kant in syria
Howard Williams interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Howard Williams takes his philosophical thoughts into the battelfield of Just War Theory to brood on the point of philosophy and the humanities, on the state of philosophy in Wales, on Kant and how he doesn’t fit with Michael Walzer’s approach, on perpetual peace and its implications, on international humanitarian law, on Syria and what Kant might think, on the idea that current Just War theories are predominatly Hegelian, on Kant, Hobbes and sovereignty and cosmopolitanism, on what Marx didn’t do next and what to do with neo-liberalism. This one’s a digging deep craw-daddio.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always like that?
Howard Williams: This is an interesting question. I trained as a political theorist, doing a doctorate in a Politics Department, and I now think of political theory as my initiation to philosophy. Studying political theory itself represented a migration from my undergraduate studies in economics and international relations. Whilst an undergraduate I became interested in Marx (this was the late sixties of course!) but I also increasingly discovered as I pursued my studies in economics and politics that at the root of many issues I was concerned with lay in philosophy. In this way I took a path diametrically opposed to Marx who had travelled in the other direction in the course of his intellectual development – from philosophy to political economy!
I think what embedded in my mind the realisation that I was headed towards philosophy as my chosen field was when, in the final years of my doctoral research, I spent some time in Heidelberg University. There I discovered the problems I was interested in were, primarily, and best dealt with in the sphere of philosophy. I wanted to understand how Marx’s revolutionary political outlook had grown out of his engagement with Hegel and Hegelian philosophy. The answers (or the best answers that were possible) lay in understanding philosophy and its history. Eventually my study of Marx and Hegel took me back to Kant. In the 1970s Kant’s political philosophy was very little researched in the Anglo-American world. It was a topic where one had largely to start from scratch – although knowledge of Hegel and Marx represented a good starting point – since Hegel at least had a good understanding of Kant’s philosophy of right. I found a response to my work in this field with my first major publication in the English language Kant’s Political Philosophy (1983).
3:AM: There have been questions as to the use and purpose of philosophy generally. You are involved in what seem to be always pressing and vastly important topics. But how would you defend the case of philosophy generally? And how do you account for the current hostility to philosophy and perhaps more broadly to the humanities?
HW: As one who has come to philosophy with the purpose of illumination I find no intellectual need to defend it. I simply could not live without philosophical reflection. However, I recognise on a day to day basis in the ‘life-world’ of the modern commercial economy the usefulness of philosophy is often questioned. It would be difficult to advise anyone whose primary purpose in studying was to get a good job (well-paid is often meant here) to study philosophy. Reading philosophy does not immediately qualify anyone to do or make anything. However, I would say the study of philosophy offers a great deal more than that: it offers the opportunity to evaluate all that we might do or say and the opportunity to contextualize those actions and words. I am not so sure there is great hostility to philosophy and the humanities amongst the public at large. We must be careful to distinguish the impressions we get of the public from the mass media and what its members may be like in their moments of reflection. I find that once students are introduced to philosophy that they quite often take to it with enthusiasm.
Of course philosophy can be difficult. It requires a readiness to question, to think hard and read widely. It also has frustratingly few wholly satisfactory answers to offer. It is not a subject suited to everyone, but it has something to offer everyone and everyone in some respect must embrace a philosophical perspective of one kind or another.
I see the pressure coming on the teaching of philosophy and the humanities in Britain today as being largely pragmatic and commercial. Universities (especially outside the oldest and best known) are under tremendous pressure to ensure that students end up with jobs immediately after graduation. Failure to have your graduates taken up on the job market can send a university plummeting down the many league tables that are used to guide prospective students into university. Parents in particular are very sensitive to the placing of universities in these league tables. Although any cursory glance at the university sector here will show that it is a very heterogeneous sphere, with each university offering a vast variety of different kinds of training and types of qualification. So it is only to be expected that the job prospects of individuals qualifying in one year will also vary greatly. None the less the recruitment market is affected by these global (and very rough) measures. This scares universities into putting on more and more directly career oriented degree schemes. Of course a virtue of philosophy (and many other humanities courses) is that it is not immediately career oriented – but universities which are run more and more like businesses don’t always feel they can follow the traditional (some might say, sentimental) path and continue to offer philosophy.
