The world recently marked 250 years since the birth of the radical philosopher Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel. As part of Rebel’s Revolutionaries Reviewed series, Stuart Scully introduces some of Hegel’s key ideas, showing how they had a fundamental impact on the work of Karl Marx.
It may seem odd for Hegel to be included within this series of revolutionaries. Hegel was a bourgeois philosopher from the 1800s whose ideas have become infamous for their bizarre abstractions and near-impossible-to-decipher style of writing. As he believed that during his time of writing he was at the end of history, Hegel himself would likely not understand why he would be considered a philosopher who inspires radical political and social upheaval today.
However, within the canon of western philosophy and for the revolutionaries that would emerge after him, Hegel was a singular revolutionary force that shaped the formation of modern activism. Without Hegel, there is no Marx and the hegemony of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy would still dictate the formation of our thinking. As Rosa Luxemburg once wrote:
“Since from Hegel philosophical roads lead just unavoidably to the most dangerous robber caves of Feuerbach and Marx there remained to the bourgeois philosophers nothing but to annul Hegel from the history of philosophy simply by a command and let science jump back ‘to Kant’ by a magic gesture.”
The shadow of his dialectics encompasses the world and inside which lies the keys for the workers’ struggle.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in 1770 in Germany to a middle-class family. He attended the University of Tubingen, where he was roommates with the philosophers Holderin and Schelling. During his academic life, he witnessed the unfolding of the French revolution and the ensuing Terror, which greatly influenced his writings and philosophical theories. Famously, when he saw Napoleon riding through Jena he remarked,
“I saw the Emperor—this world-soul [Weltseele]—riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it”.
There are two defining concepts of Hegel’s philosophy which have influenced revolutionary thought; the first which is self-recognition through the other and the negation of recognition by the Lord; and the second being the dialectical transformation of the world to reach the Absolute. These concepts can be difficult to understand due to Hegel writing over two hundred years ago and in his infamous incomprehensible style of writing. Yet, it is worth it to take the time to decipher the ideas hidden within the jargon to see where the invaluable influence Hegel had on Marx originates from.
Hegel’s theory of self-recognition through the other contends that in order for an individual to realise their self-consciousness, they must encounter another individual who recognises them as an actually existing being. This encounter with the “other” causes our original individual to lose their own individual notion of selfhood. Our individual recognises the qualities that made them certain of their own existence within the other they have encountered. This recognition causes our individual to cease being the “Self” and it turns them into the “Other”. After recognising that the qualities which had validated their own self, as an existing being within reality, exist within this other individual, they thus become an “Other” to this past understanding of their self-consciousness. By witnessing the qualities that made them a unique individual existing in the world as universal, the rational mind follows is that it was a mistake to believe these qualities distinguished them as an independent and free being. As a result, their past understanding of their self, and their own recognition of their existence, becomes annihilated.
In order for the individual to reclaim their notion of self and cease being the other, it must supersede the otherness of its being. This action follows that the self overcomes the state of being outside of itself, asserting that they are the self, removing the aspects of otherness that were separating it. The otherness is destroyed through a violence of assertion. Both subjects are attempting to reaffirm their own selfhood, and in doing so, kill the “otherness”. However, neither subject returns to its previous destroyed version. The new self, having superseded its otherness, obtains a new selfhood which can survive the interaction with the other.
Here is the brilliance of Hegel, where we all consciously or not become Hegelians. It is not possible, as Hegel illustrates, to exist without having your existence recognised and thus validated by other people. It is this revelation that Marx takes to reveal the requirement for workers to see each other as existing beings in order to exist. Society can only exist with other humans recognising each other as beings.
This may appear as an obvious statement; of course for society to function we need people to cooperate. However, what Hegel unravels is not simply that society functions through humans working together; it’s that humans require other humans to create reality itself. What this revelation allows for the revolutionary cause is that reality is not fixed in place but is brought into existence by the humans within it.
For revolution, this means that capitalism is not an inevitable fixture of humanity; it is not a fixed point that cannot be changed.
The Lord and the Bondsman
The next fundamental aspect of Hegel’s philosophy which aids revolutionaries is the Lord and the Bondsman, which Marx would later adapt to become the Master-Slave dialectic. The Lord and the Bondsman show how the subjects relate to each other on the basis of power within society.
Hegel’s thesis here states that the interaction of beings has been the relationship between those who have power and those who are under the control of that power. The Lord refuses to recognise the self-consciousness within the Bondsman. A true recognition of self-consciousness cannot be established due to the power imbalance.
The Lord views themselves as an independent and free being. They do so without the need for the Bondsman to recognise them as a being, establishing their selfhood by denying the existence of other individuals. They hold the Bondsman in a hierarchy of power, a hierarchy of power which is itself created by the Lord’s act of distinguishing themselves as the Lord. This act forces the Bondsman into a position as being a dependent, as there is no recognition of their own sense of self.
