ALLEN W. WOOD | The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy | Oxford University Press 2014


 

By Allen Wood

I must begin by thanking Howard Williams for a most generous as well as insightful set of comments on my 2014 book The Free Development of Each. His first few pages state with admirable brevity and clarity some admirable propositions about how philosophers should regard the history of philosophy, how they should study past philosophers, interact with them philosophically and apply their study of them to present-day problems, not only in philosophy but also in present-day culture, society and politics. That he does so by describing what he takes me to have done in my book is certainly flattering and humbling, but I think the main lesson to be drawn from what he says is that this is the way all philosophers should deal with important figures in the history of philosophy. I urge everyone to read again what he says there, ignoring references to me or my book and instead understanding what he says as advice, or as a set of ideals, concerning the way the history of philosophy should be studied and appropriated. I may live up to these ideals imperfectly, but Williams presents them very well.

The more challenging side of Williams’s comments for me concerns mainly issues about Marx. These issues are twofold, and Williams insightfully separates them in his comments. The first has to do with the role of values, norms or ‘ethics’ (understood in the broadest sense) in Marx’s thought. The second has to do with the relation of Marx’s philosophy to self-attributed attempts by others, many years after Marx’s death, to carry out his vision in the real world—especially in the Soviet Union. I shall return to both issues presently. They constitute the last (somewhat-more-than-) half of this reply. But first I want to refer to some of the things Williams says about my treatment of other German philosophers in my book, especially Fichte and Hegel, and also about my use of so-called ‘analytical’ philosophical techniques, as in Chapter 12 of the book.

Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel

Fully a third of my book, Chapters 1–4, are about Kant’s practical philosophy. Williams has remarkably little to say about them, especially in light of the fact that the interest in these topics is something that Williams and I share, and about which he has great expertise. This may be a comforting illusion on my part, but I tend to interpret this silence as tacit agreement on his part with much of what I say about Kant in these chapters. I do see myself in them as defending both interpretative and philosophical claims about Kant that are controversial. I argue that Kant’s claims about moral worth and acting from duty in the early pages of the Groundwork are in no way criticisms of dutiful actions influenced by sympathy or other empirical motives and that the concept of “acting from duty” used there is not about the “real motive” from which agents act in cases philosophers often describe (or misdescribe) as those involving “motivational overdetermination”. I also defend the thesis that for Kant the foundation of right is independent of ethics or the moral law. I would like to think that Williams agrees with me on these matters, but I know that many other philosophers and Kant scholars do not.

Williams expresses some reservations about my largely positive presentations of both Fichte and Hegel. He does so, I think, from a recognisably Kantian standpoint—the standpoint of many Kantians who see Fichte and Hegel has having deviated from or even rejected Kant’s position, and who therefore deserve to be criticised for their errors (or heresies) in doing so. I do think that Fichte’s theory of intersubjectivity (discussed in Chapter 8) and his theory of recognition (discussed in Chapter 9) are advances over Kantian positions on these matters. In Chapter 10, I also defend Hegel’s theory of responsibility for actions and consequences, contrasting it favourably in some respects with Kant’s theory of imputability. Regarding Fichte, what I say in my 2014 book has since been supplemented by what I have written in Fichte’s Ethical Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Most to the point here is to reiterate now something that I say right away in the first couple of pages of the Introduction to the book. I don’t agree with those (whether they see themselves as Kantians or Hegelians) who view the relationship among the German idealists as something to be viewed combatively (in the spirit of: Kant vs. Fichte—Kant oder Hegel). I look at the German idealist tradition, including all five philosophers discussed in this book (Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel, Marx) as displaying more continuity than conflict. While never pretending for a moment that their views entirely agree, I tend to see them as representing a common tradition, which ought to be clarified, developed and defended in contrast to other traditions—those of pre-Kantian metaphysics, even of more empiricism and reductionist scientism (whose popularity among philosophers I do not applaud). As a gesture toward those who view the entire tradition more pugnaciously than I do, I shall put my view in a way that leaves no one entirely free from insult.

I think that the relation between Kant and Herder (despite their prickly personal relationship) as involving more agreement than disagreement. I celebrate their points of agreement. I read Herder as an enlightenment philosopher more than a critic of enlightenment. He is less rigorous than Kant: Kant’s awareness of this plain fact shows itself in the gentle (but to Herder infuriating) tone of condescension evident in Kant’s reviews of Herder. But Herder’s reflections on different cultures and historical periods brings something valuable to the enlightenment tradition that is not found in Kant—is even a blind spot in Kant—and that ought to be positively appropriated.

