Louis Hartz Liberalism

BOOK REVIEW: The Liberal Tradition in America by Louis Hartz (Paperback – Jul 29, 1991)

Louis Hartz Liberalism:

Louis Hartz believed that the American political culture is delineated exclusively from Locke and thus wholly enforces a liberal tradition. Those who attempt to evade this tradition are unsuccessful. Lockean liberalism has always [and will always] utterly dominate the American mind. Both political parties throughout America’s history have fully embraced liberalism, regardless of their ignorance of liberalism. Indeed, a full-blooded liberal is an “American democrat” [not synonymous with Democrats] whom vehemently believes in liberty and capitalism (i.e. that the free individual must prove their worth in the free marketplace), stands strongly by the constitution, and the enforcement of contracts. To Hartz, America has only had a “national articulation of Locke.”

Louis Hartz Reorganized: [some of these quotes are not exact]:

Lesson 1:  Property Ownership

His only American enemy: the richer liberal (75). The tempest of Shays dies down quickly at the sight of good times. You can trace within the revolutionary age itself, culminating in the prosperity  of the constitutional “reaction”, that manic depressive mentality reflecting the business cycle, which has always characterized the American democratic movement.

In America…where virtually everyone, including the nascent industrial worker, has the mentality of an independent entrepreneur, two national impulses…are felt: The impulse toward democracy and the impulse toward capitalism. The mass of people are bound to be capitalistic, and capitalism, disseminated widely, is bound to be democratic. The irony is that these impulses seemed to fight a tremendous battle (89).

…the dream of new and greater wealth doubled the desire to protect wealth in general, so that the acceptance of the Hamiltonian restraints was based, half consciously, on a judgment of the future. Fear was a part of the lust and lust a part of the fear….trouble appeared when it came into contact with the superego of the “capitalists” and “aristocrats” (135).

Liberal: the “American democrat” believes in individual liberty, equality, and capitalism, and, regards the human marketplace, where a person succeeds or fails by his or her own efforts and ability, as the proper testing ground of achievement.

Lesson 2:  Framing Liberalism in America

The liberal society shapes the outcomes between the Whigs and democrats. The Whigs played to the masses dream of becoming a Whig-prior to 1929; the Whigs used the Alger mechanism to enchant the American democrat and the “Americanistic” mechanism to terrify him. (20). The Alger spirit is the peculiar instinct of the Lockean world.

A hero is missing from the revolutionary literature of America… the Americans had no need for his services. Those foundations had been laid by history (47).

The capitalist Whiggery of Hamilton was frightened of democracy, of Jackson, which was therefore able to destroy it, formulated a philosophy which seemed to deny its faith in capitalism. The result was massive confusion in political thought. “Two boxers, swinging wildly.”

In America, there are no aristocracies to fight, and the Federalists and Whigs are denied the chance of dominating the people in a campaign against them. Here there are no aristocracies to ally with, and they cannot use their help to exclude the people from political power…there are no genuine proletarian outbursts to meet, and they cannot frighten the people into fleeing from them (93).

American Whiggery, when it gave up the aristocratic frustrations of Hamilton and catered openly to the acquisitive dreams of the American democrat, uncovered by a strategic accident the historic ethos of American life: its bourgeois hungers, its classlessness, the spirit of equality that pervaded it even when Taylor and Hamilton hurled charges of “aristocracy” and “mob” at each other… (206).

Whiggery “discovers America” and transforms into conscious ideology the very conditions of its success: the death of toryism, the peculiar language of progressivism, and the isolation of Marx (206).

If the nationalism of the new Whig doctrine reveals that it uncovered America’s liberal mind, it reveals as well that it uncovered the historic absolutism which characterized it. For nationalism is not an argument but an emotion: one of the most powerful social emotions of modern times (207).

The Progressives (Beard, Smith, Parrington, Boudin, Myers) failed because, being children of the American absolutism, they could not get outside of it, and so without seeing that Locke was involved everywhere, they built their analysis around a titanic struggle between “conservative” and “radical” which had little relevance to Western politics as a whole (236).

Marxists were children of Europe, “un-American” to begin with…equipped with feudalism, capitalism, liberalism. Why did they fail to comprehend the nature of the American liberal world? (236).

Mazzini’s nationalism, which sought to override Locke with the concept of community, was being cancelled out, willy-nilly, by Locke’s “Americanism”… (238).

