[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
As I write this review, I keep hearing about Jeb Bush, campaigning for president, talking about how the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein was a “pretty good deal” and castigating the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for failing to maintain (much less expand) America’s involvement in Iraq and Syria. The ghosts of neoconservatism remain, I suppose–perhaps in part because their roots in a certain type of conservative thinking go so far back. This summer, I learned a little bit more about that.
Back in late May, a large group of local readers here in Wichita, KS–nearly all of whom very likely would identify themselves as “conservatives,” though of a great variety of hues; only a couple of us were generally outsides to that identification, looking in–gathered (under the aegis of the Eighth Day Institute; many thanks!) to read and discuss James Burnham’s last major writing, the rambling, revealing, often fascinating, sometimes frightening, and (I think, anyway) fundamentally mixed-up Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Published in 1964 (the same year that Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” came out, a coincidence which at least one of our members thought almost too good to be true), it is a frustrated and worried manifesto which insists on presenting itself as a clinical diagnosis of the liberal ideology, which Burnham believed not only dominated the Western world but would, unless reversed, result in its destruction. It is, in short, the sort of book which I suppose could only have been written in a world where the postwar liberal consensus seemed both utterly monolithic and utterly oblivious to the cultural and socio-economic and global consequences of its own beliefs (and who is to say that it really didn’t seem so to an East Coast Trostkyist-turned-conservative academic in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s?). Unless you’ve never read anything except, perhaps, Chronicles magazine (and only the back issues at that), then you probably can’t honestly see liberalism as such an intellectually elite and self-inclosed ideological position any longer–that accusation is made against it, of course, but anyone who has honestly considered the ideas of such liberal suspects as Lyndon Johnson, William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther King, and Betty Friedan (just to pick some names which Burnham never mentions, despite all of them regularly making news as this book was published) can’t believe that “liberalism” is a seamless, relentless unity. So reading the book was, among other things, an entrance for me into an old, mostly lost, and perhaps never really entirely real, slightly paranoid world.
A word about James Burnham. I’ve never made a study of the man’s writings, but reading this book made clear to me the truth of the commentary on the man–both complimentary and critical–which points out that the common theme throughout all his writings over the decades was the place of “power” in any given system of thought. The man was more than a “realist” as they are commonly labeled in discussions of foreign policy and international relations; for him, it seems as though power–the wielding of it, the psychological comfort or discomfort with it, the moral appraisal of it–is utterly inseparable from any kind of political understanding, or perhaps any conception of social life whatsoever. Liberalism is a great many things for Burnham, nearly all of them bad, but the common denominator among all these bad things is that liberalism is weak. It lacks firmness. It fails to do and say and believe the hard and practical and disciplined and necessary things for civilization’s survival. The fact that this kind of relentless focus on strength occasionally makes it difficult for Burnham to account for liberal successes, or makes a little disconcerting the way he deals with aspects of individuality which are not reducible to a Darwinian struggle, doesn’t slow him down. Towards the very end of the book he lays it out flat: the most important thing is “military bases, strategic posts, and soldiers”; beyond or without them, “there can be no civilization, there is nothing” (pg. 344). I can only assume that John Derbyshire, Victor Davis Hanson, and other traditionalist conservatives of a particularly martial stripe are fans.
This isn’t Porcher conservatism, that’s for sure. The Cold War was a bad time for ideologies (thought really, are there ever good times?), particularly one that includes within it strands of thought dealing such humble topics and virtues as local knowledge and affection, community attachment, and so forth. Burnham saw liberalism as a world-historical force, and attempting to understand it obliged him, on my reading, to constantly reach for the civilizational, the global. He–and surely he wasn’t alone–looked for some kind of systematized resistance to what he considered the essential weakness and irresponsibility of liberalism, and as a result turned (despite his protestation in the book that such was not his aim) varied particular elements of conservative thought into universal, logical necessities, the rejection of which can only be attributed to Western liberals “who hate their own civilization” (pg. 14). The result certainly included elements of traditional conservatism–Burnham unapologetically defends aristocracy and natural hierarchies, and is dismissive of broad academic freedoms and democracy, particularly when “uneducated or propertyless persons” are allowed to vote (pgs. 112, 137-140)–but while Burnham occasionally name-drops various Aristotelian or Hegelian or Christian philosophies that might ground and give contrasting meaning to those traditions, overall the feeling of the book is very programmatic, and intentionally so: there is the way things are, and then there are liberals, and figuring what why they believe the irrational things they do is a problem for him.
Who are these Western liberals? Burnham employs only a little sociology and less philosophy in constructing what he refers to as the “liberal syndrome,” instead choosing to carefully build a constellation of liberal positions by examining people and institutions that “plain common-sense” tells you are liberal: Elanor Roosevelt, Eugene McCarthy, John Kenneth Galbraith, The New Republic, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the League of Women Voters, etc., etc. (pgs. 19-20). From this array of liberals and liberal doings, Burnham artfully constructs his case. I won’t deny that his analysis often results in correct observations about liberalism generally: “liberalism rejects the essentially tragic view of man’s fate,” “most liberals…do not feel….that considerations of experience, habit, custom and traditions have any appreciable weight,” “liberalism is logically committed to the doctrine…of epistemological relativism, ” etc. (see pgs. 44, 57, 72). But because he does not really look seriously at liberalism as a philosophy with its own history (Locke appears only to have Burnham surprisingly express doubt in his liberal bona-fides, and the authors of the U.S. Constitution show up to be complimented for having apparently kept them mostly uninfluenced by liberal Europe’s Englightenment–pgs. 41-42, 148), all these observations become reductive. Even when he recognizes the individualistic ontology that all varieties of liberal thought share, he cannot take those varieties seriously, instead insisting that shared assumptions about human nature automatically bring all liberals to much the same point on practically every possible question. He makes, in other words, the whole range of liberal ideas (incorporating all sorts of perspectives probably better described as socialism or progressivism or populism or egalitarianism) into a support structure for the mainstream Democratic party’s postwar apotheosis. You can’t fault Burnham for not knowing his own thesis, that’s for certain.
