Reflections on Thomas Nagel's critique (of Michael Sandel's book “Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics”) “Progressive but Not Liberal," THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, May 25, 2006.
Thomas Nagel entitles his essay on the social philosophy of Michael J. Sandel "Progressive but Not Liberal." Non-liberal progressives are most often to be found in socialist and communist organizations but not Sandel who is a professor of government at Harvard and referred to as a "communitarian" by Nagel. Nagel is happy to be a liberal and takes Sandel to task for having "defective" views about "liberalism." Nagel in fact defends the liberal cause by his critique of Sandel. I intend to analyze Nagel's critique from a Marxist perspective.
Nagel points out that the political system in the US is more volatile and heterogeneous than what one would find in Western Europe. The US is, in fact, "radically divided over issues of war, taxes, race, religion, abortion, and sex." He maintains that these differences are deep rooted and about "ultimate values." Yet these divisions do not threaten the stability of our political system. He says that "the cohesion of American society is stronger than its divisions" can be seen by the fact that people with radically incompatible basic value systems cohabit in a common political system and strive to express those values legally through open political processes. And, he maintains, this can be done "only because of a general commitment to the principles of limited government embodied in the Constitution."
Well times have changed since Nagel penned this. American society is far from the stability outlined above: Après Trump le déluge. The election of Biden and the Republican response shows that the “general commitment” to the Constitution is under extreme duress.
Nagel goes on to divide the US political universe into two broad sections—based on how they respond to the problems listed above-- i.e., war, taxes, race,etc.
The conservatives, we are told, "are more interested in enforcing moral standards [and they think their standards are the only right ones--tr] on the community and protecting private property, and less interested in protecting personal liberty [libertarian conservatives would dispute this--tr] and reducing inequality." It is just the opposite with progressives, he says.
Progressives have to decide how to pursue their principles-- as "first" or "second" order principles. First order principles are those deeply held "fundamental beliefs" or core principles. The second order principles are those "concerning what kind of first order-principles may be used to justify the exercise of political and legal power". For example, should we try and have the state outlaw capital punishment based on the first order principle that all killing by the state is immoral [excluding the military], or should we use a different principle such as the corruption of the legal system or the racism in the sentencing procedures without calling into question the ultimate moral status of capital punishment itself.
Nagel allies himself with liberalism which he identifies more or less with the political philosophy of another Harvard professor, the late John Rawls, author of such books as "Political Liberalism" and "A Theory of Justice." According to Nagel liberalism tends to rely on second order principles and not confront the conservative positions with head on challenges of first order magnitude. Nagel says, for example that gay rights can be defended by liberals on the principle that the government should not be controlling "private sexual conduct" without getting into the issue of the moral status of homosexuality.
The target of Nagel's article, Sandel, represents another school of progressives which Nagel says is "not liberal." These progressives want to argue their positions on first order principles and duke it out with the conservatives on core values. Sandel wants to replace "liberalism" with what he thinks the "communal" republican spirit of the early US was, which he contrasts with the present day liberal concern with "individualism." What Sandel is interested in is (his words) "soul craft." Nagel explains this as "the cultivation of virtue in the citizenry by the design of political, social and economic institutions."
Wait a minute! This sounds familiar. This sounds like a species of the program of social engineering embarked upon in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and subverted and fought with tooth and claw by the big capitalist powers, first with their rebellious cat's paw Hitler, then continued as the Cold War by Hitler's anti-communist successors. Nagel senses this as well, as we shall see.
More immediately, however, Nagel attacks Sandel for having a "defective" understanding of Liberalism and misinterpreting the social philosophy of John Rawls. Nagel tells us that there are many forms of "Liberalism" but he contrasts only two-- European and American. The former is characterized by "the libertarianism of economic laissez-faire" (which sounds to me suspiciously like current neocon thought) while the latter represents "the democratic egalitarianism of the welfare state" (the owl of Minerva really does take flight at dusk, someone should tell Nagel that the welfare state is history).
But, he tells us, "all liberal theories have this in common: they hold that the sovereign power of the state over the individual is bounded by a requirement that individuals remain inviolable in certain respects, and that they must be treated equally." Basically this means equality before the law and equal political status (one person one vote, unless you are Black or Hispanic and your votes are tossed) and in American Liberalism "equality of opportunity and fairness in the social and economic structure of the society." I don't know what planet Nagel is from, maybe a parallel universe where Sweden is the only superpower, but the US definitely does not fit this description. Well, maybe not, but those are the goals to be reached and John Rawls represents this kind of Liberalism which stresses "distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities perpetuated by inheritance and class." Yes, Liberalism wants to combat poverty and inequality based on the observation that "the poor ye shall always have with you" but Marxism, unlike Liberalism which wants to tinker with the bad consequences of Capitalism without ever questioning the system itself, wants to eliminate poverty , not just combat it, by getting rid of the economic system that breeds it, i.e., capitalism.
Sandel rejects Rawls "Liberalism." He has, as Nagel says "spent his career" opposing Rawls and Rawls’ form of "egalitarian liberalism." What he contests is "Rawls’ central claim that individual rights and principles of social justice should take precedence over the broad advancement of human welfare according to some standard of what constitutes the good life." This is wrongly framed from the Marxist perspective. We certainly are in favor of "broad advancement of human welfare" but not based on some bourgeois idealist concept of "the good life" but based on what we claim to be a scientific understanding of the motive force of the capitalist system, its directionality and the real possibility of restructuring of society in such a way that classes are abolished and all people will truly escape from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. This may sound utopian, but it is actually more realistic than the schemes of Rawls, Nagel or Sandel.
Meanwhile, while Rawls subordinates the "broad advancement of human welfare" to "individual rights", Sandel maintains that, in his own words, "Principles of justice depend for their justification on the moral worth or intrinsic good of the ends they serve." Nagel doesn't like this formulation. Sandel would ban Nazis from holding rallies but uphold the rights of people demonstrating for equality and against racism, for example. But, Nagel says, using Sandel's principle, people opposed to homosexuality ought to be opposed to gay people holding rallies. But it is the state that guarantees the rights of citizens and decides which ends are ultimately of "moral worth or intrinsic good." Nazis and KKK folk fail on both counts besides the fact that they would on principle end the rights of others to demonstrate if they could while gay people are not demanding the suppression of heterosexuals they are only asking for civil rights. So, I don't think the analogy a good one to use against Sandel.
What Nagel really objects too is that Sandel thinks "the priority of right as being intelligible only if it serves the good." Liberals would "bracket" the question about if abortion, for example, was "murder" and defend the right to it on the grounds that a woman's right to choose should not be denied because of the "religious convictions of the majority." Sandel thinks that in order to approve of or support abortion we must "first determine that the Catholic position is false." This is a requirement for bracketing the question of its mortal status. 'The more confident we are," Sandel writes, "that fetuses are, in the relevant moral sense, different from babies, the more confident we can be in affirming a political conception of justice that sets aside the controversy about the moral status of fetuses."
Nagel says this is begging the question not bracketing it but this is because of how he has set up the question in the first place. Being a Liberal he is looking for a Liberal answer, based on a second order principle, and Sandel, not being a Liberal, looks for first order principles. I think Marxists are more akin to Sandel than to Nagel. Surely we want to decide if abortion is murder or not before we support it. Do women have a right to commit murder? What are the Catholic reasons for thinking this is murder? When we find out that the reasons are not based on science or an intelligent open minded examination of the evidence but only upon superstition and close minded adherence to dogma this surely must be the basis for our rejection of the anti-abortion viewpoint. This way of thinking does not make Sandel's views of Liberalism "obtuse."
There are many behaviors that can be sanctioned by the state, Nagel says, that the state does not have to have an official position on with respect to their rightness or moral status. The state can be neutral in other words. But Sandel, says Nagel, "thinks justice and rights depend on what is actually good, and what rules and institutions serve those ends; he is not a relativist." This is also good Marxism. Marxists should, to the best standards available, try to determine the actual states of affairs they are dealing with and not bracket truth conditions. This would have prevented many of the catastrophes of the 20th century socialist project.
These different positions lead, as Nagel points out, to a "deep issue." Namely, "Do all moral standards derive from a single principle, or are there different principles for different kinds of entities?" Rawls and Sandel have very different views on this. Rawls does not hold that there is a common moral principle from which both personal rights and public rights derive. Rawls "thought that justice, which is the special virtue of social institutions like the state, depended on the distinctive moral character of the state itself, as an immensely powerful form of collective agency." In a Liberal democracy we are subject to majority rule. Actually, however, this has ceased to be the case in the US. The two elections won by George W. Bush were most likely won as a result of vote fraud consciously carried out in disregard for any moral commitment to democratic values and solely to attain state power for the personal enrichment of corporate class entities at the expense of the majority of the population. This looks like a trend that has further developed. The tactic was also attempted by Trump to stay in power but in his case failed because he had lost the support of the corporate ruling class. Even his legal first victory did not represent “majority rule” because the majority voted for Clinton.
Nevertheless, Rawls thinks in terms of a functioning bourgeois democracy with majority will "coercively enforced." But Rawls also believes in "fairness." This means that in addition to political and civil equalities the state must also "combat racial, sexual, and socioeconomic inequality." With regard to this duty of the state, Nagel says, "This is the fairness that Sandel derides." But I don't think that Sandel is for racial, sexual and socioeconomic inequality, nor do I think his social philosophy (or Marxism) entails any such consequences.
Nagel says that the state has no special moral status for Sandel. Sandel thinks once the people have decided on the ends to be sought (for Marxists this would be the abolition of property, classes and the state as well as the construction of socialism and communism) which for Sandel are ("seems to be" Nagel writes, which shows some confusion on this) "an unmaterialistic culture of closely knit communities and strong family ties" then the state will be used to construct this type of social reality (under socialism being eventually abolished or "withering away)."
But this kind of thinking will also lead, says Nagel, "to theocracy, fascism or communism for those who accept alternative conceptions of the human good." Nagel thinks this is a telling point against Sandel but it isn't. The same thing can happen under the limited constitutional state that Liberals like Rawls and Nagel think can be constructed or maybe is even exemplified by the US today. Constitutions and philosophical models are not what guarantee freedom and rights. Only an informed, educated and alert citizenry can do that, and that is what we currently lack, and lack by governmental and corporate design, in the US today.
