Sects and 'new left' disillusionment

Mike Macnair reviews P Blackledge, N Davidson (eds) 'Alasdair MacIntyre's engagement with Marxism: selected writings 1953-1974' Brill (Historical materialism series), 2008, pp443, £89

This book was an interesting project, but is less interesting as a product.

Alasdair MacIntyre is an eminent moral philosopher. He is chiefly famous for After virtue (1981), which argues that modern moral and political philosophy, whether utilitarian or Kantian, is fatally flawed due to the loss of the idea of human virtue shared by the classical philosophers (especially Aristotle).

Since After virtue, the influence on MacIntyre of the medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who offered a Catholic-Christian interpretation of Aristotle’s ideas, has become more explicit. MacIntyre’s 1995 retrospective view of his earlier work printed at the end of this book makes clear his adherence to the Roman Catholic church and its generally ‘Thomist’ (after Aquinas) approach to moral questions.

Before this evolution, however, MacIntyre had a varied political history. Marxism: an interpretation (1953), extracts from which begin the book, is a left-Anglican Christian critique of Marxism, retaining Marx’s moral critique of capitalism, while rejecting his predictive claims. This approach was fairly conventional for its period, but distinguished by the fact that the author was at the time a member of the ‘official’ Communist Party.

After the Hungarian uprising of 1956, MacIntyre was part of the ‘new left’ group of intellectuals who broke with the CP without (in the short term) moving to the right. Like several others from this milieu he passed to Trotskyism in the form of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party) (ppxxvii-viii). His membership was, however, short-lived (1959-60), as he resigned when some of his co-thinkers were expelled for “contravening the correct procedure for forming a tendency” (pxxxii). From here MacIntyre went to Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review/International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) and more or less directly onto the editorial board of its new journal International Socialism (pxxxv). He remained with IS until summer 1968, when he resigned abruptly (pxlv).

The editors explain this last break partly by a drift towards the spontaneist anti-partyism of Cornelius Castoriadis’s Socialisme ou barbarie, and partly by an increasing belief that the supposed ground of the ‘party concept’ in the common interests of the proletariat as a class was flawed. In MacIntyre’s developing view, the proletariat was irretrievably fragmented, so that revolutionary organisations inevitably became mirrors of managerialism (ppxlv-vii). MacIntyre now crossed the Atlantic to work at US universities, wrote savage critiques of Marcuse, and of the US student left influenced by Marcuse and similar authors, and drifted into a life simply as an academic moral philosopher, albeit with a certain limited attachment to the left; and in turn, via After virtue, moved to Thomism and the Catholic church.

This sort of history is a very long way from being unique. Many thousands of people who have been involved with the Marxist left at one time or another have ended by drawing the conclusions (1) that the proletariat is incapable of ruling, and (2) hence that the left inevitably reproduces the hierarchies of capitalist bureaucracy. An early example is Robert Michels’ Political parties: a revolutionary syndicalist when he wrote the book, Michels ended as a Nazi sympathiser and his book (later) became a standard text of the cynical ‘realism’ taught in US university political science departments.

Against this background, MacIntyre’s trajectory towards Catholic intellectual production is in a sense less immediately toxic than Irving Kristol’s or Christopher Hitchens’ neo-conservatism. But this is, of course, Trotsky’s famous choice between the axe murderer (Kornilov, Kristol) and the poisoner (Kerensky, MacIntyre). The long-term influence of After virtue in the academy is towards the rehabilitation of violently conservative-Catholic versions of Thomism and, alongside these and as a result, the legitimation of ultra-conservative forms of political islamism and - from the Protestant camp - ‘creation science’ and ‘dominion theology’. MacIntyre’s shift to Aristotelianism/Thomism, in other words, was an early harbinger of an ongoing long-term shift of ‘high ideological production’ onto a conservative-religious terrain.

