Cosmopolitanism and Marxism

Peter Kemp(*)

The subject of my paper for you today is “Cosmopolitanism and Marxism”. I want to show how a great idea - that of the world citizen in ancient Stoic philosophy  – has been preserved and concretized during the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to the Marxist movement, so that the world citizen – the cosmopolitan – today has become the central figure for understanding the world and our tasks in a global age.

I. The old concept
The concept of the cosmopolitan or citizen of the world is quite old, originating in ancient Greek Cynic and Stoic philosophy. The first philosopher who called himself a “cosmopolitès” or “citizen of the world” was the Cynic Diogenes from Sinope, who lived from 412–323 BC, i.e., the time of Plato and Aristotle. If someone asked him where he came from, his sole reply was: “I am a citizen of the world”.

Three centuries later, the Roman philosopher Cicero (106–43 BC), and a little later still, Seneca (4–65 CE), developed the idea of a societas generis humani – a society of Humankind – as the most extensive society to which human beings belong. Thus, every human being belongs to two societies: the society into which he/she is born, and the society of the world. Even a head of a major state could thereby understand himself to be a member of a more comprehensive social reality than his own state.
This was the case with the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE), who wrote in his Meditations: “I am a member of the enormous organism of Humanity” (VII). This membership, however, had a purely spiritual or personal character. It was the feeling of belonging to a community of thought encompassing all human beings, even individuals who, as Marcus wrote, were “interfering, ungracious, insolent, full of guile, deceitful and antisocial” (II.1). In practice, this meant openness to everyone irrespective of whether they lived close by or far away. Marcus wanted to put himself in everyone else’s place: “Accustom yourself not to be inattentive to what another person says, and as far as possible enter into his mind” (VI, 53). As Martha C. Nussbaum points out in her book Cultivating Humanity (1997), this idea, articulated by a powerful politician, could not but diminish his anger towards other individuals and cultures he spontaneously disliked and rationally criticized.

The Stoic citizens of the world, however, were not united by common political and cultural problems, only by general human conditions. Their cosmopolitanism remained on the purely personal level and was not concerned with global peace.

II. Cosmopolitanism in Kant
This changed in modern times when the idea of the cosmopolitan appeared in the works of most of the Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century. It appeared Bayle, Montesquieu, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Thomas Paine, amongst others. Moreover, the Citizen of the World became a pivotal theme to the most important thinker of that time – Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – who has been called “the cosmopolitan thinker par excellence”(1).

In this paper I cannot present the development of the cosmopolitan idea in the age of the Enlightenment. I must limit myself to summarize Kant’s role in the development of the figure of the world citizen. His conception of the cosmopolitan is one of the milestones halfway between the ancient cosmopolitan of the Stoics (to whom it was a purely abstract idea of humanity), and the global world citizen today (who has the responsibility for taking big world problems seriously). In the 19th century, Marx and Engels represent another important milestone in this transformation of the world citizen. More about that later.

According to Kant, the notion of the cosmopolitan is a hope, an idea stemming from the promise of a more peaceful world where all peoples partake in a world community. Consequently, this idea is a part of his practical philosophy. As we know, Kant divided his philosophy into a practical part and a theoretical part. Both parts underwent a critical investigation by him wherein he scrutinized the possibility conditions of, on the one hand, perception and understanding of objects in time and space, and on the other, the realization of human community based on a universally valid moral principle.
Through both the theoretical and the practical spheres of perceived and reflected reality, Kant sought to develop a new metaphysics or conception of reality that would replace stale and dogmatic metaphysics. Kant located the relation between the two spheres in the imagination that enables us to conceptualize and order things, and which enables us to imagine other human beings and the realization of a community of mankind.

According to Kant’s philosophy, the cosmopolitan is a guide in the development of this community. This notion belongs in a quite specific way to public law. Public law emerges because the mutual respect of property requires a legal system enforced by a public legislative power, i.e. civic society. It is a system of laws for a people (a group of individuals) or a community of peoples(2). These people relate to each other, and when they relate to themselves as a whole, they form a state.

Furthermore, Kant observes that when states interrelate, it gives rise to the idea of a law of peoples – Völkerrecht, jus gentium. However, this law concerns war and peace between states, and not really a relation between peoples (as we see in Hugo Grotius’s famous book of 1625, Of the Law of War and Peace). When, on the other hand, an internal relation between peoples and individuals occurs in international law, Kant speaks about cosmopolitan law, Weltbürgerrecht.

