From The Young Hegel, Georg Lukacs 1938

3.7 The limitations of Hegel’s economic thought

THE main line of Hegel’s thought is an attempt to infer from man’s relation to modern civil society all the categories of economics and sociology. He goes on to show how these in turn generate the objective laws governing the interplay between man, nature and society, and how these lead to contradictions whose elimination and re-appearance at a higher level ultimately provides a map of the entire structure of society and history.

Hegel’s novel approach to the philosophical problems of human praxis is strongly anti-fetishistic. His general dialectical view of the world as a dynamic complex of contradictions leads him in his attitude to society to regard all the objective categories of society and economics as dynamic and contradictory relations between men. Thus his categories shed their metaphysical inflexibility without having to sacrifice their objectivity. Hegel’s view of praxis always presupposes an interaction with objective reality. The intensified activity of man and the progress of that activity to higher and higher levels of achievement continually lead to new discoveries in the objective world which are then sucked into the overall dialectical movement. The more ramified and complex the system of human actions becomes, and the more necessary it is to struggle against metaphysical dogmas and the fetishizing of the categories in which human relations become objectified as self-created social institutions, then the more the world of objective determinations will grow and interact with human activity. In such circumstances the philosophical tendency towards objectivity will flourish.

The main lines of Hegel’s cognitive approach to society are now familiar to us. The question that concerns us now is: what are the limitations of his method? And furthermore: how are those limitations connected with his objective idealism? And finally: to what extent is that idealism itself determined by Hegel’s assessment of modern civil society, its origins and its worth? Here too we find ourselves confronted by highly involved problems which interact in a by no means simple fashion. We must investigate, on the one hand, the extent to which philosophical idealism exerts an influence on the boundaries of Hegel’s economic views, and on the other, we must consider how far that idealism is rooted in his own social position and the view of society arising from it.

The first essential point, one which will not have escaped the attentive reader, is that Hegel perceives civil society as a unified whole. This is undoubtedly a consequence of Germany’s economic and social backwardness. The great class struggles in France and England at this period had the effect of forcing thinkers to dig deeply into the objective economic roots of class conflict, even though the classical economists were not yet in a position to realize the implications of this discovery for the antagonistic structure of class society. On the other hand, the immediate experience of these great class struggles led a whole series of thinkers, writers and politicians both in England and France to the more or less clear realization that class conflict was an objective reality. Indeed, roughly contemporary with Hegel’s philosophy we may see at least the dawning awareness on the part of a number of people that the class conflicts of bourgeois society must eventually lead beyond the horizon of that society.

Hegel knew nothing of all this. It is true, as we have seen, that he perceived the antithesis of rich and poor in the modern world, not just as a matter of fact but as a necessary consequence of the development of society. (Factories and the resulting growth of poverty.) But it is interesting and also important that this insight had no repercussions for his economic and social attitudes. He neither attempted to relate it to Adam Smith’s theory of value, nor did he see it as one of the driving forces of bourgeois society itself. The distinction between rich and poor remained partly a phenomenon which society simply had to learn to accept, and partly a disruptive element in the normal functioning of that society to mitigate whose worst effects was the task of government and state. Hence Hegel’s excellent portrayal of the situation and even of the underlying laws which have produced it had no theoretical implications for his conception of the structure of society, let alone for his general philosophy.

The same is true of the entire methodology of Hegel’s social philosophy so that Marx’s criticism must be fully upheld when he remarks:

‘It is moreover wrong to consider society as a single subject, for this is a speculative approach.’
[Critique of Political Economy]

We have already seen that for Hegel the contradictions that determine the course of world history are the conflicts between rather than within nations. We have also been able to observe with what penetration he charted the changes in the social structure of particular nations and how ingeniously he made use of them to explain the progress of international conflicts. But he never thought of these internal changes with their immanent dialectic as the motor of world history.

That is to say, Hegel’s philosophy is an idealism nourished on the economic base of the undeveloped class antagonisms of Germany. It would of course be an over-simplification if we were crudely to explain all the implications of Hegel’s economic idealism in terms of his place in the social order. We have already noticed that the horizon of his philosophy extends far beyond the frontiers of Germany and that its essential features reflect less the contemporary state of Germany than the social and economic problems that arose on a European scale in the wake of the French Revolution and the industrial Revolution in England. Nevertheless, it remains true that even these tended to reinforce Hegel’s economic idealism. What I have in mind here is Hegel’s exaggerated enthusiasm for the society of post-revolutionary France and above all the social and political changes that would be introduced, as he hoped, under the rule of Napoleon. Thanks to this Hegel’s idealism, which was rooted in Germany, was further strengthened, for it was coloured by a sense of optimism, an enthusiasm, for the rebirth of the world, of a new configuration of the world-spirit whose consummation is reached in The Phenomenology of Mind. Without these exaggerated expectations, without these utopian hopes, the backwardness of Germany would quite certainly have had a very different impact on Hegel’s philosophy.

Of course, we must not overlook one further social element at work in Germany which necessarily influenced Hegel’s thought in this direction. Lenin has repeatedly pointed out that national unification was the central problem of the bourgeois revolution in Germany. We have seen how this played an important role in Hegel’s intellectual and political development. Later on, it is true, he came increasingly to think of a Napoleonic solution to the problem of national unity, a problem which was connected in his mind with the elimination of the vestiges of feudalism and of the patch-work of petty states. But this should not be taken to suggest that the question of national unity ceased to occupy a prominent place in his thought and hence to reinforce his tendency to view society as a unified subject.

It is from here that we have to understand the birth of Hegel’s doctrine of the state as the realization of ‘reason’: this is the vantage-point from which the state can appear as standing apart from the conflicts of civil society. (We shall soon see the effect of this upon the relations obtaining between civil society and the state.) The state can only be assigned such a role as this because Hegel believed that the nation could only become the embodiment of the concrete historical configurations of the spirit within the state. The history of the spirit does, of course, contain dialectical contradictions, indeed the entire course of world-history takes the form of conflicts and their repercussions. His view of world-history is of an unbroken series of conflicts in the course of which the flag of progress, the embodiment of the various stages of the world-spirit passes from one nation to the other. What we have in short is a sort of metempsychosis of the world-spirit in which the different nations have a unified configuration in which the world-spirit manifests itself at each particular stage of its journey.

There are two factors of interest here that must not be overlooked. First, within certain limits it is a legitimate procedure to try and define the ‘character’ of a nation. Only crude vulgarizers of Marxism fail to see this and strive to extinguish national characteristics by means of the doctrine of a succession of ‘formations’. Because Marxism investigates the social origins of the uneven development in, let us say, France and England, because it recognizes that classes and class struggles must take different forms in different conditions, it is able to arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of national peculiarities than bourgeois thinkers and historians (Hegel included), who overlook the true forces at work and so arrive at more or less metaphysical views about national unity. So here, too, the radical transformation of a metaphysical problem into a dialectical one leads to a concretization of thought.

Second, we should not overlook the fact that the methodological end-product of Hegel’s philosophy of history is a necessary result, but it is one which obscures our view of the wealth of cross-currents present in his thought. We have seen some of these in our earlier discussions. And when we look at the account given in The Phenomenology of Mind of the way in which the spirit of Greece mutates into the spirit of Rome we can see that the process described by Hegel is essentially internal. This is above all the case in the Phenomenology where, as we might expect from its general approach, external events are played down, so that, for example, the destruction of the city-states in war and conquest (Macedonia, Rome) is not even mentioned. The dissolution of the Greek spirit is largely an internal process. The zenith and decline of Rome and the collapse of the ancien régime in France are also regarded in this manner in the Phenomenology. And by the time he came to the later Philosophy of History Hegel had accumulated such a wealth of information about society and culture that the tendency towards internal explanation was even more pronounced than in The Phenomenology of Mind.

But it is still only a counter-tendency which for all its importance never really gains the upper hand. The metaphysical unity of the spirit of the nation is a methodological necessity in Hegel’s objective idealism. To dissolve that unity into the dynamic contradictions of antagonistic forces locked in conflict would indeed give rise to a very clear definition of national character, but since it would have no unified authority guaranteeing it, it would inevitably burst the confines of objective idealism. So cross-currents are undeniably present and sometimes they are extremely powerful. But they can only thrive within the framework of objective idealism. It is a significant fact that these tendencies and the greater concreteness of the historical analysis associated with them are most prominent wherever Hegel can by-pass the problem of the state. This happens, for instance, in the second part of the Phenomenology and in the Aesthetics.