I tend to think of the philosophies of Fichte and Hegel not as rejections of Kantian criticism or transcendental philosophy but as consisting largely of a series of friendly amendments to these. There is something original in both Fichte and Hegel. The originality of Hegel is far better appreciated by philosophers than the revolutionary originality of Fichte, which I believe is the true point of origin for European continental philosophy during the past two centuries. Nevertheless, Fichteans and especially Hegelians ought to acknowledge (and never pretend otherwise than) that the philosophical enterprises of both philosophers are based largely on intellectual capital borrowed from Kant. Where there are real controversies among Kant, Fichte and Hegel, I think we would do better to appreciate the merits of all sides rather than adopting a stance that takes up the cudgels to beat back one philosopher or another, viewed as an implacable foe.

Above all, I reject the practice of finding shorthand ways to characterise important historical philosophers from whom we still have much to learn that rationalises their dismissal. At one point Williams does a nice job of summarising (he is attributing it to others, not endorsing it himself) the sort of talk I object to: “Hegel too obscure, Fichte too nationalistic, Marx too radical, Kant too unworldly.” The application of these dismissive epithets is often simply false (as I would argue it is in most of these cases). Even where it contains a grain of truth, it exaggerates and caricatures, and in every case abstracts one aspect of the philosopher or the philosopher’s thought, giving it a one-sidedly negative characterisation whose obvious aim is to rationalise one’s refusal to learn from the philosopher. Why do people do this? I think it’s because they have neither the time nor the talent to understand difficult philosophers, but they lack the decent modesty simply to admit this fact. If you don’t have the time to study Kant or Hegel carefully, you should just own up to it rather than trying to offer a lame excuse for your limited abilities or limited time. There would be no shame in making such a candid admission, unless (that is) you belong to that species of shallow, hyper-sophisticated intellectual who must pretend that they understand everything.

I hasten to add that I would of course say the very same thing about dismissive characterisations of great philosophers outside the German idealist tradition, especially including those for the full appreciation of whom I myself have neither the time nor the talent. I am not sophisticated in this way—I’m even a bit of an ignorant curmudgeon, being the first person on either side of my family to have a college education. So I frankly admit that I do not have the leisure or the ability to comprehend everything. When I reject something, I admit it is chiefly a matter of my limited tastes or limited acquaintance, rather than a snooty superiority to what I don’t like or don’t know enough about. I hope I don’t rationalise these normal human deficiencies through a flippant dismissive epithet that some intellectual fashion has taught me to apply to it. The sophisticated pretence to such comprehension on the part of most people with whom I have had to deal as an academic has always made me feel out of place in a university environment. (However, I must also confess that this is also the only sort of environment outside that of my birth family as a child where I have ever been able to feel even the least bit at home.)

Williams also mentions my relationship to the so-called ‘analytical’ tradition of philosophy. I suppose this is most conspicuous in my treatment of the concepts of coercion, manipulation and exploitation in Chapter 12. That is the only chapter in the book that is not explicitly directed to the interpretation of a classical German philosopher. It was included simply because those concepts—especially coercion—play a role in the thought of these philosophers and my discussion of them. But I’m grateful to Williams’s mention of this because it gives me a chance to make some autobiographical remarks and get some things off my chest.

Regarding ‘analytical’ philosophy, there has long been an impression that Western philosophy in the twentieth century is divided into two main traditions ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’. This was certainly the way the socialisation of professional philosophers was presented to people of my generation. But it was pointed out to me by one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, that this distinction, so drawn, makes no intellectual sense at all. This is a philosopher it was my great honour to know: Ruth Barcan Marcus, who was a student of another great philosopher, Ernst Cassirer. (How many people know that?) As Ruth used to observe, the ‘analytic/continental’ distinction makes no sense because, to begin with, it contrasts a philosophical project (analysis—whatever that is supposed to be) with a geographical region. (Apples and oranges are at least both fruits.) Further, it’s nonsense because some of the great philosophers usually regarded as founding members of the ‘analytical’ tradition were from the European continent (Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap and others). Even Russell and Moore are merely second generation descendants of later German idealism: their teacher was James Ward, who studied with Rudolf Hermann Lotze in Göttingen. The German idealist scholar in me can’t resist noting that on both sides of the English channel, twentieth century philosophy was German idealist at its core.

