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On Pragmatism and Democracy, Via A.J. Muste

August 9, 2017

Courtesy of Andrew Hartman, I’m reading Leilah Danielson’s American Gandhi. I’ll be contributing to a #USIH round table on the book in September. But I have a few preliminary observations:

1. I might be in love with the 1920s, Brookwood Labor College iteration of A.J. Muste. Or at least I’m in love with Danielson’s presentation of him in that period, and the college itself.

2. I’ve never seen a better description of what pragmatism looks like, on the ground, than the following, given by Muste via Danielson, circa 1923-24:

“Muste…’demonstrated an ability to learn on the job’ and to adapt his principles to fit the situation. Without a background in labor unions or industrial conflicts, he drew upon the pragmatic method and looked to experience and practice as guides to truth. As he explained of his approach to labor organizing, ‘there are no absolute roles, formulas…You have, on the one hand, a ‘social situation’; [and] on the other hand, an individual. But neither of these terms is set and static; they are fluid and dynamic.’ Ultimately the ‘rebel must submit himself to the test of results’ and ‘the test of group discussion…in spite of all the risks of compromise involved.’ Ideals ultimately must not be ‘petrified dogmas mechanically applied to living situations, but hypotheses fearlessly lived by so long as [no] better are in sight, but constantly made to meet (not evade) situations and thus enriched and corrected.’ ‘The moral life’ was indeed ‘an adventure!’ ” [Danielson, p. 70]

I don’t think it’s coincidental that this description looks a lot like the essence of democracy. – TL

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