The Saint-Justian Arrogance of Liberalism


In The Rebel, Albert Camus tells us that “The Saint-Justian tragedy is to have, from lofty ideals, and systematic reasons, made common cause with Marati. Jean-Paul Marat is the hysterical radical journalist of the Club des Cordeliers, the populist movement at the heart of the French Revolution. The historian Jules Michelet writes about how Marat carried out the Terror in 1793 France, and describes him as a doctor who finding France to be sick, ‘would bleed her’. The irony Michelet finds here relates to Marat’s frequent frenzied outbursts which led to his own doctor insisting on bleeding himii.

Saint-Just was a military and political leader and a close aide to Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Club des Jacobins, as organised under patrician leadership as the Club des Cordeliers was unstructured and plebeian, and comprising a group of people as rationalist and fanatically calculating as the Cordeliers were emotive and unpredictable. And yet from this rationalism, Camus sees that the same mistakes and the consequent bloodshed arise, as do from Marat’s mindless excitability.

There are parallels to the Terror in Egypt 2013 in the Terror in France 1793. A rationalist righteousness on the part of an educated élite said to be on the liberal left judges military intervention to be beneficial in order to establish a liberal democracy in Egypt, in Rousseauist terms, Egyptians have to be forced to be free.

Rousseau’s Revolution

The ideas that inspired the course of the first French revolution are associated mostly with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Michelet explains Marat’s links with him. When Rousseau is banished from Geneva and his book Émile is publicly burned both in Geneva and in France in 1762, he alights in Marat’s home town, the Prussian protectorate in Switzerland of Neufchâtel. This now international celebrity overwhelms polite society there. Marat’s parents waste no time in cramming their barely twenty-year old son with Rousseauist ideas, together with his style and mannerisms, such that “Rousseau’s demented arrogance, is turned to vanity, but raised in Marat to the power of ten”. Michelet tells us that Marat becomes ‘Rousseau’s ape’iii.

The idea of the general will (volonté générale) in the Du Contract Social fires up the rabble-rousing journalist in Marat, who sees in it the tribal instinct of the Cordeliers, with whom he lives and works in the teaming streets of Paris. The mercurial nature of this instinct, sometimes inspired, often possessed, reacts mercurially to each individual grievance, grievances that Marat expresses, embellishes, exaggerates and sometimes invents, to each of which the general will is momentarily and entirely subjectediv. Rousseau writes about the general will that the free individual must give himself to the whole, as everyone must in equal measure, such that, in obeying the whole, he is in fact only obeying himself. The general will is thus the general intention of each individual as he thinks of himself as part of a single body. All the implicit clauses in this compact must be kept to, as it is a commitment by the individual to carry out his own decisions, thus being true to his status as a self-determining being. So: “For the social compact to avoid becoming a meaningless arrangement, it has to be understood as offering this commitment, which guarantees all the others, that whoever disobeys the General Will, will be compelled to obey it by the body politic as a whole, which essentially means that he shall be forced to be free…”v.

The problem comes in the fact the general will cannot reflect majority voting because any collection of people that vote will think of themselves as individuals as well as members of the social whole. The solution is to havethe legislator devise a constitution for approval which maximises the extent to which everyone in fact thinks of themselves as a member of the social whole: “Whoever has the courage to institutionalise a people must feel able, as it were, to change human nature, transforming each individual… into a part of a greater whole, from which he in a sense receives his life and being,altering the constitution of man in order to strengthen it”vi.

Camus describes how subjecting the individual to the whole becomes a totalitarian nightmare in running the French Republic. The rationalisms of the Jacobins become as arbitrary as the emotive outbursts of the Cordeliers, when Saint-Just determines that he represents the general will in virtue of the fact that he understands the goodvii. All hell breaks loose as Saint-Just brooks no criticism: “Whoever criticises is traitor, whoever doesn’t ostensibly supports the republic is suspect”viii. He employs Marat. The scaffold, formerly a symbol of oppression, is now a liberator. “The scaffold represents freedom. It guarantees the rational consistency, and harmony in the city. It purifies, yes that is the right word, the republic, eliminating defectives that contradict the General Will and universal reason”ix.

Kant’s Amendment to Rousseau’s Revolution

Camus’ argument in The Rebel is that there must be a simultaneous rejection of injustice together with the affirmation of the common dignity of human beings. This is basically Kant’s argument. Unlike Rousseau, Immanuel Kant is a systematic philosopher, although he is still an enthusiastic Rousseau reader. When Rousseau’s Émile appeared, he uncharacteristically rushed to receive his copy and gave up his daily walk to read itx. Yet although he finds ‘beauty of expression’ in Rousseau, he nevertheless expresses his ‘alienation about peculiar and contradictory expressions’ in his workxi.

