Suicide of the West (James Burnham)

“Suicide of the West,” subtitled “An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism,” is a classic work of political science, now fifty years old. It is much referred to by conservatives but little read by conservatives. It is NOT about how liberalism is the cause of the suicide of the West. In fact, liberals will find little to object to in this book. Nor is it an attempt, in any way, to refute liberalism as Burnham defines it (although in part this is because Burnham obviously believes it to be self-refuting). Nor is it a polemic. Rather, it is Burnham’s analysis of what liberalism is, and why it dominates thinking in the West as the West dies.

Burnham believed that the West was in likely-terminal decline. By “suicide,” he meant the West was “contracting,” using the explicit metaphor of diminishing colored areas on an old-fashioned atlas. He believed the contraction was not due to lack of power, but primarily due to lack of “the will to survive”—therefore, civilizational suicide, not murder. Burnham explicitly rejected that liberalism is responsible for this decline. Instead, it is that “liberalism has come to be the typical verbal systematization of the process of Western contraction and withdrawal; that liberalism motivates and justifies the contraction, and reconciles to it.”

Implicit in this, of course, is that such a contraction is bad. Most liberals would say it’s not bad, that the West deserves to contract and for the most part its expansion was a force for evil, as silly and ahistorical as that is. It is difficult to get someone in public life to say today that it is bad the West has contracted (witness how Marc Andreesen was recently forced to apologize for a tweet, “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” which is inarguably true). Burnham would just say attempts to be positive about Western decline prove his point.

Arnold Toynbee, in his once-world famous, but now largely forgotten, multi-volume “A Study Of History,” charting the rise and fall of twenty-six different world civilizations, refused to discuss where in his cycle of history the modern West stood. I think this was a significant lack in Toynbee’s work. One way of looking at “Suicide of the West” is as a gap filler for Toynbee’s books. It is not that Burnham analyzes the reasons for the decline of the West, which he explicitly does not. But he effectively locates the West on Toynbee’s continuum. In Toynbee’s terms, our dominant classes, as they have become uniformly liberal, have shifted from being a creative minority to being a dominant minority, vulgarized and disinterested in the obligations of citizenship, with an accompanying collapse in self-confidence. This leads to an inevitable decline and ultimate replacement by a new civilization born from the old.

In any case, as an analytical essay, “Suicide of the West” is interesting. Like most fifty-year-old books, it is apparent where it was wrong and where it was right. In its general analysis of liberalism it’s still very accurate. In other things, particularly as it relates to the ultimate threat of Communism, it turned out wrong. (George Orwell rightly criticized Burnham for always “predicting a continuation of the thing that is happening”—a form of analytical tunnel vision.) But to me, the book is most interesting for two reasons. First, because liberalism has become even more dominant and less tolerant than it was in Burnham’s day, as shown by Burnham’s own analysis. Second, because of the challenge that Burnham’s analysis poses to conservatives, who in the past fifty years have, whether they admit or not, adopted much of the liberal program that they had not adopted in Burnham’s day, and if that is true, may not have a coherent reason for further resistance.

Naturally enough, Burnham begins by defining liberalism, at length. He begins by listing examples of people and institutions of the time (1964) that were universally recognized as liberal—what he calls examining “laboratory specimens” as the first step in research. (This leads to a few statements that are a combination of funny and sad, like “The New York Times may not have quite the undiluted liberal blood line of the Washington Post, and it admits a few ideological deviants to its writing staff”—days of long ago, indeed.) He also notes non-liberal institutions (newspapers, magazines), all of which today are now dead or just as uniformly liberal. Burnham concludes that although the population itself is not majority liberal, “what is certain is that a majority, and a substantial majority, of those who control or influence public opinion is liberal”—in all areas, ranging from teachers; editors and writers; radio and TV producers, directors, and writers; most clergy; all great charitable foundations; and so on. (Burnham also points out that the same, roughly, holds outside America, and gives examples, but generally confines his analysis to America for brevity.) From a historical perspective, this section is interesting, because indeed what we have seen in the fifty years since is “a continuation of the thing that is happening.”

These examples, of course, reveal by themselves nothing about liberalism itself. Burnham notes that liberals may disagree among themselves—but not about core matters. “Liberals differ, or may differ, among themselves on application, timing, method and other details, but these differences revolve within a common framework of more basic ideas, beliefs, principles, goals, feelings and values.” Of course, liberals mostly aren’t even aware of this framework; they assume it is “self-evident and unquestionable,” “a matter of what seems open to rational discussion.” To smoke out what this framework is, Burnham provides thirty-nine statements, on a wide range of issues, noting that all liberals agree with the vast majority (and conservatives reject the vast majority).

