The Brilliant and Schizophrenic Politics of Richard Rorty

Andrew Hartman
July 6, 2007

After philosopher Richard Rorty’s death a few weeks ago, my colleagues at the U.S. Intellectual History web log wondered aloud how important Rorty is to historical and contemporary social thought. I found myself shamefully unprepared to contribute to that discussion. Some agreed with a Harvard professor quoted by The Chronicle of Higher Education as follows: “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that one could not be taken seriously as an intellectual in the 1990s without forming some kind of opinion as to Rorty’s views.” Others disagreed.

I was inclined to disagree since I consider myself well versed in U.S. intellectual currents yet not in Rorty. Sure, I knew the basics. I knew Rorty to be a voice of the American left. I also knew him to be a philosophic pragmatist carrying on where John Dewey left off. I understood that Rorty saw these two positions – leftist politics and pragmatism – as interrelated. In this regard, I knew all about how he had been criticized by Marxists such as Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek for his neo-pragmatism, which they considered at one with a depoliticized postmodernism.

But I decided before making the solipsist and fallacious argument that Rorty is unimportant because I am unaware, I had better read the man. I chose to read his Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998), because the title drew attention to two of my main interests: leftist politics and U.S. intellectual history. This book, based on a set of five lively lectures, is a passionate plea for a revived reformist left, a return to the left of Eugene Debs instead of that of Michel Foucault.

Achieving Our Country reveals Rorty’s brilliant political mind. I found his lecture on “A Cultural Left” particularly illuminating. In it, Rorty describes the historical genealogy of an academic left that, beginning in the 1960s, focused on ameliorating sadism – racism, sexism, and homophobia – instead of lessening economic equality. This is the much-lamented shift to “identity politics.” This dichotomy is somewhat reductionist in that the two strands are not easily separated: sadist politics are often rooted in economic selfishness. This connection is what W.E.B. Dubois and David Roediger have referred to as the psychological “wages of whiteness,” imputed to also mean the “wages of maleness” or the “wages of straightness.” However, such reductionism notwithstanding, Rorty’s lecture is highly instructive.

Unlike conservatives who decry identity-based affirmative action, Rorty understands the necessity of fighting sadism. He credits the cultural left for a nicer society. “Especially among college graduates,” Rorty argues, “the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century… The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as ‘politically correct’ has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago” (81).

But despite such success, Rorty laments the cultural left’s inability to fight against economic inequality. “During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased” (83). It’s not that Rorty blames the cultural left for inequality, which he correctly attributes to the race-to-the-bottom ethos of corporate globalization, which is proletarianizing a good portion of the U.S. middle class. But he does argue that the cultural left is unable to engage in national politics due to severed links to unions and others who continue the struggle against the greedy corporations that dominate the political system. To some degree Rorty’s argument, made nine years ago, is a touch anachronistic: the academic left has been steadily increasing its involvement in the political-economic life of the nation. Yet, insofar as it is still relevant, I agree entirely: class matters.

Despite Rorty’s brilliance, Achieving Our Country is a deeply schizophrenic work. On the one hand, Rorty argues that the left needs to forgo its attachment to grand narratives such as Marxism and instead focus its political attention on piecemeal reformism. On the other hand, in his final lecture, titled “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature,” Rorty argues that professors of literature, in their attempts to posit all texts within a Foucauldian discourse, have taken the life out literature. Rorty cannot possibly reconcile these two positions, since to do so would require him to argue that literature is meant to inspire, but not political philosophy.

Rorty’s anti-Marxism is of course rooted in the fact that he was a liberal anticommunist in the vein of Arthur Schlesinger and Irving Howe. He loathed the sectarianism of the communist Marxists, many of whom had a habit of labeling anyone to the right of them a “reactionary.” Without delving into the much-discussed merits of liberal anticommunism (or lack thereof!), it needs to be pointed out that Rorty raises some important points about the stultifying effects of sectarian scrums. He is correct in his assessment that the American left cannot possibly afford continued infighting, which only serves to benefit the corporate bosses and their corrupt political charges.

That being said, Rorty is blind to his own sectarianism, as are all sectarians, who think that, whereas their opponents represent some narrow agenda, they represent the universal. In Rorty’s case, whereas Marxists represent a foreign doctrine, he and the liberal anticommunists represent a true “American” left, a left rooted in Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and, of course, Dewey.

