The affinities of Richard Rorty and Edward Bellamy

In his defence of Richard Rorty against various ʻsalt-of-the-earth socialist internationalistsʼ such as Norman Geras, Roy Bhaskar and Terry Eagleton (ʻRortyʼs Nationʼ, Radical Philosophy 87) Jonathan Rée confesses himself puzzled by Rorty on one point. He ʻcannot quite understandʼ Rortyʼs ʻaffectionʼ for the bureaucratic collectivist utopia of the nineteenthcentury American socialist and novelist Edward Bellamy. It is indeed an odd affection for a liberal to declare. Hal Draper, in his classic essay The Two Souls of Socialism (1966), described Bellamyʼs 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, in which after a peaceful revolution the classes have been reconciled under elite rule, universal suffrage has been abolished, industrial armies service a collective capitalist, and an all-powerful Administration runs all things, as ʻthe cozy communion of the beehiveʼ, a ʻ100% Americanʼ case of Socialism From Above. [1] Rée resolves the conundrum of Rortyʼs support for Bellamy by declaring it simply ʻperverseʼ, utterly against the grain of his thought. But is it, that support, just, flatly, ʻperverseʼ? Might it not actually indicate some problems with the undemocratic implications of Rortyʼs own ideas which enables him to indulge, even to share some underlying affinities with, Bellamy? [2]

Geras on rorty

The most obvious links between Rorty and Bellamy concern what Geras calls the ʻseriously anti-democratic implicationsʼ of some of Rortyʼs own ideas. Gerasʼs book is an imagined dialogue with Rorty about ʻthe best way of defending democratic humane valuesʼ. [3] As I read the book, Geras suggests at least four related ideas of Rortyʼs that weaken rather than strengthen that defence, whatever the intentions of their author, and suggest points of contact with Bellamy.1. That human solidarity requires, and moral communities rest on, ʻcontrast effectsʼ: a them to charge up an us. Not just imaginative identification but moral obligation is at stake here, turning on who is ʻone of usʼ. Noting Rortyʼs statement that ʻphilosophers [have] been toying with the notion that the individual apart from his society is just one more animalʼ, Geras takes Rorty to hold that ʻany (putative) personʼs claim to moral consideration depends, like personhood itself, on “being one of us”, being of the communityʼ. [4] The consequence of this for the idea of human dignity is clear: people have it, says Rorty, ʻbecause they share in such contrast-effectsʼ. [5] So Rortyʼs infamous argument that it is as ʻour fellow Americansʼ that solidarity should be extended to poor blacks in US cities6 has an affinity to the ethos of the early Bellamyite movement which took the name ʻNationalismʼ. It is surely of note that an earlier American liberal philosopher, John Dewey, ʻeulogized Looking Backward as expounding “the American ideal of democracy”ʼ. [7]

Geras warns, ʻIf an individualʼs moral status, whether as the bearer of human dignity or of personhood, or as the beneficiary of moral prohibitions against being hurt, is to rest only on the going sense of community, this will surely serve to underwrite every discourse of exclusion under the sun.ʼ [8] Not far from Bellamy either is Rortyʼs inflation of ʻcommunityʼ to something which constitutes personhood, outside of which, that is outside of being ʻone of The affinities of Richard Rorty and Edward Bellamy A response to Jonathan Rée

