Burrinchini’s Spectre

Peter Clarke

  • That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in 19th-Century Intellectual History by Stefan Collini, Donald Winch and John Burrow
    Cambridge, 385 pp, £25.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 521 25762 X

Time was when Clio had a seamless garment: but that was before the division of labour set in. Prefixless history is now condescendingly thought of as ‘straight’ history and her clothes have been stolen and shared out by her offspring, with continual squabbles over who wears the trousers. Intellectual history was tardy in asserting its separate identity and still has trouble in getting recognised – what is it, after all, but the history of intellectuals, by intellectuals, for intellectuals? One merit of That Noble Science of Politics is that it yields an answer to this question. Its subtitle proclaims it a study in intellectual history, and its authorship exemplifies the unity and coherence of the art.

Stefan Collini has made his reputation as the historian of late 19th-century sociological thought. Donald Winch has long been known for path-breaking studies of the Smithian and Keynesian epochs. John Burrow’s elegant anatomy of the evolutionary paradigm in Victorian Britain has recently been succeeded by a rightfully acclaimed historiographical work. Though three names appear upon the title page, they have pooled their intellectual capital to a remarkable degree. Their decision ‘to accept full collective responsibility for the book as a whole’, rather than accredit the essays individually, is the hallmark of this enterprise: ‘the outcome of common tastes and interests, shared teaching duties and, above all, friendship’. Throughout the English-speaking world, one can list universities where the trade of intellectual history is plied as such, beginning with the Australian National University and proceeding through the alphabet to the University of Sussex. Admittedly, this leaves a lot of virgin paper in between. It is thus safe as well as grandiloquent to claim that wherever intellectual history is known to flourish, a spectre has been haunting the infancy of the precocious discipline. It is the spectre of Burrinchini.

The project to which the efforts of Burrinchini are addressed – truly his raison d’être – is to retrieve a historical account of how ‘things political’ were pondered by a number of British writers during the 19th century. If this seems a cumbrous way of putting it, why not simply say that this is the history of Political Science, summarising the contribution of some notable predecessors to its subsequent emergence as an academic subject? Both by precept and by example, the authors show that such an approach falsifies experience by organising it retrospectively into an implicit celebration of the present. This sort of teleological foreshortening and impoverishment of our notions of the past, so that it is no longer another country where they do things differently but one where they simply do them less well, is what, since Butterfield, the term ‘Whig interpretation’ has covered. In this extended sense, ‘the authors of this book would be glad to be described as “anti-whig”.’

Here are no founding fathers, conscripted posthumously into an immanent endeavour where each wrought better than he knew. Instead, essay by essay, the distinctiveness of background, outlook, aims and intention is lovingly reconstituted for each protagonist within its appropriate context. ‘As an ordained minister of the established Church,’ we are reminded, ‘Malthus was as much the successor to Abraham Tucker and William Palcy as to Adam Smith, and as much the contemporary of someone like Bishop Sumner, who did so much to make his doctrines acceptable in Anglican circles, as of his friend Ricardo.’ Macaulay, on the other hand, is to be visualised, as he so often visualised himself, addressing the House of Commons in the tones befitting that palladium of our liberties. Walter Bagehot’s self-image was no less vivid, though certainly different, as he projected it onto the persona of the modern reviewer, ‘glancing lightly from topic to topic, suggesting deep things in jest, unfolding unanswerable argument in an absurd illustration’, for all the world the clubman, with whom, as the authors comment, ‘methodology is a tone of voice.’ If Bagehot knew that ‘the lecture of a professor’ was not his natural medium, Henry Sidgwick knew no other, unless it were sitting in his study, grinding out the ‘632 rather closely printed octavo pages’ of The Elements of Politics, with the sapping doubt as to whether it was worthwhile in one half of his mind, and in the other the dutiful riposte that ‘a Professor must write books.’ Altogether, hardly the makings of a faculty meeting.

At this point, however, the triumph of anti-Whig methodology threatens the whole enterprise. We have agreed to abandon anything resembling the metaphor of a well-drilled team, with each player ready to run with the ball when his turn comes, before passing to the next man. But unless Malthus and Macaulay, Bagehot and Sidgwick can agree on what game they are playing, it is not clear what they are doing here, along with such as Dugald Stewart, David Ricardo, the Mills, E.A. Freeman, Alfred Marshall and Graham Wallas. Are these the First Eleven, or just the first eleven names that cropped up? When the Whigs were in charge, at least we used to have an identifiable team of All Stars, whom the fans either loved or loved to hate. Don’t these chaps, in their motley kit, look rather like the Odds and Sods?

