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The Iron Rod of American 'Liberalism'

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By:Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn | March 18, 2019
From the November 1988 issue of Chronicles.

In America, as in Britain, institutions, movements, political phenomena, historic events and geographic features have been given names and labels that bewilder and startle the rest of the world: the German "Westwall" of World War II became the "Siegfried Line" (in World War I that lay in northern France), the Near East became the Middle East (where, now, is the Near East?), and Santa Claus, a Spanish-Dutch moniker wrongly gendered, has nothing to do with Christmas (he is the Cappadocian Bishop St. Nicholas whose feast is on December 6). Or take the terms "humanism," "humanist," and "humanistic" with their very precise historic connotations: generally they were applied to those 15th- and early 16th-century Catholic thinkers who, without forgetting God, made man a central object of their scrutiny, following the traditions of newly discovered antiquity. Outside America and Britain the term "conservative" applies to thinkers like Maistre, Stahl, Disraeli, Kuypers, or Donoso Cortes, but if I were to call Adam Smith, Tocqueville, or Mises conservative, I would be advised to see a doctor.

The process of mislabeling has also affected the term "liberalism." What is called "liberalism" in the United States (and increasingly in Britain) would never be recognized as such in the rest of the world—neither in Japan, nor in Latin America, nor in Western or Eastern Europe, nor even in Australia, where the Liberal Party is distinctly right of center.

What, then, is liberalism in reality, and what meaning did it assume in North America? How and why did this unfortunate change take place, allowing "what passes in America, for reasons of political expedience, by the name of liberalism" (Whittaker Chambers in Cold Friday) to assume that noble name?

There are, of course, several genuine liberalisms, their uniting bond being the quest for personal liberty. They can be divided into four categories: 1) Pre-liberalism, 2) Early Liberalism, 3) Old, or Paleoliberalism, and 4) New, or Neoliberalism. In time they overlap: Adam Smith, who died in 1790, is a Pre-liberal because the Spaniards used the term only after 1812 for the supporters of the Constitution of Gadiz, whom they called los Serviles. Southey used the term in 1816 ("our British liberales") in its Spanish form, and Sir Walter Scott wrote about libéraux. Actually, the Early Liberals were largely aristocrats, from Tocqueville and Montalembert to Lord Acton, and they included Jacob Burckhardt and his nephew Johann Bachofen, both Swiss patricians. (When the elitist, liberal Mont Pelerin Society was founded, the originators wanted to call it the Tocqueville-Acton Society, whereupon Professor Knight of Chicago University announced that he would quit if the society were named after "two Roman Catholic aristocrats." An alternative had to be found in a hurry and thus the name of the mountain seen from the windows of the meeting room was adopted.)

The Early Liberals were succeeded by the Old Liberals, who harked back strongly to Adam Smith and showed great interest in economics, but tended toward an anti-Christian bias and philosophic relativism. They disliked dogmas and often failed to understand that only a thinker in absolutes has the chance (but not more than a chance) to be truly tolerant. (The relativist, on the other hand, is not tolerant. He does not "suffer" the views or convictions of others, he can only be indifferent. "I think I am right in my way and you're right in yours, so let's make it 50-50.") Naturally, the Old Liberals frequently clashed with the Catholic Church.

The founders and main luminaries of the "Austrian School" (of economics) were, in principle. Old Liberals and, with the exception of Fritz Machlup, noblemen. On the other hand, the Neoliberals (who seceded from the Mont Pelerin Society in 1961) tolerated state intervention in certain situations, were opposed to "mammothism," emphasized the consumer's right to choice and were, as a rule, open to Christian inspiration.

All liberalisms were dedicated to freedom and all were either suspicious of or even opposed to democracy, which had been reborn in Europe through the French Revolution. Since democracy stood for the "politicized nation," egalitarianism, and majority rule, for them it inevitably had a close affinity with totalitarianism. Hayek has quoted E. Heymann to the effect that all totalitarian tyrannies claimed to be democratic. While there was a kernel of truth in this, they never dared to claim to be liberal. The bridge between totalitarian sympathies and liberalism was built only by "American liberalism"—that curious brew which, genetically, has a liberal ancestry, but no longer represents liberalism since it in no way belongs to any of the four categories.

