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“Parliamentarism provides a talking shop that obscures the basic political reality—the triumph of money. Before the power of financial speculation everything gives way: constitutionalism, democracy, even socialism. Politicians are the agents of financial interests.” —Oswald Spengler

The Decline of the West, and unacknowledged debts

He was quietly dressed, “a soft-spoken man with a pleasant, kindly voice, agreeable, friendly, human, and considerate.” Mozart was important, and helped keep his pessimism at bay. But however friendly and soft-spoken he was on a sunny day with a song in his heart, we’re also told Oswald Spengler had a stormy countenance in which “irritability and self-mastery seem to be struggling for the upper hand.” His troubled gaze, wrote H. Stuart Hughes, reflected “the uneasy combination of harshness and sensitivity that has so often marked the German intellectual.”

The Decline of the WestHenry Kissinger, George Kennan, Raymond Aron, were all influenced by The Decline of the West. After reading it in the 1920s Arnold Toynbee wondered if his own vast project was worth doing, or had this German schoolmaster (an “obscure nobody of prodigious erudition and romantic imagination” in the words of Neil McInnes) already answered the questions he wanted to ask? At Harvard, Henry Kissinger wrote a thick undergraduate thesis about Spengler, Toynbee, and Kant, and in his student days Northrop Frye is said to have kept a copy of The Decline beside his pillow.

But it was always a controversial work, and though each of the names above knew its importance—especially Frye—they might have been reluctant to say more. Spengler was too right wing, too outré, too dangerous. For that reason many writers owe this author invisible debts they have thoughtfully concealed. Lewis Mumford, for example, adopted much of Spengler’s critique of “the Machine” as his own—while the case of Jean Raspail, whose 1973 novel Le Camp des Saints describes the violent takeover of France by a wave of migrant “colored peoples”, is just as intriguing.

Here we’re not concerned whether The Decline of the West is history, or mystical Teutonic prophecy, or primarily a work of the literary imagination—though it’s important to note Frye’s opinion that it is “one of the world’s great romantic poems.” At the very least it is a vision of humanity’s moral career that remains of deep interest today.

Civilizations have their seasons, Oswald Spengler taught—Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter—and it is the winter of Faustian Man that is upon us: the conclusion of a supremely individualistic epoch in which space and time have been annihilated, machines have become ever more ingenious, no limits or taboos on thought or conduct are allowed to exist, moral nihilism flourishes, primitivism thrives, and a millenarian religiosity is preparing to take wing:

With the nineteenth century begins the winter of the West. Its thousand years of cultural vitality are over; there is no true artistic creativity left. The preceding centuries were marked by an instinctive sense of form and style—Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque—but the new age is inchoate and confused.

It is the rise of the middle classes that explains this cultural incoherence. They resent the aristocracy with its refined manners and sure taste; they pursue untrammelled freedom as an end in itself; their ignorant artistic forays produce meaningless fluctuations of style—the warfare of Classicism and Romanticism leads to endless barren “experiments.”

Political life is equally meaningless. Parliamentarism provides a talking shop that obscures the basic political reality—the triumph of money. Before the power of financial speculation everything gives way: constitutionalism, democracy, even socialism. Politicians are the agents of financial interests.

Yet their power is not eternal. Blood, ethnic pride, cultural chauvinism, territorial instincts and natural aggressiveness, will soon assert themselves against the world of money, science, and technological prowess. An age of violent conflict is opening, and with the First World War of 1914-1918 it is obvious an era of perpetual warfare has begun.

New Caesars with armies of fanatical devotees struggle for mastery. Meanwhile the mass of mankind looks on with growing bewilderment, apathy, or resignation, prepared to accept the fate that determined soldiers, terrorist movements, fearful police and militarised states impose.

But long before this comes about, political ideologies and parties will have lost their meaning. Life in a globalised world falls to a level of uniformity where local and national differences virtually cease to exist. The only places that matter will be a handful of gigantic “world cities”—New York, Berlin, Tokyo or Beijing. These will be what Hellenistic Alexandria and Imperial Rome were to the ancient world—vast assemblages of people all living on top of one another, a mob following anyone who keeps them amused.

The lives of the masses will be an empty rehearsal of dull tasks and brutal diversions—arenas and gladiators, gross spectacles of sensuality and sadism watched by drunken roaring crowds. Music will be similarly depraved. Intellectual activity becomes mechanized, practical, cold, and merely clever. The educated lose their feeling for language, and the same basic speech—a coarse argot filled with obscenity—is spoken by intellectuals and workers alike.

