Constant and Modernity

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Source: This is an expanded version of the translator's notes which first appeared in Constant's Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). Hoffman’s edition, published by Droz in 1980, is from his collation of Constant’s 1806 long-hand manuscript completed in Lausanne, with the script mainly done by a domestic, though with some text written by Constant, and the fair long-hand copy Constant himself made of the 1806 document in Paris in 1810.

Dennis O’Keeffe, "On Modernity's Threshold: An Introductory Commentary on Benjamin Constant’s Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (1810)."

…(P)olitical freedom, which serves as a barrier to government, is also a support for it, guiding it on its way, sustaining it in its efforts, moderating it in its onsets of madness, and encouraging it in its moments of apathy. (Constant Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments pp. 291-2).

I. Constant on Modernity

There are two poles between which Constant moves incessantly during the course of this huge text. One is despotism, symbolised as well as instantiated for Constant in modern times by the French Revolution; the other is the emancipated politics of decency, understood by Constant to mean a political order defined by the rule of law, the primacy of individual human rights and the rights of property.

Constant Looks Mainly to Modern Trends for a Politics of Decency

It is in the main to modern times that Constant looks for political enlightenment. His two favoured examples are Great Britain, usually referred to by him simply as “England” and the United States. These are the societies which come in for Constant’s especial admiration, the United States even more than Great Britain, since it is republican. Constant insists that monarchy can be the basis of a morally wholesome politics (pp. 4-5); but he is, like Machiavelli, one of his intellectual heroes, by preference a republican. This preference is almost certainly a function of his view of the history of the French monarchy. While he is prepared, for example, to concede that Louis XIV had certain gifts (pp. 390-1), Constant believes Louis’ reign was a disaster, indeed one in a succession of royal disasters -- a long succession involving also the policies of Louis XI, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (p. 516) -- paving the way for the fall of the monarchy only three quarters of a century after the death of the Sun King.

His republicanism notwithstanding, Constant is also an Anglophile, believing that with the constitutional monarchy ushered in by the 1688 Settlement, the English governing classes had succeeded in placing permanent checks on central power, thus putting the follies of the Stuarts and the (republican) horrors of Cromwell behind them (pp. 420-2). One would have to search hard in modern France to find anyone so admiring of British civilisation. Moreover, Constant expresses in even stronger terms his admiration for the burgeoning civilisation of the United States. He does not have much to say on the continuities between British and American civilisation. He waxes especially eloquent, however, with regard to the aims of the American founding fathers, and he is clearly much taken with the republican cast of mind of President Jefferson (pp. 428-9).

Constant and Earlier Political Decencies

Though welcoming modernity, in the form of personal rights and rights of property, limited government and the rule of law, at the same time Constant clearly believes, from his early nineteenth century perspective, that there have been in the past, even the now remote past, relatively decent societies. This is the case with ancient Athens, for example, for which Constant expresses particular admiration. For the other Greek states, as for Rome in some of its aspects, Constant expresses a more cautious admiration, noting that political liberty, the process whereby certain classes of citizen participate in a collective politics, is not in antiquity usually accompanied by civil freedoms, of the kind which make the Athenian case so attractive for him (pp. 357-358).

Constant’s preference for Athens among the Greek city-states reflects that polity’s highly developed system of property and its extensive commercial life (p. 356). The Athenians had a highly evolved commerce. They understood and used bills of exchange and were thus able to shift the locus of wealth holdings at will. During the Peloponnesian War they shifted their holdings away from Athens and to the islands of the archipelago (p. 358). Yet Constant also alleges that the failure of Athens to base its political life on property was a fatal mistake. It meant that:

Its lawmakers had always to battle with the ascendancy of the property-less (p. 172).

Even Constant’s admiration for Athens has to be placed against his strongly voiced opinion that slavery in any society has a very adverse moral effect on such members of that society as are free. Their general morality coarsens, as the central human virtue of pity contracts and withers. (pp. 358-9) As to those other societies of the ancient world, which fall under the bracket we now call “Oriental Despotism” or alternatively, in the language of Marx, should we choose to, “The Asiatic Mode of Production,” most of Constant’s references are fleeting. He mentions China, with its immemorially cruel social and political management (pp. 453-454). He offers us a few dense paragraphs, in the course of his critique of the work of the Abbé Mably, on ancient Egypt, for which civilisation Constant expresses an unqualified and horrified revulsion (pp. 367-368).

Constant as a libertarian conservative

Constant is a French liberal. He may also be described, without too much anomaly, as a “libertarian conservative”. This particular conceptual bracket was not in use in his day, but he nevertheless fits much of the brief. His constant recourse to historical example speaks to the conservative notion that past experience is an indispensable source of wisdom. He also makes strong contact with modern conservatives in his insistence throughout the book that the nation state is the fundamental unit of politics. His words on the virtue of patriotism are among his most memorable:

How bizarre that those who called themselves ardent friends of freedom have worked so relentlessly to destroy the natural basis of patriotism, to replace it with a false passion for an abstract being, for a general idea deprived of everything which strikes the imagination or speaks to memory (p. 326).

Within the nation state, he is always for the upholding of the civil order as the sum of our individual rights and privacies as citizens. This civil order expresses the real freedoms of modernity. He expressly says that political freedom supplies only the security making civil freedoms possible. When Constant speaks of individual freedom he means civil freedom. Political freedom is the means to the end constituted by civil freedom (p. 386).

Security consists above all in defending the nation in question against its external enemies and against internal disorder (p. 38). In the ancient world, by which he usually means the Greeks and Romans, there was political liberty, in many instances, of a participatory kind. With the exception of ancient Athens, however, this was not accompanied by civil freedom. Nor does the extensive scale of modern government permit, in Constant’s view, a participatory politics of the kind typifying the Greek city states. He sees attempts to revive such a participatory politics as intrinsically disastrous and anomalous. His Book XVI, which is devoted to this question, is without doubt an intellectual masterpiece and was later to be recast as an autonomous work, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns (See Constant: Political Writings edited and translated by Biancamaria Fontana, Cambridge University Press, 1995 pp. 307-28).

The French Revolution was for Constant exactly the kind of anomaly he dreaded, arising from profound historical and philosophical error. The historical error was that a direct participatory politics of the kind characterising the ancient polis could be applied to a large modern State. The philosophical error was to confuse the general will, which is only the will of the majority, about some things only, with a unanimous agreement among citizens, about all things. Such a ubiquitous and incontrovertible will simply does not and cannot exist. On the contrary, while for Constant there is always the general will, the thing most people want, and which constitutes the basis of political consent (p. 6), that general will is never more than majoritarian and never embraces more than a subset of the issues, since every individual has rights upon which no government can lawfully encroach (p. 11). Indeed a civilised politics is constituted by the majority’s not encroaching on lawful privacy or lawful dissent. Despotism is not saved from itself by any contingently majoritarian or republican character:

Political society cannot exceed its jurisdiction without being usurpative, nor can the majority without becoming factious. The assent of the majority is not enough in all circumstances to render its actions lawful. There are acts which nothing can endow with that character. When a government of any sort puts a threatening hand on that part of individual life beyond its proper scope, it matters little on what such authority claims to be based, whether it calls itself individual or nation (p. 31).

