Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Orwell on historical truth

George Orwell is celebrated for his recognition of the role of political lies in the conflicts of his time. For example: "Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Part of his awareness of self-serving lies about history by states and political partisans developed through his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Events that he himself had observed and participated in -- for example, the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- were grossly misrepresented by the Communists. Ultimately his own faction, the POUM, was accused by the Communists of having engaged in conspiracy and having fomented the street violence that occurred during these weeks. Orwell was a participant, and he knew first-hand that this was untrue. It is instructive to read Homage to Catalonia from the lens of "historical truth".

So what were the facts about Barcelona in spring 1937?

IT will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eyewitnesses whom I believe to be reliable. I can, however, contradict some of the more flagrant lies and help to get the affair into some kind of perspective. (70)

In what follows Orwell offers a judicious account of the events and pronouncements that preceded and followed the beginning of street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- first between the anarchists (CNT) and the Guardia Civil, then with several parties of the left joining with the CNT on the barricades. He makes an effort to recover documents and contemporary news articles to piece together the sequence of events that culminated in the suppression of the POUM. And he finds that reportage in the press was almost invariably incorrect, whether purposefully or not. The Communist line was consistently antagonistic to the anarchists and the Trotskyists (POUM). 

A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign anti-Fascist press, but, as usual, only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were ‘stabbing the Spanish Government in the back’, and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves; but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received something that they regard as a provocation. (73)

In particular, the Communists were active in constructing a propaganda platform against both POUM and the anarchists.

Since the beginning of the war the Spanish Communist Party had grown enormously in numbers and captured most of the political power, and there had come into Spain thousands of foreign Communists, many of whom were openly expressing their intention of ‘liquidating’ Anarchism as soon as the war against Franco was won. In the circumstances one could hardly expect the Anarchists to hand over the weapons which they had got possession of in the summer of 1936. (73-74)

Orwell explicitly considers his own position and potential bias in constructing the narrative that he offers. He credibly offers a commitment of his own intention to report honestly what he has observed.

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest. But it will be seen that the account I have given is completely different from that which appeared in the foreign and especially the Communist press. It is necessary to examine the Communist version, because it was published all over the world, has been supplemented at short intervals ever since, and is probably the most widely accepted one. ... In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided ‘uncontrollables’. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’ —a ‘Trotskyist’ organization working in league with the Fascists. (74)

Throughout he establishes the ideological and propagandist "line" taken by the Communists, and he demonstrates its deliberate mendacity.

In a moment I will give some more extracts from the accounts that appeared in the Communist press; it will be seen that they are so self-contradictory as to be completely worthless. But before doing so it is worth pointing to several a priori reasons why this version of the May fighting as a Fascist rising engineered by the P.O.U.M. is next door to incredible. (75)


The alleged Fascist plot rests on bare assertion and all the evidence points in the other direction. We are told that the plan was for the German and Italian Governments to land troops in Catalonia; but no German or Italian troopships approached the coast. As to the ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ and the ‘German and Italian agents’, they are pure myth. So far as I know there had not even been any talk of a Congress of the Fourth International. There were vague plans for a Congress of the P.O.U.M. and its brother-parties (English I.L.P., German S.A.P., etc., etc.); this had been tentatively fixed for some time in July—two months later—and not a single delegate had yet arrived. The ‘German and Italian agents’ have no existence outside the pages of the Daily Worker. Anyone who crossed the frontier at that time knows that it was not so easy to ‘pour’ into Spain, or out of it, for that matter. (65-776_

And Orwell proceeds with a point-by-point refutation of the anti-Anarchist propaganda narrative offered by the Communists.

It is impossible to read through the reports in the Communist Press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice. Hence, for instance, such statements as Mr Pitcairn’s in the Daily Worker of 11 May that the ‘rising’ was suppressed by the Popular Army. The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the ‘Trotskyists’. But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. (78)

By contrast with the organized and coordinated Communist narrative, Orwell's account of the street fighting in Barcelona in 1937 has the authenticity of an honest participant who offers his own account of events in which he participated. It is plain that he had sympathies -- for example, he refused the invitation to leave POUM and join the Communist International Brigade because he was not willing to risk being ordered to fire his rifle against Spanish workers (anarchists). But his sympathies do not appear to have interfered with his critical eye and his willingness to tell his story unflinchingly and honestly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

An absolutist Socrates

We often think of Socrates as the ultimate "critical free thinker". He antagonized many in Athens through his relentless questioning of shared assumptions about ethics, the gods, and the nature of knowledge and belief. And, as a result, he was also thought to have "corrupted the youth", leading many young men of the Athenian elite into a skeptical rejection of the knowledge, wisdom, and authority of their seniors. 

So what are we to make of Socrates' principled rejection of the efforts of Crito and other friends to persuade him to flee Athens and avoid the sentence of death to which his trial led? Crito offers a series of pragmatic reasons why Socrates should flee: the welfare of his children, the avoidance of harm for his friends, who will be thought to have been too afraid or too penurious to help Socrates escape, his own ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life in another city.

Socrates' reply is that he is not willing to consider reasons of self-interest (or the interests of others) until he has satisfied himself on what virtue or justice requires of him. Socrates insists that he wants to make the virtuous choice, not the most advantageous choice. He focuses on what justice requires of a citizen when the laws of the city have led to a command that requires great sacrifice of the citizen. In his own case, the laws of the city have been observed: charges have been lawfully brought forward; he has been given the opportunity to rebut the charges; and a majority of the jury has found him guilty of the charges and a separate majority has voted in favor of the penalty of death. The laws of the city have spoken; so what now is the unconditional obligation of the citizen?

Socrates' reasoned answer is unequivocal. He concludes that the lawfully enacted commands of the city create unconditional obligations of compliance for the citizen.

So: Do we say that we should never willingly act unjustly, or that we should in some instances and not in others? Or is acting unjustly never good or noble, as we often agreed on previous occasions? (Crito 49a)


So: And so one must never act unjustly.
Cr: By no means.
So: And so one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly. (49b)

Here Socrates believes he has established the unconditional, unqualified obligation to act justly. So all that remains is to determine whether "acting justly" requires complying with the lawfully executed commands of the state. But first, are there exceptions to this principle -- for example, in cases where the state's commands are themselves unjust? And second, are there qualifications about the "legitimate" state that must be respected in order to create obligations at all?

Or will we say to them "The city treated us unjustly and did not decide the case properly"? Will we say this or something like it?
Cr: By Zeus, that's what we'll say, Socrates. (50c)

Socrates emphatically rejects this idea: there is no exception for "unjust commands" by the state.

So: What if the laws then said, "Socrates, did we agree on this, we and you, to honor the decisions that the city makes?" And if we were surprised to hear them say this, perhaps they would say, "Socrates, don't be surprised at what we're saying but answer, since you are used to participating in questioning and answering. Come then, what reason can you give us and the city for trying to destroy us? Did we not, to begin with, give birth to you? And wasn't it through us that your father married your mother and conceived you? So show those of us, the laws concerning marriages, what fault you find that keeps them from being good?" "I find no fault with them," I would say. (50c)

And the crucial lines:

"Well, then. Since you have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? (50e)

The authority of the city, then, depends on two things: the citizen's agreement (explicit or implicit) to comply with decisions the city makes; and the idea that the city created the citizen and rightly "owns" the citizen as offspring and slave. The first reason is fundamentally a social-contract argument for the origins of political obligation, while the second is an even older argument based on the idea of "moral parentage" of the citizen by the city and its laws. And, conjoined with arguments described above, the obligations described here are unconditional: the city has the inherent right to command (enact its laws) without limitation, and the citizen has the absolute duty of compliance. The city and its laws have a moral status higher than that of the citizen.

