C L R James on Hegel
Notes on Dialectics: PART II
The Hegelian Logic

The Doctrine of Essence


Here goes then, right into the heart of it, and take the worst first. Brace yourself:

Becoming in Essence – its reflective movement – is hence the movement from Nothing to Nothing and through Nothing back to itself. The transition or Becoming transcends itself in its transition: that Other which arises in the course of this transition is not the Not-being of a Being, but the Nothing of a Nothing – which constitutes Being – Being exists only as the movement of Nothing to Nothing, and thus is Essence; and Essence does not contain this movement in itself but is this movement, an absolute Show and pure negativity, which has nothing without it that could negate it, but negates only its own negativity, which is only in this negation.

It is as tough a passage as you can have. Yet we can break its back. Just try to remember. Hegel must write this way. If he said, as we do, the labour movement this and that, or atomic energy, or the theory of the state, he would at once limit himself. The reader would think of this as politics or whatever it was Hegel had chosen. The movement would be from politics to something else, then to something else, and so on ad infinitum. Besides it would, I feel sure, limit his freedom of analysis. He examines instead an infinite number of processes, studies the relation between stages, and extracts, abstracts the essential movement. Besides, as I read him, I get the impression that from the study of phenomena and the methods of other philosophers he had learnt to handle these abstractions by themselves, and as a man does in mathematics, push them further by their own movement. So they have to be accepted as valid.

We are to take this passage all ways, worry it like a dog. What is the central idea? The thing that I want you to notice is where he says Essence does not contain a movement, but is that movement.

Imagine a spirit, a genie Ariel, a disembodied being flitting around in the spiritual void. He does not know who he is or what he is. But he wants to find out and he has been told that inside his spiritual constellation are a number of elements which periodically explode into an object, stone, flower, horse, ape, man, etc. He gets a chance in these to see what he really is. But he will know whether this is the real thing or not. If after a while he feels that this is not the real thing he dissolves it and he steps back again into a pure spirit. His only way of knowing anything about himself is to become one of the things that is in him. The day he becomes something and knows, feels, that this is it, then he is something new at last. He has we may say a notion of his true self at last. But, except as something that has become something for a while, he himself is a pure spirit, abstract, waiting in those cold regions.

The essence is the fact that something continually becomes something else and negates it because it isn't what the thing that is becoming wants to be. This “being” that it becomes, we know from the Doctrine of Being has “become” out of Nothing. All immediate being comes out of Nothing and can go back to nothing. The difference with Essence is that it creates a lot of different beings; they go back to nothing, but essence keeps on trying, for poor Essence is the fact that he has to keep on trying. He is a kind of being that does not rest at becoming nothing but from his very nature must keep on trying and trying again. We can now go back to the passage and concentrate on certain things.

Now we can do a loose paraphrase. (As far as Essence is concerned, the process of becoming is being, that is to say it comes from nothing, stays as being for a while and goes back to nothing, but thereby gets back to itself, which is the imperative necessity to “become” once more.) Ordinary being is the movement of nothing to being-for-other and going on, or maybe, just becoming and disappearing, and that's that. But Essence tries again. So that the being in which Essence tries to find itself is pure Show; it does not become a quality, which becomes a quantity, which becomes a Measure, etc. No, sir. Pure Show. Absolute Negativity. Show No. 1. No good. Negated. Show No. 2. Not what I am looking for – out with it into limbo. Show No. 3. No good. Negate it. Negate them all. One day we'll get to it (and we'll see a lot of things which we could not see before). But for the time being Essence can truly say, “Me! I know what I am by now. I am just Negativity, becoming something and negating it. I am a movement, me. Yes, that's it. I am movement of negation. But that isn't all of me. One day I'll find out.” Essence of course does not know that there is a logic to his negativity. A philosopher, a Hegelian philosopher, who was watching him through an atomic microscope would say: first he was a stone, then he was a flower, then he was a horse, then he was an ape, then he was a man. The poor abstraction doesn't know it, but I think one day he will be an angel. That's what all this restlessness and negativity must mean. But that of course does not concern us here.

Now from there into the labour movement.

We know what the labour movement is. It was at one time the 1848 revolutions, including Chartism, 1839-48. It took the form of the First International. It took the form of the Second International at its highest peak. The unions were also organised. There are asses who would say: the Commune, for example, took place in one city, how can you say that was a form of the whole labour movement? Think of all the millions and millions who had no connection with the Commune. Fools. Since 1917 the labour movement in country after country has repeatedly tried to imitate the Commune. Europe and Asia seethe with would-be Communards. So it is obvious that the Commune (in a single city) showed the pattern of the future – to the millions and millions in the hundreds and thousands of cities who perhaps paid little attention to the Commune – which was a form of nothing in particular. The Commune represented them.

So these forms show the labour movement going somewhere. But the 1848 revolutions, they came and went, the Commune came and went. The First International came and went. The Second International remains, but is a relic. Look at it in France – the Third Force. It is a joke. In France the two forces are De Gaulle and the Third International. Who chooses to bother himself about the Second International and Catholic workers is in the same position as those who did not understand that it was the Commune and not the apparently inert millions that was decisive for the future of Europe. Marx pounced on it.

But, as I say, these forms disappear. But the proletarian movement continues. They have an external being, and these vanish, the new external forms appear. We can always, if we are Marxists, see the form and what for the moment we will call the Essence. But the Essence is not one thing that changes. No, the form was the First International; the essence was the labour, the proletarian, the revolutionary movement of 1871, which was different from that of 1848. And we have established that the revolutionary movement today, the workers that follow Stalinism, are not the same workers who followed Menshevism. They are further advanced qualitatively, further advanced along the road of their ultimate goal.

