H. L. Mencken: Anarchist of the Right?

by Anne Ollivier-Mellio

[Keith: I translated this from the original French using online translation technology, so it’s a bit of a rough read in places. I eschewed further editing, so as to avoid additional deviations from the original.]

Mencken: anarchist of the right? Oxymoron or mere provocation? Is there not some irony in wanting to classify it, his whole life, tried to remain unclassifiable, shuffling cards, prohibiting anyone from the catalog? Described as skeptical, iconoclastic satire, turns literary critic, columnist and editor, is found at the crossroads between journalism and literature, philosophy and publishing. And if the breadcrumb to the contemporary reader to find his bearings in this maze, was simply politics? And if Mencken was, among other things, one of the most famous of American anarchism? Of course, not anarchism left of Emma Goldman (1870-1940) or Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), his Russian mentor, but anarchism synthesizing large American values and that of the right.

In his book on the right-wing anarchists in France, François Richard identifies three trends in anarchist thought. The anarchism of Max Stirner Gross (1806-1856), German thinker who rejects the generally accepted data humanistic tradition and promotes excessive individualism. Anarchism left inherited the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which seeks to empower people and the exercise of political power by all at the price of radical and violent actions (Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin), and finally a Right anarchism or libertarian aristocracy, founded on a critical (or rejection) of democracy, a rejection of the egalitarian premise of 1789, a duty to revolt, hatred of intellectuals and a fierce defense of individual liberties (Richard 56). Very well represented in French literature, de Gobineau of Marcel Ayme through Leautaud, Celine, Bernanos or Anouilh, anarchism plunge right he also rooted in a uniquely American tradition of anti-statism, individualism extreme and fierce defense of individual liberties? 
In any case, what seems to support David De Leon in The American as Anarchist, work in which he studied the different forms of radicalism in the United States, and concludes that there is a current anarchist and right of current anarchist left the United States. We look for us to show that right-wing anarchism is perhaps one of the keys to better understand and perhaps try to classify the unclassifiable Mencken, without reducing or freezing his thought. By choosing this angle of attack will then be examined in turn led to his defense of individualism and freedoms, including freedom of expression, his critique of democracy in general and particularly the United States, its glorification of ‘individualism and opposition to the state. I finally try to evaluate ideas in light of the American libertarian tradition. To Mencken, the starting point for any discussion on freedom of thought remains the Founding Fathers. During the revolutionary period, they are the true defenders of individual freedoms. They do not believe in an egalitarian democracy, contrary to popular wisdom says, but want to establish a republic. They are wary of people, the populace (the mob) but rely on an enlightened minority, able to defend individual freedoms and equality with men before the law. In his essay on George Washington, Mencken writes: “George Washington Had No belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but Regarded as inflammatory dolt them and tried to save the Republic from them” (Chrestomathy 220).
To Mencken, love of freedom requires courage, ability to be autonomous (self-reliant) and entrepreneurship, qualities which are often destitute people. And to quote William Graham Sumner, famous Darwinist professor of economics at Yale, too, in the late nineteenth century clearly distinguishes democracy and republic. The republic is a form of self-government whose goal is not equality between men but civil liberties. It requires that we be vigilant and we will beat it when freedoms are under threat (Douglas 71). Mencken fully supports the ideas of Sumner, he considers the people too passive and too little attention to assaults on their liberties. When people fight, “he said, he does not name the key principles such as freedom, but to meet practical needs, immediate and material.  
Beyond principles, the reality will Mencken’s struggle for freedom of expression, a priority throughout his life. Certainly, we see expressed in his columns on topics as diverse as Puritanism, morality, religion, sex and politics. It withers mercilessly American heroes like Lincoln or Roosevelt. But he forgets the satire and irony, and rallying as soon as the individual freedoms of others, especially freedom of expression is threatened. Witness his stance in favor of the writer Theodore Dreiser, when it becomes the target of American censorship after the release of his 1915 book Genius (Bode 59-60, Hobson 151, Williams 73). In 1917 he took up the cause of the socialist Scott Nearing, dismissed from the University of Pennsylvania, because of its pacifist positions. He has no personal sympathy for Nearing but would primarily defend freedom of expression of this teacher, even a pacifist and socialist.  It is clean, Mencken later said, and if I had a son, I wish he could meet him.  In 1916 and 1917, he also takes a stand against censorship suffered almost all radical magazines (whether of the literary magazine The Seven Arts, was forced to cease publication after the release of anti-war articles Randolph Bourne, or The Masses, a magazine more politicized directed by Max Eastman, also censured by the Wilson government in autumn 1917). The fierce defense of freedom of expression animates still in the thirties when he denounced the dismissal of a teacher, Mr Blows, accused by the board of the university to be communist, or when it intervenes to support the visa application of anarchist (left!) Emma Goldman, then in exile in Europe. The anarchist deported to Russia by the U.S. government in 1919 after thirty-three years ago in the United States, was denied a visa by the authorities because of his ideas deemed seditious.
