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Jun 3, 2005 11:26 am

Harmful Books ...

Nearly everywhere I look on the net, there's a response to Human Events' list of the"Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries," virtually all of them critical in some way. I'd want to step back from the list to ask a prior question, like"Is there such a thing as a harmful book?" Yes, I think there is. I can't think of any redeeming social value to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example. It seems to me that it is fair to call it a"harmful book." So, apart from the general silliness of all such lists, I don't see anything particularly wrong with making such a list. I imagine that what unnerves many of us when we see conservatives compiling such a list is the fear that it is a prelude to book banning. We may fear that because we see conservatives as the party interested in social control and domination – as if we didn't wish to be in control. Frankly, I don't think Human Events is about to ban any of these books.

If this is only a list of"harmful books" and we agree that there are such things – if this is not a list of books to be banned – then our criticism of the list should be criticism of particular choices, not of the enterprise, itself. In the conversation at Easily Distracted, Jon Dresner and Matt Yglesias agreed that Chairman Mao's Little Red Book is misplaced on the list because it was symptomatic rather than causative of the horrors of Maoism. In the discussion at The Weblog, Adam Kotsko seems to agree. I'd say that we should grant the folks at Human Events some latitude to choose a representative title, when the more harmful tract is much less well known. And we have also to ask:"Harmful? In what way?" Probably no book by John Dewey would make my list of the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th century; and, yet, I've never picked up a book by Dewey without wanting to throw it across the room. He has to be one of the worst influential American writers of both centuries. It isn't that his prose is dense with meaning. It's just dreadfully badly written.

One thing that pleasantly surprised me about Human Events list is its lack of consensus. With 15 judges and 1st place votes scoring 10, 2nd place scoring 9, etc., the maximum number of votes a book might have received was 150. The 1st place choice, a fairly obvious one from what we'd expect of Human Events, Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto scored only 74. 2nd place, Hitler's Mein Kampf, is not even close at 41 votes. Then, closely and, o.k., amusingly, grouped at 3rd through 5th, are Chairman Mao's Little Red Book of Quotations at 38, Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male at 37, and Dewey's Democracy and Education at 36.

I'm betting that there'd be even less consensus among the Cliopatriarchs about the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries, but for the sake of argument, here's my list:

1) Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
2) V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done
3) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
4) Thomas Dixon, The Clansman
5) Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings of ...
6) Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged
7) Ann Coulter, anything by ...
8) Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot's History of the United States
9) Thomas Woods, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History
10) Jesse Helms, Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir
Update: In light of Alan Allport's suggestions, I am modfying my list of harmful books as follows:
1) Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
2) V. I. Lenin, What Is To Be Done
3) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
4) J. A. comte de Gobineau, Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races
5) Houston Stewart Chamberlain, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century
6) Thomas Dixon, The Clansman
7) A. T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History
8) Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings of ...
9) Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged
10) Herbert Spencer, The Evolution of Society
Others are welcome to post their own lists of"harmful books," of course.

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More Comments:

Kenneth Chad Keith - 8/4/2005

Have you read Mr. Woods' book? I thought the book was outstanding - one that has needed to have been written for many years. Any antagonist of the liberal northern textbooks is much more helpful than harmful. There is nothing wrong with challenging the popular, accepted perceptions of our country's history.

Skip Mendler - 6/7/2005

>>I imagine that what unnerves many of us when we see conservatives compiling such a list is the fear that it is a prelude to book banning. We may fear that because we see conservatives as the party interested in social control and domination – as if we didn't wish to be in control.<<

I think this comment is right on. It's a fine example of the phenomenon I call "camelonasophobia" -- "fear of the camel's nose." Anything that even sounds remotely like censorship gets our hackles up.

But I think it's not just that we're *afraid* of bookburnings (and the "witchburnings" that might follow) -- we kinda *want* them, know what I mean? How refreshing, how invigorating, how justifying it would be to be up against some plain-and-simple bookburners, and able to claim the role of the unfairly repressed...

