A philosopher’s contribution

Virtue and Politics:

Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism

TO PEOPLE who are familiar only with his work of the past thirty years, it might come as a surprise that Alasdair MacIntyre was, at one time, a committed Marxist thinker and activist. In the first place, his most well-known book, After Virtue (1981), although justly praised as one of the most important contemporary works of moral and political philosophy, ends on a notoriously pessimistic note. While its main thread of argument could plausibly be read as a withering critique of contemporary capitalist societies, After Virtue leaves readers with the sense that there is little hope of doing anything to change them. What’s more, MacIntyre’s later embrace of Roman Catholicism has only confirmed the suspicion of some of his critics that his thought has an inbuilt conservatism that tends to retain and preserve (rather than criticize and challenge) tradition. Despite his current reputation, however, MacIntyre was, in fact, one of the most erudite and prolific Marxist intellectuals on the British left during the 1950s and early 1960s.

Until recently, MacIntyre’s Marxist writings have been hard to come by. Many of them were out of print for decades. Paul Blackledge and Neil Davidson have thus done a great service to the left in putting togetherAlasdair MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism. The fact that the collection spans over four hundred pages speaks to the engaged and productive character of this phase of MacIntyre’s career. The contents are diverse and range from charmingly acerbic book reviews and short pieces for the New Statesman to political pamphlets MacIntyre penned for various socialist organizations of which he was a member to longer, more ambitious philosophical essays. These political contributions traverse different contexts and media, many of them non-academic, and distinguish the young MacIntyre as an exemplary engaged intellectual. In this respect he tacks closely to his “conception of philosophy as a form of social practice embedded in and reflective upon other forms of social practice.” 

Blackledge and Davidson offer a detailed introduction, which provides an excellent combination of biographical details about MacIntyre as well as historical and political context. Uncovering what they term “the unknown MacIntyre,” they chronicle his political journey from the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to the Socialist Labour League and, eventually, to the Trotskyist International Socialism group (forerunner of the present-day Socialist Workers Party). For most of the 1960s, MacIntyre was an editor of the group’s journal, International Socialism. But by the late 1960s, at a time when many young radicals were finding their way to Marxism for the first time, MacIntyre was heading in the opposite direction. By 1968, he had resigned from the editorial board of International Socialism and written several articles indicating a growing dissatisfaction with Marxism. 

The reader interested in why MacIntyre moved away from Marxism will undoubtedly find this volume of great interest. But far more interesting is the wealth of fresh and creative contributions to Marxism contained in essays such as “Notes from the moral wilderness,” “Freedom and revolution,” “What is Marxist theory for?” and “Breaking the chains of reason,” just to name a few. One particularly interesting theme running through these essays, and, arguably, through much of MacIntyre’s work, has to do with freedom. MacIntyre has always been a critic of technocratic politics, mechanical interpretations of human behavior, and deterministic conceptions of history. In fact, reading through the essays in the collection, one gets the sense that MacIntyre’s uncompromising opposition to the picture of human beings as mere “playthings of forces they can neither control nor understand” was a driving force behind his commitment to Marxism. 

This antipathy to mechanistic accounts of human beings is consonant with his distinctive interpretation of Marx’s metaphor of society as composed of an economic “base” and political and ideological “superstructure”: 

Stalinism rested on a mechanical relation between base and superstructure. But as Marx depicts it the relation between basis and superstructure is fundamentally not only not mechanical, it is not even causal. What may be misleading here is Marx’s Hegelian vocabulary. Marx certainly talks of the basis as “determining” the superstructure and of a “correspondence” between them.… What the economic basis, the mode of production, does is to provide a framework within which the superstructure arises, a set of relations around which the human relations can entwine themselves, a kernel of human relations from which all else grows. The economic basis of a society is not its tools, but the people co-operating using these particular tools in the manner necessary to their use, and the superstructure consists of the social consciousness molded by the shape of this co-operation.

For MacIntyre, the radical conception of freedom informing his interpretation of Marxism grows out of a critique of Marx’s philosophical predecessor, G. W. F. Hegel. As MacIntyre argues in “Breaking the chains of reason,” Hegel and Marx are, in different ways, the inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition: “In their writings, there is a ferment of concepts whose life derives from their close interrelationship, the concepts of reason, of freedom, of human nature, and of history.” As he writes in a review of Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, “Hegel without Marx is unrealistic, and in the end obscurantist. Marx without Hegel would have been rigid, mechanical, inhuman.” 

As MacIntyre sees it, much of Hegel’s conception of freedom is retained by Marx, but in dialectical fashion Marx attempts to make use of what was true in Hegel while at the same time going beyond it. Hegel was right to “point to freedom and reason as essential possibilities of being human,” but he was wrong to think that freedom could be won merely by making certain kinds of conceptual connections: that is, by making certain kinds of changes within the realm of thought. 

