On Intellectual Life, Politics and Psychoanalysis:
a conversation with Gad Horowitz
The distinguished theorist, Gad Horowitz, Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto talks to Colin Campbell about his life as a scholar, teacher and observer of the contemporary political scene, now that we rapidly exit the logic of empire and enter a new era of globalized despotism mixed with utopian struggles for social justice.
A & M Kroker, Editors
CTHEORY: Canadian Labour in Politics, remains a seminal text
of Canadian political analysis and in the history of Canadian socialism. In it, you
develop what has become known as the "Hartz-Horowitz thesis," a variant of Louis
Hartz' "fragment theory" of political culture. Briefly, what was Hartz' theory, and
how did it change when your name was added to it?
Gad Horowitz: "Seminal" -- well, you know we don't like this word, (laughs) but I guess, in fact, that's something like what
it was. I had my fifteen minutes. It was and remained a seminal text because it
spoke to real needs of the Canadian cultural, political elite, especially at that
Briefly, Hartz' theory is that the so-called "new societies" that were established
by immigrants, or emigrants, from Britain -- the United States, Canada, Australia,
New Zealand, South Africa -- were fragments, cultural fragments. In other words
they represented, not the whole spectrum of political ideology in the mother country,
but a fragment of that culture. So that the United States is a liberal fragment.
Hartz argued that although America has had a lot of internal conflict and ideological
confusion, it was entirely, insofar as it was at all significant in American
life, within the framework of what he calls "Lockean liberalism." We would say
"individualism." So that any sort of political thinking and action that was based on
notions of organic community, aristocratic noblesse oblige, class, class-based
revolution, a class-based politics -- all of these were foreign in the United States,
and couldn't really develop in any meaningful or important way.
Hartz and McRae suggested that English Canada was another liberal fragment . Latin America and Quebec, on the other
hand, were "feudal" fragments founded by emigrants from pre-liberal Spain, Portugal
and France. So, where the United States were an entirely liberal fragment, Quebec
was a near-monolithic feudal or Tory fragment until the upsurge of liberalism after
World War Two, culminating in the 'quiet revolution' of the sixties. The persistence
of the feudal past alongside the new liberalism helps to account for the strong
influence of socialist/social democratic thinking in Quebec in recent times. Most
interestingly, they suggested that Australia was a radical fragment, because
Australia, being founded at the turn of the twentieth century, by English and other
British working-class people, privileged, as we might say, a very left-wing,
close-to-socialist or social-democratic fragment in Australia. It is hard to
summarize in a few words and I could go on about it for a very long time. So that
was Hartz' theory in a nutshell.
People should read Hartz, especially The Liberal Tradition in America, and
his second book called The Founding of New Societies, which he edited. The
Founding of New Societies has pieces on all the fragment cultures. The
Liberal Tradition in America was just about the United States. It's one of the
most brilliant pieces of work that has ever been done, I think, in political science.
It was very influential and much-condemned and despised and debated in the United
States, and it still is. And I might say a little bit more about that in a minute.
And "how did it change when my name was added to it"? Well, it only changed for
Canadians, because outside of Canada no one paid attention to my work, and that makes
sense, because who pays attention to anything Canadian (laughter) outside of
Canada? That doesn't change.
Well, I argued against Kenneth McRae, who had contributed to Hartz's The
Founding of New Societies book, that in fact it was not correct to call English
Canada a liberal fragment like the United States. I argued that there was a
significant, let's say, 'Tory' or pre-liberal 'remnant' in Canada, and that this is
part of the reason that English Canada developed a vibrant and legitimate socialist
tradition, in great contrast to the American scene.
Hartz didn't mind having his theory complicated. McRae was also quite generous
about it. But that's basically it. And I should mention that Nelson Wiseman went on
to develop an application of the fragment theory in an intra-Canadian way. So that,
for example, the prairie provinces, and B.C., and the Maritimes, Ontario, are all
described in terms of fragment theory as having significant variations from the
internal Canadian perspective.
What happened in the States was that many people objected to Hartz' theory, and
any attempt to portray American political culture as monolithically Lockean or
liberal-individualist. The most important refutation came from the so-called
"republicans" or "civic humanists" who tried to argue that the United States was
actually founded on the basis of a republican theory of virtue which would
subordinate private individuals to the public good. And then Janet Aszjenstadt went
on to do some work on Canada, which argued against my theory, that actually the
Americans were the Tories -- I might be getting it a little wrong, so Janet will
excuse me -- and that the Canadians were actually the individualists, the
Now just by coincidence, the other day I came across something in the summer 2002
issue of Telos, a now-forgotten journal that was quite influential on the
left. In it someone was arguing that republicanism is now passé in the United
States, and the sort of Hartzian view or something like it has become more acceptable
than it was while the republicans, mostly following J.G.A. Pocock, were riding high.
