After a summer spent in our nation’s capital reading the blowzy literature of a blowzy movement, one of England’s foremost political philosophers expresses his astonishment.
Liberalism in America is thought at the moment to be unpopular. Its actual situation is much worse, for to judge from what is being written and said, by the leading liberals in the United States today, a once great system of political thought has degenerated into a sorry mess of contradictory opinion, prejudice, fantasy, passion, and trivia. How is this to be explained? Before his death in 1979, David Spitz, a distinguished American political philosopher who specialized in the theory of liberalism, wrote a number of essays which have now been posthumously published, exploring what he called the “authentic tradition” of liberalism and trying to ascertain how that tradition had come to be, as he put it, “sidetracked.”
His argument was that liberalism, in its essentials, is a doctrine about liberty, a doctrine which assigns priority to the freedom of the individual, and notably to freedom from the constraints, of the state. This was the liberalism of John Locke and — in some at least of his writings—of John Stuart Mill. David Spitz believed that this was still the only genuine form of liberalism, and the credo he devised for liberals in the twentieth century began with the maxim: “Esteem liberty above all other values, even over equality and justice.”
Spitz did not, however, think that liberalism could, or should, be brought unaltered from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Earlier liberals had fashioned their political programs in contrast with, and usually in opposition to, conservatives. But liberals were no longer in the same situation. “The decisive issue for our time,” Spitz wrote, “is not Mill versus Burke, but Mill versus Marx; hence liberals and conservatives stand together, at least in the here and now, in defense of democracy against dictatorship.”
ONE MUST, ALAS, question the wording of this important utterance. Liberals and conservatives ought logically to stand together against Marxism and Marxist dictatorship, and in some parts of the world they do. In America, on the other hand, this is manifestly no longer the case. American liberalism continues to define itself only in opposition to conservatism, and far from rejecting Marx, seems only to add more and more pieces of Marxism to the flimsy structure of its own ideology.
The process can, I think, be traced back to the introduction into liberalism of the “social question” — the idea of using government as a means to resolve problems in the economy and improve the living conditions of the poor and disadvantaged. Translated into practical politics, this idea necessarily entails the enlargement of the state, of that very entity which traditional liberals had located as the central adversary of freedom. The whole idea, to put it plainly, is a socialist idea; and whether desirable or undesirable, it cannot be reconciled with the original liberal principle of keeping the state’s powers to a minimum.
Nevertheless it has come about that the great majority of American liberals have taken over this essentially socialist concept without admitting that they have ceased to be liberals. They have not even assimilated the idea discreetly; they have reached the stage of proclaiming it as their very own. For example, in a liberal manifesto “A First Draft for 1984” published in the New Republic on March 31, 1982, we read: “historically, government … is the instrument by which the nation’s people can guide their destiny and express their principles.” And later in the same manifesto, Professor Michael Walzer alleges that “the demand that government ‘get off our backs’ has a short history. It is the ideology of modern selfishness.” It is strange that a professor who made his name as a student of seventeenth-century political thought should imagine that the demand for minimal government was first heard only recently. But Professor Walzer is certainly not lacking in sophistication. He has expressed as adroitly as any American liberal the theory of “positive freedom,” according to which, however much “negative freedom” may be diminished by the intrusion of government, “positive freedom” is actually increased by state activity which enables certain groups to enlarge their options, even at the expense of reducing the options of others. One has only to add that this doctrine of “positive freedom” was advanced, far more systematically, by Marx.
It is the lack of system, the absence of coherence, which strikes any impartial reader of the American liberal literature that is currently being published. It betrays an unwillingness to think clearly or think thoroughly, or even to think at all about certain subjects. Take the case of Indochina. Some ten years ago American liberals could speak of almost nothing but the sufferings of Cambodia under U.S. bombs: Cambodia’s infinitely greater sufferings under different Communist regimes seem not to engage the American liberal’s interest. It is as if America alone concerned them, or rather, as if the criticism of America were the only exercise that mattered. The old universal perspective of traditional liberalism has disappeared.
There are even liberals who now claim that Soviet militarism is an American delusion, a product of what they call America’s “Cold War mentality.” Here we can discern another striking characteristic of current American liberalism. Not only does it define itself by its opposition to everything conservative, it defines itself by its opposition to everything distinctively American, whether it is the America of Reagan (described by Walzer as “the chief spokesman of the ideology of selfishness”) or the America of Carter (accused by Torn Hayden in The American Future of “planning to begin a war while the American people were literally asleep”).
