The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis

The “Second American Revolution” in the title refers to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. Before that, during most of the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a loose arrangement that Ellis compares to the European Union. Under the Articles of Confederation, the thirteen colonies operated as separate nations. They cooperated in order to defeat the British, but few of the colonists expected to become one nation after the British left.

Ellis focuses on the four men he thinks did the most to convince their fellow colonists that the United States needed a real central government. They were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay and George Washington. Ellis writes well and tells a fast-moving, almost suspenseful story, which is divided about equally between describing the histories and psychologies of his four Founding Fathers (and a few others) and the issues that confronted them.

From his conclusion:

Perhaps the best way to describe their achievement … is to argued that they maximized the historical possibilities of their transitory moment. They were comfortable and unembarrassed in their role as a political elite, in part because their leadership role depended on their revolutionary credentials… They were unapologetic in their skepticism about unfettered democracy, because that skepticism was rooted in their recent experiences ass soldiers and statesmen…

They straddled an aristocratic world that was dying and a democratic world that was just emerging… The Constitution they created and bequeathed to us was necessarily a product of that bimodal moment and mentality, and most of the men featured in this story would be astonished to learn that it abides, with amendments, over two centuries later…

Their genius was to answer the political challenges of their own moment decisively, meaning that the confederation must be replaced by the nation, but also to provide a political platform wide enough to allow for considerable latitude within which future generations could make their own decisions. 

Ellis concludes with the words of Thomas Jefferson, written decades later, not because Jefferson played much of a role in creating the Constitution (he was Ambassador to France at the time) but because he wrote so well:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country…. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered … institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regime of their barbarous ancestors.

PS: Anyone who reads this book will understand that the Founders would have expected the Electoral College to reject a demagogue like the current President; and that they intended the 2nd Amendment to make sure we would be protected by a well-regulated militia, not a standing army, and not to guarantee everyone the right to own the weapon(s) of their choice.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

The historian Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) is known outside academic circles for having written a particular book and a particular essay. The book was Anti-intellectualism in American Life from 1963. The essay was “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” from 1964.

This is a book of Hofstadter’s collected essays. His famous essay gives the book its title; there are three other essays on the same topic. “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” was written in response to McCarthyism. “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited” and “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” were written in response to Senator Barry Goldwater’s successful effort to win the Republican nomination for President.

These essays may have been written more than 50 years ago, but they are highly relevant today, given America’s disastrous election two months ago. Our next President ran a classic pseudo-conservative campaign, claiming to be a “conservative” but appealing to the same right-wing extremism that characterized the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. (The President-elect owes his greater success in 2016 to the fact that “normal” Republicans are much more extreme than they used to be.)

Hofstadter explores the history of right-wing extremism through the 20th century, but concentrates on developments since World War 2. He explains that as more people did well in economic terms, a reactionary minority grew angrier and angrier about changes in society. Conservatism became a form of radicalism, with seething hatred toward moderate politicians and deep resentment of the progress made by women and African-Americans. Anyone who wants to understand how we got to the current low point in American history will benefit from reading Richard Hofstadter.

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser

Part 1 is entitled “Class Warfare: The Long 19th Century”. In the author’s words:

We should … conceive of a long nineteenth century lasting from post-revolutionary days through to the Great Depression of the 1930s… The epoch that encompassed the transformation of a sliver of coastal villages, small farms, slave plantations and a few port cities into a transcontinental commercial, agricultural and industrial preeminnce was a wrenching one. For those generations that lived through it, it often called forth … recurring waves of resistance to the inexorable, a stubborn, multifarious insistence that the march of Progress was too spendthrift in human lives, that there were alternatives [22-23].

Fraser tells the history of those transitional years by describing political movements, the growth of organized labor and the writings of various intellectuals. It’s a very interesting story that culminates in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the coming of World War 2.

Part 2 is called “Desire and Fear in the Second Gilded Age”. Fraser tries to explain why there has been such little resistance, organized or otherwise, to increasing inequality, stagnant wages and boring, regimented work. He delves into the history again, but also tries to give psychological or sociological explanations. What I took away from this part of the book is that people are distracted by consumer products and mass entertainment; there has been a constant campaign to glorify “the successful” among us; it’s difficult for most of us to imagine an alternative (since the transition to a modern industrial nation happened so long ago); and organized labor has been beaten into submission. The powers that be are highly organized and have a lot of money to spend on maintaining the status quo. Workers aren’t organized at all and many are just trying to get by, plus nobody wants to lose their job to cheap foreign competition by making trouble.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton

Even though everyone agrees that fascism in its most significant form began in Mussolini’s Italy and reached its peak in Hitler’s Germany, it’s hard to say exactly what fascism is. In The Anatomy of Fascism, historian and political scientist Robert Paxton probably does as well as anyone could.

