JR'S Free Thought Pages
Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes by Richard Rorty
From Philosophy and Social Hope (1999)
Failed prophecies often make invaluable inspirational reading. Consider two examples: the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto. Both were intended by their authors as predictions of what was going to happen ‑ predictions based on superior knowledge of the forces which determine human history. Both sets of predictions have, so far, been ludicrous flops. Both claims to knowledge have becomes objects of ridicule.
Christ did not return. Those who claim that He is about to do so, and that it would be prudent to become a member of a particular sect or denomination in order to prepare for this event, are rightly viewed with suspicion. To be sure, nobody can prove that the Second Coming will not occur, thus producing empirical evidence for the Incarnation.
But we have been waiting a long time.
Analogously, nobody can prove that Marx and Engels were wrong when they proclaimed that the bourgeoisie has forged the weapons that bring death to itself'. It may be that the globalization of the labour market in the next century will reverse the progressive bourgeoisization of the European and North American proletariat, and that it will become true that `the bourgeoisie is incapable of continuing to rule, since it is unable even to assure an existence to the slaves within their slavery'. Maybe the breakdown of capitalism, and the assumption of the political power by a virtuous and enlightened proletariat, will then come to pass. Maybe, in short, Marx and Engels just got the timing a century or two wrong. Still, capitalism has overcome many crises in the past, and we have been waiting a long time for the emergence of this proletariat.
Again, no scoffer can be sure that what evangelical Christians call `becoming a New Being in Christ Jesus' is not a genuinely transformative, miraculous experience. But those who claim to have been reborn in this way do not seem to behave as differently from the way they behaved in the past as we had hoped. We have been waiting a long time for prosperous Christians to behave more decently than prosperous pagans.
Analogously, we cannot be sure but that some day we may catch sight of new ideals that will replace those that Marx and Engels dismissively called `bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom'. But we have waited patiently for regimes calling themselves `Marxist' to explain to us exactly what these new ideals look like, and how they are to be realized in practice. So far, all such regimes have turned out to be throwbacks to pre‑Enlightenment barbarism rather than the first glimmerings of a post‑Enlightenment utopia.
There are, to be sure, still people who read the Christian Scriptures in order to figure out what is likely to happen a few years or decades down the road. Ronald Reagan did, for example. Up until quite recently, many intellectuals read the Communist Manifesto for the same purpose. Just as the Christians have counseled patience, and assured us that it is unfair to judge Christ by the mistakes of his sinful servants, so the Marxists have assured us that all the `Marxist' regimes so far have been absurd perversions of Marx's intent. The few surviving Marxists now admit that the Communist parties of Lenin, Mao and Castro bore no resemblance to the empowered proletariat of Marx's dreams, but were merely the tools of autocrats and oligarchs. Nevertheless, they tell us, some day there will be a genuinely revolutionary, genuinely proletarian, party ‑ a party whose triumph will bring us a freedom as unlike `bourgeois freedom' as the Christian doctrine that love is the only law is unlike the arbitrary dictates of Leviticus.
Most of us can no longer take either Christian or Marxist postponements or reassurances seriously. But this does not, and should not prevent us from finding inspiration and encouragement in the New Testament and the Manifesto. For both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.
Both texts have gathered greater inspirational power as the years have passed. Each is the founding document of a movement that has done much for human freedom and human equality. By this time, thanks to the rise in population since 1848, both may have inspired equal numbers of brave and self‑sacrificing men and women to risk their lives and fortunes in order to prevent future generations from enduring needless suffering. There may already have been as many socialist martyrs as Christian martyrs. If human hope can survive the anthrax‑laden warheads, the suitcase‑sized nuclear devices, the overpopulation, the globalized labour market, and the environmental disasters of the coming century, if we have descendants who, a century from now, still have a historical record to consult and are still able to seek inspiration from the past, perhaps they will think of Saint Agnes and Rosa Luxemburg, Saint Francis and Eugene Debs, Father Damien and Jean Juares, as members of a single movement.
Just as the New Testament is still read by millions of people who spend little time wondering whether Christ will some day return in glory, so the Communist Manifesto is still read even by those of us who hope and believe that full social justice can be attained without a revolution of the sort Marx predicted: that a classless society, a world in which `the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all' can come about as a result of what Marx despised as `bourgeois reformism'. Parents and teachers should encourage young people to read both books. The young will be morally better for having done so.
