Understanding Society

Daniel Little

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Probing atrocity in Miropol

photo: execution site at Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine, September 1941

It is challenging to form a mental picture of the significance and reality of the events and enormity of the Holocaust. Many of the summary facts that we "know" about the Nazi plan for extermination of the Jewish people are both inadequate to capture the human meaning of this period, and misleading or inaccurate, as Tim Snyder argues (Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning). How can we gain a better and more personal understanding of these horrible events from the 1940s?

First-person accounts and oral histories represent one form of access to the realities of the mass killings that occurred across Europe, and especially in Eastern Europe. But an especially powerful recent book takes a somewhat different approach. This is Wendy Lower's The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, a book that proceeds from a single photograph of a single instant of brutality and murder, and helps the reader develop an extensive understanding of the human realities that led to this moment. The photograph is taken in the midst of a mass killing outside the town of Miropol in the Ukraine in October, 1941. The Jews of Miropol were forced to walk into the forest, were gathered at a previously prepared shooting pit, and were murdered by rifle fire. The photograph is unusual in that it is at close range and captures identifiable faces of both the murderers (two German soldiers and two Ukrainian militiamen) and the victim, a mother holding a child by the hand as she is shot. Lower wants to understand the photograph in detail, and to learn the identities of the individuals involved.

Lower combines the skills of an experienced historian, a resourceful crime investigator, and a compassionate observer of family tragedy in a time of mass killing. Her goal is ambitious: she would like to uncover the identity of the victims in the photograph, the killers, the photographer, and the possibility of holding the responsible persons to account in the present. And she accomplishes much of this set of goals. She gains a great deal of detailed knowledge about the Ukrainian and German personnel who were present. She forms an educated guess about the family identity of the victims in the photograph. And she learns a great deal about the photographer. Along the way she provides enough detail about the context of German military and Final Solution activity in 1941 to give the reader a fairly good idea about how this event relates to the larger orchestrated Aktions against the Jews of Eastern Europe from 1941 to 1944 -- the bulk of the killing during the Holocaust.

Miropol was a small town in occupied Ukraine in the fall of 1941. It is some 220 kilometers west of Kiev, the site of the massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941. In Miropol in October several hundred Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated by gunfire. This is the Aktion recorded in the photograph at the center of The Ravine. In Kiev only a few weeks earlier, the largest massacre of Jews in the Holocaust in the occupied Ukraine and Soviet territories occurred, involving the murder over a few days of over 34,000 human beings. In 1943 the Nazis made an effort to conceal the evidence of the massacre, and the Soviets concealed the fact that the victims were Jewish, preferring instead to refer to "Soviet civilians". No memorial was created for the Jewish dead at Babi Yar until 1991, fifty years after the massacre. There appears to be no memorial for the Jewish dead at Miropol; the handful of photographs by Škrovina alone serve as memorial. But The Ravine represents a different kind of memorial. The reader comes away with a sober and human recognition of these many hundreds of innocent victims of murder, and the lives that were stolen from them.

Lower begins with this particular photograph -- a photograph of several German soldiers and Ukrainian militia men in the act of shooting a Jewish mother holding a child at the edge of a burial pit. It is a haunting photograph. But Lower goes much beyond this particular photo, including archival evidence, more photographs, interviews with witnesses and participants, and records from both Nazi and Soviet sources. She is a resourceful, talented, and determined researcher, and her ability to unearth many of the details of this atrocity is continually surprising. She brings the skills and concentration of a forensic investigator to her work.

Especially interesting is Lower's treatment of the role of photographs in this kind of investigation. She is very clear that photography is purposive and intentional. It is not generally a "flat representation of what occurred"; instead, the photographer has a story he or she in interested in discovering and telling. So photography is creative and "subjective". And this proves to be true of the photographer of this particular image, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina, who had a narrative he was recording through a series of exposures. But at the same time, photographs prove to be a source of remarkable insight into the human realities of the moment captured in the negative -- details that were invisible to the photographer. And Škrovina himself turns out to be different from how he first appears. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement, and was interested in recording the atrocities he witnesses under German occupation for the outside world. Lower writes of Škrovina as a moral human being and his subsequent actions during and after the war:

But being there certainly shaped his subsequent choices and the risks he undertook, which affected him and his family. He refused to stay on the front, feigned illness, spent months in a nerve clinic, then resumed contact with Jews in his town, including sheltering some in the attic of his family home. He helped Dr. Gotthilf secure a place in the forest with his comrades in the Slovak National Resistance, although Škrovina ultimately could not save him or his wife and child. Škrovina was antifascist and anti-Soviet. He had felt no pride wearing any government-issued uniform. He hated the war. (91)

Several specific and important insights emerge from Lower's narrative. First is the importance of doing what we can to recognize and remember the individuals and families who were extinguished there. Lower's point about the killing of families is especially poignant: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, sons, and daughters, all destroyed. Second is the important reminder that Nazi violence was carried out by its allies in occupied countries -- Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine -- and that these armed groups and police units were merciless and remorseless towards their Jewish neighbors. What Lower uncovers at Miropol is a microcosm of Babi Yar.

Theodor Adorno once said that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." But here is a good reason not to agree with Adorno. Consider the beautiful, sorrowful, and indicting poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961, Babi Yar. Yevtushenko helps us to mourn and recognize these children, women, and men who were murdered at Babi Yar. And he points a finger of accusation against the continuing anti-Semitism rampant in the Soviet Union in which he lived. Wendy Lower's book is not poetry, but it is just as eloquent in its evocation of the human realities of this tragic moment in Miropol, and in the great expanse of the bloodlands of Eastern Europe.

