Hegel and the Enlightenment

‘The True is the Whole Hegel

[This was a chapter for a book on Marxist theory but it is too long so it has been cut/cannibalised – this is the original draft]

When the philosophy professor Immanuel Kant in Germany published an essay in 1784 titled What is Enlightenment?; he concluded the answer was ‘dare to know’. Human intellectual advancement was held back primarily by fear and cowardice—in the heady days of the late 18th century, anything seemed possible if you had a will to do it. You could know what you want to know. Indeed, this was Kant’s main area of interest, how do we know things, or more accurately, how do we order the knowledge that we receive from the world around us? Kant was a Prussian professor in danger of irrelevance before he was ‘woken from his dogmatic slumbers’ by David Hume and the British empiricists. They argued that knowledge comes from our sense data, what we sense from the world around us. People like John Locke believed that the mind was a blank slate, a tabula rasa that absorbed knowledge from the world as we experienced it. Kant was sympathetic but ultimately unsatisfied with this explanation. He thought about philosophy in a new way. The question gripping enlightenment thinkers was one of the most fundamental ones of philosophy; how do we know anything? Freed from the simple theocratic propositions that we knew things because of God and the Bible, debates and arguments began over how any of us could know anything.

For Kant there was a world outside us that we were part of. We accessed this through sensory perception: touching, hearing, tasting and so on. For the empiricists, all knowledge is from sensation, but Kant disagreed. We cannot just rely on our senses to provide information about the world, we also need to order what we sense. For instance, how can we sense time or space or causality? These are not experiences, in the way drinking water might be, they had to exist beforehand for us to order what we were sensing. He called these transcendental, because we are born with them built-in to our conceptual apparatuses. These exist a priori, that is before we experience sensory information. These categories are similar to those developed by Aristotle, including inherence and subsistence, reality, negation, necessity, contingency and so on. This is an important development, since rather than humans being passive recipients of experience from the world out there, we become necessary to process our perceptions and experiences. Kant’s philosophy was thoroughly epistemological, concerned with the theory of knowledge itself. But for Kant there is a veil of reality behind which things-in-themselves exist, which we cannot pass. 

Kant said the world was divided between phenomena (what we experience through our senses) and noumena, the real essence of things, which we cannot know except through intuition. This marked Kant as an idealist philosopher; the unknowable things were deeply idealist concepts such as the soul, free will, a supreme being, and so on. Kant was interested in metaphysics, investigations into those things that exist outside our ability to perceive them. He described his theory as a transcendental idealism. Our minds, composed of matter, were inherently limited, which is why some things are unknowable, independent of the mind. Kant referred to these as the ding an sich, the thing in itself. On the one hand, our a priori limits our sensibilities and ability to conceptualise or understand, but on the other, Kant is arguing a radical demand for the rule of reason and lawfulness. There are laws in nature and human society, but they are placed there by the human mind, understood through our capacity to reason.

In Kant’s model there is a dualism between the natural and human worlds. Basically, science and ethics versus nature and history. Indeed, this dualism is a pronounced feature of Kantianism, which included several antinomies (things which cannot be reconciled). These antinomies include the contradiction that ‘The world is finite in time and space; the world is infinite in time and space‘ and ‘as part of the world or as its cause there is an absolutely necessary being; there is no absolutely necessary being.’ These antinomies are developed by Kant to show the importance of the dialectic in philosophy. 

In each point both the proposition and its contradiction can be equally valid within the limits of human knowledge, indeed the limits of formal logic. They exist because it is not possible for us to go beyond our own experiences and try to grasp a vantage point from which to see everything. But the irresolvability of these contradictions forms the basis of the disjuncture and gap which exists in the capitalist world. The separation of thought and its irreconcilability is an essential concept within strictly formal logic—within the modernist world that sees things in a parallax view of distance, where within the gap between ideas and reality or idealism and realism lie the grim hypocrisy of politics and social life.

There is a second important train of thought Kant is known for; his ethical writings. For Kant, ethics and morality are rooted in universal laws or categorical imperative. He suggests various versions, the most famous, ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ This is not the same as the Christian ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, because Kant conceives it as a social and interdependent norm, not an individual one. The categorical imperative is the hinge around which much of Kant’s moral and political philosophy swings. This can be seen by his views on the relationship between politics and ethics. For instance, Kant posited the idea of a utopian state, where humans could one day live in a totally moral and ethical condition, where we no longer saw each other as means to an end, as mere utilities to get what we want, but perceive people as ends in themselves. Kant called this a Kingdom of Ends, a system of rational beings living moral lives according to universal principles, like the categorical imperative.

Politically, Kant was a republican who believed that in a system of democratic nations there would exist perpetual peace, as the citizens of free nations would never willingly go to war against citizens of another free nation. This concept of perpetual peace is popular today, and forms a cornerstone of the neo-conservative ideology of regime change and the war on terror. They argue that dictators not only oppress their people but are also warlike (for instance, seeking access to weapons of mass destruction). Therefore, spreading democratic values around the world helps prevent war. Kant may have disagreed with how his theory is being used, but it is still today deployed as a justification. The perpetual peace theory is a Kantian one, based on a categorical imperative of republican states to act in a certain way.

