Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 10, No. 1; Spring 2004

The New Jacobins

America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire.   By Claes G. Ryn. Transaction Publishers, 2003. xiii + 221 pgs.

Claes Ryn’s thoughtful book might have been written as a brilliant counter to An End to Evil, reviewed elsewhere in this issue. The book exactly diagnoses the cast of mind on display in that blueprint for perpetual war. I should like, though, to approach Professor Ryn’s central thesis somewhat obliquely, through an application of it that it is of vital concern to all supporters of the free market.

Ryn criticizes intellectuals and others who believe that their possession of truth entitles them to impose their principles, by force if need be, on society. In the view that Ryn opposes, truth consists of certain abstract principles that apply universally. Those in the grip of these principles ignore tradition and the claims of the local. If habitual ways of doing things do not accord with the newly revealed wisdom, they must be changed; and if recalcitrant people prove an obstacle, they must be eliminated.

Ryn has in mind especially a particular group of such intellectuals, whom he terms the new Jacobins. He identifies, and subjects to scrutiny, a number of elements in the ideology of this group, and it is one of these that leads me to my oblique approach. This passage in Ryn’s account of the new Jacobins startled me: "An important component of what the new Jacobins advocate is what they call ‘capitalism’ or ‘free markets’" (p. 145).

I had previously been reading with admiration, and I confess complacency as well, Ryn’s assault on his new Jacobins. The group consists of the neoconservatives I have frequently attacked, and I was enjoying Ryn’s mordant attack. But his chapter "Jacobin Capitalism" raises for us classical liberals a difficult question.

According to Ryn, the new Jacobins support (at least to some degree) capitalism and free trade as a way to batter down exiting social institutions. They see that capitalism much more effectively destroys tradition than socialism. "Of those in the West today who are passionate advocates of capitalism and want it introduced all over the world, many are former Marxists. The shift from being a Marxist to becoming a missionary for capitalism may be less drastic than is commonly assumed" (p. 147).

Marx contended that capitalism destroys the Old Regime: everything must give way before the unceasing accumulation of capital. In like fashion, Joseph Schumpeter celebrated the "creative destruction" carried out by the entrepreneur. Because of its revolutionary impact, Marx fully supported the spread of capitalism throughout the world.

Marx of course favored the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism: socialism, not capitalism, was the culmination of history. But here the new Jacobins dissent: "A person may advocate capitalism not so much because he utterly rejects Marx’s vision of a new society as because he regards the revolution of the proletariat and the socialist organization of production as blind alleys, quite unnecessary for realizing an essentially egalitarian society. . . . A person may endorse capitalism because letting the market do its work is the best way to uproot backward beliefs and related sociopolitical structures" (p. 148).

Are supporters of a complete free market of necessity radical opponents of tradition? Certainly Ryn is right that some libertarians find little of value in maintaining conservative social practices: Mrs. Virginia Postrel, with her dithyrambs to "dynamism" is a case in point.1 But Postrel and her ilk merely express their own opinions: they do not give voice to some supposed revolutionary essence of capitalism. Ryn gives undue credence to the Marxist historical account.

The heart of the matter, as it seems to me, is this: the free market allows people to enter into any noncoercive relations they wish. It neither requires nor forbids adherence to tradition, but the free transactions in which people engage will obviously be governed by the values they hold. Capitalism is entirely compatible with tradition.

Ryn sometimes comes close to grasping the essential point. Following Wilhelm Röpke, he argues that a capitalist economy imbued with proper social values is highly desirable. "A free market of goods and services may exist in a decentralized, group oriented society . . . in which both supply and demand are structured by corresponding civilized desires. In this economy, relations between competitors may be softened by mutual respect and consideration" (p. 151).

But how are these civilized desires to be achieved? Must the state restrain the free choices of individuals, lest social atomism and unrest result? (To some degree, Röpke would answer yes.) Ryn does not spell out a program of action, but he seems to be inclined to the view that capitalism, unless carefully restrained, is a dangerous force. "If the people who produce and consume cease to exhibit the discipline and responsibility characteristic of a civilized society, the free market, too, even if it continues to produce goods and services, begins to give itself a bad reputation among people who . . . look beyond quantitative standards" (p. 153). But surely such a bad reputation is not deserved. If consumers have bad taste, this is hardly the fault of the only economic system capable of economic calculation.

