Socrates the hoplite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. “Therefore, we should never return an injustice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social behavior and the covid pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Hirschman on uncertainty

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

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

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

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

This is “pragmatic”, in the sense that it involves a process of informed trial-and-error, followed by assessment of the consequences; and it is piecemeal, in that it advises the reformer to engage in an extended step-by-step process involving adjustment and course-correction along the way. This involves an extensive reliance on decentralized decision-making, with — once again — the emergence of deep uncertainties about the consequences of various choices. Social change always involves uncertainty.
Here is how Torracinta sums up Hirschman’s intellectual legacy:

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

So Torracinta believes that much of the valuable insight offered by Hirschman about the policy process and the possibilities of guided reform has been lost — once again, deferring to the false confidence offered by formal economic models and rational-choice formalizations of political processes.Alacevich offers a penetrating account of Hirschman’s legacy that emphasizes the degree of contingency, creativity, and uncertainty that exists in the social world:

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

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

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

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

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

Social change and agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change through social movements

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

Change through influential organizations

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

Change through state power

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

Change through education, media, entertainment

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

Change through generational and demographic shifts

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

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

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

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

Other longterm causes of large social and political change

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

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

(Here are several earlier posts that are relevant to this topic: real utopiassocial progress, social justice movements, progressive politics, purposive social actionprotest and dissent, power and social movements, corporate powerunintended consequences, and the civil rights movement.)

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians — Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick — held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness — whether in the time of Socrates or Neo (the protagonist in the Matrix).

But really — it is entirely unbelievable to imagine that philosophy and pure reason can discover an apriori, timeless system of moral truths. Values and norms are created by human beings living in concrete social circumstances. Rather, moral philosophy should be understood as a dialogue with the moral culture of a time and place, rather than an attempt to discover moral certainties valid beyond human experience. Seen in this way, the “reflective equilibrium” approach to moral epistemology advocated by John Rawls is the most plausible way of understanding the epistemic status of moral principles. This is a coherentist rather than a foundationalist epistemology, involving a back-and-forth adjustment of specific judgments and more general principles until a reasonable level of consistency is achieved. (Here is an earlier discussion of these ideas about moral reasoning; link.) And if human beings’ considered judgments change over time — if tormenting animals for entertainment is accepted in 1600 but largely rejected in 1900 — then the moral theory that corresponds to this system of judgments and principles will be different as well. 

Organized religions have advocated for fairly specific “codes of conduct” for practitioners (followers, or even all human beings). Religious codes of conduct are usually based on authority rather than philosophical argument — authority of the Koran or the Bible, authority of the founders, or authority of specialists who speak for the divine beings. But assuming a naturalistic view of the world, it is clear that the religious codes of a time are somehow an expression of the ambient moral attitudes of the time, perhaps with innovations introduced by charismatic teachers and leaders. Religious moral prescriptions rest upon the practical sets of social and interpersonal norms that exist in the communities in which these groups and bodies of doctrine emerged.

There is also an evolutionary question to be posed. What is it about the evolutionary history of primates and human beings that has led to the evolution of a central nervous system that is capable of normative behavior? Is there an evolutionary dimension to the moral emotions (or the underlying cognitive capacities that permit the embodiment of moral emotions)? Is an inclination to fairness or kindness “in our genes” in some way? This is a question that philosophers and psychologists have undertaken to investigate. Allan Gibbard’s analysis in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings is especially nuanced, and serves well as a rebuttal to crude forms of sociobiology (the idea that human behavioral characteristics are hard-wired as a result of our evolutionary history). (I discuss these issues in a 2010 post on the moral sentiments (link).) Significantly, Gibbard’s view leaves a great deal of room for “plasticity” in the moral emotions and the normative systems that are embodied in concrete social traditions and groups. So biology does not entail a particular moral system.

All of this means that we need to consider the question of “moral thinking and choice” in a historically and empirically specific way. We need to investigate the moral psychology or culture of moral attitudes that exist at a time and place. Plainly human beings do in fact have a capacity to act normatively — to make choices based on their moral emotions, moral perceptions, and moral reasons with regard to a situation. What are the particulars of this embodied set of psychologically real perceptions, motivations, and actions? What are the specifics of the normative “grammar” of a particular time and place? How do individual human beings acquire the moral competence that guides the moral perceptions and choices he or she is inclined to make in particular human circumstances? And how do these embodied complexes of moral competence change over time?

Two questions are evident when we reach this point. First, how is the moral psychology of a particular epoch created? What features of history, circumstance, and culture led to “village mentality” of medieval France? For example, what are the important influences that lead individuals in a time and place to pity animals, favor telling the truth, and want to take care of their children? And how much variation is there within a given cultural community, at a given time, in both the content and intensity of these features of moral psychology?

The second question is even more important. Are there processes through which the moral psychology of a time, the moral consensus, changes and — perhaps — improves? Is there a moment between generations when “sympathy for one’s kin” becomes more generalized and becomes “sympathy for one’s neighbors”, and eventually “sympathy for distant human beings”? Is it possible for a human population to “bootstrap” its way to a more benevolent and just way of living, through gradual change in the moral attitudes of individuals?

As a thought experiment, we might imagine a survey of practical moral questions that could be used to map the moral consciousness of human populations at various times and places — a survey of all of humanity, extending from Homeric peasants to men and women in India, China, Europe, Africa, and the Americas, over a 3,000-year period of time. (Think of it as an episode of The Good Place, but drawn from a long historical stretch of time. Lots of funding will be needed for the time-travel part of the research.) Here is a sample set of questions that might serve as a diagnostic tool for probing a moral worldview in a historical setting:

  1. Is it permissible to torment animals for entertainment?
  2. Is it permissible to enslave prisoners of war?
  3. Is it right to kill prisoners of war?
  4. Is it permissible to beat one’s children?
  5. Is it permissible to beat one’s spouse?
  6. Is it permissible to beat one’s neighbor when one is annoyed by his behavior?
  7. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of my neighbor’s children?
  8. Do I have a reason to pay attention to the wellbeing of distant and unknown children?
  9. Is it permissible to send one’s parents away to deprivation when they become old?
  10. Is it permissible to lie to one’s siblings about their inheritance?
  11. Is it permissible to lie to an unknown customer about the defects in a used car (or old horse)?
  12. Is it permissible to steal one’s neighbors’ sheep?
  13. Is it permissible to steal the sheep of people from a distant village?
  14. Is it permissible to tell lies about the practices of people from other groups?
  15. Do I have a duty to intervene when another person is behaving violently and immorally?
  16. Is it permissible and respectable to behave entirely self-interestedly?
  17. Do the powerful have a right of sexual coercion over less powerful individuals in their domain?
  18. Should one be generous to the poor?
  19. Should one be kind to strangers?
  20. Should one tolerate the non-conformity of one’s fellow villagers?
  21. Is it important to act rightly, even when no one is in a position to observe?
  22. Is it permissible to make fun of the gods in the privacy of one’s home?
  23. Is it permissible for an official to accept remunerations in order to provide a service?
  24. Is it permissible for landlords to collect rents from tenants during a time of severe consumption crisis?
  25. Is it permissible for the priests to live in luxury while ordinary people struggle for existence?

Of course this is just a thought experiment, though historians and anthropologists may be able to make some provisional guesses about how different social groups would have answered these questions. And even in the narrow cross-section of cultures that are alive and well in different places in the world today, it would seem likely that there are important differences across communities in the answers that are given to these questions.

Another way of probing the moral worlds of people in other cultures and times is through literature. Literature almost always revolves around the actions and motives of individuals in social groups — friendships, families, villages, armies, social classes, or nations. And often the drama of a novel or play derives from the author’s efforts at probing the reasoning and motivations of the various protagonists. So we might speculate that it is possible to triangulate to a “Shakespearean” ethical code, a “Tolstoyan” ethical code, or a “Flaubertian” ethical code — working backwards from the bad behavior of some of the actors and the admired behavior of others. Martha Nussbaum often emphasizes the moral insights made possible through literature (e.g., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature). This too would be a very interesting exercise: what is the ordinary, day-to-day code of moral behavior that is presupposed in War and Peace?

All of this suggests a fairly high degree of plasticity in the moral frameworks and mentalities of people in different traditions and cultures.

But now, the crucial question: what kinds of effort and what kinds of lived experience might have the effect of improving the moral culture of a civilization in the making? Is it possible for humanity to become morally better over time? Can human communities learn from their mistakes? 

There seem to be at least two levers that might allow for moral learning. The first is an extension of empathy and compassion beyond its current borders. The moral intuitions of a community may change when individuals are brought to recognize in greater fullness the lived experience and capacities for happiness and suffering in other human beings; individuals may broaden their compassion for more distant strangers. And the second is the moral experience of fairness and cooperation as a crucial element of social life. No one wants to be treated unfairly; everyone wants a level of reciprocity from others. And social relations work best when there is a reasonably high level of confidence in the fairness of the institutions and behavior that prevails. Is slavery morally unacceptable? We might hope that a culture comes to see the misery and pain of the enslaved, and the fundamental unfairness of the master-slave relationship. “If our positions were reversed, I would fundamentally reject being enslaved; this gives me a reason to reject this system even when it advantages me.” This is the perspective of reciprocity (link).

This is the conclusion I wanted to reach in connection with the atrocities of the twentieth century: the possibility that a deepening of our culture’s understanding of the wrongs that occurred, the human suffering that was created, and the steps of social and political change that led to these outcomes, can lead as well to a meaningful change in our moral culture and behavior. By recognizing more fully the horror of the shooting pits, perhaps our political morality will change for the better, and we will have a heightened practical and moral resistance to the politicians and movements that led to murderous totalitarian dictatorships.

(Moral Psychology, The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness, Vol. 1, edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, provides extensive and stimulating discussions of naturalism as a setting for understanding human moral reasoning and action. Richmond Campbell’s article on Moral Epistemology in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an excellent review of the question of the status of moral beliefs; link.)

Evil and the philosophy of history

images: Two residents of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad)

Vast numbers of words have been written about the atrocities of the twentieth century — about the Holocaust, about Stalin’s war of starvation against Ukraine’s peasants, about the Gulag, and about other periods of unimaginable and deliberate mass suffering throughout the century. First-person accounts, historians’ narratives, sociologists’ and psychologists’ studies of perpetrators’ behavior, novelists, filmmakers, and playwrights, exhibition curators … all of these kinds of works are available to us as vehicles for understanding what happened, and — perhaps — why. So perhaps, we might agree with Zygmunt Bauman in an early stage of his development and judge that the job has been done: we know what we need to know about the terrible twentieth century.

I do not agree with that view. I believe another perspective will be helpful — even necessary — if we are to encompass this century of horror into our understanding of our human past and be prepared for a better future. This is the perspective of the philosopher — in particular, the philosopher of history. But why so? Why is it urgent for philosophy to confront the Holocaust? And what insight can philosophers bring to the rest of us about the particular evils that the twentieth century involved?

Let’s begin with the question, why does philosophy need to confront the Holocaust? Here there seem to be at least two important reasons. First, philosophy is almost always about rationality and the good. Philosophers want to know what conditions constitute a happy human life, a just state, and a harmonious society. And we usually work on assumptions that lead, eventually, back to the idea of human rationality and a degree of benevolence. Human beings are deliberative about their own lives and courses of action; they want to live in a harmonious society; they are capable of recognizing “fair” social arrangements and institutions, and have some degree of motivation to support such institutions. These assumptions attach especially strongly to philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel; less strongly to Hobbes and Nietzsche; and perhaps not at all to Heidegger. But there is a strong and recurrent theme of rationality and benevolence that underlies much of the tradition of Western philosophy. The facts about the Holocaust — or the Holodomor, or the Armenian genocide, or Rwanda — do not conform to this assumption of rational human goodness. Rather, rationality and benevolence fall apart; instrumental rationality is divorced from a common attachment to the human good, and rational means are chosen to bring about suffering, enslavement, and death to millions of individual human beings. The Holocaust, then, forces philosophers to ask themselves: what is a human being, if groups of human beings are capable of such destruction and murder of their fellows?

