In Defence of Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born 250 years ago on 27 August 1770 into a petty-bourgeois family in the German city of Stuttgart. A towering genius with an encyclopaedic mind, Hegel revolutionised every field that he dedicated himself to. The impact of Hegel’s ideas cannot be underestimated, and as Marxists we owe him a tremendous debt.

In the Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital, Marx wrote:

“[J]ust as I was working at the first volume of Das Kapital, it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre Epigonoi [Epigones – Büchner, Dühring and others] who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a ‘dead dog.’ I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

However, in what passes for philosophy at universities today, Hegel is still treated like “a dead dog”, with his ideas continuously criminally distorted to justify the latest postmodernist trends. Hegel in reality demolished the main arguments of postmodernism, long before it came into being representing the extreme degeneration of bourgeois philosophy. That is the main reason for the hostility, openly or disguised, to his ideas in official academic discourse. It is our task as Marxists to defend dialectics and, to use his terms, defend the True Essence of Hegel’s ideas in the face of attacks by these charlatans.

Postmodernists such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Baudrillard, denounce objectivity and what they call ‘meta narratives’ or ‘universals’, which are other words for general, overarching conceptions. Instead they paint a world of ‘difference’–meaning an atomised world–where ‘contingency’ rules above ‘necessity’ and the subjective over the objective. Scientific thought is believed to be nothing but a part of the dominating discourse of “Power”, and thereby knowledge becomes a source of oppression. In essence, this extreme one-sided approach, is the raising of subjectivism and eclecticism to a principle, and the dismissal of a scientific, systematic approach. All of this, of course, is hidden behind a thick impenetrable wall of convoluted and deliberately ambivalent rhetoric. The result is an extremely superficial world view where all ideas can be valid and where subjective judgement can be sufficient proof for any idea.

Hegel on the other hand was fiercely opposed to any kind of mental laziness, flippancy and shallowness:

“What is generally familiar therefore, because it is familiar, is not understood. It is the most common self-deception, as like the deception of others, to presuppose something as known when recognising it and on that account to give assent to it” – (The Phenomenology of Spirit (PoS), Hegel – our translation)

To assume to know anything, as Hegel argues, cannot lead to any higher form of knowledge. What is necessary to achieve true knowledge, he says, is to throw overboard all prejudices and embark on a “long and laborious journey”, to “sink into and pervade” the subject-matter at hand; “surrendering to it” in order to discover the underlying laws governing nature, human society and conscious thought. This meticulous and systematic struggle for a rational insight, is Hegel’s guiding principle, permeating all of his writings. It is what distinguishes him and sets him towering above all official philosophy today. And it is here, at the most basic level, that the postmodernists part ways with Hegel and become irreconcilably opposed to his ideas.

Old and new ideas

Why would we want to study ideas of a 250-year-old philosopher? Can these ‘old’ theories satisfy the academic obsession with ‘new ideas’ and the academic desire to present itself as a complete break with the past?

Cropped image of Pythagoras from Raphaels School of AthensHegel explained that everything rational is doomed to become irrational and pass away. But the old philosophy is not lost forever. Its essence is retained in new schools of thought / Image: public domain

The postmodernists tell us that there is no such thing as progress in nature or human history. From the early humans painting on cave walls, to the masterpieces of Picasso and Leonardo Da Vinci, nothing has fundamentally developed or advanced. From Homer to Shakespeare and from Johan Sebastian Bach to Ludwig van Beethoven, there was no fundamental development–but merely difference. Consequently, Newton, Darwin and Einstein did not represent any fundamental step forward for mankind, but merely an accidental change in the 'discourse'. The ridiculous claim of the postmodernists, that progress is a figment of our imagination, falls apart the second we concretise it. But these ladies and gentlemen do not mind at all, because their ideas are not meant for any concrete application in the real world.

As Marxists, we do not claim to be special or to have found some elusive magical formula that no one else discovered for hundreds of thousands of years. We see Marxism as the accumulated experience of mankind throughout history. We proudly put ourselves at the end of a long line of thinkers, from Trotsky, Lenin, Marx and Engels through to Hegel, to the French Materialists of the enlightenment, to Aristotle, Socrates, Heraclitus and all the ancient Greek philosophers. At each stage, these giants represented the advancement of human society and laid the intellectual ground for new steps forward.

Hegel had a similar view. He opposed the outright dismissal of previous ideas. He did not see the history of scientific thought as one of random ideas developed by random people, but as a reflection of the general process of the development of humanity and human culture, which are governed by specific laws leading from lower to higher forms of thinking.

At each stage of development, new ideas play an enormous role in developing our understanding of the world and our place in it. But each advance also carries within it the seeds to the downfall of that philosophy itself, which is then negated by new schools of thought.

