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Emerson and Socialism: An Exchange

In response to:

A Visit to Mr. America from the March 12, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

Leo Marx’s review of my book The American Newness [NYR, March 12] is so thoughtful and good-tempered that it would be churlish to quarrel with his criticisms. Nor will I. Let me instead pick up one or two of the themes he advances, in the hope they will be of interest to your readers.

The possible relationship between some version(s) of Emersonian individualism and a democratic left politics has troubled the more reflective segments of the American left for some time; Leo Marx and I are only among the latest to worry it. Emersonian individualism in at least one variant has commanded the power to bring about recurrent invigorations of American culture—perhaps also, if only marginally, American politics. The tradition of critical protest and serious nay-saying we associate with the Emerson of the 1830s and part of the 1840s is a tradition that nurtures self-confidence in American intellectuals. It enables them to speak out, no matter how few or isolated they may be, and it offers the potent assurance that eventually a truth declared by a solitary person will take root in the culture as well. Indirectly, this tradition has inspired segments of Debsian socialism, great figures like Norman Thomas and Roger Baldwin, and the Catholic-born Michael Harrington.

Yet once we turn from cultural radicalism to radical politics, something goes askew. What happens has been ably if not fully described by David Bromwich in the Winter 1985 Dissent:

Since Emerson, the project of literary radicalism has never been isolable from an ambition to reform our social arrangements. At the same time, it has resisted any steady collaboration with the short-term plans of reformers. It starts as a general hope, touching those who sympathize with movements outside literature, yet it ends in general bewilderment. The strength of our individualism in culture appears to have been paid for by the eclecticism, the impatient or capricious energy, and above all the discontinuity of our radicalism in politics. The reason the balance works out this way is that, between cultural and political radicalism, the former adds up to the stronger tradition.

There are other reasons too, but that’s for another occasion. In any case, some of us on the democratic left have learned that simply to dismiss, as Marxists once did, the whole tradition and symbolic resonance of American individualism is self-defeating. To do so would be to put the left in a kultur kampf it hasn’t the slightest chance of winning, and not much chance of surviving. We have come to realize that there are elements of Emersonian individualism it is good to draw upon, not just as a tactical device but seriously, in good faith.

So we have tried to do what Leo Marx proposes, that is, to make distinctions among varieties of Emersonianism. (I thought I did so in my little book, but perhaps not with enough clarity or force.) What we discover is that making such distinctions seems fairly easy at the outset, but that once we go beyond writing essays and become engaged with the actualities of political life, it becomes very much harder.

We—let me be cautious and say I—now feel the individualism of the early, more radical Emerson contains something intrinsically valuable, especially when taken (as Leo Marx puts it) as “a guide to the intellectual vocation.” Once we turn to the politics available in the American system and to the structures and relationships of American society, especially in the age of multinational corporations, that individualism turns out to be sadly inadequate. It often becomes “mythified” in ways that hinder thought and obstruct radical, even liberal reforms.

To speak out against the Vietnam War, as Thoreau spoke against the Mexican War, even if almost everyone else remains mute: that is a splendid part of the native heritage. But it’s delusional to suppose that the Emersonian categories, even the best of them, are sufficient for understanding or correcting the deep injustices and appalling imbalances of power and wealth characteristic of American capitalism. (Most of the literary critics who have recently become admirers of Emerson lack his strong if intermittent engagement with the life of society and thereby narrow what they take to be the Emersonian world-view. Emerson was not, in the current sense, a “literary man.”)

There, I’d say, is a start in making the distinctions Leo Marx calls for, and it’s neither very difficult nor novel. But once we try to complicate and refine, it all becomes very hard, and it’s the hardness that has led me to what Leo Marx calls (I thank him for the adjective) my “considered ambivalence” regarding Emersonian individualism. Let me just mention a few instances since these cut both ways:

1) Even those of us who honor the figures of individual protest find that once we participate in movements for social change, our attitudes toward such individualists become troubled. I was somewhat involved in antiwar movements of the 1960s and found that while I admired certain “Thoreauvians” for their courage, I also disliked their rigidity of posture and their occasional readiness to place declamations of rectitude above any shared need for the alliances, compromises, and even retreats which a democratic politics entails. Social movements need stiff-necked protestors who provide moral backbone, but if such people take over they tend to stiffen movements into fixed stances. An inflexible individualism may thereby become an impediment to the very democratic politics to which it has committed itself, as if to make personal testimony into an absolute value. (In my book Socialism and America I’ve argued that something like this has happened, disastrously, several times to American socialism.)

2) When we turn to socioeconomic structures and relations, I now think that there is more reason for people on the left to heed the claims and criticisms of individualism than Marxists usually did. The leviathan state, the bureaucratic octopus, the excessive concentrations of power—these are not merely (though often they are) bogies of conservatism. Oscar Wilde was shrewd when he wrote that “Socialism will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism,” that is, a democratic solution to social problems and a common acceptance of the norms of greater equity should enable men “to realize the perfection [or even a shade less—I.H.] of what was in him.” There ought to be room in a cooperative commonwealth for individual initiative, directed, one hopes, not to exploitation or “insider trading” but to worthier ends. Someone like Felix Rohatyn could use his talents to help make the economic wheels run smoothly and someone like Ralph Nader could be equally valuable, raising his voice against the social and individual corruptions of tomorrow.

3) Most decisive of all and hardly requiring elaboration is the lesson to be learned from the totalitarian parodies of socialism, which have for decades constituted the greatest burden or impediment for the democratic left, at least insofar as such societies are used as arguments against a democratic socialism. Whatever the shortcomings of Emersonian individualism, it seems to me a potent force of resistance to any sort of authoritarian schemes. (What would Emerson make of Oliver North? Or Thoreau of Michael Ledeen?) And that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to the “considered ambivalence” which Leo Marx apparently thinks is too kindly a response to Emersonianism.

Some will say that I want to bring together things that cannot be brought together—individualism and socialism. If these are indeed quite irreconcilable, then we face a hard future, a world of an increasingly bureaucratized and oligarchical state capitalism. But it’s very much worth struggling for a humane and probably incremental social policy that might bring these two traditions, not into perfect harmony, but a creative tension.

How to decide, as Leo Marx puts it to us, which forms of Emersonian individualism “are reconcilable with a further extension of democracy, whether socialist or not”—well, that’s a question. As we emerge from the stupefactions of the Reagan era and perhaps into a moment of greater vision and hopefulness, such a question will again seem “real” to intellectuals. We will want to discuss it; but I suspect that the problem can be worked through only in the actual experience of a renewed socialist or social democratic community. We can of course try to avoid past mistakes: ideologizing, fanaticism, etc. But only the trials and tests of practice (we’ll skip praxis) may enable us to create a fruitful connection between the best of Emersonianism and a renewed democratic left. That’s why I think that no matter how small its immediate prospects, there is need for maintaining a socialist community (not a party). There have to be some people prepared to look beyond the paltriness of the “given.” About that, as about much else, I think Leo Marx and I are in accord.

Irving Howe

New York City

Leo Marx replies:

I thank Irving Howe for his generous response to my review of The American Newness, and for this opportunity to clarify our disagreement. It is true, as he says, that we are in accord on many points. We both respect Emerson’s thought as a source of political self-confidence for American intellectuals. It surely has lent vigor to a native tradition of critical protest and serious naysaying; it has bolstered resistance to oppression, to illegitimate authority, and to infringements of civil liberties and human rights; and at times it also has been successfully enlisted in support of various programs of liberal reform. If Irving Howe were a libertarian or a liberal, there would be no disagreement between us, but he identifies himself as a socialist, and that is where the difficulty arises. To put the issue as sharply as possible: he thinks that the Emersonian brand of radical individualism can be combined, or reconciled, or somehow made to comport with, a commitment to democratic socialism, and I am skeptical.

The trouble with Irving Howe’s interpretation of Emersonianism, in my view, is that he selects what he finds congenial about it and slights the rest. In doing so he in effect denies its integrity, coherence, and power as a virtually total ideology with a strong hold on the national consciousness. Most important, he slights the admittedly vague but widely accepted view of politics fostered by Emersonianism—a view which effectively precludes support for any imaginable socialist program. Irving Howe seems to acknowledge as much when, at three or four points in his letter, he notes the discrepancy between the dissident power of Emerson’s ideas in the sphere of culture and their manifest weakness in the sphere of politics. “Once we turn from cultural radicalism to radical politics,” he writes, “something goes askew.”

What goes askew becomes evident, I think, if we consider Emerson’s attitude toward three essential preconditions of socialism. The first is the need for an organized movement or party capable of gaining political power. Without such a political organization there is no likelihood of establishing a socialist regime in an advanced industrial society, but Emerson had little use for organizations, institutions, or indeed, for any political means of achieving social change. The kind of “radicals” he most admired were disengaged writers or intellectuals, men like Bronson Alcott, Henry Thoreau, and Jones Very, whom he describes in his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist” as

intelligent and religious persons [who] withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living.