I have some experience of teaching and researching philosophy as a minority and threatened activity. I have a kind of subterranean existence not known to English language readers as a researcher and writer in philosophy in the Welsh language. Here the numbers of students are extremely small, but there is an engaged and more numerous reading public. I generally publish an article every second year or so on a topic of interest to me – more recently it has been a paper on the history of political philosophy as philosophy, contrasting Gadamer’s approach with that of Skinner and Rawls. I have also written one book on Marx (Gee, Denbigh, 1980) in Welsh and have contributed to two volumes. With philosophy in Welsh there is enormous pressure to demonstrate that there is a market for graduates and even to justify individual courses in Welsh.
The subject went through a noticeable decline (both in English and Welsh) in the Welsh universities in the 1980s and 90s. However, the prospect of the extinction of Welsh language philosophy has led to a reversal of the subject fortunes in recent years. The new Welsh language university (Coleg Cenedlaethol Cymru) has established a post at Cardiff University to maintain the subject and there are now all Wales degrees in place which permit students to take the whole of their course work in Welsh. Of course one would not like to see philosophy pushed to the point of extinction in English universities to bring about this kind of turnaround, but the prospect of decline should make alarm bells ring and lead wiser Vice-Chancellors to take steps to preserve the strength of the subject. I think it is Hegel who issues the dire warning that a nation which no longer pursues philosophy in its own language threatens its own existence. Naturally English will always remain alive as a philosophical language through its North American offshoot, but if the United States is the main source of its flourishing for how much longer will it be English philosophy?
3:AM: Your latest book looks at Just War Theory. Given the North Korean situation at the moment, this seems directly relevant to all of us. In the book you’re arguing that Kant shouldn’t be placed in the ‘just war’ tradition, but before we look at that perhaps you could introduce us to that tradition. Who are the key players and what are the key issues?
HW: My latest book, as you say, attempts to situate Kant in relation to the just war tradition -and to establish that he is a critic of that tradition. As I understand it the just war tradition can be traced back at least as far as the work of St. Augustine in the 3rd and 4th century where he argues that although Christians must be averse to war nevertheless there are certain circumstances where war must be engaged in by the followers of Christ. Although Christians should realize the imperfections of earthly power it is better to respect and uphold it rather than allow an even less satisfactory situation to emerge. Of course writers like Augustine did not think of themselves as beginning a just war tradition, but their ideas were seized upon by later thinkers in looking for classical authorities to support their theories. I think just war theory reached the height of its influence in the seventeenth and eighteenth century when it was adopted by international law as one of its accepted doctrines. Hugo Grotius, the Dutch international lawyer, was one of the first to give it this status but his influential writings were followed by those of Samuel Pufendorf, Emmerich de Vattel and others to great effect.
An important mediator between the early Christian doctrine of just war and the international lawyers of the modern period was the medieval theologian philosopher Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-74). He developed with some thoroughness a doctrine of just war in relation to his theory of natural law. Some contemporary Catholic thinkers still draw upon his (Thomist) doctrines.
A major figure in contemporary just war theory is the American political philosopher Michael Walzer. He developed his ideas in response to the Vietnam conflict which greatly divided American society. His object in reviving the just war tradition of thinking in the 1970s was to demonstrate that some wars (such as the Vietnam conflict) could not be justified. He contrasted the United States’s intervention in Vietnam to protect its interests with the ‘just’ defence which the Israeli state had put up against the ‘aggression’ of its neighbouring states in the six day war in the 1960s. Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars has been highly influential. A great deal of the debate that occurs on this issue centres on his writings. Walzer presents a very attractive theory which maintains wars are caused by aggression and aggression should be resisted. Indeed, this is what defines a just war for him: resistance to aggression.
Arguably the debate has moved on a little from Walzer’s philosophy nowadays. There is a new generation of just war scholars such as David Rodin who are prepared to question the just war paradigm. I have not been able to follow this recent debate as much as I’d like but it is encouraging to see a greater heterogeneity emerging in relation to just war doctrine.
