The Return to Kant

By Mike WayneSeptember 19, 2015

The Return to Kant

Kant’s Politics in Context by Reidar Maliks

THE “CONTEXT” IN QUESTION in Reidar Maliks’s careful exposition of the development of Immanuel Kant’s political philosophy is primarily twofold. Firstly, Kant developed his thinking about rights, laws, the authority of the state, and the emerging concept of citizenship out of his own Enlightenment philosophy, and in dialogue with two opposed political-cultural camps — political conservatives who supported the semi-feudal institutions of the day and who were philosophically orientated toward empirical description of those actually existing forms of life, and on the other side the radical rationalists, political advocates of republican reform who were philosophically orientated toward abstract ideals of reason, freedom, and rights. Secondly, Kant developed his philosophy in response to the 1789 French Revolution and its course through the early 1790s. Maliks’s account is both fascinating for what it reveals about the political-philosophical context in which Kant operated, and frustrating for its reluctance to address other levels of context that a return to Kant requires.

A detailed exposition of Kant’s ideas is a useful, but also self-limiting form of philosophy. To properly evaluate the philosopher today, we have to ask why Kant’s political philosophy is relevant, especially on certain key issues. For example, on the question of voting rights, or the right to resist tyranny, Kant seems to fall short, as we shall see later, of his own moral philosophy on choice and freedom. His radical interlocutors in the philosophical debates of the time often seem closer to modern democratic sensibilities than Kant. If that is the case, why is he the focus of this particular book? How is he relevant to our contemporary situation? To answer that properly, we need more than just a careful exposition of what Kant might have meant.

Kant and his interlocutors were struggling not just within a specific set of circumstances — such as monarchical rule in Germany, and the emergence of a revolutionary republic on its borders in France — but also an emerging and novel mode of economic production. This mode barely figures in their discourse, and yet is crucial for thinking about the context of their ideas and their relevance to us today. Enlightenment rationalism and its conservative opponents must be considered within their unconscious relationship with market capitalism. The reason why it is worth returning to Kant today is that the limits of his political philosophy still mark our own limits. Where Kant gestures toward contradictions in his own political philosophy, such as whether freedom is compatible with a free market economy, he holds up a mirror to the confusions and impasses which entrap us today when the free market has both gone global and penetrated every aspect of our capacity for reasoned intersubjective communication — what another German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, called the “life-world.”

A good example of this penetration of the life-world can be found in an otherwise very poor film starring Vince Vaughn, called Unfinished Business. Struggling to maintain his start-up company, Vaughn travels to Oregon and then Germany to seal a business deal. He stays in contact with his family via Facetime. His kids are having major bullying problems at school, and whenever they ask a question that is difficult to answer, he freezes on camera and pretends that the internet connection has been lost. His inability to be as involved with his family as with his business deal is an example of such colonization of the life-world. This split between business and the capacity to enhance our reasoning capacities through dialogue, through communication, whether at a personal level or through public and political communication has a historical ground to which Reidar Maliks never gestures.

Kantian studies has unfortunately been dominated by an at best liberal scholarship ill-equipped to critique the problems of a liberal society. Still, this is not to say that within its limits, Maliks’s book has no merit. On the contrary, this is scholarship at a very high level. Scrupulously well argued and rigorously structured, Maliks’s book offers some fascinating insights into Kant’s political philosophy and his times. Unfortunately, however, it cannot go beyond either.


One of the rewards of historical study is that it radically relativizes one’s own moment through the confrontation with strange political configurations very different from one’s own circumstances. What I found interesting in Maliks’s book is how foreign and strange Kant’s conservative critics look from our contemporary conservatives. Today, conservatism has somewhat contradictorily adopted the liberal free market with the zeal of a convert, but in Kant’s time we find conservatism still very much anchored to a residual feudal culture and polity that was not much enamoured with the centralized rule of Prussia’s Frederick II. Instead, conservatives were often aligned with the old feudal structure of the Estates — the decentralized local and regional communities made up of nobility, the church, peasants, and townsmen (traders, craftsmen, employees). These communities were characterized by multiple status divisions and complex reciprocal obligations, and many regarded Frederick as developing a centralized bureaucratic state that might threaten their local autonomy.

