Revisiting Suicide of the West

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The philosopher and commentator James Burnham (1905-1987) was one of National Review’s founders and senior editors. Having broken with Trotskyism, he became one of those thinkers in the tradition of Edmund Burke and James Fitzjames Stephen, who, if not enthusiastic about modern democracy, were classic defenders of free institutions.

He attained fame for his 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution, an original analysis of the political, economic, and social changes then underway in the world. Capitalism, Burnham held, was coming to an end. It would not, however, be replaced by socialism but by the rule of a new class of “managers.” This was already clear in the totalitarian states of the 20th century and also, to a lesser extent, in the United States’ New Deal society. His ideas were highly influential—notably on George Orwell, who, though deeply critical of some of Burnham’s views, drew on them for his dystopian science fiction novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In 1964, Burnham produced a somewhat less famous and exceedingly grim work, Suicide of the West. It was in some ways more lasting and interesting than The Managerial Revolution, despite many changes in the last half century. While it is dedicated to “liberals of good will,” Burnham wrote it as a blistering attack on liberalism. In 2018, the neoconservative columnist Jonah Goldberg ripped off the title for his own book—which, oddly, makes only a brief and incorrect mention of Burnham’s ideas.

Burnham is currently experiencing a revival on the right. Though some elements of his work have proven ephemeral, Burnham’s criticisms of managerialism and liberalism are still more insightful than what most contemporary commentators put forth. Most importantly, the philosophical foundations of Burnham’s thought, which received their last major expression in Suicide of the West, offer the right a new ground on which to analyze the problems of politics and power.

Burnham begins Suicide of the West by pointing out that the part of the world occupied, or dominated, by Western civilization had contracted greatly since 1914. That contraction, Burnham argued, was an expression, or symptom, of the West’s decline and even of its eventual disappearance.

This phenomenon could not be explained by any physical weakness or external cause. The West had been and still was strong enough to prevent it; Western decline had to be caused by a loss of will within the West. Liberalism, the broadly defined social and political doctrine prevalent in the United States and in most other Western countries since the 1930s, was not the cause of Western decline. But it promoted that doctrine and prevented any counteraction, even elementary acts of self-preservation.

Liberalism particularly discouraged the West from dealing with what Burnham identified as the three great challenges to its life.

First, the jungle now spreading within our own society, in particular in our great cities; second, the explosive population growth and political activization within the world’s backward areas, principally the equatorial and sub-equatorial latitudes occupied by non-white masses; third, the drive of the communist enterprise for a monopoly of world power.

Burnham brilliantly, although not perfectly, developed tests for and summaries of the main ideas of the liberalism of his day—during which he was witnessing the shift from the New Deal-“Cold War” liberalism to something else, for which no satisfactory term has ever really been produced.   His 39 articles of liberalism—one-sentence summaries of liberal ideas—and a lengthier 19-part summary and critique of liberal ideology were, however, largely formulated to deal with the older liberalism still dominant when Burnham was writing, between 1959 and 1964. He followed this summary with a powerful dissection of the perils of ideological thinking in general. Chapter six of Suicide of the West, which is devoted to this topic, would alone make reading the whole book worthwhile.

Liberals blamed problems on the legacy of the past or on ignorance. Burnham noted that such notions were not new. They were typified by John Stuart Mill’s eloquent, if highly unconvincing, remark in On Liberty that “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary….” Burnham perhaps failed to pursue the points that custom, or tradition, might have produced something of value worth preserving and that some traditions actually promoted real progress—not least in Mill’s own England. Liberals were wildly overoptimistic about the improving effect of education and reform. That reforms can be so badly designed that they can make things worse—a point vividly demonstrated by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s so-called Great Society reforms not long after Burnham wrote—escaped liberals, and still does.

Burnham was well aware that liberalism was no unchanging thing; he accurately summarized its swerve from earlier distrust of government to statism. But he saw its confidence in reason and science, historical optimism, and an inability to accept that some problems were insoluble as permanent features. He credited liberalism reasonably enough with introducing some desirable, even badly needed improvements. But liberalism had become more and more unable to deal with, or even see, reality. Combined with liberals’ compulsion to do something about anything they saw as a “problem,” even if they did not understand it, this denial of reality was dangerous.

