooperation of individuals—the technique of the market place."

In an age in which many have advocated the idea of egalitarianism, Dr. Friedman makes clear that, "It is a trite, if unpalatable, observation that freedom and egalitarianism can be inconsistent objectives. Fortunately, in practice, they have proved not to be. Historically, a free market has produced less inequality, a wider distribution of wealth, and less poverty than any other form of economic organization. There is less inequality in advanced capitalist countries like the U.S. than in underdeveloped countries, like India. . .. There appears also to be less inequality in capitalist countries than in collectivist countries like Russia and China. In principle, collectivist societies could achieve substantial equality—albeit at the sacrifice of total output; in practice, they have not done so or even tried to do so."

In another essay, Richard Weaver expressed the fear that individualism is seriously on the decline. In fact, he believed that the very idea of holding a symposium on the subject was indicative of that fact: "There is an uncomfortable basis of truth in a remark I once heard made by a philosopher: as soon as something begins to disappear, we put up signs proclaiming the virtue of it. The very fact of a symposium arranged to discuss the future of individuality may be taken wryly as a sign that its prospects are poor. But sometimes men disvalue a thing only because they have forgotten how good it is comparatively. In such cases a fresh look should lead to a revival of faith and also uncover possibilities for preserving what we would be the poorer for losing."

One of the major efforts to destroy the individualism upon which freedom is based, Weaver believed, is the modern world’s attack upon memory: "There has never been another milieu, as far as my knowledge goes, which has sought to make forgetting a virtue. ‘Forget it’ is a password of the time. If people make a mistake or commit a sin (to use an antiquated phrase), they are told to `Forget it.’ … Those who live with a burden of memory are smiled at amiably, when they are not frowned upon darkly, as impediments in the way of progress. . . . I cannot see this disparagement of all memory as anything but an attack upon the mind. . . . The human being must live in a present that is enriched and sustained by a past; it is his experience stored up in the form of memory which enables him to be something more than an automaton responding to sensory impingements."

Felix Morley, addressing those whose political philosophy stems from Rousseau and his advocacy of the "general will," points out that, "The protection of minorities against the majority was the inspiring and historically unique objective of the Founding Fathers. And if anyone at that time had suggested the desirability of a unified general will, to be defined and exercised throughout the states from the seat of central government, he would have been denounced more roundly even than was poor bumbling George III."

If 1956 was not a good year for freedom and individualism, the period we are now in is even worse. In the world at large, freedom has diminished, as it has within our own country. The challenges we face are pointed up all too well in this selection of essays. The Liberty Fund has performed a significant public service in reprinting them and making them available to a new generation of Americans.