The Study of Man: Rethinking World Politics
The ideas which separate Western democracy from Soviet Communism are the subject of this essay by George Lichtheim, a regular contributor and former associate editor of this magazine. His discussion revolves around four current books: The Structure of Nations and Empires, by Reinhold Niebuhr (Scribner’s); Five Ideas That Changed the World, by Barbara Ward (Norton); New Fabian Colonial Essays (Hogarth Press, London); and The Sociological Imagination, by C. Wright Mills (Oxford University Press). Mr. Mills’s book will also be reviewed at greater length by Dennis H. Wrong in a forthcoming issue.
The longer the global stalemate lasts, the more obvious it becomes that the “cold war” and “coexistence” are two sides of the same ooin; in the end they may come to be synonymous. Even now the arms race shows signs of bogging down in a thermonuclear deadlock, with the major powers feeling their way toward some form of limited agreement on inspection and control, while a dozen or so nations of the second and third rank are cautiously edging toward the first stage of atomic sovereignty in peace or war. Politically, the two “camps” are increasingly concerned to impress the sizeable bloc of uncommitted humanity in some of the less developed countries. While the possibility of a “showdown” continues to figure in all political calculations, emphasis is shifting to long-range perspectives; we are no longer so certain that the two blocs cannot coexist.
A situation of this kind encourages a revival of thinking about fundamentals. What sort of ground do we stand on, and wherein do we differ from our opponents? What is the irreducible minimum of consent that must be preserved if the democratic camp is to hold together? In their different ways, four significant recent books are all concerned with this theme. Two are by American, two by British authors, and the viewpoints they reflect range from moderate conservatism to Fabian socialism (with a Marxist infusion). It may be relevant to inquire whether something like a common attitude can be distilled from them.
Reinhold Niebuhr, as befits a distinguished theologian, casts his reflections in the form of an essay on the principles of political conduct. Oddly, he couples this traditional approach with a running commentary on international affairs which at times suggests an almost breathless topicality: Suez, Hungary, the Eisenhower Doctrine, and the latest analysis of Khrushchev’s maneuvers by some accredited news commentator, wrestle in his pages with elaborate reflections on Augustine’s Civitas Dei and the Hobbesian doctrine of statecraft. Cicero and Thomas Aquinas are no sooner brought into the discussion than we are reminded that the League of Nations was a failure for which Wilson was partly responsible. Augustine is coupled with Lenin, the point being that “Lenin’s estimate of capitalism is as one-sided as Augustine’s estimate of the Roman state.” Lest the reader infer that capitalism is as dead as Rome was when Augustine gloated over its fall, he is also advised that “bourgeois democracy is rightly regarded in the West as the best form of government.” Capitalism, moreover, has managed to reform itself, and Western democracy has consequently become “immune to the virus of Marxist [sic] rebellion.” But in that case what is the point of bracketing Lenin with Augustine? Elsewhere modern Communism is compared with Islam during its age of military expansion; this too suggests a vision of breakdown and disintegration, but Dr. Niebuhr rejects Toynbee’s defeatism and is confident that the West has a chance to survive; though “for the time being the Western type of democracy must expect to lose many encounters in the dark continents, because its fluid equilibria require a technical civilization which is beyond the present competence of nations recently introduced to an industrial civilization.” It hardly needed an exegesis of political philosophy since Plato to bring us to this familiar conclusion.
