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The Theory of Violence Revisited

The following is from Dewey’s book Liberalism and Social Action (1935), page 84:

The argument for putting chief dependence upon violence as the method of effecting radical change is, moreover, usually put in a way that proves altogether too much for its own case. ...  The positive conclusion that emerges is that conditions that would promise success in the case of use of force are such as to make possible great change without any great recourse to such a method. *

* [Dewey’s footnote] It should be noted that Marx himself was not completely committed to the dogma of the inevitability of force as the means of effecting revolutionary changes in the system of ‘social relations.’ 

This is speaking out against violence in abolishing private property.

Here’s another Dewey bon mot from the same book:

Insistence that the use of violent force is inevitable limits the use of available intelligence ... . Commitment to inevitability is always the fruit of dogma; intelligence does not pretend to know save as a result of experimentation ... . Moreover, acceptance in advance of the inevitability of violence tends to produce the use of violence in cases where peaceful methods might otherwise avail.(Page 78.)

On the contray:  we should not experiment with violence, and we can know in advance.  The general principle is that force should be used only in self-defense against those who start with it.

Dewey has a problem with that principle.  There are no principles;  you are to be pragmatic instead.  You are to try violence or peace and see how it works.  If you don’t get what you want, modify your strategy per above.

In other words:  Might Makes Right.

Dewey is not talking about arresting someone for polluting, or fraud, or breaking and entering.  He’s talking about state control.  And since violence or the threat of its use would be necessary to wrest control of property from those who own it, it’s the pragmatic thing to do.  That’s the Dewey way.  By any means necessary.

If even this evidence from Liberalism and Social Action doesn’t convince you that we are talking about a police state here, maybe the next quote will.

The following is most of the end of Dewey’s essay “Pragmatic America” first published in The New Republic in 1922, and reprinted in Characters and Events, volume 2, chapter 17.  What I quote starts on page 546:

Every day our cities are eloquent of the past fruits of a feudal Europe.  His power far exceeds mine who can tell just how much our present ill is due to the commercialism which is of our making and how much is due to deposit of an ancient feudalism.  Commerce itself, let us dare to say it, is a noble thing.  It is intercourse, exchange, communication, distribution, sharing of what is otherwise secluded and private.  Commercialism like all isms is evil.  That we have not as yet released commerce from bondage to private interests is proof of the solidity and tenacity of our European heritage.  Commerce in knowledge, in intelligence, is still a side-issue, precarious, spasmodic, corrupt.  Pragmatic faith walks in chains, not erect.

These United States were born when the pragmatic and experimental faith of the English tradition was in eclipse. ... Those who were called liberals lost their faith in experimental method.  They were seduced into desiring a creed as absolute, as final, as eternal as that wielded by their opponents. The dogma of natural rights of the individual was the product.  The pioneer, agrarian American scene was a congenial home for the new dogma. We tied ourselves down to political and legal practices and institutions radically hostile to our native disposition and endeavor.  Legalism, along with feudalized commercialism, wedded to form modern commercialism, is the anti-pragmatic “made” which hinders and perverts our pragmatic makings.  It is incarnate in constitutions and courts. The resulting situation is not one which calls for complacency.  But the beginning of improvement is to place responsibility where it belongs.

Our noisy and nauseating “idealism” is an expression of the emotions which would cover and disguise a mixed situation.  There is a genuine idealism of faith in the future, in experiment directed by intelligence, in the communication of knowledge, in the rights of the common man to a common share in the fruits of the spirit.  This spirit when it works does not need to talk.  But its workings are paralyzed here, arrested there, and more or less corrupted everywhere by a feudalized commercialism and a legalism which we cover up with eloquent speeches because we do not honestly confront them. Discrimination [that is, proper judgment] is the first fruit of love of neighbor.  Till we discriminate [that is, judge correctly] we shall oscillate between wholesale revulsion and the sloppy idealism of popular emotion.

And so it ends. Set aside the phony history, the incredibly bad writing, the silly biblical allusions (found throughout Dewey’s books and essays).  He says commercialism (read private property) is evil, there are no natural rights, no absolutes (read truth), and the legal system that embodies them should be changed accordingly.

Is it any wonder that when six years later Dewey visited the Soviet Union he found it a beautiful place, and dismissed the carnage as unimportant?

Dewey’s admiration for the goals and methods of the Soviet Union, and toleration for the use of “violent force,” was the result of his philosophy.  I would question, on that grounds alone, whether  as some teachers claim  the Alexander Technique is the result of that philosophy as well.