ALLEN W. WOOD | The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy | Oxford University Press 2014


By Howard Williams

Allen Wood’s The Free Development of Each demonstrates the great range of his scholarship and his deft philosophical skill in handling some of the most complex and challenging philosophers of the modern age. Wood has developed a specialist academic interest in the philosophies of German idealism and Marxism which is almost unique in the English speaking world. Other philosophers who stand out as sharing a comparable range of interests and scholarly accomplishments are almost exclusively European and to my knowledge, predominantly German and French. The most striking similarity is with the range of interests of the members of the Frankfurt School with whom Wood shares a heretical admiration of Marx’s writings. Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse and, more recently, Jürgen Habermas have shown a comparable facility in interpreting and bringing alive German idealism and Marxist thought, but Wood has exercised his facility in a manner that contrasts markedly with their reception of the canon.

Wood has sought to bring a distinctively American voice to the exposition and use of the systems of German idealism and Marx: this is to be seen in his stern and telling criticisms of the United States’ flawed economic, social and political systems; in his intimate knowledge of the main themes of analytical philosophy (which he transcends but also uses to his advantage); and his desire always to connect up his work with that of fellow North Americans active in his field.

Wood also stands out in relation to members of the Frankfurt School in his academic modesty. Wood has not sought to develop a new system of his own (a constant and engaging trait of Habermas for instance): rather we find in Wood’s philosophy an explicit attempt to excavate the insights of our forerunners in philosophy, and to show how their thoughts form a coherent whole from which we can always draw. His approach is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s invocation for the historian of ideas to keep ‘diving for pearls’ with the view of bringing to the surface novel and remarkable insights. Allen Wood may tend towards the radical and revolutionary in his politics, but he is not one who wants to start wholly from scratch in philosophy: too much that is already good has, in his view, already been said and presented. For Wood, the best way to do philosophy is to read the modern classics, to try to understand their work as their authors intended them to be read and so to philosophise with them. And who can seriously doubt that the centuries of work that has already gone into the exegesis of Kant and Hegel is, for instance, already in itself philosophy? There is no one way of reading the masterpieces in philosophy. They change their meaning and significance each time we approach them: in the manner that our viewing of a Rembrandt painting will, almost without fail, reveal an apparently new feature each time we see it. (Here possibly the analogy with examining a diamond is a more apt analogy than Arendt’s diving for pearls, since the prominent features and distortion of light produced by a diamond will vary not only from to time but also with each angle from which we approach it.)

Like the members of the Frankfurt School, Wood never takes his eyes off the social and political world of which we are inextricably part. Though an admirable Kant scholar—who understands Kant’s reluctance to get immediately involved in the politics of the day—Wood is a philosopher who is happy not only to interpret the world, he wants also to change it. As he puts it in the final paragraph of this bracing book, “if there is to be a truly human future, history must resume the course projected for it collectively by the thinkers treated in this book—towards Kant and Fichte’s more perfect condition of right and morality, towards Herder’s Humanities, towards the free society Hegel tried (with spectacular unconvincingness) to portray as the actualised modernity of his own time, and that Marx (more correctly) perceived to be something that could come about only after revolutionary social changes”(p. 316). Wood is not only Kant’s engaged cosmopolitan philosopher, but also an advocate of transforming the world from the bottom up in a manner that draws heavily from Marx.

Thus the breadth of Wood’s concerns mirror those of an Adorno or Marcuse, but his approach is different and decidedly North American. If Hegel saw it as his explicit aim to ensure that the German language spoke philosophy, an implicit aim of Wood’s philosophising has been to make Americans speak the language of Kant, Hegel and Marx. The magnificent project in which Wood engaged with Paul Guyer to provide a comprehensive collective edition of Kant’s work in English demonstrates his commitment to this aim, a project whose success has possibly marked the movement of the ‘beating heart’ of English language Kant studies from Britain to North America.

