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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Mad Professor

This recent enraged attack on John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the LSE, recently linked to by Arts & Letters Daily, explains that Gray spouts an almost continuous gush of bilge. Gray is described as one who “flip-flops across the old right-left ideological chessboard”. But this Samizdata posting by me from 2002 explains the method in this man’s madness.

My 2002 piece does contain one error, however. I assumed from his accent when I knew him in the eighties that Professor Gray was from Wales. Apparently he is from the North of England. My apologies to Wales.

9 comments to Mad Professor

  • Corsair

    I don’t know anything about Gray’s thought, and I assume the link is something of a caricature of it. Even so, it strikes me that Gray’s right on most things mentioned in the article. I don’t believe in moral progress either: sure, the West got rid of slavery and emancipated women, then fell hook line and sinker for Nazism, Socialism and industrial-scale infanticide, so where’s the progress there?

    Also, Gray is perfectly correct to point out that Nazism and Socialism were Millenialist Utopian (pseudo) religious cults. That is not a new idea – Norman Cohn, Eric Voegelin, Nicholas Goodricke-Clark and (most recently) Michael Burleigh, amongst others, have written on precisely this subject. Burleigh’s two-part history was the best thing I read last year. The role of escatology in as a motivator in politics has been long overlooked, and is enjoying something of a revival. That’s good, as it is highly relevant now: Islamism and ideological Environmetalism are both millenialist political religions.

    Finally, the murderous ‘political religions’ of the C20 were indeed derived from thinkers of the (Continental) Enlightenment, as their perpetrators recognised, and as Burleigh describes in fascinating and scholarly style.

  • Corsair

    Well, maybe not most things, but the author of that piece strikes me as being just as irrational and factually-challenged as the man he’s lambasting.

  • I don’t believe in moral progress either

    I think you are quite incorrect. The atrocities of the 20th century were nothing new in nature, they were just worse in quality because of modern technology. I would argue that never in human history have humanistic and (more or less) rationalist values been more widespread than today and it spreads like a cosmopolitan virus, doing better in some places that others as one might expect.

    Are we still having to fight for liberty and decency against tyranny and wickedness? Of course we are, and ever will it be so. Why? Because the perfectibility of the human species is an unobtainable objective… but is moral progress impossible? Hell no. It is all around us. Sorry but to think otherwise is to stand in the middle of a forest and question the existence of trees.

  • Corsair

    Perry, what moral progress has occurred in Britain recently? Wouldn’t even our relatively recent ancestors be utterly revolted by our decadence and passivity? As for rational and humanistic values (of the Anglo American strain), are they really thriving? Hasn’t the whole thrust of Samizdata recently been about how they are being traduced everywhere, even in the United States?

    There is no such thing as moral progress: we are no better than our ancestors and the history of the C20th proves that. No doubt the history of the 21st will prove it too.

    Sure, there are better states and worse states, better laws and worse laws, but I’m will to bet that the large scale moral universe is isotropic, since people are people.

    What would you count ar moral progress?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, as I am no doubt sure you will remember, at the core of Gray’s position has been a consistent pessimism. I disagree with Corsair above that moral progress is impossible: slavery is outlawed in much of the world, the emancipation of women and removal of prohibitions on gay relationships are other examples. Sure, the wars of WW1 and WW2, not to mention the state killings in China, Russia etc were terrible, but in relative terms, so were the killings in the 30 Years’ War in the 17th century, witcg-burnings, the Spanish Inquisition, etc. And in material terms, progress is undeniable. In the West, infant mortality is way down from what it was in the start of the Industrial Revolution, many diseases no longer ravage life as they used to. I could go on but you get the point.

    If there is a clear definition for Gray, I would call him a sort of Green reactionary, with the usual tedious overlay of anti-Americanism, hatred of big business and a generally “glass-is-half-full” sense of life. Nothing remotely original about him at all.

    I must say though that the article Brian linked to was ferocious. I would not want that guy as an enemy.

  • Antonia Jones

    Perry, what moral progress has occurred in Britain recently?

    You’re clearly not a woman (‘bird’). Or black (‘wog’). Or disabled (‘cripple’). Or born out of wedlock (‘bastard’). Or decline to go to church (‘Godless’). And don’t get me started on the happy decline of that supreme marxist absurdity, ‘social class’.

    I’m not taking about politically correct laws but social progress towards a more moral approach to The Different. That is no small thing and is progress indeed.

    Our problems are that our politics have gotten worse as our morality has gotten better. We are not decorous or orderly but those are indications of entirely different things going wrong.

  • Paul Marks

    Some examples of Dr John Gray’s claims drawn from one of his recent works (drawn to my attention by, a generally favourable, review by Dr David Gordon on the Von Mises Institute blog – sorry I do not do links).

    There was a duel in writing between F.A. Hayek and J.M. Keynes over the latter’s “General Theory….” (1936).

    Simply not true.

    In fact Hayek often regreted that he had not attacked the “General Theory” waiting, rather, for Keynes to change his mind again (Keynes had changed his mind of the earlier “Treatice on Money” and Hayek regarded his careful refutation of its errors as wasted work).

    Keynes was a more perceptive thinker than Hayek.

    Simply absurd.

    The British economy during World War II shows a planned economy can work well and therefore refutes the calculation argument against socialism.

    This is to confuse capital consumption (eating overseas investments and domestic capital breakdown, such as the neglect of maintanence) with an economy.

    It also misunderstands the calculation argument – as this never denied that socialist (or semi socialist – as Britain was NOT fully socialist during World War II) regimes can copy capital prices from the outside world – with limited success for awhile.

  • Paul Marks

    “But your arguments are all about economics”.

    No – some of the examples above were also about the history of thought, and just general history (neither of which Dr Gray is very good on).

    “But what about pure political theory?”

    But I thought that Dr Gray was rather hostile to abstract political theory that ignores historical circumstances.

    Would not such a thing be “rationalist”

  • “Morality” and “rationality” are mutually contradictory, and ‘progress’ is a matter of definition.