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RUSSELL KIRK, Ritualistic Liberalism - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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TO MR. CHESTER BOWLES, ci-devant advertising man, sometime ambassador to India, President Kennedy has issued letters of marque. Surveying, and perhaps helping to intensify, the problems of Ruanda-Urundi or Kashmir, Mr. Bowles is to scurry over the face of the world, scattering broadcast American optimism and good-will. Having been engaged in this scurrying for some years, between periods of lecturing and platform-writing in these United States, Ambassador Bowles may be counted upon to utter platitudes in fifty nations, and then write a new book repeating those platitudes for Americans. And his are illusory platitudes. They are the slogans and shallow understandings which have produced, for instance, the devastation and anarchy in the Congo today.
It was Professor Sidney Hook, I believe, who coined the term “ritualistic liberalism” to describe the condition into which much of American “liberal” opinion is fallen nowadays: an infatuation with old liberal slogans untempered by any prudential examination of the exigencies of our hour, an ideological fidelity to the liberal letter that forgets the liberal spirit. Mr. Hook was referring principally to the attitude that many American liberals take toward the Communist movement. A similar ritualism, I suggest—a like attitude that the mere repetition of liberal formulas and evocation of god-terms can suffice in dealing with our present discontents—may be discerned in the concept of American foreign policy entertained by many liberals.
Of such gentlemen, Mr. Bowles is an eminent representative; he is, indeed, the principal darling, more dear even than Mr. Adlai Stevenson, of the unreconstructed ritualistic liberals of Southern California. His popular and repetitious books—Ambassador’s Report, The New Dimensions of Peace, Ideas, People and Peace—have exerted some influence, although not a power sufficient to get Mr. Bowles into the Senate, obtain him the presidential or vice-presidential nomination, or even to secure him a cabinet post. But these hasty works have secured him some national following and a good deal of attention in the press. The acerbic demolition of Mr. Bowles’ notions about foreign policy by scholars such as Professor Hans Morgenthau may have caused responsible politicians to shy away from the Ambassador; but, curiously enough, these criticisms have not much affected Mr. Bowles’ credit in certain quarters of the Academy.
Five years ago, Mr. Bowles seemed to be taken as a serious authority on foreign affairs in some of our leading universities. In 1956, he delivered both the Godkin Lectures at Harvard (named for E. L. Godkin of The Nation) and a somewhat similar series at the University of California; these soon were published under the respective titles of American Politics in a Revolutionary World and Africa’s Challenge to America. That lectures so superficial should be heard respectfully by famous universities, and published by university presses, may suggest how far ritualistic liberalism still affects the higher learning in this country. For statecraft, professors of arts and sciences turn to an advertising-promoter.
Now that Mr. Bowles is lecturing to lesser breeds without the law on the way to peace and freedom, with the grand sanction of the American government, it may be worth while to glance again at these two slim books, presumably his most serious works, since they originated as university lectures. I do not find that they improve with time, or that Mr. Bowles was a true prophet. What a commonsensical liberal like old E. L. Godkin would have said to Bowles’ band of liberalism, I think I know.
CHESTER BOWLES IS a thoroughgoing utilitarian and political universalist, convinced that all societies ought to be reconstituted in our American image, and that we ought to pay for the process. By an American-sponsored industrialization of “underdeveloped regions,” under forced draft, he would have Americans out-materialize the Soviet materialists. (He sounds, indeed, oddly like Khrushchev, here and there—reminiscent, for instance, of Khrushchev’s scowling admonition to the Javanese that they ought to abolish their handicrafts and turn to standardized industrial production.) The world is to become one immense copy of American society, repeating the campaign phrases of Jefferson and F.D.R., copying American technology, adopting our manners and institutions, and presumably inheriting all our problems and afflictions. Mr. Bowles’ brand of One-Hundred-Per-Cent-Americanism—so the argument runs—may be imposed quite simply, with equal facility, upon the ancient civilizations of India and the primitive peoples of central Africa.
Such is Mr. Bowles’ variety of liberalism, inherited (though possibly Mr. Bowles does not know it) from Bentham and James Mill. Whatever things are established—except, of course, the American liberal ideology—are anathema to Ambassador Bowles. There comes to my mind Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the word conservative, in The Devil’s Dictionary. “Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of old evils, as contrasted with the liberal, who would replace them with new.” Now Mr. Bowles is precisely that sort of liberal innovator; and nowhere does he reveal much awareness that we Americans possess the talent for distributing evils, as well as benefits.
