Friday, February 5, 2010

Russia vs. socialism

This is a good moment to address the tension in this blog between Russia and socialism. The latter has been practiced everywhere from Phnom Penh to Oslo, and it's lived a robust life as an ideal whose partisans didn't always care much for the Soviets. So the nation of Russia, its culture and people, doesn't necessarily have an elective affinity with the political philosophy of socialism, and vice versa.

David Brooks said in the New Republic last fall that Barack Obama was the only Senator he'd met who knew more about political philosophy than he did. Looking back, I'm struck by how little interest I've had in political philosophers. Or at least the political philosophers Brooks refers to. In rough order of importance, judging by nothing more than his columns, I'm guessing they would be: Edmund Burke, Reinhold Niebuhr, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, George Orwell, John Rawls, Michael Oakeshott. I know very little about these people, and it's not just because many of them are conservatives. Fur Coat used to wave around Reflections on the Revolution in France during grad school, but I could never get into it. I read a biography of Niebuhr once but was I supposed to take that Christian militarism seriously? Hayek's Road to Serfdom is a good book; Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution are great. I like John Stuart Mill in theory and wish I had more patience for him. Dewey is excruciating. George Orwell is fine but I'm not sure what makes him a philosopher. Never read a word by Oakeshott or Rawls.

By contrast the people who excited me back in those days were outside the liberal tradition. Marx, Gramsci, Hegel (maybe excited is the wrong word), the Frankfurt school, Croce. Some of these are good writers but I don't know how useful they are in 2010. At this point in life I sort of wish I'd invested a little time in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The above list says something about the cloistered state of humanities graduate programs, as well as the fact that democracy to young people is boring. But the odd thing is that while the authors of socialist texts are alluring, their books are dense and drab. If Das Kapital is hard to slog through, what about Rosa Luxemburg's The Accumulation of Capital? Georg Lukacs is OK and Gramsci is good, but can you imagine reading Ernst Bloch for inspiration? Or Lenin? At least Lenin's books are short, but who in their right mind is going to tackle Althusser?

And yet all these names generate a frisson of delight that is absent from the democratic philosophers. John Dewey is just as impenetrable as Rosa Luxembourg but the idea of reading her, of being admitted to all that conspiratorial knowledge and grasping the secret of oppression and exploitation, is irresistible. Dewey is just a guy wondering how flawed humans can avoid killing each other. I enjoy having her books on my shelf, thumbing through them, imbibing the danger laced in her pages and admiring the perfect logical symmetry of her table of contents. Dewey just sits there ignored, and so would Burke, Niebuhr, Mill and Oakeshott.


  1. This is your best post which is another way of saying, with Howard Stern, NOW you've (implied finally) said something. In fact, I hate Rawls so much that I made this an interview question for potential roommates who answered our advertisement in your paper. If you liked Dewey, how interesting a conversationalist could you be?