Jefferson, for example: the Jeffersonian notions that we find in the preamble to the
Declaration of Independence, are difficult to read as communitarian or civic
And I'll just say one more thing about it. A student of Hartz' named John Diggins
published a book in 1984, The Lost Soul of American Politics, which goes into
this among other things; it's a very interesting book. It concludes with a kind of
communitarian translation of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, "We hold
these truths to be historically conditioned: that all men are created equal and
mutually dependent...." (laughter) Which is a sort of reductio ad
absurdum of a communitarian or republican interpretation of the history of
American political thought. So there you go.
CTHEORY: Canadian Labour in Politics opens with the statement that,
"In the United States organized socialism is dead. In Canada socialism, though far
from national power, is a significant political force and the official 'political
arm' of the labour movement." And then you ask, "Why these striking differences in
the fortunes of socialism in two very similar societies?" Has your analysis of the
Canadian political scene changed since the 1960s?
Horowitz: My feelings have changed a lot more than my analysis. So I
suppose I won't work too hard at separating "feelings" from "the analysis." Well, I
think that the New Democratic Party has fallen on hard times, its fortunes may
improve, but I think party politics has become less important than it was, especially
on the left. And that people, especially young people, are more interested in
non-parliamentary or extra-parliamentary politics than they were before. I think that
Canada has become significantly more Americanized than it was when I wrote
Canadian Labour in Politics, and that both Toryism and socialism have
been losing a lot of their distinctiveness, have been blurring into liberalism at
CTHEORY: The 'Red Tory' was a key figure in the Hartz-Horowitz analysis.
What does this term mean?
Horowitz: Well that's what really became famous -- this notion of the Red
Tory. First I should say that some people say I invented the term. I didn't invent
the term. I think that it probably is a term that was first used in England, and
anyone who wanted to do the research would figure that out. There were Tories in
England who were sufficiently anti-capitalist -- interested enough in what Disraeli
called the "condition of the people" -- to be called 'Red' Tories. So I defined, in
the Canadian context, a Red Tory as someone who -- Eugene Forsey is a good example --
was a socialist that was sufficiently Tory in many of his views -- especially about
the constitution, and the power of the Crown -- to be called a Red 'Tory.' And then
on the other hand there were Tories who were sufficiently critical of capitalism to
be called 'Red' Tories -- and that would be George Grant, and others.
CTHEORY: You have said in the past that the reason that George Grant
lacked faith and hope in a socialist future was that he lacked faith and hope,
So where was the 'Red' in Grant's Tory? Has your evaluation of Grant's evaluation
of the possibility of socialism changed?
Horowitz: Well, he lacked faith and hope in English Canada -- at least
rhetorically. He would never have hoped for a socialist future. But he would have
hoped for a future for an independent Canada, which put more importance, in his
terms, on the "public good" than on private interests. And insofar as Grant
recognized that both conservatism and socialism place the public good ahead of
private interests, he would have been interested in socialism in that sense. He did
contribute a chapter to the volume published by some founders of the New Democratic
Party, called Social Purpose for Canada, edited by Michael Oliver, first
president of the NDP. He had a very nice piece in there, which was as socialist as
he ever got. I guess maybe I've said enough about where the 'Red' was in Grant's
Tory -- he was very critical of capitalism and of the control of Canadian politics by
indigenous- and American-based capital. He thought that our business classes had
sold out the country. I don't think he ever changed his mind about that. He had a
genuine deep respect for ordinary people which was quite remarkable -- which you
might see shining through in that piece in Social Purpose for Canada which I
just mentioned. I think a lot of Grant's students and disciples like to underplay
this side of Grant's thought. Certainly as a religious person you can't say that he
lacked faith and hope. As a deeply religious person, he was all about faith and
hope. But it's a kind of faith and hope that transcends the political.
CTHEORY: Joel Kovel dedicated his book The Enemy of Nature: The End of
Capitalism or the End of the World to the anti-globalization protestors, in
Seattle and in Quebec City. What did you think of the protest in Quebec City in
2001? Did it indicate for you that socialism remains "a significant political force"
Horowitz: Well it was a remarkable, one of the most remarkable experiences
of my life. I consumed more gas than I'd ever been able to produce. I thought it
was really marvellous. And I was furious about the tear gas.
I don't think that it means that socialism remains a significant force in Canada.
I think it means that the anti-globalization movement is the significant political
force, and that political parties like the CCF-NDP, or even socialist movements like
Rabble, that people like NDP Leader Jack Layton have to negotiate some kind of
relationship between old-style political structures and the new style
anti-globalization movement. The problem is that September 11 suddenly happened, and
the anti-globalization movement, which for me was a kind of 'big picture,' ended up
in a small corner on the right hand side.
What an interesting coincidence. I mean, it almost made me willing to listen to
the conspiracy theorists who argue that it was just what the Bush and other regimes
needed. But I'll mention one thing that's really interesting here, and that is about
Michael Hardt. Hardt wrote Empire with Antonio Negri, and everyone was paying
a lot of attention to Empire before September 11. But no one pays that much
attention to that kind of 'empire' talk anymore because the more old-fashioned kind
of empire is clearly front and centre.
