Editor’s Note: Ralph de Toledano passed away last Saturday, at the age of 90. Among his many endeavors in journalism and politics was assisting in the founding of National Review. Here we re-publish a piece by him, appearing in the November 9, 1957, issue of National Review.
This condensation of a chapter on the roots of American liberalism is taken from Lament for a Generation, a work in progress. For reasons of space, much of the documentation and background have been omitted. What is here excerpted must be read in the context of the book as a whole—an intellectual biography, an apologia pro vita mea, and the log of a journey toward Damascus. R. de T.
The ritual hold of liberalism is so great that one renounces with reluctance the security it affords. Along the intellectual highways, the ditches are strewn with the wrecked careers of those who rebelled against its established order. Yet for some of us the break had to be made. For it became apparent that compulsion, not liberty or respect for law, was the core of American liberalism from the very start — compulsion in the name of liberty, popular violence in the name of suasion, and force in the name of justice. (If John Brown were alive today, he would be chairman of Americans for Democratic Action.) Liberalism, in short, was “opinion in arms” — Pitt’s description of the French Revolution.
It was not until I began examining the liberal Hall of Fame — and the writer-activists who fill it — that I approached an understanding of liberalism’s basic tenets. Mixed into the most pious appreciations of liberty and freedom, the statist concept was a constant in their formulations. Lassalle, Fourier, the Saint-Simon who protested that in society the parts must be subordinated to the whole, Andrew Jackson and his cavalier defiance of the Supreme Court and rule by law, even Mr. Justice Brandeis in his deep conviction that “our great experiment in democracy” would fail unless the State intervened in the life of its people and “fitted its rulers for their task” — these were the men who won the affection or respect of the liberals.
The precursors of contemporary liberalism, the men who supplied mood more than idea, offered wonderful generalities to the generations to come, but in specific they were devotees of slavery and madness. The Abbe Andre Morellet gets less than a sentence in Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, but he endowed the French Revolution and what followed it. His Code of Nature, deeply influential in the eighteenth century, announced that private ownership was an “abomination and anyone trying to reintroduce it” in society should be “treated as a dangerous lunatic, an enemy of mankind, and imprisoned for life. . . .”
Babeuf and his Society of Equals sought to bring virtue and good citizenship to the world by having the State “seize upon the new-born individual” in order to “watch over his early moments.” He wished, as he attacked the Directoire, to abolish all family life and impose complete censorship. Robert Owen believed in the common man and the dignity of labor, but was among the first of the industrialists to establish a system of factory espionage in order to get full measure from his employes — for their own good. Saint-Simon decried ideas of individual liberty and seriously believed that the vision which came to him one night of Newton as God’s right-hand angel was not only true revelation but a key to the world’s organization.
These men should have been greeted as the grotesques of intellectual history, the jesters in the court of ideas, the Danny Kayes of the mind whose bibbledy-babbledy should have amused, though not for long. But the romantic optimism which glorified savages and expected finished sonnets from charwomen did not consider madness a handicap to reason or political philosophy. Fourier, Saint-Simon, and the others (however schizophrenic) wrote their books, organized their fellows, and thoroughly seeded the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “I know of no true measure of men,” Mr. Justice Holmes once opined, “except the total of human energy they embody.” These were energetic men — a characteristic they shared with the peripatetic citizen Tom Paine, who devoted himself to res publica, the public good, but ignored, in the manner of contemporary liberalism, the rights and the safety of those who might stand in opposition to the all-powerful majority. “That which a nation chooses to do,” he said anticipating Hitler, “it has a right to do.”
American Liberal Thought The flow of American liberalism carried along men like Thomas Jefferson — the Jefferson who feared the past as the greatest of evils and warned against judicial restraints on Congress. But Jefferson was above the roughshod partisanship (and the vulgar deism) of Tom Paine, and he could see the dangers of urban Jacobinism and its “mobs” which acted like “sores” on the body politic.
Jefferson’s sense of what Pascal called l’esprit de finesse (the intuitive, the human, and the concrete) as opposed to l’esprit de geometrie (the reasoned, the abstract, and the dehumanized) rescued him from the rapids. He remained always a man of instinct as well as a thinker. More than any political philosophy, he contributed to the nation an intuition of human worth and a hope for minimal government. But the mainstream of American liberal thought flowed straight from the Paines and the Samuel Adamses, picking up the European flotsam of doctrine and carrying it along in a river swollen by an overflowing watershed.
There was the populism of Andrew Jackson (“John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it”); locofocoism and the class-war rhetoric of Fanny Wright; William Cullen Bryant singing a cautious Fabianism and Albert Brisbane countering with his own brand of Fourierism; the collectivist tentations of Horace Greeley as he dandled the doctrines of the “social architects”; Melville’s “unconditioned democracy” and those “Social Plans” of Margaret Fuller which even Emerson hootingly called “the Age of Reason in a pattypan”; and Emerson’s own concept of an “ethical” sovereignty promising “higher rights than those of personal freedom.” Certainly there were conflicts in social and philosophical thinking — Mao Tse-tung and Nikita Khrushchev pick their hundred flowers differently — and the liberals of the past often measured alike only to Procrustes. But there were also certain very basic agreements — as I discovered when the need to identify myself with liberalism ceased to intimidate me or rust the hinges of my mind. It was these basic similarities which pointed the way to socialism.