But freedom of expression has meaning only if one is willing to fight for his defense.
But Mencken, if committed on a personal level, doubts that his compatriots are capable of such a struggle. The people, in his view, unable to stand up for a cause as noble as freedom, because he strayed into its idiotic belief in democracy. The second theme occupies a prominent place in the political writings of Mencken. Plus an opponent of democracy, especially criticizing the excesses of the American system, he said officials from the tyranny of the majority of the emergence of movements such as fundamentalism or Prohibition or the pervasiveness of what ‘ he calls the moral puritan.
 The first aspect of his critique of democracy as political system is structured to reflect on Puritanism in the United States.  His target is not the Puritanism of New England in the seventeenth century because it does not arise as a historian of ideas but slayer this moral code (much more than Victorian puritan) still present in the United States at the turn of the century. His denunciation of the Puritan morality (rather than religious practice) is akin to that formulated by Van Wyck Brooks a few years ago in a book entitled Wine of the Puritans (1908). Both vilify this narrow moral code which stifles the individual and his instincts and weighed like a leaden pall over the entire American literature. “I’m against Puritanism to the last gasp,” he wrote to Dreiser in 1919 (Epstein 50). To Mencken, Puritanism and Democracy are intrinsically linked because they represent two sides of the same idea (Chrestomathy 183, Douglas 83). Both are rooted in hatred of the poor man for those who are superior. The Puritan as a Democrat (it must be understood by the individual in a democracy) are afraid of being surpassed by his peers. He believes so strongly in equality of men that do not tolerate those who want to advance, rising above the common lot.  And to sum up his thoughts in a phrase famously: “Democracy is a condition of life In which people are set to worrying Whether somebody, somewhere is enjoying things that they are not and take action to see that they do not. That is what Puritanism is also “(Douglas 83). Thus, the Puritan as the Democrat, fears excellence, hates art and those who create it, and hope that everything is measured against its own mediocrity. Precisely this race to the bottom that Mencken deplored in American society.
The mistake of the Americans is the belief that all men are equal in talent and ability, whereas the term gender as used by the Founding Fathers, refers only to equality with men before law. Hence the reluctance of the average American (the average man), obsessed by the idea of egalitarian democracy, to accept the geniuses, intellectuals and men of emergency. Besides Mencken believed in the existence of men of superior intelligence. Like Nietzsche, to whom he dedicated a book in 1908, he hates morality and bourgeois lifestyle (the booboisie!), And sees egalitarian drift of American democratic system the sign of the decline of a civilization. Progress (in whatever form) can only come from a creative elite and not the man in the street, whose goal is to ensure that their material comfort (12-13 Notes on Democracy ).
In his articles on democracy, Mencken did not yet pose a political philosopher, but a mere observer of American life. Its almost anthropological study leads him to conclude, as did Nietzsche, that democracy, more than any other political system, encourages the standardization of tastes and moral conformity and discourages the contrary originality, excellence and Imagination (Douglas 100).  To justify his position, he draws his examples from American history, and especially the withers Jacksonian period (1828-1836: under President Jackson that all white men become eligible to vote) and the populist movement (movement in the 1890s, denounced the plutocracy and demanded more rights for the masses), according to him responsible for the spread of democracy and its abuses.
But most of the examples from the past, the First World War Mencken offers food for thought on the evils of American democracy. In April 1917, the United States entered the war, and the Wilson government therefore seeks to silence all opposition to the conflict, they are pacifists, socialists or anarchists. One by one, all the radical magazines (whether more politicized journals as The Masses – 1911-1917 – or more interested in art as The Seven Arts – 1916-1917) fall under two laws , the Espionage Act and Sedition Act (passed in 1917 and 1918) and must stop their publication. Mencken, however, reluctant to support what he called “the red ink fraternity” (that is to say, radical intellectuals, Forgue 68), while denouncing censorship and the U.S. government. But he also openly condemned the democracy, the American people and his lack of courage. Indeed, public opinion strongly opposed the war until the end of 1916 (the Democratic Party had not he contributed to Wilson’s re-election hammering, “Wilson kept us out of the war ?), had continued to support Wilson after the outbreak of war the United States. The American people had accepted without hesitation Wilson’s argument that “this [was] a war to make the world safe for democracy”, even though individual liberties were shamefully violated and crushed the opposition. Is it just asks Mencken in a letter to Socialist Louis Untermeyer in 1917, about the inherent love of the American people for freedom? No, such a passion does not exist. He continued: “It is only an aristocracy that is ever tolerant. The masses are invariably cocksure, suspicious, furious and tyrannical. This is in fact the central objection to democracy: that it hinders progress by penalizing innovation and non conformity » (Forgue 109). 