As an undergraduate student of philosophy, I began as an existentialist, with a rather ferocious hostility to analytical philosophy. It seemed to me shallow and associated with intellectual traits I still despise: the shallow pretence that our positive sciences can understand everything; and also a focus on sharpening intellectual tools, and choosing topics based on which ones were best suited to the available tools, rather than applying their minds to the deep (no doubt forever insoluble) questions of philosophy. For if you are a philosopher, you realise the only questions that really matter are the insoluble ones. Analytical philosophy also seemed associated with traits of moral character I abominate—narrow-mindedness, competitiveness, arrogance, intolerance, argument by put-down and so on. My aversion to analytical philosophy was perhaps more moral than intellectual.

In graduate school I chose Yale because it was reputed to be at the time the don of the ‘continental’ mafia. But hopeless misfit that I am, at Yale I soon learned to acquire great respect for certain philosophers in the analytical tradition—not only the literally continental ones already mentioned, but also especially Elizabeth Anscombe, Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin—whose writings I still read with pleasure and profit. By the time I got my first job at Cornell—then reputed to be a hotbed of later-Wittgensteinian orthodoxy—I even thought of myself as a Wittgensteinian. But again the contrarian, within a couple of years I came to think of myself instead as a Marxist and even a Hegelian. Despite this, I like to think I have also learned something from my excellent colleagues at Cornell University over a period of nearly thirty years, when I more or less played the role of ‘the continental person’ in an ‘analytical’ department.

As things have turned out, I would characterise one of the fundamental aims of my career as hastening the day when it is hard for philosophers even to understand how there could have been such a mindless conception as that of these two opposed philosophical ‘schools’. I now regard this intellectual division within philosophy as one of the more irrational by-products of the two horrible world wars that blighted the first half of the twentieth century. If anyone wants to call me a ‘continental’ philosopher, I will agree on the basis of the subjects of my interest. If anyone calls me an ‘analytical’ philosopher, I will take it as a compliment: all the more so if (as has sometimes happened) it was not meant as one.

‘Marx and Morality’

The most challenging part of Williams’s comments has to do with my treatment of Marx—which is largely (though not entirely) confined to Chapter 11 of the book. It seems clear that Williams’s reflections are directed partly to my earlier writings on Marx, which go back over forty years.

The main thing I have argued in these writings is that Marx did not base his objections to capitalism on justice or rights, or on anything Marx himself would have called ‘moral’ grounds. Admittedly, this is a puzzling position for Marx to take. But of course that is why it interested me in the first place. It did not interest me because I thought my own objections to capitalism, which were based in part on Marx’s convincing analysis of its history and dynamics, were the same as his. They never have been. But I did want to understand Marx’s position, and try to understand how it might make sense.

I doubt that Williams understands with complete accuracy what I take Marx’s position to be. Some of his characterisations of my interpretation of Marx are hard for me to recognise as anything I believe. Perhaps my writings might have given readers the impressions Williams got, in which case it was my fault for not expressing myself clearly enough, or perhaps even for not thinking clearly enough and then expressing my muddled thoughts in ways others were likely to misunderstand. For instance, I do not recognise my views in Williams’s following characterisation of them:

Marx should be interpreted primarily as presenting a determinist philosophy of history were the human actor is at the mercy of circumstances which must inevitably push us toward certain courses of action.

In my book Karl Marx, I was at pains to argue that Marx takes no position on issues of free will and determinism, and also to reject the label ‘economic determinism’ (a term never used by Marx or Engels) as a characterisation of the materialist conception of history. Marx often insists that human beings make their history, but under determinate conditions they don’t choose and which it is the aim of his theory to help us understand. Marx’s claims that certain things are ‘inevitable’ do not, I believe, follow from his theory properly understood, and regarding the future should be regarded more as hopeful exhortations than well-grounded predictions. In any case, the fact is that most of them, understood the latter way, have not come true.

I get the impression that Williams thinks Marx on my interpretation is engaging in some sort of ‘value free’ social science in which a grim scientistic fatalism is being substituted for judgements about what it is rational for historical agents to do. Nothing could have been farther from my intention. I agree with many of the ways Williams thinks Marx’s critique of capitalism presupposes or invokes ‘value judgements’. If the term ‘ethical’ is used to encompass all evaluative or normative thinking, then my reading of Marx is by no means ‘anti-ethical’ in that sense. I take it to be obvious that Marx’s critique of capitalism is ‘value based’ (what else could it be?). But Marx almost never thematised that basis, thereby creating a set of challenging tasks for us, his philosophical readers.