Kant’s Formula of Universal Law reads “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you at the same time can will that it become a universal lawxii. Called the ‘categorical imperative’ because of its absolute nature, it is supposed to act as test of such subjective maxims or principles as we might follow in our daily lives in order to determine their morality. The idea is for us to ask ourselves whether we would sanction any particular maxim we followed, for the use of all persons. But the point that Kant initially makes, that following an immoral maxim lands us in a logical contradiction if all persons are substituted for the reflective self, is a red herring although it has some passing interest in the case of perfect duties. Kant’s general interpretation of how this test works in fact recalls Rousseau’s general will when he says that willing an immoral maxim becomes impossible because such a will would then contradict itselfxiii.

If Kant thus restates the general will and the necessity to conform to it, he nevertheless resists Rousseau’s externalist resolution of the political problem, which involves positing the figure of the legislator outside the body of the social whole to set its constitutional terms. Instead, he takes an internalist approach and states a new version of the supreme moral law, The Formula of Humanity as End in Itself: “So act that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a meansxiv. As in Rousseau self-determination and acting on one’s true will is the basic idea of freedom, as the search for the universal and the commitment to the whole becomes its realisation. However, the source of the determination to thus commit is recognised in Kant as the rational self. In Rousseau it is as if the individual finds himself a member of a human mass by chance, while this mass has to be fashioned into a workable whole by the external legislator. For Kant the general will is merely the ‘form’, but human rationality must be the ‘matter’, and these synthesise into the complete determination where The Formula of the Realm of Ends asks us to … [a]ct in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends”xv. This outcome is a result of Kant’s vision in the Critique of Pure Reason of a rational being in general (human or non-human) applying its capacity for rational judgement in an empirical environment, and in doing so, interacting dynamically with all other rational beings, in a world merely of possibilities, in order to seek the series of temporary accommodations which are the universals that shape our bodies politic.

The red herring in Kant’s moral reasoning that I mentioned, led some commentators to portray Kant as a dogmatic rationalist promoting an axiomatic ethics; but this is completely to misunderstand himxvi. The categorical imperative is actually merely an exercise in formal practical reasoning which establishes the supreme moral law in terms of the necessities that follow from the properties of being rational. This doesn’t therefore provide us with any positive moral content, only with instructions as to how such content variously arises from the interaction which is the natural consequence of acting as a rational being. The general will is thus the outcome of a process and cannot in any meaningful sense be posited prior to such deliberations.

Schiller’s Floss on Kant’s Amendment and Sen’s Predicament

That the general will is the outcome of a process must be the fundamental character to political systems consisting of rational beings and the justification of democratic systems in general. There cannot on this basis be principles that pre-empt the principle of democracy as a deliberative social activity, for according to Kant even the categorical imperative as a moral organising principle emerges from within such deliberations for “The very existence of reason depends upon this freedom, which has no dictatorial authority, but whose claim is never anything more than the agreement of free citizens...”xvii.

Friedrich Schiller, a lifelong friend and correspondent of Kant, explains this by saying that reason is essentially unreal and a distillation of experience. So human nature as an artist (Klinstlerin) is required here in order “… to guarantee the reality of the political creation of reasonxviii. Schiller, like Kant, and most of Europe in fact at the time, is riveted by the events of the French Revolution. Schiller’s gloss drives home Kant‘s principle of the priority of practical reason. This principle becomes a salutary reminder to us of how to defend our liberties, and must become the chief criterion of justice in our own time, in the face of the new importance of human rights legislation, and the activities of government funded human rights organisations which dominate the international landscape.

The dominant philosophy of the community of international organisations populating this landscape is represented by the thought of Amartya Sen. In 2009 in the Idea of Justice, Sen attacks the idealism of John Rawls in his seminal theory of justice of 1971, and proffers instead an empirical approach where our source of knowledge on justice is said to exist already in the empirical experience of societies across the world. Sen then proceeds to appeal to Adam Smith’s invocation of the ‘impartial spectator’ who awakens ‘the man within the breast’ [The Theory of Moral Sentiments, III.3.38] which was Smith’s strategy to broaden our understanding and widen the reach of our ethical inquiry in the search for justicexix. The appeal to such an ‘impartial spectator’ in our modern context clearly has us reaching out to our international organisations, whether governmental or non-governmental for information about our problems of justice. But really it is more than mere information that we thus seek, and we are in fact dragged in an entirely new direction when we find that these organisations in Sennian doctrine become guardians of natural right, in virtue of Sen’s validation of the ‘natural rightness’ of the two main Declarations of Human Rights (1789, 1948)xx. What initially presents itself as empirical doctrine, now turns on a pin, and would have us subject ourselves to a priori principles.

