Tag Archives: Alexis de Tocqueville

Digging Deeply Into The Idea of Democracy

 

James Miller, Can Democracy Work:

A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World

(Farrar, Strauss & Co.,) 

and

William Davies, Nervous States:

Democracy and the Decline of Reason

(WW Norton & Co.)

[NOTE: A condensed version of this review has also been posted to a blog known as Tocqueville 21: https:/tocqueville21.com/books/can-democracy-work.  Taking its name from the 19th century French aristocrat who gave Americans much insight into their democracy, Tocqueville 21 seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  The sight is maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies.  I anticipate regular postings on Tocqueville 21 going forward.]

Did American democracy survive the presidency of Donald Trump?  Variants on this question, never far from the surface during that four-year presidency, took on terrifying immediacy in the wake of the assault on the US Capitol this past January. The question seems sure to occupy historians, commentators and the public during the administration of Joe Biden and beyond.  If nothing else, the Trump presidency and now its aftermath bring home the need to dig deeply into the very idea of democracy, looking more closely at its history, theory, practice, and limitations, asking what are its core principles and what it takes to sustain them.  But we might shorten the inquiry to a single, pragmatic question: can democracy work?

This happens to be the title of James Miller’s Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World.  But it could also be the title of William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. The two works, both written during the Trump presidency, fall short of providing definitive or even reassuring answers to the question that Miller, professor of politics and liberal studies at New York’s New School for Social Research, has taken for his title.  But each casts enriching yet altogether different light on democratic theory and practice.

Miller’s approach is for the most part historical. Through a series of selected – and by his own admission “Eurocentric” (M.12) — case studies, he explores how the term “democracy” has evolved over the centuries, beginning with ancient Athens.  The approach of Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is more difficult to categorize, but might be described as philosophical.  It is grounded in the legacy of 17th century philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, his departure point for a complex and not always easy to follow explanation of the roots of modern populism, that combustible mixture of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear that seemed to have triumphed at the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States later that year.  Davies is most concerned about two manifestations of the “decline of reason,” his subtitle: the present day lack of confidence and trust in experts and democratically elected representatives; and the role of emotion and fear in contemporary politics.

Miller frames his historical overview with a paradox: despite blatant anti-democratic tendencies across the globe, a generalized notion of democracy as the most desirable form of government retains a strong hold on much, maybe most, of the world’s population.  From Myanmar and Hong Kong to the throng that invaded the US Capitol in January, nearly every public demonstration against the status quo utilizes the language of democracy.  Almost all the world’s political regimes, from the United States to North Korea, claim to embody some form of democracy.  “As imperfect as all the world’s systems are that claim to be democratic,” Miller writes, in today’s world the ideal of democracy is “more universally honored than ever before in human history” (M.211).

But the near-universal adhesion to this ideal is relatively recent, dating largely from the period since World War II, when the concept of democracy came to embrace self-determination of populations that previously had lived under foreign domination.  Throughout most of history, democracy was associated with the danger of mob rule, often seen as a “virtual synonym for violent anarchy” (M.59).   Modern democracy in Miller’s interpretation begins with the 18thcentury French and American Revolutions.  Revolts against the status quo are the heart of modern democracy, he contends.  They are not simply blemishes on the “peaceful forward march toward a more just society” (M.10).  Since the early 19th century, representative government, where voters elect their leaders  — “indirect democracy” – has come to be considered the only practical form of democratic governance for populous nation-states.

* * *

But in 5th and 4th century BCE Athens, where Miller’s case studies begin, what we now term direct democracy prevailed.  More than any modern democracy, a community of near absolute equality existed among Athenian citizens, even though citizenship was tightly restricted, open only to a fraction of the adult male population.  Many of Athens’ rivals, governed by oligarchs and aristocrats, considered the direct democracy practiced in Athens as a formula for mob rule, a view that persisted throughout the intervening centuries.  By the late 18th century, however, a competing view had emerged in France that some sort of democratic rule could serve as a check on monarchy and aristocracy.

In revolutionary Paris in early 1793, in the midst of the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Condorcet led the drafting of a proposed constitution that Miller considers the most purely democratic instrument of the 18th century and maybe of the two centuries since.  Condorcet’s draft constitution envisioned a wide network of local assemblies in which any citizen could propose legislation.  Although not implemented, the thinking behind Condorcet’s draft gave impetus to the notion of representative government as a system “preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy” (p.M.86).

The debate in the early 19th century centered on suffrage, the question of who gets to vote, with democracy proponents pushing to remove or lesson property requirements for extending the franchise to ever-wider segments of the (male) adult population.  A cluster of additional institutions and practices came to be considered essential to buttress an extended franchise, among them free and fair elections, protection of the human rights of all citizens, and adherence to the rule of law.  But Miller’s 19th century case studies are instances of short term set backs for the democratic cause: the failure of the massive popular movement known as Chartism to extend the franchise significantly in Britain in the 1840s; and the 1848 uprisings across the European continent, at once nationalist and democratic, which sought representative political institutions and something akin to universal male suffrage, but failed everywhere but in France to extend the franchise.

In the second half of the 19th century, moreover, proponents of democracy found themselves confronting issues of economic freedom and social justice in a rapidly industrializing Europe.  Karl Marx, for one, whose Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, doubted whether democracy – “bourgeois democracy,” he termed it – could alleviate widespread urban poverty and the exploitation of workers.  But the most spectacular failure among Miller’s case studies was the Paris Commune of 1871, which collapsed into disastrous violence amidst tensions between economic and political freedom.  Ironically, the fear of violence that the Commune unleashed led to a series of democratizing political reforms throughout Europe, with the right to vote extended to more male citizens.  The organization of workers into unions and the rise of political parties complemented extension of the franchise and contributed to the process of democratization in late 19th and early 20th century Europe.

In the United States, a case apart in Miller’s case studies, a genuinely democratic culture had taken hold by the 1830s, as the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville recognized during his famous 1831-32 tour, ostensibly to study prison conditions.  As early as the 1790s, there was a tendency to use the terms “republic” and “democracy” as synonyms for the American constitutional system, even though none of the drafters of the 1787 Constitution thought of himself as a democrat.  James Madison derided what he termed pure democracies, “which have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” (M.99).  The constitution’s drafters envisioned a representative government in which voters would select a “natural aristocracy,” as John Adams put it, comprising “men of virtue and talent, who would govern on behalf of all, with a dispassionate regard for the common good” (M.92).

The notion of a natural aristocracy all but disappeared when Andrew Jackson split Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party’s in two in his successful run for the presidency in 1828.  Running as a “Democrat,” Jackson confirmed that “democracy” from that point forward would be an “unambiguously honorific term in the American political lexicon” (M. 110), Miller writes.  It was during Jackson’s presidency that Tocqueville arrived in the United States.

Aware of how the institution of slavery undermined America’s democratic pretensions, Tocqueville nonetheless saw in the restlessness of Jacksonian America what Miller describes as a “new kind of society, in which the principle of equality was pushed to its limits” (M.115).  As practiced in America, democracy was a “way of life, and a shared faith, instantiated in other forms of association, in modes of thought and belief, in the attitudes and inclinations of individuals who have absorbed a kind of democratic temperament” (M.7).  Tocqueville nonetheless seemed to have had the Jacksonian style of democracy in mind when he warned against what he called “democratic despotism,” where a majority could override the rights and liberties of minorities.

Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1917 to the US Congress that the United States enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” constitutes the beginning of the 20thcentury idea of democracy as a universal value, Miller argues.  But Wilson’s soaring faith in democracy turned out to be “astonishingly parochial” (M.176).  The post-World War I peace conferences in 1919 left intact the colonies of Britain and France, “under the pretext that the nonwhite races needed more time to become fully mature peoples, fit for democratic institutions” (M.190-91).

The Covenant of the League of Nations, the organization that Wilson hoped would be instrumental in preventing future conflict, “encouraged an expectation of self-determination as a new and universal political right” (M.191), even as the isolationist Congress thwarted Wilson’s plan for United States membership in the League.  For countries living under colonial domination, the expectation of self-determination was heightened after the more murderous World War II, particularly through the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Although a text without enforcement mechanisms, the declaration helped inspire human rights and independence movements across the globe.

Miller finishes by explaining why he remains attracted to modern attempts at direct democracy, resembling in some senses those of ancient Athens, particularly the notion of “participatory democracy” which influenced him as a young 1960s radical and which he saw replicated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement of ten years ago.  But direct democracy, he winds up concluding, is no more viable today than it was at the time of the French Revolution. It is not possible to create a workable participatory democracy model in a large, complex society.  Any “serious effort to implement such a structure will require a delegation of authority and the selection of representatives – in short the creation of an indirect democracy, and at some distance from most participants”  (M.232-33).

The Trump presidency, Miller argues, is best considered “not as a protest against modern democracy per se, but against the limits of modern democracy” (M.239).  Like Brexit, it expressed, in an “inchoate and potentially self-defeating” manner, a desire for “more democracy, for a larger voice for ordinary people” (M.240) – not unlike the participatory democracy campaigns of the 1960s.  At the time of Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Miller appreciated that he remained free to “protest a political leader whose character and public policies I found repugnant.”  But he realized that he was “also expected to acknowledge, and peacefully coexist with, compatriots who preferred Trump’s policies and personal style.  This is a part of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal democracy” (M.240)  —  a portentous observation in light of the January 2021 assault on the US Capitol.

Democracies, Miller concludes, need to “explore new ways to foster a tolerant ethos that accepts, and can acknowledge, that there are many incompatible forms of life and forms of politics, not always directly democratic or participatory, in which humans can flourish” (M.234).  Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, this sounds much like an acknowledgement that present day populism is here to stay.  By an altogether different route, Davies reaches roughly the same conclusion.

* * *

Davies is far from the first to highlight the challenges to democracy when voters appear to abandon reason for emotion; nor the first to try to explain why the claims of government experts and elected representatives are met with increased suspicion and diminished trust today.  But he may be the first to tie these manifestations of the “decline of reason” to the disintegration of binary philosophical distinctions that Descartes and Hobbes established in the 17thcentury — Descartes between mind and body, Hobbes between war and peace.

For Descartes, the mind existed independently of the body.  Descartes was obsessed by the question whether what we see, hear, or smell is actually real.  He “treated physical sensations with great suspicion, in contrast to the rational principles belonging to the mind” (D.xiii).  Descartes gave shape to the modern philosophical definition of a rational scientific mind, Davies argues, but to do so, he had to discount sensations and feelings.  Hobbes, exhausted by the protracted religious Thirty Years War on the European continent and civil wars in England, argued that the central purpose of the state was to “eradicate feelings of mutual fear that would otherwise trigger violence” (D.xiii).  If people don’t feel safe, Hobbes seemed to contend, it “doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not; they will eventually start to take matters into their own hands” (D.xvi).

Davies shows how Descartes and Hobbes helped create the conceptual foundation for the modern administrative state, fashioned by merchants who introduced “strict new rules for how their impressions should be recorded and spoke of, to avoid exaggeration and distortion, using numbers and public record-keeping” (D.xiii), not least for more efficient tax collection.  Using numbers in this pragmatic way, these 17th century merchants were the forerunners of what we today call experts, especially in the disciplines of statistics and economics, with an ability to “keep personal feelings separate from their observations” (D.xiii).

The conclusions of such experts, denominated and accepted as “facts,” established the value of objectivity in public life, providing a basis for consensus among people who otherwise have little in common.  Facts provided by economists, statisticians, and scientists thus have what for Hobbes was a peace-building function; they are “akin to contracts, types of promises that experts make to each other and the public, that records are accurate and free from any personal bias or political agenda” (D.124), Davies explains.  But if democracy is to provide effective mechanisms for the resolution of disputes and disagreements, there must be “some commonly agreed starting point, that all are willing to recognize,” he warns. “Some things must be outside politics, if peaceful political disputes are to be possible” (D.62).

Davies makes the bold argument that the rise of emotion in contemporary politics and the inability of experts and facts to settle disputes today are the consequences of the break down of the binary distinctions of Descartes and Hobbes.  The brain, through rapid advances in neuroscience, rather than Descartes’ concept of mind, has become the main way we have come to understand ourselves, demonstrating the “importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making” (D.xii).  The distinction between war and peace has also become less clear-cut since Hobbes’ time.

Davies is concerned particularly with how the type of knowledge used in warfare has been coopted for political purposes. Warfare knowledge doesn’t have the luxury of “slow, reasonable open public debate of the sort that scientific progress has been built upon.”  It is “shrouded in secrecy, accompanied by deliberate attempts to deceive the enemy. It has to be delivered at the right place and right time” (D.124), with emotions playing a crucial role.  Military knowledge is thus weaponized knowledge.  Political propaganda has all the indicia of military knowledge at work for political advantage.  But so does much of today’s digital communication.  Political argument conducted online “has come to feel more like conflict” (D.193), Davies observes, with conspiracy theories in particular given wide room to flourish.

The upshot is that democracies are being transformed today by the power of feeling and emotion, in “ways that cannot be ignored or reversed” (D. xvii-xviii).  Objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and nature “can no longer be successfully insulated from emotions”  (D.xiv).  While we can lament the decline of modern reason, “as if emotions have overwhelmed the citadel of truth like barbarians” (D.xv), Davies suggests that we would do better to “value democracy’s capacity to give voice to fear, pain and anxiety that might otherwise be diverted in far more destructive directions”  (D.xvii).

Yet Davies leaves unanswered the question whether there are there limits on the forms of fear, pain and anxiety to which democracy should give voice.  He recognizes the potency of nationalism as a “way of understanding the life of society in mythical terms” (D.87).  But should democracy strive to give voice to nationalism’s most xenophobic and exclusionary forms?  Nowhere does he address racism which, most social scientists now agree, was a stronger contributing factor to the 2016 election of Donald Trump than economic disparity, and it is difficult to articulate any rationale for giving racism a voice in a modern democracy.

