12 October 2010

Some further thoughts on Marx, the Tories and Confucius

As we probe further into issues of national and international administration in our courses at GSPIA, I have noticed that we are being increasingly exposed to an ideology of the global elite which has become dominant in the international affairs discourse. I am gratified to note that some of my professors are willing – nay, even eager – to entertain contrary views, though I wonder if these views have not yet been formally structured into a logical system which can form the basis for a deep critique of this ideology. One such logical system is derived from the thought of Karl Marx, though Marxism itself has some interesting problems and contradictions of its own (to which various schools of thought have responded differently). George Grant made the penetrating observation that Marx’s initial impulses were traditionalist (even religious!), as he rejected the contractarian narrative of the time and gazed back into human history to grasp at the threads which bound the human condition together (namely, our gregariousness and our ability to alter our environment to create goods of value) and follow them up through the various paradigms of economic division of labour and exploitation of the powerless, and makes an almost Tory-sounding critique of the dominant ‘enlightened’ ideology of his day by saying the licences it grants are made to serve the values and economic interests of the wealthy. So far, so good. But because of the recommendations he wants to make, however, in laying hold of these threads there comes a point where the tapestry he wants to weave begins to unravel. The Russian existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev laid his finger on that very spot when he asserted that orthodox Marxism divided history into two – the deterministic era of cyclical exploitation, contradiction and collapse composing the entirety of human history to this point, and the liberated era to come when the classless society would take root. He then asserted that this narrative then ceased to be a ‘scientific’ philosophy and became a religious dogma: the only salvation humankind would have from its chains would be through the messianic class of the industrial proletariat, though there is no assurance exactly wherein this liberating power exists.

Interestingly enough, later Marxists and New Leftists seem to have become aware of this contradiction, and have come amazingly close to overcoming it. Among the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth have all done admirable footwork in finding new and creative ways to subvert and critique the social-contract narrative through various adaptations of Anglo-American pragmatism, existentialism, developmental psychology and the philosophy of language. They affirm the intrinsically social nature of human beings, but leave room for liberation through systemic social critique (though for the most part, they thankfully elide the utopian promises of orthodox Marxism).

But I wonder if there might be an alternative all the same, which follows a parallel path and draws inspiration not only from Marx, but also from points of contact in axial, early Christian, mediaeval and classical Tory thinking. I think the interrupted tradition of radical Toryism gives us some tantalising insights:

- Whiggism (the progenitor of most of the dominant ideologies in modern political discourse, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’) in insisting on the social contract narrative of the individual’s relationship with society, fails to recognise a.) that human beings are deeply and organically rooted in their social surroundings and b.) that such belonging is a fundamental human need rather than merely an option (even a preferable option)
- Because human beings are so deeply socially situated, there is basis for conversation about a common conception of the Good
- A common conception of the Good requires some articulation not only of norms and formal institutions, but of common governing priorities and values arising out of this social situation
- A common conception of the Good cannot, therefore, refer only to and be measured only by individual happiness and satisfaction of desires (as the more sophisticated Whigs such as Bentham and Mill would have it, and as the modern human rights regime does now), but also to the traditions and obligations both formal and informal which gave rise to the means of expression for these desires

Ironically enough given the respect I have for such insights, I have taken as much inspiration in my left-Toryism from studying Confucius and his followers as I have from reading the radical Tories and Anglo-Catholics of my own adoptive tradition (William Laud, Mary Astell, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, William Wilberforce, Beilby Porteus, Charles Gore, Frederick Denison Maurice, George Grant and Kenneth Leech). Though Confucius claimed (and I believe him sincere) that he did not invent anything but merely related what he believed in and loved from generations past (述而不作,信而好古), I think in setting forth this relation he has indeed broken new grounds, often neglected, for deep social critique. Even as he defends the forms of the existing order through such principles as the central moral importance of ritual 礼 and the rectification of names 正名, he turns the content and organising principles of the existing order on their heads by insisting the importance of human love 仁 and social justice 义 rather than profit 利 in all relationships (「君子喻于义,小人喻于利。」). (Implicit in these priorities, also, is perhaps embedded a substantive critique of modern capitalism!)

It should be noted, I think, that radical Toryism (like Confucianism) did leave room for a certain level of formal inequality in its emphasis on respecting traditional forms of social organisation (note that even Mary Astell, the first English feminist, was a pious High Churchwoman and a fervent supporter of the Stuart monarchy). But it should be remembered that while many early Whigs did little to resist the slave trade and the ownership of slaves (in the notable cases of Locke and Berkeley, though of course later the Whig party was responsible for passing the act abolishing slavery in the Empire), various Tory and High Church voices – including Johnson, Swift, Porteus and Wilberforce – were among the loudest detractors of the practice. Why is this? If the early Tories believed, as Johnson put it, that ‘subordination… [is] most conducive to the happiness of society’, why then would they object so vehemently to the practice of slavery?

The answer, oddly enough, might be hinted at in Dr Johnson’s dictionary, in his definition of the word ‘caitiff’ wherein he cites a Homeric saying that ‘so certainly does slavery destroy virtue’ – though Johnson meant it not as a thrust at the lack of virtue in slaves but at the lack of virtue in their owners. It is impossible to demonstrate any meaningful kind of human affection to a piece of property; what is demanded is a recognition (in the sense meant by Western Marxist philosopher Axel Honneth) between people, even people of differing social backgrounds, of common humanity and common values. As Johnson demonstrated in his etymology of ‘caitiff’, such shared values simply cannot exist when one person is allowed such total control over another person’s labour, means of sufficiency and dignity. There is a significant distinction made in Johnson’s thinking between belonging to a community as a subject (meant in two senses of ‘subject’: a being with free will and a citizen of a monarchy), and belonging to a person as an object.

It also seems to be the case that the early Tories viewed poisonous inequality and poverty as unacceptable blights. Dr Johnson wrote extensively on the subject, and nearly always came off in solidarity with the poor, and of course Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal likewise scathingly castigates the callous mindset of the English middle and upper classes with regard to the poor of Ireland.

So we have an interrupted tradition of political philosophy in the English-speaking world which combines cultural conservatism, religious piety and deference to tradition with a radical critique of contractarian / propertarian capitalist ideology and the dire inequalities which followed hard on its heels. George Grant attempted, if not to resurrect it then to remind the world of it, by making careful points of contact with mediaeval and Platonist thinking; I am of the opinion that this interrupted tradition shares more than just a superficial kinship with Confucian thinking (whose interruption in China is a lot more recent, and probably far less substantial than radical Toryism has been in the English-speaking West) in their concern for the Good. However, how the similarities are to be reconciled with the belief in the danger of rationalising values upon communities which do not necessarily share them is perhaps a hurdle too high. It is unwise to demand of people more than they can imagine.

Though I personally have found Confucianism both persuasive and an immense wellspring of inspiration, it would probably be better to promote the social-justice values and use the language of the Anglo-Catholic Christianity I espouse, than to attempt to marshal the thought of Confucius to this task.

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