BABI YAR
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
        Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
                    Dreyfus.
The Philistine
                    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
                    Beset on every side.
Hounded,
            spat on,
                    slandered.

Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
                        a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
                            'Beat the Yids. Save Russia!'
Some grain-marketer beats up my mother.

O my Russian people!
                        I know
                                    you
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
                                        without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
                    Anne Frank
transparent
                   as a branch in April.
And I love.
                  And have no need of phrases.
My need
                  is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
                               or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
                               we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much—
                                tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They're coming here?
                                Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
                                spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
                                Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
                                No, it's the ice breaking . . .
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
                        like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
                            and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
                            turning grey.
And I myself
                    am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
                each old man
                        here shot dead.
I am
                every child
                    here shot dead.
Nothing in me
                    shall ever forget!
The 'Internationale,' let it
                                thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                        I am a true Russian!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Socrates the hoplite


An earlier post considered the Melian massacre and the Athenian conduct of war during the Peloponnesian War (link). Since we know that Socrates served as an armored infantry soldier during that war (a hoplite), it is reasonable to ask whether Socrates would have carried out atrocious orders involving the execution of prisoners, enslavement of women and children, and other acts of retaliation and punishment against the enemies of Athens.

In particular, would Socrates the hoplite have obeyed the order to slaughter the innocent? Ancient historian Mark Anderson offers a detailed analysis of the known context of Athenian warfare and Socrates' military history, and concludes that Socrates did not express moral opposition to these acts of war (Mark Anderson, "Socrates as Hoplite"; link). Anderson argues at length that Socrates was a hoplite during exactly these kinds of campaigns of retaliation, and that he never expressed any moral objection to them. Against the arguments of Gregory Vlastos and other scholars of Athenian philosophy, Anderson argues that the historical record of Socrates’ military service is fairly clear, and it is evident that his participation was voluntary, courageous, extended, and supportive. Anderson argues on the basis of these facts that Socrates did not offer moral objections to this dimension of Athenian military strategy.

Consider first the argument by Gregory Vlastos that Socrates offered a "moral revolution" on these topics. Vlastos is one of the twentieth century's most celebrated scholars of ancient philosophy, and his book Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher is a much-respected study of Socrates. 

Much of the book is relevant to the question considered earlier of the changing nature of morals and values over time (link). Vlastos appears to accept the view advocated several times here that humanity creates its moral framework through long human experience. Here is what Vlastos writes about the morality of a time and place:

By the morality of a society I understand those norms of right and wrong, rules of conduct or excellences of character, publicly acknowledged within it, whose function it is to foster human wellbeing. The sense of justice centers in the concern that those norms be applied impartially. (179)

Here is a clear expression of the idea that values are created over time rather than discovered as timeless truths.

Protagoras in that speech propounds a comprehensive theory of the origins of culture which views all cultural institutions, including morality, as inventions through which men win the struggle for existence against wild beasts. (187)

Further, Vlastos believes that Socrates was one of those thinkers who succeeded in challenging and changing the moral culture of his time. According to Vlastos, Socrates rejected retaliation on very strong philosophical grounds. And this would involve the rejection of the strategy of exterminating the populations of cities in rebellion against Athens.

Vlastos' central aim is to show that Socrates rejected the Athenian moral idea of retaliation against those who have wronged you (lex talionis). This traditional Athenian view of the moral acceptability of retaliation comes to bear in concrete detail when, as reported by Thycydides, the Athenian Assembly of citizens is asked to consider the extermination of Mytilene for rebellion (exactly the fate that befell Melos several years later):

... that rebellious Mytilene, now subdued, should be exterminated, all its adult males executed without trial, and all its women and children sold into slavery. In the speech for the proposal Cleon invokes justice on its behalf and, as we might expect, it is the justice of the talio. (184)

Vlastos works hard to distinguish between punishment and revenge: punishment is morally justified, whereas revenge is motivated by abiding hate. "The distinction of punishment from revenge must be regarded as one of the most momentous of the conceptual discoveries ever made by humanity in the course of its slow, tortuous, precarious, emergence from barbaric tribalism" (187).

Crucially, Vlastos believes that Socrates alone among his contemporaries recognizes the moral repugnancy of revenge. "So far as we know, the first Greek to grasp in full generality this simple and absolutely fundamental moral truth is Socrates" (190).

So how does Vlastos understand Socrates' moral reasoning when it comes to retaliation? He focuses on Socrates' arguments in the Crito. There Vlastos singles out two moral conclusions:

II. "Therefore, we should never return an injustice."

IV. "Therefore, we should never return evil for evil [to anyone]." (194)

So, Vlastos concludes, for Socrates, retaliation in the case of personal actions is always unjust and wrong. And this would imply, if appropriate equivalence could be maintained, that retaliation against Mytilene as was proposed to the Assembly, or against Melos, as was carried out, was wholly unjust and immoral. But there is a catch: Vlastos is not entirely convinced that what is wrong for the individual Athenian is also wrong for the state. As a philosopher and a man, Socrates cannot support the resolution to retaliate against Mytilene; indeed, he cannot be a party to the deliberation (195). But it is not clear that Socrates takes the additional step: if the state decides to retaliate against Mytilene or Melos, it lacks the authority to do so. Socrates does not invoke a duty of civil disobedience upon himself as a citizen; he does not assert that as a citizen he can challenge the state's right to take actions it has duly deliberated.

