Skip to main content

A Liberal Looks at Tradition

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

The most significant fact in modern life is the dominance of the pullulating, swarming mass of average people in all of Western Europe, a dominance that is not only political, but cultural and social. The masses have arrived at the point where they set the tone of the whole life of Western Europe. The most alarming aspect of this “revolt of the masses” is that in modern life the sense of history has been lost. Without knowledge of the past, without restraint, without concern for even the values that made their rise possible, the masses live their relaxed, non-moral lives, heirs of such material abundance as the world never saw before. The nineteenth century achieved this revolt, and the -chief tools were political democracy, industrial expansion under private capitalism, and the advances in technology. This whole nineteenth-century movement may be called “progres-sivism.” It is not to be contended, however, that progres-sivism is confined to the nineteenth century or that it does not have its roots in the revolt against medieval authority.

A movement so triumphant as that which has ended in the “revolt of the masses,” one would expect, would have remained practically unchallenged during the whole nineteenth century, the period of its triumph. Actually, there was comparatively little challenge of the progressivist movement on its political or economic side. There was, however, challenge of the moral aims of the movement, or rather warnings as to the amoral end which the movement was achieving. A few examples chosen at random will show the reaction generally of such men as had a strong love of the past and a deep sense of tradition. Edmund Burke challenged two of the most important concepts of eighteenth-century Enlightenment, I the doctrine that man is the reasoning animal and the doc-| trine of the social contract—concepts fundamental to the revolutionary, and ultimately to the progressivist, movement. In the very first year of the nineteenth century Wordsworth wrote: ” . . . a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.” Among the “multitude of causes” was the movement of men to cities, where, relinquishing traditional habits and modes of thought, they were the victims of every form of cheap sensationalism. Wordsworth was, on one side, a traditionalist, and he knew that to make men free and prosperous (assuming that you do make them prosperous by putting them to work in industry) does not automatically make them good and noble.

“One wide and widest ‘outline’ ought really, in all ways, to be becoming clear to us; this namely: That a ‘Splendor of God,’ in one form or other, will have to unfold itself from the heart of our Industrial Ages too; or they will never get themselves organized; but continue chaotic, distressed, distracted evermore, and have to perish in frantic suicidal dissolution.” Thus Carlyle wrote in 1848. His was a comparatively early warning as to what would happen to a democratic-capitalistic-technological society which, without any sound morality of its own, without the slightest comprehension of traditional values, was coasting into utter confusion. From America, in 1869, when the Northern industrial plutocracy had just pushed aside its enemy and was entering the period of its greatest glory, Charles Eliot Norton wrote: “No man who knows what society at the present day really is, but must agree that it is not worth preserving on its present basis.” Here is the humanistic discernment of the junglelike quality of naturalistic economic competition; and, what is more, the discernment of the lack of any truly moral end in society. Ruskin, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, the Oxford Movement, Henry Adams, and perhaps dozens of figures and movements in all of Western Europe—all these in the aggregate made an imposing body of reaction against the progressivist movement, but nevertheless they were an ineffective and submerged voice in the clangor being made by the devotees of freedom and progress.

As industrialism, under the stimulus of unprecedented technological advance, roared into the twentieth century, the moral and humanistic objection to progressivism was perhaps more submerged for a number of years than it had been even in the nineteenth century. After the World War, however, the moral and humanistic criticism of progressivism slowly made its way back. Today, two distinct lines of attack upon progressivism are clear. These lines, of course, have been a long time forming and have existed long before now; but never perhaps since progressivism began its triumph has any attack upon it been quite so formidable. First, the moral and humanistic tradition of the nineteenth century has, generally speaking, embraced authoritarianism. To Humanism has been added religion. This line of attack we shall call “traditionalism,” and it is rooted in the idea that the general naturalistic philosophy underlying progressivism can be successfully combated only by a thoroughgoing appeal to pre-progressivist tradition. Now that the breakdown of industrialism under private capitalism is so evident, traditionalism attacks also on the economic side, offering usually a plan for the decentralization of industry, the rehabilitation of private property, and an agrarian way of life for a large percentage of the population.

