History of Political Thought, Vol. 25, Spring 2004

History of Political Thought, Vol. 25, Spring 2004


George Klosko, Jacobins and Utopians: The Political Theory of Fundamen­tal Moral Reform
(University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, IN, 2003), xii + 200 pp., $17.00, ISBN
0268032580 (pbk.).

The aim of perfecting humanity is almost as old as human thought itself, at
least in the West. It has taken avariety of forms, theoretical and practical.


Klosko distinguishes between those – the utopians – who are mostly con­cerned to give an account, often in literary form, of an achieved state .of per­fection, and those – the Jacobins – who find themselves in Positions of power and are therefore called upon to contemplate the means of achieving the desired state of felicity. The distinction therefore is at one level that between identifying ends and constructing means. Klosko states that ‘the theme of this book is means as opposed to ends’ (p. 36), and it is true that he devotes most of his time to tracing the perplexities .of Jacobin-style attempts to create moral perfection. But he also shows that the means/ends distinction does not mean that he can confine himself to the men of power, Jacobins such as Robespierre, St. Just and Lenin. Indeed, as a theorist of means, Klosko rightly gives pride of place to Plato. It is Plato who —unlike his mentor; Soc­rates – thought most deeply about the mechanisms whereby men and women might be made anew. As an out-.and-out nurturist, he knows that he can place no reliance on the spontaneous forces of human nature. Plato is, in Klosko’s term, an ‘educational realist’, one who puts all the emphasis on the education of the young as the pre-eminent means of instilling the correct habits of mind and behaviour to make them suitable for membership .of the new society.
But though Plato theorized about means, he was never of course in a posi­tion to put his theories into practice (though, Klosko makes a persuasive case for his practical endeavours and shows that the notorious Sicilian episode was no mere unaccountable freak – philosophers were unlikely to become kings, but kings might just be persuaded to imbibe the right philosophy). The case Was different with other educational realists such as Robespierre and Lenin. Though far less sophisticated theoretically than Plato, they did enjoy the advantage of power and could seek to put their theories into practice. Klosko clearly finds the Jacobin and Soviet experiments as unsuccessful as they were unsettling. But his main concern is not so much to judge the outcomes as to examine the ideas and methods employed. Here what he brings out most interestingly is the persistent dilemma faced by all those concerned with introduc­ing fundamental reform. Machiavelli characteristically puts the problem in one way: only a good man can aspire to ‘reorganize a city for living under good government’. But good men do not seek or gain power, because to do so they must use wicked methods. On the other hand, the wicked man who does achieve power ‘will seldom try to do what is right, for it will never come into his mind to use rightly the authority he has gained wickedly’ (quoted on p.78).
An even mote acute observation in the same spirit is made by Rousseau (Klosko likes it so much that he quotes it twice).
For an emerging people to be capable of appreciating the sound maxims of politics and to follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to became the cause, The social spirit which ought to be the work of that institution, would have to preside over the institution itself. And men


would be, prior to the advent of laws, what they ought to became by means of laws (pp. 87,93).
Rousseau’s solution to this intractable problem is to fall back on the old idea .of an almost superhumanly gifted lawgiver, such as Lycurgus or Solon of antique memory. More, in his Utopia, also uses this device, as do countless other early modern utopians. These convenient theoretical solutions were of course of no use to practical reformers such as Robespierre or Lenin, who in addition were committed in principle to the collective agency of ‘the peo­ple’ or ‘the proletariat’. But the results of their attempts to educate their unre­constructed populations seemed .only to underline the refractoriness of the problem as identified by Machiavelli and Rousseau. Corruption and the dis­placement of goals seem the inevitable concomitants of the attaining and maintaining of power. At the same time, the persistence of old habits of thought and action in the population at large contributes to the violence and destruction unleashed on the society – to the further detriment of the utopian vision.
Klosko avoids drawing a definite conclusion from his wide-ranging survey of the theory and practice of fundamental or radical moral reform, but it is not difficult to sense his scepticism, nor to discern his preference for the aims and methods of social-democratic reformers of the West European variety. In the light of historical experience, few could quarrel with that, though one misses in this account an equally sympathetic understanding of what, against all odds and in full awareness of the possible consequences, drives utopians and revo­lutionaries to defy history and even reason.
This book is a brisk, enjoyable read, perfectly reflecting the lecture form in which it was first given. It is full of interesting material and acute observa­tions. It would make an ideal text for undergraduate or graduate seminars in social and political theory.