December 3, 2002
State vs. Man
The Changing Tradition
By Daniel J. Mahoney
FRESNO -- The modern world's
landscape is marked by two seemingly inexorable and contradictory
processes: on the one hand, the emergence of unprecedented state
power, claiming competence over ever greater domains of human life.
On the other, the rise of a self-assertive
"society" aiming to liberate the individual from traditional
moral, social, and political restraints. For three centuries, this
tug-of-war between growing state power and societal self-assertion
has proceeded apace. It has become the unavoidable subject matter
of modern social and political theory.
Thinkers on both the left and right have
attacked the legitimacy of political command, upholding the integrity
of the individual and society against the encroachments of the state
even as the state stubbornly refuses to wither away.|
The left's chosen instrument for liberating
the individual from what Marx called the "alien powers"
of domination and exploitation has been revolution. And a
Irving Louis Horowitz correctly observes
in his important new book Behemoth, revolutionary activism
has turned out to be the principal instrument for the expansion
of Thomas Hobbes' 16th Century Leviathan state in the 20th
Radically antistatist and antipolitical
in its basic presuppositions, Marxism became the ideological justification
par excellence by which "states trump societies" in the
On the right, theorists such as Friedrich
Hayek defended classical liberalism and the integrity of the market
against the claims for state power made in the name of "social
justice" and economic equity.
Hayek certainly paid more attention than
Marx to the political preconditions of a free society. Through such
works as The Constitution of Liberty and his trilogy on Law,
Legislation, and Liberty, Hayek made an enduring contribution
to contemporary political philosophy.
But in truth, neither Hayek nor any other
prominent contemporary partisans of classical liberalism have shed
much light on the subtle mutual dependence and interpenetration
of state and society in modern times.
For classical liberals, the fact that the
state is utilized time and again to "liberate" the individual
from perceived constraints or injustices says little or nothing
about the inadequacies of individualist philosophy or its dialectical
connection with collectivism.
Hayek's liberalism is ultimately too individualist
to appreciate what Alexis de Tocqueville and Bertrand de Jouvenel
saw with emblematic clarity: individualism erodes the intermediate
associations and spiritual authorities that are the principal obstacles
to the triumph of the omnicompetent state.
What we need, then, is an authoritative
guide to the problem of state and society that avoids both Marxist
and libertarian illusions. That is precisely what Irving Louis Horowitz
has provided in a new, work csalled, Behemoth.
This book chronicles "statists, revolutionists,
and individualists" in the period between 1748, the publication
date of Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, right up through
contemporary debates on communitarianism, "the clash of civilizations,"
and the status of the welfare state.
It sheds light on the inability of modern
political and social theory to explain either the mutual growth
of statism and individualism or the enduring presence of the state
itself, an entity whose very legitimacy is challenged by powerful
intellectual currents on the left and right alike.
It is not that Horowitz is a statist in
any ideological sense of the term. The author of a classic examination
of genocide and state power, Taking Lives, and one of the
few authorities on Cuban communism not to be taken in by the fraudulent
claims of Caribbean Stalinism, Horowitz has solid anti-totalitarian
It is precisely his antitotalitarianism
that led Horowitz to appreciate the fundamental importance of politics
in shaping a state and society compatible with human liberty and
The alternative to a totalitarian state
(or an antinomian society, for that matter), Horowitz argues, can
be found in a liberal constitutional order undergirded by decent
laws and social mores.
Horowitz is a political sociologist who
recognizes that the human condition remains inescapably political-there
is no substitute for sober reflection on the specific institutional
and social arrangements that support responsible human freedom.
On one level, Behemoth is an account
of the remarkable inattention to political analysis and judgment
in modern social and political theory. In a manner reminiscent of
Raymond Aron, Horowitz challenges the sociological prejudice that
modern social conditions have rendered politics obsolete.
For many sociologists, politics is an elite
activity which falsely presupposes that human beings can reflect
on and self-consciously influence their destinies. Social theorists
embrace a sociological determinism that denies any role for the
human element-and thus for the social theorist himself.
Both Aron and Horowitz capture a remarkable
paradox of modern sociological reflection: as the state's power
to affect the well-being of the individual and society has increased
exponentially, important tendencies of modern thought have denied
any genuine autonomy to political thought and action.
Horowitz's account of this tradition of
sociological reductionism is not only historical and descriptive
but also deeply prescriptive. He turns for his antidote to thinkers
who grasped the causal efficacy of politics, Montesquieu, Tocqueville,
and Weber in particular.
Montesquieu, for example, believed that
the political regime was the most important of the multiple factors
that govern men, that shape, as he famously put it, "the spirit
of the laws."
