All posts by Bruce Lerro

Three Strikes You’re Out for Western Psychotherapy


Patient questions and therapeutic answers

The therapist says to the client, “tell me about your dreams” and the client shakes their head slowly and says “I had this dream …”. A therapist says to a teenager, “who are you?” The teenager answers, “I don’t know”. The therapist says to the teenager, “that’s normal at your age”. A client tells their therapist, “I am very angry at my father”. The therapist says, “let’s do a role play. You be your father and I’ll be you. I’ll show you how to do it.” A client says they are sick of their job but they stay because the money and benefits are good. They want to get into another field. The cognitive therapist says, “let’s brainstorm the different fields you want to get into. We can look at the Occupational Handbook for the skills and pay scale for the different kinds of jobs. Then we can set some goals and seasonal objectives so we make sure you follow through with your goals”. The client feels overwhelmed but agrees. A mother expresses great sadness when her thirty-three-year-old son is getting ready to move out. The therapist says to the client, “it’s long overdue for your son to leave.” After the patient leaves the therapist adds “dependent personality” to her diagnosis.

If you are an individualist living in an industrial capitalist society, both the problems and the therapeutic responses probably sound familiar and the therapeutic interventions sound reasonable. But how good are these interventions with people whose home culture is collectivists outside Yankeedom, specifically India, China or Japan?

What are collectivist and individualist selves?

Roughly 80% of the world’s population is “collectivist”, consisting of most parts of the world with the exception of the United States and Western Europe. The latter country and part of a continent have been characterized as “individualist.” For collectivists, the group is prior to the individual in two senses. The caste group is prior to the family, and the family is prior to the individual. For individualists, the importance of the individual is prior to that of the family and the family is prior to one’s membership in a social class. In the history of human societies, there have been two kinds of collectivists, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal collectivists have been hunter-gatherers, simple horticultural societies who do not have castes or classes. This is why they are called “horizontal” collectivists. Agricultural states are vertical collectivists because they have social castes. We will be using the agriculturalist states of India, China and Japan for our case studies for collectivists. Industrial capitalist societies will be the type of societies we will characterize as individualist.

For collectivists, society is like an organism and extension of nature. Different castes within that society are pictured as being like the organs of a body. Individuals are like different cells in the body. For individualists, society is autonomous from nature and is governed by its own laws. Social institutions are built up by individuals via a social contract. Individuals are independent of society and social relations appear to them as being voluntary, contractual and accidental. Lastly, collectivists value stability. What is old is revered and what is new is looked upon with suspicion. For individualists it is the reverse. There are many other interesting differences. Please see Table A for the full list. The question we will seek to address is how well will Western theories of personality work with collectivists?Six western theories of personality

There are six western theories of personality: Psychoanalysis; Behaviorism; Humanistic; Biological Physiological; Biological Evolutionary and Cognitive. Each of these theories can be broken down into sub-schools which have various kinds of quarrels and emphasis, but for our purpose the six original theories are plenty.

Unit of analysis

The basic unit of analysis for psychoanalysis is dreams, fantasies and drives. For behaviorism the basic unit is habits – what people do, over and over again. For humanistic psychology the most important focus is curiosity and peak experiences. For the biological-physiological school, what matters most are hormones, genes and brain chemistry. For the biological evolutionary school what drives individuals is survival and reproduction. For the cognitive school the main focus is the qualities of reasoning.

Structure of the psyche

The structure of the psyche for psychoanalysis is the id, ego, superego and the unconscious, the conscious and the preconscious. For behaviorism, the structure surrounding the habit  it is what happens just before the habit (associations, Pavlov) and what happens after (consequences, Skinner). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs focuses on where to place the individual for humanistic psychology. For the biological physiological theory, one major topic is temperament theory. For biological evolutionary school adaptation and sexual selection strategies is where the action is at. For the cognitive school automatic thoughts, cognitive interpretations , explanatory styles and assumptions is the focus.

Sources of conflict

For psychoanalysis there are two conflicts: between the conscious and the subconscious; and between id and the superego. For behaviorists the conflict is between the unconscious acquisition of associations and consequences which reinforce bad habits. For humanistic psychology the conflict is between the false self which is acquired from what they call a “a materialistic“society and the real self. For the biological physiological school, conflicts arise when people don’t know their own temperament and find themselves in a work or educational setting that are mismatches with their temperament. The use of drugs to stabilize hormonal balances can cause problems due to overuse and side effects.  For evolutionary psychologists many psychological problems stem from “evolutionary mismatches” between the predispositions we acquired as hunter-gatherers where we formed our human nature and our existence in industrial capitalist societies, which are far from our human nature. For cognitive psychologists, conflicts come from far-fetched automatic thoughts, cognitive interpretation distortions, pessimistic explanatory styles, and irrational assumptions.

My claim

On the surface it appears that western psychotherapy theories are very different from each other and they are –relatively. But when we consider the whole world, 80% of whom are collectivists,Western personality theories have more in common than they are different. Western psychotherapy is oozing with individualism as it falls under individualism in the last twelve categories under Table A. Because of this, Western psychotherapy has major liabilities as a therapy for collectivists. The “three strikes you’re out” in the title of this article stands for the average length of time some researchers have estimated that collectivists will stay in therapy with Western psychotherapists. My sources for this article will be the Sue’s book Counseling the Culturally Diverse; Harry Triandis’ book Individualism and Collectivism and John Berry’s Cross-Cultural Psychology.


What I will  present covers a thirty-year period from 1970 to 2000. Perhaps in the past twenty years things have changed. I remain skeptical because cross-cultural psychology is the black sheep of the field and the field of psychology has historically resisted social and cultural explanations for psychological process, whether it be class, race, gender or religion. I would be happy to know that Western psychotherapy has become more cross-culturally sensitive in the past 20 years.

Where are we going?

The heart of the article will be to cite:

  • instances of problems that collectivists may raise in therapy;
  • Western psychotherapists’ interventions with a particular interpretation or suggestion; and,
  • why the intervention won’t work.

I will strive to have at least two examples for each school of Western psychotherapies interventions. As you will see, some Western theories are worse than others when it comes to alienating collectivists. After these examples are given I will state my five qualifications and then draw conclusions.

Ways in Which Western Psychotherapy Fail Collectivists


Since moving to Yankeedom four years ago, a collectivist son has begun to see a counselor who his friend recommended because he feels worthless.  He claims it is because he is not able to keep up with the other kids in terms of dating and partying. After many sessions, the psychoanalytic therapist suggests to the son that his parents may be trying to keep their son dependent because it makes their lives more meaningful. How will the collectivist respond? Not well. The collectivist would be horrified to think that his parents, to whom he owes his life, would be capable of these machinations. He was raised in a Confucian culture where the family comes first.

A collectivist woman expresses dissatisfaction with her marriage. The therapist suggests the collectivist take out a sheet of paper and list all the virtues and vices of her husband. Then on the back sheet of a paper, list the virtues and vices of her father. The therapist then asks the client to compare the characteristics of her husband and her father. They are very similar. The therapist announces that their client is going through the Electra complex – a girl’s psychosexual competition with her mother for possession of her father. How good an interpretation is this? It is out to lunch. Even if Freud’s theory was right, in order for it to work you would need to live in a nuclear family. The collectivist woman lives in an extended family with her grandfather and mother’s brother helping to raise the child. This diffusion of male responsibility will undermine Freud’s Electra complex.

A collectivist teenage boy has been feeling anxious in the presence of his older brother. An Adlerian therapist suggests that as the second born in the birth order, what he might be feeling is repressed competitiveness. “Competitiveness with the older brother  is how middle children behave.”  How will that go over with the collectivist? It won’t make much sense. Adler’s birth order assumes that the primary relationship is between the parents and each of the children taken separately. This ignores the fact that in collectivist societies older children take care of younger ones. Brother-sister dynamics are strong enough to throw a monkey wrench into the birth order theory. The job of the middle child is to take care of the younger child, not compete with the eldest.

A collectivist parent comes to therapy and says his son does not display the proper respect for them or towards his elders. The son talks back to them, questions their authority and complains that he can’t stay out as late as the other kids. The therapist suspects the problem is that the parent is raising the child in an authoritarian way. Will it be helpful to tell the parent this? No, it will not. With rare exceptions, collectivists of all castes raise their children to be obedient. What this parent is doing is not pathological. They are raising their children in the way in which the entire culture operates.

A collectivist female teenager comes to a school counselor because they are tired of taking care of their younger brothers and sisters. The Eriksonian therapist asks the teenager what they would like to do with their time. The teenager says they don’t know. The therapist announces  that teenager is going through a developmental crisis called “identity vs role confusion”. During this stage, adolescents explore their independence and develop a sense of self. How well would this interpretation work for this teenager. Not well. Typically, collectivist teenagers do not have a time as teenagers where they go to school and not work. They begin helping their parents, working as early as seven years old. They are also expected to do the same work their parents did. There is no asking “who am I?“ There are no “rebels without a cause” in collectivism.

A female therapist has been seeing a single collectivist male patient once a week for the past two years. The male patient asks his therapist if she would go out with him.

The female therapist thinks to herself that the transference is going very well. How right is her interpretation? She is off.  Transference is based on the idea that in order to become healthy, the patient must temporarily transfer their loyalties from the family of origin to the therapist. This theory will not work with collectivists because the family is too important to the client to ever allow any transference to occur.


A collectivist is court-referred to attend therapy because of a drinking problem. A behaviorist therapist begins asking his patient what were his associations right before he began to drink. Then he asks him what were the consequences (positive or negative reinforcement) right after he has a drink. The therapist explains the patient must change the associations and consequences in order to stop drinking. How will this work for the collectivist? Not well. Behaviorists are very optimistic about getting people to change because mostly they think of people as blank slates. The collectivist is much more conservative and thinks of himself as a certain “type” (temperament) and there isn’t much that can be done.

When this technique doesn’t work well, the behaviorist refers the collectivist to an AA meeting. The collectivist is a Muslim and it is difficult to find an AA meeting with a Muslim higher power. Eventually he finds one. At the first meeting, in front of complete strangers, he is asked to admit he is an alcoholic. He is very uncomfortable and leaves after one meeting.

A collectivist man is violent with his partner. A social behaviorist following Bandura is interested in the relationship between watching television violence and committing real violence. The therapist suspects that the models he is following are attractive and competent and are not punished for their violence. The collectivist wife doesn’t think much of the intervention. She says men have always been violent with their wives and it goes back generations in her family. “That’s just how men are.”

Biological physiological

The medical doctor notices a collectivist female patient seems to have extreme mood swings and refers her to a psychiatrist at the hospital the doctor works for. The collectivist is embarrassed to see a psychiatrist because that means she is “crazy”. She goes anyway and the psychiatrist diagnoses her as bi-polar and gives  her medication. He explains to his patient that the drugs will “even out” hormonal imbalances. The collectivist takes the medication but does not understand how temperament can be changed with medication. She thought temperament was something you were born with and doesn’t change.

The collectivist woman’s mood stabilizes and she feels much better. She would like to continue to see the psychiatrist and, in fact, she invites him over to meet her family.

The psychiatrist tells the patient the hospital does not provide for ongoing therapy. The patient says okay, but still wants the psychiatrist to come over once to meet her family. The psychiatrist explains that would be very unprofessional. The collectivist is hurt that the psychiatrist rejects her offer.


A collectivist female patient complains to the therapist that her daughter is being selfish. She wants to go away to medical school to become a doctor. The collectivist patient says she should be helping out with the family business so they can pass their business to the next generation. The humanistic psychologist sides with the daughter and tells the patient her daughter is striving to be self-actualized as an individual and she should make room to let her grow. How does the collectivist react? Negatively. Collectivists have no models for self-actualization, and especially not for women.

A collectivist arrives at a therapy session and wants to report on a dream. The therapist is a follower of the Gestalt psychologist, Fritz Perls (image at the front of the article).  Perls believed that all the different parts of the dream were fragmented parts of their client’s personality. Perls wanted the patient to act out the different parts of the dream. So if part of a dream was a spewing fire hydrant, you acted that out. If a spinning house were part of the dream, you acted out the spinning house. Then the different parts of the dream talked to each other. Perls believed the parts of the dream talking to each other were ways to integrate the personality. How would that work for collectivists? It would be a disaster.

In the first place, collectivists do not think they are the authors of their dreams. They do not say, as individualists might, “I had a dream”. Rather they say “A dream came to me.” Secondly, collectivists do not think the dream is about their personal life. All dreams are about the group. Thirdly, collectivists’ dreams are not random firings of the brain or fragmented parts of their identity. Collectivists think that dreams are prophetic. They predict some future event that will happen to the group. Imagine the Gestalt therapist’s surprise when he learns his patient has travelled to Chinatown in another city to warn his people about a coming flood!

A collectivist has recently been widowed and claims that the house she has lived in with her husband is haunted by him. She claimed he is haranguing her for not showing respect to their grandparents. The therapist asks the client what she thinks is really going on here. Expecting his client to realize this is a projection of her own feelings, the therapist is disappointed that the collectivist lacks insight. This humanist psychologist thinks that insight and understanding are a necessary foundation for action. The collectivist is also disappointed. She came in expecting advice about what to do, not to play mind games.

A collectivist, after much reluctance, admits he is upset with his father for not doing more work on the family business. The Gestalt therapist says to the client, “let’s bring your father into the room”. The frightened collectivist agrees. Then the therapist says “let’s make believe your father is right here. In fact, let’s make believe he is this pillow. What I want you to do is punch the pillow are hard as you can and tell him how you really feel”. The collectivist grows silent and says he can’t do it. There are long awkward silences. Mercifully the session ends. The collectivist never returns. The humanistic psychologist thinks that his patient needs assertiveness training.

Humanistic psychologists are the enemies of formality and structure. They prefer their clients (they refuse to call them patients) call them by their first name and they dress more causally than other professionals. Furthermore, they set no agenda for the session because they want to “be in the present”. Lastly, they want the sessions to be led by the client, rather than the therapist because the client must take the initiative in their own self-healing. How will this work? Badly. Collectivists expect their therapist to play a professional role, including dressing for the occasion and referring to themselves as “doctor”. The collectivist expects the therapist to take the lead in what they will talk about and there needs to be procedures that are explicit in how the problem will be solved. All this lack of structure will raise the anxiety level of the collectivist. The humanist psychologist thinks the anxiety is good for them because it teaches them to handle anxiety in real life. It never dawns on the therapist that the collectivist’s home and work-life might be very structured.

Biological Evolutionary

Why are we attracted to fat and sugar when we know it is no good for us? Evolutionary psychology says because they are quick sources of energy and they are adaptative if taken in small quantities. In the era in which we formed our human nature, neither fat nor sugar was readily available. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, for upper-class collectivists in agricultural states, being overweight was a status symbol because it showed that you were more important and were less likely to be a victim of famines.

However, in the past 300 years sugar and fat are readily available. At the same time, over the same time period, life has been more sedentary – at least for the upper classes. These factors combine to make more people obese. What this meant for collectivist is that being overweight no longer had high status because even the lower classes now carried extra weight.

This upper class collectivist is told by a bio-evolutionary psychiatrist that they need to lose twenty-five pounds. The collectivist is upset because they are proud of their weight and losing weight will affect their perceived status. The collectivist asks the hospital if they are able to transfer them to an Indian doctor who understands these things.

A collectivist has lived in a temperate zone where the sun sets between six and nine PM, depending on whether it is winter or summer. The collectivist works as a middle manager for a transnational corporation and he is reassigned to work in Fairbanks, Alaska. The collectivist notices he has become depressed in the winter. His bio-evolutionary psychiatrist explains to his client he has seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and needs light therapy. The collectivist thinks that remedy is weird and does not want to buy any “magical” light box. He thinks he is depressed because he misses the people in his country of origin.

Collectivist parents come to therapy because they are unhappy with their daughter’s choice of a partner. The boy lacks broad shoulders and he appears scrawny. In addition, the boy has no interest in introducing his parents to her parents. The evolutionary psychologist explains to the collectivist that times have changed. He tells the collectivist that broad shoulders and physical strength were adaptive when men pulled plows. However, with the development of tractors, it became less necessary for a farmer to have physical strength to be an attractive mate. What matters in industrial capitalist society is these teenagers have common interests and are emotionally compatible. Further, he says that these days people marry for love and not for economic reasons.

This is incomprehensive to the collectivist. Their daughter’s boyfriend seems more likely to become sick and not provide for their daughter. Furthermore, their daughter is in no position to know what she wants in a partner. Sexual attraction is a very unstable reason to marry. Both their parents know more about what it takes to make a successful marriage. How can the therapist think that two people barely twenty years old are in any position to decide their future? The collectivist parents leave therapy because they think the therapist is incompetent.


A collectivist mom is upset with her six-year-old daughter for not making a list of all the groceries they need when they go to the store. The cognitive psychologist explains that it’s a lot to expect of a six-year-old to make lists of food and drinks and anticipate when they might run out before next week’s shopping. The therapist explains that her daughter has not mastered Piaget’s concrete operational stage and she is not likely to do this well. The collectivist does not know about western stages of development and treats children as little adults.

A collectivist man is required to attend a 40-week program for domestic violence. His partner is seeing a priest for help and as a result she is getting stronger. This makes the collectivist man very depressed and sad. The cognitive psychologist in the group program suggests they work on a writing a five-part radial message to his wife. A radial message consists of sense data, emotions, interpretations, intention and consequences. For the next three sessions the collectivist man disappears. When he returns, the cognitive therapist asks “where were you?” The collectivist confesses that he travelled to another city to confer with a shaman for help. They did a ritual together and the shaman claims to have expelled the evil spirit that has possessed his wife.

A collectivist lives in a city which has just had flooding as the result of a storm. One of his sons has been injured and there has been significant damage to their house. The cognitive psychologist, trying to be helpful, suggests the collectivist make a list of all the things that need to be done and set a time line for each task of the project. He further suggests that this may be a good opportunity to set some long-range goals for his children. How will this be received? Not well. The therapist is operating with an internal locus of control. That means how long something lasts, how much the event will affect other areas of a person’s life and whoever is responsible is largely under the person’s control. The collectivist won’t go for this. He thinks that the causes of things are either the will of the gods, luck or possibly due to sorcery. How long something lasts, as well as it how it affects the rest of his life are not under his control. He understands the therapist means well, but the therapist is naïve. Meanwhile the therapist is toying with a diagnosis that the collectivist is depressed.


Vertical collectivists are not the only kind of collectivist

As mentioned in the orientation section, I have only discussed collectivists in agricultural states. Horizontal collectivists at the tribal level of society are very different from vertical collectivists. However, we think Western psychotherapy would fare at least as bad with them

The degree of success or failure would depend on the acculturating group membership upon entering the country

There are six kinds of acculturating groups: immigrants, ethnic groups, refugees, sojourners, native peoples and slaves. Immigrants are migrating people who have come to new country intentionally, plan to stay permanently and have at least a modest savings upon entering the country. These folks have the highest probability of having limited success with western psychotherapy. Sojourners, who move from place to place, if they are students, might not do too badly if they had some extra money and would have become more familiar with western ways through courses taken. On the other hand, refugees are usually fleeing their country of origin because of economic, political or religious persecution or natural disasters. They have little money and no clear intention to stay. They are less likely to enter therapy voluntarily and more likely to be court-referred. Native Americans, given the genocide and persecution to which they have been subjected, would hardly come to therapy voluntarily.

There are collectivists in separate countries and subgroups within countries

My article has focused on collectivists as they exist in different countries. However, there are also collectivists who exist within a single country, even in Yankeedom.

There are predictable sociocultural factors that would make people more or less collectivist even within an individualist culture. For example:

Maximum Collectivist                        Maximum individualist

Working class                                              Middle class, upper-middle class

Racial minorities                                        Racial majority (72% white)

Women                                                         Men

Older than 50 years of age                       Between 20-50 years of age

Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, Confucian     Protestants, Jews

Rural                                                             Urban, suburbs

Deep south, farming                                  Coastal cities, industry

Military service                                           No military service

Children                                                       No children

Space does not permit me to explain this, but my point is there can be individualists within agricultural civilizations just as there are collectivists within industrial capitalist societies.

Pristine vs Hybrid Collectivist

In this article I have treated agricultural civilizations and industrial capitalist societies as if they existed in a pristine form with no interaction. But in the last two hundred years capitalism has traded with, colonialized and manipulated India, China and Japan so that they are no longer pure collectivist societies. China, despite the control of the Communist Party, has allowed forms of capitalism to come in so that the Chinese today are not the same as they were two hundred years ago. The same is true of India, thanks to British imperialism. While the Japanese industrialized themselves in the second half of the 19th century, they had their constitution dictated by the Yankee rulers after World War II. Despite this, both Chinese and Japanese capitalism still contain a collectivist core which has not been hollowed out.

I am not saying Western psychotherapy never works with collectivists

It is much more likely to work with people on the individualist side of the collectivist columns above. So a light-skinned collectivist, upper middle-class man between 20 and 50 living in a coastal city without children and no military experience might be very receptive.


I began my article with five psychological problems an individual in an industrial capitalist society might have, along with what seem to be good therapeutic interventions. The issue this article raises is two-fold:

  • How helpful will these interventions be with people who live in collectivist societies such as India, China or Japan?
  • Are the problems the client raises universal problems all people have or are the problems themselves not relevant for people living in collectivist societies?

My claim in this article are that therapeutic interventions fail to deal effectively with the problems that collectivists might face if they are immigrants, sojourners or refugees.

I began by defining what it means to have a collectivist or individualist self. I provided a table which compares collectivists and individualists across nineteen categories. I then gave an overview of six western personality theories and compared them across three categories: the unit of analysis; the structure of the psyche and the sources of the conflict to lay a foundation for understanding Western psychotherapeutic interventions.

The heart of the article is to raise, on average, three psychological problems a collectivist might have in a Western psychotherapy session. Each school was faced on average with three problems the collectivist will present. Then their interventions were criticized for being cross-culturally insensitive.  I closed my article with five qualifications.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Three Strikes You’re Out for Western Psychotherapy first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Seven Theories of Politics: The Rehabilitation of a Loaded Vice Word

The reason I wrote this article is to get people excited about the explanatory power of the word “politics” and to make sense of the world and how to change it. In Part I of this article, I brought up some of major confusions over how the word “politics” is used to describe actions as well as to define the word theoretically. I then posed 12 questions that any political theory would have to answer. The questions were:

  • Temporal reach: How far back into history does politics go?
  • Cross-species scope: Is politics an activity which is confined to the human species?
  • Spatial reach: Where is the arena in which politics takes place?
  • Political agency: Who does politics? Professionals or everyone?
  • Political action: How is politics different from strategies?
  • Interpersonal processes: How is politics different from convincing and persuading?
  • What is the relationship between politics and power? Does politics drive power or does power drive politics?
  • What is the relationship between politics and force or coercion? Are they interchangeable? Are they opposites?
  • Interdisciplinary span? To what extent is politics influenced by economics, technology, history?
  • What are the forces that shape politics?
  • What is the relationship between theories of politics and theories of political sociology?
  • What is the relationship between theories of politics and political ideologies?

Lastly, I identified seven political theories. In Part I, I focused on three political theories that occupy the centrist portion of the political spectrum: old institutionalists (mainstream political science), civil republicans and Weberian political economy. In Part II I discuss the remaining four theories: radical feminism and Marxism on the left and Rational Choice Theory and Bio-Evolutionary on the right. At the end of this article, there is a table which summarizes how each of the seven theories answers the twelve questions above.

Marxist political economy

Contradictory nature of politics in Marx

Marx’s notion about politics is contradictory. In some places he lumps together politics with religion, morals, laws and contrasts this to the economic “base”. However, in his more political writing on France, he seems to give politics more importance than in the first formulation above. In a formal sense, Marx thought that politics was a product of class conflict. In this sense, he saw the state as the concentration of political struggle. In a narrow sense, this would exclude egalitarian societies from politics because they didn’t have any classes. Yet Marx was very interested in lack of private property and in the decision-making processes of these societies. But he implies that decisions about property relations and deciding whether or not to move to a new location are not political.

Politics is inseparable from economics

In Part I, we saw institutionalists and civic republicans both accept the separation of politics from economics, and institutionalists think what they are doing is “political science”. We also saw Weberians will not make this separation, claiming that what they are doing is “political economy”.  Yet they will come down more on the side of the importance of politics. When Marx talked about economics, most explicitly in Das Kapital, Grundrisse, and in other works, he also did so out of a tradition called political economy. People like Adam Smith and David Ricardo would never separate economics from the politics of the day. Despite all these qualifications, we can safely say that for Marx there was no such thing as politics without economics. Marx would have heaped scorn on the disciplines of “political science” for ignoring the economy and the economists who pretend there is no politics in economics.

Historical sweep: politics as relative

Marx had the second broadest historical sweep of the evolution of politics because he points to changes from the relations of property going all the way back  from communal, to slave, to feudal, to capitalist property. This broad sweep of politics enabled Marx to see the relativity of politics in a way that institutionalists, civic republicans and even Weberians do not. For Marx, tribal societies practiced no politics because there were no social classes. At the visionary end of Marx’s social vision, under communism there would be no politics because the existence of social classes would be abolished. Unlike any other theoretician of politics Marx believed politics emerged at a certain, relatively recent point in human history and it would wither away at a later point. Marx’s perspective was not only historically depthful but his interdisciplinary reach included not only economics and world history, but also anthropology and sociology.

The state as passive

Both institutionalists and Weberians think that the state is very important for enacting politics, though for very different reasons. With civic republicans, Marx did not think the state was very powerful in its political activity. Marx saw the state as a relatively passive instrument of the capitalist class, its executive committee and its representative bodies as the “talking shop of the bourgeoisie”.

Place of violence in politics

Marx understood all class conflict as violent because there was a struggle between two classes for control over the natural resources, tools, finished products and power settings. The extraction of surplus value from the working class by the capitalist class with state backing gives rise to class struggle. So for Marx, as for Weber, all politics was violent, either using force explicitly or implicitly. At the same time, the forces that shaped politics were the various contradictions within capitalism.  The electoral politics of institutionalists or the civic debates in public of civic republicans do not give a voice to the working class. With Weberians, real politics takes place behind the scenes and these scenes will never include the working class. Political conflicts cannot be resolved democratically because the economic contradictions that underlie the capitalist system are not addressed.

Political sociology and political ideology

In political sociology, there are ‘functional” Marxists who do not make as much of class struggle in the area of politics as they make in trying to understand the economic contradictions of capitalism – its problems of accumulation. Yet there are others who emphasise the importance of how the class struggle impacts the accumulation process and how the contradictions under capitalism cannot be understood without taking this into account. In terms of political ideology, Marxists are all socialists – social democrats, Leninists and council communists – and all claim Marx’s writings though they differ bitterly over the interpretation of his work.

Rational Choice Theory

Neo-classical economics on the prowl of politics

We said earlier that both Institutionalism and civic republicanism accepts the separation of politics and economics as opposed to the Weberian and Marxian claim that they cannot be separated. Rational choice theory:

  1. first separates economic behavior from politics; and,
  2. takes its theory of economic exchanges and projects it onto politics. There is a kind of political unconscious.

The political realm is a kind of economic market place in which politicians pursue their interests to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs under circumstances where their resources are scarce and wants are many. Rational and collective choice understandings of politics are rooted in neoclassical micro-economics, except they are applied to non-market situations. Gary Becker even tried to apply microeconomic principles of traditional economics to families and human sexual life. He wanted to counter the moralistic, idealistic and romantic beliefs that family and sexual life are supposedly beyond economic calculations.