Cosmopolitan law seeks peace as well, but its quest does not spring from the horrors of war. Rather, it springs from practical reason’s peaceful idea of a human community, including all peoples and individuals on earth. This idea stems from individuals existing on the same globe, globus terraqueus, who join in a fellowship of the Earth we live on and the seas we travel.

Kant had already laid out this basis of the cosmopolitan law some years earlier, when he published a small text on Perpetual Peace (Zum ewigen Frieden). On that occasion, he stated that the cosmopolitan law was not a fantastic, overextended concept, but simply the idea of a right to hospitability (Hospitalität), within reasonable limits. This should not be confused with the right to be a guest (Gastrecht), as it does not entail open doors everywhere. Rather, it proposes that everyone has the right to be received and to be treated properly. It was the right to visit which, according to Kant, rests on a fundamental natural law to the “common possession of the surface of the earth”(3), which makes it possible to get one step closer to a cosmopolitan constitution built on the idea of a cosmopolitan contract and to have peaceful relations between distant parts of the world.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte used a similar conception of the cosmopolitan law a few years later when he took an additional step and regarded it as the right not only to be on our common earth, but also to engage in mutual agreements by a legal relation to one another(4).

It is important that this cosmopolitan law – in contrast to what has been international law until the 20th century – concerns the relation between peoples and individuals. To Kant and Fichte, the sovereignty of states is not a negation of peoples’ shared lives. Moreover, since the cosmopolitan law’s motive is not negative (i.e., the aversion or alleviation of war), but a positive and free creation of real and perpetual peace among all peoples, peace is not sought after as an act of despair but is appreciated through the insight that we belong together.

In his minor work, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (which came out even earlier, in 1784), Kant develops a vision of a world history where the cosmopolitan is “the end of nature”(5). He regards the appearance of freedom in man’s action throughout history as an ongoing, though slow, progression according to “a hidden plan” that comes from the original disposition for freedom.

According to Kant, the main challenge that nature gives mankind is to realize a civic society that can secure universal law. The finest purpose of nature can be attained only in a society that bestows absolute liberty on all, with whatever strife that this entails, and which still meticulously defines the limits of everyone’s liberty so that we can coexist with the liberty of others. Consequently, mankind’s utmost goal must be such a society wherein liberty is, to the highest possible extent, subjugated to an irresistible power that enforces external laws – a fully just civic constitution.

Kant adds that the creation of such an absolutely civic constitution is dependent on an external legal relation between states – i.e., peace. Nature employs the intolerance of mankind, societies and states to attain a condition of security and peace in a confederation of peoples (Völkerbund) that secures peace and justice to even the smallest state. Nature, thereby, forces the “wild” man to give up his animal-like liberty, making states reach an equilibrium and instantiating a cosmopolitan condition of public security.

Kant concludes that we must regard the philosophical attempt to develop a world history of absolute constitutional unity according to nature’s plan to be not only possible, but also beneficial for mankind. This could appear as mere fiction, but though we lack the insight to see the hidden mechanisms in the development of the plan, Kant is convinced that his idea of nature’s plan helps us see the many seemingly meaningless human actions subsumed into one system that summarizes and values the efforts and suffering that peoples and governments have endured with a cosmopolitan intent.

III. The Survival of Cosmopolitanism in Marxism
The cosmopolitan law does not, however, manifest itself in Kant as anything beyond the “right to visit”, and it was not a concept that could prevail when the notion of a nation, built on historical and cultural experience, appeared in the 19th century. In all major philosophers after Fichte – for instance, Hegel – there was no longer any question of cosmopolitanism. The founder of modern sociology, Max Weber, wanted a national social science, a German sociology, and rejected cosmopolitanism.
There was only one important exception. This was Marx and Engels who, in the defense of the communist movement, wrote The Communist Manifesto, published in February 1848. Here, for the first time, a labor movement claimed to be global and to realize cosmopolitanism. They presented this manifesto as an appeal “in the face of the whole world” to “working men of all countries!”(6). They declared that it was the “cosmopolitan character” of production and consumption created by the bourgeoisie through its exploitation of the world market, that now gave the working class or the “entire proletariat” the possibility of changing the world. This proletariat was proclaimed “independently of all nationality”, since “the working men have no country”(7). But they “have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win”(8).

The change from Kant to Marx and Engels is radical. Cosmopolitanism is no longer a weak idea of a right to visit, but the right and the will to conquer the property of the means of production. “The distinguishing feature of Communism”, they say, “is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property”(9).

But on one important point Marx and Engels do not differ from Kant: They imagine a world without war between nations. They declare: “In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put to an end. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end”(10).

