From The Young Hegel, Georg Lukacs 1938

3.8 ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’

WHATEVER concrete problems we may have chosen for our starting-point, our studies have consistently led us back to the antithesis of materialist and idealist dialectics. But this very fact indicates that the antithesis only becomes manifest in its final form, in the purely epistemological antithesis of idealism and materialism. This final result is the climax of a great historical process: the organization of the revolutionary class of the proletariat as a class ‘for itself’ (Marx) in the midst of a general European revolutionary crisis. In this crisis the central task, the immediate goal, facing a number of very important states (such as Germany and Italy) was still the accomplishment of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The campaign waged by the young Marx against Hegel and a Hegelianism in an advanced state of decomposition illustrates the clear connection between the emergence of materialist dialectics and the ideology of the new revolutionary class: the humanism of the proletariat.

This campaign implied a twofold annulment of bourgeois ideology with all its contradictions. On the one hand, that ideology was subjected to criticism in the course of which materialist dialectics was able to solve a series of problems which the very ideologists of the preceding period had not been able to formulate properly, let alone solve. On the other hand, the new proletarian humanism embraced all the moments of the intellectual tradition which accurately reflected, or tended to reflect, the actual reality with all its contradictions. As in every authentic dialectical supersession the two elements of annulment and preservation go together; the third moment of dialectical supersession: elevation to a higher plane, can take place only on the basis of the unity of these two.

Earlier on (p. 352) we quoted Lenin’s statement that Marx had followed Hegel’s lead. In the historical context of the origins of dialectical materialism this may be taken as referring to the way in which proletarian humanism grew out of the last great crisis of bourgeois thought, just as the class struggle of the proletariat itself grew gradually out of the struggles of the exploited and oppressed for liberation. As Lenin put it there is no Chinese wall between the bourgeois democratic and the proletarian revolution and the proletarian revolution has developed slowly, painfully and uncertainly from the struggles for liberation conducted by the oppressed throughout history. The particular contradictions of the last great period of crisis in the ideological development of bourgeois society (1789-1848) is in every sense the ideological starting-point, the point at which the new world-view of the revolutionary proletariat really can take its cue from the bourgeoisie.

Hegel’s objective idealism is the philosophical apex of this phase of bourgeois thought. It is its climax in the double sense that it represents the philosophical synthesis of thousands of years of human development and, indissolubly connected with that is the fact that it comprehends the contradictory movement of that development, with all its unsolved and insoluble contradictions, all at their highest level. Hegel’s unique position in this period rests on the fact that for the first time in human history the contradictory nature of existence itself was consciously made the central preoccupation of philosophy.

The objective and increasingly insoluble problems of contemporary reality can be found in the works of all the eminent ideologists of the period. A whole series of concrete contradictions is even set forth in more truthful, realistic terms by these thinkers than by Hegel himself. For these thinkers, however, the contradictions are only present objectively, in themselves. As Marx puts it, they all seek the truth ‘amid the “manure” of contradictions’, they frankly declare their findings, but contradictoriness as such does not reveal itself to them as the foundation of objective existence. (Fourier is the only outstanding thinker of the period, apart from Hegel, to divine the central position of contradictoriness as such.) Thus the growing awareness of the insoluble contradictions of history, which culminate in the contradictions of capitalism, drives thinkers like Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen beyond the criticism of capitalism to the point where they call for a new form of society which will really solve the problems they discern; in short, it drives them to socialism.

Ricardo, the last and most consistent of the systematizers of capitalist economics focuses on the development of the material forces of production as the foundation of human progress with an incisiveness hitherto unknown. Nevertheless, although on the surface Ricardo’s system seems entirely coherent, although he himself defends the most barbarous and inhuman consequences of capitalist production against romantic sentimentality in every form, because it alone will lead to the advancement of mankind, the internal contradictions in bourgeois culture are plainly revealed in his work. And these contradictions point not only to the time when the dominant role of the bourgeoisie will come to an end, but they also illuminate the ambiguous and problematic role of the bourgeoisie in a process initiated by itself and on which its own material prosperity and dominant position was based.

It is not our intention here to speak of the contradictions in Ricardo’s theory of value, contradictions which enabled the first ideologists of the proletariat who emerged at the time of the disintegration of his school to draw socialist conclusions from his theories. We need only refer to the ambiguity of Ricardo’s attitude towards the contribution of the bourgeoisie in increasing the material forces of production, an ambiguity which Marx defined as follows:

‘He wants production for the sake of production and this with good reason. To assert, as sentimental opponents of Ricardo’s did, that production as such is not the object, is to forget that production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself Apart from the barrenness of such edifying reflections, they reveal a failure to understand the fact that, although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed.... Thus Ricardo’s ruthlessness was not only scientifically honest but also a scientific necessity from his point of view. But because of this it is also quite immaterial to him whether the advance of the productive forces slays landed property or workers.... Ricardo’s conception is on the whole, in the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie, only because, and in so far as, their interests coincide with that of production or the productive development of human labour. Where the bourgeoisie comes into conflict with this, he is just as ruthless towards it as he is at other times towards the proletariat and the aristocracy.’

Balzac, the great realist of the age, creates in his Human Comedy a compendium of the tragic, tragi-comic and comic contradictions growing out of the soil of bourgeois society and manifesting themselves in the relations between men. The vast scale of Balzac’s work constitutes a gigantic fresco on which the ‘animal kingdom of the spirit’ of capitalism is depicted in all its monstrosity, with its contradictions, its victims, and its heroic and futile struggles against its own inhumanity. Ricardo and Balzac were no socialists, indeed they were declared opponents of socialism. But both Ricardo’s objective economic analysis and Balzac’s literary mimesis of the world of capitalism point to the necessity for a new world no less vividly than Fourier’s satirical criticism of capitalism.

