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34 Reviews


Two Views of Carol McMillan

Carol McMillan,
Blackwell, 1982


Reason and Nature, Basil

Carol McMillan’s book grew, as she explains, out of
an M.Phil thesis written at Kings College, London,
and she acknowledges a debt to Peter Winch. I find
her book interesting both because I think it locates
some areas in feminist thinking which have been
problematic, and because it seems to me to be a
clear statement of the implications of a Winchian
view of society and culture for the way we should
think about women.

McMillan starts by discussing the concept of
reason, and the relationship between women and reason, that has been assumed in a great deal of philosophy. Philosophers such as Simmel and Hegel have
supposed, as she puts it, that there are
two different theories of knowledge for
the human species, that there is a rational
and a priori basis to the fact that certain
pursuits are peculiarly masculine and others
are peculiarly feminine, which can be justified
by talk about masculine and feminine natures

She points out that Hegel’s view that it is
necessary for the human spirit to give up its natural
harmony with nature (and the natural tendency towards
subjectivism and egoism that this implies) is premised on a sharp distinction between, on the one hand,
the natural or instinctive level of feelings, and on
the other, the realm of the rational or the ethical.

But it is additionally supposed that it is only men
who are capable of living at the rational-ethical
level; women are not capable of grasping the universal or rational principles on which true knowledge is
based. Thus she quotes Hegel as follows:

Women are capable of education, but they are not
made for activities which demand a universal
faculty such as the more advanced sciences,
philosophy and certain forms of artistic
production …. Women are educated – who knows
how? – as it were by breathing in ideas, by
living rather than acquiring knowledge. The
status of manhood, on the other hand, is
attained only by the stress of thought and
much technical exertion.

(Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox, aup,
1973, pp.263-64)

If, she says, one accepts this sharp distinction
between the ‘natural’ level of feeling and intuition
and the ‘universal’ realm of the rational, and relegates women to the former, then it will follow that
those activities in which women have particularly
engaged, which are centred on the family and childrearing and domestic life, are likely themselves to
be regarded as ‘natural’ or ‘intuitive’, and as not
requiring rationality for their pur~uit. This is
indeed what happens in Hegel, who regards ‘public’

life as a citizen of the state as the only realm in
which rationality can be exercised, and unity with
the Idea achieved. McMillan points out that there is
a long tradition, going right back to the Greeks, of
distinguishing between ‘public’ and ‘private’ life;
of regarding the latter as ‘natural’ or ‘biological’,
because it is seen as shared with other animals, and
as incapable of providing for the exercise of fully
human capacities.

Feminists have of course criticized this view of
women as irrational or intuitive beings; but McMillan
shows that some of them have misguidedly rested their
feminist objections on the same assumption, namely
that one can, in human life, distinguish between what
is ‘biological’ or ‘animal’ and what is fully or
distinctively human. She quotes Kate Millett, for
example, who says this:

In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic
service and attendance upon infants to the
female, and the rest of human achievement,
interest and ambition to the male. The limited
role allotted the female tends to arrest her at
the level of biological experience. Therefore,
nearly all that can be described as distinctly
human rather than animal activity (in their own
way animals also give birth and care for their
young) is largely reserved for the male.

(Sexual Politics, p.26)
McMillan, rightly I think, wishes to oppose these
distinctions between reason and feeling and between
the biological and the distinctively human.

Firstly she points out that the sexual and domestic
life of a woman (and of course of men too) takes
place in a social context, against a background of
beliefs and social practices which can in no way be
regarded as ‘natural’ if by that is meant simply
dictated by biology.

Secondly she argues that ‘reason’ is not a faculty
tha t is supenrrrpos ed on an ‘an imal ‘ j ‘nature. Human
reason operates, not in contradistinction from

supposedly animal faculties or needs, but through the
way in which these enter into human life.

Thirdly she argues that ‘Feeling’ itself in human
beings involves cognition and understanding, and the
notion that the realm of the ethical excludes feelings is at least partly based on a misunderstanding
of the nature of feelings.

Fourthly she argues that many views of rationality
falsely equate it with abstract theorizing, or with
the ability to develop explicit laws and theories.

There are types of knowledge, such as those involved
in the practice of a craft, or in child-rearing,
which cannot be formalised in terms of explicit rules
or laws or precepts; they should not, however, for
that reason be regarded as ‘intuitive’ in an individualistic sense, since they equally depend on social
context, on learning, on knowledge of an intimate and
complex sort.

It is therefore a mistake to suppose that women
can only demonstrate their rationality by abstract

It is more to the point, therefore, to show, not
that women too can excel in scientific activities,
but that science is not an absolute gauge of
what counts as knowledge. It is necessary to
see that insistence on the argument that women
must be given access to scientific study in order
to display their intellectual prowess only
nourishes the soil in which prejudice against
women first finds root; it does not destroy it.


Now I would entirely agree that activities other
than science involve knowledge and rationality. I
think, however, that it is important to show not
simply that women are rational, but that they aan do
science, aan theorize as well as men. I also think
it is important to consider the reasons why women
have been so largely excluded from science, which
seem to me to be more than just ‘prejudice’ based on
a conceptual misunderstanding about the nature of
rationality. The fact that McMillan does not mention
these things is indicative of the direction her arguments subsequently take; and that direction begins to
emerge in the way she develops a distinction between
types of knowledge. She says:

If one remembers that until very recently the
bearing and rearing of children was insisted
upon as the peculiar destiny of women, it is
no mere accident or silly prejudice that women
have been inhibited from learning to respond to
and deal with situations at the level of the
rational and the universal. Indeed it is
crucial that, for the most part, women are
taught to think at the level of the particular
and the effective because the relationship
between mother and child is a relationship
between two individual human beings ….

Disastrously however, these ways of thinking
and acting are being continually eroded by the
wholesale emphasis in our society on methods
and procedures appropriate to spheres of
activities dominated by scientific method,
technology and productivity goals.


Women’s difficulties as mothers have been exacerbated because
… they are taught to focus attention exclusively
on methods which are alien to and counterproductive in the concerns and responsibilities
they face in their relations with their children.

What has happened here is that the distinction,
earlier criticised and condemned, between reason and
intuition, has been reinstated, although in a different guise; namely of a sort of apartheid of ‘types’

of rationality, equal but different. Rationality I

is the scientific theorizing sort; Rationality 2 is
the sort which is non-formalizable, involves the
learning of ‘traditions’ etc. Furthermore it is
clearly suggested that there is something problematia
about women engaging in the first sort; it may make
them less fit for motherhood.

The reasons for this direction in McMillan’s argument become clear when we look at what she says in
the later part of the book, in which her reliance on
Winch is most obvious.

She argues that feminists have been mistaken in
supposing that to reject biology as the grounds for
role differentiation between men and women is to
destroy the foundations of any such justifiable
differentiation. Feminists have insisted that being
a woman is a social and cultural matter rather than a
simply biological one, but they have not grasped the
significance of this. ‘The fact that our notion of
femininity is a culturally biased one does not, in
itself, destroy the legitimacy of the notion’ (p.59).

Why is this? What McMillan then does is to apply
to the question of female nature and femininity the
notion of a ‘way of life’, as developed by Peter
Winch in The idea of a soaial saienae. Female
nature and femininity have meaning within a way of
life; if we are puzzled about them, we should turn
for elucidation not to biology, nor to history or
anthropology, but to a study of the ‘internal relations’ which obtain between the things which we call
masculine or feminine. Feminists, McMillan argues,
are wrong to suppose that the notions we have of
female nature or femininity serve to maintain
power relationships between the sexes; they are
wrong to see sex roles as instruments of oppression,
or socialization as coercive. They are wrong
because they have confused pOWer with authority;
they have identified rules with aoeraion. Rather,
she says, the existence of a way of life is
dependent on the notion of rules, of cor~ect ways of
doing things, of authority and of tradition. Such
things are not, as feminists think, incompatible with
freedom; they are preconditions of what it means to
be social, to be part of a culture, and to see them
as oppressive is a serious epistemological mistake.

