All Ideas Are Political
As socialists, we believe that all ideas are political. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t subject our claims to rigorous, empirical scrutiny.
The eminent Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer recently died at age ninety-five. Jackson Toby’s memorial of Glazer in the Wall Street Journal described him as a disillusioned liberal-turned-neoconservative who “came from an era when the field cared about describing the world, not changing it” and aimed for “a truthful depiction of social reality.”
A New York Times obituary claimed Glazer drifted toward “hard-won pragmatism” after becoming editor of the Public Interest, a journal dedicated to “the concreteness of empirical evidence.” Reflecting on The Lonely Crowd, the first breakthrough social science bestseller which Glazer co-authored with David Riesman, Tablet praises the book’s “methodological research [through] interviews [and] analysis.”
The subtext of all this is a critique of the Left, which is seen as perennially bogged down by ideology, in thrall to a political agenda. Avoiding the dirty mess of politics afforded Glazer the necessary distance to do sociology the way it was always meant to be done.
This idea has a long pedigree in my discipline, dating back to the founders and early figureheads of the field. In a 1919 speech on what he called “value-free sociology,” Max Weber argued, “The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient facts.’”
The only problem is that Nathan Glazer was far from a dispassionate observer or a merely “descriptive sociologist.”
In the middle of the turbulent 1970s, as American cities were rent by antiracist, feminist, and working-class revolts from all corners, Glazer published Affirmative Discrimination, which became a major rallying cry for an emergent neoconservative movement that opposed racial justice.
Though Glazer’s politics waffled from left to right in his lifetime, his position on race seemed to stagnate. In 2010 he wrote: “I believe the view is spreading that the improvement of the black condition must depend in greater degree on the work of blacks themselves,” before moving on to praise the self-help advice of Bill Cosby. In a more recent interview, he noted that Donald Trump has made conservatism more interesting.
Glazer was certainly no fraud or an outright racist. But the enduring myth of value-free social science obfuscates, rather than illuminates, the most interesting aspects of his work.
Glazer was agnostic about social policies that were designed to lift blacks out of poverty. That agnosticism has severe, negative social repercussions — his supposedly value-free evaluations helped make life worse for large numbers of people.
So why praise the alleged neutrality of Glazer’s work? Because conservatives and their centrist allies understand that explaining our world is the first step to changing it. And they benefit from maintaining the status quo.
No one understood this better than Erik Olin Wright, the University of Wisconsin sociologist who died a few days after Glazer at age seventy-one of acute myeloid leukemia. Wright was perhaps the most brilliant Marxist sociologist of his time, who did more than anyone else in the discipline to reimagine its core concepts, social class, and revolution. Wright might as well have had Marx’s gravestone epitaph — his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” — tattooed across his chest.
Yet Wright understood there was a cautionary tale embedded in the famous axiom. Careful not be seduced by the world we want as opposed to the world we have, Wright identified as an “Analytical Marxist,” preferring a method with falsifiable claims, causal mechanisms, and quantitative precision. Even when writing about utopian schemes, Wright scoured the globe to identify “real utopias,” grounded and delimited by the world all around us, subject to investigation and critique.
I first met Wright in Japan at a 2014 sociology conference. I recognized him reading alone in the conference hotel lobby and introduced myself. He immediately invited me to sit down and help him answer the question he’d been pondering: “Who are the revolutionaries?”
Wright was referring to the extended debate among scholars on the Left: What social group would fulfill the historic role of overthrowing capitalism and ushering in socialism?
Far from mere speculation, the question requires careful, cogent analysis of the balance of forces in any given region or society, to understand which groups are best situated and most likely to be successful. I didn’t know it then (nor did he), but he was in the midst of early research for his final book, How to be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century (forthcoming from Verso).
Social science has changed since Glazer was a major figure. In 2004, then incoming president of the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy, a close friend of Wright’s, gave an impassioned address that signaled a new direction toward “public sociology,” in which scholars engage audiences outside the academy. It gave legitimacy to the overt political dimension of scholarly work and inspired a new generation of young scholar activists on the Left to advance the approach. The 2019 conference theme is Engaging Social Justice for a Better World, which Toby claims (probably correctly) Glazer would disdainfully reject.
But left scholars and activists have too easily rejected the scientific study of society, often crudely equating it with some form of class-first determinism. We cynically repudiate political “science” on the basis of its claims to empiricism rather than its drift toward conservatism, which is far more dangerous.
This is understandable, given that conservative scholars have so often claimed the mantle of objectivity, while the Left has tended to see its role as offering a political compass to a brighter future. Yet given the social context in which Glazer crafted some of his most significant works, it is hard to understand them outside of an ideological turn against the tactics and behavior of the New Left and an insurgent black freedom movement. That he’s been fondly remembered for his “objectivity” seems to discount the obvious political axe he ground his entire intellectual life.
Yet for all their power, axes are blunt instruments. Marx himself advocated an analytical approach, and Wright is one of its closest disciples. In an interview with Mark Kirby, Wright mounts a defense of scientific Marxism: “There is a role for hard-nosed, number crunching, positivist visions of hypothesis testing.”
Wright recognized the tension between scientific analysis and a vision of social change. They aren’t the same. But part of his cheery disposition in life probably came from the fact that, after a lifetime of careful study, he thought the facts were on the side of the Left.
Socialists today should reject the kind of neutrality that conservatives praise Glazer for. But we shouldn’t confuse that neutrality with empirical rigor. Wright was confident enough in his political commitments to put them under the microscope. We should be, too.