Goethe and Hegel stand on the threshold of the last great and tragic blossoming of bourgeois ideology. Wilhelm Meister and Faust, The Phenomenology of Mind and the Encyclopaedia form one part of the monumental achievement in which the last creative energies of the bourgeoisie are gathered together to give intellectual or literary expression to their own tragically contradictory situation. In the works of Goethe and Hegel the reflection of the heroic period of the bourgeois age is even more clearly visible than in Balzac, for whom the age appears as no more than a glorious prelude to the final and terrible victory of the prose of the capitalist epoch. The young Hegel, in particular, remains under the immediate influence of the heroism and the heroic illusions of the transition period – right up to the end of the heroic age and the fall of Napoleon.

‘But unheroic as bourgeois society is, it nevertheless took heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war and battles of the nations to bring it into being.’ [18th Brumaire]

The young Hegel, in particular, is not prepared to ignore the heroism of the rise of the bourgeoisie because of its later development. Or in other words: he refuses to acknowledge that all the heroism served only to turn the capitalist into the ruler of the world.

The true idealist contradiction in Hegel’s early thought is that he who had discovered the new teleology of human activity was neither able nor willing to perceive the tragic teleology of his own age. He inverts the relationship of ends to means. Whereas in reality all the heroic efforts of the French people, the deeds of all the great heroes from Marat to Napoleon only resulted in the establishment of capitalism on the ruins of feudalism, Hegel is concerned to formulate a philosophy of history that shows how the unleashing of the forces of production by capitalism and the rise of a triumphant bourgeois society will provide the basis for a new heroic age, a new glorious era of human culture.

Hegel’s idealistic error, his inversion of the true state of society nevertheless contains a profound humanist truth, a profound, if also contradictory, criticism of capitalism. For it is clear that if he cannot declare himself satisfied that the entire history of mankind with all its struggles and sacrifices, took place with the sole purpose of finally placing mankind in the capitalist interests of men like Nucingen, Tailleffer and Keller, if he regarded their dominion as a real degradation of mankind as a whole, and if he constructed a heroic utopia to show men the way out of the terrible impasse in which they found themselves, then this utopia must be construed as a very definite protest against capitalism. And objectively, without his knowing or willing it himself, this protest must point beyond the horizon of capitalism no less surely than do Ricardo’s economic analyses or the literary works of the legitimist and royalist Balzac.

Hegel would be a lesser philosopher, a sentimental utopian Romantic, if he had carried through his protest to its logical conclusion. His achievement, the seminal importance of his work rests precisely on his inconsistency, on the fact that he too, like Ricardo, sought, and partly found the truth ‘amid the manure of contradictions’. And when we consider Hegel’s critique of capitalist culture we must never allow ourselves to forget that the inevitability and the progressive nature of capitalism form the starting-point and the methodological core of his philosophy of history.

And by no means in a narrow ‘economic’ sense. His entire philosophy of culture rests on the idea that to modern civil society goes the credit of producing that individuality in which the superiority of modern man over classical man in every sphere of human culture can be said to consist. In Hegel’s view modern individuality is no natural product, it is nothing ‘organic’ as the Romantics imagined when they rigidly contrasted the ‘organic’ individual with the fragmenting and destructive effects of capitalism. On the contrary, it is for him the necessary result of the development of society, or, in philosophical terms, it is the inevitable result of the progressive ‘self-externalization’ of man, a process which reached its height in modern civil society. Thus this contradiction in Hegel’s philosophy of culture has nothing in common with the anti-capitalism of the Romantics. It goes much deeper than that; it consists of the affirmation of the necessity and progressiveness of the forces that led to capitalism, with all their dire consequences to which, as we have seen in his description of poverty and wealth, he never closes his eyes; and at the same time, there is an impassioned struggle against the degradation and deformation of man brought about by capitalism with an equally compelling necessity.

The contradictions that we see in Hegel amount to the dialectical sequel to the criticism of the capitalist division of labour and their cultural implications that we have found in the great English economists of the Enlightenment, and in Ferguson and Adam Smith in particular. The cult of antiquity from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic age and the elevation of this cult to an ideal are founded on the objective impossibility of solving this contradiction of capitalist development. All the utopias which set out to realize or revitalize antiquity, whether politically, culturally or artistically, are premised on the hope of overcoming that great contradiction of the modern world: the destruction of man through the development of his productive energies.

Ricardo’s greatness as an economist lies in the fact that he steadfastly ignored this contradiction; that is to say, he duly recorded all the facts of the matter, while holding fast to the hope that the progressive development of the material forces of production would eventually sweep all the contradictions away. And this is in fact true; Ricardo was quite right. However, it will be true only under socialism, not under capitalism, – and that was where Ricardo was historically wrong. But it is very clear that in the absence of this error his thought would never have generated the power that it in fact possessed and which enabled it to influence a future which of course was necessarily hidden from him.

Hegel approaches this contradiction from the opposite end, from the problems of culture. But this does not alter the fact that a comparable amalgam of truth and error is to be found in his philosophy. The superiority of antiquity over modern society is the precise expression of this contradiction which Ferguson has aptly formulated as follows:

‘If the pretensions to equal justice and freedom should terminate in rendering every class equally servile and mercenary, we make a nation of helots, and have no free citizens.’

This is also the point of view of the young Hegel. And as we have seen, his important contribution from the time of the Frankfurt crisis was to insist that antiquity had gone for ever, that it had ceased to be a model for modern man and that with the development of forces of production by capitalism human history had reached its peak. And he maintained all this despite his veneration of antiquity and his certainty that capitalism is what it is. The tragic contradiction lying at the heart of this development is Hegel’s awareness of the nullity of its central figure: the nullity of the bourgeois.

‘Tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ is the title Hegel gave to a brief and extremely obscure section in the essay on Natural Law, following directly after the discussions we have mentioned, dealing with the inevitability of capitalist society and its progressive nature vis-à-vis antiquity. In highly condensed form Hegel sets forth a summary of the contradiction we have discussed. As he presents it here, it appears as a permanent antithesis in human history, i.e. to a certain extent it is dehistoricized, even though he sharply differentiates between his ancient and modern solutions.

