The British materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is one of the fathers of social contract theory and modern political philosophy. His magnus opusLeviathan[i] – is a text which á la Plato’s Republic covers a wide breadth of subjects from epistemology, science, religion, and moral and political philosophy. However, his text is most widely remembered for its monarchism-endorsing political philosophy and its speculative warring state of nature. Nonetheless, there is a contradiction at the heart of Hobbes’ work, between his notorious political thought and his moral philosophy, which is surprisingly egalitarian, collectivist, and progressive (esp. for the 17th century). Before we embark on the examination of this contradiction, let us refresh his position on the ideal political state and the state of nature.

In his political philosophy Hobbes espouses three forms of commonwealth, viz., monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – each with their respective corrupted forms (tyranny, oligarchy, anarchy) (TH, 143). From these three options (whose minimum threshold is having some form of absolute sovereign power) he considers monarchy the most practical. In his ideal absolute monarchy, the sovereign, instituted by either force (“sovereignty by acquisition”) or choice (“sovereignty by institution”), uses fear – either the fear men have to return to a state of nature, or the fear men have of the sovereign himself – to rule over his subjects. This absolute monarch is paradoxically described as a “mortal god” and analogized to a leviathan – a biblical sea monster which Isaiah 27:1 urges God to slay (TH, 132). With very minor exceptions, Hobbes ideal political state is one in which the autonomy of the subjects is alienated onto the Monarch, making the later a singularity through which the multiplicity of suspended wills expresses itself.

Written during the English civil war, Hobbes’ Leviathan’s state of nature is a projection of the de facto chaotic state of England, where the warring factions of parliamentarian, absolute monarchist, and recently expropriated peasants – led by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers agrarian socialist movement – battled it out. In this context, Hobbes projects that in the state of nature (who he warns against interpreting as existing generally the same in all places), humanity is in a state of war, “every man, against every man” (TH, 92). This state of nature, we must clarify, is not limited to the condition pre-state primitive societies lived in. Beyond this, Hobbes describes conditions in a civil war (which he was in) and those in international relations between sovereigns as constitutive of a state of nature as well. For Hobbes, this state of nature in “continual fear” provides infertile grounds for industrial and human development, for the security of one’s life is the prime concern (TH, 94). In essence, within the state of nature “the life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Ibid.).

Out of his political philosophy and speculation on the state of nature, the latter has remained the most influential in contemporary discourse. I remember the news reports during hurricane Katrina claiming that New Orleans was under a ‘Hobbesian state of nature,’ where rape, lootings, and killings dominated. This, of course, was false. Instead, as was shown in Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell (among many other places), events like Katrina show that in times of adversity, when formal institutions seem to temporarily fall, people generally turn to collectively cooperating for the community. Nonetheless, the narrative that the “general inclination of all mankind” is “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death” remains essential in a system that can survive only insofar as it can “perpetually and restlessly” accumulate capital and reproduce the relations that facilitate this accumulation (TH, 73).

Hobbes’ political philosophy’s emphasis on an absolute sovereign is unacceptable for modern socialists. His anthropology, as constitutive of a portion of his theory on the state of nature, is also a perspective diametric to a Marxist position which shuns from these forms of speculative bourgeois essentialisms. Nonetheless, Hobbes’ laws of nature, the study of which he relegated as “moral philosophy,” retains interesting insights that lend themselves to striking moral criticisms of contemporary neoliberal capitalism (TH, 119).

Although before coming together into a commonwealth, humanity exists in the anxiety of the state of nature, Hobbes nonetheless posits that the laws of nature, centered around preserving life and keeping peace, are “immutable and eternal; for injustice, ingratitude, arrogance, pride, [and] iniquity… can never be made lawful” (TH, 119). Proceeding from the fundamental first law of keeping peace, let us examine a few of the nineteen laws Hobbes lays out for us. It is important to clarify that in our analysis we will be assuming that the modern political scenario is not constitutive of a state of nature, i.e., the grand majority of existing governments are not simply failed, sovereign-less states, most states do have an instituted sovereign power with roles similar to those needed to pass the threshold for Hobbes (even if some might be categorized within the three previously mentioned ‘corrupted forms’). Nonetheless, since for Hobbes, international relations, that is – relations between sovereigns – are constitutive of a state of nature, a loophole for excusing violations of the laws of nature in international relations is present. We will say more on this below.

To begin with – what is a lex naturalis (law of nature)? He says, “a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (TH, 97).

