In Defense of Self-Determination and Political Will

Defense of what he calls a ‘neo-Jacobin’ conception of democracy and political will is increasingly urgent today, argues Professor Peter Hallward. A Canadian political philosopher whose published work includes a sophisticated and morally enlightening analysis of the postcolonial oppression in Haiti since the US invasion in 1915 and a despicable neoliberal assault on Haiti’s economy, Hallward’s conviction and intellectual vigour is hard to ignore even by those who persistently deny the American betrayal of democracy.

In a recent talk on ‘the will of the people’ he gave at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Hallward argued that the idea of democratic political will, understood as an ‘emancipatory practice of collective self-determination’, must be brought to the forefront of our political and moral consciousness, especially in a contemporary context marked by ‘ever more brazen exercise of unilateral financial or military power’ as well as ‘the ever more 'automatic' or involuntary nature of accelerating social and technological change’ notably systemic and globalising 'reforms' that are coordinated only by the blind, compulsive forces of commodification and the market’. As he reminds us, we only need to think about ‘rescue’ packages dictated to supposedly sovereign governments by the bankers in and after 2008, or the wars of aggression waged against Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan to get the picture.

Hallward’s lecture starts with a sharp critique of the various ways that a voluntarist conception of popular empowerment has been rejected or dismissed across the modern European philosophical tradition. In Hallward’s words:

‘In the philosophical circles I'm familiar with, voluntarism remains little more than a term of abuse, and an impressively versatile one at that: depending on the context, it can evoke fascism, idealism, obscurantism, vitalism, infantile leftism, petty bourgeois narcissism, neocon aggression, folk-psychological delusion...In a European context, of all the faculties or capacities of that human subject who was displaced from the centre of post-Sartrean concerns, none was more firmly proscribed than its conscious volition. Both structuralist and then post-structuralist thinkers, by and large, relegated volition and intention to the merely 'psychological' domain of deluded, imaginary or humanist-ideological miscognition. In particular, Rousseau's notion of a general will, with its unsettling invitation to 'denature human nature' and its threat to 'force people to be free',[1] has long figured as the prototype of a fascist Volkswille at worst, or as fictional if not utopian escapism at best.’

To illustrate the point, Hallward briefly evokes a few recent examples, from a list that could be easily expanded:

‘Nietzsche's whole project presumes that 'there is no such thing as will' in the usual (voluntary, deliberate, purposeful...) sense of the word.[2] Heidegger, over the course of his own lectures on Nietzsche, soon comes to condemn the will as a force of subjective domination and nihilist closure, before urging his readers 'willingly to renounce willing.'[3] Arendt finds in the affirmation of a popular political will ('the most dangerous of modern concepts and misconceptions') the temptation that turns modern revolutionaries into tyrants.[4] For Adorno, rational will is an aspect of that enlightened pursuit of mastery and control which has left the earth 'radiant with triumphant calamity.' After Nietzsche, Deleuze privileges transformative sequences that require the suspension, shattering or paralysis of voluntary action. After Heidegger, Derrida associates the will with self-presence and self-coincidence, and strives to open up a self-questioning space in which 'freedom is no longer determined as power, mastery, or force, or even as a faculty, as a possibility of "I can" [je peux]'.[5] After these and several other philosophers, Agamben summarises much recent European thinking on political will when he effectively equates it with fascism pure and simple. Tiqqun and some of the currently fashionable theorists of 'communisation' now follow Agamben's example, as they explore various forms of a merely 'destituent' power.’[6]

The aversion to a voluntarist conception of political action, Hallward suggests, ‘includes even some of those who, against the grain of their times, have insisted on the primacy of self-determination and self-emancipation. Sartre and Badiou, for instance, still tend ‘to do so in ways that devalue political will per se, and along with it the whole 'psychological' domain of motives, intentions and purposes.'[7] It's telling, for instance, that

‘like Agamben and Žižek, when Badiou looks to the Christian tradition for a point of anticipation he turns not to Matthew (with his prescriptions of how to act in the world: spurn the rich, affirm the poor, 'sell all thou hast'...) but to Paul (with his contempt for the weakness of human will and his valorisation of the abrupt and infinite transcendence of grace). As for the two other great post-Maoist philosophers of Badiou's generation, Jacques Rancière and Guy Lardreau, they too have only managed to remain faithful to the ideals of equality and popular revolt in terms that dilute their contemporary political purchase.’

So where do we go from here? What might an alternative conception of ‘popular empowerment’ and ‘free will’ promise? As a starting point, Hallward argues, we need to dissociate the idea of ‘free will’ from a mere whim, wish or desire, and affirm it as ‘a concrete capacity to realise one's own consciously chosen end or purpose, free from constraint, coercion, or submission to another's will’.

Crucially, he suggests, if we care about the value of a participatory and deliberative democracy grounded in the assertion of the people's will, we should take as our foundation the philosophical perspective that originates mainly with Rousseau and his Jacobin followers, ‘and then continues via different deflections through Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Marx, before arriving at a tacit synthesis in the theory and practice of Lenin, Gramsci, Mao and Che’.

Hallward proposes four main dimensions of practice that might lend a political will the means it needs to act as a form of genuine self-determination, in keeping with his general association of will and capacity:

‘1. The first and most basic capacity of any collective will is, by definition, a capacity for association and assembly, an ability and a readiness to gather together as a group with some sort of common interest or purpose.

