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by George Lichtheim in The New Statesman, January, 1965.


The publication, some months ago, of Professor Herbert Marcuse's One-Demensional Man offered a splendid trap for reviewers. With few exceptions they fell into it, making the most of the author's political eccentricities and quite ignoring his trenchant critique of the empiricist mode of thought prevalent in the Anglo-American world. Marcuse was a Marxist, and that was enough. He cited hegel and was therefore incompetent to criticise Wittgenstein. It will be interesting to see what writers of this school make of Ernest Gellner's new offering, for here is a liberal empiricist who cannot stand Hegel and yet has no use for Wittgenstein.

Much of Mr. Gellner's new work is at a level of abstraction which effectively removes it from the arena of socio-political argument. In a way this is a pity, though it probably recommends him to his fellow academics. His manner is that of the senior common room, down to the donnish witticisms who import can be grasped only by the insider. He has an irritating trick of condescending to his intellectual betters, and of throwing off casual remarks intended to convey a superior grasp of complexities baffling to lesser minds. It is silly to talk about 'poor Marx'. It is dangerous to venture into the political field with no better equipment than that supplied by Professor Rostow and M. Raymond Aron. It may be the case that 'Wittgenstein's mistake was that of a man who joins a discussion late without in any way understanding it,' but in view of Mr. Gellner's extremely offhand treatment of other thinkers, I am not prepared to take his word for it.

Having said all that, I feel bound to add that Thought and Change is important as well as being topical and lively. It is important not for any solution it offers - I remain totally unconvinced by Mr. Gellner's own answers to the many questions he proposes - but because it does ask the right questions: about the mechanism of historic change, about the form currently taken by the industrial revolution, about the sociology of nationalism, about the role of humanist intellectuals in a technological society. On this last point Mr. Gellner is closer to Lord Snow than to his critics - calling The Two Cultures 'one of the most important philosophical essays to appear since the war.' I would not myself place its value quite as high as that. Readers of Mr. Gellner's tract will at any rate encounter several new and striking arguments for treating the industrial revolution as something other than a cultural catastrophe.

This consideration servers to place Thought and Change within its own culture, or ideological context, which is that of neo-liberalism: the liberalism of the technocratic age. This kind of liberalism is no longer tied to the bourgoise institutions of private property and the market, though it remains indifferent to socialist considerations (it never seems to occur to its exponents that to some quite reasonable people the mere existence of a salariat, not to mention a proletariat, is an outrage). The tone is optimistic, and the stress is on the bright new vistas opened up by technology:

Scientific-industrial society is not merely a potentially affluent one: it is also one in which the whole balance between being and knowing, the ecology of existence and cognition, cannot by be radically different from the past.

There is a touch of science fiction about this, and the silly term 'affluent' suggests an undue reliance upon the elegant popularier, Professor Galbraith, who seems never to have noticed the existence of a huge submerged lumpenproletariat in his own country. But in principle Mr. Gellner is right: these are the topics we ought to be thinking about.

We shall not get very far if we think about them in the traditional liberal-empiricist manner: lately reinforced by the technocratic habit of pretending that all social problems can be reformulated in technological terms. This would be (almost) true if social conflict did not exist, but it does. Mr. Gellner has a shhot at this subject, but does not get much beyond a discussion of nationalism as a phenomenon caused by the disintegration and reintegration of tribal structures. Being himself something of an anthropologist, he is good on the tribe, less good on the nation, no good at all on the social revolution in backward countries. He has learned enough from the Marxists to realise that 'both an intelligentsia and a proletariat is required for an effective national movement,' but since he consistently abstracts from the historical context, his formula does not get him very far. Incidently, it is the peasantry, not the proletariat, whose modes of thought reappear in the ideology of modern totalitarian movements in backward countries (Maoism included); and it is Leninism, not Marxism, which has become a substitute for Calvinism in those countries where the communists are in charge of the industrial revolution - minor mistakes, but significant ones.

On the whole, then, Thought and Change is an attempt to bring liberalism up to date. As such it is valuable, since the intellectual flabbiness of modern liberalism has almost eliminated it as a participant in meaningful discussions. The book's faults are those of the ideology it takes for granted - its virtues include intellectual honesty, hardheadedness, and an uncommonly wide range of reference. It should be read together with Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, which may be described as an attempt to do for Hegel and Marx what Mr. Gellner has tried to do for Bentham and Mill. Personally, I find Marcuse's approach more congenial, though politically he seems to me almost as wrongheaded as Mr. Gellner. He has a sense of the historical tragedy involved in the - surely not accidental - fact that the scientific revolution has brought us to the threshold of universal catastrophe at the same time that it has made 'affluence' possible. Thought and Change lacks the tragic sense, which may be a consequence of its author's commitment to the robust common sense of Bentham and his school. It will doubtless be applauded by those who remain convinced - despite current economic and political evidence to the contrary - that British ways of thought are, and always have been, immeasurably superior to anything dreamed up by the benighted Continentals. If one happens to believe that this is an illusion, one must express reservation about certain assumptions Mr. Gellner shares with some of the writers he belabours in his footnotes: but having stuck his neck out as far as he has, he is at any rate entitled to a commendation for his courage.


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