But I read an interesting column written by Michael Hardt for The Guardian,
in which he argues that the elites have lost touch with their own best interests,
that Bush-style imperialism is bad for the economic interests of the globalizing
elites. And his implication is that sooner or later they're going to get it
together, and this wave of nationalism and militarism and neo-imperialism is going to
subside, and the 'old'/newly-established globalizing economic trend will come back to
the fore again. And that's what Hardt and Negri want, because the more globalization
from the top there is, then the more globalization from the bottom there can be. So
that's one possibility.
* * *
CTHEORY: You made a strong case for Canadian Nationalism as a force allied
with the emergence of socialism. Are you still, were you ever, 'proud to be
Horowitz: I don't know if I would have ever used those words. I came to
this country -- I was born in Jerusalem -- I came to Canada when I was two years old,
and I grew up mostly in Calgary, Winnipeg, and Montreal. So I am a Canadian and I
always felt myself to be a Canadian. But like so many other Canadians I really
became conscious of this when I left the country to study abroad -- abroad in this
case being the United States. When I went to graduate school at Harvard, I felt my
Canadian-ness very strongly, and other people felt it too. I would be singled out in
seminars to express the "Canadian point of view." And, you know, my most glorious
moment at Harvard was when I would jokingly suggest to my American friends that the
American people should re-convene the Continental Congress, draw up articles of
apology for the American Revolution, and petition to be brought back under the
British Crown for their own good. And that we would find someone in Canada to go
down there and act as Governor General, you know, until they were ready for
self-government. Americans didn't find that funny. (laughter) They thought,
I mean they knew that I was joking, but somehow weren't able to find it funny.
Well, you know, there's just not that much intensity in it any more, but my view,
and my feelings actually haven't changed that much either. And I do love New York
and San Francisco. Does that make me a good Canadian?
CTHEORY: Do you have any particularly vivid memories of your early years,
at Harvard or McGill?
Horowitz: Harvard was a very interesting experience and that's where I met Louis Hartz. And
Sam Beer. Sam Beer is known to many people as the former president of the ADA, the
Americans for Democratic Action. He wrote a book, British Politics in the Age of
Collectivism. And as a graduate student I did some research for him which
contributed quite a bit to one of the chapters in that book. I did some research on
Lord Randolph Churchill, who was actually the Tory democrat par excellence.
When I was at McGill doing my M.A. I wrote my Masters' thesis on C. Wright Mills'
The Power Elite and also on the Italian elite theorists, Mosca and Michels. As
a matter of fact years later someone sent me a volume published by the Italian
Ministry of Culture or something like that, which pointed out that the only Canadian
political scientist or theorist who ever paid any attention to Italian political
thought was the young theorist at McGill named Gad Horowitz, and it's too bad after
doing that he went on to other matters. I did a liberal critique of C. Wright Mills
in my Masters' thesis but when I finished it I realized that I didn't agree with it.
I had actually been turned around by Mills, who was of course one of the great names
in American radicalism and still is or ought to be. His books The Power Elite
and The Sociological Imagination. And who is extremely relevant for today --
you know, The Causes of World War Three?
So I realized, you know, you come to criticize and you stay to sign up. This is
one of the great things about intellectual work, I think, for people who are somehow
not averse to this kind of thing. Whatever you study, you become. "From all my
teachers I have learned." So you can come to criticize something and learn from it,
and find yourself transformed in a way that maybe would have shocked or appalled a
The other moment was during the Vietnam War. I was visiting Frankfurt, Germany,
at the time and watching German television, and Lyndon B. Johnson appeared on the
screen in a military hospital in Frankfurt, visiting the wounded American soldiers.
Armless, legless, you know, shipped from Vietnam to the military hospital in
Frankfurt. So when I saw Johnson shaking the arm, the one arm that was left, the one
hand that was left to one of these boys, you know it just hit me. In this recent war
in Iraq, it kept hitting me again and again and again. That's one thing that doesn't
change for me - the anti-war position. And I've learned lately, following some of
the happenings on the Web in connection with the Iraq war, that you can be
ferociously anti-war as a right-winger. It's not something that the left has any
kind of monopoly on. Some of the most ferocious opposition to war in the United
States has been coming from the followers of Pat Buchanan.
So those were the moments of radicalization. Then of course, when I was at
Harvard, Marcuse hit.
CTHEORY: Marcuse 'hit'?
Horowitz: Marcuse hit me -- Marcuse's book Eros and
Civilization, which wasn't yet widely known, but which was published in 1955. I
went to Harvard in '59, and Marcuse's friend Barrington Moore, who was no
left-winger, was teaching a course at Harvard, and Eros and Civilization was
on the course.
