book cover imageThe New Jacobinism: America as Revolutionary State (2d expanded ed.)
by Claes G. Ryn.
National Humanities Institute, 2011,
163 pp., paper, $15.

Near the end of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke praised what he called the “combining mind” as indispensable to the sort of constitutional government Britain had inherited and France was busy squandering. Erecting any sort of government in general “requires no great prudence,” Burke conceded. “Freedom” is even easier. “But to form a free government,” he wrote, “that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraint in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.” Then as now, statesmanship capable of sustaining ordered liberty demands this capacity for harmonizing disparate elements and resisting the easy formulas of popular slogans.

At the same time, Burke also recognized the dangers of “confounding” together things that need to be kept separate, of dealing with principles “stripped of every relation,” and of failing to dichotomize between the liberty of self-governing men and the liberty of the madman escaped from the asylum. Burke’s care with words has been a feature of the best of Western thought since Socrates, and it has appeared at key moments in such thinkers as Irving Babbitt. The Socratic method, Babbitt wrote a century ago in Literature and the American College, “is a perpetual protest . . . against the confusion that arises from the careless use of general terms, especiallywhen they have become popular catchwords.” In his own case, Babbitt tried to rescue “humanism” from confusion in the public mind with “humanitarianism,” an error that threatened to revolutionize liberal education.

Contemporary American society is no less at risk from corruption of thought and language. Claes Ryn addresses this urgent problem in a welcome expanded edition of The New Jacobinism. He examines the current health of America’s constitutional democracy and offers reasons for concern and hope. This is no mere reprint with a new ISBN but a book twice the size of the original that adds many personal insights into the troubled history of conservatism over the past two decades. If anything, Professor Ryn’s concerns have gained even greater relevance and urgency, and his prophecies seem all the more astute in hindsight. The tendencies toward mass democracy, centralization of power, subversion of intermediary institutions, rising crime, hedonism, and cultural fragmentation that he identified in the early 1990s have only accelerated, and they have done so under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

In the book’s five-chapter Afterword, Ryn gives a lively account of the reception that greeted The New Jacobinism and sets the book within the context of his larger body of work (especially 2003’s America the Virtuous and several key essays). His personal narrative gives an insider’s perspective on such developments as the growing rift within the Philadelphia Society between traditional conservatives and Straussians and neoconservatives. Ryn is troubled, and rightly so, by the increasing proclivity among movement conservatives to regard ideology, universalism, civil religion (although he does not use that phrase), moral abstractionism, and crusading zeal in foreign policy as normal, and also by the rise to prominence of Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, Allan Bloom, and William Kristol at the expense of older voices in American conservatism such as Burke, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet.

By using the word “Jacobinism” Ryn does not mean to suggest that the radical element within the French Revolution is somehow alive today in all its historical details. He uses the word instead to denote a subversive, ideological habit of mind at war with the “old Western morality” grounded in the Greco-Roman and Christian experience. The contrast is stark. Jacobinism favors abstract, autonomous reasoning over concrete, historical reality; egalitarianism over aristocratic virtues; centralized power over localism; uniformity over regional particularity; mass democracy over decentralized constitutionalism; “moral blueprints” over diverse and changing instantiations of the good; nationalism over patriotism; and imperialist crusading over a circumspect foreign policy marked by self-restraint, mutual respect, and modesty. In short, Jacobinism, while it retains the language of the old ethos, seeks to overturn the heritage that built European and American civilization.

Ryn stresses at the outset that he does not envision recapturing a mythical Golden Age of Western Civilization. Cultural renewal is not a matter of returning to the imagined purity of another time and place but of carrying forward the habits of life and thought that sustain personal responsibility and a free society. And yet the standards of what Ryn variously calls the “old Western morality” or the “old ethos” do provide a counterpoint to the alien ethos of the new Jacobinism. In fact, this old morality provides the soil in which everything from democracy to capitalism needs to be rooted to thrive in a way suited to human nature. A revitalized culture would honor history and tradition, rebuild intermediary institutions, and resist the reductionism of ideology in whatever guise. These are the countervailing forces to Jacobinism.

Above all,Ryn demonstrates the power of what Burke might well have called a “dividing mind” and its capacity to expose the dangers of modern Rousseauist Jacobinism and its key proponents in politics, the media, the arts, and academia. “Hence the emphasis in this book,” Ryn writes, “on distinctions, contrasts, and definitions.” He carefully defines such abused terms as “democracy” and “equality.” He distinguishes between true and false forms of these words (notably, between “constitutional democracy” and “plebiscitary democracy”) and invites the reader to extend this critical task by reconsidering what we really mean by “liberty,” “capitalism,” and “free markets.” “These terms,” Ryn warns, “may hide meanings that are sharply at odds with the old Western ethical and cultural ethos and may actually express a burning wish to overturn traditional society.” And this danger becomes acute if the culture at large has no capacity to detect these shifts in meaning and to guard itself against the revolutionary consequences of such change.

Like Burke, Ryn has no patience with words “stripped of every relation.” Context matters. Even if it were read only as a lesson in the control of language, The New Jacobinism would provide a model of the kind of a disciplined thinking we need to address the confusion painfully evident in our domestic and foreign policy debates. Such distinctions help us to see Jacobinism for the alien thing it is, to recognize what we have lost in American character and conduct, and to apprehend what we must do to reconstitute the cultural preconditions of human freedom and flourishing.

In 1909, Irving Babbitt traced the crisis of higher education in America to the war then being waged against the venerable tradition of liberal learning. “The college has been brought to this predicament,” he wrote, “not so much perhaps by its avowed enemies as by those who profess to be its friends.” The same insight could summarize Claes Ryn’s warning against the New Jacobinism. America’s constitutional democracy has been brought to its current predicament by those who, using the language of the old ethos, profess to be its friends. Ryn offers us the fruit of Burke’s prescription, the wisdom still available to our culture through the hard work of “much thought, deep reflection, and a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind.”  

Richard Gamble is Associate Professor of History and Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair in History and Political Science at Hillsdale College.