The truth is that Dr. Niebuhr, in this interesting but curiously shapeless tract for the times, pursues two different lines of thought which are not really brought together. Problems of “structure” demand a sociological approach which is alien to his cast of mind, while his concern with immutable principles leads—despite his strenuous search for political concretion—to the familiar dichotomy of abstract ideas and unassimilable facts. A political philosophy must indeed incorporate both general principles of conduct and discussions of particular problems—imperialism, totalitarianism, and so on; but this aim is not secured by isolating half a dozen abstract notions and then “applying” them mechanically to contexts as varied as the later Roman Empire, the Italian city-states in Machiavelli’s time, the emerging European nation-states, and finally the present conflict between what Dr. Niebuhr—with rare explicitness—refers to as “the two imperial nations of today,” meaning the US and the USSR. His categories—democracy, authority, commonwealth, dominion, empire, etc.—are so defined as to cover both their traditional use (he has an entire section on Dante’s De Monorchia) and their current employment in the ideological cold war. The result is confusing rather than illuminating. The “empire” of Dante’s imagination was not the real Holy Roman Empire as it actually existed in his day, and neither the one nor the other bears any relation (other than an etymological one) to the British Empire. There is no easy transition from one level to another, save by the familiar expedient of taking ideological constructs at face value. This done, we are once more confronted with the old problem: how did the concepts get into the heads of their authors, and what was it that made them relevant to the politics of their day?
Dr. Niebuhr’s solution is the familiar one of turning ideas—or, as Hegel would have said, “the idea”—into the demiurge of history:
Whether through the confusion of Rousseau’s conception of the ‘general will’ . . . or through the physiocratic conception of the ‘laws of nature’ . . . or whether in Condorcet’s vague conception of free men having no sovereign ‘other than their reason,’ the confidence in reason, and in liberty based on reason, bred tyranny and anarchy in France. On the other hand, the Lockean theories of consent of the governed, combined with the idea of this consent being expressed through the rule of majorities, made for ordered government in both Britain and America.
Apart from reflecting the traditional conservative Anglo-Saxon view of the French Revolution, a statement such as this does nothing to clarify the relation of doctrines to political realities. It is not even factually correct: Locke’s theories were at the root of French liberalism. If their application produced results wholly different from anything experienced in Britain and America, the cause must be sought in material circumstances. Dr. Niebuhr remembers this principle on some occasions, and forgets it on others. Incidentally, what is “ordered government”? Was the Ancien Régime ordered? If not, did France ever have an “ordered government,” and if so, when? We are not told.
These uncertainties are not accidental. Dr. Niebuhr is poised between two quite incompatible ways of treating historical subjects. The title of his essay is The Structure of Nations and Empires. Now there is a certain fatality about the employment of the term “structure”: it suggests that historical realities can be discussed in scientific language. Marx and Max Weber stand at the end of this dangerous path, beckoning the unwary philosopher to come closer. If he is incautious enough to go on, he is likely to lose his idealist halo, and Dr. Niebuhr—for all his quotations from Joseph Schumpeter and Karl A. Wittfogel—is firmly wedded to the idealist heritage. His concern is not with historical patterns, but with the eternal balance of “order” and “justice.” These are legitimate subjects of political philosophy, but not of political science—if that term is to have any meaning. This distinction, of course, does not invalidate the belief that science must in the last resort be rooted in philosophy: even a Marxist (not to mention the Thomists) would agree to this proposition. But Dr. Niebuhr fails to allow sufficiently for the difference. His discussion shifts to and fro between general principles and the temporary exigencies of “authority,” “majesty,” or “dominion.” There is no analysis of “structures,” not even of the Communist structure, to which a good deal of the argument is ostensibly devoted. The tension between his realistic purpose and his ideological approach is not resolved but camouflaged; incompatible principles are yoked together and made to coexist on the basis of a judicious, but quite arbitrary, splitting of the methodological difference. A definite statement is no sooner made than it is qualified by its opposite. This may be liberalism of a kind, but it is not the kind that gets us much further.