Ralph E. Luker - 6/7/2005

No. I think, fairly obviously so, that there are vastly different degrees of harm, that harm manifests itself in a variety of ways, and that it may result both from a reasonably correct and a grossly inadequate understanding of a book. Some critics apparently believe that I have grossly misunderstood some of the books on the list. I'd argue that it really is an author's responsibility to "make it plain," but I'd also accept the judgment that some authors have reasons not to do so. Given a Straussian reading of the western philosophical tradition, that judgment applies to many philosophers stretching back from and forward from Nietzsche. So, no, there was no consistent answer to why a book appeared on the list -- but for reasons that I think are good ones.

Charles Johnson - 6/6/2005

Allport: "I can see that Spencer is a highly controversial addition to the list, and perhaps he doesn't fit well into a 'harmful books' categorization anyway, but I do think that much of the defense of him is beside the point. We're not really arguing about whether Spencer was a good man or whether his ideas, when properly understood, were good; we're arguing about whether their misapplication had harmful effects."

Well. This does, at the least, raise some broad methodological questions about this list and the discussion of the Human Events list that preceded it. (Yeah, I know, this is no doubt taking things too seriously. Oh well. It seems like the point of these lists was to provoke some discussion about books and history, not to mention the specific books named, so here we go.)

I take it that if we're talking about "harmful books," we're attributing the harm, in part, to the contents of the books themselves. But Spencer's views have been widely misunderstood. Does it make sense to attribute the harm that misunderstandings of his books caused to the books themselves? Even if those misunderstandings are clearly the fault of the reader (or cocktail-party conversationalist) rather than the fault of the author? (This isn't just about Spencer, either; it's clearly the case for Rand, for example, and possibly for Freud too.)

The point here is not to insist that you're doing something wrong if you say that you will count wilfully misunderstood books on the list. I want to say that you're probably doing something wrong if you do -- it seems that you're treating the books more as historical artefacts than as, well, books. But maybe it's not obviously wrong to do so. And if it is, there are tricky cases, such as Nietzsche in BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL -- who made an appearance on the Human Events list -- where the book has been gravely misunderstood, but the author seems to have intended that hasty readers would fail to understand.

The point here, rather, is that different answers to each of these questions could result in some drastically different lists. Imagine what different answers about interpretation might mean when it comes to the Bible or the Qu'ran, if you were to expand the list beyond the last couple centuries! So I'd be interested to know what Ralph (for one) was thinking about questions of interpretation and misinterpretation when he was considering which books to list as "harmful"; and I'd be interested to know if there was any one consistent answer to those questions that he was thinking of when he prepared the list.

Roderick T. Long - 6/6/2005

Well, if the misinterpretation of Spencer were an easy one to make, it might make sense to say that Spencer's books were indirectly harmful. But when Spencer loudly and repeatedly attacked the views which we now call "Social Darwinism," why call those views a "misapplication" of his ideas? The harm lies with those who first used Spencerian slogans to cloak a radically un-Spencerian social philosophy.

By analogy: Ward Churchill interprets the Ninth Amendment as authorising, even mandating, censorship. Suppose tis loony interpretation became widespread. Would it be fair to list the Ninth Amendment as one of the most dangerous texts because its misapplication had harmful effects?

Alan Allport - 6/6/2005

The screw-up over the Spencer title is entirely mine. In fact I can't now even remember where I got that erroneous name from. Attribute it to sheer ignorance. I can see that Spencer is a highly controversial addition to the list, and perhaps he doesn't fit well into a 'harmful books' categorization anyway, but I do think that much of the defense of him is beside the point. We're not really arguing about whether Spencer was a good man or whether his ideas, when properly understood, were good; we're arguing about whether their misapplication had harmful effects. I'd wager that Spencer's coining of the term the survival of the fittest has caused untold harm to mankind, even though the poor fellow never intended it to be so and (IIRC) its original application was in economics rather than biology or sociology.

Roderick T. Long - 6/5/2005

Re Woods, some of the smears his book has suffered are documented here, here, and here.

Roderick T. Long - 6/5/2005

As he has explained ad infinitum ad nauseam, Tom joined the League of the South back before he became a libertarian. Anyway, though I myself don't care much for the League of the South it is perfectly possible to be a member while despising not only slavery but the horribly socialistic government of the Confederacy. Why not judge Tom on what he's actually written?

