John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle.” Means, Ends and Morality in Popular Social Movements: An Organizer’s Casebook.

John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.

Means, Ends and Morality in Popular Social Movements:

An Organizer’s Casebook.

Burton Weltman

“What though the field be lost?

All is not lost—the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield;

And what is else not to be overcome?”

Satan’s avowal in Paradise Lost by John Milton.

From the epigraph to In Dubious Battle.


Prologue: The Relevance of In Dubious Battle.

“Power without love is reckless and abusive.  Love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Martin Luther King.

I am writing this essay in January, 2019.  We have been living in recent years through an intense period of popular social movements stemming from both the political Left and the political Right.  In the United States, movements have been organized on the Left to further equal rights and social justice for women, blacks, immigrants, gays, and many other oppressed minority groups.  Movements on the Right have been organized to oppose these liberal goals and to promote, instead, the power of the men, white people, and Christians who have historically dominated the country.  Similar movements on the Left and Right have been organized in many other countries around the world.

The nature and extent of these popular movements make John Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle particularly relevant for us today.  It is a book about the means, ends and morality of organizing and engaging in popular social movements.  The focus of the book is on the labor union movement of the 1930’s in the United States and, specifically, a campaign to organize migrant fruit pickers in California.  But the problems that the labor union organizers face in this book differ mainly in peripherals and not in essence with those faced by movement organizers today.  One such problem that is dramatized in the novel and that organizers must deal with today is whether they should try to base their movements on what could be called caring communities or hating communities, that is, whether to unite their movements based on whom their constituents care for and support or on whom they hate and oppose.

Right-wing movements are generally built on fear and hate.  The anti-immigrant movements that are befouling the world today represent this tendency, exemplified by the popularity of Donald Trump among right-wingers in the United States.  Trump, a rich, unreligious, libertine from New York City could not personally be more different from the lower-middle-class, middle-American, Evangelical Christians who make up the base of his support.  But Trump hates the people they hate, so they love him.  Among Left-wing movement organizers, there has historically been a debate about whether and to what extent theirs should be a strategy of favoring something versus opposing somebody.  In Dubious Battle portrays this ongoing debate on the Left.  It is a fictional case-study of an organizing campaign.

Written in 1935, In Dubious Battle has historically been overshadowed by The Grapes of Wrath, another novel about migrant fruit pickers in California which Steinbeck wrote in 1939 and which was made in 1940 into one of the best movies of all time.  In Dubious Battle has, however, a distinctive and important focus on the means, ends and morality of social movement organizing that makes it particularly relevant.  The book is apparently one of the ten favorite novels of President Barack Obama, who himself started out as a community organizer.[1]  It is recommended by veteran organizers for novice activists today.[2]  And the book was made into a major movie by James Franco in 2016.  It’s a bad movie that gets Steinbeck’s message wrong, but at least it demonstrates the book’s ongoing relevance.

I am typing these words on January 21, which is Martin Luther King’s birthday. King was one of the greatest popular movement organizers in history, and he repeatedly engaged in the debate about means, ends and morality that is portrayed in In Dubious Battle, for example in his differences with Malcom X.  That the novel is set during the 1930’s gives readers today an opportunity to examine the debate at a historical remove that might help us to explore the issues.     

A Dubious Battle: The Moral of the Story.

“Don’t Mourn. Organize.”  Joe Hill – an early twentieth century union organizer just before he was executed on a trumped-up murder charge.

In Dubious Battle is the story of a desperate strike by migrant fruit pickers in California during the mid-1930’s whose piece-work wage rates have just been cut from poverty level to starvation level.  The book portrays the workers’ struggles to organize themselves and try to force the owners of the orchards to raise their wages.  The strikers are assisted by two Communist labor organizers, Mac and Jim, and a local physician, Doc Burton.  The three of them have different attitudes toward the strike and approaches to assisting the workers.  The book focuses on their ideas, actions, and personal evolutions during the course of the strike.

Mac is a veteran Communist organizer who envisions the strike as part of a long-term project to help workers recognize their commonality and their potential collective strength.  His goal is to create a caring community of workers who will commit to each other and to the ideal of cooperation.  Jim is a recent recruit to the Communist Party and a novice organizer.  He is largely motivated by hatred of capitalists who reap the benefits of other people’s labor and run roughshod over their lives, consequences that he and his family have personally experienced.  Doc Burton works with Mac and Jim to care for the health of the strikers and ensure the sanitation of their encampment.  He is not a Communist but he sympathizes with the plight of the workers and wants to help them.

The 1930’s were a seminal decade for labor union organizing.  As part of the New Deal, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1934.  The NLRA gave workers in most industries a legally protected right to organize labor unions.  Employers who interfered with employees’ rights to organize, as they had regularly and violently done in the past, became subject to penalties.  This didn’t stop bosses from trying to prevent unionization, and violence was still sometimes used against workers, but the NLRA spurred organizing in many industries.  Agricultural workers were, however, specifically left out of the NLRA and are still left out to the present day.  As such, the fruit pickers who are the subjects of In Dubious Battle were without legal protection, and their battle to organize was much tougher than that of other workers.

In the course of the book, the workers make heroic efforts to stick together against spies, strike-breakers, provocateurs, and vigilantes hired by the owners.  But they are being picked off one by one by vigilante snipers, picked up by cops, blocked from getting food and, finally, forced out of their encampment.  As the book is coming to a close, it looks doubtful that the workers can continue the struggle, and it seems that the strike is going to come to an inglorious end.

But then Jim is ambushed and shot dead by vigilantes.  His body is carried into the strikers’ encampment by Mac.  In an effort to make Jim’s death meaningful, so that Jim would not have died in vain, Mac displays the body to the workers as a means of rallying the demoralized strikers, binding Jim to them and them to the common struggle even in death.  In the last words of the book, Mac proclaims “Comrades!  He didn’t want nothing for himself –”  And so, the dubious battle may possibly continue.  And Mac’s appeal to the solidarity of the workers and their will to continue for the sake of each other is, I think, the moral of the story.

Setting the Scene: The Popular Front.

“I mean, when the world comes for your children, with the knives out, it’s your job to stand in the way.”  Joe Hill.

In order to understand In Dubious Battle, you have to mentally put yourself back into the United States during the 1930’s, and you have to put out of your mind almost all of the conventional wisdom propounded in this country about Communism and the Communist Party since the late 1940’s.  The main characters in In Dubious Battle are two Communists and an ally of theirs, conventionally denominated a fellow traveler.  With the advent of the Cold War against the Soviet Union in the late 1940’s, Communists and so-called fellow travelers were widely damned as traitors and purveyors of satanic evil in the United States. They were excluded from participating in mainstream politics, and to be considered a Communist or fellow traveler was to be disparaged in the extreme.  This was not always or everywhere the attitude toward Communists, especially during the 1930’s and early 1940’s.

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Communists and their allies were leading figures in the labor movement and in the struggles of small farmers and poor people to survive.  Although Communists were anathema to conservatives and big business interests and were generally condemned in the press, they were still generally accepted as within the range of political discourse in the country, albeit on the far-left side of the range.

In 1935, when Steinbeck wrote In Dubious Battle, the Communist Party of the United States declared that the best way to counter the Depression and the rise of fascism in the world was for all moderates, liberals and radicals to work together in a Popular Front.  Rather than rejecting America and Americanism, Communists proclaimed that “Communism was just twentieth century Americanism” and that their forerunners were Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and other American patriots.  Communists claimed they were purveyors of the American dream.

The Popular Front was a populist strategy, which is not to be confused with the chauvinist strategies that are widely misconstrued and mislabeled as populist today.  When Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and other racists and chauvinists around the world claim to be populists, and are deemed as such by the mass media, they are misusing and disparaging the term.  Populists have historically sought to unite people, all of the people.  The assumption of genuine populists has historically been that ordinary people of all sorts – whatever their races, religions, ethnicities, or walks of life – have the most important things in common and should work with each other toward common goals.

The assumptions of the Popular Front of the 1930’s and of other people’s movements then and since have been that “when people get together and know each other as human beings,” they will cooperate with each other, and that, in the words of a Chilean popular front movement of the 1970’s, “the people united cannot be defeated.”[3]  Genuine populists see as their opponents those who would divide and conquer people based on racial, ethnic or other invidious differences.  Chauvinists such as Trump and Orban seek to do just that, to divide people on an “us versus them” racial or ethnic basis.  They create communities of hate rather than caring communities.  That is the opposite of populism.

As a result of the Popular Front strategy of the Communists and similar populist strategies of other left-of-center political groups, there was from the late 1930’s through the mid-1940’s an upsurge of grass roots organizing of all sorts.  The watchword of the period was “the people.” The goal was to organize the people into labor unions, farmers cooperatives, neighborhood clubs, political parties, theatre companies, musical groups, and other organizations of all sorts that would cultivate and pursue the common goals of ordinary people.

The influence of the Popular Front is exemplified in the popular song Ballad for Americans that was written in 1939 by two men who were either Communists or fellow travelers.  Significantly, it is not always clear from the historical record who was a member of the Communist Party and who merely allied with Communists in various organizing campaigns.  Once the Cold War and anti-Communist campaigns began in the late 1940’s, it made a big difference whether or not you were or had been a card-carrying Communist, but in the context of the Popular Front during the 1930’s, it did not really matter.  The point of the Popular Front was to bring together like-minded activists to help organize the people.  So, some activists became Party members, others merely joined in campaigns in which Communists were participants.

The song Ballad for Americans recounts American history as the struggle of an ethnically and racially diverse people to achieve ever greater liberty, equality and fraternity for all.  It was first recorded by Bing Crosby, the most popular singer of the time, and later made famous by Paul Robeson, who was himself either a Communist or fellow traveler.  The song proclaims that in the midst of depression and repression, the American ideal lives on because “We nobodies who are anybody believe it, we anybodies who are everybody have no doubt.”  The song ends with a call for Americans to unite and fight against social and economic evils.  “Out of the cheating, out of the shouting, out of the murders and lynching, it will come again.  Our marching song will come again!”  Ballad for Americans was highlighted at two national political party conventions in 1940, the Communist Party Convention and the Republican Party Convention.

Communists were true believers in the possibilities of a radically better society.  They were also convinced that the only way to thwart the rise of fascism and overcome the Depression was through organizing the people.  Communists were, in turn, willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause by standing in the forefront of organizing efforts and suffering the concussions and repercussions of being the standard bearers.  Communists were particularly active in organizing the industrial unions of the 1930’s, such as those of the auto workers, steel workers, electrical workers, and other unions that made up the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  Most CIO unions included Communists in their leadership positions, and their field organizers were frequently Communists and fellow travelers.

In understanding Steinbeck’s portrayal of Mac and Jim in In Dubious Battle, one needs to take into consideration at least three things about Communism in America during the mid-1930’s.  The first is that the worst about Stalin and the Communist regime in the Soviet Union was not generally known.  In particular, that millions of people had died as a result of Stalin’s brutal collectivization of small farms in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s was not widely known.  Stalin was also just beginning in 1935 the large-scale purge trials, executions, and incarcerations for which he is infamous, and these were not known about in full until many years later.  As such Soviet Communism was not yet as universally damned as it was later, and American Communists were not seen as connected to a brutalitarian regime as they were later.

The second thing is that while the Western capitalist countries were wallowing through the Great Depression during the 1930’s, the Soviet Union was essentially unaffected by it and was undergoing massive economic growth.  The Soviet Union essentially went from an underdeveloped to an industrial economy during the decade.  So, whatever might have been rumored about Stalin’s repressiveness, Communism seemed able to produce the goods.

The third thing is that most outside observers and Communists themselves generally distinguished between the ideologues and politicians who occupied national leadership roles in the Party and the Communist organizers who did grass roots work.  Party officials dispensed proclamations from their offices as guardians of ideological purity and political loyalty to Stalin’s regime. They were widely disparaged, even among Party members.  In contrast, the Party’s union organizers and community activists were usually working men and women concerned with getting things done and bettering people’s lives, and were quite effective in doing so. They were generally respected, even by anti-Communists.

The Communist Popular Front had significant popular appeal during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  It was in this context that in 1935 Steinbeck joined and participated in the League of American Writers, a group organized by Communists.  He also worked during this time with Communist organizers for the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Union who provided much of the material about union organizing in the fields that he used in In Dubious Battle.  Reflecting the differences between Party bureaucrats, whom Steinbeck despised, and Communist organizers, for whom Steinbeck had respect, there is no mention in In Dubious Battle by Mac, Jim, or the omniscient narrator of Stalin, the Soviet Union, Marxism, or Communist ideology.

Mac and Jim, in turn, make no attempt to proselytize the workers about Communism or get them to join the Party.  Mac and Jim are merely union organizers who have become Communists seemingly because the Communist Party was taking the lead in union organizing.  Their faith lies not in ideology or in the cult of a personality such as Stalin, but in the solidarity and strength of the people, and the possibilities for a better world if and when the people are properly organized.

Steinbeck paid a price for his connections with Communists and was apparently harassed because of them by the FBI and the IRS.  He remained, however, a vocal supporter of the Soviet Union through the mid-1940’s.  Thereafter, Steinbeck became an anti-Communist, a supporter of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and an informer for the CIA.   But his book In Dubious Battle stands as a testament to Steinbeck’s participation in the Popular Front during the 1930’s along with many other non-Communist progressives.  Communists, with their focus during this period on organizing people into unions and community groups, did not seem satanic as they were later portrayed during the Cold War.  The Popular Front, in turn, provides the context for the debate about the means, ends and morality of community organizing that goes on in In Dubious Battle.  That is why putting oneself into the shoes and mindset of a progressive during that period is a key to understanding the book and its relevance for us today.

The End is the Means: Three Ways of Countering Evil.

“There is pow’r, in a band of workingmen when they stand hand in hand.”  Joe Hill.

In describing In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck said that it “has three layers. Surface story, group-psychological structure, and philosophical conclusion.”  The first layer, the surface story, is the events of the strike, which are riveting and realistic.  Steinbeck claimed to get his facts about strikes from “Irish and Italian Communists whose training was in the field, not in the drawing room,” thereby honoring the Communist organizers but disparaging Communist Party officials.[4]

It is this surface story that is generally discussed in reviews of the book.  Reviewers sympathetic to the Left generally see the book as a tragedy.  The strikers go through hell on earth and the tragedy of the book, said one reviewer, is “the sense that all they suffered will have happened for nothing.”[5]  Reviewers on the Right have scorned the book as promoting the “fanatical machinations of red agents to foment discontent” in America.[6]  I don’t agree with either view.  I think the book is neither tragic nor rabid.  It is a fairly objective portrait that leaves the reader with some hope for the workers and some sense that better things might come in the long run.

The second layer, the group-psychological structure, refers to “group-man” and mass psychology theories of human behavior that were popular during the 1930’s as explanations of the rise of fascism and other mass movements.  The basic idea is that groups of people are like organisms and obey organismic laws of behavior.  Individual people are like cells in an organic body.  These organic groups of people can be controlled by manipulative leaders and can easily become irrational mobs. The group-man theories are espoused in the book by Doc Burton,[7] and the actions of the strikers seem sometimes to be illustrations of these theories.[8]  These theories constitute a pessimistic view of the possibilities for people organizing themselves into caring communities and are, as such, generally disputed by the more optimistic Mac.[9]

Steinbeck apparently gleaned these group-man ideas from Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and friend of Steinbeck.  Most reviewers of the book claim that Doc Burton speaks for Steinbeck and that the moral of the story resides in these pseudo-scientific group-man theories.[10]  It is my view that while Steinbeck may have identified with Doc Burton as an outside observer of the sorts of conflicts that the book describes, and that Steinbeck seemingly approved of the group-man theories, it is the activist and optimist Mac who speaks for the book.

The third layer, the philosophy of the book, refers, I believe, to the debate among Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton over their theories about community organizing and ways to battle evil in the world.  The book has been widely noted for raising “classic question of means and ends, of ego and selfishness.”[11]  Most critics have claimed that Steinbeck promotes a philosophy that “the ends justify the means,” with conservatives condemning this philosophy as callously Communistic and liberals accepting it as a necessary evil to further the cause of social justice.[12]  I don’t agree that the book promotes a view that the ends justify the means. I think that it is quite to the contrary and that Mac voices the book’s philosophy.

There are many ways of trying to rid the world of evil.  One way is simply to ignore evil while doing good yourself, and essentially doing good for goodness’ sake.  Dr. Burton represents this approach in the book.  He helps the strikers merely because they need help. Organizations such as Doctors without Borders might represent this approach today.  This strategy is ideologically and politically neutral, except to the extent it is implicitly critical of governments and societies that do not do enough to help the helpless so that charitable individuals and organizations need to take up the slack.

A second way is to attack evil head on, countering hate with hate and thereby defeating evil in combat.  This way represents an unwillingness to tolerate evil and a personal need to eliminate it.  Evil is taken personally and is generally personalized in us-versus-them terms.  As such, this way can be characterized as doing good for one’s own sake, that is, to save one’s own soul by adamantly rejecting evil.  And in this view, the ends can justify the means.  Evil must be defeated no matter what the means.  As Jim evolves in the book, he comes to represent this approach.  Jim needs to release his anger through attacking the bad guys.  The Antifa movement might represent this approach in the United States today.