This is an absolutist theory of the state and its authority. It is, among other things, a complete refutation of the legitimacy of principled civil disobedience; disobedience and non-compliance are never "just". It is also a procedural conception of justice: if the laws stipulate that capital cases must be decided in a day, then there is no place for argument or resistance to the effect that this requirement is unjust to the accused. 

It is worth noticing that Socrates (or Plato) stacks the deck a bit here, by considering only the city's command and the consequence for the individual citizen. The citizen must comply, no matter what the cost to his own interests. But surely this is a special case. If the individual wishes to sacrifice his own interests or life in obedience to the commands of the state, perhaps we should simply regard this as an individual choice. However, the arguments seem to have the same force if the city's commands require the citizen to inflict harm on others -- innocent civilians, members of family, other citizens. If the laws had allowed as punishment for the crimes for which Socrates was convicted the execution of the accused and his children, would Socrates be equally obliged by the requirement of justice to comply? More historically, if the city had commanded that Cleon had unlimited authority to choose the means of war against Sparta (delegating its unconditional right to command) and Cleon had ordered the massacre at Melos, would any Athenian soldier have the moral right to refuse the order? It appears that Socrates' arguments to Crito would persist in holding that the authority to command is absolute; therefore soldiers must comply.

This argument for the duty of compliance appears to present a theory of the state that is wholly unlimited in its justification of the unconstrained authority of the state. There are no limits on the actions the state can undertake; there are no rights of citizens that the state must respect; there is no recourse for the citizen against "illegitimate or mistaken" commands by the state. There is no constitution or bill of rights defining the legitimate scope and limits of state power, and nothing that secures an inviolable zone of protection for the rights of the individual citizen.

Socrates was executed by a judicial process conducted under the terms of Athenian democracy. But what about the commands of the city and its laws during the rule of the Tyrants? Were Athenian citizens equally obligated to comply with the commands of the Tyrants during the period in which they ruled? If so, what distinguishes a legitimate state from an illegitimate one? For that matter, how are we to understand Socrates' own refusal to do the bidding of the Tyrants? Why did he not regard their commands as being as absolute and binding as those of the democracy?

Athens' condemnation of Socrates for his speech and teaching is one thing; legitimation of the massacres committed by Cleon in the name of Athens is another. And yet the arguments offered by Socrates in the Crito seem to equally support both. (See these earlier posts for more discussion of crimes of war committed during the Peloponnesian War; link, link.) This suggests that the political theory defended in Crito is fundamentally wrong, and wrong in a very deep way. It provides an absolutist, even totalitarian, basis for thinking about the relationship between state and citizen that is antithetical to the idea of the moral autonomy of the citizen.

Monday, September 4, 2023

A horrendous massacre in Tamil Nadu, 1968

A recurring theme in Understanding Society for the past several years is the occurrence of unfathomable atrocity in the twentieth century. Many of the examples considered occurred in Europe. But atrocities have occurred in many countries and civilizations. A horrific example occurred in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1968. In the small rural village of Keezhvenmani, some 44 dalit people, mostly women and children, were gathered into a hut by the strongmen of local landlords, the hut was set afire, and all 44 innocent dalit people died a horrifying, torturous death. The exact number of victims is uncertain.    

The term "dalit" refers to the lowest caste of people in the Indian caste system, now officially designated as "Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe", and the massacre at Keezhvenmani was only one of a number of mass murders of dalits in Tamil Nadu since independence. (Here is a detailed report by Human Rights Watch on violence against dalit women in India (link). A central finding of the report: "The lack of law enforcement leaves many Dalit women unable to approach the legal system to seek redress. Women are often also unaware of the laws; their ignorance is exploited by their opponents, by the police, and, as illustrated by the cases below, by the judiciary. Even when cases are registered, the lack of appropriate investigation, or the judge’s own caste and gender biases, can lead to acquittal, regardless of the availability of evidence or witnesses. The failure to successfully prosecute cases of rape also allows for crimes against women to continue unabated, and in the caste context, encourages the use of rape as a tool to punish and silence Dalit communities.")

The young scholar Nithila Kanagasabai (herself a resident of Tamil Nadu) attempted to provide an evidence-based reconstruction of the Keezhvenmani massacre in "The Din of Silence: Reconstructing the Keezhvenmani Dalit Massacre of 1968" (link). 

The background of the 1968 killings was the conflict between landlords who owned or controlled the rice paddy of the region (mirasdar) and the landless workers (often formerly bonded laborers) who were the primary workforce. These agricultural workers were dalits and they were extremely poor. When these workers and families began to support the mobilizing efforts of the increasingly active presence of several Communist parties in the region, the landlords began to use violence against these workers and families. A number of murders occurred in the months preceding the December 1968 massacre at Keezhvenmani. Here is Kanagasabai's description of the December 25 massacre:

According to eye witness accounts, on 25th December 1968, at around 10 p.m., the mirasdars and their henchmen came in police lorries and surrounded the cheri (hutments), cutting off all routes of escape. They shot at the labourers and their families who could only throw stones to protect themselves or flee from the spot. They also started burning the huts in the vicinity. Many of the women and children, and some old men, sought protection in a hut that was 8 ft x 9 ft. The hut was burnt down, and the people with it. Both the sessions court and the high court that later heard the case, held that those who committed the arson were not aware of the presence of people in that particular hut (Krishnakumar, 2005). But eye witness accounts by the survivors point to an altogether different truth. (111)

The accused perpetrators of this atrocity were charged, tried, and convicted, but their convictions were set aside by the Madras High Court. "The evidence did not enable Their Lordships to identify and punish the guilty” (114).

This event illustrates the workings of oppression involving both caste and class. The landless workers were predominantly dalit -- the lowest caste. And they were the poorest of the poor, with very little power to assert a fair share of the harvest. Land owners were in a position to resist increases in wages (the primary demand of the workers in this dispute), both through their structural advantage within the property system (land ownership) and their coercive power (through their ability to call upon armed thugs to carry out their violence against the dalit protests). A solution for the property disadvantage for the dalit workers is land reform, and during the years following the Keezhvenmani massacre there was a reasonably strong organization dedicated to land reform and dalit land ownership, the Land for Tillers Freedom (LAFTI). However, land reform based on NGO activism is likely to remain small-scale, in comparison to state-wide land reform programs.

Kanagasabai quotes V Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran in the introduction to Mythily Sivaraman's Haunted by Fire (2013):

That episode and visit brought home to Mythily the starkness of life in this grain rich part of Tamil Nadu... She realised that the price for dignity, for daring to declare oneself a communist was very high in these parts – many had paid with their lives... Unsurprisingly, in her subsequent reflections, she refused to concede that the monstrous incident at Kilvenmani was only a wage dispute gone wrong, and argued passionately for it to be recognised for what it was: class struggle in the countryside. (Geetha & Karunakaran, 2013)

Class struggle in the countryside, indeed -- landlords exercising horrendous violence against landless workers.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Moses Finley's persecution by McCarthyism

MI Finley (1912-1986) played a transformative role in the development of studies of the ancient world in the 1960s through the 1980s. He contributed to a reorientation of the field away from purely textual and philological sources to broad application of contemporary social science frameworks to the ancient world. His book The Ancient Economy (1973) was especially influential.

