The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pragmatism: A Marxist view

A Marxist view of Dewey’s liberal philosophy

Printed below are excerpts from Pragmatism versus Marxism: An Appraisal of John Dewey’s Philosophy, by George Novack.... Liberal figure John Dewey (1859-1952) was the most influential proponent of the pragmatic philosophical school in the first half of the 20th century. Copyright © 1975 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission.


An important national school of philosophy has to be judged not simply by the standards of the highest development of world thought, but also in the light of specific national conditions and its connections with them. Sun Yat-senism, for example, could be rejected out of hand as unworthy of consideration because it was backward and muddled compared to the clearest expressions of revolutionary democratic, not to speak of socialist, thought in the West. However, this does not dispose of it. It was the expression of an inescapable step in the awakening of modern thought in China, a weapon against mandarinism, a bridge over which the most progressive elements passed from feudal thought to Marxism.

Croce contributed little to the advance of world philosophy. Yet his historical idealism, the expression of Italian bourgeois liberalism, helped prepare minds like the communist Gramsci and others for the reception of Marxist ideas.
Today the overall national thinking of the American people is more backward than that of either China or Italy. Deweyism must be appraised in that concrete context. It is as wrong and misleading to identify pragmatism with imperialism as it is to identify pragmatism with Marxism. Pragmatism is essentially the philosophy of middle-class individuals who are caught between capital and labor; its hallmark is the attempt to find political and ideological positions somewhere between these polar forces in American society.

Two instructive examples
An event that illustrates the difference between the pragmatic and Marxist approaches to an acute social problem occurred in the last years of Dewey’s life. When the witch-hunters launched their campaign to bar "subversives" from teaching in the public schools, Dewey courageously opposed this undemocratic purge. In 1949 he justified his stand by saying that the motives of the witch-hunters were not clear and the specific results of their actions could not be foreseen. He said that the purge might have either good or bad results but he feared that the latter would be the case.

Thus Dewey hinged his reasoning on social indeterminateness and personal ignorance, not on considerations of principle. This purely pragmatic approach made it possible for virulent anticommunists like his disciple Sidney Hook to approve the exclusion of Communist Party sympathizers from teaching staffs as "conspirators" and agents of a foreign power.

The Trotskyists, like Dewey, opposed such persecutions, but on a different basis. They stated that the drive had completely reactionary motives and was bound to stifle democratic rights. Their arguments were premised on the role played by thought control in the struggles issuing from the determinate class antagonisms of American society, and on the principle that the interests of democracy and labor demanded an irreconcilable fight against the inquisitors.

Thus even where the positions taken by certain pragmatists and the Marxists on a specific issue coincided, they were based on different premises, animated by different class aims, and guided by different methods of social analysis. Middle-class elements and the workers can and do have certain points in common. This makes it possible and even necessary on occasion for their representatives to join in action against oppressions of the capitalist regime. But such united fronts on specific issues do not mean that the motives, programs, methods, and aims of the two are identical. They are often in fact quite different, as the further test of experience will show.

Although the protests against the slander and murder of Lenin’s associates [by the Stalin regime in the 1930s] was worldwide, the organized effort to stay the hand of Moscow centered in the United States. Dewey headed the International Commission of Inquiry which was supported by a united front of liberal intellectuals and left-wing Socialists. This commission performed a historic service to the world working class and to the cause of justice. Its members examined the available body of information connected with the Moscow Trials of 1937–38, concluded that they were frame-ups, and found that Trotsky and his son Leon Sedov were not guilty of the infamous charges against them. These conclusions have stood the test of time; in 1956 Khrushchev himself partially confirmed them, although not directly and honestly.

Both tendencies backing the com-mission’s work were interested in probing the case to the bottom, making known the truth about the accusations, and offering the exiled Trotsky the opportunity to present his defense to the public. These tasks were done, and done well. But the two allies did not have the same political motives.

Many liberals took the exposure of Stalin’s crimes against the working class and its revolutionary representatives as an opportunity to strike a blow against socialism. They vaunted the superiority of bourgeois democracy over Stalinist totalitarianism by falsely identifying the policies and misdeeds of the Soviet bureaucracy with genuine communism and asserting that Stalinism was the logical outcome of Leninism.

The Marxists had different objectives. They faced the difficult dual task of exposing the crimes of Stalinism while defending the honor of Bolshevism, the traditions of Marxism, and the program of socialism against both their desecrators and detractors. The Marxists saw no reason for exalting the virtues of an imperialist democracy which was splotched with a criminal record extending from world wars to frame-ups of labor militants and lynchings of Blacks. They explained that the very fact that Stalin had to besmirch and slaughter an entire generation of revolutionary leaders showed how incompatible his regime was with that of Lenin’s time. Dewey himself utilized the occasion of the announcement of his Commission’s verdict in 1937 not only to repledge allegiance to democratic liberalism but to denounce Trotsky’s doctrines as no better than Stalin’s. This uncalled-for disavowal was one of the signs of the growing reconciliation by American intellectuals with imperialism in the late thirties, which culminated in their support to its war. By 1941 the anti-Stalinist liberals found themselves together with the American Stalinists--and against the Trotskyists--on the war issue.