The Logic of Hegel's Philosophy of Right

Trade unions typically combine collegial delegation (e.g. the Branch Committee elects one of its members to the Regional Council, and the Regional Council one delegate to the State Committee, etc., etc.) with general election (e.g. the National President is elected once every three years by a vote of all members, the local committee by the branch members, etc.). Unions may also have paid employees who are not elected but are "hired guns" and have a rule about what constitutes a member and the rights of members and may also have a role for retired members.

Whether the product of a single founder, or the outcome of a long evolution, each such constitution is the embodiment of a certain concept of Reason. Or rather, put the other way around, every concept of Reason is abstracted from material social relations, or reflects some really existing or ideal social formation. Professional philosophers and logicians have studied Reason as a thing-in-itself, while union organisers have worked consciously or unconsciously with union structures independently of any concept of "Reason". Any union member who puts forward a critique of their union's constitution would be doing just what Hegel was doing in relation to the Constitution of European nations in 1821 and it would be surprising if the same union member wrote down their ideas about Reason, or Logic, and did not reflect the same general view as when they "applied" this Reason to their union's decision-making structures.

But it may be more true to say that the union member's concept of Reason is an idealisation of the social and historical relations in which they have grown up. A trade union is but a subordinate part in the whole social organism of which its members are a part. The union constitution is an objective or concrete-external form of the same social and historical conditions reflected in thought forms when a union member thinks. This "whole" social organism we call the "State", and the concept of Reason is historically closely connected to that of "State".

The decision-making, "rational" structures of a union rest on more fundamental relations and categories. Hegel conceives of the State as the "third part" of ethical life which begins with the family and civil society, and ethical life as the "third part" of the philosophy of right which begins with abstract right (property) and morality. So in his Philosophy of Right, Hegel is working out the relationship of all these fundamental relations of modern society as "determinations" of a single whole. He calls this whole "The Idea", just as any student of a complex mass of material feels that she is searching for something that exists in or behind the myriad of phenomena.

At any given moment in its development, the constitution of the State, or any organisation, more or less conforms to its Essence. That is to say, any real organisation is always to a certain extent "irrational", and this irrationality manifests itself in a certain measure of "unreality" in the organisation. This may result in a measure of disdain towards the formal constitution and conflicts and contradictions. The struggle between the "inner truth" on the one hand, and the pressures of historical inheritance and accident, conflicting interests and so on, which are reflected in it, on the other, constitutes the meaningful thread in the development of a social organism.

Hegel explains as much in the concluding paragraph (§ 360) of the Philosophy of Right:

These two realms [the mundane realm of feelings, needs, etc., and the intellectual realm] stand distinguished from one another though at the same time they are rooted in a single unity and Idea. Here [in the history of modern states] their distinction is intensified to absolute opposition and a stern struggle ensues in the course of which the realm of mind lowers the place of its heaven to an earthly here and now, to a common worldliness of fact and idea. The mundane realm, on the other hand, builds up its abstract independence into thought and the principle of rational being and knowing, i.e. into the rationality of right and law. In this way their opposition implicitly loses its marrow and disappears.

and Hegel continues ...

The realm of fact has discarded its barbarity and unrighteous, caprice, while the realm of truth has abandoned the world of beyond and its arbitrary force, so that the true reconciliation which discloses the state as the image and actuality of reason has become objective. In the state, self-consciousness finds in an organic development the actuality of its substantive knowing and willing; in religion, it finds the feeling and the representation of this its own truth as an ideal essentiality; while in philosophic science, it finds the free comprehension and knowledge of this truth as one and the same in its mutually complementary manifestations, i.e. in the state, in nature, and in the ideal world.

Hegel was a professional logician of the Age of Reason. A German who publicly supported the invading Napoleonic Armies against "his own" army, his identification of the progress of history with that of Reason was far from eccentric in his time. Furthermore, if correctly understood, this identification remains valid. There is something "behind" the rush of events and the patchwork of social relations, and understanding what is going means precisely identifying that "ideal" or "ought-to-be" which stands in opposition to that which is. Hegel is not saying, with Stalin:

"the history of society ... becomes the history of the development of society according to regular laws, and the study of the history of society becomes a science. ... social life, the development of society, is also knowable, and that the data of science regarding the laws of development of society are authentic data having the validity of objective truths. Hence the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become as precise a science as, let us say, biology ..." [Dialectical & Historical Materialism, Stalin, 1938].

This bureaucratic dogmatism ignores that fact that social institutions are constructed by people, and the rationality which people use in constructing their institutions is also the product of these institutions - objective and subjective rationality.

Let's look at some of the features of Hegel's Logic which find expression in his Philosophy of Right.

