Anti-Pragmatic Liberal

Values for Survival.
by Lewis Mumford.
New York, Harcourt Brace, 1946. 314 pp. $3.00.

This book, a collection of articles (some of which appeared in the liberal weeklies), radio talks, and public addresses, all centering more or less about the political situation at the time of our entry into the war, might seem somewhat out of date at the present moment of publication. From a political point of view it is questionable whether these pieces were not out of date at their moment of composition; but in the matter of Mumford’s vague yearnings for an anti-scientific faith, they are, I am afraid, very much in the wind.

Mumford was ahead of other liberals in advocating our entry into the war, and with that position I have no quarrel, but he failed at that time in one of the essential requirements of a political writer: he produced no political perspective or general program for the war. The grounds upon which we were to wage war turn out in his case to be simply the abhorrence of Hitler and Nazism. Hatred of Hitler and National Socialism was an inescapable datum for any decent political thinker—but it was a datum, and not a program, for political action. Mumford failed to examine concretely the political possibilities the war would bring, the political ends (besides the downfall of Hitler) it might accomplish, and the changes in the European structure that were to be worked for or guarded against. These are some of the problems we would expect a political writer to deal with; but they belong in the realm of the definite, the pragmatic, where Mumford never is and apparently never wants to be at home: he prefers the more misty and rarefied atmosphere of moral preachment.

My difficulty with Mumford’s vagueness begins, in fact, with his title. Are these values simply tools to help us survive or do our values really justify our survival? It seems to me that values, if they mean anything, are things for the sake of which we survive and not the other way round, as his tide would have it; and if in turn they do help us survive, if they give us strength to go on, they never do so by being offered as “for survival.” The ambiguity seems to conceal also an assumption of unjustified optimism; but evil seems to have just as tenacious roots as the good, and Hitler’s regime, had it succeeded in overrunning all Europe, might have survived for an indefinite night in human history.

But these are very minor difficulties before the essential one of trying to find out just what Mumford’s values are—a search which brings us to the crux of his book: the distinction between “pragmatic liberalism” and “ideal liberalism.” Pragmatic liberalism, Mumford holds, is the child of the Enlightenment of the 18th century and as such is to be condemned as placing too much faith in science, reason, and the possibilities of human progress. Mumford does not tell us very clearly in what we are to put our faith if not in these; his “ideal liberal” seems to differ from the pragmatist in having ideals, not underestimating the emotions, and regarding evil as a positive fact in the world.

Mumford’s castigation of the role of “pragmatic liberalism” might apply in certain respects (though even there certainly not in all) to some liberals of the g9th century, but I do not know any living pragmatist who does not have ideals, does not believe that evil, and plenty of it, exists in the world, or who thinks nothing of human emotions. If Mumford is talking about anybody at all, presumably John Dewey—who as the greatest and most famous pragmatist should incarnate all the vices of the type—would be an over-intellectualized emotionless human skeleton without ideals—a rather surprising portrait, to say the least, for anybody who knows either the man or his works.



But I suspect the real difficulty in Mumford’s “ideal liberalism” is its vague and unexpressed religious content. Behind his castigation of “pragmatic liberalism” lies the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr and the brooding shadow of Original Sin. But there is the significant difference that Niebuhr views the shortcomings of liberalism from the point of view of a fairly definite religious belief, while Mumford’s religion (as far as one can judge from his writing) is an attitude, a posture, an emotional aspiration which seems to find intellectual commitment unnecessary. As far as I can maké out from this book, Mumford’s religion is a compost of pious references to the Bhagavad-Gita, the city of God, and to the futility of too much confidence in science—not a very promising indication for a definite creed. Those who are serious about it cannot regard religion as a mere escape into vagueness; and if we take religion seriously, we cannot take Mumford seriously.

The last section of the book is a series of “Letters to Germans,” which Mumford wrote for the use of the OWI. This propagandist inspiration may account in part for the tone of persistent berating throughout these messages, but it is questionable whether unrelieved nagging is the best propaganda to reform a beaten people: after all, we might help the Germans to construct something out of their chaos if with our condemnation we also pointed out the valid elements of their culture from which they might seek a new beginning. Though disclaiming Vansittartism, Mumford maintains the essential convictions of Vansittart about German culture and German “psychology.” He fails to mention the truly international figures in German culture—Lessing, Kant, Goethe—and very casually surrenders Nietzsche to the Nazis. Nietzsche, in Mumford’s view, was nothing more than a predecessor of Himmler. This vulgar interpretation, which to be sure is not original with Mumford, forgets that Nietzsche insisted that the cruelties lurking in modern man were one more evidence that he was too close to the beast and had to be “surpassed.” Before Freud, he had grasped the destructive instincts in man and the problem of their sublimation.

The vulgarity of this passing reference to Nietzsche is a rather revealing symptom: behind the veil of vagueness and orotund banality, we occasionally catch the sly smirk of the philistine, as when Mumford speaks of the “overinflated reputation” and lack of “intelligibility” of the writings of James Joyce.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link