Obama: Flexible, Intelligent, Pragmatic

Trenton, N.J.


Obama: Flexible, Intelligent, Pragmatic

Trenton, N.J.

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.


Las Vegas

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.

Beacon, N.Y.

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.

Public ownership, which increased after World War II, has been greatly reduced. Over the past twenty-five years privatization has made deep inroads into publicly owned industries and public services. SD elites have accepted much of the free-trade, deregulation and privatization agendas. The EU, a favorite project of SD parties, is a “free market” project with an exceedingly weak democratic and social dimension. Among its latest projects is the liberalization and privatization of government services, including education and healthcare. Most of this has the enthusiastic support of SD parties, if not of all the unions.

Schiffrin’s discussion of auto company nationalization and “giving workers a share in management” is also deeply flawed. To my knowledge, the biggest players–Mercedes-Benz, GM’s Opel, Ford Europe, Volvo, Saab, Peugeot and Fiat–were never in public hands after the war. Renault was nationalized but has now been mostly privatized. The story for the Nazi-founded VW is the same, and the remaining public stake is under attack from EU authorities.

Nationalization has nothing to do with the codetermination rights of German workers, nor were they an achievement of the “Socialists.” German workers (not unions) have a legal right to representation in the policy-setting supervisory boards of all significant enterprises. The law was introduced after the war, when the Allies wanted to create a labor counterweight to a management that had collaborated with Nazism. The same laws also kept unions at arm’s length by setting up elected councils to negotiate with the employer–unions have to act like political parties to get their members elected. Many councils contain nonunion representatives, and because the company controls the purse strings, a wedge between national unions and plant representatives is easily created. These proposals were initially controversial: consequent socialists opposed them. Now, of course, SD party and union leaders extol them as great achievements.

Somehow objectivity and judgment decline when progressives look across the Atlantic. Europeans, confronted with their uninspiring politicians, were easy prey for Obama’s hope and change rhetoric. Americans nostalgically drag up the socialist triumphs of yesteryear. There is a lot to learn, but it requires a hard look at the realities of the situation on both sides of the Atlantic.



Schiffrin Replies

New York City

Peter Unterweger is in such a rush to criticize Europe’s Social Democrats that he has missed much of what I was trying to say.

First and foremost, my article was a look at what had been achieved since 1945, looking for solutions that still made sense to Obama’s America. It was not an analysis of today’s Social Democratic parties, many of whose policies I would agree need criticism from the left. Indeed, that is precisely what has been happening in recent years. In France, Besancenot’s new anticapitalist alliance–as The Nation has noted–and, in Germany, Die Linke have been offering old-fashioned socialist alternatives to the more market-oriented policies accepted by many Social Democrats. This before the collapse of the Friedmanite ideology that America had been foisting on the rest of the world in recent years. It is safe to predict that the leftward pressures will grow in Europe in the coming months and, hopefully, in the United States.

On specifics, I noted that Blair had long ago abandoned basic Labour policies, although to dismiss old Labour as nonsocialist because of its Fabian origins seems a bit sectarian to me. Equally interesting is that many of the more conservative successors to the Social Democrats, in France and in Scandinavia, have been hesitant to tamper with much of the basic egalitarian changes I mentioned.

I never suggested that all automobile companies had been nationalized; I specified Renault and Volkswagen, whose very successful outcomes before privatization could well be studied as American companies are “restructured” at taxpayers’ expense.

The German system of codetermination, or Mitbestimmungsrecht, was imposed on Germany after the war in an effort to democratize that country, largely because of the thinking of British Labour and American New Dealers planning occupation policy. It has many defenders. There is no room here to discuss Unterweger’s critique, which I believe is not accepted by most on the German left.

The economic crisis has caused many to rethink the policies that too many, in Europe and America, have accepted in recent years. Those on the left have much to add from the socialist alternatives that have been tried in past decades.



Rock Around the Clock, Titania!


Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s excellent review of books about New Orleans, “In Congo Square” [Dec. 29], quotes H.C. Knight in 1819: “…the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.” According to the author under review, this is the first use of “rock” as a verb in this sense.

But what about Shakespeare, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? In Act IV, scene i, Oberon and Titania are reconciled, the humans still asleep in the forest. Oberon: “Sound, music! Come my queen, take hands with me,/And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be.”

This is not to suggest that the Elizabethans invented rock ‘n’ roll in 1595; it’s just that I’ve always liked that play and appreciate a chance to quote from it.


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