NL XXXIII: Decline of the Classical Politics

Index to this series

Lacking the experience of social and political life mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, Germans could not understand the classical politics. German communities were non-social (33. 32). What experience those communities did have of freedom was despised (33. 5). When Marx converted Hegel’s dialectical idealism into the equally nonsensical dialectical materialism (33. 91), he sought only to teach what materialism entailed: that there was no such thing as freedom of will (33. 97).

Such is the gist of Collingwood’s argument, in Chapter XXXIII of the New Leviathan. Put more crudely, “They hate our freedoms.” That is what George W. Bush said, before invaded and occupying a country with doubtful connection to the persons accused of doing the hating. Collingwood had effectively said the same thing, but to cheer on a war against a country that, by force of arms, had already occupied much of Europe.

On Twitter I have encountered an argument that the Holocaust was the result, not of an all-powerful state as such, but of a state’s destruction of institutions—associations—in other countries. This is by Timothy Snyder (apparently a student of Timothy Garton Ash) in the Guardian (Wed 16 Sep 2015):

It was this double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, that created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder…

The Holocaust spread insofar as states were weakened, but no further. Where political structures held, they provided support and means to people who wished to help Jews. Throughout Europe, but to different degrees in different places, German occupation destroyed the institutions that made ideas of reciprocity seem plausible. Where Germans obliterated conventional states, or annihilated Soviet institutions that had just destroyed conventional states, they created the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness. In this black hole, Jews were murdered. When Jews were saved, it was often thanks to people who could act on behalf of a state or by institutions that could function like a state. When none of the moral illumination of institutions was present, kindness was all that remained, and the pale light of the individual rescuers shone.

Hitler preached the need for Lebensraum, so that Germans could have an American standard of living. Global warming will bring out similar preaching, if it hasn’t already.

Since the Holocaust is an axial event of modern history, its misunderstanding turns our minds in the wrong direction. When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary. On the political right, the erosion of state power by international capitalism seems natural; on the political left, rudderless revolutions portray themselves as virtuous…

In an era of climate change, the rightwing version of anarchy, economic libertarianism, may pose the more pertinent danger…

American failure to understand the Second World War has already led to the disaster of Bush:

A misunderstanding about the relationship between state authority and mass killing underlay an American myth of the Holocaust that prevailed in the early 21st century: that the US was a country that intentionally rescued people from the genocides caused by overweening states. Following this reasoning, the destruction of a state could be associated with rescue rather than risk. One of the errors of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the belief that regime change must be creative. The theory was that the destruction of a state and its ruling elite would bring freedom and justice. In fact, the succession of events precipitated by the illegal invasion of a sovereign state confirmed one of the unlearned lessons of the history of the second world war.

Snyder’s long article is taken from his book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Collingwood’s polemics on the decline of the classical politics ought to be justified in detail in a book. As it is, his chapter does provide a few details. While Europeans elsewhere associated spontaneously to form universities, in German lands popes and princes had to “impose” universities (33. 51), which were only for their own glorification (33. 25). The Reformation introduced not freedom of worship, but the principle cuius regio eius religio (33. 51), “whose the rule, his the religion.”

The core of Collingwood’s account begins with the origin of the title of his book.

33. 4. Hobbes had inaugurated the classical politics by asserting that ‘that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth,…is but an artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended’ (Leviathan, p. 1).

“Kant and his successors, if they had known this passage, would have thought it nonsense and blasphemous nonsense” (33. 42), because (1) there being no free social activity, the “artificial man” cannot exist; (2) what does exist, the state, is not artificial, but natural.

However, Hobbes’s idea, developed into the classical politics, can be expressed in two clauses:

  1. There is indeed something natural (the state of nature, obviously).
  2. We can collaborate to rise from this.

The Germans miss seeing the first clause, while rejecting the second clause. That is how I understand Collingwood’s argument, spelled out as follows.

33. 43. The Germans who insisted with Hegel on the ‘objective’ character of the social and political ‘spirit’, or with Marx on the indifference of the economic order to the consciousness of those involved in it, were offering their disciples what professed to be a criticism of the classical politics but was in fact only a statement of their inability to understand it.

33. 44. For the classical politicians had already insisted, even to damnable iteration, on this same idea; the idea of a non-social community or what they called a ‘state of nature’ whose existence, they added, did not prevent the men engaged in it from collaborating in the creation of a social life.

33. 45. The Hegelian and Marxian ‘criticism’ of the classical politics was a reiteration of the first clause in the belief (incredible as it must appear) that it was a novelty, complicated by a denial of the second.

The Germans denied the second clause, not because they had no experience of free joint activity (33. 49), but because what they knew of it horrified them. This is Collingwood’s claim, backed up by a quotation from the Imitation of Christ (33. 5):

It is a great matter to live in obedience; to be under a superior and not to be at our own disposal. It is much safer to obey than to command.

There is no further explanation for why such a teaching should be appealling; but then perhaps no explanation is needed. What is strange is that people ever assert their freedom at all. We recall that, by the account in Chapter XIII, “Choice,” the assertion of free will in the individual is the accepting of unhappiness (13. 29); it is thus “a kind of suicide,” or self-denial (13. 3).

13. 4. There is no sense in asking, when a man is found behaving in this way, ‘why’ he does it. The word ‘why’ has many well-established senses; none is appropriate here.

Thomas à Kempis did give a reason why one should live obedient to a superior. There is no reason why one shouldn’t. Some persons don’t anyway.

