Military history

Chapter 21

Bureaucrats, Democrats, and Elites

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.

—Carl Sandburg, Chicago

Any student of society, at least in Europe, during the last decades of the nineteenth century was unavoidably engaged with Marx as the most substantial as well as the most inflammatory figure in the field. However doubtful one may have been of his conclusions, let alone the revolutionary agitation undertaken in his name, the strength and range of his analysis commanded attention. Sociology developed as a discipline in response to Marx. One of its founders, Emile Durkheim, planned a study of Marx, although it was never undertaken. His motives were both intellectual and political. He had begun to study pre-Marxian socialism, according to his colleague Marcel Mauss, “from a purely scientific point of view, as a fact which the scholar should look upon coldly, without prejudice, and without taking sides.”1

While rebutting Marx, sociology also served as a source of the “general form of social consciousness of the bourgeois intelligentsia” and the “reformulation of liberal ideology.”2 Liberalism lacked a dominant doctrinal source and contained many different strands. There was nonetheless a clear political project which was to find a way to avoid divisive class wars, which meant providing a credible basis for a program of reform to be implemented by an enlightened state. To those, particularly in the United States, who despaired of unconstrained capitalists or corrupt and manipulative party bosses as a source of wise policy, scientific research offered the possibility of real progress.

In Marx’s schema, questions of power and interest were central. A more positivist science suggested something apolitical, disinterested, and dispassionate—as if investigating natural phenomena. When so much was at stake politically, could they really follow the evidence wherever it took them and be indifferent to the implications for the powerful and those who challenged them? In practice, mainstream social science was not politically innocent. Some supported conservative arguments by demonstrating the resilience of established social structures and, in the face of democratic optimism, the persistence of hierarchy. On the whole, however, the practitioners placed themselves on the side of progressive forces, representing the assertion of reason in human affairs, challenging myth and superstition. A Marxist had no trouble recognizing in such claims the ideology of a ruling group, professing a truth that happened to suit the interests of the bourgeoisie. The test of this ideology was whether it could provide a compelling account of economic and social change, and in the process, a guide to purposive action.

Max Weber

Max Weber exemplified both the problems and potential of social science. Born in 1864, he was the son of a minor liberal politician with whom he had a distant relationship. Weber’s reputation and influence grew after his death from pneumonia in 1920, not least because (like Clausewitz) his devoted widow ensured that his writings were properly organized for posthumous publication. Her biography, published after the Second World War, presented him as moderate liberal, representing the best of Germany that had been suppressed by the Nazis. His views (along with his personal life) are now acknowledged to have been much more complex, certainly liberal (always evident in his readiness to speak up for the right of individuals to voice their opinions) but also imperialist and committed to a strong German state.3

He would not naturally appear on a list of strategic theorists, yet his influence was considerable. First, he sought to make the case for a value-free social science. Second, in his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he offered an alternative to Marx, demonstrating the role of cultural factors in the development of capitalism. Third, he described the spread of the rationalism of science into all aspects of life, turning him into an unenthusiastic prophet of bureaucratization. Fourth, he offered a view of politics that accepted it as part of a constant drama. Lastly, from this came a way of describing strategic choices that demanded attention to consequences as much as a yearning for an ideal.

The Protestant Ethic was notable for its concluding note of despair at the progressive “rationalism of western culture,” with its celebration of routines, the calculable, predictable and instrumental, so that nature was subordinate to science and society to bureaucracy. The progressive complexity of organization, the specialism of knowledge, and the need for professional staffs all ensured bureaucracy’s ascent. His conclusion warned of a coming “iron cage” in which a rational civil service administration, whose true value was only technical, would be viewed as the “ultimate and single value in reference to which the organization of all affairs ought to be decided.” Those who lived in this cage would be “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” Bureaucracy was soulless and insensitive, staffed by pliant men with a narrow vision, competent but lacking in creativity, without any sense of a deeper purpose.

Bureaucracy played the same sort of role in Weber’s worldview as capitalism did in Marx’s. He understood its growing strength and irresistibility, for in his own work he sought to be a professional and competent technician, but he was unable to cheer. And while Marx had confidence that history would overturn capitalism, Weber held no such hope with regard to bureaucracy. Science had encouraged disenchantment in the loss of an unquestioning religious belief but could not offer a new enchantment. Weber valued freedom and openness and could not object in principle to legal codes, sound administration, and responsible officials. Life might be drained of a deeper meaning and stuck with the mundane, but at least the system worked. Bureaucracy was “formally the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability.”4 Likewise, politics was a permanent condition, unavoidable yet vexing, for nothing of permanence could result, whether peace, justice, or redemption. The sphere of politics was one of power and constant struggle. Power was about the ability to impose one’s will in the face of resistance, which pointed to matters governed by force or the potential use of force. Politics was therefore bound up with the state. Politicians had to persuade others to follow, but this could no longer be done on the basis of custom and religion, and the bureaucratic method could not in itself be a source of values. This created the challenge of legitimacy, a test Weber posed in terms of acceptability rather than inherent worth.5 The nature of political belief was a central puzzle for Weber, although one he tended to address in terms of types of belief rather than their substantive content.

