Monday, October 30, 2006


by Thomas Riggins

Karl and Fred were talking in Karl's study about the fact that they had been friends for over 50 years--since first grade in fact.  Karl was saying “Why don’t we engage in an extended study of Chinese philosophy to see if any of it is useful in comprehending the new century”  Fred was not at all adverse to this suggestion so Karl pulled down his copy of a Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy edited by the Chinese scholar Wing-Tsit Chan.
“I remember that very well,” Fred said. “When we were in Hawaii in the summer of 1968 you lugged it around with you every where you went. Do you still remember what you read?"
“I most certainly do,” replied Karl, handing the volume to Fred. “Here! Why don’t you look at it and ask some questions--between the two of us we can try to find out if this stuff has any meaning today.”
Fred opened the book and said, “We might as well begin with Confucius--he is the first philosopher I see listed in the Table of Contents.” 

“So be it’” Karl replied.
“Ok,” Fred said, “I have the Analects  here...” 

Karl interrupted, “The  Lun-yu in Chinese. That's a collection of Confucius’ sayings collected by his students after his death. You know Confucius was a great teacher like Jesus, Buddha and Socrates and like them he didn’t write anything himself--his wisdom was saved for us by his followers putting it down for future generations.”
“Oh, so we are getting ‘virtual’ Confucius.” 

“Well," responded Karl, “there is probably some tampering with the text, some student misinterpretations, but also a lot of the real ideas and opinions of Confucius as well. After all, he was born in 551 BCE, lived 73 years, and died in 479 BCE.”

“That's 72 years,” Fred corrected.

“Ah,” Karl replied, “unlike us, in China when you are born you are considered to be one year old so when we are one a Chinese is already two!.”
“Anyway,” Karl continued, “He was from a small state called Lu and lived in a time of political turmoil and war because the central authority had broken down and all the little petty states were competing for power. Confucius was self educated, there were no professional teachers--he was the first--and he thought his ideas if practiced would restore the Empire to its former glory and create a just state for the people as well. Failing to do much in Lu he left it and wandered around to other states spreading his doctrines and collecting a large group of disciples who followed him. After many years he returned to Lu and died a few years later, leaving his ‘school’ behind.
“I see a bunch of Chinese technical terms here in Chan before we even get to Chapter One of the Lun-yu,” Fred remarked, “Have a look see!”

Karl took the book. “Yes, I see. I’ll tell you which ones are the most important and we will have to memorize them as they will keep cropping up. But for the time being we can ignore them. I’ll talk about them when they actually pop up. Why don’t you begin looking at the text of the Lun-yu.” Karl handed the book back to Fred.
“ What’s this 1:1 ?”

“It means ‘Section 1, Chapter 1’-a conventional ordering.”

“OK,” and Fred began to read: “1:1 Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned?”
“Very famous,” Karl interrupted. “The very first sentence. It indicates that Confucius enjoined the unity of theory and practice!”
Fred continued. ”What does he mean here in 1:8? ‘Have no friends who are not as good as yourself.’ If the Chinese thought Confucius was the greatest teacher and the best then he couldn’t have any friends!”

“He means ‘morally good’,” said Karl, “not the best teacher. Confucius was morally good and so were many of his disciples so he had plenty of friends.”
“Well, what about this: 1:11-’When a man’s father is alive, look at the bent of his will. When his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not change from the way of his father, he may be called filial.’?”
“You know the ancient Chinese were very family oriented and patriarchal with large extended families and sons were filial--meaning obedient, respectful and loyal. Very unlike today with us!”
“You mean they were big on the Fifth Commandment!”

“They certainly would have agreed with it. Anyway, this quote just means that a son should be loyal to his father’s ideas while he is live, and stay loyal to them thru the three years of official mourning after his death, then he can go his own way with his own ideas--he has done his duty.”
“What about 2:1? He says ‘A ruler who governs his state by virtue is like the north polar star, which remains in its place while
all the other stars revolve around it.”
“Chan points out two things are going on here. One is the idea that the Ruler rules by virtue and second, as Thomas Jefferson would say , ‘that government governs best which governs least.’ Everything should fall into place naturally by the laws of virtue.”
“Wow! sounds like a Republican--no big government!”

“Or a Marxist--’virtue’ leads to the withering away of the state!”

“Hmmm. The Right and the Left can claim the old boy!”

“Well, lets wait and see on that one Fred.”
“O.K. Karl. 2:4 is very interesting. He says, ‘At fifteen my mind was set on learning [not Intendo]. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities [Gad Zooks!]. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven (T’ien-ming). At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.”

“T’ien-ming--’Heaven-Fate’ or ‘Nature-Fate’ the famous ‘Mandate of Heaven’,” K mused.  “You know Chan says the prevailing meaning of this term is what we would simply call the ‘laws of nature.’ Different Chinese thinkers in the long history of China of course meant many different things by this term--from God’s Providence to the philosopher’s ideas of moral law or fate (destiny) to natural endowment [genetic constitution].”
“Here is 2:11 ‘A man who reviews the old so as to find out the new is qualified to teach others’. I like that--it means a teacher has to keep reading and studying or he or she becomes stale and unfit. But what does 2:12 mean? ‘The superior man is not an implement.’ “
“This is the type of person who follows Confucian philosophy--the sage, the philosopher, etc. I don’t like the term ‘superior man’ and all its patriarchal suggestions, ‘superior person’ would be better. You know Fred, despite the prevailing sexism of Chinese culture in Confucius’ day, we have to see this philosophy as compatible with the equality of the sexes if its going to mean any thing in this new century of ours. Not being an ‘implement’ only means the sage is not just a tool to be used by those in power, a sort of technical expert used to carry out plans devised by others. A true wise person would be well rounded and part of the evaluative process. The scientists, for example, that made the Atomic Bomb, for all their smarts , were just implements. How many scientists today have any real input in the decision making process regarding the use of their work? Many are hired hands. I think this is what Confucius meant.”
“What does he mean here in 2:18--’When one’s words give few occasions for blame and his acts give few occasions for repentance--there lies his emolument’?
“Its as Chan points out--Confucianism stresses equally the importance of both words and actions.”
“3:17 won’t go over well today!”
“Read it!”
“Ok, Confucius is replying to one of his followers who was against killing a lamb as a sacrifice at the start of the month. ‘Tz’u! You love the lamb but I love the ceremony.’ What do you think of that one?”
“Times change. I think by now we all agree that animal sacrifices are a pretty primitive or barbaric behavioral pattern that nowadays would be considered a pretty ignorant sort of practice--but Confucius was living twenty-five centuries ago...”
Fred interrupted, “But weren’t there people, teachers in India at this time, that thought that killing animals was verboten?"
“I think the point is, this was acceptable in Chinese culture. Confucius is trying to point out the importance of tradition and ritual, but on this point I think Tz’u had a more advanced outlook--its too bad that Confucius didn’t rise to the occasion.”
“Here is another  confusing saying, 4:10-’A superior man in dealing with the world is not for anything or against anything. He follows righteousness as the standard.”
“Hmmmm. Looks like you could not say ‘I’m for peace or I’m for social reform.’ But of course its confusing because it seems as if you could say ‘I’m for righteousness!’  Does Chan say anything in his comment Fred?”
Fred read out , “Here lies the basic idea of the Confucian doctrine of ching-ch’uan, or the standard and the exceptional, the absolute and the relative, or the permanent and the temporary.”
“This we should remember: ‘The Doctrine of Ching-Ch’uan’. It means don’t be dogmatic, don’t commit the fallacy of accident, maybe even be pragmatic--no, that's the wrong word. Keep an open mind and judge every situation you are confronted with in terms of its own unique problematic, but don’t break the rules of ‘righteousness.’ The big problem is of course how to determine what ‘righteousness’ is. For Confucius it seems to have been the rules of his own society seen from the vantage point of a man who looked to the past practices of an idealized former age.  Confucius would balk at being involved in a current situation that deviated too much from the past--not always, but mostly. His view or doctrine would go along with what today we call ‘situational ethics’ but with a ‘conservative’ twist.”
“Maybe this will help,” Fred said. “In 4:15 he tells his follower

Tseng Tzu ‘there is one thread that runs through my doctrines’ which Tseng Tzu explained as ‘The Way of our Master is none other than conscientiousness (chung) and altruism (shu).’  So I say ‘righteousness’ equals chung + shu.”
“Not bad,” Karl remarked. “I like the idea of ‘one thread (i-kuan)’.  What does Chan say about these terms?”
“Chung is the full development of a person’s mind--the good aspects, and Shu is extending these good aspects to other people. Develop your own abilities and help others develop theirs--what could be more righteous than that?”
“Read on!”
“Here is 4:16--’The superior man understands righteousness(i); the inferior man understands profit’. Yikes! Our whole Global Capitalist system is based on profit!"

"Maybe to be a Confucian today puts you in the opposition.”
“ Do you really think so Karl? Confucius lived under something like feudalism. What was his attitude?”
“This is getting heavy. I think we will have to keep these questions in mind and read along some more in the Source Book before we try to answer them.”

