Macpherson’s interpretation of the theories of Hobbes, Locke and others sparked energetic criticisms from scholars including Quentin Skinner, Isaiah Berlin, John Dunn, David Miller, John Pocock, and James Tully. References and summaries of most of the criticisms can be found in Tully (1993, ch. 1), who is one of the main critics of Macpherson’s reading of Locke, and in defences of Macpherson by Jules Townshend (2000, chs. 2 and 3) and Ian McKay (forthcoming). The generic criticism of Macpherson as an intellectual historian is that his interpretation of the seventeenth-century political thinkers in economic terms is at least one-sided in missing non-economic intents and influences and at worst simply wrong.
Townshend, McKay, and other defenders of Macpherson argue that the critics’ readings of Macpherson are simplistic caricatures, which, among other things, ignore Macpherson’s qualifications and disclaimers regarding extra-economic intents of the seventeenth-century thinkers. ‘It cannot be said,’ Macpherson writes in the first pages of Possessive Individualism, ‘that the seventeenth-century concepts of freedom, rights, obligation, and justice are all entirely derived from [the] concept of possession, but it can be shown that they were powerfully shaped by it.’ (PI, 3) Or he writes ‘the assumptions of possessive individualism are not unalloyed in Locke. He refused to reduce all social relations to market relations and all morality to market morality’ (PI, 269). Contrary to criticisms of Macpherson for depicting Hobbes as defending unbridled laissez-faire capitalism (e.g., by Berlin 1964, 455) or the related criticism that he failed to see that the dominant economic system of the seventeenth century was not industrial capitalism but mercantilism (e.g., Tully 1993, 85), for him the ‘possessive-market model … does not require a state policy of laissez-faire; a mercantilist policy is perfectly consistent with the model’ (PI, 58; Townshend and McKay give more examples). Moreover, Macpherson notes in The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy that prior to the nineteenth century, the contours of class-divided societies are less sharply drawn than subsequently. (L&T, 9–11)
Correcting for straw-man characterizations, however, does not get at the heart of these critics’ attacks. They would not be distressed by a demonstration that Macpherson’s attribution of capitalist market assumptions to Hobbes, Locke, and others is nuanced, since they maintain that these thinkers are wrongly interpreted by such attribution, nuanced or otherwise. There is here a fundamental standoff. For instance, Macpherson makes much of Hobbes’s assertion that:
The Value or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power: and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another. (Hobbes 1968 , 151–152, pt. 1 ch. x, emphases in original)
One of the critics, Keith Thomas, argues that Macpherson’s economic interpretation of this passage, though it ‘probably would have had the support of Marx,’ is misleading: ‘It is quite possible that … Hobbes’s statement is not concerned with economic transactions in early capitalist society at all, but rather with the nature of human reputation,’ suggesting further that it may have had to do with feudal notions of praise or fame. (1965
A central thesis of Locke on which Macpherson focuses is about the related concepts of self-ownership and property, as in Locke’s central assertion that:
Though the Earth and all inferior Creatures be common to all men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the works of his Hands, we may say are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he has mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property. (1960 , 305–306, §27)
Tully’s interpretation of this thesis relates it to the views of Hugo Grotius who, according to Tully, used the concept of self-ownership to mean self-preservation to which everyone has a right and which governments should respect. The concept is, as Tully puts it, a ‘moral, political and military, not economic one.’ (1993
, 82) Regarding property, on this reading, Locke was just referring to ‘the civil and religious rights of Dissenters and their possessions, which were confiscated during the great persecutions of the Restoration.’ (84)
Thomas’s non-economic interpretation of the passage about the worth of a man being his price is strained in light of the language of Hobbes’s own explication: ‘And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price.’ (Hobbes ibid., 152) Contrary to the charge of some critics (e.g., Miller 1982, 123; Ryan 1988, 101) that Macpherson ignores the emphasis Hobbes places on honour, he attends at some length to this notion in his discussion of the ‘worth’ passage. (PI, 37–40) Quoting Hobbes’s assertion that ‘Honourable is whatsoever possession, action, or quality, is an argument and signe of power,’ Macpherson sees Hobbes as treating the degree of honour (or of dishonour) afforded a person by others as a manifestation of their estimation of that person’s ‘power to command the services of others.’ (PI, 38ff; Hobbes 1968, 155) No doubt there is room for interpretative debate here, but Hobbes’s language gives at least prima facie credence to Macpherson’s interpretation. Perhaps this is why another critic, D.D. Raphael, characterizes Hobbes as being ‘deliberately satirical’ in the ‘worth of a man’ passage. (cited in Townshend, 42)
Similarly, much of Locke’s language in his discussions of self-ownership and property lends itself most conveniently to economic understanding, as for example:
Thus the Grass my Horse has bit; the turf my Servant has cut; and the Ore I have digg’d in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my Property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my Property in them. (1960, 307, §28)
Perhaps, with the ingenuity characteristic of Tully’s historical surveys, such passages can be interpreted as part of a non-economic, political theory about government responsibility to respect self-determination in general, and this would be at odds with Macpherson’s approach to Locke; though, again, the economic intent of the quoted passage suggests otherwise. In lieu of pursuing all the interpretative disagreements between Macpherson and his critics, this appendix flags three pertinent features of Macpherson’s approaches to the classic texts and to political-economic history generally.