During and just after the Great War, Weber delivered two lectures in Munich at the invitation of the Free Student Youth. The first, in November 1917, considered “Science as a Vocation,” and the second, in January 1919, “Politics as a Vocation.” Both are now considered landmark events in the history of social science. Weber had personally followed each vocation (or calling), but science most successfully. Part of his challenge was to work out what one could do for the other. The objectivity of science and the partisanship of politics had to be kept separate. The professor, he insisted, should not demand the right “to carry the marshal’s baton of the statesman or reformer in his knapsack.” This had an important consequence: once values were excluded, social science could not generate a political theory on its own. Though his own views were strongly held, Weber avoiding claiming that they were founded on science.6 By the end of the war, the strain of holding strong views while resisting the temptation to insist that they were scientifically based was evident. One of the audience at the 1919 lecture has described how “this gaunt, bearded man looked now like a prophet tormented by visions of disaster, now like a medieval warrior before leaving for battle.”7

For different reasons he did not make either the scientific or political vocations particularly appealing. Social science came over as especially for- bidding,8 combining a highly disciplined work ethic with ascetic self-denial. As Weber stressed practical difficulties and the need for specialist expertise, he adopted conceptual formulations that were not always accessible. While the importance of science as a vocation came to be seen in Weber’s emphasis on the fact/value distinction, he went beyond discussing the limits of scientific knowledge as a source of political values to how it might “be employed to clarify the existence of facts and value in the world, and to aid thereby the selection of the means through which values should be pursued.”5 In this way science could serve strategy, by identifying the means necessary to achieve goals. Then it might be discovered that when faced with the appropriate means they are “such that you believe you must reject them. Then you simply must choose between the end and the inevitable means. Does the end ‘justify’ the means? Or does it not?” Science could not be a source of strategy because ends had to be identified by means of values which were outside its purview, but it could be of great strategic value by explaining why certain means might work or why certain ends were out of reach. The choice could be between “the lesser evil or of the relatively best.” The interaction between science and values, effectively between means and ends, pointed not to their essential harmony but to constant tension. In “numerous instances,” Weber observed, “the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even probability of evil ramifications.”10 These dilemmas may now seem commonplace, but none before and few since have expressed them with such clarity, such an underlying conviction that no political system could ever resolve them definitively.

This theme was picked up in the second lecture. The context was even darker. Now the war was over, but Germany was still reeling from the surrender to Allied armies of the previous November and subsequent revolutionary and counterrevolutionary activity. While there was no doubt about his personal vocation as a scientist, at this his period of most active engagement, he displayed no special aptitude for politics. During the war he had worried about over-ambitious and aggressive war aims and was unhappy that his country was fighting the United States. When the war historian Hans Delbruck organized a petition, to counter one organized by more extreme academic nationalists, Weber signed up. In 1918, he returned to Germany from Vienna, where he had a visiting professorship, and seemed ready to take on a leading political role. It did not happen. He was involved in the committee on the new constitution and played some part in the formation of the new centrist German Democratic Party, but he was given no senior role in its leadership. A biographer observed that his political understanding was not always the best and “his tiresome tendency to get bogged down in unnecessary and unproductive controversies is not exactly evidence of a born politi- cian.”11 As an active campaigner for the party, his tendency to lambast Left and Right alike in his speeches did not make him a natural coalition maker just when a coalition was needed. After it became apparent in 1920 that he was not going to be a major player, he withdrew from the party leadership, observing: “The politician should and must make compromises. But I am a scholar by profession . . . The scholar does not need to make compromises or to cover folly.”12 The political vocation was not for him.

Sentimentally he remained attached to the notion of a strong German state, was hostile to pacifism, and was angered by the sudden surge of revolutionary activity despite the involvement of a number of his friends.13 He feared the demilitarization of the country, which would leave it powerless, and was annoyed at the disorder fomented by the revolutionaries. When he spoke in Munich, it was not long after the murder of the Spartacist leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht, an action that he deplored though he had also recently expressed his irritation with the two theorists (“Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoo”). He had only agreed to give the lecture because he feared that if he did not the lectern would be taken instead by Karl Eisner, the radical head of what Weber considered to be an incompetent Bavarian government.

This was a time when the dilemmas of political life were thrown into sharp relief. Defeat in war and convulsive revolutions illuminated how imperfect could be the fit between ends and means. It led Weber to present an analysis that went to the heart of the tensions in strategic thinking, insisting on the pointlessness of lofty goals if there was no means of achieving them. He continued to stress the need to analyze means by reference to their consequences.

Weber opened his lecture with his customary refusal “to take a position on actual problems of the day.” This was followed with compelling definitions of politics and the state. Politics was about “the leadership, or the influencing of the leadership, of a political association, hence today, of a state.” As the state could not be defined by its ends, for there were many possibilities, it had to be defined by its means, “namely, the use of physical force.” By this he was not saying that force was the normal or only means available to the state, just that it was specific to the state. The state was therefore defined as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Only the state could legitimize violence. Once that monopoly was threatened (as it was both externally and internally at that time), then the state was in trouble.

The state’s authority would come from one of three sources: tradition, bureaucracy, or charisma. As tradition was no longer available and bureaucracy was too narrow, Weber looked to charisma, by which he meant a certain quality of political leadership, the ability to gain authority through sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character. Charisma was a political quality defining a leader’s separate role from a civil servant. The politician must be prepared to “take a stand, to be passionate,” while the civil servant must “execute conscientiously the order of the superior authorities, exactly as if the order agreed with his own conviction.” The issue was how would power best be exercised: “What kind of a man must one be if he is to be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history?”

