From Fourth International, Vol.16 No.3, Summer 1955, pp.104-105.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Public Philosophy
by Walter Lippmann
Little, Brown & Co., Boston. 185 pp. 1955. $3.50.
The Public Philosophy is a slim volume of political intellection of exceptional symptomatic significance for our time. Lippmann is distinguished from the vast majority of his journalistic colleagues by a candor, education, and sophistication which place him clearly in a class of one. This is a political, who, in defense of Eisenhower’s role in organizing the proposed European Army, could speak freely of the fact that the real function of that army is not an impossible and improbable defense against the Russians, but a defense against “internal disorders.”
In this, his latest work, Lippmann once again displays has statesmanship in his very point of departure. The major premise of his argument here is the overriding organic crisis of modern western society. For a leading American publicist, this is indeed an extraordinary confession.
The origin of this crisis, its diagnosis and his prescription can be briefly summarized, according to Lippmann, through its two roots: universal suffrage, and the dominant Utopian conception of the perfectibility of man and of his lot on earth.
Ever since universal suffrage emerged, parliamentary democracy has been rendered impotent in face of its problems by the vast deavage between the limits horizons, the short-run empiricism, the narrow petty individualism of the masses, and the historic needs of society. Administratively, this conflict results in a paralysis of leadership (of the executive) which loses its capacity for action when met by the unsocial, irresponsible, short-sighted demands of that mass-dominated institution, the legislature. Examples of this behavior in the US would presumably include the continuing public opposition to Universal Military Training, to high taxes, to “police actions,” and, most notoriously for Lippmann, the opposition to US entry into World War II.
Principles, not petty individual needs must govern political decisions. Which principles? Those in the objective public interest; i.e., those principles which “men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally, and acted disinterestedly and benevolently.” (By definition, any substantial conflict of interest is quite impossible.) This is the Public Philosophy. But for Lippmann the vast majority of men are manifestly incapable of meeting the demands for objectivity and selflessness implicit in such a system. “In a literal sense, the principles of the good society must be unpopular until they have prevailed sufficiently to alter the popular impulse.” Hence the contradiction.
In times of peace and stability, traditional democracy may stagger on; in periods of crisis, the conflict of public vs. short-run individual need can well have fatal consequences. In fact, crises, when resolved are normally resolved by, the action of a minority, says Lippmann, pointing to the fact that the Constitution was adopted, in an atmosphere of social crisis, by a small minority. Plainly, the enfeebled executive of a democratic society can only perform its function if it is freed from the debilitating embrace of the popular hydra.
Indeed, in the last analysis, if the enlightened minority does not intervene to stem the crisis of executive impotence, we face the threat of fascism. For, to Lippmann, fascism is the response of the masses, who, disgusted with parliamentary debility, and preferring effective government to the indecision and frailty of a representative system, choose vital dictatorship in a crisis.
Lippmann’s resolution for the problem will, by now, hardly come as any surprise. It is nothing less than constitutional dictatorship, euphemistically labeled State Constitutionalism. The electors should choose the executive, bait once chosen he must be free of them and subject only to the office (much, says Lippmann, as were the Popes and Kings, in principle).
In real life in the France of today where the crisis, in Lippmann’s terms, is most evident, precisely this solution has already been proposed. We know it as DeGaullism.
But to what are we to attribute the social irresponsibility of the masses and the venality of the legislature? Asks Lippmann. Not to “some vicious mole of nature in them,” but rather to the utopian demands and expectations of this same mass – its belief in the perfectibility of man, in the emancipation of man through the dissolution of class society, and in its rejection of the defeatism implicit in the modern philosopher’s La Condition Humaine. To this dominant theme of the modern mass movement, encompassing the revolutionary ideology of all from Robespierre to Lenin, Lippmann gives the generic name “Jacobinism.”
Torn by anomy and the atomization of life, now physical as well as spiritual in face of the impotence of the contemporary state, the struggle of modern man to right himself must end in either of two equally disastrous courses, Jacobinism or fascism. To prevent these utopian efforts at reconstruction, the enlightened minority, in the name of the Public Philosophy, must assume the reins of power.
In the subsequent attempt to spell out the concrete meaning of this Public Philosophy, there emerges an unabashed rehash of Catholic political theory – natural law, the feudal-Catholic conception of duties paralleling the rights of property, the joint church-state responsibility for education, family, wealth distribution, etc. Leo XIII, Yves Simon, and Mortimer Adler are clearly the inspirers of Lippmann’s mature thought. (And Catholic reviewers have not disguised their jubilance on this score.)
The Public Philosophy can hardly be considered a vital book on its own merits. Its theoretical poverty and undisguised reactionary perspectives can, in themselves, be of little interest to the labor movement. Lippmann’s class bias is too evident. Denying any distinct objective, class interests in society, the unconcealable conflict is represented as one between the intelligent, realistic few, and the primitive selfish majority. The implacable hostility of the masses to war, he labels social irresponsibility – in face of the genuine social irresponsibility of the US ruling class in its H-bomb program.
Whatever importance the book may have stems from its symptomatic significance, as an indication of the loss of confidence and the consequent drift into totalitarian patterns of a serious, representative, conservative political.
As socialists, we have long been familiar with this development, so that, for example, we were not puzzled at the phenomenon of liberals providing the spearhead of the attack on the Bricker amendment, in the name of a strong executive and in protest against the encroachment by the legislature upon the prerogatives of the executive. We understand thoroughly their opportunism, their fear of the public, their lack of courage to espouse the “hard” unpopular measures that America’s ruling class requires to meet its goals. Abdication, of their responsibilities as representatives in favor of the President, is, for the liberals, certainly less risky than having to vote openly for more Korean adventures.
Lippimann understands and approves such “statesmanship.” At the same time he bemoans the massive popular disillusionment with parliamentary democracy (closing his eyes to the vital connection between these two phenomena). Yet his own book is a part of a capitulation to the very pattern he claims to deplore.
Toynbee and Schweitzer can speak, and have spoken, of the organic crisis of western civilization. But in the last analysis they are “just preachers,” and modern churchgoers are seldom really ill at ease at a Sunday sermon about Hell and Salvation. Lippmann, however, is a responsible practical political. His surrender of democratic perspectives at this time, his recognition of the depth of our crisis and its inherence in the internal relations of capitalist society, can only be understood as a reflection of the increasing sensitivity of the ruling class to the mounting danger to them at home; i.e., to the real dimensions of the crisis of our time.
Last updated: 2 April 2009