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September 19, 2005

The LSE Right on the Peterhouse Right: Kenneth Minogue on Maurice Cowling, the Conservative as Social Critic

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Kenneth Minogue - Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics - reflects upon Maurice Cowling and his influence.

How might one characterise Maurice Cowling? You couldn't call him a libertarian, though he had plenty of free and easy ways. He wasn't in fact peddling some improving doctrine. The last thing he wanted for his pupils at Peterhouse was to subject them to a message. Anyone attempting to label him would merely invite his characteristic derision, since he disliked being labelled and defined even more than the rest of us. So we must start by settling for "conservative don".

Maurice taught history and politics at Cambridge from 1961 to 1993. He died in August, just short of his 80th year, and his death cannot but alert us to the bland lifelessness of so much academia today, quivering as it does, under the lash of various petty tyrannies of bureaucracy and right thinking. It was not, however, such recent tyrannies attacking the free life that particularly provoked him. His main target was a kind of pious high mindedness that he detected lurking behind the dominant liberalism of political life and the deceptive pretence of impartiality in a lot of academic writing. His disdain for false piety was noisy and robust. He wrote many books fizzing with ideas, but he never made professor at Cambridge. Being, at some levels of his personality, a man of dauntless self-confidence, he never worried about the fact that he was making enemies. In a world dominated by a certain decorum about the managing of controversy and an addiction to consensus, he deliberately set out to be offensive and destructive.

The key to understanding Maurice, then, was the relation between his character and his writings. The character was aggressive, and marked by an addiction to personalising the world that sometimes suggested that he had never outgrown the dormitory teasing of some public boarding school. In fact, of course, he had been educated at Battersea Grammar, and his boisterousness was home grown. The other dominant feature of his life was its parochiality. Once settled in Cambridge, he became intensely involved in the life of Peterhouse. Making mischief in College affairs was perhaps his central relaxation. He succeeded in getting Hugh Trevor Roper (Lord Dacre) made master of the College, supporting Dacre (as he later claimed) as the candidate most likely "to serve everyone right" including those who had put him there. This prediction, he later observed with sardonic glee, was amply fulfilled in all respects. It happens that I once spent two hours flying back from a conference in Berlin with Lord Dacre, and he devoted the entire time to denouncing the deviousness and trickery of the dons he had had to govern.

Explaining why Maurice was academically significant is not easy, since it is an exercise in trying to turn one of Isaiah Berlin's foxes into a hedgehog. What could be the "one big thing" that absorbed him? My candidate for this role is his belief that conservatism constitutes a tool of inquiry. In academic terms, such a principle is absurd, because conservatism is evaluative. It is commitment and advocacy, whereas academic inquiry is explanatory. In being explanatory, it presents to the world a set of hypotheses and evidences in the process of being weighed for their adequacy. It was precisely this blandness that infuriated Maurice, because he thought it often concealed a strong will to power. These dons flaunting their academic credentials were actually making a bid to influence a world they were purporting to explain. Maurice did not merely detect this concealed advocacy. He went after it like an avenging spirit, as if the pose of being above the battle were a putrescence of the human spirit. He judged that much that purported to be academic in the writing for example of such people as Arnold Toynbee, A. N. Whitehead, Bertrand Russell and others was actually a kind of prophecy. This is what he called "public doctrine".

"Public doctrine" was important in social and political life because it sets in some degree the limits within which rulers must operate. Rulers will certainly need to keep in mind what their subjects believe about such matters as the purpose of human life, the possibilities of improving society, equality and inequality in the modern world, the value of the elements (such as classes, races, cultures) of which society is composed, and so on. It will thus be clear that "public doctrine" was quite distinct from political theory, though it might include elements of explicit political argument. Such a body of thought (if it can seriously be called "a body of thought") is clearly highly miscellaneous. His quest for nosing out where this thing might be found sent Maurice into some very odd places, so that he had an encyclopaedic knowledge not only of academic writing, but also of sermons, political speeches, pamphlets, broadsheets and every other location in which public doctrine might be found.

He made confident judgements about what well-known dons and public figures were "about". Indeed, he included many lesser-known figures in his trawl for the evidence of public doctrine, so that at times his work ends as a list of people on some single doctrinal track. What then prevents "public doctrine" from spilling out of any container and ending up as one of Churchill's plotless "puddings".

Maurice hinted at an answer to this question in the preface to his second volume:

Doctrine ought to mean a teaching that is formal, authorized and explicit. But in England such teaching can scarcely be said to exist. In England there is a sea of voices with a plurality of doctrines which are joined together by the liberal doctrine that plurality is desirable. In these circumstances even thinkers who avoid doctrine have a more doctrinal effect than they intend, and the history of doctrine must be nothing less than the whole history of the intelligentsia.
This is why he regarded the basic corruption of public life as liberalism.

Public doctrine flourishes within the context of national life, and in earlier centuries the questions to which it responded would have been given by Christian doctrine. There is thus a sense in which the idea of "public doctrine" is Maurice's way of saying that a great deal that is otherwise puzzling about the modern world may be understood by recognising Christianity's curious decline into virtual silence as it responded to an aggressively secular modern state.

It was characteristic of Maurice's work to pay close attention to theological and ecclesiastical matters that in most academic writing were taken as marginal, anachronistic and outdated. A great deal of public doctrine, in both its academic and non-academic forms, could thus be construed as (to use a phrase from another context) "spilt religion". But when the explicitly religious disappears from sight, it commonly turns into pompous and high-minded piety. It is this nexus of ideas that drove Maurice towards realism. The place of religion in Maurice's thought is a subject in its own right. A youthful aspiration towards clerical orders had been abandoned, and he was not a practising Christian but a powerful drive in his personality told him that he ought to be. An unfashionable respect for religion did at least supply him with a powerful base from which to sneer at the fancied superiorities of self satisfied secular piety.

If you think this is not altogether clear, then the only solution is to see what Maurice did with it, in the form of his three large volumes covering British thought and politics over the last two centuries. Religion and Public Doctrine in England is a work no less miscellaneous than its explicit subject matter. In one sense, it is a masterly account of what the educated classes in Britain were thinking during the previous century and more. On the other hand, it does not ask the kinds of questions an intellectual historian would bring to the subject, and it is illuminated by Maurice's idea of what these people were "up to". It is certainly pithy and direct. Consider an example, taken almost at random from the third volume. It concerns an early twentieth century worthy called L. T. Hobhouse who virtually invented "the new Liberalism" and ended as the founding professor of sociology at the London School of Economics from 1907 to 1929. Maurice wrote:

Once arrived in Oxford, he became an admirer of the usual people Browning, Comte, Spencer, Mazzini and Mill and remained an admirer of Green's moral and political doctrine even after his philosophy tutors had cured him of Green's philosophy.
A more conventional historian of thought would have taken several pages to make the same points as are conveyed here. And the conventional don would not have come clean about the sources of his own view of the limitations of Hobhousian thought. Maurice was, one might say, a special kind of participatory historian. He got down there on the floor of controversy and slugged it out!

Conservatism also becomes "a method of inquiry" because it highlights, by its contrast with academic neutrality, those elements of the understanding that have been inherited from past times, in the form of arguments that had been far more frankly and honestly polemical than the academic forms of prophecy that have in our time come to supplant them. Maurice followed, to a fault, the cynical or Marxist line that utterances about the world are all "performatives" designed to play a persuasive role in argument, and he further believed that the argument was always about some politico-religious issue. It was impossible to say anything honest about such a nexus of thought without at the same time being straight about one's own position. In academic discourse, every social and political commitment is generally up for critical examination - except the premises of that process of critical examination itself.

The attack on conservatism rests upon the assumption that past positions were mere prejudices in the process of being supplanted by reason. It was precisely this assumption that Maurice rejected. The very fact of conservative affirmations inherited from the past dramatised the fact that academic inquiry into the human world rested upon norms and standpoints that can be nothing else but arbitrary. This is often concealed behind high-minded professions of virtue, and it was these that infuriated Maurice. As he remarked in The Impact of Hitler, "principles are manifestations of personality no less than interests and passions". It is along these lines that he argued that "public speech in a democracy is functional", and that "democratic speech conceals both its hand and its mind" it requires interpretation.

Much of Cowling's writing was concerned to reveal the political calculations that can be smoked out from behind the pose of impartiality. Such calculations often took on the disguise of idealistic aspirations, and exploding the concealed connection between power and morality was the thing that gave a critical edge to Maurice's work: what were these people up to? The exposure of the hidden bias of others is usually, of course, made by critics who are not always honest about their own partisanship. This was not Maurice's way. He countered what he regarded as the flabby pieties of liberalism and academic impartiality with a robust political commitment of his own. No one was ever in doubt about where he stood.

Maurice's central concern, then, was with rhetoric (or discourse, as they say these days). Both the political and the academic forms of utterance could in their different ways serve to conceal the purposes and interests of the utterer. Like any Marxist bloodhound, Maurice was soon on the scent of interests concealed behind the familiar mystifications of conventional wisdom. He was not averse to describing himself as a "Tory Marxist". You might call him not so much a philosopher of suspicion as one of its historians.

In some moods, Maurice was a pessimist, with a strong sense of contemporary decadence. At one point he quotes Scott-King's remark at the end of Evelyn Waugh's short novella Scott-King's Modern Europe (available in the collection Work Suspended and Other Stories, Evelyn Waugh, Penguin Modern Classics, 2000). Scott-King is a schoolmaster being asked by the head to teach some history because the demand for classics is falling, and it is necessary to prepare boys for the modern world. Scott-King gravely replies:

I think, headmaster, it would be a very wicked thing to prepare a boy for the modern world.
Yet that is just what Maurice did, and he was a great success at it.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics. To read further reflections by Social Affairs Unit authors on Maurice Cowling and his influence, see Maurice Cowling (1926-2005).


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