The weakness of this eclecticism is illustrated by Dr. Niebuhr’s treatment of the subject of empire. The United States and the Soviet Union are both, he says, “imperial nations” and leaders of world-wide alliances within which they occupy a position of domination or hegemony. So far so good—to the British reader at any rate such candor comes as welcome relief after years of official make-believe on this subject. But from this promising start we are promptly deflected into an agonizing inspection! of Dr. Niebuhr’s political conscience. “Both the imperial nations,” it appears, have something in common: “they both believe that imperialism is an outmoded form of political organization. The one believes this by virtue of a democratic creed, which persists in America in its pristine purity. . . . The ironic fact is that the Marxist and liberal-democratic theories of power relations are very similar in obscuring the perennial factors. . . . The ideological system of democratic liberalism has no room for the expression of any power, or the formation of any community, above the level of the nation and below the level of the universal community. . . . Marxism is the only version of the universal empire which could achieve relevance in a secular age. . . .” “The curious fact that the two nations which have achieved imperial power condemn imperialism for different reasons, has led to some serious confusions,” including a tendency on the part of some prominent Americans—Dr. Niebuhr particularly quotes a postwar utterance by President (then General) Eisenhower—to see an alleged resemblance between the United States and the USSR, on the grounds that “both were free of the stigma of empire-building by force.” Whereas they should have realized that “we are now in a situation in which a new imperialism, namely that of the Russian Communists, has effectively reconstructed in Utopian terms the oldest imperialism of human history”: that of an empire based on “an ideological universalism.”
Now the trouble with all this profundity is that there is really no call for it. No one outside the United States ever doubted that after the Second World War America was bound to step into Britain’s shoes; and few people saw anything wrong with it. “Imperialism” of course is a swearword in America, as is “power politics.” But that is no excuse for making such heavy weather over the new status of the United States as a world power. As for the Soviet bloc, it is not an “empire” in the old sense, but is oriented toward the center in Moscow, and no right-thinking Communist with a faith in central planning can doubt that this is a reasonable arrangement which benefits all concerned. One need not be an adherent of some messianic creed to hold such a view, just as one does not have to be an old-fashioned Tory romantic to believe that there was some rational justification for the British Empire. (As a matter of fact, most Fabians took precisely the same view, and some prominent socialists in England do to this day.) In short, the whole excursus into old and new imperialisms turns out to be concerned with nothing more fundamental than the surviving nostalgia of some Americans for a state of affairs when the United States had no real responsibilities.
Unfortunately Dr. Niebuhr is unwilling to see the situation in this light, and since he is too candid to deny that America has become “imperial,” he agonizes for entire chapters over the problem of defining a concept of empire which will not outrage democratic and radical sentiment. In the process he takes his readers over a good deal of familiar historical ground (starting from ancient Mesopotamia), in order to establish the point that “empires” have existed since time immemorial; from which it is supposed to follow that “the Marxists” are all wrong in seeing the source of imperialism in capitalism. But this will not do. It is true that domination over conquered peoples is a very ancient phenomenon (going back all the way to Pharaonic Egypt, if one cares to pursue it that far); but it is likewise the case that the 19th- and 20th-century version of imperialism was bound up with the then prevailing economic organization in the Western world, which happened to be industrial capitalism. Moreover, the first people to notice this fact, and to complain about it, were not socialists, let alone Marxists (there is not a word on the subject in Marx’s writings, and Engels was if anything rather favorable to imperialism, as were the Fabians), but old-fashioned Liberals who had come to believe—with Cobden, Mill, Spencer, and their political progeny—that empire-building was incompatible with free trade and consequently destined to disappear. It was only after they had waxed indignant on the subject for some years that the socialists caught on; as for the Russian Communists, their “anti-imperialism” was always exclusively directed against the West, and in particular against Britain. In short, the whole problem that causes Dr. Niebuhr so much worry and anxiety is largely one of terminology (and of course politics).
This is an instance of Dr. Niebuhr’s persistent habit of treating historical circumstances, and the more or less distorted notions formed by people about these circumstances, as though they belonged to the same order of reality. On other occasions his concern with what men thought they were doing, rather than with what they were actually doing, leads him to become unfair even to his favorite theorists: the founders of Anglo-Saxon liberalism. Thus he credits Adam Smith with the “honest mistake” of supposing that manufacturers and workers benefited equally from the free play of market forces. Actually Smith was quite realistic on this subject—there is a celebrated passage in the Wealth of Nations on the inequality of bargaining power as between masters and men—but his clear realization that the balance was weighted in favor of the employers had not the slightest effect on what took place in the next generation. Why should it have? Professors of economics, however influential, cannot by themselves alter the balance of social forces. To suggest that “the injustices [sic] of early industrialism were the consequence” of a simple failure to see the obvious, is to revert to a mode of history writing which one had supposed to be dead and buried.