A third way is to try to contain evil, and to surround and overwhelm it with good.  Organizing people into cooperative groups that will eventually replace the oppressive institutions of society is both the means and the end in this approach.  In this view, the end as a stopping point means nothing.  Movement and the movement are everything.  It is an all-for-one, one-for-all ethic that can be characterized as doing good for the sake of others.  This third approach is represented in the book by Mac.  Jesse Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition might be an example of this approach in recent years.  And, although conventional interpretations of the book claim that Doc Burton represents the voice of Steinbeck, I think that Mac not only has the last word in the book but also the best word.

Organizing Strategies: Common Interests vs. Communal Goals.

“Keep hope alive!”  Jesse Jackson.

In representing three different approaches to countering evil, the three main characters in the book also represent three different approaches to organizing people.  Doc Burton represents a “let it be” approach to organizing.  He believes that groups of people come together naturally and then behave according to their natures and natural laws.  He is largely an observer, but also a facilitator for the side in a dispute with which he sympathizes.  Mac derides Doc Burton’s approach as contradictory since he invariably ends up choosing to help the oppressed rather than their oppressors.[13]  While Doc Burton may represent Steinbeck’s social position as just an observer who wrote about what he saw, the real debate in the book is between Mac and Jim.

The book opens with Jim going into a dilapidated office to join the Communist Party.  When asked by the Communist activist running the office, a man named Nilson, why he wants to join the Party, Jim says that “My whole family has been ruined by this [capitalist] system,” and that “Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose.”  Jim is thereby echoing Karl Marx’s famous proclamation “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”   But Nilson counters Jim by telling him that he actually has “nothing [to lose] except hatred.”  “You’re going to be surprised,” he tells Jim, “when you see that you stop hating people” once you start working to help change things.  At the same time, Nilson warns Jim, that when you are encouraging people to make changes, “Even the people you’re trying to help will hate you most of the time.”   So, Nilson concludes, “You’ve really got to want to belong to the Party pretty badly” in order to be willing to take the abuse that comes with it.

Nilson then goes on to explain to Jim how the Party and the field organizing work: “You’ll get a chance to vote on every decision, but once the votes are in, you have to obey.”[14]  This is a process that Communists called democratic centralism.  Open debate on all issues but then disciplined acceptance of the outcome.  The picture that Nilson paints of Communist organizers is like that of martyrs to the cause of humanity, or maybe fallen angels in the eyes of the established authorities.  It was this intense do-gooderism and absolute faith in their cause that helped make Communist organizers effective but also that Steinbeck often found off-putting about them.  “I don’t like Communists,” he wrote to a friend in the mid-1930’s, “I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had the same bad manners.”  But he still admired them.[15]

Nilson then introduces Jim to Mac, whom Nilson touts as the best organizer in the state.  Mac explains that organizing is not a scripted process and that you just have to go with the flow and be prepared to adlib.  Mac also explains that the primary purpose of a strike is not to win.  Winning is good, but more importantly “We want the men to find out how strong they are when they work together.”  He describes a strike as by nature a peaceful action on the part of the strikers – merely a passive withholding of services from the boss.  But it is usually the case that the bosses respond forcefully and even violently to a strike so that strikers sometimes need to defend themselves.

Mac explains that the repressive response of bosses almost always radicalizes strikers, and this helps with the organizing effort. “There is nothing like a fight to cement the men together,” he explains, so that the bosses are essentially helping to organize the workers.  In any case, the primary goal of a strike is for workers to learn to care for and take care of each other, and to create a caring community among them.  Even losing a strike can help build solidarity in the long run.  Mac is hardnosed but essentially an optimist.  He believes that a caring society will come out of caring communities.  And this is the philosophy that Mac tries to implement throughout the struggles in the book, a philosophy in which organizing is the means but also the end.[16]

When Mac and Jim get to the orchard they have been assigned to organize, Mac helps to deliver a baby.  It is the sort of adlib situation that he had hoped for.  In so doing, he gets as many people involved in helping with the birth as he can, getting them to bring hot water, clean towels, warm blankets, and many more things from many more people than is needed.  When questioned later about this by Jim, Mac responds that “There is a hunger in men to work together” and “There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it.”  And the tactic worked.  Participating in the birthing event brought the men together so that they were later more willing and able to trust each other in the strike.[17]

While the wage cut set the stage for the strike, the catalyst for it was a defective ladder that had been provided by the bosses and that broke under a worker so that he fell and was seriously injured. Mac uses this event as an opportunity to try to stir the workers to strike action.  His appeal is based on solidarity among the workers. He said while the bosses don’t care enough for workers to provide them with decent ladders, essentially treating the workers as fungible goods that can easily be replaced if they should be injured or die, workers should care for each other.  This is the gist of Mac’s appeal throughout the book, and it generally works.[18]

Thereafter, there are repeated instances of violence by vigilantes and local cops in the pay of the bosses against the striking workers and their supporters in the local community.  In each case, Mac uses the incident to rally the workers to continue the strike, describing it as a battle for decency and dignity, and not just money.  But it is a dubious battle both in terms of its outcome and some of its methods.

Early in the strike, a vigilante murders an old colleague of Mac who had just convinced a trainload of strikebreakers brought in by the bosses to join the strikers instead of scabbing.  When Mac organizes a big public funeral for the colleague and uses the man’s death to rally the strikers, Jim questions whether this isn’t a disrespectful way to treat their colleague, using his death as an organizing tool.  Mac admits to feeling bad about what they were doing but responds that “We got damn few things to fight with.  We got to use what we can. This little guy was my friend.  Y’can take it from me he’d want to get used any way we can use him.”[19]

Questions of means, ends and morality dominate the book.  When Jim seems to want fight violence with violence, Mac responds “What we got to fight with? Rocks, sticks, when the other side has guns.”  So, Mac’s strategy is not to attack evil with violence, but to respond to violence with unity and sympathy, and to create a caring community of workers.  Mac explains that “You win a strike in two ways, because the men put up a steady fight, and because public sentiment comes over to your side.”  By remaining as unified and peaceful as possible, the public may be won over to the side of the strikers, and the bosses will be surrounded and have to surrender.[20]

It is a strategy that requires a maximum of buy-in and discipline on the part of the strikers.  For this reason, Mac emphasizes to Jim that “Leadership has to come from the men,” and not from outside organizers like themselves.  A movement must be organized from the bottom-up and not the top-down.  When the strike begins, Mac advises the workers to elect a leader, which they do, and then Mac advises the elected leader to have the men vote on everything, which he does.  This is the workers’ strike, Mac says, and they have to make the decisions.[21]

Mac’s strategy of organizing from the bottom-up and playing for public support is essentially that which was being used during the 1930’s and 1940’s by Ghandi in India and that was later used by Martin Luther King during the 1960’s.  This strategy was widely promoted during the 1930’s and 1940’s in the United States by A.J. Muste, a well-known union organizer and later peace activist.  Muste was a pacifist, which Mac is not — Mac is not averse to punching out an agent provocateur — but Muste believed in organizing from the bottom-up, which is Mac’s approach.  Muste emphasized developing “shared values and the practice of solidarity.”  His goal was a caring community with communal goals rather than merely common self-interests.[22]

An alternative strategy for organizing was promoted during this period by Saul Alinsky, who has been considered by many the guru of community organizing.  His book Reveille for Radicals, first published in 1946, has been a guidebook ever since for organizers.  But his approach was different in many ways from that of Mac in In Dubious Battle or Muste.

Like Muste and like Mac, Alinsky declared his belief in “the people.”  He claimed to have “one article of faith” which was that “if people have the power, the opportunity to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decision.”  Notice, however, the qualifiers in this statement of faith in the people: “in the long run” and “most of the time.”  Bottom-up democracy was for Alinsky only one among various means and not an end or a principle as it was for Muste and Mac.  In a given organizing campaign, Alinsky might promote a top-down strategy in which professional organizers, like himself, or strong charismatic local leaders would control things.[23]

Unlike Mac and Muste, who abjured organizers to avoid acting out of anger, Alinsky insisted on cultivating anger and aggression against one’s opponents.  He ridiculed and “reject[ed] so-called objective decisions made without passion and anger.”  Anger is more powerful than love or reason, he insisted, and anger is a key tool for organizers.  He also ridiculed and rejected making decisions based on morality.  For him, the end justified the means, and “it is not important if one must go through a few devious valleys and shadows in the struggle for the people’s world.”  “[I]n the war against social evils,” he insisted, “there are no rules of fair play.”[24]

Whereas Mac and Muste tried to appeal to the better angels of humankind and promoted what was in effect the Golden Rule in action, Alinsky adjured idealism, claiming that “only a fool” would preach ideals.  People are selfish and materialistic, he claimed, so the organizer must make “use of greed to get good” and use “individualism and self-interest” to get cooperation.  People are also narrowminded, Alinsky claimed, so that the organizer must make use of “community chauvinism,” that is, ethnic bigotry, to get people to work together.  While celebrating the selflessness of organizers who don’t want anything for themselves, Alinsky was quite cynical about the people he and his colleagues were trying to help.[25]

Although many of Alinsky’s methods were brilliant and are still followed, many organizers have rejected the amorality of his proposals on both ethical grounds and grounds of effectiveness.  If organizers see themselves as selfless angels but their constituents as selfish materialists, they will not be able to create the sort of caring community that might make things better.  Among Alinsky’s critics was Barack Obama, the one-time community organizer.  Obama promoted a hard-headed but warm-hearted and pragmatic approach to organizing.  Known as the “No Drama Obama” President, he promoted the same calm and caring approach to community organizing.

Obama described what he saw as the three keys to successful organizing.  The first was seeing the problems of the community as a matter of power and “a lack of power” of the people.  The best plans are nothing without the power to implement them.  The second was “organizing people and money around a common vision.”  Without a communal goal, an organizing effort will likely founder on the shoals of conflicting selfish self-interests.  Idealism is effectively realism in community organizing.  And, the third was “a broadly-based indigenous leadership – and not one or two charismatic leaders.”  The people must lead themselves.  In each of these points, Obama paralleled Mac in In Dubious Battle and A.J. Muste but differed from Alinsky.[26]

Jim acts as a foil to Mac in In Dubious Battle in ways that point up the differences between the philosophies of Alinsky, on the one hand, and Muste and Obama on the other.  Jim starts out as a naïve nice guy full of anger and hatred for the bosses, but who is told by Nilson, the Communist Party official, that he will lose his anger and hate as he starts working with the fruit pickers.  And Jim initially does.  He is euphoric to be amongst a caring community of workers.  He is also initially offended by the calm and calculating approach that Mac takes toward the strike and the strikers.  He thinks that Mac is callous.  But then Jim encounters the vigilantes and the violence they wreak upon the strikers and is himself wounded by them.  The vigilantes are hateful and portrayed in the book as communities of hate. “They like to be cruel,” Mac tells Jim.  Their cooperation with each other is predicated on venom and violence against others.[27]

Jim’s anger returns in spades and is turned not only against the vigilantes and cops but against strikers who might be weakening in their resolve.  He begins to think that Mac’s calm and calculating approach is a sign of weakness, and he feels that anger and hate are the proper response to the anger and hatred of the bosses.  Jim begins to voice a philosophy of ends justifying means, opining, for example, that it is good if the strikers are brutalized and hurt because it will make them fight harder.  Jim becomes so hardened that he begins to scare Mac.  “You’re turning into a proper son-of-a-bitch,” Mac tells him, “I hope I don’t get to hate you.”[28]

I think that Jim’s trajectory from angelic innocent to devilish hard guy, and Mac’s horrified response to the change in Jim, reflect a rejection of the amoralistic ends-justify-the-means approach to organizing that most critics mistakenly see in the book.  Speaking for the book, Mac essentially holds, instead, that moral means are the desired end.

The Movie: James Franco seemingly goes out of his way to disparage Steinbeck’s book.

“If the workers took a notion, they could stop all speeding trains, every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.”  Joe Hill.

A movie based on Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, directed by James Franco and written by Matt Rager, was released in 2017.[29]    The movie is, in my opinion, cinematically good, dramatically bad, and thematically awful.  It got generally bad reviews.  Most reviews focused on the movie’s incoherence, irrelevance and dramatic failings   Reviewer Stephen Holden, for example, complained that the movie is full of “stale boilerplate dialogue” and is “too flatfooted and sloppy to explore the obvious parallels between then and now.”[30] Another reviewer similarly complained that the movie “dispenses with the book’s moral and dramatic complexity.”  It is pedestrian and plodding and fails to “bridge the gap between the union struggles of the Depression and those of our ever-divided moment.”[31]

Still other reviewers complained that the movie was “monotonous in its messaging” without explaining what its message was,[32] and that it was a “humorless dirge.”[33] Yet another reviewer’s opinion was aptly summarized in the title of his review: “James Franco has directed some bad movies, but none as boring as ‘In Dubious Battle.’”  He went on to describe the movie as “conventionally dismal” and “about as urgent as required reading.”[34]  Stephen Holden concluded his review with what he seemingly thought was the consolation that “At least it means well.”[35]

I think that if James Franco and Matt Rager meant well in their film adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel, so much the worse for them because it is an insult to the book.  The problem with it isn’t just that it is a bad movie dramatically and a hodge-podge maladaptation of the novel.  Nor is the problem merely the insertion of gratuitous sex scenes that are apparently required for a Hollywood movie these days.  The problem is that the movie is stupid and gratuitously insulting to Steinbeck’s thematic intentions.

As to stupidity, two things particularly stand out.  First, the premise of the strike in the movie is that the fruit pickers are outraged they had been promised a wage of three dollars per day and it is being reduced to one dollar per day. This premise is repeatedly reiterated throughout the movie.  Now, such a reduction in a promised daily wage would certainly be grounds for workers’ anger if they were being paid a daily wage and would make a good premise for a strike. The problem is that fruit pickers are not paid by the day.

Paying pickers by the day would be a stupid thing for orchard owners to do, and they don’t do it in real life or in the book, because there would be no incentive for workers to pick very many pieces of fruit and the worst picker would get paid the same as the best.  In turn, the bosses would have to closely supervise the pickers to make sure they were working hard, as masters had to do under slavery because slaves had no incentive to work hard.  Such supervision would be expensive and troublesome.

The fact is that fruit pickers are paid by the quantity of fruit they pick and were paid that way in Steinbeck’s book.  The genius of the piece-work system is that workers are essentially self-supervised.  They will work as hard as they can in order to make as much money as they can.  Steinbeck clearly states in the novel that the workers’ grievance is that the piecework rate has been reduced, not some daily wage.  How could Franco and Rager have missed this point either in reading the book or in exercising their common sense?  It’s insulting to Steinbeck and to the movie’s audience.

Second, the movie portrays Mac, Jim and their fellow organizers as willing to sacrifice anything and everybody to win this strike.  But there is no reason given for why this little strike in one orchard should be so important to the organizers.  Steinbeck clearly explains in the book that this strike was just one in an extensive series of strikes that the organizers were promoting.  They did not expect to win them all and did not think any one of the strikes was crucial to their long-term organizing goals.  In fact, they opined that losing individual strikes can be almost as good as winning in the long run.  But the way Franco and Rager portray the situation, you would think it was Armageddon and the fate of the world was at stake.  It is just not believable.

In a significant departure from the book, the movie also does not clearly portray Mac and Jim as Communists.  Whereas the book opens with Jim going to a local Party office to join the Communist Party, the movie opens with him going to a nondescript office to join Mac in an organizing campaign.  The movie’s makers may have thought it would be hard to convince audiences to be sympathetic to protagonists who were Communists, but I disagree.  Movies such as Reds and The Front were able to portray erstwhile Communists in a sympathetic light without looking as though they endorsed Communism.  In any case, I think it would be useful to see how public opinion can change so quickly and thoroughly, as it did about Communists in the 1940’s.

We have seen such changes in the United States in recent years as, for example, with respect to sexual orientation.  Just a couple of decades ago, homosexuality was widely condemned and even illegal in many places, and so-called homosexuals were disqualified from public life.  That is no longer the case, and the change in attitudes toward gays, lesbians and others whose sexual orientations are other than so-called straight has been dramatic.  So, it is instructive to see that attitudes can abruptly change from rejection to acceptance as in the case of sexual orientation, but also from acceptance to rejection as it was in the case of Communist political orientation.

Worse than these blunders are the havoc the movie thematically wreaks on the novel.  The movie portrays Mac as a manipulative monster who is willing to sacrifice anybody and anything to win the strike.  He is in cahoots with a female organizer named Edie who is not in the book. The two of them mastermind and manipulate the strike.  Unlike the book, Mac and Edie make the key decisions and Mac doesn’t insist the workers make them.  And the things the movie has Mac do are not believable.

So, for example, at the beginning of the movie, instead of a ladder collapsing because of the negligence and callousness of the bosses, Mac sabotages the ladder so that a worker will be seriously hurt, which creates an opportunity for Mac to manipulate the pickers into striking.  Later in the strike Mac, not Jim as in the book, berates and brutalizes workers for weakening in their resolve.  And whereas in the book, a crazed striker burns down an orchard owner’s empty barn and no one is injured, in the movie, the daughter of a strike leader burns down a house, killing at least one person.  Mac then covers it up.

