The best of Fred Hutchison
The coming crack-up of postmodern liberalism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
September 6, 2012

Originally published January 17, 2005

In 1980, I wrote a twenty-page paper in which I predicted the collapse of liberal humanism. A year or two earlier, I predicted the gradual decline and collapse of the Soviet Empire. One out of two is not bad. Now I am predicting the crack-up of postmodern liberalism. In this essay, I shall explain why I predicted the demise of liberal humanism and where I went wrong. Then, I shall present the rationale for my new prediction of the crack-up of postmodern liberalism.

The rise of liberal humanism

Liberal humanism (or liberal modernism) has its roots in the French Enlightenment thought of the middle eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, liberal humanism had coalesced around two core beliefs. The cluster of ideas which gathered around these core beliefs has gradually changed over time, but have retained a family resemblance. My 1980 prediction of the collapse of liberal humanism was mainly concerned with the ideology of liberalism which had prevailed from 1932 to 1980.

The first core belief of liberalism is that man is inherently good and that civilized society is responsible for the corruption of men and for all human ills. Man can be perfected by changing society. This idea was first clearly articulated by Jean Jacques Rousseau. (1712–1778). If man is good, then progress is possible. This led to a perverse but common notion among liberals that we should not blame the criminal for crime because this amounts to "blaming the victim." We should blame "society" instead and should look to socio-economic "root causes."

The second core idea was that progress is inevitable, leading to a future utopia. Rationalists like Voltaire and Kant thought that progress would come slowly in fits and starts through the triumph of reason. Historicists like Compte, Hegel, and Marx thought impersonal forces of history were the engine of progress. Many liberals of a utilitarian temper emphasized change through education and social reform. The Fabian Society of England tried to usher in socialism through gradual degrees. They thought socialism was the means of curing society, perfecting human nature, stimulating progress, and ushering in the utopia. The Fabian style of creeping socialism became the dominant form of liberal humanism in America during the era when the ideas of FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society held sway (1932–1980).

Karl Marx believed that socialism must be brought in through violent revolution, and revolutionary socialism must be a dictatorship which can destroy the allegedly evil middle class and compel human nature to change. Marx claimed that after Communist Man had been created through socialism, the state would "whither away" and the utopia would come. This is sheer fantasy, of course, but notice the striking conceptual similarities of Fabian socialism and Marxism. The New Deal/Great Society liberalism was gentler, more compassionate, and more pragmatic than Marxism but was built upon some of the same fantasies of progress, human nature, and socialism.

The decline of liberal humanism

The belief in the inherent goodness of man suffered terrible blows from the two world wars and the Cold War. Disclosures of the holocaust and the mass murders of Stalin and Mao were particularly devastating to American liberals because the information shook their faith in the goodness of man. The extreme abuse of dictatorial powers by Stalin turned Soviet state socialism into a mass concentration camp where the most cunning and evil individuals held the levers of power. Pure socialism led to a hell on earth, instead of a utopia.

Disillusionment about the inevitability of progress came early to continental Europe as a result of the cataclysm of World War I. Resilient England did not lose faith in the inevitability of progress until the aftermath of World II. Even after the cream of the British youth were wiped out by machine guns and point-blank artillery in Flanders during WWI, with only a few hundred yards of muddy ground to show for it, the stoic resilient Brits still generally believed in Empire and progress during the twenties and thirties. The blitz of London during WWII brought the trauma of war to the folks at home. The "stiff upper lip" of stoic British patience saw them through the war. After the war, their trust in progress collapsed in a flood of traumatic memories. They dumped Churchill and elected the Labor Party, which had a socialist and anti-empire agenda.

