“The time is coming when politics will have a different meaning.”

 “The time is coming

when politics will have a different meaning.”


Hans Sluga



The picture, once seen, is not quickly forgotten. — A barefoot young woman hurtling towards us. In the rush her dress has slipped off her shoulders; she is waiving a flag high over her head. Then we notice, with shock, the bayonet in her hand and we see the dead, wounded soldiers strewn on her path. She has no eyes, however, for these men but has turned to look for the others with her: on her right a determined young bourgeois in top hat, waistcoat, cravat, armed with a shotgun, on her left a youth brandishing oversized pistols; behind them a motley crowd, pushing forward with guns, swords, and knives.

Eugène Delacroix, the painter, has named his work simply Liberty Leading the People but it speaks, in fact, of more determinate circumstances. The city depicted is certainly Paris; the flag is undoubtedly e painter’s inspiration, so we are told, were Royal troops charging a crowd across the Pont d’Arcole on July 28 of 1830 in the midst of the so-called July Revolution[1] The scholars also inform us that in reworking this scene, the artist has drawn on a popular song of the time about a fictitious “strong woman with powerful breasts, with raucous voice and austere charms, who, brown-skinned and fiery-eyed, agile and walking with great strides, thrives on the shouts of the people and the bloody hand-to-hand fighting.”[2]

Despite the apparent realism, there is, we observe on closer inspection, something theatrical about this scene. The painter has transformed its details into a paradigmatic representation. The central figure is certainly not one of the actual leaders of the July revolution; she stands, rather, for Liberty – that enticing but ambiguous symbol of modern politics – carrying emblems of violence and promise just as the American eagle bears a thunderbolt in one claw and an olive branch in the other. Likewise, the figures surrounding Liberty do not depict real insurgents. They are meant, rather, to stand for “the people” – another ambiguous symbol – and they represent the different ages of man from the youth on the right and the young man on the left to the older men in the back and the dead and dying soldiers in front. The swords, the flagpole, the bayonet, and the boy’s pistols inscribe, moreover, an artificially jagged line into the sky while the young woman comes towards us in fluttering shapes that echo the wafting flag in her hand. From the silhouette of the city billows smoke in the colors of this flag (or is it the flag that recalls the flames?). Over the whole, the sun breaks through from two different, incompatible angles: once from behind the scene and once from the left. As we study the painting we come to realize that no real barricade would look like this, no flag would float like this, no city would burn like this, no sun shine like this. We are facing, in fact, an intensified, emblematic, symbolic reality: an idealized moment in an imagined upheaval.[3]

But for all its visual power and for all its symbolic weight, this painting is not exactly close to us and its significance not so readily available. The work is, after all, almost two hundred years old and separated from us both historically and in its aesthetic values. We shy away from its Romantic excess. We surely find it no longer in us to feel the painting’s original, giddying impact; we no longer find it easy to understand why this was once the most notorious painting in Europe, why King Louis-Philippe bought it up when he came to the throne in the July revolution only to hide it away from the public’s eye soon afterwards. As if to emphasize the distance, the work hangs today in a gilded frame in one of the great halls of the Louvre — a testimony to nineteenth century French painting. We are certainly familiar with its image from multiple reproductions. The figure of Liberty has become a symbol of France and the French Republic. Her head even graces millions of postage stamps. But all this confirms only our sense that the painter, his work, and the revolution it depicts all belong to a different era.

Why should we interest ourselves today, in any case, in a depiction of such a minor affair as the revolution of 1830?[4] Was it not a passing matter of just three days that brought one king down and replaced him instantly with another, a tremor that toppled an old cabal of church and gentry only to elevate a newly powerful bourgeoisie?[5] What can such a meager event mean to us now, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, when we have reasons to worry over the condition of our entire political fabric? In short: why this picture, this painter, and this revolution now?


Delacroix’s Liberty

            The short answer is that the July revolution of 1830 marks a threshold in Western politics – despite of its inevitably sorry outcome. The short answer is that the painter and his work gives expression to a momentous shift in how politics is perceived; they document the disintegration of an old conception of politics and the emergence of a series of new, contradictory ways in which politics will from now on be understood. The short answer is, finally, that Liberty Leading the People represents the first clear expression of this entirely new political state of mind.

It was Lorenz von Stein who grasped the significance of the July revolution most clearly at the time. In his book on the social movements in France – first published in the 1840’s – he called the July revolution an event of “world-historic significance” from which “dates an entire new epoch.”[6] That revolution marked in his view a critical point in the evolution of modern society, the moment when the diverging interests of a consolidating capital and an emerging proletariat became first politically apparent. For von Stein the real significance of the July revolution lay, in fact, in its failure – in its inability to resolve the social question that had precipitated it. In consequence of this failure, a newly self-conscious proletariat would begin to organize itself now under the banner of socialist and communist parties. Unlike the liberals who had inspired the July revolution, this “social” movement had little interest in the question of constitutional change. Politics was for it only a means for attaining social reforms and in the failure of the revolution it had proved to be a mere obstacle to such reforms. In consequence, those who had lost out in the revolution came to feel alienated from the state and its constitutional order and increasingly skeptical about politics as a whole.

Delacroix was not immune to this sense of alienation. In his body of work we find, in fact, only one other painting that has an immediately political reference – Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi of 1829 that refers to the Greek war of liberation the Greeks against their Turkish overlords. Barthélémy Jobert was right when he said of the painter: “Notwithstanding Liberty Leading the People and The Massacres of Chios, his work is among the least political of the century.”[7] And this fits Baudelaire’s characterization of his friend as belonging to a “distant class of utopians” rather than engaged political activists, to a “class of polite skeptics… more like Voltaire than Rousseau.”[8] In his journal Delacroix expressed, indeed, regularly disdain for all ordinary politics. After an evening spent in the company of politicians, he confided to it “how profoundly bored I am with conversation about politics, the Chamber, etc.”[9] Moralists and philosophers “never talk about politics; they consider their subject only from the human standpoint. Equal rights and other such vain imaginings were not their concern… Illness, death, poverty, spiritual suffering, these are with us always and will torment us under any form of government; democracy or monarchy, it makes no odds.”[10] While his early work indubitably exhibits sympathy for the revolutionary struggle in Greece and France, the painter’s political views became increasingly embittered in later life. By 1848 he was accusing the revolutionaries of merely wanting the new even at the price of abandoning the true and the reasonable. “From all the signs that have been staring us in the face during the past year, I believe it is safe to say that all progress must lead, not to further progress, but finally to the negation of progress, a return to the point of departure… Leaving the well-trodden path inevitably means a return to the infancy of society, and after a succession of reforms, a state of savagery must necessarily be the result of the changes.”[11] And still later, in 1860, he inveighed totally against all revolutionary change: “All revolutions invariably encourage bad characters and potential criminals. Traitors throw off the mask… They feel that the world exists only for rascals. They are at ease amidst the silence of decent people and flatter themselves that no one is left to judge them, or to bring them to the disgrace which they so richly deserve.”[12]

Even in 1830, the painter had felt uncertain about the political circumstances. Alexandre Dumas, who had accompanied him on July 28, 1830, reports in his memoirs that he had first shrunk away from the scene that was to inspire Liberty Leading the People and that “the people … had first frightened him.”[13] Delacroix’s detachment from the politics of his time is certainly evident in both Greece Standing on the Ruins of Missolonghi and Liberty Leading the People. Despite the often claimed “realism” of those works, they depict, in fact, a political reality translated into mytho-poetic terms. In each work the central figure is a symbolic young woman, representing “Greece” in the one case and “Liberty” in the other. In both paintings, that central figure is seen on a pile of rubble strewn with dead bodies. In both, the woman’s dress has fallen open to reveal her breasts. Where the real world of nineteenth century politics in Greece and France was made by hard men, the two female figures in Delacroix’s two paintings stand for the high ideal of liberty for which its followers are willing to die. The outcome of their struggle may be utter defeat or triumphant victory. Where “Greece” stands at rest, mournful, alone, unarmed, her hands wide open and empty, her arms spread in supplication, watched over by a victorious Mameluke, “Liberty” is shown as hopeful, dynamic, and in the company of her armed followers. Where the bare breasts signal vulnerability in Greece standing on the Ruins of Missolonghi, they symbolize nurturing strength in Liberty Leading the People.