Each idea that is true at one point in history becomes inadequate in time and has to be replaced by something more true. Or, as Hegel explained, everything that arises as rational is doomed by its own inner contradictions to become irrational and pass away at a later stage. But the old philosophy is not lost forever. Its essence is retained in new schools of thought that appear in its place.

The Pythagorean school of thought, for instance, is well known for its results in the sphere of mathematics. This school believed that numbers and mathematics constituted the true reality of the world and hence investigated the relationship between numbers exhaustively. What is less commonly known however, is that the Pythagoreans were a religious cult. Its members lived under very strict rules, had to follow rigid rituals and were, for instance, not allowed to eat meat or beans. They were also one of the first schools of thought to have believed in the transmigration of the soul and life after death. In fact, it can be said that the Pythagorean school was one of the founders of philosophical Idealism. Idealism is the notion that ideas are the primary component of our world, and that material reality is only a reflection of these ideas. All religions fall into this category and all idealism eventually leads to some sort of religious thinking.

The Pythagorean school was bound to disintegrate. Its obscure and mystical rites and rituals have long disappeared into oblivion. Yet, there is hardly any school student who is not taught some of their brilliant discoveries in the fields of mathematics. In fact, it can be said that these founders of philosophical idealism were also the first thinkers to have investigated quantitative and numerical relations on a systematic basis. But this systematic treatment of quantity at the hands of the cult itself – as often happens with new advances in the history of ideas – was exaggerated, distorted and shrouded in a mystical veil. But once it was stripped of its one-sidedness and mysticism, it became a cornerstone in all spheres of science and human knowledge.

The process we have outlined above takes place throughout the history of philosophy. With the decline of one set of ideas and its supersession by another, the accidental and non-essential aspects are discarded, while the true essence of the old is retained and absorbed into the new. At least in general terms, that is the outline of the process.

Of course, this process is not one uninterrupted upward curve of development. Periods of progress can be followed by a temporary decline, which are necessary to prepare the path for further steps forward. Ancient Greek philosophy was full of brilliant discoveries, the most important one being the dialectic: that is, the notion of seeing the world as an interconnected whole in constant flux, driven by its inner contradictions. But given the technological and scientific knowledge of the time, this advanced doctrine was not applicable to the tasks facing humanity. It was therefore almost forgotten. For centuries, it was the conservative idealist aspects of Greek philosophy that formed the cornerstone of the Scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages. In place of the dialectic, these philosophers adopted the metaphysical method, which views the world as a rigid congregation of entities fixed in time and space. But, while this was formally a step back, it was a necessary step back. As Engels explained in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy:

“The old method of investigation and thought which Hegel calls ‘metaphysical’, which preferred to investigate things as given, as fixed and stable, a method the relics of which still strongly haunt people’s minds, had a great deal of historical justification in its day. It was necessary first to examine things before it was possible to examine processes. One had first to know what a particular thing was before one could observe the changes it was undergoing. And such was the case with natural science. The old metaphysics, which accepted things as finished objects, arose from a natural science which investigated dead and living things as finished objects. But when this investigation had progressed so far that it became possible to take the decisive step forward, that is, to pass on the systematic investigation of the changes which these things undergo in nature itself, then the last hour of the old metaphysic struck in the realm of philosophy also. And in fact, while natural science up to the end of the last century was predominantly a collecting science, a science of finished things, in our century it is essentially a systematizing science, a science of the processes, of the origin and development of these things and of the interconnection which binds all these natural processes into one great whole. Physiology, which investigates the processes occurring in plant and animal organisms; embryology, which deals with the development of individual organisms from germs to maturity; geology, which investigates the gradual formation of the Earth’s surface — all these are the offspring of our century.” – (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Friedrich Engels)

It was Hegel who restored dialectics to its proper position in philosophy. He had no pretensions or intentions about being original, in the sense that our postmodernist friends desire. He developed his ideas by critiquing all previous philosophy, separating their true essence from their accidental and exaggerated aspects. His doctrine therefore was on the one hand a revolutionary break with the past, but at the same time it preserved most of the great advances of previous schools of thought.

If we look at the history of philosophy in this way, what we have is not the random rise and fall of different philosophies, but a never ending process from lower to higher forms of thought in a progressive deepening of our knowledge about the laws governing our world. Our postmodernist friends who oppose this idea are blissfully unaware that they are themselves parroting ideas far older than Hegel. Their relativism and subjectivism can be traced throughout the history of philosophy, going back to ancient Greek Sophism and other relativist schools – with the added caveat that the Sophists were revolutionary and original. Their relativism emphasised the many sidedness of the world and the hypocrisy of the Greek class society. Postmodernist relativism however, is thoroughly crude and reactionary, refuting objective reality altogether and defending the most degenerate aspects of bourgeois morality, such as individualism and nihilism. What these ideas represent is the declining trend in human thought, which reflects, not the end of progress in general, but the end of progress within class society.

