Neil Thompson

History 574

Spring 2006


Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Role in American Political Thought and Life” from The Politics of Hope


            In this article, Schlesinger describes the peripatetic maturation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy.  As a young theologian, Niebuhr was attracted to two strains of liberal, progressive thought.  The Social Gospel posited that strict adherence to Christian teachings could create a veritable Heaven on earth.  Christian love could be applied to solving problems even in such secular arenas as economics and foreign affairs.  In contrast, John Dewey’s Pragmatism movement placed faith in secular humanism, suggesting that ignorance was the cause of all of civilization’s ills, and that education and science were the answers to eradicating them.  Niebuhr synthesized these two philosophies into a sort of Christian Pragmatism, where both reason and love could be employed to perfect society.  A paradox arose, however, as Niebuhr contemplated the divergent roles of the secular statesman and the religious prophet.  While the prophet need not worry about mankind’s limitations, the statesman could hardly ignore them.  In essence, the Social Gospel lacked any appreciation for the messier “relative” truth of politics, while Pragmatism lacked a sense of a guiding theological “absolute.”

            During the depression, Niebuhr discovered that neither pragmatism nor religion could stem the rise of “individual egoism,” and so to combat this evil “pride” he formulated a new Christian Radicalism.  Theorizing that politics always boiled down to a choice between two evils, Niebuhr suggested that a Balance of Power would be the only way to keep society from careening between the dangerous extremes of utopianism or defeatism.  In the thirties, he saw Marxism as a means to achieve this balance, since he was suspicious of property and viewed fascism as an inevitable outcome of capitalism.  The Soviets, however, with their “perfect society” were guilty of their own hubris, thus Niebuhr sought solace among socialists. 

            Although Niebuhr initially questioned the sincerity of FDR’s New Deal, the president’s tough stand against fascism turned the theologian around, and, in 1940, he abandoned the socialists and their pacifism.  In his view, pacifists failed to acknowledge the reality of Power in a terrible new age of world war and totalitarianism.  As a leading member of the ADA (American for Democratic Action), Niebuhr proclaimed a new pragmatism that rejected all dogmas and adhered to gradualism in domestic affairs.  Thus, Christian Radicalism was transformed into a new synthesis, that of Christian Realism.  He felt religion had a crucial role to play in guiding leaders to make moral choices, but favored practicalism in the day-to-day exercise of democracy.  Because of our prideful nature, absolutism is unattainable.  Thus, we must be humble and accept relativism in dealing with the modern complexities of the world.


Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History


            With tensions in the Cold War escalating, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Irony of American History in 1952 to examine the unique difficulties Americans faced in confronting the threat of communism and to provide liberals with a pragmatic plan for viability.  In his opening chapter, Niebuhr describes an America which, at its greatest strength, is ironically less capable of exerting its will than it was in its infancy.  Niebuhr traces the source of this conundrum to man’s rejection of the Christian precept that human virtue is, at best, ambiguous.  Instead, man came to believe that all evil was simply the result of ignorance or improper social institutions, and was therefore manageable.  This hubris has led man not only to entertain utopian dreams, but also to measure those dreams in materialistic terms.  Thus, though we decry the communist creed of “materialism” we measure our success against them materialistically.  America’s sentimental optimism is buttressed by a belief in the goodness of all men, and the power of each individual to shape his own destiny.  This is as illusory as the communist faith in the unassailable virtue of the proletariat.  In the heat of battle, neither side seems able to appreciate the inappropriateness of these beliefs. 

            In his second chapter Niebuhr takes aim at America’s pretensions of innocence.  We believe we came into existence, providentially, so that God could give mankind a fresh start.  We avoided the prejudices of feudal Europe and guaranteed our freedom through prosperity—for a prosperous man, supposedly, need not covet the belongings of his brother.  Faith in the market place fostered the bourgeois idea that self-interest is inherently harmless.  In truth, it is the common sense application of governmental controls that has made the economic system more equitable, but the myth of the virtue of the marketplace persists.  In foreign affairs, too, we are hampered by the notion of innocence.  Our retreat into isolationism after World War I clearly indicated American reluctance to acknowledge its power and to accept its responsibilities.  Our concept of separateness and innocence rendered us ill prepared to deal with the realities of the world.  If we do not slough off our delusions of innocence we will fall into one of two traps—we will retreat again and abrogate our responsibilities, or we will bully ahead with a misplaced confidence in our superior virtue.  Either way, our “innocence” steeps us in guilt.       

