Karl Marx versus Thomas Hobbes: A Deconstruction of the Opposition Between Ideal and Nonideal Theory

Philosophers typically present ideal and nonideal theories as distinct analytical frameworks. For example, Plato whom viewed the realm of becoming as “impenetrable and full of shadows,” presented his Republic as a top-down idealized view of the world as a purely ideal enterprise. Marx, by contrast, cast abstract ideals as “false conceptions” and presented his nonideal approach to social and political philosophy as a purely nonideal enterprise devoid of abstract “chimeras.” But is a pure ideal theory or nonideal theory possible? Can social and political questions be approached without idealization or without empiricizing or historicizing? Through a comparison of the role of ideal and nonideal theory in Thomas Hobbes’ and Karl Marx’s accounts of the modern state, this paper challenges the opposition between ideal and nonideal theory by illuminating the nonideal theorizations hidden within ideal theory and ideal theorizations.

The claim that a social contract is the foundation of the state qualifies Hobbes’ account of legitimate political authority as ideal theory. Yet, the argument Hobbes presents for “sovereignty by institution” is aporetic: the conditions of its possibility are at the same time the conditions of its impossibility. The problem is that the initial covenant between natural men to 1) surrender their rights of nature and 2) authorize the sovereign would be impossible in the state of nature as Hobbes describes it: a war of “everyman against everyman” governed not by law and shared “notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice” but rather by the fear and existential uncertainties arising from the perpetual threat of death.  The convent to surrender the rights of nature is unenforceable in the pre-political condition because only the state possess the common and coercive authority necessary to enforce contracts in a condition where “private appetite is the measure of good and evill.” The social contract which thus brings the state into being cannot exist unless we presuppose the prior existence of a state with sufficient coercive authority. But if we presuppose this we loose the state of nature down a rabbit hole of infinite regress: natural man must covenant to institute the state and the state is required to meaningfully covenant. Hence, Hobbes’ account of the genesis of the state—its basis of legitimacy in a social contract—is impossible.

This lacuna is exactly what makes Hobbes interesting. On the surface, the Leviathan reads as a manual explaining how to institute a sovereign-absolutist state, it’s a guide to creating order out of chaos. In the text, Hobbes projects his readers back in time to the state’s prehistory. The social contract serves as a teleportation device. It projects readers forward on the arrow of time by depicting the moment of the state’s institution. What we get on the surface is thus narrative of the social contract—Reason—as a rupture. It brings man into modernity vis-a-vis the state, an institution which functions as a hermetic seal that prevents the premodern from seeping into the modern, chaos from contaminating order, and anarchy from undermining the law.  However, the insight that the social contract cannot bring the state into being, reveals the Leviathan’s hidden nonideal underbelly. From this perspective, Hobbes presents a nonideal account of ideology which explains how the modern state supports and justifies itself in the “real world.” What’s important here is not how the state comes into being, but rather its ability protect its subjects from the threat anarchy and imminent death. Isn’t this exactly how Canada justifies itself today: it protects Canadians from the threat of “terrorism.”  The social contract metaphor is thus a (deliberate?) dissimulation obscuring the violence required not only to found an actual state, but in the process of modernization itself. By presenting the state as the means of man’s salvation from the insecurity and chaos of the lawless state of nature, it confers legitimacy onto the state and the project of modernity itself. It sanctions virtually unlimited sovereign power; it collapses law and justice thus licensing the state with a monopoly on violence. Thus what appears threatening in Hobbes’ account of the modern state is not the absolute power arrogated to the sovereign but rather the destruction of the modern state, an event which would throw man back into the state of nature.  Hence, the subjects of the state are obligated by the state itself not to break the “social contract.”

From this perspective, Hobbes’s account of the state looks a lot like Marx and Engels’ nonideal account of the origins and genesis of the bourgeois state. Consider their description of the necessity against which they imagine the state to have emerged:

But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.