It is futile to talk about new and old ideas as if these are hermetically sealed off from each other. All that exists is doomed by its own inner contradictions to perish and give way to new phenomena on a higher level. And yet all that is new carries the old within its essence. This law not only applies to Dialectics, but permeates all development.

“The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that variety. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its one-sidedness, and to recognise in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments.” – (PoS, Hegel)

Dualism, monism and Hegel’s revolution in philosophy

Kant Image Harold HaackeKantianism, as opposed to Hegelianism, is popular in bourgeois academia today. Although many academics distort Hegel to claim that he represented a direct continuation of Kant / Image: Harold Haacke

In the general development of human society and human thought from lower to higher levels, no stage is permanent. It is not difficult to see the revolutionary implications of these ideas. But Hegel never reached these conclusions explicitly. Although he did sympathise with the French revolution, politically he was a conservative and a fervent supporter of the Prussian state. The question is: how could he develop such revolutionary principles, if he was a conservative? And: why did he remain politically a conservative, if he developed such revolutionary principles?

At his time, in developing his ideas, Hegel was waging a struggle against the weaknesses of some of the prevailing philosophical tendencies of his time. On the one front he was struggling against Rationalists, such as René Descartes, who famously coined the term “I think therefore I am”. Descartes’ ideas were revolutionary in that they boldly took aim at the position of the Catholic church and its stranglehold on European society. Rather than accept the arbitrary commands of the reactionary clergy, Descartes challenged them to justify their position. He relentlessly attacked the status quo and demanded everything, including God, to bow before human Reason. There was, however, also a weak side to Descartes’ assertion, which was that real truth could only be reached by way of deductive reasoning, the proof for which lay in human intuition and not in the objective world or material reality.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hegel took aim at the empiricist school, with figures like David Hume who believed that immediate experience and the senses to be the only real source of knowledge. For the Empiricists, knowledge was, in the last analysis, merely an accumulation of facts, which could not be generalised, rationally treated or processed by human consciousness.

Standing with a foot in each of these camps was Immanuel Kant, the thinker immediately preceding Hegel. Kant made a series of brilliant discoveries, amongst others, in the field of cosmology. His most important contribution, however, was his failed attempt at artificially unifying the empiricist and rationalist camps. Kant theorised philosophical dualism, which is the belief that both the world of ideas and the material world exist, but they do so independently of each other.

According to Kant, there is a material world existing outside and independently of human consciousness. But, due to the subjective viewpoint of individual human beings, we are unable to fully understand the objects of this world. While we can superficially observe the world, we can, in his words, never comprehend the thing-in-itself. Knowledge and truth are therefore not achieved by an investigation of the world, but by the assistance of a series of predisposed – a priori – categories such as quantity, quality, necessity, contradiction, etc. It is with the help of these categories that we can make some sort of sense of the external world. But where these a priori ideas came from and how they were implanted into the human mind, Kant could not explain.

Kantianism, as opposed to Hegelianism, is popular in bourgeois academia today. In fact, the Kantian academic industry is now trying to expand into Hegelian thought, distorting Hegel to claim that he represented a direct continuation of Kant. Prominent Hegel scholars such as Terry Pinkard and Robert B. Pippin, try to assert that Hegel was not all that different from Kant.

The prestigious new Cambridge University translation of Hegel’s Science of Logic, for instance, which is becoming canonised in universities across the world, consistently translates the German words Denken and Denkend (which in English plainly means “thinking”) as Discourse and Discursive. This is a blatant falsification of Hegel’s ideas and a transgression of all norms of translation. It is a criminal act of trying to sneak postmodernist subjectivism into Hegel. In defending this choice, the translator George Di Giovanni, casually asserts without any proof that: “The subject matter of the Logic is not the ‘thing-in-itself’ or its phenomenal manifestations, whether one conceives its ‘in-itself’ as a substance or as freedom, but is discourse itself.” – (The Science of Logic, Cambridge Hegel Translations, Hegel – our emphasis)

What is meant by discourse in the above quotation, is essentially human culture. The only difference between this form of subjectivism and Kant’s is that Di Giovanni (following Foucault, Derrida and more recent postmodernists) has ‘collectivised’ the subjectivism by spreading it across many people rather than one. That is, humanity can not comprehend the thing-in-itself. But restricting laws of nature and society to be defined by the human mind, however many minds that may be, was exactly the basis of Kantianism’s dead end. Di Giovanni forces Hegel’s Logic into the straightjacket of Kantianism. But disconnected from reality and objectivity, Hegel’s logical categories are no different than Kant’s a priori categories.

