Monday, December 28, 2009

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty

Modern European Intellectual History - 8

In this essay Mill is focusing on civil or social liberty (not the issue of free will). He is concerned with the limits of the power that can be exercised by society and government over the individual. Before the spread of representational governments, the struggle between liberty and authority was primarily a struggle between subjects and governments, and people sought ways to limit the power of authoritarian rule. With the rise of representational governments and the notion of a government by the people and for the people a new threat arises, however, that of democratic tyranny or a tyranny of the masses. The problem arises because the power of the people often really means the power of the most numerous people, or because the people who are exercising the power are not the same people as those over whom the power is being exercised. Self-government is not government of each by themselves, but the government of each by all the rest.

Mill believed that the only reason for society to interfere with the liberty of an individual was for self-protection or to prevent harm to others. Protecting an individual from their own actions was not grounds for interference. The only part of an individual’s behavior that society should be concerned with is that which concerns others. Any action of an individual that concerns only themselves, or like-minded adults, is not the concern of society at large. Mill had noted the tendency of society to try to enforce its customs on all members through either social pressure or laws. This pressure to conform stigmatizes individuality and leads to mediocrity because individuality is connected, in Mill’s mind, with self-development. The only way for humanity to grow and develop is for its members to be free to grow and develop. By enforcing conformity society hindered the further development of its members and ultimately of itself.

But being free to think our own thoughts is not enough, we must also be free to express them. We are never justified in silencing the opinion of others. Mill gives several grounds for the necessity of this freedom of expression: 1) the opinion being expressed may be true, to silence it assumes our own infallibility; 2) even if the opinion may be in error, it may still contain some truth and it is only through free discussion that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied and 3) if the opinion is true, it must still be vigorously discussed and contested lest it become a prejudice that is not held on any rational grounds.

Being free to form and express opinions is an essential part of individuality and the development of the intellectual and moral character of man, but we must also be free to act on those opinions. We must be able to carry out our lives, without hindrance by society, so long as in doing so we do it at our own risk and peril. So long as we do not molest others, we should not be molested or interfered with. Some would claim that without societal pressure, mankind would behave in an immoral fashion, but Mill believed that the moral development of man is an important component of the intellectual development and was an advocate of personal responsibility. An individual’s behavior should be a balance between personal freedom and moral responsibility.

Education is essential to the development of humanity, but it should not be left in the hands of the government. It may enforce universal education through examinations, but should not necessarily provide it. Instead it should facilitate by helping to defray costs. The only time it is justified in establishing and controlling education is if the society is in such a backward state that there is no other way for the members of that society to be educated. Governments should concern themselves with those tasks that they can perform better than individuals rather than interfering in the lives of its peoples. It should aid and stimulate individual development, because the worth of a state is the worth of the individuals comprising it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Havelock Ellis

Modern European Intellectual History - 7
Studies in the Psychology of Sex
The Modernization of Sex, by Paul Robinson

In his essay on Havelock Ellis, Paul Robinson defines a sexual modernist as someone who: 1) held that sexual experience was neither a threat to moral character, nor a drain on vital energies; 2) wanted to broaden the range of legitimate sexual behavior (beyond adult, genital, heterosexual intercourse); 3) argued that women had a sexual existence on a par with that of men and 4) expressed doubts about the traditional institutional contexts of human sexuality (marriage and family) and promoted debate about the human sexual psychology and the paradoxical need for both companionship and variety in erotic life (Robinson, pp.2-3). By this definition, Havelock Ellis is definitely a sexual modernist.

The seven volumes of his monumental work Studies in the Psychology of Sex (which he began publishing in 1897) cover the following topics: 1) The evolution of modesty, The phenomena of sexual periodicity, Auto-eroticism; 2) Analysis of the sexual impulse, Love and pain, The sexual impulse in women; 3) Sexual selection in man; 4) Sexual inversion (homosexuality, this was actually the first volume published); 5) Erotic symbolism, The mechanism of detumescence, The psychic state in pregnancy; 6) Eonism (male transvestism) and other supplementary studies; 7) Sex in relation to society. From my, albeit partial, reading of his works his presentation of the material consists of cultural, historical and biological survey and analysis. Thus, when he considers marriage (in vol. 7) he presents an historical survey of the institution of marriage going back as far as the Romans, as well as considering how marriage is defined in other cultures in our own time. He also looks at the animal kingdom, bringing biology and nature into the picture that he is developing. He casts a wide net in an effort to gain as complete an understanding as possible of the origins and evolution of our sexual behavior.

Ellis considered the sexual impulse in women to be comparable with that of men, but that mere quantitative comparison did a disservice to the sexuality of women. He concluded that the sexual impulse in women was more passive, more complex, less apt to appear spontaneously, more often needing to be aroused and that the orgasm developed more slowly in women than in men and is less easily reached. He also believed that the sexual impulse became stronger after the establishment of a sexual relationship. He was one of the first people to identify erogenous zones, and recognized that women possess more than one. As he put it “the sexual sphere is larger and more diffuse.” He also noticed a marked tendency for periodicity in the spontaneous manifestations of sexual desire in women. He believed that society repressed the sexuality of women, and that the ignorance of both sexes was an impediment to a fulfilling sexual union between them.

