Capturing the Commanding Heights
Half a century ago the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky succinctly dissected the political strategy of left-wing radicals in West Germany and the West generally. His essay, “The New Strategy of Revolution,” remains one of the best summaries of a remarkably successful ongoing strategy of cultural subversion by way of a “long march through the institutions.” As a consequence, our present day is dominated by what Michael Polanyi called moral inversion – and Roger Scruton called a culture of repudiation – which redefine the common ethos and the rules of public discourse. Scruton argued that the West is characterized by “a political process generating corporate agency, collective responsibility, and moral personality in the state.” Citizens of the West live in what he calls a Personal State, which protects their rights wherever they go. The question today is whether the new strategy of revolution is converting the Personal State into something akin to a reeducation camp and turning citizens into subjects.
This is the first part of a projected series. Following a preface, the article follows the first part of a detailed study guide I wrote for the “The New Strategy of Revolution,” including vignettes drawn from a variety of related sources. Both are linked to a footnote below. This article is a sequel to two previous pieces in The Market for Ideas: “A Strategy of Subversion” (Mar.-Apr. 2020) and “Penetrating the Fog of Culture War” (Sep.-Oct. 2021).
Preface: Imaginative Regimes
Ever since Plato, a popular genre of political philosophy has concerned itself with founding visions. In the case of Plato’s Republic the founding is a homeopathic diagnosis of Plato’s brothers, two members of the Athenian youth whom Socrates had been charged with corrupting. Drawing motifs from Homer and the other poets, Socrates examines the health of the State – the Soul writ large – in order to dramatically expose the ailments of the civil body politic which were the true threats to public and personal health. By modeling an ideal city-in-speech – a well-balanced commonwealth – Socrates strives to enable the brothers to free themselves from slavery to changing opinions and passions. Plato’s interest is in what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things.”
Jacob Howland argues that Plato used the storyline of Homer’s Odyssey as a template: “the homeward quest of Odysseus is woven into the dialogue as a mythic subtext of its philosophic action.” By symbolically recapitulating the trials of Odysseus through the various scenes of the dialogue, the drama culminates in the Myth of Er in which Odysseus, having recovered from his love of honor after wrestling – allegorically – with his inner demons, chooses at long last a soul of wisdom.
By way of sharp contrast, Machiavelli, who was called “a teacher of evil” by Leo Strauss, contributed what he called a “new science of politics” to this genre in The Prince and The Discourses on Livy. As the first modern political philosopher, he drew on his diplomatic and literary experience to imagine himself as the author of a unified Italian republic – purged of its past – if only he could inspire a national savior to rescue Italy from plundering invaders and foreign rulers. For this purpose, he sought out a powerful patron.
Mark Hulliung maintains that other scholars have been “wary to a fault of spelling out the extent of Machiavelli’s paganism” and argues that it was directed “to destroy part of the pagan tradition (Stoicism) and all of Christianity.” Rather than a reformer, Machiavelli must be regarded as a revolutionary:
“To demythologize Machiavelli, to save him from his saviors, is to engage in an enterprise literally ‘radical,’ one that takes us to the ‘roots’ of the Western tradition, to our very origins, upon which Machiavelli commented so memorably. It is to have our heritage usurped or identified as our nemesis. Compared to this, Marx’s indictment of liberalism, even when that attack was at its most shrill, was an unthreatening experience – an occurrence that never left the familiar and friendly world of ‘humanism.’
. . . Political foundations, [Machiavelli] insisted, are violent, as are all returns to the beginning, all rededications to virtue; they, too, are violent, they take the established symbols of the classical tradition . . . and transform them into something explosive. . .”
Indeed, Machiavelli – like the later revolutionary Antonio Gramsci – constructs what Roger Scruton has called a “culture of repudiation.” He proposes a thorough repudiation of “the dead hand of the past.” Hulliung adds:
“As a theorist of subversive methods, Machiavelli advised the politician to preserve the old names and symbols, even as he builds a new world: this is precisely what Machiavelli the political theorist does with our cultural heritage, the foundations. He tries to draw us into a position where every return to our cultural foundations, every conversation with the ancients, is a resurrection of Machiavelli and Machiavellism.”
Yet Angelo Codevilla suggests that Machiavelli was even more radical. Not only does Machiavelli appropriate and redefine the existing language (or terms of political discourse), he would even substitute an entirely different language if that were possible. “According to Machiavelli, there is a means of conquering men as final as the drawing of the plow over Carthage, but which leaves both men and material intact. That means consists of changing the terms in which people think.”  Four centuries before Gramsci, Machiavelli redefined virtue – reducing it to “inhuman cruelty and animal cunning” –
and introduced new modes and orders in designed to replace Classical and Christian political ethics, which meant redefining the language.
“Part of Machiavelli’s plan of battle was to capture the word virtue. First, he disordered the words of which the concept of virtue consisted, then he reorganized them according to his “new orders” to fight on his side. By doing so, he made it difficult for even the memory of virtue as it once was understood to enter political discourse.”
Following the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, Thomas Hobbes similarly sought to place his own personal stamp of authority on a new political philosophy. Engaging in his own Cartesian doubt, Hobbes likewise attempted to purge the past of a Christian ethos and its hold on the imagination. His reputed empiricism is really a form of introspection. Like Machiavelli, he takes himself as a representative man. Once again, political philosophy becomes a specimen of autobiography and a tool of political ruthlessness.
Hobbes imagines his Leviathan state as an artificial man: a personal state which would represent – embody – the people while reconciling within its corporate self their individual and collective ambitions and actions. Hobbes’s influence on Jean-Jacques Rousseau should be evident here. Rousseau sought to purge the soul of social artifice, restore an imagined natural man, and reconcile individual desires with collective needs through a rather utilitarian general will. Both writers sought to harness human motives, filter out divisive elements, and achieve a working consensus..
To account for human motivation, Hobbes borrowed from Thucydides a list of three principal causes of quarrel: a fierce competition for scarce goods, a fear-driven diffidence or insecurity, and a self-exalting desire for glory. In The Passions and the Interests, Albert O. Hirschman notes that in Hobbes’s view men are motivated by a craving for honor, dignity, respect, and recognition. While these are not virtues, as J. Budziszewski points out, they can imitate or supplement virtuous motives much as the addition of Hamburger Helper extends the savor of the meat.
Rousseau simplified Hobbes’s list of motives into two categories: amour de soi, which aims to satisfy “real needs” (the commodities of life) by appropriating a limited amount of goods, and amour propre, “which is keyed to approval and admiration from our fellow men,” according to Hirschman, “and which by definition has no limit.” But the reach of human ambition is impeded only with great difficulty. The fertility of Rousseau’s thought makes him the intellectual precursor of a wide range of subsequent ideological and political movements.
Adam Smith simplified human motivation even further by reducing the drive for economic advantage into this same desire for consideration on the part of others (i.e., amour propre). The key here is not mere self-interest: ”It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Rather, it is “self-interest rightly understood,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it. This is also the engine which drives market exchanges.
Friedrich Hayek based his theory of market freedom on the idea that market operations, freely conducted under the rule of law, would be homeostatic and produce a spontaneous order. This is an argument in favor of a constitutionally-limited government. It corresponds to what Francis Lieber called Anglican liberty, which Hayek cited favorably. Such liberty emerges out of practical experience with diverse and territorially-localized self-governing institutions: families, churches, municipalities, voluntary associations, universities, businesses, and the like.
On the other side is a hierarchical centralization of initiative that Lieber called Gallican liberty, resulting from the centralization of royal and, later, revolutionary and republican administration in France. The German general theory of the State (allgemeine Staatslehre) and its administrative model shaped early American political science in the early years, particularly after Lieber’s day.
Both Hobbes and Rousseau recognized the drawbacks of the dissociative individualism that Tocqueville and Lieber later identified and named. Both raised the question of how a collective “We” may be derived by transcending the “I.” The social contract theorists – led by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau – settled the issue in part mythologically by imagining humanity once upon a time living in a state of nature until its dangers and inconveniences compelled them to agree together to – using words from the United States Constitution – provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare.
Although in some ways Hobbes and Rousseau were at odds with Locke, the social contract ideas they promoted have helped shape the direction of modern political philosophy. As the memory and influence of Christianity recedes, other cultural institutions and a new secular clerisy have laid hold of Christianity’s priestly and prophetic functions. Successive generations of promethean rebels – Robespierre, Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin and more – have stirred up intensifying cultural crosscurrents which often began as heresies within the church but which convey caricatures of the faith into the larger culture and eventually consolidate into transgressive political religions which demand devotion. Today, as Mark Mitchell notes, they are animated by a Nietzschean will to power and driven by a secularized Puritan moralism.
The philosophes, Jacobins, social sciences, and the Progressive education movement are among the more recent conduits of this subversive impulse. As the sociologist Philip Rieff observed of Rousseau, Fichte, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and perhaps Dewey: “All the great educational reformers have died disappointed men.” Citing Emile Durkheim, Rieff characterizes education as “the main institution communicating the modes of authority from one generation to another.” As a vehicle for social change, however, it is less an agent of change than a social disrupter and sower of unrealistic expectations.
“Rousseau set up Émile, a seductive little straw child, who would become a philosopher while all the while he was having fun becoming an artisan. But no education in arts and crafts has ever produced a philosopher. And Rousseau, when he was honest, knew better; his pedagogy was a revenge on philosophy. Nothing pleased him more than to fancy education as a revolutionary instrument, destroying the intellectual and social order by which he had decided to be exquisitely hurt.
. . . The great reforming theories of education have been misled by their conception of it as an instrument with which to alter the structure of authority in society. Rousseau and his sort of enthusiasm for education are revolutionary manqués, children are their proletariat and the schoolroom is the good society in microcosm. Durkheim had the sense to see that microcosms are never the model of macrocosms; on the contrary, in social life, it is the macrocosm that serves as a model for the microcosm. The school cannot dictate to society; rather, society always dictates to the school. It is a pathetic, and historic, error to treat the school as GHQ for any movement toward the new society.”
Here we may consider where Rousseau’s general will takes us. In today’s Western world, the result may outwardly resemble what Theodore Lowi called interest-group liberalism but it verges into coercion. The revolutionary manqués always fall short of their expectations, and suffer disappointment, but by “pushing the envelope” continuously they succeed in getting at least “half a loaf.” As the expression goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
This result encourages even stronger and more radical demands. After all, amour propre is unlimited unless it can be deliberately restrained. Society is thus tattooed by the concerted efforts of multiple would-be founders, re-formers, rent-seekers, and swindlers of all sorts. In the resulting crisis of legitimacy, society is succumbing to the logic of what Frederic Bastiat described as “universal plunder.”
A Summary Introduction
Political dreams that began in the minds of philosophers – “fire in the minds of men” – have more recently spilled out of the lecture halls into the streets.
In 1974, the sociologist Edward Shils translated and published the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky’s summary of a political strategy developed by left-wing radicals in West Germany and the West more generally. It was and still is directed towards the “conquest of the system” by destroying the most significant features of democratic forms of politics. Underlying the strategy is the intention to root out the fundamental political as well as the social ideals and corresponding patterns of life of the major groups within the system. Its implementation is to be accomplished by discrediting and replacing the values, historical credibility, and institutional foundations of these groups, their ideals, and their patterns of life.
This process is to be carried out by a vague “revolutionary state of mind” – a Nietzschean transvaluation of all values – rather than by direct assault. Its purpose is to transfer the decisive means of exercising power out of the hands of the system’s most capable trustees or custodians and into the hands of its opponents. Rudi Dutschke called it a “long march through the institutions” and based it upon Antonio Gramsci’s writings. The march is designed to foment a cultural revolution in the West for the purpose of discrediting every aspect of its religious, political, and cultural foundations.
The protracted campaign is directed at three separate targets by way of three different sets of revolutionary means. The strategy aims, first, at the conquest of universities and teachers colleges – the cultural sector – in order to staff these institutions and run them. Then, with a prospective fifth column at hand, second, the strategy is directed to disrupting the functions of the state or crippling it through demoralization. The strategy culminates, third, in the intensification of demands placed on the economy, social security, and entitlements without regard to the functional and productive capacities of the institutional system in order to dominate those who run them.
By the time he wrote in 1970, Schelsky contended that this strategy was largely successful in West German universities, effectively establishing a new academic order. In his introductory note to an earlier printing in Minerva, the translator Edward Shils noted that the campaign was also directed toward gaining power in the mass media, trade unions, churches, and other institutions. As Schelsky noted in the penultimate paragraph:
“The strategy of ‘conquest of the system’ is already largely successful as an effort by a group of intellectuals of one generation to take over the positions of power in our society; it is bound up with the aim of establishing a system of social supremacy over the workers under a new working class. I regard the ideological components of this strategy, however brilliantly they are expounded by the supporters and analyzed by the opponents of this development, as only a façade which hides a purposeful and realistic Machiavellian political strategy of the pursuit of power. Because its fundamental principle consists in turning the basic values of the system into a weapon against the system, the inherent defense mechanisms of the system cannot work effectively. Neither can an idealistic value-orientation nor the institutional defenses (e.g., the constitutional courts) be effective since these strategists act ‘legally’ – even though their legality is like that of Hitler before his seizure of power.”
