Hegel, The State, and Moralistic Democracy

Note from the Author:

You must excuse the lateness of this essay’s date of posting, as I was stricken with a most uncomfortable migraine on the evening of Thursday, March 11th, and my reading of Hegel that day and throughout the other days that I had worked on this piece naturally only served to bless me with more headaches and other unpleasantries. I have wanted to publish a piece on this subject for some time now, but first I must provide this disclaimer: I am not a jurist, nor do I have any formal legal education. The opinions provided in this piece are likely to be controversial and do not necessarily represent the views of this publication, her writers or her editorial board. 


These days it feels like every other right wing columnist has his own set of unorthodox takes regarding the role of the state in American society, what duties the state should and should not be entrusted to, who should run the state, the need for an administrative state and what it should be administering, and so forth. These are all important matters, and I am glad that there is more debate surrounding them in general, but there is one question that is more often than not missing from these blog posts and editorials. What is the state? At first, this line of inquiry seems bizarre, almost childish. Everyone knows that the state is, it is the government, the authority, the legislators and bureaucrats who make the laws as well as the fellows who enforce them. These intuitions are more or less correct, but the devil is, of course, in the details. Is the state a modern construct dating to say, Westphalia or the French Revolution or a more ancient institution? If one believes that the first state was conceived in 1792, then is all statism ultimately just an extension of Enlightenment political theory? It does not help that we have a tendency to add on compound modifiers to create such terms as “nation-state” and “constitutional-state”, the meanings of which are all also rather ambiguous and could easily generate a three hour long debate among the editors of this publication. My intention in this essay is to provide a reasonable definition of the state, furnish a general defense of statism, and discuss the role of the state in the promotion of healthy communities and the self-sustainment of republican government.

Origin of the State

First of all, some agreement must be reached regarding when our present conception of the state came to be. Although there is no honest answer to this inquiry that will satisfy all of our readers, I think that it is most productive to think of the state as a modern construct which, not unlike the conception of industrial capitalism, gradually came into being during the 17th and 18th centuries. This is not to say that there were absolutely no political entities prior to the Age of Absolutism which could qualify as “states”, but rather that the general notion of a state did not practically exist before this period. Which qualities, you may ask, do I believe a political body must possess in order to fit this somewhat abstract classification?

The most important aspect is without a doubt the Weberian theory of das Monopol legitimen physischen Zwanges, or the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (the term legitimate in this context generally suggests legal normativity, but not inherently a moral one). It is also critically important to note the term “monopoly”, which implies that while the state is the only power which provides legal legitimacy for physical coercion, it does not have to be an absolute sovereign in this realm, as it can delegate some of its authority to its citizenry for the purpose of self-defense, for example. I note the difference between legal and moral authorities chiefly because the state can view these two matters as being separate to some degree as exemplified by many liberal states as well as those guided strongly by certain forms of natural law, or it can choose to allow no practical discrimination between the two, as is the case in many illiberal modern nations. This first quality is generally accepted fairly universally, and I would argue that it already places strict historical limits on what could be called a state, but the next one, though substantially more controversial, shall surely set these limits in stone: the concept of the nation is an integral element of statehood, and I believe that in most instances the term “nation-state” is actually kind of redundant. Although it is theoretically possible for there to be a state according to the aforementioned Weberian quality, the development of the monopoly on legitimate force is directly tied to and correlates with the development of nationalism. I would challenge the reader to name a society in which the government assumed the role of the state without any aid from the political currents of civic or ethnic nationalism. One might point out the obvious lag between the two, as the French jurist Jean Bodin first mentioned something vaguely resembling Max Weber’s theory in a work of his dating to 1576, nearly 70 years before the Peace of Westphalia. How could it be that the two are interwoven when the proto-statism of early absolutism predates the event which very slowly lit the fuse that would eventually erupt into nationalism in the West? But one must also remember that absolutism was still somewhat underdeveloped in 1676, let alone a century before and that it would be more appropriate to position the golden age of that ideology in the early 18th century, not in the 17th century and certainly not during Jean Bodin’s time. It is quite telling that a substantial portion of what is written in Bodin’s magnum opus, Les Six Livres de la République, or the Six Tomes of the Republic, is repeated in a different form in works like the Leviathan, which I will remind the reader was released by Hobbes three years after Westphalia.

