The Morning Call has thoughts on the tree of liberty and those who would water it

The Morning Call has thoughts on the tree of liberty and those who would water it

This feels a bit like cheating – mostly because it is.  After a brief introduction, what will follow here is material we’ve published before, this past spring, when presumably conservative anti-lockdown protesters were causing problems in Michigan.

When we sat down to try to explain what happened yesterday in Washington, we had two overwhelming reactions.  First, we were frustrated, bordering on angry.  We think what happened with the mobs at the Capitol building was depressing, to say the least.  It never should have happened and those responsible for criminal acts should be punished accordingly.  At the same time, the reactions of the media and other political players indicated that the lessons that should be learned from yesterday’s breakdown will NOT be, while all the wrong conclusions will be enshrined as fact.  Not only is this maddening because of its inaccuracy, but it also largely ensures that this type of thing will happen again.  If you “fix” only the wrong problem, then the real problem will persist and will, in time, reappear.

But that’s a thought for another day….

Our second reaction was that we’ve seen all this before – several times over – and that no one should be surprised at what happened.  This is the product of literally centuries of myth-building, coupled with a healthy heaping of political disinformation and betrayal, all seasoned with a pinch of economic anxiety and pandemic-related fear.      

This country has a problem.  OK, fine.  It has a bunch of problems.  But one of the most significant of these is its appalling ignorance of what it was, what it is, and how it came to be.  Generally speaking, we like most of the Founding Fathers.  Sometimes, Hamilton rubs us the wrong way, we suppose.  But if we had to pick one whose overall demeanor and philosophy give us serious bouts of indigestion, it would be Thomas Jefferson.  Yes, the Declaration of Independence is a beautiful and eminently citable document.  But, as we note below, there may be no more pernicious and self-serving pronouncement in the great library of Founding Fathers’ statements than Jefferson’s quip about how “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  Not only does this not reflect the nature of the revolution in which Jefferson took part, it also encourages others to behave rashly and destructively, without contemplating the consequences of their actions.  That’s not a recipe for liberty so much as it is an incitement to ill-considered and reckless political violence – and then, a backlash against it.  It’s a statement that sounds virtuous and dignified but is, in truth, quite silly.

In any case, we’re on the verge of ranting, and this piece will be long enough as it is.

And so, without further ado: a reprint of the May 18, 2020 edition of Politics, Et Cetera:

Everybody knows that there is a great dis­pute amongst their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance to Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. Him they study; him they meditate; him they turn over in all the time they can spare from the laborious mischief of the day or the debauches of the night. Rousseau is their canon of holy writ; in his life he is their canon of Polycletus; he is their standard figure of perfection. To this man and this writer, as a pat­tern to authors and to Frenchmen, the foundries of Paris are now running for statues, with the kettles of their poor and the bells of their churches.

Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France (Liberty Fund, 1992).

Oh, I'm Sorry.  I Thought This Was America!

It is an unfortunate coincidence of history that the American and French Revolutions occurred in temporal proximity.  In truth, the two had nothing whatsoever to do with one another, yet they have been indelibly conflated in the American popular imagination.  The real-world consequences of this erroneous fusion are visible throughout American society and politics, as the noble but narrow ends of the former “revolution” are subsumed by the ignoble, far-reaching, and deranged ends and consequences of the latter.

The first contention above is one that, of course, is hardly original on our part.  It is, in some corners today, the accepted conventional wisdom.  The American “revolution” was less a revolution than an assertion of existing rights, properly termed a “War of Independence,” waged by Englishmen against Englishmen and made necessary only by the geographical peculiarities of “Empire.”  Edmund Burke’s rather placid view of the Americans’ demands and his belief that the Crown and Parliament fomented insurrection by treating the colonists unfairly, stands in stark contrast to his blistering indictment of the French Revolution and those who supported it, intellectually and politically.  Russell Kirk, in his review of Friedrich von Gentz’s cumbersomely titled The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution: Compared With the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, spelled out the differences as follows:

The American Revolution, he contends, was – as Burke had said of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – “a revolution not made, but prevented.” The American colonists stood up for their prescriptive rights; their claims and expectations were moderate, and founded upon a true apprehension of human nature and natural rights; their constitutions were conservative.

