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“Civilization”: On the history of a concept


Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

It is difficult to even mention the concept of civilization without conjuring up images of Occidental hauteur. One is immediately reminded of the so-called “civilizing mission” undertaken by the great colonial powers of Europe. The word’s origins, however, prove far more benign. Nevertheless, the timing of its emergence in history cannot be thought a mere coincidence. “Civilization” is an invention of the bourgeois epoch. According to the French semiotician Émile Benveniste, the term first appeared in print in a 1757 book by the Marquis de Mirabeau.1 Though it derives more generally from the Latin civilis, denoting a higher degree of urbanity and legality, “civilization” in its modern sense dates only from the Enlightenment. In its post-1765 French usage, Benveniste observed that here “civilisation meant the original, collective process that made humanity emerge from barbarity, and this use was even then leading to the definition of civilisation as the state of civilized society.”2 From there, the concept was then imported to Great Britain by Scottish Enlightenment figures like Ferguson, Millar, and Smith. This most likely came through their interactions with the French physiocrats Quesnay, Necker, and Turgot.3 Freud’s suggestion in Civilization and Its Discontents — that the civilizing process of society in history resembles the maturation of the individual4 — was already largely anticipated by Ferguson in the introductory paragraph to his Essay on the History of Civil Society. There he asserted: “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”5 For Millar, as it was for Smith, civilization was marked by the development of a complex division of labor, what he called “the distinctions of professions and of ranks.” With the further articulation of this system of distinctions, “the human mind is cultivated and expanded; and man rises to the highest pitch of civilization and refinement.”6 Smith reaffirmed Millar’s identification of civilized society as being one in which there was a highly-developed system of ranks. At one point, Smith clarified that whenever he used the term “civilized society,” what he really meant was just a “society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established.”7

Besides Benveniste, the German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias and his Austrian exegete Helmut Kuzmics also picked up on this civilizational theme of Mirabeau’s. One of Elias’ most interesting arguments centers on the transmission of certain conventions from pre-bourgeois European court life — an attention to good manners, etiquette, dress codes, and behavioral norms — to bourgeois civil society rising out of the collapse of the feudal order. Although later philosophers of moral sentiment like Hume and Smith did much to displace aristocratic “virtue” through their valorization of bourgeois self-love,8 these vestiges of courtly politesse in civic politeness9 account for the high premium that was placed on “courtesy” (courtoisie, cortesia) and “civility” (civilité, civiltà, Zivilität) in early bourgeois circles.10 Kuzmics is correct to add, however, that the carryover from courteous modes of conduct would have been more direct among members of the grande bourgeoisie.11 But this historical lineage passed down from medieval court society was only one part of what Elias and Kuzmics called “the civilizing process.” More broadly, what this process entailed was a transition from external restraints imposed from without to internal restraints imposed from within; one of the defining features of civilization for Elias was precisely this regime of self-restraint.12 Some have noted a similarity between Elias’ notion of “restraint” through the civilizing process and Foucault’s later concept of “discipline” through correct training,13 but this similarity is only apparent. Self-restraint for Elias has far more in common with Freud’s psychoanalytic category of repression.14 Apart from these aristocratic frills and ruffles adorning bourgeois civilization, there were several forms of self-restraint peculiar to the modern world. As Elias and Kuzmics each acknowledge, these usually had to do with vocational norms and expectations associated with the workplace (rather than the banquet hall, the baronial court, or the curia regis).15 The primary locus of modern civilization would thus seem to reside in labor.

Here, the meaning of “civilization” examined by Elias and Kuzmics reconnects with that of Benveniste, Lucien Febvre, and the political economists like Smith, Ferguson, and the physiocrats. Of the new behaviors inculcated as a result of the generalization of the wage-relationship — along with the progressive refinement of the social division of labor and the more precise measurement of the labor-time expended — moderation, diligence, expedience, and what E.P. Thompson called “time-discipline” were foremost. From the schoolyard to the factory floor, both children and adults now “entered the new universe of disciplined time.”16 Max Weber, commenting upon the utilitarian ethos of Benjamin Franklin’s advice in Poor Richard’s Almanack, recorded that for the modern bourgeoisie, “[h]onesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.”17 Beyond these highly-valued bourgeois personality traits (or “civic virtues”), this civilizing process in modern society moves from the ethical domain of individual behavior to the political domain of liberal policies of governance. The old practices of government-controlled monopolies, tariffs, protectionism, and trade restrictions — in short, of French and British mercantilism and German cameralism — now appeared antiquated and barbaric. With respect to these more specifically bourgeois aspects of civilization, Kuzmics asserts:

From [the physiocrats] on, the French concept of civilization is wedded to the bourgeois notion of progress; knowledge turns into one of its central categories; the concept of “being civilized” is transferred from the behavior of individuals to the state, the constitution, the educational system (and access to that system by the populace) and to a penitentiary system which is seen to be barbaric. Social inequality, anchored in feudal barriers, appears as barbaric and unreasonable. The same perspective is brought to bear on the lack of economic freedom imposed by government trade restrictions. The refinement of manners and the pacification of civil society are supposed to be the consequence of civilization in this wider sense.18

