John Dewey and David Graeber: Elements of Radical Democracy in Pragmatist and Anarchist Thinking

Martin Bartenberger

Leiden University - Institute of Political Science

July 15, 2015

John Dewey's concept of democracy has often been dismissed as "liberal" and as being unable to account for pluralism (Talisse 2007). I argue that this is a misconception which can be corrected if we analyze Dewey's understanding of democracy in its historical context. Following this approach, we find elements of a democratic conception in Dewey's thought that are profoundly radical and that can be read along the lines of an anarchist account of radical democracy as recently developed by David Graeber (2013).

In January 1937 Dewey published a little-known essay with the title "Democracy Is Radical". In this article he develops the position that democracy is radical because it puts "primary emphasis upon the means by which [...] ends are to be fulfilled" (Dewey 1987, 298). Only a few months later Dewey became chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. His meetings with Trotsky in Mexico lead to a debate between the two thinkers on the role of means and ends for social transformation which seems to be almost forgotten now. Against Trotsky's account of a socialist revolution, Dewey again emphasized how means and ends are always closely connected. For social transformation this means that radical ends can only be reached through radical means: democracy.

The paper wants to bring this historical context to attention because this can help us to understand Dewey's concept of radical democracy for what it was: an intervention into the debate on the role of democracy for the left. I will critically discuss and evaluate the radical nature of Dewey's concept of democracy and reconstruct the historical context of its origin. The paper will further develop and defend the thesis that Dewey's concept of democracy is radical insofar as it was intended against an orthodox Marxist understanding of revolution and social transformation. I will conclude by outlining how this rejection of orthodox Marxism brings Dewey close to an anarchist account of radical democracy as it was recently formulated by David Graeber (2013) and by highlighting the parallels between Dewey's and Graeber's concepts of radical democracy when it comes to the priority of means over ends, the role of deliberation and the rejection of dogmatism.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 7

Keywords: Pragmatism, Anarchism, Democracy

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Date posted: March 15, 2014 ; Last revised: October 20, 2015

Suggested Citation

Bartenberger, Martin, John Dewey and David Graeber: Elements of Radical Democracy in Pragmatist and Anarchist Thinking (July 15, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2408571 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2408571

Contact Information

Martin Bartenberger (Contact Author)
Leiden University - Institute of Political Science ( email )
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
PO Box 9555
Leiden, 2300 RB
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