Marx, the State, and Spinoza: Against Hobbes and Schmitt — Bill Bowring

In 1859 Marx stated that he intended to examine “the bourgeois economic system in this sequence: capital, landed property, wage-labour; the state, foreign trade, world market“. [1] But he was unable to write his analysis of the state.

This post seeks to answer the following question: which are the sources on which Marx would have drawn in a critique of theories of the state? This question is also of contemporary importance. A significant number of scholars of constitutional law who wish to criticise mainstream liberal theories of the state and constitutionalism are attracted not by Marxist critiques, but by the writings of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben. A good example is the recently published Political Theology: Demystifying the Universal (2017) by my colleagues Anton Schütz and Marinos Diamantides; and the recent work of Costas Douzinas, for instance Human Rights and Empire: The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism (2007). I argue that they are all part of a lineage which commences with Thomas Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) made diametrically opposed claims as to the nature of the state. What they had in common, though, was that they were both materialists, a radical position in an age of “divine right”. They shared their materialism with Karl Marx. But Marx was a follower of Spinoza, not of Hobbes. In 1841, while in Berlin writing his doctoral dissertation, Marx made a substantial transcription in Latin [2] from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), especially from Chapter XX (“It is shown that in a Free Republic everyone is permitted to think what he wishes and to say what he thinks”) [3] and Chapter XVI (“On the Foundations of the Republic; on the material and civil right of each person; and on the right of the Supreme Powers”) [4]. These were the fourth and eighth chapters from which Marx transcribed. It is clear that after the three chapters in which Spinoza demolished divine transcendence and intervention (Chapters VI, XIV, and XV), Marx went straight to the passages which interested him most at that time.

Hobbes’ two major works were De Cive (1642) and Leviathan (1651). Spinoza published the TTP in 1670. In his letter of 2 June 1674 to his close friend Jarig Jelles, Spinoza addressed the profound difference between Hobbes and himself: “I always preserve natural right unimpaired, and I maintain that in each State the Supreme Magistrate has no more right over his subjects than it has greater power over them.” [5] In his strongest book, Spinoza and Politics, Etienne Balibar notes that for Hobbes, man’s natural right is unlimited but self-destructive, since every right infringes every other right, leading to a “war of all against all”. [6] In order to establish security, natural rights must be replaced by civil right, by a juridical order. The state of nature must be replaced by the “‘body politic’, in which the will of the many is entirely represented by that of the sovereign (the law)”. [7] Although from a materialist, this is the source from which the conservative Catholic (and erstwhile Nazi) Carl Schmitt drew heavily. [8]

In the TPP, which Balibar rightly describes as a “democratic manifesto” [9], Spinoza wrote that “the democratic state” is “the most natural state, and the one which approached most nearly the freedom nature concedes to everyone”. [10] Curley explains that Spinoza “attempts to deduce, from fundamental principles of human nature, both the tendencies to discord which make the state necessary, and the tendencies to harmony which make it possible”. [11] Later, in the Ethics, Spinoza wrote that “[a] man who is guided by reason is more free in a state, where he lives according to a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself”. [12] In his transcription, Marx highlighted: “So the end of the Republic is really freedom”. [13]

Marx put what he had learned from Spinoza to immediate effect. His first publications, in 1842 and 1843 respectively, were “Comments on the Latest Prussian Censorship Instruction” [14] and “On the Freedom of the Press” [15]. Marx cites Spinoza just once: “verum index sui et falsi” (“truth is the standard both of itself and of the false”) [16], but his animated rejection of Prussian censorship was Spinozist through and through. Marx wrote in his “Comments”: “Morality recognises only its own universal and rational religion, and religion recognises only its particular positive morality. Hence, according this instruction, the censorship must reject the intellectual heroes of morality, such as Kant, Fichte and Spinoza, as irreligious, as violating propriety, manners and external decorum. All these moralists start out from a contradiction in principle between morality and religion, for morality is based on the autonomy of the human mind, religion on its heteronomy.” [17]

If Marx had been able to examine the state as he had intended, I have no doubt that his elaboration would have had within it the spirit of Spinoza.

[1] “‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” [1859] in Karl Marx, Later Political Writings, ed. Terrell Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 158, at 158 (original emphasis).

[2] Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe [hereinafter MEGA], vol. IV/I (1976), 233–276.

[3] MEGA, vol. IV/I (1976), 5–7.

[4] MEGA, vol. IV/I (1976), 9–11.

[5] Letter 50, in Edwin Curley (ed.), The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 406.

[6] Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowdon (London: Verso, 1998 [1985]), 55.

[7] Ibid. (original emphasis).

[8] See especially Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996 [1938]). See also Jacob Als Thomsen, “Carl Schmitt–The Hobbesian of the 20th Century?”, 20 (1997) Social Thought & Research 5.

[9] Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, 25.

[10] Curley, Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 2, 289.

[11] Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 119.

[12] Ethics, bk. 4, prop. 73, in Edwin Curley (ed.), The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 587.

[13] MEGA, vol. IV/I (1976), 237.

[14] This text was first published in Anekdota zur neuesten deutschen Philosophie und Publicistik, Bd. 1. See Marx/Engels Collected Works [hereinafter MECW], vol. 1 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 109–131.

[15] This text was first published in the Rheinische Zeitung. See MECW, vol. 1, 132–181.

[16] Ethics, bk. 2, prop. 43, in Curley, Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1, 479.

[17] See MECW, vol. 1, 119.

Bill Bowring is Professor of Law at Birkbeck, University of London.

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