That “civilization,” a concept born of the Enlightenment, should bear the imprint of the narrative of progress should not come as a shock to anyone. Indeed, the Swiss philologist and literary critic Jean Starobinski not long ago suggested that “[t]he word civilization, which denotes a process, entered the history of ideas at the same time as the modern sense of the word progress.”19 As such, it would appear that “civilization” is perhaps a distant cousin of the later concept of “modernization,” as a process implying progress or enhanced development over time, though Kuzmics warns against such interpretations.20 Already by 1775, Diderot was using the term in exactly this sense: “[C]ivilization follows from the inclination which leads every man to improve his situation.”21 Condorcet was even more wildly optimistic than Diderot when it came to the linkage between progress and civilization. It was while awaiting the guillotine, at the height of the Terror, that Condorcet penned his famous ode to progress, A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (1793), in which he asked:

Will all nations necessarily approach one day the state of civilization achieved by those peoples who are most enlightened, freest, and most emancipated from prejudice, such as the French and the Anglo-Americans? Will we necessarily see the gradual disappearance of that vast distance now separating these peoples from the servitude of nations subjected to kings, the barbarism of African tribes, the ignorance of savages? Are there regions of the globe where the inhabitants have been condemned by their environment never to enjoy liberty, never to exercise their reason? Do the differences in enlightenment, resources, or wealth so far observed between the different classes within civilized peoples — the inequality that the initial advances of society augmented and may even have produced — derive from the very nature of civilization or from the current imperfections of the social art? Must these differences continually diminish, giving way to the real equality that is the ultimate goal of the social art, that of reducing the very effects of natural differences in individual capacities while allowing for the continuation only of an inequality useful to the common interest because it will foster the progress of civilization, education, and industry without entailing dependence, humiliation, or impoverishment?22

The passage from Condorcet excerpted here above introduces a third meaning to the term “civilization,” besides its association with mannerly ennoblement and technical progress. This third meaning of “civilization” attains its significance only in contradistinction to its conceptual antipode, “barbarism.” Between these two poles one might find a spectrum of intermediate stages, ranging from conditions of relative civility to conditions of relative barbarity. Another term, “savagery,” enters in at times, as well. In most discussions of civilizational benchmarks during the Enlightenment, Foucault rightly noted, the “savage” suggests a pre- or non-civilized person living in a state of nature, whereas the “barbarian” suggests a person who is actively opposed to civilization, who is thus anti-civilizational, living in a state of general crudity and boorishness.23 This understanding corresponds, more or less, to the somewhat lacking categories established by Louis Morgan and later employed by Engels in his writings on The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: 1.) savagery (hunger-gatherer, predominantly nomadic, or pre-historic society); 2.) barbarism (agrarian, predominantly rural, or traditional society); and 3.) civilization (commercial/industrial, predominantly urban, or modern society).24 Civilization would thus seem to presuppose widespread urbanization (or “citification”): “Before rusticus and rusticitas can be defined as antonyms of urbanus and urbanitas, there must be cities and people who live in cities.” According to these antinomic pairs, the civilization of the city was counterposed to the barbarism of the countryside. This opposition was reflected, as Starobinski points out, in dictionaries from the time. “Unlike the bourgeois, peasants are not civilized,” asserted Furetière’s Dictionnaire of 1694.25

Indeed, one of the commonest misunderstandings about the concept of “civilization” concerns its specific reference to the capitalist social formation. Building on the work of the French and British political economists, Marx and Engels used the term “civilization” as basically equivalent to modern bourgeois society. “[Capitalism] forces all nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production or go under,” they wrote in the Manifesto. “[I]t forces them to introduce so-called civilization amongst themselves, i.e., to become bourgeois.”26 This is a point Spencer Leonard brought home in a recent interview with Kevin Anderson, in combating charges of “Eurocentrism” and “Orientalism” that post-colonial theorists like Edward Said have recently leveled at Marxism.27 “Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization,” Leonard elucidates. “Rather, capitalist society is ‘civilization,’ per se…The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history…[W]hen he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.”28 Nor is this merely some sort of clever rhetorical flourish. Certain selections from Engels clearly seem to substantiate Leonard’s general equation of modern bourgeois society with civilization as a whole: “[C]ivilization is that stage of development of society at which division of labor, the resulting exchange between individuals, and commodity production, which combines the two, reach their full development and revolutionize the whole of hitherto existing society.”29 Already, Marx had on several occasions written of “the civilizing aspects of capital,” insofar as it helped to eradicate the forms of slavery and serfdom that preceded it.30 In his preparatory work on the Grundrisse, he had similarly praised “the civilizing influence of external trade.”31 But perhaps the most irrefutable proof that, for Marx, capitalist society is “civilization” can be found in his endorsement of John Wade’s provocative proposition that “Capital is only another name for civilization.”32 Marx, who did not think much of Wade’s original contributions to the study of political economy (accusing him at one point of plagiarism), still admitted that “Wade is…correct…insofar as he posits capital = civilization.”33

