European Political Thought in the 19th Century

Raymond Plant. Handbook of Political Theory. Editor: Gerald F Gaus & Chandran Kukathas. 2004. Sage Publication.

Political thought in the nineteenth century developed against the background of momentous events and intellectual developments in the spheres of science, sociology, theology and history, and we need first of all to understand in broad terms the nature of some of these themes.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution still exercised an enormous influence on both progressive and self-consciously reactionary thinkers. Many revolutions and insurrections took place in Europe during this period (Hobsbawm, 1975). The post-Napoleonic period had been a very great disappointment to many radical thinkers and groups. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat by Napoleon of the forces of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation at Jena in 1806 there had been some political and social progress, particularly in Prussia where the reforms of Stein and Hardenberg were well on their way to producing a more liberal form of constitutional monarchy. Following the final defeat of Napoleon however, the Holy Alliance of Austria, Prussia and Russia came into existence with a self-consciously reactionary agenda, which led to greater censorship and political persecution. Nevertheless in Russia in December 1825 there had been an attempted coup against the new Tsar Nicholas I and some of the Decembrist leaders were unexpectedly and rather incompetently executed. In France the Orleanist monarchy was overthrown in February 1848 as the result of popular insurrection. This set off something of a chain reaction. By early March the south-western German states were affected, as was Bavaria by 6 March and Berlin by 11 March, and a National Parliament representing all the German states was set up in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main. By 13 March the uprisings reached Vienna, followed by Hungary, and Metternich, the architect of post-Napoleonic Europe, was forced to flee. The tide of revolution reached Italy by 18 March with rebellions or the perceived threat of rebellions in Sicily, Piedmont, Tuscany, Rome and, indeed, the papal states. These led rulers of what was not then a united nation (Metternich had called Italy a ‘geographical expression’ only, and Italian nationality a ‘meaningless word’: Mack Smith, 1994: 51) to promise some degree of representative government. Switzerland too was not immune to these developments and had in fact had a civil war in 1847. So these years were seen as a pivotal moment in European history, and both the possibility and the fear of revolution dominated political thought and practice for most of the century.

While a good deal of the motivating force for revolution came from general democratic ideals of republican self-government, these were also revolutions in which a self-conscious form of socialism and communism played a leading role. Marx and Engels, of course, at this time wrote The Communist Manifesto. The first German edition of the Manifesto was published in London on about 24 February with words which within a few days were going to sound prophetic:

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism. All of the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies. (Marx, 1978: 473)

Many of Europe’s leading political thinkers were involved in the events of 1847-9 as activists, protagonists and commentators. Frequently they knew one another even though relationships were often fraught. Indeed Alexander Herzen, the leading Russian liberal thinker, often acted as a banker and frequently unpaid money lender to a group which included Marx, Engels, Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre Proudhon, Giuseppi Mazzini, and George Herwegh (Carr, 1998). Others involved in the events of this period were Ludwig Feuerbach and the great historian Theodor Mommsen. Later in the century other thinkers were involved in direct political struggle including Ferdinand Lasalle, Peter Kropotkin and Eduard Bernstein.

It has frequently been said that this period sees the emergence of a genuine European intelligentsia involved both in theorizing about the nature of society and politics and in trying to change society in a socialist, communist, or in the case of Bakunin and Kropotkin, anarchist direction. In their different ways and in some cases for different reasons they were committed to Marx’s dictum in his eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach: ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it’ (1978: 145). Praxis the unity of theory and practice—is what they aimed for, but they did differ in terms of both theory and prescription.

Counter-Revolutionary Thought

Other centrally important thinkers were, however, engaged in a very different enterprise, namely that of formulating a response to the experience of the French Revolution and to the prospect of more to come in Europe. These counter-revolutionary themes are central to the writings of Joseph Arthur Gobineau (Biddiss, 1970), the Christian conservatism of Joseph de Maistre (1994), and Louis Gabriel Ambrois Bonald (1859; Menczer, 1952), Taine le Bon and later Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras (all in McClelland, 1970). Other major thinkers who cannot be so easily classified nevertheless had the French Revolution and its aftermath at the centre of their thought: this is true for example of Alexis de Tocqueville and François Auguste René Chateaubriand (1884).

These revolutionary events were also closely related to the rise of nationalism as a force in European states. In the earlier part of the century the demand for revolutionary change was often linked to the idea of democratic self-government and nationalism. Nationalism for Mazzini, to take an example, embodied the idea of a democratic self-governing republic. So in this sense, it was a kind of liberal nationalism. In Mazzini’s thought, it was also linked to the idea that a nation could develop the idea of a particular national mission. This was not understood by Mazzini to be part of national self-aggrandisement. It was only that different nations had different characters and it was perfectly possible to think that these could contribute in different ways to the achievement of a rich common humanity, rather than a sense of national identity being taken as involving the devaluation of others. Indeed, Mazzini developed the idea of a common economic market in Europe within which nation-states would contribute their respective strengths to something that would be to the benefit of all (Mack Smith, 1994).

Cultural and Racial Nationalism

There were, however, other forms of nationalism which were conceived by their intellectual supporters in much more specific cultural, ethnic and exclusionary terms. This strand of thinking in France runs from de Maistre and Gobineau through to Barrès and Maurras, and in Germany from Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, delivered following the defeat of the German states by Napoleon at the Battle of Jena, through to some of the ideas which formed part of Richard Wagner’s circle and which informed his operas. Fichte’s addresses are predicated on the idea that the German nation has a special mission, particularly in the context of European culture. The German nation is part of what he regards as the Urvolk the primal people, the people of creativity, imagination and insight. Given the late-eighteenth-century flowering of German culture in Weimar and Jena where Fichte had been a professor and where Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, the Schlegels, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schelling and Hegel were to be found (Beiser, 1992), one can perhaps understand this assessment. Nevertheless, the idea of a special national mission, which Mazzini also held, was in the hands of Fichte far more aggrandizing and exclusionary than anything entertained by Mazzini. Of those who are not part of the German sensibility Fichte says:

All who believe in arrested being, in retrogression, in eternal cycles… in inanimate nature, and put her at the helm of the world, whatever be their native country, whatever be their language, they are not Germans, they are strangers to us, and one would hope that one day they would be wholly cut off from our people. (Berlin, 1999: 96)

This linking of nationalism with the idea of the spirit of a people, with its national mission and the exclusion of those who do not share in that spirit, embodies quite a shift away from Fichte’s own earlier reformist liberalism and individualism as embodied, for example, in his Zuruckforderung der Denkfreiheit von den Fursten Europas (Reiss, 1955). This abandonment is evident in his Reden an die deutsche Nation and theorized in great and somewhat tedious detail in his posthumous Staatslehre. The position he held at this stage of his life also led him to be committed to the idea of a patriotic education. The new citizen of the German nation was to be the product of a state educational system (Nationalerziehung) which would foster the establishment of a specific German character. At this time many of Fichte’s ideas were shared by the philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, and a whole raft of German intellectuals in the early part of the nineteenth century, including Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin, took the view that the philosopher had a cultural and pedagogical task in terms of trying to create a nation, even though they did not share Fichte’s conception of exactly how this was to be done. This approach marks quite a shift from the understanding of the role of reason during the Enlightenment. During the period of the Enlightenment it was assumed that reason was universal and that a rational state and political order would reflect that universality, and would focus more on the demands of on the one hand cosmopolitanism and on the other the rights of the individual rather than on the cultural particularity of the nation and how this should be sustained in a rational way.

