After 250 years, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – Presente!

August 26, 2020
German philosopher Georg Hegel

Hegel for Social Movements
By Andy Blunden
Haymarket Books, 2020, 290 pp., $38.90

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born 250 years ago on August 27, 1770 in Stuttgart, Germany. In his lifetime he was the most influential and prominent German philosopher.

His continuing relevance is seen in all of the great revolutionaries still mentioned to this day, such as Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, who were all products of Hegelianism. Further than that, conservative thinkers like Francis Fukuyama and Pope Benedict XVI are also Hegelians and the entire school of Existentialism is born of Hegel.

In his youth Hegel was influenced by the French Revolution and opposed German feudalism, but as he grew older, he conservatised. In this he reflected the weaknesses of the German bourgeois class, of which he was an ideologist.

Germany was an economic and social backwater that was used as a battle ground by other forces. Germany stultified as the capitalist French Revolution unified France and the Industrial Revolution catapulted Britain into an internationally commanding position.

In this inward-looking environment philosophical debates became the arena in which German social forces expressed themselves.

The barely emergent German capitalists experienced themselves as weak before the various princes and kings in the tiny fiefdoms covering the territory, as much as they rankled under their rule. But they were more fearful of the prospect of the workers and peasants rising from beneath them.

Hegel’s philosophical trajectory reflects that vacillation. While an early supporter of the French Revolution he became fearful of the Terror and regarded the poor and workers in Germany as a problem, not a potential vanguard for social change.

Nevertheless, even after his death in 1831 his influence – including the revolutionary aspect of his thought - was felt. Intellectuals argued, comparing Hegel’s more youthful thoughts to his more mature thinking.

As students fell into competing “Young” (radical) and “Old” (conservative) Hegelian currents the Prussian monarch moved to eradicate what he referred to as the “dragon’s teeth” of Hegelianism. In 1841, a decade after Hegel’s death, the government appointed Friedrich Schelling to lecture at Berlin University to conduct the intellectual assassination.

The audience at Schelling’s first lecture, which was packed, included Frederick Engels, Mikhail Bakunin and Søren Kierkegaard – the founders of communism, anarchism and existentialism. Also present was Jakob Burckhardt, the historian who established cultural history as a discipline.

That Hegel is so influential is all the more remarkable because of his well-deserved reputation as a difficult writer.

Philosophy populariser, Nigel Warburton in his Little History of Philosophy delights in stringing together the most cutting commentary on Hegel. Hegel’s writing is “fiendishly difficult”, he says. “No one, perhaps not even Hegel, has understood all of it.”

Warburton ferrets out as many insulting comments he can find. Bertrand Russell “despised” Hegel, he says and he quotes A. J Ayer saying that Hegel’s writing is “no more appealing than nonsense verse.”

Luckily for the modern reader, Andy Blunden has produced an excellent and very readable guide to both understanding and applying Hegel to social change. He looks at Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, Science of Logic, Philosophy of Right and Encyclopedia of Logic.

His is not a summary, it is a selection of pertinent aspects of Hegel to sharpen the minds of social activists - this is a political intervention. At the end of each chapter he directs the reader to sections of Hegel’s writing for which they are now prepared.

Blunden is a committed Marxist and has no illusions in Hegel’s weaknesses. However, he also has sharp eye for when Hegel’s apparent failings are not so problematic.

For example, he mentions that Hegel appears unbelievably naive in his Philosophy of Right in saying that the civil service and judiciary are meritocracies serving the public good. Marx mocked that idea in 1843.

However, Blunden says that, despite the fact that most judges are drawn from among the wealthy “the law is generally developing and applied in a rational fashion worthy of writing up in law books.” When judges exhibit absolutely brazen examples of naked class prejudice there is public outrage and protest that can win.

In the long run, Blunden proposes, “Hegel’s idealism in this sense turns out to have more merit than a cynical materialism would suggest.”

Marx, in his Thesis 5 of the Theses on Feuerbach refers to the materialist doctrine that people are products of their circumstances and that changing the circumstances will change who people are.

Blunden delves into this this and concludes that if materialists “see people as products of their social conditions we reduce them to passive objects of change, leaving consciousness of change to the intelligentsia or the Party.”

“Hegel and the Idealists’, he says, “erred on the side of change-from-above, but exclusive focus on change-from-below is equally mistaken because it makes the people passive objects of structural forces beyond their control.”

A core problem for Hegel readers is that his subject matter is ideas. In fact, what he starts from is the very concept of what is a concept and works his way from there to how ideas express themselves in human social activity.

Blunden says that Hegel does not deal with ideas as psychological objects, he deals with ideas logically. Where his logic differs from others is his objective idealist belief that ideas exist and live in the practical activity of human communities, as part of human activity.

It is in the unfolding of that logic down to the finest detail that Hegel takes us through such famous distinctions as Subjective and Objective Spirit, Being, Essence and Notion, the Thing, Appearance and Actuality. Blunden does not shy away from challenging the reader with difficult concepts but he has a charming way with words that cuts through the thickets.

“You can be ‘hard up’,” he writes in illustrating the concepts of Quality and Quantity, “and as inflation eats away at the purchasing power of your wages you get more hard up (i.e. there is a quantitative change, but the quality – ‘hard up’ still remains the same).”

But at a certain point a quantitative change amounts to a change in Quality. “If the real value of your wages falls beyond a certain point, then you are not just hard up, but destitute, and ‘purchasing power’ is a meaningless phrase for you”. That is Blunden’s illustration of the category of Measure.

How can those experiencing these social problems find their way to self-consciousness?

Blunden says  the Hegelian concept of Essence “is that whole phase in the development of a social movement which begins from the first expressions of dissatisfaction or outrage, through marches and protests, lobbying, formation of various types of organisation, the formation of various demands, etc prior to the ‘breakthrough’ which signals the first signs of success.”

All of the permutations of Hegelian logic are the inner working through of the contradictions and differing shades of opinion within a social movement as it builds itself.

There is much more in this book, including comparisons and contrasts between Hegel and Marx and ruminations on some dissident Soviet-era Marxists, Vygotsky and Leontyev.

Why has Andy Blunden written this book and why is it so important to read? Because, as he says: “If you are looking to plant an idea in the world, Hegel is your guide.”

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