Even the normal Liberal Reform departures from Locke cannot be tolerated consciously by the absolute mind of the nation. Of course the deflated Whiggery of the Republicans tries to expose the non-Lockean nature of much of the New Deal, tries to precipitate a moral crisis that would come if Americans thought that the reforms were “un-American”, but it fails. The experimental mood of Roosevelt, in which Locke goes underground while “problems” are solved often in a non-Lockean way, wins out persistently.

FDR’s radicalism could consist of what he called “bold and persistent experimentation” which of course meant nothing and was compatible with “Americanism” …as American as Edison and Bell.  FDR said that he was a Democrat and a Christian…

The New Deal left a lot of free enterprise standing, and much of its state action, from spending to trust-busting, was designed to fortify rather than weaken free enterprise…but in the face of liberalism—like the “rugged individualism of the American farmer” who is now supported on all sides by the state… there could have been explosions had America confronted the deviations from the liberal ethic (263-4).

During the New Deal there were two irrationalisms fighting with each other: the explicit “Americanism” of Hoover on the one hand, and the sublimated “Americanism” of Roosevelt on the other.

What emerges then in the case of the New Deal is a liberal self that is lost from sight: a faith in property, a belief in class unity, a suspicion of too much state power, a hostility to the utopian mood, all of which were blacked out by the weakness of the socialist challenge in the American liberal community. And yet this radicalization of the New Deal, though it provided ammunition for the hooverite attack, in the end was tied up with Roosevelt’s very success. For when the moral cosmology of New Dealism sank beneath the surface… happy pragmatism appeared… and refused to concern itself with moral issues at all (270).

When the prosperity of Truman appeared, the new dealers were swallowed up by American liberal faith and were only responsible for “solving” America’s problems.

Lesson 3:  Utter Domination of Liberalism

America has only had liberalism—a national articulation of Locke (11)… take the unusual power of the supreme court and the cult of constitution worship on which it rests. Federal factors apart, judicial review as it has worked in America would be inconceivable without the national acceptance of the Lockean creed.

The mood of America’s absolutism: the sober faith that its norms are self-evident. Thus, American pragmatism has always been deceptive because, glacier like, it has rested on miles of submerged conviction, and the conformitarian ethos which that conviction generates has always been infuriating because it has refused to pay its critics the compliment of an argument (59).

America’s neurotic terror of the majority…in America, the “rights of the minority” are sacred… this is a prelude to one thing: binding the majority down by institutional restraints (130).

But Calhoun moved far away from divine ordination with nullification and concurrent majority rules…. But there are minorities inside of minorities…the idea of concurrent majority quickly unravels itself into separate individuals executing the law of nature for themselves. Here are grim traditionalists denouncing northern liberalism as a code of “anarchy”, and Calhoun supplies them with a political theory that even Daniel Webster can denounce as a theory of “anarchy” (162).

Fitzhugh was terrified at the doctrine of the “Calhoun School.” Fitzhugh’s theory of blood and solid nationalism, of “organic nationality” avoided all the inner turmoil and the brink-of-destruction gyrations that the Calhounian position involved. Romantic, grounded in the claim of slave culture itself…(164).

The larger secret of Calhoun’s intellectual madness: …starting with explosive premises like sovereignty and conflict and force he drives himself somehow to avert the explosion with conclusions like nullification and the “concurrent majority”… caught in the classic agony of the brink-of-war philosopher…. Calhoun wanted to stay in the union, Fitzhugh didn’t (166).

The basic dilemma the Southerners faced: their liberalism was so traditional that even they could not get away from it… Garrison need not reply…the South was doing a pretty good job of replying to itself (166).

In order to keep democracy for the Whites, it was essential to develop a theory of separate races for the blacks, and so the retention of a part of liberalism grounded itself on one of the most vicious and antiliberal doctrines of modern times (167).

Many of the poor whites who lived in the south, instead of feeling that the presence of slaves put them in the position of a privileged peasantry, actually had the audacity to feel that it put them on a kind of par with the “aristocrats” who led them (168).

The religious issue play a two sided role…literal reading supported the ownership of slaves…Southerners began to think in terms of Hebrew patriarchy…biblical slavery had not been confined to the Negro…Fitzhugh, a fundamentalist, determined to extend the feudalism concept of slavery to Whites as well as Blacks… being a Hebrew patriarch was a prerequisite to being a feudal lord (168-9).   …the “madhouse of Southern thought.”