The Commune, therefore, the First International, the 1905 struggles were just Being, they were Nothing. They did not exist, they existed, they did not exist any more. They were from nothing and went back to nothing. But their experience, what they represented was stored up. It was not lost. Essence is a movement but a movement of stored up Being. The workers under Stalinism have the experience of Leninism. “Essence we may certainly regard as past Being, remembering however meanwhile that the past is not utterly denied, but only laid aside and thus at the same time preserved.”

The reactionary Third International has, stored up in it, the past being of Leninism which is gone – it exists no longer. Philosophers, Marxists, have to trace this.

The thing that continues to move, however, is the labour movement, the revolutionary movement itself. It stored up the experience of the follies and weaknesses of Proudhonism and Bakuninism. It learnt the value of organisation. It stored up the experience of parliamentarianism, national defence, etc. It became richer and richer. (It organised the ideas too, but always as a result of the objective movement, changing, developing capitalism.)

At a given moment, this proletarian movement looks like the First International or the Commune or 1917-20. And if you stop, look at it, and be precise about it, as you have to do (remember you cannot think unless you have fixed and precise determinations), then you see that the essential movement is reflected in the form. The First International reflected it, 1915 reflected it, etc. The reflections disappear. What they reflected is stored up and becomes part of the new proletariat. This process, the disappearance of the reflection, and the new proletariat with its experience of the reflection stored up in it, starting off again, this process is Essence. The essence of a thing is the fact that it must move, reflect itself, negate the reflection, which was nothing, become being, and then become nothing again, while the thing itself must move on because it is its nature to do so. That it must move, the consistent direction in which it moves, its necessity to negate its reflections, store them up, and go on to some ultimate goal, this is its Essence. The essence of the proletariat is its movement to incorporate in itself experience of the evils of capitalism until it overcomes capitalism itself. The essence of the proletariat is not that it is revolutionary and tries a lot of different parties and rejects them because they fail. It is not “an existent substratum”. It negates not only its reflection, it does more than that, it further negates its own experiences and stores them up, so it is always further than it was before in its own special purpose. Nor does it negate in general. (The quote will show.) Its negation is a specific negation of its own contradictions, inherent in capitalism and therefore inherent in it as inseparable from and in fact unthinkable except as an opposite to capitalism. And now, sentence by sentence.

Becoming in Essence – its reflective moment – is hence the movement from Nothing to Nothing and through Nothing back to itself.

Obvious. Commune, First International, Leninism, all, as existing entities, all pure being. The proletariat had a being, a certain feeling, ideas, impulses, desires, will. It gained these in its experience, objective experience with capitalism, with its past stored-up being. This was abstract being, abstract proletarian being. But abstract being is Nothing. The Nature of being is to become determinate. Just as thought organises impulses, desire, will, etc., the proletarian party organises itself, becomes determinate in Lenin, Bukharin, Trotsky, Rakovsky, the Bolshevik Party, the Third International, determinate being.

Leninism, therefore, the Third International, is a crystallisation of abstract being, which is Nothing. Leninism negates this nothing by becoming something. Then it is superseded by Stalinism. But the fact that this takes place is the essence of the proletariat. Its desires, will, impulses, needs (basically implanted in it by its position vis-a-vis capitalism) are always first abstract being, i.e., nothing, then take determinate form, then these vanish back into nothing, but their essence is stored up. The proletariat, in essence, has an Other, its reflection, but this just comes and goes.

The transition or Becoming transcends itself in its transition: that Other which arises in the course of this transition is not the Not being of a Being, but the Nothing of a Nothing; and it is this – the fact that it is the negation of a Nothing – which constitutes being.

This is an exercise in the development of the ideas of the Doctrine of Being. This passage contains the key. Read it slowly and get it:

Being exists only as the movement of Nothing to Nothing, and thus is Essence- and Essence does not contain this movement in itself but is this movement, an absolute Show and pure negativity, which has nothing without it that could negate it, but negates only its own negativity, which is only in this negation.

So that looking back we can see that we had one kind of being in quality, immediate being, which went its own way. Now we have another kind of being, Essence, which has its way, constant negativity of the Show, in which it must find itself. The rest of Essence is to trace the dialectical development of this Show, and the movement that constantly negates it. (I do not guarantee these interpretations. The point is once they are down we begin to Bet somewhere. I am not afraid of mistakes.)

So now we have Essence. It is a form of Reflection. As Hegel describes it in the smaller Logic:

This word “reflection” is originally applied when a ray of light in a straight line impinging upon the surface of a mirror is thrown back from it. In this phenomenon we have two things, first an immediate fact which is, and secondly the deputed, derivated, or transmitted phase of the same. Something of this sort takes place when we reflect, or think upon an object; for here we want to know the object, not in its immediacy, but as derivative or mediated.

Mediated. A lovely word. Hug it to your bosom. I say, we say that people's consciousness is one thing, immediacy, an entity that we can say has “quality”. But as Marxists we know that consciousness is in essence the reflection of economic and political, i.e. social environment. The social background, therefore, is mediated through consciousness. In the doctrine of Being, quality was, if you like, mediated into quantity. In the Doctrine of Essence quality is, or rather would be a Show of something which is reflecting itself through quality. Hegel goes on:

The problem or aim of philosophy is often represented as the ascertainment of the essence of things: a phrase which only means that things instead of being left in their immediacy, must be shown to be mediated by, or based upon, something else. The immediate Being of things is thus conceived under the image of a rind or curtain behind which the Essence lies hidden.

The maestro is taking it easy. “Everything, it is said, has an Essence; that is, things really are not what they immediately show themselves. There is something more to be done than merely rove from one quality to another, and merely to advance from qualitative to quantitative and vice versa: there is a permanent in things and that permanent is in the first instance their Essence.