Finley was born in the United States, but most of his academic career unfolded in Britain. The reasons for this "brain drain" are peculiarly America. Like many other Americans -- screenwriters, actors, directors, government officials, and academics -- Finley became enmeshed in the period of unhinged political repression known as McCarthyism. Finley was named as a member of the Communist Party of the United States by fellow academic Karl Wittfogel in his own sworn testimony to the McCarran Committee (United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security). (Pat McCarran (D-NEV) was also the primary sponsor of the Subversive Activities Control Act (1950), which provided for mandatory registration of members of the Communist Party and created the legal possibility of "emergency detention" of Communists. Police state institutions!) When Finley was called to testify under oath to the committee, he declined to answer any questions based on his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. He was subsequently fired by Rutgers University for his refusal to answer the committee's questions. (Daniel Tompkins' essay "Moses Finkelstein and the American Scene: The Political Formation of Moses Finley, 1932-1955" provides some valuable information about the first half of Finley's career until he departed the United States; link.)

It should be noted that one's Fifth Amendment rights do not allow the witness to pick and choose which questions he or she is willing to answer. Many of the witnesses who took the Fifth during this period were fully willing to discuss their own activities but were not willing to name associates -- for example, Case Western Reserve professor Marcus Singer. Here is a brief summary of Singer's case taken from his New York Times obituary (October 11, 1994).

In 1953, when he was on the Cornell University faculty, Dr. Singer was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his political affiliations. He admitted having been a Communist until 1948, although he said he had never held a party card. He refused to name Communists he had known while teaching at Harvard, from 1942 to 1951, on grounds of "honor and conscience" and invoked the protection of the Fifth Amendment.

In 1956, he was convicted of contempt of Congress, fined $100 and given a three-month suspended sentence in Federal District Court in Washington, which ruled that he had waived the Fifth Amendment's protection. In 1957 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit set aside the conviction, saying its ruling was required by a Supreme Court decision in a similar case. The court sent the case back to Federal District Court with instructions to enter a judgment of not guilty.

In hindsight the willing participation of university presidents, law professors, and other faculty in the effort to exclude Communists or former Communists from faculty positions, and to fire professors who chose to plead the fifth amendment rather than provide testimony to the various congressional committees about their associates seems to reflect an almost incredible level of hysteria and paranoia. Ellen Schrecker documents the compliant actions of many administrators, trustees, and fellow faculty members (link). This was a betrayal of the principles of academic and personal freedom. One does not need to be an advocate of the Communist Party in order to defend a strong principle of academic freedom for all professors; and yet administrators and faculty at many leading universities were eager to find ways of supporting these anti-Communist measures. Schrecker quotes an official statement of the AAU in 1953 that provided grounds for firing faculty for membership in the Communist Party and for refusal to testify about their activities (link):

The professor owes his colleagues in the university complete candor and perfect integrity, precluding any kind of clandestine or conspiratorial activities. He owes equal candor to the public. If he is called upon to answer for his convictions, it is his duty as a citizen to speak out. It is even more his duty as a professor. Refusal to do so, on whatever legal grounds, cannot fail to reflect upon a profession that claims for itself the fullest freedom to speak and the maximum protection of that freedom available in our society. In this respect, invocation of the Fifth Amendment places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position and lays upon his university an obligation to reexamine his qualifications for membership in its society. (325)

The AAUP eventually issued a statement condemning firing of professors for these reasons in 1956; but the damage was done.

But what about MI Finley? Was he a member of the CP-USA? And did this membership influence his thinking, teaching, and writing? Was he unsuitable to serve as a professor at an American university? F.S. Naiden answers the first question unequivocally: "Incontrovertible evidence now shows that Moses Finkelstein, as he was then named, joined the Party in 1937–8. The Party official who enrolled him, Emily Randolph Grace, reported this information in a biographical note she wrote about Finley in order to prepare for an international conference in 1960" (link). And Naiden suggests that his membership continued through the mid-1940s. 

Let's take Naiden's assessment as accurate; so what? Should Finley's membership in the 1930s be viewed as basis for disqualification as a professor fifteen years later? Here the answer seems clear: Finley's choices in the 1930s reflected his political and social convictions, his ideas and thoughts, and should fairly be seen as falling within his rights of freedom of thought, speech, and association. If his political ideas led him to commit substantive violations of the law, of course it would be legitimate to charge him under the relevant law; but there is no suggestion that this was the case. So Finley's persecution in 1953 -- along with the dozens of other faculty members who were fired from US universities for the same reason -- is just that: persecution based on his thoughts and convictions.

And what about his teaching? Did his previous membership in the Communist Party interfere with his professional responsibilities to his students or to the academic standards of his discipline? Again, the answer appears to be unequivocal. Finley, like the great majority of other professors dismissed for their Communist beliefs, appeared to make a strong separation between his personal political beliefs and the content of his teaching. He did not use the classroom to indoctrinate his students. And his activism in the 1930s -- organizing, leafletting, efforts to persuade others -- was clearly separated from his academic performance. (He had not even completed his PhD during the prime years of his membership in the Communist Party.) So any unbiased observer from Mars would judge that Finley was a fully ethical academic.

Finally, what about his research and writing? Did his membership in the Communist Party distort his scholarship? Did it interfere with his ethical standards of honesty and evidence-based historical research? Again, by the evidence of his writing, this charge too seems wholly unsupportable. Finley was a superb scholar, and his research is grounded in a reasonable and extensive marshaling of evidence about the social and economic realities of the ancient world. Finley was not a communist hack; he was not a dogmatic ideologue; rather, he was a dedicated and evidence-driven scholar -- with innovative theoretical and methodological ideas.

It is especially interesting to read Finley's short essay on the trial of Socrates in the context of his political persecution in the United States in 1953 (Socrates on Trial, first published in slightly different form in Aspects of Antiquity in 1960). Though there is an obvious parallel between the trial of Socrates and the encounter between Finley and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security -- in each case the accused is brought to legal process based on his thoughts and criticisms of the society in which he lives -- there is no indication in this text that Finley wishes to draw out this comparison. Instead, most of his essay focuses on the point that much of the trial of Socrates has been mythologized for political purposes -- to attack direct democracy and the tyranny of the majority. Plato's text is a work of literature, not a transcription of the details of the accusations and the responses of Socrates. 

Paradoxically, it is not what Socrates said that is so momentous, but what Meletus and Anytus and Lycon said, what they thought, and what they feared. Who were these men to initiate so vital an action? Unfortunately, little is known about Meletus and Lycon, but Anytus was a prominent patriot and statesman. His participation indicates that the prosecution was carefully thought through, not merely a frivolous or petty persecution.

And Finley attempts to understand the thinking of the jurors themselves by placing the trial in the context of the massive Athenian trauma of the Peloponnesian War and two devastating plagues:

One noteworthy fact in their lives was Athens had been engaged in a bloody war with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 B.C. and did not end (though it was interrupted by periods of uneasy peace) until 404, five years before the trial. The greatest power in the Greek world, Athens led an exceptional empire, prosperous, and proud -- proud of its position, of its culture, and, above all, of its democratic system. But by 404 everything was gone: the empire, the glory, and the democracy. In their place stood a Spartan garrison and a dictatorship (which came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants). The psychological blow was incalculable, and there was not a man on the jury in 399 who could have forgotten it.

So Finley offers a historically dispassionate reading of the trial of Socrates. But we might draw out the essential parallel between the two cases anyway. We might say that Finley, like Socrates, was attacked because he "denied the gods of the city" -- in Finley's case, he challenged the unquestioned moral superiority of capitalism over socialism; and because he threatened to "corrupt the youth" -- to teach through his classroom and his example an unwholesome inclination to "communism". Might we say that the "crimes" of Socrates and Finley were similar after all, in the minds of their persecutors: they were too independent-minded and too critical of their society for the good of society?