Two pages later we find most eloquent reinforcement of this view, in words which could easily be pronounced by a modern libertarian:

The majority can make the law only on issues on which the law must pronounce. On those on which the law must not pronounce, the wish of the majority is no more legitimate than that of the smallest of minorities (p. 33).

Constant manifestly regards the rule of law as the basis of civilisation (p. 402). At the same time (p. 402), he stresses that the worst of all errors is the doctrine of boundless obedience to law. By definition this notion violates the conception of the rule of law. Society has no right whatsoever to employ its legal apparatus in order to enforce its will on anyone, not even a single member of society, with regard to things outside its legal competence:

…society has no right to be unjust to a single one of its members,… the whole society minus one, is not authorised to obstruct the latter in his opinions, nor in those actions which are not harmful, in the use of his property or the exercise of his labour, save in those cases where that use or that exercise would obstruct another individual possessing the same rights (p. 384).

Constant, Despotism and the Untouchable Human Sanctum

Constant believes that legal constraints and other manipulative and coercive controls have only external significance. He cites Montesquieu to the effect that law, for example, regulates only externals (p. 103). Those who today prize the notion of individual autonomy will applaud this approach. Constant for his part claims that “nature” (sic) has given us an irremovable interior life of thought and reflection that is all our own:

Nature has given man’s thought an impregnable shelter. She has created for it a sanctuary no power can penetrate (p. 103).

Constant thus believes that ultimately freedom is unconquerable, because even under the most relentless despotism, many people will simply take refuge in the untouchable sanctum of their interior being, and think such thoughts as they wish.

Constant is well aware that there are states where freedom is institutionalised and others where despotism is the established norm. He notes that in the China of his day, conformity of writing was secured and had for centuries past been secured, by a vicious system of physical controls. Execution was visited on anyone attacking the Emperor or the Imperial authorities, and anyone writing anything which irritated the authorities was liable for a birching (pp. 453-4).

In those societies where the priorities identified by Constant have been observed, he promises an on-going government of free human beings. For a civilised politics to obtain and prosper, the principles of freedom must be treated as inviolable. Constant repeats this theme continually throughout this gigantic work, and also devotes a whole book directly to it. (Book XVII, pp. 381-94).

Rights in Constant’s Political Scheme of Things

Constant’s view of rights is very much the view which informs the founding documents and thought of the American republic. The list is not large but its membership is indefeasible. Some of Constant’s defence of the individual is mediated at one remove, via his vigorous defence of due process. Those who would in the face of serious crime abridge due process and weaken the criteria of evidence, are imposing a penalty on accused persons by declaring them effectively guilty in advance, thus making a mockery of the law (pp. 153-4). There is also Constant’s insistence on the independence of the judiciary, on the jury system and on the existence of means of appeal against sentence (pp. 459-463).

The most direct enumeration of rights comes in Book II, Ch.6:

individual rights…consist in the option to do anything which does not hurt others, or in freedom of action, in the right not to be obliged to profess any belief of which one is not convinced, even though it be the majority view, or in religious freedom, or in the right to make public one’s thought, using all the means of publicity provided that that publicity does not hurt any individual or provoke any harmful act, finally in the certainty of not being arbitrarily treated, as if one had exceeded the limits of individual rights, that is to say, in being guaranteed not to be arrested, detained or judged other than according to law and with all due process (p. 39).

These beliefs move by natural extension into Constant’s economic views, especially in Book XII in which Constant espouses, passionately, the case against over-regulation of the economy and the harassment of citizens seeking to go about their economic business:

The most enlightened philosophers… have shown the whole evidential case against the injustice of the restrictions experienced by this [economic] freedom in almost all countries (p. 227).

Constant’s Economics: He Knows that Competition is Beneficial only Systemically

It cannot be said that Constant offers us a fully articulated political economy, certainly not if that would mean a considerable body of economic theorising. He compensates for this, however, by offering the reader some very perceptive thoughts on the place of law and philosophising in the modern liberal dispensation. He is clearly aware that what we today call “the market economy” or “capitalism” is indispensable to modernity as he understands it. His phrase “property rights” is a kind of co-term for the free market system. He is adamant that capital should be left to prosper, free from taxation:

Capital is only accumulated assets, gradually taken out of income. The more you encroach upon capital, the more income declines, the less asset accumulation can happen, and the less capital can reproduce itself.

The State which taxes capital prepares therefore the ruin of individuals. It gradually takes away their property. Now, the security of that property being one of the state’s obligations, it is apparent that individuals have the right to assert that obligation against a system of taxation with results contrary to that end (p. 215).

Constant’s hatred of despotism is multifaceted. He seems to move from moral considerations to questions of political economy. The moral case is clear:

Arbitrary government is to moral life what plague is to the body (p. 78).

In economic terms such despotism is profoundly disruptive and destructive of peaceful calculation. The hurt and the wrong spread out from the initial victim. A wrongly arrested man has creditors, “whose fortunes depend on his, and business partners” (p. 79).

Excessive and unjust taxation is destructive. In fact Constant’s whole approach to taxation, which is that it should be minimalist in intention and scope, is to defend freedom of trade and production in all markets including the labour market. To mark his break with pre-modern economics definitively, Constant also offers the reader a thorough-going defence of middlemen in the distribution of goods and services, people whose specialised skills epitomize the advantages of the division of labour (pp. 238-9).

Like Adam Smith, Constant is well aware that businessmen and employers are often corrupt; he is deeply opposed to their propensity to exploit helpless workers by what we would today regard as cartelised rigging of their wages (p. 232). Constant insists, time and again, that the prices (in the case of labour that is wages) generated by the free market are the fairest and the most efficient mechanisms of economic life (p. 232-3). But the benefits of the system of competition inhere in the system itself. Like Adam Smith, Constant knows that individual businessmen want to gain monopolies and unfair advantages by suborning governments.

It is the free market system which protects the free society. Mobility of property is systemically important since it changes the character of property. Mobilised, the latter ceases to be a mere usufruct. Mobility of capital, whereby it sweeps away from governmental control, puts a check on government. As Constant says: “It has often been remarked that money is despotism’s main weapon but also its most powerful brake” (p. 356).

