Can the ‘'Debased People' Reform Themselves? A Re-Examination of the Political Thought of C.B. Macpherson

22 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 19 Aug 2010

Date Written: August 19, 2010


As we approach 2011, the centenary of the birth of C.B. Macpherson, there has been a welcome renewal of interest in the political writings of one of Canada’s greatest political theorists. Brian Caterino and Phillip Hansen have used a combination of Macpherson and Habermas, to develop a democratic critique of and alternative to modern neoliberalism. Leo Panitch has republished a classic critique of Macpherson’s work, a critique which was the centre of an important debate for an earlier generation. In each of these contributions, the question of the relationship between democracy, capitalism and socialism is central – as it was for Macpherson himself.

Macpherson defined his life's work as an attempt to “... work out a revision of liberal-democratic theory, a revision which clearly owes a good deal to Marx, in the hope of making that theory more democratic while rescuing that valuable part of the liberal tradition which is submerged when liberalism is identified with capitalist market relations.” At the heart of this project is Macpherson's concept of “developmental human powers” and the related concepts of “maximization of powers” and “transfer of powers”. All of these can be put under the heading of “self-mastery.” For Macpherson, the goal of politics and society must be to maximize the creative or developmental powers of its individual citizens. This is the essence of freedom, and a society organized around a systematic transfer of these powers from one class to another is manifestly unfree.

This paper – after a review and summary of the debate which has evolved over this political positioning of Macpherson’s – will argue that Macpherson is clearly a materialist in much of his analysis, and this materialism clearly has roots in Marx's class-centred method. But when it comes to explaining historical transition – either from feudalism to capitalism or capitalism to socialism or a post-capitalist radical-democracy – Macpherson frequently jumps from materialism to idealism. The root of this, the paper will argue, is his failure to incorporate class struggle into his theory of classes, and actually-existing mass forms of participatory democracy into his theory of democracy. Macpherson argued that “the debased people are, by definition, incapable of reforming themselves en masse. They cannot be expected to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” What this leaves him with is a kind of elitism which makes his thought, when it bends towards political change, oscillate between a deterministic materialism and a voluntarist idealism. Without a deep engagement with the actual, concrete and historical institutions of participatory democracy and the other lived forms of “from below” democracy that have developed periodically (from the New England town hall meetings to the communal councils in today’s Venezuela), any attempt to renovate notions of participatory democracy as Macpherson struggles to do, necessarily remains a lifeless abstraction.

Keywords: Democracy, Macpherson, Idealism, Materialism, Marxism

JEL Classification: B14, B31, P21, P31, P32

Suggested Citation

Kellogg, Paul, Can the ‘'Debased People' Reform Themselves? A Re-Examination of the Political Thought of C.B. Macpherson (August 19, 2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Paul Kellogg (Contact Author)

Athabasca University ( email )

Edmonton, Alberta T5J 3S8

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