The inability of these counter-tendencies to break through the idealist framework can be accounted for by referring to another no less contradictory aspect of his outlook: his resolute rejection of any thorough-going democracy, his failure to recognize the productive energies in the lower classes. We know of Hegel’s views in this respect from his expressed opinions about the French Revolution, and we know too that they do not represent a defection from his youthful republicanism, but that they were an important element in his mental make-up right from the start. Nevertheless, his opinion about this question reflects back on his entire scheme of world-history, on his account of the development of antiquity and the Middle Ages. Now, of course, in contrast to his position in Berne, he does take cognizance of the slavery that existed in antiquity and he no longer underestimates the significance of slavery for the political life of the ‘freemen’ in the Greek city-states. We have also seen the weight given to ‘servitude’ and slavery in the development of human culture. But this is still a long way from saying that the antagonism between slaves and slave-owners, feudal lords and serfs played a major part in Hegel’s dialectic of world history. Hegel’s recognition of the productive energies of the ‘mob’ is confined to economics and this makes it easier for him to maintain the mystification of a unified spirit in the people and the state. This is an additional reason for the inability of counter-tendencies in his thought to make themselves felt.

It is easy enough to criticize Hegel now from our superior vantage point. It is much more difficult to grasp the point that, given the economic, social and political situation in Germany at the time, a great and all-embracing philosophy such as Hegel’s could not possibly have been created on radical-democratic foundations. Even the undemocratic perspective from which Hegel undertook to defend the idea of a progress through contradictions contains utopian overtones vis-à-vis the realities of Germany, a tendency to soar above the actual state of affairs. Fortunately, he does not simply vanish into the clouds, but, by leaving Germany behind him, he can base himself more surely on the world historical processes taking place in France and England. Thus for all the idealist and utopian features of his thought, Hegel had his feet firmly planted on the ground of reality.

Following the defeat of the Babeuf conspiracy and given the graveyard stillness of Germany, a radical democratic movement could not possibly have found support. Any such movement would have inevitably collapsed into subjective utopianism. The example of Hölderlin and Fichte shows perfectly what the result would have been. It is therefore not just a defect in Hegel if his ideas developed in an anti-democratic direction. We see the same trend in all the important figures in Germany at the time, and in Goethe above all. The contradictory strands in German idealist dialectics enabled it to dissolve the metaphysical dogmas of the old materialism and at the same time, unconsciously, and somewhat in conflict with its own idealist programme, to incorporate powerful elements of an authentic materialism. But this could only occur in a situation which combined what was in Germany the least possible amount of utopianism with a concrete, uninhibited and quite unapologetic defence of progress in history. In the circumstances prevailing in Germany radical democracy could not be a creative feature of this realistic and dialectical view of reality, very much in contrast to Germany after the July Revolution or Russia in the 1850s and 1860s, when it became the basis for a comprehensive philosophy of history and society.

If we now turn to a closer examination of Hegel’s Jena philosophy of society we may begin by noting two major flaws in it, both of which are closely connected with his economic idealism. First, the internal structure of society, its articulation into classes is not deduced from his economics. Second, the state and the government are not regarded for their part as the products of an internal economic and social dialectic of class conflict. These two defects could only be incorporated in the system because Hegel had abandoned his own highly original method of developing the higher categories from the lower ones by means of their internal contradictions (labour – division of labour; tools – machines, etc.) and instead had imposed an idealist construct from above.

In both cases it is impossible to overlook the tense inner struggle between the conflicting elements of his thought. Again and again he has an intimation of the right pattern, again and again he feels the need to work out the true, organic relationships. We may even go so far as to say that the dialectical deduction of the estates becomes increasingly ‘economic’. The pinnacle of his purely idealistic philosophy was attained, as we shall shortly see, in Jena in his first attempt to construct a system. And the tendency towards an ever more concrete, more economic explanation of the social order does not by any means cease after Jena; on the contrary, it grows apace. We have already shown that the final and the sharpest formulation of the opposition between rich and poor was contained in The Philosophy of Right and this was no accident. For it was here that Adam Smith was joined by Ricardo as a guide in economic matters. And this tendency was strengthened still further in The Philosophy of Right. It is very characteristic of the way in which Hegel continued to develop and to cast old ideas aside that, following the July Revolution, in his very last essay, the pamphlet on the English Reform Bill (1831), he even came down in favour of the view that the old threefold division of the classes into nobility, burghers and peasantry no longer corresponded to the reality in most states. It is true that, characteristically, he drew no general conclusions from this insight into a socio-economic reality. On the contrary, he still believed that if the government took the right steps, the existing structures could be maintained. But the mere fact that he so closely followed a development running counter to his basic scheme and that he had no hesitation in recording its implications, however much these went against his own views, testifies to the strength of the conflict within him. Of course, this very example shows that the contrary tendencies could never become the prevailing ones.

We can follow Hegel’s gradual development towards a more realistic and economically based analysis of the estates structure in his Jena writings very precisely. The first statement of his social ideas, the System of Ethics marks the high point of his systematic idealism. It is no accident that this coincides with his most enthusiastic experimentation with Schelling’s terminology. The growth of realism runs parallel to his gradual rejection of Schelling’s conceptual world. As always, Hegel’s starting-point is the people as a unified whole, that then articulates itself in the different estates in order finally to achieve a new synthesis. And we observe at once that in the process of arriving at this point Hegel betrays the higher dialectical insights he had already acquired. For his general practice was to start with a dynamic contradiction which he would resolve in that unity and contradiction characteristic of him, i.e. a resolution of the contradiction which followed from the dialectics of the matter itself to higher levels of contradiction and synthesis. Here, in contrast, the movement proceeds in the opposite direction: from unity via difference and back to unity. That being the case, it is inevitable that the synthesis should be of the Schellingian sort, i.e. that the contradictions should be wholly obliterated. However, the method is not entirely explicable in terms of Schelling’s influence. It is rather an unavoidable consequence of the contradictions in Hegel’s own view of society. We have already discussed the cross-currents in that view and we shall later see them at work in more detail. But we have also seen their ultimate inefficacy and our analysis of ‘externalization’ in The Phenomenology of Mind will show us that we are faced with a fundamental contradiction of Hegel’s entire philosophy, one which he could never overcome without at the same time breaking free from the conceptual framework of objective idealism as such. As we know, this was simply not possible. Hegel’s greatness lay in his ability to carve out great areas of experience where his more realistic impulses could be given a relatively free rein.

Hegel’s development in Jena was one in which, within the overall conception of ‘ethical life’, objective, historical and economic aspects of life were given more and more emphasis at the expense of the merely moral. In the System of Ethics the importance of morality was still paramount. Proceeding from the unity of the people, Hegel deduces the different estates which are distinguished in terms of different stages of virtue. Hegel conducts this argument in this way:

‘The people as an organic totality is the absolute indifference of all the determinate aspects of practical and ethical existence. Their phases are the form of identity, of indifference, then of difference, and finally of absolute, living indifference; and none of these phases is an abstraction, but all are reality. The concept of ethical life lies in its objectivity, in the annulment of individuality.... Ethical power is articulated within this perfect totality by the estates, and the principle of each is a determinate form of ethical existence.... Thus there is an estate of absolute free ethical existence, an estate of rectitude and an estate of unfree or natural ethical life.’ [Ethical Life]

The general progression from unity via difference and back to unity is clearly visible, as is the fact that the distinctions between the estates are distinctions in the unified ethical life of the people, a hierarchy of virtues in effect. The economic and social distinctions between the estates thus come to represent adequate fields of activity for these virtues.

Thus Hegel’s argument proceeds from above to below, i.e. from the universal class to the class where a merely natural ethical existence holds sway, whereas the most mature outline of the social structure in Jena, the Lectures of 1805-6, advances in the opposite direction, from the ‘concrete’ labour of the peasant, via the increasing levels of abstraction in the middle classes, up to the highest universality of the upper class. It would be a mistake to see the distinction as something purely external or formal. For the road from below to above enshrines Hegel’s impulse to greater realism, to a much more ‘economic’ view of the character of the different estates. And it is not just by chance that this more realistic and dialectical approach cannot be achieved with Schelling’s conceptual system, even though it proved to be the perfect vehicle for the outline presented in the System of Ethics. The road from below to above is a prefiguration, an anticipation of the phenomenological method: the authentic Hegelian presentation of the nature of the spirit culminates in his view of it as a dialectical process of self-creation and self-discovery in the objects created. If the spirit is conceived as a result of a dialectical process it can only be presented in terms of a progression from below to above, whereas the deductive process from above to below has a profound affinity with Schelling’s method of annulling contradictions in the static unity of intellectual intuition.