CTHEORY: Your next major publication after Canadian Labour in
Politics has been described by one sympathetic Canadian political scientist as a
'tactical error.' Repression: Basic and Surplus is an intensive introduction
to psychoanalytic theory, to Freud, Reich and Marcuse. What would you say is the
relation between these books? Why would a political scientist write about
Horowitz: After Canadian Labour in Politics I hung around in the
area of Canadian politics for a while. And I did some stuff on TV, for example, with
George Grant and others. At some point, however, I just stopped working in that
field. It wasn't a tactical error, it was just a change in my priorities in terms of
what I was interested in. Canadian Labour in Politics was my PhD thesis. I
wrote it as a graduate student at Harvard. My supervisor was Sam Beer, and Louis
Hartz had a lot to do with the first chapter.
And at the same time, as I just mentioned, Marcuse hit me. So this interest in
psychoanalytic theory was there, from the start, and there was just a sort of natural
swing towards developing that interest. But not so much psychotherapy, as
psychoanalytic theory, from a Marcusian, that is, a left-wing, point of view.
Repression... it wasn't a tactical error, but it was a tactical
failure, in the sense that the reason that I wrote it was to help make
Marcuse's use of Freud more acceptable, more interesting to mainstream psychoanalytic
theorists. And also to make psychoanalytic theory more interesting to people on the
left. But it actually fell between the two camps, and it's really a strange book in
more ways than one. For one thing, as Joel Kovel pointed out to me, for a book about
Eros, it was very unerotic, (laughs) which couldn't have been said about
Eros and Civilization itself. And also it relied very heavily on a school of
psychoanalytic thinkers known as the 'ego psychologists' who were out of favour --
you know, in terms of the politics of academia, obsolete. And so it was a tactical
error to base a lot of my terminology and theorizing on their work. I was
naïve, I didn't know that no one wanted to listen to the ego-psychologists,
Hartmann and Rappaport. But it was fun, and a lot of people, you know, got something
out of it. I actually had more fan mail for Repression than I did for
Canadian Labour in Politics.
The relation between the books is that there is something left-wing happening in
both. The fact that I published these two books makes a statement about my attitude
to academia, and that is the importance of eclecticism. The importance of being
interested in and doing work in many fields, and not just one field. I think people
who find a field or a cause in graduate school and go on mining -- mining it and
mining it until they retire.... You know we probably need people like that, but I
don't think they should be considered the only legitimate or genuine ones, while
people who move around and study different things, as I have, are considered somehow
less professional. Or, you know, maybe that's exactly what we are. Less
professional would be a good thing. Deprofessionalization, in other words, might be
exactly what is required.
CTHEORY: So, what is to be done?
Horowitz: A long time ago somebody interviewed me and I found myself
describing myself as schizophrenic. I wouldn't use that term in the way I did then.
But what I meant was that I had a split consciousness. In terms of my fundamental
broad outlook, I was some kind of communist, and I'll tell you exactly what kind of
communist I was, I was a Marcusian communist. But in terms of day-to-day politics, I
was a sort of, you know, centre-left CCF-NDPer (Co-operative Commonwealth
Federation - New Democratic Party). I argued then and I would still argue that
it's very important -- it was very important for me and I recommend this to everyone,
that they, as Marcuse himself was always saying, don't give up on broad, radical
visions for fundamental, sweeping social change, just because it doesn't seem to be
on the agenda. Or indeed even because it never will be on the agenda. You still
don't give up on it. "Don't give up" means don't give up. It doesn't mean, "don't
give up as long as you think you have a chance." It means don't give up. Period.
And then, on the other hand, I thought that the CCF-NDP was important, it was
important in a nonfundamental way.
I haven't changed my mind about either of those positions: what you would call, as
a Lacanian, "duplicity"? (laughter)
CTHEORY: Maybe you would call it the "fetishistic split."
Horowitz: Slavoj Zizek is a good example of the kind of position I'm
talking about. He's one of the few people on the left in whom the radical vision
insists. Like the recent things he's been saying about Lenin, purposefully almost to
shock, 'épaté la bourgeoisie gauchiste, ' with his call for a
"return to Lenin."
CTHEORY: One moment I would say that really exemplifies a political
deployment of psychotherapy would have to be the fallout after the Columbine killings
-- therapist after therapist on television explaining why these kids did what they
did, and what therapeutic techniques and resources should be mobilized to prevent
such things from happening again. Among other things, the new "anti-bullying"
discourse has emerged out of the realization that the killers were ostracized from
the social world of their high school.
Horowitz: What I was remembering was, you know, the Leopold and Loeb story.
Back in the twenties, I think they were defended by Clarence Darrow. There was also
a homosexual theme, and there was also a Jewish theme. Leopold and Loeb, I think,
were high school age kids, maybe a little bit older, who went out and committed a
'thrill murder.' It was a big deal at the time. The Columbine killers are like
Leopold and Loeb with postmodern military technology. What's different is the
But I'm remembering also Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine which you've
seen? Well if you see Bowling for Columbine you'll find very interesting the
subtle connection he makes -- I don't know how many people who've seen the movie
actually notice this, because the movie as a whole isn't very subtle at all.