Disillusionment with progress came very late to America, the homeland of optimism, where the folks prefer to "walk on the sunny side of the street." As late as the election of John F. Kennedy, a large majority of Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, anti-Communists or Communist apologists, had a belief in the inevitability of progress. In spite of bad memories of the depression and two wars, plus the nuclear threat and the Cold War, the exuberance of Main Street America was undaunted. Most people had a sunny feeling of confidence in a vague, indefinable but happy "progress." Only a few ill-tempered bipolar liberals spoke of imaginary utopias and existential despair. Sullen liberal writers have tried to convince us that the fifties was an unhappy and scary time. Nonsense. The strutting, singing "greatest generation" of which my parents were good exemplars was irrepressibly cheerful. Most of them assumed without question that the twentieth century was the American century and that America was to be the engine of world progress. The New Deal God and Country Democrats who sang "happy days are here again" shared in the general cheeriness and chipperness of the time. Jiminy Cricket! Give a little whistle. I cannot think of those days without feeling like whistling a happy tune.

Disillusionment with progress came to America in stages. It began with the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. The next blow was the rejection of Nelson Rockefeller by the Republican convention of 1964 and the nomination of Barry Goldwater. (Rockefeller was a liberal humanist of the happy "brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God" genre. He married a woman with the nickname "Happy.") The American conservative movement of 1964 which defeated Rockefeller and the Republican Eastern Establishment had come far since its humble origins in the 1940's. Conservatives denied the inherent goodness of man and insisted that man is a contradiction. Conservatives scoffed at the inevitability of progress as a myth. They laughed at utopias and explained how utopian thinking had led to many of the disasters of the twentieth century. The conservatives refused to allow the liberals to sweep Stalin's atrocities under the rug or get away with denying that Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy and Harry Dexter White was a Soviet agent. Evil exists in the world, you fools.

Disillusionment with the social engineering of the Great Society programs under Lyndon Johnson and disillusionment with the Vietnam War led to a rising tide of disillusionment with "progress." The counter-cultural eruptions of the narcissistic sex-crazed baby boomer generation were perfectly timed to give the lie to the standard liberal line one heard at every high school commencement ceremony — that the boomers were a special generation and the hope of the future. What a joke. The TV coverage of Jim Crow racial injustice and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were further blows to the optimism of the liberal true believer in the goodness of man.

Hubert Humphrey was the last presidential candidate (1968) who talked openly of things like "the inherent goodness of man," "the dignity of man," and the "inevitability of progress." He sounded like a bouncy, chipper throwback to the fifties. Humphrey was the last "happy warrior" of the liberals. He was defeated by Richard Nixon, a somber and pragmatic realist. Subsequently, a tone of pessimism and complaint would characterize the left wing of the Democratic party. No more "happy days are here again." The Democrats have been the "bitterness party" ever since. Nothing produces collective bitterness like the collapse of a shared ideal. A bitter person cannot sustain hope or faith in the future.

1980 predictions and postmortems

In 1980, I assumed that the belief in the inevitability of progress was a fatal blow to liberal humanism, which was now terminally bitter. Starting with George McGovern, every major Democratic leader seemed to speak with an undertone of bitterness. I assumed that the loss of faith in human nature and progress was the main source of the bitterness. I theorized that with the loss of the core, the bundle must unravel, and liberal humanism must collapse. I was not entirely wrong. The bitterness and paranoia of the Democrats reached a high watermark in the name-calling lies of the election of 2004 — at the very moment when the Democrats were no longer the majority party.

My optimism about the imminent death of liberal humanism was buoyed by the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan. The FDR campaign of 1932 marked the end of the era of limited government. 1932–1980 was the era of unlimited government. Ronald Reagan seemed to be the smiling prophet of a new era of the restoration of limited government. Such a restoration must be a disappointment of all the hopes and dreams of liberal humanism, I reasoned. Interestingly, it was Reagan, a conservative, who inspired a revival of American optimism. Amazing. Happy conservatism. Unhappy liberalism. When in all history has their been such a development?