That Dr. Niebuhr is not alone in taking this curious view of the subject is evident from Miss Barbara Ward’s 1957 lectures at Ghana University, recently published in book form with a prefatory tribute by Dr. Nkrumah to “my good friend Lady Jackson, known to the world as Barbara Ward.” Unlike Dr. Niebuhr, Miss Ward is a professional economist and quite aware of what the classical theorists were doing. Yet anyone reading her chapter on Communism—there are also companion pieces on nationalism, colonialism, and industrialism—might be pardoned for supposing that all the horrors of Victorian industrialism were the consequence of a regrettable obtuseness on the part of otherwise well-meaning people, such as Cobden and Bright, who on ideological grounds opposed legislation to ban child labor. If only they had seen more clearly what the new system implied, if only they had not been rushed off their feet by the industrial revolution, those honors, it seems, would not have taken place; Marx and Engels would have had nothing to get indignant about; and there would have been no Communism to plague us today! That under the conditions of early capitalism the new class of small-scale entrepreneurs could keep above water only by starving their workers; that the consequent spread of social barbarism was inherent in the conditions of the epoch—these disagreeable circumstances appear only briefly as an incident in “that first, ugly, rough, brutal stage of the industrial revolution” when “the workers in the main did the saving in the strict sense of non-consumption.” Unfortunately, this was also more or less what happened when the industrial revolution spread from England to other countries, some of them less well provided with means to cushion the shock. It is all very well to say that we have left these grim conditions behind, but “we” in this context means Western Europe and North America—not the bulk of mankind. And even in some of the more favored countries the experience has left traces in the collective memory which it will take a long time to efface. Miss Ward’s native Britain is a case in point. No one could claim that the British worker today is not reasonably well off, but his attachment to the Labor party—and even more his dislike of anything that might interfere with his accepted routine—stems directly from the traumatic experience of his ancestors a century ago.
There are other respects in which Miss Ward, like Dr. Niebuhr—with whom she shares an attachment to what used to be called Christian socialism—makes a little too much of what went on in people’s heads, as distinct from what they were actually doing. On the whole, though, she is decidedly realistic about the struggle between the two worlds, even to the extent of seeing Leninism as am answer to specifically Russian problems, where Dr. Niebuhr simply deduces the whole of Soviet Communism from the early Marxist Utopia. Since she was addressing an African audience, she had of course to simplify her brief sketch of Western history, and—more ominous for the future of intellectual relations with the emergent countries—she seems to have felt obliged to soft-pedal some of the more awkward aspects of the imperialist-colonialist nexus.
It is, apparently, not yet possible for a Westerner to talk plainly about the social and cultural disintegration which the modern world has brought to Africa; or to take up the awkward subject of where the necessary investments are to come from, supposing there to be an insufficiency of international funds. Then there is the no less ticklish problem of discovering the “new class” which can be trusted to run the industrial revolution. Miss Ward casually notes that in Japan this process went forward under the rule of a feudal oligarchy. “Government initiative was decisive, but a form of private initiative followed. In Turkey, too, with its earlier tradition of despotic government, the government itself initiated the industrial program. But dislike of Communism was one factor in insuring that some government-owned industry was then transferred to private groups.” This is true enough, and worth stating, especially to an African audience. But it offers small comfort to democrats.
