Monday, February 13, 2012

The greatest liberal achievement

The most significant achievement of liberalism…is its ability to handle the problem of guilt for large numbers of people without costing undue personal inconvenience.”

James Burnham
The Suicide of the West

A review of that book from another conservative philosopher:

Ideology as a Fate
Suicide of the West, by James Burnham.
New York: John Day, 1964. 312 pp.

Reviewed by
Modern Age, September 1964, p. 320

I MUST MAKE a terrible confession: most books
about the contemporary scene bore me to tears.
This book, however, I could not put down once
I had started. I read it on a plane ride, from
cover to cover, not even interrupting my lunch.
The reason is not only that the book reads so
well, but that it says so much. It is a portrait of
Liberalism’s dreamworld, by way of an explanation
of what has been happening to the West, and
to this country, in the course of our lifetime.

Appropriately, Burnham begins by identifying
the Liberals. No meaningful answer could have
been obtained had he started by asking “what
is Liberalism?” and proceeded to “define” it in
some intuitive way. A convincing list of Liberal
personalities, publications, and institutions provides
a sharp focus: whatever they say, write,
teach, and do, must be taken as Liberalism. Empirically
rather than speculatively, Burnham
finds that Liberals beIieve in the utter plasticity
of human nature, in the avoidability of evil
through education and change of institutions, in
a happy historical future. Liberals assume that
politics consists of “problems” to which one can
find “solutions,” that all “truths” are relative,
that distinctions between men are politically irrelevant,
that social hierarchies are always bad,
that the government is obligated to guarantee to
everyone food, shelter, clothing, education, security
against unemployment, disease, and want.

A list of these and other Liberal tenets, nineteen
in all, is highlighted by contrasting them with
alternate modes of thinking, not necessarily conservative,
though. For Burnham rightly insists
that Conservatism, unlike Liberalism, is not an
ideology and cannot be systematized along parallels
to Liberal ideas.

The highlight of the book, for me, is Burnham’s
elucidation of what ideological thinking
is. Having read this, Burnham’s readers will
never again insist that there should be an “American
ideology” because there is a Communist
one; nor will they think of calling Christianity
an “ideology.” Ideological thinking, as the term
has been used for over a hundred years, is
based, not on the perception of reality, but rather
on some preconceived position to which reality
is then adjusted. It is, therefore, factproof.

“A convinced believer in the anti-Semitic ideology
tells me that the Bolshevik revolution is a
Jewish plot. I point out to him that the revolution
was led to its first major victory by a non-
Jew, Lenin. He then explains that Lenin was the
pawn of Trotsky, Radek, Bukharin, Zinoviev, and
other Jews . . . I remind him that Lenin’s
successor as leader of the revolution, the nonJew
Stalin, killed off all those Jews . . . He then informs
me that the seeming Soviet anti-Semitism
is only a fraud invented by the Jewish press, and
that Stalin and Khrushchev are really Jews whose
names have been changed. . . There
is no possible argument, observation, or experiment
that could disprove a firm ideological belief.
. . .”

This is, of course, not an example of
Liberal ideological thinking, but Burnham shows
in quotation after quotation how the same imperviousness
to reality as it is characterizes Liberals.
Theirs is what Robert Musil has called a
“Second Reality,” a self-constructed dreamworld,
which one is determined to accept as if it really
existed. Between those immersed in a Second
Reality and those who can still see what is and
how it is, there can be no dialogue.

A superb chapter is that on the Liberal guilt.
On the assumption that education and change of
institutions can take care of all evil, Liberals feel
guilty at the thought of any condition of
wretchedness, anywhere. For this kind of guilt
there can, of course, be no forgiveness. The Liberal
seeks relief by trying to “do something
about any and every social problem,” a feverish
and interminable compulsive activity in which
not the correctness of the program but rather
“good intentions” are counted. The Liberal’s twisted
and irrational sense of guilt has a fatal political
effect: It disarms him morally before those
whom he regards as less well off than himself.
This vulnerability, and his peculiar sense of guilt,
so often breeds in the Liberal a generalized
hatred of Western civilization and his own country.
Here also is the origin of the Liberals’ determined
preference to seek the enemy only on the
Right. “Pas d‘ennemi a gauche!”

There are ideologues, as, e.g., the Communists
and the Nazis, who know how to handle power
with consummate skill. Not so the Liberals, says
Burnham. He is right, although he could have
added that once Liberals decide on force, they
tend to go to extremes, as in the case of unconditional
surrender. Liberals are “better out of power
than in power.” With Liberals in the government,
the area of the West has contracted, year
after year, position after position, not from any
lack of physical strength but from internal, i.e.,
spiritual and intellectual, causes. Liberalism, says
Burnham, motivates and justifies the contraction,
and reconciles us to it. Liberals tell us that “the
occupation of Cuba by Russian troops is not entirely
a bad thing” (Rovere) or that the enemy’s
aggressiveness will wane as he grows stronger.
In this sense Burnham calls Liberalism the “ideology
of Western suicide.”

All of Burnham’s books have been parts of an
endeavor to understand what is happening to our
civilization. At times there has been a trace of
Spenglerian “destiny” in his concepts. More and
more, however, he has been moving toward a
deepening humane understanding of experiences
and responsibilities. This book strikes me as his
greatest, in that respect. The Liberal syndrome is
examined with care and precision, never with hate
or arrogance.

The reader often is moved to feel
the excitement of self-discovery and the urge to
move on along the path Burnham opens. The book
is so stimulating that I had a desire to write
page after page in an effort further to deepen
the insight. I would have liked to comment on
the Positivism which governs our intelligentsia
in and out of the Academy, on the Comtean sense
of history which makes progress appear as a
continuing fight against religion and metaphysics,
on the ritual worship of mankind in lieu of a
deity, on the Liberal ethics of action apart from
any sense of constitution (either the constitution
of being, or the constitution of national political
existence, or the economic constitution), etc. The
discovery of intellectual rot in those who govern
us is no cheerful message. Hope, however, springs
from the realization that in things of the soul the
unflinching acknowledgment of the truth is the
first step towards health.

1 comment:

DrAndroSF said...


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