These arguments are among the most obscure in the entire corpus of his early writings. The exaggerated idealism is all too patently obvious. And above all as we have said, a specific modern conflict is rendered permanent. The ‘duplication’ of man as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘citoyen’ appears as a tragic collision of spirit with itself, eternally posed only to be eternally annulled. In order to eternalize life-as-bourgeois i.e. private life, Hegel mystifies it by describing it as ‘nature’, the ‘lower world’. Whereas man’s aspect as citizen becomes the ‘light’ eternally triumphing over the ‘lower world’, but eternally chained to it. Thus ‘dual nature’ of the spirit, this eternal creation and abolition of the contradiction is what constitutes the ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’.

‘This is nothing but a performance of the tragedy in the realm of the ethical which the Absolute puts on for its own benefit so that it is eternally born anew into the objective world and in this form it submits to suffering and death, only to rise again in all its glory from the ashes. The divine assuming this shape and this objectivity has a dual nature, and its life is the absolute identity of these natures.’

Despite the tragedy, and indeed by virtue of it, Hegel must and will find a solution. It is not only the conflict which is eternal, the abolition of conflict is no less permanent. The culmination of objective idealism in the identical subject-object represents on the one hand the mystificatory, intellectualized annulment of (insoluble) contradictions. On the other hand, the very structure of his philosophy, which cannot dispense with the identical subject-object, presses forward in its own right towards the same solution: in the spirit all the contradictions must be annulled, even though we know that Hegel was more interested in the process of annulment than the final state in which all has been annulled.

We are already familiar with the social implications of this annulment: it is the ‘taming’ of the economy by the state (an operation that took a variety of historical forms), its subordination to the interests of a fully-developed, socialized humanity. According to Hegel the ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ unfolds in a variety of historical forms. The beautiful solution achieved by the civilization of antiquity had to perish. For his own age Hegel lived in hopes that ‘the great teacher of constitutional law in Paris’ would discover a novel solution. In this capitalism appears as the material foundation, the servant of the new heroic age. These illusions about Napoleon merge here with the idealist dialectic to form a curious organic synthesis, a synthesis which concludes Hegel’s early development. We have seen how the collapse of his hope that a revival of classical society was possible triggered off a crisis in Frankfurt. His new hopes find their most moving expression in The Phenomenology of Mind and their collapse following the defeat of Napoleon was succeeded by a profound resignation in which he realistically came to terms with the prose of capitalism, whose triumph had now become definitive. Nevertheless, although this contradiction had apparently been resolved, it continued to perplex him and it remained the central problem of Hegel’s philosophical inquiries into culture under capitalism.

The discussion of tragedy in the essay on Natural Law is supplemented by a brief look at the comic solution to the same problem. Here, too, we find different solutions for antiquity and the modern world; here, too, we find the radiant beauty of antiquity and its tragic end, while the prosaic definition and solution of the conflicts of the modern world through comedy is the task of the present. Against the backdrop of the deeds of the world-spirit, the ‘comedy in the realm of the ethical’ becomes manifest in the petty absurdities of the banal conflicts of civil life, especially when these are contrasted with the earnestness and the self-importance with which they are pursued.

‘Contrasted with this there is the other comedy [i.e. as distinct from the Divine Comedy] whose denouments have no destiny or authentic struggle because ethical nature itself feels too constrained. Its conflicts unfold not playfully but by means of complications that seem serious to those involved although comic to the spectators. Their resolutions are sought in an affectation of character and absolute principle which constantly finds itself disappointed and let down.’

It is easy to carp at the tortuous and mystificatory idealism of arguments such as these, but it is more important to ask what lies behind them. Above all, there is a critique of the political impotence of the German bourgeoisie which is extended to include the bourgeoisie as such. We have seen how this point of view grew out of Hegel’s hopes and expectations of Napoleonic rule and his very pertinent criticism of conditions in Germany; we have seen likewise how his blank incomprehension of the problems of democracy and of the political and cultural potential of mass movements set limits to his insight.

But for all his limitations here he does put his finger on one aspect of bourgeois society which will only become obvious later on in the nineteenth century: the failure of the bourgeoisie, the German bourgeoisie in particular, to use its dominant economic position to obtain the political power it deserved. This is a matter to which Engels drew attention in 1870:

‘It is a peculiar feature of the bourgeoisie in which it is unlike all previous ruling classes: there is a turning-point in its development after which every increase in its power, in its capital above all, only serves to make it more and more incapable of wielding political authority.’

This remark which refers immediately to the German bourgeoisie is itself formulated so as to apply to the bourgeoisie in general. In an essay on historical materialism he makes this generalization more explicit still:

‘It seems a law of historical development that the bourgeoisie can in no European country get hold of political power – at least for any length of time – in the same exclusive way in which the feudal aristocracy kept hold of it during the Middle Ages.’

Naturally, there could be no question of any such insight in Hegel, since Engels’ statement was made in the full awareness of the growing strength of the proletariat, while Hegel knew nothing of class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and its political and cultural consequences. Nevertheless Hegel did observe the ‘political nullity’ of the bourgeoisie, and this, together with his awareness of their growing economic power and the generally progressive nature of that power, shows that he had an intuitive insight into the future position of the bourgeoisie in modern society.

We have already mentioned one notably idealistic element in Hegel’s discussion of ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’, namely his treatment of a specific modern problem as if it were an eternal human conflict. But even this exaggeration contains a grain of truth since it anticipates a genuine conflict between the real potential of mankind and the limitations placed upon it by the economic activities of class society as such. For the human race as a whole work has undoubtedly been the foundation of progress; and at that level of generality Hegel sees no contradiction. The contradiction only starts when we examine the progress of the individual in the various class societies. It then turns out that the great human and cultural advances of history, looked at from the point of view of the individuals involved in them, stand in contradiction to the subjugation of man to economic activities and to the division of labour.

