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