Dr. Nkrumah’s preface to this volume is not without interest. The lectures, which he attended in company with other officials of the Ghana government, seem to have impressed him especially as an encouragement for his familiar vision of “small, uncommitted countries,” “free from the shackles of conflicting political ideologies,” “holding the ring for the main contestants, to prevent that loss of control which would mean the end of humanity.” For Dr. Nkrumah, the African countries are the natural peace-makers and bridge-builders. He can indeed draw comfort from Miss Ward’s picture of “the division of the world between two great military blocs,” though he is discreetly silent on her characterization of the Soviet bloc as “clearly the more expansive and aggressive force.” His preface therefore concludes with an altogether unexceptionable appeal for an end to “intolerance and exploitation, and inhumanity of man for man” (sic). This does well enough for a nationalist leader in charge of a newly emancipated country; it is not of course an honest report on the policy of Dr. Nkrumah’s government or, for that matter, any other government. Politicians cannot afford to be objective and dispassionate. It is part of their function to discover plausible rationalizations for what they feel obliged to do in any case. The ability to see this, and yet to sympathize with them, is the measure of genuine political sophistication, of which Miss Ward has her fair share. Not surprisingly, her lectures at Ghana University were a great success with the Africans; they deserved to be.
For a scholarly discussion of what the newly emergent countries are really up against, one does well to turn to the recently published collection of Fabian Colonial Essays. Here we have ex-ministers, (high officials, and professional economists laboriously and painstakingly going over the ground rapidly skimmed by Miss Ward, and in the process turning up a crop of exceedingly tough theoretical and political nuts for national leaders and colonial administrators to crack. Merely to contrast the very different views of Thomas Balogh and Arthur Gaitskell—brother of the Labor party leader, and a former director of vast economic enterprises in East Africa—on the subject of individual versus collective farming, is to realize that socialists can be at odds over crucial technical matters which may shape the political future of these territories. For the purpose of this discussion, however, greater interest inheres in the Fabian views on imperialism, past, present, and future; partly because they are as different as can be from those of Dr. Niebuhr and his fellow liberals.
The Fabian socialist’s chief bugbear is laissez-faire liberalism, and under this heading he also includes the traditional liberal attitude to colonies, i.e., that they are a nuisance to the “mother country” and had best become independent as fast as possible. He believes that behind this seemingly unimpeachable attitude there lurks—or lurked in the not so distant past, when Britannia ruled the world’s markets—an undisclosed conviction that the economic nexus between the metropolis and the colony must necessarily be a stronger link than any political arrangement; and he does not share this belief. Not all Fabians are as clear on this point as Dr. Balogh, but most would agree with him that the traditional liberal attitude is no solution to the problem of backward countries. For under perfectly “free” competition between the metropolis and the former colony, it is the former which, by reason of its greater economic weight, reaps most of the benefit. Now in Britain the liberal argument—subsequently also the Labor party argument as long as Labor was led by old free-traders—was usually directed against imperialism and protectionism as being an unwarranted interference (a) with the freedom of colonial people, and (b) with the freedom of the market, since these policies tended to send up the price of certain foodstuffs and raw materials imported by Britain (they might have been got cheaper elsewhere). Protectionism and colonialism were a threat to the working man’s breakfast table! This was the essence of radical-liberal “Little Englandism,” and it was this form of “anti-imperialism” which became popular in Britain from about 1900 onward. In Dr. Balogh’s words, which are worth pondering by Americans at the present day:
It could sharply attack Tory ‘imperialism’ or colonialism (as do some Americans at present) for its political rather than its economic arrangements without criticizing the latter. It could prepare for self-government without any reflection on the economic implications, because in a system of free trade, self-government would have no economic implications: (however small an area might be, it would be part and parcel of a world system, and that would continue to be dominated by Britain. Thus political independence would not have detrimental economic consequences.
Now this was all very well as long as one happened to believe in the “unseen hand” and the rest of the laissez-faire ideology, but what if one didn’t? British Labor after all had rejected classical economics at home; it stood for public intervention—state control—to make up for the unbalance of forces in the market. But if it was right for the government to intervene on the side of the workers, why was it wrong to intervene on the side of the colonial inhabitants, who were a good deal more helpless? Conversely, if the liberal argument applied to the relationship between the metropolis and the colonies, why should it not apply to the relations between employers and workers in Britain? Why not simply rely on the market? What labor was preaching at home thus stood in marked contrast to its unblinking acceptance of the liberal doctrine abroad.
By now, with the exception of a dwindling handful of laissez-faire extremists, no one affects to believe that “development” can simply be left to the free play of market forces. Under both Labor and Conservative governments, public intervention is being practiced on a scale limited only by Britain’s economic circumstances. The two great parties have become reluctant converts to the doctrine that freedom is not enough. In the case of the Conservatives this was less difficult than one might suppose; the true Tories had never really quite believed in the “unseen hand,” and when laissez-faire liberalism collapsed they took to state intervention like ducks to water, quoting Joseph Chamberlain’s imperialist manifestoes of the 1890′s in support. Something of the same kind has been happening lately under Gaullist auspices in France.
These considerations are not irrelevant to the subject of “imperialism” in general. In particular, they have a bearing upon the question discussed at length by Dr. Niebuhr in the earlier chapters of his work: what are the lasting consequences of an imperial nexus between advanced and backward countries? In justice to Dr. Niebuhr, it should be said that his treatment of this subject is distinguished by greater realism than is customary among liberals. He concedes that dependent territories may incidentally benefit from being subjected for a time to outside control; and indeed with the example of Puerto Rico before their eyes, it must be difficult for American liberals to maintain the opposite. The greater danger is rather that they will—like the 19th-century British radicals before them—take shelter behind a doctrinaire insistence on all-round national independence, not realizing that in many cases this may lead straight to Balkanization and impoverishment. Dr. Niebuhr mentions Liberia; we have yet to see what will become of Ghana. All this does not mean that these countries do not have the right to be independent; merely that one should beware of thinking that independence by itself will start them upon the road of equality with the older nations.
What emerges from a comparison of Dr. Niebuhr’s hesitant approach with the clear-cut realism of the Fabians is the time lag which affects American political thinking as the United States continues steadily to move into the British inheritance. “Liberal imperialism” is not really an adequate ideology for the United States, but it is probably the inevitable next step in the evolution of American political thinking. The agonizing reappraisal to which Dr. Niebuhr—with some assistance from George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau—subjects the liberal inheritance, is proof that the process has already gained sufficient depth to call for a reformulation of the liberal creed at its deepest—philosophical—level. The resultant gain in realism should not be disparaged, even if by British standards the new liberalism still seems a bit old-fashioned: notably in its horrified shrinking from anything associated with Marxian ideas. Perhaps we shall have to wait another decade before it becomes academically respectable to concede that Marx did for sociology what Darwin accomplished for the study of the human organism.
Some such realization clearly underlies C. Wright Mills’s latest work. The Sociological Imagination is an exasperating book to read, because it deals in an offhand and frequently dogmatic manner with a number of quite unrelated subjects, some of them already discussed at greater length in The Power Elite. But it would be foolish to ignore it. Mr. Mills’s political views are radical, in the old-fashioned sense: here and there they recall the old British liberal-radicalism of the pre-1914 era, which went to pieces in the First World War; elsewhere he appears to stand in the populist tradition, as reshaped by Veblen. (I am obliged to add that his recent pacifist pronouncements—broadcast over the British radio and greatly esteemed by many in the British Labor party—seem nonsensical to me. It is evident that they form the counterpart of some of the opinions put forward in this book, in which case one must hope that he will come to rely more heavily on Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, and less on Utopian radicalism and pacifism.)
The great advantage which Mr. Mills—not-withstanding a certain strain of naivety in his political thinking—possesses over those liberals who stand further to the right, is that he has read and assimilated Marx. This is not said in order to give offense, but simply as a statement of fact. It seems to be very difficult for liberals to emancipate themselves from their fascination with the Russian Revolution, without at the same time forgetting everything Marx had taught them. Dr. Niebuhr is a case in point: he appears to feel under an obligation to show that the cold war is a straight fight between old-fashioned 18th-century liberalism and newfangled 20th-century Leninism. This is what Time magazine would like to make its readers believe. Mr. Mills does not, which is why he can be read with pleasure and profit even by people who find his political views a bit simpliste. His book is a vigorously written appeal for sociological theorizing, in the spirit of Marx, Weber, Schumpeter, Veblen, and others, as against the deadening empiricism which eschews theory on the plea that “we have to collect more facts.” He is likewise predisposed against “grand theory” in the manner of Professor Talcott Parsons.
While the double assault on empiricism and abstract “grand theory” takes up the bulk of Mr. Mills’s tract, his basic theme is stated quite early: “The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography, and the relations between the two within society.” “No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history, and of their intersections within a society, has completed its intellectual journey.” Mr. Mills argues his case at some length, and for the most part in the form of an attack on the academic fraternity in general, and the sociologists in particular. It is possible to punch holes in his thesis. In my opinion, he tends to overrate the contribution made by the late Karl Mannheim; more important, there is a gap in his general argument: some of his remarks are devoted to a regretful deflation of the classic Enlightenment view of human history—preserved in both liberalism and socialism—according to which the growth of rationality is both the precondition and the guarantee of liberty. Yet on page 187 of his work he comes round to the conclusion that “the end product of any liberating education is simply the self-educating, self-cultivating man and woman; in short, the free and rational individual.” If that is so, we are back with the classics of the Enlightenment, for Mr. Mills presumably would not deny that his idea of education is derived from what they taught us.
This leads to the question whether he does not expect a little too much from his own discipline, that of sociology. To the cobbler of course there is nothing like leather (he makes this point himself). It may be true that “the sociological imagination is becoming . . . the major common denominator of our cultural life and its signal feature. This quality of mind is found in the social and psychological sciences, but it goes far beyond these studies as we now know them.” Does it follow that sociology can substitute itself for political philosophy? Mr. Mills seems inclined to think it can; Dr. Niebuhr doubtless would emphatically deny it. (The present writer, though in general closer to the critical attitude taken by Mr. Mills, would on this point side with Dr. Niebuhr; political science—which after all is applied sociology—ought to be grounded in philosophy.)
There does seem to be a very awkward gap between the kind of thinking represented by Dr. Niebuhr and that typified by Mr. Mills—who, for all his insistence on theory, is a pretty hardheaded empiricist. In one respect, however, Dr. Niebuhr and Mr. Mills are thinking along similar lines: both are concerned with the problem of ideology. “Is there any consistency, any perennial pattern or permanent force in man’s search for community?” asks Dr. Niebuhr, and he goes on to question whether it is possible to “make any significant generalization about the attitudes and motives of action of communities which would be equally valid for autocracies and democracies.” Evidently it is this kind of problem that Mr. Mills, too, has in mind when he writes: “The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions.” The individual, Mr. Mills goes on, “can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period.” To effect this tour de force he stands in need of theory. Conversely, Dr. Niebuhr is ready enough to concede that “an inquiry into the nature of community on all levels can be valid only if it follows rigorous empirical procedures in distinguishing the contingent and the novel from the permanent and the perennial in history.” On the face of it, this degree of mutual comprehension looks very promising indeed. With philosophers preaching the need for empirical investigation, and sociologists calling for theoretical imagination, the promised land appears to be in sight.
If in actual fact this agreement turns out to be more formal than real, one should not place all the blame on the participants in this particular debate. After all, the problem is a long-standing one. Are there regularities in history, and if so, can they be formulated in an unambiguous manner? Comte and Mill, as well as Marx, were concerned with this question, and despite the now fashionable railing against “historicism” on the part of some influential writers, modern historians and sociologists have continued to trouble themselves over it. “If we can grasp what John Stuart Mill called the ‘principia media’ of a society,” writes Mr. Mills, “if we can grasp its major trends, in brief, if we can understand the structural transformation of our epoch, we might have ‘a basis for prediction.’” The “structural transformation of our epoch” is likewise the subject of Dr. Niebuhr’s essay. Though widely differing in their conclusions—conservative in Dr. Niebuhr’s case, radical in that of Mr. Mills—they agree in their manner of defining the problem. They may also be said to concur in seeing the pitfall of “ideology,” i.e., “false consciousness,” placed unwittingly in the service of a political cause.
Yet Dr. Niebuhr’s handling of this explosive theme is somewhat hesitant, and where he does approach it he tends to oversimplification. “Are the principles both of liberal democracy and of Marxism, of the ‘equal sovereignty’ of all nations embodied in the charter of the League of Nations and now repeated in every statement of Soviet policy, merely a fraud?” he asks; “or do they express valid principles of equal justice which the incidence of irrelevant coagulations of power is bound to contradict in both domestic and foreign policy?” This manner of posing the question leaves no alternative other than the choice between unprincipled Realpolitik or commitment to abstract “principles of equal justice.” But what if someone should suggest that these “principles” are “valid” because they reflect the permanent interests of the world community? Such interests are “material” and “moral” at the same time; they may assert themselves (as they did against the gangster regime of Hitler Germany) for the simple reason that international gangsterism is not in fact practicable in the long run. Does that constitute proof of the existence of a moral order inherent in the nature of things? Yes, provided the “moral” is not thought of as being in opposition to the “material.” The trouble with most idealist philosophers is that they are reluctant to draw this conclusion. The appeal to disembodied principles—supposed to be of a “higher” order than “mere” concrete reality—takes precedence over the aim of showing that reality is so constituted as to guarantee some semblance of order and rationality; while the Marxists—having forgotten their Hegel—oblige their idealist critics by falling into the opposite extreme of cynical relativism. The outcome is what the French call a “dialogue of the deaf.”
Mr. Mills is no relativist, but here and there he comes close to sounding like one. His tough-minded pragmatism makes it easy for him to spot the current misuse of seemingly neutral theoretical constructions. “Grand theory,” he says in a none too veiled reference to the official school of academic sociology, “. . . has no direct bureaucratic utility; its political meaning is ideological, and such use as it may have lies there.” Meaning, one may suppose, that the effect of such theory is to confirm the defenders of the status quo in their faith. Since his own inclinations are critical and iconoclastic, he sees well enough that all static systems of thought are necessarily conservative, whatever the private notions of their authors. He is less well placed to define the function of radical criticism—his own included. “He was of the devil’s party without knowing it,” Blake said of Milton. Mr. Mills knows it very well, but perhaps needs an extra ounce of sociological imagination in order to perceive that he is doing what the British radicals did in the age when Britain was great: performing the essential function of a permanent opposition, which by its very existence and the vigor of its criticism helps the “Establishment” to perpetuate itself. Once this has been grasped, it becomes obvious why (in Dr. Niebuhr’s terminology) a successful imperial power requires an anti-imperialist ideology. Paradoxical? Perhaps. At any rate British experience is there to confirm it. Now that the United States has risen to world status, the old innocence will no longer do, but there is no need to lapse into cynicism. After all, some things are worth preserving!
The principles of historical understanding are themselves meta-historical. It is the strength of Dr. Niebuhr’s position that he realizes this, as it is the weakness of an empiricist like Mr. Mills that he fails to see it. The trouble is that from this realization Dr. Niebuhr proceeds immediately to a reconstruction of political thought, neglecting the intermediate stages and arriving in a breathless rush amidst the commonplaces of public oratory. His restatement of Natural Law doctrine ignores the genuine advance made in historical thinking since history was discovered to have a logic of its own. He is therefore old-fashioned and, for all his concern with current affairs, curiously naive in his critique of what he supposes to be the Marxian concept. This is best done by confronting Leninist theory with Soviet practice, and with the changing reality beyond the borders of the USSR. In this respect radicals like Mr. Mills, who share some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment with the heirs of Lenin, are better placed than conservatives like Dr. Niebuhr. To be effective, the critique of Communism must demonstrate its practicality. The more it concentrates on “changing the world,” the less it has to fear from the rigid and old-fashioned doctrines to which the Soviet camp remains committed. Since the ideological frontiers in the cold war show signs of becoming permanent, it is to be hoped that the debate will increasingly turn upon points which impinge directly on the fading ability of Soviet Marxism to give a coherent account of itself.