Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Dewey advocates cooperative intelligence and a socialized economy in Liberalism and Social Action

In 1935, John Dewey published Liberalism and Social Action, a product of a series of lectures given at the University of Virginia. In this book, dedicated to Jane Addams and referred to by Sidney Hook 1 as the Communist Manifesto of the 20th century, Dewey criticized the early liberalism based 'laissez-faire' economics and possessive individualism, and called for a renascent or radical liberalism. In his view, the Achilles heel of early liberalism was the belief that a social order could be established by an unplanned and external convergence of the actions of separate individuals, each of whom seeking personal advantage. Unlike other liberals, Dewey contended that a laissez-faire economy could not provide good life for all, and advocated government intervention to protect the disadvantaged groups who otherwise would be at the mercy of the captains of industry. He claimed that it was foolish to regard the political state as the only agency endowed with coercive power, since its exercise of its power paled in comparison with that exercised by organized property interests. Hence, in a significant departure from previous liberal models, he endorsed a cooperatively controlled economy, which would promote freedom and cultural development. In his own words,

Anticipating being labeled as a radical, Dewey pointed out that the first liberals were themselves denounced as subversive radicals, and that if radicalism is understood as awareness of the need for drastic changes in the organization of the economic order, any liberalism which is not also radicalism was going to become irrelevant and doomed. For him, the cause of liberalism was going to be lost if it was not prepared to socialize the forces of production, which at that time he perceived as a task at hand. The recurrent calls for a socialized economy suggests that Dewey's version of radical liberalism drew on a Marxist analysis of social change. In fact, for several pages Dewey dialogued with the main arguments raised by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. In those pages, Dewey clearly expressed that he did not accept the premise -held by many Marxists, but not necessarily by Marx himself- that class struggle and violent warfare were necessary means to achieve a more equitable society 2. He argued that the use of force could be replaced by what he called 'cooperative intelligence', by which conflicting claims are settled in the interests of the majorities. In his method of 'organized intelligence', which could be seen as closely related to ideal models of deliberative democracy, brings social conflicts "into the open where their special claims can be seen and appraised, where they can be discussed and judged in the light of more inclusive interests than are represented by either of them separately" (79). He firmly believed that the method of cooperative intelligence, which was already used in science and industry, was going to replace violent strife in solving social conflicts. His main argument was that cooperative intelligence had already helped scientists to control nature, and business people to increase productivity, and it was time to use it in social relations in behalf of human liberty and democracy.

In this book, Dewey was still hopeful in the possibilities of education for individual and social emancipation, yet he was aware that it constituted a necessary but not sufficient condition. Indeed, he stated that the first goal of radical liberalism should be education, but warned that the educational task could not be accomplished merely by working upon people's minds, without action that impact real change in institutions: "The idea that dispositions and attitudes can be altered by merely "moral" means conceived of as something that goes on wholly inside of persons is itself one of the old patterns that to be changed. Thought, desire and purpose exist in constant give and take of interaction with environing conditions" (62).

Dewey was lauded by Mills as being the last public philosopher, a thinker with a commitment to democracy who always preferred to address the community with issues of public interest than the cold and technical discourse of professional journals and academic lecture halls. Indeed, from the beginning of his career Dewey sought a public. As a young instructor, he tried to launch Thought News, a cross between leaflet and journal that planned to inject philosophy into the daily world. The idea behind this publication was not to discuss philosophical ideas per se, but to relate them to issues of common interest, and hence to questions of science, letters, state, school and church 3. This newspaper never disappeared, but Dewey did not give up his public commitment. He was actively involved in the progressive politics of his time, participating in the movements for women suffrage, for peace and for labor unionization, and against child labor, among others. Together with Thorstein Veblen and some progressive historians fired from Columbia University for opposing WWI and for their ideas, Dewey founded the New School for Social Research, an institution exclusively defined by faculty and students without meddlesome administrators. As an established professor he wrote regularly for the New Republic and participated in a thousand causes and committees alerting the public to one evil or another. His commitment to fairness, truth and democracy would last until the end of his life. When he was 78, and his health was weakening, contrary to the advice of his closest relatives and friends, Dewey traveled to Mexico City to chair the commission of Inquiry investigating the Soviet charges against Trotsky.

1 Sidney Hook (1939), John Dewey: an intellectual portrait, New York: John Day: 158.

2 Indeed, Dewey acknowledged that Marx did not believe in the inevitability of force in transforming the system of social relations, as he expected that in some countries (like England, the United States and perhaps Holland), change may occur by peaceful means.

3 Neil Coughlan (1975), Young John Dewey, Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 93-112.


Dewey, John (1935). Liberalism and Social Action. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Prepared by DS (OISE/University of Toronto), 2000

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