The Betrayal of the West

Written by Jacques Ellul Reviewed By Terrance Trites

The French sociologist and historian Jacques Ellul has given his readers another thought provoking and serious book. His main concern in this book is the betrayal of the West inherent in the critical rejection of it. The faults of the West are central while the good points are ignored. The political, religious, and social Left are particularly guilty of this betrayal. The Left has also betrayed the West in that they have betrayed themselves and their cause.

Ellul argues that in the betrayal history has come to an end. The argument has been rightly described as prophetic—pointing to the path towards which we have chosen to go, in which western history will end, and calling for a halt to this movement.

Ellul faces the major criticisms of the West head on and admits his sin, our sin. He admits that we have been imperialistic, colonial, and ruthless in the building up of our Western civilization. Yes, all these criticisms are just, but they must be levelled at all civilizations, whether they be Chinese, African, or European. And Ellul shows how other civilizations have been as imperialistic, colonial, and ruthless as the West. His main point in this seems to be that the new desire for the East, or the ideal view of African traditions, or the back-to-nature movement are misplaced desires, ideals that are unaware of the similar characteristics of other civilizations.

Despite the faults of the West, it has given us many good and positive things. One thing that the West has given us is the critical thinking needed by those who criticize the West. A second thing is the emphasis on reason, reason as an openness to reality. Ellul combines this gift with the Western gift of freedom and says that reason provides a balance to our freedom. A third gift, accompanying reason and freedom is self-control. The combination of these three gifts that the West has given us give coherence and continuity to our experience. These have led to the Western man—who is an individual, a self-aware personality.

These very gifts are those things that the Left and all the critics are trying to eradicate. Utopias take reason to the radical position of rationality, and structure everything. Ellul calls this the technique of rationality. He has a parable of a dreaming humanist to illustrate this. Reason has become rationalistic mathematics. This is one extreme and one means of betraying the West. A second one is the obliteration of the individual. Ellul shows how the Left, which in the beginning cared for the poor, have lost their sense of sympathy. Part of this is due to the difficult question of who the truly poor are. But Ellul argues that the Left does not care who the truly poor are—and he cites numerous examples with whom the Left do not sympathize. They care only for those who can be used to bring the Left into power. So, the individual with the real poverty is not considered. The individual is consumed by the Left in its desire to gain power.

The positive aspects of the West are the very things that are being rejected along with the negative aspects. Ellul sees the positive aspects as those that carry hope for the future, for history. And it is with the individual that he rests his hope, with a revolution that is individual and personal, for the alienation of Western society is so deep and complete and it is only in the depths of individuality that the revolution can occur.

Such is the argument that Ellul makes. The book is one that must be struggled with, both as to content and as to development. And this is a major problem. The second and third chapters are difficult to relate to the first chapter and this may be due to the content, which is prophetic and difficult. The book deserves many readings, so that our understanding of it is complete, and our arguments with it are well founded. Yes, the book is prophetic, if only because Ellul says the West is ended; Western history is finished. He implies the question, where do we go from here?

Terrance Trites

Knox College, Toronto, Canada