Constant on Political Franchise and Citizenship

Constant believes there is a danger to freedom and property from the lower orders. He believes accordingly that the political franchise has to be limited in some way to prevent ne’er-do-wells from encroaching on the property rights of others. For Constant the majority of the population is not suited for political participation or for government. Constant likes and admires the working-classes. He thinks well of their courage in the face of constant economic adversity and greatly approves of their proven military valour and patriotism (p. 166-7). He allots them only a passive role politically, however. This is because the labouring majority does not have the time and the resources to achieve the leisure for that reflection which governing and responding to government requires. This is quite simply a function of the lack of property:

Only property secures this leisure. Only property can render men capable of exercising political rights. Only owners can be citizens. To counter this with natural equality is to be reasoning within a hypothesis inapplicable to the present state of societies (p. 166)

This reflection and its political application is the work of an enlightened minority. Constant insists, however, that this enlightened minority is larger by far than government, which is staffed by a minority of the enlightened minority and must always be held in check by the majority of the enlightened minority. These political parameters are for Constant frozen into place pending an enormous increase in wealth and economic productivity, and consequently a widening of leisure, such as he confesses himself quite incapable of envisaging (pp. 166-7).

Even so, Constant knows that things change. He is fully aware of the fierce class conflict typifying antiquity. He asserts that in his day there is less class-war than there was in classical antiquity (p. 466). In Greece and Rome, those who were poor but free found that the rich demanded money from them. Given how little the latter had, this inevitably ushered in bad feeling and conflict. By Constant’s day the rich demanded labour from the poor, which they possessed in abundance. Thus was born a definite mutual interdependence.

Of course the poor have for Constant a perfect right to advance socially through the use of their own talents and hard work. They are owed this freedom by the propertied classes. What they are not owed is the right to expropriate property. This is what they will do if they are wrongly allotted political freedoms (p. 170).

Freedom and Freedom of the Press

Constant regards freedom as the definitive variable of decent politics. A crucial dimension of such freedom for Constant is freedom of the press, which he took as defining the political life of modernity, at least insofar as “modernity” means the latest trends in European and American civilisation:

All defences -- civil, political or judicial -- become illusory without freedom of the press. (p. 111)

Unless there is a free press, government goes its way unchecked. Not only is press freedom right intrinsically, however, but it is also connected with effective government. Constant says that the reason some great European Empires declined and others flourished, was that some practised tolerance and some did not. Though he rejects utilitarianism, he much admires Bentham’s works and on the question of the relations between flourishing powers and freedom he quotes the latter at length:

Compare the effects in governments which obstruct the publication of thought and those which give it free reign. You have on one side Spain, Portugal, Italy. You have on the other England, Holland and North America. Where is there more decency and happiness? In which of these is more crime committed? In which is society more gentle? (p. 531)

Constant on War and Peace

Constant is rooted in history both as a study and inspiration. Like many modern libertarians he is a cultural and social conservative. There is even a sense in which he can sometimes be defined as Janus-faced in outlook. This is evidenced in his attitude to war, as seen specifically in Book XIII, in which his opening remarks identify war as in man’s nature (p. 277). He goes on to contend, rather more dramatically, that war in the European past was often a noble thing (p. 277). He contends actually that war is as good or as bad as its motives. This truism -- a sort of view from the Alan Ladd/John Wayne ascendancy on the moral character of the colt .45 -- is too often forgotten. The crucial thing about truisms after all is that they are true:

War is like all things human. They are all, in their day, good and useful. Outside it they are all fatal (p. 277).

In any case Constant observes that war is unacceptably costly in modern times, and that people no longer wish to pay the price of war. He also points out that war was an essential feature of access to resources in antiquity. War has now given way to trade as a more comfortable means of obtaining such access (p. 356).

Constant on Religion and Enlightenment

Constant is indisputably a man of the Enlightenment. He does not belong to its shallow or mechanistic wing, however. For example, he says that if we had to choose between persecution and protection, persecution is the more valuable to intellectual life (p. 306). As to religion, despite his straightforward admiration for Voltaire’s defence of those persecuted for their religious beliefs, Constant is a long way from reflex scepticism. He wrote widely on religion and the considerable discussion in Principles of Politics, though much of it is secular in tone and political in content, expressing a belief in freedom of worship and the standing off of the state wherever possible in questions of religion, is neither hostile to Christianity nor atheistic, nor even demonstrably agnostic.

At times we even find that Constant waxes lyrical in tone when he speaks of religion and worship -- “all our lasting [consolations] are religious” (p. 131) -- and even sees religion at the core of all things human (pp. 132-3), much as three quarters of a century later another maestro of the French language, Emile Durkheim, was to do (Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life). At the practical level Constant seems to believe that highly educated and reflective people can survive in a morally intact way without religion, whereas the uneducated majority cannot (p. 133). This might be construed as identifying him as a religious fellow-traveller, sceptical in the last instance, though he seems unwilling to commit himself to any forthright expression of his views on the ultimate mysteries.

The final point worth making before we move on to a discussion and evaluation of Constant’s theorising, is that only in one place did the Constant text strike a vacuous note, as far as this translator is concerned. In his brief foray into the sociology and politics of language, Constant ventures a few remarks which will seem to border on the vacuous to those acquainted with modern thought on language. At the time of its inventing, language, Constant says, would initially have been viewed with hostility and suspicion, as a disorienting force, a menacing novelty. Gradually, however, things would have settled down and society would have regained an equilibrium at a higher level, having acquired a new medium of communication (pp. 106-7).

This is quaint now. A prisoner of his era, Constant did not know about the social formation of things distinctively human. Constant’s reflections seem not to appreciate how animally confined humans must have been before the development of speech. People with speech are functionally a different species from people without speech. The latter must have lived in a permanent kind of infancy.

II. Constant and Some Tentative Commentary

Constant and the Problematic Character of Modernity

It should be apparent from the preceding pages that Constant’s fundamental antinomy in politics is the pair “freedom and despotism”. One may reasonably infer that the Constant view is that for most of human history, despotism has given freedom a very hard time. A very interesting question from our point of view is whether Constant’s two opposites, freedom and despotism, taken in combination, also constitute modernity, expressions of its two faces, so to speak, there being a good modernity and a bad. In particular is there a wholly modern or largely modern evil, evil understood here in its Orwellian sense as a political category? This is certainly a question which has preoccupied me for a long time. (See George Orwell Nineteen Eighty Four: James McNamara and Dennis O’Keeffe “Orwell and Evil” Encounter, December, 1982).

The sheer weight of evil facts will force us to identify the twentieth century as the one in which the worst regimes of all time put in their fearful appearance. Do we excise them from their distorting place -- if we think such it is -- in the modernist pantheon, by stressing their atavistic and anomalous character? Surely this is in some respects being too kind to recent times. One of the things most characteristic of the modern era is the widespread incidence of retrogression alongside many examples of moral and social advance. Does that retrogression justify the ultra-conservative view -- which Constant most certainly does not take -- to the effect that progress is a myth and a counterproductive and dangerous one?

