Commentary Magazine


Liberalism

To the Editor:

There can be agreement over William Kristol’s description of what liberalism has wrought. But like many of the younger conservatives, he has not really faced up to liberalism’s philosophical, ideological, and psychological involvements. This becomes clearest in one paragraph of “A Conservative Looks at Liberalism” [September 1993].

Mr. Kristol speaks of the effect on liberalism of “the collapse of the Soviet Union and more broadly of Marxism.” And he continues: “As long as it existed, Soviet Communism forced some sort of reality check on liberalism, reminding it that there were enemies to the Left. . . . The collapse of Marxism has removed the last barrier to the tendency within liberalism to push liberal doctrines to destructive extremes.”

Perhaps Mr. Kristol should read, or reread, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, or dip into the vast cloaca of liberal apologetics. Liberalism took a stand from the 1950′s on, but only against Stalinism. It used the ploy of “moral equivalence” to modify its criticism of the Soviet system. But though it made comic faces at Communism, it still harbored an attachment to the root philosophy that stemmed from Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The criticism of Communism’s latter-day saints was that they were bunglers and corrupt, not utterly and devastatingly wrong.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a liberating event for liberalism because liberals could proclaim the philosophy that motivated Communism without displaying the stigma of pro-Communism. In the name of humanity, they could advance Marxism’s anti-human and morally regressive doctrines. They could eschew the Nechayevism that inspired Lenin, and, drenched in Mithraic gore, move ahead with programs that struck directly at the survival of the American system. Some liberals now call themselves Democrats and others environmentalists, but both would prefer that a thousand humans die rather than to see one tse-tse fly, politically speaking, swatted.

What is operative today is a moral and political Gresham’s Law. Conservatives deplore the rise in homosexuality, which strikes at the very survival of society, but fail to make the clear connection between that rise and the prevalence of an aggressive and mindless feminism based on the alienation of the sexes and the degrading of men. Liberalism’s rhetoric calls for class war in terms as direct as those of Marx and Engels. Conservatives like myself who applauded the civil-rights legislation of Hubert Humphrey now find ourselves not with a color-blind society but with the “liberalism” of blacks and whites who would return to Plessy v. Ferguson and ordained racialism. Few dare to say it, but much of the crime in the inner cities is the result of violent forces unleashed not by Simon Legree but by the Marxist corruption of civil-rights principles.

Mr. Kristol is correct when he notes that one of the motivations, and an important one, of today’s liberals is the perpetuation and preservation of the power they have exercised since 1933. But he does not see that all too often those who oppose liberalism have subscribed to Disraeli’s dictum: “A sound conservative government? I understand: Tory men and Whig measures.” What else did we have when Richard Nixon proclaimed himself a Keynesian? Not that older conservatives such as myself propose a rigid orthodoxy. But conservatism should be more than, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

Ralph de Toledano
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

I agree with William Kristol that “the conservative task is not to contain . . . liberalism but to transcend it.” But . . . until conservatives come to understand and accept classical natural law, they are not likely to succeed in . . . transcending liberalism. The sad thing is that conservatives have permitted their very proper distaste for most, if not all, forms of modern natural law to overcome what should be their instinctive liking for classical natural law. Conservatives today are strangely inclined to follow the teaching of moral skeptics and relativists like Michael Oakeshott and F.A. Hayek. Oakeshott throws out the baby (classical natural law) with the bathwater (modern natural law). Hayek reduces natural law, ultimately, to social conventions. Are they really the right teachers?

I believe there has been a general failure to distinguish classical natural law and modern natural law, and this failure has led to a fatal wrong turn in our historical path. Modern natural law is abstract, nominalistic, and suspicious of experience—not surprisingly, it is the soil out of which liberalism sprang in the 16th and 17th centuries. By contrast, classical natural law is realistic and rooted in experience; it transcends relativism by reflecting, in a normative way, on what that experience means in light of what is, demonstrably, the natural course of conduct of human life. Liberalism and classical natural law are, in any sense that is meaningful, completely antithetical, so the failure of today’s conservatives to appreciate and defend classical natural law can only mean that they do not really see what is wrong with liberalism as an idea; they are preoccupied with its manifestations.

Like most conservatives, Mr. Kristol places some stock in the hope of a religious revival. I am sympathetic to such hopes. But what kind of religion are we talking about? In particular, what would be the effect of a Protestant revival, given that the Reformation is, historically, one of the taproots of liberalism and individualism? . . . Will the new religious values succeed in throwing off the shackles of liberalism? Moreover, how likely is it that a religious revival will affect the elites who occupy our culture’s commanding heights? And what, finally, are we to do in the meantime?

Such questions, and the points raised above, force me to conclude that classical natural law is the only good antidote to what Mr. Kristol nicely calls “liberalism and its depredations.”

Kenneth D. Zaretzke
San Diego, California

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To the Editor:

I am so relieved to see that William Kristol has a real solution to our society’s collapse of faith! No doubt his liberal-bashing will solve many of our cultural ills. With his finger-pointing generalities, he is just as bad as those whom he condemns. . . .

By implying that the “bold new conservatism” should somehow curtail philosophical multicultural-ism, Mr. Kristol nearly insists that people betray their values and identity. If he does manage to get his way, who is going to explain to that little Jewish girl why she has to sing “Jesus Loves Me” in school? . . .

Mr. Kristol appears unwilling to offer any specific suggestions for improvement, except, of course, total control by his “bold new conservatism.” . . .

Judith Singer
Mount Prospect, Illinois

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