The Few Who Rule The Many

Alan Ryan’s colossal new history of political thought is an ambitious but engaging piece of scholarship

Critique Philosophy Politics
Ideas matter: A 1936 demonstration in memory of those killed during the Paris Commune, taken from "We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956" by Chim (Delmonico/Prestel)

To say that Alan Ryan has an unusually sharp and subtle intellect is not putting it strongly enough. He is, quite simply, one of the cleverest people in Britain. Anyone who has heard him debating topics in political philosophy and the history of political thought — the subject-area in which he has worked for more than half a century — will have been inescapably reminded of Ryan’s friend and teacher Isaiah Berlin: there is something of the same quickness in grasping all possible implications, the same deftness in seeing how to turn an argument round, and the same way of lacing serious argument with dry humour. So the publication of a book by Alan Ryan (On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present, Allen Lane, £40) of more than 1,000 pages, about the entire history of Western political thought from Plato to the present age, is an event worth celebrating. Here is an intensely intelligent critic’s view of some of the most important texts ever written, distilled from decades’ worth of reading, reflection and teaching.

I say “texts”, because analysing the great texts is how this subject is usually taught, and that is how Alan Ryan approaches it here. The major chapters are on Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Mill, de Tocqueville and Marx; a range of lesser figures are also slotted in, from Polybius to John of Salisbury, from More to Montesquieu, from Burke to Bentham, and so on. All these figures — B-list as well as A-list — have huge modern scholarly literatures attached to them, and the standard method in modern academia for putting together a book of this kind would be to get 20 or 30 different experts, each steeped in the specialist accounts, to write one chapter each. Applying that method produces at best a useful device for students, and at worst a cacophonous multiple dialogue of the deaf; what it does not and cannot produce is a proper book.

This volume, on the other hand, is more than just a proper book: it is a positive pleasure to read. Ryan has a gift for lucid exposition (he makes even Hegel seem like plain sailing), but he is seldom simply explaining things; he is also questioning, testing and debating, so that the reader gets a vivid sense of what it must have been like to be a student in an Alan Ryan tutorial. Thought-provoking generalisations are part of his stock in trade:  

It is, as history attests, a grave error to conclude that because our vices are social rather than natural, they will be easier to cure; but radicals have thought just that for the past 200 years.  

And so too are illuminating distinctions that turn almost into aphorisms: 

There is a hard-to-describe distinction between socialists who seek justice between individuals and those who emphasise the rational allocation of work and reward and are not interested in rights and justice. Marx . . . belongs to the second side of this division and Proudhon to the first. Bakunin belonged to the first while thinking he belonged to the second. 

(That last sentence, by the way, is pure Isaiah Berlin.)

One small price that has to be paid for the large advantages of single authorship is, of course, that an individual author may make small mistakes that would not have escaped the scrutiny of a committee of specialists. There are a few here. Charles I is executed in the wrong year; Hobbes’s Elements of Law is misdated and his Leviathan (1651) is said to recommend obedience to Cromwell’s protectorate (which didn’t start until 1653); the abbé de Saint-Pierre is confused with the abbé Raynal (who is himself misspelt). And some very traditional errors are propagated, such as the translation of Rousseau’s “L’homme est né libre” as “Man is born free . . .” (“est né” is the past tense), or the attribution to Hegel of the claim that “the State is the March of God on Earth” (when what he wrote was “it is God’s way in the world that the state exists”: “Es ist der Gang Gottes in der Welt, dass der Staat ist“). But the tally of slips is, in the end, a very small one.

A larger objection might be that this “great texts” approach to the history of political thought leaves out too many things. For several decades now, historians such as John Pocock have been arguing that what we need to study is the overlapping succession of different styles, idioms or “discourses” of political thinking — such as republicanism, which drew on many sources and developed a kind of political mindset that cannot be captured just by analysing (as Ryan does) a handful of great texts. Or take nationalism, for example. This is a major factor in modern politics, with ideological components of various kinds; but it slips through Ryan’s fingers here, as he refers to Fichte and Herder only in passing, never even mentions Mazzini, and otherwise treats nationalism only in relation to the fascistic blood-and-soil nationalists of the early 20th century.

That omission of Mazzini prompts some other thoughts about the nature of the canon here — not just the parlour game of asking who’s in or out, and who does or does not deserve to be, but also some larger questions about what a canon is and how unhistorical it might be. Ryan’s list of the great and good is a fairly traditional one, though some of the figures in it are surprisingly downgraded. (Bentham, for example, an inventive and influential thinker, is dealt with in just a couple of rather breezy pages.) Immanuel Kant is a major casualty; readers get to know very little about him, except when they are told how some of his ideas were adapted by Hegel. The inclusion of a substantial chapter on the American founders — principally Jefferson and Madison — is, on the other hand, a good thing, not only for prospective sales of this work as a textbook in US universities, but also for British readers, who still tend to underestimate the depth and seriousness of those writers’ debates on politics and the state. 