3:AM: So how do you read Kant on this? Is it that Kant is saying that just war theories are flawed because they are part of an unjust international system and so are themselves tainted?
HW: One of my main objectives in writing Kant and the End of War is to show that Kant’s thinking cannot be integrated into the just war tradition and as a consequence cannot be tacked on to the debate arising from Walzer’s work in an uncritical manner. There is ample evidence to show that Kant in so far as he was familiar with the just war tradition – and it pretty much dominated natural law theory in its international dimension in his time – wants to avoid its vocabulary and arguments. Indeed the core of his argument is an attempt to establish an alternative paradigm to the just war view – one in which war is seen as an unacceptable manner of resolving disputes amongst societies.
It is true that one of the things Kant is saying is that just war theory is flawed because it itself a part of an unjust international system. But this is not a simple critique of the rhetoric or ideology of the relations amongst states in his time; rather Kant’s objection to just war theory arises from his understanding of the implications of human freedom and the doctrine of right upon which it depends. Kant’s understanding of international relations and his approach to war have to seen in the context of his understanding of morality and human freedom in general. Kant does not isolate war as a question for states and international law solely; rather he sees war in the setting of the kinds of relations that are necessary to foster human flourishing. It is a pretty general conclusion of his whole philosophy that war stands in complete antithesis to the proper flourishing of human society. Even in his most theoretical work the Critique of Pure Reason Kant criticizes war as the most unsuitable model of human transaction – one from which philosophy must distance itself if philosophy is to remain true to its aims.
3:AM: You argue that Kant would not approve of big military interventions such as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan recently with the purported aim of delivering humanitarian support and democracy and so forth don’t you? Why would Kant say these interventions were wrong?
HW: We have to be wary not to allow Kant to fight proxy battles on our behalf. My work is an interpretation of Kant’s philosophy. I am trying to outline what might be a consistent Kantian position on war. I do not claim the authority of Kant for my interpretation: I look for the critical approval of other philosophers and political scientists who have read the same texts and infer the same arguments from those texts as I do.
I am pretty sure that those who deploy the same methods as Kant does in his moral and political philosophy would find it hard to approve of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. So I am fairly convinced that those who have looked to Kant’s writings to claim authority for intervention in these countries (by the US and its allies) are doing so on mistaken grounds. There are a whole host of good reasons that can be drawn from Kant’s reasoning on war to show these interventions are wrong.
In the first place, Kant thinks sovereign states should be left to sort out their own problems. Of course many of today’s independent states do not have ideal political constitutions and their people are often unfairly treated. But these are matters for the people of those states themselves to improve. In the second place, Kant is absolutely clear that one should only engage in war for defensive purposes. And this should be a war that is actively willed by the majority of the population.
Kant is happy for representatives to take decisions on our behalf in most situations (those representative should be periodically accountable through election). However, when it comes to war Kant looks for a more active consent on the part of citizens. He emphasizes in Perpetual Peace that citizens should be involved in their own defense and it is important for him that they concur as a body when a decision for war is made. Thirdly, if states are to get involved in the internal troubles of other states they have to show that their intervention is requested by the people they aim to help. Where Kant notes that involving yourself in the troubles of another states may be acceptable he primarily has in mind those states which border on the troubled region. The grounds on which he thinks involvement may be acceptable only begin to come into play once it is absolutely clear that central sovereign authority has broken down in the affected territory and rival factions are engaging in war with one another.
In such a situation a neighbouring state might understandably want to support one side or another to see some semblance of legal order restored. Kant seems not to indicate how one should choose which warring faction to support, but given his general political philosophy which strongly recommends republican rule (in modern parlance: representative democratic government) it seems most likely that a Kantian would seek to aid the faction which is most likely to set the troubled territory onto a republican path. This is of course a matter of judgment at the time. Here Kant can be quite conservative. It may be that the faction one should support is not the most progressive of the factions involved, but because it is the faction that stands the greatest chance of re-establishing of central legal order it should be given preference. With the renewal of legal order one can then work for a gradual move to a more republican form of government.
