Friday, February 25, 2022

Vasily Grossman on good and evil

Vasily Grossman's novel Life and Fate was long delayed in its publication because of Soviet censorship but has come to be recognized as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Grossman was a complex and appealing intellectual. Born in 1905, he was raised in a secular Jewish family in Berdichev, Ukraine. He was educated as a chemical engineer, but his vocation was writing and literature. When Hitler's armies invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 Grossman became a war correspondent in the Red Army, and quickly emerged as one of the most active and popular observers of the chaos and murder of the German invasion throughout the war. He was present through much of the battle of Stalingrad, he was the first journalist to observe and write about the Treblinka death camp, and he maintained extensive notebooks recording his experiences and observations throughout the war and genocide. Alexandra Popoff's biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century offers a masterful account of his life and writings. Grossman began Life and Fate in the 1950s and completed it for publication in 1960. However, the manuscript and supporting materials were confiscated ("arrested") by the KGB and the novel was not published until 1980 (in Switzerland) -- sixteen years after Grossman's death.

The novel is riveting and complex. It represents an important piece of literary creation, a contribution to the history of the Holocaust and the German-Soviet war, and a prolonged critique of Stalinism. What is of special interest on this day in February, 2022 -- today, the first day of Russia's inexcusable and criminal aggressive war against Grossman's homeland, the Ukraine -- is Grossman's willingness to occasionally put the narrative aside and engage in philosophical-historical reflection. One such moment is in part 2, chapter 15, where Grossman presents a series of striking ideas about the nature of good and evil in history.

The theory is presented in a convoluted way. The old Bolshevik Mikhail Mostovskoy is a prisoner in a German concentration camp, and is brought for interrogation or conversation with Liss, a high Gestapo officer and student of Hegel. Liss has an unusual and surprising thesis to discuss with Mostovskoy: that both the Nazi officer and the loyal Bolshevik are involved in the same business -- service to an insane leader and a totalitarian ideology. Liss argues that the ideologies are remarkably similar. And secretly, Mostovskoy has come to see that the Soviet system is not so different from the Nazi system. He muses:

With all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that ...! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship! More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin ...! That was the edge of the abyss. (399)

The discussion of good and evil in this chapter is conveyed through the semi-coherent writings of another prisoner, the holy fool Ikonnikov. It is Ikonnikov whose shabby document on scraps of paper reflects on the history of good and evil. But the main lines of the view are Grossman's.

So what is the substance of this conception? To begin, the Ikonnikov manuscript rejects the idea that good and evil can be defined in general religious or philosophical terms. Religious doctrines in particular have given rise to great suffering, and Ikonnikov denies that religious figures or texts give humanity a true understanding of good and evil. He also denies that "good" is a universal concept, as perhaps a philosopher might hold:

People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good. (405)

Many books have been written about the nature of good and evil and the struggle between them ... There is a deep and undeniable sadness in all this: whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil -- an evil that is itself eternal but will never succeed in overcoming good -- whenever we see this dawn, the blood of old people and children is always shed. Not only men, but even God himself is powerless to lessen this evil. (406)

And most pertinent, Ikonnikov (and Grossman) link this critique of "universal theory of the good" to the evils of Soviet actions in the 1930s in Ukraine:

I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia -- men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble -- yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers. (406-407)

Here Ikonnikov refers to the Holodomor, the terror and purges, and the Gulag -- all created by the deliberate purposes of the Soviet state. It is the utopian ideas of Marxist communism, and the grim realities of the Holodomor, the Stalinist terror, and the Gulag that Grossman is bringing into focus through Ikonnikov. Utopian socialism led to the Holodomor, the NKVD, and the Gulag -- all in pursuit of "socialism in one country." (No wonder the book was "arrested" in 1962; it is surprising that Grossman himself was not shot on the grounds of this passage alone.)

Here, the critique -- whether of religion or of Communism or of Nazism -- is a thorough rejection of the notion of sacrificing human beings to an idea or a future utopia.

