Friday, August 03, 2018

John Dewey on non-paternalistic, democratic self-liberation (individual and collective)

I just read, in Hilary Putnam’s Renewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992), this wonderfully incisive passage on non-paternalistic (i.e., democratic) liberation (my description)* by John Dewey, penned in his deceptively simple yet refreshing prose:

“The conception of community good may be clarified by reference to attempts of those in fixed positions of superiority to confer good upon others. History shows us that there have been benevolent despots who wish to bestow blessings on others. They have not succeeded, except when their actions have taken the indirect form of changing the conditions under which those live who are disadvantageously placed. The same principle holds of reformers and philanthropists when they try to do good to others in way which leave passive those to be benefited. There is a moral tragedy inherent in efforts to further the common good which prevent the result from being either good or common—not good, because it is at the expense of the active growth of those to be helped, and not common because these have no share in bringing the result about. The social welfare can be advanced only by means which elicit the positive interest and active energy of those to be benefited or ‘improved.’ The traditional notion of the great man, of the hero, works harm. It encourages the idea that some ‘leader’ is to show the way; others are to follow in imitation. It takes time to arouse minds from apathy and lethargy, to get them to thinking for themselves, to share in making plans, to take part in their execution. But without active cooperation both in forming aims and in carrying them out there is no possibility of a common good.” 

* Think, in their respectively unique ways and with their variegated yet often overlapping strategies and methods, of: M.K. Gandhi; B.R. Ambedkar; Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker Movement; the Black Panther Party; many principled anarchists and some communist individuals and groups; the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEBs) in South and Central America; the Highlander Folk School; SNCC; Anne Braden; the SDS’s Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP); the Dodge Revolutionary Movement; the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; Paulo Freire; George Padmore; Ella Baker; Steve Biko; the South African Congress of Trade Unions, those groups and organizations participation in the United Democratic Front (South Africa); La Raza Unida; the Brown Berets (numerous other individuals and groups might have been cited, the list being for illustrative purposes and limited to what quickly came to mind)….

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