Fifty years ago James Burnham warned Westerners: Trying to come to terms with communism instead of resolutely fighting it amounts to committing suicide. Whether the communist ideology is dead or still alive under a new guise remains, in spite of current opinion, an open question, but in any case only the blind or the deceitful can ignore the new threat. The West seems to have survived a communist onslaught, only to face the arguably more formidable tsunami of mass immigration, geared not to paint the West red, but to drown it. Burnham’s inquiry into the West’s weaknesses is more than ever a vital one.
Burnham’s diagnosis was that the West was suffering from “what the Americans call liberalism defined as the ideology of Western suicide . . . the verbal systematization that motivates and justifies the disappearance of Western civilization and reconciles us to it.”
Even though it is impossible for me not to agree with an accusation whose basic truth only a liberal can deny, I feel uneasy reading Burnham’s repeated warnings, beginning and ending the book: “I do not mean that liberalism is or will have been responsible for the contraction and possible disappearance of Western civilization, that liberalism is its cause.” “Liberalism did not initiate the decline and cannot be blamed for it.” And again: “[T]his book is in no way concerned to refute liberalism.” I am left with the impression that Burnham is beating around the bush without being able to flush out the hare: His reflections are certainly worthy of attention but even more of revisiting.
To define liberalism, Burnham delineates 19 different assertions. I think they can all be summed up under two headings.
First of all, he considers liberalism as an ideology—i.e., a vision of the world that has essentially nothing to do with reality (and is therefore impervious to all rational or factual critique). The gist of this vision is to see men as creatures whose only defect is not sin but a propensity to irrationality. This defect may be corrected, on the one hand, by getting entirely rid of a past considered to be repugnant to rationality, and, on the other hand, by an education all men, as supposedly rational creatures, are equally equipped to receive, and which is mainly an education to dialogue, intellectual exchanges, and universal tolerance. Liberalism eventually embodies progress, the hope for the coming of a world without wars because it is without inner boundaries, in which all men would be equal citizens, engaged in continuous chit-chatting.
Second, Burnham notes that modern liberalism has more or less given up on the ideal of individual liberty and collective freedom in favor of welfare statism: “[M]odern liberals agree that governments have a positive duty to make sure their citizens have jobs, food, clothing, housing, education, medical care, security against sickness, unemployment and old age.” In other words, modern liberalism has donned the garb of its supposed enemy, socialism.
Hence his two main objections. First, liberalism tends to turn revolution into a system, to have no regard for the experience and wisdom embodied in a past despised out of sheer ideological fanaticism (a worthy tribute to Burke). And second, since liberalism has shifted toward welfarism, it is poorly equipped to fight socialism pure and simple, or communism.
All that is quite true, and the indictment justified. But it actually raises more questions than it seems at first, and leaves them unanswered. What does the idea of the West educating mankind to rationality have to do with committing suicide? The Enlightenment was a Western idea, and it actually ensured the cultural supremacy of the West. The surrender of liberalism to social welfarism makes more sense, but then why did the cult of individual freedom evolve into the cult of the state? And on the whole, even granted that liberalism induces suicide, why is liberalism the dominant ideology of the West? Or conversely, if liberalism “cannot be blamed for the decline of the West,” then what does this decline stem from, and where does liberalism fit in with this mysterious suicidal streak?
“I do not know,” answers Burnham, “what the cause is of the West’s extraordinarily rapid decline . . . the deepening loss among the leaders of the West of confidence in themselves . . . and the correlated weakening of the Western world to survive.” So much so that his reflections take all of a sudden a slightly different tack: Liberalism becomes understandable because it fulfills a function in the decay of the West. But then again Burnham appears to hesitate between two hypotheses.
The first one, obviously central to his vision, is that “Western society bears a heavy burden of guilt[;] guilt is integral to liberalism.” But why? If liberalism is a way to assuage a feeling of guilt, this guilt has no explanation. (The Westerner does not believe anymore in Original Sin, declares Burnham, but “his guilt nevertheless exists.”) And if liberalism creates guilt, this guilt is irrational. (Liberalism wants to fight poverty and oppression.) Would it be that liberalism cannot resist violence without resorting to violence, which contradicts its own principles? But then why keep the faith in an idea whose constant result is to give oneself a good reason for self-hate?
