Roderic Day

On Hegel (2022)

24 minutes | English | Philosophy The Crew

Updated in March 2024 to reflect a more positive appreciation of Hegel developed in the intervening period. — R. D.


Contents

A “Problematic” Hegel

Liberal academics like to couple, on the one hand, some of Hegel’s absurd lines about non-Western civilizations (Asian, African, Indigenous-American), and on the other, his defense of the virtues of the State and his opposition to the celebration of incipient liberal democracy, to dismiss Hegel as an ultra-reactionary. So as to not err in undue apologia, let us sample and read some of these claims:

Negroes are enslaved by Europeans and sold to America. Bad as this may be, their lot in their own land is even worse, since there a slavery quite as absolute exists; for it is the essential principle of slavery, that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere Thing — an object of no value. Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent. [1]

The nature of their [the Chinese] written language is at the outset a great hindrance to the development of the sciences. Rather, conversely, because a true scientific interest does not exist, the Chinese have acquired no better instrument for representing and imparting thought. [2]

Freedom in Poland was but the freedom of barons against the monarch, a freedom for the sake of which the whole nation was submitted to absolute slavery. Consequently, the people shared the kings’ interest in fighting the barons, and in fact it was by crushing the barons that they regained their freedom throughout the country. [3]

These claims are at best controversial, at worst vile. How can we reconcile this with the role that Hegel plays in Marxism?

After all, Hegel mattered to Marx. The idea that Marx is a “slayer of Hegel” is a gross distorsion of the relationship between the two men:

My relationship with Hegel is very simple. I am a disciple of Hegel, and the presumptuous chattering of the epigones who think they have buried this great thinker appear frankly ridiculous to me. [4]

Lenin is no less emphatic:

It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!! [5]

No natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the bourgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground. […] In order to attain this aim, the contributors to Under the Banner of Marxism must arrange for the systematic study of Hegelian dialectics from a materialist standpoint, i.e., the dialectics which Marx applied practically in his Capital and in his historical and political works, […]. [6]

Some would say that this reveals an underlying problem with Marxism as a whole. Others would suggest that we can eclectically simply take the good in Hegel and leave the bad behind, and not think too much about the connection between them.

I would reject the second approach outright — Marxism bears the marks of Hegel’s influence, and it’s foolish to attempt to rewrite that history so that he doesn’t blemish it, or to neglect this fact as if it were void of insights. [7] But what about the first? Perhaps this chauvinism persists in Marxism? In order to understand Hegel (and, therefore, Marxism), it’s important to grasp why he ventured to make such ugly claims in the first place.

Hegel lived in a world in which the reality — not a wish or desire, not an unsettled question — was that “white” people had successfully colonized the globe. Additionally, Hegel viewed his profession as philosopher as demanding that he concern himself with the major events of his era — not with mere ridicule or silence or escapist navel-gazing. In short, colonization was a fact, and this fact required an explanation. Some of his contemporaries denounced colonization, but didn’t rise to explain how it came to be. Others explained it in reactionary terms — a simple worldly illustration of the greatness innate to whiteness. Hegel, to be simple about it, posited that other peoples being vulnerable to colonization means that they were in fact inferior in some way, but at the same time, that they were inferior only temporarily.

The best we can say for Hegel’s prejudices is not that they follow from careless reliance on the “state of the art” knowledge he was fed — after all, he’s known to have uncritically reproduced some narratives about cannibalism clearly promoted for the sake of justifying colonial enterprises. He was decidedly not a champion of the “Noble Savage,” partisan as he was on the notion of historical progress, and opposed to what he saw as a reactionary romanticizing of nature. [8]

The best is precisely that which is not common to the racists and even to many anti-racists: the fact that Hegel’s prejudice is (however insufficiently) aware that it has an expiry date. Hegel’s philosophical approach carries within it an implicit and fundamental rejection of any chatter about the “essential traits” of this or that human group. White supremacists turn race into destiny by denigrating non-whites (see: American “Manifest Destiny,” Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden,” the Nazi Lebensraum), but sometimes the “anti-racist” response simply inverts the value judgement: “Indigenous people are more in harmony with Mother Earth,” “Chinese people innately respect their elders,” “Women are biologically more peaceful and nurturing,” etc. Despite the progressive intent, the implication remains: different-looking beings are also different in essence — the racialization and essentialization are simply given a positive spin. Meanwhile, Hegel was very clear that race “science” merely attempts to justify prevailing prejudices after the fact:

To try to raise physiognomy and above all cranioscopy (phrenology) to the rank of sciences, was therefore one of the vainest fancies, still vainer than a signatura rerum, which supposed the shape of a plant to afford indication of its medicinal virtue. [9]

Hegel’s “world spirit” theory is non-materialist and incorrect, but it went against the essentializing tendency as such. In his theory, due to various circumstances, the “world spirit” hadn’t yet awakened in some peoples. What circumstances? For example, temperature and terrain — in Hegel, inhospitable mountainous regions and river valleys and coastlines produce different social attitudes. G. V. Plekhanov, of whom Lenin spoke very highly and took much from, put it the following way:

As an idealist, Hegel could not regard history otherwise than from the idealist standpoint; he made use of all the powers of his genius, all the gigantic resources of his dialectics, to give at least some scientific character to the idealistic conception of history. His attempt proved vain. He himself seemed dissatisfied with the results he had achieved and he was often obliged to come down from the misty heights of idealism to the concrete ground of economic relationships. Every time he turned to it, economics freed him from the shallows into which his idealism had led him. Economic development turned out to be the premise determining the whole course of history. [10]

Hegel’s roving “world spirit,” nearly-whimsically favoring these people here these other people there, is the basic idea which spurs Marx and Engels to attempt to explain world history in economic terms[11] But it was already Hegel’s merit to conceptualize the problem in terms of a roving ghost and not in terms of “racial destiny.” It turns out to be not so surprising that Hegel celebrated the Haitian revolution as the late but inevitable awakening of the consciousness of freedom on the part of the Black slaves of Santo Domingo! [12]

This attitude towards the underclasses — accepting that the submissive position of a class obeys a certain logic, but that this same logic will demand its eventual rightful uprising — is the beating heart of the decidedly anti-romantic, anti-utopian, anti-sentimental Marxist attitude to proletarian and national uprisings. [13] [14]

Hegel’s “What is rational is real; and what is real is rational” [15] needs to be interpreted in the clever way that he intended it: there’s some reason in why things are the way they are, but this identical reason should also dictate how things should be.

Hegel’s Influences

Now, we’ve seen some foremost Marxists acknowledge their intellectual debt to Hegel. Perhaps more useful and important, however, is identifying how this debt manifests in fact. Consider the way Hegel’s thought reverberates in the pronouncements of major figures in Communist history:

Hegel
Marx It is only in the markets of the world that money acquires to the full extent the character of the commodity whose bodily form is also the immediate social incarnation of human labour in the abstract. Its real mode of existence in this sphere adequately corresponds to its ideal concept. [16] The completed idea of the will is found when the conception has realized itself fully, and in such a manner that the embodiment of the conception is nothing but the development of the conception itself. [17]
Engels Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. [18] In that individuals belong to the ethical and social fabric they have a right to determine themselves subjectively and freely. Assurance of their freedom has its truth in the objectivity of ethical observance, in which they realize their own peculiar being and inner universality. [19] [20]
Lenin The two basic conceptions of development or evolution are: development as a cycle of increase and decrease, and development as a unity of opposites. […] The first conception is lifeless, pale and dry. The second is living[21] Something is therefore alive only in so far as it contains contradiction within it, and moreover is this power to hold and endure the contradiction within it. [22]
Stalin Every new generation encounters definite conditions already existing, ready-made, when that generation was born. And great people are worth anything at all only to the extent that they are able correctly to understand these conditions, to understand how to change them. [23] Every kind of falsehood and truth is present in public opinion, but it is the prerogative of the great man to discover the truth within it. He who expresses the will of his age, tells it what its will is, and accomplishes this will, is the great man of the age. [24]
Mao It is precisely in the particularity of contradiction that the universality of contradiction resides. [25] The non-being of the finite is the being of the absolute. [26]

In short, Hegel had important things to say.

In the same way that we find Hegel’s thought alive downstream of his writing, so with ancient thought in Hegel:

Something moves, not because at one moment it is here and at another there, but because at one and the same moment it is here and not here, because in this ‘here’, it at once is and is not. The ancient dialecticians must be granted the contradictions that they pointed out in motion; but it does not follow that therefore there is no motion, but on the contrary, that motion is existent contradiction itself. [27]

Far from being exclusively backwards-looking, or absent-mindedly musing about the meaning of meaning, Hegel actively sought to apply his thought to his contemporary reality, political economy certainly not excluded:

Hegel proposes that the market economy is a “monstrous system” that needs to be “tamed like a wild beast,” as he puts it in the early Jena years. Lisa Herzog has convincingly shown that this remains Hegel’s position in his Philosophy of Right, where, while drawing on Smith’s account of the price mechanism or “invisible hand,” he remains critical of said mechanism. [28]