Unlike institutionalism and republicanism, rational choice theory argues that economically people are self-interested maximizers in their economic exchanges and this is not just a product of capitalism. Rather, they say a desire to “truck, barter and exchange” goes all the way back to hunter-gatherers.

Politics as the management of public goods

For rational choice theorists, the practice of politics is not about the process of governmental goal-setting, decision-making, and monitoring (institutionalists). Neither is it about public debate and compromise to achieve a virtuous outcome (Civic Republicans). Politics is bartering and haggling involving the public, not in a reasoned debate striving towards a collective good, but occurs under very specific public conditions. Based on a Lockean notion of social contract theory, when people are in small groups they behave rationally as individuals. But around issues that involve large groups, there is a danger of collective irrationality. What might those conditions be?

Situations that involve the management of public goods is the arena for politics. This means goods from whose benefits people cannot be excluded, such as clear air, or the conservation of resources. What differentiates political behavior from economic transactions is that in political behavior participants must be far-sighted. What to do about pubic goods does not dissolve after an immediate market exchange. It goes on indefinitely. This requires the presence of institutions and networks. Politics is a kind of market place for regulating the messy collective consequences of trading where the rate of profit is low and the long-term consequences accumulate.

Politicians are like commodities governed by the supply and demands of voting

Rational choice theorists treat politicians as if they were commodities in a market. Just as supply and demand expectations of consumers control the price of commodities, the supply and demand of people’s voting preferences drives the competition between politicians who are driven into and out of office. Rational choice theory believes in liberal democracy not in a political sense, the way the institutionalists do. Rather they believe in an economic democracy where political competition for votes leads to democratic results, just as Adam Smith believed that economic competition leads to social good.

All interpersonal processes like convincing or persuading are really economic exchanges. What would make them political is the presence of public goods. Rational choice theorists do not pay a great deal of attention to political power, because they tend to see political actions as subject to a democratic process of supply and demand. This theory pays little attention to the predominant place collective and cooperative activity – building a bridge, working on a ship – has in human social life.

Politics takes place at the point of exchange

Neoclassical economists claim that capitalists’ profits take place at the point of exchange between capitalist competitors and between individual capitalists and the marketplace. Marxian political economics argue that the most important place where profits are made is at the point of production. This means that it is in the exploitation of the worker. According to Marx, the worker produces far more social wealth – surplus value – than she receives as a wage.

Rational choice theorists ignore political processes that occur before the moment of exchange. That would be in the policy settings of think tanks, upper class social clubs, foundations, and congressional hearings which take place long before voting,  Just as they see economic profits being made at the point of exchange, rather than as Marxists do as at the point of production, so too, they see politics taking place at the point of exchange rather than at the point of political production.  The school of political sociology which fits snugly with rational choice theories are political pluralists. In terms of political ideology, rational choice theory goes best with right-wing libertarians.

Radical Feminist

Critique of the public-private separation of politics from the non-political

Radical feminism goes the furthest of any political theory in how far it carries politics into other areas of human social life. Feminists argue when institutionalists limit politics to the state and its institutions, these accepted boundaries for the arena of politics are not natural self-evident boundaries. Rather, they are the product of past political struggles which resulted in a public-private dichotomy in the first place. For them politics takes place in private settings, such as in families.

Limitations of individualist self

The liberal institutionalists have as its foundation a separate, autonomous, rational and self-subsisting self. This self is not simply describing and reflecting individual-social relations under capitalism, but it appears to be prescribing and structuring relations as if this were the only possible self. Institutionalists ignore the research that in non-capitalist societies, the self is better understood as “collectivist”.

Social contract theory

Once the individualist self is granted, the stage is set for social contract theory. Whether it be Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau, social contract theory starts with the premise that individuals really could subsist in a state of nature but as a calculating rational act, they agree that they would be even better off under social relations than in a “state of nature”. This social contract is required to create both civil society and the state. But even further back into archaic states, radical feminists argued it required sexual contract whereby domestic relations were not understood as political but private.

Capitalist state exploitation of women

Politics has been more exclusively limited to men and more self-consciously masculine than any other social practice. Given that women have conventionally been defined in terms of their relation to what is domestic, this has marginalized women as political actors. The unacknowledged foundation of male public politics is autonomous individuals. Meanwhile, what is ignored is the support and care received from women at home which is a) unpaid, and b) seen as not political. At the same time, the state denies their responsibility to intervene in family disputes. Until recently, it has excluded domestic violence as a category outside its political jurisdiction.

The socio-construction of humanity

Radical feminists reject all social contract theory, and along with Marxists, claim that human beings are social long before we become individuals. Without society, most fundamentally the relationship between mothers and their siblings, there could be no individuality. In fact, there is no such thing as an individual separate from society. It is society that transforms a biological organism – first into a human being and then into an individual. All social relations are political whenever there are resources at stake. Politics is the process by which people organize the production, distribution and use of resources to produce and reproduce their lives.

Gender is political

While agreeing with Weberian and Marxism claims that politics must include economics and history, radical feminist theory insists that the domestic politics of the family and sexuality not be excluded. It is not just in formal settings such as elections or civic debate that politics takes place, but in informal settings as well. The process by which a family decides whether to redecorate the kitchen or go on a vacation is political. When a man takes up two seats on a train with one seat occupied by his bag, and a woman standing up nearby does or does not tell the man to move his bag so she can sit down, that’s politics. When men whistle at women as they go by and women look the other way, that’s politics. Politics is embedded in language. When women end their statements as if they were questions when they are speaking in front of men, that’s politics. When women do emotional work not to appear too smart on a date to keep the man interested, that’s politics.

Power with vs power over people

Unlike all political theory, with the possible exception of Marxism, all power is not hierarchical. There can be power with people, as in egalitarian pre-state societies. There is also power over people as comes is developed in rank and stratified societies.

Power as the process

Generally, feminists are reluctant to make a separation between politics and power as means and end. An egalitarian political process has a good chance of leading to power with people. What feminists are very sensitive to is when a political process over the production, distribution and use of resources and is not egalitarian. When this is the case, it makes power vertical, power over people, no matter how noble the ends. So, when Marxist-Leninists ignore what the working class actually say it needs, when it suppresses the collective creativity of workers self-organizing attempts, its power is always vertical no matter what Leninists say about speaking for the working class.

All strategies are political

While there may be a fine line between strategizing and politics, radical feminists are likely to say it is a safer bet to assume that all strategies are political. Why? Because the cost of assuming some interaction is political when it is really strategic is not nearly as high as mistaking a move someone makes is strategic when it is really political. The same is true with any kind of influence. Convincing, persuading, and negotiating are better understood as a form of subtle politics with bribery, or force at the other extreme. For too long, women have been lulled into what appeared to be cooperative endeavors but were really manipulations of sorts. It is better to assume assertion or even aggression is the norm and then be pleasantly surprised if it turns out otherwise.

Political sociology and political ideology

In terms of political sociology, no school fits it exactly, but the political class model probably comes the closest. When it comes to political ideology, radical feminism is likely to be either social democratic or anarchist.

Biological Evolutionary

Most political theories deny politics exist among non-human species

Up until now, we haven’t addressed the question of the extent to which politics exists outside the human species. Both institutionalism and civic republicanism would explicitly deny that is possible because a) only in state societies can politics exist, or b) politics require reasoned debate which is beyond the reach of any other species. For Weberians, politics requires a state and a monopoly over the use of force which is beyond other animals. For Marxists, since animals do not have social classes (the examples of hierarchies among some of the other animals would not be deemed of the same order as social classes) there would be no politics. Rational choice theory would dismiss the possibility of politics among other animals because the whole basis of politics involves weighing the pros and cons of choices and imagining long-term consequences.

Being a social species with cooperation and sharing makes you a political species

According to Tiger and Fox (Imperial Animal), in order for politics to occur in material production, traveling together in herds and mothers taking care of their young is not enough for politics to take place. There has to be:

  1. a) a division of labor and cooperation in the process of providing food, building shelters and providing defense against attack; and,
  2. b) sharing of resources.

Since there is little or no division of labor in provisioning in other animal societies, there is no economic sphere in which to ask the question about politics’ relationship to economics.

Politics occurs in the cross-fire where genetics, socio-culture and individual learning conflict

Roger Masters takes it further, arguing that politics is the mechanism by which the human species reconciles conflicts between genetic, socio-cultural and individual learning loyalties. He points out that in any situation there are opportunities:

  • to be selfish and only consider yourself, making enemies along the way;
  • to look out for your relatives, which is kin selection and which results in nepotism;
  • to look out for your friends and forming alliances based on reciprocity; and,
  • to look out for strangers regardless of what they give back in return – altruism.

Power is not just about control over material production and control over policy but control over sexual reproduction

What all theories of politics have in common is that it is either a means to power or synonymous with power. Most, if not all, theories of power argue that power has a great deal to do with control over the provisioning of material resources: economics such as food, land, tools, commodities. Most political sciences connect power to control of social policy in the future, and maintaining it practically within its judicial system and police.

However, feminists rightly point out that resources are not just material production. They also include control over sexual resources of reproduction. If we consider that politics is the means of gaining power over the forces of production (economics) and public decision-making and reproduction, then biological evolutionary theory of sexual selection has a great deal to teach us about the  sexual politics of reproduction.

Sex and politics are traditionally separated

What is normally termed “sex” and “politics” are two sides of the same evolutionary coin. Yet what textbook on sexual behavior treats it as a political process? What primer on political science recognized that its subject matter is a derivative of a biological theme as fundamental as the struggle for reproductive success? What politician sees his own compulsive energy as fired by the ancient impulses of sexual competition? What lover sees his sexual process as pride being part of the necessary comportment of the successful mammalian politician? Sex and dominance, reproduction and power are so intimately linked that it is hard to disentangle one from the other when considering sex in its social setting.

Political economy and domestic economy

Unlike other theories of politics, for bioevolutionary politics involves two processes, a political economy and a domestic economy. Political economy involves material provisioning of natural resources to a society. It involves social production. The domestic economy involves sexual provisioning for mating and raising its children. It involves social reproduction.

The beginnings of a domestic economy

For the biological evolutionary perspective, the central political process is the process of sexual selection and sexual selection is based on bonding. A species can get by without much bonding. Flocks, herds, and schools of fish are notable for the interchangeability of their members. But like breeding systems with asexual reproduction, without bonding they restrict their options and reduce the amount of variety on which sexual selection can work. A true social system begins when animals respond differentially to other members of the species as individuals. They begin to select other members for specific kinds of relatively permanent interaction.

Before mammals were political about material resources, they were political about sexual resources. Sexual politics carries into all social species, most completely among chimps (Frans B. M. De Waal), dolphins and to a lesser extent among elephants. When animals form groups, they must organize themselves in terms of mating practices. As a result of fighting, posturing, cooperating, forming alliances and coalitions, males and females organize themselves into hierarchies. These hierarchies have built into them ground rules as to who can and can’t mate with who and under what conditions.

The domestic economy is about genetics, not sex.  While all males get a chance to copulate, only the more dominant get a chance to breed. The more powerful animal gets a better chance to perpetuate himself genetically. The dominate male is more or less sexually indifferent and will often let inferior males mount the females. Everyone copulates, but only dominates propagate. The dominant animal moves more freely, eats better, gets more attention, lives longer, is healthier and less anxious. On the other hand, the death rate among peripheral males at puberty is very high.

Hierarchies are biologically constituted

Bio-evolutionary theory agrees with feminism that family and sexual life is very political. But where most feminists take the existence of these hierarchies as socially and historically constructed and hope one day to abolish them, bio-evolutionary political theory would argue that these hierarchies are not simply products of society but are rooted in biology. The presence of gender stratification may enhance and amplify these hierarchies, but it doesn’t create them.

Furthermore, in response to Marxism, the creation of a communist society with social gender equality may reduce hierarchies but it wouldn’t abolish them, at least for the foreseeable future. Based on dominance hierarchies, the highest in the hierarchies would have access to the best food and the most comfortable nesting. However, that is not the same thing as having control over production. Darwinian political theory would say all social species are doing some kind of political jockeying come mating season.

What is the relationship between politics and natural selection?

There is, of course, competition for resources between species, but that is not political. Politics can only occur within a species in which fight or flight are not fruitful strategies.

The emergence of the state as an unusual problem to be explained

For neo-Darwinian politics, the emergence of the state is not the starting point of politics, but a problem that neither the traditional mechanisms of kin selection theory or reciprocity solves. What ecological, demographic, economic and technological problems arise that make it in the self-interest of most people to accept the subjugation, the asymmetrical production and distribution of resources that the state involves? Roger Masters offers a rational choice answer to the question. He argues that once collective goods emerge there is trade-off most members of society are willing to make between the benefits of irrigation systems, roads, trade, and the end of feuding that makes the subjection and increased alienation worth it.

Political agency, persuasion

There are no professional politicians in the non-human animal kingdom as far as I know, although De Waal makes some amusing cases for some chimps being more political than others. De Waal makes some interesting points about the power of body language to impact others, although sometimes it might be persuasion and sometimes force or the threat of force. I suspect bio-evolutionary politics would define politics as the strategy within a species to mate and maximize genes across generations.

Bio-evolutionary theory in political sociology and political ideology

It is difficult to place biological politics in the field of political sociology. Political managerial might be closest. A knee-jerk reaction of feminists and Marxists would be quickly to tar-and-feather any biological theory as the political ideology of fascists because of the legacy of social Darwinism. But modern bio-evolutionary theorists are generally hip to its past, and are sensitive to the racial and sexual implications it may have. A friend of mine did a survey among evolutionary psychologists to find out what their leanings are in terms of political ideology. In general, they were liberal. There are also a significant number of women in the field of evolutionary psychology who identify themselves as feminists.

Conclusion: Grand Definition of politics

In making a living, we are co-producers. At the very heart of our social existence has always been a wide range of conscious and planned activities involving the purposive use and production of resources for given ends. People in groups could more easily fell trees, and place them across gullies or streams, deploy hunting nets and chase animals into them if they planned together. In the process of planning there are disputes and debates about what policy to follow and how to achieve their aims.

Politics is:

  1. as an activity that consists of the process of social goal-setting, decision-making and monitoring activities which produce cooperation, negotiation and conflict; and,
  2. as an analysis, politics consists of the study of the provenance, origins, forms, resource allocation (human skills, animate sources of energy, inanimate sources of energy), distribution, and control and consequences of power.

Please see Table A which compares the seven theories of politics across twelve categories of questions. The table closes with each theory’s definition of politics.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Seven Theories of Politics: The Rehabilitation of a Loaded Vice Word first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Seven Theories of Politics: The Rehabilitation of a Loaded Vice Word

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
— Pericles, 430 BC


Politics is a slippery set of actions

We normally think art and literature are different from politics, but how do we explain what the difference is? There are occasions when art and literature are banned by the state. What happens to make them political?

Which of these are political examples demonstrate that, and why?

  • House of Commons debating a Bill
  • U.S. ambassador mediating between warring states in the Middle East
  • Elders deciding on the day a nomadic tribe should move on to the next pasture
  • Salesman wondering how to counter a rival’s advertising campaign
  • Man beating his slave
  • Priest giving a sermon
  • Family deciding whether to have a holiday abroad this year or not
  • Small boy pleading with his older sister to buy him an ice cream

Linguistic obstacles to defining “politics”: Politics is a loaded, vague, and ambiguous word

“Politics” is one of those words which is loaded. Whatever your opinion about politics, it is likely to be “charged” and is a good bet to get you to rev your engines. As Adrian Leftwich points out in What is Politics? the word “politics” has gotten bad press. Here are some associations and their implied opposites: Politics can be:

  • Hypocrisy – baby kissing (not saying what you feel)
  • Wheeling and dealing (as opposed to following through on promises)
  • Fraud (as opposed to honesty)
  • Unpleasant squabbles (as opposed to agreeableness)
  • Can be violent (as opposed to being non-violent)
  • Done by professionals (as opposed to by the average person)
  • Character assassination (as opposed to sticking with the issue)
  • Unnecessary “don’t get political” (as opposed to a necessary activity)
  • Temporary (intrinsic and functional activities which are not political)
  • Distasteful “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it” (as opposed to enjoyable)

Those who claim to hate politics probably draw from at least some of these associations. However, these reservations still have embedded in them their own definition of politics. Even those who claim to be “apolitical” still have a vague definition about what politics is in order for them to decide to withdraw from it. Lastly, many of those who claim to like politics often have a very narrow and conventional definition of what it actually is.

Besides the word “politics” being loaded, it is also one of those words that everyone thinks is commonly agreed upon. I am not talking about specific political positions, for instance, conservative or liberal. What I mean is a simple working definition of the word. The word politics is vague in the sense that the borderline between it and other related terms in sociology is murky.

As Leftwich points out:

There are institutional jealousies, border police, with well-placed and often concealed booby-traps, diversions and dead ends. Some people who attempt to work in such areas never seem to emerge alive. Those who do, often re-emerged tattered and in such a state of shock that they never seem able to say anything about any concrete politics of problems of the world again. (117)

Politics is often used interchangeably with “power”. This term “power” is another hornet’s nest to define which I will take up in an article in the near future. What political theories disagree about are its origins, sources, basis, forms, distribution, measurement, and interpretation. Another sign of vagueness in the word “politics” is to try to identify what the opposite of politics is. If you try this, you will probably see it is not an easy exercise.

Finally, the word politics is ambiguous, meaning it can be categorized in many different ways. Here it is less a question of murky boundaries as it is a choice as to how broad or narrow a range to cover

Seven theories of politics and my sources

There are seven theories of politics: Old Institutionalists; Civic Republicans; Weberian political sociologists; Marxian political economy; Rational Choice Theory; Radical Feminism; and Bio-evolutionary. I have divided this article into two parts. In Part I, I ask twelve foundational questions that all seven of these theories must address. I then cover the more centrist political theories, namely, the old Institutionalists, the civic republicans, and the Weberian political sociologists. In Part II I cover the more extreme versions of politics: Radical Feminism and Marxian political economy on the left and Rational Choice Theory and Bio-evolutionary Theory on the right. At the end of Part II there is a table which compares how the seven theories answer each of the twelve questions. My sources for this article include Politics by Andrew Heywood; What is Politics, Edited by Adrian Leftwich; and Invitation to Politics by Michael Laver.

As a prologue to a definition of politics, the following twelve questions need to be answered. Once we have a more solid foundation of how they can be answered, then we will be able to link them to each of seven different schools of politics. Here are the categories and the questions that follow.

Twelve Questions for Determining What Politics Is

Temporal reach – How far back into human history does politics go? Does politics go back to pre-state societies? Or does politics begin with state societies? Is politics possible before there were political parties?

Cross species scope – Is politics confined to the human species or does it ooze into the life of other species? If so, which ones? If politics crosses species, is it social species that are political? Is it possible to have animal societies which are social, such as lions or wolves but not political? Does a species need to be social to be political? Is being social a necessary but not sufficient condition for politics? Is being social a necessary and sufficient condition for politics? Or is being social neither a necessary nor sufficient condition? In other words, is it possible for a non-social species to have political relationships?

How much does evolutionary biology impact politics? At a macro level, how does natural adaptation impact human politics? In terms of men and women, how much does sexual selection determine politics? At the micro level, how much do genetics and brain chemistry determine the level and the interest and skill in politics? Or is politics primarily a creature of the socio-historical level of reality?

Spatial reachWhere does politics take place? Many political scientists limit politics to what is taking place within states. Is that casting the net too narrowly? Can there be politics through discussions in public space? Is it politics when I get into a discussion about the viability of capitalism while I am at the unemployment line waiting for my check? Are there politics within families? Are there politics between lovers? Or are politics only about public affairs?

Political agencyWho does politics? Is politics done only by politicians? If I argue with my neighbor about police brutality in my neighborhood, are my neighbor and I political beings in this discussion? Do I become political only when I vote on the issue in the next election? Do I become political when I bring police brutality to a town hall meeting next month? Or is the only person who is political the mayor who decides whether or not to make it part of his platform for his campaign next month.

Political actions vs strategiesHow are political actions different from strategizing? If I go to the laundromat to do my laundry and I give a stranger two dollars to put towards the dryer while I go back to my house to grab another load, is that political? If not, how could the situation become political? In the previous example, I think we can agree that in families members engage in strategies as to how do deal with other family members. But are all strategies political? Lovers strategize and negotiate about when the first-time sex might be undertaken. Is this political? If not, what would need to happen to make it political if at all?

The degree of influence in interpersonal processes – Am I being political if I ask my partner if she wants to go to the movies and propose a movie and she agrees to both proposals, is spontaneous agreement political? Suppose she says she wants to go to a movie but prefers another movie. We debate about it, and one of us persuades the other. Has the discussion become political? Suppose you and I are riding bicycles. We reach a crossroads where we have to decide whether to turn left or right. We each want to go in a different direction. Is the process of deciding political? Let’s say we are moving and are lifting boxes to put in the moving truck. Are the mutual complaints about whether or not the other is pulling their weight or whether to stop for a rest political?

Let’s say we both want to go to a movie but neither of us can persuade the other to go to the movie we each want, so we flip a coin. Is flipping a coin political? Suppose we can’t agree and we negotiate. I will go to this movie this time and you promise to go to a movie of my choice next time. Is that political?

Does it make a difference if our disagreement about movie choices has to do with our different race or class origins? Will those influences make our disagreement political? Suppose our discussion about movies became heated. If I recognized that if I get too hot under the collar, she might not want to make love with me later that night and so I calm down. Is that political? if I threaten to not accompany her to her friend’s birthday party (whom I don‘t like) and then she doesn’t go the movie I want, it that politics?

We have seven possibilities. Notice that these topics are not political in a traditional sense. So, the question here is not whether the content is political, but if the interpersonal process is political.

  • a spontaneous agreement
  • a persuasive argument
  • a standoff, which is settled by a chance mechanism
  • a negotiation
  • a standoff based on race or class differences
  • an instrumental strategy for other ends
  • a withdrawal of rewards

Are any of these processes political? Which one or ones (if any)? Where are you drawing the line and why?

What is the relationship between politics and power? Can you have politics without having power? Can you have power without having politics? If power and politics are related, how? Are politics and power interchangeable? Is one a meansto another? Is power the means and politics is the end? Is politics the means and power is the end?

Politics, force and coercion Let’s go back to this movie issue.  Suppose Sandy has been drinking, and in the past, she has been bad-tempered to her partner. She starts drinking while they are deciding on a movie. Sandy’s partner starts worrying and gives in to the movie Sandy wants to watch prematurely to avoid the risk of being potentially yelled at. Is that politics?

This example is a small slice of a larger issue: what is the relationship between politics and force or the threat of force? Is violence an inherent part of politics or is politics what you do to win someone over without being violent?  Some political theorists like Bernard Crick say that politics is the art of compromising when you know you cannot get what you want. Others say that the whole political system is based on violence because the entire class system is based on exploitation and force. All attempts to change things must come up against this militaristic force which protects the rulers. Some say that only force is political and that the state is the ultimate political actor because it has, in Weber’s words, a monopoly on the means of violence.

Interdisciplinary span of politics. How (if at all) is politics related to economics? What is the relationship between technology and politics?  Does the economy dictate politics? Does politics determine economics? Does technology determine politics or does politics determine technology? The same question could be asked about religion or mass media.

What, if any, is the relationship between theories of politics and the schools of political sociology? Is there a relationship between our answers to these political questions and schools of political sociology? In other words, are there consistent answers to these questions which are given by political pluralists? Is there a consistency in the managerial/elitist point of view that answers the same questions? Is there a thread which runs through the class perspective which will answer these questions quite differently?

What, if any, is the relationship between theories of politics and political ideologies? Is there a relationship between a consistent set of answers to these questions and whether you are a liberal or conservative? How will the answers of social democrats, communists and fascists be different than that of either anarchists on the left or libertarian capitalists on the right? We will see that the answers the schools of political sociology give to these questions will have overlap but are not the same as the answers political ideologies might give. For example, the bio-evolutionary reading of politics has, in the past, been connected to fascism. However as feminist evolutionary psychologists point out, it is possible to have a Darwinian take on answers to political questions and be a conservative, liberal or even a Marxist in political ideology.

As it turns out these questions can be answered with some consistency and coherency by seven different theoretical tendencies within the study of politics. We will now turn to these schools and their theoreticians.

Old Institutionalists (mainstream political science)

If you care to recall your high school or college civic classes, the manner in which politics was presented was probably derived from the institutional theory of politics. Of all the schools of politics, the institutionalists address the twelve questions above in the narrowest way. Politics for this school involves only state organs and state processes.

State organs: government

Institutionalists focused on government organs – constitutions, legal system, the branches of government, political parties, pressure groups and elections. The early institutionalists referred almost exclusively to the political institutions of the United States and western Europe. These “democracies” were taken to be the best of all possible worlds, and were taken as given, rather than studied critically. The old Institutionalist understanding of historical change was based on modernist assumptions of gradual linear progress with Western “democratic” politics at the apex. This has changed somewhat in recent years. Government is seen as the vessel of politics.

State processes: governing

The process of politics is governing. Governing is a larger process which refers to general patterns and interlocking systems across both public and private spheres by which all social life is organized and managed, whether it be a monarchy, aristocracy or a democracy. Governance is a process; government has institutions for implementing and sustaining that process. Some scholars say that there can be governance without government and that networks might replace them. Institutionalists counter that networks are incapable of coping with conflict and reconciling collective goals.

Governing involves two tasks:

  • deciding on collective goals for society
  • devising mechanisms through which those goals can be attained

These two tasks must satisfy four conditions:

  • policy setting – setting collective goals for society and reconciling competing wants and demands by prioritizing goals and acquiring resources to realize those goals. This is done by representative political process. When policies are not worked out, governing bodies will work at cross purposes. One example would be the simultaneous funding of subsides for tobacco farmers and anti-smoking advertisements.
  • decision-making steering – this involves making concrete decisions and implementing them efficiently by using a public bureaucracy and administration.
  • coherency – which involves the coordination among the institutions. Often when coordination problems are not resolved, governments fragment and involve unnecessary duplication. Sections of governments perpetrate themselves, maintain their own budgets and pursue their own policy latitude in the face of perceived threats
  • monitoring and acquiring feedback – acquiring mechanisms for detecting and assessing the action of the governance system as a whole.

Politics is limited to the state

While government cannot exist without governing, institutionalists do not believe that governing can exist without government, more specifically the state. If the state is a necessary condition of government and all politics must include the state, then societies in social evolution without a state, that is, tribal societies, are pre-political. So too, spatially, issues that come up in family and in public discussions are not seen as political.

Politics is limited to competitive elections

Furthermore, politics only occurs in state societies with competitive elections. From a Marxist point of view, this is bourgeois democracy. While societies without bourgeois democracies may have politics, typically they are seen in an unfavorable light, and labeled as authoritarian, totalitarian, dictatorships and despotisms.

Liberty as private rather than public

For institutionalists, liberty is a private pleasure which exists only through state protection. This goes back to social contract theory which has its roots in conservative individualism and in the work of Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy.

Political science excludes economics, history, and anthropology

In an interdisciplinary sense, politics generally excludes economics and historical factors. The only people who are political are professional politicians who win elections, and the only political issues involve the four processes of governance – goal setting, steering coherency, and monitoring.

