Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Republicanism after the French Revolution: The Case of Sismonde De Sismondi

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Republicanism after the French Revolution: The Case of Sismonde De Sismondi

Article excerpt

BEFORE AND AFTER THE REVOLUTION

The analysis of political languages and ideologies has been the distinctive mark of Quentin Skinner's project of freeing historical understanding from anti-historical parochialisms.1 While providing for a new understanding of past events or beliefs that had until then seemed contradictory or irrational, Skinner's methodology has also played a kind of therapeutic role in relation to several mythologies that were driving historiography and was, in this regard, a check on the hubris of explanation. Political modernity from the Renaissance to the English Civil War has been its main object of interpretation. To understand it, Skinner has not only redefined the method and identity of the history of political thought but has also reconstructed the titanic battles between the two visions of liberty (political or natural) and sovereignty (self-governing peoples or the state) that marked modern European history. His vision of political agency and historical understanding as well as his view of thinking as political action through speech materialized in the study of exemplary cases of, respectively, the neo-Roman vision of freedom or republicanism as it reemerged in modern political thought (freedom as an artificial or political construction that calls for a legitimate law) and the successful counter-attack upon it by the liberal (but actually Hobbesian) vision of liberty (freedom as a natural fact that exists prior to, and in conflict with, law). The hegemony of liberalism's linguistic shift was fully achieved after World War II with Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts ofLiberty^ which identified negative liberty with liberty in the "true" sense and positive liberty as something that had nothing to do with liberty but was, at most, a condition for it (equal opportunity to be free through self-government and distributive justice).

The history of the enormous impact of Berlin's 1958 article on contemporary political philosophy, and on visions of liberty and liberalism in particular, is still to be written. Undoubtedly, Berlin was the author of a "vocabulary shift" in the Skinnerian sense because he succeeded in giving an analytical cast to a dualism that had until then remained mainly an ideological remnant of several battles liberalism had fought, from the age of the French Revolution through the Soviet Revolution, against its main rival - equality (democratic or socialist). Berlin was able to put a halt to a more than century-old dispute by concocting a definition of liberty that claimed to be neutral, analytical, and categorical, and that both the "friends" and the "enemies" of negative liberty would have to accept, which they did. His was a hegemonic operation, or, in Skinner's language, a rhetorical act. Berlin performed as an ideologist not as an historian; he performed as Hobbes (or Machiavelli) did before him who tried "to discredit and supersede" a rival conception and did so by making it not merely old but moreover wrong. As a consequence, Berlin reorganized modern political thought and made a clear cut separation between thinkers who contributed to conceptualizing liberty as noninterference (from Hobbes to Mill passing through Constant) and thinkers who either misconstrued it (Condorcet and Kant) or dangerously identified it with other ideas, like equal power or autonomy (from Spinoza and Rousseau to Marx).

I have tried to show elsewhere that Berlin's paradigm impaired our understanding of the political ideas of seminal Uberai authors like Benj amin Constant and John Stuart Mill.2 Although Berlin claimed a theoretical affinity between his 1958 article and Constant's 1819 lecture on the liberty of the ancients and of the moderns, and although both essays ostensibly arose in a counterrevolutionary climate, nevertheless Berlin constructed a more radical dichotomy than Constant, who never relinquished the search for a compromise between individual and political liberty, and did not identify, as Berlin did, political positive liberty with the rationalist project of individual autonomy. …

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