As far as people were concerned Kant was a progressive liberal in outlook. For him our moral judgements are products of our noumenal self, so that Kant believed we are self-legislating individuals who can make adequate moral choices. He disagreed with Hobbes’ more conservative notion of humans as essentially backward or irrational creatures who constantly warred. It is possible, thought Kant, to overcome such a state, and not through the necessary intervention of an all-powerful leviathan ruler as Hobbes proposed. The moral choice is the rational one, and so long as we can work within the categorical imperative of treating all other humans as ends in themselves and not simply means, we can live a just and ethical life. Kant did not accept the argument that the highest good is happiness—the highest good is the virtuous life well led. This is what leads to happiness, not the other way around. Duty is crucial for Kant; we have a duty to obey moral laws as a way of being spiritually better people. If people accept the universality of the categorical imperative and live their lives according to it then we have achieved what Kant calls the ‘Kingdom of Ends‘, which is equivalent to a religious concept like Heaven on Earth.

Kant is a philosopher of the emerging capitalist world. As far as the role of the state is concerned he believes it can be a force for good that can act to allow people the maximum amount of freedom they need to make their moral choices. It is right for the state to take action to prevent someone from preventing your free actions; in other words, the role of the state is to safeguard individual liberty. This notion of the state is highly bourgeois, it preserves the state as a moral arbiter and creates the philosophical justification for liberal thinking about freedoms and the state’s role in safeguarding them. Importantly it does not assume that the state is neutral—it has a moral imperative to act in the way it does to defend individuals and private property.

The crucial legacy of Kant’s work is to begin the process of developing the analytical tools that started modern philosophical epistemological inquiry. The concepts that we all hold, the product of reason, had to be critiqued. The categories we use to understand and order our knowledge had to be elucidated through philosophical inquiry. The project of constructing philosophy on a par with science was left uncompleted by Kant—his system contained a number of contradictions which contributed to a new round of debate and discussion among German thinkers. But Kant was hugely influential in European thought even to this day—and as we shall see, his ideas will resurface more than once in the political arguments of the emerging workers movement.

While Kant took key aspects of philosophy forward with his arguments, some felt he also left many questions unanswered. His philosophy formed an important bedrock for liberalism, but was transcendental philosophy sufficient to understand the human world and its relations? It was left to other philosophers to explore the ideas Kant raised. One of these was George Hegel, a professor of philosophy whose philosophy in many ways represents the highest achievement of German philosophy. Marx had a high opinion of both men, saying that Kant was the first and Hegel the last word in German idealism. 

Although Hegel followed on with some of the themes of Kant, he strongly criticised his arguments and developed concepts that were new. Hegel criticises Kant for empiricism because he sees Kant’s philosophy as an attack on metaphysics—Hegel, for his part, wanted to maintain a form of metaphysics and incorporate it into a historical narrative of change.

So, Kant argues there are two primary categories, phenomena and noumena. Hegel agrees that there is a divergence between appearance and essence, but for Hegel there is no unknowable ding an sich. The fact that Kant argues this leads Kant’s entire philosophy into the realm of appearances alone, since appearances are all that we can know. This leads directly to scepticism in the philosophical sciences. Hegel wanted to go deeper, into the essence of things, which he believed we can know. The whole of human history is now the struggle of the human mind to know itself better, to reach an understanding of what Hegel calls the Absolute.

In Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel explores how the phenomena of the mind can appear to the mind itself; in other words, how do we think? Hegel criticises two commonly held views about the faculty of thought. The first is that thought is the means (mittel—here understood as a tool or an instrument) through which we grasp the absolute (ding an sich). For others thought is a passive medium through which the absolute passes to reach us. This has problems for ‘natural consciousness‘. If consciousness is a tool then it is used to shape the thing we are thinking about, if it is a medium then it prevents us from knowing the truth (ding an sich) since we only conceptualise the medium.

In Kant’s preface to Critique of Pure Reason, he argues that since we cannot know the Absolute we must abandon any attempts to investigate it and instead focus on the subjective forms. Hence his claim that the objects must conform to our ideas and not vice versa. Hegel rejects the view that we must use thought as some kind of separate instrument, something we use to understand reality from the outside. He does so because this would imply that we are separate from reality.

Hegelian philosophy

Hegel’s philosophy is complex and it is possible to only give a broad outline here, focusing on the important aspects like the dialect and the relations of contradiction and motion. For Hegel, the task of philosophy is to contemplate the actuality in the process of history as it reveals itself to be part of a greater whole. All that humanity can do therefore is to reflect, Nachdenken (thinking after), so all true knowledge occurs after the fact—as Hegel famously said ‘the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk’. Our knowledge first and foremost comes from sense certainty, the immediate and utterly particular act of an object impinging on our sense. In this case it is a cup of tea which sits in front of you. You can see, taste, touch and smell it, you know it is there because of these things. However, you cannot ascribe it as a cup of tea, because to use language to describe any sense perception involves utilising the universal ‘cups of tea’. It also locates it within a temporal context which by definition limits its truthfulness (since it can at some point dry up, becoming silt or be drunk and cease to be tea). In Hegel’s model the task of our thought process is to liberate itself from the material world. The material world appears immediate, but Hegel’s idealism means that he rejects sensory data as purely coming from a material relationship; instead he sees consciousness as ascending by gradually emancipating itself into purer forms of thought. Our consciousness must be a self-consciousness and it must recognise other forms of consciousness, other objects around us.

