Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, and the Communist Manifesto

Glen Newey writes:

Unlike out-and-out utopianism, Runciman’s optative sociology accepts that there is no substratum of human niceness that must out once the moraine of capitalism, the state or sacerdotal tyranny has been swept aside. Morally, as in other respects, humans can swing either way. But the right institutions can make a difference, and for Runciman this accounts for the exhilaration, and not just relief, that some have felt on getting to the end of The Communist Manifesto, or even the Republic (not many slog through Hobbes’s prolix biblical wrangling to the final pages of Leviathan without some voracious skipping). In line with his general position, Runciman argues that the concluding, and no less voraciously skipped, Part III of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice is in fact the best bit, as it dispenses with the duff argumentation of Parts I and II, and looks instead to how the principles of justice get implemented institutionally. But whatever messages The Communist Manifesto conveys, salvation through political institutions doesn’t seem to be one of them. As Runciman notes early on, Marx has little to say in the Manifesto about the institutional regimen of post-revolutionary society, apart from nationalised banks and industry. Even there, the institutions are not prime movers in the transition from exploitation to Communism but outgrowths of the forces of production. The idea that the route to human betterment goes by way of institutions is not an obviously Marxist one.

(LRB 14 July 2011)

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