Hegel outlined the life-cycle of an idea in his Logic. An ‘idea’ is a form of social practice, or project. If an entire social formation is conceived of as an aggregate of many such projects, then the cycle of social reproduction and change can be conceptualised in terms of the life-cycle of a project. This life cycle begins within a social formation with the emergence of a new form of social practice and ends with a changed social formation which has been transformed by that social practice. The project is now simply one concept among others within the language and culture of that social formation and the traces of its historical origins.
What results from this view is a long view of social change in which what are currently called ‘social movements’ is just one phase.
We begin with a social formation. Individuals occupying some social position within the social formation are generally unaware that some as yet untried opportunity exists for them, or putting this another way, that there is some unnecessary blockage or obstacle limiting their life. At this point there is no social movement or project, hardly even the potential for one. The project exists entirely ‘in itself’, and can only be determined as a potential with the tools of the sociologist or outside observer. Social analysts might point to an injustice or an opening for social progress, but as yet the people involved do not recognise any such injustice or opportunity. Even when some or even very many of the individuals in the relevant social position become aware of this opportunity or blockage, there is no social movement.
The project comes into being as a ‘non-movement’ when individuals act on the blockage or opportunity. For example, impoverished street sellers dodge the police and take possession of their place on the street, homeless people move into empty houses, women leave their husbands. The idea now exists as a material fact which can be measured, but it has no political or ideal reality. It is a non-movement - the parallel actions of many people who act on their own initiative in response to their personal situation without any notion of sharing their situation with others and there is therefore no collective action.
A precipitous response by the government or a bold move by one of the actors or some other event or simply the build up of actions to a point where they can no longer be ignored, eventually triggers a leap forward. The next stage of development is often characterised by the adoption of a word or symbol which focuses attention, so to speak, although it will have different meanings for different people. But the word or symbol or paradigmatic text or call to action or denunciation or attack or ban creates a point around which a movement could coalesce.
Now people discover themselves in the same place as others. “We're all here for the same reason,” they say. This is the moment of Identity. We are black, we are homeless, we are pioneers, we are victims of abuse. The language of the social formation provides them with the words and concepts to identify their shared situation. A dialectic begins from here which Hegel describes as the “moments of reflection.” The moment of identity is followed by the the moment of difference, when people discover that in fact they did not all come here for the same reasons. This difference is sharpened into opposition and in turn into ‘essential opposition’, or contradiction. Contradiction leads to a necessary examination of the grounds of contradiction in some social difference or opposition or more deep lying contradictions. For example, women initially uniting under the banner of ‘women’ in the belief that all women suffer the same injustices and seek the same solutions, discover that women of colour or women in the former colonial world face different problems and seek different solutions, just as working class women hardly concern themselves with a glass ceiling they will never encounter.
While these interactions over identity are going on, people search for an adequate form in which to embody the idea. This could begin, for example, with a suggestion that everyone wear a certain colour or listen to and play a certain kind of music in order to signal their opinion of the situation in a way that makes repression difficult, but on the other hand offers no actual solution. Everyone knows that behind the punk music or white hijabs or whatever, is a common idea, but no one quite knows what that idea is.
The struggle to formulate the ideal or demand reflects the struggle for an adequate form for the movement - a colour revolution, entering a political party, a new political party, a ‘non-partisan’ protest movement, etc., etc. Hegel refers to this process as the struggle between form and content. The content means the ultimate meaning, destination and universal impact of the relevant idea which expresses the relevant contradiction in the social formation. The form means the social practice which embodies and expresses the radical content. But every form proves inadequate to the content, and gives birth to new forms, as at the same time the content itself changes. What was initially a demand for the Prime Minister to make a concession becomes a demand for his resignation becomes a call for the whole regime to be overthrown, ... It is in this maelstrom what what are usually called ‘social movements’ appear.
Alongside the struggle of form and content, the project is having an impact on others, on other projects or institutions, and these others react back on the movement. The movement finds itself in complex struggles both with the institutions they want to change and other projects which differ with their aims or alternatively, inspired by the movement, seek to change the terms of engagement. This complex web of interactions extends indefinitely into every corner of the social formation and enlightens the movement and everyone else on the implications of the idea being promoted. As a result, the idea begins to actualise, become real for people, though its meaning is still subject to contestation.