Concrete Universal

Hegel elaborates his concept of Notion in the Science of Logic, and by its nature, this concept is not easily subject to a brief definition. However, the first step may be to sharply distinguish Hegel's concept from that of "mainstream" science which he characterises as "abstract universal":

The notion is generally associated in our minds with abstract generality, and on that account it is often described as a general conception. We speak, accordingly, of the notions of colour, plant, animal, etc. They are supposed to be arrived at by neglecting the particular features which distinguish the different colours, plants, and animals from each other, and by retaining those common to them all. This is the aspect of the notion which is familiar to understanding; and feeling is in the right when it stigmatises such hollow and empty notions as mere phantoms and shadows. But the universal of the notion is not a mere sum of features common to several things, confronted by a particular which enjoys an existence of its own. It is, on the contrary, self-particularising or self-specifying, and with undimmed clearness finds itself at home in its antithesis. For the sake both of cognition and of our practical conduct, it is of the utmost importance that the real universal should not be confused with what is merely held in common [i.e. the abstract general]. ...

The distinction referred to above between what is merely in common, and what is truly universal, is strikingly expressed by Rousseau in his famous Contrat Social, when he says that the laws of a state must spring from the universal will, but need not on that account be the will of all. Rousseau would have made a sounder contribution towards a theory of the state, if he had always kept this distinction in sight. The general will is the notion of the will: and the laws are the special clauses of this will and based upon the notion of it. [Shorter Logic, Zusatz to § 163]

For Hegel, the truth is historical and is the outcome of a long process of concretisation of opposing determinations. His notion stands in the same relation to the categories of formal logic as evolutionary biology stands to Linnaeus' system of categorisation. Hegel's concrete universal, as opposed to the abstract general of positivist/empiricist tradition in bourgeois philosophy, is a concept of Reason which finds its political expression in direct or collegial representation, where delegation expresses social identity as opposed to the dominant system in today's developed bourgeois democracies where universal suffrage and large geographical electorates are ubiquitous.

As for popular suffrage, it may be further remarked that especially in large states it leads inevitably to electoral indifference, since the casting of a single vote is of no significance where there is a multitude of electors. Even if a voting qualification is highly valued and esteemed by those who are entitled to it, they still do not enter the polling booth. Thus the result of an institution of this kind is more likely to be the opposite of what was intended; election actually falls into the power of a few, of a caucus, and so of the particular and contingent interest which is precisely what was to have been neutralised. [Philosophy of Right, Remark to § 311]


... another prevalent idea, the idea that since it is in the legislature that the unofficial class rises to the level of participating in matters of state, it must appear there in the form of individuals, whether individuals are to choose representatives for this purpose, or whether every single individual is to have a vote in the legislature himself. This atomistic and abstract point of view vanishes at the stage of the family, as well as that of civil society where the individual is in evidence only as a member of a general group. The state, however, is essentially an organisation each of whose members is in itself a group of this kind, and hence no one of its moments should appear as an unorganised aggregate. The Many, as units - a congenial interpretation of 'people' - are of course something connected, but they are connected only as an aggregate, a formless mass whose commotion and activity could therefore only be elementary, irrational, barbarous, and frightful. When we hear speakers on the constitution expatiating about the 'people' - this unorganised collection - we know from the start that we have nothing to expect but generalities and perverse declamations.

The circles of association in civil society are already communities. To picture these communities as once more breaking up into a mere conglomeration of individuals as soon as they enter the field of politics, i.e. the field of the highest concrete universality, is eo ipso to hold civil and political life apart from one another and as it were to hang the latter in the air, because its basis could then only be the abstract individuality of caprice and opinion, and hence it would be grounded on chance and not on what is absolutely stable and justified. [Philosophy of Right, Remark to § 303]

[Commenting on these observations, Marx notes that Hegel has correctly identified the separation of the state and civil society as characteristic of modern society, but wants to restore this separation, wants the reflection of civil society in the state to progress to constitute the unity of the state. Medieval society was 'political' in the sense that the role of every person in trade and industry was determined by their traditional place in the structure of the State, unlike modern society where individuality reigns supreme.]

The sociologist who operates with opinion polls and concepts like "Income Group" is using in science the same conceptual framework as the authors of the Constitutions with 100,000-voter electorates. Hegel's Logic is a largely a critique of this method of abstract thinking. The electoralism of the modern bourgeois democracy stands in the same relation to participatory democracy as does formal logic to Hegel's dialectical logic.

However, the modern state has developed as an abstract general, not a concrete universal. Its citizens have political rights which come down to the right to vote once every 3 or 4 years to choose one of several candidates to vote in Parliament and pass laws governing their human and political rights.

On the other hand, in civil society the human rights to particularity - identity politics - coexists with extreme differences of wealth and real social power. For example, the abstract right of "equality before the law", as opposed for instance to Islamic states where women and non-Muslims have no rights before the law, is translated in actuality into gross inequality in access to justice because legal representation is purchased on the market for a price which is out of reach of the masses. The same is true of the right to vote, for in social reality, big business can determine the voting in Parliament more effectively than any voter.

