The Ethical Promise of Historical Failure

Activists are in the business of social change. Some important ideas about social change can be found in an article, published in 1994 by theologian Kelton Cobb, which reflects on the work of two European thinkers and their insights into the histories they lived through.

Following the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, theologian Kelton Cobb asked: “What exactly are the ethical insights to be wrested from this failure?” (p.54) The lesson, he said, was not that history had vindicated capitalism, which has its own moral travesties. Cobb wanted to learn what kind of social values promote a society in which the moral life can flourish.

Cobb uses insights from German Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, and Czech writer Vaclav Havel to help answer his questions. Troeltsch was a critic of the German Imperialism that helped lead his country into the disaster of World War One, and in his later years a supporter of the Weimar Republic. Havel is a Czech writer, who was a dissident, and eventually became the last President of the Federal Czechoslovak Republic and the first President of the Czech Republic.

Social change begins with what is and what has been

Troeltsch and Havel have both examined the relationship between inner values, or conscience, and cultural values and society.

Cobb explains in some detail Troeltsch’s thinking on this relationship. But for most practical purposes, I would argue, the essential insights are relatively simple. First, that “Conscience cannot come into action without something concrete to act upon”. (p.58) In other words, our inner impulses and values must work themselves out in a social and historical context. At the same time, social values and institutions must also reflect basic human drives (‘natural instincts’), or they won’t survive in the long-run. In seeking to reshape society (or in Troeltsch’s terms to form a new ‘cultural synthesis’), we don’t have a completely blank canvas – we must begin with what is and what has been.

Troeltsch’s perspective is both radical in so much as it urges deep ethical reflection on one’s society and how it needs to change, and conservative in its estimation of the possibilities for change. As Cobb puts it:

“A new synthesis will only win acceptance if it is a compromise with the ethical sensibilities and structures of the present. A radical shift in value formations is not feasible even if all of its constituent values are retrievals of a cultural circle’s own past.” (p.62)

Cobb compares Troeltsch and Havel because he feels they have a similar moral sense, and because both lived through a period when their societies were experiencing cultural and political breakdown, followed by a period when they were seeking to build new structures and institutions.

The scourge of ideology

Given Havel’s context, it is not surprising that he reflects on ideology. Havel distinguishes ideology from ‘the genuine aims of life’.

“Ideology produces a society in which uniformity is the dominant value, and any eruptions of life that conflict with it must be suppressed.” (p.67) In an ideological state, citizens become means towards the ideological ends, and are no longer treated as ends in themselves.

The genuine aims of life, on the other hand, produce a society that allows space for diversity, plurality, and uniqueness. It was not force but ‘a revolt of colour, authenticity, history in all its variety and human individuality against imprisonment within a uniform ideology’ that, according to Havel, ultimately defeated Communism. Naturally enough, this concern with social diversity independent of the state leads Havel to see the health of civil society as the marker of the general health of a society:

“The association of citizens in the widest possible variety of organizations, movements, clubs, and unions is an essential condition of every highly structured, civilised society. The freer and more cultured a society is, the more complex, varied, and rich is its network of different organizations” (p.68)

The value of Marxist analysis, the danger facing modern (capitalist) democracies

Cobb then succinctly presents Havel’s reflections on the value of Marxist analysis, and the danger facing modern (capitalist) democracies:

“Marx’s analysis of the hidden mechanisms of injustice, his description of the alienation of workers from the process of production, his recognition that the rationale for an expanding economy amounts to a license for exploiting the Earth, his insistence that government has a responsibility to help its disenfranchised citizens, his recommendation that workers ought to participate in managerial decisions – each of these constitutes a significant contribution to social ethics, as fruitful today as ever before. Nonetheless, in all of the deliberate and comprehensive national experiments with socialism, just societies were not forthcoming. Work became meaningless, ideology became dehumanizing, duplicity became a strategy for survival, and moral cynicism became a pervasive social attitude.” (p.69)

But – the ‘defective germ’ in communism is not unique to it: rather it belongs to modern (Western) thought in general – the flaw is the aspiration ‘to master life by reducing it to technical reason’. And modern democracies, suggests Cobb, ‘infected by the same germ, are headed for the same crisis.’ (p.69)

As an aside, it is interesting to note that several years after the publication of this article, Robert D. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” (Touchstone, 2000) presented a disturbing picture of the decline of American civil society – a picture that also resonated in many Western societies, and which suggests Havel & Cobb may have been right.

Cobb notes that Havel’s focus on the danger of ideology and instrumental reason may explain why he didn’t seem to see the dangers of revived racial, cultural, and nationalistic tensions in former Communist Europe: something Troeltsch’s perspective may have been alert to. (p.71)

The lessons:

Cobb draws a few simple positive lessons from his reading of Troeltsch and Havel.

First, that the key norm for an ethical society is personal integrity – ‘the experience of unity within oneself’. (p.69) Good societies are societies in which people can be true to themselves, and in which people are encouraged and enabled to be true to themselves.

Second, that while social structures and institutions must reflect ‘the nature of life itself’ those ‘natural instincts’ can be constructive or destructive, and healthy societies be alert to the dangers and aware of ‘the possibility of enlisting the services of one instinct against another’. (pp.70-71)

Third, Cobb regards Troeltsch and Havel as examples of the process of attempting to construct new cultural ideals from an examination of history. He sees Havel, in particular as a useful exemplar. (p.71)

Finally, Cobb presents Havel’s insights on how modern Western society can save itself from the crisis of Modern thought and instrumental reason. Havel lists ‘forces which must be rehabilitated’, including:

“a natural, unique and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be a universal key to salvation”. (p.72)

As Cobb says – there is nothing new about any of these values, and that, from a Troeltschian perspective, is precisely the point. (p.72)

Kelton Cobb. “Ernst Troeltsch and Vaclav Havel on the Ethical Promise of Historical Failure,” in Journal of Religious Ethics (Spring 1994).


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