Putting Politics Back Into Political Theory

Through the 1980s and 1990s, a common response to the communitarian challenge to political liberalism was: “scratch a communitarian, find a liberal.” In other words, when push came to shove, communitarians would align with liberal rather than antiliberal positions on any major political issue.

Much the same might be said of the present realist challenge to liberalism in political theory. As William Galston concluded in his magisterial overview of contemporary political realism, it isn’t yet clear whether realism merely represents a warning against liberalism’s utopian tendencies or a coherent philosophical alternative. Indeed, this is the central question of Edward Hall’s new book, Value, Conflict, and Order: Berlin, Hampshire, Williams, and the Realist Revival in Political Theory.

The Realist Revival

But what is the realist revival in political theory anyway? Some history is in order here. Since the publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice nearly a half-century ago, academic political philosophy has been dominated by a highly abstract approach, which seeks to deduce a moral theory that can serve as a kind of rulebook for designing institutions in a liberal society. This description would extend to other significant figures, including G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, and Jürgen Habermas.

The self-styled realist philosopher Raymond Guess has referred to this as the “ethics-first” approach, in which politics becomes the application of idealized ethical precepts across an entire society. Or as Glen Newey put it, “the major project in modern liberalism is to use ethics to contain the political.”

The realist revival is thus a rejection of mainstream political philosophy’s prioritization of abstract moral claims over the realities of political life. Hall describes the defining feature of political realism as “the idea that political theory is not, fundamentally, a matter of applying a predetermined moral theory to the political world because the distinctive character of politics changes how we should think about political questions from a normative perspective.” In contrast to the reigning high liberalism, which traces its intellectual lineage back to Immanuel Kant and treats political practices as subservient to moral verities, this realist tradition accords primacy to the realities imposed on us by politics.

There is, in other words, a distinctive sphere of human activity that we call politics (or sometimes, “the political”), with its own demands and standards of evaluative judgment. Hall insists that this need not result in moral relativism or nihilism concerning politics; it rather requires a theoretical inquiry into the ethical obligations that result from taking politics seriously on its own terms.

The attempt to re-establish the integrity of the political is perhaps realism’s central theme, though Hall identifies several others: the belief that contemporary philosophy is over-optimistic about the possibilities of realizing justice in human affairs; the essentially conflictual (if not necessarily violent) nature of political life; the importance of order and stability as first-order goods—naively underestimated by liberal optimists; and, finally, the perils of wishful thinking in theorizing how society might improve itself.

Though realists share a belief that the reigning mode of liberal idealism leaves something to be desired, there is not necessarily common agreement about what that might be. For some, there is a sense that liberal thought emphasizes administrative solutions at the expense of the dignity that real political engagement confers. Others hold that its moral commitments are insufficiently attentive to the practical problems of governing, from perennial security threats abroad to rising inequality at home. And for others still, it is simply that liberal thought has become stultifying and uninteresting, too content to work within the framework of established norms and institutions.

Hall assumes that there is such a recognizable and transhistorical sphere of human activity as the political. This assumption is hardly indefensible, but it certainly warrants defending rather than merely assuming.

The reader may note that much of the foregoing takes the form of critique. Yet it is Hall’s contention that there is a tradition of realist thought that goes beyond critique to form a constructive political theory, and it is to be found in the works of three 20th-century British philosophers: Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams.

Hall proves a sensitive reader of each thinker, in part because he is not committed to mindless boosterism; his readings acknowledge the weaknesses and inconsistencies in each thinker’s work, where he finds them. In each thinker’s case, he surveys a comprehensive body of work from which to extract a set of core teachings that might support a broader account of political realism.

Berlin’s chief contribution to realist theory is his value pluralism, which Hall identifies with the recognition that not all human goods can be reconciled within a single society. We may, for example, lament the cruelties of pagan Rome, but we cannot wholly forget its glories, from which its vices are inextricable. This in turn indicates the possibility of tragic conflict between or within political societies, which is not subject to theoretical resolution, because we are unlikely to agree on first principles.

Hampshire, meanwhile, provides a normative defense of the centrality of conflict to political affairs. Whereas other realists—Raymond Guess comes to mind—simply assume conflict is an irreducible fact of human life, Hampshire argues that a certain degree of conflict is in fact desirable insofar as it allows for greater human flourishing otherwise constrained by moralistic liberalism. The word “flourishing” here is not incidental: Hall shows Hampshire to be a thoughtful reader of Aristotle who recognizes that healthy political practice involves compromise among conflicting parties rather than mere consensus (these chapters could profitably be read alongside Bernard Yack’s Problems of a Political Animal). 

Hall divides Williams’ thought into two parts. The first delves deeply into Williams’ earlier writings on ethics and provides a brilliant synthesis of his minor and major works, in which Williams seeks to demonstrate that ethical thought and practice remains both possible and necessary in the absence of either Kantian or Christian moral certainty. The second focuses on Williams’ later and more explicitly political writings, in which he seeks to establish legitimacy as a more realistic standard than justice for evaluating the soundness of political regimes.

Each thinker has his limits or inconsistencies, duly noted by Hall: Berlin sought unconvincingly to posit a baseline of ineradicable liberal rights alongside his value pluralism, as a means of avoiding charges of pure relativism; Hampshire relies too heavily upon an implicit account of human nature, even as he seeks to put forward a theory of limited procedural justice; Williams was too sanguine that his version of critical theory would necessarily issue in a sturdy defense of liberal regimes.