In fact, the critique of this notion was one of the main achievements of Hegel. He dealt a devastating blow to Kant’s ideas and to all forms of dualism:

“The divorce between thought and thing is mainly the work of the Critical Philosophy [Kant’s philosophy – author], and runs counter to the conviction of all previous ages, that their agreement was a matter of course. The antithesis between them is the hinge on which modern philosophy turns. Meanwhile the natural belief of men gives the lie to it. In common life we reflect, without particularly reminding ourselves that this is the process of arriving at the truth, and we think without hesitation, and in the firm belief that thought coincides with thing. And this belief is of the greatest importance. It marks the diseased state of the age when we see it adopt the despairing creed that our knowledge is only subjective, and that beyond this subjective we cannot go. Whereas, rightly understood, truth is objective, and ought so to regulate the conviction of every one, that the conviction of the individual is stamped as wrong when it does not agree with this rule. Modern views, on the contrary, put great value on the mere fact of conviction, and hold that to be convinced is good for its own sake, whatever be the burden of our conviction — there being no standard by which we can measure its truth.” (The Encyclopedia Logic , Hegel)

If the mind is unable to perceive reality as it is, and if nothing that we experience can be proved to exist beyond our mental representations or to be as we experience it, then how can we be sure of the existence of anything or anyone else? Kant did not write about his own mind, but about the mind and thought in general. But surely, if the essence of objective reality was out of human reach, then he could never understand this mind ‘in-itself’ either. Even more crucially, why would Kant go through the bother of writing and philosophising when he could not be certain of a world out there to understand his ideas? That is a fundamental flaw of all Idealism, which cannot explain how the world of ideas connects to the material world.

What Kant really did was to take dualism to its logical limit, and in doing so, expose its deficiency. By this he achieved far more than today’s postmodernists, who keep going down the same, well-trodden dead end of subjectivism in a desperate search for new ideas. But Hegel did not stop here. His criticism of Kant and the rationalist philosophers became a cornerstone in developing a dialectical Logic.

Philosophy – and logic in particular – is a peculiar science. It is thinking about thought. Not just ordinary thought, but scientific thought. But who can prove anything right or wrong in this kind of science? Every person can, in theory, submit proof for their own logic in their imagination. As long as philosophy was kept within the sphere of “pure thinking” and “intuition”, there were strict limits to its development. This was reflected in Kant’s claim that Aristotle had said everything there was to say about logic.

What he was referring to was Aristotle’s formal logic, which was based on what is called the Law of Identity, summed up as the concept of A=A. Put very simply, this means that everything is equal to itself. This is true in everyday life. We easily recognise the letter A, or any other familiar phenomenon when we come across them. But as Hegel pointed out, an abstract A does not exist – no two As are the same if you look at them under a microscope.

You could say that A represented a thing, such as a dog. But then no two dogs are exactly similar to each other. There are different dog breeds, different genders and endless differences between each individual dog. At the same time each individual dog is in a process of constant growth, change and evolution. So to maintain the Law of Identity, we have to say that a dog is equal to itself outside of time and space. But that is a completely empty statement which doesn’t tell us anything. Of course in everyday life, we can operate by this rule of thumb: a dog is a dog. But it would be hopeless to limit any scientific enquiry to this sort of logic..

However, as long as the rationalists, and with them Kant, wanted to confine consciousness and thinking apart from objectivity and essentially apart from the material world, no higher form of logic could be achieved. The period in question was the 16th to the 18th century, where the whole world was in total flux and turmoil; with the bourgeoisie rising and rapid developments in science and technology. And yet, philosophy was building a wall between itself and this new world of knowledge.

Abstract subjective ideas cannot explain the constant change and flux of the real world. General, abstract concepts, which are not seen in the process of their development and which are not tied to facts and particulars, are useless and superficial. They can mean whatever you want them to. What is needed is to break down the barrier between philosophy and the material sciences.

According to Hegel, Logic was not a special field, disconnected from science and human society. But merely the highest form of all positive sciences, which gave flesh to its bones. In the field of material sciences, however, Hegel confronted the Empiricist school, represented for Hegel by Hume in particular. Empiricism essentially argues that immediate experience is all that is needed to understand the world, i.e. that no rational thinking or generalisation is necessary. Hegel agrees that the truth is concrete. But according to him, a heap of facts does not lead to knowledge if you do not know how to sort those facts. Or, in the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men with barbarian souls.”

The ability to generalise is an essential part of human existence. It forms the foundation of all human relations. In fact, as Hegel pointed out, “one cannot describe what one means”. In order to explain and comprehend the simplest phenomena, we have to generalise. Every single word is a generalisation, and the more detailed our explanation of a thing becomes, the more we will resort to general terms. Without this ability, human society could not function a single day. Rationalism and empiricism according to Hegel form two equally abstract positions: “...just as there is a breadth which is emptiness, there is a depth which is empty too” (PoS, Hegel). The point of conscious thought is exactly to sort the infinite number of phenomena and see the interconnections and relations that are not immediately visible to the naked eye.