Nagel concludes by saying that "A hunger that demands more from the state [than "constitutional patriotism"] will lead us where history has shown we should not want to go." I am afraid we are on that road already and we have got on this road not only by reading direction signs put up by non-Liberal progressives, but by following those posted by Rawls and his followers as well. To halt the current slide towards fascism ("the national security state") we will need the combined forces of the progressive left, the working class, the establishment union movement as well as those in the “center” of the political spectrum(always an unreliable section—i.e., the AFL-CIO leadership) who still believe in democracy and take the Bill of Rights seriously. Rawlsian Liberalism alone will not suffice.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
This article is a modified and republished version of the article that was first published by Political Affairs Magazine.
Afghanistan’s Socialist Years: The Promising Future Killed Off by U.S. Imperialism. By: Marilyn BechtelRead Now
Women attend a rally in Kabul in the late 1970s. | Imgur via Pinterest
In the mid-1970s and early ’80s, People’s World correspondent Marilyn Bechtel was editor of the bimonthly magazine, New World Review. She visited Afghanistan twice, in 1980 and 1981. The article below first appeared in our pages on Oct. 6, 2001—the day before the U.S. launched its war in Afghanistan—under the headline, “Afghanistan: Some overlooked history.” With the Biden administration now withdrawing all troops from the country, we present this article as a reminder that the U.S.’ longest war had roots that went beyond the terrorist attacks of 9/11, stretching back to Cold War anti-communism.
Since the horrific events of Sept. 11, much has been said about the desperate situation of the Afghani people now crushed under the heel of the theocratic, dictatorial Taliban, and about the role of the Northern Alliance and other Taliban opponents who now figure in Washington’s plans for the region.
Kabul street scene, 1979. | TASS
There has been talk, most of it distorted, about the role of the Soviet Union in the years from 1978 to 1989. There has been talk, most of it understated, about the role of the U.S. in building up the Mujahideen forces, including the Taliban.
But almost no one talks about the effort the Afghan people made in the late 1970s and ’80s to pull free of the legacy of incessantly warring tribes and feudal fiefdoms and start to build a modern democratic state. Or about the Soviet Union’s role long before 1978.
Some background helps shed light on the current crisis. Afghanistan was a geopolitical prize for 19th-century empire builders, contested by both czarist Russia and the British Empire. It was finally forced by the British into semi-dependency.
When he came to power in 1921, Amanullah Khan—sometimes referred to as Afghanistan’s Kemal Ataturk—sought to reassert his country’s sovereignty and move it toward the modern world. As part of this effort, he approached the new revolutionary government in Moscow, which responded by recognizing Afghanistan’s independence and concluding the first Afghan-Soviet friendship treaty.
From 1921 until 1929—when reactionary elements, aided by the British, forced Amanullah to abdicate—the Soviets helped launch the beginnings of economic infrastructure projects, such as power plants, water resources, transport, and communications. Thousands of Afghani students attended Soviet technical schools and universities.
After Amanullah’s forced departure, the projects languished, but the relationship between the Soviets and the Afghans would later re-emerge.
The Center for Science and Culture was built in Kabul as a gift from the people of the Soviet Union. Once U.S.-backed Mujahideen forces took power, the facility was destroyed. | TASS
In the 1960s, a resurgence of joint Afghan-Soviet projects included the Kabul Polytechnic Institute—the country’s prime educational resource for engineers, geologists, and other specialists.
Nor was Afghanistan immune from the political and social ferment that characterized the developing world in the last century. From the 1920s on, many progressive currents of struggle took note of the experiences of the USSR, where a new, more equitable society was emerging on the lands of the former Russian empire. Afghanistan was no exception. By the mid-’60s, national democratic revolutionary currents had coalesced to form the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Modern apartment buildings constructed in Kabul in the 1980s with Soviet assistance. | TASS
In 1973, local bourgeois forces, aided by some PDP elements, overthrew the 40-year reign of Mohammad Zahir Shah—the man who now, at age 86, is being promoted by U.S. right-wing Republicans as the personage around which Afghanis can unite.
When the PDP assumed power in 1978, they started to work for a more equitable distribution of economic and social resources. Among their goals were the continuing emancipation of women and girls from the age-old tribal bondage (a process begun under Zahir Shah), equal rights for minority nationalities, including the country’s most oppressed group, the Hazara, and increasing access for ordinary people to education, medical care, decent housing, and sanitation.
A Mujahideen Islamist fighter aims a U.S.-made Stinger missile supplied by the CIA near Gardez, Afghanistan, December 1991. | Mir Wais / AP
During two visits in 1980-81, I saw the beginnings of progress: women working together in handicraft co-ops, where for the first time they could be paid decently for their work and control the money they earned. Adults, both women and men, learning to read. Women working as professionals and holding leading government positions, including Minister of Education. Poor working families able to afford a doctor, and to send their children—girls and boys—to school. The cancellation of peasant debt and the start of land reform. Fledgling peasant cooperatives. Price controls and price reductions on some key foods. Aid to nomads interested in a settled life.
I also saw the bitter results of Mujahideen attacks by the same groups that now make up the Northern Alliance—in those years aimed especially at schools and teachers in rural areas.
The post-1978 developments also included Soviet aid to economic and social projects on a much larger scale, with a new Afghan-Soviet Friendship Treaty and a variety of new projects, including infrastructure, resource prospecting, and mining, health services, education, and agricultural demonstration projects. After December 1978 that role also came to include the introduction of Soviet troops, at the request of a PDP government increasingly beset by the displaced feudal and tribal warlords who were aided and organized by the U.S. and Pakistan.
The rest, as they say, is history. But it is significant that after Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989, the PDP government continued to function, though increasingly beleaguered, for nearly three more years.
Somewhere, beneath the ruins of today’s torn and bloodied Afghanistan, are the seeds that remain even in the direst times within the hearts of people who know there is a better future for humanity. In a world struggling for economic and social justice—not revenge—those seeds will sprout again.
Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.
This article was first published by People's World.
The connection between the authoritarian personality and the working class began in earnest in the 1950s with cold war political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. Lipset argued that since World War I, “working class groups have proved to be the most nationalistic and jingoistic sector of the population” [1959: 483.] His concept of authoritarianism is a mash-up Adorno’s ideas mixed with support for “extremist” groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Communist Party. Lipset argued that in the US, the working class authoritarianism poses a threat to democracy.
The question is: does the psychology of individuals in the working class explain Trump’s rise to power? A Marxist perspective reveals the flaws in this and other individual-level psychological explanations:
Upper class benevolence is a bourgeois fantasy.
Despite its obvious flaws, the psychological argument has a special appeal for members of the privileged class, who want to hold themselves blameless for the social ills around them. They believe they knew better, and they blame the working class to avoid facing up to their own culpability. Scapegoating the working class is known as the “myth of upper class benevolence.”
One classic study in race and ethnicity shows the fallacies in the myth of upper class benevolence and zeroes in on the ways the working class is often portrayed, incorrectly, as the source of white supremacy. In his book The Mississippi Chinese: Between black and white, the sociologist James Loewen interviewed hundreds of residents of the Mississippi Delta. He found upper middle class whites routinely blamed poor working class whites for any and all oppression of both African Americans and Chinese Americans. But looking closely at the facts gave Loewen a much different picture of culpability. It was the privileged planter- and business-class whose members had the power to keep Chinese- and African-Americans out of their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Working class organizations like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and small Baptist churches were the first to welcome people of color, while upper class organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and Episcopalians excluded them. Financial institutions acted in the interests of the privileged class and served to limit opportunities for others. Schools reserved for whites only were resource rich compared with schools that served people of color. One county in Mississippi, Loewen discovered, actually spent $45 per white pupil for every $1 per African American pupil.
Loewen rejects the widely held belief, echoed in the London Business School study mentioned earlier, that the working class, fearing economic competition, feels the most prejudice. Instead, he turns to the pioneer Marxist sociologist of race, Oliver C. Cox, who argued that to analyze racial dynamics one needs to look first at “the economic policies of the ruling class.” Cox continued, “Opposition [by the working class] to social equality has no meaning unless we can see its function in the service of the exploitative purpose of this [ruling] class.”
A working class divided by race is easier to control
A working class divided by race is easier to control and to keep unorganized than a united one, so concerted and deliberate efforts are made to encourage members of the working class to embrace authoritarian beliefs, especially white supremacy. Using corporate-funded think tanks, right-wing radio and cable television, and presidential pronouncements, the ruling class frames current events in authoritarian terms, attempting to undermine the unity of the working class and therefore weaken it. In Mississippi Loewen found that alliances between working class whites and blacks were viciously undermined and blocked by the powerful of the community. Likewise, people who challenge class oppression and racial hierarchies are singled out for condemnation and retaliation.
Newer research on intolerance shows furthermore that authoritarian beliefs are not clearly associated with membership in the working class, defined by wage dependence, low income, and job insecurity. Erasmus University sociologist Dick Houtman revisited Lipset’s theory of working class authoritarianism found that it is not class that is correlated with intolerance, but educational level and access to cultural opportunities like books, concerts, and art exhibitions. Thus another way that the ruling class tries to divide the working class is by limiting their educational opportunities. Donald Trump once famously intoned, “I love the poorly educated.” Along with his secretary of education Betsy DeVos, Trump seems intent on increasing their ranks. With working class pupils forced to attend substandard, unsafe and under-resourced schools year after year, with college costs putting post-secondary education out of reach of many, and with crippling student debt for those who do borrow for college, the ruling class aims to limit the critical thinking resources the working class needs to challenge ruling class propaganda.
For those who are in college, corporate forces have developed special interventions to encourage neoliberal and fascist accommodation. The Charles Koch Foundation, established by the head of Koch Industries, has implemented a $50 million, 32-state strategy establishing institutes, holding conferences, and funding faculty and graduate students in a concerted effort to influence policy rightward: toward denial of climate science, undermining of labor rights, and revision of history in favor of business interests. Hand in hand with these corporate forces are the white supremacist organizations that pay for speakers to visit campuses and foment hate, then cry “first amendment” when students object. Other corporate-sponsored organizations encourage students to record, expose and protest faculty who do not espouse conservative views.