Several times during the movie, Mac and Edie set up the workers to be brutalized and shot by vigilantes and cops.  At the end of the movie, as the strike is fizzling, Edie sets up Jim to be ambushed and killed by the vigilantes as a means of creating a martyr to rally the workers to continue striking.   In a moment of remorse, Mac replaces Jim and is killed instead.  The movie closes with Jim using Mac’s body to rally the strikers.  In a postscript which runs with the credits, some discussion of union organizing under the NLRA, which is inapplicable to the fruit pickers’ situation, is irrelevantly flashed onto the screen.

In its treatment of Mac and Edie, the movie essentially equates the “ends justifies the means” approach of the bosses with that of the union organizers.  They are all equally callous, brutal and murderous in the movie.  This is contrary to Steinbeck’s intentions and insulting to organizers.  It is also insulting to workers because the implication of the movie is that the only way one can get ordinary people to stand up for themselves is to manipulate and trick them, and to organize them into communities of hate.

Steinbeck’s book starts with the assumption that organizing against oppression is worthwhile and then moves on to questions of strategies and tactics.  It essentially constitutes a debate about the means, ends and morality of organizing against oppression.  Franco’s movie rejects the assumption of Steinbeck’s book and raises, instead, the question of whether it is worthwhile to organize against oppression at all, given that you will have to engage in awful activities, face horrible repercussions, and almost certainly lose anyway.  The movie’s answer seems to be that resisting oppression isn’t worth it.  But then Franco has the audacity to insert into the closing credits a recording of Pete Seeger, a one-time Communist and unionist himself, singing the old union song “Which side are you on?”  What was Franco thinking?

The dubious in In Dubious Battle: Which side is God on?

“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”  Satan in Paradise Lost.

Most critics and interpreters of In Dubious Battle have problems with the title of the book and its epigraph.  The epigraph, from which the title is abstracted, is excerpted from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.  The poem describes Satan’s fall from Heaven in a momentous battle between his band of angels against the angels and the Son of God who remain loyal to God.  Decrying God as a tyrant, Satan declares for what could be considered a republic in place of God’s monarchy, and courageously rallies his troops time after time after being repeatedly defeated by God’s forces.

Written during the 1650’s in England, just after King Charles I had been deposed and decapitated, Satan voices arguments in the poem against God’s rule that Milton had previously voiced in political tracts against the King.  Satan’s arguments are persuasive, and interpreters almost universally declare Satan to be the most interesting and attractive character in the poem.  As a result, first time readers of the poem, and especially college students in freshmen English literature classes, almost invariably declare in favor of Satan as the hero of the poem.

But because God is God and not merely a mortal man, and because Milton was a devout Christian as well as a political rebel, Milton held that it is one thing to rise-up against an authoritarian King and another to rebel against the authority of a righteous God.  Rather than blaspheming against God’s almighty power, Milton described the poem as an attempt “to justify the ways of God to man.”  So, Milton clearly could not have intended Satan to be the hero of the poem.  But maybe he is anyway.  William Blake, himself a poet and devout Christian, said of Milton that he was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”  What about Steinbeck?

The epigraph to In Dubious Battle describes Satan recovering from another lost battle, rejoicing that although he had not yet defeated God, he had “shook his throne.”  Satan’s “unconquerable will” and his “courage never to submit or yield” will carry him and his cohort on in their dubious battle.  So long as they can keep up their rebellious spirits, “what is else not to be overcome?”  This sentiment aptly describes the theory and practice of Mac in the book.  Is Steinbeck using the epigraph to disparage Mac’s efforts as sacrilegious and unrighteous?  Sacrilegious maybe, I think, but not unrighteous.[36]

I think that Mac and Steinbeck his creator might agree with the irreverent community organizer Saul Alinsky in his celebration of Satan as “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom.”  Satan was, in Alinsky’s view, the first and most effective organizer in history.  Imagine convincing a bunch of angels to rebel against God and to keep up the fight against literally all odds.[37]

Steinbeck grew up in a conventionally Christian family but firmly rejected his religious upbringing.  While attending church with his family when he was nineteen years old, he heard the minister preach that “the soul is a creature that wants [spiritual] food to its satisfaction as truly as the body” wants material sustenance.  This was in 1921 in the midst of a severe economic depression featuring massive unemployment and homelessness.  Upon hearing the minister’s homily, an outraged Steinbeck stood up and shouted to the congregation “Yes, you all look satisfied here, while outside the world begs for a crust of bread or a chance to earn it.  Feed the body and the soul will take care of itself.”[38]  This sentiment pervades In Dubious Battle.

Steinbeck was not a college freshman when he took from Paradise Lost an epigraph for In Dubious Battle that is seemingly in praise of Satan.  But I think he was taking a poke at the smug, self-righteous, economically secure Christians of his day who scorned the migrants and immigrants who could not find gainful employment during the Great Depression or who had the audacity to rise-up against bosses who exploited them.  In Steinbeck’s view, voiced in the book by Mac, wealthy Americans worshipped in the religion of capitalism and Mammon was their god.  Among conservatives during the 1930’s, organizing strikes against greedy capitalists was the equivalent of Satan’s rebellion against God.  So be it, Steinbeck seemed to be saying.

The battle in the book was dubious both because its outcome was doubtful and because the rebels were continually faced with moral challenges in what they were doing.  It was not that they were deliberately causing anyone harm, and certainly not deliberately causing harm to their own people in order to stir up rebellion as Franco’s movie would have it.  It was that any rebellion risks retribution and will likely result in harm to at least some of the rebels.  Was it right to encourage people to take those risks and repeatedly lose battles in the short run in the hope of winning the war for a better world in the long run?  “Someday we’ll win,” Mac tells Jim at one point, “We’ve got to believe that.”[39]  That is, I think, Steinbeck’s answer to the question in this book.

BW 1/2019

[1] Geoffrey James. “Obama’s Picks for The Best Novels of All Time.” Inc., 2015.

[2] Peter Ferenbach. “These are a few of our favorite books…” rethink., 12/20/16.

[3] Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969 (originally 1946), p.157.

[4] Quoted in Warren French. “Introduction.” In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

[5] Shmoops Editorial Team. “In Dubious Battle.” Shmoop University, Inc. Accessed 1/14/19.

[6] Kirkus Review. “In Dubious Battle.” 10/5/11.

[7] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 103-105.

[8] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 229, 239.

[9] Stephen Cooper. “How John Steinbeck’s ‘In Dubious Battle’ Helps Us Navigate Social Discord.” Counter Punch Podcast, 6/21/17.

[10] Warren French. “Introduction.” In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

[11] Peter Ferenbach. “These are a few of our favorite books…” rethink., 12/20/16.

[12] Paul Wilson. “On John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle.Critical Mass. National Book Critics Circle, 1/11/17.

 [13] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.105.

[14] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp.4-7.

[15] Quoted in Warren French. “Introduction.” In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

[16] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp.21-22, 34.

[17] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.43

[18] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp.70-71.

[19] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.12, 124, 149.

[20] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 107, 122.

[21] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P.73

[22] Staughton Lynd. “John L. Lewis and His Critics: Some Forgotten Labor History that Still Matters Today.”  Class, Race and Corporate Power, Vol.5, Issue2, Article3, 2017 P.13.

[23] Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Pp. XIV, 17.  Staughton Lynd. “John L. Lewis and His Critics: Some Forgotten Labor History that Still Matters Today.”  Class, Race and Corporate Power, Vol.5, Issue2, Article3, 2017, P.10.

[24] Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Pp. IX, 131, 133, 185.

[25] Saul Alinsky. Reveille for Radicals. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Pp.89-90, 92, 95, 98, 167, 169.

[26] Quoted in Dylan Matthews. “Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does the right hate him so much.” Vox

[27] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 70-71, 120.

[28] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. Pp. 132, 135, 193-194.

[29] In Dubious Battle (Movie). James Franco, Director.  Matt Rager, Screenplay. Momentum Pictures, 2017.

[30] Stephen Holden. “In Dubious Battle.” The New York Times, 2/16/17.

[31] Justin Chang. “James Franco takes a page from Steinbeck in the laborious drama “In Dubious Battle.” The Los Angeles Times, 2/16/17.

[32] Brian Tallerico. “In Dubious Battle.”, 2/17/17.

[33] Jude Dry. “’In Dubious Battle’ Review: A James Franco Period Protest Drama, Dubiously Made.” 2/18/17.

[34] Ignately Vishnevetsky. “James Franco has directed some bad movies, but none as boring as ‘In Dubious Battle.’” 2/15/17.

[35] Stephen Holden. “In Dubious Battle.” The New York Times, 2/16/17.

[36] John Milton. Paradise Lost. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

[37] Saul Alinsky.  Rules for Radicals. “Introduction.” New York: Random House, 1971.

[38] Quoted in Susan Shilinglaw. “About John Steinbeck.”, 2012.

[39] John Steinbeck. In Dubious Battle. New York: Bantam Books, 1970. P. 111.


Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Pride goeth before a fish. Lions have small hearts and little stamina.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Pride goeth before a fish.

Lions have small hearts and little stamina.


Burton Weltman


School Days/School Daze: The wiseacre kid has a point.

A discussion of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is in progress in a class of high school sophomores.  The teacher is discoursing on the meaning of the novelette.  Most of the students are bored stiff, others are feverishly taking notes. This stuff may be on the test.  One kid is lounging in the back of the room with his hand raised.  The teacher is studiously ignoring him.

The Old Man and the Sea was first published in 1952.  Over the years, it has become a widely assigned book in middle and high school literature classes.  It is a famous book and won a Pulitzer Prize.  It was also cited when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature shortly after its publication.  It is a short and easy read, and it is full of potentially interesting things to discuss.  Assigning the book is a way of connecting young adult readers with one of the great writers of the twentieth century without requiring too much effort from them.

The story is about the struggles of an old and impoverished fisherman from a small Cuban village.  It seemingly takes place in 1949, as the old man, who is an avid baseball fan, mentions that Joe DiMaggio, the great New York Yankee outfielder, is injured with bone spurs, and DiMaggio suffered that injury in 1949.  As the story opens, the old man has gone eighty-four days without catching a big fish and is being shunned by some of his neighbors as a purveyor of bad luck.  The old man has apparently been a loner for most of his life, but has taken on a young assistant in recent years to help him fish in his old age.  But now the parents of his assistant have banned the boy from fishing with him for fear the boy might catch the old man’s bad luck.

The book’s opening line is “He was an old man who fished alone,” thereby highlighting the old man’s isolation.  The old man’s name is Santiago but the third person narrator of the story consistently refers to him as “the old man,” which also highlights his alienation. The old man fishes in a skiff, a small boat with oars and a sail.  The boat can be handled by one person but the other fishermen in the book seem to go out in their skiffs in groups of two or three, as had the old man with his young assistant before his shunning.  The old man is on his own and is desperate.

In his desperation to catch a big fish, the old man decides to sail farther out from the coast than he and the other fishermen have ever gone.  After most of a day of frustration, he finally hooks a huge marlin but cannot bring in the fish all by himself.  The marlin, hooked but still game and very strong, drags the skiff farther and farther away from the coast, with the old man hanging on for dear life.  This goes on for three grueling days until the fish finally tires and the old man is able to kill it with a harpoon.  The marlin is bigger than the old man’s boat so he has to tie it to the side of the skiff, leaving the fish to float in the water as they sail back to the shore in tandem.

The old man sets sail for home with what he celebrates as a glorious prize that will make him a lot of money and very famous.  But, no sooner does he start for home than sharks begin to attack the fish.  The old man furiously fights and kills many of the sharks, but it takes him a day to get back to shore and the marlin is completely devoured by sharks before he can get it home.  He arrives with a huge fish skeleton attached to his boat, much to the marvel of the villagers, but with nothing to sell in the market.

In the course of landing the fish and then trying to bring it back home, the old man suffers enormously from the elements, lack of food and water, lack of sleep, and injuries he sustains while fighting first with the marlin and then with the sharks.  The book contains extremely detailed descriptions of the sailing and fishing methods and the skills of the old man.  Hemingway is adept at making a riveting and moving adventure story out of complicated technical information about sailing and fishing.

Hemingway is also able to describe well and with great empathy the suffering of the old man, whose mental and physical endurance are remarkable.  But the old man suffers lapses in both.  In the course of struggling to land the marlin, for example, the old man comes to regard the fish as simultaneously his brother and his nemesis, and he talks to the fish as though the fish is his companion.  He sporadically realizes that he is becoming delusional, but can’t stop himself.

When the old man finally reaches home, he goes almost straight to sleep.  And that is how the book ends, with the old man having a recurring dream about a group of lions he had apparently once seen on a beach in Africa when he was a young sailor working on commercial vessels.  The last line is “The Old Man was dreaming about lions.”  He loves those lions, and throughout the story he repeatedly thinks and dreams about them, and wonders “Why are they the main thing that is left?” in his memories of his life.[1]

The Old Man and the Sea tells a simple story, but that does not mean its interpretation should be simple.  Immediately upon its publication, however, the book was saddled by influential reviewers with a simplistic interpretation describing it as a paean to heroic individualism. In this view, the old man triumphs over a hostile natural and social environment, bagging his fish even though he cannot bring it home.  He is a winner in his solitary struggle for self-respect against nature and his fellow men. And the book holds his individualism up as a model for humanity.[2] This view has over the years become fixed as the conventional interpretation of the book.

A recent reviewer, for example, referring to the old man’s perseverance in fighting the marlin and the sharks, and to his reveries about lions, has characterized the old man as a dreamer.  “A world without dreamers would be a nightmare,” this reviewer claims, and concludes that the moral of the story for readers is to persevere in their dreams, no matter what the obstacles or what other people say.[3]

Another recent reviewer similarly sees the moral of the story as “Heroism is possible in even the most mundane circumstances.”  That is, even a lowly fisherman can be a hero and we, who are most likely mundane people, should take a lesson in heroism from the old man.[4]  Placing a seal of establishment approval on this conventional interpretation, the Encyclopedia Britannica describes the book as a “heroic novel” about man proving himself through “overcoming the challenges of nature.”  The encyclopedia concludes that the story illustrates “The ability of the human spirit to endure hardship and suffering in order to win.”[5]

The underlying theme of conventional interpretations of the book is that the old man is a winner in his struggles with the fish, his environment, his society, and himself, and he is extolled as a heroic model for us to emulate.  This interpretation is the gist of the teacher’s discourse to the class.  When the teacher finishes, the student in the back is finally recognized by the teacher and the kid proceeds to proclaim that in his opinion the old man was an idiot who ended up with nothing, which is what was coming to him.  The teacher coolly rejects the student’s claim, in a tone that suggests this is the sort of wiseacre comment one would expect from this kid.  But is the kid wrong?  I think not, and I think it matters.

Conventional Interpretations: Doing a disservice to our students.

I have two main objections to the conventional interpretation of The Old Man and the Sea.  The first is that it confounds the differences between individualism and individuality.  Individualism essentially consists of doing your own thing, of, by and for yourself, irrespective of any relation with others.  Individuality essentially consists of finding your own voice and place within a group, and to make your own individual contribution to the collective effort.  The conventional interpretation describes the moral of the story as promoting individualism, whereas I think it promotes individuality.

The second problem I have with the conventional interpretation is that it misconstrues the form of the book.  There are many ways in which literary works can be characterized and categorized.  One way, which dates back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, is to distinguish between melodramas, tragedies, and comedies.  Melodrama can be described as a story of good against bad, good guys against bad guys, for example, or a good person battling against hostile circumstances.

Tragedy can be defined as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates disaster.  The character’s tragic flaw is pride and a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context beyond his own narrow vision.  Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his personal limits.

Comedy is generally defined as a story of wisdom versus folly, for example, wise people versus foolish people or a well-intentioned person doing something stupid.  A comedy need not be funny.  It is the stupidity of the fools that makes it comic.[6]

The lines between melodrama, tragedy, and comedy are not hard and fast, and the story forms overlap in many respects.  Each, for example, can contain elements of stupidity, conflict, violence, and pride, and each can have an unhappy ending.  Too much of one element can transform one story form into another.  Conventional interpretations describe The Old Man and the Sea as either a melodrama or a tragedy, or some combination of the two.  I think it is better read as a comedy.

Following the conventional interpretation, educational websites devoted to guiding students and teachers toward understanding the book all take the view that the story promotes individualism and takes the form of a melodrama, tragedy or combination of the two.  I think that this is a mistake and that it does a disservice to the story and to our students.