On this level, then, it appears that the commonplace objection to the identification of civilization with the capitalist West, an identity upheld by classical liberals and Marxists alike, commits a category mistake. The simultaneous birth of civilization and modernity in Europe, and along with it their exponential growth in productivity, has nothing at all to do with the supposedly innate “superiority” of Western peoples or cultural institutions. This is why the pseudo-radicalism of postmodern hermeneutics — which interprets the logic of capital to be somehow intrinsically white, Christian, European, male, etc. — is utterly inadequate to the understanding of civilization, qua bourgeois society. In fact, this view even tends to reinforce the chauvinist discourse that treats all the accomplishments of Western civilization as the outcome of the heroic feats of the industry, ingenuity, and spirit of innovation that supposedly characterize all white, Christian, European males. Such accounts overlook the practically ubiquitous stereotype of the peasant in medieval Europe, usually depicted as monumentally lazy, shiftless, and ignorant. Neither Marx nor Engels had much patience for the quaint customs and inoffensive, folksy conventions of traditional society, no matter where these traditions stemmed from. Nowhere was the authors’ disgust with reactionary traditionalism more evident than in Engels’ evaluation of “The Civil War in Switzerland” in the Deutsche Brüsseler Zeitung in 1847. Engels could not for an instant countenance sympathy with the stout resistance of these “Alpine shepherds” — whose favorite pastimes included acorn-eating, cheese-making, yodeling, and chastity.34 The fact that such unrelenting criticisms were directed as the traditions of a country in the heart of Europe should put to rest the notion that either Marx or Engels unconsciously harbored racist or Orientalist sentiments. Both were fairly ecumenical (or, to put it differently, “equal opportunity”) when it came to choosing objects to critique.35 The ruthless criticism of everything existing could leave no rock unturned.

Related to such objections to the concept of “civilization,” especially its normative or universalizing claims, is a tendency to prefer speaking of so many particular “cultures.” Sadly, this preference, like several others acquired during the postmodernist “cultural turn” — which sought relativize the hegemonic pretensions of the Western civilization — harkens back to reactionary antimodernist (even fascist) sources. The invidious contrast between “culture” and “civilization” goes back to the sociologist Alfred (brother of Max) Weber’s conservative and irrationalist drift following the German defeat in World War I. Typically, the distinction is this: Kultur is understood as authentic, concrete, and firmly rooted in real, organic community traditions; Zivilisation is understood as superficial and abstract, rootlessly trailing after imaginary, inorganic social trends. Weber was looking to separate out two distinct components of human social life that he believed had become rather carelessly intermingled. He thus fulminated against Hegelianism, and by extension Marxism, which he felt had indiscriminately united both the “intellectual” and “spiritual” dimensions of social existence.36 Much of the mischief, Weber surmised, arose from an ambiguity in the meaning of the German term Geist, which at once signifies both “mind” and “spirit.”37 “This [Hegelian] notion of objective spirit [Geist] bound up…intellectual elements (mastery of existence) with…elements of spiritual expression, thus…identifying intellect and soul, and hopelessly confusing civilization and culture,” recorded Weber.38 Civilization was the cerebral sphere of science, progress, technology, and rationalization in their universal unfolding — “the epitome of mankind’s increasing enlightenment.”39 Oppositely, culture was the spiritual sphere of art, religion, convention, and intuition of a particular life-world in its givenness40 — “simply the soul’s will and expression…of an ‘essence’ lying behind all intellectual mastery of existence.”41 The civilizational subject is the individual or ego who has developed his own outlook, worldview, or perspective.42 The cultural subject is the community — the family, church, or nation — with its own “yearnings,” desires, or “destiny.”43 Weber’s contemporary, the phenomenologist Max Scheler, associated civilization with a deep “hatred of the world.” This hatred originated, the philosopher conjectured, first with Judaism (following Sombart)44 and then later with Calvinism (following the elder Weber).45 “Everything can rise again in the area of pure, spiritual culture,” wrote Scheler in 1917. “But in the area of technical values,…values of utility, a renascence would be tantamount to ‘regress,’…because continuous progress and internationality belong to the cosmos of civilization [Zivilisationskosmos].”46