In short, the psychological argument claims that authoritarian tendencies emerge from working people themselves. It’s no surprise that researchers from a business school embraced that idea, because it is what Marx and Engels refer to as a “ruling idea.” By pretending that authoritarian ideas arise organically from the working class itself, it hides the relationship between authoritarianism and the economic policies of the ruling class. In contrast, a Marxist analysis recognizes the congruence between authoritarian ideas and the economic interests of the corporate ruling class, especially its efforts to divide the working class by race, gender, citizenship status, etc. It recognizes the influence of powerful corporate forces which intentionally try to persuade workers to blame each other for their oppression, instead of the capitalists who profit from their lack of unity.
Adorno, Theodor et al. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.
Edsall, Thomas B. 2017. “The Trump Voter Paradox” The New York Times. 28 September. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/opinion/trump-republicans-authoritarian.html
Ferris, Robert. 2017. “Why voters might be choosing dominant, authoritarian leaders around the world.” CNBC, 12 June. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/12/why-voters-might-be-choosing-dominant-authoritarian-leaders-around-the-world.html
Jacobs, Tom. 2018. “Inside the minds of hardcore Trump Supporters” Pacific Standard. February 15. https://psmag.com/news/inside-the-minds-of-hardcore-trump-supporters
Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism.” American Sociological Review 24 (4), 482-501.
Loewen, James. 1988. The Mississippi Chinese: Between black and white. 2e. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Serwer, Adam. 2017. “The Nationalist’s Delusion.” The Atlantic. November 20.
Image: Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2015. Greg Skidmore/Creative Commons
Anita Waters is Professor Emerita of sociology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and an organizer for the CPUSA in Ohio.
This article was first published by CPUSA.
As China continues to develop into a superpower a knowledge of its form of Marxism becomes imperative for Western progressives. The progressive movement cannot allow itself to be misdirected in an anti-Chinese direction by reactionary forces in the West. In order to understand Chinese Marxism fully it is important to be familiar with traditional Chinese philosophy, many elements of which reappear in Marxist guise in today’s China. The philosophy of Mozi has many elements that a Marxist could endorse (and many he couldn’t). This philosophy was once widespread in China but declined after the establishment of the Han Dynasty. Since the revolutionary upheavals in China in the last century interest in Mozi has been revived.
“Good morning Fred Are you ready to begin our discussion of Mozi?”
“I certainly am, but he is rather new to me. I mean, everyone has heard of Confucius and Laozi.”
“It's true. Mozi is not as well known as the other two. Mozi lived around 479 to 381 B.C.--somewhere in that range. We really don’t know too much about him. We have a 53-chapter book called the “Mozi” which is made up of his writings and those of some of his followers. He lived at the end of the feudal period of the Zhou Dynasty a little after the time of Confucius and was in the ‘warrior class.’ This class somewhat resembled and probably inspired what the Japanese developed as the class of the Samurai. Mo, (the “zi” is an honorific suffix meaning “master”—i.e., “teacher”) thought up a philosophy contrary to the Confucians and which he hoped would solve all the practical problems of humanity. He was the leader of a band of warriors--such bands were quite common in those days--but he would only go into action to try and prevent war or to protect the underdog who was being unjustly attacked. This was not common for those days or any days including our own (with the possible exception of the type of military aid given by the Cubans).”
“Well, Karl, I have my copy of Chan [W.T. Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy] which starts with Chapter 15 on ‘Universal Love’. It begins with a question ‘But what are the benefits and harm of the world?’ To which Mozi responds, “Take the present cases of mutual attacks among states, mutual usurpation among families, and mutual injuries among individuals, or the lack of kindness and loyalty between ruler and minister, of parental affection and filial piety between father and son, and of harmony and peace among brothers.’”
“OK Fred, that pretty much sums up the ‘harm of the world’ and it is as true of our times as it was in Ancient China even if Mo only makes male references due to his patriarchal culture. We will have to add ‘mothers and daughters’ as well as ‘sisters’ to the mix.”
“Mozi next explains why the world is in such sad shape, that is, where did all these problems come from. Mo says “They arise out of want of mutual love. At present feudal lords know only to love their own states and not those of others. Therefore they do not hesitate to mobilize their states to attack others. Heads of families know only to love their own families and not those of others. Therefore they do not hesitate to mobilize their families to usurp others. And individuals know only to love their own persons and not those of others. Therefore they do not hesitate to mobilize their own persons to injure others.’”
“So, ‘want of mutual love’ is the source of our woes!”
“Exactly, he says ‘Because of want of mutual love, all the calamities, usurpations, hatred, and animosity in the world have arisen. Therefore the man of humanity condemns it.’”
“And with what is he going to replace it?”
“'It should be replaced by the way of universal love and mutual benefit.’”
"'It is to regard other people’s countries as one’s own. Regard other people’s families as one’s own. Regard other people’s person as one’s own. Consequently, when feudal lords love one another, they will not fight in the fields.... Because of universal love, all the calamities, usurpations, hatred, and animosity in the world may be prevented from arising. Therefore the man of humanity praises it.’” [“Universal love” is a traditional translation of the Chinese jiān'ài, 兼愛 which is also rendered “impartial care.”]
“You know, many great philosophers and some, but not all, religious leaders have said more or less the same thing. I think all the great humanist thinkers, West or East, would be in general agreement. But they will differ with Mo about the practicality of his proposal and if there should be some distinctions within his concept of ‘universal’. This will be the ‘battle line’. Mo will want absolute universality which he thinks is the only way peace and harmony will come about.”
“That is right, Karl, and Mo takes up the challenge as I will now read. Here is the objection: ‘But now gentlemen of the world would say: Yes, it will be good if love becomes universal. Nevertheless, it is something distant and difficult to practice.’ To which Mo responds, ‘This is simply because gentlemen of the world fail to recognize its benefit and understand its reason.’”
“I remember Chan’s comment on this passage. That Mo used ‘benefits’ or ‘results’ as the motivation for his doctrines. This is similar to our philosophy of pragmatism. C.S. Peirce had something called the ‘pragmatic maxim’ his own Prime Directive as it were: ‘Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.’ Granted that this is a theory of meaning but we can see its relation to Mo. Mo is saying, the ‘Mohist Maxim’: ‘Consider what benefits we conceive our belief to have. Then, our conception of the benefits is the whole of our conception of the rightness of our belief.’ This is the theory of truth of Mohism.”
“I have the Chan comment right here Karl. He doesn’t make the point you do but does contrast the ‘Mohist Maxim’ of yours with Confucianism. The Confucian thinks the ‘inferior’ man is after ‘benefits’. The Confucian is interested in ‘righteousness.’ “
“Does he give references?”
“He cites the Analects 4:11,16; 15:17; 17:23”
“Let me see.” Karl took Chan’s book and looked through it. “The last two are not in here,” he said. He then pulled down a copy of the complete work (the “Analects”) and looked at it.
“Well, none of these references are quite on the mark. Confucius is really condemning material goodies and profit. I think the ‘Mohist Maxim’ goes way beyond this limited conception of ‘benefits.’ World peace would be a Mohist ‘benefit’ and that is not the same as ‘profit’. World peace would even be a motivation to action for a Confucianist who could interpret it as ‘righteousness’ to benefit humanity (ren).”
“I will continue with the Mo quote. In this passage he explains how universal love even though difficult can be brought about. ‘Formerly Duke Wen [ruled 636 to 628 B.C.] of Jin liked his officers to wear coarse clothing. Therefore all his ministers wore [simple] sheepskin garments, carried their swords in [unadorned] leather girdles, and put on hats of plain cloth. Thus attired, they appeared before the ruler inside and walked around the court outside. What was the reason for this? It was because the ruler liked it and therefore the ministers could do it. Formerly, King Ling of Chu [ruled 530 to 527 B.C.] wanted people to have slender waists. Therefore all his ministers limited themselves to one meal a day. They exhaled before they tied their belts.... What was the reason for this? It was because the ruler liked it and therefore the ministers could do it.”
“This looks like ‘revolution from above’!”
“Wait! There is more. ‘Therefore Master Mo said: Now to eat little, to wear coarse clothing and to sacrifice one’s life for fame are things all people in the world consider difficult. But if the ruler likes them, the multitude can do them.... What difficulty is there in this (universal love)? Only the ruler does not make it his governmental measure and officers do not make it their conduct.’”
“This is definitely ‘revolution from above’! The Ruler only has to desire that a policy be carried out and voilà! He also mixes up the ‘ministers’ with the ‘multitude’. It's one thing to order the ministers to implement a policy, it's really quite another to think that the people will just obey and carry out the directions because ‘the ruler liked it.’
“Chan has a comment about this too Karl. He says “Universal love is promoted by Mohism because of its beneficial results. There is no conviction that it is dictated by the inherently good nature of man or by the inherent goodness of the act. Although Confucianism teaches love with distinctions, it also teaches love for all, but it does so on the grounds of moral necessity and of the innate goodness of man.’”
“Well that’s interesting. There seems some confusion in what Chan says, however. I can agree that the Mohist Maxim is at work here and not a belief in the innate goodness of humans but I must demur concerning Chan’s comment about the ‘inherent goodness of the act.’ That comment makes no sense to a Mohist because the ‘inherent goodness’ of an act just is the ‘benefits’ that result from it. The real question revolves around the nature of man, which is the basis for the Confucian critique.
“Mo thinks that there are historical examples of the practice of his philosophy. To the objection that his theory is impracticable, and that universal love and mutual benefit cannot be put into action he replies, “Ancient sage kings did practice them. How do we know this to be the case? In ancient times, when Yu [first ruler of the Xia Dynasty, he ruled c. 2183-2175 BC] was ruling the empire, he dug the West and the Yu-tou rivers in the west to release the water from the Chu-sun-huang River [he did similar works in the east, north and south]...in order to benefit the peoples of Ching, Chu, Kan, and Yueh and the barbarians of the south. This is the story of Yu’s accomplishments. This shows that my doctrine of universal love has been practiced.’”
“Chan finds another contrast with the Confucians here. ‘While Confucianists cited historical examples for inspiration and as models, Mozi cited them to show that his teachings had been demonstrated. The difference between the idealistic and practical approach is clear.’”
