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The Corruption of Liberalism

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Adolf Hitler addressing a rally in Germany in 1933

Liberals have a great tradition of thunderously denouncing each other. Of course, they often deserve it. Many of the complaints about liberals contain at least a shred of truth. They congratulate themselves for their capacity to view the world in all its complexity and nuance, which is often an excuse for inaction. They disavow metaphysics and grand theories of history, but don’t have their own strong set of core beliefs, or rather, they often ended up extolling the morally hollow goals of economic growth, consumerism, and private pleasure.

This essay is a masterwork in the genre of liberal self-flagellation and makes a very good case for the long overdue revival of Lewis Mumford. The illegitimate son of a German housekeeper, Mumford trained himself to be a cultural critic and political theorist. His autodidacticism yielded idiosyncratic, sweeping arguments. The twentieth century irked him: Modern life was soul-crushingly empty; capitalism had created a depressing schism between art and labor. Initially, Mumford hoped that technocracy would heal these wounds. Urban planning would create cities that would allow humans to better achieve their potential.

This essay represented a turn in his thinking. With liberals reluctant to intervene in World War II, Mumford came to see the flaws in his comrades. In the battle against communism and fascism, what did liberalism have to offer? And could it really provide a bulwark against the power-mad totalitarians? After Mumford handed in this essay, he asked the editors to remove his name from its roll of contributing editors.

Mumford’s essay prefigured arguments that both George Orwell and Reinhold Niebuhr would make. Of course, in the end, liberalism proved itself more than up to the task of battling evil, as Hitler and Mussolini could well attest. But even with such a thorough debunking of his central thesis, his critique is hard to shake. 

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor, Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

As an economic creed, liberalism was undermined by imperialism and monopoly before the nineteenth century closed. But as a personal and social philosophy, liberalism has been dissolving before our eyes only during the past decade. The liberal lacks confidence in himself and in his vision of life. He has shown in every country where the attacks on liberalism have been forceful that he either does not possess stable convictions, or that he lacks the insight and the courage that would enable him to defend them. Continually hoping for the best, the liberal remains unprepared to face the worst; and on the brink of what may turn out another Dark Ages, he continues to scan the horizon for sighs of dawn.

The record of liberalism during the last decade has been one of shameful evasion and inept retreat.

Liberalism has compromised with despotism because despotism promised economic benefits to the masses— an old device of despotism. In the case of Soviet Russia liberals continued to preserve an embarrassed silence about the notorious plight of freedom and justice in that country because they had esthetic scruples about appearing to align themselves with those forces in America that opposed Russia for purely reactionary reasons. So they preferred to be tacitly on the side of the greater despots, like Stalin and Hitler, in order to be free of any taint of association with the minor despots of American capitalism. In international affairs liberalism has likewise graciously lent support to the forces of barbarism, in an effort to give the devil his due. And on the theory that war is the worst of evils, the liberals have tearfully acquiesced in the rule of those who, as Blake said, would “forever depress mental and prolong corporeal war.”

Liberalism has been on the side of passivism, in the face of danger; it has been on the side of appeasement, when confronted with aggressive acts of injustice; and finally, in America today, as in England yesterday, liberalism has been on the side of “isolation,” when confronted with the imminent threat of a worldwide upsurgence of barbarism. Today liberals, by their unwillingness to admit the consequences of a victory by Hitler and Stalin, are emotionally on the side of “peace”—when peace, so-called, at this moment means capitulation to the forces that will not merely wipe out liberalism, but will overthrow certain precious principles with which one element of liberalism has been indelibly associated: freedom of thought, belief in an objective reason, belief in human dignity.

The weakness and confusion and self-betrayal of liberalism during the crisis that has now come to a head, provide one of the most pitiable spectacles that these pitiful times have shown.

Unable to take the measure of our present catastrophe and unable, because of their inner doubts and contradictions and subtleties to make effective decisions, liberals have lost most of their essential convictions, for ideals remain real only when one continues to realize them. Liberals no longer act as if justice mattered, as if truth mattered, as if right mattered, as if humanity as a whole were any concern of theirs: the truth is they no longer dare to act. During the period of the United Front, liberals accepted the leadership of a small Communist minority, fanatical, unscrupulous, deeply contemptuous of essential human values, incredibly stupid in tactics and incredibly arrogant in matters of intellectual belief; they accepted this leadership simply because the Communists, alone among the political groups, had firm convictions and the courage to act on them.

