As we have seen in Liberty and Totalitarianism - Michael Polanyi (2/3) - The Moral Inversion of Liberalism, Michael Polanyi is saying that from its inception liberalism let two virulent genies out of the bottle. Anti-authoritarian and tolerant of scepticism, it would prove hard to inhibit these two traits of liberalism as they begin to wind their probing way toward nihilism.
Nevertheless, in the Anglo-American world, religious freedom (the toleration of distinct creeds) coexisted with continued widespread practice of religion and a vibrant democratic culture, both of which traditions being helpful in shielding long-established moral principles from the morally corrosive effects of relativism or nihilism. Not so in Europe:
Both these protective restraints ... were absent in those parts of Europe where liberalism was based on French enlightenment. This movement being anti-religious, it imposed no restraint on sceptical speculations; nor were the standards of morality embodied here in democratic institutions [which keep public debate alive and open, challenging the powers-that-be with defiance and the prospect of political change, G.T.]. When a feudal society, dominated by religious authority, was attacked by a radical scepticism, there emerged a liberalism which was unprotected either by a religious or a civic tradition against destruction by the philosophic scepticism to which it owed its origin.
(Polanyi, M. (1998), The Logic of Liberty, Liberty Fund Inc., p. 123)
Universal standards of human behaviour having fallen into philosophic disrepute, various substitutes were put forward in their place.
The first kind of substitute standard comes in the form of a radical hedonism, according to which the creative genius is entitled to act as
... the renewer of all values and therefore to be incommensurable. This claim was to be extended to whole nations; according to it, each nation had its unique set of values which could not be validly criticized in the light of universal reason. A nation's only obligation was, like that of the unique individual, to realize its own powers. In following the call of its destiny, a nation must allow no other nation to stand in its way.
If you apply this claim for the supremacy of uniqueness - which we may call Romanticism - to single persons, you arrive at a general hostility to society, as exemplified in the anti-conventional and almost extra-territorial attitude of the Continental bohème. If applied to nations, it results on the contrary in the conception of a unique national destiny which claims the absolute allegiance of all its citizens. The national leader combines the advantages of both. He can stand entranced in the admiration of his own uniqueness, while identifying his personal ambitions with the destiny of the nation lying at his feet.
(Ibid. p. 123 - 124)
... counterpart in systematic thought was constructed by the Hegelian dialectic. Hegel took charge of Universal Reason, emaciated to a ghost by the treatment at the hands of Kant, and clad it with the warm flesh of history. Declared incompetent to judge historic action, reason was given the comfortable position of being immanent in history. An ideal situation: "Heads you lose, tails I win." Identified with the stronger battalions, reason became invincible; but unfortunately also redundant.
Marx and Engels arrive at the scene:
The next step was therefore quite naturally the complete disestablishment of reason ... The bigger battalions should be recognized as makers of history in their own right, with reason as a mere apologist of the outcome of class conflicts ...
[A]s new technical equipment becomes available from time to time, it is necessary to change the order of property in favour of a new class, which is invariably achieved by overthrowing the hitherto favoured class. Socialism, it was said, brings these violent changes to a close by establishing the classless society.
Europe becomes inundated with philosophies of violence, and
... the really effective idea of Hitler and Mussolini was their classification of nations into haves and have-nots on the model of Marxian class war. The actions of nations were in this view not determined, nor capable of being judged by right and wrong. [...]
Romanticism had been brutalized and brutality romanticized ... The process of replacing moral ideals by philosophically less vulnerable objectives was carried out in all seriousness. [What is going on] is a real substitution of human appetites and human passions for reason and the ideals of man.
(Ibid. p. 125)
And here is where I disagree with Polanyi, who claims:
We can see now how the philosophies which guided these revolutions and destroyed liberty wherever they prevailed, were originally justified by the anti-authoritarian and sceptical formula of liberty.
(Ibid. p. 125)
Admittedly, it is eerie and truly tragic to see how the liberal impulse has been absorbed into currents that gradually transformed themselves into totalitarian affective patterns and the crude thought that attends them.
However, I do not think, Michael Polanyi is right in accusing liberalism of a pathological self-contradiction, whereby its explosive initial twin aspects of
- anti-authoritarianism (in support of the new natural sciences' struggle against dogmatic authorities), and
- philosophic doubt (which can hardly be prevented in a world valuing freedom of conscience and expressed thought)
were supposedly bound to stoke up the fires of a culture of radical intolerance. After all, in America and England they did not give rise to any such effect.
How should it have been possible to arrive at the copious blessings of freedom if men had refrained from letting the genies of anti-authoritarianism and philosophic doubt out of the bottle? Also, it is not clear which alternative formula liberalism should have adopted to avoid its putative authorship of totalitarianism. Polanyi does not propose such a formula. I do not think that a misspecification of the fundamental tenets of liberalism has led to the totalitarian excesses of the 20th century. After all, anti-authoritarianism and philosophic doubt are alive and kicking, whereas totalitarianism is dead.
Distressing as the experiences of totalitarianism are, we also have examples of free societies that withstood the totalitarian temptation inside and from without, and they teach us wisdoms we better heed.
Perhaps the most important among these wisdoms advises us to participate in politics, to advance and defend and experience our conceptions of the policies of freedom in the reverberating sphere of public engagement, among friends and strangers, supporters and dissenters. Nothing is less tractable for the despot than a vibrant culture of pluralism.