That is simple enough. Why didn't I begin with it? No. Because that simple phrase “in the first instance” covers a lot and it would have given us a lot of trouble. You would have believed you understood something which you did not. The essence of consciousness is social environment. But you get there an impression that is static. It is only because consciousness is a kind of show, which must reflect environment, and environment must go on expressing itself, forever seeking, can we call it Essence. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. If you do not see that clearly, you get the conception of trying this, trying that, trying the other. You soon say: it never seems to learn, because “it” is static. Then your essence becomes a thing. But when you see Essence as the movement, and the movement which stores up the superseded being, but yet is impelled to go on, then you have Essence in truth and in fact.

Now to know that Essence is a movement which reflects into a Show (which is dismissed) and then goes off again, to know this is only to know Essence in general. This is the beginning of Essence. Essence, a movement, moves on dialectically. The reflection and the thing reflected have their own life; they develop into different things and we trace them, and see how at each stage they change into something else. Hegel calls their most important form the Reflections of Determinations. Remember that for a long time they are creations of thought. For example, when you look at consciousness, you do not see it divided into consciousness and existence, to use Marx's word. Consciousness is consciousness. Thought, however, makes this separation, these determinations of the object, into its component parts.

We see Leninism as a determination which reflects a certain stage of development of the perpetual movement. But Leninism is a thought-determination. There is the proletariat, in capitalist society, at a certain stage of development. To isolate what we call Leninism is a determination of thought. To isolate it as a fact and give it an independent life of its own, ah! Jesus, that is something that brings a terrible retribution. Listen to Hegel even before he begins to develop the Determinations of Reflection, telling us how certain people get stuck:

. . . the reflected determinations are of a kind different from the merely immediate determinations of Being. Of the latter it is easily admitted that they are transitory and merely relative, related to something other, while the reflected determinations have the form of Being-in-and-for-Self. They accordingly assert themselves as essential, and instead of passing over into their opposites, they appear rather as absolute, free, and indifferent to one another. They therefore stubbornly resist their movement: their Being is their selfidentity in their determinateness, according to which, while presupposing one another, they yet preserve themselves as absolutely separate in this relation.

Leninism is Leninism and Stalinism is Stalinism; the Fourth International is the Fourth International. This is giving them the form of Being-in-and-for-Self. The above extract poses the problem. There is no need to take everything sentence by sentence. A looser interpretation is here indicated. (And Hegel will sing this song for nearly five hundred pages .) If you look at the “immediate” determinations of being, you see Leninism, and you say: it will pass; things come and go. l remember the French consul in an island where I stayed who told me that the French politician Briand was a socialist in his youth, but there always arise people more to the left than you, which pushes you to the right. That idea appears to have movement, but it takes Briand and those “more left” than he as “immediates”- The reflection is external.

And Hegel (in the complete extract – I have left out some of the paragraph) says it is easy for serious thinkers to throw these external determinations aside. But when you think seriously, see the apparent being as merely reflections of essence, then these determinations become themselves essential. The Commune, the Second International, Leninism, Stalinism, etc., become “free”. They become independent of life. They live on after they are dead, and what does live on is dead – for Understanding. You see, you know you are a superior thinker. These determinations you have traced to their roots. They “presuppose” one another “of course”. Leninism is “in a way” connected with Menshevism, and Stalinism comes from Leninism. They are in inseparable connection with developing capitalism and the developing proletariat. “Of course, of course”, but yet they are kept “separate”. The individual thinker, having worked hard, overcome vulgar common sense, and established these, holds tight on to them. His creative energy is exhausted. Or his energy for organisation of concrete things is such that he throws himself into organisation within these categories. He would ordinarily do little harm. But when these marvellous, new categories were established, they came from the impulses, will, desire, etc., of people. And there are always some people who, for objective reasons, wish to stay right there. They catch hold of this individual and make him a hero. The Logic of Understanding has a base.

But there are some even more pathetic cases, and as I think of this, I am moved to tears. There is the powerful intellect and spirit which moves in categories that, once powerful in their day, now have no objective base. What wasted effort! What vain sacrifices! Hegel knew. All the time he keeps saying: “That is the enemy, thinking in the categories which were precise, but acquire independent life and do not move.” He is going to tell us about opposites and transition. That is the main content of Essence. But before he begins he says that this Understanding type of thought can strangle us before we can get started.

Identity, Difference and Contradiction, especially Contradiction

We now approach the core of Hegel's system, in the three noted above. It must not, however, be forgotten that the larger Logic is nine hundred pages in all. Take for example the question of Ground which follows these three. Ground, says Hegel, is the real self-mediation of Essence. OK. And then he is off. Absolute Ground which is further determined into Determined Ground, which he further analyses into Formal Ground and Real Ground, which finally ends up as Complete Ground. But the sub-divisions of Absolute Ground alone are (a) Form and Essence, (b) Form and Matter, (c) Form and Content. It is thirty-four pages in all. What the hell can we do with that? And yet it contains such crucial things as Form and Content, Existence, Appearance, Substance, and so on and on. You will read it for yourselves. My selections are arbitrary. We take bits. But in reality there are no arbitrary selections. My purpose, my knowledge of the Logic, my knowledge of the labour movement, my knowledge of my probable readers, are all at work deciding which bits I shall take. If my knowledge is not too superficial and my purpose not too narrow, a real insight into the Logic will be given and a real insight into the labour movement too. But we must know the limits of what we are doing. We are getting an idea of the thing, that's all. However, when it comes to Identity and Difference and Contradiction, I think we should make some attempt to follow his abstract method, as we did to some degree in the Doctrine of Being. They are, as I say, the core.

The treatment of Identity in the smaller Logic is one of the most baffling and most irritating things in Hegel. I suspect that a thorough knowledge of the old-fashioned logic would help. In any case Hegel seems to be saying something like this: “You see that tablecloth? It is more than a tablecloth; a thorough knowledge now of a tablecloth is absolutely necessary to understand logic; let us now go on to the next section.”

