The Magazine


The Rotten Pedigree of American Declinism;

Mar 3, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 24 • By FRED SIEGEL
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As Herman shows, Spengler's distinction between vital "culture" and decadent Enlightenment civilization drives the thinking of a variety of mid- and late-20th-century thinkers, from Frankfurt School Marxists like Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno to such faddish Francophone thinkers of the 1960s and '70s as Frantz Fanon. Many of today's radicals -- critical Marxists, multiculturalists, postmodernists or radical environmentalists -- draw as much from the Spenglerian right as they do from the intellectual antecedents they actually acknowledge. And this is not to mention those idols of the postwar left, such as Jean Genet and Michel Foucault, who were drawn not only to the Spenglerian view of culture but also to the power and violence of fascism, of which his declinism formed a component. So capacious, in fact, is Herman's argument that it could easily embrace such British writers as George Bernard Shaw, who thought mass man so hideous that "if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit in."

In his most important chapter, Herman shows that Spengler's opposition of culture and civilization is central to the thought of America's preeminent black intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois. As a graduate student in Germany, Du Bois grew a Kaiser Bill mustache and was attracted to both German socialism and volkisch arguments about the merits of German Kultur compared with Western European civilization. It was a theme he adopted in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), where he treated black spirituals as the key to an African-American folk culture. Echoing Spengler's distrust of "soulless Americanism" and "the worship of technical skill, money and an eye for facts," Du Bois insisted that the aristocratic African-American capacity for "sleep and laughter" was superior to the rootless mechanization of white America -- and laid out the arguments for preserving racial purity that are now standard on campuses. In fact, there is little in the current repertoire of afrocentric assertions that Du Bois didn't lay out. For Du Bois, who would later become a Communist, Marxist ideas of progress floated in a sea of cultural pessimism. In this he hardly differed from the white leftists of his time or ours.

Although specialists will find fault with particular sections of a book so wide-ranging, Herman has tapped into a rich vein of inquiry. His book should trigger a long-overdue scholarly debate, but don't bet on it. Not even the fall of communism could convince the academy of its wholesale failure to diagnose the relative health of the West. Sovietologists have gone back to churning out accounts about social mobility under Stalin, and a host of recent books from the left (like Cornel West's Race Matters) and the right (like Edward Luttwak's The Endangered American Dream) continue to insist, against the evidence, on our impending doom.

Fred Siegel is the author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, Washington, Los Angeles and the Fate of Big-City America, forthcoming from Free Press.