The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

KEYNES was only half right when he quipped that ‘‘ prac­ti­cal’’ peo­ple of af­fairs were al­ways in thrall to the ideas of long-dead economists. He should have added the po­lit­i­cal cul­tures of par­lia­men­tary democ­ra­cies are built on foun­da­tions laid by largely for­got­ten philoso­phers. Which is why we are all in the debt of English philoso­pher Alan Ryan for The Mak­ing of Mod­ern Lib­er­al­ism (Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 670pp, $59.95), a col­lec­tion of his es­says that set out a ca­reer of think­ing about po­lit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism.

It may seem a stretch to see the shout­ing and shirt-fronting that is ques­tion time in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives as born of the ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and John Stu­art Mill, and I doubt Ryan would ever ar­gue it. But while the con­text that shaped their think­ing, re­li­gion and regi­cide, is long gone, our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture would not ex­ist with­out their work.

Locke and Hobbes wrote in an age where reli­gious faith and po­lit­i­cal sovereignty were en­meshed, where the idea of power em­a­nat­ing from or­di­nary peo­ple was in­com­pre­hen­si­ble rather than in­con­testable. Mill strug­gled with how to pro­tect rights in a so­ci­ety where the work­ing class was more con­cerned with how to stay alive than par­tic­i­pat­ing in civil so­ci­ety.

In our era, in which the once univer­sal de­bates over how to main­tain prop­erty rights, po­lit­i­cal free­dom and in­di­vid­ual in­de­pen­dence from the reg­u­lat­ing state are seen as su­per­flu­ous by aca­demics who ar­gue that the crimes of the im­pe­rial West against the world are morally su­pe­rior sub­jects, Ryan’s work is eas­ily ig­nored as oldfashioned. Yet with­out the ideas of his sub­jects we would not have the po­lit­i­cal gram­mar that makes democ­racy uni­ver­sally com­pre­hen­si­ble.

There is an enor­mous amount in this col­lec­tion of es­says worth read­ing, if only to ad­mire the range and depth of the schol­ar­ship — al­though not at one go. For any­body not deeply versed in po­lit­i­cal the­ory and pa­tient with the pre­cise lan­guage of phi­los­o­phy this an­thol­ogy re­quires time and a great deal of pa­tience.

Some of the es­says, the work of many dif­fer­ent decades, are now less rel­e­vant than oth­ers. Ryan’s fas­ci­na­tion with Amer­i­can philoso­pher John Dewey is hard to un­der­stand, when com­pared with Locke and when Karl Popper and Isa­iah Ber­lin get only a short essay each. Oth­ers among the oc­ca­sional pieces are show­ing their age. The essay look­ing at the state and ter­ror­ism in­cludes as ex­am­ples the IRA and BaaderMein­hof gang, and the US pros­e­cu­tion of the Viet­nam war, which are ob­so­lete in the era of whole­sale slaugh­ter by ter­ror­ists and the moral and mil­i­tary chal­lenges posed by ter­ror states from Iran to North Korea.

But oth­ers are acutely con­tem­po­rary, in par­tic­u­lar Ryan’s cri­tique of the more re­ferred to than read John Rawls. For read­ers not schooled in the con­ven­tions of aca­demic phi­los­o­phy, this is a scep­ti­cally re­spect­ful anal­y­sis of the core ar­gu­ment of per­haps the most pop­u­lar moral phi­los­o­phy of our age, that the just so­ci­ety is one based on fair­ness de­cided by set­ting all self-in­ter­est aside. ‘‘ If Rawls’s ar­gu­ments are sound, lib­er­al­ism is not a patched-up com­pro­mise be­tween con­ser­vatism and so­cial­ism but a dis­tinc­tive creed with solid foun­da­tions,’’ Ryan writes.

