The Ins and Outs of Lloyd’s Left Out

by Ralph Dumain

Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890-1922 by Brian Lloyd (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) has considerable intellectual and historical merit. My biggest reservation lay in waiting for the punchline, i.e. the practical alternative to Second International Marxism going south. It is rare for me to find an analysis that tells me something new, but this one has a lot to say about American Marxism in the Debs/2nd International era and about the class basis and ideological underpinnings of American Progressivism and pragmatism.

I was struck by the central role Lloyd ascribes to psychology in the theoretical basis of so many of the thinkers he treats, starting with James and Dewey. Another main theme is the duality Lloyd sees in pragmatism as indicated by the fundamental philosophical opposition of Dewey to James although both are included within the same tradition. I find that Lloyd makes a very convincing prima facie argument all around and even gives me clues as to the real nature of the current revival of pragmatism by today's opportunist liberals, such as Richard Rorty and Cornel West, both firmly in the camp of irrationalism. I can also see some underlying motivations for those who now claim the mantle of ‘American philosophy’, an expression I have always considered an oxymoron.

Lloyd takes a panoramic view of the class logic behind the early American socialists in his book. I can see his argument for intellectual independence—i.e the need for intellectuals to be independent of bourgeois thought. But Lloyd’s argument for the theoretical development of Marxism independent of the labor movement, while intriguing, troubles me as far as practical politics go. Revolutionary situations such as obtained in Russia, China, and various other countries are relatively rare, and most people are reformists except under drastic conditions. Hence what does Lloyd consider the practical political role of Marxist theoreticians to be? It would seem he would have to uphold the vanguard party conception, or else how could the maintenance of the independence of the Marxist tradition have any political efficacy? The existence of vanguards, though, tends to exacerbate the very problems they are designed to solve, for new class ambitions can solidify under the banner of revolutionary parties as they do under reformist ones, as Lloyd well knows.

Noteworthy is Lloyd’s uncompromising dedication to theory, taking Lenin’s dictum seriously, that revolutionary practice is impossible in lieu of revolutionary theory. Lloyd demonstrates from beginning to end that the American socialist left was not essentially different from its European counterpart (thus not exceptionalist!), and it was crippled by the ideological presumptions of pragmatism, the New Psychology, fantasies of national character and exceptionalism, fatalistic determinism, economism, syndicalism, a social engineering complex, tough-minded worship of facts, and hayseed empiricism. And this was true not just of philistines, compromisers, backsliders, and turncoats, but even of the best theorists and practitioners of American Marxism—Boudin, Fraina—as well as Debs and the atheoretical journalist John Reed.

Lloyd follows the course of progressive liberalism, socialist trade unionism, and Second International Marxism from the moment of the consolidation of pragmatism as an ideological tendency (in which antithetical tendencies come to share the same name: James’s retrograde irrationalism and Dewey’s shallow scientism), up through the crisis brought on by World War I, the capitulation of American liberal and left intellectuals to America’s participation in the war, to the antiwar resistance (Bourne et al), to reactions pro and con concerning the Russian Revolution, and finally to Lenin. The story ends with Lenin lecturing Fraina in Moscow on the need to study philosophy.

There is a punchline, which comes in the concluding chapter. Lloyd swipes at New Left historians—especially Paul Buhle—for resurrecting the childish populism, exceptionalism, obsession with national character, and nostalgia for Debsian, Pop Front and other indigenous American socialisms. (He also swipes at Thompson and Gramsci in passing.) He far prefers the greater perceptiveness of old leftists (even the turncoats) and consensus historians regarding the essence of Marxism to the intellectually flabby apologists of the New Left who naively reproduce the hayseed empiricism of old. Lloyd argues that the New Left also resorts to clichés about its own history, reducing an analysis of its mistakes to the sectarian Maoist destruction of SDS.