Sen’s escape route, and this is the part in an Idea of Justice where he seeks to rubbish Jeremy Bentham’s attack on natural rights, is to say that natural rights are merely ethical principles which to gain legislative validity, have to be put to the scrutiny of ‘public reasoning’, although this is described only in the most general terms, where “any general plausibility that these ethical claims – or their rejection – have is dependent on their survival when they encounter unobstructed discussion…”xxi. On these terms Sen is wrong about Bentham, because this reformer had found that the difficulty with The Declaration of the Rights of Man lay precisely in that it was not the work of a philosopher but a tract passed in the French National Assembly ‘with the sanction of government’ and with ‘a view to practice’xxii.

But Sen is also wrong about these natural rights in terms of their validity as principles of ethics, and he violates the principle of the priority of practical reason, where we have already said that any principle whatsoever must issue from ‘within’, as the outcome of a process of deliberation. The Smithian impartial spectator is Rousseau’s external legislator in disguise. The error in Sen’s reasoning is easy to see, for in considering the rational being which Kant introduces as his amendment to Rousseau’s revolution (the second formula of the categorical imperative), instead of its necessarily anthropocentric knowledge being a natural state of affairs, it is for him a ‘barrier to comprehension’xxiii. Sen thus wishes to raise himself above the rational being.

Kant has something to say about this, something he says he learned from Rousseau:

“I am an inquirer by inclination. I feel a great thirst for knowledge, the constant urge to move forward in it, and the satisfaction at every advance in it. There was a time when I believed this constituted the honour of humanity, and I despised the people, who know nothing. Rousseau put me right about this. This blinding prejudice disappeared. I learned to honour mankind”xxiv.

So does all this mean that there are no natural rights? No, there are rights, so long as they matched by obligations. This simply means such rights are then defined in terms of our nature as autonomous creatures which is given to us by our rationality. Flood, hunger and pestilence cause us to lose our autonomy, and it is our natural right to demand help from our fellow creatures in such circumstances. Habeas Corpus is fundamental because without it we lose our autonomy. We live in a world of war, torture and arbitrary detention however where we would be robbed of our right to Habeas Corpus, but where we are regaled with endless other rights, imposed by the external legislator, of which we have no need. We are perfectly all right without those. We just need help with the things that matter.

Conclusion: The Egyptian Revolution 2011-13

On July 3, a properly and duly elected president of a major country, a country that lies at the heart of the Middle-East, whose shift in alliances away from the Soviet Union towards the US in 1973/4 changed the global balance of power and allowed the latter to go on to win its cold war over the former, was illegally arrested and imprisoned by a military force funded by that same US. I think the colloquial term in the US in response to that would be ‘thanks a bunch, guys!’. Turkey, Nigeria, South Africa, in fact most African nations are apoplectic about these developments for obvious reasons. They have struggled for generations to arrive where they have arrived in their political development, without some new precedent being set to undo all that work. The US and the EU meanwhile have basically no comment to make.

We do live in world of media wars and misinformation, where we have to deal with the problem that people don’t just help themselves to their own opinions, but also help themselves to their own facts. This in ‘nanny’s world’ where international governmental and non-governmental organisations regularly intrude in our lives and override our autonomy is unacceptable. We then have the situation where, having given themselves rights, these organisations are manipulated into having entirely the wrong information on which to act. Where misunderstandings about the Egyptian scene abound about society, state, the deeply ingrained nature of corruption, and so on, I think there is little doubt that the most serious problem we face in Egypt as a people is the deliberate fabrications by vested interests to incite Islamophobia and defeat any attempt by the majority in Egypt to participate in politics. The Muslim Brotherhood is confused with the Salafi parties (el-Nour, el-Asala, el-Fadila, Equality and Justice party and so-on…) which are in fact quite separate. Furthermore, nothing is ever said about the extent to which the Salafi parties have themselves dropped their strict religious creeds in order to participate in politics (for instance, accepting Sufi practice amongst others). Meanwhile, splinter groups to the ‘right’ of the Muslim Brotherhood are emphasised, but less is said about the much greater number of splinter groups radiating out to the ‘left’ (el-Wasat, Reform and Renaissance Party, Egyptian Arab Socialists, Islamic Labour Party, el-Tayar, etc…).

Schiller said it when he called the social dialogue of rational deliberation Spieltrieb or ‘playfulness’. The political scene in Egypt changes daily, and it must be given its head in a free and democratic way in a manner, in Kant’s words, that ‘honours mankind’. To use US colloquialism again: Guys, can you please just trust us?

