John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses

The subject of Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) is an excellent one: the appearance of militantly elitist, anti-humanitarian and quasi-fascistic politics in late 19th- and early 20th-century literature. This is a very rich field, indeed, with many of the most important figures (according to the selective tradition) having significant “form” in this regard: from Nietzsche through Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot and Woolf and so on. Predictably, Carey sees Nietzsche as the starting-point; less predictably, he sees Adolf Hitler as the finishing point. That’s right, Mein Kampf is a work “firmly rooted in European intellectual orthodoxy” (208).

A review from The Guardian quoted on the back declares TIATM to be “witty, passionate and end-to-end readable.” It’s hard to argue with this: unlike most works by academics, Carey’s can be easily read by the layman, being resolutely unjargonistic and written in a simple but clear and graceful style, a style that lends itself to Carey’s understated but rather mordant wit. All this is good, but the problems with Carey’s book are legion. The book especially jarred me in the section on H.G. Wells, a writer who I happen to have been looking at lately. Carey actually devotes two whole chapter to Wells, so you would think he must be central to the book’s thesis. The first chapter catalogues Wells’ totalitatarianism, but the second takes an opposite tack, opening with the remark that “Wells’s greatness as a writer depends not only on the intensity with which he hates but on the imaginative duplicity that qualifies his hatred. He is nearly always in two minds, and this saves him from mere prescription” (135). Effectively this passage, and the chapter as a whole, serve to take back everything he’s just said in the preceding chapter! Finally, Carey leaves us with an obviously admiring portrait of a great mind struggling with important issues around the organization of society and the sustainability of human life. That, far from seeing him as another HItler, Carey takes Wells’ reflections on the future of humanity seriously is made abundantly clear in a striking passage towards the end of the book:

[I]n the fifty years from 1925 to 1975 the world’s population doubled[.] […] No one can tell how the planet can accommodate such hordes, or whether the ecosystem can survive the levels of pollution they will generate.


The remedies the twenty-first century will perfect can only be guessed, but it seems clear that, given the state of the planet, humans, or some humans, must now be categorized as vermin. (212, 213-4)

I’ve read this passage repeatedly to ensure I wasn’t missing some indicator of irony or something, but it appears Carey is perfectly serious. This seriousness of the statement in itself isn’t the primary problem for me, it’s its appearance in a book which has hitherto applied a presumption of fascism to any intellectual, such as Wells, engaging in such anti-mass sentiments. It is in this passage and this passage alone that we discover that it may be just a little more complicated, that knee-jerk excoriation is not all that can be said here,

Above all, it’s the Hitler analogy that makes it so problematic. The problem is that this analogy isn’t built in to most of the text. The Wells chapters are in themselves interesting, but it seems to me inconceivable that they were written (or even much revised) with Carey’s Hitler-thesis in mind; rather, he put them in for padding or as an  afterthought – or else the Hitler element was the afterthought; this latter possibility I think more likely, because Carey is obviously far more knowledgeable on literature than he is on Hitler and Nazi Germany. His attempt at an intellectual profile of Hitler is perfunctory, and his definition of him as a “highbrow” (198) suspect. We are told that “[h]e admired the works of Cervantes, Defoe, Swift, Goethe and Carlyle” (198). Yet, in Carlyle’s case at least (the only one I’m knowledgeable on), this statement needs expansion: Goebbels famously read from Carlyle’s Frederick the Great in their last days in the bunker, and, so the legend goes, moved Der Fuhrer to tears thereby. But there is no reason to believe that Hitler himself ever read a word of Carlyle, and he never mentions him in his writings. So, “admired”? I don’t think that’s justified. It does, of course, aid Carey in his quest to prove Hitler an intellectual type.

So the content of TIATM  is mostly interesting, but the thesis is not, and is very poorly established. Another quoted review calls the book “[i]ntellectual-baiting at its best”, but that’s the dificulty: why bait intellectuals when where are serious and relevant criticisms to be made without recourse to a method that comes close to what we in the internet age call “trolling” – unsupported and provocative statements made to irritate and garner attention. Stripped of its trollery, TIATM has a good book in there somewhere, but its hard to look past the half-baked silliness of the Hitler=AverageEuropeanWriter thesis.

Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London: Faber, 1992)

Bertonneau, Thomas F., “The ‘Master Spirit’ Takes Charge: H. G. Wells on the Dictatorial Century”, The Brussels Journal (27 Nov 2011)

Steinweis, Alan, “Hitler and Carlyle’s ‘Historical Greatness’”, History Today, 45:6 (1995), pp. 33-38.