Then when every trace of cultural form and style has disappeared, a new primitivism begins to pervade all human activity. Even the feeling for scientific truth—which may for some time outlast the dissolution of culture—grows vague and uncertain. Superstitions thrive; men believe anything; their appetite for the mysterious and supernatural expands and flourishes. It becomes hard to tell fiction from fact or fact from fiction.

In vulgar credulity the common people try to escape the universal boredom of work in a mechanized and bureaucratised world. Then out of the desolation of city life arises a “second religiosity”, a fusion of popular cults and dim memories of forgotten piety. In this way the uncomprehending masses seek to assuage their misery.

(With apologies to H. Stuart Hughes, whose condensation has here been freely updated.)

Spengler and the Nazis

The Decline of the West first appeared between 1918 (Volume One) and 1922 (Volume Two). It had a considerable impact in Germany, and because some of its ideas appealed to the nascent Nazi Party, Hitler and others looked favourably on Spengler at first. In parts of The Decline he evoked wild scenes of blood, destruction, and racial war that were just what they had in mind. But soon his other publications and lectures revealed a more complicated vision, while Spengler’s view of Hitler when it became known—“a heroic tenor, not a hero… A dreamer, a numbskull, a man without ideas, without strength of purpose, in a word: stupid”—did not help.

When they came to power in 1933 the Nazis condemned his latest work, The Hour of Decision, forbade mention of his name in the press, and banned the book. This was a little surprising since at one point he had enthusiastically hung a swastika outside his house. Assuming they hadn’t yet heard his comments on Hitler, one would have thought his latest work, filled with blood and iron and written with scorn and fury, contained more than enough to win Nazi approval. Rationalism is denounced as

…the arrogance of the urban intellect, which, detached from its roots and no longer guided by strong instinct, looks down with contempt on the full-blooded thinking of the past and the wisdom of ancient peasant stock… Rationalism is at bottom nothing but criticism, and the critic is the reverse of a creator: he dissects and he reassembles; conception and birth are alien to him. Accordingly his work is artificial and lifeless, and when brought into contact with real life, it kills.

Much of this is recognisable anti-rationalist Romantic critique. But Spengler finds Romanticism no better:

Romanticism is not a sign of powerful instinct, but, on the contrary, of a weak, self-detesting intellect. They are all infantile, these Romantics; men who remain children too long (or for ever), without the strength to criticise themselves, but with perpetual inhibitions arising from the obscure awareness of their own personal weakness; who are impelled by the morbid idea of reforming society, which is to them too masculine, too healthy, too sober.

Then in the last lines on the last page of the last chapter of The Hour of Decision there’s a call for worldwide fascist revolution: “Caesar’s legions are returning to consciousness… He whose sword compels victory here will be lord of the world. The dice are there ready for this stupendous game. Who dares to throw them?”

Shouldn’t Hitler have welcomed this? Yet elsewhere in the book Spengler’s message was more ambiguous. He opposed Nazi anti-Semitism for example. And his additional comments on Romanticism entailed an unmistakable critique of Nazi mass mobilization techniques. After taking aim at the völkisch sentimentality of Germany’s 19th century youth movements, he goes on:

And these same everlasting “Youths” are with us again today, immature, destitute of the slightest experience or even real desire for experience, but writing and talking away about politics, fired by uniforms and badges, and clinging fantastically to some theory or other.

Mass rallies—gatherings of “the million-footed beast” to be seen at Nuremburg—were ridiculed, and his comments on the Germans themselves were less than flattering. “Germans in particular are great at suspecting, criticizing, and voiding creative action. They have none of that historical experience and force of tradition which are congenital with English life. Germany is a nation of poets and thinkers—in the process of becoming a nation of babblers and persecutors.”

Along with his brief but carefully worded statement opposing Nazi anti-Semitism, all of this convinced the Party that he was just another slippery intellectual—a type they heartily despised. What had never been a true love affair, just a tentative flirtation based on hope and misunderstanding, came to a sudden end. Spengler’s health had never been good: aged fifty-six, he died of a heart attack three years later in May 1936.

Lewis Mumford

Thoreau and the rural twilight of Walden Pond were what Mumford most admired in his youth—vacations at a farm in Upper New York State being fondly remembered for many years. In Lewis Mumford: a Life, his biographer Donald L. Miller describes how these visits gave him a somewhat misleading impression of country life, relaxing in a hammock, listening to the wind in the leaves, and occasionally glancing through the pages of John Ruskin. It was all very green and organic, entirely delightful, and far removed from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

By the mid-1920s he had already written widely about American architecture and literature, making much of the contrast between virtuous small-town existence with its intimate human settings, and the grim inhumanity of megalopolis—the world of gigantic buildings and machinery. When he discovered identical themes in The Decline of the West, and saw their momentous implications, the whole thing hit Mumford like a ton of bricks.