In the heyday of antiquity the strict division between what Hegel would call the ‘lower world’ of economic labour carried out by slaves and the high culture of the freemen who exploited that economic base was one of the factors that placed classical culture in such a seductive light. Of course, honest thinkers could only succumb to this as long as they remained blind to the true facts of the situation. We have already referred to Ferguson’s remark which envisaged not the general emancipation of humanity following the abolition of the division between freemen and slaves, but the transformation of all men into helots, i.e. the general debasement of all the talents and abilities of man, of human personality in fact, as a result of the extension of economic activity to all the members of society. Hegel, who, as we have repeatedly emphasized, was disinclined to indulge in romantic sentimentality and who never underestimated the importance and the progressive nature of capitalism, nevertheless stood firmly opposed to the cultural value placed on economic activity both by the classical economists and their disciples and critics.

In his historic analysis of Adam Smith Marx gives a detailed account of the great debate that echoed through the whole of Europe, on Smith’s distinction between productive and unproductive labour, a debate in which the economic ideologists of the Directory and the Consulate (Garnier) and the Empire (Ferrier and Ganilh) played a prominent part. Like the bourgeoisie in general during its revolutionary phase, Smith regarded all non-economic activities as the incidental expenses of production which must be reduced to the absolute minimum in the interests of the increased development of productive forces. (The affinity with the views of Ricardo referred to above is evident.)

In line with this all the great economists tended to equate the various forms of unproductive labour with each other and they advanced their views with the frankness and the cynical aplomb of true revolutionaries. For instance, Marx quotes the following statement in Adam Smith:

‘They are the servants of the public, and are maintained by a part of the annual produce of the industry of other people.... In the same class must be ranked ... churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, operadancers, etc..’

Marx comments:

‘This is the language of the still revolutionary bourgeoisie which has not yet subjected to itself the whole of society, the state, etc. All these illustrious and time-honoured occupations – sovereign, judge, officer, priest, etc., – with all the old ideological professions to which they give rise, their men of letters, their teachers and priests, are from an economic standpoint put on the same level as the swarm of their own lackeys and jesters maintained by the bourgeoisie and by idle wealth – the landed nobility and idle capitalists. They are mere servants of the public, just as the others are their servants. They live on the produce of other people’s industry, therefore they must be reduced to the smallest possible number.’

The substance of this clear revolutionary standpoint is contained in Ricardo’s later exhortation to develop the forces of production whatever the cost. It is modified once the ideologists of the bourgeoisie have acquired power, or at least a decisive influence on the government, usually on the basis of significant compromises. This is the beginning of that ‘educated’ outlook which attempts to justify all the activities the bourgeoisie finds useful or desirable by extending the concept of productivity to them, i.e. by regarding the labour involved in them as somehow productive in an economic sense. For this attitude in which we can see the clean and strict principles of classical economics being transformed into an apologia for the bourgeoisie, Marx has unrelieved contempt. He quotes this statement by Nassau Senior:

‘According to Smith, the lawgiver of the Hebrews was an unproductive labourer.’

And he comments:

‘Was it Moses of Egypt or Moses Mendelssohn? Moses would have been very grateful to Mr. Senior for calling him a “productive labourer” in the Smithian sense. These people are so dominated by their fixed bourgeois ideas that they would think they were insulting Aristotle or Julius Caesar if they called them “unproductive labourers”. Aristotle and Caesar would have regarded even the title “labourers” as an insult.’

Hegel’s view seems to be directed against both Smith and his detractors. In reality there is only a gulf between him and these ‘educated’ apologists of the bourgeoisie. It did not occur to him for a moment to justify the existence of the universal class by describing its members as productive workers in some figurative sense of the term. On the contrary, in all the writings where he is concerned to define the different estates he emphasized that the ‘universal class’ is economically inactive and lives on the fruits of the labours of the second and third estates. In fact it can only be held to be a universal class in Hegel’s eyes because it is unproductive.

Now, when Hegel distributes all the light on the side of unproductive activities and the shadows on the side of the bourgeoisie, he poses a problem that did not even occur to Smith and Ricardo, since they, and especially Ricardo, had their attention focused above all on the development of productive forces and the consequent advancement of humanity. (This is not to imply that either of them was blind to the human and cultural consequences of e.g. the capitalist division of labour. On the contrary, both men saw the problems very clearly and Smith especially who was not a disciple of Ferguson devoted much thought to them. But all this was secondary in their eyes to the great question of the development of the material forces of production.)

The hard core of Hegel’s conception of ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ is that he is wholeheartedly in agreement with Adam Smith’s view that the development of the material forces of production is progressive and necessary, even in respect to culture since, as we have repeatedly maintained, the higher, more developed and spiritual form of individuality of the modern world goes hand in hand with the growth in the productive forces. He is as forceful as Smith and Ricardo in his strictures on the complaints of the Romantics about the modern world and he heaps scorn on their sentimentality which fixes on particulars while ignoring the overall situation. But at the same time, he also sees – and this brings him closer to the interests and preoccupations of Balzac and Fourier – that the type of man produced by this material advance in and through capitalism is the practical negation of everything great, significant and sublime that humanity had created in the course of its history up to then. The contradiction of two necessarily connected phenomena, the indissoluble bond between progress and the debasement of mankind, the purchase of progress at the cost of that debasement – that is the heart of the ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’.