Just take the British case, though the same trends are visible throughout the West. Privacy and manners are in decline and retreat. Behaviour reminiscent of the footpads of yore is commonplace on our streets. The gentling of the masses which was the greatest of all Victorian achievements is being wiped out as if had never occurred. As for popular culture: how shall we compare the innocence of fifty years ago with today’s moral swamp?

The alternative to accepting modernity for good and bad alike, is to hold that there is only one modernity, the decent arrangements favoured by Constant, from which most governments from his day to ours have diverged in crucial ways, some calamitously and some all too often advisedly. Less than a century after his death the terrible pathology of totalitarian hatred broke out in Russia, swiftly reviving and soon far transcending the wickedness of the French Revolution. The latter for Constant, who had viewed it from close up, indeed had effectively lived it, had been the nadir of political closure and moral failure.

We may suspect that Constant would have been very surprised by the human and moral bankruptcies of the twentieth century. It may be suggested that he thought too highly of the educated class, in whom he placed his trust for the restraint of government. Yet he knows perfectly well that people of letters often make fatal mistakes in matters of politics. Constant’s repeated attacks on the errors of Hobbes, Rousseau and Mably reveal his awareness of the dangers of false intellectual counsel. In the case of Hobbes one word, “absolute”, ruins the otherwise trenchant thesis that society must possess coercive powers over its membership (p. 63). Similarly Rousseau “believes that society must possess boundless political power, and from there he goes astray” (p. 23).

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have produced very large numbers of intolerant and despotic counsellors. Constant was so pleased to see what he thought was the back of the French Revolution that he fell into seeing it, in all probability, since we are surmising, as a one-off anomaly. The truth is much worse. It was actually a relatively restrained opening shot, in a new round of despotic political forms, distinguished by the adoption at a national level of an unprecedentedly large and ferocious ideological element in their inspiration and governance.

Had Constant known of the horrors to come, he would certainly have been appalled. He clearly knows that wickedness and social and political closure return sometimes. But he discerns, and also approves, and thus overestimates, a tendency for some of the more adverse arrangements to get dropped, so to speak remaindered historically, in a kind of slow, jagged upward procession:

…it can be affirmed that when certain principles are fully and clearly demonstrated, they work in some sense as a guarantee of themselves….At the exact moment when the strife of the French Revolution was again stirring up into a ferment all the prejudices still existing, some errors of the same type did not reappear, for the simple reason that they had been proved to be wrong. The defenders of feudal privilege did not dream of reviving the slavery which Plato in his ideal Republic and Aristotle in his Politics thought essential (p. 37).

Much turns on the words “principles…fully and clearly demonstrated”. So fully and clearly -- it seemed to Constant -- had the benevolent principles of freedom and the adverse ones of slavery been demonstrated, that even the most reactionary of social forces in France had acceded to such proofs. Thus the side of eighteenth century French reaction, faced with massive threats to its status, did not compound the hostility directed at it by a call for the return of slavery.

In the event one has to say that Constant is straining too much. Why bring up the issue of slavery at all here? Doubtless the abandonment of slavery in Christendom was an advance when it happened. This long predates Constant’s time. In Western Europe slavery had been a virtually forgotten order. Maybe the use of African slaves by European nations had stirred a certain unease in Constant’s mind. Probably the servitude which is the real passion with men like Rousseau bothered Constant too. He certainly seems to take modern French history as having discredited it.

Little in the Way of Progress can be Taken for Granted

The point for us is that we can now see with hindsight that very little in the way of moral advance can safely be taken for granted. Certainly the abolition of slavery cannot be claimed as part of an irreversible trend, though it does belong to a universally valid politics of decency. Indeed slavery turns out to be a spectacularly bad example of the progressive telos Constant had in mind. It has to be noted unflinchingly against this very great man, that he demonstrates in this book an excess of historical optimism, one which shows up badly against the totalitarian phenomena of the twentieth century.

After all, slavery was central to the Communist and Nazi agenda. Nor did these later tyrannies even restore slavery on the predominant Greek or Roman model, chattel slavery, whereby enslaved persons are the property of their owners. Such a condition is repulsive in its own right. This is why the British empire abandoned and abolished it, and why in the mid-nineteenth century the Americans fought a terrible war to sort it out, with a result in the only direction morally possible.

The tale of modern reality, however, the twentieth century story of the partial re-enslavement of the human race, is worse by far than the history of chattel slavery. To be someone’s property is generally at least to be safeguarded in some degree by one’s owners, as part of their personal assets. The Soviets and the Nazis resurrected the bureaucratic slavery, careless, punitive and inhuman, of the ancient despotisms of the Orient, a kind of slavery which the Greeks and Romans had in the main rendered marginal.

As a further example of the kind of “progress” whereby historical experience, subject to the analytical dissection of enlightened men, gradually leads to societies pulling their moral socks up, Constant observes that the armies of the French Revolution did not subject conquered territories to the kind of fate which often befell the vanquished in antiquity:

Even when extraordinary circumstances and motives which stir up all the abysses of the human heart make hatred more inveterate and hostility more violent, as for example during the French Revolution, the fate of conquered countries is still in no way comparable to what it was in antiquity (p. 354).

It has to be retorted that the twentieth century abounds in contradictions of this observation. For example, the events of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 and the division of Poland, indeed the naked territorial snatching of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the first half of the twentieth-century and the more opportunistic grabbing of territory, backed up by systematic foreign subversion, characterising Communist expansion over a longer period, make nonsensical Constant’s idea that an irreversible political change had occurred (pp. 354-5).

Constant foresees, wrongly, the end of war, because he does not envisage the French Revolution as supplying as it did, all too effectively, an enticing template for even worse horrors in the distant years ahead. We may take it that he has effectively converted his distaste for the recent French experience into his intellectual predictions for future developments. All the features of the French Revolution were to come back intensified beyond measure in the twentieth century. Totalitarianism, military bellicosity and territorial expansionism were to combine in a sinister and implacable dynamic.

Constant’s political imagination is heady with optimism. Everything in antiquity related to war, says Constant, while today everything is reckoned in terms of peace (p. 353) Surely both the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath contradict this generalisation even in Constant’s day? Constant is thinking of a commerce-dominated world where war is downgraded and discounted and a politics of peaceful normality takes over. It seems probable that what Constant is effectively doing is taking the Pax Britannica as definitive of future trends. It might help his argument somewhat if he said it formally. For us who can look back on it, there is a kind of rightness in the view that the incontestable power of Great Britain in the nineteenth century did help keep the international peace. One might also hazard the counterfactual view that had American economic power been militarily engaged in the first half of the twentieth century, the totalitarian phenomena of the years from 1917 might have been severely curtailed in their deadly course. One might propose that such menaces could grow only because the British were in decline and the Americans entertaining isolationist notions.

