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Jon Elster goes to China

Jon Elster, 27 October 1988

... With an American friend I recently spent two weeks travelling in China at the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Besides lecturing, our main purpose was to understand the economic reforms in Chinese industry. The three cities we visited, Changzhou, Shanghai and Wenzhou, offer three different models of reform. The first two are experimenting with more independence for state and collective enterprises, whereas in Wenzhou private entrepreneurs and capitalism are emerging as the vehicle of change ...

Why bother about politics?

Jon Elster, 5 February 1981

Political Obligation in its Historical Context 
by John Dunn.
Cambridge, 355 pp., £14.50, October 1980, 0 521 22890 5
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... How did the notion arise that political obligation is something more than the unconditional duty of subjects to obey their ruler? And what, in a given situation, are the historically-shaped constraints that set limits to the rational political duty of citizens? Or, in other terms, what are the arguments – historical and contemporary – for seeing political obligation as going beyond blind obedience and yet falling short of the ideal moral imperatives? These are the questions which occupy John Dunn in the essays that make up this book and which give it a coherence greater than that usually achieved in such collections ...

Socialism

Jon Elster, 15 November 1984

The Politics of Socialism: An Essay in Political Theory 
by John Dunn.
Cambridge, 107 pp., £15, October 1984, 0 521 26736 6
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... Optimism and wishful thinking have been features of socialist thought from its inception. In Marx, for instance, two main premises appear to be that whatever is desirable is possible, and that whatever is desirable and possible is inevitable. John Dunn’s short book is much concerned with the disastrous consequences of this Utopian strand in socialism ...

Chinese Leaps

Jon Elster, 25 April 1991

The Search for Modern China 
by Jonathan Spence.
Hutchinson, 876 pp., £19.95, May 1990, 0 09 174472 5
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Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1880s to the 1980s 
by Jack Gray.
Oxford, 456 pp., £35, April 1990, 0 19 913076 0
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... Nobody really knows what’s happening in China. Analysis must proceed from triangulation, relying on a few uncontroversial facts, specific knowledge about the Chinese past and general knowledge about the dilemmas and solutions that emerge in countries in similar predicaments. History matters for a number of reasons. One is that similar causes tend to produce similar effects ...

Rules of the Game

Jon Elster, 22 December 1983

Mémoires 
by Raymond Aron.
Julliard, 778 pp., frs 120, September 1983, 9782260003328
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Clausewitz: Philosopher of War 
by Raymond Aron, translated by Norman Stone and Christine Booker.
Routledge, 418 pp., £15.95, October 1983, 0 7100 9009 9
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Clausewitz 
by Michael Howard.
Oxford, 79 pp., £7.95, March 1983, 0 19 287608 2
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... Raymond Aron died of a heart attack on 17 October, a few weeks after the publication of his memoirs. He died on the steps of the Paris courthouse where he had been testifying on behalf of his friend Bertrand de Jouvenel, who had been violently attacked in a book on French Fascism. The case was not a simple one, as de Jouvenel had said and done some imprudent things in the Thirties ...

Slaves and Citizens

Jon Elster, 3 June 1982

Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology 
by M.I. Finley.
Chatto, 202 pp., £10, June 1980, 0 7011 2510 1
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Economy and Society in Ancient Greece 
by M.I. Finley.
Chatto, 326 pp., £15, April 1981, 0 7011 2549 7
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The Legacy of Greece: A New Appraisal 
edited by M.I. Finley.
Oxford, 479 pp., £8.95, August 1981, 0 19 821915 6
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... Some fifteen years ago, in the course of reading up the history of technology, I came across an article by M.I. Finley, of whom I then knew nothing, on ‘Technical Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World’, reprinted in his essays on Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Looking up my notes, and rereading the article today, I now see that I missed most of the points ...

Second-Decimal Arguments

Jon Elster, 23 May 1985

The Thread of Life 
by Richard Wollheim.
Harvard, 288 pp., £20, January 1985, 0 06 748875 7
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... Reading Richard Wollheim’s study of what it is to live the life of a person was a frustrating, painful experience. Perhaps it can best be summarised by saying that while the book goes to great lengths to ensure precision in the second decimal, it leaves us in the dark about the first. Wollheim has a marvellously knowledgeable and intelligent mind ...