These alienated persons were not so much precursors of twentieth-century socialists as of the 1960s dropouts and hippies. When Emerson called for social renovation or “revolution,” he had in mind a universal release of the creative energy bottled up in every person. The first step was a change in the consciousness of individuals. What is needed “to work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men,” he writes, is “a greater self-reliance.” He therefore rejected most forms of organized collective activity, including the various “associations” and “socialist” experiments of the 1840s like Brook Farm. “I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger,” he wrote. “I wish to break all prisons.”

A second essential precondition of socialism is an ideology of reasoned opposition to capitalism, but that would not have elicited Emerson’s approval either. The fact is that he was a firm believer in the kind of laissez-faire economy described by Adam Smith—an ideal type of preindustrial capitalism which he saw, like many of his contemporaries, as the economic corollary of political democracy. When he defended such a pure, individualistic version of a precorporate market economy, he had in view the contrast with: 1) the residual elements of feudalism that still marked the economies of the Old World, and 2) the oppressive slavery system of the American South. When seen in historical perspective, therefore, Emerson’s commitment to capitalism is understandable.

What may be more difficult to accept, however, is Emerson’s uncritical embrace of the crude calculus of good and evil, a correlation of economics and morality, he found in the work of Smith and other Scottish moral philosophers. If we tend to forget this aspect of Emerson’s thought nowadays, it is largely because participants in the current revival seldom cite such hair-raising passages as this one from his first important work, Nature (1836). (His larger theme here is the way nature’s seemingly harsh ways enforce a desirable moral discipline.)

The same good office is performed by Property and its filial systems of debt and credit. Debt, grinding debt, whose iron face the widow, the orphan, and the sons of genius fear and hate; debt, which consumes so much time, which so cripples and disheartens a great spirit with cares that seem so base, is a preceptor whose lessons cannot be foregone, and is needed most by those who suffer from it most. Moreover, property, which has been well compared to snow,—“if it fall level to-day, it will be blown into drifts to-morrow,”—is the surface action of internal machinery, like the index on the face of a clock. Whilst now it is the gymnastics of the understanding, it is hiving in the foresight of the spirit, experience in profounder laws.

At times, as in the spirited 1841 lecture “Man the Reformer,” Emerson expressed qualms about the inequities of the market economy. Actually, he seems to have been reacting to the beginnings of a new, less entrepreneurial or individualistic form of capitalism. In any case, he usually attributed such inequities to a pervasive selfishness, or to the malfunctioning of the system, not to its underlying principles. Those he never repudiated. Here, for example, in a relatively late essay (“Wealth,” in Conduct of Life, (1860), his tone anticipates that adopted by Reaganites in castigating lazy welfare mothers:

Wealth brings with it its own checks and balances. The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply. Do not legislate. Meddle, and you snap the sinews with your sumptuary laws. Give no bounties, make equal laws, secure life and property, and you need not give alms. Open the doors of opportunity to talent and virtue and they will do themselves justice, and property will not be in bad hands. In a free and just commonwealth, property rushes from the idle and imbecile to the industrious, brave and persevering.

A third necessary precondition of socialism is a government strong enough to enact and enforce socialist principles. In the age of multinational corporations, an anticapitalist program hardly could be enforced without the exercise of immense governmental power. Yet Emerson, like most American individualists to this day, was an unwavering believer in minimum government. The cardinal theme of his 1844 essay on “Politics” is “the less government we have the better.”

Far from being easy to reconcile with the idea of socialism, Emerson’s ideas about politics and economics have more in common with a loosely conceived yet pervasive native tradition of anarchist thought. This would explain why Emersonianism so often has proven to be “sadly inadequate,” as Irving Howe puts it, for left (socialist-tending) politics in our time. This inadequacy has been accentuated by an awareness of those regimes he describes as “totalitarian parodies of socialism” and, more particularly, by the evident failure of centralized economic planning in many countries. These recent developments have contributed to a new skepticism about the future of socialism and, at the same time, a new tolerance for an old-fashioned, by now largely nonexistent form of capitalism. Although I agree with Irving Howe when he says that the American left must try somehow to bring together what remains feasible in the ideas of individualism and socialism, the first step, I think, is to recognize the size of the ideological chasm that separates them.

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