Where do we find "good", then, if not in universal principles of religion or philosophy or utopian doctrine? Ikonnikov is very clear about this question: good is found in the concrete actions of ordinary human beings. Ikonnikov's and Grossman's conception of the good is particular to human beings as they exist in specific times and places; it is not adherence to a set of principles, visions of the future, or prescriptions for the ultimate "good" of society. Good is found in concrete humanity in its particular historical circumstances.

Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital 'G', there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother. (407-408)

And what is "kindness", the constant refrain of Grossman's optimism about the future? It is the simple human fact of compassion, the fact that human beings are often able to recognize the reality and the humanity of others around them, and to see that human reality as a concrete impulse to action. It is --

The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good. (408)

This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind. (409)

But Mostovskoy the disillusioned Bolshevik is not persuaded by Ikonnikov:

Yes, the man who had written this was unhinged. The ruin of a feeble spirit! The preacher declares that the heavens are empty ... He sees life as a war of everything against everything. And then at the end he starts tinkling the same old bells, praising the kindness of old women and hoping to extinguish a world-wide conflagration with an enema syringe. What trash! (410)

So whose view of good and evil is this -- the holy fool or Grossman himself? I believe it is Grossman's view, or at least an important part of his view. The theme of kindness is very deep in Grossman, and it is fundamental to his humanism and his faith in the future. Take this vignette from "The Old Teacher":

Then six-year-old Katya, the daughter of Weissman, the lieutenant who had been killed, came up to him in her torn dress, shuffling along in galoshes that were falling off her dirty, scratched little feet. Offering him a cold, sour pancake, she said, “Eat, teacher!”

He took the pancake and began to eat it, looking at the little girl’s thin face. As he ate, there was a sudden hush in the yard. Everyone—the old women, the big-breasted young women who could no longer remember their husbands, the one-legged lieutenant Voronenko lying on a mattress under a tree—was looking at the old man and the little girl. Rosenthal dropped his book and did not try to pick it up—he was looking at the little girl’s huge eyes, which were intently, even greedily, watching him as he ate. Once again he felt the urge to understand a wonder that never ceased to amaze him: human kindness. Perhaps the answer was there in the child’s eyes. But her eyes must have been too dark, or maybe what got in the way were his own tears—once again he saw nothing and understood nothing. (The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays)

And later, when the Jews of the village are being forced to the ravine to be slaughtered, the old teacher and the girl Katya are united again:

“How can I comfort her? How can I deceive her?” the old man wondered, gripped by a feeling of infinite sorrow. At this last minute too, there would be no one to support him, no one to say what he had longed all his life to hear— the words he had desired more than all the wisdom of books about the great thoughts and labors of man.

The little girl turned toward him. Her face was calm; it was the pale face of an adult, a face full of tolerant compassion. And in a sudden silence he heard her voice.

“Teacher,” she said, “don’t look that way, it will frighten you.” And, like a mother, she covered his eyes with the palms of her hands. (The Road)

A similar compassion and love for the particular human beings who died there is found in the closing lines of "The Hell of Treblinka":

Great is the power of true humanity. Humanity does not die until man dies. And when we see a brief but terrifying period of history, a period during which beasts triumph over human beings, the man being killed by the beast retains to his last breath his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and passionate love. And the beast that triumphantly kills the man remains a beast. This immortality of spiritual strength is a somber martyrdom—the triumph of a dying man over a living beast. It was this, during the darkest days of 1942, that brought about the beginning of reason’s victory over bestial madness, the victory of good over evil, of light over darkness, of the forces of progress over the forces of reaction. A terrible dawn over a field of blood and tears, over an ocean of suffering—a dawn breaking amid the cries of dying mothers and infants, amid the death rattles of the aged.

