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The New International, January 1944

Richard Stoker

Books in Review

A Self-Repudiation


From The New International, Vol. X No. 1, January 1944, p. 31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Republic: Conversations on Fundamentals
by Charles Beard
Viking. $3.00

Although Charles Beard disclaims, modestly and rightly enough, any comparison with Socrates, the title of his book invites the comparison. Since Beard’s book does not deal with ideal politics or with the structure of the only republic, it is an inaccurate title. While this book has received far more extravagant praise than the Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, Beard will be known by his earlier and better work. The people who condemned the writings of his youth will praise the writings of his old age. For this book frankly repudiates his early work, commends the superior wisdom of the Federalists led by Hamilton, doubts the validity of an economic approach to historical problems, and defends the powers of the Supreme Court.

Beard displays matchless erudition, and if we quarrel with him it is not with his scholarship but with his interpretation. His book is not an inquiry into fundamentals, it is only an exposition of the Constitution within a very well defined class framework. It is an inquiry carried on within a middle class orbit which cannot comprehend more than differences in detail. Beard’s protagonists are doctors, professors, social workers, clergymen, business men and conservative labor leaders. In his attempt to present all points of view, Beard, includes, as a spokesman for labor, a leader whose radical and class-conscious suggestion is that, since labor and capital have identical interests, they ought to get together! Beard’s circle does not include a fascist nor a communist, who would really compel him to examine fundamentals. As it is, the most radical proposal considered by his group is the suggestion that we adopt a parliamentary government on the English model.

This book is, in no inconsiderable measure, a polemic against a class analysis of society. The supra-class concept is emphasized in every realm Beard discusses. In politics, Beard asserts that the political party is creative because it unites diverse class interests. Perhaps he identifies creativeness with class peace, but have our supposedly non-class parties been able to maintain peace of any kind? Beard does not attempt to discover whether or not an openly class party, let us say a workers’ party, gains in creativeness from its frankness, its carefully delimited membership, and its unequivocal objectives.

In stating the supra-class concept of truth and justice, Beard reopens the inquiry into Trotsky’s activities by the Dewey Commission. Trotsky, he says, appealed to him in the name of truth and justice to become a member of the commission, thereby implicitly recognizing that truth and justice are supra-class concepts. We cannot dispute the view that truth is not a class concept. A fact is a fact, the truth is the truth, whether it be enunciated by a proletarian or a capitalist. All that we assert is that the working class is in the best position to discover social truths and in the best position to advance social truths because it does not fear them. But justice is a class concept. The justice of punishments in a class society that bear most heavily on the workers is not commonly regarded, outside of academic circles, as above classes in origin, content, direction or purpose. If we cared to press the matter further, we should not have too much difficulty in making a significant correlation between changing class structures and changing concepts of justice.

Beard gives the impression of defending the Supreme Court in the exercise of all its powers. This is a step backward from the far from radical philosophy of Justice Holmes, which asserts that the Legislature, elected by the people, is a better judge of the constitutionality of its own acts than a group of judges, no matter how omniscient they profess to be. Nor can Beard’s view that the Supreme Court is the great defender of civil liberties bear historical investigation.

Historical interpretation is, for Beard, a matter of taste and. temperament; one is either a pessimist or an optimist, depending upon intuitions too subtle for rational analysis. Beard has certainly not improved on Gilbert and Sullivan’s equally profound political analysis in somewhat the same vein, that “every boy and girl born in this world alive, is either a little liberal or else a little conservative.” Beard advances a concept of fate in history which probably reduces itself to the dictum that whatever is, is – a concept with which we shall not argue, but which doesn’t help us very much in our attempt to understand men and events. “We cannot,” he says, “master our fate. What is fated is fated and is beyond our control.”

His aspirations are limited to the preservation of the American political structure and the limitation of American ambitions to this continent. He is opposed to foreign adventures and to grandiose schemes of international reform, against all of which he is able to present numerous objections of detail. Throughout the book he tries to maintain the traditional professorial objectivity, reconciling all interests, doing injury to none.

Finally, he states his faith in America in the following terms:

“I do not believe that even in a great national crisis we shall necessarily subject ourselves to what you call a totalitarian government of some kind or other ... The idea of our repeating all the mental imagery, ideas, rhetoric, sentiments and hocus-pocus of totalitarianism in Germany, Russia or Italy seems to me so highly fanciful as to be purely speculative, for America has not been and never can be Russia, Germany or Italy, through whatever variety of untried being we may pass in the indefinite future.”

Where did we hear that song before?

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