Lloyd summarizes all the bad intellectual practices of the Debs-era and the New Left. Outstanding among them is the chronic inability to draw reasoned conclusions from empirical facts. Individual events are blown up to prove metaphysically conceived notions of social realities, psychological dispositions, and national character. Lloyd does not argue for political purism nor stake the claim that a devotion to Marxist theory alone could guarantee revolutionary success. He argues for rescuing the theoretical as well as the practical history of American Marxism and investigating the actual relationship and possible influences of theory on political practice. He claims that preserving and cultivating Marxist theory autonomously, apart from trade unionism and other pragmatic social movements, is absolutely essential, as revolutionary social transformation has to be a conscious process and cannot simply be a spontaneous product of circumstances.

This study is far superior to Menand’s middlebrow analysis of pragmatism. I was also reminded of the brain-dead insipidity of the American ‘activist’ type as I listened to our Pacifica station’s pabulum while finishing up this book. There is much about Lloyd’s perspective that I admire: the need for intellectuals to preserve their independence and not blind themselves with bad thinking, the utter bankruptcy of pragmatism and the worship of the brute fact, the intellectual banality of the New Left. The resurrection of the Pop Front and old CP intellectual and cultural contributions is a salubrious effort to recover the repressed past, but it tends to be naive and seems to be related to the opportunism of the present. (Even certain Trotskyist scholars are willing to bury the hatchet and admit the old commies into the brotherhood. Another interesting example is Michael Denning’s inclusion of C.L.R. James in The Cultural Front. While it is gratifying to see C.L.R. James’s contributions to the study of American society and culture incorporated into left and mainstream scholarship at last, it is a falsification of history to seamlessly incorporate James into a tradition he despised and from which he intentionally separated himself. There is not one James or leftist scholar—not even one—who is capable of handling Mariners, because Mariners implicitly condemns each and every one.)

However, Lloyd leaves us hanging with respect to key issues. The intellectuals he examines operated in leadership roles and/or the intellectual superstructures of American radicalism. Lloyd convinces us that these people should have thought differently (though they probably could not have), and that they should have taken different policy positions, but there is no indication of what they should have done differently with respect to the actual organized social movement, and what practical alternatives existed given the state of the labor/socialist movement. With respect to the Russian Revolution: a number of Second International Marxists were appalled by it and thought it was the most inauspicious place for a socialist revolution to take place. Lloyd documents the professional anticommunism whose roots lie in this reaction. He supports Lenin’s vision. He also acknowledges the weakness of the Soviet position and its initial hopes to bolster itself via revolution in Germany and other places, then Lenin's rejection of ultraleftism as world-revolutionary prospects faded.

The question remains, though: given the very different levels of development of Russia and the advanced industrial bourgeois democracies like the USA, how would a Leninist perspective apply to American conditions—not just in terms of the organization and perspective of a revolutionary party, but in terms of the seizure of state power and the organization of what happens after? Lloyd seems to be rather cavalier about the institutions of bourgeois democracy which manages to be as ruthless and undemocratic as it needs to be and thus is just a capitalist state machine that needs to be smashed. The USA was undemocratic to an extreme—labor had no rights, civil liberties were a dead letter, women could not vote until after the war, blacks were completely suppressed with legal as well as the most terroristic of means. Still, an advanced industrial capitalist society with a formal democratic apparatus is not a third world peasant country. We still have not the slightest idea how to organize a socialist society. And this is just to consider the state of the world in 1918, before taking into account our historical knowledge of what transpired in the ensuing nine decades. The USSR’s situation and prospects were grim even before Lenin's death. Lenin himself wanted to promote philosophical sophistication and independent thinking, but the culture of which he was part rendered such an orientation impossible, which he only fully realized too late. There is not only the debacle of the USSR to consider, but what about the practice of American communists, who at least nominally adopted the Marxist-Leninist perspective that Lloyd supports? Can one claim that the autonomy of Marxist theory was maintained by any communist organization that ever existed? How can theory and practice in effect interact? And, since theory requires theorists, what is the role of the individual and of individualism in instantiating the intellectual autonomy required to maintain theoretical autonomy? Lloyd has not a word to say about any of this. He has been unfairly accused of presumption and arrogance, but his more perceptive reviewers have noted that his perspective seems to be floating on air, with nothing to support it but a proclaimed allegiance to Marxism-Leninism.

