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Challenge to Democracy

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

The Revolt of the Masses. By Jose Ortega y Gasset. New York: W. W. Norton. $2.75.

It was time for Ortega y Gasset to be presented to readers of English speech. Translator and publisher are not likely to reap a rich financial reward for thus dressing in English his most important book to date, “The Revolt of the Masses,” for it is not probable that Ortega will ever become a popular writer. He is certainly not able to reach a large audience in Spain itself. I have no information as to the circulation of his monthly magazine, la Revista de Occidente, the most consistently choice periodical in Spain and one of the quietest. The reader who is attracted by la Revista de Occidente must be peculiarly susceptible to quiet elegance of appearance and quiet merit of matter, and must be willing to forgo variety of menu and the meretricious charm which several Madrid magazines display as cleverly as any publications in the world. And Ortega y Gasset’s own writings have nothing of the meretricious. But it will do Americans good to read him.

It is common to name Ortega and Unamuno as Spain’s two leading thinker-writers. They are as different as two Spanish philosophers of the same generation could well be. Unamuno’s petulant and picturesque Quixotism has gained him a wider reputation. The anonymous translator of “The Revolt of the Masses” qualifies Ortega’s style as “a very personal one,” but his general procedure is certainly a very impersonal one. It would be impossible to imagine him descanting in print, as did Unamuno in his Victor Hugoesque exile before the fall of Primo de Rivera, on the inconvenience as to socks, shirt-buttons, and the like which his patriotic absence from Spain entailed. Ortega is dignified, judicial, reserved. He doesn’t lose his temper and he doesn’t play to the galleries. But he does say what he has to say without fear or favor. “The Revolt of the Masses,” written in 1930, before the monarchy fell, declares without heat but without mincing words that the Spanish monarchy has been for centuries a complete anachronism.

The thesis of “The Revolt of the Masses” is not encouraging. The leadership of the world is falling into the fat fingers of the “mass-man.” This mass-man is a gentleman we meet very often in this country. He runs a garage or sells insurance for no other reason than that these are ways of making a living which it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to discover. He goes to the Rotary luncheon on Monday, to the movies twice a week, to the baseball game on Sunday afternoon, objects to foreign missions because, charity begins at home, hastily turns off the radio when a program of classical music is announced, loves his family, and is very careful to keep his shoes shined. He has always been the backbone of every decent society, which is as it should be. But it is brains, not backbones, that manage society. A handsaw is not the tool to shave with.

The reasons why the mass-man cannot govern society are obvious. In the first place, he has no initiative, no ideas. Until this generation he was usually willing to let the leaders pump his ideas into him, and he yelled for Cleveland or Harrison, at the leaders’ bidding, as obligingly as a doll squeals when you squeeze her stomach. But when he suddenly takes a notion that he can run the establishment, that is dangerous. He is satisfied with himself, and no self-satisfied man ever accomplished anything. Moreover, he takes for granted, as mere natural phenomena, all the remarkable contrivances, spiritual and material, which he enjoys as a result of the intelligent efforts of thinking men. Automobiles, baseball, newspapers, the state itself, are the inventions of gifted individuals. The mass-man lacks even the mental independence to wonder at these incredible inventions of the class-man, but laps them up as complacently and ungratefully as a cat laps cream. And one of the most moving pages in modern literature is the page on which Ortega y Gasset pays tribute to the ability to wonder, one of the gifts which separate the individual from the herd. And the mass-man is intolerant. Since he takes himself and the world as he finds it completely for granted, he is impatient of change, of progress, of testing and trying, hence of intelligent management, of responsible government. With him at the helm, the state is headed directly for the rocks. Even technically, Ortega y Gasset has no hope for a world controlled by the mass-man. It is not the mechanic, but the laboratory scientist, who is responsible for our technical conveniences. Eliminate the scientist, the thinker, the scholar, and the world will relapse into material as well as spiritual barbarism.

Do Italy or Russia offer help? Not much. A state is not a racial, linguistic, or geographical unit, but a large or small group of individuals, whether alike or different is a secondary matter, working hopefully at some common task, and the Russian Five Year Plan is such a task; but no state was ever built on violence. Violence is the weapon of the mass-man. And both Italy and Russia are facing toward the past.

Has the problem a solution? Since the tail has decided to wag the dog, is there anything for it but to let the tail assume command? Ortega does not tell us what to do. But he is no tear-stained Cassandra. His book is not written in a tone of discouragement. He is no fatalist, and he believes that the race is able to find a way out of any difficulty. The most gripping chapter in his book is the chapter on the history of states. This chapter ties to his older volume “Espafia invertebrada,” in which with a cool objectivity which is as far from disloyalty as it is from foolish chauvinism, he studies the history of the Spanish state and tells how Castile formed partnerships with her neighbors by the contrivance of common tasks, how the Peninsula became a national partnership, how it added colonies in the far West and colonies in the far East—and how, when Spain began to face backward and no longer looked into the future for common tasks, she lost successively Florida, California, Latin America, Cuba, the Philippines, and is disintegrating today into a tangle of quarreling provinces. It is a single aim that makes a nation. Countries enlarge their boundaries as they are able to find a common task for larger and larger groups. And the panacea for Europe’s troubles is the United States of Europe.

The mass-man is opposed to internationalism because he is a mass-man. He is by nature, since he has no imagination and no spirit of apostleship, a nationalist and a traditionalist. Like Lot’s wife, he faces backward, and like her he is a rock with a human form, an incumbrance if not an obstacle. The Tolstois were moving in the wrong direction.

It was the leveling process that destroyed Rome. All progress is the progress of capable individuals. “The apparent egoism of great nations and great men is the inevitable sternness with which any one who has his life fixed on some undertaking must bear himself.” Ortega and Nietzsche.

All this is easy to misunderstand. I am sure that Ortega is as respectful to his cook as Tolstoi ever was, but he would not have shared Boris Pilniak’s enthusiasm when the lat-ter’s young girl servant was elected to an important post in the local government. He studies instances of human stupidity with great interest, but his attitude toward them is not that of Horace or of Gustave Flaubert. He is quite as objective and impartially purposeful in studying them as some employer of labor might be in his efforts to place the proper man at the proper machine. He is not a snob, nor a temperament, nor a poet. He is a political philosopher above the melee. And whereas some of his specific conclusions seem questionable and contradictory, the grave sanity of his general position is powerfully impressive. The book reaches America in an election year, and every American election is a crushing argument for its contention. The Jacquerie have arisen. The Philistines be upon us. Congress is full of them. Will they triumph and ruin the world and themselves? Perhaps not. It was the French revolution that gave birth to Napoleon.


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