But the French revolutionaries, hoping to make human nature and society afresh, broke with the past, defied history, embraced theoretic dogma, and so fell under the cruel domination of Giant Ideology. Prudence and prescription guided the steps of the Americans, who simply preserved and continued the English tradition of representative government and private rights; fanaticism and vain expectations led the French to their own destruction. Burke, at the beginning of the American Revolution, had declared that the colonists were trying to conserve, not to destroy; they sought to keep liberties gained through historical experience, not to claim fanciful liberties conjured up by closet-philosophers; they were “not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and English principles. Abstract liberty like other mere abstractions is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object.”

Unfortunately, while this view has, as we say, become the conventional wisdom in some corners, it is not universally acknowledged.  And indeed, for much of the nearly two-and-a-half centuries since their occurrence, these two “revolutions” have been mistakenly conflated by the educated classes, leading to immeasurable confusion, frustration, and political damage.  Again, Kirk makes the case:

The dominant liberal school of nineteenth-century historians embraced the view that the French Revolution had been a noble and irrevocable stride forward toward a universal domination of peace and enlightenment and brotherhood, and they confounded the American and French revolutions as virtually identical manifestations of the same progressive movement. Even Gladstone, who read Burke through and through, concluded that Burke and his school had been utterly mistaken about the nature of the French Revolution. The Napoleonic interlude, the liberals maintained, had been only a passing reaction against the forces of charity and light which found their expression in French Revolutionary doctrines. It required the catastrophes of the twentieth century, and the grim recurrence of what Professor Talmon calls “totalitarian democracy” and Lord Percy of Newcastle calls “totalist democracy,” to convince the liberal mind that possibly something was wrong with the first principles of the French innovators.

We have made this case before in these pages, repeatedly.  And, indeed, we wrote a 1000-page book on the subject, divided into two volumes.  Still, we’ll repeat it briefly here for the sake of clarity: the family tree of the Left moves fairly linearly from Rousseau, through the French Revolution, to Robespierre to Hegel and to Marx but then begins branching, to include the likes of Nietzsche, Mill, Croly, Wilson, Lenin, Mussolini, Gramsci, Lukacs, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung, Pol Pot, and so forth.  For our purposes today, we want to focus on that branch that detours through Frankfurt Germany to New York City, with stops along the way in Turi, Italy and Budapest.

World War I marked a turning point in the development of the Left.  The war killed the optimistic expectation for the creation of a better, more perfect world that had (somehow) pervaded the Left since its inception. This was, in part, the result of the war itself, which was so gruesome, so bloody, and so meaningless that it seemed to those who witnessed it that the world was doomed, that man simply could not be redeemed.  T.S. Eliot offered a cry of despair over the bleakness, the Godlessness, and the feeling of pending doom that gripped Europe during the interregnum in his 1921 poem “The Waste Land”:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. …

And bats with baby faces in the violet light

Whistled, and beat their wings

And crawled head downward down a black­ened wall

And upside down in air were towers

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

In this decayed hole among the mountains

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

It has no windows, and the door swings,

For the Left, though, the bigger part of it was simply that the working men of all the nations of Europe did not join together and refuse to fight each other in a war for the profits of the capitalists, as they had been urged to do by the Communist Leadership at the Second International.  Instead, they enthusiastically joined up to fight for their respective “nations.”  German workers killed French workers who killed Austrian workers who killed English workers.  And after the war, they all went back to being Germans, Frenchmen, Austrians, and Englishmen. 

The job of explaining why the revolt of the proletariat didn’t occur as Marx had predicted fell primarily to two men, Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács.  We’ve discussed Gramsci endlessly in these pages and in the pages of our Morning Call, especially when Pete Buttigieg, the son of the nation’s foremost Gramsci scholar and devotee, was still running for president.  Today, we want to focus on Lukacs, not just because we’ve discussed him less often, but because the line from Lukacs to our present age and our present troubles is somewhat more direct.

