Julien Freund: What is Politics?

What is Politics?

A translation of Qu’est-ce que la politique?

By: Julien Freund

Translated from the French by Luke Wolf

Biographical Note: Dr. Julien Freund was the preeminent disciple of Carl Schmitt and Max Weber. Little of his work on politics and warfare has been translated into English. Freund operates in the tradition of real politics, following the schools of Machiavelli and Juan Donoso Cortes. His L’Essence du Politique is an exhaustive philosophical treatment of the purpose, tools and philosophy of politics. His major findings were later condensed into What is Politics?.


In our day everyone conspires to mask the true nature of politics. The Platonic tradition, the prestige of science, the apparent authority of intellectuals, the ubiquitous, everyday hold of technocrats or even the fashions of certain schools of political science and political sociology who tend to believe that politics is now become a pure object of knowledge and that its future development depends on analysis and scientific research. No one disputes the increase and diffusion of knowledge, both in the physical sciences and also in the economic and social sciences, has produced considerable modifications in the political universe. These transformations have not fundamentally altered politics. On the contrary, politics was driven, like religion, art or morality, by the general upheaval which fundamentally changed the world and the landscape of ordinary men. To fulfill its task and to respect as faithfully as possible its own field of activity, politics is obliged to take the measure of these transformations, and must venture forth to dominate science, the authority of intellectuals and the rule of technocrats in order to put them to the service of the common good, put simply: politics must ensure security from external threats and the interior harmony of various political units. Accordingly, the goal of politics cannot be pure knowledge. Politics remains what politics always has been: action. This is the only way we can understand politics.

The fundamental relation of every action is a means to an end, a goal. This relationship between concepts can be seen in politics from various points of view, three of which are essential for our discussion of politics.

First, we can consider politics through the lens of the moral categories of good and evil, a view which is regarded as the most honorable and dignified, which explains why it is the most common view of politics – although it is a poor view of political reality and causes a lot of confusion and ambiguity. It goes without saying we are not trying to subtract politics from moral judgement or isolate morality and politics from each other. However, we have to recognize that politics and morality are not identical. Indeed, politics and morality do not have the same goal. Morality responds to a personal inner requirement and concerns the appropriateness of people’s personal actions according to the standard of duty or obligation. Politics, on the other hand, responds to the necessary requirements of social life and a person who commits himself in this political way, participates in taking care of the overall destiny of a collective community. Aristotle made the distinction between the moral virtues of a good man, which defines individual perfection, that is to say self-fulfillment, and the civic virtues of the citizen, which is about the ability to command and to obey and the salvation of the community as a whole. Even though it would be desirable for the politician to always be a good man, he may not be, especially since in one state not all citizens are good and virtuous men. In other words, politics is the responsibility of the community as such, irrespective or the moral quality and personal vocation of the members. So it is “possible to be a good citizen without possessing the virtue that makes us a good man” (Aristotle, n.d., p.180).

This classic distinction remains valid today, despite the ideologies that seek to enslave individuals to the epiphanies of justice, social equality, or the moral order they promise for an indeterminate future. The identification of morality and politics is one of the sources of despotism and dictatorship. The result is that morality is neither conceptually nor logically inherent in political activity, that is to say, to act politically is not the same thing as to act morally and vice versa. Here we find another classic distinction, that between morality and legality. The moral law is autonomous, which means we obey and we impose obligations on ourselves, while political law is heteronomous, which means that we submit to a rule imposed on us from outside ourselves, by a legislative power that can be called government, parliament or municipal council.

In short, morality is a matter of discipline, politics is a matter of constraint.

If politics and morality are two distinct activities by nature because their goals are different, it is clear that it can only be the same in terms of their respective means. Pure ethical conviction can not be a guarantee of political effectiveness. This is the basis of the opposition Max Weber sees between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. It shows in particular that sincerity, generosity, and goodness can jeopardize the attainment of political ends, if one believes that only good generates good and evil unjustly generates evil. All experience and history contradicts this opinion, for it very often happens that moral ideals leads to frightful, if not disastrous, consequences, and that a morally reprehensible decision may have happy or favorable consequences. Whoever considers the relation of the means to the goal in politics only from a moral point of view is condemned to inaction, and consequently to impotence, because he is led to shut himself up in perpetual questioning of his actions. He can only hide from the world or curse it, and ultimately, can lead the world into the apocalypse called “revolution” (note 1).

