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Nigel Harris

Philosophers at Work

(Autumn 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.26, Autumn 1966, p.37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Patrick Corbett
Hutchinson, cloth 30s, paperback 12s 6d

This is an odd book, intelligent but wayward. Professor Corbett presents his versions of what he calls ‘ideologies,’ three in number: Marxist, Catholic and Democrat. He follows this with an attack on all three by a ‘sceptic,’ and then offers his own comments and reply, ending with a plea for toleration in the common effort both to solve the problems of the world and to understand them.

The book is odd because the author is rather trapped in his conception of ‘ideology’ as a sort of dogmatic closed system of ideas, rooted in unjustifiable general assumptions that are only partial. Thus his account of each ‘ideology’ suffers from being both simplistic and abstract – the backcloth of human purposes and constant clarification, amendment, revision, constant argument, is omitted, so that we are left with schemes which do validate Mr Corbett’s assumptions, but do scant justice to real beliefs held by real people facing real problems. Crucial distinctions are thus lost, ironed out by the author’s doctrinaire assumption of what goes with what – his account of the ‘Marxist’ ends with the startling note that ‘The Soviet Embassy supplies pamphlets in which Marxist principles are applied to current problems’ (p.222). But to say this is to make a commitment that virtually robs his account of the sorts of distinctions that will alone illuminate what he calls ‘ideologies.’ The appearance of his entities is very rare, and their appearance is not the source of their life – that life derives from the continuing attempt by men to understand and change their world (or preserve it from change). And to abstract the residuum, the lowest common multiple, of such attempts is to locate a totally misleading series of propositions which very few people, in practice, believe. Tilting at windmills becomes a substitute for waging the continuing battle. Undoubtedly the best part of the book is its final section where Mr Corbett gets down to tackling concrete conceptual problems, but the section is good because it looks at political argument, not ‘ideologies.’ A quite unjustified optimism derives from Mr Corbett’s superficial portrayal of ‘ideologies:’ since they are so shallow, so manifestly silly, of course they will decline as we get increasingly ‘interdependent.’ But, leaving aside the central purpose of the book which is hopelessly trapped in its own assumptions, there is much clear thought and intelligent comment in the final section that does something to restore the value of the book. If Marxists (or Catholics or Democrats) were always as clear and careful as Mr Corbett, many rather trying problems would be eliminated; so long as clarity is not bought at the price of inaction, which sometimes seems to be Mr Corbett’s lesson.

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Last updated: 17.12.2007