War and the Illiberal Conscience

War and the Illiberal Conscience

War and the Illiberal Conscience

War and the Illiberal Conscience


War & the Illiberal Conscience focuses on two central themes. The first (& larger) section studies the revolt against liberalism: the challenge of German philosophical ideas between 1890 & 1945, namely antipositivism, which ended with the postwar occupation of Germany by the Allies, & the challenge of Marxism, an illiberal version of positivism that also ended in defeat-the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the latter part of the study, the argument is extended to look at the end of the story, at the extent to which, in triumphing over its enemies, the liberal world-although still convinced of the truth of its own principles-no longer seems enthusiastic about acting on those principles. The liberal conscience no longer spurs it to action. In our postmodern world, the author argues, it makes cowards of us all.


Carlyle: a man of strong words and attitudes, a rhetor from need, constantly lured by the craving for a strong faith. . . . The craving for a strong faith is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of scepticism.

--Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols (1889)

In June 1917 the perceptive, left-wing social critic Randolph Bourne wrote an article for the Seven Arts magazine entitled 'The War and the Intellectuals'. In it he criticised the American intellectual community for its uncritical support of Woodrow Wilson's decision to take the United States into the First World War against Germany.

For a man who still retained an implacable animus against war, it was a bitter experience to see the unanimity with which most American writers had rushed to support the war effort. Indeed, not content with merely supporting the war, they also claimed to have effectively willed it in the face of a national indifference as to which of the belligerent powers would prevail. Bourne objected to an intellectual class "guiding a nation through sheer force of ideas into what other nations entered only through . . . popular hysteria or militarist madness "--helped, to be sure, by "an indubitably intellectualised president", Woodrow Wilson.

Bourne was scathing of an intellectual class who "might have turned their intellectual energy not to the problem of jockeying the nation into war but to the problem of using our vast neutral power to attain democratic ends for the rest of the world and ourselves without the use of the malevolent technique of war". Instead, the era had been wasted.

Bourne was not alone in that criticism. Wyndham Lewis, writing from the perspective of the right and as a member of the English intellectual elite, also berated his colleagues for supporting a society of millionaires and war profiteers who had been interested only in making profits as quickly as possible. He condemned them, in particular, for what he called their "barbarous optimism" in the future.

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