Richard Winter

Richard Winter speaks with us about the alignment of Buddhism and Marxism in his book, Power, Freedom, Compassion: Transformations For A Better World.

How to we transform a society? Do we start off with our view about the best way to run a government, and dive right into sweeping changes, or have we learned from history that might not be the most effective solution? Are cultural attitudes important to that transformation, and if so, how do we foster that change?

One of the important components to any kind of ongoing social change is the words and actions of the people involved. That is, how they put these views into play in the real world. The problem is, what is often suggested to accomplish such lofty goals isn’t really the starting point, it’s a result. We can say, for example, that we should behave in a cooperative fashion. Great idea! Let’s all do that! But a problem remains: we’re people. We’re at different levels of ability to actually put these good ideas into practice. Without the development of those skills as individuals, without personal transformation, societal transformation is more likely to fail.

Richard Winter was for many years professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University. His research was mainly concerned with helping professional workers to establish more reflective and creative methods of working with each other and with their clients. In recent years he has studied and practised at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre and regularly introduces classes of school children to Buddhist philosophy and meditation.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Yunnan Black Organic.

:: Discuss this episode ::


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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez


The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Chaniwa” from his CD, Shakuhachi Meditations.

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  1. Candol on July 22, 2012 at 2:24 am

    It was good to hear Richard explain a little about how marxism and buddhism could work together. I have to admit when i read about this in his blog entry on the UK sec bud website, i didn’t find it an intriguing idea. When i was at uni in the 90s, I had one marxist art history lecturer. During these years all the latest thought was about postmodernism and somehow the marxist angle just seemed old hat and nobody was interested.

    So i think while what Richard had to say about the transformation of society and why the socialist project would make sense to be combined with the a buddhist project, I think marxism has had its chance and you’d be hard pushed to get anyone interested in it, so long as you continue to call it marxism. Find another name for social transformation and you might get further. Or you might get somewhere in England which seemed more interested in Marxism but i doubt you’d get anyone too excited about it anywhere else.

    Nevertheless, it is a good point to make that what was missing was the mode of personal transformation.

    But also on another point, i don’t know much about this but wasn’t Steve Jobs under fire for a while because of the way Apple was manufacturing computers in china in sweatshop conditions for the workers. And wasn’t Jobs some sort of buddhist? If both of those things are true, it would suggest that one can’t be certain that if buddhism moves into business, things would be so much better. Anyway, I just wouldn’t expect too much from anyone.

    • richard-winter on July 31, 2012 at 7:53 am

      Hi, Candol:

      I agree with you that both the marxist and the Buddhist traditions are conventionally linked in many people’s minds with highly problematic associations. In my book I have tried to distance my argument from these, but I am starting to think that my argument needs to be made in terms which don’t rovoke these associations. In other words I think that a synthesis of the two traditions is needed, which uses a different and ‘non-provocative’ vocabulary. How this synthesis should be presented is not at present clear to me, but I think I am going to do some serious work on that. So thanks for your nudge in that direction!

      Best wishes

      Richard Winter

  2. mufi on July 22, 2012 at 7:22 am

    I tend to think that terms like “socialism” (especially the Marxist variety) and “capitalism” have outlived their usefulness (insofar as they ever were useful). More strongly, I suspect that they now even function as hindrances to progressive (or social democratic) causes, which also seek the goal of (ethically positive) social transformation, only via different – and, I would argue, more successful – political means, such as gradual, democratic reform, rather than radical revolution, and mixed economy (e.g. a la the Nordic model), rather than central planning (e.g. a la the Soviet model).

    With this re-framing in mind, does Buddhism have something to contribute to progressive politics?

    I think that it can, but not necessarily. As Richard Winter observes, Buddhism alone will (most likely) not get you there, and I would add the caveat that it may even lead one to a life of quietism (or political apathy), if we do not supplement the goal of reforming the self (or non-self) with the goal of reforming society.

    • richard-winter on July 31, 2012 at 8:01 am

      Hi, Mufi:

      Many thanks for this. I very much sympathise with what you say. My aim is certainly to explore how Buddhism can be fully linked into a conception of radical (yet gradual) social reform and, at the same time to link Buddhism into a conception of what I am starting to think of as ‘radical democracy’ (as opposed to the complacent version currently accepted, which preserve so many injustices and such a high level of delusion and misinformation).Current thinking on socialism seem to leave out the need for personal transofrmation, which (I think) is why it seems not to be making much progress, in spite of what ought to be, in the light of the current economic crisis, favourable circumstances.

      with best wishes

      Richard Winter

      • mufi on July 31, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Thanks, Richard.

        I would just like to add this anecdote from personal experience: I used to be involved (here in the US) in a state Green party, in which “radical [or participatory] democracy” was one of the core principles that we publicly advocated and also tried to embody in our own meetings. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I acquired from that experience a new appreciation for representative/parliamentary norms and procedures.

        Nonetheless, I would agree that more democracy than we currently have is desirable (e.g. I believe that elections should be based on the egalitarian principle of “one person, one vote”, not on “one dollar, one vote”), although I admit that I harbor some doubts and concerns about the wisdom and virtue of the majority of the electorate (at least here in the US).

        Perhaps that’s where the argument for a transformation (at whatever level) re-enters the picture.

  3. Mark Knickelbine on July 25, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    What I’d like to hear more about is what he means by “Marxism.” In emphasizing it as a “critique of reality,” it seems that he might be using the term the way contemporary European philosophers do, in a way Marx and Engels would have scratched their heads over. Certainly classical Marxism, with its deterministic view of history and its emphasis on class identity, is scarcely compatible with Buddhism’s concepts of impermanence and anatta. Neomarxism abandons Marx’s Hegelian notions but retains for the most part the concept that economic contingencies are the most important determinants of our world view and social order. But if personal transformation is required to foster social change such as economic justice (and I agree that it is) I think the social order has to be seen as contingent on the behavior of human beings and not the other way on, as Marxists so frequently insist. There is certainly reciprocation between the personal and the political, but change in the political realm (and in all cultural realms) ultimately depends on humans in their psychophysical reality.

    • richard-winter on July 31, 2012 at 8:11 am

      Dear Mark,

      Yes, I think our ideas are not really far apart. My interpretation of ‘Marxism’ focuses on Marx as a critic of the injustices and delusions fostered by capitalist social, economic and cultural relations. And I make clear in my book that my respect for Marx’s thinking has nothing to do with the oppressive features that came to dominate most ‘communist’ societies. However, although I think that individual agency is crucial in thinking about social reform, it is aslo important to focus, as Marx does, on the economic relations that shape our well-being. Otherwise one is merely calling for ‘moral regeneration’ at the level of the individual (e.g. the current crisis as due to ‘bankers’ greed’) and this doesn’t provide a srong enough focus for political action. My view is that what is needed is a genuine synthesis of the Marxist and the Buddhist critiques of reality and action. And both Marxism and Buddhism have in this respect, a helpful combination of comprehensive theory and practical suggestion for practice

      Best wishes, and thanks for your comments

      Richard Winter.

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