After a wide-ranging, sometimes repetitious discussion of fascism’s historical roots, its small-scale presence in many countries, and its brief success in Italy and Germany, Paxton offers a definition in the final pages of his book:

The moment has come to give fascism a usable short handle, even though we know that it encompasses its subject no better than a snapshot encompasses a person.

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence, and without ethical or legal restraints, goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Paxton offers this definition almost against his will, since he believes that the best way to understand fascism is to study its history and compare it with other political systems, especially other authoritarian (or “totalitarian”) systems. He argues that “the ideas that underlie fascist actions are best deduced” not from what fascists say but from what they do. Nevertheless, he lists some “visceral feelings” or “mobilizing passions” that animate fascism, including (in his words):

  • A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • The primacy of the group … and the subordination of the individual to it;
  • The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • The need for authority by natural chiefs … culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
  • The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
  • The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint … right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

Paxton repeatedly emphasizes that fascism has always arisen in response to the perceived failure of democratic systems to deal with some crisis or other, and that its ascension to power has always required the support of existing right-wing elites who see fascism as a counterweight to socialism or communism. Given this historical record, it’s natural to wonder whether America might one day adopt fascism:

Today a “politics of resentment” rooted in authentic American piety and nativism sometimes leads to violence against some of the very same “internal enemies” once targeted by the Nazis, such as homosexuals and defenders of abortion rights. (But) the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream….No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance….An American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy…. Its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State, … controls on gun ownership, desecrations of the flag, unassimilated minorities, artistic license, dissident and unusual behavior of all sorts that could be labeled antinational or decadent.

We can find … (the most) ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery.

Americans tend to be individualists, which conflicts with being good fascists. But given a sufficiently serious crisis and a sufficiently charismatic demagogue, it could happen anywhere. 

Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

The only Marx I’ve ever read is The Communist Manifesto. Given capitalism’s recent problems, I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about him. This book by English academic and literary critic Terry Eagleton was probably a good place to start.

Why Marx Was Right is a chapter by chapter set of responses to common objections to Marx’s thought. In each case, Marx seems to come out on top: “This book had its origin in a single, striking thought: What if all the most familiar objections to Marx’s work are mistaken? Or at least, if not totally wrongheaded, mostly so?” It’s a well-written, rather breezy book. Eagleton suggests that Karl Marx was a brilliant social theorist, far ahead of his time, although I’m not sure how accurate Eagleton’s portrayal of Marx is. 

The Marx described by Eagleton sounds like a democratic socialist, a 19th century progressive and proto-environmentalist who understood the world more clearly and was a better person than the Communists who achieved power in the 20th century, claiming to be “Marxists” or “Marxist-Leninists”.

The biggest question I had after reading Why Marx Was Right is how Marx’s ideas would work out in practice. At one point, Eagleton describes what would apparently be a Marxist form of government:

It is not a state we ourselves would easily recognize as such. It is as though someone were to point to a decentralised network of self-governing communities, flexibly regulated by a democratically elected central administration, and announce “There is the state!”, when we were expecting something altogether more inspiring and monumental.

That is the clearest description of a Marxist state in the book (as best I remember). According to Eagleton, Marx “defended the great bourgeois ideals of freedom, reason and progress, but wanted to know why they tended to betray themselves whenever they were put into practice”. Likewise, once socialism takes advantage of the infrastructure created by capitalism and evolves into communism, would that infrastructure tend to wither away, since the profit motive would no longer be in full force?

Eagleton argues that Marx would not eliminate the profit motive entirely, but it’s not clear how a truly Marxist state would function. Communism as instituted in the real world has never resembled the seriously democratic system Marx apparently proposed. Nor have communist governments been established in countries with advanced capitalist infrastructure. Marxism is one of those social experiments that have never been performed.

Yet some of what Marx argued for, especially as expressed by Eagleton, would be desirable correctives to the system we’ve got now. In particular, we in America would benefit from more democracy, more socialism and more environmentalism. In Eagleton’s words: 

Capitalism is the sorcerer’s apprentice: it has summoned up powers which have spun wildly out of control and now threaten to destroy us. The task of socialism is not to spur on those powers but to bring them under rational human control.

Not complete control, but certainly more control.