Friday, August 27, 2010

Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Pretty much the opposite of Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor", scheduled on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the same place, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, takes place tomorrow. Part of Beck's schtick with this rally is place himself and his fellow segregationists in the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ben Dimiero in Martin Luther King would have been on Glenn Beck's chalkboard Media Matters 08/25/2010 explains why the comparison is historically, politically and morally absurd.

He references a 1958 article in which King talked broadly about his philosophical views, including Communism, of which his opponent accused him of being an adherent: My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence Fellowship 09/01/1958, an excerpt from his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958). That's main what I talk about in this post. (Warning: this post is LONG and WONKY)

But I also wanted to mention that Beck's trying to claim he's following in the legacy of King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s is the kind of double-reverse historical revisionism that has always been a standard part of segregationist ideology and propaganda. We aren't prejudiced against the Negroes, the segregationists said (polite version using "Negroes"), it's the Negroes who are prejudiced against us white folks. Segregation isn't to make an advantage for whites at the expense of Negroes, it's to help the Negroes; no one will be hurt worse than them by ending it. It's not us good Christian white folks promoting racial hate against the Negroes, it's the Negro Commonist civil rights fanatics promoting hate against us. And so on.


The same individuals and groups could also argue in straight up racial terms that whites were just inherently superior to blacks. As we've seen with Bush idolaters during the previous administration and in the last year with Republican and Tea Party fanatics, authoritarian-minded people can hold the most screaming contradictions in their opinions, without either their belief system or their emotional commitment to it being notably damaged.

What we seeing now with Beck, Limbaugh, Laura Schlesinger and the Tea Party zealots is pretty 1950s-style Southern segregationism, superficially adapted to the 2000s.

Now, on to the thoughts of King, who was in active opposition to those segregationists in 1958. He relates his perspective on racism and economic conditions as having developed early:

I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice. Although I came from a home of economic security and relative comfort,I could never get out of my mind the economic insecurity of many of my playmates and the tragic poverty of those living around me. During my late teens I worked two summers, against my father’s wishes - he never wanted my brother and me to work around white people because of the oppressive conditions - in a plant that hired both Negroes and whites. Here I saw economic injustice firsthand, and realized that the poor white was exploited just as much as the Negro. [my emphasis]
The wording is important. King didn't describe racism as only a function or side-effect of inequality and economic injustice. But he describes his view as being that "the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice."

He writes that the Social Gospel writer Walter Rauschenbusch made a big impression on him, particularly in regard to the notion that Christian Gospel had to be concerned with the broader social conditions of people in their physical lives, not just for their individual souls. But he criticized Rauschenbusch on this point: "he came perilously close to identifying the Kingdom of God with a particular social and economic system - a tendency which should never befall the Church."

I especially noticed King's attention to German philosophers of the 19th century. He describes a course with one of the professors that particularly influenced him, Edgar Brightman, this way:

Although the course was mainly a study of Hegel's monumental work,
Phenomenology of Mind, I spent my spare time reading his Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right. There were points in Hegel's philosophy that I strongly disagreed with. For instance, his absolute idealism was rationally unsound to me because it tended to swallow up the many in the one. But there were other aspects of his thinking that I found stimulating. His contention that "truth is the whole" led me to a philosophical method of rational coherence. His analysis of the dialectical process, in spite of its shortcomings, helped me to see that growth comes through struggle.
This is notable in several ways. One, having read two of those three books, I can say for sure they aren't light reading. He took philosophy pretty seriously if he was reading Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right on the side. Plus, it suggests he had a seriously geeky side. (On the day Glenn Beck reads Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, the oceans will evaporate. Or, at least what's left of Beck's sanity will do so.)

Having more than little of such a side myself, I'm willing to unpack this sentence a bit: "His analysis of the dialectical process, in spite of its shortcomings, helped me to see that growth comes through struggle." Hegel did understand the world in general as behaving according to a dialectical process which required dialectical thinking to understand. He also had a dialectical method, and orthodox Marxists would later say that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took Hegel's formal logic and his dialectical method. The influence of Hegel on Marx's thought actually become a serious issue in Soviet and Eastern European science and philosophy in the postwar period. I'm guessing that King wasn't particularly aware of that at the time but it's an interesting question. I posted about Hegel's philosophy on 12/30/2009 in Review of Klassische deutsche Philosophie (10): Hegel.

King's critical but open-minded attitude toward Hegel is interesting in another regard. After the Second World War, Anglo-American evaluations of Germany often fell into what is known as the "From Luther to Hitler" line of thinking, which essentially viewed all major philosophical and social trends in Germany since the 16th century onward as somehow precursors to Hitler's National Socialism (Nazism). Hegel figures in that view as a "totalitarian" thinker. In the textbook of my otherwise excellent undergraduate political theory course, an excerpt of Hegel's work was paired with one by Mussolini.

This attitude toward Hegel's work actually began before the Second World War. The first one had inclined the Anglo-American world to take a rather dim view of all things German, and the rise of Hitler to power encouraged it. But that attitude toward Hegel's philosophy was always cracked. And King recognized this in the 1950s, in spite of the prevailing academic atmosphere against Hegel. His comment also suggests that he found much to admire in Hegel's view of historical development as the long-term realization of freedom.

Nietzsche is a philosopher whose reputation in the Anglo-Saxon world suffered excessively from the "From Luther to Hitler" school of thought. In Nietzsche's case, it's a little easier to understand. Because he wrote in a way that was easy to quote out of context to give his words a distorted meaning. But Nietzsche was definitely no proto-Nazi. His bitterest polemics were directed against the anti-Semites of his time, the real proto-Nazis. But King's reason for criticizing what he understood of Nietzsche's philosophy is interesting in itself:

During this period I had about despaired of the power of love in solving social problems. Perhaps my faith in love was temporarily shaken by the philosophy of Nietzsche. I had been reading parts of The Genealogy of Morals and the whole of The Will to Power. Nietzsche's glorification of power-in his theory all life expressed the will to power - was an outgrowth of his contempt for ordinary morals. He attacked the whole of the Hebraic-Christian morality - with its virtues of piety and humility, its other worldliness and its attitude toward suffering - as the glorification of weakness, as making virtues out of necessity and impotence. He looked to the development of a superman who would surpass man as man surpassed the ape.
King didn't select his Nietzsche books as well as he did the Hegel ones. The Genealogy of Morals is an expansion and explanation of Beyond Good and Evil. The Will to Power was published posthumously and is only a Nietzsche book in a limited sense. Nietzsche's executor was his sister, who was a proto-Nazi. And she put together The Will to Power by cutting and pasting material from Nietzsche, selected to emphasize authoritarian schemes.

But King rejected what he understood poorly from Nietzsche on the grounds, "He attacked the whole of the Hebraic-Christian morality - with its virtues of piety and humility, its other worldliness and its attitude toward suffering - as the glorification of weakness, as making virtues out of necessity and impotence." In other words, he saw Nietzsche as rejecting Christian virtues wholesale, virtues which King defended. And he also rejected what he understood as a racialist theme in Nietzsche's concept of the "superman."

I've posted a couple of reviews of books on Nietzsche's understanding of Christianity in two parts, on 10/25/2009 and 10/29/2009. He actually had a sophisticated view of the development of Jewish and Christian moral concepts. And understood more sympathetically, I would even argue that King made very good use of the "slave morality" aspects of Christianity, the idea that Christian morality fundamentally represented the viewpoint of slaves in opposition to their masters. The notion that Christianity has what Latin American Catholics would later call a "preferential option for the poor" fit well with King's understanding of Christianity. The two had more in common in their views of the Christian religion than King realized.

In that article, King also discusses the influence of the pacifists A.J. Muste and Mohatmas Gandhi. What I find more interesting, continuing with the German philosophy theme, were his comments on Karl Marx. He says he read Marx's Capital (he names it by the German title Das Kapital) and The Communist Manifesto. How much King knew about the political situation in Germany and other parts of Europe leading up to the democratic Revolutions of 1848, the year the Manifesto was published, I don't know. But his discussion in that article isn't focused on whether Marx in developing his theory of surplus value correctly used the work of English political economist David Ricardo.

King was already nationally known in 1958, and he was very well aware that he had to be careful in addressing anything to do with Communism. On the other hand, since he was being accused of it - the segregationists always said the civil rights movement was a Communist plot - he also couldn't avoid addressing it. He leads with what he rejects. Although he refers to "the thinking of Marx and Lenin" in general, this is more addressed to his current understanding of Soviet Communism in the Cold War context:

First[,] I rejected their materialistic interpretation of history. Communism, avowedly secularistic and materialistic, has no place for God. This I could never accept, for as a Christian I believe that there is a creative personal power in this universe who is the ground and essence of all reality - a power that cannot be explained in materialistic terms. History is ultimately guided by spirit, not matter.
In this, King showed more affinity with Hegel than with Marx. The theory of dialectical materialism, i.e., Marxism (Engels invented the term after Marx's death), as interpreted by orthodox Communism, was a materialist philosophy that rejected the notion of God. And while the practice of religion was banned in the Soviet bloc in 1958, believers and church members were discriminated against in serious ways.

