Garry Runciman prefaces his book with an apology for the title, which he says may make it appear "unserious". The title is certainly provocative, and the book slim, so in compensation he packs it with esoteric references to unspecified "commentators", obscure concepts in sociology and original-language editions, and with plenty of two-guinea words. Thus the reader must step carefully over systacts and subinfeudations in Thomas Hobbes; under trichotomous structures in Karl Marx and between koindnia and pleonexia in Plato.
Do we need all those to introduce three of the crispest, most elegantly written books of the entire philosophical canon? But that is what we get, along with a limp answer to the question of why these three works of political philosophy have had such an influence over human society. That answer, if I may spoil the ending of the book, which is described as a "detective story", is that they succeeded because they offer simple remedies to complex problems.
Now to the point of the book: these simple remedies are in fact flawed. Plato's, for instance, relies on altruism to motivate the Guardians and deception to motivate the masses, yet neglects the fact that such tricks wear thin. Hobbes wants the publick to accept any inconvenincey, bar death itself, on the grounds that to do otherwise and allow protests or challenges to the sovereign is to risk that nasty, brutish end, yet (as Runciman says) institutions can adapt, survive and even flourish in the face of challenges. On the other hand, as Runciman does not say, today's modern "democratic" states have usurped unto themselves far more coercive power than Hobbes' sovereigns could ever have dreamed of - including the power to kill their own citizens in the interests of "national security".
As for Marx's neo-Platonist vision, it fails too, since his recipe relies on the abolition of private property to abolish class conflict, and yet private property lives on after the revolution either by the creation of a ruling class or as inequalities inevitably re-emerge following the great redistribution.
Amazingly, none of the authors of these "great books" realised that elective democracy, in the style of the US constitution, offers a peaceful and just solution to class conflict and all those other social problems. All three failed to realise that the rewards of economic cooperation alone result in an orderly and harmonious society, and remove the need for authoritarian structures. Runciman finally unveils John Rawls' 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, as the truly great one.
Despite the flourishes, this is a stimulating and, as promised, "provocative" read. However, strictly speaking, Runciman deals less with arguments than with premises and matters of fact. It's a small distinction but a crucial one. Indeed, his critique does not set out the arguments in the three books, but merely waves at them in passing. The key ideas are barely identified, let alone, as is claimed, demolished.
In fact, Plato does allow elements of social mobility, and indeed women are given unprecedented status in his new society. Equally, Hobbes may be weak in the geometrical logic of his argument, but he is persuasive on the elements of human psychology. As his book is read more as a guide to the latter than to the former, it is perverse to attempt to dethrone it for peripheral errors. Similarly with Marx, the Manifesto's insight is about exploitation and economic interests, and its all-too-evident lack of political acumen does not mean it is not, in its way, a great book. Actually, Runciman, too, has written a great little book - but it is full of bad arguments.
Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, and The Communist Manifesto
By W.G. Runciman
Princeton University Press, 138pp, £13.95
Published 31 March 2010