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]
- 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.
- The Absolute Idea in particular, and the Idea
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.
- That the world is reasonable;
This cricisism 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
- 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
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.
- 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"
- Hegel's formulation of the Individual, Universal
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
- 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.
- 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.