As such, the beginning of true knowledge, or knowledge of the Absolute, is self-consciousness. But Hegel does not think that self-consciousness is automatically given, self-consciousness is only realised when it comes into contact with an external object that is like it, i.e. another self-consciousness. The Cartesian starting point for self-knowledge, ‘I think therefore I am’ is uprooted and replaced ‘by the act of others thinking, and my recognition of that, I come into self-realisation and conscious being’. (Marx and the left wing materialists would transform the famous ‘I think therefore I am’ into ‘I am therefore I think’).

In a sense we can use the modern concept of the Other to illustrate Hegel’s point. It is only through the existence of the Other that the Us can be formed, in opposition and by excluding that which is not Us. But Hegel takes it a step further, we Desire this Other which is not Us. By desiring it we want to possess it, make it one with us, and in doing so incorporate it into our own being. We originally start in an undifferentiated but primitive unity with nature, before becoming alienated from it. Only in this way does the self-consciousness come to recognise itself as Spirit (or mind in some translations) and achieve a higher synthesis, a unity with the world by seeing ‘consciousness of itself as its own world, and of the world as itself.’

This concept is central to Hegel’s famous ‘Master/slave‘ relationship. In this analogy, Hegel asks us the question, who is really the master in such a relationship? At first glance the master (slave owner) has all the power, even the power to kill a slave if they wish, since they are often considered no better than cattle. But if the slave dies, then the master is left alone, unable perhaps to even cook or clean. Under capitalism the working class is the slave and exists as a wage slave at the mercy of their capitalist masters. But if the workers strike, then the workplace ceases to function, it ceases to make money or produce commodities or answer the phones or type at a computer terminal. The master is left at the mercy of their slaves. Such an act of slave rebellion poses the Hegelian question ‘who really rules?’ Indeed, the master must act as they do because, by recognising the other. they come to hate its existence, while feeling love (desire) for the material goods that they can produce or the service they provide.

What is the method by which Hegel arrives at these kinds of insights? Hegel draws from Ancient Greek philosophy and the dialectic, and in so doing reintroduced it into western thought. This method is best observed in Plato’s writings, for instance the Republic, where Socrates has various conversations and debates with Athenian gentlemen. Through asking questions and working through the answers they arrive at a higher plane of understanding; the dialogue is the process which helps clarify the terms of the debate and arrive at a new conclusion.

The method of the dialectic that is developed in Phenomenology is a breakthrough as for modern philosophy, though Kant and Hegel had salvaged the idea from the ancient Greeks. Whereas formal logic can only refer to identity and proceed along explicit lines, the dialectic analyses the relationship between content and form and therefore allows us to overcome formal content as the sole reach of analysis. Whereas Plato’s dialectic was inductive, starting from relatively small statements and limited questions to arrive at a universal truth, Hegel is (generally speaking) deductive, he begins from the big idea and works out its grounding in the world.

The dialectical approach to thinking does not see the world in fixed categories, so much as a series of processes and motions. Everything is a unit of many determinants, each one in possible conflict with the others, each one not dissolving the others but forming a higher synthesis. Within these processes are moments—or rather processes—of transition, both quantitative and qualitative, as things are constantly becoming something else. 

The dialectical method sees things as a whole, but also in the parts of the whole and—crucially—how they relate to each other. Importantly, contradiction is immanent within things, change comes from within not outside. The unity of opposites (in logical terms that both A and non-A co-exist) is a contradiction that causes motion and change. This was different from Aristotle’s concept of change, which started from outside, from an ‘unmoved mover’ who could only be God.

In his Science of Logic and Encyclopedia, Hegel undertakes the task of explaining how ideas are formed and enter the world. His method begins with the abstract and proceeds to the concrete through a series of categories and relations, each of which deals with a different stage in the process of an Idea as it makes its way into reality. He begins with Being which is simply abstract ‘pure thought‘, it is ideas without any sensual results (touching, smelling, etc) and as such is Nothing. But Being both exists and does not exist, in the same way that an abstract idea exists in our heads but not in the world, as such it emerges out of Nothing, it is always becoming. Being contains both quantities and qualities which can create new forms of Being Hegel calls measure, effectively the moment when numerous qualities culminate in something which achieves recognition. Being is a stage of ‘simple determinate objects’.

But Hegel was not only interested in being, he wanted to understand the essence of thinking and social relations. It is in the second realm, Essence, contradictions emerge because it is the phase of reflection in which ideas compete and clash. Essence happens when Being takes form, when the relation of Being to not-Being and to other forms of being (other abstract ideas for instance) take shape in a common relation, as tangible. At first as new information or data is processed and understood, there is a stage of Identity that agrees with what we know, but simple Identity eventually breaks down and gives way to a Diversity of views, then a Difference, then what Hegel calls Ground, the separation of differences into new Identities so process begin again. Hegel summarises this process as Distinction, Relativity, Mediation. At root, this shift from Being to Essence can be summarised as the shift from a simple to a complex view of social relations, because in essence all relations are mediated, they are no longer immediate. Essence contains more complex forms of contradiction and motion, for instance between form and content (appearance) and eventually achieves an aufhebung (merging and blending) in the unity of opposites, the unity of Being and Essence, which is the final stage of the motion of thought—the Notion.

