The battle of ideas

Fernando R. Genovés

As long as the Marxists, and post-Marxists, call for class struggle, one must continue a dialogue on the battle of ideas – the struggle between the principles and values in which the future of free and open societies is decided. For the left-wing totalitarians, they cling to the ideological battle, convinced to have won it beforehand. In this intellectual conflict, the political right positions itself at the centre, in front or sideways, declaring itself, in any case, neutral.

And with regard to thought and culture – although not only in these spheres – the right usually acts in a way that is reserved and very distrustful. Sometimes this is due to hang-ups and timidity; more commonly, due to carelessness or because of other interests and yearnings. One could say that the right has generally felt closer to Platonic exemplarity than to Aristotelian scientism, to idealism than to realism, to aestheticism than to practicalism. As a result of such avoidance, by the time an individual realizes this abandonment and neglect, reality has already evaporated in his or her hands. Then, those who had usually disregarded or ignored it ask the help of intellectuals and call for ‘expert committees’, although they do not know who to seek or to call. Therefore, while opening the gates of Troy, they find themselves under horses’ feet.

A similar phenomenon has already occurred during the French Revolution, precisely from the moment people strictly started to speak about ‘left’ and ‘right’. From that moment on, in the battle of ideas, the left started a priori in the race as the winner; the right, as the loser.

Just as he did in other critical things, Alexis de Tocqueville saw with insight and clarity the sign of the new times, and why, in its impulse and necessity, it does the old ones in. In the essay The Old Regime and the Revolution (L’Ancien Regime et la Révolution, 1856), he draws attention to the stolid comfort and simplicity of the upper classes of the Ancien Regime, who not only were incapable of foreseeing their own ruin, but also provoked it with their apathy, blindness and naivity. So much for noblesse oblige. At that time, the French thinker, observes with irony, “where could they have obtained such clairvoyance?”

Many anticipated its coming, but no one saw it. The great upheaval of 1789 had to unfold itself in France, neither by curse nor by historicist design, but by the very evolution of events. The Revolution and the Reign of Terror weren’t brought about by the ordinary people in their ordinariness, but rather by a few thinking heads (forerunners of the ‘intellectuals’) of that epic era, who attacked the nobles and crowned heads, promoting discontent among the masses and stirring sentiments and passions which could only be soothed with the ghastly all or nothing. In the French Revolution, the human spirit derailed, and around it rose revolutionaries of a stock that was unknown before then; of infinite hatred and resentment. Nowadays, a large segment of public opinion carries on without recognizing them, even though they are everywhere, sitting at the most comfortable seats, indoctrinating in schools, and chatting on television; yet, they are easily recognizable.

Why did such an uprising happen specifically in France? The philosophes did not usually intervene in public affairs, as did the English philosophers; neither were they engaged in transcendental metaphysics and ontology, sheltered in academic centres, as was the case with most of their German colleagues. The French ‘intellectuals’, who were already beginning to emerge or to invent themselves, did not live completely separate from politics:

They lacked – noted Tocqueville – this superficial instruction that the sight of a free society, and the noise of what is being said inside it, provide to even those who are least interested in matters of government. In this way, they were much more daring in their innovations, more lovers of general ideas and systems, more contemptuous of the ancient wisdom, and even more confident in their individual reason, than commonly occurs among authors who write speculative books about politics.

This circumstance, completely new in the history of the political education of people, and not only of the French, greatly contributed to materializing the Revolution. From it emerged a political and social situation which impacted Tocqueville then, and which still captivates many, and in some of us produces great upset. The model of the committed intellectual, the anti-King philosopher, the modulator of consciences, was thus defined. The general will had an enthusiastic guidebook:

A terrifying spectacle! – says Tocqueville –, for what is a quality in a writer sometimes is a vice in the statesman, and the very things that have often inspired good books can lead to great revolutions.

It was still to arrive in Europe, when Tocqueville saw it in America. In modern mass societies, the regime of public opinion rules, while “turning itself into the first and the most irresistible of powers; outside it, there is no refuge, however strong, that could resist its blows for a long time”(Democracy in America).

In the 21st century, American democracy, like those in the rest of the world, is seriously threatened by new totalitarianisms. Of late, the revenge of Allah has been added to the revenge of Lenin. Here is the sombre spectacle of the present moment! Former US President George W. Bush proclaimed this with great clarity at the UN: “Weapons are not enough against terrorism, we must win the battle of ideas.” Note that Bush does not say that one does not need weapons to fight against terrorism; he affirms that they “are not enough”.

Let’s take a look at what the sociologist Juan J. Linz says about this: “Some of the most serious crises of democratic regimes have been caused by this type of problem, especially that this type of regime has to tolerate pacifists, including an opposition that is ready to help the enemy in the war” (The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes).

Here is a major problem in free democracies, that one does not win with weapons, but by engaging deeply in the battle of ideas, with conviction and without hang-ups. In this respect, it is bewildering to see the way the political right retreats, like a snail that crawls into its shell as soon as someone touches its antennae, and then falls back into the sleep of the righteous. The right is said to be misunderstood, when it does not even want to make itself understood. The right complains about bad luck while, in reality, it abandons itself to the comfortable sway of fortune. It hears the word ‘culture’ and yawns.

Perhaps one day, as some of the proxies and the empowered of the conservative right suddenly awake from their dogmatic dream, they will start to quote, with a certain joy though not without shyness, Raymond Aron, Friedrich Hayek and Tocqueville, extolling the principles and values of liberalism, as if this battle of words and deeds was truly theirs. Consequently, it is no wonder that the many who were affected by the allusion / illusion are surprised at the sight of such amazing flourishing, or smile maliciously while nudging or pinching one another in order to believe such a marvel.

Meanwhile, the political left presides over the plurality, the opportunism and the parasitism, and promoting, according to its custom, the appropriation of what belongs to others. For example, by introducing Adam Smith and J. Stuart Mill as proto-socialist thinkers; Ortega y Gasset as a left-wing republican; Tocqueville as a progressive; and finally, by presenting Octavio Paz as apolitical and completely alienated from the liberal thought, that is, as simply a poet.

The present essay is a chapter from F R Genovés book La riqueza da libertad (The Wealth of Liberty), 2016. ISBN e-book 978-84-608-6112-6, available at Amazon.


© F R Genovés

Translator: Jo Pires-O’Brien (UK)

Revisers: H Kirby, CMOB (UK)


Genovés, Fernando Rodriguez. The battle of ideas. PortVitoria, UK, v.16, Jan-Jun, 2018. ISSN 20448236,