The two ideas highlighted here — rationality and benevolence — need some further explication. Philosophers are not economists; they do not and have not thought of rationality as purely a matter of instrumental cleverness in fitting means to achieving one’s ends. Rather, much of our tradition of philosophy has a more substantive understanding of rationality: to be rational is, among other things, to recognize the reality of other human beings; to recognize the reality of their aspirations and vulnerabilities; and to have a degree of motivation to contribute to their thriving. Thomas Nagel describes this view of rationality in The Possibility of Altruism; but likewise, Amartya Sen embraces a conception of reason that includes sociality and a recognition of the reality of other human beings.

Benevolence too requires comment. Benevolence — or what Nagel refers to as altruism — is a rational motivation that derives from a recognition of the reality of other people’s life — their life plans, their happiness and suffering, their fulfillment. To be benevolent is to have a degree of motivation to care about the lives of others, and to contribute to social arrangements that serve everyone to some degree. As Kant puts the point in one version of the categorical imperative in Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, “treat others as ends, not merely as means”. And the point of this principle is fundamental: rationality requires recognition of the fundamental reality of the lives, experiences, and fulfillment of others. Benevolence does not mean that one must become Alyosha in the Brothers Karamazov, selflessly devoted to the needs of others. But it does mean that the happiness and misery, life and death, of the other is important to oneself. Nagel puts the point very strongly: strict egoism is as irrational as solipsism.

But here is the crucial point: the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period, the dehumanization of Jews, the deliberate and rational plan to exterminate the Jews from all of Europe, and the racism of European colonialism — all of this is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that human beings are invariably and by their nature “rationally benevolent”. Ordinary German policemen were indeed willing to kill Jews at the instruction of their superiors, and then enjoy the evening singing beer songs with their friends. Ordinary Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were prepared to serve as policemen, carrying out Nazi plans for Aktion against thousands of other residents of the ghetto. Ordinary Poles were willing to assault and kill their neighbors. Ordinary French citizens were willing to betray their Jewish neighbors. How can philosophy come to grips with these basic facts from the twentieth century?

The second reason that philosophy needs to be ready to confront the facts of the twentieth century honestly is a bit more constructive. Perhaps philosophy has some of the resources needed to construct a better vision of the world for the future, that will make the ideal of a society of rationally benevolent citizens more feasible and stable. Perhaps, by once recognizing the terrible traps that Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Soviet citizens were led into, social and political philosophy can modestly contribution to a vision of a more stable future in which genocide, enslavement, and extermination are no longer possible. Perhaps there is a constructive role for political and social philosophy 2.0.

And there is another side of this coin: perhaps the history of philosophy is itself interspersed with a philosophical anthropology that perpetuated racism and anti-Semitism — and thereby contributed to the evils of the twentieth century. This is an argument made in detail by Michael Mack in German Idealism and the Jew: The Inner Anti-Semitism of Philosophy and German Jewish Responses, who finds that negative assumptions about Jews come into Kant’s writings in a very deep way: Jews are “heteronomous”, whereas ethical life requires “autonomy”. These statements are anti-Semitic on their face, and Mack argues that they are not simply superficial prejudices of the age, but rather are premises that Kant is happy to argue for. Bernard Boxill makes similar claims about Kant’s moral philosophy when it comes to racism. Boxill believes that Kant’s deep philosophical assumptions within his philosophical anthropology lead him to a position that is committed to racial hierarchies among human beings (“Kantian Racism and Kantian Teleology”; link). These concerns show that philosophy needs to be self-critical; we need to ask about some of the sources of twentieth-century evil that are embedded in the tradition of philosophy itself. Slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, gender oppression, colonial rule, and violence against colonial subjects all seem to have cognates within the traditions of philosophy. (In an important article that warrants careful reading, Laurie Shrage raises important questions about the social context and content of American philosophy — and the discipline’s reluctance to engage in its social presuppositions; “Will Philosophers Study Their History, Or Become History?” (link). She writes, “By understanding the history of our field as a social and cultural phenomenon, and not as a set of ideas that transcend their human contexts, we will be in a better position to set a future course for our discipline”(125).)

There is a yet another reason why philosophy needs to engage seriously with evil in the twentieth century: philosophy is meant to matter in human life. The hope for philosophy, offered by Socrates and Seneca, Hume and Kant, is that the explorations of philosophers can contribute to better lives and greater human fulfillment. But this suggests that philosophy has a duty to engage with the most difficult challenges in human life, throughout history, and to do so in ways that help to clarify and enhance human values. The evils of the twentieth century create an enormous problem of understanding for every thoughtful person. This is not primarily a theological challenge — “How could a benevolent deity permit such atrocities?” — but rather a philosophical challenge — “How can we as full human beings, with our moral and imaginative capacities, confront these evils honestly, and have hope for the future?”. If philosophy cannot contribute to answering this question, then perhaps it is no longer needed. (This is the subtext of Shrage’s concerns in the article mentioned above.)

I’d like to position this question within the philosophy of history. The Holocaust and the Holodomor are events of history, after all, and history seeks to understand the past. And our understanding of history is also our understanding of our own humanity. But if this question belongs there, it suggests a rather different view of the philosophy of history than either analytic or hermeneutic philosophers have generally taken. Analytic philosophers — myself included — have generally approached the topic of the philosophy of history from an epistemological point of view: what can we know about the past, and how? And hermeneutic philosophers (as well as speculative and theological philosophers) have offered large theories of “history” (“Does history have meaning?” “Does history have direction?”) that have little to do with the concrete understandings that we need to gain from specific historical investigations. So the philosophy of history that considers the conundrum of the Holocaust and the pervasive footprint of evil in the twentieth century will need to be one that incorporates the best thinking by gifted historians, as well as reflective deliberation about circumstances of the human condition that made these horrible historical outcomes possible. It must join philosophy and history. But it is possible, I hope, that philosophers can help to formulate new questions and new perspectives on the great evils of the twentieth century, and assist global society in moving towards a more harmonious and morally acceptable world.