Bluntly speaking, by virtue of being more organic in its nature, nationalism caught on much faster than the conception of the state, and so the two became intrinsically tied together by 1792. These two characteristics, the legal monopoly on physical coercion and nationalism are what I believe to be fundamental to any political thing being considered a state. Although I am sure that there will be those reading who disagree with my characterization of nationalism being modernist and liberal, I must defer to the general academic consensus on this matter, and would also ask those readers if there is a more useful term to refer to the (generally premodern) things which they presently call “nationalist”. I hope to revisit this subject in another essay, but I will provide mention of it further in this piece as well. So this conception of the state, with which I am sure all of us are familiar to some extent even prior to reading this writing, can assist us in determining what is and is not a state. The powers of medieval Europe, the clans of the ancient world (and the present one), as well as the Taliban all wielded large volumes of power, but none of them were states. More importantly though, this framework can assist us in thinking about the architecture of the state as well as its rights and duties.

In Defense of the State

It may seem a bit peculiar for those more acquainted with my beliefs and prior writings to see a defense of statism and nationalism under my name. After all, do the foundational principles of these worldviews not directly clash with traditionalist conservatism and a classical view of republican politics? The entire purpose of counter-Enlightenment, post-liberal, and anti-liberal ideologies is to reject the fundamental philosophical underpinnings of modernity in favor of either a return to ancient, premodern norms or the construction of new ones on the basis of certain Christian and classical virtues. Those so-called “anti-liberals” who are against the Enlightenment in every conceivable way will likely find little sympathy with my argument, but I believe it can be integrated without much issue into the ideology of those traditionalists who consider themselves “post-liberal”.

There is a long-standing history of classically conservative groups adopting nationalist government, cultural messaging and political economy, with the most notable examples including the Federalist Party in the post-Revolutionary United States, the Prussian traditionalists of the mid 19th century, and countless traditionalist anti-colonial groups in the 20th century. Some will also cite the Revolutionary Conservatives of the Weimar period as belonging to this category, though the extent to which their movement embodied an organically traditionalist ethos is, to say the least, rather debatable. In spite of occasionally being labelled as hypocrites, these political actors all had perfectly reasonable intentions of utilizing the power of the nation state to further critically vital conservative ends, which in many cases was simply the preservation of their traditions, institutions, and people. Consider then, the case of a hypothetical “traditionalist conservative” country circa 1850 which refuses to modernize and become a nation state. She may be able to preserve a greater sense of localism and organic unity within her borders for some time, but without an extensive industrial base and standing army those borders will not be secure for very long, nor will she be able to stop foreign monopolists from importing the very same economic structures and industries whose development she initially sought to prevent. One could also imagine a completely decentralized United States dedicated to isolationism with no serious military armaments, a stunted industrial base, etc… and imagine how long it would take for the powers of the world, chiefly the People’s Republic of China, to subjugate it (a few years would probably do the trick). Being centered around the concept of monopolized violence, these defenses are of course the most substantial benefit of the modern state, but as we shall discuss momentarily, the state can also remarkably useful in its ability to cultivate certain moral perspectives and dogmas in its citizenry.