Mencken remains convinced that only an aristocracy (elite) is capable of defending freedom of expression and to see a major issue (since it only has the affluence that allows it to be selfless and act for the defense of principles), while the masses, too preoccupied with defending an egalitarian democracy, have recently demonstrated their inability to react when individual liberties are at risk. Thus, the war had shown that one of the greatest dangers to democracy remained much the emergence of a “tyranny of the majority”, a term used by Alexis de Tocqueville [1] but that sums up perfectly the feeling of the Mencken early twenties. The mistake the Americans since the late nineteenth century had been pushing democracy in the extreme, to the point of forgetting the republican principles of the Founding Fathers: the equality of all before the law – not equal all at birth – and the duty of politicians to defend the res publica, that is to say the public, the public good, without seeking to flatter the masses by illusory promises.
But if this harsh criticism of democracy can Mencken put together a Micberth (born in 1945, this writer and pamphleteer, is considered one of the leaders of the French right-wing anarchism. His critique of the contemporary including democracy leads to write: “Equality: not know, I know some constant amount, while others laziness, filth, vice and demean themselves poor, Richard 57), his apology for the ‘individual approaches also the right-wing anarchists. He has repeatedly criticized this “tyrannical majority” herd instinct “Democratic man is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual, he must belong to a group or shake with fear and loneliness, and the group, of course, must have its leaders, “he wrote in 1926 (Chrestomathy 157). Mencken was an individualist who opposes any allegiance to a group or party. He reproached Dreiser, where it feeds yet sympathetic, his left drift (during WWI) but he will acknowledge especially to serve a group, the radical intellectuals of Greenwich Village. A decade later, he sent the same complaint to the many intellectuals who look to the communist movement. This is not the fascination of these intellectuals to the communist ideology that shocking (he wrote in effect: “If I were younger and on my own, I would be sorely tempted, I suspect, to take a look at Russia . Though most communists [are] laughable, communism [is] at least an interesting idea … quite as sensitive as democracy, “Hobson 387), their subservience to the group, their renunciation of individual combat. Individualism is indeed a fundamental value for Mencken.
Yet this desire to be free and independent group does not make him shut up in an intellectual ivory tower. Instead, he led many battles individually, refusing, like many right-wing anarchists, “to bend at all considered particularly despicable conformism” (Richard 47).
Among the battles Mencken include that he is waging against what he calls comstockery.  Comstock was a member of Congress who had pushed through a law in 1873 – known as the Comstock law – prohibiting “the mailing, transporting or importing of anything lewd, lascivious or obscene” (Parrish 143). The influence of the Comstock Act on American morality was still strong in the twenties and comstockery become a favorite target of Mencken, who committed to showing the absurdity, hypocrisy and anachronistic. Many papers in his Chrestomathy under “Morals” in the form of attack more or less veiled moral code of the legacy of the nineteenth century ( “The Lady of Joy,” “The Sex Uproar,” “Art and Sex , 48, 54, 61). It says for example these lines tasty:
One of the favorite notions of the Puritan mullahs who specialize in pornography is that the sex instinct, if suitably repressed, may be “sublimated,” as they say, into idealism, and especially aesthetic. That concept is to be found in all their books, they ground it upon the theory that the enforcement of chastity by a huge force of spies, stool pigeons and police would convert the Republic into a nation of moral aesthetes. All this of course is simply pious fudge. (61)
But his struggle against the moral hypocrisy and narrow is matched only one he waged against Prohibition (passed in 1919, it remains in force until 1933) or against Southern Methodist in the United States (185 ) and fundamentalists [2]. Ultimately, Mencken never stop, his whole life, fighting through American society. Like the anarchists of the right, he acts independently of any group or party, for his crusade is personal. Like them, he believes that “fertility intellectual and moral greatness inevitably require a personal attitude of opposition towards what might be called the socio-cultural consensus” (Richard 48).
