‘Virtue and Politics: Alasdair Macintyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism’ reviewed by Tom Angier

and (eds)
Virtue and Politics: Alasdair Macintyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism

University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame Ind., 2011. 384pp., $40 / £34.95 pb
ISBN 9780268022259

Reviewed by Tom Angier

About the reviewer

Tom Angier lectures in Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, and works on Moral Philosophy. He …


Alasdair MacIntyre is perhaps the greatest moral philosopher alive today. Certainly his range of reference – and level of output – far outstrip those of anyone currently working in the area. He began his intellectual life as a Marxist (with Christian sympathies) in the 1950s, moving between various groups on the British far left. By the late 1960s, his allegiance to Marxism as a political programme had waned, and after his emigration to the United States in the early 1970s, he began propounding a form of neo-Aristotelian virtue theory (culminating with After Virtue in 1981). This in turn gave way to a Thomist form of Aristotelianism, a development marked initially by his Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990), and then by most of his subsequent work (bar a significant excursion into Edith Stein’s phenomenology). Now he has reached his early 80s, he is planning a major new work on political philosophy. This is very welcome, because ever since MacIntyre’s departure from the Trotskyite left, it has been unclear exactly what form of politics is meant to subtend his arguments and claims in moral philosophy. In anticipation of MacIntyre, as it were, Blackledge and Knight have assembled this fascinating set of papers addressing what his politics are and/or should be.

Although I suggested MacIntyre’s post-1960s political commitments stand in need of clarification, many (even most) commentators take them to be sufficiently clear already. On the negative front, MacIntyre is usually portrayed as an anti-liberal, and for this there seems ample evidence. For he has never retracted his critique in After Virtue of the ‘Enlightenment Project’: here he argues that the attempt to discover moral ends outside a broadly Aristotelian teleological framework is hopeless, and can lead only to what he calls ‘emotivist’ ends (even if these are dressed up as objective, as in Kantianism or Intuitionism). This moral critique finds its political counterpart in MacIntyre’s criticism of modern, liberal cultures as presided over by managers, therapists and aesthetes, representative ‘characters’ devoted to fundamentally arbitrary, emotivist ends. On the positive front, MacIntyre’s political vision is widely criticised as strongly conservative, communitarian and pessimistic. Critics often point here to the close of After Virtue, where he hopes for a modern St Benedict, who will create communities of the virtues able to withstand liberal assault. It is this supposedly ‘utopian’ vision which has earnt MacIntyre most opprobrium, and which the editors of the present volume are concerned to address. But contra the standard interpretation of MacIntyre’s post-1960s work, they detect in it an (at least nascent) ‘revolutionary’ Aristotelianism, which accommodates some of his earlier Marxist insights and commitments. In what follows, I will look at MacIntyre’s negative critique of liberalism, and then move on to his positive political vision, assessing the prospects for ‘Revolutionary Aristotelianism’ as I go along.

Two authors in the volume are largely critical of MacIntyre’s anti-liberalism, namely Sean Sayers (ch. 5) and Anton Leist (ch. 11). According to Sayers, MacIntyre’s arguments against moral and political liberalism are insufficiently nuanced, not giving credit where credit is due. Where MacIntyre sees only ‘fragmentation’, ‘compartmentalisation’ and ‘incoherence’, Sayers points up the way in which liberal societies have made room for new forms of life and ‘toleration of differences’. This rather abstract, Millian response to MacIntyre may be cogent so far as it goes, but Sayers stops short of asking whether liberal freedoms, under current conditions, tend to privilege the interests of the rich and powerful, and if so, whether liberalism itself has the resources to address this exploitative nisus. MacIntyre, in his trenchant response to Sayers, suggests that because of its lack of a positive teleology, liberalism fails on this score (326). Like Sayers, Leist argues that the diversity and ideological conflict characteristic of modern, liberal societies means that MacIntyre’s invocation of a ‘rigid’ Aristotelian teleology must fall foul of social reality. Leist then offers his own alternative to the Aristotelian virtues – the ‘liberal virtues’ of authenticity, self-love and creativity (216-17) – which he associates (questionably) with Nietzsche. These allegedly found a ‘virtue pluralism’ and individualistic perfectionism (218-19), which he understands as commensurate with modern social norms. But as with Sayers, one wants to ask whether this superficially attractive vision places any obstacles in the way of capitalist exploitation, and if so, which ones. Leist unfortunately provides no help in this respect.

Three contributors – Peter McMylor (ch. 12), Sante Maletta (ch. 10) and Kelvin Knight (ch. 13) – are far more sympathetic to MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism. McMylor fleshes out that critique by detailing Goffman’s conception of the role-playing self (231f), a self which adopts various ends while remaining attached to none of them. And this bolsters MacIntyre’s notion of the liberal self as lacking ‘integrity’ or ‘constancy’ (237), opening it to forms of frustration and estrangement that preclude real fulfilment. Maletta unpacks MacIntyre’s anti-liberalism as a critique of societies which have abandoned allegiance to the natural law. According to Maletta, liberalism misconceives liberty as ‘sovereign independence’ from standards that uphold the common good (181, 191). This distorted idea of individual freedom leads, in turn, to individual self-frustration (182) and to societies incapable of resisting evil (194). So contra Sayers and Leist, and with MacIntyre’s endorsement (310-11), Maletta suggests that modern social orders can respect Thomist-Aristotelian ends without returning them to some utopian, pre-modern condition. Lastly, Knight documents how liberals like Hayek picture the liberal, minimal state as spontaneously self-ordering, and thus as superior to its predecessors, which preached shared purposes and values while simultaneously legitimating harmful state interference and domination. According to Knight, this picture not only masks the damaging conflicts and forms of ‘managerial oppression’ (288) endemic to liberal states, but also obscures how such states can purposely coordinate for the common good without thereby sliding into tyranny. Crucially, he finds the latter possibility elaborated in MacIntyre’s work (280-89), hence exonerating him from the charges of political utopianism and pessimism.

Knight’s account of MacIntyre here is the fulcrum of the entire volume, since it propounds a view of MacIntyre’s post-1960s social theory which both renders it continuous with his earlier Marxism, and denies it is wedded to a retreat into small, conservative communities. In support of this denial, Knight points out how MacIntyre allows that ‘a local political community with its own economy can be of considerable size’ (286), citing Bologna under Communist rule as an example (Kerala in India, Donegal fishing communities under Father McDyer and the Jesuit reducciones are further examples MacIntyre cites). While such communities are certainly local, allowing the coordination of ‘finite and knowable common goods’ (287), they need not be conservative, except insofar as they claim to protect common goods from depredation by both state and market. Furthermore, they are not utopian, since not only have they existed, in some cases they still exist, and with the requisite social action, may become more widespread. And this conception of MacIntyre’s political project seems borne out by his own, first chapter in the volume, entitled ‘How Aristotelianism Can Become Revolutionary’. Here he argues that only communities of the type just outlined can prevent the evils of compartmentalised lives, where people’s desires are skewed to promote economic prosperity rather than their own flourishing. Moreover, only such communities can resist the development of gross inequalities, which are created when sectional interests undermine the common good. And only such communities can follow the natural law, as opposed to modern state law, which effectively exists to protect market interests. MacIntyre admits that this positive vision requires the development of a ‘transformative political imagination’, and will be resisted by the ‘established order’ (17). But he insists that it is realisable, not some idle hankering after a lost polis, or a form of utopian fiction. In sum, it is a ‘Utopianism of the present’ (16), which yields paradigms of hope, trust and solidarity (18-19). What, then, are we to make of this so-called ‘Revolutionary Aristotelianism’?

Ironically, for a volume with ‘Revolutionary Aristotelianism’ in its subtitle, most contributors are highly sceptical of it. Alex Callinicos (ch. 4) doubts whether any form of Aristotelianism can be revolutionary, given Aristotle’s own attachment to an outdated sociology and teleological biology (64). Worse, he thinks that localism is a misguided political model, since even MacIntyre’s own heroes frequently invoke the ‘nation’, ‘people’ or even ‘international working class’ to bolster their own demands (71). Indeed, Marxist revolution, which Callinicos takes to be the genuine article, was predicated on a subordination of the merely local to the ‘universal brotherhood’ of a ‘universal class’ (75-8). MacIntyre’s localism is, then, on Callinicos’ view, merely the giving up of this ideal, and with it any global alternative to capitalism – which renders it void as ‘revolutionary’ in any substantive sense. Paul Blackledge (ch. 7), Tony Burns (ch. 3) and Neil Davidson (ch. 9) are all in essential agreement with Callinicos. Blackledge, contra MacIntyre, holds up the ideal of international solidarity rather than locality, arguing that socialist leadership need not be ‘managerial’, manipulative and oppressive in the capitalist mode. Burns subtly drives a further wedge between MacIntyre and Marx, by showing how his concern with manipulative bureaucracy is far more Weberian than Marxist, and how his emphasis on the local shares more with classical anarchism than with Marxism, which tends to see no value in the local per se (51-2). Finally, Davidson, through exploring MacIntyre’s relationship with Trotskyism, argues that MacIntyre too readily accepts Trotsky’s later pessimism about the working-class, describing the post-war proletariat as, for instance, ‘quiescent and helpless’ (171). This reception of the late Trotsky as ‘dogma’, Davidson writes, scuppers MacIntyre’s chances of being genuinely revolutionary (176).