So there we have Vlastos's argument for Socrates' moral philosophy when it comes to doing good, acting justly, and exacting retaliation. Can we conclude, then, that Socrates the hoplite would have rejected Cleon's authority, duly authorized by the Citizen's Assembly, to execute the male citizens of Mytilene or Melos?

Mark Anderson thinks not. In fact, he finds Vlastos' treatment of Socrates' moral ideas about massacre to be fundamentally flawed. It is unpersuasive because it is entirely based on the philosophical texts without serious attention to historical details documenting what is known about the military career that Socrates experienced as a hoplite. Socrates' military experience was entirely voluntary -- Anderson suggests that he must have had to struggle to be selected as a hoplite, given his age and poverty -- and extensive, taking years of his life. Further, Anderson claims that Vlastos makes major and consequential errors about the nature of Socrates' military life (274). And Anderson rejects Vlastos' contention that Socrates had achieved a major moral revolution through his statement in Crito that one must never do injustice (275). In particular, he rejects the idea advanced by Vlastos in an earlier essay that "not doing injustice" has the implication of rejecting traditional Athenian "military culture" by Socrates (Gregory Vlastos, 1974, "Socrates on Political Obedience and Disobedience," The Yale review 63:4).

[Vlastos] argues that Socrates would have refused to participate, for two reasons: first, the proposed punishment was unprecedented in its ferocity, nearly genocidal, and barbaric (Vlastos 1974, 33); second, it was indiscriminate inasmuch as it condemned the innocent democrats along with the renegade oligarchs. Vlastos concludes that Socrates, had he been commanded to do so, would have declined even to relay the orders to those charged with carrying out the executions (Vlastos 1974, 33-34).

But Anderson argues two important points: first, that Socrates did in fact participate as a hoplite in campaigns in which exactly these sorts of mass killings occurred; and second, that Socrates never expressed moral objection or dissent to these actions, whether in the Platonic dialogues or in other historical sources about Socrates.

Hardly a passive observer, Socrates actively supported Athens' imperial war effort. As we shall see, he willingly fought with some of the men and on some of the very campaigns that the standard accounts assure us he would have condemned. Moreover, the extent of his military activity is much wider than anyone has recognized. The relevant evidence demonstrates that Socrates fought in many more battles than the three that are commonly acknowledged. On the Potidaean campaign alone he may have seen action at Therme, Pydna, Beroea, and Strepsa. Before returning to Athens he probably served at Spartolus and 'other places' (Thucydides ii 70.4). On the Amphipolitan expedition he served possibly at Mende, definitely (for a time, though perhaps for a very brief time only) at Scione, then at Torone, Gale, Singus, Mecyherna, Thyssus, Cleonae, Acroathos, Olophyxus, Stageira, Bormiscus, Galepsos, and Trailus. (277)

There is a record of Socrates on this [Potidaea] campaign. We know that during the long siege he stood out among the soldiers as something of an eccentric (Symp. 21ge-220e). We hear nothing, however, of his standing out as a moral revolutionary suggestively questioning his comrades about the justice of Pericles' military aggression. That Socrates, so far as we know, raised no objections to serving on this campaign suggests that neither militarism nor imperialism violated his conception of the noble and good life. (279-280)

Socrates served in Cleon's army, and he supported Cleon. But here is Cleon's record of massacre:

Cleon was ruthless; he was brutal to rebellious cities; but Athens needed him. The empire in the north was crumbling; much of Thrace was in open rebellion. The Athenians were livid (iv 122.5, 123.3). The punishment from which they had spared the citizens of Mytilene they imposed upon the defeated Scionians, at Cleon's insistence. They retaliated against Torone almost as severely. Thucydides did not record the sufferings of the many other cities that fell to Cleon's army, but we may be sure that they too felt the bronze edge of the lex talionis. (281)

When Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 153-154 declare that Socrates never actively supported Athens' 'evil' acts, they do so expressly in connection with the Athenians' treatment of Scione. But Socrates may very well have been with the contingent that stormed Scione in the summer of 423. Or he may have sailed with Cleon the following summer. Either way, he served at Scione and he arrived there in full knowledge of the campaign's objectives; he knew that the men were to be executed and the women and children enslaved. Thus the assertion that Socrates never participated in Athens' 'evil actions' cannot be correct. If he were under a legal obligation to serve on these campaigns, then Brickhouse and Smith have gone wrong again. If, as I believe, he served willingly and eagerly, their error is compounded. (282)

In other words, it is Anderson's contention that Socrates was an active participant in Cleon's campaigns of retaliation against cities in rebellion, involving the massacre of the men and the enslavement of the women and children. And further, there is no record of moral objections raised by Socrates to these actions -- viewed at close hand as a combatant -- in any of the Socratic corpus. This implies, to Anderson anyway, that Socrates did not have a moral objection to these military and imperial tactics.