Interpretation of texts: Regarding textual interpretation, Tully contrasts ‘understanding’ and ‘explanation,’ where the former ‘turns on recovering the meaning [an] author intended to convey by reading the text in light of the available conventions and assumptions, and so of coming to understand it in those terms.’ (1993, 99; Skinner 1988, 78) Tully and other critics of Macpherson view him as trying not to understand but to explain Hobbes, Locke, and the rest by reference to a Marxist-like historiographical theory of capitalism in terms the classic authors would not recognize as reflecting their intentions. Neither of these describes Macpherson’s approach. In section two of his introduction to Possessive Individualism, ‘Problems of Interpretation,’ Macpherson outlines a method that is neither the entirely internal one Tully recommends nor an external, historiographical approach.
Macpherson aims instead to identify authors’ ‘assumptions,’ some of which they do not state, either because they take them for granted or because they do not fully understand their implications. He gives as an example of the first sort of assumption that the Levellers never doubted that ‘servants are rightly excluded from the franchise.’ (PI, 6) Much of the book is devoted to exposing the second sort of assumptions. An example is a position Macpherson sees as implied in Hobbes that only in a market society could people be in the perpetual competition for power that concerns him (PI, 59) Macpherson does not see such assumptions as entirely foreign to the viewpoints of Hobbes and Locke, and in agreement with Tully on this point he distinguishes identification of not clearly understood assumptions from the imputation to an author of unconscious views ‘which we take for granted but which a writer of an earlier century would not.’ (PI, 6–7)
For Macpherson, one is still justified in attributing these unarticulated assumptions to an author when:
Such assumptions do make sense of [an author’s overall] argument (or more sense than can otherwise be made of it), and are ones that we can now see might readily have arisen from that thinker’s experience of his own society, and when, moreover, they are repeatedly implied in various of his incidental arguments. (PI, 6)
Macpherson applies these criteria in detail to Hobbes, Harrington, and Locke, and he buttresses his interpretations by showing how recognition of an assumption helps to resolve problems, or what he calls ‘inconsistencies,’ in an author’s theories. One of these is an apparent contradiction in Harrington’s treatment of preconditions in the commonwealth he recommends where he sometimes sees the bulk of property residing in a majority, sometimes in a minority. Or there is vacillation on the part of Locke between characterizing ‘property’ as ‘Lives, Liberties, and Estates’ (1960
, 137, §§123, 131, 137) and a more limited characterization as only goods or land. (193, §138–140) Another inconsistency, called a paradox by Macpherson, is the question for Hobbes of how people perpetually in conflict can agree to support an overriding sovereign.
Macpherson maintains that if Locke’s assumption of an unavoidable class division between property holders and the propertyless is taken into account the inconsistency in use of the term ‘property’ is explained: ‘The ambiguity as to who are members of civil society by virtue of the supposed original contract allows Locke to consider all men as members for the purposes of being ruled and only the men of estate as members for the purposes of ruling.’ (PI, 248–249) Harrington’s contradiction is resolved on the assumption that the initially excessive power of a minority gentry must be constrained in order to enlist support for achieving a bourgeois commonwealth, where subsequently a shared belief that market forces favour everyone obscures the ability of this minority to acquire a disproportionate amount of property. (PI, 188–190)
As to the apparent paradox in Hobbes, Macpherson argues that this can be resolved by reference to the exigency in a competitive-market society of enforcing rules that facilitate ongoing competition in part by preventing mutual destruction of the competitors. (PI, 100–101, 103–106) While in each case assumptions are not explicitly formulated and may not be fully comprehended by Hobbes, Harrington, or Locke, their attribution is not entirely foreign to their ways of thinking and helps to explain their aims.