Burnham reasoned that this was another effect of liberals’ feelings of guilt—although it might also have been the product of intellectual arrogance. Liberal guilt, and perhaps other astigmatism, prevented liberals from even seeing the misbehavior of the poor and oppressed, much less coping with it. Another result of liberals’ guilt was “selective indignation” aimed at the right, or what was perceived as the right, and at traditional authorities rather than at the often-worse behavior of those on the left. He noted that liberalism was continuing to change (some of the changes seem to have bewildered even
Burnham) in an increasingly noxious, irrational way.

Feelings of guilt toward the poor and oppressed, Burnham noted, seemed more and more to motivate liberal behavior. However, this disposition made no sense even within the logic of liberals’ beliefs, which, being otherwise individualistic and atomistic, denied the validity of hereditary and collective responsibility. According to classical liberal doctrine, poverty and oppression were holdovers from the past, so no personal guilt could attach to anyone in the present. But a decisive triple shift was taking place by his time.

Burnham remarked that it had lately become “morally fashionable” to say that “The white people of the United States have exploited and oppressed the American Negroes for three hundred years and it is now the moral obligation of the whites to make up for all the suffering they have caused.” (A similar obligation was laid on Europeans for their overseas empires.) Burnham noted that such thinking not only contradicted the original premises of liberalism but also transformed the ideal of equality of treatment for members of different groups into a demand for inequality in favor of the underprivileged.

Further, liberal guilt was putrefying into something else—a “generalized hatred of Western civilization and of his own country as part of the West” that could be frequently “sensed” in magazines like The Nation and New Statesman. Nowadays, of course, that hatred does not have to be “sensed”—it pops off the page and hits the reader in the face.

Of course, Burnham was not always right in his predictions or analysis, and he could not have foreseen every change in liberalism that has come to pass in the last half century or so. Some of those changes render Burnham’s 39 articles of liberalism partially obsolete. No less than 10 of them now read strangely and would at least require modification to apply today. Liberals became notably more distrustful of science and reason in the last few decades, as detailed in Paul Gross’s and Norman Levitt’s The Higher Superstition (1994).

Perhaps only for tactical reasons, though, liberals have at least simulated a partial return to earlier attitudes in dealing with climate change and COVID. Once committed to freedom of speech and debate, liberals have become markedly more reluctant to protect these ideals, at least against the far left. Interestingly, in 1964, Burnham himself observed a growing tendency of liberals to crack down on designated “hate speech,” wryly noting that somehow hate from the extreme left seemed to offend liberals less than that from the right. In that case, the political needs felt by liberals in the late 1960s and 1970s, such as protecting leftist activism and offensive “speech” like pornography, dictated a swerve toward Millsian free-speech absolutism.

It is obvious, however, that Burnham proved correct about liberals and hate from the left in the long run. He also noted the tendency then to discourage descriptions of race and such on licenses and official documents as a classic piece of liberalism’s flight from reality. The later shift to unequal treatment in favor of the allegedly underprivileged simply overtook that earlier piece of liberal ideology.

Burnham also perceived that liberals’ “ideological crust” was getting thicker and harder to penetrate. He was pessimistic about this. He glumly suggested that ideologies of all sorts were hard to crack. “All conceivable evidence will be explained away in order to defend the chosen doctrine” and ideological thinking

cannot be refuted by logical analysis or empirical evidence. Actually the internal logical structure of a developed ideology is usually quite good anyway, rather like the logical structure of paranoiac obsessions, which ideologies resemble in other ways also…

Liberals, to be sure, held that attitudes and convictions should be based on truth and reason. But it was their ideology that determined what would be accepted as truth and reason. When ideologies collapsed or individuals dropped them, it was usually not due to the presentation of evidence or reasoned analysis. It was rather due to deep emotional changes, direct experiences the ideology could not assimilate, or because of fear or greed. The joke that a “conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged” is essentially an expression of Burnham’s view of ideology.