“OK by me. Here is just some information from 6:5. We find the name of Confucius’ favorite student was Yen Hui.”
“I know, he died very young, in his thirties.” 
“What do you think of this? 6:17--’Man is born with uprightness. If one loses it he will be lucky if he escapes with his life’.”  
“I don’t know what this means. ‘Uprightness’ is a culturally relative term and a person learns it from his or her society, so I don’t know what it can mean to say you are ‘born’ with it. But think of ‘with’ in the sense that a person is born into a society with [i.e., which has] such a sense, then if one loses the sense of uprightness inculcated into one by the society one gets into a pickle indeed. I can make sense of 6:17 along these lines.”
“Well Karl, I think you must be correct. Looking back to  5:12 I found this: Tzu-kung is speaking, ‘We can hear our Master’s [views] on culture and its manifestation, but  we cannot hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven [because these subjects are beyond the comprehension of most people].’ So I don’t think that Confucius was talking about anything innate in humans.”
“I agree. What’s next?”
“6:19--’To those who are above average, one may talk of the higher things, but may not do so to those who are below average.’”
“This is sort of a philosophical rule. The Prime Directive of philosophy is to ‘Always seek the truth by means of logic and reason without appeals to faith and emotion.’ And here we have what I call the ‘Second Directive’--’don’t bother talking philosophy with people who don’t understand the importance of the Prime Directive.’”
“That’s how you interpret 6:19? Where does the Prime Directive come from? I haven’t seen it in the Analects?”
“Its from Socrates via Plato. But there are hints of it in the Analects.  I’ll point them out when we come to them.”
“Maybe there is a hint of it right here in 6:20--”Devote yourself

earnestly to the duties due to men, and respect spiritual beings but keep them at a distance. This may be called wisdom.’ I think I see a hint there.”
“Good observation Fred. Read on!”
“OK, 6:21--’The man of wisdom delights in water; the man of humanity delights in mountains. The man of wisdom is active; the man of humanity is tranquil. The man of wisdom enjoys happiness; the man of humanity enjoys long life.’ “
“These are two of Confucius big values--activity and tranquility. They are found in the same person depending on the circumstances. By the way, Yen Hui had a short life but I doubt that Confucius did not consider him a man of humanity.”
“And Chan remarks that ‘courage’ was later added to the list and that Mencius grouped these first two values with his concepts of righteousness and propriety to get ‘The Four Beginnings.’”
“Yes, but we will get to Mencius in due time. Let’s not jump the gun.”
“6:23--’When a cornered vessel no longer has any corner, should it be called a cornered vessel? Should it?’”
“We are approaching here a central and important doctrine of Confucius--the rectification of names--but we will have to wait a while for its proper development. Its just hinted at here.”
“I see Chan’s brief comment:’ Name must correspond to actuality.’ The Correspondence Theory of Truth!”
“What’s next?”
“6:28--’A man of humanity, wishing to establish his own
character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of realizing humanity.’ Chan calls this ‘The Confucian golden rule in a nutshell.’ “
“Yes, and this passage is connected with 4:15 and the ‘one thread’ passage.”
“7:1--’I transmit but do not create. I believe in and love the ancients.’ Chan suggests we compare this with 2:11 and points out that he did do things that were new--’he offered education to all’--and his ideas on the ‘superior man’ and ‘heaven’ were somewhat original.”
“That comment on education needs to be looked at, especially the ‘all’ part. I want to give Confucius his due credit. He was not a stuck-up aristocrat and if so-called common people showed an aptitude for learning or people from impoverished economic and/or social backgrounds showed talent, Confucius welcomed them as students. This was really a big step forward for the China of his day and in his own social context  Confucius was an enlightened person in this respect. But he did NOT offer education to ‘all’. He had nothing to do with women and did not rise above his social conditioning with respect to their rights as human beings with the same value as males. In this respect Plato was much more enlightened than he. One wonders if women had been seen as equals by Confucius if they would have had to wait until the victory of the Marxists in 1949 for the preconditions of their emancipation.”
“Excellent observation Karl. I wonder why Chan missed it. Anyway, here is 7:8--’I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn, nor arouse those who are not anxious to give an explanation themselves. If I have presented one corner of the square and they cannot come back to me with the other three, I
should not go over the points again.’”
“A very revealing quote on his teaching methods. Compare it to 6:19.”

“In 7:16 he says ‘Give me a few more years  so that I can devote fifty years to study, then I may be free from great mistakes.”       
“This reminds me of Hume’s satire on his own death--asking Charon to grant him a leave of a few years so he might see the overthrow of religious superstition. Of course Confucius is not trying to be funny, this simply shows his modesty--yet fifty years is hardly a few!”
“7:20-’Confucius never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder, or spiritual beings’”
“Here is one of those Prime Directive hints we were speaking about earlier.”
“7:22--’Heaven produced the virtue that is in me; what can Huan T’ui do to me?’”
“This seems deterministic. Huan T’ui tried to assassinate Confucius. It seems as if Confucius was a Presbyterian here. If Heaven has determined what shall be then Huan T’ui really can’t do much to Confucius. There are many problems with this type of determinism which are not discussed in the  Analects.”
“7:24-’Confucius taught four things: culture (wen), conduct, loyalty, and faithfulness.’”
“Very succinct statement showing that Confucius’ concern was with social philosophy--politics and ethics--and not religion or metaphysics.”
“Here is 7:29--’Is humanity far away? As soon as I want it, there it is right by me.’”
“Its as Chan remarks. We are always able to act properly. Our humanity is always on call and we have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to act upon it--unless there is a gun to your head or something similar.”
“Now Karl, here is a good one--more than a hint of the Prime Directive if you ask me. 7:34--’Confucius was very ill. Tzu-lu asked that prayer be offered. Confucius said “is there such a thing?” Tzu-lu replied, “There is. A Eulogy says, ‘Pray to the spiritual beings above and below.’” Confucius said, “My prayer has been for a long time [that is, what counts is the life that one leads].”’”
“I agree with you Fred, this is really a great quote. Confucius has no interest in religious mumbo jumbo. This would be especially true if he thinks Heaven is a deterministic system.  It looks like Tzu-lu missed one corner ot the square!”
“7:37--’Confucius is affable but dignified, austere but not harsh, polite but completely at ease.’ And Chan remarks that this is ‘The Confucian Mean in practice.’ But we haven’t talked about the ‘Mean’ have we?”
“Not yet, but its coming up. Its more or less like the Greek notion of nothing in excess.”
“Now here is a very interesting description of Yen Hui the favorite disciple. Chan says it is very Taoist. It is given by Tseng Tzu. 8:5--’Gifted with ability, yet asking those without; possessing much, yet asking those who possess little; having, yet seeming to have none; full, yet seeming vacuous; offended, yet not contesting--long ago I had a friend who devoted himself to these ways.’ And now to continue. Here is an example of elitist thinking! 8:9--’The common people may be made to follow it (the Way) but may not be made to understand it.’”
“This goes along with the sentiments in 6:19. Undemocratic from our point of view but quite in keeping with the feudal mentality of the times. This distrust of ordinary people seems endemic. Not only is our U.S. government designed to minimize participation by the common people but we have seen the collapse of the European socialist countries was facilitated by a similar, and in their case paternalistic, contempt of the ordinary person. The current Chinese government seems no different in this regard no matter how much better off materially the majority of the people may be.”
“Here comes a passage that Chan says has caused a lot of problems in the Confucian tradition. 9:1--’Confucius seldom talked about profit, destiny
(ming or the Mandate of Heaven), and humanity.’  Chan points out that while ‘profit’ is discussed only six times and ‘destiny’ ten times ‘humanity’ is mentioned one hundred five times! So how can it be maintained that Confucius seldom talked about it. Chan says it is an intractable problem. Confucius had positions on all these subjects.”
“Well, I understand not talking a lot about ‘profit’--’chung + shu’ seem incompatible, at least if profit is elevated to the primary aim of life. ‘Ming’ is a metaphysical concept and we have already noted that metaphysics was not one of Confucius’ major concerns.”
“9:16--’Confucius, standing by a stream, said, “it passes on like this, never ceasing day or night!”’”
“Obviously a metaphor for time and life. This saying is very much in the spirit of Heraclitus and even the Hegelian dialectic. I hope the Chinese Marxists appreciate it!”
“Now we have what Chan says is ’a most celebrated saying on humanism’. Another one of those hints we were speaking of previously--a lot more than a hint actually. 11:11 Tzu-lu ‘asked about serving the spiritual beings. Confucius said,”If we are not yet able to serve man, how can we serve spiritual beings?” “I venture to ask about death.” Confucius said, “If we do not yet know about life, how can we know about death?”’
“A really great quote Fred. Would that all the squabbling religious fanatics we are reading about in the papers every day might heed these words!”
“ We have come to 11:25 A, I am going to summarize it. It is rather long but has generated a great deal of speculation as to its meaning because of what many consider to be the unusual responses in it by Confucius.  In this passage Confucius asks several of his companions what they would most like to do in the world assuming they had attained office and recognition. One replied that he would like to govern a state that was in dire straits so that in three years the people could see how he could solve all the problems. Another gave a similar answer while admitting that he was not himself a ‘superior man.’  Another wanted to be a junior assistant as he was still learning. Finally Tseng Hsi said ‘ In the late Spring, when the spring dress is ready, I would like to go with five or six grownups and six or seven young boys to bathe in the I River, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Alter, and then return home singing.’ Now Confucius re plied “I agree with Tien.’ The Chinese have expended a lot of ink trying to find out why Confucius agreed with Tseng Hsi (‘Tien’ was a familiar name).
Well, Fred,” Karl began, “it seems pretty clear that what Confucius is saying is that its best to have power in a well ordered state that doesn’t require any heroics to administer. His other students didn’t get the point, obviously, of Confucius’  ideas about government. He seems to have had a lot of students he should have gone over that first corner with again.”
“That’s right A. Now here is a version of the ‘Golden Rule’ from the Analects--its in 12:2 ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.’”
“The negative version. I used to think that the ‘Golden Rule’ was unique to our culture till I read about it long ago in the works of Confucius.”
“A point for anti-ethnocentrism.”
“12:22--’Fan Ch’ih asked about humanity. Confucius said, “It is to love men.” He asked about knowledge. Confucius said “It is to know man.”’”
“Again the stress on moral and social subjects. Of course today knowing ‘man’ would include psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, etc., etc.  And ‘love’.... here we need a real definition of what constitutes ‘love’ of humanity. What is the real substance of Confucian Humanism.?”
“Is it just practicing the ‘Golden Rule’ in whatever situation you find yourself?”
“Maybe. But maybe its more action oriented than that. Maybe ‘love’ means we have to strive to change the social situations in which we find people. Maybe nowadays Confucianism can only be practiced within the Marxist framework. Sort of ‘Marxism-Confucianism.’”
“That sounds a little like the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He said he had come to realize that hi s philosophy, ‘existentialism,’ could only be developed within a form of Marxism because the social conditions that brought forth Marxism have not been transcended. In fact, according to him, no philosophy made any sense that ignored or rejected Marxism because only Marxism addressed itself to the problems of humanity as a whole, to abolishing race and class exploitation and treating, eventually, all people as ends.”
“We are getting far afield. Better get back to the Analects!”
“13:3--here Confucius brings up the topic of ‘The Rectification of Names’.  ‘If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth. If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished.’”
“You know L this is extremely important. This is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell and of the Analytic Philosophers and the Oxford ordinary language philosophers. The words we use to describe reality  have to correspond to that reality. People are misled and misgoverned all the time by being duped by the misuse of names. Remember the Vietnam War--American troops would retreat and the military brass would call it an ‘advance to the rear’! They were just trying to mislead and confuse the American people.
“Like renaming the War Department the ‘Department of Defense' or calling the invasion of Iraq 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' instead of 'Operation Iraqi Oil'”
“I think we have another directive under our Prime Directive, or rather another rule.”
“That’s one directive and two rules we have then.”
“Yes. Rule One--don’t discuss philosophy with those who reject the Prime Directive. Rule Two--’The Rectification of Names.’  That is ‘language must be in accord with truth.’ This may be difficult to attain but we must constantly strive for it. You see, we are learning lots of stuff we can apply to our own age and culture!”
“Hmmmm. Here is a difficult passage I think. 13:18--’The Duke of She told Confucius, “In my country there is an upright man called Kung. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.” Confucius said, “The upright men in my country are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” ‘ What do you make of that Karl?”
“I think its the ‘Euthyphro Problem.’”
“ What’s that?”
“Plato wrote a dialog called the Euthyphro. Socrates meets Euthyphro who is on his way to report a murder his father has committed. He thinks piety requires this. This is like Kung being a witness against his father because he, and the Duke of She, think that uprightness requires this. Confucius holds the contrary view.”
At this point Karl walked over to his bookcase and pulled out the Oxford Companion to Philosophy. “There is an article here on this problem Fred, by Gareth Matthews.  I think it will throw some light on Comrade Kung’s behavior.”
By all means, Karl, carry on!.”
“To put the problem in Chinese terms we have to figure out what does ‘uprightness’ consist of-- that is where does the  notion come from.  Is it one thing in Lu, Confucius' native state, and another in She or is it constant so Confucius is really indicating that the Duke of She is wrong. I must say, I don’t have an answer to this and neither did Socrates. Here let me read this passage, or paraphrase it to the Chinese context. The point seems to be that ‘uprightness’ can’t be defined as something we should do because some authority demands it of us, say God or Heaven, because then we would only be doing it because of authority and authorities differ. Nor can it be the case that God or Heaven orders it because it is right to do so because then it is an independent thing to which God or Heaven  is subject. So we really can’t figure out from whence the standard of ‘uprightness’ is derived. Its the old ‘Is it good because God wills it or does God will it because it is good’ problem.  I think the Prime Directive rules out ‘God” as an explanation, so we have to say on one level ‘uprightness’ is relative to cultures, the level of cultural development and on another level we have to contextualize the circumstances of each situational act.  The Duke of She hasn’t given us enough information on this case and I think Confucius jumped the gun with his reply. Is your primary duty to your family or to the state--i.e., to a legal system which should protect all. Its Kung’s father that is the problem but between the Duke of She and Confucius its not possible to definitely say one or the other is right. It seems the duty to ‘truth’ however would tip the scales against Confucius  unless Kung volunteered this information in a noncompulsory environment.”
“14:36--’Someone said,”What do you think of repaying hatred with virtue?” Confucius said,”In that case what are you going to repay virtue with? Rather, repay hatred with uprightness and repay virtue with virtue .”’
“Confucius means you repay hatred with proper behavior according to the circumstances.”
“This means, according to Chan, absolute impartiality. Confucianists mean that by ‘uprightness’.
“If so than Kung was being impartial in saying his father stole the sheep.
Confucius should have agreed with the Duke of She!”
“In 15:8 he reaffirms his humanism: ’A resolute scholar and a man of humanity will never seek to live at the expense of injuring humanity. He would rather sacrifice his life in order to realize humanity.’”
“Go on Fred.”
“OK, 15:23, a follower asks if there is one word that sums up Confucius’ philosophy. You guess Karl!”

