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Don’t Raise Liberalism From the Dead (If It is Dead, Which It’s Not)

I owe the title to a thoughtful paper, published here, about a fatal liberal commitment: We’re better off than we were.[i] Such self-satisfaction, the author argues, blocks genuine resistance, which is not possible without vision. The author identifies “religiophobia” as hindering that vision.

Terry Eagleton agrees in Reason, Faith and Revolution: If progressives won’t read Marx, he argues, they should read religious philosophers who, like Marx and Lenin, recognized human interdependence. We need each other – even for thinking. That’s what Marx said, and philosophers and psychologists agree: All thinking, even intimate, depends on circumstances and conditions.

It is a hard point for the liberal philosophical view, held not just by liberals, but by many socialists, anarchists, and feminists. It is far from dead. It informs the slogan – and it is a slogan – that individuals can seize our destiny. We can’t, not as individuals, at least not our human destiny. We need vision, as the author suggests, and vision, if it is to be humanist, requires organization aiming for transformation, not just of relations but of thought.

There’s a trendy debate in US Academia, about “epistemic injustice”. It refers to how systemic discrimination affects our thinking, including how we identify ourselves. We can fail to understand our own aspirations, even our humanity or the humanity of others. It affects perpetrators and victims.

Academics invented the term. Students line up to write theses. Yet the idea isn’t new. It occurred to non-radical priests in Cuba two hundred years ago.[ii] They gave it a different name: Imperialism. It is not easy for some to grasp this aspect of imperialism, so clear to independentistas: its effect on thinking. It means we must sometimes escape our own thinking, even by means of external forces.

Simón Bolívar understood the supposedly new idea. He knew imperialism creates what Fidel Castro called “sobrantes”: Left-overs. It is why Europeans’ talk of rights and freedoms was useless in Latin America. It didn’t apply to those “even lower than servitude”. Sobrantes couldn’t claim such rights and freedoms. They weren’t human.

Che Guevara understood it too. He argued that freedoms in Cuba – including individual freedoms – required radical transformation of social and political institutions, which inform thinking. Freedom, he said, is a narrow dialectic, dependent on direction. At the Fourth Party Congress (1997), Castro said, “If we lose direction, we lose everything”. He knew injustice. He didn’t need a fancy new bit of jargon.

The Cuban priests, followed by revolutionary independence leader José Martí, rejected liberalism, philosophically. Today, swimming through Twitter feeds and Facebook shares, we hear the popular refrain about power in each individual. It is limited. The idea is that my conscious mind provides the best resource for controlling my life. Yet the conscious mind, like everything else, responds to causation.

A false idea of freedom has been known for a long time. It’s the idea, roughly, that we’re free if we can do what we want, and that doing what we want because we want it, defines our best interest, non-morally. The false idea was known to the Buddha 2500 years ago. He said belief in such a view is a deep and pervasive evil.[iii]

I thought of these issues recently on encountering two moving accounts of the “Yankee comandante”, hero of the Cuban revolution, executed as a traitor. [iv] William Morgan was a highly intelligent social misfit from Ohio who joined the guerrilla struggle against the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in Cuba in the fifties.

Arriving in the Escambray Mountains, he lost 35 pounds, learned Spanish and gained the rebels’ respect. He became a commander, confidante of Fidel Castro. Morgan was one of two foreign commanders. Che Guevara, Argentinian, was the other. Morgan disliked Guevara, a Marxist. He liked Castro, who waited almost 2 ½ years after Batista’s defeat to declare socialism. Morgan’s support died there.

The story is of a young man who became the person he wanted to be in Cuba, fighting for freedom. He wrote to his mother that he joined the Cuban Revolution because “the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others.” We are led to conclude that the Cuban Revolution renounced freedom once Batista was gone: Morgan was supposedly executed for believing in it.

Even if true, it is an uninteresting conclusion. It commits an error we call, in Philosophy classes, “begging the question”:   If you declare your own view of freedom correct, you can dismiss opponents by claiming they are not talking about freedom. Or, you start with a liberal view of democracy, notice Cuba has one party, and conclude it is undemocratic because it doesn’t fit your view.

It’s bad argument. It’s also missed opportunity. You win by dismissing the opposition, denying it exists. By the time Morgan was fighting for freedom, entire traditions, from throughout the continent, had discredited the idea of freedom he took for granted: the so-called negative view of freedom. It gets dressed up but essentially it says I’m free if no one gets in my way.

The truth about William Morgan is that he fought for freedom but didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know, for instance, that you can’t be free when your fellows are sobrantes. It’s not possible. We are interdependent creatures by nature. It’s not ethics. It’s science. Morgan couldn’t know what freedom was because of US propaganda. He had little chance of asking what human freedom really meant.

I’d like to think the “epistemic injustice” folk will take issue with cherished national myths about freedom, especially the big myth of philosophical liberalism. They are almost impossible to question. It wouldn’t be bad to start with stories about Cuba. Just acknowledging there could be a question about what freedom means, would be useful.

Notes.

[i] Kim Dominico, “What will it take to raise liberalism from the dead?” Counterpunch ,April 18, 2017

[ii] Félix Varela and José de la Luz y Caballero.

[iii] E.g. Ledi Sayadaw, Requisites of Enlightenment (1999) 256-7

[iv] David Grann, “The Yankee Commandante: A story of love, revolution, and betrayal”, The New Yorker, May 28 2012; “American Comandante”, written, produced and directed by Adriana Bosch, aired November 17, 2015, PBS

Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014) and José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Global Development Ethics (Palgrave MacMillan 2014)

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Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).

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