Authority rules, power is violence

As far as the use of power goes, institutionalisms act as if power could be dissolved into authority. In other words, whatever regime is in office wields political authority. Anyone challenging political authority is behaving in an extra-political way, that is – violently. For institutionalists, strategizing only becomes political when it is involved in public affairs which affect an entire community. What is public is inseparable from the state. Any interpersonal processes such as convincing and persuading which is done outside public institutions of the state is not political. Relations with family and lovers is outside the bounds of politics and is more in the domain of sociology.

Political sociology of pluralism; political ideology of liberals and conservatives

The political sociological school which corresponds to the old institutionalists is political and functional pluralism. The work of Robert Dahl and Gabriel Almond are classic examples. It also goes with the political ideology of conservatives and liberals. For institutionalists, politics is the provision of direction to the economy and society through goal setting and steering which brings coherence and monitoring. Institutionalism has focused more on the processes that make political systems stable. It has had a difficult time explaining how political processes change.

Civic republicans

Politics as the art of the possible

For the second theory of politics, civic republicans, the arena in which politics occurs, at least in its initial stages, is not in states in political debates between professional politicians. Rather it takes place in the city in debates among citizens. Yet politics is a very complex, dense process rather than merely giving reasoned arguments and listening to opposing sides about public issues. Argument becomes political when:

  • collective policy-making is necessary (rather than optional)
  • resources are at stake
  • the conflict is at a stalemate
  • the perceived costs of continuing the conflict are too high
  • withdrawal is not an option
  • coercion, force or violence is not an option – as in dictatorships or despotisms

Under these conditions, politics is the art of compromise, negotiation, and persuasion – what Bernard Crick calls “the art of the possible”. For civic republicans, politics and force, threat, bribery are opposites. Where compromise is abandoned, so is politics.

What is the relationship between politics and power?

For institutionalists, the ability to do work to get things done is authority, not power. Power is understood by institutionalists as outside of politics because it uses force. For institutionalists all revolutions are illegitimate assaults on politics. Civic republicans have a more positive view of power. Power is the ability to get things done, but politics is both the process and result of the political use of power. If extrinsic motivators — force, coercion, bribery, or manipulation — are used to reach ends, politics has been corrupted. The use of violence demonstrates lack of power rather than power.

Civic debate humanizes humanity

Civic republicanism is best typified in the political writings of Aristotle, in Hannah Arendt’s work as well as the work of Bernard Crick in his In Defense of Politics. According to Aristotle, life in cities frees the citizen from the blood relations of family, kin group and village where they can think critically without the ignorant and superstitious, emotional practices which are at play in sexual and familial life. Engaging strangers with different perspectives from other regions are the seeds for the best political debate. Civic republicans, like institutionalists, have little patience with any claims that politics can be familial or sexual. Politics begins where the family and sex end. It is becoming political which makes us human. Those who refuse to identify with politics are not quite human, according to Aristotle.

Republicanism vs institutionalist democracy

For civic republicans, an active citizenry practicing politics in city debate is a precondition for democracy. Republics are not just logically prior to democracy; they are historically prior. Classical Greece, early Rome, the 16th century Italian and German city-states, and the 17th Century Dutch society were republics, not democracies.

If the institutionalists ideal is a liberal democracy, for civic republican theoreticians the ideal is a republic. Civic republicans are broader than institutionalists in that the ultimate political actors are an active citizenry, rather than professional politicians. The place where this active citizenry engages is not in elections but in public debates, with or without legislative bodies. Lastly, each has a different conception of individual liberty. For democratic institutionalists, liberty for the individual is to engage in private pleasures and guaranteed protection from the state. This is rooted in Hobbes version of a social contract as an agreement between miserly, self-subsisting individuals. For civil republicans, following Rousseau’s version of the social contract, the ultimate liberty is politics in public discourse using rational persuasion. Please see Table A below.Like institutionalists, civic republicans tend to be less sensitive to history and they make a separation between politics and economics. Among political sociology schools civil republicans are matched easily with political pluralists. On the political spectrum, civic republicans are most likely to be liberals.

Weberian political sociologists

Peter Nicholson argues that in defining politics we should strive for a criterion which is comprehensive, distinctive and fruitful. It must include all politics, exclude everything else and suggest areas for research. Some definitions fail because they include too little and exclude too much while others fail because they included too much and exclude too little.

Definitions which are too narrow

For example, Nicholson argues that Marxists define politics too narrowly because they limit it to class societies. This excludes tribal societies. At the same time, civic republicans define politics too narrowly by limiting it to rational discussion leading to persuasion and assent rather than violence and compulsion. This means that politics can only occur in a truly representative democracy. This excludes dictatorships and authoritarian rule from politics. For civic republicans as for institutionalists, politics depends on whether a society is democratic or not.

Institutionalists claim that all politics is synonymous with government. But schools and banks have governance too. It is also insufficient to say that all politics is decision-making for there are also non-political decisions. Politics is also wider than the allocation of resources, for resources are allocated outside politics too, such as in businesses and families.

Definitions which are too wide

On the other hand, some political theorists cast their nets too widely when they say that spontaneous agreement or coming to a consensus is political too. With these standards, everything would be political and then it becomes questionable why we even have the word at all. Others may rein in their nets a little and say that disagreement and conflict need to be present for there to be politics. But can’t there be politics even when there appears to be no explicit conflict? Can’t there be disagreement which has nothing to do with politics such as mathematicians contesting a proof?

Politics as coercion and force directed at the public as opposed to conflict and decision-making

The political sociology based on Max Weber’s work is more pessimistic than either the Institutionalists or the Civic Republicans about what politics is about. The distinctive mark of a political action is that it can be directed and enforced towards all members of society. Every kind of law, directly or indirectly, can potentially involve the exercises of force. In tribal societies coercion or force existed at a group level. With the rise of the state, the means of violence is monopolized which means that force is legally used to settle certain conflicts, sanction certain rules, back certain decisions, and guarantee certain policies.

Some counter that other groups and individuals use force as well as the state. What about rebels, armed robbers or a parent chastising or battering a child? The difference is that this is private force. Not all members of society are affected by this. Politics is the force or coercion used by the state in public affairs.

Force differs from conflict as a criterion of politics. There is no room for two or more exercises of force. By the very nature of force, only one body is able to consistently back its will by force. Certainly, there can be more than one kind of decision-making coexisting in the same society. But only those decisions which are backed by force are political. The running of businesses, trade unions, schools, universities, banks, churches and families certainly disagree, and come into conflict.  However, none may use force legally except with the permission of the state. All strategizing by groups in society is not political because convincing and persuading does not use force. Only when force is used does it become political and that force must be monopolized by the state.

Politics is about power, not authority

For institutionalists, politics is a process and the result is the authority of the state. In the case of civil libertarians, politics is the process and the result is power to get things done by the civic community. For Weberians (Max Weber), all politics is rooted in power and power is based on force or coercion. Furthermore, all force is concentrated in the state. Authority is one kind of power, but it is not the ultimate source. Legitimate authority and charisma are other kinds of power. If anything, power is the end and politics is the means. Unlike the institutionalists, for Weberians, professionally elected politicians may or may not be the ones doing politics. The real politics is going on not in debates in parliament but behind the scenes in the wheeling and dealing of elites competing with each other.

Unlike either institutionalists or civic republicans, Weberians are more sensitive to changes in politics over the course of history. So too, they do not make an absolute separation between politics and economics. While they understand all politics involves economics, they think that the maneuvering among elite state actors controls the economy.

In political sociology Weber represents what has been called the “managerial” school, both political and functional wings. Weberians are difficult to classify in terms of political ideology. On the one hand they are radical in their critique of the existing order. But on the other, there is a pessimism about the working class or the lower class’s ability to participate in democratic process or public civil discussion.


At the beginning of this article, I pointed out how difficult it was to define politics, both in political actions and political theory.  I then posed twelve questions that all seven theories have to answer. I then named and described three theoretical schools of politics: institutionalists, civil republicans and Weberian political economists. Despite their differences, all three theories occupy the centralist section of the political spectrum. That is, all three theories are liberal or conservative. In Part II of this article, I will address other theories of politics. Radical feminist and Marxist theories will represent the revolutionary left side of the political spectrum, that is socialist theories of politics. On the right side of the political spectrum, we will address rational choice theories and bio-evolutionary theories of politics. Rational choice theory would be right libertarian, as would Darwinian theories of politics.

The post Seven Theories of Politics: The Rehabilitation of a Loaded Vice Word first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Does New Age Mysticism REALLY Explain Quantum Physics? Communist Theory of Mind Says No


From Marxism to de Chardin, General Systems Theory to Buckminster Fuller

Around 1975, it dawned on me that the revolutionary times of the 1960s were not coming back. I still considered myself a council communist but I felt something was missing. I thought Marxism needed to be seen within a larger framework. I began to look for a perspective that located societies as part of cosmic evolution. My first stop was Teilhard de Chardin. I was swept away by The Phenomenon of Man and continued with a few of his other books. I found other authors with an evolutionary perspective like Barbara Marx Hubbard’s Conscious Evolution and Gerald Heard’s Five Ages of Man. I was also drawn to General Systems Theory and especially liked Bogdanov’s Tektology because as a Marxist, he framed human societies as another level of cosmic evolution. People like Oliver Reiser (Cosmic Humanism) saw humanity as part of larger globalization of society. Probably most powerfully, I was drawn to the work of Buckminster Fuller. Here was a guy trained in the hard sciences who had a vision of a new society based on the wise use of technology. What all these theories had in common was they were optimistic about the future of humanity. I didn’t care so much at time that there might be contradictions between these theories and those of Marx and Engels. It wasn’t until about five years later that I came to terms with these contradictions.

Flirting with Eastern Mysticism

But that wasn’t the end of it. I soon found myself in the misty waters of New Age mysticism without really realizing it. In 1975, a book came out called The Tao of Physics which was soon followed by another book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Both these books were written by physicists who took full advantage of the American counter-cultural swooning over Eastern mysticism. We were told that quantum physics was revealing a sub-atomic world that resembled the teachings of ancient Eastern mysticism. I was not alone among Marxists exploring these realms. My best Marxist friend, who knew more about Marx than anyone I had ever met, had been practicing Yogananda’s form of meditation for years. He joined me to read Capra’s book.

What these New Age physicists were saying was that because subatomic particles were unstable (both a wave and a particle) the observer had to make a “decision” as to which to measure. If you couldn’t decide whether a subatomic particle was a wave or a particle without a state of consciousness, that meant that consciousness was at the heart of matter. We were told that western science has finally caught up with the wise ancients of the East. At a liberal arts, New Age university I taught at, we had a science teacher who taught a class called “Quantum Physics and Eastern Mysticism”. No one in the class was required to take any preliminary physics classes in order to take the class. We had students walking around the campus holding court about the mysteries of quantum mechanics when most of them knew nothing about physics. Here we have the New Age spirituality.

How prevalent is this New Age mysticism?

But why am I writing an article about something that happened 35-40 years ago? Two reasons:

  1. To show that the same thing is going on today with New Age gurus still claiming that the New Physics confirms eastern mysticism. Doing a search in Amazon under the word “quantum” I found 30 books on the first page with titles such as Quantum Physics and the Power of the Mind; Quantum Consciousness: Journey Through Other Realms; Quantum Consciousness; The Guide to Experiencing Quantum Psychology; Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness; The Shamanic Path to Quantum Consciousness; Quantum DNA Healing; Merging Spiritually with Quantum Consciousness; Cosmic Consciousness and the Healing with the Quantum Field. All these books are dolled up in colorful, space-age covers.
  2. Mystical explanations in physics were also prevalent over 100 years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th century Russia, Lenin battled what he considered mystical ideas about physics that he feared were taking over the Bolshevik party. We will discuss the value and the shortcomings of his attempt to rescue materialism and its theory of mind from the swoon of phenomenology and other idealist theories.

My claim

My claim in this article is that a Vygotskian socio-cultural nature of mind does a better job at combatting mysticism than Lenin’s reflective theory of mind. For this article, I will be referring to Pannekoek’s book Lenin as Philosopher; Victor Stenger’s The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology and David Bakhurst’s book Consciousness and Revolution in Soviet Philosophy: From the Bolsheviks to Evald Ilyenkov.

Types of Philosophy

How do we understand the relationship between sub-atomic quantum physics and how the human mind engages it? Before addressing mystical theories directly, we should review the basic types of philosophy.

Naïve realism

For the overwhelming majority of people in the West, the objective world is independent of the mind. The mind tries to know how the world works by taking pictures of reality and making copies of it. Biophysical nature is comprehensible and existed before mental life emerged. So too, it is claimed the mind is comprehensible and is relatively reliable about recording what really exists in the world.  In philosophy, this double way of making sense of reality and mind is called “naïve realism”. It is only when specialized philosophy gets hold of the relationship between nature and the mind where things get complicated.


Various philosophers, in part because their occupation is thinking and reflection, tend to get carried away with the power of mental life. When they ask questions about the relationship between nature and mind, their answers go way beyond naïve realism. Some philosophers like Plato saw the natural world as filled with disorder, complexity, dead ends, and constant change as well as being evil. Plato thought that whatever the ultimate reality was, it was orderly and eternal. When Plato searched for what was orderly and eternal, he found his answers in mathematics. And, of course, mathematics was the product of the collective mind, humanity. So, for Plato, what was ultimately real was mathematics. Plato also believed that this orderly and eternal world was good, beautiful and true. The material world of nature was an imperfect replica of what Plato called the eternal forms.

Many other western philosophers also got carried away with mental life. Some said matter or nature was an illusion, the product of cosmic mind. Others like Spinoza said that there was a single substance from which both nature and the mind were derived. Others like Descartes said that nature and mind were independent substances that interacted with each other. Others said nature and mind were inseparable and that you could know nature as she really is through the mind. Kant said our mind does not take pictures of reality. Rather it superimposes categories of thought on nature, and we can understand nature through the categories. We can never know nature independent of those categories. For Kant we can never know “things-in-themselves”.

Skepticism about mind

Just as philosophers like Plato claimed that nature was not self-evidently true but only an appearance, so too, epistemological philosophers were skeptical that the mind simply took faithful copies of reality. The most extreme form of ancient skepticism claimed we could ever know anything beyond what was in our minds. Later, more moderate skeptics like Bacon, Locke and especially Hume and Berkeley said the mind has built in cognitive biases, prejudices, reasoning errors and language ambiguities that keep humans from seeing things clearly.  What all philosophers would agree on was that both nature and mind were harder to understand than naïve realism would present.


There is also a school of philosophers who are called materialists and are in rough agreement with the naïve realist position. Materialists say matter is infinite, uncreated and eternal. It existed before the mind emerged with the brain and it will continue even if mind disappears. People like Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius had a sophisticated understanding of what matter was. Later emergent evolutionary materialists saw matter as having levels—such as physical, biological, and social. Materialists like Democritus also understood that the senses do not just take pictures of reality. The senses were seen as untrustworthy and needed to be corrected by reason.

Some of the cruder materialists thought of the mind as the secretions of the brain, just as bile is a secretion of the liver. With the slightest injury to the brain everything mental disappears, nothing at all remains in the mind. The material changes in the brain are thought to be the basis of psychology. All action in the surroundings produce changes in the brain and these produce thoughts. There was no distinction between the mind and the brain. There was no sense that society and history created the mind, and that mind mediated what happened between the brain and nature.

19th Century Determinism Crisis and Mystical Predators

Throughout most of the 19th century, scientists thought of nature as being more and more determined by physical laws. Natural events that occurred were the result of both necessity and probability (statistical laws). Nature at the meso level could be perceived through the five senses and matter was thought to be solids or liquids rather than gases. To a physicist, atoms were not abstractions but real, small, invisible particles, sharply limited, exactly alike for every chemical element, with precise qualities of mass and weight.  Concepts were nearly separated and the physical world was a clear system, without contradiction.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, quantum mechanics and relativity theory challenged the deterministic nature of science. Phenomenon were discovered that could be represented only by light, consisting of a stream of so-called quanta, appearing and disappearing through space. Physicists began to suspect that their physical entities, formerly considered reality behind the phenomena, were only images of abstract concepts. When you ask the physicist what it is that moves in such waves or particles, his answer consists of pointing to a mathematical equation. Now mass changes in the state of motion and cannot be separated from energy. Because in quantum mechanics, states of consciousness are inseparably involved in determining whether matter is a wave or a particle, mystics got into the act. “There” they said, “now we see that consciousness is at the root of matter.” It was just a hop, skip and a jump to saying the physical world itself is determined by consciousness.

Today, according to Victor Stenger, the dual nature of subatomic particles and waves is a material reality independent of consciousness. Consciousness is necessary if measurement of either is required. If no measurement is involved, the wave and particle nature is still there. It does not disappear as the mystics like to present. Niels Bohr once said that consciousness has nothing to do with quantum mechanics. The reality of a wave-particle characteristic is not brought into existence by consciousness. It was already there both before and after it is measured.

Ernst Mach

Mach’s original training was as a physicist. He was well read in philosophy, especially Hume and Berkeley, who appealed to sense data and common sense over metaphysical speculation over whether the world was ultimately made of mind or matter. Mach attempted to reduce all scientific and practical concepts including time, and knowing subjects to experiential field of sense data. He rejected as metaphysical and unscientific all forms not grounded in experience. Matter and mind are all derived concepts. The only thing we know directly is experience and all experience consists in sensations. Both objects and subjects are built from sensations. For Mach, the physical and psychical world consist of the same elements, only in a different arrangement. Mach accepted the external world as real, but he felt that the distinction between physics and psychic distinction of materialism was unnecessary metaphysics. His insistence on starting from sense data was done for methodological reasons within science.  He attempted to give methodological priority to positivism’s epistemology over its ontology.

But if matter and mind are never discussed independent of experience, there is a danger that the external world could be theorized as:

  1. an unknowable thing in itself;
  2. a spiritual idealist world; and,
  3. a world having no existence at all apart from the knowing subject.

As Pannekoek says:

Yet there is a certain ambiguity in Mach’s expression on the outer world revealing a manifest propensity towards subjectivism, corresponding to the general mystical turn in the capitalist world.  (106)

Lenin’s defense of materialism

Lenin understood very well that materialism had to be defended against mystical interpretations, and this is what he set out to do in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism which he wrote in 1909.  He understood that the old deterministic nature of materialism based on the five senses was now a relative, not absolute distinction, depending on the level of reality being dealt. He also had to make sense of the fact that matter and energy was convertible. How can you be a materialist when a physicist is dealing with energy not matter? How do you answer mystical claims that matter has disappeared?

Lenin argued that what matters for materialism is not what the ultimate building block is. What matters is that matter and nature is independent of consciousness. Lenin maintained that the mind makes copies of reality (his theory of reflection) but this copy theory does not mean we have certain knowledge of the world or that mistakes and vagueness cannot occur in our knowing. He just meant that most of the time our copies of reality are good enough to have helped us survive. Lenin felt that the copy theory of the mind was the only out from mysticism.

Pannekoek argues:

Mach’s opinion that causes and effect as well as natural laws do not factually exist in nature but are man-made expressions of observed regularities is said by Lenin to be identical with Kant… To deny the objective existence of these laws means that denial of nature itself. To make man the creator of natural laws means to him to make human mind the creator of the world. (129-130)

Unlike Mach, Lenin argued that the categories of Space and Time were real properties of the objective world and not simply categories of the human mind. Right or wrong, Lenin thought Mach’s system was a rehash of Berkeley’s subjective idealism. Lenin thought Mach confused the problem of the new properties of matter with the old problem of the theory of knowledge. He felt that Marxist philosophers needed to preserve the philosophical function performed by materialism from its scientific role in providing particular explanatory framework for natural phenomena.

Criticism of Lenin

Pannekoek says Lenin accepted Newton’s model that there is absolute space and time. But Einstein refuted absolute time and space which Lenin did not address. Further:

He identified the real objective world with physical matter. Electricity too is objective reality? Is it physical matter? Our sensation shows us light; is it reality but not matter? Photons cannot easily be denoted as a kind of matter. (137)

The problem with Lenin’s copy theory is he gives no detailed discussion of how mental images copy physical objects, nor does he address the traditional objections to naïve realism. He has ignored more skeptical theories and even scientific epistemology about the limits of the mind that developed with Hume and Kant and beyond.

Socio-historical nature of mind

In his rush to defend materialism from being attacked by mysticism, without realizing it, Lenin accepted the same subjective epistemological framework as mystics and mechanical materialists had about the starting point of the mind. The epistemological framework for mystics is with the relationship between a spiritual world and an individual. For mechanical materialists, the relationship is between nature the biological individual. Where mystics and mechanical materialists differ is in the ultimate nature of objective reality. For mystics the ultimate reality is the spiritual world. For mechanical materialists it is biophysical nature. But they agree that subjectivity begins with the individual. For Vygotsky and the socio-historical school, in between the biophysical world and the individual mind is a socio-historical layer of reality. It covers the earth the way the lithosphere and biosphere does. It is akin to Vernadsky and Chardin’s noosphere. It is socio-historical objectivity which engages in an expanding feedback loop with nature. Individual subjectivity emerges from and interacts with the historical-social layer of reality. The individual mind does not engage nature directly, only indirectly.

What Lenin ignored in his epistemology was that the human mind does not engage nature directly. The individual mind does not even become a human mind until it is socialized and historicized. For dialectical materialists like Vygotsky, the human mind is created out of a socio-historical network from birth to death. Vygotsky, Leontiev and Luria claimed that psychological skills first originate through structural, meaningful, cooperative, and recurring through three phases:

  • local interpersonal relations between people;
  • these skills then get internalized as private; and
  • these skills are then reapplied to large social global contexts.

Please see my article on What is Socialist Psychology? for a longer discussion of these phases.

The main function of the mind is externally, not internally, driven. Primarily, the human mind is concerned with the collective engagement of transforming external objects through the laboring process in order to satisfy basic needs. Introspection or self-reflection is the second stage of this process, but it is not the main focus as it is with idealist mysticism.

For dialectical materialists the human mind is a function, not a substance (as it is for mystics) of highly organized material bodies – human beings. To say that the human mind is inseparable from society and history is not to say that other animals do not have minds. What it does mean is that without intense social life and verbal language, their minds are mostly imprisoned in the present. It is the socialization and historization of homo sapiens that is responsible for making the mind a human mind.

Before the emergence of the human mind, mind had an origin in nature, specifically the brain. The brain is an adaptive responsive to rapidly changing nature where instinct was a less and less reliable resource. There are non-social creatures without brains that have no mind. With the emergence of a central nervous system, animals developed brains. But it is only when animals have a social life and brains, that pre-human minds appear. Nature was physical, chemical and biological before the brain or the mind appeared. So, the mind is first a product of nature and later through the social and historical practice of human beings, the mind becomes a coproducer through society and history with nature. For materialists, there is no mind beyond nature, society or history. A dialectical materialist, unlike a mechanical materialist, does not reduce the mind to the brain. While the brain is a necessary condition for the mind, once the mind emerges through its building of a socio-historic layer of nature, mind becomes more than the brain.

 Idealist theories of the mind of everyday people

Contrary to this worldview, consciously or not most people combine a naïve realist picture of reality with idealist theories regarding the mind. They imagine that the human mind is autonomous from society and history. They are convinced the mind is a special property, beyond society and history. They believe that while the human mind may serve partly as an adaptive function in society and history, it is much more than that. Additionally, from the idealist viewpoint, the mind’s most important function is not interpersonal, but personal and self-reflective. Through introspection it can potentially find its real destiny which is to tap its otherworldly source, God. This is done through meditation, prayer, or other spiritual techniques. The idealist theory of individual mind is a product of a religious orientation to life. Please see Table A for a comparison between idealist, mechanical materialist, and socio-historical theories of mind.

Table A

Mystical, Mechanical Materialist, and Socio-Historical Theories of Mind

Category of comparison Mystical (Idealism) Mechanical Materialism Dialectical Materialism
Starting point Individual relationship to God Individual’s relationship to nature Society’ relationship to nature
Are there levels in reality? Yes. Matter, life, mind spirit, Aurobindo No, just one level primarily – physical Everything else reduces to matter Yes. Matter, life society, mind
How broad is matter?


Controlled by God – Not infinite or eternal Infinite and eternal Infinite and eternal
How active is matter? Spirit is immanent in matter and guides it along Matter is passive and determined by necessity and chance


Matter is self-active and creative
Relationship between mind and brain Minds can exist without brains The brain and the mind are interchangeable – Mind is an epiphenomenon


The brain is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the mind
What drives the mind?



Internally driven by self-reflection Externally driven and adapted to biophysical constraints Externally driven through laboring to adapt to socio-historical constraints


What is mind? Spiritual substance Secretion of the brain A function of the brain
Theoretical examples of what mind is Plato’s theory of form Lenin’s theory of reflection Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development
How important is society in determining human behavior? Unimportant – We are primarily spiritual beings with our home in the stars Unimportant – We are primarily biological beings Vitally important – We could not be human without social life
How trustworthy are the senses? Untrustworthy – Revelation introspective more trustworthy


Generally trustworthy and corrected by reason Generally trustworthy and corrected by reason
What is the nature of contradictions? Mistakes of the human mind Mistakes in the human mind Contradictions exist in nature, society, and the human mind
What is the emphasis in human activity? Spiritual learning through prayer, meditation. Individual adaptation Human socio-historical accumulating practice
How active are human beings? Active in the spiritual domain Passive and determined by bio-physical forces: sex, senses Active in socio-history as both products and coproducers of society
What is an illusion and what is real? Matter is an inferior replica or an illusion Matter is real and the spiritual world is an illusion Matter is real and spiritual world is an expression of social alienation
Theoretical philosophers Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, St. Thomas, Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Leibniz, Bradley Democritus, Epicurus Lucretius, Descartes, Hobbes, Laplace, d’Holbach, Helvetius, La Mettrie, Lenin Heraclitus, Spinoza, Diderot, Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky

Why Are New Age Ideas So Popular in Yankeedom: A Socio-historical Checklist

Interest in parts of New Age thinking includes what are called paranormal phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and homeopathy. In my previous article, The Political Economy of Preternatural Parapsychology I identified twelve materialistic reasons why mystical and New Age ideas are attractive to Yankees, offering hope and escape from the following problems I list here. Please see my previous article for a fuller explanation. Here they are:

  • The Decline of living standards in Yankeedom produces psychological reactance. This means parapsychology is devoted to individual freedom because real freedom is in decline.
  • Economic, political, and ecological life in the United States seem to be falling apart, and it is difficult for people to understand why.
  • There is a sense in which the current political system has little or nothing to do with democracy. There is a belief that the world is run by people behind the scenes.
  • Science has not delivered on its promise to make a better life for all.
  • People have an increasing sense of their personal lives being out of control with an unpredictable work-life and growing debt.
  • Cross-cultural surveys of happiness show people in the United States are not very happy.
  • There is a lack of security and unity in personal life and with the family.
  • People have trouble finding adventure and mystery in their current work life.
  • People in the United States seem so passive compared to people in other countries and are willing to put up with anything.
  • People fear death and cling to life at all costs.
  • Personal troubles don’t seem to have a single cause. Multiple causation and chance are unsatisfying answers.
  • Lack of universal health care makes hospital stays brief and gives doctors scant time to visit with patients.