Now that the moral treachery of the Communists has placed them alongside their natural tactical allies, the fascists, many of these liberals have, on practical points at issue, even drifted into a covert defense of Hitlerism. They show far more distrust of the English and French and Finnish peoples, who are resisting the barbarians, than they do of the German and Russian masses who follow, blindly, stupidly, irrationally, without access to any sources of objective fact, the leadership of ,Hitler and Stalin. These liberals were against Chamberlain when he sought to appease the fascist powers; and they are still against Chamberlain, now that he has reversed his old position. To comfort themselves and keep to their illusions, they concoct imaginary situations in which Stalin suddenly reverses his obvious plans and undermines Hitler—as if anything would be gained for humanity by substituting one impudent dictator for two….In their imaginary world, these liberals are always right; in the real world, they have been consistently wrong. So victimized are some of these liberals by their protective illusions and self-deceptions that it is easy to predict that they will presently swallow without a grimace Hitler’s hoax that Nazi Germany is defending the masses against the “capitalist plutocracies.”

The Romans used to say that the worst results come about through the corruption of what is good; and one may say this about the present state of liberalism. But the defects of liberalism are not due to isolated mistakes of judgment that individual liberals have made; they are due to fatal deficiencies that go to the very roots of liberal philosophy. Unfortunately, liberalism’s weaknesses are so debilitating that they not merely undermine its own will-to-survive, but they may also give up elements in a longer human tradition, on whose maintenance our very civilization depends.

Liberalism is a very mixed body of doctrine. So it is important that, in discussing its errors, we should detach its essential and enduring values from those which have characterized a particular age, class or group.

Like democracy, with which it has close historic affiliations, liberalism during the last generation has been subject to a violent assault. This came originally from the Marxian revolutionaries of the Left; but the blows were doubled through the triumphant action of the fascist revolutionaries of the Right. By now these extremes have met in their attack on liberalism.

According to the Marxian critics, liberalism arose at the same time as capitalism} and therefore, liberalism ‘s doomed to disappear when capitalism is overthrown, from the Marxian point of view, ideas are but the shadows of existing economic institutions: human liberty depends upon freedom of investment, freedom of trade. One might think, to hear a Marxian critic, that concept of freedom had never been framed before the Manchester school came into existence.

So the anti-liberals, pretending mainly to attack capitalism, have also attacked the belief in the worth and dignity of the individual personality: they have undermined the notion of Humanity, extending beyond race, creed, class or other boundaries. So, too, they have sought to wipe out the concept of an impersonal law, built up by slow accretions that reach back into an ancient past, forming a coherent pattern tending toward justice. The anti-liberals have upheld, rather, the one-sided personal rule of a party or a man. In Germany and Spain the basic concept of law has been so completely overthrown that a man may be tried and convicted for a crime that did not exist in law at the time he committed it.

Now the universal element in liberalism, the moralizing elements, are the real objects of the fascist attacks. These universal elements arose long before modern capitalism: they were part of the larger human tradition, embodied in the folkways of the Jews, in the experimental philosophy of the Greeks, in the secular practices of the Roman Empire, in the sacred doctrines of the Christian Church, in the philosophies of the great post-medieval humanists. The Marxian notion that ideas are always the shadows of the existing economic institutions runs bluntly against facts Precisely at this point. For although a culture forms related organic whole, a residue is left in each period and place which tends to become part of the Several heritage of mankind. This residue is relatively small in amount but infinitely precious; and no single class or people can create it or be its sole keeper.

The effort to equate Manchester liberalism with the humanist traditions of personal responsibility, personal freedom and personal expression is sometimes shared by the defenders of capitalistic privilege; that is the gross fallacy of those who try to tie together private capitalism and “the American way.” But these notions are false, whether held by the absolutists of private property or by the absolutists who would challenge the regime of private property. The most important principles in liberalism do not cling exclusively to liberalism: what gives them their strength is their universality and their historic continuity. Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, testify to them no less than Jefferson and Mill. Liberalism took over this humanist tradition, revamped it, and finally united it to a new body of hopes and beliefs that grew up in the eighteenth century.

