Adaptation or Abandonment?

This review essay was originally published on September 14, 2015.

Reading a political classic can reveal not only how much has changed over time, but how many ideas and controversies persist mostly unchanged into our own day. Both of these lessons are on display in James Burnham’s jeremiad The Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964), whose republication last year marking its 50-year anniversary has much to teach contemporary liberals and conservatives alike—though I dare say only conservatives will pay it any attention, and all too few at that.

One of the architects of post-World War II American conservatism, Burnham (1905-1987) was “present at the creation” of the National Review, which he co-founded with William F. Buckley and edited for many years. His best-known work undoubtedly remains his 1941 The Managerial Revolution—a book that is thought to have in part inspired George Orwell’s 1984—describing the rise of bureaucratic collectivism, which he found to be a common denominator of fascism, communism, and “New Dealism.” The Managerial Revolution was, like Suicide of the West, a prophetic book—it anticipated what today is called “crony capitalism” and for that reason alone, it, too, deserves to be brought back into print.

As with any 50-year-old nonfiction book, Suicide of the West is dated in many ways, mostly due to sporadic references to then-current events, as well as a ponderous style that, while it is in some ways distinctly Burnham’s, is also somewhat characteristic of that era. But in essential respects the book is still quite fresh, since vast swaths of it discuss political philosophy—specifically, comparisons of liberalism and conservatism.

Burnham knew liberalism’s assumptions and proclivities from the inside. Like a number of other figures of the Left at mid-century, he was originally a Marxist and Trotskyite but, after discerning the viciousness of communism and parting ways with his erstwhile allies, he eventually became a critic of the Soviet Union, and a conservative one, for he also saw in American liberalism basic continuities with Marxism.

Suicide of the West is Burnham’s most sustained broadside against liberalism—as a rigid ideology that exists in contradiction with the more complex nature of human and social reality. Readers may note throughout the text—sometimes explicitly and even when unmentioned—the influence on Burnham of Michael Oakeshott, whose classic essay Rationalism in Politics (1962) remains one of the great critiques of the effort to force the vexing complexities of human reality into a preconceived Procrustean political arrangement. To the extent that America in 1964 was perceptibly governed by a liberal ideology, the downfall of America seemed no less plausible to Burnham than the rather prophetic belief that Soviet communism also could not ultimately be sustained. Burnham held that the West’s embrace of liberalism would lead not only to bad policy choices but to civilizational “suicide.”

In the light of Burnham’s critique, one can survey the course taken by liberalism and conservatism during the last half-century and reach two basic conclusions:

First, American liberalism, and the pathologies arising from it, remain fundamentally consistent, confirming Burnham’s analysis that liberalism is a political ideology, and hence is uniform regardless of changing time and circumstance. There is a deep irony attending this recognition. Liberalism is the philosophy of change and progress, yet its ideological cast makes it largely impervious to internal adjustment to meet new conditions. It can only approve change that conforms to its ideological commitments, and thus it proves in fact to be inflexible and resistant to countervailing claims and evidence.

Meanwhile it is American conservatism that has proved capable of adaptation to differing time and circumstance, in keeping with an Oakeshottian understanding of conservatism. This very virtue of conservatism, however, also reflects a weakness in the face of unbending liberal ideology: in the face of continuous liberal advances, conservatism has, for good and for ill, become more akin to the liberalism that Burnham criticized. Happily, it has largely abandoned some of mid-century conservatism’s uglier aspects—particularly a proclivity to racism, on display occasionally in Burnham’s writing—but it has adopted many aspects of liberal universalism that Burnham criticized. Ironically, conservatism’s flexibility has made it more ideological over time, particularly as a response to liberalism. One pressing question for conservatism is whether it can avoid a tendency toward ideological thinking in an age of advancing liberalism.

Throughout Suicide of the West, Burnham explores countless aspects of liberal ideology but distills these to six positions in the middle of the book, along with half-dozen contrasting stances by conservatives. Liberalism, he argues, is marked by 1) a proclivity to change and innovation; 2) egalitarianism; 3) wealth-redistribution and welfare; 4) internationalism; 5) humanitarianism (or “cosmopolitanism”) and hostility toward more local organizations; and 6) peace as the highest social value.

As noted, the proclivity to change has not been directed inward upon liberal belief itself. With change itself becoming the sin qua non of liberalism’s existence and success, moreover, there is a further irony: in spite of liberal claims to skepticism and a willingness to correct past errors, Burnham identifies liberalism’s resistance to recognizing that there are some changes that may make conditions worse. Liberalism tends to ignore deleterious unintended consequences of the good intentions embodied in the above list of commitments, reflecting its essentially ideological character. Like socialism, liberalism is an ideology that resists any contradiction in spite of evidence from the world.

As Burnham puts it:

Ideology is a way of interpreting the world, an attitude toward the world and a method for dealing with the world. So long as I adhere faithfully to the ideology there is no specific happening, no observation or experiment that can unmistakably contradict it.

Regardless of evidence questioning the effectiveness and perverse incentives of egalitarian redistribution, government handouts, or policies designed to improve race relations, liberalism has remained unbending in its commitments in spite of its claims to embrace “change.”

