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 deification of the state in the writings of both radicals and reactionaries, and horrified by the sacrifices made to the secular god in the First World War—sought to deflate the theory of state sovereignty, which holds that the state is superior in dignity and primary in its operations to any other social institution. Intensely liberal though he was, MacIver realized that attack on the state would, however unintentionally, destroy freedom and individuality. The highest values could not be served without a locus for the common good, a repository for the idea that men were similar as well as diverse, that they had common interests as well as separate or conflicting interests, and were citizens as well as farmers and doctors. The result was MacIver’s careful explication of the concept of the state, an explication that has never been bettered: “…political law is unique, and in its uniqueness alone rests the distinctiveness of political sovereignty…. The state, then, because of its rigid, unbroken, coercive framework of political law, has a permanence and fixity that distinguishes it from all other associations…. The state…maintains within a community territorially demarcated the universal external conditions of social order.”

On the other hand, MacIver’s analysis, originally directed at the English pluralists, is now capable of being turned on those political scientists who in recent years have denied that political phenomena can be unique, and turned the study of politics into the study of organization per se or all relations of power and authority. It is not so much the dignity of the state as its mortal seriousness that is at issue. And MacIver’s work of definition is an invaluable resource for political scientists who resist the erosion of the very concept of the political.

From his first book, the brilliant Community (1917), to his crowning work, The Web of Government (1947), and after, MacIver also fought hard against those who prized the state too highly. Community contains forty splendid pages exposing the varieties of Hegelian metaphor for the state—metaphors that blurred or effaced the line that fences off the political from the private, the social, the cultural. Whether the state is likened to an organism, or to a super mind or soul, or is described as “greater than the sum of its parts,” possessing an interest distinct from those of its subjects, MacIver patiently tamed the metaphor for the sake of accuracy and humanist principles. The sociologist in MacIver asserted itself whenever the concept of the state was detached from its social setting. The moralist rebelled whenever the state’s role as servant of the community was transformed into that of father or master. As he put it in The Web of Government: “This eminent difference [between the state and other associations] does not signify, as many have pretended, that the state, the realm of government, is the same thing as the social order itself. It does not signify that all other social organizations are merely parts of the inclusive political organization. It does not signify that citizenship comprises the whole duty of man or sums up all his relationships.”


There are other patterns of thought that MacIver found harmful; these are present in democratic orthodoxy itself. In several of his books, but especially In The Ramparts We Guard (1950), he took issue with a certain excessive realism that had come to dominate, and today still dominates, American political science. The discovery that much of politics is pressure politics, that many public officials are brokers for urgent interests rather than delegates of the popular will or trustees of the democratic ethos, and that the part played by the mass of people in democratic politics is vague, sporadic, and easily manipulated, proved quite intoxicating. Aspects of reality supplanted the whole reality; and faithfulness to the facts gradually became a love of them. To MacIver, whose strong sociological sense of politics was plain from the outset, this emphasis on the importance of organized interests and impure motives could hardly be surprising. And against this trend he set himself. The fact that the great political theorists, especially Plato and Rousseau, had helped train his political mind, strengthened his realism, while preserving him from the wrong kind of fascination with reality. Thus his earliest book (Community) provides a fully developed theory of group interest as the heart of political life while in The Modern State the absolute indispensability of political parties to the democratic process is persuasively maintained in the face of purist distaste for such extra-constitutional “factions.” Furthermore, MacIver was never in any doubt that democracy did not literally mean rule by the people, and that the Athenian model of direct democracy was not only irrelevant but indeed inferior to the best modern practice. Yet the people do matter greatly, and MacIver tried to get the realists to see in what why this is so. The stuff of everyday politics is the clash of interests and parties—the business of a tiny fraction of the population—and the people en masse seem to be under-heel or on the sidelines. It nevertheless remains true that without a background of general consensus—a uniform though unsophisticated attachment to democratic principles—the limited battles between factions and the devising of temporary majorities could not take place. Politics would be à l’outrance. Beyond particular interests there is a common good which is the preservation of the democratic culture as a whole and its gradual enrichment by appropriate policy. The interest theory of democratic politics—which prevails today—is therefore partial in its account of the real world. By its cynicism it also tends to undermine the sustaining sentiments of democracy. (MacIver yielded only once to the coarseness of his profession. In The Web of Government he used the word “myth” to name all systems of belief.)

MacIver’s work is filled with many other durable riches: his insistence that analysis necessarily involves a teleological understanding, and that study of social life on the model of any natural science leads to a Martian incomprehension; his elegant discussion in The Web of Government Of the way in which the practice of politics is an art; his cautious defense of the view that a centrally planned economy is incompatible with democracy in Democracy and the Economic Challenge; his historical treatment of forms of government; his critique of Marxism as a method of historical explanation in Social Causation and other writings; his early statement of the welfarist position in political economy in Labor in the Changing World.

But it would be a mistake to think of MacIver simply as a remarkable Aufklaerer. All his major books are illuminated by a vision of the movement of history, a variant of the liberal theory of progress. His latest book, Power Transformed, is his most comprehensive utterance on this theme. And though the book is modest, its style relaxed, the old strength is there.


For MacIver the course of history offers some consolation for the prevailing beastliness its record contains. Sounding at times like Hegel, his favorite antagonist, he suggests that history can be read as the story of the growth of human freedom. In Power Transformed, a number of stages of this growth are detected, each contributing to the same end: the abolition or reduction, in more and more places, of certain species of hereditary, arbitrary, or irrational power, and the consequent enlargement of the possibilities for the moral and esthetic improvement of the human personality. The stages singled out for special attention are, the end of tribal society, the rise of the democratic principle, the end of slavery, and the end of colonialism. (MacIver includes in the series neither the emergence of atheism nor the Marxist concept of exploitation.) This book and its predecessors contain traces of a belief in the necessity of this development; in any case, the motor power is supplied by technological and scientific advance and by a corresponding realization on the part of the oppressed that their condition can be changed. In expounding his argument, MacIver also provides a general disquisition on the varieties of power, and the limitations and appropriate uses of each kind. In spite of a rambling first section on recent history, Power Transformed is subtle and impressive, and reminds us, if we needed to be reminded, that MacIver is the true inheritor of the tradition of Mill.

This Issue

March 25, 1965