This second element in liberalism, which seems to many people as important as the first, rests upon a quite different set of premises. Liberalism in this sense was symbolically a child of Voltaire and Rousseau: the Voltaire who thought that the craft of priests was responsible for the misery of the world, and the Rousseau who thought that man was born naturally good and had been corrupted only by evil institutions. It was likewise a by-product of the inventors and industrialists of the period, who, concentrating upon the improvement of the means of life, thought sincerely that the ends of living would more or less take care of themselves.

This pragmatic liberalism, which I shall here distinguish from the ideal liberalism, was vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And accordingly it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one. That there are modes of insight into man and into the cosmos which science does not possess, the liberal did not suspect; he took for granted that the emotional and spiritual life of man needs no other foundation than the rational, utilitarian activities associated with the getting of a living. Hence, finally, liberalism’s progressive neglect of the fields of esthetics, ethics and religion: these matters were left to traditional thinkers, with the confident belief that they would eventually drop out of existence, mere vestiges of the race’s childhood. On the whole most liberals today have produced no effective thought in any of these fields; and they live, as it were, on the debris of past dogmas and buried formulations. Unconscious, for example, of the sources of their ethical ideas, they pick up more or less what happens to be lying around them, without any effort at consistency or clarity, still less at creativeness: here a scrap left over from childhood, there a fragment of Kant or Bentham, or again a dash of Machiavelli, pacifist Quakers one moment and quaking Nietzscheans the next.

In short, it is not unfair to say that the pragmatic liberal has taken the world of personality, the world of values, feelings, emotions, wishes, purposes, for granted. He assumed either that this world did not exist, or that it was relatively unimportant; at all events, if it did exist, it could be safely left to itself, without cultivation. For him men were essentially good, and only faulty economic and political institutions—defects purely in the mechanism of society—kept them from becoming better. That there might be internal obstacles to external improvement seemed to him absurd. That there was as large a field for imaginative design and rational discipline in the building of a personality as in the building of a skyscraper did not occur to him. Unfortunately, immature personalities, irrational personalities, demoralized personalities are as inevitable as weeds in an uncultivated garden when no deliberate attempt is made to provide a constructive basis for personal development.

Behind this failure to establish, on a fresh basis, a normative discipline for the personality was a singular optimism—the belief that it was not needed. Did not liberalism imply an emancipation from the empty institutional religion, from the saws, precepts, moralizings of the past? Did this not mean that “science,” which confessedly despised norms, would eventually supply all the guidance necessary for human conduct? Such was the innocence of the liberal that those who were indifferent to ethical values thought of themselves as realists. They could hardly understand William James when he called emotionality the sine qua non of moral perception. But the fact was that the most old-fashioned theologian, with a sense of human guilt and human error, was by far the better realist, Though the theologian’s view of the external world might be scientifically weak, his view of the internal world, the world of value and personality, included an understanding of constant human phenomena—sin, corruption, evil—on which the liberal closed his eyes.

Pragmatic liberalism did not believe in a world where the questions of good and evil were not incidental but of radical importance. Its adherents thought that.they would presently abolish the evils inherent in life by popularizing anesthetics and by extending the blessings of the machine. They did not believe in the personal life. That was outmoded. Esthetic interests, moral discipline, the habits of contemplation and evaluation, all this seemed mere spiritual gymnastics: they preferred more physical exercises. By activity (busy work) pragmatic liberals kept their eyes manfully on the mere surface of living. They did not believe that any sensible man would, except when he made his will, face the more ultimate facts of existence, For them, the appraisal of death was a neurotic symptom; happily, science’s steady advances in hygiene and medicine might postpone further and further that unpleasant occasion itself.