Wood embraces German idealism and Marxism in an even more explicit way than the members of the Frankfurt School. The former (with perhaps the exception of Marcuse and Adorno) engaged only intermittently in their works explicitly with the writings of their forerunners; rather, they took up their ideas and deployed them in other directions. Wood in contrast has generally focussed on presenting commentaries of the German Idealists and Marx in order to bring out the relevance of their ideas for the present. In this book there are interesting signs of Wood attempting to generalise the results of his reading and seeking to provide a German idealist—predominantly Kantian and Marxian—philosophy for now. And this ultimately is what engages the philosophical reader of the book: where do we go to from now on with this powerful German philosophical inheritance?

The Marx Connection

Drawing a consistent viewpoint from the inheritance of Herder, German Idealism and Marx is a long stretch and Wood fully acknowledges this. But it is a goal that has engaged him throughout his philosophical career. In the very interesting chapter dealing with ‘Marx on Equality’ we gain an insight into Wood’s compulsions in following this course. There are aspects of Marx’s critique of capitalism he still finds entirely convincing, but there are also aspects of Marx’s vision that he cannot share. As Wood puts it,

since I began seriously studying Marx in the mid-1960s I have always found his basic critique of capitalism entirely convincing. Nothing that has happened in the past half-century has budged me a single iota from that conviction. (p. 267)

Wood follows therefore a highly paradoxical hermeneutical path in expounding Marx’s writings. He acknowledges that he has

never been attracted only to that part of Marx I find compelling or credible. And some of the themes in Marx I have been most concerned to emphasise in my work on him do not involve ideas that I have ever accepted myself. (p. 267)

As a point of method in how to study a classical writer Wood’s approach is to be recommended. In reading such an author, one should not just clarify the ideas that one agrees with or finds most defensible. The less congenial ideas have also to be encompassed and sympathetically presented. An honest expositor must always look to what the author’s own intent and aim is. Evaluation should follow on exegesis and clarification. This of course Wood always provides. He is happy to seek to come to grips with the unpopular, and perhaps least understood, of a philosopher’s ideas. But this represents an intriguing academic choice: deliberately to seek and expound writings with which one sometimes profoundly disagrees.

One of Wood’s explanations for this contrary choosing with regard to Marx’s philosophy is to defend Marx’s writing as whole from its most enthusiastic adherents:

Next to the sick, abominable, unthinking hostility toward Marx’s ideas that prevails in much of the world, and especially in my hopelessly benighted country, the most contemptible obstacle to their sympathetic reception has always been the dogmatic pseudo-religious attitude of uncritical acceptance found among many of his self-appointed followers, especially those that have been best organised and most resolute. (p. 268)

This very clearly sounds as though Wood would entirely reject a Leninist reading of Marx, as well as self-evidently distancing him from the Stalinist and Maoist versions which helped so gravely scar twentieth century politics. The demise of Soviet Marxism might seemingly make it easier to present an account of Marx’s thinking that is not tainted by such popular distortions, but oddly it appears to make it more difficult since the collapse of communism has led to a distinct lack of interest in socialist thought in general. However, the post-Soviet era development of world capitalism is gradually putting such critical social thought increasingly back on the agenda. The search for an adequate response to the failures and tensions of neo-liberalism has made critical theory attractive once again to the younger generation.

Wood is well known for his anti-ethical reading of Marx. Wood has always maintained that in Marx’s critique of ideology—where all theories of right and morality are placed amongst the dominant ideologies which have to be swept away by a socialist revolution—Marx is also saying goodbye to any moral stand whatsoever in relation to capitalist society. For him, Marx’s critique of capitalism must be taken to be a strictly empirical analysis of the defects of an economic system which must eventually destroy itself. In Kantian terms, Marx’s Capital should for Wood be seen as a product of the human understanding that attempts to comprehend human and social activity in terms of laws which bring the multiplicity of our experience into a knowable order. Marx should be interpreted primarily as presenting a determinist philosophy of history were the human actor is at the mercy of circumstances which must inevitably push us towards certain courses of action. Wood declares a kind of dark interest in this side of Marx’s writing: “Marx’s critical attitude toward right and justice, and his radical rejection of all universal moral standards, have always had, if not a direct appeal, at least a special kind of attraction for me” (p. 268). He calls this Marx’s “metaethical antirealism” and Wood finds it “refreshing that Marx frankly and openly accepts the radical rejection of all morality that plainly and necessarily goes with any such metaethical position” (p. 268). According to Wood, Marx believes that there are no abiding moral ideas to be found at the heart of human existence. Prevailing ideas of morality reflect dominant ruling interests and as those ruling interests change so too will the prevailing moral ideas. But is Marx wholly consistent in this rejection of the objectivity of moral ideas?

