Pyramids of Sacrifice: Political Ethics and Social Change.
by Peter L. Berger.
Basic Books. 242 pp. $10.00.

Social scientists have frequently been criticized for their preoccupation with the present, and their fondness for static models and static analyses, but in fact a principal concern of sociologists, economists, and political scientists throughout this century has been the process of transition from “traditional” to “modern” society—hardly a static model at all. Such diverse and distinguished social scientists as Marx, Weber, Tonnies, and, more recently, Gabriel Almond, Lucian Pye, and Samuel Huntington have attempted to identify essential characteristics of traditional and modern societies and to describe the processes of modernization that lead from the one to the other; to discover the interrelations among social, economic, psychological, and political change; and to determine the various human and social factors that affect the course of modernization. The study of modernization blends almost imperceptibly with much larger intellectual enterprises: the study of social change, social integration, historical evolution, the rise and fall of civilizations.

Eventually, all students of modernization confront two basic and interrelated questions: Is modernization an inevitable, unilinear process which unfolds without reference to human plans and preferences, or is it susceptible of control by enlightened policy-makers? Secondly, is modernization a single, multifaceted process, whose diverse parts “hang together” in such a way that a change in one area—techniques of production, for example—will entail a parallel change in other spheres—for example, social, psychological, and political characteristics; or are the various components of modernization (industrialization, urbanization, occupational mobility, expansion of literacy, etc.), discrete social processes, going on at different rates? A third question also recurs, and that is whether modernization is desirable or undesirable, whether it is to be welcomed as progress or resisted as the agent of dehumanization. But because many social scientists lack, or feel that they lack, the tools needed to answer moral questions, most investigations of modernization deal with this third question obliquely, indirectly, or simply by assumption.

Peter L. Berger, sociologist, churchman, ah associate editor of Worldview, and a prolific commentator on the contemporary scene, is a voluntarist who believes that the choices of policy-makers affect the course of history; he is also a social scientist who believes that the ethical questions attendant on modernization should be confronted head-on. His new book, Pyramids of Sacrifice, submits the two dominant schemes for national development—capitalism and Communism—to human cost-accounting. Berger thereby takes a long step toward uniting “two attitudes that are usually separate—the attitudes of ‘hard nosed’ analysis and of utopian imagination.”

Pyramids of Sacrifice is an essay on the human dimensions of development. It views development not from the perspective of world history or of ideological combat, but through its impact on the individuals whose lives are transformed by social, economic, and political change. This perspective makes Berger sensitive to human problems which are too frequently ignored in the calculations of philosophers of history, revolutionaries, and reformist social engineers. Viewing history from below, Berger reflects on the moral imperatives of policy-making for the Third World. Foremost among such imperatives, for him, are that those affected by a policy have the opportunity to participate in the making of decisions; that policymakers carefully calculate the likely human costs of alternative policies in order to avoid those that come too dear; and that no development strategy be adopted which would require the sacrifice of a generation to the achievement of long-range goals.

Pyramids of Sacrifice begins where no other book on development has begun: at Cholula, site of the great pyramid on which ancient Aztec “theorists” sacrificed tens of thousands of human victims to Quetzalcoatl, in the belief that the universe would fall apart if the gods were not regularly fed with human blood. The conceptual edifice that supported (caused?) this “meso-american Auschwitz,” was the product of an intellectual. “History,” Berger notes,

is not only a succession of power structures but of theoretical edifices, and every one of the latter was first thought up by somebody . . . whether it is a case of intellectuals convincing the wielders of power to carry into practice some particular scheme, or power-wielders hiring intellectuals to concoct theories that will legitimate that particular exercise of power ex post facto. . . . [Thus] the great pyramid at Cholula provides a metaphorical paradigm for the relations among theory, power, and the victims of both—the intellectuals who define reality, the power-wielders who shape the world to conform to the definitions, and the others who are called upon to suffer in consequence of both enterprises.

The definition of reality is a subject of persistent concern to Berger, who devoted an earlier book, The Social Transformation of Reality, entirely to this subject. In Pyramids of Sacrifice, Berger argues persuasively, as a first postulate of enlightened and humane social policy, that people be permitted to define their own situations and that their definitions be treated with seriousness. The implications are enormous: permitting people to speak for themselves and assigning weight to their views in the definition of collective goals would prevent their being made the objects of programs designed to “raise (transform) their consciousness” on the basis of someone else's perception of reality.

False consciousness is the name by which revolutionaries deny the reality of human experience, and the doctrine of false consciousness, which is at least as old as Plato's Republic, plays an indispensable role in all theories of comprehensive revolution, explaining why most people do not share the vision of the revolutionary—do not want what he wants, do not hate whom he hates. Theories of false consciousness (as found in Plato, Marx, Hitler, Marcuse, Fanon, Laing) not only deny the authenticity of others' experience, they provide the epistemological basis that justifies the revolutionary's disregard of the values and goals of real people in favor of his own interpretation of their “real” interests.

The view that everyone outside a particular revolutionary movement is confused about almost everything underlies programs of “consciousness raising.” In social situations the “crucial assumption of the concept,” Berger notes, “is that lower-class people do not understand their own situation, that they are in need of enlightenment on the matter, and that this service can be provided by selected higher-class individuals.” Berger attacks the “hierarchical view of consciousness” which implies that intellectuals possess a superior understanding of what it is to be “truly human” (as opposed to possessing better information on specific topics), and he observes the irony in the fact that revolutionary intellectuals who arrogantly and undemocratically insist on defining reality for the masses almost always see themselves as “genuine democrats.”

Frequently the new consciousness imposed by the revolutionary calls for renunciation, risk, and sacrifice in war and violent revolution, but the intellectuals who plan and justify the sacrifice “are generally in a good position to avoid the sacrificial platform.” Especially given to this kind of dehumanization of the people in whose name they act are socialist revolutionaries, who purvey the Communist model of development and see themselves as a “vanguard” and the “embodiment” of “the will of the masses.” Here Berger stresses a fact ignored by too many students and advocates of violent change: that “revolution, like war, involves the killing of human beings,” that revolutions “demand a high toll in human suffering.” The Communist path to modernization promises not merely to improve men, but the achievement of this goal requires transforming the entire structure and culture of the old society, which means transforming (and/or suppressing) the masses of actual people in whom the old society and its culture were embodied.

Still another reason for the high cost of the socialist model of development, in Berger's view, is socialism's “built-in tendency toward totalitarianism”—a tendency that derives from the effort to absorb the economy within the state and that results in “an uncomfortable correlation” between “regimes of revolutionary socialism,” and the systematic use of terror. Berger reminds us of the dismal findings of Robert Conquest's investigation of the Stalinist era: three-and-one-half million dead as a “direct consequence” of collectivization; one million dead by execution during the great purges, two million by starvation and disease in the forced-labor camps. The Chinese record, Berger believes, bears comparison with that of Stalinism: untold millions dead by execution in the 1945-55 period of collectivization and “rectification,” still more during the Cultural Revolution. And in both the Soviet Union and China the toll of terror is augmented by the suffering of millions in Soviet camps and prisons, and in Chinese “Reform Through Labor” and “May 7” schools.

Still, Berger argues, it would be “unfair and inaccurate” to identify socialism with this kind of terror because there exist socialist regimes in which there has been little or no terror. Nonetheless, he goes on, socialism “has a built-in disappointment factor,” for “What begins as a liberating community ends up as an all-embracing state” (emphasis in original). Beyond the question of terror are the less dramatic failures of socialism: its tendencies to leveling and to uniformity and, especially, its economic inefficiency, its “negative correlation” with productivity.


Why, then, do the people of the Third World consider socialism a feasible model of development? To Berger's mind the explanation lies in the failures of the alternative model of development: capitalism. “If socialist systems have been created at the price of great human suffering, so have capitalist systems. Not only revolutions cause suffering and death; the status quo can also kill, often by hunger rather than bullets.” The principal sins of capitalism are those of omission, but these are no less serious in Berger's eyes. He does, to be sure, reject as untrue three common criticisms of capitalism: that the economic development of capitalist nations was made possible by colonial exploitation, that the contemporary affluence of capitalist nations derives from the continued exploitation of the less developed countries, and that imperialism is an economic necessity of capitalism. He does not doubt that industrial capitalism has spawned “the most awe-inspiring productive economic machine ever conceived” and can provide a “high level of prosperity for nearly all levels of the population,” and he also notes capitalism's historic association with political democracy and individual liberties. But the capitalist path to development, he believes, has its own human costs, and, as with socialism, these costs are too high.

To support his case for the human cost of capitalism, Berger cites Karl Polanyi on the brutality and ruthlessness of England's industrial revolution and the contemporary example of capitalist Brazil, where deep poverty persists (especially in the Northeast), reports of torture still circulate, income distribution was less equal in 1970 than in 1960, and “the government is doing less than it could to alleviate . . . suffering.” In fact, Berger's discussion of Brazil is seriously flawed: Delfim Neto's policy of deliberately holding down wages to accelerate capital accumulation has been abandoned, the unemployment problem of the early 60's has been replaced by a labor shortage in the 70's, and the process of “political decompression” (Samuel Huntington's phrase) has meant the progressive relaxation of previous controls on individual freedom and the institutionalization of a genuine, though limited, opposition party. Still, high infant-mortality rates, poverty, and widespread malnutrition and disease in the Northeast do testify that though the capitalist path to development has led to an annual growth rate of at least 10 per cent and an enormous expansion of the middle class, it has not yet provided basic necessities to Brazil's burgeoning population. China has eliminated starvation; Brazil has not. The fact that the rulers of China have had a quarter of a century while Brazil's governors have been in power for only a decade does not sway Berger, who reproaches the Brazilians not merely for what they have failed to achieve but for what they have tried. The capitalist myth, he asserts, makes growth a good in itself, and in Brazil economic growth has been given greater priority than the eradication of human suffering.


Berger acknowledges that wealth must be created before want can be abolished, and that Communist no less than capitalist governments have embraced the doctrine of economic growth. Still, he thinks capitalism can be more severely criticized for its preoccupation with productivity and growth because it promises nothing else. The capitalist model of development begins with material wants and needs; it promises comfort, well-being, and plenty. The Marxist model begins with a vision of justice and brotherhood. “The ultimate questions,” Berger asserts, “are those of value: . . . is general affluence more important than relative equality? And most importantly, which values are given moral priority: Individual freedom or collective security? Pluralism, or community? Enterprise or harmony?” Modernity and capitalism alike, Berger believes, tend to fracture the bonds of community, and to deprive life of meaning. Both confront the individual with choices unknown to traditional society: what shall he believe? whom shall he join? what shall he become? who, in short, will he be?

Capitalism is historically associated with pluralism, and in pluralist societies it is not the business of government to offer moral prescriptions or to define moral purposes. Pluralism presupposes the existence of multiple subcultures, each with its own values, cognitive maps, and goals. Berger worries that the corrosive power of rationalism may have destroyed these subcultures and, with them, the glue that binds individuals into communities. With Durkheim and others, Berger worries that modern society, especially modern capitalist society, results in normlessness, meaninglessness, internal division, alienation: “the dichotomization of the individual's social existence between the public and private sphere.” In an essay published two years ago in the Public Interest, he credited totalitarianism with at least “the intention of overcoming” this “modern dichotomy of private and public spheres.” Regardless, then, of whether its doctrine is true or false, revolutionary socialism remains an attractive alternative for the Third World because it offers “meaning” and an end to modern man's isolation. The greatest strength of Marxism—especially the Marxism of the Third World—is that it is “overtly religious”; the myth of revolution contains powerful “counter-modern” themes attractive to people threatened with the loss of meaning.