If there is such a thing as illegitimately claimed
authority, or power disguised as authority, this is
to be decided by looking at the conceptual criteria
for what counts as ‘authority’ and seeing if they
have been transgressed.

In Ethias and Aation, however, Winch also talked
about what he called the ‘limiting notions’, that any
conception of human life must involve; in particular,
those of birth, death and sexual relations. These
are things which must inevitably enter into any ‘way
of life’ and occupy a central place among its institutions and practices. What I think McMillan does is
to use both the idea of a ‘way of life’ and the idea
of ‘limiting notions’ in a way that ends up by
simply providing another version of an attempted
legitimation of the necessary link between sex and
reproduction and of women’s place in the home as

She argu~~ that feminists have ignored or evaded
the issues thrown up by the human facts of birth and
child-rearing. A particular target of her attack is
Shulamith Firestone, who in The Dialeatia of Sex
argued that pregnancy was ‘barbaric’ and that human
birth should be replaced by artificial reproduction;
and that all existing forms of child care and relationships with children were oppressive. ‘~~at adults
should do is as far as possible leave children alone,
and replace forms of care in which exclusive or
intimate relationships were involved with ‘communal
responsibility’ for children. HcMillan also quotes
de Beauvoir, who, like Firestone, sees women’s

bodies and biology as intrinsically a handicap,
something to be escaped from.

Now I think that her selection of feminist views
to discuss is somewhat selective, and unrepresentative of many other strands in feminist thinking which
would not at all agree with Firestone. I think,
however, that she is right to dislike what Firestone
says, and to suggest that sometimes the needs of
children have not been adequately discussed by feminists, and that it is wrong to suppose that pregnancy
and motherhood are merely oppressive for all women.

Firestone’s Utopia of technologized reproduction
strikes me too as repellent (Hd1illan says that she
writes as if reproduction were like any other form
of production); and her assumption that some illdefined form of communal responsibility will solve
the problem of child care seems to me to be illconsidered. I believe that there is evidence that
children, especially in their earliest years, need a
basis or core of what can be called ‘primary care’;
namely, close and continuous personal and strongly
affective relationships with a small number of well
known others, and that without such relationships
childrens’ sense of self and subsequent social relationships may be severely damaged. (This is argued
by many people, such as Rutter: ‘~.faternal deprivation
re-assessed’, and Chodorow: ‘The reproduction of
What HcMillan does, however, is to assume that
this primary care must be centrally or exclusively
provided by the biological mother. She argues
(following Rousseau) that the consequences of their
sex are wholly unlike for men and women. There is a
necessary asymmetry between the lives of men and
women, simply because women give birth to and nurse
children and men do not. Feminists have, she thinks,
tried wrongly to deny or evade this central difference. They have not seen that women necessarily
have primary responsibility for child care, and that
this is not oppressive, but simply an inevitable fact
given the human fact of birtH. So, rather than try
to deny this, we should recognise and support this
role of women. Thus she sees it as misguided to
suppose that things like legislation for equality at
work, or for retention of employment after maternity
leave, are progressive; they are rather oppressive
and retrogressive, since they ignore’ … the inevitable modifications that must be made to the mother infant relationship – for example bottlu-feeding
instead of breast feeding, nursery care instead of a
mother’s individual attention’. Work outside the
home, she says, necessarily excludes children, and to
suppose that women should participate in it on equal
terms with men simply devalues women’s own sphere of
activity, and puts them under an extra burden.

She also sees it as a human fact that sex is
linked to procreation; those who suppose that contraception or abortion are contributory to women’s freedom are failing to see this central feature of human
life; those who oppose contraception or abortion
show greater understanding of the needs of women and
children and of the role of sex and conception in
human life, and the need for the women to be free to
be mothers in the way that best suits their nature.

What McMillan does is to assume that the primary
care or parenting that children need should be provided by the biological mother. To oppose her view,
it is not necessary, as she misleadingly does, to see
the only alternative as a technologized world of artificial reproduction or communal child care in institutionalized or impersonal settings. It is true that
women give birth and lactate and men do not. I also
believe it to be true that children need personal and
intimate care as a basis for their lives from a few
well-known others (though if this is provided, there

is also no reason to suppose that children suffer
from nursery care). But it does not follow from
these that it is necessarily best, either for mothers
or children, that child care should remain an
exclusively maternal responsibility for years, or
that mothers are best advised not to participate in
activities or employment outside the home. McMi1lan
never considers other possibilities; for example the
possibility that structures of work might be modified
so that it would be easier for fathers, for example,
to participate in the processes of primary care, or
for nursing mothers to continue to nurse and retain
contact with their infants whilst active in other
things. She never considers the possibility of small
scale shared parenting, say, among small groups of
men or women, which preserves continuity and affective relationships but is not at all exclusively the
preserve of the biological mother.

What really happens in McMillan’s book is that
nature (in the guise of biology) is expelled, only to
be reinstated (in the guise of culture). Culture
becomes nature; we are inside a ‘way of life’, and
to understand our nature and role as female we can
only appeal to the internal relations between femininity and other concepts; and of course, in these
internal relations sexuality is often seen as linked
to procreation, primary parenting is seen as the concern of mothers alone, women’s work outside the home
is seen as a problem. If we wish to talk about
questions of power or oppression these are ruled out
of order, since they are based on conceptual confusion about the nature of authority, rules and ways of
life, and since the internal relations governing the
concept of our nature as women debar us from asking
them. And to close the circle, we can appeal to
these ‘limiting notions’ of birth, sex and death;
since, however, they enter into different cultures
in different ways, and since we can only evaluate
these ways by internal criteria, there’is no way
left in which we can challenge their validity.

However, it is interesting to note that although
McMillan does not think it is in order to talk about
oppression if we wish to see women as oppressed by
current sex roles, it is in order to talk about
oppression if we are discussing the challenging of
sex roles. On a number of occasions McMillan refers
to such things as legislation for equality as
oppressive since it denies or tries to evade what
she sees as the human facts of women’s nature. And
this is related to the way in which she sees a way of
life as being eroded. (Thus mothers’ capacities for
childcare are said to be eroded by their participation in inappropriate other spheres.) The notion of
the erosion of a way of life seems to imply a
(mythical) past when all was well. l’lays of life,
however, do not apparently have a history, so to
understand femininity we need to look at internal
relations and not at anthropology or history, says
McMillan. Here we have Winch’s view of the Azande
transposed; they have a ‘way of life’ which has a
timeless past which we do need to investigate historically to understand, and which we can understand
simply by asking questions about internal relations
in the magical concepts they use, without needing to
investigate whether these concepts are perhaps used
or exploited by those who have power over others or
are able to oppress them. What becomes clear from
McMi1lan’s book is the way in which Winchian forms of
analysis do not merely refuse to ask historical or
political questions, but by so doing seek to validate
what are seen as ‘ways of life’ in a way that is
itself political.

Jean Grimshaw


Carol McMillan,


Reason and Nature

More than one feminist will begin Carol McMillan’s
book with interest and admiration for her insights
into the history of rationality. She argues that
reason, from Socrates to the present day, has been
defined by men whose main concern is to distinguish
between animals and human beings. Science, and
philosophy, were taken as models of rational activity.