Whatever one makes of his subsequent evolution, MacIntyre was a provocative and influential writer in the ‘new left’ period, and wrote publicly for both the early SLL and the early IS, though he was clearly not a central intellectual producer for either. So Blackledge’s and Davidson’s project, to print a selection of MacIntyre’s writings between 1953 and 1974, ought to be illuminating.


The selection principle (ppli-liii) is that the pieces should be about (1) Marxism as theory or (2) uses of Marxist theory to analyse the contemporary world. The editors have excluded the technical philosophy published in academic journals, even where it adverts to Marxism, and have also excluded very short book reviews.

The result is, however, surprisingly lifeless. MacIntyre’s 1995 retrospective somehow seems more illuminating of his intellectual evolution than his political writing at the time.

Perhaps this is partly a function of the selection. The extracts from the 1953 Marxism: an interpretation are not substantial enough to give a full sense of the argument. The book reviews are obvious ephemera and, though a biographer could legitimately draw inferences about the evolution of MacIntyre’s ideas from nuances of expression and argument in them, they cannot really be taken as making substantial theoretical claims. The same is true, and more so, of the public political journalism commenting on British and world affairs: stylish but wholly ephemeral. The obituary of C Wright Mills (1962, chapter 25) has the same character.

Equally ephemeral in rather different ways are several other pieces. ‘On not misrepresenting philosophy’ (1958, chapter 3) is a short defence of Wittgenstein against Ernest Gellner’s 1958 polemic against analytical philosophy, which was presumably included in the book solely because it appeared in the Universities and Left Review rather than in a conventional academic journal. ‘Marxists and Christians’ (1961, chapter 18) was written at the low point of Christian political influence in Britain and assumes that this is a permanent development. ‘The new capitalism and the British working class’ (1962, chapter 24) is similarly a bog-standard piece of ‘new left’ over-theorisation of the superficial features of British capitalism in the 1950s-early 1960s. ‘Marx’ (1964, chapter 31) and ‘Recent political thought’ (1966, chapter 35) are entries in ‘background books’ for undergraduate students. As all such pieces inevitably are, they were rapidly superseded by new Marxist and Marxological scholarship.

To take all these items out would leave a much thinner book. It would still leave behind several substantial pieces. ‘Notes from the moral wilderness’ (1958-59, chapter 5) is a critique of withdrawal from active or organised politics as a moral response to Stalinism. It relates this response to the moral ‘anti-foundationalism’, ultimately based on Hume, which is still dominant among British academic philosophers. It relates it also to Stalinism as a scientism which claims that social development is predictable, and therefore claims peculiar authority for ‘experts’. Later, like most ‘new leftists’ MacIntyre shifted the blame for Marxist scientism from Stalin to Engels; it was still a core element of his critique of the left in 1973.

‘The new left’ (1959, chapter 9) is a defence of the ‘new left’ against Cliff Slaughter from the SLL’s theoretical journal Labour Review, a rare example of public disagreement in the SLL press. ‘What is Marxist theory for?’ (1959-60, chapter 10) is a series from the SLL’s weekly The Newsletter, arguing for the value of theory in the class struggle and for the ‘Marxist movement’ as unifying intellectuals and workers. ‘Freedom and revolution’ (1960) is again from Labour Review, an analytical-philosophical defence of a concept of freedom which makes proletarian revolution and also justifies democratic centralism. ‘Breaking the chains of reason’ (1960, chapter 14) is back to the ‘new left’ milieu, a piece written for EP Thompson’s edited collection Out of apathy: it polemicises against scientism and mechanical determinism in the social sciences.

‘Rejoinder to left reformism’ (1961, chapter 19) is from International Socialism. It is a reply to Henry Collins’ ‘The case for left reformism’ published in the same issue of that journal.[1] Collins, also an ex-CPer, rehashed Eduard Bernstein’s arguments. MacIntyre, in response, put at the core of his argument that “The reformist’s mode is one in which the self-activity of the working class is necessarily minimised. The self-activity of the working class is revolutionary, for it marks a total break with both the economic and the political systems of capitalism, which rely on the passive acceptance of their alienated role by the workers. And socialism is self-activity as a total form of life” (p191). The editors report that the IS leadership found MacIntyre’s response inadequate and commissioned an additional article by Kidron (p196, note 7).

