The Anti-Modern Marxism of Alasdair MacIntyre

Over seven decades, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has advanced one of the most radical critiques of capitalist modernity. But in opposing modernity, he has denied a key insight of Marxism: socialism must develop, not reject, capitalism’s dynamism.

The WPA mural New Deal by Charles Wells, from the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building and US Courthouse, Trenton, New Jersey, circa 1935. (VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images)

For the average European, America is both horrifying and alluring in the same way that for the average socialist, modernity is both horrifying and alluring. The United States is, as the philosopher Jean Baudrillard remarked during a tour of the country at the height of the Reagan era, “a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence.” But, sitting in a Manhattan bar or racing toward a vanishing point on an endless empty freeway, it is hard to shake the feeling that among this mess there is “something of the dawning of the universe.”

Steeped in the writings of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx, the philosopher and member of the New Left Alasdair MacIntyre’s thinking has been torn between two impulses. These are an old-world concern with community and belonging, threatened by industrial modernity, and a Marxist commitment to progress. Born in Glasgow in 1929, MacIntyre’s most significant writings were published well after any serious thinker could uncritically hold onto the idea of progress.

The Britain of his formative years was a nation in terminal decline; the Soviet Union was, for the Trotskyist MacIntyre, not a socialist country; and the United States’ use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had guaranteed that future wars would be existential threats not just for the belligerents but humanity as a whole.

What are the political options available to someone who both recognizes the scale of the defeat of the Left and holds on to the Marxist view that the strange world being fashioned by capitalism provides tools for human emancipation? MacIntyre’s writing has largely been concerned with fleshing out an answer to this question.

Despite living the majority of his life in the United States, MacIntyre is perhaps better known in the UK. There he spent the first part of his life enmeshed in the circles of the early British New Left alongside Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Walzer of Dissent magazine, Charles Taylor, and Tony Cliff, the founder of the International Socialists, a movement that counted among its members the journalist Christopher Hitchens and his brother Peter.

A newly translated, posthumously published book — its author was a French fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before he passed away at thirty-seven in 2010 — Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography by Émile Perreau-Saussine seeks to defend the Scottish philosopher’s standing as one of the most profound theorists of capitalist modernity on either side of the Atlantic.

Caught Between Worlds?

Perreau-Saussine’s Alasdair MacIntyre: An Intellectual Biography is more “intellectual” than “biography.” In this respect, it is in line with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s adage that all students of Aristotle needed to know about the Greek thinker was that “he was born, he thought, he died.” This is of course partly because MacIntyre has often kept his cards close to his chest and shied away from writing about his own life. “To write a worthwhile autobiography,” he once remarked, “you need either the wisdom of an Augustine or the shamelessness of a [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau,” a thinker who wrote about exposing his naked body to onlookers in his Confessions.

For Perreau-Saussine, the central intellectual problems with which MacIntyre was concerned were the moral vacuity of liberalism and Stalinism, the possibility of the common good and collective reasonings in an individualistic age, and the secularization of politics. Despite his explicit commitment to not sullying himself with trivial matters, along the way we do learn a great deal about MacIntyre’s life and how it informed his unique blend of Marxist-Catholic Scholasticism.

MacIntyre was born into a middle-class, Presbyterian, Gaelic-speaking family of doctors from the west coast of Scotland. He soon moved down to London’s working-class East End in the 1930s, where his parents treated a population of industrial workers during the Great Depression. MacIntyre was sent to a private boarding school, Epsom College, in the home counties, the Tory heartlands surrounding London, and spent his teenage years among what the English might refer to as the upper-middle class.

Consequently, he came to understand himself as a figure living between two worlds: “a Gaelic oral culture of farmers and fishermen, poets and storytellers” and “[a] modern world . . . a culture of theories rather than stories.” Given that his parents were educated members of the professional class, this characterization perhaps relied on some idealization. Nevertheless, this tension — real or perceived — would stay with MacIntyre for the rest of his life as he navigated, first, an epoch of competing Cold War universalisms and then the age of fragmented relativism that characterized his adopted home of the United States in the 1990s and 2000s. He would find all these twentieth-century totalities, Stalinist communism, liberal capitalism, and fascism, to be morally flawed while also rejecting a postmodern abandonment of grand historical narratives.

Returning to the East End, MacIntyre would go on to study classics at Queen Mary College, University of London, in 1945. In the bombed-out shell of postwar London, he would read Aristotle  and join the Communist Party of Great Britain, which elected its first MP in the nearby Mile End.