Another factor that would have to be taken into account in involving one’s state in the civil disorder of another territory is the need for each state to see itself as a member of a potentially ever expanding peaceful union of republican states. Thus in considering involvement one should seek the affirmation of members and potential members of this union. Although in today’s world the United Nations is not the perfect embodiment of Kant’s peaceful federation, it has some of the characteristics of such a federation so its authority ought not totally to be overlooked.
3:AM: Do you agree with Kant that philosophers who provide war council are debasing themselves? I guess there will be philosophers who don’t think Kant says this, and others that would go ahead and council war even if he did.
HW: Kant appends an ironically entitled Secret Article to the second edition of his Perpetual Peace. In that article he requires that heads of states who are considering war should first of all consult the views of philosopher. By this Kant does not mean that high policy circles within governments should have philosophers as members. Far from it. What he has in mind is that governments should encourage the freedom of expression in their countries so that philosophers are able to give their opinions on pressing political and military matters in an unrestricted way. They should be allowed a public voice. As part of this arrangement Kant thinks that philosophers should steer clear of taking policy decisions. Kant is opposed to Plato’s view that philosophers should rule. Philosophers should be carefully heard, both by the public and those who govern on its behalf. As I interpret it, he envisages a kind of bargain between rulers and philosopher. In return for being able to comment freely in a scholarly manner on all issues of the day – and that discussion being carefully heeded by rulers – philosophers should hold back from being actively involved in policy making and seeking to lead public political action.
3:AM: Harry van der Linden pushes back a little against some of your ideas about Kant when he says that your reading underappreciates how ‘just war theory in the form of international humanitarian law has reduced at least some of the horrors of war.’ Has he a point?
HW: International humanitarian law is a wonderful innovation of the twentieth century. And the creation and recognition of international courts that has now occurred go well beyond Kant’s wildest dreams. They are evidence that the world is moving in a Kantian direction toward an international order regulated wholly by law. But I think it is mistaken to assume that there now exists a firm form of international humanitarian law which permits or encourages the waging of just wars on humanitarian grounds. It is true that the UN commissioned an influential report by the Australian diplomat Gareth Evans which recommended drawing from just war theory when the international community was considering humanitarian lapses around the world.
But as I have tried to show in Kant and the End of War attempting to tie humanitarian assistance to just war theory represents a mistake, and certainly one cannot draw support from Kant’s writings to justify such a link. Kant envisages a world sovereign authority emerging only after a long process of political and legal integration through federation. Until that process of peaceful federation is complete (and Kant is not very sanguine about its total achievement) he appears to think that the world should hold back from direct military intervention in the name of such a would–be world sovereign.
3:AM: Although limited, you do think Kant thought we ought to intervene in some cases but not support for Franco by fascist italy and Nazi Germany in the 30s. Would he have supported intervention against Libya or Syria?
HW: If we return to my responses above on military interventions in general we can see that when Kant comes to considering military involvement in the affairs of a military territory he looks for physical contiguity (how immediately is your state threatened by the disruption); secondly he looks at the chances of restoring legal order which favours republican rule; and thirdly he looks for the support/cooperation of the developing peaceful federation of republican states to determine whether action may be justifiable. Clearly in the instance of the Spanish civil war intervention by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany was ruled out on all three grounds. Neither country was an immediate neighbour, nor was the Fascist cause in Spain in favour of republicanism, indeed the fascists were fighting to extinguish the republican government. Equally both interventionist countries were opposed to the League of Nations – the only international organisation that at the time bore any resemblance to Kant’s ever-widening peaceful federation.
When it comes to the most recent events in Libya and Syria the same considerations have to be taken into account, and they have different, more complex implications. The argument for physical contiguity was not strong in the case of Libya: many of the states that were most actively involved in intervention against Gaddafi’s forces were not neighbouring states. However, it does seem that the powers intervening were in favour of the creation of a more stable legal state and did also prefer a representative/republican model of government. They also had an eye to the support of other states with republican/representative modes of government in trying always to comply with UN resolutions. On the whole also their intervention was requested by representatives of those forces who in the end were involved in an all-encompassing civil war.
