Review of 'Power, Freedom, Compassion' in 'Working USA, The Journal of Labour and Society', by John Green, June 2012

Working USA: The Journal of Labour and Society, June 2012, Vol. 15,2, pp. 320-2

Winter, Richard. Power, Freedom, Compassion: Transformations for a Better
World,
. Cambridge, UK: Willow Tree Press, 2011. 195 pp £10 (paperback)

I have often thought that while Marxism is a wonderful tool for analysing
society and its various processes, in its emphasis on classes it largely ignores the
question of individual morality and ethical behaviour. This ‘missing link’ in Marxism
may partially explain why the communist project went badly wrong.

Professor Richard Winter admits at the outset that his suggestion of
connecting Marxism and Buddhism could appear “surprising or even downright
bizarre” to many. When I realised that he was suggesting this as a way of countering
the denigration of our humanity under capitalism, I too thought he must be a little
“off-beam”. However, his lucidly and concisely argued case completely disabused
me. Far from being an “odd ball,” he is a man with a deep comprehension of the ills
of our present system and he has a thorough understanding and appreciation of the
value of Marxism as an analytical tool. He has his feet firmly on the ground, based on
his wide experience working in our educational system, and sees education as a
potential tool for change. His desire for radical change, together with his strong sense
of compassion and justice led him to examine Buddhism as a means of individual
self-enlightenment, and as an additional means of bringing about social change: first
by changing ourselves.

I am very sceptical of those who suggest answers to our pressing problems can
be found in “exotic” cultures, whether Indian Hinduism, North American indigenous
traditions or Chinese Confucianism, even if they can offer us new and valuable
insights. But Winter is not suggesting this. He is attempting to address Marxism’s
underplaying of the role of the individual by suggesting a combination of Marxist
theory with a meditational approach derived from Buddhism.

However, while I can go a long way with him and even accept that aspects of
Buddhist teachings have much to offer us in the West; I doubt such ideas could be
easily adopted. Yes, it might be a good idea, but is it feasible or even imaginable that
one could persuade a sizable proportion of Britons, never mind others, to adopt such a
Buddhist approach to their lives? That is always the dilemma for those who want to
change society without being able to obtain a majority electoral mandate: where can
you effectively start?

Winter argues that one of the keys lies in education. “Without changes in our
individual awareness and behaviour our attempts to make our institutions more just
and more compassionate are doomed in the long run,” he says.
His advocating meditation is basically suggesting a series of straightforward
actions that anyone can engage in. Meditation is a method of personal change, he
says, and demonstrates how it can refine our personal and ethical responses to
practical situations and how it could support the effectiveness of our attempts to
change political and economic structures.

“Meditation as pure awareness can have merely the general and familiar
meaning of sustained purposeful thought,” he says. It involves a heightened state of
concentration, derived from being a wholly absorbed awareness of the present. “This
methodology,” he argues, “helps us resist our spontaneous ego-orientation and thus
our assimilation into the stress-filled responses of our exploitive culture, whose
ramifications penetrate so deeply into our lives.” Meditation practice is inseparable
from ethical awareness.

As I understand it, Winter is not suggesting that we adopt Buddhism as the
new religion or see it as a magic solution. But using Buddhist ideas, particularly that
of ‘meditation’ could help us understand ourselves and helps us better comprehend
and deal with our society in terms of its pressures, stresses and consumer demands.
Buddhism places an emphasis on the present and on those things in life that are vital
to a meaningful and happy existence, that represent enduring reality. In other words,
all the ephemeral trappings of wealth and fame, of vanity and worries about the future
or preoccupation with the past, only distract us from the real question of the here and
now, and dissipate our creative energies. “For Buddhism in its origins and most of its
contemporary versions meditation is the primary practice; its teachings are, above all,
a rationale for the validity and power of meditation as an individual path of selftransformation,”
he writes. It also helps overcome self-doubt and encourages our
creativity.

What is certainly true, and something few would deny, is that if we wish to
change the world we have first to change ourselves; and in our own behaviour we
have to encapsulate the type of society we aim to create.
Both Marxist and Buddhist perspectives also emphasise that “our spontaneous
experiences are frequently based on misperceptions of reality; what Marx called
“false consciousness”. That is why, Winter argues, that any education curriculum
needs to go beyond simply involving students’ personal experience in the learning
process: a “curriculum for transformation” is needed to help students engage in a
radical critique of their experience.

He notes perceptively that the behaviour, which constitute part of the “ethics”
of capitalism, is not really endorsed by the general population: it is seen rather as a
regrettable compromise.

He realises, he says, that putting forward yet another “vacuous plea” for a
“change of culture” is pointless. He knows that such pleas avoid the crunch question:
through what agency could such change as we desire be brought about? That’s why he
argues forcibly that we are all potentially “agents for change”.

You might not agree with much of what Winter argues in this book, but his
ideas are certainly thought provoking and deserving of close attention. He writes
lucidly and persuasively.

John Green

John Green is a freelance journalist and author, living in London, UK. He has been
coeditor of the Marxist arts magazine Artery (1970-81), was a documentary
filmmaker for 20 years, covering social and political issues throughout the world, and
then worked as a communications officer with the British public sector union
UNISON (1989-2005). Since then he has devoted himself to journalism and other
writing projects. He published his reminiscences as a documentary filmmaker (Red
Reporter) and recently wrote a well-received biography of Friedrich Engels (Engels:
A Revolutionary Life, Artery Publications, 2008). Address correspondence to John
Green, Email: 41johngreen@gmail.com