Yet on Ryan’s own anal­y­sis that is pretty much what lib­er­al­ism is. As he puts it in an essay, which as close as he comes to tak­ing a stand, it is ‘‘ an awk­ward, and in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­se­cure sys­tem, com­mit­ted to democ­racy, tem­pered by the rule of law to a pri­vate en­ter­prise econ­omy su­per­vised and con­trolled by gov­ern­ment and to equal op­por­tu­nity so far as it can be main­tained with­out too much in­ter­fer­ence with the lib­erty of em­ploy­ers, schools and fam­i­lies’’.

The core mes­sage of this book is that lib­er­al­ism is a broad civil re­li­gion that tol­er­ates as many ideas of jus­tice and pro­grams to cre­ate it as elec­tors will ac­cept. And if it lacks the in­tel­lec­tual el­e­gance of univer­sal sys­tems, so be it. While Ryan is too cau­tious to claim it — af­ter all he is an aca­demic — lib­er­al­ism as a sys­tem based on democ­racy, the rule of law and free mark­ers is a vast im­prove­ment on all the al­ter­na­tives.

Ac­cord­ing to Ryan, Locke be­lieved po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment was a duty for those who cared about free­dom. It’s about the best pos­si­ble ar­gu­ment for com­pul­sory vot­ing and it also makes a case for peo­ple who par­tic­i­pate in pol­i­tics test­ing their as­sump­tions, and the way they ap­ply them, by ex­am­in­ing them against first prin­ci­ples. This col­lec­tion is a great guide to them.

Michele Bom­ford’s Beaten Down By Blood: The Bat­tle of Mont St QuentinPeronne 1918 (Big Sky Pub­lish­ing, 294pp, $29.99) is a se­ri­ously good cam­paign his­tory and not just be­cause of its ap­peal­ing sub­ject. Cer­tainly this fight was one of a string of Al­lied at­tacks that won World War I on the Western Front and as such was char­ac­terised by more move­ment and bet­ter tac­tics than the straight­for­ward slaugh­ters of 1916 on the Somme and 1917 in Flan­ders.

The un­der-strength and ex­hausted Aus­tralians un­der John Monash out­smarted and out­fought the en­emy in a bat­tle that forced a whole­sale Ger­man re­treat at the start of Septem­ber to their last de­fen­sive line.

Bom­ford pro­vides a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive of the bat­tle, no mean feat for any Western Front his­tory (ad­mit­tedly she has an ad­van­tage in that this fight was for an ob­vi­ously im­por­tant height, rather than flat and bloody fields).

But what makes it a suc­cess, and it is a con­sid­er­able suc­cess, is the way Bom­ford puts the bat­tle in con­text. She is well read in the pol­i­tics of com­mand, sug­gest­ing Monash was given his head by his boss, Gen­eral Henry Rawl­in­son, who sus­pected the Aus­tralians were the only troops who could break through. She ex­plains the for­ma­tions, on both sides of the wire. And she de­scribes the train­ing and equip­ment that made the Aus­tralians, us­ing British doc­trine, so for­mi­da­ble. Run­ning an at­tack took great ad­min­is­tra­tive abil­ity, lit­er­ally un­der fire, and it was staff work that gave the in­fantry an edge.

The book’s great strength is the way she ex­plains the suc­cess of the Aus­tralians — this is still con­tested ground be­tween his­to­ri­ans and Aussie-oi-oi-oiers who in­flate Anzac achieve­ments.

Bom­ford comes down on the side of the schol­ars, demon­strat­ing the Aus­tralians did so well be­cause they were well trained, well dis­ci­plined in the field and enor­mously re­silient, rather than nat­u­ral war­riors.

Along with David Cameron’s re­cent book on the Lone Pine offensive on Gal­lipoli, Bom­ford sets a stan­dard for the mass of centenary his­to­ries of the AIF to come. It is a high one.

Aus­tralian troops of the 21st Bat­tal­ion leave their trench for the Bat­tle of Mont St Quentin in north­ern France in Au­gust 1918

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