But how did this happen? Liberalism obviously had to treat all ideas with an unprejudiced, open mind, especially if they were "new." Yet what was new to the average American about the New Deal? Already there had been John Dewey's so-called pragmatism, as well as a leftist tradition going back to old English sects (Levellers, Diggers, etc.), plus the notions of Thomas Paine and the older, quasi-socialist tradition of the Wobblies and Transcendentalists. But a powerful new socialist wave rose from Black Friday and the Depression. The Soviet Union palmed itself off to the innocent and the naive as a "worker's paradise."

Windows and doors had been left open in the drafty house of a still-genuine liberalism, and in swept the putative "wave of the future" which, in this case, was not National, but International Socialism. This invasion was made all the easier because Americans cherish the highly "progressive" and "futuristic" vision of a Novus Ordo Seclorum. (Remember the great success of Bellamy's Looking Back: 2000-1887.) No great wonder, therefore, that a sizable part of the American "liberal" establishment, with its ideologically weak foundation, could be turned around—whereas elsewhere liberalism fought socialism tooth and nail, a good segment (or was it the bulk?) of American "liberals" made a 180-degree turn.

To make everything more confusing, America's genuine liberals surrendered their time-honored appellation to the pinks, called themselves "libertarians," and now frequently hide under the conservative label. In the late 1930's and early 1940's The American Mercury, no longer edited by H.L. Mencken but by Eugene Lyons, published a series of "Creeds": the "Creed of a Socialist," of a "Conservative," of a "Reactionary," and two "Creeds of a Liberal," one calling himself an "Old Liberal," the other a "New Liberal." It was the latter who testified to the radical turnabout. The evil effects of a philosophical relativism manifested themselves in full force in The American Mercury's series. Here a "liberal" publicly declared himself to be "pink." The critical remark of a wily conservative—that the philosophy of liberalism is to have no philosophy (which applies only to certain types of liberalism)—proved its sordid legitimacy.

Thanks to its character of a fausse idee claire, one should not be surprised that Marxism successfully invaded liberalism in America, where anti-intellectualism forms a part of a certain British heritage. Marx based his critique of a free market economy on the same conception as did a certain "libertarian theologian" I met in South America. This man compared the plight of the exploited masses to four men in a prison cell: one a muscular murderer, and the other three puny pickpockets. The big murderer takes half the others' portions and gets steadily fatter and stronger while they wither. But in such a cell there are only four walls, four stomachs and one lavatory—a situation in no way similar to a free economy in a free country. Our rich can only either reinvest their incomes or spend them on goods; either way, the result is added employment. The more, the merrier.

Nevertheless the false but clear ideas of Marxism, which appeal to the desperately poor, the improvident, the envious, and the (naively or charitably) bleeding hearts, are admittedly not the only items in the baggage of an American "liberal." They are also watered down. A "pink" is not the same as a "red." The American "liberal" is, after all, not a man of iron principles, but a mixture of likes and dislikes. He is "broad-minded" and boasts of it, but only in a certain direction, that is, toward the left. Though he considers himself a "middle-of-the-roader," he is decidedly left-of-center. The political heritage of an American "liberal," we must bear in mind, does not come from the Founding Fathers, but from the French Revolution and its "democracy" which, in America, replaced one John of Geneva with another—Jean Calvin with Jean Jacques Rousseau, a change that marks the essence of the Great American Tragedy. Hence the indignation of the American "liberal" about the activity of Senator Joseph McCarthy, provoked by genuine and undeniable cases of treason.

The inroads made by a false liberalism had already been observed in England by Samuel Butler when he wrote in 1893: "I am afraid of liberalism or, at any rate, of the people who call themselves liberal. They flirt with radicals who flirt with socialists who flirt with anarchists who do something a deal more than flirt with dynamite." This leftward tendency is, as a rule, combined with the badly camouflaged conviction that the left is on the side of that mythological thing called "progress," and that it will dominate the "shape of things to come." This is one of the reasons why wealthy American "liberals" frequently send their sons and daughters to colleges and universities where half-educated professors teach them to draw the final logical consequences of their parents' view—often to the discomfort of the latter, who console themselves with the thought that their offspring will, after all, have to live in the much redder world of tomorrow.

The declared or concealed Marxism is only a part of the ideological baggage of an American "liberal." There is in him still the vague desire to be on the side of freedom, of "the liberties." Yet this inclination is severely restricted because it means defying the left. The right is generally given "the silent treatment," especially when it presents unanswerable arguments. And thanks to their false but clear ideas, the American "liberals" have, within the democratic framework and the commercialized world of the mass media, an almost automatic advantage over more profound thinkers whose ideas are difficult to popularize. American "liberals" keep their antagonists out of the marketplace, and an unholy "liberal" inquisition rules today in America. The unbroken power of American "liberals" is most evident in education, book publishing, the press, and the electronic mass media. They form a true establishment, moved by a specific ideology.

But do they really have an ideology? One might argue that since their intellectual and emotional baggage contains contradictions, they follow the old system of having "a philosophy of no philosophy." This is only seemingly the case. They are firmly anthropocentric and "Edenist," an outlook they share with Karl Marx. And this basically optimistic ideology assumes in so many American "liberals" the character of a religion because it replaces religion, and is defended with a truly religious fervor. If you take it away from them, they have nothing left. This explains their not so rare fanaticism (vide the case of Benjamin Hart who, at Dartmouth, was literally bitten by a "liberal" member of the administration while he distributed a conservative student paper. Hart had to be given tetanus shots). As a rule, however, American "liberals" reject genuine communism of Russian vintage—but with sympathetic regret, because what they really mind about it are its methods, not its aims or essence. Face to face with a radical enemy of the "Socialist Fatherland" and all it stands for, especially if he is religious and/or conservative (a Solzhenitsyn, for instance), the "liberal" will indignantly oppose him . . . just as he would side with Henry Dexter White against Joe McCarthy, with Alger Hiss against Whittaker Chambers, or with the red ANC assassins (who burn their adversaries alive) against the forces of a peaceful evolution in South Africa.

In the realm of American internal affairs, American "liberalism" makes its ideology a strong and often decisive factor. As everywhere in the Western world, there are parties in the United States which can be either "Santa Claus" or "tighten-your-belt" parties. The former, as a rule (and quite naturally), are of the left, the latter of the right. Needless to say, the Santa Claus parties, since they bring gifts, soothe envies, and appeal to bleeding hearts, have an enormous advantage in the voting process. In a sense, they cannot be defeated, though occasionally they commit a sort of temporary suicide with grave political errors or unappealing candidates.

Even if victorious, however, the tighten-your-belt parties usually do not have the courage to undo the evil works of the Santa Clausers—political candidates rarely have anything but their reelection in mind. Thus the buying of votes never ends. If I stand within 20 yards of a polling booth and offer hundreds of dollars in cash to anybody who votes for me, I would, in most countries, be arrested. But if I get onto a soap box and promise a thousand dollars of state revenue a month to each person with black hair and blue eyes, there would be no objections. Votes are always for sale.

Parliamentarism cannot be corrupted because, owing to its "largesses" (of which John Adams was so suspicious), it is corruption. Therefore American "liberalism" fits extremely well into such a scene. It is the creed of do-gooders. advocates of the Provider State (wrongly called the Welfare State), of the disinherited, the sexual deviates, the "minorities" (but only those at the bottom of the social scale), the improvident, drug addicts, dropouts, et al. As one author said, American "liberals" are frequently "advantaged idealists"—lucky people in the upper classes who, rightly or wrongly, suffer from a bad conscience. Hence the statistically verifiable phenomenon that in the United States the percentage of self-professed "liberals" mounts with their income. Intellectually this is not surprising, since simple people often have sound intuitions, whereas further up one finds the half-educated. A truly high degree of knowledge and wisdom pertains to such a microscopic group that it will not figure in overall statistics.

American "liberals" frequently assume a Christian stance of extreme altruism, confusing justice with equality. But where human life is concerned they suffer from inner contradictions deriving from the two sources of their ideology: a degenerate liberalism, and Marxism. They protest against the execution of guilty criminals, but promote the massacre of the innocent unborn. Yet we should not be led astray by the contradictions in their ideology, because there always remains a guiding line: the belief in an all but automatic "progress" (which, to be sure, has to be helped along by all sorts of trickery) and the conviction that man, basically so good and clever, can establish Paradise on Earth . . . either in unspecified freedom or through a gigantic bureaucratic machinery.

Most fatal of all, however, is the effect of American "liberalism" on foreign policy, where it has served to propagandize not so much the ideas of 1776 as the alien ideology of 1789. Whereas the democrats of 1917 and 1919 prepared the field for World War II, the pseudo-liberals after 1945 did everything in their power to see that World War III can cast its shadow over all of us. The satanic urge for suicide and destruction? Not necessarily. Vauvenargues has warned us that the usual excuse of the real malefactors in this world is that they want to do good. In our fundamentally irrational age, we probably have to fear the infernal power of ferocious stupidity more than ordinary wickedness.


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