Burnham never articulates with clarity a pair of implications that flow from these six features of liberalism. First, all are informed by an effort to free people from all forms of limiting identity based on a place, culture, tradition, or inherited membership. Hence liberalism simultaneously conceives of human beings as individuals in abstraction from any particularity (reflected in classic state-of-nature theory and John Rawls’s “Original Position”) and conceives of human beings collectively as members of a universal, international humanity. Overlooked in Suicide of the West is the intimate connection between individualism and collectivism, an insight he would have been better able to perceive had he more familiarity with Tocqueville, a thinker mentioned once in the book and only in passing.

Second, the six positions evince a fundamental optimism that informs liberalism, a belief in the inherent goodness of humankind and the ability to shape political and social institutions in ways that foster moral amelioration—especially overcoming self-interest, the drive for power, and particularisms that result in division of the world into sects, tribes, and even nations. This commitment remains a persistent feature of liberalism, and today undergirds a general suspicion of nations and international borders, on the one hand, and locality and even family, on the other. In the context of the Cold War, Burnham focuses mostly on the national and international front; he doesn’t foresee how extensively and transformationally this liberal impulse would direct its energies against the natural family.

As for conservatives, they hold six opposite positions according to Burnham. In contrast to liberals, conservatives 1) stress continuity and tradition over change; 2) accept hierarchy and defend “a variety of and range of stations and conditions”; 3) advance “opportunity and initiative” over redistribution; 4) emphasize national patriotism; 5) give pride of place to more local forms of association; and 6) recognize the inevitability of international conflict and need for military strength.

Thus conservatism, in its mid-20th-century version, accepts cultural variety and local particularity as an inescapable feature of human life—thereby resisting liberal tendencies toward ontological individualism and statism—and reflects a pessimism about the capacity for politics to achieve moral amelioration. This skepticism about the capacity for politics to improve the human condition—seen in authors such as Oakeshott and F.A. Hayek—leads Burnham to conclude that political activity should avoid upending decent customs and practices. Politics should maintain a respect for a variety of local conditions (even if this leads to some forms of variability and even inequality) as well as a realism about the human pride and sin that make conflict an inescapable part of life.

This amounts, more or less, to the traditional approach of conservatism at least since Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution. How strikingly different contemporary conservatism seems from this in many respects. In the time since Burnham wrote, conservatism has, if anything, adopted a number of stances that he identified with liberalism.

Nowadays one rarely hears American conservatives invoking the name of Michael Oakeshott or the more traditionalist sections of Hayek’s work. Seldom does contemporary conservatism stress the need for deep humility and circumspection in politics while valorizing cultural variety that arises from experience embedded in time and place. (It thus came as a surprise to a conservative like John Agresto that, with a Republican administration “mugged by reality” in Iraq, these lessons were worth relearning.)

Instead, most contemporary American conservatives have become as “theoretical” and even ideological as the liberals Burnham criticized. Having embraced, over the last half-century, the philosophical liberalism of the American Founding, they seek to advance its basic logic as a realization of “conservatism.” In this connection it is striking and even refreshing to read Burnham’s 50-year-old critique of liberalism and not once be presented with a defense of the American Revolution and Founding as the high water mark of American conservatism.

This theoretical trend has led to a de-emphasis on local variety, custom, and tradition, and an embrace of liberal universalism that, if more “realistic” than the variety found in liberalism, nevertheless shares much in common with its nemesis.

For instance, it is mainly conservatives (along with libertarians) who ardently defend “academic freedom” on college campuses today in the face of an advancing and intolerant liberal ideology. But Burnham categorizes a commitment to “academic freedom” as a fundamentally liberal doctrine, one that leads to “epistemic relativism” and, from the standpoint of conservatism, “the loosening of social cohesion and the decay of standards, [condoning] the erosion of social order.” Burnham’s greater sensitivity to cultural norms leads him to connect the advance of academic freedom with the tendency to corrode such norms.

However, in the wake of the complete evisceration of these norms, today’s conservatives now occupy the space once abandoned by liberals, and find themselves defending “academic freedom” as a gambit for defending the few conservative voices that remain on campuses against an aggressive and alternative set of liberal “norms.” Conservatism’s capacity to change and adjust ironically makes it susceptible to becoming more liberal as liberalism itself advances.

Conservatism has become more “liberal” especially in economic matters and foreign affairs, both of which tendencies Burnham did not foresee. Economic liberalism is now considered the essence of “conservatism,” leading to a situation in which “conservative” economic commitments as a practical matter mirror four of the six liberal devotions (not egalitarianism or wealth-redistribution/welfare). Economic liberalism has been the most powerful agent of “change and innovation” in our world today, and the demand for global markets and porous economic borders has been the most potent spur to liberal globalization and cosmopolitanism than any policy that “liberalism” might have achieved. And we have seen conservatism at its most “liberal” in recent years with an effort to spread liberal democracy as a matter of foreign policy, an ambition articulated with particular and even religious fervency in the second inaugural address of George W. Bush.

Burnham’s remarkable book thus gives us a clear outline of continuity and change in America’s political ideologies over the past 50 years. It is liberalism—the philosophy of changing with the times—that has stayed the same even as conservatism has become all but unrecognizable, having changed in the direction of ideological liberalism. Whether a further change is possible—that is, the advent of a conservatism that rejects a close affiliation with liberalism—is one of the great questions of our time. I wager that we are unlikely to learn the answer for at least another 50 years.