One additional point is relevant here: the pernicious role that all-encompassing ideologies have played in the previous century. And, regrettably, philosophy often gives rise to such ideologies. Both Stalinism and Nazism were driven by totalizing ideologies, subordinating ordinary human beings for “the attainment of true socialism” or “Lebensraum and racial purity”. And these ideologies succeeded in bringing along vast numbers of followers, leading to political ascendancy of totalitarian parties and leaders. The odious slogan, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, led to horrific sacrifices in the Soviet Empire and in China; and the willingness to subordinate the whole population to the will of the Leader led to the evils of the Nazi regime. Whatever philosophy can usefully contribute in the coming century, it cannot be a totalizing theory of “the perfect society”. It must involve a fundamental commitment to the moral importance and equality of all human beings and to democracy in collective decision-making. A decent human future can only be made piecemeal, not according to a comprehensive blueprint. The future must be made by ordinary human beings, not ideologues, revolutionaries, or philosophers. 

The Warsaw experience of Janina Bauman

Janina Bauman, along with her sister Sophie and her mother Alina, miraculously survived the slaughter of the Jews of Warsaw and the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April, 1943. Born in 1926, Janina was only thirteen when the German army invaded Poland and besieged Warsaw. Her remarkable 1986 memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945, conveys both the circumstances and some of the emotional consequences of this horrific experience. (The book is also available on the Open Library; link.) Janina had managed to preserve many of her diaries from those years, so the text is grounded in her own contemporaneous observations and thoughts. Her father and her uncle Josef were among the 14,500 victims of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers and prisoners of war at Katyn Forest in 1940. And most of her friends and family members were murdered during the Nazi terror and waves of Aktion in the Warsaw ghetto. Her family suffered from both Nazi genocide and Soviet atrocity, both arising from merciless totalitarian regimes. The survival of Janina, Sophie, and their mother Alina was the result of their own courage and resourcefulness, the aid they received from their extended family and non-Jewish friends from before the war (Auntie Maria), the willingness of a number of non-Jewish strangers to shelter them at critical moments, and a few moments of monumental good luck. (For example, Janina’s mother’s ability to speak German fluently saves their lives during transport to an extermination camp.)

Much of the book is factual and autobiographical in tone, sometimes even laconic. The text conveys a good deal of the texture of life in the ghetto — struggling to find food, to avoid capture and execution on the streets, to find secret ways of continuing school, and occasionally having friendships, even boyfriends. Here is a passage from fifteen-year-old Janina’s diary, from a time shortly after Janina’s family has been forced into the Warsaw ghetto (April 18, 1941). Their conditions are tolerable, but severe suffering and deprivation are all around them.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘No’. (42)

But Janina does find ways of helping others in these desperate conditions. She helps to organize a collective effort to grow vegetables for the destitute in the ghetto (she turns out to be very good at cultivating the garden), and she writes of her efforts to join the armed Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. (She was excluded from the Home Army resistance group because she was Jewish.) (Zula and Hanka were her closest friends. Zula was later raped and murdered by German soldiers, while Hanka survived the war.)

Here is a passage describing the Aktion (mass removal of Jews from the ghetto to death camps) on July 22, 1942. 

The first three days of the Aktion I spent in the flat, following Julian’s firm instructions not to set foot in the street…. On the fourth day I could wait no longer, and, ignoring Mother’s pleas, set out to the ‘little ghetto’. At first the streets seemed uncannily quiet, almost deserted. I walked fast, not looking around, quick, quick along Leszno Street, until I plunged into the tangle of narrow lanes leading to Roman’s flat. There, all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a panic-stricken crowd. In a little square a score of men — both Jewish policemen and civilian helpers — tried to hold a swarm of screaming people inside a ring of tightly locked hands. Other policemen ran up and down the back alleys searching for more victims, pulling them violently along, pushing them by force into the ring. Just concealed behind a large building, two lorries waited for their human load. A couple of Nazi soldiers leant leisurely against them. Their guns ready to fire, they watched the round-up lazily, talking and laughing in the bright sunshine of the mid-summer day. 

I hardly had time to be frightened when one of the men forming the deadly enclosure broke away from the ring, rushed at me, seized my arm, and began to pull me, as if intending to force me into the ring. He was just pretending. I recognised him at once: he was Mr. N., Stefan’s friend. As an employee of the Jewish Council he had evidently been ordered to take an active part in the round-up. His face was white, twisted with fear and agony, his hands trembling. With feigned brutality he pushed me into a dark gate and whispered imploringly, ‘Run away, child, run back home as fast as you can!’ He showed me a narrow passage between two buildings. Terrified, I darted away without another word. (66-67)

The book is primarily a narrative account of the young Janina’s own experiences. But the author sometimes offers general observations about the experience as well. Several passages are especially meaningful —

During the war I learned the truth we usually choose to leave unsaid: that the cruellest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanises its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions. (preface)

And here is an expression of shame, or survivor guilt, at having escaped the ghetto to a temporary refuge with strangers on the Aryan side of the wall:

A torrent of bitter thoughts washed away the last trace of ecstasy. I was in an unknown place, facing an unknown future among strangers. My own cruel but familiar world where I belonged remained behind the walls. I had deserted it, running for my safety, for the luxuries of a fragrant bath and a soft bed. I had deserted my people, leaving them to their terrible fate. In the early hours of the night, flooded with tears of agony and guilt, I crept out of bed and stretched myself out on the carpet. There, cold and miserable, I finally fell asleep. (100-101)

It is very interesting that Zygmunt Bauman, the husband of Janina, writes that his own willingness to write about the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s was triggered by reading his wife’s personal experience through this book. Janina is explicit in saying that she had never previously shared her experience with him. Zygmunt too had never addressed the experiences of anti-Semitism, genocide, and totalitarianism that he had witnessed, until the 1980s. (It is interesting to note that Bauman directly addresses the question of “shame” in his discussion of the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust (205).)

