Hobbes, Leviathan, and Behemoth: On Liberalism and Fascism as Theories of the State

By Juan Manuel Ávila Conejo

Hobbes’ work is often viewed as central to the development of liberalism and liberal theories of the state. In this essay, I examine the relation between fascism and liberalism as two aspects of the capitalist state, and particularly of fascism as a failed liberal state. I argue that the symbiotic relation between liberalism and fascism can be found in Hobbes’ theory of the state and, therefore, in all subsequent versions of the liberal state. I go on to suggest that the perpetual threat of fascism is a contradiction produced by the liberal state to justify itself and that escaping the liberalism-fascism dichotomy is a crucial step towards the establishment of communism.


The biblical myth of Leviathan and Behemoth[1] has had a special place in political theory since the publication of Thomas Hobbes’[2] Leviathan in 1651. Centuries later, Carl Schmitt’s[3] Leviathan (1938) embraced again the image of warring monsters to formulate his theory of the state. Since then, much has been written on the relation between these two interpretations of the myth and its consequences for political theory.[4] This essay examines this myth through a Marxist lens that attempts to bring together Marxist historians of the English Civil War with more recent work on 20th Century fascism. To this end, I propose an analysis of the relation between liberalism and fascism as the political forms of the capitalist state—that is, to understand them as theories of the state corresponding to different historical phases of capitalism. The tension between these two state theories has been represented mythologically as the war of Leviathan and Behemoth. The liberal state corresponds in the myth to Leviathan, a form of authoritarian liberalism following from the model described by Thomas Hobbes in the eponymous book. The fascist state corresponds to Behemoth, which I describe following the state theory of Carl Schmitt in Land and Sea (1942) and Benito Mussolini in The Doctrine of Fascism (1932), as well as following the works of Franz Neuman, Michael Parenti, and others. I also take into account Hobbes’ own Behemoth (1668) on the outcome of the English Civil War. Against the notion of Hobbes as a natural predecessor to Schmitt and of fascism, I propose that Hobbes recognizes the looming danger of a reactionary crisis of the ‘Ancien Régime,’ that is the feudal-theocratic politico-economic system, and, in opposition, proposes Leviathan as a foundation and defense of the nascent liberal state and capitalism. Additionally, I delve into the contradictory and dialectical relation between capitalism, as the primary engine of liberalism, and fascism, as a reaction against the very erosion of traditional authority caused by capitalism, while showing that this superficial opposition serves a very specific political purpose: to uphold the regime of private property—the backbone of capitalism—during times of crisis.

The methodology of this essay follows from a passage of T.S Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) that reads:

“In any work the past should be altered by the present just as the present is directed by the past.”[5]

Eliot creates this thesis as a formula for aesthetic interpretation, meaning that a work of art is in dialectical relation with the art that came before it—both as its result and as its reinterpretation. In historiographical terms, and for the purposes of this work, Eliot’s thesis corresponds to a form of recursive history, which means we must consider history as a description of past events that retroactively affects our understanding of the present and modifies our understanding of the past. Specifically, this means considering how the origins of fascism might be found by examining the much older Leviathan in its historical context while also examining its history in the light of a modern understanding of fascism. Considering liberalism and fascism as phases of capitalist development, as opposed to specific moments in time, permits us to trace back from Schmitt and Mussolini to the proto-fascism of Hobbes’ time, propose a general definition of fascism, and reveal its permanent relation to the liberal state and capitalism.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1935 that “Fascism is a historic phase of capitalism; in this sense it is something new and at the same time old.[6] In order to fully understand this definition, we must take into account that Brecht was writing at the historical dawn of what we now call capital-f Fascism: the right-wing authoritarian states of Germany and Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. However, Brecht rejected the narrow view that fascism was a new and unique phenomenon; he considered a “capitulation to Fascism” the notion that it “is a new, third power beside (and above) capitalism and socialism” because the notions of supremacy and a break with modernity are part of the mythos of fascism. Thus, in order to understand fascism in the broader context of the development of capitalism, we must engage in the seemingly anachronistic move proposed by Brecht: to consider fascism as something very new and very old at the same time, both as a reaction of ancient power structures and as a phase in the history of capitalism.

This article examines the relation between the mythical war of Leviathan and Behemoth, and the effect it has had on western notions of the state since the publication of Hobbes’ eponymous books in the 17th Century, focusing on how the myth has articulated the relation between the liberal and the fascist theories of the state. The myth of the warring beasts has roots in Ancient Near Eastern mythology, in which sea serpents feature prominently, under the name Lotan.[7] The myth itself derives from Jewish and Christian genealogy in the books of the Torah, Job, Psalms, and Isaiah, which describe the sea monster by saying: “Behold, the hope of him is in vain; shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him?”[8] In modern political theory, the myth is most closely associated to the relation between Hobbes and Carl Schmitt, the principal intellectual of Nazi Germany. The myth relates the battle of the Leviathan and Behemoth with the history of the liberal state and fascist states, and it suggests a false genealogy between Hobbes’ authoritarian liberalism and Schmitt’s fascism. In this work, we track the relation between the myth and the corresponding theories of the state in order to explain how it both structures and relates the ideologies of liberalism and fascism in our current understanding of the state. The purpose of this analysis is to historicize the myth and the seemingly antagonistic relation between these theories of the state, thus demystifying the origins of fascism and the liberal state while showing the ideological content within the myth that continues to structure our politics around the allegedly inevitable confrontation.

