From Investor's Business Daily, July 25,
Copyright © 2000 Investor's Business Daily. Used by permission.
Chinese Communists Discover Hope
By Brian Mitchell
In Forgotten American Conservative
Investor's Business Daily
The intellectual Left hated him. He was a killjoy, a moralist, an aristocrat
of the "genteel tradition."
"I wonder how genteel he will be when he dies," smirked Ernest Hemingway.
British socialist Harold Laski, in a mid-century review of American
politics, banished him to oblivion: "Irving Babbitt won no disciples."
Tell it to the Chinese. In China, long-dead conservative American scholar
Irving Babbitt is making a comeback. And some of his biggest fans are Communist
Communism as an ideology is dead in China. The power structure remains,
but the search is on for a new way out of China's age-old identity crisis.
Should China embrace the modern West and all its ways? Or should it
find its own way between the rocks of Western commercialism and immorality?
The same debate raged 80 years ago in China between the disciples of
Irving Babbitt of Harvard (1865-1933) and John Dewey of Columbia University
Babbitt and Dewey advanced rival brands of humanism. Dewey's was secular,
pragmatic, science-oriented and anti-traditional. Babbitt's was traditional,
ethical, aesthetic, and religious.
Dewey's views won out in China, paving the way for the anti-traditional
materialism of Marxist-Leninism.
That having failed, some Chinese thinkers are turning back to Babbitt
as a possible bridge to the West, but one that won't lead to an outright
surrender to Western culture.
"They do not want to be swallowed up in another wave of Westernization,"
said Claes Ryn, professor of politics at Catholic University of America
in Washington, D.C. "They do not like Western commercialism and cultural
debauchery, our moral irresponsibility and political opportunism."
Ryn is also chairman of the National Humanities Institute, an independent
think tank keeping Babbitt's ideas alive. In recent years, Chinese scholars
have invited Ryn to speak at China's two leading universities, Beijing
and Tsinghua. He also co-chaired the keynote panel at a national meeting
of the Chinese Comparative Literature Association.
Ryn's lectures will soon be published in China, along with a book by
Ryn on Babbitt and a collection of articles from Humanitas, the
institute's journal. The diaries of Wu Mi, Babbitt's chief apostle in China,
are also being published in ten volumes.
State-owned stores already boast books by or about great Western thinkers
such as John Locke, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Later luminaries such
as Friedrich Hayek are also popular.
Freedom is in fashion in China, but so is the fear of it. The crucial
questions on every thinking man's mind are: how much is too much and where
will it all lead?
"You can say almost anything in China, except for two things," said
a Western diplomat in Beijing. First, you can't question China's claim
to Taiwan and Tibet or side with outsiders in their claims against China.
"Second," he said, "you must not question the right of the Communist
Party to rule. You can question the ideology of the Party. The party doesn't
even preach its ideology, but it will not allow its right to rule to be
Chinese intellectuals now distinguish between "liberals" and "democrats."
Democrats want to change the political system—in plainer words, to overthrow
the party. Liberals just want the party to open up a little more.
"Openness in China is always more important than reform," said Liu Junning,
a self-described "classical liberal" and fellow of China's Ministry of
Culture. "Reform without openness will lose its momentum and direction."
The hope, or fear, in China is that openness leads inevitably in the
direction of Western-style social democracy. China's problem is how to
have openness without destroying the present order and abandoning traditional
Chinese moral values.
That's where Babbitt comes in.
For some Western thinkers—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx and
Dewey—the problem is always outside the individual. It's an economic or
political system. It's oppression of some people by other people. It's
a culture of ignorance and superstition.
The anti-Babbitt solution is always revolution—a forced change in external
For Babbitt, the real problem is inside the individual, in the struggle
between each person's "higher and lower wills."
Although not himself religious, Babbitt endorsed religion's "inner check"
on conscience. He believed "the good, the true and the beautiful" were
transcendent norms, not relative values. His "New Humanism" urged people
to honor those norms and cultivate the best in themselves.
"The secular humanism of John Dewey does not recognize any transcendent
aspect," Ryn said. "[Secular humanists] believe that the good, the true
and the beautiful are something we make up as we go. We simply find out
from social and cultural experimentation what works."
But will what works in the West work in China? Some people in China
don't think so.
"In the 1990s, as in the 1930s and before, there were certain intellectual
trends stressing that China is different and that it has to take its own
way to modernity," said Axel Schneider of the Institute for Chinese Studies
at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
"The topics Babbitt was discussing in the 1920s and that Claes Ryn is
into now are the questions of universality and ethical standards, and that's
what the Chinese are interested in now," Schneider said.
Some see a link between Babbitt's New Humanism and Confucianism. Babbitt
himself held the ethical aspects of both Buddhism and Confucianism in high
Ryn speaks to the Chinese of "unity through diversity," stressing the
common moral ground of the traditional East and traditional West.
He also contrasts constitutional democracy with plebiscitary democracy.
The former allows democratic expression within a fixed moral framework.
The latter admits no fixed truths and votes on everything.
"Those two are really incompatible forms of rule, and we really shouldn't
even call them by the same name," he said.
Dewey's ideas are still alive in China, through the works of his disciple,
Hu Shi. Renewed interest in other thinkers has broadened the intellectual
debate in China.
"The Western media missed the story because they were looking more at
democracy rather than liberalism," said James Dorn of the Cato Institute.
"And there's a huge difference between the two from the Chinese viewpoint."
Copyright © 2000 NATIONAL HUMANITIES
Updated 26 July 2000