New Age ideas about the relationship between mysticism and science were hot stuff by the mid-1970s, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area.  My article began with an experiential description of how even a council communist Marxist such as I could get caught up in New Age ideas about the relationship between quantum mechanists and the human mind. Next, I suggested that these New Age ideas have had a long-lasting shelf-life. On the one hand, they are still prevalent 45 years later. On the other hand, mystical ideas about quantum mechanics began over 120 years ago at the end of the 19th century. I also briefly introduced philosophical systems to show what kind of theories mysticism is competing with. I identified the everyday use of what has been called “naïve realism” and contrasted it to idealism (mysticism), materialism, and skepticism.

Most of the article is devoted to understanding how the crisis in physics with quantum mechanics at the end of the 19th century led some physicists such as Ernst Mach to claim that philosophical categories like materialism, idealism, and time and space categories were outdated metaphysical abstractions. All we know is the sense data of our experience. Further, the deterministic nature of science was questioned because the foundation of quantum mechanics is uncertainty and chance. Some of the more scientifically oriented among the Bolsheviks thought Mach had a point.

Lenin had a fit. While Mach was no mystic, Lenin understood quite clearly that a mystical interpretation of quantum mechanics was possible and very dangerous for the forces of socialism to adapt. Because consciousness is an inevitable part of measuring subatomic particles, this led some thinkers to claim that consciousness lies at the heart of matter. Lenin presented his own naïve realism understanding of the relationship between matter and consciousness. It was insensitive to the 18th century philosophical criticisms made of naïve realism by Hume and Kant and, more importantly, Lenin accepted that the epistemology subject was an individual mind.

I contrasted Lenin’s mechanical materialism interpretation of mind with a socio-historical understanding of mind based on the work of Ilyenkov and Vygotsky. In this theory, the individual mind does not directly encounter nature. Individual mental life is mediated through a kind of socio-historical membrane. It is society and history that engage and interact with nature, not the individual. Without socio-history to draw sustenance from, there would be no individual mind.

Lastly, I raised the question of why mystical theories of matter are attractive at all. I argued that this interest is part of New Age thinking that includes what are called paranormal phenomena such as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and homeopathy. Using socio-historical analysis from a previous article I offered twelve reasons for their popularity.

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The Bible vs the Eagle: Why Christian Nationalism is un-American

The bible is a book that has been read more and examined less than any book that ever existed.

— Thomas Paine, Letter to Mr. Erskine, Paine’s Complete Works, Vol. 3, p. 179.

Those men, whom Jewish and Christian idolaters have abusively called heathens, had much better and clearer ideas of justice and morality than are to be found in the Old Testament, so far as it is Jewish; or in the New.

— Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Footnote 28

All that man has accomplished for the benefit of man since the close of the dark ages – has been done in spite of the Old Testament

— Robert Green Ingersoll, About the Holy Bible, (May 19, 2017)  Part III. The Ten Commandments

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction.

— Blaise Pascal


According to Andrew Seidel, 32% of Americans think it is very important to be Christian to be truly American. But what does it mean to be an “American”? Well, if being an American has anything to do with the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, many Americans are in serious trouble. For example, Seidel writes:

On the first 4th of July of Trump’s presidency, National Public Radio tweeted the Declaration and Trump supporters lost their minds. They were sure NPR was calling for a rebellion against Trump. (80)

But the problem is even deeper because Americans really don’t know the bible very well either:

The bible has been edited rewritten, supplemented, translated, retranslated and mistranslated so many times that claims of immutability are laughable. Yet about 30 percent of Americans, many of them Christian nationalists, believe in the bible literally …word of their god. (115)

In fact, according to Seidel:

research shows that atheists know the Bible better than Christians. (115)

In 1951, 53% of Americans could not name even one of the gospel. In 2010, 49% couldn’t.


My article is a review of a very powerful book written by Andrew Seidel called The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American. As Seidel says, the purpose of the book is to utterly destroy the myth that the founders of the Constitution were committed to founding a Judeo-Christian nation. The contrast between the Bible on the one hand and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution on the other is so great that, as Seidel says, one is almost forced to choose: are you a Christian or an American?

Part of the book is dedicated to exposing the notion that the founders themselves had any sympathy for Christianity. Secondly, it is to show how both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution directly contradict both the Old and the New Testaments. Thirdly, within the Bible the Ten Commandments are shown to be anti-Constitutional. Lastly, the book shows how it was only through a propaganda campaign during times of national fear such as The Civil War and the anti-communist scare that right-wing preachers smuggled in Christian propaganda onto coins and paper money (In God We trust); and into the Pledge of Allegiance (One nation Under God).


This book does not argue that religion should be absent from our culture. It only says that religion should be absent from  our constitutional identity. In fact, research shows that in societies that have a separation of church and state, people are more religious than when there is no separation. Seidel argues that when there is no separation, people take religion for granted.

Secondly, there is no simple relationship between separation of church and state and whether someone is religious or not. Someone can be religious and endorse the separation of church and state. Thirdly, while some founders were deists and others were theists, even though some were theists does not prove they used their religion to found the nation. People can make a distinction between their private and public political commitments. Fourthly, founders who were Christian were only supportive of the teachings of Jesus. There was no implication of support for any Catholic or Protestant institutions or teaching.

Qualifications about my being an American and supporting the Constitution.

It would be natural to think that in attacking Christian nationalism as being un-American, I identify with being an American. I don’t. My purpose in using the term “un-American” is to offer an immanent criticism of Christian nationalism. Immanent criticism means criticism from within the principles of my adversary. What I am saying is you don’t even live up to your own principles of being an American by failing to abide by the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. An externalist criticism would be to criticize Christian nationalism from a Buddhist, Muslim or socialist perspective.

Also, in defending the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence against the Bible, it doesn’t mean I am uncritical of the of either of these American documents. As a result of reading Seidel’s book, I do have a newfound respect for the importance of separating Church from the State. There are clear limits set on religion’s invasion of science or politics. While secular laws could be much tighter, the justification for insisting on the separation is very well thought-out and it is still very important over 200 years later. 

Were the Founders Christian?

Seidel uses many sources to show that the painting of Washington praying in the snow was a piece of artistic Christian propaganda. Washington was not a good Christian. He attended religious services irregularly, he didn’t kneel during prayer and often skipped out of Church early. He refused to have a priest at his deathbed.  Jefferson took a more militant stand against Christianity. He attempted to rewrite the Bible cutting out the references to supernaturalism, miracles and slaughter in the hopes of salvaging something. Jefferson said later that his efforts were like “pick out diamonds from a dunghill.” Jefferson and Madison were very critical and suspicious of organized religion and the “priestcraft” that accompany them. Some founders treated the Trinity with contempt, calling it Abracadabra.

When the founders mention “The Creator” the Christian nationalists break out in celebration, declaring victory. Hold your horses and bugles! Nowhere is Jesus or Yahweh specifically mentioned. Virtually all cultures have a creator god who are more or less involved in his creation. The same is true with the Golden Rule. Christian nationalists act is if this rule was unique to Christianity.  Most cultures in the world have their own version of the Golden Rule often dating to thousands of years before Christianity. Furthermore, when god was named it was “nature’s” god. Seidel rightly points this is more likely to resemble the god of the wind or the trees than the description of a biblical god. Nature’s god is a pagan god, not the Judeo-Christian monotheistic god.

The founders engaged in what Seidel calls “strategic piety”:

Writers were wise to choose language that would take advantage of the majority religiosity but still remain wholly nonsectarian. It was designed to be acceptable to deists and orthodox alike. (88)

In psychological terms the founders were playing to people’s confirmation bias- our innate selection and interaction of evidence to support our existing beliefs. (90)

Do You Need God to be Good?

For themselves, the founders thought their morality was sufficient to guide them and religion was unnecessary. However, some of the founder thought religion was necessary to keep the masses moral. For many founders, religion was not the source of morality, but a substitute for it. Without religion, the masses could not be moral. But the founders were not fussy about which religion filled the bill. Washington and Adams suggested that any religion, not only Christianity, can replace morality.

So the Founding Fathers were elitists. But were they were right about the capacity of large populations to prosper and live morally without religion?

Do Secularists Produce Worse Societies than the Religious?

The short answer is – no. Seidel points out:

Social science now unequivocally shows that the less religious a society, is the better off it is. We now know that religion is not necessary for society to succeed. (49)

Within America the states with the highest murder rates tend to be highly religious – Louisiana and Alabama. States with the lowest rates are the least religious the country, like Vermont and Oregon.

Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries. During the Holocaust, the more secular the people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews.

The least religious countries:

Have lowest rates of violent crime and homicide

Are the best places to raise children

Have lowest levels of intolerance vs race

Have the highest in women’s rights

Are the most prosperous

Within the US, those states that are the most religious have societal ills:

Highest rates of poverty

Highest rates of obesity

Highest rates of infant mortality

Highest rates of teen pregnancy

Lowest level of educated adults

Highest rates of murder and violent crime (49-50)

There were Christian Colonies but no Christian Nation    

Christian nationalists are right to point out that during the colonial period most of the colonies were religious, whether they were Puritans, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, or Quakers. However, when the founders wrote the Constitution, they kept these religious beliefs outside the politics of founding a nation. The religions of the colonists did not help them to overthrow the British. Every colony was part of the British Empire, which was subjected to a Christian king. Colonial history also precedes the separation of Church and state which was part of the Constitution. The colonies were a British outpost, subject to a divine king. This is exactly the political theology the founders were fighting against. Table A is a contrast between the structure of life during colonial history vs after the declaration of independence. Please take a look at Table A.

The Bible as a Piece of Literature

The Bible is unlike other literature. Seidel points out that unlike like Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, Aesop’s fables and the legends of Greek and Roman mythology, which stood on their own merits, the Bible’s reputation was imposed and propagated over thousands of years with fire and brimstone. It was then reinforced regularly through weekly ceremonies. It is an authoritarian document which doesn’t have rhetorical appeal based on reason. Instead, the Bible is a document people must live by and bow down to, no matter what.

The un-American, Authoritarian Nature of the bible

Exclusivity and obedience

Right out of the gate the bible is exclusionary, rather than inclusive. Yahweh picks the Jews as his “chosen” people, whereas in the Constitution, at least theoretically, all are welcome. Whereas in one of Paul’s letters Christians are told to obey the authorities, in fact, they are servants of God. For example, Abraham is commanded by God to murder his son Isaac as an offering. God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt for looking back to see the destruction. God demands the killing of first-born children unless there is lamb’s blood on the family door frame. This contrasts with the Declaration’s note to rebel against the authorities when they are tyrannical. Why? Because “we the people” rule.

Monarchies and divine dictatorships

In the Bible God does not rule by consent of the governed. Neither is there a separation of powers for governing, God rules by decree. God loves monarchies. Seidel points out that the first two books of the bible are titled “Kings”. Many of the heroes in the bible are kings, specifically, Saul, David and Solomon. Whatever rights people have been given by God. Likewise, God can take away those rights. Following the Enlightenment people have human rights which no political or religious authority can take away. In terms of following rules, the Judeo-Christian God of Christian propaganda says that God lays down the laws once and for all. In fact, with different versions of the Bible the laws change.  Under the American Constitution laws can be changed by amendments. Objectively, the origin of the laws was from an Early Iron Ages society 1200 BCE years ago. The Constitution is close to 250 years old, while drawing from Greek and pre-Christian Roman law.

Faith and reason: how do we know?

If faith is defined as believing in something in spite of evidence, the Founding Fathers had no room for faith and that is how they came to understand the Constitution. They went through an evolving process of dialectical reasoning internally and debating, compromising and tinkering over months. Most of the founders tinkered with inventions, kept up with the sciences and saw politics, itself, as a science.

For those who followed the Bible, the Bible was given to them completed. God did not encourage any input from humanity. You simply had faith. You believed in the Bible in spite of evidence. Belief in miracles is just one instance. So too, when it comes to Christian nationalists in politics, there is no room for compromise or tinkering. Since they believe they are acting in the name of God, compromising with non-believers is not being true to God. On the whole, Seidel says:

what a Christian government looks like: exclusive, exclusionary, divisive, hateful, severe and lethal. (106)

Crime and punishment

When it comes to punishment the Bible paints with broad brush strokes. The punishments are inflexible and extremely violent. God destroys Canaan as well destroying all those believing in other gods. Disobedient children are stoned; so are wizards and women having premarital sex. Heretics and witches are tortured and followers are told that disobedience will be dealt with fire for eternity. The Constitution, on the other hand, simply strives to make punishment be proportionate to the crime, and punishments are limited to this lifetime.

Guilt and innocence are handled in opposite ways. In the Bible, whole groups are condemned as guilty and the guilt is inherited across generations. In the Constitution, there is no collective guilt. Individuals are found guilty and that guilt is not inherited by their sons and daughters. Finally, in the Bible it is not very important that innocents suffer and are killed, provided the guilty party does not get away with anything. In the Constitution the situation is the reverse. It is better that the guilty get away than for the innocent to be punished unjustifiably.

Origin and destiny

For the Bible, life on earth is a reform school. Why do people need to be reformed? Because in the mythological Garden of Eden, Eve ate the fruit the devil offered her even though God forbade it. Humanity was condemned from that time forward. While self-improvement is possible, ultimate redemption can only come from the sacrifice of Christ for humanity. In terms of future generations of humans, that is not the concern of Christian nationalists. The idea is you earn a ticket to the Promised Land and the Devil take the hindmost.

I’m afraid that the Constitution is far less dramatic. Individuals, according to Locke, are blank slates. Locke said parental socialization does matter, but in the end, it is the individual’s responsibility for what they make of themselves. There is no need for redemption either in this life or the next. However, the Constitution, unlike the Bible, was written for future generations of humanity on Earth.  Please see Table B for a summary.The Authoritarian Nature of the Ten Commandments

Strange gods and idolatrous images

The Ten Commandments is only a small part of the Bible, but they allow us to contrast in a very concentrated form extreme differences between this sacred document and the Constitution. The first commandment is a direct attack on religious freedom. “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” The Constitution guarantees the freedom to worship any God, not just the Judeo-Christian one. The second commandment forbids making images. This iconoclastic mania on the part of the Protestants resulted in the destruction of centuries of magnificent artwork. The Constitution, on the other hand, allows for making pubic images to honor its heroes. Any trip to the Lincoln memorial or a trip to Mount Rushmore will reveal that the non-superstitious use of images is possible and can bring great inspiration.

Blasphemy and coercive church attendance

The third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy god in vain”, is really about controlling language. There is a double standard about blasphemy. Jews can blaspheme heathen deities, but it is a capital crime to blaspheme Yahweh. In contrast, the Constitution makes a distinction between words and deeds. It says in effect “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me”. The Constitution says criticism of all religion is legal. The fourth commandment to “Keep holy the Lord’s Day” is more sinister than it seems. Seidel says this is not about rest for the weary. It is really about shepherding the population to churches on days when most people are not working. Priests complain about poor attendance at church. What better way to herd people into church then by first saying even the Lord needs to rest, and so do you. But no sooner do people discover they are entitled to a day off than they find themselves in church listening to sermons. While there is nothing in the Constitution which tells people not to work, there is also nothing in the Constitution that forbids workers from taking matters into their own hands. They can legally join unions, and strike in order to have some time off. As the saying goes, it was labor that gave Yankees the weekend.

Honor your parents no matter how authoritarian or abusive they are

The fifth commandment says honor thy father and mother. Sounds pretty good except that the foundation of it is to honor your biological parents, no matter what they do. No matter what the parents do they should be honored. Though this has happened all too late in Yankee history, there are now child-protective services to allow children to get away from abusive and violent parents. Not all parents are worthy of respect. Furthermore, the Bible is talking out of both sides of its mouth when they talk about this because Jesus also makes a big deal about leaving your parents to come follow him.

Clannish, parochial rules towards murder, stealing and lying

Seidel chunks together the sixth, eight and ninth commandments and attacks them for their clannish, exclusive nature. Whether it is killing, stealing or perjury, the Bible only forbids these things when it is done to fellow Jews and Christians. With non-Jews or Christians, all bets are off. You can kill, steal or lie in dealing with people from other religions. In the case of the Constitution, killing, stealing or lying is punishable no matter what religion one is as well including people who have no religion at all.

Patriarchal repression of sexuality

The seventh commandment about committing adultery has an even narrower interpretation than the previous three commandments. In this, even within the Judeo-Christian tradition, the laws of adultery do not apply to married men, but only to married women. Seidel says fathers can sell their daughter into sexual slavery but only to another Israelite. Men can get away with rape, if they pay the victim’s family 50 shekels and then marry the victim.

The Christian Bible tries to halt and repress their flock’s interest in sex by promoting celibacy. We only have to look at the record of the Catholic Church and its priests to reel in disgust over such a monstrous policy. Seidel points out Judeo-Christianity tries to kill the sex instinct, distort it and vilify it to ensure loyalty to the leader, not to one another. This is a common tactic that male cult leaders use with their followers. It builds up spiritual debt. Lusty, guilty sinners are bound more tightly to the person who can expiate their sin, Jesus, and later, priests. In the Constitution there are laws against adultery, but they apply to men as well as women and there are laws that apply to rape and sexual slavery that are punishable.

The tenth commandment is not about actually fooling around with your neighbor’s wife. Rather, it’s about lusting after your neighbor’s wife even if you do nothing. This is where the 10 Commandments crosses the line into Orwell’s thought crime. Evil thoughts are the same thing as evil actions. Being angry is the same as being violent. As Jefferson said, the powers of government apply to action not opinion. You cannot be thrown in jail for having an opinion. Please see Table C for a summary.Smuggling in Christianity via Theological Propaganda

In God We Trust on coins during the Civil War

“In God We Trust” was smuggled onto coins in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was pushed through between 1861 and 1864.

“Evangelical Christianity” invaded and polarized the political debate in the cases leading up to the Civil War. It turned the democratic process which relies on compromise into a battle over sacrosanct issues of faith.” (262).

“One nation indivisible” became “one nation, under God, indivisible”. As Seidel says this change places religion, one of the most divisive and murderous forces in history, right in the middle of a badly needed unifying sentiment.

To choose something so divisive to replace a unifying sentiment in the middle of a war that actually hindered the nation shows hubris typical of religious privilege. (272)

Christianity promotes slavery

Appeals to the Bible justified revivals in the slave trade and slave prisons. The pulpit and the auctioneers’ block stand in the same neighborhood. (267)

Christian resistance to slavery was nowhere to be found when the colonies instituted slavery in the 1600s. (268)

It was used at a time of national peril and danger when people were too busy dying for the Constitution to protect it from a rear-guard assault, to promote their personal religion. (272)

Bible thumping anti-Communists

In 1954 the Pledge of Allegiance was changed. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all” became “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Since the communists were atheists, it was hoped that the communists would get the message that they were not welcome.

A year later “In God We Trust” was added to paper currency in 1955.

What better way to spread the missionary spirit within Yankeedom than by putting it on currency everyone has to use? US currency would effectively become a Christian missionary. (271)

In his book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America  Kevin Kruse exposes the following coordinated Christian attacks on the secular world:

  • 1953 National Day of Prayer – Congress agrees
  • 1953 National prayer breakfast
  • 1953 Congressmen propose 18 separate resolutions to add “under God” to the pledge
  • 1954 “In God We Trust is placed on a US postage stamp
  • 1954 Prayer room in US capital is added. It added a stained-glass window depicting the lie that Washington prayed in the snow at Valley Forge
  • Congress added “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance
  • 1955 Eisenhower signs a bill placing “In God We Trust” on US paper currency
  • 1956 Cecil B. Demille’s movie The Ten Commandments is released
  • 10 commandments monuments made of granite are gradually erected on government property around the country

Soon the words “American and Christian” became synonymous.

Billy Graham wedded evangelism and anticommunism in the Christian anti-communist  crusade. Religious stars such as Fulton Sheen, Oral Roberts, Billy James Hargis and Norman Vincent Peale all achieved new prominence in the early and mid 1950s. They bombarded TV, making people sick with fear. ‘To be an American is to be Christian. All atheists are communists’. (284)

Circulating coins, paper money and flag-waving pledges weren’t enough for nervous anti-communists. Soon time off from a secular education was granted for religious instruction.

In 1952 the court decided that releasing children from public schools classes to receive religious education did not violate  the Constitution. Religious release time allows churches to piggyback the machinery of the state and mandatory attendance to inculcate religion. It was meant to help religious sects get attendants presumably too unenthusiastic to go to religious class unless moved to do so by the pressure of this state machinery. (286-287)


Seidel’s work challenges Christian nationalists to face the fact that the founding documents of the United States as a nation directly contradict the Ten Commandments and, more generally, the Bible. These Christians would have to trade their fundamentalism for a far more liberal theory of religion to square with the Constitution. On the other hand, secularists can be somewhat assured that while they are under attack by the right-wing religious forces, the Constitution with all its class biases, lack of limits on capitalism, its racism and sexism, is still an important support document, mostly for its clear separation between Church and State.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post The Bible vs the Eagle: Why Christian Nationalism is un-American first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Not So Fast: Why the Enlightenment is Still a Foundation for Working-Class Liberation


Why should you care about a bunch of dead white guys?

To pull some lyrics from Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World, the Yankee working class “don’t know much about history, don’t know much about geography”. So why would they care at all about an intellectual movement that began 300 years ago in a country notorious for not liking Americans? This article attempts to answer this question.

I have a Facebook friend who is a mutualist, Will Schnack, who was posting about this topic recently, so I asked him to write an article on it. The article was longer than our site can accommodate and covered areas that, while very interesting to me, would likely be beyond the interest of the educated lay person. I have selected the most pertinent parts to share with you. I have added my own commentary from my knowledge of the Enlightenment which will support Will’s article.  I’ve also created a table to give you the big picture. Direct quotes from Will’s article will be in italics. Will’s article, Enlightenment, Counter-Enlightenment: Modernism, Postmodernism can be read in its entirety by clicking on the link.

What is the Enlightenment?

Beginning around 1715 and lasting for about a hundred years, there arose an intellectual movement in Europe, which began in Holland, then centered in France. It aimed to synthesize the fruits of the hard sciences and apply those lessons to the study of human history, human societies, human psychology and the arts. The 18th century had seen the beginnings of a science of history at the same time Europe was learning more about the variety of societies that existed around the world through its own colonial exploitation of these societies. Enlightenment philosophers hoped that these disciplines would find their own Galileos, Keplers and Newtons.

What the Enlightenment was instrumental in producing was a picture of humans evolving over time: from ignorance to knowledge; from superstition to reason; from instinct to education; from tyranny to republicanism. The philosophers of the Enlightenment confidently argued that humanity was gradually improving and given enough time, the light of reason would envelop the world. We would no longer need heaven in the afterlife because we could slowly build heaven right here on Earth. The overall direction of this movement was characterized as “progress”.

By the 19th century, the process of industrialization, the Civil War in Yankeedom, the Gilded Age, labor strikes, social Darwinism and imperialism, and an unstable capitalist economy closed out the 19th century. Are human societies really progressing? Maybe not. In the 20th century, the hopes of the Enlightenment were pounded again by World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism, the world depression and then World War II. By the end of World War II, there was no longer a universal evolving sense of social evolution changing for the better. The pocket of hope for progress which remained for 20 years was the in United States between 1950 to 1970, and then in the socialist countries.

Meanwhile, in the West a New Left movement developed by the mid 1950s which did not identify with socialist countries. It rejected theories of progress, the importance of understanding the capitalist economy and the centrality of the working class in any revolutionary process. Gradually cultural movements like the Frankfurt School began to cast doubt on the value of science and attempted to give psychological explanations as to why the working class didn’t rebel in the West, as Marx and Engels had predicted. This was followed by a revolution in language studies. Language theories based on structuralism and post-structuralism fetishized language and assumed that changing the vocabulary of social classes would shake the foundations of capitalist society. This culminated in a movement called “Postmodernism”. Postmodernism is what any working-class student lucky enough to get into an undergraduate program in a state university today has to deal with: obscure language, a politically correct police force led by professors and graduate students who have spent all or most of their lives at the university.

Purpose of the article

The purpose of this article is to show that most of the postmodern criticism of the Enlightenment deals with only one part of the spectrum of the Enlightenment, the Moderate Enlightenment. There was also a Radical Enlightenment which most postmodernism ignores. This Radical Enlightenment is well worth preserving as an inspiration for working-class people.

The Radical Enlightenment

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, historians such as Margaret C. Jacob and Jonathan Israel, following scholars such as Isaiah Berlin have dissected the Enlightenment into Radical Enlightenment and Moderate Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment factions.

The Moderate Enlightenment was the Enlightenment that we were all  familiarized with growing up, that was responsible for the American Revolution, and those that followed. This is the Enlightenment of Montesquieu, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. This Enlightenment, which had produced the oligarchic republics that we are familiar with today, had actually followed in the wake of a much more Radical Enlightenment that had pursued not only republicanism, but popular democracy, freedom of speech and religious tolerance, and so on.

It was this Radical Enlightenment (which had preceded and influenced the more aristocratic-styled Moderate Enlightenment) that is associated with core Enlightenment ideals with freethinking and heresy and democratic republicanism etc. by historians such as Jacob and Israel. This Radical Enlightenment is now being used by thinkers such as Jonathan Israel in the defense of the Enlightenment from more recent postmodern philosophy.

Whereas the Moderate Enlightenment had been largely informed by Protestantism and a mechanistic deism, the Radical Enlightenment had been about heretical organicist pantheism.

Nicholas of Cusa

The Enlightenment had followed after the introduction of modern (but not modern era) philosophy and the arrival of the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the first modern philosopher, leading up to the Enlightenment, is the pantheist cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, whose geometric logic had suggested that the more knowledge we can attain about existence the closer our approximation to God will be. God was, to Cusa, all that is, and so, to know God, we must know the natural world.  This would encourage a scientific reasoning that would culminate in the Scientific Revolution.


The Scientific Revolution followed after the Renaissance and proto- or Radical Reformation, had included pantheists such as Eriugena, Amalric of Bena, and David of Dinant, and Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, pantheists who adopted neo-Platonic and Hermetic beliefs about matter being infused with spirit.

The Cathars and the Hussites would come to represent leveling spiritual aspirations where mystical experience can be had without ecclesiastical chaperones.

 The pantheist Giordano Bruno would carry on the scientific pursuit of knowledge in his alchemical-magical practices, meanwhile proposing that the Universe was vast and infinitely filled with suns like our own, with planets like our own, having sentient beings on them like ours does. For his heresies he would burn at the stake.

Radical pantheists

Baruch Spinoza, Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers, the Ranters, and John Toland would be among groups to carry on this radical pantheism that was often associated with propertied peasants, communal movements, and democratic republicanism, from the Scientific Revolution on into the Enlightenment.

This is where the Enlightenment and modernity ultimately come from, a long line of pantheistic reasoning informed by religion but grounded in natural philosophy. Jonathan Israel suggests, and to a limit I agree, that it was really Spinoza’s philosophy at the heart of the transition from the Scientific Revolution to the Enlightenment focus on politics. And this makes the Radical Enlightenment the first among all of the factions of the early modern time period to come to fruition. The repression of scientific advancement and the deeming heretical of new insights on religion had created much demand for a change in politics, a change that would allow for greater degrees of freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of association, as well as positive freedoms such as the freedom to participate in deliberation and democratic process, and sometimes to claim common access to property, especially natural resources like land. The political views of Spinoza, backed by rigorous and rational metaphysics, encapsulated all of these concerns, and provided a logical argument for how to eradicate monarchy and aristocratic rule. So, the Radical Enlightenment, foundations. Of the Enlightenment, moderates watered it down….