Woman, with her ability to bear and suckle children,
is an obvious reminder of humanity’s link with the
animal world. Women are therefore less capable of
reason than men. McMillan refutes this, and argues
that traditional female occupations such as childcare and home management do require the exercise of
the rational faculties.

She goes on to describe femininity and society as
‘internally related’. By this she means that it is
impossible to have a concept of the ‘essential woman’~
of woman-as-she-would-be, if it weren’t for the
influence of the society of which she is a part. She
notes that we are formed by our socialization: our
socialization is integral to our self-perception.

Now comes the first astonishing statement:

‘Feminists assume that our notion of femininity can
be legitimate only if it is totally independent of
any cultural bias’ (p.62).

From this startling premise, the argument moves
rapidly from the bad – misdescription of the feminist
position – to the worse – identifying women and
motherhood – and finishes with the worst – advocating
that woman, therefore, exercise her reason by ‘humbly
accepting her suffering’ (p.14l).

Fortunately, accepting the insights of the first
part of her book does not entail accepting her conclusions. Indeed, I shall argue it entails their

Contrary to McMillan’ s strange characterizp.tion of
feminists, I think most would accept that femininity
and society are internally related. Without going
into philosophical controversy, the description
‘internally related’ requires, at minimum, the
thesis that the ‘fact’ – in this case, femininity cannot be understood independently from the ‘context’

– in this case, social.

What is the appropriate social context here? I
would suggest the availability of contraception, and,
in Britain, the agreement (at least in principle) to
equality of opportunity. McMillan’s context is a

vlslon of ‘a celebration of Life’ (her italics), ‘the
sensuous, passionate, pulsating, vibrant life that
pours forth between two lovers in sexual union and
a celebration of the life that may burst forth and
flourish should the man’s seed be fertilized by the
woman’ (p.154).

Now this is not a vision of modern society many of
us will recognise as definitive. McMillan may want
to argue that a context offering contraception and
equal opportunities is rotten and ought to be changed;
but this is a different argHIDent. As someone trying
to describe what it means to be female in this
society she has, for a vast number of women, failed.

This propensity to generalise inappropriately is
noticeable again when she expresses her wish for a
return to genuine family life; that utopian past
where all women were mothers, all mothers had husbands, all the husbands had jobs, and furthermore,
all the mums and dads and babies had lovely houses
with big gardens in caring communities. When was

Having described her very individual vision of
what the internal relation between femininity and
society amounts to, McMillan then argues it must be
maintained. It must be maintained because the roots
of our particular socialization lie in the ‘passive
givens of human existence’ (p.88). These are women’s
ability to bear and suckle children.

This makes a nonsense of her own first argument.

By stressing the ‘internal relation’ she has
accepted that there is no absolute division between
the description of a fact, and that fact’s significance.

If the context changes, the description of
the fact changes too. There is an important sense
in which the ‘fact of being a woman’ in 20th-century
Britain is radically different from the ‘fact of
being a woman’ 2000 years ago. So when McMillan
continues with ‘given the reality of the constraints
that biological facts impose on the lives of women’

(p.123), we must ask whiah ‘facts’: the ability to
conceive; the ability to refrain from conception;
the ability to kill, or abandon her young; the
ability to nurse children other than her own?

Similarly, when she makes a distinction between
‘social and natural facts’ (p.l08), we must ask
where these natural facts have appeared from; and
why, after her own first arguments, are they
allowed to remain?

Amy Hardie

The Big ‘0’

Stephen Heath, The Sexual, Fix, Macmillan, 1982,
£12.95 hc, £4.95 pb
There are a number of influential analyses around of
19th-century attitudes to sex, going back to the
notable The Other Viatorians by Stephen Marcus. In
various ways these have catalogued the remarkable
burgeoning of interest in sex as a problem then; the
evolution of the category of sexuality. This little
book (little, despite its price) is significant
because of the bold, and often very funny, way it

tries to bring the matter up to date, by studying
20th-century ‘sexuality’.

In a sense, it is always easier to study ideological issues 100 years ago (or even 30 – compare the
ease of the Left over the ending of Imperial rule over
India, with attitudes to the Falklands). The politics
have been largely left behind. Stephen Heath is prepared to grab the political nettle. In what ways is
the mushrooming of sexual discourse liberating, and
in what senses is it a transformed but still continuous version of Victorian medical models?

His general ease – and I found it very convincing is that our recent fascination with Orgasm (capital 0
being an absolute necessity) is a restored form of
reactionary ideology. Sex manuals are like a set of
mandates instructing us, both men and women, on how
to be truly normal, how to be complete human beings.

As Heath says, in the most ‘radical’ discourses, anything goes – as long as it is sexuality. Every
position, every variation, every pleasure really
ought to be tried. And he wittily reveals the way
medical terminology – even if not as mechanical now
as the 19th-century obsessions with spermatorrhoea and
hysteria – underpins the prescribing pressure for
‘healthy’ relations between, of course, privatised

The book is an essay, and claims to be no more
than that. Its limits are just that. It is very
stimulating in trying to do for modern ideologies of
sex what has been well-documented for the last cent~
ury. And I think it was important to show, as has
been shown for Victorian times, that attitudes to
homosexuality (indeed the very oategory ‘homosexual’),
to women, to population, and to sexual pleasure are
all jigsawed together. His work offers a line of
linkage between recent discussions in the women’s
movement, the gay movement, and so on, by showing
that the very concept of sexuality in which so much
discussion is cast is itself a problem concept.

But being an essay, it is also slightly frustrating. Why does he not even mention the other studies,
on the 19th century? Does he see himself as arguing
the same thesis as Foucault, or not? It’s not clear,

and I would like to know. And for his main discussion, I am left puzzled at some points as to whether
there is any kind of discussion of sexual experience
that is not tainted with the ideological problems he
depicts. After he has stuck his barbs in the sexologists (conservative, radical, middle-of-the-road),
the psychoanalysts, the novelists, the journalists,
and the feminists, I am a bit confused as to whether
I should ever mention having/achieving an orgasm
(which is the safest verb to use, I wonder?)
Also I am a bit bewildered (actually, not only in
Heath’s essay) at the geography of it all. Victorian
Britain provides virtually all the evidence for the
19th century, and yet there is no hesitation about
chasing to Vienna to see Freud (refuelling at various
points on the way), to be back in time for D.H.

Lawrence~ and then off to the USA (in time for bed,
one is tempted to say) for modern developments from
Kinsey onwards. If he is arguing that sexology has
its own developmental logic, it may not matter. But
since I think he is saying that it is a refraction of
capitalism through various stages of commodity fetishism, the historical geography feels a bit random. Is
he so sure that Victorian Britain was a ‘typical’

capitalist country? And if it was, what was Vienna
typical of? These will be important questions, I
think, if his essay is to be developed as it deserves.

Gripes apart, I enjoyed the essay immensely. And
it is such a pleasure to be able to understand something Heath has written, apart from anything else.

Martin Barker

The Other Simone de Beauvoir

Anne Whitmarsh, Simone de Beauvoir and the Limits of
Commitment, Cambridge University Press, £14.50 hc
Simone de Beauvoir writes in a raw and defenceless
way that invites condescension: she presents herself
as derivative, ineffectual and, of course, subordinate to Sartre. The self-presentation should be
questioned, however. The Seaond Sex, in particular,
which came out in 1949, is still the best philosophical examination of sexual difference; indeed it is the
only comprehensive one. It deals plainly with the
difficulties of articulating a theory of gender with
biology, psychology and social history respectively,
presenting its main theme – that the categories of
masculinity and femininity are asymmetrical – as a
sort of synthesis of all three. De Beauvoir’s
originality would be more adequately recognised if
this work was not continually reduced to the famous
‘woman as other’ thesis, and if there was a ban on
the words ‘Sartre’ and ‘existentialism’ in expositions
of it.