"Well, I think it must be 'humanity' (jen/ren)."
“No, its shu or altruism, from 4:15. He then repeats the negative ‘Golden Rule’ which must be the real meaning of altruism and hence is the one word summation of Confucius philosophy!”
So we can boil down the whole of the Analects to this one comment. But lets proceed anyway.”
“OK, 15:28 ‘It is man that can make the Way great, and not the Way that can make man great.”
“This is heavy Fred. The Way or Tao is the master controlling force, as it were, of the universe--”God” to Westerners! So we make ‘God’ he doesn’t make us ‘great.’ I think this boils down to our actions in life reflect on the Way, we in a sense create it in our own image-- we can follow it positively or negatively. For example if we ourselves are , say, homophobic or think males are higher than females, or want to control the actions and thoughts of others, lo and behold, our ‘God’ wants that too, and vice versa.”
“So our religion is just the reflection of the kind of human beings we are.”
“Yes, and that is based on our education, our openness, and the culture we are brought up in--wide or narrow.”
“15:38--’In education there should be no class distinction.’”
“To bad he didn’t, as Plato did, add ‘no sex distinction’ as well. He would have to be against our system of public schools for the masses and elite private schools for the rich. American or European followers of Confucius have a big educational reform to fight for. Even private universities would have to go public....”
“Or let anyone attend. I’m not sure everything has to be public. You could have both--just that admission standards and costs have to be equalized so the rich don’t end up in one type of system and the poor in another.”
“I see we can have a big debate about this!”
“Here in 16:9 is something we can’t agree with, at least as he puts it. ‘Those who are born with knowledge are the highest type of people. Those who learn through study are the next. Those who learn through hard work are still the next. Those who work hard and still do not learn are really the lowest type.’”
“This is no good. People are not ‘born’ with knowledge. Also different people learn different things. You might work hard at chemistry and not learn it but work at history or literature or physics and learn that, or music. Confucius should have recognized ‘different strokes for different folks’--this idea is an elitist throwback--a little too judgmental I think.”
“OK Karl, I won’t argue with you because I think you might be right. Nevertheless, there may be something to what he says if you substitute ‘capacity’ for ‘knowledge. What do you think about this in 17:2-’By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart’?”
“Well we can universalize this and see how contemporary Confucius' thought is. He is indicating what we now commonly think to be true, that is, that human beings are pretty much equal all over the world and it is only cultural differences which separate us. Jarrod Diamond’s recent book, Guns, Germs and Steel,  demonstrates this thesis. It is a little inconsistent with what we have just been discussing since the differences between humans should be due to ‘practice’ so some people should not be ‘born’ with knowledge.”
“And we should note that what Chan says in 17:2 is ‘the classical Confucian dictum on human nature.’”
“All the better. This dictum is absolutely superior, from a modern perspective, to Aristotle’s views, in the Politics, about the superiority of Greeks and his notion about ‘natural slaves.’ Not even Plato, it would seem, had advanced to this Confucian idea.”
“You are thinking about his discussion in the Republic about the different ways Greeks should treat Greeks as opposed to barbarians in warfare?”
“Now, right after this, in 17:3 he says ‘Only the most intelligent and the most stupid do not change.’”
“Looks like another deviation from 17:2 but I think not. I think, as in Aristotle, we should be putting a little mental note to ourselves when we read these passages, such as ‘always OR for the most part’. This allows us to recognize that we are dealing with general principles not absolute ‘laws’. While there may be individual variation in intellectual capacity this should be a cross cultural thing. By and large within, as between, cultures ‘intelligence’ is also a social construction, therefore I don’t think there is any ultimate contradiction between 17:2 and 17:3.”
“Karl, do you think we have another Rule,Rule Three, with 17:2?”
“I don’t see why not. Rule Three: ‘All human beings are basically alike, ie., equal.’ Just remember the proviso that since we are dealing with a multi-cultural world this needs some interpretation.”
“Such as?”
“Such as they are ‘equal’ before the law, or subject to the same ‘rights’ as each other. Basically we all evolved from the same blob so its got to be ‘practice’ that separates the Queen of England from Apple Annie! “
“Here is an excellent quote to underscore Confucian Humanism--17:19: ‘Does Heaven say anything? The four seasons run their course and all things are produced. Does Heaven say anything?’”
“Even after all these centuries how can we improve on this observation.”
“Its not an observation, its a question. I think Confucius meant it to be left open.”
“Maybe. We don’t have to answer this now then.”
“We may have to retract Rule Three--look at 17:25-’Women and servants are most difficult to deal with. If you are familiar with them, they cease to be humble. If you keep a distance from them, they resent it.’ And Chan says Confucius and the whole tradition thought women to be inferior (servants may differ due to ‘practice’).”
I see, we put ‘human beings’ in Rule Three and Confucius had said ‘men’ so we were giving him credit for what is actually a modern idea. This universal sexism, except perhaps for Socrates, is a problem. We now
know there is no scientific evidence to justify it and so women would have to be included under Rule Three whatever Confucius may have thought.  We are holding to the view that Confucius and other past philosophers would change and adapt their views to accord with what we could demonstrate to them by our modern methods to be true of the natural world. So I think they, as philosophers, would give up an outmoded sexism just as they would the centrality of the earth in the solar system. After these considerations I think we can keep Rule Three.”
“This last is a quote :from a pupil, Tzu-hsia, ‘So long as a man does not transgress the boundary line in the great virtues, he may pass and repass it in the small virtues.’  19:11.”
“That’s it?”
“There is a little more but I think I hit all the major issues or points.”
“So we have  Confucius in a ‘nutshell’ as it were. I think we have made some progress in understanding Chinese philosophy in its infancy. We have a Prime Directive, actually derived from the Greeks, and three rules to go by.  Now we should look at another ancient Chinese tradition which may be a big rival to Confucius--I mean lets discuss the views of Lao Tzu.”
"OK, but let's post that later, say in November."

c. 2006 Thomas Riggins

Friday, October 27, 2006


Book Review: The Closing of the Western Mind by Charles Freeman

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, Charles Freeman, Vintage, 2005.

This book is a great introduction to the origins of Christian thought. Today with so many competing versions of Christianity, ranging from traditional Orthodox and Catholic views to liberal socially conscious Protestantism and right wing evangelical fundamentalists, it is helpful to have a guide such as this which explains how the original Christianity of the ancient world came about. Freeman will do a credible job of tracing this history from Roman times to the High Middle Ages.