Spinoza as a working-class hero

Baruch or “Blessed” Spinoza had been born into a Sephardic Jewish family that had been crypto-Jews amidst religious repression in their home of Portugal. While living in Amsterdam during the Dutch Republic and the relative tolerance that persisted there, Baruch Spinoza’s books would be banned and burned by the Dutch authorities. He’d also be excommunicated by Jewish religious authority and his books were added to the Catholic Church’s list of forbidden books. The memory of Giordano Bruno was not so distant at this time, so Spinoza is perhaps lucky to have stayed alive!

 Spinoza’s philosophy was a rich compilation of rational mysticism, humanistic theology, moral philosophy, social psychology, naturalism, and political thought, and that probably does not cover all of it. According to Spinoza, God is Nature, the Bible contains the self-fulfilling prophecies of rulers, might makes right, we can find solace in accepting necessity, and mutuality is the source of political power. Like Nicholas of Cusa, Spinoza stressed that we should come to know as much as we can about God, which he identified with Nature. Spinoza believed that by coming to know the reasons for the hardships we face, by knowing our hardships as a part of God’s perfect necessity, that we can come to a Stoic abolition of our “passions” (strong emotions), become virtuous, and to have peace of mind, called blessedness. As we can never fully be free of our passions, Spinoza suggests we put our efforts to resolving the problems in our life in rational, loving ways. He was a democrat, with a small “d,” and a proto-Georgist who believed monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism to rest on the ignorance and superstition of “the multitude,” those who have not succumbed yet to the force of reason. Spinoza’s manner of fighting this was the promotion of a clandestine democratic revolution, wherein collective reason pursued in deliberation and majority-rule would produce greater truths than those of individual humans.

Spinoza has been noted for a favorable disposition in the memory of his peers, and for having turned down prestigious university teaching positions in order to continue in his trade as a glass grinder, or oculist. Ocular science had long been entangled with the occult, perhaps since the time of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics was passed around during the Islamic Golden Age, and ocular science was or would become an important avenue for clandestine Enlightenment of Spinoza’s time.  He probably had important and unspoken reasons to stay in the trade. Spinoza died at a relatively young age, however, said to be due to lung issues from breathing the glass particles in his profession.


Gerrard Winstanley, a contemporary of Spinoza’s, similarly held a pantheist worldview and republican political beliefs. Like the Stedinger— peasants who had homesteaded the swamps—, but perhaps more communally, Winstanley had led a group called the Diggers or the True Levelers to homestead—by means of squatting the enclosures— unused land for a commune of their own, an effort to restore the commons. His inspiration went as far back as the Peasant’s Revolt of Wat Tyler and John Ball. After the destruction of his commune by authorities, Winstanley retreated, but would continue to push for land reform, eventually joining the Friends (or Quaker) cause. Winstanley’s legacy would go on to influence other land reform radicals, likely including Thomas Spence and the famed Thomas Paine, though they would not join him in his communism.

Winstanley had connections to the very radical textile industry. This is important because it was in the textile industry that heresy, science, and radicalism had become especially connected, in part because of the influence of the Silk Road, but also because of the rapid changes that early industrial capitalism would bring about, with the textile industry especially affected. Surrounding the textile industry had been the Beguines and Beghards; many participants in Lollardy, the Waldensians, and the Hussites; and the Luddites, who’d taken to sabotaging the textile mills and factories. Abolitionism (of chattel slavery) would become especially strong among textile workers, who saw slave labor in America and elsewhere as competition that was driving their wages down while also being morally repugnant to their sentiments of freedom. Winstanley had been a tailor in a guild, and so had participated in this industry, likely becoming well-aware of the heresies saturating it. This same industry would also inspire utopian socialist, Robert Owen, to establish the modern cooperative movement.

John Toland

John Toland was a Spinozan radical who was the first to receive the label of “freethinker.” He is, perhaps, the first professional revolutionary as well. Believing in an organic geology, his philosophy suggested a living Earth in the spirit of Gaia. A republican and classical liberal, he opposed political and religious hierarchy and upheld the values of freedom, perhaps the first to support equal rights for Jews and their full participation in the body politic….

Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvetius

Richard Price, Joseph Priestly, Helvetius, the Baron d’Holbach, Diderot and Condorcet, were also foundation members, representatives of the Radical Enlightenment. They are characterized by various degrees of organicism in relation to nature, necessitarianism, substance monism, democratic reform, and Egalitarianism. Diderot, d’Holbach and Helvetius were great materialists and atheists. They hated the clergy and blamed “priest-craft” for the masses’ superstition. D’Holbach and Helvetius were determinists, denied free will and believed in public education as a way to reform society. They believed that human beings were not evil. We have universal needs, desires and simply the hope of avoiding pain and gaining pleasure.

Materialism, the masses and pantheism

Many years ago, Stephen Toulmin, in his book The Architecture of Matter pointed out there was a relationship between the attitude toward matter and the attitude toward the masses. In the 17th century mechanical materialists thought of matter as passive and needing an external push from the mechanical watchmaker, the deity. At the same time, masses of people were thought of as passive and incapable of managing social life without divine kings. One of the first to challenge this passive notion of matter was Julien la Mettrie who argued that matter was alive and self-organizing. Not soon after, the French Revolution showed that artisans and peasants were not just passive lumps of clay in the hands of kings, aristocrats and popes.

At the same time, there is a relationship between whether sacred sources are singular or plural and whether they are immanent or transcendental. Pantheism says that sacred sources are infinitely plural and are right here on earth. Transcendentalism argues that the sacred sources are singular and outside the world. It is no accident that those in the Radical Enlightenment championed pantheism and immanence because they were on the verge of supporting the democratic movement of masses of people. The transcendental god, on the other hand, sucks dry all power on earth and takes it to the beyond, hogging all power to itself. Transcendentalism as far back to Plato sees the material world as either less than or degraded compared to the stuck-up spirit in the sky. Transcendentalism is a spiritual projection of the rule of divine kings. Immanence and pantheism are projections of the masses of people’s collective creativity.

Where Postmodernism misses the boat

Overall, it was the Radical Enlightenment that started the ball rolling. However, the Moderate Enlightenment would win out and this is the Enlightenment that postmodernists criticize.

But defenders of Radical Enlightenment like Israel, suggest that postmodernist criticisms do not apply as easily to Radical Enlightenment participants, as to those of the more aristocratic-minded Moderate Enlightenment, which had had a decided role in giving direction to our modern societies. In other words, defenders of the Radical Enlightenment argue that modernity, as inherited from the Moderate Enlightenment, is not the entire picture of Enlightenment. There is an Enlightenment that is egalitarian, abolitionist, feminist, sexually-tolerant, and democratic, too. That was the Radical Enlightenment, which Israel also calls the “Democratic Enlightenment.” This Radical Enlightenment is not the one that gave rise to oligarchy, allowed for slavery, and produced corporatism, but something different. It gave rise to modernism.

Socialism as part of the Radical Enlightenment

Jonathan Israel excludes socialists from the radical Enlightenment but Margaret Jacob in her book Radical Enlightenment thinks otherwise. Will Schnack says this tradition has plenty of room for libertarian socialists. The first philosophical anarchist William Godwin, in the cooperativist tradition of Owen and Fourier, Proudhon and the mutualists, Warren and the American individualist anarchists, and John Stuart Mill, fit very easily into the Radical Enlightenment. 

The Spectrum of the Enlightenment

Table A, the Spectrum of the Enlightenment, compares the Radical to the Moderate Enlightenment. I’ve left out a description of the Moderate Enlightenment is in this article because it is well-known and because it is not on the main line of my argument. The Counter-Enlightenment is less well-known and interesting, but this is also not quite in line with the thrust of this article. Broadly speaking the Counter-Enlightenment is a movement of religious reactionaries who reject democracy, science and materialism.  The Radical Counter-Enlightenment are, for most part, the forces to the left contributing to the French Revolution, typified by Rousseau and Robespierre. As a liberal, Israel wants to exclude revolutionaries from the Radical Enlightenment, but this categorization is confusing and not worth trying to sort out here. Again, Margaret Jacob does a good job of straightening things out. But to travel with her would take too much time. The most important part of Israel’s implied categorization of the Radical Counter-Enlightenment is his claim that it is an early version of Postmodernism. I’ve included some of the characteristics of postmodernism in the table (the leftmost column) even though the characteristics have not yet been discussed.


Postmodernism adopts what I would call a cynicism when it comes the modernism that came out of the Enlightenment. Modernism is assumed to be foundationally racist and sexist. Its attitude to the remaining tribal societies is that of a colonizer. This involves claims to scientific objectivity, the power of reason, universal claims to truth and morality, traditional institutions, meaning Christianity. Postmodernism has been very preoccupied with the power of language to control people. Ironically, many postmodernists have some of their roots in western Marxism and various strains of anarchists. It is telling that Jonathan Israel has placed them in a category of the CounterEnlightenment, linking them uneasily with conservative royalists who were also against the Enlightenment.

Among the earliest thinkers considered to be postmodern are the individualist anarchist Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom championed the individual against the pressures of science and capitalism. They were also connected to other movements in literary criticism like the symbolists. The values of Postmodernism are relativity, diversity, subjectivity and the freedom of the individual “agency”. It criticizes most leftism but still genuflects before Marx while not showing the slightest interest in political economy or organizing the working class.

Will Schnack has this to say about the postmodernist luminaries:


Jorge Luis Borges is among the most prominent influences in postmodern literature, but it would be Jean-Francois Lyotard who would be the first to put postmodernism to philosophical use. Lyotard, a literary theorist, had defined postmodernism as a rejection of “metanarratives,” or the underlying stories and ideologies of modernity that assume the stability of concepts like “truth.” Lyotard wanted to promote a sort of skepticism toward universal conceptions, suggesting Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games” ta          ke the place of the notion of “truth.” He believed that language, particularly what he called the “differend,” was made impossibly difficult to communicate ideas within a thorough manner. His work would be “deconstructed” by another postmodernist, Jacques Derrida.


Derrida, like many postmodernists, had a strong interest in language, particularly semiotics, but considered himself to be a historian. His approach, called deconstruction, was an attempt to challenge what he saw as unfounded assumptions of Western culture. He opposed the Western search for transcendental meaning, which he considered to be “logocentric.”  


Michel Foucault was a literary critic who established a postmodern theory of power. He examined how language masked power relations which were then linked to knowledge systems.

The New Left and Postmodernism

Postmodern philosophy, in stressing subjectivity, has dovetailed nicely with the racial and identity politics of the New Left. Like the New Left it has abandoned the working class and any attempt at union organizing. At best, it has focused on single issues more of a cultural nature than political economy. Like the Frankfurt school, it has identified the university as the place where things happen. Like the New Left it has abandoned Marx’s call to develop the productive forces for the life of a “slacker”, more interested in preening and cultivating their “lifestyle”.

Here is Will’s conclusion:

Universities are now filled with lessons in postmodern philosophy. It is to the point that it has become state-sanctioned education. In response to postmodern indoctrination by the American managerial classes, Americans from all across the political spectrum are starting to push back against postmodernism, from anarcho-syndicalists, to paleo-conservatives (the Old Right), to Old Left Marxists, to alt-Right populists. It is unfortunate, but also true, that neo-reactionary postmodernism gave rise to Trump, a reaction to New Left postmodern hegemony. Trump appealed to paleo-conservative business interests and alt-Right populism in his push against New Left political correctness, capturing the interest of much of the now marginalized white working class, enabling white supremacy while it hadn’t gotten such a strong spotlight in decades.

The American populace is divided, and because that populace is divided, so too is its working class. Black and brown workers, yellow workers, and white workers are caught up in various divisive schemes. But instead of just racism dividing the workers, it is also anti-racist and anti-sexist efforts, which have assumed the worst of all white men, a good portion of the working class. White men, effectively told to shut up by the Newest Left sponsored by neo-liberalism, have lost interest in Leftism, but they haven’t stopped being exploited by capitalism, and they are well aware of that.

Yet, if the Left is again to be a powerful force of class collaboration, a remodern Left must be willing to endure these semantics, and work with estranged friends to re-establish class consciousness, and to re-organize labor. Socialists and classical liberals can find common ground in the values of the Radical Enlightenment, the likes of which postmodern critiques have fallen short of addressing. Even those class-conscious socialists who do not subscribe to Enlightenment rationality fall into the category of moderns, and so have a stake in dismantling postmodernity. Advocates of organized labor, which has been diminishing in the time of postmodernity, must reject the primacy of the forces that have been responsible for its decline, and rework the insights and display the courage to build and sustain a movement.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Not So Fast: Why the Enlightenment is Still a Foundation for Working-Class Liberation first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Divided We Stand: Eleven Regional Rivalries from Mountain People to the Swamps of Dixie


The reason Yankee fans and Red Sox fans hate each other goes a lot deeper than sports. In his book American Nations, Colin Woodard identifies eleven regional cultures in the United States. He compares the conditions of the home country, settler conditions, climate, geography, religious history, population density and international loyalties. He points out the parallels between how settlers’ regional locations in England impacted the type of regional culture they developed in the United States. My purpose in this article is to:

  • reveal the political bankruptcy of trying to fit eleven different regions into two political parties; and,
  • reveal the economic bankruptcy of industrial capitalists in forming a single nation-state by attempting to pulverize the differences between these regions.

There are good reasons why the United States has rarely, if ever, unified, whether in war or peace. The notion that we were and are united  is pure political and economic propaganda.

Questions about regional rivalries

  • How might the time of settlement affect the culture of the region and how might the region feel about other regions?
  • How might the country of origin and its politics (feudal, capitalist) affect the politics of the region and how might that region feel about different regions?
  • How might the geography (rivers, rainfall, flat-mountainous, valleys, plains) and means of subsistence (hunting, fishing, farming, herding, trading, industry) affect the culture of the region and how might that region feel about different regions?
  • How might the religion of the region affect the culture and how might that region feel about different regions?
  • How might the size of the population of the region (dense or sparse) affect the culture of the region and how might that region feel about different regions?
  • How might the history of the region’s relationship with immigrants or native Americans affect the culture of the region and how might that region feel about other regions?
  • Given the answer to the first six questions, which regions will have the greatest tensions? Why might they have these tensions?
  • The author of the book implies that the United States is too big for a single nation-state. Whether you agree or not, are there any regions that might have enough in common to join together? Or would it be better to be broken into regions that become nation-states like European states?

I cannot address all these questions in this article. I intend to answer most of them and leave the rest to stimulate your thinking.

Issues that Divided the Regions of the United States

The federal government of the United States only began to try to unify the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific after the Civil War with massive architecture, street names, and flags in every classroom. it is questionable how successful they have been. To talk about a common national experience over such a large territory confronts many problems.

David Hackett Fischer in his book, Albion’s Seed, identified four major regions in the United States with significant differences in their means of subsistence, their religion, the conditions of settlement and the parts of England these first settlers were from. In his book American Nations, Colin Woodard has expanded these settlements from four to eleven regions. Please see Table A to understand which country of Europe settled the region, the time of settlement and the region of the U.S. it occupied.

For this section I will be following Woodard’s description. According to him, Americans have been divided since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth. Colonists saw each other as competitors for people to settle their land, for the land itself, as well their ability to draw capital to their settlement. Here are some of the issues that divided the colonies:

  • Loyalty to England: Royalist Virginia (Tidewater) vs Yankee Massachusetts
  • Individualism: Yankees and New Netherlands were for individualism vs social reform orientation of New France
  • Religion: Puritanism (Yankees, New England) vs Quakers’ freedom of conscience (Midlanders). In addition, there was a tension between the liberal and evangelical spectrum about how to practice their religion.
  • Politics:  The importance of politics for the Deep South and the Yankees as opposed to apathy to politics of the Quakers (Midlanders)
  • Use of force: Active use of force by Tidewater, the Deep South and Appalachia vs Midlanders, (Quakers) non-violence.
  • Secession: Not only Tidewater and the Deep South, but Appalachia and New England also considered secession.

These regions had differences in religion between Catholics, Puritans, Anglicans, Quakers and Mormons. Each region differed in the kind of work people did, from cattle rearing, hunting, fishing, fur trapping, agricultural capitalism (producing tobacco, sugar and cotton), subsistence farming, herding, and industrial production (mining, railroad work and smelting). These regions were formed with different intentions including for religious purposes, commercial purposes, political independence or as a home for refugees. The politics of the regions differed drastically, from authoritarian (Deep South) to egalitarian (New France) to liberal (New England town-hall and the Left Coast) to classical republican (Tidewater) to libertarian (Far West).

Regionalists in the U.S. respected neither state nor international boundaries. It was only when England began to treat these colonies as a single unit and implemented policies that threatened them all, that they formed a united force. It is important to realize the uniting against an enemy does not create unification after the confrontation is over. After all, the greatest regional battle in US history occurred almost a hundred years after Independence Day.

Woodard points out that Americans are one of the only countries in the world who do not make a distinction between a statehood and nationhood. A state is a sovereign political body that monopolizes the means of violence. A nation is a group who share a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts and symbols. Some nations are stateless like the Kurdish, Palestinians and Quebecers. Most agricultural states such as Egypt, China, Mesopotamia and India had states without being a single nation (Anthony D. Smith’s work is great for these distinctions). Using these criteria, the regions of the country are like the “nations” of America. Americans may have a federal state, but not a single nation. Before turning to the predominant struggle between regions, Table B contains a close-up of the differences between all eleven regions.

Neither the American Revolution Nor the Civil War United the Regions

It is tempting to think that the revolutionary war against England united the regions. This is far from true. Native Americans fought on both sides of the revolutionary war. It was the New England Yankees that were the backbone of the revolution. New Netherlands was the stronghold of the loyalists after England drove out the Dutch. In the Midlands:

The region would not have rebelled at all, if a majority of the states attending the Second Continental Congress hadn’t voted to suppress Pennsylvania’s government (132)

Until the battle of Lexington, the Deep South was torn as to who to join until it was rumored that the British were smuggling arms to the slaves. It was the prospect of freed slaves that made them fight the English. Southern Appalachia fought on the side of the English and lost.

Neither did the Civil War pulverize the regions into two. Woodard says that the Civil War was a conflict between two coalitions of the Deep South and Tidewater against the Yankees. The other regions wanted to remain neutral and were considering breaking off into their own confederations

The Conflict Between the South and the East Prior to the 19th Century

Slave aristocracy of the Deep South

To begin with, there was an aristocracy in the thirteen colonies  but this aristocracy did not rule over peasants who did subsistence farming. The plantation owners of the South ruled over slaves who produced commercial goods of sugar, tobacco and cotton for a world market. In the East, there were university educated professionals of lawyers and clergy(“Brahmins”) who joined with merchants attempting to develop home industry (rather than trade with England, as the plantation owners did.)

All regions are not economically equal

While all eleven regions had their conflicts with each other, some regions were settled longer and they concentrated more economic wealth at their disposal. For example, the mountain people Appalachia herded sheep, pigs and goats. They were in no position to compete for cultural dominance with the planters of Tidewater or the Deep South. The settlers of what became known as New France made their home in Canada and in Louisiana. They were fisherman, fur-trappers, and hunters. They could not compete with the Yankees of the Northeast or the fur traders of New York. Even those with capital who settled late, as in the Far West, did not have centuries to build up a culture the way those in Tidewater, the Deep South, Yankeedom and New Netherlands did. These regions had over a 200-year head start.

What does it mean to be an American?

When we compare the civilizational processes of the United States, we are really talking about the differences between the New Englanders, New Netherlands and Midlands and to a lesser extent, Appalachia. It is from these regions that the concept of an American grew. In the case of the other regions, El Norte was long abandoned by the Spanish and New France by the French. Both these regions were inhabited by people who never accumulated capital. Native American tribes were decimated. Tidewater and the Deep South are not cultures which are  termed “American”. While the Far West and the Left Coast certainly had wealth, they were settled too late to have civilizational impact.

There is a reason I am focused on the initial time of first settlement and not discussing these regions all the way to the present. It has to do with Wilbur Zelinsky’s “first effective settlement law”which says:

Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to affect a viable self- perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settler may have been. (American Nations, 16)

The fundamental arena in which American civilization played itself out, is between Tidewater and the Deep South on the one hand, and the Yankees and New Netherlands on the other. Civil War historians might call this the battle between the “North and the South”, but this crudely lumps the eleven regions we discussed into two. The people of Appalachia might technically be in the South but they always had animosity to the planters. The Midlanders of the North might have sided with Yankees and New Netherlands against the slave traders, but they were not industrial capitalists who had a material interest in luring poor farmers into their factories. Therefore, there are two processes of being civilized in the United States, one southern and the other East and Central parts of the United States.

Culture of honor in Colonial South

Roger Lane, in his book Murder in America: A History, traced the major differences between the North and the South to a southern “culture of honor” that did not exist in the North. But where does this culture of honor come from? Lane argues that the process begins when we examine the differences in the kinds of work people did in the regions of England that they came from before settling in America. The inhabitants of Tidewater came from the Scotch-Irish borderlands of Britain where they engaged in herding. With moveable property, herders always had to be on guard, otherwise their animals might be stolen. Because herding was a difficult life, herders were not competing with many other herders for grazing ground. The sparseness of the settlement pattern makes it difficult for herders to rely on others to protect their land.

Lastly, in both the borderlands of Britain or the areas of Virginia in which they settled, there was no centralized state to act as law enforcement. Under these conditions, herders develop very rigid protective mechanisms, being suspicious quickly, while reading body language for potential thievery. The culture of honor occurs when people cultivate a trust among equals. A culture of violence is the result of what happens when the culture of honor is violated. Someone who does not stand up for themselves has a sense of deep shame among herders. He has a reputation to defend. If insulted, the insult is addressed publicly in a duel or family feud.

Culture of Dignity in the Colonial North

On the other hand, the New England farmers came from East Anglia in England where farming was practiced.  Farming lends itself to living in close quarters, thus providing a social protection against theft. In addition, once they settled in New England, they lived near large cities and under the rule of law. This meant there was some legal ground for recovering stolen property. These conditions meant that farmers did not cultivate suspicion and a code of honor. Consequently, they were less likely to kill as a result of stolen property. Rather, the farmer cultivated a sense of “dignity” based on universal rights. These farmers were more likely to be self-constrained and feel guilty over imagined violations over God’s law. Violations are less likely to be settled publicly. Farmers do not engage in duels. Though farmers have been known to engage in family feuds, farmers are just as likely to bring their case to the law, depending on the region of the country and the social class of the farmer.

The South and the East in the 19th Century

By the 19th century, the capitalist interests in New England and New York area had crystalized into an investment in industry, building factories for textiles and railroads for transport. This form of capitalism was irreconcilable with the plantation economy of the South. As mass commodity production spread and geographical mobility of workers increased, it became more and more important that consumers were able to get along with strangers as they bought and sold goods. What being “civilized” in the East meant to treat strangers with an even-handed polite indifference or “tolerance”. It was also civilized for industrial capitalists to have same values as the Puritans: hard work, punctuality, planning and investing. In the East, the industrial capitalists were liberal politically.  To be conservative in the North in the 19th century had more to do with holding on to rural, Puritan traditions.

The plantation owners in the South had very different notions of what was civilized. In plantation life, most everyone knew everyone else and among other plantation owners there was a culture of honor which carried over from their south English heritage. Between plantation owners and slaves there was a deep expectation of deference. Encounters with strangers were much more loaded. While the Eastern cities cultivated a cool indifference to strangers, in the South what was civilized was “southern hospitality”, which meant bringing hospitality to a stranger. This meant being generous with time, food and culture. But strangers who, for whatever reason, were not candidates for southern hospitality were not ignored. They were driven out or killed.

Southern gentleman planters, like their aristocratic brothers in Europe, had a contempt for hard work and Puritanical values. What was civilized to them was the cultivation of taste in the arts, in manners and in clothing. For them, being civilized meant to enjoy life and display wealth. Politically, the Southern planters justified their existence as classical republicans who believed that liberty was only for the upper classes. They were contemptuous of the Enlightenment value of science and technology and saw themselves as the inheritors of Roman values. Please see Table C for a summary of these regions.

Manners in the East, the Midlands and Appalachia

Tocqueville famously commented that on one hand, Jacksonian America was far more egalitarian than anywhere in Europe, and less deferential. However, there was more bragging. His explanation was because of a lack of clear class boundaries, people bragged as a way to establish a status of which they remained unsure. According to  Stephen Mennell, (The American Civilizing Process) both Hegel and De Maistre commented on the lack of manners in America. Baudelaire described America in the 1850s as “a great hunk of barbarism illuminated by gas… a construction of hardened chewing gum and idiotic folklore.” Complaints about Americans chewing tobacco were common by Europeans. By the mid-19th century, Europeans also commented on what they saw as a general American obsession with cleanliness. But Yankees weren’t always like this.

Those who washed daily did so at the kitchen sink. Soap was mainly used for laundering clothes. By the 1830s, the bathtub and daily bath were beginning to spread beyond the very rich. Immigrants new to cities were taught by social workers, educators and employers how, where and how often to bathe with soap and warm water (66). In 1840, only a tiny minority of the wealthy city-dwellers had running water and flushing water closets in their homes (65). (The American Civilizing Process)

According to Mennell, books about American manners penetrated deeper into the class structure, in part because of the lack of the English social elite in the colonies to draw inspiration from and because a higher number of lower-class people could read.

How Did Frontiersmen See Eastern and Midlands Civilization?   

Mennell says that the following stereotypes were common among frontiersman about people in eastern cities. The East was seen as decadent, whereas the frontier was pristine. The East was mired in interdependent social ties such as proletarians linked to wage labor and factories in cities. The frontier, on the other hand, was the home of independent hunters, fur-trappers, ranchers or miners who called their own shots. While the East was the home of elite bankers and industrialists, there was a rough social equality on the frontier.

But what does living in a country with a frontier do to the civilizational process? Turner, in his book The Frontier in American History, traced the steady penetration of the frontier westward from the eastern seaboard in the 17th century all the way to the Rocky Mountains in the 19th. century. He distinguishes three phases:

  • the traders’ frontier—characteristic of French colonization and fur trade
  • the miners’ and ranchers’ frontier of the West
  • farmers’ frontier—which left the trademark of the English in the Midlands

Turner argued that the constant availability of free land meant that Americans would be less in danger of creating elite hierarchies because these hierarchies would be broken up since there was a constant return to more primitive conditions.

The Uncivilized Nature of the Frontier

According to Mennell, when people who have been socialized in more settled conditions are cast out into the margins of society, their behavior will change. The behavior will become more blatantly self-interested if they can get away with things that they couldn’t get away with under more settled conditions. This behavior will become even more confrontative if, because of the rough balance of power, calculations of what will happen are less predictable. These higher levels of danger will produce emotions that are more impulsive and more violent, just as Huizinga claimed occurred during the European Middle Ages.

According to historian Patricia Limerick, the image of the self-reliant and individually responsible pioneer was not supported by her research account that outside of every farm in the 1880’s stood a great mound of empty food cans. She further pointed out these “self-reliant” pioneers often blamed the federal government for their problems along with everyone else.

The consequences of the frontier process, according to Turner, were that:

  • The westward move diluted the predominantly English character of the eastern seaboard.
  • The advance of the frontier decreased America’s dependence on England for supplies.
  • It helped to develop the central government. The very fact that the unsettled lands had been vested in the federal government was vital to the federal government’s battle to control recalcitrant regions of the country.

