Andy Blunden February 2019
In the context of his own times, Hegel was not so much a radical as a reformer, advocating for a constitutional monarchy rather than the absolute monarchy which ruled Germany at the time. After his death however, his students were notorious as the most radical movement of the day, causing the Prussian Minister of Culture to issue a decree in 1841 to “expunge the dragon’s seed of Hegelian pantheism” from the minds of Prussian youth.
Ever since, Hegel has been vilified as the supposed philosopher of German nationalism and theorist of grand narratives, patriarchy and all manner of sins, but despite this, Hegel has ever since been an essential element of all the great radical political and social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are two reasons for Hegel’s central place in radical movements:
(1) It was Hegel who first showed how social reality is constructed by ideology and not a God-given or natural order. Thus Marxism, Feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-AIDS movement, Deconstruction, Poststructuralism, Postcolonialism, the gender diversity movement – all these owe their essential tools to Hegel, and each of them have drawn from Hegel what they needed for their own purposes.
(2) It was Hegel who first formulated the idea that concepts are primarily forms of human activity which exist not in the brain, but outside the head, and only through participation in activities, become forms through which people become aware of them and consciously grasp them in thought. This insight provides the key to an interdisciplinary approach to understanding human social life and psychology.
So, for anyone who wants to plant an idea in world, Hegel is your ally.
With characteristic irony, Michel Foucault explained his debt to Hegel this way:
“... our entire epoch, whether in logic or epistemology, whether in Marx or Nietzsche, is trying to escape from Hegel: and what I have tried to say just now about discourse is very unfaithful to the Hegelian logos.
“But to make a real escape from Hegel presupposes an exact appreciation of what it costs to detach ourselves from him. It presupposes a knowledge of how close Hegel has come to us, perhaps insidiously. It presupposes a knowledge of what is still Hegelian in that which allows us to think against Hegel; and an ability to gauge how much our resources against him are perhaps still a ruse which he is using against us, and at the end of which he is waiting for us ...” (The Order of Discourse, 1970, in Untying the text. A Post-structuralist reader, p. 74)
Marx, Engels and Bakunin were amongst the first to take up Hegel for revolutionary purposes. While appropriating what they needed from Hegel for Socialism, Marx and Engels seemed to have expended more ink in criticizing Hegel for his Idealism. Now this was a fair charge – Hegel was part of a movement which called itself ‘German Idealism’, but Marxists have generally been unclear on what was meant by this ‘idealism’ and many seemed to think that Hegel was in some way done away with and no longer relevant. But this is far from the case, and Marx was drawing on Hegel’s work right up to the last years of his life. I have summarized the relation of Marx to Hegel in a short essay: “In what sense was Hegel an Idealist?”
W. E. B. Du Bois turned to Hegel's Philosophy of Spirit to formulate a program for the emancipation of Black Folk in America, criticizing the sole reliance on formal rights, and as Europe plunged into the cauldron of war, Lenin turned to Hegel's Logic. John Dewey developed his Pragmatism out of what he had learnt of Hegel and in the 1920s, G H Mead appropriated Hegel’s psychology for his theory of Symbolic Interactionism.
In 1937, the Russian emigré, Alexander Kojčve, introduced French radicals to Hegel, beginning with a series of lectures in Paris, and in 1948 interest in Hegel exploded in France – everyone wanted to read The Phenomenology of Spirit and Kojčve’s reading of it. But Kojčve gave to the French a very idiosyncratic reading of Hegel based on the hitherto little-known Phenomenology and in particular the rather odd section known as the “master-slave narrative.” This was a very early work of Hegel’s which he never subsequently revised and the passage in question was one not reflective of Hegel’s usual style of exposition and nor of his developed views on slavery. It proved however, to be exactly what the Left in France needed at the time to theorize French colonialism’s exploitation of their colonies, Algeria in particular (many French radicals were born in the French colony). The master-slave narrative explained how the Algerians were enslaved and only by means of a fight to the death could they liberate themselves and enter a postcolonial period, ridding themselves of the legacy of colonization.
In this reading, France was the Master and Algeria was the Slave – the ‘Other’. Simone de Beauvoir took up this theme and wrote the founding document of what was to become the Second Wave of Feminism: The Second Sex (1949). In de Beauvoir’s narrative, Man was Subject and Woman was the Other. In this work she founded not only modern Feminism, but an entire genre critiquing xenophobia, racism, colonialism, homophobia, etc., decrying the denigration, exclusion and oppression of ‘the Other’.
In this reading of Hegel, the State is the Subject, and the Other is the Object. So actually, everything is from the point of view of the dominant subject and the oppressed group is cast as the Other. This might be an appropriate way of seeing into the mind of the oppressor, but surely “the emancipation of the oppressed must be conquered by the oppressed themselves” (paraphrasing Marx, 1864)?
As I read Hegel, and as I believe he must be read, the Subject is the social formation which seeks to attain consciousness of itself and liberate itself from subjugation by the existing dominant social formation, which is correspondingly cast as the Object. So the ‘Other’ is the establishment – the object on which the struggling emergent subject must overcome, and in the process change themselves! It is a new idea, emergent subject or movement, which is the central figure in Hegel’s Logic. The subject, or concept, is the movement seeking to liberate itself and abolish its oppression.