In countering climate change skepticism, a primary example of popular mistrust of expert opinion and scientific consensus, Davies rejects renewed commitment to scientific expertise and rational argument – “bravado rationalism,” he calls it  — as insufficient to overcome the “liars and manipulators” (D.108) who cast doubt on the reality of climate change.  But he doesn’t spell out what would be sufficient. The book went to press prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Were Davies writing today, he likely would have addressed similar resistance to expert claims about fighting the pandemic, such as the efficacy of wearing masks.

Writing today, moreover, Davies might have used an expression other than “barbarians storming the citadel of truth,” an expression that now brings to mind last January’s assault on the US Capitol.  While those who took part in the assault itself can be dealt with through the criminal justice process, with all the due process protections that a democracy affords accused law breakers, an astounding number of Americans who did not participate remain convinced that, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, Joe Biden and the Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.

* * *

How can a democracy work when there is widespread disagreement with an incontrovertible fact, especially one that goes to democracy’s very heart, in this case the result of the vote and the peaceful transfer of power after an orderly election?  What if a massive number of citizens refuse to accept the obligation that Miller felt when his candidate lost in 2016, to acknowledge and peacefully coexist with the winning side?  Davies’ trenchant but quirky analysis provides no obvious solution to this quandary.  If we can find one, it will constitute an important step in answering the broader question whether American democracy survived the Trump presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 17, 2021

 

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, United States History

Conservatives, Where Are They Coming From?

Roger Scruton, Conservatism:

An Invitation to the Great Tradition

(St. Martin’s Press)

Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition should be read in tandem with Helena Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, reviewed here earlier this month.  Scruton, a fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society of Literature who currently teaches at the University of Buckingham, has produced a work much like that of Rosenblatt, an erudite yet eminently readable piece of intellectual history.  Whereas Rosenblatt’s work centers on the etymology of the word “liberal,” Scruton focuses on what he terms the “tradition” of conservatism — but that may be a distinction without a difference.

The journey that Scruton takes his readers on overlaps at a surprising number of junctures along the way with people and places highlighted in Rosenblatt’s work, including a focus on the same core countries: France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States.  Scruton’s work accords more attention to Great Britain than to the other three and might be considered first and foremost a portrayal of the British conservative tradition.  But Scruton locates the origins of that tradition in the 18th century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Rosenblatt’s starting points for modern liberalism.

Modern conservatism, Scruton writes, began more as a “hesitation within liberalism than as a doctrine and philosophy in its own right” (p.33).  The relationship between liberalism and conservatism, he emphasizes, should not be thought of as one of “absolute antagonism” but rather of “symbiosis” (p.55).  In the aftermath of the French Revolution, liberals and conservatives sparred in various contexts over the implications and limitations of the revolution’s ideals of liberté and égalité and the management of change.  Conservative hesitations “began to crystallize as theories and policies” (p.33) as a necessary counter to what Scruton terms the “liberal individualism” that the French Revolution seemed to prioritize.

Liberal individualism leads to a belief in the “right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs” (p.6), Scruton writes.  In the eyes of conservatives, liberal individualism does not regard liberty as a “shared culture, based on tacit conventions” (p.6).  This perception runs counter to the liberalism that Rosenblatt depicts, in which liberals at least until World War II consistently grounded individual rights in the needs of the larger community.  But liberalism makes sense, Scruton contends,  “only in the social context that conservatism defends” (p.55), a proposition Rosenblatt would likely endorse.

In Scruton’s account, conservatism in the mid-19th century found its natural antithesis not in liberalism but rather in the cluster of movements known as “socialism,” movements that spoke for an emerging working class as the industrial revolution was changing the face of Europe.  For the remainder of the century and into the 20th, conservatives opposed socialist schemes to reform society from top to bottom, whether utopian,  evolutionary, revolutionary or dictatorial.  Scruton’s conservative tradition might therefore be thought of as a flashing yellow light for liberalism – slow down! – and a stark red light for socialism – – stop!!

With conservatism and socialism at odds from the start, one strand of conservatism aligned with what was termed “classical liberalism,” which favored free markets and generally unfettered industrial capitalism.  But another strand, termed “cultural conservatism,” found itself largely in agreement with much of the socialist analysis of the deleterious effects of capitalism.  This strand, which has proved surprisingly enduring, proposed culture as “both the remedy to the loneliness and alienation of industrial society, and the thing most under threat from the new advocates of social reform” (p.82).

Scrtuon, again like Rosenblatt, is at his best when he describes the conservative tradition during the 19th century.  He too seems to run low on fuel when moving into the 20th century, especially the post World War II era.  Readers may be disappointed to find, for example, no analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s contributions to modern conservatism, or the implications of Brexit and the “populism” which purportedly fueled Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a term Scruton scrupulously avoids.

But these voids underscore what I suspect may be Scruton’s main if implicit point: that the key to understanding the conservative tradition lies more in an appreciation of conservative attitudes and dispositions than in comprehending discrete principles or the evolution of thinking over the nearly 2 ½ centuries since the French Revolution.  Scruton acknowledges that conservatives have not always been good in defining or explaining their goals and notes wryly that they “suffer under a burden of disapproval, which they believe comes from their habit of telling the truth, but which their opponents ascribe either to ‘nostalgia’ for an old and misremembered way of life or a failure of compassion toward the new ways of life that are emerging to replace it” (p.154-55).

* * *

Scruton begins by emphasizing the debt that modern conservatism owes to Aristotle, to the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and to the philosophies of such key 17th century thinkers as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1677) and John Locke (1632-1704).  But modern conservatism received its first extended articulation in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, first published in November 1790, more than a year after the fall of the Bastille but prior to the execution of King Louis XVI and the advent of the Reign of Terror.  Burke (1729-1797), the Irish-born Whig Parliamentarian whom Scruton considers the “greatest of British conservative thinkers” (p.26), demonstrated in Reflections an “astonishing” ability to “see to the heart of things and to predict the way in which they are bound to go” (p.44).

Burke questioned the revolutionaries’ abstract faith in reason.  He favored a more particularized form of reasoning that emerges “through custom, free exchange and ‘prejudice’” (p.51). To Burke, the revolutionaries in France had failed to take account of the passions and sentiments that govern human character at least as much as reason.  The past to Burke was not something to be discarded and overcome, as the most radical of the revolutionaries seemed to maintain, but rather something to be built upon (among the radicals Burke had in mind was the American Thomas Paine, whose debates with Burke are ably captured in Yuval Levin’s work reviewed here in 2015).

Burke and his Reflections provided modern conservatism – or at least the British version – with a blueprint that defined its distinctive character throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century: a “defence of inheritance against radical innovation, an insistence that the liberation of the individual could not be achieved without the maintenance of customs and institutions that were threatened by the single-minded emphasis on freedom and equality” (p.104).  To be sure, human societies must change over time, but only in the name of “continuity, in order to conserve what we are and what we have” (p.3).  Burkean conservatism should not therefore be mistaken for political reaction.