Engels is clear here. The state arose when class antagonisms could not be resolved, and functions to mediate conflict so as to prevent the slide into chaos understood as class war. Certain aspects of Hobbes’s state of nature suggest he may have had nonideal class antagonisms in mind when he wrote the Leviathan. The natural equalities between men (strength and intelligence), and the prudential calculus which gives rise to “the perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceases only death” in which power is understood as the “present means to acquire some future apparent good” is consistent with the rational actor of classical economics and the presumption of limitless desire driving her. The depiction of the state of nature as the site of violent conflict arising over scarce resources is also consistent with capitalist enterprise which presupposes conditions of scarcity in its conception of competition. Hobbes’ lamentations about the lack of industry and culture in the state of nature, and his assertion that the desire for commodious living motivated natural man to exit the state of nature furthermore suggests that his account of the modern state reflects his own desire to furnish the conditions for the expansion of industry.

Yet Marx and Engels’ evaluation of the state is clearly distinct from that of Hobbes. Whereas the latter located the origins of the state in an (impossible) social contract, the former view this metaphor as an instance of ideological mystification. According to Marx and Engels, Hobbes’ ideal theory framework is thus an example of German philosophy (i.e., ideal theory), so defined because it “descends from heaven to earth.” To avoid this approach, Marx and Engels’ claim to use the methods of “real science.” Their point of departure is not a “fictitious primordial state” which “assumes as a fact, [and] presents as a history, what has to be explained.” Rather, their entry into the subject are “real premises,” “natural bases” which “can […] be verified in a purely empirical way.” “[R]eality as it has been depicted by philosophy as an independent branch of activity” is unimportant relative to man’s production of his material life because consciousness  “can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process.” Hence, their inquiry begins with the first historical act: “the production of the means” to satisfy human life. Although a reconstruction of their nonideal account of the bourgeois state is beyond the scope of this paper, their idea is straightforward: an inquiry into the bourgeois state’s genesis which departs from the first historical act—men (re-)producing the material conditions of their existence—results in a view of the state as it actually is. In others words, Marx and Engels’ nonideal approach leads to a view of the state which is an inversion of the Leviathan’s ideal image of it. Their nonideal outlook reveals the state as a human construction which is bound up with the economic mode of production. During the Feudal epoch, for instance, the feudal state serves the interests of the feudal lord and thus functions primarily to secure the fiefdom from various internal and external threats by regulating the relations between the aristocracy and the feudal serfs. Stated differently, the state continually evolves “out of the life-process of definite individuals […] as they really are; i.e. as they operate, produce materially, and hence as they work under definite material limits, presuppositions and conditions independent of their will.”

One peculiar feature of the state and its relationship to the economic base is that it appears “upside down” to the common man: this is ideology. Through the lens of ideology the state appears as an institution which serves the interests of the whole. On the surface it functions to maintain social order by mediating conflicts between various groups (e.g., between democrats and republicans or monarchists and parliamentarians). What gets obscured as these conflicts are articulated through ideological apparatuses of the state is that such conflicts are manifestations of class antagonisms that the state seeks to neutralize in the interests of the ruling class. Hence, Marx and Engels’ nonideal account depicts the bourgeois state as a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The state’s legitimacy rests on the illusion that it represents the interests of the individual; indeed, that it was forged of a social contract. Such mystifications conceal its secret pact with the ruling class. To put it in the language of vulgar Marxism, the state is nothing but the ideological superstructure which supports and justifies the base: the capitalist mode of production.

As the ideological superstructure of capitalism, Marx and Engels predict the state will “whither away” during the final stage of the communist revolution, as the workers use their newly acquired political power to appropriate “all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible” “by means of despotic inroads.” Because the capitalist mode of production is the only cause of class distinctions and thus the cause of class antagonisms, the abolition of classes and the destruction of the “old bourgeois society” will give rise to an association in which the means of production are shared amongst the people and the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” This association will facilitate the state’s dissolution not because the post-Revolutionary association will only consist of a few centralized functions (e.g., the administration of education), but rather because public power will cease to be political (sovereign) power, i.e., “the organized power of one class for oppressing another,” in the absence of class antagonisms.

Because Marx and Engels’ approach the bourgeois state from the ground up, starting with an irrefutable premise, i.e, the first historical act (described above), from one angle their account of its genesis and decline appears as nonideal. However, just as Hobbes’ idealized account of legitimacy of the modern state contained certain hidden nonideal truths about its origins and legitimacy, Marx and Engels’ account hides certain ideal speculations pertaining to the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat, the materialist conception of history, and the post-Revolutionary “association.”

