One of my professors for the summer is Dr. Claes Ryn, faculty member of Catholic University and author of “America the Virtuous” (which we are using as a textbook). His major thesis is that American society, previously characterized by distrust of human reason, and humility in the face of man’s fallen state, has been transformed by Rousseau-style Enlightenment thinking; it is now possible to imagine a central blueprint for the “perfect” society, and then to attempt to implement it, both here and across the globe. This tendency first arose as a major force with the Progressives, strengthened with the Socialists, and is now continuing with the Neoconservative (in the strict sense) movement.
Dr. Ryn calls all such utopians, who have a global agenda built on the perfectibility of human reason, “Neo-Jacobins” after the French revolutionaries. His book focuses mostly on the strain of Neo-Jacobinism to be found within the Neoconservative movement, simply because they are in power right now. His presentation was unfortunate, as I found myself struggling to avoid writing off the book as simply one more rant about the eeeevil neocons. But Dr. Ryn has even more disdain for the Socialists, and does not hesitate to identify their new base of support as the Democratic Party, so he has that much going for him.
But I think that in his analysis of what elements of American foreign policy are motivated by “Neo-Jacobinism” or utopianism, Dr. Ryn misses a fine distinction that is nevertheless crucial for explaining why President Bush, no ideologue, is seemingly falling into step with the Neoconservative program. In Chapter 15 of his book, Dr. Ryn mentions that while many Neoconservatives speak of fighting to spread democracy, the President nearly exclusively speaks of fighting to extend freedom. Dr. Ryn simply sees the one term as substituted for the other; but if that were so, why does the President use “freedom” and not “democracy” most of the time?
President Bush has said that Natan Sharansky’s book, “The Case for Democracy,” lays out his own foreign policy reasonably well. When I asked Dr. Ryn if he would consider Sharansky a Neo-Jacobin, he said yes. This misses a key distinction between Sharansky’s views and the “democratism” that is Dr. Ryn’s main complaint with the Neoconservatives.
A “democratist” believes that democracy is the best form of government for all peoples, and that therefore it should be American policy to spread it across the world.
Sharansky, on the other hand, is not primarily concerned with democracy per se. Rather, his argument is that regimes that fail the “town square test” of tolerating dissent are driven to create outside enemies for domestic consumption. Therefore, to promote general peace and tranquility, we need to promote governments that tolerate dissent, or more broadly that respect the rights of their people. Thus far, democracy seems to be the government most likely to do that.
The key difference is that one view is ideological, the other practical. If some new form of government were to arise that more consistently protected the right of dissent, a Sharanskyite such as myself would have no problem advocating it instead of democracy. (The merits and demerits of democracy will have to wait for another post, sadly.) But a Neo-Jacobin democratist would be just as fiercely attached to democracy as Marxists are to communism today.
What Dr. Ryn does not consider is that many people support the spread of democracy for practical reasons, and are therefore guided by practical considerations. While the concrete differences between a true Neo-Jacobin and a Sharanskyite are miniscule today, they may not be tomorrow. So while I am willing to grant that utopianism in any form is troubling, we are hardly being brainwashed by the new Marxists. “America the Virtuous” is a valuable book, if shrill at times, but this is a point worth keeping in mind should you decide to read it.