Obama: Flexible, Intelligent, Pragmatic
Christopher Hayes’s “The Pragmatist” [Dec. 29] is right on target in suggesting a link between Obama’s pragmatism and the tradition in American philosophy of William James and John Dewey. The word “pragmatism” is often used to mean abandoning principles for short-term gains or not rocking the boat too much, but these interpretations miss the point of the pragmatic philosophers. The essential message of the American pragmatists was, as Hayes aptly puts it, “openness to the possibility of radical solutions.” In my philosophy classes at Rider University, I teach James and Dewey as original and flexible thinkers who boldly challenged prevailing ideas. I hope that Obama will continue this great American tradition.
Christopher Hayes’s analysis would benefit from two additional points: (1) Citing Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley–“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it”–is fine. But by the time he wrote it, in August 1862, he had already drafted an emancipation proclamation; his cabinet had persuaded him to delay it until the Union had won a victory so that it would not be, as Secretary of State William Henry Seward put it, “our last shriek, on the retreat.” Lincoln’s letter to Greeley was designed in part to warn those opposed to emancipation that such a proclamation might be in the offing.
(2) Lyndon Johnson is not usually a favorite for liberals to quote; but when he was asked about his greatest accomplishment he reportedly replied, “Convincing Hubert Humphrey that half a loaf is better than none.” As an Obama supporter, I want the whole loaf. As an American who has endured executive incompetence and lies for the past eight years, I will gladly accept an intelligent pragmatist and take whatever part of the loaf I can get.
European Socialism, R.I.P.
André Schiffrin’s attempt to make socialism relevant to a United States mired in crisis (“Socialism Is Not a Dirty Word,” Dec. 29) is worthwhile. However, having lived in Europe and worked with the overwhelmingly social democratically oriented labor movement for the past seventeen years, I find his description of European “socialism” dated and inaccurate.
The French party is socialist in name only, and in the European Parliament they sit with the Social Democrats. The Labour Party, even pre-Blair, is not a socialist party: its roots lie in Fabianism. In fact, there are no mass socialist parties in Europe. By the mid-’60s, virtually all had in effect renounced the class struggle and the Democratic Socialism of the early twentieth century. SDs no longer pursue socialism but a “social market economy,” by which they understand a market regulated to produce socially desirable outcomes–not unlike the views of left-of-center US Democrats. In European public discourse, SD parties and their leaders are no longer referred to as socialist. European progressives vote SD only when there are no other viable choices, such as the Greens in Germany or the parties to the left of the Socialists in France.