Re date: I should have said 360 years -- dating from the Levellers, the first libertarian mass movement.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/5/2005

Check out Woods's League of the South connections. They are well known. 350 years? From whence do you date your oppression?

Roderick T. Long - 6/5/2005

Re Woods: defending the constitutionality of secession hardly counts as a love of the Old South in all its aspects. (Personally I'm a curse-on-both-the-Union-and-the-Confederacy libertarian.)

Re sense of humor: being the constant target of smears and defamation for the past 350 years does tend to blunt the edge of our sense of humor, I'm afraid.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/5/2005

Glad to have all the complaints pouring in from L & P. I didn't expect the list to sit well over there, but I thought there'd be _some_ sense of humor, particularly about the lower end of it. The complaints have all been so earnest. Lists are problemmatic. You're welcome to compose your own -- in fact, I invited that from the outset. Your appreciation of Woods' book strikes _me_ as bizarre -- but then Woods's Yankee-love of the Old South in these latter days also strikes me as bizarre.

Roderick T. Long - 6/5/2005

In addition to seconding Chris's remarks about Rand (whose conception of "self-interest" is by the way Aristotelean, not Hobbesian), I would also like to gripe about the inclusion of Thomas Woods' Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (on the first version of the list) and Herbert Spencer's Evolution of Society (on the second). I don't agree with everything in Tom's book (my version of libertarianism is more left-y than his) but on the whole it offers a welcome libertarian (not conservative) look at some aspects of American history that have been marginalised by the mainstream. What is the horrendous danger supposedly lurking within?

As for Herbert Spencer, one of history's greatest champions of peace, freedom, and toleration, his inclusion on this list strikes me as just another example of the ongoing defamation of Spencer which I have critiqued here, here, here, and passim. Including Spencer with the likes of Hitler is truly scandalous.

Incidentally, what is this book The Evolution of Society? I own every book Spencer wrote and he never published any book with that title. Does Luker mean The Principles of Sociology? And anyway, what on earth does he find harmful within?

I also find the inclusion of Freud bizarre; his theories are a mixture of truth and error, but he performed a useful service by opening up previously forbidden areas of discussion, and he paved the way for more salutary forms of psychoanalysis (e.g., Jung and Sartre).

Jonathan Dresner - 6/5/2005

I never said he didn't. But I disagree with your reasons: we're trying, for reasons which pass understanding, to come up with a list of harmful books not harmful people

Charles Johnson - 6/5/2005

'Much can be discovered about a man by examining his opponents, his rivals, his "enemies".'

Please. I have little political sympathy for any incarnation of the Republican Party after about 1870, and I disagree with Ralph Luker about a lot of things, but this is just lazy demagoguery.

Locating people's politics by the positions of their enemies won't get you very far towards an intelligent understanding of politics. I hear that a few years back Adolf Hitler went to war against Josef Stalin, and that Stalin went to war against Hitler. Is the fact that Hitler was his enemy any credit to Stalin? Is the fact that Stalin was his enemy any credit to Hitler?

Van L. Hayhow - 6/4/2005

Lenin was a totalitarian and a chekist (sorry, not sure about the spelling). He may have learned about the modern police state from watching the czars, but he put in a far more efficient system than the czars did. He belongs on the list.

Van L. Hayhow - 6/4/2005

Isn't it also clear by this time that he fabricated much of his case studies to come to the conclusion he wanted? I have read that in several places recently.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2005

Jason, You're certainly a free man and you ought to participate in the public arena, but calling other Republicans "RINOs" is not a big tent approach to anything but the narrowest definition of what a national political party should be. Once you start narrowing definitions, it's hard to know where to stop and, ultimately, you'll find the line drawn against you.

Louis N Proyect - 6/4/2005

All this talk about dangerous books reminds me of the "Common Course" I took with Heinrich Blucher at Bard College in the early 1960s. Blucher was married to Hannah Arendt and largely agreed with her analysis of why there was so much savagery in the 20th century. It was closely related to the critique of utopian thought found in other contemporaries such as Daniel Bell and Karl Popper. There was a notion somehow that Hegelian idealism was to blame. Two major disciples of Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, were supposedly spawned by Hegel and largely responsible for Stalinism and Nazism respectively.

