Magazine | March 8, 2010, Issue


John Dewey, Liberal Fascist?

Your article “John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America” (Tiffany Jones Miller, December 31) astutely identifies its subject’s rejection of the Founders’ natural-rights tradition — seeing through Dewey’s attempt to conscript Thomas Jefferson as an intellectual forerunner to his brand of liberalism. The author overreaches, however, by insisting that Dewey’s residual Hegelianism led to totalistic condemnation of “virtually every aspect of life in America.” This would situate Dewey’s embrace of social democracy, with democracy prioritized over socialism, in the same camp as the Frankfurt School.

Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, two of that school’s leading theorists, deemed pragmatic liberalism their most formidable ideological enemy. Parroting the Stalinist line, they attacked Dewey as a defender of the political status quo and therefore a “fascist.” Marcuse repeated this canard in his book One-Dimensional Man. To be sure, there is much to criticize in Dewey. However, by the late 1930s, he occupied what was later described as “the vital center” in American politics.

Neither Bill Ayers nor Barack Obama manifests the “progressive” legacy of John Dewey, which is best exemplified by his chief disciple, Sidney Hook. Obama’s heritage can more appropriately be linked to the New Leftism of the 1960s. Conflating Dewey with “liberal fascism” mirrors the Communist propaganda line that cynically undermined the Weimar resistance to the triumph of Hitler.

Gary Bullert

Author, The Politics of John Dewey

Tiffany Jones Miller replies: Mr. Bullert contends my treatment of Dewey “mirrors” the Stalinist/Frankfurt School’s deliberate mischaracterization of Dewey “as a defender of the political status quo and therefore a ‘fascist.’” Dewey was no fascist, he suggests, but in falsely characterizing him as such, the Communists (inadvertently) helped foster the triumph of a genuine fascist, Hitler.

By clarifying Dewey’s rejection of America’s first principles, accordingly, I am undermining Dewey’s brand of “social democracy,” only to empower the more radical brand of socialism represented by the New Left, Bill Ayers, and Barack Obama — the “liberal fascis[ts].” Setting aside Mr. Bullert’s confusing use of the term “fascist,” as well as the important role Dewey’s thought played in the formation of the leading New Left student organization, Students for a Democratic Society, his point seems to be that Dewey’s disagreement with his fellow socialists over the preferred means of effecting a socialist reorganization of society is more important than the fact that their common goal in this regard (be they progressives, Marxists, or fascists) rests upon a denial of the first principle of the American founding — that “all men are created equal,” and thus have a right by nature to rule themselves. I disagree. 

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