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Concepts of Freedom

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Freedom Forgotten and Remembered. By Helmut Kuhn. University of North Carolina Press. $2.50. The Freedom to Be Free. By James Marshall. The John. Day Company. $2.50. The Machiavellians. By James Burnham. The John Day Company. $2.50.

“IT IS ludicrous,” remarks James Burnham, “for au-thors of books like this one—that is serious books about society—to pretend to speak to ‘the people.’ The great bulk of the people in this country neither buys nor reads any books at all—thereby avoiding a great quantity of nonsense. The potential audience of this sort of book is, as statistics show, limited to a comparatively small section of the elite.” In this category Dr. Burnham would, without question, include the readers of book reviews in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Dr. Burnham is a philosopher. His essay purports to be science—the science of politics. The word, elite, is the key to the book.

Dr. Burnham’s present effort is both a prelude to and a sequel to his “Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941. It is a prelude because the major part of the essay deals with the work of five men who together blocked out the outlines of the science of politics. They are the Machiavellians, the realists who have discovered what makes the wheels go round. Dr. Burnham, who looks upon himself as the intellectual descendant of the five, has an almost eighteenth-century interest in the practicality of science. The purpose of exploring the science of politics is to make it possible for the elite to govern scientifically and, therefore, presumably more efficiently. Machiavelli, the Renaissance founder of the school, outlined in the vocabulary of his age the science of power; Gaetano Mosca published in 1923 his matured theory of the ruling class; Georges Sorel in the opening decade of the twentieth century emphasized the function of myth and violence in society; Robert Michels brought out in Germany in 1911 his study of what Dr. Burnham calls the limits of democracy in which he emphasized the necessary “autocracy of leadership” or, in other words, the “iron law of oligarchy”; and finally Vilfredo Pareto published in the midst of the first World War his prodigious “Treatise on General Sociology.” One of Pareto’s most important contributions was his emphasis on the non-logical character of the actions of the masses of society. These are the five forerunners of “The Managerial Revolution.” Dr. Burnharn has a chapter on each in his present work. The book concludes with the sequel—some difficulties in the way of applying the science of politics in the public arena.

Dr. Burnham’s formulation of the philosophy of the Machiavellians is an aspect of that naturalism that has colored much social thinking in America since Versailles. It has given us Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Lawrence Dennis. Dennis seems to the present reviewer to do a better job than Dr. Burnham in carrying the premises of the Machiavellians to their logical conclusions. The basic premise of the group is that politics is primarily a struggle for power. “The Machiavellians,” says Dr. Burnham with some enthusiasm, “are the only ones who have told us the whole truth about power. . . . The Machiavellians present the complete record: the primary object, in practice, of all rulers is to serve their own interests, to maintain their own power and privilege. There are no exceptions. No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. . . . Only power restrains power.” This is the central lesson of the science of politics. The second is that liberty—rarely achieved in human history—is possible only when opposing power is balanced. Dr. Burnham, abandoning for a moment the objectivity of scientific inquiry, expresses a taste for libertjr. The trend of his thought suggests that the elite by putting the science of politics into practice might possibly save liberty. This is the managerial revolution that characterizes our time. The elite1 are learning the science of politics and, perhaps, will be able to save liberty and with it science.

Yet at the end of his essay Dr. Burnham runs into a dilemma. It is so serious as to cast doubt upon the possibility of practicing scientific politics. This is the sequel to “The Managerial Revolution.” “A dilemma,” he says, “confronts any section of the elite that tries to act scientifically. The political life of the masses and the cohesion of society demand the acceptance of myths. A scientific attitude toward society does not permit belief in the truth of myths. But the leaders must profess, indeed foster, belief in myths, or the fabric of society will crack and be overthrown. In short, the leaders, if they themselves are scientific, must lie. It is hard to lie all the time in public but to keep privately an objective regard for truth. . . . In the light of these obstacles and this tragic dilemma, it would seem that the possibility of scientific political action, even on the part of a section of the elite, which is itself only a small section of society, depends upon favorable and temporary circumstances.” Of course, the scientific attitude is impossible for the masses. Mr. Lawrence Dennis had no difficulty in resolving this dilemma in his “Dynamics of War and Revolution.”

We venture to suggest that Dr. Burnham’s intellectual misadventure may be due to a preoccupation with one aspect, namely the struggle for power, in the life of society. Culture, when the term is used in the anthropologist’s sense, is a very complex entity. In it the struggle for power is only one of many elements. The basic weakness of Dr. Burn-ham’s position is his assumption that a science of politics can be developed in a vacuum. There can be a science of culture or of society. Only in such a frame can useful conclusions concerning politics, the regulative mores, be reached. There can be no science of politics in the Burnham sense.