Blucher showed scant interest in the economic crisis that led Weimar Germany to the precipice, which was pretty amazing considering that he fought the Nazis in the street. I guess economic analysis was not the forte of such people.

The basic point is that there are no such things as harmful books, only historical crises that find resolution in one form or another. When the Rwandan Hutus exterminated the Tutsis, they drew upon the same ideas that had been circulating in their society without much impact for over 50 years. By the same token, Nazism is simply a more extreme form of German nationalism that had first reared its head in the 1840s.

But if unemployment had remained at 5 percent in Germany rather than 25 percent, Mein Kampf would have gotten noticed. If Rwanda had managed to escape the IMF-inspired crisis that afflicted most of Africa in the 1970s, it is doubtful that a genocide would have taken place. The best way to prevent mass slaughter is to provide full employment, not put books on a list.

Jason Nelson - 6/4/2005

For me, given the choice between the party of Tom DeLay or the party of Hillary and Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Nancy Piloci, Harry Reed, and Howard Dean, the choice is clear. Look no further that the gubernatorial race in Washington State to see Democratic corruption. Unfortunately, neither party has a monopoly on corruption, it is prevalent.

Do I believe in many of the things that Tom DeLay says he believes in? Yes. You can think what you want about the man, but ideas stand on their own. Likewise, I am more opposed to the ideas of the above mentioned Democrats than I am to their characters.

This is why I am so perplexed by your association with the Republican Party. It seems to me, and I am not trying to be critical here, just honest, that you disagree with many of the core ideas held by the party. I understand that you might desire to effect change from within, and that is a good strategy, it has been done before. I wish you well in your efforts, while I will no doubt oppose many of your ideas, not because they are your ideas, but because I just don’t believe in many of them.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2005

Jason, I was born a Republican, in a family of Southern Republicans for three generations before me. If you lived in the South, as I do, the claim of Dixiecrat come-latelies to being Republicans is sickening, since we've been voting against them for generations. You love the party of Tom DeLay? I want it redeemed from him.

Jason Nelson - 6/4/2005

Instead of just saying that you are a Republican, why not explain why you vote Republican. Honestly, Im all for the big tent that is the Republican party. I just do not understand what is going through your mind when you self identify with the Republicans. What is it that keeps you in the party? I am sincerly curious. If I may ask, I am not looking for any kind of GOTCHA opportunity here. I really would like to know what is the reason, in your mind, that you self identify with the Republicans? Tradition? Loyalty? Are the Democrats too far left for your tastes?

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2005

"RINO" is a word used only by reactionary hacks who will kill the Republican Party by insisting that its tent become smaller and smaller.

Jason Nelson - 6/4/2005

So in Georgia there is a Senator who claimed to be a Democrat, while agreeing with much of the Republican platform, and vehemently opposing many dominate liberal viewpoints. Voting against this Democratic Senator was a Republican historian who has nothing good to say about the brand of conservatism currently dominating the Republican party, while often raising his voice in agreement with not only liberals, but often radical leftists. Much can be discovered about a man by examining his opponents, his rivals, his "enemies". Lets just say that even if you voted against Zell Miller, today, as it is, most conservatives would sypathize more with his list of opponents, than with your list of opponents. I know how much you enjoy playing your trump card, that of being a republican. however it is my conclusion that you are as they say...a RINO.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2005

Thanks, Jason. Like a good Republican, I've been voting against Zell Miller for years.

Jason Nelson - 6/4/2005

Just like Zell Miller is a Democrat.

Adam Kotsko - 6/4/2005

Ralph is a Republican.

William J. Stepp - 6/4/2005

One can disagree with Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen on certain points, but to see their recent book as one of the ten most harmful is bizarre. Their tome is informed by a world view that some people disagree with, but their work is a sober, generally well-researched and -documented look at the American experience over four centuries.
The view by historians on the left that this book belongs on the list shows that the yahoo right has no monopoly on nutiness.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2005

