This article explores the writings of Ludwig Heinrich Jakob and Johann Benjamin Erhard, two young Kantians who produced original defences of resistance and revolution during the 1790's. Comparing these two neglected philosophers reveals a crucial divergence in the liberal theory of revolution between a perspective that emphasises resistance by the individual and another that emphasises revolution by the nation. The article seeks to contribute to a more nuanced view of the political theory of the German Enlightenment, which has often been presented as excessively obedient to authority.
The historian Charles Ingrao repeated a common perception when, in an article on enlightened absolutism, he speculated that, ‘the German's greater acceptance of authority both then and now may be rooted in their own distinctive national culture’ (Ingrao 1986: 165). This idea of the obedient German has been promoted especially by those who seek cultural explanations for the authoritarian bent of German society in the 20th century (such as Mandt 1974 and Lepenies 2006). But the idea has a longer history. Herder described Germany as the land of obedience, and Kant wrote that, ‘in keeping with their penchant for law and order, they [the Germans] will rather submit to despotic treatment than venture on innovations (especially wilful reforms of government)’ (Kant 1974: AA 7: 318). By ‘wilful reforms of government’ Kant meant revolution. Madame de Staël later observed that Germans ‘join the greatest boldness of thought to the most obedient character’ (Staël Holstein 1813: 35). As Frederick Beiser has shown, this view, which was repeated by Heine and Marx, came to dominate the historiography (Beiser 1992: 7).