A dialectical delight

Issue: 166

Sophia Beach

A review of Donny Gluckstein and Terry Sullivan, Hegel and Revolution (Bookmarks, 2020), £7.

The thought of G W F Hegel might seem like an odd topic of conversation for Marxists. By the time he died in 1831, Hegel had become the established state philosopher of the repressive monarchy of Prussia and an apologist for its secret police and its dungeons. He was a staunch defender of private property and saw the emerging working class of his time, which he called the “Pöbel” (rabble), as a danger to social harmony. Nevertheless, the influence of his ideas on Karl Marx and the Marxist tradition has been a source of interest and debate for many years. Marx was a keen student of Hegel and began his philosophic life as a member of an intellectual strand called the “Young Hegelians”. Lenin famously retreated to a Swiss library at the beginning of the First World War to study Hegel’s vast Science of Logic. Twentieth century Marxism was often a battleground between theorists who celebrated Hegel’s influence on Marx (such as Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukács) and those who rejected it (most famously, Louis Althusser). How did such a conservative thinker become an important touchstone for debates among people who wanted to overthrow the status quo?

Donny Gluckstein and Terry Sullivan attempt to answer this question with their accessible and excellent introduction to Hegel’s philosophy and its impact on Marxism. The book begins with a brief overview of Hegel’s life, setting it against the political backdrop of the French Revolution and the changing social landscape of Prussia. This was the period in which Europe was being transformed by the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. The authors show how the dynamism of Hegel’s times were reflected in his philosophy—a point that is perhaps pertinent given the changing and unstable times we also face. They make the case that we can continue to draw fruitfully upon what Marx learned from Hegel to understand contemporary political phenomena, from climate change to the debates about transgender liberation. The rich seam of Hegelian thought that runs through Marx’s writings on, for example, alienation and the dialectic are still a resource for those who want to change society for the better. Hegel and Revolution is a great starting place for any activist who wants to grapple with the often incredibly complex ideas of Hegel and the impact they have had over Marxism.

One particularly significant issue that this book succeeds in tackling is the misconception about where Hegel’s and Marx’s ideas converge and diverge. An important example of this is the confusion that reigns concerning the relationship between the idealism of Hegel and the materialism of Marx. Hegel was the paradigmatic idealist thinker in many ways, and he even referred to his philosophy as “absolute idealism”. According to absolute idealism, the history of humanity and the universe is the unfolding of successive ideas in the mind of the “absolute spirit”, which has been widely interpreted as God (albeit a pantheistic God who is present in the natural world and human history). His Phenomenology of Spirit traces the development of this absolute spirit as it finds itself instantiated in individual, finite human consciousnesses, moving slowly through various cultural, social and political forms before arriving at an understanding of its true nature as spirit contemplating itself.

Of course, all of this is very different from Marx’s understanding of human history, which takes material reality and how human beings organise their labour upon it as its starting place. But Marx still drew enormously from Hegel’s idealism. This is often obscured by academic philosophy, which presents idealism and materialism as two very rigid and distinct understandings of the world. Gluckstein and Sullivan attempt to break down this divide. They respond to crude caricatures of Marx’s materialism as rejecting the importance of ideas, and make it clear that there is a role for the understanding of ideology in Marxism—as long as we remember that it is material reality that ultimately shapes these ideas, rather than, as Hegel saw it, ideas ultimately shaping material reality.

One of the ways that we can understand Marx’s approach to idealism and materialism is by looking at Ludwig Feuerbach’s response to Hegel’s thought and Marx’s critique of this. As Gluckstein and Sullivan explain, Feuerbach was a materialist critic of Hegel and religious ideas more generally. He put forward a materialist critique of religion and claimed that God was merely an idea created by human beings. However, it would perhaps be impossible to overcome the illusory idea, because the perfection and wholeness of God was actually an inverted reflection of the finite and incomplete nature of humans. Of course, Marx agreed that Hegel had got things the wrong way up—it was not humans who were created in the mind of God, but rather God who was spawned from the minds of humans. But, in his The Theses on Feuerbach, Marx rejected Feuerbach’s view that human nature was fixed. Instead, he drew on Hegel’s motif of the reciprocal interrelation of different elements to talk about how human beings transform themselves through their relationships with one another and the world. Gluckstein and Sullivan argue that we should not fall into the same trap as Feuerbach. Rejecting Hegel’s idealism too strongly can lead to overlooking the integral element of dynamism and change in reality.

Gluckstein and Sullivan show how Marx reworked some of Hegel’s ideas to produce concepts that arm us for the fight for a different world. One instance of this is Marxists’ development of the notions of a “class-for-itself” and a “class-in-itself”. Put simply, a class can factually exist but at the same time can fail to understand and act in its own interests—this is a class-in-itself. It is in this situation that the working class finds itself when there are periods of limited struggle. Workers are alienated from one another and can only conceive of their interests in individual terms. Nevertheless, this malaise is not insurmountable—class antagonisms and mass struggle can lead the working class to become conscious of itself as a class and aware of its own interests, thus morphing it into a class-for-itself.

