Design for a Book
BY WALTER LIPPMANN
NEARLY twenty-five years ago I wrote a book called A Preface to Politics, intending at some later time to write the other chapters. The general scheme of the human future seemed fairly clear to me then. That was the heyday of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, and I had not the faintest premonition that the long peace which had lasted since Waterloo was soon to come to an end. I doubt whether the idea had ever occurred to me that there might be a war which would unsettle the foundations of society — indeed I could not have imagined such a war, and I should not have known what were the foundations which might be unsettled.
For in that generation most men had forgotten the labors that had made them prosperous, the struggles that had made them free, the victories that had given them peace. They took for granted, like the oxygen they breathed and the solid ground beneath their feet, the first and last things of western civilization. So in writing my Preface I assumed without question that in a régime of personal liberty each nation could by the increasing exercise of popular sovereignty create for itself gradually a spaciously planned and intelligently directed social order. So confident was I that this was the scheme of the future that I hurried on to write another book which proclaimed in its title that we had come to the end of the era of drift and were entering the era of our mastery of the social order.
Copyright 1936, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.
A year or so later the World War broke out, and since that time the scheme of the future has been much less clear to me. For more than twenty years I have found myself writing about critical events with no better guide to their meaning than the hastily improvised generalizations of a rather bewildered man. Many a time I have wanted to stop talking and find out what I really believed. For I should have liked to achieve again the untroubled certainty and the assured consistency which are vouchsafed to those who can whole-heartedly commit themselves to some one of the many schools of doctrine. But I was not able to find in any of them a working philosophy in which I could confidently come to rest.
This was not a pleasant predicament. For in these twenty-five years there has been one great crisis after another, and it was impossible to be neutral and detached. But gradually, in the course of my blundering improvisations, it began to be clearer to me why I could not make up my mind. It was because my personal confusion reflected the fact that in the modern world there is a great schism: those who seek to improve the lot of mankind believe they must undo the work of their predecessors.
Everywhere the movements which bid for men’s allegiance are hostile to the movements in which men struggled to be free. The programmes of reform are everywhere at odds with the liberal tradition. Men are asked to choose between security and liberty. To improve their fortunes they are told that they must renounce their rights. To escape from want they must enter a prison. To regularize their work they must be regimented. To obtain greater equality they must have less freedom. To make more secure the national solidarity they must oppress the dissenters. To enhance their dignity they must lick the boots of tyrants. To realize the promise of science they must destroy free inquiry. To promote the truth they must not allow it to be examined.
These choices are intolerable. Yet these are the choices offered by the influential doctrinaires of the contemporary world. Thus those who would be loyal to the achievements of the past are in general disposed to be fatalistically complacent about the present, and those who have plans for the future are prepared to disown the heroic past. It is a vicious dilemma.
However difficult it may be to find the true doctrine by which mankind can advance, surely it is not to be found in either of these alternatives. With this conviction I began again to write, with the feeling that if this is the choice, then the prospect is too dismal to be endured. It may be, of course, that the choice is inexorable and that a man is a fool who does not accept it with such resignation as he can muster. Many find this view unanswerable. Yet to embrace it is, I imagine, to mistake one’s own weariness for wisdom and to be discouraged rather than to understand. This I can say: I began to write in a mood of protest and without much hope, but at the end I have come to believe that the riddle is not inherently insoluble. The choice presented to this generation between a more comfortable and a free life is not to be borne. But whether this is a paradox arising not out of the unchanging nature of things but out of a remedial confusion in men’s minds will be for the reader to judge.
The plan of this work divides itself into two parts. The first is an analytical examination of the theory and the practice of the movement which began in the second half of the nineteenth century. It seeks to organize a directed social order.
I have sought to examine this vision of the future not only in its Fascist and its Communist embodiment but also in the gradual collectivism of democratic states, trying to determine whether a society can be planned and directed for the enjoyment of abundance in a state of peace. The question was not whether this would be desirable, but whether it was possible. I began by thinking that while it might be difficult to find planners and managers who were wise and disinterested enough, the ideal might eventually be realized through a welltrained ruling class. But I have come finally to see that such a social order is not even theoretically conceivable; that the vision when analyzed carefully turns out to be not merely difficult of administration but devoid of any meaning whatever; that it is as complete a delusion as perpetual motion. I realized at last that a directed society must be bellicose and poor. If it is not both bellicose and poor, it cannot be directed. I realized then that a prosperous and peaceable society must be free. If it is not free, it cannot be prosperous and peaceable.
It took me some time to understand that this was no new discovery, but the basic truth which the liberals of the eighteenth century taught at the beginning of the modern era. I began to read with a new interest what Adam Smith and some of his contemporaries had to say when they insisted that the sovereign must be ‘completely discharged from a duty, in the attempting to perform which he must always be exposed to innumerable delusions, and for the proper performance of which no human wisdom or knowledge could ever be sufficient: the duty of superintending the industry of private people, and of directing it towards the employments most suitable to the interest of the society.’ It gradually dawned on me that Adam Smith would not have regarded the corporate capitalism of the nineteenth century as ‘the obvious and simple system of natural liberty’ which he had imagined, for he had been careful to say that it was the duty of the sovereign to protect as far as possible ‘every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it,’ and it was plain from the whole tenor of his book that he meant something more essential than the equal right of the rich and the poor to drive hard bargains.
Yet the doctrine which has come down from him and from the great liberals of the eighteenth century has in our time become the intellectual defense of much injustice and oppression. In Herbert Spencer’s old age, liberalism had become a monstrous negation raised up as a barrier against every generous instinct of mankind. So in the second part of this book I attempt a task which is, I fear, beyond my powers. I seek to find out why the development of the liberal doctrine was arrested and absorbed. In order to do this I have tried to find out what is the inwardness of the liberal conception of life, what is the logic of its principle and the grammar of its intuition, and then to indicate certain vital points where, because the liberals failed to develop the promise of liberalism, they ceased to interpret experience and to command the interest of the people.
This is a difficult and ambitious essay and I do not offer it as a completed solution. So far only, I know how to go; someone else may find in it a clue that will lead him further. I hope so. The search is worth much trouble, for at the end of it men may find again the conviction of their forefathers that progress comes through emancipation from — not the restoration of — privilege, power, coercion, and authority.