What works doesn’t work any more

Ray Rising looks at the philosophy of pragmatism that underlies the outlook of President Obama and the American ruling class.

Barack Obama’s inaugural speech of course carried the hopes and dreams of those who voted him there after the Bush period of despair. The reality and deepening spectre of a great depression with social disharmony weigh as a mountain on his brain.

But what philosophy, what outlook will guide Obama’s actions? The words of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton foretell the mindset of the new (and not so new) Democrat/Republican administration. “America”, she told us last week, “will be guided by pragmatism allied with principles backed up by smart thinking on foreign policy.” [my emphasis]

Obama’s own pragmatism had already been revealed in the appointment of Clinton herself and his retention of Bush’s defence secretary. And in his inauguration speech, Obama said that the role of government would be to do “what works”.

What is pragmatism as an outlook and why is it so limiting? The USA found pragmatism as a philosophy late in the 19th century. It soon became the “modus operandi” that saw America become the inheritor of imperial power on a truly global scale.

The term pragmatism come from the Greek for “deed”. This doctrine holds that the only test of truth in human cognition and philosophical principles lies in results – i.e. in the practical results, whether it works. It refutes absolute truth and the concept of objective reality independent of will and consciousness and sits easily with faith and religion.

The American logician and scientist Charles Sanders Pierce founded pragmatism as a philosophy in the 1870s. He combined Cartesian rationalism from France and Francis Bacon’s empiricism from England to produce a unique American reasoning. It appeared to work in its simple manner because the great industrial and banking successes of America passed into the 20th century without the crises of Europe’s older bourgeois states.

America had acquired all the benefits of modern science and industry – together with the surpluses that an ever-expanding domestic market had created for the myriad of banks and the federal reserve. Earlier, its revolutionary War of Independence from Britain had succeeded to the theme of Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man”, against European states that had driven many of their freedom-seekers to America’s shores.

Alongside the Indian wars, the young United States broke the restraining bonds of feudal slavery with a defining Civil War (1861-65) thereby demonstrating to itself that the upward curve generated had achieved a bourgeois revolution – geographically as well as socially. Somewhat left alone, America didn’t suffer the severe trade/political/physical wars that so beset the old world.

When William James produced his book Pragmatism in 1907, it encapsulated for the academia of Harvard and Yale all they “needed” to know and think (as well as, sadly, teach). As the vying struggles of empires grabbed one another by the throat across the oceans, the land of the free breathed deeper, built higher and spread the pragmatic view wider over the land. It is because of this that current strains of thought are forced along rails taking them to places familiar. Today, Obama/Clinton are pushed aboard the Chatanooga-choo-choo with the baggage of the past – the limited and limiting logic of pragmatism!

Earlier in the 19th century a revolution in logic had taken place in Germany which saw the resurrection of the dialectic for the first time since Ancient Greece. Hegel’s Science of Logic, although it had the dialectical imprint of an idealist, was profound and had brilliant results.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), a student of Hegel, took up the method of dialectical thought, to show that Kant’s view of the unknowability of things-in-themselves was a subjective and idealist mask. But more, Marx turned Hegel on his head to reveal the objective in Hegel’s dialectic, which come out of nature itself, and was the material basis of dialectical concepts and their movement. From that moment, from writings like the German Ideology to the Communist Manifesto, to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx’s writings and organisations, together with his principal co-worker, Frederick Engels, took on a global meaning – internationalism.

If the dynamic strivings of young America are to be fulfilled, they must rise to the challenge of ideas and practises that shine through and release them from the half-blindness that is pragmatism. The issue has featured in a significant way in the history of American revolutionary politics.

As the Great Depression gave way to World War Two, Leon Trotsky defended the Marxist viewpoint from those who denounced materialist dialectics from a pragmatic point of view. The co-leader of the Russian Revolution with Lenin was in exile in Mexico following the rise of Stalinism and was closely involved in the political development of the Socialist Workers Party of the USA. In the months before his assassination, Trotsky wrote:

Pragmatism, a mixture of rationalism and empiricism, became the national philosophy of the United States. The theoretical methodology of Max Eastman (and James Burnham) is not fundamentally different from the methodology of Henry Ford (car-maker) – both regard living society from the point of view of an engineer (Eastman platonically).

Historically the present disdainful attitude toward the dialectic is explained simply by the fact that the grandfathers and great grandmothers of Eastman and others did not need the dialectic in order to conquer territory and enrich themselves. But times have changed and the philosophy of pragmatism has entered a period of bankruptcy, just as has American capitalism.

The United States came out of the imperialist war the only capitalist power left standing. Pragmatism reasserted its grip in a long post-war boom. America’s present crisis, the gravest for more than six decades, is showing that there are no conventional “solutions” and in that sense nothing “works”. An understanding of the limitations of pragmatism is vital if America’s workers, youth and new leaders are to take those about them forward to a new dawn.

Ray Rising
A World to Win member

Dylan says:

This is a great piece. I very much enjoy now hearing and learning about the background to events and history from the very learned point of view of AWTW members both with the articles and the blogs, which I tend now to read daily. Naturally, they are opinion laden, but I would struggle often to find such insight elsewhere.

Obviously I knew about American peoples' history of "can do, will do, let's sell something and make money" - The American Dream (Now a nightmare with no apparent end) but I didn't know it was this shady type of handshake called 'Pragmatism.'

(Yes, I was paid - on a not-for-profit basis to write this and I recycled.)

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