I hope Anne Whitmarsh’s book may encourage a juster
estimate. It is an unpartisan literary and political
biography, drawn from de Beauvoir’s published works.

Correctly, Whitmarsh points out how de Beauvoir’s
perception, in The Ethias of Ambiguity (1946), that
‘others open the future to me’ led her into fields of
inquiry that stayed closed to Sartre’s existentialism.

But unfortunately Whitmarsh perpetuates the se1fconfirming orthodox method of interpretation: ‘If we
want to know what Simone de Beauvoir thinks,’ she
writes, ‘ … then we must as usual go to Sartre for
a coherent answer’ (p.87) – as if de Beauvoir’s
failure to mimic Sartre’s ready replies could not be
based on sound positive reasons.

This may explain Whitmarsh’s treatment of de
Beauvoir’s feminism as a jejune foible, ‘dear to her
heart’ (p.106) – she discusses The Seaond Sex only
briefly, and out of sequence at the end of the book.

She gives similar short shrift to de Beauvoir’s
combination of a commitment to socialism with an
~lienation from politics: for Whitmarsh, this is
merely testimony that de Beauvoir is ‘an intensely
private person’ (p.130). De Beauvoir’s philosophies
of politics and gender deserve to be taken more

Jonathan R6e


I Other Reviews

• • •


Bacon, Carlyle, Engels, Machiavelli, Pascal in the
Oxford University Press ‘Past Hasters’ Series
Sets of books, especially those by different authors,
are generally depressing and monotonous. Books, like
people, are better alone and out of uniform. There
is something peculiar and faintly distasteful in
encountering Galileo in the company of Pascal and
Aristotle. Or to find Carlyle dressed up like
Augustine and Aquinas. Darwin, one feels, ought to
be tall and dignified, with wide margins; Montaigne
smaller, graceful, intimate; Adam Smith clear and
prosaic …. Instead, we are offered for sale anyone
who was anyone (and was male) got up in musty brown
paper and garishly decorated in greens, yellows and
pinks. It’s the kind of treatment Novosti Press in
Moscow reserve for their intellectual supermen.

Ours surely deserve better.

Actually, apart from their looks, this procession
of books is bound to impress the readership it is
designed to capture (‘sixth-formers, general readers,
undergraduates and other tertiary students’, the
editor of the series says). The reason is simple
enough: every volume is cheap and brief; moreover,
each is respectable enough to pass off as the Real
Thing. Sixth-formers etc. who think Darwin in some
vague way important but imagine his Origin of
Species to be hopelessly longwinded are bound to
relish Jonathan Howard’s efforts to summarize the
arguments he presented. Those who think Marxism may
be worth getting to know but don’t relish the
Militant’s path to knowledge will find Peter Singer’s
philosophical rendering more pleasant (and accurate).

Each of the books in this series, it will be
gathered, deals with important questions. They all
wear the air of boldly offering a positive solution
to the perennial problem of reading. No lengthy
footnotes or foreign quotations, lots of short
chapters and subdivisions, a modest little reading
list, the friendly prefatory portrait, the conclusion
that ties up the loose ends … these books may not
be intended as substitutes, but it is inevitable
that this is how they will figure in the future. And
who will complain when they take up place on reading
lists and on bookshelves? the authors? the publisher?

the reader?

It is a pity that the essay genre has been
eclipsed, for this would have provided a better mould
for the authors to have worked in. As it is, they
are just as easily forgotten, just as temporary. To
have lasted in the minds of readers, these books
would have had to have been much more substantial,
more difficult and involved. Only books that are
read with pencil in hand and read again, books that
we have had to struggle with, are likely to dwell.

It is rare for a book that has been ‘highly readable’

or written in a ‘delightfully informal way’ to be
important, for important books do not yield easily
but have to be conquered.


In seeking to simplify and introduce, the books in
this series run the risk of betraying their subject
matters. This places an important responsibility on
authors and publishers alike: they have a duty to
convey their ideas lucidly, openly and fairly. It
has always been much easier to argue a particular
point than to present an introduction to a thinker,
for the latter requires the author to rise above the
subject to ask genuinely fresh questions which are
nonetheless central.

In the brief reviews that follow, the books have
been assessed according to the above criteria and,
where it is thought necessary, alternative introductory material has been suggested. In judging the
texts it is well to bear in mind the high aims the
series sets itself as well as the kind of influence
it anticipates wielding. In a note to authors, the
General Editor of the series, Henry Hardy, writes as

Past Masters is a series of short, authoritative
paperbacks on leading intellectual figures of the
past whose ideas still influence the way we think
today. They offer non-specialists aild ·students
straightforward descriptions of the ideas of
their subjects … and explain their originality
and importance. The intention is to publish works
of real distinction which are also accessible and
lucid enough to win a wide general readership.

CarZyZe, A.L. Le Quesne, 1982, £1.25
The central problem that faces Le Quesne is that of
justifying Carlyle’s claim to ‘greatness’, for it is
difficult to see which of his ideas still influence
thinkers today. In fact, having bypassed totally the
socially radical aspects of Carlyle’s work in favour
of seeing him merely as ‘one of the central figures
of English Romanticism’ (p.34), Le Quesne finds himself drawn into reproducing just those elements of
Carlyle’s thought which relegate him to a distant
past. Imagination, which is used here as the pivotal
concept in the book, is a capricious faculty which,
while it sheds powerful light on its immediate
objects, finds it difficult to keep them in focus as
they develop through time. Carlyle emerges as a
fascinating, volatile figure but one who was irredeemably sloppy and incoherent.

There is certainly some truth in this kind of
portrait but his role as a thinker must surely cede
to his influence as a ‘prophet’ – and not quite the
ephemeral prophet Le Quesne offers us, the mixture of
John the Baptist, German Idealism and Old Testament
morality. It is as the prophet of the Age of
Hachinery that Carlyle had most influence, but it was
his misfortune to have directed thinkers who would
subsequently move away from him – Harx is a case in
point. Studied alone and apart from his disciples,

Carlyle is a slight figure to contemplate. As Arthur
Hugh Clough put it, ‘Carlyle has led us out of the
desert – and has left us there’ (quoted, p.82).

Compared to such thinkers as Mill, Ruskin and l1arx he
left nothing to the permanent stock of ideas. It is
rather through such thinkers that his kind of moral
criticism of social conditions and literary pamphlet
eering can be felt even to this day.

This book cannot stand comparison with Raymond
Will iams , Cul-ture and Society as a general treatment
of Carlyle’s work, nor can it really substitute for
firsthand knowledge of his writings. These are
easily available in secondhand editions in the
Everyman Library and a useful selection is Thomas
Carlyle: Selected Writings, issued by Penguin.

Mike Short land

Pascal, Alban Krailsheimer, 1980, 95p
The central thesis running through this original
study is that, although in a general way Pascal’s
life is inseparable from his work, the habits of mind
originally acquired in scientific work persisted
after his conversion once Pascal turned his attention
to religious study. Broadly speaking, the current
view is that Pascal’s renouncement of mathematical
and physical investigations entailed a flight from
reason, and even sense. The historian of mathematics
E.T. Bell, for example, remarks that until his
conversion at the age of 24 Pascal and his family had
been ‘decently enough devout’; after this episode,
‘they all seem to have gone mildly insane’ (Men of
Mathematics, London, 1965, I, p.85).