Political economy has developed as a concrete universal. The Universal - money - exists side-by-side with each particular product of labour, and the money value of any product is not determined by any specific feature or combination of features of the commodity but, as Marx demonstrated in Capital, exhibits dialectical logic. Those who do not labour have capital; those who have no capital, labour.

At times of crisis however, even dialectical logic is transcended and the utter madness of complexity takes over, dwarfing the impotence of the abstract universal states. The movement of capital around the global economy is actually beyond the power of reason; no computer program, however rational and sophisticated, can predict when the next crash will come or how to avoid it. No state can intervene in the global crisis to effectively defend the livelihood of its citizens.

Summary: Hegel's concept of concrete universal is possibly his most enduring achievement. It is adequate to understanding the "normal" development of bourgeois political economy, but fails when this "normality" breaks down. There is a fundamental determinism in Hegel's logic which is insupportable.

The modern state has not fulfilled the rational development anticipated by Hegel, but rather that of the dominant notion of bourgeois ideology, abstract generality - though to be fair, this development may aptly be described as irrational. These failures will be addressed later.

The Absolute Idea

Hegel's Absolute Idea is the development of his concept of concrete universal to an extreme. It is counterposed to the concept of abstract generality of mainstream bourgeois-positivist theory, and to complexity, the notion of an objective process which is inaccessible to Reason. The market, for example, is ultimately irrational, and not all a "magic hand" of superhuman reason.

The development of the Notion in Hegel's Logic is the concretisation of an abstract notion (itself a "concrete universal") by successive merging of concepts at the level of theory. This is broadly speaking the process of formation of "unified theory", a conception of Reason which has remained a goal of science for large portions of the intellectual establishment, especially physics, for centuries, but a goal which continues to elude realisation.

Hegel defines Absolute Idea in the Shorter Logic as "the knowledge that the idea is the one systematic whole". [Shorter Logic § 242], or as elaborated at great length in the Science of Logic:

The absolute Idea has turned out to be the identity of the theoretical and the practical Idea. Each of these by itself is still one-sided, possessing the Idea only as a sought-for beyond and an unattained goal; each, therefore, is a synthesis of endeavour, and has, but equally has not, the Idea in it; each passes from one thought to the other without bringing the two together, and so remains fixed in their contradiction. The absolute Idea, as the rational Notion that in its reality meets only with itself, is by virtue of this immediacy of its objective identity, on the one hand the return to life; but it has no less sublated this form of its immediacy, and contains within itself the highest degree of opposition. The Notion is not merely soul but free subjective Notion that is for itself and therefore possesses personality - the practical, objective Notion determined in and for itself which, as person, is impenetrable atomic individuality, but explicitly universality and cognition, and in its other has its own objectivity for its object. All else is error, confusion, opinion, endeavour, caprice and transitoriness; the absolute Idea alone is being, imperishable life, self-knowing truth, and is all truth. [Science of Logic III, 3, 3]

The above formulation, written in 1812, can easily be read as a description of the enlightened "democratic" Monarch described in the corresponding chapter of The Philosophy of Right. This same conception of the constitutional monarch is still a fair representation of the conception of Queen of England, but for the irrational nature of the state she heads.

The state as a political entity is thus cleft into three substantive divisions:

(a) the power to determine and establish the universal - the Legislature;
(b) the power to subsume single cases and the spheres of particularity under the universal - the Executive;
(c) the power of subjectivity, as the will with the power of ultimate decision - the Crown. In the crown, the different powers are bound into an individual unity which is thus at once the apex and basis of the whole, i.e. of constitutional monarchy.

Remark: The development of the state to constitutional monarchy is the achievement of the modern world, a world in which the substantial Idea has won the infinite form. The history of this inner deepening of the world mind - or in other words this free maturation in course of which the Idea, realising rationality in the external, releases its moments (and they are only its moments) from itself as totalities, and just for that reason still retains them in the ideal unity of the concept - the history of this genuine formation of ethical life is the content of the whole course of world-history. [Philosophy of Right, § 273]

Like the parliamentarians of the modern bourgeois republic or constitutional monarchy, the representatives in Hegel's constitution are not mandated votes, but are delegates.

The process of delegation is exactly of the nature of the development of a unified theory as described in the Science of Logic. That is, the widespread conception of the development of science through the merging of the various branches of science up to an elusive "unified theory", is the same conception of rationality as that described in the Science of Logic. Like the Absolute participatory democracy headed by an enlightened monarch described in the Philosophy of Right, this unified theory has not only eluded physics (let alone the rest of natural and human science!), but is nowadays losing favour as a conception of the Absolute in science.

Hegel assumes that a modern society is the manifestation of The Idea and that each of the classes and institutions of modern society are determinations of one and the same essence. Consequently all the contradictions of modern society are ultimately reconcilable.