Dr. Helmut Kuhn faces the question of freedom in the modern world from the point of view of a philosopher who is a refugee from Germany governed by that elite known as the Nazi Party. His essay, like that of Dr. Burnham, is primarily a history of ideas. It begins with the philosophical background of the despair in Germany which preceded the plunge of the people into Nazism. Then follows an account of the surrender to the new myths and the new ideology on the part of all groups of Germans save one. “The fact that in Germany the Church alone offered serious resistance to Nazism is of symbolic significance.” It suggests to Dr. Kuhn two things: the toughness of the religious tradition which brought about the martyrdom of Pastor Niemuller and the instability of the social sciences that were so easily turned into instruments of propaganda for the Nazis. Dr. Kuhn suggests the basic weakness of twentieth-century social science, in a passage that might well apply to the work of Dr. Burnham. “The study of man,” he remarks, “was expected to mature into an exact science by freeing itself from metaphysical assumptions.” Instead of escaping metaphysics, some sort of metaphysics was, of necessity, implied. It was, of course, uncriticised and often naive. Dr. Kuhn was impressed with the fact that twentieth-century naturalism emphasized determinism with its denial of individual freedom or responsibility. In a remarkable paragraph he recalls Jefferson’s swearing “upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Jefferson was battling in his day the bigotry of religious sects. “Gradually and slowly,” says Kuhn, pointing to tyrannies of which Jefferson never dreamed, “. . . the intellectual situation changed… . But then came those who regarded man as essentially a biological unit, and the claim of freedom grew problematic. He seemed to be at the mercy of impersonal energies—economic forces, the Han vital, subconscious instincts. The only freedom these philosophers could consistently demand was the freedom to proclaim the end of freedom.” Kuhn, like Jefferson of old, wars against the tyrannies of the mind. He demands for the future a partnership between philosophy and the social sciences. He demands also a renovation of theology. He is not a churchman, but he is convinced that human life is rooted in eternal values. There is a suggestion of pathos in his final words: “But if the victory is ours, it will be possible to muster for service the intellectual resources of man in building his New House; and free men will again be allowed to carry on the hazardous labor of civilization, opening sources of knowledge and happiness to an increasing number. And our children, and the children of our children, will not be condemned to grow up as strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”

James Marshall, lawyer, administrator, and for four years President of the New York City Board of Education, takes a middle ground between the cynicism of Dr. Burnham and the idealism of Dr. Kuhn. He agrees with Dr. Burnham that we are in the midst of a world-wide revolution; but for Marshall it is “a war against paternalism;” in short, against the power and pretensions of ruling classes. Marshall is interested in equality and fraternity as well as liberty. He agrees with Burnham that, “when the few govern, they govern in the interests of the few.” But the New York attorney denies that government must be in the hands of the few. He is interested in the possibilities for democracy of labor unions and co-operatives—organizations of common men. “A democratically conducted labor union,” Marshall affirms, “is a co-operative enterprise essential to the maintenance of democratic society. It is a functional substitute for the lost neighborliness of urban communities and the diminishing vitality of older forms of local government.” Marshall has no faith in the leviathan state. He calls for the “renaissance of local institutions,” among laborers, farmers, consumers—in short, any group where possible. “They are based on attitudes of mutual respect and collaboration, not on aggression or subservience.”

Mr. Marshall has had the courage to set forth what he deems to be the essence of democracy. His is a doctrine not only of the importance of individuals but of the concept that “equality does not mean identity, but rather recognition of differences, a recognition of differences not in the form of favouritism, but as an expression of respect for individuality.” “Collaboration,” he adds, “rather than competition or paternalism is the more likely method for achieving mutual respect, equality and development.” The fate of democracy is in the hands of the common man—not of the elite. And Marshall agrees with the American democrats of the eighteenth century that the foundation of democracy is education.

Marshall’s chief contribution is his discussion of education, particularly at the primary and secondary level. He emphasizes the importance of education adjusted to the needs of the individual. “The possession of a skill is essential, not only as a means to bread and shelter and greater stability in job holding, but also to that sense of capacity which raises the self-esteem and stabilizes the character of people. These are the aims of vocational instruction. To deny them a place in the scheme of education, and a respected place, is to live among shadows, beautiful perhaps, but certainly silent shadows. Some day the schools and colleges will recognize that all students are entitled not only to acquaintance with their cultural background, but to vocational skills—each in accordance with and to the extent of his capacities, whether they be hand, head or machine skills, highly specialized or more general. Such recognition should come because cultural background without vocational Interest and skill is inevitably sterile; and vocational skill without some understanding of the relations of things and people is invariably servile.” Such education is an enrichment of human life. It establishes a foundation for individual self-reliance and social collaboration. It provides the groundwork for “security in brotherhood rather than in competition,” the competition which produces governing elites. “Only when politics serves ethical ends,” Marshall concludes, “and satisfies the mature needs of man can political institutions assure men the freedom to be free.”


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