Alan johnson

usʼ, personhood does not exist. That idea fits in with little difficulty to the ʻbeehiveʼ model of Bellamyʼs Looking Backward. Hal Draper characterized that model as a particular brand of socialism-from-above, ʻcommunionismʼ, reflecting Bellamyʼs ʻmistrust of the individualism of the personality, his craving to dissolve the Self into communion with Something Greaterʼ. [9] Draper contrasts this with the socialism-from-below of William Morris, who detested Bellamyʼs utopia (ʻIf they brigaded me into a regiment of workers, Iʼd just lie on my back and kickʼ he said) warning , ʻindividual men cannot shuffle off the business of life onto the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each otherʼ. [10] 2. That truth is wholly internal to the language game. The consequence of this idea, argues Geras, is that ʻIf there is no truth, there is no injusticeʼ and ʻMorally and politically, therefore, anything goesʼ. [11] In practice, Rorty retreats from the logic of this position, engaging in a move which amounts, as Geras notes, quoting J.L. Austin, to ʻthe bit where you say it and the bit where you take it backʼ. [12] But the idea itself weakens democratic values because it weakens the idea that justice is discernible by reference to the truth, understood by Geras not as a ʻGodʼs Eye Viewʼ but in the more modest spirit of Primo Levi, who, about Auschwitz, wrote of ʻthe way it really was down thereʼ. [13] 3. That human solidarity has no foundations. In defending the idea of human solidarity or human rights there can be no recourse to a foundation or source in a ʻcommon humanityʼ or ʻhuman natureʼ, argues Rorty. [14] There is nothing deeper in fact than ʻhistorical contingencies … which brought about the development of the moral and political vocabulariesʼ. ʻCertain poets and revolutionaries of the past spoke as they didʼ and, being ʻoursʼ, formed ʻour traditionʼ. [15] As Geras notes of this line of thought: ʻBut if we are not then also given something in favour of the content of this tradition or vocabulary, we are given in effect no more than a name.ʼ Geras worries about the consequence of all this for those assumptions and tempers which democracy generally leans on: ʻAppealing to the authority of mere forms or titles, it is a style that sits ill beside either the secular or the democratic habits of mind he would more generally encourage. And it sits oddly within a tradition disinclined to appeal to the authority of tradition as such, preferring the ways of deliberate reflection and reasoned advocacyʼ. [16] At any rate, it amounts to a lot less than William Morrisʼs ʻconscious associationʼ.4. That human solidarity must be fostered by the manipulation of sentiment. According to Rorty: ʻmost of the work of changing moral intuitions is … done by manipulating our feelingsʼ often through art and literature, and we should ʻconcentrate our energies on manipulating sentimentsʼ. [17] Seen in this light the value of Looking Backward is obvious. Paul Buhle notes that, ʻtens of thousands … the great Mid-west of the American mind in its idealistic variant – kept Bellamy on their book shelvesʼ. [18] In response, Geras begins by expressing his explicit agreement that moral sentiment is an essential component of moral consciousness, [19] but he refuses Rortyʼs counterposition: ʻsentiment as against rationality, argument, enquiry and the restʼ. For, ʻcrucial as it obviously is, sentiment alone could not possibly be enough to a moral consciousness, liberal or other, wedded to the aim of wide solidarityʼ, as the objects of sentimentality ʻcan be very particularʼ and without a ʻgeneralising moral rationalityʼ it is likely that, ʻYou can close the book with a tear for these folk, leave the cinema feeling “awful”, turn away from the set appalled at what people in countries “like that” are able to bring themselves to do.ʼ [20] Moreover, ʻsentiment can as well attach itself to tradition as such, the word of a poet, indeed anything, as it can to the dignity of strangers or to the existence of a common humanity.ʼ [21]

Draper on the two souls of socialism: bellamy and debs

Hal Draper writes that, ʻBellamyism started many on the road to socialism, but the road forked.ʼ [22] Draperʼs account of the development of the ʻtwo soulsʼ of the socialist tradition in the USA, authoritarian and democratic, from-above and from-below, statist and selfemancipatory, depicts the sentimentalism and state-led administration of Bellamy being transformed into the militant socialism-from-below of Eugene Debs. With Debsian socialism, sentimentalism is left behind at the same moment that the mass of the people become subjects not objects of change. Echoing Marxʼs famous first clause of the Rules of the First International, Debs wrote:

Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you canʼt do for yourselves. [23] With this thought the American socialist movement arrived at the principle of self-emancipation as the basis for a new politics: socialism-from-below. But Debs was to have no successor, as ʻthe Socialist party became pinkly respectable on the one hand and the Communist Party became Stalinized on the otherʼ. [24]

This debate between socialism-from-above and socialism-from-below is relevant here because it suggests an underlying affinity between Rortyʼs ʻungroundable liberalismʼ and Bellamyʼs brand of ʻsocialism-from-aboveʼ: the elitist division of the world into two and the anti-democratic logic of that division. Over here, the active subject, those ʻpoets and revolutionariesʼ, intellectuals, wise administrators, central planners, or, most arrogantly of all, ʻall us liberal gentlefolkʼ, [25] who will, ironically, knowingly, or, if needs be, sternly, in a ʻthis-is-going-to-hurt-me-morethan-it-will-hurt-youʼ way, manipulate the sentiments, or Improve The Lives of, over there, an object, the people. Terry Eagleton has noted this deep strain of elitism in Rorty:

the belief that a minority of theorists monopolise a scientifically grounded knowledge of how society is, while the rest of us blunder around in some fog of false consciousness, does not particularly endear itself to the democratic sensibility. A novel version of this elitism has arisen in the work of the philosopher Richard Rorty, in whose ideal society intellectuals will be ironists, practising a suitably cavalier, laid-back attitude to their own belief, while the masses for whom such self-ironising might prove too subversive a weapon will continue to salute the flag and take life seriously. [26]

So while Rée worries that Rorty is endorsing the content of Bellamyʼs undemocratic social blueprint, I think Rorty is admiring the form of something he respects, the manipulation, from above, of the sentiments of them down below. And this elitism in Rortyʼs work has produced more than an opening to extremely anti-democratic sentiments. For example, as he looks back over the development of democracy and human rights in the last two hundred years he sees, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage, only a series of ʻtop-down liberal initiative[s]ʼ.27 What has been excised from Rortyʼs world-view is both the capacity which Shelley captured as ʻthe spirit which lifts the slave before his lordʼ, and the sense that History can be made by such slaves who can periodically, to quote Shelley again, ʻShake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you.ʼ Excised is, to take an example at random from the books on my shelves, the capacities and the spirit of those Black Jacobins, slaves of the Caribbean island of San Domingo, the poorest of the poor, whose own struggle from below in the 1790s produced what C.L.R. James famously depicted as a ʻvolcanic eruptionʼ in which took place ʻthe transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of the dayʼ. [28]