I will review the life-cycle of the Concept as presented in the Logic.
Initially, we have something known only by observation, something which appears in statistical digests or transient reports in newspapers, or anecdotes. Even those who will be part of the new subject, at this initial phase, know of its existence only by sociological means, so to speak – the Subject has no self-consciousness. Millions of proletarians (or women or gay men, ...) know only their bad luck in being landed in this social position, and perhaps that there are others in the same boat. Hegel theorizes this phase in the categories of Quality, Quantity and Measure.
The next phase is one of emergent self-consciousness in which people reflect on their shared social position in terms borrowed from the dominant culture. Different forms of association are tried out and their content tested, and one after another different forms and contents overtake one another in the search for a form adequate to its content. In the final stage of this emergence, the movement experiences the reaction to their own collective actions, shed their illusions, and search for a viable identity which can survive and carry their banner.
The leap takes place when the movement breaks through, gains an identity and establishes itself as a rightful participant in social and political life. We now have a Subject, properly so-called, but an abstract subject, because it is as yet still isolated and undeveloped. The Subject is not a group of people sharing some attribute, but rather social practices sharing a common aim.
What the Subject confronts is an Object. This Object is all the other Subjects from the past which have successfully objectified themselves and coalesced into an established community. Note however that this ‘established community’ is not conceived of as either static or homogenous – it is simply a constellation of a diversity of movements from the past which have ‘negotiated’ a common form of life.
The Subject confronting this Object (which appears as a natural, immovable order of things) now forms one-on-one relations with each of the other subjects making up the community, so as to be able to maintain its own form of life. Then the subject progresses to relations of mutual affinity where its needs can be met by others and in turn provide things that others need. And thus by means of a network of relations of affinity the Subject begins to objectify itself and form common means and ends with the wider community and in doing so transform both the Object and itself, and make its own specific ideas and practices part of the everyday life of the entire community. Many social movement activists bemoan this phase of institutionalization in which one-time activists find jobs as public servants rather than agitators. But this is the cost of victory; a new movement, a new critique is needed to go further.
The above does a terrible disservice to Hegel. Not only have I condensed 800 pages into 500 words, but in presenting Hegel’s Logic as if it were a model for social change (just as Kojčve and de Beauvoir did to the master-slave narrative), I have obscured two important things about Hegel’s Logic: (1) the phases such as those mentioned are not to be taken as successive in that linear way at all, but as phases which are constantly being recapitulated, and (2) What Hegel presents us with is not ‘states of affairs’ but the logic which prevails under different conditions and the inherent contradictions in that logic which drive it to change. In this way, Hegel shows how culture and social relations get into the mind, so to speak.
Although Vygotsky had read almost no Hegel himself, thanks to what he had read in Marx, Engels and Lenin, he became a Hegelian, and in 1930 he abandoned the idea of ‘concept’ inherited from mainstream positivist psychology and adopted the Hegelian idea of concepts. Not only was Vygotsky an exemplary exponent of Hegelian thinking, his work provided us with insights which can revolutionize the interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy. A. N. Leontyev also contributed insights which facilitate a very meaningful interpretation of Hegel.
Hegel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Berlin, was progressive enough for his time and social position, but it is not his social and political views which are important, and it is probably no accident that his philosophy became a tool of radical politics only after his death. It is his Logic which makes him so revolutionary.
As I noted above, Hegel does not see a community as something static and composed of a given range of groups and categories of individuals. For Hegel, the community is essentially diverse, made up of very many interconnected, developing social practices, each of which has a history, each of which has already changed society in the process of becoming integrated into the community in the past. Conflict and resolution, change and transformation, are essential to social life and all its components.
The struggling subject therefore does not face a homogenous edifice of existing institutions resistant to its aspirations, but rather finds itself one amongst many subjects, only that others have in the past already changed society and formed relationships so as to ‘mainstream’ their demands.
Hegel’s Logic is extremely rich in the diversity of relationships it theorizes. It is not formulaic, and does not rely on a single tactic: deconstructing hidden binaries or exposing implicit power relations or thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Rather, all the radical movements since Hegel’s time have been able to choose from his broad palette of critical concepts.
At this historical juncture, especially in the old capitalist powers, there is no possibility that the social crisis can be resolved by any single agent or social movement. The avoidance of a social collapse, the imposition of an authoritarian state or the destruction of the natural conditions for human life, presuppose the capacity of critical subjects fighting for social justice to be able to collaborate without demanding the dissolution of differences. In my opinion, such a multifaceted movement demands the whole resources of Hegel’s philosophy at the very least.
In particular, a developed ethical conception is needed. Radical subjects of recent times have tended to elide the need for a consistent ethical stance. A poststructuralist feminist cannot give you a reason to be a feminist rather than a male chauvinist which is consistent with poststructuralist philosophy. Hegel, on the other hand, is able to deal with ethical problems in a context in which justice is due to others as well as one’s own.
Although I have my own views on approaches to the struggle for social justice, informed by a familiarity with Hegelian philosophy, my aim here is limited to drawing to the attention of others what Hegel has to offer the younger generation of activists. Reading Hegel is a real chore, and before embarking on it, you need to have a reason for doing so. I hope that I have given the reader such a reason.