Look, Chris, you and I aren't going to resolve your problems with organized religion. But take a clue from this: the discussion clearly was about the ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries and that becomes a signal to you to launch long rants against the Bible and the Qu'ran. Ah, get it? Neither the Bible nor the Qu'ran are 19th or 20th century books. Nor were any of the other authors you mentioned 19th or 20th century authors. If you want to rant about other things, but for the rest of us there was a subject under discussion. You ran off on one of your favorite themes that just didn't have much to do with the subject. Think of a Muslim or a Christian or a Jewish or a Buddhist text of the 19th or 20th century to put on your list of "most harmful books." Then, we can talk.

chris l pettit - 6/4/2005

Anti-religious bias? Are you kidding me? My human rights law work and concepts of rights theory depend on the universalisms that every religion has in common. Unfortunately for "believers" such as yourself, I ask that you refrain from imposing your individualistic ideas that are only based in blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions to yourself and your private life, and not impose those external preferences on others. Surely you cannot argue that the Bible and the Qu'ran (how about the Mahavamsa as a Buddhist text?) have not been the source of the majority of violence in the history of mankind...and all of it is based in faith and misinterpreted mythology. All I ask is that you make arguments in which you can actually critically anayse your ideas and do not depend on blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions. Let's see...Apartheid in SOuth Africa had Christian religious undertones and was justified by invoking the Bible, so there is harm coming from the Bible...the Crusades, Hitler claimed diving blessing, the US still invokes such nonsense to at least partially justify its atrocities in certain circles...the examples are endless. As are the ones regarding the Qu'ran. The entirety of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka can be traced to the bigoted texts and interpretations of the Mahavamsa. The point is that the texts are highly human rights based and humanitarian when taken properly...and are harmful when individuals use them ideologically for their own self interested ends. hence the generation of my comment on the role of the individual. You seem to be so blinded by faith that you cannot acknowledge this...and that is a dangerous thing...dare I say harmful in certain instances.

Anti-religious? Hardly...I recognize the universalisms and human rights traditions of the religions...I just cannot accept when ideologically driven individuals strive to impose their individualistic interpretations based in blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions on is why religious "believers" have no place in the debate about universal human rights if they cannot realise that they are entitled to their own "blind faith" but obligated to keep it to themselves as it is a purely individualistic exercise that has nothing to do with the universal rights and duties that involve all of humanity.

You are human before anything else...even before you start speaking to invisible men/women and believing in abstractions that cannot be logically defended. It is your prerogative to believe...but the hierarchy created by your belief is not applicable when speaking of universal human rights. I encourage you to realise this.


Jonathan Dresner - 6/4/2005

There's a David Lazar song which I learned from a Pete Seeger album: "Oh Dr. Freud, Oh Dr. Freud, how we wish you had been differently employed. Oh the set of circumstances sure enhances the finances of the followers of Dr. Sigmund Freud."

But Freud was one of the first in the Western tradition to integrate the emotional and intellectual structure of the mind and body with experience and relationships. Nobody did more to reintegrate the human being from Cartesian duality.

He was wrong about a lot of things; his followers (Jung in particular) were often doctrinaire and unscientific and his popular effect has been, as Ralph notes, to increase people's selfcenteredness.

But nobody else was doing the kind of work he did, and it's hard to imagine what kind of psychology or psychiatry we'd have today without him. And I'm not sure that the harm done by Freud's ideas outweighs the avenues of science and cultural studies that he opened; I'm not sure whether Freud would have been able, as one individual, to overcome his own character enough to choose better followers, but he was perhaps uniquely poorly served by those who claimed his mantle (Nietszche's in the same class, but there aren't many others).

And given the range of absurd personal and relationship advice available in the 19c, I think it's a bit unfair to blame Freud too heavily for the continuation of self-centered, half-assed personal behavior.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/4/2005

I'd like to nominate two other works for the list, possibly knocking Freud off: Gustave LeBon's work on the manipulation of popular opinion (thus giving us propaganda, Hitlerian [and Churchillian] rhetoric, and advertising in one fell swoop) and Fitzroy's anti-Darwinist work (you could substitute Owen here, or any number of others) which ossified the relgion v. science debate in the absurd form we still find ourselves.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/4/2005

No, I don't think obscurity equals unimportance: rather, I was trying to say that it's hard to identify the source of some of the ideas we find troubling because their origins are in works that are now obscure. To be entirely honest, the only work on the original list, top ten or bottom ten, that I've read in its entirety is Mill, and I've not read through any of the works on Ralph's lists. They are all works from which I've read short excerpts and about which I've read a great deal.