It is true that, under the influence of Hegel, Marx has a highly immanent, contextual understanding of ethics. At times Marx implies that there are no universal standards of good conduct but rather the conduct that is best ethically has to be determined by circumstances existing at the time. This is implied by such notions that Marx expresses as “right or justice” can be no higher than the “economic conditions permit” (p. 257) and other suggestions such as equality and freedom are predominantly ‘bourgeois’ categories. Marx sees human individuals as children of their times and as imbued by the predominant values of their epoch. Obviously there is a great deal to be said for this assertion (we are impressionable creatures and find it difficult to think beyond our own circumstances) and as an empirical observation it is hard to refute. That his ethics is contextual and immanent leads him to leave unmentioned the final standards of good conduct that might be found in a post-capitalist society. Indeed Marx’s approach would seem to imply that there would be no such final standards: as at any distinct point the prevailing ones would be open to development as economic circumstances change.

Conceding that this ideological view of morality is Marx’s main standpoint from which he views the good, none the less I don’t find myself as convinced as Wood that there are no firm ethical yardsticks that arise in Marx’s theorising. One clear standard is Marx’s commitment to truth. We can of course tie this to Marx’s adherence to science as the model for his treatment of capitalist society, but scientific truth does not stand in isolation from a learning public and a researching group of scholars who ideally form a community that respects and adheres to norms of veracity. It is not difficult to understand Marx’s desire to reject contemporary standards of ethical judgement: after all he lived in a society that he took to be deeply flawed, and riven by contradiction. Accepting such norms, such as class, racial and gender inequality would render his own theory of social and political transformation entirely void.

What then is Marx’s ethical point of view, if we remove ourselves from Wood’s positivist, scientific framework? If we take Marx’s famous statement in the Preface to the 1859 Critique of Political Economy, that

mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation (Marx 1971:21),

we can see here Marx’s ethical immanentism and contextualism in display. However, I’d suggest there is more also to be detected in his approach. There’s a teleology at work here which has a number of ethical implications. First, there is an ethical suggestion that the human species can improve its condition from one period to the next. We might want to read this in a narrow quantitative sense that there are simply more products available to consume from one epoch to the next, but the whole spirit of Marx’s writing implies that he sees more. The potential for leading more rounded and fuller lives is being created. Secondly, Marx suggests there is a qualitative process of evaluating economic and social process that occurs in human societies. Human individuals have the capacity and capability to improve. This too is affirmed. As Marx sees it, the human race is always ready to move on to what it recognises as a better way of doing things and conducting itself. A third implication—and here Marx provides no great detail—is that there are future goals that we can select and know to be good ones. Marx’s commitment to the all-round development of human talents is evident everywhere in his writings and at root I’d guess he embraces Kant’s view that it is incumbent upon us to develop those talents and aptitudes which will exhibit our maximum distance from a crude nature.

In ‘Toward the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ Marx, seeking to respond to the question as to how German society might improve in the 1840s, takes a powerfully normative stand in declaring that future social change should be premised on the emergence and rise to dominance of the working class. He draws the conclusion that

a class must be formed which has radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society which has a universal character because its sufferings are universal, and which does not claim a particular redress because the wrong which is done to it is not a particular wrong but wrong in general. There must be formed a sphere of society which claims no traditional status but only a human status, a sphere which is opposed to the assumptions of the German political system. (Marx 1970:190)

Arguably, this is not simply for the reason that ultimately it might be the most numerous class but also for the reason that the demands of the class in seeking to advance itself are better for the society as a whole. A radical proletarian class provides a means for seeking to realise the highest good in a concrete manner. When Marx speaks of the working class as finding the intellectual weapons for overthrowing the ruling class in philosophy he does not mean that those weapons are found solely in logic and the theory of knowledge, he means that they can also, I believe, be found in the ethical ideas embodied in the most advanced philosophy. What moves Marx’s argument here in the founding works of his system are ethical ideals embodied (as Wood, of course, acknowledges) in German idealism as a whole.

