Philosophers and Marx in the 1950s

In the 1960s, as an undergraduate and eventually a graduate student in philosophy, I had the strong impression that Anglophone philosophy did not pay much attention to the philosophy and theories of Karl Marx. He was regarded as a "dead dog". His work was rarely treated in the history of philosophy in the 1950s and …

English socialism

What were the social conditions that led many English intellectuals in the 1930s to engage in fundamental critique of the society in which they lived? Why was social criticism so profound and sustained in Britain from the time of Carlyle and Engels to the surge of English socialism in the 1930s? The answer, of course, …

HB Acton’s version of Marxism

H. B. Acton gained celebrity with the publication of Illusion of the Epoch in 1955, supposedly as a serious philosopher's even-handed exposition of the philosophy expressed in Marx's writings. Acton was not an especially influential philosopher, and he certainly does not stand in the first ranks of post-war British philosophy. He taught philosophy at the London School …

Can Nietzsche support a decent political philosophy?

Nietzsche's anti-moralism is a key theme in his philosophy and civilizational criticism. He regarded traditional European morality as "herd morality", the deplorable consequence of Christian values of subordination and ressentiment. It is hard enough to find in Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals a basis for criticizing even the most grotesque examples of interpersonal brutality and violence, and …

Machiavelli and the totalitarian state

Isaiah Berlin's essay on Machiavelli in Against the Current is penetrating and detailed, valuable both for the specialist and the general philosophical reader. Berlin demonstrates an uncanny knowledge of the range of interpretations and criticisms that have been offered for the ideas presented in The Prince and the many wildly contradictory interpretations that have arisen. Was Machiavelli an amoral …

Carlyle’s critique of modernity

What is wrong with life in the modern world? The complaint that modern society represents a toxic reduction of the importance of community in the lives of individuals is a familiar one. One version of this critique is the idea is that modern society has replaced all personal bonds and relationships with a single "cash …

Durkheim’s social holism

Emile Durkheim is celebrated for many achievements in the founding of the discipline of sociology, but most striking is his endorsement of the autonomy and irreducibility of the social realm to individual motivation, action, or psychology. "Social facts are things, irreducible to individual psychology." Durkheim was, we are often told, a social holist. This is …

Alexander Herzen’s radical liberalism

image: Meissonier, Massacre during June Days, 1848, Paris Alexander Herzen's From the Other Shore (1850) is an exceptionally important example of an intelligent observer trying to make sense of the social, economic, and political changes of the nineteenth century. And Isaiah Berlin's introduction is profound. (Here is an online version of the book; link.) Herzen's writings represented an …

Thomas Carlyle on government and England’s poor

Thomas Carlyle was an acerbic conservative social thinker, given to assuming the fundamental legitimacy of social and political hierarchies and hostile to democracy. A re-reading of Chartism (1839) shows that he also possessed a white-hot anger at England's indifference to the conditions of the poor, and he raged against Parliament, which whistled while catastrophe loomed. …

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With …

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