This seems to me the weakest aspect of Berger's argument—and for several reasons: because it is not at all clear either that the dichotomy between self and society is a specifically modern phenomenon or that totalitarian societies cure it; because, as Herbert McCloskey, William Kornhauser, and others have demonstrated, the theory of mass society does not hold up under testing; and because there is no evidence that citizens of totalitarian societies enjoy a greater sense of community, harmony, or collective security than those of Western societies, though it is surely clear that they enjoy less individual freedom and personal security. In fact, there is little evidence that revolutionary socialism is attractive to anyone—except middle-class intellectuals. Berger comments caustically on the special susceptibility of intellectuals to “revolutionary visions,” and he notes that “intellectuals have a dangerous facility to imagine themselves occupying the seats of power in the wake of, so to speak, the revolution of their choice.” But he does not pursue the vested interest that intellectuals have in a political system that gives them the right not only to govern, but to define reality. A symbolic environment manipulated by rulers for the purpose of transforming conceptions of reality not only deprives citizens of “cognitive participation,” it gives the “symbol-specialists,” whom 20th-century revolutions have everywhere brought to power, total control of an arena in which they have a particular interest.

I do not suggest that Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho, Castro, Che Guevara, and other middle-class purveyors of revolutionary socialism have espoused Marxism only out of the lust for power. Marxism probably does have a large capacity for what Berger calls “mythological synthesis.” Beyond question, it offers a blend of social explanation and mysticism, of indulgence and renunciation, of loving and hating, of destruction and regeneration that has proved attractive to some of this century's most talented political leaders. But it remains difficult to demonstrate that, by contrast, the lives of ordinary people are in fact rendered meaningless by modern, urban, commercial, democratic, affluent society. It was not the workers on Detroit's assembly lines who sought “meaning” in the revolutionary movements of the American 60's, any more than it was the workers of Uruguay who sought meaning through the guerrilla movement of the Tupamaros. It may be, as Herbert Marcuse especially has asserted, that capitalist society has left modern man so alienated from himself and from reality that he does not even feel the lack of purpose and the absence of solidarity from which his critics know he suffers. It may also be that intellectuals have a special need to make sense of the world with words and that in Marxism they have found a myth which serves this purpose and offers them power besides.


Finally, Berger insists on the right of people to say “no” not only to “the myth of growth” and the “myth of revolution,” but to modernization itself. Berger considers himself a “humanistic conservative.” A conservative, he has written elsewhere, “is suspicious of the idea of progress” and “skeptical of innovation,” he “accepts human beings as they are,” “values order, continuity, and triviality,” “is inclined to leave people alone,” and “is skeptical of grand intellectual designs for the improvement of society.” Conservatives are unenthusiastic about change, “not because they have profound convictions about the merits of the status quo, but because they have profound suspicions about whatever is proposed as an alternative to the status quo.”1

This spirit of skepticism pervades Pyramids of Sacrifice. For Berger, modernization does not necessarily spell progress, and modernity is not necessarily preferable to tradition. The United States can make its greatest contribution not by intervention in the affairs of other nations, but by continuing to be a “vast laboratory for innovative experiments to solve the dilemmas of modernity.” Neither social engineers, revolutionaries, nor cold warriors should tamper with the lives of others—except with their participation and permission.

Berger's newest book is an essay, not a scholarly treatise. It includes some oversimplification. Personally, I wish that Berger had a more highly differentiated conception of the pathways to development (one, for example, that took account of the “British” route eloquently explicated by Daniel P. Moynihan in his recent COMMENTARY article, “The United States in Opposition”) and that he had explored the exemplars of his two models—China and Brazil—in greater depth; I wish, too, that he had faced squarely the moral differences between governments which cause problems and those which fail to cure them. But I am very glad that he wrote Pyramids of Sacrifice. It is a rewarding book for anyone interested in the moral dimensions of contemporary politics.


1 “Between System and Horde: Personal Suggestions to Reluctant Activists,” in Peter L. Berger and Richard L. Neuhaus, Movement and Revolution (Doubleday/ Anchor, 1970), pp. 14-27.


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