Asia & the "Liberal Fallacy"
To the Editor:
I have read Irving Kristol’s review of Chester Bowles’s book (August 1956) with great interest and completely approve of the philosophic foundations of his criticism. My personal experiences in Asia bear this criticism out.
We see the world conflict in terms of certain philosophic juxtapositions, such as freedom versus tyranny, the individual versus the total state, democracy versus Communism. Yet these juxtapositions are not only irrelevant to the situation in Asia and Africa, they are also unintelligible to almost all Asians and Africans. Between these philosophic abstractions and the actual aspirations of the masses of Asia and Africa there exists no organic relation at all. What these peoples want is not freedom in the abstract but freedom from white domination and exploitation, real or fancied. What they seek is not a higher standard of living in the rational, individualistic terms which capitalism has developed in the West, but rather industrial development as the symbol and actuality of national power. In this context the steel mill performs a symbolic function which for other societies the cathedral, the feudal castle, or the monarch’s palace performed. Similarly the steel mill is sought regardless of the rational function it performs for the national economy and the welfare of the individual.
To identify the power objectives of this irrational upheaval with the rational goals of an enlightened liberal capitalism is both intellectually mistaken and politically self-defeating. For the uncritical and undiscriminating sympathy with those revolutionary movements, derived from a non-existing philosophic affinity which would be irrelevant in any case, blinds us to our own political interests and disarms us in the face of mortal peril. Reading into the policies of another nation our own ideals, we persuade ourselves that the other nation wants what we want and hence deserves our support. This is a typical liberal fallacy. Palmerston and Gladstone were guilty of it. When Hitler demanded the Sudetenland by invoking the liberal principle of national self-determination, the London Times came to his ideological support with obvious pride: “Self-determination, the professed principle of the Treaty of Versailles, has been invoked by Herr Hitler against its written text, and his appeal has been allowed.” Thus we tend to believe today that what the signers of the Declaration of Independence wanted is identical with what the revolutionary leaders of Asia and Africa want. This being so, we support them with policies that might be adequate if the ideals of our revolutionary tradition were identical with theirs.
Hans J. Morgenthau
Center for the Study of American Foreign Policy
University of Chicago