I suppose that's the definition of a classic: a book about which one must be knowledgable, even if one hasn't read it.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/4/2005

I was trying to figure out a way to include both Mead and Gramsci and express it in the way that the Human Events' folks might understand.... so naturally, it's absurd.

Ed Schmitt - 6/4/2005

...The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk was terribly destructive. There are clearly many such books that generated hostility toward minority groups. Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race was clearly malicious.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

Commencement addresses are full of the notion that the end of life is self-fulfillment, I grant you. Unfortunately, the logic rarely gets beyond the self.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/3/2005

"Your strength and your weakness is that you are instinctively inclined to look for the positive in everything before you."

Not always.
You should have seen me at the last Rice Lake Planning Commission meeting when city staff--successfully darn it!!--stuck highway commercial zoning in the same block as residential housing. Trust me; I did not stop to look for the positive, used some very loaded language (e.g. "betrayal"), and I may have a burned bridge or two to rebuild.

More seriously, your diagnosis (dare I say analysis?) of me has some merit. In part it is temperament. I'm a natural contrarian who sometimes can argue against his own position even better than he can defend it.

In part it is professional. One of the ways I counter my own biases in historical analysis is to look for the positive in ideas or movements I find foreign or uncongenial.

In the case of Rand and Freud, yes they did foster some self-preoccupation. However, I think such self-preoccupation was a natural if sometimes unfortunate bi-product of liberalism (in the 19th century sense) and prosperity in a country that long had a somewhat libertarian mythos.

As a result I think they were read selectively. People who wanted an excuse for selfishness could find one in Rand. People who looked for encouragement to aspire to the best within them found that, too.

That's not new. Lewis Perry, in a wonderful book called "Boats against the Current" (now sadly out of print) discussed Ralph Waldo Emerson on the lecture circuit. He noted that the audiences all too often did not really listen to his full discussion of individualism, self-reliance, or the other topics which he explored at length. Instead, like American customers ever since, they put their money down, listed to the speaker, and took away what they liked.

Hugo Schwyzer - 6/3/2005

I commented on Rand at Volsunga last week, and got mentioned on Slate for it...

I'm glad we're all in agreement here!

Louis N Proyect - 6/3/2005

Cultural relativistic marxism of Margaret Mead??!!??

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 6/3/2005

Hey gents, I discuss Ralph Luker's listing of Rand over at Liberty and Power here.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

Oscar, Your strength and your weakness is that you are instinctively inclined to look for the positive in everything before you. The wretched self-pre-occupation fostered by both Freud and Rand, in their own different ways, gave us the heedless pursuit of the me-generation that would have embarrassed even Adam Smith.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/3/2005

I'd prefer either Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain or Wilt Chamberlain to dear old Houston. (Whether we are related I have no idea.)

Rand has been inspirational to people, inspiring self assertion and personal responsibility as well as selfishness. Her impact on that level has been far greater than her impact on the political order.

Freud's work in psychology was extraordinarily important. If his legacy has caused problems it has been due more to people who accepted his teachings without sufficient scientific skepticism than to his core writings.

Alan Allport - 6/3/2005

Also, I don't think that the present-day obscurity of the work necessarily lessens its importance. No-one except university professors and long-suffering students now reads Gobineau in the original, but the ideas contained in his book, transmitted through umpteen generations of copycats and spin-offs, continue to resinate through our culture to our lasting harm. (How many people actually read Mein Kampf outside of an educational requirement? How many of the folks at Human Events have ever broken the spine of Kapital for that matter?)