The beasts and the beasts’ philosophy seemed to portend the sunset of Europe, the sunset of the world, but the red was not the red of a sunset, it was the red blood of humanity—a humanity that was dying yet achieving victory through its death. People remained people. They did not accept the morality and laws of Fascism. They fought it in all ways they could; they fought it by dying as human beings. (The Road)

It is Grossman, then, not simply the holy fool Ikonnikov, who finds enduring value chiefly in ordinary human compassion and kindness. This is the thrust of the closing lines of Ikonnikov's scraps of paper. And this is the heart of Grossman's concrete, intuitive humanism.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Life and Fate, 410)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Atrocious and evil -- Russian aggressive war in Ukraine

The moment has come, after months of insistent, indignant jabber from Vladimir Putin that he has no intention of invading Ukraine: Russian forces have invaded Ukraine across a broad front.

This act by Vladimir Putin and his military is atrocious in precisely the way that Adolph Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 was atrocious. In fact, Putin's playbook is very similar to Hitler's playbook: spurious claims about ancestral rights to territory, phony claims about provocative attacks by Poland (1939) and Ukraine (2022), defiant histrionics to the world about Russia's right to the territory of Ukraine. This is an atrocity for a fundamental reason: it involves attack against a non-aggressor nation, it is unprovoked, it will undoubtedly lead to massive suffering, dislocation, and death of innocent Ukrainian citizens. Putin demonstrates that he -- and now the country for which he is unopposed dictator -- have complete disregard for international law, the rights and dignity of non-combatants, and the legal and moral importance of sovereignty.

The point deserves to be underlined: Putin is a dictator, and contemporary Russia is a dictatorship. Independent critics are imprisoned, persecuted, and assassinated; political organizations that dissent from Putin's rule are suppressed; and ordinary citizens are intimidated. Even oligarchs are treated harshly if they fail to support Putin's regime.

And what about Ukraine? Ukraine's history since 1920 is a story of vast suffering, much of it at the hands of Russians and the Soviet regime. The mass and deliberate starvation campaign conducted by Stalin in 1931-33, the Holodomor (link), led to the deaths of perhaps four million Ukrainian villagers during the famine years. Stalin's campaign of terror against his own people took a major toll on Ukrainians before and after World War II. The dictatorship of Soviet rule was harsh and unforgotten in Ukraine today. The devastation and death toll of fighting and Holocaust in 1941-43 in Ukraine against invading Nazi armies and Einsatzgruppen led to over a million deaths of Ukraine's Jewish population, and vast military and prisoner-of-war casualties. Kiev itself was the site of the largest single site of mass killings of the Ukrainian Jewish population, Babi Yar. To be aware that once again, artillery fire, air strikes, and missiles are in the skies of Ukraine is unbearably sad for the Ukrainian people and for everyone who cares about peace and human wellbeing.

The great Ukrainian writer Vasily Grossman, citizen of Berdichev, had greater wisdom, even as he witnessed the atrocities of Nazi extermination of the Jews of eastern Europe, the defense of Stalingrad, and the eventual defeat of the Nazi regime. In Life and Fate he wrote:

I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Life and Fate, Part II, chapter 15)

Grossman never surrendered his belief in freedom, peace, and the dignity of the individual human being -- even as he witnessed the atrocities of the Gulag, the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, and the reckless and despotic behavior of the Soviet dictatorship.

Putin's decision is the act of an international outlaw and cannot be forgiven. Massive, enduring, and punishing sanctions must be the response of the rest of the world. And perhaps Ukrainians can take some hope from the anthem of their countryman: "evil will never conquer".

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

How to think about deliberate social change

What is involved in trying to create a better world? That is: what is involved in being an activist, a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary, or – for that matter – a reactionary? And how do the various forms of knowledge provided by areas of research in the social sciences play into this question? Is reforming the social world more like dreaming or more like building a cabinet?

This is an interesting set of questions for several reasons. One has to do with a very basic and crucial human feature – our capacity for rational-intentional manipulation of our various environments. Marx (and Hegel) put this feature of human capacity at the center of a rich conception of human “species being” – homo faber, the human tool-user, the creator through intelligent labor. The essence of “labor” is the use of one’s skills and knowledge to transform materials into objects that satisfy our needs, wants, and aesthetic values. And we would like to suppose that we can use our intelligence, our abilities to cooperate, and our practical skills at building social institutions, to construct a better world.