This failure to deal with first and last things, to confront, except in a hurried, shamefaced way, the essential facts of life and death, has been responsible for some of the slippery thinking on the subject of war that has characterized liberals recently. One of them, in private conversation, told me that he could not face a political decision which might lead to war and thereby bring about the death of other human beings. When I objected that the failure to make such a decision in the present international crisis would possibly lead to the less fruitful death of the same human beings six months or six years hence, he confessed that any extra time spared for the private enjoyment of life today seemed that much gained. I do not doubt the honesty of this liberal; but it is obvious that he has ceased to live in a meaningful world. For a meaningful world is one that holds a future that extends beyond the incomplete personal life of the individual; so that a life sacrificed at the right moment is a life well spent. while a life too carefully hoarded, too ignominiously preserved, may be a life utterly wasted.

Is it any wonder, then, that pragmatic liberalism has been incapable of making firm ethical judgments or of implementing them with action? Its color-blindness to moral values is its most serious weakness today; hence it cannot distinguish between barbarism and civilization. Indeed, it is even inclined to pass a more favorable verdict on barbarism when it shows superiority in material organization. Refusing to recognize the crucial problem of evil, those who follow this creed are incapable of coping with the intentions of evil men: they look in vain for merely intellectual mistakes to account for the conduct of those who have chosen to flout man’s long efforts to become civilized. Evil for the pragmatic liberal has no positive dimensions: he conceives it as a mere lack of something whose presence would be good, Poverty is an evil, because it indicates the lack of a good, namely riches. For this kind of liberal, the most heinous fact about a war is not the evil intentions and purposes that one or. both sides may disclose: it is mainly the needless waste of material, the unbearable amount of human suffering, the premature deaths.

Lacking any true insight into these stubborn facts of human experience—corruption, evil, irrational desire—liberals also fail to understand that evil often lies beyond purely rational treatment, that a mere inquiry into causes, mere reasonableness and sweetness in one’s attitude, may not only fail to cure an evil disposition but may aggravate it. Now, unfortunately, there are times when an attitude of intellectual humility and sympathy is entirely inappropriate to the press of a particular situation. There are times when active resistance or coercion is the only safeguard against the conduct of men who mean ill against human society. The alternative to coercion is what the religious call conversion, salvation, grace, on the part of the offender. That, too, is essentially a pre-rational process, not hostile to reason, but proceeding by a short cut into an area that reason cannot directly touch. Liberals tend to minimize the effectiveness of both coercion and conversion, both force and grace; but it is hard to point to any large and significant social change in which both elements did not play a part.

Coercion is, of course, no substitute for intelligent inquiry and no cure in itself for anti-social conduct. But just as there are maladies in the human body which call for surgery rather than diet—though diet, if applied at an early stage, might have been sufficient—so there are moments of crisis in society when anti-social groups or nations that resist the ordinary methods of persuasion and compromise must be dealt with by coercion. In such moments, to hesitate, to temporize, only gives the disease a deeper hold on the organism; and to center one’s efforts upon changing the mind of one’s opponent, by opposing reason to his irrationality, and to overlook the elementary precaution of depriving him of his weapons for attacking one, is to commit a fatal offense against the very method one seeks to uphold.

The liberal’s notion that reasoning in the spirit of affable compromise is the only truly human way of meeting one’s opponent overlooks the important part played by force and grace. And his unctuous notion that evil must not seriously be combated because the person who attempts to oppose it may ultimately have to use physical force, and will become soiled by the act of fighting, is a gospel of despair. This belief is the core of his defeatist response to Nazism; it means in practice turning the world over to the rule of the Violent, the brutal and the inhuman, who have no such fine scruples, because the humane are too dainty in their virtue to submit to any possible assault on it. Now the dangers are real: force does brutalize the users of it; when blood is spilt, anger rises and reason temporarily disappears. Hence force is not to be used daily in the body politic, like food or exercise; it is only to be used in an emergency, like medicine or the surgeon’s knife. Fascism is barbarous, not because it uses force, but because it prefers force to rational accommodation: it deliberately turns mental and physical coercion into human nature’s daily food.