But I come to praise Ryn, not to quibble with him over his failure fully to embrace laissez-faire capitalism. His attack on neoconservative foreign policy strikes home with great force. Ryn finds a parallel between current supporters of universal democracy on the American plan and the Jacobins of the French Revolution. "The Jacobins saw themselves as virtuous champions of a great moral cause. . . . They were guardians of revolutionary principles. They were ushering in a new way of life, a society of equality and democracy, a glorious goal that permitted no mercy for those who stood in the way" (p. 19).

In like fashion, the new Jacobins, guided by what Ryn aptly calls "the ideology of virtuous empire," demand that all countries embrace democracy. They invent imaginary threats from regimes that do not conform to their ambitions to justify their violent plans.

How might a new Jacobin respond to Ryn’s trenchant indictment?2 He would, I think, respond with a demurrer. It is quite true, we may imagine him saying, that we wish to spread our principles to everyone. But what is wrong with that? Does morality stop at the borders of the United States? If Saddam Hussein and the rulers of Iran cannot see the wisdom of the Gettysburg Address, to the block with them!

Ryn’s response takes us to the heart of his case. He rejects the entire notion of universal principles, separated from tradition and local custom. Following Irving Babbitt, he traces this false view to Rousseau. "A vision of a new egalitarian social and political order and of popular rule freed not only from traditional elites but from traditional moral and cultural restraints of all kinds had been formulated with great imaginative power by Jean-Jacques Rousseau" (p. 19).3

For Ryn, universalism is the enemy. "Traditional Western morality creates a strong presumption that man’s primary moral obligation is to deal with problems at close range, starting with self" (p. 56). Applied to foreign affairs, the lesson is clear: "The assumption that much needs improving here before turning attention elsewhere has shaped a corresponding attitude toward international relations: a country’s primary duty is to conduct its own affairs and repair its own flaws. . . . A country has no reason to interfere militarily or otherwise with other countries except to protect its own vital interests and defend itself against threats" (p. 57).

Ryn has stated his case against the universal with great force and clarity; but what if one is not entirely convinced? I venture to suggest that even those not so enamored as our author with moral particularism have reason to reject new Jacobin foreign policy. One has only to embrace the universal principle that a nation has no right to impose egalitarian democracy on other countries.

In his campaign against the new Jacobins, Ryn handles with careful judgment an issue of great importance. To what extent do the teachings of Leo Strauss support the universalist pretensions of neoconservative foreign policy?

The more I read Strauss, the harder do I find it to discern his true intent. Does he hold that ancient political philosophy is superior to modern, or does he confine himself to the claim that the transition from one to another should be studied? Does Strauss really regard Machiavelli as a "teacher of evil"? Why does Strauss stress so much that philosophy cannot refute the existence of the omnipotent God taught by revealed religion, if he was not himself a believer? With Strauss, I often feel that all remains in mystery.

Ryn strikes exactly the right note. He finds in Strauss’s hints and indirection the principal source of his appeal. Strauss played into the hands of those who regard themselves as a philosophical elite entitled to rule the world. "A part of the appeal of Strauss to members of this [neoconservative] network of intellectuals has been his idea that only a few sophisticated minds can really understand and face the truth about politics. To protect themselves against the ignorant and to be able to influence the powers-that-be, the philosophers must, according to Strauss, hide their innermost beliefs and true motives, not least from rulers whom they want to advise. Following Plato’s recommendation, the philosophers must tell ‘noble lies’ that are more palatable to others than the truth. . . . Having gained access to the ruler through dissimulation, sycophancy, and general craftiness, they are in a position to whisper in the ruler’s ear, making him their instrument" (pp. 32–33).

Elitist philosophers of this stripe need not be committed to the new Jacobinism, and Ryn recognizes that Strauss’s teaching "has elements that connect it with traditional Western moral and political beliefs" (p. 32). But he finds an elective affinity between Strauss’s elitism and the pretensions to universal rule of the new Jacobins. In the work of Strauss’s students this affinity has been further developed. In particular Ryn finds in Allan Bloom, one of Strauss’s best-known followers, a key source of new Jacobinism, a conclusion he supports through a detailed account of Bloom’s the Closing of the American Mind.

1 See my review of her The Future and Its Enemies, in The Mises Review, Spring 1999.

2 In one respect, Ryn is wrong to compare the neoconservatives with the Jacobins. The Girondistes, not the Jacobins, were the great supporters of the forcible spread of revolutionary principles abroad. Ryn recognizes that the old Jacobins "did not, for the most part, think globally" (p. 21), but he still exaggerates their commitment to expansion.

3 Ryn seems to me much too hard on Thomas Jefferson in claiming that his "thinking overlaps to a considerable extent with that of Rousseau" (p. 46).


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