Now, there is a certain important truth in this proposition but it rests on the fact that all previous and existing culture is the product and expression of the exploiting classes and the vast and fundamental interests of the labouring masses are left out of the picture. [This is exactly the same as the "sub-altern" who are eradicated from the social theory of Foucault and Derrida, since they do not write.] The state which rests upon this culture of exploitation cannot be assumed to be able to reconcile the interests of the labouring masses, who in Hegel's time were utterly without a voice, were a "thing-in-themselves", so to speak. The modern State and the organised working class are not determinations of one and the same essence, but irreconcilable opposites.

Summary: The Idea, and the Absolute Idea in particular, is a limited conception which has not been vindicated by the actual development of science and social history. Science has not produced a unified theory and the monarch is playing an increasingly marginal role in modern states. The separation of abstract-general political institutions from concrete universal money-economies has sharpened.

Universal and Particular

In Hegel's Philosophy of Right, he is constantly concerned with recognition, with the reciprocal relation of external existence and subjective consciousness. Thus, property for example, is not so much about having or using something, but about the recognition given by others who do not use or occupy it. Property is the external, objective existence of personality and embodies the recognition of all others of the rights of the person. For Hegel, there is no independence of subject and object, but it is the objective which is primary - the Idea enters subjective consciousness through objective, i.e. social, relations. Thus democratic organisation is not just a question of sending a message up to the state, but of each citizen being conscious of the state as their own self. At every stage Hegel is concerned with the successive concretisation of the concept. The formation and execution of right is not just the writing of laws but of the training and appointment of individuals who give material reality to right and the recognition by the citizens as these laws as expressions of their own rights. Thus, the apex of the state must be an individual not some vague principle or general assembly.

Experience in union organisation confirms that whatever the weaknesses of the general election in transmitting policy decisions, it is an essential component of the constitution. The generally elected president who appears on television and is personally known to all the members is an essential component of union democracy, without which the perfect system of collegial delegation becomes a faceless bureaucracy. Those countries which abandoned the constitutional monarchy have replaced the Monarch with a generally-elected president for this reason.

Also, in Hegel's philosophy, it is most significant that the Universal and the Essence have a perfectly material existence alongside Actuality and Existence. This is a far superior conception of the general or universal to the method which recognises such notions as "public opinion" as if it were not simply a pseudonym for the mass media.

However, although there appears to be considerable value in Hegel's method of dealing with abstractions in the comprehension of material and social reality, it is here that he gets things thoroughly upside down: for Hegel, the State is not the product of people, but the materialisation of the Idea and primary in relation to the consciousness and activity of people.

In the course of this work of the world mind, states, nations, and individuals arise animated by their particular determinate principle which has its interpretation and actuality in their constitutions and in the whole range of their life and condition. While their consciousness is limited to these and they are absorbed in their mundane interests, they are all the time the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind at work within them. The shapes which they take pass away, while the absolute mind prepares and works out its transition to its next higher stage. [§ 344.]

In comprehending an existing reality as it is, it is necessary to uncover the logical relationships within it, and here there is sense in the State as subject, the citizen as object; but in comprehending the production of the state, it is the citizens who are the subjects and the state the object. Both sides of this relation have their truth: the State is objective in relation to the individual who is formed in the womb of society; but the state is a product of real, active agents.

Hegel explains how the Idea which lies behind the whole development, does not show itself until the end:

A nation does not begin by being a state. The transition from a family, a horde, a clan, a multitude, &c., to political conditions is the realisation of the Idea in the form of that nation. Without this form, a nation, as - an ethical substance - which is what it is implicitly, lacks the objectivity of possessing in its own eyes and in the eyes of others, a universal and universally valid embodiment in laws, i.e. in determinate thoughts, and as a result it fails to secure recognition from others. So long as it lacks objective law and an explicitly established rational constitution, its autonomy is formal only and is not sovereignty. [§ 349]

Thus, the logical relation is opposite to the historical relation but the agency of change is the person.

All actions, including world-historical actions, culminate with individuals as subjects giving actuality to the substantial. They are the living instruments of what is in substance the deed of the world mind and they are therefore directly at one with that deed though it is concealed from them and is not their aim and object. [§ 348]

Hegel well understands that he criticises the modern state in its own terms, that he is a child of his own Zeit Geist:

Only one word more concerning the desire to teach the world what it ought to be. For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering. [Preface to PR]

It was to this problem, which Feuerbach described as the inversion of subject and predicate by Hegel - to which Marx first addressed himself, and which is most famous.

... one cannot judge ... a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.

but Marx points out:

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. [Preface to Critique of Political Economy, Marx, 1859]

Hegel explained in his famous aphorism about the "Owl of Minerva" that philosophy can only describe what has already manifested itself in history, but Marx shows that culture originates in the hum-drum of daily life of people and it is possible to see and understand the roots of social and cultural problems before they are manifested at the level of culture and politics.