More temperate minds have in the past expressed some reservations at setting up such a rigid bifurcation between the concepts of “culture” and “civilization.” All the same, however, they also recognized that any attempt to privilege the former to the detriment of the latter would be a reactionary gesture. Some of them, like Elias, have acknowledged the partial legitimacy of distinguishing these terms, according to their normal usages. In his sociogenetic account of this distinction, Elias conveyed the progressive character of civilization: “‘Civilization’ describes a process or at least the result of a process. It refers to something which is constantly in motion, constantly moving ‘forward.’”47 Moreover, he highlighted its implicit internationalism. “[T]he concept of civilization plays down the national differences between peoples; it emphasizes what is common to all human beings,” he observed. “In contrast, the German concept of Kulturplaces special stress on national differences and the particular identity of groups.”48 Elias was, without a doubt, well-acquainted with the distinction between culture and civilization, having once trained with Alfred Weber and his erstwhile associate, Karl Mannheim (who defended Weber’s choice to disentwine the two terms).49 The Austrian modernist and critic Robert Musil had a more sardonic take on this conceptual division between culture and civilization. In his review of Spengler’s Decline of the West, Musil confessed that figuring out “[h]ow to distinguish between culture and civilization is to my way of thinking an old and really fruitless quarrel.” Despite his professed indifference, he could still discern of some of the finer points with either word. “Every civilization is characterized by a certain technical mastery over nature and a very complicated system of social relations,” Musil wrote in 1921, while mocking the pedantic tone of those who insisted on the opposite meanings of the two words. “An immediate relation to the essence of things is almost always ascribed to culture, a kind of fateful security of human demeanor and an assurance that is still instinctive, in comparison to which reason, the fundamental symptom of civilization, is supposed to possess a somewhat lamentable uncertainty and indirectness.”50 But it was without question Horkheimer and Adorno who most stringently criticized the tendency to exalt the “authenticity” of Kultur against the purported “inauthenticity” of civilisation. “In the name of culture,” declared Adorno, “civilization marches into barbarism.”51 Of the various theorists to treat this opposition, Adorno, Horkheimer, and other members of the Frankfurt School were again the ones best able to make out the connection between the industrial revolution and the onset of modern civilization.52 To bemoan the loss of organic forms of “culture” in the face of modernization’s steady onslaught, however, was useless and regressive. They thus warned:

Only that consciousness which despairs of creating a human world out of freedom and consciousness will arrive at the point of sharply separating culture, as the creation of the spiritual, from the externality of civilization, of setting up culture against the latter and rendering it absolute. And often enough in so doing it opens the gate to the true enemy, barbarism. Whoever glorifies culture at the expense of civilization today is more concerned with setting up cultural preserves than with humanity…It is not proper to invoke culture against civilization. The gesture of invocation itself, the exalting of culture at the expense of mass society, the devoted consumption of cultural values as a confirmation of one’s elevated internal spiritual equipment, these are inseparable from the decadent character of the civilization. The invocation of culture is powerless.53

But if barbarism is admitted to exist in backward, traditional, or premodern communities, as well as in the atavistic appeal to cultural practices lost in the process of civilization, then where is that recognition, so central to the Marxist critique, of “the ‘barbarism’ of bourgeois society” itself? As Losurdo rightly notes, this was one of Marx’s and Engels’ most original and devastating insights.54 After all, it was not only civilization that they discerned in liberal bourgeois society. Contained within these very same forms of social organization there also lurked the possibility of a new and untold barbarism. The issue at hand here is the one Adorno and Horkheimer dealt with as “the reversion of enlightened civilization to barbarism.”55 Civilization itself, they maintained, had relapsed into a sort of barbaric state.56 Bourgeois society had mutated into what Adorno (and Lenin before him) called “civilized barbarism.”57 On the eve of the World War, in an article bearing the title of “Civilized Barbarism,” Lenin expressed his total astonishment at the way that “the civilized nations [especially France and Great Britain] have driven themselves into the position of barbarians.”58 Three decades earlier, Engels noticed this tendency of bourgeois society — that is, civilization — to increasingly move to conceal the traces of its own steady barbarization. “[T]he more civilization advances,” he asserted, “the more it is compelled to cover the ills it necessarily creates with the cloak of love, to embellish them, or to deny their existence.”59 But of all the variations on this theme in the annals of Marxist literature, none approaches the poetry of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy:

Friedrich Engels once said, “Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism.” What does a “reversion to barbarism” mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show us what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism…This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance awaiting the decision of the proletariat. Upon it depends the future of culture and humanity. In this war imperialism has been victorious. Its sword of murder has dashed the scales, with overbearing brutality, down into the abyss of shame and misery. 60

The naked barbarity that was seen in the trenches of Europe in World War I was simply the homecoming of what post-1848 European liberalism hoped to confine to its colonies. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes,” commented Marx, in an 1853 article on India, “turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”61 Still, this inherent barbarism of bourgeois society did not first show its face in the colonies. It had actually emerged several years prior, as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”62