Reviewing Volume One (translated in 1926) for The New Republic, he found it a “wild combination of Nietzschean mysticism and arrogant Junkerism.” But it was also, he added, an “audacious, profound… exciting and magnificent” work, “one of the most capable attempts to order the annals of history since Auguste Comte.” When Volume Two appeared in 1928, with its highly suggestive final chapter, the American realised that Spengler had given him not only a historical theory and a plan, but a suitable framework for a lifetime’s polemical work.

The last chapter of The Decline bore the title “the Machine” (a usage Mumford adopted and employed increasingly). It argued that from their first appearance mechanical devices were seen as near to sorcery—as essentially the work of the Devil and downright evil. Spengler sees technology as a form of misdirected thought, a perversion more and more hostile to organic life and its needs, until men are finally enslaved by their own creation:

Life makes use of thought as an ‘open sesame’, and at the peak of many a Civilization, in its great cities, there arrives finally the moment when technical critique becomes tired of being life’s servant and makes itself tyrant. The Western Culture is even now experiencing an orgy of this unbridled thought, and on a tragic scale. (Vol 2, Chapter XIV, 500)

Many civilizations in the past had been curious about Nature. Many cultures had developed impressive technology—triremes and catapults for example. But “very different is the Faustian technics” of the West, wrote Spengler, which right from the beginning “thrusts itself upon Nature with the firm resolve to be its master.” The Greek investigator contemplated possibilities; the Arabian dabbled in alchemy and magic; the destiny of Western Man was to subject Nature to his will:

The Faustian inventor and discoverer is a unique type. The primitive force of his will, the brilliance of his visions, the steely energy of his practical ponderings, must appear queer and incomprehensible to anyone at the standpoint of another Culture, but for us they are in the blood. Our whole Culture has a discoverer’s soul. To dis-cover that which is not seen, to draw it into the light-world of the inner eye so as to master it—that was its stubborn passion from the first days on. All its great inventions slowly ripened in the deeps, to emerge at last with the necessity of a Destiny. (501)

It is a destiny with catastrophic effects on Nature. Obsessed with Spengler’s politics, and his early interest in the Nazis, most commentators other than John Farrenkopf (Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, 2001) have entirely ignored the striking fact that he also pioneered environmental doomsaying—the mighty tread of machinery is making the whole earth shake:

What now develops, in the space of hardly a century, is a drama of such greatness that the men of a future Culture, with other soul and other passions, will hardly be able to resist the conviction that ‘in those days’ nature herself was tottering. Modern politics strides over cities and peoples; even modern economics, deeply as they bite into the destinies of the plant and animal worlds, merely touch the fringe of life and efface themselves. But modern technology will leave traces of its heyday behind it when all else is lost and forgotten. For this Faustian passion has altered the Face of the Earth. (503)

It might not unreasonably be argued that Lewis Mumford spent the rest of his life working out the implications of this single Spenglerian chapter, developing and elaborating its ideas, and never more so than in his 1970 book The Pentagon of Power. As for Spengler’s writings as a whole, usages are copied; historical arguments are repeated—for example that mechanical time-keeping originated in the routine of the monasteries; and a whole list of names could be compiled that occur first in Spengler, and then again in Mumford—St Bernard and Joachim del Fiore being two examples. This borrowing deserved to be fully and frankly recognized by the author himself, but so far as I know it never was. Mumford’s refusal to properly identify his sources made it very hard to tell what was going on—and fretful scholars recognise this notorious feature of his work

Then in 1931 Spengler published Man and Technics. Here he announced that “Every work of man is artificial, unnatural… This is the beginning of man’s tragedy—for Nature is the stronger of the two.” Social evolution progressed disastrously from the organic to the inorganic, and the ruin of all past civilizations is attributed to the fact that “the fight against Nature is hopeless and yet—it will be fought out to the end.” Once again his American student Mumford was ready, notebook in hand. Mumford’s 1934 Technics and Civilization echoed Spengler’s title, while the portentous clash of Man and Nature, and technology and human nature, received a central place in his writing from that time on.

