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Great Books Socialism?

Intellectual Traditions Matter for Movement Building and Identity Formation

Late in 2016, Molly Worthen lauded the great books idea as an antidote to liberalism’s ills in the Age of Trump. In “Can I Go to Great Books Camp?” Worthen notes that studying the history of ideas is always connected to great books. One assumption of Worthen’s, which I endorse, is that intellectual traditions matter for movement building and identity formation. Studying those traditions makes liberalism, or the Left, more than a mere anti-Right movement. I read her piece enthusiastically and, initially, wanted to promote it. But I couldn’t. Indeed, after considerable reflection it irked me. Why?

Foremost, it fails as a viable blueprint for our times — it misdirects readers by buttressing the now anachronistic creed of midcentury liberalism. It promotes some of the less savory aspects of great books study, especially an associated elitism (or aesthetics thereof). I do, however, believe that so-called “Great Books” can be used for progressive ideological ends.[1] Critical thinking, intersectionality, and some level of objectivity are necessary. With that, ideological inflections must, always and everywhere, be made explicit to readers and participants in great books studies.

I want to argue for developing a great books socialism, or a great books socialist sensibility, that fits our present climate. We should learn how certain great books have created and nurtured socialist, capitalist, and liberal ideals. That endeavor will help attenuate the notion of socialism as a post-Great Recession reactionary novelty, or as some kind of foreign venture imposed on America. Socialists need to put the great books idea to work for aspirants of all ages. We cannot leave great books to be appropriated by capitalists, white supremacists, milquetoast liberals, and conservative “think tank” fellows.

Great Books and Socialism

While conducting research for my book, The Dream of Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, I found that the great books idea could be untethered from the conservative tradition. Adler — a philosopher and educator who dedicated much of his life’s energy to promoting ‘great books’ for all — was definitely no conservative. During the late 1960’s, he used classic and modern texts — especially Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Kant, Mill, and other canonical texts — to advocate for a kind of vital center liberalism. However, his full exposition of an ideal world society contained many positions that look, in our current climate, like weaker forms of socialism. It is of small importance whether Adler’s vision of a socialist community corresponds with what would be best in 2017 and beyond. What is relevant is how he arrived at his conclusions — thinking philosophically and historically about great books and the ideas they contained.

Against & With Worthen

If a great books socialism is possible, it must avoid some of the misguided notions embedded in Worthen’s piece. For instance, it is not useful, aesthetically, to picture a socialist “canon” across time as “an elite debating society that anyone can join.” The aesthetics of the term “canon” and phrases like “elite debating society” and “elite vanguard” bury one’s anyone-can-join sentiment, no matter how sincere. Anesthetic conveyance of elitism, however conflicted, won’t help the cause. Along similar lines, let’s avoid calls for personal uniformity as “a great equalizer.” Twentieth century Fascism traded in aesthetics of uniformity and exclusivity, and helped ruin the term “socialism”. There’s no need to associate great books with that history. A great books socialist sensibility will take pride in “civil disagreement.” Readers should feel free to “try on the ideas of civilization’s greatest minds” while trying on socialism.

In our current political and ideological moment, we should tweak Worthen’s paradox, stated as follows: “The anti-ideological election of 2016” proves “that ideology is now more important than ever.” Of course it was not an anti-ideological election. It was branded with the ideology of Trumpism: xenophobia, ableism, misogyny, protectionism, and American exceptionalism. It was also stamped with the ideology of liberalism in the form, ironically, of anti-liberal rhetoric. Ideology is no less important now than it ever was. Great books socialists should learn socialist ideology via its best books, in a mode of real reflection. That will make great books socialism something more than a desperate reaction to an ill-considered moment.

Race and ethnicity must be embraced in these efforts. A socialist sensibility of inclusivity must acknowledge that “the reek of dead white men” will put off many. That said, these texts, these “powerful tools,” can be used to undermine hierarchy, patriarchy, and white supremacy. This can be done while studying male intellectuals, philosophers, and thinkers of European and Western descent — such as Marx, Engels, Whitman, Leon Trotsky, John Reed, and others — alongside works by Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, Ida Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, and Franz Fanon. A great books socialism will mine this tradition to foster an inclusive, intersectional movement.

Per the anti-liberal rhetoric noted above, the ideology of liberalism, in its American and European forms, must also be explored. Weak and ill-considered liberalism is an enemy that can be understood through the study of great books. Worthen noted that liberalism’s progressive roots and friends were inspired by the highest ideals found in great books — “a faith in human equality and empathy; the rule of law; the scientific method.” Those commitments are evident in the greatest works from the Enlightenment.

Pitfalls and Aspirations

Let’s not look to conservative great books reading groups as exemplars for obtaining a great books socialist sensibility. We would need to know a lot more about how the construction of those conservative courses before lauding them as examples. Are they reading excerpts or whole works? If excerpts, then it’s easier to turn those courses into dishonest indoctrinations. An honest indoctrination demands reading whole texts, or at least very large chunks of relevant works, with healthy doses of context. Historians and historical context should be welcome, no matter how much they complicate the ideological ends sought by contemporary socialist reading groups.

Readers of great works should never conflate learning and respect for the history of ideas with learning great books. Those efforts can and may correspond, but in practice that is not always the case. Training in the history of ideas is not the same as “ideological training.” It’s not helpful to confuse learning about ideas with obtaining a praxis from ideology. In an ideological setting, one reads with a problem or end in mind. But in a general education context, you can read the same great books and authors, yet still come away with substantially different perspectives.