When we put this question in terms of transformation of the material world, we are talking about technology. We are led into a reflection on the knowledge provided by the natural sciences and the ways in which these forms of knowledge permit human beings to transform and build the natural environment; we are led to the disciplines of craftsmanship and technology. We are led to a consideration of practical intelligence and the artful transformation of nature. But what about purposive social change? How should we use knowledge and intelligence to bring about a better social world?

An important preliminary question is the scope of the possible: to what extent can we remake either the natural world or the social world? On the side of the natural world, the answer is fairly clear; humanity has thoroughly transformed the surface of the earth through its use of technology and scientific knowledge. (What is less clear is whether we have done so in ways that serve our collective interests, and whether unanticipated consequences have often derailed the benefits we sought.) An aircraft is the result of an integrated design process; a city is the result of a combination of plans, designs, accidents, and uncoordinated choices. So an aircraft is a much more intentional artifact than a city.

In the realm of the social world, the evidence is less clear when it comes to intentional transformation. There is ample evidence of social change, of course; but to what extent is that purposive or intentional social change? To what extent, perhaps, is largescale social change more like an ecological system than a building designed by an architect; more the result of many small and often unintended interventions rather than the result of a blueprint?

We can also ask the question: what sorts of things are we thinking to change, when we yearn for change? Here are several important possibilities: basic social structures; intermediate institutions; patterns of human behavior; mentalities and forms of social consciousness; social practices; and patterns of exploitation and domination.

So where do the social sciences come in when we consider the project of social reform? There are at least three locations within this story:

  • in the theory of the present (why does contemporary America embody racial inequalities? What are the current social mechanisms?);
  • in the theory of an ideal future (description of feasible institutions that produce equality); and
  • in the theory of a strategy of change (description of feasible actions that can be taken over time leading to the establishment of new social arrangements).

What this comes down to is three rather different applications of the empirical and theoretical findings of the social sciences. First, the social sciences can provide the basis for a causal-institutional analysis of the way that the current system works. Second, the social sciences can allow us to “test” the viability of an institutional change and a new set of institutions, to try to estimate the way that these new institutions will function. This is a bit like simulating the behavior of a new device under a set of test conditions. Third, the social sciences can provide an inventory of a large number of mechanisms and processes of change – protest, demonstrations, armed struggle, lobbying, public relations campaigns, … This application permits us to attempt to evaluate the credibility of a proposed strategy of change.

So how should we think about purposive social change – especially change in the direction of novelty, systemic change, and large change of behavior and mentality? Careful reflection on the nature of the social suggests that social arrangements and processes are always conditioned by contingency, heterogeneity, and plasticity; so there are no “iron laws of history,” no general theories that tell us how social processes work. Instead, good social science theories shed light on specific, mid-level social mechanisms and processes – very ably described by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly in Dynamics of Contention. So we can forget about the social sciences providing a general “physics” or “mechanics” that might provide a blueprint for social design – as our understanding of the natural sciences does in fact permit in the design of material technologies. Instead, we can derive from the various areas of the social sciences some pragmatic rules of thumb about how mid-level social processes work.

How does this help to answer our question? Because we can use the open-ended totality of the learning that research in the social sciences has made possible about how the social world actually works, to help guide our thinking as we think about social reform and social change. We can attempt to mentally model the way that new institutions would work. We can attempt to foresee some of the glitches that will arise as we undertake a process of extended social reform. We are forced to be humble: prediction is very limited, there are always confounding factors that we haven’t incorporated into our mental models, and contingency runs deep. But we can make a start at evaluating a change strategy – the likely features of functioning that a given institutional design will display; the failures that may arise as a process of communication or coordination is undertaken; and the forms of corruption, weakness of the will, freeriding, and gaming that we can expect in any large process of social change.