Three centuries after the event there still seems
much to be said in favour of this opinion. Pascal
had always been frail; he now became acutely dyspeptic, began to suffer attacks of paralysis and became
a chronic inspmniac. He was subject to deepening
hypochondria, to fits of proud and imperious anger
and had to bear continual and often agonising pain.

Rather than seek treatment for this suffering,
Pascal renounced all help. Part of the conversion
entailed the belief that sickness was an advantage,
‘because in this condition we are as we ought to be;
that is, in suffering, despondent, deprived of all
the pleasures and the good of the senses’ (quoted
by Pascal’s sister in her ‘Vie de Monsieur Pascal’ ,
in Oeuvres Completes, Paris, 1954, p.32). This
rejection of sensuous life appears to offer
strong support for the existence of a sharp break
between the early ‘scientific’ Pascal and the later
Pascal of the Pensees, between the Pascal who aimed
to know nature by subduing it and the Pascal who
could only sacrifice himself before the world.

Krailsheimer’s case rests upon the reading of a
short scientific and methodological Preface Pascal
wrote in 1651 to an unfinished and lost treatise on
the vacuum. The claim is that these few pages establish ‘an unbroken chain between his scientific and
religious work by giving a first version of the
theory of orders’ (p.2l). This theory involves the
distinction between different kinds of knowledge,
essentially three, depending on the subject under
investigation, and also the claim that the appeal to
authority is as misguided in physics as the appeal to
reason or senses is in theology. Each order – authority, reason, senses – is autonomous in its own domain
and not arranged in any hierarchy of excellence.

‘The continuity of this triple division’, Krailsheimer
writes, ‘so radically different from Descartes’ dualism of mind and matter and the unchallenged supremacy

of reason, is unmistakable and basic to an understanding of Pascal’s life and thought’ (pp.25-26).

After such a promising start, it must be said that
this biographical study rapidly deteriorates; the
line of enquiry which should have been followed
through is quickly ditched in favour of an accurate,
if rather banal, summary of Pascal’s views on man as
a thinking reed, on the hidden God, on dogmatism and
skepticism and on the corruption of human nature
after the fall. Science is little mentioned and, as
far as I could make out, the theory of orders figures
not at all. In the conclusion Krailsheimer can only
offer the evidence of Pascal’s ‘gift of abstract
thought’ (p.76) to bridge the gap in his life and the
gulf that separates us from him. It is difficult to
recommend this study not because it seems misguided
but because it seems unargued. With Morris Bishop’s
little volume of selections from Pascal’s writings
now out of print and Mesnard’s Pascal, His Life and
Works looking very dated, it does seem as if this
will have to serve till something considerably more
thorough and inclusive appears in print.

Mike Shortland

Engels, Terrell Carver, 1981, £1.25
To write an account of Engels’ ideas in separation
from those of Marx can never be an entirely innocent
exercise, however objective the attempt. In his role
as populariser and disseminator of Marx’s thought,
Engels’ more systematic formulations have sedimented
into Marxist orthodoxy. Given that l,farx is usually
seen as the ultimate authority, to suggest that
Engels’ interpretation of Marx is only one of several
possible glosses is to invite controve~sy.

Carver traces similarities in Marx’s and Engels’

careers and thoughts before they met. He describes
the utility of the partnership – especially for Harx and Engels’ acceptance of the role as junior partner.

He also traces the limits of their cooperation to
show what he considers to be Engels’ separate development. Credit is given to Engels on a number of
points: the rigour of his historical work, his work
on volumes one and two of ‘Capital’, his exploration
of the early Marx, his sincerity in his efforts to
represent Marx’s thought. Nevertheless, Carver sees
Engels as a (self-confessed) intellectual inferior to
Marx. This is shown by his propensity to be a more
indiscriminate follower of intellectual fashion, and
his insensitive gloss on much of Narx’s subtlest

Marxism has never been a static body of ideas. It
has had a history of development, usually precipitated by its application to different historical and
social contexts up to the present day. Carv~r’s book
provides a useful starting point for the student to
explore the history of Harxism as many of the
theoretical issues that are still contentious today
first emerged from the tension created between the
work of Marx and the Marxism of Engels.

1.J. WassaIl

Maahiavelli, Quentin Skinner, 1981, £1.25
Machiavelli as the devilish, back-stabbing villain is
a familiar figure of political rhetoric. ‘Great
politicians,’ said Gramsci, ‘start off by denouncing

Machiavelli, by declaring themselves to be antiMachiavellian precisely in order to be able to put
his standards “piously” into practice’ (Prison
Notebooks, London, 1971, pp.134-35). This volume
offers a very welcome corrective to this picture, not
so much by direct counter as by balancing the statements in The Prince against the more liberal, republican views expressed in the Discourses.

Skinner states that the purpose of the historian
is to ‘serve as a recording angel not a hanging
judge’ (p.SS), yet he can’t refrain from displaying
his real respect and admiration for the subtlety of
Machiavelli’s political theory and historical acumen.

He painstakingly dissects different meanings of
virtU and fortuna – all too often translated simply
as ‘prowess’ and ‘circumstance’ – but with the
result that each term escapes the kind of redefinition Skinner tries to foster upon it. Machiavelli
is firmly placed against the humanist background, but
again the fit is possibly too easy. There is some
debate about whether Machiavelli ever studied at
Florence University, whether he learnt Greek, and
whether early cultural influences were decisive upon
his political thinking. So to speak, as Skinner does,
of the humanist background ‘explaining’ events in
Machiavelli’s life is too loose and unconvincing.

There are useful discussions of Machiavelli’ s
attitudes towards militias and mercenaries, though
more passages might have been given over to a discussion of The Art of War. Nonetheless, Skinner has
moved elegantly and easily within the narrow confines
of the series. Whilst it is disappointing that
little is said concerning the relations of ‘immoral’

means to ‘moral’ ends, about Machiavelli’s literary
style, and about his political nomenclature, the
book as a whole is one of the highlights of the
series. It is original, intriguing, and finely

Mike Short land

Bacon, Anthony Quinton, 1980, £1.25
Anthony Quinton’s book is a concise and clearly
written portrait. It will add nothing to the
specialist scholarly debate on Bacon, but it does
offer a fairly balanced view of his work and significance that should serve as an excellent foreword
to his writings. Quinton adopts a critical stance
midway between two extreme positions. By implication, he rebuffs the claim of Alexandre Koyr~ that
Bacon was historically irrelevant. To hold to this
position is to underestimate greatly his importance
as an ideological weapon both in the hands of the
Royal Society and the Philosophes of the French
Enlightenment. To assert the opposite view, that
Bacon was the Founding Father of modern science, is
to adhere to a naive ‘Great Man’ history of science
that is little more than a myth of origin.

Quinton is no apologist for Bacon, but he does
attempt to account for his unpleasant character and
notoriously bad judgements on contemporaneous matters
of science by setting him in context, rather than to
interpret and judge his ideas solely from the privileged vantage point of late 20th-century science.

Bacon’s importance is seen to lie in his rejection
of a number of deeply rooted obstacles to the emergence of a rational and empirical science, rather
than as a positive contributor to the progress of
science itself. And it is in clearing away the
metaphysical and scholastic undergrowth that he was
led into his most serious blunders; his disregard for
mathematics, for example, was largely due to

associating it with occultism, numerology and astrology. Unfortunately for his later reputation he
chose William Gilbert and the theory of magnetism as
an example of mysticism caused by precipitate
speculation. Nevertheless, in his works as a whole
he amalgamated and gave expression to many of the
novel ideas and tendencies that led to a new conception of Nature and knowledge, and its concomitant
reverberations in social, economic and political

Bacon spoke out against the old scholasticism,
the more contemporary, vague and unsystematised
Humanism, and all forms of mysticism and occultism.