1 Benveniste, Émile. “Civilization: A Contribution to the Word’s History.” Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Problems of General Linguistics. (University of Miami Press. New York, NY: 1971). Pg. 289.
2 Ibid., pg. 291.
3 Ibid., pg. 293.
4 “[T]he development of civilization is a special process, comparable to the normal maturation of the individual.” Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. (W.W. Norton & Co. New York, NY: 1962). Pgs. 44-45.
5 Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Pg. 7.
6 Millar, John. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. (Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pg. 26.
7 Smith, Adam. An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1976). Pg. 315.
8 “I esteem the man, whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society.” Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. Moral Philosophy. (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: 2006). Pgs. 268-280.
“Dr. [Francis] Hutcheson was so far from allowing self-love to be in any case a motive of virtuous actions, that even a regard to the pleasure of self-approbation, to the comfortable applause of our own consciences, according to him, diminished the merit of a benevolent action. This was a selfish motive, he thought, which, so far as it contributed to any action, demonstrated the weakness of that pure and disinterested benevolence which could alone stamp upon the conduct of man the character of virtue.” Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. Pg. 358. See also pgs. 17, 112-113, 158, 159, 184, 321, 322.
9 Klein, Lawrence E. “From Courtly Politesse to Civic Politeness in Early Modern England and France.” Halcyon: A Journal of the Humanities. (1992). Pgs. 171-181.
10 Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, England: 2000). Pgs. 87-88.
11 Kuzmics, Helmut. “The Civilizing Process.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Civil Society and the State. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1988). Pg. 172.
12 “[Civilized] restraint, like all others, is enforced less and less by direct physical force. It is cultivated in individuals from an early age as habitual self-restraint by the structure of social life, by the pressure of social institutions in general, and by certain executive organs of society (above all, the family) in particular. Correspondingly, the social commands and prohibitions become increasingly a part of the self, a strictly regulated superego.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 158.
13 “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise.” Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1995). Pg. 170.
14 “[B]y this increased social proscription of many impulses, by their ‘repression’ from the surface both of social life and of consciousness, the distance between the personality structure and behavior of adults and children was necessarily increased.” Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 127.
15 “The pattern of self-restraint imposed on the people of bourgeois society through their occupational work was in many respects different from the pattern imposed on the emotional life by the functions of court society.” Ibid., pg. 156.
“Of course, the bourgeois workplace and bourgeois society were not entirely determined by their courtly legacy — the development of specifically bourgeois kinds of self-control occurs there.” Kuzmics, Helmut. “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society: The Theoretical Contribution of Norbert Elias.” Translated by Hans Georg Zilian. Theory, Culture, and Society. (Vol. 4, № 2: June 1987). Pg. 518-519.
16 Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present. (№ 38: 1967). Pg. 84.
17 Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. (Routledge Classics. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 17.
18 Kuzmics, “The Civilizing Process.” Pg. 152.
19 Starobinski, Jean. “The Word Civilization.” Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Blessings in Disguise; or the Morality of Evil. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1993). Pg. 4.
20 “[One version of the concept] concerns ‘civilization’ as exhibited in the self-interpretation of Western elites, a self-conception demarcating itself from the ‘savage’ and the ‘barbarous,’ formed by agents within pragmatic contexts. This concept is obviously ethnocentric and in this aspect similar to a naïve conception of ‘modernization,’ which does justice only to the immediately visible material of the life-world.” Kuzmics, “Civilization, State, and Bourgeois Society.” Pg. 518.
21 Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 178.
22 Condorcet, Nicolas de. A Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind: Tenth Epoch. Translated by Keith Michael Baker. Daedalus. (Volume 133, № 3: Summer 2004). Pgs. 66. Here Condorcet could be seen praising the liberal societies of England, France, and the United States as the pinnacles of freedom and civilization. Likewise, Diderot had written before him that “[i]n England, the love of freedom, which is so natural to the man who is conscious and thinks…sparked off in generous hearts the excessive hatred of unlimited authority.” Diderot, Histoire des Deux Indes. Pg. 189.
Such assertions would again seem to belie the strict division Losurdo tries to maintain between “liberalism” and “radicalism.” “Even when it criticized slavery, the liberal tradition did not question the identification of the West with civilization and of the colonial world with barbarism,” contends Losurdo. “Radicalism’s position was different: in the first instance, it identified and denounced barbarism in those responsible for, and complicit with, the most macroscopic violation of the rights and dignity of man.” Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169. The Italian philosopher thus faults even those liberals who unconditionally opposed slavery — authors such as Young, Smith, and Millar — for “complacently depicting” Europe as “a tiny island of liberty and civilization in a tempestuous ocean of tyranny, slavery, and barbarism.” “In order to indulge in such self-celebration,” Losurdo continues, “Young, Smith, and Millar were…obliged to overlook a far from trivial detail: the slave trade, which involved the most brutal form of slavery — chattel slavery — and in which western Europe, starting precisely with liberal England, was engaged for centuries.” Ibid., pg. 165. Further: “[O]n the one hand, Adam Smith con­demns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we ask him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.” Losurdo, “Liberalism and Marx.” Pg. 3.