The optimism of the latter work came directly from Delacroix’s experience that day on the Pont d’Arcole. Alexandre Dumas tells us that the painter’s initial fear of the crowd was quickly replaced by “enthusiasm” that ended up “glorifying” the people. The turning point came, so Dumas, when the painter noticed the tri-color flag in the hands of the crowd. Delacroix had various reasons for being drawn to this Napoleonic emblem. His father had served under it in high office, an older brother had fought under it as an imperial general, and another brother had died under it for Napoleon at the battle of Friedland. The flag meant for Delacroix a link to the great revolutionary and imperial past. Liberty Leading the People provides evidence, thus, of two things at once: of Delacroix’s detachment from everyday politics and of his willingness to attach himself – for a moment, at least – to different, extraordinary politics. We may want to take note at this point of a remarkable sentence the painter wrote to one of his brothers at the time of painting his canvas. It reads very simply: “While I may not have fought for the country, at least I will paint for her.”[14] We can take the sentence to express, in the first instance, the painter’s identification with the cause of the July revolution and thus as evidence of his political engagement.

But to what kind of politics was he attaching himself in this sentence? What he painted was, in fact, a picture of a politics outside the traditional framework of rulers, government, the state, and its order. Delacroix’s Liberty does not show us a ruler engaged in the business of governing or an emperor in the midst of battle. It depicts instead a spontaneous event in the streets.  The state and its organs are, in fact, nowhere in sight. Or, rather, they are shown only in defeat on the ground. The painting speaks, instead, of a populist politics that engages not only the powerful but “the people” at large. It depicts politics as violent action set on demolishing an existing political order – an action that hovers between two political systems, spills out over both and cannot be fully grasped in terms of either.

It is crucial to note that the painter was identifying himself in Liberty Leading the People not only with the particular symbol of the flag but with an act of revolutionary violence. Despite his initial fear of the struggle on the Pont d’Arcole, Delacroix had, in fact, been drawn from the start to this violent happening for he possessed – as he recognized – a peculiar fascination with all extraordinary, violent, transforming moments. In his journal he noted of his own work: “I have no love for reasonable painting. There is in me an old leaven, some black depth which must be appeased. If I am not quivering and excited like a serpent in the hands of a soothsayer I am uninspired.”[15] The urgency of this sentiment is perhaps most vividly expressed in a Lion Hunt of 1854 that was once admired by Baudelaire and that hangs now in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The work depicts, like Liberty, a violent confrontation and shows once again human bodies strewn on the ground; but the struggle is now between man and nature, not between men and men. At the center of its triangular structure – which recalls once again Liberty Leading the People – a horse is rearing high on its hind legs while its rider is stabbing a lion that has brought another horse and its rider down on the left. To the right, a second lion has jumped yet another horse whose rider is fighting back with his sword. In the melee it is far from obvious who will be victor.[16] What is most striking in this work is, however, not the violence of the scene depicted but that of its execution. The brushstrokes slash wildly across the canvas as if to test an as yet untried new way of painting. This rendering makes the work, perhaps, Delacroix’s most revolutionary artistic achievement in that it practices a style of work that was in 1854 still waiting to be discovered. In its expressionist modernism the small work represents, indeed, a gigantic challenge to the academic tradition in art with which the painter was at war throughout his life. While the Lion Hunt is, of course, not overtly a political painting, we can still call it political for two complementary reasons: its depiction of struggle and its struggle with academic art. Looking still deeper into its thematic we may even discover in it hints of a politics of our relation to nature, a form of politics that reaches beyond the usual concern with human relations.

If one of the themes of Liberty Leading the People is that conflict and struggle are at the center of politics, another is that politics concerns also people acting in concert. In saying: “Even if I have not fought for the country, at least I will paint for her” Delacroix meant, in fact, to express his solidarity with the popular party. That is made dramatically visible in the figure of the young bourgeois at “Liberty’s” side who may or may not be the painter himself but surely represents someone like him, someone of his own class and disposition. The painter shows himself thus – if only through a familiar – as looking at us from inside his own canvas in order to make evident where he himself is taking his stand and also as to challenge to us, the spectators, to take sides. But we must not overlook that the painter was taking sides not by actually joining the crowd on the Pont d’Arcole but through a subsequent act of painting in his own studio. In Delacroix’s vision, his act of painting is itself a political action. Innocuous as this sounds at first reading, the painter’s statement exposes, in fact, a determining moment in our political history. It signals the incipient disintegration of our traditional understanding of politics according to which politics concerns only government and the state.  depicts a new understanding of politics as popular, revolutionary violence, and it suggests also that something not traditionally conceived as political at all, such as an artistic action, as an act of painting may have a political character. It is difficult now to feel the entire disruptive force of this idea when we have come to say with such ease that “everything is political” or is, at least, potentially so. When Delacroix wrote of his act of painting as a painting for his country, as a political act that kind of language had, however, never before been spoken and it will, in fact, be more than a century before this way of speaking becomes fully familiar. What is new in Delacroix’s declaration is the idea that something outside the entire purview of politics as traditionally conceived may turn still out to be political in the strictest sense of the word, that “the personal is the political,” to use another recent slogan has it. But let us not be too quick in concluding that these historically consequences were clearly in Delacroix’s mind or that the painter had, in fact, discovered a new conception of politics in painting Liberty Leading the People and in writing to his brother about it. What, after all, did he mean by calling his work as a painter political? What concept or conception of the political did he invoke? It is not that the painter abolished one conception of politics and provided us with a new one. It is, rather, that his words hint at something coming apart in an old, traditional way of thinking and speaking about political matters and something new and as yet unformed is coming to manifest itself in a first, tentative, unclarified manner.


A reflective aside

Even within traditional terms we call all kinds of things political: actions and institutions, words and deeds, events and conditions, moments and situations, symbols and realities, governmental proceedings and popular uprisings. Is there a single property that all these categorically distinct items have in common? What is it to call something “political”? Is politics a natural kind? Or is there, perhaps, only a family resemblance between the various items called by that name? Is the political a “social construct,” an instrument of discrimination invented for some more or less evident purpose? We are in fact faced with two difficult questions: (1) what is being marked by the word “political” and (2) what is the significance and purpose of this marking?

The two questions are clearly related for how we answer the second, will determine how we must look at the first. Carl Schmitt, for instance, has argued that “all political concepts, images, and terms have a polemical [and that means for him a political] meaning… Words such as state, republic, society, class, as well as sovereignty, constitutional state, absolutism, dictatorship, economic planning, neutral or total state, and so on, are incomprehensible if one does not know who is to be affected, combated refuted or negated by the term. Above all the polemical character [and that is, once again, for Schmitt, the political character] determines the use of the word political.”[17] The remark throws a characteristic light on Schmitt’s political thought and must be a guiding methodological principle for the interpretation of his work. But here I am not concerned specifically with Schmitt. I quote him only because his idea that every characterization of the concept of the political has itself a political function seems to me plausible even when we distance ourselves from his characterization of the political in terms of a friend-enemy distinction. It is not difficult to illustrate our use of the concept of the political always has a political function. When Delacroix, for instance, writes that in painting Liberty Leading the People he has been painting “for his country” he clearly means to say that his work as a painter is political in the same sense as the revolutionary struggle of the insurgents on July 28. In writing this the painter is evidently identifying himself with the cause and the actions of the revolutionaries. His words have, in other words, a clearly political purpose. Or, to vary the example, when religious fundamentalists claim that abortion is a moral rather than a political issue, they mean to say that this issue should not be up for political debate and decision, but this is, in effect, to make a political claim. And when free marketers assert that economic matters should not be subject to political control, that economics and politics are sharply distinct domains, they are making once again only a political claim. We might say the same of those who claim that everything is political or that the personal is the political.

