by Francis P. Sempa
In the United States, public schools are seeking to discredit the founding principles of our nation. In our major cities, rioting, looting, and crime go unpunished and in some cases are applauded by civil authorities. Left-wing district attorneys publicly announce crimes that they will not prosecute (shoplifting, resisting arrest, and others) and instead focus their efforts on rooting-out “systemic racism” in police forces and the broader criminal justice system. Top U.S. military leaders and their civilian overseers focus less on winning the nation’s wars and more on ferreting out alleged racism in the armed forces. Powerful social media platforms impose their version of the Chinese Communist Party’s social credit system and censorship on their users. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal authorities have assumed unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional powers to impose draconian controls on individuals and private businesses.
The current social and political strife has occurred against the backdrop of an ongoing cultural revolution that has fostered moral relativism, sexual license, and an “ethic” of irresponsibility, all of which have eroded the once-dominant Judeo-Christian culture of the West.
Meanwhile, the United States, after winning the Cold War, has suffered defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its leadership of the “liberal” world order is under assault by Communist China even as Wall Street oligarchs help fuel the Chinese geopolitical juggernaut. As our globalist political and business elites deride and demonize American nationalists, they prioritize global issues such as climate change, and promote open borders to undermine our national sovereignty.
And instead of a free press that acts as a check on the established powers, America suffers from a mainstream media that for all intents and purposes promotes the cultural transformation of the United States and the West, having long ago surrendered its objectivity to a leftist ideological agenda.
These are signs and portents of something larger. Western civilization may be in its death throes, and the elites who rule the nations of the West and who occupy the most prominent social, economic, and cultural positions in Western society have promoted or aided and abetted the West’s decline.
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has carefully read the important historical works of three Western observers—the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, and the American writer James Burnham. All three predicted the West’s decline and possible fall. We are unfortunately experiencing manifestations of their prescience.
Spengler was born in Blankenburg, Germany in 1880. He studied mathematics and natural sciences in Halle. After earning a doctorate in 1904, and working as a teacher, Spengler inherited enough money to devote himself to scholarly work and moved to Munich. As the First World War approached, Spengler sensed that the coming war was a manifestation of larger historical forces. Influenced by the ideas of Goethe and Nietzsche, between 1918 and 1922 Spengler wrote The Decline of the West, which resonated with Germans after their defeat in the war and their perceived mistreatment by the victors at the Versailles Peace Conference.
In that two-volume work, Spengler sought to describe the civilizational crisis of Western Europe and America at the end of the war. He believed that states were organic entities and part of larger civilizations that, like humans, experienced “youth, growth, maturity, decay,” and ultimately death. He criticized the idea accepted by most historians that the story of mankind could be divided into ancient, medieval, and modern historical periods. He equated civilizations with cultures, and ridiculed the notion of “mankind” as a universal phenomenon. In history, he wrote, “there is nothing constant, nothing universal.” History is not linear, he wrote, but is the story of specific cultures and their interaction at particular times and places. Each culture, Spengler noted, “like each species of plant, has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline.”
History, Spengler explained, is the “drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will, and feeling, its own death.”
Spengler envisioned the decline of the West manifested in the rise of urban cities, and then of a “world-city” of globalists whom he described as “a new sort of nomad, cohering unstably in fluid masses, the parasitical city dweller, traditionless, … religionless, clever, unfrutiful, deeply contemptuous of the countryman …” “The world-city,” he wrote, “means cosmopolitanism in place of ‘home,’ cold matter-of-fact in place of reverence for tradition and age, scientific irreligion as a fossil representative of the older religion of the heart, ‘society’ in place of the state …” The elite of the world-city, Spengler wrote, has an “uncomprehending hostility to all the traditions representative of the Culture (nobility, church, privileges, dynasties, convention in art, and limits of knowledge in science), the keen and cold intelligence that confounds the wisdom of the peasant, the new-fashioned naturalism that in relation to all matters of sex and society goes back … to quite primitive instincts and conditions.” Other manifestations of decline, according to Spengler, are the rise of the financial class and the “expansive tendency” known as imperialism. Spengler identified Cecil Rhodes as the “first man” of the new age—monied and imperialist. And Spengler predicted that Socialism will one day “become arch-expansionist with all the vehemence of destiny.” As indeed it did.
Arnold Toynbee read Spengler’s first volume of The Decline of the West in 1920, after his friend and colleague L. B. Namier presented him with a copy. Toynbee at the time was thinking about a project to study the rise and fall of civilizations, and he later recalled that while reading Spengler, “I wondered at first whether my whole enquiry had been disposed of by Spengler before even the questions, not to speak of the answers, had fully taken shape in my own mind.” Fortunately, Toynbee moved forward with his own project that eventually ran to twelve volumes and was entitled A Study of History.