The Crisis in Economic Theory

Jon Elster, 20 October 1983

An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change 
by Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter.
Harvard, 437 pp., £20, October 1982, 0 674 27227 7
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A General Theory of Exploitation and Class 
by John Roemer.
Harvard, 298 pp., £22, September 1982, 0 674 34440 5
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... The publication of these two books is a landmark in the development of economic theory. Singly and jointly, they represent a fundamental challenge to the reigning neoclassical orthodoxy. The more sophisticated practitioners of that theory have long recognised that it is in deep trouble, but have stuck to it because of the lack of a viable alternative, on the principle that you can’t beat something with nothing ...

Marxismo

Jon Elster, 18 March 1982

Marx’s Politics 
by Alan Gilbert.
Martin Robertson, 326 pp., £16.50, August 1981, 0 85520 441 9
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The History of Marxism. Vol. 1: Marxism in Marx’s Day 
edited by Eric Hobsbawm.
Harvester, 349 pp., £30, January 1982, 0 7108 0054 1
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Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism 
by Russell Jacoby.
Cambridge, 202 pp., £15.80, January 1982, 9780521239158
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Analytical Foundations of Marxian Economic Theory 
by John Roemer.
Cambridge, 230 pp., £19.50, August 1981, 0 521 23047 0
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Karl Marx: The Arguments of the Philosophers 
by Allen Wood.
Routledge, 304 pp., £13.50, January 1981, 0 7100 0672 1
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... Up to a fairly recent time it was the case that all good books on Marx were hostile, or at most neutral. Correlatively, all the books that espoused Marx’s views did so in a way that could only dissuade the reader who approached Marx with the same canons of scholarship and argument that he would apply to any other writer. What is called for is a blend of charity and scepticism ...
... There might appear to be something inherently unscientific in the designation ‘Marxist social science’. Following Whitehead’s dictum that ‘a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost,’ one could argue that Marxism – the valuable parts of Marxism – should simply merge with the mainstream of social science and lose its identity as a separate current ...

Nobody at Home

Jon Elster, 2 June 1983

Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism 
by Steven Collins.
Cambridge, 323 pp., £22.50, June 1982, 0 521 24081 6
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Le Bonheur-Liberté: Bouddhisme Profond et Modernité 
by Serge-Christophe Kolm.
Presses Universitaires de France, 637 pp., £150, January 1983, 9782130373162
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... A few years ago I was flying from Paris to Copenhagen on a day of calm and perfect weather. The flight took me over the sea beyond the coast of Holland, and looking down I was able to see in full detail the landscape below sea level, with its hills and valleys and – astonishingly – a lake: an accumulation of dark-blue water at the bottom of a valley, sharply separated from its lighter surroundings and maintained by some unknown physical process ...

Irrational Politics

Jon Elster, 21 August 1980

... Anglo-American political science is dominated by the image of rational man. Politics is the maximising of something or other: material benefits for the voter, votes for the politician. Politicians competing for the voters’ favour have to think strategically and rationally. They cannot waste effort on lost causes, nor afford to take up positions too far from the centre ...

When Communism dissolves

Jon Elster, 25 January 1990

... A minimal definition of a well-ordered society is that its drivers stop when they see a red light. Some episodes that indicate why people on occasion fail to respect red lights can also, incidentally, illuminate the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of recent political events. In Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards found it unacceptable that red should mean ‘stop ...

Snobs

Jon Elster, 5 November 1981

La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement 
by Pierre Bourdieu.
Editions de Minuit, 670 pp., £9.05, August 1979, 2 7073 0275 9
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... In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France – in the very chair occupied today by Pierre Bourdieu – Raymond Aron coined the word ‘sociodicy’: an apt term for the apologetic tendency of much contemporary social science, a tendency which has a long ancestry, going back to the theodicies of the 17th century. Within the theological tradition two ways of justifying evil emerged: pain and sin, which could be seen either as indispensable conditions for the good of the universe as a whole, or as inevitable by-products of an optimal package solution ...

Trespasser

Jon Elster, 16 September 1982

Essays in Trespassing: Economics to Politics and Beyond 
by Albert Hirschman.
Cambridge, 310 pp., £20, September 1981, 0 521 23826 9
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Shifting Involvements 
by Albert Hirschman.
Martin Robertson, 138 pp., £9.95, September 1982, 0 85520 487 7
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... In Anglo-American social science Albert Hirschman occupies a position at once central and peripheral, or at least anomalous. Of his centrality there can be no doubt. As one of three permanent members of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he has a unique vantage-point for gathering and influencing scholars from all over the world ...

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