The Notion emerges from a process of sublation, incorporation and re-establishment between Being and Essence; it is therefore concrete, the highest expression of ideas and human activity. Whereas the previous stages examined the most abstract aspects of intuition and knowledge, the Notion concerns more palpable concepts because it deals with a concrete apparatus of thought. It is the moment when subjective logic gives way to objective logic. The Notion begins as a subjective concept, it is self-referential, working out its own internal mediated relations. Just as Being and Essence have three stages of movement so does Notion, between Universal, Particular and Individual. 

The Universal is easy to see, the nation state is a universal concept, the market economy is another one. These ideas exist everywhere. Communism is another universal idea, though it is disputed. The Universal is concrete and abstract at the same time. The Particular can exist as the social, material form of the Universal while the Individual is our subjectivity. For example, ideas begin in the universal, descend into the particulars which are made up of individuals (though not necessarily people). The notion of God is a universal one, the Church is the particular and the individual’s relationship to the universal and the particular is contained in Psalm 23—the Lord’s Prayer. After the Notion has completed its subjective working out, it becomes Objective (although in reality this stage would almost certainly be commensurate with the former), it relates to the otherness in the world and establishes relations and processes externally. Finally the Notion becomes the Idea, it takes shape as a fully worked out and coherent argument. We can understand the different sub-divisions of logic as Being in the present, the Essence of the past (Hegel uses the phrases ‘Wesen ist wasgewesen ist’; i.e. Essence is what has been, or ‘what is past’) and the Concept of the Notion belongs to the future, to Being as it is to be. Hegel also explains this transition as the difference between consciousness, self-consciousness and, finally, reason. There are many other points after this in which the Concept and the Idea develop through stages and interrelations, before finally arriving at the Absolute Idea, which is the unity of practical and theoretical ideas, but we will return to this later.

To extend the analogy of the Church further, the idea of the Christian God emerges in opposition to Other concepts of divinity, salvation and worship. The ideas begin to connect to other ideas, to elaborate and form new relations until the essence of Christianity emerges, Jesus as the Messiah, rejection of aspects of Jewish law and so on. The essence takes the shape of both appearance and actuality, the cross is the appearance, the actuality of holy communion and physical locations for worship (early churches). The notion of Christianity has both a subjective side and an objective side, the particulars of the Church become objective when people form relations which constitute the church, after all the Church is nothing without the congregation (the English word Church is even a corruption of Ekklesia, meaning congregation or assembly). The objective form of the Church is both the embodiment of and embodied in the idea of Christianity, the life of a Christian, the Christian way of thinking. The absolute idea of the Church made into reality is the unity of the practice of Christian worship and the theory of salvation through Christ. At each stage of this process there has been or remains contradiction and even conflict (as splits in the Christian Church prove), and a struggle over the essence or appearance of the Church.

If the reader takes anything from that it should be two things. First, each category and concept has a relationship to the rest, which influences each process and outcome and that we can know the result of these deliberations. Second, the idea of mediation is important in Hegel; each concept is mediated due to its relationship and dependency on what came before and what comes after. An example would be that the universal and the individual are mediated by the particular. Lenin noted ‘everything is vermittelt = mediated, bound into one, connected by transitions…’ meaning, ‘not only the unity of opposites, but the transition or every determination, quality, feature, side, property in every other.’ This notion of a mediated relation between objects and subjects is an important part of what subsequently came to be termed ‘totality’ by 1920s Marxists.

As a general principle we can say Hegel starts from the concept of the living whole and its movement caused by contradictions and interactions. This is the essence of dialectical thinking, to see everything in motion. Everything is considered in relation to other things, and since it is in motion the analysis must also take into account the synthesis. Hegel primarily sees dialectical motion in thought and concepts, not living things which is why he is an idealist. For instance Hegel believed that the concept made up reality—the totality—but for Engels it was matter in motion (as we shall see later) that fulfils this role. In Hegel’s system the central dynamic of dialectics was negation; ‘The fundamental prejudice here is that the dialectic has only a negative result’ everything is in fact critique, drawing on the contradictions between what things appear to be or claim to be and their reality. The divergence between Being and Nothing which produces becoming is the starting point for the constant negation of things within themselves. The unity of identity and non-identity is the driving force of ideas and concepts and produces constant change. The drive of thought which yields positive results from the negation ‘produces the universal and seizes the particular in it’. It is this dynamic contradiction which, according to Rosa Luxemburg, is the ‘cutting weapon of the Hegelian dialectic’.

Some have attacked dialectics as only being metaphysics—a system so vague it can be applied to anything and is therefore meaningless. This is based on a misunderstanding. Let us start from the world. It is a well-worn phrase that ‘nothing ever changes’—it is also wrong. It would be a strange person indeed who could survey the whole history of humanity and come to the conclusion that nothing had seriously changed, from hunter gatherers living in caves to 9-5 workers living in apartment blocks, things have changed a great deal. What people mean is that things like war, sexism, a social divide between rich and poor has always existed—and indeed socialists would partially agree (at least within the confines of all class societies). 