But to argue from present trends is dangerous, since it always risks committing the historicist error, taking a present trend as the way of the future. Peace is, indeed, the optimal medium of private property, though property can also and legitimately be geared for war. Whether the case is peace or war, however, how else will property be optimally defended but by a minimalist government enforcing its safe custody whilst enlarging the order of property? We saw in the twentieth century the very different totalitarian medium: war, foreign or civil, and after consolidation, domestic war, waged against helpless populations, either directly by their own despotic nationals, or by the lackeys of foreign despots. Constant could not have known this but given his political optimism he has chanced his arm, and got the development in this instance hopelessly wrong.

Peoples, he says, are now “civilised enough to find war burdensome” and also “strong enough not to fear invasion by still barbarian hordes” (p. 353). This is a particularly grating and falsified instance of the historicist tendency to reify the future in terms of reversible trends treated as irresistible. What else was the Eastward march of the Nazis but a barbarian invasion? How shall we see the Westward drive of the Red Army, gobbling up the whole of Eastern and much of central Europe and imposing on them a stifling anti-culture for more than forty years, if not as a barbarian military conquest? Millions of Europeans had a decent way of life snuffed out for the fifty years from 1940. If this was not a reversion to barbarism, what might be called such?

Constant says governments may retain a passion for war; but citizens do not (p. 353). This is not false. But it has turned out to be at best a kind of long-range truth, the way of civilised societies in the twentieth and early twenty first centuries, but not of all societies. Constant is just too optimistic. Governments which gloried in war, he says, would betray both their nations and the era. “There is no longer any question of invading entire countries in order to reduce their inhabitants to slavery and to divide up their lands”. This though, we repeat, is just how twentieth century totalitarian societies repeatedly behaved.

Constant is correctly identifying the eirenic character of modern capitalist societies but wildly over-optimistic as to the checks on widespread regression. He does not envisage the reversal of mature market economies and their replacement by socialist or semi-socialist polities, as in Germany, nor the reversal of the early stages of capitalist development, as in Russia. To say this is not to denounce him. He is no more in possession of crystal balls than any other thinker. But the comprehensive optimism of his assertions inevitably has the appearance of jumping history’s gun somewhat. His thesis is not invalidated totally, but it is seriously bruised by twentieth century totalitarianism. The widening arc of development in the nineteenth century largely bore out Constant’s expectations. Given that this holds too for the Pax Americana from the mid-twentieth century, we can attribute to the thesis a kind of long-run correctness, but Constant’s optimism is severely invalidated for much of the world for most of the twentieth century. Commerce deterred neither the First World War, nor the rise of Imperial Japan, nor Communism, nor Fascism, nor Nazism, to name only some of the events trade should have made impossible.

The Perils of Political Optimism

Constant’s optimism is just not cautious enough. His belief that commerce outlaws war was not true in Antiquity. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians were the greatest traders of the Mediterranean world and they were bellicose. So, indeed, were the Athenians. So too was renaissance Venice. For modern times the thesis is too narrowly conceived within a free enterprise frame of reference. If some of the world has gone that way since Constant’s day, and indeed if it looks as if more and more of the world is going that way now, one still has to say that the twentieth century went backwards for many decades and in many places, towards that coercion and cruelty of the past which Constant found so frightful.

There are still many countries which were freer and better ordered a century ago than they are now. Much of the world seems now to travel the Constant road; but the more hard-line and dogmatic versions of his thesis, for example as demonstrated by Fukuyama, are dangerously triumphalist.

If the World Listened to Constant

It is true that the terrible events of modernity, according to preference its dark side or those demonic subversions which seek to counter and reverse it -- the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin's Terror and Mao's Cultural Revolution -- would not have happened if the managers of human affairs paid heed to writers like Constant. In this sense Constant is nothing like unique, just a great voice we should all listen to. Such happenings would be equally impossible if men all took Burke and Adam Smith to heart, leaving aside their inconceivable character if we listened to the Christian message. The trouble today, as it has been since the second half of the nineteenth century, is that some people, especially among the so-called intellectual classes, are not persuaded by any of these messages. Indeed, it is probably the case now that a majority of intellectuals in the free societies do not accept them. In any event, we are still left with our question: do the extreme prevarications of various states in modern times constitute new wickedness or old?

Constant and the Problem of Innocence on Trial

Constant regarded with horror the perversions of the law which disfigured the French Revolution. He was not in a position to know how much worse would be the criminal deviance of the twentieth century. Constant’s unyielding defence of the rule of law and of due process are wholly admirable. His understanding of the fact that the actually new can be historically ancient, his grasp, that is to say, of the grisly dance accompanying those legends of progress and reaction which have bemused us in the century and three quarters since his death, is necessarily limited. He had not seen enough of these “old in the new” and “new in the old” phenomena to grasp the potential of crazed ideologues to interfere with the course of history, to reverse the apparent course, indeed ostensibly the very logic, of its development.

There was one novelty, present in the French Revolution, which Constant does not dwell on sufficiently. The show trial surely links the French Revolution with Communism. The Nazis used the show trial too, for example after the bomb attack on Hitler, but routinely much less so. It is not that show trials had never happened before. Socrates and Galileo are only two among many examples. In pre-modern times the show trial was often connected with religious heresy.

Constant is well aware of this. He also knows that tyrants have since time immemorial often felt the need for the trappings of law (p. 402). For us, however, the ills of the totalitarian era have been paraded in front of us on such a scale, that what is sometimes obvious to us, Constant fails to see. He grasps the wrongs of despotism as it subverts law and tramples on human rights. On the one hand, however, he misses what Orwell was in the mid-twentieth century to grasp with such shining clarity, namely that the acts and “laws” of the worse kinds of despotism would be no better were their nominal justifications true. This is true of the acts of modern despotism as well as of its mockery of law. If the absurd charges levelled against people by the Nazis had been true, the acts performed would have been not one whit the less odious and appalling. Likewise, had all the accused in the Moscow show trials been guilty, the trials would still have been monstrous.

The most important lacuna of all in Constant’s understanding, is one we can forgive him for, though the ugly phenomenon in question was present in the French Revolution. Constant misses, in terms even of a cursory treatment, what, a hundred and twenty years later, another great French writer, Albert Camus, was to stress in the 1950s. One of the key horrors of the Communist innovation was the way in which innocence was called upon so often to justify itself. More precisely innocence was banished as a philosophical and legal notion. The innocent must condemn themselves. This is surely something for which the Stalins and Maos found precedent in the French Revolution.

Camus’ argument was that Fascism (he should have used the German word Nazism rather than the Soviet appellation which is designed to take our attention away from the second term in National Socialism) is the glorification of the executioner by the executioner. Communism, he added, is more dramatic in conception, being the glorification of the executioner by his victims (Albert Camus The Rebel). Constant correctly says that in the past huge crimes have been committed in the name of everybody in societies under the power of a single despot (pp. 37-8). This is further evidence of the long genesis of totalitarian socialism. But the Soviet story was to dwarf any historical precedents. In this sense we must truly identify certain totalitarian phenomena as genuinely novel. The point anyway is that, over-optimistically, Constant thought that wickedness of this particular kind would not happen again.