These generalisations come about through our collective experience, in an ongoing process, which constantly deepens and revolutionises our understanding of the world. The general image of a dog that we all have does not fit precisely with any really existing dog. But, by having seen and interacted with countless dogs throughout history, we have abstracted an image of a dog in our consciousness; an image stripped of its accidental traits, boiling it down to the most essential characteristics of a dog. This general concept of an abstract, universal dog, with all the laws and processes which regulate it, is more true than the ideas we can develop by seeing any individual dog, at a particular moment in time. Without this general notion about the laws governing our world, we would not be able to develop any science – or even the most basic general knowledge for that matter.

The empiricists inadvertently admit as much by writing books in the generalising language of mankind about the general laws of nature, which they then conclude are unattainable. In this way, they end up with similar results as the rationalists.

Postmodernism today, eclectic as it is by nature, takes up the crudest positions of the rationalists and the empiricists. On the one hand taking a cue from empiricism, it raises the concepts of ‘difference’ and ‘discontinuity’ to its guiding principles in opposition to ‘identity’ and interconnection. The result is a world without a fundamental underlying unity, ruled by an endlessly deepening separation and atomisation. On this basis, postmodernism denies any one system of rational thought–or what they call ‘grand narratives’, ‘essentialism’ and ‘universalism’–to be generally applicable. Of course, by denying ‘grand narratives’ and generalising thought altogether, it puts forward the grandest, crudest and most generalising blanket statement conceivable. On the other hand, alluding to Kantian subjectivism, it denies that we can truly grasp reality due to our subjective viewpoints. This is only a poorer version of the old dualism .

But Hegel overcame the dead end in philosophy precisely by discarding dualism in favour of monism. Monism is the belief that ideas and material reality are not disconnected from each other, but compose one and the same world. Hegel’s monism was an absolute idealism otherwise known as objective idealism. As opposed to Kant and the rationalists, Hegel did not separate the objective world from the subjective. According to him, there is only one world, and that is the world of the Idea. What is objective according to Hegel, the laws operating in nature and thought, is the dialectic, which reflects itself through material reality. This is not the dialectical thought of any human, but the mode of existence of an Absolute idea or Absolute spirit. Through philosophical thinking we can deduce the laws of the Absolute and act upon the world in accordance with these.

This objective idealism had a twofold character. Firstly, this was ultimately a religious idea, and Hegel never concealed this fact:

“Plain minds have not unreasonably taken exception to this subjective idealism, with its reduction of the facts of consciousness to a purely personal world, created by ourselves alone. For the true statement of the case is rather as follows. The things of which we have direct consciousness are mere phenomena, not for us only, but in their own nature; and the true and proper case of these things, finite as they are, is to have their existence founded not in themselves but in the universal divine Idea. This view of things, it is true, is as idealist as Kant’s; but, in contradistinction to the subjective idealism of the Critical philosophy, should be termed absolute idealism. Absolute idealism, however, though it is far in advance of vulgar realism, is by no means merely restricted to philosophy. It lies at the root of all religion; for religion too believes the actual world we see, the sum total of existence, to be created and governed by God.” (The Encyclopedia Logic , Hegel)

Secondly, in spite of this conservative religious side, objective idealism enabled a huge step forward for philosophy. It was precisely by overcoming the shortfalls of dualism, that Hegel developed his dialectics. Because when Hegel put religion on a rational basis, he also connected rational thought to the empirical sciences. It was no longer enough to argue for an idea on a purely abstract basis, because that idea had to prove its validity in the objective world. Now the infinite material world of empirical sciences was opened up to philosophical study. Logic and scientific thinking, albeit by a roundabout manner, found a place to operate beyond the mind of individuals:

“The rise of philosophy is due to these cravings of thought. Its point of departure is Experience; including under that name both our immediate consciousness and the inductions from it. ... the sciences, based on experience, exert upon the mind a stimulus to overcome the form in which their varied contents are presented, and to elevate these contents to the rank of necessary truth. For the facts of science have the aspect of a vast conglomerate, one thing coming side by side with another, as if they were merely given and presented — as, in short, devoid of all essential or necessary connection. In consequence of this stimulus, thought is dragged out of its unrealised universality and its fancied or merely possible satisfaction, and impelled onwards to a development from itself. On one hand this development only means that thought incorporates the contents of science, in all their speciality of detail as submitted. On the other it makes these contents imitate the action of the original creative thought, and present the aspect of a free evolution determined by the logic of the fact alone.” (The Encyclopedia Logic , Hegel)

Thus Hegel concludes knowledge is not limited to abstract subjective thinking ‘undiluted’ by experience. The underlying laws regulating our world and our thinking are independent of humans, and via philosophical thinking humans are capable of understanding these. The primary place for the investigation of these laws however, according to Hegel, is still within the human mind. His two works on logic and his phenomenology, are primarily concerned with the laws operating in consciousness. Of course, in reality, these are not the laws of some eternal divine being, but an approximate reflection of the laws of nature.

Hegel’s monism was a deathblow to the old philosophical method of imposing our subjective ideas onto the objective world. Instead what he demanded was a serious study of the objective world, in order to discover the laws operating here. This was Hegel’s real revolution in philosophy and it is precisely this aspect that the postmodernists are trying to distort. It brings Hegel very close to a materialist position and forces him to litter his works with examples from the material world.

This is not a world of isolated phenomena fixed in time and space, but an interconnected whole in constant flux. Hence, dialectics is not based on the Law of Identity, or A=A, but on the notion that A equals A, and at the same time not-A. Everything is itself, and at the same time something else – or in other words, everything is contradictory and it is the interpenetration of these opposites that impels the ceaseless motion and change in the universe, going from lower to higher forms of existence.


“Being, the indeterminate immediate, is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing.” (Science of Logic – SoL, Hegel)

As we stated above, postmodernism raises ‘difference’ to the dominant (dis)organising principle in history and nature. In other words, they claim, the illusion of categories, stages, phases and limits belie the infinite variation in the world and human society. In a similar vein, we often hear that everything is ‘nuanced’. But if everything is ‘nuanced’, if there are no such things as categories and delineations in time and space, all we end up with is a completely undifferentiated, static world – that is the very opposite of nuanced. Hegel certainly does not oppose nuance as such. On the contrary he recognises the infinite variety and flux permeating all phenomena. But for him, concepts such as nuance and gradation are precisely the transition between one thing and another and not the dissolution of objects, concepts or development in general.
                               Hegel obliterated the essence of postmodernism centuries ago, explaining the unity of Pure Being and nothingness, and juxtaposing it with dialectics, in which contradiction and change is the basis of all being / Image: public domain

He effortlessly refutes the postmodernist argument in the opening lines of his Logic, which starts with the very simple concept of Pure Being. By Pure Being, Hegel means that which is completely indeterminate and undifferentiated in time and space; with no borders, no characteristics and nothing that defines it. But, as Hegel remarks, we can not say anything about this type of Being because anything we say would limit and define it and hence it would not be Pure Being any more. But in this Pure shape the attributes of Being are no different than Nothing. Thus, Indeterminate Being becomes Nothing. Nothing, likewise, as a concept, can not be thought about without giving it some sort of meaning, which cannot be anything but Pure Being. Thus the two concepts flow into each other before we can fix them in our thoughts. And it is here, in this unity of Being and Nothing that we meet the new category of Becoming:

“Pure Being and pure nothing are, therefore, the same. What is the truth is neither being nor nothing, but that being — does not pass over but has passed over — into nothing, and nothing into being. But it is equally true that they are not undistinguished from each other, that, on the contrary, they are not the same, that they are absolutely distinct, and yet that they are unseparated and inseparable and that each immediately vanishes in its opposite. Their truth is therefore, this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one into the other: becoming…” (Science of Logic, Hegel)

In this abstract thought experiment Hegel is outlining the fundamentals of dialectics – that change and contradiction is the basis for all real being. “...nowhere in heaven or on earth is there anything which does not contain within itself both being and nothing.” (Ibid)

All phenomena, taken to their logical conclusion, will eventually turn into their opposite. Everything is in a state of uninterrupted change; of coming into being and passing away. As soon as one is born, one begins to die. Every human cell that is created will eventually cease to be. At a certain stage, our cells reproduce at a slower rate than they die and hence humans begin our period of decline, which reaches another critical stage with death. But our death is not the end of humanity. Just like our birth was not its beginning. We are descendants of our parents who again came from previous generations etc.

We can trace this lineage further back through the evolution of humanity from primates, to the first single-celled organisms and the beginnings of life on the planet. At each step, the new species represented a step forward. The vast majority of species have long gone extinct, while new ones, with more complex adaptations to the environment, have taken their place. But here, just like in the development of philosophy, we see that each step forward is not via a random and complete reset. The new species negates yet preserves some essential aspects of the old ones. This is present in the development of embryos and fetuses, which reflect the entire course of evolution coming before each particular species–although not in a straightforward mechanical manner.

Constant change and the rise and fall of all phenomena represent the fundamental mode of existence of matter. This change is not imposed from outside, but rather is driven by the internal contradictions of phenomena. Just as Pure Being inevitably becomes its opposite, death is inherent to life.

This change does not happen gradually and peacefully, but via periods of relative stability followed by a rapid acceleration. Once the body reaches a certain stage, terminal decline takes speed. Likewise, when a fetus has grown to a certain age in the womb, birth comes swiftly.

The same can be said of social revolutions. Once a given society has reached a certain stage, the productive forces begin to come into conflict with the existing relations of production. The interests of the ruling class enter into sharp opposition with those of the rising revolutionary class, which represents new and more advanced relations of production. Once this process reaches a critical point, any accidental event can set off a revolution.

