It’s (past) time we examined James Burnham’s under-appreciated classic Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, a book written fifty years ago. Everybody should buy this book and follow along.
We’re still at the point of defining terms. Now it is well known that liberals consider themselves “rational”. One of the first acts of the Enlightened during the French Revolution (which might not have happened if the Americans hadn’t got away with theirs) was to create the Culte de la Raison. Catholic churches were converted into Temples of Reason. Fouché ordered crosses stripped from graveyards. Notre Dame herself was made to endure the installation of the non-goddess Liberty. The preposterous enthusiasm of the Rational eventually annoyed Robespierre who persuaded members, in that quiet way of his, to cease and desist.
But it was an axiom of the Enlightenment, guided as it was and is by reason and rationality, that mankind can be perfected. Human nature must therefore be infinitely supple and able to accept instruction in any subject. Humanity has “an unlimited or any rate indefinitely large potential for positive…development.” Each generation would and must progress. There’s more than a whiff of Lamarckianism about this.
The opposite of liberalism may be called realism. This isn’t Burnham’s term: he used conservative or reactionary: the former term is today damaged and the latter is negative, thought still apt. Whereas liberalism hopefully dictates to nature, nature soberly informs and restrains realism. Realism is “expressed in the theological doctrines of Original Sin and the real existence of the Devil, that human nature had a permanent, unchanging essence, and that man is partly corrupt as well as limited in his potential.” Modern liberals, Burnham says, are not as insistent about “perfectible” and now say mankind is “plastic.” We can be nudged, as some now say. “Liberalism rejects the essentially tragic view of man’s fate found in nearly all pre-Renaissance thought and literature”. Realists note the irony.
Half a century ago, still pre-Vatican II, Burnham classed “some” Catholics as liberal, but as “uneasy” ones. He was then able to say, “Nearly all liberals keep their ideological fingers crossed when they observe such a group as the Jesuits beginning to sound like liberals, as the American Jesuits have often done of that in the pages of their principal magazine, America.” The tricked worked: Jesuits are now solidly in the liberal camp; not to a man, but to the extent that one Catholic writer called the group “self-loathing.” America magazine now reads like any NGO pamphlet.
Liberals are scidolators: “rational science…both comprehend the world and solve its problems.” Scientism is a never-recognized fallacy. Policy is now said to be equivalent to science. Morality and ethics are quickly coming to the same point. Liberals believe all truths are not only scientific, but that all can be discovered scientifically. Such optimism! Some modern-day reactionaries, even, fall into this error.
Now, since human nature is plastic or perfectible, and we are by universal agreement still imperfect, “obstacles” must be stopping us from reaching Utopia. There are two: “ignorance—an accidental and remediable, not intrinsic and essential, state of man; and bad social institutions.” All liberals believe in the Whig theory of history. All liberals share the unrealistic optimism of Bertrand Russell. I’ve quoted these words spoken by John Maynard Keynes about Russell many times (himself a liberal), but they bear frequent repeating:
Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.
As the late lamented philosopher David Stove (who supplied the quotation) commented, “Just two effortless sentences, and yet how fatal they are to any belief in Russell’s political wisdom, or even sense! They are like a bayonet thrust through the heart and out the back.” Yet, pierced as he was, Russell did not drop. The wound was mortal; thus we can only conclude that liberalism is the philosophy of the undead.
Liberals, Burnham notes, speak of “problems”. Readers will know the modern list. Problems are things that can and should be solved. That solutions should be sought and implemented forthwith is unquestioned and unquestionable. This is why a liberal only has to mention a “problem” or to “raise awareness”. There are no liberal writers, then or now, “who flatly declare of a pending political, economic, or social problem that is not going to be solved, that it is just plain insoluble.”
That which is causing imperfection, since humans are perfectible and educable, must be institutional. “Thus liberalism is anti-traditional.” Burnham: “I rather think that the attitude toward tradition furnishes the most accurate single shibboleth for distinguishing liberals from conservatives”.
Which brings us back to Russell. In his Why Men Fight he said the task of education “should not be to uphold but to destroy ‘contentment with the status quo….It should be inspired, not by a regretful hankering after the extinct beauties of Green and the Renaissance, but by a shining vision of the society that is to be, of the triumphs that thought…will achieve in the time to come.” Similarly, Mill called Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”, i.e. custom, “despotism” and a “hindrance to human advancement.”
And the revolution marches ever on. Stick around. There’s much more to come.