May 31, 2005


Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Human Events, May 31, 2005)

HUMAN EVENTS asked a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to help us compile a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Each panelist nominated a number of titles and then voted on a ballot including all books nominated. A title received a score of 10 points for being listed No. 1 by one of our panelists, 9 points for being listed No. 2, etc. Appropriately, The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, earned the highest aggregate score and the No. 1 listing.

Ulysses belongs on the list.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2005 8:39 PM

Agreed - mostly because, quite literally, it physically hurts to read it.

Posted by: Shelton at May 31, 2005 8:55 PM

On Liberty should have made the top 10. And no mention of Thomas Kuhn? Or do conservatives like him now?

Posted by: Shelton at May 31, 2005 9:01 PM

Kuhn was right.

Posted by: oj at May 31, 2005 9:05 PM

Except perhaps by contagion, it's hard to see how many of those books did much harm.

How many readers did they have?

I would have predicted Whitehead/Russell on the list, though.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at May 31, 2005 9:46 PM


They all give an intellectual patina to evil.

Posted by: oj at May 31, 2005 10:17 PM

The question isn't how many read them, but who.

Except by contagion...

Exactly. That's the "exception" that clears the ground for gulags and concentration camps.

Posted by: Pontius at May 31, 2005 11:41 PM

Eminent Victorians deserves at least an honorable mention.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 1, 2005 12:18 AM

I note, without surprise, the 'The Secret Protocols of the Most Learned Elders of Zion' wasn't even a semifinalist for these judges.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 1, 2005 12:44 AM


Like you once said, nobody in recorded history has ever read Ulysees.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 1, 2005 12:44 AM


Excellent point!

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 12:48 AM

I note, without surprise, the 'The Secret Protocols of the Most Learned Elders of Zion' wasn't even a semifinalist for these judges.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 1, 2005 12:48 AM

OJ, you probably don't want to be in Syracuse on June 16 (I will, but I can think of better ways to spend the last full day of my vacation).

Posted by: John at June 1, 2005 1:08 AM


I thought of that, too - but at least there are people who read Marx & Hitler & Lenin & Mao line for line. I find it hard to believe that even the most zealous anti-Semite has read the protocols (frauds that they are).

Actually, the most "dangerous" books are the ones that come after the initial poison is spilled. Like John Reed, perhaps? Or all the liberation theology that followed from 1959? Or the journalism that venerated both Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s? And so on.

Posted by: jim hamlen at June 1, 2005 1:32 AM

I note, without surprise, that Harry just libelled fifteen good men with an insinuation of antisemitism.

I note, without surprise, that Harry *knows* conservatives just have to have Jew-hatred in their hearts.

So what about that Arnold Beichman? Obviously a self-hating Jew, right, Harry?

Posted by: Pontius at June 1, 2005 2:06 AM

I wouldn't have put On Liberty up there, I though Mill did a decent job of pointing out the shortcomings and limitations of his own thesis. Rousseau was far more harmful.

Would have put von Clausewitz's On War though.

As for the Protocols, I doubt they convinced anyone who wasn't already a Jew-hater.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 1, 2005 2:27 AM

All emphasis is added.

5. Democracy and Education

Author: John Dewey
Publication date: 1916

Summary: John Dewey, who lived from 1859 until 1952, was a “progressive” philosopher and leading advocate for secular humanism in American life, who taught at the University of Chicago and at Columbia...
He disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead.

Which is absolutely the best way to educate children, and a principle of the Montessori Method, which was developed in 1907 - 1911.

If one examines children in school systems which learn by rote, such as in Samoa and Japan, one will find kids with vast stores of memorized facts and formulas, but with virtually no ability to apply that knowledge in new situations, or to solve new problems.

Part of the confusion over the benefits of teaching "thinking skills" vs rote memorization comes from having school systems that reject the latter, but then don't effectively teach the former.
Under those conditions, then rote memorization is clearly better than not learning much of anything.

6. Das Kapital

Author: Karl Marx
Publication date: 1867-1894

Summary: Marx died after publishing a first volume of this massive book, after which his benefactor Engels edited and published two additional volumes that Marx had drafted. Das Kapital forces the round peg of capitalism into the square hole of Marx’s materialistic theory of history, portraying capitalism as an ugly phase in the development of human society in which capitalists inevitably and amorally exploit labor by paying the cheapest possible wages to earn the greatest possible profits. Marx theorized that the inevitable eventual outcome would be global proletarian revolution. He could not have predicted 21st Century America: a free, affluent society based on capitalism and representative government that people the world over envy and seek to emulate.

Yeah, except that by 19th century standards, 21st century America is a socialist nation, and it's that way because the proletariat rejected (revolted against) laissez faire economics, using labor associations, politics, and even events like the Oklahoma land rush.

I'd really like to see somebody attempt to argue that capitalists DON'T pay the minimum wage that will fill a position, in the interests of profit maximization.
That's fine while labor is scarce, not so fine when labor is plentiful.

Ford was the exception, not the rule.

10. General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

Author: John Maynard Keynes
Publication date: 1936

Summary: Keynes was a member of the British elite--educated at Eton and Cambridge--who as a liberal Cambridge economics professor wrote General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in the midst of the Great Depression...
When the business cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs, he argued, the government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur economic activity. FDR adopted the idea as U.S. policy, and the U.S. government now has a $2.6-trillion annual budget and an $8-trillion dollar debt.

Hardly Keynes' fault.
If Congress, empowered by voters, would stop spending like drunken pirates on shore leave, the American public debt would only be a couple trillion dollars, all of it capital spending.

Blame American culture and society, not some British toff's book.

There were fifteen judges, and only one woman. What's the deal with that ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at June 1, 2005 3:15 AM

A pretty good list, although I might have included Houston Stewart Chamberlain's Foundations of the Nineteeth Century.

Posted by: Lou Gots at June 1, 2005 5:14 AM

speaking of embarrassing opposition to free thought and observation of the world around you...

interesting how the judges seem to root the world's problems in literature that's predominately a century old.

i was particularly surprised to read the condemnation of nietzsche for his arguing that "superior men will sweep aside ... moral rules ... to craft whatever rules would help them dominate the world around them."

As nietzsche wrote, “Life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation.”

sounds pretty much like the current junta's program to me.

Posted by: lonbud at June 1, 2005 5:58 AM

It's always hard to know whether the classics or the popular derivatives are more harmful, but in terms of the havoc wrecked by the boomers, I would have added the books of Myrdal, Galbraith and Harrington.

Posted by: Peter B at June 1, 2005 6:27 AM

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Posted by: Mike Morley at June 1, 2005 6:30 AM

Michael - Ford was not the exception, but the rule. The rule is that capitalists pay the wage which produces the greatest possible profits. Ford increased his profits by the $5 day, getting better workers, more dedicated and motivated workers, and greatly reduced turnover.

It should be obvious that "the cheapest possible wages to earn the greatest possible profits" is an incoherent and self-contradictory formula, for "cheapest possible wages" and "greatest possible profits" are incompatible. There is a wage which maximizes profits, and it's not the cheapest possible wage.

Posted by: pj at June 1, 2005 6:45 AM


The Handmaid's Tale is in a category of awfulness all by itself.


Excellent, concise.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at June 1, 2005 7:22 AM


Why? The stuff that's right is due to even older texts.

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 7:24 AM



Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 7:26 AM


He's right. It's an important oversight on their part.

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 7:29 AM

Possibly. But "Protocols" is unique among the titles discussed here and on the original list in being the only conscious and deliberate forgery. It perpetuated a plague and scourge on civilization, but it did not create or popularize a new one.

At any rate, it was the insinuation that conservatives have blinders to antisemitism that incensed me.

Posted by: Pontius at June 1, 2005 8:32 AM


Harry thinks the tsars were worse than the Bolsheviks--that's why he was upset.

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 8:46 AM


Insinuation? For Harry that is an ex cathedra statement of infallible truth.

Posted by: Peter B at June 1, 2005 9:32 AM

Paul Johnson puts Rousseau at the beginning of it all. Surprising he isn't high on the list.

Posted by: erp at June 1, 2005 10:48 AM

Isn't Rousseau an 18th Century figure?

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 10:59 AM

I dunno what books I'd have nominated, aside from 'Protocols' and the 1937 USSR Constitution, one of which was widely read the other only widely discussed.

Probably not even 'Mein Kampf' which was notoriously unread until after Hitler had marched most of the way toward power.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that it is articles, not books, that launch political movements. Or, in illiterate societies, speeches, multiplied if they have radios.

Dennis Mack Smith, in his many books on Mussolini, makes a point that Mussolini's claims were transmitted in (radio) speeches (though he wrote extensively for Il Popolo etc., too) and were so preposterous that only a profoundly ignorant public opinion could have swallowed them.