A great number of conservatives will unfortunately recoil at this thought, but ultimately, so long as these policies are constrained by a prudent population and well-respected constitutional government, history teaches us that there is nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, the fact that even many Jeffersonians in the young United States were open to state-run education should demonstrate the fact that almost everyone is willing to some extent or another to utilize the hegemonic power of the state in the same way they would an independent cultural institution. One of the greatest charades of modern political life has been the notion that the ideological propagation of negative liberty onto a population is somehow a counteraction of unfettered statism and state authority, that it constitutes a value-neutral counteracting of “indoctrination” when in reality we have witnessed just as much if not more brain-washing than in the days of yore. We were first liberated from the coercion of the government, then from the forces of civil society, and later from the wretched institution of the family, though I still await the day when they liberate our heads from our shoulders! I cannot in good conscience refer to myself as a “national-conservative” or a “statist-conservative”, for at the end of the day I do long for a society resembling the Shire, and like Tolkien am sympathetic to a quaint, agrarian Tory anarchism, certainly a bit a far stretch from the nation-state. It is not only politically hopeless for conservatives with my disposition to dogmatically hold to this vision, but also immensely dangerous to the longevity of not only the conservative movement in this country, but additionally to American civilization itself. And so we must go further than allying ourselves with so-called national conservatives, for we must also become them in a nonpermanent sense (I use the term nonpermanent as opposed to “temporary” because a world in which the aforementioned political entities exist is certainly not one in our immediate future). Having provided a brief defense of the state, I would like to present an architecture for the state developed by a man most conservatives claim to absolutely loathe.

The Hegelian State and Moralism

At first glance, the aversion to Hegel among traditionalists and conservatives is perfectly understandable. After all, how could anything of value come out of a man who drank an annual toast to the storming of the Bastille and provided large volumes of source material to such thinkers as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Giovanni Gentile and Thodor Adorno? The citation of Hegel by many vicious, totalitarian and atheistic men throughout history is compounded by a tendency of some conservatives specifically in the United States to read small portions or summaries of Hegel’s writings and then drawing unbelievably asinine conclusions about what the man meant (though sometimes I am inclined to think that these people have never even touched Hegel and instead just spout word salads to their gullible audience). All of these matters, however, are less a consequence of Hegel’s liberality or proximity to other Enlightenment thinkers, but rather a byproduct of his extraordinarily confusing and hectic style of writing, not to mention the noticeable reduction of clarity present between his original manuscripts in German and their numerous translations into the native languages of most of his readers, including a sizeable portion of the aforementioned dastardly figures. Despite this, I sincerely believe that Hegel is much more useful to conservatism than one might initially suspect, particularly in the field of political philosophy.

First, we must address the elephant in the room, which is Hegel’s attitude towards 1789, and how it could ever be reconciled with genuine, authentic conservatism. Although he did indeed toast to the anniversary of the French Revolution and considered himself to be an authentic kind of Girondin, it’s important to remember that Hegel was also a major critic of the revolution, and his particular criticisms, contrary to what some may expect, do in some ways resemble Burkeanism. Like Kant and to a lesser extent Rosseau, Hegel believed his thought to be a modern continuation of classical republican political thought, and he was perhaps a greater advocate of positive liberty than both of those men combined. Consider this citation from section 15 of his Elements of the Philosophy of Right:

Ordinary man believes that he is free, when he is allowed to act capriciously, but precisely in caprice is it inherent that he is not free. When I will the rational, I do not act as a particular individual but according to the conception of ethical observance in general. In an ethical act I establish not myself but the thing. A man, who acts perversely exhibits particularity.

Hegel understood that the possession of authentically free willpower in a republican society required us to be free from our passions, temptations and addictions to properly participate in government and the ethical life, that to some extent, we have the right to virtue. Contrast this with Burke’s discussion in his Reflections on the Revolution in France of the role of restraint in preserving ordered liberty:

Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.

Could a Hegelian state further Burkean ends? The answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!”, even taking into consideration the number of Hegel-inspired entities which did not advance such virtues, for those polities did not understand the importance of constitutional government as outlined in works like the Elements.

