Commentary Magazine


Diagnosis of Our Time, by Karl Mannheim

The Third Way

Diagnosis of Our Time.
by Karl Mannheim.
New York, Oxford University Press, 1944. 195 pp. $3.00.

The significance of Dr. Mannheim’s latest book transcends the time and place of its composition. The ideas presented in Diagnosis of Our Time constitute a powerful antidote to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and the propaganda of other protagonists of laissez faire.

The book had its inception in England during the war’s imminence and its first tragic years, and its chapters were originally presented as magazine articles, lectures before university audiences, a B.B.C. broadcast, and as a discussion outline for a group of Christian thinkers. While the immediate references are to wartime England, the generalizations have a validity for all Western civilization in the reconstructive tasks ahead. It is a book about contemporary social conflicts and the inner predicaments of the individual—of which War and dictatorship are but symptoms—and about what social science has to offer in the way of guidance toward an integrated democratic culture.

Dr. Mannheim, in his diagnosis of our time, rejects with equal force the facile, dogmatic and one-sided generalizations of the religionist and the Marxian critics. That there is a widespread rejection of religious sanctions for individual conduct and that the institutions of religion are no longer central in the social order are clinical notes but not a diagnosis. To preach the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man may be adequate as a soporific, but it is painfully inadequate as a social cure. That this is an age of transition from a laissez faire to a collectivist economy is a definition of one of the crucial areas of the disease, not a description of the disease itself; and exclusive obsession with economics won’t cure it.

Seen against the backdrop of history, the disease of our mass society, which is based on power technology, consists in the presence in its culture of uneliminated and undigested deposits of ideas, ideals, principles and values that originated in earlier stages of the development of Western civilization. Our concepts of property, which were crystallized in an age of small-scale farming and handicrafts, are in conflict with the present-day realities of economic interdependence on a national and global scale. The ethics of the small neighborly community have not been assimilated in the culture of our present mass society. Within the moral consciousness of the individual the demands of custom, religious insight, reason and utility cancel each other out. One result is that the intellectual and moral vacuum thus created has attracted the ethos and the mythos of sheer force; the other result is a type of a democracy that does not know its own values or is so tolerant as to be indifferent to them.

Dr. Mannheim places special emphasis on the failure of modern man to reinterpret our inherited ideals of individual freedom and social order in the light of changing realities and to integrate both these ideas within a unitary design. In the democratic societies freedom to buy and sell in an open market and freedom from taxation and government regulation are still taken as the fundamental human freedoms while order is conceived of in terms of a policeman among a mob of anarchists. As Dr. Mannheim points out, it is vain to expect that social order will automatically result from an exclusive emphasis on individual freedom. The fond hopes of nascent liberalism that the enlightened self-interest of multitudinous individuals will in the end blend into a social harmony would by now seem unfounded, what with the increasing tempo and intensity of class conflict, group friction and international wars. That individual freedom, on the other hand, does not automatically result from the operation of an imposed order is amply demonstrated by the test case of Soviet Russia, where the dictatorship ostensibly devised for the sake of genuine freedom has as yet not shown any signs of “withering away.”

Dr. Mannheim suggests the therapy of gradual cultural reconstruction rather than that of a revolutionary fresh start or of the conservative reimposition of an earlier way of life. What is required, in his opinion, is reconstruction all along the line—not merely economic and political—but also moral, religious, educational and institutional reconstruction. The task confronting us is to examine the total stock of ideas, ideals and institutional behavior we have inherited from the past, to eliminate elements that promise no present or future function, to reinterpret the residue of valuable elements in the light of present-day requirements and to integrate these valuable elements in an organic pattern of life.

Crucial among the elements that require reinterpretation and assimilation are the ideals of individual freedom and social order. Dr. Mannheim repudiates both the utopianism that would transform the world in the image of a dream and the doctrine of historical inevitability that would consign human intelligence to hastening the footsteps of the dialectical messiah in accordance with a “party line.”

History indeed defines the choices of our generation but it does not determine the outcome. That depends on human intelligence and human effort. The choice is no longer between a planless individualistic society and a planned collectivist society. There can be no return to laissez faire in an age of mass production and power technology and in a period when the mass mind can be molded monolithically by the radio, the movies and the school. But there is still a choice between collectivism democratically controlled for the general welfare and the collectivism of dictatorship. Dr. Mannheim chooses the “Third Way,” the way of “Planning for Democracy” as contrasted with the ways of laissez faire and dictatorship on the one hand, and with communism and fascism on the other. He describes the “Third Way” as “a pattern of planned society, which, although using the patterns of planning, maintains its democratic control, and keeps those spheres of freedom and free initiative which are the genuine safeguards of culture and humanity.”

One wishes the author had gone to somewhat greater length in sketching the outline of his “Third Way,” and also that he had said something about the required mass basis for realizing democratic planning. As it is, one gains the impression that the realization of a socialized democracy is exclusively the task of college professors, social workers, reformers and religious leaders.

Nevertheless, it is a valuable and stimulating book. And it is a pity that an intricate Germanic style and episodic treatment of the ideas make the book inaccessible to the wide circle of readers who should be acquainted with its contents.

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