Martin Bartenberger – John Dewey and David Graeber
The Anarchist Library
Title: John Dewey and David Graeber
Subtitle: Elements of Radical Democracy in Pragmatist and Anarchist Thinking
When thinking about the idea of radical democracy, the writings of John Dewey are probably not the first example that comes to mind. Instead his concept of democracy has often been dismissed as “liberal” (Talisse 2007) or as an early example of deliberative democracy (see Bacon 2010). Against these notions, I want to explore the radical nature of the Deweyan account of democracy in this article. My main argument is that the radical elements come to the foreground if we analyze Dewey’s concept of democracy in its historical context. This can help us to understand his concept of radical democracy for what it was: an intervention into the debate on the role of democracy for the Left. Building on these assumptions, I develop and defend the thesis that Dewey’s idea of democracy is radical insofar as it was intended against an orthodox Marxist understanding of revolution and social transformation. The article concludes by outlining how this rejection of orthodox Marxism brings Dewey close to an anarchist account of radical democracy as it was recently formulated by David Graeber (2013) and by highlighting the parallels between Dewey’s and Graeber’s concepts of radical democracy when it comes to the priority of means over ends, the role of deliberation and the need for institutional reform.
In January 1937 Dewey published a little-known essay with the title Democracy Is Radical in the magazine Common Sense. The mission statement of Common Sense has been described by one of its editors “to find a place independent of both old liberalism and the newly fashionable intellectual Marxism” (Strassel 2007: 4) and, as I will argue later, Dewey’s article can likewise be read as an attempt to leave this dualism behind.
In Democracy is Radical Dewey begins by explicitly referring to this context by highlighting the profound intellectual and strategic differences at the Left in the 1930s: “There is comparatively little difference among the groups at the left as to the social ends to be reached. There is a great deal of difference as to the means by which these ends should be reached and by which they can be reached” (Dewey 1987: 296). Dewey shares the widespread critique of “bourgeois” democracies and recognizes that “the rise of democratic governments has been an accompaniment of the transfer of power from agrarian interests to industrial and commercial interests” (ibid.). In this vein, he also rejects European liberalism which simply “strove for a maximum of individualistic economic action with a minimum of social control” (ibid.). He goes on to contrast this insufficient European version of liberalism with the more radical American version: “[L] iberalism has a different origin, setting and aim in the United States. It is fundamentally an attempt to realize democratic modes of life in their full meaning and far-reaching scope” (ibid.: 298). While Dewey’s argument could also be regarded as a defense of radical (i.e. American) liberalism, he prefers to speak of it in terms of democracy. Dewey goes the full distance to show how the essence of radical democracy can be identified in the primary emphasis upon democratic means: “The means to which it [democracy, M.B.] is devoted are the voluntary activities of individuals in opposition to coercion; they are assent and consent in opposition to violence; they are the force of intelligent organization versus that of organization imposed from outside and above. The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by means that accord with those ends” (ibid.).
To suggest that this fundamental principle of democracy can be temporarily suspended, by the dictatorship of a class for example, is for Dewey an “intellectual hypocrisy and moral contradiction” (ibid.). In concluding his short essay Dewey finally offers three reasons why such an account of democracy can be considered radical. First, because it establishes a radical end “that has not been adequately realized in any country at any time” (ibid.: 299). This idea has been elaborated fully in the concluding remarks of Dewey’s much more prominent article on creative democracy: “Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute” (Dewey 1998: 343). In other words, democracy is radical for Dewey because it has no endpoint that can be “reached”. Instead, it is a never-ending process where the conditions for democracy have continuously to be exercised and refined through collective creativity and intelligence. Second, such an understanding of democracy is radical because “it requires great change in existing social institutions, economic, legal and cultural” (Dewey 1987: 299). Third, for Dewey there is “nothing more radical than insistence upon democratic methods as the means by which radical social changes be effected”. Even more since “we now have the resources for initiating a social system of security and opportunity for all” (ibid.). Taken together these reasons highlight how Dewey reached his verdict that democracy is a fundamentally radical endeavor. The next section will shed some light on the historical context of these ideas and discuss how Dewey’s understanding of democracy has been further elaborated in a debate with one of the most prominent radical political thinkers and practitioners of his time. In April 1937, only a few months after Dewey wrote his short essay Democracy Is Radical, he became chairman of the ,Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials‘ (see Farrell 1950). His meetings with Trotsky in Mexico lead to a debate between the two thinkers on the role of means and ends for social transformation, which seems to be almost forgotten now. But in our context this debate is of utmost interest since it illuminates the historical context in which Dewey formulated his idea of radical democracy. In the essay Their Morals and Ours, written in February 1938, Trotsky set forth his conception of morals to fend off the notion that Stalinism and Trotskyism are essentially underpinned by the same Marxist amoralism . He rejects the maxim that the end justifies all means and contrasts it with his own understanding of a dialectical interdependence of end and means: “A means can be justified only by its end. But the end in its turn needs to be justified. From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and to the abolition of the power of one person over another” (Trotsky 1979: 48). Under this conception a mean is only allowed if it “really leads to the liberation of humanity” (ibid.). Trotsky further states that this is an end that can only be achieved through revolution and that the liberating morality of the proletariat “deduces a rule for conduct from the laws of the development of society, thus primarily from the class struggle, this law of all laws” (ibid.). In his response Means and Ends, written in July 1938, Dewey agrees with Trotsky’s view that means and ends are interdependent. But he puts his position in the form of a stricter consequentialism: “I hold that the end in the sense of consequences provides the only basis for moral ideas and action, and therefore provides the only justification that can be found for means employed” (Dewey 1979: 68). By Dewey’s account, Trotsky has violated his own principles of interdependence and consequentialism by externally introducing class struggle as a law of society.