The second line of attack we shall call “communism.” It embraces, roughly, all those whose criticism of progressivism is based mainly on socio-economic considerations. In short, communism attacks only one aspect of progressivism, that is, industrialism under private capitalism. It does not attack centralized industrialism as such, but only industrialism as owned under the system of private capitalism, the communist wishing to substitute state capitalism for private capitalism. In one sense, of course, communism attacks political democracy and the philosophy of naturalism, wishing to substitute a religion of the state (under the dictatorship of the proletariat) that does away with political democracy and naturalism in favor of a new form of absolutism or authority. On the other hand, communism also clings to the philosophy of naturalism, because, from any Western European absolutist point of view at least, communism is naturalism, utilitarianism, and humanitarianism triumphant. Its leveling, its unabashed materialism, its completely “this-worldly” view are Western Europe’s chief objection to communism, despite the paradoxical fact that Europe herself has been moving for three hundred years in the same general direction.

For purposes of clarity, then, rigid distinctions are better kept. The traditionalists attack progressivism on all fronts; the communists attack it on only one front. The matter can be summarized thus:

Nineteenth-Century Progressivism

1.  Political democracy—emphasizing individual rights.

2.  Industrialism under private capitalism.

3.  Technological advance.

4.  Underlying all these, the general philosophy of natural-

ism, with its highest social aims expressed in utilitarianism and humanitarianism, and with its formal religion (such as it has) offering slight check upon ruthless economic exploitation.

Traditionalism attacks Numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, Communism attacks Number 2. This whole scheme is drawn in very broad and general terms, but it includes nothing that the reader does not already know and accept. Perhaps this rather rigid definition will also keep the reader from being confused by the numerous terms ending in “ism.”

The attack of the traditionalists is based on authoritarianism. The traditionalists comprise the Neo-Catholics, the Royalists in France, the Distributists in England, and the Humanists and Agrarians in the United States. There are, I presume, some of each of these groups in all the countries; and some members of some of the groups may not be so rigidly authoritarian as others. The Royalists in France, under the leadership of M. Maurras, are of course strictly authoritarian. Mr. Chesterton and Mr. Belloc, leaders of the Dis-tributist group in England, are by their own profession interested first and last in ultramontane Christianity. There are Humanists in the United States, of course, who are skep-tical of “absolute divine authority in Church and State,” but there is also evidence among Humanists of a very kindly feeling toward Christian authoritarianism. Mr. Paul Elmer More, co-leader, with the late Professor Babbitt, of Humanism in America, now is hovering on the boundaries of Anglo-Catholicism. When The Bookman, the organ of Humanism, became The American Review, it made an exceedingly kind welcoming gesture not only towards its former Humanist allies, but also towards Distributists, Royalists, Neo-Catholics, and Agrarians. In short, Humanism has practically accepted Mr. T. S. Eliot’s dictum that Humanism without religion is powerless. The Agrarians, the group centering in Nashville, Tennessee, which issued its manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” in 1930, and which has as its chief spokesmen Mr. Allen Tate, Mr. John Crowe Ransom, and Mr. Donald Davidson, are not outwardly such rigid authoritarians as others in the traditionalist group. The Agrarians are usually content to dwell upon the outward delights of an agrarian way of life, just as the Distributists in England at present dwell upon the details of an economic plan for redistributing property widely and forcing industrial decentralization. But both the Distributists and Agrarians are realistically aware of the subtle interpenetration of religious or philosophical ideas and their economic ideas. Their problem is that unless a majority of people desire the authoritarian religious view and way of life, they will not adequately desire the Distributist or Agrarian economic plan, and most certainly could not maintain the Distributist or Agrarian economy and polity unless they also held the authoritarian religious view. For the purely economic problem of today can conceivably be solved in other ways than the Distributist or Agrarian way. But any other solution than the authoritarian or traditionalist solution means surrender to progressivism, which, in the minds of traditionalists, means the surrender of the traditional culture and the traditional values inherent in the European way of life. There is, as traditionalists are aware, ultimately only one view of life which can successfully block every manifestation of progressivism, and that view is the view of authoritarianism—the admission of man’s inability to make life rational, and the acceptance of an “other-worldly” view. I believe, therefore, that it is no violation of logic or fact to say that the deepest implications of Agrarianism are at one with those of Distributism, Neo-Catholicism, Royalism, and Humanism; that all these forms of traditionalism are grounded in the nineteenth-century moral and humanistic view intensified and made coherent by the addition of the authoritarian religious view.