Don’t forget to check out the bibliographical essay at the end, which gives essential readings correlated with each chapter. Note the books recommended (chapter one) for the study of the history of pragmatism. Later on, he cites some of his own influences. The major ones are Marx, Engels, Lenin, Lukacs, and Mao. More contemporary scholars cited include Perry Anderson, Charles Bettleheim, Lucio Colletti, Bertell Ollman, David-Hillel Rubin, and G. Therborn. The only thing I can say about this is that anyone who claims Mao as a favorable influence deserves a good beating.

11-12 December 2003, 10 March 2004

Ryder’s Review of Left Out Reviewed

by Ralph Dumain

Reading several articles by John Ryder gave me the overall impression that I am not his usual reading audience. I do not believe that this is because I’m not in the philosophy profession, but because I am not the type of person for whom he has to walk on eggshells in order to remain on good terms. I get the feeling Ryder faces an audience biased against him and might even be unsympathetic or hostile and must therefore be won over.

I do not think that Ryder’s criticism of Lloyd’s take on pragmatism, James, or Dewey, was successful. (See Ryder’s review of Lloyd in Transactions, Winter 1999, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, pp. 197-203.) Ryder bypassed much of Lloyd’s argument, suggesting that there are other aspects of Dewey which are progressive and worth considering, which well may be so but hardly invalidates Lloyd’s argument.

Ryder points out the “glib and superficial treatment” Lloyd gives of pragmatism as a philosophy. Secondly, the critique of American pragmatism’s overt or implicit fusion with American socialism is interwoven with the issue of American exceptionalism. Thirdly, there is Lloyd’s conclusion that pragmatism is essentially an apology for bourgeois society. And there is the judgment that pragmatism’s politics is essentially liberalism. Now depending on how one evaluates each of these components and their interrelationships, one will come to different conclusions about the degree of Lloyd’s dogmatism. Rightly or wrongly Ryder hints at a certain amount of inflexibility or dogmatism in Lloyd’s treatment of these issues. I can see different ways of interpreting them and especially their interrelationships or independence from another.

There is another major issue not mentioned, perhaps because the book reportedly slights it, to wit: the actual epistemological and ontological commitments of pragmatism, which are the primary grounds on which it should be indicted, and which supply the missing link that would demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between pragmatism and bourgeois apologetics. On the other hand, I see American exceptionalism as an issue potentially separable from the rest. (There are some rare positive Marxist approaches to American exceptionalism, for example C.L.R. James’s American Civilization, which has been coopted but not properly intellectually processed by the left academic meat grinder.) Exceptionalism and pragmatism may both be quintessentially American ideologies springing out of the same set of circumstances, but I would be hesitant to claim that their relationship is intellectually crucial. I can see the argument for the linkage, as they both deny certain kinds of social determination in favor of ideology and rhetoric, but I would not want to invest much of my time in proving their interrelationship except maybe as a byproduct of another analysis. A distinction could even be made between the components of liberalism and ‘liberalism’, and between liberal institutions and their necessary connection to bourgeois society. That is, liberal institutions could be seen to be a prerequisite and necessary ingredient in the formation of a socialist society. (The early Habermas was working in this vein, I would say.) My guess is that Ryder would be happy with such an argument, as I would. Hence it is possible to infer some degree of dogmatism in Lloyd's account. (I found this dogmatism to be located at one specific Archimedean point: Lenin as the anchor for the ‘correct’ perspective.)