Amid the ruins of the largest, at that time, city on earth, the center of what had been considered by liberal capitalists to be the most advanced modern nation, MacIntrye must have contemplated Aristotle’s argument in the Politics that “every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good. . . . The state . . . which is the highest of all . . . aims at good in a greater degree.”

As MacIntyre reflected on the notion that the state should magnify the community’s search for the good, he sat in the rubble of a war lost by a genocidal regime and won by states that had maintained empires, racial segregation, and extrajudicial purges. Was this evidence that the causal link between the morality of the community and the poliscentral to Aristotle’s thinking, was broken?

At the same time, MacIntrye encountered the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a thinker who argued that the deep metaphysical problems with which traditional philosophy had typically been concerned were the result of linguistic confusion. Marx would join Aristotle and Wittgenstein as one of MacIntrye’s greatest influences. Alloying these three thinkers, he would advance a moral critique of Stalinism. Socialist politics for MacIntrye must respect diverse “forms of life” contained within what Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) had called “language games.”

Inspired by Aristotle, he argued that the lives of individuals in communities could not, as Stalinism imagined, be seen as means for the realization of some greater plan; they were, instead, meaningful ends themselves. MacIntyre understood this as an invalidation of both the late Marx’s historical materialism and the Enlightenment liberalism of Cold War America. His move to a pluralistic vision of socialism coincided with the rise of multiple left-wing nationalist, anti-imperialist, and local socialisms, independent of the Soviet Union and emerging from the process of decolonization.

MacIntyre’s vision of socialism hit at the heart of Marxism’s claim to universalism. It posed the question, could effective socialist movements be generated better at the local and micro levels where particularities abound? According to Perreau-Saussine, in response to a chaotic veering away from linear historical progress, MacIntyre asked: “Following Trotsky, how can one still be a Marxist after the failure of most of the predictions made by the ultra-determinist Marx?”

A New Left

These disagreements would eventually push MacIntyre away from old left-wing paradigms. He rejected, in turn, Soviet Marxism-Leninism, Western social democracy, and the British tradition of pragmatic trade unionism conceptualized by Tom Nairn as “labourism” in the New Left Review in 1964. Instead, MacIntyre, along with many thinkers of his generation, would find themselves caught between front lines, outraged by both the Soviet Union’s interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the capitalist camp’s imperialism, consumerism, and hostility toward socialism. This generation would formulate a New Left tradition based on social and cultural theory. This would not be enough for MacIntyre, who would eventually feel alienated as much of the New Left swung toward relativist postmodernism in the 1970s.

During the postwar boom in which both Moscow and the social democratic states of the West benefited from rapid economic growth, young left-wingers started to question the fundamentals of these two models. Both, critics argued, failed to move beyond a passive conception of citizenship. Rising living standards could not, on their own, legitimate the political systems of the communist and capitalist blocs. This pessimism about the successes of the postwar era was in stark contrast to the often rosy-eyed picture of the period put forward by the social democratic left. During the welfarist administration of British prime minister Clement Attlee, Perreau-Saussine points out that MacIntyre considered: “growing abundance . . . [as] not enough to promote democratic community.”

Of course, the restriction of socialism to purely developmental aims had its origin in the economic and political context in which both social democratic and communist governments were forced to govern. Both confronted polities ravaged by war and poverty. Throughout much of what we now call the developing world, socialism was seen as a gateway to industrial modernity.

The first generation of the British New Left, including MacIntyre, would seek to renew a socialism that had, according to Perreau-Saussine, “slid from a neo-Hegelian humanism to a markedly more materialist and economist position . . . [because] the struggle against the impoverishment of the proletariat had to take precedence over the safeguarding or renewal of human solidarity.” This program would be outlined in his Marxism: An Interpretation (1953) — published when MacIntyre was twenty-four years old — and Marxism and Christianity (1968).

Ironically, MacIntyre’s focus on regional differences between different forms of socialism and the noneconomic aspects of Marxism overstated the extent to which abundance and consumerism were prevalent across the globe. The failing of capitalism was not that it produced too much abundance, but that it produced too little.

In 2022, a generation of people across the developed and the developing world are reckoning with decades of lost productivity, underinvestment, sky-high income inequality, poor public services, unreachably expensive basic commodities, and an environment that is placing hard limits on humanity’s industrial growth through fossil fuels. Faced with these crises, what seems clear is that the economic analysis of the Old Left — which focused on questions of production and distribution of wealth — is more relevant than ever.

Universal and Particular

Nevertheless, MacIntyre’s interest in noneconomically determined relations and community still has value. However, the suggestion that it might offer an alternative to labor organizing and political-economic thinking is misguided. Instead, MacIntyre’s work serves to remind us of the higher goals of socialism.

