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Against the Self-Images of the Age

(January 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.50, January-March 1972, pp.41-42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Against the Self-Images of the Age
Alasdair MacIntyre
Duckworth, £3.45

‘“How good to grow middle-aged, conservative and self-satisfied like me” — points to the danger: the silting up of the poetry of adolescence into the prose of bourgeois middle age ...’ (from Breaking the Chains of Reason: one of the essays MacIntyre suppresses in this volume). He continues

‘Two images have been with me throughout the writing of this essay ... The one is of J.M. Keynes, the other of Leon Trotsky ... The one the intellectual guardian of the established order ... The other providing throughout his life a defence of human activity, of the powers of conscious rational human effort. I think of them at the end, Keynes with his peerage, Trotsky with an icepick in his skull. They are the twin lives between which intellectual choice in our society lies.’

Eleven years later MacIntyre, weighed down with professorships and a disreputable stint as policeman of students at Essex, acknowledges ‘a particular debt to ... the Ford Foundation’ for financing him; as though it were they and not the Ford workers who created the surplus product at Fords in the first place. This, and his willingness to lend intellectual respectability to CIA financed publications (editorially in Survey, and through contributions to Encounter), makes his own choice all too obvious.

In suppressing the above essay and Notes from the Moral Wilderness MacIntyre leaves us with a distorted image of himself: he was never quite the sterile academic that he tries to portray here. How was it that this situation arose? Partly it can be explained by his choice of a lifestyle and a set of roles which were compatible only with the ‘Keynes’ MacIntyre rather than the ‘Trotsky’ MacIntyre. But this only tells us of his objective need to change his self-image, not the subjective means by which this was achieved, nor the contradictions generated in doing so. But even in the days when the Trotsky image dominated the Keynesian, crucial gaps were left in his marxism, which he was later to fill in in essentially anti-marxist ways. By concentrating his attention on these areas, the ‘intellectual guardian of the established order’ triumphed over the revolutionary trotskyite. MacIntyre never came to grips with the contributions to marxism made by Gramsci, otherwise he might have been sufficiently self-aware to intervene in the process of his own self-degeneration. It is important for us however to understand the nature of this process both for our own sakes and so that we can benefit from the very real contributions to marxism that MacIntyre has made.

The revolutionary marxist correctly places the need for communism in the logical consequences of human self-activity. MacIntyre, like Lukacs before him saw this very clearly, in the late 1950s. But unlike the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness, his eclecticism prevented him from translating this into a total cultural critique of the reifications of bourgeois thought. Instead lapsing into dualism, he tried to separate man from nature, insisting that self-activity was a premise only for the former. He wrote that, while ‘Physical movements are certainly susceptible of mechanistic explanations’, nonetheless ‘to conceive of ourselves as acting to change society is at once to recognise the inapplicability of the machine model to ourselves’. His failure to appreciate the historical nature of the natural sciences, his insistence on their ‘objective’ and historical properties, was to become the instrument of dominance of Keynes over Trotsky in MacIntyre’s divided self.

In the early 1960s MacIntyre wrote a series of papers (none reprinted here), attempting to come to terms with this dualism. He finally became convinced that the positivism which he saw as so appropriate for the study of nature, must be equally valid for the study of man. Thus we see him finally arguing that what is an appropriate methodology for one is an appropriate methodology for the other (in his essays on psychoanalysis, on the causes of action, and on the idea of a social science), and on this matter his arguments are plausible if not remarkable. But because he has mistakenly taken it on trust that the positivistic analysis of nature is correct, he falsely feels the need for a positivistic sociology rather than a historical physics. The use of these illusions satisfies his need to have done with marxism. Even so the ghost of Trotsky haunts him; for all his significant insights (upon which his academic prestige rests) are surreptitiously borrowed from a marxist perspective, and are inconceivable without it. Genuine marxists thus have much to learn from several essays in this collection : about the dialectical relationship between societies and moralities and their changes through history (chapters 15 and 16), about how the only substantial problem in ethics is whether Marx is right over the existence of class society (chapter 13 on Hume), about the more general methodology of marxism which approaches ideas not in terms of their abstracted ‘validity’ but in terms of the material life of those who hold them; (chapters 2 and 10) and finally about marxism itself (chapters 5-7 on Lenin, Stalin and Deutscher’s view of Trotsky).

For years the CIA-financed Encounter exploited MacIntyre as the intellectual meat in their otherwise turgid cold-war sandwich; so too MacIntyre, adhering in his middle-age to the image of Keynes, continues to take out the trotsykite skeleton from the cupboard of his past whenever genuine intellectual progress is called for. This inner schizophrenia expresses itself externally in several remarkable and necessary contradictions to be found in this book. Thus on p.84, in his essay on Goldmann’s Hidden God, he still retains the marxist insight that understanding is relative to the nature of the way you intend changing the world, and cannot be achieved by contemplative reflection : ‘Both (tragic and dialectical thought) know that one cannot first understand the world and only then act in it, How one understands the world will depend in part on the decision implicit in one’s already taken actions. The wager of action is unavoidable’. But less than a page later he asks of the interpretation of Pascal ‘Is what Goldmann says true? Partly this is an empirical question to be answered by close historians of Jansenism ...’ (p.85), thus ignoring the earlier view that it is only participants in the attempt to change the world rather than those who, like ‘historians’, contemplatively sit on the sidelines, who are capable of such understanding in the first place. His desertion of revolutionary politics occurred at about the same time that he wrote this paper, thus ensuring the domination of the contemplative side of the contradiction, but at no point has MacIntyre been able to completely eliminate the other side, for without it he would be academically castrated. Again his objections to Winch in chapter 19 are based on taking the empirical conclusions of piecemeal bourgeois sociology seriously (Goffmann p.219, Leach p.221, and Goldschmidt p.222) even in the absence of a total theoretical framework in which to embed these fragments, while elsewhere he is perfectly clear that such a methodology is impossible: ‘The individual object or action is identifiable only in the context of the totality; the totality is only identifiable as a set of relationships between individuals.

Hence we must move from parts to whole and back from whole to parts. Goethe, Hegel, and Marx all grasped versions of this truth about the human sciences’ (p.84).

Finally compare the methodology implicit in the essay entitled Ought (chapter 15), with his banal attempt to justify the trivialities of anglo-american linguistic philosophy. The former contains a superb account of the history of the concept ‘ought’, of the historical conditions that gave a changing life to a changing concept, and of those conditions which eventually robbed it of any significance whatsosever, such that ‘... no honest man would want to continue to use “ought”’ (p.156). Such considerations inspired him to call this discussion What was Morality? in his more marxist days. Seven years later it enters the province of moral philosophy itself, dressed up in the innocuous title Ought. But its method is clear: the historical examination of the conditions which make the use of a concept significant within a given society, and it’s lesson is equally clear: it is dishonest to deal in concepts which are ‘dead’. Therefore historical criticism of concepts has to precede doing anything else with them such as ‘analysing’ them. But on p.94 he contradicts this. Crucial problems of ideology ‘... cannot be answered until philosophical problems about meaning have been resolved’. MacIntyre’s work still has any philosophical significance only to the degree that he ignores this.

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Last updated: 22.6.2008