This is a densely argued and damning portrait of Socrates as soldier-citizen-philosopher. Anderson makes a compelling case that Socrates did not rebel against the prevailing Athenian military culture, he did not reject massacre and enslavement as instruments of retaliation in war, and he did not act on the basis of a moral theory of just war -- Athenian or any other. "Nowhere in the dialogues does Socrates give any indication that he had moral objections to hoplite warfare. To the contrary, in the Protagoras he says it is 'noble' and 'good' to go to war" (287). "Socrates fought such battles and was such a man. He did not fight at Marathon himself, of course; but he stood proudly in the long line of hoplites that stretched back to those who did. He identified with these men and accepted that their way--the way of the hoplite--led most nearly to the good life" (288).

To our question above, then, it seems as though there is a reasonably clear answer: in his life choices and in his words, Socrates the hoplite did indeed support the campaigns of slaughter that we would today regard as atrocities.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Social behavior and the covid pandemic


Anyone who thinks that the social world is orderly and predictable needs to reflect carefully on the way the covid pandemic has played out in the United States and many other countries. For political scientists who are partial to rational-choice explanations of individual behavior -- you'll need to think again. No theory of rationality or rational self-interest I can think of would explain massive anti-vaccination activism. It is plain from the statistics of infection rates, hospital rates, and death rates, that a population that is slow to accept a high percentage of vaccination is a population that is likely to wind up in covid catastrophe. A family that rejects vaccination is likely to suffer serious illness and runs a risky likelihood of hospitalization and death. And an individual who rejects vaccination and goes off on his Harley to Sturgis, South Dakota is flirting with illness and the possibility of hospitalization and death as well. So why would a rational or sensible person make that decision? This isn't quantum mechanics and high-flying scientific theory; epidemiology is an observational science, and its premises and reasoning can be followed by anyone with a high school education. And the germ theory of infectious disease is one of the most important achievements of medical science -- and has been for a century and a half. Would the same anti-vax activist walk into a Chernobyl reactor on April 26, 1986, because he doesn't believe in radiation, or doesn't believe that exposure to radiation causes illness and death? So -- irrational behavior on a massive scale. Are we in a Salem moment, a period of mass hysteria? Why are so many people behaving in ways that are objectively contrary to their most important interests?

The too-obvious answer is that "some people have been indoctrinated by anti-science propaganda and lies, and have come to believe that covid is a hoax and the vaccines are dangerous and useless". And in fact, we know that very extensive social media and right-wing media outlets have promulgated exactly those messages -- including pervasive Facebook and Youtube channels. But why would perhaps 35-40% of American adults fall for such obvious baloney?

The second too-obvious answer is that Trump and the extreme right -- i.e., most of the GOP -- found it to their political advantage to encourage belief in these lies. To support Trumpism in the past year is to be a vaccine skeptic and a covid skeptic. The core of Trump's supporters fall in line in accepting conspiracies and lies -- about covid, about the 2020 election, and about Democrats, and GOP leaders have been willing to work to energize and extend this group. This is "extremist populism" and opportunism at its purest -- promote the lies even if it means illness and death for school children, neighbors, and family members. This puts the current realities of social behavior around covid into a different light, and one that is a bit more amenable to rational-choice treatment: the strategy is a rational one for the demagogues who are pushing it, but completely irrational for the followers. The political emotions and ideologies of the followers, shaped by social media, lead them to make life choices that put them and their communities at terrible risk.

But here's the thing: what 2010-era sociologist or political scientist would have predicted that a major global pandemic would occur in the next several decades, that an almost miraculous search for an effective vaccine would be successful in an amazingly short period -- and that the pandemic and vaccine would become a political issue leading to mass refusal to vaccinate? All global epidemiologists believed the first proposition -- that pandemic would occur sometime; some biological researchers thought that vaccine creation could advance quickly; but I can't think of any respected political scientist or sociologist who would have predicted the massive movement that has emerged against vaccination and the politicization of the spread of the virus. 

This seems to be a good example of "path-dependence" in history. This public health catastrophe we now face could have unfolded differently in the United States. There were GOP leaders in 2019 and 2020 when the virus was first perceived as a major threat to US public health who pursued a science-driven set of policies. But the extremism of Donald Trump and his followers made a science-based approach to public policy and public health untenable for most GOP governors and legislators. (Even today we hear of death threats against public health professionals who argue for a mask mandate in public schools as they re-open this fall.) 

If our current situation was path-dependent, then what events led us here? We could probably identify two or three key factors in 2019 and 2020 that pushed the US population off the path of "sane public health thinking" and onto the QAnon path of lies, doubt, and conspiracy theories -- the persistent efforts by the Trump administration to minimize and trivialize the virus (and to attribute it to China); the onslaught of organized social media campaigns to the same effect; and an existing baseline of mistrust and disdain for the Federal government (e.g. Ammon Bundy's takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2018).

Above I asked whether a vaccine skeptic might have walked into Chernobyl reactor in 1986 because she didn't believe in radiation sickness. In a way, the example might be more illuminating than was first evident. A viral epidemic -- even a highly deadly one -- is not like an open reactor core. Everyone who is exposed to radiation levels found in the exploded Chernobyl reactor core will die, and will die in visibly horrible conditions. But even a highly contagious virus like the Delta variant of the covid virus is less visible than the glowing remnants of the Chernobyl fuel rods. Today the state of Florida has an extremely high incidence of new covid infections -- 100.9 per 100,000 population. (Mississippi is even higher, at 114.1 per hundred thousand; whereas Michigan and Massachusetts are at about 19-20 per hundred thousand.) So Florida is a catastrophe. And yet the vast majority of Floridians do not often see the results of the pandemic on a daily basis. Only .1% of the population are infected each day; a tiny risk, one might say. Floridians see news reports about rising rates of infection and hospitals approaching full capacity, but these are just words in a torrent of media that they have come to mistrust. Further, they can also go to a bar or restaurant and not see anyone getting sick, and they may avoid infection themselves for months or years (through good luck or simple precautions). What is a catastrophe at the community level is invisible to the majority of Floridians -- until their own parent, spouse, or child is infected. And then it is just "bad luck". So most Floridians, most of the time, have a daily experience that seems to support the "no big deal" framework rather than the "rapidly spreading horrific disease" framework. But a viral epidemic is different from car crashes: more infected people leads to an even greater number of infected people in the next cycle. It is an exponential process. So it is urgent to take measures to reduce contagion at an early stage of the pandemic -- which is precisely what many Red states have refused to do. 