Lukacs was an early twentieth-century Hungarian intellectual.  Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, he was, early on, a Romantic-individualist, and he would maintain much of his anti-rationalist Romanticism throughout his life.  After the war, however, with a vacuum to be filled, he converted to Marxism.  In 1918, he joined Béla Kun’s communist party, which had Lenin’s support, just in time to take part in Kun’s revolution.  Lukacs became the Deputy People’s Commissar for Education and Culture when Kun assumed control of Hungary in March 1919 and thus inaugurated the Hungarian Soviet Republic. 

His career as a utopian bureaucrat didn’t last long, however, as the regime fell to the Romanian Army 133 days later.  Kun fled immediately to Vienna, and Lukacs joined him and the rest of the Hungarian Communist underground there a short time later.  Nevertheless, his brief tenure in a position of power was a remarkable one-off occurrence, offering a noteworthy preview of how future leftists in the United States and Europe would go about “annihilating old values” when they would begin Gramsci’s long march through the institutions.  The following provides a little “flavor” of Lukacs’ mission and tactics.

Special lectures were organized in schools and literature printed and distributed to “instruct” children about free love, about the nature of sexual intercourse, about the archaic nature of bourgeois family codes, about the outdatedness of monogamy, and the irrelevance of religion, which deprives man of all pleasure.  Children urged thus to reject and deride paternal authority and the authority of the Church, and to ignore precepts of morality, easily and sponta­neously turned into delinquents with whom only the police could cope. … This call to rebellion addressed to children was matched by a call to rebellion addressed to Hungarian women.

Having been run out of his homeland, Lukács stayed in Vienna for ten years, where he became part of the Hungarian underground and wrote several books, the best known of which was titled History and Class Consciousness.  The book, published in 1923 essentially tried to split Marx from Engels, leaving Engels and his “scientific” socialism to the Soviets, while Lukacs re-emphasized the Hegelian nature of Marx’s work and the importance of class consciousness, alienation, and super-alienation, which Lukacs termed “reification.”  Although derided by the Soviets, Lukacs’ theories meshed very nicely with Gramsci’s ideas about consciousness and the need to realign consciousness in order to enable the masses to end their domination by the Church and others, thereby ending their alienation.

That same year, a man named Felix Weil received his doctorate from Goethe University Frankfurt.  Weil was from a wealthy Argentinian family and financed a weeklong symposium that was attended by Lukács and some twenty-plus other like-minded intellectuals with “the hope that the different trends in Marxism, if afforded an opportunity of talking it out together, could arrive at a ‘true’ or ‘pure’ Marxism.”  The meeting was organized by Weil’s professor, Karl Korsch, a prominent German Marxist.  The event was so successful that Weil decided to support an ongoing discussion of these subjects.  He funded what we today would call a think tank, dedicated exclusively to the study of Marxism as a scientific discipline. Its formal name was the Institute for Social Research, although it would come to be known as the Frankfurt School.

The Frankfurt School, in turn, became the “iskra,” which is the Russian word for “spark,” and the term Lenin used for the bloc of bourgeoise intellectuals (like himself) whose intervention is necessary to awaken the masses and thus to “spark” the revolution.  Under the leadership of Max Horkheimer, a Marxist professor of philosophy, the focus of the School shifted from uncov­ering the problems of positivist Marxism to an anti-positivist (and Romantic-inspired), critique of modernity and capitalism, focused on identifying social pathologies and encouraging social emancipation.  Or to put it another way, the Horkheimer-led Frankfurt school decided that its responsibility was to try to liberate “human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”  Horkheimer called this process “critical theory,” which he said was different from traditional theories (both social and scientific) because its purpose was to critique and change society rather than simply try to explain or under­stand it.  Horkheimer himself put it this way: “[Critical Theory] is not just a research hypothesis which shows its value in the ongoing business of men; it is an essential element in the historical effort to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers of men.”

The German professor Jürgen Habermas, a second-generation Frankfurt School philosopher, explained critical theory this way: [Horkheimer developed it] “to think through political disappoint­ments at the absence of revolution in the West, the development of Stalinism in Soviet Russia, and the victory of fascism in Germany. It was supposed to explain mistaken Marxist prognoses, but without breaking Marxist intentions.”

In 1933, when Hitler began his rise to power, Horkheimer moved the Institute to Geneva, then to Paris, and finally, in 1935, to New York City, where it affiliated with Columbia University.