Second, I strongly disagreed with communism's ethical relativism. Since for the Communist there is no divine government, no absolute moral order, there are no fixed, immutable principles; consequently almost anything - force, violence, murder, lying - is a justifiable means to the "millennial" end. This type of relativism was abhorrent to me. Constructive ends can never give absolute moral justification to destructive means, because in the final analysis the end is preexistent in the mean.
This was a conventional Christian critique of Communism, based on the idea that without the notion of God, there was no firm foundation for a moral order for humanity.

Third, I opposed communism’s political totalitarianism. In communism the individual ends up in subjection to the state. True, the Marxist would argue that the state is an "interim" reality which is to be eliminated when the classless society emerges; but the state is the end while it lasts, and man only a means to that end. And if any man's so-called rights or liberties stand in the way of that end, they are simply swept aside. His liberties of expression, his freedom to vote, his freedom to listen to what news he likes or to choose his books are all restricted. Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.
While this may also sound like a conventional criticism, it would have been made the hair on many a conservative anti-Communists head stand up. Because in his description, he is criticizing the restriction of individual freedom of conscience and the intellect - not the public ownership of the means of production which Marx advocated and the Soviets practiced. This doesn't mean that King advocated nationalization of all industry and banking, he didn't and never did. But here he states a priority that would set an Ayn Rand fan to sputtering and gagging, now as in 1958.

Not incidentally, this criticism of the restriction of personal freedoms and meaningful political expression in the former Communist countries is almost universally accepted today, at least in theory, even by the "postcommunist" left parties in Europe.

But he did have this to say about Marxism in relation to "social justice", something Glenn Beck explicitly denounces:

Yet, in spite of the fact that my response to communism was and is negative, and I considered it basically evil, there were points at which I found it challenging. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, referred to communism as a Christian heresy. By this he meant that communism had laid hold of certain truths which are essential parts of the Christian view of things, but that it had bound up with them concepts and practices which no Christian could ever accept or profess. Communism challenged the late Archbishop and it should challenge every Christian - as it challenged me - to a growing concern about social justice.

With all of its false assumptions and evil methods, communism grew as a protest against the hardships of the underprivileged. Communism in theory emphasized a classless society, and a concern for social justice, though the world knows from sad experience that in practice it created new classes and a new lexicon of injustice. The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus's words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor: he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."[my emphasis]
This was a statement of a Christian worldview that rejected what he understood at the basic Communist worldview. But it was also the statement of a man who wasn't going to be deterred from demanding just and necessary reforms by people labeling him a Communist.

And the following was obviously carefully worded. But it also indicated a willingness to entertain a radical criticism of capitalism as practiced in 1958, which in the United States was arguably a more sensibly regulated system than it is today:

In short, I read Marx as I read all of the influential historical thinkers-from a dialectical point of view, combining a partial “yes” and a partial “no.” In so far as Marx posited a metaphysical materialism, an ethical relativism, and a strangulating totalitarianism, I responded with an unambiguous “no”; but in so far as he pointed to weaknesses of traditional capitalism, contributed to the growth of a definite self-consciousness in the masses, and challenged the social conscience of the Christian churches, I responded with a definite “yes.”

My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each represents a partial truth. Historically capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal. The Kingdom of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both.
That thesis-synthesis-antithesis triad is a crummy way to try to conceive Hegel's or Marx's dialectics. But it was and still is a conventional and familiar way to do so, so his readers would have recognized the reference.

Finally, his view of Reinhold Niebuhr's theology is notable:

In spite of the fact that I found many things to be desired in Niebuhr’s philosophy, there were several points at which he constructively influenced my thinking. Niebuhr’s great contribution to contemporary theology is that he has refuted the false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism, without falling into the anti-rationalism of the continental theologian Karl Barth, or the semi-fundamentalism of other dialectical theologians. Moreover, Niebuhr has extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups. He is keenly aware of the complexity of human motives and of the relation between morality and power. His theology is a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man's existence. These elements in Niebuhr’s thinking helped me to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism. While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man's social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil. [my emphasis]
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