The existing social formation is a whole. It has its own means of reproducing itself and maintaining its stability. Radical critics run against the government and win seats in Parliament, but before long, it seems, they are part of the problem not the solution, proposing tame reforms and condemning excesses. Or whatever, depending on the social formation and its traditions. But the outcome is a kind of polarisation in which the movement on confronts its opposite, the counter-movement which has coalesced in opposition to it, and which exemplifies the very reasons for the movement’s existence at the same time as proving how insoluble the movement’s grievances really are. Feminism has discovered and exposed entrenched, systemic patriarchy, the civil rights movement has discovered and exposed entrenched, systemic racism. The movement, now united, seems to have hit a brick wall. A few anti-discrimination laws or quotas are not going to fix the situation.
Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention.
There are three stages in this process. Not really ‘stages’ because every stage continues even after raising the next stage and continues alongside or ‘behind’ it. The same goes for the ‘phases’ mentioned above. The first stage is Being, where the project exists as a quantity of actions of this or that quality, which build up to the critical levels but is not yet a movement. The second stage is Essence, a kind of ‘peeling the layers off the onion” of manifold collective actions which first emerged from the unconnected actions of people who had not been conscious of themselves expressing any shared or collective situation or movement. This is the phases of Reflection, Appearance and Actuality I outlined above. The third and final stage Hegel called, in his idealist fashion, the Concept.
The transformation which the social movement wanted to bring about begins with the formation of a new institution of some kind. That could be a new workers’ state following the collapse of the bourgeois republic, or it could be an Office for Women inside the public service or it could be a new scientific institute. The point is that it now exists in and for itself. It is not women demanding their rights; it is women defending their rights. It explicitly propagates certain social practice to the exclusion of others and it has achieved that point of development in which it reproduces itself from one generation to the next. Of course it is not guaranteed eternal life, but it is established, it’s a going concern. It can be criticised but it’s here. The Vietnamese community is here now, they're organising their own affairs, and you're not going to be able to deport them all. String theory exists.
I will limit myself here to the three phases of the Concept which Hegel called: Subject, Object and Idea. What is different now, is that the movement, the new social practice which has established itself in the community, is no longer searching for self-consciousness and struggling to define itself. From here on it is developing, deepening its roots in the community, changing itself, but only to the extent that it is changing and transforming the whole social formation.
The first aspect or ‘phase’ of the Concept is its internal development, in which individual actions are mediated with the universal principles represented by the Concept and align themselves with it while at the same time developing the various particular types: measures to protect women from violent men, equal pay, and breaking down the gender division of labour. The concept is becoming more concrete and mature while remaining what it is, and better able to penetrate and make relations with others.
Hegel uses natural metaphors to describe the process in which the new concept enters the ‘ecosystem’ of the social formation. At first, the new concept relates to other, already-existing social practices ‘mechanically’. That is, they simply relate to each other externally without any affinity between them, merely consuming each other’s products. Then, ‘chemical’ relations are established as different social practices, communities or concepts discover affinities with others, and like elements, combine with others to form molecular compounds or ‘alliances’. The third phase is the organic relation, in which each creature is a part of an ecosystem in which each is a means to the life of another. We could equally well represent these phases in terms of the various metaphors for a multicultural society: at first the ethnic ‘mosaic’, then the ethnic ‘melting pot’ and the ethnic ‘organism’.
In the final phase of the Concept, the new social practice ‘disappears’, incorporated as part of the new, transformed social formation. But this changed social formation is just as prone to injustices and contradictions as the old one. The new social institutions become the targets of a new generation of social movements, and life goes on in its endless cycle of renewal and change.
Hegel sets out this idea in the form of a Logic which is far, far richer than the schema just set out. The arguments found in the Logic will be recognised as typifying the kind of arguments and problems which arise in the course of social transformations, and Hegel analyses them all in depth. But Hegel’s logic is not a metaphor. It stands on its own as a logic, but a logic rooted in social life. And it is not a series of stages mechanically following one another, but on the contrary, the categories run concurrently, overtaking one another whilst building on one another.
The life-cycle of social transformation so conceived contains within it, as a special principle, the life-cycle of social movements generally understood to characterise the second, intermediate ‘stage’ arising out of contradictions in the social formation, and resolved in the transformed social formation, which in turns spurs new social movements.
Much as described by Thomas Kuhn, most of the time this schema describes the gradual transformation of a social formation, much in the manner of ‘problem solving’. But every so often, the new concept, the new social practice is not just a new element in the whole but is radically incompatible with the object in toto and wreaks a total transformation of the whole. Such social movements alone deserve the name of ‘revolution’, but they are not something different from a social movement. But if it is to survive, the Revolution will be followed by new social movements doing the work of ‘problem solving’.
And so life goes on. Life and death are but two arcs of the same circle.
Andy Blunden 5th May 2021