But to surrender in advance, to take no step because one may make a false step, is to pursue an illusory perfection and to achieve an actual paralysis. Force cannot be left behind, no matter how humane and rational our standards of conduct. He who under no circumstances and for no human purpose will resort to force, abandons the possibility of justice and freedom. The German socialists took their legalistic pacifism seriously; they got their reward in the concentration camp, The English Laborites, following the nerveless Tory leadership, took the same position in international affairs; and that led not alone to the betrayal of Czecho-Slovakia but to the present endangerment of Western civilization itself.

Despite these sinister examples, the same guileless reasoning has been driving our American liberals into a position of queasy non-resistance, on the ground that the only motive that could sanction our immediate opposition to Hitlerism would be our belief that those opposing him now were angels. People who think in these terms are secretly complimenting themselves upon virtues and purities that neither they nor their countrymen possess; they are guilty of that most typical liberal sin, the sin of Pharisaism. It is because we, too, are not without guilt that we may, in the interest of preserving humanity from more abject humiliations, oppose Hitler and Stalin with a clean heart. To be too virtuous to live is one of the characteristic moral perversions of liberalism in our generation.

The essential moral weakness of liberalism, which I have only glanced at here, is coupled with a larger weakness in the liberal philosophy. Along with liberalism’s, admirable respect for rational science and experimental practice, goes an overvaluation of intellectual activities as such, and an undervaluation of the emotional and affective sides of life. In the liberal theology, emotions and feelings have taken the place of a personal devil, Now as every good psychologist knows, and as Count Korzybski has ably demonstrated, emotions and feelings, associated with the most devious and remote body processes, are involved in all thought. Reason and emotion are inseparable: their detachment is a practical device of limited use. Thought that is empty of emotion and feeling, that bears no organic relation to life, is just as foreign to effective reason as emotion that is disproportionate to the stimulus or is without intellectual foundations and references. The body, the unconscious, the pre-rational are all important to sound thought. But because the liberal has sought no positive discipline for emotion and feeling, there is an open breach between his affective life and his intellectual interests. His first impulse in any situation is to get rid of emotion because it may cause him to go wrong. Unfortunately for his effort to achieve poise, a purely intellectual judgement, eviscerated of emotional reference, often causes wry miscalculations. The calmness and sang-froid of Benes was perhaps his most serious weakness during the long period before the Munich crisis; ominously, it repeated the self-defeating mood of Bruening, in the days preceding his removal. Instead of priding himself on not being “carried away by his emotions,” the liberal should rather be a little alarmed because he often has no emotions that could, under any conceivable circumstances, carry him away.

This is not a new criticism. Graham Wallas lectured on the subject twenty years ago. He showed that in all valid thinking that referred to human situations it was important to be able to use the emotions, not to put them into cold storage. Liberalism, by and large, has prided itself upon its colorlessness and its emotional neutrality; and this liberal suspicion of passion is partly responsible for the liberal’s ineptitude for action. In a friendly world, pragmatic liberalism leads to nothing worse than a tepid and boring life; but in a hostile world, it may easily lead to death. If one meets a poisonous snake in one’s path it is important, for a rational reaction, to have a prompt emotion of fear; for fear releases the flow of adrenin into the bloodstream, and that will not merely put the organism on thc alert but will give it the extra strength either to run away or to attack. Merely to look at the snake abstractedly, without sensing danger and experiencing fear, may lead to the highly irrational step of permitting the snake to draw near without being on guard against the reptile’s bite. The liberal’s lack of a sense of danger when confronted by the avowed programs and the devastating achievements of the totalitarian regimes is one cause of society’s rapid disintegration.

Liberalism under its assumption that men ideally should think without emotion or feeling deprives itself of the capacity to be human. This is one of the gravest features of the present crisis; the cold withdrawal of human feeling by the liberals today is almost as terrible a crime against civilization as the active inhumanity of the fascists. And that withdrawal is responsible for liberalism’s deep-seated impotence.