Alan Allport - 6/3/2005

Mahan crystalized ideas that were already very much in practice, and blaming him for identifying effective strategies would be like blaming Einstein (or perhaps Feynman) for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Actually I would say that Mahan's sin was to identify one effective strategy in one particular historical context and assume that its general principles applied everywhere and at all times. His impressive promulgation of this idea had disastrous consequences for the balance of power in Europe. Clearly blaming Mahan for the outbreak of war in 1914 would be taking a valid point to absurd extremes, but I do think his book was unwittingly a cause of great harm to the world.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

I'm still waiting to hear from Oscar or from you the upsides to Freud or Rand. And, if you read Alan Allport's rationale for the inclusion of Mahan, I'd say that one could hardly call it a matter of "identifying effective strategies." I'd say that Oscar's uncle, Houston, [just kidding! :):):)] and Gobineau are examples of dreck which was influential but is now largely forgotten.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/3/2005, as Oscar noted, that many of these works are very influential in positive as well as negative ways. Ralph's lists are less flawed than the original list in this way, but, for example, I would probably say Jung did more raw damage than Freud without the corresponding benefits. Mahan crystalized ideas that were already very much in practice, and blaming him for identifying effective strategies would be like blaming Einstein (or perhaps Feynman) for the bombing of Hiroshima.

Part of the problem, a big part in my view, is that the really bad stuff doesn't stand the test of time and we forget about it. There's plenty of dreck that was written in the last two centuries, much of which was very influential but has been largely forgotten about because it was unoriginal or superceded. There are really bad ideas and themes which don't have a single point of origin or great representative.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/3/2005

Well, there's lots of history on Ralph's lists, but if you're going to limit it to works by professional historians... I can't think of individual works, offhand. There could be a special category for historians whose works are damaging to historical practice and other historians -- Bellesiles, Ambrose, Schweikart, Woods, Zinn -- and there should be a category for "history badly written by non-historians" into which category the "Dutch" bio of Reagan, de Gobineau, and a few others might go.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/3/2005

I don't think they understand Said's influence, or if they do, they don't really understand the difference between that and the cultural relativistisc marxism of Margaret Mead and Antonio Gramsci..... whatever. I'm done trying to explain people who don't make any sense.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/3/2005

I would agree about Lenin's work with regard to Lenin's leadership, but Lenin's ideas were immensely influential elsewhere -- China in particular -- through his writings. I think there's a good case to be made for Mein Kampf on similar grounds.

I do think the current list is a bit heavy on current writers, whose harm will mostly be limited to the 21st century...

Chris Bray - 6/3/2005

Can we develop a special list for most-harmful works by historians? I propose to award the first prize to William Archibald Dunning, for Reconstruction, Political and Economic -- a book that the AHA carefully omits from its list of his work. (Dunning was once the president of the AHA.)

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/3/2005

I didn't update with conservativenet when I changed email addresses. The light to heat ratio had declined significantly. I am not fond of Larry's politics at all, but I've used an early work of his on banking profitably. Perhaps naively I assume some of that skill made it into the new survey.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

Oscar, You are, I take it, not on Richard Jensen's Conservativenet list or you would know how incredibly, abundantly, awesomely awful Larry Schweikart is.

Alan Allport - 6/3/2005

f Spencer is on the list because of social Darwinism, then I would argue that his work was more subtle than many realize.

Surely it's because Spencer's work was so misunderstood by many of his readers that his book has (arguably) caused, on balance, more harm than good. I don't think an appeal to misinterpretation ought to stand in this particular court of history - if it did then I would certainly ask for Nietzsche's conviction to be overturned. I think it's overall influence that matters here, not the author's intention.

I also think lists like this are a bit silly, but then where we would be without silly distractions now and again?

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/3/2005

First of all, my post script. This is fun, even if I am about to criticize the enterprise.

" Suppose there was some use in allowing you to vent your anti-religious bias."

But Ralph, that's precisely the problem with these lists. It's pretty easy to pick teachings one does not like and link harm to it, while ignoring any postive signficance.

And, at least for me, if I indulged in list making, that would be one criteria: that the book's, or the author's legacy is almost wholly negative.

Consider Freud. He was of major importance in the search for a science of the mind, despite the flaws of his ideas. People he inspired went on to do good work by responding to his teachings.

Applying my criteria to your works, "Protocols" and the pseudoscientific works on race strike me as the those that did great harm and had little if any postive influence.

Next would be "the Klansman." It'ws sort of the "anti Uncle Tom's Cabin" that puts a human face on white saveragy and takes the humanity off of African-Americans.

I place "Mein Kampf" at a slightly less toxic rank because it did not pretend to be science and because it is, in a dreadful sort of way, an honest depiction of what Hitler would do in power.