The assertion that any determination of the concept of the political has itself always a political function has a number of consequences. First of all, it implies that politics is not a natural kind. It follows also, and more disturbingly, that there is no absolute boundary between politics, on the one hand, and political science, political theory, and political philosophy, on the other. These undertakings must, rather, all be thought of as having some political function or other and they must therefore all be potentially subject to political critique. That critique will, of course, itself be once again considered to be potential subjects of political scrutiny and critique. There is, in other words, no “original position” set apart from and above the level of politics from which politics can be scrutinized and assessed once and for all in an “extra-” or “supra”-political manner.

Something else follows that is of the greatest relevance to my current consideration. Political purposes vary, no doubt, from situation to situation, from one historical moment to another and thus we should expect that the answer to the question what is being marked by the word “political” must also vary. Far from assuming that there is only one concept of the political, we should recognize that “political” is an umbrella term under which numerous understandings of politics can shelter.

That claim my run into the objection that since the beginnings of political philosophy in Plato and Aristotle, we have operated with one single, classical of politics.  We have always conceived of politics as the art of ruling or governing (and of whatever pertains to that) a polis or state. Every other use of the word “political,” so our critics might say, is either misleading or metaphorical. Let us be clear, however, about what Plato and Aristotle gave us. They gave us the formula that politics is the arché of the polis which we have adapted to say that politics is government of the state. The question is whether this formula expresses a single understanding of politics, whether it is sufficient to fix the concept of the political. Once again I find it helpful to draw on Carl Schmitt. In the 1963 preface to The Concept of the Political Schmitt writes: “Considering the ancient polis, Aristotle reached an understanding of the political that is different from that of the medieval scholastic who adopted the Aristotelian formulations literally but who faced something quite different, namely the opposition of the spiritual-ecclesiastic and the worldly-political; in other words, a system of tensions between two concrete historical orders.”[18] And another break in our understating of the political came with the rise of the modern state. For that state is nothing like the ancient Greek polis and our practice of government is nothing like the Greek practice of rule or arché. What has survived over time is not the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of the political but rather a formula (or, more precisely, a transliteration of a Greek formula) that was meant to capture a specific concept. We can say, however, more accurately that all the concepts that are subsumed under this formula share something. They may not have the same content but they have the same form. We can distinguish here between a concept of the political and a conception of the political in the sense that the latter can subsume under it a variety of different concepts. And we can say then that Plato and Aristotle have provided us with a specific conception of politics, expressible in the formula that politics is the arché of the polis or that it is government of the state and that this conception has proved remarkably stable so that it has obtained of a classical and normative standard of what we mean when we call things political but that under this stable surface different concepts of the political have come and gone.

But I want to add to this now that our confidence in this classical conception of politics has come to be eroded in a long, grueling process that began late in the eighteenth century, that manifested itself first in the age of revolutions, and that found an early and vivid expression in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I believe that some such story is necessary, if we are to answer two questions about the history of political philosophy. Namely, (1) why the political philosophers after Plato and Aristotle abandoned any concern with the concept of the political when this had been at the heart of the Platonic-Aristotelian enterprise and why these later political thinkers contented themselves with repeating the old Platonic-Aristotelian formula (or its modern equivalent) when changing historical circumstances forced them, in fact, to operate with essentially different concepts  and (2) why the examination of the concept of the political has become a major preoccupation of twentieth century political thinkers from Carl Schmitt and Hannah Arendt, through Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Zygmunt Bauman and Chantal Mouffe, to Sheldon Wolin and his well known book on Vision and Politics and finally to my colleague Martin Jay and an as yet unpublished work.


Hegel’s state

Delacroix’s Liberty marks a crucial moment in the decline and destruction of the classical conception of politics. Louis Philippe was therefore right in banishing the work to the cellars. He must have understood that the work effectively questioned the conception of politics on which his new regime depended just as much as the one it replaced. While politics was circumscribed on this classical view by the notion of the state and its order and by the ideas of rule and government, Delacroix’s painting depicted a quite different politics of individual commitment, of spontaneous action, of passion and violence, of confrontation and free association, of the pursuit of open ideals and the aspirations of liberty. In order to see how radical the painter’s reassessment of politics was, it helps to confront it with the most mature expression of the classical view which achieved its final formulation at the same moment at which Delacroix was painting his painting. I am referring, of course, to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right – a work of remarkable power, astonishing modernity, and indubitable originality yet ultimately dedicated to the preservation of the traditional, Aristotelian conception of politics.

The painter and the philosopher were in a sense children of the same age (even though they were born a generation apart) in that both came to maturity in the aftermath of the French revolution and in the sense that the thinking of both men was formed by this singular happening.[19] Nonetheless, their ways of understanding politics differed so radically that it is difficult to envisage any dialogue between them. I mean not just that they would have disagreed in almost all their concrete political judgments. More important is that they were concerned with politics to quite different degrees; that they differed in their thinking about the state, about the place of reason in politics, about the idea of freedom and about the meaning of revolution; and, finally, that they were divided most decisively by their respective conceptions of politics. We can say for that reason without exaggerating that the two men lived, in effect, in two different political worlds.

A comparison between them seems to come out at first sight to the detriment of the painter. Delacroix had at best a layman’s interest in politics; he was concerned with it only intermittently; and he was certainly not in any way focused on the great political ideas of the past. When he looked at politics at all he did so, rather, with a painter’s eye. Events, not ideas drew his attention. He painted Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi because he had been moved by stories about the Greek freedom struggle and about Lord Byron’s heroic death. When he came to paint Liberty Leading the People it was because he had been stirred up by the sight of the tricolor flag in a violent street confrontation. And what he had discovered in these events he sought to express not in words but with the simple flicks of his brush and certainly not in philosophical terms. Hegel, on the other hand, had a deep and abiding interest in practical politics. Already in early life he had concerned himself with political matters in Switzerland, in his home state of Württemberg, and in the German Reich and even at the end of his life he had an eye for the political conditions both at home and abroad. What distinguishes him most characteristically from the painter was, however, his determination to think about politics in systematic concepts and with the help of a scientific, deductive method. In criticism of political attitudes like Delacroix’s he wrote in The Philosophy of Right that it was “the quintessence of shallow thinking” to base political philosophy “not on the development of thought but on immediate sense-perception and the play of fancy.”[20] This meant to take “the rich inward articulation” of the state with its determinate architectonic “which holds together every pillar, arch buttress and thereby produces the strength of the whole out of the harmony of the parts” and to dissolve it in the broth of “heart, friendship and inspiration.”[21]

The painter and the philosopher would certainly have disagreed about the place of the state in human affairs. Delacroix’s painting does not conceive of the state as the essential locus of politics and it does equally not seek to understand politics as the work of reason. In Liberty Leading the People the defenders of the state lie, instead, defeated and dead on the ground and the flag in Liberty’s hand is not a symbol of a particular institution but for a state of a mind. Delacroix’s Liberty conceives of politics, in fact, in terms of revolutionary passion not in terms of the rational necessity of the state. Hegel was by no means neglectful of the role of passion in politics. But he sought to understand even the deadliest passions and the most chaotic struggles as parts of the unfolding of reason. Passions were for him the motor by which reason turns. While passion and chaos may disrupt the existing order on its surface, they advance at the same time deep down the self-realization of the spirit. States and nations, individuals animated by their particular and mundane interests and desires, revolutions and upheavals have all to be understood as “the unconscious tools and organs of the world spirit at work in them;” they are all guided by the innate necessity of reason.[22]