It is my purpose to set down the reactions of a Liberal to this traditionalist movement, and especially to Agrarianism. There can really be no argument. If one accepts the views of the Agrarians, one accepts them; if one cannot accept those views, one can only try to show the points at which belief balks. It is not a question of what one feels one needs to believe, but simply of what one can believe.


The Agrarians of the Southern United States, it has been said, are to be ranked with traditionalists, and traditionalism has added to the moral and humanistic criticism of progressivism a conviction of the need for the restoration of authority in life. A Liberal, it will be seen, will balk at authoritarianism. He will balk because he has to balk. His inability to accept the program of Agrarianism will rest on two things: first, the problem of belief; and second, his feeling that the Agrarian is using the word “tradition” in a too limited and an unacceptable sense. All talk about the romantic nostalgia and the impracticability of Agrarianism; all challenge of the myth of the Old South which Agrarians worship; all talk about the impossibility of “turning the clock back”—all this is a very minor challenge to Agrarianism, for if the people of the South are willing to accept and hold to an authoritarian creed, they can achieve the ideal of the Agrarians.

We come first to the problem of belief. Not every contributor to “I’ll Take My Stand” plainly announces his devotion to a monarchical state and to the Church. The majority of the contributors would perhaps be satisfied with Mr. Harry Blue Kline’s vague defiance of the “progressivist fetish” and “the culture of aimless flux.” Mr. Allen Tate, however, has seen the farthest-reaching implications of the Agrarian philosophy. In Mr. Tate’s “Remarks on the Southern Religion” the heart of the Agrarian philosophy is reached. There one is beyond compromise, and there one sees one’s justification for labeling Agrarianism a traditionalist or authoritarian solution of the modern problem.

Mr. Tate’s criticism of “the progressivist fetish” extends all the way back to that first great revolt from tradition—the revolt against the Church. There, at the time of the Renaissance and Reformation, began the great diffusion which results today in “aimless flux.” “Since there is, in the Western mind, a radical division between the religious, the contemplative, the qualitative, on the one hand, and the scientific, the natural, the practical on the other, the scientific mind always plays havoc with the spiritual life when it is not powerfully enlisted in its cause; it cannot be permitted to operate alone.” Mr. Tate thinks that at the Renaissance this scientific side of man decided to let the spiritual system fight its own battle; and the Church, endeavoring to fight rationalism with a rationalistic tool, Dogma, lost its hold. Scientific man assumed “the half-religion of work,” which is all of reality that the scientific mind can grasp. This half-religion, this concern for only that aspect of an object that “works,” “has applied its formula for life-action with astonishing success up to now.” But now at last, Mr. Tate thinks, man is sick of the chaos which freedom from authority has brought upon him. The answer to the problem is to embrace tradition again.

In order to re-establish tradition, or to give currency again to a tradition that has been temporarily submerged, Mr. Tate says, it is necessary to look at history with the Short View, not the Long View. Under the Short View a culture or a tradition is looked upon as a whole, its meaning felt, its ideas loved; there is an almost mystical absorption into the object of one’s contemplation; one’s surrender to that object is so complete that one does not put it into a logical, abstract series with other objects, or question it, or compare it with other objects. A Christian, Mr. Tate continues, can look back to New Testament Christianity and can realize the whole tradition of Christ as a way of life lived by certain men over a certain period of time. Whatever this Christian’s intellectual comprehension of, say, Adonis may be, Adonis does not compare with Christ, for Christ is the reality. If the Christian, however, should become scientific and should make an abstraction of Christianity so as to compare it with other traditions to see if and how it worked, he would, according to Mr. Tate, have gone over to the Long View. Departing from Mr. Tate at this point, we find other concepts analogous to that of the Short View and Long View. Mr. Max Eastman says, “Poetry realizes, science idealizes [conceptualizes or makes abstract].” The Short View is the poetic view; the Long View is the scientific view. The Short View breeds faith and belief; the Long View breeds skepticism and incoherent eclecticism. Mr. Julius Friend’s recent article, “Nominalism: The Dilemma of Western Civilization,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review, offers an important analogy at this point, for the Short View is the view of realism, the Long View the view of nominalism. Scholastic philosophers, Mr. Friend says, following the philosophy of realism, showed “to the satisfaction of medieval man that the constitution of society was inherent in the nature of the universe [had Divine sanction, in other words].” And is not that the value of the Short View, that it gives universal validity to one’s “ideas”? Now, nominalists “held that particular objects alone were real and that universals were merely names given to classify and relate particulars.” Nominalism is the Long View, the breaking down of ideas into particular objects and problems. The whole traditionalist movement is an attempt to deny nominalism, to find within the Short View the faith that one’s ideas are real, permanent, and universally valid. The Long View, Mr. Tate complains, has held sway for four or five centuries, but once one has achieved the Short View one has a grip upon the Absolute, the One, the Real. Achieving the Short View, however, consists of a great deal more than understanding it—a dilemma that Mr. Tate, it appears, has not sufficiently considered.