With regards to sexual morality, Ellis wanted more personal responsibility on the part of both sexes. In the case of women, this personal responsibility also entailed greater equality under the law (it is difficult to be personally responsible for your behavior when the law regards you as little more than the property of another individual) as well as economic independence. He believed that prostitution and the patriarchal marriage system, which he considered to be linked, were both incompatible with personal responsibility. In his opinion, men had created a system whereby one group of women ministered exclusively to their sexual needs, and another group of women (brought up in asceticism) were candidates for the privilege of ministering to their household and family needs. By abolishing the latter, he hoped that we might abolish the former.

Ellis was not a fan of the institution of marriage as it was defined by the State and the Church (especially the Catholic Church). He believed that the sexual relations of adults were a private matter and not one that society should be involved with. Where society became involved was in the case of children, because these were new members of society. Once again he comes back to personal responsibility, because when a couple brings a child into the world they should be prepared to accept the responsibility of providing for that child. He was very concerned with legitimacy and illegitimacy, and thought that when a birth was registered it was important to identify the father. Having a child does not mean that the couple was compelled to marry, or even live together. He believed that one parent could be as effective as two, especially when the two were not compatible.

In examining alternatives to conventional marriage he rejected the idea of marriage as a contract, as the State might have it, because the parties entering into it don’t really have a good idea of what is in store for them and so could not knowingly enter into such a contract. To him, a marriage should be a free union, willingly entered into, easily dissolved and defined by the individuals involved in it, not the Church and not the State. The only involvement of the State should be to ensure the proper support of any children.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952)

Modern European Intellectual History - 6
Red Love - a novel
Selected Writings - Alix Holt, tr. & ed.

Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich was born in St. Petersburg on April 1, 1872. Her father was a tsarist general, her mother the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. In 1893 she married Vladimir Kollontai, for love, and spent five years as an engineer’s wife, raising their son. In 1898 she went to Zurich to study political economy. In 1917 she met Pavel Dybenko, the Bolshevik leader of the sailors of the Baltic fleet. In 1918 they registered their marriage under the new marriage act. In 1922 the relationship ended. As she put it in her letter to him: “I am not the wife you need, I am a person before I am a woman” (Selected Writings, p. 19). She was a diplomat, an activist, and a crusader for women’s rights, but she was not a bourgeois feminist. She believed that women would become equal only in a socialist world in which communism thrived over capitalism, and she did not separate women’s rights from worker’s rights.

She saw marriage and the family, as practiced in the capitalist society, as outmoded. In earlier societies the family was a unit of production, but in the capitalist society it had become a unit of consumption. Where in the past, women had performed valuable, productive, tasks in their home, now they were reduced to unproductive drudge work. By entering the work force women were becoming productive members of society once more, but they still had all the housework and childcare to deal with. Kollontai believed that the communist society should lift that burden from women’s shoulders and play a greater role in raising the children. She advocated such things as maternity leave before and after the birth, on site child care so that the mother would not have to be separated from the child during its infancy, and the creation of kindergartens and creches to help raise and educate the child. Without such social institutions, children of working mothers grew up with inadequate supervision, perhaps roaming the streets and getting into trouble, and certainly did not grow up to be good communists.

As far as the relations between the sexes went, she advocated equality and the mutual recognition of the rights of the other. It has been said that she advocated “free love,” but this is true only in the sense that she was against the possessive idea of love and the jealousy that went along with it. With the rise of communism, the traditional family as defined in the capitalist system would naturally wither away (because it was a consuming unit, not a producing one) and with its demise a new morality would arise to replace it. This new morality would not be based on the idea of an exclusive, inwardly directed love that separated the couple from society, but would be a comradely love that included the society. Above all, women should not have to sell their bodies, either in the form of prostitution or in the form of marriages of convenience for material security. She saw both of these as instances of women not being productive members of society, which is what made them wrong in a communist society. She abhorred the double standard and the moral hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie.

She explores some of her ideas concerning the relationship between the sexes in her novel Red Love, published in 1927. The main character is Vassilisssa (Vasya), a twenty-eight year old working girl (a knitter), who is a communist and a Bolshevik. She is not pretty, although she has beautiful, observant, thoughtful eyes. Thin, and with short hair, she is androgynous. Like Kollontai, she is an activist and an advocate of women’s rights, but again in the context of worker’s rights. She falls in love with Volodya, who is nicknamed “the American” because he spent time working in America. He is an anarchist. He doesn’t like to follow directions. He likes to do things his way. While they work together as comrades they have a happy relationship, but their work for the party keeps them apart. While he is managing a factory in another province he falls in love with another woman, Nina (the relationship has not been a monogamous one on his part from the beginning). Where Vasya is of the new world, Nina is of the old. As a manager, Volodya lives a more comfortable life, a bourgeois life. When Vasya comes to visit him he wants her to play the role of “manager’s wife,” a role that she is not at all suited for.

