Hegel in 10 Minutes

David Black

David Black’s riff on Hegel took place at a fringe meeting of the Association of Musical Marxists during the Marxism 2013 conference in London in July. It was first published on the AMM website on August 6, 2013. A video is also available, HERE  – Editors

l129e206I recently attended a philosophy conference in London at which an American professor presented a paper on how Marxism and Liberalism might be reconciled. Someone asked him where Hegel fitted in, as he hadn’t been mentioned. The professor replied that doing Hegel was a bit like doing LSD. Once a year might be OK for attunement purposes, but don’t get into it too much, because it might just confuse. Another speaker, more sympathetic to Hegel and Marx, conceded the LSD analogy, but added that this because Hegel shakes up one’s view of reality and shows that it is not what so-called common sense or abstract philosophizing takes it for. Hegel says that the search for truth is a clash and interpenetration of opposite categories: “a bacchanalian revel in which no member is not drunk.”

When, in August 1914, Lenin got the telegram with the news that German social democracy had sided with Kaiser Bill on the First World War, he realised that the world was not what he thought it was and that the Marxism he had followed hithertofore was not revolutionary. So he went to a library in Geneva and read Hegel for 3 months. He observed, regarding Hegel’s writings on subjectivity and freedom, “Alias: Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it.” Lenin was right.

Hegel says that philosophically, Plato “grasped in all its truth Socrates’ great principle that ultimate reality lies in consciousness, since according to him the absolute is in thought and all reality is thought.” Plato was right. The Platonic Idea turned the world upside down. It transformed the Jewish heresy of Christianity into a universalized, objective body of thought; it inspired the Renaissance; Plato’s parable of the cave is in essence a description of cinema two and a half thousand years before it was invented; and – if you believe Bertrand Russell – Plato’s Republic provided the organisational model for building socialism under the Bolshevik Party.

Lukács, another guardian of a Bolshevik republic, also read Hegel. Before Hegel and the French Revolution, rationalism had treated the objective world as independent of, and separate from, the thinking subject; whilst for Kant, the object was knowable only in how it appeared to the subjective mind, and not as the thing-in-itself. In Hegel’s concept of totality this duality is dissolved. The power of the totality is expressed in Lukács’ claim that “the chapter in Marx’s Capital dealing with the fetish character of the commodity contains within itself the whole of historical materialism.”

Guy Debord read Lukács. He argued that the spectacle-commodity and reality each transform themselves into their opposites. The spectacle is a real product of that reality, and ‘real life,’ in its subjective passivity, absorbs its own objectified falsification. Their reciprocal alienation is the ground and essence of the topsy-turvy world of spectacular capitalism. In this relationship, the things we produce rule us.

The theory of commodity fetishism is often seen as simply an exposition of how relations between persons become relations between things, mediated by the abstraction of money in the market. But, as Gillian Rose pointed out, the theory of fetishism also accounts for the illusions of ‘personification’ which are intrinsic to the juridical categories of commodity, capital and money. Note that following the Crash of 2008, it became apparent that many of the chief executives of finance capital were actually psychopaths. The fact that they were just personifications of capital, rather than just greedy scumbags, might explain why no one bothered to try and put them behind bars. The system, with all the dehumanisation and alienation it produces, ain’t broke and it can’t be fixed.

If Hegel identified with any Greek philosopher it was Aristotle rather than Plato. Aristotle, like Marx, conceived of a society with no end outside itself. But whereas for Aristotle the self-sufficient community of the polis was a community of free men ruling over slaves and women, for Marx, socialism/communism would be a self-sufficient entity of “human power as its own end”; that is, in the words of August Blanqui, “a republic without helots.” Blanqui inspired Marx’s theory of the Revolution in Permanence, which was nothing less than a revolutionary appropriation of Hegel’s concept of absolute negativity.

According to post-modernism Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge represents a ‘closed totality’ from which the ‘Other’ – the oppressed – is excluded. In fact, for Hegel, absolute negativity is the ceaseless movement of historical becoming in which, according to Hegel – listen up ye vanguards — “The self-knowing Spirit knows not only itself but also the negative of itself, or its limit: to know one’s limit is to know how to sacrifice oneself.” And because Spirit is social rather than individual, self-knowing Spirit has an organizational dimension. In 1860 Marx was having problems with a police spy – as one does – and as the spy was putting it about that Marx was the spy, Marx wrote to Ferdinand Freiligrath — a poet of some standing — asking him as old comrade to defend the party against provocateurs and slanderers. Freiligrath responded along the lines of, “What party? the Communist League was disbanded in 1852; I’m not a member of any party.” Marx explained that he meant ‘Party’ not in the ‘ephemeral sense’ but in “the eminent historical sense.” In other words, the party was not over, even though it didn’t exist; for in the dialectic of absolute negativity, forms of organization that have had their time and collapsed may be usefully studied for their shortcomings and achievements by those who would supersede them. Marx, was convinced that the Communist ‘party’ would spring up again “naturally out of the soil of modern society” and – as he told the new Lassallean German socialist party whose reformist Gotha Program he had so much disdain for — his analysis in Capital was “a theoretical victory for our party.” It still is.

Which brings me to my last point. Harry McShane, born 1891, died 1988; syndicalist; comrade of James Connolly and John Maclean; then communist; then Marxist-Humanist, said:

“It is well to recall the fact that, for many years, Marxist economics featured strongly as part of the curriculum in classes of the Labour movement. John Maclean [in Glasgow] was said to have the largest class in Europe on Marxist economics – when he was not in prison for his political activities.”

However, he added,

“We are no longer justified in regarding Marx as just a brilliant economist. The philosophy that runs through Capital was deep-rooted in Marx and actuated him through his life.”


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