What can one say about the current situation Syria from a Kantian perspective? Is it absolutely clear that the central power of the state has disappeared and the whole country is enveloped in civil war? Has central legal authority disappeared? At the time of writing it seems difficult to say that both conditions are satisfied. Israel is a highly significant neighbouring state that may feel greatly endangered by the developments in Syria. But are these fears shared by the Jordanians and the Turks? In all probability yes, but Turkey and Jordan are a good deal less likely to intervene. Arguably the Syrian state is seriously abusing some of the rights of its citizens in the troubled areas – but does this provide sufficient grounds for military intervention? Civil war has certainly broken out in some parts of the country but is this sufficiently widespread for us to say that central authority has broken down? Clearly there is no international consensus about what is going on or what might be done to prevent further crises.
Since Israel is highly active in the region its responses may well condition the response of other states and the United Nations. Military attacks that Israel has made on Syrian positions may have the effect of hardening the case against intervention more widely. It may also have the untoward effect of producing greater support for the Syrian regime amongst its own people. The danger is that the case for the transformation of the regime and the improvement human rights in Syria might be undermined by Israeli intervention. Israel has not emphasized the need for human rights reforms in undertaking its actions, nor has it claimed that sovereign power has collapsed in the country and so it must look to its own interests. Rather it has acted to diminish any future threat that might be posed by the Syrian state to the Israeli people – whoever is in charge.
Since writing the above comments in the earlier part of 2013 things have become a good deal more complicated (if that’s possible!) in Syria. The issue of the use of chemical weapons (apparently by the Syrian regime itself) has led to the increased open involvement of the United States in the conflict and also other key members of the United Nations’ Security Council. I should like to think that the cautious ‘Kantian’ approach on intervention I outlined above has so far prevailed and this has borne some dividends in relation to the more consensual approach that the Security Council has adopted. It may be too soon to judge but it appears that the agreement on the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile may lead to a moratorium on Israeli intervention and to the greater possibility of negotiations amongst the warring parties within Syria itself. I think the attitude that Kant suggests that outsiders adopt in relation to such tense and violent internal conflict, namely, of sympathetic concern that a just resolution be achieved by the peoples and states concerned, applies now more than ever.
3:AM: Another push-back is that much contemporary just war theory is Hegelian not Kantian. What do you say to this?
HW: I indicate in Kant and the End of War that the predominant tone in contemporary just war theory (particularly that influenced by Michael Walzer) is Hegelian rather than Kantian. None the less there is a developing tendency to seek to present a theory of just war that is drawn from interpretations of Kant’s writings.
Brian Orend (a student of Walzer) is a significant representative of this school, but there are other Kantian scholars that have suggested that war might be rightfully waged from a Kantian perspective. These include Susan Shell, Thomas Hill, Alyssa Bernstein as well as van der Linden. The final three mentioned have paid more attention to the question of humanitarian intervention than to the broader question of which wars are just.
Although the predominant tone of contemporary just war theory is Hegelian since the focus of its ethic is the well-being of the national state, Kantian arguments – which focus primarily on the dilemmas of the individual (be it the politician, the citizen or the individual) – are not overlooked. And in so far as the Kantian arguments are presented in their most authentic form they represent a significant challenge to the Hegelian trend.
3:AM: Would you personally commit to the Kantian line you find where we should be striving to bring about the conditions of perpetual peace? Aren’t there problems with this in that it overlooks the possibility that there are greater evils than war?
HW: The Kantian line is that upholding law requires, if one is to be thoroughly consistent, to seek to bring about a condition of lasting peace everywhere. This is because Kant sees all levels of law as interlinked. For Kant the doctrine of right concerns three interlocking spheres: the domestic or internal, the international and the cosmopolitan (which concerns all individuals on the earth). You cannot in his view fully enjoy justice in any of the three spheres unless it is also enjoyed in the two spheres as well. So you cannot be considered properly free if your state does not interact with other states on the basis of a respect for republican freedom in each and second, if you are treated with hostility upon entering another state.