“For whatever reason it seems like a common practice to refer to tradition for authority even if your ideas are new. This is not a uniquely Chinese practice.”
“Here is another of Mo’s arguments: ‘In ancient times, when King Wen [first ruler of the Zhou Dynasty who ruled c. 1751-1739 BC] ruled the Western Land, he shone like the sun and the moon all over the four quarters as well as the Western Land. He did not permit a big state to oppress a small state, or the multitude to oppress the widow or widower, or the ruthless and powerful to rob people’s grains or livestock. Heaven recognized his deeds and visited him with blessings. Consequently, the old and childless were well adjusted and enjoyed their full life span, the lonely had opportunity to fulfill their work among mankind, and the orphaned had the support to grow up....It shows that my doctrine of universal love has been practiced.’”
“I need to make two comments here. ‘Heaven recognized his deeds, etc...’ seems too anthropomorphic for Chinese thought at least on the ‘sage’ level....”
“Wait up, Karl, the next section is all about ‘The Will of Heaven.”
“OK, then. My second comment is that it seems that universal love is just the construction of a welfare state. There is obviously more to it than that or the Confucians would not be so upset with Mo.”
“OK Karl, before turning to ‘The Will of Heaven”, Chapter 26 of the Mozi, I’ll let Mo have the last word on ‘Universal Love’: ‘If rulers of the world today really want the empire to be wealthy and hate to have it poor, want it to be orderly and hate to have it chaotic, they should practice universal love and mutual benefit. This is the way of the sage-kings and the principle of governing the empire, and it should not be neglected.’”
“Even today Mo’s words are worth listening to. The ‘rulers of the world today’ have no concern for these ideas. Instead, with their aggressive military plans, their failure to help the poor and starving throughout the world, their do nothing environmental and AIDS policies, they seem to be just like the rulers of Mo’s day, only out to aggrandize their own selfish interests (Cuba excepted since its history of extension of medical aid and moral support to oppressed people everywhere is well known).
“Here is what Mo has to say about ‘righteousness’ and ‘heaven’. ‘Now what does heaven want and what does heaven dislike? Heaven wants righteousness and dislikes unrighteousness. Therefore, in leading the people of the world to engage in practicing righteousness, I should be doing what heaven wants.’”
“We must, Fred, keep in mind that, ‘righteousness’, for Mo means his doctrine of Universal Love. This is not the same meaning that Confucius gave to the term. As Fung points out [Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy], the term for Confucius was a ‘categorical imperative’ (although this is not the correct term). Confucius just meant there are unalterable moral duties which must be done out of duty regardless of consequences. Of course, other considerations, as long as they are moral, can override what may seem to be, at first glance, a particular duty. Notice also Mo’s appeal to ‘heaven’. This is similar to claims made by Western religious leaders, usually when reason is not on their side.”
“Mo continues: ‘I say: With righteousness the world lives and without righteousness the world dies, with it the world becomes orderly and without it the world becomes chaotic. Now, Heaven wants to have the world live and dislikes to have it die, wants to have it rich and dislikes to have it poor, wants to have it orderly and dislikes to have it chaotic. Therefore I know Heaven wants righteousness and dislikes unrighteousness.’”
“This expresses Mo’s view all right, but is not a very good argument despite the ‘therefore.’ How do you know Heaven wants righteousness? Because righteousness makes the world live and Heaven wants the world to live, ergo. This is R=L, H=L | H=R. Something like Nazis like their mothers, so do communists, therefore communists like Nazis. So, besides being a poor argument, even were it a good argument it just pushes the problem back a step--i.e., how do you know Heaven wants the world to live (as opposed to being indifferent). Because Heaven likes righteousness? And Heaven likes righteousness because it wants the world to live? He is running around in a circle here. His argument for Universal Love will have to stand on its own merits which right now means an appeal to the benefits it will bring the world. Despite Mo’s plans there is no ‘divine’ or ‘heavenly’ sanction for the Mohist Maxim.”
“And Chan makes the following observation: ‘Even the will of Heaven and righteousness are explained in terms of practical results.’”
“Yes, but I think it important to look at the logic involved as well.”
“Now he says, ‘Moreover, righteousness is the standard. It is not to be given by the subordinate to the superior but be given from the superior to the subordinate. Therefore the common people should attend to their work with all their might, and should not forthwith set up the standard themselves.’”
“I am afraid we are about to discover the feudal limitations to Mo’s views.”
“Well Karl, he says, ‘Gentlemen of the world of course clearly understand that the emperor gives the standard to the three ministers, the several feudal lords, the minor officials, and the common people, but the common people of the world do not clearly understand that Heaven gives the standard to the emperor. Therefore the ancient sage-kings of the Three Dynasties [Xia, Shang, and Zhou]. Yu, Tang, and Wu, desiring to make it clear to the common people that Heaven gives the standard to the emperor, all fed oxen and sheep with grass and dogs and pigs with grain, and cleanly prepared pastry and wine to sacrifice to the Lord on High and spiritual beings and pray to Heaven for blessing. But I have not heard of Heaven praying to the emperor for blessing. I therefore know that Heaven gives the standard to the emperor. Thus the emperor is the most honorable in the world and the richest in the world. Therefore those who desire honor and wealth cannot but obey the will of Heaven.’”
“I don’t know about feeding grain to dogs, but this sounds like an accurate view of the feudal mentality at this time in China and even right up until a hundred or so years ago. At this time the Greeks already were experimenting with democracy and letting the common people [hoi polloi] have their say. The Chinese are thinking more along the lines of the Persians. I think this shows the advantages of the city state or polis over larger territorial entities. Meanwhile notice all this ‘Heaven’ and ‘spiritual beings’ talk. Unlike Confucius, Mo is trying to give an aura of popular religion, quite foreign to the sentiments of most educated Chinese, to his philosophy. This is a real violation of the Prime Directive of Philosophy [only use Reason].”
“The Mozi goes on: ‘Well, how did Yu, Tang, Wen, and Wu obtain rewards? Mozi said: On the highest level they honored Heaven, on the middle level they served spiritual beings, and on the lower level they loved the people. Therefore the will of Heaven proclaimed, “They love universally those whom I love. They benefit universally those whom I benefit. Such love of people is really universal and such benefit to people is really substantial.” Therefore Heaven caused them to have the honor of being Sons of Heaven and possess the wealth of the whole empire.’”
“More religious coloring.”
“Even more coming up because now we see what happens to bad rulers! ‘Well how did Jie [last of the Xia dynasty], Zhou, Yu [R. 781-771 BC], and Li [R. 878-842 BC] incur punishment? Mozi said: On the highest level they blasphemed against Heaven, on the middle level they blasphemed against spiritual beings, and on the lower level they injured the people. Therefore the will of Heaven proclaimed, “They set themselves apart from those whom I love and hated them. They injure all those whom I benefit. Such hatred of people is really universal and such injury to people is really substantial.” Therefore Heaven caused them not to live out their life-span or to survive their generation.’”
“And what conclusions can be drawn from all this?”
“It's as Mo says--the ruler must follow righteousness i.e., practice universal love. Not doing so means that one has to rule by means of violence against the people! This leads to your undoing. Therefore following Mo’s philosophy ‘is beneficial to Heaven on the highest level, beneficial to spiritual beings on the middle level, and beneficial to man on the lower level. Being beneficial to these three means being beneficial to all. Therefore the whole world gives them a good name and calls them sage-kings.’ As for those bad rulers that go against Heaven, spiritual beings, and the people, ‘Not being beneficial to these three means not being beneficial to all. Therefore the whole world gives them a bad name and calls them wicked kings.’”
“I can’t think of any other Chinese philosopher who made such a pitch to religion. Mo was obviously trying to spread his ideas to the common people, not the educated elite!”
“Chan would agree with you Karl. His comment on all this is as follows: ‘In teaching obedience to the will of Heaven, Mozi was the most religious of ancient Chinese philosophers’”
“Unless he was a hypocrite.”
“A hypocrite? Why would you say that?”
“Listen to what Fung says about this. ‘Mozi’s proof of the existence of spirits is done primarily in order that he may introduce a religious sanction for his doctrine of all-embracing love, rather than because of any real interest in supernatural matters.’ He then quotes a passage not found in Chan’s book. This is from Chapter 31 of the Mozi: ‘If now all the people of the world could be made to believe that the spirits can reward the good and punish the bad, would the world then be in chaos?’ On the basis of this Fung concludes that Mo’s ‘doctrine of the Will of God and the existence of spirits is only to induce people to believe that they will be rewarded if they practice all-embracing love, and punished if they do not. Such a belief among the people was something useful; hence Mozi wanted it.’”
“That is highly speculative. Fung can’t know what Mo really thought. Are we not bound to respect the text, everything else being equal?”
“Oh, I think so. The Prime Directive and the text are all we have to go on. But it would not be, if Fung is right anyway, the only instance of a philosopher, or religious leader, telling one thing to hoi polloi while having another doctrine--the ‘real’ doctrine--for his followers.”
“The next selection in Chan is from Chapter 35 and he calls it ‘Attack on Fatalism. Pt. 1’. “
“This is the Chinese word “ming” which we translate as fate. “
“Yes, and Mozi used it to describe people both he and we would call ‘fatalists.’ Why do anything since Fate has already determined everything that will happen?”
“Those people are like those who think that since God is all powerful everything that happens happens according to His will. Some Marxists are like that too. Since ‘socialism’ is inevitable all we have to do is sit back and wait for it to happen. Another word we could use is ‘determinism.’ Everything is determined by the laws of nature and the previous state of the universe so we really can’t do anything except what has been predestined or predetermined. That, Fred, pretty much catches what Mo means by ming.”
“Well Mo does not approve of them. He says, ‘With this doctrine they tried to persuade the kings, dukes, and great officials above and to prevent the common people from doing their work. Therefore the fatalists are not men of humanity. Their doctrine must be clearly examined.’”
“I remember this. Mo puts forth a scientific procedure for looking at knowledge claims. Very advanced for his time.”