Typifying these academic helpmeets, the website describes the story in melodramatic terms as portraying “Heroism in struggle.”  According to this website, the novel describes a kill-or-be-killed world in which each man must heroically fight for his livelihood and life.  Pride may tragically lead a person to go too far, as it did when it led the old man to sail too far from shore, but pride is the “source of greatest determination” in men.  Without pride, men are losers.  The moral of the story, according to Sparknotes, is contained in a pep talk the old man gave to himself when he said that “Man is not made for defeat” and that a man may be “destroyed but not defeated.”  Sparknotes concludes that the story teaches us that men must follow their pride and never admit defeat.[7]

In a similar blog addressed to school teachers and students entitled “What lessons we can learn from The Old Man and the Sea,” the writer claims the moral of the story is that “Perseverance is a universal law.”  This blogger claims the book teaches us the virtues of individualism and going it alone.  Focusing on the shunning of the old man by the villagers, the blog concludes that the lesson of the book is that each of us must individually fight our own battles no matter whether or not other people support us.[8], another website for students and teachers, similarly claims that a combination of hope and pride may have led the old man to go too far in search of a fish, but the marlin symbolizes redemption for him even though he loses it.[9]

Many of these study guides for students and teachers focus on the old man’s preoccupation with lions.  They invariably claim that this preoccupation symbolizes the heroic perseverance and individualism that the old man exhibits. claims, for example, that the lions represent the “rejuvenation” of the old man and the return of his pride.  Pride may be a tragic flaw, the website acknowledges, but it is a virtue as well as a vice because it spurs the hero to action.  Symbolically, according to this website, “a group of lions is called a ‘pride.’”[10], yet another website for persevering students, also claims that lions are persevering predators who symbolize the perseverance of the old man. The old man, this website insists, identifies with lions and they inspire his perseverance.[11]  Finally,, whose author advertises himself as “a certified educator,” claims that the lions represent the old man’s vitality and “his victory over village prejudice.”  According to this educator, the lesson of the book for young students is to go their own ways no matter what others say.[12]

Echoing the conventional interpretation of the book, the common theme of all these educational websites is that the old man is a winner even though he ends up empty handed, seriously injured, and completely wiped out.  And the websites all claim that the book promotes the old man’s actions as a model of individualistic heroism for readers of the book.  I don’t agree.  I think these educators have misread the book and missed the boat and, speaking as a former teacher and former professor of education, I think they are doing a disservice to students.

Prides Foolish, Tragic, and Leonine: Getting things straight.

Pace the conventional interpretation, I agree with the wiseacre kid’s take on the book.  And I think his reaction reflects that of most students when they read it, which is that the old man is portrayed in the story as a fool.  It was my reaction when I first read the book some sixty years ago.  And I think the reaction of most people would be that the old man should not be fishing alone, should not have gone out as far from shore as he did, and should not have continued fighting the marlin and then the sharks, but should have cut loose the fish rather than fight him to the end and the sharks thereafter.  And, most significantly, the old man acknowledges all of this in the course of the book.

The old man repeatedly mourns that he does not have someone else with him in the boat. “I wish I had the boy,” he recites over and over.[13]  He frequently berates himself for having forgotten to bring some necessary piece of equipment. “You should have brought many things, he thought. But you did not bring them, old man.”[14]  He admits in the end that he has been defeated and is a loser.[15]  “They truly beat me,” he acknowledges.[16]  And he blames his disastrous loss on his own foolish pride.[17]  “You violated your luck when you went too far outside,” he complains to himself.[18]  So, the wise guy reaction is the old man’s own reaction, and the conventional interpreters and teachers have got him wrong.

I think the book is best described in literary terms as a comedy since even the old man denominates himself a fool.  That does not mean we are supposed to mock or reject the old man.  He is someone with whom we are intended to identify and empathize based on our own sometimes foolish pride and risky inclinations, but he is not someone whose behavior we should emulate or promote as a role model for young people.  Rather than a paean to individualism and individual heroism, the book is an argument against individualism and an argument in favor of cooperation.  And the old man’s fixation on lions supports this conclusion.

Contrary to the way lions are mistakenly described in conventional interpretations of the book, lions are widely known for hunting in groups rather than alone, and for lacking stamina and perseverance.  Lions are the only cats who live and hunt together in groups rather than individually.  And it’s a good thing for them that they do because they have small hearts and lack stamina.  They can run fifty miles per hour for a few hundred yards, but then they are finished and give up.  If a gazelle gets a head start on a lion, it is home free.  If lions didn’t help each other with hunting, by surrounding an animal so that it can’t get away, they would starve.

These are facts of leonine life that a big game hunter like Hemingway would surely have known, and these facts completely undermine the conventional interpretation of the lions in the book.  It is also the case that a “pride” is a group of female lions, and it is the females who generally do the hunting for the larger group of male and female lions.  A group of male lions is called a “coalition.”  Using the word “pride” to characterize the old man is, therefore, not, as conventional interpretations claim, a macho masculine reference to male lions.  In any case, the old man thinks and dreams of groups of lions who are playing together, not solitary individual lions.  His preoccupation with lions seems, therefore, to be a dream in favor of collective life, not individualism.

The conventional interpretation also misreads the book in describing the story as a struggle of man against nature as though nature is the enemy of man and the old man must wage war against nature.  But neither the narrator in the book nor the old man describes things in those terms.  The old man and his fellow fishermen are, instead, portrayed as links in the natural chain, in the circle of life as it is popularly described in the musical “The Lion King.”  Nature is the fishermen’s element, not their enemy.[19]  When some of his neighbors shun the old man, they are essentially saying that he is a weak link in the chain and they don’t want him to break it for them altogether.  They still care about him and take care of him, but they need to protect the community.

It is the old man who declares war against nature, not vice versa.  When he decides to sail farther out than he naturally would, and then battles a fish and a pack of sharks that are too much for him, the old man undertakes an unnatural act.  It is a proudful act that takes him out of the natural chain of things, as he later admits.  In the natural chain, big fish catch and eat little fish, and people catch and eat big fish.  That is in the nature of things.  It is a struggle, but an ordinary course of business.  The old man declared war on nature where none naturally existed.

The old man compounds this misstep by anthropomorphizing the marlin and characterizing their struggle as a battle of egos and wills.  Speaking of the marlin, he says “I will show him what a man can do and what a man can endure.”[20] The old man treats the fish as though it is a self-conscious competitor, like Ahab chasing after Moby Dick, rather than merely a fish looking to eat other fish and survive.  Speaking to the fish, the old man says “Fish, he said, I love and respect you very much.  But I will kill you dead before the day ends.”[21]  Commenting on the unnatural implications of this statement, one reviewer has asked “Is killing what you love a tenable position?”[22]   In his foolish pride, the old man has left even his human nature behind.

Another crucial mistake that conventional interpreters make is to take things the old man says in the midst of his difficulties as being the old man’s and the book’s final conclusions about things.  When the old man says that a man can never be defeated and other proudful things in the course of his struggles, he is trying to egg himself on to keep up the fight.  And it works.  He fights his way through to the end of his Quixotic voyage, exhibiting a perseverance no lion could.

But then the old man reflects further on what he is doing and has done, and he comes to conclusions opposite to what he was saying before.  Finally, he collapses and dreams of lions playing on the beach.  Not a heroic ending and not a self-styled hero.  Just a fisherman who foolishly got carried away with himself and with a fish.  And in his last conversations with the boy before he nods off to sleep, he says that he is never going to do anything so foolish again.

The Moral of the Story and the Story of the Story.

I think the moral of the story of The Old Man and the Sea consists of a plea for cooperation, pragmatism and humility. The old man’s redemption is not in catching the fish as some conventional interpreters hold but in ultimately recognizing that he is a person who needs people, as the popular song goes.  Not individualism but collectivism, and not pride but humility, is the moral.  “I missed you,” the old man admits to the boy just before he falls asleep at the end.[23]

This moral is consistent with other of Hemingway’s writings, such as his most famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls. That book takes its title and its main theme from a poem by John Donne that asserts “no man is an island,” that all people are interconnected, and that one person’s life is everyone’s life, one person’s death everyone’s death.  Hemingway is known for his macho heroes but like Robert Jordan, the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, they generally fight for the common good alongside common people.  The old man learns this lesson in the book.

So, how could it be that The Old Man and the Sea has been so widely misinterpreted for so long?  And how can it be that teachers routinely override a critical reading of the book by students so as to make studying the book an indoctrination in an individualistic ideology that the story doesn’t support?  I think the original misinterpretation was a product of the times in which the book was first published, and it was then carried forward by intellectual and educational inertia.

The book was published in 1952, shortly after the United States had come out of the fight against totalitarian Nazism and fascism in World War II, and when the country was engaged in a burgeoning Cold War against the collectivist Soviet Union and Red Scare against domestic Communists.  Fears of totalitarian collectivism and mindless conformity were widespread on both the anti-socialist political right and the anti-Communist political left.  Concerns that the United States was becoming a mass society in which politicians, corporations and the mass media were promoting mind control and mediocrity for political and commercial ends pervaded the political spectrum.

These concerns were typified by the popularity among conservatives of Ayn Rand’s book (1943) and movie (1949) Fountainhead which extolled individualism and excoriated collectivism.  Among liberals, The Lonely Crowd (1951) by David Reisman and others was a widely praised sociological study of conformity, focusing on the transition of Americans from being “inner-directed” by their consciences to being “other-directed” by the need to conform.  Among socialists, The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by Theodor Adorno and others was a highly regarded sociological study of the susceptibility of people, and Americans in particular, to demagogues and dictators.  On all sides of the literary political spectrum, intellectuals were looking to save the individual from being swallowed up in a mass society.

Bur there are significant political differences between individualism and individuality.  Individuality is a pro-social attitude promoted by most liberals and socialists.  Society for them is a caring community in the nature of a family.  Individualism is an anti-social attitude promoted by most conservatives.  Society for them is just a collection of individuals who are connected mainly by contracts. What happened with the interpretation of The Old Man and the Sea is just a small example of what happened to American culture during the Cold War.  Conservatives grabbed the upper hand and individualism became pervasive throughout the culture.

The conventional interpretation of The Old Man and the Sea feeds into an anti-social conservative attitude which is not supported by the book.  When he wrote the book, Hemingway was still a man of the 1930’s for whom the individual should operate within a cooperative context.  He was still the author of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  And that, I think, is what The Old Man and the Sea is about.  “No man is an island” would be a fitting epigram for the book.  Hemingway was promoting individuality in the book, not individualism.

Although the Cold War is long over, much of its cultural legacy lingers and this has consequences, as I think we see in the political and social conflicts occurring in the United States today. It is, therefore, long overdue to set the record straight about The Old Man and the Sea.  It is about individuality, not individualism.  The old man learns in the course of the book that he can be an individual without becoming an isolated individualist, and that he is part of a caring community.  After he gets back from his multi-day ordeal, the old man asks the boy “Did they search for me,” as though he thought the community might not care if he was lost.  The boy replies “Of course.  With coast guard and with planes.”  The old man seems gratified.  He is a part of a community and the community cares about him.  This communalism in the story is generally lost in the conventional interpretation which itself gets lost in individualism.

As teachers, we need to promote the individuality of our students.  They have to be able to think for themselves so as to better understand what is going on around them and, most important, recognize whom they can trust.  We now live in an age of “fake news” in which the mass media, and especially the all-pervasive internet, are filled with false stories and false interpretations of anything and everything.  The President of the United States has himself become our liar-in-chief and, amazingly, we cannot take as reliable truth a thing that the highest official in our country says.  So, whom can we trust and how do we know we can trust them?

It has, therefore, become more important than ever for young people to learn how to think critically and not merely accept what someone tells them, not even their teachers.  That is, I think, the moral of the moral of the story of The Old Man and the Sea.

BW 12/14/18

[1] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. pp.20, 41, 48, 72.

[2] Robert Gorham Davis. “Books: Hemmingway’s Tragic Fisherman.” 9/7/52.

[3] Russell Cunningham. “Books to give you hope: The Old Man and the Sea.” 8/24/16.

[4] James Topham. “The Old Man and the Sea, Review.”  3/17/18.

[5] Encyclopedia Britannica. The Old Man and the Sea.” 11/23/18.

[6] Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. pp.59, 61, 81-86. Kenneth Burke. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press. 1961. pp 37, 39, 41. Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.1954. pp.35, 82-100, 172.

[7]The Old Man and the Sea.”  11/23/18.

[8] Matt Reimann. “What lessons we can learn from The Old Man and the Sea.” 10/1/15.

[9] Joe Ricker. “Symbolism of the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea.” Retrieved 12/7/18.

[10]The Old Man and the Sea: Symbol Analysis.”  Accessed 12/7/18.

[11]The Old Man and the Sea: The Lions.”  11/23/18.

[12] Belarfon. “What significance do the lions on the beach have in The Old Man and the Sea?”

[13] Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. pp.30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 39, 49.

[14] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.65.

[15] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.69.

[16] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.71.

[17] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.62.

[18] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.68.

[19] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. pp.22, 27.

[20] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.41.

[21] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.34.

[22] Mary Eisenhart. “Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea.”

[23] Ernest Hemingway.  The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner Classics, 1952. p.72.


Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Defending Established Institutions in Changing Times: How not to do it.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Defending Established Institutions in Changing Times:

How not to do it.

 Burton Weltman

 “Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen.”

The Times They Are A-changing.  Bob Dylan.

Prologue: Friends, Nobles and Englishmen, Lend Me Your Ears.

“You say you want a revolution?”  Revolution. The Beatles.

Shakespeare did not want a revolution.  He wanted, instead, to give peace a chance.  Most of his plays reflect a nervous man living in a nerve-wracking time.  And although they often portray his dissatisfaction with much that went on around him, they also reflect caution in what he thought could safely be done to make things better.  Political and religious revolutions had wracked England for most of the sixteenth century. Julius Caesar, written in 1599, reflects Shakespeare’s fear of more of that.

Shakespeare could be described politically as what we might today call a pragmatist and a reformer rather than a revolutionary.  He could be considered liberal in the original sense of that term, that is, as someone who is generous, because he often portrayed the poor, the downtrodden, women, servants, and outcasts in sympathetic ways and their oppressors in harsh terms.  But he could also be considered conservative in the original sense of that term as someone who wanted to preserve established institutions rather than replace them.  Shakespeare’s overriding concern seemed to be that the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned revolution could end up making things worse rather than better.  Julius Caesar exemplifies that concern.  

Every period of history can probably be described as a time of turmoil and change, when old ways were failing and new ways were struggling into existence.  When people describe their own time, they are especially prone to describing things in this way.  And they almost always think of their own time as particularly perilous in comparison with past times that they retrospectively view as tranquil and settled.[1]  Shakespeare was like most people in thinking his own era perilous and, in fact, he lived at a particularly tumultuous time in English history.  But, unlike most people, Shakespeare did not portray his era as uniquely the worst of all possible worlds.  He seemed, instead, interested in finding parallels to his own time in past ages and then portraying those past times as exemplary lessons for his own.  His Julius Caesar is an example.

Julius Caesar is a psychological-political thriller.  A group of Roman patricians hope to save their republican form of government by conspiring to kill Julius Caesar, who seemingly aspires to be king.  Caesar is a very popular and victorious general, and although the conspirators admit he has hitherto been a reasonable man, they fear what ambition may lead him to become.  Brutus, their leader, rationalizes that they must “think him [Caesar] as a serpent’s egg, which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell.” Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 33-36.  The conspirators envision their action as a preemptive revolution against a potential tyrant.  But Brutus isn’t sure, and the many halting breaks in his speech – all those commas – reflect his ambivalence and his need to reassure himself as to what they are doing.

Although their goal is to save the Republic, the conspirators ignore the established republican institutions for dealing with political problems – the Consuls and Patrician Senate, the Tribunes and Citizen Assembly – and resort instead to assassination.  They think they will be hailed as “The men that gave their country liberty.” Act 3, Scene 1, Line 133.  But Caesar’s murder triggers a civil war between the friends and foes of the dead man.  The partisans “let slip the dogs of war,” as each party tries militarily to impose its will on the other, both relying on what are essentially private armies.  Act 3, Scene 1, Line 299.  There is nothing republican about that.

The play ends with the civil war still ongoing but Shakespeare’s audience knew and we today know from history that the outcome was a Roman government dominated by an emperor, the very sort of evil that the conspirators had hoped to avoid.  In short, an attempted preemptive revolution to restore Rome’s republican roots turns against itself and becomes a counterrevolution that uproots the Republic and implants an imperial dictator.

Julius Caesar is a powerful psychological drama.  The emotional twists and turns of the main characters, their reasonings and rationalizations, accusations and defensiveness, are riveting.  The play has been criticized as too full of speechifying and it can, in fact, be performed as a series of boring declamations.[2]  But the speeches can also be emotionally and intellectually compelling, and the play can be a vehicle for great acting.  Mark Antony’s famous funeral oration for Caesar – “Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me your ears”– is only one among a dozen examples of speeches that can make for brilliant theater. Act 3, Scene 2, Line 82 et seq.

Likewise, the political maneuvering of the conspirators is riveting.  The ways and means with which they convince each other that what they are doing is right, and then convince others to join them, constitute a first-rate lesson in high-stakes politicking, political manipulation, and powerful demagoguery.  Many of these speeches, especially those of Brutus’ co-conspirator Cassius and Caesar’s ally Mark Antony, are diabolically clever. The devious Cassius has most of the best lines in the play, including the famous line “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings” when he is trying to manipulate Brutus into joining the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  A great line for a vile purpose.  Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 145-146.

The action in the play is mainly moved by poseurs trying to manipulate each other and the citizenry.  Caesar pretends he does not want to be king when he really does.  Cassius pretends he is most interested in saving the Republic when his primary interests seem to be pecuniary.  Antony pretends to respect Brutus in his funeral speech for Caesar and his funereal speech after Brutus’ death, in both of which he praises Brutus as an honorable man while actually seeking Brutus’ death in the former speech and celebrating Brutus’ death in the latter.  Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 74-81.