We should raise our children to find it intolerable that we who sit behind desks and punch keyboards are paid ten times as much as people who get their hands dirty cleaning our toilets, and a hundred times as much as those who fabricate our keyboards in the Third World. We should ensure that they worry about the fact that the countries, which industrialized first, have a hundred times the wealth of those that have not yet industrialized. Our children need to learn, early on, to see the inequalities between their own fortunes and those of other children as neither the Will of God nor the necessary price for economic efficiency, but as an evitable tragedy. They should start thinking, as early as possible, about how the world might be changed so as to ensure that no one goes hungry while others have a surfeit
The children need to read Christ's message of human fraternity alongside Marx and Engel's account of how industrial capitalism and free markets ‑ indispensable as they have turned out to be ‑ make it very difficult to institute that fraternity. They need to see their lives as given meaning by efforts towards the realization of the moral potential inherent in our ability to communicate our needs and our hopes to one another. They should learn stories both about Christian congregations meeting in the catacombs and about workers' rallies in city squares. For both have played equally important roles in the long process of actualizing this potentiality.
The inspirational value of the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto is not diminished by the fact that many millions of people were enslaved, tortured or starved to death by sincere, morally earnest people who recited passages from one or the other text in order to justify their deeds. Memories of the dungeons of the Inquisition and the interrogation rooms of the KGB, of the ruthless greed and arrogance of the Christian clergy and of the Communist nomenclature, should indeed make us reluctant to hand over power to people who claim to know what God, or History, wants. But there is a difference between knowledge and hope. Hope often takes the form of false prediction, as it did in both documents. But hope for social justice is nevertheless the only basis for a worthwhile human life.
Christianity and Marxism still have the power to do a great deal of harm, for both the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto can still be effectively quoted by moral hypocrites and egomaniacal gangsters. In the U S, for example, an organization called the Christian Coalition holds the Republican Party (and thus Congress) in its thrall. The leaders of this movement have convinced millions of voters that taxing the suburbs to help the ghettos is an unchristian thing to do. In the name of `Christian family values', the Coalition teaches that for the U S government to give a helping hand to the children of unemployable and unwed teenage mothers would `undermine individual responsibility'.
The Coalition's activities are less violent than those of the now-moribund Sendero Lumunoso movement in Peru. But the results of its work are equally destructive. Sendero Luminoso in its murderous heyday, was headed by a crazed philosophy teacher who thought of himself as the successor of Lenin and Mao, as an inspired contemporary interpreter of the writings of Marx. The Christian Coalition is headed by a sanctimonious televangelist: the Reverend Pat Robertson ‑ a contemporary interpreter of the Gospels who will probably cause much more suffering in the United States than Abiel Guzman managed to cause in Peru.
To sum up: it is best, when reading both the Communist Manifesto and the New Testament, to ignore prophets who claim to be the authorized interpreters of one or the other text. When reading the texts themselves, we should skip lightly past the predictions, and concentrate on the expressions of hope. We should read both as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called `the better angels of our nature', rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human destiny.
If one treats the term `Christianity' as the name of one such appeal, rather than as a claim to knowledge, then that word still names a powerful force working for human decency and human equality. `Socialism', similarly considered, is the name of the same force - an updated, more precise name. `Christian Socialism' is pleonastic: nowadays you cannot hope for the fraternity that the Gospels preach without hoping that democratic governments will redistribute money and opportunity in a way that the market never will. There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative, rather than as a prophecy, without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.
Dated as the Communist Manifesto is, it is still an admirable statement of the great lesson we learned from watching industrial capitalism in action; that the overthrow of authoritarian governments, and the achievement of constitutional democracy, is not enough to ensure human equality or human decency. It is as true as it was in 1848 that the rich will always try to get richer by making the poor poorer, that total commoditization of labour will lead to the immizeration of the wage‑earners, and that `the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie'.
The bourgeoisie‑proletariat distinction may by now be as outdated as the pagan‑Christian distinction, but if one substitutes `the richest 20 per cent' for `the bourgeoisie' and `the other 80 per cent' for `the proletariat', most of the sentences of the Manifesto will still ring true. (Admittedly, however, they ring slightly less true in fully developed welfare states like Germany and slightly truer in countries like the US, in which greed has retained the upper hand, and in which the welfare state has remained rudimentary. To say that history is `the history of class struggle' is still true, if it is interpreted to mean that in every culture, under every form of government, and in every imaginable situation (e.g., England when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, Indonesia after the Dutch went home, China after Mao's death, Britain and America under Thatcher and Reagan) the people who have already got their hands on money and power will lie, cheat and steal in order to make sure that they and their descendants monopolize both for ever.