Granted that the questioning and the abandoning of the Short View are the prime cause of the “culture of flux,” getting back to the Short View is difficult. The difficulty rests upon the problem of belief. It can be stated simply: belief is not deliberately achieved. How does one get the Long View out of one’s mind? There will always be at the bottom of the mind the demon which says: “This particular Short View that I am trying to regain is only one view among many. It is not absolute. I have deliberately chosen it, out of despair, as a challenge to myself, to enforce unity upon a universe of fragmentary particulars. Whatever the ‘will to believe’ means, it does not mean that I can believe what I will. There is no transcendental ‘imperative’ here, but only practical necessity. I know that a faith and a tradition are not pulled by mind’s choice out of history’s files. Spontaneously, a Short View arrives, a tradition is, needing no defense, serving as a sustaining idea. It is like the Methodists’ Grace of God: one may—one must—seek it, but its coming is not the result of the seeking, else it would not be the Grace of God. I cannot seek and find a Short View. I cannot rig up a Short View.” Worst of all, the demon makes one say a Short View, but the Short View is patently the Short View, rigid and absolute.

Mr. I. A. Richards has gone thoroughly into the problem of belief. In a recent article he says: “The kind of questioning which, for me, dissolves the traditional landmark, Belief, into a cluster of undeveloped problems can be applied to almost all our mental landmarks. Truth, Knowledge, Beauty, the Will, the Good, the Self—with all their satellite terms— fade out. Under a persistent analysis they appear as merely fictions—devised to suit changing needs and owing their seeming solidity to their systematic interlocking ambiguity. A moment comes when any persistent inquirer will be forced to echo Trumbull Stickney:

‘Sir, say no more; Within me ‘tis as if

The green and climbing eyesight of a cat Crawls near my mind’s poor birds.’”

Mr. Richards’ nominalism, refusing validity to any universal “idea” and breaking all experience down into a “cluster of undeveloped problems,” is the demon that Mr. Tate expects to exorcise by saying that it must go.

The Liberal understands Mr. Tate when he says that, under the Short View, one accepts life as it is and consequently can know the reality. When Mr. Tate transfers these ideas to the realm of literary criticism and tries to show that whoever reads or writes poetry with the Long View in the back of his mind can read or write only in terms of “moralistic allegory” and cannot therefore understand poetry as a “created object,” neither true nor false but simply existing— the Liberal understands. But the Liberal cannot achieve belief, cannot force himself into the Short View, even when the proffered award is an understanding of poetry as keen as Mr. Tate’s own understanding of it. The Liberal can even admit that nominalism (the Long View) will never achieve more than a further dissociation of ideas, finally reaching a point where out of sheer desperation the nominalist will have to look for values again; but the Liberal, given his present state of mind, can see nothing for it but to follow Mr. Richards and the scientists in dissolving all concepts and all experience into a “cluster of undeveloped problems.” To the Liberal, when concepts are not broken down, dissociated, and analyzed, they retain the flavor of primitive animism. If, as Mr. Tate implies, true meaning thus eludes Mr. Richards, or the Liberal, or the nominalist, then that is their dilemma, and it rests upon the problem of belief—upon the fact that belief cannot be deliberately achieved.