My explanation, as many of my explanations, undoubtedly will commit violations. But you will probably learn something from it. I have read numbers of brief explanations of Hegel and the Logic in particular, which explained nothing. That is why I am using my own method. As the translators of the larger Logic say quite frankly: “We have no doubt that we have failed to understand the thought in many places. “ I too know how easy it is to misinterpret. But that need not deter us. Now –

I look at something and in my view I get a picture of it (how I could tear that formulation to pieces!) – book, stone, horse, house, labour movement, scientific theory, dish of ice-cream. I define it to myself: I establish its identity. I can be quite precise. I say: that house, I designed it. I built it. I live in it. I know all about it. I can describe it, maybe make an inventory. That house is that house. What I write on the paper, the plans, the photographs, the memories, etc., all correspond to that house. But the conception – that house, which I think I have established so clearly, eludes me even as I establish it. The house is changing. (I am changing too, but forget that, or rather put it aside for the moment.) In two years that house will be another house: paint gone, holes in the roof, furniture waterlogged, grass growing in the patio. Instead of that house being in Class A that house has degenerated into Class C. It happened in two years, but it was in reality happening all the time. The whole existence of the house is a struggle against precisely such a degeneration. Now Hegel says, and this is the first (broad) statement of his particular Hegelian method, he says: I who know this, when I look at the house, l must say – this house is, but at the same time it is not, or to be more precise, it is and it is not what it is, it is also something else. You find it in the books as A is not equal to A. That formula is the most misleading formula that could be. Any fool can agree with it, and any fool can disagree. Simply because by itself it proves nothing. You have to take the whole of the Hegelian argument or you had better leave it alone.

For Hegel, having established the uncertain character of Identity, moves on at once to Difference. And here he is equally bold but a little easier to follow. He says that if identity implies difference, then equally difference implies identity. I do not compare a camel to a French dictionary. Those are merely things which are unlike; there is no “difference” between them. Sure they are “different”, but that is a vulgar difference, as vulgar in its way as the identity that house is house. I can seriously compare the differences of two books, two novels, two novels of the same period, two novels of the same author. Difference, difference worth talking about, can only exist on the basis of some identity. And identity conversely can only exist on the basis of difference, this house is and is not that house. And this house today is not this house tomorrow or in two years' time.

In fact Hegel says at the moment you think, whether you know it or not, you negate the existent. “This house is worth $5,000” means it was worth more and that tomorrow it will be worth only $4000, or if the inflation goes on, $10,000, Negroes and all. If I am saying that this house is worth $5,000, was always worth $5,000 and will always be worth $5,000, for ever and ever, 1 am saying nothing, at least I am not seriously thinking. Thought has significance only when the house has relation to other houses which do not possess this priceless attribute of constantly maintaining the price.

Identity means difference. Difference means identity. And now with a leap we can get into it. Hegel says that this principle becomes important, in fact decisive, when you watch, make a philosophical cognition, about a single object. Within the identity of an object, you have to establish the specific difference, and within its specific difference, you have to establish the identity. If you have established the specific difference, the difference which belongs to the object, which distinguishes it from all other objects and their differences, then you have the Other of the object. The other is the difference that matters, the essential difference. But as it is special (essential) difference to no other object, then Other is therefore identical with its object. To find that out is to find out what makes the object move. l look at bourgeois society and I see capital, but labour is its other. In capital is essential difference, but both capital and labour are one identity.

I think myself that all this is thrilling. Let us now take this principle a little further, letting Hegel himself do most of the talking, if even I do not always use quotes. He says that this question of essential difference within every identity is the indispensable necessity for philosophic cognition. Later he will tell us when you say father, you have in mind son. Son is interpenetrated with father. Father has no meaning except in relation to son. Above has no meaning except in relation to below. If I did not mean father in relation to son I would not say father, I would say: man or baseball-player or something, but then I am looking at another object or objects. So that simple, abstract identity is a fiction, a deadly trap for thinkers.

It is of the greatest importance to recognise this quality of the Determinations of Reflection which have been considered here, that their truth consists only in their relation to each other, and therefore in the fact that each contains the other in its own concept. This must be understood and remembered, for without this understanding not a step can really be taken in philosophy.

That is how house is not merely house. House is essentially a protection against Nature. So that identical with house is its Other, destruction by Nature. House can be a fort containing soldiers. So identical with house in that connection is its destruction by artillery, etc. House can be also a source of income. So that identical with it is decline in rent. Everything has its own specific complex of relations, and the something has different complexes of relations which continue to give it a specific Other, in other words, control its movement. That is a very important aspect of dialectic. And as Hegel loves to say, dialectic is not practised only by philosophers. The real-estate merchant, the architect, all these people know the particular Other of their house very well. It is always in their concept. True the dialectic of the house is as a rule on a very low level, except in case of Florida hurricanes, fire, or runaway inflation. But that Hegel knows too. And he knows too that where you examine great social and intellectual forms in society, then you have got to remember that every object contains its Other in its own concept and every determination of thought has its other in its concept too. Labour always has capital in its concept. That is why labour in 1864 had the capital of 1864 in its concept, labour in 1948 has the capital of 1948 in its concept. Menshevism had Leninism in its concept, and Leninism had Stalinism in its concept. How Stalinism? Because as long as the new organism, socialism, had not been achieved, the revolutionary determination, Leninism, would be attacked by the reflection within it of the fundamental enemy of the proletariat, capital, and state capital within the labour movement is precisely Stalinism, as Menshevism was monopoly capital (in its stage of super-profits from imperialism) within the labour movement. You don't know this? You cannot move a foot. It is worse. You can move but in the wrong direction.

