Forwards Ever, Backwards Never Dept.


An Exchange between Howard Zinn and Sidney Hook on Democracy

...  the United States is more democratic today than it was a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, twenty years ago, five years ago with respect to every one of the criteria he has listed. To recognize this is not an invitation to complacency. On the contrary, it indicates the possibility of broadening, deepening, and using the democratic political process to improve the quality of human life, to modify and redirect social institutions in order to realize on a wider scale the moral commitment of democracy to an equality of concern for all its citizens to achieve their fullest growth as persons. This commitment is to a process, not a transcendent goal or a fixed, ideal standard.

Emphasis mine. Hook is an intellectual hero of mine, along with the relatively unsung Barrows Dunham, and for many of the same reasons as Hook. Both professed progressive politics, but were resolutely anti-totalitarian, and rejected the cringe-inducing justifications touted up for the Nazi and Soviet regimes by their own fellow members of the Left. It was frightening to hear how as late as 1940 people still could keep a straight face while uttering lines about how a Europe under Hitler might not be such a bad thing, or how Stalin was indeed creating a new society worthy of study and maybe also emulation, etc. Both men had the wisdom and the intellectual chops to not be suckered by such dismal apologetics for tyranny.

What both men also shared was a sense that the open society was not something that existed as an artifact —  something that could be achieved, conclusively, in the way one could bake a cake by simply following the recipe religiously. They regarded the open society as the manifestation of a process, something that required ceaseless and tireless devotion to work as intended, and which by definition could not be achieved all at once without destroying much good along with the bad.

By contrast, those of Hook's and Dunham's generations who were intent on creating a society where all were free and equal seemed determined to do it all at a swoop, damn the consequences. As Leszek Kołakowski once said about such people, "The utopians are people who dream about ensuring for mankind the position of rentier ["living on dividends and having the guarantee of the secure life to the end, thanks to the capital once acquired", as he put it] and who are convinced that this position is so splendid that no sacrifices (in particular no moral sacrifices) are too great to achieve it."

I have written these words on the anniversary of the murder of a man who, when encouraging his followers to not give up their struggle for equal recognition under the law and in the eyes of other men, said: "I may not get there with you." His argument was that justice delayed is justice denied, and at first glance such a thing might seem like the sort of utopian impatience Kołakowski shook his head at. But my feeling is that the tenor of the movement that man helped spearhead, the flavor of its argument and the means of its advancement, set it apart from unattainable utopianism. It did not ask for capitulation of power, only equal recognition under the rule of law. It sought justice, not vengeance. It, too, was a process, and one where the manner of the process was at least as important as its professed aims.


Tags: Barrows Dunham Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leszek Kołakowski philosophy politics Sidney Hook




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