Against this, the philosopher Johann Herder developed a romantic, traditional, hierarchical discourse steeped in mysticism and sentimentalism. “Prejudice is good in its time,” argued Herder in terms that could not be more opposed to Kant, the rationalist Enlightenment thinker who advocated the use of reason to free human beings from ignorance. For Herder, by contrast, prejudice “makes men happy. It pushes people together at their center, making them stand firmer upon their roots, more flourishing in their way more virile and also happier in their inclinations and purposes.”

Conservatives would later articulate Herder’s discourse to the national states that consolidated themselves around Europe in the 19th century, under pressure from England’s mercantile, imperial, and industrializing Britain to “catch-up” by forging nation-states. Kant, on the other hand, argued against Herder’s happy feudal community in favour of reason; he was opposed to a concrete sense of community — especially when glued together by prejudice — and proposed instead an abstract universalism that grounded reason in freedom.

Enlightenment reason was not built to interrogate its own historical conditions. Accepting its ideals as ahistorical, as Maliks tacitly does, is a considerable weakness, as we’ve possessed the intellectual tools to understand those historical conditions since the mid-19th century. When we unpack those conditions, what we find is that the historical origins of rationalism are clearly connected with the development of the market system of production and exchange. The market makes equations between goods that level out their differences by finding what they have in common according to a standardized measure of value (money). This was the novel economic foundation, or material base, for the progressive spread of political ideals that stressed a universal equality between all persons — which not even the slave-owning ancient Greek democracy had dared to proclaim. An unconscious analogy between the formal equality of commodities and the ideals of freewill and moral choices was spreading around Europe. But if the market promoted those ideals, it was also destined to badly compromise them. In the meantime, Enlightenment rationalism came into severe conflict with the residues of feudalism and monarchism, and the conservative political cultures attached to them.

For example, Kant’s political philosophy came into conflict with the hereditary principle defended by the nobility, but which offended Kant’s meritocratic inclinations. Noting that the aristocracy may pass on their property to the next generation and thus perpetuate “a considerable inequality of financial circumstances among the members of the commonwealth (of hireling and hirer, landowners and agricultural laborers, and so forth),” Kant still argued that those born outside the charmed circle may “rise themselves to like circumstances if their talent, their industry, and their luck make this possible for them.” Kant’s attempt to square a kind of structural advantage, accumulated across generations, with the possibility of meritocratic social mobility has haunted liberal thought ever since.

The Enlightenment appeal to abstract rights was a radical call for equality, based on the universal characteristics of the human being. However, this ideal of equality was far removed from lived experience, historical development, concrete situations and specific attachments, passions and identifications — making it vulnerable to what we might call conservatism’s paradoxical “democratic” anti-egalitarianism. Summing up the conservative critique of Kant and Enlightenment thought in general, Maliks writes:

Individuals have no right to equal freedom because they act within a material world constituted by unequally distributed property. How much property a person has, as well as the social status of his trade, determines his estate, and estate membership determines civil rights. Since estates are hierarchically organized, rights vary widely in ‘scope and content’, and since the distinctions are hereditary, a person’s civil rights are inherent and dependent upon their forefathers’ social rank.