Personally I find it difficult to believe that there are greater evils than war. This is especially so since the development of weapons of destruction has reached the point where their use might easily destroy the human race as a whole. I think many of the things we might like to believe are worse than war already amount to war: genocide, for example, is already a war waged against one people and terrorism is self-evidently a nascent form of war. A Kantian does not deny that such dreadful things can and do happen. What a Kantian denies is that the war such crimes may bring about is itself virtuous.
3:AM: Once policies/political leaders start saying they are striving to bring about perpetual peace the resistance to going to war on Kant’s terms are fulfilled. Such striving may have the revenge effect of actually producing more war? How would Kant (and yourself) handle this?
HW: This would indeed represent a paradox if the attempt to bring about perpetual peace led to more rather than fewer wars. I think the fear of this happening is based on a misreading and likely misunderstanding of Kant’s thinking about law and the international sphere. No state individually is charged with the compulsory goal of creating perpetual peace. The last thing Kant has in mind is a military crusade by powerful states trying to bring about perpetual peace. When he speaks of how the end of war might be brought about in Perpetual Peace he places emphasis how a large and powerful state may play a vital role in the process, but not through the use of arms but rather through its rigorously legal demeanour both internally in possessing and upholding a republican constitution and externally in relation to other states by adhering to the principles that will make possible a worldwide peaceful federation of like-mined republican states. It is the power of the example that is crucial here and not the example of power.
3:AM: You’ve written previously about how Kant is a countervailing force to Hobbes. You say it’s a contrast between sovereignty and cosmopolitanism don’t you? Can you say what this contrast amounts to and why you find this contrast important?
HW: Hobbes is a remarkably subtle political philosopher. His systematic writings on politics such as the Leviathan have to occupy all political philosophers. I have argued in Kant’s Critique of Hobbes (2003) that Kant engages seriously with the main precepts of Hobbes’s political philosophy. Kant indeed accepts a substantial number of Hobbes’s conclusions about the human condition – albeit Kant sees those conclusions differently. Kant, I argue, looks for an alternative to Hobbes’s conservatism/pessimism about our situation. Kant concentrates greatly on providing an alternative to what he sees as Hobbes authoritarian tendencies. In particular, Kant wants to allow for criticism with the state and also that through the mechanism of what he calls publicity this criticism should be heard and attended to by those in authority. Kant wants to take the focus away from Hobbes’s leviathan model of government to a republican form. For Kant it is crucial that we can see ourselves (through our representatives) as the author of those laws under which we live.
You ask about the contrast I want to draw between sovereignty and cosmopolitanism in looking at Hobbes and Kant. I draw attention to the contrast in my subtitle to Kant’s Critique of Hobbes . Cosmopolitanism is an alternative to Hobbes’ one-state-on-its-own viewpoint. In looking at this contrast it is important to bear in mind that by stressing cosmopolitanism Kant did by no means want to abandon sovereignty. But he understands sovereignty in entirely different way from Hobbes. Hobbes in his construction of the Leviathan focuses on depicting an all powerful force that can dominate the politics of a society. Arguably the time of the publication (1651) of the Leviathan marks the birth of the modern sovereign state and the advent of the so-called Westphalian system in international relations, where politics is dominated by national states and their interaction. Hobbes seeks to construct the state in such a way that it is safe both from internal and external enemies. Notoriously to achieve this he denies the right of criticism to the subject of the state. Moreover Hobbes believes that the people as a whole should be kept out of the political process. He thinks our freedom can best be safeguarded by a centralized state where power is in the hands of one individual or a body of men.