In his introduction he tells us that he will be dealing with "a significant turning point" in western civilization. The point he has in mind is that time in the 4th and 5th centuries AD "when the tradition of rational thought established by the Greeks was stifled." It would take the West a thousand years to recover.

The Greek rational tradition was firmly established by the 5th century BC-- its two greatest founders were Plato and his student Aristotle. Unfortunately, Freeman confuses modern day empiricism with rationality and thus misapprehends the significance of Plato, following in the footsteps of his master Socrates, in the establishment of the rational method in Greece. Plato’s thought was not "an alternative to rational thought" but one of the most extreme examples of it, subjecting all beliefs to the test of logical argument whenever possible.

Be that as it may, Freeman thinks that the Greek rational tradition, today’s term would be "scientific", was deliberately squashed by the Roman government from the time of Constantine with the aid of the official Church. The wide-open intellectual environment of the Roman Empire, both religiously and philosophically came to end in the 4th century when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the "official" state religion. The "official" version became the only legal version and thus was the "orthodox" version. "The imposition of orthodoxy," Freeman writes, " went hand in hand with a stifling of any form of independent reasoning." The rule I would formulate here is that the more any belief system deviates from the original intentions of its founders the more intolerant and anti-rational it becomes. I am not sure this holds in all cases.

Christianity was from the outset anti-rational. Freeman says, "It had been the Apostle Paul [actually an interloper, not one of the original 12, who never knew Jesus in the flesh-tr] who declared war on the Greek rational tradition through his attacks on ‘the wisdom of the wise’ and ‘the empty logic of the philosophers’...." When Christianity became the official creed it closed down any contrary thinking thus dooming the West to a thousand years of backwardness.

A good example of this mind closing is given by Freeman when he discusses the dispute between "St." Ambrose and the pagan Roman Senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. To my way of thinking the pagan Symmachus had an open modern mind while Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and teacher of "St." Augustine, was a bigot (unfortunately also an all too modern religious mind set.)

In the late 4th century the seat of the Western Empire was at Milan and there were still many pagans (believers in the old traditional religion) who wished to be free to continue their form of religion. The Christian authorities were determined to repress all forms of religion save their own. One of the major symbols of the traditional religion was the Altar of Peace which adorned the Senate in Rome. The Christians had it removed. In 383 AD Symmachus and other senators petitioned the Emperor to have it restored. Ambrose (a major power behind the throne) was opposed and the petition failed. The mind sets of the two sides are clearly expressed in the following written exchange:

Symmachus: "What does it matter by which wisdom each of us arrives at the truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery."

Ambrose: "What you are ignorant of, we know from the word of God. And what you try to infer, we have established as truth from the very wisdom of God."

The truth, however, should be able to triumph without the aid of the rack and the stake.

I pointed out above that Paul had no personal knowledge of Jesus in the flesh. Freeman asserted that the intolerance of the Christians (their rejection of logic and science) stems from Paul. What is worse, when, for political reasons, the Roman state adopted the religion and forced it upon everyone its motive was to control the minds of the population for the benefit of the Empire, the actual teachings of Jesus were no more suited to the ends desired by the Romans than they are to those of the Bush administration and its evangelical base.

Paul, according to Freeman, distanced himself from the original 12 disciples (who distrusted his claims) and ended up, as we know, creating a theology that appealed to the Greco-Roman world and was rejected by the Jewish community from which Jesus came. In order to do this the real historical Jesus and his teachings (peace not war, forgiveness not vengeance, love and respect not hated and contempt-- i.e., Martin Luther King not Jerry Falwell or Pat Robinson) had to be replaced with an unreal Christ beyond history. Thus, Freeman writes, "Paul makes a point of stressing that faith in Christ does not involve any kind of identification with Jesus in his life on earth but has validity only in his death and resurrection." Thus the burden of actually having to follow the particular ethical path that Jesus the human trod is removed. (See my article "Who is John Stott" in PA archives).

Since the claims made for Jesus as the Christ are simply impossible to accept from the point of view of reason, reason is dumped and replaced by "faith." Freeman gives the following quote from "the fourth-century ascetic Anthony:" "Faith arises from the disposition of the soul... those who are equipped with the faith have no need of verbal argument." Experience shows that "verbal argument" has no effect on true believers of whatever faith!

It is also interesting to note, as Freeman does, that Anthony is claimed not to have learned "to read or write, the point being made by his biographer that academic achievement was not important for a 'man of God' and could even be despised."

Freeman is incorrect, I think, in holding that the personal commitment Christians made to Christ (becoming "a single body with Christ... achieving a full identification with Christ through his death and then rising with him from the dead") was "something new in antiquity."

This very belief was characteristic of the devotees of the Egyptian god Osiris whose worship in the cult of Isis and Osiris was widespread throughout the Roman Empire and whose popularity may explain why Christianity proved so popular to the Greco-Roman population.

Mary idolatry, still rampant with some forms of Christianity, may have stemmed from this cult connection as well. Freeman points out that Isis was the patron goddess of mariners and her symbol was the rose. Mary replaced her as the patron of sailors and her symbol was also the rose. He also says "representations of Isis with her baby son Horus on her knee seem to provide the iconic background for those of Mary and the baby Jesus."

The Greek rational tradition demanded that people think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Christianity introduced a different conception of moral responsibility. It introduced the idea of "don't think, just follow orders." Freeman quotes a long extract from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience in which a Jesuit explains the value of living the monastic life (every religion has something similar to this, as well as extremist political groups of the left and right).

The Jesuit explains that if you obey the orders of your religious Superior, no matter what they are, you can do no wrong! "The Superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey, because God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received.... The moment what you did was done obediently, God wipes it out of your account...." Nice. Not even God respects the Geneva Conventions, why should Rummy or Bush? We have to agree with Freeman when he declares that, "Here the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete."

The book clearly demonstrates that religion in the West has been used to deprecate and reject reason (unless the Church can misuse it in its own interests). It also demonstrates that the modern world, the progressive part at any rate, represents a return to the Greek outlook. When Freeman, in reference to the teachings of the Church says, "The ancient Greek tradition that one should be free to speculate without fear and be encouraged to take individual moral responsibility for one's views was rejected," we can today assert that now in the 21st. Century, despite the tragic history of "real existing socialism" in the past century, no genuine Marxist committed to people's democracy would agree with the Church on this matter and would rather identify with the Greeks.

The most important internal reason for the collapse of the socialist block, I think, may have been the lack of real participatory democracy and citizen involvement. Traditional Christianity as well as fundamentalism may likewise now be facing this malaise which is also characteristic of American democracy under the Bush administration.

What Freeman writes about the Church can be extended to these other groups as well. "Intellectual self-confidence and curiosity," he points out, "which lay at the heart of the Greek achievement, were recast as the dreaded sin of pride. Faith and obedience to the institutional authority of the church were more highly rated than the use of reasoned thought. The inevitable result was intellectual stagnation."

Reading Freeman's well written and interesting book will give you a great background and a deep historical understanding of how Christianity came to dominate the Western world for a thousand years, what that has cost in terms of intellectual degradation, and how, if the peoples of the West are to better their condition in the new century they must regain the intellectual confidence so characteristic of Greek civilization.

I maintain that the Marxist tradition, freed from the failed authoritarian models of the last century, is the best contemporary intellectual tool to achieve this end. But it is important to note that the Greeks were not the only people to have a rational outlook. Similar thinkers can be found in the "classical" periods of other cultures, such as Ancient Egypt, China, India and the Islamic culture of the Middle Ages, to name but four, and the hope of a progressive future for all the world's peoples rests on a blending of the best progressive tendencies in all cultures.

--Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Political Affairs Magazine print edition
Utopian Thinking and its Role in Marxist Theory
Annals of Ideology
by Thomas Riggins [First appeared on line on the website Selves and Others]

Not in Utopia— subterranean fields—
or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,— the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.
William Wordsworth,
The Prelude

What is “utopian” thinking and why should we be concerned about it today? The word was coined by Sir Thomas More (from the Greek meaning “no place”) for his 1516 book Utopia, an imaginary island in the South Pacific which had perfect laws and social conditions. To refer to ideas today as “utopian” is to dismiss them as impractical. It has a somewhat negative connotation.

Utopian thinking is not, however, completely without its practical uses. There is a good utopian way to think as well as a bad. That this is so may be illustrated by a quote from the Marxist philosopher Domenico Losurdo (Nature, Society, Thought XVI:1 [2003]) who says, “Utopianism, on the one hand, inspires the enthusiasm of the masses, which is necessary to break the stubborn resistance of the old regime; on the other hand, it makes the building of the new society more difficult.” More difficult because of unrealistic plans— the “Great Leap Forward Syndrome.”

One of the earliest discussions of utopian thinking is to be found in the section “Critical Utopian Socialism and Communism” in The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx and Engels state the earliest struggles of the working the class to liberate itself were defeated due to the low development of the productive forces. The literature, in which these early struggles were reflected, was “utopian” because it proposed impractical and impossible to realize solutions for the problems facing the working class.

Marx and Engels said this literature “had a necessarily reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social leveling in its crudest form.” The three greatest early utopians were St. Simon, Fourier, and Owen. These three produced systems, based on the underdeveloped forces of the new capitalist economic formations, which could not properly solve the problems raised by the exploitation of the workers.

Marx and Engels said this is because “the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry” and industry had not developed enough to generate the level of class antagonism to challenge the power of the capitalists in a non-utopian way.

It seems they were mistaken about the “even pace” part, because even today in “the highest stage” of capitalism the level of class antagonism has not kept up with the development of industry. This means utopian ideas are still widespread.

The early utopians replaced historical action by the workers with schemes and plans to reorganize society “specially contrived by these inventors.” These thinkers saw the workers as passive and “reject all political and especially all revolutionary action.”

But all is not negative! Their writings contained “a critical element” insofar as they pointed up the injustices and exploitation inherent in bourgeois society. “Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.”