Although arbitrarily defending existing privilege, the conservative critique had the merit of actually addressing existing social relations and historical practice. In this sense it was a much more grounded discourse, engaged in the realities of actually existing lived experience and popular culture. But its conflation of what is with what ought to be meant defending a culture against every stirring of something new and more democratic, and a cynical alignment with power. Radical critics like Fichte, inspired by the French revolution in particular, argued that reason was coterminous with a republic where everyone had citizen status, and where something like the universal franchise — including women — was appropriate. Of course this chimes with our western democratic sensibilities today. But Kant — to the dismay of his radical colleagues whose Enlightenment radicalism had been inspired by his philosophy of knowledge and moral freedom — tried to mediate between conservative empiricism and radical abstract Enlightenment principles. This should not surprise us, as his philosophy of knowledge and aesthetics had both been attempts to mediate, on the one hand, between the universal and necessary foundations of knowledge and aesthetic judgments independent of experience (a priori), and on the other, the sensuous empirical content of such judgments. As Lucien Goldmann argued in his book on Kant, this was because Kant was trying to mediate between French Enlightenment thinking and the backward social conditions existing across Germany at the time (the sensuous content that could not be ignored as dogmatic rationalism tended to do).

In terms of his political philosophy, this mediation makes Kant look pre-democratic. He conceded enough to his conservative critics to argue that private property did confer a differential status on citizens, and thereby impacted on their ability to vote. For Kant, only those who had property sufficient to make them independent, such as landowners and craftsmen, counted as citizens with voting rights. Those who worked for masters — domestic servants, shop clerks, day laborers — were dependent on the will of another (the employer, essentially) and open to persuasion; as a result, they could not sufficiently exercise independent free choice in the vote, no matter what Kant’s philosophy of moral freedom might imply. Kant’s position here raises the question of why we should be interested in his political philosophy, which seems to lag behind both his moral philosophy and his radical critics.

Maliks’s reluctance to engage in the question of Kant’s contemporary relevance — which here is not at all self-evident — becomes a real problem. There is a sense though that, while Kant’s position offends modern democratic sensibilities, there is a truth to it: the ability to properly exercise democratic rights when people are dependent on others who have the power of private property at their disposal remains as relevant today as ever. This is the contradiction in liberal thought between political freedom and economic freedom. The value of returning to Kant today is to see that contradiction in its historical emergence.

Consider today how those with economic power mold political debate in terms of corporate tax rates and breaks as well as direct subsidies designed to make local, national, and regional locations attractive to global capital. Kant was not wrong: dependency on those with private property rights over others does indeed corrupt the democratic process, making political deliberation unfree of such coercive influences. He was wrong, however, in his supposition that those with private property rights over others (the owners of the means of production, as Marx would say) would exercise their democratic rights in the political sphere for the sake of the commonwealth, rather than their own private property or class interests.


The philosophical and political nature of Kant’s “mediation” between empirical conditions and abstract ideals was therefore inadequate. The problem was not that he had compromised on his Enlightenment ideals in the name of a more gradualist approach to change that bore in mind actual conditions. The problem was that those ideals would forever recede further away with the advance of “progress.” Within the timeline of bourgeois history, even if it were to go on for another thousand years — a doubtful and frankly nightmarish prospect — the ideals of reason and freedom cannot be realized. One could draw up an extremely long list of empirical examples to illustrate this, but one will suffice. We recently found out that ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, knew about climate change way back in 1981, seven years before it became a public issue. Despite this, the oil company spent millions over the next three decades promoting climate change scepticism. Private resources, private interests, private power, private knowledge: all mobilized at the expense of the public and at the expense of reason, and on a question that touches on the survival of the human species, no less.

It should be clear that within the timeline of bourgeois history, these fundamental contradictions between reason and liberal capitalism cannot be resolved. A qualitative shift has to take place. Then there can be evolution, reform, progress. But first there must be the qualitative shift. This takes us to the question of revolution, and that initial rupture that can open up the possibility of an alternative timeline.