In their place he defended a science that was
intended to be independent of religion, and subject
to its own rules and methods. This was to be a
knowledge not merely for idle contemplation and selfedification, but a tool that enables mankind to
actively dominate and manipulate nature in order to
improve itself. This important idea of progress and
improvement by active intervention was at odds with
scholastic teachings and possibly represents Bacon’s
major contribution towards the breakup of the constraints of medieval thought.

He was, then, both a spokesman for his time and a
pioneer attempting to transcend it, a difficult
double role to perform at the dawn of a new age,
which makes it anachronistic to blame him for not
being able to extricate himself entirely from the
traditions and influences he was trying to deny.

Dickson claims (in ‘Science and Political Hegemony
in the 17th Century’, R.S.J. No.S, 1979) that Bacon
supplied a metaphor, in his ‘New Atlantis’, which
reflected his class interests and supplied the
ideological justification for the capitalist division
of labour. Bacon was acting as a kind of Gramscian
‘organic intellectual’, a member of the stratum in
society whose main function is to articulate and
disseminate the hegemonic ideology that induces
cooperation from the working class against their own
best interests. This line of critique follows that
set out by Farrington (Francis Bacon: Philosopher of
Industrial Science, 1973), in which he portrays Bacon
as the self-conscious spokesman for social change,
industrialism and the emergent bourgeoisie. Certainly Quinton’s book does not pre-empt this line of
enqairy. Bacon’s account of the rational separation
of tasks within a community of scientists to facilitate cognitive progress is one of the earliest
formulations of a model that was soon to be orthodoxy
in the capitalist division of labour and related
economic theory. He claimed that the ability to gain
knowledge of the natural world was the prerogative
of any individual, needing only to follow Bacon’s
,method of eliminative induction, a practice that
would serve to ‘level men’s wits’. This was a remark
against traditional sources of privileged authority;
it was also symptomatic of a general process of
‘democratisation’ that was to see the sanctification
of the abstract individual as the founding basis of
plebiscitarian politics, state theory, economic
theory, and even epistemology. However, to proceed
from these arguments to announce Bacon as the
Architect of Capitalism is as erroneous as proceeding
from his logic and announcing him as the Father of
Modern Science. It seems clear that Bacon’s writings
reflected and reinforced many modes of thought of his
time which were related to fundamental, historically
specific metaphors that were not necessarily his
consciously held ostensive concern. Quinton has not
the space to develop the implications of his openminded approach, but he does not forestall the
development of such a contextual critique either.

T.J. WassaIl





Under Eastern Eyes

Wladyslaw Bienkowski, Theory & ReaZity, Allison
Busby, £10.95 hc, £5.95 pb




Bienkowski is one of Poland’s dissident intellectuals.

For the Free Press of the West, East European and
Russian dissidence, being critical of the countries
of ‘the Communist bloc’, is anti-Marxist, its outstanding representative figure Solzhenitsyn. The
ideological role of this identification is the
familiar Cold War role, recruiting hostility to
Russia to the service of hostility to socialism and
the defence of ‘our own way of life’. It ignores
the greatest and one of the earliest of all Soviet
dissidents, Trotsky, in the process ignoring in
general the attempts within the Marxist tradition as
a whole, in the West as well as the East, both to
distance itself from the Russian model and to replace
a simple anti-Stalinist cult of personality with a
theoretical understanding of ‘actually existing
socialism’ .

Bienkowski was Minister of Information in the
Gomulka government. He was dismissed in 1959 at the
end of the period of liberalisation, and after
publishing Motors & Brakes of SociaZism in 1968, he
was expelled from the Communist Party. He continues
to live in Poland, and was recently described by
Neal Ascherson, in The PoZish August, as ‘an incurably
inquisitive Marxist intellectual’. t-‘lliether or not
Bienkowski is still a Marxist, this latest book is a
fascinating (and sometimes exasperating) expression
of the intellectual struggle of Marxism with 20thcentury history, specifically with the central
tragedy of that history, the failure of the revolution. That failure has a double form: in Western
Europe, where it was most expected, it has failed to
occur, and in the East, where it occurred, it has
failed to liberate the masses.

The orthodox response is to take these matters as
falsifying !4arxist theory. Either socialism in
general, however admirable in theory, is hopelessly
utopian, doomed to founder on such rocks as the facts
of human nature and society; or revolutionary socialism in particular employs means that are incompatible
with its end. Even socialists who reject this latter
position and continue to support the Russian Revolution, at least for its economic if not for its
political transformation of Russia, have argued that
nevertheless East and West are different and must
take different roads to socialism, the Nest the nonrevolutionary parliamentary road. The failure of the
revolution has convinced socialists and non-socialists alike that revolutionary socialism, especially
for the West, is no longer a plausible possibility.

Something of most of these positions is present in
Bienkowski’s book, though with a significant shift of
perspective. This shift is effected by the author’s
determination not only to question the stock positions
of left and right but also to do so at a theoretically fundamental level. Thus the first part of the
oook constructs a general social theory, and in the
second this theory is employed in the understanding

of the two dominant contemporary systems, Western
capitalism and Russian (and Chinese) socialism.

Given the interest, political and otherwise, in the
revolutionary and non-revolutionary aspects of 20thcentury history, the basis of Bienkowski’s general
theory is a conception of social change. This he
distinguishes into two types: petrification, which is
not static but dynamic, involving the preservation
of social forms through ‘the natural evolution of the
system’; and development, which involves the revolutionary disruption of natural evolution, usually
through external factors and usually based in techno~
logy and mode of production. These two have no
‘linear convergence’ but are contradictory. Our
Eurocentric view has made European theorists suppose
that what has happened in Europe has been natural and
normal, in a word evolutionary, the path destined to
be followed by all other societies. But in fact
Europe’s history from classical Greek times has been
highly abnormal. It has been developmental, a
history in which European societies have been subject
to disruption by external forces, and culminating in
a type of society that has internalised the revolutionary character in its very mode of P!oduction, the
capitalist system.

It is thus capitalism, or at any rate industrialism, that according to Bienkowski has a really
revolutionary dynamic. By contrast, Russian socialism is petrified; or rather, though the Russian
Revolution was at first a genuine revolutionary
event, especially in modernising the Russian
economy, it has now become stagnant because it has
grafted onto this dynamic economic system a political superstructure that is petrified and in contradiction with it, the superstructure of despotism.

This was not a betrayal of the Revolution but an
inevitable effect of two forces, the exigences of
the revolutionary situation itself and the institutional inertia of Russian despotism transmitted
from the Tsarist regime. The dictatorship of the
proletariat, in any case not to be mistaken in
Marx’s theory for the political form of socialism,
turned into party dictatorship and police state,
which in a process of ‘systematic non-adaptation’

has now imposed its archaic structure on the countries of eastern and central Europe:

… while Russian society had never experienced
a single day of freedom, of democratic rights,
having lived since time immemorial under a
semi-asiatic despotism, since the Middle Ages
Polish society had not lived for a single day
under a despotic regime.

The unmistakable bitterness is surely justified.

But the author clearly intends his argument to have
political lessons. The political suggestion of the
whole book is that the reality of 20th-century
history shows that revolutionary socialism in the
standard sense is mistaken and cannot succeed.

Bienkowski of course believes that revolution has
and will continue to have a crucial role in what he

calls ‘the process of liberating man from ancient
forms of despotism’ (p.203). But this is revolution in his sense of development (e.g. the
Industrial Revolution), not armed insurrection
against the state with the intention of reshaping
society. Why, in his view, can’t socialist
revolution in this latter sense succeed?

