Robert S. Boynton


Review of Robert B. Westbrook's "John Dewey and American Democracy"

Newsday, August 6, 1991

John Dewey and American Democracy, by Robert B. Westbrook. Cornell University
Press, 570 pp., $ 29.95.

FEW WORDS in today's political culture have been more distorted and misused
than "liberalism" and "pragmatism." The first became distinctly unfashionable
during the last presidential campaign when George Bush branded Michael Dukakis a
liberal, thereby associating the moderate Democrat with every government excess
since the New Deal.

The second rose to prominence recently when everyone in the Bush White House
rushed to wrap their cynical power-politics in the kinder, gentler language of
"pragmatism." In Washington D.C., circa 1991 conservative pragmatists who "get
things done" are in abundance, self-confessed liberals rare and liberal
pragmatists virtually extinct.

With this current history in mind, readers of historian Robert Westbrook's
splendid intellectual biography, "John Dewey and American Democracy," will be
surprised to discover that one of America's most esteemed philosophers thought
it inconceivable that pragmatism could help but align itself with liberalism,
since the two constituted the core of America's democratic ideal.

John Dewey's career was extraordinarily long - from the early 1880s to 1952,
when he died at the age of 92. As a philosopher and social critic who kept a
close eye on the trends of his day, Dewey's enormous corpus has a protean
quality: He covered so many topics that over the years he often expressed
strikingly different and often contradictory opinions.

Westbrook skillfully guides the reader through the thicket of Dewey's
writings, whether he is expounding his progressive philosophy of education in
the 1890s, defending America's intervention in World War I, leading the movement
to outlaw war in the 1920s, criticizing Stalin in the 1930s or warning against
the dangers of curtailing freedom of expression as early as the 1940s. Pacifist,
anti-communist, socialist, idealist, corporate liberal - almost all readers can
find their favorite Dewey if they look hard enough.

From within Dewey's rich writings, Westbrook has subtly teased out the thread
that holds them all together: the radical Yankee with a profound faith in
participatory democracy. It was this Dewey, argues Westbrook, who tried to
reconstruct philosophy and shift its attention from the problems of philosophers
to the problems of men; a demand for relevance which, after many years of
neglect, has again become a significant voice in the academy.

Dewey called on philosophers to become critics-at-large, public thinkers who
used the insights of social science to help reconcile the demands of a community
with the flourishing of human individuals. In this respect, Dewey's social
thought remained influenced by his early fascination with Hegel and his
followers, who argued that society and the individual each found its fullest
expression in conjunction with the other. Because he used the language of social
scientific planning so popular in his day, Dewey has often been cubbyholed as a
corporate liberal who believed society should be organized according to rational
principles formulated by elite experts for the benefit, but without the
participation, of its citizens.

Westbrook shows that nothing could be further from the truth, since for Dewey
fully democratic participation was not only good for society itself, but
necessary for individuals to realize their potential. "The people will rule when
they have power," Dewey wrote in 1934, defending his proposal for a radical
third party, "and they will have power in the degree they own and control the
land, the banks, the producing and distributing agencies of the nation." The
rhetoric of a controversial figure such as Jesse Jackson pales in comparison.

Westbrook goes to great lengths to show that Dewey, although at home with the
most abstract ideas, never lost sight of the particular - whether founding the
American Civil Liberties Union with Norman Thomas, Clarence Darrow and Felix
Frankfurter, or traveling to Mexico to head the commission investigating the
charges against Leon Trotsky made in the infamous Moscow show trials, when Dewey
was 68 years old.

But for all Dewey's emphasis on the concrete, he never formulated a plan to
implement the radical democratic socialism he so eloquently called for.
Nevertheless, Westbrook notes that Dewey was always aware that American
democracy was, as he once called it, "a task before us," and not an accomplished
fact. It is the power of Dewey's poignant dissent, his refusal to settle for a
society at odds with America's democratic ideal, that is his true legacy. As
Dewey wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1930: "Forty years spent wandering
in a wilderness like that of the present is not a sad fate - unless one attempts
to make himself believe that the wilderness is after all itself the promised

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