For half a century Robert MacIver has made valuable contributions to our knowledge of politics and society. Though he is now over eighty years old and retired from his post at Columbia, he still continues his work—which is now represented by more than fifteen books. MacIver has combined moral and analytical purposes with a rare energy and distinction. But at the present time his reputation is somewhat diminished. He has paid in popularity for the want of both excess and mystification in his writings. He simply cannot satisfy the craving among students of politics for scientific appearances and brave perversities; as a result he is often considered amiable and outmoded. Yet his work conveys a better sense of political realities than that of almost any other political scientist, and his methods of moral persuasion meet the most rigorous standard of clarity and candor. There is no writer whose work could so usefully serve as a corrective to the drift of American political science—if only the need for a corrective were felt. Beyond fashion, his attainments have a continuing relevance.
The task MacIver set for himself from the beginning was to fight those tendencies in European and American thought which threatened to becloud political analysis or to damage the political institutions to which he was morally committed. In fact, he never separated analysis and commitment. He has always believed that wrong analysis inevitably leads to bad commitment, and that unless correct analysis has laid the groundwork for the right commitment, it would not survive hostile political fashions. The moral aim of all his books is central and consistent; to explain and defend the theory and practice of democratic government.
For MacIver the enemies are legion: apparently innocent philosophical doctrines as well as openly elitist political views must be countered; the democratic apologist has to be nearly omnicompetent if democracy is to be intellectually secure. In recent times only Karl Popper (in The Open Society and Its Enemies) has shown the same comprehensive sense of the function of the democratic theorist. But where Popper is sometimes insufferably tendentious, and at times really unfair, MacIver is always poised and, in his poise, often more effective. Where Popper reflects on political matters in pursuit of an overall philosophical clarity, MacIver approaches political phenomena as part of the totality of social relations. His enormous learning in anthropology and sociology is put at the disposal of political science, understood (as Plato understood it) as the “royal science,” the study to which all others are ancillary.
The opening pages of MacIver’s most profoundly searching book, The Modern State (1926), are devoted to differentiating the state from all other associations in society. At first sight this may appear to be unnecessarily fastidious. But when MacIver was writing, the English version of pluralism exercised some influence; and he rightly felt that no proper theory of democracy could be made until the claims of pluralism were reduced. Generous men like J. N. Figgis, Harold Laski, and G.D.H. Cole—appalled by the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.