Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

A Man Possessed

Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty (Penguin Books, 1999; xxxii + 288 pgs)

Richard Rorty is a man possessed. Like his grandfather, the Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, he knows what ails the world and how we may ascend to the secular equivalent of paradise. Unfortunately, a slight obstacle confronts our would-be saviour: his fantasies fly in the face of reality. But, he might answer, what is that to us? If the world is not as we wish, let us simply abolish the appearance-reality distinction. We have only to change our vocabulary, and all will be well.

The plot of what the Communist Manifesto calls "all hitherto existing history" is a simple one, and Mr. Rorty stands ready to let us in on the secret. A few people control the world's wealth and keep everyone else in subjection. "To say that history is `the history of class struggle' is still true, if it is interpreted to mean that in every culture, under every form of government, and in every imaginable situation . . . the people who have got their hands on money and power will lie, cheat, and steal in order to make sure that they and their descendants monopolize both forever" (p. 206).

Is there no hope for those of us not in the power elite? Fortunately, Karl Marx, if not the Messiah himself, is at least John the Baptist. "The use of Marxist doctrine to raise the consciousness of workers-to make it clear to them how they are being cheated-shows Marxism at its best" (p. 206). If a nonsupernatural version of Christianity can be blended with Marxism, so much the better.

Let us, for the moment, leave aside a principal objection to Mr. Rorty's epic: his notion of history is utterly distorted. Does not civilization depend, as Mises has better than anyone else taught, on social cooperation through the free market? If Rorty dissents, must he not confront Mises's arguments? Let us, I repeat, put aside for the moment those questions: we shall see later how our author deals with truth.Very well, then. We take as given Rorty's fantasies about history. Would he still not confront a difficulty? Why should we think that Rorty's "democratic socialism" offers any improvement over present conditions? Surely, one hopes, not even Rorty can be unaware of socialism's dismal record during the twentieth century. Perhaps it is asking too much to expect Rorty to know Mises, but can he have escaped hearing of the collapse of communism?For once, our author's historical naiveté has some limits. He readily acknowledges that socialism has failed. "Just about the only constructive suggestion Marx made, the abolition of private property, has been tried. It did not work" (p. 214).Here, I am afraid, readers may underestimate Mr. Rorty's ingenuity. He favors arousing the working class through Marxist propaganda, while at the same time he abandons Marxism. Has he not painted himself into a corner?

Not at all! So trivial a matter as an apparent contradiction is child's play to Rorty's mighty mind. He escapes his predicament by redefining socialism: in his view, it need not involve a centrally-planned economy at all. Instead, it consists of efforts to achieve "humanistic values." Even Marx's analysis of capitalism can be jettisoned: Keynes will do just as well, if not better, to analyze the antagonistic class relations of modern society.

But, you might object, far from dissolving the apparent contradiction, Rorty has only worsened his trouble. If he abandons both Marx's analysis of capitalism and his prescription for its evils, does it not become all the more strange that Rorty wants the proletariat to rally round Marx?

Here at last the solution comes to light. What interests Rorty is not the truth or falsity of Marxism. Instead, Marxism is valuable because it arouses workers' hatred of the rich. "So now it is hard to find what Derrida calls a `political imperative' in Marx-an imperative more specific or more novel than the old, old injunction to prevent the rich from continuing to steal from the poor" (p. 214). Marx, Keynes, liberation theology, it does not matter: whatever it takes to bring down the world will win Rorty's approval.

Rorty pictures history as a struggle between the rich and the poor. On this basis, he finds useful any doctrine-true or false-which arouses the workers to fury at their chains. But must he not now respond to the query: is this account of society true?

Indeed he must: but I propose one last time to postpone consideration of his response, as it is best approached indirectly. Suppose one gives Rorty not only his picture of history, but also turns a blind eye to his admission that Marxism has no remedy for the alleged ills of capitalism. Would Rorty still not find himself in a quandary?

The difficulty he faces is this: if history were a struggle between the rich and the poor, why would Rorty join the impoverished many? Is he not one of the rich and privileged himself? If it is replied that morality requires this, we face yet more questions: What is the basis of morality? Given an adequate foundation for morality, can Rorty's call for class war be supported?

Now at last we are in a good position to grasp Rorty's nihilism. Morality is not a matter of rational principles. Quite the contrary, it simply expresses what "we" want. The fact that a group of leftist intellectuals take capitalism to be unjust is all the "justification" we need. In morality there is no distinction between appearance and reality: nothing beyond what particular groups hold to be right exists as a standard.

Mr. Rorty's conception of morality may at first strike readers as strange: an example of Rorty in action in a particular case will help to clarify what he means. In the notorious Roe v. Wade (1973) abortion decision, the Supreme Court rightly decided that "the political waters badly needed roiling" (p. 99). Women who wanted to have abortions could not be expected to wait until a consensus developed to support them. The Court stepped into the breach and acted.

But you may object, what can Rorty say against those whose preferences differ from his own? Suppose that a group of religious opponents of abortion overturned Roe v. Wade. What could Rorty say against them, other than to reiterate his disagreement? Ah, but you see, where religion is concerned, matters are entirely different. In a democracy, "the only test of a political proposal is its ability to gain assent from people who retain radically diverse ideas about the point and meaning of human life, about the path of private perfection" (p. 173).

Since some people, our author not least among them, are atheistic, one cannot appeal to religion "as a source of moral knowledge." Religion is a private matter: this is the "Jeffersonian compromise." Nor is this unfair to believers. They are free to derive their premises from a religious source: they are precluded only from appeal to that source in argument, at least so long as skeptics like Rorty are around.

Foolishly, I thought Rorty here open to decisive refutation. If opponents of abortion cannot appeal to religious premises that secularists will reject, then how can Rorty use premises, e.g., the "right to reproductive freedom," that religious believers will reject? If consensus is our goal, are not controversial premises of this type excluded from the dialogue? But I had temporarily forgotten: Rorty sets the rules. From these there is no appeal.

I can at last postpone no longer what to my mind is the key issue for understanding Rorty. Suppose that one accepts his view of morality. What is right is what our Rortyean group deems appropriate. What about the world of fact?Surely this is not determined by consensus of a suitably selected elite.

So far as Ican make out, this is exactly what Rorty does contend. We should not "think of truth as something towards which we are moving, something we get closer to the more justification we have" (p. 38). Truth is not "out there." It concerns rather the goals we aim to achieve: "the only point in contrasting the true with the merely justified is to contrast a possible future with the actual present" (p. 39, emphasis removed).

On the surface, Rorty's doctrine seems a simple-minded relativism and, as such, open to standard objections. Of this Rorty shows himself well aware: "If we take the distinction between making and finding at face value, our opponents will be able to ask us an awkward question, viz., have we discovered the surprising fact that was thought to be objective is actually subjective, or have we invented it?" (pp. xxvii-xxviii).

Rorty's response to these excellent questions is characteristic. We must "repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use" (p. 39). By refusing to recognize the objective-subjective and absolute-relative polarities, we prevent our Platonist enemies from raising the awkward questions just canvassed. Throughout Rorty's philosophy, a sheer willfulness constantly manifests itself. I should have thought that "triumph of the will" has a resonance that Rorty would not find altogether congenial.

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