“That it is. He says that in order to examine a doctrine or knowledge claim some ‘standard’ must be adopted. Actually, he will have three standards. ‘For any doctrine some standard must be adopted. To expound a doctrine without a standard is like determining the directions of sunrise and sunset on a revolving potter’s wheel. In this way the distinction of right and wrong and benefit and harm cannot be clearly known. Therefore for any doctrine there must be the three standards. What are the three standards? Mozi said:  There must be a basis or foundation.  There must be an examination.  And there must be practical application.  Where to find the basis? Find it in the [will of Heaven and the spirits] the experiences of the ancient sage-kings above.  How is it to be examined? It is to be examined by inquiring into the actual experience of the eyes and ears of the people below.  How to apply it? Put it into law and governmental measures and see if they bring about benefits to the state and the people. These are called the three standards.’”
“This is a very good passage Fred. It could be updated to apply to the Chinese government today .”
“Well,  would be replaced by the experiences of the international communist and worker’s movements as well as what happens when you join the World Bank and the IMF.  This means that there should be more democratic procedures by which the masses of the Chinese people can get their opinions taken into consideration. I’m not saying the Party has to back off, but that it should be more inclusive and democratic.  This can stand as it is!”
“Chan agrees with this procedure. I think he calls it ‘pragmatic’. You can see the Mohist Maxim at work in  and his religious views in . I can see why the Chinese government of today would have to change that. Chan actually says this is a ‘surprisingly scientific procedure: basis, examination, and application.’”
“Does he say anything else about fatalism, Fred?”
“He ends the discussion by reiterating the dangers of the idea and that human action is not all that important. He really opposes the “que será,será” attitude. ‘If the doctrine of the fatalist is put into practice, the ruler above would not attend to government, and the people below would not attend to their work.’ He is also upset because he says the religious duties won’t be carried out either. Why bother if you are a fatalist? ‘Therefore on the higher level fatalism is not beneficial to heaven, on the middle level it is not beneficial to spiritual beings, and on the lower level it is not beneficial to men. The unreasoning adherence to this doctrine is the source of evil ideas and the way of the wicked man. Therefore Mozi said: If the gentlemen of the world today really want the world to be rich and dislike it to be poor, and want the world to be orderly and dislike it to be chaotic, they must condemn the doctrine of fatalism. It is a great harm to the world.’”
“I can tell you that if you were a contemporary Mohist you would think the gentlemen of today in our new century do not really want the world to be rich rather than poor, nor do they dislike its being chaotic.”
“How so, Karl?”
“Because our so-called leaders don’t apply the Mohist Maxim to the problems confronting mankind today. Take the position of universal love for example. We have to think of all peoples and nations the same way--try to show love and understanding to everyone. This would mean in our own country that Blacks and Hispanics as well as whites, Amerindians, and others would all be the same--really not in just theory. Yet our leaders are still playing games with affirmative action, equal access to jobs and education. This shows they prefer evil ideas to universal love. There would also have to be an end to all the nonsense about ‘illegal aliens’ and hunting poor people down on the borders and trying to deport them. That doesn’t show any kind of universal love. The leaders would have to provide medical care and medicines, and housing, and education, and decent food for everyone without worrying that this might conflict with the so-called ‘rights’ of certain people or corporations to make money at the expense of these services not being available to everyone on an ‘as needed’ basis. This is all demanded in the name of ‘universal love.’ The military would have to go too. We have to share all the world's goodies with all the people of the world--love demands nothing less. That means the Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East have to start loving each other--and it is up to the leaders to set the example for the people to follow. The land has to be shared and in fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians, as well as Buddhists and others have to get together on one religion for everyone.”
“What can I say. Anything that divides the people and causes hatred and violence contradicts universal love and must go. Different religions do just that. Remember the Mohist Maxim. ‘Consider what benefits we conceive our belief to have., etc.’ If the gentlemen of today really want a peaceful and caring world they have to get together and start practicing universal love. But I think you would agree that they really only care about their own nations and groups and within their own groups and the rich and powerful only want to perpetuate their own selfish interests. Therefore a contemporary Mohist would be most upset with the gentlemen of today.”
“Did you say ‘Mohist’ or ‘Maoist’?”
“I know. But I said ‘Mohist.’ We will discuss Mao some other time and see if your snide comment is justified.”
“Now there are six more points which Chan thinks are important for a good understanding of Mohism.”
“So let’s get on with it. What is the first?”
“We discussed his ‘utilitarianism’ or ‘pragmatism’ before, but we should note these additional quotes. ‘Mozi said: Any word or action that is beneficial to Heaven, spiritual beings, and the people is to be undertaken.... Any doctrine that can elevate conduct should be perpetuated....In issuing orders, promoting any undertaking, employing the people, or expending wealth, the sage-kings in their administration never do anything that is not useful. Therefore re- sources are not wasted and the people can be freed from being overworked, and many benefits will be promoted....’”
“Again, this shows the Chinese penchant of trying to justify the ideas of the present by an appeal to the way things were done in the past. This is not just a Chinese trait! I think this quote agrees with my views about contemporary Mohism expressed a little while ago. What is the second point?”
“The second point is his condemnation of war. Mo hated war even though he was in the professional mercenary class! He would only fight defensive wars. As far as war is concerned, He wrote: ‘The multitude are injured and oppressed and the people are scattered.... Does it mean to benefit the people? The benefit to the people from killing the people of Heaven is slight indeed! And calculate the cost! This is the root of destruction of life. It exhausts the people to an immeasurable degree. Thus... no benefit to the people can be attained.’”
“Mo may have been the most concerned for the welfare of the common people, at least in this respect, than any of the ancient philosophers--east or west! What is the third point?”
“This is his condemnation of music. He talks about music, but you could extend his critique to art as such, all forms of art. Again he sounds like Mao. That’s why I asked you ‘Mo or Mao’?”
“Ok, Ok! What’s the passage?”
“’The reason why Mozi condemns music is not because the sounds of the big bells, resounding drums, harps and pipes are not delightful.... But set against the past it is not in accord with the deeds of the sage-kings and checked with the present it is not in accord with the benefits of the people. Therefore Mozi said: To engage in music is wrong.... To levy heavy taxes on the people in order to produce the sounds of big bells, resounding drums, harps, and pipes does not help the promotion of benefits and the removal of harms in the world.... Now kings, dukes, and great officials engage in music. To strike musical instruments they loot the people’s resources for food and clothing to such an extent.... Now kings, dukes, and great officials love music and listen to it, they certainly cannot go to court early and retire late in order to listen to litigations and administer the government. Therefore the country is in chaos and the state in danger.... Therefore Mozi said: To engage in music is wrong.’”
“Well, Fred, the condemnation is not against music per se. I can see no objection to folk music or the music the peasants might be playing in the villages. He is attacking the exploitation of the people by the court in order to support the official music [and art] productions of the state. This even sounds a little Daoist. Under appropriate non-exploitative social arrangements, even Mo would approve of music as ‘delightful’. This is the Mohist Maxim again. If we could create a society where music was beneficial and not based on exploitation of the people, I can’t see why a modern Mohist would object. As far as your reference to Mao, this was the original intention of Mao, however it may have turned out.”
“The fourth point is the condemnation of elaborate funerals. ‘Now the gentlemen of the world still doubt whether elaborate funerals and extended mourning are right or wrong, beneficial or harmful. Therefore Mozi said: I have inquired into the matter.... So, much wealth is buried in elaborate funerals and long periods of work are suspended in extended mourning. Wealth that is already produced is carried to be buried and wealth yet to be produced is long delayed. To seek wealth in this way is like seeking a harvest by stopping farming....’”
“This is very much in tune with his condemnation of music. Archaeologists won’t like this point! What’s the fifth point?”
“This is a point about who should be getting government positions. ‘How do we know elevating the worthy is the foundation of government? The answer is: When the honorable and the wise run the government, the ignorant and the humble remain orderly, but when the ignorant and the humble run the government, the honorable and the wise become rebellious. Therefore we know that elevating the worthy is the foundation of government.’”
“Very good, Fred. But who are the ‘honorable and wise’?”
“Who? I’ll tell you. They are the practitioners of universal love. That is, they should be. They should be true sages and philosophers. So Mo is saying just what Plato said. Philosophers should be the ones running the show! And of course the Confucians would be in agreement with Mo. Only instead of Mohist sages, Confucian sages would be in charge.”
“But who would be the true sages?”
“I’ll let you decide. We have covered some Confucians: Kongzi (Confucius) himself, Mengzi (Mencius) and he attacked Mo’s views on universal love, and we have discussed Xunzi to see whose arguments appear the better.”
“Well, Karl, here is our sixth and last point. Chan calls it ‘Agreement with the Superior.’ I’m not sure Mo looks too good in this section.”
“Let’s get with it!”
“He says: ‘Now, the frequent arrival of hurricanes and torrents are the punishment from Heaven upon the people for their failure to agree with Heaven....’”
“Yes, that is very bad, very superstitious. Like blaming God for the Lisbon earthquake in Voltaire’s day. This is retrograde compared to Confucius and Xunzi. This really calls in question Fung’s apologetics concerning Mo’s belief in the supernatural.”
“Now we get an answer to the question ‘How do we know that the principle of agreement with the superior can be used to govern the empire?’ This principle is important to Mo who after all was the supremo of a band of warriors and who definitely thought in terms of military obedience to the ‘superior.’ We get this answer from a consideration of Mo’s theory of the beginning of government.”
“This should be interesting!”
“Mo thinks that originally people did not have rulers. Everybody had their own way of doing things and their own moral and ethical system. ‘All of them considered their own concepts of right as correct and other people’s concepts as wrong. And there was strife among the strong and quarrels among the weak. Thereupon Heaven wished to unify all concepts of right in the world. The worthy were therefore selected and made emperor.’ The emperor then selected the ministers who then divided up the land and created the feudal lords all in the furtherance of better government since the emperor could not do everything by himself.”
“This sounds like the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ in so far as it appears that ‘Heaven’ somehow chose the emperor and while all other authority is delegated from him, his rests on that original choice. The ‘Mandate of Heaven’ is due to the desire of ‘Heaven’--Mo’s anthropomorphic god concept-- to have only one universal standard of ‘right’ prevail. Just like the Christians and others following Augustine’s views that there is a universal standard ‘God’s Will’.
“Muslims and Jews too, Karl.”
