Thursday, August 31, 2023

Moses Finley's persecution by McCarthyism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Memory and culture after 1989 in Central Europe

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

Here is how Hilmar defines his project:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are organizations emergent?

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

For example: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2023

Marxism and British historiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2023

A curious convergence between social ontology and process metaphysics

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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