Thus Hegel articulates one of the great contradictions of capitalist society (and with certain reservations, of all class societies). The opaque, mystificatory form and the illusory solution of the Jena period should not blind us to the fact that Hegel has hit upon a crucial contradiction in the history of bourgeois society, a contradiction that the founders of Marxism always acknowledged and which only the Menshevik opportunists and the vulgar sociology that followed them continually obscured in their eagerness to kowtow to the bourgeoisie. Maxim Gorki gave his view of the question in the speech he made at the Writers’ Congress in Moscow in 1934:

‘We have every reason to hope that when one day the history of culture is written by Marxists, it will be revealed that the creative contribution of the bourgeoisie to culture has been greatly exaggerated.... The bourgeoisie is not favourably inclined towards cultural creativity, nor has it ever been – if we think of creativity as something larger than the uninterrupted growth of external material comforts and luxuries. The culture of capitalism – what is it but a system of measures taken to ensure the physical and moral expansion of the bourgeoisie and the strengthening of its hold over people. mineral wealth and the forces of nature throughout the entire world?’ [Soviet Literature]

What Gorki asserts confirms what Marx repeatedly said of the role of the bourgeoisie in the culture of the modern world. It is interesting to note that in such statements Marx frequently refers to the culture of antiquity as an appropriate standard by which to judge the shabby inhumanity, the base hypocrisy of bourgeois ideologists and to see them in their true light. Thus in one passage he talks of the illusions of classical poets and philosophers who had hoped that technical inventions and the mechanization of labour would lead to the liberation of mankind, and he adds:

‘Oh those heathens! They understood, as the learned Bastiat, and before him the still wiser MacCulloch have discovered, nothing of political economy and Christianity. They did not, for example, comprehend that machinery is the surest means of lengthening the working-day. They perhaps excused the slavery of one on the ground that it was a means to the full development of the other. But to preach the slavery of the masses, in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus might become “eminent spinners”, “extensive sausage-makers” and “influential shoe-black dealers”, to do this they lacked the bump of Christianity.’

This annihilating criticism of the inhumanity and the anti-cultural nature of capitalism was anticipated by the major ideologists of what we described as the last great crisis of bourgeois development. In the case of Fourier, of course, the transition from the critique of capitalism to the advocacy of socialism is an important factor and one which adds clarity and incisiveness to his criticism. At the moment when the vision of a socialist society is added to the perspective of the dissolution of the economic and cultural contradictions of capitalism, the movement of those contradictions can itself be seen in a new light. Nevertheless, anyone who takes the trouble to compare the novels of Balzac with Fourier’s criticism will be astonished to see how closely the conservative novelist parallels the utopian socialist.

Goethe and Hegel not only belong to an earlier, less well-developed stage in the growth of capitalism, but they also lived in Germany, where its contradictions were much less clearly manifest. Nevertheless, the great works of Goethe constantly reveal these contradictions, directly criticize them and put forward opposing models (sometimes of a utopian variety).

As an abstract thinker, Hegel was in a much more difficult position than Goethe or Balzac. It could not satisfy him simply to portray the contradictions of capitalism and the anti-cultural phenomena that come to light in the midst of economic progress in terms of particular human individuals and types. On the contrary, he was compelled to abstract from experience and frame the contradictions at the highest possible level of generality, to see them as philosophical contradictions of life itself. Because of the social situation in which he found himself, and which we have described, he could not progress beyond the point of articulating the problems, indeed his method induced him to construct specious, mystificatory solutions for dilemmas that had proved intractable. But all that notwithstanding, the contradictions of capitalist culture are as clearly expressed in his thought as in the works of the other major poets and philosophers who together with him make up the last great age of bourgeois culture.

However, we have by no means exhausted the philosophical profundities of ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’. Hitherto we have confined ourselves chiefly to the substance of the contradictions explored by Hegel and have paid no heed to the particular ways in which he mystifies them. But if we now turn our attention to this we shall see, firstly, that the formal aspects of his argument are by no means purely formal and that they are bound up for good or ill with the substantive problems of his view of society and his philosophy in general. Secondly, we have observed frequently that Hegel’s mystifications are rarely quite simple in nature. No doubt, they are often just idealistic evasions of a problem which Hegel finds insoluble for social or philosophical reasons. In very many cases, however, these mystifications or pseudo-solutions or false dilemmas are closely, if deviously, connected with problems which he could not indeed resolve but which he could illuminate in a stimulating and profound manner, often glimpsing a solution he could not quite reach. In all these cases it is vital to distinguish the false depth from the true, for often it is hard to keep them apart in Hegel.

The particular manifestation of mystification in ‘Tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ is its view of a struggle between the ‘light’ aspects of human existence with the ‘dark’ forces of the ‘lower world’. In illustration of these terms Hegel himself refers to the Oresteia of Aeschylus where the battle between light and darkness is fought out by Apollo and the Eumenides, and the indecisive end of the tragedy with its propitiation of the avenging Furies is meant to show that in history, too, neither of the two principles can be finally defeated and destroyed; on the contrary, the eternal renewal of the conflict between them is the tragedy in the realm of the ethical. This consists, as Hegel says, in the fact that:

‘ethical nature, in order not to become inextricably enmeshed in its inorganic part, divides itself off from it and stands opposed to it as to its fate; but then through recognizing it in the course of the struggle, it becomes reconciled to the divine essence which is the union of the two.’

The ‘lower world’ manifests itself in a variety of ways. Above all in the family, which according to Hegel is the ‘highest totality of which nature is capable.’ It goes without saying that his aim is not to deny the social character of love, marriage and the family. But he is concerned, and rightly so, to repudiate e.g. Kant’s barbarous view of marriage in which all its natural aspects together with the cultural and spiritual values it generates are extinguished, and in which, as a consequence, the physical side of love is reduced to an arbitrary contract regulating the use of organs and faculties. In contrast to this Hegel constructs a complex dialectic of natural and the social determinants that convincingly demonstrates the superiority of objective over subjective idealism. But the problem of the family has another aspect for Hegel, one which combines profound intuitions about its real historical co-ordinates with the limitations inherent in his historical and philosophical horizon.

Hegel had no more idea of the nature of tribal society than any other scholar of his time. He believed, however, and rightly so, that the state must have been preceded by a stateless society. Hegel fixes on the family of the ‘lower world’, with its close ties with nature, and makes it the embodiment of spirit in this primitive, stateless society. In The Phenomenology of Mind he gives an admirable and comprehensive analysis of these two stages of society in his discussion of the tragic conflict in the Antigone of Sophocles. In a sense he anticipates the discussion of the Oresteia by Bachofen and Engels.

