Political Philosophy


Political Ideas and Developments in the 19th Century

Introduction: The late 18th century.  Liberal enlightenment held an amazing optimism and promise.  The late 18th century saw the publication of many great works all aimed at furthering the Enlightenment project of expanding individual freedom through an increased understanding attained through education and the (appropriate) development of  human reason.

Claude Adrian Helvetius (1715-71) — developed a systematic approach to what would later be   called utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1748-32) — first full account of utilitarianism.  “Utility” is roughly the greatest good for the greatest number.  This provides an objective measure for judging the efficacy of public policies.  In this way Bentham held that politics would become a rational, scientific process.

Adam Smith (1732-90) — wrote Wealth of Nations (1776).  Showed how capitalism could provide for the just distribution of goods in society without the heavy hand of gov’t or the Church getting involved.  The Market itself becomes the distributor.

This was also the period of the French Revolution.  This revolution was perhaps the first true quest for ideals, not a simple bread riot of poor against rich.  It was fundamentally based on respect for the individual and reverence for a politics based on reason.  In addition religious conflicts had subsided, and the American revolution (in the future United States) had offered a model for a secular state that allowed for a variety of different religious beliefs.

Both Smith and the U.S. posited, in some sense, human rights as the foundation of government.

So What Happened?

According to some conservative theorists, like Edmund Burke, the vision of a rational world government by legitimate authority was shattered in 1880.  Burke was critical of human reason and favored traditionalism.  He maintained that the French revolution turned out to be a reign of terror instead of a movement toward rational authority.  By 1799 after the reign of terror and thousands of executions, and numerous struggles for power among those with some degree of control, France came under the control of a military dictator — Napolean Bonaparte.

Burke’s ideas were expressed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Thomas Paine answered Burke’s pessimism, defending the French revolution in his work The Rights of Man (1791).  It was, in fact, at a discussion of this work that Mary Wollstonecraft met William Godwin.  These latter, as we know, also defended the French revolution, Godwin with his Inquiry Concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft with her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Which of these views are correct?  Can human reason and human rights form the foundation of government?  Perhaps popular sovereignty as expressed in Rousseau’s concept of the General Will is not enough to sustain rational and peaceful authority.  Perhaps the realization of Rousseau’s idea simply leads us back to Hobbesian anarchy in the state of nature.  At this point, several thinkers began to re-evaluate Rousseau’s theory of the General Will in light of conservative criticism, since this idea served as the foundation for the French revolution.  One of the most important of these thinkers was G. W. F. Hegel.

Hegel (1770 -1831)

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich : German idealist philosopher, who became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Hegel was born in Stuttgart Prussia.  Entered a theological seminary (University of Tübingen) in 1788 (at 18) and graduated in 1792 (at 22).  He went to the University of Jena (Germany) in 1800 and finished his dissertation in philosophy in 1801.  He became a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg in 1816.  In 1818 he bacame a professor at the University of Berlin.

Expressivism — At the begining of the French revolution, while a theology student, Hegel was a member of a loose association of intellectuals known as the expressivists.  The essential characteristic of the expressivists was their reaction against the view of human knowledge espoused by the empiricists.

Empiricism — the world around us is objective and as subjects we simply participate in the world.  That is, we take no part in forming the fundamental character of the world.  They held that there is a radical separation between subject and object.  (Fundamentally, what would become known as a philosophy of alienation.) They also focused on individual rights as the locus of freedom.

Expressivism — (1) when a subject/person encounters something and names it there is a reciprocal process taking place between the object and the subject naming it.  Naming things makes them real and in a sense objective (actual for the human understanding).  In some sense the object being named speaks to us about its place in the world — its place in the world is revealed through the process of naming.  The world is not simply out there already objectively set.

(2) human language allows humans to actually construct reality, not simply report an existing objective order.  Language creates the world.

(3) The empiricist model creates a distinction between perception as bodily and language as mental.  This creates the mind/body dualism which alienates humans from their own bodies.

These ideas were fundamentally political, and need to be understood this way.  The expressivists believed that more and more of society was coming to symbolize our separation and radical alienation from nature, other humans, and ourselves.

The expressivists believed that under the empiricist notion of knowledge, subject and object are separated so humans are indeed distanced from the things around them (e.g. nature) — and here one might  notice the similarity with the problem that Einstein and Huxley discussed.  Thus, humans began to exploit nature and fail to see its beauty and significance.  In addition the empiricist conception ignored the co-responsibility of humans in community and thus tended to ignore the common interests shared among all humans, and instead focused almost exclusively on private interests.

The empiricist politics (Locke and Smith) thus became a pursuit of private gain — destroying, or at least curtailing, the possibility of ethical life/

Ethical life — humans united with themselves, overcoming alienation.

The goal of expressivism: they wanted to “find themselves at home in the world” instead of seeing the world as radically other than themselves.  Their ideal was Pre-Socratic Athens.  Here individuals were guided by civic virtue and identified as individual members of a larger community.  Problems began, they thought, when reflective reason began to dominate human life. Note also, that the Ancient Greeks had a socio-religious culture.

The expressivists, as you might think, liked Rousseau.  He was critical of the modern world for its depletion of ethical life, which for him was tied to an identification with community.  The proper human “love of self” had degenerated into “selfish pride.”  The result was competition, envy and the pursuit of fame at the expense of virtue.  Thus Rousseau developed the idea of the General Will which would overcome the difference between individuals and community interests:

— citizens who agreed unanimously on the forms of government

— engaged actively and continuously in political discussions

Hegel’s goal: Like other expressivists Hegel was distraught with the results of the French revolution.  Unlike some of his colleagues however Hegel refused to retreat in either of the two most common directions:

1) Retreat from political action to a life of mere contemplation (thought without action).

2) Retreat from contemplation to a callous struggle for power (action without thought)

He held on to the Aristotelian notion that the ethical life is a life of thoughtful political action, to give up on politics was to give up on ethical life.

Dialectic — His most important contribution to philosophy.  History is the working out of contradiction, the contradiction between what humans thought they were and what they actually were.  The dialectic is the progression to human freedom, realized only when what ought to be actually is (ethical life, sittlichkeit), only when humans are fully reunited with themselves and the world around them.  Each side of the contradiction contained some element of truth, and this element was to be salvaged as the contradictions of each historical epoch were overcome (Aufhebung).  Example, master/slave, stoicism, scepticism.  This is the beginning of the history of self-consciousness.

Geist: reason, spirit, mind.  Originally spirit and matter (subject and object together), now differentiated form this original condition.  The history of human beings and the world is the history of the search for unity, the search for freedom, for one form of Geist (humans) to achieve ethical life, to be at home in the world united with nature and other humans in ethical community.  This state is absolute freedom.

Hegel on the French Revolution “absolute freedom and the terror” (the title of his section in the Phenomenology of Spirit)   H. saw the f.r. as a drive for absolute freedom — freedom from all the superstitions and institutions that prevented the realization of human freedom and the use of human knowledge.  Once freed form the chains of monarchy the sharedness of human consciousness would lead everyone to recognize individual interests within a community.  This would produce a General Will immediately understandable by all.

Although the quest for absolute freedom recognizes shared consciousness among human beings (universal equality, in some form) when put into action it is evidently flawed.

— human interests are not identical (individuals can disagree about social policies)

— what works in theory may not always work in practice.  The general will is not going to immediately transform the abstract General Will into concrete social policy.

When the General Will was not actualized the leaders were blamed and accused of ruling for their private interests only.  After the terror of the f. r. the expressivists split into two groups:

(1) those who retreated from the world abandoning political action, accepting only reflection as authentic for maintaining ethical life.

(2) those who rejected the goal of ethical life as utopian and surrendered to the idea that political action must be based on self-interest and power.

Hegel wanted to maintain both thought and action and looked to the modern state to rescue ethical life.

Hegel’s aim was to set forth a philosophical system so comprehensive that it would encompass the ideas of his predecessors and create a conceptual framework in terms of which both the past and future could be philosophically understood. Such an aim would require nothing short of a full account of reality itself. Thus, Hegel conceived the subject matter of philosophy to be reality as a whole. This reality, or the total developmental process of everything that is, he referred to as the Absolute, or Absolute Spirit. According to Hegel, the task of philosophy is to chart the development of Absolute Spirit. This involves (1) making clear the internal rational structure of the Absolute; (2) demonstrating the manner in which the Absolute manifests itself in nature and human history; and (3) explicating the teleological nature of the Absolute, that is, showing the end or purpose toward which the Absolute is directed.

 The 19th century: Industrialization & the New Left

19th century England — Industry, Expansion, Reform

1800-25           Alternate periods of commercial slump and boom

1813                            British East India Company redefined, monopoly on trade abolished, new commodities and new markets available

1825                            Trade unions legalized

1833                            Factory act: child labor limited

1834                            Slavery abolished in British Isles, labor market expands

1844-45                     “Railway Mania” — 5,000 miles of track laid in England

1845                            Agrarian Reformers in America (U.S.): Young Americans secret society

1847                            The “ten-hour” bill, England.  Limited factory work to 10 hrs/day.

1848                            Public Health Act: controls over water, drains, sewers, slaughter houses.

Communist Manifesto published

1870                            Women’s property act: womens’ ownership of land extended and protected.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Born in Trier, Rhineland (the same year Hegel moved to the University of Berlin).  Marx’s parents converted to Lutheranism (from Judaism) because Marx’s father thought that this would make it easier for his sons to have careers in the legal profession.

1841: Marx completes his dissertation at the University of Jena

1843: Moves to Paris, meets Friedrich Engels, begins collaboration.

Intellectual Motivation and Background of Marx’s Thought

Marx and Hegel: Marx arrived at berlin while Hegel’s philosophy project (esp.  Social phil.)  Was still dominant.  Those who wanted to continue the Hegalian project broke into two groups

(1) Right Hegalians — emphasized the role of religion in Hegel’s philosophy and wanted to protect the Christian state from becoming secular.

(2) Young (Left) Hegalians — emphasized power of social criticism to bring about social reform.

Marx aligned himself with the young Hegalians and attacked Prussian society for

— lack of democratic practices

— failure of the state to grant full citizenship to all (e.g. Jews)

— inability of the state to deal with social inequalities caused by capitalism and industrialization

Young Hegalians sought to achieve the same goal aimed at by Hegel and the expressivists:

Goal — to achieve a world in which humans were at home with themselves, others and nature.

*   *   *   *

Europe in the 1830’s was much different than the Eurpoe that Hegel experienced.  Now there were two (2) distinct classes:

— owners of production

— workers

In addition Europe at this time was experiencing a rapid increase in the number of poor.  The Modern state seemed only to serve the interests of the wealthy and was thus miles away from the “manifestation of the universality of human consciousness” (a free human freedom) that it was supposed to achieve according to Hegel.  The capitalist economy was not as beneficial as Adam Smith and other economists had predicted.  In addition it seemed as though the Hegalian model was not able to provide for rational social criticism of the modern state.

Marx’s political theory: Marx began his critique of the modern state and Hegel, by reading Ludwig Feuerbach’s book The Essence of Christianity.  Feuerbach makes two claims in that work, both of which Marx was to endorse:

1. Religion is a dream of the human mind.  It was created to serve as the expression of the universality of human consciousness.  Religion served to promote and maintain a bond that recognized the essential connection between all humans.  However, religion had served its purpose and now only serves to hinder the development of human thought and action

2. We must not only focus on the study of consciousness abstracted from the material conditions in which it exists (as Hegelians do), we must study how material conditions determine consciousness and the decisions it makes.  So questions about human nature, social relations, and the distribution of goods are to be resolved by scientific examination of history, and not abstract speculation about human rights based on religion.