Burrinchini’s answer is disarmingly persuasive. It is to admit that this account will be less coherent than one of a closed doctrine. ‘What we have tried to present here is not a rival “tradition” or parallel story of transmission and development, so much as a succession of attempts to occupy and explore the role of informed student of the conditions and possibilities of politics, and of the institutional structures through which it works.’ But these conditions and possibilities were seen in recognisably similar ways by the protagonists surveyed, so as to give them something in common and thereby render them amenable to a common frame of analysis. This was to see politics as a positive field of activity, neither subsumed within some more general process of societal development nor wholly free of the constraints imposed by external circumstances and conditions. It followed that some balance needed to be struck between the utopian impulse to legislate difficulties away and the calculated surrender to supposedly overmastering forces at work. As to what balance was right, the claims of philosophy were in constant tension with the weight of experience, deduction with induction, universal principles of human nature with the evidence of the historical record.

One recurrent motif is the extent to which Politics, conceived as the noble science of which Macaulay spoke, gave way to politics in the vulgar sense of partisan commitment. Sidgwick, who had leant over backwards so long that he was used to seeing the world upside down, gave a characteristically inverted view of this difficulty. ‘I want to write a great book on Politics during the next ten years,’ he recorded in his journal in 1886, ‘and am afraid it will be too academic if I do not somehow go into the actual struggle. But how?’ In most cases, of course, how not to infuse reflection on general principles with the overtones of current contention was nearer the mark. Dugald Stewart, striving to uphold the analytical tradition of Adam Smith, found that Tory Edinburgh could be uncharitable to a man who had visited revolutionary France in its dawn, and who had incautiously cited Condorcet with a respect that he came to rue. The lesson he drew was that keeping his head down was the price of keeping the faith. Preeminently a man whose ‘disciples were among his best works’, as Sir James Mackintosh put it, he exerted a unique influence upon the Whig political world of the early 19th century – Palmerston and Russell among the grandees, Horner and Brougham among the men of talent who made the Edinburgh Review their instrument. Whatever else the system of the North taught them, it evidently instilled a circumspect belief that the canny would inherit the earth. Both Horner and Brougham found that their knowledge of political economy gave them a head start in Whig circles, where the cause of Free Trade was gaining ground. When Horner came to harbour doubts about the analysis presented in The Wealth of Nations, he nonetheless confessed himself ‘reluctant to expose Smith’s errors before his work has operated its full effect. We owe much at present to the superstitious worship of Smith’s name; and we must not impair that feeling, till the victory is more complete.’

Malthus was less happy in finding a match between his doctrines and the contingencies of contemporary polemics. Though himself a Whig, his views on the Corn Laws proved unpalatable to the Edinburgh Review, which fell steadily under the sway of the rival Ricardian version of political economy. Malthus therefore had to resort to the pages of the Quarterly, whose Tory outlook made it hospitable to anyone ready and able to to puncture the doctrinaire claims of Free Trade. For the Utilitarians, conversely, with their own corner to fight in politics, Whigs and Tories were not engaged in a real battle at all, but rather in a tacit conspiracy to uphold aristocratic government. We hear the authentic voice of the Left, with its sneaking preference for the Tories because of their transparency in upholding sinister interests, and its contempt for the opaque sham of Whiggery, Liberalism, social democracy and reformism in all its guises. With ironic inevitability, of course, many philosophical Radicals in time found themselves at the sharp end of this analysis as they approached the threshold of power. Compromise and be compromised, one might say.

The rise and fall of Utilitarianism broaches a larger theme: in some ways the central theme of the book. To be sure, it explicitly calls into doubt ‘both the identification of a unitary, homogeneous Utilitarianism and any assumption of its later disappearance: apart from the various forms which a roughly Benthamite political theory assumed, Hartleian psychology, Austinian jurisprudence and Ricardian political economy all followed somewhat different trajectories.’ This is a point well made and variously substantiated. To this extent, one might say that it was the attack upon Utilitarianism which constituted it as a fully coherent system by explicitly demanding not only what it held but what, on its own principles, it ought to have held. Yet if Utilitarianism fell into this trap, it was a trap which it had helped dig for itself. The deductive method was indeed common to diverse branches of theory, and, combined with Bentham’s mania for system-building, this produced a consistently reductionist pattern of explanation which was vulnerable to subsequent attack.

