At a speaking event hosted by the Show-Me Institute last November, Douglas Murray opened his remarks with some reflections on the influence of T.S. Eliot. Eliot had done for Murray, he said, something similar to what he had done for the late English philosopher Roger Scruton, who wrote in his memoirs that the poet had “saved him from Oswald Spengler.” Intrigued, I decided to have a look at Spengler’s best-known work before reading Murray’s new book, hoping to gain some idea of what exactly he was so grateful for having escaped. This was not difficult to ascertain. Excavating a copy of The Decline of the West from the nearest library, my first impressions were forbidding. Dimensions—unwieldy; weight—alarming (this is not a book you want to drop on your toes); binding—thick leather, as though to prevent the escape of insalubrious thoughts; pages—unusually musty, as though still damp with the fetid anguish of previous readers.
Flicking through this monumental tome did little to raise my spirits. In the final chapter, Spengler pronounces on the tragic and inevitable decline of Western civilisation, its yearning to unlock the mysteries of the universe gradually subverted and made hollow by enslavement to “the machine.” Science and technology, invented as tools to serve a transcendent purpose, end up destroying the dream that gave them birth, and the “Faustian” civilisation that dreamed it. It took me half an hour to extract this doom-laden insight from the hard-boiled, labyrinthine prose of the conclusion. In search of further elucidation, I turned to the beginning of the book, only to shrink at the prospect of a near hundred-page introduction, crowded with bewildering phrases like “morphology of history,” “logic of time,” and “world-formation.” With rising panic, I hurried on, flipping page after page until finally, blinking cold sweat out of bulging eyes, I arrived at “Chapter 1: The Meaning of Numbers.” Whereupon I shut the book and fled in terror. Scruton, as it happens, writes somewhere that he was first introduced to Spengler while still at school. Which just goes to show how refined the practice of child abuse had become in the English schools of that benighted age.
Fortunately, Murray’s new book War on the West steers clear of the humourless gloom so typical of other “Spenglerian” works, which take as their theme the notion that Western culture is imperilled. The book departs, in fact, from the rather lugubrious tone of Murray’s own recent output. If The Strange Death of Europe reads like a requiem for a stricken continent, War on the West is intended to be an act of defiance. “The anti-Western revisionists have been out in force in recent years,” he writes in the prelude to a chapter on history. “It is high time that we revise them in turn.” It should be obvious that the “anti-Western revisionists” to whom Murray refers represent a loose coalition of left-wing ideologues convinced that Western culture is irreparably corrupt, its institutions polluted at a fundamental level by various forms of prejudice concerning race, gender, and sexual orientation. These ideas, in Murray’s view, are not only hysterically misguided, but harmful and even dangerous.
Among the strongest passages of the book are those concerning the artistic achievements of European civilisations. Murray writes very eloquently about some of the artists, musicians, and sculptors of the Western tradition, contrasting the depth, humanity, and universality of their works with the sheer crassness of recent attacks mounted upon them. Thus, Michael Tippett’s oratorio ‘A Child of Our Time’ can be denounced for “cultural appropriation” because it incorporates Negro Spirituals. This work, as Murray movingly relates, was conceived as a protest against Kristallnacht, by a Jewish-American composer so deeply affected by the plangent music of the African-American tradition that he once wept at a performance in 1960s Baltimore, at which the largely black audience recognised the spirituals and began, spontaneously, to sing them. This piece of music is now deemed to be somehow suspect, tainted by “white supremacy” despite its profoundly humane and sympathetic intentions.
There is something very disturbing about this reductive, inquisitorial reaction to even the least objectionable artefacts of Western history. Nothing speaks more strongly to the spiritual aridity of social justice extremists than their complete insensitivity to aesthetic nuance and artistic value. Yet Murray deserves credit for not retreating into the embittered fatalism of the prophet of despair. At least with regard to artistic achievements, his defence of the Western tradition is not merely optimistic, but also completely devoid of rancour or exclusionary sentiment. The cultural treasures of the West “deserve respect not because they are the product of white people but because they are the inheritance of all mankind.” One gets the sense, when he writes on these issues, that the crowning achievements of Western culture are not doomed, that they can be reclaimed by anyone who chooses, and that those who do might find rejuvenation in them. This is the hopeful message with which he concludes the book, in fact, insisting that “when people ask where meaning can be found, they should be encouraged to look at what is all around them and just beneath their feet … It is all that they will ever need.”
This strain in Murray hints, I think, at what is most magical in T.S. Eliot, which is his ability to make you believe that the past is not dead. We are written over our ancestors in a sort of invisible palimpsest, and with a bit of poetic imagination, it is possible to read between the lines. Thus, in Sweeney Among the Nightingales, the spectre of Agamemnon can stalk through modern Paris, and the seediest quartiers acquire a sudden and tragic depth. Bound up in all of this is the same idea that, by reanimating the past, the present can be ennobled—Spengler confounded by Eliot. The relentless politicisation of this feeling is a mistake. That there is something lacking in modern life is one of the few things about which, in their way, the Left and the Right can agree. Modernity, for the former, is “materialistic” and “consumerist,” just as for the latter it is “fickle,” “shallow,” and “empty.” I don’t claim to know the answer as to how a sense of the numinous can be reclaimed, but reading Shakespeare is probably a better strategy than trying to “decolonise” him.
