***** Etienne Balibar, _Spinoza and Politics_, Verso, London and New York, 1998. xxiv + 136 pp., £14.00 pb., 185984 102 3.
Steven B. Smith. _Spinoza, Liberalism, and the Question of Jewish Identity_, Yale University Press, New Haven CT and London, 1997. xvii + 270 pp., £11.50 pb., 0 300 07665 7.
Both these books are about Spinoza's politics. Both pay a lot more attention to the _Tractatus Theologico-Politicus_ than to the _Ethics_. In Steven Smith's case this is a question of subject matter: the title accurately reflects the book's contents. In Balibar's it involves a claim about the whole of Spinoza's work, even his metaphysics. Balibar aims to 'initiate the reader into Spinoza's philosophy _through_ his politics'. This approach, which has already been attempted at greater length by Lewis Feuer in his _Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism_, is a possible one, but carries with it the dangers which are shown by Balibar's remark that 'the dilemma which would have us distinguish between "speculative" philosophy, on the one hand, and philosophy "applied" to politics, on the other, is not simply meaningless, it is the _principal obstacle_ to achieving wisdom.' This is far from the truth. Surely we should have learnt by now from the many atrocious attempts to read metaphysical positions politically that such readings are unprofitable. For while metaphysical propositions can indeed enter into political arguments, they can only lead to political conclusions _along with_ empirical propositions, and will lead to quite different conclusions in conjunction with different empirical propositions, so that every metaphysical position, if it is considered politically at all, is radically politically ambiguous. In fact this is not only true of metaphysical arguments: even political arguments will lead to diverse political conclusions according to which other arguments they are united with. This is illustrated by the relation between Hobbes and Spinoza, which this book gets wrong. Hobbes's central argument -- for the legitimacy of any effective _de facto_ sovereign -- does not lead to monarchism, but to submission to the powers that be, whether monarchic, aristocratic or democratic. Hobbes has _separate_ reasons for preferring monarchy, but these cut no political ice, since on Hobbes's view a preference for monarchy cannot lead you to attempt to change any non-monarchy into a monarchy. One could accept Hobbes's arguments for submission, but differ in preferring a democracy, and that is just what Spinoza does in the _Political Treatise_. He is no more favourable than Hobbes to the attempt to change monarchy into democracy, as his comments on contemporary English politics illustrate.
Having said all this, Balibar's book is surprisingly good for one with such a flaw in its project. It documents clearly, and brings to life, Spinoza's peculiarly ambivalent response to the position in the Dutch Republic: a liberal, but not democratic, bourgeois republic, crushed between the millstones of a monarchist gentry and a monarchist proletariat united by Calvinist fundamentalism against the (more or less) commercial republic; a state in which Spinoza, for all his democratic sympathies, was bound to throw in his lot with the liberal oligarchy who at least defended free thought.
Steven Smith's book gives an account of Spinoza as the first liberal democrat, which, in these days when liberal democracy is a stultifying orthodoxy, is a little disappointing. Nor is it completely true: Spinoza defended his native Dutch Republic, which was liberal without being democratic, while advocating on philosophical grounds a republic like Rousseau's (see _Tractatus Theologico-Politicus_, chapter xvi), which could be described as democratic without being liberal. (Some recognition of this last point is given by Smith, though under the rather unhelpful heading of 'positive liberty'.) And despite the commercial character of the Dutch Republic, there was also an anti-commercial strain in Spinoza's thinking, for instance in the preamble to _On the Improvement of the Understanding_, and as evidenced by his friendship with the communalistic Collegiant sect. Smith by contrast reads Spinoza's evaluation of the commercial life as in a wholly favourable light.
_Spinoza, Liberalism and Jewish Identity_ does good work in showing us Spinoza's politics and their bearing on the question of the place of Jews in modern Europe. But as with Balibar's book I am left with the feeling that, while Spinoza was an important stepping stone between the political philosophies of Hobbes and Rousseau, he was not the equal of either; he was one of the four or five greatest philosophers of all time, but because of his metaphysics of the human mind, set out in the _Ethics_, not because of his praise of his native Amsterdam or his giving a democratic twist to Hobbes. His time and place are mainly of interest to us because he transcended his time and place.
_Radical Philosphy_ 98 (November/December 1999) *****