I.F. Stone's Trial of Socrates offers a fascinating perspective on Socrates that is relevant to these connections to Finley; and in fact, Stone suggested to Finley that he should write a memoir of his experience (Tompkins (link) p. 5). In Trial of Socrates he writes: "Was the condemnation of Socrates a unique case? Or was he only the most famous victim in a wave of persecutions aimed at irreligious philosophers? ... Two distinguished scholars ... have put forward the view that fifth-century Athens, though often called the Age of the Greek Enlightenment, was also ... the scene of a general witch-hunt against freethinkers." The same words could apply to MI Finley and the dozens of other faculty members who lost their careers to McCarthyism, and to the regrettable failure of liberal democracy in those decades of ideological warfare against critics of capitalism.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Memory and culture after 1989 in Central Europe

The years following the collapse of the socialist-Stalinist regimes of eastern Europe were not comfortable for the people of the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and many other countries. The economic arrangements of a centrally planned economy abruptly collapsed, and new market institutions were slow to emerge and often appeared indifferent to the needs of the citizens. The results of "shock therapy" were prolonged and severe for large segments of these post-socialist countries (Hilmar 6-8). Till Hilmar's Deserved: Economic Memories After the Fall of the Iron Curtain tries to make sense of the period -- and the ways in which it was remembered in following decades. 

Here is how Hilmar defines his project:

I ask: how it is possible that people who underwent disruptive economic change perceive its outcomes in individual terms? A common answer is to say that we live in neoliberal societies that encourage people to put their self-interest first and to disregard others around them. People have become atomized and isolated, the argument goes, and they have unlearned what it means to be part of a community. They have forgotten what we owe each other. Yet something is not quite right about this diagnosis. It assumes that we live our lives today in a space that is somehow devoid of morality. It thereby misses a crucial fact: people are embedded in social relations, and they therefore articulate economic aspirations and experiences of a social dynamic. In this book, I daw on in-depth interviews with dozens of people who lived through disruptive economic change. Based on this research, I show that it is precisely the concern of what people owe each other -- the moral concern -- that drives how many people reason about economic outcomes. They perceive them, I demonstrate, through the lens of moral deservingness, judgments of economic worth that they pass on each other. (3)

The central topic, then, is how individual people remember and make sense of economic changes they have experienced. Hilmar places a locally embodied sense of justice at the center of the work of meaning-making that he explores in interviews with these ordinary people affected by a society-wide earthquake.

Hilmar's method is an especially interesting one. He compares two national cases, Czechoslovakia and the GDR, and he bases his research on focused interviews with 67 residents in the two countries during the transition. The respondents are drawn from two categories of skilled workers, engineers and healthcare workers. His approach "enabled a focus on people's work biography and their sense of change in social relations" (15).

His central theoretical tool is the idea of a moral framework against which people in specific times and places interpret and locate their memories. "The memory of ruptures is guided by concerns about social inclusion. What makes a person feel that he or she is a worthy member of society? In our contemporary world, the answer to this question has a lot to do with economics" (17). Or in other words, Hilmar proposes that people understand their own fates and those of others around them in terms of "deserving-ness" -- deserving their successes and deserving their failures. And Hilmar connects this scheme of judgment of "deserving" to a more basic idea of "social inclusion": the person is "included" when she conforms to existing standards and expectations of "deserving" behavior. "A person's sense of accomplishment and confidence -- in the professional, in the civic, as well as in the private realms -- are all part of a social and normative ensemble in which the grounds for acclaim are social and never just individual" (18). And he connects this view of the social and economic world to the ideas of "moral economy" offered by E.P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi. A period of inequality and suffering for segments of the population is perceived as endurable or unendurable, depending on how it fits into the prevailing definitions of legitimacy embodied in the historically specific moral economy of different segments of society. In the Czech and German cases Hilmar considers, social inclusion is expressed as having a productive role in socialism -- i.e., having a job (39), and the workplace provided the locus for many of the social relationships within which individuals located themselves.

The central empirical work of the project involves roughly seventy interviews of skilled workers in the two countries: engineers and healthcare workers. Biographies shed light on large change; and they also show how individual participants structured and interpreted their r memories of the past in strikingly different terms. This is where Hilmar makes the strongest case for the theoretical ideas outlined above about memory and moral frameworks. He sheds a great deal of light on how individuals in both countries experienced their professional careers before 1989, and how things changed afterwards. And he finds that "job loss", which was both epidemic and devastating in both countries following the collapse of socialism, was a key challenge to individuals' sense of self and their judgments about the legitimacy of the post-socialist economic and political arrangements. Privatization of state-owned companies is regarded in almost all interviews as a negative process, aimed at private capture of social wealth and carried out in ways that disregarded the interests of ordinary workers. And the inequalities that emerged in the post-1989 world were often regarded as profoundly illegitimate, based on privileged access rather than. merit or contribution:

People grew skeptical of the idea that above-average incomes and wealth could in fact be attained through hard work. Instead they began to associate it with nepotism and dishonesty. On these grounds, researchers posit that the principle of egalitarianism returned as the dominant justice belief after the bout of enthusiasm for market society. (94)

This is where the idea of "deservingness" comes in. Did X get the high-paid supervisor job because he or she "earned" it through superior skill and achievement, or through connections? Did Y make a fortune by purchasing a state-owned shoe factory for a low price and selling to a larger corporation at a high price because he or she is a brilliant deal maker, or because of political connections on both ends of the transactions?

The discussion of social relations, informal relations, and trust in post-socialist societies is also very interesting. As Delmar puts the point, "you can't get anything done without the right friends" (118). And social relationships require trust -- trust that others will live up to expectations and promises, that they will honor their obligations to oneself. Without trust, it is impossible to form informal practices of collaboration and cooperation. And crucially: how much trust is possible in a purely market society, if participants are motivated solely by their own economic interests? And what about trust in institutions -- either newly private business firms or government agencies and promises? How can a worker trust her employer not to downsize for the sake of greater profits? How can a citizen trust the state once the criminal actions of Stasi were revealed (138)? What was involved in recreating a basis for trust in institutions after the collapse of socialism?

Through these interviews and interpretations the book provides a very insightful analysis of how judgments of justice and legitimacy exist as systems of interpretation of experience for different groups, and how different those systems sometimes are for co-existing groups of individuals facing very different circumstances. And the concrete work of interview and interpretation across the Czech and German cases well illustrates both the specificity of these "moral frameworks" and some of the ways in which sociologists can investigate them. The book is original, illuminating, and consistently insightful, and it shows a deep acquaintance with the literature on memory and social identity. As such Deserved is a highly valuable contribution to cultural sociology.

(It is interesting to recall Martin Whyte's discussion of generational differences in China about the legitimacy of inequalities in post-Mao China. The Mao generation is not inclined to excuse growing inequalities, whereas the next several generations were willing to accept the legitimacy of inequalities if they derived from merit rather than position and corrupt influence (link). This case aligns nicely with Hilmar's subject matter.) 

Are organizations emergent?

Do organizations have properties that are in some recognizable way independent from the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit them? In A New Social Ontology of Government I emphasized the ways in which organizations fail because of actor-level features: principal-agent problems, inconsistent priorities and goals across different working groups, strategic manipulation of information by some actors to gain advantage over other actors, and the like. With a nod to Fligstein and McAdam's theory of strategic action fields (link), I took an actor-centered approach to the workings (and dysfunctions) of organizations. I continue to believe that these are accurate observations about the workings of organizations and government agencies, but now that I've reoriented my thinking away from a strictly actor-centered approach to the social world (link), I'm interested in asking the questions about meso-level causes I did not ask in A New Social Ontology.

For example: 

(a) Are there relatively stable meso-level features of organizations that constrain and influence individual behavior in consistent ways that produce relatively stable meso-level outcomes? 

