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John Dewey at 90

Salute to a Genuine Liberal and Courageous Intellectual

(31 October 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 44, 31 October 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In many quarters, and for a variety of reasons, the 90th birthday of John Dewey is being celebrated. Dewey, who is one of the few genuinely original thinkers of 20th-century America and who has made significant contributions to philosophy, education, psychology and esthetics, is rightly receiving the applause of everyone in the slightest degree interested in intellectual matters.

For our part, we leave to others – that is, to specialists in the. various fields in which Dewey has worked – a proper assessment of his contributions. As Marxists, we find ourselves in certain basic disagreements with Dewey’s theories of social class and social change; but, for the moment, these disagreements need not be rehearsed.

We wish only to say a few words about John Dewey, the public figure. There has arisen over the past five or six decades an ideal notion of what a liberal or radical intellectual should be – a thinker and writer who, while devoted to his special pursuits and not directly involved in immediate political activities, is yet so socially generous, so wholeheartedly committed that he continually gives of himself and his time to a variety of causes that elicit his support.

Few American intellectuals have come closer to this ideal figure than John Dewey. He has thrown himself into innumerable labor-defense movements, into the committees that supported Sacco and Vanzetti, and Tom Mooney. He has repeatedly participated in movements to organize a new, left-wing though non-Marxist party.

Unlike so many other intellectuals, he has remained true to the convictions of his young manhood. In an age when so many have beat a ridiculous retreat to religion and mysticism, he has retained his belief that men can solve their problems through the use of reason and scientific method, that there is no need to seek for supernatural crutches. He is, at the age of 90, as much of a radical as ever, and he has continually supported socialist candidates for office.

Atom-Bomb Liberal

What a striking contrast with those brave souls who were radicals at the age of 19 and became soul-sick and weary cynics at the age of 23 – veterans of brief flirtations with the edges of radicalism who retired themselves from a world that will not let them go!

Here is a man whom one can respect even when, and often particularly when, one disagrees with him – a men who honors his views of yesterday, who does not flit from intellectual novelty to novelty like a drunkard trying new brands of whiskey, a man who establishes a tradition within his own life and thought, a man, in other words, who believes In himself. How much more admirable and dignified than those radicals-of-yesterday who today have become “atom-bomb liberals”!

We are particularly mindful of John Dewey’s heroic service as head of the commission which investigated the Moscow Trials. At a time when intellectuals were apologizing for Stalinism wholesale or were being intimidated by it like frightened prisoners, Dewey did not fear to defend Trotsky’s right to be heard. Only those who remember those harried days of the mid-thirties from personal experience will know what courage it took for John Dewey to resist the numerous and often vicious pressures brought against him by the then-powerful Stalinist intellectual machine.

And we think too of Dewey’s recent stand in favor of academic freedom for all teachers, including Stalinists – so fine and rebuking a contrast to those of his disciples who would deprive teachers of their jobs because of their beliefs. At the age of 89, John Dewey spoke up on this issue, modestly, clearly and honorably.

There is a story about Dewey and Trotsky which we have heard; perhaps it is merely legendary, perhaps it is true. But it does not matter; it is a good story all the same. When Dewey heard Trotsky speak in Mexico (the story runs) he told Trotsky that if all Marxists were like him, then he, Dewey, would also be a Marxist. To which Trotsky is supposed to have replied that if all liberals were like Dewey, then he, Trotsky, would also be a liberal.

Happy birthday, John Dewey!

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