Following the truth “wherever it may lead you,” as the Unitarian code insisted, did not sound corny to me as a Reed College junior in 1957. I was, however, instantly discouraged from trying to answers the really big questions and settled on looking for rational reasons for ethical behavior. I thought decisions based of instinct or faith were a dead ends. You couldn’t determine the truth of anything with fact free arguments. Absent reason, disputes descended into conflict.
After working through the pre-Socratic philosophers, then Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Hobbes we finally arrived at the 18th Century and the ideas that guided my great-grandfather, the Enlightenment of Hume, Locke, Kant and Hegel. I liked Kant who tried to prove that reason could determine moral behavior. When I studied him under the guidance of a young logics professor, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason turned out to be a very complicated tautology, its conclusions contained in its premises. Hegel was more interesting, introducing the notion of the dialectic and change based on a tension of opposites, but he held no interest for my logic teacher.
I asked my metaphysics professor what philosopher came after Kant and Hegel and he told me it was John Dewey. But when I read Dewey, he seemed like a promoter of American exceptionalism. I thought Dewey’s pragmatism was a joke compared to Hegel’s dialectic. My logic professor told me Lugwig Wittgenstein came after Hegel, but after struggling through the first few chapters of a massive work dedicated to the sentence “the broom is in the corner,” I wanted to move on.
Neither professor mentioned Karl Marx, the thinker who actually followed Hegel. I discovered Marx quite by accident in the Reed library. Like my great-grandfather, Marx had taken part in the abortive German Republic of 1848 and fled to a life in exile. Marx had been a newspaper editor in Germany and my great-grandfather became a newspaper editor in Chicago. Any similarities ended there. My great-grandfather embraced American democracy and capitalism. Karl Marx chose working class revolution and communism.
Marx was not taught at Reed. “Try economics,” the philosophy professors said. But neither Reed’s economics department nor any social science taught Marx. That was pretty much true across the United States in the Fifties, despite the fact that Marx was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th Century and for better or for worse, his followers in the Twentieth Century still were shaping the destiny of half the people in the world. How could we not study this guy?
Our fear of Marx intrigued me. What were people so afraid of? I found a collection of essays based on Marx’s Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Marx wrote,“The present condition of society displays its difference from the earlier state of civil society in that — in contrast to the past — it does not integrate the individual within its community.” Here was a description of the alienation my generation felt. Post war capitalism destroyed traditional communities snd left us all struggling virtually alone, as even extended families fell apart.
“Labor produces wonderful works for the rich, but it produces poverty for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the laborer. It produces beauty, but deformity for the laborer. It replaces labor with machines, but at the same time it throws the laborer into the most barbarous labor and at the same time makes the laborer into a machine. It produces intelligence and culture, but it produces senselessness and cretinism for the laborer.”
The key to human fulfillment was un-alienated work. For Marx, control of our own labor was essential. But in capitalism, “labor is not voluntary, but constrained, forced labor. Therefore, it does not meet a need, but rather it is a means to meet some need alien to it. Its estranged character becomes obvious when one sees that as soon as there is no physical or other coercion, labor is avoided like the plague. This alienated labor, this labor, in which human beings alienate themselves from themselves, is a labor of self-denial and self-torture.”
As I read more deeply in Marx I found a theoretical basis for a wildly popular book about alienation by David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd. According to this book, humans organized themselves in three basic ways. Tradition-directed people lived by values passed on from generation to generation; inner-directed people lived by values instilled by a church or family; and outer directed people tried to figure out what others wanted and then fit in.
If Americans were beginning to lose community in the Fifties, by 2015 the loss was epidemic. Tradition-Directed and inner-directed people come from some kind of intact community. Ask anyone who teaches the children of our poor, now about half our population, about respect … the key to any community: saying please and thank you, coming on time, fulfilling commitments, paying attention to others, tempering self-absorption.
What made The Lonely Crowd so talked about in the mid Fifties was its assertion that members of America’s rising middle class were other directed. They wanted to be liked by others. Thus they more easily adapted to the conformity demanded by large corporations, public institutions and the war on Communism. In 2015 our Middle Class is loosing ground for the sake of capitalist profits and the lonely crowd is both lonelier and larger. Look at how many of us are trying desperately to connect virtually through the Internet.
Back at Reed. A charismatic young professor named Warren Sussman was teaching a course in American Studies: the US from 1877 to the present. Sussman relied on some Marxist tools for his analysis and original documents for his source material. He was part of a new wave of American professors who in the mid Fifties began to question historical orthodoxy and view the United States with more critical eyes. I wanted to switch to American studies for my senior year.