Under the impact of the revolutionary chaos and terror, Hegel sought to show, once and for all, that “the state is the actuality of the ethical Idea.”[23] Conscious of the historical disruptions of his age that threatened to sever the political past and from the political future, Hegel endeavored to establish that the bond with the politics of the ancients remained unbroken. It is in these terms that we must understand his attempt to preserve the classical Platonic-Aristotelian formula that politics is the arché of the polis, that it is government and state, and his belief that this conception is justified by reason itself. The term “reason” shimmers, of course, with multiple meanings and conceptions of politics as the work of reason vary accordingly. Hegel’s richly dynamic and historical notion of reason certainly goes far beyond Plato’s and Aristotle’s. Taking up ideas that he traced to Anaxagoras and the Christian tradition, Hegel could speak of the world itself as an unfolding of reason in which all contradictions are eventually reconciled in a single, coherent ground plan. Inspired by this vision, he could thus declare the identity of actuality and reason – “what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational.”[24] This assertion did not aim at justifying the existing state of affairs – as has sometimes been claimed; it was intended to say, rather, that even the apparently most contingent happenings in history have their place in an overall rational order. It is as part of the historical process so understood that the state emerges according to Hegel and since “the state is the absolutely rational,” and it follows for him from this that the supreme achievement and obligation of the individual is to be a member of the state.[25] Only in the state can human beings achieve their complete freedom. Thus, the interest of philosophy is to recognize the course of development of the idea of freedom in the process of its realization.[26] In the Philosophy of Right Hegel maps out the story of this development from ancient oriental despotism to the modern state. In the ancient Oriental realm “the principle of subjectivity and self-conscious freedom” had still been absent.[27] The consciousness of freedom had first appeared in the ancient Greek polis. But the Greek city states had been unable to fulfill the promise of freedom because of the institution of slavery. The demand for freedom had been renewed in modern times and in the French revolution men had proclaimed this freedom as their universal right. Unfortunately, the revolution had failed to live up to its aspirations. Instead of guaranteeing freedom for all it had succumbed to bloodshed and tyranny. There remained, thus, the task of constructing a social order in which universal freedom could finally be realized. In The Philosophy of Right Hegel argued that the solution of the problem of freedom could be found in the peculiarly modern institutions of civil society – that sphere of modern life where everyone can pursue their own needs, go after their own business, and pursue their own interests. But civil society can persist only, so Hegel, when there is a state to uphold it. In order to be free we require thus the continuing ministrations of the state and the law. We are free in society only to the extent to which we are united as citizens in the state. We are free in the fullest, Aristotelian, sense of “being for one’s own sake and not for that of another”[28] only in and by our submission to the state.

This was not Delacroix’s picture of liberty. His liberty makes her appearance precisely when human beings leave their post in civil society, when they lay down their tools and forget for a moment their defining social identities, when they overcome the divisions of civil society in the surge of the moment. Liberty is here the uncertainty that overcomes us when the rules of ordinary life are set aside and we face a choice outside the conditions of the normal, the expected, the everyday. The painter seeks to show us not only that in such revolutionary unrest we are most  properly free; he intends, rather, to exalt the revolutionary moment as the most vital, the most vibrant, the most genuine aspect of politics. His painting depicts politics, thus, not in terms of the calm operations of an institutional order, but as action aimed at destroying such an order or at creating a new one. Politics, so conceived, is not about the state and its offices and officials, the making and operating of laws, the steady administration and regulation of needs and interest. It defies any fixed, institutional framework and may erupt volcanically in the street in the most violent passions. Measured against such turbulence, institutional politics appears by contrast flat, uninspiring, and even alienating and will, perhaps, not look genuinely political at all.

The young Hegel, too, had been moved by revolutionary sentiments and these induced, no doubt, his lasting attachment to the ideal of freedom. But his original enthusiasm for the French revolution had waned under the impact of its fury and he was soon to speak of it as “a self-destroying reality” and as “the pure horror of the negative.” Even so he remained certain of the revolution’s historical necessity since with it “the undivided substance of absolute freedom rises to the throne of the world so that no power whatsoever can resist it.”[29] As time went, his taste for revolutionary passion diminished, however, still further. After the July revolution, he found it necessary to warn the opposition in England’s Parliament that “it might well be misguided to look to the people for its strength and so to inaugurate not a reform but a revolution.”[30] And to his students in Berlin he spoke of the July Revolution as “a major example of … one-sidedness in recent current affairs.”[31] This one-sidedness, he said, was due to a separation of conviction, religion, and conscience from the formal terms of the political constitution. In France this had led to the deposition of the dynasty since conviction had been “ignored by the constitution itself” and had subsequently reasserted itself “with contempt for all form.” Hegel concluded these words by asserting: “It is from this contradiction and the prevailing lack of awareness of it that our age is suffering.”[32] He saw, in other words, nothing positive in the prospect of revolution and understood politics, instead, as having the task of resolving social contradictions by framing an appropriate constitutional order that reflected public conviction and he took political philosophy to have the task of creating awareness of this need.

Delacroix did not look at the July revolution as part of an encompassing world-history. In Liberty Leading the People he was concerned, instead, with the image of a single decisive action. He depicted no large surging crowd moved by great historical forces but a small group of actors engaging themselves as individuals in the name of a sought for ideal. Delacroix wanted to show how politics manifests itself in individual action and as the outcome of identifiable intentions and choices. Such action is possible, he suggests to us in showing his agents as followers of Liberty, only to the extent to which there is freedom. We may call this a “Romantic” conception of politics, locating Delacroix’s vision in its time. We can also call it “existential” and so refer it to a more contemporary experience of the precariousness of the human condition. It is a politics that understands itself as not confined by the mundane matters of normal political affairs, preoccupied instead with some great ideal or an ultimate chosen cause considered worth fighting and dying for, with an issue, in other words, of life and death. Liberty Leading the People depicts the struggle for liberty as such an existential moment; it displays also, as the painter’s later journal entry reveals, a characteristically existential distaste for the politics of “the Chamber” and for all ordinary, professional politics. It perceives real politics to be, instead, a confrontation with fundamental concerns of illness, death, poverty, and spiritual suffering, and not as a preoccupation with the varying forms of political order, the different sorts of government, the normal, mundane life of politics, the divergences between democracy and monarchy. Delacroix’s view of revolution was certainly not Hegel’s, his “Liberty” was not Hegel’s freedom, and his attitude towards state and government was also not the philosopher’s

Delacroix’s revolutionary politics is a politics of individuals poised against each other ready to fight, if necessary, to the death. This view differs utterly from the traditional one that conceives of politics in terms of government and the state. For both Aristotle and Hegel the polis or the state is the primary given and both of them postulate a unity and identity of the citizens within the state. They were both, of course, fully aware of the divisions that in actuality cut across the citizen body and of the resulting disagreements and disputes that characterize political life. But these were for them only empirical facts and not part of their ideal conception of politics. They could imagine, at least in principle, a state in which such divisions are absent and in which citizens feel in consequence first and foremost as one. “Rationality,” Hegel writes, “taken in general and in the abstract, consists in the thorough-going unity of the universal and the single. Rationality, concrete in the state, consists … so far as its content is concerned, in the unity of objective freedom (i.e., freedom of the universal or substantial will) and subjective freedom (i.e., freedom of everyone in his knowing and in his volition of particular ends.” And he continues that all other matters “are no concern of the Idea of the state” and that this idea alone is of interest to “the philosophic science of the state.”[33]

Because he took politics without further question to be such a science of the state Hegel never found it necessary to account for his use of the term “political” even though he employed it freely and even though his analyses extended to other basic terms of political theory. In his early text on the German constitution he wrote, for instance that Germany had “become aware of its political condition” as the result of the war with the French Republic in which Germany had ceased to be a state.[34] But he never asked what made such a condition political. Was it that of Germany being or not being a state? Then again he wrote: “These spheres of power were fixed by the passage of time. The parts of universal political power became a multiplicity of exclusive property, independent of the state itself and distributed without rule or precept.”[35] But what makes that universal power political and how can it have become someone’s property outside of the state? “The political property of every member of the German body politic is most carefully defined by decrees of the Imperial Diet.”[36] Two questions at once: what makes the property political and what makes the body in question politic? “Political authority … has managed to separate itself from religious authority… It is self-evident that the highest political authority must exercise ultimate control of the internal relations of a people and their organization… Political authority must be concentrated in one centre.”[37] How is political authority here distinguished from the religious? Is political authority the same as government or is it that government may have or lack such authority? Is power or authority the fundamental political phenomenon? And what would make them inherently political?

Hegel’s understanding of the term “political” is, no doubt, grounded in his unquestioned allegiance to the Platonic-Aristotelian conception of the Greek polis and its rule. This does not mean that his notion of the political coincided with theirs. Hegel understood very well that the modern state is not the same as the ancient polis and that the modern citizen is not the Greek polites. But we may speak, at least, of structural correspondences between the two views. Hegel’s modern state is, in this sense, the counterpart to Plato’s and Aristotle polis and his notion of government (political authority, political power) the counterpart to their notion of rule. The Platonic-Aristotelian concept of the political and the Hegelian one share the same structure. They both identify a specific institutional order (polis, empire, kingdom, fiefdom, state) and speak of politics specifically as rule or government in such an order. Because this understanding of politics is so deeply entrenched it appears that there is nothing further to be said about that concept. The concept is taken to be innocuously self-evident. It is only in the age of revolutions that this ancient certainty is dislodged and new ways of thinking about the political come into view. It is this fact which is illustrated so vividly in Delacroix’s Liberty.


A second aside

I am not suggesting that Delacroix and Hegel had two different philosophical view-points. It is rather that one view of politics was philosophical and the other was not. Against someone like Delacroix, Hegel would have maintained, of course, that every conception of politics not only strives to be but also needs to be a philosophical one and that only a philosophical view of politics can be fully adequate. We shy away now from this assumption because it seems to give the political philosopher a preeminent authority in politics which we can no longer take for granted. We recognize, rather, that there are many perspectives on politics and, indeed, many possible concepts and conceptions of politics, that these are all constituents of the political realm, and that philosophical conceptions of politics represent only one possible kind of view-point – and one, moreover, that is not without its inherent problems.[38]

Hegel, I have already said, would presumably have dismissed Delacroix’s vision of politics as a piece of Romantic excess. I take the painter to have revealed, instead, something quite different: not, of course, that his conception of politics is the true one but that the classical conception of politics still endorsed by the philosopher has become seriously destabilized. We are certainly not at present inclined to see politics in exactly the way that Delacroix did. Thus, we no longer think of politics primarily in terms of the image of a revolutionary struggle. The great revolutions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century have left us, indeed, with few illusions. We find ourselves in a thoroughly post-revolutionary age.[39] It is easy to understand then why we are no longer tempted to conceive of politics in the way that Delacroix depicted it. But it would be mistaken to think that we have therefore returned to the old, classical conception of politics. Hegel’s vision of the state is as alien to us as Delacroix’s vision of revolution. If anything characterizes our attitude, it is, rather, a prevailing uncertainty over how we are to understand the political.

This uncertainty must be understood as the result of an expanding pluralization of political life. At the historical beginning of our tradition of political philosophy stands the idea that the polis must, above all, be a unity. “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a polis,” Plato writes in the Republic, “than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one? Or any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?”[40] Even then Plato will grant that the polis will consist not only of a plurality of human beings but also of a number of distinct classes. Still, Aristotle writes soon afterwards in critique of his view that a polis must not be too much of a unity. It has to be composed of a “multitude of people” (plethos) that occupy different social positions and perform different social and political functions.[41] This multitude will include characteristically farmers, artisans, traders, and hired laborers, of military of four classes: cavalry, heavy and light infantry, and marines. There have to be, in addition, in a fully self-sufficient polis holders of various offices: curators, superintendents, guardians, custodians, stewards, recorders, different magistrates of diverse ranks, and so on.[42] But this is not yet Aristotle’s decisive objection to the Platonic idea of political unity since it is far from obvious that Plato would have quarreled with the just cited Aristotelian observations. Both Plato and Aristotle are committed to a pluralism of numbers and a pluralism of social positions. Aristotle’s crucial objection to Plato is, rather, that there has to be, in addition, a pluralism of families and households and thus, of marriage and ownership arrangements. Aristotle postulates, in other words, a pluralism of independent centers of economic activity and sexual attachment. It is this kind of pluralism that he finds missing in Plato’s polis.

Our modern understanding of politics assumes, however, still another form of pluralism. Politics is for us not only a domain of objective facts, but one that contains within it as a constitutive element a multiplicity of subjective views of itself. Thus, if I had to describe to you the present state of American politics, I would have to tell you not only of the division between rich and poor, of the state of employment, of domestic violence and foreign wars, and other such matters I would also have to describe to you how Democrats and Republicans see the situation, what the mood and the opinions of the American people are. Political view-points do not hover above the level of political reality, they are, in other words, elements of it. This feature of politics was certainly recognized by Hegel when he asserted that the state is both an objective and a subjective reality. But our contemporary view of politics goes beyond that in that we assume that there always will be and, indeed, must be a multiplicity of political standpoints.  The division of parties and factions with their different ideologies and the resulting struggles between them is for us essential to politics. We can speak accordingly of a pluralism of political view-points as integral to politics. The recognition of such a pluralism is, we might add, an essential ingredient in our democratic conception of politics.

But we must recognize that modern democracy brought us yet another and still more radical form of pluralism, that is, a pluralism of conceptions and concepts of the political. Two individuals who disagree with each other on all kinds of policy matters and who have joined for that reason two different political parties may nevertheless still agree in their conception and concept of politics. They may both, for instance, think of politics in the classical way as government of the state while disagreeing over who should rule and to what purpose. But as we can see already from the many different twentieth century efforts to determine the concept of the political anew, we are now faced with a situation of a conceptual political pluralism in which we can no longer assume general agreement of what politics itself consists in.

We cannot exclude, of course, that there have always been various conception of politics in circulation but the fact is that till he early nineteenth century it is the classical, Platonic-Aristotelian conception that has been dominant and authoritative. The reason for this must, no doubt, be sought in the existence of a pedagogical canon that instilled this classical conception in both rulers and the educated elite. To establish this point, one would have to examine both University curricula and the handbooks for the education of princes.[43] This examination will show that despite all deviations from the model of Platonic-Aristotelian political thought the tradition maintained the ground-level conception that politics is rule of the polis or government of the state. This conception is certainly still alive in Hegel whose political philosophy is understood in the classical manner as “science of the state.”[44] But this conception is challenged already at the precise moment at which Hegel’s is composing his Philosophy of Right; one such challenge is contained in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

This challenge proved historically serious for two reasons. The first is the decline of the old ruling elites and the emergence of the democratic state. From now on, it is not only the conception of politics entertained in this elite that will matter. The conceptions of politics of ordinary people, laymen, non-rulers, non-politicians, even of the politically disillusioned and disaffected will come to have a functional role in political reality. We must imagine, moreover, that new conceptions of politics came to be formed as new classes of people got included in the political process. The second reason for the decline of the classical conception of politics is the dissolution of the traditional educational canon which reduced, in effect, also the role of philosophy in the formation and maintenance of understandings of politics. Hegel was not unaware of this threat to the authority of the philosophers. He wrote accordingly in The Philosophy of Right of “the arrogant declamations in our time against philosophy,” of “the contempt for philosophy,” and “the decay of thorough knowledge.”[45] The Philosophy of Right was, indeed, meant to buttress the classical philosophical conception of politics once more by putting it on a strict, scientific footing. But the endeavor failed and the pluralization of our conceptions and concepts of politics has proceeded afoot – for good or for bad.


After Delacroix, after Hegel

Nowhere was the July Revolution greeted with greater enthusiasm at the time than in Germany. Those unhappy with the political state of affairs on the Eastern side of the Rhine took the events in France as a sign that the age of revolution was not yet over and that the Germans might yet have their own revolution. But the forces in Germany driving to such a revolution were quite different from those that had motivated the 1830 revolution in France. The French, who had had a unified state for a very long time, had revolted against the prevailing order of the state. From their dissatisfaction with that order there could easily arise dissatisfaction not only with the state but also with politics altogether. Germany, on the other hand, was still divided into numerous principalities in 1830 while at the same time we see the emergence of a new and powerful sense of German identity. The hopes of Germany’s would-be revolutionaries were accordingly focused on the possibility of a unified nation state. Their goal was to establish a political order, not to question it. Doubts about the state and about politics were as yet alien to them.