What Marx says, and what my work on him has been trying to understand, concerns the rejection of judgements that are specifically about right and justice or about moral values. Marx’s rejection of right and justice as grounds for social criticism or justification is based on his view that we should not understand human social life in terms of concepts suited to the legal and political realm—which Marx takes the concepts of right and justice to be. I take this to be connected to his acceptance of the view, widely accepted in modern political thought (especially Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Fichte and Hegel) that the fundamental justification of the political state is closely bound up with the institution of private property. I shall return to this point presently.

Marx rejects ‘morality’ in the distinctive sense of values laying claims on us by the way they stand for something involving universal standards or requirements that are supposed to override the rational judgements we make based on our individual standpoints. This seems to me to exhibit the influence on Marx, too little appreciated, of Max Stirner’s view that moral standards represent ‘hierarchy’—the dominion of thoughts over our individuality exercised by bogus standards of universality. In Stirner, these standards were represented merely as ‘thoughts’—misguided superstitions akin to religion, and our individuality was understood as egoism—’self-enjoyment’ which Stirner regarded as threatened by social commitments of any kind.

Marx’s version of Stirner’s view involves two important revisions. Universal standards are seen as class ideologies, which falsely represent the interests of this or that class as universal human values or standards. (Marx regards proletarian ideology as no different from any other in this respect, despite the fact that its historical tendencies are liberating.) Marx also rejects the egoism of Stirner’s view. For him, our individuality is a social individuality, and both egoistic and self-sacrificing conduct constitute ways of acting, each sometimes rational and sometimes not, based on historical and social conditions. Marx looks forward to a time when people are not dominated by class conflicts or the ideologies connected with them, in which they act simply as the rational social individuals they are rather than being under the hegemony of class ideologies representing class interests as universal human interests opposed to our individuality.

Trying to understand Marx’s views on these matters requires a certain readjustment in our thinking—one which may be difficult for some of us (especially us Kantians) to make. We are used to regarding rational thought as thought subject to universal standards, which of course chiefly means moral standards. Anything contrasting with those, especially anything rejecting them globally as illusory or deceptive, looks like either a repudiation of rationality itself or else a retreat to merely prudential or instrumental rationality—to ‘egoism’ in a morally bad sense of the term. It is also hard for us to think about social life without thinking of justice and rights as the fundamental standard all social institutions must meet. Viewing them as merely the standards corresponding to prevailing economic relations, which function to stabilise these relations through ideological mystification may look like a retreat to some form of ‘positivism’—a term Williams uses at one point to describe what he takes my interpretation of Marx to involve.

The adjustments I am talking about are as hard for me to make as for anyone else, since I am on all these points myself much closer to Kant than to Marx, and accustomed to thinking of moral values (conceived in terms of universal standards) as the foundation of all valuation. But I do think Marx’s views make sense, and I want them to get a hearing. As I said earlier, my attitude toward the philosophers in the classical German tradition, when they do disagree, is not one that gives priority to ‘choosing sides’ but instead looks upon the disagreements as issues with more than one possible option open to us, and tries to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each side. The weakness in Marx’s position is its necessary vagueness about standards of rationality for individuals who have been freed from both class ideologies and standards for the assessment of social institutions based on the political. Its strength is closely connected to the same thing, however. Marx is offering us a radically new conception of human society and human individuality which challenges us to rethink our system of values and even our concepts of value.

I think there is one quite familiar value, however, that lies at the foundation of Marx’s critique of capitalism and his hopes for the future of a post-class society. This value is freedom—especially in the sense, recently made prominent by the work of Philip Pettit, of freedom as non-domination. In its Kantian formulation: “Independence of constraint by another’s choice” (MS, AA 6:237). Marx’s most fundamental objection to capitalism is that it subjects workers to the will of capitalists, and also that it subjects everyone to the inhuman constraint of market forces and to the power of capital, an inhuman social power not subject to the will of any human being. Of course, Kant regarded freedom in this sense as the basis of right—external constraint used by a common power under universal laws to protect the freedom of all from the dominion of others. Similar thoughts lie at the ground of much modern political philosophy: Locke, Rousseau, Fichte, even Hegel. But Marx sees laws and the state not as a protection of freedom but only a mechanism for enforcing the interests of a ruling class, under the (necessarily bogus) ideological pretext that it represents some kind of universal will or universal interest (even an interest in freedom as non-domination).