So why do some things change rapidly but others not at all? A dialectician would locate the phenomena which remained constant throughout human history and analyse it within its proper social historical context. They would ask, why do wars happen? Most occur because of a fight over resources (the Sanskrit word for war Gavisti translates into ‘wanting more cows’). Through this we can begin to construct a theory of war linked to scarcity or a drive for greater accumulation of goods at the expense of other people. Even some things which historically remain the same, for instance the existence of a ruling class and a subservient, subaltern class, is only true at one level of analysis. These are categories which must be filled with social labels. The ruling class in Rome existed in a different economic and political context to the ruling class in today’s liberal democracies. The intention of dialectical thinking was to allow vulgar historical myths to be stripped away, to arrive at a more authentic and well-rounded analysis.

So why was this system of philosophy so popular in Germany then? When reviewing the role of Hegel’s logic in his own work, Marx later commented, ‘This dialectic is to be sure, the ultimate word in philosophy and hence there is all the more need to divest it of the mystical aura given it by Hegel.’  The mystical aura that surrounds Hegel’s approach is Absolute Idealism—the Idea takes the form of an actually existing independent subject, a ‘thing out there‘ and the world is the phenomenal representation of this Idea. This is the core of Hegel’s non-materialism, the dialectic takes place in thought, since thinking and our conceptualisation of freedom of ideas is the cornerstone of human development. Indeed the dialectics of nature is only a ‘miserable copy’ of the dialectical journey that the concept of freedom takes.

Hegel and history

How did this complex model of philosophy affect how Hegel saw the development of human civilisation? In case anyone was of the opinion that Hegel’s philosophy was just abstract word play with no bearing on his politics or historical theories, we can briefly sketch some of the German professor’s ideas about history and see how they relate to his philosophy. He was critical of how history was approached and studied, referring to ‘history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed’. In the context of the reformation and the enlightenment, with the incredibly rapid process of development taking place in nearly all corners of western society, there was more to history than just one damn thing after another, there had to be a purpose, a thread running through it. He was inspired by the Enlightenment ideas of the time that history was progressive, ideas were developed and refined, and that the human condition improved steadily over time. Hegel developed a philosophy of History that was both idealist and teleological, meaning looking at things from the ultimate purpose they serve not from how they emerged.

He saw history as made up of a series of societies, a paradigm for the time in which they existed. He argued that the Persian, Greek and Roman empires represented stages in the development of the Geist, the spirit of reason running through humanity. He thought mankind was alienated from itself, and that history would only become complete (or finished) when the subject-object became aware of itself, when it becomes identical with itself.

Hegel believed that ‘the history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.’ The early empires, which Hegel terms the ‘Oriental World’, are located in China, India and Persia (modern day Iran). These civilisations are stationary or static, they reached a certain level of development and went no further. This was a popular idea in Hegel’s time, western thinkers like John Mill were obsessed with the idea of stagnant Asian economies and fearful this could happen to the growing European empires too. The fear of collapse or of cultural retreat was palpable among the Victorians. Hegel believed that these ancient societies were stationary not because of some essential backwardness in the people but because no one had freedom apart from the despotic ruler, be they a Pharaoh or an emperor. When the Persian empire fought the Greek city states at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the victory of the Greeks was a victory for the idea of individual freedoms as personified by the Greek city states. The torch of history passed to Athens, a superior form of social and political organisation. The Greek city states were the highest form of democracy yet achieved by humanity. The citizens of Athens were part of the polity, the rule of the people, and had to take part in regular discussions at the Agora over political matters. The problem is that the Greek system was freedom and democracy only for some people—the entire civilisation was built on slavery and the subjugation of women in the home. The Greeks saw slavery as a necessary condition for the democratic rights of others, while they were away making political decisions about the fate of the city their home affairs and daily work was being carried out by the slaves. 

On a more philosophical level, Hegel believes that the Greeks were so tied to their sense of community within the city state that they had no real grasp of individual freedoms, but only a sense of the collective. Their urge to do right by their community came from an internal impulse, not external decree’s by an emperor, but it still meant that they were not totally free, from Hegel’s point of view. The collapse of the Greek empire was an inevitable result of the failure to overcome this lack of genuine individual freedoms. The emergence of the Roman empire was in some ways a step backwards and two steps forward. It was a step backwards for Hegel because it was much more authoritarian and disciplined by military rule than the Greek city states had been; it was more of a return to the Asian despotic model. But there was an antagonism, because at the same time the principle of individual freedom was contained within the complex legal judicial system, enshrined in the culture of Rome as it had not been before. It is only with the arrival of Christianity that humanity makes a breakthrough in the idea of personal freedoms. The Christians abolished slavery, introduced a cult of moral and spiritual love and ended the use of oracles, which represent the domination of chance over human will in the world.