Diderot and Condorcet, by contrast, writers who Losurdo classifies as incipient “radicals,” are excused for passing such favorable judgments on England and the United States. On Diderot’s “radicalism”: Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, pgs. 134, 136-137, 138, 164, 168-169, 311, 314, 315. On Condorcet’s “radicalism”: Ibid., pgs. 16, 28, 30, 133-134, 137, 164, 167-168, 182. Losurdo does admit here and there that both were great admirers of England: “In the columns of the Encyclopédie, Diderot held up England as an example of ‘temperate monarchy,’ where ‘the sovereign is repository solely of executive power’…In Condorcet’s view, too, they had the merit of having realized, albeit to an inadequate extent, the principles of the limitation of royal power, freedom of the press, habeas corpus, and judicial independence.” Ibid., pgs. 127-128. Losurdo attempts to account for this lapse in judgment on the part of Condorcet by explaining the “evolution” or “maturation” of the French philosopher’s thought through his disillusionment with the British and United States models in the experience of the Revolution. Ibid., pgs. 143-145. Diderot and Condorcet, it is true, ought to be commended for their principled stance against the practice of slavery and the conditions of colonial exploitation — but so should free-trade abolitionists like Smith, Millar, and Tucker. It is clear from Diderot’s Histoire des Deux Indes and Condorcet’s Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Future Progress of the Human Mind (according to Losurdo these thinkers’ most “radical” works, respectively) that both continued to speak highly of Anglo-American liberalism.
23 “The savage — noble or otherwise — is the natural man whom the jurists or theorists of right dreamed up, the natural man who existed before society existed, who existed in order to constitute society, and who was the element around which the social body could be constituted…The barbarian, in contrast, is someone who can be understood, characterized, and defined only in relation to a civilization, and by the fact that he exists outside it. There can be no barbarian unless an island of civilization exists somewhere, unless he… and unless he fights it.” Foucault, Michel. “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. (Picador. New York, NY: 2003). Pgs. 194-195.
24 “Morgan’s periodization as follows: Savagery — the period in which the appropriation of natural products, ready for use, predominated; the things produced by man are, in the main, instruments that facilitate this appropriation. Barbarism — the period in which knowledge of cattle breeding and land cultivation is acquired, in which methods of increasing the yield of nature’s products through human activity are learnt. Civilization — the period in which knowledge of the further processing of nature’s products, of industry proper, and of art are acquired.” Engels, Friedrich. The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In the Light of the Researches by Louis H. Morgan. Translated by Alick West. Collected Works, Volume 26: 1882-1889. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 139.
25 Starobinski, “The Word Civilization.” Pgs. 8-9.
26 Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pg. 5.
27 “Marx’s style pushes us right up against the difficulty of reconciling our natural repugnance as fellow creatures to the sufferings of Orientals while their society is being violently transformed with the historical necessity of these transformations…Yet in the end it is the Romantic Orientalist vision that wins out, as Marx’s theoretical socio-economic views become submerged in this classically standard image.” Said, Edward. Orientalism. (Vintage Books. New York, NY: 1979). Pgs. 153-154.
28 Leonard, Spencer. “Marx at the Margins: An Interview with Kevin Anderson.” The Platypus Review. (№ 44. March, 2012). Pg. 2.
29 Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Pg. 272. My emphases.
30 “It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labor in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery, serfdom, etc.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3. Translated by David Fernbach. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 958.
31 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 256. Also, “the relation of capital and labor…is an essential civilizing moment.” Ibid., pg. 287. “[C]apital creates the bourgeois society…Hence the great civilizing influence of capital.” Ibid., pg. 409.
32 Ibid., pg. 585. Quoted also in Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 1057.
33 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 634.
34 “At last it has been revealed that the cradle of freedom is nothing but the center of barbarism and the nursery of Jesuits, that the grandsons of Tell and Winkelried can only be brought to reason by cannon-balls, and that the heroism at Sempach and Murten was nothing but the desperation of brutal and bigoted mountain tribes, obstinately resisting civilization and progress. It is really very fortunate that European democracy is finally getting rid of this Ur-Swiss, puritan, and reactionary ballast.” Engels, Friedrich. “The Civil War in Switzerland.” Translated by Jack Cohen. Collected Works, Volume 6: 1845-1848. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pgs. 367-373.
35 Seymour’s passionate defense of “the example of Marx and Engels” in his recent book on The Liberal Defense of Murder is noble, but perhaps somewhat superfluous; its only flaw is to think that these authors need defending in the first place. That some would feel they do only highlights the poor state of academic research today, and it is indeed sad that Seymour would have to spend his time debunking it. It says more about the wretched state of academic research today, however, that such a defense needs to be mounted. Seymour, Richard. The Liberal Defense of Murder. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2008). Pgs. 36-39.
36 “It is not strange in the least that all these various theories of history and philosophies of culture, as different as they may be in their self-proclaimed principles (psychological, materialistic, positivistic, idealistic, etc.) are nevertheless so basically connected that on closer scrutiny one unexpectedly merges into the other; in fact, one is nothing but the obverse of the other. One instance of this is the affinity, nay, more, the far-reaching sociological identity between Hegelianism and Marxism.” Weber, Alfred. Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology: Social Process, Civilization Process, and Culture-Movement. Translated by G.H. Weltner and C.F. Hirshman. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1939). Pg. 134.
37 “The evolutionary, historico-philosophical approach to culture-movement has its origin in the confusion of the intellectual and spiritual spheres under the collective concept of ‘mind’ [Geist] and consequently in the confusion of civilizational process and culture-movement under the collective idea of ‘mental development,’ a confusion for which the 18th century paved the way and which German Idealism brought to its climax.” Ibid., pg. 132.
38 Ibid., pg. 126.
