NL XXVII: Force in Politics

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 12, 2018): When persons cannot rule themselves, they are ruled by force, as a duty, by other persons, for the benefit and pleasure of all. Force includes fraud and deceit; but their use must be limited, if those persons who are being ruled by force now will one day join the ruling class themselves. If a liberal and a conservative party take up respectively the ideals of democracy and aristocracy discussed in the last chapter, the parties must understand that each needs the other, in order to engage in the dialectic that aims for the best society. If somebody thinks the two parties waste energy, either in pretending to be in opposition to one another, or in actually being opposed, then that person is effectively wishing for tyranny.


In my last post on the New Leviathan (which was my first for this year), I said Collingwood would discuss the British parliament in Chapter XXVII. That chapter is now my subject.

The ruling class must incorporate new members from time to time, whether anybody thinks about it or not (27. 75). Anybody who does think about it may take up one of two goals (27. 77).

27. 79. To hasten the percolation of liberty throughout every part of the body politic was the avowed aim of the Liberal party; to retard it was the avowed aim of the Conservative party.

27. 8. The relation between them was consciously dialectical. They were not fundamentally in disagreement. Both held it as an axiom that the process of percolation must go on. Both held that given certain circumstances, which might very well change from time to time, there was an optimum rate for it, discoverable within a reasonable margin of error by experiment.

I recalled in the last New Leviathan post the assertion that history is the history of thought. Thought may happen unconsciously. You can think that the franchise ought to be broadened, without being aware that you are thinking this. According to Collingwood, the Liberals were aware, and were aware of what the Conservatives were thinking, and more. These are historical claims, and I am not especially able to assess them independently.

The question may then be raised of Collingwood’s qualifications for making historical claims. Born in 1889, Collingwood was indeed an historian as well as a philosopher; but he was more precisely an archeologist, and his field of expertise was Roman Britain.

I am aware of a professional historian who speaks highly of Collingwood. However, I think Niall Ferguson also has a fundamental misunderstanding of Collingwood’s philosophy. In short, as I wrote in “Re-enactment,” Ferguson does not recognize the distinction between feeling and thought.

As there continue to be debates about what fascism is, I think Collingwood’s words on fascism from An Autobiography are worthy of consideration. Thus I have posted them on this blog.

Meanwhile, in New Leviathan Chapter XXVII, Collingwood provides no evidence for Liberal-party understanding of their role in a dialectical process. He seems to think the Conservatives understood their role better than the Liberals. He cites the example of a Conservative who said he was “a brake on the vehicle of progress,” thus recognizing that progress would continue; he did not say he was a roadblock.

The Liberals did not understand that progress needed a brake as well as a propeller. Collingwood suggests this as the reason why the Liberals were eclipsed by the Labor party. As he admits, “I speak under correction,” and he refers vaguely to “what I remember of Liberals, and from what I know of the literature of Liberalism” (27. 94).

A party may “steal the thunder” of the other party, as the Conservatives under Disraeli are said to have done in the Reform Bill of 1867, which extended the franchise as Liberals traditionally wanted (27. 83).

Perhaps Tony Blair did something similar in the other direction, in my own day. Bill Clinton did it in the United States, by “ending welfare as we know it.” One of the possible objections to Collingwood’s general account of parliamentary dialectics is now relevant:

27. 88. Secondly, that the parties were not rivals; that they merely posed as rivals, wasting energy in a pretence at rivalry. They were combining, says one, to exploit the proletariat. They were combining, says another (or perhaps the same), to bolster up a cretinous parliamentary system; when a party with the courage of its convictions would have defined its policy and carried it out through thick and thin.

Collingwood can only reply that, on the contrary, “the two parties, though agreed on fundamentals, differed in function,” just as prosecutor and defense attorney, while agreeing to pursue justice, pursue it in different ways (27. 89).

Collingwood does not deny that one of the fundamentals agreed to by the two parties is that capitalism must be maintained, so that, in particular, the proletariat must be exploited. However, in the light of his previous chapter, one might observe that there is no pure socialism or capitalism, just as there is no pure democracy or aristocracy.

That was the second of two objections to Collingwood’s dialectical account. Here is the first:

27. 85. From the point of view of one who does not understand that political life is dialectical, it is easy to bring two opposite criticisms against the two-party system. Each criticism conceals a desire for tyranny.

27. 86. First, that the parties are rivals, wasting in friction energy that would be more usefully spent in getting ahead with the work.

I think this was basically the argument for the adoption of Turkey’s new presidential (başkan) system. The old parliamentary system was said to be inefficient, especially through the need for coalition governments. However, I think the “friction” between parties had already been overcome, to a large extent, through the longstanding dominance of a single party. The remaining “friction” was between the parliamentary president (cumhur­başkanı) and the parliament itself.

The first part of New Leviathan Chapter XXVII recalls from Chapter XX that, since the ruling class will not constitute the whole of a body politic, those members of the body who are not in that class must be ruled by force, just as children in a family must be ruled.

Rule by force includes fraud and deceit. The ruler can push these too far. If a lie is found out, the ruler will lose face, and he [sic] must avoid doing that (27. 39). Apparently Hitler was better at this than Mussolini:

27. 43. If you tell the same lie to fifty thousand people, and one of them sees through it, you have backed the wrong horse: you had better not have told that lie.

27. 44. Run the risk of being found out only when you can turn that event into a victory for yourself; which can sometimes be done.

27.45. The contrast between Hitler and Mussolini in this question is very instructive. Both are professed liars, religious in it: but Mussolini, with Latin logic, thought that any lie would do, whereas Hitler knew that your lies must have a basis.

27.46. In the result, Mussolini in 1941 threw away I will not try to say how many empires, which Hitler had to win back; Mussolini revealing himself as the merest puppet whose strings Hitler pulled.

I don’t know what Latin logic is, and I don’t know what kind of logic Donald Trump uses. Collingwood does sometimes seem to suggest that only Englishmen know how to govern themselves properly. We may count this as a wartime attempt to build up patriotic fervor, such as might be seen in some speeches in the Iliad.

Those who cannot rule themselves are ruled by others, for the pleasure (27. 14) and benefit (2.15–17) of all involved. This is an application of the hedonistic principle (27. 24) and the utilitarian principle (27. 25). There is also a duty-principle, whereby the rulers have a duty to rule for the good of the body politic; however, there seems to have been some confusion about this in the editing of Collingwood’s book, since the backwards reference for this principle in 27. 25 is to 27. 18–19, although paragraph 27. 19 does not exist.

It may be a pleasure for children and weak-willed adults to be ruled by others, but the pleasure is not without limits. “In general, it is true, children like being ordered about; but in particular they often dislike this or that order.” This in itself does not mean the child can be allowed to disobey (27. 24).

The utilitarian principle will limit rule by force, simply because, in ways not spelled out, rule by force is not not always useful. There is another limitation, seen in the need not to let lies be discovered. The ruled are ultimately going to be the rulers.

27. 33. In a well-ruled family the parents never forget that the child is a man [sic] in the making, and always treat it not only as the child it is but as potentially the man it is going to be.

27. 34. In a well-ruled body politic the rulers never forget that the ruled are (by the Second Law of Politics) in training to become rulers; and in the meantime (by the Third Law of Politics) must be treated as partaking, in their degree, of the moral freedom or will-power (an intellectual thing) which in an eminent degree is peculiar, by the First Law of Politics, to the rulers.

Government is dialectical, whether people recognize this or not. If they fail to recognize this, they are in error. The error is real and has real consequences.

27. 59. It is dangerous in the sense in which the snakes of delirium are dangerous: not that their bite is to be dreaded, but that they are symptoms of a dangerous condition.

The dangerous condition is the belief that democracy can have triumphed once for all. This can give rise to a panic fear that it has not.

27. 61. That is why a recrudescence of Platonic ‘tyranny’ on a large scale has now taken place.

In Collingwood’s time (the early 1940s), this recrudescence has been especially successful in Italy and Germany, where formal democracies were more or less imposed after the First World War; at least this is how I would paraphrase Collingwood. Attempts to impose democracy have continued to our day, notoriously in Iraq. With Trump as President of the United States, I find myself nostalgic, even for President George W. Bush; but his criminal invasion of Iraq could make one nostalgic for President George H. W. Bush, who, after his own invasion of Iraq, at least left an existing government in place. Back then I read, in Harper’s, Christopher Hitchens’s condemnations of Bush père, and I joined the peace demonstrations in Washington on January 19 and 26, 1991. It is strange to think that Hitchens became a supporter of Bush fils.

Note added December 12, 2018: George H. W. Bush died on November 30 of this year, and Harper’s has recalled some of its articles about him, including a speech in the U.S. Senate by Senator Bill Bradley on July 10, 1991. In a way that recalls to me some of Collingwood’s criticisms, Bradley suggests that Bush has forgotten the dialectical role of his party:

Most Americans recognize that in economic policy Republicans have traditionally sought to reward the rich; Democrats have not. I accept that as part of the lore and debate and rhythm of American politics. What I can’t accept, because it eats at the core of our society, is inflaming racial tension to perpetuate power and then using that power to reward the rich and ignore the poor. It is a reasonable argument about means to say that giving the wealthy more is the price we pay to “lift all boats.” It is cynical manipulation to send messages to white working people that they have more in common with the wealthy than with the black workers next to them on the line, people taking the same physical risks, earning the same pay, struggling to make ends meet. I detest anyone who uses that tactic—whether it is a Democrat like George Wallace or a Republican like David Duke.

Unfortunately some politicians continue to be detestable in this way.

9 Trackbacks

  1. […] « NL XXVII: Force in Politics […]

  2. By NL XXIX: External Politics « Polytropy on September 4, 2018 at 9:36 am

    […] not for an agreement with ‘the forces of reaction’ (as the engine called the brake, 27. 93) but for their […]

  3. By NL XXVIII: The Forms of Political Action « Polytropy on September 12, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    […] summary (added September 12, 2018): Continuing a thought from the previous chapter, we observe that to condemn political discussion is also to wish for tyranny. Though the ruling […]

  4. […] understand that the world was dialectical. They thought two-party systems were a waste of energy (27. 85), like talking about politics at all (28. 2); or they thought democracy could be […]

  5. […] Within a community, civilization means behaving civilly (35. 35), in a sense coming down from ancient Latin (35. 42). It is a negative sense: it means not arousing passions that diminish a person’s self-respect (35. 41). This means not using force on the person (35. 44), as was discussed in Chapter XXVII. […]

  6. By NL XXXIX: Law and Order « Polytropy on September 23, 2018 at 10:10 am

    […] Chapter XXVII, “Force in Politics,” Collingwood refuted the idea that having two political parties was inefficient. The […]

  7. By NL XL: Peace and Plenty « Polytropy on September 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    […] The idea that history would end with the Cold War is ridiculous, though I have not actually read Fukuyama on the subject. Collingwood dealt with this sort of idea in “Force in Politics”: […]

  8. By NL XXVI: Democracy and Aristocracy « Polytropy on January 26, 2019 at 4:08 am

    […] his next chapter, “Force in Politics,” Collingwood will draw conclusions concerning the British parliament. He writes to […]

  9. By Anthropology of Mathematics « Polytropy on October 13, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    […] had been defeated in 1945; but if so, he was mistaken, as Collingwood himself had warned in the New Leviathan […]

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