Editor’s Note: This is part four of a four-part series on the white supremacist text Might Is Right and the history of American fascism. This series looks at how ideas stated outright in that late nineteenth century text have continued to have influence into the present day, from Satanists and Christian fundamentalists to paleoconservatives and right-wing terrorists.
… Racism may wear a new dress, buy a new pair of boots, but neither it nor its succubus twin fascism is new or can make anything new.
— Toni Morrison, novelist and scholar (1995)
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N—–, n—–, n—–.” By 1968 you can’t say “n—–” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—–, n—–.”
— Lee Atwater, Republican campaign operative (1981)
In 2018, the video essayist Harry Brewis put forward the idea that certain works of media are usefully illuminating because they are bad art.
That is, because their creators are so artless, the works insufficiently seduce and distract from what message the authors are really saying.
Thus a film like The Room, written, directed by, and starring the incompetent Tommy Wiseau, is far more useful to understanding how abusive men make movies about their failed relationships than, say, a gifted screenwriter like Charlie Kaufman who can hide it much better.
Similarly, in 2015, the Baltimore-based video essayist Natalie Wynn had an insight in the wake of protests about the death of Freddie Gray in police custody: the sort of violent, virulently racist statements people were making anonymously online in response to the coverage wasn’t separate from the rest of their lives.
“I thought that if people are leaving these comments, they’re thinking these thoughts all the time,” she told Vice.
She realized they would go on to vote and march and kill according to those same thoughts. Washington Post columnist George Will is less important to understanding what motivates conservatives than is SSJ4Teen88_Pepe.
The memes, the “jokes”, the irony and exaggerations are, in fact, heightened expressions of their ideology and need to be reckoned with, not laughed off.
People are more than capable of being deadly serious about what others would assume to be absurd, and the amateurs may be more awkward than the professionals, but they’re all playing the same game.
It’s with that utility in mind that I recommend the turn of the twentieth century proto-fascist work Might Is Right by the pseudonymous Ragnar Redbeard.
It is as boorish as it is pretentious; it is as boring as its structure is difficult to follow. The author hates all art that isn’t Shakespeare, but to call the poetry he writes “doggerel” is to heap undue praise on it. It’s also grotesquely and unapologetically bigoted in virtually every way at every turn.
This book’s value comes from its terribleness in craft as well as substance.
Despite being written one hundred and twenty-five years ago, Might Is Right makes plain how old and pervasive the roots of fascism are in our own country.
In the process, it shows — without meaning to — why ideas like white supremacy, patriarchy, conservativism, and capitalism have such intrinsic harmony even today.
That’s the thing about dog-whistles: just because you can’t hear the frequency doesn’t mean they aren’t still just as loud.
Might is Right was published in 1896 in Chicago under the original title “Survival of the Fittest: Philosophy of Power”. Its author was Arthur Desmond, an Australian/New Zealander white supremacist who’d been a journalist and failed also-ran local politician before being forced to flee both countries.
But “Ragnar Redbeard” fit the writing itself better than “Arthur.”
Perhaps not surprisingly for a person clearly obsessed with wealth, success, and force, Desmond was poor, had little success himself, and accomplished nothing by force. He’s such a minor figure in history, many aspects of his biography including his death aren’t pinned down. We’re not sure of his birth name because he is of so little consequence as a historical figure outside of this one book.
Yet Desmond was convinced his book was something laudably special.
With supreme confidence he sent a copy to Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who apparently did read it, including Desmond’s shots at him.
Tolstoy mentioned it in his own book “What Is Art?”, but Tolstoy says nothing complimentary. He uses Desmond’s book as an easy example of what’s fundamentally wrong with the artists of his own time.
Tolstoy summarizes the book’s message thus:
Right is not the offspring of doctrine but of power. All laws, commandments, or doctrines as to not doing to another what you do not wish done to you, have no inherent authority whatever, but receive it only from the club, the gallows, and the sword. A man truly free is under no obligation to obey any injunction, human or divine. Obedience is the sign of the degenerate.
“The author has evidently by himself, independently of Nietzsche, come to the same conclusions which are professed by the new artists,” Tolstoy goes on to conclude, perhaps uncharitably toward the other artists.
Otherwise, Might Is Right mostly languished after its initial publication, riding on the coattails of Nietzsche as others described it as the same philosophy as Nietzsche but with an “American expression.” That may just be a euphemistic way to say it enthusiastically hated Jews and non-whites. Its Social Darwinism was popular but not exceptional and certainly not revolutionary.
The book likely would have been forgotten completely if the ethnically Jewish Howard Levey hadn’t picked it up, seen the need to launder it of its most odious antisemitism and slurs, then re-packaged sections of it as his own under the name “Anton Szandor LaVey” to become the first section of The Satanic Bible.
We’ll return to this, but LaVey rescued from the dustbin of history a nineteenth century book that had essentially said “take what you want by whatever force necessary because you’re an individual and you’re free” — but he excised the explicit basis on which you base that freedom to merely imply it.
The ideas remained the same, but LaVey had moved them from literally using the n‑word into “forced busing” territory. After his appropriation of Might Is Right was recognized in 1987, LaVey continued to praise the book publicly.
What I saw should not have been in print. It was more than inflammatory. It was sheer blasphemy. As I turned the pages, more blasphemy met my eyes. Crazy as it was, I found myself charged at the words. People just didn’t write that way.
Forward to “Might Is Right”, Anton Szandor LaVey (October 1996)
Between the underlying ideas and that sort of endorsement, it’s no surprise that flocks of rugged individualists would want to read for themselves the same pure work that had inspired their hero. Since it had been long enough to fall out of protected copyright status, multiple small publishers were able to reprint the book and it’s disseminated widely on the Internet now.
In commenting on it, Might Is Right’s boosters will often describe the book and its prose as “outrageous”, “radical”, or “electrifying”, but it really is the laziest form of reactionary politics in every way, down to “there are too many divorces these days.” It is a defense of the structures and hierarchies of the status quo, defending inequalities as they are because, by existing, they prove they’re the natural ones that should exist. It worships violence as not just a legitimate source of authority but the only source of authority.
Human rights and wrongs are not determined by Justice, but by Might. Disguise it as you may, the naked sword is still king-maker and king-breaker, as of yore. All other theories are lies and — lures.
The science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote something similar in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers; he put it in the mouth of an author-surrogate high school teacher and intended it to be taken as serious wisdom.
When adapted for a movie, Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven, whose formative years were under the Nazi occupation, decided to utilize the same speech but within the context of a satire of fascist propaganda.
Heinlein’s political writing needed no modification to work as self-parody.
This is interesting because, at the time, reviewers had to wonder whether a name so over-the-top as “Ragnar Redbeard” with content so obviously absurd wasn’t intended as reductio ad absurdum.
“We have been a little puzzled, it must be confessed, to know whether Dr. Redbeard’s work is to be taken quite seriously,” The Humane Review wondered in 1900, an example of Poe’s Law nearly a century before the Internet. But Desmond was deadly serious, and more importantly, multiple generations of angry young men have taken him deadly seriously as they take their inspiration from it.
If you’re a liberal who understands that the best way to fight bad ideas is to provide greater exposure to them, this should be good news, especially given how poorly written and obviously grotesque the work is. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, robust debate in the marketplace of ideas, and so on.
A year ago this month, a 19-year-old mass shooter attacked the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, killing three as well as himself, and injuring 17 more while streaming it. As he did, he told his audience to read Might Is Right.
Our popular history education, from public school curriculum to entertainment, is not going to be fully accurate on any subject, but fascism is a particularly difficult myth for us to handle in the United States.
History classes are linear and often don’t get much past the Second World War before it’s time for all the funding-determining testing to take place. Students get left with an understanding of “America good, Nazis (and Soviets) bad.”
Our common knowledge reduces fascism to be entirely equivalent to Nazi Germany, embodied wholly and personally in Adolf Hitler. We’ve come to let him represent transcendent, inhuman evil as completely as European Christianity let Jesus Christ do the same for the concept of goodness.
Though intending criticism, serious people today still unintentionally elevate the propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s images and Joseph Goebbels’ rhetoric with the result that we view the Third Reich as more technologically advanced than all other governments of their day, uber-efficient in industry, and supremely capable in war rather than the corrupt, incoherent, and self-sabotaging kleptocracy it was.
There is a tendency, for some reason, for many to believe that morals and empathy are artificial constraints holding humans back from their full, awful potential, and they are drawn to that concept as like a forbidden spell.
Hitler and the Nazis thus become an almost supernatural aberration, outside of and a break from all human history before and since. They are meant to be scary but to have nothing to do with us beyond being frightening antagonists.
For that reason, to take events contemporary to us or take actions of our own ancestors and compare them with Hitler, the Nazis, and fascism risks the immediate response that you’ve engaged in an insulting hyperbole.
The phrase “concentration camp” has already been swept into one, tiny corner of all history and equated with “extermination camp” at the expense of all similar versions, before and after. But the Holocaust was an end, not the beginning, and the Nazis do not stand as the only fascists in history, or even the first.
Benito Mussolini took a common sort of Italian organization and turned it into something else, giving us the lasting name for a common kind of political movement: Fascism.
Many similar movements existed throughout Europe before and after the Second World War. When the Nazis rolled their tanks into Austria, they pushed out the Catholic nationalist “Fatherland Front” to replace Austro-Fascism with their own pan-German Fascism. Romania had the National Christian Party as well as the Iron Guard. Hungary and Yugoslavia had their Fascist political fronts, but so also did France, Great Britain, and yes, the United States.
Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay “Ur-Fascism” famously tries to make a coherent bundle of all these disparate groups, starting from his own experience as a boy in Italy during the war and knowing nothing but Fascism.
Eco comes up with fourteen features that function as something of a cluster for genre, like selective populism and cult of tradition.
“Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist.”
It turns out, one can even eliminate regimes and a popular following to find examples of it. In the next installment of this series, we’ll examine what fascist reasoning (plainly stated) looks like, and why understanding it is crucial to recognizing why the so-called hypocrisy American liberals are fond of pointing out among conservatives actually is entirely self-consistent.