It might be thought that we can argue to this
conclusion by universa1ising from the failures of
actual 20th-century revolutions, their failures to
produce socialist societies and their tendencies
instead to lead to despotism. This would be an odd
move for Bienkowski, who inveighs at length against
the ‘absurdity’ (p.209) of the doctrine followed by
Marxists outside Russia in the wake of the Russian
Revolution, that the Soviet model was the only
model. If it was not the model for the universal
success of revolutionary socialism, presumably it’s
not the model for its universal failure either.

This must in any case be so, since some of the
reasons the author gives for the failure of the
Russian Revolution to lead to socialism do not hold
for the 11estern democracies: on the one hand the
tradition of Tsarist despotism, on the other the
backward and undeveloped state of the Russian
economy in 1917. There are two relevant considerations cited by Bienkowski that would be common to
all socialist revolutions in the standard sense:

first a situation of war, especially civil war,
which requires the imposition of military discipline
and authoritarianism, and possibly its prolongation
into some kind of dictatorship; second, the intention of reshaping society. The former is obviously
a real and important factor, but in explaining
Russian despotism since the Revolution, Bienkowski
gives too little weight to something analogous at
the international level.

The failure of the revolution to materialise in Western Europe left Russia
isolated, with the programme of trying to build
socialism in one country in the teeth of competition
and hostility from capitalist states, hostility now
transformed into the global conflict of the Cold
War. The latter point, the intention to reshape
society, attracts one or possibly two very general
and philosophical objections from Bienkowski. He
claims that the social sciences have been too
strongly influenced by the natural sciences, and
that this influence has obscured the ergodic, essentially unpredictable, nature of social systems.

This unpredictabi1ity is partly due to ‘the creative
capacity of the individual’. Perhaps in consequence
social systems, according to Bienkowski, are not
malleable objects. The intention of revolutionary
socialism is thus unrea1isab1e, irrational, and in
particular unscientific. Social revolutions are not
made intentionally by people but occur ‘naturally’ as
a result of social forces operating at a different
level. What Bienkowski objects to as ‘vo1untarism’

sometimes has this very meaning of ‘acting with the
intention of reshaping society’, and sometimes a
more particular meaning exemplified, in his view, in
the specific conditions of the Russian Revolution:

an intended socialist revolution that was premature,
because the Russian economy in 1917 was not an
advanced capitalist economy. Clearly, the presupposition of this last point is that deliberate action to
reshape society on socialist lines could succeed,
given the conditions. It’s difficult to see how such
a possibility could be ruled out by Bienkowski’s
general argument. At most, that argument could show
only that intentional action must have some unintended consequences, not that the specific consequences
intended cannot be realised. If social forces have
produced social revolutions in the past, it’s not
easy to see how they couldn’t be understood and human

intentions formed that would both use and be
explained by those forces, the forces working and
expressing themselves not independently of, but
through, people’s ideas and intentions. There seems
nothing pejoratively ‘vo1untarist’ (or ‘idealist’)
about that.

However, there is one important thread of argument
in Bienkowski suggesting that revolutionary socialism
not only leads to despotism but in the West is anyway
unnecessary. This is the argument already alluded to,
that capitalism has itself a revolutionary dynamic
and that ‘socialism’ is part of that dynamic. For
the first time in history, under capitalism the
development of the productive base became autonomous.

It did so not because capitalism is the pursuit of
profit but because it is the pursuit of profit in
and through production, and in particular because
under capitalism not only is production for profit
but profit is for production, i.e. profit becomes
capital. Capitalism necessitates the ceaseless
expansion of the forces of production. In the process it has changed radically since Marx’s day.

According to Bienkowski, two changes are crucially
important. First, state intervention has grown,
revolutionising the old laissez-faire system. Second,
the ‘ancient-feudal barrier’ separating producer from
product and thus producer from consumer has been
overcome: producers once consumed at subsistence
level, production was largely for a class of consumers other than producers, and crises of over-production were in fact crises of under-consumption. Now,
however, capitalism is a system of mass production
that is also a system of mass consumption. The
Keynesian revolution presupposed these more basic
changes in capitalism. The natural development of
this system in Western Europe is towards a ‘socialized’ society. Socialism is not an alternative to
capitalism. It remains completely within the framework of industrial civilisation, and where it occurs
overthrows bourgeois rule but not capitalism, whose
work socialism continues and perfects. In doing
this it hastens the demise of this whole civilization,
which is in fundamental contradiction with the
natural conditions of our planet and is now
approaching its natural limits.

Bienkowski’s argument reveals a tendency that is
understandably strong among Soviet and East
European dissidents, a tendency to see the political
system of advanced Western capitalism, the system of
liberal parliamentary democracy, through rosecoloured spectacles. The whOle book contains hardly
a word subjecting this system to the type of critical
analysis familiar in the Marxist tradition. On the
contrary for Bienkowski:

Euroconununism’s rejection of the concept of
revolution in the form of seizure of power by
a minority usurping the right to decide in the
name of the majority, and the retention of
existing democratic forms, undoubtedly constitutes a return, after a long and painful
experience, to the marxist concept of socialism
which, after all, presented the freedom of the
individual as one of its basic principles.

So far, we have not discovered a road to
freedom of the individual and the creation of
possibilities for his active participation
in social life, other than through improving
existing forms of democracy.

We Western socialists may well feel a natural
deference towards the dissident socialists of the
East, whose bitter experience of actually existing
socialism gives a unique authority to their criticisms of that type of regime. But their dissidence
at home tends to make them prey to reactionary

prejudice and illusion when they look I’Jestward.

lfuatever their experience, they should not be
allowed to get away with a view about our situation
.that here in the West is the complacent commonplace
of the official ideology, even if, or rather especially when, that commonplace is decked out with the
trappings of scientific theory. As a matter of
interpretation of Marx, the idea that ‘the retention
of existing democratic forms constitutes a return …

to the marxist conception of socialism’ is clap-trap.

On the substantive issues, that retention is not
the only alternative to ‘seizure of power by a minority usurping the right to decide in the name of the
majority’: a third possibility, revived by events of
the past fifteen years, especially the plunge of
Western capitalism into local slump and global
instability, is a revolutionary policy that has mass
support. In any case, if ‘improving existing forms
of democracy’ means sticking to ‘the parliamentary
road’, is there any evidence for what Bienkowski
suggests, that this is ‘a road to freedom of the
individual and the creation of possibilities for his

active participation in social life’? In the
bourgeois liberal sense of freedom, perhaps there is.

But for socialism freedom centrally involves the
reduction and elimination of class hierarchies, and
in Britain, for example, these remain solidly intact
after centuries of parliamentary government and
decades of parliamentary democracy, marginal advances
always vulnerable in times of crisis to reactionary
roll-back by governments like Thatcher’s. Appeal to
‘actually existing socialism’ as conclusive evidence
against revolutionary socialism standardly confuses
an actuality that is observable with possibilities
accessible only to theory. Bienkowski does not in
general make that crude mistake, but passages like
the one quoted above explicitly confirm the temptation his theory succumbs to. Socialists who ask,
more or less rhetorically, ‘Has anyone seen the
revolutionary road to socialism?’ fail to hear the
answering echo: ‘Has anyone seen the parliamentary
road to socialism?’

Roy Edgley

Presenting the Past
Agnes HelIer, A Theory of History, Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1982, £15 hc
With the decline of positivism and (to some extent)
the analytic movement, the area of study known as
‘philosophy of history’ stands in a promising state
of openness. Marxists and liberals are less disposed
to mutual caricature, continental theorists communicate with Anglo-Americans, and epistemological realists wrestle with the claims of deconstructors or
‘metahistorians’. Agnes HelIer’s new book is a
welcome contribution not least because she straddles
each side of these commonly antagonistic pairings.

