Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Elizabeth Anderson

Elizabeth Anderson is the John Rawls Collegiate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her books include Value in Ethics and Economics and the newly released The Imperative of Integration.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been reading around lately in the history of egalitarianism. I'm interested not only in the history of egalitarian ideas, but in the history of the practice of equality. In that area Geoff Eley's Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 is an amazing eye-opener. Eley narrates a history dripping with irony, inconsistency, and missed opportunities. Socialist movements in Europe started out with a strong agenda of feminism and sexual liberation. However, he documents how time and again, the Left put women's interests on the back burner in the name of advancing (male) workers' liberation first. When socialist or communist parties came close to or actually acquired power, they swiftly moved to shore up male dominance and adopted sexually conservative ideologies.

Women's issues were not the only ones drawing out incipient conservative tendencies in Left political parties. The German Social Democratic Party officially adhered to a Marxist ideology long past its expiration date. Yet, when the opportunity for a real workers' revolution arose in the wake of Germany's collapse in World War I, with workers taking to the streets and ready to seize power, the SDP, which had been suddenly handed control of the state, sent the army out to crush the revolt. Why? Orthodox Marxist theory said the time for revolution would not be ripe until capitalism was completely developed, but there were still economically backward areas in Germany. So Germany would have to wait--even though Lenin had already shown how revolution can succeed in a far more backward country. Ironically, the SDP's Marxist orthodoxy helped make them counter-revolutionaries! In this case, unlike the case with its treatment of feminism, we can be grateful for the SDP's conservatism: as we know from subsequent history, and as Eley shows, communist revolutions have not turned out so well for the people whose liberation the communists promised. Of course, there were other causes of the SDP's caution: it had long since discarded anarchist revolutionary practice and committed itself institutionally to parliamentary democratic procedures. Eley does a wonderful job explaining the sources of divergence among rival leftist movements, as well as the profound role of the Left in shaping democracy in Europe.
Read an excerpt from Elizabeth Anderson's The Imperative of Integration, and learn more about the book from the Princeton University Press.

--Marshal Zeringue