The sentences include some obviously prototypically liberal: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.” “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.” “We have a duty to mankind; that is, to men in general.” “Wealthy nations, like the United States, have a duty to aid the less privileged portions of mankind.” But, if one is being honest, the majority of them are ones that today’s conservatives would be forced to agree with in public. “Political, economic or social discrimination based on religious belief is wrong.” “Colonialism and imperialism are wrong.” “Communists have the right to express their opinions.” “All nations and peoples, including the nations and peoples of Asia and Africa, have a right to political independence when a majority of the population wants it.” “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions.” They also include a few today’s liberals would reject outright, though that says little about Burnham’s overall analysis, such as “In determining who is to be admitted to schools and universities, quota systems based on color, religion, family or similar factors are wrong.”

And a few are ones that conservatives of fifty years ago might have disagreed with, but no conservative would be likely to publicly disagree with now. “Hotels, motels, stores and restaurants in southern United States ought to be obliged by law to allow Negroes to use all of their facilities on the same basis as whites.” “All forms of racial segregation and discrimination are wrong.” Sure, there was a range of conservative opinion on these issues in Burnham’s time, and a range of conservative rationales for opposing these statements, from pure racism to rights of property and association. But that conservatives have changed their tune on this indirectly poses a challenge to conservatives on an issue much in evidence today—namely, the acceptability of, and the acceptability of state and private disapproval of, homosexual acts. Not that the book mentions anything about homosexuals. But it does mention a lot about race. And it’s the comparison of Burnham’s 1964 conservative opinions about race, as well as conservative opinions of the time that Burnham does not discuss, like interracial marriage, to today’s conservative stands about homosexuality that poses the challenge for conservatives. If conservatives were, on the whole, wrong about that issue, what makes them think that they’re not wrong about this? (I am perfectly well aware that there are good and coherent responses to this—but this is still a hard argument for today’s conservatives to overcome.)

In any case, Burnham’s conclusion from the coherence of liberal thought on these thirty-nine statements is that “liberalism is a Weltanschauung, a world-view and life-view; the dominant Weltanschauung of the United States and much of the West.” He calls this belief system the “liberal syndrome”—not necessarily a totally rigid set of rules, but “a set of symptoms or elements that are observed to occur together.”

Burnham then steps behind these conclusions held in common to inquire what lies beneath philosophically. He concludes that liberalism is the main line of most post-Renaissance thought, although it consists of “tendencies, rather than anything absolute.” Its starting point is the nature of man: “liberalism believes man’s nature to be not fixed but changing, with an unlimited or at any rate indefinitely large potential for positive (good, favorable, progressive) development.” This is contradiction to traditional, conservative views of the imperfection and imperfectability of man. (These two opposite viewpoints are commonly noted, for example by both Edmund Burke in his arguments with Thomas Paine, and more recently by Thomas Sowell, at length, in his excellent “A Conflict of Visions.”) Second, liberalism believes in the supremacy of unaided reason, simultaneously creating skepticism of what is and optimism toward what may be. Third, because “there is nothing in essential human nature to block achievement of the good society, the obstacles therefore must be, and are, extrinsic or external”—namely, ignorance and bad social institutions. This means, again, that liberals are optimistic—or more, that they are certain that the “good society” is achievable, and achievable by us, now. Fourth, because ignorance and bad social institutions are the legacy of the past, anything traditional or long-established is automatically under suspicion, and “we should be ready to undertake prompt, and even drastic and extensive, innovations, if these recommend themselves from a rational and utilitarian standpoint.” Liberals reject the metaphor of Chesterton’s Fence. One example Burnham gives is various facially inefficient legislative devices, such as seniority appointments to chairs of committees, which liberals reject but which are found in all legislative bodies.

Given these premises that ground liberalism, what liberal programs that “explain the means and the rules by which the progress that is possible will be brought about in practice”? First, universal education to overcome ignorance—but only education in rational inquiry, rejecting all “superstition” and tradition qua tradition, as well as attempts to inculcate virtue or values, other than the core values of liberalism. Total freedom of expression is key to this, resulting in the rational pursuit of truth—but not objective truth, only truth defined by the majority consensus. (Many modern liberals, of course, effectively reject freedom of expression by defining as anti-rational anything that, regardless of reasoning, reaches a conclusion not in the liberal program.) Second, total reform of all institutions, to rationalize them and eliminate any tradition-based elements. This includes reforming any structure, such as the criminal justice system, to the extent that it attributes any cause to bad behavior other than ignorance or bad institutions. (In many ways, the liberal vision is the vision that Kipling rejected in “The Gods of The Copybook Headings,” where Kipling saw as the harbinger of decline the societal state where “All men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins.”)

