- Ignatius Donnelly, Caesar's Column and the inversion of American populism



The eighth part of The NEXT THRILLING CHAPTER begins with an epigraph taken from Caesar’s Column, by Ignatius Donnelly. The epigraphs for chapters 4, 9, 11 and 14 were taken from the same source.



Caesar’s Column is the oldest science-fiction paperback I own, dating from 1891 and forming Vol. I, No. I of “The Ariel Library”. It’s the “twentieth edition” of the book, and was published in Chicago by F. J. Schulte & Co—as was the first edition, the previous year. It looks like at some point someone rescued my copy from a fire (for which I’m grateful), for there are traces of damage on about a dozen leaves at the lower rear corner of the book. The back cover carries an advertisement for Anarchy and Anarchists, by Michael J. Schaack, Captain of Police—largely an account of events surrounding the Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886.



The inside front cover briefly describes the intention of Donnelly’s book, and prints glowing opinions. Not only, am I told, is the book “a wonderfully fascinating and startlingly original work of fiction”; it is also


a profound study of present sociological conditions, and follows these conditions out to what [the author] believes will be their inevitable result. The events described in the story take place in the year 1988, and the scene is laid in New York, containing at that time ten million inhabitants.


Needless to say, since 1890, “sociological conditions” have altered somewhat. Our own time presents, along with a number of curious echoes, some startling inversions of conditions contemporary with the book, as well as of those predicted by Donnelly.

     “That our people in this country need arousing is unquestionably true,” writes Frances E. Willard, who describes the book as “a Gabriel’s trump”. Wm. Larrabee writes that it will “lead many to realize better the many dangers to which our country is liable.” H. L. Loucks, president of the National Farmer’s Alliance, considers that it “should be read by every farmer in the land”; while the founder of that organization, Milton George, comments that it “looks forward to what is not only possible, but probable.” George Cary Eggleston, of the New York World, observes that


The book points out tendencies which actually exist and are in need of cure. It warns us... of the necessity of guarding our liberties against the encroachments of monopoly and plutocracy, and of disarming corruption in government by every device that a vigilant ingenuity can supply.


The book was written toward the end of the nineteenth century, and is prominently subtitled “A Story of the Twentieth Century”. A couple of decades into the twenty-first, both the phrase “guarding our liberties” and the idea that government is liable to corruption sound a familiar note; but the implication that we might need to regulate government in order to guard against the political power of wealth is a notoriously difficult argument to make these days. Indeed, it’s not altogether clear, from where I’m sitting, that North Americans will be able to resist the dismantling of their government, for the purpose of ensuring would-be plutocrats and their opportunistic lackeys are not deprived of their luxuries. If vigilance is still the watchword of those concerned to guard their liberties, its meaning has been subverted by the cultivation of political stupidity, to such an extent that it threatens to end in disaster—if it is not the case that that disaster is already irreversible.

     It’s easy, however, to predict disaster; less easy to predict its course. Donnelly’s book can hardly serve as a guide to our current predicament, but offers an ironic reminder that the lessons of history rarely coincide with the lessons of prophecy. Addressing a “thoughtful and considerate public”, Donnelly asks readers not to misunderstand him:


It must not be thought, because I am constrained to describe the overthrow of civilization, that I desire it. The prophet is not responsible for the event he foretells. He may contemplate it with the profoundest sorrow...


These days, however, more than a few of those who preach and prophesy the overthrow of civilization do fervently (if sometimes confusedly) desire it—albeit on behalf of a range of outcomes founded on fantasy. But Donnelly affirms he is not an anarchist, “for I paint a dreadful picture of the world-wreck which successful anarchism would produce.”

     In Donnelly’s day, the more ambitious anarchists were on the left. Now they’re on the right.

     Other reversals of polarity are revealed in Donnelly’s statement of intent:


I seek to preach into the ears of the able and rich and powerful the great truth that neglect of the sufferings of their fellows, indifference to the great bond of brotherhood which lies at the base of Christianity, and blind, brutal and degrading worship of mere wealth, must — given time and pressure enough — eventuate in the overthrow of society and the destruction of civilization.


He may be right, but are “the able and rich and powerful” these days open to such preaching any more than in Donnelly’s day? Later in the book, he constructs, as a satire, the kind of preaching to which the rich may be amenable:


“... the plan of Nature necessarily involves cruelty, suffering, injustice, destruction, death.

     “We are told by a school of philanthropists more numerous in the old time, fortunately, than they are at present, that men should not be happy while their fellow-men are miserable; that we must decrease our own pleasures to make others comfortable... But, my brethren, does Nature preach that gospel to the cat when it destroys the field-mouse? No; she equips it with the special aptitudes for the work of slaughter.