Columbine high school is located in a town which is totally dominated by the military
industrial complex. And Moore takes you into a factory that is making, I forget
what, big fighter jets or something like that. There's a lot of guns. I mean not
redneck firearms, but military-industrial complex big guns around there. Is
there some connection perhaps between the militaristic liberalism of the United
States and the sort of nihilistic, rebellious, world destroying militarism -- and
they did dress up that way -- of the Columbine killers?
CTHEORY: This goes to the intensification of professional therapeutic
control of the lifeworld?
Horowitz: The therapeutic state -- right. Well, one of the things that a
good Marxist never forgets is that many important social phenomena are duplicitous:
one would use the language of dialectic. In other words, it's not that social
phenomena have some aspects that are regressive, and some aspects that are
progressive. It's that one and the same aspect would be simultaneously progressive
and regressive. That's another thing I think Zizek knows very well. This is the
crux of Negri and Hardt's theoretical approach to empire. The globalizing empire is
simultaneously progressive and regressive. Only they would argue that all of the
power of the regression is sucked, vampire like -- the Marxist metaphor of the
vampire comes in there -- out of the creativity of the multitude. So that
globalization has simultaneously the parasitic-globalizing-capitalist aspect and the
* * *
CTHEORY: You taught a course at the University of Toronto, "The Spirit of
Democratic Citizenship," which included assignments with names, like 'stepping out of
worthlessness,' and 'writing in sensory grounded language.' What were some of the
things you hoped to achieve in teaching it?
Horowitz: I feel this is one of the best things that I've ever done. And
it's hard for me to talk about it -- it's hard to describe what it is. But it's
really a work of eclectic bricolage that I brought together out of many different
disciplines. It has hardly any reading list - a course I brought together from many
different places. Korzybski's 'general semantics,' as you know, is very important in
there, and actually the idea for doing this course came to me when I rediscovered his
book, Science and Sanity, published in 1933. I had read popular versions of
general semantics, like Hayakawa's Language in Action when I was a teenager,
and then I forgot about it. And then in late eighties I came upon Science and
Sanity and rediscovered what I think is an idiosyncratic and flawed, but in some
ways very powerful approach to getting across to people of all ages and descriptions,
ways of dealing with the power of language, of discourses, of undermining the power
of discourses, such as the discourse of "worthlessness" -- undemocratic discourses --
in their lives. I actually think that this sort of stuff is more important than
therapy, and that if something like the general semantics movement could be revived
that it would do more for people and for democracy than radical therapy approaches,
or ordinary therapy approaches.
It didn't fit at all well with other courses in the University of Toronto's
Political Science Department, but my department is a very 'small-c' catholic
department, and we always have gotten along very well with one another. For example,
our relations, or at least my relations with our Straussian comrades are always
generous and gentle. And there was no objection to teaching a course like this. I
tried to disguise it as being a little bit more scholarly than it actually was.
Because actually what it mostly consisted of was me laying down teachings, and
getting students to go out and apply them to events in their daily lives in the form
of tasks, or experiments, and then coming back and reporting them, back to me, in
what we called the "scholarly journal for the study of the Spirit of Democratic
Maybe I should say a few more things. It had three parts. The first part was
about language, and about dehypnotization -- understanding the power of the
"consensus trance." Breaking the "consensus trance" that all sorts of received
discourses have over our lives, from a very early age.
It was called "No One Truth," the first part. "No one truth." And that relied
very heavily on general semantics. And the second part was called, "Evoking the
Other." So the first part was about the self, and the second was about self and
other. It also consisted largely of tasks, and it had to do with understanding the
process of the relation between self and others at both the interpersonal and
inter-group levels. So, for example, for an Israeli Jew to understand a Palestinian
Arab, and vice versa, and to be able to relate, sanely, to the Palestinian Arab, and
vice versa. There were some tasks, techniques or methods that I taught in Part Two
of the course...
CTHEORY: Including "The Power of Not Understanding..."
Horowitz: "The Power of Not Understanding." This was an article by an
Israeli social psychologist about discussions between Jews and Arabs in
Israel/Palestine which could only begin to make headway when both sides realized that
they actually profoundly did not "understand" the other at all. Another angle:
people can talk at the academic level about how the Israeli needs to take on the
Arab's memories of oppression, and the Arab needs to take on the Jew's memories of
oppression, but to say that is very different from actually going through a
process in which you do that. Actually do it. The whole course was
about getting people to have experiences, rather than just learn academic formulae --
no matter how profound and interesting and important those formulae might be.
And the third part was called "The Spirit of Equality." Yeah, part two was about
evoking the other, self and other, listening to others, to all others, including the
others within the self. There's a section on Ghandi in part two, because Ghandi is
the best at transforming the traditional approach to the enemy, and entering into
politics in a way in which you would understand the enemy and take the so-called
enemy into account as much as possible in the process of nonviolent resistance.
