What is Alive & what is Dead in the Philosophy of Hegel

paper by Andy Blunden for Hegel seminar 18th June 1999

My own education in the Communist movement led me for many years to concentrate my attention, in the study of Hegel's writing, exclusively upon The Logic. Recently, I have been reading the Philosophy of Right, the work that Marx's earliest writings were directed at. I have found this experience enormously liberating. At last, I feel, I can see what Hegel was driving at with his Logic. In the 25 minutes available, I just want to make 8 specific points about what is dead or alive in the logic on the basis of my reading of the Philosophy of Right.

In the concluding lines of the Philosophy of Right Hegel says of the State:

These two realms [the mundane realm of feelings, needs, etc., and the intellectual realm] stand distinguished from one another though at the same time they are rooted in a single unity and Idea. Here [in the history of modern states] their distinction is intensified to absolute opposition and a stern struggle ensues in the course of which the realm of mind lowers the place of its heaven to an earthly here and now, to a common worldliness of fact and idea. The mundane realm, on the other hand, builds up its abstract independence into thought and the principle of rational being and knowing, i.e. into the rationality of right and law. In this way their opposition implicitly loses its marrow and disappears. The realm of fact has discarded its barbarity and unrighteous caprice, while the realm of truth has abandoned the world of beyond and its arbitrary force, so that the true reconciliation which discloses the state as the image and actuality of reason has become objective. [Philosophy of Right § 360]