This attitude is the more unfortunate in view of the world situation in which we all now live and the Soviet strategy which threatens our peace and freedom. After Stalin’s death the Soviets ceased to pin any hopes on people in other countries admiring the USSR or regarding it as a model to imitate. The Soviets ceased even to attach great importance to foreign Communist parties, so that the emergence of “Eurocommunism” and other manifestations of independent thinking among Party supporters broke no hearts in Moscow. In pursuing their ends, the Soviets since Stalin have relied almost entirely on building up hostility to “Western imperialism” rather than on fostering love for themselves; for this purpose the soft-thinking American liberal is infinitely more useful than any card-carrying Communist.
Before World War II the Soviet Union produced films designed to win sympathy for Communism in the outside world — and very good films they were: The Battleship Potemkin, Bed and Sofa, We From Kronstadt, and others enjoyed a great success in the West. But in recent times, the Soviets have turned aside from this activity. Their propaganda purposes are better served by Western films which knock the USA: Missing, for example, which depicts American government officials as murderers, or The China Syndrome, which portrays American industrialists as gangsters. Of course, such films do not glorify Russia; but the Soviets no longer seek to glorify Russia. They even discourage the diffusion of socialist idealism, lest that should play into the hands of China, whose rival form of Marxism is cleaner and more appealing to the pure in heart.
China, however, is another subject about which today’s American liberals are either silent or hostile. They do not trust a regime that has friends in Washington. Indeed we find Tom Hayden warning, in The American Future: “What the partnership with China can lead to … is the same danger as the first Cold War — a hot war, or at least an unbridgeable tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.”
THIS DANGER OF HOT WAR or nuclear war, with the Soviet Union is one about which there is a great deal of talk on the American Left. But is there anything approaching a concrete policy? Two recent books are devoted to the problem: Nuclear War — What’s In It For You? which seems to have been written by team, and Freeze: How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War, by Senators Kennedy and Hatfield. Both books provide detailed projections about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons~ and offer dramatic descriptions, complete with figures and charts, of the fate of various American cities in a nuclear war, however good a civil defense those cities might think they possessed. It is all very horrifying. And yet one wonders whether there was any need to spell it all out, since everyone must know that a nuclear war will bring a holocaust. What needs to be discovered is how to avoid a nuclear war. And here the voice of American liberalism is incoherent. Some liberals ask for a freeze on nuclear weapons, some ask for multilateral nuclear disarmament, some for unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Senators Kennedy and Hatfield plead the case for a freeze on all nuclear weaponry and suggest that this could be accomplished by agreement with the Soviet Union. Their proposal is to effect an immediate halt to the arms race, and to forestall any increase in weaponry while protracted negotiations are undertaken for a more permanent compact on arms limitation. “To freeze first and then negotiate reductions makes sense on many levels,” they write. “It recognizes the urgency of taking a step that is as simple as it is practical, and that is more feasible now than it has ever been before, because both sides are so nearly equivalent in their arsenals of annihilation.”
The weakness of the Senators’ argument resides, in the unreliability of their claim that both arsenals are “so nearly equivalent.” That is not the information we have in Europe, where Soviet superiority in nuclear installations at this moment is calculated by the best authorities to be substantial. Indeed, there is a large section of liberal opinion in America which cannot bring itself to swallow the Kennedy- Hatfield assertion. In the New Republic’s “First Draft for -1984,” Walter Laqueur and Charles Krauthammer set out the main lines for a new liberal foreign policy. They write scornfully of what they call “the current spate” of calls for an immediate bilateral freeze on nuclear weapons. “The ‘freeze,’” they say, “is a slogan, not a plan, and even if it were practical, it would cancel the zero option offer to Europe. That offer, by correcting the massive inequality that has resulted from the Soviet installation of SS-20 missiles in Europe, would help stabilize the European frontier, and thus make nuclear war in Europe far less likely. On strategic weapons, Democrats should support immediate negotiations for drastic and balanced reductions in current arsenals, a goal that would be delayed, and perhaps prevented, by interminable debates over the meaning and enforcement of any “freeze.”
Which of these two diametrically opposed liberal policies, the Kennedy- Hatfield or the Laqueur-Krauthammer, is likely to be supported by the majority of progressives in America? My guess is that the Kennedy:Hatfield “freeze” will make the running, just because it is a slogan and not a plan, and also — dare one say it? — because it is what the Soviet Union wants. The Soviets rejected Lyndon Johnson’s proposal for a nuclear freeze in 1964 because America was then ahead in the arms race; if the Soviets like the idea now it is because they believe themselves to be ahead in the arms race. It is curious how, when the Soviets want a policy put into effect, all sorts of opinion groups — church groups, community groups, service groups, all led by certified nonpolitical, nonleftist personalities — spring up like mushrooms to promote it and collect signatures for petitions in its favor.
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