The Corner

Marxism v. Pragmatism, Cont’d

Interesting e-mail, from a reader:

Dear Mr. Goldberg:

I’m reticent to say this, as you’re likely much more familiar with the relevant literature than I (and Kurtz, of that I’m sure), but I don’t think you can be both a Marxist and a pragmatist.  You can be a Marxist who believes some of the things that pragmatists believe (or “believe”), and a pragmatist can agree with what some Marxists say, at least concerning their critiques.  But I don’t see how you can be a thoroughgoing Marxist and pragmatist, for exactly the reasons you give.

Ideology is something pragmatists (of the James/Dewey/Rorty stripe, not the Peirce stripe) must reject.  As Rorty puts it:

“For Deweyian prgamatists like me, history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots, and that seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much intersubjective agreement as you can manage.”

Here, Rorty is picking on both the Marxist and the Straussian. Marxists, in order to be Marxists, must accept some of these unwobbling pivots. This is their ideology, and this is what make them Marxists. Rorty will claim that this explains the Marxist and Thomistic critiques leveled at Dewey in the early part of the 20th century.

If this is correct, then though there might be pragmatist-ish Marxism, there can be no pragmatist Marxist, or Marxist pragmatist, despite how some may wish to label themselves.


[Name withheld]

I think this is right/fair if you have a strict definition of Marxism — i.e. a Marxist is someone who agrees with everything Marx said or who subscribes to some doctrinaire version of Marxism. But most Marxists, even by the early 20th century, weren’t hard Marxists. Lenin wasn’t. Stalin certainly wasn’t. Sorel wasn’t. In America, countless socialist intellectuals and activists — some of whom were quite honest and decent but simply wrongheaded — could be fairly described as Marxists in some sense, or described themselves as Marxists, but were not doctrinaire about it.

Georges Sorel was one of the first to play games with this stuff. He realized Marxism didn’t work very well as social science, but it was extremely useful as a mobilizing myth for society. Sorel — who was a direct and powerful influence on both Lenin and Mussolini — invoked the philosophical Pragmatism of William James to develop this much more elastic version of Marxism.

Nonetheless, I agree with the reader, and I’m not sure I’ve added anything. I just find this stuff interesting.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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