Marx’s picture of the working class moving from a class-in-itself to class-for-itself borrows heavily from Hegel’s theory of historical development. Hegel viewed history as a process in which humanity becomes increasingly conscious of its own essence, which is freedom. Marx takes up this theoretical framework, but puts a materialist bent on it by using it to describe the political and ideological maturation of the working class. But importantly, Marx also diverges from Hegel in his understanding of the contingency of historical change. In works such as The Philosophy of History, Hegel views history as a series of stages in human development that follow one another almost automatically. Marx, on the other hand, argues that class struggle and revolution are not pre-determined—their success depends on the free actions of workers and revolutionaries. Hegel is thus more deterministic than Marx.

Of course, some criticisms of Hegel and Revolution may also be offered. For instance, it would have been useful to have a longer discussion of Hegel’s famed “master-slave dialectic”. The master-slave dialectic is the episode in Hegel’s narrative of the unfurling of human development that is arguably the most well-known. It concerns the evolution of human beings from merely self-conscious entities that are driven by desire to consume material goods into social beings who engage in recognition—the awareness that others are also self-conscious beings. The road to recognition is not smooth, however. First, the two consciousnesses engage in a battle for recognition, attempting merely to subjugate the other to their own desires and negate their status as other conscious beings. One conquers the other and thus the relationship of master and slave comes about. However, as this relationship develops, we find out that it is in fact the victorious master who is stranded in the prior stage of development of desire and consumption. The slave, on the other hand, is forced to defer the satisfaction of their desire and begins to work on the world around them to satiate the wishes of the master. Conscious human labour is born, and the slave can become aware of the power of this labour, which the master becomes dependent upon. Through this ironic reversal, it is the slave rather than the master that is set on the path to the higher historical stage of recognition, according to Hegel.

It is easy to understand why many have seen Marx as owing a great debt to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Marx’s analysis of the development of the working class proceeds along parallel lines. The working class is created by the capitalist class—members of previous social classes such as the peasantry are drawn together in large-scale enterprises to produce a profit for the capitalists. But the fact that workers ultimately come to carry out all of the labour within this system means that it is they who have the ability to transform society—although this is only the case if they become aware of their power. We can thus see the trace of Marxist concepts of the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself once again in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.

The master-slave dialectic is reflected in Marx’s ideas about alienation. Hegel makes clear that the slave is not free because the product of his labour is not his, but rather belongs to the master. For Marx, this continues to be the case under capitalism, in which the working class produces the society that it lives in and yet does not own that product. Because of this, Hegel’s slave cannot properly achieve recognition, just as the alienation of the workers from the commodities that they produce means that they too cannot escape alienation. Gluckstein and Sullivan tend to view the master-slave dialectic primarily as a part of Hegel’s Philosophy of History, even though it has its own very important place in The Phenomenology of Spirit.

A deeper discussion of the master-slave dialectic and notion of recognition might also have been useful in explaining perhaps the most striking area of disagreement between Hegel and Marx—their political philosophies. Gluckstein and Sullivan do discuss Hegel’s concept of recognition to some extent, but do not relate it to his defence of private property and the state. Hegel argues that what human consciousnesses aim at is mutual recognition of one another as free. Indeed, for Hegel, it is ultimately this recognition of our status by other people that makes us free. It is on this basis that Hegel puts forward his liberal argument for the sanctity of private property, which he sees as absolutely tied up with individual freedom. Thus, it is the recognition of one another’s private property that is a key part of what recognition means. Hegel also assigns huge importance to the state as the guarantor and regulator of property rights, and thus sees it as a necessary condition for human freedom. Of course, Marx opposed private property and came to see the state as a barrier to human freedom, so it would have been interesting if the authors had developed a discussion of just how opposed Hegel’s and Marx’s views on these issues were.

These criticisms notwithstanding, the book certainly achieves its principal aim of introducing us to key Hegelian ideas and explaining the influence they had on Marx and continue to have on Marxism. It does so most clearly in its chapter of the dialectic. The accessibility of this section is impressive given how notoriously difficult the subject of the dialectic is. Importantly, the chapter dispels another common mischaracterisation of Hegel—the tripartite simplification of the dialectic into a process of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”. Gluckstein and Sullivan stress that the third stage of the dialectic is by no means a “synthesis”, since this would suggest merely a combination of things that came before. Such a characterisation completely misses the point of the dialectic, which is that it brings about something new, not a fusing of two pre-existing things.

The chapter on the dialectic also does well to stress the importance of the concept of contradiction to both Hegel and Marx. Hegel’s dialectical understanding of history sees human development proceeding through a series of contradictory episodes, such as the inability of the master to subjugate the slave without the slave becoming more powerful than the master. It is similar contradictions, albeit ones which are based on scientific analysis of social formations, that Marx describes as drivers of world history. Of course, the most important of these is the contradiction between the capitalist class and the working class that drives the struggle for socialism.

It is the dialectical method of understanding the world through contradiction that injects dynamism into the philosophies of both Hegel and Marx. Gluckstein and Sullivan are therefore right to stress the absolute importance of the dialectic in Marxist philosophy. In their closing remarks, the authors state that “in Marxism we have the thought of Hegel and not Hegel all at the same time”. (p84) There is a sense in which this claim is itself dialectical, and it is one we should reflect on. After all, Hegel died a conservative, yet one whose thought contains important resources for revolutionaries. Gluckstein and Sullivan have shown that reaching back across the centuries to the ideas of Hegel can still be an insightful and useful exercise for those who want to change the world. Because of this, Hegel and Revolution is a must-read for those concerned with the theory of how we break the chains of capitalism and fight for a better future.