Murray’s book is not, of course, apolitical as a whole, and its political aspects account, I think, for some of its shortcomings. One of these is a slight tendency to exaggerate, magnifying the importance of fairly trivial incidents in order to present them as part of the “remorseless” war against the West. At one point, following a discussion of the absurdities of “anti-racist” school curricula, he cites a Twitter thread seeking to prove that “the idea of 2+2 equalling 4 is cultural and because of western imperialism/colonization.” One of the tweeters being a maths teacher, Murray warns of the risk that mathematical standards in education “will be lowered or expunged altogether” as a result of such ideas and reminds the reader of the obvious parallels to be found in “George Orwell’s most famous book.” It is difficult to take these baleful warnings at face value, however, given that all the Twitter accounts Murray cites as evidence have fewer than a thousand followers, which strikes me as a somewhat insufficient basis of support if your goal is to erase mathematical logic from the minds of an entire generation.
This is not to suggest that Murray’s larger argument is confected or alarmist. His basic contention is that anti-Westernism under the guise of social justice, has become popular enough to be threatening. If enough are convinced that Western history is nothing more than a catalogue of moral outrages and that Western societies remain irredeemably oppressive, tyrannical, bigoted, and all the rest of it, then what sense is there in preserving such a system? Democracy, civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and expression—these are simply myths manufactured by an unjust system to induce compliance. Why not burn it all to the ground and start again? And in the event of a confrontation with a hostile foreign power, why risk anything at all to defend what is indefensible? The war in Ukraine has underscored and italicised these questions posed by Murray. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University asked respondents whether they would “stay and fight” if America was invaded like Ukraine. Fully 52 percent of Democrats, and some 36 percent of Republicans, said they would leave the country instead.
Grave concern is not unwarranted, then. But Murray believes that the solution to this mess is deceptively simple: gratitude. People who live in the West must realise how fortunate their position is, to inhabit some of the richest, freest, most tolerant societies that human beings have ever been able to build. There is a great deal for all of us to be thankful for, but too many of us, in Murray’s view, fail to recognise this. He argues, quoting Nietzsche in support, that a deficiency of gratitude breeds resentment and a heightened desire for revenge. But spite and vengefulness never present themselves openly. Instead, they tend to dress themselves in the more honourable garb of “justice.” The only cure for the warped and pathological view of justice that emerges from such resentment is gratitude. If you are “incapable of realizing what you have to be thankful for, you are left with nothing but your resentments and can be contented by nothing but revenge.”
Murray’s emphasis on the importance of gratitude is reasonable enough as a moral insight, but as a practical solution to the problem of anti-Westernism and identity politics, it suffers from several problems. The first is that his conception of social justice extremism as a sort of Nietzschean pathology is incomplete and slightly misleading. For a start, bringing Nietzsche into a debate about politics is something of a double-edged sword, because the arguments here deployed against the social justice warriors Murray disdains can just as easily be applied to things he values and respects, notably Christianity (a religion based, in Nietzsche’s view, on slave resentment). As Nietzsche thought that the very idea of justice was itself a delusion produced by resentment, there can be no distinction between “sincere” and spiteful motivations on the part of those who claim to seek it. Something of this persists in Murray’s critique, which implies that everyone who is drawn to left-wing identity politics is actuated by a lust for retribution, as opposed to a genuine desire to create a fairer society.
While this is undoubtedly true in some, even many, cases, it does not hold universally. It is not just embittered black people who call for reparations, as plenty of white liberals do this, too. Lots of men are sympathetic to feminism, heterosexuals to gay activism, non-trans people to the trans movement, and so on. Not all of this can be put down to “virtue signalling.” Many people, presumably, accept the social justice nostrums propagated by activists out of a misguided but ultimately good-faith aversion to perceived structural inequities. Such people are not likely to be convinced by Murray’s paean to gratitude. Their sense of the injustices of Western society, many of which are real enough, will not be diminished by having someone tell them not to be resentful, and if anti-Westernism is the only game in town that provides an outlet for altruistic sentiment, it is likely to gain many adherents.
All this implies that the solution, if there is one, must come from the Left. What is needed is a rival movement that caters to people’s aspirations for social fairness and the remission of suffering without recommending that we tear down statues, throw out the Western canon, obsess about superficial aspects of our identities, and so on. It would not be fair, of course, to expect this from Murray, who, as a conservative, is naturally more suspicious of social reform than those of a left-wing temperament, a perspective that is perfectly valid in its own terms. On the other hand, while the defiant stance of his book necessitates a certain combativeness of tone, Murray seems at times to flirt with the notion that any criticism of Western society or foreign policy is an expression of a sinister, vengeful, anti-Western worldview. This inflexibility is not likely to convert any wayward radicals. One can only hope, as Murray probably does himself, that the Left will prove him wrong by showing that there really is another way, that you can be critical without expressing undiluted contempt, and that you can struggle and hope for change without burning everything to the ground.