We have described the class structure outlined in the System of Ethics as essentially a hierarchy of virtues, but it is to be hoped that the reader will not be misled into thinking Hegel has drawn any nearer to an ethics on the lines of Kant and Fichte. For Hegel does not link of these virtues as abstract or formal in the least; they are by no means a mere ‘ought’ for a moral subjectivity. They are, on the contrary, the concrete totalities of social determinations within the concrete totality of society as a whole.

If we are to look back in history for models which anticipate Hegel here, we shall find them riot in Kant and Fichte, but in the social philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Montesquieu. Montesquieu’s theory of the state makes a distinction between virtues and vices along socio-historical lines by arguing that under a monarchy the virtues which can and must have a positive social function are quite distinct from those which might have that effect in a republic. Hegel recognized the affinities between himself and Montesquieu quite clearly. In the essay on Natural Law, written a short while later, he remarked:

‘It must be recognized how all the parts of the constitution and of the legislature, and how all the manifestations of ethical relations are utterly determined by the whole, and form an edifice in which no element whether structural or decorative existed a priori, but where each became what it is by virtue of the whole and remains subject to it. It is in this sense that Montesquieu based his immortal work on his idea of the individuality and the character of the nations ...’

It is clear that the affinity is purely one of method, although, having said that, the parallel is far-reaching enough. And we see here, too, as in many other areas, that in his efforts to overcome the abstract character of subjective idealism Hegel has recourse to the methodological heritage of the great empiricists and realists of the Enlightenment.

Of course, this raises a new problem for him, a new contradiction in his conception of praxis. The social differentiation of morality was socio-historical fact for Montesquieu, one which he simply noted and analysed. Hegel, however, finds himself confronting the following dilemma: on the one hand, the concrete totality of socio-historical determinations (both in the objective realm of moral activity and in their subjective determinacy) is the method designed to overcome the more abstract subjectivity of the morality of Kant and Fichte. It is this concreteness, this socio-historical unity of the subjective and objective principles of morality that he opposes to the would-be sublimity of the abstract ‘ought’, the vacuous categorical imperative of Kant and Fichte. On the other hand, he finds it impossible to leave the matter there with moral values neatly assigned to particular places in the class structure. His road leads him into an impenetrable tangle of contradictions. For if his social philosophy were to culminate in the idea that the highest virtue, the highest level of consciousness attainable by each person, can only be that appropriate to his class, then he would be compelled to recognize that class antagonisms are the foundation of society – an idea which, as we have seen, necessarily lay beyond his horizon.

Moreover, simply to have asserted the fact of differentiation and to have left matters there would also have been inexcusably superficial. Society always constitutes an objective unity, albeit a dynamic, contradictory one, and Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin always placed the greatest emphasis on the implications of this for the formation of consciousness. Only in vulgar sociology do the individual classes constitute ‘windowless monads’. For all sorts of reason then, Hegel was compelled both to regard the concrete differentiation of the virtues according to class as an essential principle of reality, and also to think of the principle as something that would be transcended in the higher unity. The contradictions flowing from this dilemma will frequently occupy our attention in our further discussions.

Hegel’s analysis of the various classes remains basically stable even though he keeps refining on them, particularly as far as their economic characteristics are concerned. We shall therefore follow the account given in the Lectures of 1805-6, since that is the most developed one. On the other hand, his method of analysing the structure of society is more interesting. Hegel never again returned to that deduction from ‘above’ to which we have referred here. Obviously, his experiment with Schelling’s conceptual system did not satisfy him.

The essay on Natural Law which followed close on the heels of the System of Ethics applied a radically different method: an historical one. Hegel takes the world of antiquity and its collapse as his starting-point and attempts to deduce from its development the three estates of modern society, of which he had already spoken in the earlier work. In many respects these historical observations are reminiscent of the philosophy of history of his earliest writings, but it is just at this point that we can see the extent of the change in his views.

Hegel’s analysis concentrates on the first two estates. It is true that slavery does enter into his discussions of antiquity and the peasantry is occasionally mentioned also. But these are appendages which are not properly incorporated into the dialectic. What Hegel finds important is the opposition between freemen and bondsmen, and in antiquity, between the citizens of the polis and those whose task it is to provide material support for the freemen who live in politics and war. Thus the image of antiquity corresponds largely to the idea he had formed in his earliest youth. The only difference is that Hegel now depicts the material, economic foundations on which the freedom, the free political activity of the citizen of the polis, is based.

The account of the decline of antiquity also contains certain similarities to Hegel’s earlier ideas. It is interesting to see that Gibbon is his historical source both now and then. Moreover, his general conclusions now are closely similar to his earlier ones, and in particular he attributes the decline of antiquity to the triumph of private life over public. The difference now is that, hitherto, Hegel had regarded this victory of the private only as something negative, as pure degeneration; whereas now he formulates the change in this way:

‘With the loss of absolute ethics and the debasement of the class of nobles, the two previously existing separate classes have become equal.... The necessary triumph of the principle of formal unity and equality has done away with the true inner distinction between the classes.... The principle of universality and equality had to take possession of the whole in such a way as to replace the particular classes with a mixture of the two. Beneath the law of formal unity what has really happened is that this mixture has annulled the first class and made the second class into the sole class of the nation.’

We see here the prototype of the philosophy of history contained in The Phenomenology of Mind where the decline of classical democracy under the Roman Empire becomes the foundation of the ‘rule of law’ the birth of the abstract juridical ‘person’. Through the mediation of Christianity which now begins to make itself felt, this state of affairs gives rise to modern civil society, society based on the principle of individuality, the society of the bourgeois. Hegel regards this development as utterly inexorable. And even though this society ought not to achieve absolute supremacy, it must be allowed to grow to its fullest extent:

‘This system of property and law which for the sake of singularity sacrifices the absolute and eternal in favour of the finite and formal, must be detached and separated off from the estate of nobles and constituted into an estate of its own where it may expand to its fullest extent ... if this system must both develop itself and destroy that free ethical life wherever it mingles with its institutions and is not separated from them and their barred from the estate of nobles and assigned an estate, a realm of its own where it may establish itself and develop its own full activity through its own confusion and the abolition of that confusion.’

This argument culminates in the proclamation of the economic dominion and the ‘political nullity’ of the bourgeois and it represents the clearest and frankest statement yet of Hegel’s Jena philosophy of history. The profound contradictions that emerge from such a view of contemporary society are explored by Hegel in Chapter 8 which deals with ‘Tragedy and Comedy in the realm of the ethical’. We shall postpone our own examination of these problems until then. For the time being we shall confine ourselves to a short description of Hegel’s view of society. It is, to put it briefly, the social theory of the Napoleonic Age: it is the systematic expression of the illusions which Hegel cherished about the age. Their social import was roughly this: everything for the bourgeoisie in the economic sphere, but nothing for the bourgeoisie in the realm of politics and above all in the world-historical role of the nation, something which expresses itself primarily in war.

It is a very striking feature of the Jena period that war should be allotted such a crucial role. This had been prepared for as early as the essay on the German Constitution: the analysis of Germany’s internal decay was designed to explain why the nation had become incapable of defending itself whereas the other mode of defeating feudalism had transformed France into a great military power. (We may recollect Hegel’s early notes about the difference between the armies of the ancien régime and the Revolution, p. 44-5.) This emphasis on war is maintained throughout the Jena reflections on social philosophy.

It is only from this angle that we can begin to understand what Hegel meant by the ‘class of nobles’, the ‘universal class’. This is the name given to the new, dominant military stratum that came to the fore in France after the Revolution and formed a new nobility under Napoleon. Rosenzweig and other more recent scholars of Hegel entirely distort the facts by imagining that Hegel has the traditional nobility in mind here. The dominance of singularity in modern society, the self-creation of the individual who has ‘alienated’ or ‘externalized’ himself cuts the ground from beneath the feet of the hereditary nobility. Hegel does speak, it is true, of a hereditary monarch in the Lectures of 1805-6, and he thinks of the person and family of the monarch as something ‘natural’, but he makes an exception for the monarch alone.

Other individuals have value only to the extent to which they are “externalized” and cultivated beings, as what they have made of themselves.

This view is in line with the idea which pervades all the Jena writings that courage, the readiness to lay down one’s life for one’s country, is not just the highest of all virtues, but in practice the only one which can transcend particularity, the only one in which the concrete universality of the life of the nation can be realized in the single individual.

This conception of the first estate is buttressed by a philosophy of history which maintains that a constant, uninterrupted peace must lead to degeneration, trivialization and the collapse of civil society. In The Phenomenology of Mind we can find the most extreme formulation of this position:

‘In order not to let [individuals] become rooted and settled in this isolation and thus break up the whole into fragments causing the common spirit to evaporate, government has from time to time to shake them to the very centre by war. By this means it confounds the order that has been established and arranged, and violates the right to independence, while the individuals (who, being absorbed therein, come adrift from the whole, though striving after inviolable self-existence and personal security), are made, by the task thus imposed on them by government, to feel the power of their lord and master, death. By thus breaking up the form of fixed stability, spirit guards the ethical order from sinking into merely natural existence, preserves the self of which it is conscious, and raises that self to the level of freedom and its own powers.’

To grasp the real historical sources of this attitude it is sufficient to recall Marx’s description of the Napoleonic era for this makes it quite clear that what Hegel did was to express the essence of that age in philosophical terms (together with all the misconceptions that were only to be expected from a man writing from the point of view of German idealism). Marx writes:

‘Napoleon represented the last struggle of revolutionary terrorism against civil society and its policy, which was likewise established by the Revolution. Certainly Napoleon already understood the nature of the modern state; he recognized that it was based on the free development of civil society, on the free play of private interests, etc. He decided to acknowledge this basis and to protect it. He was not a visionary revolutionary. But Napoleon still regarded the state as an end in itself, and civil society only as a treasurer, a subordinate who was allowed to have no will of his own. He practised terrorism by substituting permanent war for permanent revolution. He satisfied to the full French national egoism, but he demanded in return the sacrifice of civil affairs, pleasure, wealth, etc., every time the political aim of conquest required it.’

It is on foundations such as these that Hegel arrives at the final and most mature statement of his views on the structure of civil society in the Lectures of 1805-6. As we have already emphasized, the dialectical movement proceeds upwards from below, from the particular to the general. He attempts to depict the spirit in movement and to portray its structure as the product of that self-movement. The class structure is, as it were, a phenomenological process in the course of which spirit discovers itself. Within Hegel’s Jena philosophy this is the most concrete and most emphatically economic analysis of the stratification of society into estates. The lacunae and fissures in his argument are correspondingly more overt here than anywhere. At the same time, we can also begin to see why Hegel’s conception of ethics and its concrete manifestation in the class structure does not portend the final self-discovery of the spirit, but gives us instead the dialectical odyssey of spirit through society and the state. It is no accident that in these lectures we find for the first time that Hegel has introduced art, religion and philosophy as representing the highest phase of spirit, the phase he would later call absolute spirit. At least, the substance of this concept is already there, and also its problematic nature, even though the term is not yet employed.

The theoretical development of the estates and the subsequent advance of the spirit to the stage beyond is described by Hegel in these terms:

‘Three things must now be demonstrated: First, the members of the whole, the hard external organization and its entrails, the powers they possess; second, the outlook of each estate, its self-consciousness, its being as pure knowing: immediate amputation from existence, the spirit’s knowledge of its member as such, and elevation above it; the former, ethical life, the latter, morality. Third, religion. The first is spiritual nature at liberty; the second is its knowledge of itself as knowledge; the third, spirit knowing itself as absolute spirit, religion. – The estate and the spirit of the estate, – this determinate spirit is what actually develops from barbaric trust and labour on towards absolute spirit’s knowledge of itself. It is at first the life of a people in general. From this it must struggle free.... The spirit which knows all reality and essence as itself contemplates itself, is its own object; or it is an existent organism. It forms its consciousness. It is as yet only true spirit, in itself. In every estate it has a distinct task, knowledge of its existence and activity in it, and a particular concept, knowledge of its essence. Both must partly separate and partly join together.’

We can see here the problem of which we spoke earlier: the necessity for Hegel to rise above society, to establish the realm of absolute spirit in which the authentic self-discovery of mind would be consummated. Hegel is more or less clear in his mind about the complicated dialectics of this procedure. That he is well aware of the ramifications of the relation of the individual to modern civil society is shown by the fact that he builds the sphere of individual moral attitudes, the sphere of ‘morality’ into the social system (even though the movement of morality constantly aspires to a supra-social status) and assigns to morality a place in one sense above society, and in another sense below it (because of its abstract nature). (The dialectics of this are not finally worked out until the Philosophy of Right. Only there does it appear as the sphere of negation and difference which dialectically links the abstract system of mere ‘right’ with the concrete totality of the ethical life of the people.)

But even the most elaborate statement of this dialectic does not bring Hegel any nearer to a solution to the problem. In the later system, too, the absolute realm of art, religion and philosophy is placed higher than society, the realm of objective spirit. In the Lectures under discussion Hegel reveals one of the chief motives for this further progress of the spirit. As he has just informed us, spirit in a perfect society is still only spirit in itself. That is to say: it has divided up into its various moments (the estates). In themselves these form a unity; but this unity is not yet conscious of itself, i.e. it does not yet exist for itself; it has not yet consciously become incarnate in the consciousness of a single individual. The dialectic of morality and ethical life contains the imperative which insists that the individual moral consciousness (which must necessarily be abstract) can only find fulfilment when concretely incarnate in ethical life. (i.e. in the outlook of the estate to which the individual belongs by his own choice and achievement.) Hence a further progress beyond estates-consciousness, an estates-consciousness that preserves while it annuls, is possible for Hegel only in a religious form. On this point he writes as follows in the same Lectures:

‘In religion everyone rises to a view of himself as a universal self. His nature, his estate fades like a dream, like a distant island gleaming like a haze of mist on the edge of the horizon. He is the equal of princes. His knowledge is of himself, as spirit; before God he is the equal of anyone. We see the externalization of his entire realm, his entire existing world – not the externalization which is only form, culture and whose content is once again the sensuous world, but the universal externalization of reality as a whole; this externalization restores reality to itself as something perfect.’

In this passage we can plainly see one of the motifs that has become indispensable in Hegel’s system as a result of the importance conferred on religion, and specifically on Christianity. It is no less plain that this motif is by no means religious in nature. The realization of a state in which spirit exists for itself, its elevation above the division of society into estates each with its own sharply distinct point of view, can only be annulled in the Hegelian sense, i.e. preserved at the same time as it is annulled, if a concept of complete equality can be discovered, with the aid of which spirit really can recognize itself. But (1) the inequality of wealth in capitalist society is an irremovable datum; it is indeed the economic foundation for that development of individuality which he considers the principle that renders the modern age superior to that of antiquity. (2) Hegel can have no conception of a state of affairs in which men might be truly equal. (3) his anti-democratic beliefs prevent him from sharing the illusions of the radical democrats at the time of the French Revolution. Finally, (4) he is willing to recognize the bourgeoisie as the representative class of the modern economic development, but he steadfastly refuses to adjudge them, their existence and consciousness, the crowning point of the entire history of man. For all these reasons no concept of equality remains available to Hegel but that of the equality of all men before God.

We shall later consider Hegel’s tense and ambivalent relationship with Christianity at length in our discussion of the Phenomenology. At this point it was only necessary to draw attention to the important social impulse at work here. And in this context it is perhaps not without interest to note Napoleon’s views on Christianity, for these contain definite parallels with Hegel’s attitudes. Of course, the affinity operates at an abstract level: Napoleon was himself the leading figure in the great drama of the age; he put into action the deeds whose philosophical essence Hegel attempted to elucidate. For this reason, his attitude to Christianity could be expressed with a much more overt cynicism. It was enough for him to open the churches, to conclude a Concordat with the Pope, to have the Pope crown him Emperor and so on. At the same time he could freely express his own personal opinion about religion with the greatest cynicism. However, when Hegel attempted to reproduce the movement of history and the illusions it necessarily engenders, he was bound to take up a positive stance towards religion. Privately, there were indications enough that he also shared some of Napoleon’s cynicism and these can be found not only in private utterances which we shall quote in their proper place, but also, if involuntarily, in his entire dialectical analysis of religion itself.

With all these reservations Napoleon’s explicit views can undoubtedly throw light on Hegel’s view of religion. He says:

‘As far as I am concerned, I see in religion not the mystery of incarnation, but the mystery of the social order. It connects the idea of equality with Heaven and so prevents the rich from being slaughtered by the poor.... Society cannot survive without inequality of wealth, and inequality of wealth cannot endure without religion.’

Hegel’s Lectures of 1805-6 analyse the system of estates in a ‘phenomenological’ fashion. The estates represent what might be called the division of labour of objective spirit and they represent the different stages in the journey of spirit to its consciousness of itself. For this reason Hegel starts with the peasantry, since that is the class closest to a state of nature. We can see once again the high level of Hegel’s understanding of economics in the fact that he looks for the essential distinction between the peasantry and the middle class in the different character of the work they perform. He contrasts the concrete labour of the peasant with the abstract labour involved in trade and industry and realizes that the explanation for this is that the peasant works to supply his own needs and not for the market. (Here, of course, we can again see how Hegel translates the ideas of the English economists into German. Since he has only read about farmers who pay ground-rent and produce for the market, and has never seen them in the flesh, he ignores their existence in his analysis.)

