Augustus Carmichael
Original publication:

Domenico Losurdo’s Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (2014)

9 minutes | English | Review

“Augustus Carmichael” is the alias of an Amazon book reviewer. [1]

Italian scholar Domenico Losurdo puts forth an original hypothesis regarding G. W. F. Hegel’s political philosophy: That Hegel’s politics were intrinsically democratic, populist, and strikingly radical for his time, and perhaps even compared to the mainstream politics which dominates our own era. Losurdo’s account of Hegel’s politics thoroughly contradicts thinkers such as Karl Popper, who portrayed Hegel as the defender of state authority, and even more widely accepted mainstream interpretations, which understood Hegel as a conservative moderate. Losurdo’s challenges to these interpretations are almost audacious in their scope, but even more incredibly, he actually succeeds in in delivering on the evidence. Through a broad, yet careful excavation of Hegel’s lectures, letters, and published works, Losurdo gives us a Hegel who saw economic inequality as perhaps the most dire threat to freedom in his own time, who consciously challenged the elitist attitudes among political philosophers of his day, and who saw himself as the defender of the radical promises of the French Revolution.

Along the road to illustrating Hegel’s “real” politics, Losurdo also seeks to explain why we’ve gotten Hegel so wrong, to the point that even serious followers of Hegel fail to see the radical bent of his thought. One of the simplest reasons for this was Hegel’s own grapples with Prussia’s strict censorship laws, which heavily restricted what intellectuals could admit about their political convictions in their printed content. This led to a situation where not only Hegel, but also other thinkers such as Fichte had to prune their writings in order for them to be acceptable according to state censors. As a result, the printed version of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right presents a relatively blasé political platform, including government by constitutional monarchy, seemingly in line with the Prussian state and France’s July Monarchy. However, in the lectures on “philosophy of right” which were not subject to censorship, we see that there were stridently democratic motivations behind his political prescriptions, which were, in fact, meant to oppose the reactionary wave of rollback against radical politics occurring throughout Europe during Hegel’s mature career. One thing which liberal historians of Hegel’s thought have failed to highlight was that much of the reactionary fervor in post-revolutionary Europe was not driven by kings or tyrants, but by well-organized groups of elites that wanted to minimize popular enfranchisement and representation. Reactionaries in France and Germany often pointed to governmental system in England and Poland as positive models to emulate, where legislatures were composed of groups of aristocrats who lacked any real power checks, and were walled off against virtually all popular influence. Thus, an era of political philosophy which is often equated with the crux of moderate, rational liberal political theory actually represented a united front of practice and theory which was actively engaged in rolling back the goals of the French and American revolutions. Edmund Burke synthesized this political trend into his political philosophy, and the result was an new type of contractualism which emphasized the contractual obligations that the state had towards the wealthy and powerful, and explicitly against the enfranchisement of working people. Not coincidentally, one of the most virulent claims among the French right in the post-revolutionary era was that their social contracts had been violated by the waves of political enfranchisement which had swept Western Europe. This was widely understood in Hegel’s time, and appropriately, Hegel was understood to be the opponent of the reactionary contractualism of his time.

In his opposition to reactionary political trends, Hegel often emphasized the primacy of “natural right” as the driving force behind post-French Revolution politics, and not contract theory. Theorists such as Karl Popper have pointed to Hegel’s use of the term “natural right” to indicate that Hegel was an unimaginative, anti-freedom thinker, while Kant, who supposedly fully endorsed the contractually-based revolutionary ideas of the French Revolution, was superior to Hegel in this respect. But, as Losurdo demonstrates, Kant and Hegel were virtually identical in their political attitudes towards the French Revolution, and more importantly, Hegel’s conception of natural law was an extension of Kant’s philosophical interpretation of the French Revolution. As with many of Hegel’s terms, “natural law,” in the context of his political writings, has a fundamentally different meaning from the meaning of “natural law” in scholastic and even pre-Kantian Enlightenment political philosophy. According to Hegel, once freedom is advanced towards a new frontier — slavery is abolished in a society, an emancipatory constitution is forged, or a regime of welfare is established, etc. — there is no turning back. This is because it has been proven that human beings, in their creative capacity as intelligent animals, have proven that previous states of unfreedom are unnecessary, and in taking on this conscious revelation, unfreedom becomes unbearable for people. As history continually twists and turns, new forms of happiness and freedom, even if never perfectly achieved, reveal their possibilities. This is what Hegel meant when he criticized Rousseau for adhering to contractualism: The revolutionary ideas which Rousseau put forth loomed too large to fit inside the suffocating cloak of contractual theory. Western consciousness itself had been influenced by the 18th century revolutions. Although Kant had not formulated a similarly historicist definition of “natural law,” Kant’s thoughts on Rousseau were virtually identical to Hegel’s on this front, in that the importance of the French Revolution transcended contract-theory.

In addition to clarifying Hegel’s own political convictions, Losurdo also takes pain to show his readers the importance of getting Hegel right. In his work Liberalism: A Counter-History, Losurdo argues that relatively early on in liberalism’s political history, an irrevocable split occurred between conservative liberals and radical liberals, which also birthed the conceptual divide between negative and positive conceptions of liberty. In the radical camp, Losurdo placed Simon Bolívar, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Jacobins. In Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, Losurdo suggests that Hegel was squarely a member of the radical camp. In fact, in the time shortly after Hegel’s death, he was nearly universally condemned by conservatives in Germany and Europe, and his philosophy was closely associated with the German revolutions of 1848 (and not just the Young Hegelian clique of intellectuals, as is often suggested). The idea that Hegel was a good and proper conservative was largely invented by a conservative camp of theologians in the 20th century (who, perversely, were trying to rehabilitate him. See: Niebuhr and T. M. Knox as examples of this). Ironically, the motif of Hegel being the revenge of absolutism against liberalism was invented by German and French conservatives who argued that revolutionary fervor was not inspired by the progressive spirit, but by lingering psychological loyalty to high feudal absolutism, a diagnosis which was famously proposed by Burke in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Basically, the demonization of Hegel stems from one of the most tired and implausible notions in the liberal canon, which is that disobedience to the sacredness of private property is borne of mental illness, and not of anything wrong with the institution of private property itself.

At the conclusion of Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, we come out with an image of Hegel as the paragon of left-wing political philosophy: A thinker who not only applied philosophy to politics, but allowed the political to influence the direction of his philosophical system. More specifically, a fuller comprehension of Hegel’s politics highlights the precise character of Hegel’s historicism: Not as a list of hermeneutic origin points playing themselves out, as some more modern historicist philosophers such as Gadamer present, but as the process of “human” becoming (read: Western societies specifically) itself.

My only criticism of Losurdo’s book is that he presented Hegel as the only German theorist before Marx who held such radical ideals. Hegel’s political ideals were also deeply rooted in Johann Herder’s borderline post-modern epistemology [2] — something well-worth noting given many points of kinship between Hegel’s politics and the anti-colonial revolutionaries of South America and the Caribbean.

[1] Augustus Carmichael is a character in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). 

[2] Herder (b. 1744-1803) is said to be a precursor of twentieth-century ideas such as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a linguistic argument about the ability of language acquisition to affect our sensual perception of the world. — R. D.