Secondly, one can consider the relationship of means to a goal in politics in a practical way, from the point of view of “recipes,” advice, procedures and techniques that must be done to attain power, exercise command, to make a revolution, or even to maintain power once it has been taken. You can look at politics from the directly pragmatic point of view of the contribution of science and research to the concrete case of a specific enterprise, in the sense that, since the objective is fixed, the political man consults specialists to know what are the most appropriate means to achieve the objective. Looking at politics with the pragmatic method requires an uncommon political sense, but it is full of risks, because in this area we ceaselessly rub shoulders with cynicism or ridicule, because this type of method does not acknowledge platitudes nor pretentious banality or affection. Nevertheless, great minds have viewed politics in this way and have distinguished themselves and left some of the most outstanding works of political literature like Machieveli’s The Prince, Gabriel Naudé’s Considérations politiques sur les coups d’Etat, Lenin’s What is to be Done? and Charles De Gaulle’s le Fil de l’épée. The reading of these books, coupled with an analysis or the actions of men of the state, like Pericles, Richelieu, Cromwell, Churchill and others, allows us to see that politics is an art and not just a profession. One can make a living from politics like others do from cooking or building roads. Although it would be wrong to despise those who do their job well, it remains true that in politics, given its purpose, mediocrity is more detrimental than in any other career.

Here we mean art in the ordinary sense of the term – which emphasizes the relationship of means to a goal – like ordering the most appropriate processes to achieve a desired objective. The political art is essentially an art of decision, which means you have to have intuition to measure what seems appropriate in a given situation and you have to have a sense of responsibility for the cause you defend. The political art is not at all opportunistic; it is not  an empty enthusiasm coupled with a lack of confidence in the cause one claims to serve. Nothing is more contrary to the political art of decision and responsibility than vanity, as Max Weber shows, because vanity turns to the excitement of sensationalism and profit-sharing, which lacks the necessary distance that allows a man to act properly, with contemplation, on the disordered events that he must precisely dominate.

The second aspect of this practical evaluation of the relationship of means to goals is very modest, because it consists in making proposals and not deciding, although today the technocratic elite is characterized by the desire to definitively influence political decisions, without taking responsibility: the technocratic elite is a middleman. As in the past, the king surrounded himself with “private advisers,” the modern political leader consults specialists or experts, to give as rational a basis as possible to his projects, given the conditions, the available means, or the implementation, and to foresee consequences and the general scope of the project. Indeed, regardless of the relationship of means to an end in politics, nothing develops according to strict compliance with provisions and calculations, because we must deal with emergencies all the time, unexpected obstacles and surprises, and these have subsidiary consequences which may, where appropriate, lead us to question the whole or to resort to means that have been dismissed at first, because of certain values ​​or problems which inevitably arise while bringing a  project to the end. The flaws of an action are revealed only in the action itself. This aspect of practical evaluation of the means-to-a-goal relationship is therefore critical, since it is a question of defining within the limits of the objective, the possibilities and the technical impossibilities, the ultimate values that are at stake, as well as the possible consequences of the project. Indeed, in politics, any relationship of means to a goal implies, in addition to the desired goal, unwanted consequences that must be dealt with, under penalty of cowardice. The true political responsibility is therefore confidence without assurance, risk without guarantee, a determination without certainty. The experts are also often wrong; it would be too tedious to draw up a list of errors they have made.

Lastly we can consider this relationship from a phenomenological point of view. If politics is an autonomous activity, in the same way science, art, economics, religion and morality operate as autonomous spheres, and if it is true politics cannot be reduced to any of these spheres, then we must ask: what are the specific means and ends in the political sphere? This is a difficult task, because it is necessary to overcome many obstacles that block our understanding, which are all trying to hijack the purpose of politics – for example: communism, socialism, liberalism, progressivism, despotism, federalism and parliamentarianism, democracies, aristocracies, plutocracies and theocracies, monarchies, anarchies and oligarchies, ideologies, apologetics, pleadings and heresies, declarations, proclamations, declamations, affirmations, refutations, negations and denigrations. According to all these theories, doctrines and regimes, sayings and writings, the goal of the political sphere could have the most diverse and contradictory purposes: liberty, equality, justice or social equality, fraternity, the end of class warfare, the prestige of a nation, the purity of a race, the rule of law, solidarity, peace, etc. There are even groups who manage to reconcile the irreconcilable in black and white programs, able to satisfy everyone without satisfying anyone. Each generation starts over with new charges laid to it, and so politics becomes a catch-all. In the same way we must examine the means of politics: conflict, negotiations, violence, terror, subversion, war, law, etc.; the means are thought-up and as varied as the goals are disparate. Demagogy is the same way – it is used for many different end-goals. Depending on the circumstances, the demagogue recovers theology or denigrates it, demagogues invoke the great principles or makes fun of them; he glorifies psychology, sociology, demography, thermo-nuclear arms or he condemns them all; he invokes legality against legitimacy or the inverse; he exalts tolerance or recommends rapid fanaticism; he stands up for freedom of the press, information and conscience or he reviles them all; he says art is divine or he denigrates it. We present politics as the liberation of man, but science, religion, art and economics have the same pretension. We do not know if politics is morality, science, art or economics. Politics is everything and nothing.

In a certain senses, politics can serve any purpose and use any means. The problem nevertheless, is to know if, like science, art, or religion, politics has a goal and means of its own. In the following pages, I intend to break open the purpose of politics, by making a clear distinction between eschatology, technology and teleology. To clarify my approach, let me give two examples: the examples of “freedom” and “peace.”

It is not only politics that proposes to contribute to the development of freedom in the world; politics can also take freedom away. In any case, science, art, religion and morality all have the same liberating ambition. Therefore, it cannot be established that freedom is a specific goal for any of these activities; liberty is actually an ultimate goal, eschatologically speaking, of all human activities. Each of these activities promotes freedom in its own sphere without ever achieving ultimate, definitive freedom, either working on its own or in concert with other spheres of activity. Politics participates in this common work in its own sphere of activity, within the limits of its own purposes, namely the external security and internal concord of a political unit, using its own means which is constraint and force. Since this is true, it is clear that political freedom cannot be established in a state of free actions, that is to say in a departure from general rule or in the violation of the law,  but in accordance with rules and law, as long as rules and laws do not victimize other activities such as art, morality or science. In fact, the profound meaning of political activity is is to enable each individual to obey his vocation within his community without causing irreparable injury to other members of the community. In other words, the regulating rule is the political condition of freedom of the individual. This regulating rule is different from the other spheres of activity, which pursue their own meaning of “freedom.”

This does not mean that political freedom would require the suppression of enemies; it would be contrary to the political sphere’s essence, since it lives on enmity, the opposition between parties and ideologies, the antagonistic adversity of opinions, values ​​and ends, and the competition of possible solutions to the problem of what is in the common good for all. Political freedom understood in this way, inevitably raises the question of the concept of “peace” in politics. The belief that a denial of an enemy’s existence leads to the promotion of peace does not actually lead to peace, but is a falsification, a lie (this is actually popular in some religious circles who engage in politics). It consists in believing that tolerance is a relationship between ideas whereas tolerance is really a relationship between men – a problem of behavior.  Indeed, no idea is liberal, not even the idea of liberalism, because by its very nature every idea affirms something and denies something else. From this point of view the promotion of peace through tolerance is more than a failure of judgment, it is its absence.

Since we are fighting against an enemy, it is also with an enemy that we must make peace, which means that, politically, there is no peace without an enemy. An order without peace with an actual enemy could not maintain itself without using force or violence, in other words by only the use of the virtues of law, justice or solidarity, but an order that makes peace with an actual enemy depends on a concrete political will embodied in agreements or a treaty. The idea of ​​peace without a peace treaty, that is, without regulations and without assurances, is politically nonsense. What is called the “peace of souls” or “religious peace” can only have a religious meaning. In fact, as long as peace defines, like war, a relation between nation-states, it is chiefly a political affair; peace cannot be assimilated into a total end of struggle or to a complete absence of conflicts and antagonisms. What characterizes peace, unlike war, is that it does not seek to conquer, defeat or crush the enemy, but recognizes him, that is, political peace accepts the enemy as he is, on a footing of equality, with all his differences and his otherness. In short, political peace does not exclude the enemy, in any form whatsoever, but political peace is a disguised or camouflaged declaration of war. In this sense, peace is not, like freedom, an ultimate end, of an eschatological order, but it constitutes a concrete objective of politics, an achievable goal with the means that are specific to politics, within the limits set by the security of each nation-state.
It must be understood that peace is one phase of the specific goal of politics and that it can not be the end of other activities, such as religion, science, or morality, though given the interrelationships between the various human activities, politics must consider, in order to firmly establish peace, the economic, religious and morals aspects of agreement between nation-states.

It does not take a long explanation to realise that this phenomenological analysis  of the relationship of means to the goal of politics presupposes that political activity has its own means and goal only if one admits that the other human activities: such as morality, economics, science, art and religion also have their own proper means and goals. That is to say, each of the other spheres of human activity, is also autonomous, despite the inevitable reciprocal or dialectical relations between them; conflict and friendship make the backbone of human history. This means we cannot reduce politics to morality, economics or science and inversely, nor can it be deduced from one sphere of human activity as the infrastructure of which the other spheres would be superstructures. It is with good reason that Marx accuses Bruno Bauer in The German Ideology of having asserted, without proving, that politics, art, or economics are reduced “in the last analysis” to religion. But Marx’s own argument works against him, because he does not provide strong enough evidence to show that all human activities are reduced “in the last analysis” to the economy.

Julien Freund


Note 1: In a number of lectures on my work The Essence of Politics I was asked to make a number of philosophical critiques of the doctrines or political theories of J.P. Sartre. This, in my opinion, is a useless and impossible task, because Sartre has no political doctrine and only manifests moral reactions to a succession of political events.


Aristotle, n.d. Politique, III, 43, 1276 b 34-35, trad. Tricot, Paris, Vrin, t. I, p. 180.

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