This is an interesting analysis from the Manifesto, and it suggests since the level of class conscious antagonism to the capitalist system has, apparently, not been evenly paced to the development of capitalism, that some “utopian” thinking may still be of value with respect to “enlightenment.”

Engels took up these issues again some thirty years later, in his “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, three chapters culled out of his 1878 book Anti-Duhring and published in 1880 as a separate pamphlet.

He begins by stating that modern socialism is the result of the class struggle, the anarchy of production, and , in its theories, “ostensibly” as a continuation of the ideas of the “great French philosophers” of the Enlightenment. He especially mentions Rousseau but we can think of a few others: Condillac, Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, d’Holbach and Condorcet to name a few.

These thinkers readied the consciousness of the French people for the great Revolution that broke out on July 14, 1789. Many were themselves “extreme revolutionists.” They judged everything by Reason and “recognized no external authority.”

However, the “Reason” they spoke of turned out to be, in reality, only the ideals of the bourgeoisie. The self-conscious working class had not yet differentiated itself as an independent class. This class, not yet fully conscious of itself, instituted the Reign of Terror (led by Robespierre and St. Just). The bourgeoisie, realizing that the embryonic new class was a threat, ultimately intrusted the revolution to Napoleon.

According to Engels, this is the historical background to the systems of the three great utopians we discussed from the Manifesto. After the Terror the bourgeoisie lost confidence in Reason. It was up to the utopians to figure out how to solve the social problems presented by the new class and its obvious exploitation in a society that was premised on universal rights and freedom. Since to “crude class conditions corresponded crude theories” the solutions to the problems addressed by the utopians had to await the further advancement of capitalism and the theory which corresponded to this development—i.e., Marxism.

It would seem that, according to this presentation, the highest theoretical development of Marxism should have been found in France, England and Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century. What happened in Russia was an historical anomaly— the socialists coming to power in a crudely developed rather than an advanced capitalist state. The problems associated with what is now understood to be “Stalinism” were the result of a crude and vulgar form of Marxism having developed (with utopian ideals of toughening it out against the whole capitalist world) in an environment with a crudely evolved industrial base. This seems to fit in with Engel’s analysis. [Cf., also Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, esp. Vol II.]

“Maoism” would have been an even cruder form of Marxism— based on the peasantry not the workers at all due to the extremely low level of capitalist development in China. Maoism, just as Stalinism, might be explained as the result of utopian schemes being concocted in societies without the advanced industrial basis to support correct Marxist positions. Pol Pot’s “Marxism” was so primitive it fell off the radar and crash landed into a barbarism which subjected his own people to the same kind of treatment the US regularly doles out to third world peoples. He butchered almost a third the number of people that the US did in Vietnam, for example. [Cf., my review of Phillip Short’s book Pol Pot.]

With the development of Marxism in Western Europe in the nineteenth century, utopianism should have come to an end. Its survival within Marxism can have detrimental effects. But can the effects also be beneficial?

Herbert Marcuse, for example, in his book Soviet Marxism, maintained that even though the Soviet Union was, in some cases, not living up to its ideals, impossible given the hostility of the West and its internal problems, nevertheless it still proclaimed those ideals to its own people and to the world. They may have seemed “utopian”, given the real state of affairs, but they kept those ideals alive.

Lenin also has something to say on this issue. In 1912 he wrote, but did not publish, a brief article entitled “Two Utopias” (CW:18:355-359). He recalls a dictum by Engels: “What formally may be economically incorrect, may all the same be correct from the point of view of world history.” This dictum was made in reference to utopian socialism. “Engel’s advanced this profound thesis”, Lenin says, “in connection with utopian socialism: that socialism was ‘fallacious’ in the formal economic sense.... But utopian socialism was right from the point of view of world history, for it was a symptom, an expression, a harbinger of the class which, born of capitalism, has by now, in the beginning of the twentieth century, become a mass force which can put an end to capitalism and is irresistibly advancing to this goal.”

In Russia there were two types of utopianism in vogue in Lenin’s day (1912), namely a peasant utopianism demanding democracy and by- passing capitalism towards an equalitarian peasant based society, and a liberal capitalist utopianism demanding a constitutional monarchy and a peaceful transition from the Czarist autocracy to something like the bourgeois democracies of France or Germany.

The utopia of the liberals dampened the revolutionary fervor of the peasants as it was really a ploy to convince the Czarist ruling class to share power with the liberal bourgeoisie at the expense of the peasants.

The peasant utopia was also an impossible dream— but it was neverthe- less progressive because it was “an expression of the aspirations of the toiling millions of the petty bourgeoisie [peasants] to put an end altogether to the old, feudal exploiters....”

Lenin was of course against “utopianism” in principle but realized the difference between “good” and “bad” utopias. He thought Marxists had to discover the “valuable democratic kernel” that was at the core of the “husk” of this peasant utopia. He also thought that a similar type of utopianism was in place in many Asian countries that were set to undergo bourgeois revolutions in the twentieth century. Deconstructing these utopian revolutions is still a task for Marxists in our own time.

Lenin ended his 1912 article by reflecting on the “old Marxist literature of the[eighteen] eighties” and how it had tried to systematically analyze the peasant utopia in Russia. “Some day,” he wrote, “historians will study this effort systematically and trace its connection with what in the first decade of the twentieth century came to be called ‘Bolshevism’.”

Even more, today, in the beginning of the twentieth-first century, we will have to systematically trace the connections of utopian thinking throughout the last century in order to understand where we are today with respect to fallacious versus correct Marxist understandings of current reality.

Another thinker who tried to work out the differences between “good” and “bad” utopian thinking was the German Marxist Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). How can one tell the difference between, on the one hand, the kind of utopianism that ends up in cloud-cuckoo-land (the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s vision of peasant socialism, the nostalgia for the days of Stalin in the USSR and movements (reactionary) to bring them about again are a few of many examples), and on the other hand, that form of utopian thinking which, even if at present it seems totally unrealistic, contributes to laying the ground work for the future emancipation of the working people and the establishment of socialism?

In his book, A Philosophy for the Future (1963), Bloch (echoing Engels), says the early utopians, because of the level of social production, “had to construct the outlines of a brave new world out of their own hearts and heads.” I can agree that this is better than nothing and by holding an ideal future this kind of utopianism can motivate people to action. The bad part is, as in the examples I gave above, when the leadership of a people’s movement irresponsibly tries to skip stages when they find themselves confronted with an immature social reality. When they attempt to construct a social reality that is only possible in the advanced stages of economic development in a society at a lower level then social, political, and human mayhem results

With respect to this kind of situation, Bloch writes: “All the worse then, if a society that will no longer be reconciled in an abstract-utopian manner, but demands the way to the thing itself, errs on the way--- and errs dangerously.” I am thinking here that this is what Bloch might consider forced marches to socialism by an impatient leadership, premature collectivization of agriculture, and in general attempting to “build socialism” when your society is either still basically feudal or only barely beginning to be capitalist.

“All the worse,” he continues, “if the revolutionary capacity is not there to execute ideals which have been represented abstractly, rather than to discredit or even to destroy with catastrophic means ideals which have not appeared in the concrete.” This does not just apply to the third world cases I have used as examples. The daily struggle here in the United States could just as easily have been cited. In the foreseeable future the most important political goals that will objectively further the class struggle is to oust the ultra-right clerico-Republican reactionaries from power. Is it “utopian” to think this can be done by a broad progressive people’s alliance which also includes center and left elements of the Democratic Party? Is this an “abstract utopian ideal?”

Or should we, on the contrary, take a maximalist position to the left of where the majority consciousness is now and try to. as a magnet attracts iron filings, slowly attempt to draw the masses in our direction? Some small parties on the Left have exactly this sort of program. In the long term there may be a dialectical unity in these positions, but at the given moment it seems to me much more “utopian” in the “bad” sense to be on the side lines waiting for magnetic attraction to bring about change than it is to be in the midst of the struggles where the masses of people are actually to be found.

This, by the way, is how I interpret the position of Sam Webb the CPUSA national chairman, which he recently put forth at the Global Left Dialogue in New York City. His topic was “Imaginings of Socialism” (a fruitful ground for some utopian thinking). Webb is quite clear in rejecting a “go it alone” ultra-left stance in the fight to advance socialist values in the US. He puts the working class at the center of the struggle but it is firmly allied with what he calls other “core constituencies” and oppressed segments of the population (women, youth,ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, etc.).

There is nothing “utopian” in this idea of a broad based people’s struggle as a necessity in order to confront the power of capital. He ends his presentation, however, with an example of what I have called “good” utopianism— a vision of what the world, or at least our country, might one day be like where the skies are always blue and “pollution free”, toxic dumps have been rendered into gardens, there is no homelessness, no unemployment, no discrimination (sexual or otherwise), women will getting more of those Nobel prizes in science, there will be empty prisons, and no more war, almost too good to be true. This kind of motivational “utopianism” is in the finest traditions of the socialist movement. Bush may be running the show, or trying to, but the future belongs to the people.

Thomas Riggins is the former book review editor of Political Affairs

Monday, October 23, 2006


Online at:

Book Round Up #15: "American Theocracy" and "The Spanish Civil War"
By Thomas Riggins [PA Archives]

Here is another one of our previews (reviews of reviews) of new and important books of interest to the progessive community. The 14 previous Book Round Up entries are archived on our website. If anyone would like to read one of these books and write a full review (800 words) please contact me at

This is another book from the genre of ex-Republicans who have awakened to the fact that the party they once believed in has become the tool of elite business interests and has nothing to do with real democracy. Kakutani lists three previous books by Phillips--the first one is a famous pro-Republican manifesto. The books are "The Emerging Republican Majority" (1969), and then, some thirty years later, "furious jeremiads" against the Establishment: "Wealth and Democracy" (2002) and "American Dynasty" (2004) in the last one, Kakutani says, the author portrayed the Bush family as practicing, in his own words, "blatant business cronyism" on behalf of oil and other corporate interests and allied with the military-industrial complex.

