Perspectives on Politics (2004), 2:121-122 American Political Science Association
Jacobins and Utopians: The Political Theory of Fundamental Moral Reform. By George Klosko. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. 216p. $35.00 cloth, $17.00 paper
Peter G. Stillman
The subtitle of George Klosko’s book accurately represents his concerns. The author focuses on important theoretical statements from classical Greeks through Lenin about how to effect fundamental moral reform. So his perspective differs from utopian scholars who study the vision to be established and political historians who look at revolutionary activity. Klosko focuses on means, or rather, theorizing about means and strategies, not on ends.
Klosko develops his themes historically, through an analysis of important figures in the history of fundamental change. Very quickly the central analytic categories surface. He begins with Plutarch’s lives of Lycurgus and Solon. He finds in Lycurgus one important and recurrent model for fundamental moral reform, a model that Klosko labels “educational realism”: Lycurgus uses political power (backed by violence if necessary) in order to educate the citizens to virtue. By contrast, Solon is a reformer: He changes laws and constitutions, but does not attempt to transform social and educational relations. Presenting another alternative model, Socrates attempts fundamental moral reform not through force but by persuasion of individuals; any society-wide transformation incited by Socratic questioning requires spontaneous interactions among those whom the gadfly has stung and changed.
Educational realism and individual persuasion leading to spontaneous social transformation are Klosko’s two central themes; Solon’s reformism concerns him little here. This book was originally a course and then a series of lectures, and Klosko uses those origins to his advantage. As befits a course, he examines major theorists (like Machiavelli and Marx), as well as theorizing activists (notably Robespierre and Lenin), always from the perspective of realizing radical change; so thematically the book involves seeing famous figures from an unusual angle. The original lecture form means a clear and comprehensible presentation, no matter how recondite the topic.
For instance, Klosko sharply distinguishes Socrates from Plato: Whereas Socrates tries to transform individuals only through argument, Plato sees Socrates’ mission as a failure and so in the Republic seeks to define the conditions, no matter how extreme, under which radical moral transformation could occur. In presenting his views, Klosko navigates through a series of interpretive issues, from grouping the Socratic dialogues to opposing the Strauss-Bloom reading of the Republic; but he does so lucidly, rapidly, and with good arguments.
Other pairings and interpretations may be less controversial but no less interesting. Unusual when ideal societies are under consideration, More plays a bit part here—as an advocate of persuading rulers with arguments and without force. Machiavelli enters because of two practical insights: It takes a bad man to seize power but a good man to rule well; and unarmed prophets fail. Marx joins Fourier and Bakunin as theorists of spontaneity. Less surprisingly, Robespierre (with St. Just) and Lenin (at least Lenin from late 1918 onward) appear as the leading Jacobins: Like Lycurgus and Plato, the Jacobins are educational realists who see the need to use state power to transform education and society if people are to be made virtuous. Klosko probes their thought to discern seven major components of Jacobin thinking.
Because of Klosko’s focus on strategies for change, his book is a welcome additional perspective to studies of fundamental change. The author’s conclusions complement Karl Popper’s famous argument (The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945) that utopian blueprints lead to “dictatorial societal disasters” (p. 52). For Klosko, those who advocate spontaneity or persuasion are unable convincingly to explain how such changes will occur; and modern educational realists find themselves giving the state extraordinary power without being able—as was Plato in the Republic—to establish checks on the abuse of that power.
Any book covering so much material in such a brief space will lead its readers to questions and further issues. I raise three.
Klosko’s range from Lycurgus to Lenin is impressive and gives insights, but—given his criticisms of those trying to generate fundamental moral reform—I wish that he had also examined Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1972). In Klosko’s terms, Arendt criticizes the Jacobins—they undercut or stifle revolutionary energy and novelty—and she appeals to the experiences of modern revolutions since 1776 to show that spontaneity and persuasion can generate new modes of interaction and institutions. So her conclusions stand, I think, opposed to Klosko’s and need examination.
Klosko happily avoids many of the definitional quibbles that can stall or divert scholarly analysis, especially of ideal societies. But in at least two places, definitional problems exist. He states that the Jacobins, like many utopians, have a “plan or blueprint” (p. 92) of their utopia, and their utopia is “a human condition that is totally new by any standard” (pp. 4, 172). On both counts, the Jacobins differ from reformers, who, like Popper, pursue “piecemeal social engineering” (p. 52) aimed at specific and limited changes (not “totally new” ones). I think that Klosko (following other scholars) here is setting up dichotomies that hide continuities among many reformers from Popperians to Leninists—they usually have a vision of a good society and a sense of how it connects to contemporary society. As Klosko’s discussion of Machiavelli suggests, his book could be profitably reread as an exploration of problems faced by many different types of reformers, from Solon through John Stuart Mill to the present.
Third, and in part because Klosko analyzes the usual suspects in the modern world—the Jacobins—he does not ask about “right-wing” equivalents to the Jacobins, theorists and actors whose “new state of being” for a future “without the problems and strife of existing society” (p. 172) is either global free trade with assured property rights or social and religious conservatism, and some of whom, in order to bring their vision into existence, are willing, indeed eager, to use state power to inculcate the proper virtues, even if citizens are uninterested or recalcitrant. Although Klosko does not ask directly about colonialism and neocolonialism, his analyses’ “unsettling implications” (p. 173) about fundamental moral reform may be relevant when a state occupies and tries to transform the population and institutions of another state.
But criticism also comes full circle. My questions ask for an expansion of Klosko’s scope, and much of the value and enjoyment of Jacobins and Utopians lies in the author’s explorations of dilemmas of fundamental moral reform and his uncovering of the ways in which many major theorists discovered and grappled with (or found themselves unable effectively to grapple with) those dilemmas.