Contradiction is the fundamental source of all development and progress. Hegel explains:

“All that is necessary to achieve scientific progress — and it is essential to strive to gain this quite simple insight — is the recognition of the logical principle that the negative is just as much positive, or that what is self-contradictory does not resolve itself into a nullity, into abstract nothingness, but essentially only into the negation of its particular content, in other words, that such a negation is not all and every negation but the negation of a specific subject matter which resolves itself, .... the negation … is a fresh Notion but higher and richer than its predecessor; for it is richer by the negation or opposite of the latter, therefore contains it, but also something more, and is the unity of itself and its opposite.” (SoL, Hegel)

This process takes place at all levels of nature and society. Thus philosophical principles cannot be predetermined schemas made up in the mind of some creative genius. They must be discovered by us in the objects that we are studying. It is our task, as Hegel urged, “to surrender” ourselves to the material we are studying in order to understand the inner laws of its organic life. In doing so, we will discover patterns and laws that replicate themselves throughout nature and human society.

The academic rejection of ‘grand narratives’ and ‘universalism’ is essentially also the rejection of any deeper going lawfulness in nature. These concepts, we are told, are elitist and bar us from achieving the ‘utopias’–or ‘heterotopias’ to use Foucault's word–that we can imagine. But Hegel opposes any talk of abstract subjective freedom. Without necessity – or lawfulness – there can be no talk of freedom. Real freedom is the understanding of the laws that determine development. In fact, if nature acted arbitrarily without any laws, there could be no freedom. If gravity was a random power, people would be flying about in all directions throughout space – assuming that solid matter could even be formed! How else could we talk about knowledge and experience? The same lawfulness must necessarily also apply to human beings and human thought. If not objective laws, then what would be the ultimate regulator of our acts and intentions? No society could exist if it did not follow certain laws and patterns that operate independent of the will of human beings.

Real freedom, according to Hegel, is not a rejection of necessity, but the understanding of it. The better we understand the laws of our world, the more efficiently can we utilise them for the benefit of humanity.

The dead end of Hegelianism

The problem, however, was that these laws, in Hegel’s view, were not the laws of development of nature, but the laws of development of the Absolute spirit or Absolute idea -about which as Engels noted, Hegel says absolutely nothing. Engels explained:

“The absolute concept [, according to Hegel,] does not only exist — unknown where — from eternity, it is also the actual living soul of the whole existing world. It develops into itself through all the preliminary stages which are treated at length in the Logic and which are all included in it. Then it ‘alienates’ itself by changing into nature, where, unconscious of itself, disguised as a natural necessity, it goes through a new development and finally returns as man’s consciousness of himself. This self-consciousness then elaborates itself again in history in the crude form until finally the absolute concept again comes to itself completely in the Hegelian philosophy. According to Hegel, therefore, the dialectical development apparent in nature and history — that is, the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zigzag movements and temporary retrogression — is only a copy [Abklatsch] of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain.” – (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Friedrich Engels)

Hegel etching Image public domainHegel has a revolutionary side, but also a conservative and idealist one / Image: public domain

But the Absolute spirit – concept, idea etc. – are in ‘spirit’ completely un-Hegelian elements, which do not flow from any of Hegel’s investigations. In fact, if you take the Absolute out of Hegel’s work, all of the main points would remain. It appears like a scaffold left there after the house was built. Hegel could never explain how this Absolute spirit coincided with the material world through which it is reflected. Thus, Hegel’s philosophy left the backdoor open for a return to a form of dualism, and it is this backdoor that is now being used in academia to distort Hegel’s true achievements.

Furthermore, the obvious insight we can draw from Hegel’s method is the ceaseless change in nature and human society from lower to higher levels, and humanity’s ever-deeper understanding of the laws governing this process. There are no definite aims or limits to this process, because, as Hegel says: “The very fact that something is determined as a limitation implies that the limitation is already transcended.” And yet Hegel puts a definite limit and a final aim for history and human thought. In the social sphere, this aim is the German state, and in philosophy, it is Hegelian dialectics.

Hegel struck a deathblow to all schematism and, by implication, to philosophy in the classical sense of the word, as a separate system to be imposed onto reality. And yet he ended up erecting the biggest schema and system of them all.

How can we explain why he drew these conclusions? Hegel was a Christian and a petty-bourgeois in Germany at a time when Germany was backward amongst its European peers. The devastation of the 30-year-war had retarded the country’s development. Nations such as France, Britain and the Netherlands were taking huge strides forward on the basis of the bourgeois revolution. But Germany did not have a revolution, and was still haunted by feudal property relations.

Germany was far behind in terms of technology, production, state structures and property relations. Ideas, however, could flow across the borders unimpeded. Under the stimuli of the intense philosophical struggles in Europe during the Enlightenment, the German intelligentsia developed enormously and became the most-advanced layer of society. But it could not free itself from the yoke of feudal provincialism and petty bourgeois philistinism, which surrounded it on all sides. That is the material basis for the ambiguity in Hegel’s ideas, which constantly takes him to the outer edge of materialism without ever fully crossing over. What is reflected in the idealist and conservative sides of Hegel’s writings, is not the Absolute spirit, but Hegel's own personal and social position. His field, philosophy, is for Hegel the motorforce of history and it is his personal philosophy which marks the final culmination of this process.

