The Revolt of the Masses

The Revolt of the Masses, by José Ortega y Gasset [W. W. Norton, $2.75]
INNUMERABLE are the queries as to just what is the actual state of the civilized world to-day; what, in fact, is wrong with it, how and why it reached its present dubious estate, and what is the way out. There is no exaggeration in saying that Señor Ortega’s essay is the nearest approach thus far made to a definitive answer to these questions. It is not surprising that Count Keyserling should call it ‘epoch-making.’ This phrase, often so carelessly used, is in this case accurately employed.
Señor Ortega’s thesis is clearly expressed in his first sentence: ‘There is one fact which, for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilization.’ Later on he includes America in all that he says about Europe.
He divides all humanity into two categories: the ‘mass-man’ and the ‘select man.’ The mass-man is he who, ‘ in face of any problem, is satisfied with thinking the first thing he finds in his head.’ He ‘accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness is prepared to impose them everywhere.’ The ‘select man,’ the ‘noble,’ on the other hand, ‘is urged by interior necessity to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.’ The mass-man to-day ‘dominates public life, political and non-political, to the exclusion of the “excellent minority"'; when he ‘becomes the predominant type it is time to raise the alarm and to announce that humanity is threatened with degeneration— that is, with relative death.’
The author is no more enamored of Fascism and Bolshevism than he is of traditional aristocracy. Both are ‘typical movements of mass-men directed, as all such are, by men who are mediocrities.’ It is not in this type of revolution that he sees recovery for society, hut in the subjugation of the barbarian mass-man that dominates now by ‘vertical invasion,’and the reassertion of authority and power by the minority of character, ideals, and right standards of value. He is no prophet of doom, but rather a fearless voice of warning and exhortation.
In reading and rereading this book it seemed measurably inconsistent that one who courageously proclaims himself an aristocrat by conviction and a dissentient from the works of democracy should be a supporter of the present republican régime in Spain and a member of the democratic Cortes. The solution may be found in the fact that he is a strong opponent of the present nationalism in Europe, an advocate of the breaking down of economic, geographical, and racial frontiers, and that to him the old Monarchy stood in the way of this unification of Europe.
The book is written with breadth and impartiality and with that profound philosophical insight which would be implied by Senor Ortega’s position as Professor of Philosophy in the University of Madrid. It is also written with limpid clarity, and the translation is more than excellent. What Rousseau’s Contrat Social was for the eighteenth century, and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for the nineteenth. Señor Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses should be for the twentieth century; not as a fulfillment, but as a corrective.