“Everybody gets into the act. At least Mo appeals to his utilitarian principles of benefit so that the sages have to figure out Heaven’s will. He doesn’t maintain that ‘Heaven” or its representatives came down and told him what its will was.”
“Yes, but if the sage gets it wrong there is Zeus with his thunderbolt!”
“Finish the passage.”
“’The feudal lords, realizing their inadequate wisdom and ability to govern the lands within the four borders by themselves, selected the next best in virtue.... Therefore, in appointing the three ministers, the feudal lords, the great officers, the prime minister, the village elders, and the heads of households, the emperor of old did not select them because of their wealth, high position, or leisure, but employed them to assist in bringing political order and administering the government.... When order prevails in the empire, the emperor further unifies all concepts of right as one in the empire and makes it agree with [the will of] Heaven. Therefore the principle of agreement with the superior can be applied by the emperor to govern the empire, by the feudal lords to govern the state, and the heads of households to govern the family....’”
“I remember Chan’s saying that many thought this smacked of absolutism. It reminds me of the Führerprinzip in a way, only it’s Heaven rather than a plebiscite that determines the ruler--but then vox populi, vox dei.”
“I thought you liked Mo’s views.”
“I like some of them. This Führerprinzip is not one of them. But, I suppose that it derives from the ideal of a sage king who understands the will of Heaven. This could also reflect back negatively on Plato’s philosopher kings.”
“Listen, Karl, Chan plays down the absolutism. After all, that's a concern of modern times not ancient China with its emperor system. Although I can see how some people might think of Mao again--with the will of the Party rather than the will of Heaven. Or was Mao’s will the will of the Party rather than the other way around?”
“Well, I suppose the saving grace here is that it is not a subjective will which is at stake. Philosophy is called in to determine what is the best thing to do to promote the general good (by definition the will of Heaven) and this is to be objectively determined by the sage or philosopher king. So it’s really not absolutism in the sense of the personal will of the ruler. So Mo, Mao and Plato may be off the hook!”
“Well, that's it for the Mozi selections in Chan. Who's next?”
“I think we should look at Daoism and discuss Laozi.”
“Fine. Let's do him next"
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.
To read the Confucius Dialogue click here.
To read the Mencius Dialogue click here.
To read the Xunzi Dialogue click here.
After he had an article published in Collier’s magazine, Phillip Bonosky returned to Duquesne, Pennsylvania, the steel town where he had grown up. A fellow worker had shown his father the article, and few working class people in the town had ever had anything published. In a recent conversation, Bonosky told me that his mother, who spoke Lithuanian and had been cook and housekeeper, never talking much about anything, now came to him and sang him a song in Lithuanian – a song about the suffering of immigrants. He was a writer, she said, and she wanted him to write for her, for the immigrants for the people who could often neither write nor read.
The notion of the role of a writer that Bonosky’s mother conveyed was different than the ideal of 'modernist' subjectivist literature, writing for yourself, and impressing others with your imagination that even then was being championed by establishment literary critics. As the modern working class developed with the rise of industrial capitalism, first in Europe and North America in the 19th century, workers fought for literacy and education, traditionally the privileges of ruling classes and their servants. Capitalists needed a workforce with basic skills, but not workers that would think for themselves. As mass literacy developed, capitalist societies produced a popular media and literature. Both were commercial, formalist, escapist and either denied the existence of working-class life or portrayed it in the most sordid terms, as most movies and television programs continue to do today.
However, there were writers who sought to explore capitalist class relations and understand through fiction the lives of working people. Called realists, they included the 19th century French writers Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, the 20th century US writers Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair and Jack London and many others.
After the Soviet Revolution, working class literature, there called socialist realist literature, became the center of art and culture in a country whose diverse peoples, particularly in the countryside, were largely illiterate. Just as the class struggle between the capitalist system and the socialist world movement reached a higher level with the establishment of the Soviet Union, the war over art and literature, over its exchange and use value, reached a higher level in the 1920s and 1930s.
'Proletarian literature' or 'social realist' literature flourished in the US and other developed countries not under fascist control in the 1930s and 1940s. Such literature was literally publicly burned by the Nazis when they took power in Germany in 1933. It came under relentless attack as 'inferior,' 'party line,' and 'agit-prop,' by elitist conservatives and various rivals of the Communist movement on the left. As one example, the Partisan Review, a magazine originally founded to promote working-class literature in the 1930s, soon shifted editorial views and advanced what one might call anti-realist writers and artists, those who took the 'arts for arts sake' philosophy of the conservatives and turned it into subjectivist expression, action without content, language and situations that shocked for the sake of shocking, became the darlings of the critics, right, left and center, who formed an 'anti-Social-Realist United Front' in the cold war era. By the Cold War period, Partisan Review was aligned with the US government-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom.
In the midst of this ferment, Phillip Bonosky was a proletarian writer. Growing up in an immigrant steelworker family in Western Pennsylvania, he got himself a library card for the children’s division of the local Carnegie library at age five. (Andrew Carnegie fancied himself a benefactor of the workers his steel company exploited and endowed libraries to improve his image.)
Bonosky published a poem in his school newspaper at the age of ten, which led to his becoming 'joke editor' of the newspaper. He later recalled that an African American student whom he got his first joke from really was denied the position, an early introduction to the pervasive racism of the society.
Eventually he got his adult card at the Carnegie library and began to read journals like the Nation, the New Republic and the Bookman, liberal journals, which, at the time, constantly criticized Communist actions without explaining their positions. This made him interested in what Communists had to say. He became high school class poet, but there wasn’t much of a future for a working-class youth outside of the mines and the mills, and the coming of the depression took away even that future. Bonosky realized that there had to be a deeper answer to what was happening beyond denouncing Herbert Hoover and demanding help, which his family and most working people were doing.
Bonosky joined large numbers of unemployed youth to ride the rails in the early 1930s, and eventually found himself in Washington, DC, living in a warehouse for transients that the early Roosevelt administration had provided. He already a had strong interest in the left and Communist movements, in the steel town from which he came. No one would openly proclaim themselves to be Communists because of the likely results – firing and blacklisting at best, terroristic company violence at worst. In Washington he met Communists and others seeking to organize working class struggle.
Like a hero in a Charles Dickens novel, Bonosky then met a 'patron,' a progressive social worker named Ann Terry White. (Ironically, White was the wife of Harry Dexter White, a prominent New Dealer, vilified to this day as a Communist and Soviet agent, even though he was the chief US negotiator at the Bretton Woods Conference creating the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). White helped Bonosky first get into Wilson College in DC (a free college) and then into a small job with the New Deal’s resettlement administration.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Bonosky wanted to join the anti-fascist brigades, but his attempts to get a visa from the State Department failed. He formally joined the Communist Party USA in 1938, which had organized the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and led most anti-fascist activities.
As a local leader of the Workers’ Alliance in Washington, D.C., which represented workers in the major New Deal relief program, Works Progress Administration (WPA), Bonosky, along with other local leaders, met with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House to discuss the administration’s cuts in WPA programs. He later participated in a public forum on the issue where Mrs. Roosevelt and he were on opposite sides. Subsequently, she gave him a check for $50s for the Workers’ Alliance and told him keep her gift a secret, itself a comment on the tenuous but productive center-left politics of the New Deal era. Bonosky never cashed the check because he did not have a bank account. Of course, few working-class people, not to mention Communists, ever, before or after, were invited to have tea with the First Lady in the White House.
Red-baiting was always a part of the world that Bonosky knew even in the best of times. Even before the Cold War, the State Department discriminated against anti-fascists, and right-wing vigilantes used the press and congressional committees to attack the left and purge New Deal agencies. The onset of the Cold War, however, gave it much more virulent form as 'new' Cold War liberal Democrats joined Southern segregationists and Republicans to support legislation that repress the CPUSA and intimidate all potential allies on the left.
By this time, Bonosky was an open Communist. But keeping one’s membership a secret was no guarantee of safety. He recalled that red-baiters particularly targeted both those who were not open members along with CPUSA leaders whom they sought to imprison.
During the Cold War, his writing and publications flourished. The Burning Valley, rediscovered today as a major proletarian novel, was published in 1953. Its story deals with workers’ struggles in the Pennsylvania coal fields. The Burning Valley was reprinted in 1998 as part of The Radical Novel Reconsidered Series, published by the University of Illinois Press. A number of novels authored by current and former members of the Communist Party were also re-published as part of this series. The Magic Fern, published in 1960, is a less appreciated and perhaps more significant work. It tells the story of steel workers’ organizing struggles in Pennsylvania. It openly talks about the role of Communist Party members in those struggles and responds to Cold War hysteria by showing how anti-Communism divides and weakens the workers’ movements. Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be reprinted. Bonosky also wrote a major non-fiction work, Brother Bill McKie, a biography of the remarkable Communist trade unionist and UAW founder.
Government agents stepped up their efforts to spy on Americans during the Cold war. Communist and left publications of all sorts lost large numbers of subscribers when it became known that federal, state and local police agencies stole or unscrupulously acquired subscriber lists. Just as workers in the pre-New Deal period had the 'right' to form unions and employers had the right to use blacklists and break those unions, so in the Cold War period the CPUSA remained 'legal' (though many of its leaders were imprisoned), and people had the 'right' to read Communist and left publications, even though subscribing or even being seen with those publications might led to police home visits, loss of jobs, and blacklisting.
After a decade of such actions, the official story in the US became that the Communist Party, left trade unionism and proletarian literature and the working class itself had 'ceased to exist' and US society had been transformed into a de-politicized suburban utopia, or dystopia, depending on how you look at it.
Bonosky refused to become a political turncoat or drop out into obscurity in the long period of political repression that followed World War II. Rather than a hindrance, his Communist Party commitment enabled him to continue to grow as a writer and an activist, to travel widely in the socialist countries, and reach an international audience. Still, most US critics treated him exactly the way they asserted the Communists treated all writers who didn’t toe the party line.
