revolution from below

Revolution From Below (Revolutionary Aristotelianism Part 6)

by W.D. James | May 8, 2024

Revolution from below


Lead me to the rabbit hole


Everyone has fallen asleep


Revolution from below


Tell me all the things you knowi


– Beyond Obsession, Revolution From Below

There is debate about what exactly the political implications are of applying MacIntyre’s conceptions of practices, virtues, and practical rationality. With the defense of tradition that he offers and his critique of modern liberalism, he is often seen as an ally by those on the right. However, he usually spurns approaches from that direction. For instance, conservative commentator Rod Dreher wrote The Benedict Option which in some measure is a popularization of the ideas of MacIntyre. Yet MacIntyre denounces ‘conservatism’ as bound up with ‘liberalism’ and modernity in general.ii

Because of the defense of traditions and virtues and morality and all of that, he is typically spurned by the left. I think MacIntrye is genuinely beyond left and right (or maybe below, in the sense of going deeper), but he still has a good bit of the old-style Marxist in him. Certainly not in terms of Marxist statist solutions, but in terms of a respect for ordinary struggling people and in terms of a radical critique of capitalist structures. In fact, it is clear MacIntrye considers himself a revolutionary thinker. Why is that and what sort of revolution does his thinking support?

revolution from below

Critique of the Modern State

In an important essay from 1997, ‘Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good,’ MacIntrye sets out a focused critique of the modern state. He observes: “The modern state is a large, complex and often ramshackle set of interlocking institutions, combining none too coherently the ethos of a public utility company with inflated claims to embody ideals of liberty and justice.” Further, he notes that politics is orchestrated such that the “subjects” of the state are offered “those alternatives defined for them by the political elites” and “Politically the societies of advanced Western modernity are oligarchies disguised as liberal democracies.”iii

The problem is the lack of mechanisms and locations for the sort of moral practical reasoning he sees as essential to living and achieving good lives together (see my previous essay). “What is lacking in modern political societies,” he says, “is any type of institutional arena in which plain persons—neither engaged in academic pursuits nor professionals of the political life—are able to engage together in systematic reasoned debate, designed to arrive at a rationally well-founded common mind on how to answer questions about the relationship of politics to the claims of rival and alternative ways of life.”iv Given this fault, modern states, by their nature, lack the means of arriving at a genuinely participative conception of the common good to guide political action.

From these premises, he delivers this blow to the modern state: “It also follows that, if the political characteristics of advanced Western modernity are as I suggested earlier, and if … claims to political allegiance can be justified only where there is the common good of communal political learning, then modern states cannot advance any justifiable claim to the allegiance of their members, and this because they are the political expression of societies of deformed and fragmented practical rationality….”v

MacIntyre outlines the basic requirements of a society which could make legitimate claims upon its members:

  • Some conception of the basic propositions of natural law will need to be widely held. Basic ideas like ‘we should choose and pursue the good, and avoid evil’ so that there is the overarching framework of caring about morality.
  • They need to be small-scale to facilitate genuine dialogue and practical reasoning together.
  • While a degree of inequality will not destroy this ability, the level of inequality must be fairly minimal or else some end up being dominated by others and not able to engage as equals in communal rational discourse.

So, on his view, the modern state is illegitimate and can make no claims on us that we are obliged to accept as just.

revolution from below

Critique of the Capitalist Market

In Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre set about to correct limitations of his analysis in After Virtue, by incorporating a conception of human nature. He follows Aristotle in thinking of us as ‘rational animals’ by which he means largely the capacity for practical reasoning together. He supplements this with an emphasis on the asymmetrical dependence we have on one another. The prime examples of this are all of us when we are children and many of us when we experience disability, and eventually again, pretty much all of us as we age. There are many situations in which we will need more than we contribute. Some people, through no fault of their own, will be in this situation their whole life.

He argues that for a community to ensure that all its members are able to contribute to the shared practical reasoning necessary for the emergence of a genuine common good, a conception of “just generosity” is required. If people are incapable of presenting their own account of their needs (perhaps due to a severe developmental disability or dementia), others may need to do it for them. He goes on: “Between those capable of giving and those who are most dependent and in most need of receiving—children, the old, the disabled—the norms will have to satisfy a revised version of Marx’s formula for justice in a communist society, ‘From each according to her or his ability, to each, so far as is possible, according to her or his needs.’vi Further, he asserts that “the problem is not to reform the dominant order, but to find ways for local communities to survive by sustaining a life of the common good against the disintegrating forces of the nation-state and the market.”vii