I always look forward to the trashing of pragmatism. On the other hand, hatchet jobs have to be executed with some degree of skill. I’ve looked through Harry Wells’ book on pragmatism, and, as much as I would like to believe it, I don’t: it is poorly argued and completely unconvincing. My only other comment on Ryder's review is that even though Dewey may have been more progressive that Lloyd is willing to concede, that hardly makes his philosophy more desirable or profound or any less bourgeois. It just means that others have been indulging in overkill.

1 December 2003

Rider to Ryder on ‘Pragmatic Political Technology: A Reasonable Possibility?’

by Ralph Dumain

John Ryder’s article on “Pragmatic Political Technology” (World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul, Turkey, August, 2003) failed to inspire me. I see nothing unique about the value commitments of pragmatism to justify the existence of a distinct philosophy bearing that name. I also value “individual development, free inquiry into and exchange of ideas, and the importance of democratic forms of social organization”. Is that any reason for me to enlist myself in the ranks of pragmatism? I see none whatever. I’m also interested in education as a top priority, and in instilling certain habits of mind, independently of specific political commitment. Should I then call myself a pragmatist? I can’t see why. I can see good reasons not to, as pragmatism in the popular mind means just the opposite, i.e. adaptation to circumstances rather than standing on principle, a questionable foundation for any intellectual position and least of all intellectual independence. In the question of political technology in practice, Ryder addresses the problem of what went wrong with Marxism:

. . . the powers that be believed that their ideas were necessary for the development of their respective societies, so much so that dissension, even disagreement, was not to be tolerated.


. . . but even Marxism, which had and has a greater claim to democratic possibilities, was put to work as an ideological foundation, as a set of truths rather than a set of possibilities to be employed, confirmed or refuted in experience, revised, or possibly rejected. Nor were the basic ideas formed through the free and creative exercise of individual and community determination of values and ends. Had they been, the pragmatist might argue, i.e. had they been approached pragmatically rather than ideologically, there might have been greater hope of success.

But this is a rather superficial approach to what the problem was either intellectually or sociologically. How did Marxism get transformed from a set of possibilities to a set of ideological truths, and what were the social determinants of such social instantiations? Ryder completely bypasses the intellectual content and methodology of Marxism, which must have some relationship to its ability to be configured in various ways including ideologically. And on the other side, Ryder ignores the sociological dimension, the nature of socialization and institutionalization that primes ideas and people to be incorporated into certain types of structures. In sum, Ryder’s approach is as much sloganeering and propagandistic and external to any concrete content as is pragmatism itself. Open-endedness, open-mindedness, experimentalism, etc. is all fine rhetoric, but there is no intellectual content to it, and there can be no philosophy that monopolizes such generic values or can lay claim to exclusive rights over them. Either one is capable of manifesting these properties or not; there is something suspect about bragging about them. Ironically, open-mindedness is a matter of practice and not of theory. It cannot be theorized in a vacuum, because as such it doesn’t exist; it only has meaning with respect to some range of options based upon the state of knowledge at any given time. That is one more reason a ‘pragmatic political technology’ is senseless. Neither Dewey nor Habermas are adequate in explaining why bourgeois democracy can never realize its promises or why the ideal speech situation is indeed a counterfactual fantasy.

1 December 2003

All essays compiled, edited & revised 19 March 2005
©2005 Ralph Dumain

See also:

Tutt, Daniel. “The Rise and Fall of Homegrown American Marxism,” Cosmonaut, May 27, 2022.

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Selected Bibliography (sans annotations)

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Selected Bibliography (with annotations)

Review of John Ryder, Interpreting America: Russian and Soviet Studies of the History of American Thought
by R. Dumain

American Philosophy Study Guide

The Philosophy of Theory and Practice: Selected Bibliography

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Second International Marxism, German Social Democracy, Austro-Marxism: Selected Secondary Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 19 March 2005
Links added 10 Aug 2010 & 28 May 2022

©2005-2022 Ralph Dumain