History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics
David Martin Jones
Hurst and Company, Oxford, 2020
Reviewed by Mark Beeson
Published online: 3 December 2020
Realists have never had it so good; or, perhaps that should be, so bad. However we describe the relationship between scholars of a realist bent and the times they inhabit, many of their central arguments and assumptions about the world look alarmingly persuasive, even prescient. By contrast, this is not a good time to be a cosmopolitan or an idealist. Indeed, it may never be so again. The world seems more troubled and disorderly than it has for decades, and this provides the backdrop for David Martin Jones’s timely tome, History’s Fools.
Anyone who is familiar with Jones’s work will have a shrewd idea what to expect from a volume that draws, in part, on previously published work. Even if you haven’t read any of his work before, you might want to take a look at this. The volume is by turns polemical, confronting, impressive, infuriating and scholarly - to the point of showing off. This is not an irrelevant or flippant point. Jones is scathingly dismissive of many of his academic peers and is certainly not hesitant to put the intellectual boot in when he judges it efficacious and/or deserved, which turns out to be quite a lot.
Jones makes quite a display of his erudition, which is fair enough - given that he does know a lot about political theory. While you may not like some of his ideas and conclusions about the state and direction of contemporary scholarship, it’s hard to argue that his arguments aren’t well-grounded in the literature. The first chapter on ‘the end of history and the Kantian moment’ is quite the tour de force and would be a useful, if polemical, addition to any political theory course. As the title suggests, Fukuyama gets quite a pounding as he’s emblematic of everything Jones thinks was wrong and misguided about ‘the West’s’ hubris and complacency in the aftermath of the Cold War’s unexpected ending.
Two of the principal targets of Jonesian invective are liberal academic intellectuals and radical Islam. As far as Jones is concerned they are interconnected in potentially fatal ways:
The evolving progressive response to Islamically-sanctioned, catastrophic violence of the al-Qaeda and IS variety thus entailed a far from compelling mix of queasy agnosticism, euphemism, moral equivalence and logical non sequiturs. 1
This has led those with ‘progressive minds’ to underestimate and misconstrue the threat posed by Islamism, Jones argues, because of ‘an official tendency to mistake terrorism’s limited means for limited ends.’ 2 The consequence of such short-sightedness, especially when combined with a misguided belief in the salutary impact of multiculturalism and social inclusivity, has led, Jones suggests, to ineffective policies ‘that treat the homegrown threat as a community relations problem, rather than an ideology that threatens the internal stability and integrity of secular politics.’ 3
Whatever you think about his claims regarding the extent and nature of the threat posed by Islamism, there is little doubt that even the most ‘progressive’ governments, such as Sweden’s, 4 have struggled to manage large scale immigration from countries that have different values and belief systems. Although there is some brief discussion of the rise of populism, Brexit and - of course - the problems afflicting the European Union, the migration issue doesn’t feature as prominently as we might expect. In part, this is explained by the fact that Jones is primarily interested in explaining the rise, and what he considers the misguided and unrealisable ambitions of the ‘new liberalism,’ embodied in Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ in particular and globalisation more generally.
Authors have their own predilections, no doubt, but it is still surprising that many observers, including Jones, fail to consider adequately the material conditions in which some theories and political ideals come to exercise an influence. The classic case in point is the natural environment and its increasingly visible impact on the international system and domestic politics. A fellow realist, Anatol Lieven, has persuasively argued that ‘existing nation states may well eventually collapse due to climate change, but the result will not be world government but universal chaos.’ 5
In this context there may, indeed, be an argument to be made about ‘the West’ being deluded and needing to “de-radicalize” its own progressive thinking,’ but not simply because of the supposed threat posed by other civilisational and/or religious values. On the contrary, as Jones perceptively - and rightly, in my view - points out, ‘the structural implications of the intangible economy increasingly favour what Robert Michels identified as an “iron law of oligarchy: in a twenty-first century networked form.”’ 6 Likewise, Jones’s critique of ASEAN’s failings and the significance of the China challenge may be familiar to some readers, but they are not without merit: ‘China is busily rewriting the rules of international trade, gradually constructing a Sinocentric regional order...[and] finds ASEAN-style norms hugely conducive to promoting its national interest.’ 7 Quite so.
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To cite this article
Documentary-note: Mark Beeson, 'Review of “History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics” by David Martin Jones’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies 2020, 2(2):274-278, https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/review-historys-fools.asp
Author-date (Harvard): Beeson, M., 2020. 'Review of “History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics” by David Martin Jones’, Australian Journal of Defence and Strategic Studies, [online], 2(2), 274-278, Available at: <https://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/AJDSS/volume2-number2/review-historys-fools.asp>
1 David Martin Jones, History's Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of Politics, Hurst & Co, London, 2020, p 101.
2 Jones, History’s Fools, p 127.
3 Jones, History’s Fools, p 142.
4 Amanda Billner and Rodney Jefferson, ‘Swedish liberalism is struggling under the weight of immigration’, Bloomberg Businessweek, 31 January 2019 10:31am. https://www.bloombergquint.com/global-economics/swedish-liberalism-is-struggling-under-the-weight-of-immigration
5 Anatol Lieven, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2020, p xxi.
6 Jones, History’s Fools, p 172.
7 Jones, History’s Fools, p 203.