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Daniel J. Mahoney - Character and Leadership - Journal of Democracy 14:1 Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 166-170

Character and Leadership

Daniel J. Mahoney

The Politics of Moral Capital. By John Kane. Cambridge University Press, 2001. 277 pp.

In its most aggressively "scientific" forms at least, modern political inquiry prides itself on its "realism," by which is meant its ability to see through the moral claims and specific arguments of concrete political life to the interests and power struggles that actually motivate human individuals and collectivities. It sets out to "disenchant" politics, to expose the witting or unwitting pretenses of political actors who often fail fully to admit or understand their own motives and concerns. In marked contrast to this view, Alexis de Tocqueville once famously claimed that his goal was "to see not other than, but further than the parties." The goal of social-scientific realists has nothing to do with such an eminently civic perspective, for their aspiration is indeed precisely to see "other than" citizens and statesmen, to uncover what political actors, blinded by their interests and passions, cannot or will not see. The modern student of politics is trained to distrust "unscientific" words such as "character" and "soul," and generally attempts to achieve the levels of predictability and generalizability that have accounted for the remarkable fecundity of modern natural science. But this means that the "scientific" perspective, if left wholly to its own devices, risks leaving behind the civic and moral perspectives—and hence political life itself—altogether.

In The Politics of Moral Capital, Australian political scientist John Kane takes aim at a realism that cannot fully capture the realities of the human world. His thoughtful and well-written book rejects the "methodological [End Page 166] cynicism" (p. 258) that arbitrarily simplifies the motives of political actors and ignores "the ubiquity and effect of moral judgment in politics, as in all of life" (p. 255). His point in doing this is not to reject the scientific study of politics as such, but rather to expand its horizons by confronting it with phenomena that are quite real but do not readily lend themselves to measurement or predictability.

In a series of useful chapters on Abraham Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the modern U.S. presidency, Kane explores the role of moral capital in political life. If economic capital is "wealth in action," moral capital is "moral prestige—whether of an individual, an organization, or a cause—in useful service" (p. 7). Moral character and prestige are both valuable in themselves and "resources that enable the achievement of other social, political, or economic ends" (p. 7). Kane ably traces the ambiguity at the heart of moral capital: the tension between moral prestige and personal character, on the one hand, as ends in themselves and, on the other hand, the necessary but morally problematic effort to put them to public use. This effort to bring moral prestige to bear on political life is indispensable if morality is to have a real foothold in human society. The French poet and political thinker Charles Péguy once suggested that the Kantian moral purist was so afraid of getting his hands dirty that he ended up having had no hands at all. According to this logic, the statesman is faced with the difficult challenge of pursuing decent ends while trying to be as effective as possible in the real world. Happily, Kane's close examination of exemplary statesmen reveals that moral capital can survive—and even draw strength from—its embodiment in the messy rough and tumble of political life. Economists, political scientists, and sociologists have fruitfully utilized the concepts of human and social capital to measure how skills and abilities and "social trust" affect the nature and development of modern society. These concepts contributed to bridging the gap between social science and civic life, providing valuable empirical tools for those investigating the preconditions of economic development and civic participation. Nevertheless, these ideas remain essentially theoretical notions associated with social science research. In contrast, the concept of moral capital has a closer relationship to political life itself. Charles de Gaulle, for example, spoke of the "moral capital" he had accrued from the war years as he returned to political office in 1958. And for half a century, writers, politicians, and political theorists have speculated on the reliance of modern democracy for much of its vitality and moral vigor on the inherited moral capital of the premodern Western tradition. The notion of moral capital seems to be closer to both common sense and civic life than its more abstract social scientific cousins.

While all the chapters in this book sustain the reader's interest, some ultimately succeed much more than others. The chapter on Abraham Lincoln is particularly impressive. Kane eloquently and accurately describes [End Page 167] Lincoln's "closely reasoned ground of right" (p. 55)—his effort to "combine right principle, constitutional propriety, and political necessity" (p. 67) in addressing both the problem of slavery and the need to preserve a Union that was the absolute precondition of democratic self-government in the United States. Lincoln's principled moderation, his realistic idealism, satisfied neither his abolitionist critics nor the defenders of slavery and meant that, for a time, Lincoln's personal moral capital lagged far behind that of his cause. But in the end his prudence and unrelenting fidelity to the cause of self-government, as well as the matchless rhetoric that he deployed in defense of that cause, brought him lasting moral capital. His greatness was fixed forever in the public mind by the outpouring of popular grief and affection that followed his assassination in April 1865, making him a model of democratic leadership and extending his moral capital beyond his death. Kane does a superb job of capturing the mixture of principle and prudence that defined Lincoln's public career and that makes him an enduring examplar of democratic political greatness.