39 “[T]he civilizational cosmos is an intellectually formed cosmos of universally valid and necessary things which cohere internally and, considered in their practical aspect, are equally and universally useful (i.e., empirically true) for human ends and considered in their theoretic aspect, are equally inevitable (i.e., theoretically true) and in the illumination of world and ego, intuitively evident (i.e., true a priori)…Its disclosure proceeds by the laws of logical causality…And its disclosed and illumined objects bear the stamp of universal validity and necessity, and spread throughout the trafficked world for the very reason that they are pre-existent for all mankind.” Ibid., pg. 121.
Civilization thus describes “a unified process of enlightenment covering the whole history of humanity and leading to a definite goal: the total illumination of the pre-existent.” Ibid., pg. 123.
40 “[T]he religious and spiritual expression of culture usually arrays itself in ‘categories of intuition.’ It presents itself as ‘revelation,’ as ‘insight,’ as ‘certain (immediately intuited) conviction of things unseen’ and ‘knowledge of the invisible.’” Ibid., pg. 123.
41 Ibid., pg. 126.
42 The junior Weber, along with Heidegger, distrusted this “world-picture.” Compare: “The civilization cosmos is nothing but a ‘world-picture’ slowly constructed and illumined the basis of these categories, the aspect of nature ‘fabricated’ by them. This view of nature is eminently suited to the purpose of dominating nature and existence in general and creating the ‘external realm of domination,’ i.e., the civilizational apparatus.” Ibid., pg. 125.
With the following: “What is…a ‘world picture’?…[I]n an essential way, ‘world picture’ does not mean ‘picture of the world’ but, rather, the world grasped as picture. The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval to a modern one; rather, that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of modernity.” Heidegger, Martin. “The Age of the World Picture.” Translated by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes. Off the Beaten Path. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2002). Pgs. 67-68. Heidegger also talks about nature forced into prefabricated mathematical categories: “Every force is defined as…nothing but…its consequences as motion within the unity of time…Every natural event must be viewed in such a way that it fits into this ground-plan of nature.” Ibid., pg. 60.
43 Weber, Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology. Pg. 138.
44 “Modern technical civilization rests more on hatred than on love of the world…[P]resent-day economic civilization [is] a civilization in which values, purposes, and forms, have disappeared. The one people which, according to Sombart’s penetrating investigation, contributed most to economic civilization, was, beyond doubt, the Jewish people whose mentality of race lacks most, among all peoples, a love of the world.” Scheler, Max. “Exemplars of Persons and Leaders.” Translated by M.S. Frings. Person and Self-Value: Three Essays. (Kluwer Academic Publishers. Hingham, MA: 1987). Pg. 188.
45 “Christianity plays a part in the formation of the motivating forces that produced the mechanical civilization of our time. Modern technology and capitalist economy were…initiated by…the followers of Protestant denominations, especially those coming from Calvinism, who claimed that all the work being done on the world should be for the sake of transforming it for the glory of God and for the sake of fulfilling the ascetic, divine obligation.” Ibid., pg. 187.
46 Ibid., pg. 171.
In what is probably his most infamous contribution to the German Kriegsideologie, the novelist and Nazi fellow traveler Ernst Jünger seconded this distinction. He asked: “Who would deny that civilisation is more profoundly attached to progress than is Kultur; that its language is spoken in the large cities?” Jünger, Ernst. “Total Mobilization.” Translated by Richard Wolin. The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 133.
47 Elias, The Civilizing Process. Pg. 6.
48 Ibid., pg. 7.
49 “We can…see…the significance of Alfred Weber’s suggestion to distinguish between a process of ‘culture’ and a process of ‘civilization,’ and to treat the former in terms of a concrete Gestalt, the latter, however, as a rational and limitless progression allowing for the carryover of achievements made in one epoch into the following one…The ‘psychic-emotional’ phenomena, which make up what Weber calls ‘culture,’ can be adequately grasped only by methods of concrete intuition and representation stressing the Gestalt, and by a specific type of concept evolved for this purpose. ‘Civilization,’ in Weber’s sense, on the other hand, can be described by the rationalizing method of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which conceived of it as a continuous progress.” Mannheim, Karl. “Historicism.” Translated by Jean Floud and Paul Kecskemeti. Collected Works, Volume 5: Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. (Routledge, Kegan, & Paul. New York, NY: 2007). Pg. 114.
50 Musil, Robert. “Mind and Experience: Notes for Readers Who have Eluded the Decline of the West.” Translated by Burton Pike and David S. Luft. Precision and Soul: Essays and Addresses. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1994). Pgs. 147-148.
51 Adorno, Theodor. “Aldous Huxley and Utopia.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 113.
52 “Modern civilization has been linked, first, to the extraordinary growth in population since the industrial revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the changes connected with this; then, to the dissolution of the traditional order of society by rationality [ratio].” The Frankfurt School. Aspects of Sociology. Translated by John Viertel. (Beacon Press. Boston, MA: 1972). Pg. 90.
53 Ibid., pg. 94.
54 Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History. Pg. 169.
55 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pg. ⅹⅳ.
56 It was now faced with the “horror of relapsing into barbarism.” Ibid., pg. 67.
57 Adorno, Theodor. “Cultural Criticism and Society.” Translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber. Prisms. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pg. 24.
58 Lenin, Vladimir. “Civilized Barbarism.” Translated by George Hanna. Collected Works, Volume 19: March-December 1913. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1977). Pg. 388.
59 Engels, The Origin of Private Property, Family, and the State. Pg. 276.
60 Luxemburg, Rosa. The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Social Democracy. Translated by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. Pg. 321.
61 Marx, Karl. “The Future Results of the British Rule in India.” Collected Works, Volume 12: 1853-1854. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1979). Pg. 221.
62 Engels, Friedrich. “European War Inevitable.” Translated by W.L. Guttsman. Collected Works, Volume 8: 1848-1849. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 457.