She discovers that he is maintaining two households and ends up leaving him to return to her work, and to freedom. Although the idea that he no longer loves her bothers her, the fact that Volodya is no longer her comrade bothers her more. She does not like the way he is living his life, or the sorts of friends that he has. After she leaves him she discovers that she is pregnant, but when a friend asks her how she will raise the child on her own, she replies that she will not be raising the child on her own, at her new job (in the textile industry) she will institute a nursery, the society will help her raise her child. She writes a letter to Nina, forgiving her and giving her permission to marry Volodya. Nina needs a husband, Vasya does not.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Nikolai Chernyshevsky - “What is to be done?”

Modern European Intellectual History - 5

Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was born in Saratov in 1828. Although he was the son of a village priest he became an atheist. In 1846 he left the seminary for St. Petersburg University, studying there until 1850. He taught for three years in Saratov, where he married. He then returned to St. Petersburg where he wrote for and eventually edited the journal The Contemporary. His other writings include: The Aesthetic Relationships of Art in Reality (1855, his M.A. Thesis), Sketches of the Gogol Period of Russian Literature (1855-56), and The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860). In 1862 he was arrested (on trumped up charges) and he wrote this novel in 1863 while he was confined to the Peter-Paul Fortress.

The Basic Plot: What is to be done? or A Vital Question is a romance that examines, among other things, the institution of marriage and the place of women in society. The heroine is Vera Pavlovna. Her father is weak, her mother is a venal and mercenary woman who wants to marry Vera to a fairly well-off nobleman. She is rescued from this fate by Lopukhóv, a medical student who gives up his career to save her from her “cellar” existence. The marriage is a good intellectual match, but not a good emotional one. At a point in the marriage when one would perhaps expect the birth of a child, Vera announces that she is going to open a sewing union. This is a collective organization, with the girls sharing in the decisions of running the shop and also in the profits. The workers, for the most part, live in a collective apartment building.

Against her will, Vera falls in love with Kirsánov, a friend of Lopukhóv’s. They both fight their mutual attraction. When Lopukhóv figures out what is going on, he fakes his suicide to free Vera to marry Kirsánov. In this now emotionally as well as intellectually fulfilling marriage Vera announces her intention to study medicine, and does go on to become a doctor. Lopukhóv reappears later on as Charles Beaumont, marrying the daughter of a factory owner, Katerína. The Beaumonts and the Kirsánovs live happily ever after in adjoining apartments.

Some of the Themes

Marriage: In Russia at that time, a married woman had no legal rights, in the novel Chernyshevsky puts forth the idea of marriage as an equal partnership, respectful and courteous, which either person may terminate if they should fall in love with another. In a conversation with Julie (a prostitute with the proverbial heart-of-gold) Vera tells her “I do not want to be anybody’s slave!...I want to do only what I have it in my heart to do, and let others do the same; I do not want to ask anything of anybody; I do not want to curtail anybody’s freedom; I want to be free myself!” (p. 40). To be free means to be financially independent, therefore women must be able to earn a respectable living in society (p.121).

Children: Children are seen only on the periphery. Both Vera and Katerína have children but they are not really mentioned after their birth.

Women: Women are goddesses in this book. In Vera’s dreams we see the Empress of Love and her sister the Empress of Science and Love of Humanity, who have guided Vera on her path through life. We also see woman as the embodiment of the goddesses Astarte and Aphrodite and the ideal of chastity. Kirsánov believes that women are more intellectual then men, and that the organism of women is stronger than that of men (they mature earlier and live longer). Up to this point women have been restricted to a very narrow path, the sphere of domestic life. In Vera’s view women have been crowded into this narrow existence and until women are allowed to branch out they will not be able to live an independent life. But custom is hard to change, it is hard to find new paths, trail blazers are needed, and so she decides to become a doctor.

The Collective: The sewing union is a utopia. When Vera is setting it up she wants only girls of good character, no misfits. She educates them, first by reading to them while they work, then by bringing in tutors to give them lessons. Many of the girls live in the collective apartment house, with siblings and parents. As at the sewing shop, the domestic duties are shared out according to ability. Everyone has some purpose, some duty to perform.

Progressive People: Although Chernyshevsky at one point says that he is writing about ordinary people, not heroes, there is a sense of a progression in humanity. There are some people that, through their intellect and character are better or more evolved, and as time goes on, there will be more. Of course these progressive people are epitomized by the Kirsánovs and Beaumonts.

The overall theme of the novel is perhaps best summed up in a song that Vera sings in a ‘teaser’ that Chernyshevsky presents to us before he begins the novel proper: “Industry without knowledge is fruitless; our own happiness is impossible without the happiness of others. As soon as we become enlightened we shall become rich; we shall be happy; we shall form one brotherhood and sisterhood.... Let us learn and be industrious; let us sing and love; we shall have a heaven on earth!....” (p. 4)