Contrary to what he holds to be Marx’s metaethical anti-realism, Wood has “always thought that there are objective standards of right and ethics, which are not masquerades worn by class interests” (p. 268). Wood allows for some doubt about the apparent relativist ethical commitment of Marx “since he holds that some standard of right (distributive justice) must hold in the early phases of socialist society, but offers no positive account of their normativity” (p. 268). There is clearly some failure of analysis here in Marx since whilst rejecting prevailing morality he seems pretty certain that a socialist future is going to be much better materially and normatively for the human race than the capitalist present. And intriguingly Wood himself finds in Marx grounds for moral commitment (pp. 268–9).

Wood demonstrates himself to be a generous interpreter of Hegel. A little like Marx who felt called upon to defend Hegel since his critics had tried to condemn him into being a ‘dead dog’ in philosophy in the manner of Spinoza before him, Wood feels called upon to defend Hegel from those who would belittle his achievement on the grounds of some apparent gross acts of misjudgement in his philosophy. Thus we see Hegel defended from the accusation that his philosophy of history justifies the grossest acts of injustice in the name of the World Spirit (pp. 249–51); that his ethics focusses too strongly on outcomes (pp. 246–7); and attempts to clear him of the accusation that he relegates the notion of morality simply to a description of the Kantian moral philosophy (pp. 231–3). All this is deftly done and in a manner that brings out the strengths and extraordinary perceptiveness of Hegel’s philosophy. But I was left with the sense that perhaps here Wood protests too much. It is impossible to deny the internal consistency of Hegel’s philosophy, however I doubt that it has the same systematic carefully argued persuasiveness of Kant’s position. Kant’s ethical theory is picked over more by commentators than Hegel’s because in the end there is simply a lot more there.

Linguistic Philosophy?

Wood developed as a philosopher when ordinary language philosophy, especially the variety inspired by Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, was at the peak of its influence. Wood has never been a philosopher wholly of the analytic variety, nor has he greatly embraced Wittgensteinian trends, none the less as a philosopher of his time Wood has at times adopted the style of linguistic philosophy without buying in wholly to its main themes. Quite clearly one of the things that attracts Wood to the German idealistic and Marxian philosophies is the way in which they aim always to deal with substantial themes that are of concern to human kind at large as well as academic philosophers. A trend of analytical philosophy that is unlikely to have appealed to Wood is its concern always to narrow the field of philosophy till at times it has appeared that the main concern of philosophy is how to present the appropriate use of words.

Chapter 11 on ‘Coercion, manipulation, exploitation’ would seem on the surface to pay heed to the themes of analytical and linguistic philosophy in looking closely at the use of the terms in everyday life. And to be sure, Wood seeks to draw conclusions from the manner in which we would ordinarily use these terms and the weight of meaning they might convey. Indeed his conclusion is that there is a great deal of merit in the manner in which we resource these terms, and the sense of vulnerability they invoke is greatly to be valued. But in the manner of his German mentors (and source of inspiration) he wants to go beyond the conventional senses in which these terms are used to a social and material context where a great deal more is at stake than the mere use of terms. At a deeper level of analysis what Wood’s chapter is about is the senses and uses of the three terms in our social world which we need to do something about. He persuasively concludes that there are contexts where coercion would be appropriate (a convicted criminal may quite appropriately be compelled to spend several years in prison); where manipulation might be in order (a small child that is upset may quite justifiably be made to calm down by the offer of an undeserved reward); and we might quite reasonably take advantage of another’s skills if they are freely offered or if the person is properly recompensed for doing so. The latter kind of exploitation has, then, to be distinguished from the other kinds of exploitation that are demeaning because they rob others of their dignity. For Wood the whole issue rests upon the denial of the freedom of others. Here Wood takes advantage of Kant’s understanding of freedom as “independence from being constrained by another’s choice” (p. 295). He thinks freedom of this kind—which he associates with the contemporary republican conception of freedom as “non-domination” (p. 302)—is endangered when coercion, manipulation and exploitation are unequivocally wrong.

