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Realist alternatives and alternatives to realism: Britain 1950

Gal Gerson
University of Haifa
Gal Gerson
University of Haifa
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Abstract

The current resurgence of realist political thought, along with its critique of Kantian liberalism, draws little inspiration from the realist theory of international relations. However, at the middle of the twentieth century, before the disciplines broke apart, the rise of realism as an international relations approach did stimulate responses from socialist, pluralist and liberal political authors. Saturated with Aristotelian traditions and religious sensibilities that were resistant to the harshness of Machiavelli and Hobbes, British intellectuals developed nuanced critiques of realism that absorbed some of its components. Authors as far apart as Harold Laski, Herbert Butterfield and George Orwell attempted to both criticize realism with its own tools, and find a place for some of its insights within their worldviews. Laski, for example, analyzed the realist concept of state sovereignty as itself a political rather than a juristic category: its role was to belittle non-state actors. Orwell castigated self-proclaimed realists such as Carr and Burnham for their inability to keep their methodological distance from the political reality they attempted to explain. From their Christian perspective, Butterfield – and later Martin Wight – understood the power balances and other untidy practices involved in public life as essential agents of an extra-political civilizing process. These authors are what Wight called ''wet Machiavellians'': they accept the realist account of politics as amoral dissensus, but simultaneously hint at an extra-political source of justification. However, there are differences among them, as the Christians and official socialists appear more confident about the validity and accessibility of such metaphysical justification, while Orwell takes an agonistic and skeptical position, in which objective justification has to be struggled for rather than assumed.