A good example worth considering is the inadequate efforts that were undertaken towards reform of the financial industry following the 2008 financial crisis. These efforts were not highly successful, for several identifiable reasons: industry capture of the process, inadequate understanding of complex interactions among rules and regulatory institutions, and failure to anticipate innovative strategies to circumvent the rules. But equally difficult questions arise every kind of social reform – the design of a new set of tenure procedures in a university, the design of a system of regulation to end disparate use of force by US police departments against racial minorities, or the design of single-payer health insurance system.

Several ideas seem to come to the top out of these reflections.

(1) Designing social change is difficult, in part, because it requires us to imagine and create social arrangements that don’t yet exist. So we have to exert our analytical and empirical intelligence to try to estimate the way these arrangements might work – and how ordinary people might live within them. Are they feasible? And do they produce the intended social effects?

(2) The social sciences set some loose limits on our reasoning as we think about both systems and pathways; but social science will never permit precise calculations about the future. There is a very broad range of possible outcomes for almost any social intervention.

(3) The kinds of atrociously bad outcomes that twentieth-century “modernizing projects” have led to have occurred as a result of aggressive and misplaced confidence in social theories and models. This is a deeply important lesson. There is a very wide gap between theory and reality. Marxism and neoliberal purism alike have created enormous human suffering in the past century.

(4) This being recognized, social innovators ought to be risk-aware: take small steps, evaluate, examine; and proceed further. Just as designers of nuclear power plants need to design for worst-case scenarios and soft landings, so social innovators should be cautious as they push forward their reforms.

(5) All these cautions properly acknowledged, we have no choice but to attempt to create a better social future for humanity. And this means respecting the constraints of democracy even as we struggle for substantively better social arrangements.

(Here are several earlier discussions relevant to this topic; link, link, link, link.)

Sunday, February 20, 2022

A topology of political theories?

We sometimes think of political philosophies as falling on a spectrum from left to right. Bernie Sanders is on the left and Greg Abbott is on the right. Our mental map might perhaps look something like this:

(Please note that the graphs are easier to see if the reader clicks the image and views the full-resolution image.)

However, a moment's reflection shows that this scheme doesn't really work. There isn't a single dimension along which these various political philosophies can be arranged. Anarchism isn't just further out on the same dimension as liberal constitutionalism; rather, it highlights a different set of moral concerns altogether. Communitarianism is a complex of values that appeals, in different ways, to both progressives and conservatives. Is communitarianism a left-leaning or a right-leaning philosophical position?

We might say as a form of shorthand that classical liberalism gives highest priority to the rights and freedoms of individual citizens; classical conservatism gives highest priority to the continuity of traditional social and political values and relationships; socialism gives priority to bringing about the end of economic domination of one group by another (equality); and fascism gives priority to ideological purity and state control of society. This shorthand gives a sense of the multi-polar nature of political philosophy. 

Consider a handful of fundamental values or themes that have motivated important schools of political philosophy -- for example, the values of liberty, equality, community, state supremacy, and ideological unity. How do the eleven political philosophies mentioned on the left-right spectrum above relate to those values? Here is an impressionistic graphic that perhaps sheds some light on the "space" of political philosophy. The core values of liberty and equality do a reasonably good job of differentiating between the "left" end of the spectrum from the right end. The values of ideological supremacy and state supremacy capture theories at both extremes: communism in the Stalinist mode and fascism. The value of community seems to be invoked in theories on both the left and right halves of the spectrum.

Can we do even better? We might consider placing political philosophies on a more notional graph that flags each political theory with a tag for the values it incorporates. This might look something like this:

This graph gives a greater sense of the nuances and divisions that distinguish the various political philosophies mentioned here; some are more similar to others because they share more of the "tags" that characterize them, and yet they differ in incommensurable ways. Here again, the left-right spectrum doesn't work well; rather, there is a multi-dimensional scattering of political philosophies across the values of equality, liberty, tradition, state domination, etc. Communism and fascism wind up looking like cousins, not extremes at opposite ends of the spectrum.

