Originally published in The Eugenics Bulletin, Winter 1984
In this article, I shall advance the hypothesis that envy of non-achievers against creative minorities is the mainspring of modern revolutionary movements, that this envy is incited and exploited by alienated intellectuals, and that the result is aristocide--the murder of productive, gifted and high-achieving people--along with consequent genetic decline.
By aristocide, I do not mean destruction of artificial aristocracies of pedigree and status. I use the term to denote the extermination of what Thomas Jefferson called "the natural aristocracy among men" grounded on "virtues and talents," and constituting "the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society" (Jefferson, 1813). Jefferson believed that the preservation of this elite was of cardinal importance. The "natural aristocracy" possess not only high intelligence, but also "virtue"--in more modern terms, character and humanity.
Envy should be distinguished from ambition. Envy is not the desire to excel, but the spiteful urge to pull down the more gifted. Christopher Marlowe wrote in Dr. Faustus: "I am Envy. I cannot reade, and therefore wish all books were burnt." In his brilliant and thought-provoking study of the role of envy in human societies, Shoeck (1972) defined it as the resentment inferiors feel at the higher status and greater rewards of their superiors, and quoted Davidson's apt description (p. 15):
Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It...implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him. Graspingness for self and ill will lie at the base of it. There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied, and a chafing under this consciousness....
Since envy cannot be extirpated, the great religions have sought to control it and deflect it into comparatively harmless channels. Christianity offered hope to the virtuous poor by promising that the meek would inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), as did Judaism (Psalms 37:11). The poor were assured that it is "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25).
It remained for the messianic totalitarian movements of our century--Nazism and Communism--to exploit envy on a massive scale as a vehicle for attaining power. Propaganda of both movements depicted the envied people as bestial and unfit to live. Nazi ideology stressed the extermination of the Jewish people on the grounds that they were "sub-human."
The Jew was shown as a hideous lecher in the Nazi press. Red artists made capitalists appear comparably odious and despicable. The enemy must be made to seem vile so that his future murderers (who may possess remnants of decency and morality) can feel justified in their crimes.
Alienated Intellectuals as Catalysts
The leadership element of revolutions is rarely composed of indignant peasants or enraged lupenproletarians. It generally consists of frustrated, alienated and misguided intellectuals, without whom the envy of the masses would remain directionless, nothing more than sullen and silent resentment. Alienated intellectuals serve as catalysts, inciting and actuating the prevalent sentiment of envy, providing it with a seemingly legitimate target, even gracing it with an ideology and a meretricious sort of moral justification. Yet many converts to totalitarian movements themselves come from the upper and middle classes. They belong not to the ranks of the enviers, but to those of the envied. How does one explain this paradox?
I would suggest that, in many cases, their original motivations are benevolent: sympathy for the poor and passionate hatred of social injustice. However, to rise up in the ranks of the movement, pity for the downtrodden must gradually be supplanted by hatred of their supposed oppressors. The envy of the masses is the revolutionaries' most potent weapon to overthrow the social order, and the best method of exploiting it is to offer a tangible, living object of hatred (Weyl, 1974). Those who don't adequately grasp this fact tend to drop by the wayside. Clearly, a revolutionary who proclaims to the crowd that their poverty is due to sparse natural resources, overpopulation, and their own shortcomings is not destined to lead the revolution. Explanations of this sort fail to provide the enormous psychological satisfaction of Marxist ideology that poverty is caused by class exploitation. Marxist ideology also offers a wonderfully direct and instantaneous "solution"-- liquidation of the exploiters--which is far more appealing to mob mentality than the dreary prospect of a lifetime of patience, hard work and sacrifice.
That the Jews were envied in Europe scarcely needs to be argued. Except in those countries where they were deprived of even a semblance of equal opportunity, as a group they excelled in almost every index of achievement: education, wealth, scientific and cultural accomplishments, business and political leadership. In these respects, their status was similar to that of the European upper classes. Yet they were more vulnerable to attack because of their internationalism, and because their religious, linguistic, cultural and physical differences from the majority made them easily identifiable objects of popular distrust (Weyl, 1967).