Let’s recognize, up front, that reading great books is not the best way to fight Trumpism. Trump appeals to emotional needs and desires. Reading and studying great books, however, still conveys important benefits to the socialist movement and its readers. Immersion in pertinent works will deepen one’s affinity for socialism. That study will provide respite from day-to-day practical, human irritations that accompany movement-building. But again, those books and reading groups will not apply directly in the day-to-day war against Trump’s Twitter disinformation campaign.

These reading groups, for the young and old, are necessary for the development of a great books socialism because higher education does little to nothing to help one further precise political views and commitments. Its credentialist imperative is not conducive to deep knowledge of political applications. Even if mass higher education were suddenly reformed to give a larger place to humanist ideals, it would still not be the proper place for left-leaning folks to create a new politics to combat Trump.

This means that an individual’s acquisition of a great books socialism will most likely occur outside college or university, separate from the broad-ranging imperatives of liberal education. Obtaining critical thinking skills and a liberal arts-inspired sense of complexity will not magically result in a liberal-left electorate. To achieve that end, socialists must create political reading groups for adults that properly explain socialist ideals and the appeal of attendant policies. Whatever the composition of their reading lists, these groups can be made to attract to young, college-aged adults, but shouldn’t necessarily be integrated in university life.

As for an aspirational endpoint of great books socialism, the development of a kritik of capitalism and its market-based political economy is paramount. The project should be aimed at achieving equality and social justice. To that end, after years of studying the great books idea, I have come to the conclusion that the great books are, in the words of Theodor Adorno, a kind of literary art that turns against itself. He wrote: “In the face of the abnormality into which reality is developing, art’s inescapable affirmative essence has become insufferable. Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber.”[2] Applying Adorno to the great books idea, a deep engagement in great works engenders the ability to properly criticize both the idea and whatever books it may contain. Great books socialism, furthermore, focuses this critical ability on capitalism.

What of the books and texts studied? Which are the best for socialists? We must be flexible. Invocations of “a” or “the” canon import a religiosity and sacredness into a valuation of the best books. This reverence evokes elitism and exclusivity. Discussion of great books should be for everyone. And that discussion should be somewhat irreverent. The books should not be sacralized, which often results in ossification.

I refuse to name the exact books that should be studied in developing a great books socialist sensibility. The point here, for now, is simply to show how an educational ideal that was historically purposed to shore up Western/American ideals can be honestly repurposed for more inclusive ideological ends.

Social History and Socialist-Friendly Efforts

The potential gains for socialism from a great books sensibility are important, if not immense. Contrary to the feelings of conservatives and neoliberals, the left is not intrinsically anarchic or reactionary. In the United States, the left has a long history of pursuing and trying to apply higher ideals enumerated in certain great books. Here again history is instructive.

Jason Martinek outlined the history of a socialist reading and print culture in a 2015 work on the Progressive Era. For socialists at the turn of the twentieth century, “reading was a radical act” conjuring an “oppositional culture.” A “socialist culture,” Martinek relays, “was a reading culture” using the printed word as “mental dynamite” for the existing order. A Chicago-based publisher, Charles H. Kerr, supplied the great books. Some of the authors published by Kerr are recognizable today, but others are familiar only to students of the history of socialism. Kerr’s list included Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Karl Marx, John Work, Henry George, John Spargo, Laurence Gronlund, Algie Simons, Eugene Debs, Gustave Myer, William Haywood, and Frank Bohn. Kerr also created a series, the Library of Socialist Classics, which included what would become famous and well-distributed translations of Marx’s work, including Capital, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, and other works. The Kerr edition of The Communist Manifesto (1902) resulted in over one million printings. It seems clear that America’s Debsian socialists were consumers and readers of great books. The “American swagger” of Marxism stood firmly on a foundation of great books.[3]

A look at left-leaning or progressive efforts in U.S. history hardly proves that great books socialism is, or should be, a viable entity in 2017. What it does show, however, is that inspiration for socialism, and for collaborating with sympathetic left-leaning liberals, comes from the pursuit of higher ideals. Justice and equality, and a proper critique of capitalism, are undergirded by the deep study of foundational works. Those works, properly contextualized and honestly used, might foster a deeper and lasting socialist identity.


[1] Michael Weinman, while no purist, makes an argument to this effect in his reply to Worthen’s piece for Public Seminar last December.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory/Asthetische Theorie, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: University of Minnesota/Continuum, 1970), 2.

[3] Jason D Martinek, Socialism and Print Culture in America, 1897–1920 (New York: Routledge, 2015), 1, 2, 3, 8, 33, 54, chapter 2 passim.

Tim Lacy

  • [This is a comment in reply to one left by Edward Frame, though that comment is not visible to me as I make this post. – TL]

    Edward: On your two points about critical thinking and using skills and knowledge in the public sphere, of course you are correct. That was the main point of my book. They believed that continuing education in the great books would have great personal and public benefits—and help counteract vocational, skills, and life adjustment tendencies in institutional education (K-16).

    On your three assumptions, I only disagree with number three—that liberalism was the *explicit* goal. I think it was an accidental goal, which is why many variations arose in the late twentieth century. These variations explain why Adler could be quite friendly with William F. Buckley, and appear on Firing Line 21 times, even while Adler was a Mondale supporter in 1984. I identify many great books strains in my book, more and less political, and more and less friendly to diversity.

    As for setting an ideological table, I tried ride the line, in the piece above, between acknowledging larger non-ideological ends for great books educational programs, while also acknowledging that great books exist in many settings and can be put to many uses. The great books idea is malleable. It can adapt to different places and times, even while still teaching acknowledged classics. There is no such thing as an untainted, pure great books program—-not in the past, not now, nor will there ever be in the future. My advocacy in the piece for a great books socialism was not meant to replace other programs, but rather to help direct socialists who respect both the great books idea and socialism at once. I want to help direct those people to an honest integration of the two.

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