, by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (EvKL)
of what he described as “Real Liberalism.” In this post, I will work through his examination of “False Liberalism.” While he sees similarities in the transition in England, it is in the United States where he will focus:
How was it possible that in the United States the word that means freedom-loving, generous, tolerant, open-minded, hostile to state omnipotence and anti-totalitarian, came to stand for the very contrary of all these notions and virtues?
He offers that the explanation is simple: the old-fashioned liberal was often the one who did not resist change, who accepted the “Wave of the Future.” The conservative stood against change, and change was largely a leftist movement.
In other words, the old-fashioned liberal had no defenses against…what shall I call it…bad change. The libertarian, I guess you could say, is an even more impotent position, it would seem.
The leftist ideologies all claimed the future, they claimed utopia, they claimed the millennium in a chiliastic spirit. They believed in the concept of a near-automatic progress (which needed just a little "push").
Isn’t this the promise of all ideologies birthed after the Enlightenment and absent the God that the Enlightenment ignored (and that later periods removed and then killed)?
There were old-fashioned, i.e., genuine liberals who clung to their convictions; Albert Jay Nock, even H. L. Mencken were among them.
As in all movements, transitions of thought, etc., not everything changes at once. Even today we find individuals who stand for what EvKL would call old-fashioned liberal. Interestingly, these now find a much better fit into a conservative camp as opposed to a modern liberal camp. But men such as these are dullards:
As long as there existed a utopia at the end of the road, painted in the colors of absolute personal freedom, the genuine liberal was sure to be a "progressive."
I think what is meant by “genuine” here is the newfangled type of liberal. Certainly in these last couple of paragraphs we also see the split that exists within the libertarian community. It seems to me a strong enough split that I am not sure I would even call it a community.
Sure, on some things we can ride on the train together – for example, and for most (but not all), an anti-war road. But on many things, libertarians will find themselves much more at home with either the left or the right as opposed to with other “libertarians.”
Whereas Jacques Barzun places the great shift in the idea of “liberal” in Europe – what he calls “The Great Switch” – at the turn of the last century and prior to the Great War. EvKL offers a different timeline, at least for the United States:
The Great Change, however, came only in the 1930s when certain Americans, who saw in their country primarily not their fatherland but the" American Experiment," suddenly thought that the" Soviet Experiment" offered even more to mankind.
Perhaps EvKL has a somewhat different transition in view, as his focus is very much on the Soviets and communism, and the acceptance of this ideology within the US intelligentsia (and also, perhaps, in the FDR administration). This certainly was a transition in slope, but not direction, it seems to me. The Progressive ideas of the income tax and central banking, born twenty years earlier in the United States, made the 1930s possible.
While the old liberal didn’t appreciate some of the new ideas, there were enough commonalities to keep many of them involved. In any case, he had previously and willingly lost all defenses, because – among other reasons – “he had previously been robbed of his sense of values.”
EvKl sees this loss having come a half a generation before (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.); regarding this Supreme Court jurist:
…Holmes helped move American legal thinking towards legal realism, as summed up in his maxim: "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." Holmes espoused a form of moral skepticism and opposed the doctrine of natural law, marking a significant shift in American jurisprudence. In one of his most famous opinions, his dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), he regarded the United States Constitution as "an experiment, as all life is an experiment"…
Yes, this is pretty bad, but it seems to me the path was set long before – not later than 1861. Such change doesn’t happen so quickly, nor on so shaky a foundation as a few court rulings. EvKL offers as one example:
As a real positivist Holmes could write that, "Sovereignty is a form of power, and the will of the sovereign is law because he has power to compel obedience or punish disobedience and for no other reason.”
This idea was not new with Holmes; such ideas were both put forward and exercised in Europe centuries earlier. This idea wasn’t even new in America – Abraham Lincoln could certainly be placed squarely within this framework. EvKL offers such similar statements from both Holmes and later justices, but these decisions only exist because it was already acceptable to make such decisions.
Whatever my disagreements with his historical timelines and causes, EvKl provides a good analysis of consequences:
The lack of well-grounded convictions, the absence of a belief in truth create a dangerous hunger. And since nature abhors a vacuum, the absolutes of the totalitarian systems suddenly find customers. The isms then appear on the scene…
The “ism” on which EvKL lays as foundational to all other “isms” is nihilism: in philosophy, nothing in the world has real meaning; in practice, a rejection of all religious and moral principles. All that is left is the material.
He does see parallels in this American transition with events in France before and during the Revolution. I think this is fine as far as it goes, but I am still struggling with his not noting the signs in American life at least beginning with Lincoln – if not Jefferson:
If all spiritual values, if Revelation, if the concept of the natural law, if the Aristotelian tradition were "illusory" and Christian existentialism from St. Augustine to Kierkegaard were "unscientific," then a naked materialism within and outside existentialism might well be the answer.
EvKL cites a book as the roadmap of what is the false liberal, “The City of Man - A Declaration on World Democracy.” To summarize, a one-world “super democracy” is to be the objective, the new religion. From the book:
“This universal religion, harbored in the best minds of our age, this common prayer of democracy militant, was anticipated by sages and saints of all ages. Its substance matured out of whatever rose highest in man's speculations and hopes.”
Libertarianism is for all mankind; all we need do is embrace free markets, and the result will be peace on earth, goodwill toward men. No other foundation is necessary…just free markets.
As EvKl offers, “One wonders who these sages and saints were – certainly not Dante, St. Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, Milton, Calvin, Luther, Nicholas of Cusa, Goethe, St. Ignatius, or Kierkegaard.”
Returning to this new religion, traditional religion must be controlled:
The Proposal tells us bluntly that too much separation between Church and State is not good and that certain controls of religion are quite in order.
There was “too much separation between Church and State” during the Middle Ages – so much so that there was no such thing as “state.” We see today that the separation is almost non-existent. Sure, we can each attend any service on any day of our choosing, but to call this a meaningful separation – as if the church, any church, plays a meaningful governance role or a role of checking state power – makes a mockery of the phrase.
Since American freelancing leftism, parading under the stolen liberal label, is the result of an inversion of its former self, it does not present us with a truly systematic and coherent logical picture. It suffers from inconsistencies and contradictions. … Not being a systematic thinker…[the new liberal] is not really aware of his dilemma.
I can agree fully with this, to even include my left-libertarian…friends…. After all, they do not see or they choose to ignore where their desired road will lead: to the worst totalitarianism ever known to man.
EvKL has a view of the Reformation that I have touched on before, but is worth noting again given my previous examinations of this period:
The Reformation was a rigoristic, conservative movement, a reaction against humanism, against the Renaissance, which eventually became totally transformed by highly secular tendencies emanating, to be true, from cultural trends in the orbis Catholicus.
To emphasize the point, he offers:
Not only would it have been interesting to see Luther's reaction if anybody had called him a "Protestant," a term of contempt coined by the budding Counterreformation, he would also have been amazed at being accused of advocating , “private interpretation”…