In conclusion, Schelsky cited the political leader of the Social Democrats of Schleswig-Holstein, Simone Weil (not the philosopher), to the effect that, “since the freedom of the individual and social justice are the bases of our society, all that has to be done is to idolize them in order to discredit them and the human reality in which they are embodied,” thus clearing space for a new hierocracy – “the rule of a new priesthood.”
Gary North later described this pattern of cultural subversion as “Capturing the Robes,” that is, laying claim to the most respected symbols of authority in the Christian West: the scholars, clergymen, and judges who represented the modern equivalent of monastic orders, what Philip Rieff called “the officer class” of our “church civilization.” Dante Germino summarized Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in terms both Michael Polanyi and Roger Scruton would recognize:
“Exploitation and oppression were always seen by Gramsci to be cultural as well as economic. The preconditions for ending such exploitation had to be the resolve by the subjugated strata and regions of society to rise up and create their own culture instead of waiting for the philanthropic benevolence of the powers that be. To create a counterhegemony was the revolution’s first task.”
Conquest of the System (Systemüberwindung)
Totalitarian movements specialize in the manipulation of basic human motives and emotions, especially those which may render a person complicit in the (often criminal) schemes of those who seek to defeat, discredit, or neutralize the authorities they intend to replace. From the radical’s standpoint, it is all the better if the guardian class can collectively be turned into a stock character – the fall guy, patsy, or “useful idiot” – in the human and revolutionary comedy. The point is to first discredit the values, history, and intellectual outlook of the institutional foundations of Western society.
The strategic aim is to transfer decisive power into the hands of the revolutionaries and turn public sympathies away from the perceived losers to the those who seize power. Many of their supporters hope to be spared the slow and achievement-demanding path to power and success. The rise of identity politics has advanced the careers of policy entrepreneurs and has been a marketing boon (at least temporarily) for corporations which adjust their marketing strategies to the latest trend.
Indeed, marketing surveys have been around for more than a century. So have these other trends. Two decades following the Second World War, the mass media demonstrated the success of an intensifying social/sexual revolution by converting the tail end of a generation of men who fought in that war from what one journalist called “the greatest generation” into bumbling objects of ridicule in popular entertainment. Their cultural influence and authority began to evaporate.
This change of tone in the 1960s coincides with the fifth of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”
Kenneth Minogue identified feminism as the ideal vehicle for this revolution. The old story of the guardians who had sold the pass to the enemy could scarcely apply and yet the resulting transformation was real.
“My argument is, then, that European civilization has been attacked and conquered from within, without anyone quite realizing what has happened. We may laugh at political correctness – some people even deny that it exists – but it is a manacle around our hands. It binds us quite tightly, though some freedom must be left, because without the contribution of subjugated males, things would very rapidly decline. What political correctness amounts to in reality is a treaty of accommodation reached between the conquerors and the conquered. . . .
There has been a revolution, then, but a silent one. It has taken place with such stealth, and so gradually, that people have become accustomed to it little by little.”
In truth, the revolution developed in Hegelian fashion, dialectically and in stages. From generation to generation its leaders play the long game. They are usually born to power and privilege. In practice, they are opportunists and masters of stealth. The most successful revolutions are all but invisible even to the most discerning eye.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman argued that we are better equipped to recognize and resist the tyranny of George Orwell’s brutal vision of 1984 than Aldous Huxley’s hedonistic Brave New World.
“Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. We are not likely, for example, to be indifferent to the voices of the Sakharovs and the Timmermans and the Walesas. We take arms against such a sea of troubles, buttressed by the spirit of Milton, Bacon, Voltaire, Goethe and Jefferson. But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?
I fear that our philosophers have given us no guidance in this matter. . . . No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty years.|
The one-time Fabian socialist, H. G. Wells, preferred what he later called an Open Conspiracy. As he wrote of his vision:
“Instead of the crude proposals to ‘expropriate’ and ‘take over by the state’ of the primitive socialism, the Open Conspiracy will build up an encyclopaedic conception of the modern economic complex as a labyrinthine pseudo-system progressively eliminating waste and working its way along multitudinous channels towards unity, towards clarity of purpose and method, towards abundant productivity and efficient social service.”
Socialism, eugenics, neo-Malthusianism, and birth control were among the causes the Fabians and Progressives supported. The Progressive movement was an important antecedent that helped shape Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. By 1938 Garet Garrett could write that “the Revolution Was.”