The play is full of drama, melodrama, riveting lines, and complex personalities.  As a political thriller it gets our attention.  As a psychodrama, it triggers our empathy and antipathy for various characters.  Most interpreters focus on the psychological turmoil of Brutus, which is excruciating – Caesar and he had been close friends – and many see the play as a melodrama about friendship and betrayal.[3]   Other critics debate whether the play is or is not a tragedy, and whether Brutus is a fool or a tragic hero.[4]  Many interpreters see the play as reflecting anxiety that England might descend into civil war when the childless Queen Elizabeth died without an heir.[5]  But they describe the politics in the play and in Shakespeare’s England in terms of personal power trips, and not in institutional terms.[6]  While I think all of these interpretations have merit, I think Shakespeare’s concerns run further.

I think the play has an institutional underpinning that is often unrecognized and underplayed.  Although personalities and personal conflicts take center stage, the backdrop of the play is the failure of established institutions and the failure of the parties to support them.  The underlying message of the play spoke to institutional concerns of Shakespeare’s audience that went beyond personalities and power trips.  The speeches and actions of the main characters reflect important debates about governmental institutions and social norms that had taken place in ancient Rome but that were also taking place in Shakespeare’s England.

Shakespeare intended, I believe, to illustrate what he saw as the disastrous consequences of neglecting established institutions and ignoring established social norms in attempting to cope with social problems in changing times.  And the moral of Julius Caesar is that attempted revolutions, whatever the merits of their motives, and whether they are from what we would call the political left or the right, often promote the evils they were intended to forestall.  It was a warning to Shakespeare’s contemporaries that still resonates with us today.

Changing Times: Shakespeare Does the Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic.

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”  George Orwell.

Shakespeare had a recurring interest in the history of the Roman Republic. He wrote one play about the rise of the Republic, Coriolanus, and two plays about its fall, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.  In each of these plays, he focused on the precariousness of Rome’s republican institutions and their susceptibility to demagogues who threatened to establish autocratic dictatorships.  In so doing, he was not demonstrating a bias against republics.  In fact, Shakespeare wrote many plays that emphasize the susceptibility of not only republics but also monarchical regimes to becoming tyrannies, including Hamlet, Macbeth and most of his English history plays.  He also authored several plays that take place in relatively stable Italian republics.

A key difference between the stable and unstable regimes in Shakespeare’s plays seems to be whether they are primarily commercial societies, like the medieval Italian city-states, or primarily military regimes.  The Roman Republic lived in large part on the spoils of wars of conquest and on tribute from conquered territories, making it particularly susceptible to potential military takeovers — the subject of Coriolanus which takes place at the beginning of the Republic and Julius Caesar at the end.  Shakespeare seemed to be sending a message that peaceful commercial development would be better for England than military conquest.

Julius Caesar is set in the mid-first century BCE in the midst of an extreme institutional crisis of the Roman Republic.  The Republic had been established in the sixth century BCE when the last of the Roman kings was overthrown in a revolt led by a distant ancestor of Brutus.  At that time, the Senate, which had been merely an advisory body of aristocrats to the king, became a focal point of the new government.  Instead of a king, the executive powers of the government were placed in the hands of two Consuls who were chosen by the Senate with the assent of a general assembly of Roman citizens.  Each Consul could veto the actions of the other, thereby avoiding the possibility of a dictatorship.  The Senate also generally proposed legislation, but it had to be approved by the citizen assembly.  In turn, the assembly elected two Tribunes who represented the interests of ordinary citizens in negotiations with the Consuls and the Senate.  It was a mixed government that ostensibly balanced the interests of all Roman citizens.

The Republic was a government of Rome’s citizens but it must be noted that most of Rome’s residents were not citizens.  Roman society was based on the institution of slavery.  Slaves made up some thirty to forty percent of the Roman populace, and slaves did almost all of the agricultural, industrial and other menial work.  Subtracting the slaves and the substantial number of resident foreigners from the total population, citizens made up less than half the populace of Rome.  Citizens were, in turn, divided between wealthy aristocratic patricians who were represented in the Senate and lower-class plebeians represented by the Tribunes.

Plebeians were sometimes hard-up and needed government welfare support, but it must be emphasized that the plebeian assembly was made up of independent citizens and not menial slaves or serfs.  I think this could be a reason Shakespeare sometimes portrays crowds of citizens in Ancient Rome with some respect as compared with the disrespect he generally shows to mobs of landless peasants and menial workers in his plays about medieval England.

Julius Caesar portrays a major turning point in Roman history and the history of the Western World.  The Republic, which had functioned for some five hundred years, was tottering.  The previous hundred years had been punctuated by conflicts, sometimes very violent, between the patricians and the plebeians.  Concerns with instability and public corruption were widespread.

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar returned to Rome as a conquering military hero who had significantly expanded the sway of Rome in Europe and added to Rome’s coffers.  He represented the sort of strong leader who might restore Rome to law and order, and he seemed to aspire to turn the clock back to times before the Republic by becoming the King of Rome.  At a mass meeting of citizens, Caesar is playfully offered a pretend crown by his ally Mark Antony.  This game between them appears to be a trial balloon to see if citizens might approve the real thing.  But their balloon is deflated when Caesar, to his dismay, is applauded by the crowd when he declines to put on the fake crown. Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 225-275.

But the game is not over, and Brutus and other patricians fear that Caesar may eventually accept a real crown with the approval of the citizen assembly. Instigated by Cassius, a corrupt associate of Brutus, Brutus organizes a conspiracy to murder Caesar in the hope of saving the Republic.  The conspirators do not consult with the Consuls, the Senate or the Tribunes.  And they do not follow up on what appears to be the rejection of a kingship by the plebeian citizens when they applauded Caesar’s refusal of the fake crown

This essentially describes the history out of which Shakespeare constructed his play and with which he assumed his audience was familiar.  Roman history was standard fare in the educational system of his time, and much of his audience would have been familiar with the politics of Ancient Rome.  That is why Shakespeare was able to place several of his plays in ancient Rome – Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus in addition to Julius Caesar.  He set the actions of his protagonists in Julius Caesar within an institutional context which he expected his audience to understand.

Given this context, a key to Shakespeare’s message in the play is that the conspirators do not work through established republican institutions – the Consuls, the Senate, the Tribunes – and fail to adhere to longstanding republican norms in their effort to save the Republic.  I think Shakespeare expected his audience to notice this, and to understand that the conspirators’ failure to respect established institutions and norms contributed significantly to their failure.  Acting on their own noble initiative, with Cassius spurring Brutus on by repeatedly referring to the heroic actions of Brutus’ sixth-century ancestor, the conspirators chose means to save the Republic that only precipitated the very result they had hoped to avoid.  In killing Caesar, they essentially murdered the Republic and made way for a dictatorial emperor to take power.

Changing Times: Shakespeare and the Transition from Medieval to Modern Society.

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.”  Mao Zedong.

Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in the late seventeenth century in the midst of significant institutional crises in England.  Shakespeare lived at a time recognized by him his contemporaries to be full of major social turmoil and institutional changes, changes that historians today characterize as the transition from the traditional society of the Middle Ages to a more dynamic modern society.  Feudalism was in its last throes, capitalism was in its thriving infancy.  A relatively cohesive society based on personal relations and local norms was being replaced by a more chaotic society based on competitive relations and impersonal contracts.  Money was increasingly becoming the measure of all things. There was greater freedom but less communality and seemingly more cold calculation.

Shakespeare lived through a period of relative calm in between the storms of the first half of the sixteenth century and the last half of the seventeenth.  When he wrote Julius Caesar, Queen Elizabeth I had been on the throne for some forty years.  But Shakespeare was a child of the turmoil of previous generations. In the twenty years prior to Elizabeth’s ascension in 1558, three monarchs had been overthrown, one of whom had been beheaded.  In the forty years before Elizabeth’s ascension, England had been forcefully converted and reconverted from Catholicism to Protestantism, back to Catholicism and then back to Protestantism, with much violence and many executions in the process.  Religious animosity between Catholics and Protestants in England, and wars between Protestant England and Catholic countries, was continuous throughout Elizabeth’s reign and Shakespeare’s life, and religious animosity figures in many of his plays.  If you see a Catholic priest in a Shakespeare play, you can predict he is up to no good.

Queen Elizabeth’s rule was also fraught with many plots against her by would-be strong-armed leaders, including two attempts to overthrow her by Mary Queen of Scots and Mary’s various male allies; two attempts by the Spanish King and his armadas; four plots to overthrow her by Robert Ridolfi, Francis Throckmorton, Anthony Babington, and Roderigo Lopez; and, the Essex Rebellion against her led by Robert Devereux.  During her reign, Elizabeth also battled with Parliament, which had been not much more than a rubber stamp of the Kings’ actions before her time, but became increasingly assertive against Elizabeth and insisted on concessions in exchange for voting her the funds she needed to govern.

Meanwhile, during Elizabeth’s reign, English landowners were increasingly displacing peasant farmers from their land in favor of raising sheep for wool.  This Enclosure Movement was causing havoc in the countryside, with homeless peasants wandering about looking for work, begging for food, and committing crimes to survive.  Medieval serfdom had tied the peasants to the land so that they were not free to leave, but it also prohibited the lords of the lands from displacing them.  With the end of feudalism and serfdom with it, peasants were free to leave the land and landlords were free to push them off.  This was the mob that Shakespeare feared.

Elizabeth’s reign was, thus, full of plots, subplots, and perils.  And Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Julius Caesar, were reactions against this institutional instability.  Shakespeare seems to fear that what happened to Rome could happen to England, and he does not want that.

Shakespeare on Social Change: Respect and Reconciliation over Revenge and Revolution.

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”  Won’t Get Fooled Again.  The Who.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays reflect an ambivalence about the dramatic social changes that were taking place in England, and a concern with the problems that arise when established institutions and norms fail.  His plays focus on institutional turmoil, and many have either unhappy endings or only superficially happy endings.  He repeatedly wrote about decent rulers being deposed by usurpers who then wreak havoc.  While part of Shakespeare’s motive in writing so much about turmoil may be that turmoil is more interesting in a play than peace and tranquility, the plays also seem to reflect deep concerns of Shakespeare and his audience.

These concerns are particularly evident in Shakespeare’s history plays that cover roughly the period in English history from the early 1200’s to the mid 1500’s, that is, from what we can date as the beginnings of the end of feudalism to the beginnings of the rise of modern capitalism. These plays focus on the tumultuous rising and falling of kings, and the failure of established feudal and religious institutions and norms to prevent violence and ensure social stability.

Henry IV, for example, deals with the consequences of Henry’s usurpation of the English throne from Richard II.  Likewise, Richard III deals with Richard’s usurpation of the throne from his brother’s rightful heirs.  Both plays devolve into civil wars and death all around.  They are not happy tales of English history.  Coup after coup, violent revolt after violent revolt, English history as portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays was a hellish mess.  These same concerns are evident in most of his other plays.

In Macbeth, for example, the problem is that Macbeth not only violates his feudal oath and duties to his king, he also violates the Sixth Commandment against murder when he kills the king, and violates the even more ancient and universal rules of hospitality: Thou shalt not kill your guests.  The play resounds with the breakdown of moral and political norms and institutions.  This breakdown is seemingly the witches’ satanic goal, to create a lawless situation of each against each and all against all, a hell on earth.  And they succeed.  The ability of satanic characters to wreak havoc concerned Shakespeare in Macbeth and other plays.

In Hamlet, younger brother Claudius kills his older brother and usurps the Danish throne over his brother’s rightful heir, Hamlet.  Hamlet is goaded into revenge by what I interpret as a satanic ghost.  Revenge does not generally turn out well in Shakespeare’s plays and usually redounds onto the perpetrator.  The result in Hamlet is death all around and the conquest of Denmark by the Norwegians, not a happy outcome for the country.[7]

Even Shakespeare’s comedies reflect concerns about legitimate rulers being overthrown and institutional norms being flouted, for example, in As You Like It, which was written at about the same time as Julius Caesar, and in Shakespeare’s last major play The Tempest.  In As You Like It, younger brother Frederick usurps the throne of his older brother Duke Senior, who escapes with his retinue to live in a forest.  In The Tempest, younger brother Antonio usurps the throne of Milan from older brother Prospero, who escapes to a deserted island with his daughter.

In both plays the usurpers come to see the errors of their ways, everyone is reconciled, and the older brothers are restored to their rightful places through implausible plot contrivances. These plays have happy endings, and a happy ending is one of the things that generally distinguishes a comedy from a tragedy.  But the plays are still troubling when you contrast the realism of the usurpations with the unreality of the restorations.  And I think we are expected to realize this.

Shakespeare was clearly worried.  Most of his plays, both the fictional and the ostensibly factual, focus on the disorder and death that arise from a disrespect of established institutions and institutional norms, especially as to the succession of rulers.  Julius Caesar highlights the problems that worried Shakespeare since both sides of the dispute in that play – Caesar and his heirs Antony and Octavius on the one hand, and Brutus and his allies on the other – eschew established institutions and orderly procedure for violence and war.  Both Caesar’s portended revolution and Brutus’ preemptive counterrevolution violate republican norms and procedures, as does the civil war that follows.  The cure is, in this case, at least as bad as the disease.

The Tendency for Revolutionaries to go too far, and for Revolutions to go not far enough.

“Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny; they have only shifted it to another shoulder.”  George Bernard Shaw.

Shakespeare was not a troglodyte.  Conservative in his respect for established institutions and the Establishment, he was liberal in his compassion toward the downtrodden and was generally opposed to war.  In As You Like It, for example, he favors women’s rights.[8]  In Twelfth Night, he opposes the mistreatment of servants.[9]  In Coriolanus, he is sympathetic to the plight of the lower classes.[10]  In The Merchant of Venice, he opposes antisemitism.[11]  In Henry V, he unfavorably portrays the causes and effects of war.  Shakespeare has more bad rulers in his plays than good.  But he repeatedly favors due process and reconciliation over revolution or revenge.  So, Shakespeare could be considered a reformer who wants a better world, but also wants to protect established institutions for fear of the chaos and violence that attends revolution.  And this is what we see in Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare gives us an indication of the way he might recommend handling someone like Caesar in the opening of the play.  The play opens with the two Roman Tribunes chastising a group of citizens for not being at work and for flocking to support Caesar when they had previously adored a general named Pompey.  The Tribunes fear that the citizens are fickle, supporting whoever is the latest military hero, and they are concerned that the Citizens Assembly might support an attempt by Caesar to seize power.  The Tribunes determine to clip the wings of Caesar, “Who else would soar above the view of men and keep us all in servile fearfulness.”  Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 79-80.  They try to stir up public opinion against Caesar’s seizing power, and their efforts seem to have had success when the citizens subsequently applaud Caesar’s refusal of the crown offered by Antony.  The problem is that Brutus and his allies, instead of building on this popular success and institutional foundation, decide to eschew institutional processes for unilateral assassination.

Julius Caesar is a play about preemptive actions and overreactions.  The Tribunes open the play with an emotional reaction to the adoration of Caesar by a group of citizens.  The Tribunes fear the masses will support Caesar’s apparent ambition to be king.  But Tribunes take action to diminish Caesar’s popular appeal, and the citizens don’t support his taking the crown.  Brutus also fears Caesar’s ambition and worries about Caesar’s popularity, but Brutus overreacts in thinking that assassination is the only way to stop Caesar.  Instead of relying on institutional mechanisms, he bypasses them and undermines his own goal.  Later in the play, Brutus and Cassius overreact and almost come to blows when each criticizes the other about who is to blame for their perilous situation.  Cassius then overreacts and commits suicide when he thinks his comrade Messala has been captured by enemy troops, which he hasn’t.  Finally, Brutus kills himself when he thinks all is lost, but it really isn’t.

Julius Caesar is also a play about revolutionaries going both too far and not far enough.  Brutus goes too far in eschewing established institutions in an effort to save them but he goes not far enough when he refuses Cassius’ advice to kill Antony along with Caesar.  Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 170-195.  Brutus’ soft-heartedness is his downfall since it is Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar that turns the citizenry against Brutus and the other assassins, and that provokes the civil war that ends with an imperial regime.

Caesar’s avengers Octavius and Antony are not so soft-hearted and they kill all who oppose them, including friends and family members.  Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 1-4.  They also take extreme actions against the Republic that Caesar would likely never have done, decimating the Senate and “put[ting] to death an hundred senators.” Act 4, Scene 3, Line 201.  We know today and Shakespeare’s audience also knew that no sooner have Octavius and Antony dispatched Brutus’ allies than they turn on each other and fight for power.  We also know that Antony will commit suicide after his army is defeated by that of Octavius, and that Octavius will become the first Roman emperor, renaming himself Augustus to match his august position.  Finally, we know that while the institutions of the Republic were formally retained by Augustus (Octavius), they were hollow shells that existed only to support his rule.  In sum, the actions of the revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries in Julius Caesar were a bloody mess that wrecked the Republic.

I don’t think that these institutional causes and consequences are sufficiently played in most productions of Julius Caesar.  As a means of emphasizing the underlying institutional concerns of Shakespeare in this play and the consequences of the characters’ actions, I would suggest staging the play with groups of people congregating upstage who represent the two Consuls, the two Tribunes, the Senators, and the Citizens.  The actors representing these republican institutions could step downstage as they appear as characters in the play, and then return to their institutional places when their scenes are over.  The actors could also pantomime reactions to events as the action affects their respective institutions.  Brutus’ allies and the various Senators killed by Octavius and Antony could also be seen being murdered.