Tocqueville in turn held that modern "democracy,"
with its growing "equality of conditions" and its formal
acceptance of the "sovereignty of the people," could take
liberal or despotic political forms depending upon the prudence
Weber, despite nationalist and Nietzschean
aspects of his thought (which Horowitz perhaps underplays), hoped
to defend personal independence and political liberty within the
"iron cage" of an ever more bureaucratized and rationalized
society. Weber's political sociology sought to distinguish between
legitimate and illegitimate "domination" in a strange
fusion of constitutionalist and power-political concerns.
Each of these three great "sociological
liberals" knew that the state would not wither away, and hence
that serious reflection had to be given to taming it. In Horowitz's
view, each aimed at finding a principled mean "between anarch
and behemoth" and kept alive a sense of Aristotelian moderation
in an intellectual world given alternatively to romantic revolutionary
posturing and irresponsible re actionary nostalgia.
Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Weber are
Behemoth's heroes, al though the iconoclastic Horowitz is a disciple
of none of them. In any case he is certainly right that any effort
to renew the tradition of political sociology must draw on the sobriety
and liberality of Montesquieu and Tocqueville as well as on Weber's
realistic appraisal of power and legitimacy in the modern world.
Behemoth is in no way a dry aca dem ic
survey of the history and theory of political sociology. In addition
to penetrating discussions of a range of classic theorists, from
Montesquieu and Hegel to Durkheim and Weber.
It contains lively readings of such contemporary
or near-contemporary thinkers as Joseph Schumpeter, the Frankfurt
School's Max Horkheimer, Hannah Arendt, and Amitai Etzioni and the
so-called "communitarians." No reader will agree
with every detail of these interpretations and some are undoubtedly
more inspired than others.
The reading of Arendt is one of the very
best, a masterpiece of concision and equity. Horowitz is aware of
Arendt's characteristic defects: her propensity for rhetorical overkill,
her excessive love of paradox, and her romantic ambivalence toward
liberalism and liberal society.
On the other hand, he does justice to her
contribution to political understanding in such works as The
Origins of Totalitarianism and On Revolution, and assesses the
strengths and weaknesses of the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem
with admirable equanimity.
A philosophically minded social scientist,
Horowitz makes astute observations about Arendt's unfinished trilogy
on The Life of the Mind. There is some irony in the central
role that Arendt plays in this account of political sociology, given
her contempt for a discipline that she believed intrinsically reductionist.
Horowitz draws suggestively on Arendt's
analyses of statism, revolution, Judaism, and philosophy without
succumbing to the pathos or romanticism (i.e., her cult of classical
republicanism) that she too often used as a club with which to beat
constitutional liberalism-the only real alternative to Behemoth
Horowitz also exposes the pretenses of
contemporary communitarianism. Presenting itself as an alternative
to liberalism, in practice it is usually just liberalism's unselfconscious
cousin, preaching soft community in the guise of a hardheaded revival
of ancient virtue.
In their one-sided emphasis on civil society,
communitarians often forget the complex imperatives of governance
in a commercial republic.
Communitarianism, at its best, expands
the horizon of liberalism by reminding liberals of the moral preconditions
of freedom. At its worst, it is a facile substitute for sustained
Horowitz concludes Behemoth with a timely
reminder that the welfare state won't go away. He is less an advocate
of big government than a partisan of a prudent or conservative welfare
state that respects the need for entrepreneurial innovations and
Above all, he is a careful student of the
inevitable complicity of state and society within modernity. Horowitz
addresses this complexity primarily through an analysis of how the
dialectic of state and society relates to state tyranny and to issues
of political economy.
The dialectic of state and society, the
mutual dependence of individualism and collectivism, has ramifications
even deeper than Horowitz suggests, ramifications that can be explored
with the help of political philosophy.
Both state and society are instruments
for promoting the welfare of the individual, that specific construction
of modern moral and political life.
Hobbes famously gave an account of the
individual in a "state of nature" shorn of all
antecedent moral and political obligations.
The modern (welfare) state, while cooperating
with the market to meet the economic and social needs of the individual,
loudly proclaims his autonomy in all things related to his personal
This moral individualism paradoxically
leads to state coercion as the state increasingly undermines those
mediating institutions, such as the church and family, that restrain
and guide human freedom by giving it content.
Inspired by Irving Louis Horowitz's analysis,
the student of political philosophy must go beyond the frontiers
of political sociology to explore the connections between statism,
individualism, and antinomianism in our time.
Note: Daniel J. Mahoney is associate professor of Political Science
at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.]
by The Fresno Republican Newspaper.
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