The problem of belief blocks any complete acceptance of the Agrarian or traditionalist position. Another weakness of the Agrarian position is in its interpretation of “tradition.” Tradition, in the Agrarian creed, means essentially the Christian tradition, the pre-Renaissance and pre-Ref-ormation tradition. Mr. Tate, as we have seen, carries his objection to progressivism all the way back to the first great revolt against the Church. Other traditionalists are aware that, although progressivism achieved its evil victory mainly in the nineteenth century, the evils of that century are inherent in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and that the eighteenth-century evils are inherent in Renaissance empiricism and revolt against authority. To re-establish tradition is to go back to the faith, to the attitude of mind, of the time before tradition was departed from. This uncompromising view held by the traditionalists is essentially sound as an ideology, and it clarifies issues. Its weakness, however, is that it is an ideological abstraction. Tradition to the Englishman or American today, does not mean solely the authoritarian tradition. For most English and American people, tradition, if they are aware of it at all, includes the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the democratic movement, the industrial movement. In a review of the symposium, “Culture in the South,” Mr. Tate expressed his thanks for the fact that religion in the South is chiefly Fundamentalist, still interested in the main problem of any religion, personal salvation. But this same Fundamentalism, it may be argued, is solidly in the tradition of Methodism and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English Dissent. That tradition is notoriously individualistic and has always countenanced individualistic economic depredation, the complete divorce between Church and State, and the worthiness of technological advance. In other words, the most fundamental tradition in the South is the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition, which is so thoroughly Protestant that in many of its sects it represents dissent from dissent from dissent. Nor is that tradition fundamentally agrarian. Essentially and by origin it is the tradition of the lower bourgeoisie, traders, merchants, and projectors. The ordinary man, with no historical memory, does not know the roots of his tradition, but a deep instinct will push him, ultimately, towards allegiance with those who promise more industry, more trade, more things to use and possess. This tradition, in spite of, and partly because of, its Fundamentalism, is essentially the progres-sivist tradition. If, on its economic side, progressivism comes to a complete impasse, these Anglo-Saxon Protestants will, in the long run, find an economy of abundance under state capitalism more congenial to their instincts than Agrarian independence with moderate industrialism and a moderate standard of living. The outcropping of an optimistic progressivism in “Culture in the South,” the direct pleading for industrialization of the South, or the indifference with which industrialism is accepted, bewilders Mr. Tate and other Agrarians. It should not bewilder them. It is simply the Anglo-Saxon Protestant progressivist tradition following its instincts, and still unable to comprehend the evils and failings of industrialism under private capitalism. Fundamentalism, which Mr. Tate admits is the solidest and firmest tradition in the South today, has always been the handmaiden of industrialism under private capitalism. In fact, Mr. R. H. Tawney and Mr. H. J. C. Grierson, to cite only two authorities, insist that industrialism would never have been possible without the moral preparation that Protestantism made for it. When Protestantism changed the emphasis from “salvation by faith” to “salvation by works” the seed of the progressivist movement was sown.

Granted that at one time the South maintained a sort of eighteenth-century squirearchy, Toryish and distrustful of industrialism; granted that at one time the South stood against the major manifestations of progressivism generally —it is nevertheless true also that the population of the South today is almost as completely devoted to “the progressivist fetish” as the population of any other section. Furthermore, Fundamentalism in the South has no deeper roots in authoritarianism than Protestantism generally, and consequently is no better able than any other brand of Protestantism to stand against the curious blend of naturalistic or scientific and humanitarian ideas that is making so many Protestant churches today nothing more than psalm-singing Rotary organizations. There is another element in the “tradition” of the South that must not be overlooked. If many plantation owners in the Old South were Toryish squires, many others were Whiggish children of the Enlightenment, skeptics, devotees of Reason, and ardent apostles of democracy. True, they were gentlemen with a proper scorn for the masses, but their doctrines were radically republican and not authoritarian. Appeal to the tradition of the Old South means appeal to many ideas of the French Revolution period, which are, at bottom, progressivist ideas. Take away the Jeffersonian, reasonable gentlemen of the Old South and then take away the mass of Fundamentalists and bourgeois rugged individualists, and there is little left as a basis for revival of a stable authoritarian polity. When we consider that today even the gentleman is almost extinct, it is no wonder that perhaps the most representative voice of the South is the voice of the Fundamentalist-become-Rotarian pleading for the establishment of more factories in Dallas, Atlanta, and Memphis. Tradition in the South, it is obvious, includes the Protestant and progressivist traditions, and any appeal simply to tradition is likely to uncover some amazing contradictions and surprises.