Marx and Engels’ bifurcation of all social identities into the bourgeois and the proletariat isn’t a classic instance of Platonic essentialism since one of the innovations of their nonideal approach is the view that social positions are historically determined. For instance, the feudal lord during the Feudal epoch would have understood his social position as predestined by God and the “great chain of being” would have provided ideological cover to the economic base (feudalism) by explaining social positions in terms of a natural hierarchy. Moreover, during the capitalist epoch, class position is understood as a reflection of one’s labour and hard work in a system which assumes that “fair competition for opportunities [are] open to all.” Despite such innovations, Marx and Engels nevertheless essentialize the identities of the ruling and the nonruling classes in each historical epoch. The consequence is a rather ideal assumption: the working class is essentially a homogenous group which will spontaneously recognize and act on its revolutionary role. But in the “real world,” economic class is not the only factor determining social positions or identities. Indeed, the countless examples of various counter-revolutionary movements emerging from within the working class (e.g., fascist right-wing populism) suggests that they are not a homogenous group. Marx and Engels’ nonideal approach would be blind to such nonideal facts: it would explain them away as reflections of the ideological influence of the bourgeois class on working-class culture.

This idealization of proletarian class consciousness which creeps in at the fulcrum of their  revolutionary theory, is compounded by certain other idealizations presupposed by their materialist conception of the history.  Although Marx and Engels take a nonideal approach to capitalism and the bourgeois state, their understanding of history is grounded on a secularized Judeo-Christian eschatological metaphysics. From this perspective, history is inexorably moving towards the abolition of classes and the emergence of communism: a secular heaven at the end of history. This metaphysical logic underlying their nonideal account of history is undeniably idealistic for its based on an idealized vision of the future. What is more, the post-revolutionary state as Marx and Engels describe it—an association devoid of class antagonism—would be impossible according to their own propositions. This is because a deeply problematic account of universal human essence, i.e., species-being (Gattungswesen), is the foundation of their critique of the capitalist mode of production.

Marx’s earliest critiques of capitalism turn on the argument that wage-labour is dehumanizing because it alienates man from his species-being: his “conscious life activity” consisting of various “animal functions” (e.g., eating, drinking, procreating) as well as distinctly “human” ones (i.e., the necessary re-production of material conditions of existence). According to this view, one can only actualize their species-being (or realize their telos), when their labour-power is not impeded by the demands of others such that they are free to externalize the world in the manner of their choosing. Whereas the capitalist wage-labour system alienates man from the act of producing, the communist mode of production will re-unite man with labour according to Marx. But Marx’s communism will not create the necessary for individuals to actualize their species-being because the centralization of the means of production will not allow for the unimpeded exercise of labour power. Communism, much like any mode of production which marginalizes competing economic systems, preludes the “free consciousness activity” required to eliminate alienation. Marx’s communism will radically restrict the means through which man can (re-)produce the material conditions of his existence and will thus prevent the state from withering away as new forms of alienation congeal into new forms of class antagonism. Therefore, under the communistic mode, the free development of some will remain the condition for the alienation of others.

Through an analysis of Hobbes’ and Marx’s accounts of the genesis of the modern state which illuminated the hidden nonideal or ideal elements within their respective ideal and nonideal theorizations, this paper has challenged the claim that theory can be purely ideal or nonideal. Hobbes account of the genesis of the modern state is an example of ideal theory. The state, we are told, was instituted after individuals in the pre-political condition agreed to surrender their rights of nature and appoint and authorize the sovereign. The insight that Hobbes’ social contract would fail to achieve its objectives, points to the nonideal elements hidden within the Leviathan’s account of the state. Hobbes’ ideal theory thus encompasses a nonideal account of the modern state which explains the ideological mechanisms through which the state legitimizes itself—i.e., the promise of security. Marx and Engels’ account of the genesis of the bourgeois state is also a clear example of nonideal theory. However, the contamination of their nonideal theorizations with various idealizations regarding the proletarian class, history, and the essence of man suggest that their nonideal account of the state contains within it an ideal account of the modern state’s demise. The insight that a purely ideal or nonideal theory is impossible has important insights for the evaluation of philosophic concepts. For if purely ideal or nonideal theorization is impossible, the assertion that one’s approach is true because it avoids the “impenetrable realm of shadows” (Plato) or “false conceptions” and “chimeras” (Marx) is itself suspect.




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