Toynbee, no doubt influenced by Spengler, wrote exhaustively about the genesis, rise, development, decline, and death of civilizations throughout history. Born in 1889 in London, Toynbee studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford, and subsequently taught history there. He worked for British intelligence during the First World War and attended the Paris Peace Conference after the war. After teaching at the University of London and working for the Manchester Guardian, Toynbee in 1925 joined the faculty at the London School of Economics and became the director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. From 1922 to 1961, he worked on the twelve-volume A Study of History. Toynbee’s biographer William McNeill wrote that this massive undertaking was Toynbee’s effort “restlessly and unremittingly, to make the world make sense.”
Toynbee’s research led him to write that the genesis and growth of civilizations were the result of encounters between opposing forces—challenges posed by nature and humans and the responses to those challenges. His survey of the decline and disintegration of civilizations identified many causal factors, including ease, luxury, internal schism, and the “loss of spirit.” Toynbee, while not as pessimistic as Spengler, believed that if Western civilization was to decay and die it would be as a result of the West’s unwillingness or inability to adequately respond to future challenges.
In later works, Toynbee praised the “higher religions” as being necessary to the continued vitality of civilizations and expressed concern that those religions were being displaced by the worship of “collective power,” in which the state becomes deified in one form of nationalism. Yet, he also promoted the idea that a “world-wide spiritual revolution” could lead to the political unification of the world—a unified world state that would bring about eternal peace—similar to the aspiration of the globalists that Spengler warned about.
The ideas of Spengler and Toynbee were synthesized in James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, which appeared in 1964. Suicide of the West was Burnham’s last book and the culmination of his philosophical journey from Marxism to conservatism. Burnham was born in Chicago in 1905. He studied at Princeton and Balliol College. In the 1930s, Burnham taught at New York University and became a leading spokesman for the Trotskyite wing of international communism. He broke with communism after the Nazi-Soviet Pact and began writing for Partisan Review. During World War II, he wrote The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians, and secretly worked for the Office of Strategic Services. After the war, Burnham did consulting work for the CIA and wrote four books on the Cold War. In 1955, he became a founding editor of National Review.
Burnham’s perspective on the decline of the West was geopolitical. In the first pages of Suicide of the West, Burnham recalled scanning an historical atlas and focusing on the half-century between 1914 and 1964. In 1914, he wrote, the map of the world was shaded mostly in Western-dominated colors, but by 1964, the Western powers’ control of “political acreage” had considerably diminished due to decolonization and other factors. “For the past four generations,” Burnham wrote, “Western civilization has been shrinking: the amount of territory, and the number of persons relative to the world population, that the West rules have much and rapidly declined.”
In Suicide of the West, Burnham searched for the causes of Western decline, and he identified them as the decay of religion, an excess of material luxury, and a loss of belief in the superiority of Western civilization. The last factor he attributed to liberalism. And though Burnham did not blame liberalism for initiating the West’s decline, he wrote that liberalism “permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution.” In fact, he defined liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide.” Liberals, he wrote, are ill-equipped to defend and save Western civilization because they do not believe it is superior to other civilizations.
In subsequent columns that Burnham wrote for National Review, he analyzed the 1960s riots and protests, and accused an anarchist New Left of attempting to bring down the existing social order. The Left, he wrote, uses coercive and violent tactics to upend the “existing structure of civilization.” “The right to riot,” he wrote, “is given theoretical foundation by liberal doctrines that legitimize rioting and other forms of militant civil disobedience. Individual conscience justifies rioting; social alienation gets expression in rioting; rioting is the natural outcome of frustrations produced by white racism and poverty.”
Those sentences, and Burnham’s warnings of the West’s decline in Suicide of the West, could be written today as the Left justifies the violent tactics of Antifa and Black Lives Matter; as police cars are burned and police officers are targeted for death; as statues of historical figures are defiled and removed from public display; as Western civilization courses disappear from our colleges and universities; as public school students are taught to hate the founding generation; as woke school boards impose Critical Race Theory on students despite the protests of parents; as religion is banned from the public square; as globalist leaders of Western nations put the interests of “mankind” ahead of their own country; and as the United States suffers ignominious defeats at the hands of terrorists and insurgents.
Of the three prophets of civilizational decline, Spengler was the most pessimistic. He predicted the rise of a mighty Caesarist “politico-economic order,” the “triumph of the will-to-power” that sacrifices “truth and justice to might and race,” and passes “doom and death upon men and peoples in whom truth was more than deeds, and justice than power.” Spengler’s prediction came true in Italy, Germany, and Russia, and it may be becoming true here in the United States. Burnham, too, warned about the rise of Caesarism in the United States in his much-neglected Congress and the American Tradition. And in The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians, he examined how political elites in all countries gain and maintain power even against the will of the people.
Let us hope that Spengler and Burnham will ultimately be proved wrong about the political destiny of the United States and what is left of Western civilization. But it is clear that we are heading in the direction they prophesied. The civilizational doomsayers may have been right.
Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.