Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Return to Homepage About Chilton Williamson, Jr. Books Articles Links Contact Info

 Search Site

 

Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning
 and Destiny of Liberalism

By James Burnham
(1964)

James Burnham (1909-1987) ranks unquestionably as one of the most original and penetrating thinkers of the twentieth century, not alone in the context of modern conservative literature but in the history of Western thought in the twentieth century. Indeed, it was probably not until late in his career that Burnham regarded himself as a "conservative" at all--if indeed he ever did--for the reason that the term seems too warmly emotional to describe his dispassionate, nearly scientific attitude toward toward human affairs. The son of a wealthy New York City railroad executive, he became a Trotskyite and a member of the inner circle of Partisan Review before breaking with the Left and devoting the remainder of his life to resisting the Communist assault on the West. A man of vast erudition, Burnham was for many years Professor of Philosophy at New York University, and in 1955 became a founding editor of the young William F. Buckley, Jr.'s National Review, to which he contributed a regular column, "The Protracted Conflict," until 1977, almost the end of the Cold War. Had his career extended through another decade, Burnham might well have prevented NR's slide leftward into neoconservatism, where the magazine is presently moored.

As the dominant intellectual presence at National Review, Burnham was admired by staff and readership alike for his lucidity of mind and prose; though one could argue that, in abandoning the Marxist dialectic for conservative anti-Communism, he threw out the original content of his mind without changing its mold. In fact, the intellectual rigidity so characteristic of the man ("Who says A must say B..") may well have intensified in later life. In 1977, James Burnham suffered a crippling stroke that made reading and writing impossible for him thereafter. He died just two years before the collapse of his arch-enemy, the Soviet Union; yet it seems probable that, had he lived, the sudden demise of the system he had argued for thirty years was destined to rule the world would have caught him entirely by surprise.

Suicide of the West, first published in 1964, has affinities with Kenneth L. Minogue's The Liberal Mind, released a year earlier in England. While the two books make overlapping statements regarding the nature of liberalism as an ideology, as between the two, Burnham's is the more accessible to the general public, though written by a man with academic philosophical credentials to match Minogue's own. More importantly, Burnham, after delineating the logic of liberalism and analyzing the liberal mentality, goes on to suggest the implications pervasive liberalism has for the future of the United States, and for geopolitical arrangements in the coming decades.

Burnham tells us in his Preface that this is a "third generation" book, revised and expanded over a period of four years from two sets of university lectures. Following his classic The Managerial Revolution by nearly a quarter of a century, Suicide of the West reveals a more relaxed and humorous writer than the man who put his name to the earlier work. By 1964, James Burnham had worked as a journalist for nine years in the offices of National Review. Time and journalistic practice honed his polemical skills, while modifying somewhat the professorial pretence to scientific dispassion and disengagement. Suicide of the West is an eminently readable, mordantly witty, and genuinely unpleasant book, though it closes on a slightly more optimistic note than The Managerial Revolution does. "There are a few small signs, here and there," Burnham writes in his concluding lines, "that liberalism may already have started fading. Perhaps this book is one of them." (It wasn't.)

Burnham's thesis is straightforward. ".Liberalism," he writes, "is the ideology of western suicide. When once this initial and final sentence is understood, everything about liberalism-the beliefs, emotions and values associated with it, the nature of its enchantment, its practical record, its future-falls into place. Implicitly, all of this book is merely an amplification of this sentence." That is not to say, Burnham adds, that liberalism is "'the cause'" of the contraction and probable death of Western civilization. ("The cause or causes have something to do, I think, with the decay of religion and with an excess of material luxury; and, I suppose, with getting tired, and worn out, as all things temporal do.") Rather, "liberalism has come to be the typical verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; .liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles us to it." Liberalism's hold, furthermore, on public opinion and policy makes it extremely difficult for the Western nations to invent-and even to imagine-a strategy equal to the challenge to its existence by which the West is presently confronted.

Burnham categorizes liberalism, though a looser concept than Marxism and socialism, as ideological in nature--unlike its still more loosely conceived opponent, conservatism. Ideology, by his definition, is "a more or less systematic and selfcontained set of ideas supposedly dealing with the nature of reality (usually social reality), or some segment of reality, and of man's relation (attitude, conduct) toward it; and calling for a commitment [i.e agendum] independent of specific experience or events." Liberalism, heir to the "main line.of post-Reaniassance thought" and dominated in its formative phase by Francis Bacon and René Descartes, is rationalistic by nature. Considering human nature to be plastic, rather than pure or corrupt, it finds no reason to believe humanity incapable of achieving the peace, freedom, justice, and well-being embodied in the liberal dream of the "good society," and rejects therefore the tragic view of man held by non-Christian, as well as Christian, thinkers before the Renaissance. It is also anti-traditional, believing that ideas, customs, and institutions held over from the past are suspect, rather than worthy of respect. Suspicion of hoary error and injustice makes liberalism progressive; a characteristic which, as John Stuart Mill observed, "is antagonistic to the law of Custom, involving at least emancipation from that yoke.."

