Who shapes history? Is it, as the godfather of fascism put it, shaped by great men? Men of vision, boldness, and ruthlessness who push the masses toward radical change; men who represent the best that humanity has to offer.
Is it the select few who are tasked with altering history? The enlightened few, who by sheer willpower and intelligence rose above the masses of degenerates begging for a figurehead to lead them.
Is the majority of humanity merely cannon fodder for those few worthy of impacting the annals of history?
Or, is there another possibility? Are the big problems of our day ultimately going to be solved by that one heroic leader? Are you waiting for someone to show up, take control, and win the day?
Should we be looking for our “George Washington” or “Ronald Reagan?”
If you answered yes to any of these, then I’d like to introduce you to the man who popularized the idea of “the great men of history,” Thomas Carlyle.
With a last name that brings to mind images of big-name department stores, it’s hard to imagine this man as the godfather of what is today called fascism. A Scottish born, University of Edinburgh-educated, former mathematics teacher-turned philosopher, Carlyle was one of the most influential social commentators of his time. From 1830-1890, he authored pieces ranging from the French Revolution to Frederick II of Prussia.
It shouldn’t be surprising to know that Carlyle’s interest in Frederick II of Prussia was more than casual. A follower of Teutonism (a precursor to German Aryanism) Carlyle viewed the German – as well as English – race as born with an inherent ability to rule. These elites of mankind, according to the godfather of fascism, imposed their rule on the peasant races. According to Carlyle, other assumedly lower races are predisposed to this lot by nature itself. It was Carlyle’s Teotonic preference that led him to be revered by two of history’s most famous fascist leaders, Hitler and Mussolini.
It was said that in his final days, Hitler turned to Goebbels, the famous propagandist, and asked for a final reading from Carlyle’s “History of Frederick II of Prussia.” Between 1926-1936, a book on Carlyle’s selected works, translated into German, sold three hundred thousand copies. Adding to his popularity in Nazi Germany, his work on heroes and hero worship was compulsory reading in Nazi schools.
In Italy, G. Liciardelli, a prominent fascist, wrote a book on Carlyle and Mussolini, arguing that Mussolini was to bring about a new social order prophesied by Carlyle. Carlyle was routinely praised for his “foretelling” of a new society where workers and employers would be united, not by the exchange of labor, but in the workers’ “hero-worship” of the employer. His views on labor were incorporated into Mussolini’s labor policy, “Charter of Labor.”
Carlyle’s views on labor were only a facet of his larger theory on social order and mankind. To him, hero-worship wasn’t solely an explanation of historical events; it was the foundation of his social, political, and economical ideas. With hero-worship, you have the breakdown of society into the few who rule over the many, the embracing of inequality coupled with a disgust of “the capitalists,” and the typical fascist militancy.
J. Salwyn Schapir, in “Thomas Carlyle, Prophet of Fascism” described his views on social, political, and economical order like this:
“His vision of a new social order was based on the elite principle according to which the masterful few ruled the people, organized into a hierarchy, not of classes but of disciplined economic groups that functioned in a military fashion of command and obedience.”
It’s amazing how vital his theories on hero-worship are to the whole of his proto-fascism. Take his economic views for example. On the surface, they resemble socialism; the fair wages, state-provided housing, heavily regulated economy, and state-provided food feels like some socialistic paradise. Things change, however, once you get to the reasons behind his policies.
Thomas Carlyle was no humanitarian. Differing from the the socialists, who had good intentions that ultimately didn’t work out, Carlyle had malicious intentions that pushed policies meant to enforce his dream society.
Carlyle held that capitalism fomented revolutionary discontent among the workers and lower classes. His hatred of the capitalists was constructed around this philosophy. The unemployment, poverty, and unsanitary conditions created by capitalism were a result of increased liberty, in his view. He routinely criticized the ideas of natural rights, proclaiming that the only right the masses had was to be ruled by a strong leader. America’s obsession with natural rights and freedom revolted him:
“What great human soul, what great thought, what great noble thing that one could worship, or loyally admire, has yet been produced there? None…They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, Eighteen Millions of the greatest bores ever seen in this world before.”
He also saw capitalism and democracy as leveling the playing field between the masses and the elites. The diminishing inequality gap was seen as a threat to Carlyle. His dismissal of natural rights and democracy came with an upholding of inequality as a moral imperative. Inequality brought with it order, safety, and prosperity. To reduce inequality was to bring about anarchy and meaningless. Carlyle didn’t just accept the existence of inequality, he wanted to increase it, to enforce it. It’s why he loathed democracy, and all its trimmings. Democracy was ever reducing inequality through suffrage, abolition, and “rights,” he argued through his writings.
To Carlyle, men were not created equal. He denied that every man had dignity and worth, regardless of talent or ability. He denounced the abolition movement in England and in America. Blacks were seen as God-ordained to be enslaved, and any movement meant to free them was a “Devil’s Gospel.” In fact, slavery was beneficial to “the negroes,” perfectly suited to their racially inferior position. Trying to remove this equally “beneficial” system would damage slave and free alike.
