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