Followers of Jonathan Israel, who has claimed that the modern world was created by Spinoza, will be disappointed to find no account of Spinoza’s political thought at all; but even those of us who don’t follow Jonathan Israel may think that Spinoza’s views on freedom, religion and republican government deserved some treatment. Certainly they merited more space than the political observations of the late medieval writer Christine de Pizan, which, described (accurately) as “short and slight” and “intellectually undemanding”, take up five pages here. One hesitates to accuse Alan Ryan, of all people, of tokenism, and perhaps the real explanation is that US university courses have taken Christine de Pizan to their hearts; but I would rather read five pages about Mary Wollstonecraft (mentioned only in passing in this book) any day of the week.

As for the larger question about whether a canon is an artificial and unhistorical device: well, it is obviously inadequate when judged by the standards of “total history”, as it has to leave out a lot of the history of thinking that happened in between the writing of those canonical texts. But, as Ryan points out repeatedly, the canon cannot be dismissed as just a modern projection onto the past; it developed over time as a historical phenomenon in its own right, as Aquinas read Aristotle, Rousseau read Hobbes, and so on. One of the most important developments in this field in recent times has been the new emphasis on the political contexts of these writings; since the work of Quentin Skinner, we have known that even the most abstract works of political theory need to be looked at as interventions in the politics of their time, and that some aspects of their meaning will remain obscure if we do not do this. But that is not an objection to the concept of a canon, and was never meant as a denial that some texts are more philosophically important than others; it certainly did not stop Quentin Skinner himself from writing about two of the most canonical figures of all, Machiavelli and Hobbes.

Throughout the book, Alan Ryan is aware of the danger of historicising the texts too much or too little. Push it too far one way, and they become mere historical documents, testifying to the alien nature of patterns of thought in societies quite remote from our own. Take it too far the other way, and you get a sort of Edwardian-style history of philosophy, in which Great Thinkers politely exchange ideas in a timeless seminar in the sky. Ryan gets it about right, I think: he fills in historical background, reminds us of underlying differences, but always maintains a sense of fundamental issues being addressed that, mutatis mutandis, may be issues for us too, today.

But which issues? Ryan is a thoughtful and receptive reader, yet in the end the focus is a little narrower than it might be, reflecting as it does his own intellectual — and, perhaps, political — preoccupations. He says that his aim is to study the answers given in the past to the question, “How can human beings best govern themselves?” As you think about that question, you realise that it leads you towards the area where political theory overlaps with political science — the area where constitutions get designed, where the implications of different kinds of democracy are examined, where the concept of representation is explored, and so on. Yet there are other questions which have also mattered for political theory: what is authority (as opposed to power), what is law (as opposed to, say, command, or moral precept), what is the state, what is justice, and so on. Of course such issues crop up repeatedly in this book; but they are not given the centre-stage position that Ryan allots to the problem of how best to organise the rule of the many by — as seems inevitable in all but the smallest political units — the few.

Ryan is a specialist in 19th- and early 20th-century thought, and it is in that period that the question he poses becomes most interesting and most complex. When representative democracy began really to gain power, so many other changes were also taking place that the concept of democracy became problematic in new ways: thinkers started worrying about the “despotism of public opinion”, and so on. Ryan’s question, “How can human beings best govern themselves?”, now really does deserve its centre-stage position, and his accounts of how Mill and de Tocqueville grappled with those new problems are some of the finest chapters in the book.

But somehow, at the end of the 19th century, the impetus of Ryan’s investigation begins to fail. He shifts to a mostly thematic approach, leaving many significant thinkers by the wayside: there is no proper treatment of writers such as Carl Schmitt or Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin or Michael Oakeshott. Nor are all the relevant themes explored: there is nothing, for example, about the Catholic social thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which provided the basis for Christian Democrat movements in many parts of Europe. Instead, there is a somewhat predictable survey of imperialism, socialism, Marxism and fascism, followed by a few specimens of American democratic theorising (Dewey, Schumpeter, Rawls), closing finally with an essay on the present state of the world that is more homily than history of political thought.

These sections are rather overweight where the account of minor varieties of socialism is concerned (though, curiously, Trotskyism and Maoism get no proper treatment), and a rather defensive tone creeps in whenever Marxism is looked at from the viewpoint of 20th-century history. Here one feels that Alan Ryan shows himself to be a child of his time, the time in question being when he was a young man and the thinking of the early Marx was being rediscovered by Western intellectuals as a humanistic quest for freedom and self-expression. To Lenin’s claim that “because Marxism was a science, there was no more room for freedom of speech in Marxism than in chemistry”, he responds that “there is a great deal of freedom in chemistry and scientific theories are not protected from criticism by putting a bullet in the back of dissenters’ heads”. 

What Ryan says is true, but the implied defence of Marxism (absolving it of any responsibility for the Lenin-style treatment of opponents) seems questionable to me. Marxism claims to be not just a science about physical things (as chemistry is) but a science that explains people’s beliefs and values — at least, the beliefs and values of non-Marxists. Once you know “scientifically” that other people’s objections to your rule are expressions of false consciousness arising from hostile economic interests that must inevitably be swept away by history, doesn’t that make you a little more likely either to deny them freedom of speech, or to grant them a bullet in the back of the head?

This is one of the rare moments in the book where I feel that Alan Ryan might be accused of being imperceptive. There may be other passages that other readers will disagree with, for reasons that are political, or historical, or both. But never mind — this is a colossal and deeply engrossing work, by someone who is simply incapable of writing a dull or an unintelligent page.