This is the meaning of Marx's statement in The German Ideology:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.

"Family and civil society are conceived of as spheres of the concept of the state, specifically as spheres of its finiteness, as its finite phase. It is the state which sunders itself into the two, which presupposes them, and indeed does this 'only in order to rise above its ideality and become explicit as infinite actual mind'. 'It sunders itself in order to. . .' It 'therefore assigns to these ideal spheres the material of its finite actuality in such a way that the function assigned to any given individual is visibly mediated, etc'. The so-called 'actual idea' (mind as infinite and actual) is described as though it acted according to a determined principle and toward a determined end. It sunders itself into finite spheres, and does this 'in order to return to itself, to be for itself'; moreover it does this precisely in such a way that it is just as it actually is. [Marx: Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, p 3]

and Marx continues:

The Idea is given the status of a subject, and the actual relationship of family and civil society to the state is conceived to be its inner imaginary activity. Family and civil society are the presuppositions of the state; they are the really active things; but in speculative philosophy it is reversed. But if the Idea is made subject, then the real subjects - civil society, family, circumstances, caprice, etc. - become unreal, and take on the different meaning of objective moments of the Idea.

However, Hegel's efforts to elaborate idealistically the rationality of the modern state of his time, and the difficulties that he had in performing this task, did a great service. Marx says:

Hegel is not to be blamed for depicting the nature of the modern state as it is, but rather for presenting what is as the essence of the state. The claim that the rational is actual is contradicted precisely by an irrational actuality, which everywhere is the contrary of what it asserts and asserts the contrary of what it is. [Marx: Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, p64]

... and he says a similar thing about Ricardo in '1844'.

You must make everything that is yours saleable, i.e., useful. If I ask the political economist: Do I obey economic laws if I extract money by offering my body for sale, by surrendering it to another's lust?... Or am I not acting in keeping with political economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans? ... Then the political economist replies to me: You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but - But whom am I now to believe, political economy or ethics? - The ethics of political economy is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety - but political economy promises to satisfy my needs. - The political economy of ethics is the opulence of a good conscience, of virtue, etc.; but how can I live virtuously if I do not live? And how can I have a good conscience if I do not know anything? It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick - ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other. Thus M. Michel Chevalier reproaches Ricardo with having ignored ethics. But Ricardo is allowing political economy to speak its own language, and if it does not speak ethically, this is not Ricardo's fault. M. Chevalier takes no account of political economy insofar as he moralises, but he really and necessarily ignores ethics insofar as he practises political economy. The relationship of political economy to ethics, if it is other than an arbitrary, contingent and therefore unfounded and unscientific relationship, if it is not being posited for the sake of appearance but is meant to be essential, can only be the relationship of the laws of political economy to ethics. If there is no such connection, or if the contrary is rather the case, can Ricardo help it? Moreover, the opposition between political economy and ethics is only an apparent opposition and just as much no opposition as it is an opposition. All that happens is that political economy expresses moral laws in its own way. [The Division of Labour & Human Needs, 1844]

Summary: Marx went further than inverting Hegel's subject and object. He went outside the culture of the modern state to the relations of production - and actual human labourers - upon which it rested, and this is the key to approaching a critique of Hegel, as a critique of political economy.


Hegel places contradiction at the centre of his Logic:

If, now, the first determinations of reflection, namely, identity, difference and opposition, have been put in the form of a law, still more should the determination into which they pass as their truth, namely, contradiction, be grasped and enunciated as a law: everything is inherently contradictory, and in the sense that this law in contrast to the others expresses rather the truth and the essential nature of things. The contradiction which makes its appearance in opposition, is only the developed nothing that is contained in identity and that appears in the expression that the law of identity says nothing. This negation further determines itself into difference and opposition, which now is the posited contradiction.

... External, sensuous movement itself is contradiction's immediate existence. 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. [Science of Logic p 439]

But there is contradiction and contradiction. There is unity of utterly alien and irreconcilable opposites, the struggle between which can only sunder the former unity in two, and the struggle of different determinations of one and the same essence. Everyone who has worked in an organisation knows that while mediation may often find the way of reconciling opposing factions, sometimes conflict only becomes worse in time, and rupture is inevitable. The ability to recognise the dispute which will inevitably lead to rupture and distinguish it from the dispute which, if properly handled, can lead to a fruitful synthesis, is an indispensable part of the art of organising.

Hegel's whole theory is based on the theory that contradiction arises only between the difference aspects of one and the same problem, and is aimed at reconciling and overcoming contradiction and the formation of a higher unity. Hegel ideal constitution is a system for the elaboration and resolution of social contradictions among the class of property-owners. [Someone who does not own property is, for Hegel, not truly human]. His is an essentially the social-democratic conception minus the working class.

