April 11, 2009


Taking Communism from the Communists (Fred Siegel, April 08, 2009, Telos)

Modern liberalism has been compared favorably and unfavorably and even conflated with its competitors, communism, socialism, Fabianism, social democracy, anarchism, and fascism. What it has in common with its rivals is that it was a fully fledged ideology that effloresced at the turn of the twentieth century in opposition to the newly emergent worlds of mass production, mass politics, and mass culture. Of all these frameworks, social democracy was the only one that never descended into an "ism." Social democracy satisfied a satiable hunger on the part of working people for a greater share of capitalism's bounty. The others were in search of an unattainable quest for a secular soteriology, a political path to salvation.

Like communism, Fabianism, and fascism, modern liberalism was born of a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals who despised both the individual businessman's pursuit of profit and the conventional individual's pursuit of pleasure, both of which were made possible by the lineaments of the limited nineteenth-century state. Like anarchism and social democracy, liberalism embraced heroes without enthroning supreme leaders. Like all but social democracy, liberalism was strongly influenced by the Nietzschean ideal of a true aristocracy that might serve as a counterpoint to what were seen as the debasements of modern commercial society shorn of traditional hierarchies.

Liberalism was far more intellectually permeable, and far more politically adaptable, than most of its competitors and more willing than all but the trade-union-tied social democrats to work through the existing government structures. These qualities brought it to the forefront of American life. But it nonetheless represents a distinct ethos often at odds with America's democratic and capitalist traditions. The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. "Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class," Parrington insisted, referring to both democracy and capitalism, "and the artist and the scientist will erect in America a civilization that may become, what civilization was in earlier days, a thing to be respected." Alienated from middle-class American life, liberalism drew on an idealized image of both organic pre-modern folkways and the harmony to come when it would re-establish the proper hierarchy of virtue in a post-bourgeois, post-democratic world. [...]

The American thinkers who did the most to carve out the enduring assumptions and mental gestures that streamed into liberalism as an ideology were Herbert Croly, editor of The New Republic, and Randolph Bourne, a spirited young prophet of righteous anger. Bourne bitterly broke with The New Republic over American entry into World War I. He accused Croly and The New Republic of criminal naiveté in thinking that a war against Germany, which was much admired at the journal for its pioneering welfare state, could be turned to progressive ends. But despite this break between Croly with his slow-fire political piety and Bourne's tendency to not so much live but burn intensely, they both argued eloquently in the tradition of John Stuart Mill and H.G. Wells for a clerisy, a secular priesthood that could Europeanize America. It's a legacy that has not only endured but thrives down to the present

It isn't just that they loathe the middle class of a middle class country but that their project requires anti-democratic means to achieve anti-democratic ends, a tough sell in a democracy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2009 6:53 AM
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