Domenico Losurdo
Translation: Marella Morris, Jon Morris

The Celebration of Nature and the Ideology of Reactionism (2000)

This is Section 4 of Chapter III (“Contractualism and the Modern State”) of Part Two (“Hegel, Marx, and the Liberal Tradition”) of Losurdo’s Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (2004). The original Italian work is Hegel e la libertà dei moderni (2000).

This essay is better understood in the full context of Losurdo’s book-length intervention against rival attempts to characterize Hegel. The characterizations variously portray him as a “conservative,” an “authoritarian,” a “liberal,” etc. Losurdo considers these categories misleading, contradictory, and generally inapt because they shear too much of the concrete material context that informs all political thought: “It is the destiny of abstract categories to come to mean different things.” [1] That said, I thought that this section might also hold up well as a stand-alone piece, and spur interest in the rest of this work.

This is my brief interpretation of the “contractualist” dispute in which Losurdo intervenes: Hegel is skeptical of liberalism. More specifically, liberals in the 1800s celebrate the brilliance of the idea of the contract as superior to the arbitariness of the existing hereditary, “divine” rule of monarchs. The problem for Hegel is that these contracts mask the brutal injustice and enduring unreason of the new “representative” ruling class, which, far from representing any human universality, is in fact constituted as a “baron aristocracy.” [2] Contracts remain arbitrary in actuality, but make a bid for legitimacy with a hollow appeal to freedom and reason in form. Moreover, any tattered notion that monarchic power comes with a set of duties and responsibilites is also unceremoniously being done away with, so that the new rulers have even less nominal responsibility towards their subjects than the older ones. There’s no credible existing alternative (say, socialist) in this era, and so insofar as Hegel’s critiques are confined to complicating the analysis of the virtues and vices of his past and present, he is branded a conservative by the unabashed champions of the nascent bourgeoisie.

I’ll also highlight that the ideas developed here regarding Natural Law cohere superbly with Ann Robertson’s characterization of the naturalist vs. materialist split in “The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict” (2003). [3]
 — R. D.

Since the time of Rousseau, the objective socio-political meaning of the return to the natural state has changed significantly: if before it consisted of an element in opposition to the existing order (one is reminded of the famous beginning of the Social Contract: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”), in the years of the Restoration the celebration of this mythical state of nature becomes reactionary, given that, with the French Revolution in mind, it aims at portraying the historical process as a relentless decline from a state of original perfection. As for Hegel, he maintains that, of the natural state, “nothing truer can be said except that it must be abandoned.” [4] Hegel expresses himself similarly with regard to Eden, where man is said to have lived before the original sin, just as in the natural state: “Heaven is a park where only animals can remain, not men.” [5] In both cases the problem is that of “transcending mere nature.” [6] The ideology of the Restoration begins to project upon the concept of the state of nature, the notion of an Eden which is prior to original sin and, in the final analysis, prior to historical development. The confrontation with the theory of decline (a theory that condemned the modern world, the world that sprung forth from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution) required a redefinition of Natural Law. The recovery of freedom, in the tradition of Natural Law, goes hand in hand with criticism of the idea of the natural state and the original contract as being a mere step in the shift toward the social state.

In this, as in other cases, the fundamental flaw of any historiography that considers only pure and abstract ideas reveals its shortcomings by failing to recognize that formal continuity can hide radical differences in socio-political content, that is, radical differences in concrete historical meaning. Hegel does not begin his re-reading of the contractual theory, or that of Natural Law, in a vacuum. Indeed, he constantly confronts the problems of his day, and his main concern is not the solitary construction of his system, but first and foremost intervention in the actual debates and struggles of the time.

Why invoke a natural state when, beginning with the French Revolution, nature becomes the backbone of the reactionary argument? These are the years when, in contrast to the idea of equality (égalité), the theoretical notion of what will become “social Darwinism” is being developed. [7] The “abstract” claim of legal equality — Burke declares — violates the “natural order of things,” the “natural social order.” In fact, it is the “most abominable of usurpations” which specifically threatens “nature’s prerogative.” [8] Already elements even more direct than “social Darwinism” can be traced back to an author whom Hegel harshly criticizes. Philosophy of Right strongly rejects Carl Ludwig von Haller’s assertion that, by law of nature, “the larger displaces the smaller, the powerful the weak” and it is part of the “eternal and unalterable order … that the more powerful rules, must rule and always shall rule.” In Haller, the reference to nature is, in Hegel’s words, a celebration of the “contingent violence of nature.” [9] [10] Such ideas were becoming widespread in Germany; twenty years after the publication of Philosophy of Right, in fact, one of Hegel’s disciples, Johann Rosenkranz, argues against the argument made in one of the most influential reactionary journals, according to which “nature” would confirm that “equality” contradicts “God’s system.” Taking Hegel’s lectures to heart, Rosenkranz replies: “An abstract application of the concepts of nature to practical philosophy can only lead to the right of the most powerful.” [11]