Likewise, the Liberal can point out to all traditionalists that “tradition” in Western Europe is a very complex thing, and includes some three hundred years or more of progressivism, many of the benefits of which can not be permanently denied the race. Mr. Hilaire Belloc says in a series of articles on Distributism that “the first great blow [to well-distributed private property and consequently to a stable economy and polity] was the destruction of the guilds . . . in all countries transformed by the Reformation, especially England.” But why was that blow struck? Because something in the nature of men, in northern Europe especially, made them desire freedom from authority, freedom from the prevalent scarcity of material goods, freedom to identify with the will of God their own will to make and sell material goods. And that desire of men is part of their tradition. The desire of traditionalists to leap cleanly back over three hundred years of man’s distemper comes down to a desire to deny what, as men, they are; at least it amounts to an ideological and narrow reading of “tradition.”


Up to this point, two weaknesses or difficulties in the Agrarian or traditionalist program have been dwelt upon. First, there is the difficulty the modern mind has in accepting the absolutist and authoritarian views of traditionalists; in short, the inability of the modern mind to achieve deliberately a Short View. Secondly, there is the difficulty the modern mind has in believing that “tradition” completely excludes the gains made by progressivism during the last three or four hundred years. There is little doubt that, for many persons in the South, the objections registered will appear to have some validity. Nevertheless, there is the possibility that the Agrarians are right in at least one thing, that the nominalistic instincts of the modern mind actually exist only in the minds of a few stubborn Liberals. It is necessary to consider the traditionalist ideal in the light of the possibility that progressivism is at the end of its era, that a great hunger after non-rational values is turning men to numerous fundamental traditional loyalties and against the rationalistic ideals of progressivism.

There is evidence to support the notion that a new hatred of “comfort” and reason is supplanting the three-hundred-years-old odium dei of progressivism. And if this is widely true, traditionalists are to a very great extent right in their interpretation of “tradition”; the greater proximity in time of progressivist ideals would be the measure of modern man’s unconcern for them; it would be possible for human thought and instinct to take a huge pendulum-swing over three hundred years, back to the very authoritarian tradition that traditionalists glorify. At least one traditionalist, Mr. Tate, leaning upon Oswald Spengler’s latest book, holds this view. The decadent, bourgeois progressivist “civilization” is to be replaced by the vigorous nationalistic and religious “culture” of which Hitler is the god-sent leader.

Grant that Spengler, Mr. Tate, and traditionalists generally are right in the notion that absolutism is the necessary and inevitable cure for decadent progressivist civilization. Does it necessarily follow that the new “culture” will represent a return on all lines to an older culture? There is an equally valid Spenglerian idea that indicates that such a return, such a complete borrowing, has never happened before and is not likely to happen now. In “The Decline of the West” Spengler sets forth the idea that every culture is autonomous and that, although any given culture may borrow tools, techniques, and ideas from another culture, its sustaining idea, its central view of life (its Short View, in other words) is peculiarly its own. Now it is possible that modern man may borrow from medievalism an important notion— the realist “idea” that one’s will is the universal will, absolute and real. That, according to many observers, is the notion that modern life needs in order to shuffle out of its indecision and its paralyzing relativism or nominalism. But it does not necessarily follow that modern man’s will can be completely the medieval man’s will, just as it did not follow that when the scholastics took over the Platonic doctrine of realism they re-created the whole Greek view of life. A culture borrows, but it uses its borrowings for its own central purpose. What present-day man seeks universal validity for, need not, and probably will not, be the same thing that medieval man sought universal validity for. In short, modern European man may, generally, attain a Short View, but it will not be the same Short View that his medieval predecessors had. If progressivism has frazzled out into a fruitless nominalism and relativism; if some form of absolutism-some form of The Terror predicted by the Jewish Jesuit in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”—is on the horizon of Western Europe, that absolutism or authoritarianism need not be the particular absolutism of Christianity and Fascism. It could easily be the Marxian form of absolutism.

