Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Spring 2010 - Volume 13 Number 2
Short Stuff: A Review Essay
by Howard A. Doughty

Books Discussed:

Jonathan Barker, The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism (London: Verso/Toronto: Between the Lines)
Chris Brazier, The No-Nonsense Guide to World History (London: Verso/Toronto: Between the Lines)
Wayne Ellwood, The No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization ((London: Verso/Toronto: Between the Lines)
Jeremy Seabrook, The No-Nonsense Guide to Class, Caste and Hierarchies (London: Verso/Toronto: Between the Lines)
Richard Swift, The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy (London: Verso/Toronto: Between the Lines)
Terrell Carver, Engels: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)
Bernard Crick, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)
James Gordon Finlayson, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)
Michael Inwood, Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)
David Miller, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)
Manfred B. Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)
Michael Tanner, Nietzsche: A Very Short Introduction (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press)

This is not so much a review of a series of books as it is a peek at a method of writing for college classes. Although specific comments are made on a dozen individual volumes, the real subjects are the two publishers upon which this essay focuses, and that are doing their best to fill their catalogues with pertinent titles across a vast range of topics.

British in origin, the publishing houses in question have, over the past decade or so, produced almost 230 texts—close to 200 in the case of Oxford University Press and almost 30 for Verso. They are updated in new editions as needed, which helps explain why no publishing dates are recorded for the books discussed herein.

The word “text” is crucial, for both these series are intended for use in colleges and universities, but they are not “textbooks” in the traditional sense. That is why I have used, am using and plan to use several in the college and university programs in which I teach.

The reason is simple. I dislike the very concept of a textbook as it has emerged over the past few decades, especially in the social sciences. We are all familiar with them: large, expensive, four-colour glossies that purport to introduce students to the joys of sociology, economics or anthropology. They seem to be composed by committees of marketing agents, designed to offend no one largely by saying nothing, or at least nothing of authentic interest. There are some noble exceptions and, by way of full disclosure, I once allowed my name to appear on the back cover of one of the better of the species, lauding it mostly for having the courage to drift ever so slightly away from the common corporate template. General speaking, however, I do not like them. I try, whenever possible, to avoid them. Perhaps the matter is summed up nicely in a single quote from the social science editor of a major international publisher: “Yeah, every year we have to dumb them down a little more.”

Some publishers are smartening up, of course. I have, therefore, used a number of “custom texts” that allow teachers to pick and choose from an entire catalogue and to insert their own material to beef up or spice up the “product.” I have also used to advantage the services of companies that will cobble together cerlex-bound collections of readings and original writings for distribution at a relatively low price. While both methods have been satisfactory to an extent, I am enthusiastic about the offerings of Oxford and Verso. So it is that in the coming semesters, I will be using complementary texts (one “No-Nonsense Guide” and one “Very Short Introduction”) as well as a “Custom Text” with relevant readings in each of my courses. Since expenses are always a consideration, this approach permits me to present students with a collection of diverse materials at a price of between $50.00 and $60.00, rather than forcing them to spend $100.00 or more on a cumbersome “door-stop,” filled to capacity with coloured photographs, pull-quotes, white space and review questions, and accompanied by CD-ROMS and Test Banks with doltish multiple-choice questions for teachers lacking the imagination to set challenging essay topics or, more likely, the time to grade them.

Averaging a little under 150 pages, both the No-Nonsense Guides and the Very Short Introductions range in price from about $9.00 to $16.00 a title. The production quality and the lay-out and printing are generally fine. Both sets include occasional photographs, graphs and charts, almost all of which are interesting and informative. Verso and Oxford have also recruited first-rate writers with uncontested expertise in their fields. The books are uniformly sized (roughly 11.5 cm x 18 cm), and that is where the similarities end.

The No-Nonsense Guides focus on political and social issues. They assume a consistent political position that reflects the forty-year history of their publishers. Begun in 1970 by the staff of the New Left Review under the imprint “New Left Books,” both the publishing enterprise and the journal have been at or near the centre of controversy in the democratic socialist discourse that has emerged from the United Kingdom and remains vibrant throughout the world. Verso is rivaled by only a few (Merlin in the UK and Monthly Review in the USA being contenders) as the leading radical publisher in the English-speaking world. No matter whether you are ideologically aligned with its editorial policy, no fair person can deny the exceptional scholarship and brilliant argumentation displayed by Verso and its company of writers.