‘The peasantry is, therefore the unindividuated trust that has its individuality in that unconscious individual, the earth. As a labourer the peasant does not perform abstract labour but instead he provides for most or all of his wants; in the same way his labour is only inwardly connected with his activity. The context of his purpose and its realization is the unconscious, nature; he ploughs, sows, but it is God who makes things prosper and provides the seasons and the trust that what he has put in the ground will grow of itself. The activity is subterranean.’

Thus in Hegel’s eyes the peasantry is the coarse and unconscious foundation of civil society. Just as he pays no heed to changes in the English peasantry, so too the solution to the peasant problem produced by the French Revolution apparently made no impression on him. He has eyes only for the retrograde peasantry of Germany.

This is all the more striking as his view of society requires that the peasantry should form the rear mass of the army and we have already seen that he devoted much thought to the army and pondered in particular on the social roots of the superiority of the revolutionary Napoleonic army. But his distrust of every mass movement from below obscured his vision. However bluntly he rebuts the claims of the surviving remnants of feudalism in Germany, however unreservedly he acknowledges the superiority of revolutionary France, the people never quite cease to be an aggregate of pre-revolutionary German philistines in his eyes. The army – whose significance for his theory of history and society we have seen – is no ‘people in arms’; the middle class only makes material sacrifices in war, the peasants are mere cannon-fodder, – it is all as it was in the wars of the old feudal absolutism. The reflection of the German misère in his philosophy distorts his Napoleonic vision and reduces it to German philistinism.

In harmony with this view Hegel can see in a possible peasant uprising nothing but:

‘a mad, blind, phenomenon ... a flood which only destroys; at best it leaves a fertile marsh behind it, but otherwise it just recedes without achieving anything.’

Raised above the peasantry is the estate of abstract labour, of trade and law, the bourgeoisie. We are already familiar with Hegel’s analysis of its economic significance: it is the realm of contingency which attains necessity by developing its own autonomous laws. The German character of Hegel’s social philosophy can be seen clearly in the chief feature of the outlook of this class: its rectitude. Evidently, Hegel was thinking of the German philistine rather than the English capitalist. We know from his account of the economic situation that the merchant is the highest representative of this class.

This is interesting and characteristic of his dominant phenomenological tendency to proceed from the lower to the higher and to derive the general from the particular: the middle class ends with the merchant and the account of the universal class begins with the man of affairs and advances via the scholar to its climatic point: the soldier. The method involves a progression from the particular to the general. Hegel says quite explicitly evidently referring to peasants and bourgeois:

‘The lower classes or those whose object and consciousness lies in the particular.’

He then accomplishes the transition in the following manner:

‘The public class works for the state. The spirit has raised itself to the universal level in the man of affairs. But his labour is very divided, abstract, mechanical. It doubtless serves the universal immediately, but in a limited and fixed manner, which he cannot alter ... He raises the determinate universal to knowledge of the universal ... The spirit has raised him above his actual character [as man of affairs]. The authentic man of affairs is in part also a scholar.’

Artificial though this is in parts, its superiority to the arguments of the System of Ethics is very plain. And if we do accept Hegel’s premises, there really is a gradual development from the particular to the universal in which the crucial role is played by abstract labour, the unconscious self-transformation of every individual labour and every individual economic activity under capitalism into a social, universal activity. In short, if we accept his premises we may allow that there is a real understanding of the structure of modern civil society.

But this is true at best only to the stage of the man of affairs. The transition from there to the scholar is already artificial and strained. Hegel himself seems disinclined to regard the class of scholars as the social incarnation of true universality of thought, as the self-knowledge of objective spirit. He remarks dryly:

‘The scholar’s prime concern is vanity of self.’

And from the scholar to the soldier there is no real transition at all: the soldier stands at the apex of society for a variety of reasons which we have already mentioned. But they have nothing to do with the economic, phenomenological movement from particular to universal.

We observe, then, that although Hegel has made the greatest efforts to provide an analysis of the estates-structure in economic terms, a not unimportant part of it is entirely spurious. The difficulties he encountered are only partly connected with those aspects of his view of society with which we are already familiar. There is a further facet of his economics that we must also consider briefly.

At issue is the decisive importance Hegel assigns to the juridical concept of ‘recognition’ within his economics. Thanks to this concept alone certain categories are elevated to the true dignity of economic categories; in other cases he establishes distinctions of no economic importance, but he lays great stress on them because they illustrate the principle of ‘recognition’ so vividly. Thus he makes an important distinction between possession and property:

‘A possession contains the contradiction that a thing as such is universal and yet it exists as the possession of a single person. This contradiction is resolved by consciousness which posits it as the opposite of itself., when recognized, it is both single possession and something universal, for in this single possession all possess ... My possession has acquired the form of consciousness; it is defined as my possession; but as property it pertains not just to me alone, but is universal.’

Here we have an ingenious, almost scholastically tortuous argument to justify the juridical duplication of economic life. Hegel’s aim is not just to reformulate economic categories in juridical terms, to raise them above mere economics in his conceptual scheme, but to quarry a new content from the juridical form. He proceeds in similar fashion to argue that a contract is a higher form of exchange.

‘This knowledge is expressed in the contract. It is the same as exchange, but it is ideal exchange: (a) I give nothing away, I externalize nothing, I give nothing but my word, language, that I wish to externalize myself; (b) the other does likewise. This externalization of mine is also his will; he is satisfied if I give this to him, (c) It is also his externalization, it is our common will; my externalization is mediated by his. I only wish to externalize myself, because he wishes to externalize himself, because his negative becomes my positive. There is an exchange of declarations, not objects, but it is as valid as the exchange of objects. Both acknowledge the will of the other as such. – The will has returned to its own concept.’

The over-valuation of juridical principles in the sphere of economics does not imply any approximation to the rather different overestimation of the same thing in Kant and Fichte, even though the tendency is closely linked with the philosophical idealism common to them all. With Fichte, in particular, it is connected with his mistaken belief that until the rule of pure morality had arrived, the social life of man could be guided towards morality by laws and regulations. We know how Hegel ridiculed this idea. He always regarded the facts of society and economics as the true powers of life and it did not occur to him to violate them with some concept or other. For in his view the force and dignity of the concept manifests itself most clearly in these very facts of life as life itself has moulded them.

What drives Hegel in this direction are two motifs of philosophical idealism. First, we see here a general tendency of the whole age. In the course of some comments on civil society contemporary with the Feuerbach Theses, Marx talks about the origin of the modern state in the French Revolution:

‘The self-conceit of the political sphere ... all elements exist in duplicate form, as civic elements and (those of) the state.’

This duplication which can be seen most strikingly in the doubling of man as bourgeois and as citoyen, occurs in Hegel as a division of economic categories into economic and juridical ones. But the great importance of this process, the central position occupied at times by ‘recognition’ is connected with the specific character of his entire philosophy.

We have already made mention of the category of ‘externalization’ in the context of Hegel’s discussion of economic problems. A detailed analysis of the concept must be delayed until we come to the Phenomenology. All we can do here is to investigate ‘recognition’ in its relationship to the purely economic concept of ‘externalization’ of which it is a higher form. In the Lectures of 1805-6 where he discusses the transition from a state of nature to a state of law, he writes as follows:

‘Right is the relation of the person in his behaviour towards others, it is the universal element of his free existence, or, in other words, the definition, limitation of his empty freedom. I have no need to excogitate this relation or limitation myself, for the object itself creates the right, i.e. the relation of recognition. – In the act of recognition, the self ceases to be a single thing; it becomes part of right in recognition, i.e. it ceases to be simply immediate existence. The object so recognized is recognized as immediately valid, thanks to its existence, but this existence is produced by the concept; it is existence recognized. Man necessarily recognizes and receives recognition. This necessity is his own, not that of our thought in opposition to the content. As recognition he is movement and precisely this movement annuls his natural state: he is recognition; the natural only is, it has nothing of the spirit about it.’

These observations are very remarkable for the light they throw on the conflicting tendencies at work within him. Formally, they are highly objectivistic since they deduce all the determinations of right from the movement of the object itself, rather than from the nature of thought. Thought for Hegel in this passage is only the intellectual reflection of the movement of the real determinations in the object. The content of the same passage, however, tends in the opposite direction. The analysis of ‘externalization’ is momentous firstly because it is the first time in the history of philosophy that anyone has made the attempt to analyse what Marx would later call the fetishism of the commodity, and to use that analysis as a basis from which to explore society as a whole by dissolving the fetishized object-forms of society into a dynamic complex of relations between human beings. It is important, secondly, because Hegel is not unaware that the various forms of fetishization are not all on the same plane; he realizes that there is a hierarchy of fetishized objects, objects which are fetishes to a greater or lesser degree.

We have already seen this aspect of Hegel’s thought at work when he describes such a hierarchy of ever higher forms of ‘externalization’ beginning with labour, the product of labour, exchange and trade, and finally ending in money. Even then the idealistic tendency to turn everything upside down was very much in evidence. Hegel sees, quite correctly, that trade and, above all, money are higher forms of ‘externalization’ than, e.g., simple production. Thus far he is in agreement with Marx’s materialistic position. But whereas Marx regards the simplest form of fetishism, namely the commodity, as the key to the more complex and more highly fetishized forms of society, Hegel proceeds in the opposite direction. (In our detailed analysis of the Phenomenology we shall argue that the economic origin of Hegel’s error here lies in his one-sided conception of labour, of man’s economic activities.) In Hegel’s eyes the ‘externalization’ of spirit and the ultimate retraction of that ‘externalization’ is the only road to the creation of reality by spirit and consequently also to the intellectual reproduction of that reality by cognition. For this reason the higher forms of fetishism are not higher in the sense that they are increasingly remote from the real object, i.e. that they are increasingly empty and hollow (cf. Marx on money). On the contrary, it is this process that converts them into authentically higher forms of ‘externalization’, namely pure forms of spirit, forms on the road back to spirit, forms which come closer to the revoking of ‘externalization’ by the spirit and the transformation of substance into subject, than the more primitive, more fundamental aspects of ‘externalization’ which are nearer to the material processes of economics.

This explains why it was methodologically necessary for Hegel to put law above economics. Whereas historical materialism regards the ‘higher’ fetishism of law as a proof of its secondary, derivative character, for Hegel the opposite is the case: the transformation of economic into juridical categories represents a higher, more spiritual form of ‘externalization’, a force closer to the realm of spirit. According to Hegel the recognized existence of law is actually created from the concept, whereas a merely economic object remains nearer to nature, at the level of unconscious being-in-itself. This argument is in a state of constant interaction with the view discussed earlier of the unity of the people in the state. Each reinforces the other and this helps to explain why those elements in Hegel which might have brought him to a true understanding of fetishism could never gain the upper hand, even though he often came close to it (as in his analysis of money, for instance, on p. 336, where he argues that it is both an actual thing and also the ego, or self, i.e. a relation between men).

This complex inner conflict which always ends with the victory of the mystifications of objective idealism, has consequences of two kinds. As Marx pointed out:

‘... there is already latent in the Phenomenology as a germ, a potentiality, a secret, the uncritical positivism and the equally uncritical idealism of Hegel’s later works – that, philosophical dissolution and restoration of the existing empirical world.’ [1844 Manuscripts]

From this defeat of realism two consequences follow: the first is the uncritical idealism which we have seen repeatedly, most recently in the inverted relationship of law and economics. The second is that Hegel simply introduces into his system crude empirical matter whose real social and philosophical universality he cannot discover, he incorporates it just as it is, and then ‘deduces’ its necessity by means of a pseudo-intellectual process of abstraction.

It is no accident that such categories are mostly described as ‘natural’. Hegel himself senses that he has not really deduced them from the actual social reality and since he often has accurate and profound intuitions into the relation of society to its foundation in nature it is tempting to have recourse to nature in difficult cases and to mystify the inexplicable by calling it ‘natural’. In his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right Marx keeps coming back to ‘this inevitable lapse from empiricism into speculation and from speculation back to empiricism’. We quote the passage about the monarch because, as we have seen, the deduction of the hereditary monarchy from ‘nature’ was a prominent feature of the Lectures of 1805-6. Marx writes:

‘In this way too the impression of mystical profundity is created. It is a vulgar truth that man was born; and that an existence posited by physical birth should become a social man, right up to the rank of citizen; through his birth man is all that he becomes. But it is very profound, it is really very striking that the idea of the state was immediately born, and that it gave birth to its empirical existence through the birth of the ruler. This idea has no new substance, all that is altered is the form of the old substance. It has acquired a philosophical form, a philosophical warrant.’

When we look at Hegel’s deductive argument about the hereditary monarch in the Lectures of 1805-6 in the light of this criticism we see how unerringly Marx has fixed on the spurious profundity in Hegel’s ‘uncritical positivism’. Hegel says of the monarch:

The free universal is the point where individuality appears; the latter so free from the knowledge of all, is not constituted as individual by them, but as one extreme of government it is immediate and natural: it is the hereditary monarch. He is the firm immediate nodal point, binding all.... fluidity, he is immediate, natural. He alone is the natural, i.e. it is here that nature has found refuge ...’

Arguments of this sort can be found everywhere in Hegel and we shall have occasion to disentangle the rights and wrongs of his view of the ‘natural’. For the time being we may confine ourselves to this example which has a particular interest for us over and above its general implications for his methodology as a whole. Up to now we have considered only one of the two flaws in Hegel’s analysis of society to which we earlier made reference (p. 370), viz. his failure to relate the class-structure to the economy. We now find ourselves facing the second flaw: his failure to relate the class-structure to the government.

Hegel’s philosophical analysis of the different classes progresses from the particular to the general. Once he has reached the universality of the upper class Hegel faces the problem of distinguishing between it and the government. Obviously, this is not just a philosophical or epistemological technicality. On the contrary, it is a question of the class character of society. And the internal conflict of opposing tendencies in his philosophy is mirrored very precisely in his hesitations on this issue. Of course, there is no question of Hegel’s arriving at a real understanding of the class character of the state. This is precluded from the start by his view of the ultimate unity of society, which we have already discussed at length.

But even allowing for that we still discover in Hegel a dual tendency which reflects the objective contradiction in the Napoleonic solution to the problems of modern society posed by the French Revolution. Admittedly, this reflection is distorted by Hegel’s special position as a German, and as one, moreover, who sets out to idealize that solution. On the one hand, he tends to identify the upper class (i.e. the Napoleonic military nobility) with the government and the state. This objectively expresses the character of Napoleon’s military dictatorship and Hegel’s enthusiastic support of the heroic glory of France created by Napoleon. On the other hand, Napoleonic government was not just a military dictatorship in the abstract, but one which came into being in the specific circumstances of post-revolutionary France, i.e. one which had the task of defending the ideas and values of the French Revolution, (its bourgeois heritage in short) against attempts to restore feudal absolutism and to advance the revolution in the direction of further democracy.

In the System of Ethics Hegel frankly expresses this contradiction. Writing about the government, he says:

‘It appears to be the very first estate because it represents absolute potentiality to the others, the reality of absolute ethical existence and the truly intuited spirit of the others – while all the other estates remain in the realm of the particular. But it too is estate against estate, and there must be something higher still than it and its difference vis-à-vis the others. ... The movement of the first estate as against the others is incorporated in the concept by the realization that both have reality, both are limited and the empirical freedom of each is annulled; this absolute preservation of all the estates must be the supreme government and it may not by definition be conferred on a single estate, since it is the identity of all. It must therefore comprise all those who have given up actual existence in an estate and who live simply in the sphere of the ideal, namely the elders and the priests, who are in fact one.’

Here too, then, nature must intervene like a deus ex machina. The elders and the priests (a mystified version of the Council of Elders in the Directory) are supposed to be raised above the antagonisms of the world of the particular solely by virtue of their age; this will suffice to enable them to achieve that degree of universality which even the first estate, as an estate against other estates, could not achieve. Obviously, Hegel is confronted with the same problem which he solves later on by affirming the claims of the hereditary monarch. And the method he employs is also the same: by a sort of intellectual legerdemain he transforms a simple fact of nature into a profound mystical truth.

We have repeatedly stressed that Hegel nowhere adopts Schelling’s terminology so whole-heartedly as in the System of Ethics. The reason for Schelling’s influence is quite plain here. For even though Hegel’s concept of ‘supersession’ (Aufhebung), defined as the ‘unity of unity and difference,’ is vastly superior to Schelling’s concept of ‘identity’ (Indifferenz), it could not be employed here. His own method, if applied consistently, would have led him in the direction of a real dialectical theory of class and of the position of the state vis-à-vis class conflict. For reasons which we have previously discussed. Hegel was not capable of this insight. Hence, for the relationship he is at present concerned to establish between the state and the government as opposed to the classes, Schelling’s concept of identity is much more apt than Hegel’s own concept of contradiction and its supersession. And if Hegel later dispenses with Schelling’s terms, his analysis of this relationship always retains Schellingian overtones. We may say then that certain elements of Schelling’s thought became permanent constituents of Hegel’s system. However, this stands in need of qualification and if we adopt Engels’ argument that Hegel’s system and method are in contradiction with each other, we can say that the influence of Schelling is most marked wherever the system threatens to gain the upper hand. i.e. wherever Hegel is unable to draw the final consequences, both philosophical and social, from his method.

It must not be thought that we have provided a complete account of Hegel’s view of the relations between the estates and the state. We have already pointed out, for example, that the hereditary monarch often plays a purely decorative role in the political system, and that Hegel fully recognizes the autonomous movement of civil society and is in favour of reducing the intervention of the state to its absolute minimum. But these remarks do not eliminate the contradictions we have described. They merely show that now one side of contemporary French history, and now the other occupied the forefront of Hegel’s attention. The recognition of the economic necessities propelling civil society is part of his picture of the Napoleonic system which administered the inheritance of the French Revolution on behalf of the bourgeoisie, a system which Hegel regarded as the climatic moment of history, the contemporary incarnation of the world-spirit.

We may say in general that, when looking at Hegel’s socio-philosophical theories at this time, it is always essential to go back to their actual French models which are then reflected – often in a mystified manner – in his ideas. This holds good not just for the elders and the priests but for his whole picture of the structure of the estates, and above all his definition of the universal class as a new military nobility on Napoleonic lines. The permanence of the impression left on Hegel by the Napoleonic constitution can be gauged by the fact that in his very last essay (on the English Reform Bill) he mentions the constitution Napoleon imposed on the Italians as a model for the present day and he does so at the very point where he discusses the problems posed for the estates-structure by the further development of capitalist society.

We may sum up by saying that Hegel’s theory of economics and society contains two diametrically opposed tendencies. On the one hand, there is the attempt to deduce the universal dialectically from the particular. This was most clearly manifest in his analysis of labour, the division of labour and, tools, etc. It always reappears wherever Hegel can conduct his enquiry without having to be too much concerned about the problem of the state, or where he can draw conclusions of a general philosophical nature without directly referring to the state. Thus in the Jena Logic there is a highly interesting analysis of the concept of species arising from the dialectic of individuality as it emerges and functions in civil society.

The tendencies we have described are anything but episodic. For the problem of modern capitalism, the economic role of the bourgeois, the modern individualism which thrives on the basis of this economic process in a word the principles of capitalism as Hegel understood them are the very things which distinguish the modern age from antiquity. It is these principles that rendered antiquity obsolete and reduced it to a memory, something irrevocably past. They therefore constitute the climax of his Jena philosophy of history. Which in turn always remains fundamental to that of his later system.

Moreover, this philosophy of history is intimately connected with his generally philosophical interests, as could hardly be otherwise with a philosopher of Hegel’s stature. We already know that the central problem of the Phenomenology, the principle with whose aid he finally leaves Schelling’s dialectics behind him and appears before the public with his own, is the principle of ‘externalization’. But at the same time our previous discussions have shown that the modern age and modern civil society represent a higher stage of history just because ‘externalization’ is more advanced than in the immediate social existence of antiquity. Hence the period of the greatest ‘externalization’ for Hegel must be the one in which what has been ‘externalized’ can be recovered by the spirit so that substance is entirely transformed into subject.

But as we have seen, Hegel’s philosophy of history has yet another side: the detachment of the state and its world-historical functions from its economic base. Of course, connections are present, even economic ones, but instead of the real (if often incomplete) understanding of economic actualitities we find only a mystification of what was in itself the unreal view of the relation of the state to civil society that obtained under Napoleonic rule. According to this view the state is supposed to make use of civil society to accomplish its own ends which are independent of civil society. Civil society exists only to serve the state (the spirit), to make sacrifices for it. In return the state will protect civil society and guarantee its smooth functioning. The particular interests of civil society, of economic life are all subsumed in the state. They constitute partly the dark background against which the radiant figure of the spirit shines forth, partly they are the fragmented moments into which spirit is dialectically divided when it enters the empirical world in search of itself, when it ‘externalizes’ itself and then re-absorbs that ‘externalized’ reality within itself. We see then the dual tendencies in Hegel’s philosophy that led to the concept of ‘externalization’, namely the real one and the mystified one. Their decisive battle for the control of Hegel’s method will be treated at length in our discussion of The Phenomenology of Mind.

That these tendencies came into conflict in Hegel’s own mind was, as we know, no accident. We have also seen the real source of their conflict in reality itself, namely in the reality of the Napoleonic state. However, the idealistic strains in Hegel’s view of reality are intensified by the determinants of German society. In his criticism of Kant’s philosophy, Marx, who regarded Kant as representing an intellectual reflection of the age of the French Revolution, described the specifically German distortions of French reality as they appeared in the work of the German philosopher. In Kant’s practical reason Marx glimpsed the reflection of the actual material interests of the liberal bourgeoisie:

‘Kant, therefore, separated this theoretical expression from the interests which it expressed; he made the materially motivated determinations of the will of the French bourgeois into pure determination of “free will”, of the will in and for itself. ...’

In this passage Marx supplies both the explanation of a social phenomenon and a criticism of Kantian philosophy; he goes on to describe the particular illusions that inevitably took hold of the minds of Germans in these circumstances:

‘It is this position of the state which explains both the honest character of the civil servant that is found nowhere else, and all the illusions about the state which are current in Germany, as well as the apparent independence of German theoreticians in relation to the burghers – the seeming contradiction between the form in which these theoreticians express the interests of the burghers and these interests themselves.’ [The German Ideology]

Marx never simply put Kant and Hegel into the same category. This criticism, therefore, can only be applied to Hegel in so far as in Hegel too the general influence of the social situation can be detected. Marx repeatedly draws attention of such features of Hegel’s thought in his detailed critique of the Philosophy of Right. In particular, he lays great emphasis on the retrograde character of German society which makes itself felt in Hegel’s view of the role of the bureaucracy in society and the state. Of the greatest philosophical importance is the passage where he speaks of the ‘imaginary universality’ of the bureaucracy in Hegel’s system and where he argues that Hegel’s overall position is that the state and the government are not the representative bodies of civil society, but representative bodies against civil society.

In these critical marginalia on the Philosophy of Right Marx emphasizes again and again that the contradictions in Hegel’s philosophy are the reflections of actual social realities. If he subjects Hegel’s mystifications to the most searching scrutiny he never does so in the belief that Hegel’s ideas about society and the state are entirely arbitrary. He attacks him just because Hegel proposes an image of the modern world which is correct in many respects but in which Hegel does not pick out the really progressive elements. In consequence he finds himself driven increasingly to mystify the existing order. He writes, for example:

‘Hegel is not to be blamed for depicting the modern state as it is but because he presents what is as the essence of the state. The claim that the rational is real is contradicted by irrational reality which is at every point the contrary of what it asserts and which asserts the contrary of what it really is.’

This criticism of Hegel is in fact a concretization of his criticism of Hegel’s ‘uncritical positivism’. Because Hegel was unable to comprehend certain decisive tendencies in modern society, he was compelled to take the appearance for the reality and to ground this pseudo-reality philosophically with the aid of a spurious profundity and a specious show of dialectics. (In the Philosophy of Right Hegel’s uncritical positivism was much more marked than in Jena. But we know from Marx’s criticism that it was present even in the earlier period. Thus Marx’s criticism may be applied to the social and political philosophy of the Jena period, with the one reservation which Marx himself insisted on.)

In the course of his critical discussion Marx broached the problem which constitutes one of the central defects of the entire Hegelian system: the problem of democracy. It is typical of the profundity of the young Marx’s approach that he connected this with the problem of the general and the particular:

‘Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy. Monarchy is necessarily democracy in contradiction with itself, an excrescence, the monarchical aspect is not a contradiction within democracy. Democracy can, monarchy cannot be conceived in its own terms. In democracy none of the aspects acquires any other meaning than the appropriate one. Each is actually only an aspect of the whole people. But in monarchy a part determines the character of the whole. The entire constitution must conform to a fixed point. Democracy is the generic constitution. Monarchy is a species and indeed a poor one. Democracy is “content and form”. Monarchy should only be form, but it falsifies the content.

‘In monarchy the whole, the people, is subsumed under one of its particular modes of existence, under political constitution. In democracy the constitution itself appears only as one determination, and indeed the self-determination of the people. In monarchy we have the people of the constitution; in democracy the constitution of the people. Democracy is the solution of the problem of all constitutions. In democracy the constitution is always based on its actual foundation, on actual man and the actual people not only implicitly and in its essence, but in its existence and its actuality. Here the constitution is man’s and the people’s own work. The constitution appears as what it is: the free product of man. One could say that in a certain sense this is also true of constitutional monarchy, but the specific difference in democracy is that here the constitution is only one particular moment of the people and that the political constitution in itself does not form the state.

‘Hegel proceeds from the state and makes man into the state subjectivized. Democracy proceeds from man and makes the state into man objectivized.’ [1844 Manuscripts]

When Marx describes democracy as a genus and monarchy as a poor species belonging to it, he is not so much indulging in abstraction as reproducing the abstractions of history which, in the course of many revolutions, has finally produced democracy as the perfected form of civil society. And when, only a few years later, Marx described democracy as the most favourable battleground upon which to struggle for socialism, and when he talked of the transformation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the proletarian revolution, he merely pointed to even higher forms of universality, realized by history itself. However, all the while the direction of his study of society remained constant and this is what enabled him to attack Hegel’s social philosophy at its weakest point.

Since Hegel was not in a position to comprehend the movement towards democracy so magnificently inaugurated by the French Revolution, he simply had to abandon the possibility of arriving at the real generalizations that might have been deduced from history, from the dialectical interplay of its particular moments. On the one hand, he was compelled to invest particular moments with the false halo of a specious universality, and on the other he was seduced into crediting these ‘universal’ moments with an independent existence wrenching them from their socio-historical context. Then, having transformed them into fixed autonomous beings he subsumed under them all particular phenomena and all the specific manifestations of society and history.

Thus we are now in a position to see the philosophical implications of the two tendencies we have noted in Hegel’s philosophy of society. The first tendency, namely the true and accurate cognition of actual dialectical processes, becomes the basis of a new dialectical logic. This deduces the general from the movement set up by the contradictions at the level of the particular and is led from one stage to the next by the annulment of these contradictions and the appearance of new, higher ones. The other tendency which leads directly to the idealistic hypostatization of pseudo-universals is forced to adopt the old metaphysical method of subsuming all particulars beneath the general. The conflict between these two tendencies reproduces itself in the Logic as a struggle between dialectics and speculation.

With this we have arrived back at one of the most crucial starting-points of classical German philosophy, namely at that celebrated section in the Critique of Judgment where Kant postulated an ‘intellectus archetypus’. It will be recollected that he regarded it as an eternal frontier of the human understanding that the particular must be subsumed beneath the general. And the ‘intellectus archetypus’ therefore appeared to him as a purely hypothetical type of understanding which could advance from the particular to the general. Since it was hypothetical it could only serve as a ‘regulative’ and not as a ‘constitutive’ idea. The significance of this Kantian programme, we recall, was that, in the guise of delimiting human reason in general, it firmly and distinctly demarcated the limits of metaphysical thought. And the ‘intellectus archetypus’ was a programme for going beyond those limits, a programme for dialectics.

The paths of subjective and objective idealism diverge at the point where it has to be decided whether this programme can, or cannot, be carried out. For all subjective idealists the boundary here is absolute. To the subjective idealist the particular always appears contingent. It makes no difference whether the context is that of Fichte’s rationalistic over-extension of the subject which causes all the particulars of empirical existence to pale into insignificance before its stern moral universality, or whether it results in Jacobi’s worship of the particular from the standpoint of emotive irrationalism: in either case the upshot is the same and the limit set by Kant is not transcended.

Schelling was the first to make an advance with his ‘intellectual intuition’. But here too the intention was better than the performance. He proclaimed the ‘intellectus archetypus’ to be an authentic mode of cognition, albeit one that was the monopoly of the artistic or philosophical genius. But this declaration achieves little of itself. And apart from its contribution to aesthetics Schelling’s whole apparatus really gives very little idea of how the contingency of the particular can be annulled or how the general can be deduced from the particular. Even though he appears to have overcome the merely regulative status of the ‘intellectus archetypus’, in reality he does not get beyond the limits of metaphysical thought.

During the period in which he experimented most freely with Schellingian terms, Hegel made only the most sparing use of the phrase ‘intellectual intuition’ and he always constructed his arguments so as to rely on this new ‘organ’ as little as possible. We have seen the scale of Hegel’s efforts to tear down the barriers between the general and the particular, and we have seen how genuinely philosophical his approach was, i.e. how closely concerned with life and the problem of generalizing about it. Hegel saw clearly that the element of contingency in particular could not simply be removed by decree, nor by the use of analogies as Schelling hoped.

In fact, in Hegel the annulment of contingency takes place on the assumption that it cannot be annulled. We are reminded here of his view of capitalist economics. It is a movement consisting of particular moments, subjective and objective, the peculiarities and faculties of individual people, their possessions, etc., all of which are irrevocably particular. Nevertheless, the universal, the economic law, necessarily emerges from the movements of these irreducibly contingent elements.

In these and other passages Hegel satisfies the conditions necessary for making a reality of the ‘intellectus archetypus’. The Kantian prohibition turns out to be no more than the frontier of metaphysics. By taking the inner contradictions of metaphysics to extremes, by breaking up their immobile facade, by uncovering the concealed dynamic of the contradictions of the real world, Hegel not only points the way to dialectical thought, he also shows that it is not the private monopoly of privileged geniuses but a faculty inherent in all human thought which had been ossified by the habit of metaphysics.

The logical continuation of this road could only be the discovery of materialist dialectics, for this alone can reflect the dialectical movement of reality itself in such a manner as to do away with the Kantian prohibition altogether. But materialist dialectics and historical materialism necessarily go hand in hand. We have seen that the social preconditions of Hegel’s philosophy forced it into an idealistic mould from the outset, and at the same time they set definitive limits to his understanding of the laws governing society and history, limits which only intensified the tendency towards idealism.

Thus Hegel’s approach to dialectics had to be conducted on idealist lines. Its complex birth meant also that his objectivism too has a double aspect. On the one hand, it creates room for the manoeuvres of a real dialectic at a level of consciousness hitherto unknown. On the other hand, that same objectivism strengthens the idealism distorting and mystifying it still further.

Objective idealism requires an authority to guarantee its authenticity. As we have seen, the Hegelian ‘spirit’ is that authority and it fortifies those idealist tendencies which would hypostatize the universal as opposed to the particular and hence constantly force the dialectic back into metaphysics. This double aspect of objectivity is not simply the consequence of its so-called ‘immanent’ method. We have attempted to show how it springs from the socio-historical situation and was exacerbated further by Hegel’s own position within it. Of course, once objective idealism came into existence, its methodological implications necessarily had an impact on tendencies that sprang directly from life itself. But here as everywhere society is the primary reality. And what we set out to show was how that specific social reality and the socially-conditioned understanding of that reality were recognizably reflected in the most complex categories of philosophy, however abstract and remote from them they appeared to be.

Engels has referred to this contradiction in Hegel as the contradiction between his method and his system. In his last years he attempted to induce younger Marxists to renew their acquaintance with Hegel, but he always warned them not to spend too much time on the arbitrary elements in the Hegelian system, and urged them instead to concentrate on the genuine dialectical movements it contained. The first approach would be simple enough and any schoolmaster could accomplish it, the second was vital for any Marxist. Marx too always had the same distinction in mind, even when he was most deeply immersed in bitter feuds with the representatives of Hegelianism. In The Holy Family, that great polemic in which he settles accounts with the Left-Hegelians, he ruthlessly exposes the ‘mystery of speculative constructs’, the false reasoning by means of which Hegel advances from the universal to the particular and the fallacies involved in Hegel’s hypostatization of the universal vis-à-vis the particular. He mercilessly unmasks all the flaws in his arguments and the distortions of reality which spring from idealism of this sort. But at the same time Marx draws a sharp distinction between Hegel and the Hegelians who have acquired only his defects. He defines the difference between their dialectics and Hegel’s in the following manner:

‘Besides, Hegel very often gives a real presentation, a presentation of the matter itself, within his speculative presentation. This real development within speculative development misleads the reader into taking the speculative development as real and the real as speculative.’

This additional distortion of Hegel was not just the work of his immediate disciples but was aggravated by later neo-Hegelians. If the real Hegelian dialectic is to be salvaged from the rubble and brought to life for the contemporary student then its internal contradictions have to be explained in terms of the problems which reveal their origins and social character most clearly: the problems of economics.

Further reading:

Hegel: System of Ethical Life | Jena Lectures 0f 1805-6
Marx: Annotations on Philosophy of Right | Critique of Political Economy | Critique of Hegelian Dialectic | German Ideology Part 3
Lenin: Conspectus of Hegel’s Logic