Kane's treatment of the great twentieth-century French statesman Charles de Gaulle is much less successful. He accurately reports the high points of the Gaullist narrative, principally the general's choice to follow the path of resistance after France surrendered to Germany in June 1940 as well as his return to power in 1958 as, in effect, the founder of the Fifth Republic, the first broadly legitimate constitutional order in post-Revolutionary French history. But like many others, Kane exaggerates both de Gaulle's egotism and his political "mysticism." Kane displays an insufficient appreciation of the subtlety of de Gaulle's political reflections, which may well be a result of Kane's not having read all of the general's major pre-1940 writings. (Kane seems to think, for instance, that de Gaulle's classic 1932 work on leadership, The Edge of the Sword, was his first book.) De Gaulle's appeal to "eternal France" and his suspicion of squabbling parties and ideologies were not the results of a Romantic obsession with the "general will" or signs that he fundamentally distrusted democratic politics. Rather, de Gaulle had an overwhelming practical concern in mind: He wanted to overcome the terrifying ideological rifts that had torn French society apart at least once a generation since 1789. His evocation of grandeur, in other words, stemmed directly from a highly realistic assessment of the French as they really were. De Gaulle could not appeal to any of the traditional parties to aid in this bold project, since none was sufficiently committed to healing the fundamental divide between left and right or to overcoming the lack of energetic executive authority that had left France so divided and weak at the time of the Nazi onslaught in 1940. De Gaulle had to rely almost exclusively on his own moral capital and appeal to an enduring France above and beyond the parties not because he was an egomaniac or a mystic, but because such a reliance and such an appeal were all that he [End Page 168] had available. The established political order had revealed itself to be in the throes of a sickness unto death. Because Kane fails adequately to appreciate these features of de Gaulle's situation, Kane's treatment is ultimately condescending: As is often the case in writings on de Gaulle by English-speaking scholars, the great French statesman winds up being faulted for not being an Anglo-American liberal.

No serious treatment of moral capital can ignore the phenomenon of dissidence against modern tyranny, a form of resistance that Kane examines in his chapters on Mandela and Suu Kyi. Kane carefully explores the moral capital that Mandela accrued as a result of his lifelong resistance to apartheid and his nearly 30 years of imprisonment on Robben Island. This treatment sheds light on the fundamental paradox of Mandela's public life: How was it that this committed revolutionary, this one-time advocate of revolutionary socialism, turned out to be an "essentially moderate figure" (p. 140)? Upon his release from jail in early 1990, Mandela used his overwhelming moral capital to restrain militants in his own African National Congress and to promote a future of multiracial democracy for South Africa after apartheid. Kane's portrait of the dignified Burmese dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi powerfully reveals the role of inherited moral capital in political life. The long-confined and long-oppressed opposition leader has been able to withstand a corrupt and cruel military-cum-socialist regime in no small part because her esteemed father, Aung San (d. 1947), was the founder of modern Burma's army, the architect of its state, and the martyred hero of its struggle for independence. The regime is afraid to harm her—and even more afraid to allow her electorally victorious National League for Democracy actually to assume power.

As we have already seen, this book is not without weaknesses. The failure to examine anticommunist dissidence is a major lacuna in any book about moral capital. Figures such as Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Pope John Paul II, and Václav Havel are perfect illustrations of the power of truth and moral integrity to confront totalitarian despotism and to overcome the grip of the ideological "lie." In particular, Kane would have done well to consider Havel's two most important politico-philosophical essays, "The Power of the Powerless" (1979) and "Politics and Conscience" (1984). They are compelling and penetrating explorations of the power of conscience and moral witness to expose the gap between the claims of totalitarian ideology and the ethical demands of life. They are crucial for understanding the moral underpinnings of the antitotalitarian revolution that swept the Soviet empire out of existence beginning in 1989. It is puzzling that Kane chose to ignore the most salient illustration of the power of conscience to move souls and kingdoms in our time. Finally, Kane's analysis of the decline of the modern U.S. presidency's moral prestige is marred by an unfortunate tendency to dismiss U.S. anticommunism as fevered and simpleminded [End Page 169] and to caricature the views of anticommunist leaders such as Ronald Reagan.

Despite these flaws, this book stands as a refreshing effort to come to terms with the inescapably moral character of political life. It is also an important contribution to the academic study of statesmanship. It succeeds in its stated goal of helping to recover a truly capacious sense of political reality, and successfully demonstrates that moral capital is a fact with which any science of politics must come to terms if it is to do justice to the true efficacy of moral prestige and personal character in human affairs.


Daniel J. Mahoney teaches political science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Among other works, he is the author of The Liberal Political Science of Raymond Aron (1992), De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (1996), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideology (2001).

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