To visualize just how staunch Carlyle was in his racial and social hierarchy, consider his defense of Governor Eyre. In 1865, several whites were killed when blacks rioted in Jamaica over worker conditions. The British governor, Edward John Eyre, dealt with the riot by killing 450 blacks and injuring 600. The outcry back in England was so huge that the governor was called back in disgrace. Yet, Carlyle defended the governor’s actions, calling him a hero. Carlyle was also a supporter of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. He viewed it as a fight between the racially superior Anglo-Saxons over the best way to hire servants.
His racial superiority wasn’t limited to just blacks. His attitude toward the Jews wasn’t much different from that of the Nazis a century later. He saw them as exploiters, incapable of any heroism, and defended their persecution during the Middle Ages. Carlyle’s Jewish-ire was evident in his insults directed toward prominent Jews during his day. “Filthy, foetid sausage of spoiled victuals,” “a cursed old Jew not worth his weight in bacon,” and “slimy and greasy Jew” were just a few of his racial slurs.
Carlyle’s racial superiority was just another result of his hero-worship theory. Great men didn’t come from any special group or class. They spontaneously showed up. They had an inborn ability to lead the irrational, weak “fools” who were the masses. Once the hero showed up, the masses would recognize their greatness and follow them. The hero wasn’t chosen or elected, he was self-appointed to lead by God himself.
In a way, Carlyle’s hero-worship was a form of the Divine Right of Kings, replacing bloodline with a set collection of characteristics. The hero is wise, brave, virtuous, and strong. He could see the real causes and effects of events, and as a result was always right. Carlyle never gave specific conditions for how to find a hero. He believed that the masses would instinctually sniff out their master and obey him once he appeared. But what if the masses dismissed the hero? What then? Well, the hero would then utilize force to get their obedience. Force was not necessarily evil in the eyes of Carlyle. To him, it was a spiritual power for those who were divinely ordained to lead. Force was a tool for the elite leaders, only.
This is why Carlyle dismissed democracy and other representative forms of government. The true leaders don’t need permission from the inferiors to rule. Whether or not the masses accepted their rule was irrelevant. Leaders were divinely ordained to rule, and were afforded any means necessary to accomplish that. Imperialism was a favorite of Carlyle’s for this reason. In his eyes, the logic was self-evident, and flowed as such: authority to rule is heavenly ordained, dispensed by God himself; if one could bring safety, stability, and comfort to the masses through such authority, then it was only moral to assume a position allowing one to do so.
The biggest contribution Carlyle gave us is not the introduction to modern fascism, nor is it his theory of hero-worship. It is the psychology behind his hero-worship theory.
If this Teutonic Scot got anything right, it’s that the masses instinctively desire an enlightened leader to rule over them. As American journalist and cultural critic, H. L. Mencken put it, “The average man doesn’t want to be free. He wants to be safe.”
Assuming it as true, it is this very desire which proves to be the biggest threat to representative government and liberty. The desire for a strong leader to single-handedly lift us out of our destitution is the beginnings of fascism. With that desire comes blind faith and admiration, the kind that blinds you to the faults and abuses of the hero. It’s this desire where the real power of hero-worship comes into view.
On a personal level, the desire to finally have your wrongs righted, to be heard, and to win can have powerful effects. Feelings of loneliness, depression, and uncertainty about how to proceed can increase the strength of those desires. If the path forward looks unknown what do you usually do? You go to others to help figure out where to head next. If you feel lonely and ignored, it’s an empowering feeling to have someone pay attention to you. A single victory can erase the feelings of thousands of losses
Another influencer is self-esteem and intelligence. William McGuire’s work on the Yale Attitude Change Approach explains why. In his work, McGuire points out that people of high intelligence are more likely to comprehend the speaker’s message. Additionally, people of high self-esteem are less anxious and distracted, and more socially engaged, helping them to better pay attention and comprehend the message. On the other hand, people of low intelligence and low self-esteem are more likely to change their opinions after hearing a message. As a result, McGuire concluded that people of moderate self-esteem and intelligence were more likely to be persuaded.
Carlyle’s belief that only a ruling elite could solve the social problems of the masses doesn’t seem that farfetched once you hear the continuous cry of the people for a political savior. The people don’t want democratic equality, he theorized; what they want is economic safety. It’s the difference between instinct and opinion that Carlyle pushed for. Democracy didn’t nurture the instincts of the people, it only created an environment of useless opinions. Opinions were “of little wisdom.” Instincts, however, were “wise and human” and “well deserve attending to.”
This is where populism comes into the picture. In Carlyle’s philosophy, the people were fools, naturally inferior to the ruling elite and heroes, but their instinctual desires could be of use to the government. If any form of representation was to be allowed in the fascist state, it would be used to judge what could be attempted by the rulers, and give popular approval to the ruling elites. The people are to be nothing more than slaves to the ruling elites, providing light guidelines to what will and won’t work.
It’s the purest form of populism; it’s the pandering to the people’s most basic desires and fears. The irony in Carlyle’s populism is that the enemy, the ruling elite, is also the savior. The capitalists and political elite are the enemies. They pervert the instincts of the people and promote anarchy through democracy, suffrage, abolition, and the exchange of labor. The saviors are the heroes. They are the enlightened individuals who don’t come from royal blood, money, or political fame. They are the true rulers. ◆