Closely allied with the liberal’s emotional anesthesia is his incurable optimism—a wrinkled smile left over from the eighteenth century, when, in the first flush of confidence, the possibilities of human advance seemed boundless. This optimism belonged to a constructive and expanding age: in its inception, it was a healthy reaction against the moldering institutions and precedents of the past. But it has become an unfortunate handicap in a period when destructive forces are gaining the upper hand, and when, in the approaching stabilization of population and industry, the malevolence of the human will, on the part of the propertied classes, may at critical moments—as already in Germany and Italy—give unlimited power to those who represent barbarism. Destruction, malice, violence, hold no temptation for the liberal; and in the kindness of his heart, he cannot tiring himself to believe that they may viciously influence the conduct of any large part of mankind. The liberals could not understand that the gift of Czecho-Slovakia to Nazi Germany could not appease Hitler: that one might as well offer the carcass of a dead deer in a butcher store to a hunter who seeks the animal as prey—the meat being valued chiefly as a

symbol of his prowess. And that is why the talk of mere economic adjustments that would enable the fascist states to live at peace with the rest of the world is muddled nonsense; it assumes, contrary to fact, that fascism springs out of rational motives and pursues concrete utilitarian ends. The bad arrangements of the peace of Versailles did not by themselves create fascism, nor will the best results of a magnanimous peace conference be able at once to wipe out its destructive’ impulses and undermine its irrational philosophy, Unfortunately it is not in Ricardo or Marx or Lenin, but in Dante and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, that an understanding of the true sources of fascism are to be found. Economic explanations reflected a reality in the nineteenth century; they disguise a reality—the claim to barbaric conquest—today.

During the last ten years, the optimism of the liberals has remained unshaken. The incurable tendency of the liberal is to believe the best about everybody: to hope when there is no reason to hope, and to exhibit the nicest moral qualms, the most delicate intellectual scruples, in situations that demand that he wade in and coarsely exert his utmost effort. We now face a world that is on the brink, perhaps of another Dark Age; and because a Dark Age is not included in the liberal chronology, liberalism glibly refuses to accept the evidence of its senses. Like the sun-dial, it cannot tell time on a stormy day. So, habitually, the pragmatic liberals brand those whose eyes are open to the human devastation around them as “hysterical,” “mystical,” “having concealed fascist tendencies,” or—taking a leaf from the Hitlerites—as “warmongers.”

Now one must remember that liberalism has two sides. There is an ideal liberalism, deeply rooted in the example and experience of humanity: a doctrine that commands the allegiance of all well disposed men. And there is a transient doctrine of liberalism, the pragmatic side, which grew up in the eighteenth century out of a rather adolescent pride in the scientific conquest of nature and the invention of power machinery: this is the side that emphasizes the utilitarian aspects of life, that concentrates on purely intellectual issues, and that, in its exclusive concern for tolerance and “open-mindedness” is ready to extend its benevolent protection to those who openly oppose the very purposes of civilization. What is important in ideal liberalism are elements like the great Roman notion of Humanity, united in the pursuit of freedom and justice, embracing all races and conditions. This ideal is radically opposed at every point to the autarchy advocated by the fascists; and it is no less opposed to the isolationism, moral and physical and political, advocated by most American liberals —a passive milk-and-water version of the fascist’s contemptuous attitude toward the rest of the human race.

Plainly the liberal who proposes to do nothing oti behalf of humanity until the lives of individual Americans are actually threatened by a fascist military invasion will have very little left to save. For life is not worth fighting for: bare life is worthless. Justice is worth fighting for, order is worth fighting for, culture—the cooperation arid the communion of the peoples of the world—is worth fighting for: these universal principles and values give purpose and direction to human life. At present, the liberals are so completely deflated and debunked, they have unconsciously swallowed so many of the systematic lies and beliefs of barbarism, that they lack the will to struggle for the essential principles of ideal liberalism: justice, freedom, truth. By clinging to the myth of isolationism, they are helping to create that insane national pride and that moral callousness out of which fascism so easily flowers.