            But the doubts existed already in France in 1830 were to take seed and sprout very rapidly also in Germany in the 1840s. Lorenz von Stein’s grand History of the Social Movements in France from 1789 to the Present Day introduced German readers like Marx to the doctrines of the French radicals, socialists, communists, and republican reformers. In Germany, too, there were by now the visible signs of a triumphant capitalism, a rapidly spreading industrialization, and the growth of an uprooted proletariat and these developments pushed “social” questions rather than traditional political and constitutional issues to the forefront of public attention. In consequence, the new generation of German radicals took over the ambiguity towards politics of their French forerunners. The decisive task for them, so they now argued, was to improve the condition of the laboring class and the natural arena of change was that of society not the state. The state might prove a help or a hindrance, it might be irrelevant to the inevitable social reforms, it might even dwindle away and be replaced with a new form of social organization; even politics itself might eventually disappear together with the state. The radicals of the mid-nineteenth century were, naturally, divided on these points. Some foresaw a society without politics while others contemplated the possibility of a new politics in a radically transformed, social state.

Most of these radicals remained, however, in any case attached to the classical notion of politics as government of the state and they expressed their critique of the existing conditions in terms of this particular conception. This is not altogether surprising since many of them had been students of Hegel and derived their understanding of politics from Hegel’s “science of the state.” In criticizing the state or in rejecting its institutional order altogether, they therefore saw themselves as criticizing politics and as anticipating even the end of politics in the coming social revolution. Thus, the anarchists spoke of a world without gods and masters, without state and government, and of a world in which social engagement would take the place of political action. In the midst of the revolutionary struggles of 1848, Michael Bakunin could thus proclaim his lack of interest in any new constitution, even as he was fighting on the barricades. To a friend he wrote at the time: “I do not believe in constitutions and laws. The best constitution in the world would not be able to satisfy me. We need something different: inspiration, life, a new lawless and therefore free world.”[46] Not all views on the future of the state were equally simple. When Bakunin rushed to Lyon in 1870 to assist the local Commune, Karl Marx denounced him for having helped to pass “the most foolish decrees on the abolition de l’etat and similar nonsense.”[47] Marx was, in any case, certain that the state could not be abolished by a revolutionary fiat. Instead, he foresaw the need to overcome the existing separation of state and civil society. The abolition of this dualism could be achieved only through universal suffrage and the attainment of “democracy,” but that development would mean also the abolition of the state as a separate organ divorced from economic and social life. This might mean in the end that politics itself, as it had been understood so far, would be abolished. We read accordingly in The Communist Manifesto: “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of associated individuals, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”[48] Marx’s own view on the future of politics and the state remained, however, guarded. But by the middle of the nineteenth century many others were certain that the fate not only of the state but also of politics itself was already sealed and those who speculated in this way did so not only because they linked the destiny of the one to that of the other but because they identified the essence of politics with that of the state and its rule. Delacroix’s anticipatory conception of politics outside of the order of the state played no role in this line of thinking.

We have to wait for a generation till Nietzsche to find a German thinker who considers the identity of politics and the rule of the state far from obvious. In Human, All Too Human Nietzsche makes clear that like others before him he is expecting “the decline and death of the state.”[49]  But he is holding this view on grounds that differ from the ones advanced by the mid-nineteenth century radicals. The state, he argues in Human All Too Human, has maintained itself in the first instance always as an object of religious veneration. “The interests of tutelary government and the interests of religion go hand in hand together, so that when the latter begins to die out the foundations of the state too are undermined.” The resulting decline proceeds, so Nietzsche, through a number of stages. First, there occurs the privatization of religion, next the religious turn against the state, then we see the appearance of an “almost fanatical enthusiasm for the state,” and this is followed by the emergence of democracy which in Nietzsche’s scheme represents “the historical form of the decay of the state.” Nietzsche sees this process as inevitable but as yet incomplete. While expressing hope that “prudence and self-interest” will preserve the state for some time to come and thus “repulse the destructive experiments of the precipitate and the over-zealous” he remains convinced that men will eventually reach “the resolve to do away with the concept of the state.” At that point, he writes in a wholly prescient manner, “private companies will step by step absorb the business of the state: even the most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of government (for example its activities designed to protect the private person from the private person) will in the long run be taken care of by private contractors.”

In contrast to the anarchists and socialists of the mid-century, Nietzsche did not assume, however, that this development would bring about the end of politics itself. He insisted, rather, that various systems of political organization have existed in the past but have since dwindled away, from the racial clan to the Roman family. “Thus a later generation will see the state too shrink to insignificance in various parts of the earth – a notion many people of the present can hardly contemplate without fear and revulsion.” Chaos is, on Nietzsche’s view, the least likely outcome of this development. More probable is the emergence of new and as yet unforeseen forms of politics. In his later writings he foresees, indeed the possibility of a “great, new politics” of the future. “Great politics, rule over the earth, are at hand,” he writes in an aphorism of 1885.[50]  But how are we to conceive of this new politics if not in terms of the state and its government? It is here that Nietzsche severs his understanding of the concept of the political from the traditional Platonic-Aristotelian formula and it is here where the project of determining a new concept of the political becomes a philosophical issue for him. We can say quickly how Nietzsche proposed to reinterpret the concept of the political and also why that proposal has proved unsatisfactory. A passage from The Will to Power is decisive in this respect:

From now on there will be more favorable preconditions for more

comprehensive forms of dominion, whose like has never yet existed.

And even this is not the most important thing; the possibility has been

established for the production of international racial unions whose task

will be to rear a master race, the future “masters of the earth”; – a

new tremendous aristocracy, based on the severest self-legislation, in

which the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be

made to endure for millennia, a higher kind of man who, thanks to their

superiority in will, knowledge, riches and influence, employ democratic

Europe as their most pliant and supple instrument for getting hold of the

destinies of the earth, so as to work as artists upon “man” himself.

Enough: the time is coming when politics will have a different meaning.[51]

Nietzsche’s reflections on the state and the possibility of a great, new politics raise questions that go beyond the limits of this discussion. Was he right (was Carl Schmitt right after him) in thinking that the state can exist only on religious terms? Even if we grant him (and Schmitt) that our political concepts have invariably theological sources and that the state was originally built on religious foundations, does it follow that the loss of religion and its language will precipitate the disintegration of the state? Has modern political thought not taught us that political theology can be replaced with wholly secular (Hobbesian, utilitarian, rationalist) theories of “tutelary government?” What then about the predictions of “the decline and death of the state”? One might object, in any case, that the state is still with us today. But it could, of course, also be that what we call the state is no longer the institution whose decline and death Nietzsche has forecast and that we fail to see this only because the structural framework of the old state is still there though incorporated now into an altogether new political reality. We can for the moment set Nietzsche’s speculations on the origins and the future of the state aside for it turns out that the question of the meaning of politics is really independent of them. All we need to assume with Nietzsche is that the state has not always existed and that it is possible to envisage a politics before and after the state. We may go so far even as to assume that the state could persist (in this or that form) but lose its political character by becoming for instance a bureaucratic machine. Such possibilities provoke the question what we are then to understand by politics. Nietzsche puts this possibility before us and does so in philosophical terms – a possibility that was first imaginatively depicted Delacroix’s painting. In arguing that the time is coming when politics will have a different meaning, Nietzsche anticipates, in effect, the intensive concern with the concept of the political of twentieth century theorists and philosophers. They all stand, in other words, in Nietzsche’s shadow.


Concepts of the political

Their work on the concept of the political manifests at the same time their dissatisfaction with Nietzsche’s attempted elucidation of that concept. Our political theorists have balked, so it seems, at two features of Nietzsche’s account. The first is Nietzsche’s insistence that a philosophical account of politics must be embedded into a cosmic ontology. Politics has to be understood, so Nietzsche, in light of the fundamental thought that “the world is will to power – and nothing else.”[52] Twentieth century political thinkers have largely abstained from such cosmological speculations. Their alternative view is captured in Carl Schmitt’s dictum that “the problematic and unproblematic conception of man is decisive for the presupposition of every further political consideration” and that all political theories are thus anthropological in character.[53] It is, indeed, true that, apart from Martin Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, all accounts of politics in the twentieth century are cast in anthropological terms.[54] Where twentieth century theorists have mobilized the concept of power, they have, accordingly, understood it to be a specifically human or social phenomenon. Thus Hannah Arendt speaks of power as resulting from human beings “acting in concert” and Foucault understands power as a network of social relations and somewhat later as an “acting on action.” Even if we restrict the concept of power to the human or social sphere, it has appeared to our theorists, moreover, that Nietzsche’s understanding of that concept is insufficiently articulated for the purposes of political analysis. For Nietzsche the will to power establishes a single, one-dimensional and one-directional relationship (an inheritance, perhaps, of Platonic view of things.). He describes politics, hence, as a system of dominion, mastery, and even tyranny over men and the earth. And he can speak therefore also of the beginning of the state “as a terrible tyranny, as a crushing and ruthless machinery” that kneaded and formed its “raw material of people and half-animals.”[55]Against this conception, Foucault has argued – plausibly – that all regimes of power are inherently unstable, that power circulates continuously in any regime, that there are always different and opposing forces at work in any network of power, that power is forever transferred among contending parties, that power comes from below as much as it comes from above, and that there are points of resistance in any regime of power. These characteristics of power relations lead, according to Foucault, to a series of historically contingent forms of “governmentality” and they prevent the emergence of a single political master race and of a stable dominion over men and earth of the sort that Nietzsche envisaged.

For these and other reasons twentieth century political theorists have sought to explicate the concept of the political in other terms. Some of these are already foreshadowed Delacroix’s Liberty. While that painting is surely not a political treatise, we can find in it nevertheless anticipations of a number of ways of looking at politics that have been made explicit in the twentieth century. Delacroix’s painting suggests, in fact, a multiplication of conceptions of politics that will become apparent only in the twentieth century. Looking at it carefully we can discern in it, at least, four future (twentieth century) accounts of the nature of politics.

First is the identification of politics with violence. This violence the painter makes visible in the dead and dying soldiers at the feet of Liberty, in the bayonet in Liberty’s hand, and in the various weapons that her followers carry. Delacroix was both drawn to the violence of the scene he encountered on the Pont d’Arcole and repulsed by it – but, in any case, fascinated by it as revealing an aspect of our reality. The thought that violence is inherent to politics is suggested even more strongly in a canvas that Delacroix painted a year after Liberty Leading the People  – at a moment when he felt, no doubt, disheartened by the outcome of the July revolution. This painting depicted Boissy d’Anglas  –  a man the painter had known and admired since childhood – presiding over the National Convention in 1795 at a moment when an unruly mob has burst into the chamber. A young deputy has tried to contain the crowd but he has been killed on the spot and beheaded. Delacroix’s painting shows his blood-dripping head held jeeringly up to d’Anglas while all around him (to use Théophile Silvestre’s vivid words) “the people rush like an angry river into the rooms of the National Convention. Walls, stairways, and galleries crack and reel; workmen, clubbists, and bums climb over each other, breaking their limbs; the representatives are immobilized; the president fearlessly contemplates Féraud’s bleeding head presented to him on the end of a pike, and the knitters leaning from the top of the balconies break into thunderous applause. A rare day painfully pierces the room above the teeming heads; dust raised by the trampling floats in eddies in this stormy atmosphere, shot through with the livid light of bayonets.”[56] In short, politics manifests itself in here in one of its many destructive forms. Yet, the painter is not shying away from what he discerns. He is reaffirming, instead, a view he had expressed already in Liberty Leading the People according to which violent action is at the heart of politics.

That there is a link between violence and politics is certainly not a new insight. But I know of no earlier paintings and no earlier piece of political writings that treats violence with such fascination. We are used, of course, to the thought that violence is endemic in the human condition. But this is commonly linked to the idea (expressed by both Hobbes and Schmitt) that we need politics to contain that violence. This is not, however, what Delacroix’s painting envisages. He is depicts, rather, the possibility that violence constitutes and is the content of politics. And from this arise two ways of conceiving political matters. One makes us want to turn from politics altogether in search of other non-political forms of existence. The other draws us to politics because of our fascination with violence. Both sentiments are, no doubt, at work in the painter but neither of them is forced at the expense of the other. The two sentiments coexist rather in both of Delacroix’s paintings. We have to wait for the twentieth century for them to find distinct expression. Then they motivate, on the one hand, strongly anti-political feelings (at work, in particular, in various pacifist movements) and they lead, on the other, to the syndicalist espousal of violence as the essence of politics and to the futurist and fascist  celebration violence as the ultimate political truth.

There are however, in addition two other views of politics depicted in Liberty Leading the People. One is that of politics as a struggle between opposing fronts that are willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause. This view differs from the identification of politics with violence in that it discerns an inevitable polarity in politics, a fundamental friend-enemy schema. Carl Schmitt’s view of politics is here in the offing. Shifting our focus away from the struggle we can finally also read the painting as depicting the possibility of a politics of solidarity. A group of men have gathered freely in public to act together under the banner of the ideal of Liberty. Hannah Arendt’s view of politics is thus anticipated.


A coda

            I have spoken here, in a somewhat sketchy fashion, of a process of pluralization that has shaped our political history. For the ancient Greeks, politics concerned a plurality of men occupying a plurality of social positions. According to mainstream thought – as captured in Aristotle’s Politics – politics also involved a plurality of families and households, that is, of independent centers of affiliation and economic power. For the moderns it became essential to think of politics in terms of a plurality of sovereign states and their interrelations. Modern democracy began to speak somewhat later of a plurality of individual perspectives and view-points and, hence, of a plurality of interests, factions, and parties. Twentieth century political thought has added to this the idea of a politics committed to a plurality of conceptions of itself and, hence, in terms of the possibility of political disagreement and of conflict over the nature, boundaries, and meaning of the political. The emergence of this form of pluralism has been my theme.

The process of pluralization I envisage has had a peculiar form. It is not that the kinds of plurality that came to matter at later stages in the historical process were necessarily absent at earlier ones; but when they were present they were not taken to be essential to politics and they were, in consequence, not politically activated. The ancient Greeks knew, for instance, of the possibility of factions and parties within the polis, but they saw them as irritants to be removed, not as constitutive moments within the political structure.

Looking at the entire process of pluralization from our current perspective we are led to ask whether it has now reached completion. There are reasons to think that it may not have. The conceptions of politics advanced by our twentieth century thinkers look already a little dated. They do not appear quite adequate to the most pressing political problems we now face: the problems that can be subsumed under the labels of globalization, terrorism, and the ecology. For Schmitt and Arendt, in particular, politics is still a politics of local spaces, but globalization forces us to consider the need “to give up our fixation on particular place as the ground of citizenship.”[57] The new terrorism confronts us with the role of fear and terror in politics but also with the less well understood deforming power of technology.[58] Schmitt and Arendt anticipate this question but, we must admit, not in a manner that goes far enough. Ecological questions, finally, force us to conceive the relation of politics to the natural, non-human environment in new way. Political questions arise for us is not only from our relation with each other but even more so from our relation to what is. But this is not a matter examined in twentieth century political thought.[59]

Our entire tradition of political thought proceeds on the assumption that politics is a specifically human matter and must therefore be understood in anthropological terms. The characteristic starting-point is the premise that human relations are inherently unstable or uncertain, that they generate therefore a host of dilemmas, and that these relations and interactions need thus to be controlled, regulated, directed, and nurtured by processes of political co-ordination. Globalization, the new terrorism, and the ecology, on the other hand, force us to think of politics and of human life in relation to that which is non-human. William Connolly has recently argued that the failure of earlier forms of political “naturalism” may be discouraging political theorists from the important task of determining “the place of human corporeality” in the texture of culture. He wants to encourage a dynamic conception of matter, biology, and human corporeality to advance our understanding of “language, freedom, identity and difference” and with that of politics itself. His hope is for a “layered conception of culture” that has implications for “thinking, judgment, identity, ethics, and conflict in politics.”[60] This brings me back to Nietzsche who sought to give politics an ontological basis. Unfortunately, his effort failed. Martin Heidegger after him once again set out to map a political ontology. That effort, too, may be flawed. Once we are alerted to the project of such an ontology, we begin to see that this is, in fact, an old enterprise. The Pre-socratics were, perhaps, the first to entertain it. What is new, however, is the fact that the possibility of a political ontology has gained a political meaning, that it has become becoming politically activated. Those who have eyes may see this development foreshadowed in numerous places – not only in Nietzsche and Heidegger but before them already in Delacroix’s transition from Liberty Leading the People of 1830 to the Lion Hunt of the 1850’s. We can be sure, however, that such an endeavor will not lead to conclusions on which all can agree. Our political ontology is likely to be diverse and contested and thus pluralistic in character.