Is Civilised Modernity Novel?

In the conditions of successful, civilised modernity, on the other hand, are there truly new forms of moral goodness observable, such as Constant discerns, for example, in the tendency for peoples in free societies to find slavery a detestable institution? Or are all the virtues as ancient as humanity, it being the case only that some of them are more successfully mediated by political modernity, such that it is modern institutions like the free press and colleges of free academic inquiry, which are the real innovation? Certainly the institution of property is central:

Without property the human race would be in stasis, in the most brutish and savage state of its existence…The abolition of property would destroy the division of labour, the basis of the perfecting of all the arts and sciences (p. 168).

These words constitute a brilliant critique, avant la lettre, of the Marxist fantasy, in which modernity is secured by mere engineering, and the market apparatus advisedly abolished as redundant and anachronistic. Constant was thinking of Godwin, though as Etienne Hofmann points out, the same erroneous idea that one could abolish property is present in the eighteenth century in Morelly and Mably (pp. 167-8)

Since Constant’s day other forms of what those who secured them consider moral advance have appeared. What are we to make of such moral tenderness as the widespread abolition of corporal and capital punishment in the free societies? Constant does not speak of corporal punishment as an institution, though his tone is always quite severe when he is reflecting on how citizens should comport themselves. On the other hand he says that punishment should always relate to established laws, that it should always be made proportionate to the offence and must not be such as to corrupt witnesses morally. Thus all experimentation with torture should be forbidden (p. 157). He is revolted by capital punishment as a way of torturing religious heretics or extracting nominal changes of opinion from them (pp. 125-26). On the other hand though he holds that capital punishment should be restricted to a small number of crimes, he is not persuaded by the case for general abolition (p. 157).

What are we to make today, however, of elite-driven innovations in the principles of social control, which would prefer hundreds of thousands of muggings, rapes and other assaults, to a few birchings, even if it could be demonstrated, as many will suspect, that the trade-off is a simple as that? Or of those pundits who prefer a proliferation of murder to a few executions? At what point does the a priori perceived horror of a state action like execution or flogging, actually have to buckle before the empirical weight of the consequences of its abolition? Today do not the results of this progressive dismantling of our protection against wickedness, force themselves irresistibly on our attention?

Individual and Especially Property Rights are Constant’s Key Focus

When he is speaking of punishment Constant always sounds moderate. His core contention is that the guilty do not lose all their rights (p. 157). His greater interest, however, in the question of social order, is always in property. Though Constant does not put it in so many words, he has clearly intuited that in the complex intertwining of agreement and force which civilisation is, it is agreement which is most crucial. And property is of all agreed arrangements the most vital. The references Constant makes to the indispensability of property are legion. In fact, one cannot preserve modern civilisation without preserving the market order. Intriguingly, then, Constant’s long-range projections on this question are broadly right for the English-speaking world, though in the twentieth century there was a quasi-socialisation of the economy at work in the British instance and the corporatist build-up of the state in the USA, especially from the 1930s, on a scale which Constant would have found alarming. I must also propose that present British trends are simply not compatible with the survival of the free society.

Even so, the rule of law survived and with it the crucial institution of private property, in most places where English is the main language, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If we restrict Constant’s optimistic projections on the future of the free and decent society to the Anglophone world they are broadly right. Indeed they are better than broadly right, since while Constant’s expectations are too optimistic politically, on the economic front they are too cautious and pessimistic. He believes in the free market society as we would call it, but in his caution he massively underestimates the system he espouses (p. 168).

Constant is Right, on Balance, that there is a Morally Refined and Widening Political Order Associated with the Market Economy and the Rights of Property

It is right, on balance therefore, to believe Constant justified in holding that there is a general trend abroad, in the wake of the spread of commerce, for the independent civil order, founded on property, protected by political freedom, to spread out and missionise by example. It is even right to celebrate his insight, provided we hedge our agreement with a serious qualification. One of the great consequences of this development will be that the imperatives, even the possibility of war, will be much attenuated. The more States are joined within the lighted circle of international property rights and recognised rights of persons, the less will domestic and international oppression be features of the world. Thus I would expect British government sooner rather than later to pull back from the expansion of the public sector so cynically achieved under the Blair administration.

Constant is in principle right about what has transpired about the amazing development of the free market, although what has already been said shows that this attribution requires severe and extremely cautious qualification. We know what Constant could not. We know that French social theory and economics took a socialistic and collectivist turn in the mid nineteenth century, an intellectual withering from which the country has still not recovered. For much of the twentieth century the vital supports of the free society were systematically eroded in France. Indeed it might be argued that the intellectual and ideological condition of the French mind in the last hundred and fifty years, and especially the last seventy five, has made it impossible for that once great country to assume her proper place in the world. We know, as Constant could not, about the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century. We know about the passionate advocacy of totalitarian politics in many countries, but especially in France, Germany and Russia, both before and after its institutionalisation. Where Constant remains right is at the level of prescription. If a society treasures the rule of law, the fundamental rights of citizens and of property, if it maintains internal order and international security, the lawful politics of limited government will obtain.

Principles of Politics (1810) as a Pre-figuration of Fukuyama

If in an embryonic sense Constant is, indeed, a sort of Fukuyama of his era, the prophet of an essentially virtuous and praiseworthy modernity, either in terms of autonomous shifts in individual or collective morality or of institutional change or both, he is bound to infuriate certain conservative readers. Such an outlook as his does entail, ipso facto, a conception of progress of a kind repugnant to much conservative thought. The “progress” position is clearly open to the charge of optimistic historicism, even though Constant himself is manifestly aware of the problem of retrogression, sometimes on grandiose and philosophised lines, which render the retrogression all the more odious. Clearly too, he sees that many governments will depart from the principles of civilised modernity, infracting the rule of law, the rights of property and persons. Constant stresses throughout this book that the sense of freedom can die. Its life and continuance require constant vigilance from the strongest and most brilliant of its beneficiaries.

Constant and the Sense of Freedom

Constant for his part knows only too well that the sense of freedom can die. Public opinion is crucial in its maintenance.

A nation’s lethargy, where there is no public opinion, communicates itself to its government, whatever the latter does. Having been unable to keep the nation awake, the government finishes by falling asleep with it. Thus everything falls silent, subsides, degenerates and is degraded in a nation which no longer has the right to make public its thoughts, and sooner or later, such a realm presents the spectacle of those plains of Egypt, where we see an immense pyramid pressing down on the arid dust, reigning over the silent wastes (p. 123).

The conceit here is very close to that of Shelley in his poem Ozymandias, written in 1818. Ozymandias is none other than the Egyptian Pharoah, Ramases II. The poem ends:

boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

We know that Constant and Shelley had some reading in common, certainly Condorcet and Tom Paine. Mr Michael Winterburn has suggested to me that both writers might have read the description of the desert by Champollion, translator of the Rosetta Stone.