The paradoxes inherent in those similarities are Chestertonian — or Orwellian: The horrified rejection of Original Sin — and the nagging fear that man’s “natural goodness” led him astray and must be tempered by a paternalistic state which feeds him, clothes him, and does not permit him to succumb to himself; the glowing dream of a house of freedom — with bars on its windows to hold in those who did not like it; the hope of an open society — so carefully blueprinted that no tolerance was allowed; suspicion of the leviathan State—and a set of economic theories which could only create a supersociety.
“Dynamite Old Conceptions” The late Herbert Croly, a distinguished liberal and the editor last to see the New Republic alive and well, suggested that the Constitution was outdated, and that the time would come when the “fulfillment of justifiable democratic purpose” would “demand” the limitation of those rights to which “the Constitution offers such absolute guarantees.” In effect, he foresaw an antagonism between the ends of democracy and the Bill of Rights—written in as a means to democracy by the Founding Fathers — and he proposed a “revolutionary” solution.
By 1931, Edmund Wilson’s Appeal to American Progressives had left Croly far behind and was in fact criticizing him, for believing in “the salvation of our society by the natural approximation to socialism which he himself called progressivism but which has more generally come to be known as liberalism.”
The long day was coming to a close, and Wilson had taken the first steps down the short road from liberal socialism to Communism. I had just about reached the precocious state when the New Republic, perched on the magazine rack of the library of my school, began to have a magnetic influence. Like many of my elders, I read the Wilson appeal:
“I believe that if the American radicals and progressives who repudiate the Marxist dogma and the strategy of the Communist Party still hope to accomplish anything valuable, they must take Communism away from the Communists, and take it without ambiguities, asserting that their ultimate goal is the ownership by the government of the means of production. If we want to prove the Communists wrong, if we want to demonstrate that the virtue has not gone out of American democracy . . . an American opposition must not be afraid to dynamite old conceptions and shibboleths and to substitute new ones as shocking as necessary.”
And so the floodgates were opened. Liberalism had put aside the minimalist socialism of its childish days, turned with a snarl on the Social Democrats, and begun the rapid descent into the Popular Front. Much of the new attitude was posturing and bravado; it made John Reeds of Walter Mittys with delightful ease and no bad consequences. But the Soviet underground did not smile as it made full use of these Socialist-cum-Keynesian-cum-Communist idealists. They packed the party fronts, they opened their hearts and their pockets, they furnished protective coloration, they created an intellectual and moral climate.
On the first level were the men who never committed treason or espionage, but who like Archibald MacLeish believed that if America was promises, the Soviet Union was money in the bank. It is fashionable to excuse this folly, to say that it was unthinking boyish exuberance. But MacLeish, to single out one whipping boy, knew precisely what he was doing. He joined the other liberals, then happily engaged in their trahison des clercs, and participated in the organized hatreds and the campaigns of vilification against those retarded intellectuals who would not plunge into the bog after the will o’ the wisp. James Rorty, whose latest public act was a journalistic attack on Senator McCarthy, once recalled in a letter to Partisan Review his conversations with MacLeish and his efforts to wean him away from the grip of the Stalinists in the League of American Writers. MacLeish, Rorty concluded, “was not duped or ‘used’ . . . He acted with full knowledge and consent. Indeed, it would appear that the danger of rape is one from which MacLeish is peculiarly exempted.”
In most cases, there was little need to threaten rape. The victims were willing, even anxious, to enjoy the experience. When Stalin’s deliberate liquidation of millions of kulaks in the induced famine of the 1930s brought mild protest from those few willing to meet a fact halfway, the liberals did not try to deny it. They quoted with relish what Walter Duranty cabled from Moscow to the New York Times and eventually formalized in his book, I Write As 1 Please:
“It may be objected that vivisection of living animals is a sad and dreadful thing, and it is true that the lot of kulaks and others who have opposed the Soviet experiment is not a happy one, but again, in both cases, the suffering inflicted is done with a noble purpose.”
To those who nodded their assent, the sacredness of human life was less than a municipal ideal — and there was much comfort in Mr. Justice Holmes’ equally liberal dictum that socialism would be worthy of serious consideration only when it took “life in hand” to prevent the “continuance of the unfit.”
In a moral sense, this was the context of liberalism between the collapse of the stock market in 1929 and the end of the wartime alliance with Russia. There was. of course, the hiatus of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
But the postwar hangover — the revulsion from the love of Russia and the tacit support of Communist purpose — was neither so deep nor so lasting as some liberals would have had us believe during the McCarthy Era. In 1947, John Fischer could classify as liberals “the Progressive Citizens of America, who welcome fellow-travelers on the grounds that there is no harm in being just a little bit pregnant with Communism.” Within three years, such a statement would have brought down upon him the wrath of the liberals for implying 1) that there might be the slightest connection between liberalism and Communism, and 2) that there was anywhere within the continental limits of the United States either a Communist or a fellow-traveler. Nevertheless that hangover existed.