Some chapters are better than others. When Burnham attempts to organize liberalism’s “order of values” he gets, I presume unknowingly, all mixed up on the matter of “positive liberty,” on the one hand denying that “improving the security and mobility” of persons can ever involve any benefit to “genuine individual freedom,” while at the same time admitting his belief that becoming “more complexly and intimately related” to (and thus constricted by) bodies larger than oneself actually is an increase in one’s individuality (pgs. 185, 198). Then again, his chapter on “The Guilt of the Liberal,” though including a rather cheap swipe at “the abusive writings of a disoriented Negro homosexual” (clearly James Baldwin), includes some first-rate psychological investigation, very aptly pointing out how liberalism’s “atomistic and quantitative” approach logically shouldn’t be capable of attributing obligations to successful or rich individuals on behalf of poorer or suffering ones, thus suggesting that, when it comes to matters of racial justice or economic equality, liberals–secular ones anyway–are motivated essentially by a contorted and parasitic feelings of guilt, and not much else, so much so that they find themselves “morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself” (pgs. 218-221, 224-227). It’s a strong enough piece of argument that I wonder if John Rawls, who famously attempted to create an entirely rational (and thus self-interested) scheme of liberal justice, ever read it and perhaps was influenced by it. So, while his effort overall is filled with missteps and a kind of defiantly unexamined obliviousness to the actual genealogy of belief of those liberals which so disturb him, there are plenty of sharp insights to be found throughout the book all the same.
Towards the end of the book, Burnham’s near apocalyptic Cold War focus become pretty relentless. There is hardly a single postwar retreat from Western colonialism which he doesn’t decry as a failure of liberal nerve in the face of communist expansion, and hardly a single example of the U.S. employing its power to shape political outcomes beyond its borders which he does not applaud. (The Spanish-American War in particular comes in for praise–pg. 293.) America’s unwillingness to initiate some roll-back of international communism during the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination especially troubles him, given that, in his view, “no better circumstances for some sort of move along the perspective could be imagined than those existing in November 1956” (pg. 306). (To Burnham, Eisenhower’s weakness was clearly the fault of liberalism and not at all the fact that the Soviet Union was by then a nuclear power, since “changes in military, technical and other material factors are never able of themselves to account, causally, for policy”–pg. 313.) Ultimately, Burnham is convinced: those who subscribe to liberal ideas will spell the defeat of Western civilization because of their weakness in the face of multiple challenges, either “the drive of the communist enterprise for a monopoly of world power,” or by “the explosive population growth and political activization within…equatorial and sub-equatorial latitudes occupied by non-white masses,” or simply by “the jungle now spreading within our own society, in particular in our cities” (pg. 325). He gestures at the possibility of avoiding these fates by the West separating itself from liberal ideas, but doesn’t seem to have much hope.
His arrival at this rather determined prognosis as a conclusion, after spending so much time attempting to develop an entirely clinical account of the liberal mindset in his book, gets me thinking: if those end points he comes to did not, in fact, occur, what does that mean? Complete aside from all the philosophically unsubstantiated and the many overly broad claims about liberalism in the book, can we say that, technically, he got liberals wrong? It would be interesting to consider the range of possible answers. Perhaps liberalism was overcome in time to bring about the Soviet Union (but then, would that mean liberalism made a comeback in America, and if so when)? Or perhaps liberalism got lucky and the USSR and international communism imploded, but Burnham’s other two predictions continue to unfold? It is an interesting exercise in the sort of perennially improvable ideological debates we are all familiar with, only from the other direction: maybe liberalism can never exhibit sufficient strength to defeat its challengers, and we know this because challenges to the liberal way of life are still there. Fifty years ago is was the USSR, and today it is ISIS; the endurance of such challenges is, perhaps, all a Burnhamite conservative needs.
In the end, I think the mature Burnham, while certainly no liberal (much less a socialist of any stripe), was a poor conservative. His analytical but also anecdotal approach to ideology was fixated on broad categories of state, civilization, and race, leading him into seeing connections that simply aren’t there, and by so doing moving his own often correct observations into a global framework that take conservative virtues and twist them–as the neoconservatives of the last 20 years have also done, flailing about to find some way to make sense of their diagnosis of liberalism after the Soviet Union’s collapsed, and fixating on the “War on Terror.” But conservatism, whatever it has to offer our pluralistic and secular world, loses its virtues (left-leaning ones included!) when it is turned into martial struggle against an ideological foe. Burham quotes Michael Oakeshott repeatedly on the epistemological dangers of “rationalism”; he and his descendants ought to be cognizant of how in attempting to undermine what they see as a comprehensive threat to the way things ought to be, they make the same thing out of themselves.