Crucial to Marx’s position here is of course the role played in all these earlier theories by private property as the most fundamental protection for freedom as non-domination, especially freedom in relation to what people produce through their own labour. Marx thinks that private property has generated its own dialectical negation—instead of protecting the freedom of those who labour, capitalist private property is a power enslaving those who labour to those who own the means of production. If freedom as non-domination is grounded on right, conceived fundamentally as the defence of private property, then right leads to the very opposite of what it is supposed to, and the only way truly to protect freedom from domination is to revolutionise society in a way that will abolish the entire complex of right, private property and state coercion operating under bogus universal standards. In a post-class society there will be no coercive power and no universal standards. People will be free to be the individuals—the co-operative social individuals—they truly are.

There is for us, I think, an uneasy relationship between Marx’s basic concern with freedom and another kind of good he often emphasises (and to which Williams also refers in his depiction of my interpretation of Marx): namely, economic prosperity conceived as ‘the potential for leading fuller lives’. In the nineteenth century, this did not necessarily seem like an uneasy relationship. Already at the beginning of the century Fichte advocated technological progress as a force for social liberation. He thought that as long as much human labor was condemned by existing productive technologies to take the form of manual drudgery, societies would be divided into a higher educated class with leisure and a much larger lower laboring class under the domination of this higher class. Fichte argued that the leisure to be educated and a full participant in rational social communication is the right of all, and believed that technological progress was a necessary vehicle for the liberation of the vast majority. It is not difficult to see the very same thoughts at work in Marx. The Manifesto praises the bourgeoisie for developing the productive forces of society in ways undreamt of in earlier ages. Marx conceives of the communist revolution as putting these forces to work for the benefit of all. But for both Fichte and Marx, it is not the welfare or comfort of the workers that is the real aim, but their freedom to lead self-directed lives and develop their social individuality.

I think since Marx’s day we have come to see that technological progress and economic efficiency do not always work this way. Economic efficiency is not the same as freedom, and if under some circumstances a society made more prosperous by technological progress is thereby made freer, the very opposite can also be the case (and often has been). Marx himself already saw it. Equally present in Marx’s analysis of capitalism is the recognition that greater productivity can result only in greater dominion of the ruling class over the ruled.  Productivity, prosperity and efficiency are enemies of freedom as soon as the surplus product takes a form appropriated chiefly by the ruling class. It is not implausible to think that economic efficiency can easily be a rival or even an enemy of both freedom and democracy. (This is a point emphasised by Jason Stanley in his recent book How Propaganda Works [Princeton UP, 2015].) The point was made consistently, if indirectly, by Margaret Thatcher throughout much of her career, when she chided socialists for wanting to make “everyone less prosperous” in order to reduce the gap between rich and poor. In her words:

So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. You do not create wealth and opportunity that way. You do not create a property-owning democracy that way.

Thatcher’s point, however—which she presented misleadingly at best—needs to be turned around: You don’t make the poor freer by making them marginally more prosperous if at the same time you subject them increasingly to the power of the wealthy—Thatcher’s “property owning” class. You don’t make a society more democratic—on the contrary, you attack democracy at its root—by increasing the power of the property owning class over the majority who own less, or very little, even if you do also marginally increase what they own.

It would therefore be a distortion of my presentation of Marx to say that I depict him as favouring ‘economic progress’ unconditionally, or putting forward a theory of history according to which we would be fated by historical inevitability to live in a society that maximised technological progress and economic efficiency. As I read Marx, he would certainly not favour this if at the same time the vast majority became less free as a result. Marx even referred explicitly to an increase in wages as merely the ‘golden chain’ through which workers can become even more enslaved to capital. For Marx, as for all others in the German idealist tradition, the basic issue is always freedom. Economic prosperity and efficiency are at best ancillary goods, and they can be on the whole pernicious if they make people less free.

Marx and ‘Marx-ism’

Some of Williams’s remarks toward the end of his comments pertain to Marx, or at least to ‘Marxism’ in a different way. They apparently propose to offer a very qualified, partial and conditional defence of self-described ‘Marxist’ socialism as it existed in the Soviet Union and other such states. I once heard the decadent ‘Marxist’ political system in Hungary described as “100% Marxist—50% Karl and 50% Groucho”. I laughed at the joke, but it was always 0% true and represents merely a gratuitous insult to both of the two great men I admire whose name happened to be Marx.