For a variety reasons, I would not put any other of the books you chose on my list. I know too many good people who have found in Ayn Rand a degree of enlightenment, even if they moved on to other ideas. If Spencer is on the list because of social Darwinism, then I would argue that his work was more subtle than many realize. If he's there because you wish sociology hadn't been born, then that is something else again.

The inclusion of the Lenin work strikes me as confusing the man and the book. If Lenin had stayed closer to his own writings, the state he created might have been better.

As far as the recent writers are concerned, I simply know too little about them, except for Larry. Let's see what they inspire.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

What can be said in his favor? He encouraged a deeply self centered pre-occupation with the self (in ways far less fruitful than liberal individualism because it had no productive incentive) and a sexist reading of social experience.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

Lenin would not appreciate your re-baptizing him as a liberal.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

The question was limited to books of the 19th and 20th century, but I suppose there was some use in allowing you to vent your anti-religious bias.

Manan Ahmed - 6/3/2005

I am surprised they didn't put Edward Said even in the honorable-mention sections.

I nominate the Necronomicon! It caused the federal deficits to rise and the Nazis loved it.

chris l pettit - 6/3/2005

Are we dealing with books that harm have come out of? Or that are "harmful" in and of themselves.

If we include Mao, Lenin, Marx, etc...we then have to include Adam Smith, and any free market or libertarian economic nonsense as well.

Also...I would definitely include the Bible (minus the actual teaching of Jesus that most Christians I know don't follow very well at all), the Qu'ran, works by: Machiavelli, Montesqieu, Bentham, HLA Hart, Francis Bacon...I agree with Mein Kampf and the Zion text...if we look at it in terms of harm coming out of things, i guess we could include Darwin's work for creating the religion of science (belief that science has all the answers...very similar to the absurdities of normal religion)

Interesting philosphical question...can a book be inherently harmful in and of itself...even if the author intends it to be prejudicial and harmful? It seems the role of the observer plays a major we would be dealing with texts that the most harm came out of. in that case, I could even include one of my favorite texts...Grotius' Treatise...which gave rise to the new perverse religion of nationalism and the nation-state that is blinding many people and preventing progress towards a truly global cooperative community.

An interesting question...


Alan Allport - 6/3/2005

Since the malign effect of the work is presumably the measure here, rather than the author's original intention, then I would also suggest A.T. Mahan's Influence of Sea Power upon History, a book which did remarkable mischief in that it encouraged Kaiser Wilhelm in his foolish navalism strategy and thus produced the Anglo-German naval race and many of the seeds of WWI (IIRC Wilhelm had the book translated into German and had copies distributed in the library of every Kriegsmarine ship).

There is also Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality - surely a proposal to set the cat amongst the pigeons.

And what about The Prince? Yes, I know the fashion today is to rehabilitate Macchiavelli as a gifted moral philosopher, and I wouldn't argue with that. But I would suggest that the overall influence of the book, however misunderstood, has been bad.

Jonathan Rees - 6/3/2005

...for including Ayn Rand. Her work is a philosophical excuse for extraordinary selfishness.

This is exactly why I like you Ralph, you may be a Republican, but you don't think like most Republicans I know.

My other nominations (and I'm only joking a bit):

Tom Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.
[Forgot the author]. The Bridges of Madison County.


Anthony Paul Smith - 6/3/2005


Louis N Proyect - 6/3/2005

I wonder if Doctor Luker has ever studied this article by Lenin. This is a rhetorical question of course since he has pledged not to respond to my "trolls" here. My guess is that he has not. Although many revolutionary organizations swear by it, there is little evidence that they truly understand it. In it Lenin gave examples of what a "vanguard" organization should do. Included are:

1. the need to defend university rectors from interference by the state--a demand that I assume many Cliopatrians live by.

2. the right of artists to create art deemed smutty by the authorities.

3. the right of liberal politicians to assume office--in the context of 1903, this was not so different from concerns raised about the 2000 election.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/3/2005

Yes, I thought of including the first and third. Probably should have. I wasn't sure what of Spencer to include.

Alan Allport - 6/3/2005

I'm surprised that Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, Spencer's The Evolution of Society, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century haven't made much of a showing yet.