Again with Lawrence Dennis

Lawrence Dennis, touring London as a boy evangelist, with his foster mother

In a couple of comments on an article about James Burnham that Daniel McCarthy wrote for The American Conservative, I brought up Lawrence Dennis. Here are the comments:

1.

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936′s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

A couple of other commenters responded to this, encouraging me to enlarge upon it:

2.

@David Naas: Well, Lawrence Dennis seems to have thought that under an enlightened elite, a system which he would classify as fascist could be made more or less tolerable to the broad majority of the population. Dennis’ prescription for a tolerable fascism was one that stimulated the economy with domestic make-work schemes rather than militaristic adventures, and that put as little effort as possible into stirring up racial hatred and persecuting minority groups. Those make-work schemes were supposed to “ensure that wealth flows down across and out,” as EliteCommInc puts it, and the lackadaisical racism was supposed to be no worse than what was in fact established as law in the USA in Dennis’ time.

Dennis himself grew up as an African American child in the state of Georgia in the early twentieth century and as an adult was an extremely unpopular public figure, so he can have been under few illusions as to what sort of life might await those outside that broad majority. Dennis recounts a shocking episode in his book Operational Thinking for Survival. As a visitor to Germany in the mid-1930s, he was granted an audience with the Nazis’ tamed philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. Dennis tells us that he suggested to Rosenberg that the Nazis stop physically attacking Jews and trying to force them to leave Germany, as they were doing at that point, and that instead they should subject them to the same segregation regime under which African Americans lived. Rosenberg dismissed the idea, but that Dennis would suggest it, in view of his background, is a tragedy in the classical sense of that term.

I’m by no means convinced that any of Dennis’ views were correct, but they are certainly worth considering. Among other things, I think that Burnham’s conception of countervailing power in The Machiavellians gains a great deal of depth and significance if we see it as, in part, a rebuttal to Dennis and an attempt to sketch out an alternative to Dennis’ bleak vision of the future.

I wish that, instead of “worth considering,” I had said that Dennis’ views were “worth studying.”  Especially coming right after an account of his hobnobbing with a representative of the Nazi leadership and proposing a set of anti-Jewish measures, it sounds alarming to suggest that we might “consider” his views, as if we should somehow contemplate following him down that dark path.  It’s true that Dennis’ proposal to Rosenberg would have been far less horrible than the policies the Nazis actually adopted, but there’s quite a lot of space separating “better than the Holocaust” from “worth considering.”  Anyway, it was Dennis’ views on political economy, geopolitics, and the role of ideology in shaping opinion that I had in mind, not his drearily misbegotten attempt to ameliorate the condition of Jews in the Third Reich.

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