Civil society

Lecture by Voltaire at Madame Geoffrin’s famous salon, where the young Mozart performed, and where Diderot was a regular guest

Excerpted from a draft for my long-delayed essay (almost a small book now) on the relationship of revolutionary Marxism to revolutionary liberalism.

Liberalism prior to 1848 fought for the autonomy and self-government of the civil sphere, free from the arbitration and caprice of the absolutist state.  Faced with the irreconcilable contradiction between labor and capital, liberal elites now found themselves having to appeal to the arm of the state in order to suppress the class divisions of modern society.  To set this dynamic that Marx analyzed into sharper relief, two terms must be clarified: 1.) the modern (as opposed to the traditional) state, and 2.) civil society.  Since the latter forms the condition for the existence of the former, civil society takes precedence.

Civil society — or the Third Estate of “commoners” living under a commonwealth — until 1848 appeared as the self-regulating, harmonious sphere of mutual exchange.  This was the denaturalized space of private property, according to Rousseau, the domain of the individual — i.e., the private citizen or civilian.  It promised to reconcile the part with the whole, the interest of the individual with the greater interest of society.[1]  Outside the narrow filial confines of the family (i.e., “natural” society), civil society in Hegel’s view exists as “an association of members as self-sufficient individuals [Einzelner], in what is therefore a formal universality, occasioned by their needs and by the legal constitution as a means of security for persons and property, and by an external order [the State] for their particular and common interests.”[2]  Hegel was clear that the traditional State, like the family, preexisted civil society by several millennia.  “[T]he creation of civil society,” he maintained, “belongs to the modern world.”[3]  In their jointly written polemic on The German Ideology, Marx and Engels confirmed Hegel’s suspicion, drawing attention to its specifically modern, “bourgeois” character:

Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces.  It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the state and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its external relations as nationality and internally must organize itself as state.  The term “civil society” emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relations had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communityCivil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organization evolving directly out of production and intercourse, which…forms the basis of the state and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name.[4]

With this in mind, the larger concept of “civil society” can be further subdivided into a concatenation of four smaller concepts that comprise it.  The first two should be obvious: 1.) civilization and 2.) Society.  The second two move at a more microscopic level: 3.) bourgeois right and 4.) the individual.  Once “civil society” is adequately explained, the distinction between the traditional and the modern state can be detailed.


[1] And more explicitly in Ferguson (1767): “If [it follows] from the relation of a part to its whole, and if the public good be the principal object with individuals, it is likewise true, that the happiness of individuals is the great end of civil society…The interests of society…and of its members, are easily reconciled.  If the individual owe every degree of consideration to the public, he receives, in paying that very consideration, the greatest happiness of which his nature is capable.”  Ferguson, Adam.  An Essay on the History of Civil Society.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2001).  Pg. 59.

[2] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right.  Pg. 198, §157.

[3] “Civil society is the [stage of] difference [Differenz] which intervenes between the family and the state, even if its full development [Ausbildung] occurs later than that of the state; for as difference, it presupposes the state, which it must have before it as a self-sufficient entity in order to subsist [bestehen] itself…In civil society, each individual is his own end, and all else means nothing to him.”  Ibid., pg. 220, §182.

[4] Marx, Karl.  The German Ideology, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Feuerbach, Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks.  Translated by William Lough.  Collected Works, Volume 5: 1845-1847.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1976).  Pg. 89.  My emphases.