The difference between them is that Bachofen, writing much later and, of course, from within the limits of his own view of history, hit upon the problem of matriarchy, and that Engels was able to clarify the mystifications in his view with the aid of Morgan’s discoveries and provide them with a materialist explanation. We repeat: Hegel had no conception of tribal society or matriarchal systems. His notion of a society without a state is unhistorical since he bases it on the family, a much later phenomenon. This error is one he shares with his age.

However, his discussion of the Antigone gains greatly in stature and anticipates these future discoveries, thanks to his extraordinarily impartial analysis of the historical rights and wrongs of the tragic conflict and his demonstration of the dialectical ‘rightness’ of the opposing sides. He can see the historical justification of Creon’s point of view and the necessity underlying it: the inevitable triumph of the state. At the same time he can recognize the ethical superiority of Antigone and the state of society for which she speaks. This impartiality not only results in a brilliant analysis; it also expresses that contradictory view of progress to which Engels draws attention in his own reflections on the break-up of tribal society. What is striking about Hegel’s view of the Antigone is the way in which the two poles of the contradiction are maintained in a tense unity: on the one hand, there is the recognition that tribal society stands higher morally and humanly than the class societies that succeed it, and that the collapse of tribal society was brought about by the release of base and evil human impulses. On the other hand, there is the equally powerful conviction that this collapse was inevitable and that it signified a definite historical advance. And even though the entire discussion was clarified immeasurably by the later discoveries of Bachofen, Morgan and finally Engels, it should not be forgotten that Hegel’s abstract and in certain crucial respects, wrong-headed recognition of the contradictory nature of the rise of the state nevertheless forms the basis of his war between the light powers of the gods and the powers of the ‘lower world’.

A further feature of the ‘lower world’ is already known to us: it is the ‘incalculable power’ of a cohesive economic system. We have seen that Hegel repeatedly succumbed to the illusion that the economy could be tamed by the intervention of the state. But his correct understanding of definite antagonistic trends in the capitalist economy led him to the conclusion. that if these antagonisms were allowed too much scope they might easily lead to the collapse of society.

‘In that event great wealth, which is indissolubly connected with the direst poverty – since through division labour becomes universal and objective on both sides – produces on the one hand in ideal universality and on the other in reality and mechanically. And this purely quantitative, inorganic quality of labour, where all is isolated right down to the concept, is the worst form of barbarism. The first characteristic of the class of traders, its capacity for an organically absolute intuition and respect for something divine, (which admittedly is external to it) disappears, and bestial contempt for all higher values takes its place. Absence of wisdom, the purely universal, the mass of wealth – that is the sum of existence; and the bond uniting the whole people, the ethical, vanishes and the people is dissolved.’

This makes it quite clear why Hegel regarded the entire realm of economics as one of the powers of the ‘lower world’ against which the God of Light of civilization and the state had to struggle continuously.

In these and other manifestations of the ‘natural’ the ‘lower world’ in society we can see Hegel’s ‘uncritical positivism’ at work, a tendency we have already criticized in the appropriate place. However, there are other and more important features of the ‘lower world’. If we hark back to what Hegel said about work and the tools of work it will be remembered that spirit, conscious human activity was put higher than mere nature, and that through spirit nature was brought under the control of conscious human activity. At the same time, however, the objectivity of nature did not cease to exist, it was not eliminated by spirit but continued to act on and interact with society. And it is a very important feature of Hegel’s supersession of subjective idealism that he does not impose abstractions upon nature but integrates it in society through this concrete dialectic.

This introduces conflicts of the most varied sort into his philosophy. It forces him to acknowledge the authentic existence, the autonomy of the powers of the ‘lower world’. Hegel is the first thinker in Germany to acknowledge that economic life is governed by laws of its own, and for all his illusions about the mitigating influence of the state he never conceives of state intervention in the form of abstract regulations which would do violence to the nature of the economy or attempt, as Fichte does, to do away with the laws of capitalism by a simple fiat. But just because he does call for a concrete process of interaction, admittedly in an abstract and mystificatory manner, the real social basis for ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ is created. This in turn is due to Hegel’s recognition of the blind, elemental character of the capitalist economy.

Thus in the ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ we find a continuous tragic struggle between the forces of ‘externalization’ (civilization, the state light) and those of nature (the immediate and elemental – the ‘lower world’), a struggle whose chief characteristic in Hegel’s eyes is the dialectical interplay between the opposing forces. For, on the one hand, the essence of social progress, i.e., the triumph of civilization over nature, is no once-and-for-all matter, nor is it a smooth ‘infinite progress, but a victory arising from a conflict which is always being renewed and always fought with increasing violence. On the other hand, civilization can never gain an absolutely decisive victory. For Hegel’s humanism postulates the whole man in a state of integrity. The climax of ‘externalization’ is the turning-point where ‘externalization’ is revoked, re-absorbed into the subject and annulled. Without this constantly renewed struggle with the forces of the ‘lower world’ man would lose all contact with nature, with the elemental forces of existence and would degenerate into an abstraction, a machine.

The dialectical interplay between the different moments must also be considered from the other side, from the point of view of civilization, the state, the gods of light. We have seen how for Hegel the essence of the state, its independence and domination of civil society was embodied in the military caste, the necessary apex of the universal class. And at this juncture the ‘lower world’, the elemental re-appears with a new lease of life, just when it had seemed to be utterly defeated.

We have already discussed that aspect of Hegel’s theory according to which the state of nature re-emerges in the relations between independent states. We have seen how he considered every attempt to enforce legal sanctions as merely provisional, and he saw that international treaties would endure only as long as they coincided with the real interests, the real power relations and the real shifts in power among the states concerned. Hegel has a very realistic view of the relations between juridical control and social realities, unlike his illusions about the rule of law within the state. (And even here, as we have noted in the case of his interpretation of the collapse of feudalism and the French Revolution, these illusions are not unlimited.)