Oxford’s Very Short Introductions are another matter. The history of the Oxford University Press could make for a multi-volume project on its own. Dating at least back to 1480, the press has been an integral part of that venerable institution’s contribution to knowledge and education in all domains throughout the lives of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, Hume, Faraday, Darwin and the entire registry of British scholars and saints almost since the invention of the printing press. The largest university press in the world, it has the capacity to take on immense projects and see them through to satisfying fulfillment, as anyone familiar with the Oxford English Dictionary can easily attest. The Very Short Introductions (or VSIs to their friends) are not the stuff of legend—at least not yet—but they are a considerable and a commendable addition to the store of paper-bound educational resources. As impressive as their quality is their range. Few significant domains of knowledge are omitted, and it seems that few that are now excluded will be beyond the pale for long. There are books on feminism, fossils and Foucault. There are books on particle physics, Plato and poststructuralism. The list goes on, and no doubt will continue to do so.

Since the No-Nonsense Guides make no effort to disguise what some would call their bias, it is likely that anyone ill-disposed to systematic critiques of contemporary society through the lens of class, race and gender will find these little books hard to take. They are relentless in their disclosure of the fallacies and mendacities of capitalism, racism and sexism. They are also deeply committed to what some now in power dismiss as “reality-based” analysis. They are, in short, not screeds but carefully argued and generally persuasive briefs in support of a more accurate account of acknowledged problems of violence, inequity and social justice than can be detected in the mass media or, for that matter, standard textbooks.

Jeremy Seabrook’s contribution on structural inequality in the form of religious caste, economic class and organizational hierarchy is a case in point. He is meticulous in his revelations of the extent of what is now fashionably called the “asymmetry” of power and the gravity of its consequences for humanity and global ecology. He is also no more than realistic in his observation that “history is never concluded in this world” and that “to believe otherwise is the error into which both the unimaginative and pedestrian inheritors of Marx and the triumphal victors of global capital have, at various times, fallen.” The implications of his presentation should surprise both those who vigorously defend the current order and those who virulently attack it.

Shifting from conditions to tactics, if Clausewitz was correct to call war the extension of politics by other means, terrorism may be the conflation of the two—the violence of war being insinuated into political life, and partisan politics determining the framing of war with the main events held in the mass media and the actual blood and broken limbs being only “collateral damage.” Jonathan Barker’s No-Nonsense Guide to Global Terrorism treads on mine-filled soil. Acts of insanity, from a car-bombing in a major Western city or facility on the one “side” to a possible “pre-emptive strike” on Iran or even North Korea on the other, are apt to shift the debate dramatically at any given moment. The fact that it was only the American public awareness of the world that changed on 11 September, 2001 and not the world itself (and neither, surely “forever”) means that attention to current combatants must be balanced with a consideration of issues of morality or military conflict that put contemporary global conflict in perspective. Barker accomplishes this task as well as anyone writing for the mass market. He does so by illuminating the obvious: first, there is no “war on terrorism”: that phrase is transparent hyperbole deployed in support of quite another kind of struggle; second, terrorism is not new, but has been an element of human conflict since the earliest times in recorded history; third, the terrorism of minority groups against overarching domination is nothing compared with the overwhelming terror of the state in the service of suppressing those minorities; and, fourth, the permanent solution to any form of terrorism has not been and cannot be found in any sort of military success other than acts of annihilation of genocidal proportion. That such acts are currently contemplated by nuclear states is the peculiarly terrifying feature of the world today.

The differences between the Verso and Oxford series, and the source of their pedagogical value as duets can be seen when books on common topics are compared, contrasted and used in the same classes (as I do in my courses on “globalization” and, soon, on “democracy”).

Like terrorism, globalization is nothing new. It is the old British Empire on the world-wide web. It is the Spanish conquest of much of the Western Hemisphere, with immediate access to rising and falling gold markets. It is the origin of la francophonie with English as the lingua franca. It is the Roman legions equipped with heat-seeking missiles and night-vision goggles.

Wayne Ellwood’s No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization predictably concentrates on economics. He presents a chronological account of world-wide ambitions of nations and corporations dating back at least to Columbus. He shows, more precisely, how the flow of events from the Bretton Woods effort to tame the international economy in the interest of the victors of World War II has gone on to spawn multinational conglomerates, international financial authorities and, now, has witnessed not a collapse of the world financial system but an era in which “casino capitalism” has not only ruined millions of families and perhaps irreparably damaged entire countries, but has also paradoxically enhanced the power of those corporate entities that brought the crisis of 2008 to what is commonly called “Main Street” and to almost everyone’s so-called “kitchen table conversations” (a touching Norman Rockwell allusion to a time when families actually ate together at least on a North American Sunday evening rather than getting lost at the Mall or in cyberspace).

In the alternative, Oxford’s Manfred B. Steger offers a thematic interpretation of globalization as a multifaceted phenomenon, with economic, political, cultural and ecological dimensions. Self-consciously “fair and balanced,” Steger refrains from anything that could be interpreted as an ideological interpretation of globalization. Instead, beginning with the acknowledgement that globalization is, itself, an essentially contested concept, he not only describes and explains the material changes in international commerce, governance, communications and ecology, but also attends to the competing ideologies that sustain them (and resistance to them). He allows himself the luxury of a “critical approach” to “market globalism,” but is quick to insist that this ought not to be read as “a blanket rejection of either markets or globalization.” He is right; it isn’t. Rather, taking together, Ellwood’s economic analysis (from which political, cultural and environmental consequences inevitably result) and Steger’s dispassionate analysis of trends—both positive and negative—combine to provide the basis of a stimulating, multi-disciplinary understanding of a pattern or (dare I say it?) a “web” that seems to have caught us all and from which an escape is currently unthinkable. That understanding, we may hope, will start to give us and our students some bearings so that we will no longer be critically unaware of our surroundings, but may, instead, be able to navigate within them.

Similar comments can be made about the two companies’ presentations on democracy. In this case, Oxford has chosen one of the more controversial writers of the past century to do its work. Sir Bernard Crick (1929-2008) was nothing if not a Labour Party man. He was also a principal biographer of George Orwell, and it would not be a disservice to him to say that he sometimes imagined himself occupying the same political space. Often considered a “gadfly” in the British Labour Party, he occasionally provoked, often annoyed and was sometimes dismissed by both the “old Labour” (the trade union-based “left”) and “new Labour” (the Blairite middle-roaders who some regarded as venal social democratic apostates).

Crick’s own political philosophy comes through clearly in his treatment of democracy, which has much in common with the ideas of John Stuart Mill, contextualized in the social awareness of G. D. H. Cole. Crick, that is to say, is a democrat who doesn’t worship democracy. He sees it as a necessary but not a sufficient cause of the “good society.” Rather than an “ideological” writer, I would call him a “normative” writer; but, rather than split semantic hairs, I am content to call him an “independent thinker” of the moderate left. I am sure he would be content with that designation as well.

Richard Swift, guiding us to a forceful critique of democracy as it is and an equally robust assertion of the value of democracy as it should be, is much less dainty than Sir Bernard. Where Crick sees progressive change as necessarily slow if it is to be sound and enduring, Swift is eager for speed. His criticism of contemporary liberal democracies is not especially new. Writers such as C. B. Macpherson, Christian Bay, Henry S. Kariel and a host of others have questioned current liberal democratic practices over the past half-century. The many flaws in representative democracy and the acquiescence in (or overt hostility to) popular participation in the political process have been highlighted in everything from studies of citizen alienation to institutional obstacles that can only be removed through some form of proportional representation. Swift goes on, however, to spend space and time advancing alternatives that have seldom caught the attention of critics of the world of “technocrats, neoliberals and spin doctors,” who have substituted consumerism for citizenship and made democratic governance into an unappealing entertainment. Being able to draw upon examples from other cultures, which empower citizens as much or more as the media-besotted audience of the Sunday morning chat shows, allows teachers a genuinely different perspective from which to read Crick and to assess their own lives as potential citizens rather than consumers of images and market-drive commodities.

As for the Oxford and Verso volumes that do not match up well, there is far more to say that can be said here. In the closing paragraphs, moreover, I shall mainly express criticisms, but they must not be regarded as expressions of disapproval, much less denigration. Rather, they largely involve the inevitable costs that must be paid when attempting to construct brief introductions to complicated and contested topics. I will also complain (just a little) about us readers in order to make a larger and quite positive point.

The first concern is focus and the problem of inclusiveness. In his Habermas: A Very Short Introduction, James Gordon Finlayson deals extensively with the “mature thought” of this contemporary German polymath. His explication of Habermas’ ideas on meaning and communication, pragmatism and law, and numerous related topics is thorough and generally sympathetic. I would have liked, however, for him to have lowered the intellectual bar slightly. I would have preferred him to make such issues as the human interests embedded in empirical-analytical, historical-hermeneutic and emancipatory forms of knowledge more explicit. As well, I would have appreciated him explaining in greater detail Habermas’ quasi-Kantian standard for ethical discourse, the “ideal speech situation,” as it relates to actual political circumstances. Once again, this is not to disparage Finlayson’s book. Were I to teach an undergraduate course on Habermasian pragmatics, it would almost certainly appear on the required reading list. I mention it mainly to point out that no complex thinker can be covered comprehensively in fewer than 140 small-sized pages of actual text (plus a very useful Appendix on Habermas’ research program, bibliography and index).

The second is perspective and the problem of definition. David Miller’s Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction performs its appointed task admirably. It explains the nature of philosophy, the nature of politics and the critical relationship between the two. Miller, however, has a specific view of that relationship that may not appeal to everyone. He deals with enduring issues of democracy, justice and the like from the standpoint of a liberal democrat with at least one foot in the camp of philosophical idealism. Not for nothing does a full-page photo of Isaiah Berlin adorn his text. In so doing, he takes pains to exclude thinkers like Karl Marx from authentically political discourse. This is done less because he disapproves of Marx’s ideals (which at worst conform to some aspects of Plato’s Republic or at best a kind of technological communalism), but because he believes that “20th-century experience put paid to the kind of historical determinism that was so prevalent in the 19th …” This is as may be, but in making this judgement, Miller has taken one course among many. This is plainly his right, and his book will most likely conform to the fundamental beliefs of most people apt to be teaching college or undergraduate political philosophy. Still, his is only one path. And, were more space available, I would attempt a deeper critique, perhaps rooted in John G. Gunnell’s masterful Between Philosophy and Politics: The Alienation of Political Theory (University of Massachusetts, 1986). But that would be a different argument and, to be fair, it would presume that Miller had written a rather different book.

Third comes the question of general education that sometimes seems too general and which, of course, is a euphemism for superficial. I have read no small number of survey texts on World History, though most have concentrated on Western History or, even more broadly, on Western Civilization. The ones with which I am most familiar are H. G. Wells’ An Outline of History (1919) and J. M. Roberts’ more recent 1149-page tome The Penguin History of the World (1995). The first elicited extraordinarily negative reactions from commentators G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc mainly because of its perceived blasphemy against Christianity and the Christ, but also because of its insistently progressive account of the strivings and successes of secular humanity. The second won praise from A. J. P. Taylor and The Economist magazine. Chris Brazier’s No-Nonsense Guide to World History will neither receive such criticisms, nor such notice in the mainstream of our culture. I do, however, think that this particular book is a foreseeable failure. It is not that Brazier has done a bad job of it, but that the job need not have been done. At the risk of being precious, it seems to me that a 136-page history of the world is itself “nonsense.” Seven pages on humanity from our biological origins to the 6th century BCE, five pages on God, four on Asia from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and eight on the whole history of Africa do not seem worth it. Still, I admire Brazier’s forthrightness as he brings his account of the twentieth century to an end: “A century, like a work of art,” he says, “has as many meanings as the observer wishes to project upon it, yet few people are prepared to admit that their views are partial, that it emerges from their own personal and political agenda.”

Finally, let me say immediately that I have no substantive quarrel with any of the authors of the VSI treatments of Heidegger, Nietzsche and Engels, with whom I shall conclude. In fact, I am quite pleased with all three. They do, however, serve as examples of the need to cope with the problems that writers encounter when they deal with relatively recent and highly controversial thinkers upon whom contemporary judgements have already been made. The problems are not made easier by constraints of space.