The Western Frontier as Yankee romanticism

As Richard Slotkin warns us, we must distinguish between the people who actually lived on the frontier—hunters, trappers, miners, gold prospectors – and how the frontier was portrayed in American literature, as in dime-store novels and the work of Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales. We are interested in how the frontier romance in literature was a way for readers to:

  • escape the dark side of the industrialization process;
  • escape the increasingly militant class struggle taking place between New England, Yankeedom on the one hand and the southern plantation owners on the other;
  • muffle the class struggle in industrialized cities in hopes that the frontier stories could provide an outlet.

In the United States, the rebellion against civilization was directed not at an aristocratic class but at lawyers, merchants, industrialists and bankers of the East. Whatever their dissatisfactions were with relentlessness of the industrialization of the cities, it did not result in a romantic, organic view of nature as in Europe. In Europe, during the romantic period, many nation-states claimed their roots in more primitive peoples, whether they are Anglo-Saxons or Celts. But for Puritans, the heathen Native Americans were out of bounds as people to go back to nature with. To return to the pristine way of life was to adapt the way of the savages, which for them would be “hell on earth”. Puritans bitterly condemned those who “went native” and lost their souls.

While aristocratic romantics of Europe used tame country scenes to trigger collective memories of by-gone days, in the New World, what was romantic was pristine, wild and like the subtle paintings of the West by Remington and Thomas Moran. While romantics in Europe took the occasion to delve into the pre-modern world of the peasantry through the study of language and folklore, writers on American romanticism did not do this. In America, there was a deep anti-historical sense, and what appealed to romantics was the exotic world of mountains, rivers and forests that have not been seen before. In addition, the frontier was about trappers, hunters and miners who were half-way between Eastern decadent civilization and the “savagery” of the native Americans. Stories about the frontier were about Puritan’s “errand into the wilderness”. Puritans were terrified of the savagery of native Americans. Their roots were in Puritanism, not in knowing more about native culture that was from a non-Christian world.

In the New World, the sources of romanticism were men of action, men who fought Indians, gambled and blazed trails. Different frontiersman represented different regions of the country and utilized different means of subsistence. For example, stories about Daniel Boone took place in Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri. The stories of Kit Carsen were those of a fur trapper of the mountains. Stories about Davy Crockett were more about the frontier in the Southwest.

What romantics on both sides of the Atlantic had in common was a refusal to play roles. This was certainly true of the frontiersman attitude towards the ways of the East. Additionally, both kinds of romantics refused to act in ways that demonstrated they were civilized. While in the United States there was a championing of what was wild, unpredictable and dangerous, this did not lead to identification with mental illness as the romantics did in Europe. However, the romanticism of outcasts in the wild west, such as gun fighters like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Buffalo Bill was taken way beyond Europe. The glorification of the frontier, the west and the cowboy hasn’t let up even in the 21st century!


The purpose of this article is to show the deep political and economic fault-lines of the eleven regions of the United States. We began with eight questions about how the time of settlement, the country of origin, geography, religion, population density, attitudes to immigrants and natives might affect how these regions felt about each other. Where in the country would the greatest tensions between the regions be? What regions had the most in common where alliances could be formed? We then named six topics which were the deepest tension point in the regions. These tensions are hardly cosmetic. They remained throughout both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

We then turned to the conflict between Tidewater, the Deep South, Appalachia and Yankees as the central struggle in the United States. Being an “American” was forged between four regions—Yankeedom, New Netherlands, Midlands and Appalachia. I closed my article with our focus on the West. This included how frontiersman themselves viewed the East as decadent and how writers of the East romanticized the West in dime store novels and paintings.

The United States of America is hardly united, nor has it ever been. The real physical economy today is hammered by lack of investment and lack of work due to COVID. Meanwhile finance capital continues to destabilize the economy with the mania of printing free money. As extreme weather pounds the regions from Florida to California and from Texas to North Dakota, it would be hardly surprising that as Anglo-American capitalism sinks into the bog, that part of the sinking will involve a fracturing of the regions in a good ole American style, with each region for itself, and the Devil taking the hindmost.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Divided We Stand: Eleven Regional Rivalries from Mountain People to the Swamps of Dixie first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Monotheistic Roots of Nationalism


Over the last three hundred years in the West, nationalism has supplanted religious, regional, ethnic and class loyalties to claim a secular version of the commandment “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before me”. How did this happen? Let’s say we have an Italian-American member of the working-class who lives in San Francisco. How is it possible that this person is expected to feel more loyalty to a middle-class Irishman living in Boston compared to Italians living in Milan, Italy? How is it that this loyalty is so great that this Italian-American would risk his life in the military against the same Italian in Milan in the case of a war between the United States and Italy? Why would the same working-class man kill and/or die in a battle with Iraq soldiers who were also working class? My article attempts to explain how people were socialized in order to internalize this nationalistic propaganda. Nationalism used the paraphernalia of a particular kind of religion, monotheism, to command such loyalty. This article is a synthesis of part of my work in chapters two and three of my book, Forging Promethean Psychology.

Questions about nationalism, nations, and ethnicity

Nationalism is one of those words that people immediately feel they understand, but upon further questioning, we find a riot of overlapping and conflicting elements. There are three other words commonly associated in the public mind with nationalism and used interchangeably with it: nation, state, and ethnicity. The introductions of these terms raise the following provocative questions:

  • What is the relationship between nationalism and nations? Were there nations before nationalism? Did they come about at the same time or do they have separate histories? Can a nation exist without nationalism? Can nationalism exist without a nation? Ernest Gellner (Nations and Nationalism) thinks so.
  • What is the relationship between a state and a nation? Are all states nations? Are all nations states? Can states exist without nationalism?
  • What is the relationship between ethnicity and a nation? Can one be part of an ethnic group and not have a nation? Can one be a part of a nation without being in an ethnic community?

There is rich scholarly work in this field and most agree that nations, nationalism, ethnicities, and states are not interchangeable.  Despite scholars’ differences about the questions above, they agree that nationalism as an ideology that arose at the end of the 18th century with the French Revolution. Because our purpose is to understand nationalism as a vital component in creating loyalty we are, mercifully, on safe ground to limit our discussion to nationalism.

Elements of Nationalism

Four sacred dimensions of national identity

In his wonderful book Chosen Peoples, Anthony Smith defines nationalism as an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of three characteristics: autonomy, unity, and identity. Nationalism has elite and popular levels. Elite nationalism is more liberal and practiced by the upper classes. Popular nationalism is more conservative and practiced by the lower classes. According to Smith, the four sacred foundations for all nations are (1) a covenant community, including elective and missionary elements; (2) a territory; (3) a history; and (4) a destiny.

The fourth sacred source of nationalism – destiny – is a belief in the regenerative power of individual sacrifice to serve the future of a nation. In sum, nationalism calls people to be true to their unique national vocation, to love their homeland, to remember their ancestors and their ancestors’ glorious pasts, and to imitate the heroic dead by making sacrifices for the happy and glorious destiny of the future nation.

Core doctrine of nationalism

These four dimensions of sacred sources in turn relate to the core doctrine of the nation, which Smith describes as the following:

  1. The world is divided into nations, each with its own character, history and destiny.
  2. The source of all political power is the nation, and loyalty to the nation overrides all other loyalties.
  3. To be free, every individual must belong to a nation.
  4. Nations require maximum self-expression and autonomy.
  5. A world of peace and justice must be founded on free nations.

Phases of nationalism

Most scholars agree that nations are a necessary but insufficient criterion for nationalism. While most of them agree that nationalism did not arrive until the end of the 18th century, almost all agree with the following phases of nationalism:

  1. Elite nationalism—This first nationalism emerged when the middle classes used language studies, art, music, and literature to create a middle-class public. The dating of this phase varies depending on the European country and ranges from the Middle Ages through the early modern period.
  2. Popular nationalism—A national community took the place of the heroes and heroines who emerged with the French Revolution. This nationalism was political and was associated with liberal and revolutionary traditions. This phase is roughly dated from 1789 to 1871.
  3. Mass nationalism—This nationalism was fueled by the increase in mass transportation (the railroad) and mass circulation of newspapers. It also became associated with European imperialism and argued that territory, soil, blood, and race were the bases of nationalism. This last phase of nationalism was predominant from 1875 to 1914.

In the second and third phases of nationalism, rites and ceremonies are performed with an orchestrated mass choreography amidst monumental sculpture and architecture (George Mosse, The Nationalization of the Masses)

Due to the Industrial Revolution, among other things, individualists began to sever their ties to ethnicity, region, and kinship group as capitalism undermined these identities. By what processes were these loyalties abandoned while a new loyalty emerged? The new loyalty is not based on face-to-face connections, but rather it was mediated by railroads, newspapers and books. This is a community of strangers whose loyalty to the nation is not based on enduring, face-to-face engagements. As we shall see, states create nationalism by two processes: first by pulverizing the intermediate relationships between the state and the individual and second by bonding individualists to each other through loyalty to the nation forged by transforming religious techniques into secular myths and rituals.

Centralized State Against Localities and Intermediate Organizations

Absolutist states in Europe didn’t emerge out of nothing. According to Tilly, they emerged out of kingdoms, empires, urban federations, and city-states and had to compete with them for allegiance. In feudal times, local authorities could match or overwhelm state power. This slowly changed as the state centralized power.

In their battles against these other political forms, states learned hierarchical administration techniques from churches that had hundreds of years of experience.

Churches held together the sprawling kingdoms of Europe, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and throughout the early, central, and high Middle Ages. In order to command obedience, the absolutist state had to break down the local self-help networks that had developed during the feudal age and among those states that became empires. What stood in the way of state centralization were the clergy, landlords, and urban oligarchies who allied themselves with ordinary people’s resistance to state demands.

Dividing and conquering intermediaries

Early modern popular allegiances of culture, language, faith, and interests did not neatly overlap with centralized political boundaries. States played a leading role in determining who was included and who was excluded in their jurisdictions. This would force people to choose whether they wanted to live in a state where they would, for example, become a religious or cultural minority. Furthermore, the state can play its cultural, linguistic, and religious communities against one another by first supporting one and then switching to support another.

It may seem self-evident that absolutist states would try to join and expand whatever local identity a people had, such as the Basques or the Catalans in Spain. However, this was not initially the case. A local identity was interpreted as a threat just like any other non-state identity—region, ethnic group, or federation—because it competed with the state for people’s loyalty. It was only later when states were out of cash and desperate for manpower that they began trying to manipulate these outside loyalties by promising citizenship and later education in exchange for taxes and conscription.

Sociologists and social psychologists have demonstrated that among a group with internal conflicts, the best way to get them to forge unity is to present them with a common group enemy. An individual’s group loyalty is solidified by discrimination against an outside group. Most often a scapegoat is selected because it is present, visible, powerless to resist, and useful for displacing aggression.

Building a centralized nervous system: postal networks and newspapers

States reduced barriers between regions by developing roads and postal systems. In the late medieval world, the emergence of private mercantile networks enabled postal communication to form. In the 15th and 16th centuries, private postal networks were built. In France, the postal system was created as early as the late 1400s, and in England it came about in 1516. They expanded until they linked much of Europe together, employing 20,000 couriers. Turnpike construction upgraded routes from major centers to London. From the second half of the 18th century on the postal network offered regular service between regions as well as into London. By 1693 in the United States regular postal service connected Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and the comprehensive postal network assured postal privacy. The network of US postal systems came to exceed that of any other country in the world and was a way to bring the Western frontier under the umbrella of the Northern industrialists in their struggle against the agricultural capitalists of the South.

Postal networks also supported the creation of news networks intended for bankers, diplomats, and merchants. They contained both the prices of commodities on local markets and the exchange rates of international currencies. Newspapers also helped centralize and nationalize American colonies by pointing to commonalities across regions. For example, the Stamp Act led to the first inter-colonial cooperation against the British and the first anti-British newspaper campaign.

State vs. Religion Conflicts

In spite of what they learned from ecclesiastical hierarchies about organization, the state and the Catholic church were opposed to each other. The church was an international body that had a stake in keeping any state from competing with it for power. Before the alliance between merchants and monarchs, the Catholic Church played states off of one another. One event that began to reverse this trend was the Protestant Reformation. Protestant reformers may not have been advocates for the national interests of Germany, Switzerland, Holland, or England per se, but they were against the international aspirations of the Catholic church. Protestant leaders like Wycliffe and Hus called for the use of vernacular (local language) rather than internationalist Latin in religious settings. The Protestant religions became increasingly associated with either absolute monarchies or republics (e.g., the Dutch).

Religious Roots of Nationalism

What is the relationship between nationalism and religion?

It is not enough for states to promise to intervene in disputes and coordinate the distribution and production of goods, although this is important. Bourgeois individualists must also bond emotionally with each other through symbols, songs, initiations, and rituals. In this effort, the state does not have to reinvent the wheel. There was one social institution prior to the emergence of absolutist states that was also trans-local and trans-regional. Interestingly, this institution also required its members to give up their kin, ethnic identity, and regional identity in order to become full members. That institution was religion. A fair question to ask is, what is the relationship between religion and nationalism?

Do religion and nationalism compete with each other? Do they replace each other? Do they amplify each other and drive each other forward? Do they exist in symbiosis? Theorists of nationalism have struggled with this question. At one extreme of the spectrum is the early work of Elie Kedourie (1960), who argued that nationalism is a modern, secular ideology that replaces religious systems. According to Kedourie, nationalism is a new doctrine of political change first argued for by Immanuel Kant and carried out by German Romantics at the beginning of the 19th century. In this early work, nationalism was the spiritual child of the Enlightenment, and by this we mean that nationalism and religion are conceived of as opposites. While religion supports hierarchy, otherworldliness, and divine control, nationalism, according to Kedourie, emphasizes more horizontal relationships, worldliness, and human self-emancipation. Where religion supports superstition, nationalism supports reason. Where religion thrives among the ignorant, nationalism supports education. For Enlightenment notions of nationalism, nationalism draws no sustenance from religion at all.

Modern theorists of nationalism such as Eric Hobsbawm (Nations and Nationalism since 1780) and John Breuilly, (Nationalism and the State) share much of this position. For these scholars, secular institutions and concepts such as the state or social classes occupy center stage, while ethnicity and religious tradition are accorded secondary status. For Liah Greenfeld (Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity), religion served as a lubricator of English national consciousness until national consciousness replaced it.

For Anthony Smith, nationalism secularized the myths, liturgies, and doctrines of sacred traditions and was able to command the identities of individualists not only over ethnic, regional, and class loyalties, but even over religion itself. What Smith wants to do is conceive of the nation as a sacred communion, one that focuses on the cultural resources of ethnic symbolism, memory, myth, values, as they are expressed in texts, artifacts, scriptures, chronicles, epics, music, architecture, painting, sculpture, and crafts. Smith’s greatest source of inspiration was George Mosse who discussed civic religion of the masses in Germany.

How the State Uses Religious Paraphernalia in the French Revolution

If we examine the process of how the state commands loyalty, we find the state uses many of the same devices as religion. After the revolution in France, the calendar was changed to undermine the Catholic church. The state tried to regulate, dramatize, and secularize the key events in the life of individual—birth, baptism, marriage and death. French revolutionaries invented the symbols that formed the tricolor flags and invented a national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” The paintings of Delacroix and Vermeer supported the revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen became a new belief system, a kind of national catechism. By 1791 the French constitution had become a promise of faith. The tablets of the Declaration of Rights were carried around in procession as if they were commandments. Another symbol was the patriotic altar that was erected spontaneously in many villages and communes. Civic festivities included resistance to the king in the form of the famous “Tennis Court Oath,” (Serment du Jeu de Paume) along with revolutionary theater. The revolution, through its clubs, festivals, and newspapers, was indirectly responsible for the spread of a national language. Abstract concepts such as fatherland, reason, and liberty became deified and worshipped as goddesses. All the paraphernalia of the new religion appeared: dogmas, festivals, rituals, mythology, saints, and shrines. Nationalism has become the secular religion of the modern world, where the nation is now God.

What occurs is a reorganizing of religious elements to create a nation-state, a social emulsifier that pulverizes what is left of intermediate organization while creating a false unity. This state unity papers over the economic instabilities of capitalism as well as the class and race conflicts that it ushers in.

Monotheistic Roots of Nationalism

How monotheism differs from animism and polytheism

Anthony Smith is not simply saying that religion itself is the foundation of nationalism. He claims that the monotheism of Jews and Christians forms a bedrock for European nationalism. However, Smith does not account for why animistic and polytheistic religious traditions are not instrumental in producing nationalism. What are the sacred differences between magical traditions of tribal people and monotheists? The high magical traditions of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Aztecs, and Incas are not much like the Jews and Christians. We need to understand these religious differences so we can make a tighter connection between monotheism and nationalism.

According to Smith, the foundation for the relationship between a monotheistic people and its God is a covenant. A covenant is a perceived voluntary, contractual sacred relationship between a culture and its sacred presences. This contractual relationship is one of the many differences that separates monotheism from polytheism and animism. In my book From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods, I show how polytheistic and animistic cultures perceive a necessary, organicconnection between themselves and the rest of the biophysical world, and this connection extends to invisible entities. The monotheistic Jews were the first people to imagine their spiritual relationships as a voluntary contract.

The first part of a covenant agreement is that God has chosen a group of people over all other groups for a particular purpose. This implies that God is a teleological architect with a plan for the world and simply needs executioners. Polytheistic and animistic people imagine their sacred presence as a plurality of powers that cooperate, compete, and negotiate a cosmic outcome having some combination of rhythm and novelty, rather than a guiding plan. Like Jews and Christians, pagan people saw themselves as superior to other cultures (ethnocentrism), but this is not usually connected up to any sense of them having been elected for a particular purpose by those sacred presences.

The third part of a covenant is the prospect of spreading good fortune to other lands. This is part of a wider missionary ideal of bringing light to other societies so that “the blind can see”. It is a small and natural step to affirm that the possession of might—the second part of the covenant (economic prosperity and military power)—is evidence that one is morally right. We know that the ancient Judaists sought to convert the Edomites though conquest. On the other hand, while it is certainly true that animistic and polytheistic people fight wars over land or resources, these are not religious wars waged by proselytizers.

The fourth part of a covenant is a sacred law. This is given to people in the form of commandments about how to live, implying that the natural way people live needs improvement. In polytheistic societies, however, how people act was not subject to any sort of a plan for great reform on the part of the deity. In polytheistic states, the gods and goddesses engaged in the same behavior as human beings, but on a larger scale. There was no obedience expected based on a sacred text.

The fifth part of a covenant is the importance of human history. Whatever privileges the chosen people have received from God can be revoked if they fail to fulfill their part of the bargain. The arena in which “tests” take place is human history, in the chosen people’s relationship with other groups. For the animistic and polytheists, cultural history is enmeshed with the evolutionary movement of the rocks, rivers, mountains, plants, and animals. There is no separate human history.

Lastly, in polytheistic societies, sacred dramas enacted in magical circles and temples were rituals. This means they were understood as not just symbolic, representational gestures of a reality that people wished to see in the future. Rather, they were dramatic actions believed to be real embodiments of that reality in the present. In the elite phase of monotheism in the ancient world, rituals were looked upon with suspicion because people became superstitiously attached to the ritual and thought their rituals could compel God to act. In From Earth Spirits to Sky Gods, I coined the word ceremony to describe sacred dramas that were more passive and less likely to create altered states of consciousness. These were intended to show deference and worship to a deity who was not subject to magical incantations. A religious ceremony, at least among middle and upper-middle class, is more passive. The priest or pastor does most of the work while the congregation supports what the priest or pastor is doing.

Common Elements Found in Monotheism and Nationalism

Let’s start with some definitions. Monotheism is a sacred system prevalent in stratified state societies with possible developing empires in which a single, abstract and transcendental deity presides over “chosen people” via a contract or covenant. Nationalism is a secular system which exists in capitalist societies in which a single nation claims territory regulated by a state. Before launching into a description of the commonalities, Table A provides a snapshot overview of where we are headed.Loyalty to one God; loyalty to one nation

All sacred systems have to answer the question of whether the sacred source of all they know is singular or plural. Monotheistic religions break with the pluralistic polytheism and animism of pagan societies and assert that there is only one God. It is not a matter of having a single god who subordinates other gods. This is not good enough. The very existence of other gods is intolerable. Any conflicting loyalties are viewed as pagan idolatry.

Just as monotheism insists on loyalty to one God, so nationalism insists on loyalty to one nation. Claiming national citizenship in more than one country is viewed upon with suspicion. Additionally, within the nation, loyalty to the nation-state must come before other collective identities such as class, ethnic, kinship, or regional groupings. To be charged with disloyalty to the nation is a far more serious offence than disloyalty to things such as a working-class heritage, an Italian background, or having come from the West Coast. In the case of both monotheism and nationalism, intermediaries between the individual and the centralized authorities must be destroyed or marginalized.

Loyalty to strangers in the brotherhood of man; loyalty to strangers as fellow citizens

The earth spirits, totems, and gods of polytheistic cultures are sensuous and earthy. In tribal societies, they are part of a network among kin groups in which everyone knows everyone else. The monotheistic God is, on the contrary, abstract, and the community He supervises an expanding non-kin group of strangers. Just as monotheism insists that people give up their ties to local kin groups and their regional loyalties, so the nation-state insists that people imagine that their loyalty should be to strangers, most of whom they will never meet. The universal brotherhood of man in monotheism becomes the loyalty of citizens to other citizens within the state. In monotheism, the only way an individual can be free is to belong to a religion (pagans or atheists are barely tolerated). In the case of a nation-state, to be free the individual must belong to a nation. The state cannot tolerate individuals with no national loyalty.

Many inventions and historical institutions facilitate one’s identifying with a nation. The invention of the printing press and the birth of reading and writing helped build relationships among strangers beyond the village. Newspapers and journals gave people a more abstract sense of national news, and they were able to receive this news on a regular basis. The invention of the railroad, electricity, and the telegraph expanded and concentrated transportation and communication.

The problem for nationalists is that all these inventions can also be used to cross borders and create competing loyalties outside the nation-state. Increasing overseas trade brought in goods from foreign lands and built invisible, unconscious relations with outside producers. In the 19th century, another connection between strangers began with the international division of labor between workers of a colonial power and workers exploited on the periphery.

Monotheistic contract of equality before God; constitutional contract of equal citizenship

In polytheistic high magical societies, it was only the upper classes who were thought to have a religious afterlife. If a slave was to have an afterlife at all, it would be as a servant to the elite. Monotheism democratized the afterlife, claiming that every individual, as part of God’s covenant agreement, had to be judged before God equally. So too, nationalism in the 18th century imagined national life as a social contract among free citizens, all of whom were equal in the eyes of the law and the courts of the nation. In the 19th and 20th centuries, popular nationalism included the right to vote in elections.

Monotheistic and nationalist history is repackaged propaganda

According to Anthony Smith, the history that religions construct is not the same as what the professional historians aspire to do. For example, historians ask open-ended questions for which they do not have answers. They accept the unknown as part of the discipline and accept that an unknown question may never be answered. In contrast, accounts of religious history are not welcoming to open-ended questions. Rather, they ask rhetorical questions for which they have predictable answers. Those believers or non-believers who ask open-ended questions are taught that the question is a mystery that will only be revealed through some mystical experience or in the afterlife. Further insistence on asking open-ended questions is viewed as blasphemy or a sign of heresy.

So too, nationalist renditions of history do not welcome open-ended, skeptical questions. The history books of any nation generally try to paper over actual struggle between classes, enslavement, colonization, and torture that litters its history. Members of a culture that have built nationalist histories like to present themselves as being in complete agreement about the where and when of their origins. But, in fact, evidence about the past often competes with each other and are often stimulated by class differences within the nation. Just as religion attacks open-ended, critical questions of heresy, so nationalists tar and feather citizens as unpatriotic when they question national stories and try to present a revisionist history.

Monotheistic and Nationalist History Is Cyclic

All national histories have a cyclical shape. They begin with a golden age and are followed by a period of disaster or degradation and, after much struggle, a period of redemption. First, there is a selection of a communal age that is deemed to be heroic or creative. There is praise for famous kings, warriors, holy men, revolutionaries, or poets. Second, there is a fall from grace, whether it be a natural disaster, a fall into materialism, or external conquest. Third, there is a yearning to restore the lost communal dignity and nobility. In order to return to the golden age, they must emulate the deeds and morals of its past epoch. For Christianity, the golden age consists of the story of Adam and Eve. For the Hebrews, it is the Old Testament with Moses in the wilderness. In the United States, it is the time of pilgrims, pioneers, frontiersman, cowboys, and Western expansion. These are mythic stories are endlessly recycled today in television program and movies.

Monotheist and Nationalist Founders Are Treated as Divine

Nationalist history is sanitized, polished, and presented as a result of the deeds of noble heroes. This mythology is intensified by the way the founders of religion and the nation are treated. It is rare that Moses, Christ, or Mohammad, in addition to their good qualities, are treated as flesh and blood individuals with weaknesses, pettiness, and oversights. So too, in the United States, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are treated like Moses or Christ, having charismatic powers.

Monotheistic and nationalist altered states of consciousness

Altered states can be created by either sensory saturation or sensory deprivation. A great example of sensory saturation to create an altered state is the Catholic Mass. Here we have the bombardment of vision (stained glass windows), sound (loud organ music), smell (strong incense), taste (the holy communion), and touch (gesturing with the sign of the cross). Sensory deprivation in a monotheistic setting includes fasting, prayer, or meditation. Popular monotheistic states of consciousness invite speaking in tongues, and devotional emotional appeal.

Sensory deprivation in nationalistic settings is being at boot camp and on the battlefield of war itself. Sensory saturation occurs in nationalistic settings at addresses by prominent politicians, such as the presidential State of the Union addresses, in congressional meetings, at political rallies, and during primaries. Presidential debates and elections are actually throwbacks to ancient rituals and ceremonies. Those diehards of electoral politics who attend these rituals are almost as taken away by the props as were participants in a tribal magical ceremony. In the United States, the settings include the Great Seal of the United States hanging above the event, along with the American flag, a solemn pledge of allegiance, a rendition of “God Bless America,” and a military parade.

Religious and Nationalistic Attachment and Expansion of Land

The relationship between monotheism and territorial attachment is conflicted. On the one hand, elite monotheists in ancient times depreciated the importance of territorial attachment as an expression of pagans whom Christians feel are enslaved to the land. The prophets promote a kind of cosmopolitanism. Yet on the other hand, the more fundamentalist sects in popular monotheism insist on locating the actual birthplace of the religion and making it the scene of pilgrimages—Muslims go to Mecca, Christians to Bethlehem—or even a permanent occupation as with Zionist Jews in Palestine.

In a way, on a more complex level, the rise of a nation’s sense of loyalty based on geography is a kind of return to pagan attachments to place. For nationalists, attachment to a territory is a foundation-stone. In the United States stories and music celebrating the pilgrims landing, the revolutionary cites like Bunker Hill and the settling of the American West are examples.

Religious Zionism to Nationalist Manifest Destiny

Earlier we said that what separates monotheism from polytheism is the expansionary, missionary zeal of monotheism. This tendency was also characteristic of many nation-building projects throughout history. Both monotheism and nationalism wish to expand. There is an exclusive commitment to either one religion or one nation; yet once that exclusive commitment is made, the religion or nation sometimes advocates for expansion around the world. We can see this with Western imperialism, which in many cases sends in the missionaries first.

Commonalities in the Processes of Socialization into Monotheism and Nationalism

Table A showed the relatively static commonalities between monotheism and nationalism. These center mostly on beliefs and the use of propaganda paraphernalia on people. But there are many commonalities in how people are socialized over time. These include methods of transmission, rites of passage, special occasions throughout the year, educational training and geographical pilgrimages. We also have similarities on conversion experiences, how loyalty and exclusivity are maintained and how religious and nationalistic populations are ex-communicated. Please see Table B for a summary.

Qualification: What About the Place of Islam in Nationalism?

It probably crossed your mind that I did not include Islam in my monotheistic roots of nationalism comparisons. Certainly, Islam is monotheistic. Furthermore, when we look at Islamic fundamentalism, it might seem like there is fanatical nationalism at work.

But a closer look shows that Islam has similar internationalism as the Catholics. Being fanatical about your religion that you will kill and die for it is not necessarily nationalism.

Why did Islam not develop a nationalism the way the Jews and the Christians did?

There are at least the following reasons.

  • Western nationalism was inseparable from the development of industrial While Islam had a “merchant capital” phase of capitalism, they never went through the industrialization process that capitalism did in the West. Industrialization is very important in pulverizing intermediate loyalties.
  • Nationalism in the West was not built by one country at a time. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1689 created a system of states that became the foundation for nationalism at the end of the 18th. There was no system of states that existed in West Asia at the time. Predominantly what existed were sprawling empires, not nation-states.
  • In the 19th and 20th century, Islam has become a religion of the oppressed. European nation-states were not fighting against imperialism when they arose in England, France, the United States, and Holland. Their development was not shackled by fighting defensive wars. West Asian nationalism could not develop autonomously.


My article began by drawing your attention to how powerful nationalism is in swaying people to be loyal to strangers they have never met as well as to kill and die for them just because they occupy the same territory. I drew some boundaries around the meaning of nationalism and pointed out how people confuse nationalism with nations, states and ethnic origin. Then, following the work of Anthony Smith, I identified four sacred dimensions of national identity, five parts of its doctrine and three phases of nationalism.

Next, I discussed the need for nationalists to first tear down competing loyalties of kinship ties, ethnic loyalties, regional and class identifications in order for it to rule without competition. After pulverizing intermediate loyalties, it then builds up a centralized state through postal networks, national newspapers, railroads and telegraph systems which act as networks for nationalism. I raised and answered questions about the relationship between the state and religion. Do religion and the state compete with each other? Do they replace each other? Are they mutually supportive? Then I gave an example of how the radical wing of the French Enlightenment used religious paraphernalia in the hopes of creating a society based on reason, which came out of the French revolution.

My article then takes a step further. I argue that the state uses a particular kind of religion to strengthen its loyalty. It is no accident that the countries of the world that never developed nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries were not Jews and Christians. There is something about the monotheism of the Jews and Christians that was the best foundation to build nationalism and the centralized state that developed in Europe in the 19th century. Most of the rest of my article shows the similarities in the beliefs and dramatization between monotheism and nationalism. Lastly, I close with a table that shows how similar nationalism and religion are in their socialization processes from birth to death. I also addressed the question of why Islamic monotheism did not lead to Islamic nationalism.

It is no wonder that nationalism has such a hold on people. Since most Europeans and Yankees are either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, nationalist indoctrination already has an infrastructure built in with monotheistic beliefs, practices, and socialization. Sure, there are some people who are monotheists and not nationalistic. And there are some people who are nationalistic but not very monotheistic. But most people in Europe and Yankeedom are both. Most of those people are the working-class people who buy both nationalism and monotheism and then get killed or maimed in wars, at least partly because they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.

• First published in Socialist Planning After Capitalism

The post The Monotheistic Roots of Nationalism first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Ruling Class Fears of The Day of Reckoning: Historical Causes for the Biases Against Crowds

Image from Imgur


As I was looking at images to place at the beginning of this article, I was struck by how many images and quotes there were of Le Bon. It is pretty amazing for someone whose first work was published in 1895 and whose last works are still around 100 years old. It is especially strange given how unscientific his methods were and how recent empirical studies of crowds like David Miller’s Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action contradicts virtually everything Le Bon claimed. Why is Le Bon’s work still circulating despite lack of scientific rigor? Why have the last fifty years of research on crowds that have a solid scientific basis been ignored?

Purpose of this article

The purpose of this article is to:

  • Expose the propagandist roots and branches of our biases against crowds while showing some of the scientific evidence that supports the actual behavior of crowds.
  • To outline what historical events occurred that supported the prejudice against crowds.
  • Propose that it is ruling-class fears of crowds that fuels the perpetuation of unscientific theories about crowds.
  • Propose that ruling class fears that working-class people mobilized into crowds will seize their resources, destroy their property and enslave them.

Crowds vs Masses

Crowds are large collections of people who meet at the same place at the same time and are large enough that it is difficult to have a central conversation. A loudspeaker, microphone or some external device is necessary to have a single central discussion.  There are different kinds of crowds. There are casual crowds like those that meet by chance at the scene of an accident or a fire. They may congregate to watch a building go up or be torn down. A second kind of crowd are long lines that form to buy tickets to ball games or musical concerts.

An audience is a more formal crowd with a more deliberate focus. Examples are attending a musical concert or a sporting event. Lasty, there are unconventional crowds which can lead to riots, lynchings, protests and demonstrations. Mass behavior involves large numbers of people who are spatially dispersed but participate in common activities like fads or fashions.  Mass behavior involves the use of radio (Orson Wells, War of the Worlds) television, movies which often lead to rumors or urban legends.

Questionnaire on Crowds

In order to understand the purposes of this article, I ask that you spend about 25 to 30 minutes answering the following true-false questions. For the answer to be true, it simply means most of the time, not all the time.  For the answer to be false, it just means it rarely happens, not never happens. Follow your answer with a one sentence justification. Feel free to draw from your experience as well as what you’ve read. It is important to answer quickly and spontaneously and not dwell on the answers. One purpose of the questionnaire is to see if you think there are any significant differences between how people in crowds behave (collective behavior) as opposed to how small groups or individuals behave.

Here are the True – False questions:

  • Most crowds consist of strangers, rather than family, friends or acquaintances.
  • The percentage of violent behavior is higher in crowds than in small groups such as a musical band or a baseball team.
  • The behavior of crowds is more likely to be unanimous than the behavior of small groups.
  • Crowds of people are more likely to engage in unusual or extraordinary behaviors than either groups or individuals.
  • The behavior of individuals and small groups is more likely to be rational than the behavior of a crowd, which is more likely to be irrational.
  • There are certain kinds of personalities that are drawn to crowds that you could predict would join a crowd if you knew enough about their personalities.
  • There is a disproportionately higher number of working-class people in crowds compared to other social classes.
  • Compared to people without legal convictions, there is a higher percentage of criminals in crowds.
  • Individuals and small groups that are more likely to deliberate and plan their actions are less likely to be spontaneous.
  • You could predict that most individuals are more likely to lose their personal identity in a crowd rather than alone or in small groups.
  • Emotions are more likely to spread by contagions in a crowd rather than in a small group.
  • Groups are easier to disperse than crowds because people in crowds want to linger longer.
  • There has been more research done on crowds than on groups because the behavior in crowds has greater social impact.
  • People conform less to norms in crowds than they do in groups or as individuals.
  • Most violence in crowds is caused by the participants in the crowd rather than the police.
  • There is a higher degree of unpredictability of behavior in crowds than there is in small groups or within an individual.
  • The goals of a crowd are more extreme and unconventional than the goals of groups or individuals.
  • Riots are equally likely to happen regardless of the season of the year.
  • The most typical reaction to a natural disaster or emotional shock is panic – that is, uncontrolled individualistic flight as opposed to a rational, deliberate response.
  • There is a correlation between which people will engage in a protest and their political beliefs before the protests.
  • The most likely group to join a movement is the group who has absolute deprivation of resources as opposed to relative deprivation or no deprivation.

 The last three questions are about mass behavior, not crowd behavior:

  • Fads are less predictable than fashions.
  • Rumors begin mostly because people lose their ability to investigate before coming to a conclusion.
  • Fashions exist in all societies, tribal as well as industrial.

Myths vs Facts About Crowds

In their book, Social Psychology, Delamater Myers and Collett, citing the research of Carl Couch, Clark McPhail, David Schweingruber and Ronald Wohlstein argued that there are seven basic myths about crowds. They are:

  • Irrationality
  • Emotionality
  • Suggestibility – mindless behavior
  • Destructiveness
  • Spontaneity
  • Anonymity
  • Unanimity of purpose

Through these seven myths we are likely to see why all the answers in relation to crowds to the True-False questions are false. The only true answers are the first two questions about masses. Rather than explaining why every single question on crowds is false, I will speak generally and then answer a few questions specifically.

Are crowds wholes that are less than the sum of their parts?

One of the great underlying beliefs about crowds is that terrible things happen in a crowd that somehow would not happen in a small group and especially at an individual level.  Individuals are seen as rational, non-violent and prudent, but once the individual is surrounded by enough other individuals, things turn sour. The belief is that while individuals and groups may have differences with each other, those differences melt away in a crowd as individual members turn into a group hive. In fact, differences between individuals and small groups are maintained in crowds. To cite one example, in riots, crowds rarely act in unison. Some throw rocks and break windows. Others climb telephone poles and smash statues. Others disapprove and try to talk the others out of armed conflict. Still others are altruistic and help protesters who have been injured by cops.

Who is orderly and disorderly in crowds?

Speaking of cops, research on mass psychology has shown that most of the time, contrary to Le Bon, riots are started by the police, not the crowd. Furthermore, crowds assemble and disassemble at ballgames and concerts without any police necessary. Once gathered crowds do not stick together like honey. They easily disperse and really do not need the police to do so. I have been to many a Yankee and Knicks game in which the crowd, anywhere from 15 thousand to 30 thousand people leave the game, peacefully get on the train and talk about the ballgame. There is no need for police because nothing controversial happens. For conservatives like Le Bon, they cannot imagine that crowds regulate themselves. For them crowds are filled with animalistic, hedonistic barbarians who need the police to whip them into order.

Are working-class people more likely to be disorderly?

There is some truth to the fact that a higher percentage of working-class people will be in crowds. This has more to do with the reality that middle-class or upper-middle class people can afford to take a taxi to a ball game or a concert instead of taking the train. But this has little to do with the behavior of working-class crowds. Furthermore, plenty of protests are filled with upper-middle class anarchists who torch police cars and topple monuments. There is no clear relationship between social class and crowd violence.

How unpredictable are crowds?

Another one of Le Bon’s mistaken generalizations about crowds is that people in crowds act without rhyme or reason. This demonstrates, as an upper middle-class doctor, Le Bon has no understanding of all the deliberation and planning that goes into protests on the part of the organizers. This planning goes on weeks before the event. It is true that unpredictable things happen in protects, but they are exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, individuals act in unpredictable ways, as in the case of mass shootings. Individuals get caught up in cults and act in unpredictable and astonishing ways. Cults are large groups, not crowds.

Are emotions in crowds contagious?

People are every bit as emotional in small groups as they are in crowds. There is nothing contagious about emotions in crowds. People maintain emotional judgement while in the crowd. In fact, the leaders of protests harangue people to sing and chant as a way to unify the group. Just being in a crowd does not automatically unify the individuals. It takes work to do so. When faced with members of a crowd who become hysterical, rather than mindlessly joining in, other members of the crowd will distance themselves and exercise the same prudence that individuals or people in small groups will.

Is the crowd to social life what Freud’s id is to individual life?

Le Bon, Freud, Bion and the rest of the crowd psychologists we will soon meet think that at the social level the crowd is like the id, lurking on the margins of society waiting for a chance to jump out and wreak havoc. This is exemplified in the movie Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. In natural disasters these crowd psychologists imagine that the socialized ego is swarmed by the individualistic dictum, “every person for himself”. They imagine the results are pillaging and raping. The trouble is that research on behavior in natural disasters shows that people are consistently heroic and cooperative.

One hundred years of neglect of scientific research on crowds

Lastly, unlike individual psychology and group psychology the scientific study of crowds and masses lags way behind. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the first research was done. Why is this? On the one hand, studying crowds is far more difficult because crowds are so large and their life-times short. But something else was going on. Why were Le Bon’s, Tarde’s and Sighele’s, speculations allowed to stand unchallenged and repeated mindlessly in social psychology textbooks for almost 100 years? In large part it was because their theories served the interests of the ruling class.

Historical Reasons for the Biases Against Crowds

Growth of cities

One of major changes in European history and geography was the gradual reversal of numbers of people living in cities compared to those of people living on farms.  People move to cities in part because there is more work, but also, as the saying goes, “city air makes you free”.  Some people felt trapped by the nosiness and stifling customs of rural life. Non-conformists to religious traditions, artists and hustlers with big dreams were drawn to cities for a chance to start fresh. Living on a farm, the general expectations was that you would engage in the same occupation as your parents. Moving to the city broke that tradition and it raised expectations. Especially those living in coastal cities who were exposed not only to people coming from different cities within Yankeedom, but people from other countries were also looking for work. Different languages, different religions, and different political traditions converged.

There are rarely, if ever, crowds in rural areas. While farmers may get together on holidays, everyone knows everyone else and rarely are strangers invited.  Even when farmers would go to town to get supplies, the overwhelming number of people knew each other and greeted each other. There were no stadiums or concert halls in which large numbers of people could congregate to watch professional sports or music. Long before the Industrial Revolution, crowds in cities would gather to hear political speeches. So, what we have in pre-industrial cities are relatively rootless people with raised expectations, surrounded by strangers from different cultures for whom being in a crowd is becoming normal.

The Great French revolutions

As most of you know, the French Revolution of 1789 overthrew both the king and the aristocrats as the merchants rose to power on the backs of artisans and peasants. The revolution was also anti-clerical. Churches and chateaux were burned to the ground. The aristocrats never forgot this. As if your memory needed any jogging, there were more revolutions in Paris in 1830 and 1848. In all these revolutions, crowds are violent and know where the upper classes live. Doesn’t it start to make sense that the study of crowds would never be objective so long as the upper classes were threatened by them and therefore controlled the research on crowds? In this case they made sure no research was done.


At the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, cities became industrialized.  People were forced off the middle of streets to make way for wheeled vehicles accompanied by horses and later, trolley cars. Grid systems of streets were built which sped up transportation and the circulation of goods. Industrial capitalists built factories in cities as opposed to artisan shops in the countryside (the putting out system). The emergence of factories had enormous revolutionary potential because it brought large numbers of people working under horrible conditions together. For 12-15 hours a day, at least six days a week, people have a common experience while all in the same place and the same time.

Formation of unions

It is no accident that unions first formed in factories. When common experience is concentrated at the same place and same time, people are likely to compare experiences and accumulate grievances. Some workers begin to recognize that they have collective power if they can organize themselves. They can strike for better working conditions and better wages. Unions made crowds more dangerous because crowds can, in an extremely chilling way, stop and start the work process itself. This is like cutting off the blood supply for vampiric capitalists.

Emergence of socialism

The first socialists were theoretical. William Godwin was the first theoretical anarchist, writing Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. In the early 19th century, there were utopian communities set up by Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and others but none of these communities were connected to unions or workers movements. It wasn’t until the writings of Marx and Engels that socialism was really connected to worker’s struggles. The socialism of Marx and Engels or the anarchism of Bakunin both said to workers, “it is not enough to have tiny little pieces of pie. You create all the wealth; you deserve the whole pie.”

In order to gain the whole pie, workers in crowds had to move in a mass, take over factories and run them for themselves, while confiscating the private property of the upper classes. For the upper classes, socialism and the prospects of crowds burning down their houses, and peasants taking over their land was their worst nightmare. The Paris Commune of 1871 was the first revolutionary situation that was inspired by socialism as a movement.

Stock Market instabilities

Crowd instabilities also came from the capitalist side, between 1873 to 1896 when the stock market was very unstable creating panics and depressions. This meant stock market traders were wheeling and dealing on the floor of the stock market at the same time that people who had money in banks were worried about their savings and, in some cases, making runs on the bank.

Crowd Psychologists

Origins of Crowd Theory

Crowd theorists were social Darwinists whose ideas of a liberal society were of individuals who took care of only themselves. Beginning about 1870, crowd psychologists claimed that Darwinian evolution demonstrated that progress was a slow process, and any sudden changes based on violence were throwbacks to premodern times. Crowds were looked upon as akin to Herbert Spencer’s undifferentiated matter.

According to H. Stuart Hughes, (Consciousness and Society), beginning in the 1890s intellectuals became obsessed with the prospect that unconscious, primitive, and emotional forces were driving things. Crowd psychologists were united in rejecting sociological theorists such as Durkheim and Marx because they ignored emotions and unconscious motivation. What was really driving crowds, they thought, was below the level of consciousness. For crowd psychologists, individuals were both more than and less than the sum of their parts. The four major crowd theorists were Hippolyte Taine, Scipio Sighele, Gabriel Tarde, and Gustave Le Bon.

Crowd Theorists


Taine’s Origins of Contemporary France (written between 1876 and 1894) was a conservative attack on the Enlightenment. Taine blamed the Enlightenment ideas, including Rousseau’s, for what he considered the bloodbath of the French Revolution. Taine believed that the line between normal cognition and hallucinations, dreams and delusions, was closer than we might suspect. He cited evidence from research on organic lesions of the brain, hypnotism, and split personalities. He determined that the dramatic transformation of humans into savages is caused by what he called “the laws of mental contagion.” With the exception of the hypnosis model, Taine’s book embodies all the rudiments of French crowd psychology. For Taine, all leaders were the crazed dregs of society.

According to Taine, the Enlightenment failed to factor in the amount of time it took for humans to develop from barbarity to civility. Enlighteners weren’t interested in how people really were, but only as they could be measured by an abstract, ideal humanity. Taine thought the French Revolution was a relapse into primitive barbarism. Like Hume, Taine thought that reason was the passive servant of the passions. Bodily needs, animal instinct, prejudices which Taine thought were hereditary, were really driving people.

Criminalization of crowds (Sighele) 

Theories of hypnosis were split in two directions. Followers of Charcot claimed that being suggestible was a sign of psychopathology and only certain types of people could be hypnotized. The Nancy school of Bergheim argued that anyone could be hypnotized. The criminal school of Sighele sided with Charcot, arguing that crowds were composed of criminal individuals who were naturally suggestible. He followed the work of Lombroso who was a medical scholar of deviants in the military. Lombroso measured the skulls and anatomical characteristics of 3,000 soldiers.

According to Serge Moscovici (The Age of the Crowd), mass psychology was treated simply as part of criminal anthropology. Crowds were seen as mobs, scum, and made up of men who were out of control and would destroy anything in their path. Sighele claimed that hypnotism can explain the process by which individual minds become susceptible to outside forces, leading to actions that are carried out automatically, unconsciously, and then spread to others by contagion. The conservative hand Sighele played was transparent in his labeling of social revolutionaries such as socialists, anarchists, or even striking workers as part of the criminal crowd. The hysteria of stock market traders was never seen as criminal.


More than Taine or Sighele, Gabriel Tarde placed the crowd on a broader social spectrum. All social life, according to Tarde, is based on imitation, and the process of crowd formation and reproduction simply comes from the laws of imitation sped up. He described the crowd as the first stage of association—rudimentary, fleeting, and undifferentiated. From this foundation, more stable and ongoing groups form, including corporations, political parties, and religious bodies such as churches or monasteries. Unlike other crowd psychologists, Tarde thought that literacy, newspapers, and mass communication would replace the crowd with what he called “the public.”

Tarde also thought that the extremes of behavior demonstrated in crowds are unique to cities. Unlike his right-wing crowd theorists, Tarde thought the madness of crowds is a product of civilization. He argued that crowd madness was uncommon in rural areas and among pre-state societies. Both Tarde and Le Bon supported the Nancy school, which suggested that there were social-psychological processes that any individual could fall prey to, if exposed to them. They believed that the solitary individual was superior to the group in all ways.

Le Bon

Le Bon concocted a mix of anthropological, social Darwinist, and psychological theories, which were in the same family as Taine and the racist Joseph Gobineau. He thought that cranial size could be used as an accurate measure of intelligence and he believed that people in primitive societies had small skulls. Le Bon thought the European race was superior, and only Caucasian males could transcend the constraints of biology.

Like Sighele and Tarde, Le Bon thought that what happens to an individual when in a crowd was analogous to what happens in hypnosis. All crowd theorists up to Le Bon agreed that the crowd was no more than what was already inside the psychology of individuals. They also believed that whatever destructive behavior transpired in a crowd was due to the lower-class origins of its members. Le Bon was the first to say that all personalities, regardless of class and intelligence, are susceptible to the pull of the crowd.

According to Serge Moscovici, Le Bon directly challenged Locke’s theory of the mind. As was par for the course in the Enlightenment, Locke believed that as the mind of humanity was gradually ridding itself of religious terrors, there would be fewer and fewer secrets. Le Bon, in contrast, said that revolutions shake the mind from its perch, sending it tumbling and howling into the abyss of the primitive world, which is driven by heredity, instinct, custom, and race. For Locke, visions and dreams were overridden by simple and complex reasoning. For Le Bon, crowds could not follow reason but instead learned by association, just as individuals do in dreams.

Furthermore, crowd theorists claimed that people in crowds do not deliberate, but are mesmerized by leaders through the power of hypnotic suggestion. When Locke argued that the truth can be seen with open eyes, he neglected to note that crowds are driven by unconscious primitive animalism, which takes over and spreads by what Le Bon called “contagion.” This contagion does not lead to prudent, rational judgment but instead can lead to cruelty or heroism. These extreme reactions are amplified by the feeling of anonymity that grips individuals, allowing a sense of individual responsibility to evaporate.

Le Bon belonged to a liberal middle-class tradition that argued against both revolution and the weakness of liberal parliamentary systems. Despite his argument’s mediocre quality, rhetorically flattering the reader and lacking depth, Le Bon must have struck a nerve. According to Moscovici, no French thinker other than Georges Sorel and Alexander de Tocqueville has had an influence as great as Le Bon. Le Bon published The Crowd in 1890 and it was a best seller. Why was this? He mixed the disciplines of politics and psychology in an age of growing disciplinary specialization. Le Bon probably tapped into the fears that the middle and upper class and upper classes had about what would happen eventually if the new “democracy” was to expand.

Distorting the work of Alfred Espinas

It is worth noting that crowd psychologists distorted the work of Alfred Espinas on wasps and hornets to create an analogy between human crowds and insect societies. Espinas argued that societies were more than an aggregate of individuals and pointed out that alarm and danger were transmitted by visual contagion. Far from viewing this intensely social life of insects as a liability, he saw it as a strength in building bonds through cooperation.

Crowd psychologists seized on his discussion of the invisible communication of wasps and hornets when confronted with an enemy to draw an analogy to crowds. Just as insects communicate collectively when faced with danger, so crowd behavior becomes contagious among spectators in a theater or when aroused by a great orator. Unlike Espinas, they saw very little, if anything, constructive in this. Crowd psychologists thought the communicability of emotions beyond the individual was proof of the primitive mentality of the crowd.

Crowd Psychologist Distortions

Here are Susanna Barrows’ (Distorting Mirrors) damning conclusions about crowd-psychologist theories:

  • Taine, Sighele and Le Bon did not do any empirical research (Tarde was a possible exception).
  • Taine’s work contains grave errors in the scientific method. The idea of empirical investigation was wholly alien to him.
  • What evidence they collected was extremely selective to support their case (again, with the possible exception of Tarde).
  • Statistics indicate that women committed many fewer crimes than men, yet women were blamed for a disproportionate amount of the violence that occurred.
  • Le Bon indiscriminately lumped together socialists and anarchists with common criminals.
  • Crowd psychologists distorted the work of Espinas on wasps and hornets to make an analogy between human crowds and insect societies.

The Legacy of the 20th Century

The events of the 20th century hardly provided a break for poor conservatives hoping for a return to religion, God, kings and aristocrats. The Russian revolution, the stock market crash in 1929, Fascism in Germany and Italy and Spain, the Spanish revolution, the Chinese Revolution and the Cuban Revolution vanquished those hopes. This does not even count the Zoot Suit race riots in 1943, Watts in 1967 or the Rodney King riots in 1992.

Mass Media Propaganda Towards Crowds and Riots Carries Forward Obsolete Crowd Psychology

Check any newspaper or TV news program in Yankeedom and watch how the crowd and the rioters are treated when they describe a protest or a natural disaster. If it is a riot, does the paper ever show the variety of responses that go on during the riot? No, they focus only on the rioters and assume everyone in the crowd was complicit. When they describe the origin of the riot, do they consider the research which says the police are usually the perpetuators of the riot? Not on your life! The police are depicted as restoring order rather than as being the perpetuators of disorder. Lastly, in a natural disaster do the newscasters show the overwhelming instances of cooperation, compared to natural disaster participants helping themselves in supermarkets and sporting goods stores? No, they don’t. Rather the echo chamber of capitalist media blares out “looting, looting, looting” just like they declared “weapons of mass destruction” in the lead-up to the attack on Iraq twenty years ago.


I began this article with a questionnaire designed to expose your prejudices against crowds. I contrasted these biases against what research on mass psychology actually shows about crowd behavior. The heart of my article is to show why these biases continue in spite of scientific research to the contrary. I identified the growth of cities, the revolutions in France in the 19th century, the process of industrialization, the formation of unions, the rise of socialism and stock market instabilities in the 19th century. What do these events have to do with biases against crowds?

The answer can be found in the theories of mostly right-wing crowd theorists who wrote in the 2nd half of the 19th century. These theorists and their ruling class masters were terrified that crowds of working-class people would take their land, confiscate their resources and burn their chateaux to the ground. There was a great deal at stake for them. To call the people in crowds enraged, childish, criminal, beastly, stampeding, savage, irrational, impulsive, uncivilized, primitive, bloodthirsty, cruel and fickle is to dismiss, embarrass and mock anyone who participates. It is also a warning to future workers to stay away from crowds.

We socialists have been the victims of a 150-year propaganda campaign that was started by crowd psychologists in the 1860s and has been perpetuated by all sources of media throughout the 20th century. Amazingly, social psychologists who pride themselves on filling their textbooks with empirical evidence, have given this discredited crowd theory a pass. There is so much money for research on what sells products and little or no money is available to study what moves crowds and masses. It is vitally important for the ruling classes to forestall the great day of reckoning by scaring people away from joining crowds that will be one of many vehicles for overthrowing them.

• First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Ruling Class Fears of The Day of Reckoning: Historical Causes for the Biases Against Crowds first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Left-Wing Psychotherapy Cults: Sullivanians from Hedonism to Group Terror

Photo Image:  FilmDaily


My Purpose

A few months ago, I wrote an article titled “Political and Spiritual Cults“. My purpose was to show the commonalties among all cults, whether they are political, spiritual or psychological. In this article I want to narrow the focus to discuss a left-wing psychological cult, the Sullivanians, a countercultural organization that made its mark on the Upper West Side of New York City between 1970 and the early 1990s. Why bother to do this? Because as a socialist I have to face that any socialist organization I join, whether it be social democratic, Leninist or even anarchist has the potential to become a cult. The more we know about the conditions under which cults emerge, the more we can combat them.

