The Perfectibility of Man: Suicide of the West at 50

Equality for all!
Equality for all!

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. Everybody should buy this book and follow along.

Read Part I: Take Burnham’s test to see whether you’re a liberal.

We’re still at the point of defining terms. Now it is well known that liberals consider themselves “rational”. One of the first acts of the Enlightened during the French Revolution (which might not have happened if the Americans hadn’t got away with theirs) was to create the Culte de la Raison. Catholic churches were converted into Temples of Reason. Fouché ordered crosses stripped from graveyards. Notre Dame herself was made to endure the installation of the non-goddess Liberty. The preposterous enthusiasm of the Rational eventually annoyed Robespierre who persuaded members, in that quiet way of his, to cease and desist.

But it was an axiom of the Enlightenment, guided as it was and is by reason and rationality, that mankind can be perfected. Human nature must therefore be infinitely supple and able to accept instruction in any subject. Humanity has “an unlimited or any rate indefinitely large potential for positive…development.” Each generation would and must progress. There’s more than a whiff of Lamarckianism about this.

The opposite of liberalism may be called realism. This isn’t Burnham’s term: he used conservative or reactionary: the former term is today damaged and the latter is negative, thought still apt. Whereas liberalism hopefully dictates to nature, nature soberly informs and restrains realism. Realism is “expressed in the theological doctrines of Original Sin and the real existence of the Devil, that human nature had a permanent, unchanging essence, and that man is partly corrupt as well as limited in his potential.” Modern liberals, Burnham says, are not as insistent about “perfectible” and now say mankind is “plastic.” We can be nudged, as some now say. “Liberalism rejects the essentially tragic view of man’s fate found in nearly all pre-Renaissance thought and literature”. Realists note the irony.

Half a century ago, still pre-Vatican II, Burnham classed “some” Catholics as liberal, but as “uneasy” ones. He was then able to say, “Nearly all liberals keep their ideological fingers crossed when they observe such a group as the Jesuits beginning to sound like liberals, as the American Jesuits have often done of that in the pages of their principal magazine, America.” The tricked worked: Jesuits are now solidly in the liberal camp; not to a man, but to the extent that one Catholic writer called the group “self-loathing.America magazine now reads like any NGO pamphlet.

Liberals are scidolators: “rational science…both comprehend the world and solve its problems.” Scientism is a never-recognized fallacy. Policy is now said to be equivalent to science. Morality and ethics are quickly coming to the same point. Liberals believe all truths are not only scientific, but that all can be discovered scientifically. Such optimism! Some modern-day reactionaries, even, fall into this error.

Now, since human nature is plastic or perfectible, and we are by universal agreement still imperfect, “obstacles” must be stopping us from reaching Utopia. There are two: “ignorance—an accidental and remediable, not intrinsic and essential, state of man; and bad social institutions.” All liberals believe in the Whig theory of history. All liberals share the unrealistic optimism of Bertrand Russell. I’ve quoted these words spoken by John Maynard Keynes about Russell many times (himself a liberal), but they bear frequent repeating:

Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.

As the late lamented philosopher David Stove (who supplied the quotation) commented, “Just two effortless sentences, and yet how fatal they are to any belief in Russell’s political wisdom, or even sense! They are like a bayonet thrust through the heart and out the back.” Yet, pierced as he was, Russell did not drop. The wound was mortal; thus we can only conclude that liberalism is the philosophy of the undead.

Liberals, Burnham notes, speak of “problems”. Readers will know the modern list. Problems are things that can and should be solved. That solutions should be sought and implemented forthwith is unquestioned and unquestionable. This is why a liberal only has to mention a “problem” or to “raise awareness”. There are no liberal writers, then or now, “who flatly declare of a pending political, economic, or social problem that is not going to be solved, that it is just plain insoluble.”

That which is causing imperfection, since humans are perfectible and educable, must be institutional. “Thus liberalism is anti-traditional.” Burnham: “I rather think that the attitude toward tradition furnishes the most accurate single shibboleth for distinguishing liberals from conservatives”.

Which brings us back to Russell. In his Why Men Fight he said the task of education “should not be to uphold but to destroy ‘contentment with the status quo….It should be inspired, not by a regretful hankering after the extinct beauties of Green and the Renaissance, but by a shining vision of the society that is to be, of the triumphs that thought…will achieve in the time to come.” Similarly, Mill called Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”, i.e. custom, “despotism” and a “hindrance to human advancement.”

And the revolution marches ever on. Stick around. There’s much more to come.


  1. Gary

    Rush Limbaugh seems to have effectively damaged the label “liberal” enough that they now mostly call themselves “progressives” — a more accurately descriptive term IMO. It echoes the idea of the march toward perfection the Rationalists started and has an appeal for the young and foolish. The old and wise(r) will recognize the deception — that progress can be over the cliff as well as up it.

  2. Liberalism recognizes that humans are very flawed and exploits those flaws. While they claim the flaws can be removed, they NEVER want that to happen. One major use of a flaw is projection. I actually read someone complain that Trump may have a narcissistic personality disorder. Really? The Prima Dona in the While House that injects HIMSELF into everything and cares only about his own feelings was presidential material and Trump is not? This is deliberate on the part of many liberals, just reflexive and feel-good on others. Liberalism is founded and based on the imperfections of humanity, not the perfections. The LAST thing liberals want is a perfected society.