Thus it is only in its relations with civil society that the state can function as a true god of light. By realizing its own existence it enters the realm of the ‘lower world’ and is engulfed by the elemental powers of necessity. Moreover, it is from the elemental collision between states, the unavoidable reappearance of the state of nature that the real meaning of history is born. Schiller’s aphorism: ‘Universal history is universal judgment’, provides a motto for the entire drama. And to the extent that it does so, we may regard the realm of history ultimately as a victory for the god of light. But it is evident, nevertheless, that the ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ acted out ‘below’ is reproduced ‘above’ throughout the entire process of world history.

The reappearance of this fundamental contradiction at a higher level has an interesting precedent in his analysis of the ‘universal class’, at the apex of which stands the warrior, an analysis of such moment that we must pause to consider it briefly, We are already familiar with one aspect of it: the military caste appears as the very epitome of the state. of the ‘light’ side of man.

But there is also another side to the matter, almost diametrically opposed to the first side and it is stated most clearly in the System of Ethics. This contains a chapter with the title ‘The Negative or Freedom or Crime’. In this chapter Hegel develops a number of principles which he later gathers together as the several strands of his view of the social and historical role of evil. He begins with a series of concrete examples of negation as seen in the historical representatives of ‘natural destruction’ such as Ghengis Khan and Tamburlane.

‘The fanaticism of destruction is outwardly invincible, because it is absolutely elemental, having taken the form of nature; for the differentiated and the determinate must succumb to the undifferentiated and the indeterminate. But like all that is negative, it contains within itself its own negation.’

It would be striking and interesting enough if Hegel had contented himself with deducing modern war from this vantage-point. But his actual argument is more interesting still. In what follows he goes on to discuss individual acts of criminality within a society already constituted. He speaks of robbery and theft, of crimes against honour, and he makes it especially clear that they signify the re-establishment of a state of nature. From there he proceeds to discuss murder, revenge and duelling, ending up in war as the state of nature reinstated.

In the later Lectures the logical deduction of the military caste is explained in a manner wholly consonant with this.

‘War and the class of soldiers are ... the actual sacrifice of the self, the danger of death for the individual, the contemplation of his abstract immediate negativity, which is also his immediate positive self – (for crime is necessarily implicit in the concept of law dealing with right and force) – so that each person as this individual makes himself into absolute power, regards himself as absolutely free, real and for himself as opposed to some other which is universal negativity. In war this is granted to him; it is crime on behalf of the universal interest, its purpose is the maintenance of the whole against the enemy who would destroy it.’

Here we have the succinct summary of the earlier argument: war is crime on behalf of the universal interest. Hegel goes on to underscore heavily this universal interest to which war is subject, a moral necessity that goes hand in hand with his realistic view of history. For in the course of the argument he demonstrates the modern character of war, i.e. he shows how socialization and ‘externalization’ permeate even war, and this shows once again that his military caste has nothing in common with a cult of the nobility or the romantic glorification of chivalry. He continues:

‘This “externalization” must have this abstract form, it must be unindividuated, death must be coldly meted out and received, not as in the pitched battle where the individual looks his enemy in the eye and kills him in an upsurge of hatred, but death must be given and ‘received emptily, impersonally, from amidst the powder fumes.’

It might appear as if, by interpolating ‘externalization’ in its modern form, Hegel was attempting to annul the natural, elemental, ‘lower worldly’ aspects of war, so as to remove his warrior, notwithstanding his earlier arguments, from the control of these powers and to present him as the real apex of the state, of the citoyen, as the protagonist of the god of light. This aspect is undoubtedly present but as a whole the argument is more complex and contradictory. For his intention is by no means to suggest that negation, crime, is simply the immediate, elemental and natural, something starkly opposed to the social without any possible interaction. But the contrary is the case: as we have seen the path leading from Tamburlane to the modern soldier is one of ‘externalization’, of socialization. And this is true also of the intermediate types of individual crime. They too contain stages of ‘externalization’. Indeed, Hegel regards evil as the climax of ‘externalization’ though in a form in which it can be transformed into its opposite. It is not for nothing that the section under discussion should also have included the word ‘freedom’ in the title. He concludes, by way of summary:

Evil – individuality which has entered wholly into itself and is therefore entirely “externalized”. It is a self that has abandoned its own existence and knows another world as its own. In actuality only this “externalization” becomes manifest.’

Thus we can see how the obscure contradictions treated in ‘Tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ provide the intellectual foundations of one of the crucial problems in his entire philosophy of history. Engels, in his critical comments on Feuerbach’s moral views, emphasized the superiority of precisely this aspect of Hegel’s thought over that of Feuerbach:

‘With Hegel evil is the form in which the motive force of historical development presents itself. This contains the twofold meaning that, on the one hand, each new advance necessarily appears as a sacrilege against things hallowed, as a rebellion against conditions, though old and moribund, yet sanctified by custom; and that, on the other hand, it is precisely the wicked passions of man – greed and lust for power – which, since the emergence of class antagonisms, serve as levers of historical development – a fact of which the history of feudalism and of the bourgeoisie, for example, constitutes a single continual proof.’

Hegel’s bourgeois commentators constantly waver between two extremes. Before it became fashionable to praise him as ‘the greatest irrationalist’ in the history of philosophy, it was not uncommon for him to be criticized for being ‘panlogical, i.e. all too harmonious. Above all, at the time when the superficial pessimism of Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann was in vogue, it was customary to condemn Hegel for ignoring the darker sides of human existence. A knowledge of his real philosophy shows that he had nothing in common either with the superficial optimism of a direct apologia of bourgeois society, or with the equally superficial pessimism of an indirect apologia.