Marx comments:

"Had the difference within the existence of one essence not been confused, in part, with the abstraction given independence (an abstraction not from another, of course, but from itself) and, in part, with the actual opposition of mutually exclusive essences, then a three-fold error could have been avoided, namely:

  1. that because only the extreme is true, every abstraction and one-sidedness takes itself to be the truth, whereby a principle appears to be only an abstraction from another instead of a totality in itself;
  2. that the decisiveness of actual opposites, their formation into extremes, which is nothing other than their self-knowledge as well as their inflammation to the decision to fight, is thought to be something which should be prevented if possible, in other words, something harmful;
  3. that their mediation is attempted. For no matter how firmly both extremes appear, in their existence, to be actual and to be extremes, it still lies only in the essence of the one to be an extreme, and it does not have for the other the meaning of true actuality." [Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, p89]


It is remarkable that Hegel could have reduced this absurdity of mediation to its abstract, logical and hence pure and irreducible form, while at the same time enthroning it as the Speculative mystery of logic, as the scheme of reason, the rational mode of deduction par excellence. Real extremes cannot be mediated precisely because they are real extremes. Nor do they require mediation, for their natures are wholly opposed. They have nothing in common with one another, they have no need for one another, they do not complement one another. The one does not bear within its womb a longing, a need, and anticipation for the other. (However, when Hegel treats universality and individuality, the abstract moments of the logical inference, as real antithesis, he reveals the fundamental dualism of his logic. This point needs to be developed further in a critique of Hegel's Logic.) [Marx: Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, p88]

Marx's observations in The German Ideology is his response:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. [Contradictions of Big Industry: Revolution]

But for Hegel "History is mind clothing itself with the form of events" and "It is the absolute right of the Idea to step into existence in clear-cut laws and objective institutions, ... whether this right be actualised in the form of divine legislation and favour, or in the form of force and wrong. This right is the right of heroes to found states", individuals "are all the time the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind at work within them. The shapes which they take pass away, while the absolute mind prepares and works out its transition to its next higher stage".

Summary: Hegel's theory of contradiction, his logic, needs to be developed to comprehend contradiction more concretely understanding that the contradiction emerges from the "unspoken", and cannot be understood at the level of "literary criticism". Hegel makes mediation a supreme value, he believes that all contradictions are ultimately reconciled in the Idea. A declining nation, he says, "has lost the interest of the absolute" but the defeat of an outmoded system is no gentle matter of "losing interest".

Private Property

Hegel argues for the necessity of private property (except in exceptional circumstances as required for the good of the state). He excludes the 'elements' (general properties of matter rather than particular 'objects', material or intellectual) from the possibility of private ownership, but wherever an object is divisible, he says that the holding of it in common property is irrational and in denial of the particularity of the personality, "based on distrust". He further argues that while the holding of property is a human right and equal for all men, this does not imply equality of property, which he regards as irrational and crude.

Since my will, as the will of a person, and so as a single will, becomes objective to me in property, property acquires the character of private property; and common property of such a nature that it may be owned by separate persons acquires the character of an inherently dissoluble partnership in which the retention of my share is explicitly a matter of my arbitrary preference.

Remark: The nature of the elements makes it impossible for the use of them to become so particularised as to be the private possession of anyone. ... exceptions to private property cannot be grounded in chance, in private caprice, or private advantage, but only in the rational organism of the state.

The general principle that underlies Plato's ideal state violates the right of personality by forbidding the holding of private property. The idea of a pious or friendly and even a compulsory brotherhood of men holding their goods in common and rejecting the principle of private property may readily present itself to the disposition which mistakes the true nature of the freedom of mind and right and fails to apprehend it in its determinate moments. As for the moral or religious view behind this idea, when Epicurus's friends proposed to form such an association holding goods in common, he forbade them, precisely on the ground that their proposal betrayed distrust and that those who distrusted each other were not friends.

Addition: In property my will is the will of a person; but a person is a unit and so property becomes the personality of this unitary will. Since property is the means whereby I give my will an embodiment, property must also have the character of being 'this' or 'mine'. This is the important doctrine of the necessity of private property. ... [§ 46]

In his 1844 manuscripts, Marx also characterises the call for equalisation of property or the abolition of private property in favour of the holding of property in common or state property as 'crude communism', and argues for the transcendence of private property and one gets the impression that he regards this transcendence as a long drawn-out historical process, coming long after the abolition of the state.

The transcendence of self-estrangement follows the same course as self-estrangement. Private Property is first considered only in its objective aspect - but nevertheless with labour as its essence. Its form of existence is therefore capital, which is to be annulled "as such" (Proudhon). Or a particular form of labour - labour levelled down, fragmented, and therefore unfree - is conceived as the source of private property's perniciousness and of its existence in estrangement from men. ... Finally, communism is the positive expression of annulled private property - at first as universal private property.