The “affection” between slave and master was one of the finest things about Southern life. Not only did they agree that the slave had a soul, they were happy about it. They had saved his soul through giving him Christianity.

Our familiar historical categories leave no room whatever for the feudalists of the anti-bellum South.  Fitzhugh’s “conservative” label that he cherished more than anything would be taken from him. It would be given to McKinley, whom Fitzhugh would have hated with a violent passion (175).

One thing in any case is clear. The political thought of the civil war symbolizes not the weakness of the American liberal idea but its strength, its vitality, and its utter domination over the American mind…the “grip of Locke”… it is not everyday in western history that a “great conservative reaction” dies without impact on the mid of a nation (177).

Lesson 4:  Dark Side of the Liberal Tradition

Dark side: the danger of unanimity. When foreign military or ideological pressure attacks America, the national response is a closing of the ranks—transforming eccentricity into sin, and dissent into danger of subversion and betrayal. E.g., Red Scare (xi).

The common American ethic, the “opinion” that frightened Tocqueville, became the conscious symbol by which the nation lived…. The “Americanism” that lay behind the shadow world of the Middle Period would come into its own… (142).

The basic problem of a liberal society is the danger of unanimity, the “tyranny of opinion” that Tocqueville saw unfolding.

“born equal” from Tocqueville (liberalism) meant that transformed the doctrine of Locke into the traditionalist reality of Burke, so that anyone who dared to use conservativism in order to refute liberalism would discover instead that he had merely refuted himself (151).

The liberal community is so powerful that it creates one crowd, which may require a “becoming” paternal government…. And its power is excessive and pitiless against dissidents (226).

The success of American policy abroad and the fate of American freedom at home are tied up in an intricate knot (285). America’s psychic heritage of a nation “born equal” is a colossal liberal absolutism, the death by atrophy of the philosophic impulse…the redscare… is not only our domestic problem: it is our international problem as well. When a nation rises to an irrational anticommunist frenzy, it replies to the same instinct which tends to alienate it from Western democratic governments that are “socialist”…when it closes down dissent, it inspires dubious regimes to define themselves as “democratic”.

The red scare mentality displays the American absolutism in its purest form.  When in 1921 sec. of state Hughes rejected a Soviet overture to open up trade w/America because trade rested on production and that production would be impossible in Russia since it depended on “firm guarantees of private property, the sanctity of contracts and the rights of free labor” (301).

George Kennan had spoken of “our inveterate” tendency to judge others by the extent to which they contrive to be like ourselves”….especially since the Jacksonian upheaval… we have been so much alike…in other words, the American liberal absolutism lies at the heart of the problem, linking as always the issue of world insight with the issue of domestic freedom (302).

In light of the long range communist threat, the blind spots of “Americanism” is as grave a threat to domestic freedom as any we have ever faced. This is the ironic end product of the second World War originally fought against fascism, of a historic phase which began in the late thirties simply with an argument over isolationism.

We are told that we [Americans] are the most revolutionary. Nothing is farther from the truth and we may as well face the fact (306). It is the absence of the experience of social revolution which is at the heart of the whole American dilemma (306). We are not familiar with the deeper social struggles of Asia and hence tend to interpret every reactionary regime as “democratic.”  We fail to appreciate nonpolitical definitions of “freedom” and hence are baffled by their use. Needless to say, all this plays into the hands of the Russian Communism which, grave as is the threat that it poses, is nonetheless a genuine ideology of social revolution.

Don’t be misled by the peculiar position of the new deal in the Red Scare movement. If the mission of the anti-communist hysteria is in significant part to discredit the American Progressive Movement, still that movement has contributed heavily to its ultimate strength. I have mentioned the isolationist “Americanism” which characterized much of the New Deal thinking on the international plane of the early years. But more significant is the deeper irrational liberalism of the New Deal movement which was responsible for its whole pragmatic orientation, for its whole aversion to systematic social thought (307).

Shattering American provincialism abroad as well as at home lie in the world scene itself… “coming of age” … worth fighting for… what is at stake is nothing less than a new consciousness, a transcending of irrational Lockanism, in which an understanding of self and an understanding of others go hand in hand (308).

Lesson 5:  Born Equal and Opportunity

The status quo determines the categories of revolution (24). Jefferson (hero) Hamilton (villain)—the nation never really sinned: only its inferior self did (31) a new Jefferson arises… instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it (32).

Tocqueville was right: “The great advantage of the Americans is, that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so.”


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