Their truth consists only in their relation to each other. Each contains the other in its own concept. Know this. Read it in the two Logics. Reflect on it. For if you don't, you cannot think. Their truth consists only in their relation to each other. The truth of the labour movement consists only in its relation to capital. How we have sweated to show that the truth of the First International can only be grasped in relation to the specific capital of the day, that the Second International had a similar relation, that the truth of the Third International, in relation to the Fourth International, must be the same. Understand it and remember it. Remember it. Remember that Menshevism as a political tendency in the labour movement had its precise opposite, Leninism. That is the history of the Second International, of the Second International and no other. When Menshevism reached its peak it perished and Leninism took its place. That is the way it went, and it could move no other way. The Labour movement could move from the revolutionary ideas of 1889 to 1917 only by way of an opposition, a transition through the growth of Menshevism, and by overcoming it. (We know but we have to repeat that these represented objective forces. But for the time being, let us concentrate on the process of thought.) I don't know if you have it. A determination of reflection is identity and difference. And the difference, the Other, emerges, becomes strong, and the Identity has to overcome it, for identity is the beginning of Essence, the movement forward.

The history of the Third International is the history of the supersession of Leninism by Stalinism. Hold the movement tight. You see what was show is now more than show. It is Other which forms the heartbreaking mountain that Identity has to create and climb before it can reach the height to re-establish itself as Identity once more on a higher plane. Thus the reflections of determination must be viewed. Do not give them a free, independent life of their own. They will murder you. Look into them. See their Other, and see if when something serious appears it is not Other which is coming out. Then you know it, you can trace it, you know why it is there, and you can mobilise forces to overcome it. But if you do not see it as Difference in identity, cruel, murderous, but (given the objective forces) necessary transition, then you rush off into fantastic explanations such as “tools of the Kremlin” or the incapacity of the workers to understand politics and such like. Once more. That which ultimately becomes the obstacle over which you must climb is an Other which was inside it, identical with it and yet essential difference.

If the Fourth International is to supersede Stalinism then it must “contain” Stalinism in its concept of itself. It begins from all the things that Stalinism took over from Leninism and kept (objective forces bring out Other – different objective forces would bring out a different Other). The moment you think, or allow it to lurk in your mind that the workers are backward or deceived, you repudiate two or three decades of history and your concept contains as its opposite, Menshevism. You then fight a ghost. The British workers, the American workers are not Menshevik, neither are the workers in Norway and Sweden. A poll taken a few months ago in all the European countries showed that over sixty per cent of the populations were ready to abolish customs duties, integrate economies, etc. What was vanguardism in Lenin's day is now an essential part of the whole populations. The Other of Menshevism was Leninism. The Other of Stalinism is an international socialist economic order, embracing from the start whole continents. Their truth consists only in relation to each other. Each contains the other in its own concept. It goes forward by overcoming this specific opposite. We have not laboured in vain. We have now (I hope) grasped without knowing what Hegel means by his great principle of contradiction.


The most important pages in the Doctrine of Essence I have found to be Observation 3 of the larger Logic. I think when we have finished with this the hump will be behind us, though much will remain to be done.

Hegel in his tantalising way begins by talking calmly about Identity, Variety and Opposition, which he calls the primary determinations of Reflection. I preferred to talk about Identity Difference and Contradiction. Go look them up yourself if you want to. Then he says that contradiction is the root of all movement and life and only through it anything moves and has impulse and activity. Everybody, every Marxist, knows those statements.

Then Hegel does something very characteristic. He says that in regard to the assertion of some people that contradiction does not exist, “we may disregard this statement”. Just leave it. First of all he is, blessed man, not a politician. In politics you cannot disregard opponents. Secondly he cannot begin by proving such a statement. To ask him to do this is, he considers, unscientific. The proof is all that he will say and the conclusions that he will reach. If you don't like it go your way. Then after a lot of the same panegyric to contradiction, he ends:

Speculative thought consists only in this, that thought holds fast Contradiction, and, in Contradiction, itself, and not in that it allows itself to be dominated by it – as happens to imagination – or suffers its determinations to be resolved into other, or into Nothing .

You have not got “quite simple insight” into what this means, I am quite sure when you do you understand dialectic. Until you have that simple insight you do not understand it. To get that simple insight is going to be a job. Let us get down to it.

You remember that each contains the other in its own concept. I talked about organisation and spontaneity, party and mass, politics and economics. To say that each of these concepts must contain the other is to make a profound but general statement. Much work has been done in Bolshevism to show that politics contains economics in its concept. No work, absolutely none, has been done on the others, except for some marvellous beginnings by Lenin. (The subjects of organisation and spontaneity, party and mass, were not urgent in Marx's day.)

As I said: to say that the truth of party consists in its relation with mass, the truth of organisation consists in its relation to spontaneity, is to say an abstract truth, but still important truth, a beginning. The one concept has life and movement because of the opposition of the other. It moves because of the other, because the other moves. It cannot move otherwise. And thought must know this and hold it. Look at Hegel's actual procedure in the Logic.

We begin with Identity. That became difference. He has now carried it to contradiction. Each is carried to its limit and so becomes a point of transition for its opposite. That is how quality becomes quantity. That is how quantity became measure.

That, then, is what Hegel is getting at by his treatment of identity, Difference, Contradiction, Variety, Opposition and his statement that contradiction is the source of all movement. When you observe what is an apparent identity, know that within it the contradictions exist, the essential differences. How will you know? In that annoying section in the smaller Logic dealing with Identity he uses a superb phrase, “Identity is the ideality of Being”. The difference is first in your head, the Idea. (I asked you, remember, not to forget this, but to put it aside.) What happens in your head when you look at something can never be a simple reflection, an ordinary identity with it. You know where it is going, what it is aiming at. It has its being, the being is concrete, but its essence is that, because of its Other, it will move in a certain direction and your Idea tells you how to search for the Contradiction. Without that you cannot think. Look at what passes in the Marxist movement today as analysis of organisation.

Trotsky, we repeat, having failed for years to understand Lenin on “organisation”, in 1917 was converted; and this is what is true, forthwith converted it into a fetish, i.e. a persistent Understanding. For that is what fetishism is. (The Stalinists did the same.) Lenin's “principles of organisation” are today on all lips. They have become a complete abstraction, Understanding. That you can think of organisation only in relation to its opposite, spontaneity, this nobody, not a single soul, ever says a word about. I shall take this up concretely before long, but for the time being let us listen to Hegel and understand him.

He tells us first the way Imagination thinks and by Imagination (we had it a few minutes ago) Hegel means the kind of thought that deals only with what is familiar. Note what he calls it – Imagination. At first sight it seems incongruous. But I think he wants to contrast it with scientific method, analysis. In any case:

Thus although imagination everywhere has Contradiction for content, it never becomes aware of it, it remains an external reflection, which passes from Likeness to Unlikeness . . . It keeps these two determinations external to each other, and has in mind only these, not their transition, which is the essential matter and contains the Contradiction.

Note their transition. That is the essential matter. The transition shows the contradiction. Remember the growth of Bernsteinism within the revolutionary Second International in contradiction to the whole essential aim and purpose of the organisation; and after this growth the break of 1914-21, the point of the transition, when the revolutionary proletariat overcomes this and reasserts its essential purpose on a higher plane.

You nod your head and say: yes, yes, OK. I have it, I have it. Baloney. You will be a little more chastened, you will be much more chastened later, but you will be a little chastened now when you reflect that Lenin never saw this, until after, and Trotsky it can truly be said never saw it – up to 1923 at least he was singing the same old tune. So a little modesty please while we go on.

Imagination, in so far as it is revolutionary, sees Stalinism here, and “democratic socialism” over there; and never sees them, their identity or their unity as opposites. It does not see that the labour movement, being what it is in essence, the bureaucratic, criminal, organisational domination of Stalinism, will form inevitably the point of transition for another stage higher. It sees the degrading organisation and in despair (or hope) scans the horizon looking for salvation. The Hegelian dialectic keeps its eyes glued on the Stalinist organisation for it knows that the Other of it is there. Now see Hegel's chief enemy Understanding make its bow:

On the other hand intelligent reflection, if we may mention this here, consists in the understanding and enunciating of Contradiction. It does not express the concept of things and their relations and has only determinations of imagination for material and content; but still it relates them, and the relation contains their contradiction, allowing their concept to show through the contradiction.

Understanding is the same as intelligent reflection. Understanding cannot, does not express the concept of things and their relations. Its determinations are what is familiar to it, not what is familiar in general but what is familiar to it, what once it worked out. It operates with bureaucracies which are unalterably tied to private property, and reformist internationals which always in crisis defend private property and the national state, things familiar to it. But Understanding relates these determinations – it thinks, it has perspectives. It says, “this is what it is, and this is what it ought to be.” You are able to glimpse the genuine concept. It shows through the contradiction. It is possible to have a more just, a more precise appraisal of the nature of Trotsky's writings? And now to see what they are, by seeing still more clearly what they are not. Let us see how the true Dialectic, Thinking Reason, handles these things. This is a clause by clause section. I hope you get it the first time. We worked hard enough.

Thinking Reason, on the other hand, sharpens (so to speak) the blunt difference of Variety, the mere manifold of imagination, into essential difference, that is, Opposition.

Magnificent. MAG-nificent. Imagination sees a lot of various things, and sees them as Like and Unlike, a manifold variety. Reflection, Understanding, relates them and shows how they contradict each other. See how Stalinism contradicts a true revolutionary organisation. But Reason, Reason, catches hold of the variety and seeks out the Opposition, the Contradiction, and drives them together, ties them together, makes one the Other of the other. Then things happen.

The manifold entities acquire activity and liveliness in relation to one another only when driven on the sharp point of Contradiction.

That is it. When they are both jammed together, locked together, each in the other, that is the guarantee of their movement. When you concentrate all attention on the contradiction between Stalinist bureaucratism and the necessity of the proletariat for free creative activity, then all the phenomena begin to move. They do this only when the contradiction is at its sharpest. Hegel means that we can see the movement, only when we have clarified the contradiction – “thence they draw negativity” .

Quite so. The negativity of the free creative activity of the proletariat can only come completely into play when it is in contradiction with a concrete obstacle, something which, to release its own nature, it must overcome. It is the unbearable nature of the contradiction that creates negativity, “which is the inherent pulsation of self-movement and liveliness”.

Thus it is not a blemish, a fault, a deficiency in a thing if a Contradiction is to be found in it. That is its life.

On the contrary, every determination, every concrete, every concept is essentially a union of distinguished and distinguishable moments, which pass over through determinate and essential difference into contradictory moments.

I wonder if you have got the extreme, the unparalleled boldness of that statement. I can well imagine so many of the people we know saying, “Hegel, there is something in what you say. But as usual you exaggerate.” Every determination. Every concrete. Every concept. That is his way of saying everything has these moments, these oppositions; one of them is the opposite of what is the real, the essential nature of the organism. By its struggle against this the organism finds more of its real, its genuine nature. Writers on American political economy, writers on American history, students of Greek drama, writers on the development of unions, all of you, get this into your bones. It is not simple. Strive to see it, to see it “simply”, as Hegel said in the Introduction. If there is no sharp contradiction, then there is no movement to speak of and there is stagnation, a compromise. That is the only reason why there is compromise and stagnation – because the contradiction is not sharp enough.

The paragraph isn't concluded yet, but I propose to stay here for a while. First of all, listen to Hegel again, in the smaller Logic. Just as he approaches the climax of his work, his exposition of the Absolute Idea.

In the course of its process the Idea creates that illusion, by setting an antithesis to confront it; and its action consists in getting rid of the illusion which it has created. Only out of this error does the truth arise. In this fact lies the reconciliation with error and with finitude. Error or other-being, when superseded, is still a necessary dynamic element of truth: for truth can only be where it makes itself its own result.

If you had to write this, you would know the bowed admiration with which I read phrases like “necessary dynamic element of truth” to describe error; and the majesty, the completeness of the phrase “truth can only be where it makes itself its own result”. The proletariat itself will smash Stalinism to pieces. This experience will teach it its final lesson, that the future lies in itself, and not in anything which claims to represent it or direct it.

This is the thing that people glibly write as thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Who ever understood that? Maybe a lot of other people understood it well and I was just dumb. But it took me a long, long time to see it, to get it in my bones, to get “simple insight” into it everywhere, in everything. What am I saying? The thing constantly evades me, but I chase it. A few things of great importance can be said at once, one general, and one particular.

By this doctrine, Hegel gets rid of that tendency to ignore reality or to be overwhelmed by it, which is always lurking around to hold our movement by the throat. He had the utmost contempt for people who tried to brush away the harsh, the cruel, the bitter concrete, the apparently unadulterated evil. This is the way, and the only way that truth and the good come. Thus he could say that the real was rational. However evil reality might be, it had its place, its function in the scheme of development.

The great idealist, the man of World-Spirit, etc., did not depend on World-Spirit concretely to teach people anything. Therefore he was the last man to expect people to be inspired, to see the light, to “recognise” that “we” were right all the time, or worst of all to be “educated” by a few gifted people. In fact he believed that Spirit, conscious knowledge, was only the province of a few philosophers. As far as great masses or classes of people learnt anything, they learnt it concretely in struggle against some concrete thing. Hegel's doctrine was reactionary but that isn't what concerns us here. What does concern us is this. He would have laughed to scorn the idea that any party would teach the masses free creative activity. He would have said instead: they will find themselves inevitably up against such a system of oppression, bureaucracy, manipulation and corruption within their own arena, their own existence, that they will have to overcome it to live, and free creative activity can only come into existence when it is faced with something that only free activity and free activity alone can overcome. That is the point of transition to a higher stage of existence. There is no other. The Stalinist bureaucracies thus become a stage of development. Free creative activity becomes immeasurably more concrete in our heads. Our notion of socialism changes and we see the harsh reality differently.

And finally, note that the Logic itself moves by just this method of opposition, transition, timeliness. His analysis of identity, variety, opposition, ground, actuality, etc., particularly in the Doctrine of Essence, always represents, as he tells us, pairs of correlatives. One of them becomes overwhelming, it threatens to disrupt the whole process, the other overcomes it, and we find ourselves further on. That is how identity splits into difference; difference appears just as variety, but variety, variety, variety all over the place makes no sense; the manifold variety either disintegrates into craziness (and this happens; it means only that the object as such comes to an end) or this manifold variety crystallises into opposition. And so on. I think we got some place. Back now to the rest of the page. I attach great methodological importance to this page. Among other reasons I have it on my conscience for the way I am jumping from place to place and the still bigger jumps I am going to make. (Hegel would not be too angry. He would say: This impertinence of James, this undoubted evil is a necessary point of transition to some people so that they will read the whole book.) The thirty pages of Ground which I shall probably skip are on my conscience. But this page happens to say a great deal which will cover Ground (I hope). So here goes. I think I shall write freely and then quote lengthily.

Every concept there has these opposing movements. One becomes objectionable, evil, and this forms the bridge, the transition, for the real nature of the concept, to show itself. But when this overcoming does take place, what happens? The new thing is a resolved contradiction. It is, isn't it? Bernsteinism has been overcome. That contradiction is resolved. But inasmuch as the complete nature of the organism has not been revealed, i.e. socialism has not been achieved as yet, Leninism contains a new contradiction. Now this thing (forgive me, philosophical friends – for Christ's sake, I need no forgiveness, I have just seen that Hegel himself calls it “thing”) . . . now this thing that is always producing contradictions, resolving them, and then finding new contradictions, this is the subject or the concept. It is not yet the complete, the concrete Absolute, i.e. the proletariat, self-conscious, self-acting, beginning the real history of humanity. The Russian workers were not that in 1917. It is therefore finite, as yet limited. Therefore contradictory. It still has negation before it. The finite, limited multiplicity, the manifold of which it consists, has a certain identity, a unity. But it constitutes a variety, and this variety can be seen to form itself into an opposition; we have a contradiction. But at any rate it is unified once more ready for the business of further splitting up and further negation. (You remember the last extract from the Phenomenology?) These stages of unification of resolved contradiction when Essence prepares for negation show us what is the real nature of the thing – its Ground. The fact that it keeps on finding higher and richer Grounds, that is its Essence. Whenever it sets up a good strong concrete stage of resolved contradiction we can see what is its Ground.

On the contrary, every determination, every concrete, every concept is essentially a union of distinguished and distinguishable moments, which pass over through determinate and essential difference into contradictory moments.

It is true that this contradictory concretion resolves itself into nothing – it passes back into its negative unity. Now the thing, the subject, or the concept is itself just this negative unity: it is contradictory in itself, but also it is resolved Contradiction; it is the Ground which contains and supports its determinations. The thing, subject, or concept, as intro-refracted in its sphere, is its resolved Contradiction; but its whole sphere again is determinate and various; it is therefore finite, and this means contradictory. Itself it is not the resolution of this higher Contradiction; but it has a higher sphere for its negative unity or Ground. Accordingly, finite things in the indifferent multiplicity are simply this fact, that, contradictory in themselves, they are intro-refracted and pass back into their Ground.

Here comes now a superb piece of analysis, the maestro at his best. I shall again refrain from clause-by-clause analysis, difficult as it is. I shall interpret freely and you will have the passage. Matthew Arnold in a famous piece of criticism says that you should know certain passages in poetry by heart and let them act as a test and touchstone of other poetry. The method has its dangers, but on the whole it is good. With the Logic it is even more so. You must have some passages that you will read and re-read. They are more than a test. They are a handrail. With the more intricate passages, being busy with other things, I forget what I know. I patiently have to re-educate myself. These long quotations, in a context, with examples of familiar material serve this purpose too. You begin to understand and to use the Logic when you read these and begin to dig with them into material of your own.

Ground: the Proof of the Absolute

We have been (continues Hegel) inferring the necessity of an essential, continuous, infinite movement from watching and analysing a fixed, limited series of determinations. We shall have to examine this procedure later. But we must remember that we do not make this inference because the being, the determination, persists, becomes a Ground, breaks up, becomes another Ground, being much the same all the time. Not at all. It is because the limited, finite, determination constantly collapses and transcends itself that we can infer continuous motion.

Let us stop here a minute. It is not one International that tries a certain form, and when this fails, tries another form, and when this fails, tries another form (not the same people of course, but the same organisation). No. We could not draw any conclusions from that. The First International is one entity. It collapses. A new one is formed, and this shows us the Ground of these formations. It has the same aim and purpose as the first, though now enriched, developed, concretised. That collapses. A new one is formed. Thus whatever form it may accidentally take (contingency) we can see that it posits something fundamental to it, i.e. shows that this something will appear in the course of negation of the finite.

In ordinary thinking the Form, the constantly appearing Internationals, seem to be the Ground of our idea of a fully developed, concrete, international socialism some day. The Absolute Idea exists because the finite concretions keep appearing. No, says Hegel (and he is right as I shall demonstrate in a moment). The Absolute conception exists precisely because the finite Internationals are always collapsing. The first commonsense thinking says: the continued appearance of Internationals shows that there is an Absolute. The Hegelian dialectic says: the fact that all these Internationals lack so much, struggle and collapse, this is the proof of the existence of an absolute. We do not add the different ones and come to a conclusion. No. As we watch them striving, failing but always incorporating, we recognise that they are expressing a movement to something prior to their contingent appearance.

I have a suspicion that I have vulgarised this somewhat: you will read for yourself. Hegel is dealing here with a strictly philosophical problem and what I have written is horatory. I don't mind really because he is going to come back to this and by the time he is finished with it, all our opponents will shrink from argument. I feel confident that the truth of the philosophical problem posed is contained in my vulgarisation, and that Hegel has this at the back of his head. You cannot prove inevitability or certainty merely from repetition of the concrete.

You cannot prove inevitability or certainty from a constant series of empirical facts, however often repeated. That the sun has risen every day for a million years is no proof that it will rise tomorrow. For absolute certainty you must have a philosophical conception, which has its own unshakeable basis. Hegel sought logical tightness in the World-Spirit. Marx found it in his philosophical concept of the nature of man-activity. I take Hegel to be saying here that Essence is a movement and we can be sure it is seeking an Absolute because every form is finite, seeking something further. But if your proof of the Absolute is the merely finite appearance, then every limitation, every collapse that is not an immediate and obvious resolution of contradiction into Ground is a terrible blow. But to jump a little, if you have Absolute in your head, for this is what it amounts to, then the

finitude, limitations, etc., become stages of advance, and above all advance in thought. It is obvious that involved here is the inevitability of socialism. We have seen this weakness which Hegel is warning against in the last few years so near home and in such high places that we can spend a little more time on this.

Hegel knew that you had to have a certainty that did not depend upon limited fixed determinations and categories. It had to depend on something else, and this, in the last analysis, is what drove him to World-Spirit. Elsewhere '¡ we have treated the inevitability of socialism as a necessity of logical thinking in dialectical terms. But it is wise to recall here that this necessity of having some ultimate goal between your present stage as the twin poles between which your thoughts must move, this also is the product of experience. Philosophers and great men of action have always thought in that manner. Few things are more amusing that the passage from Corinthians, I.15, which is read at Episcopalian burial services. St Paul's “inevitability of socialism” was that the dead rise again. It seems that some tired radicals in Corinth had sneered at the comrades there, asking them: You believe in the resurrection of the dead? How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come? Paul unloosed all his forces and it is a tour de force of gorgeous rhetoric, sophistry and passionate conviction. He said point-blank: Let this go and everything else goes.

The Puritans were the same. It was ordained, they said. Same with the philosophers of the eighteenth century. Just get rid of the reaction and the reason inherent in all things will take over. It is the merit, not the weakness of Hegel, that he saw the necessity of giving this a solid logical foundation. The empiricists call it teleology, religion and all sorts of abusive names. I have dealt with them in Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity, and shown the contradictions in which they find themselves.

Here is the final extract.

The nature of the true inference of an absolutely necessary Essence from a finite and contingent entity will be considered below. Such an essence is not inferred from the finite and contingent entity as from a Being which both is and remains Ground, but, as is also implied immediately in contingency, this absolute necessity is inferred from a merely collapsing and self-contradicting Being- or rather it is demonstrated that contingent Being passes automatically back into its Ground, where it transcends itself – and, further, in this retrogression it posits Ground in such a manner only that it makes itself into the posited element. In an ordinary inference the Being of the finite appears as the Ground of the absolute: the absolute is because the finite is. The truth, however, is that the absolute is just because the finite is self-contradictory opposition – just because it is not. In the former meaning an inference runs thus: The Being of the finite is the Being of the absolute; – but in the latter: The Not-being of the finite is the Being of the absolute.

I hope you get it. I think it is a beautiful example of Hegel's method. This is all we can do: give some idea of what Ground is and why it is necessary. Essence is a movement. It is the analysis of Ground which tells us exactly what that movement is: Our abstract little spirit who didn't know what he was by his futile becomings was by degrees establishing some Ground. If you want more Ground, there it is.

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