Finally, Mencken conducts a final battle which relates to certain anarchists right: not content to criticize democracy, we have seen, he also accuses of having contributed to the increased role of federal States United, a phenomenon he sees as responsible for a large drift of American political system. The federal government had gradually acquired more responsibilities throughout the nineteenth century the Civil War who played a significant role in this development), but mainly in the twentieth century through the Progressive movement (1901-1914 ) and the New Deal (in the thirties) he sees his role increase dramatically. The progressive movement is driven by reformers from the middle class. Given the inequalities of American society led since the Civil War, by a minority of plutocrats, the middle class American is looking for solutions to improve the plight of the poorest in order to minimize social protest. This improvement is through better social protection and distribution of wealth more equitable, the federal government should be able to put in place. After a moment the arguments progressives rallied during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1908), Mencken never stop criticizing the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson from 1912. He believes, like the English philosopher William Godwin, the function of government should be duplicated and limited to protecting the individual against the attacks of his fellow citizens and foreign policy. He writes: “The government is in essence not a mere organization of ordinary men like the Ku Klux Klan, the U.S. Steel Corporation or Columbia University, but has transcended organism composed of aloof and impersonal powers, wholly devoid of self interest “(Douglas 118).  For him, the increased federal role that inevitably affects the autonomy and individual freedom, so dear to Americans. In the thirties, he did not condemn the New Deal, in which he receives one of the most serious damage to American values (independence and anti-statism). Overall, he believes that the independence and autonomy of the individual decrease as the role of government increases. 
But this criticism added another complaint: the government, in its current form, Mencken wrote in the thirties, only serves the interests of the people, the populace, the man in the street, at the expense of ‘aristocracy of the elite, the superior man. His essay on the nature of government begins to elsewhere in these terms: All government is a conspiracy against the superior man, its permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior in law against the man who is superior in fact, if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both.( Chrestomathy 145)
Found in his analysis of Government (145-153) the same distrust of the masses, the same fear that the autonomy of the individual harmed, and even condoning (suggested) of the elite – is ie the exceptional men but also all those who seek to rise, to grow in short, out of their mediocrity. Should we conclude that as an anarchist Mencken was right, as suggested by the somewhat provocative title of this study? If one refers to the definition given by Francois Richard in his book, Mencken seems to refuse, like the French right-wing anarchists, democratic and egalitarian assumption that the underlying. Like them, he sees the revolt as a duty as much moral and intellectual. This revolt is both “an act of self defense intelligence, an infallible test of the quality of people” (Richard 47).  He said he agreed that “without the virtue of disobedience, which alone can defeat the Democratic regimentation, there is no dynamic life possible, realization of being in its totality” (Richard 51) . Consciousness must stop guide the individual to dictate his conduct, and civil disobedience can be a virtue. For thus it never ceases to proclaim, there are good and bad laws, and these deserve only contempt and disobedience (for example, he criticized the arrest of radicals during the First World War and segregation in Baltimore After the Second). In addition, he poses as the defender of the individual, the cornerstone of the social system.
Far from any ideology, doctrine or party, the touchstone of action remains, for Mencken, his personal convictions, first and foremost, the idea that human equality is a delusion, and that only an aristocracy (of outstanding men) is capable of advancing society.  Finally, he deplores the increasing federal role, including when it tries to curb unemployment and fight poverty and distress of Americans during the Depression. Yet despite what appears to bind to anarchism right, Mencken remains a figure difficult to assess in the context of American intellectual.
In his book, De Leon is trying to show that Americans are all, in essence, libertarian (as he deems less provocative than that of “anarchist”). It seeks to explain the causes of what may seem in the eyes of an outsider, an anomaly of history, and proposes a taxonomy of the various currents libertarian (anarchist) in the United States. It firstly analyzes anarchism on the right, in its most extreme form is to deny the existence of the state.  This tradition makes the individual and autonomy the cornerstone of the social system. This current anarchist, who may well live with the capitalist system, is represented by Benjamin Tucker (1854-1939) or by philosophers Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson. In an essay remained famous, “The American Scholar” (1837), it is also to consider the individual as a “sovereign state” (De Leon 9).