Critique of the Modern State: Marx writes an essay entitled “On the Jewish Question.” In the 1840’s jews were still denied access to certain professions and public offices.  Liberal social reformers argued for the separation of Religion from politics and that religion should be a private matter, reserved for the individual in civil society.  For Marx this was only half correct, we need to look beyond this political emancipation to real human emancipation.

Thus, Marx saw two problems in the modern (Hegelian) state:

(1) The division between public and private (political realm and economic realm).  Although useful in casting off religion from the political sphere, this division actually served to create a schizophrenic individual: in the public realm people were supposed to be ethical and display the civic virtues, in the private realm they were supposed to be amoral and selfish.  Thus human lived two lives and the two were never connected.

(2) The modern state did not deal with the vast inequalities in society.  The rights of the wealthy were more protected than the rights of the poor.  Hegel’s state was too abstract and ignored the harsh conditions of social reality (i.e. the inequalities).  While the state pretended to be universal it was actually a bourgeois state, more concerned to protect the interests of the wealthy.

The modern state was therefore not the end of history as Hegel had argued [this is according to Marx, Hegel did not actually make this claim] but another historical period that must be overcome.  The state became the guardian of a specific group — the bourgeois and its rights.  And if there was going to be a true ethical life the state had to “wither away.”

At this point we need to explain Marx’s criticism of natural rights (i.e. Locke’s position) as only serving to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie — rights of security, etc., are not natural they are a function of capitalist society, a part of its justificatory superstructure.  We will do this at a later date, along with a brief rundown of periods of history.

The Proletariat as the agents of change: Marx had now to find the agents of change — the agents of human progress.  He did this through an interpretation of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic, and then by examining the stages of history.  In feudal society, according to Marx, there is no distinction between public and private.  The interests of the lord and serf are intertwined through mutual obligations.  The Bourgeois revolution spilt this unity and severed the tie (through capitalism) between the serf and the lord.  Tehre was no longer any relationship between owner and workers; workers were not just a commodity to be bought and sold for their labor.

The exploited worker now played the role of Hegel’s slave — the fact that they worked in the world would increase their knowledge and awareness of the universal interests of all humans.  The Proletariat would thus lead the revolution against the capitalist state.

The Thought of Karl Marx

Terms & Ideas:

Materialism — material nature of human beings is primary, spiritual and intellectual attributes are secondary.  Humans must live before they can think.

Historical Materialism — Hegel saw history as the development of human consciousness as expressed in historical institutions.  Marx saw this as upside down.  Ideas are not the motive forces of history.  Since how people live and produce determines what they think the key to history is found in the material form of production, in economic rather than ideological factors.

Base and Superstructure

economic base                                                                         forces of production                           relations of production

Means of production (material)          Ownership

Modes of production (manner)


superstructure                          social relations             social institutions        ideological forms

State                                                    Religion

Schools                                    Philosophy

Church                                                Art

Periods of Human History

1.  Primitive communal society: precedes written records, property held in common, people lived communally.  No private property, no class divisions, no expoitation or oppression of one group by another.  All lived in poverty.

2.  Slave-Holding society: two fundamental classes.  Slave holders and slaves.  Shareholders establish institutions to protect their property, purposes and interests.  Pass laws and establish police force to protect their property.

3.  Feudalism: Slaves no longer efficient, replaced by serfs.  As the economic base changes so does the superstructure (Philosophy, religion, etc.).

4.  Capitalism: Large-scale productive forces develop.  Industrial revolution is incompatible with feudal social relations.  As these are all affected (caused?) by economic based (i.e. relations of production), they must necessarily change.

  • Rise of the merchant class
  • Rise of middle class (Bourgeoisie)
  • Rise of democracy (anti-monarchy)
  • rise of individualism: political rights, natural rights, property rights

5.  Communism: Capitalism contains a basic opposition (contradiction).  The relations of production are private but the forces of production are socialized.  That is, many people are involved in the productivity of capitalism, but only a few share the profits.  Thus, ownership must become social in order to overcome this opposition.  This is the “logic or revolution.”

The economic base determines the superstructure, but the superstructure can have an effect on the economic based.  (According to Marx, the superstructure can never determine the based.)  For example, through legislation a government can influence and effect the base, that govt. may succeed in preventing the development of the productive forces of society.  A government would do this if it foresaw that the continuing development of the productive forces would threaten its position.  But ultimately the productive forces (base) wins out.

Socialism and Communism

Socialism — “From each according to their ability, to each according to their work.”  This is the first phrase of communism.  Everyone is required to work but rewards are proportional to what one produces.  Great gaps between haves and have-nots are eliminated as are classes and class structures.  Inequalities would still exist, but exploitation would be eliminated.

Communism — “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”  All contribute what they can, and receive what they require.  Since exploitation, domination, and private ownership of the MOP’s has dissapeared there is no more need for the state.  Marx never specifies how the society should be run however.


The Communist Manifesto (1848)

1. Background

  • Political upheaval in Europe
  • Industrial revolution begins in England
  • 18th-19th cent.  England transformed from agrarian to industrial nation
  • old feudal system of landed nobility declines
  • capitalism takes over, middle class emerges
  • worst oppression in history
  • Middle class own and control the means of production, compete among themselves for low prices and quality goods

2.  The Problem

The idea is that human society will make us all better off, but it is not.

True equality requires (re-)distribution of wealth (capital)

Dialectic, history of humankind is a history of class struggle

Class struggle continues until classless (equal) society evolves

This requires that industries (means of production) be owned by the workers who produce the products

3.  The solution: a new social order must emerge, but why will Proletariat revolt?

  1. Work in bourgeois world has lost its individual character
  2. Profit/gain is the only motive to manufacture, there is no interest in product or the worker
  3. Exploitation of the worker (creation of proletariat consciousness)
    1. Used like machines by industrialists
    2. Paid low wages because they must work to survive
    3. Exploited by landlords, shopkeepers, etc. (Sec. I, ¶34)
  4. Expansion of the proletariat (Sec. I, ¶35)
    1. Competition forces some bourgeois into working class
    2. Old ruling class cannot keep up, forced into lower class
    3. Tradesmen, shopkeepers must eventually join workforce to survive
  5. Dehumanizing of the proletariat
    1. Stripped of family basis and national character
    2. Law, morality, religion no longer have any meaning for the workers
    3. No property or capital of their own

(1)               Workers mix their labor with the property (ala Locke’s criteria for property acquisition) but are denied claims to property — claims equal to their work.

4.  The four stages of the Proletariat Revolution

A. Preparation class of proletariat grows larger (contains members of other classes, due to economic harship)

Proletariat become aware of themselves as a class, obtain class consciousness.  They see their place in history, they realize the steps they must take.

B. Seizure of Power Economic depression prevails.  Economic hardshipc ontinues, and worsens.  During these periods the opportunity to seize power offers itself.  The seizure of power will be worldwide because the capitalist depression is worldwide.

The seizure is not necessarily violent, but it may be.  The proletariat could come to power through the formation of a political party.  Seizure of power is not the same as a revolution.  The revolt is instituted by the seizure of power.  What happen next is the revolution.

C. Class Dictatorship of the Proletariat   what the working class will do once it seizes power.  Power can be seized by elections, “Wrest by degrees all capital.”  Productive property must be taken from the bourgeoisie.  It is not their money that is taken, only e.g. the railroads, factories, etc.  Everything that is part of the means of production.

The class dictatorship does not have to involve bloodshed.  Property is taken forcibly, but perhaps gradually, by degrees.  End result is the complete takeover of property from the bourgeois owners.  This will break the distinction between owners and workers.

D. Classless Society  The state will eventually lose all of its power because political power is used only to oppress other classes (i.e. protect property).  Political power will lose its character because there will be no more classes.  The key idea of the class dictatorship of the proletariat is “ruthless” taking of all property )means of production), ultimately replaced by the classless society.  The long-term goal of the class dictatorship is to dissolve itself over time — at that point there will be no classes.

 Communist Manifesto (1848): Some Main Points

Section I

History of all hitherto existing society has been a history of class struggle.  (¶1)

Modern bourgeois society has not done away with all class antagonisms, but has established new classes (¶5)

Bourgeoisie must continually revolutionize the instruments of production, relations of production, etc., in order to out-produce competitors.  This presents a problem of instability.  (¶14-19)

— all fixed relations are swept away

— all new relations become antiquated before they have a chance to ossify

— bourgeoisie must therefore expand its effects and become universal, the revolution with therefore be universal

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie destroyed feudalism will be used against itself.  It brought these weapons into existence.  Weapons such as:

— private property rights

— liberty

— security

— efficiency (i.e. greater production, etc.)

It has also brought into existence the people who will yield these weapons against capitalism, the proletariat.  (¶27-29)

The bourgeoisie is unfit to be the ruling class in society and impose the conditions of existence on society because (¶52, penultimate)

— they cannot ensure an existence to the slave within his slavery

— the bourgeoisie must feed the slave instead of being fed by the slave (i.e. must create the welfare state, even though they do not want it!)

The bourgeoisie therefore produces its own grave diggers.  All of the above, and the revolt of the proletariat, is due to the development of modern industry, to the goal of capitalism.  (¶53, last sentences)

Section II

The aim of communism:

formation of the proletariat into a self-conscious class

overthrow of bourgeois supremacy (ownership is private vs. production is social)

conquest of political power by the proletariat

Distinguishing features of communism:

abolition of bourgeois property

abolition, therefore, of system of producing products and appropriating products based on class antagonisms — the exploitation of the many by the few


Communism deprives no person of the power to appropriate the products of society, it deprives them only of the power to subjugate labor of any others by way of appropriation


A Dozen Bourgeois Questions:

1.  Are communists a separate party from the proletariat?

2.  Are communist principles derived from armchair (universal, abstract) revolutionaries?

3.  Do communists want to abolish the right of personally acquiring property?

4.  Do communists want to abolish individuality and freedom?

5.  Does communism deprive a person of appropriating the products of society?

6.  Does communism promote universal laziness?

7.  Do communists promote the disappearance of culture?

8.  Do communists promote the abolition of the family?

9.  Do communists promote the abolition of education?

10. Do communists promote an effeminate society?

11. Do communists promote the abolition of countries and nationalities?

12.  Are communists against God and human rights?

* * * * * *

The first step in the proletariat revolution is the establishment of democracy — the working class raised to “the position” of the ruling class.

The stages of the revolution will be different in different countries, but in the most industrially advanced countries it will follow these steps according to Marx:

[List of ten steps at the end of section II]

At its completion —

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

(Compare Marx’s sense of “association” here with that set out in Bk. 1, Ch. 5 of Rousseau’s Social Contract)


Section III

Socialist and Communist Literature: The beginning of literary criticism

Distinctions in terms of (a) in which historical direction their ideals point, (b) who’s interests they serve.  For instance, it becomes crucial to ask “what is it that conservatives wish to conserve?”  The answer will distinguish different kinds of reactionaries.


1.  Reactionary Socialism: not progressive

A. Feudal Socialism — Aristocrats against the bourgeoisie.

B. Petty Bourgeois Socialism — Petty bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie.

C. German “True” Socialism — Appears to transcend class antagonisms through philosophical or scientific analysis, but it is in the end an anti-intellectual (Philistine) defense of petty bourgeois life.

2.  Conservative/Bourgeois Socialism: not progressive

Apparently progressive (forward-looking), but is actually so only in word.  Accepts the rhetoric, and is willing to make minimal concessions, but denies the goal.

3.  Critical-Utopian Socialism: progressive, but impractical

Progressive (forward-looking), but in idea only.  Impractical because not based in the actual struggle.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *