In Praise of Middle Government
- Liberalisms. Essays in Political Philosophy by John Gray
Routledge, 273 pp, £35.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 415 00744 5
- The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education edited by Timothy Fuller
Yale, 169 pp, £20.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 300 04344 9
- The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott by Paul Franco
Yale, 277 pp, £20.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 300 04686 3
- Conservatism by Ted Honderich
Hamish Hamilton, 255 pp, £16.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 241 12999 0
The collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the dire condition of the Soviet Union have left Socialism almost irredeemably discredited. Understandably, the recent Labour policy document tactfully avoided the subject. Such reticence is of course nothing new. Unlike Continental parties, even the old ILP kept ‘Socialist’ out of its title to avoid offending the workers; and the Labour election programme of 1929, largely drafted by Tawney, did not mention the word ‘socialism’. Labour’s recent socialist flirtation was an atypical, though not unprecedented folly – the Party indulged in similar sectarian extremism in the Thirties – which is unlikely to be repeated. Certainly if Labour is to face the future with any hope of electoral prosperity, it will have to be resolutely social-democratic both in rhetoric and in action. Outside the Third World, socialism is dead and will not be resurrected for some time to come.
Coincident with the end of socialism in any meaningful sense, John Gray tells us that ‘a liberal political philosophy is an impossibility,’ and Ted Honderich announces that Conservatism is a nullity. If both of them are right and can be taken at face value, there does not seem to be much left.
Dr Gray’s original intention was to define liberalism and give it a foundation, but that ‘enterprise ended in failure’. In Liberalisms, which examines the thought of a collection of liberal philosophers from John Stuart Mill onwards, Gray sets each of his thinkers up in turn and then knocks them down like ninepins. His verdict on Hayek is that ‘quite apart from the inadequacies of his conception of liberty, none of his arguments for its value secure the inevitability and certainty that he seeks for liberal principles.’ Similarly he finds Nozick’s derivation of the state riddled with obscurities and a failure in its own terms. Isaiah Berlin, one of the few of Dr Gray’s ninepins who manages to remain upright, gains high praise for his contention that the conflict of values is an ineradicable feature of human experience, thus dispelling, in Gray’s words, ‘the reigning illusion of the enlightenment, the chimera of a rational morality, and its step-child, the project of a science of politics’. Gray’s postscript ‘After Liberalism’ turns out to be largely devoted to knocking down yet more ninepins; the last three pages alone live up to the title. The implications of ‘After Liberalism’ seem heavily conservative, but the argument is too brief to yield definite conclusions. Elsewhere, however, Gray’s conclusion is unambiguous – liberal political philosophy is ‘hubristic and defective’ – and that verdict, based as it is on scrupulous argument and an impressive mastery of the subject, may be difficult to upset.
Aside from Berlin, the only thinkers to survive Gray’s bombardment without a scratch are Michael Oakeshott and Karl Popper. Gray even pays Oakeshott the compliment of quoting him twice: ‘In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.’ ‘Political Education’, the essay in which those celebrated words appear, has been usefully assembled with five other of Oakeshott’s essays on education and republished under the well-justified title The Voice of Liberal Learning. And from the same publisher comes the first full-length study of Oakeshott’s political thought. Paul Franco has produced a fair, readable and clear account of one of the best, if one of the most tantalisingly elusive, of English political theorists. Because he is concerned, perhaps rightly, to stress the consistency of Oakeshott’s political thought, and because it has received more attention in the past than other aspects of his work, he devotes relatively little space to ‘Rationalism in Politics’. Nevertheless, like Gray, he gives an excellent summary of Oakeshott’s view that rationalism has had a disastrous impact on political life in the West. For Oakeshott, the rationalist is preoccupied with certainty. Custom and prejudice and any other authority are all his enemies. His unaided reason will infallibly tell him what is right. The rationalist sees himself as an engineer, and abstraction, not experience, is his tool. Rationalist politics is ‘the politics of perfection’ and ‘the politics of uniformity’.
From both Franco and Gray, Professor Honderich might have learned the importance of Oakeshott, and the sheer obtuseness of dismissing him with a sneer or two in under four pages. He might even have learned the perils of rationalism. For Honderich is the archetypal rationalist of Oakeshott’s nightmares. His politics are those of ‘perfection’. He knows that his reason – which in this book is largely unaided – will not let him down; as an engineer dealing in abstractions, he knows what is right. And he knows that Conservatism is wrong, even if he is not quite sure what it is. Conservatism or what he thinks is Conservatism is Honderich’s ninepin, and he takes pot shots at it for more than two hundred pages before deciding that Conservatism ‘has in the end nothing to say for itself’.
Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990
According to Ian Gilmour’s review of my Conservatism (LRB, 12 July) I speak of Lord Hailsham’s ‘undergarment’, say that the Russian political system has fallen only as short as ours of being ideally democratic, and discuss books by Labour politicians. I don’t. This doesn’t much matter, but enables me to own up with greater equanimity to the little errors he finds in my book, and makes a meal of. His error rate seems to be higher. More important, he says I have written on a subject that doesn’t exist, since ‘Conservatism’ doesn’t pick out anything. That is a surprise, since he also announces the death of ‘socialism’. Perhaps keen not to be further associated with some people who might be part of the first subject, he makes it vanish, by noticing diversity in it. Very keen to bury all of the second, he is blithe about yet more diversity. He obscures the fact that in the course of my book I explicitly define the tradition which is its subject, by arriving at its true features. It is footling to say that nothing falls under that definition. Partly by being footling, he pretty well avoids the whole long argument and the largest single proposition in my book. It is about the rationale of Conservatism. He neither deals adequately with my argument nor, yet more important, supplies an alternative rationale. That is incomprehension or evasion – in any case, a critical reviewer’s disaster. It is also the intellectual disaster of Conservatism.
