Gem avoids ravage of time

In Defence of Politics
February 1, 2002

In Defence of Politics has had a good innings. Warmly championed on initial publication by Isaiah Berlin, it took a vigorous and well-considered stand against all the political and intellectual currents that had challenged Bernard Crick's robust confidence in the merits of politics. Politics, as he understood and meant it, was above all an indispensable practical competence in living together on many different scales, which must always face its own distinct hazards, and which will always require defence against a variety of enemies.

Since 1962, his book has reappeared four times, on each occasion with a fresh afterword, broadening the defence against new foes and bolstering, as best it could, the residues of that pristine confidence. The first reappearance in 1964 rounded out the defence against more intrusions of behaviouralism into British political studies. The second, in 1982, affirmed more bluntly Crick's continuing commitment to a form of socialism still frankly bent on aiding the poor in their endless struggle against the rich. The third, in 1992, celebrated the demise of the tyrannical incompetence of the Soviet interpretation of socialism, but showed an understandable fall in confidence over the prospects for Crick's own interpretation. In the present incarnation, the concluding footnote becomes an epilogue, opening with Thucydides's grim portrait of the political dissolution of Corcyra, and closing, bravely but a trifle wilfully, with tasteful excerpts from Pericles's Funeral Oration .

On this evidence, Crick has changed impressively little. At its best, his writing is exhilarating in its simplicity, directness and verve; even in its tired moments, the staccato dogmatism into which it descends retains a certain dogged vitality. His central message - that politics so understood is a major and precarious achievement for a species such as ours, and that its importance cannot be captured through a supposedly scientific analysis of the causal dynamics of arbitrarily chosen bits of it - is as sane and honourable as ever.

There is no better brief expression of that message in the past half century. What has changed since 1962 is the political history of Britain as a society and of the world around it. In the course of these years, Britain, the world economy, the structure of geo-politics and the ecology of the globe have moved a long way from the setting in which Crick formed his political tastes and shaped his political judgement. While he has forgotten little, if any, of what he understood nearly 40 years ago, he has not learnt as much as he might from the interlude. There is less evidence here of a desire to explain why history has taken this course than of the determination to reassert a cherished personal identity.

From this version, you can still learn as well as ever why you should defend politics, for all its maddening tawdriness and time wasting. What neither you (nor, it seems, its author) could readily learn is why the tide of politics (so understood) has ebbed so drastically, and left those tastes and aspirations so far up the beach.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

In Defence of Politics

Author - Bernard Crick
ISBN - 0 8264 5065 2
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £9.99
Pages - 288

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