The relation of Marx’s thought to the twentieth century Russian empire, as well as to the grotesque caricature of a religion that came in some quarters to be called ‘Marxism’, were not topics I intended to address in Chapter 11 of my book, nor have I ever addressed them in my work on Marx. I read Marx as a historical philosopher, not as the prophet of a religion or the founder of any actual political orders that have come to be since his time. Marx did have hopes for a working class movement, and attempted to contribute to it in his own time. But it is a factual question whether the social and political movements that attempted to stamp Marx’s name on themselves like a corporate logo represented his actual hopes. I think the answer to this question is negative. The Russian revolution occurred a generation after Marx’s death. It is not mysterious why a radical movement in Russia at that time might have taken inspiration from Marx’s thought, because it was an important intellectual development with apparent immediate implications for radical politics and social change. But in fact Marx had little to say about what a ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ revolution would do. Marx was strongly averse to writing (as he once put it) “recipes for the cookshops of the future”. He left this task to later stages of the working class movement. In the Manifesto there was a list of steps Marx and Engels predicted (not advocated) that such a revolution would bring about if it occurred right then (in 1848). It included extension of the powers of a worker’s state over many matters (some evidently intended to be temporary, in times of revolutionary upheaval), along with some measures that now seem not particularly radical (universal public education, and a progressive income tax). The list does not look to me like a prophecy of the Soviet system. And does it make sense to treat a set of predictions made in 1848 for Western European nations as prescriptions for Russia three quarters of a century later—especially when Marx later wrote various different things (none of them very definite) about political conditions at various different places?

If you look at Marx’s writings in their historical context, what you see is that Marx was a consistent defender of democracy at a time when in European culture ‘democracy’ was a dirty word to all but the most politically radical. His wistful hopes for the Paris commune of 1871, which he regarded as a disastrous failure, included the decentralisation of political power and holding representatives strictly responsible to their constituents. Marx was a defender of freedom of expression and was himself a victim of persecution and repression. Marx never had any power, or showed any inclination, to practice these himself. When the International Workingmen’s Association seemed to be going in an anarchist direction—leading in Russia to what we would now call ‘terrorism’, Marx’s only act was to dissolve the Association and dissociate himself from it. The unthinking identification of it with the great philosopher-economist-historian-nineteenth century political commentator Karl Marx is one of the more common, obvious and egregious intellectual errors committed by people who study Marx’s thought.

Scholars have sometimes indulged themselves in fanciful serpentine windings of intellect through which they try to connect Marx’s thought, or his intellectual habits and literary style, to the practices of totalitarianism and state repression that were later carried out in his name. These examples of creative free association seem to me both intellectually groundless and pernicious in their effects. They are obstacles to treating Marx in the sympathetic yet critical way that all great historical philosophers must be treated if we are to benefit from the study of their writings. Of course it is also all too obvious, especially in American culture, how these associations, at the level of political ideology and rhetoric, serves those deplorable political and economic interests that block humanity’s way toward the kind of progress Marx was actually trying to promote.

I am a student of Marx’s philosophy, but not a student of Russian history or a Sovietologist. However, like most people I do have some knowledge and some opinions about Russia. This is a nation with a great culture; it has produced great poetry, music and literature. (I have taught The Brothers Karamazov in college classes more often than I have any text not authored by Kant.) But I believe Russia’s rulers have been by and large a loathsome or a contemptible bunch. You can count on the fingers of one hand those whose achievements were on the whole admirable—Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Lenin, Gorbachev. More common were depraved weaklings, such as the bibulous jester Boris Yeltsin, whose name we still manage to remember, as well as many of the Tsars whose names are now deservedly forgotten. Fairly common among Russian rulers were the true ogres—exemplified by Tsars Ivan Grozny and Nicholas I, Josef Stalin, and also the morally deformed specimen of humanity who presently tyrannises over that sad nation.