The man of Western Europe, used to the Machine, used to the idea of the melioration of the worldly lot of man, already forgetful of most tradition before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, already indocile concerning European values, as Ortega y Gasset has lamented—the European man would ultimately find much to please him in communism. For communism, it must be admitted, is on one side the apotheosis of progressivism, the logical result of the “revolt of the masses,” although through its authoritarianism and absolutism it might impose askesis upon the mass. In short, the present unconcern for the values that traditionalists worship—that very worldliness, utilitarianism, and humanitarianism may find for themselves a faith in their “idea” as the “reality.” As George Santayana says in “Winds of Doctrine,” “Our whole life and mind is saturated with the slow upward filtration of a new spirit—that of an emancipated, atheistic, international democracy. These epithets may make us shudder; but what they describe is something positive and self-justified, something deeply rooted in our animal nature and inspiring to our hearts, something which, like every vital impulse, is pregnant with a morality of its own [my italics].” And this is what the new absolutism may be.

And so the Liberal’s distrust of absolutism, his inability to believe, his recognition of the complexity and many-sidedness of tradition, may well be the very qualities that will in the long run preserve the “European values,” if these can be preserved. It is only the Liberal who can point out the paradoxical fact that Agrarianism and traditionalism in general, while professing a desire to preserve Western Europe, actually play into the hands of the enemies of the “European values.” The appeal to authority and absolutism against liberalism ultimately helps the Marxian cause as much as it helps the Christian European cause. And it helps the cause of Fascism, that absurdly “heroic” enemy of the European values of tolerance, enlightenment, and reason.

Rightly or wrongly, the Liberal sees Fascism as an opportunistic move by private capitalism to forestall the socialization and humanization of industry. Fascism may be the renewed “Splendor of God” that some traditionalists seem to believe it to be; it may be the resurgence of the truly human spirit after many years of a false following of Reason; it may be the new heroic view of life that democratic liberalism can no longer give. But the Liberal doubts that. The Liberal chooses to accept the view of an apostate Agrarian (apostate on this one point), Mr. John Gould Fletcher, upon Fascism. Mr. Fletcher hopes that England and America will not “become [like Germany] utterly the property of one single super-financier, and therefore governed by a dictatorship which though outwardly nationalistic is inwardly more purely mercenary in motive than the worst form of dictatorship that governed the decadent Roman Empire.” Hitler, then, instead of being God’s agent to restore to life all its feudal dignities, is the tool of a threatened capitalism which resorts to any device to preserve its ownership of large-scale industry. The Fascist will appeal to every prejudice of race, section, or creed; will preach the glory of a bare subsistence standard of living; will discard many fine industrial techniques and rigidly restrict production; will even preach the glory of a non-industrial way of life—all in order to insure himself against a socialized industry. Just as, in Germany, the myth of the superior Aryan, appealing as it does to old racial sympathies and loyalties, scorns, on the surface, the industrial way of life but uses these anti-industrial and anti-progressivist prejudices to support the privately-owned industrial system—in the same way can the anti-urban prejudices of the South, latent now but easily aroused, be used by Fascists as a weapon in the war against the socialization and humanization of industry. The hearty dislike that Agrarians have for the whole industrial way of life is proof that at present they are not consciously Fascists, not consciously in league with the reactionary Northern industrialist. But Agrarianism fosters reactionary and conservative thought; in times of crisis one reactionary sentiment supports other reactionary sentiments.

If the people of the South were stirred to resist industrialism thoroughly, there would be no great or immediate danger in a resistance also to the more recent Liberal ideas. If the people of the South can be taught by the Agrarians to resist the private entrepreneur and industrialist as well as the socialist and communist—can be taught to resist the fundamental evil as well as resist those who advocate a panacea for that evil—no harm will be done. But one can legitimately doubt that the resistance will be so thoroughgoing as that. Traditionalist ideas will teach suspicion of socialist and communist ideas without being able to teach a proper suspicion of private industrialism itself. The Machine is already in fact upon the South, If Agrarianism continues its narrowly regionalistic propaganda, it is likely to find its whole ideology playing squarely into the hands of the industrialists. The Liberal accepts the Machine but seeks to control it in the interests of society. The Agrarian, defying the Machine and defying the philosophy of those degenerate urbanites who seek to control the Machine, will see the Machine entrenched in his region without any control over it. Fundamentalism has just enough progressivism in its psychology to accept the Machine, but has not quite enough honest progressivism in it to accept the doctrine of control of the Machine. In the attempt to solidify “tradition” in the South, the Agrarians will solidify, temporarily at least, the hold of private capitalism upon the South.