Phillips, in his new book, ranges through history describing the symptoms of imperial decline (the Romans, Hapsburgs, the British Empire, etc.,) and comes up with five conditions reflecting, in his words, "a power already at its peak and starting to decline." They are 1, "widespread public concern over cultural and economic decay" 2, "growing religious fervor" 3, "a rising commitment to faith as opposed to reason and a corollary downplaying of science" 4, "considerable popular anticipation of a millennial time frame" 5, "hubris-driven national strategic and military overreach." Kakutani writes that Phillips adds a sixth, namely, "high debt, which can become 'crippling in its own right.'"

Bush and the Republicans are spearheading a counter-Enlightenment based on "the 30 to 40 percent of the electorate caught up in Scripture." according to Phillips. Kakutani writes, "As Mr. Phillips sees it, 'the Southernization of American governance and religion' is 'abetting far-reaching ideological change and eroding the separation of powers between church and state.' while moving the Republican party toward ' a new incarnation as an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews,' who all define themselves against the common enemy of secular liberalism."

Phillips thinks that the growing influence of religion on the state can have disastrous influences with respect to the state's continuing viability. Kakutani quotes him on the past: "militant Catholicism helped undo the Roman and Spanish empires; the Calvinist fundamentalism of the Dutch Reformed Church helped to block any 18th-century Dutch renewal; and the interplay of imperialism and evangelicalism led pre-1914 Britain into a bloodbath and global decline."

Phillips thinks something similar is happening to the U.S. today. Bush and the Republicans are responsible or egging on "U.S. oil vulnerability, excessive indebtedness and indulgence of radical religion" he writes. Kakutani seems a bit skeptical of some of Phillips arguments and conclusions. It is true that this book does not contain a Marxist analysis but from what Kakutani says about it, and the quotes given from Phillips, one can see that elements of the ruling class are worried about the extremist policies of the Bush administration.

Kakutani ends his review with some remarks about the book's "afterward" wherein the author "suggests that the G.O.P. coalition is 'fatally flawed from a national-interest standpoint' partly because it is dominated 'by an array of outsider religious denominations caught up in biblical morality, distrust of science and a global imperative of political and religious evangelicalism,' but he does not really explain why this development could lead to a Republican downfall." He then cynically concludes, "Perhaps he is saving that for his next book-- when the results of the midterm elections are known." This indicates he thinks Phillips is basically a Monday morning quarterback.

THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION by Helen Graham, Oxford University Press 2005, 175 pp., reviewed by Peter N. Carroll in The Volunteer: Journal of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, March 2006.

There have been umpteen thousand books written about the Spanish Civil War-- one of the great Left struggles of the pre-WW2 years of the last century. Young progressives of today owe it to themselves to know about this Civil War. Older progressives too, if they have not made a special study of the conflict, should also learn the facts. Fortunately this small book from Oxford fits the bill of providing a short, painless, introduction to this controversial subject matter. Carroll, author of La Odisea de la Brigada Abraham Lincoln, tells us that Graham, in this work, basically condensed to 175 pages her 2002 work The Spanish Republic at War: 1936-1939 (2002) and that her "ideas and insights pop and sizzle on the page."

Progressives will like the fact that the book lays to rest all the ultra-right and down right fascist propaganda about the role of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Spain in the war. Carroll notes that Graham "takes on some recent historical critics who blame the defeat of the Spanish Republic on the policies of the Communist party and who have suggested that Franco's victory was probably good for the Spanish people."

As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, fears of its wanting a "satellite" state, the reviewer quotes the book which calls this a "deeply anachronistic reading of history -- namely that the Soviet Union intervening in Spain in 1936 was already the political and economic superpower of the post-Second World War period."

Carroll also points out that the war in Spain was not just about politics and economics. He maintains that the book makes clear "the Spanish Civil War was truly a battle of ideologies-- not just democracy versus fascism, but free minds challenging a monolithic world of fixed belief." Communists can be proud of the fact that they fought on the side of democracy and the free minds.

Thomas Riggins is the Book Review Editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Friday, October 20, 2006


Book Round Up #14: Climate Change Catastrophe and Media Failures
By Thomas Riggins [PA Archives]

Here is another in our series of book previews (reviews of reviews) on important new works that have recently appeared. If anyone is inspired to write a full review of one these works (800 words) please contact us at

FIELD NOTES FROM A CATASTROPHE: MAN, NATURE AND CLIMATE CHANGE by Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 210 pp., reviewed by Mariana Gosnell in The New York Times 3-16-2006.

The reviewer says this is “the latest of a large crop of books” on the subject of climate change. Climate change can be seen all over the world and dire consequences seem to be store for us. Ms. Kolbert is credited with clear, comprehensive and succinct language and Gosnell thinks the “book may make a good handbook” on the subject. Global warming is almost certainly caused by our modern industrial society. She tries to be objective but can get up set. Gosnell says “’Astonishingly’ [Kolbert writes] ‘standing in the way’ of progress [in solving the problem] seems to be President Bush’s goal. Not only did he reject the Kyoto Protocol, she notes, with its mandatory curbs on [carbon] emissions, almost killing the treaty
in the process, but he also continues to block meaningful follow-up changes in it.”

At the end of the book, after interviewing scientists, politicians, and lay people, the author allows herself to express her personal opinion when she writes: It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” Actually, society does not make such a “choice.” People in power are making choices to ignore science and to continue to pollute the earth because vast, incredibly vast, sums of money are to be made in so doing. It is the capitalist economic system and its inculcation of greed and profit making at any cost that is responsible. Capitalists are blinded by greed and will take all of us along with them down the road of doom if we don ‘t resist and overthrow this destructive economic system.

FEET TO THE FIRE: THE MEDIA AFTER 9/11 by Kristina Borjesson, Prometheus Books, 2005, reviewed by Frances Cerra Whittelsey in Extra! The Magazine of FAIR -- The Media Watch Group, April 2006.

This is a book that addresses the credibility of the news media. Reporters face all sorts of pressures from the government, corporate America and their own publishers to restrict and censor the news. Ms. Borjesson has gone out and interviewed 21 "of the most respected journalists and editors" to see the extent of the problem. Whittelsey writes, "Her questions include many that progressive Americans have been urgently asking: Where were the media in the run-up to the Iraq War? Why was the coverage so unquestioning? How is it that the Bush administration has been so successful in getting its message out to the public? Why, ultimately, are we at war in Iraq?"

Here are some of the things she found out. There was agreement that TV news had failed to do as good a job of credible reporting as other media outlets. Ted Koppel was one of the few defending the record of TV news. Borjesson quotes Tom Yellen (ex-executive for Peter Jennings at ABC News) to the effect that "some of the people controlling TV aren't comfortable with the role of the press as a watchdog." How did the claim about Iraq's WMDs get taken hook-line-and-sinker by the press, especially TV? Well, it seems that ABC, CBS, and also the AP just took the administration's word for it. Some reporting!

There was good print coverage-- but not in New York or Washington "where elite decision makers tend to reside." Knight-Ridder's coverage was good (in fact the "best") but they haven't papers in NY or DC. She also quotes John MacArthur (publisher of Harper's Magazine) who, according to the review, "blames media owners for the largely unquestioning coverage of the run-up to the war. 'The owners decide what journalism we get,' he says. 'By and large, owners are very conservative, go-along-to-get-along establishment figures,' whose primary responsibility, in the case of public companies, is to their shareholders."

Besides institutional bias, threats and intimidation are also used to control the news. Knight-Ridder's reporters were threatened and "barred from traveling with the vice president." The majority of those interviewed also remarked on the profound ignorance of both our military and political leaders with respect to Iraq and the Middle East in general. The American people are also, I think, fairly ignorant on those subjects. The media is at fault, especially TV which dumbs down the news. Ted Koppel, however, disagrees. He blames the American people directly. According to the reviewer he "accused the American public of not paying attention and staying deliberately ignorant. The information people need, asserted Koppel, is available if they make an effort to find it." But wasn't that Koppel's job? I guess not. Our press has to be improved because as Borjesson concludes, "our continued collective ignorance can only lead to global-scale catastrophe." Don't blame "Political Affairs"!

Thomas Riggins is book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Fukuyama's Fantasy:Comments On Kakutani's Review of "Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy
By Thomas Riggins

DEMOCRACY, POWER AND THE NEOCONSERVATIVE LEGACY by Francis Fukuyama, Yale University Press, 226 pages, reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, 3/14/2006 [PA Archives]

This book could well be subtitled “Right Wing Hegelian Wakes Up.” Fukuyama [hereafter FF] you might recall authored “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992) in which he elaborated his own version of neoconservatism predicting the final victory of U.S. style “liberal democracy.” He is now a critic of at least three neocon theses which he formerly shared with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Allan Bloom, and William Kristol among others according to Kakautani. FF is now questioning “preventive war, benevolent hegemony and unilateral action.” He has written a powerful critique of Bush’s aggressive war in Iraq from a conservative point of view. So, there is dissension in the ranks!

Reflecting on a speech he heard in which the neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer made a fool of himself by asserting Bush’s war policies had made the U.S. safer, FF said, Kakutani reports, he “could not understand why everyone was applauding the speech enthusiastically, given that the United States had found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was bogged down in a vicious insurgency, and had almost totally isolated itself from the rest of the world by following the kind of unipolar strategy advocated by Krauthammer.” This was a good reflection by FF. Progressives are aware of these facts too but just chalk up people like Krauthammer and those who applaud him as shallow pates. His new book is FF’s response to the realization that the neocon analysis is gibberish.

Kakutani gives another example of this gibberish. William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote a book (“Present Dangers” 2000) in which they asserted “American foreign policy is infused with an unusually high degree of morality.” This could only be asserted by those who know zip about US foreign policy (and less about morality) which has led to the deaths of millions of innocent people throughout Central and South America, Africa and Asia all to insure American economic and political hegemony. FF objects to the conception of “benevolent hegemony” not for the reasons I gave but because he thinks “it is not sufficient that Americans believe in their own good intentions; non-Americans must be convinced of them as well.” This is made a bit difficult when the US is engaged in widespread activities of kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, torture, murder and other acts which demonstrate our morality and benevolence.

