The Real Issue


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at Annual Meeting of The Pilgrims, Hotel Biltmore, New York City, January 24, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 258-259.

MY FELLOW PILGRIMS: The clouds which were hanging over the world at the time of our last annual meeting have grown vastly darker and more threatening during the year which has passed. They are the darkest and the most threatening clouds which have hung over this western world since the fall of the Roman Empire. This is due not only to the characteristics of those clouds themselves, but also and largely to the fact that the world of today is a very different one from what it ever has been before. Bound together in information and in contact, intellectual, economic, social, and political, by the electric spark, there is now no part of the settled world which is beyond the reach and outside of the influence of any important happening anywhere.

The extraordinary thing for those of us who are Pilgrims is that we must now find ourselves face to face with the fact that the fundamental principles to which we are devoted, the fundamental institutions which our English-speaking ancestors have been engaged in building for a thousand years, have not only ceased to have influence in new and distant lands, but are openly and vigorously challenged both within our own land and in other parts of the world where quite opposite theories and doctrines have established themselves.

What has become of the old, constructive, forward-facing, historic liberalism which, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dominated the thought and the public life of the English-speaking peoples? Where are the voices that led us on? Where are the prophets, the Chathams, the Burkes, the Pitts, the Washingtons, the Hamiltons, the Jeffersons, the Madisons, to stand before the whole world to proclaim, defend and interpret those principles written into our Federal Constitution with its Bill of Rights, and accepted by the British people through custom and long habit, without being written into a specific constitutional document? What has become of them?

If we are to give an intelligent answer to that question, we must go back over just about one hundred years. You will then find coming into the life and thought of Europea new doctrine, a doctrine at first preached by philosophers and theoretical intellectuals, and not accepted either quickly or by any considerable measure of men. But, as the years have passed, that new, that revolutionary doctrine has steadily grown in force and today is the open and declared enemy of our historic principles of liberty, political, social, economic, intellectual, and religious.

What is that new principle? That principle, first taught by the German philosopher Hegel, is that the state must be antecedent to and superior to the individual citizen, and that the state has in itself the power, the authority, and the right to turn the individual to such purposes by such methods and under such limitations as may seem to it desirable and wise. But how could there be a state before there were individuals? Surely the individuals constitute the state, and surely the state, as the philosophers define it and use the term, must therefore be a purely theoretical, abstract word to indicate their principle and their point of view.

At first that doctrine was discussed abstractly only and in a general way; but pretty soon, and largely by the skill and persistence of Karl Marx and those who were associated with him, it was translated into specific doctrines of antagonism and opposition to free institutions, resisting their approach to lands where they had not been established, and attacking the foundations of free institutions in those lands which they controlled.

We have now been engaged, my fellow Pilgrims, in that struggle for the better part of a hundred years. It has taken on new and terrifying forms because, for psychological and historical reasons, with which you are all familiar, that doctrine has taken possession of populations of immense size, of great physical power, and of enormous natural resources, and, where it has control, liberty will not be permitted to exist. It will not only disappear, but it will be wrecked and demolished if force can manage to do that.

Moreover, this doctrine was the first of all political doctrines openly to claim international influence and international control. Lovers of liberty in the English-speakingcountries and in France, in the Scandinavian and Dutch countries, and in Switzerland were all willing to practice liberty, to try to improve liberty, to try to show the value of liberty, and then to let it make its appeal to other nations in an educational fashion, bit by bit. That is where we were fifty years ago. We were at a point, following the war between Germany and France, where the doctrines of liberty seemed to be gaining ground here and there, except, of course, in the despotic monarchy which ruled the Russian people. At that time Italy, Germany, Austria, all seemed to be becoming open-minded and to accept in some degree these doctrines with which the English-speaking peoples have been associated since Magna Charta.

But now resistance to liberty has become so definite, so specific, and so terrifying, that everything in which we believe, everything of the foundations upon which our institutions are built, is at stake in this world-wide war of so-called ideologies or ideas. The fighting troops are but a very small part of this contest. The real controversy is between two types of civilization, two types of life, two ideals of government and social order. That conflict, if settled against us, will put the world back for generations to come; if settled for us—and that is something to which we must devote our intelligence—we may be able to remove this huge obstacle to progress and to call back true liberalism to its place of control in a progressive and a peaceful world. But, in order to do that, we must clearly understand the issue.

All of these attacks upon the philosophy of liberty are not made openly. They are often made quietly, almost surreptitiously, by taking down this barrier and that between liberty and state control. Now it is one particular object, due to the activity of a well-organized and self-seeking minority; now it is another and similar undertaking, using the first as a precedent. So, little by little, you find transformation going on, even in the liberty-loving countries, France, Great Britain, and the United States, without any open confession of knowledge of the fact that a fundamental controversy is at work between two absolutely conflicting principles of life and of government.

What are we going to do about it? To answer that question, just a word must be said about a new and rather interesting form of attack upon liberty which surrounds us on every side. We are now told that if you speak of this at a time when there is such difference of opinion in the world, you are engaged in propaganda, and that must not be permitted. What is propaganda? The word came into existence three hundred years ago when the Vatican established its Congregatio de Propaganda Fidei, its Division for Propagating the Faith, the Christian Faith. It was the name of the missionary movement of the Christian church throughout the world. Then it passed into meaning argument in favor of anything in which the speaker believed. Then it took on the form which is now attempted to be given to it—the heretical teaching of a false doctrine. The result is that the public mind is very greatly confused by the term. As a matter of fact, there is not a particle of difference between true propaganda and education. Education is propaganda. If you learn the multiplication table, it is propaganda that two and two do not make five; and it is very important that that fact should be grasped.

Now we are told that if those of us who are believers in liberty and devoted to its support and continuance, talk much of liberty at a time like this, we are engaging in propaganda. So be it! Anyone who speaks English is called a propagandist. I have been engaged in propaganda all my life in favor of the underlying American principles of government, trying to show other peoples their significance, their value, their importance, and their success, and I have not the slightest intention of being diverted from propaganda because such work is called by that name.

One more word: We must realize the fact that in the doctrine called socialism, there are ends in view which are wholly admirable—care of one's fellows, devotion to the common and general interest, solicitude for the less fortunate members of the human family. These are excellent, every one of them. The difficulty is that the methods proposed by socialists to achieve those ends are wrong and unnecessary. They can all be achieved through the doctrines of liberty on two conditions: First, that those doctrines be taught and practiced with intelligence and on the ground of moral principle; and second, that the gain-seeking instinct, the mean desire to trade upon and to make use of one's fellow man, be excluded from individual life and from public policy. These admirable ends may then be achieved, as they all can be, in terms of the fundamental doctrines of Anglo-Saxon liberty.

My friends, it is of vital importance that we reflect upon this world situation and that we realize that the doctrine of the superiority of the state, now armed with a strength which no such doctrine has ever had before, is fully conscious of what it is trying to do. It has no notion of contenting itself with meeting the present, the immediate political ambitions of the governments which it dominates. Its intention, often expressed in private, and soon to be told in public, is to wage war on the fundamental doctrines of civil, political, religious and economic liberty, until the whole world has been reduced to state-controlled compulsion. That is the alternative which faces America, Great Britain, and the world, as we enter upon a new decade.