I made several miscalculations in my prediction of the death of liberal humanism. Although the faith in progress was gone, a residual historicism remained. Many liberals believe that man is a creature of the society and culture of a moment in history. Therefore, as society is in constant flux, human nature must be in constant flux. Therefore, liberals still have contempt for "outdated ideas and values" and are in horror of "turning back the clock." But this contempt is no longer addressed at those who have no faith in "progress." It is a contempt for those who deny historicism. Historicist assumptions about the continuous change of human nature are perfectly absurd, of course. But they still seem vaguely plausible to this generation because we are still living in the shadow of an extinct Modernism (1750–1980), and old mental habits die hard.

I still remember a friend who was disgruntled by the behavior of people at work and suddenly ventilated his frustration in a primal scream, "This is 1976!!" He blurted out his semiconscious assumption that gross barbarity of behavior surely could not exist in this enlightened moment — this glorious pinnacle of history — this 1976 of our hopes and dreams. The obnoxious people at work must be monstrous anomalies in this golden age. I thought at the time, and still think, that the assumptions behind my friend's volcanic eruption "This is 1976!" are the most perfect nonsense that has ever been uttered by the human tongue. But for two centuries of confused modernism, such notions passed without question. Some liberals are using the myth of historicism in the way my friend used the myth of progress. In moments of impatience, they still blurt out goofy apostrophes like "You are behind the times — you want to turn back the clock." However, there is no more primal scream of the shocked true believer in progress. The primal scream went out in the seventies, along with the dying embers of faith in man and faith in progress. The baby boomers who were counter-cultural hippies and anti-establishment protesters had no primal screams left in them. Only a deadening narcissism remained. The happy greatest generation is followed by the wretched baby boomers — the least admirable of generations.

Historicism without optimism about progress is not capable of being a confident advancing ideology. Without confidence, the standard bearers must flip flop. But historicism serves adequately for a rearguard defense of guerilla counterattack as practiced by Democrats in the bitter mud-slinging that occurred in the election of 2004. Some of the liberal ideas which used to cluster around "progress" now cluster around historicism. Liberalism changed, darkened, and weakened, but did not collapse. Although liberalism is in decline, it is still very much in control of academia, government bureaucracy, education, the media, and much of the legal profession — all engines for propagating ideas. Liberalism has tremendous institutional momentum. It is like a giant oak tree that is rotting on the inside but keeps standing for many years.

My prediction, vintage 1979, of the progressive collapse of the Soviet Empire was based on insider reports of demoralization. It seemed that no one in that system still believed that the Soviets would win the Cold War, or that dictatorial socialism would perfect human nature, or that a utopia was coming. Russians became experts in mouthing the party line without paying any attention to it. Arrogant statements like "We will bury you" and "We are the vanguard of history" were long gone. I reasoned that the heavy machine of Soviet socialism could be kept running as long as a certain number of enthusiastic true believers were willing to fight, toil, and sacrifice for the dream. Somewhere at the levers and gears of the great machine, there had to be driven men who compelled an inefficient, awkward, and inhuman machine to keep cranking forward. But by the late seventies, nearly everyone in the system was demoralized and merely going through the motions. Therefore, I predicted the great machine must collapse of its own weight — in the relatively near future.

I hit a home run with this prediction. The momentum of the gigantic Soviet locomotive kept it going for a while, but vexing and disillusioning events slowed it down. The Soviets were unnerved when Israeli pilots, trained in America and flying American jets, shot down 80 Soviet MIG's flown by Syrian pilots trained in Russia without any Israeli losses. The Soviets were demoralized when they were defeated by Muslim tribesmen in the Soviet-Afghan war. The Soviet economy had been in decline for years and was economically ruined after the Afghan war. Gorbachev gave up all thoughts of winning the Cold War when Reagan refused to cancel the Star Wars program and told him that the arms race was one the Soviets could not win. Reagan's historic utterance, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!", sent shock waves throughout the brittle Soviet regime. The amazing supremacy of American high-tech arms in the first Gulf War was the last straw. The last ounce of confidence drained out of the Soviet system and the monumental machine fell apart — twelve years after my prediction. The evil empire of iron, which had seemed so solid and permanent, was suddenly gone. Sixty years of liberal apologetics for the Soviet "experiment" were silenced and millions of liberals quietly changed the subject. Many liberals abandoned their dalliance with a now discredited Marxism and turned their infatuated gaze toward a dark postmodernism.