Several issues arise in Winter in the Morning that are important points of debate today: the role of Polish Catholics in supporting the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews, on the one hand, and their role in sheltering Jews, on the other; the role played by Ukrainian police and soldiers in enforcing Nazi commandments in the ghetto, including murder; and the role played by the Jewish Council and the men who served as Jewish policemen in the ghetto in carrying out the mandates of the Nazi regime. (Hannah Arendt raises the issue of the possible culpability of the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) On the whole, Bauman’s stance towards the Jewish Council and the Jewish policemen is a measured one, and she mentions life-saving efforts by the Jewish Council and by individual Jewish policemen in the ghetto — as well as their collaboration in several waves of Aktion leading to the deaths of the majority of the Jews living in the ghetto. As an adolescent observer, she was not in a position to know about the activities of these organizations at a higher level; she saw only their local activities in the streets and urban destruction of the ghetto — including in the scene of terror during the July Aktion described above.

Janina Bauman’s memoir is an important contribution to later generations’ ability to address the Holocaust in a human way, with compassion and a degree of understanding of the horrific human experience it embodied for many millions of men, women, and children. Her narrative is part of our collective memory of that trauma.

Another important document about the Warsaw ghetto is Hanna Krall’s interview with Dr. Marek Edelman, published as Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation With Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Polish 1977; English translation 1986); available on Open Library (link). Edelman was a leader in the armed Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and survived to become a leading cardiologist. Edelman’s recollections are stark and unblinking in his testimony to murder, rape, humiliation, and unmeasured cruelty to the Jews of the ghetto; and he is informative about the efforts made by the Jewish Combat Organization to gather arms and resist the final round of extermination undertaken by the Nazi regime.

Edelman demonstrates courage in his account. But his life also displays a significant and important level of understanding of the evil of the Holocaust. In their afterword to Shielding the Flame the translators quote an important set of comments by Edelman at the time of the Polish martial-law government’s 1983 commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:

Forty years ago we fought not only for our lives. We fought for life in dignity and freedom. To celebrate our anniversary here where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion would be to deny our fight. It would mean participating in something contrary to its ideals. It would be an act of cynicism and contempt. I shall not participate in such arrangements or accept the participation of others who do so, regardless of where they come from or whom they represent. Far from these manipulated celebrations, in the silence of the graves and in people’s hearts, there shall live the true memory of the victims and the heroes, the memory of the eternal human striving for freedom and truth. (122)

Here Edelman makes an important point about history and memory, and the political use to which commemoration is all too often put. And his point is broad enough to encompass both the crimes of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-backed dictatorship of Poland. Timothy Garton Ash makes a similar point about memory in his preface to the book:

The gulf between Poles and Jews today is not just a matter of physical separation. There has also been an extraordinary divorce of Polish and Jewish memory. A Polish child growing up in the 1970s learned next to nothing about the immense Jewish part in Polish history, let alone about the Polish part in Jewish history. (viii)

Again — memory, its importance, and its suppression.

A key question for me in the past year has been how historians should confront the evils of the twentieth century. Tim Snyder answers the question in one way, painting a very large canvas over the “bloodlands” of Central Europe. But — as Snyder insists — it is crucial to have a basis for empathy and compassion for the human beings who were tormented, humiliated, and destroyed by these massive and numbing atrocities. It is crucial to confront the personal memoirs of genocide and atrocity, like Bauman’s or Edelman’s, if we are to put a human face on the cold historical facts of the Holocaust, and to have a more acute understanding of the human realities of children, adults, and old people as they confronted cruelty, violence, humiliation, and extinction.

*     *     *     *     *

Literary theorist Julia Hell provides a fascinating treatment of the relationship between Janina Bauman’s memoir and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, along with writings by W. G. Sebald and Peter Weiss, through the lens of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (“Modernity and the Holocaust, or, Listening to Eurydice”; link). It is a very interesting piece. Here is a brief summary of Hell’s approach:

Seen through this particular lens, Bauman’s texts, especially Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 [1989]) and related essays and lectures, emerge as deeply entangled in a cultural imagination that is obsessed with issues of representation, acts of looking, and the nature of human bonds in the wake of the Holocaust, a cultural imagination that tried to capture these topics by returning to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. (126)

And Hell attempts to identify traces of the Orpheus/Eurydice story in Janina’s narrative as well:

Let me gather the bits and pieces of the Orphic story that have surfaced so far: with respect to the Orphic topography, we have the frequent use of the inferno on the one hand; on the other hand, we have a river dividing the almost-dead from the living. That is, Janina Bauman’s story situates Eurydice in hell. And then we have the different figurations of Eurydice — the woman being led from the inferno by her mother and aunt or the woman waiting to be rescued ^ the Orphic topography of love and death, the underworld of the ghetto, the river dividing world and underworld, and the woman, who was doomed to die, the man who might or might not save her. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that Janina Bauman takes hold of particular moments in Eurydice’s story: the moment of danger when Eurydice is about to die, the moment of being about-to-be rescued, the moment of being rescued. (140)

This is an intriguing effort at explaining the narrative structure and language of Janina Bauman’s memoir. It gains plausibility when we recall from the text of Winter in Morning that Janina was a passionate reader of literature during the years of her adolescence in the terrors of Warsaw. She mentions reading most of Russian literature in one of the sanctuary apartments she and her sister and mother were able to find. It is entirely possible that Janina had read and absorbed The Divine Comedy in one half-illuminated cellar or another.

Guest post by Izabela Wagner on Zygmunt Bauman

Izabela Wagner, author of Bauman: A Biography, is Professor of Sociology at Collegium Civitas (Poland) and fellow at Institute Convergence Migration (Paris). Thank you, Izabela, for this invaluable and insightful guest post!

The Sociological Imagination of Zygmunt Bauman

By Izabela Wagner

Thank you, Dan Little, for your inspiring comment and questions. I want to mention a couple of essential elements that shed some light on your raised issues.

Can we connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career?

It was a question that I tried to respond to in my book, claiming that there is a link. For me, it was obvious, but I agree that this is not a direct or easily visible connection.