By embracing this relation as a whole, communism is:

(1) In its first form only a generalisation and consummation of it (of this relation). As such it appears in a two-fold form: on the one hand, the dominion of material property bulks so large that it wants to destroy everything which is not capable of being possessed by all as private property. It wants to disregard talent, etc., in an arbitrary manner. For it the sole purpose of life and existence is direct, physical possession. The category of the worker is not done away with, but extended to all men. The relationship of private property persists as the relationship of the community to the world of things. ...

General envy constituting itself as a power is the disguise in which greed re-establishes itself and satisfies itself, only in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at least turned against wealthier private property in the form of envy and the urge to reduce things to a common level, so that this envy and urge even constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of this envy and of this levelling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited standard.

How little this annulment of private property is really an appropriation is in fact proved by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilisation, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and crude man who has few needs and who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it.

The community is only a community of labour, and equality of wages paid out by communal capital - by the community as the universal capitalist. ... The first positive annulment of private property - crude communism - is thus merely a manifestation of the vileness of private property, which wants to set itself up as the positive community system.

(2) Communism (a) still political in nature - democratic or despotic; (b) with the abolition of the state, yet still incomplete, and being still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man. In both forms communism already is aware of being reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement; but since it has not yet grasped the positive essence of private property, and just as little the human nature of need, it remains captive to it and infected by it. It has, indeed, grasped its concept, but not its essence.

(3) Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being - a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man - the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. ... [Private Property & Communism]

and towards the end of the Manuscripts:

communism is humanism mediated with itself through the supersession of private property. Only through the supersession of this mediation - which is itself, however, a necessary premise - does positively self-deriving humanism, positive humanism, come into being. [Critique of Hegel's Philosophy in General]

Marx connects the private ownership of property with the nature of social intercourse and it appears that the difference between Marx and Hegel on this question is much less than would immediately meet the eye. For Marx it is not enough to abolish private property, it must be superseded, and this requires a long, drawn-out process of development of the relations of production. I don't think Marx is really clear how this supersession is to occur, how "positive communism" is to transcend the limitations of "crude communism", but he understands that the whole history of human society is the genesis of Communism, that Communism is the Essence of the development of humanity. In The German Ideology, Marx goes further:

... the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the "general interest", but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided.

And out of this very contradiction between the interest of the individual and that of the community the latter takes an independent form as the State, divorced from the real interests of individual and community, and at the same time as an illusory communal life, always based, however, on the real ties existing in every family and tribal conglomeration - such as flesh and blood, language, division of labour on a larger scale, and other interests - and especially ... on the classes, already determined by the division of labour, which in every such mass of men separate out, and of which one dominates all the others. It follows from this that all struggles within the State, the struggle between democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, the struggle for the franchise, etc., etc., are merely the illusory forms in which the real struggles of the different classes are fought out among one another... Further, it follows that every class which is struggling for mastery, even when its domination, as is the case with the proletariat, postulates the abolition of the old form of society in its entirety and of domination itself, must first conquer for itself political power in order to represent its interest in turn as the general interest, which in the first moment it is forced to do.

Just because individuals seek only their particular interest, which for them does not coincide with their communal interest (in fact the general is the illusory form of communal life), the latter will be imposed on them as an interest "alien" to them, and "independent" of them as in its turn a particular, peculiar "general" interest; or they themselves must remain within this discord, as in democracy. On the other hand, too, the practical struggle of these particular interests, which constantly really run counter to the communal and illusory communal interests, makes practical intervention and control necessary through the illusory general interest in the form of the State.

And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

As I understand this, the abolition of private property can only follow as a natural result of the abolition of the division of labour which itself can only be the product of a long drawn-out process of transformation of the relations of production including the abolition of the state, subsequent to the conquest of power by the proletariat. Thus Marx is directing himself not at how Hegel has made a mistake, so to speak, in outlining the "logic" of private property, but rather the necessary transformation of the real relations between people upon which a different "logic" could grow up.

The Fall of Reason

I have used trade unions the illustrate the idea that a constitution is an "embodiment of Reason".

This illustration has the disadvantage that trade unions are today fairly limited social formations, many having become as amorphous in their social constitution as any other "electorate", and far from being the Universal for any of its members who move from industry to industry, trade to trade, and are more the products of society generally than of the life of their particular industry.

The illustration has the advantage however that all the members of a trade union share common social interests in much the same way that the whole of the ruling class (fundamentally) share a common fate. The state, especially in Hegel's day, was somewhat like the industrial trade union of the bourgeoisie. The "rabble" were not union members.

