Friday, June 10, 2016

The Light and Shadow Cast by Philosophy on Political Praxis (revolutionary or otherwise)

Both “Kantian moral freedom and the rhetoric of prophetic nationalism emerged from Rousseau’s effort to internalize Hobbesian sovereignty….” This apparently “puzzling feature of Rousseau’s political thought has in fact “inspired two projects that seem different and opposed to one another. John Rawls finds in Rousseau the basic framework for the Kantian-liberal project of constructing a legitimate state around the [hypothetical] consent of morally autonomous individuals united in a conception of public reason. But others find in the same political theory arguments for a more romantic politics in which strong and prerational passions –patriotic and nationalistic—sentiments of belonging—play a central role.” — Bryan Garsten in Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press, 2006)

It is the latter interpretation of Rousseau’s “transformation of Hobbesian sovereignty” that Jonathan Israel* attributes to the authoritarian populism (which culminated in ‘the Terror’) of Marat and Robespierre, as it subordinated reason to popular will and the common man’s feelings. This raises a topic broached by one of my former teachers: “It is … one thing to stress the impact of ideas and opinions on policies and actions. It is quite another matter to single out certain thinkers or theories or concepts as responsible for what they could neither have visualized nor intended in all its implications.” In brief, yes, aspects of Rousseau’s thought had a pernicious influence on the likes of Marat and Robespierre, but we cannot place “the entire burden of blame” on Rousseau’s political philosophy for the ruthless repression of Montagnard rule (save the Dantonists), thereby condemning Rousseau by Robespierre, any more than we should condemn Marx by Stalin. It is no doubt true that “Robespierrisme—in religious policy just as in education, in its views on women, black emancipation, constitutional theory, press freedom, and individual rights—everywhere clashed with the Revolution’s essential principles and, above all, the Rights of Man,” but that should not mean we reduce Rousseau’s political thought to its influence on Robespierrisme: “In pleading against the tyrannical and tragic consequence of isms and systems, we may foist too easily the entire burden of blame upon those very thinkers whose theories were most vulnerable to distortion as well as exploitation.”**

* See his “veritable tour de force,” Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton University Press, 2014).
** Raghavan Iyer, Utilitarianism and All That (Chatto & Windus, 1960).


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