The choice was between an ethic based on convictions (ultimate ends) and one based on responsibility, between acting according to underlying principle—even if this was detrimental to the cause—and acting according to the likely outcome. The lecture challenged those who refused to compromise on principle, the “intellectuals in this carnival we decorate with the proud name of ‘revolution,’” for their empty romanticism, “devoid of all feeling of objective responsibility.” Refusing to think about outcomes gave evil its opportunities. He scorned the revolutionaries whose actions favored the forces of reaction and oppression yet blamed others. Pure motives were not enough if they led to bad consequences.

Those who at that time in Germany sought “to establish absolute justice on earth by force,” a number of whom were presumably in his student audience, should think about what this would mean. Could they be sure that their followers shared the same agenda? Might not this really be about the emotions of hatred, revenge, resentment, “and the need for pseudo-ethical self-righteousness,” or else about a desire for “adventure, victory, booty, power, and spoils”? Could such followers be kept sufficiently rewarded and motivated? Would doing so contradict the original motives and objectives of the leaders? Would not this “emotional revolutionism,” therefore, eventually give way—probably quite soon—to “the traditionalist routine of everyday life”? If the revolutionaries really thought the problem was the stupidity and baseness of the world, how did they think they were going to eradicate it? He challenged the pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount. The politician, he insisted, must take the opposite view, for without resistance he was “responsible for the evil winning out.”

So Weber was speaking up for an ethic of responsibility, which recognized from the start the deficiencies of others and evaluated actions in terms of likely consequences. Yet he also worried about a politics focused purely on immediate effects without an underlying cause to give it meaning. His ideal was one in which the ethic of ultimate ends and responsibility come together in “a genuine man—a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’ ” Here he was looking for the charismatic figure, a hero as well as a leader, who would not “crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.” He was not optimistic: “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.” He urged a politics based on “both passion and perspective,” for “man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”14

Weber’s distrust of actions based on purity of motive rather than assessment of consequences reflected confidence in the ability to assess consequences and the role of scientific research in facilitating such assessments. Social action might always remain something of a gamble, but the odds could be shortened by formulating a reasonable hypothesis on what might be expected from alternative courses of action. Without this confidence, how was one proposed course of action to be assessed against another?


If Weber had one figure in mind as representative of the ethic of ultimate ends it was Count Leo Tolstoy. The author was addressing all the issues connected with science, bureaucracy, and modernism that bothered him, but from a completely different perspective. At one point, Weber even thought about writing a book on Tolstoy as the great idealist of his time. Tolstoy, Weber allowed, was at least consistent, if “nothing else,” in opposing both war and revolution, but that left him irreconcilable not only with war but with the world and the benefits of culture.15 The preoccupation with Tolstoy was evident when Weber took aim at Tolstoy’s antirationalist and antiscientific views in “Science as a Vocation.” In “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber picked on Tolstoy’s favorite text, the Sermon on the Mount, when mocking the ethic of love which said “Resist not him that is evil with force.”

This was Tolstoy’s creed. Through a series of spiritual crises he had come to reject the pomp and privilege of the Orthodox Church and devise his own unique form of Christianity. The Sermon on the Mount and the principle of turning the other cheek was at its core. This led to a set of rules revolving around living in peace, not hating, not resisting evil, renouncing violence in all circumstances, and avoiding lust and swearing. If only these rules could be embraced universally, there would be no more wars nor armies, nor indeed police and courts. He challenged established ecclesiastical and secular power but was also against violent revolution as immoral and futile. He rejected the urban for the rural, and the generation of wealth for communion with nature.

We have already met Tolstoy in his role as an antistrategist. The wellsprings are the same. He was deeply skeptical about the ease with which deliberate causes could be linked with specific effects and therefore disdained those who claimed this as their expertise. He despised most of all, noted Berlin, “experts, professionals, men who claim special authority over other men.” In War and Peace, he had mocked the presumption of those who claimed that a great general’s act of will, expressed through orders delivered down the chain of command, could affect the actions of large numbers of men and so turn history. Generals and revolutionary intellectuals could claim to be following a scientific strategy, but they were deluded because they had become separated from and did not understand the ordinary people upon whom their schemes depended. Change, for better or worse, was the result of countless decisions of individuals caught up in events. Unfortunately, ordinary people were ignorant and uneducated, connected perhaps through their common feelings and values but unable to make sufficient sense of their plight or come together to create a new world.

Tolstoy might be of the Enlightenment when it came to his search for truth and an intense, gnawing belief that with a determined enough search it could be found, but he was also of the counter-Enlightenment in so many key respects, horrified by modernization and an exaggerated confidence in science, by efforts at political reform that lost sight of what he saw to be the fundamentals of the good life. He could not be “fitted into the public movements of his own, or indeed any other, age. The only company to which he belongs is the subversive one of questioners to whom no answer has been, nor is likely to be given.”16 Gallie observed, with understatement, that organized action was not Tolstoy’s “forte” and that he was “distressingly weak on the practical side.”17 Even his own family was far from convinced about his new way of life.18 What he offered, and in his case this was not trivial, was the power of example and many books and articles.

His uncompromising pacifism, challenge to tsarism, and exposés of the sufferings of the poor meant that his core messages were received loud and clear, and his effectiveness as a propagandist for his own views was enhanced by not only the way he lived but his literary gifts. His polemics included vivid descriptions of the struggles for existence in the city slums, the routine cruelties of army life, and the aristocracy’s capacity for self-deception. His analyses of the iniquities of militarism and myopic patriotism were laced with sardonic wit and at times prophetic insight. He described the war fever of the future, as priests “pray on behalf of murder” and newspaper editors “set to work to arouse hatred and murder,” and described how thousands of “simple, kindly folk” will be “torn from peaceful toil” and trudge off to war, until these poor souls “without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had done nor could do them any wrong.”19 In this respect, war for Tolstoy was an extreme version of a much more general malaise, of unnatural divisions within humanity, which it both reflected and aggravated. And to explain how men could allow this to happen to them he deployed his own version of false consciousness—men had been “hypnotized” not only by their governments but, most tragically of all, by each other. Only by exposing the myth of patriotism could the spell be broken. At the heart of his antistrategic vision was the belief that divisions within human society were unnatural, and so if they were healed there would be no need for struggle and conflict.

In 1882, Tolstoy participated in the census of Moscow. He wrote an article that year, asking the “What Is to Be Done?” question that Russians often seemed to ask themselves at this time.20 Moscow had experienced a period of fast growth, swelled by immigration from the countryside, with all the associated problems of overcrowding, poverty, crime, disease, and exploitation. The census, he explained, was a “sociological investigation.” He added that, uniquely for a science, sociology’s object was the “happiness of the people.”21 Unfortunately, despite this objective, whatever “laws” might be elucidated by gathering information, and whatever long-term benefits came through following these laws, little would happen of immediate benefit to the poor people whose lives were being reported. A compelling description of a wretched state of affairs could be an essential first step to action: “All the wounds of society, the wounds of poverty, of vice, of ignorance—all will be laid bare.” But it was not enough. When encountering someone hungry and in rags, insisted Tolstoy, it was “more moment to succor him than to make all possible investigations.” Instead of scientific detachment and a hurried moving on from one sad case to another, he urged forming relations with the poor and needy.

The true aim should be to break down “the barriers which men have erected between themselves.”22 This meant rejecting charity, which did no more than assuage the guilty consciences of the elite while reinforcing divisions. All should work together to heal the wounds of society. His call was to community and fraternity, which required like-minded people to reach out to the poor and oppressed. The benefits would be both material and spiritual. The alternative he warned was class warfare: “It need not be thus, and it should not, for this is contrary to our reason and our heart, and it cannot be if we are living people.”

Unfortunately, as he soon discovered, where he led few followed. Furthermore, as he explored the under-life of the city, the more he concluded that have-nots were as corrupted by city life as the haves. The issue was not just the scale of the problem but the sort of society Moscow had become. He still could find some nobility among the poor, but when it came to drinkers and prostitutes he could make as much sense of them as they could of him. This was an alien culture, resistant to his overtures, surviving in ways that he found disagreeable. The more he explored city life the more his previous hopes appeared naive. Eventually one night he stopped researching. He felt foolish and impracticable, like a physician who has uncovered the sore of a sick man but must recognize that “his remedy is good for nothing.” He stopped taking notes. “I asked no questions, knowing that nothing would come of this.”23 The answer to “What Is to Be Done?” appeared to be “Nothing.”

While he still blamed the excesses of his class for social divisions, he now saw urban life as the problem. Cities were venal and corrupt places, beyond reform. The cause went even deeper—the fault lay in the whole path humankind had taken in pursuit of economic development. Money had been allowed to get in the way of proper human relations. They could only be restored on the land where money could be irrelevant and people need not be alienated from each other and the beauty of nature. He set an example, returning to his estate in Yasnaya Polyana where he sought to create his own rural utopia, with but one garment, no money, and fulfillment through manual labor. With this complete retreat from modernity, Tolstoy insisted that he was living the only life that could be true to his faith. His stance was passive and uncooperative, but there was no direct action, for that would have involved both a degree of organization and a presumption of human agency.

“ The Anarchists are right in everything,” he wrote in 1890, “in the negation of the existing order, and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions.” Their one mistake, he continued, was to think that this could come about through a revolution. It would only come about by there being “more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power . . . There can be only one permanent revolution—a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man.”24

Jane Addams

I n May 1896, Tolstoy received a visitor at Yasnaya Polyana: Miss Jane Addams of Chicago. The daughter of a wealthy Illinois farmer, Addams was then in her mid-30s, and on her way to becoming one of the most admired and influential women in America. Her fame rested on the Hull House Settlement, founded in Chicago in 1889. This was modeled on the Toynbee Settlement in the East End of London, which she had visited a few years earlier. The underlying concept was that the educated and privileged should settle among the poor and deprived to the benefit of both. At Hull House, which at its peak was composed of thirteen buildings, could be found shelter, facilities for bathing, and a playground. In addition to opportunities to learn about and enjoy the so-called high culture of art, literature, and music, there were guest speakers and opportunities for debate, research, and campaigning.

Addams had read many of Tolstoy’s books. She described What to Do?, published in the United States in 1887, as the source of her view that “only he who literally shares his own shelter and food with the poor, can claim to have served them.”25 The influence was evident, to the point of the great man being depicted in a mural in the Hull House dining room. As a strong pacifist and Christian with doubts about organized religion, she also explicitly embraced Tolstoy’s commitment not to resist evil. She declared herself “philosophically convinced of the futility of opposition, who believe that evil can only be overcome with good and cannot be opposed.” Poverty, disease, and exploitation were a challenge for society as a whole and must be resolved through forms of reconciliation before they led to conflicts that could tear society apart. She described the Gospel as “an outward symbol of fellowship, some bond of peace, some blessed spot where the unity of the spirit might claim right of way over all differences.”26

Nonetheless, her encounter with Tolstoy was disappointing. He paid little attention to her description of Hull House while “glancing distrustfully at the sleeves of my travelling gown.” The amount of cloth this involved, he declared, was sufficient to clothe many young girls. Was this not a “barrier to the people”? And, when discovering that she had a farm in Illinois, was she not an “absentee landlord”? He suggested she would do more use “tilling her own soil” than by adding to the crowded city. The charges were unjust, but bothered her sufficiently to determine to spend two hours each day at the bakery on her return to Chicago. She tried but failed. This was not the best use of her time.27 This small incident revealed why she could not be a true follower of Tolstoy.

Tolstoy found the division of labor a crime against nature; Addams accepted that it was unavoidable. Her whole project was about getting people to accept the logic of inter-dependence. Whereas Tolstoy gave up on the city because it forced divisions among humanity, Addams believed that the city could and must be made to work for all its inhabitants. The fundamental point of principle Addams, and other progressives, shared with Tolstoy was a belief that social divisions were unnatural and could and must be transcended. But whereas Tolstoy believed in a world in which men, the land, and the spirit joined in unity, Addams sought to create a world without struggle in one of the least likely cities of the world, Chicago.

Chicago was then the world’s fifth largest—after London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. It had taken shape far more recently than the others. The combined effects of the railroads, the city’s position as the commercial and business center of the Midwest, and massive immigration had resulted in the population doubling from five hundred thousand in 1880 to over a million in 1890, and to double again to well over two million by 1910. Some 60 percent of the population had been born abroad, and all but 20 percent were of recent immigrant stock. Germans, Poles, Russians, Italians, and Irish all formed distinctive and self-conscious communities, often in uneasy relationships with each other. After a great fire in 1871 destroyed the old wooden buildings, the city was largely rebuilt in stone and steel.28 Chicago invented the skyscraper. Money went into the arts, parks, and a brand new university, paid for by John D. Rockefeller. Life in the city was tough and conditions were dire. The “first in violence,” wrote radical journalist Lincoln Steffens in 1904, “deepest in dirt; loud, lawless, unlovely, ill-smelling, new; an overgrown gawk of a village, the teeming tough among cities. Criminally it was wide open; commercially it was brazen; and socially it was thoughtless and raw.”29 For his novel The Jungle, Upton Sinclair went undercover in the stockyards to expose the awful circumstances of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry.

Max Weber visited Chicago in the fall of 1904 en route to a major scientific congress in St. Louis. He described it, in a striking metaphor, as being “like a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work.”30 He toured the stockyards, watching the automated process whereby an “unsuspecting bovine” entered the slaughtering area, was hit by a hammer and collapsed, gripped by an iron clamp, hoisted up and started on a journey which saw workers “eviscerate and skin it.” It was possible, he observed, to “follow a pig from the sty to the sausage and the can.” At the time of his visit the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workman’s Union were smarting after a defeat in a strike aimed at getting the stockyards unionized. Weber, apparently with a degree of exaggeration, described the aftermath: “Masses of Italians and Negroes as strike-breakers; daily shootings with dozens of dead on both sides; a streetcar was overturned and a dozen women were squashed because a non-union man had sat in it; dynamite threats against the Elevated Railway, and one of its cars was actually derailed and plunged into the river.”31 He also visited the Hull House Settlement, about which his wife Marianne wrote in glowing terms: “It includes a day nursery, accommodations for 30 women workers, a sports facility for young people, a large concert hall with a stage, an instructional kitchen, a kindergarten, rooms for all kinds of instruction in needlework and manual tasks, etc. During the winter 15,000 people of both sexes come here to receive instruction, inspiration, counsel, and enjoy themselves.”32

Addams had inserted herself and Hull House into a maelstrom of urban divisions, a result of the persistent issue of race and the treatment of blacks, agrarian decline and urban rise, inter-ethnic tensions, and constant clashes between capital and labor. She attached herself to Progressivism, the major liberal project in the United States at the time. The Progressives saw the social problems of the time as the core challenge for government and feared that without urgent action they would lead to fractures that would be impossible to heal. Government must be a unifying force, above sectional interests, on behalf of society as a whole. In this Addams was a democratic optimist, convinced of the capacity of ordinary people to play constructive roles in civic affairs, with their own ideas on how to bring order and decency into their lives. She contrasted this to what she considered the naïve view, attributed to the English Fabians, “that somewhere in Church or State are a body of authoritative people who will put things to rights as soon as they really know what is wrong.”33 By making great art and big ideas available to ordinary people, she believed that they would be better able to develop themselves and make informed choices in their lives.

As a formidable social and political critic, she castigated the failure of the city government to clean the streets, educate the children, and regulate the workplace. She was a feminist, believed in racial equality, and backed labor unions. Yet her deepest conviction was that no conflict need be pursued to the point of violence and that ways could be found to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable. While she associated with socialists, she rejected economic determinism, class consciousness, and all preparations for a violent confrontation. While supporting unions, she wished they would make more of an effort to reach out to those they saw as their enemies. Hull House, she insisted, was “soberly opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal.”34 She understood why people were driven to extreme ends, but could not approve. She was at the same time appalled by a city apparently out of control, failing to ensure a decent way of life for its inhabitants, and desperate for an alternative to class warfare as a source of change. Somehow she wanted to get all the sections of the community, capitalist and worker, conservative and agitator, meeting under one roof. Then they would see through their differences to let the bemused immigrant, coping daily with the unscrupulous and exploitative, meet a “better type of American.”35

Her philosophy was set out in an essay prompted by a bitter dispute in Chicago involving the Pullman Company. The origins of this dispute did not lie simply in crude business practices but Pullman’s paternalism in providing their workers with their own township. A recession led to cuts in workers’ wages but not the rents for their homes. The workers’ reaction was intense, leading to a dispute that lasted for months, considerable violence (thirteen deaths), and martial law. In her essay, Addams likened the conflict to that between King Lear and his daughter Cordelia, a conflict that both lost because of their failure to appreciate the other’s position.36 “We are all practically agreed that the social passion of the age is directed toward the emancipation of the wage-worker,” she wrote:

But just as Cordelia failed to include her father in the scope of her salvation and selfishly took it for herself alone, so workingmen in the dawn of the vision are inclined to claim it for themselves, putting out of their thoughts the old relationships; and just as surely as Cordelia’s conscience developed in the new life and later drove her back to her father, where she perished, drawn into the cruelty and wrath which had now become objective and tragic, so the emancipation of working people will have to be inclusive of the employer from the first or it will encounter many failures, cruelties and reactions.37

Addams recognized the existence of conflicts, acknowledged that they were not wholly artificial, and accepted that groups might frustrate and irritate each other. But she also believed that it must be possible to prevent these conflicts from descending into violence. The problem, as Elshtain observed, was that she was committed to a “best-case scenario of the cosmopolitan future,” which played down the pugnacity of the various ethnic groups. Her own ability to navigate the complex ethnic politics of Chicago and identify shared interests turned this into her core mission. She saw sufficient examples of people putting aside their prejudices and traditional antagonisms as a result of the exigencies of the daily struggle for survival to make her optimistic about what could be achieved with any conflict, including one between states. Given the chance to express itself, the inherent goodness of people could overcome difference and even render war irrelevant. Presenting herself as “spokesperson for all peace loving women of the world,” she risked her popularity by opposing the U.S. entry into war in 1917. After the war, she devoted her energies to promoting peace, to the point of winning the Nobel Prize in 1931. She assumed that “the reconciliations resulting from the imperatives of city life could be replicated at an international level” and was convinced that “any concern for defense and security was tantamount to accepting militarism and authoritarianism.”38

John Dewey

Addams shared Tolstoy’s wariness about detached academic research that did little for the subjects. Nonetheless, largely at the instigation of Florence Kelley, who had a doctorate from Zurich and past dealings with Engels, Hull House was the center of a series of studies of the neighborhood, providing a compelling description of urban life at the turn of the century. It reflected progressive optimism that if the facts could be made known about social conditions, then measures might be taken to address them.39

At the University of Chicago, the idea that social research and action should go together was taken as almost a given. Albion Small was the founding head of the university’s sociology department, the first in the United States, and until the start of the Second World War, the discipline’s American “capital.”40 Small was an ordained minister who saw little incompatibility between his Christianity and social inquiry, and promoted sociology as charting a way forward between the forces of reaction and revolution. It was a tool for democratic change: “Conventionality is the thesis, Socialism the antithesis, Sociology is the synthesis.”41 In an article tellingly entitled “Scholarship and Social Agitation,” he provided a robust defense of the progressive creed. American scholars, he wrote, should “advance from knowledge of facts to knowledge of forces, and from knowledge of forces to control of forces in the interest of more complete social and personal life.” He lacked either sympathy with or confidence in any conception of sociology, “which is satisfied with abstractions, or which does not keep well in mind the relation of all research to the living interests of living men.” For these purposes, Chicago provided an exceptional base. It was a “vast sociological laboratory.”42

This experimental aspect excited John Dewey, who joined the University of Chicago in 1894 with an established reputation in psychology and philosophy. By the time he arrived he was moving into more radical political and intellectual positions, encouraged by his wife Alice. The university itself was not a comfortable place for radicals. Men had been fired for giving too vocal support for labor. But Dewey also saw Chicago as “filled with problems holding out their hands and asking somebody to please solve them.” He found his outlet at Hull House, where he became a friend of Addams and lectured regularly. His arrival coincided with the Pullman strike. Although at first all his sympathies had been with the unions, Addams persuaded him of the need to promote reconciliation rather than struggle. This view was reinforced by the costs of the union’s failure. His distinctive brand of liberalism reflected an interest in the health of the social organism, which could be damaged by unnecessary divisions, rather than in the more classical liberal concerns with individual rights. But he also felt a firm conviction that this could be achieved through democracy, which he later claimed to be the one constant in his long life.43 He shared this particular form of democratic optimism with Addams. It was reflected in an educational philosophy focused on creating conditions in which all could realize their potential by learning how to think about the self as part of society, which in turn would encourage compromise and accommodation. His view was that all those affected by institutions, from schools to the workplace, should have a role in their decision-making. He advocated participatory democracy, a source of both better government and an improving and civilizing experience. Unlike Addams, he was not a pacifist and did support America’s entry into the First World War, although he took an ardent antiwar stance thereafter.44

