philosophy political theory

On Liberal Disharmony: Judith N. Shklar and the “Ideology of Agreement”

By Hannes Bajohr

How political are the humanities, and how political should they be? The two main answers to these questions remain those put forward by Max Weber and Karl Marx. Weber’s ideal of a “value-free” sociology calls for “opinions on issues of practical politics, and the academic analysis of political institutions and party policies” (20) to be treated strictly separately. Marx, on the other hand, demands, as a higher form of objectivity, the political identification with that “world-historical” class from whose point of view alone bourgeois ideology can be recognized as what it is, the “illusion of the epoch.” (57) If, for Weber, Marx would be a poor scholar, Marx would call Weber’s notion of value freedom ideologically distorted.

These two main lines of argument have remained largely unaltered. While the “normal science” of most of today’s humanities claims value-freedom at least pragmatically and implicitly, no matter how constructivist it may appear, contemporary social criticism from Agamben to Žižek sees all assertions to neutrality already as ideology in action. Only those who adhere to the hegemonic ideology can claim to be non-ideological. In most cases, this ideological non-ideology is rather vaguely diagnosed as some form of “liberalism.”

Accusations of this kind are to be expected in a post-Marxist context. It is more surprising when they come from liberals. Few have addressed liberalism’s blindness to its own status as ideology more incandescently than the political philosopher Judith N. Shklar (1928–1992). Instead of categorical declarations of neutrality or the standard technique of “ideological unmasking” (48, 78–86), which exposes ideology and disposes of it at the same time, Shklar’s concern is the fundamental recognition of one’s own ideological ties in the humanities and social sciences. Only such reflexivity, she believes, can show how the ineluctable intellectual pluralism, the multitude of simultaneously existing convictions in modern secular societies, can be borne in practice. Shklar’s liberal perspective retains a keen sense of the dangers of non-reflective ideologies that seek to deny or overcome this pluralism, preaching harmony rather than acknowledging differences, and, while appearing to be engaged in conflict resolution, actually prepare the ground for repression and exclusion.

Liberalism as Ideology

At the beginning of her career, Shklar approached ideologies as a harbinger of their demise. In her first work, After Utopia (1957), she analyzed what remained of the “age of ideologies,” the nineteenth century, in the age of their implementation, the twentieth. Very little, in her estimation: Ideologies no longer offer any explanations nor inspire “the urge to construct grand designs for the political future of mankind.” This also means that “the last vestiges of Utopian faith required for such an enterprise have vanished.” (vii) That she later disavowed this judgement reflects a refinement of her approach to ideology.

If one takes “ideology” to mean something more basic than the grand intellectual systems of political theory as Hobbes, Rousseau or Marx had established them, then ideology is never overcome; rather, it possesses a necessary epistemic and pragmatic function. Towards the end of her life, in the fall of 1989, when Shklar co-taught an introduction to political ideologies at Harvard with the political scientist Stanley Hoffmann, this was her basic lesson. In her first lecture, she defined ideology as “an action-directed system of beliefs about society designed to explain it, alter it, or at least to combat other points of view. … What it does is to define issues, identify enemies and draw up plans for action. Its function is to offer maps for understanding and acting in politics.”[1]

The emphasis on ideology’s epistemic function brings Shklar close to contemporary ideology theorists like Michael Freeden, who sees ideologies primarily as matrices through which to interpret one’s own social and political world. But Shklar also emphasizes that ideology possesses the positive outlook for the future she denied it in the debate on the “End of Ideology” (Daniel Bell) in the 1950s: It can indeed point toward “ways to change and to a better future” (“The Origins of Ideological Combat” [1989], HUGFP 118, Box 5). This is precisely what Shklar would try to do in the 1980s and 1990s with her conception of a liberalism of fear.

Between the two texts, the resigned After Utopia and the more activist ideology lecture, came what may be Shklar’s most important book: Legalism (1964). Only here does Shklar pursue her self-identification as a liberal more actively, acknowledge the epistemic necessity of ideology, and finally lament her peers’ insensitivity to their own political and moral assumptions. Her book tackles this forgetfulness of ideology in discussing the dispute between the legal positivism of H. L. A. Hart and the natural law doctrine of Lon L. Fuller. Where Hart treated law as a “neutral social entity” rather than the result of political struggles and moral stances, Fuller argued that an inherent morality could be derived from analyzingpositive law. Both, according to Legalism, are forms of “a refined political ideology, the expression of a preference.” (34)

Shklar’s reproach of the liberal Hart brings her surprisingly close to Marx’s critique of ideology, in that she presents his liberalism as an ideological wolf in the sheep’s clothing of value-freedom. The difference, of course, is that her criticism is not only aimed at but delivered from a liberal standpoint, as she believes that her political cause as well as her discipline are better served by stating “the ideological contribution that the author is about to make to the debate.”  Legalism therefore begins with the declaration of a political creed. It advocates, writes Shklar, “a defense of social diversity, inspired by that barebones liberalism which, having abandoned the theory of progress and every specific scheme of economics, is committed only to the belief that tolerance is a primary virtue and that a diversity of opinions and habits is not only to be endured but to be cherished and encouraged. The assumption throughout is that social diversity is the prevailing condition of modern nation-states and that it ought to be promoted.” (5)

One may wonder at such a passage, so rare are ideological self-positionings still today in academic political theory – especially, those that openly call themselves so. For Shklar, however, there is no reason “to feel that the expression of personal preferences is an undesirable flaw.” To think so means to believe that ignoring personal and shared experiences amounts to being objective. To Shklar, ideology is “merely a matter of emotional reactions, both negative and positive, to direct social experiences and to the views of others.” Understood this way, “ideology is as inevitable as it is necessary in giving any thinking person a sense of direction.” (4)

Such a reflexive concept of ideology has consequences for the self-understanding of political theory and the history of ideas: if, as a scholar, one is always part of a society saturated with ideologies, one must on the one hand recognize them, but also be able to make them the object of analysis, since these “maps for understanding” are not given to us blindly. The analysis of one’s own structures of orientation abuts the goal of political theory, which is “to articulate and examine the half-expressed political views that the various groups in any given society at any time come to hold.” (4–5) Analyzing others’ ideology with an eye on one’s own is therefore Shklar’s main methodological rule – which brings her closer again to Weber, who ultimately expected nothing less from science than to help the individual “render an account of the ultimate meaning of his own actions.” (26)

In addition to descriptive analysis, Shklar’s reflexive approach also aims at the normative evaluation of ideology. For if one is always already involved in ideology, it can no longer be a matter of uncovering the truth “behind” it, but rather of analyzing its function in a social system and its political consequences. And that raises the question: Which ideology leads to acceptable, which to unacceptable results? By making such assessments, however, political theory itself produces maps for understanding and makes epistemic orders. For Shklar, the analysis of ideology is therefore always tied to the production of ideology.

Ideologies of Agreement

The fact that one cannot escape from the circle of ideology does not mean, however, that all ideologies are equal. Shklar, although a skeptic, is by no means a relativist. There are, she writes in 1966, “vast qualitative difference between the sloganlike utterances that act as cohesives for mass parties and the reflections of the great political theorists of the past and the work of the best contemporary social scientists.” That is why political theory should be concerned with establishing “standards for qualitative discrimination.” (18)

Shklar’s own production of ideology did not result in establishing such standards until the 1980s, in the “liberalism of fear” inseparably linked to her name. It does not assume a highest good but a highest evil: “That evil is cruelty and the fear it inspires, and the very fear of fear itself.” (11) Already in Legalism, Shklar reflected on one of the central means to avoid this summum malum. Just as apparent neutrality in the humanities produces reductive analyses, the disavowal of conflict can have repressive consequences. For this reason, Shklar, with all her polemical acuity, targeted those ideologies that seek to deny or eliminate pluralism. In Legalism, she called them “ideologies of agreement” (88–110).

In practice, such ideologies exclude and repress; as theories, they are simply incapable of facing the contradictions of knowledge production in the humanities. All attempts to either reduce them to the natural sciences or encompass them within a grand theory have failed. For Shklar this ultimately means “facing up to intellectual pluralism,” accepting its necessity and considering its irreducible diversity as a good. This radical intellectual heterogeneity corresponds, in Shklar’s interpretation, to the social differentiation of secular societies. Political plurality is a fact worth protecting, but that entails accepting “conflict among ‘us’ as both ineluctable and tolerable, and entirely necessary for any degree of freedom.” (227) The task of Shklar’s liberalism is therefore to give social conflict a form that allows it to exist without fear and cruelty – but not to eliminate this conflict at any price.

In Legalism, she analyzes how natural law theorists try to render eternal norms plausible by simply denying the plurality that contradicts them, frequently with reference to a source of “agreement,” such as “nature” or an unspoken common “consensus.” Yet nature, Shklar objects, often only affirms the given and pathologizes what differs from it, while consensus ignores those not explicitly included in it. For her, the main problem is the question of who constitutes the standard of consensus: Is it the “man on the Clapham bus” (89–92) or even a version of the gesundes Volksempfinden? Not to mention the methodological problem that divining any community’s reigning standards is a particularly dubious form of science. “In any case,” Shklar asks, “what on earth is so impressive about agreement and unity?” As a sole political goal, she considers it extremely dangerous, because in the end “in any society where moral diversity exists, agreement-as-an-end-in-itself can only be achieved by totalitarian methods.” (100)

For this reason, Shklar rejects not only overtly illiberal politics but also an overly harmonistic liberalism. This brings her close to contemporary agonistic philosophers, such as Chantal Mouffe or Jacques Rancière, although she is just as vehemently opposed to the fetishization of “community” as she is to Carl Schmitt’s definition of enmity as the essence of the political or to Hannah Arendt’s heroic understanding of politics. Shklar is interested neither in consensus nor in the agon as an end in itself, but sees conflict simply as a condition for freedom – because it means the absence of a homogenizing instance, which often tacitly presupposes the acceptance of a consensus.

At this point, Shklar’s own liberalism turns into an activist position that also affects contemporary political issues. When, for example, Shklar writes that liberalism and democracy often, but not necessarily, go together (19) – that, in other words, liberal democracy is not a tautology – one is reminded of contemporary “illiberal democracies.” After all, democracy, as Carl Schmitt argued, can very much be an ideology of unity if it considers its demos as strictly homogeneous, even identical to an ethnos. Shklar thus did not forget to include democracy in her lectures as that ideology that conceives of “the unity of a people as its essence.”[2]

Accordingly, Shklar does not think much of the invocation of national identity as a guarantee of unity. “Why do we need an ‘identity’ as a people?” she asks in Legalism (101). The desire for such monolithic and anti-pluralistic attributions appears in ideas of the European Right such as Leitkultur or its theoretical justification, ethno-différencialisme. For Shklar, national identity is an “ideology of agreement” that is touted as a remedy for problems that it, even if it existed, could not solve.Il n’y a pas d’identité culturelle, as François Jullien has put it. For Shklar, the call for a culture that is binding for all – and not just for the institutional containment of conflicts that makes possible quite different cultural and group-specific expressions – would be tantamount to admitting that one “cannot endure contradiction, complexity, diversity, and the risks of freedom.” (5) But it is precisely pluralism itself – “polyarchy” as the spreading of power onto different groups – which in Shklar’s liberalism of fear is an important shield against oppression. (10, 13) For Shklar, pluralism means both, positively, the precondition of any freedom, and, negatively, the distribution of power among as many centers as possible to prevent abuse of power.

The ideological uniqueness of liberalism as Shklar presents it, then, is its ability to tolerate a multitude of competing ideologies, and at the same time to be the only ideology that escapes the myth of unity. In a sense, it thus confirms the hegemonic accusation of the critics of liberalism, because it only wants to concede this plurality under the condition of liberalism, which is always careful not to let conflict become a source of cruelty and fear. Shklar would very likely agree with the Left’s reproach that behind the neutrality of liberalism hides“a fighting creed.” (62)But only because she wants to give up the illusion of value-freedom, not the awareness, and defense, of one’s own creed.

For Shklar, the humanities simply are political; ideologies “insensibly come to condition one’s interests, one’s methods of study, one’s con­ceptual devices, and even one’s vocabulary.” Instead of ignoring this fact, she calls for intellectual honesty. For if we bid farewell to considering ideology “a gross form of irrationality, we would be less anxious to repress it and our self-awareness would be correspondingly greater.”

[1] Judith N. Shklar, “The Origins of Ideological Combat” [1989]. Papers of Judith N. Shklar, Harvard University Archives, HUGFP 118, Box 5. I am grateful to Michael Shklar for the kind permission to quote from Shklar’s papers.

[2] Judith N. Shklar, “The Challenge of Democracy”, winter term 1989, Shklar Papers, Box 5.

Hannes Bajohr is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Arts, Media, and Philosophy at the University of Basel. He is also the translator of Judith N. Shklar’s works into German, most recently her writings on Hannah Arendt.

This text appeared first in German as “Harmonie und Widerspruch: Judith Shklar gegen die ‘Ideologie der Einigkeit’,” in Distanzierung und Engagement: Wie politisch sind die Geisteswissenschaften?, edited by Hendrikje Schauer and Marcel Lepper (Stuttgart: Works & Nights, 2018), 75-85. It was translated by the author.

Image: Photograph of Judith Shklar, March 1972. Courtesy of Reuters.

Intellectual history Interview philosophy political theory Theory

“We’ll Need More Than Rawlsianism Can Offer”: Katrina Forrester on John Rawls and Anglo-American Political Philosophy after 1945

Katrina Forrester is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the history of twentieth-century social and political thought and its implications for political theory. Forrester’s first book, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2019) is a history of how political philosophy was transformed by postwar liberalism, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and the rise of liberal egalitarianism. She is currently working on a new book project on Feminism and the Transformation of Work, and a related set of essays on feminism and the state. 

Katrina Forrester, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Anne Schult/Jonas Knatz:  In the very first sentence of your book, you state that “political philosophy in the English-speaking world today is largely concerned with a set of liberal ideas about justice, equality, and the obligations of individual citizens in capitalist welfare states” (ix). In essence, you attribute this state of debate to the continuing influence of John Rawls’ ideas about justice as fairness—despite the fact that at the very moment Rawls published his major work, A Theory of Justice, the capitalist welfare state he seemed to advocate for entered a deep crisis. How do you explain this seeming paradox and the enduring attractiveness of Rawls’ philosophical framework to evaluate contemporary politics?

Katrina Forrester: Let me start with the paradox. There are two stories that often get told about liberalism in the second half of the twentieth century. There’s a philosophical success story: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice transformed how political philosophy was done and a species of political philosophy called liberal egalitarianism came to dominance. That’s one story my book tries to tell, about the origins of A Theory of Justice, its triumphant reception, consolidation, and canonization into what became known simply as “Rawls’s theory”. I set this against another broader story about liberalism: that the 1970s was a time of crisis when social liberalism gave way to neoliberalism. But instead of seeing the rise of a liberal egalitarian political philosophy amid the decline of the welfare state as an ironic or even tragic story, I give a different account – I call it a ghost story. What I try to show is that Rawls’s theory endures and takes hold precisely because it provides a vision of a just society that goes beyond the postwar welfare settlement at the very moment that settlement is coming apart. It provides the grounds for a new liberal consensus, a new philosophical order, at a time of political disorder when the postwar liberal consensus is being challenged (first by the left, and gradually and more successfully by the right).

So that means that the attractiveness of Rawls’s theory is, in part, explained by the seeming paradox. It is also, in part, explained by two more prosaic points: First, Rawls’s own institutional and sociological influence as a teacher and academic at Harvard, and the influence of his students and colleagues; Second, the nature of his theory and its conceptual power (it’s important not to understate that power or A Theory of Justice’s philosophical beauty). Rawls’s theory also had a variety of other characteristics that contributed to its enduring appeal: its ideological force, that enabled its near-hegemonic dominance, and its peculiar flexibility and capaciousness. The flexibility is vital. I also argue in the book that the periodization of postwar thought into welfare-statist and neoliberal is too simple. Rawls was never a straightforward defender of capitalist welfare states (as all Rawlsians and liberal egalitarians know well), but it turns out that as a young man he was far more sympathetic to anti-statist forms of liberalism that we have realized. Yet the theory he built allowed for a variety of political settlements, up to and including a liberal socialism. So it was that flexibility that meant that aspects of the theory could be taken up across the political spectrum. It enabled its continued relevance.

In the Shadow of Justice (2019), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: In 2014, Raymond Geuss described the 1950s and 1960s as a particularly lively and interesting period in political philosophy that saw the publication of books by thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, a revival of Antonio Gramsci, and the broad circulation and discussion of very influential texts by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre or Guy Debord on the left and Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott or Karl Popper on the right. Against this background, according to Geuss, the publication of Rawls’ main work thus “seemed like an irrelevance.” Yet, as you point out in your book, a predominant narrative in the historiography of political thought portrays the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice as a rebirth of political philosophy after a long postwar hiatus. How did Rawls attain such a hegemonic position, and in what aspects was his Theory of Justice a product of these larger postwar debates?

KF: Geuss’s description of the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps best understood as a rebuttal of the “rebirth of political philosophy” story. According to that narrative, after the Second World War, it became impossible to think about justice and utopia. Political philosophy was widely seen as “dead”. Then Rawls’s theory revived political philosophy from its slumbers by giving political philosophy new normative foundations. Now, there’s plenty wrong with this story. But while it’s obviously untenable to see political theory, generally construed, as “dead” in the postwar years (for the reasons Geuss explains), it is nonetheless possible to make the case that the death-and-revival story isn’t all wrong. It’s just that it only holds true if it’s taken to be a much narrower and more tightly delineated story (even then, there’s plenty to contest). A revised version of the story goes something like this: within certain fields of the human sciences in the mid-century US, thanks to the prevailing liberal anti-totalitarianism, a slippery slope to authoritarianism was seen behind every progressive reform. Analytical philosophers weren’t very interested in building “normative” institutional theories, and certainly no one was doing it quite at the same scale as Rawls would. From that perspective, Rawls’s contribution was extremely significant. If the history of postwar political philosophy is told in terms of what goes on within US philosophy departments, Rawls’s impact was huge.

From left to right: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara. Cuba, 1960. Wikicommons.

But that doesn’t mean Rawls came out of nowhere. He was a far closer reader of a wide range of postwar scholarship than is often assumed: he engaged closely with economics and social science, with sociology, political science, psychology, and law, and he was no stranger to the so-called “continental” tradition. To that end, I describe A Theory of Justice as a kind of “encyclopedia” of the postwar social sciences. It is very much a recognizable product of that mid-century moment. And yet, Rawls himself contributed to the idea that it was somehow apart from it, by reinforcing the narrative of the death-and-revival of political philosophy: in lectures to students, year on year, when he contemplated the question of whether postwar political theory was dead or declining, he suggested that the concept of justice would be necessary to its revival. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Rawls helped consolidate the narrative according to which theories of distributive justice like his signaled the revival of political philosophy. As political philosophy was remade in Rawls’s wake with a novel conceptual vocabulary, the thinkers that Geuss describes as central were consequently removed from the canon of political philosophy. They were re-described as being engaged in a different endeavor: social theory, critical theory, political theory, and so on. Rawls and the subsequent generation of Anglophone analytical philosophers oversaw a redefinition of what counts as political philosophy.

AS/JK: By historicizing Rawls’ theory, your methodology bears resemblance to what the literary critic Barbara Johnson termed ‘critique’, a deconstructivist approach that was later adopted by historians such as Joan W. Scott. That is to say, your book appears less as an engagement with Rawls’ theoretical system in the form of an “examination of its flaws and imperfections” in order to improve it, but instead as an “analysis that focuses on the grounds of the system’s possibility,” to “show that these things have their history.”[1] Do you see your work as following in this tradition, or would you describe your methodology otherwise?

KF: That’s an interesting connection, but I’ve never thought of my work explicitly in relation to Scott or Johnson. Certainly, I’m interested in looking to the political work that ideas do, their political effects, their histories and the historical circumstances that made them possible. I suspect I’m quite in keeping with many who were trained in the Cambridge School of the history of political thought when I say that I don’t spend much time worrying about method: I have contextualist and historicist inclinations, to which I’m reasonably faithful. But in this book and elsewhere my central commitment is to writing the history of the present – I want to find ways to think the present historically, to understand political theory in political terms, and to identify the politics of political philosophy, which can only really be done historically. To do that, we might use all manner of tools, and not all of them are compatible – genealogical, Marxist, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, as well the workaday practices of historical explanation. So yes, critique is a central part of how I conceive of my work, but I would want to define that quite broadly.

AS/JK: You attribute parts of Rawls’ influence to his success in transforming the vocabulary of Anglo-American political philosophy. An essential cornerstone of his language, as you detail throughout the book, was the metaphor of society as a game. Analogies with games were ubiquitous in postwar academia, from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games to John von Neumann’s writings in game theory, but Rawls took particular inspiration from Chicago School economist Frank Knight’s notion of the ‘good game.’ How did the metaphor of the ‘good game’ encapsulate John Rawls’ understanding of a just society, and how did he negotiate the rise of neoliberal economic policies that emerged from the very same metaphor in the 1970s?

KF: In the early 1950s, Rawls wrote that society could best be understood as a game, rather than as an organism or a mechanism. He aimed to describe how a just society could be set up so that it was self-regulating. The government acted as umpire that tried not to intervene in the game. He drew from Knight to describe society as a game of multiple players with their own interests, whose starting positions had to be equal enough that they had a stake in the game and wanted to play. The game had to be regulated so the effects of winning were contained, and so no one player could accumulate too many goods from winning. It was important to Rawls that players in the game of society have a degree of equality, but that should be achieved without too much active state intervention and redistribution. Now, Rawls didn’t ever fully drop the game metaphor – it features in A Theory of Justice, though it’s not well developed there. He did overlay it with other accounts of society (as a system of social practices, and his vision of the basic structure of society). But I argue that the game metaphor gives us a crucial insight into Rawls’s youthful dream of limited government.

The game metaphor was also used by neoliberals, as you rightly say, and by public choice theorists like James Buchanan, who recognized Rawls as a fellow “student” of Knight’s account of games. But, to my knowledge, Rawls didn’t write anything about how his theory related to the neoliberals who used the game metaphor. Unlike some later egalitarians, he doesn’t explicitly engage with neoliberal ideas. And yet, Rawls was briefly a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, until 1971 when he allowed his membership to lapse. He also dialogued with Buchanan and other contract theorists. They didn’t agree on social issues – Rawls’s racial liberalism runs deep. But it was in the nature of that liberalism that he didn’t reject links with those for whom it didn’t. That engagement doesn’t make Rawls a neoliberal, but it certainly complicates narratives about Rawls being a socialist of some kind. Rawls’s theory allows for liberal socialism – and certainly many political philosophers have argued that it might require it – but Rawls himself was not a socialist.

AS/JK: Yet, Rawls’ work has often been received as a defense of the welfare state, to the point that William A. Edmundson called him a “reticent socialist.” By situating A Theory of Justice in the intellectual milieu of the postwar period, you emphasize that it was influenced by the then-prevalent Anglo-American critique of the totalitarian state. What was Rawls’ understanding of the state, and how does his understanding differ from the minimalist state advocated by contemporaries, such as Robert Nozick?

KF: For a long time, discussions of the state in the mid-twentieth century tended to flatten quite distinctive visions of the state into “welfare state theory.” But there were then many ways of thinking about the state that in practice might have amounted to a defense of something like a welfare state, but at the level of theory included very different arguments about what the state was, and how the state did, and should, function. Theories of planning, welfare, socialism, pluralism, Keynesian stabilization: all these had different implicit or explicit accounts of the state. My book tries to situate Rawls’s account of the state alongside these. It’s crucial to see his theory as in dialogue with these mid-century and wartime theories, not as a product of the Great Society. Recent work on early neoliberal theory has done a lot to dispel the idea that neoliberalism was a purely anti-statist theory. But in the mid-century US, there was a distinctive strand of sceptical liberalism that was critical of the New Deal planning state (and later invoked anti-totalitarianism and metaphors of anti-statism), and I argue that Rawls’s early work was surprisingly indebted to that anti-interventionist liberalism. Rawls always wanted something distinctive from the welfare state. When he first formulated his account of a “property-owning democracy” in the early 1950s, it was as part of a minimalist liberal theory in which the functions of government were highly limited. He ruled out any political control of the economy. So, then, what he wanted amounted to less than a welfare state. But Rawls changed his mind about how much state action would be necessary to secure distributive justice. As he developed his account of property-owning democracy, he conceived of it as requiring more than the welfare state – a distinctive form of democratic political regime. That’s where the connection to liberal socialism comes in – Rawls saw his theory of justice as permitting a liberal socialist settlement (though he preferred property-owning democracy).