The most articulate of the reactionaries, diehard French lawyer and philosopher Joseph Comte de Maistre (1753-1821), defended the divine right of kings, advocated for restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and saw the Enlightenment as a an “insurrection against God” (p.69).  De Maistre spoke for a wide range of ultra-royalists, disaffected nobles and backward-looking Catholics who sought in essence to undo the whole Enlightenment project and restore all that had been swept away by the French Revolution.  Scruton sees in de Maistre’s thinking a “certain remorseless extremism” (p.69) which does not fit comfortably within the conservative tradition he depicts.  Since de Maistre’s time, Scruton argues, conservatism in France has “almost invariably” been connected with a “reverence for the Catholic faith and for France as bearing witness to that faith” (p.71).

In German-speaking lands in the early 19th century, the differences between liberalism and conservatism were placed in sharp focus by debates between the two greatest German-speaking political philsophers, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  Kant in many ways epitomized the liberal individualism of the Enlightenment, placing the “freely choosing individual into the very center of his world view” and judging “all institutions and procedures in terms of that one idea” (p.56; in a work on the 18th century Enlightenment reviewed here in 2015, Anthony Pagden argued that Kant was the Enlightenment’s single most important thinker).

Hegel by contrast regarded Kant’s freely choosing self as an “empty abstraction. The self does not exist prior to society, but is created in society, through . . . custom, morality and civil association” (p.59).  Hegel found the “roots of legitimate order” (p.70) not only in custom but also in continuity and free association.  In Scruton’s phrase, Hegel “rescued the human individual from the philosophy of individualism” (p.66).

But as conservatives and liberals in the middle decades of the 19th century ruminated over the limitations to the French Revolution’s ideal of liberté , it fell to the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, one of France’s leading 19th  century liberals, to spell out conservative hesitations over the the revolutionary ideal of égalité.  Tocqueville’s views were shaped by his tour of the United States in the 1830s, as expressed in his classic work, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville considered equality among citizens to be the hallmark of American democracy, although he was aware that the institution of slavery undermined the country’s claims of equality.

Tocqueville wrestled with how equality might be reconciled with liberty in the “increasing absence of the diversity of power that had characterized traditional aristocratic regimes” (p.75).  For Tocqueville, unchecked pursuit of equality breeds loss of individuality that tends, as Scruton puts it, “towards uniformity, and begins to see the eccentric as a threat” (p.76).  Tocqueville was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment is in a position to override the rights of minorities.

Tocqueville was among those mid-19th century liberals who shared conservative anxieties over the rise of the diverse working class movements known as “socialist.”  Conservatives recoiled at what they perceived to be socialism’s “gargantuan schemes for a ‘just’ society, to be promoted by the new kind of managerial state” (p.104).  Socialism for conservatives seemed altogether indifferent if not hostile to the very traditions they revered, and was bent upon undermining the bonds among citizens that they regarded as the glue holding societies together.  Conservative opposition to socialism in all its forms hardened in the 20th century after Vladimir Lenin and his band of Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, leading to a “tyranny yet more murderous than that of the Jacobins in revolutionary France” (p.104).

One conservative response was to align with so-called “classical liberalism,” that strand within liberalism that championed free trade, market capitalism and economic laissez faire.  But not all conservatives found the answer to socialism in laissez faire economics.  Many saw free markets as altogether amoral, exalting individualism and financial profit above the needs of the community.  The “cultural conservatism” that emerged in the mid-19th century included a strong anti-capitalist strain, addressing concerns that the demographic changes brought about by industrialization had detached people from their religious and social roots.

Scruton finds a nascent cultural conservatism in Germany with the thinking of Johann Gottried von Herder (1744-1803), once a student of Immanuel Kant.  Herder posited culture, consisting of “language, custom, folk tales and folk religion,” as the element that “unites human beings in mutual attachment” (p.96).  Herder’s cultural conservatism, Scruton notes, became a “kind of political radicalism, influencing the revolutions of 1848,” in which German speakers “laid claim to a shared identity within boundaries that would bring them together as a single nation state” (p.97).  In Britain, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was among the earliest cultural conservatives.

Coleridge sought to infuse religion back into society, but was also a strong proponent of increased government assistance for the poor, thereby setting the agenda for “subsequent cultural conservatives who opposed unbridled free market economics” (p.83).  After Coleridge, the cultural conservative banner was carried by the poet and essayist John Ruskin (1819-1900), the essayist Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), and, in the 20th century, by the poems, plays and essays of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and the religious reflections of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).  But Scruton’s analysis of the conservative tradition in 20th century Britain revolves primarily around the thinking of three key theorists: lawyer and legal historian Frederic William Maitland (1850-1906), a transition figure from 19th to 20th century conservatism; the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1993), who almost single handedly kept the argument for free market capitalism alive in the mid-20th century; and the complex and often enigmatic political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) who — also almost single handedly — was able to maintain the academic respectability of conservatism in post-World War II Britain.

* * *

In a series of posthumously published lectures, The Constitutional History of England (1908), Maitland contended that the foundations for liberty in Britain lay not in the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but in the English common law and the tradition of parliamentary representation.   Limited government,  he maintained, had been the rule rather than the exception in England from medieval times onward.  The rights claimed by Britain’s 17th and 18th century theorists in Maitland’s view had always been implied in the English common law.

Half a century later, Hayek linked Maitland’s insights into the English common law with his case for unfettered free market capitalism – for “classical” liberalism — as a further argument against centralized government planning.  In a work published in 1960, The Constitution of Liberty, his second best known work after his 1944 best seller, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek portrayed the English common law as the “heart of English society,” living proof that justice resides in the “transactions between freely associating people and not in the plans of sovereign power” (p.110).  Just as the free market is an example of a “spontaneous order, which arises by an invisible hand from free association,” generating solutions to economic problems “of its own accord,” the common law also generates a “spontaneous legal order, which, because it grows from particular solutions to particular conflicts, inherently tends to restore society to a state of equilibrium” (p.107-08).

Oakeshott attacked the murderous collectivist ideologies of the 20th century — communism, fascism and Nazism — but a part of his argument also applied to Britain and democracies generally: the damage done when politics is directed from above.  Oakeshott mounted an assault on what Scruton terms the “dirigisme” that entered British politics after World War II, in which the state would “manage” not only the economy, but also education, poverty relief, housing, employment, “just about anything on which the well-being and security of the people might seem to depend” (p.114).  Scruton goes on to note that Oakeshott utilized his position as a professor of political philosophy at the London School of Economics (where Hayek also taught) to “build up a network of sympathetic students and colleagues.”  For a while,  the LSE politics department “became a center of conservative resistance to the prevailing socialist consensus” (p.115).

This passage hit me like a thud.  In the late 1960s, I was fortunate to participate in this Oakeshott-led program in political philosophy, which I considered at the time to be a stimulating but relatively obscure academic enterprise.  Scruton even mentions the contributions to conservative thought of my advisor that year – termed “tutor” at LSE – Elie Kedourie, and those of Professor Kenneth Minogue, who was my instructor for an in-depth course on Thomas Hobbes.  In Scruton’s view, Oakeshott’s program in political thought at the LSE bore some resemblance to that of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in the same time period – although it is easier to say “Straussian” than “Oakeshottian” (Strauss and the influence of the Straussians were the subject of a review here in 2015).  None of this even remotely registered with me during an otherwise memorable year at LSE.