After the war they (especially young and active people in Poland) were all (and Bauman in the first rank) turning toward the future. It was the only way to survive the war—building a new world that would be different from the previous one.

I wish to start from this critical question—why ZB didn’t work on Jewish questions before the eighties?

1. Disciplinary context — sociology production conventions.

Bauman was a sociologist educated in the late 1950s. At this period, there was a firm conviction that science should be objective, and the personal-subjective opinions were not “scientific”. Despite the works by Ludwik Flecks (Published in German in 1935, known from its English version Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, but well known in Poland and published just after the war in more epistemological papers in Polish: “Problems of the Science of Science” (1946) and “To Look, To See, To Know” (1947)), the positivistic approach was the most important in social sciences, and qualitative methods, like auto-ethnography and personal experiences in scholarly writing, were excluded.

The use of personal experiences was reserved to fiction writers, and Bauman officially wasn’t. However, he published two novels based on his life, but the Jewish issue is not included. Why? The novels were published in 1953 in a military edition house, and it was in the middle of a fierce antisemitic campaign. At that moment, Bauman was kicked out of the Army (more in Bauman: a Biography).

So, as a sociologist, he conformed to conventions which were in use at that time, and by consequence, he didn’t mobilize his personal experiences in his writing. Moreover, as a Polish sociologist, he focused on problems elaborated by: a) his mentor Julian Hochfeld — open marxism; b) one of the most prominent sociologists in Poland at that moment — Stanisław Ossowski — humanistic marxism. As a sociologist seeking excellence, Bauman’s sociology was theoretical rather than empirical and general rather than specific.

2. Generational context. Why was ZB’s generation—young intellectuals—after WW2 mainly silent about the “Jewish question”? Because they all believed that it was over—this means antisemitism, the division between two categories—Poles and Jews (they knew that it was a work in progress, but it was considered the problem of the past).

ZB was very engaged in the so-called “assimilation”—he didn’t speak Yiddish and was not religious. Except for rare historians, no one worked/published about the war (yes—writers and some scholars published their journals or books-testimonies). We need to take into consideration the post-war context and the large spread of Polish antisemitism. In 1946 took place the Pogrom in Kielce, one of the tragic events in the years characterized by huge hostility towards Jews. (See Julian Kwiek’s recent book, Nie chcemy Żydów u siebie. Przejawy wrogości wobec Żydów w latach 1944-1947 [We don’t want Jews at home. Symptoms of hostility towards Jews in 1944-1947]; and an excellent and groundbreaking book by Joanna Tokarska Bakir, Under a Curse: A social portrait of the Kielce pogrom (to be published by Cornell University Press in 2022).) The open discussion about this dramatic past started fifty years after the end of WW2; a book by Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, started a large debate on the Polish-Jewish relationship.

We also need to remember that in these after-war years, survivors were not heroes—the story and their status were complicated. Again ZB was an active young man—not a passive victim, such as survivors were perceived. His mission and his duty weren’t to analyze the past but built the future.

3. Censorship—a very important factor determining all intellectual and artistic production.

We need to remember (and yet frequently forget—even young scholars working in post-communist countries) that all intellectual output was under censorship! Very hard censure was implemented in Poland. Even if it wasn’t the same level as in the USSR, the author’s work was difficult. It was impossible to publish something without this heavily controlling office. Another “curiosity” strongly limiting the coverage of publications was the scarcity of paper—each editor had a small amount of paper and needed to manage it carefully (this is not a joke). So the authors could not write and publish what they wanted. It was apparent that the authors practiced the auto-censorship. The level of restrictions was dynamic, and during some periods, authors had more freedom. However, before 1989, Poland wasn’t a free-speech country. This is why many scholars—especially historians (Modzelewski, Gieremek) never worked in the contemporary times and the 20th century, but were Middle Ages specialists.

4. The Holocaust experience. ZB was not a survivor in the strict sense. Being absent from Polish territory during WW2, escaping to USSR, he was in another category. However, being in the Soviet Union, he wasn’t an inmate and wasn’t in gulag. His experience of the Soviet Union was not traumatic—he was well treated, and for the first time in his life in this country, he was not at all discriminated against. His wife Janina Bauman (b. Lewinson) was a Holocaust survivor. This biographic experience constituted a considerable difference between them (they both wrote about this difference—more about this in Bauman: a Biography, and in my article, which will be published in a collective book edited by Jack Palmer and Dariusz Brzeziński, Revisiting Modernity and the Holocaust: Heritage, Dilemmas, Extensions in Routledge ‘Classical and Contemporary Social Theory’ (2022). I explain in my chapter, why ZB in Modernity and the Holocaust didn’t include the individual testimonies of survivors and didn’t use his own experiences of life in totalitarian country.

5. Political engagement. Last but not least, ZB’s anti-Zionist attitude: he was against his father’s Zionism. ZB had a deep conviction that Poland was his homeland, and he belonged to that society. At the same time, he believed that Jews belong to the community in which they live, and they have a cultural mission in this world—not as a separate state but as a component of various societies. As Bauman wrote in his autobiographical text, he was against “tribal” divisions. This is why he couldn’t work on Jewish issues; if he did, this would be the recognition of the failure of his convictions; he was an activist (intellectual activist too) who was building the future.

The fact that ZB wasn’t Zionist influenced his approach to the Holocaust. He believed that it was a genocide, a horrible treatment that humans can do to other humans. It was a general, not specific event, which could happen in other places on our planet (here Bauman is following Everett Hughes’ 1962 paper “Good People and Dirty Work” (link), mentioned in the introduction to Modernity and the Holocaust. More about this question will be published soon in Revisiting Modernity and the Holocaust.