De Leon then studied what he calls the leftist anarchism (including Johann Most and Emma Goldman are probably the most famous representatives in the U.S.) that it offers an alternative to capitalism. This second course offers a critique of institutional authority, calls the local decision-making and wants to promote solidarity and mutual assistance, where the term “anarchism” community “. If it is ruled not want to classify Mencken in the latter course, it is not necessarily easier to classify in the first. Certainly, it could hardly be indifferent to the words of Benjamin Tucker accusing the government of attacking bloated civil liberties. But would it not also a William James applauded the aftermath of the Dreyfus Affair when he wrote: “We, intellectuals, must all work to keep our precious birthright of individualism … Every great institution is perforce a means of corruption” (De Leon 45)? And would not it also agrees with this phrase from the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who said in the fifties: “I can not give unconditional loyalties to any institution, man, state, nation or movement. My loyalties are conditioned upon my own convictions and my own values » (De Leon 14) ? Neither James nor Mills were however anarchists in the strict sense, Americans are reluctant to adopt any form of authority, where individualism and spirit of independence and self-reliance are important values. Perhaps we should then conclude, like De Leon, the American is in essence an anarchist who, in various forms, continues to express its rejection of centralized power and its commitment to individual liberties, or his civil disobedience? In light of this analysis, Mencken appears to be the solitary figure in the American cultural landscape.  Anarchism of Mencken, he is undoubtedly more individualistic and community, would it ultimately more typically American, the less original they had assumed at the beginning of the study? 
Perhaps then we should try to appreciate this singular spirit differently. In his calls for civil disobedience, Mencken arises heir to Thoreau (author of an essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), in which he criticized the war (1846-1848) that the United States have waged against Mexico and its citizens called for civil disobedience). In his criticism of big government and state prerogatives, Mencken echoed Benjamin Tucker.
Finally, his stubborn defense of individual liberties including freedom of expression can bring both the anarchists of the right than a Emma Goldman, for which he also had the greatest respect. Its originality is perhaps something else. His impassioned defense of American values – freedom, autonomy and anti-statism – if sincerely held, is not exceptional, but it is imbued with his reading of youth. For Mencken, as we know, spent his childhood and adolescence, that is to say, the 1890s, to devour books.  His insatiable curiosity has led Mark Twain to Nietzsche, from Henry Adams, William Sumner and Herbert Spencer – the father of social Darwinism. It would take too long to explain here in detail the impact of these thinkers and writers on Mencken. Nevertheless Mencken’s anarchism, it is undeniable, is strongly imbued with the ideas of Nietzsche on democracy and its nihilism, printed by the social Darwinism of Spencer, influenced by the great liberal economic theories – laissez-faire – in short, all influenced by the dominant values of America where he grew up. And perhaps eventually the ability to make a synthesis between the great American values and common ideas in vogue at the turn of the century, making this Mencken empêcheur think in circles.

· Bode, Carl. The New Mencken Letters . New York: The Dial P, 1977.
· Cain, William E.  “A Lost Voice of Dissent.HL Mencken in Our Time. “Sewanee Review. (Spring 1996): 229-47.
· De Leon, David. The American as Anarchist . Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
· Douglas, George H. HL Mencken, Critic of American Life . Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1978.
· Epstein, Joseph. “Rediscovering Mencken”. Commentary (April 1977): 47-52.
· Forgue, Guy Jean, ed. Letters of HL Mencken . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
· Hobson, Fred. Mencken, a Life . New York: Random House, 1994.
· Mencken, Henry Louis. Notes on Democracy . New York: Octagon, 1977.
· —. A Mencken Chrestomathy . New York: Vintage, 1982.
· Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades, in America in Prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941. New York: Norton, 1992.
· Richard, François. Les Anarchistes de droite . [1991]. Paris : PUF, 1997.
· Williams, William HA HL Mencken Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
[1] In Democracy in America, it analyzes the U.S. political system as he had seen during his trip to the United States in 1831. In the chapter entitled “The tyranny of the majority”, he explains how the desire to create a democracy eventually led the U.S. to plebiscite the majority opinion to stifle all dissent, protest or simply original.
[2]In the twenties, they defended a literal interpretation of the Bible, going to ban the teaching of Darwinian theory – evolutionary – in some states. Scopes, a biology professor who had agreed to defy the fundamentalists and teaching Darwin’s theories in Tennessee, was tried in 1925. The Scopes trial – or Monkey Trial – was an opportunity for Mencken to deploy all its verve and fun of the fundamentalists and their figurehead, the old populist politician William J. Bryan ( Chrestomathy 246).


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2 replies »

  1. Interesting. I as well have arrived at the conclusion that the masses are merely forgettable undermenchen and lack entirely the intellectual equipment required to organize an effective revolt and a subsequent, post-revolution society (sadly enough). Due to this realization, the concept of a new creative and intellectual elite to lead the way has become increasingly attractive to me. Of course, I shouldn’t let this slip into quasi-lenninist “party vanguard” theory.

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