That hangover forced liberals to move away temporarily from the front-joining salons into a henhouse of their own which they named with some aplomb Americans for Democratic Action. The sight of the Russian bear munching on the hand which had fed it during the critical war years made the term “anti-Communist” respectable — and so ADA labeled itself. Within a space of years. it had switched to the filter-tipped slogan of NCL — non-Communist Left — and had begun to define anti-Communists as those “who are attacking our traditional freedoms of conscience and expression and political opposition.”
The contemporary liberals have been seized by a hysteria or passion that works against normal political intercourse and even against the decencies of life. When Dr. George S. Counts, chairman of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, attempted to warn a colleague, Professor H. H. Wilson of Princeton, that he had been drawn into a Communist front, the rebuff was shocking to a degree which would have encouraged ostracism in another atmosphere. The Counts telegram had merely stated: “DISTRESSED TO LEARN YOUR PARTICIPATION FORTHCOMING CONFERENCE EMERGENCY CIVIL LIBERTIES COMMITTEE ARE YOU AWARE THIS ORGANIZATION A COMMUNIST FRONT WITH NO SINCERE INTEREST LIBERTY UNITED STATES OR ELSEWHERE URGE RECONSIDER.” Wilson’s answer was in the current tradition of scholarly discourse: “REGRET YOUR ILLNESS, SUGGEST IMMEDIATE PSYCHIATRIC CARE.” The only reaction in the academic community was one of approbation for Wilson, for the sensibilities of the scholarly community had been dulled by its association with liberal power politics. Liberalism’s moral nerve had atrophied.
The Ultimate Paradox I cannot say that this — or any other — episode was the clincher in that process of alienation from the liberals which for me had begun in the war years. I had long since given up hope of finding a political, economic, or moral rationale for their behavior. Nor can I point to any one event, or series of events, which made me realize like the man in the story that there was a hair in it. The historical and personal analysis of these pages came after the fact, not before it but among the forces influencing my flight from liberalism was the impact of the liberal switch on John Dos Passos, a writer far more serious and far more evocative than the facile Hemingway, who had been one of the idols of my formative days. A fighter against injustice and an enemy of all power concentrations, an anarchist somewhat in the rich Iberian sense but rooted also in Jefferson’s “circle of felicities,” Dos Passos had held to principle in the twenties, in the Popular Front thirties, and in the years which followed his break with the New Deal and the socialists. In his Reminiscences of a Middle-Class Radical, he touched fieetingly on the consequences of his consistency:
“When some of us, still applying the standards we had learned in trying to defend Sacco and Vanzetti and the Harlan miners, the Spanish Republicans and a hundred other less publicized victims of oppression of one sort or another, started looking with a critical but not necessarily unfriendly eye at the New institutions [of of the New Deal power complex] we got a good shellacking from the defenders of the established order for our pains, [National Review, February 15, 1956.]“
The point of view and the humanity implicit in Nineteen-Nineteen and The Big Money, the repugnance to brutality and the vested interest, were all to be found in The Grand Design and Adventures of a Young Man — but the liberals who loved him for his condemnations of the House of Morgan and World War One called Dos Passos “reactionary” (or worse) for his animadversions on the Rooseveltian fulfilled premise and promise of a government which “used all its power and resources” to impose “social controls.” To the liberals, from Sam Adams to Truman, there was no room for disagreement. Only obliteration could serve.
Gentle reader, I have said it: in morals, politics, and economics the context of liberalism was corrupt. And that corruption stemmed from one corrupting influence: the doctrine that all absolutes are evil with the exception of the absolute State. For the ultimate liberal paradox, the crux of the argument, was always in the absolutism which perforce derived from the relativistic. It was for no want of personal goodness or innate morality that the liberal rejected the free society and embraced the dominant State. In his heart he was no worse, no better, than other men. But in a system which held as relative all the restraints on human behavior — the values of truth, justice, honor — where could he find balance? “Science makes no attempt to study or describe reality,” the sociologist Crane Brinton wrote. “Science is not even concerned with truth in the sense that the word has . . . for theologians, for a good many other people, and perhaps for common sense.” And anything beyond the Cartesian was a “metaphysical fog” to the liberal. Yet there had to be some hold to reality, some clinging to authority, and this could be furnished only by the State.
It was this paradox which molded liberalism in the days of the Founding Fathers, in the mind of Rousseau, in the hands of Robespierre. It is this faith which slides underfoot through the subconscious of Vernon Parrington’s massive work. Yet having rejected the serpentine way, what then? Do we echo St. John Perse:
“There has always been this clamour, there has always been this furor. And this tall surf at the pitch of passion always . . .”