Omar Kassem Ph.D., is a graduate of Cambridge, and SOAS and can be reached through his website: http://different-traditions.com/


iLe drame de Saint Just est d’avoir, pour des raisons supérieures, et par une exigence plus profonde, fait choeur par moments avec Marat”, in Albert Camus, ‘L’Homme Révolté’, in ‘Albert Camus: Essais’, (ed.) R. Quilliot and L. Faucon, Editions Gallimard et Calman-Lévy (1965) p. 535; my translation

ii Jules Michelet [1847], Histoire de la Révolution française, Volume 1, Paris: J Hetzel et Cie (1868), p. 306

iii Ibid., p. 322; my translation

iv Ibid., p. 302

vAfin donc que ce pacte social ne soit pas un vain formulaire, il renferme tacitement cet engagement, qui seul peut donner de la force aux autres, que quiconque refusera d’obéir à la volonté générale, y sera contraint par tout le corps ce qui ne signifie autre chose sinon qu’on le forcera d’être libre…”, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social ou Principes du Droit Politique [The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right]’, Amsterdam: Marc Michel Rey (1762), Livre I. Ch.VII, p. 36; my translation

viCelui qui ose entreprendre d’instituer un peuple doit se sentir en état de changer pour ainsi dire la nature humaine, de transformer chaque individu….. en partie d’un plus grand tout dont cet individu reçoive en quelque sorte sa vie et son être; d’altérer la constitution de l’homme pour la renforcer”, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social ou Principes du Droit Politique [The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right]’, ibid., Livre II. Ch.VII, p. 83-4

viiSaint-Just affirmera… qu’il fonctionne pour la volonte générale, puisqu’il fonctionne pour la vertu”… ‘Albert Camus: Essais’, op. cit., p. 535

viiiQui critique est un traître, qui ne soutient pas ostensiblement la république est un suspect…”, in ‘Albert Camus: Essais’, op. cit., p. 534

ixL’échafaud est liberté. Il assure l’unité rationelle, l’harmonie de la cité. Il épure, le mot est juste, la république, élimine les malfaçons qui viennent contredire la volonté générale et la raison universelle”, op. cit., p. 534; my translation

x Ernst Cassirer, ‘Rousseau, Kant, Goethe: Two Essays’, (trans.) James Gutmann, Paul Oskar Kristeller, John Herman Randall, Jr., (intr.) Peter Gay, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1970), p. 1

xi Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001), p. 132

xiiImmanuel Kant, Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals, in Practical Philosophy [pp.37-108], (ed. & trans.) Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1996), p. 73

xiii “… nothing is left but the conformity of actions as such with universal law [die allgemeine Gesetzmässigkeit der Handlungen überhaupt]”, ibid., p. 57

xivImmanuel Kant, ibid., p. 80

xvImmanuel Kant, ibid., p. 88

xvi Allen Wood explains why in detail in Allen Wood, Kant’s Formulations of the Moral Law, in A Companion to Kant, (ed.) Graham Bird, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2006), pp. 259-274 [at p. 297]

xviiImmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant in Translation), (eds.) Paul Guyer, Allen W. Wood Cambridge University Press (1999), p. 643

xviii“… um … der politischen Schöpfung der Vernunft ihre Realität zu verbürgen“, in Friedrich Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, in Schillers Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 12, Stuttgart Cotta’sche Verlag (1860), Siebenter Brief, p.23; my translation

xix Amartya Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, London: Allen Lane (2009), p. 125

xx Amartya Sen, ibid., p. 357-361

xxi Amartya Sen, ibid., pp. 386-7

xxii Jeremy Bentham [1796, first published in French by Dumont in Geneva, Switzerland 1816] , ‘Anarchical Fallacies: being an examination of the Declaration of Rights issued during the French Revolution’ [pp.16], in The Works of Jeremy Bentham, (ed.) John Bowring [executor],Edinburgh, London, Dublin (1839): Part VIII, A Critical Examination of the Declaration of Rights, Article II, p. 496

xxiii Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, op. cit., p. 155

xxivIch bin selbst aus Neigung ein Forscher. Ich fühle den gantzen Durst nach Erkentnis u. die begierige Unruhe darin weiter zu kommenoder auch die Zufriedenheit bey jedem Erwerb. Es war eine Zeit daich glaubte dieses allein könnte die Ehre der Menschheit machen u. Ichverachtete den Pöbel der von nichts weis. Rousseau hat mich zurecht gebracht. Dieser verblendende Vorzug verschwindet, ich lerne die Menschenehren u. ich würde mich unnützer finden wie den gemeinen Arbeiter wennich nicht glaubete daß die Betrachtung allen übrigen einen Werthertheilen könne, die rechte der Menschheit herzustellen”, Kant: AA XX, Bemerkungen zu den Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, Rostocker Kantnachlass, Preisschrift über die Fortschritte der Metaphysik, Seite 044 http://www.korpora.org/Kant/aa20/044.html; my translation

Omar Kassem can be reached through his website at http://different-traditions.com/

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