On the contrary, he stands in a line of great philosophers who from the beginnings of bourgeois society have insisted that the progress of man is inseparably intertwined with the worst impulses of human nature, with ‘greed and lust for power’. In this sense Hegel’s philosophy is the direct continuation of Hobbes and Mandeville, with the important difference that what in their case had been a spontaneous dialectic, a descriptive presentation of the contradictory nature of human progress, had become in his works a conscious dialectic, a philosophy of contradiction. Marx always saw Hegel’s philosophy in just this context. After reading Darwin he wrote to Engels saying:

‘It is remarkable how Darwin can examine the world of plants and animals and discover there his own English society with its division of labour, competition, the opening up of new markets, “inventions”, and Malthus’ “struggle for existence”. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and reminds one of Hegel in the Phenomenology where. bourgeois society appears as the “animal kingdom of the spirit”, whereas in Darwin the animal kingdom appears as bourgeois society.’ [Marx To Engels, 18 June 1862]

Here again we find the same ambiguity in Hegel’s theory of contradiction which we have already noted. On the one hand – and that is Hegel’s greatness – he is utterly frank in his presentation of the contradictions he finds and the impossibility of resolving them. The ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ is nothing but the great tragedy of the contradictory path of human progress in the history of class societies – a great and real tragedy; for the extremes of the elements in conflict are both valid and in the wrong.

Hence although Hegel also analyses ‘comedy in the realm of the ethical’ it is the tragedy that is the closer to reality.

‘Comedy separates the two zones of the ethical so that each exists for itself. In one antagonisms and the finite appear as a shadow without substance, while in the other the absolute is a delusion. However, the authentic and absolute relationship is that the one is manifest in all earnestness in the other, and that each enters bodily into relationship with the other so that together they constitute fate in all its earnestness for each other. Thus the absolute relationship is to be found in tragedy.’

Since Hegel could not look beyond the confines of class society in general, and bourgeois society in particular, his commitment to tragedy bears testimony to his utter integrity as a thinker: he recognized the contradictions of progress within class society as irremediable.

But even this is not the whole story. From the moment that these contradictions entered his mind at the time of the Frankfurt crisis, the tendency towards their ‘reconciliation’ began to develop. And from Frankfurt to the late Berlin period it was not only present but it constantly grew in strength. It would be easy to condemn this tendency as something merely negative, as a simple accommodation to the civil society of his day. No doubt, such conformist elements are implicit in his concept of ‘reconciliation'; we have repeatedly drawn attention to the distorting effects of its triumph over indissoluble contradictions in his philosophy of society.

Hegel himself, however, often had the opposite feeling: the realization that the contradictions were insoluble was more important than their ‘reconciliation’. Thus, in the passage just quoted, the task Hegel assigns to comedy is identical with what he elsewhere regards as the key to the contradictions of civil society: viz., the separation of the spheres of the bourgeois and the citoyen, the primacy of the public realm of the state over the private realm of civil society. And if he now arrives at the conclusion that the absolute relationship is to be discovered in tragedy where this separation does not take place, where the opposed sides contend with each other to the point where both are destroyed, then the implied criticism of his own concept of ‘reconciliation’ is plain to see.

At the same time, it would be superficial to urge that Hegel would have been all the greater if he had never taken up the concept of ‘reconciliation’. For the real, dialectical analysis of human progress and its contradictions can only be undertaken from a point of view dominated by a belief in the ultimate victory of progress, despite all the contradictions. Only the perspective of a classless society can provide a view of the tragedies to be encountered en route without succumbing to the temptations of a pessimistic romanticism. For this reason we must place Fourier’s social criticism higher than Hegel’s.

If this perspective is not available to a thinker – and we have seen that it could not be available to Hegel – then there are only two possibilities open to anyone who has a clear view of the contradictions. Either he will hold fast to the contradictions, in which case he will end up as a romantic pessimist. Or he will keep his faith, despite everything, that progress is inevitable, however many tragedies lie along the road. In that case his faith must be embodied in one or other of the mystifications of false consciousness.

The greatness of the age in which Hegel lived and worked is manifest in many ways; one of them is that there is scarcely any possible problem and solution which did not find an advocate to argue it out at the highest level. This is certainly true of our first-mentioned possibility of holding fast to contradictions regarded as irreconcilable. The advocate of this position was the outstanding philosopher of Romanticism in Germany, Solger, a man whom Hegel held in the highest esteem for his integrity and his intellectual prowess.

In Solger the problem we are discussing appears in a much more mystified form than in Hegel himself. He formulates the contradiction as one between the absolute and its incarnation in the empirical world. Turning back to the introductory words of Hegel’s ‘Tragedy in the realm of the ethical’ we recollect that according to him, the absolute ‘is eternally born anew into the objective world’. We can see Solger concerned with the same problem in a more abstract form (for all that he is directly concerned with it as a problem in the philosophy of art). In the concluding paragraphs of his principal work on aesthetics we says of the relation of the absolute to its incarnation in the empirical world:

‘... and sorrow without end must take hold of us when we see that which is most glorious doomed to destruction by the necessity of an earthly existence. And yet we cannot put the blame anywhere but upon the perfect thing itself as it is revealed to us in time; for that which is merely of the earth, when we only perceive it, holds together through its links with other things and as part of an unending process of birth and death. Now this transitional moment in which the idea necessarily annihilates itself must be the true scat of art.’

We cannot pause to discuss the aberrations that this conception of contradictoriness led Solger into for all his ability and integrity. Suffice it to say that it enabled him to provide the most profound, and most dialectical explanation of the mistaken and distorted concept of ‘Romantic irony’ so that notwithstanding his greater philosophical gifts he ended up by going the way of the Schellings and Schlegels. And this is no accident, just as it is no accident that Hegel’s attempt to reconcile the inexorably tragic course of human progress led to such a rich and concrete, account of history and society, while Solger’s retention of tragic contradiction led only to abstract mystification.

This last contrast offers a pointer to the internal contradictions in Hegel’s concept of ‘reconciliation’. On the one hand, it presents an idealistic mystification of irreconcilable contradictions. On the other band, this very fact points to Hegel’s underlying realism, his commitment to the concrete social realities of his age, his profound understanding of the actual life of man in society, his aspiration to see the contradictions in human progress where they are actually fought out in the arena of economic life. Only because of this love of reality and his profound commitment to it could the concrete richness of the Hegelian dialectic come into being. And if his system culminates in reconciliation, this only shows that, as long as the horizon of class society is closed off, human progress even in the realm of the mind, of philosophy, is compelled to take detours through the labyrinths of what Engels called ‘false consciousness’.