But this philosophical analysis by Wood is, as we can see, not just about the appropriate use of terms which permits the reader and the author to rest easy. His engagement with philosophy always involves social criticism. Capitalism for Wood gives rise to many inappropriate and unnecessary forms of coercion, manipulation and exploitation. As Wood strikingly observes,

it is an important measure of the moral level of society whether it tolerates or even encourages exploitation […]. By this measure, the society in which we live—modern capitalist society, and especially American society in so far as it promotes and celebrates capitalist exploitation—is a highly objectionable social order. (p. 301)

The vocabulary of philosophy is for Wood never far away from the social order which it often closely reflects.

An integral part of Wood’s philosophy is a close exegesis of the leading authors he is concerned with. This does not take the form of what the author ‘really means’ but rather a logical analysis of the author’s own words and careful hypothesising of what various key sections might mean. Not only is it taken for granted that the published writings of the subject have an inherent sense for us to detect, but that those words are written within a context with which we must familiarise ourselves. Wood is an advocate of reading his authors in their own original words as well as in the recognised English translations. Knowledge of the nuances implied in the use of one particular word rather than another, and an understanding of the arguments and the authors the writer himself is addressing are greatly to be valued. The meaning cannot be reduced to the context, and in the work of a philosophical figure of note we are right to expect that the meaning transcends the immediate context in which it is expressed. However, misunderstandings about how an author should be read can arise from a lack of familiarity with the social, philosophical and linguistic context. As he puts it in the Introduction:

[M]y first obligation is to interpret these philosophers accurately in their own terms, and mostly in relation to the issues of their own time. (p. 2)

This may appear to be a straightforward task. However, interpreting a well-known philosophical text, certainly those texts of real standing such as Kant’s Groundwork and Marx’s Capital  requires that we first of all strip away all the misconceptions and mistaken readings that have grown up around them. Writers such as Fichte, Hegel, Herder and Marx have already enjoyed a long history of interpretation and myths about the nature of their doctrines have already sunk into the common (or average) philosophical awareness. With writers of such political significance as those Wood has chosen to study the effect of the residues of time is even more marked. Everyone has an axe to grind already about what are taken to be the main philosophical teachings of many of these writers. Hegel, for example, is regarded often to be too obscure to be the source of much reliable philosophical insight; Marx too radical; Fichte too nationalist; and Kant too unworldly and detached. There may be a grain of truth to these reputations. However, the obligation of the worthwhile philosopher now is to seek to look beyond the biases and hasty judgements (often taken on the authority of others) to the evidence that is provided by the texts themselves. The first chapter in this book, ‘Moral Worth, Merit, and Acting from Duty’, gives an excellent example of this procedure which seeks to address the “basically negative attitude” that “many who are acquainted with Kant’s moral philosophy have” (p. 13).

Attempting to draw a straight line that seeks to connect thinkers as diverse as Kant, Herder, Fichte, Hegel and Marx to tell one positive story is a difficult call. But Wood sticks to his mission throughout the book. This leads to some interesting issues about the interpretation of Kant. Wood quite rightly wants to keep Marx and Kant on the same page. But there are major areas of visible disagreement: not least is Marx’s support for social and political revolution which contrasts strongly with Kant’s rejection of a right of rebellion, not to speak of his rejection of a right of resistance. Kant favours strict obedience to existing law, Marx presents law as part of the superstructure of society that holds the majority in subjection and has to be radically transformed in the revolutionary upheaval he recommends. But Wood hits upon some judicious quotations from Kant’s early unpublished writings that bring the two closer together (pp. 87–8). Wood claims that these quotations demonstrate that Kant thought that “those who demand what is rightfully theirs are not beggars asking for handouts” (p. 87). Marx of course believed that the oppressed majority did not need to provide an excuse for depriving the rich of their historically unearned privileges. He believes the immanent logic of historical development must inevitably lead to the “expropriators being expropriated”. In Wood’s words (as they are applied to Kant) the expropriated majority are “demanding no more than what properly belongs to them, as human beings and citizens of a just civil society” (p. 87).