The basic objection, then, to all ʻfrom-aboveismʼ, and the nature of the alternative is to be found, as Hal Draper points out, ʻfirst of all not in the writings of any theoretician, not even Marx, but in the real fighting movements which arise out of social struggleʼ. [29] But no. We must, says Rorty, focus on the only real question, ʻwhat top-down initiatives we gentlefolk might best pursueʼ. But once that is your question the anti-democratic logic follows and the poor become not subjects but objects. Rorty laments that while the very poor of the North can be raised up by enlightened liberals like ʻusʼ with cash to throw around, what he calls, borrowing a phrase from E.M. Forster of all people, the ʻunthinkably poorʼ of the South, are beyond the reach of ʻus liberal gentlefolkʼ. The solution there, at least the only one he can think of, he says, is set out thus:

The only things we know of which might help are top-down techno-bureaucratic initiatives like the cruel Chinese only-one-child-per-family policy (or, literalizing the top-down metaphor and pushing things one monstrous step further, spraying villages from the air with sterilizing chemicals). If there is a happy solution to the dilemma created by the need of very poor Brazilians to find work and the need of the rest of us for oxygen produced by the Amazonian rain forest, it is going to be the result of some as yet unimagined bureaucratic-technological initiative.… Maybe technology and centralised planning will not work. But they are all we have got. [30]

How far we are with this from Morrisʼs vision of ʻconscious associationʼ as the means to deal with ʻthe business of lifeʼ. Yet how close we are to the bureaucratic-collectivism of Bellamy, only now, with capitalism a century older, we have arrived at a dystopia resembling a scene from Blade Runner. It is within the orbit of such elitism that Rortyʼs views on reason and sentiment should be understood. Try setting these statements by Rorty, about reason and sentiment and their respective uses to ʻusʼ, against those policies intended for ʻthem: ʻThe ironist thinks that such arguments – logical arguments – are very well in their own way, and useful as expository devices, but in the end not much more than ways of getting people to change their practices without admitting they have done so.ʼ Or: ʻNor is there [ʻin the ironist viewʼ] much occasion to use the distinctions between logic and rhetoric … or between rational and nonrational methods of changing other peoples minds.ʼ [31]

It is not only the democratic self-emancipatory soul of socialism which rests upon a belief in the capacities of ʻordinaryʼ human beings, latent or otherwise, but the very possibility of democracy itself. No, Rortyʼs support for the early Bellamy is not perverse at all.


1. ^ Hal Draper, The Two Souls of Socialism, 1966, now available as a pamphlet published in 1996, Bookmarks,

London; also in Hal Draper, Socialism From Below, essays selected, edited and with an introduction by E.

Haberkern, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1992.

2. ^ There were actually two Edward Bellamys. The one of 1888 wrote the bureaucratic utopia Looking Backward, and was loved by the respectable patriotic middle-class reformers of The Nationalist magazine (though the anticapitalist thrust of Looking Backward ensured it was also a favourite among the Petrograd Soviet during the 1905 Revolution, and with Eugene Debs). The later Bellamy was politically a very different man under the influence of the organized working class. See Arthur Lipow, Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982.

3. ^ Norman Geras, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty, Verso, London, 1995, pp. 75, 128.

4. ^ Ibid., pp. 74–5.

5. ^ Ibid., p. 75.

6. ^ Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1989, p. 191.

7. ^ Socialism From Below, p. 21

8. ^ Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, p 75.

9. ^ Socialism From Below, p 26.

10. ^ Ibid., p. 18.

11. ^ Geras, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, p. 107.

12. ^ Ibid., p. 110.

13. ^ For Gerasʼs use of Primo Leviʼs writing to reflect on the question of language, truth and justice, see Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind pp. 107–8, 129–30.

14. ^ See Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, p. 81.

15. ^ Ibid., p. 85.

16. ^ Ibid., p. 86.

17. ^ Ibid., p. 92.

18. ^ Paul Buhle, Marxism in the USA, Verso, London, 1987, p. 70.

19. ^ Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, p. 93.

20. ^ Ibid., pp. 97–8.

21. ^ Ibid., p. 91.

22. ^ Socialism From Below, p. 22.

23. ^ Quoted in ibid., p. 22.

24. ^ Ibid., p. 23.

25. ^ Richard Rorty, ʻLove and Moneyʼ, in Common Knowledge, vol. 1, no. 1, 1992, p. 13.

26. ^ Terry Eagleton, Ideology, Verso, London, 1992, p 11.

27. ^ ʻLove and Moneyʼ p. 13.

28. ^ C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LʼOuverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Allison & Busby, London, 1980.

29. ^ Socialism From Below, p. 184.

30. ^ ʻLove and Moneyʼ, pp. 15–16. For a discussion of this article, see also Norman Geras, ʻProgress Without Foundations?ʼ, Res Publica, vol. II, no. 2, 1996, pp. 122–3.

31. ^ Quoted in Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind, pp. 126, 127.