Burnham next examines, when all these things are accomplished, “how liberalism imagines the structure of the good society within which those values will be realized.” Naturally, only a pure democracy, “one man one vote,” is acceptable. Plebiscites are optimal; intermediary institutions that characterize a republic are bad, much less any limitations on the basic principle, such as age or property voting qualifications. Optimally, this total democracy will be world-total. Egalitarianism is key—no qualitative differences can be recognized among people that suggest one person is more fit to govern or direct society than another. Similarly, national differences are pernicious, and patriotism is likewise pernicious, for it undercuts the aspiration to a universal good society, and of course all national, ethnic and racial groups are equal in their ability to reach that good society. Religion must be a purely private matter; the good society is totally secular, for religion is bound to tradition, irrationality and a jaundiced view of human nature, the opposite of liberal premises. Government, on the other hand, is good and should be expanded into every area of human life, because it can achieve the goals needed (Burnham points out that this is a change from earlier liberal conceptions, and attributes the change to the correct perception that the state had changed from largely an instrument of tradition to an instrument of change, the raison d’etre of liberalism.) Violence, because it is irrational, is to be avoided on every level. (In one of the asides that highlights the differences of past liberalism, Burnham here notes that “liberals aim sharper polemics against capital than against income,” because capital is associated with the past and tradition, and is therefore irrational and therefore bad. Today’s liberals, of course, largely rail against income, and ignore capital, in part because most great accumulations of capital are reliably extremely liberal, something Burnham could not, or at least did not, foresee.)

The author then pivots to the philosophical consequences of this set of beliefs, defining them with precision as an ideology. Liberals, of course, don’t see their beliefs as an ideology—their beliefs are merely commonplaces to them, with which no rational person could disagree. Burnham defines an ideology as “a more or less systematic and self-contained set of ideas supposedly dealing with the nature of reality . . . and calling for a commitment independent of specific experience or events.” He notes that “an ideologue—one who thinks ideologically—can’t lose. He can’t lose because his answer, his interpretation and his attitude have been determined in advance of the particular evidence or observation.” This by definition excludes practical experience and rejects reality—or rather requires reality’s interpretation in light of the goal. Burnham believes that there are a range of commitments to ideologies, and liberalism’s is loose but definitely exists. He gives examples, such as urban renewal projects that merely cause more problems than they fix, but which are nonetheless held up as successes.

Burnham’s most detailed example, though, is an unfortunate one. He claims that it is liberal ideological thinking that we can feed the entire world—it is ideological thinking to believe “the proposition, derived not from fact but from doctrine, that we have the ability to provide all men with enough food.” In Burnham’s “fact,” overpopulation and lack of land make this impossible, and to feed everyone we would have to make a series of ludicrous assumptions—thus proving this to be a liberal ideological fantasy that rejects reality. But of course Burnham was wrong, and he himself was guilty of ideological thinking. As population has exploded in the past fifty years, poor people the world over not only eat better, but have vastly more wealth, due to private enterprise and effort, and the only hungry people are those made hungry by bad politics or bad cultures. Sure, liberalism had nothing to do with this—it was private enterprise and hard work, and liberal doctrine provided nothing except support for post-colonial tinpot dictators who starved their people while mouthing liberal platitudes. But Burnham was wrong that it couldn’t be done, suggesting again that undue pessimism is a problem for his analysis, and perhaps for conservatives as a whole.

Burnham concludes, “A discussion with a convinced ideologue on matters covered by his ideology is sure to be a waste of time, unless you share the ideology. What is there to discuss? His ideology is proof against the shock of any seemingly conflicting facts which you might bring forward. He will either reinterpret those facts so that they become consistent with his ideology, or deny them. There are no facts that could convince an intransigent John Bircher that there are no communists in the upper echelons of the American government. A debate between Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and William F. Buckley, Jr., can be a good show (and has been), but not a genuine discussion.” This insight, of course, explains the closed liberal world-view that is even more true today than in 1964.