            Niebuhr’s third chapter examines the irony that our prosperity serves us poorly in the present crisis.  The abundance of our land was proof enough to Jefferson that God wanted us to be prosperous.  In the eyes of the Puritans prosperity was granted us as a reward for our virtue.  As the republic matured, therefore, prosperity was conflated with piety and became virtuous in and of itself.  Americans measured happiness by increases in the standard of living and made that living standard the final norm of “the good life.”  We are, thus, poorly equipped to face new incongruities in the world, where happiness is not so easily defined.  Our prosperity actually frustrates us.  Ironically, the comforts we have achieved at home keep us from seeing that quantitative responses alone cannot answer broader desires and needs.

            In chapter four, Niebuhr challenges the precept that man can master his destiny.  Communists and democrats alike have been guilty of believing that the overthrow of oppressive power can leave man free to map his own future.  In America, once we had rid ourselves of monarchy, we proclaimed like a messiah that we were the last best hope of mankind.  But we have found that even our allies are unimpressed with our divinely inspired mission.  We will not succeed unless we disavow such pretensions and recognize that other legitimate values and virtues exist in the world, interact in unpredictable ways, and constantly thwart our attempts to control our destiny.  The fact is that man cannot simply master history, because he is also a creature of it.  And as a creature, his motives and values are never as universally valid as he presumes them to be, nor his perspective as clear.  In addition, man’s efforts to plot an orderly historical process are further blunted by his lack of humility.  He does not accept the fact that history is played out on a stage too vast for him to comprehend. 

            In Niebuhr’s fifth chapter he relates how the American political system has evolved from common sense, rather than from dogma.  Although the communists rightfully claim that America is the most bourgeois nation on earth, this characterization ignores an important truth.  Laissez-faire doctrine holds that the unfettered marketplace will ensure liberty as free men exercise enlightened self-interest.  In reality, America does not operate that way and never could, because the market simply cannot solve all ills.  James Madison understood the necessity of a balanced government, capable of addressing conflicts and frictions outside the marketplace.  In recent years the New Deal found practical solutions to social and economic inequities, further disproving the Marxist canon that bourgeois government exists only for the privileged classes.  Thus, dogmas of both communism and the free market are always suspect for they grossly oversimplify and distort reality.  While we trumpet the virtue of our free market, we actually have achieved a more just society through gradual means, balancing many countervailing forces.  It is the ultimate triumph of democracy that common sense trumps dogma. 

            Niebuhr next turns to the international scene—in particular, to the third world.  Here the very prosperity with which we justify our way of life is held against us, for in the communist polemic such wealth proves that we are guilty of exploitation.  It is a comforting doctrine for the poor for it uses an external bogeyman to mask internal deficiencies.  In addition, there are profound cultural factors that weigh against us.  First, a lack of historical dynamism in Eastern countries’ religious thought leaves their populations susceptible to the determinism of communism.  Also, Eastern religions are said to place little value on the individual, further eroding the allure of democracy.  Finally, feudal societies can hardly be expected to lament a lack of liberty when it is something they have never known.  In sum, an appreciation for the deep cultural and economic complexities in impoverished nations should encourage us to exercise patience and perspective, and refrain from useless finger-pointing.  The third world will not be “lost” or “won” overnight. 

            In Chapter seven, Niehbur provides a blueprint for an American response to communism based on moderation, flexibility, modesty, and charity.  That many who criticized our non-involvement are now fearful of our powerful presence in the world should serve as an object lesson.  America is, in effect, shackled by its mighty power.  We cannot ignore the limitations that even our friends want us to operate within.  Secondly, we must guard against the frustration that will certainly ensue, for the battle with communism will require great exertions without the promise of success.  We must not forget that we are mere creatures of history, not masters of it.  We cannot act rashly fueled by an idealism that is simply too rigid and too confident in its own correctness.  The cure for a pretentious idealism is to recognize the limits of knowledge and the folly of attempting to interpret events purely from one’s own viewpoint.  We would be wise to trust faith, for it encourages charity and humility when pure reason and science do not.   

            In conclusion, Neibuhr reiterates that mere ignorance is not irony, but that ignorance that stems from the pretension of wisdom is highly ironic.  Thus, man becomes ironic when he forgets that he is a creature, and not a creator of history.  From a biblical standpoint, the original sin of the Garden of Eden, the assumption that man can know everything, continues to plague us.    Although Marxism is a fraud that subverts the biblical sanctity of the poor to create a corrupt and inhumane system, it does no good to meet it with self-righteousness.  We then become as hateful as our enemy and fail to the see the irony of our own “innocent” pretensions.  In short, frantic anti-communism is as virulent as communism itself.  In Niebuhr’s mind, Abraham Lincoln’s performance during the civil war provides the perfect example of how to remain morally resolute in the defense of a free civilization, and yet sufficiently detached, so that one can appreciate the incongruities, ironies, and follies of our collective behaviors. 


