by Robbie McClintock
A review of Superman and Common Men: Freedom, Anarchy, and the Revolution by Benjamin R. Barber (Praeger. 125 pp. $5 cloth; $1.95 paper.), published in The Progressive, Vol. 36, No. 1, January 1972, pp. 56 & 58.
Length: 1,200 words
A good book resonates with its readers' realities; without necessarily winning assent, the argument mysteriously induces sympathetic vibrations, the significance of which may quite excel that of the point at issue. This resonance arises because a book is read in the midst of definite conditions, which it may affect, not only through its argument, but through its style, through the quality of communication that its author engenders.
In Superman and Common Men, political scientist Benjamin R. Barber has written such a book. It comprises four essays on anarchism, freedom, tolerance, and revolution. Each is well-argued; one is an important contribution to political philosophy; and the four link together, on reflection, into a cumulative contention. In this book one encounters a bracing vigor and an uncommon confidence that by reasoning publicly men can improve their condition. By example as well as by precept, Barber reaffirms the grand tradition, that of reasoned revolution.
Barber first puts a question to the anarchically inclined : do they seek poetic gestures or revolutionary change? If they aim at change, they had best reject anarchism, for beyond its abstract gratifications, its practical effect is reaction. Anarchism will always infatuate a few, for the ideal of intrinsic bonds is undeniably beautiful, but as a political means, anarchism is inherently impotent, a sanctimonious, elitist refusal to truck with men as they are, a self-defeating rejection of all possible political levers. When the anarchist does move the masses, he serves reaction by engendering imprudence and weakening practical efforts at change. "Those who would save society," writes Barber, "must first face some difficult choices. They must choose between the solipsistic imagination and the realities of exploitation and human misery; between ·the theatrics of grand tragedy and the dull desperate plight of uninteresting prisoners of poverty, ignorance, and mediocrity.... Not all good things mix: ultimately, they may have to choose between poetry and revolution."
But as a political philosopher Barber recognizes that neither whim nor interest completely governs this choice. In two essays he tries to dissociate common conceptions of freedom and tolerance from those of anarchy. Many, faithful to confusions about freedom and tolerance, espouse anarchy unwittingly and thus reject practical political change. Properly understood, however, freedom and tolerance are incompatible with anarchy; instead, they require political implementation. In making these points, Barber writes brilliantly on freedom, but less well on tolerance.
Discussing freedom, Barber meditates on the Rousseauian paradox that men can be forced to be free. Unless this proposition proves acceptable one cannot affirm freedom without anarchism. For Barber, Rousseau's paradox neither justifies authoritarian abuse nor absurdly contradicts itself; it simply states the facts. Barber shows that men are forever being forced to be free whenever politics and pedagogy drive them to self-awareness. The idea of freedom should lead men not towards an anarchic condition of unrestraint, but towards creating a polity in which every man can achieve the fullest autonomy of intention.
A mechanistic formulation of tolerance also leads to anarchism, or so Barber contends. Here, however, he seems to be tilting· against an unreal target. He holds that "tolerance is an act of forbearance resulting from the judgment that the actor's general freedom of action is more valuable than the prevention of ... harmful act or belief." This leaves unclear whether the forbearance is exercised by persons or collectives. Barber recognizes that for most "the focus of tolerance is always the individual, never the collective ... ," but he himself writes about a collective tolerance ("society may have to tolerate ... " and so on). To me these constructions are nonsensical; and as long as the focus of tolerance is the individual, it has nothing to do with anarchy. Thus, the good society is one in which tolerant men enforce just laws, and the evil society is one in which intolerant persons wield unjust authority.
If not poetry, then, what about the revolution? Is it also poetry, a rhetorical fiction, or can it be a political reality? In his last essay, Barber affirms the reality, recognizing its improbability, but asserting, nevertheless, its possibility. Three powerful groups now aspire to promote change. "These ... reflect three very different kinds of frustration: economic frustration with material and physical insecurity, racial frustration with discrimination and injustice, and psychic frustration with existential meaninglessness." The three aim respectively at security, justice, and liberation, and in tum appeal to the white working class, the racial minorities, and the children of affluence: now they work at cross purposes. But a concert is possible, hence revolutionary reform is possible. But actualization of this depends largely on the children of affluence, for they could best mediate between the other two.
How those pursuing liberation should so mediate, Barber does not specify. He reiterates that those seeking existential meaning must forgo the anarchism to which their pursuit of liberation leaves them prone. Their liberation lies in a conscious effort to create a meaningful politics, a restoration of a real democracy pervaded by respect for common men. Yet, "what stands in the way of reconstituted democracy is democracy as it is now constituted. What prevents the three potentially revolutionary movements from uniting ... is their own negative perceptions of one another." Therefore, to re-create democracy, men's perceptions must be transformed; he closes with a moving exhortation to do so. Admiring the exhortation, one still wonders how to transform the troublesome perceptions. How can the forces of freedom be forced to be free?
Reason is sovereign when men use it, not to rationalize their pre-conceived goals, but to uncover what their goals properly can and should be. Unequivocally, in Barber's essays, reason is sovereign. The essays "are attempts ... at critical thinking about concepts and issues.... Their immodest aim is to influence activity by changing minds."
Few writers, these days, have sufficient confidence in reason to try to change minds; most have turned either to the panicked commentary of those who see unreason rising all around them or to the emotive dogmatism of those who believe that reason can only serve as a tool of tyranny. Not so Barber. In his "immodest aim" of trying to change minds, in his willingness to grant that the prospective anarchist may still he susceptible to reason, he exemplifies the sovereignty of reason even where his reasoning may go wrong. Through this example, the significance of Barber's book can transcend that of his text, for it exemplifies the way to change perceptions, to restore democracy, to force men to be free—namely, by seeking to persuade and to be persuaded by reasoned argument.