Collingwood wishes the Germans could “could fill up the fatal lacuna in the classical politics by adding to it the one thing it needed, a theory of the non-social community” (33. 53). Since they lived in such a community, this meant they lacked the freedom of will needed for rational thinking, needed in turn to develop a theory (33. 55). One might as well ask an unconscious person for a theory of unconsciousness (33. 54).

The Germans did not lack free will; they repressed it. They had a tradition of herd-worship, a combination of ancestor-worship and autocrat-worship (33. 35). This coexisted with “the Western European tradition of scientific thought,” but only under strain (33. 62). The reference to strain here recalls pertinent observations in An Essay on Metaphysics (pages 74–5):

The dynamics of history is not yet completely understood when it is grasped that each phase is converted into the next by a process of change. The relation between phase and process is more intimate than that. One phase changes into another because the first phase was in unstable equilibrium and had in itself the seeds of change, and indeed of that change. Its fabric was not at rest; it was always under strain. If the world of history is a world in which tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse, the analysis of the internal strains to which a given constellation of historical facts is subjected, and of the means by which it ‘takes up’ these strains, or prevents them from breaking it in pieces, is not the least part of an historian’s work.

In accounting for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon fails “by depicting the Antonine period as a Golden Age, that is, an age containing no internal strains whatever.” However,

If Hegel’s influence on nineteenth-century historiography was on the whole an influence for good, it was because historical study for him was first and foremost a study of internal strains, and this is why he opened the way to such brilliant feats as that analysis of internal strains in nineteenth-century economic society which entitles Karl Marx to the name of a great historian.

By constrast, Oswald Spengler is “deservedly forgotten” because he “deliberatedly ironed out all the strains” in the history he took up.

There is no reason to think Collingwood changed his mind about Hegel and Marx in the year or two between writing An Essay on Metaphysics and the New Leviathan. People are complicated.

Under the strain imposed by herd-worship in German lands, natural science could be carried on (33. 65); history, with more difficulty (33. 67). However, “In the political and social sciences herd-worship is fatal” (33. 7). Nietszche knew there was a problem (33. 72).

Herd-worship has been called state-worship, but this terminology is a mistake (33. 75). That it is a mistake can be inferred from Marx:

33. 79. His doctrine that ‘the state’ was destined to ‘wither away’ (25. 33) proves that he had no conception of a ruling class, the thing which Machiavelli called a ‘state’. When Marx says ‘state’ he means ‘non-social community’. His socialism, based negatively on the traditional German hatred of freedom and hence of the ‘capitalists’ who are, for him, the chief representatives of freedom in European history, is based positively on the traditional German worship of the herd, and culminates in an act whereby the believer offers himself and everything he has in sacrifice to the adored object. The God of Marxism is a jealous God, and will have no rivals.

Collingwood continues with more rhetoric, along the lines sketched earlier, concerning “the oddest freak of Marx’s intellect, his so-called dialectical materialism” (33. 8). Meanwhile, it seems Marx errs to think capitalists are the “the chief representatives of freedom in European history.” Who then are the chief representatives? I suppose they are anybody who participates in a society in the proper sense; and there have been such persons since Roman times, at least in the countries that fell under Roman rule. In Chapter XIX, Collingwood mentions names like “ ‘the Co-operative Wholesale Society’, ‘the Royal Society’, ‘County Society’ ” (19. 58). Perhaps it is the spirit of these that is supposed to win the war.

Collingwood goes on being critical of Marx’s understanding of history:

33. 98. Marx hated the ‘bourgeois’ because (having forgotten, if he had ever known, what feudalism was) he thought of the bourgeois as a man specially addicted to entering into free partnerships: the kind of man who ‘knows he is free, and there’s an end on’t’ (13. 17). Marx’s loyalty to the German tradition of herd-worship makes him spew out of his mouth as a sinner and a blasphemer whoever thus thinks and thus acts.

I suppose the bourgeois is not “specially addicted” to being social; he is social, and this is to the good. But then, need I recall the argument of the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism has been to the good? It’s time is only now over.

I recall the quick review of two millenia of history at the end of Chapter XXXI, reviewing the social developments that have been to the benefit of humanity:

31. 92. Just as the mathematics inherited from ancient Greece formed part of the armature of the classical physics only because it still lived as an integral part of modern mathematics together with new developments of it like analytical geometry and the differential calculus, so the Roman law of society formed part of the armature of the classical politics only because partnership was a thing with which, in various forms, the people who created and accepted the classical politics were very familiar, a thing whose working they knew by personal experience: not only out of Roman law books, but out of the ‘bourgeois’ life of medieval and post-medieval Europe.

31. 93. This experience, partly reinforcing and partly correcting what those books told them, was derived from the partnerships of medieval and modern economic life (land-tenure, industry, finance, and so forth), the partnerships of medieval and modern craft and education (universities and other guilds), the partnerships of modern religion (especially the sects of nonconformist christianity), and the partnerships of modern political life (political ‘parties’). It is by correcting the ideas of the Roman civilians in the light of this long medieval and modern experience of partnership in many different forms that I have been able (20. 6 seqq.) so to modify those ideas as to bring the central notion they express into harmony with the modern European use of words.

I cannot explain the focus in the New Leviathan on Marx, unless it has to do with Soviet collaboration with Hitler. Perhaps Collingwood is trying to live down the rumors that, since he came back with a beard from his Mediterranean cruise with students, he must have gone communist.

Having come to the end of the part of the book called “Society,” and returning to Istanbul tomorrow, I am likely to take a break from writing articles about Collingwood.

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  1. […] Chapter XXXIII of the New Leviathan, on the German failure to understand the classical politics, Collingwood […]

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