Jon Elster

Jon Elster is a professor of political science at Columbia. His books include Ulysses and the Sirens, Making Sense of Marx and Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality.

Chinese Leaps

Jon Elster, 25 April 1991

Nobody really knows what’s happening in China. Analysis must proceed from triangulation, relying on a few uncontroversial facts, specific knowledge about the Chinese past and general knowledge about the dilemmas and solutions that emerge in countries in similar predicaments. History matters for a number of reasons. One is that similar causes tend to produce similar effects. China’s topography, weather and soil impose perennial constraints on warfare and agriculture. A striking example is found in Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China: ‘Chiang Kai-shek [in 1949] had roughly the same range of options that had faced the southern Ming court once the Manchus had seized Peking and the North China plain 305 years before. He could try to consolidate a regime in central or southern China, perhaps in Nanjing, relying on the Yangzi river as a natural barrier; he could try to consolidate in the south-west, or establish a coastal base in the Ximan region of Fujian or in Canton; or he could use Taiwan as a base, as Koxinga [a naval warrior fighting the Manchus in the 1650s] had done.’ Even more obviously, Chinese agriculture is dominated by immutable natural conditions. It is not surprising that Karl Wittfogel, perhaps the foremost advocate of geographical determinism in our century, was also a specialist on China.

When Communism dissolves

Jon Elster, 25 January 1990

A minimal definition of a well-ordered society is that its drivers stop when they see a red light. Some episodes that indicate why people on occasion fail to respect red lights can also, incidentally, illuminate the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of recent political events.

Jon Elster goes to China

Jon Elster, 27 October 1988

With an American friend I recently spent two weeks travelling in China at the invitation of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Besides lecturing, our main purpose was to understand the economic reforms in Chinese industry. The three cities we visited, Changzhou, Shanghai and Wenzhou, offer three different models of reform. The first two are experimenting with more independence for state and collective enterprises, whereas in Wenzhou private entrepreneurs and capitalism are emerging as the vehicle of change. For the purpose of grasping what is happening in China, the visit was like scratching the surface of the visible tip of an iceberg. We were not able to see much, and our understanding of what we saw was no doubt limited, distorted and superficial. Yet the scale of (intentional) reform and (unintended) change is such that even untrained observers like ourselves could perceive them in rough outline, especially since the Chinese scholars we met helped us sort out many initial confusions.

Second-Decimal Arguments

Jon Elster, 23 May 1985

Reading Richard Wollheim’s study of what it is to live the life of a person was a frustrating, painful experience. Perhaps it can best be summarised by saying that while the book goes to great lengths to ensure precision in the second decimal, it leaves us in the dark about the first. Wollheim has a marvellously knowledgeable and intelligent mind. Of the numerous topics discussed here, many are brilliantly illuminated and some receive better treatment than I have ever come across. Yet these displays of ingenuity and inventiveness take place against the opaque background of psychoanalytic theory, which the reader is more or less asked to accept on faith. There are two puzzles here. One is: why should I believe all this? The other is: why doesn’t Wollheim see that he must offer me reasons to believe it? Psychoanalysis is, after all, only one of a large array of theories of the mind, and Wollheim’s version of it only one of the many which are available.


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 whatever is desirable and possible is inevitable. John Dunn’s short book is much concerned with the disastrous consequences of this Utopian strand in socialism. He argues that socialists, if they want to be taken seriously, must show that the society they propose is economically viable, and that the process of getting there is politically feasible. He also comes close to saying, without ever actually doing so, that neither demonstration will succeed. The cumulative impact of the difficulties that he urges socialists to confront is such that one wonders why he doesn’t simply tell them to pack it in.

Proverbs: Jon Elster

William Ian Miller, 10 August 2000

Suppose that 16 years ago you had written not one but two superlative books. Would you suffer from anxiety of influence with regard to early versions of yourself, as if, to twist Harold Bloom,...

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Roads breed traffic. The M25 motorway round London eased congestion at first, and so tempted more drivers into more journeys. A belief that a good road is empty soon fills it up. Game Theorists...

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Double Brains

P.W. Atkins, 19 May 1988

Anne Harrington’s masterly account of homo duplex is more than just an account of the emergence of our understanding of our own inner dissymmetry. It sets the striving towards comprehension...

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Can Marxism be rescued?

Alan Ryan, 17 September 1987

The relationship between philosophy and Marxism has always been an awkward one. ‘Philosophy stands to the study of the real world in the same relationship as masturbation stands to real...

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Happiness and Joe Higgins

Brian Barry, 20 October 1983

Jon Elster needs, as they say, no introduction to regular readers of the London Review, who will be familiar not only with his name but also with the cast of his mind and the breadth of his...

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Jon Elster’s Brisk Meditations

Bernard Williams, 1 May 1980

There are some pieces of logical or theoretical jargon which are marks of ideological allegiance – intellectual windsocks to display which way the wind is blowing the author. While...

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