Remy de Gourmont once discussed the necessity of a proper “dissociation of ideas” in thinking. The untrained mind, instead of considering particulars, lets prejudices, sentiments, loyalties get bound up together in clusters, so that to question one of these is to attack them all. Traditionalism seeks to discourage dissociation of ideas, to encourage men to give way to their passions and ready-made impressions. When some writers in The American Review refer petulantly to “international-minded Jews” and “deracinated urbanites,” they are guilty of either deliberate rabble-rousing or utter stupidity. They are engaging in a most primitive failure to dissociate ideas properly. There is in the South today a tendency to bind up the idea of God with the idea of private enterprise, and as long as that indefensible association of ideas exists there is the possibility that the Northern industrialist can descend upon the South and by talking only about God get Southerners to believe also in the eternal Tightness of his exploitative economic activity. In periods of cultural cohesiveness, when men seem to know what the good is and what they desire, the “association of ideas” is what gives unity to their culture and their view of life. But in periods of rapid change, such as the present, the attempt to encourage an “association of ideas” at the very time when men need the ability to choose warily and eclectically among many ideas—the attempt at such a time is almost treason to humanity.

I do not intend to imply here that Agrarianism is a weird or primitive obscurantism. Agrarianism offers much that is admirable—a critique of vulgarity, a critique of the failings of industrialism under private capitalism, a critique of the loose ends to which belief in undirected “progress” has brought us. When Agrarianism asks for regional planning, for a predominance of agriculture over industry, for manners and a stable culture and a sounder education, it is not to be challenged. When Agrarians, prompted by a love of their region, most devoutly wish that the towns of the South may not become barbarized Middletowns, every Liberal is with them. It is when the Agrarians so heartily wish an antidote to the present system of industrialism that they can think of nothing but the myth of the Old South and ultimately the myth of a stable agrarian and authoritarian polity engendering only sweetness and light—then it is that the Liberal parts company with them and sees their movement as one which, unable in the long run to banish the Machine, will have, under the name of “tradition” (anti-urban and anti-Liberal), unwittingly fortified the whole system of industrialism under private capitalism.

The Liberal is already being told from every side that history does not move progressively towards some “far-off Divine event”; that men do not learn to pick their way rationally among ideas, choosing the good and rejecting the bad, working surely towards perfection. The Liberal is bet

ing told today that the progressivist ideal is played out; that it is foolish of him to quarrel with reaction, with Fascism, with communism, with the new ideals of honor and glory and strength and faith; that the pendulum-swing must be to the extreme; that he and his bourgeois brethren cannot have comfort, peace, tolerance, and reasonableness and have also strength, honor, convictions, and faith; that, as a matter of fact, under the progressivist regime, there is actually very little comfort, peace, or tolerance anyway. However, with a great capacity for surviving shock, surprise, and disillusionment, the Liberal persists in the notion that progressivism still has possibilities because it has never yet been given a chance. But if the final and complete disillusionment of the Liberal occurs and he is forced to the choice between Jesuit and Bolshevist—alternatives set for him by the late Professor Babbitt and numerous others—he will probably choose communism, despite the fact that communism makes no pretense of preserving the European value of reverence worshiped by traditionalists or the European value of tolerance and freedom worshiped by Liberals. If the problem of the “revolt of the masses” or of “frantic suicidal dissolution” is insoluble within the Liberal or progressivist tradition, then the Liberal can only “shudder” and begin to consider the possibility that the new communist “culture” can be “pregnant with a morality of its own,” however alien and strange that morality may appear at present. For, given the last three hundred years of progressivism, the Liberal cannot see how the traditionalist “morality” can be possible, even if it were admitted to be desirable.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading