Philosophical Portrait of a Dying Civilization

by Ralph Dumain


This paper was delivered on December 29, 1988 in Washington, DC, to a meeting of the Society of Philosophers at Work in the World as part of a conference of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. As it was originally meant to be heard, not read, it was not cast in scholarly form with footnotes. I have added to the written version of the paper a brief glossary of definitions of terms not defined in my talk, and a supplementary bibliography for those interested in the people and ideas discussed.


The title of this paper was inspired by martyred anti-fascist cultural critic Christopher Caudwell. The contemporary situation in the United States is likened to the decline of the Weimar republic, and to the world crisis of capitalism in the 1930s to which Caudwell responded. The ideological and political shift from social democracy to fascism (usually referred to by the euphemism "conservatism") during the Reagan era is reflected in mass entertainment and the news media and in the stultification, bigotry, and false consciousness of the populace.

I analyze the intellectual and cultural correlates of both social democracy and fascism: in everday life and the popular media, in the intellectual marketplace at large, and in academia. The essence of my argument is that subjective idealism is the philosophy of liberal and social democracy, while objective idealism is the philosophy of fascism. As social democracy degenerates into fascism, so the ideologies of social democracy in their decadence pave the way for fascism.

In the 1960s through early 1980s, the folk belief that reality is a creation of the individual mind (characteristic of both the establishment and counter-culture) was reinforced by popular and intellectual culture. One popular trend has been the linkage of the sciences, particularly physics and mathematics, with (eastern) mysticism, usually in the propagation of subjective idealism.

The increasing consciousness of the corruption of the institutions of liberal democracy has culminated in a decadent cynicism towards the possibility of objective scientific truth. Specialties such as philosophy, literary theory, and sociology of science (including the rhetorical analysis of science) have been further corrupted by extreme sociologism, feminist metaphysics, bourgeois black nationalism, and deconstructionism, for example.

All these approaches are characterized by hypocrisy, manipulation, and hostility to rationality and humanism. Their alternative mystifications reflect a social fascist orientation characteristic of middle class opportunists. The common thread running through these examples is philosophical idealism, to which must be counterposed militant materialism.

These philosophies, however seemingly hostile to the status quo, represent adaptations to the capitalist system, for under bourgeois democracy in which one can seemingly question anything, there remains one taboo: one cannot publicly question the capitalist system or its metaphysical fundamentals. The oppositional philosophies treated here are themselves hegemonic, but in a novel way. Unlike philosophers of previous epochs, who were directly and consciously linked with the ruling class, the intellectuals described above are alienated and seek only to serve themselves and in so doing create their own microhegemonies, following the political economy of the knowledge industry. Yet they are the intellectual representatives of social democracy and so until recently have served the cooptive aims of the ruling class.

Now they are under attack by the intellectuals of the right, who are the conscious representatives of a ruling class which now cynically aims to discredit the very ideologies it once supported. The rightist intellectuals fight subjective idealism with objective idealism. Religious fundamentalism, Platonism, the core curriculum, the "common culture," "cultural literacy," and "moral education" are the tools of racism and fascism, of intimidation and enforcement of subservience within a rigidified class structure.

While fascist propaganda dominates the mass media, the universities lag behind the times, and there social democratic ideologies are still strong. This transitional period is crucial, for the social democratic intellectuals, isolated from popular support, will have to decide how they will respond to defamation and harassment. Intellectuals can no longer afford to play games with reality; the public desperately requires real information and understanding. I call for the promotion of dialectical consciousness as an alternative to mystification within popular culture and to the intellectuals' rhetoric of postmodernism.

Talk delivered 29 December 1988
Abstract written 26 January 1989
Uploaded 10 July 2006
1989, 2006 Ralph Dumain

SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. "Philosophical Portrait of a Dying Civilization" [abstract of paper given at conference of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association], SPWW Newsletter [Society of Philosophers at Work in the World], February 1989, pp. 7-8. Summary (abstract) published with prefatory note by newsletter editor. See also full paper.

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