Despite his retreat from the clash between universalism and relativism, MacIntyre does offer a useful critique of liberal democracy. Unlike other New Leftists committed to “neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism,” MacIntyre did not weaken his criticism or default to a defense of liberalism and capitalism once the Cold War wound down and the United States stood as the victor in a unipolar world.

For MacIntyre, contemporary liberalism, heavily influenced by the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, is far too concerned with managing threats, internal and external, from its perceived enemies rather than advancing a positive vision of the common good. The limitation of this perspective is that, as Perreau-Saussine neatly puts it, “by keeping only to the perspective of what is evil, we run the risk of dangerously narrowing our range of vision.”

Instead, MacIntyre holds onto the possibility of communities that are not incommensurate with liberalism but certainly separate, democratic, and guided by a pursuit of their own ideas of the common good gained through a shared sense of rationality rooted in cultural traditions. These spaces, rather than the liberal state or civil society, are the building blocks of moral, and therefore political, life. MacIntyre’s investment in these ideal communities goes someway to explaining his strange decision, in 1969, to move to the United States.

There, at the center of global capitalism, MacIntyre was best able to cultivate his own persona as both embedded in and opposed to the dominant traditions of the West. This move is explained brilliantly by Perreau-Saussine:

Why did MacIntyre leave Europe in 1969? Why did he need to immigrate into the United States . . . the most liberal of the commercial republics? Beyond the Atlantic, MacIntyre discovered the possibility of not being of his time. . . . For there, one can profit from the liberal separation of the state and civil society to critique liberalism. . . . His theory of the primacy of traditions presupposes liberalism’s success: it comes after liberalism.

It would be in America, among the diversity of traditions that liberalism tolerates, that MacIntyre would convert to Catholicism and write his major works of ethical philosophy attacking the moral vacuity at the heart of what he saw as a mechanistic, artificial system stripped of meaning. These works are Against the Self-Images of the Age (1971), After Virtue (1981), Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), and Dependent Rational Animals (1999).

In these books, MacIntyre moves toward an atypical conservative traditionalism while retaining much of his earlier Marxist critique of capitalism and liberalism. His focus would shift to proposing an ethical life lived in a localized community, withdrawing from the thorny issues of theorizing mass politics within industrial modernity. Instead, a fulfilling life could be found in the cracks ignored by the liberal and capitalist system — in the traditions that resist, survive, and, perhaps, undermine it. If the narrowness of liberalism would not allow for the realization of the common good on the level of the state, it might tolerate it at the local level.

Indeed, MacIntyre, currently resident at Notre Dame University as an emeritus professor, has identified scholarship, alongside chess, medicine, science, painting and football, as potential, although fragile, respites from consumerism, managerialism, and the aimlessness of the liberal world. According to MacIntyre’s After Virtue, these activities all contain their own “internal goods” accessed through self-sustaining rules or “practical reason.” This desire for internal meaning is supposed to be an antidote to the growing sense of agoraphobic angst in the vast fields, shopping malls, and suburban spread of modern America.

No Alternative?

Importantly, as MacIntyre settled into life in the United States, society had become fast moving and exciting. It had also become a cruel, atomized, and meaningless place under the neoliberal regime of Ronald Reagan. That the most advanced form of society coincided with the most brutalizing and violent social relations was a problem that deeply troubled MacIntyre.

Despite the clear limits of a postwar capitalism that had reached a phase of decadence under the leadership of a minor film star, MacIntyre did not seek to renew the old Marxist project. Writing in After Virtue, he argued:

A Marxist who took Trotsky’s last writings with great seriousness would be forced into a pessimism quite alien to the Marxist tradition, and in becoming a pessimist he would in an important way have ceased to be a Marxist. For he would now see no tolerable alternative set of political and economic structures which could . . . replace the structures of advanced capitalism. This conclusion agrees of course with my own. . . . This exhaustion is shared by every other political tradition within our culture.

Instead, for MacIntyre, what matters at this stage “is the construction of local forms of community within which . . . the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages.” That is a monastic withdrawal in anticipation of better times.

But can anyone, faced with the horrors of global poverty, which even in the so-called rich world leaves children without food, seriously wish to become a modern equivalent to the monks of Iona, sheltering at the edge of the world and hiding relics in the basement while capitalist Vikings bash down the door?

Here, the old socialist bromides are truer than profound attempts to reinvent the wheel. Philosophers really only interpret the world; the point should be to change it — or at least try to.