Is ‘Revolutionary Aristotelianism’ really as threadbare and ill-founded a project as the above contributors make out? On the one hand, I think that Sayers, Leist and Callinicos are too quick to conclude that Aristotelianism cannot accommodate modern social forms and political imperatives, and is hence a theoretical non-starter. True, Aristotle made faulty sociological and biological assumptions, but Maletta (and Niko Noponen, ch. 6) are far closer the mark when they suggest that (especially Thomist) Aristotelianism can propose virtues and social ends which speak directly to modern political problems, not least those problems created by unfettered capitalism. As MacIntyre himself adjures, Pope Paul VI’s teaching that ‘the common good sometimes demands [the] expropriation’ of ‘landed estates’ (324) is grounded directly in Thomistic ethics and metaphysics. So decrying all forms of Aristotelianism as incompatible with modern leftist politics is wrong. On the other hand, Callinicos, Blackledge, Burns and Davidson appear justified when they argue that, if ‘revolutionary’ is to have anything approaching a Marxist sense, then MacIntyre’s Aristotelianism has no hope of being revolutionary. The evidence they adduce – from Marx’s own unconcern with the bureaucratic and the merely local, to MacIntyre’s own Trotsky-inspired pessimism about international working-class solidarity – shows beyond doubt that MacIntyre’s own brand of Aristotelianism is very far from being Marxist, or even compatible with Marxism.

The question we are left with, then, is whether the unbridgeable gap between MacIntyre’s current Aristotelianism and his previous Marxism renders his revolutionary credentials defunct, or at least severely dented. MacIntyre, as is clear from this volume, makes no secret of the fact both that he takes Marxism as a political programme to be unsalvageable (see especially 330-1), and that he still feels entitled to call his Thomist Aristotelianism ‘revolutionary’. He does so, I take it, because he believes that ‘certain key truths in Marxism’ (330) – some of which he outlines in his first chapter (see above), and others of which he mentions in his closing responses (those embodied, for example, in Pope Paul’s Populorum Progressio) – remain politically very salient, and are compatible with the kind of Aristotelianism he now espouses. So does the kind of localist, virtue-based political programme he elaborates deserve the description ‘revolutionary’? Kelvin Knight (ch. 2) and Andrius Bielskis (ch. 14) both think so, but they come to this conclusion only after they have sidelined MacIntyre’s localism in favour of his ethics of ‘practice’, which they understand as lying at the core of his anti-statist and anti-market critique. And this sidelining of localism is telling. For insofar as MacIntyre insists that his Aristotelian politics is essentially localist, I would argue that it simply cannot claim the title ‘revolutionary’. This is because such localism refuses to address the deep problems posed by global, structural conditions – centrally, those enforced by contemporary capitalism – at the mercy of which local projects necessarily proceed. It follows that until MacIntyre gets to grips with the structural priority of the global – as theorists like Nicholas Boyle and Zygmunt Bauman have done – his Aristotelian politics will remain ineffectual and unrevolutionary, subject to continual and inevitable frustration.

4 June 2012

One comment

  1. I think this review does a good job in focusing on the three central questions of the book: namely, (1) how far are MacIntyre’s mature views compatible with those of Marx? (2) Is ‘revolutionary Aristotelianism’ an appropriate interpretation of MacIntyre’s mature political views? (3) Is ‘revolutionary Aristotelianism’ a coherent political project? Here, I just want to say a few brief things about the first of these questions.

    You draw attention to MacIntyre’s continued adherence to ‘certain key truths in Marxism’: namely, that capitalism has an exploitive character; that it degrades work; and that it is oriented towards securing the highest rate of return (330). Of course, it could be pointed out that these truths are shared by a broad spectrum of capitalism’s critics, including many non-Marxists e.g. John Ruskin, who MacIntyre mentions in his concluding essay, also shares these criticisms of capitalism; and Ruskin, like MacIntyre (and unlike Marx), also looks to past ways of life as a model of virtuous practice and community. But I think that the major issue for those who want to see a close connection between MacIntyre and Marx is that, whilst MacIntyre criticises capitalist modernity, he tends to so in terms of the values and practices it is eroding, where Marx criticised those who fought capitalism in this way, and, indeed, partly celebrates this very erosion, since for him it promised better things to come. On Marx’s view, capitalist modernity has liberated people from the fetters of engulfing communities, drawn people out of their local standpoints and given rise to universal interchange of ideas and products. Simply put, for Marx modernity is not a wholly negative phenomenon; there are goods that are to be sustained and built on in the future. For MacIntyre, by contrast, the erosion of practices and traditional ways of life gives no cause for optimism: it can be resisted, not transcended. Thus, whilst MacIntyre and Marx share certain criticisms of capitalism, their views about its merits and shortcomings, and what should be done to remedy its ills, pull in very different directions.

    What this does not completely rule out, however, is that Macintyre’s thought might be profitably used to supplement certain lacunas in Marx’s ethics—a hope shared by many of the commentators in this volume, but something that you do not touch upon. There are obstacles to such a project. As MacIntyre has acknowledged, supplementing Marx’s ethics with his own would mean rewriting Marx’s critique of capitalism in an Aristotelian vocabulary that Marx did not use and whose presuppositions he rejected. Likewise MacIntyre now rejects Marx’s central aspiration of finding freedom within a large-scale post-capitalist society. I am unsure whether these issues provide insuperable obstacles or not. On this issue, as MacIntyre himself is fond of saying, more work needs to be done.

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