Beginning with the Chartist Movement, and then the Revolutions of 1848, the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the Paris Commune and the emergence of the social democratic movement in Europe, the working class came on to the scene of history as a social for itself. No longer was "the rabble" - an inorganic substance to be comprehended as a part of Nature, the voiceless matter which lay outside of culture and social consciousness. Now the State was confronted by a social force which could not be reconciled and incorporated. The conflicting interests of the various estates and corporations of Hegel's states were not fundamentally irreconcilable; Hegel saw the conflicts between these various components of civil society as being reconciled by a state constructed along the lines of the Science of Logic. The working class stood outside (or rather beneath) this. The contradiction between the bourgeois state and the organised working class was a contradiction upon which one or the other would be smashed. The experience of the Paris Commune in 1871, proved this.

[The emergence of the National Liberation movements in the post-World War II period, terminated the conception of the Imperialist States as exclusive carriers of World History. The birth of the Women's Movement in the 1960s and 70s did the same thing in respect of the Family, the Civil Rights movement for Blacks.]

In common with all his predecessors and contemporaries (c.f. Saint-Simon for example), Hegel "divided" society into classes according to what we would now call "industries", in which employer and employee are conflated together. This still has an existence in today's society, but it is an increasingly "unreal" existence. Capital may invest in administration, agriculture or manufacture and it makes just as little difference as it does for a worker who works one year in the public service, another in the countryside and then works in a factory, all for wages. Prior to 1848, there could be no conception of the labouring masses as a class for itself, any more than women could be seen in any better light than Hegel gives women. Consequently, the error Hegel makes is "understandable". But I think the very same conditions underlie the methodological problem of thinking in terms which give priority to "thought-forms" rather than "objectified labour".

Metaphysics and the Class Struggle

The emergence of working class self-consciousness made the dominance of metaphysical thinking impossible.

Now, what was the real development of the states of Western Europe after Hegel's death? Did "the Idea" show itself in the real history of Europe? No, it didn't. Universal adult suffrage and the election of parliaments via large geographical electorates, already developing in England and America, became the dominant State form and proved to be the most effective means of bourgeois rule, though obviously not the most effective means of democratic decision-making. However, it may be fair to say that it is precisely the irrational character of this form of government which guaranteed its ubiquity, for once the organised working class intervened in the processes of bourgeois government, through the agency of social democratic parties, the State becomes "unreal"; it is no longer the Universal but an abstraction. And the abstract general of the bourgeois electoral system is a most effective means of fixing representation as illusion.

In this respect then, Hegel's concrete universal should be rehabilitated, with the qualification that the concrete universal cannot reconcile opposites which are in fundamental, material opposition. That is, there can be no parliamentary solution to the class struggle. Hegel could not have conceived of this because there was no fundamental social contradiction which had a voice within the culture of the day. That came a bit after his death.

Sensation & Reason - Human Needs & Human Labour

The classical epistemology from Galileo to Kant wrestled with the relation between Reason and Sensation. [I have discussed this development in slightly more length in "Classical Epistemology".] The division of intellectual labour was not as developed in those days as it is today, so why would the greatest minds of the day worry themselves with these abstract categories? And why would their writings take on such far-reaching political significance. At the end of the whole development, Marx, drawing on Hegel, shows that human reason and senses are social products. The truth, therefore, of this classical epistemology is that they were wrestling with human needs and human labour, albeit in an "alienated" way. The human labour which produced these senses and reason, like Nature, was silent. Social relations appeared to be "natural".

Now, the same is true today. Metaphysical thinking did not come to an end once the working class came on to the scene, and it is still not only possible, but from time to time necessary to think about metaphysical entities like Reason, Sensation, Universal, Essence and so forth. And in fact it is impossible to conceptualise the problem facing humanity today without using these metaphysical concepts. However, the nature of such concepts is quite mysterious unless we understand them as abstractions from human needs and human labour.

"True criticism ... shows the internal genesis of the Blessed Trinity in the human mind. It describes the act of its birth. Thus, true philosophical criticism of the present state constitution not only shows the contradictions as existing, but clarifies them, grasps their essence and necessity. It comprehends their own proper significance. However, this comprehension does not, as Hegel thinks, consist in everywhere recognising the determinations of the logical concept, but rather in grasping the proper logic of the proper object." [Marx: Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right p92]


Hegel took metaphysical thinking as far as it could go before the working class came on to the scene of history. The whole method of thinking in terms of categories of quite mysterious origin must be abandoned if the problems of the human condition are to be resolved.

However, a step forward cannot be made without theoretical, conceptual thinking; otherwise we are simply the captive of the conceptual framework of the existing social conditions. The product of that whole development leading up to Hegel is an essential component of liberation. However, we must assimilate Hegel's work critically, knowing it to be an abstraction from the very relations needing to be overthrown.

Specifically, the following problems have been identified in Hegel's Logic, with the help of a study of his Philosophy of Right:

Nevertheless, there are enduring achievements in Hegel's logic, among which there is:

These reflections also draw attention to some problems of socialist theory which need work:

Andy Blunden
18th June 1999

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