(b) Are there routine behaviors that are reproduced within the organization by training programs and performance audits that give rise to consistent patterns of organizational workings? 

(c) Are there external structural constraints (legal, environmental, locational) that work to preserve certain features of the organization's scheme of operations? 

It seems that the answer to each of these questions is "yes"; but this in turn seems to imply that organizations have properties that persist over time and through changes of personnel. They are not simply the result of the sum of the behaviors and mental states of the participants. These meso-level properties are subject to change, of course, depending on the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit the organization; but they are sometimes stable across extended periods of time and individual personnel. Or in other words, there seem to be meso-level features of organizations that are emergent in some moderate sense.

Here are possible illustrations of each kind of "emergent" property.

(a) Imagine two chemical plants Alpha and Beta making similar products with similar industrial processes and owned by different parent corporations. Alpha has a history of occasional fires, small explosions, and defective equipment, and it was also the site of a major chemical fire that harmed dozens of workers and neighbors. Beta has a much better safety record; fires and explosions are rare, equipment rarely fails in use, and no major fires have occurred for ten years. We might then say that Alpha and Beta have different meso-level safety characteristics, with Alpha lying in the moderate risk range and Beta in the low risk range. Now suppose that we ask an all-star team of industrial safety investigators to examine both plants, and their report indicates that Alpha has a long history of cost reduction plans, staff reductions, and ineffective training programs, whereas Beta (owned by a different parent company) has been well funded for staffing, training, and equipment maintenance. This is another meso-level property of the two plants -- production decisions guided by profitability and cost reduction at Alpha, and production decisions guided by both profitability and a commitment to system safety at Beta. Finally, suppose that our team of investigators conducts interviews and focus groups with staff and supervisors in the two plants, and finds that there are consistent differences between the two plants about the importance of maintaining safety as experienced by plant workers and supervisors. Supervisors at Alpha make it clear that they disagree strongly with the statement, "interrupting the production process to clarify anomalous temperature readings would be encouraged by the executives", whereas their counterparts at Beta indicate that they agree with the statement. This implies that there is a significant difference in the safety culture of the two plants -- another meso-level feature of the two organizations. All of these meso-level properties persist over decades and through major turnover of staff. Supervisors and workers come and go, but the safety culture, procedures, training, and production pressure persist, and new staff are introduced to these practices in ways that reproduce them. And -- this is the key point -- these meso-level properties lead to different rates of failure at the two plants over time, even though none of the actors at Alpha intend for accidents to occur. 

(b) This example comparing industrial plants with different safety rates also serves to answer the second question posed above about training and oversight. The directors and staff who conduct training in an industrial organization can have high commitment or low commitment to their work -- energetic and focused training programs or perfunctory and forgettable training programs -- and the difference will be notable in the performance of new staff as they take on their responsibilities. For example, training for control room directors may always emphasize the importance of careful annotation of the day's events for the incoming director on the next shift. But the training may be highly effective, resulting in informative documentation across shift changes; or it may be ineffective and largely disregarded. In most cases poor documentation does not lead to a serious accident; but sometimes it does. So organizations with effective training on procedures and operations will have a better chance of avoiding serious accidents. Alpha has weak training programs, while Beta has strong training programs (and each dedicates commensurate resources to training). Routine behaviors at Alpha lead to careless implementation of procedures, whereas routine behaviors at Beta result in attentive implementation, and as a result, Beta has a better safety performance record.

(c) What about the external influences that have an effect on the overall safety performance of an industrial plant? The corporate governance and ownership of the plant is plainly relevant to safety performance through the priorities it establishes for production, profitability, and safety. If the corporation's highest priority is profitability, then safety procedures and investments take the back seat. Local budget managers are pressed to find cost reductions, and staff positions and equipment devoted to safety are often the easiest category of budget reduction to achieve. On the other hand, if the corporation's guidance to plant executives is a nuanced set of priorities within which both production goals and safety goals are given importance, there is a better chance of preserving the investments in process inspectors, better measurement instruments, and on-site experts who can be called on to offer advice during a plant emergency. This differentiating feature of corporate priority-setting too is a meso-level property that contributes to the level of safety performance in a chemical plant, independent of the knowledge and intentions of local plant managers, directors, and workers.

These brief hypothetical examples seem to establish a fairly mundane form of "emergence" for organizational properties. They provide examples of causal independence of meso-level properties of organizations. And significantly, each of these meso-level features can be identified in case studies of important industrial failures -- the Boeing 737 Max (link), the Deepwater Horizon disaster (link), or the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion (link).

It may be noted that there are two related ideas here: the idea that a higher-level property is emergent from the properties of the constituent entities; and the idea that a higher-level feature may be causally persistent over time and over change of the particular actors who make up the social entity. The connection is this: we might argue that the causally persistent property at the meso-level is different in nature and effect from the causal properties (actions, behaviors, intentions) of the individuals who make up the organization. So causal persistence of meso-level properties demonstrates emergence of a sort.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Marxism and British historiography

It is noteworthy that some of the very best historical research and writing of the 1930s through 1970s in Britain was carried out by a group of Marxist historians, including E.P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and a few others. Many belonged to the British Communist Party and were committed to the idea that only sweeping revolution of economy and politics could bring to an end the exploitation and misery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism. These historians did not align with the democratic socialists of the Fabian and Labour varieties (link), and the chief demarcation line had to do with the feasibility of gradual reform of advanced market economies. These were gifted and rigorous historians with a particular set of ideological commitments (link).

All of these historians researched some aspect or other of the history of "capitalism", an effort that required dispassionate and objective inquiry and assessment of the facts. Equally, all of them embraced a view of capitalism and a stylized history of capitalism that derived from Marx's writings -- especially Capital and the scattered writings defining the theory of historical materialism. Third, all of them had an ideological apple to peel (as a Dutch friend of mine used to say): they took the view that exploitation and misery were so intimately bound up in the defining institutions of capitalism that only wholesale revolution could root them out. And finally, most of them were politically committed to a party and a movement -- the Communist Party -- which itself made harsh demands on the thinking and writing of its adherents. The "party line" was not merely a form of discipline, it was an expression of loyalty to the cause of communism. And since Soviet communism dominated throughout the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, the party line was almost always "Stalinist" in the most dogmatic sense of the term. So the difficult question arises: how is it possible to reconcile a commitment to "honest history" with a commitment to Marxism and revolution?

Harvey Kaye's British Marxist Historians provides a detailed treatment of many of these historians, including Dobb, Hilton, Hill, Thompson, and Hobsbawm. Kaye fully recognizes the dual nature of the thinking of these historians: "I consider their work to be of scholarly and political consequence" (x). Kaye evidently believes that the scholarly and political commitments of these historians are in no way in conflict. But this is an assumption that must be examined carefully.

Kaye's book can be read as an effort to establish a careful geography of Marxist theoretical ideas about the development of capitalism and how those ideas were both used and transformed in the hands of these historians. His account of Dobb offers a detailed account of Dobb's view of a "non-economistic" historical treatment of capitalism, and he expends a great deal of effort towards identifying the key criticisms offered of Dobb's views by Paul Sweezy, Rodney Hilton, Robert Brenner, Perry Anderson, and others. The chapter can be read as a meticulous dissection of the definition of key ideas ("mode of production", "relations of production", "feudalism", "class conflict", ...) and the theoretical use that these various Marx-inspired historians make of these ideas to explicate "capitalist development" and the notion of "transition from feudalism" in its various historical settings. Most compelling is Kaye's treatment of E.P. Thompson's historical and theoretical writings. He makes it clear that Thompson provides a highly original contribution to the idea of "class determination" through his insistence on the dynamic nature of the formation of consciousness and experience in the men and women of the British laboring classes.