Reviving the Political?

Hall is in fact such a careful critic and fair-minded sifter of each thinker’s ideas, that one is left in doubt about his central thesis. To return to the question posed at the outset: do the strongest elements of each thinker’s work combine to form the basis for a theoretical alternative to political liberalism? Here, I think the answer is no. If one peels one’s gaze from the dominant liberal thinkers of the moment, it is not clear that Berlin, Hampshire, or Williams offers much more in the way of “realism” than one finds through careful readings of the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville, Locke, Montesquieu, and on back to Hobbes and Spinoza, and perhaps beyond. To put it another way, what does the modifier “realist” add here? Does it describe a novel way of conceptualizing fundamental political problems, or does it merely entail the rejection of a certain idealistic turn in late 20th-century liberal philosophy—one whose excesses were avoided by generations of earlier liberal thinkers?

Ultimately, Hall underrates his own project by treating it as primarily exegetical. The thoughtfulness and care of his readings, his clear prose, and general bon sens give promise that he himself might yet produce the constructive realist theory that he claims to have found. That project, however, would face certain difficulties. I want to briefly outline what I see as the main problems—shared by all three thinkers but not mentioned by Hall—with any attempt to construct a viable body of realist political theory on its own legs.

First, throughout this book, Hall assumes (and treats his three thinkers as also assuming) that there is such a recognizable and transhistorical sphere of human activity as the political. This assumption is hardly indefensible, but it certainly warrants defending rather than merely assuming. Many thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Sheldon Wolin to Max Weber have plausibly argued that our present situation falls short of the engaged practices of deliberation and contestation that we would rightly call politics. If one is going to insist on the autonomy of the political sphere, it is first necessary to lay out an explicit justification of one’s understanding of politics.

Second, the thinkers under discussion have an agent problem: who is their work for? Is it meant to assist those living under non-liberal or quasi-anarchic conditions—as early-modern European political thought did? Or, is it meant to assist those already living in liberal societies who seek better tools for managing domestic strife and foreign threats than is presently on offer among contemporary theory? By failing to situate their ideas accordingly, each thinker under discussion comes a bit closer to the “view from nowhere” that Hall himself seeks to avoid. Consequently, realism risks neither presenting compelling alternatives to our present political horizons—as the best political theory does—nor offering clear counsel to princes and peoples.

One of realism’s core insights is that power and interest continue to operate within the institutions of a notionally liberal society

Finally, despite the repeated invocation of the importance of concrete particulars in political life, there is precious little discussion by Hall’s chosen thinkers of specific political events or institutions. One would expect political realists to focus more heavily on particular examples drawn from history as a way of working out a more inductive theoretical understanding—as Michael Walzer did in his Just and Unjust Wars. Ironically, perhaps, the realists exhibit a similar detachment from the history of actual politics as do their theoretical opponents. Berlin in fact wrote many wonderful essays on real statesmen, which provide a useful window into this own thinking, but these do not feature heavily in Hall’s discussion of his thought.

If, as Williams says (cribbing from Goethe), in the beginning was the deed, then the best place to begin is with the patient reconstruction and analysis of past deeds. How did actual citizens and statesmen see the field of political action, and how might we evaluate their decision-making in light of our own increasingly theoretical understanding of what politics requires?

Of course, to establish, even provisionally, such a theoretical understanding presupposes some idea of human nature or the good. This need not imply a “moral” teaching; it rather inheres in the logic of realist arguments. Claims that conflict is either endemic or desirable, or that order always takes priority over justice, implicitly rely upon some prior claim about what we are and what we want. Otherwise, realist theory’s purpose will be reduced to ratifying post facto the success of decisions undertaken by political actors. Realism may eschew a grand theoretical statement that could serve as a model for designing political institutions, but it needs to do more than reaffirm the status quo to stand on its own as political theory.

It should be said that there is nothing wrong with a body of realist political theory that primarily functions as a critique of liberalism from within the horizon of liberal politics. The horrors of the 20th century remain fresh enough for us to look at more radical and comprehensive attacks from the right or the left (whether Schmittian or Foucaultian or otherwise) with no small amount of trepidation. At the same time, one of realism’s core insights is that power and interest continue to operate within the institutions of a notionally liberal society, and this is perhaps a truth that is insufficiently acknowledged by the reigning high priests of liberalism.  

Indeed, a naïvely moralistic and abstract version of liberalism is particularly ill-suited to defend itself against attack from those who have not already bought into the primary claims of liberal democracy. And this is true not only in a rhetorical sense, but also for the practical purposes of addressing the weaknesses in contemporary liberal societies that have made extreme alternatives appear newly attractive.

While we may have doubts about the sturdiness of the realist revival as a discrete philosophical project, it undoubtedly holds valuable lessons for the practice of politics—which was always its focus. And in our troubled times, one could do worse than cleave to their core insights: that order is precious and hard won, that citizens ought to see their differences as something to be managed rather than overcome, and that the stakes are very high indeed.


U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii addresses the National Guard Association of the United States 138th General Conference, Baltimore, Md., Sept. 12, 2016. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill)

The Woke and the Dead

The Democratic primary may well offer the most demanding test of virtue-signaling ever yet devised outside of Ivy League presidential searches.