Public health during pandemic is not an individual choice. A policy depending on "responsible choices" by individuals (concerning social distancing or masking, for example) is wholly inadequate to the problem. The slogan used by anti-maskers during current raging debates over mask requirements in public schools -- "My child, my choice" -- is absurd on its face. The unmasked child is a risk to others; so it is not simply a matter of personal choice -- any more than would the choice of bringing bottles of gasoline to school be a matter of personal choice. And, further, one's own child is dramatically less likely to become infected if other people's children are masked. Public health requires rational standards of behavior and a high level of compliance. But in many GOP-ruled states, officials have refused to set such regulations. 

It seems, then, that American mass behavior during the past 12 months shows a very large dose of irrationality, and this level of irrationality is dangerous in the setting of a viral pandemic. And it did not have to be this way. If the vast majority of Americans were behaving intelligently with respect to their own health, they would be accepting the advice of scientific and health experts about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and they would be supporting the call for masking until the viral surge of infections falls to an acceptably low level. Each individual would be better off if he or she got vaccinated and wore a mask. And the same is true collectively: the whole community -- whether Columbus, Ohio or Miami, Florida -- is better off if the infection rate (R) is brought down below 1.0 and the hospital utilization rate is at a sustainable level. 

Further, the pandemic threatens public health in more ways than the possibility of acute respiratory illness for one individual. When hospital intensive care units fill up, they lose the capacity to treat acutely ill patients of every variety. By remaining unvaccinated, becoming ill, and winding up on a ventilator in an ICU, the individual has harmed her own health; but she has also made it more difficult for other members of the community to gain access to the intensive care that they need as well. Each Floridian is more likely to survive a serious auto accident or a heart attack if there is an ICU bed available to treat her -- and this is a community-level fact. So whether we care primarily about our own health and the health of our families, or we care also about the wellbeing of our neighbors and fellow members of the community, sensible decision-making leads to sensible health behavior: vaccination, social distancing, and masking. The fact that 39% of the population in the US are still entirely unvaccinated (August 27) seems to document irrational personal choices on a massive scale. 

This seems to pose a very important and difficult problem for the social sciences. Is prudence such a weak influence on the typical person's choices as it appears? Is there a kind of "crowd" behavior at work that makes individual prudence and rationality irrelevant -- an echo chamber that makes independent thinking impossible? Is there some special difficulty in reasoning about an invisible diffuse risk like covid that is part of the problem? Are the avenues of social media messaging so powerful that large portions of the public lose their capacity for intelligent, sensible thought? What can we learn, in short, by studying the patterns of behavior that have emerged in the US over the past eighteen months? Are we living through a "natural experiment" in mass behavior when a population is faced with a novel and widespread threat?


Saturday, August 21, 2021

Albert Hirschman on uncertainty


Albert Hirschman was a particularly important non-conformist in 20th-century social science. (Here is an earlier discussion of Jeremy Adelman's biography of Hirschman (link).) Two of the things I admire most about him are his unwillingness to be bound by disciplinary divisions and his deep understanding of the uncertainty of virtually all social-science predictions. The social world is too complex, there are too many competing causal and agential factors influencing outcomes, to permit us to have confidence in the precise outcomes of social interventions in the future. The pristine mathematical theories of economics and the rational-choice models of political science alike provide a semblance of predictive precision; but upon examination, we discover that we can have little confidence in those predictions. The social world is orderly but contingent, and local differences in circumstances matter. (Here is an earlier post on social contingency (link), and another on path-dependence (link).)

Michele Alacevich's brilliant intellectual biography of Hirschman (Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography) provides new focus on these important insights from Hirschman's intellectual itinerary. Alacevich is an expert on the history of World Bank policies and practices, and this leaves him well situated to assess Hirschman's evolving views of the nature of economic development policy and large strategies of social and political reform. Simon Torracinta provides an outstanding and extensive review of the biography in Boston Review (link). As both Alacevich and Torracinta point out, Hirschman's insights are in danger of being lost in the forest of ideas we have about the power and limitations of the social sciences, so it is worthwhile highlighting several of those ideas. Both Alacevich's book and Torracinta's review essay reward a close reading, but here I will pull out several central ideas that they highlight.