In all of these samples Hegel’s thought is characterized by (1) “seeing the positive in the negative” (e.g. Yin and Yang in Daoism, in rejection of simplistic “inherent good vs. inherent evil” in Christianity), while at the same time (2) rejecting the cynicism inherent to “cyclical” thinking proper to both pre-moderns and post-moderns:

Education always begins with fault-finding, but when full and complete sees in everything the positive. In the case of religion one may say off-hand that this or that is superstition, but it is infinitely harder to conceive of the truth involved in it. [29]

Hegel unsettles liberals insofar as he threatens their weak claim on the notion of progress, which in their hands is reduced to the mere individualistic “self-realization” of the bourgeois subject.

This method, however, is not risk-free. Consider how Hegel’s insistence on “seeing the good in the bad” brings him to that ugly and all-too-familiar romanticizing of war:

Just as the movement of the ocean prevents the corruption which would be the result of perpetual calm, so by war people escape the corruption which would be occasioned by a continuous or eternal peace. [30]

The problem is clear: if you rush ahead to seek justifications, following “What is rational is real; and what is real is rational,” you may stop short of truly grasping the real depths of the depravity of what you are defending, you may short-circuit your process of empirical learning in favour of callously marveling at the unfolding logic of reality.

Beyond Hegel

So, where does this understanding take us?

The relevance of Hegel in philosophy is comparable to the political-historical relevance of the Soviet Union, particularly that of Stalin. Bourgeois historiography has devoted inhuman amounts of effort to ensure that nobody dares speak a kind word about that political experiment, and this has had the result of arresting the political development of human society world-wide for decades. As a result, “activists” futilely try to find “non-authoritarian” solutions that bear no resemblance to the “tragedy” of the Soviet Union, not understanding that the welfarist concessions that they miss so dearly were earned directly in response to that “tragedy.” [31]

There’s a similar conspiracy of silence and ridicule surrounding Hegel in many academic philosophy circles. Any serious study of the history of the evolution of Western philosophical thought generally leads, very roughly, from the ancients (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) to Descartes to Spinoza to Kant to Hegel. Hegel, of course, leads to Marx and Engels. To avoid this “natural outcome,” philosophy students are hastily driven past this exit and into canned anti-Hegelian alternatives: either the “irrationalist” track of Nietzsche and Heidegger and Derrida and Foucault, or the impossibly dweeby “dispassionate intellectualism” of clinical analyticals like Bertrand Russell. Either truth is purely subjective, or purely tautological. Against this false dilemma, I recommend retreading back to the glossed-over Hegelian-Marxist project.

In Hegel rationality is valid (against the irrationalists) and brave (against the analyticals), and so communion is possible:

Since the man of common sense makes his appeal to feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he only has to explain that he has nothing more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself. In other words, he tramples underfoot the roots of humanity. For it is in the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds. [32]

For Marx and Engels, applying Feuerbach, Hegel happens to be the apex of philosophy, the point after which philosophy “ends” and conscious politics begins. [33] [34] To put it slightly differently: even if you discarded Newton’s name, and came up with a lot of discoveries atop of his, you’d still be doing “Newtonian” physics. What bears his name are discoveries, not wholecloth inventions. Some people just get there first — but unless you’re a capitalist, getting there first doesn’t mean you “own” something, so it’s shouldn’t be a big deal to give credit where credit is due. As far as modern dialectics, Hegel got there first. Now, it may seem bold and defiant to desecrate this ancient with a claim like “You don’t need Hegel to wage a revolution!”, in the style of “You don’t need Newton to build a plane!” or “You don’t need Darwin to do biology!”, but failing predictably and catastrophically for lack of theoretical grounding isn’t badass at all.

The fundamental idea of Hegel is “the real is rational.” If it exists, it demands an explanation. And, furthermore, the explanation cannot be circular (“It is because it is”). By giving due attention to the multiple-sidedness and context of any dispute, science surfaces above meek doubt and boisterous sophistry, turning subjectivity into objectivity. Denounce Hegel’s reputation if you must, but make sure you understand how he earned it. Only this way will your criticisms take you beyond Hegel, as Marx’s once did.