What he sought from philosophy was not a “device for dealing with the problems of philosophers” but instead “a method, cultivated, by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”45 It was to offer a challenge to conservatism and an alternative to revolution. The radicals and conservatives needed to be brought together. The radicals would provide the “future vision and the stimulus to act,” but “without the wisdom of past experience,” they would be “wanton and disorganized,” following only “the random and confused excitation of the hour.”

This created a special role for the social reformer. As “psychologist, social worker, and educator,” this person had to “interpret opposing sides to each other, simultaneously reconciling social antagonists and completing the incomplete personalities of individuals involved.”46 A view of society as an organic whole challenged laissez-faire economics based on assumptions of autonomous individuals. Lazy Darwinian talk about the survival of the fittest, which taken too literally was a recipe for violence, had to be replaced by the imperatives of social solidarity. If there was an evolutionary process at work it was the gradual acceptance that the rational way forward would be based on cooperation and reciprocity rather than individual gain.47 This was a philosophy for the non-strategist, whose aim was to overcome conflicts rather than conduct them effectively. Yet he also adopted pragmatism, which as a philosophy has come to be associated with strategy.

The origins of the word pragmatism lie in the Latin pragmaticus, linked in Roman times to being active and businesslike. For a while it had a negative connotation as excessive activity, in the sense of meddling or interfering. By the nineteenth century, however, pragmatism had become more positive. It referred to treating facts or events systematically and practically, being realistic and factual, aiming at what was achievable rather than what was ideal. Its origins as a philosophical construct go back to the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. As an example of a situation in which it was necessary to act in the face of uncertainty, Kant used a doctor treating a patient and making a diagnosis on the basis of observed symptoms. As he could not be sure that this was the right treatment, his belief was contingent.

Another physician might come to a different and better conclusion. “Such contingent belief, which yet forms the ground for the actual employment of means to certain actions, I entitle pragmatic belief.” This describes exactly the sort of belief required for strategy, one acknowledged to be no more than a best guess in the face of uncertainty, but sufficient to permit action.

Charles Pierce took the view that Kant was not describing a particular type of belief but all belief, for all was contingent. All actions were bets because all depended on a degree of guesswork. A belief that worked was a winning bet. The psychologist and philosopher, William James, who died aged 68 in 1910, is widely considered to be the true father of pragmatism. He took Pierce’s insight and developed it further. He defined the pragmatic method as “the attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking toward last things, fruits, consequences, fact.”48 For James, ideas did not start true but became true as a result of events. An idea’s “verity is in fact an event, a process; the process namely of its verifying itself.” What were described as beliefs were not about truth but about preparations for action. “Beliefs, in short, are really rules for action; and the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action.”49 On this basis, the test was not how much a belief described reality but whether it was effectively prescriptive. As with banknotes, which had value so long as they were accepted as currency, so with ideas. They were true so long as this was acknowledged by others. This could stand as a shrewd observation about the fate of ideas in the public arena, though it had awkward implications for the reliability of claims about truth.

Pragmatism could be a prescription of how to think, a form of reasoning that encouraged a proper evaluation of the outcomes of actions, to be commended to strategists and contrasted with modes of thought that were crude and insensitive. Or it could be a description of how everybody thought, with the understanding that some were more effective thinkers than others. As a response to a growing awareness of the conditionality of knowledge, beliefs became working hypotheses and events experiments. Just as physical scientists could only confirm their hypotheses through experiment, so all social action was an attempt to validate through experiment a hypothesis about consequences.

It was on this basis that Dewey retained a commitment to the idea of a progressive, experimental science. This was captured in his preference for the term “instrumentalism” rather than “pragmatism,” though this did not catch on.50 Pragmatism worked for him as a means of making sense of the origins of beliefs and how they developed through experience. Unlike Weber, he did not consider facts to exist separately from values. The viewer’s perspective was bound to shape how he saw the world. The worldview changed not because of shifting values but because of different forms of engagement. Dewey was sufficiently confident in the working hypothesis that thinking and acting were part of the same process to not only develop an educational theory on this basis but also apply it in what became known, tellingly, as the Laboratory School in Chicago.

Thoughts were therefore not so much revelations of reality as means of adapting to reality. Truth was what worked in practice. Views of reality were always partial and incomplete, our own constructions rather than objective representations. As critics observed, this line of argument led to relativism if pushed too far; one set of beliefs was as good as any other so long as it worked as a guide to action. But whether or not it “worked” depended on how effects were evaluated.51 This is why social research was important, for if it were cumulative, then the risk of being surprised by the consequences of actions should be reduced. So when considering the standard ethics question of whether ends justified the means, Dewey had no doubt that means could only be justified by results. He accepted that confidence in particular means leading to a desirable end might need to be qualified by the same action having other, less-desired consequences. Before acting, therefore, it was necessary to consider the full range of possible consequences, intended as well as unintended, and on that basis make a choice.52 That required considerable foresight. Without it, the value of pragmatism was undermined.