Now, there are, we think, several reasons why the Lukacs-Frankfurt School’s social re-interpretation of Marxism is important – and relates to the confusion mentioned at the top of this piece.  First, the Frankfurt School was explicitly anti-positivist, which is to say that it rejected Hume’s Newtonian approach to social phenomena, Marx’s “scientific socialism,” Comte’s positivism, and the American Progressives’ scientism.  Instead, the Frankfurt “critical theorists” harkened back directly to Rousseau and to his belief that man, in the state of nature, is perfect.  Perhaps the most famous line Rousseau ever wrote was the first line in the first chapter of The Social Contract: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”  This, then, is the rub.  Man is free in nature but is chained by society, which is an artificial construct that suppresses his true nature, oppresses him, and keeps him from achieving that to which he is entitled.

Herbert Marcuse, Western Civilization’s anti-Christ, took Horkheimer’s interest in social-psychology and blended it with Rousseau’s state of nature fetishization, Gramsci’s aggressive anti-Christianity, and Lukacs’ detestation of social and sexual mores, to fashion the “cultural Marxism” that would become the dominant ideology of the New Left in America and, by extension, of the entire American system of higher education.  In his classic, Explaining Postmodernism, Stephen Hicks explained it this way:

Marcuse had an explanation for the new generation of revolutionaries-in-training for why capitalism in the 1950s and early 1960s seemed to be peaceful, tolerant, and progressive —when, as every good socialist knew, it could not really be — and for why the workers were so disappointingly un-revolutionary. Capitalism does not merely oppress the masses existentially, it also represses them psychologically.

It gets worse, for to the extent that Joe can even think about his situation, he hears his world described in terms of “freedom,” “democracy,” “progress” — words that have only a faint glimmer of meaning to him, and that have been crafted and fed to him by capitalism’s apologists to keep him from thinking too deeply about his real existence. Joe is a “one-dimensional man” trapped in a “totalitarian universe of technological rationality,” oblivious to the second and real dimension of human existence wherein true freedom, democracy, and progress lie….

As with the repression of the id’s energies by the forces of civilization, capitalism’s suppression of the original human energies cannot be totally successful. Freud had explained that the id’s repressed energies will occasionally burst out in irrational, neurotic forms, threatening the stability and security of civilization. The Frankfurt School taught us that capitalism’s orderly technocracy has repressed much of humanity, driving much of its energy underground—but that repressed energy is still there, and potentially it can burst out.

Thus, Marcuse concluded, capitalism’s repression of human nature may be socialism’s salvation. Capitalism’s rational technocracy suppresses human nature to the point that it bursts out in irrationalisms — in violence, criminality, racism, and all of society’s other pathologies. But by encouraging those irrationalisms the new revolutionaries can destroy the system. So the first task of the revolutionary is to seek out those individuals and energies on the margins of society: the outcast, the disorderly, and the forbidden — anyone and anything that capitalism’s power structure has not yet succeeded in commodifying and dominating totally. All such marginalized and outcast elements will be “irrational,” “immoral,” and even “criminal,” especially by capitalist definition, but that is precisely what the revolutionary needs. Any such outcast element could “break through the false consciousness [and] provide the Archimedean point for a larger emancipation.

The second reason we mention all of this is, as we said above, because this Marcusian interpretation “critical theory” would become the dominant ideology of the New Left AND the dominant ideology/epistemology of all of American higher education.  Whereas Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Frankfurt and retreated into the philosophy of aesthetics (and, in Adorno’s case, music), Marcuse remained in the United States, advocating more practical theories of “liberation,” including advocacy of the various forms of social upheaval that characterized the student movements of the 1960s.  Marcuse’s influence in the United States can hardly be overstated.  His interpretations of the social-psychological pathologies of capitalism have been ubiquitously incorporated into the American self-image.  In short, in America today, everyone is oppressed, everyone is repressed, and everyone should be lashing out against bullies of some sort or another. 

All of which is to say that if we take all of the above and jumble it together into American pop culture and pop-consciousness, we wind up with a population that is confused about the origins of the American Revolution and, by extension, the definitions and methods of American liberty and freedom.  Additionally, that population that thinks that it is permanently oppressed, permanently alienated from what is good and right in human nature, and permanently required by dint of its status as “outcasts” to “fight the man,” and stand up for God and Country!  Or Gaia and Country!  Or all of mankind!  Or all of humankind!  Or the oppressed!  Or Whateverthgehelltheywanttobetoday!