It was once said that to know where one stands in relation to John Dewey is to know where one stands in relation to America. It might be more appropriate to argue that to know where one stands in relation to Dewey is to know where one stands in relation to the American left. The intellectual left’s sectarian lines are drawn between Dewey and Marx. We are allowed to like one or the other, never both.

At a recent academic conference I gave a paper that argued Dewey was part of the American Popular Front left of the 1930s that was wiped out by the Cold War. I was greeted by vehement disagreement. It seems people are so conditioned to understand Dewey as an emblem of liberal anticommunist thought that they can’t conceive of him as a radical.

At the same conference, I attended a highly entertaining talk on Dewey by a professor who rooted his analysis in the best of postwar social thought. His analysis lamented the truly huge gap between reality and perception, between the everyday existence of the modern organization society that is the United States and the delusional ideology of rugged individualism. In this sense, this professor asked all the correct questions, those asked by the likes of C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman, and Christopher Lasch. Why don’t Americans understand that their society is not one in which liberty thrives? That being said, the professor gave, in my view, the wrong answer. He argued that John Dewey’s organizational pedagogy adjusted Americans to the corporate order while allowing them to maintain the fantasy that they were free.

I would argue that John Dewey was radical to a forgotten degree, and to this extent he was never as influential as his critics – left or right – make him out to be. Perhaps my different reading of Dewey speaks to the truly subjective nature of textual readings, but I think Dewey actually anticipated the best of postwar social thought in maintaining that individualism was over-hyped. Dewey called the ideology of rugged individualism an “unnamed form of insanity.”

I suspect that this professor’s problems with Dewey stemmed from the fact that Dewey recognized the organization society as a given, that there was no going back to the romanticized town hall of the pre-Civil War era. In this sense, perhaps the professor attacked Dewey from a left-libertarian rather than a Marxist position. Perhaps he thought Dewey was the opposite of Thoreau instead of, as Rorty argues, part of the same intellectual lineage. That said, despite the fact that Dewey wanted Americans to reconcile themselves to the organization society, Dewey also wanted the organization society to reconcile itself to social democracy. In the absence of social democracy — or what he categorized as economic democracy — Dewey believed that politics would continue to be the “shadow cast on society by big business.”

Obviously, Dewey never saw the U.S. become a social democracy, as the organization society remained incredibly hierarchical, which is why Dewey grew increasingly angry over the state of U.S. politics and education, arguing against all those who urged the schools become extensions of the industrial order in his Education and Experience. In a 1914 article Dewey wrote for the first issue of the New Republic, he was brutal in his assessment of David Snedden’s version of vocational education, which Dewey described as a practice that fashioned schools as “preliminary factories supported at public expense.”

In conclusion, I’m going to take Rorty’s advice and discipline myself against leftist sectarianism by ignoring his advice that I consent to purging Marxism from the American left. I guess this is how one properly responds to brilliant schizophrenia.

Andrew Hartman is an assistant professor of history at Illinois State University and author of the forthcoming book Education and the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan).


April 25, 2007

Zizek claims we all have faith, that we all believe in much more than we appear to.

“In my last book I quote a wonderful anecdote, which renders this point perfectly again about Niels Bohr, you know, the Copenhagen guy. Who, when he was visited by a friend in his country house and the friend, also a scientist, found above the entrance to the house a horseshoe, kind of superstitious item, you know,  to prevent evil spirits entering, evil spirits entering the house, and so on. So the friend, surprised, asked Niels Bohr, “Wait a minute! I thought you were a scientist. Are you superstitious? Do you really believe in it?” You know what Niels Bohr answered? He answered, “I’m not an idiot. Of course I don’t believe in it. But I have it there because I was told that it functions even if you don’t believe in it.”


This, in essence, is how ideology functions in the world today.  First, you accept that there can be faith.  That is, you believe that transcendent things can be True.  For example, we believe that God can exist, man might have a soul or even inalienable human rights. It is secondary that we believe these things to be True or False.  This is what Zizek exposes his example.  Bohr accepts the possibility of belief, but rejects the specific superstition.  So, even when we don’t believe in the truth of some reified concept, by entertaining the possibility of its existence we still believe, we still have faith.  This – as I said – is how ideology functions.