Given this new political and cultural framework, it is understandable that the central categories of the doctrine of Natural Law are already in crisis with Kant: if “everything which occurs or can occur is reduced to a mere mechanism of nature” — as we are told in Perpetual Peace — then it is clear that “the concept of right is an empty thought.” [12] Those who drew upon nature were by now the reactionary theoreticians: awareness of this fact already begins with Kant, and becomes particularly evident with Hegel. Hegel himself, in fact, had witnessed the further developments in the political-ideological struggle against reactionism, and it is precisely during this struggle that Hegel is forced to face the weakness of the conception of history typical of the Natural Law tradition, a conception shared also by some of the protagonists of the French Revolution. Within this conception it was difficult, if not impossible, to formulate an idea of progress that would not consist in a re-establishment of natural rights, as this would have represented a step backwards. What was difficult was to formulate an idea of progress as a development, as the production of a new and higher social condition. “Nature shall reclaim her rights,” Saint-Just proclaimed. [13] And the formula he used could easily be shared by a reactionary theoretician in the tradition of Haller, though with an obviously different and contrary meaning of “nature.”

Rejecting the sort of ante litteram social Darwinism proffered by the reactionary ideologues in opposition to the revolutionary declaration of égalité, Hegel develops an idea of progress as the transcendence of immediacy, as history. Given this, society, and not nature, however conceived, “is the only condition in which right is realized.” [14] It is society, or, more precisely, the State. The State is the transcendence of the natural state, and the violence and oppression that accompanies it: “Only with the recognition that the idea of freedom is true to the extent that it is the State” can slavery be overcome and there be mutual recognition. [15] This paragraph reappears in one of the final passages from Philosophy of Right: the “struggle for recognition,” that is, the struggle of the slave to be recognized as having rights, takes place before the “actual beginning of history.” [16] As long as there is slavery, as long as there is no mutual recognition, there is no actual State; the slaves of classical antiquity were excluded from the State. In practice, between owners and their slaves exists — Rousseau said — a state of war, which for Hegel coincides with the state of nature.

It is important to emphasize that even in the harshest inequalities of civil society, Philosophy of Right discerns a remnant of the natural state. [17] Yet, despite this idea of nature as the space of generalized violence and overall absence of right, and despite the distance with which he positions himself with regard to that doctrine of Natural Law upon which the claim of inalienable rights was based, Hegel neither eliminates nor limits the sphere of the subject’s inalienable rights. To the contrary, he expands upon it. In civil society there is a remnant of the natural state evident in the persistent contrast between opulence on the one side, and the most miserable poverty on the other. There is this remnant, in short, because after all is said and done, the impoverished are not recognized as having the “right to life.” [18]

Yes, nature is the kingdom of oppression, the dominion of the strongest, as counter-revolutionary literature and the theorists of ante litteram “Social Darwinism” argue. But to this, Hegel opposes the “freedom of the spirit” and the “equal dignity and independence” of men and citizens. [19] Freiheit, gleiche Würde and Selbständigkeit: this seems to be another version of the motto of the French Revolution. But these rights (in addition to a new right that has begun to emerge, that is, the right to life) are said to be inalienable, inseparable from “nature” and from the concept of man to the extent that they are the result of a long period of historical suffering from which there is no turning back. Beginning with Hegel, inalienability does not derive from nature, but rather from history, from the universal history that developed and accumulated an undeniable common legacy for all men, for man as such.

From this point of view, not only can Hegel’s criticism of Natural Law not be confused with reactionary criticism, but it is in direct opposition to it. [20] Let’s consider more specifically the latter. Does the French Revolution proclaim the rights of man? Well, Burke rejects the concept of man itself: the English demand rights that are their due as Englishmen; but they want to hear nothing of “abstract principles” related to the “rights of man.” [21] Joseph-Marie de Maistre’s position is even more radical: the “theoretical error that set the French down the wrong path from the very first moment of the Revolution” is the concept of man: “In my life I have seen French, Italians, Russians, etc.; I know very well, thanks to Montesquieu, that there may be Persians; but as for man, I hold that I have never met one in my entire life. If he exists, it is without my knowledge.” [22] For Hegel, on the other hand, it is precisely this development of the concept of man that marks decisive progress in the history of humanity. If Burke’s primary targets in the argument are general principles, Hegel credits the Enlightenment for asserting those principles. [23] And even if these principles must be purged of Jacobin “abstractness,” they constitute an essential step in the march of freedom. It is nominalism [24] that permits Burke to justify slavery in the colonies, or at least to condemn the notion of the “absolute equality of the human race” along with the “supposed rights of man.” To condemn, that is, those who in the name of “abstract [and general] principles” demand the immediate abolition of slavery in accordance with the ideals of the French Revolution. Hegel sees in the persistence of slavery the unacceptable remnant of anthropological nominalism that remains opposed to the universal concept of man developed by universal history with the help of the French Revolution. [25]