The profoundly ignorant public opinion was created on purpose, by the Church. (Mack Smith doesn't say that, I do.)

(A.J.P. Taylor noted that FDR 'wrote nothing.' It was speeches on radio that infected the country with Rooseveltism.)

It is also interesting to compare what public opinion thinks books or articles said with what they actually said.

I once introduced my steel advisor to Hardin's essay 'The Tragedy of the Commons.'

Hardin's conclusion is sound and (I presume) welcome news to political thinkers like Orrin. My steel advisor thought so, too, but it happened he was teaching a course in critical thinking that semester, and he used it as his text, as the most concentrated sample of invalid arguments he'd ever seen.

So if the operative word is 'influential,' then you probably want to back off Marx (or Lassalle) and concentrate on Gorky and Chekhov. They did more to undermine tsarism than Stalin robbing a few banks.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 1, 2005 2:10 PM

Tsarism wasn't undermined by literature but by losing wars.

Posted by: at June 1, 2005 2:17 PM

So a book can't be influential unless it's widely read?

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 1, 2005 3:15 PM

So there have only been two influential books in history--The Bible and the phone book.

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 3:19 PM

Hard to imagine that the Russian peasants were influenced to overthrow the state by reading a book in German, since 90% of them couldn't read at all.

As Mayor Jimmy Walker once said, 'No girl was ruined by a book.'

If the peasants felt oppresseed, it must have been because they were oppressed.

Similarly with Kinsey. Fortunately I didn't need him, since I didn't read his books till after all my children were born.

Other than 'Common Sense,' it's hard to think of any publication that had wide enough circulation to be blamed for influencing an important political development.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 1, 2005 5:57 PM

Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at June 1, 2005 6:25 PM

About as hard as to imagine that German, French, Irish, Polish or Italian peasants were influenced to believe in God by a book written in Latin, since almost none of them could read either. Since when does one have to be able to read in order to be influenced by a book?

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 1, 2005 6:57 PM

Jean Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712 – July 2, 1778),

Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. A bader man has not been transported from the Old Bailey in many long years. -- Samuel Johnson

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at June 1, 2005 7:04 PM



Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 8:12 PM


The peasants didn't.

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 8:13 PM

Well, the peasants failed until the Bolsheviks organized them. Not for lack of trying, though.

Mr. Choudhury might have caught me out on 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' On the printed page it didn't have the market penetration that 'Common Sense' did, but combined with the very popular stage presentations, it might have reached as large a proportion of the population as Paine did.

Being influenced by printing is, on the whole, an American phenomenon. Oscar Handlin, in 'The Immigrants,' points out that before they became immigrants, the European peasants did not read newspapers because 1) nobody published newspapers for them; 2) most of them couldn't read; and 3) nobody cared what they thought anyway.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 1, 2005 9:27 PM


What peasants?

Posted by: oj at June 1, 2005 9:44 PM


What was that 'vanguard of the proletariat' thing all about? The peasants couldn't know what was good for them? Only the self-described elite read Marx since they are among the few who think they are capable of understanding him.

You've not been on a college campus lately if you believe Marx not influential.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at June 2, 2005 2:18 PM

The peasants were not bolsheviks. The ones who developed a party political consciousness were mostly Socialist Revolutionaries.

However, with the collapse of the SRs, the peasants allowed the bolsheviks to provide the organizational skill to make them a political force.

Considering how bad the bolsheviks' organizational skills proved later on, it says all anybody needs to say about tsarism that the bolsheviks outorganized the tsarists by orders of magnitude.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 2, 2005 3:25 PM

political force? If they'd had any power they'd have gotten rid of the Bolsheviks. Peasants hate intellectuals.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2005 3:29 PM

They hate landlords.

They are in awe of the intelligentsia.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 2, 2005 8:22 PM

You can't say that and actually know any farmers.

Posted by: oj at June 2, 2005 8:58 PM


They burn down the landlords' houses and struggle to get their children taught to read.

Their attitude seems clear enough to me.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 3, 2005 3:21 PM

In La-La Land?

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2005 4:36 PM

Russia. We were talking about Russia.

Also in China, India, pretty much anyplace you want to name.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 3, 2005 8:58 PM

ah, the happy myth of communism as popular revolt. I didn't think anyone still believed in that one, not even you.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2005 9:09 PM

Who said anything about communism? Ever heard of Razin?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 4, 2005 5:54 PM

The Cossacks were always rising against someone or other, had nothing to do with the druthers of the peasantry.

Posted by: oj at June 4, 2005 6:59 PM