"Professor Sidney Hook," Burnham remarks with goodhumored malice, "has squeezed the entire definition of liberalism into a single unintentionally ironic phrase: 'Faith in intelligence.'" The dig, despite its humorous intent, explains why liberalism's commitment to rationality has never precluded an exuberant irrationalism of its own: To the extent that modern liberalism has replaced reason with faith as its foundation, its faith in reason is unreasonable. Assured that all human wrongheadedness and intransigence can be cured by education, and that the social expressions of these undesirable qualities signify "problems" to be solved by political action, liberals envision politics as "simply education generalized" and the end of politics as social perfection (entailing, as Michael Oakeshott noted, social uniformity). Yet the human record demonstrates that human beings, individually and collectively, are not perfectible: also, that every attempt to prove experience wrong has had highly unpleasant effects. For liberals, the fact of human imperfectibility would be tragic--if liberal ideology were inclined to understand history as tragedy, which it isn't. The excessive rationalism of liberalism, moreover, commits it paradoxically to a relativistic theory of truth which holds that no objective truth exists-and that, if it does, we could never prove that objective truth was, in fact, what we had hold of. This reasoning amounts to a form of anti-intellectualism that is wholly unexpected from the premier intellectual tradition of modern intellectualism. It amounts also to what Burnham perceives as "an inescapable practical dilemma" for liberalism. "Either [it] must extend the [liberal] freedoms [of speech, conscience, association, etc.] to those who are not themselves liberals and even to those whose deliberate purpose is to destroy the liberal society.or liberalism must deny its own principles, restrict the freedoms, and practice discrimination." This dilemma, Burnham notes, is particularly sharp in our own day, when liberal societies have been infiltrated by agents of aggressive totalitarianism. "Surely there would seem to be something fundamentally wrong with a doctrine that can survive in application only by violating its own principles." It is why, he suggests, so many liberals tend to shrink from any explicit statement of the fundamental principles of liberalism.

Liberalism, though surely a rational system, is not by virtue of its rationality a reasonable one. Liberalism amounts to a fasces of propositions (Burnham lists nineteen) not all of which all liberals assent to. So logical is the structure of liberal ideology, however, that if certain of these liberal beliefs can be shown to be false or problematical, logical argument based upon the chain of logical propositions simply dissolves. And so, "The liberals, whether they like it or not, are stuck with liberalism." As with Frank Sinatra, for them it's "All, Or Nothing at All"-a desperate situation in politics, as well as love.

The ideology of reason, Burnham shows, in reality lives by faith; the ideology of rationality harbors deeply irrational tendencies. Guilt, Burnham argues, is integral to liberalism, in which it is a motivating force. But while the liberal's conviction of his own guilt in the face of oppression and misery may or may not bespeak some moral obligation on his part, neither the guilt nor the obligation can be derived from liberalism's own principles, since liberal theory is atomistic and rejects the organic view of society on which the notion of collective guilt depends. Therefore, liberal guilt is not only irrational, it is irrational "precisely from the point of view of the liberal ideology itself." The genius of liberalism in relieving the burden of personal guilt--though without ever absolving anyone from it, and forebearing to exact penance-- is, Burnham concedes, a "significant achievement, by which [liberalism] confirms its claim to being a major ideology." Nevertheless, in the context of his argument and of the condition of the Western world today, the problem of liberal guilt comes down to this: "that the liberal, and the group, nation, or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself."

The element of guilt, added to liberalism's egalitarianism, universalism, and internationalism, is the activating ingredient that makes the liberal compound such a deadly one for the Western world. Guilt, when it becomes obsessive for the liberal, flowers as a generalized hatred for his own country and the wider civilization of which it is a part; it is hatred that causes him to sympathize with their enemies, toward whom he is already inclined by the fact of liberalism's intellectual kinship with socialism and communism. The relationship (which is instinctively felt by liberals, though never acknowleged by them) explains why, for the liberal, the implicit rule of thumb is "Pas d'ennemi ŕ gauche"-which translates as "No enemy to the left" and means, "The preferred enemy is always to

the right."

