Monday 5 January 2009

In defence of Bernard Crick

Sunder's post on Bernard Crick, just before the holidays, asked for further thoughts on Crick, particularly in the light of Anthony Barnett's more sceptical views. So here are some further thoughts....

First, to some extent Sunder and myself, on the one hand, and Anthony Barnett on the other, are talking about different aspects of Crick. Sunder and I make a case for Crick's continuing relevance and importance as a political theorist. Our focus is on the value of his written work. Although Anthony Barnett makes some reference to Crick's written work, his focus is much more on Crick as a political activist. For example, Anthony Barnett is sceptical of applying the label 'democratic republican' to Crick because of what he sees as Crick's failure to give Charter 88 proper support in the 1992 election campaign.

It is possible that both points of view are correct. They do not contradict each other as they apply to different aspects of Crick's life and work. So even if one were to concede Anthony Barnett's criticisms of Crick, they would not challenge the claim that Sunder and I make about the value of Crick's written work. Nor would they imply that it is somehow inappropriate to apply the label 'democratic republican' to the substantive political theory which Crick sets out in this work.

But should we concede Anthony Barnett's criticism of Crick as a political activist?

I am not really in a position to make an informed judgment on this, having had absolutely no experience of Crick as an activist. But it is worth noting that the evidence which Anthony Barnett presents could be read in different ways.

Perhaps Crick thought that Charter 88's activities in the 1992 general election would be counterproductive in democratic republican terms: that the priority was to get Labour elected, or at least get the Conservatives out, as a precondition for any constitutional reform, and that since (in his view) Charter 88's activities made this less likely, the democratic republican option was in fact to stop supporting Charter 88. I am not in a position to say whether such a judgment was right; but if this is what Crick thought, then one can see his jumping ship not as a repudiation of democratic republicanism but as a tough political judgment about how best to advance it.

All political activists face balancing acts of this kind. One supports a party because of its rough correspondence to one's philosophy. But parties are always only rough embodiments of philosophies, and they will usually do lots of things that contradict one's values. What do you do when this happens? Go into full-on oppositional mode because of what the party is doing? Or support the party, perhaps because you think it still has the most potential to promote what one values in the future? Reasonable people will and do disagree about the answers to such questions when they arise, as they do on a daily basis, in political life. At one particular point, in 1992, Crick made a choice of this kind. Maybe it was the wrong choice. But he would hardly be the only political activist to have done that.

However, the basic point is that whatever one thinks of Crick as an activist, the case for his continuing relevance and importance rests not with his biography but with his writings. These remain relevant and important because they contribute to the ongoing development of a democratic republican public philosophy, a philosophy which emphasizes that democracy is not about simply counting heads, or 'aggregating preferences', but about mutual discussion and argument; and, related to this, about popular participation in public fora, not consumerism-modified-by-occasional-vote. (I am sure that Anthony Barnett agrees with all of that.)

This is not to say that Crick's work as a theorist didn't have its limitations. For example, I am not sure his work addresses in enough depth the political economy of democratic republicanism. Just how far is a democratic republican polity consistent with a capitalist economy? What modifications of, or limitations to, capitalism are necessary for a democratic republican polity to be feasible? How do developments within contemporary capitalism affect the prospects for democratic republicanism? These are important questions for democratic republicanism, but I am not sure Crick's work is where you will find the answers to them.

However, like George Orwell (and, further back, Tom Paine), Crick's work does have the virtue of marrying style with substance. Crick believed that 'theory' should be written in accessible prose, not academic, or pseudo-academic, jargonese. In this respect, above all, I am certain that he was a great model of, and for, democratic republican citizenship.

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