[1] T.J Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois. Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851, Princeton U.P., Princeton N.J., p. 18.

[2] Ibid., p. 190.

[3] David Pinkney’s classical work on the July Revolution (The French Revolution of 1830, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J 1972, p. 256) chides Delacroix’s picture for being unrealistic. He might have done well to take notice of Delacroix’s later remark that “cold accuracy is not art” and that “the so-called conscientiousness of the great majority of painters is nothing but perfection in the art of boring.” (Eugene Delacroix, The Journal, edited by Hubert Wellington, transl. by Lucy Norton, Phaidon Press, London 1951, p. 127)

[4] Pamela Pilbeam, The 1830 Revolution in France, St. Martin’s Press, New York 1991, specifically chapter 1.

[5] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, London 1852.

[6] Lorenz von Stein, Geschichte der sozialen Bewegung in Frankreich von 1789 bis auf unsere Tage, Georg Olms, Hildesheim 1959 (reprint of the 1921 edition which in turn reproduces von Stein’s 1850 text), vol. 2, pp. 10-11, 53-54

[7] Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1998, p. 27.

[8] Charles Baudelaire, “L’Oeuvre et la vie d’Eugène Delacroix,” in Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 2, Paris 1976, p. 757. Quoted in Jobert, loc. cit., p. 27.

[9] The Journal, p. 58 (Jan. 26, 1847).

[10] The Journal, p. 65 (Feb. 20, 1847).

[11] The Journal, loc. cit., pp. 97-98 (April 23, 1849).

[12] The Journal, loc. cit., p. 403f (April 15, 1860).

[13]Jobert, loc. cit., p. 130.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quoted in Phoebe Pool, Delacroix, Paul Hamlyn, London 1969, p. 8.

[16] The painting is often considered an “unfinished” version of a similar work of 1859 that is now in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux. But there are significant compositional differences between the works and the 1854 painting can certainly stand on its own. The comparison between the two works helps nevertheless in deciphering some of the details in the earlier piece. Also of interest is a third version of the same theme from 1860.

[17] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, translated  by George Schwab, Chicago University Press, Chicago, pp. 30-32.

[18] Carl Schmitt, Der Begriff des Politischen, second edition, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1963, p. 9.

[19] “For Hegel, the French Revolution is that event around which all the determinations of philosophy in relation to its own time are clustered.” (Joachim Ritter, Hegel and the French Revolution. Essays on The Philosophy of Right, translated by Richard Dien Winfield, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1984, p. 43)

[20] G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, transl. T. M. Knox, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1952, Preface, p. 6.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The Philosophy of Right, 344.

[23] Loc cit, section 257.

[24]The Philosophy of Right, preface. On Hegel and the July revolution see Karl Löwith, Von Hegel zu Nietzsche. Der revolutionäre Bruch im Denken des 19. Jahrhunderts, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1958, pp. 40-43.

[25] Loc. cit., sections 258.

[26] Loc. cit., p. 568f.

[27] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, loc. cit.,  § 343.

[28] Aristotle, Metaphysics 1, 2, 982b 25f.

[29] G.W. F. Hegel, Die Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Sämtliche Werke, ed. by Johannes Hoffmeister, Hamburg 1950 ff., vol. 5, pp. 422, 421, and 415.

[30] G. W. F. Hegel, “On the English Reform Bill” (1831), in Political Writings, edited by Laurence Dickey and H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, p. 270.  

[31] “The Relationship of Religion to the State” (1831) from lectures on the philosophy of religion, Political Writings, loc. cit., p. 233.

[32] Ibid.

[33] The Philosophy of Right, § 258.

[34] Hegel, “The German Constitution,” Political Writings, loc. cit., p. 7.

[35] Ibid., p. 11.

[36] Ibid., p. 12.

[37] Ibid., pp. 20-21.

[38] I have dealt with some of these in Heidegger’s Crisis. German Philosophy and National Socialism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. 1993.

[39] John Dunn, Western Political Theory in the Face of the Future, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge 1993, chapter 4, “Revolution?”

[40] Plato, Republic, 462a.

[41] Aristotle, Politics, 1261a 18.

[42] Ibid, 31321a 5 – 1323a 12.

[43] On the place of Aristotle’s Politics in the educational canon of  the German Universities in the 17th and 18th century see the short but illuminating discussion in Hans Maier, Ältere deutsche Staatslehre und westliche politische Tradition,  B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen 1966. The bearing of Aristotelian political thought on Hegel is discussed in Karl-Heinz Ilting, “Hegels Auseinandersetzung mit der aristotelischen Politik,” in Philosophisches Jahrbuch, vol. 71, 1963/64. Also see Joachim Ritter, “’Politik’ und ‘Ethik’ in der praktischen Philosophie des Aristoteles,” in Ritter, Metaphysik und Politik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1977.

[44][44] Note even the full title of Hegel’s book:  Outline of the Philosophy of Right or Science of Natural Right and the State in its Ground Plan.

[45] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, pp. 9 and 8.

[46] Paul Thomas, The Anarchists

[47] Karl Marx, letter to Beesly, quoted in Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1968, p. 208.

[48] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in David McLellan, Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988, pp. 237-238. On Marx’s complex views on these matters see Avineri, loc.cit.

[49] Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human,” transl. by R. J. Hollingdale,  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986, vol. 1, 472, p. 173.

[50] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 978.

[51] The Will to Power, 960. The last sentence reads in German: “Genug, die Zeit kommt, wo man über Politik umlernen wird.”

[52] E.g., Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, § 36.

[53] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, loc. cit., p. 58.

[54] On the crucial difference between Heidegger and Schmitt on this point see Hans Sluga, “’Conflict is the Father of Everything.’ Heidegger’s Polemical Conception of Politics” ” in Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, ed. R. Polt and G. Fried, Yale U.P., New Haven 2001.

[55] OGM, 2:17. If we are to reconcile this with the remarks from Human, All Too Human on the religious basis of the state, we must assume that the strong crushed the weak with the help of their political theology.

[56] Théophile Silvestre, Histoire des artistes vivants francais et étrangers, second edition, Brussels and Leipzig 1861, p. 23, quoted in slightly modified form from in Barthélémy Jobert, Delacroix, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J. 1998, p. 136.

[57] Peter Euben, “The Polis, Globalization, and thre Politics of Place,” in Democracy and Vision. Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political, ed. by Aryeh Botwinick and William E. Connolly, Princeton, N. J., Princeton University Press 2001, p. 257.

[58] For a recent discussion of the place of fear in politics see Judith N. Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. by Nancy L. Rosenblum, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press. The persistent role of terror and terrorism in politics is explored in Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorist, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

[59] For a first line of philosophical exploration of this issue see Arne Naess, Deep Ecology of Wisdom. The Selected Works of Arne Naess, vol. 10, ed. by Harold Glasser and Alan Drengson, Springer.

[60] William E. Connolly, “Politics and Vision” in Democracy and Vision. Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political, loc. cit.,  p. 4.

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