Part Three, on Equality, took it from the interpersonal to the more broadly social
or political level. The part of it that I remember most vividly was called "Mapping
Personal Problems in Public Space," which again, in an experience-based way, showed
the connection between personal issues, personal problems, personal troubles, and the
larger institutional and discursive forces which affect those problems. So that
someone who went through that would find it impossible any longer to focus most of
their thinking about personal problems on the question of personal blame, personal
guilt, personal responsibility -- calling people to account, holding people
responsible and all that kind of thing. And they would be able to see the importance
of action at a collective, rather than personal level.
Actually this goes back to C. Wright Mills too, because C. Wright Mills defined
politics as, and I quote, 'the translation of personal problems into public issues'
-- maybe that's not exactly right, 'personal troubles into public issues' --
so a large part of politics is keeping certain troubles personal, denying their
CTHEORY: How was general semantics different from a therapeutic movement?
Horowitz: The general semantics movement was a more general
movement. I mean, Alfred Korzybski was interested in "sanity." I translated that
more into "democracy." But Korzybski wasn't a therapist, he was a teacher. And the
general semantics movement brought people together to work together. It was more of
a teaching, learning, a co-operative teaching and learning movement than a
therapeutic movement. Korzybski thought that the whole culture, that the whole of
civilization was unsane -- not insane. So the problem was not to treat
neuroses and psychoses, in any way, therapeutically. The problem was to raise the
level of civilization as a whole. He was almost megalomaniacally optimistic about
the possibilities for personal, cultural change that could be brought about by
something like the general semantics movement. And he was no leftist either. The
general semantics movement brought people together in a nonpolitical way -- I'm sure
they had all sorts of different political opinions, although, you know, extreme
conservatives would have avoided it because of its "relativism." Imagine teaching
"no one truth" at Leavenworth, a penitentiary, which is one of the places that had
general semantics! And it was quite influential among university students also. At
places like Berkley, kids would be walking around carrying copies of Etc., the
general semantics journal, well into the sixties.
It fell apart because of the polarization of American society around the
psychedelic revolution and around the Vietnam War. This split the general semantics
movement because it proved to be impossible to keep people working together who had
very different political views. And it would probably be even more impossible now,
to do such a thing. But that wouldn't prevent different variants of such things from
Gregory Bateson is also an important figure here. He was much better known than
Korzybski, one of the heroes of the American counterculture. Bateson had some
association with general semantics. It was very important to Bateson, as a sort of
polymath intellectual, especially in his famous work Steps to an Ecology of
Mind, to undermine individualist presuppositions in life and in culture.
* * *
CTHEORY: You wrote: "It has been said many times: poststructuralist
radicalism, having given up on Truth, is groundless in its opposition to the status
quo: it is incapable of offering reasons for wishing to replace one 'regime of truth'
with another." What, if anything, do Marxists, or anyone else, have to learn from
post-structuralism -- and especially Marxists?
Horowitz: Well, that sounds like it was from a piece that I wrote which was
actually a Buddhist critique of Laclau and Mouffe...
CTHEORY: Which ties it in well with the next question too -- which is what
possible relation there could be between post-Marxist/post-structuralist strategy and
a religion from the Far East?
Horowitz: Well let's see. If I wrote that, and obviously I did, because
it's a quote, I wrote it before becoming a serious student of poststructuralist
radicalism. So there, I am offending against one of my own rules, which is not to
criticize anything without having worked real hard at trying to understand it from
the inside. Because part of my eclectic position... it's a fanatic eclecticism.
It's not a shallow eclecticism. I believe in many truths, and I think there's too
much destruction of straw men in academia, and I think that too many people are
familiar only with their own orientation and aren't capable of understanding
different or opposing orientations from within. So it's always been my ambition,
although I'm sure I've fallen short, of understanding what I criticize from the
inside. So after having written that, you know, I studied Derrida, especially, a lot
more carefully, and then Levinas. But it's quite clear to me now that there
are possibilities in poststructuralism for rationalizing a desire to replace
one regime of truth with another. Those possibilities are there. I don't think that
Derrida, or especially Levinas, wanted to be identified strongly with any
identifiable political movement. But again I don't think there's anything wrong with
I think Marxists have a lot to learn, not only from poststructuralism, but from
all other schools of the habitually ignored. And Buddhism -- I maintain an interest
in Buddhism, I am not a Buddhist. I'm a student of Buddhist philosophy and of
certain Buddhist practices. There is a problem, you know, in Buddhism, in saying "I
am a Buddhist." I know that Buddhists say "I am a Buddhist," but from the Buddhist
point of view I don't think you want to say that. So I think you can already see a
sort of connection between Buddhism and Derrida's deconstruction. One of the
problems, one of the big problems in the world, is the west's failure to respect, and
by respect I mean to really get to know and study closely, non-western forms of
thought. And for me that turned out to be primarily Buddhism. And Buddhist theories
of the self have been developed for two-thousand years, in intricate detail and in
many different forms, in ways which could only enrich poststructuralist approaches,
if you wanted to pay any attention to them. I don't know if I would criticize
Derrida himself for ignoring Buddhism, because I think Derrida is a very important
figure in the history of thought, and in the history of thought people sometimes
choose to ignore certain things in order to be able to develop their own thought. For
example, Freud bragged about not reading Nietzsche.