As the play ends, Antony says nice things about the dead Brutus, beginning with “This was the noblest Roman of them all” and ending with a claim that Brutus’ virtues were so great that “nature might stand up and say to all the world ‘This was a man.’” Octavius concurs and finishes the play with “let’s away to part the glories of this happy day.”  Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 74-81, 87-88.  These lines are generally played as though Antony and Octavius are sincerely mourning Brutus.  I suggest that, to the contrary, Antony’s tone when saying these things be haughty and insincere, and likewise with Octavius who is more interested in starting to party than in mourning Brutus.  Also, as soon as Antony and Octavius have finished speaking, each should give the other an evil look, as though they are sizing each other up for the next round of battling.

Finally, I suggest that Octavius, who will soon be Emperor Augustus, assert himself to the front of the stage as he leaves, and then turn to look imperiously downstage at the players representing the republican institutions.  I would then have those players bow and bend their knees to him, as if to say so ends Julius Caesar and also the Roman Republic.

BW 11/18/18

[1] Stephen J. Gould. “Losing the Edge” in The Flamingo’s Smile. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985. pp.216-217.

[2] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Book, 1939. p.153.

[3] John Simon. “Will in the Middle.” Review of Rome and Rhetoric: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by Garry Wills.  New York Times Sunday Book Review. 11/25/11

[4] It’s a tragedy: Harold Goddard.  The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952. p.307.

It’s not a tragedy: Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Book, 1939. pp.157-158.

[5] Maria Wyke. Cited in “Julius Caesar (Play).” Wikipedia. 11/9/18.

[6] Coppelia Kahn. “Julius Caesar: A Modern Perspective.”  Postscript to Julius Caesar. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. pp.215-217.

[7] This is discussed in my blog post “Better Dead than Red:  Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[8]  This is discussed in my blog post “The Taming of a Schlemozzle: As You Like It as you like it.”

[9]  This is discussed in my blog post “Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or As You Will.  A Masquerade of Fools, Fooling and Con(wo)men.”

[10]  This is discussed in my blog post “From Phallus to Phalanx. Is Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy? The End of a Heroic Age.”

[11]  This is discussed in my blog post “Shakespeare, Shylock and The Merchant of Venice: Protestants, Catholics and the Jewish Question in Elizabethan England”

The Golden Rule. Life, the Universe and Everything in Four Relatively Simple Sentences.

The Golden Rule.

Life, the Universe and Everything in Four Relatively Simple Sentences.

Burton Weltman

Thesis: The Golden Rule maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not merely an ethical goal, it is a statement of fact.  We, in fact, love our neighbors as we love ourselves and we love ourselves as we love our neighbors.  The problem is not merely that we do not love our neighbors and ourselves as much as we should, but that we can’t.  How we deal with that fact, both individually and collectively, is what makes the world go around, or not.

Explanation: The Golden Rule can be found in some form in virtually every human culture.  It is well-nigh a universal ethical rule.  But it is also a psychological and sociological rule, despite the pervasiveness in our society of social science theories that are intellectually based on Descartes’ individualistic Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am) and ideologically based on our individualistic economic system (the so-called Economic Man).

Mainstream social, economic and psychological theories almost always start with an isolated self-centered individual and then work toward social relations.  It is the conventional wisdom in our society.  However, as many of the best psychologists, sociologists, economists, and other social scientists have repeatedly demonstrated, that is not the way things actually work.

The maxim “I think, therefore I am” is literally nonsense. You cannot have any sense of yourself, cannot meaningfully utter the word “I,” without first having some sense of others.  It is through interacting with others that we get a sense of ourselves, so that the Cogito should really be “I think, therefore we are.”[1]  Once you grasp the facticity of this revised Cogito, the maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself” logically and psychologically follows.  What you think of others reflects what you think of yourself.  The better you treat others, the better you think of yourself.

There are, however, inherent contradictions and conflicts in our relations with others, starting with even the most loving of parents, so that we inevitably fall short in our best efforts to fulfill the ethical injunction of the Golden Rule.  And that is the problem.  But it is a problem that can be pragmatically resolved if we face it and do not regress to copout theories of individualism and rationalizations of Economic Man that are nonsense at best and inhumane at worst.

BW 11/17/18

[1] I have written a series of short essays on this subject which can be found on this website:  Rethinking Descartes’ Cogito: “I think, therefore we are (not I am).”  Part I: Resolving the Popeye Perplex.  Part II:  The World According to Calvin and Hobbes. Part III: A Cross of Gold and the Golden Rule.

A Note on Voter Suppression: Voting as a Privilege vs. Voting as a Right and a Duty. Republicans vs. Democrats; Conservatives vs. Liberals; Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Views of Society, Culture, and Economics.

A Note on Voter Suppression:

Voting as a Privilege vs. Voting as a Right and a Duty.

Republicans vs. Democrats; Conservatives vs. Liberals;

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Views of Society, Culture, and Economics.


Burton Weltman


The title of this little essay pretty much says it all about the ideological differences that divide the United States today.  At least, that is my contention.  I am writing this on Tuesday, October 30, 2018, a week before a very important mid-term election in this country.  Democrats are busy trying to get out the vote.  Republicans are busy trying to keep down the vote.  What is that about?

(1) Voter Suppression as a Civic Duty: Who are the People?

How can it be that voter suppression is to many Republicans a civic duty, while encouraging all and sundry to vote is a goal of most Democrats?  The difference largely stems from their differing answers to the questions of who gets to be considered part of “the people” – as in “We the People” who constitute the country – and, in turn, what role do “the people” get to play in the affairs of the country.

Alexander Hamilton enunciated what has essentially been the conservative answer to these questions to the present day when he claimed that those who owned the country should get to run it.  “All communities,” he said, “divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and the well-born.  The other, the mass of people… The people are turbulent and changing.  They seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government.”  The role of the people is to defer to the wisest and richest among them.

In this view, the country is essentially like a joint-stock company in which the rich who own most of the stock should get the major say in running things, the middling classes who own some small shares of the stock should get some minor say, and the lower classes who own no stock at all should get no say at all.  By dint of their wealth, the richest have shown they are the wisest.  By dint of their poverty, the masses have demonstrated their incompetence.

This conservative view of the people applies to politics, economics, customs and culture.  In politics, conservatives generally consider voting to be a privilege that needs to be earned, whereas liberals consider voting as the right and duty of every adult citizen.  When the country was founded, property qualifications to vote were widespread.  Consistent with Hamilton’s view of things, people literally had to earn the privilege of voting by accumulating wealth.  This practice did not last long, however.  By the first quarter of the nineteenth century, public pressure by the lower classes, who had the greater numbers albeit not the greater wealth, forced the elimination of these restrictions and made voting a democratic right, at least for white men.

So, conservatives turned to other methods of limiting the political power of the general public and increasing the influence of wealth.  In this effort, they have repeatedly battled liberals who favored greater democracy and championed the interests of people over those of property.  The tide in these matters has ebbed and flowed ever since.

In recent years, property has been winning.  Conservatives have scored notable successes in rulings by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that money spent on political campaigns is speech protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and that corporations are “persons” with the rights of citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment.  These ruling are legal nonsense but they are consistent with the view that the rich should have the major say-so in American politics.

Conservative ideology justifies the suppression of lower class and minority voters on the grounds that they don’t have sufficient stake in the country to vote responsibly, and that they will only use their votes to gain governmental benefits for themselves, such as welfare, medical care and so forth.  To conservatives, the lower classes are parasites on the body politic and the economy, and conservatives generally condemn subsidies to the poor favored by liberals as corrupt efforts by liberals to buy the votes of the poor.

Of course, conservatives, at the same time, laud tariffs and subsidies given to rich corporations that give big campaign contributions to conservative politicians as public-spirited efforts to bolster the country’s economy.  In the same vein, conservatives promote the organization of capital into big corporations but, at the same time, oppose the organization of workers into labor unions.  It’s one thing, and not a good thing, for workers to conglomerate for better wages; it’s another for the wealthy to conglomerate for better profits.

The underlying economic difference between conservatives and liberals is largely over the question of whether the country’s prosperity is primarily the result of increasing supply or increasing demand.  That is, should economic policy primarily favor the accumulation of wealth by the rich who will ostensibly invest it in new enterprises that will create jobs and goods for everyone?  Or should policy favor increasing the demand for goods by ordinary people which will stimulate investment and the creation of jobs in order to meet that demand?  In present-day political terms, should there be tax cuts for the rich or for the middle class?

In cultural terms, this conservative view idealizes what supposedly were the values and customs of the white, European Christians who ostensibly founded the country and made it great.  This view, in turn, denigrates the cultures of other peoples who live in the United States and even demonizes those people as undermining the American Way.  Immigrants have repeatedly been attacked in this way throughout American history, albeit with different groups bearing the brunt at different times.

Historically, the role of alien destroyer of the American Way was assigned to German immigrants in the eighteenth century, Irish immigrants during the nineteenth century, Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.  Each of these ethnic groups was subsequently incorporated into the category of white, European Christians that defines the genuine American for most conservatives. Meanwhile, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Jews have for the most part been categorized as “Other” and have been more or less denigrated and scapegoated, a practice which continues to the present day.

(2) The Irony of Demagoguery: You can make fools of a lot of the people a lot of the time.

Ever since property qualifications for voting were abolished, conservatives have struggled with the necessity of gaining enough people to back their policies so that they can control the government.  Since their policies are geared to favor a small number of the wealthiest people, they have largely practiced a demagogic politics of fear-mongering against ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and other groups that can be safely scapegoated, safely scapegoated because they are, in fact, not a threat.

Southern plantation owners cultivated a fear of blacks and a feeling of superiority toward the slaves among the small white farmers who were being undermined by the slave system.  Northern capitalists imported Eastern and Southern European immigrants to undercut the wages of American-born workers, then denigrated the immigrants for political purposes as dangerous to American ways.  The method is to cultivate a sense of superiority among white, European Christians and a fear of Others who are different, even as conservatives enact policies that hurt their very supporters.

We see that method at work today as the Trumps, Mellons, Mercers, Kochs, and other right-wing billionaires stir up fears of immigrants and minorities, while encouraging a sense of superiority among white, European Christians toward these peoples.  The goal is to energize right-wing supporters to vote for conservative politicians while denigrating and denying the vote to people who do not support conservative policies.  The irony is that the Trumps, Mellons, Mercers et al. feel the same contempt toward their right-wing followers as their followers feel toward their designated enemies.  And the right-wing policies of the conservatives hurt their supporters as much or even more than their opponents.

Malleable, manipulatable and mainly middle-aged or older, most of the supporters of Trump and right-wing policies are only making fools of themselves while making the world worse for us all.  I suppose we can take some solace in Abraham Lincoln’s conclusion that you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.  Let’s hope this is that last time.

B.W.    10/30/18


Three Simple Reasons Why The “Constitutional Originalism” of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Three Simple Reasons Why  the “Constitutional Originalism”

of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and

a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics

Burton Weltman

Prologue: I am writing this essay on September 25, 2018. Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are currently in the midst of a furious effort to push through the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh is a self-proclaimed “Constitutional Originalist” which, in his case, means that he thinks the United States Constitution should be interpreted according to the meaning of the words in the Constitution as they were understood at the time of its drafting and ratification.  Kavanaugh is currently a federal judge, having been appointed by George W. Bush, but he also has a long history before that as a radical right-wing Republican Party operative.  He claims to be an Originalist but he brings a radical right-wing ideology to his judicial work.

The theory of Constitutional Originalism is a recent development in American history, dating only from the 1970’s.  Its development coincided with the emergence during that same period of the present-day radical right-wing of American politics, the people who brought us the Tea Party and more recently Donald Trump.  Radical right-wingers generally entertain a Social Darwinian approach to society, a libertarian approach to government, and a laissez-faire approach to the economy.  They believe in a dog-eat-dog world in which the rich should rule and the role of the government is to protect the successful rich from the envious poor.  They think of themselves as protectors of freedom against communistic liberals, proponents of excellence against the mediocrity of the masses, and saviors of Western Civilization against the immigrant hordes.

Although right-wingers are often lumped together with conservatives and both are electorally represented by the Republican Party, their ideas and goals are not conservative.  Conservatives tend to support the status quo and accept most of the progressive reforms of the twentieth century.  Right-wingers are radicals who reject the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, and want to incite a counterrevolution that would essentially hurl American society back to the nineteenth century.[1]

Constitutional Originalists represent the judicial side of this radical right-wing movement.  The late Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have been radical right-wing proponents of Originalism on the Supreme Court.  Kavanaugh would ostensibly follow in Scalia’s footsteps.  The purpose of this essay to demonstrate that despite its exposition by supposedly learned members of the high court, Constitutional Originalism is patently nonsense and merely a pseudo-legal cover for the radical right-wing political views of these men.  There are many reasons the Originalist theory is false and even fraudulent.  I will outline three simple reasons that I think are sufficiently conclusive.

Reason #1: There were no American dictionaries in 1780’s and there is no other way of determining the definitive meaning for the Founders of the words in the Constitution.

This is really simple.  Originalists say that we should interpret the language of the Constitution exactly as the Founders who wrote it would have interpreted it.  The problem is that there is no way of knowing exactly what the founders meant by the words they used.  There were no American dictionaries at the time and there is no other way of finding out.  But linguistics and etymology are not the real concerns of the Originalists.

Originalists are more concerned with legal results than with linguistics.  Originalism arose in opposition to the “living document” theory of Constitutional interpretation that has long been held by the majority of judges and legal scholars.  According to the “living document” theory, the provisions and words of the Constitution should be interpreted in conformance with the changing circumstances of American society.  As social institutions and norms change, interpretations should change.  On that basis, the Supreme Court found, for example, a right to privacy in the Constitution during the 1960’s and 1970’s that had not previously been declared and used that right as the basis for finding a Constitutional right to contraception and abortion.  Originalism has largely been motivated by opposition to the Court’s finding that the Constitution guarantees rights to privacy and abortion, as has been the right-wing movement generally.

Originalists object to the “living document” theory on the grounds that it undermines the rationale for having a written Constitution and gives judges the power to change the Constitution at will.  They claim it condemns us to a government of fickle men rather than fixed laws.  In this regard, Originalists argue that the “living document” theory destroys the principle of stare decisis, the principle that once something is decided, you should not revisit and revise the decision.  Stare decisis ensures continuity and peace in the law, and it is one of the key principles of the English Common Law from which American common law and constitutional law has evolved.  Without stare decisis, the law becomes a free-for-all struggle in which might makes right.

In claiming that the “living document” theory abjures stare decisis, Originalists are complaining  that it leaves constitutional principles uncertain and subject to partisan changes every time membership on the Supreme Court changes.  This is the reasoning that Originalists use when, for example, they argue that the death penalty should not be condemned under the “cruel and unusual” punishment clause of the Constitution.  If hanging was good enough for the Founders when they composed that clause, it should be good enough for us today.

There are many flaws in the Originalist argument.  To take an obvious one, the way in which we generally determine the meaning of words is through consulting a dictionary.  Dictionaries were invented as a means of standardizing the meanings and spellings of words so that we can have a reasonable idea of what each person is saying when we communicate with each other.  When Noah Webster issued the first comprehensive dictionary of American words in the early 1800’s, his goal was to eliminate the chaos of meanings and spellings that existed in the country.  There was no American dictionary in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, and the fact is that residents of the various states had closer communications and cultural ties with England than with each other.  So, colonists from different states did not necessarily mean the same things with the same words.

The fact that the Founders were able to agree to use the words that are in the Constitution does not mean they held the same views of those words.  And there is no way of finding out because the Founders did not attach an explanatory statement to the Constitution, as most Legislatures do with the laws they enact today.  The Founders seemingly left it to their descendants to decide what the words were going to mean to them.  In this view, words are approached as symbols that need to be reinterpreted as the situations to which they refer change.  Language as well as the law is viewed as living.

With respect to stare decisis, this principle has never been considered absolute and has always been qualified by the facts of changing circumstances.  If the circumstances under which a decision has been made substantially change, then the basis for the original decision may no longer exist, and even the language in which the decision was couched may have changed meanings.  As a result, the decision may need to be revisited and possibly revised, and a new consensus may need to be reached as to the meaning of the words in which the decision is articulated.  The necessity of reinterpreting the law in light of changing circumstances, and the idea that the law is a living and evolving thing, is a basic principle of the common law and of statutory and constitutional interpretation.

And the Founders were fully aware of this principle of changing circumstances when they made the Constitution.  The Revolution had stemmed from the fact that constitutional arrangements between England and the colonies that had been mutually acceptable in prior years were no longer working because the circumstances of both England and the colonies had substantially changed.  And the dispute between England and the colonies focused on the different meanings they were giving to words — words such as “representation,” “taxation,” “domestic trade,” and “foreign trade” — about which they had previously agreed, but did so no longer.

Both the American colonists and the English were citing the same statutes and constitutional principles but using the words in ways that were different from each other and were different from how people had used them in the past.  Meanings had changed with changing circumstances.  Appeals to stare decisis satisfied neither side and did not resolve their differences.  As a consequence, new decisions and new arrangements had to be made.

The Founders knew that meanings change as circumstances change.  As a result, pretending to know what the Founders definitively meant by the words in the Constitution is not only impossible, and essentially a fraud, but runs counter to the Founders’ own intent.  This conclusion leads to Reason #2.