Another parallel between the two thinkers arises when comparing Burke’s attitudes towards legal right and Hegel’s three spheres of right described in the Elements. The first sphere, which he calls “abstract right”, is effectively characterized by the negative liberty of Lockeanism and the abstractions of the French Revolutionaries, all of whom Hegel criticizes extensively. The next is called the sphere of moral right, and is something like a political embodiment of Kantian ethics, or in other words the positive right of moral liberty (it is generally agreed that this resembles the concept of positive liberty, but I am not so sure). Regardless, he dismisses both theories of right as being overly abstract and insufficiently applicable to the lives of most citizens. (Notice anything yet?) Hegel’s third and final sphere is called Sittlichkeit, or the sphere of ethical life, which consists of families, civil society and the state. Hegel writes that the best governments are those which support a balanced sphere of ethical life, and that each component of this sphere must help to maintain the others, which naturally includes state action in defense of the family and a virtuous public education system, amongst other things. Most importantly, Sittlichkeit is a specifically customary kind of moral and political right which can only be modified over time to match the moral aspirations of citizens, so while Hegel’s vision of the elements of ethical life differ from those of Burke and company substantially (on the family, for example, Hegel’s attitudes embody early 19th century bourgeois liberal attitudes almost perfectly), the general notion itself is extremely conservative, so much so that while liberal and conservative jurists applauded Sittlichkeit, socialists, communists and other radicals sought to demolish it. German constitutionalism as understood by Hegel did differ from British constitutionalism, chiefly in its emphasis on maintaining rechtsstaat (legal state) as well as something resembling what Max Weber would later characterize as “legal rational authority”, which in very coarse terms is more concerned with rationalist governance and bureaucracy than her Anglo-Saxon cousins. After taking these differences into account though, history and our present day experience clearly vindicate Hegel’s view that constitutional republics require a morally invigorated and virtuous people free from capricious inclinations and passions which inhibit their judgement and greatly limit the extent to which they can rationally engage in self-government.

The direct, unilateral insertion of these political and ethical virtues into society through both public and private means is exactly what we as a publication intend to mean when referring to our core value of moralism, and the modern Western societies making such insertions are called moralistic democracies following what one might call a principle of democratic conservatism. One final aspect of Hegelian thought I must address is the man’s rationalism, and the implications of his being a rationalist. Whether he is deserving of the philosophical label is probably debatable to some degree, but from my (limited) exposure to his work I will agree with the consensus that Hegel’s thought does belong to the school. It is worth considering that Hegel did generally elevate practical reasoning, particularly in the political sphere, over abstract rationality, despite literally all of his writing being a clear example of the latter. This combined with his lifelong devotion to Lutheran theological orthodoxy should be enough to distance Hegel from the likes of Locke, Decartes and Kant, and in addition to all of these things Hegel refused to accept the atomising view of the individual characterising the thought of the vast majority of the Enlightenment. Recall that the individual being is absent from Hegel’s conception of the sphere of ethical life, instead being replaced by the family unit. The rejection of atomic, tabula rasa people is foolishly characterized as some kind of dystopian collectivism by the aforementioned American conservative misinterpreters of Hegel, when in reality it is a perfectly organic conception of the human condition dating back to the birth of civilization. Of course the individual and individualism are important, but Hegel rightly observes they are valuable in relative perspective to the other human beings we live amongst; wild, solitary beasts roaming through the wilderness simply cannot enjoy the intellectual liberty of inherently social animals like man. 


As obscure and befuddling as they might appear, the works of Hegel are a must-read for any conservative seeking to deprogram his mind from Lockean abstractions. As discussed in the second section of this piece, we cannot realistically expect to live in and work with fully post-liberal political structures within the immediate future, but this does not necessarily mean that the only framework of the state and the nation available to us is the same one employed by the Jacobins. Naturally, there are limits to the applicability of Hegelian political thought, particularly in our own Anglosphere nations where an overt implementation of continental politics would be seen as bizarre, alien, and in all likelihood ineffective. Even then, we still ought to make a little bit of room at the table for good old Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel.

Works Referenced:

Weber, Max. Politics as a Vocation. 1919.

Bodin, Jean. Les Six Livres De La République. 1576.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. 1820.

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Spirit. 1807.