Alacevich places particular importance on Hirschman's own experience in the field in projects aimed at stimulating economic development in Latin America (Columbia in particular). Hirschman witnessed the mismatch that so often developed between the goals and predictions associated with the grand strategies of development, and the actual experience as a particular project played out. Hirschman developed a deep skepticism about comprehensive blueprints of change, to be applied uniformly to the circumstances of various regions or countries. Rather, Torracinta emphasizes the aspects of pragmatism and piecemeal adjustment that underlay Hirschman's view of how social progress could occur. "Try this, adjust, then try that." Here is how Torracinta paraphrases Hirschman's approach:

“A priori deductions,” Hirschman wrote in an assessment of Italian reconstruction in 1947, “while instructive, can only yield extremely rough guesses and are not able to replace as yet the method of trial and error.” He added, in a sentence that could just as well have been written by heterodox analysts of post-pandemic recovery, that looking for the “correct” aggregate volume of investments in reconstruction was a “futile search.” Instead, “one should concentrate upon locating those investments which permit the breaking of important bottlenecks and will thereby lead to increases of output and improvements of performances out of proportion to the investment itself.”

This is "pragmatic", in the sense that it involves a process of informed trial-and-error, followed by assessment of the consequences; and it is piecemeal, in that it advises the reformer to engage in an extended step-by-step process involving adjustment and course-correction along the way. This involves an extensive reliance on decentralized decision-making, with -- once again -- the emergence of deep uncertainties about the consequences of various choices. Social change always involves uncertainty.

Here is how Torracinta sums up Hirschman's intellectual legacy:

What are we to make of this complex legacy? There remain a few Hirschmanian figures still scattered across the academy (the probing economist Dani Rodrik comes to mind). But in retrospect, ambitious balanced and unbalanced growth programs had more in common with each other than with the ideas that succeeded them: consider the socially devastating “reforms” imposed on developing countries by the IMF’s structural adjustment programs in the 1980s. Ironically, given the abeyance into which they fell in that period, many foundational insights of high development theory have now been reincorporated since then—in appropriate mathematical form—into the models of development economics in recent decades. The great inflation debate of 2021 makes it clear, however, that no matter how sophisticated or powerful they may be, models remain a highly contested feature of contemporary economics. Given the theoretical rigidity, mathematical formalism, and fierce professional hierarchy of the mainstream discipline today, Hirschman’s early skepticism of these trends looks more prescient than tragic.

So Torracinta believes that much of the valuable insight offered by Hirschman about the policy process and the possibilities of guided reform has been lost -- once again, deferring to the false confidence offered by formal economic models and rational-choice formalizations of political processes.

Alacevich offers a penetrating account of Hirschman's legacy that emphasizes the degree of contingency, creativity, and uncertainty that exists in the social world:

Hirschman’s emphasis on the concept of possibilism is arguably the most explicit statement of what he thought was his contribution to the deliberative process as reformist activism, and to the study of it as social science. Most social scientists, Hirschman noted, focus on explaining the regularities of social dynamics, and this is obviously an important task. But Hirschman emphasized the opposite type of endeavour: “to underline the multiplicity and creative disorder of the human adventure, to bring out the uniqueness of a certain occurrence, and to perceive an entirely new way of turning a historical corner.” This was particularly promising in seeking to explain the process of social change, for, he added, unless “novelty, creativity, and uniqueness” take place, large-scale social change cannot occur. In the first place, if all elements of social dynamics were already known, reactionary forces could easily foresee and preempt them. Second, he wrote, “radical reformers are unlikely to generate the extraordinary social energy they need to achieve change unless they are exhilaratingly conscious of writing an entirely new page of human history.” (250-251)

Hirschman’s attention to the possible over the probable, to the conjunctural over the structural, is the basis of yet another of his deep-rooted predilections and a fundamental element of his cognitive style—that is, the importance of history. In diametric opposition to the standards of social analysis that took shape after World War II, Hirschman considered the study of history an enormously rich and ineluctable source for understanding social change. (252)

There are several especially powerful ideas embedded here: "attention to the possible over the probable, to the conjunctural over the structural" and "unless 'novelty, creativity, and uniqueness' take place, large-scale social change cannot occur." Both ideas emphasize key aspects of the social world and of social change: heterogeneity, contingency, and the importance of agency. To this we might add the importance of a pragmatic approach to social change that recognizes the limitations of abstract utopian theories of the future. (Ironically, in another recent issue of Boston Review Martin O'Neill reviews Ed Miliband's GO BIG: How To Fix Our World, under the title "Against Incrementalism: Center-left parties should learn that small-bore solutions are a waste of time" (link). It is interesting to consider whether the impatience that many have with "incrementalism" is consistent with the valid insights and critiques offered by Hirschman of the ability of theory to guide comprehensive processes of change.) 

Hirschman was a singular contributor to the social sciences, and his work rewards close reading. Alacevich's biography is an important contribution to understanding Hirschman's legacy and his continuing importance for our understanding of the nature of the social sciences and social change.

(I took particular pleasure in meeting Albert Hirschman while presenting a seminar at the Center for International Studies at Princeton in the 1990s. I presented an early version of my research on what became The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development. Hirschman was enormously generous and stimulating with his comments, and he was especially supportive of the goal of bringing normative thinking back into the field of development economics. It was a memorable intellectual pleasure to have spent half an hour discussing these ideas with him.)


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Social change and agency


Much of the drama of history is found in processes of large social and political change, both slow and rapid. The sudden collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and 1990, the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the decades-long rise of the nationalist right in France and the United States, the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s, the success of movements for female suffrage in most western democracies since the beginning of the twentieth century -- these are examples of social and political change that are of great importance for the future of humanity, for better and worse.