It is sometimes said that Russia and the surrounding territories are too large and ethnically diverse to constitute a single political unit, but also that the permanent instability created by such ethnic heterogeneity in the vast expanse of central Asia leads inevitably to Russian imperial expansion. Being no expert on this subject, I won’t comment on those ideas. But I do think Russia’s dismal political traditions offer the correct explanation for the characteristics of so-called ‘Soviet communism’ in the middle half of the twentieth century.  I think it is now clear as a historical truth that if there is to be a path to socialism or communism, or any society beyond capitalism that is worth bringing about, then that path does not lead through the Soviet Union. Some of what Williams says makes me think he does not agree with me on this last point. However, I won’t insist absolutely on it, since as I’ve said, I am not an expert on Russia or the Soviet Union. If there are lessons to be learned from it about how to create a better society (or how not to), they do not fall within my area of expertise. But as a student of Marx’s writings and his philosophy, I see no significant philosophical connection between Marx’s thought and the practices of the Soviet Union or its satellite states during the Cold War.

Some may think I lay myself open to just criticism for exhibiting some kind of perverse intellectual blindness when I insist in principle on abstracting Marx’s thought from the deplorable fate of those who claimed to be (and no doubt thought they were) acting on Marx’s doctrines. They may insist that the historical fate of a philosopher’s thought even long after his death should be regarded as clinging to it, for better or worse. (These are probably the same people who associate Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation not with the Prussian Reform era of 1806–19, of which they were actually part, but instead with the Nazis’ abusive appeal to them twelve decades later.) Some even think—almost without an intervening inference—that Marx, and anyone who is at all sympathetic to his thought, must be committed to defending the Soviet Union.

For example, when it has been pointed out that Marx was aware of the way capitalist industry pollutes the human environment and threatens the long term stability of the natural environment, the immediate response has often been to discredit his claims by pointing out that Soviet industries were worse polluters than American industries. The unstated presupposition is that Marx’s thought must be held responsible for whatever was done by the Soviet Union. I reject that presupposition, which an informed person needs only to make explicit to see that it is obviously false. On this issue, once again read the opening pages of Williams’s commentary on my book, and realise that I do aspire to live up to the way he flatteringly describes my approach to studying the history of philosophy. To me this way of thinking is simply the less sophisticated version of what I earlier condemned as finding some easy rationalisation for rejecting what you don’t understand. When it comes to the writings of a past philosopher, those should be understood in relation to the philosopher’s own time, and also related to the enduring philosophical questions we still face. We should treat the historical philosopher, always understood in the context of his own time, as a conversation partner for ours. As to what others may have done in the meantime with a philosopher’s thought, we should learn from it when it gets things right, but reject it when it gets things wrong.

As regards finding a philosopher ‘guilty’ of things later done in his name, my position is this: We all do enough harm during our lives, and are responsible for what we do. (Heidegger’s endorsement of Nazism, for instance, is a deed of his which is part of the historical record; it is, and should be, a matter of legitimate controversy how, and how far, it ought to affect our interpretation and criticism of his philosophy.) But none of us, including past philosophers, should be held responsible for what others choose to do in our name decades after we have died. (A contemporary application of this point: We should not blame Abraham Lincoln for a political party, regionally ascendant in the states of the slave-holding Confederacy whose political base consists largely of white bigots.) It is of course legitimate to ask how far the deeds of those who might appeal to a philosopher accurately reflect the philosopher’s teachings. But it not legitimate to assume without argument, or on the authority of those who claim such an affiliation, that they must. All past philosophers, of course, were morally flawed human beings, never superhuman sages. But even their real failings, though their failing should not be ignored, should also not prevent us from engaging their thought critically yet respectfully, and benefiting from it as much as we can, both by attaining to their insights and by exposing and understanding their errors. We are pitifully deluded if we think it lies within our poor power to punish past philosophers either for being imperfect human beings or for putting forth doctrines we now regard as morally reprehensible. The only people we punish by mixing our scholarship with such retributive emotions is ourselves—by depriving ourselves of the fruitful study of these philosophers—and also other people, now living or yet to come, who might have benefited more from us if we had shown the wisdom and intellectual discipline to educate ourselves better.

I conclude by thanking Howard once again for a generous and stimulating commentary.

Received: 28 October 2016.

© Allen W. Wood, 2016.


Allen Wood is Ruth Norman Halls Professor of Philosopher at Indiana University, Bloomington, US. Among numerous articles and book contributions, he has published multiple books on topics related to Kant, German Idealism and MarxHe is also, alongside Paul Guyer, general editor of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kantand has translated several of Kant’s works as well as Fichte’s Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation. His most recent book is Fichte’s Ethical Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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