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John Gray. Routledge. 35.00[pounds]. 0 415 08873 9.

Like Gaul, this important volume is divided into three parts. it opens with six essays on individual thinkers, namely Hobbes, Santayana, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buchanan and Berlin. That on Santayana is delightfully written and illuminating while Buchanan, even after four readings, was still less than intelligible to a former practising politician. There follows the main body of critical essays and finally the questions posed by cultural diversity and the thought of the new Right, culminating in the writer's view of what is dead and what is living in Liberalism.

Michael Oakeshott's quoted comment, |What may now be meant by the word Liberalism is anyone's guess', is apposite since the economic Liberalism of untrammelled free trade and the law of the market may contrast with political Liberalism, so that those who least favour the intervention of the state in matters of private morality frequently favour state intervention to curb the worst excesses of what Mr. Heath once called the unacceptable face of Capitalism. The same is true in reverse.

One facet of this volume which I found to be particularly valuable was the references and undoubtedly this is a must for those concerned with political theory and philosophy or currently reading PPE. It challenges many aspects of conventional wisdom and I for one never thought of Tsarist Russia as an |Open Progressive Authoritarian System' but everything has to be seen in relative terms. In his analysis of Marxism following the demise of the Soviet system the writer taps a rich vein of topical controversy. He describes |A spectacle of economic catastrophe, ecological devastation, hideous social problems and massive popular estrangement'. I would differ from the author to some extent with regard to his analysis of Fascism and Marxism. The former is only destructible by violence since it is based on total irrationality, whereas communist regimes have cracked from the inside because of their inability to produce in practice what a rational but flawed theory promised.

The author is unashamedly pro-Capitalist and his argument against Cohen on proletarian unfreedom is a powerful polemic. However, he attacks the conservatism which invokes the authority of government to intervene in problems to which the government has no solution. Thus, |None of the manifestations of contemporary decadence about which conventional conservative opinion is so alarmed are threats to the survival of society'. His argument is taken to the point that even state provision of education is regarded as a recipe for social conflict and the governmental provision of social services is bound to yield a pressure for cultural homogeneity. He admits that the argument which he develops goes against the grain of most contemporary thought,

Socialist, Liberal and Conservative, in that it denies to government the task of conserving cultural identity. He contrasts Thatcherite Conservatism and neo-Liberalism and rightly refers to its affinities with American neo-Conservatism. Its appeal to Victorian values is inappropriate in the twentieth century, in the cultural diversity of English society. Liberty depends upon the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power and, by the same token, upon evolving a sharing of power, not least with the opposition.

John Gray has no sympathy for the current European civilisation and seems to deny the flowering of culture which he does not recognise as such. Nevertheless, he does not consider that the four elements of doctrinal liberalism -- universalism, individualism, egalitarianism and meliorism are dead. He rejects the fundamentalist liberal view that liberal regimes are uniquely legitimate for all human beings. What I find to be missing in his analysis of liberalism is the contrast between the open and closed society, rather than the economic form of Capitalism as against other possible forms of Liberalism that might include the Social Democratic model.

In a sense his civil society is the open society, since it is tolerant of the diversity of views, religious and political that it contains and does not impose on all a comprehensive doctrine: society involves the rule of law and autonomous institutions protected by that law. A third feature is the institution of private or several property. Here I find there to be a weakness in the writer's argument in that the untrammelled power of many corporate organisations may be even greater than the Leviathan state which he rightly denigrates as the antithesis of Liberalism. Nevertheless he includes egalitarianism in the sense that all persons would enjoy equality under the law and immunity from arbitrary arrest and entitlement to a fair trial and freedom to acquire and alienate property.

He abhors the concept of a comprehensive liberal ideology. Indeed, that is the paradox of liberalism in that it is an ideology that abhors ideology. It is pluralist and open; and in the sense that, in a large part of the globe, totalitarianism has collapsed, there is, at a time of terrible strife, also a new hope that liberalism will encompass large parts of the globe albeit in diverse forms.
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Author:Rose, Paul B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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