From Investor's Business Daily, July 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Investor's Business Daily. Used by permission. 

Chinese Communists Discover Hope In Forgotten American Conservative

By Brian Mitchell 
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 Party leaders. 

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 (1859-1952). 

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 challenged." 

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 conditions. 

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 regard. 

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." 

Updated 23 June 2023