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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 38

Relevance of Burrows Dunham Today

Sunday 9 September 2007, by Randhir Singh


I have been asked to write a brief foreword to this edition of Barrows Dunham’s Man Against Myth. Let me begin by stating that if there is one book which I have, over the years, wanted republished in the country, it is Man Against Myth. I was even willing to risk piracy for it. It is very gratifying to know that the book will now be available in a more than properly published Indian edition. National Book Trust and Professor Bipan Chandra are to be congratulated for their bold initiative in organising a reprint of this great book.

THAT persons of the stature of J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, or Albert Einstein found the book enlightening, and appreciated its wit and wisdom, is reason enough to make Man Against Myth available to a new generation of readers. But the more important consideration is that the way Barrows Dunham practised philosophy remains exemplary for our times.

At a time when the mainstream philosophy, in its flight from the real world sought refuge in linguistic analysis, clarification of concepts and elucidation of meaning, reducing philosophy to a ‘second order study’ which had nothing to say about ‘first order’ issues, the substantive problems of life, Barrows Dunham asserted philosophy’s responsibility to help understand and change the world. ‘Philosophy is deliverance or it is nothing,’ wrote Barrows Dunham. Philosophy, in other words, needs to be a means of human deliverance. He questioned and rejected the currently fashionable theories which ‘preach paralysis—which tell us that we can’t know and can’t do’. Mao has spoken of the need to ‘liberate philosophy from the confines of the philosophers’ lecture rooms and textbooks and turn it into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses’. Barrows Dunham accepted this obligation too. That is how, in Man Against Myth, he explored and demolished some of the prevalent social myths that rob humankind of abundance, equality and peace. He saw these myths as obscuring reality and justifying inequality and privilege. They are beneficial, he wrote, to ‘one group’ of people, those ‘profiting by the present organisation of society’.

Not that Barrows Dunham was altogether dismissive of the mainstream philosophy. Very rightly he was not. He acknowledged the achievements of ‘the Age of Analysis’—which ‘for all its excesses did in many ways improve on what it found… The fires of Analysis, burning with remarkable quiet and calm, have consumed much that was erroneous, even if they did not light up all that was true.’ But he also noted: ‘Whereas philosophers had once speculated boldly about the universe as a whole, they now preferred the safer latitudes of language. They began as seers, and they dwindled into grammarians.’ He noted too ‘the constraints of historical circumstances’ which explain ‘the shift in interest from cosmos to the language’, and in view especially of ‘the heats and the hunts’ which are often on, mischievously but very truthfully added: ‘Of all subjects, linguistics is the one over which the police are least watchful.’

This obviously suggests the need for courage if one would practise philosophy as ‘deliverance’. Barrows Dunham had the requisite courage. At the personal level, his courage is evident in the way he stood-up to persecution during the McCarthy era. Subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he refused to testify. He was tried for contempt of Congress and charged with ‘intellectual arrogance’, dismissed from his job. At the philosophical level, courage is the hallmark of whatever he wrote, notably, Man Against Myth, Giant in Chains, Heroes and Heretics, and that gem of an essay, Thinkers and Treasurers.

I have a specific personal experience with Man Against Myth which, I believe, bears retelling. This may even be of some benefit to the younger members of the academic community. As I acquired some reputation as a teacher, I also stood charged with being a teacher with a ‘bias’, possibly the most damning charge that can ever be brought against anyone working in the academic field. As I pondered over this charge, I realised that it is not so much a question of ‘bias’ which should and can be given up, as of philosophy, of one’s philosophical preconceptions which one simply cannot escape. As I wrote later:

…one cannot be ever without one’s ‘philosophy’. It has been said that there is none so poor as not to have a philosophy of his own. One may add that there is none so rich either as to be able to do without one... We are all, in a sense, philosophers, whether we know it or not; we all have our more or less open, more or less clearly or consciously formulated assumptions, opinions, beliefs, principles, attitudes towards life, on which we habitually act and by which we indeed live. These together constitute our philosophy, to which also belong our more or less general ways of looking at things and ideas, our philosophical preconceptions and preferences. The very language we use reflects and bears witness to the philosophy we have. The question is really not one of having or not having philosophy or philosophical preconceptions but of what sort of philosophy or preconceptions one does or shall have. As A.E. Taylor says, “we have no choice whether we shall have a philosophy or not, but only the choice whether we shall form our theories consciously and in accord with some intelligible principle, or unconsciously and at random”.

I had already, very consciously, opted for Marxism as the required ‘intelligible principle’. But any number of problems still remained to be clarified and resolved in working out my philosophy as a teacher. This is where I found Man Against Myth most helpful, particularly in negotiating my way through the myths of ‘objectivity’, ‘impartiality’, ‘integrity’, ‘open-mindedness’, ‘detachment’ etc. etc.—myths endemic to teaching as a profession. Soon I was pronouncing Barrows Dunham my favourite 20th century philosopher and recommending Man Against Myth as an introduction to Marxist philosophy. Incidentally, of the only three references to Marx in the book, the sole significant one is in the Preface: ‘Of the great thinkers I owe most to Spinoza, Hume, Marx and Whitehead.’ Engels had insisted with the followers that being Marxist is not to quote him or Marx but to ‘think as Marx would have thought in their place’. This is precisely what Barrows Dunham had done in his book, making ‘learning Marxism’ a matter of joy in contrast to ‘Marxism and tears’ of the texts of official Marxism flooding in from Moscow.