It should be possible to incorporate the relationships indicated in the preceding graph into a network graph among the eleven political theories mentioned here. The graph might look something like this:

This graph is still impressionistic, but it has a credible logic to it. It seems to capture real affinities among a range of political philosophies. And, most interestingly, it seems to give rise to a very different arrangement of views across conceptual space. The centrist views on this scheme are social democracy and civic humanism, whereas the extreme views are totalitarianism and populism, as well as libertarianism and anarchism.

Having spent several hours exploring different ways of "graphing" the space of political philosophies, I'm inclined to think that this is a useful tool for exploring the underlying commitments of various political theories. The multiple values and fundamental questions posed by Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Hayek, or Nietzsche do not reduce to a simple set of propositions. But by examining the cross-connections that exist among these various theories we can see both areas of consensus and difference among the theories. And we can see why the theories associated with totalitarianism, fascism, and communism, are so fundamentally unacceptable to a broad range of political thinkers. They are incompatible with the values of individual rights and liberties, the value of human equality, and the aspiration to human progress.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Factions, insurrections, and the Federalist Papers

Sometimes political philosophers think of the The Federalist Papers as fairly minor contributions to the history of political theory -- time-bound, parochial, and written by colonial bumpkins who couldn't really hold a candle to Locke or Hobbes. When addressed at all, they are often used simply as evidence about the "original intent" of various constitutional provisions in the US Constitution (link). Now that I've included several of the papers in a course I'm currently teaching on modern political thought, however, I've come to a new appreciation of what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were attempting to accomplish -- in contrast to Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. And I have gained a new appreciation of their sophistication as political philosophers and theorists. Most strikingly, I've seen today something that was invisible in the 1960s: how some of the work is enormously relevant on the assault to democracy we are currently experiencing from the far right in the United States.

The approach taken by the writers of the Federalist Papers is one of psychological realism. They want to design political institutions that work for citizens as they actually behave, not as we would wish them to behave. Here is a fine statement of their approach in FP 51, offered in their analysis of the institutional idea of "separation of powers" in government:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man, must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (FP 51: 268-269)

One of the key problems that Madison and Hamilton confront, in a very serious way, is that of "faction". We might think of this problem in a fairly trivial way: "I say potato, you say potahto". We're different. But what they have in mind is much more critical to the health and stability of a democracy than that. It has to do with groups that potentially endanger the survival of the republic itself, and the liberties of the citizens who make it up. Madison opens No. 10 with these words:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed, than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. (FP 10: 42)

Madison and Hamilton hope that they and their colleagues in institution-building in 1787 will be able to design governance arrangements that reduce the dangers of "faction" to the viability of the emerging American democracy.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (FP 10: 43)

It is worth observing that a faction is not simply a group united by a shared set of preferences -- citizens who advocate for a new public park in a city, say -- but rather a group that advocates for actions that are "adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community". Ku Klux Klan activists in Alabama in the 1950s who sought to intimidate African-American men and women from exercising their rights to vote would be a faction; so would a group that seeks to undermine a community's ability to prevent the spread of polio among its children.

Why do factions and inter-group conflict arise? Madison (and Hamilton) approach the problem of politics realistically; and that means that they take human beings as they find them, not as we would wish them to be. Moreover, this is true both for citizens and leaders. Here is an extended passage:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders, ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions, whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind, to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions, and excite their most violent conflicts. (FP 10: 43)

Madison notes that it is impossible to prevent the occurrence of factions and the conflicts they create; individuals are not fully rational, just, or self-controlled.

If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know, that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together; that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.(FP 10: 46)

And likewise, rulers are not angels either:

It is in vain to say, that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm: nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all, without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another, or the good of the whole. (FP 10: 45)

But Madison believes that appropriate institutional arrangements can minimize the bad effects of ordinary citizens exercising their passions and their interests. One such arrangement that serves as a buffer to the hazards of factions is representative government, or what he refers to as a republic. Political decisions no longer depend on the direct votes of citizens, but instead emerge from a decision-making process involving their elected representatives. He believes that the elected representatives will be more moderate than the factions of the public and "more consonant to the public good" (46). But, realist that he is, he also realizes that there may be a process of faction formation within the government itself:

Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people. (FP 10: 47)

We seem to have examples of both hazards to democracy in contemporary US politics: a substantial minority of citizens who come together with the goal of attacking legitimate public institutions (public health departments and school boards, for example) and legislators "of sinister design" who gain the votes of their districts and then act out of ideological and personal self-interest. Madison confirmed that this was a possibility in 1787, but he thought it unlikely as the electorate grew larger.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practise with success the vicious arts, by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit, and the most diffusive and established characters. (FP 10: 47)

Finally, Madison believed that the plurality of states within the Federal republic would be a buffer against extremism in the legislature:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular states, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other states: a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it, must secure the national councils against any danger from that source: a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the union, than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire state. (FP 10: 48)

Both of these replies suggests a confidence in something like the "wisdom of the crowd"; but both are refuted by the politics of the recent past. "Factious leaders" have gained national followings, with adherents in multiple states. And multitudes of voters and citizens have been swept up into populist fantasies leading them to support policies and candidates who advocate those fantasies. Right-wing populism, fueled by conspiracy theories and social media, seems to have swamped democratic republicanism.

Madison and Hamilton were asking the right questions: How can we design democratic political institutions that are resilient in the face of ordinary men and women, extremist factions, and unscrupulous leaders? Perhaps there are good answers to these questions that haven't yet been explored. But unhappily, Madison and Hamilton did not themselves arrive at a convincing solution.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Alexander Herzen's radical liberalism

image: Meissonier, Massacre during June Days, 1848, Paris

Alexander Herzen's From the Other Shore (1850) is an exceptionally important example of an intelligent observer trying to make sense of the social, economic, and political changes of the nineteenth century. And Isaiah Berlin's introduction is profound. (Here is an online version of the book; link.)

Herzen's writings represented an almost unique combination of political perspectives. He was sympathetic to revolutionary activism by anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin, as well as revolutionary socialists in London and Paris and the radical workers of Paris in 1848. He was fervently opposed to the old oppressive order of Europe, whether the rule of the Czar and landed aristocracy in Russia or the dominant bourgeois order of wealth and poverty in France and Germany. And he was passionately committed to the principle of individual liberty. We might say that he was a revolutionary anti-Czarist liberal republican -- which sounds like a very contradictory bundle of political ideas. But the contradiction may be only apparent; it is the contradiction between revolution and liberty. As the revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have unfolded, they have generally sacrificed liberty for the collectivist goals of revolution. But is a post-authoritarian, post-bourgeois regime in Europe necessarily indifferent to individual liberties? Or is it possible to imagine a genuinely egalitarian liberal social democracy, with strong constitutional protections of individual rights and liberties? If so, that seems to be the political idea that fits best with Herzen's political writings.

Here is Herzen's liberal principle:

The liberty of the individual is the greatest thing of all, it is on this and on this alone that the true will of the people can develop. Man must respect liberty in himself, and he must esteem it in himself no less than in his neighbour, than in the entire nation. (From the Other Shore, author's introduction, 12)

Here is his revolutionary anti-authoritarian commitment:

The state forms of France and other European countries are in their essence compatible with neither liberty, equality nor fraternity. If any of these ideas were realized, it would be the repudiation of contemporary European life; it would be its death. No constitution, no government is in a position to give feudal and monarchical countries true freedom and equality without annihilating everything feudal and monarchical in them. European life, Christian and aristocratic, has moulded our civilization, our notions, our ways of life. It cannot exist without a Christian and aristocratic environment. (From the Other Shore, Year LVII of the Republic, 62)

Here is a passage on the June days of Paris 1848 that captures his sympathy for the workers:

I listened to the thunder and the tocsin and gazed avidly at this panorama of Paris; it was as though I was taking my leave of it. At that moment I loved Paris passionately. It was my last tribute to the great town; after the June days it grew hateful to me. On the other side of the river barricades were being raised in all the streets and alleys. I can still see the gloomy faces of the men dragging stones; women and children were helping them. A young student from the Polytechnic climbed up on to an apparently completed barricade, planted the banner and started singing the Marseillaise in a soft, sad, solemn voice; all the workers joined in and the chorus of this great song, resounding from behind the stones of the barricades, gripped one's soul. . . . The tocsin was still tolling. Meanwhile, the artillery clattered across the bridge and General Bedeau standing there raised his field-glasses to inspect the enemy positions. . . . (From the Other Shore, After the Storm, 46)

And here is an alternative vision of work without wage labor -- cooperatives -- based on his understanding of the peasant commune in Russia:

There are a number of such artels—builders, carpenters and other sorts of artisans—each consisting of several hundred people drawn from different communes, who come together for a given period of time, for a year for instance, and so form a group. When the year is up, the workers share out the produce on the basis of the work they have done, in each case abiding by the general decision. The police have not so far had the satisfaction of being able to interfere in these arrangements. The association, I must emphasize, generally holds itself responsible for all the workers who comprise it. (From the Other Shore, The Russian People and Socialism, 184)

Finally, Herzen has a healthy distrust of "ideology", or purely philosophical theories of an ideal future for which all present human wellbeing must be sacrificed. Against Trotsky, Lenin, and Mao, Herzen mistrusted grand ideological goals and favored a process of social change that permitted ordinary human beings to exercise their freedoms as society changed. Berlin emphasizes this point in his introduction.

It is, in the main, a frontal attack upon the doctrine at that time preached by almost every left-wing orator in Europe (with the notable exception of Proudhon and a handful of anarchists to whom no one listened), about the sacred human duty of offering up oneself—or others—upon the altar of some great moral or political cause—some absolute principle or ‘collective noun’ capable of stirring strong emotion, like Nationality, or Democracy, or Equality, or Humanity, or Progress. For Herzen these are merely modern versions of ancient religions which demanded human sacrifice, faiths which spring from some irrational belief (rooted in theology or metaphysics) in the existence of vast and menacing powers, once the objects of blind religious worship, then, with the decay of primitive faith, degraded to becoming terms of political rhetoric. The dogmas of such religions declare that mere invocation of certain formulae, certain symbols, render what would normally be regarded as crimes or lunacies—murder, torture, the humiliation of defenceless human bodies—not only permissible, but often laudable. (From the Other Shore, Berlin introduction, xv)

Here is Herzen on "progress" in "Before the Storm":

‘You are quite right when you speak of nature, but it seems to me that you have forgotten that throughout all the changes and confusions of history there runs a single red thread binding it into one aim. This thread—is progress, or perhaps you do not acknowledge progress?’

‘Progress is the inalienable quality of uninterrupted conscious development: it consists in a retentive memory and the physiological perfection of man through social life.’

‘Is it possible that in all this you do not see a goal?’

‘Quite the opposite, I see here only a consequence. If progress is the end, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, instead of rewarding them, only recedes, and as a consolation to the exhausted, doomed multitudes crying “morituri te salutant”, can give back only the mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth. Do you truly wish to condemn all human beings alive to-day to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on. . . or of wretched galley slaves, up to their knees in mud, dragging a barge filled with some mysterious treasure and with the humble words “progress in the future” inscribed on its bows? Those who are exhausted fall in their tracks; others, with fresh forces take up the ropes; but there remains, as you said yourself, as much ahead as there was at the beginning, because progress is infinite. This alone should serve as a warning to people: an end that is infinitely remote is not an end, but, if you like, a trap; an end must be nearer—it ought to be, at the very least, the labourer's wage, or pleasure in the work done. (From the Other Shore, Before the Storm, 36-37)

The new society, if it is to conform to these disparate values, must accomplish several different social goods:

  • respect liberty and equal dignity of all individuals;
  • secure the human needs of everyone -- workers, engineers, poets, and owners of property;
  • be democratic, not autocratic.
Was there any place on the planet in 1850 that satisfied these different structural features? There certainly was not -- not Britain, not Switzerland, not the United States. Is there a society on the planet today that satisfies them? Perhaps there is; it is called Finland.