Next, Burnham detours into reinforcing his analysis, by laying out explicit statements to which liberals as a whole adhere, set alongside possible alternative views. These statements are mostly a reformulation of the thirty-nine earlier statements Burnham used to flesh out what liberals really believe. Here, Burnham is trying to determine “what liberals really believe?” Liberals tend to, in Burnham’s view, believe in generalities, because “modern liberalism, for most liberals, is not a consciously understood set of rational beliefs, but a bundle of unexamined prejudices and conjoined sentiments.” But he concludes that they do believe in the thirty-nine statements, each of them, but most of all they believe that people are not innately defective, and with the right education and institutions will be perfected. Burnham concludes, aiming at what he believes to be the heart of the matter, channeling St. Paul, “if human nature is scored by innate defects, if the optimistic account of man is unjustified, then is all the liberal faith vain.”

None of Burnham’s analysis of liberals seems to me to be particularly controversial. In fact, today’s liberals would, I think, agree with almost all of his analysis. There is nothing negative in how Burnham frames his analysis, other than his belief that liberals are wrong in all their core premises, and therefore in their beliefs. He is specifically not concerned with refuting the liberal world view, which he anyway regards as a vain project like any argument with an ideologue, explicitly analogous to arguing with a Communist or a segregationist.

Burnham then pivots from liberal principles, having delineated them to his satisfaction, to what this means for liberal practice. Here is perhaps the most interesting and original part of his book, in which he sets up four values: Liberty (national independence and self-government); Freedom (individual liberties); Justice (redistributive, social welfare rights); and Peace. He then discusses how liberals, and others, have in the past and “today” rank those values (Peace/Justice/Freedom/Liberty, in that order, in Burnham’s view, with Freedom frequently limited to group freedom for groups perceived to be oppressed, not real individual freedom). All are regarded as good at some level; the question, as with any scarce resource, is which is traded for another. Here is where Burnham talks about conservatives as opposed to liberals in some detail, not just in ranking but in principles and tendencies generally.

Burnham then rounds out the book with somewhat of a kitchen sink approach, which with some justice leads some readers to call the book “rambling.” He has a chapter on liberal guilt, where he focuses on liberalism as a redemptive belief not requiring actual effort to be redeemed. Such guilt drives liberals “to feel obligated do try to DO SOMETHING about any and every social problem,” even if they know nothing and the action is affirmatively harmful, a tendency proven a thousand times, such as by liberal policies on gun control. This is the closest Burnham comes to explaining WHY liberals dominate Western politics—because their beliefs are a satisfying religion substitute that has low cost and high return for the believers.

He has a chapter on the liberal requirement to see no enemies to the Left. This is just as true then as now; we can adduce examples since Burnham, like the global hounding of Pinochet contrasted with the global lionization of Castro, even though objectively the latter is a great monster and the former a hard man who did hard deeds to save his country. Burnham also has an interesting view of McCarthy and McCarthyism as effectively boosted by the Left in order to have an enemy on the Right, all the real ones having been beaten—sounds conspiracy-minded, but given that we still have to hear about that minor and unsuccessful figure today, maybe true. He also notes how the Left bizarrely tried to blame the Kennedy assassination on the Right (and still does). And, of course, this refusal to see any enemy to the Left explains the liberal inability to be truly upset about Communism, because “What communism does is to carry the liberal principles to their logical and practical extreme: the secularism; the rejection of tradition and custom; the stress on science; the confidence in the possibility of molding human beings; the determination to reform ALL established institutions; the goal of wiping out all social distinctions; the internationalism; the belief in the welfare state carried to its ultimate form in the totalitarian state.”

And, coming full circle, Burnham says that because liberalism is what it is, it “does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death”—and therefore it does nothing to stop the suicide of the West. What is worse, liberals are temperamentally opposed to the use of force, and cannot take any action against the enemies of the West. Quoting the violent syndicalist Georges Sorel, Burnham notes that “the optimist in politics is inconstant and even dangerous man, because he takes no account of the great difficulties presented by his projects . . . . he is tempted to get rid of people whose obstinacy seems to him to be so dangerous to the happiness of all.”

But Burnham predicts, in essence, like Whittaker Chambers, that the West will be killed by Communism. If not Communism, then something else—Communism is more Jack Kevorkian than serial killer. And this is the reason liberalism has achieved high power. “Modern liberalism could not have achieved its profound and widespread influence, to which very few citizens of the Western nations are altogether immune, unless it fulfilled a pervasive and compelling need.” And what is that need? It is that “Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution. . . . . We or our children will be able to see that ending, not as a final defeat, but as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions and discrimination of the past.”

Burnham may be right in this. Certainly the West is in objective decline. What to do about that is unclear; Burnham does not have any suggestions. I don’t either, at least not here.


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