I interject here a general proposition having some relation to American foreign policy. It seems to be a law governing all life, from the unicellular inanimate forms to Socrates and Gautama, that every living organism endeavors, above all else, to preserve its identity. Whatever lives, tries to make itself the center of the universe; and it resists with the whole of its power the endeavors of competing forms of life to assimilate it to their substance and mode. Every living thing prefers even death, as an individual, to extinction as a distinct species. Now if the lowliest alga struggles to the death against a threat to its peculiar identity, we ought not to be surprised that men and nations resist desperately and even unreasoningly any endeavor to assimilate their character to that of some other social body. This resistance is the first law of their being, extending deep below the level of consciousness. There is one sure way to make a deadly enemy, and that is to propose seriously to anyone, “Submit yourself to me, and I will improve your condition by relieving you from the burden of your own identity and reconstituting your personality in my image.”
Yet this is just what Mr. Chester Bowles, with wondrous good will and innocence, proclaims as a rallying-cry for American policy makers in a revolutionary world. Mr. Bowles, to be sure, does not use precisely these phrases, and really seems to be unaware of the grand assumption behind his own humanitarian projects; but our author’s naivete does not alter the nature of the first principles upon which his scheme is erected.
“The most powerful ideas and principles in the history of man are closely linked with the evolution of American democracy,” Mr. Bowles writes in American Politics. “Today it is our revolution for self-determination, for human dignity, and for expanding economic opportunities which is alive and marching in Burma, India, and the Philippines, in Nigeria, the Sudan, and Tunisia, indeed throughout the non-communist world.”
In both these books, as in his earlier writings, he implies repeatedly that modern revolutionary movements—Soviet movements excepted—have been directly inspired by knowledge of the American Revolution. Africa’s Challenge concludes with “the fervent hope that we shall soon come to view the Soviet challenge not negatively as a mortal danger, but positively as an opportunity for which the continuing political, social, and industrial revolution of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Henry Ford has equipped us as no other people on earth.” Revolutions are made, he informs us, out of devotion to the writings of “Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson.” A Revolution of Rising Expectations, in imitation of American theory and experience, “shapes the attitudes and aspirations of the one and a half billion people of India, Africa, and South America,” and its objectives are “freedom from foreign domination, political or economic; a full measure of human dignity regardless of race, religion or color; and increased economic opportunities, broadly shared.”
Liberal democracy is the passion of these rebels against things established: “The national revolutions in Europe and South America in the last century, the reform movements under the Tsar in Russia, Sun Yat-Sen’s struggles in China, the Congress party effort in India, the beginnings of the independence movements in Africa, were all taken in the name of liberal democracy.”
Well! Is this sort of breathless recitation of historical error and partisan cliche taken for political philosophy at Harvard and California nowadays? Mr. Bowles’ phrases might have been written by one of the schoolboys in the first chapter of Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, cribbed from a “liberal” ideologue’s dull textbook. To pick his thesis to pieces is to break a butterfly on the wheel, but if this manner of reasoning and proof is taken seriously at American universities, someone has to plumb the depths of Mr. Bowles’ ignorance.
Even a hasty reading of a book such as Professor D. M. Brogan’s The Price of Revolution ought to inform any undergraduate of Mr. Bowles’ thorough incompetence as historian and political theorist. The revolutions of the twentieth century were made not in imitation of the American Revolution, but out of very different circumstances and materials; and so far as they were conscious imitations of any earlier revolution, it was the French Revolution. What lip-service these latter-day revolutionaries have paid to the American experience has come after the fact of their own revolutionary triumph. Mr. Bowles repeatedly confounds the concept of liberty with the concept of democracy, and the idea of nationalism with the idea of the dignity of man. Sun Yat-Sen took his principles from Marx, not from Jefferson and Adams; the Indian and African revolts against British dominion owed much more to the London School of Economics than they did to the Declaration of Independence; and we ascend into a Cloud Cuckoo Land of political fantasy if we pretend that American constitutionalism is the inspiration of the Westernized socialist regime in Burma, of the Sudanese tribes, and of the nationalists in Tunis.
THIS INDIFFERENCE to historical fact dominates the proofs for Mr. Bowles’ thesis, as well as the general argument itself. The blunders are so numerous and obvious in both books that it is embarrassing to touch upon them. In Africa’s Challenge, for instance, Mr. Bowles informs us that John Adams believed “the development of American democracy” to be “the ‘opening of a grand scene and design of Providence for the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth’.” Then, in American Politics, he undoes himself by quoting Adams correctly. Adams did not write “American democracy,” but “the settlement of America,” which is a different thing. Of the Abyssinians, he writes in Africa’s Challenge, “Their religion is Orthodox of the same strain as the Coptic Christian Church of Egypt.” Neither Coptic nor Abyssinian churches are Orthodox, in plain fact; they are Monophysite. (This is one of the few instances in which Mr. Bowles touches at all upon religious opinion.) One may excuse a hasty traveller like Mr. Bowles, flying excitedly from celebrity to celebrity in Asia and Africa, for such slips; but when that hurried globe-trotter turns political pontiff. . . . He writes of “the Cambridge-Oxford liberal-arts system” with the presumption and the ignorance of a high-school debater. But we sink into bathos.