New predictions about liberalism

Postmodern liberals have a stranglehold on academia. The students must go through four years of political propaganda in the classroom like Russian students used to have to endure. However, we are seeing few, if any, true believers in postmodernism among our recent college graduates. They vote much like their parents, and their religious denominational preferences are much like their parents. The students are expert at parroting the party line in class so as to get good grades and avoid persecution by their professors. They are proficient at tuning out the classroom propaganda like so much static on the radio — much as the young Soviets did in the seventies. When the baby boomer professors, who were radicalized in the sixties and seventies, begin to retire, the next generation of professors will be void of true believers in a fading ideology.

Postmodern liberalism is an inhuman doctrine which involves a revolt against reason and an individualistic nihilism regarding morality and truth. I think it is unsustainable without the passion of true believers or the social controls of group-think. During the last ten years, politically-correct speech and action has been subject to tremendous public ridicule. Only twelve years ago, I was persecuted at work for refusing to write with awkward gender-neutral English and refusing to accept a feminist male-bashing session for a professional educational program I organized. However, these mindless fads seem to be in retreat. Women no longer automatically correct my generic "mankind" or my generic "he." Thank God that is over. Conservative students are starting to fight back against persecution on campus and are sometimes winning the battle for freedom of speech.

I predict that as the Soviet regime collapsed, the postmodern liberal vice grip on academia, the media, and education must fall apart. It might even happen before the last baby boomer retires. Many professors surely must notice that their propaganda is winning no real converts — that the students are telling them what they want to hear — and that almost half of the students secretly plan to vote Republican. The academic concentration camp is losing the battle for the mind. The students are using the ideological fads to their own personal ends and are laughing at them in secret.

Group-think cults seem invincible for a season. But such cults rarely have much staying power. They are brittle and shatter easily. The ideas of the cult seem absurd to those outside the group. Any political movement that depends upon group-think and guerilla rearguard attacks to sustain their power is doomed. Therefore, I predict the extinction of postmodern liberalism as we know it. In spite of its institutional momentum, it lacks the intellectual and moral vigor that liberal humanism and Marxism used to have. Therefore, it cannot have the extended twilight existence that liberal humanism and Marxism had.

After the crack-up of postmodern liberalism, various fragments of the older liberal humanism are likely to survive. As the liberal cluster of ideas detaches itself from core beliefs about human nature and progress, those ideas will not be able to find a permanent home on the dying vine of historicism, which is too absurd an idea to be sustained apart from a faith in progress. The detached and floating liberal ideas may be absorbed in other ideological systems. An example of this is the formerly liberal, now conservatively allied, "neocons" who are still semi-liberal in various ways.

Predictions of realignment

The political alignments will suddenly change after the fall of the left. I predict that there will be a schism in the conservative movement. Libertarians will unite with refugees of postmodernism on the common ground of atomistic individualism and their rejection of a universal moral law. Their movement will be a magnet for anti-religious secularists. Traditionalist conservatives, the religious right, and natural law groups will unite in support of the universal moral law, the defense of the family, and the restoration of culture. Those supporting a strong national defense will tend to gravitate toward this coalition. The "neocons" have introduced floating fragments of liberal humanism into the conservative movement and will continue to do so. Some conservatives have indigestion from these fancy tidbits. Other conservatives will tolerate the new confections because the neocons have a special ability to argue for a strong national defense and are very good at refuting the hyper-individualistic libertarians and postmoderns. The traditionalist conservative ideas of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk will be employed to refute both the neocons and the libertarians on a variety of issues. The conservative movement is destined to suffer upheavals and break-away movements until it formulates a stable political coalition. Political stability will not be achieved until the culture war and the war on terror are won. Until then, conservatives must make common cause with neocons and libertarians.


A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)



They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31