Reviewed by Gideon Calder
Alasdair MacIntyre’s oeuvre is strikingly rich and broad. He writes about more things, more readably, than moral and political philosophers will typically find the time or the urge to – and always with a wide, synoptic sense of the relation of ideas to history, practice, and political economy. And he has, remarkably, been doing this for over fifty-seven years. This collection of essays, reviews and journalism captures a period in his writing life where he worked his way through, and then out of, a commitment to Marxism which ran alongside his ongoing Catholicism. We find little ‘straight’ philosophy. In their introduction, the editors identify a clear split between MacIntyre as jobbing philosopher, and MacIntyre as interventionist in the key Left debates of the 1950s and 1960s. What they offer us is a compilation of the things he was writing away from the day-job, across twenty years. As a publishing venture, this might sound a bit like issuing a portfolio of Vladimir Putin’s watercolours, or Lady Gaga’s playlists as a DJ before she hit it big as a recording artist. But it’s not at all like that. In their particular way, these writings are as rich and as broad as those for which MacIntyre is famous. How they rank in terms of importance is another question, to be returned to later.
MacIntyre is best known these days as the author of After Virtue (1981) and subsequent works in which he has developed a critique of modern moral and political philosophy, promoting a return to Aristotle, Aquinas and the (then more so than now) neglected traditions of virtue ethics. Central to this later work is an argument that the mainstream of such thinking since Kant has drained away the kinds of resources needed both for an adequate critique of the contemporary capitalist order, and for the devising of alternatives. In these terms, that ‘mainstream’ includes Marx. So why offer a compilation of his Marxist writings now, when this particular archive might seem pretty peripheral, not least in terms of MacIntyre’s own thinking? Editors Blackledge and Davidson give two main reasons (xii-xiv) in a detailed, illuminating introduction situating MacIntyre’s ‘take’ on Marxism against both others lively at the time, and the wider ambit of his own thinking. One is that it might give us a standpoint from which to gauge the ‘persuasiveness’ of MacIntyre’s break with Marx – confirmed by the early 1970s. The other is that his writing before the break, in readily Marxist vein, might give valuable resources to the contemporary anti-capitalist movement. MacIntyre is often portrayed as someone who – as (i) a general disenchantment with modernity and (ii) the lure of Thomas Aquinas have taken hold – has gradually dislocated his thinking from the contemporary world, and any emancipatory struggles which might be going on there. He is thereby discounted as a thinker relevant to current Left politics. The purpose of the book is to disrupt this portrayal.
And it’s quite a collection. There are forty-six pieces by MacIntyre in the book, including, as an epilogue, a retrospective piece first published in 1995. Reference points range across: Marx’s theory of alienation; the European common market; Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago; the relation between Marxism and Christianity; the Labour Party under Gaitskell and then Wilson; Ireland and ‘The Irish Question’; R. H. Tawney; Lucien Goldmann; early 1960s imperialism in Africa; Marcuse’s Soviet Marxism; the social theory of C. Wright Mills; Trotsky; Sartre; Debray; the relation in emancipatory politics between intellectuals and workers; Thomas Mann – and that’s just a sample. And as is typical of MacIntyre, these topics and themes are not itemised, but integrated. One is always reading, fruitfully, about other things at the same time as the topic at hand. A default setting of MacIntyre’s thought is that it operates in amongst relations and comparisons. Throughout, we find arresting parallels and unexpected equations – especially amongst positions he opposes. Stalinism is, throughout the book, especially ripe for this treatment. Here are some of the things with which MacIntyre deems it to be murkily associated: liberal morality; social democracy; adherence to the fact/value distinction; Fabianism; religious doctrine. These aren’t just token points. Each is substantiated, in different registers, as we are steered between the spheres of theory and politics.
Because the pieces were published in magazines and not-exclusively-academic journals (such as the New Statesman, The Listener, Universities and Left Review, International Socialism) they are often quite short. Many are book reviews, though always with a much wider scope than the book in question. And amongst them, as the editors rightly say, are essays – particularly, ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’, ‘Freedom and Revolution’ – which clearly repay reading in 2010. MacIntyre’s thinking is especially vibrant when deployed within the genre of the classical essay. These pieces are light on references and fluent in composition, throwing up problems and challenges so that they might then be worked through, with rhetorical flourishes sitting alongside tight argumentation in such a way that the labour of the latter seems easy. They combine philosophical and political engagement and managing to do justice to the nuances of both. They were published, respectively, in The New Reasoner and Labour Review. This kind of writing, and that kind of forum, are rare these days. There is less space in which the academic Left might produce extended theoretical essays for an audience presumed to be beyond the academy. Reading these essays, and others – ‘Breaking the Chains of Reason’; ‘What is Marxist Theory For?’ – it is difficult not to feel a kind of nostalgia for the milieu in which, from the late 1950s, thinkers of the New Left did their work.
These essays will resonate, now, for philosophers thinking about the applicability of their work to the world. On the theoretical side, they offer a powerful case for a humanistic Marxism with – as in all of MacIntyre’s work – an especially subtle ‘take’ on the relationship between structure and agency. MacIntyre’s thought is best in its critical register, where in fifty-seven years it has lost little of its bite. ‘Capitalism,’ as he says in the 1995 essay, ‘provides systematic incentives to develop a type of character that has a propensity to injustice’ (p. 416). On why this is so, and on how it hooks up with the presumptions of different philosophical traditions, he has been consistently illuminating. The comparative character of his thought is most effective in setting up targets, and fingering philosophical villains. But for all its finesse does this kind of work, as the editors suggest, give sustenance to the anti-capitalist movement – more, say, than reading Naomi Klein? Should these essays be recommended reading at an activists’ dayschool? Here I’m less sure. In fact, the more one delves into MacIntyre’s early political thoughts, the more one is likely to see their value in terms of intellectual history rather than pressing contemporary relevance.
In these essays he is an astute, acerbic observer of the currents of his time – and in particular, the conjunction between academic concerns and those of the wider political field. But – it is prosaic to say it – in many ways, that currency has lapsed, and that context is not ours. Whatever we might learn from his early 1960s analyses of capitalism (‘Prediction and Politics’, ‘The New Capitalism and the British Working Class’), it is not obvious from their inclusion here what, if anything, we are expected to make of their current applicability. If arguments against reformism are what one wants, there are more recent versions, adapted to the post-neo-liberal landscape. In the end, these analyses tell us more about MacIntyre than the world. He writes as an academic whose moral/political commitments led him first to the Communist Party, then the Socialist Labour League, and then to the International Socialists – precursors, of course, of the Socialist Workers’ Party – and ultimately to a break with the revolutionary movement. Working one’s way through these pieces sheds light on that trajectory in ways which will be valuable for those working on MacIntyre himself. (One might follow the editors’ location of a rupture with Marxism in MacIntyre’s work, sometime in the mid-1960s. Yet there is also clear room for a ‘continuity’ reading: I am not sure that the things which bug MacIntyre most have changed all that much since 1953, whatever the changes in his preferred theoretical resources – or that his theoretical stances on those bugbears have changed all that much either.) But for all their interest it is not actually all that clear why these should, in their particularity, ‘speak’ these days to the ‘real desires of ordinary people in their struggles both in and against capitalism’ (xix). Even the ‘Marxist’ MacIntyre’s biggest fan would be hard pushed to argue that today’s activists, energised for example by the prospect of Coalition cuts and the ongoing global imposition of neo-liberalism, read ‘Breaking the Chains of Reason’ over breakfast.
This is not because, as many on the Left allege, MacIntyre has lapsed into some kind of hopeless pre-modernist conservatism which by definition makes even his early work irrelevant and irredeemable in terms of contemporary emancipatory politics. In fact I think he is relevant there. But it is a philosophical relevance. There is just no escaping the fact that philosophy is what he is best at – and philosophy in opposition, at that. The very strongest aspects of his work – then, as now – lie in its critique of a certain version of liberal morality. MacIntyre’s 1999 book Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues is, to my mind, one of the very best pieces of recent moral philosophy there is. It would be as applicable in a sustainable, fair society as it is now. I wish it were more prominent in the moral philosophy curriculum, where alas it is marginal. But it is not a call to arms. And if the greatest momentum in MacIntyre’s writing comes from its critique of dominant modes of thinking – and of, as the title of his 1971 collection puts it – the ‘self-images of the age’, much less, in my view, comes from his own suggested alternatives. And here his aversion to the modern has its costs. Some Marxists, for example, have found benefit in engaging with the extraordinarily rich vein of thinking on equality which derives from the liberal egalitarian tradition. We find space here for a robust, productive Aristotelian synthesis of diverse critical resources, in the service of thinking about what a better society would be like. But MacIntyre can’t quite touch this stuff, as if it’s a little too impure. And generally, it seems to me, it is when it comes to mustering affirmative resources for progressive thinking that his thought has least to offer. His remarkable capacity for comparison and synthesis work best when arranging targets, and less so when thinking constructively. This is true now, and also, one finds, of these rarely read early pieces.
Anyway those pieces are very often fascinating – and, for my money, more consistent in their implications with MacIntyre’s later thinking than many would presume. Blackledge and Davidson have provided a real service in pulling them together. They shed welcome light on a particular period of political activity, and on the particular place of Left intellectuals within it. They should certainly be read by students of MacIntyre, and those seeking a handle on the distinctiveness of his work. Even so, that distinctiveness is most marked in the philosophy he was producing then, and since. Boringly perhaps, it is in the work completed in his day-job that MacIntyre’s deepest impacts will lie.
9 November 2010