2. A second capacity implied by the idea of political will involves informed or 'educated' deliberation and critique. Every modern revolutionary mobilisation has been anticipated and accompanied by an explosion in the available means of communication, from the cafés and pamphlets of the Palais Royal in the 1780s to the blogs and online communities that helped sustain the 2011 Arab Spring and anti-austerity movements. Voluntary action (as opposed to unconscious, instinctive or habitual reflexes) presumes awareness or 'enlightenment' by definition, and it's no accident that the question of consciousness, and the education of consciousness, has been a central and divisive issue of emancipatory politics since Rousseau's Emile and Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

3. An ability to lend an organised and coherent shape to the informed and critical collective it assembles. This is a capacity for deliberate orientation or direction, i.e. a capacity for discipline, leadership, planning, and decision. These are the concrete powers or 'virtues' that, for Rousseau and the Jacobins, invest the people as an actually sovereign, law-giving power.

4. A capacity to determine one's own ends remains indeterminate if it lacks the means of achieving them, and so the fourth point I want to emphasise, in closing, overlaps with a cliché that echoes across the voluntarist political tradition. 'Quiconque accorde la fin ne peut refuser les moyens' (Rousseau); 'whoever aims at the end cannot reject the means' (Trotsky); 'whoever genuinely wills an end must also will the means' (Gramsci).[8] If what distinguishes will from wish is its potential to realise its end and to achieve its goal, then this necessarily involves those further capacities required to overcome the obstacles or resistance that might obstruct this achievement. [...] What distinguished Robespierre and Marat from most of their contemporaries during the first years of the French Revolution, for instance, is that they knew that the course of the revolution would depend entirely on the capacity of the people to formulate and impose their collective will as sovereign command, and to oblige their former rulers to respect it.’[9]

At this point, Hallward reminds us aptly of the case of Haiti:

‘The victor of Haiti's long struggle for emancipation, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was eventually driven to accept a similar logic to that of Robespierre, and to take the severe steps that would 'forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth', by depriving the colonial powers of 'any hope of re-enslaving us.'[10] When Haiti's Cuban neighbours won their own war of national liberation, in 1959, Che recognised that 'the basis, the essence of guerrilla struggle' lies in the fact that 'each guerrilla fighter is ready to die not just to defend an ideal but to make that ideal a reality.'[11] From Danton to Che, through Engels and then Lenin, one and the same principle animates the difficult 'art of insurrection', the principle of courage and lucid perseverance: 'de l'audace, de l'audace, encore de l'audace!’'[12]

Hallward knows that recent geopolitical and ‘technological developments have rendered old notions of armed struggle tactically obsolete, of course’, and that ‘today's oligarchs have much more to gain than to lose by deflecting political conflict onto militarised terrain. Rarely has a democratising threat been contained as ruthlessly and effectively as in Syria, Libya and Egypt, in the wake of 2011's Arab Spring.’ One of the many challenges that confronts our generation is then ‘how best to continue with the demilitarisation of our means of popular empowerment without abandoning the end of victory itself, and without simply reducing the sphere of struggle to one of more or less futile 'protest' or 'resistance.'

Finally, Hallward concludes:

‘To affirm the practice of political will as a practice of autonomous self-determination, then, is also to affirm the capacities that alone enable such practice to become actual or determinant: a capacity for association and combination, for informed deliberation and critique, for organisation and leadership, and for imposition or realisation, no matter how daunting the obstacles that might stand in our way.’

Peter Hallward teaches at Kingston University's Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, and is best known for his work on Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze. He has also published works on post-colonialism and contemporary Haiti.


[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract 2:7; 1:7.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, Vintage, New York, 1968, §488, cf. §666; cf. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals I §13, in Kaufmann ed., Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Modern Library, New York, 2000, p. 481; Twilight of the Idols, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin, London, 1968, p. 53.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, Harper & Row, New York, 1969, p. 59; cf. Bret Davis, Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to Gelassenheit, Chicago, Northwestern University Press, 2007.

[4] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Penguin, London, 1990, p. 225; cf. pp. 156-157, 291n.24.

[5] Derrida, Rogues [2002], Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 40.

[6] Cf. Agamben, 'From the State of Control to a Praxis of Destituent Power', Athens, 16 November 2013.

[7] Cf. Hallward, 'The Will of the People', Radical Philosophy 155 (May 2009), pp. 17-29.

[8] Rousseau, Discours sur l'économie politique, p. 263; Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism [1921], Verso ed., p. 25; Gramsci, 'Workers' Democracy' [1919] Pre-Prison Writings, p. 99.

[9]Reflecting on the revolution of 1789, Blanqui recognises how the privileged classes resisted it every step of the way, and sought every opportunity to reverse it. 'The scaffold alone demonstrated to them the legitimacy of the Revolution; before then, they had treated it as nothing more than a mutiny of school children [..., but] they recognised, respectfully, the sovereignty of the axe' (Auguste Blanqui, Manuscripts [Bibliothèque Nationale], vol. NAF9581, p. 167).

[10] Dessalines, Declaration of Independence, 1 Jan 2014, cited in Berthony Dupont, 'Revolution vs. Counter-Revolution', Haiti Liberté 7:51 (2 July 2014); cf. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Random House, 1963, p. 357.

[11] Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, p. 20tm.

[12] Danton, speech in the National Assembly, 2 September 1792, cited in Engels, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany [1852], ch. 17, and in Lenin, 'Advice of an Onlooker' (8 October 1917), Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 26, 1972, pp. 149f.

Amna Whiston

Modern Diplomacy Assistant Editor-in-chief

Amna Whiston is a London-based writer specialising in moral philosophy. As a PhD candidate at Reading University, UK, her main research interests are in ethics, rationality, and moral psychology.


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