Furthermore, Hegel had the disadvantage that he preceded the major developments in sciences, such as Biology, Geology and Chemistry, which revealed dialectics at play at all levels of nature. In a sense, Hegel’s dialectic was in essence a brilliant hypothesis, but nevertheless a hypothesis, shrouded in a mysticism, which prevented it from being applicable to the material world. This fundamental flaw led to the disintegration of the Hegelian school shortly after his death.

From Hegel to Marx

It was up to Marx and Engels to salvage the revolutionary kernel of Hegel’s philosophy from its Idealist shackles. On this basis, dialectics was turned into a powerful weapon for revolutionary action:

“Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet. And this materialist dialectic, which for years has been our best working tool and our sharpest weapon…” (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Friedrich Engels)

Lenin once said that: “Marxism is almighty because it is True”. By this he meant that Marxism derives its ideas from material reality. It doesn’t have a fixed schema which it forces onto reality, but is itself a result of careful investigation of the world around us. In this way, Marxism is not a philosophy in the classical sense of the word.

Marxists are materialists. As opposed to the idealists, we believe that there is nothing but the material world. Human thoughts and ideas are imperfect reflections of this material world; and the laws of dialectics are not the laws of ideas, but the inherent laws of nature itself at the most general level. By our interaction with this world, we are able to discover these laws. Human beings and the human mind are products of matter organised in a particular way. Individuals are free to make their own decisions. But, once we take a step back, we immediately see iron laws operating independently and, often in opposition to, the will of human beings.

Drei Philosophen Image public domainMarx salvaged the revolutionary kernel of Hegel’s philosophy from its Idealist shackles / Image: public domain

A majority of ordinary, working-class people want nothing but a peaceful life. Yet, in pursuit of this, they run into the insurmountable obstacles put in front of them by class society. Hence, amongst precisely those who are perhaps most eagerly pursuing a harmonious life, we see a massive radicalisation and ever-more-revolutionary conclusions.

Human history reveals these laws in the most striking manner. Before anything else, humans need to eat, sleep and subsist. In this pursuit, they develop the tools and means of production, which raise their productivity. At a certain stage, this means that a part of humanity does not have to work to sustain itself. This part can live off the surplus created by others. Here, we see the rise of class society, which is driven by the struggle for this surplus product itself.

At each stage of class society, the developments of the productive forces lead to enormous steps forward for humanity. Early class societies coincided with the urban revolution, which was a huge step forward for humanity. Later class societies based on slavery coincided with the flowering of science, culture and philosophy on an unprecedented scale. But slavery, which reached its apex in ancient Rome, was bound to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions. From the ruins of slave society came feudalism, which also became a fetter and was overthrown by the bourgeoisie.

At each stage, the full development of a given class society leads to its downfall and its supersession by another. Hegel was looking for the laws of development of philosophy in the field itself. Although it is true that philosophy has its own inner laws, it is nevertheless completely tied to the development of society and the productive forces. The rise and fall of schools of philosophical thought always corresponds with the rise and fall of different layers, classes and class societies.

Every revolutionary class must necessarily have a revolutionary philosophy. The bourgeoisie came to power on the basis of a fight against feudalism and religious obscurantism. It came to the world fighting to expose the Truth and laying bare the hypocrisy and irrationality of feudal society. Its victory was a huge step forward for humanity. The unprecedented development of the productive forces under capitalism has given us, for the first time, the capability of lifting all of humanity out of poverty and generalised want. But capitalism has also reached its limits and has now become an obstacle for human progress. Stating the truth has become a threat to the system itself, because it lays bare its rotten and decrepit nature.

The revolutionary philosophy of today’s revolutionary class, the working class, must be dialectical materialism. This is an outlook that takes reality as it truly is, that is, in its totality and flux. The working class is fighting to end all class society, all oppression, and with it, all illusions, prejudices and fetishes, which are the ideological products and crutches of class society. We need a thoroughly materialist philosophy that comprehends the laws of motion of human society, which we are striving not only to change, but to change in harmony with the needs of humanity as a whole.

Within capitalist society, the working class is being prepared as its grave diggers. A class that can once and for all lead humanity out of the barbarism of class society, and to make humanity the master of its own destiny. The truth has now become a revolutionary weapon in the hands of the working class.

Therefore for Marxists, freedom today consists of recognising this process, participating in it as a conscious element rather than an unconscious one, and helping push humanity out of this dead end of class society. Thus we pave the way for the truly free and harmonious development of human society. In this struggle, the dialectic is our strongest weapon, for this we owe Hegel a tremendous debt and it is our task to defend this legacy against all attacks and distortions.

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