John Dunn

John Dunn is a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. His Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future was reviewed in the last issue of the LRB.


John Dunn, 4 April 1991

On ne peut point régner innocemment. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die.’ Saint-Just’s maiden speech to the Convention on 13 November 1792 marked his unforgettable entrance onto the national political stage. Arguing that in place of the formal hypocrisies of a judicial tribunal, the representatives of the People of France, the Convention, must judge their king, and judge him as a vanquished foreign enemy under the law of nations, rather than as a fellow citizen subject to common laws and entitled to a share in their protection, it showed not only his extraordinary talent for brutal political simplification, and his capacity to seize the hour, but also the ease and completeness with which he was able to change his mind.

Doing something

John Dunn, 17 March 1988

In the opening act of The Marriage of Figaro the music master Don Basilio twits Susanna with the absurdity of her sexual tastes. How odd not to prefer, as anyone else would do, the favours of a signor liberal, prudente e saggio to those of a giovinastro and a paggio (a callow adolescent and a mere page). The page Cherubino, despite his giddy youth and relatively menial role, is of course a lad of good family. The post in the Count’s regiment to which he is so unavailingly despatched carries the rank of an officer; and both Mozart’s music and Beaumarchais’s own commentary on his character make it evident that he is intended to be exceedingly attractive. (He is ‘what every mother, in her innermost heart, would wish her own son to be even though he might give her much cause for suffering’.) Don Basilio, moreover, is scarcely an engaging character. But in his sleazy way he captures compellingly enough a prominent feature of the erotic power structure of the Ancien Régime. With only the most modest assistance from nature, any nobleman who was generous as well as worldly could be confident of finding attractive women in plenty who could be relied upon to fall for his charms.

Who should own what?

John Dunn, 18 October 1984

Human beings are very possessive creatures. It is, no doubt, not one of their more admirable characteristics. No one esteems anyone else simply for being possessive, even if they may envy the power which some accumulate under the goading of their will to possess, or may enjoy and admire the skills which others develop at least partly under the same impulses. To own, to have at one’s disposal, to exercise power over, are all marks of human effectiveness, just as much as the capacity to jump long distances or to sing resonantly in tune or to make compelling political speeches. All human effectiveness is effectiveness in some real social setting, drawn in part from contingent advantages and reflected back in the grudging or effusive acknowledgment of other human beings. Even possessiveness requires at least an imaginary audience. One might save prudently on a desert island, but one could hardly hoard there. However, while ownership itself can be enviable and in some circumstances even impressive, the mere desire to have seems to many today – just as it did to John Locke – a furtive, even incipiently criminal form of lust.’


John Dunn, 30 December 1982

In The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy in 1952 the late Jacob Talmon offered an influential diagnosis of ‘the most vital issue of our time … the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian democracy on the other, in which the world crisis of today consists’. Empirical and liberal democracy was to be read as including social democracy but totalitarian democracy, at the time, as excluding totalitarianism of the right. In due course he promised two further volumes, one devoted to the vicissitudes of the totalitarian-democratic trend in 19th-century Western Europe, and the second to the history of totalitarian democracy in Eastern Europe. The first of these, Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, appeared in 1960. The second, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution, is now published posthumously. Although it is considerably the largest of the three, it fails in several respects to discharge the initial promise, passing very lightly indeed over both Russia and Eastern Europe since 1918, offering scarcely a glimpse of events further east and petering out in understandable exhaustion early in the 1920s. Less prudently, it also extends the formidable scope of Talmon’s original undertaking, altering the focus of his inquiry towards the role of nationalist sentiment in 19th and early 20th-century history and stressing the extent to which Nazi and Fascist movements also offered ‘a form of democratic participation’.

Grounds for Despair

John Dunn, 17 September 1981

At one point in Thomas Peacock’s satire Melincourt, the heroine Anthelia offers a spirited sketch of the character traits which she looks for in a prospective husband. ‘I would require him to be free in all his thoughts, true in all his words, generous in all his actions – ardent in friendship, enthusiastic in love, disinterested in both … the champion of the feeble, the firm opponent of the powerful oppressor – not to be enervated by luxury, nor corrupted by avarice, nor intimidated by tyranny, nor enthralled by superstition – more desirous to distribute wealth than to possess it, to disseminate liberty than to appropriate power, to cheer the heart of sorrow than to dazzle the eyes of folly.’ Her robustly philistine interlocutor, the Hon. Mrs Pinmoney, is unimpressed: ‘And do you really expect to find such a knight-errant? The age of chivalry is gone.’ Peacock is partly mocking Edmund Burke’s famous rhapsody over Marie Antoinette, as Marilyn Butler points out in her recent Peacock Displayed, but his heart is evidently with Anthelia. There is nonetheless some force to Mrs Pinmoney’s reply.

Unilateralist Options

John Dunn, 6 August 1981

As with the sword or the bow and arrow, making up one’s mind responsibly about the Bomb is not an easy task. For anarchists or pacifists the exercise of violence by state powers throughout history has been intrinsically regrettable. But any style of political assessment which weights consequences more heavily than these do must recognise practical connections (sometimes of a surprising kind) between the history of civilised social life and that of repressive force. Exponents of most modern political theories do, it is true, at least affect to believe that the dependence of civilised social life upon physical repression has diminished, and is diminishing; and some even suppose that it can reasonably be expected in due course to vanish painlessly away. There is perhaps some inductive support in recent historical experience for the judgment that it has diminished, but little, if any, for the judgment that it is still diminishing. Grounds offered for the conviction that it might in future vanish silently away must necessarily be more sparely theoretical and the best that can be said for them is that, thus far, they have been intellectually perfunctory.