Kaye makes clear in his treatment of each of these historians that their research never took the form of a dogmatic spelling-out of ideas presented in Marx's writings, but rather a much more rigorous effort to make sense of the historical record of feudalism, the English Revolution, the early development of capitalist property relations, and the like. These were not Comintern hacks; they did not treat Marxism as a more-or-less complete theory of history, but rather as a set of promising insights and suggestions about historical processes that demand detailed investigation and analysis. And none of the books of these historians that Kaye discusses can be described as "orthodox Comintern interpretations" of historical circumstances. Kaye quotes Christopher Hill (102): "A great deal of Marxist discussion went on in Oxford in the early thirties. Marxism seemed to me (and many others) to make better sense of the world situation than anything else, just as it seemed to make better sense of seventeenth-century English history." And later in this chapter he quotes Hobsbawm (129): "An advantage of our Marxism -- we owe it largely to Hill ... was never to reduce history to a simple economic or 'class interest' determinism, or to devalue politics and ideology." These comments seem to point the way to partial resolution of the apparent conflict between political commitments and historical integrity: Marx's writings about capitalism, class, and historical materialism constitute something like a research programme or analytical framework for these historians, without eliminating the need for historical rigor and objectivity in searching out evidence concerning the details of historical development (in England, in France, or in Japan). 

If we wanted to assess the possible distortions of historical selection and analysis created by party commitments with regard to historical writing and inference, one natural place to look would be at the selection of topics for research. Are there topics in British history that are especially relevant to the ideological concerns of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, and did the British Marxist historians stay away from those topics? Kaye remarks on Hobsbawm's own assessment of the role the party line played in defining issues and positions for the British Marxist historians: very little, according to Hobsbawm (15). He quotes Hobsbawm: "There was no 'party line' on most of British history,' at least as far as they were aware at the time." So we can reasonably ask: when these historians treat "politically sensitive" topics, do the analyses they offer seem to reflect ideological distortions? 

Kaye notes that one topic that should be of interest to Marxist historians is the history of the labor movement in Britain. "The 'modern' historians of the Group were naturally most anxious to pursue and make known the history of the British labour movement and, no doubt, were encouraged in their efforts by the British Communist Party. And yet this was the one field in which constraint was felt in relation to the Party. As Hobsbawm has stated on a number of occasions, there were problems in pursuing twentieth-century labour history because it necessarily involved critical consideration of the Party's own activities" (12). Kaye also quotes from an interview Hobsbawm offered in 1978:

[Hobsbawm] acknowledges that he took up nineteenth-century history because when "I became a labour historian you couldn't really be an orthodox Communist and write publicly about, say, the period when the Communist Party was active because there was an orthodox belief that everything had changed in 1920 with the foundation of the C. P. Well I didn't believe it had, but it would have been impolite, as well as probably unwise, to say so in public". (134)

This passage makes it clear that Hobsbawm avoided twentieth-century British labor history precisely because the party line was in conflict with the historical realities as Hobsbawm saw them. So Hobsbawm refrained from writing about this period.

So a preliminary assessment is perhaps possible. When these Marxist historians went to work on a given historical topic, they exercised rigor and care in their assessments of the past; they enacted fidelity to the standards of honesty we would wish that historians universally embrace. And indeed, the historical work done by these historians does indeed conform to high standards of honesty and independence of mind -- even as the research focus on "capitalism" is framed in terms of Marxist concepts. But the example of Hobsbawm's statements about twentieth-century labor history imply that certain topics were taboo, precisely because independence of analysis would run counter to the party line. (Kaye also suggests that Hobsbawm's continuing adherence to the 'base-superstructure' model derived from his deference to the orthodox Party line on the nature of the mode of production; 135.)

But we can also ask an even more fundamental question: did the historians of this group take any public notice of the crimes of Stalinist USSR -- the Holodomor, the terror, the show trials, the Gulag? Or was explicit condemnation of systemic actions like the Holodomor or the Gulag too much of a repudiation of the Communist Party for these historians to accept? Should they have made public mention and condemnation of these occurrences? Does their silence cast doubt on their honesty as historians? To this question Kaye's book provides no clear basis for an answer.

It is intriguing to ask about Harvey Kaye's own ideological orientation. He makes it clear in the Preface that his book is a sympathetic treatment of the circle of British Marxist historians, and in fact he acknowledges feedback and comments from several of these authors. His later book, The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History, is likewise committed to defending the insights offered by Western Marxist historians. So his is something of an insider's account of the Historians' Group. We can ask, then, whether Kaye's own sympathies have colored his assessment of the objectivity and rigor of the historians in this group. Does he bring the necessary critical edge that we would expect from an historiographic assessment of a group of historians? (I should confess too that the historians that Kaye studies are also among my list of favorites as well. I would add Marc Bloch and a few others from French and German history, but the broad framework of historical narrative and analysis developed by Dobb, Hilton, Thompson, and Hobsbawm is one that has been powerful for me as well.) 

My own assessment is that Kaye's sympathies do not distort his interpretations of these historians. Rather, he offers a careful, reflective, and knowledgeable analysis of the development of their historical ideas and the relations that emerged among them, and he documents the willingness of these historians to avoid the dogmas of CP-driven "party lines" about history. For example, Kaye's critique of Hobsbawm's continuing use of the base-superstructure model illustrates Kaye's willingness to apply a critical eye to these historians (154 ff.). Only obliquely does he address the hardest question, however: did these historians speak out about the atrocities and crimes of Stalinism? Many of these figures (not including Hobsbawm or Dobb) rejected Stalinism through their decision to leave the British Communist Party after the Soviet brutal use of force against Hungary in 1956. But this is still less than forthright recognition of the horrendous crimes of the Soviet dictatorship throughout the 1930s and 1940s, extending through the death of Stalin and beyond.

The penultimate paragraph of the book appears to encapsulate Kaye's own perspective as well as the collective view he attributes to the group of Marxist historians he considers:

In other words, they [British Marxist historians] have accepted that the making of a truly democratic socialism -- or libertarian communism, requires more than 'necessity' -- the determined struggle against exploitation and oppression -- and more than organization. It also requires the desire to create an alternative social order. And yet, even that is not enough. There must be a 'prior education of desire' for, as William Morris has warned: 'If the present state of society merely breaks up without a conscious effort at transformation, the end, the fall of Europe, may be long in coming, but when it does, it will be far more terrible, far more confused and full of suffering than the period of the fall of Rome.'

And this passage perhaps expresses an appealing resolution as well to the question of how to reconcile political commitment with historical objectivity.

(Ronald Grigor Suny has written quite a bit of interesting material on the falsifications offered by "Stalinist history". A few snapshots of his views can be found here: "Stalin, Falsifier in Chief: E. H. Carr and the Perils of Historical Research Introduction" and "The Left Side of History: The Embattled Pasts of Communism in the Twentieth Century".)

Friday, August 4, 2023

A curious convergence between social ontology and process metaphysics

For the past six months or so I've been wrestling with how to reformulate my own thinking about the nature of the social world -- the nature of "social reality" (link). I've come to realize that the position I've defended for years -- ontological individualism -- is still too dependent on the view of "social entities sitting on top of individual actors", which is no longer convincing to me. And I've reformulated what I have to say about "actor-centered sociology" and "microfoundations" accordingly. I am now more satisfied with the position I've come to -- a diachronic view of intertwined and mutually influencing processes at the social level and the individual-actor level, and an associated view that suggests that both social arrangements and features of individual agency are fluid and "fluxy". Here are two key statements from "Rethinking Ontological Individualism" in its final draft:

Actors and structures are linked in inseparable loops of mutual influence over time, with both actors and structures dependent on the current ensemble of “actors-within-structures” within which they have developed, changed, and persisted. The social world is thus inherently indeterminate, reflecting unpredictable changes in all its elements over time.