  1. Hegel's concept of Concrete Universal, as opposed to the more dominant Abstract General concept;
    Hegel's concept of the movement of truth is one of his greatest achievements. It is an idealisation of the concept of state presented in his Philosophy of Right, a state of property owners, between whom there are no fundamental contradictions, and truth may be arrived at by continuously reconciling the conflict between opposing interests and views.
    Hegel's Logic can be read as handbook for consensus decision-making, developing in detail the idea that the truth between opposing views can be arrived at by transcending conflict, by synthesis.
    Hegel's concept is opposed to the method of majority decision-making in which a decision is made by a Yes-No vote on a given proposition. This abstract general method of arriving at truth leads to the well-known numbers game, which seeks out the lowest common denominator, the single abstract proposition which is common to all the contending propositions, and this conception is the foundation of the modern bourgeois-democratic constitution.
    It is also well-known that consensus decision-making breaks down in the face of a fundamental conflict of interest.
    It is my contention that Hegel's Notion, reflected in his attempt to heal the split between the modern state and civil society, has been abandoned in the real history of the modern state, the bourgeois republic, which is based precisely on the abstract general concept of truth, given political form in popular suffrage and large geographical electorates, and the reduction of political rights to equally barren and disempowering abstractions. This form of government is well-known as a fraud, and was denounced as such by Hegel. But is was a fraud embraced by the bourgeoisie because in the decade after Hegel's death, the organised working class came on to the scene of history, and could only be governed by means of a fraud.
    Hegel's concept of truth will have its day again, but only after the smashing of the bourgeois republic and its replacement by the self-organised associations of producers.
    So, I am saying that Hegel's Logic is the highest expression of reconciliation, but at the same time stands in stark opposition to the reality of capitalism today.
  2. The Absolute Idea in particular, and the Idea in general;
    The movement of the concrete universal concept in Hegel's Logic is of sucessive concretisation. This concept of truth is an idealisation of the Constitutional Monarchy described in the Philosophy of Right, and incidentally bears a resemblance to the Constitution of the Soviet Union.
    In logical terms it stands for the process whereby notions reflecting different aspects of reality are merged or unified in a "unified theory" of which each becomes a special case. Successive abstract notions are brought together, and concretised and approach the form of the Individual, but as mediated rather than immediate. It is a valid notion up to a point. However, the "unified theory" envisaged in natural science, especially physics, continues to elude us. Further, the concept of state and industrial organisation in the modern world has not substantiated this concept. Hegel's concept was directed against the successive abstraction of the labour process given its expression in Taylorism, and is most accurately reflected in the type of industrial organisation popular in the post-world war two period which souhgt to break down trade specialisms and continuously refine technique, but retained a tightly regulated management structure.
    But the world is in fact too complex. A theory, a state or organisation can grow and mature, absorb others into itself, becoming explanatory of all phenomena and regulating the activity of all its members, only up to a point. The concept of a centrally planned economy has been proven to be archaic, as has the old model of capitalist organisation run by top-down line management.
    So, I am saying that Hegel's concept of the Idea has been overtaken by history, and this is reflected in the collapse of the Soviet Union, the crisis of social democracy, in the fragmentation of science and philosophy - and a new principle is required to take humanity past its present crisis.
  3. That the world is reasonable;
    This critisism leads us to the central proposition of Hegel, that the world is reasonable. This is not quite the same thing as saying that the world is intelligible. I think the world is intelligible, but is it reasonable? Hegel's idea that everything found in human history is the working out of a single "World Mind" leads inevitably to the belief that it is all ultimately predictable and inevitable. Its is not true to say that "the science of the history of society, despite all the complexity of the phenomena of social life, can become as precise a science as biology, and capable of making use of the laws of development of society for practical purposes". Does anyone recognise who I am quoting here?
    I believe that the development of logic, mathematics and science during the past few decades has precisely and definitively proved that it is not. The next round of global economic rationalisation will have no more success in regulating against global economic catastrophes than all previous rounds over the past 200 years. The next generation of computers will not learn to understand jokes. People make their own history.
    So, I am saying that Hegel's concept of the world of nature and society as determinations of a single World Mind blocks the path to understanding that we have to make our own history.
  4. The place of paradox or contradiction in Hegel's philosophy;
    Despite the fact that Hegel was an inveterate conciliator, I think his placing of contradiction at the centre of the struggle to understand the human condition was completely right. It is only necessary to recognise that there is contradiction and contradiction: Marx pointed this out in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. The organised working class cannot be reconciled to the state of property owners, since in this state they have no property and no rights.
    We'd all like to be "well adjusted". To reject the world as we find it, it regarded as the definition of insanity. But sometimes we have to just refuse to "see reason", don't we?.
    As anyone who has worked in an organisation knows, there comes a point when internal conflicts grow beyond the stage of sullen resistance to the point of the emergence of opposition and ultimately to a point where the two principles, the opposing factions, cannot be reconciled within the organisation and the only road to truth is split. This is where Marx the communist parts company with Hegel the conciliator.
    So, I am saying that Hegel's logic built on the reconciliation of paradoxes has to be supplemented by a logic built on embracing and promoting contradiction.
  5. Hegel's conception of the historical nature of truth and the relation between human needs and labour;
    Perhaps Hegel's greatest achievement was his discovery that human needs are as much a product of human labour as are the means of their satisfaction. This leads to a very specific understanding of the historical character of truth. It resolved the long struggle between Rationalists and Empiricists over the relation of Reason and Experience. A proposition is only as good as the facet of development of the human condition of which it is a part.
    However, we must part company with Hegel's conception of the content of that history: "In the course of this work of the world mind, states, nations, and individuals arise animated by their particular determinate principle which has its interpretation and actuality in their constitutions and in the whole range of their life and condition. While their consciousness is limited to these and they are absorbed in their mundane interests, they are all the time the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind at work within them. The shapes which they take pass away, while the absolute mind prepares and works out its transition to its next higher stage". [§ 344.]
    So, I am saying that we are able to see the inhumanity in the way we live and we are able to change it and we need not be "the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind"
  6. Hegel's formulation of the Individual, Universal and Particular;
    An important feature of Hegel's method of reconciliation is his conception of Universal and Particular. For Hegel, the Universal has to manifest itself as a Particular. It is not an ephemeral ghost which exists in another world, but exists materially. This conception explains Hegel's belief in the need for an Individual Monarch, rather than some impersonal, abstract institution or committee or something. It is also shown in his conception of all the material institutions of social life in terms of logical categories. I think this conception is a necessary key to trying to make sense of the world, and is in fact implicit in the argument I have been giving here. It was Hegel who made it possible to see how logical categories and other concepts are produced in social life, and thereby made it possible to see how the world can be utterly different from what it immediately appears to be.
    So, I am saying that despite the passage of 200 years, essentially we live in the same world as Hegel did and Hegel's logic remains a valuable contribution to understanding this world.
  7. The Separation of the State and Civil Society;
    It was Hegel who pointed out that the difference between mediaeval society and the modern state, was the separation of the state from civil society, in which the state took the form of an abstraction. His proposal was to overcome this abstraction, this separation, by the construction of a State along the lines of The Logic. What has transpired is the opposite, in that political right has become more and more abstract and more and more separate from mundane human existence. People have become more not less alienated from the affairs of state.
    However, what has happened is that the Family (the first term in Hegel's triad of Ethical Life) has been destroyed and the State increasingly overshadowed by the growth of "Civil Society" - the global economy.
    Hegel proposed a reconciliation between the state, the family and the economy, but this will not transpire.
    So, I believe that the future lies not in defence and reconstruction of the state and the family but rather in a revolution from within and against Bourgeois Society.
  8. Private Property;
    Hegel held the right to private property to be the foundation of the human condition, and specifically rejected the idea of the holding of property in common. Marx saw communism as the essence of the actual development of property relations. While he recognised the demand for state property as necessarily arising from the struggle against the iniquity of capitalism, he characterised this demand as "crude communism", and looked forward instead to a transcendance of private property, rather than its abolition. I think that the development of modern bourgeois society has vindicated this understanding.
    The fundamental struggle is as Marx say in the Manifesto: "to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy" and concludes: "When in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character".
    So, I think that Hegel may have had a point in his beginning of the theory of Right with Private Property - so long as we understand his philososphy as expressing the essential nature of bourgeois society, and not something eternal. We have to find the way to transcend private property. The decline of the state owned sector of the economy may give us cause revisit the idea of state ownership as a step towards socialism.

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