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Chris Harman

Ruling Ideas

(June 1969)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, p.39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Beliefs in Society
Nigel Harris
Watts, 15s

This book really requires two reviews – one of which would be full of praise, the other cold and indifferent. For its contents divide neatly into chunks of juicy red meat of concrete analysis and stodgy layers of methodological discussion.

The sections of concrete analysis are important and interesting. Further they are readable, lively and thought provoking. Titled Conservatism in the West, Conservatism in the East and Nationalism and the South, they analyse the major ideological developments of the Western (notably the British) and the Stalinist ruling classes and of the newly developing state capitalist regimes (chiefly Maoism, but also references to Sukarno, Nkrumah, Ben Bella and the various other faded heroes of the early sixties). Much of the material has appeared in the author’s articles in back issues of IS but is more fully developed here. This permits a clearer and more factually based exposition of points that were elliptical and obscure in the IS articles. One’s only regret is that more is not contained from the very fine analysis of India in IS 17 and 18.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, the rest of the book is not nearly so good. In part this may be due to bad writing – at points phrase is piled on phrase, sentence on sentence, example on example as if just to fill out wordage. But more importantly there is no real feeling that the author is clear as to what he is trying to say and to whom. Is he writing a general introduction to the sociology of ideas for undergraduates? Or a simple introduction to Marxism? Or to present a sophisticated justification of Marxism as the embodiment of the partial truths of other ideologies?

Unclear as to his purpose he falls between all three stools. Much of interest is said but never fully articulated. Many discussions are begun, but few consummated. For instance towards the end of the book there is a dialectical twist, by which the uncertainties and relativism of competing ideologies are transmuted in Marxist science. But it is not clear how this necessary step is taken. Is it because only Marxism incorporates a ‘faith’ in the relevance of praxis? Or is it because Marxism alone of world views can make a sense of previous views as essential components of human history, can contain in itself the partial truths which they express while also explaining why their partialness leads them into falsity, and can therefore make sense of and interrelate the various forms of practice which men engage in anyway? If the latter is the case then commitment to Marxism is not (as with Goldmann) an ‘act of faith’ but rather a commitment to understand and take seriously an involvement in the world which one cannot evade – even the isolated and self-obsessed existentialist describes his obsessions in a conceptual discourse that is social by its very nature. The issue cannot be argued here. One of the problems with Harris’s book is that he does not argue it either – giving an appearance of arbitrariness to his conclusions. Still, even the abstract portions of this book can be worth reading. And if you cannot face these, there are the three very worthwhile chapters that are a must.

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Last updated: 15.1.2008