The Legacy of John Dewey

The Legacy of John Dewey

JOHN DEWEY AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, by Robert Westbrook. Cornell University Press, 1991. 579 pp. $29.95.

Athough it cannot compare with the collapse of the theory and practice of Marxian socialism in intellectual interest or geopolitical significance, the current revival of interest in the life and work of John Dewey is an astonishing phenomenon. It is a bit of a joke to speak of the death of the Marxist project and the rebirth of a respect for Dewey in the same breath, but they are to a degree connected. It is a platitude that the end of the cold war has left losers but no winners, and so leaves a sort of ideological vacuum. “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism” is plainly dead, but neither laissez-faire nor the untidy compromise of the postwar welfare state seems terribly healthy. In particular, there is a dearth of nonutopian, nonnostalgic, institutionally serious radical thinking. Nobody suggests that Dewey’s work can wholly fill this gap, but it seems to fill a surprising number of American intellectual needs.

The “back to Dewey” movement is fueled by more than a search for a distinctively American socialism. Richard Rorty admires Dewey’s philosophical radicalism but preaches “post-modern bourgeois liberalism”; Robert Bellah and his colleagues have gone to Dewey in their account of The Good Society for a Durkheimian emphasis on social institutions that is communitarian rather than socialist; and Stephen Rockefeller’s hefty biography, John Dewey: Religious Faith and Democratic Humanism (Columbia University Press, 1991), offers us an environmentalist Dewey of somewhat Buddhist religious leanings. Nor have those who thought ill of Dewey thirty years ago changed their minds; Christopher Lasch attacked Dewey as the theorist of corporatist manipulation in The New Radicalism in America and writes him off as a naive optimist in The True and Only Heaven.