But overall, British conservatism since World War II for Scruton has been at best a “fragmentary force on the edge of intellectual life, with little or no connection to politics” (p.127).   Conservatism as the antithesis of socialism and Bolshevism more or less fell with the Berlin wall, and it has had difficulty establishing new moorings.  Today, British conservatism’s main enemies in Scruton’s view are religious extremism, especially an “armed and doctrinaire enemy, in the form of radical Islam” (p.148), the emerging orthodoxy of multi-culturalism, and “political correctness,” that “humorless and relentless policing of language, so as to prevent heretical thoughts from arising” (p.128).  Not by accident, recent intellectual conservatism in Britain has been buttressed by many immigrant voices.  It is the “privilege of the immigré,” Scruton writes, to “speak without irony of the British Empire and of the unique culture, institutions and laws that have made Britain the safe place of refuge for so many in a smoldering world” (p.131).

* * *

The hesitations that are baked into the conservative tradition that Scruton depicts have doubtless served as useful checks on liberal enthusiasm over the past two centuries.  But readers may leave Scruton’s work wondering how these  hesitations fit into today’s cantankerous political debates.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 19, 2020

 

4 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History

Liberals, Where Are They Coming From?

 

Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome

To the Twenty-First Century

(Princeton University Press) 

             If you spent any time watching or listening to the political conventions of the two major American parties last month,  you probably did not hear the word “liberal” much, if at all, during the Democratic National Convention.  But you may have heard the word frequently at the Republican National Convention, with liberalism perhaps described as something akin to a “disease or a poison,” or a danger to American “moral values.”  These, however, are not the words of Donald Trump Jr. or Rudy Giuliani, but rather of Helena Rosenblatt, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (at p.265).  American Democrats, Rosenblatt further notes, avoid using the word “liberal” to describe themselves “for fear that it will render them unelectable” (p.265). What the heck is wrong with being a “liberal”? What is “liberalism” after all?

Rosenblatt argues that we are “muddled” about what we mean by “liberalism”:

People use the term in all sorts of different ways, often unwittingly, sometime intentionally. They talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable debate. It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism (p.1).

Clarifying the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” is the lofty goal Rosenblatt sets for herself in this ambitious work, a work that at its heart is an etymological stud — a “word history of liberalism” (p.3) — in which she explores how these two terms have evolved in political and social discourse over the centuries, from Roman to present times.

The word “liberal,” Rosenblatt argues, took on an overtly political connotation only in the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Up until that time, beginning with the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, through the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, “liberal” was a word referring to one’s character.  Being “liberal” meant demonstrating the “virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness” (p.8-9).  During the 18th century Enlightenment, the educated public began for the first time to speak not only of liberal individuals but also of liberal sentiments, ideas, ways of thinking, even constitutions.

Liberal political principles emerged as part of an effort to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect them from the forces of extremism — from the revolution’s most radical proponents on one side to its most reactionary opponents on the other.  These principles included support for the broad ideals of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” opposition to absolute monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege; and such auxiliary concepts as popular sovereignty, constitutional and representative government, the rule of law and individual rights, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of religion.  Beyond that, what could be considered a liberal principle was “somewhat vague and debatable” (p.52).

Rosenblatt is strongest on how 19th century liberalism evolved, particularly in France and Germany, but also in Great Britain and the United States.  France and French thinkers were the center points in the history of 19th century liberalism, she contends, while Germany’s contributions are “usually underplayed, if not completely ignored” (p.3).  More cursory is her treatment of liberalism in the 20th century, packed into the last two of eight chapters and an epilogue.  The 20th century in her interpretation saw the United States and Great Britain become centers of liberal thinking, eclipsing France and Germany.  But since World War II, she argues, liberalism as defined in America has limited itself narrowly to the protection of individual rights and interests, without the moralism or  dedication to the common good that were at the heart of 19th and early 20th century liberalism.

From the early 19th century through World War II, Rosenblatt insists, liberalism had “nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today.”  For a century and a half, most liberals were “moralists” who “never spoke about rights without stressing duties” (p.4).  People have rights because they have duties.  Liberals rejected the idea that a viable community could be “constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone” (p.4).  Being a liberal meant “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good” (p.3-4).  The moral content to the political liberalism that emerged after the French Revolution constitutes the “lost” aspect of the history that Rosenblatt seeks to bring to light.

Throughout much of the 19th century, however, being a liberal did not mean being a democrat in the modern sense of the term.  Endorsing popular sovereignty, as did most early liberals, did not mean endorsing universal suffrage.  Voting was a trust, not a right.  Extending suffrage beyond property-holding males was an invitation to mob rule.  Only toward the end of the century did most liberals accept expansion of the franchise, as liberalism gradually became  synonymous with democracy, paving the way for the 20th century term “liberal democracy.”

While 19th century liberalism was often criticized as opposed to religion, Rosenblatt suggests that it would be more accurate to say that it opposed the privileged position of the Catholic Church and aligned more easily with Protestantism, especially some forms emerging in Germany (although a small number of 19th century Catholic thinkers could also claim the term liberal).  But by the middle decades of the 19th century, liberalism’s challenges included not only the opposition of monarchists and the Catholic Church, but also what came to be known as “socialism” — the political movements representing a working class that was “self-conscious, politicized and angry” (p.101) as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Europe.

Liberalism’s response to socialism gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the defining debate over its nature: was liberalism compatible with socialist demands for government intervention in the economy and direct government assistance to the working class and the destitute?  Or were the broad objectives of liberalism better advanced by the policies of economic laissez faire, in which the government avoided intervention in the economy and, as many liberals advocated, rejected what was termed “public charity” in favor of concentrating upon the moral improvement of the working classes and the poor so that they might lift themselves out of poverty?  This debate carried over into the 20th century and, Rosenblatt indicates, is still with us.

* * *

With surprising specificity, Rosenblatt attributes the origins of modern political liberalism to the work of the Swiss couple Benjamin Constant and his partner Madame de Staël, born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker who served as finance minister to French King Louis XIV (Rosenblatt is also the author of a biography of Constant).  The couple arrived in Paris from Geneva in 1795, a year after the so-called Reign of Terror had ended with the execution of its most prominent advocate, Maximilien Robespierre.  As they reacted to the pressing circumstances brought about by the revolution, Rosenblatt contends, Constant and de Staël formulated the cluster of ideas that collectively came to be known as “liberalism,” although neither ever termed their ideas “liberal.”  Constant, the “first theorist of liberalism” (p.66), argued that it was not the “form of government that mattered,” but rather the amount. “Monarchies and republics could be equally oppressive. It was not to whom you granted political authority that counted, but how much authority you granted.  Political power is dangerously corrupting” (p.66).

Influenced in particular by several German theologians, Constant spoke eloquently about the need for a new and more enlightened version of Protestantism in the liberal state.  Religion was an “essential moralizing force” that “inspired selflessness, high-minded principles, and moral values, all crucial in a liberal society. But it mattered which religion, and it mattered what its relationship was to the state” (p.66).  A liberal government needed to be based upon religious toleration, that is, the removal of all legal disabilities attached to the faith one professed.  Liberalism envisioned strict separation of church and state and what we would today call “secularism,” ideas that placed it in direct conflict with the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century.

