Hegel on Bastille Day

I missed Bastille Day. I favor Independence Day because I think the American Revolution was a far more radical and consequential revolution than its French successor. I know, this isn’t the consensus among the comrades, who tend, like Lenin, to think of the Jacobins as their role models, and to treat the Founders as near reactionaries. But then I also think that Hegel was a more radical thinker than Marx.

So imagine my belated surprise as I read Harrison Fluss’s tribute to Hegel, published on Bastille Day in Jacobin, of all places. Here’s a guy who insists that Hegel’s sympathy and identification with the French Revolution never wavered, not even under the pressure of Metternich’s ubiquitous thumb. Here’s a guy who enlists Hegel to defend the Terror installed by Robespierre, and who, in doing so, invents a notion of “rational tyranny” which bears a striking resemblance to Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat. Here’s a guy with his head up his ass.

Who could make this shit up? Fluss reminds me of the right-Hegelians who read The Philosophy of Right as a rationale for the Prussian state—you know, because the state is the apotheosis of the people, it has legitimate grounds, on that basis alone, to exercise its power as against the people. (The American Revolution was an explicit repudiation of this logic). But Fluss claims left-Hegelian credentials by citing Bruno Bauer and, of course, Marx. What’s next? Howard Roark, the missing Jacobin?

These are the most egregious passages:

Once the people are defended against counterrevolution, and the necessary — but progressive — tyrant institutes an education process for the people, his existence is replaced by the rule of law. “Through obedience (to the rational will), the law itself is no longer an alien force, but rather the known universal will.”

People may find tyranny abhorrent or morally repugnant, but the actual reason tyranny is overthrown is not because it is evil, but because it is no longer necessary for the development of human freedom. According to Hegel, Robespierre fell not because he was evil, but “because necessity had left him, and thus he was overthrown by force.” In a rather enigmatic passage, Hegel claims that “the necessary (the fall of tyranny) happens — but every portion of necessity is usually allotted only to individuals. The one is accuser and defender, the other a judge, the third a hangman but all are necessary.”

In the defense of a rational tyranny, it is important to notice the emancipatory telos Hegel ascribes to it. Its exercise is meant to be temporary, helping to sustain and protect progressive forces and tendencies. Hence, the stark opposition between dictatorship and freedom dissolves, as the former helps to foster the latter.

The necessary but progressive tyrant, that’s a nice touch. Who are we talking about, Harrison? Stalin? Mao? Castro?

No matter that Hegel spent a philosophical lifetime arguing against exactly this kind of twaddle, wherein all cows are black because night has fallen and the moon is down. No matter that the form and content of The Phenomenology and The Philosophy of Right converge on the insight that if our ethical principles do not reside in and flow from our historical circumstances, we must repudiate the past and enter a state of nature where anything is possible—including the “maximum of terror.” No matter that Hegel’s interpretation of the French Revolution armed him against that very political impasse by showing that this either/or choice was rooted in Kant’s Copernican Revolution, in the Enlightenment itself.

Here’s my alternative reading of Hegel in the spiritual daylight of the present.

What can we get out of reading Hegel? To be more specific, what is the nature of Hegel’s intellectual innovation—how does he break with the received tradition but not repudiate it? Or put it this way: why does the most rigorously post-structuralist theorist of our time (Judith Butler) still think in the Hegelian terms she draws from The Phenomenology, even as she appropriates the work of precisely those thinkers who led the revolt against the so-called meta-narratives of Hegel, Marx, and Freud? Those figures would be Derrida and Foucault, and maybe Deleuze.

(1) The unprecedented method of explaining how and what we can know about the world. This new method has two aspects. First, Hegel never starts from first principles, and never argues by allegory alone. Instead, in view of Kant’s Copernican Revolution, he assumes that there is no body of fact independent of the knower, and that acknowledgment of this truth leads either to metaphysics or mere opinion—incommensurability—in deciding between rival accounts of the same phenomenon, unless the knower annuls and preserves these rival accounts by explaining why they once made sense but can no longer address the very questions they have raised, then showing how his or her account makes better sense by answering those questions. The better account contains its rivals in both the inclusive and the exclusive senses of that word.

So unlike Kant, Hegel’s method is historical rather than epistemological. The question is not, how do I know what I know, as if that “I” is already given as a transcendental ego—as if you can posit a knower whose orientation to the world is immutable—but rather, what have we said we have known about ourselves and the world, when did we say it, and why did we say it then? Notice that, in these terms, the work of knowing is a social property produced by the “discipline of culture.”

Second, and this may be the same thing, Hegel always turns toward the practical activity or intellectual itinerary determined by desires (in the Philosophy of Right, these appear as “needs,” in the Philosophy of History as “passions”) to illustrate his method, his concerns, and his findings. His claim that “self-consciousness is desire in general,” or that the self just is desire, may be taken as provisional acknowledgment of Hume’s notion that the self is a “bundle of sensations” produced by encounter with external stimuli. But of course Hegel doesn’t leave it at that. Sensuous engagement with the world—living, eating, struggling with others, working—is, by his account, what permits and requires progress toward the spiritual daylight of self-recognizance as secured, or promised, by the mutuality of recognition.