To the Free Press there must Today be Added the Other Means of Communication

In this question of public awareness the part played by enlightened opinion can scarcely be overstated. The press is crucial, as Constant maintained. To update Constant’s reflections here, we would have to add the influence today of the mass media and the internet. We also need to intrude into the tally mass education. There is now a much expanded range of methods of intellectual and informational interchange: press, academic institutions, modern media and modern communications technology. In principle all these can enlarge and mobilise our freedoms. They all carry today, however, a sizeable quotient of ill as well as good. Governments also often make use of semi-governmental organisations to further their nefarious schemes for the extinction of attitudes which they have arbitrarily decided need historical excision.

Constant is against the “degrading” of government by clubs. Today he would be attacking "quangos" [Quango stands for "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization" and is a term which was popularized during the 1980s in the U.K.]. They are publicly financed clubs, are they not? (p. 452) Today this is how political correctness is mediated. More certainly Constant would be forced by today’s developments to rethink his essential model of enlightened government. It must surely be suggested that mass education has an ambiguous status. It has not invariably led to enlightenment. It has often proved deficient in the matter of transmitting the mechanics of learning. Worse: it has often proved a source of disorder and ideological waywardness, its intellectual demerits and social destructiveness coiled menacingly within its advances and compensations.

Constant would very probably have shared the disenchantment many contemporary libertarians and conservatives feel with regard to mass education. He might even have approved the late Murray Rothbard’s damning comment that compulsory education today forces clever souls into the company of morons.

On the whole, however, though necessarily there have been attacks on private and individual opinion, the main thrust of political correctness and of post-modernist theorising has been against certain widely held public and collective ideas, such as enthusiasm for patriotism and the upholding of the family or the Christian religion. How might Constant’s notion of a natural fortress of the soul, an untouchable privacy, stand in relation to these assaults on tradition?

In Defence of the Inner Sanctum and its Place in the Politics of Freedom

Constant, appalled at the French Revolution, straightforwardly assumed that it would have taught the world an unforgettable lesson and that such things were unlikely to happen again. He was very wrong, though we have argued that his prediction that free enterprise would triumph also enjoys a kind of circuitous long-run justification. Where do the sorts of events which have shaken the world and dominated its development -- or retrogression -- since his death, leave his conception of the untouchably free interior nature of individual human beings?

His contention that the human condition is inherently free -- the idea that freedom is our proper medium, activated from our own inner resources, and that there are regions of light wholly impervious to political darkness -- will sit well with the defenders of freedom. This ontological freedom may properly be held as able to withstand the assaults of a merely contingent political despotism. Even so, we need to recast Constant’s argument. The antinomy of freedom versus despotism does not reduce, nor even predominantly depend on, a sealing off of the inner man from external influence. Rather we should say that the fully formed human being individualises social powers such as augment his discrimination, and help him to resist external forces he deems malign.

Since Durkheim and Freud, we have become accustomed to the notion that social life is not merely an external regulator of our mental states and our actions; we now take more or less for granted that it is also internally constitutive of them. This does not deny the force of Constant’s defence of the human inner sanctuary. Nor do we regard our thoughts as any the less our own, any the less our personal possessions, any the less an integral part of our autonomy, because of this social origin.

The Durkheimian insight, that only the properly socialised (educated and cultured) person can be truly free, that is to say a fully autonomous being, is surely in the main readily comprehensible and digestible for us. Nor, whatever advances of human understanding genetics may unfold in the coming years, should we ever lose sight of the fact that without human socialisation people would learn neither to walk on their back legs, nor to talk. At the same time, in whatever ways human individuality is formed, there is nevertheless a call at times for courage to sustain the individual against the state. Constant knows well the courage needed by the individual striving to cope with harassment:

Such is the frightful weight of civil harassment that the courage which faces death in battle is easier than the public profession of a free opinion, in the midst of menacing factions (p. 151).

Today we may decide that all Constant’s thought on the future needs reinterpretation. It is simply too optimistic. Post-1917 totalitarian movements have in particular often dispensed with the notion of private realms, whether social or psychological. Let us be mindful of Louis Althusser’s dreadful comment that the distinction between the public and private realms is a “bourgeois” distinction (Louis Althusser “Education and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Ben Cosin (ed) Education, Structure and Society Harmondsworth, 1972). Of course one expects dreadful comments from dreadful people, but Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Communist China all took precisely that view. Either they were the other side of modernity’s coin, or they constituted an atavistic challenge to modernity when the latter is understood as political emancipation. They may not have abolished the private mind but they defined it out of court, and as cannot be said too often, that which is defined as real is real in its consequences.

Communism and Nazism are, indeed, only the most egregious examples of this advised dismissal, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution was no more than the most dramatic of many attempts to moronise whole populations, rendering the interior person transparent by removing any difference in him or her between what is internal and what external. Today we would have to add totalitarian Islamic fundamentalism to the set of such trends. Moreover, advances in pharmacology and other branches of medical science have often been associated with attempts also advisedly directed to the same elimination of the inner realm, the nightmare most vividly conceived by Aldous Huxley. Furthermore, and most importantly, the explicit sense in Huxley is that this annihilation of inner being began in free societies, not in despotisms (Aldous Huxley Brave New World).

All this said, Constant is undeniably correct that opinion, private and public, is of ultimate importance in a free society, and press freedom is now a signally important element in the formation of both forms of belief. So are the mass media and so are universities and other academies, at least in intended principle. Here comes our fit again, however, since it may properly be claimed that mass education and the mass media are in many ways, culturally, aesthetically, morally and politically suspect.

More certainly Constant would be forced by today’s developments to rethink his essential model of enlightened government. He thinks that enlightenment needs leisure, and that it is unlikely, within the bounds of economic development probable in his day, that there could ever be an economy sufficiently affluent to grant leisure to a large number of people on a scale sufficient to permit them to become solid props and active supports of the free society. This is an argument in which the free market is underestimated in its power and leisure is overestimated for its ability to foster enlightenment. Today leisure is not lacking for most people, including the working-classes; and the least educated are swamped by it. Constant misconstrues, moreover, the benefits of leisure. Leisure requires a particular combination of auxiliary circumstances in order for it to confer the benefits which Constant attributes to it. Though modern affluence delivers unprecedented comfort and economic security, the leisure it has delivered is not notably committed to political or indeed any form of intellectual reflection.

Few groups in history have possessed more idle time than those who today subsist on state welfare in the advanced societies -- yet the latter are as ignorant politically and as feckless morally as anyone could conceivably be. Nor is the thought of the nominally educated elite necessarily enlightened in the way Constant conceives as desirable. Those whom Constant would expect to constitute the new Enlightenment do not do so. Instead they wallow in a kind of intellectual stasis, characterised by ideological self-pity and antinomian posturing. The bitter truth is that no society has yet succeeded in organising the educational arrangements of a rich economy in such a way as to enlighten the majority of the population intellectually.