Political focus. A second general feature of Macpherson’s approach pertains to its focus. Macpherson was not pretending to offer comprehensive and synoptic accounts of all dimensions of the historical thinkers addressed in Possessive Individualism. Though he thought that his political-economic readings of them provide more accurate accounts than those that ignore or play down economic and class-sensitive aspects, Macpherson was motivated by contemporary political concerns in proffering these accounts. When it is seen how deeply and persistently possessive-individualist assumptions are embedded in the earlier theories, he maintains, ‘we can consider how far [their continuing persistence] is responsible for the difficulties of liberal-democratic theory in our own time.’ (PI, 4)
In his chapter on James Harrington, Macpherson quotes a claim by John Pocock that Harrington ‘has no conception whatever that there exists a complex web of economic relationships between men which can be studied in itself and which determines the distribution of power among them.’ (quoted in PI, 175, from Pocock 1957, 128–129) Macpherson credits Pocock for correcting an overly economic interpretation of Harrington’s motives, but against Pocock’s allegation he describes several economic features of seventeenth-century England to which Harrington devoted explicit attention. (PI, 175–181) If Pocock’s phrase, ‘which can be studied in itself,’ is taken to deny that Harrington attended only to economic features of his society, Macpherson agrees. In one of his treatments Pocock acknowledges that Harrington paid attention to some economic matters, but holds that the ascendant gentry for Harrington did not purchase their main property, land, ‘in order to sell it’ or that they saw it as ‘a commodity and source of profit.’ (1975, 67) Pocock’s argument is that the gentry accumulated property for the purpose of gaining the resources to allow them to lead virtuous lives as republican citizens. (e.g., 1985, 68, 107)
Macpherson does not address this motivational question, but in principle he could acknowledge some plausibility in it. ‘If Harrington’s gentry were bourgeois,’ he writes, ‘they were still gentry, with a sufficiently different way of life and code of behaviour that a separate place had to be found for them,’ and Harrington ‘did not resolve all relations between men into relations of the market.’ (PI, 193) These allowances are compatible with depicting the gentry as one component of an ascending, non-feudal economic class performing ‘capitalist functions, by which private accumulation would increase national wealth.’ (ibid.) The contemporary applications Macpherson finds in his study of Harrington are that a capitalist market society can avoid anarchistic competition through intra-class cohesion (PI, 267) and that revolutionary discontent can be resisted by allowing for equality but restricting it just to legal equality of opportunity. (PI, 185–186)
Historical processes. A third pertinent feature of Macpherson’s orientation towards economic history is an implied conception of historical periods. Macpherson was interested in la longue durée of intellectual history (McKay 2014, 322), which he saw as comprised of processes. This perspective is at odds with that of David Miller, who, citing features of seventeenth-century politics and economics that differentiate it from modern capitalism, writes that ‘English society in the period we are now considering … should be regarded as sui generis, neither feudal nor market, and its ideology likewise.’ (1982, 126)
Macpherson’s contrasting orientation is that the period in question was part of a protracted process stretching from fully feudal society to developed industrial capitalism. As noted, he viewed seventeenth-century capitalism as not primarily industrial, and he allowed that ‘Hobbes was addressing men who did not yet think and behave entirely as market men.’ (PI, 105) In explaining how Hobbes could sanction much more in the way of limitations to individual property than Locke, Macpherson avers that ‘Hobbes was writing in an economy in which the process of primary accumulation of capital was still of first importance [and] to facilitate that accumulation, a sovereign power which could cut through all the traditional restraints was needed.’ (EJ, 145)
In his criticism of Macpherson on this topic Berlin asks:
[I]s it truly the case that England in Hobbes’s youth was a market society already so free from medieval survivals and the older hierarchical world, that its power-seeking men … formed in the Marxist sense a competitive capitalist society, rather than a less neatly classifiable social whole, pregnant with the new bourgeois order, but still heavy with the landed and hierarchical past? (1964, 452)
This is an apt question, asked from a ‘process’ perspective. Macpherson differs from Berlin in thinking that the birth of some form of market society had already taken place by the time of Hobbes and Locke. On this perspective, identifying any pre-capitalist elements in seventeenth-century England does not provide decisive proof in such disputes.
As in the case of all analyses of a thing in process of change, there is room for debate about what is required to merit attributing significant changes in it, but the task of understanding something is different if one is looking for new features and trends, recognizing that they will coexist with prior features, than if one sees any continuity with the past as proof that the thing has not undergone change. Macpherson believed that in this period England ‘approximated closely to a possessive market society,’ and he provided a list of characteristics to substantiate this view (PI, 61–62), but this is consistent with realizing that it was not a full-blown capitalist society of the twentieth-century sort.
Since the focus of the present book is on the contemporary relevance of Macpherson’s political views, not much hinges on the soundness or otherwise of his critics’ allegations. For his political purposes, Macpherson could have limited himself just to exposing possessive-individualist assumptions of contemporary twentieth-century theorists, or, as Miller suggests (1982, 127), he could have started with the thought of James Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Still, something would be lost by abstracting from the interpretations of Possessive Individualism. Macpherson’s explication of twentieth-century theorists by relating them to those of the seventeenth century exhibits the longevity and tenacity of a possessive-individualist culture.