Overcoming Media Biases Against Cults

When mass media compares cults members to the general population, cult members are portrayed as:

  • Mentally unstable
  • Less educated
  • Lonelier
  • From the poor and working-class backgrounds
  • Physically intimidated into joining
  • Brainwashed
  • Drawn from criminal elements
  • Less moral as people

Research has shown none of this to be true.

Plan of the Article

For the most part I will be following the architecture I built in my previous article, including what is a totalistic institution; the ten characteristics of cults; the stages cults go through; the mechanisms of control in each stage; why people stay; what kind of qualities the leaders have and what is the impact of leaving on cult members.

I will be adding a short section on the theoretical assumptions of the Sullivanians at the beginning. For each of these units I will say something about how it applies to the Sullivanians. Besides my article, I will be referring to two books on the Sullivanians: Amy Siskind’s sociological analysis, The Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall Community: The Relationship of Radical Individualism and Authoritarianism and a book by a participant, Artie Honan How Did A Smart Guy Like me….For my general understanding of cults, I owe the most to Margret Singer, Janja Lalich, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad.

Theoretical Assumptions

The Sullivanian Institute was a spin-off organization that broke away in 1957 from the work of Harry Stack Sullivan. Sullivan was sensitive to the social side of psychological dynamics and among other insights blamed the nuclear family for the formation of the ideal capitalist consumer. Both Dr. Jane Pearce and Saul Newton took these criticisms of the nuclear family much further. In 1963, Pearce and Newton coauthored a book called Conditions of Human Growth. In that book they identified the family as socially isolating the individual from developing healthy relationships with friends, especially in adolescence and adulthood.

Open-ended friendships, both sexual and otherwise, were the way out of the infantilization of the nuclear family and the road to maturity. For them, friendships are the first potential of experience of love between equals. A big part of therapeutic work was to get their patients to expand their friendships as they withdrew from their families. Newton and Pearce considered the desire for the security of exclusive relationships among their patients to be a neurotic symptom. In fact, one of the first things on the agenda of the Sullivanians therapists was to separate the patients from their parents. On the whole the two foundation stones of the Sullivanians community were:

  • To break from their family of origin
  • To have non-monogamous sexual relations among friends

What is a Totalistic Institution?

Calling an organization a cult has more to do with how an organization is run than what people believe. Cults are a subcategory of organizations which includes mental health institutions, prisons, army barracks, orphanages, and religious institutions such as monasteries. As opposed to this, in what Erving Goffman calls “pluralistic institutions”, people come and go as they please in and out of various institutions throughout the day as they go from playing one role to another. Within each institution, the group dynamics and power relationships vary. An individual can have great control in one area and little control in another. What produces critical thinking within the individual is the habit, whether conscious or unconscious, of comparing one institution to another, each with their strengths and weaknesses.

In totalistic social formations, all institutions are rolled into one. Economic exchanges, livelihood, sacred beliefs, political dynamics, living situations and sexual encounters are all concentrated within a single institution. In the more extreme institutions like prisons or in the military, working and play activities are done all at the same time, in the same place with uniform expectations. Boundaries between inside and outside are rigid. The authorities are centralized and there is little room for feedback. There are surveillance systems, spying and little privacy, and this breeds insecurity and paranoia.

Sullivanians as a Total Institution

The Sullivanian community was divided into four tiers. The four therapists at the top were Saul Newton, Joan Harvey, Ralph Klein and Helen Moses; a secondary tier of therapists in training; a third tier of psychotherapy patients and lastly, community members who were friends of the people in the first three tiers. When the Sullivanians morphed into the Fourth Wall Theatre community in 1977, the fourth tier were people living in Manhattan who came to see the plays, often from poor areas of the city. The biggest factor that made the Sullivanians a totalistic institution was the collapsed boundaries between the tiers. Members of all tiers were invited to have sex with each other, including therapists with clients, clients and those in therapy training. Sleeping alone was considered an interpersonal failure. Furthermore, the therapists ignored confidentiality and talked openly about the problems of their patients. The most important people – the therapists – knew everyone else’s business and encouraged others to be spies to report on any dissatisfactions anyone had with the leadership. This led to mistrust among people in the second and third tiers as well as paranoia.

The Sullivanians were not as rigid as a prison or an army barracks. Community members worked at different jobs and they lived in different apartment buildings.  However, all households occupied most of an apartment building and each household apparently consisted only of members of the Sullivanian community. These households made enough money to hire people from the outside to cook, clean and babysit. House members had regular meetings in which they talked about household problems but also about their lives. Members also knew each other’s weaknesses and these weaknesses got back to the leadership in one way or another.

The dependency of community members on the leadership ran deep. Therapists in training were dependent on leadership economically to provide them with referrals. People were dependent personally for their identity through therapy. Interpersonally they played together, lived together and in the 1980s, did political work together. All this supported the authoritarian control by the leaders and made the Sullivanians a totalistic institution.

Ten Characteristics of Cults

From my previous article on cults, I named ten characteristics.

  • It emerged out of a political, economic or ecological crisis.
  • It recruited young adults between 17 and 24 of middle-class and upper middle-class origins who were likely to be undergoing some developmental crisis in their personal lives.
  • It has an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
  • It has a revolutionary, dualistic ideology.
  • It possesses a social-psychological array of tools for luring in new members and sustaining their commitment.
  • It lacks mechanisms for critical feedback from the membership.
  • It requires a small group of lieutenants to isolate and keep atomized the membership through spying so that no coherent opposition can form.
  • It develops rituals, myths and celebrations that allow the group to mark time.
  • It demonizes outside groups that are in competition with the cult.
  • It has rigid, terrorized boundaries that make it extremely difficult to leave.

Sullivanians’ Characteristics of Cults

It is not true that the Sullivanians cult emerged as a reaction to a political, economic or ecological crisis. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the economy was not contracting. It was possible for community members to work at low paying jobs in the arts, have leisure time and still make the rent, especially because of group living. However, the decline of the Sullivanians community in the 1980s was definitely connected to contracting economic conditions where rents skyrocketed and jobs in the arts shrank. AIDS and the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island added to the group paranoia.

The Sullivanians did appeal to upper middle-class adults. They weren’t in any serious psychological crisis. They were relatively healthy adults who were attracted to an alternative lifestyle including art. music, theatre and dance. Sexual exploration was part of the counterculture and not unique to the Sullivanians. In Saul Newton they had an authoritarian working-class leader who was once a member of the Communist Party and claimed to have fought in the Spanish Civil War. Both men and women in the community agreed he was charismatic. Newton was also erratic and explosive and most members were scared of him. There were no institutionalized feedback mechanisms for criticizing the leadership. Complaining behind his back was dangerous because of surveillance and could easily get back to the leaders.

Although Newton was either a Stalinist or a Maoist, in the first nine years of the community, he was not heavy-handed politically. It was in the descendent phase when the nuclear meltdown occurred, the AIDS epidemic spread and Yankeedom had become more conservative in the 1980s that his Stalinist or Maoist politics became more hard-edged.  Relations between the Sullivanians and other leftists became increasingly hostile, and their political ideology became more dualistic and sectarian. Here is where the characteristic of the demonization of outsiders took place.

The psychological array of tools for drawing people in and holding them was pretty straightforward. In all cults, sex is used to control people. However, in most cults sex flows one way, from the members to the leaders. Among the Sullivanians sex among members was immediate and expected. Secondly, unlike other cults, women were encouraged to have more than one partner at a time. Besides immediate and sustained sex for both men and women, there was the opportunity to work with therapists on their problems and to do so for a low fee, compared to the much higher going rate. Thirdly, friendships were made quickly and developed through household living arrangements. Fourthly, the Sullivanians were very supportive of the members developing their creativity. Siskind points out that many of them became famous in the arts, filmmaking, and dance. The Sullivanians were also a utopian community, so joining it helped people to feel that they were a special group, superior to others, in addition to being part of a movements which was going to overthrow capitalism.

Symbolism and ritual were a strong part of the Sullivanians community. They played hard together at parties and vacations, but this was all secular enjoyment. There was no celebration of revolutionary holidays or the singing of the Internationale, as we might expect of an aspiring socialist community. Neither was there a dramatic change of identity based on change of hair or clothes that I found.

Stages of Cults

As I said in my article Political and Spiritual Cults:

In their book, The Guru Papers, Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad identify two stages of cults: the proselytizing stage and the apocalyptic paranoia stage.

In the proselytizing ascendant stage, the guru sees the possibility of realizing his ambitions. The group is touted as being at the cutting edge of new knowledge. Outsiders are welcomed although they are treated with a kind of benign superiority. In the ascendant phase, the guru rewards the enthusiasm of his followers and grants them positions which have opened up within the hierarchy. The tone of the community is celebratory. The guru is accessible to the public and is charming and playful. In terms of the recruitment, this is the “honeymoon phase”. The focus is to expand the organization and the emphasis is on the present.

The apocalyptic, paranoiac, decadent phase is when the numbers of recruits have leveled off and explanations need to be found. The public is now seen as too stupid and blind to acknowledge the merits of the cult. In the declining stage, the message becomes pessimistic, with a doomsday “I told you so” tone. Outsiders cease to be welcomed in a spirit of satisfying their curiosity. Rather they are seen as enemies out to destroy the organization. Part of the descendent phase also involves the guru making more grandiose claims while promising to invoke occult power. The membership begins to have doubts.

Sullivanians’ Stages of Cults

The Sullivanians definitely went through these stages. Siskind, in her sociological analysis of them, calls the proselytizing phase the “Halcyon Years” from 1969-1978. Siskind calls the apocalyptic phase “the Revolutionary period of 1979-1983. Between 1984 and 1992 there was a steep decline in membership. In the first period the emphasis was on the psychology of the individual and their full development, including taking classes and the practice of the arts. The full enjoyment of life through sex, friendship, creativity and community was all supported. They also had a comedy club run by a very talented member, Luba Elman who was also responsible for early theatrical productions which later turned into the Fourth Wall Theatre Company. Between 1970 and 1974 the Sullivanian community grew at a steady rate of 100 new members a year, culminating at a peak of 400 in 1974. Political relations with other leftists had some tension but that did not stop cooperation in large protests.

There were four shock waves which were scattered across the landscape of the Sullivanian community between 1977 to 1983 that turned it from growing, hopeful community into a more stagnant, paranoid and isolated community. The first was the driving out of Luba Elman as the organizer of the Fourth Wall Repertory Company and her replacement by therapist turned playwright and actress, Joan Harvey. Both she and her partner Saul were dictatorial in their expectations of the members of the stage crew and everyone else in the Fourth Wall community.

Another very dramatic event was the Fourth Wall takeover of the Truck and Warehouse Theatre. The previous company refused to leave the building although the lease was up. They were forced out in an orchestrated attack, with waves of Fourth Wall people invading the building. Some took over the stage sets, rebuilt them with the carpentry and electrical skills of the Fourth Wall community. Two hours after the initial takeover, 160 more members came to support the takeover and guard the building. Then they set up an elaborate security system to guard the building. The violent nature of the whole process must have affected the moral of people. Artie Honan, one of the chief organizers of the takeover, said: ”Looking back, I feel that this was a senseless act of violence. Something I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been taking direction from Saul. (What’s a Smart Guy Like Me…) I doubt he was alone in these sentiments. Later he said I was preoccupied about having to organize security coverages …I had no time to reflect on the experience or to think about how it ran against the grain of my values. Lack of time to think is characteristic of all cults.

A third major event was the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. This spread fear in the community. It led to a panic in which 200 community members en masse fled to Florida to avoid radiation. This event turned the Sullivanians into an explicitly political community as Saul’s Maoist orientation came to the fore. House meetings went from every day discussions about household and personal problems to political book readings and discussion groups. It was in this period that Saul implemented a Maoism anti-intellectual campaign in which community members would renounce their class background in group self-confession circles.

A fourth major event was the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s. This directly impacted the size of the community and the sex-economy of the organization. The Fourth Wallers were naturally wary of having sex with outsiders and limited the sexual activity to the already existing members. Since, on average, the women outnumbered the men two to one, the shortage affected the women more than the men. There was even a Male Chauvinism campaign within the community to force the men to have sex with women who didn’t have partners! Please see Table A for a contrast between the two stages within the Sullivan community

Characteristics of Sociopathic Leaders

In their book Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships, Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias identify fifteen characteristics of a sociopath that could apply to a cult leader. Here they are:

  • Glibness and superficial charm
  • Conning and maneuvering
  • Grandiose sense of self
  • Pathological lying
  • Lack of remorse, shame or guilt
  • Shallow emotions
  • Incapacity to love
  • Sensation seeking
  • Impulsivity and lack of behavioral control
  • Early behavior problems with juvenile delinquency
  • Scapegoating
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior and infidelity
  • Erratic work history of fits and starts
  • Materialistic lifestyle
  • Criminal and entrepreneurial versatility

Saul Newton as a Sociopath

As repulsive as Saul Newton might be to you and to me, he did not have all fifteen characteristics of a sociopath. I will begin by eliminating the characteristics he did not possess. We know very little of his history, so we don’t know anything about whether his teenage behavior might be categorized as juvenile delinquency or whether he had an erratic work history. From my reading I did not find instances of sensation-seeking. He put members in the Sullivanians community in risky situations, but he seemed to be sure that he and any of his wives were well-protected. It would be unfair to characterize him as having shallow emotions. He had problems controlling his anger, as in beating his wives. There is nothing I’ve read that indicated that Newton showed any deep emotion but anger. It is reasonable to say he was emotionally repressed, rather than being shallow.

Criminal and entrepreneurial creativity in cults usually means if one cult group fails and goes bankrupt, the leader wheels and deals and repackages himself with a new name and organization as Werner Erhard did. As far as I know, Saul Newton did not do this. He stuck with the Sullivanian community all his life. Lastly, a “materialistic lifestyle” is a very vague term. How many cars, boats, planes and houses does a leader have to possess to qualify as being materialistic? From my reading, I would classify Newton as upper middle-class, akin to a doctor, lawyer or architect living on the Upper West Side of New York City. He and his wives had their own chefs, childcare providers and shoppers. He owned a brownstone building. Newton lived well, but he didn’t have seven Cadillacs, as Rajneesh had. He did not own any boats or planes, nor did he buy other buildings and deal in real estate. He did not have the lifestyle of L. Ron Hubbard, Reverend Moon or Werner Erhard.

However, Newton had all the remaining characteristics of a sociopath big-time. He had superficial charm, and as I said earlier, both men and women characterized him as charismatic. He clearly was conning and manipulating the community all his life. He got them to take over a theatre building, told them who could and couldn’t date and set up an elaborate surveillance system for tracking people while convincing the members to do all the work. He maneuvered with Joan Harvey to oust Luba Elman from the Fourth Wall community and put themselves in the leadership position. He seemed to be a pathological liar, meaning he lied so much he lost track of the boundaries between truth and falsehood. There is no indication in either of the books I read that he has the slightest regret or remorse for anything he did. Neither were there any examples in which Newton claimed to love anyone. He was not loved by community members, but feared. In a small funeral gathering in 1992 not a single member of the Sullivan community showed up.

Newton definably had a grandiose sense of himself. What kind of person would have put himself at the head of a psychotherapy organization with no degree in the field or even having been in therapy himself? He was almost compulsively promiscuous. He had no problem asking his female patients for sex as part of the sessions. At the end of his life when he was suffering from dementia, he continued to see clients even when his memory was failing him. Newton was clearly impulsive (at least around getting angry) and could not control himself. However, in other situations he was extremely deliberative as he plotted and schemed to manipulate community members. Lastly, he was always blaming community members when things didn’t go right. He showed no power of self-reflection in seeing how his behavior was partly responsible for anything.

Reasons People Stayed in the Community

Why do People Stay?

Lalich and Tobias lay down the following most common reasons people stay in cults:

  • Attachment to new beliefs
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • Entrapment
  • Peer pressure
  • Exhaustion from overwork allows little time for objectivity or self-reflection
  • Burned bridges separate members from their past
  • Being ridiculed and called names by cult members is very painful
  • Fear for your life
  • Guilt and embarrassment over having participated in the group to begin with

From the two books I’ve read about the Sullivanians, I would say virtually every one of these psychological conditions were operating. In the early years, the major belief centered around a conviction that their nuclear family was the major part of their problems. Giving up their belief would mean facing they were dupes who then burned their bridges and hurt their families badly. It would definitely cause cognitive dissonance. Community members were clearly entrapped. Most spend anywhere between 5 and 20 years in the community, forging deep friendships. They spent hundreds of hours in therapy and in the last years of the community, that was not cheap. For many, their livelihoods were dependent on the community and their living situations were all tied together. It is completely understandable they would not want to cut their losses.

There was a great deal of peer pressure to stay in the group. It was difficult to think clearly about whether or not to leave when they could not easily discuss openly their reservations about staying. They could never be sure if what they said would get back to the leadership. In addition, by the early 1980s, the economy was contracting, requiring members to work longer. Also, Newton was becoming increasingly demanding of members to be available for work on the Fourth Wall community. As Artie Honan says many times in his autobiography, there was little time to reflect on the big picture. Most were like frogs in slowly boiling water. They couldn’t see what was happening to them.

Unlike other leftist cults, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of name calling, but Saul Newton was brutal about getting rid of any community member he felt was too much trouble and, perhaps more painfully, community members executed his wishes. People were kicked out of the community quickly, often told they had 24 hours to leave their group housing situations. In at least one instance a person’s things were thrown in the street. Ex-members were shunned and ignored in public and the Upper West Side of New York is not a place to easily find anonymity.

Saul Newton was a violent man. He beat his wives and occasionally publicly punched a few of the men in the community. The violence he used in orchestrating the takeover of the theatre was probably never forgotten by anyone. When one of Saul’s psychological proteges decided to leave, upon Newton’s instruction he was followed, grabbed from behind and held over the subway tracks.

If members decided to leave, they had little in the way of a support system. Their families were heart-broken, angry and some members were disowned. The road back was unknown, lonely and full of doubt. There was no recovery groups from cult in those days. I don’t really know that the Sullivanian community felt a sense of guilt upon leaving the way members of other cults might. If a member got into the cult early, in the good days of the first seven years, those memories must have been breath-taking, intense and not easily forgettable compared to whatever normal life followed. It was the period from the early 1980s on they might have felt regretful about.

Aftermath for Cult Members

In their book Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich identify five major areas of life ex-cult members have to deal with:

  • Practical everyday life
  • Emotional volitivity
  • Cognitive inefficiencies
  • Theoretical instabilities
  • Lack of a social network

How Ex- Sullivanians Members Managed Their Lives in The Aftermath

Practical, everyday life

The two books I read on this subject do not have much information about how group members managed after the community broke up. Most of what follows will be what I would call reasonable speculation. In the area of everyday living, I believe the Sullivanians did better than ex-members of other cults. For example, Sullivanians had to find work to support themselves while in the cult and they succeeded in landing jobs in the arts or doing technical work. While ex-members who became therapists were dependent on referrals, this was not a community that was totally dependent economically. The same was true about managing money and finding an apartment. Members had practice in doing these things even when in the cult. While the Sullivanians were not provided with their own medical and health care, as upper middle-class urbanites they would not go without health and medical care as many members of other cults did. All this doesn’t mean they did not suffer. But compared to other cults, the climb back up might not have been as steep.

Emotional volatility

In terms of emotional volatility, I suspect the Sullivanians were more like other cults in that members suffered from PTSD, insomnia and dissociation at times. I don’t think difficulty concentrating or flashbacks were part of the psychological processes they had to constantly fight off because there were not that many bad experiences. I don’t believe a loss of a sense of humor was a psychological condition. Membership in households provided opportunity for play and laughter. It wouldn’t take much to bring them back. Depression over loss of the Sullivanian community and its vision must have been great. Before the community as a whole broke up, Saul‘s treatment of those who left would give them every reason to fear for themselves and their loved ones.

Cognitive inefficiencies

Many members of other cults have trouble thinking critically when they leave. Especially in spiritual cults which place a great deal of emphasis on meditation, and other altered states of consciousness, where critical thinking is frowned upon. Some young members of cults never learned to think critically. They simply did not know how to set up spread sheets for weighing the pros and cons of different job offers, school choices or romantic partners. After being in cults which for years explained causes and consequences by good and evil forces, it is difficult to reason about complex causes and intended and unintended consequences. I don’t think members of the Sullivanian community ran into these problems much. While they suspended judgment and criticality when under the spell of the leadership, they had to make analytical and comparative judgment while at work, with their partners and at house meetings when they were away from the leadership.

However, there is one area of cognition which must have been difficult and that is de-toxifying their vocabulary. All cults control their members thinking by narrowing the complexity of their language. When the leaders train someone’s vocabulary to use virtue and vice words, they are training them in dualistic thinking. Dualistic thinking makes people more controllable. This definitely went on in the Sullivanian community. It would take time to reintroduce previously “banned” vice words and repressed virtue words.

Theoretical instabilities

The overwhelming majority of cults are spin-offs from major theoretical schools in the fields of spirituality, politics or psychology. Spiritual cults might be spinoffs from Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity. Political cults may draw from the work of Marx or Lenin. Psychological cults may have drawn from Freud, Jung or Humanistic psychology of Maslow. Upon leaving the cult, the ex-cult member is in a theoretical no-man’s-land. Does the psychological cult member whose leader drew from Freud therefore reject Freud completely or are they able to separate Freud from the cult interpretation of Freud? In the case of spirituality, can a member of the Hindu cult like the Hari Krishna’s reject the cult but hang on to Hinduism? In the case of the Sullivanians, Saul Newton was probably a Maoist. Can ex- Sullivanians separate Maoism as practiced by the Sullivanians from Maoist groups in general? Will they remain Leninists and switch from Mao to Stalin? Will they remain Leninists and become Trotskyists? Will they become democratic socialists?

A more extreme strategy is to reject the field entirely. So, a follower of a spiritual cult may become an atheist. A member of a political cult might become anti-political or apolitical. A member of a psychology cult might join a group that is anti-psychological, such as Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who led the movement against his own field. This may be a good choice because you are starting from scratch. This may also be a bad choice because you are starting from scratch with no infrastructure. There are no easy answers.

Lack of a social network

As I mentioned earlier, leaving a cult is devastating for a support system. Most cult members have burned bridges with their family and friends, church and clubs they were once a part of. However, relative to other cults, with the Sullivanians the situation may have been different. I can imagine that anybody who left the cult in the early 1980s when the community was still functioning well would have a rough time. However, once the community itself was disbanded, it was a different story. Why? Because the members of this cult had lived together for years unsupervised directly by the leadership. They played together, they made art together and they made love together, hard and often. These types of connections are easy to remember and hard to forget. Artie Honan says he is still Facebook friends with many former members. He also reports that in 2007, they had a reunion in Harlem. One hundred and fifty people came. Considering the Sullivanians peaked in membership in 1974 at 400, this turnout shows there is something of quality in this community that superseded Saul Newton and the rest of the cult leadership.

How the Sullivanians Compared to the Experience of Other Cults

I have a number of reasons for suspecting that the Sullivanians had it better than other cults. In the first place, they did not emerge out of an ecological, economic or political crisis. Neither did they come into the cult at an impressionable age of late teens or early twenties. My sense is that most members were in their mid to late 20s when they joined and were probably more grounded. That meant people were less desperate when they joined the group. Secondly, unlike most, if not all cults, the sexual economy was far more horizontal. Members slept with each other, not just with the leadership, as in other cults. Thirdly, women were as sexually free as the men. Though Saul Newton was definitely patriarchal, women still had many sexual relationships with their peers, just as the men did. Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, the social networks that were built had relative autonomy from the leadership, especially in the living situations. This allowed them to form subgroups with their own experiences, independently of the leadership. In most cults, subgroups are not allowed to form. It was these experiences in subgroups that made it possible not to lose complete touch with each other after the Sullivanians broke up as an institution. It made it possible to have a reunion 15 years later.

The Socialist Political Spectrum: Which Tendencies are Most Likely to Form Cults

So, what does the fate of the Sullivanians tell us (if anything) about which tendencies on the political spectrum are likely to form cults? Are Leninists, democratic socialists and anarchists all equally likely to form cults or are some more likely to form than others? Remember earlier I said that the key element in determining a cult is not the beliefs but rather how the cult was organized. In addition, charisma, by itself is not enough to institutionalize a cult.

A good example of a socialist organizer who was charismatic but never turned his group into a cult was Murray Bookchin. I met Murray 50 years ago on the lower East Side of Manhattan and I can testify that he had a great deal of charisma and a significant following among young hippie anarchists. This continued as he moved to Vermont to teach and founded the Institute for Social Ecology.  But the Institute for Social Ecology or any other organization he was involved in did not became a cult because the egalitarian principles of anarchism blocked this from happening.

It would be unfair to characterize the Sullivanians as a pure political group. It was not a real political group until the 1980s. Yet the leader of the organization, Saul Newton, was a Maoist and during the last years of the group, he did use Maoist tactics like self-confession of the members’ class backgrounds, along with criticism and self-criticism.  In my previous article, a major focus was on a group called the Democratic Workers Party which definitely was a cult with a Leninist focus. What about other Leninists groups?

In their hostile analysis of Leninist organization, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth identify five other Leninist groups that were either cults or might have at least cultlike characterhoods. Harvey Jackins’ Reevaluation Counseling and Fred Newman’s New Alliance Party and social therapy, Gerry Healy; Ted Grant and Gino Perente also led organizations that had cult-like characteristics which were either Stalinist or Trotskyist in orientation. Each received a chapter’s attention in the book On the Edge.

Tourish and Wohlforth summarize their book:

Each and every Marxist Leninist grouping has exhibited the same cultic symptoms: Authoritarianism, conformity, ideological rigidity, fetishistic dwelling on apocalyptic fantasies. Not all Leninist groups are full-blown cults. However, we have yet to discover one that did not have some cultic features (213).

As Lenin spelled out in 1910 in What is to Be Done, socialist ideas were to be introduced to the working class from the outside by professional revolutionaries drawn largely from the middle class. They view themselves as a chosen people, the possessor of a gnosis beyond the grasp of ordinary folk. Therefore, a separate organization is in order, tight discipline is required and superhuman sacrifice is demanded from members. Democratic centralism is required so that all members publicly defend the agreed positions of the party, whenever opinions they might hold to the contrary in private. (214) The communist front organization is particularly suited to political cult-manipulation (216).

In contrast to this, the organization of the Democratic Socialists of America has loosely associated chapters and the whole organization is opposed to any kind of authoritarian organization. In fact, they organized themselves intentionally so they would have no resemblance to Leninism.


I do not mean to imply that Leninism is not successful as a political tendency in the world. Russia, China and Cuba have all offered working class people significant improvements in their lives by way of steady employment, good wages, safe and reasonably priced housing, free healthcare and literacy over the last 100 years. With the exception of Sweden between the 1930s and the 1970s, social democracy has not had a good track record with the poor and working class. As for anarchism, it certainly had a great deal of success in revolutionary movements in Russia, Spain and recently in Rojava. The problem with the anarchists is that it is harder to tell what successes have carried over after the revolutionary period ended.

The issue in this article, however, is not how successful each of the three socialist tendencies are in the end. Which group is most likely to use cult-like methods to get there? It is clear to me that Leninism has the most cult-like potential according to the criteria in this article.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

The post Left-Wing Psychotherapy Cults: Sullivanians from Hedonism to Group Terror first appeared on Dissident Voice.