Wood brings some new insights to the debate on the role of welfare in Kant’s political philosophy. He is, I think, correct to argue that Kant believes that the wealthy are not free of blame for the poverty of the less well off. Kant is aware it is the political system that permits the wealthy to acquire and retain their wealth. Leaving this undisturbed may have benefits for all—and it should never be altered in an extra legal manner—none the less it is a condition that the society as a whole has brought into being and has up to now tolerated. Kant thinks it open to society to change its mind about the ownership of property and the distribution of income:

For the wealthy owe their existence to their submission to the state, and their right of property becomes a conclusive and peremptory right only through their submission to the general will. (p. 88)

Wood’s considered view about Kant and inequality is this:

Inequality of possessions, therefore, infringes right less often by infringing the rightful equality of citizens than by infringing their rightful freedom and independence. (p. 85)

Kant is far from being the potential libertarian that some commentators have suggested he resembles. Wood takes the view that Kant’s thinking on modern civil society opens up many ways of thinking critically about it, although Kant does not always seem to have taken them up. The distinction between passive and active citizens presents an example of this (pp. 88–9). We may like to take Kant to task for not readily granting all adult males (and no females!) the right to an active citizenship which includes the right to vote, but we might also congratulate Kant’s acuity in seeing that in modern society all adults are not fully active citizens. It is for us then to seek ways to ensure that everyone can ascend to active citizenship, overcoming class and sex discrimination. Here as ever, Wood finds Kant a little too timid and he congratulates Fichte for being more “farsighted” by “insisting the state should undertake radical redistributive measures and impose tight regulation on the economy” (p. 89). One wonders how effective these Fichtean type reforms might be. Gross inequalities often appear to re-emerge in societies that attempt drastic redistribution, an old aristocracy is often replaced by a new plutocracy, aided by the efforts of state bureaucrats who seem endemically to be unable to resist encouraging inequalities. Surely Kant’s project of gradual enlightenment represents a better answer than sudden egalitarian upheaval. A society that in the long term which is going to flatten out inequalities of income and wealth does depend upon an intelligent, well-informed and educated public that can retain vigilance about the dangers of encouraging inequality and can assert its will through regular democratic processes. The most powerful point that Wood makes in highlighting these distributional issues is that from the Kantian standpoint they are not issues about welfare at all, but rather a better redistribution of wealth and income is necessary “solely on grounds of rightful external freedom” (p. 89).


There are three chapters in this collection on Fichte. The first, chapter 7, deals with Fichte’s ‘Absolute Freedom’; the second with Fichte’s ‘Intersubjective I’ (chapter 8); and the third ‘Fichtean Themes in Hegel’s Dialectic of Recognition’. These chapters are part of Wood’s attempts to provide Fichte with a more generous reading than is customary. Wood is set to continue with the project in further publications. Arguably Fichte deserves this greater recognition because of the role he plays in igniting many of the most significant post-Kantian debates. Hegel quite clearly reckons that Fichte is a major figure, and one whose reputation he consciously seeks to diminish in his own system. Fichte is therefore worthy of attention—if not solely for his own sake, but for the stimulus he provides to his philosophical adversaries Schelling and Hegel. Wood defends Fichte from the criticism, given much credence I believe by Hegel, that Fichte’s ‘I’ or Ego comes far too close to creating the world. Hegel remarks that Fichte’s epistemological deployment of the ‘I’ at times veers towards such crass suggestion as that I bring into being my footwear by putting it on. This is an undeserved physicalist reading of Fichte’s idealist philosophy. However, there is no denying that Fichte gives his ‘I’ a far more world-constructive role than Kant’s unity of apperception. With Fichte it is the ‘I’ that generates the ‘non-I’. Wood takes our attention away from a sensationalising reading of Fichte’s ‘I’ by focusing on the intersubjective connotations of the Fichtean ‘I’.  Fichte takes great strides in bringing philosophy from the isolation of the thinker’s study into the world. But I am not so convinced that he gets this orientation in the world entirely right. The early vision that Fichte puts forward of the ‘closed commercial state’ represents a major step backward arguably from Kant’s cosmopolitanism.