Thus the ideologue fits facts to his Procrustean bed. Charismatic phrases, god-terms, are everything to a gentleman of Mr. Bowles’ cast of mind; history and prudence are next to nothing. One of the phrases which especially fascinates Mr. Bowles is “self-determination.” This is an end in itself, because Woodrow Wilson employed it, and Woodrow Wilson belonged to Mr. Bowles’ party, and was Liberal and Progressive—Mr. Bowles thinks. Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of immediate Self-Determination everywhere. Full speed ahead, and damn the consequences. “When harried American policy-makers suggest that under present-day conditions such principles as self-determination are valid in some years and not in others, or that they apply to white Poles but not to dark-skinned Africans, the disillusionment of the people in Asia, Africa, and indeed throughout most of the world, is profound.”
Mr. Bowles displays not the slightest awareness of how destructive a force fanatical insistence upon “self-determination,” down to the tiniest “cultural group,” has been in our century; nor how this has been employed most advantageously by the tyrants of our age. In his scheme, there is no room at all for political prudence, nor for dull considerations of practical differences and limitations. The world must become one vast America—plus the Welfare State—before the decade is out. (The Welfare State, Mr. Bowles writes, also is of American origin!)
Although American society and the American economy, and a peculiar ideology of Americanism, are Mr. Bowles’ pattern for a universal order, Mr. Bowles has singularly little appreciation of practical American political achievement and singularly small knowledge of American political thought. There is next to nothing about Order and Justice in Mr. Bowles’ books; and by Freedom he usually means national Self-Determination, not private rights. What he seeks is not Order and Justice and Freedom, but conformity to an abstraction he calls Liberal Democracy, equalitarian and industrialized. And this Liberal Democracy does not seem to mean to Mr. Bowles the historical reality which we have known for the past century. His Liberal Democracy exists in a Utopian future. He feels some contempt for Britain and France, in their present difficulties with liberal democracy and the welfare state, and waxes impatient with America because of her stubborn attachment to prudence in politics. Where, then, are we to find our models for Liberal Democracy? This is what Mr. Bowles tells us on page 87 of American Politics: “In other democracies—Germany, India, Israel, Burma—where there is basic agreement upon a worthy national purpose yet to be achieved, there is no failure to mobilize the necessary energies and resources through the mechanisms of democracy.”
So these are our models: Germany, with a pattern of government imposed by her conquerors and scarcely fifteen years old; India, dominated by a single party; Israel, the garrison-state complete; Burma, clawing at the brink of anarchy. It really would be entertaining to conjure Edwin Lawrence Godkin out of his grave and let him write a Nation editorial on Mr. Chester Bowles.
“Some insist that we can afford to put up with this political sloganizing in foreign policy,” Mr. Bowles himself writes in American Politics. “After all, they say, the Republic has thus far survived similar sloganizing on domestic policy questions. . . . Foreigners, however, cannot reasonably be expected to play by American ground rules, and in foreign policy, we deal with foreigners. These calculated phrases, in my judgment, have cost us dear throughout the world—far more than we can easily afford.” These are wise words—perhaps the only wise words in Mr. Bowles’ two books. The Ambassador is referring, of course, to phrases employed by Mr. Dulles and other gentlemen who did not have the good sense to belong to Mr. Bowles’ faction of Mr. Bowles’ party.
True enough, there had been considerable sloganizing by members of Mr. Eisenhower’s administration. To repeat political tags is so pleasant and easy—to murmur ideological cliches as if they were incantations; it is so very painful to think seriously. And then Mr. Bowles, after this grave exhortation, proceeds to deluge his hearers and readers with as shallow and shopworn a set of slogans and god-terms as ever was employed by anyone discussing American foreign policy—which is no mean feat.
If the United States should wish to make her influence detested throughout the world, her surest methods to attain this consummation would be to dispatch a naive liberal ideologue—a Wendell Willkie of the Democratic Party—globetrotting, bestowing gratuitous counsel among the nations. Let this person tell every people to submit themselves to a recasting in the American image—that is, in F.D.R.’s concept of the American image; let him patronize and cajole revolutionary nationalists in every remote land where order is shaken; let him serve as a representative of American political authority. Let him be, in fine, Mr. Mennen Williams, or Mr. Chester Bowles. Let him talk vaguely but loudly about Liberal Democracy and Progress and Welfare States. “In this Nuclear Age,” says Mr. Bowles, “without such a vision—the people perish.” Without such a vision, Ambassador? Or because of it?
New Individualist Review welcomes contributions for publication from its readers. Essays should not exceed 3,000 words, and should be type-written. All manuscripts will receive careful consideration.
[* ] Russell Kirk, Research Professor of Political Science at C. W. Post College is the Editor of The University Bookman and is contributing Editor of National Review. He is the author of many books on conservative thought, including The Conservative Mind, Academic Freedom and Prospects for Conservatives.