The problem with Heidegger is not the elephant of his Nazi associations that has been in the room for eighty years, but rather the way in which philosophy and personal history conjoin in the evaluation of thought. There are those who seek to separate the two, treating Heidegger’s obvious importance for twentieth-century thought as dissociable from his political and personal behaviour that, in light of the outcome of World War II, most observers find execrable. There are also those who conflate the two, refusing to see his work on the concept of being and, more recently, his interrogation of technology as worthy of being taken seriously because of certain events in the 1930s, which cannot be explained as mere errors perhaps compelled by exigent circumstances. When Terry Eagleton referred to him as the “Black Forest philosopher” with his hands covered in “blood and soil,” he was not far off the mark. Yet, no less a thoughtful twentieth-century witness to cruelty as Hannah Arendt was his lover and lifelong friend. Michael Inwood does not avoid the problem, but he does not dwell upon it. In Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction, we are treated to a lucid explication of the thought—especially in Being and Time—of a man whose ideas must be addressed if we are to grasp any part of twentieth-century European philosophy. When he does speak to Heidegger’s “errors,” he is sympathetic, without necessarily being forgiving. In the end, he likens him to St. Augustine. Whether that is a suitable comparison I leave for others to judge.

The problem with Nietzsche is also not the pachyderm in the parlor of alleged proto-Nazi ideas, but rather the way in which philosophy and personal history mask a dispassionate evaluation of thought. Nietzsche, it must be admitted, was no shrinking violet. His style and substance—not least in his uncomplimentary remarks about Christianity, equality and what may vaguely be described as “progressive” ideas—are nothing if not incendiary. And, of course, he was also insane. So, from his actually proto-Nazi sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (she was an anti-Semite and a German nationalist; he was neither) to the blather of child murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, it is hard for the casual reader to work up much sympathy for him. Still, we should recall that moderate and conscience-ridden writers such as Albert Camus had a special affinity for Nietzsche: “We Nietzscheans!” he exclaimed in his Notebooks perhaps in gratitude, perhaps in defiance of conventional judgement.

The problem with Friedrich Engels is not some apparent psychological condition. Neither is it a perceived moral failing (though by some standards he had more than one). It is certainly not some hideous secret about his political program (he was nothing if not honest about that). Rather, it is the problem of living in a shadow. Engels has been regarded as Karl Marx’s not-so-comical sidekick and financial enabler of first and last resort. Widely thought to be little more than a secondary co-author of some of Marx’s more popular tracts, especially The Communist Manifesto, Engels’ standing as an independent contributor to our understanding of capitalism and, more importantly, large swaths of history and anthropology is seldom appreciated and dismissed as derivative or second-rate—even (or especially) by Marxists. Terry Carver has taken some pains to restore and perhaps rehabilitate our understanding of Engels by treating him less as Marx’s reliable assistant than as half of an impressive dynamic. So, what’s the problem? It isn’t Carver’s but our own. Terry Carver is an innovative educator working with difficult subjects.

For the anti-Nazis and anti-Communists among us, I will let Michael Tanner speak for all: “I suppose that anyone who spends a lot of time in Nietzsche’s company … must sometimes have a feeling of revulsion, alternating with the excitement and gratitude one feels for the abundance of his insights and the freshness of his approaches to so many well-worn subjects.”

As educators, we may be grateful for the manner in which each of these books comes to grips with difficult problems and challenging thinkers. They are mentioned here mainly because the authorial issues with which Inwood, Tanner and Carver have dealt are the same ones that we face in classrooms, with or without their books as tools or totems. When we seek to acquaint young students with the ideas of women and men decades, centuries or millennia ago, we have much to overcome. In phrases purloined from contemporary social critics: our society celebrates the “specious present”; we suffer from collective “social amnesia”; we are governed by “technopoly” and are in danger of “amusing ourselves to death.”

Passions such as those of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Engels as well as all those who grapple with problems of ethics and pragmatics, democracy and demagoguery, and questions of our species’ fate in a world embroiled in conflicted economies and ecologies with stakes higher than those of any in the past, must nonetheless learn from the past. At whatever level of engagement we choose to work, Verso and Oxford have given us better tools than we may be able to use and better tools than we may have much right to expect.


Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at howardadoughty@yahoo.ca.