Resources

  • G. W. F. Hegel, “The Magistrates Should Be Elected By The People” (1798). [web]
  • G. W. F. Hegel, “Dialectics” (1812). [web]
  • G. W. F. Hegel, “Reason Governs the World” (1822). [web]
  • Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and General Philosophy” (1844). [web]
  • Karl Marx, “On Proudhon” (1865). [web]
  • Friedrich Engels, “Hegel” in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). [web]
  • G. V. Plekhanov, “The Meaning of Hegel” (1891). [web]
  • V. I. Lenin, “The Sentimental Criticism of Capitalism” (1897). [web]
  • V. I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics” (1915). [web]
  • V. I. Lenin, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (1922). [web]
  • Frantz Fanon, “The Black Man and Hegel” (1952). [web]
  • J. W. Freiberg, “The Dialectic in China: Maoist and Daoist” (1977). [web]
  • Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti” (2000). [web]
  • Domenico Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (2000). [web]
  • Ann Robertson, “The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict” (2003). [web]
  • Chenshan Tian, Chinese Dialectics: From Yijing to Marxism (2005). [web]
  • Christian Thorne, The Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment (2010). [web]
  • Domenico Losurdo, “Marx Against Hegel? Idealism, Materialism, and History as Liberation” (2010). [web]
  • Emiliano Alessandroni, “On Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks” (2018). [web]
  • Brandon Hogan, “Frantz Fanon’s Engagement with Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic” (2018). [web]
  • Charlotte Baumann, “Was Hegel an Authoritarian Thinker? Reading Hegel’s Philosophy of History on the Basis of his Metaphysics” (2020). [web]
  • Humphrey McQueen, “From Hegel to Lenin” (2022). [web]

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Posthumously published Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1822-37). [web] 

[2] G. W. F. Hegel, Posthumously published Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1822-37). [web] 

[3] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 902. 

[4] Karl Marx, 1870. A footnote left behind in manuscripts from Engels’ preparation of Volume II of Capital, it was “rescued” by the anti-Hegelian Marx scholar Maxime Rubel. [web] 

[5] V. I. Lenin, “Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic” (1914). [web] 

[6] V. I. Lenin, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (1922). [web] 

[7] The philosophical question of whether you can simply keep the good and leave the bad behind, like slicing the brown part off a peach, is perhaps the main underlying difference between Marxism and liberalism. — A. M. 

[8] See Domenico Losurdo, “The Celebration of Nature and the Ideology of Reactionism” (2000). [web] 

[9] G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817). [web] 

[10] G. V. Plekhanov, “The Meaning of Hegel” (1891). [web] 

[11] Incidentally, the one who really takes the initiative here is Engels. See his pre-Marxist “Outline” from 1843. [web] 

[12] Susan Buck-Morss, “Hegel and Haiti” (2000). 

[13] V. I. Lenin, “The Sentimental Criticism of Capitalism” (1897). [web] 

[14] Amílcar Cabral, “Brief Analysis of the Social Structure in Guinea” (1964). [web] 

[15] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820). Translated by S. W. Dyde. [web] 

[16] Karl Marx, Capital I (1967), Ch. 3. [web] 

[17] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820). Translated by S. W. Dyde. [web] 

[18] Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring (1877), Ch. 9. [web] 

[19] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820). Translated by S. W. Dyde. [web] 

[20] See also the popular C. J. Arthur paraphrase, often attributed to Hegel himself: “But if men realize that their true freedom consists in the acceptance of principles, of laws which are their own, a synthesis of universal and particular interests becomes possible.” [web] 

[21] V. I. Lenin, “On the Question of Dialectics” (1915). [web] 

[22] G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic (1812-16). [web] 

[23] J. V. Stalin, “Interview with Emil Ludwig” (1931). [web] 

[24] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820). Translated by S. W. Dyde. [web] 

[25] Mao Zedong, “On Contradiction” (1937). [web] 

[26] G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic (1812-16). [web] 

[27] G. W. F. Hegel, Science of Logic (1812-16). [web] 

[28] Charlotte Baumann, “Hegel’s Metaphysics and Social Philosophy” in Hegel and the Frankfurt School (2020). [web] 

[29] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820). Translated by S. W. Dyde. [web] 

[30] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820). Translated by S. W. Dyde. [web] 

[31] Alice Malone, “Concessions” (2023). [web] 

[32] Hegel, G.W.F., Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford, 1979), p. 43. 

[33] Friedrich Engels, “Hegel” in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). [web] 

[34] See also McQueen, 2022: “The title of the pamphlet that Engels wrote in 1886, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, should be the ‘Outcome’ (der Ausgang) rather than ‘End,’ since Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegelian Idealism was both the outcome of Idealist traditions but also a starting point for the historical materialism developed by Marx and himself.” [web]