Review of C. B. Macpherson: The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism

Review of The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, by C. B. Macpherson, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 1 (June 1964).  Reprinted in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.


This serious and lucidly written book starts from the contemporary crisis in political theory which is diagnosed by the author as a crisis of the theory of liberal democracy.  That crisis cannot in his view be overcome by a return to the classic theorists of liberal democracy and in particular to the seventeenth century founders of liberal democracy, because even in its original form liberalism suffered from a fundamental defect.  From the beginning it fostered “possessive individualism,” i.e. “bourgeois” individualism; its basic assumptions were “that man is free and human by virtue of his sole proprietorship of his own person, and that human society is essentially a series of market relations.”  Macpherson’s standard of judgment is “the idea of freedom as a concomitant of social living in an unacquisitive society”–in a kind of society which, to say the least, transcends the boundaries of any “single national state.”  His book reads as if it were meant to show (or rather to contribute toward showing) the rationality of his ideal by laying bare the logical failures of the early theorists of possessive individualism and by tracing those failures to the contradictions of bourgeois society itself.  The thinkers whom he discusses are Hobbes, the Levellers, Harrington, and Locke.

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