Interlude: The Lie
While meditating on the Nazi revolution, the novelist and motivational speaker Andy Andrews asked himself three questions:
“Where do we begin to find common ground in regard to what we want (or don’t want) for the future of America? Is it possible to write something that doesn’t use the words Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, yet conveys a message with which everyone could agree? Can it be written in a concise fashion allowing anyone to read it, clearly understand the message, and be empowered in less than fifteen minutes?”
Andrews entitled the resulting book How Do You Kill 11 Million People? Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think.
The answer is quite simple. René Girard drew on the Bible and great literature to identify what he called mimetic desire in order to account for social contagions. Today we see a dramatic rise in such problems as the spread of gossip and fear, self-mutilation, drug-taking, elective reconstructive surgeries, flash mobs, intrusive regulations, and divisive school curricula. The way governments handled the Covid-19 pandemic – through lockdowns, experimental vaccines, scare tactics against alternative medicines, masking mandates, and double standards for large urban demonstrations – led many people to make comparisons with the plot of a 1938 play, Gaslight, and the subsequent movies. The term “gaslighting” spread very quickly because people began to recognize the lies and irresponsible exercises of power. Some officials resisted illegal or unconstitutional actions. Most did not.
As Andrews himself noted a decade earlier: “The most dangerous thing any nation faces is a citizenry capable of trusting a liar to lead them.” Echoing a remark make by Max Weber a century earlier, Andrews concluded:
“In the long run, it is much easier to undo the policies of crooked leadership than to restore common sense and wisdom to a deceived population willing to elect such a leader in the first place. Any country can survive having chosen a fool as their leader. But history has shown time and again that a nation of fools is certainly doomed.”
Not to mention a nation of sheep. As the great constitutional historian Edward S. Corwin wrote in 1944: “It was following this war [the Great War] that so sober and conservative a thinker as former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes raised the question whether ‘in view of the precedents established . . . constitutional government as heretofore maintained in this Republic would survive another great war even victoriously waged.” Nearly a century later, is it still possible to make a convincing positive argument on the question: How does the Republic fare?
Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 134.
The study guide and the article: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1440&context=gov_fac_pubs
Jacob Howland, The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (New York: Twayne, 1993), 32.
Mark Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 245.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Angelo M. Codevilla (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), xxi-xxii.
Machiavelli, op. cit., xxxvii.
Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977), 108.
J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 58.
Hirschman, op. cit., 109.
 Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 55.
Dennis J. Mahoney, Politics and Progress: The Emergence of American Political Science (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2004), 19-32.
Mark T. Mitchell, Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage That Spawned America’s Social Justice Warriors (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 2020).
Philip Rieff, The Feeling Intellect: Selected Writings, ed. Jonathan B. Imber (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1889), 233-34.
Schelsky, 355. Parallels with the rise of the Soviet new class or Nomenklatura are evident, See Milovan Djilas, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1957), 92. In the Communist system legal theories change according to circumstances and the needs of the oligarchy.” See also Michael Voslensky, Nomenklatura: The Soviet Ruling Class (Garden City, NY: Doubleday1984).
Gary North, “Capturing the Robes,” Christian Reconstruction, VI:5 (Sep./Oct. 1982).
Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci: Architect of a New Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 30.
 Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971), 128.
Kenneth Minogue, “How Civilizations Fall,” New Criterion (April 2001). https://newcriterion.com/issues/2001/4/how-civilizations-fall
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1986), 156-57.
H. G. Wells, The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (London, 1928).
Andy Andrews, How Do You Kill 11 Million People? Why the Truth Matters More Than You Think.
Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011), iv-v.
See René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 7-18 on scandal.
See “Interposition: Magistrates as Shields Against Tyranny,” Western Australian Jurist, 11 (2020): 301-38.Interposition: Magistrates as Shields Against Tyranny – Western Australian Legal Theory Association (walta.net.au).
Everywhere the house is ready-made for a new servitude. It only waits for the tempo of technical economic ‘progress’ to slow down and for rent to triumph over profit. . . . (T)he increasing complexity of the economy, the partial governmentalization of economic activities, the territorial expansion of the population – these processes create ever-new work for the clerks, an ever-new specialization of functions, and expert vocational training and administration. All this means caste. Those American workers who were against the ‘Civil Service Reform’ knew what they were about. They wished to be governed by parvenus of doubtful morals rather than a certified caste of mandarins. But their protest was in vain.” H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, ed. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford,1958) 71.
Edward S. Corwin, The Constitution and World Organization (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), 58.