This is the penultimate version of an essay that will appear in the special 'legal theory' issue of the National Lawyers Guild's Guild Practitioner. It is written with a non-specialist audience in mind, so may be of interest to some readers. The abstract:
“Legal positivism” is often caricatured by its jurisprudential opponents, as well as by lawyers and legal scholars not immediately interested in jurisprudential inquiry. “Positivist” too often functions now as an “epithet” in legal discourse, equated (wrongly) with “formalism,” the view that judges must apply the law “as written,” regardless of the consequences. Lon Fuller, Ronald Dworkin, and the Critical Legal Studies writers have all contributed in different ways to the sense that "positivism" is either a politically conservative or politically sterile position. This essay revisits the actual theory of law developed by positivist philosophers like Bentham, Hart, and Raz, emphasizing why it is, and was, understood by its proponents to be a radical theory of law, one unfriendly to the status quo and anyone, judge or citizen, who thinks obedience to the law is paramount. To be clear, the leading theorists of legal positivism thought the theory gave the correct account of the nature of law as a social institution; they did not endorse it because of the political conclusions it entailed, and which they supported. Yet these theorists realized that the correct account of the nature of law had radical implications for conventional wisdom about law. We would do well to recapture their wisdom today.