But the most astonishing thing is this. Mumford’s academic admirers, whose essays appear in Lewis Mumford, Public Intellectual, and who include many well-known American names, carefully avoid discussing the Spengler connection. It is therefore greatly to the credit of Mumford’s biographer, Donald L. Miller, that he makes explicit and drags out of the intellectual closet what the majority of academic scholars—who are mainly on the Left and embarrassed by this unseemly fact—have concealed. In Lewis Mumford, a Life, Miller writes that Mumford found in Spengler the “mighty theme” he was looking for—the history of mankind as a form of moral prophecy.

‘To produce a mighty volume’, Mumford had written of Herman Melville, ‘you must choose a mighty theme’. His own theme would be nothing less than the making of the modern world. Mumford had in mind a book in the manner of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the prophecy of doom that greatly influenced a generation of war-weary European and American writers…

It was Spengler’s style of history, his brilliantly original approach to the material, that excited Mumford’s interest. Abjuring every canon of so-called objectivity, Spengler placed himself at the center of his history, observing, sympathizing, criticizing, comparing. Spengler probably came as close as anyone Mumford had yet encountered to writing the kind of history that he set out to write in his several books on America.

Jean Raspail

If you Google Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints you soon find yourself in strange company. Suddenly there are pages with names like White Nation—occasionally using Gothic lettering just to let you know which nation and Fuhrer they have in mind.

And it has to be said the Nazi association makes sense. There are passages in Raspail of a vileness about “colored” races and other cultures that surpass anything I have read in quite some time. Whole passages seem like an exhalation from some abscess in the psyche, a feverish zone of sexual neurosis and xenophobic loathing. The book jacket describes the author as a man who has travelled widely—Peru, Japan, the Congo. This should be reassuring: yet the intermittent racial hysteria in The Camp of the Saints makes you wonder whether, despite meeting so many other peoples, he truly understands humankind.

And what is striking is that the racial element in his story is unnecessary. It is a moral tale. The Camp of the Saints is really about the defencelessness of the West now that pity is admired as our noblest sentiment, philanthropy trumps all other virtues, and millions of “immigrants” are beating on a million doors.

The moral question Raspail asks is simple. If vast numbers of starving and ragged international paupers arrive on your doorstep, encouraged to believe that as notional refugees they have a right to move into your part of the world… What does Christian charity oblige you to do? If a large part of the population of Bangladesh sails from Calcutta to the Côte d’Azur in a vast armada believing they will be welcomed, fed, looked after, and treated as French citizens, you can hardly ask the navy to tow their ships out to sea and sink them, or ask the army to machine-gun men and women as they struggle ashore…

In Raspail’s novel the army is indeed called out and two divisions are posted on the southern coast. But the troops are useless. They melt away, not even firing their rubber bullets, since most of them sympathise with the “refugees”. The soldiers understand that their modern role is to identify with Third World victims and their problems—not to defend their own country, and certainly not to shoot the poor on behalf of the rich.

In any case all France agrees that violence against these tattered ruins of humanity is inconceivable. So instead they are welcomed with Christian compassion—only to savagely bite the hand that feeds. Freed at last after months of hideous privation at sea, the uninvited guests/immigrants/refugees/usurpers no sooner set foot in the West than they begin to burn, loot, rape, rob, and murder their hosts.

Every Frenchman who read The Camp of the Saints in 1973 knew there was no threat whatever from the subcontinent. Everyone also knew what Raspail meant: that this was the North African occupation fictionally transposed—and later he said as much. It was a vision of the invasion of France by Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”, a sudden apocalyptic form of what had been taking place in French cities, stealthily, gradually, and unresisted, by a sternly unassimilable minority for many years. But what exactly was feeding Raspail’s morbid imagination? Could it have been Spengler himself?

The title of the final chapter of The Hour of Decision is “The Colored World Revolution”, and Spengler’s vision of the takeover of the western world by “colored peoples” (amongst whom he includes Russians) is almost as fevered as Raspail’s. He begins by describing the fall of Rome to the Barbarians. The frontiers of the Roman Empire could have been defended, he insists, and for a long time they were. But the suicide of a nation occurs when its morale is broken—when it embraces “the late pacifism of a tired Civilization”.

Today Europe is too tired to resist (or such is Spengler’s drift); too pacifistic to even know what appropriate resistance is. Displaying a perverted and boundless charity, adopted almost as much appease as to help, western intelligentsias meekly atone for colonial sins with multiculturalist preaching and philanthropic conscience money, hoping to buy peace and security this way.

When the sense of pity overwhelms the instincts of self-defense and self-preservation we’re in trouble. Or so it seemed to Spengler. Europe’s peoples, he said, “are weary of their Culture”. A thousand years have elapsed since the Gothic peak of its achievement, and the inspiring spirit that built the cathedrals, the soul that fired the Renaissance, the moral confidence and military will that created empires is now dead.