This view has important ontological implications. For one thing, it implies that neither actors nor structures have “essential natures” or fixed and unchanging properties. Rather, the properties of social structures are influenced by the past and present actions and thoughts of actors and the prior characteristics of structures; while the mental characteristics of present actors are shaped by the ambient social arrangements within which they develop. (There is a biological precondition: human beings must be the kinds of “cognitive-practical machines” that can embody very extensive change; Gibbard 1990.) Further, actors are influenced by ambient structures (external causes); but a given generation of actors is capable of genuine innovation and creativity (internal causes). Susan B. Anthony was influenced by her suffragist predecessors and contemporaries, but she also brought her own innovative thinking to the struggle for full rights of citizenship for women in 1872. And likewise, structures are modified by generations of actors (external causes), but structures also create opportunities for structural innovation (internal causes).

What is striking to me now that this process of exploration and reformulation has come to something like a conclusion is how much the resulting position sounds like a version of "process metaphysics" -- the idea that processes of change rather than fixed underlying particles should be the fundamental ontological category. (The images above are selected to illustrate the two metaphysical perspectives: the orderly composition of a metal from its constituent atoms (substance metaphysics) and the contingent and entangled creation of a social movement (process metaphysics).) Process metaphysics is distinctly a minority position in analytical philosophy today, so it is striking to me that some of the basic intuitions of that view developed organically out of a consideration of how social structures, institutions, and actors interact to constitute the social world -- "social reality". I didn't begin with the premises of process metaphysics, but rather developed a conception that bore important similarities to process metaphysics.

What is process philosophy? Consider the opening sentences of Johanna Seibt’s treatment of process philosophy in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Process philosophy is based on the premise that being is dynamic and that the dynamic nature of being should be the primary focus of any comprehensive philosophical account of reality and our place within it. Even though we experience our world and ourselves as continuously changing, Western metaphysics has long been obsessed with describing reality as an assembly of static individuals whose dynamic features are either taken to be mere appearances or ontologically secondary and derivative. For process philosophers the adventure of philosophy begins with a set of problems that traditional metaphysics marginalizes or even sidesteps altogether: what is dynamicity or becoming—if it is the way we experience reality, how should we interpret this metaphysically? (link)

Substitute "the social world" for "being" and "reality" in this text and you have a statement about social ontology that is very similar to the reformulation I propose in reconsidering ontological individualism.

Seibt notes that process philosophy has important affinities with American pragmatism (as well as ancient Greek philosophy and continental philosophy). George Herbert Mead offers a particularly clear example in his theory of the self in Mind, Self, and Society (link). Here Mead takes a position on the nature of the self -- the "me" -- that is broadly suggestive of the premises of process philosophy:

Our contention is that mind can never find expression, and could never have come into existence at all, except in terms of a social environment; that an organized set or pattern of social relations and interactions (especially those of communication by means of gestures functioning as significant symbols and thus creating a universe of discourse) is necessarily presupposed by it and involved in its nature. (222)

The self is not a "substance", but rather a something in a continual process of change.

Process metaphysics may be considered by contemporary philosophers of science as an implausible account of the physical world. Copper atoms are not a "process of becoming"; rather, they have a (quantum mechanical) set of properties that are fixed over time. But perhaps physics and chemistry are bad models for thinking about metaphysics in general. Significantly, philosopher of biology John Dupré argues in Processes of Life: Essays in the Philosophy of Biology and elsewhere that process metaphysics is indeed well suited to the science of biology and evolution. And, like the arguments against "social kinds" and essentialism that result from the rethinking of ontological individualism, Dupré too rejects the idea of “biological essences” (The Metaphysics of Biology: 16-17):

Normally, essential properties pertain to a thing as members of a kind for which the property provides a condition of membership, and it is widely supposed that to be the same thing over time an entity must belong to, and continue to belong to, a particular kind. As I shall discuss in the next section, however, it is widely agreed that the empirical facts of biology are not consistent with there being any such essence-determined kinds.

So perhaps we might say that process metaphysics -- whatever its virtues in application to other areas of knowledge -- offers a reasonable description of the nature of the social world (and perhaps the biological world). This in turn suggests that philosophy should exercise a reasonable degree of modesty in the generality of the theories it formulates. Perhaps there is no "general and universal" basis for philosophical metaphysics. Rather, we need to formulate different metaphysical frameworks for different areas of knowledge and experience. This would indeed constitute a philosophical position of "metaphysics naturalized". (Here are some prior reflections on the grounds of metaphysical theorizing in philosophy; link, link.)

Sunday, July 30, 2023

A new course on the terrible twentieth century

I've spent the last several weeks designing a new honors course for juniors on the catastrophes of the twentieth century. It's not a "history" course, and it's not a philosophy course. Instead, I conceive of it as a learning experience for our honors students aimed at deepening one's capacity for coming to understand the past as human reality. It is practice for taking historical knowledge seriously, and how to do so. I've tried to pick out readings that both illustrate the human intensity of the catastrophes and the individual experiences of several especially evocative contemporary observers. Here is the course description:

The course takes on the largest challenges of the twentieth century – war, genocide, racism, socialism, dictatorship, and fascism. It considers the catastrophes that states and dictators have created for millions of human beings, and it looks as well at some of the ways in which human beings can strive for freedom and equality in the modern world. Many of the readings are chosen in order to find a single person’s human voice on these enormous catastrophes.

There are a handful of permeating issues that are woven through the topics and readings: the harsh inequalities of life created by the capitalisms of the 1930s; the recurring racisms that occur in the American South, Nazi Germany, and Hindu-Muslim hatreds in India; the powerful creations of fascist dictatorship that arose in Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. And there is an overriding philosophical question throughout the course as well: is it possible to create a working social democracy that ensures the freedoms and equality of all members of society?

These are general historical questions. But the course aims to help students to gain an experiential understanding of the practical human circumstances represented by these moments of suffering and catastrophe that occurred from Wigan to West Bengal, from Babi Yar to Kursk, and from Alabama to Oklahoma. George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier offers an honest and specific account of the lives of coal miners and their families. Arthur Koestler's Invisible Writing expresses Koestler's particular experiences of Communism, Stalinism, the Holodomor, and the Gulag. Vasily Grossman's writings about Treblinka and "Ukraine without Jews" passionately express this honest journalist's observations and compassion in reaction to the murder of the Jews of Berdichev (his home city and the place his mother was murdered by the Nazis) and throughout Poland and Ukraine. Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar expresses vividly the horror of the Nazi extermination of the Jews of Kiev -- and the silence of the USSR about this atrocity. The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror offers students a contemporary description of the murderous violence of the Nazi dictatorship -- and a case study in propaganda and the Big Lie. Varlam Shalamov's short stories about the Gulag in Kolyma Tales are personal and gripping. Tom Joad, the protagonist of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, speaks for many of the powerless men and women destroyed by the Great Depression, and the photography of Dorothea Lange and other Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers help to make these testimonies vivid for students. The poetry of Langston Hughes and a narrative of the Scottsboro case give students a direct exposure to the violence of the Jim Crow regime. And V.K. Ramachandran's extensive interviews with an Indian landless worker trapped in debt bondage (link) will give students a much deeper understanding of oppression, domination, and exploitation in India. In each case my goal is to help students connect to these historical human experiences in ways that give them a more intense sense of engagement with these human realities.

