Philosophy, Politics

James Burnham on liberalism and decline

James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism proposes the thesis that modern liberalism is the ideology of a society in decline; its doctrines motivate and justify the contraction of Western civilization and reconciles us to it.

In the chapter “Liberalism vs. Reality” Burnham observes that liberals feel uncomfortable about power and force. Liberals are reluctant to use force against  ordinary criminals (which are, after all, just “victims” of an unjust society) but feel little hesitation to use it against those who are productive and successful.

It is not that liberals, when they enter the governing class…never make use of force; unavoidably they do, sometimes to excess. But because of their ideology they are not reconciled intellectually and morally to force. They therefore tend to use it ineptly, at the wrong times and places, against the wrong targets, in the wrong amounts.

Although Burnham ends his book by considering the possibility of a reversal of modern liberalism, the section that precedes it reads as follows:

Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution; and this function its formulas will enable it to serve right through to the very end, if matters turn out that way: for even if Western civilization is wholly vanquished or altogether collapses, we or our children will be able to see that ending, by the light of the principles of liberalism, not as a final defeat, but as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions and discrimination of the past.