The Marxist objection here, which MacIntyre endorses, is that we cannot be fully liberated merely by changing our ideas; genuine freedom requires a transformation of the material conditions of social life. Hegel’s mistake, then, is to “wrongly suppose that we can change our basic concepts, but not our lives.” As MacIntyre puts it, “the individual cannot win his freedom by asserting himself against society; and he cannot win it through capitalist society. To be free is only possible in some new form of society which makes a radical break with the various oppressions of capitalism.” 

The same theme runs through the essay “Freedom and revolution,” written in 1960, where MacIntyre argues that unfreedom in contemporary capitalist societies can be thought of in terms of “grooves, ladders and espresso bars.” Grooves, as he describes it, pick out the aspects of social life that are preordained: 

It is typical of class society that social life appears as something given and outside of our control, in which we can only play a pre-arranged part. This makes conformity to the established order appear as, not just a virtue, but almost a necessity.… Choice is hideously limited, often in fact non-existent. Where there ought to be choice, there can only be more or less grudging acceptance.… Hence the dream of a win on the pools [betting on sports] is not just the dream of material advantage, it is, in very inadequate form no doubt, also a dream of escape from limitation, a dream of freedom. But where there is money, high wages or good luck, there is still the groove. Capitalist production pushes you along the groove to work; capitalist consumption holds you in the advertiser’s groove.

Ladders, on the other hand, exemplify the way in which the system encourages us to believe that “the only escapes from the grooves that are offered are competitive ones.” As MacIntyre laments, “at least in the grooves you were with your fellows, on the ladders you are against them.” 

And, finally, there are espresso bars. These are for “those not yet captured for grooves and ladders,” whom MacIntyre describes as “coffee bar bohemians who sense the phoney everywhere (and rightly) except in themselves (wrongly).” Whereas advocates of such a lifestyle might imagine that they are definitively breaking with the status quo, MacIntyre holds that this is an illusion. The way forward, he argues, requires collective action and working-class self-emancipation. The “path to freedom must be by means of some organization which is dedicated not to building freedom but to moving the working class to build it.” 

If MacIntyre’s Engagement with Marxism provides a detailed look at the Marxism of MacIntyre’s early writings, Virtue and Politics offers a collection of essays that address the political trajectories of both his early and more recent work. Whereas countless books and articles have been written on the significance of MacIntyre’s contributions to moral philosophy, Virtue and Politics is distinctive in its decidedly political focus. 

MacIntyre’s own contributions to the book, which include a brief opening essay defending “Revolutionary Aristotelianism” and a lengthy concluding piece structured as a reply to critics, are well worth reading. The other essays in the volume cover a range of topics related to MacIntyre’s politics, from his relationship to the Trotskyist tradition to his views on alienation, modernity, natural law, and “virtue ethics”—a philosophical tradition dating to Plato and Aristotle that MacIntyre contrasts with conceptions of morality originating in the Enlightenment period of early capitalism.

Kelvin Knight’s essay, which is a revised version of a previously published (but insufficiently appreciated) article, challenges the common accusation that MacIntyre’s Aristotelian project is a sign of political conservatism. For Knight, “MacIntyre should…still be read along with [British Marxist] E. P. Thompson and Marx, not with either conservatives or conventionally academic philosophers.” Knight’s essay is a welcome alternative to facile accusations of political conservatism “underpinned by clumsy inferences” from MacIntyre’s sympathy with the ideas of Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, who produced influential commentaries on Aristotle. But if Knight succeeds in warding off general critiques of MacIntyre as a conservative figure, he is less successful in leaving us with a specific sense of how MacIntyre’s political trajectory relates to other perspectives on the left. 

Knight is optimistic about the synthesis of MacIntyre’s early Marxism and his more recent Aristotelianism, but other contributors to the collection are less so. While acknowledging the intimate connections between MacIntyre’s philosophical project and that of Marxism, Alex Callinicos argues that the prospects for a genuinely revolutionary Aristotelianism are not promising. A major source of Callinicos’s disagreement with MacIntyre has to do with whether the Marxist critique of capitalism requires transhistorical or universal principles of justice. For Callinicos, such principles are implicit in, and necessary for, the soundness of Marx’s critique of capitalism. It is therefore to the detriment of MacIntyre’s approach that he rejects universal norms in favor of what Callinicos worries is a self-undermining relativism. That is, in disparaging “the Enlightenment project,” Callinicos claims that MacIntyre forfeits the resources to draw out contradictions between, on the one hand, the promise of the Enlightenment values of universal liberty and equality, and, on the other, the reality of actually existing capitalism. It also follows, Callinicos claims, that the prospects for internationalism and transnational movements for justice are ill-served by MacIntyre’s privileging of the local and particular to the detriment of the global and universal. 

Of course, as a long history of debates within the Marxist tradition make clear, it is not obvious that Callinicos is correct about the need for transhistorical normative principles. Despite MacIntyre’s own rejection of Marxism, his ethical writings might still be useful for the purposes of supplementing and shoring up Marxism on matters that Marxism does attend to—human flourishing and social justice. These are fascinating questions which, unsurprisingly, are not given a decisive verdict in the short essays contained in this volume. Still, the collection forms the beginnings of productive and incisive debates which we should hope will continue among left intellectuals and activists.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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