Dewey linked an intellectual process with a social process. He was in accord with Tolstoy in assuming that a good life was one developed as part of a community. Because of the potential for conflict—and here he differed from Tolstoy—Dewey saw democracy as a way of bringing individuals’ needs in line with each other and the wider community, transcending apparent antagonisms, and integrating the private with the public. This meant accepting that individual goals might not be met in full while there was progress toward social goals, and that this could be achieved by an active state. Conflict was not a means of resolving problems; it was the problem to be resolved.

Dewey decided not to go to the 1904 Congress to which Weber had been invited and so the two did not meet (although he met James at Harvard). Weber would have been aware of Dewey’s work because of the overlap, at least in some core themes, with his own. They were on similar tracks in their appreciation of the scientific method, their focus on the relationship of thought to action, and their stress on the need to judge actions by consequence as much as intent. There were also crucial differences between the two. While Dewey did not take seriously attempts to separate fact from value, Weber insisted upon it. While Dewey saw democracy as inclusive and participatory, for Weber the value of democracy was as a means of electing a proper leader from a wide pool and ensuring a degree of accountability.

It was as a strategist’s philosophy that pragmatism prospered. It came to be taken to refer to a particularly political virtue, a talent for adapting ends and means to a changing environment; demonstrating flexibility; accepting a world of contingency, trial, error, policy reversals, and shifting positions. A pragmatist could be compared favorably with the dogmatist, who refused to compromise and was impervious to circumstances and negligent of evidence. But Dewey combined this strategist’s philosophy, pragmatism, with an a-strategic worldview, which sought to deny deep conflicts and supplant politics with research-led reform. Menand observes that “a time when the chance of another civil war did not seem remote, a philosophy that warned against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted.”53 In this respect it provided a form of thinking that appeared both provocative and reassuring. But there was no inherent reason why this should be so. Consideration of consequences depended on confidence that they could be discerned, at least to a useful approximation. This might allow the best choice to be made, but that choice might still be between two evils.

In 1936, Robert Merton, an American sociologist influenced by Weber, wrote “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.”54 The main explanation normally offered for why all consequences could not be anticipated, Merton noted, was ignorance, which led to the view that more and better knowledge would steadily improve the quality and effectiveness of action. But there were limits to what knowledge could be acquired and, anticipating a point that would be made many years later by behavioral economists, Merton questioned whether it was always worth the time and energy to acquire extra knowledge. Another factor was error, assuming for example, that just because a course of action had produced a desired result a previous time it would do so again, without paying regard to variations in circumstances. This could reflect carelessness or something more psychological, “a determined refusal or inability to consider certain elements of the problem.”

Next came what Merton called the “imperious immediacy of interest,” putting an emphasis on the short term to the exclusion of consideration of later consequences. An action might be rational in seeking to ensure a particular outcome, but “precisely because a particular action is not carried out in a psychological or social vacuum, its effects will ramify into other spheres of value and interest.” Lastly, he made the point central to all strategy: “Public predictions of future social developments are frequently not sustained precisely because the prediction has become a new element in the concrete situation, thus tending to change the initial course of developments.” He took the example of Marx’s predictions. The “socialist preaching in the nineteenth century” led to labor organizations which took advantage of collective bargaining, “thus slowing up, if not eliminating, the developments which Marx had predicted.”

At the heart of any debate on strategy was the question of cause and effect. Strategic action presumed that desired effects would follow from the choice of appropriate courses of action. In principle, social science should have made strategic choices easier, because causal relationships would be much better understood. This created its own ethical imperatives. For Weber, the possibility of appreciating the likely consequences of action or inaction meant that it was irresponsible not to take advantage of the greater insights that social science had to offer. For Dewey, it was also foolish, because it meant denying an opportunity to get the most from every action. For Tolstoy, the foolishness was only in the conceit that social processes—in all their complexity—could ever be properly grasped. There could be no true experts in these matters. No human mind could grasp the totality of factors that were at play in great and social and political processes. There could be no strategy because there could be no confidence in the difference any particular action could make.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, to deny the possibility of strategy was to abandon hope in the face of enormous and pressing social and political issues. Yet there were undoubtedly good reasons for caution. The more complex and novel the situation, the harder it would be to link actions with consequences. Unintended outcomes might be as significant as the intended. Even when short-term goals were reached the benefits might be overwhelmed by adverse longer-term consequences. Most challenging of all were those situations where there was an opponent seeking to refute one’s working hypothesis. Even if cause-effect relationships were properly understood, there might still not be available measures sufficient to generate the required effects. It was one thing to change education policy and quite another to alter the course of capitalism or dispel a pernicious myth to which the masses were in thrall. The optimism that enlightened social policies informed by a progressive social science could heal the wounds of industrialization barely survived during the mid-century’s ideological, economic, and military calamities. The transformational social and political changes that were set in motion in the later decades of the century were barely influenced by the prescriptions of mainstream social science, but were the result of individuals and groups seeking to improve their lives through collective action.

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