The first and most fundamental law of nature for Hobbes is that one must “seek peace, and follow it,” and if peace cannot be obtained, then one is allowed to defend themselves “by all means” (TH, 98). What greater violation of this law on earth than American imperialism? A system in which the supremacy of capital forces it to go abroad, as Marx said, “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,”[ii] to continuously plunder foreign lands, is in a direct contradiction with peace. A nation which has been at war 226 out of its 244 years of life does not seem to be too fond of peace. And as to the times when violence, even when we seek peace, is inevitable, does not Hobbes’ proposition remind us of Fanon’s dictum to the colonized, who stuck in a “web of a three-dimensional violence”, are told they must “[end] the colonial regime by any means necessary?”[iii]

A Hobbesian might respond that within international dealings the laws of nature do not apply since international dealings are, for Hobbes, constitutive of a state of nature. Hence, the activities of American imperialism are fair game. It is important that we deal with this early, for similar international violations of the laws of nature are referenced below. This argument fails to distinguish two points: 1) international relations are always bound to national conditions – a sovereign does not take aliens to fight in wars of plunder, but his own citizenry, which, as in the case of the US, often return dead or physically and psychologically mutilated; 2) As Plato had already noted, states whose economic foundation is grounded on the “endless acquisition of money,” find it that they must “seize some of [their] neighbor’s land.”[iv] International relations reflect the national relations of class. To suppose, as Hobbes does, that international relations are in a state of nature is to presuppose a national economy based on accumulation, plunder, and expansion – and to ignore the possibility, effectively realized under socialism, of international relations based on cooperation and mutual development. Thus, the conditions of imperialism and global capital relations, instead of simply being brushed away through Hobbes’ categorization of them, further highlight the antinomies in Hobbes’ moral and political philosophy. For they demonstrate a condition where the commonwealth, that is, the general organization the laws of nature thrust humans into, is presupposed by Hobbes to be continuously flickering into a state of nature (the condition the laws of nature and commonwealth is supposed to negate) when dealing with the international realm of national politics. Nonetheless, let us continue our examination of his laws of nature.

In the fifth law of nature, the law of mutual accommodation, Hobbes states that just like an architect must toss aside material that takes “room from others” in the “building of an edifice”, so too “a man that by asperity of nature, will strive to retain those things which to himself are superfluous, and to others necessary; and for the stubbornness of his passions, cannot be corrected, is to be left, or cast out of society, as cumbersome thereunto” (TH, 114). In a world where the eight richest people have the same wealth as the poorest half (almost 4 billion people), we live according to global relations which directly violate Hobbes’ fifth law of nature. For the Hobbesian unconvinced with the global nature of this violation (for reasons previously  mentioned), in the US, the country which spearheads the G7 in income inequality, the richest 1% of American households hold 15 times more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. This inequality exists at a time when hundreds of thousands are homeless, and when 42 million people, including 13 million kids, experience hunger in the country. From a Hobbesian moral philosophy, all those who are superfluously hoarding those things which others lack, must be immediately expropriated and expelled from society. Of course, a change in the society that allowed this in the first place is a precondition of the former.

The ninth law against pride gives an insight to how the inequality mentioned in five arose. Hobbes states, “the question who is the better man, has no place in the condition of mere nature; where, as has been shown before, all men are equal” (TH, 115). If men are equal, where did inequality come from? He says, “the inequality that now is, has been introduced by the laws civil” (Ibid.). In essence, men are born equal, it is their social formation which makes them unequal. Interesting enough, although Hobbes and Rousseau are seen to be in polar opposites, Rousseau also agrees that inequality is a development of our transition into society, specifically seen in the development of private property.[v]  Hobbes concludes that every man must “acknowledge another for his equal by nature” (TH, 116).

The tenth law is an extension of the ninths into the realm of the jus naturalis (rights of nature). Hobbes asserts that no man can desire a right for himself, “which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest” (Ibid.). He continues, “as it is necessary for all men that seek peace, to lay down certain rights of nature; that is to say, not to have liberty to do all they list: so it is necessary for man’s life, to retain some; as right to govern their own bodies, enjoy air, water, motion, ways to go from place to place; and all things else, without which a man cannot live, or not live well” (Ibid.). There are a few important things to note with this law. Firstly, the notion of rights applying to all was something that took more than three centuries after the writing of this text for the US to figure out. In some places, namely, in the settler colonial state of Israel, this law is still being violated. Secondly, the right to enjoy such things as clean air and water seems dim in a world where fossil capitalism is taking humanity and various other species on the planet to the brink of extinction. Lastly, Hobbes sustains as jus naturalis not just the right to all things one needs to live, but also to all things one needs to live well. In the US, the leading economic power in the history of the planet, having more than enough resources to do so, guarantees neither the latter nor the former to its people as a right. Shelter, food, water, and medical care, i.e., the basic necessities people need to survive, are not guaranteed to the American public. Beyond this, those specific things which each person requires in order to ‘live well,’ to virtuously develop themselves in community, are restricted for only those who can afford it. A system which is dependent for its reproduction on the commodification of people and nature is fundamentally unable to exist non-antagonistically to Hobbes’ tenth law.

Laws twelve and thirteen may also seem surprising to some. Here he states:

The twelfth, equal use of things common. And from this followeth another law, that such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common, if it can be; and if the equality of the thing permit, without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right. For otherwise the distribution is unequal, and contrary to equity.

But some things there be, that can neither be divided nor enjoyed in common. Then, the law of nature, which prescribeth equity, requireth, that the entire right; or else, making the use alternate, the first possession, be determined by lot. For equal distribution, is of the law of nature; and other means of equal distribution cannot be imagined.

These passages deserve the reply Marx gives the “intelligent” bourgeois of his time, who, while rejecting communism promote co-operative production and societies – he tells them, “what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, ‘possible’ communism?”[vi] We must ask Hobbes here, ‘what is this, if not communism?’ From law twelve and thirteen we get three forms of property: 1) property that can be distributed equally to all deserving, 2) property that can be enjoyed in common, 3) property that can neither be enjoyed in common nor distributed equally but is assigned by lottery. Although it might not be what Marx deems the highest phase of communism, where relations are based “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,”[vii] Hobbes nonetheless conjures the necessity for a form of lower phase communism out of his ‘laws of nature.’

As I hope to have shown, there is a persistent contradiction between Hobbes’ moral philosophy – dedicated as a science to knowing the lex naturalis – and his political philosophy, grounded more on his projected conception of human nature, than on the laws of nature which supposedly thrust humanity into a commonwealth. Hobbes’ moral philosophy can be described as a militant egalitarianism, which runs directly counter to his ideal conception of the state. If Hobbes’ moral philosophy were transferred in an honest manner into the political-economic realm, he would be alongside Gerrard Winstanley as a forefather of modern socialist thought. Unfortunately, the baby was dropped in the transfer, and what we received is a reactionary political philosophy.

As is often the case with the best of bourgeois thought, the faithful applicability of their moral philosophy would cause its transition into the political realm to escape beyond the boundaries of possibilities within bourgeois society, e.g., Smith, Rousseau, Kant, Mill. In Hobbes we have the most shocking of these cases. As a thinker whose defense of contractual relations has become sacrosanct for the religion of capitalism (used centrally to justify wage-slavery), and whose views on human nature provided a universal grounding for the capitalist ethos, we nonetheless find in his communistic moral philosophy fertile ground for an immanent critique of his own philosophy and of bourgeois society in general. However, we must remember moral criticism of a system is insufficient for its transformation. For a substantial transformation, i.e., for a revolution, a scientific understanding of the systemic mechanisms through which these morally reproachable things arise is necessary. It is here important to remember American Marxist and Socialist Labour Party leader Daniel DeLeon’s famous dictum, “the moral sentiment is to a movement as important as the sails are to a ship. Nevertheless, important though sails are, unless a ship is well laden, unless she is soundly, properly and scientifically constructed, the more sails you pile on and spread out, the surer she is to capsize.”[viii]


[i] All quotations will be from this edition: Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. (Touchstone, 2008).

[ii] Marx, Karl. Capital Vol 1. (International Publishers, 1974), p. 760.

[iii] Fanon, Franz. “Why we use Violence.” In Alienation and Freedom. (Bloomsbury, 2018), p. 654.

[iv] Plato. “Republic.” In Complete Works. (Hackett Publishing Co, 1997)., p. 1012.

[v] See Rousseau’s 1755 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.

[vi] Marx, Karl. “The Civil War in France.” In in The Marx-Engels Reader. (W.W. Norton & Co, 1978), p. 635.

[vii] Marx, Karl. “Critique of the Gotha Program.” In The Marx-Engels Reader. (W.W. Norton & Co, 1978), p. 531.

[viii] DeLeon, Daniel. Writings of Daniel DeLeon. (Red and Black Publishers, 2008), p. 13.

Carlos L. Garrido is a philosophy graduate student and professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His specialization is in Marxist philosophy and the history of American socialist thought (esp. early 19th century). He is an editorial board member and co-founder of Midwestern Marx  and the Journal of American Socialist Studies.

The article was first published in Midwestern Marx



Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Subscribe to our Telegram channel


Comments are closed.