But my friend Robert Magliola, who started out as a Catholic teacher in English
literature in the States, and ended up at the University of Taiwan, where he still
is, read a lot about Buddhism, and wrote a book called Derrida on the Mend,
which seeks to bring together Derridean deconstruction and Madyamika Buddhism.
His book was just trashed and ignored by people. My book Repression just fell
between two schools, but Magliola's attempt to teach Derrida something from the
Buddhist point of view, and teach Buddhists something from a Derridean point of view,
was worse than ignored.
Then, when Levinas comes along, I write a short Levinasian critique of Buddhism,
which is addressed to Magliola.
Basically the notion there is that the Levinasian, or you might say Judaic, notion
of the primacy of ethical obligation answers certain questions which Buddhism has
always been accused of not dealing with effectively. I point out that when the
Buddha arose from his seat under the bo tree, and was struggling with the temptation
not to tell anyone about his Enlightenment because they wouldn't understand, he came
to the conclusion that he was obligated to teach. That he had an obligation to teach
people how to achieve liberation, spiritual liberation, for themselves. So the
question is, where does this obligation come from? Who theorizes this obligation?
Levinas is the theorist of ethical obligation. I began to take this into Buddhism.
* * *
Horowitz: I would like to mention is that CTHEORY published an
article by Peter Lurie, "Why
the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left," which argues that because of
html, frames and hypertext, people are taught, not directly and substantively, but by
the sort of formal structure of their experience on the net, that there is no one
truth. That there are many different, somewhat plausible approaches to almost
anything that you could mention. So that would fit, actually, with Korzybski.
CTHEORY: I think of someone like Sherry Turkle, who says that through the
Internet -- she calls it an 'object to think with' -- we can experience our selves as
not having any centre. My doubt about the Internet is precisely that it's a virtual
relativism, it's a relativism of mouse clicks.
Horowitz: One of the things I'm doing research on right now is fascism, and
neo-fascism. I read a book about the new Euro-American extreme right. In the book
there's a chapter about fascists on the web, neo-fascism on the web. The guy who
writes this chapter suggests that, although there's a lot of neo-fascist activity on
the web, all this virtual activity sort of absorbs their energy, and sort of
discharges it harmlessly. So you're saying something about all denizens of
the web and not just neo-fascists.
CTHEORY: ...but this the corporeal energy has not been realized, and never
will be realized on the Internet. Or maybe it could be, and maybe it makes me think
of the book you recommended, called Looking Forward, by Albert and Hahnel,
which would mean actually taking the potentiality of this decentralized network and
applying it in the economy.
Horowitz: First of all, I don't know about Lurie's argument in
CTHEORY, you know, about the Internet bringing about a revolution in
sensibility so that people appreciate the absence of any one truth. General semantics
offers people explicitly, a way of making sense of the plethora of discourses,
if you like, and gives them some sort of 'sense' or 'ground' to stand on in
evaluating them. So that rather than just being 'opened up,' one also has a way of
standing one's own ground as a subject. As a discursive subject, if you want to use
that kind of language.
I'm glad you brought up, Albert and Hahnel. They've published quite a bit
already. They're with Z Magazine. And generally speaking, you know, I don't
think much of what they do, but they have developed a scheme for participatory
economics, Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty-First
Century, which brings up the possibility, not of immediately instituting, but of
establishing the possibility in theory, in principle, of using modern computer
technology to design and run an economy, both on supply and demand side, in a
participatory way. In other words, an economy that is neither a command economy,
nor a market economy, nor a combination of a market and command economy. So I
thought this was a tremendously interesting idea which should be of interest to
anyone on the left. But then on the left there's this continuous lack of interest in
this sort of thing. From the official Marxist point of view, no one wants to get too
excited about anything that is, let's use the word, utopian.
CTHEORY: I want to return to this idea of providing the subject a ground
to stand on, and the problem of the shallowness of multiple identities on the
Horowitz: The political stuff that I've seen is frightfully dogmatic. I
mean, the ordinary press is dogmatic enough, but the Internet is like, one magnitude
higher in terms of dogmatism.
Since everyone knows everyone is going to all sorts of other places for
information, they try to compensate for this with intensity and simplicity. So
there's another one of those dialectics -- the increasing openness is compensated for
by an increasing closure. The openness over all is compensated for by increasing
close-mindedness in every particular space. But that's not what you wanted to ask...
CTHEORY: That's actually quite close to it. I think I saw you at a talk
that Tony Giddens gave at the University of Toronto a couple of years ago.
Horowitz: I'll never forget his shirtsleeves.
CTHEORY: I forget his shirtsleeves.
Horowitz: That's all I can remember. He came out and took his jacket off
-- he was wearing a business suit. You know -- "I'm Mr. New Labour." "I'm going to
take off my business suit, I'm going to loosen my tie, and I'm going to roll up my
sleeves, and I'm going to talk to you, and you're going to talk to me..."