Work is the deferral of desire, the sublimation of and abstraction from immediate bodily urges or sensations; and so it leads us beyond the particular circumstance of our bodies, toward a consciousness, an apprehension, in both senses, of externality (objects and others) which changes the meaning and significance of externality as such. Work is not merely allegory, as we can see in Hegel’s treatment of it in the Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History. But even if we confine ourselves to The Phenomenology itself, it becomes the explanation—the history—of how laboring, dependent subjects can experience freedom in the form of an ascetic slave morality, then a stoic skepticism and finally an “unhappy consciousness,” all of which displace subjectivity to an inner life or an afterlife. To repeat, the method is historical, not epistemological.

(2) The usable present. Hegel was a member of the generation that invented the modern secular university as a nation-building device. This generation thought of it as a way of articulating a culture—not a religion—that would create the citizens of a unitary, sovereign state from the raw materials of different classes, regions, and peoples. In such a setting, the humanities were not the “core curriculum” of the university; instead, they constituted the university as such. The research program, accordingly, was scholarship that demonstrated the cultural continuity of ancient Greece and modern Europe. Reputable scholars, particularly but not only philosophers, showed that each modern, civilized nation stood at a different remove, or at a different angle, from the Athenian origin, but that each had developed a unique identity in the form of a national literature—a canon—by appropriating that origin.

Living up to the standards set by the polis and the citizen thus became the intellectual agenda of university scholars, philosophers or not. How to recover the unforced simplicity, spontaneity, clarity, perhaps even the virtue, of the classical epoch, they asked, and from that standpoint to criticize the corruptions of modern, commercial society? (Cf. Marx’s rueful remarks on this project at the end of the “Introduction” to the Grundrisse.) Hegel, probably the only person on the European continent who read Greek and Latin as well as German, French, and English, refused these standards as the measurement of modern intellectual achievement, with full knowledge and appreciation of what the classical epoch had accomplished.

It was something of a scandal, this refusal, especially as it appeared quite explicitly in the Philosophy of Right, because it announced that the “modern time” was not to be assessed by ancient criteria. “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help,” Hegel explained in introducing The Philosophy of History: “It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present. Looked at in this light, nothing can be shallower than the oft-repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples during the French Revolution.”

Here again there are two aspects of Hegel’s break with the received tradition that are worth our attention. On the one hand, he displaced the polis and installed civil society as the site on which the universality of ethical life—the possibility of virtue—would be established and experienced by bourgeois individuals pursuing their interests rather than strenuous citizens exercising their political power. The scene of self-discovery and self-determination was now society, not the state. And yet absent the state and the family, the internal articulation of civil society as such would surely be stunted. (PR, par. 182-98.)

On the other hand, in sailing into the uncharted waters of civil society and mapping its new forms of labor—the lawful abjection of the slave, the “moving life of the dead” in the factories, the poverty of those dispossessed by Speenhamland—Hegel broke with the ancient tradition that defined socially necessary labor as the occupation of the unfree. This is the tradition that still exalts poeisis, in effect artisanal labor, as the proper work of being human, through which the metabolic exchange with nature is mediated by tools, not machines, and is experienced from start to finish as an instance of ownership, mixing one’s labor with one’s property in a transparent relation of subject and object. (This is the tradition that the young Marx of 1842-44 invokes in criticizing Hegel, and the tradition that Hannah Arendt resurrects in The Human Condition [1958].) That word, poeisis, which meant “composition” to the ancients, is not incidentally the root of the word poetry. My rudimentary etymology might explain why contemporary intellectuals are among the most ardent defenders of the work ethic.

How did Hegel make this break, and why have so few noticed it, especially in view of the fact that Marx appropriated it, indeed used it to negotiate his approach to Smith and Ricardo in reinventing the labor theory of value? The “how” is on view in the purloined letter of the master-slave dialectic, where the bondsman’s dependence and servile labor do not erase but rather create the self-consciousness of freedom (“man as man is free”); in paragraphs 67 and 80 of The Philosophy of Right, where Hegel comes right out and makes the counter-intuitive case for the proletarian as a free man, and does so in the first person (“Single products of my particular physical and mental skill and of my power to act I can alienate to someone else and I can give him the use of my abilities for a restricted period, because, on the strength of this restriction, my abilities acquire an external relation to the totality and universality of my being. By alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced, I would be making into another’s property the substance of my being . . . .”); and more ambiguously in The Philosophy of History, where industry, crafts, and trades “have their moral validity recognized” under the rubric of Reformation.