Burnham’s second answer is hardly more satisfying: “The principle function of modern liberalism, the explanation in fact of its present widespread influence in the West . . . is to permit Western civilization to be reconciled to its own dissolution.” Liberalism acts like a soothing drug. But then again, liberalism remains a mystery as long as what makes it useful—the undoing of the West and its cause—has not been assessed.
Let me conclude briefly. Burnham’s book is a landmark, but actually an extremely blurry one. He is convinced liberalism has a guilty role in the decay of Western civilization, and he’s right, but he doesn’t appear to know exactly why.
The source of his shortcomings is, I believe, his perception of the nature of liberalism. He ends up drawing a kind of patchwork instead of inquiring into the core of the matter—the spirit that infuses all the manifestations of liberal ideology.
Modern liberalism cannot be properly understood unless one is reminded of the complete upheaval undergone by the classical conception of freedom with the birth of modernity. To put it in the briefest terms, to be free in the classical world was to be able to live according to one’s nature, which, such nature being itself part of the whole of nature, was to live according to the order of the universe. But then, by a complete reversal of the classical notion, it became self-evident that one could not be free if it meant being enslaved to anything, including one’s own nature. Liberalism was born as a philosophy that turned every individual into his own god, the creator of his own nature, as well as the maker of his own world. What masked at first the crude hubris of such an assertion was that most people were still reasonable enough to realize that such freedom was doomed to bear fateful fruits if not used reasonably. (Locke still wanted human freedom to stoop to a law of nature.) But the reversal is no mystery: Human freedom involves the temptation to see itself as absolute. How could this temptation not eventually overwhelm the restraints imposed by a reason whose laws were no longer intangible rules? It did not take long for democrats to define a citizen as a sovereign, a man whose natural freedom is absolute. The liberals’ implicit motto became Me, I am free to do as I please.
Now, such is the root of the 19 different characteristics of the liberal’s attitude as listed by Burnham. Let’s follow his enumeration. Liberalism “believes man’s nature to be not fixed, but changing”? Of course, since absolute freedom constitutes an implicit denial that there is such a thing as a nature of man. “The liberal ideology is rationalist”? Of course, since thinking that one is free transforms man’s reason—which used to be an ability to discern the truth—into mere rationality, an ability to calculate the most efficient ways to achieve one’s really determined ends: A “good citizen” is no longer a “good man” but a rational one. Liberalism sees only “external obstacles” on the road to the “good society”? Of course, since a creature who wishes to be totally free cannot be an obstacle to his own freedom. Liberalism is “optimistic”? Is there any man who is not tempted by the prospect of total freedom? Liberalism is bent on change and revolution? Of course, because the past was geared to civilizing the intrinsic barbarity of man’s unfettered freedom. Liberalism craves democracy? But what is democracy if not a regime in which all individuals are supposed to be sovereign? >Liberalism is “permissive,” especially “towards deviants”? But is not everyone entitled to act as he pleases? Liberalism idolizes freedom of opinion, universal dialogue, tolerance, to the point of denying that a man can be sure of knowing the truth? But hasn’t truth always been a pretext for oppression? A liberal hates nations, national sovereignty, and is a born internationalist and cosmopolitan? But why should the country I stay in be anything but a spot where it happens to please me to live? Liberalism hates aristocracy, in particular, and all discrimination, in general, especially racial? But isn’t an entirely free being entitled to absolute equality with another free being? Liberalism is secular? But what other place is there to use my freedom but in this world? Liberalism hates the military? Of course, because force and freedom make strange bedfellows. And finally, liberalism has shifted its focus from freedom to statism? Statism does not mean my enslavement to the state but embodies the hope that the whole society will be put to my use—i.e., will make me free.
Now, what does unfettered freedom have to do with the notion that the West is committing suicide?