This death is inevitable, wrote Spengler, wherever spiritual disarmament has taken place under the influence of “urban pacifism with its desire for peace at any price.” Perhaps we should reserve judgement regarding these fatalistic predictions—or anyway their local application—until we see what happens to France in the next decade. Watch this space. And others. It’s interesting that a few years ago Jean Raspail also expressed his fears for France’s future in terms of its “dying soul”:

For the West is empty, even if it has not yet become really aware of it. An extraordinarily inventive civilization, surely the only one capable of meeting the challenges of the third millennium, the West has no soul left. At every level — nations, races, cultures, as well as individuals — it is always the soul that wins the decisive battles. It is only the soul that forms the weave of gold and brass from which the shields that save the strong are fashioned. There is almost no soul left.

Reading Oswald Spengler: a Critical Estimate, by H. Stuart Hughes. Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, by John Farrenkopf. (This is a comprehensive 2001 study by a German-speaking scholar who draws on a wide range of Spengler’s untranslated writings.) Oswald Spengler Reconsidered, by Neil McInnes, in The National Interest, Summer 1997. The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler. The last is an essay by Northrop Frye in Daedalus, Vol 103, Winter 1974.


The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said much of The Decline of the West was “pretentious gibberish.” Franz Borkenau wrote that its mathematical speculations were “entirely untenable”, while Spengler’s philosophical notion that each civilization had its own unique conception of space was “hardly worth serious discussion.”

Northrop Frye wrote that swarms of critics have attacked the book’s details and “constantly and utterly refuted them ever since it appeared.” But he went on to add that “what Spengler produced is a vision of history which is very close to being a work of literature… If the Decline of the West were nothing else, it would still be one of the world’s great Romantic poems.” The passages below, a synopsis of the civilizational cycle, suggest what Frye may have had in mind.

Over the expanse of the water passes the endless uniform wave-train of the generations. Here and there bright shafts of light broaden out, everywhere dancing flashes confuse and disturb the clear mirror, changing, sparkling, vanishing. These are what we call the clans, tribes, peoples, races which unify a series of generations within this or that limited area of the historical surface.

As widely as these differ in creative power, so widely do the images that they create vary in duration and plasticity, and when the creative power dies out, the physiognomic, linguistic and spiritual identification-marks vanish also and the phenomenon subsides again into the ruck of the generations. Aryans, Mongols, Germans, Kelts, Parthians, Franks, Carthaginians, Berbers, Bantus are names by which we specify some very heterogeneous images of this order.

But over this surface, too, the great Cultures accomplish their majestic wave-cycles. They appear suddenly, swell in splendid lines, flatten again and vanish, and the face of the waters is once more a sleeping waste.

A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto-spirituality (dem urseelenhaften Zustande) of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. It blooms on the soil of an exactly-definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when this soul has actualised the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul…

The aim once attained—the idea, the entire content of inner possibilities, fulfilled and made externally actual—the Culture suddenly hardens, it mortifies, its blood congeals, its force breaks down, and it becomes Civilization… This—the inward and outward fulfilment, the finality that awaits every living Culture—is the purport of all the historic “declines,” amongst them the decline of the West.

Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. It is a young and trembling soul, heavy with misgivings, that reveals itself in the morning of Romanesque and Gothic. It fills the Faustian landscape from the Provence of the troubadours to the Hildesheim cathedral of Bishop Bernward. The spring wind blows over it.

“In the words of the old-German architecture,” says Goethe, “one sees the blossoming of an extraordinary state. Anyone immediately confronted with such a blossoming can do no more than wonder; but one who can see into the secret inner life of the plant and its rain of forces, who can observe how the bud expands, little by little, sees the thing with quite other eyes and knows what he is seeing…”

The more nearly a Culture approaches the noon culmination of its being the clearer its lineaments. In the spring all this had still been dim and confused, tentative, filled with childish yearning and fears—witness the ornament of Romanesque-Gothic church porches of Saxony and southern France, the early-Christian catacombs, the Dipylon vases. But there is now the full consciousness of ripened creative power that we see in the time of the early Middle Kingdom of Egypt, in the Athens of the Pisistratidae, in the age of Justinian, in that of the Counter-Reformation, and we find every individual trait of expression deliberate, strict, measured, marvellous in its ease and self-confidence…

At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization, the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism, in the womb of the mother, in the grave.

The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun—those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.

Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol 1, 106–108

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