Reason #2: Many of the key phrases and provisions in the Constitution are couched in relativistic terms for which there can be no definitive meaning.

This is simply obvious.  The Constitution is couched in open-ended terms that do not lend themselves to definitive meanings, let alone the definitive meanings of the Founders.  The Founders were not fools, and so they must have known that the Constitution would be subject to competing and changing interpretations.

The Constitution is a remarkably short document, which is probably one of the reasons for its longevity.  It is full of abstract and flexible terms that have to be interpreted and that acquire new meanings as circumstances change.  Many of the most important provisions can have no fixed meaning.  Phrases such as “due process,” “equal protection,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” “establishment of religion,” and “speedy trial,” among many others, can only be defined pragmatically to fit the times, places, and circumstances in which they are applied.  And the Ninth Amendment, which provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People,” is an open invitation for future generations to discover new Constitutionally protected rights as circumstances change.

The meaning of “due process,” for example, depends upon what process people think is due in a particular time, place, and circumstance.  The flexibility of the term is not, however, infinite.  There is a long history in Anglo-American law as to what sort of process is due in various situations.  Based on the principle of stare decisis and on the importance of precedents generally in American law, any determination as to what is due process in a situation must start with past determinations. Then, any deviation from those past determinations must be justified by facts and reasons as to how changing circumstances require the new interpretation.  The meaning of the phrase “due process” should not, in this way, be subject merely to the whims of fickle men or partisan politics.

In the “living document” approach, the words used by the Founders set the parameters for Constitutional interpretation.  As such, you should not be able to use Orwellian double-speak to contradict the Founders’ words.  “Equal” in the Constitution’s equal protection clauses, for instance, should not be construed to mean unequal.  At the same time, the word “equal” does not necessarily mean “the same,” so there is room within the concept of equal protection to come to different and changing interpretations of the phrase, albeit not infinite room.

In Anglo-American law, interpretation has historically been guided and limited by the “reasonable person” standard.  Since we are all products of our times, places and circumstances, and our judgments will be affected thereby, perfect objectivity is impossible and some subjectivity is inevitable.  At the same time, unfettered subjectivity is unacceptable as it would result in the fickleness and partisanship about which the Constitutional Originalists claim to be concerned.  So, the golden mean of interpretation is the reasonable person.  An interpretation is acceptable if it conforms with what a reasonable person in that time, place and circumstance would conclude.  “Reasonable person” is a consensus benchmark, albeit one that is constantly being challenged and revised.  And as consensus on the idea and ideal of the reasonable person evolves, interpretations of the Constitution and other laws can legitimately evolve.

We have historically seen this evolution in cases dealing with public school segregation.  In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decided in 1896 that equality under the law did not require integrated schools, and permitted segregated schools so long as they provided reasonably equal opportunities for education.  In the highly charged racial circumstances of that time, in which many white people, especially in the South, did not want to provide any public education at all for blacks, the Court deemed “separate but equal” a reasonable compromise.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court in 1954 decided that segregated schools had not proven to provide equal educational opportunities and, thereby, violated the requirement of equal protection under the law.  The Court also concluded that segregation was by its nature unequal and unreasonable.  Changing circumstances had led reasonable people to a changed interpretation.  The “reasonable person” in 1954 was effectively more knowledgeable and less racist than in 1896.

Along with stare decisis, the idea of a living law, and the reasonable person standard of interpretation, another basic principle of American law has been the presumption that people intend the natural consequences of their actions.  The Founders created a Constitution that requires interpretation and that for the last two hundred thirty years has been treated as a living document subject to changing interpretation as circumstances have changed.  Given the way the Constitution was drafted and filled with abstract and flexible clauses, the Founders seemingly got what they intended, a living and evolving document.  The attempt by Originalists to radically regress Constitutional interpretation back to the 1780’s is at best a hopeless attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, and more likely a fraud in which they themselves don’t really believe.  This conclusion leads to Reason #3.

Reason #3:  Judges claiming to be Originalists regularly violate their supposed Originalism to uphold radical right-wing rulings.  And that’s what definitively makes it a fraud.

This is simply embarrassing.  Justices Scalia and Thomas and would-be Justice Kavanaugh can wax eloquent about Originalism when they are using it as a pretext to strike down some progressive interpretation of the Constitution or some progressive legislation, but they are complete hypocrites when it comes to upholding right-wing interpretations and laws.  I will cite only three well-known examples.

The first is the idea that money is speech under the First Amendment, and that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech permits a person to spend as much money as the person wants on political campaigns and political contributions.  This interpretation makes any serious campaign finance regulations almost impossible and leaves American politics a plaything for the rich.  It is consistent with the Social Darwinian principles of the radical right-wing in America which hold that the rich should rule and those who own the country should run it.

Although the Founders were themselves elitists, the idea that money would be considered the equivalent of speech and that the Constitution would promote unlimited spending in politics was unthinkable to them. When the Founders drafted the Constitution, they hoped to keep political campaigning out of America altogether.  The historical record is clear that they hoped the country would naturally choose the best and brightest to hold political office, without political parties or partisan campaigning.  The Electoral College, for example, was originally supposed to be a colloquium of the best people who would choose the President and Vice President based on who they thought would be best for the country.[2]

Moreover, to the Founders speech was people speaking, not money talking.  There is nothing either in the Constitution or in anything the Founders have left us to reach the conclusion that spending money was considered by them to be protected First Amendment speech.  Such a conclusion is not merely faulty Constitutional interpretation and bad public policy, it is a gross departure from any Originalist interpretation.  Self-styled Originalists, such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, have, however, consistently supported such an interpretation.

The second example, which follows from the first, is the idea that corporations are “persons” under the Constitution, that they deserve the civil rights protections of persons, and that, in particular, they have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns.  This idea is literally nonsense on its face and completely contrary to any intention of the Founders.

It is nonsense because it is universally acknowledged that private corporations are merely legal fictions that are created under state laws and that have no right or reason to exist unless allowed by state laws.  There is nothing in the concept of a corporation that resembles the human beings who are protected as persons in the Constitution.  There is also nothing in the Constitution about corporations and there are no private federal corporations.  When the Constitution was drafted, some states didn’t even allow private corporations.  Those states that allowed them kept them under strict control as to what they could do, how big they could become, and how long they could exist.  Nothing could be farther from the concept of a “person” in the Constitution.

Corporation law developed during the mid-nineteenth century, and the regulations governing them became looser over time.  Today, however, each state still has its own corporate law, so that there are fifty different definitions of a corporation, and a corporation can exist only if a state allows for it.  That is not a person.  That’s a thing or a mechanism.

In any case, the Founders had a deep distrust of corporations and hoped they would be used only for public projects that no individual or group of individuals could otherwise undertake.  The historical record is absolutely clear on this.[3]  As a result, the idea of giving corporations the rights of human persons under the Constitution would have been anathema to the Founders.  Nonetheless, self-proclaimed Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh consistently support this interpretation of the Constitution, a misinterpretation that is consistent with their radical right-wing political views.

The third example is the idea that the Second Amendment provides individuals the right to own and keep handguns and rifles in their homes for personal self-protection, and to own and carry handguns and assault weapons in public.  This is nonsense on its face and would have been inconceivable to the Founders.  Among the many reasons, I will cite four simple ones.[4]

The first reason is that guns in those days were muzzle-loading, which meant that you had to pour gunpowder down the gun’s barrel for each shot you took.  This, in turn, meant you had to have a bag of gunpowder handy in order to shoot your gun.  The problem is that gunpowder in those days was extremely volatile.  It might explode with the slightest change in the humidity or barometric pressure.  It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that additives were discovered that made gunpowder safe to store.  As a result, few people during the 1780’s were foolish or foolhardy enough to want to keep a bag of gunpowder in their home.  In turn, few people would have had any reason to keep guns in their home.  So, the Founders would not have conceived the Second Amendment as protecting the right to keep a gun in one’s home since almost no one did.

The second reason is that guns in those days were a very inefficient means of self-protection.   Guns had to be reloaded after every shot, and reloading took several minutes – which would be very inconvenient if you missed your attacker with your first shot.  In addition, most guns were smooth-bored muskets that were extremely inaccurate.   To shoot them, lead balls were shoved down the barrel with some gunpowder.  When the gunpowder was ignited with a match, the ball would rattle down the barrel and wobble into the air.  It was almost impossible for even the most practiced gunman to hit anything at which he was aiming if it was more that a few feet away.

Muskets were effective weapons when shot en masse simultaneously by one bunch of people in a line at another bunch of people.  What was in effect a wall of lead would emerge from the group of shooters and would mow down the other group.  It did not matter that no one hit the person at whom he was aiming because as part of the wall of lead, each person’s ball would likely hit someone.  That is why most military attacks in those days consisted of lines of musketeers shooting at each other.  Muskets were good only if you were in a group, such as a militia, not if you were shooting by yourself.

As a result of the inefficiency of guns for personal self-defense, few people, and very few townspeople, owned guns.  They relied, instead, on spears and hatchets for self-defense.  Militias stored guns and gunpowder in armories that were generally a safe distance away from the populace of a town.  That is why British soldiers were marching to Lexington and Concord when the shot that was supposedly heard around the world and that ostensibly signaled the beginning of the American Revolution was fired at them.  The British were aiming to confiscate guns and gunpowder of the local militias that were stored in armories in those towns.

That first shot probably missed its target, as did most of the subsequent shots fired by colonists hiding behind trees as the British marched eighteen miles down the road.  Some four thousand colonists fired almost continuously all day long at around fifteen hundred British soldiers who were in the open and at relatively close range.  As a result, seventy-three soldiers were killed and 174 were wounded.  There could not be a better illustration of the inefficiency of guns in those days, and why people did not carry guns around with them or keep them in their homes.  It is insulting to think that the Founders would have promoted a Constitutional amendment to protect gun rights that nobody wanted.

The third reason, which follows from the first two, is that the wording of the Second Amendment clearly applies the right to bear arms to militias and not to individual persons.  That wording and that meaning clearly follow from the historical facts recited above about guns and gun ownership, facts that any Originalist smart enough to be on the Supreme Court should know.

The fourth reason is that the Founders could have had no idea of the weapons of mass destruction and the mass production of those weapons that exist today and that the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be protected by the Second Amendment.  The Founders could not have anticipated assault weapons.  So, according to an Originalist interpretation, the Constitution could not conceivably protect the right to own them.

Nonetheless, despite the obviousness of these reasons, so-called Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, in a manner that is inconsistent with their Originalism but consistent with their radical right-wing political agendas, support gun ownership rights that the Founders could not have intended and that the words of the Second Amendment could not mean.

Conclusion.  Fraud at the highest levels is the highest level of fraud.  Originalism is just such a fraud.  It is so obviously lame that it would be pathetic if it weren’t so harmful.

[1] I have written a blog post on this website that discusses the development of the differences between conservatives and right-wingers.  It is “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump And the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”

[2]I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #5:Perfecting a Government for an Imperfect Society in the 1780’s-1790’s:Was the Constitution a Mistake?”

[3] I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #8: General Incorporation Laws, 1830’s-1880’s: Was the Corporate Revolution Necessary and Proper?”

[4] I have written a blog post on this issue which is posted on this website.  It is “History as Choice and the Second Amendment: Would you want to keep a musket in your house?”

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: An Anarchist Meditation.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte:

An Anarchist Meditation.

 Burton Weltman

 “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

John Lennon

Propaganda, Popularity, and Painting: George Orwell and Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte.

What makes a painting popular?  Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche apres-midi a l’ile de la Grande Jatte,” which translates into English as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” hereafter referred to as “La Grande Jatte,” is a very popular painting.  Completed in 1886, it was a sensation when it was first shown in Paris and has been prominently exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago since 1926, where it regularly draws larger crowds of viewers than almost any other painting.  The picture is so popular that it is the subject of a popular musical “Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  First performed in 1984, the musical was awarded a Pulitzer Prize among other honors, and has been repeatedly performed ever since.

What makes a painting popular, and is a popular painting necessarily a great painting?  In turn, what makes a painting great, and is a great painting necessarily popular?  There are connoisseurs and experts who evaluate works of art and make judgments based on highly cultivated tastes and esoteric technical criteria.  But that is not the case with most of us who appreciate art but are neither artists nor experts.  Experts’ opinions of the aesthetic values of a painting will get a picture into an art museum, but that doesn’t guarantee a painting’s popularity.  There are a lot of paintings that are highly regarded by experts and connoisseurs but only some of them are popular among the general public.  What makes La Grande Jatte popular?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” dramatizes the painting of La Grande Jatte.  It focuses on Seurat’s unusual pointillist painting technique and his supposedly strained personal relations.  The drama of Seurat’s personal relations is fiction, but the painting technique is actual.  Revolutionary in its time, Seurat’s pointillism was based on theories of color and perception that were newly developed in the late nineteenth century.  In pointillism, dots of pure color are placed together in groups that when seen at a distance are synthesized by the eye into blended colors and shapes.  Different combinations of color dots will be seen as different blended colors and shapes.  When you get up close to a pointillist picture, it dissolves into a myriad of seemingly unrelated little points of color.  Painting La Grande Jatte must have required very intense concentration, and Seurat’s personal relations could conceivably have been in fact strained by the obsessive devotion to his work that pointillism required.  In any case, although pointillism never caught on as a major artistic technique, and has essentially faded into history, La Grande Jatte has, nonetheless, became an almost revered work.

Possibly in an attempt to explain the popularity of La Grande Jatte, the “Sunday in the Park with George” musical includes something of a tutorial in art appreciation.  Seurat is made to frequently repeat an aesthetic mantra in the course of painting the picture: “Design. Composition. Tension. Balance. Light. Harmony.”  Inserting this mantra into the play seems to be a way for Sondheim and Lapine to give the audience an idea of how to evaluate a painting such as La Grande Jatte.  These are fairly simple criteria and they probably represent the sorts of things that most of us in the lay public apply, even if subconsciously, when we are looking at a picture. For most of us, trying to apply simple criteria such as these is pretty much the most we can do in aesthetically evaluating a painting.  It is not all that an expert might do, but it is something.  In any case, it probably does not explain why one picture is popular with us while another isn’t.

George Orwell famously claimed that the popularity of a work of art is based on its resonance as a piece of propaganda.  He said that “every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message,’ whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of the artist’s work are influenced by it.  All art is propaganda.”[1]  That is, whether or not people consciously realize it, and even whether the artist realizes it, every work of art embodies moral and political views and propagates them to the public.  It is the message, Orwell claimed, that determines the popularity of a work of art, and that includes paintings.  If a painting’s message resonates with the viewing public, it will be popular, which says as much about the viewers as it does about the painting.

Popularity, Orwell claimed in turn, is a criterion of greatness.  While not all popular art is great, great art is by definition popular.  A great work of art – whether a novel, poem, play, painting, piece of music, or whatever – has been defined as one that you can read, listen to, or look at repeatedly and get something more each time.[2]  A great work may please you but it also provokes you. You can look at a great painting repeatedly and see, feel, or think something more and different each time.  A work can be popular without being great if it merely pleases without provoking.  A great painting is popular because it provokes viewers to think about it and to come back for more.  That is the difference between a hotel room landscape that pacifies guests and a Van Gogh landscape that provokes viewers to ask “What is going on here?”

Applying Orwell’s criteria to La Grande Jatte, it would seem to be both a popular and a great painting.  It is a big picture that occupies a whole wall by itself in a big room at the Art Institute.  It is flanked on three sides by Impressionist landscapes by Monet.  While Monet’s landscapes are great pictures and get a lot of attention, La Grande Jatte gets the most.  That may partly be because of its large size, and partly because of its notoriety.  But there seems to be more to it.  Standing in bunches in front of the painting — alternately at a distance where a viewer can see the objects in the picture and up close where it dissolves into dots — most people spend more time looking at La Grande Jatte than at the other paintings.  Why?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” focuses on the technical aspects of Seurat’s pointillism and, thereby, portrays what is essentially the conventional view of La Grande Jatte as an amazing and amazingly interesting technical feat.  I think, however, that this view is only half right because there is nothing in it about Seurat’s politics and that, I think, is the other half of the point about La Grande Jatte.  Seurat was a dedicated anarchist who intended his paintings to convey political messages.[3]  If Orwell is right about what makes a work of art popular, then Seurat’s anarchist political beliefs could be a key to the painting’s popularity, and it may be that the anarchist philosophy that underlies the messages of the painting have subliminal appeal to a largely unwitting public.  Exploring that idea is the main theme of this essay.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: Anarchism as an Anti-ism-ism.

Webster’s Dictionary defines anarchism as: “A political theory…advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.”

If you attach “ism” to the end of a word, you have made an ideology out of whatever the word denotes.  John Lennon once complained that “Everybody is talking ‘bout Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.”[4]  That is, people were taking their own particular ideas or interests and making whole philosophies out of them, essentially making fetishes of them, and then using their ideologies to divide and try to conquer each other.  Ideologies, Lennon intoned, make a mess of the world because they divide people between “us,” i.e. those who agree with someone’s whole program, and “them,” those who don’t.