IN Man Against Myth (1947), speaking of ‘the present state of philosophy and human thought in general’, Barrows Dunham wrote of ‘ambiguous gloom which may perhaps be twilight and may perhaps be dawn’. Dunham’s hope of a ‘dawn’ (at the time generally shared on the Left) turned out to be misplaced and the ‘gloom’ is today thicker than ever before. It is a situation where we have, on the one hand, post-modernism’s ‘cognitive and cultural relativism’, a nihilistic rejection of classical notions of truth and reason, of all Enlightenment values, of every idea of universal progress or emancipation, and the consequent political paralysis and ideological impasse, and, on the other hand, the collapse of the revolutionary experiment in the Soviet Union in which and for which the common people had such high hopes—hopes in which Barrows Dunham shared—and the consequent reassertion of capitalism’s hegemonic control of the world. An all-conquering globalisation is said to have arrived, and all sorts of myth-making is on to conceal its reality as capitalism, when the latter’s resumed hegemonic control has already ensured that things are no longer referred to by their proper names; thus, for example, it is ‘globalisation’, ‘liberalisation’, ‘structural adjustment’, ‘economic reform’, ‘new economic policy’ (and lately) ‘industrialisation’, ‘development and progress’, even ‘civilisation’, etc.—that is anything but capitalism. The new information and communication technologies have added immensely to the power of those in command of the mass media, advertisement and entertainment, their power to control popular consciousness, to turn whole people, like individuals glued to their TV sets, into what the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger has called ‘secondary illiterates’, those who need neither memory nor any thinking or learning to sustain themselves. These are of little worth to them, the passive subjects in a world where the reigning ideology is consumerism, with its exclusive concern for ‘instant gratification’ and ‘contentment’. A market-driven ‘mass culture’ has come up which, on the one hand, aims at developing consumer instincts in the people to the utmost and thereby expanding markets for the greater glory of late-capitalist profit-making and, on the other hand, at ideological brainwashing of the people, diverting them from any advanced social ideals and implanting in their minds bland, illusory and often downright false and reactionary views of social and political realities.

‘A true idiot culture’, Carl Bernstein has called it, where for the ’first time in history the weird and the stupid and the vulgar are becoming our cultural norm, even our cultural ideal’. Even as a ‘stupid and vulgar’ culture is mass purveyed via television screens, tabloid newspapers, glossy magazines and similar other means, the tendency is to pitch all messages to the lowest level of mental capacity. Knowledge is reduced to slick, pre-digested, easy to understand capsules, inducing people to want simple answers to difficult problems. People’s consciousness is transferred on to philistine, narrow-minded lines, and interest in truth, which demands hard, complex and subtle exercise of mind, simply recedes into the background. The overall consequence is a dilution and dispersal of people’s questioning spirit, their angry or combustible sentiments, and emasculation of their critical consciousness. There is a general enervation of civil society, its members rendered incapable of ‘answering back’, as C. Wright Mills once phrased it. According to Jean Baudrillard, the very possibilities of critical examination and reflection are destroyed. In other words, the inundations of consumerism and ‘mass culture’ leave the alienated individuals of contemporary late-capitalist society eminently vulnerable to capitalism’s hegemonic control. Though oppressed and exploited, they are now more open to ‘colonisation of the mind’—victims’ internalisation of the cliché ‘there is no alternative’, their willing suspension of ideals and acceptance of a sub-autonomous existence in the interest of maintaining a secondary or even a tertiary position in the obtaining ‘reality’—be it the capitalist society or for that matter the global capitalist system. For that is also what the ‘third world mentality’ is all about.

The ‘gloom’ that Barrows Dunham wrote of is today definitely thicker, unambiguously so, than it has been for a long time. Therefore, even as we underline the continuing importance of Dunham’s struggle to dispel the then prevalent ‘gloom’, we need to recognise that such struggle has become even more imperative and urgent now. This is indeed where the relevance of Barrows Dunham, his ‘Philosophy is deliverance or it is nothing’ and, for that matter, of the book Man Against Myth today lies.

AS we celebrate this new edition of Man Against Myth, I am reminded of Marx’s famous definition of the obligation of the philosopher, which is now the intellectual’s credo for all time:
Our task is ruthless criticism of everything that exists, ruthless in the sense that the criticism will not shrink either from its own conclusions or from conflict with the powers that be.
Positively put, but expressed no less impressive-ly, we have Barrows Dunham’s plea which can be easily placed alongwith:
The thinker’s function, to contribute our share to the description of reality, to improve (so far as we may) the modes of getting things chosen and done. This is everybody’s guarantee of honour in other people’s thought. It is the sole true objectivity, namely, a bias in favour of mankind.

[Forward to the Indian edition of Burrows Dunham’s Man Against Myth, recently published by the National Book Trust; the book-release function took place in New Delhi on August 23, 2007, the book having been released
by Prof Randhir Singh himself.]

The author is a former Professor (now retired) of Political Theory, University of Delhi. He has been associated with the communist movement since 1939.

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