Everything. For if that is indeed the freedom the average Westerner is after today, it means the average Westerner is essentially, instinctively averse to any discipline, impervious to any feeling of duty, disinclined to any sense of belonging. It means the average individual is part of no world but his own, and has perfected the art (hailed by Montaigne, that archetypical modern) of “belonging only to oneself,” of “unashamedly enjoying oneself,” of being a self-contained entity, of loving oneself. Such a man has no past, no future, no family, no country, no religion, no vocation, no desire to be useful to anything but himself. Why should he perpetuate traditions that are not of his own making? Why should he who recoils at the very notion of being civilized (because it means bending to others) care about the survival of civilization? Why should he defend a city with his life when he can go on living in another one? No wonder our societies are consumer societies: For such a “free” man, our societies are no home but mere markets he goes to only when he needs or wishes to. Does anyone want to die for his Walmart?
To be frank, the West does not even need foreign enemies to help it collapse. Just think of Rousseau’s definition of a perfect society as one in which a man remains as free as he was before he entered it. Under these terms, how can the West have worse enemies than its own citizens? How could modern Western freedom not be the modern West’s greatest enemy and the ultimate cause of the West’s demise? The new freedom the West craves is one that breeds impatience with any kind of order, a natural propensity to identify the rule of law and arbitrary ruling; it precipitates our societies’ inner disintegration and their slouching toward immorality, vulgarity, mediocrity, and violence. How could Western societies not turn into jungles? Meanwhile, how could Westerners not enjoy being relieved of the burden of defending their nations, as if each individual could not be an end unto himself? Why should they feel invaded, when they dream of roaming the world? Why should they resent the presence of foreigners when they cannot perceive them as any more foreign than their own neighbors? For whoever conceives of himself as a perpetual migrant, there exists no immigration.
Given this passion for absolute freedom, there is no need to explain the suicide of the West by some intricate and rather inexplicable mechanism, such as a feeling of guilt, or the need for some soothing drug to forget about one’s decay. How could a man convinced of his right to absolute freedom feel unhappy about himself, since to be totally free amounts to being in love with oneself? Why should he feel guilty about anything?
So why does the West so often seem to behave as if it owed something to the rest of the world, and particularly the Third one? I see three possible answers.
The first is obviously that the average Westerner today appears committed to defend the rights of man, and particularly the right of every man to a comfortable living. But are the rights of man acclaimed by self-loving and freedom-thirsty individuals because they consider it natural to respect the rights of others, or because they see the rights of man as the only clever way for the individual to ensure that his own rights are respected by others? Is not promoting the right of every man the most efficient way to promote my own?
Then there is a second possible answer: The average Westerner is excessively prone to sentimentality and, more precisely, to pity. Why? At the risk of some cynicism I shall venture that pity is that feeling, tinged with superiority, that Peter experiences for Paul only when Peter can imagine himself in Paul’s place, when Peter feels he might be the target of the bullet that wounded Paul. (Westerners do not display much embarrassment when it comes to buying the products of the Third World’s slave labor.) The West is compassionate to the point of stupidity, for sure, but out of some momentary identification with some haphazard others and not out of any charity whatsoever. Absolute individualism is the real plague of the West.
I might add that making the bourgeois feel guilty is the gist of Marxism and the mother lode of the media—the favorite trick of the West’s enemies. To some extent it works, but is the average well-off do-gooder moved by guilt, or merely willing to pay for his own tranquility or wishing to hide his exclusive self-centeredness?
Burnham’s ultimate weakness is that he could not see freedom but as a strength. In his time it embodied the West’s superiority over communism: “[I]t is only what remains in modern liberalism of the older individualistic doctrine that sharply differentiates liberalism from communism.” But there lies the rub. To defend individualism makes it difficult to understand that the West’s survival depends on the defense of a civilization in which individual freedom is supposed to surrender to superhuman laws, to be ordered to intangible laws—in which the laws of God are supposed to outrank the laws of man.
Something is indeed going to happen when the shelves of the liberal West have been depleted by the limitless appetites of innumerable looters. But at that point, will the West recover its former wisdom and dignity, or will the West die without even realizing its own sin?