The important question of ask of A Theory of History
is whether it amounts to a new or adequate synthesis,
for the book is a treatise rather than a survey, and
seeks to be judged as such.

In fact, the title is a little confusing, since it
is not a theory of historical development which is on
offer. ‘Theory of history’ designates a level and a
project below that of ‘philosophy of history’ in the
grand manner of Vico or Hegel, Marx or Luk~cs.

HelIer indeed advises the rejection of sweeping
visions of history on the grounds that they are prone
to speculative dogmatism and catastrophic political
embodiment. Her own procedure is, first, to describe
the phases through which historical awareness passes
(from unreflected myth to world historical consciousness, in her terms). Then the structures of modern
historiographical argument are discussed, and both
the attractions and dangers of philosophical world
views outlined. Lastly, HelIer argues for her
‘theory of history’ approach as the appropriate
response to the false promises of philosophy of
history in an age of impending annihilation.

HelIer wants to retain from philosophy, anc
especially from marxism, the ideas of historical
progress, the unity of human nature, and the dual
criterion of theoretical coherence and practical


relevance. But these things are no longer held to
form a necessary ontology or teleology. Instead,
they are thought of as regulative or id~al. reference
points for theory of history, and the latter is
characterized above all by its critical self-awareness as a fragile historical form. Consequently,
HelIer does not attempt to assign her theory any
privileged empirical bearers (such as races, individuals, or classes). Nor is she willing to identify
anything less than the fulfilment of all human need
as the ‘independent variable’ which should guide
historical-materialist discussion. This is in keeping with her suggestion early in the book that
‘planetarian responsibility’ is the highest stage of
historical consciousness, however excessively flexible this may seem to render her framework.

If that is the overall argument, the way in which
HelIer builds it is more difficult to convey.

Readers familiar with her other work will recognise
the LukAcsian sense of totality (thoroughly deproletarianized), the moral urgency, and the emphasis
on the emancipatory centrality of human needs.

Whilst there are several interesting and instructive
sections on the way, the overall position seems to
me unpersuasive, largely because the scope and status
of the key category – ‘theory of history’ – is never
clearly elaborated. HelIer seems to want theory of
history to refer to the abstract level at which many
possible ways of attaching ‘higher’ theories to
historiography and politics can be forged. This
pluralism reflects her belief that no single world
view is today adequate or historically privileged.

However, this less ambitious perspective is used
as a support for views about the course of historical
consciousness, views which constitute an account as
well as a warning. ‘Theory of history’ thus itself
forms the last stage in HelIer’s posited sequence of
‘the’ historical mind and involves a specific conception of the human predicament. The resulting
amalgam of the formal and the substantive is

confusing, given the strength of HelIer’s embargo on
philosophical constructions of history. Several of
HelIer’s key propositions seem to violate that
prohibition. She makes a lot of the claim that
everyday existence shares with philosophy an intrinsic search for the essential in making sense of
reality (‘historicity’). And in the second part of
the book, HelIer shows that the connections between
historiography and ‘higher’ philosophical theories
are inherent in the organisational, orienting, and
explanatory principles which govern empirical
accounts. Her own preference is for frameworks
which encourage sOlidarity with ‘those who suffer
most’ in history.

One way to resolve some of these diverging
impulses might be to accept a plurality of possible
theories within a general realist conception of
explanation; then to advance the more specific, more
substantive version of the evaluative-cognitive

framework. In fact, HelIer does not believe that
meta-histories can play fast and loose with truth
conditions, so she defends historiography as being
‘objective’ beyond the call of pragmatism, ideological usage, or literary presentation. But her own
perspective is seldom defended in these objectivityclaiming terms, and her theoretical preferences
(for the concept of needs, self awareness, and so on)
seem wide enough to require tighter presentation if
they are to convince as a theory of history in addition to a moral outlook. Overall, then, I found the
oscillation or tension between the ‘merely’ methodological and the ‘speculative’ philosophical vein
disabling rather than convincing, as the model for
the important level of abstraction that HelIer wants
to establish.

Gregor McLennan

Red Letters
K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works Vol. 58,
Lawrence and Wishart, 1982, £8.S0
It is now one hundred years since Marx’s death and
still we have no adequate edition of his collected
works. The present volume under review is part of a
huge effort by Lawrence and Wishart, in collaboration
with Moscow, to get out a comprehensive edition in
English. It is also worth mentioning that the East
Germans have under way a proper scholarly edition of
Marx’ and Engels’ works in the original languages of
publication; all University libraries should be
pestered to put in a standing order for this new MEGA;
not much has appeared – but there is a splendid edition of the Grundrisse (which is absent from the
standard Marx-Engels Werke most libraries have).

As far as the English Collected Works is concerned,
so far we have been given works in chronological
order up to the mid-1860s. This volume of correspondence is also of early material but it is a jump ahead
to volume number 38 because the plan of this edition
divides the works into three main groups, with the
economic works in a separate group, and with the
letters of Marx and Engels in separate volumes,
beginning with number 38.

However, this neat plan is disrupted because not
all the letters will be in these latter volumes, only
those of Marx and Engels after their meeting in Paris
in 1844. Since these volumes include letters to third
parties there seems to be no justification for leaving out their letters prior to a start of their own
correspondence. These last appear in volumes 1-3;
but they are liable to be overlooked by inadequately
briefed researchers. Be warned!

The present volume contains all Marx’ and Engels’

letters to each other, and to other parties, from
October 1844 to the end of l8Sl. There are also some
letters by third parties, including some interesting
ones by Marx’s wife Jenny.

The first group’of letters, up to the establishment of the Communist League, are dominated by Marx’

and Engels’ efforts to develop communism both theoretically and practically, the most important letter in

the whole volume from a theoretical point of view
being Marx’s letter of December 28th, 1846, to
Annenkov in which we have one of Marx’s earliest
statements of his critique of the method of political
economy. The second group, of 1848-49, is from the
revolutionary years during which Mar~ was able to
return to Cologne to edit the radical daily paper
Neue Rheinische Zeitung. When the counter-revolution
struck down the paper, Marx had the last issue printed
in red ink, and subsequently tried to circulate copies
abroad to raise funds. (There is a copy of it on the
wall of the ‘Iskra room’ at the Marx Memorial Library
I believe.) By the end of 1849 Marx and Engels were
both in Britain and the mail between London and
Manchester constantly carried communications between
the two of them. This third group of letters is the
largest. It covers the period of ebb-tide in the
revolution. The other exiled communists in London,
however, still harboured schemes for a revolutionary
invasion of Germany. Marx and Engels were soon
estranged from them and wrote to each other with
gloomy satisfaction about the freedom their isolation
gave them. However, this indifference was feigned,
because the letters are largely concerned with stories
about the misadventures of their erstwhile followers
related in gloating detail.

Marx had used up all his money on the N.Rh.Z. so
now begins the long tale of woe about his straightened t·..

circumstances, enlivened at one point by a sardonic
comment about his work on currency theory which, he
says, ‘might be described by Hegelians as my study of
“otherness”, of the “alien” •.. ‘ (p. 274).

The book closes with Marx’ and Engels’ first
reactions to the coup of Louis Bonaparte. It shows
that the famous image at the start of Marx’s subsequent study The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis
Bonaparte was Engels’ idea. He says: ‘It really seems
as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit,
were directing history from the grave and •.. causing
everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand
tragedy and the second time as rotten farce’ (p.SOS).



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