I find it intriguing that many of the texts I've chosen are far from "canonical" -- in fact, most of them have probably had almost no readers in decades. Who has read Koestler's autobiography, The Invisible Writing? And yet Koestler offers a powerful and engaging first-person account of many of the most terrible events of the century. It is sobering that such expressive and truthful voices from the relatively recent past can disappear so quickly from popular imagination. Even the Road to Wigan Pier, though not forgotten entirely, is rarely read or discussed when the question of a just social system is considered.

Whenever I create a new course I find that I learn new and unexpected things. In this case I learned about the 1933 book, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag. The Reichstag fire was the stimulus to Hitler's seizure of dictatorial powers and the beginning of his rule by massive violence. But there is a mystery: who was responsible for this arson? Koestler refers to the Brown Book in Invisible Writing, and I thought it might be a useful contemporary assessment of the Hitler dictatorship. According the the title page of the book, it was "prepared by the world committee for the victims of German fascism with an introduction by Lord Marley". The book gained wide exposure internationally, and it offered as fact a conspiracy theory of the arson: that the arsonist Arinus van der Lubbe had acted on the instructions of Nazi officials (Göring and Goebels) for the purpose of providing an incident justifying Hitler's seizure of extra-constitutional power. The Nazi theory of the arson was equally conspiratorial; the Nazis claimed that van der Lubbe was a Communist agent working at the orders of higher-level Communist officials. But the facts turn out to be quite different. The Brown Book was not the product of "neutral anti-fascist activists", but rather the work of the propaganda office of the Communist International. And there was no supporting evidence whatsoever for either the Brown Book claim or the official Nazi story about the conspiracy. Both narratives, it now seems certain, were pure propaganda, and van der Lubbe acted alone. There was no conspiracy.

Here is the summary offered by Anson Rabinbach in "Staging Antifascism: The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror" (link):

The campaign around the Brown Book and the trial of Georgi Dimitrov and the other defendants in Leipzig from September to December 1933 was so skillfully managed that it persuaded many observers outside Germany as well as reputable historians until the 1960s that the fire was the work of a Nazi conspiracy. (97)

The book and the campaign that accompanied it was the creation of Willi Münzenberg, the renowned international communist impresario and Reichstag deputy who earned the title "Red Hugenberg" for his organizational empire, which included the International Workers Aid (IAH), numerous dailies and weeklies, journals, and the highly successful illustrated weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ), with a circulation of nearly half a million. (100)

And, it emerges, Arthur Koestler himself had a minor role in the Comintern propaganda machine. Here are comments from Invisible Writing:

I ARRIVED in Paris in the middle of the Reichstag Fire Trial, which was holding Europe spellbound. The day after my arrival I met for the first time Willy Muenzenberg, Western Propaganda Chief of the Comintern. The same day I started work at his headquarters, and thus became a minor participant in the great propaganda battle between Berlin and Moscow. It ended with a complete defeat for the Nazis—the only defeat which we inflicted on them during the seven years before the war. (237)

The 'we' in this context refers to the Comintern's propaganda headquarters in Paris, camouflaged as the 'World Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism.' I arrived in Paris, as I have said, in the middle of the battle, and my part in it was a subordinate one. I had to follow the repercussions of the trial, and of our propagands, in the British Press and in the House of Commons, to study currents of British public opinion, and draw the appropriate tactical conclusions. For a while I also edited the daily bulletins which we distributed to the French and British press. (242)

And so the homeric battle of blind-man's-buff between the two giants ended. It had taught me that in the field of propaganda the half-truth was a weapon superior to the truth, and that to be on the defensive is to be defeated. It taught me above all that in this field a democracy must always be at a disadvantage against a totalitarian opponent. My years with Muenzenberg have made me sceptical regarding the West's chances of waging 'psychological warfare' against opponents like Hitler and Stalin. For to wage effective psychological war the West would have to abandon precisely those principles and values in the name of which it fights. (249)

This is an important topic for students to consider when they think about the twentieth century: how can we sort out the lies from the truths and half-truths about important historical realities? Spin, conspiracy theories, concealment, and obfuscation are strategies of falsification of history that are all too familiar -- whether in the political journalism of the 1930s, the French De Gaulle government's narrative of the fate of French Jews during the occupation, or the pervasive lies that shape public opinion on social media today. (Once, while visiting a university in Asturias, Spain, I overheard a passionate disagreement between the provost and the head librarian over whose troops had attacked the university during the Civil War -- Franco's troops or anarchist miners. Each person had family stories and memories, and their accounts were diametrically opposed.) How can ordinary citizens cultivate their capacity for critical reading and thinking that will help them sort out the truth about issues they care about?

This is one reason that I have such admiration for Marc Bloch and his Historian's Craft (link). Bloch embodies what are for me the central moral commitments of the historian: fidelity to the facts as he or she has uncovered them, and a willingness to allow the historical evidence to be the final arbiter for historical belief. This is not to doubt that there are problems for debate about the interpretation and validation of historical data; but the historian should not put a thumb on the scale to support his or her own preferred ideology.

Monday, July 24, 2023

The generation of the Freedom Riders

The courageous Catherine Burks-Brooks passed in early July in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 83. The New York Times ran an extensive and moving obituary for her this weekend (link), and the piece is important reading in today's world of "forgetting" of our recent history of racist violence in the United States. Burks-Brooks and her fellow Freedom Riders risked their lives to bring Jim Crow racism and oppression to an end. Violent organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, abetted by segregationist public officials, did everything in their power to prevent change in the segregated south. And yet the Freedom Riders continued.

Burks-Brooks was an inspiring example in 1961 when, as a senior at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, she joined with hundreds of other courageous young people in defying the Jim Crow South's stubborn refusal to comply with the 1946 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation on interstate buses and trains (link). With leadership and support from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, nonviolent but determined groups of students boarded buses in defiance of racial segregation of seating. The violence that met these Freedom Riders was brutal and unchecked. 

And yet these young people persisted, and as a result of their courage and persistence the Kennedy administration finally asked the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce the law of the land. 

It is vital to recall that the struggle for justice and equality was not waged on "social media", and it was not simply a question of safely demonstrating in the streets. Rather, it was an organized resistance to injustice that exposed these young Americans to violence, jail, and occasional murder. Only three years later civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were brutally and viciously murdered in Mississippi. This atrocious crime occurred only months after the Mississippi murders of Medgar Evers, Clifton Walker, Henry Dee, and Charles Moore, and two years before the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Burks-Brooks herself was jailed several times and spent nearly a month in a brutal Mississippi state prison. The stakes were incredibly high, and these young people had the courage to rise to the task. 

It is a very sad fact that the most cherished goals of these young heroes from sixty years ago are still in doubt: full racial equality, and full rights of democratic participation and voting. The continuing effort in southern states to limit voting rights and to gerrymander districts to reduce the impact of African-American voters; the effort by politicians in states like Florida and Texas to tell "happy stories" about the history of slavery and racism in the region; the persisting disparities that exist across racial groups (of all incomes) with regard to health, education, employment, and property ownership -- all of these facts show that the work that brave young activists like Catherine Burks-Brooks and her contemporaries is not finished. And the threats and violence that she and others faced with equanimity should remind us that resisting injustice is never easy, never safe -- and yet permanently important for ourselves and future generations.

Governor DeSantis, how do you propose to address the wide gap in health system performance scores between black and white Floridians (link)? Are you satisfied that "Mortality amenable to health care (per 100,000 population)" for black Floridians (137) is 67% higher than that for white Floridians (82)? Do your job, Governor, and stop lying about the history of racism and slavery in the United States!