Constant and Madame de Staël initially supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état.  They hoped Napoleon would thwart the counterrevolution and consolidate and protect the core liberal principles of the revolution. But as Napoleon placed the authority of the state in his own hands, pursued wars of conquest abroad, and allied himself with the Catholic Church, Constant and Madame de Staël became fervent critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

After Napoleon fell from power in 1815, an aggressive counter-attack on liberalism took place in France, led by the Catholic Church, in which liberals were accused of trying to “destroy religion, monarchy, and the family.  They were not just misguided but wicked and sinful.  Peddlers of heresy, they had no belief in duty, no respect for tradition or community.  In the writings of counter-revolutionaries, liberalism became a virtual symbol for atheism, violence, and anarchy” (p.68).  English conservative commentators frequently equated liberalism with Jacobinism.  For these commentators, liberals were “proud, selfish and licentious,” primarily interested in the “unbounded gratification of their passions” while refusing “restraints of any kind” (p.76).

Liberals hopes were buoyed, however, when the  bloodless three day 1830 Revolution in France deposed the ultra-royalist and strongly pro-Catholic Charles X in favor of the less reactionary Louis Philippe.  Among those initially supporting the 1830 Revolution was Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th century France’s most consequential liberal thinker after Constant and Madame de Staël.  Tocqueville famously toured the United States in the 1830s and offered his perspective on the country’s direction in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, followed by his analysis in 1856 of the implications of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Tocqueville shared many of the widespread concerns of his age about democracy, especially its tendency to foster egoism and individualism.  He worried about the masses’ lack of “capacity.” He was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment would be in a position to override the rights and liberties of minorities.  But Tocqueville also foresaw the forward march of democracy and the movement toward equality of all citizens as unstoppable, based primarily upon what he had observed in the United States (although he was aware of how the institution of slavery undermined American claims to be a society of equals).  Tocqueville counseled liberals in France not to try to stop democracy, but, as Rosenblatt puts it, to “instruct and tame” democracy, so that it “did not threaten liberty and devolve into the new kind of despotism France had seen under Napoleon” (p.95).

Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy and “excessive” equality were related to anxieties about how to accommodate the diverse movements that termed themselves socialist.  Initially, Rosenblatt stresses, the term socialist described “anyone who sympathized with the plight of the working poor . . . [T]here was no necessary contradiction between being liberal and being socialist” (p.103).   The great majority of mid-19th liberals, she notes, whether British, French, or German, believed in free circulation of goods, ideas and persons but were “not all that adverse to government intervention” and did not advocate “absolute property rights” (p.114).

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a growing number of British liberals began to favor a “new type of liberalism” that advocated “more government intervention on behalf of the poor.  They called for the state to a take action to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, and the excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth .  They began to say that people should be accorded not just freedom, but the conditions of freedom” (p. p.226).   French commentators in the same time period began to urge that a middle way be forged between laissez-faire and socialism, termed “liberal socialism,” where the state became an “instrument of civilization” (p.147).

But it was in 1870s Germany where the debate crystalized between what came to be known as “classical” laissez faire liberalism and the “progressive” version, thanks in large part to the unlikely figure of Otto von Bismarck.   Although no liberal, Bismarck, who masterminded German unification in 1871 and served as the first Chancellor of the newly united nation, instituted a host of sweeping social welfare reforms for workers, including full and comprehensive insurance against sickness, industrial accidents, and disability.  Most historians attribute his social welfare measures to a desire to coopt and destroy the German socialist movement (a point Jonathan Steinberg makes in his masterful Bismarck biography, reviewed here in 2013).

Bismarck’s social welfare measures coincided with an academic assault on economic laissez faire led by a school of “ethical economists,” a small band of German university professors who attacked laissez faire with arguments that were empirical but also moral, based on a view of man as not a “solitary, self-interested individual” but a “social being with ethical obligations “(p.222).  Laissez-faire “allowed for the exploitation of workers and did nothing to remedy endemic poverty,” they contended, “making life worse, not better, for the majority of the inhabitants of industrializing countries” (p.222).  Industrial conditions would “only deteriorate and spread if governments took no action” (p.222).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many young Americans studied in Germany under the ethical economists and their progeny.  They returned to the United States “increasingly certain that laissez-faire was simply wrong, both morally and empirically,” and “began to advocate more government intervention in the economy” (p.226).  On both sides of the Atlantic, liberalism and socialism were drawing closer together, but the debate between laissez faire liberalism and the interventionist version played out primarily on the American side.

* * *

During World War I, Rosenblatt argues, liberalism, democracy and Western civilization became “virtually synonymous,” with America, because of its rising strength, “cast as their principal defender” (p.258).  Germany’s contribution to liberalism was progressively forgotten or pushed aside and the French contribution minimalized.  Two key World War I era American thinkers, Herbert Croly and John Dewy, contended that only the interventionist, or progressive, version of liberalism could claim to be truly liberal.

Croly, cofounder of the flagship progressive magazine The New Republic, delivered a stinging indictment of laissez-faire economics and a strong argument for government intervention in his 1909 work, The Promise of American Life.  By 1914, Croly had begun to call his own ideas liberal, and by mid-1916 the term was in common use in The New Republic as “another way to describe progressive legislation” (p.246).

The philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that there were “two streams” of liberalism.  But one was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation, while the other was “beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce, and was therefore committed to laissez-faire” (p.261).  American liberalism, Dewey contended, had nothing with laissez-faire, and never had.  Nor did it have anything to do with what was called the “gospel of individualism.”  American liberalism stood for “‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ Its aim was to promote greater equality and to combat plutocracy with the aid of government” (p.261).

Rosenblatt credits President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with demonstrating how progressive liberalism could work in the political arena. Roosevelt, 20th century America’s most talented liberal practitioner, consistently claimed the moral high ground for liberalism.  He argued that liberals believed in “generosity and social mindedness and were willing to sacrifice for the public good” (p.261).  For Roosevelt, the core of the liberal faith was a belief in the “effectiveness of people helping each other” (p.261). But despite his high-minded advocacy for progressive liberalism – buttressed by his leadership of the country during the Great Depression and in World War II – Roosevelt did not vanquish the argument that economic laissez faire constituted the “true” liberalism.

In 1944, with America at war with Nazi Germany and Roosevelt within months of unprecedented fourth term, the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, published The Road to Serfdom, the 20th century’s most concerted intellectual challenge to the interventionist strand of liberalism.  Any sort of state intervention or “collectivist experiment” threatened individual liberty and put countries on a slippery slope to fascism, Hayek argued in his surprise best seller.  Hayek grounded his arguments in English and American notions of individual freedom.  “Progressive liberalism,” which he considered a contradiction in terms, had its roots in Bismarck’s Germany, he argued, and leads ineluctably to totalitarianism.  “[I]t is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating” (p.268), Hayek warned his British and American readers in 1944.