     “If Nature, with her interminable fecundity, pours forth millions of human beings for whom there is no place on earth, and no means of subsistence, what affair is that of ours...? We did not make them; we did not ask Nature to make them. And it is Nature’s business to feed them, not yours or mine. Are we better than Nature? Are we wiser? Shall we rebuke the Great Mother by caring for those whom she has abandoned? ...

     “Let the abyss groan. Why should we trouble ourselves? Let us close our ears to the cries of distress we are not able to relieve. It was said of old time, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen,’ Our ancestors placed a mythical interpretation on the text; but we know what it means:—many are called to the sorrows of life, but few are chosen to inherit the delights of wealth and happiness...”


However this functions as satire—if it can still be recognized as satire—it stands as a remarkable anticipation of the kind of philosophies with which many of the able and fortunate insulate themselves from the misfortunes of others. Donnelly writes that “[t]he rich, as a rule, despise the poor; and the poor are coming to hate the rich.”

     These days, things are more complex. That many born to wealth should have an ingrained and casual contempt for those who don’t have their opportunities is hardly a surprise; and that such contempt serves to perpetuate and extend social inequity is certain; but what startles me is that three-quarters of a century of television and a quarter-century of the internet have facilitated, on the foundation of a culture of celebrity, such a broad-based worship not only of wealth, but of the wealthy. When Donnelly wrote that “the poor are coming to hate the rich”, he put himself out of sync with our version of the future he imagined. By 1988, the year in which Donnelly’s book is set, the poor (at least in North America) had all but ceased to matter. To be poor was to be invisible, in a society devoted to spectacle.

     A generation later, when we encounter a phrase like “the worship of mere wealth”, the application of the adjective “mere” to the noun “wealth” is all but incomprehensible. What could he possibly mean? What else is there?

     And near the bottom of the heap are many of the people who worship Trump—willing to trade their liberty for servitude to and exploitation by those who amplify the slogans that excite them. As compensation, they’re encouraged to dream of a violent triumph over those who don’t share their enthusiasm.



In the work identified in 1921 as forming a basis for the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion—Maurice Joly’s Dialogue in Hell between Montesqieu and Machiavelli (1864), an attack on the rule of Napoleon III in France—Machiavelli argues that


the masses of people... are simply incapable of governing themselves. Normally they are inert and only too happy to be ruled by a strong man; while if something happens to arouse them they show unlimited capacity for senseless violence – and then they need a strong man to control them.


(paraphrased by Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide)


Alas, the world is currently suffering a plague of such “strong” men, whose strength consists in little more than offering their supporters permission to hate their political opponents. Donald Trump, who apparently freelances as a front for a loose alliance of the wealthy and powerful, is one such, and in the glorious future he represents, the last pretence that the power of wealth might be fettered by law, and in some measure responsive to the will of the people—the American experiment, if not the American dream—will be set aside.

     Norman Cohn’s account of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion may serve as a guide to what Trump and his enablers are trying to bring about:


Before the Elders can establish their rule over the whole world, the existing gentile states... must be... abolished...

     ... everything possible must be done... to foster discontent and unrest... [T]he means... are provided by the very nature of liberalism. Already... the incessant proclamation of liberal ideas and the incessant chatter with which parliaments fill their days... produce complete mental confusion in the populace... [T]he Elders... will alienate the people from their rulers... they will keep the workers in perpetual unrest by pretending to sympathize with their grievances while secretly contriving to raise the cost of living.


We can discard the disguise under which the Protocols labored. It’s not the mythical Elders of Zion who, in the U.S., nakedly pretend to sympathize with working people, but the Republican Party. It isn’t “gentile” states right-wingers are trying to abolish, but democracy. Over and above the confusions fostered by pluralism in a complex world of conflicting interests, right-wing media have done and are doing everything possible to foster discontent. What they attack is the common stuff of politics, on behalf of a mythical unity that is in part a golden age that never was, and in part a millennial fantasy that never will be.

     And Trump, following a trend he did not start, has alienated a substantial mass of his supporters from the political process (often ineffective and corrupt) while promoting the interests of what I might be tempted, in a reckless moment, to identify with the shadow government Trumpists imagine pulling the strings behind the scenes. In other words, Trump is the public face of the very conspiracy some of his more deluded followers believe he has the power to pull down. As Franz Kafka once wrote,


The creature siezes the whip from its master and whips itself in order to take the master’s role, unaware that this is merely a delusion allowed by a clever arrangement of the master’s whip.