Thus I am not fully convinced by Wood’s positive reading of Fichte. Quite clearly there is more to Fichte’s philosophical system than first meets the eye. He initiated a number of important philosophical debates and played a big part in bringing Schelling and Hegel (and others as well) into philosophy. More than Kant, Fichte took philosophy into the everyday world. Fichte was not only an academic philosopher, he was also, for a short time, something of a celebrity. However, by its very nature being a celebrity is a transient condition. For a brief time Fichte lit up the philosophical firmament. Although on the face of it Fichte’s system was the most monological of philosophies as its key principle was the ‘I’ (das Ich) it was also the most intersubjective. For Fichte the ‘I’ is also the ‘not-I’, just as the reverse is true. Wood emphasises that Fichte’s starting point is transcendental idealism. This is a distinguishing point in relation to Kant’s philosophy for whom transcendental idealism is the end point of the system. Fichte grew up in the shadow of the success of Kant’s system. Fichte did not dispute the main truths of Kant’s Critical philosophy concerning a priori knowledge, the understanding and the unity of apperception. Self-evidently Kant could not have known an intellectual universe where transcendental idealism represented the accepted philosophical viewpoint. Fichte expands upon the success of Kant’s Critical project, not—as we might expect—in the way that all philosophers might wish to do so, but for a short while his enlarged Kantian idealism became the philosophical centrepoint of the day. Wood’s claim is that Fichte’s Doctrine of Science (Wissenschaftslehre) represents the antithesis to the philosophy of Descartes (p. 210) and so we might think it rounded off in an attractive way an important stage in the development of modern philosophy. I am not sceptical about the important role that Fichte plays in the history of modern philosophy. However, I am sceptical about whether his principles can on their own provide a sound basis for philosophy now.

Finally, Marx Once Again

Wood thinks that Marx is far too kind to capitalism. According to Wood, Marx presents too rosy a picture of capitalism by pressing too strongly the progressive features of the bourgeois social order. If we recall the colourful phrases of the Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels depict the world-changing properties of the exploding capitalist system, there may well be some substance to this claim. Their approval for the radical social changes, and the disruption it caused to traditional forms of life is barely disguised. The expansion of European capitalism to the rest of the (largely reluctant) world was a very bloody and demeaning affair, and not to be glossed over. Whole cultures were set to one side with little ceremony and remorse. Ultimately, as capitalism embraced the whole globe, millions of human beings were deprived of their native lands and their traditional means of subsistence, as land and resources were brought into private (usually foreign) ownership. This was a devastating and destructive process for which Europe has yet to pay the full price: and the descendants of the original inhabitants of the four other main continents rightly draw attention to the injustices of the process and pose the question as to how the people of Europe can properly recompense the disinherited masses of the rest of the world.

Marx and Engels overlook too lightly this historical injustice in welcoming enthusiastically the adoption of the capitalist mode of production in the rest of the world. Here we can share Wood’s disappointment with Marx’s saying: “My biggest disagreement with him is over capitalism, of which his opinion was far too favourable” (p. 270). Marx believed that capitalism would undermine itself. Indeed he devoted a good deal of his life time’s research into showing how capitalism must fail because of the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall. There is little need to stress that things have not as yet quite worked out as Marx envisaged. Wood’s concern is that capitalism may turn out to be more than “a transitional economic form” as Marx envisaged it to be. Indeed Marx had cheerfully hoped for the demise of capitalism in some of the leading countries of Europe in his own lifetime, and expressed great regret when the Paris Commune collapsed in 1871. Moreover, Wood is right that capitalism seems now to be more entrenched than ever in our ways of life, and since the fall of Soviet Communism has enjoyed a very striking new lease of life in Europe and North America. Thus a part of the over-optimistic view of capitalism that Marx presented that Wood believes is to be regretted is Marx’s over-generous assumption that capitalism would have the good grace not to outlive its own usefulness. But the people who live under capitalism, and especially those individuals who most benefit from it, instead of striving enthusiastically to bring it down are labouring hard to paper over its deficiencies and take the fullest advantage of its inequalities.