‘Prediction and politics’ (1963, chapter 27) elaborates on the critique of ‘Engelsian’ ‘scientism’ and determinism, which was already present in ‘Notes from the moral wilderness’ and ‘Breaking the chains of reason’. The editors tell us (p161, note 7) that rather than engage MacIntyre’s arguments directly, Cliff insisted on IS reprinting Hal Draper’s 1947 ‘The inevitability of socialism’ as ‘part supplement and part reply’ to MacIntyre.[2] Draper’s arguments on chance and determinism in this article are obviously philosophically naive, and MacIntyre must surely have found them so; but he did not respond in print. After this date the book contains only one substantial contribution from MacIntyre to IS, an entirely conventional IS discussion of ‘Labour policy and capitalist planning’ (late 1963, chapter 30). Down to 1965 he continued to contribute book reviews, but from then until 1968 he was merely a name listed among the editorial board.


On the other side of the coin, the editors’ self-denying ordinance against using MacIntyre’s writing in academic journals leads to omitting some politically interesting pieces.

Most immediately significant to MacIntyre’s political evolution are the book Marcuse: an exposition and a polemic (1970), and MacIntyre’s sharp polemic against the student left and against the democratisation of higher education in the same year in a review of books by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, by Immanuel Wallerstein and Sven Lundstedt.[3] MacIntyre’s political evolution is also developed in two pieces from the early 1970s, ‘Praxis and action’ (1972 - an extended and unusually substantial book review) and ‘Ideology, social science and revolution’ (1973), which elaborates and gives analytical philosophy grounding to the argument mentioned above, that revolutionaries are inevitably bureaucrats in the making.[4] MacIntyre’s brutal 1979 review of Baruch Knei-Paz’s The social and political thought of Leon Trotsky (1978)[5] shows his residual relation to Trotskyism, even after his clear political break with the far left in 1970-72, better than the two pieces on Irish politics printed in the book (chapters 45 and 46). More generally, it certainly flattens the picture of MacIntyre to omit his continued and explicit commitment to analytical philosophy as a neutral method throughout his engagement with Marxism, given the history of Marxist critiques of this method (and analytical critiques of classical Marxism).[6] So too does the omission of the fact that MacIntyre continued to write as a (sort of) Christian believer while successively a member of the SLL and of IS, in, for example, Difficulties in Christian belief (1960) and some of his academic book reviews.

This is not in any way to say that either Christians or analytical philosophers cannot be communists or members of communist parties: communism is a commitment to a political programme, not a commitment to a particular theory. But in MacIntyre the combination seems to have involved a sort of split personality: it is only in the 1953 Marxism, an interpretation and the 1968 rewritten version of this, Marxism and Christianity (after he had left IS), that the two MacIntyres - Christian and analytical philosopher on the one hand, leftist on the other - are really brought into engagement with one another. He does not seem, from this collection, to have engaged much with his political comrades’ errors (from his academic point of view) in philosophy or religion, and neither did his political comrades engage with his academic philosophy or theology.

There does, in fact, appear to be a common thread in MacIntyre’s ‘engagement with Marxism’ between Marxism: an interpretation in 1953 and ‘Ideology, social science and revolution’ in 1973 (both in the writings in this book and in some of the unused writings of the same period). This is the rejection of ‘Stalinist’ (later called ‘Engelsist’) scientism, which is a common feature of ‘new left’ thought. In MacIntyre’s writing it extends beyond rejection of absolute determinism to rejection of the idea that the ability of Marxist theory to make predictions about social dynamics (however much they may be conditional) is useful: Marxism remains merely a guide to action in the sense of an ethical critique of the subordination of the proletariat (and for that matter of the colonies). The attempt to make predictions is condemned both as leading to false predictions (unsurprising in the 1950s-60s), but also and more fundamentally as asserting the authority of experts: ie, capitalist, reformist or Stalinist bureaucracy.