There is a school of thought that wants to think of social change as being largely the result of human agency: parties, leaders, social movements, organizations, and social classes bring about changes that they "want" that they plan for. And sometimes this is true enough: the Republican tax-cutting policies of the past forty years in the United States have brought about a lot of social change, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Ideology and class interests, conjoined with a determined and persistent political party, have led to a substantial shift of wealth and income to an ever-smaller percentage of the population.

But much social and historical change doesn't look like that story. The change associated with GOP tax activism is a large and important one; but it is a pretty simple one as well. It is more akin to a pirate band taking plunder from a defenseless coastal population than a long, complex process of engagement with social forces, groups, and structures aimed at creating change.

Unquestionably there is a vast amount of agency, both individual and group, in typical processes of large social change. But much of this agency is contentious and decentralized, with widely different objectives, plans, strategies, and coalitions associated with different configurations of actors. Groups set out with one set of objectives; internal conflicts lead to adjustment and re-prioritization of objectives; other groups hijack the activism and organization of competitors and redirect their efforts towards a different set of goals altogether. The result is a set of outcomes that often would create an enormous sense of surprise for the activists and actors who were involved in collective efforts at the beginning: is this what we were striving for?

This feature of the multiplicity of social actors is what makes the field of contentious politics so important and so interesting. Scholars like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) have highlighted the complexity that underlies large social movements, and the social mechanisms through which multiple actors interact, compete, collaborate, and divide from each other. And it turns out that some of the same dynamics that are discovered in large processes of social movements are also found in more ordinary social environments as well; this is the special insight offered by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. Corporations, universities, and government agencies all embody some of the mechanisms of "contentious politics".

But social movements represent just one important source of social change. In broad perspective, there are a handful of different kinds of social factors that are involved in important examples of social and political change. And, significantly, all of these mechanisms play out in a social world which also possesses some dynamics of its own that are largely beyond the reach of purposeful intervention.

Change through social movements

When major segments of a population are mobilized around an issue, they can become important sources of social and political change. This raises questions from several perspectives. First, what factors lead to successful mobilization of a group? Second, what tactics and strategies are available to social groups through which they can bring about change through collective action? And third, what tactics and strategies are available to "incumbents" -- current power holders and the structures that they control -- through which they can defeat the efforts of groups involved in collective action? Concerning mobilization: a group needs to be sensitized to an issue that it can be brought to care about, and this rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, leaders and organizations are needed to convey messages, gather resources, plan for collective action, and the like. As McAdam and Kloos show in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, the Tea Party served such an organizational role in conservative mobilization in the 2000s. Concerning tactics: groups can exercise their political will through mass actions -- demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and electoral contests. They can engage in "everyday forms of resistance," in James Scott's words. And they can support "ideological" campaigns, promulgating and legitimizing the perspective of their group to other non-committed social actors. Finally, incumbents (governments and existing power-holders) can use ideological means to discredit the insurgent organizations. They can use the legitimate enforcement of the legal system to interfere with mass actions. And they can call upon organized force -- both official (police, military) and unofficial (militias, armed organizations) against the actions of insurgents. All of these dimensions have been visible in the collective actions and reactions that have occurred around the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half.

Change through influential organizations

Social mobilization is rarely spontaneous. Rather, there is a need for organizations that have resources and capacities that permit them to rally supporters, conduct strikes and demonstrations, and coordinate efforts with other groups and potential allies. Coordinated collective action requires communication, confidence-building, and resources. Organizations like labor unions, political organizations, religious hierarchies, and kin groups are all able to fill these roles. Charles Tilly highlights the importance of the Catholic Church during the uprising in the Vendée (The Vendee); the Solidarity organization in Poland originating in Gdansk provided this impetus in 1980 (link); and SNCC was able to offer substantial organizational impetus to civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. So organizations are a highly important ingredient of social mobilization; further, they can play an important role in determining the direction and strategy of a social movement. Labor unions in the United States in the 1960s played an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights, and much of this effort was prompted by the emergence of dissident union activism within unions like the United Auto Workers, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). Activism by African-American auto workers pushed the UAW into a more active position on the struggle for racial equality. (Here is a brief description of some of this history; link.)

Change through state power

The New Deal and the social agenda of the Roosevelt administration were examples of largescale social change initiated by a government. FDR and his political allies were able to enact programs and legislation that profoundly changed the relationship between ordinary people and the economy in which they lived. A generation later the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, supported by the advocacy and political efforts of the Johnson administration, led to a significant change in the political status of African-American citizens. As McAdam shows in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, these changes would not have been possible without wide and persistent activism and mass mobilization of the civil rights movement; but equally, they would not have occurred without the political efforts of the Johnson administration.

Change through education, media, entertainment

Public perception and worldview plainly play a crucial role in social mobilization and engagement in a struggle for social change. It is evident, then, that the content and pervasiveness of the institutions through which the opinions and perceptions of ordinary citizens are shaped are significant factors in the impulse towards social change. If children and young adults are exposed to values of human equality, freedom, and democracy throughout their education, it is more likely that they will be responsive to issues of racism and authoritarian state behavior later in their lives. On the other hand, if the content of the educational system downplays the importance of equality and democracy and minimizes the history of racial and sexual discrimination, then many in the population will be unmoved by calls for mobilization for greater equality. The influence of right-wing media on political attitudes has been well documented for the past several decades, and this is intentional: the owners of Fox News and similar sources have a message they want to convey, and their programs embody that message. And social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or right-wing sites like Parler and Rumble have proven to have an enormous capacity for generating hate-based activism. The institutions of education, media, and entertainment must be counted as causal factors in the occurrence of social and political change.