Kakutani quotes FF as follows: “Before other countries accepted U.S. leadership they would have to be convinced not just that America was good but that it was also wise in its application of power, and, through that wisdom, successful in achieving the ends it set for itself.” The idea that an imperial power such as the U.S. acts out notions of morality and benevolence and is good and wise is childish. At any rate, as a result of the war in Iraq, Kakutani points out that “these assumptions now lie in tatters.” It appears that what upsets FF is not that these assumptions are false, but that the neocons and the Bushites have brought them into disrepute.

FF no longer supports “neoconservatism.” He writes that “one of the consequences of a perceived failure in Iraq will be the discrediting of the entire neoconservative agenda and a restoration of the authority of foreign policy realists.” Kakutani ends his review with the following quote from FF: “Repairing American credibility will not be a matter of better public relations; it will require a new team and new policies.”

We have to ask ourselves if this so-called credibility can ever be restored. Earlier I mentioned that FF was a right wing Hegelian. Hegel saw the advance of civilization as a progressive growth and establishment of human freedom. This is just what the neocons keep claiming motivates them. Its not the oil they are after, rather they want to promote democracy and free societies (by which they mean capitalism). FF is himself sympathetic to this view. He shares the notion, as Kakutani puts it “that democracy is likely to expand universally in the long run....” The trouble with this view, as articulated by conservatives, neoconservatives, and “liberals,” is that their notion of “democracy” is conjoined to their notion of what constitutes “freedom” and for them “freedom” entails the capitalist economic system which is dominated by the United States and its “First World” allies.

The real political power in these countries rests with economic elites who control the international financial institutions and transnational corporations which dominate the process of globalization and prevent the independent development of the non-industrialized areas of the world. This harsh historical reality contradicts the tendency towards the universal growth of democracy (freedom) because their (incorrect) conceptions of democracy and freedom are only possible in advanced capitalist societies.

One example. The hostility of the U. S. towards Venezuela is directed towards a democratically elected and popular government. The hostility exists because of the threat this government is perceived to represent to the vested economic interests of U.S. and allied corporate capital in the area. Because these are the dominate interests all of FF’s theories about the spread of democracy or the possibility of a future credible U.S. foreign policy (i.e., one seen as spreading freedom) will come to grief.

Hegel has left behind left wing descendants as well. They are found in the communist, socialist and worker’s movements around the world who envision freedom in a radically different way than the FF’s of this world. Freedom is envisioned as human solidarity, not “free” market exploitation, as putting people before profits and using the economic resources of the world to benefit all of its people not just a class of elite owners of capital. I agree with FF that the Bushites have to go, but so does he.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Monday, October 16, 2006


Book Roundup # 13: The Red Army, History Of The US Senate And North Korea And Nukes
By Thomas Riggins [PA Archives]

Here is number 13 in our series of Book Roundups--- which are essentially reviews of reviews of the current literature. The 12 previous roundups are archived on our website. Anyone who wants to do a full review of any of these books, please contact us at

IVAN’S WAR: LIFE AND DEATH IN THE RED ARMY, 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale, Metropolitan Books, pp. 462, reviewed by William Grimes, New York Times 2-15-06.
I’m sure it was no fun being in the Red Army during W.W.II. Grimes’ review is very positive about this book which paints a very negative picture of the Soviet Army-- one almost forgets that they were fighting 80% of the German army and basically saved Europe from the Nazis. To paint her picture the author relies not only on “historical reconstruction” but also “sympathetic projection.” Her only problem seems to be that when she interviews the actual Soviet veterans of W.W.II her reconstructions and projections are rejected by them. Grimes says that “Ms. Merridale is understanding about why that might be.” But it doesn’t occur to him, or it seems to her, that it might be because her book is more cold war fiction than it is actual historical fact.

THE MOST EXCLUSIVE CLUB: A HISTORY OF THE MODERN UNITED STATES SENATE by Lewis L. Gould, Basic Books, 416 pages, reviewed by Sam Rosenfeld in The American Prospect, December 2005.
This review will lead you to really think about the role of the Senate. It begins by remarking on the Senate minority leader Harry Reid’s defense of the filibuster as a weapon against the Republicans. We should remember that the filibuster was traditionally condemned by progressives as anti-democratic because a determined minority could disrupt the will of the majority. It was infamously used by segregationist senators to prevent civil rights legislation from being passed. O tempora, O mores!
When Gould began his book he thought he was going to find out what a noble and good institution the Senate was. Instead, he writes, it has “genuinely impede[d] the nation’s vitality and evolution.” The reviewer points out that this is a history covering the time from Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush’s re-election (that should be “re-election” since he was not really elected to his first term). The author’s theme is the Senate “as a graveyard of progressive reform.” Gould points out that “the filibuster has stood in the way of necessary reform.” The times the Senate has had a chance to do something progressive have been few and far between and this is primarily due to the filibuster. It would seem that it should go. The Senate itself should go too for it is inherently ant-democratic and anti-working class.
When New York has the same representation as Montana or South Dakota there is not even an illusion of democratic equality of representation. Going beyond Gould, the reviewer points out that “the Senate will almost invariably be whiter and wealthier than the House.” Rosenfeld concludes that “liberalism stands to gain the most” in the long run if the Republicans get rid of the filibuster and other undemocratic procedures in an effort to stifle Democratic attempts to foil their plans. They would inadvertently “effect a lasting transformation of the Congress into a more parliamentary-style institution.”

NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: NORTH KOREA TAKES ON THE WORLD by Gordon C. Chang, Random House, 327 pages, reviewed by David Sanger in The New York Times 1-19-06.
After reading this review it is difficult to tell which of the two, the author or the reviewer, is more ignorant ( a polite word). The title itself is stupid. North Korea doesn’t want to “take on” anyone, let alone the world. Chang seems to think if you don’t bow down to the US that is “taking on the world.” North Korea’s having the bomb bugs the US but it is ok for Israel to have it. Israel, of course, is not “taking on the world”-- despite its record of ignoring UN resolutions.
Sanger opines that the DPRK wants the bomb “figuring that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was taking on the the United States without getting his nukes in order.” It is really idiotic to suggest that Iraq wanted to “take on” the United States. The reviewer also writes that the DPKR “is a tiny country that should have collapsed years ago in a radioactive heap.” Is this a suggestion that it should have been nuked by the US a long time ago? When the Times lets such BS decorate it’s pages one can only wonder why it is promoting such ill considered propaganda under the guise of “journalism.”
Chang himself, who is sometimes referred to as Mr. Gordon by the reviewer, shows his own level of intellectual deficiency when he thinks himself clever by referring to the DPRK as “Kim’s [i.e., Kim Jong Il] Ku Klux Korea.” This is enough of a hint that this book is just a pile of pro-imperialist trash trying to pass itself off as a serious work. Sanger is just as bad as Chang. He tells us we have to fear an al Qaeda terrorist or an Iranian mulla “tired of waiting for his scientists to cook their own uranium” turning to North Korea for bomb fuel. I didn’t know that there was a viable job market for scientists in the mulla/terrorist community. I wonder how this review would have been received if besides “an Iranian mulla” Sanger had also included “ a West Bank Rabbi” from illegally occupied Palestinian land. The up shot of all this is that neither the book nor the review is worth while reading, and neither will be The New York Times if it keeps on putting this type of junk in its pages.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Friday, October 13, 2006


Capitalism Kills #4:Case Studies in an Immoral system- Household Pollutants,Cancer Drugs, Mudslides
By Thomas Riggins [PA Archives]

The free enterprise system, AKA the free market, AKA capitalism, is an economic system, as we all know, that is dedicated to maximizing profits at any cost. Neither ethics, morality, honor, environmental concerns, nor human life itself will be spared by this system and its quest to put profits before people (and everything else). Here are some case studies of the system at work. The previous seven case studies are archived on our website.

CASE 8 Here is a fine example of how the capitalist system uses our own government to kill us to make a buck. The New York Times 2-15-06: “State Sues E.P.A. for Files On Household Pollutants: Seeking Data Guarded as Trade Secrets” by Danny Hakim. The Clean Air Act requires NY and other states to make our air more breathable. Common products such as varnishes and paints have pollution causing compounds in them. The companies that make these products don’t want you to know how much. The Environmental Protection Agency, run by the Bushites is siding with the corporations. The pollution causing compounds foul our air and contribute to disease and death. What is more important-- people or profits? You guessed it: profits. One of the biggest polluters is Sherwin-Williams. The people of Ohio, especially Cleveland, can thank their very own Republican Senator George V. Voinovich for using his pull to get the E.P.A. to to aid Sherwin-Williams. This company and others “have been battling in court to prevent state attempts to regulate their products.” The Free (to kill you) Enterprise System objects to rules requiring clean air if it will lower profits. Where does Voinovich get his air from anyway? Thanks to Congress if the polluters put more gunk in the air than the law allows they can just pay a fine. Sherwin-Williams paid $5,045,784 in fees for this in 2003. We have to breath this stuff! Who does Congress represent? Other polluters: Valspar, Lenmar, Dayton Superior, Tenmec, United Gilsonite Labs, Hillyard Industries, Zea, Sierra and G.E. Plastics (these are just the top ten).

Sherwin-Williams says that we the people really want to be polluted in the first place. “Our customer base {that's us} indicates they would prefer the performance of these noncomplying products” the company said. A spokesman for state and local regulators said “What E.P.A. is doing is allowing the industry to buy their way out of federal regulations.” So what else is new?

CASE 9 The same issue of the Times has this great story as well: “A Cancer Drug Shows Promise, At a Price That Many Can’t Pay” by Alex Berenson. A colon cancer drug Avastin, made by Genentech (majority owner, Roche), can also be used for lung and breast cancer. Genentech has decided to charge about $100,000 a year for it- Yikes! This despite the fact that “the actual cost of producing Avastin is a fraction of what Genentech charges for it.” So how is the price set? A new factor (subjective) is being used in addition to cost of production plus reasonable rate of profit. It is “the inherent value of life sustaining therapies.” That means since you want to live pay through the nose. It doesn’t matter what this pill really costs, what its economic value is let us say, what matters is without it you die, so that will be $100,000 per year thank you. Don’t have it-- too bad. And don’t get any ideas about government price controls either-- socialism is dead remember.