CTHEORY: A word you used in "The Foucaultian Impasse" to describe this
kind of 'self-construction' was the "dandy."
Horowitz: That's Foucault's term. Well, the dandy was probably
quite profound compared to the postmodern Internet junkie -- now that really sounds
old codgerish doesn't it? Where's Oscar Wilde now when we need him? I mean, where's
a contemporary equivalent of Oscar Wilde?
CTHEORY: You've suggested that the theory of Georges Bataille is of
indispensable importance to socialism.
Horowitz: As a matter of fact, I wrote a paper about religious logic in
Levinas and Bataille, which should be coming out in the journal
Religio-logiques. It focuses on their differing and yet overlapping
approaches to the philosophical problem of evil. And I end the paper by saying,
"whenever I hear the word Levinas, I reach for my Bataille." Now that's hyperbole,
but that goes to your question here
CTHEORY: In Canadian Labour in Politics your key thesis is that the
socialist future has to contain some aspects, or a germ, or part of, the conservative
past. Part of that conservative past is, what immediately comes to mind is,
traditional morality. So how can we reconcile, if socialists should read Bataille,
if socialists need Bataille, how do we reconcile our traditional morality, if
some part of our conservative past has to be there...
Horowitz: Well, for one thing, I wouldn't say that we need the traditional
Tory morality, although we might come back to that in a minute. I would say that the
"germ of the conservative past" refers to a sense of community, a sense of organic
relations among human beings rather than purely market relations or market-dominated
relations, or Statified relations. That comes from the past. And I think this is
understood at many different levels and in many different ways and with many
different degrees of explicitness everywhere in the world except in the United
States. That's why even left-wingers or socialists in the United States, when you're
talking with them or when you reach a certain point in reading them, you often find
yourself saying: "Well after all, he or she is an American."
Now Bataille, you see... I think that Bataille, and Sorel, and other theorists of
violence, are important, not just to socialists -- they're important period. And
they're important to the left in terms of understanding violence and the place of
violence in human existence. I don't think I would want to say any more about that
right now. But I can make this kind of connection. This 'organic relation' I've
been talking about, we often think of it as nice and harmonious and beautiful. But
Bataille was obsessed with the violent nature, the fundamentally violent
nature of being in an interpersonal way, and thought of the deep connection among
persons as violent, "excessive," sacrificial.
Now, you know, the term "violence" is used in many different senses, but those who
know Levinas now will see the connection with Levinas, because when Levinas describes
our obligation to the other as, although he would hate the word, "bedrock," or
"foundation" of our existence, a totally involuntary obligation to the other, you
already begin to sense the violence in the notion of total involuntariness.
Levinas puts it in terms of obsession or rupture. A kind of violent opening to the
other. A selflessness which is painful, a sense of obligation which is in a way
So, well here's another way of putting it, which maybe could be appreciated even
from a Ghandian perspective. In order to deal with violence, you've got to get into
it. So that's what the course that Shannon Bell and I taught at York University was
about -- that's what I kept coming back to at any rate. For people who are put off
by Sorel, Schmitt, Bataille, and other theorists of violence: you don't get anywhere
by seeing it simply as something that is evil, that belongs to others, that needs to
be dealt with by getting rid of it, by some kind of defeat of evil, whether in the
other or the self.
Sabbatai Zevi was actually also really big on the need for this, on the need to
get into violence and raise it to a higher level. I think that's what Ghandi's
non-violence is about too. So then in a very strange way maybe there would be a
meeting between a Bataillan and a Ghandian, which maybe neither of them is ready for.
CTHEORY: Why should people on the left think of studying a book like
Schmitt's Concept of the Political? Is there more to this than just knowing
what not to do?
Horowitz: Traditional socialists or Marxists -- even when they think
they've transcended economism, haven't transcended economism. When you're talking
about violence, you're talking about something that isn't only a matter of ruling
class misbehaviour, or a stage on the road of development toward a kind of economic
scene in which violence is no longer necessary. You're talking about something that
is profoundly and inescapably human, and which can take many different forms, some a
lot more undesirable than others, and that it goes to this concept of the political
that Schmitt was interested in. Not just the relative autonomy of the political, but
the primacy of the political as a concept in social theory.
You know, Derrida's whole political approach is -- this would be to radically
oversimplify it -- but you know, you bring Levinas and Carl Schmitt together, to
produce a theory of the political, that's pretty wonderful. I don't know if the left
as a movement needs to study these texts. But all social theorists, including
left-wing theorists, have to have a meeting with this way of thinking, and they have
to allow it to affect them. I'm not thinking of the kind of meeting that Strauss had
with Kojève, in which both parties knew perfectly well that their minds
weren't going to change about anything.
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Colin J. Campbell is a PhD candidate in York University's
Programme in Social and Political Thought. His dissertation research focuses on
mimesis, violence and the scapegoat in the history of political thought.