The problem is that when ideologies and ideologues disagree, there is no room for compromise.  People who have different ideas about something can negotiate their differences but people with different ideologies have non-negotiable differences.  They can only fight them out.  Anarchism, Seurat’s political credo, is, however, a philosophy that endeavors to eliminate ideological barriers.  It is an anti-ism-ism that seeks to give peace the chance John Lennon called for.

In order to explore the anarchist philosophy Seurat hoped to convey in La Grande Jatte, we have to first distinguish anarchism from libertarianism because the two are often confused with each other.  Although both philosophies eschew strong centralized government, they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons.

Anarchism is a form of socialism without a strong central government.  It is based on anarchists’ belief in the inherently cooperative nature of most people.  Anarchists believe that if artificial obstacles to cooperation are removed, people will naturally live together on an all-for-one, one-for-all basis.  Ideologies that are invented to promote and protect oppressive power and excessive property are an example of the obstacles that block pragmatic cooperation among people.  In turn, coercive central governments operate as instruments of the powerful and their ideologies.

Anarchists contend that if we eliminate economic inequality and the coercive governments that protect that inequality, we would eliminate the power struggles and class conflicts that roil society, and the Golden Rule would rule.[5]  Anarchism is, thereby, an anti-ism-ism because it stresses the ability of people to pragmatically resolve their differences and practically solve their problems without ideological barriers getting in the way.  It is the vision expressed in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

Libertarianism is an ideology that promotes capitalism without a strong central government.  It is based on libertarians’ belief in the inherently self-centered and aggressive nature of people.  They claim that dog-eat-dog conflict is the natural state of humankind.  The universe, in their view, is as a zero-sum competition in which one person’s gain is invariably another person’s loss and vice versa.  The goal is to inflict losses on others so as to make gains for oneself.

Libertarians believe that might makes right and might signifies the righteous. Theirs is an individualistic and essentially anti-social philosophy. They reject government as an instrument of the inferior weak against the superior strong which restricts free competition, while coming down against the deserving winners and in favor of the undeserving losers.  Despite the mutual rejection by anarchists and libertarians of strong central government, libertarianism is the moral and political opposite of anarchism.  Seurat was an anarchist, not a libertarian.

And Seurat was a pacifist anarchist which we must distinguish from militant anarchism. Although the pacifist form of anarchism has historically had, and currently has, by far the most adherents, the militant form has gotten all the publicity and is often conflated with anarchism as a whole.[6]  The goal of both forms of anarchism is to raise the public’s political consciousness so that people will reject authoritarian capitalism and adopt participatory democratic socialism, but they do so in very different ways with very different moral and political implications.

Anarchists assume that people are unhappy with the existing society but that most people don’t think they can do anything about it.  Anarchists believe, therefore, that people need to be convinced they have the ability to get rid of the established order.  Militant anarchists think the public can be convinced of this through exemplary acts of violence – so-called propaganda by deed – that demonstrate the political weakness and physical vulnerability of the ruling classes. Bakunin and Johann Most were well known nineteenth century advocates of militant anarchism.

In the late nineteenth century, militant anarchists assassinated politicians and set off bombs in public places, hoping thereby to provoke a spontaneous mass uprising that would violently overthrow the established order.  In recent years, self-styled militant anarchists have turned peaceful political demonstrations into riots and have damaged public property with seemingly the same goal in mind.[7]

Pacifist anarchists believe in moving public opinion through education.  Tolstoy and Kropotkin were well-known nineteenth century exemplars.  Their method emphasizes exemplary acts of thinking and creating – works of art and science — that demonstrate the cultural weakness and intellectual paucity of the ruling classes. Their method also includes setting up small-scale cooperative communities and industries which, by demonstrating anarchism’s efficacy, could become the cells of a new society.

Nineteenth century anarchists organized communes with the goal of undermining and overwhelming the established order by drawing more and more people into an alternative anarchist way of life that would eventually become the predominant society.  Twentieth and twenty-first century anarchists have established communes with similar hopes.[8]

Seurat was part of a late nineteenth century group of French anarchist artists, mostly Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, led by the painter Camille Pissarro.  Unlike the bomb-throwing anarchists of that period, Pissarro and his comrades were peaceful anarchists who hoped to educate the masses into socialism.  Most of them painted idyllic rural scenes and hardy yeoman peasants as uplifting examples of the utopian way things could be.  They also painted satirical pictures of stuffy bourgeois as negative examples of the way things currently were.

Seurat was a “highly recognized member of the anarchist Neo-Impressionist movement” and it is generally acknowledged that La Grande Jatte, with its pompous bourgeois figures, was intended to satirize bourgeois mores.[9]  Although I agree that Seurat’s intent was partly satirical, I contend further that the pointillism of the picture was intended to be seen as an anarchistic method of painting and that the subject matter was intended to be understood as a meditation on anarchism.

Setting the Scene for a Meditation on Anarchism in La Grande Jatte.

La Grande Jatte seems an unusual picture to be so widely popular, especially compared with the paintings around it at the Art Institute.  Although you can Google a copy of the picture, I will describe what I see as the key elements in it.  The scene is mundane: a bunch of ordinary people in a park abutting a body of water.  The park is not at all scenic.  No pretty flowers.  This is in sharp contrast with the beautiful landscapes by Monet that share the room with La Grande Jatte.

Likewise, while Monet’s landscapes and the Impressionist paintings in the rooms adjacent to La Grande Jatte are fluid and their human subjects are generally portrayed as relaxed, almost all of Seurat’s figures are stiff, almost stilted.  In turn, where most of the subjects in the other paintings are interesting in and of themselves, the subjects in Seurat’s painting are of no inherent interest.  And where the subjects of the other paintings complement their surroundings, Seurat’s figures clash with their environment and some are too small and out-of-proportion to their surroundings.

La Grande Jatte looks at first glance to be a mere clutter of figures and objects.  There are some thirty or more people, at least two dogs, and a monkey scattered on the park’s grass in various poses, some sitting, others standing, a few walking.  There are a number of boats of various kinds in the water.  There does not seem at first glance to be any coherence to the picture.

The impression fostered by the picture is of a hot day.  With the exception of a little girl who looks directly out at us and is in the sunshine, the people are keeping to the shade of umbrellas and leafy trees and are looking away from us.  There is one man in loose-fitting, comfortable working-class clothes. The other people are well-dressed, in fact overdressed for a park in hot weather, and are seemingly of the middle classes.

The foreground of the picture is dominated by three figures: a formally dressed bourgeois man and woman who are standing stiff and haughty with their monkey on a leash on the right side of the painting and the working-class man who is reclining in a leisurely manner on the grass, leaning back on his arm on the left side of the picture. All three seem to be looking out at the body of water, the bourgeois couple glaring, the worker relaxed and smoking a pipe. The bourgeois couple look uncomfortable and tense.  The working man radiates comfort and calm.

The background of the picture is filled with a disparate assortment of people and things in and out of the water.  There are about six boats in the water, including two steamboats, at least two sailboats, and a sculling boat being rowed by four men and coxswained seemingly by a woman.  Among the people, there are two soldiers standing at attention, two girls with fishing poles, a man being shaved by a woman, and two women sitting under a tree.

There is a superficial calmness and quietude to the scene.  A painting, after all, is silent.  And the people in the foreground of the picture are stationary and silently looking out at the water.  None of them is moving or talking.  But much more is taking place behind them.

On the land, there is a man blowing away on what looks like a French horn. There is a yipping little dog just about to pounce on a larger dog, possibly the prelude to a dog fight. In the water at the back of the picture, one of the steamboats seems to be sinking.  A short distance in front of it, another steamboat seems about to run into the sculling boat. The rowers have their backs to the steamboat, seemingly unaware of their peril, and the coxswain’s line of vision is seemingly impaired by her parasol.  So much for the peace and quiet of a Sunday afternoon in the park.

So, how does the setting of this scene relate to anarchism, pointillism, meditation and the ongoing popularity of La Grande Jatte?

Pointillism: Anarchism in the Method of La Grande Jatte.

Most conventional commentaries on La Grande Jatte miss or bypass any connection between pointillism and anarchism.  They focus on pointillism as an interesting semi-scientific technique of making color.  This is the focus in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” and is the explanation of pointillism found in Wikipedia and on the Art Institute web site.[10]  There is nothing in these commentaries about how Seurat’s politics might relate to his pointillist method of painting.  I think that is a mistake.

Other commentators who connect pointillism with Seurat’s anarchism do so by characterizing the method as mechanistic and even robotic, with Seurat supposedly dabbing his dots rotely on the canvas to make a picture.  In their view, pointillism is a mechanical method of painting that was intended by Seurat as a critique of the mechanistic nature of modern society.  They contend that the mechanical application and combination of color dots to produce mechanical-looking stiff figures was Seurat’s way of subverting the artistic conventions of bourgeois society.  In this view, Seurat developed pointillism as an anti-humanist method to mirror the anti-humanist society in which he lived.[11]  I don’t agree with this view.

Seurat reportedly developed pointillism as a contrast and counter to the Impressionists’ methods.  Having been trained in Impressionism, he came to reject the method as too impressionistic and thereby, in his opinion, too superficial.  Impressionist paintings are composed of quick strokes of paint.  Impressionists often completed pictures in one open-air session and the pictures comprised an impression of a scene.  As with pointillism, Impressionist pictures are best viewed from a distance of fifteen feet or more, at which distance the paint strokes come together as objects in the viewer’s eyes.  Get close to an Impressionist painting and it usually falls apart into a bunch of paint strokes just as a pointillist painting dissolves into dots.

But Seurat’s dots are not quickly and impressionistically applied.  They are carefully and scientifically placed.  As a so-called Neo-Impressionist, Seurat wanted a method that would reflect more than mere impressions of things and would get at the underlying meaning of a scene.  He spent long periods of time sketching his subjects in the open air and then spent even longer periods of time in his studio – some two years to produce La Grande Jatte – working obsessively on getting his work just right.[12]

Given the effort he put into his work, I don’t think it is likely that Seurat would have seen pointillism as an anti-humanist method that exemplified what he rejected in society.  To the contrary, I think it is more likely that he saw pointillism as a humanistic method and an example of anarchism in action.

The key to pointillism seems to be to follow the color dots.  It is the collaboration of the dots with each other that makes the colors and the objects in the painting.  In effect, the color dots direct the painting of the picture for the artist and determine what we see.  Once the artist has chosen a subject to be represented in a picture, the artist must work with the color dots so that they can come together in configurations to make the picture. In turn, our eyes must collaborate with the dots to see those configurations.

Although it may seem fanciful to speak about color dots collaborating with each other and with humans, pointillism has been compared with the atomism of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who said similar things about atoms.[13]  Democritus was one of the inventors of atomic theory.  He believed the universe was composed of an infinite variety of atoms of all sorts of shapes that came together on their own to form things.  He seemed to ascribe a certain willfulness to atoms, even though he thought they were essentially inanimate.  His atomism seemed, therefore, to operate similarly to Seurat’s pointillism which is based on dots coming together to make colors and shapes.

As Democritus’ name would seem to imply, he was also one of the first advocates of democracy.  Democritus seemed to think that humans operated on a principle similar to atoms, with an infinite variety of different people voluntarily coming together to create a society.  He is said to have opined that “Equality is everywhere noble,” although like most ancient Greek democrats he did not seem to include women and slaves in this formulation.  He also claimed that “Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants.”[14]  Democritus could, thus, be seen as something of a precursor of both Seurat’s anarchistic pointillist method and his anarchist political philosophy.

The goal of anarchists such as Seurat was expressed in the formulation of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”[15]  Pointillism reflects this goal in that it requires a good deal of patience and self-control on the part of the artist.  The artist cannot do anything he/she wants, and cannot merely follow his/her feeling in how to apply the paint.  The artist must work with the dots.  There is no room for egoism or arbitrary self-expression.  The artist is not an almighty god imposing his/her will on the canvas but merely a collaborator with the dots.  Pointillism is, thereby, seemingly an example of self-control and cooperation as a way of art and a way of life.  This is the essence of Seurat’s anarchism.

Meditation: Anarchism in the Subject Matter of La Grande Jatte.         

Webster’s Dictionary defines meditation as “A discourse intended to express an author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.”

Like many painters throughout history, Pissarro’s coterie of anarchist painters wanted to give viewers something to think about in the subject matter of their pictures.  They intended their works to be meditations on society and hoped that people would meditate on the social messages conveyed in their works.  Most in Pissarro’s group hoped their paintings would inspire people to reject bourgeois capitalist society and embrace anarchistic socialism.  That included Seurat.

Despite Seurat’s avowed political aims, some interpretations of La Grande Jatte, including Wikipedia for example, seem to miss the fact that Seurat was trying to make political points in the picture. These commentators say the picture merely portrays a pleasant day in park.  All is well in the picture according to this view.  Nothing about a French horn blaring, boats sinking, dogs yipping.  There is nothing in these appreciations of the picture about political or social messages.  I think that is a mistake.

Other interpretations of the painting that do make a connection with Seurat’s politics generally focus on the stiffness and stuffiness of the overdressed bourgeois figures and see the picture as essentially a critique of bourgeois society. The Art Institute’s website, for example, says that the picture is a “commentary on the posturing and artificiality of modern Parisian society.”[16]  In a similar vein, other critics see the picture as “an anti-utopian allegory,” and they cite the laid-back worker as representing a healthy contrast to the uptight bourgeois.[17]  I agree with these interpretations but I would go further in interpreting the significance of the worker in the front of the picture and the chaos in the back.  In this regard, I suggest that the painting operates as a meditation on anarchism, and does so on at least two levels.

First, I think that viewers instinctively identify with the worker who is sitting quietly and calmly on the edge of the chaos in the picture.  He is seemingly contemplating the idiocy of the bourgeois around him, who are so formally and warmly dressed on a hot day in a park.  He is also calmly enduring the disorder in the park, in which things are generally falling apart.  The worker is at ease, as though, I think, he is waiting for the idiotic bourgeois capitalist system to collapse so that he and his comrades can then pick up the pieces and put them together again in a better way.  He is witnessing anarchy as possibly a prelude to anarchism.

Sitting immediately next to the worker are two demure bourgeois figures, a man and a woman, who have seemingly joined him in calmly looking out at the water and contemplating the state of things.  They are disproportionately small compared to him, perhaps symbolic of their status in the anarchists’ world view.  But their little group of three contrasts with most of the other groups and individuals in the picture whose actions and attitudes seem to clash with each other.  There seems to be a sort of comradeship among the three of them, maybe a portent of things to come.  And I think we viewers instinctively join them in their meditation.

Second, we make eye contact with the little girl who implicitly challenges us to meditate on the scene, and we do.  We are neither impressed by the façade of order represented by the haughty bourgeois couple in the foreground nor distressed by the chaos in the back.  We look back at the little girl and see a picture of capitalist things falling apart, but we also see them coming together for Seurat as he composes the picture, for the dots as they comprise the picture, and for our eyes in they contemplate the picture. We see anarchist order coming from anarchic disorder, and the process constitutes a meditation on anarchism.

At the Intersection of Propaganda, Popularity and Great Art.

George Orwell is, I think, right in claiming that all art is propaganda in the sense that a world view inevitably lies behind any work of art.  But there is a difference between propaganda that tries to induce you to ask certain questions and propaganda that tries to force you to accept certain answers.  In painting, it is the difference between Pissarro’s pictures of hardworking peasants and the Soviet Realists’ heroic workers.  La Grande Jatte is of the former sort.

La Grande Jatte is a painting that tries to get us to think about ourselves and our position in the world.  Are we like the contemplative worker and the contemplative couple sitting next to him or are we like the pompous couple standing behind the worker?  If we really look at the painting rather than merely glance at it as we pass through the Art Institute’s galleries, then maybe we are more like the former than the latter.

Does the picture promote anarchism as Seurat intended, even if only through its subliminal influence?  Maybe.  I think that even the most casual glance at the foreground of the painting will lead you to identify positively with the worker and react negatively to the bourgeois couple, and that is a start toward Seurat’s message.  If you then look deeper into the painting, I think it is hard not to see that things are in disorder. The façade of normality represented by the bourgeois couple has been shattered.  This leads you further toward Seurat’s message.  If you then think about what you are seeing, you may arrive at Seurat’s desired conclusions, or at least come back to look at the picture again.

If Orwell is right about art being propaganda, and if my interpretation of the painting has any merit, then the popularity of La Grande Jatte may denote some appeal of anarchist ideas to those of us in the art-viewing public.  And this may say as much about us as it does about the picture.

[1] George Orwell.  All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.  “Charles Dickens.” New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p.65

[2] Mortimer Adler.  How to Read a Book.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” 12/2014.

[4] John Lennon. “Give Peace a Chance.” Plastic Ono Band, 1969.

[5] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.13, 22.

[6] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.16.

[7] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.430-431.

[8] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.15, 21.

[9] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.”  12/2014.

[10] “Georges Seurat.” Wikipedia.  Accessed 8/24/18.  “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute.

[11] “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Accessed 8/24/18.

[12] “Georges Seurat.” The Art Story: Modern Art & Insight. 8/1/18.

[13] Tom Bradley. “Atomic Models.” 11/20/12.  Prezi:atomicmodels

[14] “Democritus (460-370 BCE).”  International Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed 9/3/18.

[15] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.21.

[16] “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute.  Accessed 8/24/18.

[17] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissaropolitics.wordpress Accessed 8/24/18.