Change through generational and demographic shifts

These factors serve to identify some of the direct and purposeful sources of social and political change. But, as historians like Emmanuel Ladurie and Ferdinand Braudel demonstrated (link), there are long waves of change in history that are only remotely related to the intentions and purposes of the current generation. Long, slow processes can lead to substantial social change over time (link). For example, Paul Abramson and Ronald Inglehart argued that a large factor driving change in post-World War II democracies was "generational change and value replacement" (link). Here the idea is that value change in a nation is less about individuals and more about the shifting mix of cohorts of individuals over time. Here is their formulation of this hypothesis in the abstract to this paper:

Generational replacement has had a major impact on the distribution of materialist/post-materialist values among Western publics. Between 1970 and 1984 the ratio of post-materialists to materialists increased substantially in West Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands, and increased somewhat in France. In Belgium and Italy materialist values increased as a result of short-term forces conducive to materialism. In Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands population replacement contributed to the rise of post-materialism. In France, it reversed short-term forces contributing to materialism, while in Belgium and Italy population replacement partially offset short-term forces that contributed to materialist values. Analysis of the impact of generational replacement sheds light on the development of value orientations in Western societies and on a process through which attitude change occurs among mass publics.

Inglehart extends this argument along with Pippa Norris in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism to offer a degree of reassurance about the likely future of extremist populism: the tide of progressive attitudes towards race and ethnicity is very powerful, and right-wing extremism should be expected to decline.

A similar argument can be made about demographic change in the ethnic composition of a region or country. No particular individual needs to change his or her culinary tastes, in order for the ratio of Swedish restaurants to Polish restaurants to shift as a result of largescale immigration of Swedish families into the region. And if Swedish people are, on average, more liberal than Polish people, then the region becomes more liberal -- even though no individual has become more liberal.

Other longterm causes of large social and political change

It is clear that there are longterm processes of change in the world that affect us greatly, but appear to be "systemic" rather than agentic. Did anyone intend the deindustrialization of cities in what came to be known as the Rustbelt -- Cleveland, Peoria, Milwaukee, Flint, Erie? Was there a grand plan behind the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, websites, and social media? Does the shift in population balance between the midwest and the south and plains states reflect a plan or policy? In all instances the answer in "no." These are extended, anonymous processes that result from activities aimed at other goals altogether -- outsourcing of manufacturing to reduce labor costs, creation of new products like iPhones and advertising-supported websites to enhance profits, individual families and employers making decisions about where their economic and social lives will be best pursued. And yet each of these changes is highly consequential for the future. Justin Gest dissects the social and political consequences of deindustrialization in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality; the change in social and political life created by the internet revolution is palpable; and the political map deriving from the 2020 Census is discouraging to the current Democratic majority. Populous industrial states will lose seven seats (all but one in the industrial midwest), and southern and plains states will gain seven seats (all but Oregon in the southern or plains states). This is a very significant shift in the balance of political power between regions in the House of Representatives.


What all of this implies is that we humans can affect the direction of our societies through our actions and collaborations; but the certainty and power of our efforts are distinctly limited. There are large obstacles to effective social and political struggles for a set of shared goals; there are formidable resources available to the "incumbents" who oppose the achievement of our goals; and there are large, impersonal forces that are largely impervious to agentic intervention. This does not imply the counsel of despair; but it does suggest the importance of having a realistic and fairly modest expectation of how much success can be achieved in a foreseeable period of time. Two of my favorite aphorisms on this topic are from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Karl Marx, and they are contradictory. Dr. King wrote, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." Dr. King's sentiment is probably too optimistic; there is nothing inevitable about the achievement of a just society. On this topic, Marx seems to have the more realistic view.


Monday, August 16, 2021

New email feed for Understanding Society


I have some welcome news for readers who rely on the Feedburner email feed to receive the Understanding Society blog. Since Google is no longer supporting Feedburner's email function, it seemed that this mode of access would no longer be available. Fortunately, I have been able to transition to FOLLOW.IT, a free and highly functional email feed system. It has been possible to export the old Feedburner email list to the FOLLOW.IT system. You should have received an email today from follow.it asking you to confirm your subscription to the Understanding Society email feed. 

FOLLOW.IT staff have filtered out addresses that were unverified, so if your address was not included for some reason, please use the box at the bottom of the blog to reinstate your email subscription. 

You can visit FOLLOW.IT directly to see some of the flexible options that this service provides.

Thanks for continuing to follow Understanding Society!

Dan Little


Saturday, August 14, 2021

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism


Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt's perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser, Judt's tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser's "structuralism" as an explication of Marx's theories. On Althusser's ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser's "theory of structural practices". And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser's failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt's assessment of Althusser's structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser's structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this "theoretist" approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx's system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the "structures" that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the "logic" of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt's discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders - The Golden Age - The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history -- the propensity of his followers to regard Marx's writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson's polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt's polemical essay "Clown in Regal Purple" (link) suffers in regard to Judt's treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski's response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: "No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again" (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson's most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But -- as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser -- twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements -- whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s -- to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting "Marxism" cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (link, link))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem -- for example, link, link, link.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list -- nations that have adopted strong versions of "social democracy" as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)