What is to be done in the face of the powerlessness of Marx’s formerly powerful theories? Radical visions are undermined by the poor track record of one of political radicalism’s most perceptive critiques. Wood suggests that not a great deal was learned from the socialist experiments of the Russian peoples and their neighbours. The countries in the Soviet Union and its allies turned into “self-discrediting engines of backwardness”. These countries left “behind them little in the way of encouragement for future post-capitalist societies” (p. 271). Without doubt there is more than a grain of truth to this accusation, whatever the excuses that for a good deal of its existence the Soviet Union was isolated and reviled by other states, and that even then the worst repressive feature of capitalist societies were no more than duplicated in the Soviet states.

However, we might still in this debacle find some cheer in this ‘grey in grey’ depiction of Soviet Communism. For what it did show, however much this may be derided by neo-liberal economic thinkers, is that a non-capitalist economy can bring about sustained economic growth even under siege conditions. So far communist economics is not very pretty. It has led to dull, inefficient and most often inhumane regimes. But capitalism has not fared much better in this regard. It has given rise to just as many wasteful, impoverished regimes in countries that were in the equivalent economic position of twentieth century Russia. There are economic double standards being exercised here by the supporters of capitalism. They point to the inefficiency and shortages of communist societies whilst they are prepared to disregard the poverty and unemployment that mars the lives of millions even in the richest western societies, and are quite happy to look to the semi-socialist, semi-capitalist Chinese society to sustain the demand for goods in the faltering global economy of today. Cruel and unjust regimes are not the exclusive product of Soviet style centralism: they exist just as evidently and numerously in the wholly capitalist parts of the world. Indeed they seem to predominate in those least advanced states who are in a similar condition to that of Russia when it experimented first with a socialist economy. Instead of attributing the authoritarian and unjust elements of Soviet society solely to its adventures in socialism, we might just as well attribute them to its underdeveloped economic condition. Thus we might take some more hope than Wood suggests/recommends from the Soviet experiment, and indeed we might with some justice at the same time grant its population some consolation for their suffering as the experiment took place. Unfortunately, we cannot now recreate those ideal conditions for a transition to socialism in Russia that might have led to a fairer and closer competition between capitalism and socialism. As Gorbachev shrewdly put it, there are unfortunately “no rehearsals in history”.

Maybe here the consolation for the failure of Soviet Communism, and the apparently now entrenched position of capitalism, should be found not in a Marxian determinist reading of history, but rather in a reflective Kantian reading of it. Just as the unbridled development of European capitalism led to enormous social dislocation and deprivation, and through its wars brought about great suffering as it stimulated progress (and as a result we may still sing its praises), so the Soviet system should be given a similar reading. The Soviet system challenged capitalism for over 70 years and so indirectly brought about many improvements in the capitalist world; it also paid the major part in defeating a monstrous product of European capitalism: fascism. We may not yet want to sing its praises—nor apparently do the Russian people themselves—but they and we should find positives in these harsh negatives, and as we do we may perhaps get closer to Marx’s goal of discovering a viable alternative to a now global and ever more precarious capitalism.

Received: 30 September 2016.


Marx, K. (1970), Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

——— (1971), A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (London: Lawrence & Wishart).

© Howard L. Williams, 2016.

Howard Williams is Emeritus Professor in Political Theory at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth and Honorary Distinguished Professor in the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University. His most recent books are Kant’s Critique of Hobbes: Sovereignty and Cosmopolitanism (University of Wales Press, 2003) and Kant and the End of War: A Critique of Just War Theory (2012). He is the editor of the journal Kantian Review.