The French revolution of course raised the issue of whether and when people had a right to revolution — a right to overthrow the institutionalized forms of authority in which they were situated. Maliks’s chapter on “Resistance and Revolution” is again a fascinating one; he advances an unusual argument to defend Kant against the perception that he simply fell short of his moral philosophy on freedom when he denied that people have a right to resist authority. The question of the legitimacy of power had a very complex class dynamic within the feudal period because of intra-class tensions between monarch and nobles, inter-class tensions between the landed aristocracy and the peasants, and later, in the emerging bourgeois period, the gentry and merchants. Maliks’s account includes such interesting historical and philosophical agents as the Monarchomachs (literally, the “king-fighters”) as an early example of a right to resist when monarchical power becomes arbitrary and abusive. So by the time of the French revolution, Kant and his contemporaries had a long prior history of philosophical debates linked to real history (the English revolution, the American revolution) informing their thought on the right to resist.

Naturally, conservatives rejected a right to resist established forms of authority. They argued that such revolts opened up the possibility of an endless overthrow of authority that would lead to the breakdown of social order in general, thrusting humanity back into a “state of nature.” Kant took much the same view, arguing that there are no rights to resist authority because rights presuppose law, so that “it is inconsistent to want a public legal system and yet deny its absolute sovereignty.” Radicals agreed with Kant that it would be self-contradictory for an authority to grant people the right to overthrow it, but argued that revolution was a matter of morality and conscience, not legality.

Kant responded by insisting on the legal basis for action within a constitutional set up — but this did not mean that he opposed the French revolution. Instead he argued that because Louis XVI had convoked the Estates-General in 1789, the first time since 1614, in order to address the financial problems of the Crown, he himself had established a constitutional body for his own overthrow. Having established a representative body that included the commons, Kant argued that the French revolution was in fact a perfectly constitutional settlement! Kant’s legalistic interpretation allowed him to support the Revolution — he did see it as an imperfect example of the progress of reason in history — while not appearing to incite revolution at home. The radicals by contrast argued, from Kantian principles, that a state forfeits its authority when it thrusts people back into a “state of nature”, i.e. a condition in which there is a breakdown of the bonds that constitute a social order.

This distinction between a “state of nature” and a constitutional order is interesting. For Kant the role of the state is to provide the legal framework for freedom and equal liberty. So his followers could argue that when that was violated by the state itself, the population is left in a state of nature from which it can and must reconstitute itself as a new constitutional order. This argument obviously lent itself to providing republican and bourgeois interests with a philosophical underpinning to revolt against monarchical rule. But the argument about being thrust back into a “state of nature” also seems to rebound on the new emerging capitalist order — although to see this requires breaking with Maliks’s liberal framework. There is an inherent tension within capitalism between its need for a social order that makes the existence of labour and capital possible, and its self-dissolving repression of the social because of its foundation built on private ownership of the means of production. In its popular “social Darwinist” ideology, capitalism openly revels in comparing itself with the state of nature where only the “fittest survive” and where poverty and destitution daily break the social bonds that validate an order. As Friedrich Engels put it:

Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind […] when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can elevate mankind above the rest of the animal world socially in the same way that production in general has done this […]

In many ways we are still in the state of nature, the state of being at the mercy of blind forces and irrational outcomes — but the causality for this has moved primarily from the sphere of politics to the sphere of economics. Liberalism has played a crucial role in advancing our political freedoms, but it is the philosophy that protects the economic sphere from democratic accountability. If liberalism and the advance of reason were once sufficiently paired, we can see in a return to Kant, the already emerging contradictions which more than two centuries later make liberalism the enemy of reason and democracy.


Mike Wayne is a Professor in Screen Studies at Brunel University (UK).

LARB Contributor

Mike Wayne is a Professor in Screen Studies at Brunel University (UK). His research interests cross film and television studies, Marxist cultural theory and aesthetic philosophy and documentary film production (as theorist and filmmaker). His most recent book is Red Kant: Aesthetics, Marxism and the Third Critique (Bloomsbury 2014). He is also the author of an introduction to Marx’s magnum opus, Marx’s Das Kapital For Beginners (2012) and co-director of a documentary feature inspired by Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class (2012 – For more details on his work see:


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