In turn, you get a bunch of dumb kids marching around Portland and Berkeley, wearing masks, and beating up Asian journalists in the name of being “Anti-Fascist.”  You also get a bunch of Duck Dynasty wannabes stomping around Michigan and Wisconsin, in camo, wearing flack jackets, tactical pants, and toting their AR-15s, all in the name of stopping the tyranny of paper masks. You also get left-wing TV personalities claiming that conservatives are putting kids in cages at the border, Republican legislators in Alaska comparing protest restrictions to the plight of the Jews during the holocaust, and the President’s sons saying that Joe Biden is a pedophile and that the global coronavirus pandemic will magically disappear after November’s election.

If you pay attention to any of these serious and dedicated liberty-saviors, you’re likely to hear the same slogans repeated over and over again.  “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!”  “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time with the blood of patriots and tyrants!”  “Give me liberty or give me death!”

The first of these is, of course, is made up.  The second was written by a “gentleman-farmer” who spent the American Revolution on a diplomatic mission France and then, mindlessly, supported the French Revolution, even after it turned bloody.  The third was uttered by an Englishman who wrote pamphlets during the war, supported the French Revolution wholeheartedly, became an elected representative to the French Revolutionary National Convention, was imprisoned for two years by Robespierre, refused to learn that ironic lesson, plotted with Napoleon to invade Britain, returned to the United States only to be denied citizenship and the franchise by Gouverneur Morris, was refused burial by the Quaker cemetery, and had his bones dug up by a fan who died with them in his house from whence they were lost to posterity.

So…what we’re saying, we guess, is that you should take those brilliant incitements to violent revolution for what they are, the words of men who did NOT participate in any actual violence and who were remarkably dense about some of the violence they incited.

Look, we love liberty as much as the next guy.  Maybe more.  But the perpetual American obsession with play-acting as freedom fighters is worse than pointless.  It’s distracting.  It keeps people from acknowledging and understanding that there are, in fact, real risks to their liberty extant in this land.  While they’re grumbling about masks and camps and immigration enforcement; economic, social, and political power continues to be accumulated by a small coastal gentry class; and greater shares of capital continues to be accumulated by a small handful of large, well-connected financial services firms who wish to leverage their position to advance non-capital, non-fiduciary, political goals.  But here’s the thing: there’s no secret society keeping the American people down or secret socio-psychological energy repressing their ids and keeping them from seeing reality.  They are – WE are – doing it to ourselves.  We’re fighting phony wars to advance stupid narratives that are based on historical inaccuracies and Marxist-Freudian pablum, when we should be watching who and what are consolidating their influence.

“Patriotism” is an idea that is both adored and disdained in contemporary America, with those generally on the Right embracing the nation’s manifold virtues, and those on the Left obsessing over its vices.  But patriotism involves more than just standing up and cheering “yay team!” when the nation does something right or “boo, team!” when it does not.  Patriotism is both a virtue and the means by which we come to understand what is important and valuable and MORAL in our community.  In his famous 1984 Lindley Lecture (given on the campus of the University of Kansas, Rock Chalk Jayhawk) “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” the communitarian moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way:

I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic. A central contention of the morality of patriotism is that I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude.

We’re not sure we agree with MacIntyre’s definition of patriotism entirely, but that’s a tale for another day.  Today, our tale is this: neither the pro-patriots nor the anti-patriots have any idea what they’re in favor of or against.  They do not believe that they “share a common stake” with their countrymen, but worse still, they have the “larger story” entirely wrong.  Instead of determining the outcome of our common national story, too many of our countrymen spend their lives trying to write the next chapters in a story that doesn’t exist, that couldn’t exist, because it DIDN’T HAPPEN.

Our national ethos at present is one of delusion, not because we are kept from understanding our true consciousness by the repressive desublimation of bowdlerizing techno-bureaucratic bourgeois, but because our ruling class has, for decades, been either ill-informed or ill-disposed.


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