John Dunn

John Dunn is a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. His Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future was reviewed in the last issue of the LRB.


John Dunn, 4 April 1991

On ne peut point régner innocemment. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die.’ Saint-Just’s maiden speech to the Convention on 13 November 1792 marked his unforgettable entrance onto the national political stage. Arguing that in place of the formal hypocrisies of a judicial tribunal, the representatives of the People of France, the Convention, must judge their king, and judge him as a vanquished foreign enemy under the law of nations, rather than as a fellow citizen subject to common laws and entitled to a share in their protection, it showed not only his extraordinary talent for brutal political simplification, and his capacity to seize the hour, but also the ease and completeness with which he was able to change his mind.

Doing something

John Dunn, 17 March 1988

In the opening act of The Marriage of Figaro the music master Don Basilio twits Susanna with the absurdity of her sexual tastes. How odd not to prefer, as anyone else would do, the favours of a signor liberal, prudente e saggio to those of a giovinastro and a paggio (a callow adolescent and a mere page). The page Cherubino, despite his giddy youth and relatively menial role, is of course a lad of good family. The post in the Count’s regiment to which he is so unavailingly despatched carries the rank of an officer; and both Mozart’s music and Beaumarchais’s own commentary on his character make it evident that he is intended to be exceedingly attractive. (He is ‘what every mother, in her innermost heart, would wish her own son to be even though he might give her much cause for suffering’.) Don Basilio, moreover, is scarcely an engaging character. But in his sleazy way he captures compellingly enough a prominent feature of the erotic power structure of the Ancien Régime. With only the most modest assistance from nature, any nobleman who was generous as well as worldly could be confident of finding attractive women in plenty who could be relied upon to fall for his charms.

Who should own what?

John Dunn, 18 October 1984

Human beings are very possessive creatures. It is, no doubt, not one of their more admirable characteristics. No one esteems anyone else simply for being possessive, even if they may envy the power which some accumulate under the goading of their will to possess, or may enjoy and admire the skills which others develop at least partly under the same impulses. To own, to have at one’s disposal, to exercise power over, are all marks of human effectiveness, just as much as the capacity to jump long distances or to sing resonantly in tune or to make compelling political speeches. All human effectiveness is effectiveness in some real social setting, drawn in part from contingent advantages and reflected back in the grudging or effusive acknowledgment of other human beings. Even possessiveness requires at least an imaginary audience. One might save prudently on a desert island, but one could hardly hoard there. However, while ownership itself can be enviable and in some circumstances even impressive, the mere desire to have seems to many today – just as it did to John Locke – a furtive, even incipiently criminal form of lust.’


John Dunn, 30 December 1982

In The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy in 1952 the late Jacob Talmon offered an influential diagnosis of ‘the most vital issue of our time … the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian democracy on the other, in which the world crisis of today consists’. Empirical and liberal democracy was to be read as including social democracy but totalitarian democracy, at the time, as excluding totalitarianism of the right. In due course he promised two further volumes, one devoted to the vicissitudes of the totalitarian-democratic trend in 19th-century Western Europe, and the second to the history of totalitarian democracy in Eastern Europe. The first of these, Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, appeared in 1960. The second, The Myth of the Nation and the Vision of Revolution, is now published posthumously. Although it is considerably the largest of the three, it fails in several respects to discharge the initial promise, passing very lightly indeed over both Russia and Eastern Europe since 1918, offering scarcely a glimpse of events further east and petering out in understandable exhaustion early in the 1920s. Less prudently, it also extends the formidable scope of Talmon’s original undertaking, altering the focus of his inquiry towards the role of nationalist sentiment in 19th and early 20th-century history and stressing the extent to which Nazi and Fascist movements also offered ‘a form of democratic participation’.

Grounds for Despair

John Dunn, 17 September 1981

At one point in Thomas Peacock’s satire Melincourt, the heroine Anthelia offers a spirited sketch of the character traits which she looks for in a prospective husband. ‘I would require him to be free in all his thoughts, true in all his words, generous in all his actions – ardent in friendship, enthusiastic in love, disinterested in both … the champion of the feeble, the firm opponent of the powerful oppressor – not to be enervated by luxury, nor corrupted by avarice, nor intimidated by tyranny, nor enthralled by superstition – more desirous to distribute wealth than to possess it, to disseminate liberty than to appropriate power, to cheer the heart of sorrow than to dazzle the eyes of folly.’ Her robustly philistine interlocutor, the Hon. Mrs Pinmoney, is unimpressed: ‘And do you really expect to find such a knight-errant? The age of chivalry is gone.’ Peacock is partly mocking Edmund Burke’s famous rhapsody over Marie Antoinette, as Marilyn Butler points out in her recent Peacock Displayed, but his heart is evidently with Anthelia. There is nonetheless some force to Mrs Pinmoney’s reply.

The Way Forward

Ian Gilmour, 25 October 1990

In Britain, oppositions do not win general elections; the economy occasionally wins one for them. To prevent it doing so, governments in the second half of a Parliament devote much of their...

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Jon Elster, 15 November 1984

Optimism and wishful thinking have been features of socialist thought from its inception. In Marx, for instance, two main premises appear to be that whatever is desirable is possible, and that...

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Why bother about politics?

Jon Elster, 5 February 1981

How did the notion arise that political obligation is something more than the unconditional duty of subjects to obey their ruler? And what, in a given situation, are the historically-shaped...

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A few years ago there was a vogue in the social sciences for a certain type of real-life experiment. Experimental subjects were, for example, coached to exhibit the symptoms of psychiatric...

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