Politics and Ideas – 1929

One can ask if the relation between politics and ideas truly poses a problem. For the simple soul, the idea is the direction point that is the driving force of action, as well. He considers politics as that ensemble of provisions taken to put in practice the idea by which he understands the state and its institutions. This idea appears as “the task of politics.” The objection according to which political realities are always in flagrant contradiction with the initial idea, is rejected when one notes with sadness and resignation that imperfection is the destiny of this fallen world. The idea is always lost when it takes the dress of reality. Certainly, that is the tragedy of our human existence, but, in no case, one does not contest the importance of the idea to act on reality.

Finally, the relation between politics and ideas would be easy to understand if politics was only effectively the realization of an idea that, of course, would never reach perfection, given the law of the world. But, in reflecting a bit more, the evident simplicity of this relation is brought into doubt. A good number of historical observations and political experiences then confirms the doubts.

Let us turn, for example, to the epoch of the French Revolution. The ideas “liberty, equality, fraternity” arise in all their splendor. They would seize the heart of the French – and not only the French. They equally inflame the Germans. On the right bank of the Rhine, we receive, with open arms, the Army of the Revolution. It promised “liberty, equality, fraternity” and it will blaze the path to the politics of force and subjugation by Napoleon.

And the experience that we had with the Fourteen Points of Wilson? In its extreme misery, the German people would cling there with an ardent faith. A Minister of Finance in Saxony, post-revolutionary but bourgeois, would confess such great hope in a book that he will entitle: Wilson, das Shicksalsbuch Deutschlands und der Welt. In this epoch, he could count on the approbation of millions of Germans, fans of Wilson, during which he would write: “the thought of Wilson is our destiny and the gospel of a new epoch.” For us, the accomplishment of this gospel took place at Versailles.

On one side, liberty, equality, fraternity, and the Fourteen Points of Wilson, on the other side, Napoleon and Versailles! There, it is no longer about the realization of an idea under an imperfect form. The meaning of the idea and political reality are contradictory, are irreconcilable. The contradiction is all the more painful by the confidence that the idea gave to the decisive causes of this terrible reality, directing everything else.

Thus, it is evident that the relation between ideas and politics is not direct. To understand this relation, it is first necessary to analyze what we mean by the idea.

The term “idea” has many meanings. In the first place, the ethical norm, the obligatory duty, the moral requirement have the value of an idea. In this context, “oriented by an idea” means to be moral and to act morally. Sincerity, humanity, and justice are ideas of this type.

These ideas have always played a role in politics. More than one time, they received the mission of encouraging the perfection of man and to help sincerity, humanity, and justice triumph. To set such goals in politics means that one requires that it is moral.

From the moment that we have this requirement, one is confronted by the ambiguity of the relation between politics and ideas under the form of the strange relation there is between politics and morals. We know how many men have the tendency to subordinate politics to morality. He would like moral principles to have an absolute power. But during the years of war, he had taken recognition of certain limits on the scope of morality all the same. For the love of his country, he must kill. To fool the adversary, to bring him to err, to denigrate him expressly and consciously had become necessities. The halo that would surround national egoism would shine more than these moral values.

We note that “idea” can mean moral requirement, moral law. In this case it generally has an absolute obligatory character. It is that which must be. It incites us to choose it as a guideline for our politics.

Certainly the idea is another thing than an ethical norm. It can be the symbolic expression of the tendencies of the epoch, of the spirit of the age that predominates or begins to do so this day. In certain periods it was altogether normal not to put in question the legality of rules or authoritarian orders. The idea of authority dominated all the political activities, and would dominate entirely the concept of life. It was characterized by the murky inclination of the spirit of the times for authoritarian forms. These periods are followed by others during the course of which, the authoritarian character of the social order would seem insupportable. The men of the new epoch would revolt against authority. They would feel themselves provoked to rebellion. The would act to undermine it and to remove it. All of these tendencies with their everyday effects that would gnaw at the existing situation to undermine it, would find in the idea of liberty and its expression that which would fascinate and encourage them. The ideas of tradition and of progress, of universalism and of individualism, of the social and political structure of the nation equally symbolize the currents of the epoch. Behind these ideas, one feels the beating of the heart and hidden individual desires, in certain social layers or in all the people. By imagination, they anticipate the desired state. These are the ideas in the current sense of the term. Although it does not truly act on moral norms, they appropriate all of the same forms; they also take on the appearance of that which must be done. They want to be considered as obligations, as a value which, by reason of its deep significance, has the right to impose conduct on anyone acting. These ideas, by taking of form of that which must be done, receive a reflection of moral dignity. The desires that it hides behind the currents of the epoch, of which they are the receptacle, are ennobled and transposed from the sphere of chance into that of the necessary.