Insofar as history presents a moral spectacle, it is the struggle to break such monopolies. The use of Christian doctrine to argue for the abolition of slavery (and to argue against the American equivalent of the Nuremberg Laws ‑ the racial segregation statutes) shows Christianity at its best. The use of Marxist doctrine to raise the consciousness of workers ‑ to make it clear to them how they are being cheated ‑ shows Marxism at its best. When the two have coalesced, as they did in the `Social Gospel' movement, in the theologies of Paul Tillich and Walter Rauschenbusch, and in the most socialistic of the papal encyclicals, they have enabled the struggle for social justice to transcend the controversies between theists and atheists. Those controversies should be transcended: we should read the New Testament as saying that how we treat each other on earth matters a great deal more than the outcome of debate concerning the existence or nature of another world.
The trade union movement, which Marx and Engels thought of as only a transition to the establishment of revolutionary political parties, has turned out to be the most inspiring embodiment of the Christian virtues of self‑sacrifice and of fraternal agape in recorded history. The rise of the trade unions, morally speaking, is the most encouraging development of modern times. It witnessed the purest and most unselfish heroism. Though many trade unions have become corrupt, and many others have ossified, the moral stature of the unions towers above that of the churches and the corporations, the governments and the universities. The unions were founded by men and women who had an enormous amount to lose ‑ they risked losing the chance of work altogether, the chance to bring food home to their families. They took that risk for the sake of a better human future. We are all deeply in their debt. The organizations they founded are sanctified by their sacrifices.
The Manifesto inspired the founders of most of the great unions of modern times. By quoting its words, the founders of the unions were able to bring millions of people out on strike against degrading conditions and starvation wages. Those words buttressed the faith of the strikers that their sacrifice ‑ their willingness to see their children go without sufficient food rather than to yield to the owners' demand for a higher return on investment ‑ would not be in vain. A document that has accomplished that much will always remain among the treasures of our intellectual and spiritual heritage. For the Manifesto spelled out what the workers were gradually coming to realize: that `instead of rising with the progress of industry', the worker was in danger of `sinking deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class'. This danger was avoided, at least temporarily, in Europe and North America thanks to the courage of workers who had read the Manifesto and who, as a result, were emboldened to demand their share of political power. Had they waited for the Christian kindness and charity of their superiors, their children would still be illiterate and badly fed.
The words of the Gospels and of the Manifesto may have provided equal quantities of courage and inspiration. But there are many respects in which the Manifesto is a better book to give to the young than the New Testament. For the latter document is morally flawed by its otherworldliness, by its suggestion that we can separate the question of our individual relation to God ‑ our individual chance for salvation ‑from our participation in cooperative efforts to end needless suffering. Many passages in the Gospels have suggested to slave-owners that they can keep right on lashing their slaves, and to rich people that they can keep right on starving the poor. For they are going to Heaven anyway, their sins having been forgiven as a result of having accepted Christ as Lord.
The New Testament, a document of the ancient world, accepts one of the central convictions of the Greek philosophers who urge that contemplation of universal truths is the ideal life for a human being. This conviction is based on the premise that the social conditions of human life will never change in any important respect: we shall always have the poor with us ‑ and perhaps the slaves as well. This conviction leads the writers of the New Testament to turn their attention from the possibility of a better human future to the hope of pie in the sky when we die. The only utopia these writers can imagine is in another world altogether.
We moderns are superior to the ancients‑both pagan and Christian ‑ in our ability to imagine a utopia here on earth. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed, in Europe and North America, a massive shift in the locus of human hope: a shift from eternity to future time, from speculation about how to win divine favour to planning for the happiness of future generations. This sense that the human future can be made different from the human past, unaided by nonhuman powers, is magnificently expressed in the Manifesto.
It would be best, of course, if we could find a new document to provide our children with inspiration and hope ‑ one which was as free of the defects of the New Testament as of those of the Manifesto. It would be good to have a reformist text, one which lacked the apocalyptic character of both books ‑ which did not say that all things must be made new, or that justice `can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions'. It would be well to have a document which spelled out the details of a this‑worldly utopia without assuring us that this utopia will emerge full‑blown, and quickly, as soon as some single decisive change has occurred ‑ as soon as private property is abolished, or as soon as we have all taken Jesus into our hearts.
It would be best, in short, if we could get along without prophecy and claims to knowledge of the forces which determine history ‑ if generous hope could sustain itself without such reassurances. Some day perhaps we shall have a new text to give to our children ‑ one which abstains from prediction yet still expresses the same yearning for fraternity as does the New Testament, and is as filled with sharp‑eyed descriptions of our most recent forms of inhumanity to each other as the Manifesto. But in the meantime we should be grateful for two texts which have helped make us better ‑ have helped us overcome, to some degree, our brutish selfishness and our cultivated sadism.