What is the result? Pragmatic liberalism has flatly betrayed ideal liberalism. The values that belong to the latter have been compromised away, vitiated, ruthlessly cast overboard. The permanent heritage of liberalism has been bartered for the essentially ignoble notion of national security, in itself a gross illusion. These liberals are loath to conceive of the present war as one Waged by barbarism against civilization. Though many of them were moved by the plight of the Spanish Republicans, they have managed to insulate themselves from any human feeling over the fate of the humiliated and bullied Czechs, the tortured Jews, the murdered Poles, the basely threatened Finns—or the French and English who may next face extermination—just as many of them have managed to keep supremely cool about the horrors that have befallen the Chinese. They have eyes and they see not; they have ears and they hear not; and in their deliberate withholding of themselves from the plight of humanity they have even betrayed their own narrow values, for they are witnessing the dissolution of those worldwide coöperations Upon which the growth of science, technics and industrial wealth depends. This corruption has bitten deep into pragmatic liberalism. The isolationism of a Charles Beard or a Stuart Chase or a Quincy Howe is indeed almost as much a sign of barbarism as the doctrines of a Rosenberg or a Gottfried Feder. No doubt the American liberals mean well; their good intentions are traditional. But they cling to the monstrous illusion that they can save themselves and their country by cutting themselves off—to use Hawthorne’s words in “Ethan Brand”—from the magnetic chain of humanIty. Their success would spell the end of every human hope they still share.

In a disintegrating world, pragmatic liberalism has lost its integrity but retained its limitations. The moral ardor of the eighteenth-century liberals, who faced difficult odds, strove mightily, risked much, has gone, The isolationism that is preached by our liberals today means fascism tomorrow. Their passivism today means militarism, tomorrow. Their emphasis upon mere security today—and this applies especially to the current American youth movement—means the acceptance of despotism tomorrow. While their complacency, their emotional tepidity, their virtuous circumspectness, their willingness to defend civilization with all its faults and all its capacity for rectifying those faults, means barbarism tomorrow. Meanwhile, the ideal values of liberalism lack support and the human horizon contracts before our eyes. While the barbarians brazenly attack our civilization, those who should now be exerting every fiber to defend it are covertly attacking it, too. On the latter falls the heavier guilt.

What are the prospects, then, for the Western World’s surviving the present crisis, with even a handful of the scientific discoveries, the inventions, the literary and esthetic and scholarly achievements, the humanizing patterns of life, that the last three centuries so magnificently created or expanded? Or any candid view, the prospects are poor. Barbarism has seized the initiative and is on the march. But as the crisis sharpens, as the evils that threaten us become more formidable, one possibility remains, born of the crisis itself: the psychological possibility of a large-scale conversion. Are the pragmatic liberals shattered enough yet to be ready for a reintegration? Are they capable of rededicating themselves to the tasks of ideal liberalism? If so, there is at least a ray of hope: the optimism of pathology, a commonplace of both religion and psychoanalysis.

To achieve a new basis for personal development and communal action, the liberal need not abandon his earlier concern for science, mechanism, the rational organization of society. But he can no longer regard the world that is embraced by these things as complete or all-sufficient. The world of political action must transcend that of the Economic Man: it must be as large as the fully developed human personality itself, No mere revision of Marxism, no mere ingenious political program with a few socialistic planks added or taken away, no attempt to make five disparate economic systems produce profit in a community where new social motives must take the place of dwindling or absent profits—none of these shallow dodges will suffice. What is demanded is a recrystallization of the positive values of life, and an understanding of the basic issues of good and evil, of power and form, of force and grace, in the actual world. In short: the crisis presses toward a social conversion, deep-seated, organic, religious in its essence, so that no part of personal or political existence will be untouched by it: a conversion that will transcend the arid pragmatism that has served as a substitute religion. For only the living—those for whom the world has meaning—can continue to live, and willingly make the fierce sacrifices and heroic efforts the present moment demands.

To the disoriented liberals of today one must repeat the advice that Krishna offered Arjuna on the eve of battle, as reported in the Bhagavad-Gita. Like the liberals, Arjuna hesitated, debated, had specious moral scruples, remembered his relatives and friends on the other side, clung to the hope of safety in a situation that did not permit him to enjoy it. Victory, Krishna pointed out, is never guaranteed beforehand; and what is more, it is relevant to the issue one must face. What is important is that one should attend to the overwhelming duty of the moment, in a spirit of  clear-sighted understanding. “Counting gain or loss as one, prepare for battle!” In that spirit—only in that spirit— can civilization still be saved.