All the way through his philosophy of history we see Hegel identifying his eternal Geist with the forms of institutions and cultures that existed in any given stage of human society. As Hegel finished the Phenomenology of Spirit on the eve of the battle of Jena, he spoke about how he looked out from his window to see the victorious Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte riding by on his horse. This connected with Hegel on a deep level; Napoleon represented the French Revolution and the pinnacle rationalising spirit of the age, defying old conventions along with religious obscurantism and absolutism. The new age was being born and finally coming to Germany. 

The conclusions that Hegel drew about the world and history changed as he grew older. After his initial enthusiasm for the French revolution he became disillusioned with its failures, ultimately adopting a more conservative outlook. Towards the end of this life Hegel concluded that the present day Prussian state in which he lived was the culmination of historical progress towards reason. For Hegel the early 19th century was the end of history in any meaningful sense, the state in his time the representation of ‘the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth’. Some have criticised Hegel for justifying the status quo, pointing to his well-known phrase: ‘What is rational is actual, what is actual is rational’ as proof he was theorising the existence merely of the Prussian monarchy. 

But what Hegel is saying is more complex; that is, the rational choice, the most logical and therefore progressive outcome, is actual—it really exists. Because this exists it is rational. This is somewhat of a tautology, but rather than simply being a conservative phrase justifying the status quo, it is something that the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin would later take up. Arguably, the ‘actuality of the revolution’ is a concept that comes directly from Hegel’s concept of rationality and actuality. His idea of history gave prime position to the idea of Reason as the motor force of change, and it was teleological, in that everything was moving towards a certain end point. History was on a fixed trajectory towards a set goal, it contained a narrative made up of individuals striving, mostly unconsciously towards that goal. His views were romantic and imbued with the spirit of the age, rational progress, the contradiction between the lofty promise of modernity and the trauma of the modern condition. The world spirit was at work, striding the world like a colossus, always seeking to overcome alienation, the dialectic was playing louder and louder as the falling away from the self was met with the return to the self, as reconciliation loomed closer and closer.

Approaching the Absolute

As the mind develops its faculties, urged by the necessity of its self-realisation, it passes three stages. The first is Art; because it is beautiful and has moral value, it tells us truths about the world. The second is religion; it is through the religious symbols and institutions we practice faith and reach God. The third, higher than religion, is philosophy, the sense of truth. This is why, despite his idealism, Hegel was a rationalist. This opened him to criticism from the Church as an atheist or pantheist (who identifies God with the universe). Importantly, freedom in Phenomenology is not akin to political freedom, but the freedom of a free mind using reason to make rational choices. Hegel believes our rational choices are obscured by the clutter of the world; it is only by overcoming this self-limitation we can be free. This explains a dichotomy between his claim that the course of human history is the search for freedom and his conclusion it ended with the Prussian monarchy. For Hegel the political forms were not analogous to real freedom. Hegel rejected the singular notion of knowledge Kant inherited from Descartes, whereby the individual is the nexus through which knowledge is gained. Instead, Hegel socialises ethics into the community, making it a collective effort of achievement. For Hegel—a man who liked a triad—there are three ‘moments’ of ethics—the family, market and state, which altogether form civil society (in German bürgerliche Gesellschaf). While civil society is a struggle between competing bourgeois and private interests the state is ‘the actuality of concrete freedom’ because it not only mediates the relationship between the atomised individual and society, but provides the moral and legal framework for us to carry out our duty, ‘in duty that the individual finds his liberation’.

For Hegel the modern German state was therefore the pinnacle of human achievement precisely because it allowed for the national interest to be formulated and embedded in the people’s consciousness and resolve the contradictions of civil society. Living life according to the civil duty, mores and mutual social agreements under the rule of the state is the Sittlichkeit, the ethical life. Life is not a selfish ‘take-what-you-can’ dog eat dog world, it should be one in which the social contracts we all establish with each other are mutually recognised and reciprocated, living to these social determinations is the highest form of ethical existence.

The key question is—does the state separate from civil society and does it confront it? For Hegel the answer is that there is a certain degree of harmony, that the state works as an integral part of the whole to manage the whole. The role of government was to ‘actualise and maintain the universal contained within the particularity of civil society’. For Hegel there is unity in the appearance and content, these social relations represent the objective spirit of the rational idea, they are the absolute made manifest in the state which is acting to negotiate and balance civil society. The unity of civil society, the state was therefore the point at which the ethical life (Sittlichkeit) begins—we can now live rational lives in an ordered world.

This concept of the civil society was crucial to Marx’s early political development, in fact as he worked through his thinking on social structure and the possibility and method of creating change he wrote an entire critical essay on just two paragraphs of Hegel’s position on civil society. Ultimately, it was Marx’s critique of the idea of civil society in Hegel that contributed to the development of his socialist theory.

