This classic column appeared in July 2015. Besides some editing, I would now change ‘liberal’ to ‘progressive’, which I have done in the title. I made no other change. See especially the prediction about Donald Trump!
It’s (past) time we examined James Burnham’s under-appreciated classic Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, a book written fifty years ago (in 1964). Everybody (yes, including you) should buy this book and follow along.
Since the test of a good theory is how accurately it makes predictions, we’ll review the many predictions Burnham made half a century ago and see how well his theory stands up.
What is that theory? That liberalism was and is going to cause the death, via suicide, of classic Western civilization. So what’s a liberal? Burnham spent a lot of time on that important question. Chances are you, dear reader, are a liberal, either in its progressive manifestation or its conservative variant. Reactionaries are few in number.
To find out who’s who, Burnham created a test of “thirty-nine sentences“, which do not quite mirror the 39 articles, to which you may assent or disclaim. Let’s try (pp 31-35 in the edition linked above) and then we’ll have a go at modernizing the list. This only serves as a quick filter. Burnham had much more to say on this subject.
1. All forms of racial segregation and discrimination are wrong.
2. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.
3. Everyone has a right to free, public education.
4. Political, economic or social discrimination based on religious belief is wrong.
5. In political or military conflict it is wrong to use methods of torture and physical terror.
6. A popular movement or revolt against a tyranny or dictatorship is right, and deserves approval.
7. The government has a duty to provide for the ill, aged, unemployed and poor if they cannot take care of themselves.
8. Progressive income and inheritance taxes are the fairest form of taxation.
9. If reasonable compensation is made, the government of a nation has the legal and moral right to expropriate private property within its borders, whether owned by citizens or foreigners.
10. We have a duty to mankind; that is, to men in general. 11. The United Nations, even if limited in accomplishment, is a step in the right direction.
12. Any interference with free speech and free assembly, except for cases of immediate public danger or juvenile corruption, is wrong.
13. Wealthy nations, like the United States, have a duty to aid the less privileged portions of mankind.
14. Colonialism and imperialism are wrong.
15. Hotels, motels, stores and restaurants in southern United States ought to be obliged by law to allow Negroes to use all of their facilities on the same basis as whites.
16. The chief sources of delinquency and crime are ignorance, discrimination, poverty and exploitation.
17. Communists have a right to express their opinions.
18. We should always be ready to negotiate with the Soviet Union and other communist nations.
19. Corporal punishment, except possibly for small children, is wrong.
20. All nations and peoples, including the nations and peoples of Asia and Africa, have a right to political independence when a majority of the population wants it.
21. We always ought to respect the religious beliefs of others.
22. The primary goal of international policy in the nuclear age ought to be peace.
23. Except in cases of a clear threat to national security or, possibly, to juvenile morals, censorship is wrong.
24. Congressional investigating committees are dangerous institutions, and need to be watched and curbed if they are not to become a serious threat to freedom.
25. The money amount of school and university scholarships ought to be decided primarily by need.
26. Qualified teachers, at least at the university level, are entitled to academic freedom: that is, the right to express their own beliefs and opinions, in or out of the classroom, without interference from administrators, trustees, parents or public bodies.
27. In determining who is to be admitted to schools and universities, quota systems based on color, religion, family or similar factors are wrong.
28. The national government should guarantee that all adult citizens, except for criminals and the insane, should have the right to vote.
29. Joseph McCarthy was probably the most dangerous man in American public life during the fifteen years following the Second World War.
30. There are no significant differences in intellectual, moral or civilizing capacity among human races and ethnic types.
31. Steps toward world disarmament would be a good thing.
32. Everyone is entitled to political and social rights without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
33. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression.
34. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
35. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.
36. Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.
37. Everyone has the right to equal pay for equal work.
38. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions.
39. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Before commenting on the slightly dated nature of some of these questions, here are Burnham’s rules on scoring.
A full-blown liberal will mark every one, or very nearly every one, of these thirty-nine sentences, Agree. A convinced conservative will mark many or most of them, a reactionary all or nearly all of them, Disagree…I have confirmed experimentally…that the result is seldom an even balance between Agree and Disagree…self-defined liberals almost never drop below 85 percent of Agree answers, or self-defined reactionaries below 85 percent of Disagree; a perfect 100 percent is common. Certain types of self-styled conservatives yield almost as high a Disagree percentage as the admitted reactionaries…
These sentences were not devised arbitrarily. Many of them are taken directly or adapted from the writings of well-known liberals, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, or liberal questionnaires that have been put out in recent years by the American Civil Liberties Union. The last eight are quoted verbatim from the United Nations’ ‘Universal Declarations of Human Rights,’ adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly.
Yours Truly scored well into the reactionary camp, but I read the test with a historical eye. It’s clear that liberals, most on the progressive side of the scale, no longer care about some of these articles or no long interpret them in the same way. It’s the changes that are fascinating. Every mutation has been for the worse, as we’ll see.
Consider “2. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.” Liberals today assent to this readily enough, unless they suspect the opinion they’re about to hear is “hurtful”, “bigoted”, “hateful”, “x-phobic” (x is a variable) or something similar. People who will speak politically incorrect views are not entitled freedom, many liberals say, especially campus liberals.
While the reactionary might join the progressive in forbidding certain (but obviously not the same) speech—for instance, the reactionary might happily ban pornography while the liberal insists it be shown to grade schoolers—it is only the liberal who would punish thoughtcrime. Where the liberal will demand assent the reactionary will happily let people keep their mouths shut. Right St Thomas More?
Perhaps like the fortune cookie joke, we should add “as long as it is not hurtful, hateful, bigoted, sexist, or x-phobic” to the end of all items dealing with thought.
Likewise, the liberal will probably still assent to “12. Any interference with free speech and free assembly, except for cases of immediate public danger or juvenile corruption, is wrong”. But who is it in practice who storms podiums or throws tantrums in order not to hear “disturbing” opinions? Fortune cookie it.
Item 15 is dated, but it can be modernized easily enough: “Stores ought to be obliged by law to participate in ceremonies of those professing same-sex attraction.” Quibble with the wording, but I can’t think of any liberal dissenting, while every reactionary would.
Number 18 has passed us by. Perhaps: “We should always be ready to negotiate with the socialist and other communist nations.”
The liberal will agree with 20, except in his own backyard. Ask one if it is okay for, say, Texas to secede. Theoretically, or to be consistent, he should agree. But he won’t. The liberal desires control above all.
Item 21 is dead. No liberal now thinks of allowing the freedom of religious practice. Modern version: “We should respect the right to religious worship but perhaps restrain or proscribe certain traditional religious practices if they interfere with the public.” Liberals Yes, reactionaries No, because both sides know what’s behind these words.
Like the other items mentioning speech, item 23 is now suspect. Liberals are firmly against censorship—of their ideas. But they like it fine for the opposition. Fortune cookie.
Most liberals will like 26 still, but that’s because the academy has been purged of all reactionaries and nearly all conservatives. Item 27 is out: quotas are in. This question is now the exact opposite. Perhaps: “…quota systems based on color, religion, family or similar factors which will enhance diversity are to be encouraged.”
The boogyman of the hour has changed in 29, but the idea is the same. Even George Bush is fading from memory, replaced maybe by Donald Trump or Scott Walker or Emmanuel Goldstein.
Item 32 is another polar opposite. Modern version: “Everyone is entitled to political and social rights and race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status shall be used to determine the extent of these rights.”
Numbers 33 and 34: fortune cookie.
Have we left anything out? Or can we live without Once we discuss these, I’ll put up the modernized list.