As result of the all powerful state he constructs, which is beholden to no other body or state, Hobbes depicts the international sphere as a ‘state of nature’ similar to the condition that prevails amongst human individuals before the state comes into being. In depicting the international condition in such a tense and hostile manner Hobbes’ purpose is not to transcend it but rather to bolster the individual state in such a way that it does not fall victim to the perilous conditions in which it finds itself. For Kant this represents the starting point of his political philosophy. The condition Hobbes describes may well be an accurate account of the relations amongst individuals and states but it is for Kant a condition to be overcome. Here I agree with Kant that we should aim to overcome both the individual state of nature and the international state of nature through the recognition of the rule of law. Indeed, the Kantian view is that both can only be achieved together. Hobbes stops at the border of states in seeking to establish a secure order, for Kant this will not work. In order to safeguard law and peace internally you must also aim for lasting peace and the rule of law amongst states. The acceptance of non-war like means for resolving disputes amongst states and the recognition that non-foreign nationals also enjoy rights within our state are not simply a desirable added extra for law but essential to it.
3:AM: So would we find Marx developing out of this cosmopolititanism? Is he more indebted to Kant than Hegel?
HW: Strangely in contrast to his reading of Hegel there is very little evidence that Marx devoted a great deal of his studies to reading Kant’s work. In many ways this is a pity since – mainly because of his duel with Hegel – Marx finds himself dealing directly and indirectly with many of the epistemological and moral problems that troubled Kant.
There is mention of the categorical imperative in one of Marx’s earlier articles. So it seems certain as with any other student of German philosophy in the nineteenth century Marx would have been aware of many of the central tenets of Kant’s thinking. And it’s possible he thinks of his proletarian internationalism as a more effective and concrete way of realising Kant’s cosmopolitical aims. It would be very satisfying if philosophy and reality could coalesce in the way that Marx believes and that the working class could bring with its political advance peace and freedom. But the connection could only be accidental. I think Kant is right in believing that for peace and freedom to be realised world-wide you need the ethical cooperation of people everywhere – regardless of their class background. It may well be that the life circumstances of working people may make more disposed towards republican political progress, but this in itself does not guarantee that supporting working class political movements will necessarily bring about such an improvement.
3:AM: A neo-liberal discourse still seems prevalent in the public sphere. Is this changing now? Are the sorts of consideration you are identifying in Kant becoming more visible? Do you think movements like the Occupy movement and the Arab spring have shown new possibilities, or are they bringing false hopes?
HW: I’d like to think that events like the Arab spring and the success of the Occupy movement portent a new and badly needed change in the discourse of our times. But is it too early to tell. Neo-liberalism needs challenging and no doubt will ultimately suffer the fate of all dominant ideologies in being discredited, but I don’t see that it is imminent. What does appear to be happening is that its dominance is being challenged. And I think that the careful reading of Kant and the application of his principles can play an important part in this process. There is a developing realisation that people have to play a more significant part in their own government. If you leave law-making and governing entirely to other people, and don’t seek to influence their reasoning you are likely to get misgoverned, at best, and oppressed at worst.
I think this kind of awakening occurred in the late sixties: then there was a call for greater participation and involvement in ruling on the part of subjects. But possibly a difference that is to be detected in present developments is the awareness that this widening of government and opening of channels to the public has to be a continuous process. I think the radicals of the 60s were influenced too much by the model of revolution: the idea that politics can be improved by a once and for all cleansing process where those at the bottom of society became its leaders and removed the previous ruling class. This model has now been discredited, instead there is a call for a more gradual and continuous transformation that takes on the form of metamorphosis rather than a complete overthrow of existing institutions and practices. I think those who described the transformation in central and eastern Europe came close to describing what I have in mind with their ironic phrase the ‘velvet revolution’.
3:AM: And finally, for the readers at 3:AM, are there five books (other than your own which we’ll be dashing away to read straight after this) that you could recommend to make us think further on these crucial issues?
HW: Five classical works I find indispensable are Machiavelli’s The Prince; Hobbes’s Leviathan; Kant’s Perpetual Peace; Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; Marx’s Capital.
Georg Cavallar is a very valuable commentator on Kant’s thinking on international relations and war. His Imperfect Cosmopolis is his most recent contribution to the field. Juergen Habermas has many recent essays devoted to war which take up Kant’s themes. Some are to be found in Divided West (2007). Michael Walzer’s Arguing about War (2004) continues his engagement with the just war theme in an engrossing and surprising way.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 15th, 2013.