But Hegel did not simply praise the modern world, he was also critical of the condition of modernity. We are not complete beings as such, we are still alienated through our work. He wrote of how ‘a vast number of people are condemned to utterly brutalising, unhealthy and unreliable labour in workshops, factories and mines, labour which narrows and reduces their skill.’ From Hegel’s perspective every act of labour which produces something real and outside of us is alienating. Every kind of objectification is alienating to us, we are constantly suffering under the general malaise of modern production and labour. Hegel also criticised the divisions between the rights and freedoms of the individual and the existence and necessity of the community. Both had to exist, but under capitalism they existed in an antagonistic relationship to each other. But once again, the only way to overcome it for Hegel is through the Rechtstaat (the state of right) the aufhebung of all the contradictions of the modern world. In a Rechtsstaat individuals can live moral lives within civil society, social peace can be achieved and the end of history can be reached, namely the identical subject-object becomes aware and rational. As such, he is a thoroughly enlightenment thinker, seeking to provide the philosophical basis for a rational community. Hegel’s state is not the kind of thing we imagine today, but, as Pelczynski explains, ‘any ethical community which is politically organised and sovereign, subject to a supreme public authority and independent from other such communities.’ 

In conclusion, two possible readings of Hegel’s politics are possible. The first is as a liberal and emphasises individual rights within the state and the state’s role in defending those rights (private property, liberty, etc). Alternatively, he can be understood from a communitarian perspective, as a Republican calling for an ‘organic community‘ and the unity of the state and the individual in an ethical whole. Either way, Hegel also believes that society only works because everyone knows their place—it is ethical because people fulfil their duties assigned to them by the social order. Whatever he may have been, Hegel was not a revolutionary.

Death of Hegel and the rise of the Young Hegelians

Hegel’s ideas were a powerful force in Germany by the 1820s, but his life was cut short when he died on 14 November 1831. The doctors believed it was caused by cholera, which was epidemic across Europe. Germany had been deprived of one of its chief intellectuals. Those students influenced by his work were now largely divided into two groups, the Right Hegelians and the Left (also known as the Young) Hegelians. The Right Hegelians understood Hegel in a conservative manner, which emphasised his compatibility with Christianity and an orthodox support for the ‘rational’ Prussian monarchy and its state. The Left Hegelians were more radical. They emphasised the concepts of Reason and the teleological drive of human history towards a more rational and just society. They disagreed with the German liberal programme; that is, that a constitutional monarchy was the highest form of statehood. They wanted to explore more radical democratic options, which stressed collective freedoms and a criticism of the new powers as much as the old. It was from the intellectual debates among the left Hegelians that the young Marx and Engels were to fully explore and finally grasp scientific socialism.

The Young Hegelians were one of the most important intellectual movements in Germany at that time. Their influence was growing in universities and they acted as critics of the Prussian monarchy, the church and even the emerging bourgeois capitalist order, through people like Feuerbach who advocated a ‘true socialism’ (which Marx and Engels would later criticise in The Communist Manifesto). One of the young Hegelians, David Strauss, published The Life of Jesus in 1835. This was a deconstruction of the Gospels and caused a tremendous controversy for its ‘atheism’. It was reflective of a wider trend within the Left Hegelians to identify with the alleged pantheism within Hegel, although some, such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Bruno Bauer, drew more radical conclusions. When the new King of Prussia, Fredrick William IV came to power in 1840, he was initially welcomed by even some of the radical students, who believed that he would further the pace of democratic reform and national unity. Many hoped he might be an enlightened despot like Fredrick the Great or Joseph II of Austria. Their hopes were cruelly dashed, William IV, although he briefly allowed more press freedom than his father, turned back the clock on progress in the German states, promoting a romanticist ideal of the organic community (a phrase not unfamiliar to Hegel) and refusing to allow a constitution to be drawn up, in the hopes of slowing moves towards more democracy. Left Hegelians like David Strauss satirised the reforms by William IV, comparing him to the Roman emperor Julian who attempted to restore Paganism to the Roman empire after the death of Constantine. Strauss thought that William IV would eventually fail just as Julian had.

As part of their counter reforms, William IV and his advisor Christian Bunsen wanted the naturalist philosopher Fredrich Schelling teaching in Berlin. Schelling had been recommended to Fredrick William by his nephew, the Crown Prince Maximillian of Bavaria. At this time Berlin was the heart of Hegel’s intellectual authority, even after his death, and had the greatest number of Young Hegelians studying there. The two philosophers had a history together stretching back to their student days, Schelling and Hegel had been roommates at university in 1790. Legend has it that they celebrated the French revolution, along with Friedrich Hölderlin who went onto become a famous poet, by going onto a hill and planting a liberty tree. They even translated La Marseilles, the anthem of the French revolution, into German, though no reports survive as to whether the rendition carried the same lyrical power as the original. When the students, including Schelling, formed a readers club to study Kant, Hegel did not join, claiming that he was too busy reading Rousseau. After university they both travelled to Jena where Schelling and Hegel worked editing a journal called ‘The Critical Journal of Philosophy’. But Schelling was forced to leave the city due to an undisclosed personal scandal. It was with the publication of Phenomenology of the Spirit in 1807 that Hegel broke with Schelling’s philosophy. The two became opponents, and Schelling’s brand of naturalism began to lose popularity in the universities.

The Minister for culture appointed Schelling to go to Berlin with a brief to purge the university of Left Hegelianism. His inaugural lectures were widely publicised and attended by people whose names would go down in history, men like Mikhail Bakunin, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Engels—key thinkers of anarchism, existentialism and socialism. Schelling started his lecture with the words ‘I feel the full significance of this moment, I know what responsibilities I have taken upon myself. How could I deceive myself or attempt to hide from you what is made evident simply by my appearance at this place.’ The audience listened intently to his lecture, sensitive to the political moment in this philosophical counter revolution. 