During the Cold War period particularly, both establishment and 'loyal left opposition' (found in journals like The Partisan Review, Dissent and Commentary) critics either celebrated repentant ex-Communist writers or looked favorably on those who gave up on politics or social content in their work. One should remember that the CIA’s first great moment as an impresario in the arts was the funding of the publication of a book titled The God That Failed, a collection of remembrances of former Communist writers, edited by the British laborite Richard Crossman. CIA sources funded its translation into many languages as well. Also, the CIA helped fund the creation of the World Congress for Cultural Freedom as well as various cultural journals of the 'democratic left' through the world to fight Communist and anti-imperialist writers, artists and organizations. George Orwell’s 1984, which gave the world such terms as 'unperson,' 'thought police,' and 'newspeak' were also disseminated globally by CIA connected sources at the same time that they used these 'Orwellian' methods on Communist and left writers who refused to toe the 'anti-party line' in the United States. At the height of domestic cold war repression, Bonosky joined with Charles Humboldt, Annette Rubenstein, Herbert Aptheker, Walter Lowenfels and others to publish Mainstream, a left journal of the arts which continued the people’s art and culture traditions of the New Masses. At this time, Bonsoky directed a Harlem writers workshop which included John Oliver Killens, Alice Childress, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry and Lonnie Elder III, along with other men and women who would become prominent in African American literature and theater in the postwar era. This was at a time when the publishing venues available for African American and women poets and writers were still severely restricted.
One of Mainstream’s important contributions was to nurture African American writers and artists along with educating readers about the cultural dimension of the global struggle against imperialism and for peace, which was the world’s 'mainstream' in the 1950s, however much US cold warriors may have denied it.
Unfortunately Mainstream has never really gotten the recognition it deserves for this still largely unwritten history. In research for this article, I found a tender tribute from Robin Washington in a Duluth newspaper. Washington’s father, an African American poet, had hoped to publish his poetry based on his experience in World War II with the help of a recommendation from Robert Frost. After a tangled series of events, the publication fell through and his father returned to business, never really getting the chance to write and publish the poetry that was his first love. Following his father’s death, Robin Washington accidentally threw out his father’s manuscript, and really was mortified. But, with the help of the Internet, he was able to find that some of the poetry that had been published in Mainstream in 1960. It also reconnected Washington with his father and gave his father’s poetry a place in history.
Bonosky continued to write widely about the fate of US literature and his work is still quoted and cited in scholarly studies of US literature, particularly his analysis of the general corrupting effects of the Cold War, commercialism and contemporary imperialism. In 1983 he published a book titled Afghanistan: Washinton’s Secret War, which was based on his time in Afghanistan as the Moscow correspondent for the People’s World, the newspaper of the Communist Party USA. It is an invaluable source for understanding the disasters that Reagan administration policy created first for the people of Afghanistan and then later for the people of the region and the US.
In the Afghanistan that Bonosky experienced in the 1980s, there were trade unions, schools for men and women and women without veils working in traditionally male-dominated jobs. The 'democracy' and attempts at 'modernization' that the Bush administration says it champions today were a reality. But Reagan and the first Bush administrations spent billions to arm and incite those who would become both the Taliban government and Al Qaeda in the service of overturning the Communist-led government there and to fight the Soviets that aided them.
Although Bonosky was born in 1916, when Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President on the phony slogan, 'he kept us out of war,' he remains active and optimistic today. While he still sees the working class largely missing in official US literature and culture and is dismayed by what he sees as an imperialist arrogance that has trickled down in the society, that is, everyone else has to 'learn' from the United States, he continues to see in the working class and in its literary tradition, one that Bonosky and many of his contemporaries share with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, a road to freedom and eventually to socialism.
Although bourgeois literary criticism has long sought to add insult to HUAC-McCarthyite injury by contending that Bonosky and other proletarian writers and artists ceased to function after the 1950s, I discovered in my research for this article an amusing sidelight. Today there are Internet 'term paper mills' which sell term papers on every conceivable topic to students who then turn them in as their own. I found that someone can access a paper on the work of Phillip Bonosky for a literature class, a sort of left-handed compliment from a capitalist system that will seek to literally profit from the work of those it cannot effectively silence.
Although he first began to write on butcher paper when he was a child, Bonosky’s pen, typewriter and word processor remain dedicated to providing a voice for the working class from which he came and whose interests he has dedicated himself to. In his lack of dogmatism and deep sensitivity to the diversity and dignity of working people, Phillip Bonosky continues to be a model working class intellectual and artist.
Norman Markowitz teaches history at Rutgers University and was a contributing editor of Political Affairs Magazine.
This article was first published in Political Affairs.
Media jubilation reached a climax in Berlin on Nov. 9th, 2019, thirty years after the bumbling, perhaps even misunderstood decision to open the gate for all East Germans to stream through, hasten to the nearest West Berlin bank for their “welcome present” of 100 prized West German marks, and taste the joys of the western free market system.
Within less than a year, they would end the experiment known as the German Democratic Republic to join and fully enjoy, the wealthy, healthy, prosperous united Germany, with its freedom of the press, speech, travel, and consumer bliss.
The jubilation of thirty years ago is easy to understand and to sympathize with. The ability, whenever and as often as desired, to meet and celebrate with friends and relatives sufficed to bring tears to many, many eyes and the almost universal cries of “Wahnsinn!”—“Simply crazy!”
But moving as those scenes were, and happy to so many in their recollections, a history-based, sterner evaluation awakens doubts that, despite the paeans in the world media, this was not purely a peaceful revolution, a choice of freedom by the masses, another successful victory for freedom and justice as in past centuries. We recall that revolutions are complex, that the American Revolution was followed by Shay’s Rebellion, a bolstering of slavery, and a bloody six-year war which forced most Indians from Ohio. The short era of Robespierre meant almost a year in prison for Tom Paine. And enthusiastic crowds can also make very false judgments.
East Germans soon learned that freedom of the press was for those who owned the presses, that freedom of speech helped most those who ruled over studios and cable connections. Most tellingly, they learned very quickly that those 100 West-marks were soon spent and new ones, for all those glistening commodities and travels, had somehow to be earned, while over 95% of the industry they had built up was taken over by Westerners and, robbed of any machinery of value, for the most part, shut down. It was now very simple to move westwards; several million did, now not for freedom, consumer goods, or better-paid jobs but for any job at all.
Professors, teachers, scientists, journalists, and administrators at every level were thrown out, replaced by second- and third-string West Germans who were certain they could do everything better—and got “bush bonuses“ for making the sacrifice of taking over East Germany. For workers, the wage level today is still below that in the West, while jobless figures and the length of the workweek for those now finding a job are both above the figures in the West.
The victory thirty years ago brought other changes. The old GDR had, until the end, no drug problem, almost no AIDS, no organized crime, no school shootings, none of the free food banks now so prevalent, since people in the GDR, while lacking food items like oranges, bananas, and other southern imports, all had enough to eat. Nor was there anyone in those years begging or sleeping in the streets, since there were always jobs a-plenty and evictions were illegal. So was any discrimination against women, who got equal pay, at least a half-year paid maternal leave, free abortions, cheap summer vacations and summer camps, and one paid day off a month for household duties.
Oh yes, there were blunders a-plenty—stupidity, careerism, dogmatism. Envy and greed could not be eradicated from the human soul, but with almost no feverish competition, they were lessened, as the polls found. True, where people gained positions of power they were as capable of misusing it as elsewhere. Nor could all the remnants of fascist poison be erased from 16 million heads in one or two generations. But they were forbidden, and those with racist thoughts and prejudices kept them to themselves or within their closest circles, while truly masterful films, books, and plays endeavored to combat them. Today, Nazi thugs march every weekend, and the pro-fascist Alternative for Germany party has 94 seats in the Bundestag and won second place in three state elections.
Here we hit on the main problem with the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. The GDR had thrown out—lock, stock, and barrel—all the giant cartels and monopolies which profited from World War I, built up Hitler when, during the Depression, working people became rebellious, then earned billions from slave labor during World War II, and, after 1945, regained immense wealth and power.
In the West, Bayer and BASF, major perpetrators of Auschwitz, are on top of the chemical pile, worldwide now with Monsanto. Powerful old fascist fat cats like Daimler (Mercedes) and Quandt (BMW) are cheating the environmentalists, Rheinmetall and Heckler & Co. are again making billions with their tanks and guns and missiles. All their properties were confiscated by the GDR—which is why they hated it and conspired against it, successfully. Also because the GDR, as opposed to its rival in Bonn (capital of West Germany), supported the Algerians in their fight for freedom, Allende against Pinochet, Mandela and the ANC and SWAPO in Africa, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, and freedom fighters everywhere from Nicaragua to Aden.
The very existence of the GDR represented a barrier against further expansion by the Bayers with their control of ever more seed sources and their destruction of natural life, from frogs and butterflies to orchids, cacti and rain forests, but also against weapons makers who desire nothing more than further world tension, especially with Russia and China, the two main remaining barriers to world hegemony of the billionaires.
After 1945 and until 1990, no uniformed Germans were shooting presumed enemies anywhere in the world. With the GDR out of the way, the Bundeswehr, Germany’s army, flew missions and dropped bombs in the mountains of Afghanistan and trained soldiers in the desert sands of Mali—after beginning by bombing Serbia, repeating Germany’s crimes in two world wars.
United Germany’s Minister of Defense, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who hopes to become chancellor, has demanded that Germany play a far bigger role in today’s world and plans a big build-up of weapons to achieve this. She found smiling support from Secretary of State Pompeo, who came to Berlin and joined in the hallelujahs for the victory of democracy thirty years earlier. Yes, Pompeo!
The GDR had countless faults and limitations, caused by poor leadership—mostly aged anti-fascist fighters, trying to save the endeavor to achieve socialism in at least this small corner of Germany, but overtaken by modern developments and never able to find rapport with large sections of a vacillating population tempted by daily TV images of a wonderful world in the Golden West, which had been built up to become one of the world’s richest countries.
The GDR was battered by a world of problems from all sides, domestic and foreign, pressured into “arming itself to the death” militarily, limited by the giant costs of the new electronic, computer age, with no help from the east and a boycott by the west, plus its giant humanitarian project—supplying good, modern homes for everyone while keeping rents to about one-tenth of income.
In the end, the odds were against it. But just as a World Series victory by the Washington Nationals did not mean that team was morally better but simply that at the time it was stronger, the defeat of the GDR did not mean that the system it was trying to develop, strengthen, and improve—socialism—was proven false by its defeat.