The “why” question is more difficult. It might be a function of the commonplace that Hegel is just another German idealist. It’s more likely that the romance of poeisis has a stronger grip on intellectuals now than it did in the immediate aftermath of the Hegelian departure, due to the recent revival of communitarian political theory and to the concurrent valorization of artisanal or entrepreneurial models of self-determination. In any event, the place to begin in answering the question is Manfred Riedel’s Between Tradition and Revolution (trans. 1984).

(3) The recuperation of inherited dualisms, or “binaries” as we now say (or “dichotomy” as Richard Dien Winfield translates Joachim Ritter). Hegel refuses the either/or choice between materialism and idealism—British empiricism, say, as against German idealism—or between romanticism and positivism, or between radicalism and conservatism, or between historical circumstances and ethical principles. He doesn’t inaugurate the Continental tradition that, far from ignoring the Scottish Enlightenment and its Anglo-American progeny, takes them as its proper point of departure; Kant did that by granting Hume his claims and proceeding to demonstrate that experience construed as periodic sensation couldn’t explain the reality of ideas or categories or imperatives that were themselves experienced as exceeding and organizing any particular circumstance or sensation.

But Hegel does something more. He acknowledges that both Hume and Kant are correct and goes from there, on the assumption that “the false is no longer false as a moment of the true.” The “no longer” here is crucial because it discloses the historical logic of the philosophical claim. Instead of insisting on an either/or choice between Kant and Hume, Hegel grants the partial truth of each side as it might be conceived and preserved as a necessary stage in the temporal development of the whole truth—it’s not rejected or ignored, in other words, it’s treated as a particular historical moment that can be grasped, in retrospect, as adequate to its time.

But not adequate to the “modern time,” when these choices no longer exhausted the possibilities of the Present, not, at least, according to Hegel.   The extant renditions of subjectivity rendered it as either the discontinuous function of external stimuli—one damn thing after another—or as the always antecedent continuum provided by a “transcendental ego.” Neither could capture the actual experience of modern subjectivity, which was transacted in time and in space, as a developmental sequence, not as mere externality, whether material or mental.

Or put it this way. The “empty subjectivity” sponsored by both German idealism and British empiricism was a late stage, perhaps the last gasp, of the “unhappy consciousness” that followed from the “positivity” of Christianity, the Oedipus of the world religions. It was now to be superseded by a new stage of consciousness that would not repress and mutilate these origins but rather treat them as usable pasts, because it could.

Human intentionality had always saturated every thing in view, but now it could lower its sights, as it were, and find itself at home in the world as well as in the inner life and the afterlife—not in release and abstention from the world, or as it is in heaven, where freedom is known as ignorance or abolition of all particular circumstance. No, human intentionality had now become legible in the most mundane purposes and events, in the most particular of circumstances, in the disposition of property and the execution of contracts, for example, not merely in the cruel disport of the gods. The truths of philosophy and religion were now available for inspection in the here and now. Their new legibility made the “modern time” the standard by which to judge antiquity, as against romantic and republican standards but, by the same token, they were subject to empirical tests, not invocations of faith or first principles, now that freedom had found its home in the world.

(4) The standpoint of modern political economy. It’s probably impossible to over-emphasize this dimension of Hegel’s “cash value” in the Present, our own time, although Butler and her subjects seem indifferent to it.

Marx recapitulated Hegel’s itinerary here—he didn’t turn the idealist philosopher on his head, he took exactly the same measures in treating inherited epistemological problems as social questions, to be answered by reference to history and the conduct of contemporary politics, not metaphysics. Both thinkers accordingly grasped social labor as the groundwork of the revolutionary claim articulated in the notion of the “rights of man” (or, what is the same thing, “all men are created equal”)—each understood that profound social and cultural changes determined by the creation of a market in labor had permitted the new theory of value embedded in the seminal works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Those changes could be summarized by saying that until the “modern time” dating from the end of the 18th century, it was implausible to believe that man as such is free and entitled, thereby, to the rights of man as such; before then, it was a matter of faith and feeling, as Hegel explained in praising Luther in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.

Hegel and Marx understood, in other words, that a belief in equality could not and did not take root until “the repudiation of work no longer earned the reputation of sanctity.” (PH, 423) Only when necessary labor no longer carried the stigmata of dependence, servitude, and slavery, only after the Reformation made it the human condition by assigning it the transcendent meanings once reserved for Reason, only as different kinds of work could be translated through the idiom of money as comparable units of time, only then would a labor theory of value make sense. And only then would the rights of man as such seem plausible.

Marx said as much in volume I of Capital:

“There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded on slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities.” (Kerr ed., 1906, p. 69)

(This passage must be read in the context provided by Marx’s remarkably compressed periodization of capitalism [at p. 189 n. 1]: “The capitalist epoch is therefore characterised by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently becomes wage labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.”)

Hegel and Marx arrived at the same point by taking the same route: from philosophy to political economy. Hegel, the “German Idealist,” got there first. We’re still catching up to him.

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