The mistake this approach involves is a complex one, too complex to be addressed in this book review. The ‘new left’ rejection of ‘scientistic’ versions of Marxism is more commonly from a Hegelian standpoint based on the ‘young Marx’ of the 1840s;[7]MacIntyre also relied on the ‘young Marx’, although he remained not a Hegelian, but an analytical philosopher. However, at the end of the day MacIntyre falsified all of his own line of argument on this front by adhering to the Catholic church. The reason is that the Catholic church is a beautiful demonstration of the fact that bureaucratic hierarchy and the authority of ‘experts’ is not the product of the attempt to do predictive social science.

The boot is on exactly the other foot. Making predictive claims, which are therefore falsifiable, on the basis of theory, is what makes theory potentially democratic: it is possible to disagree with the argument, to disprove it, and to change minds. There is nothing, except time and the social division of labour, to stop everyone in the world becoming sufficiently ‘expert’ in - for example - political economy to make rational judgments about economic choices. The authority of the Catholic clergy is precisely not subject to this sort of potential control: if everyone in the world became a priest, monk or nun, that would be the last human generation; and only one man (sic) can be pope.

Open debate

There is one other thing to be learned from this book. I said earlier that communism is a commitment to a political programme as a basis for common action, not a commitment to a particular theory. The point is that we may arrive at common political choices through different theoretical routes, so that it is inappropriate and sectarian to demand agreement to a theoretical position (‘permanent revolution’, ‘state capitalism’ and so on) as the basis of membership in a common party organisation. That does not mean, however, that we should not discuss and argue about theory. Theoretical views inevitably inform political choices. Discussing and arguing about theory can produce better choices. It also functions to educate party activists, the readers of the party press, and - indirectly - the wider working class; and by doing so facilitate their making their own arguments and their own choices.

I make this point because the ‘new left’ mostly walked out of the CP in disgust after 1956 rather than trying to organise a fight and getting expelled. MacIntyre then spent about a year in the SLL before disagreements became intolerable: the Healy group was, of course, a dogmatic sect. He moved to the IS. Here he was still in disagreement with core theoretical ideas of the Cliff group. But these disagreements were never openly discussed in the group’s press: Kidron wrote in effect against some of MacIntyre’s arguments in his response to Collins, but not directly; Cliff had IS reprint Draper as an indirect response to MacIntyre’s ‘Prediction and politics’, but there was no direct response.

The underlying problem was that if Healy and his co-thinkers were dogmatists on the theoretical issues, Cliff was a philistine. In fact, ‘Cliff state capitalism’ is a philistine response to the theoretical problem of Stalinism: allowing Cliff to take moral distance from Stalinism without really addressing the theoretical problems the phenomenon of Stalinism posed (and poses) to Marxists.

It is hardly surprising that the ‘openness’ of IS in the 1960s on this philistine basis turned, in the 1970s, to the dogmatism and bureaucratic control of the SWP. Neither dogmatism nor philistine refusal to engage directly with theoretical difference really accepts that this difference and debate is a necessary element in the political life and educative role of a communist party.



  1. Available online at marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1961/no006/collins.htm
  2. marxists.org/archive/draper/1947/12/inevitsoc.htm
  3. 75 Am J Sociol pp562-64.
  4. (1972) 25 Review of metaphysics pp737-44; (1973) 5 Comparative Politics pp321-42.
  5. 84 Am Hist Rev pp113-14.
  6. For example, in a review of B Mitchell Faith and logic (1957) in (1959) 9 Phil Quarterly 90-91, at the end; or in the 1970 critique of Marcuse.
  7. I have addressed some different aspects of the issue in ‘Darwinism and Marxism’ Weekly Worker December 19 2002; ‘Hegelian pitfalls’ Weekly Worker July 31 2003; ‘Classical Marxism and grasping the dialectic’ Weekly Worker September 11 2003; and ‘Against philosopher kings’ Weekly Worker December 11 2008.