To be comprehensive, it is necessary to mention a third accepted meaning of the term “idea.” The idea is equally the concept of a thing, the common essence in a series of like things, the sum of the peculiarities of natural phenomena, the veritable objective content of a thing that penetrates the spiritual sphere. The idea is the archetype of the thing. It is that which is permanent and universal behind the change and the apparent diversity of reality. In this context, it is somewhat important that we consider the archetype as a pure product of the spirit, as an abstraction, or according to Plato, that that which only exists, as metaphysical reality. Ideas in this sense of the term, connect themselves to substances, qualities, activities, and relations, to works of art and nature, to that which is precious and that which is without value, to that which is remarkable or banal, in brief, to all that can be perceived by the senses, grasped by intuition, or apprehended by the spirit. So we speak of the idea of the horse or of the book, of the mountain and the water, of the big and small, of fall and rise, of dependence or autonomy, of gold or filth – of the economy and the state. Finally, we proceed to the content of those ideas that are descriptive findings. They do not have the obligatory character of that which must be done. Their task consists of leading us to the image of the pure essence. In this sense, the idea of the state is not the model of the state as it should be. It is only the sum of all the experiences, characteristic traits, released by thought, of a state that lives in history and whose existence leads to what it is.

We have analyzed what on means by “idea.” It is also necessary to speak of that which is “politics.”

After a phrase known from Bismarck, politics is the “art of the possible.” This interpretation further concerns the method that is the essence of politics. It is the activity of the state and that is what matters. Finally, it only exists when there is a state. Every form of state affirms it, to extend itself, wanting the power to utilize it and to play a role in the world. Each state has a line of conduct, a rule that dictates to it vital, effective, and useful measures that it must take, given the circumstances and the relations it finds itself in. This line of conduct is “the reason of the state.” To discover it is less an affair of reflection and logic than the product of observation, intuition, a very fine flair, an innate instinct, a pleasant tactfulness. Politics is the ensemble of actions commanded by the reason of the state. It comprises all that serves the conservation and expansion of its power. Politics, in all other accepted meanings of the term, as an example, party politics, cultural or social politics, has nothing as fundamental. The concept of “politics” is simply transposed into the domains of activities which, directly or indirectly, are in the zone of influence serving the will and the life of the state, or that which has adopted certain forms of politics proper.

The instinct of conservation of the state and its will to life are absolute criteria. It is simply unthinkable to find a value larger than that for which the state should or could sacrifice its existence. The church would want to impose on it superior norms, of a religious or moral order. The Catholic Church, in principle, wants this today. The modern state cannot bend itself to this requirement. It considers its pride “sacred.” Fundamentally, consciously, deliberately, the modern state cannot recognize anything above itself. It wants to be sovereign over all plans. That which is useful to it, that which augments its power and increases its value, embodies its morality. It is true that it finds this sort of morality a bit suspect. It finds itself outside of the ethical sphere. Manifestly it participates in that which is natural and elementary. Its categorical imperative commands it to aspire to power without bounds, independent, and able to deploy itself at its liberty on the interior and exterior. If it was true, as Burckardt said, that power per se is to be evil, then the state would be evil and, following, all political activity. Because, basically, this activity wants to manifest itself to subdue or counterbalance. If one wants to succeed there and not to go to loss, one must recognize the relations of force, the possibilities that are found there, but, at the same time, it is necessary to be ready to use it without gentleness. To use up that which is given, that which exists, is in the nature of politics.

This scale is impersonal, the focus being put on the subject. Considering the nature of this success, the result finds itself at the same level as the effect produced by natural or technical phenomena in the same manner where one judges things by their result. If one looks singularly on the effect of human actions, as one does with natural or technical processes, the motives and the intentions are exposed in a strangely neutralizing light. The motivations, the origins, and the orientations are without importance. The words of Kant lose their value: “in this world and even beyond that, it is not possible to consider as an absolute good anything other than good will.” The link between intention, motive, expression of will, and, finally, the result of the action is interpreted as a type of natural relation between cause and effect. It is seen as a natural phenomenon and appears like the course of a storm. The air is charged with electricity, the tension increases, the explosion follows. This storm can refresh the country or leave the fields devastated by hail. To joyously approve the phenomenon of the storm in the first case would be as absurd to express horror in the second case. In an analogous manner, the action judged according to the effects that it produces is beyond good or evil. Political activity is such a game and the struggle of forces that must be treated as totally morally indifferent. Thus one places on the same level the cannons, airplanes, toxic gas, number of inhabitants, the fertility of the soil, the apparatus of industrial production, the organization of the state, the intelligence of its leaders, the national ambition of its citizens, the capacity for dedication of the masses, the extent of living religiosity, and the force of moral sentiment. “It is necessary give to the people its religion”: that is not the expression of anguish from a religious man who fears fears for the rule of his religion or who is convinced of its intrinsic and absolute value, but only the formulation of political and technical instructions: one wouldn’t want to govern a village of peasants who didn’t believe in God, as Voltaire would express in a more cynical manner.

The hierarchy of these forces is established after the result. The rank is not determined by an intrinsic value which suffices for a degree of utility and opportunity. Psychic forces, to properly speak, occupy a place in part. Sometimes, when they manifest themselves massively and simultaneously, they release an elementary violence. When they appear so intensified and exacerbated, they become something terribly unsettling, they are not part of something that we can count, or even approximate. These elementary impulses are something totally different. Their particular character makes them difficult to appreciate them as something physical and perceptible, it is recognized if one considers them as “imponderables.” Thus, one understands that politics attempts all the same to submit them to the law of success and calculation and utility, despite the respectful linguistic distinction.

The account of political results is cheaper than the data, the starting point of calculation, evaluated with exactitude and objectivity. The data at the base of politics and its real material is man.


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