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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Democracy and Liberalism



In order that we might begin to understand what “the West” is and is not, we turn to Thomas Pangle’s book, The Ennobling of Democracy. Pangle evaluates how Western rationality or positivism developed in reaction to the questions of classical political rationalism, and how recent trends included under the category of Western thought known as postmodernism now react against both positivism and classical political rationalism. If we are to understand the Mideastern resurgent elements and the world’s tendency to blame its problems on “the West,” we will need to investigate the intellectual roots of “Western” thought. Is “the West” Plato, Maimonides, Marx, or Lyotard?


We read Pangle to sort out which aspects of Western thought are most true to the Western tradition and which are contrary to the Western tradition. There may be good reason for an Islamic nation based on prophecy to reject certain aspects of Western thought. But it also may be that a true account of Western thought will reveal that the framers of this thought were sympathetic to or believed in the claims of prophetic religion. If we take seriously the questions that the framers of the West took seriously, those questions posed to us through classical political rationalism, we may be able to raise the standards—or ennoble—Western democracy.


Pangle says that what most vividly marks the present moment in history is the retreat of Marxism. He then asks what Marxism is in retreat from and what former Marxist nations are being delivered into. We are forced to examine what has come to fill this philosophical and political void. The obvious answer is “the West,” but this does not really clarify the questions. What ideas are promoted by the West? If we respond by adding “democracy” and “human rights,” we must distinguish between these and the “people’s democracy,” which had been the heart of Marxism, and the “social, economic, and cultural rights” Marxism brought about.[6] Indeed, is not Marxism one of the great products of “the West”?


According to Pangle, the anti-Marxist West is better defined in terms of liberal democracy and democratic republicanism, along with individual rights, especially individual civil and property rights. Even the term “liberal” needs clarification, as liberal parties in Western Europe are marginal, and in America the definition of liberal has come to mean many things. In using the term liberal, we must answer difficult questions. Pangle writes:


What is a liberal? What is the compelling moral justification for “liberalism”? What is “republicanism,” in contrast to democracy or democratism? How do republicanism and liberalism fit together? What justifies these qualifications on democracy, on popular sovereignty? What justifies the stress, in liberalism, on the individual as such? Is “individualism” a sign of human dignity—or of fragmentation and atomization? How do liberal individualism and the free-market system with which it is intertwined harmonize with the citizenship, the civic solidarity, called for by our liberal democratic republicanism? Do liberalism and republicanism harmonize, or do they stand at some considerable tension with each other? Are individual rights and the competitive free market adequate to sustain the multiparty electoral, federal, and representative politics that so sharply distinguish the “Free World’s” interpretation of democracy? Or is the vitality of our citizenship withering—and not by accident, but in accordance with the deepest tendencies of our “liberal democratic” way of life?[7]


In response to such questions, we see large-scale philosophical naiveté among Western democratic intellectuals. Most disturbing is their doubt concerning the very existence of firm foundations for inquiry into and judgment of our political commitments. Pangle says that for a long time the West defined itself against communist and fascist regimes. This often meant that the West had no positive definition of its own. As the threat of Marxist-inspired tyranny diminishes, Pangle says we in the West must confront our own problematic moral foundations.



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