Monday, December 23, 2013

Kant: Political Writings - H. S. Reiss

When the first edition of this book was published (1970), Kant's political thinking was mostly overlooked by the experts. Twenty-one years later, and after the Rawlsian revolution of political science, Kant: Political Writings became a reference text for undergraduate and experts alike.

As H. S. Reiss, the editor of this volume summarizes in the postscript (p. 272), "Kant's political principles (...) express basic human aspirations". Do you want to know how George W. Bush perverted the idea of democratic peace? You only need to know Kant's Perpetual Peace. Do you know that Ghandi's idea of civil disobedience is partly based on Kant's ideas?

As great and influential as Kant's thoughts are today, I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, and as a matter of principle, I am against the idea of "selected works" volumes. If you want to know about an author's ideas, you should really read everything that person wrote. There is no escape around that. However, academics can do a pretty decent job summarizing and picking up pieces of an author's work for general and mid-level expert consumption. And they are partly paid for that. In other words, if you want to get an idea about an author's view of the World, go for this kind of books.

Experts on Kant's ideas may also want to read the introduction and the postscript of this book, which are basically Reiss' interpretation of Kant's works. I found particularly interesting his opinions about Kant and the right to rebellion, a topic Reiss wrote about and about which I would like to talk about for the remainder of this blog.

Democratic transitions were one of the most important subjects of study in political science in the second half of the 20th century. Samuel Huntington, Barrington Moore, Francis Fukuyama, Juan Linz, and more recently Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, just to mention a few, devoted at least part of their to study how one country goes from autocracy to democracy. All the democracy theoricians were, whether they admit it or not, influenced by Immanuel Kant, whose biggest contribution to political science was the idea that democracy (he called it republicanism) would bring perpetual peace and that democracy was inevitable. Kant, however, opposed the idea that democracy could be brought from abroad -and that's why Bush's Iraq War is a travesty of Kant's original theory- and he also opposed rebellion against government.

The reason why this is important is because, in practice, democracy has always been copied or implanted by some external power; the only country that was born fully democratic was the United States. Also, democracy has never been brought about peacefully by a benevolent dictator, as Kant wished. Democracy theoricians and practicioners like Freedom House, the Open Society, and NGOs like HRW or Amnesty International before they were coopted by communists, base their action plans on a theory that works magnificently on paper but has barely worked as expected in reality. Does this hinder Kant's contribution to political science?

The answer is complex. On the one hand, Kant could never foresee things like a dictator gazing his own people, or the degree of surveillance and repression exercised by modern totalitarian regimes. Kant lived before the Industrial Revolution; Hitler, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and all the dictators of the 20th century were a direct product of industrialization and modernization. On the other hand, one could argue with some legitimacy and a high degree of speculation that the logical modern corollary of Kant's politica thought would be a rejection of totalitarianism and even some vindication of the right of rebellion.

Kant's political ideas became obsolete with the passing of time. That's the fate of most ideas, when you think about it. However, if we want to understand why we are where we are today, we need some minimal understanding of the ideas that brought us here. Two hundred years after Kantt, Rawls vindicated republicanism and the categorical imperative, and Michael Walzer tried to square the Kantian circle of democratic transition by force. Civilization is nothing else but a set of building bricks...

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