James Burnham’s Suicide Of The West

James Burnham passed away in 1987, the year I was born, but he’s experiencing a second life as his writings – many previously out of print – are finding new favor among the growing dissident Right, not only in America but in Europe as well. He is best known as the author of The Managerial Revolution (1941), which forecast that capitalism in the 20th century was in the process of devolving Western society into oligarchies run by a new ruling class of “managers” inherently mistrustful of democracy and eager to arrogate power and influence, but his later work Suicide Of The West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, published in 1964, has caught the attentions of those of us discomforted by the sense that Western society is speeding towards collapse. In 1964, in the aftermath of European empire, the Soviet Union’s decisive repudiation of the West, and the growing power of communism in East Asia, the collapse Burnham saw was in influence, measured geographically – “effective political control over acreage,” as he has it. More than a half-century on, however, the contraction of the West is visible within Western countries, with the foundational narratives and mythologies that undergirded their existence increasingly coming under suspicion and open scorn. Liberalism, according to Burnham, has not been the cause of this contraction, but it has made it palatable to us. Liberalism, he tells us, “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 us to it.”

In the opening chapters, he pins down a definition of liberalism few would today would quibble with: that “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,” and that “reason and rational science, without appeal to revelation, faith, custom or intuition, can both comprehend the world and solve its problems.” From these axioms, it follows that the misery, inequality and suffering evident in the world are holdovers from a benighted past, and might be alleviated and even eliminated with sufficient effort and goodwill. Even more importantly, for our present consideration, Burnham notes that many of these assumptions are shared by Left and Right equally: “[…] this faith in the existence of solutions to social problems is present right across the entire liberal spectrum, overlapping in fact a large segment of the band that names itself ‘conservative’ but actually shares many of the underlying liberal axioms.” He quotes from the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who contended that the liberal “can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason. But what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no ‘rational’ solution at all.” This prejudice emerges most starkly in the liberal conception of education’s purpose:

For liberalism, the direct purpose of education cannot be to produce a “good citizen,” to lead toward holiness or salvation, to inculcate a nation’s, a creed’s or a race’s traditions, habits and ceremonies, or anything of that sort. Nor is there any need that it should be, for the logic of liberalism assures us that, given the right sort of education – that is, rational education – the pupil, in whose nature there is no innate and permanent defect or corruption, will necessarily become the good citizen; and, with the right sort of education universalized, the good citizens together will produce the good society.

The first casualty of such an outlook is art, history, music, literature – formerly thought to be the foundational topics of a “liberal” education – for of what utility are these in a strictly rational worldview? Liberalism, long ago having attained supremacy in the academy, has systematically undermined, devalued and disregarded the canonical arts and literatures of Western civilization, reducing them to mere self-expression and thereby putting all works of art on an equal footing, as mere outgrowths of “identity.” The study of history, too, becomes at worst irrelevant, at best merely quixotic, for if human nature is infinitely malleable, and the past is shrouded in ignorance, what can possibly be gained from the study of history?

Grave consequences follow from this myopic thinking, beginning with the loss of any sense of limitation. The religious worldview we eagerly jettisoned as a pernicious superstition preached that “man is a creature by essence limited and bounded, his potential goodness corrupted by a portion of evil that by his own efforts cannot be overcome, fated to walk in the valley of the shadow of an alien material universe, under unreprievable sentence of death.” The triumph of Western civilization – which is to say, until very recently, and without equivocation, the triumph of Christian civilization – was to simultaneously check man’s worst instincts and channel and harness his best ones, all in the service of a project greater than any individual person. Tear down the superstructure, “liberate” man from his religious shackles, and you also remove the constraints upon the worst aspects of his nature.

Those who were inclined to dismiss religious doctrine as superstition might nevertheless have noted that it was borne out in full and terrible detail by the entire history of man, in every continent, climate and region of the earth, in every society at every stage of development from primitive tribe to mighty empire, constructed by whatever race, black, brown, yellow, red or white. Only those who know very little about the history of mankind can suppose that cruelty, crime or weakness, mass slaughter or mass corruption, are exceptions from the normal human rule. A doctrine of human nature that paints a picture of what man might be that is in direct contradiction to what he has always and everywhere been may be a comfort to the spirit, but is not to be taken very seriously as a scientific hypothesis.

The most enraging turn this naivety has taken, as far as I am concerned, is a hideous, relentless self-criticism, shorn of any proportion or context. It is now commonplace, among my peers, to refer to Canada and the United States as having been founded in theft and murder, as if the facts of their founding are a) unique to these nations and b) their defining attributes. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has metastasized into “One man’s Nazi Germany is another man’s Canada,” and thus, for much of the modern Left, their respective national holidays have become occasions for mourning and sorrowful reflection.

Not coincidentally, it has become difficult to distinguish between the rhetoric of the progressive Left and Communist China, whose state propaganda increasingly borrows from the West’s own intellectuals in shaping its criticisms of America and Canada. And it is exactly here, where masochistic guilt meets an enemy determined to assail the entire Western edifice, that liberalism is rendered helpless, confronting what Burnham describes as “an inescapable practical dilemma”:

Either liberalism must extend the freedoms to those who are not themselves liberals and even to those whose deliberate purpose is to destroy the liberal society – in effect, that is, must grant a free hand to its assassins; or liberalism must deny its own principles, restrict the freedoms, and practice discrimination.

In Canada, statutes of the first Prime Minister and architect of Confederation, John A. Macdonald, are torn down with the tacit approval of police, politicians and academics. In the United Kingdom, radical Islamic preachers and their brainwashed minions take full advantage of Britain’s generous welfare system, defrauding the state of the means they will use to undermine it. And in America, epicentre of civilizational masochism, the most committed opponents of American history, culture and society are given prestigious fellowships, grants, and teaching positions, not to mention massive book deals.

“[T]he liberal,” Burnham tells us, “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.” In the 21st century, multicultural West, the potential victims multiply endlessly, and liberal guilt soars in tandem. “When the Western liberal’s feeling of guilt and his associated feeling of moral vulnerability before the sorrows and demands of the wretched become obsessive, he often develops a generalized hatred of Western civilization and of his own country as part of the West.” In Burnham’s day, the revolutionaries leveraging Western guilt against the West itself were communists, devotees of Lenin and Stalin, whose method of governance directly contravened the principles they espoused when they were outside the circles of power. Even in 1964, before the fall of the Soviet Union, Burnham saw this seeming contradiction clearly:

The revolutionary party, group or faction in the potential new nation does, certainly, want self-government and independence. However, the revolutionaries understand self-government and independence not as shining abstractions in the liberal prayer book, but as the effective instruments of power, privilege, jobs and glory for themselves and their associates.

In other words, the liberals are attempting to play a game with lopsided rules and drastically different stakes, against an opponent they cannot see clearly. Burnham quotes from the French journalist and conservative philosopher Louis Veuillot, whose words will serve as a fitting conclusion: “Quand je suis le plus faible, je vous demande la liberté parce que tel est votre principe; mais quand je suis le plus fort, je vous l’ôte, parce que tel est le mien.” Thus does a civilization reconcile itself with its own demise, content that it clung to its principles until the bitter end.