Afterwards, Engels wrote in a report of the event for a Hamburg newspaper; ‘If you ask any man in Berlin who has any idea at all about the power of the spirit over the world, where the battle site for control over German Public Opinion in politics and religion, thus over Germany itself, lies, he would answer that the battle site is at the University, and specifically in Auditorium Number 6, where Schelling is lecturing on Philosophy of Revelation.’24 Engels was not exaggerating. This was not simply some obscure philosophical dispute. The king believed that the philosophical question was ineluctably bound with wider issues of cultural and the political counter-reforms he was committed to. In that sense, Auditorium Number 6 was one of the central battlegrounds, a battle which would ultimately culminate in the revolutions of 1848-49 that shook Europe.

Many in the Prussian state and wider German society did not have a problem with Hegel as such, he had after all been considered the (un)official national philosopher, but now it seemed some of his followers had gone too far. Bruno Bauer, Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach were causing too much disturbance, their atheist propaganda and anti-monarchical politics were dangerous and had to be confronted. As Engels pointed out, Hegel may have been dead ten years, but he was ‘more alive than ever in his pupils’. Schelling for his part had been intellectually dead for over three decades, and now this living philosophical corpse had been dug up to purge the minds of German youth. Schelling’s mission at the university was to root out, as he saw it, the methodological errors within Hegel that had led to this state of affairs. His brand of positive-philosophy stated that only divine revelations could have any true, higher meaning, and anything derived from rationalism or logic was always inferior. This was a theological counter-attack against German idealism.

No doubt as Fredrich Engels sat in the audience at auditorium number 6 listening to Schelling he had a look of disdain on his face. In his youth he was a bohemian, disrespectful to authority, estranged from his father and scornful of the obligations of German society, such as military service. Yes, Engels was a draft dodger. Engels initial motivation for moving in increasingly radical circles was no doubt his distaste at his upbringing in his hometown of Barmen, located in the Wupper valley. He described it as the ‘Zion of obscurantism’, and satirised it in a series of articles and letters in the newspapers of the Young German movement. Engels was the type of young man who organised ‘moustache evenings’ with other young male friends growing facial hair as an act of rebellion and to look more Italian. He was a renegade, but not yet a revolutionary. However he was grappling and thinking about the most exciting ideas in the world, namely what was wrong with it and how to change it. He wrote to Fredrich Graeber; ‘I cannot sleep at night time, because the ideas of the century march through my head.’ 

Engels, like most Young Germans, was a proud nationalist who desired the unification of Germany into a single state. He considered Fredrick the Great as an important reformer and was disappointed by the failure of unification, which was dashed against the rocks of the Prussian aristocracy. In these days the desire for unification was a progressive urge, as it fought against the power of feudal princely kingdoms, demanding a modern united capitalist state as England and France had forged. It was in a letter in November 1839 that he wrote to Graeber and announced; ‘I am at the point of becoming a Hegelian. I cannot be certain now whether I will make the change, but Strauss provided me with insights into Hegel that made his system very plausible. [Hegel’s] history of philosophy strikes me beyond doubt as written from his soul.’

The year of 1841 is therefore a turning point. Feuerbach’s book ‘the Essence of Christianity’ was published. Elsewhere in Germany a young Jewish student named Karl Marx was completing his doctoral theses in philosophy, titled The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. Marx had been born in 1818 in a well to do family, going onto university to study jurisprudence. While studying he lost interest in legal theory and became increasingly inspired by philosophy, coming under the sway of the popular Hegelian ideas. 

In his doctoral theses on Epicurus and Democritus Marx conducted a study of the atomist school of thought of the ancient Greeks. He refers to the differences of opinion concerning the role of atoms, which Democritus claimed that only moved in a straight line or were repulsed from one another, but which Epicurus posited as having three possible paths to travel: in a straight line, curved and the ‘repulsion of many atoms‘. Even from his university studies Marx was learning about matter, motion and the question of material reality distinct from the world of ideas. These ideas had been blasphemous in the middle ages; after all, Epicurus ended up in Dante’s Inferno for the sin of materialism. But in the context of the enlightenment and the progress of knowledge, Marx was moving rapidly in the direction of rejecting idealist philosophy and ideas and towards a materialist worldview.

After his academic hopes fell through as the Prussian monarchy carried out a purge of radical and atheistic university professors during the intellectual counter revolution, Marx turned to journalism, finding an outlet for his energies and increasing passion to engage in political and social matters. He found work at the Rheinische Zeitung. Within a short space of time it became an increasingly oppositional paper critical of the Prussian authorities. He soon had a run in with the censor and was forced to leave Germany for exile to France, ending up in Britain. The mood of Europe was ripe for new ideas and revolutions. The growth of capitalism had brought with it a growth in the misery of the working classes and terrible conditions of existence for proletarians in the cities and towns. Many people were looking to change the world, or at least challenge the capitalist system. Before we consider Marx’s contribution to this, we should take a quick detour to examine other anticapitalist ideas that existed around the same time.

Published by

Simon H

Writer, socialist, bit part player in the end of the world drama

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s