Revolution from Below

In a 2011 work which collects together assessments of his work from many contemporary thinkers which focuses on exactly what is revolutionary about his revolutionary Aristotelianism, MacIntyre, in a response to his critics clarifying his position, gives this account: “Let me offer an alternative view [to traditional Marxism-Leninism] of what revolutionary politics is… To imagine a worthwhile revolution is to be able to envisage radically and systematically different types of social institutions and social relationships aimed at the achievement of the common good. Revolutions become possible only when enough members of some political society are not only able to imagine such alternatives, but are prepared to participate in realising them in order to achieve their common good. What they also have to recognise, if they are to participate effectively, is that the means for social change afforded by the present economic, social, and political order … are obstacles to this kind of revolutionary change. For any group to satisfy these conditions requires a remarkable shift in social imagination and insight. How might such a shift be achieved? Only, I believe, by the experience of recurrently trying to make and remake the badly needed institutions of everyday life through grass-roots organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, small businesses that serve neighborhood needs, schools, clinics, transport systems, and the like, so that they serve the common good, and, by doing so learning that only by breaking with the political norms of the status quo can the relevant common goods be achieved.”viii

revolution from below

His basic vision is that only in practices and the communities formed around them can we come to agreement around what the common good is and how to pursue it. Any morally worthwhile revolution will have to grow from there up. In engaging in such practices and participating in such communities, we will start to visualize what a broader good society would look like and also become more acutely aware of the blockages the modern state and the capitalist economy place in the way. Our practical attempts, at a local level, will start to change things in the right direction.

More traditional Marxist thinkers would hold this is naïve. You can’t change the overall structure of society without changing the fundamental base of that society and that will require something much more like the catastrophic overthrow of the existing order all in one go. MacIntrye is skeptical of that approach though. It ends up reinstituting different versions of the same problems of modernity it was meant to remove.

Revolutionary Aristotelianism?

We began this series of essays by looking for an account of how organic order naturally emerges. Aristotle gave a pretty comprehensive account of the natural development of various levels of association, all with their own distinctive ends and purposes which fed into a broader view of overall human ends and purposes.

MacIntyre has given us a much more bottom-up account, still within a basically Aristotelian framework. He is reluctant to propose a final human telos (well, he probably believes pretty much what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas thought but in the works which we examined he has not argued for this). Instead, he focuses on the sorts of everyday practices and community life which are essential to allow a shared conception of objective value to form. Also, he has shown, briefly, how modernity and the modern state and economy in particular, disrupt and work against this. By implication, they are incompatible with human flourishing and happiness.

This is helpful in assisting us to understand what is required, pretty concretely, if we wish to build more human and satisfying lives. But MacIntyre is more of an ethical thinker than he is a political thinker. He has been accused of building an Aristotelian politics that leaves out Aristotle’s political thought, only focusing on his ethical thought and account of the virtues. There is some truth in that. It would be nice to have a fuller explication of political action and change from MacIntyre. Nevertheless, what he gives us is pretty thought-provoking.

From an OrgRad perspective specifically, this provides us an account of naturally emerging moral order which provides the ‘glue’ around which healthy communities can form. Further, there is nothing authoritarian in this account. No one imposes political order on communities or proclaims a set of moral commands. It is shown how order on both levels emerges from people seeking their good and to have their needs met, and cooperatively meeting the needs of others as their own practical reason dictates.

Further, we’re given an account of natural purposes. With Aristotle, that is a full-fledged metaphysics. With MacIntyre, a more imminentist account reflecting contemporary academic philosophy’s shyness when it comes to metaphysical claims. Either way, without something like this, it’s awfully hard to get a sense of meaning going.

I suspect a lot of the sanity and decency that have yet survived in our modern world have done so by people preserving and caring for ‘practices’ and ‘virtues’ in their own little communities, families and businesses. For both Aristotle and MacIntyre, living this way is supposed to just be ‘common sense.’ I think it is. A revolution ultimately built on common sense sounds pretty appealing, even if it’s a slow process.

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i Very danceable I suppose: Beyond Obsession – Revolution from below (Official Video for DARK STREAM Festival) (

ii Dreher expresses his consternation in this essay: Old Notre Dame Man Yells At Hallucination – The American Conservative

iii Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good,’ in The MacIntyre Reader, edited by Kelvin Knight, University of Notre Dame Press, 1998, pp. 236-237.

iv Ibid., p. 239.

v Ibid., p. 243.

vi Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues, Open Court, 1999, p. 130.

vii Alasdair MacIntyre, quoted by Kelvin Knight in ‘Revolutionary Aristotelianism,’ in Virtue and Politics, University of Notre Dame Press, 2011, p. 31.

viii Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Where We Were, Where We Are, Where We Need to Be,’ in Virtue and Politics, University of Notre Dame Press, 2011, pp. 319-320.



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