In many ways political economy provided the paradigm for this sort of reasoning, with its simple premises, its strong logic, and hence its universalising tendency. ‘The laws which regulate the production and distribution of wealth are the same in every country and stage of society,’ proclaimed J.R. McCulloch in 1825. While this proposition won wide assent from philosophic Whigs as well as philosophic Radicals when applied to political economy, the attempt to extend it also to a science of government exposed a sharp line of division between them. James Mill was confident in identifying the self-interest principle as the guiding light in political as in economic behaviour. He could, of course, cite Hume’s apophthegm that in politics every man ought to be supposed a knave, which was a proposition and an authority not likely to be repudiated by his Whig adversaries, like Mackintosh. But the work Mill demanded of it, as a founding axiom, operating without friction or distortion in fashioning civil society, was what really set the Benthamites apart. Their dismissal of history as error of a futile and uninstructive kind was the obverse of their claim to have pioneered a Utilitarian science of politics. Little wonder that Mackintosh’s private opinion of Bentham’s work was terse: ‘Profound – original – useless!’

Brougham said of Ricardo that he addressed the House of Commons like a man ‘from another planet’. When Mill, as it were, brought Ricardo’s methodology to politics, he was accused by Macaulay of speaking as though unaware that ‘any governments actually existed among men.’ Neither Brougham not Macaulay was questioning the need in political reasoning for broad principles, such as Dugald Stewart had upheld. Nor were they personally hostile to the Benthamites: Macaulay mounted the classic attack on Mill’s Essay on Government yet described his History of British India as, ‘on the whole, the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since Gibbon’. The real thrust of Macaulay’s charge was that Mill had lost the historical dimension necessary io understand a society’s political arrangements somewhere on the passage between India and Britain.

Even in the first flush of Benthamite enthusiasm, therefore, there was no consensus on whether a strict Utilitarian schema could comprehend political as well as economic phenomena. John Stuart Mill’s exercises in retrieval in the next generation met with patchy success. He established a secure methodological foundation for political economy by restricting its scientific claims to hypothetical statements of the necessary relations between a series of abstractions. But such a science was far too austere to fulfil the functions for which it had been eagerly embraced in Victorian England, and in completing his Principles of Political Economy Mill expansively plied a broader brush upon a broader canvas. When it came to the study of politics, however, Mill chose to reject the very possibility of constructing a deductive science, rather than merely to hedge the authority of its practical bearings. Perhaps his main reason, apart from an embarrassing sense of the Benthamites’ deficiencies in historical analysis, was that the method of abstraction, as legitimately applied to the economic aspect of certain actions, became an imposture when faced with the complete range of actions covered by the term ‘political’. This did not, needless to say, preclude Mill from writing at length about politics, but in general he did so to applaud the diversity of experience, motives, goals, choice and results which he saw as integral to the activity.

By the time of the younger Mill, therefore, the Utilitarian synthesis in its more ambitious form was in disarray. If it was unsatisfying to Mill, what chance had it of pleasing others, who had not been brought up on it? Back in the club, Bagehot had a fine way of deflating the earnest rhetoric of political rationalists. Where they spoke of the ends of society, Bagehot wearily acknowledged that ‘by stupid industry, a certain social fabric somehow exists.’ Confronted by ‘public opinion’, he visualised it as ‘the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus’, rather in the way that Graham Wallas supplied the image of ‘the tired householder’ some forty years later, treading much the same ground. As is well observed by Burrinchini, ‘part of Bagehot’s immediate motive, in The English Constitution, was to point out that a too crudely utilitarian approach to the constitution might fail to recognise the more recondite functions of its apparently purely ornamental and useless features.’ Bagehot is, in a sense, giving the game away – ‘one feels that some passages should be asterisked, marked pas devant les domestiques’ – though obviously he is not unduly worried about his indiscretions. If this is insider’s information, then – as Gramsci said of Machiavelli – it is mainly the outsiders who need to read about it in books.

This sort of cynical wisdom contrived to make doctrinaire Utilitarianism look gauche, just as the appeal to history was intended to make it sound glib. The historians were certainly serving their own purposes when they claimed to have an indispensable contribution to make. Freeman’s quip that ‘history is past politics and politics are present history’ is a well-known version of the claim. J.R. Seeley displayed a more straightforward effrontery in pressing it in his 1869 inaugural lecture at Cambridge, when he argued from the assertion that history was about politics to the conclusion that ‘everyone, therefore, who studies political institutions, whether in the past or in the present, studies history.’ The age of academic imperialism had clearly begun and expansion was the order of the day. What Seeley and Freeman had discovered as ‘the best clue to the maze of annalistic facts’ was the Comparative Method, a discovery of which they made the most. In Freeman’s hands it was predicated upon a unique pattern of development among an Aryan family of nations, allowing confident extrapolation from the known to the unknown and a sealing of gaps in recorded testimony. By the time Seeley had abandoned the Aryan underpinning, and Bryce had jettisoned the developmental framework, it had become little more than a posh way of saying: ‘what we don’t know, we make up.’