If Burke scornfully equates “philosophers” with “republicans” and “Jacobins,” [26] Hegel on the other hand sees in philosophy the universality of reason. And he praises philosophy for developing the universal categories and concepts which develop from it. Burke’s contractualism serves to oppose the doctrine of Natural Law. In contrast to the concept of a right to which individuals are entitled as men (and such pathos of Natural Law is present even in Hegel, though with a different theoretical foundation), Burke proposes a concept of right as acquired by specific subjects on the basis of a history, a tradition, a peculiar contract handed down “in the same way that we enjoy and hand down our property and our lives.” [27] Contract, inheritance, property: it is the confusion of private right with public right, the persistence of a capital conception of the State and right. Indeed, Hegel denounces this confusion and persistence, and rejects contractualism in order to recoup and re-establish the doctrine of Natural Law.

  1. Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, 80. 

  2. Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, 101: The reference is first of all to Poland, with regard to which Philosophy of History contains an enlightening analysis: “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. When we speak of freedom, we must always consider whether what we are dealing with are in fact private interests.” [28] Poland was an elective monarchy, and it was precisely this fact that weakened the power of the crown against a rebellious nobility. Hegel’s position could, and perhaps still can, generate shocked responses in liberal circles, but it meets the approval of Lenin, who sees in it the “seeds of historical materialism” [29] thanks to the dutiful attention Hegel pays to “class relations.” [30] 

  3. Ann Robertson, “The Philosophical Roots of the Marx-Bakunin Conflict” (2003). [web] 

  4. Enc., § 502 A. 

  5. Ph.G., 728. 

  6. W, XIX, 499. 

  7. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), a legendary and epoch-making work of scientific literature, had reactionaries in its wake promoting the concept of “Social Darwinism” as a justification for bourgeois rule. See, e.g. Engels’s correspondence with Lavrov in 1875. [web] — R. D. 

  8. E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 104. 

  9. § 258 A. 

  10. It is due to these theories that Haller is quoted approvingly by Prussian reactionaries. See W. Scheel, Das ‘Berliner Politisches Wochenblatt’ und die politische und soziale Revolution in Frankreich und England. Social Darwinism is also influenced by Haller. See Chapter XII (“The Second Thirty Years War and the ‘Philosophical Crusade’ against Germany”), section 4 (“An Imaginary Western World, an Imaginary Germany”) in Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (2004). 

  11. This is the argument against ‘Berliner Politisches Wochenblatt.’ K. Rosenkranz, Königsberger Skizzen, vol. 2, 170, 174. 

  12. Immanuel Kant, “Zum ewigen Frieden,” KGS, vol. 8, 372. 

  13. “Discourse at the Convention of 24 April 1793,” L. A. L. de Saint-Just, Oeuvres complètes, ed. M. Duval, 423. 

  14. Enc., § 502 A. 

  15. RPh., § 57 A. 

  16. § 349 A. 

  17. § 200 A. 

  18. See Chapter VI (“Conservative or Liberal? A False Dilemma”), sections 5 (“The Right of Extreme Need and Individual Rights”) and 6 (“Formal and Substantive Freedom”) in Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (2004). 

  19. W, XX, 22 7. 

  20. Bobbio also puts Hegel next to Burke. N. Bobbio, Il contratto sociale oggi, 23. 

  21. E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 76. 

  22. Joseph-Marie de Maistre, “Considérations sur la France,” Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, 74. 

  23. Ph.G., 919-20. 

  24. In metaphysics, nominalism is the view that universals and abstract objects do not actually exist other than being merely names or labels. — R. D. 

  25. E. Burke, “Remarks on the Policy of the Allies with Respect to France,” The Works, vol. 7, 129; “Letter to the Right Honourable Henry Dundas,” The Works, vol. 9, 281. See also K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1, 33-34, 216, and vol. 2, 290. [31] 

  26. E. Burke, “Preface to the Address of M. Brissot to His Constituents,” The Works, vol. 7,298. 

  27. E. Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 76-79. 

  28. Ph.G. 902. 

  29. V. I. Lenin, “Philosophical Notebooks,” Collected Works, vol. 38, 190. [web] 

  30. V. I. Lenin, “Philosophical Notebooks,” Collected Works, vol. 38, 311-313. [web] 

  31. Popper’s claim that acceptance of “methodological nominalism” is a necessary condition for an open and liberal society is arbitrarily “holistic.” More than just a weapon in the struggle against the doctrine of Natural Law and the French Revolution, nominalism will become the banner of blatant and brutal theorists of racism, such as Gumplowicz and Chamberlain (cf. G. Lukács, Die Zestörung der Vernunft; D. Losurdo, Hegel und das deutsche Erbe, ch. 14, 24; or La catastrofe della Germania e l’immagine di Hegel, chs. 3, 7), and the banner of Nazism which scorns the very category of “humanity.”