The extermination of nearly twelve million Jews and Christians by the Nazis is no doubt one of the supreme examples of aristocide in history. It should be added that political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps for the most part were intellectuals who had spoken out against the Nazis or tried to overthrow them; hostages who were seized and shot in occupied countries were generally the most respected and successful members of their communities. Both Nazis and Communists shared a hostility toward the elite. They were at war not only with established institutions and morality, but with the upper classes themselves who were the guardians of these "degenerate" institutions (Well, 1967).
Communist Aristocide in the Soviet Union
The Soviet objective under Lenin and Stalin was the "liquidation of the bourgeoisie," which meant no less than the physical extermination of the propertied classes and all their auxiliaries. The Revolution and ensuing Civil War destroyed or dispersed vast numbers of the nobility, the bureaucracy, the officer corps, the priesthood and the intelligensia. During the Red Terror, launched shortly after the seizure of power in 1917, the criteria for being judged an enemy of the people were simple. "Don't look for evidence or proof showing that this or that person, either by word or deed, acted against the interests of the Soviet power," secret police chief Latsis instructed his agents. "The first questions you should put to the arrested person are: To what class does he belong? What is his origin? What was his education and what is his profession? These should determine the fate of the accused" (Shub, 1948, p. 325). When Gorky protested to Lenin about the death of so many highly gifted people, Lenin sternly ordered him "not to waste energy whimpering over rotten intellectuals" (Solzhenitsyn, 1973, pp. 31-32).
During the rising spiral of purges which took place during Stalin's bloody reign, an estimated 20 to 30 million people were put to death (Conquest, 1968, p. 532), approximately one-eighth of the Soviet population. The proportion among the elite was much higher. About three-fourths of the generals and senior military leaders of the Red Army were killed prior to World War II. All of the naval commanders with the rank of Flagman (admiral) perished. Comparable losses were sustained in the civilian bureaucracy, science and literature.
Dynamics of Totalitarianism
Why is it that modern revolutions involve selective decimation of their most capable citizens? The evidence consistently indicates that aristocide is too deeply embedded in the dynamics of totalitarianism to be an accidental or incidental feature. It becomes a practical necessity for consolidating and maintaining power in the new state, because those with something to lose by the leveling of society, and those with the psychological resources to launch a successful counter movement against a repressive regime do, in fact, pose a very real threat to it. Continued aristocide in the form of purges (which have taken place in Russia, China and elsewhere) may become expedient when the government is unable to deliver on its promises and needs scapegoats. Even more important to the understanding of this phenomenon is the fact that totalitarianism requires obedient subjects who accept authority unquestioningly. Intelligent people tend to be individualists (as well as being, almost by definition, more capable) and as such they will always constitute a potential threat to repressive totalitarian governments.
Aristocide is most virulent in the revolutionary phase of seizure and consolidation of power. At present, the foci are in the Third World, where forces of discontent seek to uproot the social order and annihilate the minority with education and ability. A conspicuous recent example is Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Nearly the entire middleclass--every person with more than a rudimentary education or who didn't work with his hands--was murdered, beaten, starved or worked to death. Estimates of the Cambodian necrology run above a million human beings, more than one seventh of the population.
Free, pluralistic societies seem immune to aristocide. If the Soviet Union and China evolve into stable, authoritarian bureaucracies, the danger there should continue to recede. The real threat today lies in underdeveloped countries swept by revolutionary ferment and religious fanaticism. However, aristocide in these countries, horrible as it is, cannot compare in its magnitude with the havoc wreaked on the genetic heritage of humankind by Hitler, Lenin and Stalin.
Nathaniel Weyl is author of The Creative Elite in America and (with Stephan Possony) The Geography of Intellect.
Conquest, Tober, 1968, The Great Terror, MacMillan: New York
Jefferson, Thomas, 1813, dated October 18, 1813 in a letter to John Adams
Schoeck, Helmut, 1970, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, Harcourt, Brace and World: New York
Shub, David, 1948, Lenin, Doubleday: Garden City
Solzhenitsyn, Alexsandr I., 1973, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, I-II, Harper and Row: New York (quoting vol. 51, p. 47 of the Russian edition of Lenin's collected works)
Weyl, Nathaniel, 1967, Aristocide as a force in history, Intercollegiate Review, June, p. 127-245
Weyl, Nathaniel, 1974, Envy and aristocide underdeveloped countries, Modern Age, Winter, p. 39-52