Peter Hallward -The Will of The People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism

By: Peter Hallward – Journal of Radical Philosophy


By ‘will of the people’ I mean a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective selfdetermination. Like any kind of will, its exercise is voluntary and autonomous, a matter of practical freedom; like any form of collective action, it involves assembly and organization. Recent examples of the sort of popular will that I have in mind include the determination, assembled by South Africa’s United Democratic Front, to overthrow an apartheid based on culture and race, or the mobilization of Haiti’s Lavalas to confront an apartheid based on privilege and class. Conditioned by the specific strategic constraints that structure a particular situation, such mobilizations test the truth expressed in the old cliché, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. Or, to adapt Antonio Machado’s less prosaic phrase, taken up as a motto by Paulo Freire, they assume that ‘there is no way, we make the way by walking it.'[1]


To say that we make the way by walking it is to resist the power of the historical, cultural or socioeconomic terrain to determine our way. It is to insist that in an emancipatory political sequence what is ‘determinant in the first instance’ is the will of the people to prescribe, through the terrain that confronts them, the course of their own history. It is to privilege, over the complexity of the terrain and the forms of knowledge and authority that govern behaviour ‘adapted’ to it, the purposeful will of the people to take and retain their place as the ‘authors and actors of their own drama’.[2]


To say that we make our way by walking it is not to pretend, however, that we invent the ground we traverse. It is not to suppose that a will creates itself and the conditions of its exercise abruptly or ex nihilo. It is not to assume that the ‘real movement which abolishes the existing state of things’ proceeds through empty or indeterminate space. It is not to disregard the obstacles or opportunities that characterize a particular terrain, or to deny their ability to influence the forging of a way. Instead it is to remember, after Sartre, that obstacles appear as such in the light of a project to climb past them. It is to remember, after Marx, that we make our own history, without choosing the conditions of its making. It is to conceive of terrain and way through a dialectic which, connecting both objective and subjective forms of determination, is oriented by the primacy of the latter.


Affirmation of such relational primacy informs what might be called a ‘dialectical voluntarism’. A dialectical voluntarist assumes that collective self-determination – more than an assessment of what seems feasible or appropriate – is the animating principle of political action. Dialectical voluntarists have confidence in the will of the people to the degree that they think each term through the other: ‘will’ in terms of assembly, deliberation and determination, and ‘people’ in terms of an exercise of collective volition.


The arrival of the will of the people as an actor on the political stage over the course of the eighteenth century was itself a revolutionary development, and it was experienced as such by the people themselves. To assert the rational and collective will of the people as the source of political authority and power was to reject alternative conceptions of politics premissed on either the mutual exclusion of society and will (a politics determined by natural, historical or economic necessity), or the primacy of another sort of will (the will of God, of God’s representative on earth, or of his semi-secular equivalent: the will of an elite entitled to govern on account of their accumulated privileges and qualifications).

If the French and Haitian revolutions of the late eighteenth century remain two of the most decisive political events of modern times it’s not because they affirmed the liberal freedoms that are so easily (because unevenly) commemorated today. What was and remains revolutionary about France 1789-94 and Haiti 1791-1803 is the direct mobilization of the people to claim these universal rights and freedoms, in direct confrontation with the most powerful vested interests of the day.[3] The taking of the Bastille, the march upon Versailles, the invasion of the Tuileries, the September Massacres, the expulsion of the Girondins, the innumerable confrontations with ‘enemies of the people’ up and down the country: these are the deliberate interventions that defined both the course of the French Revolution, and the immense, unending counter-revolution that it provoked. The Haitian revolutionaries went one step further and forced, for the first time, immediate and unconditional application of the principle that inspired the whole of the radical enlightenment: affirmation of the natural, inalienable rights of all human beings.[4] The campaign to re-pacify the people has been running, in different ways in different places, ever since.

The events of 1789-94, and the popular mobilization that enabled them, continue to frame our most basic political choice – between empowerment or disempowerment of the will of the people. In Robespierre’s France ‘there are only two parties: the people and its enemies’, and ‘whoever is not for the people is against the people.’ Despite the well-known limits of his own populism, Thomas Jefferson found a similar distinction at work in every political configuration: there are ‘those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes’, and there are ‘those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them’ and consider them the ‘safest depository of their own rights’.[5] In spite of all that has changed over the past two hundred years, the alternative remains much the same: either an insistence on the primacy of popular self-determination, or a presumption that the people are too crude, barbaric or childlike to be capable of exercising a rational and deliberate will.

Different versions of this choice have come to the fore every time there is an opportunity to confront the system of domination that structures a specific situation. The will, as Badiou notes, is an essentially ‘combative’ process.[6] Haiti, Bolivia, Palestine and Ecuador are some of the places where in recent years the people have managed, in the face of considerable opposition, to formulate and to some extent impose their will to transform the situation that oppresses them. Responses to such imposition have tended to follow the Thermidorian model. The mix of old and new counter-revolutionary strategies for criminalizing, dividing, and then dissolving the will of the people – for restoring the people to their ‘normal’ condition as a dispersed and passive flock – is likely to define the terrain of emancipatory struggle for the foreseeable future.


In a European context, philosophical expression of a confidence in the will of the people dates back to Rousseau, and develops in different directions via Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Marx.[7] Over the course of this trajectory the category of the people expands from the anachronistic idealization of a small homogeneous community towards an anticipation of humanity as a whole. The more it approaches a global universality the more dif

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