Constant’s Excessive Caution about the Potential of Market Economies

Constant is actually more disposed to say that freedom will survive and triumph in the long run than to foresee a world of plenty, brought about by the benevolence of the market. His politics is too optimistic. His economics, by contrast, is too pessimistic. He sometimes errs pessimistically, however, mostly from a praiseworthy desire to be realistic. This is true of his approach to stratification and living standards, which is vitiated by his involuntary imprisonment in the economics and sociology of his time. He likes working class people and wishes to protect their rights, correctly perceiving that the protection afforded them by the neutral workings of the market is the best one available economically. He does not, cannot, know, about the scale of modern affluence.

Constant simply cannot conceive what modernity has supplied for an increasing part of the world’s population, namely an economy where primary poverty has been largely transcended and a social structure where the working-class are a shrinking minority and the majority of the population enjoy a shared “middle-class” existence. Constant knows that certain thinkers do conceive more readily than he the likelihood of vast increases in productivity (pp. 166-68). We happen to know that such increases explain the core economic differences between the market economies of two centuries ago and the widening international market economy of today.

There is a tension between optimism and pessimism in terms of political and historical reflection, which perhaps renders disappointed versions of the former more deadly than the most fatal resignations of the latter. Conservative or libertarian scholars today share a profound, bitter disappointment about the educational and cultural achievements of modern liberal societies, such achievements being so meagre when ranged alongside their extraordinary accomplishments in economic development. Karl Popper was undoubtedly right, 140 years after Constant, to insist that optimism is a kind of moral duty. A dull and routine pessimism across the board would be a fatal obstacle to human achievement. Constant is never guilty of this. He sometimes errs pessimistically, however, from a desire to be realistic. From our position of hindsight we can see that his historical projection would have worked out better if he had been optimistic in economics and pessimistic vis-à-vis enlightenment.

Does Despotism Aid Intellectual Life More than Freedom Does?

Given our knowledge of the totalitarian phenomenon, we must be cautious how far we agree with Constant here. He cites as evidence of this idea the achievements of Roger Bacon, Galileo and Locke, in the face of political adversity (pp. 306-7). In fact there are two things wrong with this argument. First is that Constant himself contradicts it, when he observes the decline of societies like Spain, because they were not open enough and the success of polities like the British precisely because they were open. More importantly comes what is probably definitive in this state of the argument. We simply know more about comprehensive despotisms than Constant could have known.

In fact the evidence is overwhelming that freedom is more productive of intellectual vitality than either persecution or protection is. In a free society, those mildly persecuted (by totalitarian standards) may outshine the toadies and opportunists of special and protected interests. For example, in the USA and Great Britain, commentary and theorising on education or state-welfare from outside the educational or welfare state establishment, may well be superior to educational or social work thought from the hacks of entrenched ideology. A totalitarian society, by contrast, tends to cause routine mediocrity across the board, and only rare individuals, men and women who are giants of courage and will-power, can rise above the persecution and produce great work.

III. For Constant Everything is What it is and not some Other Thing

Constant is a Swiss-French Protestant. But his political voice is, so to speak, decidedly Anglophone. For Constant seems always to obey the guiding maxim of those philosophers who speak English: “Everything is what it is, and not some other thing.” Compare him to Karl Marx, whose serious writings begin a mere decade and a half after Constant’s death. Marx is incomparably more famous than Constant and has been hugely more influential. There may be those -- though the conceit is lost on me -- who will say Marx is more brilliant, more imaginative, more original. I would dispute all these claims. What is indisputable though is Marx’s far greater distance from reality. He believes that nothing is what it seems and that everything turns out to be something else.

What else is his absurd metaphor of the base and superstructure but precisely such verbal trickery? Countless minds have fallen for this wholly inoperable idea, inoperable because it is completely impossible to specify what belongs to the superstructure and what to the base. To treat law and education and politics as “superstructural”, as if they incurred no costs and yielded no productive output is absurd. We may have grave doubts about their economic efficiency in modern free societies, but few critics will allege that they make no direct contribution to production. Schools do produce children who can read; hospitals do produce treatment and cures for sick people; law courts do produce trials which prove or find unsubstantiated various charges laid against individuals or organisations.

More: Marx’s false insight as to hidden realities applies incomparably more closely to his own work than is the case with any other notable thinker. Maybe there are brilliant aspects of his work on economic life, as such economists as Joseph Schumpeter and Mark Blaug have maintained. The fact remains that it is the latent function of the Marxist corpus which appeals to the Lenins, Stalins, Maos and all the tribe of Althussers and Hobsbawms. Marxism is only a manifest economics. Its true, latent function has been to serve as an unparalleled manual for the theft of power by the corrupt, intolerant and ruthless. The very centre of Marx’s critique of capitalism is false. Today there is no real class war in the free societies, only a war between the population and various state-financed and state-endorsed factions which batten on them. The economic sociology built round the false perception of class war was from the start a doomed exercise in fantasy.

Constant, by contrast, has his feet firmly on the soil of reality. His great masterpiece is about real powers and real rights, real emancipation and real property, real protections and real limits, real laws and real agreements. Marxism by comparison is a plethora of sentimental abstractions.

Constant may, as we said, be trapped in the economics and sociology of the early nineteenth century. He does err pessimistically with regard to affluence and class structure. Constant was right, nevertheless, that even what we see as early modernity was less plagued than classical antiquity by class-war. The central Marxist notion that capitalists and workers are in irreconcilable conflict is now manifestly false. The capitalist and the worker are not to be conceived as enemies but as allies. The alliance may have been unwitting but its fruits have been momentous. From the fertile embrace of the business and working classes, under the driving, endlessly changing imperatives of the specialised division of labour, has arisen that vast middle class which is the backbone both of the productive expertise and of the representative government which characterise modernity. This stupendous social development stands alongside the remaindering of primary poverty, as the greatest achievement of the liberal/conservative order.

We might be disposed to argue today that early modernity was mostly oriented to freedom, with the French Revolution as an exception, though an exception of a menacing and seminal kind. In the twentieth century came a widening threat to the new freedoms from the totalitarian regimes. These having failed, in the early twenty first century we find the international challenge to the liberal/conservative order mounted by totalitarianised religious fundamentalism. On the other hand, within the free societies, the incubus of despotism lives on in the shape of political correctness, radical greenery, extremist health interventionism. We are entitled, it seems, to assume on the lines of Max Weber, that the dialectic of openness and closure is forever.

To catch the overall spirit of Constant, one statement stands out above all the others in this magnificent work:

If human weakness is an argument against individual freedom, it is an even better one against despotism (p. 157).


Political Thought