Nationalism and Romanticism

Fichte’s nationalism is heavily indebted to his philosophical origins in the German Romantic movement (Berlin, 1999; Beiser, 1992; 2002). The movement perhaps most focused in Jena consisted of the writers, thinkers, poets and belletrists mentioned above, although it also included the philosopher Friedrich Jacobi, the statesman William von Humbolt (Beiser, 1992), and the historian and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder who had lived in Weimar and exercised a profound influence (Berlin, 1999). For many of these thinkers the idea of the spirit of a people and its embodiment in a culture, politics, and religion specific to that people was one with great attractions. For many of them, particularly Herder, Schiller, Holderlin and Hegel (Plant, 1983), a society with a pervading ethos or spirit would be able to embody a strong sense of belonging, of community and of being at home in the world. Partly as a reflection of such an integrated culture it was possible to envisage the ideal of the whole person—an integrated and whole personality. At this time in Germany the ideal for both man and society was drawn from ancient Greece in which it was believed politics, culture, religion and private life were woven together in an indissoluble manner, and this vision finds its way very strongly into the poetry and prose of Schiller, particularly Die Gotter Griechenlands and the sixth Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Man. This idea of an integrated person in a harmonious society was also an immense influence on Herder, Holderlin and Hegel (Plant, 1983). It was also a vision which Marx inherited and indeed held onto while he sought to delineate the kind of social and economic order which could actually embody such an ideal. In the writings of others, as we shall see, medieval society rather than Attic Greece provided the counterweight to the more fragmenting aspects of modernity. But it can be seen that this Romantic emphasis on personal and social integration could be consistent with, if not actually demanding, a strong sense of national identity; and it also involved an implicit and frequently explicit critique of liberal individualism and many aspects of modernity, particularly the growing market economy and the division of labour which were held to militate against the idea of the wholeness of the personality. These are still very strong themes in Marx and Engel’s The German Ideology (Marx, 1978), published in 1846.

German Romanticism and Enlightenment

This Romantic emphasis on the sense of integration of life could take a much wider course too. It could first of all be taken as a critique of the Enlightenment, as for example by Herder, and this perspective was developed in a much fuller way as the century wore on. Counter-Enlightenment thinkers stress the value of community rather than the individual; the local over the general; a traditional way of life rather than the moral demands of universal reason; the value of existing cultures against an ideal kingdom of ends; an emphasis on the idea of history and situat-edness against the idea that the proper form of human society could be deduced from some ahistorical account of human nature; and an emphasis on virtue and obligation over individual rights and interests.

In Germany this led to a particular emphasis upon culture and language as constituting the unity of society and as a vehicle for national identity. The researches of the Grimm brothers into folklore are a good example of an attempt to retrieve a set of premodern understandings of German life which could contribute to a new sense of national solidarity built upon a shared culture and shared narratives. Jacob Grimm was a pupil of Friedrich Savigny, whose work on jurisprudence is discussed below. As Savigny sought to locate the authority of a post-Napoleonic form of law in Germany in the culture of small communities, particularly of pre-Reformation Germany, so the Grimm brothers’ collection of stories was seen by them as a patriotic task and as an essential contribution to a sense of cultural identity which would underwrite national identity, as was Wilhelm Grimm’s German Heroic Tales of 1829 (Habermas, 2001). The identity of a state and a nation was to be found in narrative and the ethos sustained by that narrative, not by resting institutions and identities upon claimed universal rational features of individuals. In this they were true disciples of Herder who was one of the main representative Romantic political and social thinkers of the last third of the previous century. Herder had argued in favour of a ‘Patriotic Institute to foster a common spirit in Germany’ and this would involve the institute in the collection and observance of folklore. The unity of society would occur not through the rights of individuals or through the social contract, but through shared culture and history. These were the genuine forms of legitimation, not reason and autonomy.

For Herder and the Grimm brothers it is also true that language is the key to national identity. The boundaries of the Volk are not primarily geographical but linguistic. In 1846 the Germanistenversammlung (the Germanists’ Assembly) took place in Frankfurt and the idea was to bring together scholars in German law, language and history. The aim of the assembly, as Jürgen Habermas (2001) has pointed out, was the unification of a politically disunited fatherland. At the assembly Jacob Grimm argued that ‘the borders of those peoples, who have expanded beyond mountains and rivers, can be defined exclusively by virtue of their language.’ Similar themes run through his monumental German Grammar which was designed to exhibit the profound spirit of the language. As Habermas wryly remarks, it has often been argued that the Frankfurt meeting which took place in the Kaisersaal where the Holy Roman Emperor had previously been elected did not in fact amount to a coherent political force since, when the Frankfurt Parliament was set up in 1848 in the Paulskirche just a stone’s throw away, the 10 percent of the Germanists who were its members clearly failed in their attempts to interpret the will of the people. This may point to quite a profound issue, namely the extent to which liberal style institutions and practices such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech can in fact grow out of a strong sense of cultural identity. It also raises the issue to which reference was made earlier, namely the emergence of an intelligentsia that was politically committed. In the earlier reference this was in respect of radical thinkers such as Herzen, Marx, Engels, Bakunin and others, and it is to this group that Isaiah Berlin (1978: 114) refers when he talks about the emergence of the intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. It is however equally true that there was a Romantic, nationalistic and Counter-Enlightenment intelligentsia which sought to articulate the spirit of the people, the spirit of its laws and the nature of its politics. The claims these thinkers made to legitimacy were not to universal rational principles but to historical circumstance and a habitual way of life, whether in La France profonde, or the medieval marks of Germany (Collini, Winch and Burrows, 1983), or the still existing mirs of Russia (Hare, 1964). This made the task of the Counter-Enlightenment intelligentsia more interpretive than constructive, as was the case for the radical intellectuals.

France: Culture, Community, and Nationalism

These ideas became very strong in nineteenth-century Counter-Enlightenment and counterrevolutionary thinkers, for example, de Maistre when he argues in The Study of Sovereignty that: ‘Every question about the nature of man must be resolved by history. The philosopher who wants to show us by a priori reasoning what man must be does not deserve an audience’ (McClelland, 1970: 41). It was also a central theme in Hippolyte Taine’s critical study of the French Revolution, particularly in its Jacobin form, as the following ironic passage from The Origins of Contemporary France makes clear:

At length the rule of right is to begin. Of all that the past has founded and transmitted nothing is legitimate. Overlaying the natural man it has created an artificial man, either ecclesiastic or laic, noble or plebeian, sovereign or subject, proprietor or proletarian, ignorant or cultivated, peasant or citizen, slave or master, all being factitious qualities which we are not to heed, as their origin is tainted with violence and robbery. Strip off these superadded garments; let us take man in himself, the same under all conditions, in all situations, in all countries, in all ages, and strive to ascertain what sort of association is the best adapted to him. The problem thus stated the rest follows. (McClelland, 1970: 61)

This theme of the falsity of a political and social philosophy built upon some idea of the nature of the individual stripped of all sorts of identity, loyalty and obligation becomes a major theme of French thought in the nineteenth century, although it does have its origins in German Romantic thought of an earlier generation. It is the distinctive motif of right-wing counter-revolutionary thought; however, it is important to recognize that in so far as such thought might be called a bit anachronistically ‘communitarian’ there is, as we shall see, a communitarianism of both the right and the left during this period, and it would be a mistake to see the critique of liberal individualism as being just a feature of right-wing thought. A good example of its deployment in the writings of a self-conscious counter-revolutionary would be Barrès’s essay with the rather unpromising title Hegel and the Working Mens’s Canteens of the North, published in Scènes et doctrines du nationalisme, in which he draws attention to his central idea of the déraciné rootless, cosmopolitan, rationalistic and universalistic in outlook, almost the potential hero of an Enlightenment thinker like Condorcet. For Barrès such an individual cannot live a satisfactory life and in fact can only find his salvation in a sense of strong identification with a nation, understood not in Mazzini’s rather liberal sense, but as one with a strong and thick form of cultural and indeed racial identity. Against the ideal of cosmopolitanism he says:

the varied influences of race, custom and climate would soon come into their own and real differences would reassert themselves. It is essential that these aspects of human development should be given free reign, so that humanity can affirm the life giving nature of diversity, of variety, of difference. No single one contains the truth. Only the total diversity approaches the truth. (McClelland, 1970: 156)

For Barrès the paradigm of society lies not in Attic Greece or in the marks and mirs of medieval Europe but in the fermières of Lorraine—almost a mythical place to him. Barres’s thick nationalism took the Jews to be prime examples of the rootless cosmopolitan, and his view of the Jews at least up to the time of the Great War was an exclusionary one—a race antagonistic to my own, as he called it in one of his paeans to Lorraine, which also contains a discussion of the Dreyfus affair. Against the universalist demands of liberal individualism have to be set the demands of identity, loyalty and obligation and the way in which these are necessarily rooted not in reason but in the emotional and affective ties of national identity. This is a view widely shared by counter-revolutionary thinkers during this period.

Taking Stock of the French Revolution

Other thinkers without this specific political agenda were also concerned one way or another with how we are to understand politics, society and personal psychology after the French Revolution. During the Revolution, ostensibly under the impact of Rousseau’s Social Contract and the critique of sectional interests and intermediate forms of identity which he believed would detract from individual identification with the General Will, many ancient mediating institutions and practices which embodied dispersed forms of social authority had been proscribed or undermined: Church, guild, locality as a locus for obligation and service, aristocracy, and the estates. In place of this diverse distributed power we witness the growth of the power of the centralized state and state sovereignty which displaces more pluralistic forms of sovereignty. This is the central theme of Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1955) and his first book Democracy in America (1945). These books are a very profound study of the impact of democracy, individualism and the ideas of equality and human rights on traditional institutions and ways of life. In his view the salience of democracy and its power has emerged as the result of pressure from two sources: the historic growth of central power in the hands of monarchs in old states, which consolidated this monarchical rule over more diverse medieval forms of power in favour of strong national government, and the growth in the equality of status. Far from democracy decentralizing and dispersing power, equality of status, which seems to be a core idea of democracy, has undermined intermediate institutions that could stand between the individual and central power, which could be exercized in a tyrannical way whether in a monarchy or a democracy:

I perceive that we have destroyed these individual powers which were able, single handed, to cope with tyranny; but it is the government alone that has inherited all the privileges of which families, guilds and individuals have been deprived; to the power of a small number of persons, which if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative, has succeeded the weakness of the whole community. (1945: 10)

So equality, democracy and centralization have gone together for Tocqueville since the Revolution, but at the same time those forces, accumulating in his estimation for over 700 years, are clearly now almost impossible to reverse or modify. Other thinkers shared this view. As we have seen, from the counter-revolutionary perspective there are cultural critics such as Barrès but also figures such as Lammenais who, while he started as an ultramontane Catholic, nevertheless ended his life preoccupied with co-operatives and labour unions and who argued in an arresting image in favour of decentralization, because centralized societies lead to apoplexy at the centre and anaemia in the extremities. P. G. T. Le Play in La Reforme sociale (1864) took a similar view, as did Bonald in Théorie du pouvoir (1966). Equally, though, so did Proudhon and Bakunin who as anarchists were clearly opposed to the centralized state and saw the political future in terms of decentralization and localism while not, of course, endorsing antique types of localism.

One of the more complex responses to the French Revolution was to be found in the writings of Auguste Comte, the positivist philosopher. He took the view that the Revolution was a destructive force and that it did not have the capacity to construct anything out of what it had destroyed. His account of the Revolution was embedded within his overall theory or philosophy of history for which he claimed scientific sanction. His view was that history passed through three stages: the theological, the metaphysical, and the scientific or positivist age which we are now entering. Morality and politics would be emancipated from theology and metaphysics and would be grounded in physical science. This would form the basis of a common educational system and would also constitute a new religion of humanity that, because it was based on the universality of science, could be shared by all (Comte, 1998). By putting man, the grand être, at the centre of his thought, he ensured that other Counter-Enlightenment French Catholic thinkers regarded his work as satanic.

The Culture of Community

Whereas Voltaire and Condorcet, as paradigmatic Enlightenment thinkers, despised the middle ages, the growing interest among Counter-Enlightenment thinkers in dispersed social and political power led to a renewed interest in medieval social and political organization. Modern societies seemed to be developing a culture of individualism influenced by all sorts of factors, including Roman Law, the Christian religion, particularly in its Protestant form, the growth of the market economy, Kantian moral philosophy and rationalistic universalism, whilst major thinkers such as Fustel de Coulanges, Savigny, Otto von Gierke and Rudolf Stammler sought to retrieve for modern thought the medieval emphasis on locality, status, and community. A parallel investigation was going on in Britain at the hands of Henry Maine and Frederic Maitland. Very important in this development both in the United Kingdom and on the continent was the development of the school of historical jurisprudence, which Savigny had developed initially. This was taken to a very high level of sophistication by Gierke in his monumental Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht (The German Law of Association) (1868-1913), which traced the origins, practices and constitutions of guilds and fellowships, marked by co-proprietorship through the middle ages. He chronicled the ways in which the monopolies of guild were eroded by the economic market, by the ideology of economic liberalism and by the antagonism of Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Rousseau. In this book he stresses the extent to which these bodies had a legal personality of their own and stood as an important source of power, loyalty, obligation and identity between the individual and the state. In his heyday Gierke welcomed the development of bodies which he felt could step into the void left by the erosion of the guilds: co-operatives, labour unions, banking co-operatives, and vocational and religious groups. However, as time passed, Gierke became increasingly conservative and nationalistic and he lost his enthusiasm for some forms of successors to guilds such as trade unions.

These issues were not only a matter of social and political philosophy in the narrow sense but also because these theories of association and community recognized, at least implicitly, the point made by Maine that the transition from medieval to modern societies also marked the transition from relationships based upon status to those based upon contract. From the feudal order to bourgeois society was a transition which Marx was also to trace, as we shall see, in terms of his historical materialism. By 1887 this contrast between different types of human society and the different character of human relationships within them had been definitively theorized by Ferdinand Tönnies in his Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Civil Society) (2001), with the main contrasts between the general forms of these two types of social organization and the human relationships which they presuppose being drawn in Sections 1 and 2 of that work.

It would, however, be wrong to think that this emphasis upon community was entirely backward-looking—a nostalgic rejection of liberal individualism and the market economy—since some communitarian thinkers were anxious to develop socialist or anarchist approaches to the idea of community and its reinstatement in the modern world. They were unlike the German Romantics looking back with nostalgia to ancient Greece, and unlike French counter-revolutionaries evoking l’sancien régime; rather than endorsing ancient forms of community, they were busy devising blueprints for new socialist/ anarchist ones. The best example here among several including Proudhon and Bakunin is probably Kropotkin in The Conquest of Bread (1995). Kropotkin argued for the anarchist position in terms of the abolition of the state and its replacement by a decentralized network of small self-sufficient communities based upon voluntary agreement (thus recognizing that the growth of individualism and choice to that extent is irreversible) and marked by distributive or social justice. Similar ideas were held by Herzen who believed that such cooperatives could be created in the mirs of Russia. Kropotkin argued that the achievement of such a society could not come by socialists or communists taking over the state and then seeking to decentralize it into a collection of self governing co-operative communities. The state would not wither away once it was taken over by a communist revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat would remain and it would just be another state as centralized and potentially tyrannical as any other. Kropotkin had a strong belief in the importance of the co-operative and altruistic features of the human personality, and he argued in Mutual Aid that co-operation is a vital force in human evolution which turns not upon competition and the survival of the fittest.

Community and the Role of Law

We need to revert to the role of historical jurisprudence, not just in giving a kind of theoretical underpinning to the rediscovery of the importance of the idea of community but also in terms of its account of the nature of law and its relation to the overall culture of society. There is an interesting debate here between Anton Thibaut and Savigny—two early-nineteenth-century jurists. This has come to be called the Kodifikationsstreit a dispute about the extent to which the law should be codified and the relationship of this question to that of nationalism and national identity. The debate took place around 1814 in the context of the issue of drafting a new legal code for the German states in a post-Napoleonic era. Deep theoretical questions were raised to do with the authority of law, the sources of the normativity of law and the relationship between the law and political institutions (Whitman, 1990; Thompson, 2001). The Code Napoléon had been rejected for the future of Germany because in the view of the particularists who were party to this debate the Code, through its guarantee of the rights of individuals, would eradicate the historically rooted differences among the very many German peoples. The dilemma was what was to replace it, and one popular view was that it should be replaced by Roman Law codified at the time of Justinian. This was, for example, the view taken by Gustav Hugo in Beitrage zur Civilistischen Bucherkenntnis and Uber die Institutionen des heutigen romischen Recht and Karl Ernst Schmidt in Deutschlands Wiedergeburt.

Thibaut, who was close to Hegel, in his Uber die Notwendigkeit eines allgemeinen burgerlichen Rechts für Deutschland was sympathetic to the others in their rejection of the Code Napoléon, but he was very sceptical about overlaying the diversity of German society with Roman Law, not least because social and economic circumstances had changed so fundamentally over the centuries. He shared the Romantic idea, discussed earlier, of the reunification of Germany, but this could not be achieved by the imposition of an alien code. This required going back to pre-revolutionary, pre-Reformation, pre-Enlightenment forms of law, and it was this law that should be codified with the backing of an educated citizenry. Thibaut’s view was that the principles of universal law could be discerned by an educated person reflecting on nature, and this would allow an educated citizenry to understand the types of historical law which could be incorporated into a set of universal laws. In his view the codification of ancient statutes would allow the emergence of a universal body of law rooted in the practices and culture of German society and would unite the country.

Savigny, in his Vom Beruf unser Zeit für Gesetzgebung und Rechtswissenschaft, disagreed with this position. He thought that there had to be a kind of reconciliation between particularism and Roman Law and this could be achieved by a legal professoriate of jurisprudents who would be able to relate Roman and German legal concepts to one another and who would also be learned in the particularistic legal structures of German states and communities. In this way law would be both systematic (in the sense that it would relate one set of concepts, the Roman, to another, the historical German) and historical, and its normativity would arise from its embodiment of these two features. This was linked to the idea that the presence of this jurisprudential professoriate, who would be able to publish their legal treatises without censorship, would allow judges who would base their decisions on these treatises also to be free from political pressure.

So it can be seen how a Romantic concern with community, culture, history and national identity could come together in what otherwise would be a rather dry academic dispute but which was in reality a deep issue about where the normative principles were to be found in modern society. Do they lie in history and a systematic working with that history, as Savigny thought? Or are they to be found in some general principles of quasi-natural law which can be discerned by the reason of an educated mind, as Thibaut thought? This debate, as we shall see, carries over into Hegel’s thinking about politics. Before discussing Hegel, however, we shall look briefly at the work of constitutional liberals whose stance also is taken account of by Hegel.

Constitutionalism and Liberalism

It would be wrong to think that the French Revolution occasioned only responses of a strongly counter-revolutionary and Counter-Enlightenment sort, emphasizing as we have seen culturally or ethnically based forms of nationalism, or responses based upon a kind of pre-revolutionary nostalgia, emphasizing the charms of either the medieval or the Attic Greek social and political experience. There was also in the work of Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant a distinctive form of constitutionalism and liberalism that emerged from the impact of the Revolution, and for Tocqueville there was the impact of the new nation of the United States of America, ‘the land of the future’ as Hegel called it. Constant and Tocqueville are very different thinkers and it will be best to give a necessarily brief sketch of the thought of each of them.

Constant experienced the French Revolution from first hand. He lived to become Napoleon’s constitutional adviser during the Hundred Days (having been threatened with prison by Napoleon for his critique of his exercise of power before his exile on Elba indeed, he had compared him to Attila the Hun) and he died during the fall of the Orléanist Monarchy in 1830. He was educated, in part, in Scotland at Edinburgh University where he studied the work of both political economists such as Adam Smith and common sense philosophers such as Dugald Stewart, an experience that was to play a major role in his account of liberty.

In 1803-4 he also spent time in Weimar, which is only a very short distance from Jena, the centre of German Romantic thought, although by then past its greatest days. He had very little time for the political ideas of the Romantics, particularly in relation to Fichte’s Closed Commercial State which did not endear itself to someone who had studied the Scottish political economists, and he regarded the Romantics’ ideas on economics as lunacy. His ideas on liberty reflect the contrast that he draws between the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns, the theme of a speech given in Paris in 1820. Although it was given in his last decade it does reflect in a more systematic way many of the preoccupations of his life and education. The emphasis on the word systematic should not mislead us, however, since Constant is not a metaphysician and his views on freedom are based upon what he sees as practical observations about the nature of ancient societies and modern commercial societies. In this sense, to borrow from Rawls’s distinction, it is a political rather than a metaphysical conception of freedom. His argument about ancient liberty is straightforward.

The size of the Greek city-state, its cultural homogeneity and the fact that work was undertaken by slaves meant that each citizen could be fully involved in the political life of the society. Freedom was understood in terms of this participation and involvement. It also had as a cost the downgrading of the importance of private life and private taste. Because of the unity of the society (which had been lauded by Romantic thinkers), while sovereignty was held in common nevertheless each individual was subject to a very wide degree of authority by the state. There was no sense of a sacrosanct private sphere. Indeed the assumption was that since the society was culturally and religiously homogeneous there would be no proper role for such a private sphere. The growth of commercial societies had changed all of this. Most citizens are now involved in work to sustain life. The division of labour had led to a much greater differentiation of function and social experience, and culture and taste are now much more varied from individual to individual. There is therefore a demand for a private sphere within which individuals will be able to follow their own interests and indulge their own tastes free of state interference.

In Constant’s view the Jacobin period of the French Revolution had led to an attempt to recreate some of the ideas of the city-state as a republic of virtue in which all aspects of life were to be under political jurisdiction and in which there was to be a direct participatory democracy. The Terror, for Constant, was a natural outgrowth in this attempt at political nostalgia. Part of the task for the constitutional lawyer and thinker was to devise ways in which this anachronistic form of politics could not prevail. At the same time, however, Constant was clear that modern forms of politics do involve a kind of crisis in representation. In the Attic city-state there were no representatives, for each citizen directly participated; in a modern commercial society, however, the division of labour and the need for most to work in the productive part of the economy now means that representation has become inevitable, but at the same time it is problematic. In so far as the representative is a delegate from a political grouping like a constituency, political negotiation in a parliament or an assembly becomes impossible because the mandate will prevent it; alternatively if the representative is to be regarded as autonomous, then it may well be that this is effective in terms of realpolitik but the representative function will have declined to vanishing point. So there is a basic problem of representative legitimacy in the modern world, and part of the solution of course lies in many areas of life not being subject to political control and interference so that the issue of representativeness covers a narrow area. Nevertheless for Constant (1988) this did pose one of the major challenges of the modern world.

Constant also believed that a politics of liberty did have to be underpinned by a set of values. These were however neither metaphysically grounded nor heroic. What he wanted was a regime of liberty that would leave people in a commercial society free in their private lives to follow their own tastes and interests. He had learned from the Scottish economists that market societies undermine heroic virtues but nevertheless liberty does depend on virtue, although not that of a Pericles or a Cato. This point comes out particularly in his novel Adolphe. In Constant’s view we need to rely on virtues such as strength of will, commitment, human sympathy and an unwillingness to injure others. These virtues, domestic as they are, can underpin a culture and politics of liberty.

It is in the writings of Tocqueville that we encounter a more developed set of ideas about the values that underpin liberty. Tocqueville’s position falls somewhere between Constant’s highly practical account of freedom and a more metaphysically based one, or in modern parlance one based upon a comprehensive doctrine. Tocqueville had a strong commitment to the necessary link as he saw it between religion and the maintenance of liberty, and within religion he approved of the idea of natural law. It is certainly true, as we have already seen, that Tocqueville approves of the role of intermediate institutions in society as a guarantee of liberty, since they stand between the individual and a state whose power grows in a democratic era, and to that extent community life and what falls under what he calls mores or customs are part of what sustains liberty. Religion, however, comes into this because he wants to distinguish between arbitrary mores, conventions and the institutions on which they depend, and those that grow up from religiously and natural law sanctioned habits and forms of character. For Tocqueville, these include the innate idea of freedom and its importance in human life, the recognition of the soul and that the human person is more than a body and mind, and sentiments of honesty and common sense. When these things pervade character they can sustain the ‘habits of the heart’ that are essential to freedom and a free society. Constitutional arrangements and legislation have to be sustained by these mores for, as he argues in his Conversations with Nassau Senior: ‘Liberty depends on the manners and beliefs of the people who are to enjoy it.’ These manners and beliefs are more sustaining to liberty if they are held to be true and not just arbitrary or convenient inventions or historical accretions. So what Tocqueville argues for is a regulated liberty held in check by religion, custom and law. He is however certain that constitutions and legislation have to be rooted in ideas of this sort that are pervasive in the population and cannot be brought into being by legislation.

The Place of Hegel

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Hegel in nineteenth-century political thought. His thought influenced significant thinkers in Germany, such as David Friedrich Strauss, Otto Bauer, Feuerbach, Arnold Ruge, Marx, Engels, Lasalle; in France, as the title of Barrès’s essay Hegel and the Working Mens’ Canteens of the North makes clear; in Italy, in the politically committed writing of the Neapolitan Hegelians such as Bertrando Spaventa (Bellamy, 1992) as well as the vitally important figure of Mazzini; and in Russia, in the writings of Bakunin, Visarión Belinsky and (by way of reaction) Herzen (Berlin, 1978). One explanation for this pervasive influence lies in the fact that in Hegel’s philosophy we can see a treatment of all the themes that dominated political writing in this period, accentuated by the fact that these themes are dealt with in a systematic way. Hegel’s work has been called a project of reconciliation (Plant, 1983; Hardimon, 1994). That is to say, Hegel’s work was animated by a desire to produce a deep and interconnected account of the whole range of human experience and practice—moral, legal, political, artistic, religious and philosophical—together with a philosophical history of these such that the philosophy would demonstrate the rational structure of the thought and practice of the modern world in its most mature form in Western European societies and nation-states. The understanding of this rational structure would create a sense of reconciliation with the world or, as Hegel puts the point in The Philosophy of Right (1952): ‘I am at home in the world when I have understood it—even more so when I have a full conceptual grasp of it.’ This meant that for Hegel philosophy had to be:

  • Systematic: it had to deal with the interconnectedness of all the central forms of human experience.
  • Historical: it had to deal with what he saw as the rational development through history of these basic forms of experience.
  • Dialectical: there is a rational structure both to the character and to the history of experience which will exhibit a dialectical form which can be uncovered by the philosopher.

By ‘dialectical’ Hegel meant that the different forms of life in history and the different forms that our experience takes as we seek to categorize it will reach certain kinds of limits, and the recognition of these limits will lead to a transformation in the historical process and in our conceptual understanding. Lying at the heart of this process, which for Hegel gives it a kind of metaphysical underpinning, is a secularized form of Christianity (Plant, 2001). This sees the Biblical account of creation, incarnation, resurrection and eternal life not as a once-and-for-all set of events but as a kind of symbolic narrative of the deep structure of human existence which can ultimately be laid bare in philosophical and non-symbolic/religious or narrative terms, in a way that shows that the God of the Bible can be understood as the Absolute Idea which embodies itself in the created world and in the world of human history and eventually becomes progressively conscious of itself in the processes of human thought and human history. In this process it becomes transformed from the Idea to Spirit and dwells in the consciousness of human beings when they understand the world aright. Hence history and the processes of human thought are not arbitrary but have this dialectical necessity. We experience the Good Friday of alienation and fragmentation through history to arrive at a kind of analogue to Easter Day in which reconciliation is achieved. Hegel held as much as any Romantic thinker to the ideal of the integrated personality in an integrated society, but he saw the possibility of this if we understood human history and human freedom aright in the politics of post-Napoleonic Europe and in the nation-states, which were continuing to develop in the period after the French Revolution.

In the process of this integrated account Hegel gives an important historical place to many of the themes we have seen so far. One such was the ideals of the Revolution, which Hegel had celebrated as a young man, and which after the Golgotha of the Terror was gradually being transformed into a form of politics and statehood which could recognize rights and equality. Another was Romanticism, with its emphasis on the integration of the human personality and the integration of society within a nation-state, but an integration to be achieved not by the exercise of the Romantic imagination and its inwardness, or by the celebration of historical particularity which failed as with Herder in providing a conceptual grasp of the place of the particularities of specific societies in the context of an overall rational historical order and thus lapsed into relativism. This was also the basis of his critique of Savigny and the historical school of jurisprudence. Unlike Hegel’s friend Thibaut, Savigny and his followers could not exhibit the rationality implicit in the historically specific forms of law which they made central to their study without the anachronistic appeal to Roman Law (Thompson, 2001). The idea of freedom was central to Hegel, but this freedom was not the antinomian freedom of the exercise of pure will and choice but rather rational freedom, that is to say, one that is exercised within a normative structure which has a historical reality (what he called Sittlichkeit or ethical life) and whose rationality can be understood. This normative structure is not a set of formal moral rules, as it was for example for Kant with his doctrines of the categorical imperative and the principle of universalizability; but is rather a comprehensible world of norms and values into which we are born and which we can make our own by deliberating on the rationality embodied in that normative structure. However, the development of this idea of freedom is what it says, namely a process of development, and many things have contributed towards its diverse forms in history: the ancient oriental world; the world of Attic Greece; the medieval world; Roman Law; the growth of Protestant and more personalized forms of Christianity; the development of the market economy; and Romanticism in art, literature and philosophy. Freedom for Hegel is not something which individuals have in terms of some kind of pre-social state of nature, or purely in terms of their metaphysical standing. It has, like all concepts, as he makes clear in the preface to The Philosophy of Right, to be understood in terms of its history. The circumstances and movements listed have all contributed in necessary ways to the achievement of freedom. As such freedom is not a status, it is an achievement, and one with many forms of horror and estrangement on the way.

For Hegel the nation-state was central to the achievement of freedom in his understanding of it because it is within the nation-state that we find the normative structure that can give meaning and salience to freedom. We do not find freedom in a kind of general cosmopolitanism because that would have to be guided by general rules of the sort that Kant espoused, nor do we find freedom in a wholly private and voluntary existence withdrawn from the public world of politics and nationhood. It is found through belonging to a modern nation, which he believed was evolving from about 1812 (with a good many disappointments subsequently, not least in Prussia where his chair at the University of Berlin was situated).

Characteristic of these modern nations would, however, be a rich private life, as for example to be found in Romanticism and in Protestantism but equally importantly in civil society (Burgerliche Gesellschaft), which included for Hegel the market economy (he was a keen student of Adam Smith, James Steuart and other Scottish political economists: Plant, 1983) and the institutions which go along with it, particularly corporations through which again the citizen learns about a structure of values and interests which are outside the particular private interests of the individual. He sees in civil society not the fragmentation of society and the general will by sectional interests which Rousseauians see, but rather in its institutions a school for civic virtue. At the same time, however, he does not accept, as many subsequent anarchists did, that with a sufficient degree of decentralization a modern society could be self-equilibrating. The state was required for Hegel to resolve some of the tensions to which the institutions of civil society will nevertheless lead and also to be a kind of articulation or embodiment of the nation, particularly in the figure of the constitutional monarch which he favoured. At the same time, however, for Hegel the state was to be a universal in two important senses of that word. It was to provide the necessary framework within which all the important forms of human experience could take place, including what he calls the forms of Absolute Spirit (art, religion and philosophy). For Hegel these forms of Absolute Spirit are universal in their resonance and should not be seen in a historicist or particularistic way, although the ways in which they are achieved will depend very importantly on political and economic conditions. The state is also universal in the sense that it does not favour any particular group within civil society; indeed it is independent of civil society and seeks, where necessary, to regulate it, particularly via its police functions. In respect of the economy Hegel argues that, thus understood, the modern state is able to reconcile the individual and the community, the citizen and the state. This will no longer be the unmediated and sensuous kind of identification of citizen and state that might have been found in the Greek city-state and which many German intellectuals (including Hegel in his youth) had sought to re-establish in modern Europe and which they thought that the French Revolution might be in the process of establishing. It will, rather, be a highly mediated, differentiated and complex form of identity because the modern state has to reconcile the demands of the social and political order with a great sense of subjectivity and individuality on the part of citizens. It will be what Schiller—one of the Romantic political heroes called a moral (moralische) harmony, in contrast to the more direct and immediate harmony of earlier forms. Hegel puts the point in The Philosophy of Right (1952) in the following way:

The principle of the modern state has prodigious depth and strength because it allows the principle of subjectivity to progress to its culmination and yet at the same time brings it back to the substantive unity and so maintains this unity as the principle of subjectivity itself.

The principle of subjectivity is embodied in ideas like rights, Protestantism, conscience and the market economy together with forms of individualism in art, religion and philosophy. In Hegel’s view the modern nation-state is able to accommodate this kind of subjectivity while maintaining a sense of social and political unity within which freedom in his understanding of it can be secure. It is this capacity for reconciliation and assimilation of different features of social life (and indeed different religious and cultural practices, as with the Jews) that gives the modern state its strength. It also explains why Hegel was so hostile in the last few months of his life to the liberal and radically democratic assault on Restoration regimes post-1815, particularly after the fall of the restored French monarchy in 1830. In his view this kind of radical liberalism misunderstood the nature of freedom and the way in which freedom was contingent upon a shared ethical life. Such radicalism was a further exemplar of subjective political Romanticism which he had earlier criticized in the German student movement which had culminated in the famous rally at the Wartburg near Eisenach in 1817.

The Influence of Hegel

After Hegel’s death in 1831 his influence was pervasive in the fields of philosophy, political science, theology, aesthetics and law, and until at least the middle of the century most European thinkers, however much they may have disagreed with Hegel, for example Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, felt the need to define their own position in relation to his. However, it would not be correct to say that just one interpretation of Hegel’s work held sway. Hegel had left a rather ambiguous legacy, particularly in relation to his account of Christianity and its sub-lated role within his system. It was this type of ambiguity that led to different responses to Hegel with very important ramifications for political thought (Toews, 1980). Almost immediately after his death there developed a right-wing and a left-wing or radical form of Hegelianism, along with what might be seen as a kind of middle-of-the-road form associated with Eduard Gans, one of Hegel’s former pupils and co-professor at Berlin University. The right-wing form of Hegelianism emphasized both its compatibility with Protestant Christianity and the reconciling power of Hegel’s thought, which had led Hegel to say in The Philosophy of Right that ‘what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational.’ The exegesis of this claim is more complex than it looks but an easy emphasis on the second part of the formulation could lead to a strong sense of reconciliation with the social and political world wherever it is to be found. This sort of interpretation of Hegel was followed by his successor in Berlin, Georg Gabler (whose appointment, given his accommodationist view of Hegel, was influenced by royal alarm at revolutionary events in France and Belgium where the actual had quite clearly not been seen as the rational), by Leopold Henning and by Judge Karl Friedrich Göschel. For Göschel Hegel’s political philosophy was best seen as a justification for a traditional Lutheran authoritarian state, and he interpreted Hegel’s complex arguments about the role of corporations and estates in the role of the state as a re-emphasis on the social organization of feudal life, which was far from Hegel’s own idea. It was this accommodationist form of Hegelianism which had an impact in Russia, particularly via the teaching of Nicholas Stankevich (who appears in Ivan Turgenev’s novel Rudin in the person of Pokorsky: Berlin, 1978) and the influence that this had on Bakunin, T. N. Granovsky and Belinsky. Nicholas Stankevich’s interpretation of Hegel was accommodationist and also one that saw Hegelianism as a kind of metaphysical religion which could replace faith in the Orthodox Church which was, of course, one of the mainstays of the prevailing Tsarist regime.

Eduard Gans occupied a position to the left of this and probably should be regarded as the godfather of left Hegelianism, although he is frequently not cited in the list that usually includes Strauss, Ruge, Feuerbach, Max Stirner, and Marx (Toews, 1980). Gans was in fact articulating his own stance on Hegel’s thought while still a colleague of Hegel’s in 1830. He disagreed with what seemed to be Hegel’s position on the dialectic of history—that we now stand in Prussia (or perhaps Western Europe more generally) at the end of a history in which, at least implicitly, the modern state will be able to reconcile subject and object, citizen and state. For Gans the dialectic does not come to this abrupt end. The philosophical comprehension of history coupled with the idea that we are not yet at the end can justify progressive political activity and he regarded the modern Prussian state as a tutelary state, but one in which the idea of subjectivity had a central place, as Hegel’s thought had shown. The need for Gans was to ensure that all were included in the ethical life of the modern state and not just the better situated. So in this sense he saw the possibility of an ideal of emancipation emerging from within Hegel’s own thought. He did not see himself as a revolutionary, but rather held that the possibility of inclusion for all in the ethical community was implicit or intimated in the modern state and in Hegel’s thought, as the best conceptual account of that—all this while believing that he was loyal to the idea of the Prussian state as embodying the principle of reason and ethical life.

There was however a much more radical interpretation becoming available at this time. In the hands of Strauss and Feuerbach, two of Hegel’s students (although in the case of Strauss only for the briefest time), this reinterpretation took on a religious rather than a directly political form. But this transformation was perhaps a necessary precursor to the more radical political interpretation of Hegel, since Hegel’s own thought incorporated at its heart both metaphysical and religious assumptions. In his Life of Jesus Strauss treated Jesus in a wholly non-supernatural way, opening up what he believed was at least implicit in Hegel’s treatment, namely the idea of a religion of humanity—not in a God and a world beyond (Plant, 2001). This idea is taken much further and much more systematically by Feuerbach. He adopts a similarly demythologizing view of Christianity and sees the supernatural idea of the divine as a kind of projection of the human mind and imagination, a projection which can be understood in the sense of a place where longing and need may be fulfilled in a way they are not in this world. Feuerbach situates his account of Christianity in The Essence of Christianity into a materialist metaphysic that takes things much further than Strauss (at least at this time). Although Feuerbach’s work was essentially in the philosophy of religion, such was the link seen by continental radicals between the critique of religion and the possibility of radical politics that, in 1848, a somewhat bemused Feuerbach found himself feted by student revolutionaries and giving lectures to them. It was, however, Marx and Engels who together, more than any others, engaged in this critique of religion and Hegel’s philosophy of the state as a way of developing an account of history and politics that they believed would aid emancipation.

Marx and Engels

In a series of books and articles—for example The German Ideology, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and Theses on Feuerbach (all in Marx, 1978)—Marx and Engels positioned their evolving work in relation to Hegel’s philosophy. They were in agreement with Strauss’s and Feuerbach’s attempts to demystify Hegel but argued that they had not gone far enough. There is not space here to do justice to the subtleties of this rapidly evolving position in the early 1840s, but it is worth noting that Marx did start out as a Hegelian of sorts and did initially at least believe that the state could be a universal mediator between different social and political interests. His journalistic experiences on the Rheinische Zeitung (Plant, 1983), however, came to disabuse him of this view. Seeing the state in action led him to believe that it was the instrument of the dominant class in civil society, not something that stood as a universal over and above society regulating it in a disinterested manner. This loss of faith in Hegel’s approach betokened a more general critique of Hegel. He still adopted some distinctively Hegelian positions, particularly as these were understood by the left or new Hegelians. So, for example, as he makes clear in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx (1978) was concerned with Hegelian sorts of questions about the alienation of the person in modern society, the fragmentation of modern society, and the lack of a sense of wholeness within the individual personality. Unlike Hegel, however, he saw these as having ultimately economic causes and that they could have only an economic resolution following a complete transformation of the social, political and economic order. However, unlike utopian socialists, who defined socialist aims in ethical terms and sought to devise forms of social organization such as Bakunin’s (1990) anarchist communities or Herzen’s self-sufficient mirs to realize their aims, Marx and Engels saw the prospects for radical social change as being rooted in historical, social and economic circumstance. To this extent they adopted Hegel’s dialectic of history, but instead of the dialectic being pushed along by the workings of a metaphysical Geist they saw the motor of historical change in economic terms. They distinguished between the means of production (labour tools and raw materials) and the relations of production (the types of relationship both legal and social which facilitated the use and application of the means of production). These two things taken together form the economic base of society, which is the driver of dialectical historical change. At any epoch in history, given a particular pattern of means and relationships of production, there will correspond particular forms of consciousness expressed in terms of ideas about politics, morality, law, religion, art, philosophy, etc. For Hegel, art, religion and philosophy are the modes of Absolute Spirit, the most universal achievements of the human mind; for Marx and Engels they are ideological forms of consciousness, that is to say, forms of thought and feeling whose nature and objects are ultimately to be understood in terms of their relationship to the dominant social interests embodied in the relations of production. These forms of consciousness are not autonomous but have a social and indeed political function and a socio-economic explanation. This explanation can be exhibited in the materialist theory of history, which looks in detail at the ways in which forms of consciousness relate to dominant economic interests.

For Marx and Engels these interests are basically to do with class. Class is not defined so much in sociological terms—in terms, that is to say, of consumption patterns or values since these belong to the ideological superstructure of society. Rather, class is seen in economic terms: who does and who does not own the means of production? The possibility of a progressive renewal of society, whether it was from feudalism to capitalism or from capitalism to socialism and ultimately to communism, depends upon a growing mismatch between the relations of production and the means of production. That is to say that technological and scientific change will produce new tools, new raw materials and different demands for labour. As this process accelerates, the prevailing relations of production that is, class relations—will become more and more of a constraint on the productive use that can be made of these new technologies. At some point the clash between social relations and productive forces ushers in a revolutionary period of social change. So in the case of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it was not that this was a matter of choice. Feudal relations of production had become totally counterproductive in respect of the exploitation of technological change. Hence on this account social, political and economic revolution go together and there is no way that socialism or even social democracy can be built from within capitalism if the appropriate stage of conflict between the means of production and the relations of production has not been reached. So for Marx and Engels, while it is possible to think in terms of the ideals of socialism—a principle of justice like ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ or the aim of human fulfilment through a life in which alienation from economic activity, as in industrial capitalism, can be overcome they were always clear that these goals would be mere sollen (oughts) without the historical circumstances favouring such a revolutionary change in society.

In this context it is worth looking briefly at Marx’s critique of social democracy in his biting Critique of the Gotha Programme (1978). The programme was an attempt to unify the then two existing workers’s organizations in Germany—the Social Democratic Workers’ Party and the Lassallean Organization (a group inspired by Lassalle, who was of a Hegelian cast of mind and who believed that it was possible to use the state within a capitalist society to achieve real gains in social justice via redistribution of income, wealth and power). For the reasons already given Marx regards this as wholly futile. At best the pursuit of social justice can alleviate only the symptoms of the problems of capitalist society, which are caused by the maldistribution of the ownership of the means of production in that society. While this pattern of distribution of the means of production prevails, the social injustices of capitalism in terms of income and wealth will continue. Social democracy, which is essentially what the Gotha Programmewas about, cannot address the ownership of the means of production in political terms. It requires a basic social revolution to do that, which in turn requires the right historical circumstances. So Marx says:

What is ‘fair’ distribution?

Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is fair? And is it not, in fact, fair distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones? Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby. (1978: 528)

Lassalle’s Hegelian idea that the state can be autonomous in relation to the dominant interests in civil society is false on this view and the idea of social democracy is false with it. Taken in its strict sense, therefore, Marx’s political theory is rather limited in that politics and political values are part of the ideological superstructure of society, and values and ideas of themselves cannot produce social change in the way that Hegel and Lassalle thought.

The social democratic tradition reasserted itself in the writings of Bernstein, particularly in his The Preconditions of Socialism which was first published in 1899 (Bernstein, 1993). Bernstein rejected several of the major tenets of Marx’s historical materialism and with it the claim to have a scientific basis for socialism. Along with the rejection of the methodology of Marx’s theory there was also a rejection of some of the predictions which Marx had based upon this methodology, in particular his claim about the growing immiseration of the working class and his argument that as capitalism would develop then classes would polarize. Neither of these had happened in Bernstein’s view. He defined socialism or social democracy in terms of values which were to be pursued by political and parliamentary means and in so doing set off a debate which was to be continued with dramatic consequences in the next century by, amongst others, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.