Selections from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center


Chapter 1 – Politics in an Age of Anxiety

Schlesinger describes how total war, concentration camps, and fascism dissolved a turn-of-the-century confidence into a mid-century anxiety.  Although the post war Soviet-American conflict breeds more hopelessness, the author cautions that the world’s problems are not a result of this conflict.  For centuries, industrialization has changed the ways in which all modern civilizations are organized, resulting in an impersonality in human relations that relieves men of the burden of caring about others’ sufferings.  The Soviet system only exacerbates this phenomenon on a frightening new level.  Therefore, before one can hope to address society’s bigger issues, free men have no choice but to fight Communism.  Although the twentieth century has relieved us of the notion that progress is inevitable, freedom must still be defended, not just militarily, but politically, economically, and morally.


Chapter 4 – The Challenge of Totalitarianism

            Schlesinger contends that because men have lost their individuality in the industrialized world, the responsibility for making choices causes only anxiety.  Men are happy to surrender this burden to a massive, external authority.  Enter Totalitarianism.  Ideology has little to do with the movement’s appeal.  More alluring is the prospect of belonging to something bigger than oneself.  While the free man questions the solubility of mankind’s problems, totalitarianism promises nirvana, thereby replacing the free man’s anxiety with the intoxicating brew of a unifying purpose and an historical destiny.   

            Schlesinger states that while Communism and Nazism share many similarities—violent revolution, absolute power, police state—significant differences do exist.  Nazism did not destroy private economic ownership, but rather made alliances with existing elites.  It was therefore an imperfect totalitarianism.  On the other hand, the Bolsheviks destroyed their elites, and while this made the Soviet transition more problematic, a more perfect totalitarian state emerged, presenting the West with a more entrenched and formidable adversary.


Chapter 7 –The Restoration of Radical Nerve

            Liberalism fell into paralysis in the wake of the Russian revolution of 1917.  Inspired by Lenin’s deeply rooted mistrust of gradualism, the Soviets proved to be no friends to those on the traditional left.  In fact, Soviets viewed socialist parties as a bigger threat to their revolution than reactionaries.  Soviet cooperation with the Nazis to neutralize the German Social Democrats is a case in point.  Communists’ virulent anti-socialism illustrates the uselessness of the old right/left ideological continuum.  In its place, Schlesinger presents professor DeWitt C. Poole’s ideological circle where the extremes of right and left—fascism and communism—can meet at the bottom where totalitarianism dwells.  Likewise, conservatism and liberalism can meet at the top where one finds gradualism.  The circle provides liberals with a tool with which to free themselves from the taint of communism.  In the author’s blueprint, liberals must absolutely repudiate totalitarianism, an obvious broadside directed at the Popular Front, and embrace the concept of limited government.  Schlesinger feels the New Deal demonstrates the efficacy of a gradualist approach, showing that, contrary to Marxist doctrine, the capitalistic state is capable of meeting the social and economic needs of the people. Therefore, the good news for liberals is, they do not have to look to Marx for inspiration.  Their principles can and should be: individual freedom, a limited state, due process, empiricism, and gradualism.


Chapter 11 – Freedom: A Fighting Faith

            In Schlesinger’s concluding chapter the author calls upon citizens to be willing to die for freedom.  He points out, however, that the main struggle is with us. We cannot complacently accept the notion that science and productivity alone can meet the deeper emotional needs of an alienated population.  We must restore community to the industrial order, encouraging volunteerism and grass roots activism as a way to invigorate democracy.  Meaningful participation by citizens, or the “exercise of democracy,” will act as a restorative and keep totalitarianism at bay.  Americans should not shy away from the struggle, but, rather, embrace it, for conflict acts as a guarantor of freedom and as an engine of creativity.  

In sum, the object of Schlesinger’s new radicalism is to reinvigorate the Vital Center, rediscovered by the reunion of individual and society.  The center espouses a spirit of human decency and rejects the extremes of tyranny that is the work of men of pride and power.  In effect, by refocusing a new leftist agenda, the author issues a call to arms—to do battle with communism and fascism, oppression and stagnation, pride and corruption, anxiety and social ills—in hopes of securing the peace and creating a more just and fulfilled society.