March 16, 2010

Pufendorf the socialist

Socialist has not always meant what it means today. To be a socialist was not to be in favour of a higher income tax or a higher rate of public spending in the seventeenth century. It meant, as Istvan Hont argues in one of his articles in the Jealousy of Trade, his new fantastic collection (and much of the argument of the following is borrowed from it), that you believed there was some kind of innate instinct in man to form society. The most famous socialist was Hugo Grotius, the Dutch philosopher, who had argued that there was a natural law which bound all mankind. Grotius's theories were demolished though in the mid-seventeenth century by the English man Thomas Hobbes. In his Leviathan (published 1650) Hobbes argued that such a concept was unneeded to explain the state. The state for Hobbes was the product of three human behaviours: the first was that human beings were all equal, the second that human beings lived in a condition of natural scarcity and the third that human beings were driven not by reason but by passion and desire. These three things led to a state of nature where life was 'nasty, brutish and short' and which could only be made pleasant by the creation of an autocracy.

One of the leading thinkers who argued against Hobbes whilst acknowledging his influence was the German Samuel Pufendorf. Pufendorf wanted to reinstate the idea of sociability- the sense that Grotius had had that men came together in society because society suited men- but he had to do so using a Hobbesian method. Pufendorf started therefore with a problem with the pre-existing discourse. He suggested that any dichotomy between nature and society was a false one. It missed out the central fact about man- his helplessness without a community and his power within a community. Granted this fact, Pufendorf argued that community was natural. He explained the growth of inequality as a product of changes in society. Originally men lived together in moderation, natural scarcity and the rise of population led to the creation of a communal state, that fell apart under the Hobbesian pressure of ego and that disruption led to the creation of the modern propertied state. You will notice that it is only at the second stage that Pufendorf acknowledges the role of Hobbes's dynamic, the first steps into society are taken out of man's natural needs not because of his fears.

This is a very brief summary- but what the debate showed is how much seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers had invested in what we would term anthropology. This doesn't only go for Hobbes and Pufendorf but for Hume and Vico amongst others. Hobbes's state would look very different from Pufendorf's: as he only recognised the dynamic of Leviathan, his state derived its authority solely from that and no citizen had a right against it. Pufendorf's position allowed citizens a claim against the state because it was a later creation than the original society which surrounded it. Also the argument demonstrates neatly how the disciplines that we all live with today were often created as a route around arguments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries about the nature of man. Reinterpreted some of Pufendorf's argument would be taken up by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations- other attempts against Hobbes were made anticipating anthropological insights (see Vico). Lastly I think it throws into relief the huge influence of Thomas Hobbes: whoever you were in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century he was one of the thinkers to engage with. He still matters today- Oakeshott, Schmidt, Strauss and others have based parts of their philosophy or account of philosophy on a close reading of Hobbes.

In the transition from one type of socialist to another, only one thing is constant, the provocative nature of the book named Leviathan.

3 comments:

Dave Cole said...

There's quote from someone I can't remember that I like:

I read Hobbes with a sense of despairing infirmity. The others I have at shot at equalling, but Hobbes reminds me how far above the others he is.

(more or less an accurate quote)

James Higham said...

Socialist has not always meant what it means today. To be a socialist was not to be in favour of a higher income tax or a higher rate of public spending in the seventeenth century.

That's true. I wish I had the chance currently to come in with a fuller comment and to speak of House and Warburg et al who changed it all from what Marx intended into State socialism.

Gracchi said...

I don't think this 'socialism' is a word that Marx would have recognised either. His issues were different again. I think his influence on the twentieth century is a subject that I am not qualified on- there are several Marxes- however I find his theories, what little I know of them, both interesting and provocative.

Dave agreed.