I am, he says, the archetypal rationalist of the nightmare of one of his mentors. When not in that dream-life, I wrote a chapter on Conservative claims as to bad and good sources of politics: rationalism, abstractionism etc, as against the test of time, empiricism etc. Ian Gilmour reports the numinous nonsense that political activity consists in being lost at sea, but does not try his hand with my arguments. He is clear that I am an ideologue and he isn’t. What is one? Anybody who propounds something other than ‘middle government’? That reduces his approval of himself as a non-ideologue to the news that a supporter of middle government is a supporter of middle government. As for my too great confidence in my views, I do not notice any great diffidence in his. It would be nice to go on – about the reluctant accommodations Conservatism has made with history, about declamation with respect to equality and liberty, which I discuss at some length, and about the nature of political philosophy. It is different from the history of ideas, guides to reading for the A level in Politics, and Popper-piety, which is well known outside philosophy but not in it.
Mr Gilmour enables me to get into the second edition of my book some little corrections that should have gone into the first, but he disturbs me not at all. He is upset because I have no respect for Conservatism. Should I, in civility, pretend a respect? I feel no inclination at this time when Conservative governments, from which I allow he is to be honourably distinguished, have made a society into a slum.
Vol. 12 No. 15 · 16 August 1990
Professor Honderich’s letter (Letters, 26 July) makes it easy to understand how he made his errors about Burke and others. ‘According to Ian Gilmour’s review of my book Conservatism,’ he writes, ‘I speak of Lord Hailsham’s “undergarment”, say that the Russian political system has fallen only as short as ours of being ideally democratic and discuss books by Labour politicians. I don’t.’ Let me take these points in order.
1. In my review I said: ‘The most glaring exclusion of all, however, is that of Lord Hailsham. Honderich is aware of Hailsham’s existence since he makes a heavy joke about his trousers, which Honderich calls his undergarment, but he is evidently not aware of his books.’ Honderich is entitled to complain that my execrable handwriting produced ‘under’ instead of ‘lower’ garment, especially as it is the only solid point in his letter: but the correction does not make his joke any lighter or lessen his negligence in failing to know of Hailsham’s books.
2. My remark about the Russian political system was a quotation from Honderich. After giving his exacting definition of democracy I wrote: ‘Honderich points out that Western democracies do not meet these requirements (he does not say how any regime could ever meet them) and then adds in all seriousness: “something the same has been true of the Soviet political system.” ’ On page 130 of Conservatism Honderich says: ‘Western democracies are certainly not actual instances of it [i.e. democracy], however closer they may be than certain other existing governments. Something the same has been true of the Soviet political system.’
3. I never suggested that Honderich discussed books by Labour politicians. Discussing his ‘honest threadbare bibliography’ and his exclusion from both text and bibliography of Hailsham, Patten, Waldegrave and Pym, I wrote: ‘These omissions might have been ascribed to a bizarre decision by Honderich to disallow books by all practising politicians, were it not that he does include Roy Hattersley and Gordon Brown.’ Their books duly appear on pages 248-9; Hattersley is cited on page 82.
Honderich further claims that I said his subject does not exist ‘since Conservatism does not pick out anything’. I in fact said that what Honderich meant by Conservatism – in his words, the ‘political tradition … exemplified by the Conservative Party in Britain and the main part of the Republican Party in the United States’ – does not exist because the Conservative and Republican traditions are different.
Contrary to what Honderich says, I was in no way upset by his having no respect for Conservatism – that was entirely predictable. Nor did I, or do I, object to his confidence in his own views. But British Conservatism is intimately bound up with British history and the Conservative Party. I merely think, therefore, that, however well justified Honderich’s confidence in his own great abilities may be, for him to attempt a polemic against Conservatism without bothering to study British history, or to take his reading of British Conservative theorists much beyond The Portable Conservative Reader, was decidedly imprudent. If, instead of sneering at Oakeshott and Popper, Honderich tried to learn from them, the second edition he promises us might be a considerable improvement on the first.
House of Commons
Vol. 12 No. 16 · 30 August 1990
Ian Gilmour is better at listing titles of books than he sometimes is at reading them. In his letter (Letters, 16 August)he persists in the bloomer of his review when he ascribes to me the idea that the Russian political system has been only about as far short of being ideally democratic as ours. I say that with respect to only one of three features of democracy, and say very differently with respect to the other two, and hence of the Russian system in sum. See pages 127 – 30 of Conservatism. I invite him to concede the point.
He does concede that he, or maybe his handwriting, made a second little error, about Lord Hailsham. As for the third, about whether I discuss the books of Labour politicians, I most certainly persist in thinking he at least implied what he now says he didn’t suggest. I thus persist in thinking his overall error rate is higher than mine.
He is wonderfully silent about the oddity of his supposing that ‘Conservatism’ when used of a tradition with diversity in it is meaningless, but ‘socialism’ isn’t. It is in fact absolutely impossible to suppose that things in some respects different cannot be grouped and discussed together.
Can one write against Conservatism without putting in a lot of history, and looking up books by practising politicians, even those of Ian Gilmour? Yes, one can. That is what happens in pretty well all books of political philosophy. Can one defeat a book without attempting, in review or letter, to provide an alternative answer to the main question it asks? No, one can’t.
University College London