John Dunn, 5 February 1981

Is there or is there not good reason to believe that the experience of being alive is still on the whole improving for the majority of human beings? And if there is, is there good reason to expect this improvement to persist into the reasonably near, the imaginatively accessible, future? The idea of progress involves the adoption of at least two very different perspectives. The first, plainly, is a vision backwards in time, broadly flattering the past for its prowess in having generated the way we live now. The backward face of progress is a logical correlate of the complacencies of the present. We felicitate the past for its having brought us about. No such vision is likely to be utterly unambivalent, regret being as intrinsic to the human condition as is hope. But even in the stark circumstances of this country now, it would be a wholly implausible claim to make about the consciousness of the majority of its population that they see life here as on balance less good than they believe it to have been half a century ago. There is no doubt that the practical preconditions for these attitudes are under very active menace. But, in contrast with the experienced past at least, there are also many excellent reasons why the attitudes should nonetheless prevail. Any past with which the present life of this society as a whole could be negatively contrasted would have to be recollected in a sentimental and heavily selective manner. The vision backwards from the present can, of course, readily be misjudged. But there is nothing inherently murkier or more bemusing about it than there is to any ambitious interpretation of human experience. The second constitutive perspective of the idea of progress, the vision forwards into the future, is necessarily more venturesome. Human experience encourages the making of predictions, discreet and indiscreet. But insofar as the idea of progress prescribes what the main significance of their lives will be for human beings far into the future, it involves predictions that are of a degree of indiscretion for which human experience offers no rational encouragement whatsoever. As for guessing the existential significance of the distant future of the species as a whole we are, and we will always remain, some way out of our cognitive depth.


John Dunn, 2 October 1980

Robert Nozick begins his clever and implausible study Anarchy, State and Utopia with a confident pronouncement: ‘Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).’ Among Americans it is a claim which only a committed utilitarian is likely to wish to dispute. Americans suppose themselves to have many individual rights and, after their respective ideological fashions, take rights extremely seriously. At the level of pure hypocrisy their allegiance is far from distinctive in the modern world. Every member state of the United Nations, for example, is a signatory to a Declaration of Human Rights. But in many countries today (Kampuchea, Burundi, Paraguay, Haiti, Ethiopia) it is hard to imagine either government or people expressing themselves spontaneously quite in Nozick’s terms. The question therefore arises whether Nozick is indeed correct or whether he is simply American. If individuals just do have rights, what gives them these entitlements, or, if this is thought a tendentious way of putting the matter, what makes the claim that they possess them true? In the Declaration of Independence, the most famous and eloquent expression of the American theory of rights, what endows human individuals with such rights is, intractably enough, their Creator. All human beings are created equal and it is because they are created equal that it is correct for them to regard themselves and each other as endowed with certain inalienable rights. Not merely is this true: it is self-evidently true (and you cannot readily get truer than that). Nozick himself keeps his cards close to his chest on the matter of what (if anything) does make his initial claim true. But it is a safe inference that his views on the question diverge from those of Thomas Jefferson.

Short Books on Great Men

John Dunn, 22 May 1980

To be truly a Master is to have authority. To claim to be a Master is to claim to possess authority. We can be confident that more persons claim to have authority than do truly have it. What is less easy to determine is who in fact does possess it. The place of authority in human life is both centrally important and irretrievably contentious. The personnel of the ‘Modern Masters’ series may simply map the credal disorder of our days, the fitful intellectual allegiances of a society of masterless persons. Past Masters, however, are, or at any rate ought to be, figures of historically proven authority. It is easiest to see historically proven authority as essentially the authority of continuing traditions. One question, therefore, which Keith Thomas’s series must confront at the start is simply whether for us as moderns any continuing traditions do (or even could) retain their authority. (An entire school of sociologists, for example, seeks to define modernity as a categorical denial of authority to tradition in its entirety.) What, then, is authority? And more particularly, how far is it genuinely open to us to think of authority as something which can be incarnated, realised in the historical persons of individual human beings?

The Quest for Solidarity

John Dunn, 24 January 1980

The relation between politics and letters is necessarily a dangerous liaison, and the questions which it raises are huge, blunt and disobliging. Acknowledged too readily, it is apt to highlight the less becoming features in each. But its potential for treachery is probably greatest when its existence is most vehemently denied. If imagination and the exercise of power were ever simple antinomies in human life, the relation could perhaps be avoided in principle. But to suppose that they often are (or even could be) is to sentimentalise both power and imagination, conceiving the former negatively (as intrinsically oppressive) and the latter positively (as intrinsically ‘liberating’). Raymond Williams has made a more persistent attempt to grasp the nature of this relation than any living British writer and has certainly avoided sentimentalising imagination, even if his conception of power has proved rather more equivocal. In the present volume he is interviewed by a trio from the New Left Review on his motives for making this attempt, and on the degree of success which has attended his efforts.


Past Master

22 May 1980

John Dunn writes: Irony is a dangerous device. I must apologise to Mr Walter for having inadvertently misled him by my use of the word ‘credulous’. The central complaint which I wished to level at Mr Carpenter’s book was not that its author failed to believe that Jesus was ‘God’, a task at which I should abjectly fail myself, but rather that he failed in the event to muster...

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