In another work, Burnham once referred to the “penetrating chip” of experience or disaster that could break through an ideology. To design a “penetrating chip” that might break through ideological armor and collapse liberal, not to mention far-left, thinking is probably the most important task of conservative thinkers.

Some of Burnham’s analysis of the dangers the West faced in 1964 might seem exaggerated today, but only at  first sight. It is probably not necessary to argue in 2022 that he was all too right in his fears of the “jungle” spreading through our own society. Burnham might even have been shocked by the extent and some of the forms it has taken. About the other two external dangers—Third World population growth and political activism, and the spread of communism—he may have been overly pessimistic.

Burnham was, with some qualifications, a bit too pessimistic about the future of the underdeveloped countries  and the Soviet half of the “communist enterprise.” He seems to have underestimated the superiority of capitalism over the Soviet system and those of its allies, like the “Arab socialism” associated with Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of the Republic of Egypt, and Indonesia’s “Guided Democracy” under President Sukarno. Although he noted, quite explicitly, the incompetence of the radical pseudo-neutralists in dealing with economic issues, he does not seem to have fully thought out the results of their stupidity. For example, the Kennedy administration, in characteristically futile attempts to win over America’s enemies, appeased them and propped them up with aid.

An important element in Burnham’s thinking was his belief in the overwhelmingly tragic future of underdeveloped countries. He was bitterly opposed to decolonization; “ousting colonial rule often means destroying the only significant elements of social responsibility.” As he saw things, the underdeveloped countries—or at least most of them—would never develop. Between the huge growth of population, technical limitations, and the inability of their peoples to make the necessary changes, these countries were doomed to get worse, not better.

Liberals could not face that “tragic fact” about the Third World, he wrote.

It is impossible for liberalism, or liberals, to face a truth that is perhaps too terrible for any secular ideology to confront: that with only minor exceptions, there is no chance whatever to cure the hunger, poverty and wretchedness … in the forseeable future: that these conditions will, on average, much more probably worsen than improve even in small measure.

If liberals will not recognize the futility of trying to fix the unfixable Third World, Burnham believed the consequences of their ideological thinking would lead to Westerners being dragged down into the same conditions.

Historical reality, however, proved more complicated than Burnham’s vision. He did not foresee the “green revolution” of agronomist Norman Borlaug, which drastically increased worldwide food production. Nor did he predict the adoption of rational economic policies and successful industrialization in some of the poorer parts of the world, such as China, Singapore, and Chile.

On the other hand, the attitude of a good part of the Muslim world has become more fanatically anti-Western, replacing indeed the Soviets as a danger. In physical terms, that danger should have been easier to manage than the challenge of the developed and well-armed USSR, but that does not seem to be the case. The feelings of guilt and other obsessions of the liberals and those further to the left have been no small obstacle to handling this danger, and the resulting insane immigration policies have endangered the people of the Western countries.

Recent events have amply demonstrated that liberals cannot be trusted to deal with these problems. True, the Soviet collapse was in large part triggered by economic failures. But those failures, or at least their extent, were not obvious when Burnham wrote—and the Soviets, as well as the Communists they backed, did score significant victories up to the 1980s.

Although the latter part of Khrushchev’s reign saw serious problems, especially in agriculture, Soviet growth rates during most of his rule were reasonably satisfactory. Burnham did not realize the extent to which the sclerotic Soviet bureaucracy, in a government headed by a series of sick old men, would prevent reforms that might not have saved the Soviet system permanently but could have extended its lifetime greatly. Nor did he expect that when a reformer—Gorbachev—gained power, he proved so incompetent that his poorly thought-out reforms would wreck rather than save the Soviet system. Nor could Burnham have known that what was left of the totalitarian order and the loyalties it commanded would prevent Gorbachev’s overthrow until it was too late to save Soviet Communism. Nor could he foresee that Gorbachev, whatever his other limitations, would not, as his predecessors probably would have, drag the world down in nuclear war as an alternative to accepting collapse.

Burnham did not foresee some Soviet weaknesses, and he perhaps underestimated the remaining strength of the West. But it should also be noted that in the final stage of the Cold War struggle, the West was very, very lucky.

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