This inclination, Burnham insists, "is in a pragmatic sense a legitimate and inevitable expression of liberalism as a social tendency. It is not merely arbitrary prejudice or quirk of temperament." A partial explanation has to do with liberalism's anti-statism in the nineteenth century, before it was the state; and the discomfort-even disbelief-experienced by an historically anti-establishment movement in having become the establishment, after seizing the apparatus of government and accepting the role of despised authoritarian from the Right. (Something else to feel guilty about, perhaps). Be that as it may, it remains a fact of history that liberalism, both as an active movement and an ideological doctrine, has nearly always opposed the existing order. In result, Burnham says, "Liberalism has always stressed change, reform, the break with encrusted habit whether in the form of old ideas, old customs or old institutions. Thus liberalism has been and continues to be primarily negative in its impact on society: and in point of fact it is through its negative and destructive achievements that liberalism makes its best claim to historical justification."

Universalism, relativism, materialism, moral perfectionism, guilt, self-criticism amounting to self-hatred, ideological reflex self-disguised as scientific thinking, anti-establishmentarianism, perpetual social and spiritual restlessness, endless reform and the ceaseless sturm und drang accompanying it-plainly, liberalism is not the governing philosophy appropriate to a beleaguered civilization engaged in the greatest struggle for existence in its history. What is wanted, rather, is confidence arising from a proud sense of self-appreciation and self-worth, and a value system transcending affluence and comfort, such as men are willing to die for. "Quite specifically, [what the West needs is] the pre-liberal conviction that Western civilization, thus Western man, is both different from and superior in quality to other civilizations and noncivilizations..[Also it requires] a renewed willingness, legitimized by that conviction, to use superior power and the threat of power to defend the West against all challenges and challengers."

Such conviction and willingness are things liberalism by its nature is incapable of providing, even in the face of what Burnham identifies as the three crucial challenges to civilization: the "jungle" overtaking society; explosive world population and political activization in the Third World; and the Communist drive toward world domination. Against these dangers, Burnham sees, liberalism in its Gaderene stampede from reality is worse than ineffectual: It is, quite literally, suicidal. For him, the mixture of utopian social policies at home and a foreign policy whose survivalist instincts were often confused and sometimes negated by moralistic and ideological tendencies amply demonstrates that fact.

Suicide of the West bears directly on a contemporary internecine debate sparked by the left wing of the anti-liberal alliance, members of which have recently claimed this distinguished social critic, political commentator, and geopolitical strategist as "the first neoconservative." The case for Burnham as a "neocon" appears limited to his frequent advocacy of global interventionism-armed, if necessary-by the United States to protect and forward American and Western security. This tendency (so the argument goes) places him squarely in the camp of the global democrats, multinational capitalists, and "American Greatness conservatives" of the present day, all of whom are eager for Washington to impose American values and institutions upon a reluctant world. A closer look from a less parti pris standpoint suggests otherwise.

Burnham, to begin with, was concerned with the survival of the United States and the West, and not with the welfare of the world. He wished Third World and other backward countries to be controlled by the West in the West's best interests, not reformed by it, and doubted that most--if any--of these so-called developing nations were capable of being trained up to civilization at the Western level. While James Burnham called for the preservation-not the exportation--of Western civilization, there is no evidence that he considered consumer capitalism and mass culture, American style, to be among its glories. Unlike the neoconservatives, Burnham did not read the Founding Fathers as sharers in the European Enlightenment's optimistic (that is, liberal) view of human nature. Rather, he seems to have taken them at their word on the subject, as when John Adams wrote that "human passions are insatiable;" that "self-interest, private avidity, ambition and avarice will exist in every state of society and under every form of government;" and that "reason, justice and equity never had weight enough on the face of the earth to govern the councils of men." For himself, James Burnham, espousing the tragic view of history, had no use whatever for neconservative triumphalism. So far from believing the United States would prevail over all, he appears to have expected it, and with it the West, to become something other than the West-that is, to perish. Burnham in maturity was a realist rather than an optimist, a thinker rather than a careerist. He never told you what he thought you wanted to hear, or what it would make him rich and powerful to say. He gave you the truth as he saw it, and went on to write another book.

 

A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh >>

<< Return to the previous page

Return to the top

 

Home  About Chilton Williamson, Jr.  |  Books  |  Articles  |  Links  |  Contact Info

© 2011 Chilton Williamson, Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Agent:
Tony Outhwaite
JCA / Midpoint
Phone: 212-727-0190
E-mail: tony@jcalit.com

Web Design by AdServices.net