When Utilitarianism was made the subject of attack as a political theory, it was broadly from a conservative direction that criticism came. The work of Sir Henry Maine in advancing a historical account of the evolution from status to contract is a case in point. Habit and custom, as revealed by history, were the forces on which this critique of deductive rationalism depended. Now essentially the same critique could be turned against classical political economy. Jevons conceded in the 1870s that historical investigation ‘may very properly do for political economy what Sir Henry Maine has done for jurisprudence’. Alfred Marshall, always sensitive to a shift in the wind, was not slow to distance himself, and the academic discipline which he kept under his wing, from the alien deductivist taint of Ricardo: ‘the faults and virtues of Ricardo’s mind are traceable to his Semitic origin; no English economist has had a mind similar to his.’ But whereas the critique of deductivism had an ideological purchase of a conservative kind when it was applied to politics, in economics its thrust was subversively radical. In both cases, one might say that the ideological enemy was Mid-Victorian Liberalism, with its complacent pieties of Reform and Free Trade; conversely, that laissez-faire had a comfortable air about it by now, even if ‘one man, one vote’ did not.

The historical economists, notably William Cunningham and William Ashley, asserted the relativism of economic theories and the primacy of politics. In particular, they offered a reappraisal of mercantilism, which had for a century been regarded, through Smith’s spectacles, as little more than a racket in defiance of the public interest. When Ashley demonstrated that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Free Trade was a Tory policy which the Whigs had denounced, he presented pious Liberals with a nice dilemma. Either they must rat on the Whigs (as the agents of sinister interests pitted against the common weal rather than the friendsof the people) or they must rat on Free Trade (which was unthinkable). For Ashley, calling himself an evolutionary socialist, such epiphanies were milestones on a road that led to radical Toryism and Tariff Reform. In politics as in economics, the paradigm of rational individualism did not collapse along with the deductive reasoning which the Utilitarians had used to support it. Instead there was a tendency to limit the damage by remoulding axioms which were vulnerable as universal postulates into pragmatic rules of thumb on which it was safe to rely in practice. Thus Bagehot with one hand dispensed relativism, showing that political economy only applied ‘in a single kind of society – a society of grown-up competitive commerce such as we have in England’. But with the other hand – the hand that counted the change – he set aside his own admission as unimportant: ‘As “men of the world” are the same everywhere, so the great commerce is the same everywhere.’

Too much should not be built upon such a relaxed concession, but in Sidgwick’s case there was a more purposeful rearguard effort at salvage. If Utilitarianism could not be justified a priori – and Sidgwick saw that the game was up here – could it nevertheless be shown that its maxims corresponded to common sense within a society like that of Victorian England? When a reviewer pejoratively concluded that Sidgwick ‘nowhere arrives at any conclusion which would differ very widely from that of the average man of the professional and commercial middle-classes at the present day’, he was also unwittingly endorsing Sidgwick’s project. This ambivalence is well captured in Burrinchini’s comment that Sidgwick ‘uses the method of Bentham to arrive at the conclusions of Burke’, though he could also be said to use the method of Burke to arrive at the conclusions of Bentham. Such works of reconciliation were second nature to Marshall, who headed off the challenge of the historical economists by two shrewd concessions. One was to diminish their enterprise by channelling it towards a new discipline called economic history. The other was to use historical example and argument to give economic man a pedigree. The rational root of customary behaviour was invoked here, and the formative experiences moulding different national characters were given their due (or more than their due). The abstraction of economic man was no longer needed when a judicious reading of history could produce his clone.

By the time of Marshall, Political Science had achieved its place in the syllabus at Cambridge – one of the high points in any triumphalist account. When the great Maitland was dining as a guest at Trinity Hall, the Master referred contempiuously to ‘the little scraps and snips of information which a popular newspaper was in the habit of serving up for its readers’. ‘That,’ said Maitland, ‘is what we call Political Science here.’ Burrinchini’s opinion is less damning but a resolute front against sentiment is maintained to the end: ‘insofar as one can talk of the “legacy” of the 19th-century science of politics to the academic study of politics in the first half of the 20th century, the term is to be understood less as representing a steady accumulation in the family bank balance and more as a collection of heavy, awkward, unfashionable pieces of Victorian furniture bequeathed by several remote and slightly dotty aunts of the same name.’ This is not an inspiring book. It is not a celebration of the activities it records, it is not a tract denouncing them, it is not a manifesto outlining a better way. It is, on the other hand, not only erudite but eloquent in its evocation of the landmarks of a universe of discourse which proves well worth understanding in its own right. The authors begin by telling us how intellectual history should be done, which is salutary: but their real tour de force comes in showing us how it should be done.