    Liberals are also not scientific. They simply use science that pleases them in an effort to curry favor. Tomorrow, if the need be, global warming can be declared wrong and replaced with whatever serves the current need. There is NO science in liberalism.

    I do not believe for an instant the liberals, as we see them today, are optimist in any way. Their entire philosophy is based on depression, despair, etc. They are not happy people and no one else should be either.

    As Gary notes, the progress sought does not mean necessarily better, only “forward”, even over the cliff (well said). I personally believe liberals prefer to run the population over the cliff.

  3. Dear Dr. Briggs:

    1) please take a moment to review what I did with Burnham’s list -the draft is at

    2) in the discussion above you assume that both “perfectibility” and “[ill]-liberalism” are terms with fixed meanings. They are not. Three hundred years ago liberals opposed totalitarian (monarchist) government, today they are totalitarians demanding feudal forms of government. Three hundred years ago “perfectibility” was a Christian/libertarian concept, but now all that is perfectible is humility expressed as obedience – acceptance.

    3) I assume you have actually read Russell ? – some great rants, but hardly a deep thinker. More, I think, like Picasso: a man whose talents consisted largely of pushing views the intellectual elites of his time wanted heard.

  4. Luis Dias

    It’s like reading Unreserved Qualifications all over again.

  5. If I make categories and then compare them I will find the truth.

    Along comes Graham and he tells us “the truth lies somewhere between 11 and my number”.

    All of them are truths.

    Everywhere I see Graham’s number…

  6. Sander van der Wal

    isn’t this about Anglo-Saxons and their way of thinking, compared to for instance the German or French way?

    One downside of the Internet is the forcing down of the American Way down the throats of everybody who has English as their second language. The Dutch are, rather unfortunately, rather susceptible to this ailment, as almost nobody here can read German or French anymore.

    there is this huge echo-chamber of English speakers telling people what is Liberal and what is Conservative. While the only thing that is happening is getting people to think that the dysfunctional American society and it many ailments is in fact their own society.

  7. Ray

    Liberals, Burnham notes, speak of “problems”.
    Yes, and everybody knows that problems have solutions and all you have to do is find it. Liberals, being intellectually superior people, find the solution for every problem. Just ask them.

  8. From what I have read, most of the partakers of the ‘Cult of Reason’ were a collection of France’s most depraved freaks, the ones who had been muckrakers under the Ancien regime. Robespierre repudiated them when they were no longer needed. Perhaps they are analogous to the freakishness of today’s sodomite parades which attract any number of degenerates (though no longer drag queens, they are banned because they offend trannies)

    Liberalism has little to do with science really. It’s a cargo cult which will use anything to advance itself, be it test tubes or butt plugs.

  9. Alan McIntrie

    In reply to Paul Murphy:
    Regarding Item 21- religious beliefs of others, I immediately thought of
    the Aztecs cutting out sacrificial victims’ hearts , and my own celtic ancestors collecting heads and burning victims alive- some religious beliefs are not worthy of respect- you might quibble and say I’m objecting to PRACTICES, not beliefs.

    Regarding item 33, I don’t know how to force people to change their thoughts; I’m not a mind reader, all I can do is offer what I think is a persuasive argument which others are free to accept or ignore. As to freedom of EXPRESSION, I’m back to thinking of Aztecs and Celts.

  10. Sheri you must then prefer an absolute monarchiy like france before the revolution with a cardinal as prime minister

  11. In reply to Alan McIntrie

    Progressives believe that celts, muslims, etc etc have a perfect right to act on beliefs requiring them to teach children to kill other humans by the slowest, nastiest, means possible – but will viciously attack a Christian for muttering “Thank God” under his breath.

  12. Noblesse Oblige

    Matt // It seems to me that you are talking about classical liberals, which are close to modern conservatives, not at all the whackos we have today. John Stuart Mill is the patron saint.

  13. Again, the selection of words can muddle one’s concepts. There is a middle road between “Progressive” (Socialist) and “Reactionary” which was at some point the word Liberal, although its original meaning seems to be disappearing. I would much prefer to call Progressives, Socialists, as that is what they are. They only avoid the word Socialist, because it has a deserved ‘bad reputation.’ (Repeated historical failures.) Trying to claim ownership of the word ‘realist’ will not help reactionary conservatives. As soon as a Socialist embraces a policy opposite to their ideological principles, or which compromises it in some important way, they identify as realists. This is considered a virtue.

  14. Hans: Why must I prefer an absolute monarchy? There are only two choices for government–absolute monarchy or coalition government? Currently, we have a monarchy composed of Sir Obama who rules the county without interference. I don’t like this choice either. (What I would like is a free press and two actually different parties. We have neither at the moment.)

  15. JH

    I can’t say that I fully understand the reasoning behind this post. Perhaps, my understanding about liberalism and realism are different. Those –isms come in many stripes. so do so- called liberals, realists, and progressives.

    At any rate, I always wonder how many people have the luxury of time and energy and intelligence to think about those terms.

    “Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.”

  16. swordfishtrombone

    You don’t seem to like the idea of “perfecting” or improving people but isn’t that also what religion tries to do? If not, what is the point of it?

  17. Swordfish: Religion is voluntary. If you don’t want improved, you can opt out. Government mandated improvement is generally not voluntary, as noted by the use of the word “mandated”. Voluntary improvement is fine.

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