[This appears just following the Foreword and Preface in Murphey’s book Liberalism in Contemporary America.]
A NOTE TO THE READER
This book concludes a project I began in 1965. When I started I certainly didn't anticipate that the subject would carry me into four volumes -- of which this is the last.
The first volume was Understanding the Modern Predicament. Its beginning chapter discussed the nature of what I have called "the modern predicament" and pointed to three factors that I went on to examine in detail.
The first of these had to do with the remarkably insightful analysis made in The Revolt of the Masses by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. I wanted to extend his analysis and at the same time reflect an uneasiness that I felt about it. Ortega had observed that in advanced civilization the average person has come to occupy all spaces, displacing the earlier aristocracies. Even though he acknowledged that people live at a higher level than ever before, he noted that the spiritual characteristics of this average humanity are mediocre. My own experience has, it seems to me, confirmed Ortega's thesis. The mediocrity profoundly affects both our daily lives and the larger events of our society. Just the same, I felt uneasy. In historical perspective, it was necessary to see this mediocrity not as a decline from a more perfected earlier condition, but as a result of mankind's having come only part of the way on the journey from barbarism. A review of the earlier periods of Western civilization in Greece, Rome and the Middle Ages would show that periods of advanced and humane civilization have been relatively brief. Mankind is in its infancy. The first third of Understanding the Modern Predicament was devoted, then, to a review of this immaturity.
This review of history back to the Greeks had an additional advantage: it showed how existentially open-ended the modern age has been. Modern Western society has been heir to a rich heritage -- but few, if any, satisfactory solutions. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that modern man has cast about in a crisis of consensus.
The second factor in what I called the "modern predicament" was one of the most striking elements in modern intellectual history: the alienation of the intellectuals, as a subculture, from the predominant "bourgeois" culture. No other fact has been so central to the divisions and neuroses of the modern age. It is impossible to understand the past two centuries without giving full weight to the role of the alienation of the intellectual. This alienation was analyzed in the middle third of Understanding the Modern Predicament.
The final third of that book extended the discussion of those first two factors by exploring several episodes of modern history -- topics such as the French Revolution, nineteenth century Russian nihilism and the origins of the First World War -- in light of both the immaturity and the alienation. This first book could, of course, only point ahead to the third factor within the modern predicament, which is that the divisions within the modern West have given rise to opposing "systems of interpretation," comprehensive ideologies by which people have understood complex social reality. These ideas have for almost two centuries served as the atmosphere in which we have lived, guiding our understanding of ourselves and of the world. An analysis of each of these ideologies in turn has occasioned the final three volumes.
Despite each ideology's conviction to the contrary, such mental systems are not themselves Truth, directly understood. They are devices that people develop to mediate social reality. The systems are profoundly affected by forces at work in the society; and they are also powerful causal instruments in their own right. People act in the world as they perceive it. This means that their perceptions and those of others are part of the social reality, intermeshed with all other factors.
The second volume discussed two of these interpretive systems: Burkean conservatism and classical liberalism. The third examined socialist thought, and this final volume explores the liberal-Left within the United States. It also discusses the New Left, the ideological variation that emerged in the late 1950s and existed with explosive force in the '60s before withering in the '70s. Residuals of the New Left still strongly affect American life.
At the beginning of each book I have mentioned that the reader can with relatively little difficulty understand the book by itself without studying the others. Needless to say, though, a deeper understanding will be achieved by studying the series as a whole. It is the tension of the ideologies in a setting framed by the immaturity and the alienation that makes a deeper understanding possible.
All four volumes were published in limited editions in the mid-'80s by the University Press of America. I am grateful to Scott-Townsend Publishers for this updated 1991 edition of the final volume.
[The following was omitted from the 1992 reprint, but contains important reflections about the role of ideas in society:]
These opening comments seem the best place for me to mention a peculiarity of modern liberal thought that has a bearing on one of my themes.
As I have reviewed the other ideologies I have stressed the role of ideas, even though we have also seen the importance of other forces, which in turn have provided the basis for something of a sociology of modern thought.
The history of American liberal thought, however, shows that ideas are sometimes the pawns of stubborn fact, not necessarily the ultimate masters of society. Without question, ideas have been important: twentieth century Americans know the omnipresent "atmosphere" of liberal ideas; the stream of political action has largely reflected liberal attitudes. But my preparation for this book has included a wide reading of liberal literature: the 169 volumes of the The New Republic from the time it began publication in 1914 until early 1985, approximately 100 volumes of The Nation, and the books and articles of a large number of liberal authors. This reading has made it apparent to me that American liberal thought has primarily been reactive. Liberal thought (which must be distinguished from liberalism's much more limited political agenda) has been buffeted about unmercifully. Liberal thinking has literally been pulled through several phases. Instead of leading inexorably, liberalism has followed pathetically. The intellectual content has tagged along behind much larger forces than itself. Modern liberalism is the best example I know of of how an ideology can be, to a relatively high degree, impotent in the face of other forces.
The impression I received from its literature was one of insecurity. It is likely that there has never been an ideology so unsure of itself and fragmented in its intellectual content while putting on so bold and monolithic a front.
To conservatives, the liberal-Left has, at least until recent years, seemed insurmountable. Even now it continues to command institutional action and public opinion with its fads and fancies. Just the same, liberal thinkers have shown an almost constant awareness of the thinness of their position and of how tentative a hold their thinking has had vis-a-vis both the main culture and the intellectual world of the further-Left, which is the world that has counted most to them.
This thinness has been inherent in modern liberalism. Rather than representing a pure ideological model, this liberalism constitutes a tactical compromise within an ever-changing historical setting. It has rested uneasily in that compromise, suffering from a perpetual tendency to slip off in either direction, toward the open field of the Left or toward a more accepting accommodation with the main culture. This is a situation that would have been shaky enough in any case; it has not helped that both the Left and the main culture have themselves been in constant change.
The history of the liberal-Left thus runs counter to the notion that ideas are in all situations controlling. This suggest that it is a mistake to hold to a naive version of the "lag theory" that "if an idea is accepted by the leading thinkers, society is bound to follow after a few years." While that is often true, a society is more complex than that suggests. I am certainly among those who believe that the comprehensive mental systems for mediating social reality are very important. But that is not the same thing as to suggest that they are all that is important.
The subjects of the other books have not given me occasion to point this out, or even to understand it myself, quite so emphatically before. During much of my lifetime the ideas of the Left seemed to be sweeping the world. But the loss of elan within socialism and American liberalism has been so profound that the impression of the supreme power of those ideas has long since been shattered. The startling events in Eastern Europe and China in 1989 served to underscore that fact.
Dwight D. Murphey