The opening of the Berlin War was seen then and is still regarded by many as a wonderful victory. Looking around today’s deteriorating situation in Germany and much of Europe, with fascist movements on the rise and world-destroying weapons deployed and maneuvering dangerously, one might well recall the words of the Greek general Pyrrhus. After beating the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BCE, but with terrible losses for his own troops, he is quoted as saying: “Another such victory and we are lost!”
Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. His books available in English: Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. His latest book, A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, reasons for the fall of socialism, and importance of today's struggles.
This article was first published in People’s World on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Part 1 coming April 4th.
Next week, the Ghosts of Plum Run Hour discusses the two meetings between Abraham Lincoln & August Willich, leader of 1848-49 revolutionary armies in Europe. The first meeting was on February 12, 1861, when Lincoln’s inaugural train tour took him to Cincinnati, where Willich delivered a speech in Lincoln’s honor. The speech was published in German and English that day in the newspaper Willich edited, the Cincinnati Republikaner. The second meeting was at the White House on May 8, 1863, Willich now a brigadier general in the Union Army, recently released from Confederate prison after being captured at the Battle of Murfreesboro December 31, 1862. Willich had just spent 4 months on trains and in prisons in the heart of the Confederacy, and Lincoln wanted to hear from him about it.
Our two experts are David Dixon, author of the very first biography of August Willich, Radical Warrior - August Willich’s journey from German Revolutionary to Union General, and Andrew Zimmerman, editor of the most recent edition of Marx & Engels’ writings on the The Civil War in the United States - Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
At the time of the White House meeting, Karl Marx was researching Das Kapital while writing about our Civil War in newspapers and to Engels. Time had cast the 1848 comrades to the four winds long ago. Communism split after the 1848 revolutions between Willich and Marx, and it was not just political. A Schapper-Willich wing faced off briefly against a Marx-Engels wing over control of the Communist League in London, specifically over how to continue the revolution in Germany. The Schapper-Willich wing was more popular, largely because of Willich’s deeds on the battlefield, which Willich promised to resume immediately. Marx had deduced that scientific socialism declared Willich’s zeal for acts, military and otherwise, was a window which had closed, and would not reopen until the dialectic said it would reopen. This is how Willich achieved the title “The Reddest of the Red”; Willich was too radical for Marx. During this split, things got very personal. Jennie Marx called Willich’s repeated attempts to bed her as “trying to coax out the worm that exists in every marriage.” Years later at the White House, oceans and more than a decade traveled, it was Willich seated across from a head of state with his sabre, having survived capital’s prisons to report on them to his president.
Lincoln actually mentions his meeting with the Reddest of the Red in a dispatch, the same day, to his latest failed commander of the Army of Potomac, General Joseph Hooker. Hooker had just suffered the most humiliating defeat of the entire war, the Battle of Chancellorsville, considered Robert E. Lee’s greatest masterpiece and where Stonewall Jackson’s myth takes hold by his death at the hands of his own men’s fire. Willich, entering the White House that day May 8, two days after Chancellorsville ended, would have certainly heard the blame landing as it always did on the German immigrants of the 11th Corps, who famously were overrun and surprised by Jackson on the first day. “Blame it on the immigrants!” Dixon describes as the media narrative in Washington after Chancellorsville, noting, “Where have we heard that before?”
Politically, the German immigrant vote was crucial to Lincoln’s electoral coalition across the country. A midterm election loomed in which anti-war “Copperheads”, northern pro-union voters opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation, were mounting candidates to save the Union as it was, with slavery. Racism and xenophobia was a cancer on the Union Army felt by Willich very personally that day in their meeting at the White House. Lincoln likely began the meeting addressing the matter. So, it is no surprise that in Lincoln’s dispatch to Hooker after the meeting, his characteristic wit both acknowledges the anti-immigrant fog engulfing the war effort, then swiftly deals with it. “He [Willich] says there was not a sound pair of legs in Richmond, and that our men, had they known it, could have safely gone in and burnt every thing & brought us Jeff Davis."
How red was the Reddest of the Red? Join us on our YouTube channel to find out!
Tim Russo is author of Ghosts of Plum Run, an ongoing historical fiction series about the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg. Tim's career as an attorney and international relations professional took him to two years living in the former soviet republics, work in Eastern Europe, the West Bank & Gaza, and with the British Labour Party. Tim has had a role in nearly every election cycle in Ohio since 1988, including Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Tim ran for local office in Cleveland twice, earned his 1993 JD from Case Western Reserve University, and a 2017 masters in international relations from Cleveland State University where he earned his undergraduate degree in political science in 1989. Currently interested in the intersection between Gramscian cultural hegemony and Gandhian nonviolence, Tim is a lifelong Clevelander.
Rebecca Wilson, “Ticky Tacky.” Used under CC BY-2.0.
Although Karl Marx is not known first and foremost as an environmental theorist, in recent decades students of his work have argued that Marx had a systematic approach to environmental protection, that he recognized the key connections among labor, technology, and nature, and, according to sociologist John Bellamy Foster, that his discussions of the environment “prefigured some of the most advanced ecological analysis of the late 20th century.” By analyzing the distorted relationship that capitalism imposes between humans and the rest of nature, Marx used developments in the agricultural science of his day to argue that by radically transforming socio-economic relations, it is possible to repair the rift between humans and nature. A path to sustainability and environmental protection is possible.
Marx and Engels were witnesses to and keen analysts of the environmental problems inherent in nineteenth-century capitalism. They wrote about the depletion of coal reserves, the destruction of forests, and, especially, about diminishing soil fertility, which Foster recognizes was the most pressing issue of the day. Given breakthroughs in soil chemistry, large-scale land owners in the 1800s became aware of the value of additives like potassium salts, phosphates and guano (sea bird dung that accumulated in great quantities in South American and the Caribbean) to improve “exhausted soil.” At the same time, farmers realized that mineral deposits that could be used for soil enhancement were expensive and in short supply.
One of the foremost agricultural chemists of his time, Justus von Liebig (1803-73), criticized agricultural practices that relied on highly limited resources like guano. Such temporary fixes cannot restore the “conditions of reproduction” of the soil. “Rational agriculture,” Liebig wrote in 1859, demanded a radical recycling plan that would return the nutrients of town inhabitants’ waste back into the soil of the countryside. Only this could ensure sustainability. Liebig called it “the principle of restitution; by giving back to the field the conditions of their fertility, the farmer insures the permanence of the latter.”
In his discussions of nature in Capital, Marx relies heavily on Liebig’s work and shows that the divide between urban and rural concerns in Liebig’s work echo the “greatest division of material and mental labor” — that is, the separation between town and country. Capitalist production concentrates populations in cities, estranged from the natural foundations of human existence. Capitalism, Marx wrote, “disturbs the metabolic interaction” between human beings and the planet on which they live; this is known as the concept of “metabolic rift.” As he wrote in Capital (vol. 3):
Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke and irreparable rift in the interdependent process of the social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.
Here, Marx used the organic analogy of metabolism, referring to the biological systems in which an organism takes in nutrients from its environment and expels wastes, enabling it to grow and reproduce. Metabolism can be used to describe regulatory processes of a single cell, an organism, an ecosystem, or indeed the whole planet. Furthermore, Marx focused on social metabolism, in which the systems that connect humans with nature are mediated by productive forces. The “metabolic rift” refers to the way human labor becomes alienated from its natural resources.
Marx here drew the parallel between capitalist exploitation of laborers in urban areas with capitalist agriculture’s depletion of natural resources like soil fertility in the countryside. Large-scale industry impoverishes workers, and large-scale agriculture impoverishes the soil. The metabolic rift on a global level is seen in the way imperialist nations rob colonized areas of natural resources, including depleting their soil. Mining guano in Peru or collecting Chilean nitrates are temporary and false solutions to the problem of soil exhaustion. (In fact Liebig said English agriculture would need to find guano deposits about the size of English coalfields to use it effectively).
For Marx, the only lasting path to sustainability is the “conscious and rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property” – i.e. the abolition of private landed property. Ecological sustainability is only a possibility in “a future society of associated producers,” a socialist society, which could bring about a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry.
However, a transition to socialism alone doesn’t guarantee that the antagonism between town and country will be overcome automatically. According to Foster, Marx emphasized the need for careful planning, for a more even dispersal of people over rural and urban areas, and for recycling of soil nutrients from town to countryside. The early Soviet Union, especially during Lenin’s time, had more deliberate concern for the scientific management of natural resources and natural preservation. Later, other priorities would cause late 20th century Soviet leaders to pursue policies that have been characterized as “ecocide,” losing sight of Marx’s argument about the metabolic rift. A better model of the potential of a society that is not dominated by huge private corporations can be found in Cuba, whose advances in coastal management, urban farming, and sustainable agriculture are well known. These achievements are impossible when short-term profit for private owners is the primary goal.
John Bellamy Foster believes that we usually don’t see Marx as an environmental theorist because our definition of environmental thought is too narrow, contrasting ecocentrism (focusing on the natural world) and anthropocentrism (focusing on humans), while leaving out the interaction between society and the natural world. While capitalism sees nature as something separate from humanity, something that can and should be dominated by humans and that is even a “free gift” to capital, Marx advanced a more profound viewpoint. Even soil fertility, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy, “is not so natural a quality as might be thought; it is closely bound up with the social relations of the time.” The key to the mediation between humans and nature is found in technology, which is shaped by both natural conditions and social relations. As Foster points out, advances in agricultural techniques created the new social relations that are inherently incompatible with sustainable agriculture. What have to change are not more and different technical developments as much as change in the social relations themselves.
At a recent Youth Climate Strike March, a young man carried a sign that said “The only solution to the climate crisis is an end to capitalism.” Marx would agree. Structural change, a reining in of corporate power, will be the only effective way to protect the earth, which Engels wrote “is our one and all, the first condition of our existence.”
John Bellamy Foster. “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105, No. 2. (Sep., 1999), pp. 366-405.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1970 . Full text available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/
Karl Marx 1981. Capital vol. 3. NY: International Publishers.
Anita Waters is Professor Emerita of sociology at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and an organizer for the CPUSA in Ohio.
This article was first published by CPUSA