I also argue that the current vision about the strategy regarding Holocaust, in these years (around 1989) and in Europe was influenced by Spain and its policy toward their recent past. This “turning-page” attitude (Spain refused to charge fascists after the collapse of the Franco regime) should help people to create European Union, in which unity was vital. Germans “were no more guilty” for Nazi crimes—the new generations were not responsible for the previous generation’s acts so that we can move on. No need to open the old wounds barely healed. I think that behind M&H we can find the similar approach that was so popular about making peace and forgetting history. Today we know that it was a failure—see J-F. Daguzan “Mémoire de la Guerre Civile Espagnole: reconquête d’une mémoire amputée par la moitié” in Confluences Méditerranée, 2014/1 N.88 pp. 171-184; link.

6. The last but not least (contextual) point is the trauma. After the war, most people didn’t speak about it—see the excellent analysis of the interview as a method in Holocaust history by Christopher Browning. He explains that only decades later, historians were able to conduct the interviews only several years after the Holocaust Survivors spoke (the Eichmann process was a significant turning point in this process).

7. Only several years after the war occurred a “Jewish Turn”; this was analyzed by Bryan Cheyette in his excellent article “Zygmunt Bauman’s window: From Jews to strangers and back again” (2020 Thesis Elevenlink). Cheyette shows how disciplinary evolution (history of Holocaust) and the flourishing of survival testimonies in general and Zygmunt’s wife Janina’s critical and well-written book Winter in the morning: a young girl’s life in the Warsaw ghetto and beyond, 1939-1945 (link) influenced Bauman’s work.

So all these elements help to explain why before 1968, ZB was “not interested” in Jewish questions. (Actually, it was rare for anyone to pursue these topics at that time in Poland.)

The Sociological Imagination

I agree with Dan Little on ZB’s sociological imagination being nourished by sociological literature; however, I wish to imperatively add here the influence of creative literature (fiction) as well. Bauman was undoubtedly inspired by books—because it was for him a safe space. He was a person who liked to control his environment. While his childhood’s chaotic and traumatic context contributed to the vast feeling of uncertainty and lack of agency, Bauman’s escape was literature. Books are “safe”—you can manage knowledge. It was his world in which he was at ease. Emotionally he needed to control himself—as all kids of that generation, and as all war-kids. Emotions were dangerous, and self-control was crucial. Like all people who experienced communism, Bauman knew that he must protect his personal life. People never knew if private information wouldn’t be used against them. That was the essential attitude and both unconscious and conscious path/model of safe behavior. It was necessary to navigate in the hostile environment; controlling emotions in the society under communist dictatorship was a survivor behavior.

Janina Bauman was his alter ego and, at the same time, a counterpoint. Highly self-reflecting, her writing is personal and based on her experiences. They collaborated a lot, so finally, ZB’s interest in Holocaust was also influenced by Janina’s experiences. But he also wrote on topics directly connected with his own past. His focus on refugees, on the poor, on discrimination (he devoted a lot of work to it, especially in the last years) was undoubtedly the result of his life trajectory.

It is important to recall that the experience of totalitarian systems influenced Bauman’s work. He understood very well that feeling of being a tiny cog in a giant machine, an eyelet in an over-powerful system, which is using you. Literature was his escape from totalitarianism—writing was his passion, even addiction.

However, his experiences mattered a lot, not in a visible way but as a basso continuo in music—the line of bass that is fundamental for the construction of the piece; however, the public doesn’t perceive it.

As I wrote in Bauman: a Biography (401-402), Bauman followed the Tikkun Olam mission—and this was directly related to his educational and cultural immersion in secular Judaism. This chain—Judaism-Marxism-Socialism—is found in Bauman’s career, and it is difficult to see now which element was the most important; probably all three, but at different moments, one dominated others.

Thank you, Dan Little, for your inspiring questions — I hope this is only the beginning of an inspiring conversation.

******

DL: Readers of Izabela Wagner’s comments here will also be interested in her 2020 essay in Thesis Eleven, “Bauman as a refugee: We should not call refugees ‘migrants’” (link). There she explores the connections between Bauman’s social identity as a Polish Jew, his personal experiences of statelessness, and his writings on the refugee crisis in Europe. Here is the abstract:

ABSTRACT This paper claims that Bauman’s personal experiences deeply shaped his work. In the first part, I draw upon my own research, combining archive documents and interviews data, as well as – for the very first time – details taken from Zygmunt Bauman’s own unpublished autobiography, accessed courtesy of the Zygmunt and Janina Bauman Archive project at the University of Leeds. The second part of the paper draws upon my wider ethnographical study into the lived experiences of asylum seekers, conducted between 2017 and 2019 in Southern Europe. I focus here upon their experience of escape and their present life conditions in order to highlight important parallels with Bauman’s own experiences as a refugee. The conclusion draws both cases together in order to understand a less overt aspect of Bauman’s sociology and to claim that the term ‘migrant’ is both discriminatory and, in academic terms, incorrect. I argue that this diagnosis is reinforced further by the voices of intellectuals who themselves experienced the status of refugees: namely, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt.

Kołakowski on Stalinism and reform

A recent post featured the evolution of the thought of Zygmunt Bauman. There I mentioned a comparison with his Warsaw contemporary, Leszek Kołakowski, and suggested that Kołakowski’s break with Stalinism was earlier and more profound than Bauman’s. I am not able to find a full-length biography of Kołakowski, but his history parallels that of Bauman. He was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, and in 1939 had personal and tragic experience of the Nazi invasion of Poland. And, like Bauman, he was expelled from Poland in 1968 and spent much of the rest of his career in the west (at Oxford, in Kołakowski’s case, and at Leeds, in Bauman’s case). Here are a few lines from Steven Lukes’ biographical statement on Kołakowski in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

After the Nazis invaded Poland, Kolakowski’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and later executed. His remaining family found refuge in a village in eastern Poland where Kolakowski’s secret, largely solitary education was aided by teachers from the Polish underground. … Kolakowski had embraced Communism as the Russians drove the Germans out of Poland, thinking it promised a better world of equality and freedom, but he then moved away from Soviet-style Marxism and became increasingly influential on the younger generation of Poles as a leading voice for democratization and reformed Communism, or what came to be called ‘revisionism’. This led to his expulsion from the university, constant police surveillance, the banning of his publications, and his departure for the West. (link)

Here is a document written in 1971 that expresses the depth of Kołakowski’s critique of Polish Communism. In this piece Kołakowski published a short but profound critique of Stalinism as a system, “In Stalin’s Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair” (link). This short essay appeared in Paris in its Polish version in 1971, and was published in Paris in Politique Aujourd’hui in July-August 1971. The essay is highly valuable as an indication of the nature of the reformers’ critiques in Poland of the rigidities of Stalinist Communist systems. It is written clearly and cogently, reflecting Kołakowski’s talent as a philosopher and a writer. And it presents the case for the possibility of change in Poland and other Communist dictatorships.

Kołakowski begins his account by rehearsing the reasons that some believe that reform of Soviet-style Communism is impossible:

Stalinism, in the strict sense — that is, the bloody and cruel tyranny of an individual — was the most perfect material embodiment of the principles of the system: later transformations, and particularly the considerable relaxation of terrorism as practiced by the government, although important for the security of individuals, have not in any way changed the despotic nature of the regime, any more than they have limited the specifically socialist forms of oppression and exploitation. (2)

But notice the rhetorical strategy that Kołakowski adopts: he presents the extreme views of the most severe critics of the Soviet system first, and offers commentary. And, he notes, the extreme view rules out reform entirely: change control of the economy or information, and you destroy the foundations of communism. Therefore communism cannot be reformed or changed; its despots will never relinquish power over even the most minor issues. But Kołakowski himself does not take this view:

Now, my opinion is that this thesis is not correct, and that to defend it amounts to [adopting] an ideology of defeatism rather than a revolutionary appeal. I base my conviction on four general principles: first, we are never in a position to define in advance the limits of the capacity for change… of any social organization; and experience has not at all demonstrated that the despotic model of socialism is absolutely rigid. Secondly, the rigidity of a system depends in part on the degree to which the men who live within that system are convinced of its rigidity. Thirdly, the thesis which I am challenging is based on an ideology of “all or nothing,’ characteristic of men formed in the Marxist tradition; it is not in any way supported by historical experience. Fourthly, bureaucratic socialist despotism is pervaded by contradictory tendencies which it is incapable of bringing into any synthesis and which ineluctably weaken its coherence. (7-8)

Kołakowski’s optimism concerning the possibility for change within “despotic socialism” (but, one might reasonably argue, within Franco fascism as well) is the willingness of individuals and groups to think and act differently from their prescribed roles. Individuals can resist in a variety of ways, and their resistance, in a long and slow tempo, can lead to profound change.

This is why resistance to oppression and exploitation — within the system of Soviet despotism — takes place in the worst social conditions. No class of exploiters in history has ever had such extensive power at its disposal. But if this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses, as the whole post-Stalinist history of communism testifies. (9)

If I speak of a reformist orientation, it is in the sense of a faith in the possibility of effective pressures that are partial and progressive, exerted in a long-term perspective, that is, the perspective of social and national liberation. Despotic socialism is not an absolutely rigid system; such systems do not exist. (16)

What system does Kołakowski himself favor? It appears to be a form of democratic socialism, rather than either despotic socialism or liberal capitalism:

It is probable that, if they had the freedom to choose, the majority of the Polish working class and intelligentsia would opt for socialism, as would the author of this article. For socialism — that is to say for a sovereign national system which involves control by society over the utilization and development of the means of production and over the distribution of the national income, as well as over the political and administrative organization, working as an organ of society, and not as the master which rules over society in the guise of “serving” it. (18)

This paragraph entails democratic socialism as the favored ideal (not liberal capitalism), because it places the people in control of economy and government. And it rules out the arbitrary and despotic use of power that was universal in Poland, the USSR, and the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Kołakowski also has a view about the future of the Soviet bloc (as of 1971):

In spite of the military power of the Soviet empire, and in spite of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the centrifugal tendencies within the “bloc” cannot be contained, and the corrosion of nationalism will continue to erode a structure which has lost the cement of ideology. (19)

His essay ends with a call for a free Poland:

Our own dignity entitles us to proclaim aloud the old words: “liberty,” “justice” and “Poland”. (20)

This essay was written in 1971, only three years after the March 1968 protests in Warsaw that led to Kołakowski’s and Bauman’s expulsion from Poland. But notice as well: it was written only about a decade before the rise, and eventual success, of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk and other Polish cities, leading ultimately to the fall of Communist government in Poland. And the centrifugal tendencies that Kołakowski describes within the Soviet bloc led eventually to the collapse of despotic socialism throughout Eastern Europe. So in many ways Kołakowski was pretty close to the truth about the coming several decades in Poland and Eastern Europe. What he did not anticipate is the next chapter: the turn to nationalistic, far-right government in Poland, Hungary, and other former-Soviet bloc nations. But, as Hegel said, “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” (Here is a very brief description of Alain Touraine’s 1981 research in Gdansk on the Solidarity movement (link), and his account of the pathways through which worker non-violent resistance resulted in fundamental change in Poland.)

As I attempted to do in the case of Zygmunt Bauman, it is intriguing to ask how history, life experience, and academic influences combined to create the intellectual world of Leszek Kołakowski. Much of Kołakowski’s work was focused on the history of philosophy, the meaning of religion, and the ideology and deficiencies of Marxism. (His greatest book is his three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown.) Is there any evidence in his academic work of the imprint of the experience of war, genocide, murder, and authoritarian rule? His decades-long engagement with the topic of Soviet-style dictatorship plainly reflects his own experience as a brilliant Polish intellectual in the post-War period and high-ranking Communist Party member. He understood the nature of Soviet-style authoritarianism. But — like Bauman — there is little in his work that involves deep reflection on Nazism, genocide, anti-Semitism, ordinary evil-doers, and the use of terror by totalitarian states to achieve their ends. (Here he stands in contrast to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.) And yet Poland stands at the heart of the Bloodlands described so vividly by Tim Snyder. So we seem to confront a puzzle: why were both these brilliant intellectuals, both leading professors in the Polish academy, both children of the 1920s — why were they both somehow reluctant to reflect on the horrors confronted by Polish Jews from 1939 to 1945?