Although Hayek always insisted that he was a liberal, his ideas became part of the American post World War II conservative argument against both fascism and communism (meanwhile, in France laissez faire economics became synonymous with liberalism; “liberal” is a political epithet in today’s France, but means a free market advocate, diametrically opposed to its American meaning).  During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War that followed World War II, the interventionist liberalism that Croly and Dewey had preached and Roosevelt had put into practice was labeled “socialist” and even “communist.”  To American conservatives, those who accepted the interventionist version of liberalism were not really liberal; they were “totalitarian.”

* * *

The intellectual climate of the Cold War bred defensiveness in American liberals, Rosenblatt argues, provoking a need to “clarify and accentuate what made their liberalism not totalitarianism. It was in so doing that they toned down their plans for social reconstruction and emphasized, rather, their commitment to defending the rights of individuals” (p.271).  Post World War II American liberalism thus lost “much of its moral core and centuries-long dedication to the public good.  Individualism replaced it as liberals lowered their sights and moderated their goals” (p.271).  In bowing to Cold War realities, American liberals in the second half of the 20th century “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them . . . that liberalism was, at its core, an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy” (p.273).   Today, Rosenblatt finds, liberals “overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others” (p.265-66).

Unfortunately, Rosenblatt provides scant elaboration for these provocative propositions, rendering her work incomplete.  A valuable follow up to this enlightening and erudite volume could concentrate on how the term “liberalism” has evolved over the past three quarters of a century, further helping us out of the muddle that surrounds the term.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 7, 2020

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, English History, European History, France, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

Sophomore Reading List

Pictures.fromm

Lawrence Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet 

            If your undergraduate years coincided with the tumultuous 1960s or early 1970s, as you exercised your newly-found freedom you could not have escaped Erich Fromm. His books seemed to be everywhere, and he seemed to have answers for a generation more than a bit despondent about where the world appeared to be heading. His first major work, Escape from Freedom, published during World War II, was a penetrating study of why people may prefer authoritarianism to democratic government. His later works, notably The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, expressed the ideals and growing pains of those angst-ridden 20 somethings who saw all too well the imperfections of the world they were poised to inherit from their parents.

              If Fromm was everywhere then, he seems to be nowhere now. Escape from Freedom remains a cogent statement of what Fromm’s native Germany had become, and transformed itself after the war into a critique of post-war consumerism and materialism. The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, although published in the 1950s, seem like relics of the tumult of the 1960s, psycho-babble speaking to readers who were also lapping up Charles Reich’s fatuous The Greening of America, a work that now reads almost as a caricature of that era. Fromm’s works can’t be ridiculed in quite the same way, although from a perspective of 40 years later, they strike me as sophomoric. But, let’s face it, many of us reading them back then were more than a little sophomoric ourselves, even if we had evolved into juniors, seniors or young graduates.

           Now, for those of us who haven’t thought much about Fromm in recent decades, Lawrence Friedman has produced The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, a penetrating biography of the man behind those books for a generation of sophomores. Digging deeply into his many books, Friedman accents Fromm’s “remarkable capacity to convey complex thoughts in psychoanalysis, ethics, theology, political theory, social philosophy, cultural creations and much more in simple, direct prose that appealed to the latent ideals and fears of his time” (p.xxi-ii).

                Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900, into a middle-class German-Jewish family. He was an only child and never felt particularly close to his parents. His mother in particular was distant. Looking back on his childhood, Fromm found her uncaring — she had not mastered the art of loving was probably a thought that passed through Fromm’s adult mind, perhaps at the moment when the title of his future book crystallized for him. Although his immediate family was not religious, from his earliest years prophetic Jewish teaching had much influence on his writings and thinking, an influence that never vanished as Fromm drifted away from formal Judaism. Throughout his adult life, Jewish law and ethics proved to be an anchor for Fromm, an illustration of universal human needs and experiences.

              Fromm became a psychoanalyst and began to make a name for himself at the Frankfurt Institute in the 1930s. But the 1930s were not among Germany’s better years and, with Hitler in power, most of the Frankfurt Institute moved to Columbia University in New York. Fromm migrated to the United States in 1934, and made what seems to have been a seamless transition to becoming an American in all senses of the term. Unlike most of his German colleagues at Columbia, Fromm was very comfortable in America and in using the English language, which he mastered in an amazingly short time.

          Fromm’s field, psychoanalysis, was one which Sigmund Freud had essentially invented during Fromm’s early years. As a young psychoanalyst, Fromm developed views that set him apart from Freud. Fromm regarded Freud’s view of human beings as too dark, too focused on libidinal impulses. Fromm “modified but did not eliminate [Freud’s] centrality of instinctive life” (p.225). In some senses, Fromm’s life-long mission was to replace libido theory, the “underpinning of Freudian orthodoxy” (p.60), with a view of humans as “social beings whose lives are shaped by social structure and culture” (p. xii), and in this sense Fromm never seriously wavered from his counter-views of Freud.

            The other central figure in defining Fromm’s professional career and shaping his views was Karl Marx. Early in his career, having deviated from Freudian orthodoxy, Fromm became convinced that the correct psychoanalytic view of man could be found through a synthesis between Marx’s rigidly materialistic emphasis on social-economic conditions and Freud’s focus on the inner psyche. While at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany, Fromm stumbled upon an early, unpublished manuscript Marx had written in 1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also called the Paris Manuscripts), in which Marx had emphasized the estrangement that capitalism inflicted upon the human psyche. Blending this younger and “more psychologically compelling Marx” (p.188) with the insights of Freud, Fromm developed his notion of “social character structure,” a notion based on the interplay between individuals’ “impulsive energy, religion [and] political ideologies” and the “economic organization of society” (p.60).

        Fromm’s first major work, Escape from Freedom, which Friedman terms “one of the most profound and captivating books ever written on the conflict between freedom and authoritarianism” (p.62), came out in 1941, with war raging in Europe. Escape was one of the first works to merge psychology and history although, Friedman notes, most critics found that Fromm’s psychology “outshone his history” (p.107). The central thesis which Fromm articulated in Escape was in many senses the central thesis of his writings for the remainder of his career:

[M]odern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man (p.99).

              Although the future for liberal democracy appeared exceedingly bleak at the time of publication, Escape ended on an upbeat note. Fromm predicted the eventual spread of humanistic values, “almost as historical inevitability” (p.115). Friedman attributes Fromm’s optimism in part to his Jewish heritage and learning, noting that the Jewish prophetic tradition burst forth at the end of Escape from Freedom and helped make it a classic. As Fromm wrote the book, he was preoccupied with the rescue of family members and others from a “Holocaust in the making,” indicating that “much of his daily life was deeply embedded in the fabric of the book” (p.97). “The force and clarity of the work,” Friedman concludes, was “surely influenced by his almost daily interventions for émigré assistance” (p.76).

              With the defeat of the Nazis and the onset of the Cold War, Escape from Freedom demonstrated its versatility by evolving into a book speaking to the conformist tendencies of the 1950s in the United States. Friedman argues that Escape can be fitted into the same niche as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, works which also addressed the comfortable middle class materialism that seemed to characterize 1950s America. Escape from Freedom had a wider focus than The Lonely Crowd, which was centered on the United States. In Friedman’s interpretation, one can see a 20th century version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Escape from Freedom, a statement of the perils of democracy in which people “dread their own free agency [and] fear themselves” (p.66-67).