That said, there is something of a puzzle about how Rawls understood the state. Unlike Weberians or Marxists (or indeed Cambridge School historians of political thought), liberal political philosophers since Rawls have not been so interested in the state. That’s in part down to how Rawls explained, or didn’t explain, the state. Rawls’s theory was deeply institutional, but he was never very explicit about what the state was. As a young man hostile to corporate and state personality theories, he came close to what’s sometimes called an eliminativist theory of the state – he defined it as “the collection of men” and laws. When he later discussed society as a system of practices, there’s little sense that the state is a particularly distinctive, autonomous or semi-autonomous, agent. It’s not a corporate person, nor is it a field of interests. Sometimes Rawls’s state seems to be well-suited to the public/private nature of the American mid-century administrative state, a system of interests and institutions that is neither public or private – but he never theorized it explicitly in this way either. What’s clear in his early writings is that government should have a limited reach: the game should be set up so it can be self-regulating with minimal government intervention. The scope of state action is circumscribed, even if its nature is underdeveloped. Now, in his mature writings, in A Theory of Justice and beyond, Rawls abandons that minimalist view. But that formative anxiety about the overreaching state is not unconnected to the absence of theoretical attention he gives to the state. He ends up focusing on the juridical and legislative institutions, whereas the administrative state is always envisaged in the negative, as something to be constrained. Yet by the time Rawls publishes A Theory of Justice, it’s clear that the institutions of his just society require a well-functioning state, with significant state capacity – including capacity to intervene in the economy in a variety of ways to secure a just distribution of goods. Something like the postwar American state is always assumed but never interrogated.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Basic Books

How does this compare to Nozick? Well, Nozick takes Rawls’s mature theory to require a great deal of state intervention. And, when compared to Nozick’s theory, rather than to the mid-century planning states, it certainly does. Even if we take the early Rawls, at his most minimalist, he and Nozick have starkly different visions of society. Nozick’s is a remarkably pure form of libertarianism. There is no metaphor of the game. In fact, Nozick’s minimalist state is quite different from the neoliberal state of those who think of society as a game, or from the state as responsible for setting the rules or the road. Nozick objects to theorists of “games of fair division.” He’s concerned with property rights, not state rules.

AS/JK: In the later 1970s, Rawls’ theory was reshaped and expanded by others to apply on a global level. In the book, you focus specifically on Rawlsian solutions to the political problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation—issues that Rawls himself had fairly little to say about in an official capacity, but that a new generation of philosophers like Charles Beitz thought solvable by means of Rawls’ philosophical framework. How did the adaptation of the Rawlsian notion of justice intersect with humanitarianism in the Global South and the rise of neocolonial development politics?

KF: The crucial point of intersection is in the 1970s, when political philosophers look in earnest to international politics. When liberal moral philosophers turned earlier to theorize the Vietnam War, it was mostly in terms of just war theory and the moral responsibility of leaders. Then in the 1970s, they take the institutional framework of Rawlsianism and look to international politics through the lens of distribution. There are various objections to Rawls’s decision to limit his theory to the national level, but it’s Charles Beitz that really extends Rawls’s theory internationally in detail. His is the first of many attempts to expand the scope of justice and to stretch Rawls’s theory to cover the world. The 1973 proposals for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) are key here as a spur to action. There’s also a contemporaneous move among those engaged with the new philosophy of public affairs to theorize other problems of international ethics, particularly foreign aid and food policy via appeal to varieties of utilitarianism or neo-Kantianism. It’s out of that, really, that you get a new humanitarianism within philosophy, one that’s fairly policy focused in its approach. By contrast with this, the extension of justice theory internationally is pretty radical. It’s born of sympathy with the redistributive demands coming out of the Global South (or at least with those demands as they are mediated by Northern liberals and socialists, and as they pass through the UN). A lot of their radicalism is diffused, though, as political philosophers take up the demands. As Brian Barry put it, in an extremely honest, straightforward, rendering of the egalitarian project, the aim for philosophers was to “domesticate” the arguments of the NIEO. That is, the point was to domesticate these demands by squeezing them into the vocabulary of liberal egalitarianism and justice theory. Barry is wonderfully explicit about this. For Barry, the NIEO demands are best understood as claims of justice, whereas the humanitarian debates about famine and food policy are merely claims of humanity.  But other philosophers cut the distinction differently and don’t disaggregate humanity and justice. Over time, conceptions of justice are used to explicate humanitarian activism too: food policy, human rights policies, the NIEO demands, all these get rendered in the vocabulary of justice theory. Here again we see the flexibility of liberal egalitarianism.

Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Santiago, Chile, April 1972, which would eventually issue the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order in 1974.

AS/JK: Around the same time, analytical Marxists, such as G.A. Cohen and John Roemer, began to engage with Rawls’ theory. As you argue in your book, these Marxist attacks “were taken up [and] their hard edges were softened” (207), and the criticism of the “No-Bullshit Marxists” was simply incorporated in the larger paradigm of liberal egalitarianism. You conclude that these debates “ultimately gave way not to socialist theories of democratic control but to liberal theories of deliberative democracy and public reason.” (ibid.) Why was analytical Marxism so powerless in challenging Rawlsianism, and how was the latter transformed by these encounters, if at all?

KF: Analytical Marxism starts off as something quite far away from Rawls and liberal egalitarianism, and many members of the original ‘No Bullshit Marxism’ group never have much to do with egalitarian political philosophy. But when, at the end of the 1970s, political philosophers after Rawls are becoming preoccupied with deep questions about equality, key analytical Marxists – Cohen and Roemer in particular – become very engaged with these debates. This is a moment when a number of philosophers get very interested in socialism, and in ‘rethinking’ it in the face of the rising New Right. As the 1980s rolled on, rethinking socialism often means abandoning it. But there were also plenty of new socialist visions, from analytical Marxism to market or democratic socialism. Few of them last long. What happens to some of the analytical Marxists as they encounter liberal egalitarianism is that they render Marxism a theory of distribution. They become proponents of the distributive paradigm. In this sense, Marxism gets domesticated (to redeploy that word). There are forays into theories of socialism, democratic control, and workplace democracy, but they don’t last. By the 1990s, debates about deliberative democracy and public reason take over. Marxism becomes distributional, democratic theory becomes deliberative. There’s an end of history effect.

Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: By the late 1980s, the law-like character of Rawls’s conceptualization of a just society was challenged by two other philosophical strands, communitarianism as developed by Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel and a new form of anti-totalitarian liberalism as put forward by Judith Shklar or Alasdair MacIntyre. Yet, you argue that these critics of Rawls offered little political alternatives and instead “provided mirror images of liberal political philosophy” (242). What led to their failure as true political-philosophical contenders?

KF: When I describe the story of liberal egalitarianism as a kind of ghost story, it’s Rawls’s theory that haunts political philosophy. But there’s really another ghost, too, that I characterize as “postwar liberalism” – the liberal vision of society that is born of the postwar settlement, which encompasses a range of liberal political assumptions and theories (of which Rawls’s is but one). In a basic sense, many liberal and communitarian responses to Rawls didn’t move beyond postwar liberalism. So they didn’t provide significant political alternatives. But I also argue that in important respects, a number of the communitarian and liberal responses to Rawls retraced his steps conceptually speaking too. They ended up mirroring ideas they wanted to dispute, they went back to ideas that Rawls had left out or left behind. This was not, of course, true of all alternatives – and I have tried not to overstate the centrality of Rawlsianism and the critics who took it as referent. Yet, for example, the communitarian critics of Rawls looked to Wittgenstein and the social self. I show in the book that this is actually where Rawls began. Similarly, those like Judith Shklar who advocated a liberalism of fear went back to Rawls’s early anti-totalitarianism but updated it for a new phase of the Cold War. Many of Rawlsianism’s twentieth-century alternatives couldn’t escape it. They ended up operating in the shadow of justice theory. 

AS/JK: At the end of your book, you argue that “we tend to underestimate the political distance traveled between that world of political consensus and our own” (278). Similarly, in a recent article for the Boston Review, you suggest that Rawls’ framework may have outlived its purpose as “some of our most pressing concerns lie in its blind spots.” How can political philosophy escape the shadow of justice?

KF: Well, first I want to be clear that the hold of the Rawlsian or liberal egalitarian framework has loosened over the past decade or so. And there is a lot of fascinating work being done within the tradition historicized in my book: as political philosophers try to face the future of work, technology, climate politics, financialization, privatization, and so on, plenty of its resources are relevant. So I don’t think “escaping the shadow” means abandoning those resources entirely. It means recognizing the limits of the Rawlsian framework, liberal egalitarianism and the analytical approach associated with the philosophy of public affairs – seeing what those approaches can’t do. One way to do so is to historicize and defamiliarize the vocabulary and architecture of that way of doing political philosophy. Another is to use ideas and arguments from other traditions. So, for instance, as part of my new research, I’ve been reading a lot of Marxist and socialist feminism, in part because I see that tradition as a rich resource for thinking about the future of work – richer than Rawlsianism. But there’s no one approach or single tradition of social and political theory that provides all the solutions, nor is there a single alternative to the limits of the paradigm. I’m a historian of political thought and a political theorist, not a philosopher, and I don’t want to tell another discipline what it should do with itself – that’s not my aim. Yet it’s nonetheless clear to me that if we are serious about finding a political philosophy, or a political theory, that can deal with the dilemmas of our own age, then we’ll need more than Rawlsianism can offer. We’ll need new theories of the state, work, climate. Some of those will be built from the resources of egalitarianism, others will be drawn from the many other traditions of social and political theory that we could mine. Constructing these is a collective endeavor, and many philosophers and theorists of various political and methodological stripes are already engaged in that endeavor, and recognize the challenge. I’m optimistic.

[1]. Barbara Johnson, translator’s introduction to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): xv.

Critical theory German history Intellectual history Kant Marxism philosophy political theory Theory

On a Kantian Antinomy in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought

By Contributing Writer Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire

In an interview with Günther Gaus in 1964, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) recalls that she had started to read Immanuel Kant at the age of 14.[1] Evidently, this long and intense intellectual acquaintance with Kant played an important role in her understanding of political judgment, the articulation of which is best expressed in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, delivered at the New School for Social Research in 1970. The scholarship on Arendt’s political reinterpretation and appropriation of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is prolific, and I do not wish to add anything to it here.

What I wish to suggest – and hopefully to show, although briefly, in some persuasive fashion – is that we find a Kantian inspiration beneath the question of political judgment in Hannah Arendt’s political thought. Beneath, for political judgment presupposes a sphere of politics where political speech and action can take place. This is by no means odd, since judging pertains to human beings insofar as they are acting beings (LM in LKPP 3). But action, Arendt thinks, does not stand on its own. In fact, action is “ontologically rooted” in the human condition of natality (The Human Condition 247). This means that there is an ontological priority of natality over acting and judging. Natality is Hannah Arendt’s very own (and perhaps most distinctive) concept. Yet, while it is plain that she did not invent it ex nihilo, attempts to pin down the intellectual inspiration(s) behind it remain most of the time tentative and, I think, unconvincing in important respects.

The unexplored possible explanation that I wish to bring forth here is that Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom and its antinomic opposition to nature is what is at play in Arendt’s natality. I propose here to introduce this idea very briefly by: I) showing some limits to common interpretations of the intellectual source(s) of the notion of natality; II) showing the striking resemblance between Arendt’s understanding of natality and Kant’s definition of freedom.


The first explanation of Arendt’s conception of natality that comes to mind is that it represents a critical appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy. It is often suggested, assumed, and only sometimes argued for that Arendt’s natality is a response to Heidegger’s emphasis on Dasein’s mortality and being-towards-death. It would be mauvaise foi to deny that there is some truth to this interpretation. Yet it is by no means a fully accurate and sufficient explanation. The main disadvantage of this commonly held view is that it presents natality and mortality as if they were mere opposites, and this is neither how Heidegger thinks nor what Arendt means. Arendt, for instance, speaks of human existence (or human life in its “non-biological sense”) as the “span of time between birth and death” (HC 173), which is fairly similar to and reminds us of Heidegger’s characterization of the historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of Dasein as a “stretching” (Erstreckung) between birth and death (SZ §72, 373). Arendt does not deny the importance of death: she acknowledges explicitly in The Human Condition that death represents the phenomenon according to which one must think if one wants to think metaphysically, and birth the primordial phenomenon if one wants to think politically (HC 9). Accordingly, one could argue that Arendt is taking up Heidegger’s conceptual framework and reversing it, so as to think politically. But this would only be true if her understanding of birth and natality is the same as or very similar to Heidegger’s, which is not the case. Heidegger’s couple-notions of birth and death designate in the conceptual apparatus of Being and Time two poles of Dasein’s temporal-historical existence: whereas death clearly maps on the pole of our “futurality” (Zukünftigkeit) and the projective aspect of our being (Entworfenheit), birth represents our inherited past and factitial thrownness (Geworfenheit). To say that we are historical because we are stretching between birth and death therefore means that we are thrown projects. As we shall see, Arendt’s definition by no means allow to understand her version of natality as human inherited thrownness – on the contrary, one may even say that, in a way, it is closer to Heidegger’s “projectiveness.” More could and should be said on this, but not here.

The second and more textually based interpretation is that the inspiration is Christian. Arendt does in fact refer to the birth of Christ (“a child has been born unto us”) as an illustration of the miraculous character of birth (HC 247). However, it is quite clear that Christ’s birth represents for her only an exemplification of the phenomenon of birth: natality is what makes Christ’s miraculous birth possible, and not the other way around (Arendt’s thought is emphatically not Christian in this sense). When Arendt does draw on the life and ways of Jesus Christ in The Human Condition, it is to advocate the importance of forgiveness as an indispensable remedy for the calumnious irreversibility of action (238-243). But in this respect, Christ’s teaching becomes relevant downstream from action and therefore does not explain natality. Scholars have argued that the genuine influence is Augustine (especially Vecchiarelli Scott & Chelius Stark 1995, Young-Bruehl 2004 [1982] and Kiess 2016). In fact, Arendt’s own later revisions of her doctoral dissertation (Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, revised between 1958 and 1965) suggest that natality was implicit in her analysis of Augustine’s theology of Creation and nova creatura (see Chelius Stark 1995, 132-133, 146, 154ff.). I do not mean to discredit Arendt’s self-interpretation or to deny the strong continuity of Arendt’s work and thought, but I would like to underscore two facts. First, Augustine’s Creation is divine and not human action, and the nova creatura refers to the second birth of conversion and baptism, not to birth per se. Its innovative miraculous character is entirely dependent on the miraculous life, death and resurrection of Christ. Second, before studying Augustine, Arendt enthusiastically read another thinker whose emphasis on the unprecedented and the innovative in human action is not grounded in Christology: Kant. In other words, whereas one can hardly deny that ‘natality’ has a Christian appearance and Christian echoes, it may very well be that this Christian outlook was substantially filled in with Kantian insights.


As I said, I think that Arendt’s natality is conceptually closer to Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom than to any other possible influential sources. There is probably no better way to show this than to look at both definitions. Hannah Arendt understands action as the actuality or activity (ἐνέργεια in Aristotle’s sense) of the condition of natality, which in turn is a capacity, a δύναμις (cf. HC 178, 200, 206). Natality, she says, is the capacity of “beginning something new on our own initiative”. She adds: “With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before” (177). So natality is the capacity to act, to initiate something new from one’s own initiative, and this is just what freedom is. Let us now look at Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom in the first Critique: “the capacity to begin by oneself a state [of affairs] (das Vermögen einen Zustand von selbst anzufangen), the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause that determines it according to a law of nature” (A 533/B 561). As far as I know, the striking similarity has only been noticed once, and not explained.[2]

The only component that seems to escape the strong parallel is Kant’s insistence on the fact that an act of freedom should not depend upon any further natural causality (for otherwise, freedom would be in fact a mere expression of physical necessity). Yet this absence is only apparent, for Arendt in fact does conceptualize a rather strong contrast between nature and freedom: whereas action is the expression of freedom, labor is the expression of the mere natural necessities of biological life (ζωή). In order for action to be truly such, Arendt thinks, it should not condescend to busy itself with anything that pertains to the productive activities of human beings. Against Marx, she thinks that work is not an expression of freedom and could never be, for labor just is enslavement to necessity (83-84). Further signs of the Kantian antinomy between freedom and nature could be seen, for instance, in her conceptual appreciation of the American and French revolutions in On Revolution. In both works, Arendt’s extremely restrictive acceptation of what counts as political rests upon the view that an activity that follows in a way or another the course of natural necessities cannot at the same time be an expression of genuine freedom, a response to our condition of natality. Arendt’s political conceptuality cannot be fully grasped if one does not get the tripartite division that she introduces within the vita activa. But this division, in turn, may not be fully intelligible if one does not see its deep Kantian resonances.

[1] Interview of October 28, 1964 (available online).

[2] Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, De la bonne société. L. Strauss, E. Voegelin, H. Arendt: le retour du politique en philosophie, Paris: Cerf, 309. The strangest thing is that the similarity is noted in the penultimate sentence of her book. Very unfortunately, the author passed away prior to the publication of her manuscript, so we cannot hope for further light on this parallel from her. 

Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire is a Ph.D. student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Ancient philosophy,  German philosophy, and political philosophy. He works specifically on appropriations of Greek philosophy in German and Continental philosophy.  His work has been published in various journals, including Polis,  Interpretation, Dialogue,  Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique, Philosophiques, Politique et Sociétés, and the Revue de métaphysique et de morale.

Intellectual history nationalism Political history political theory

Vincenzo Cuoco: Moderation as a Revolutionary Act

By Contributing Writer Thomas Furse

In a letter to a fellow republican during the 1799 Neapolitan Revolution, Vincenzo Cuoco proclaimed, ‘our philosophers, my dear friend, are often deceived by the idea of something excellent which is the worst enemy of the good’ (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 228). Politicians and revolutionaries have often grappled for the perfect constitution or government; defeat in this pursuit appears tantamount to failure. For Italian thinker Vincenzo Cuoco (1770 – 1823), revolutionary failure in 1799 brought him exile, but his optimism for progress did not recede. He reflects on this in his book, Saggio Storico sulla rivoluzione di Napoli (Historical Essay on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799), which ascribes the failure of the Neapolitan Revolution to the rupture between the revolutionaries and the people they were meant to be liberating.  

Several republican revolutions sprang up against tyrannical governments at the end of eighteenth century. The Neapolitan Revolution followed the republican revolutions in America, France, the Brabant revolution in Belgium (1789-90), and the United Irish rebellion (1798). Each of these revolutions had radical and conservative factions that disagreed on what should come after the seizure of power. Cuoco, however, developed a moderate, even conservative path to instituting a republican government. He was an administrator for the new government that with French support overthrew King Ferdinand of Naples. But the republic lasted only six months. Popular discontent, royalist conspiracies, mismanagement by the republican government, and military defeats restored the old monarchy. During the restoration, a royalist terror campaign executed revolutionaries with a bloodthirstiness that politicians across Europe denounced. Luckily, Cuoco escaped.

According to Cuoco, the roots of republican defeat lay in Italy with the revolutionaries themselves. The revolutionaries were too enamoured with the 1789 French Revolution. He declared, ‘the French Revolution was understood by only a few, was approved of by even fewer, and wanted by almost nobody,’(Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 42). For Cuoco, Italians’ failure came from their attempt to transfer the ‘alien ideology’ of abstract rationalism from Jacobin France to southern Italy. He created the term ‘passive revolution’ to explain this, which he imputed to the separations in society. ‘Passive revolution’ diagnosed that Italian revolutionaries had the ideological fervor and resources necessary to overthrow the monarchical power, but that the people felt apathetic, or worse, hostile to revolutionary change.  

Cuoco had studied law in Naples, which was one of the largest cities in Europe and a center of the Italian and European enlightenments. His participation in this intellectual culture led to working for the economist, Giuseppe Maria Galanti, a critic of feudalism and aristocratic power. From this, Cuoco grew sympathetic to calls for democracy and republicanism. Although not aligned with the radical Jacobinism that captured many southern intellectuals, Cuoco engaged in political debates in Naples and later during his exile. He always remained ideologically flexible, from supporting the republican revolution in 1799, to working for monarchs, Joseph Bonaparte and Joachim Murat, in 1806 and 1808.


From Saggio Storico and his 1799 letters to Vincenzio Russo we get the impression that Cuoco understood that radicalism was not the answer. He turned to study the revolution not out of deep disappointment, but ‘to alleviate the leisure and tedium of exile.’ In this light, Cuoco positions himself as a detached observer. These letters illustrate a much stronger line against a French-inspired Jacobin constitution. The precise date of these writings is debatable, and they may have even been fictitious to bolster Cuoco’s intellectual standing. But certainly the letters show that Cuoco remained active in Italian political debates after June 1799 (de Francesco, Naples in the Enlightenment, 170-171). Combined with the short and relatively self-contained chapters in Saggio storico, it indicates that Cuoco wanted people to read his work—and learn from it. He was in the battle to explain European politics, and his involvement in this was a radical act that could be punished. Saggio Storico lists how the revolutionaries were separated from almost everyone else, and that this chasm was the main obstacle to success. Cuoco suggested that the concerns of ordinary people barely registered with the revolutionaries, many of whom were aristocrats. The French troops who initially drove away King Ferdinand became reluctant to give full support to the new republican government and abandoned it. Cuoco proclaimed that the French moreover worked against the republicans when they disarmed them. This frustrated attempts to recreate the king’s old army as a republican army. The lazzaroni, the staunchly monarchist lower class, deepened the division between the government and the people.

Based on this postmortem, Cuoco advocated that a middle path could harmonize social relations during a revolution. He displayed his democratic zeal and moderation concurrently: ‘the secret of revolutions is this: to know what all the people want, and to do that… the obsession with reforming everything leads inevitably to counter-revolution’ (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 96). We could dismiss this as ideological incoherence. But for Cuoco, respecting tradition and enacting reforms was the path to power. Successful revolutionaries had to tack toward prudent reform to succeed in their aims. In this insistence, Cuoco leans away from the conservatism of Edmund Burke in Reflections (1790), and more toward a reforming attitude for democratic politics and governance.   

This emphasis on practical considerations shaped his vision for a united Italy. Distinctive patterns of local life had to organically relate to a new national space, and not be forced to change. Accordingly, starry-eyed radicalism and foreign support could not deliver a fair and just government. For a united Italy, he argued that federation had significant drawbacks, but also ‘infinite advantages.’ Although Cuoco does not name it, his argument was in remarkable contrast to the centralized Jacobin government of revolutionary France. An all-powerful government would be like a ‘single eye’ with a ‘single arm.’ Yet, in a federal system power would be better dispersed among the people and the elites. A federation could respect local needs and forge a new Italian political space. Cuoco’s argument throughout Saggio storico, among his other works, became a mainspring for the ideas behind the Italian Risorgimento from 1815 to 1871. His moderate path inspired the conservative politics of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, who succeeded in uniting Italy with Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861.

Saggio storico does not present us a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end that would match the rise, establishment, and fall of the Neapolitan Republic. Instead, it judges how and why the republic failed. There are relatively discrete chapters on military strategy and public order, and more philosophical tracts on the nature of liberty and how property law ought to reflect social equality in a republic. By reflecting on the revolution this way, Cuoco conveys the problems of installing a government led by a small group detached from the populace. The new government could not solve all the mounting and simultaneous problems, from public order to guarding liberty, from education reform to repealing feudalism. In one chapter, Cuoco points out that the new government gave the appearance of organization, but neglected its ‘most essential part’— communication (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 162). The government did not engage with other parts of Italy, communicate orders to the provinces—or even between government departments. Saggio storico, like his other work, Platone in Italia (Plato in Italy), catches him looking back to failure, and forward to the hope of progress.


Cuoco writes in his conclusion, ‘destiny is ensuring that the kings strive to prepare the work attempted unsuccessfully by the republicans’ (Cuoco, Saggio Storico, 223). For Cuoco, failure and success are joined; the roots of one are enmeshed in the progress of the other. The brutal restoration of King Ferdinand in 1799 after the republic’s end had sown seeds for the next revolution. His reflections then are not a surrender of hope, but a polemical intervention for the possibility of progress. This informs his grasp of passive revolution—a positive event that simultaneously carries its own destruction. 

What Cuoco adds to the idea of revolution is that failure does not scramble all hope. If we learn from the event, it can still lead to success in the long-run. What’s more, his moderate attitudes posit that revolution is not necessarily a radical shock, but a slower shift that continually builds on a set of malleable, but home-grown, political ideas. In a time of radical Jacobinism and reactionary monarchs, Cuoco presents us with moderation as a revolutionary act. He invites us to see that success is made in connections, and that revolutionaries do not have to be perfect, but instead have to hold oppositional and contrasting ideas and values together. Neither failure nor success is absolute and final.   

Thomas Furse is a Ph.D student at City, University of London. He is researching American foreign policy, specifically the history of strategic thought. He is interested in Antonio Gramsci and related thinkers.

Twitter: @TomFurse and email: 

German history Intellectual history Political history political theory

Dolf Sternberger (1907-1989) and the Political Foundations of the German Federal Republic

by contributing writer Jacob Van de Beeten,

Beyond Weimar

The rise of populism, the election of Trump, Brexit, and illiberal politics in Hungary, Poland and beyond; all these political phenomena express a sense of discontent and instability across Western liberal democracies. The recurring parallels to the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) are the clearest articulation of this sentiment. In the arts, music, and literature alike, the Weimar Era has gained renewed attention, of which the popular Babylon Berlin series on Netflix is but one striking example. “Weimar is vogue”, the Guardian recently concluded. Similarly, there is a renewed attention for the lived experiences of ordinary Germans during the Weimar period, which according to Cass R. Sunstein, offer lessons to people “who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.”

Rather than focusing on a period of decay, however, it might be more fruitful to turn to the period of the early German Federal Republic, which contains the intellectual resources to better understand the foundations of liberal democracies and to disentangle criticism of “liberalism” from the conscious subversion of the norms, principles, and practices underlying the modern constitutional state. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was German “engaged democrats” – to borrow the term used by Sean Forner – who provided the morally, economically, and politically destitute German population with new visions and ideas about democracy, politics, and citizenship. In particular, the work of the journalist, academic and publisher Dolf Sternberger (1907-1989) deserves attention, because it contains many of the intellectual roots that transformed the German Federal Republic to the beacon of stability it is today.

Dolf Sternberger: A post-war intellectual

Dolf Sternberger belonged to the generation of German intellectuals, like the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and Karl Jaspers – both of whom he was close friends with – and others such as the historian Sebastian Haffner, who were fundamentally influenced by their lived experience of the Nazi-regime. “He [Hitler] has taught me politics a contrario; or more precisely: ex negativo” Sternberger wrote in 1987. His life was heavily impacted by the reign of National Socialism: being married to the Jewish Ilse Rothschield-Sternberger prevented him from entering academia upon completing his doctorate in 1933. Instead, he became a journalist at the Frankfurter Zeitung, until he was banned from writing by the Nazi-authorities in 1943. After being cautioned it would be better not to return home, Sternberger and his wife spent the rest of the war in hiding, consistently carrying capsules of poison around in case they were arrested.

In post-war Germany, Sternberger emerged as one of the intellectual pillars of the newly found German Federal Republic. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he founded a monthly magazine together with his teacher, the philosopher Karl Jaspers, the sociologist Alfred Weber, and the philologist Werner Krauss. In Die Wandlung, as the magazine was called, they attempted to reconstruct German intellectual life. It was one of the first and leading publications in post-war Germany. Die Wandlung not only figured essays by intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, and Gustav Radbruch, but it also made war documents publicly available, such as those relating to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and Hitler’s euthanasia program. From his exile in the United States, Thomas Mann wrote that he regarded Die Wandling as “the best, the most unequivocal and the morally bravest, that has come to my attention from the new Germany.”

At the same time, Sternberger developed his political thought at the University of Heidelberg, where he obtained the first academic position in politics. (In Germany he is regarded as one of the founders of post-war political science). Sternberger’s political thought can be seen as a radical break with the past in two ways: firstly, he tried to redefine the German conception of Bürgertum, the designation for the rising bourgeoisie of the 19th century and, secondly, rejected politics based on the idea of Herrschaft, or dominion, that had characterized German political thought in the preceding decades.

Reconfiguring Bürgertum and Herrschaft

In 1970’s Fritz Stern published a classic article where he argued that the rise of National Socialism was the political consequence of the “Unpolitical German”: the German bourgeois who preferred the enjoyments of his private life over civic engagement. This line of argument was also made earlier by many German émigrés in exile, such as Hannah Arendt – a close friend of Sternberger – who wrote in her magnificent essay on Organised Guilt and Universal Responsibility:

“The transformation of the family man from a responsible member of society, interested in all public affairs, to a “bourgeois” concerned only with his private existence and knowing no civic virtue […] enjoyed particularly favorable conditions in Germany. Hardly another country of Occidental culture was so little imbued with the classic virtues of civic behavior.”

This is very close to how Sternberger remembers his years as a student in Heidelberg: an “absolutely happy period” in which he and Arendt were completely absorbed in “Karl Jaspers’ philosophy of existential communication and the intimate life” and in which politics was of no importance: Arendt wrote her doctorate on the concept of love in Augustine; Sternberger on the notion of Death in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. Only during the war did Sternberger realize: “if I will survive this war and this regime, we will have to engage with politics and no longer lose ourselves in pure meditations, speculations, and poetry.”

For this reason, Sternberger started advocating bürgerliche Sitte or civic values in an attempt to develop a sense of political responsibility in the German population. His emphasizes on the civic responsibility was also a response to those who claimed that under the Nazi-regime they had been “a-political” and claimed to have only obeyed orders. He asserted that “freedom should be secured through further and different means than the mere laws of the state […] it depends on the explication of the highest, simplest and most elementary political concepts and on ensuring that everyone is familiar with them, not only in his mind, but also in his gestures and conduct, his flesh and his blood.”

In his radio-lectures on politics and freedom, which were broadcasted in the occupied German territories, Sternberger emphasized that “all of us, every day and every hour are involved with politics” and it would be a mistake “to believe that politics starts with the state, or that the state is the real subject of politics.” Rather, politics starts with the citizen; it concerns the human person living in a human society. An insight he borrowed from Aristotle, who had designated man as a political animal, zoon politikon, and civil society as the natural condition of living together.

Likewise, he dismissed the conception of the political that had prevailed before the war. As Karl Jaspers emphasized, post-war Germany should be animated by “a new political mode of thought,” which could not be “the continuation of Prussian political thinking.” Sternberger specifically took distance from the typical German focus on Herrschaft, on power and rule, which stems from the Prussian and imperial traditions that for a long time dominated German political thought and which was best represented in the works of Carl Schmitt and Max Weber.

The objections to the former are well known. The latter had classified legitimate authority as traditional, charismatic or rational-legal authority. Sternberger explicitly rejected this classification because, he argued, it obscured the fact that the source of legitimacy of the modern constitutional state is not to be found in the rule of one group of people over another, not even of the people themselves. Rather, it is founded on bürgerlicher Vereinbarung, on civic agreement, on the agreement amongst citizens about the rules, institutions, and practices, which they use to settle their disputes. It is for this reason that Sternberger characterized the modern constitutional state by the absence of ruling because governing is not he same as ruling; “Regieren ist nicht herrschen.” He understood the modern constitutional state as a political community in which the seat of the ruler remains empty — a striking anticipation of what Claude Lefort would later call the ‘empty space of power’. (“In der Tat bleibt bei parlamentarischer Parteiregierung der Platz der Herrschaft leer.”)

Lebende Verfassung and the institutional character of the state

Clearly positioning himself within the republican tradition, ranging from Aristotle to Marsilius of Padua and John Locke, Sternberger characterized the nature and empirical reality of politics as a plurality rather than unity. Any attempt to realize unity necessarily ends in dictatorship and despotism (as the German example had taught). Sternberger did not only condemn the past, but also remained very critical of those who strived to create true democracy and as such strongly opposed the student activists movements in the 60’ and their aspirations for radical democracy.

In Sternberger’s view, excessive emphasis on “democracy” overshadows and obscures the institutional character of representative democracy. He describes this as the “lebende Verfassung,” the living constitution, by which he means the actual power-relations between the different institutional actors such as parliament, government, opposition, and the public opinion that created and sustained a political community in the first place. In this community, the antagonistic relation between government and opposition, but also between the political class – consisting of the different political parties – and the general electorate as a whole, animated the constitution and guaranteed the continued existence of political freedom – that is, as long as the rules of the game are respected. For this reason, he especially praised the recognition, legitimation, and institutionalisation of political opposition, which he rightly regarded as one of the highest expressions of political culture.

State-order depends on the loyalty and trust that citizens have in their political institutions and these institutions also deserve loyalty and trust from their citizens, because they guarantee political freedom. This is what Sternberger meant with the term Verfassungspatriotismus (constitutional-patriotism), with which he tried to express that patriotism, as conceived in European thought, essentially concerns the constitution of the political community: “Law and freedom – that is the essence of the constitutional state.” This original meaning of Verfassungspatrotimus has since been remodelled by Habermas to fit his cosmopolitan, post-national democratic project, and as a consequence lost much of its original, republican connotations.

Contemporary relevance

Nonetheless, returning to the original meaning of the term and Sternberger’s initial emphasis on the institutional preconditions for political freedom could be a fruitful exercise to better understand the political conditions of our time. Much of the contemporary critique from both the left and the right on representative democracy concerns the disjunction between democratic norms and theory, on the one hand, and the actual political and constitutional configurations of the modern constitutional state, on the other. Put simply, the criticism boils down to the claim that our democracies are not democratic enough.

This critique is often framed as an attack on liberal democracy and a rejection of independent and technocratic institutions, such as courts, national banks, and supranational organisations, on the grounds that these do not represent but rather counteract the will of the people. In this way “democracy” is stripped of its statist and institutional form, and a meta-physical and imaginary ‘people’ becomes the stick wielded by populists to use against whomever disagrees with them.

Focusing on the institutional character of our political communities can serve as a critique of the populists and nationalist who neglect the institutional character of democracy by claiming to represent the people-as-one. At the same time, it can also serve as a critique of those cosmopolitan theorists, such as Habermas, who in their attachment to abstract principles – and the presupposed consensus about the meaning of those principles – neglect the concrete institutional structures and practices that precede, and are a prerequisite for, the realisation of those values and allow for peaceful strife about the meaning of those values. It other words, Sternberger’s institutional agonism moves beyond the opposition between populism and technocratic governance that dominated contemporary political debates.

In one of his letters to Sternberger, Karl Jaspers once critically praised him for his political insights while simultaneously lamenting his “lack of radicalness.” In times of institutional distrust and political extremism, this might well be the best argument to return to Sternberger’s thought.

Jacob van de Beeten will start a PhD in Law at the London School of Economics in September 2019.

Atlantic history Britain companion piece empire JHI nationalism political theory Think Piece US history

Return of the King? Monarchy in American Thought

By Zach Bates

This is a companion essay to the author’s “The Idea of Royal Empire and the Imperial Crown of England, 1542–1698”, published in the January 2019 edition of the JHI.

Into the twenty-first century, it has been a commonplace that Britain and its soon-to-become independent North American colonies diverged on ideological grounds (exacerbated, of course, by revolution and independence).  This division appears dialectical, and has been expressed in multiple ways: a revolutionary Atlantic opposed to a conservative/loyalist Atlantic; or a republican America (sometimes restricted to the United States; other times encompassing many of the new nation-states in the Americas) against a monarchical Europe. These approaches can be found in Bernard Bailyn, J. C. D. Clark, and Carla Gardina Pestana (see The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; The Language of Liberty; The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution).  Though ostensibly exorcised from the United States in the late eighteenth century, monarchy is far from a banished (or condemned) concept: Its imagery, symbolism, and constitutional vestiges (at least in the form of the executive branch as established in the United States Constitution) persist in American popular and political culture.  Despite the apparent ideological divide, American ambivalence about monarchy has been a recurrent feature throughout colonial and national history.  This companion piece to my recent article in the Journal of the History of Ideas will focus on showing the continuities in thinking about monarchy from what we might consider the monarchical culture of the Anglo-American world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – that is, a political community throughout the Atlantic that referred to itself as the British Empire and included Britain and its overseas colonies – to an American society that has often identified itself as republican and modern.

Two strands of recent scholarship have reoriented our understandings of the Crown’s legal role in governing the American colonies and colonists’ relationship to their monarchs.  Work on the seventeenth century has shown that the Crown had an important supervisory legal role and a symbolic role for its American subjects – inclusive of both Europeans and indigenous peoples (Ken MacMillan, Sovereignty and Possession in the English New World; Jenny Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King).  Brendan McConville has argued for the continued importance of the monarchy in American culture after 1688 up to 1776, and argued against the importance of republican ideas during this period. According to his study, colonial America was enthusiastic and steadfast in its support of the monarchy, and this was only sundered by competing visions of the king (The King’s Three Faces).  Eric Nelson has extended this line of thinking to the Revolution and composition of the Constitution; he argues that royalist ideas were influential in the opposition to King George III and the push for a strong executive in the early U.S. (The Royalist Revolution).  These recent studies have led to a royalist revival in scholarship on the monarchy’s place in American legal thought during the seventeenth century and its cultural and intellectual heritage in colonial America and the early United States (for a study of continuing British cultural influence in the U.S. during the early nineteenth century, see Elisa Tamarkin, Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America).

My recent article seeks to link this recent scholarship that emphasizes the importance of monarchy in colonial America to the intellectual history of the British Empire.  The eighteenth century is viewed as a key period for the development of identity (Linda Colley, Britons) and ideology (David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire) within the British Empire.  This approach fits in with earlier scholarship on this imperial entity as one that was acquired in “a fit of absence of mind” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that was only recognized as an expansive political community by eighteenth-century contemporaries (see J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England; C. H. Firth, “The British Empire,” pp. 185-89; Richard Koebner, Empire).  My article repositions the argument by emphasizing an intellectual means for seventeenth-century subjects of the English (sometimes considered “British”) to view themselves as members of a political community, at times referred to as a “royal empire,” that spanned the Atlantic possessions of the Stuart monarchs (and sometimes extended into Africa and Asia).  Much as the scholarship on colonial America has discovered for eighteenth-century colonial populations, allegiance to the Crown was a way to politically identify oneself with others across vast geographies in the seventeenth century – and, as Steven Ellis has argued, even between Ireland and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Steven G. Ellis, “Crown, Community and Government in the English Territories, 1450-1575,” pp. 187-204).  With this in mind, my article suggests that the classical formulation of the British Empire as protestant, commercial, maritime, and free should be amended to include that it was royalist.

Monarchy was integral to the ideological origins of the British Empire and a vital cultural and intellectual force in colonial America. It has also had afterlives in the republican United States.  There is, of course, a continuing fascination in popular culture with kings and queens: One needs only to think of the anointing of one of the best basketball players of our generation – LeBron James – as “King James”; the adoption of a monarchical gimmick and kingly imagery by the professional wrestler Triple H from 2006 into the present; the continuing spate of films centered on monarchs such as Elizabeth (1998), King Arthur (2004), The King’s Speech (2010), and Mary Queen of Scots (2018); and the interest in the details of each and every royal wedding.

Current political discourses retain several of the features from the seventeenth and eighteenth century debates regarding the benefits and potential pitfalls of monarchy.  One such fear was that of an overmighty executive who could corrupt the Constitution and make slaves of citizens.  The trend of increasing executive power in the United States has long been recognized by scholars, receiving the attention of academics since the 1960s and its own nomenclature, “The Imperial Presidency” (for the classical articulation of this term, see Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency).  This accumulation of power is often levied against both Democratic and Republican Presidents – though often the accusations of executive tyranny and unconstitutional exercise of power takes a partisan tone  In any case, the increasing power exercised by the American executive has prompted comparisons to monarchy – sometimes arguing that the US has long been an “elected monarchy” without a literal crown and title (David Cannadine, “A Point of View: Is the US President an Elected Monarch?”); other times appropriating the language of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to claim that the President has become an absolute monarch and a tyrant, thus affirming the fears of the Anglo-American world of living in a corrupt society (see David Armitage, “Trump and the Return of Divine Right”; for an example of the potential for increasing executive power in a British political context, see Thomas Poole, “The Executive Power Project”).

However, there are also current arguments for the inherent stability and effectiveness of monarchies.  In a New York Times op-ed from 2016, Count Nikolai Tolstoy argued for the creation of a monarchy in America, based on the current Canadian model, and that “democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy” (“Consider a Monarchy, America”).  Tolstoy is the Chancellor of the International Monarchist League, which seeks to “support the principle of Monarchy.”  For monarchy in the United States, the Center for the Study of Monarchy, Traditional Governance, and Sovereignty was formed to further bolster the position and study of monarchies.  Monarchists have gone so far as to argue that a monarchical system of government, if instituted in the United States, “would be not just a salve for a superpower in political turmoil, but also a stabilizing force for the world at large,” and point to a study showing that, according to economic measures, monarchies outperform other forms of government (“What’s the Cure for Ailing Nations?  More Kings and Queens, Monarchists Say”).  One response to a certain 2016 presidential campaign was to “Make America Great Britain Again” and re-admit the British monarch as the sovereign of the United States – one is left to wonder how flippant this slogan was meant to be.  Indeed, one columnist at the New York Times has argued that Americans have been prone to “clamoring for a king” (Ross Douthat, “Give Us a King!”).

It seems unlikely that any American head of state will wear a crown anytime soon, but it is also difficult to deny the continuation of royal culture in the United States and the increasing relevance of monarchical rhetoric and discourses when discussing its leaders and the state itself; think of our references to the Clintons and Bushes as “dynasties,” the Trump administration being composed of “courtiers,” and the resurgence of scholarship that discusses America in the context of its being an empire (see especially A. G. Hopkins, American Empire: A Global History).  Taken together with the recent scholarship that excavates the importance of monarchy in colonial America, my article attempts to develop the intellectual history of monarchy in the English-speaking world and provide this concept with a more nuanced etiology.

The author wishes to thank Mary Bates, Christine McLeod, and Derek O’Leary for reading earlier drafts of this piece and for their suggestions and comments. 

Zach Bates is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Calgary.  His current dissertation project is a study of the political thought of Scottish colonial administrators in the Atlantic British Empire from 1710 to 1770.  He has been awarded fellowships at the New-York Historical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Huntington Library.  In addition to his work on the intellectual history of the seventeenth and eighteenth century British Empire, he also has an upcoming article on the Sudan in British film during the first half of the twentieth century.  You can reach him via email: