In response to a post I wrote called “Barack Obama: philosophical pragmatist or left-wing ideologue?” Stanley Kurtz, whose terrific book Radical-in-Chief helped me address the question, argues that it’s entirely possible to say “both.” Jonah Goldberg adds that “it is not only entirely possible, it is quite common, even consistent” to be a Marxist and a pragmatist.
I agree, up to a point. Stan points out that Cornel West was a Marxist and a philosophical pragmatist. Goldberg adds that this was true of the young Sidney Hook as well, and that much of philosophical pragmatism — at least on the left — was an attempt to make socialist or Marxist ideas seem practical and empirical rather than ideological.
But calling oneself a pragmatist is not the same thing as being one. And an attempt to make socialist ideas seem practical, while a tribute to pragmatism, may not be a reasonable or good-faith application of that philosophy.
Indeed, there’s a sense in which one cannot be a philosophical pragmatist and a left-wing ideologue, since pragmatism, as Goldberg notes, purports to be the rejection of ideology. That’s why I used the phrase “left-wing ideologue,” rather than socialist or Marxist, in the title of my original post.
That was a bit of a lawyer’s trick, though. The reason why I mostly agree with Stan and Goldberg is that I understand pragmatism to be a methodology the application of which leaves room for ideology. The methodology — to oversimplify — is to judge answers to questions based on how well they work. But in assessing how well an answer works, ideology may well creep in. Indeed, some would argue that ideology is required to answer this hidden question: “works well for whom”?
I tried to illustrate this in my post:
Consider housing/banking. Obama aligned himself with ACORN as it pushed financial insititutions to make high-risk loans. A pragmatist could view this issue in various ways. He might conclude that ACORN’s agenda was far too risky, given the strong pragmatic interest in a sound financial structure (that turned out to be the case). Alternatively, he might conclude that ACORN has it right because the risks are outweighed by the positive value of poor people owning homes.
He might even conclude, as some leftists did, that creating a financial crisis, and seeing people kicked out of their homes, is a good thing because it will hasten a revolution, after which America will be a better place. It requires a political ideology, not pragmatism, to adjudicate among these views.
But having said all of this, I think there is, at a minimum, a deep tension between pragmatism on the one hand and Marxism and Communism on the other. A pragmatist should judge Marxism by how well it has worked. One can argue that it worked well in helping to understand some of the phenomena of Marx’s time, and maybe even a few today. However, I’m hard-pressed to see how it worked in any sense broad enough to justify being a Marxist. Few of Marx’s predictions came true; those who embraced Marxism either came to a bad end or drove their country off of the cliff, etc.
Thus, for a pragmatist to be a Marxist in any strong sense seems ridiculous. For a pragmatist to be a Communist, given how Communism has worked out to date, seems stranger still.