              In 1950, Fromm relocated to Mexico and a post at the National Autonomous University, where he taught until 1965, although he retained substantial ties with the United States throughout his time in Mexico. During the 1950s, Friedman contends, Fromm ceased to write as a scholar and “evolved into a best-selling author” and “icon of popular culture,” particularly in the United States (p.155). In an unremitting series of books — rarely supported, Friedman wryly notes, with “much logic or evidence” (p.155) — Fromm advanced emotionally powerful ideas about the importance of love, the dangers of nuclear war, and the insipidness of consumerism and materialism.

             The Sane Society, published in 1955, focused on the Cold War culture of consumerism. Here, Fromm argued that love was the only force capable of counterbalancing narcissism and social conformity. A society achieved sanity where its citizens were “self-directed,” depending upon “their own capacities to love and to create, to think and to reason, to feel connected to themselves and to others” (p.188). Fromm relied heavily upon Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which he had discovered while at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany. “We consume, as we produce,” Fromm wrote in The Sane Society, echoing Marx, “without any concrete relatedness to the objects with which we deal; we live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to manipulate or to consume them” (p.189).

             The following year, 1956, saw the publication of The Art of Loving, Fromm’s best selling book. With few footnotes or quotations and no index, the slim, 120 page volume was “quite short on scholarly paraphernalia,” as Friedman puts it (p.173). Here, Fromm posited that loving others starts with loving one-self. Self love opens an “entry way to the love of another and human kind” (p.175). Much to his chagrin, The Art of Loving was often paired with 1950s “self-help” best-sellers such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, works which “valued material acquisition and enhanced popularity as the avenues to happiness” (p.174). Quite unlike these works, The Art of Loving contained a scathing indictment of market capitalism and consumerism that emphasized the “severe limitations on love inherent in modern capitalist society and its focus on materialist acquisitiveness” (p.181), helping to explain the book’s appeal in the 1960s, when Carnegie and Peale seemed conspicuously out of step with the times.

               In these and his other books written in the 1950s and 1960s, Fromm became what we might term today a “public intellectual,” speaking out on the issues of the day and engaging actively in politics. Fromm’s signature issue centered on the threat that nuclear weapons posed, a threat he considered more serious than the dictatorships of the 1930s. Fromm was a co-founder of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (usually referred to as “SANE,” a reference to The Sane Society). Fromm advised a wide range of American public officials during this time on the dangers of nuclear weapons, including John F. Kennedy, William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, and Eugene McCarthy.

                 Throughout his time of activism and engagement, Fromm continued to write prolifically, with his search for the ideal synthesis between Freud and Marx continuing. His 1959 work Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence invoked Marx as a “remedy” to Freud, but From still asserted that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious had struck a blow to conventional rationalists. More an “extended philippic than a closely reasoned or well-researched manuscript,” Sigmund Freud’s Mission nonetheless represented Fromm’s “most explicit reckoning with Freud” (p.221). Marx’s Concept of Man, published in 1961, relied again on Marx’s 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts to portray Marx as “deeply sensitive to inner, often unconsciousness psychological motivation” (p.223). Beyond the Chains of Illusions, published in 1962, represented Fromm’s “fullest effort to present his thoughts on Freud and Marx between two covers” (p.224). Unlike Freud, Fromm found that Marx had “delineated the psychologically crippling effect of class exploitation inherent in capitalism” (p.225). Marx thus helped Fromm establish an essentially social-democratic position as an alternative to a “repressive, class-based society” (p.226).

             Fromm termed his social-democratic position “socialist humanism,” a creed that sought to elevate individual self-fulfillment as the centerpiece for structuring human institutions. Fromm utilized his socialist humanism project to connect like-minded humanists in the United States and Western Europe with Eastern European dissidents in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1965, Fromm edited a volume of essays entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, which became “perhaps the most cited and celebratory global expression of 1960s third world socialism, providing an international context to the increasing number of works by members of Fromm’s expanding circle of colleagues” (p.245-46).

            In the 1960s, Fromm also began to explore what he termed “necrophilia,” a predilection for death, force, and destruction. Fromm posited “biophilia” as the counterpoint to necrophilia, a “heightened sense of aliveness” through which man “confirmed his powers and his sense of self” (p.215). This binary theme underscored Fromm’s 1973 work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Here, Fromm argued that the authoritarian character type he had been describing since Escape From Freedom and the necrophilic character type “operated in tandem, forming a partnership between the two most evil potentialities of the human condition” (p.308). To illustrate this lethal partnership, Fromm delved briefly into the character of Adolph Hitler and more fully into that of his notorious lieutenant, Heinrich Himmler, a sadist who “sought total control over others and enjoyed inflicting misery” (p.309). Fromm’s analysis of Himmler provided concrete details for “some of the generalizations about the authoritarian personality that he had simply outlined in Escape from Freedom. It was Fromm at his peak as an intellectual and scholar in his last decade,” (p.310), Friedman concludes.

            To Have or To Be, published in 1976, Fromm’s last major work, synthesized Fromm’s “most important ethical and psychological observations over the decade” on authoritarianism, necrophilia, consumerism and a depleted sense of self (p.318). The book presented another binary contrast, between “having” and “being” modes, across a wide range of human experience. Fromm suggested that the world would transition from having to being when such qualities as relatedness, love, and solidarity “permeated society’s current bureaucratic, greedy, materialistic, and unhappy existence’” (p.327). To Have or To Be enjoyed only modest success in the United States but was exceedingly popular in Europe, particularly with young Germans and Italians who were speaking out for “less materialist and consumer driven lifestyles” (p.327). Some Europeans characterized the book as a “counterpoint to problematic American values” (p.327).

              While probing Fromm’s many writings, Friedman does not neglect the emotional and romantic side of the man. Friedman lets the reader decide whether Fromm the man adhered in his personal relationships to the principles which Fromm the writer had articulated. Fromm’s generally cold and distant relationship with his mother prompted him to seek emotional closeness in a wide variety of women. Fromm’s first wife, Frieda Reichman, whom Fromm married at age 26, was nearly 11 years older, and already a prominent psychoanalyst. After Fromm’s divorce from Reichman and shortly after his arrival in New York, Fromm had a long affair with prominent American psychoanalyst Karen Horney, also considerably older than Fromm; and another with an African-American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Fromm’s second wife, Henny Gurland, committed suicide in 1952. The next year Fromm married Annis Freeman, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life.

             Fromm retired with Annis to Locarno, Switzerland in 1976. He continued to write up to his death in 1980. While his works after Escape from Freedom may have lacked the rigor that would endear him to academics, Fromm nonetheless struck a responsive chord with an anxious reading public in the United States and throughout the world. Benjamin Friedman’s splendid interpretative biography provides those of us who are no longer sophomores with an opportunity to take another look at Fromm’s critiques of consumerism and materialism and reflect upon his formulations for achieving happiness.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 7, 2015

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