Leviathan or Liberalism

What is Leviathan? Hobbes’ theory of the state begins with a mythological image of a great chimera, a monster: part animal, part man, part machine, part god. “Nature,” Hobbes writes:

"is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata... have an artificial life?... Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE."[9]

The great beast that Hobbes posits is the result of the forces of nature and human artifice; it is not supernatural nor a preordained form, like that of absolute monarchy. Instead, it is a construct composed of human beings, structured by the combination of reason and what Hobbes claims to be natural or divine laws in what effectively constitutes a form of social contract. This construct of reason and natural creatures produces a political body “in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body.” This image of the state breaks with the permanent and unchanging structure of the absolute monarchical power of the Ancien Régime by posing that power is immanent in power structures; that is, that the power of the state stems from its members. Hobbes’ theory of the state is a materialist theory inasmuch as it considers sovereignty a consequence of the social interactions between material creatures and not as the result of supernatural forces nor symbolic institutions. This view of political power, as historian Quentin Skinner points out, was strongly rejected by his religious compatriots but was received favorably by some in the continent, particularly in France.[10]

The immanence of power in Hobbes is incompatible with any tyrannical form of hierarchy—both the divine right of kings and the reactionary authoritarian leader. For Hobbes, sovereignty belongs to the social construct (or contract) that is Leviathan; power resides in one political body but not in any one person. In the article “Hobbes and Schmitt,” the historian Tim Stanton posits that Hobbes is “a proponent of absolute and unlimited sovereignty” while at the same time claiming “that it was the consent of subjects that constituted the authority of the sovereign. [Hobbes’] position combined an authority whose commands could not be challenged with individual rights and freedom as the means of establishing and conditioning that authority.”[11] From this, we can say that Hobbes' theory of the state is authoritarian, but not absolutist, because sovereignty is not presented as external to society but as immanent in the state itself. The immanence of power in Hobbes does not mean, however, that sovereignty is a necessary condition for society to exist; it means only that power is equivalent to the effective control of society and thus not bestowed by supernatural forces. This materialist turn in Hobbes’ analysis of power does not mean a limitation on the exercise of power, so even if the liberal state’s power is rooted in society, it is not necessarily limited by it nor by an individual’s rights. That is to say, individual rights are limited by the factual powers of the state because the rights of the state are absolute and they are, in fact, coeval with its power. That is, for the Hobbesian state, might is right. As such, Hobbes' characterization of the liberal state as authoritarian is not a matter of the author’s political leanings but an early pragmatist, materialist understanding of politics. In this sense, the Hobbesian state is close to Schmitt inasmuch as it is in permanent antagonism with anything outside itself, and it is precisely this permanent antagonism that gives the liberal state its mythological justification.

Sovereignty, for Hobbes, first and foremost means the monopoly of violence. Beginning with the mythological image, Hobbes says that the raison d’etre of Leviathan is the “protection and defence”[12] of individuals in order to assure peace. Peace here ought to be understood in the narrow sense of the absence of war and the stability of the state. In other words, for Hobbes, the sovereign is whomever controls the power to make war and declare peace. As he writes later in the book:

“...because the end of this institution is the peace and defence of all, and whosoever has right to the end has right to the means, it belongeth of right to whatsoever man or assembly that hath the sovereignty to be judge both of the means of peace and defence, disturbances of the same, and to do whatsoever he shall think necessary to be done.”[13]

Hobbes continues:

“it is annexed to the sovereignty the right of making war and peace with other nations and commonwealths, that is to say, of War, and Peace, as judging when it is for the public good, and how great forces are to be assembled, armed, and paid for that end, and to levy money upon the subjects to defray the expenses thereof.”[14]

It is clear that, for Hobbes, the first prerogative of the state is the monopoly of violence, or the power of war and peace, and also that from this first prerogative stems the second: in order to command military power, the sovereign must have the power of the purse; that is, the prerogative to impose and levy taxes on society. As such, the Leviathanic state is structured around the separation of internal and external space; that is, civil society and peace (and taxation) on the inside and the state and war on the outside. This separation of civil society and the state is a constitutive feature of the liberal state, and it dissolves when the liberal state is in crisis, giving way to reactionary forces within society.

The structure of Leviathan is organized around the principle of war. Hobbes organizes the state as a rational response to what he calls the state of “nature,” a time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe.”[15] Without a centralized monopoly of force, Hobbes thinks, individuals will be compelled to use force against each other. In a central passage of the book, Hobbes describes the state of war:

"In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."[16]

A common reading of this passage, particularly of the well-known last sentence, proposes that Hobbes has an exceedingly pessimistic view of human nature in itself. As Curley and other historians have pointed out, this common misinterpretation of the state of nature takes it to mean the state of life of early humans, but it is clear that Hobbes is not referring to a specific time but to any political moment in which the state has failed. As such, we must discard here the hypothesis that Hobbes considers humans to be predetermined to war or evil or that the state of war refers simply to anarchy in general.

If, instead of essentializing the human condition to any particular notion of human nature, we proceed with a materialist reading of Hobbes, we find that the state of nature refers to a particular historical moment in which the material conditions of society have become miserable. In the last sentence, Hobbes writes that life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short—three conditions which refer to violence in the absence of personal security. However, he first says that life in this state is solitary and poor, two conditions which refer to changes in the political economy of society: the first, in which the relations of production have been interrupted; and the second one, in which production itself has stopped. In the first part of the passage, Hobbes highlights the political economic consequence of war noting that in this state there can be no industry, no agriculture, and no commerce. Consequently, we can say that the state of nature is neither an idealist claim on human nature nor simply a consequence of a human proclivity to violence; on the contrary, it refers to a real crisis in the material conditions of existence of society. The state of nature is, thus, a politico-economic crisis which begets the most reactionary forces in society: gangsterism, and the degeneration of the rule of law into coercion by force.