Their self-consciousness is negated, meaning that in order for them to have any hope of recognition of their selfhood, they are forced into servitude to the Lord. The Lord’s power to refuse recognising the individual within the Bondsman forces the Bondsman to see the Lord as their master. This act of servitude is essential to the Lord as without the Bondsman, they lose the truth of them being the Lord. They cannot exist as a Lord without the Bondsman’s servitude to them.
For the Bondsman, which Marx would later identify as the worker, their acquisition of their selfhood is now achieved through their own negation. In the Bondsman’s servitude to the Lord, they begin to become conscious of their selfhood through their work. Outside of the hierarchy of power, the Bondsman, through the fact of servitude being the primary action in their existence, begin to see their selfhood within the objects of their work.
However, this consciousness is fleeting due to the Bondsman’s increasing alienation from the source of their work. As the servitude to the Lord continues, the objects, through which the Bondsman could once have found a way to recognise their own self, are increasingly isolated from the self-consciousness they once could project onto them. Here we see the direct inspiration for Marx’s theory of alienation of the worker from the act and product of their labour.
Yet, this is where the Bondsman begins to gain their selfhood, through the negation of everything in which they had once attempted to find their selfhood.
The fact that the Lord doesn’t recognise them as an individual, combined with the fact of them becoming alienated from the objects in which they once saw self-consciousness, induces the Bondsman to reflect on the only thing that is left after the total negation: the consciousness of their own self.
Being alienated from the work and then the object, the Bondsman finds their selfhood once everything else has been negated. This is what Hegel refers to as the negation of the negation.
The Bondsman’s selfhood has found a way to exist despite the refusal of recognition by the Lord. Their relationship to their work has allowed them to assert their selfhood, outside of the power exchanges between the Lords. Whereas the Lord requires the servitude of the Bondsman to know their selfhood, the Bondsman has no such dependence. Through the negation of their lack of recognition and alienation from their work, the Bondsman finds their selfhood existing in negation.
This self of the Bondsman, who we will now refer to as the worker, being formed through the negation of their existence, is where the development of class consciousness begins. When everything has been taken away from the worker; they’re alienation from their labour and the labour of their fellow workers, and their boss refusing to recognise them as a worker, their only ability to find their selfhood is through realising that in order to be alienated there has to be a thing, an existing being, that is being alienated.
This fundamentally shows that there is a self, even within the negation of your entire reality, and as such allows hope for revolutionaries when capitalism seems so totalising in its bleakness.
Communism and the Absolute
For Hegel, the end point of society’s constant changing is to reach what he refers to as the Absolute, a singular moment of unity, which could be understood as to be one with God. Marx directly takes this idea of the absolute and puts it in a non-spiritual, materialistic understanding. Hegel’s idea of the Absolute is now transformed into the idea of communism.
The Spirit of humanity which Hegel believed he witnessed in the form of Napoleon riding on horseback through Jena becomes, in Marx’s hands, the struggle of the working class. For Hegel, reaching the absolute was not simply to be one with God or to achieve Godhood as a species, but to reach a point where no more change would take place. A totality of existence, not unlike a Christian idea of heaven, where there is no more advancement to be made because we are perfect as we are.
What Marx takes from this radical idea is that humanity has not simply finished its development at any one point. As long as struggle remains, the dialectics keep changing. If these dialectics are guided through the Marxian lens, the change will be the material betterment of humanity. As long as another human is needlessly suffering, the struggle continues.
The absolute for Hegel and communism for Marx is the point in which through the constant development of our ideals and actions, there comes a point where no more change is possible and a perfect world has come into being. For Hegel, this is the absolute within the transcendental realm; for Marx, this is material within the struggle of labour.
What is important is that these concepts exist because of the philosophy of Hegel. The idea of communism becomes a real potentiality because Hegel has shown us, through his writings on the Spirit, that there is a fundamental human drive for change and that this change is possible through the movement of that Spirit.
Again, this may seem like an obvious point but before Hegel, there was very little ability to articulate society changing. The emergence of capitalism as the new form of reality during Hegel’s time of writing allowed him to witness that the actions of people could radically change the external world. This was why, as noted by Rosa Luxemburg above, bourgeois philosophers had no choice “but to annul Hegel from the history of philosophy”.
He was not a revolutionary. His politics remained liberal for their time (of which his faith in private property is one example), he had negative reaction to the more radical elements of the French Revolution, and he maintained a belief in the role of belief and idealism, as above the material, in the lives of the workers.
But the value of Hegel for revolutionaries is his radical break with philosophy, allowing individuals to know change is possible. His philosophy has helped give Marxists the ability to demystify the world of capitalism.
No small legacy.