7th Pavia Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Finlayson

Lorna Finlayson

Death Camps And Designer Dresses: Brian Barry and the Liberal Exclusion of Socialism

The late Brian Barry begins his Culture and Equality (2001) with a few words to the effect that socialism is no longer a live option, and that it is now more appropriate to rule it out than to spend time either defending or attacking it. Most evaluation of Barry’s contribution to political philosophy is likely to focus on his views on multiculturalism, which form the substance of Culture and Equality. My concern is instead to cast doubt on Barry’s rationale for excluding left-wing alternatives to liberalism from his political philosophical agenda.  I do not claim that his stance is unusually objectionable – on the contrary, it is interesting precisely because it is an instance of something widespread yet largely unquestioned in political philosophy.   Barry alludes to two justifications for the exclusion of socialism: the empirical case from ‘real existing socialism’; and an appeal to the authority of academics.  My main focus in this paper is on the first.  I do not aim to vindicate or refute the empirical case against socialism, but to clarify what it would take to provide an empirical basis for Barry’s stance – I argue that it is a much taller order than is usually recognised.   Rather than attempting this daunting task, it is tempting for liberals to resort to a double-standard, adopting Raymond Geuss’s belief in the crucial relevance of practice for theory only for as long as it takes to dismiss socialism, and then insisting on a stricter separation of theory and practice in order to avoid being hoist by this borrowed petard.  Liberals must take a consistent line on the relationship between political theory and political practice.  Whether we opt to align ourselves with Geuss or against him on this question, it is necessary to change our view of the premisses of liberal political philosophy.