Suicide of the West
by James Burnham
John Day, 312 pp., $5.95
Ambitious in scope, this book seems to promise a major effort; rigid in preconception, it turns out to be as puerile as a Birchite pamphlet. And the wonder of it is that the author is not a backwoods Claghorn, a fundamentalist screamer, a demented candy manufacturer. He is an intellectual. He can quote St. Thomas, he knows what Pareto meant by a “derivation,” and he has written ably on Kafka.
In America we have become accustomed to thinking of the reactionary as a small-town primitive marked by the pathos of cultural obsolescence and moral fright. Historically, there is much to be said for this image. But in Professor Burnham we have something rather new, an American reactionary on the French style: the “aristocratic” intellectual who makes no pretense to humaneness; gladly proclaims his chauvinism, breathes a frigid contempt for the plebes, and indulges in public fantasies of imperial grandeur. It should be said in his behalf that Burnham’s public career has been temperamentally consistent, even if ideologically distraught: he has always been a cold-blooded snob, first as a Trotskyist, then as herald of the “managerial revolution,’ and lately as geo-political strategist in charge of World War III for the National Review. Though sophisticated enough to go through the motions of intellectual complexity, he is driven by an urge toward apocalyptic crudeness; and all those who will not plunge with him into preparations for atomic fin du mondisme he regards as “confused” or “muddled” or “weak” liberals, mere patsies for the oncoming Communist hordes, and more to be despised than pitied. Whatever his ultimatistic obsession of the moment (and there have been quite a few), he finds it hard to repress a well-bred snarl for those men of humane doubts who refuse to go along with him each time he discovers a new mission.
To whom, one wonders, is this strange book addressed?—this rodomontade blending academic hauteur with fanatic shrillness, which announces, as if it were a fact beyond dispute, that the West has been seized by a lemming-like impulse toward collective suicide, for which liberalism provides the ideological rationale; that American foreign policy (perhaps because deprived of its bodily essences?) is suspiciously soft on Communism; that the boundaries of “civilization” are being steadily contracted under assault from barbarians; that the Welfare State corrodes American freedom and character; and that the streets of our cities are menaced by dark-skinned hoodlums.
The conservative faithful have heard it all before, though hardly from so cultivated a source; and surely the literate public is not likely to respond to this odd yoking of Ortega y Gassett and General Jack D. Ripper. But after a time I found an answer to my question: the book will serve admirably as a tip-sheet, a Barnes & Noble handbook, for campus conservatives, those little-league Goldwaters looking for debater’s points with which to stun liberal professors. Here they can learn that some liberals (those who do not wish to invade Cuba) shamefully prefer Peace to Freedom, and …