IV. The Revival of Cosmopolitanism
It is surely this vision of peace between nations that is at the core of cosmopolitanism,. But the two world wars in the 20th century have shown that if the citizens of different nations are to refuse to go to war against each other, it is not simply a question of the abolishment of bourgeois property and of the nation state. And perhaps it is not a question, as Marx and Engels thought, to destroy nations. Rather, it is to integrate all nations with their different experiences into a global community which preserves what is best in each. 

It is, however, true that extreme nationalism that excludes any transnational institutions has shown itself as very dangerous for the world. But we had to endure many great wars in the 20th century before the peoples and the leaders of the world recognized this. Thus, not until the end of the 20th century did people realize that, if we are to have peace on earth, mankind must together deal with the main issues of our time – such as financial globalization, sustainable progress for future generations, transnational crime, and related problems(11). And they must still learn how to recognize the autonomy, dignity and integrity of peoples from other nations and cultures.

The figure of the cosmopolitan disappeared totally during the 20th century, but came to the fore again in the 1990’s. Philosophers like Jacques Derrida from France, Jürgen Habermas from Germany, and Martha Nussbaum from the United States began to defend cosmopolitanism, and sociologists such as David Held in London and Ulrich Beck in Munich presented analyses of the societies which showed that the idea of cosmopolitanism was the only idea that could guide people in our time to develop democracy on a global scale.

What has happened since cosmopolitanism took the floor again after many years of silence? A great political event indeed: the dissolution of the opposition between East and West symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Before this point it was nearly impossible not to be caught up in the focus on the fight between the so called free world in the West and the communist world in the East. After the Wall fell, people discovered that the real issue was not the opposition between two superpower spheres but, rather, a plurality of conflicts crossing various borders. In Europe we had the Balkan conflicts, in the Middle East the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, in Iraq the Kurdish-Iraqi conflicts, and so forth. Furthermore, these conflicts were not just military ones. They were also economic and cultural. The anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s was a revolt against worldwide financial repression, and the recent demonstrations against 12 cartoons in a Danish right-wing newspaper reveal a deep gap between common people in the Islamic world and common people in the Christian world

The world situation at the beginning of the 21st century is in need of more than cosmopolitanism from the 18th and 19th century. But both Kant and Marx contributed considerably to us being able to grasp the idea of the world citizen as a hope for a divided world. It is a central philosophical task today to explain how we can develop and realize global cosmopolitanism in a way that takes the big global problems seriously. Rethinking philosophy today in a global context is to take up this task(12).

(*) Danish University of Education, President of FISP.
(1) Francis Cheneval: Philosophie in weltbürgerlicher Bedeutung, Schwabe & Co AG Verlag, Basel, 2002, p. 403 ff.
(2) Immanuel Kant: Die Metaphysik der Sitten (1797-98), Felix Meiner, Hamburg, 1947, references made to Kant’s gesammelte Schriften, Akademie Ausgabe, Band V, Berlin, 1908, § 43; English Translation: The Metaphysics of Morals, Trans. Mary Gregor, Cambridge University Press, Glasgow, 1996.
(3) Immanuel Kant: Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf, Königsberg, 1795 (dritter Definitivartikel zum ewigen Frieden), p. 103; Perpetual Peace in On History, Macmillan/ Library of Liberal Arts, pp. 85–136 (Third definitive Article for a Perpetual Peace), p. 102 ff
(4) J.G. Fichte: “Grundriss des Völker- und Weltbürgerrechts” (1797) in Grundlage des Naturrechts, Zweiter Anhang, Fichtes Werke, Band III, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin 1971, §22, p. 384.
(5) Immanuel Kant: Ideen zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht, Werke in sechs Bänden, Im Insel Verlag, Band VI, 1964, cf. Kants gesammelte Schriften, Akademie Ausgabe, Band VIII, Berlin, 1912; Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View, in On History, Macmillan, Library of Liberal Arts, pp. 11-26.
(6) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The Communist Manifesto (1848), second edition 1872 translated by Samuel Moore (1888) Penguin Books, London, 1967, p. 218.
(7) Ibid., p. 241.
(8) Ibid., p. 258.
(9) Ibid., p. 235.
(10) Ibid., p. 241.
(11) Cf. Peter Kemp: ”The citizen of the world as a figure in a critical vision” in Nordisk Pedagogik [Special issue: Education as a critical force – myth or reality?] Nr. I – 2004, Vol. 24, pp. 11-18.
(12) Cf. Peter Kemp’s last book in Danish: Verdensborgeren som pædagogisk ideal [The World Citizen as Ideal of Education], Hans Reitzel, Copenhagen, 2005.
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