CASE 10 Capitalism and the Philippine Mudslides. On Friday 2-17-06 the Capitalist System claimed a thousand lives in the Philippine village of Guinsaugon. The evidence is contained in the following article by Carlos H. Conde: “Danger of Philippine Landslides Often Ignored, Critics Say”- New York Times 2-21-06.

The bottom line is that this horrific event was not a natural disaster. Illegal logging, spurred on by our old friend the profit motive, had denuded the hills around this village of their natural forest cover thus allowing the mudslide that killed so many. What is more the government and capitalists were well aware of the likely consequences of the illegal logging but did it anyway because the so-called Free Enterprise System (AKA Capitalism) by it very nature values making a buck above anything so worthless (to it) as mere human life. Conde reports that official records reveal that as long as nine months ago Philippine authorities knew the village “was in grave danger.” We should also note that hundreds of thousands of other people are living in similar circumstances. How many will have to die before the Philippine state cracks down on the capitalists who are illegally deforesting the country and who by corruption and the failure of law enforcement are able to act with impunity? After interviewing a Greenpeace spokesman Conde wrote, “And politically. whoever sits in the presidential palace must reckon with the nation’s political dynasties, several of which earned their wealth and power through logging” according to the spokesman. The hypocrisy of the Philippine government is outrageous. Here is the politically correct statement of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, made after the mudslide: “We should all join hands in the preservation of our environment and protect what is left behind for the sake of generations to come.” And here is the political reality as reported in the Times: “In late 2005...the environment department allowed the resumption of logging by a company owned by a senator who is an ally of the president, over the objections of residents and religious leaders. The logging concession was within a national forest reserve.” So much for preserving the environment! It seems to me that as long as the capitalist system rules in the Philippines we are going to continue to periodically read about these sorts of disasters.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Online at:

Book Review: State Of Denial, by Bob Woodward
By Thomas Riggins

State Of Denial
Bob Woodward,
Simon & Schuster, 2006

The last sentence in Woodward’s new book is, "With all Bush’s upbeat talk and optimism, he had not told the American public the truth about what Iraq had become."

Why this is the case and how it had become so Woodward attempts to explain in the forty-five chapters leading up to this conclusion. The focus is on individuals, their personalities and foibles, arrogance and ignorance and how they led the nation into a military and political fiasco in the Middle East. The unanswered question is did Bush not tell the truth consciously or unconsciously. Did he lie or is just blind to the reality all around him, and if so is that blindness due to his intellectual shortcomings or because his immediate subordinates, such as Rumsfeld and Cheney have consistently misled him. If the latter is the case then have they done so consciously or unconsciously?

The answers to these questions can be found in the book, but you will have to dig them out for yourself. Woodward does not delve much below the surface of individual personalities in conflict. The surface reveals that we are losing the war in Iraq because we learned nothing from Vietnam, were arrogant and over confident, ignorant of any other culture except our own, racist, and assumed we could not possibly be defeated by the Arabs in Iraq. Lyndon Johnson’s "raggedy ass peasants" and Winston Churchill’s "naked fakir" still lie at the basis of the American ruling class’s conception of Third World people.

The stage is set for this tragedy with an opening line from Bush as he decides to run for President. "I don't have the foggiest idea about what I think about international, foreign policy." Someone or some group will have to lift that fog. Unfortunately for Bush and the world they lifted the fog of ignorance only to allow the fog of war to roll in.

Bush's ignorance, and lack of interest, in foreign affairs is only one of several deadly factors that will come into conjunction and spawn the Iraqi debacle Equally causative was the fateful choice of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of war A man with a mission "to change the entire U.S. military, transform it into a leaner, more efficient, more agile, more lethal fighting machine." We find that he followed this course regardless of any advice he was given by his staff, civilian or military, in the Pentagon. He also held Congress in contempt. A bad sign for democracy. It is Rumsfeld's basic incompetence, and Bush's inability to see it, that is a major factor in the American failure as portrayed in the book. In reality, however, the basic project was flawed from the start. The whole neocon philosophy of war in Asia against Iraq was born of profound ignorance of the peoples and cultures of the region. A competent Secretary of Defense would have been one who vetoed the idea in the first place.

It was Clemenceau who said that war was too important to be left to the generals But Rumsfeld is no Cleamenseau. Woodward quotes one of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying, "Military advice is compromised by the political leadership. It doesn't emerge."

The book recounts how the Bush administration brushed off intelligence warnings of an impending terrorist attack and how after 9/11 Bush decided to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan since they had allied themselves with Al-Queda, the group claiming credit for the attack. Woodward also says that it was 71 days after 9/11 that Bush set in motion the plans to attack Iraq (which the U.S. did 16 months later). But he does not provide much background analysis. The impression is that Bush thought Iraq had WMD and could use them against the US and its allies. There is no indication that the intelligence was "cooked" to justify the war and the suggestion is that Bush was acting in good faith but uninformed.

Rumsfeld decided to use the Iraq war as his test model for the new lean, mean fighting machine. The "Powell Doctrine" of using overwhelming force to ensure victory, devised by Colin Powell when he was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was abandoned and replaced by what can only be called the "Rumsfeld Doctrine" of the use of underwhelming force blitzkrieg style. The assumption here being we would be welcomed as "liberators" and not seen as imperialist "occupiers." The sad reality is that this is just how the leadership in the Bush administration saw itself.

Totally blind to how the people of the Middle East saw the US-- as the enabler of Israel in its oppression of the Palestinians, as the supporter of dictatorships that repressed their own people (Saddam had been an American ally for years) just as long as "American" [read "Corporate"] interests were benefited, and as basically hypocritical and anti-democratic--
the Bushites embarked on a military adventure that no sensible person, knowledgeable about the Middle East would have recommended. The depth of the ignorance, including the highest reaches of the academic world and the government is incredible.

Bush, who had no knowledge of foreign affairs by his own admission, suddenly saw himself as leading a Crusade for Freedom throughout the world-- starting with Afganistan and Iraq and intending to follow up with the "Axis of Evil"-- Syria, Iran and North Korea, and also adding Cuba to the list.

Where did his ideas come from? "You are what you read," Churchill said. And, if you don't read all that much you are what you listen to. Who had the President's ear?

Woodward tells us that during the bombing campaign of Afghanistan, the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, decided to put together a clandestine "think tank" to draw up a philosophical program for the government to follow in response to 9/11 and the brave new world in which the administration believed we needed to live.

Wolfowitz turned to the American Enterprise Institute to use as the basis for his think tank. The AEI is an ultra-right intellectual adjunct of corporate America. According to People for the American Way, most of its board are CEOs from big business: ExxonMobil, Motorola, American Express, Enron (the late Ken Lay), Dow Chemical, etc., and it has such outstanding "scholars", fellows, and champions of democracy as Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Robert Bork, Charles Murray [author of "The Bell Curve" -- there are IQ differences between the races] and Ben Wattenburg [PBS blowhard].

A dozen denizens of this foul tank were dredged up to concoct the foreign policy potion for Bush to quaff. They included Bernard Lewis, Fareed Zakaria (of Newsweek), talking head Fouad Ajami, and a Rumsfeld consultant (Steve Herbits). This secret cabal of the ultra-right came up with "a seven-page, single-spaced document, called 'Delta of Terrorism' [as in river delta]'." Woodward was not allowed to see it but the head of AEI "was surprised at the consensus among" the group." The fact that he picked a group of virtual ultra-right clones did not give him a clue about the reason for this consensus, which boiled down to "We're facing a two-generation war. And start with Iraq."

And so, this complete fabrication of the right-wing brain set was "hand-delivered to the war cabinet members." Woodward reports that "it had a strong impact on President Bush, causing him to focus on the 'malignancy' of the Middle East." What Woodward doesn't say is that Wolfowitz and other neocons had the invasion of Iraq on their agenda for years, way before Bush even thought of running for President. It was not an idea that popped up after 9/11.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you apply to reality an artificial philosophical system, in this case the neoconservative interpretation of history, that reality will blow up in your face. This is what has happened in Iraq and, as the book reveals, the Bush Administration and Bush himself are so driven by ideological commitments that it is impossible for them to understand what is going on.

They have been defeated. They have failed to establish "democracy" (how could they have established it, they don't believe in it themselves as their actions in Haiti and towards Venezuela show as well as Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004), failed to lessen the threat of terrorism in the world, and failed to make America "safer" as their own intelligence reports indicate. Yet faced with this obvious reality they speak of "turning the corner," "victory is in sight," etc.

But what can you expect from a White House that announced right before the war that, with respect to WMD in Iraq, "We know for a fact that there are weapons there." There were not any weapons and many other "facts" that have been put forth are equally bogus.

The book goes into great detail about how L. Paul Bremer messed up the occupation while he was proconsul or viceroy in Iraq by applying ideologically driven notions to the real conditions on the ground in Iraq-- notions that did not match the facts and made the situation worse for both the Americans and the Iraqis. The two greatest blunders were disbanding the entire Iraqi army and purging anyone who had been a member of the Ba'ath party. These two actions practically guaranteed a large and potent insurgency against both the foreign occupation and the imposition of a government dominated by returning exiles.

There is a lot more damaging information in the book. One shocker is that the war criminal Henry Kissinger is still going to the White House and giving Bush his opinions. Bush is said to be greatly influenced by them. They turn out to be the same old rotten ideas he peddled to Nixon about what should have been done in Vietnam. He wants Bush to "stay the course." They will stay the course right up until we see on TV the last American helicopter flying our ambassador out of the Green Zone while the Iraqi insurgents finally occupy it.

It is also distressing to learn that General Pace, the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff still thinks Iraq had something to do with 9/11! Here is how he backed the war, speaking to Woodward: "I do not have doubt about what we have done. We did not do this. When we were sitting home minding our own business, we got attacked on 9/11." The man who heads the world's largest military machine, with troops stationed all over the world, a force that imposes blockades and no fly zones and threatens to intervene in other countries, describes all this as sitting home and minding our own business. That is ludicrous. As is using 9/11 still to justify the political and. military blunder of the Iraqi war. I feel sorry for any soldiers that serve under him.

This is Woodward's third book on the Bush administration. It is also the most critical. The scales have finally fallen from his eyes and now maybe they will fall from the 40% or so of Americans who still, truly blindly, support Bush and share his State of Denial.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at