Wednesday, 5 November 2014

As long as freedom and rationality remain unfulfilled... Another voyage to Hegel (with Marcuse as guide)

One of the travel guides I've been reading while making my way through the Philosophy of Right is Marcuse's old Reason and Revolution (first published in 1941). Like a well-written travel guide, Marcuse's book is easy to read. It contains a clear, sympathetic treatment of Hegel.

It conveys a picture of Hegel’s philosophy as basically critical (or "negative"), as a philosophy that insists on the need to relentlessly criticize power as long as freedom and rationality remain unfulfilled in society. It argues that even though Hegel himself failed to develop the radical, subversive potential inherent in his own philosophy, his critical legacy was carried on by Marx and remains a vital critical resource today.

There are two points of interest that linger in my memory after finishing the book. Both, in one way or another, serve to relativize the popular stereotype of Hegel as a reactionary idolizer of the Prussian state (this state supposedly incarnating his idea of an "end of history").

Firstly, I find Marcuse's interpretation of the so-called end of history both charming and compelling in its simplicity. Here's the relevant passage:
Hegel does not mean that everything that exits does so in conformity with its potentialities, but that the mind has attained the self-consciousness of its freedom, and become capable of freeing nature and society. The realization of reason is not a fact but a task. (Marcuse 1999:26)
Hegel, then, should not be understood as a defender of the status quo. The attainment of self-consciousness doesn't mean the end of change, nor that the status quo is fully rational and impossible to criticize. It means that humanity has finally become conscious of its freedom and is ready to use this freedom to reshape the world. Hegel would thus be a thinker in tune with the general cultural changes following the French Revolution, when - as Wallerstein and others like to point out - people for the first time started to think of the world as changeable through human action rather than as a given natural order or fate. For Hegel, then, the proper goal of history is humanity's mastery over its own fate. This would be a state where - as Marcuse writes - humanity "is no longer subject to change, because it exercises autonomous power over all change" (ibid. 1999:154).

Almost thirty years later, Marcuse closed his Essay on Liberation, written in the midst of his engagement with the radical student movement, by raising the question what people in a free society would be doing.
The answer which, I believe, strikes at the heart of the matter was given by a young black girl. She said: for the first time in our life, we shall be free to think about what we are going to do. (ibid. 1969)
Or in other words: then, for the first time, we will have attained self-consciousness of our freedom. This young girl is Hegel in disguise. That Marcuse chose to end his essay by quoting her shows how fond he must have been of this Hegelian idea of a free society, which to him also meant the kind of society that a critical theory was supposed to strive for.

To many, the most unpleasant aspects of Hegelianism are summed up in the statement that "the rational is actual" in the preface to the Philosophy of Right. Being written in the midst of the onset of reaction in Prussia, this preface has often been regarded as a testimony to Hegel's political servility. Marcuse's interpretation is helpful in putting this notorious statement in proper perspective. It is also helpful, I think, to turn to Domenico Losurdo's Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns. As Losurdo (2004: 32-38) shows, the common viewpoint that Hegel in writing this preface opportunistically kowtowed to the conservative reaction in Prussia in those years isn't convincing. Virtually identical formulations can be found in Hegel's lecture notes from the period both before and after those years. There are even sentences expressing a nearly identical content in the Phenomenology (from 1806) as well as in early writings from his youth in the 1790s. Significantly, in these early writings the formulations referred to the French Revolution, not the Prussian state.

What's important to keep in mind is that to Hegel, not everything that exists is "actual". Only what accords with the Idea and serves its realization in history is rational, and only that can be actual. Thus the French monarchy at the time of the revolution lacked actuality, despite lingering on as an empirical reality, since it no longer served any meaningful historical function. Hegel's identification of rationality and actuality is thus not an affirmation of the status quo and is better understood as an assertion of the overall rationality of the direction of historical development. As Losurdo points out, the statement is in fact eminently compatible with an affirmation of revolutionary change. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Gramsci all quoted it with approval. Their intention in doing so was of course not to defend the status quo, but to argue for the objectivity of revolutionary change as rooted in and growing out of history itself (ibid 34-37).

The second point I want to mention is Marcuse's discussion of the relation between civil society and state. As is well-known, "civil society" is Hegel's name for the institutionalized system of mutual dependencies where individuals remain trapped in their private pursuit of profit - the modern economy in other words. Marcuse quotes an evocative passage from the early Jenenser Realphilosophie where Hegel compares this economy to a wild animal: “a vast system of communality and mutual interdependence, a moving life of the dead. This system moves hither and yon in a blind and elementary way, and like a wild animal calls for strong permanent control and curbing” (quoted in Marcuse 1999:79). Statements in Hegel's later writings are equally brutal. In the Philosophy of Right, he describes capitalism in terms reminiscent of Marx as leading to the emergence of a vast industrial army and an impoverished proletariat: “this society, in the excess of wealth, is not wealthy enough... to stem the excess of poverty and the creation of paupers” (paragraph 245). In fact, many statements by Hegel anticipate those of Marx in a quite striking fashion (see Avineri for some of the parallels).

Today, Hegel's idolization of the the state is often referred to as an embarrasing faux pas. Even in works that explicitly work in a Hegelian tradition and model themselves on the Philosophy of Right - such as Axel Honneth's Freedom's Right - avoid this step. Thus Honneth lets a chapter that deals mainly with the public sphere replace the chapter on the state in his book, which otherwise is rather faithfully modelled on Hegel's. At first sight, this substitution of the state for the public sphere seems entirely justified and reasonable. Surely, the integration of divergent wills that Hegel hoped for the state to guarantee is better achieved through public discussion in the public sphere than through the state? What needs to be recalled, however, is that to Hegel, freedom and self-consciousness of spirit can only develop if "the wild animal" is regulated. That's why the state is needed and "rational". Hegel's idea about the rationality of the state may seem conservative, but can equally well be interpreted as anticipating social democracy.

As Norbert Waszek (1988:224f, 231f) and Karatani Kôjin (2014:12f) point out, it is highly unlikely that Hegel was in any sense affirming the Prussian state in the Philosophy of Right. His discussion of constitutional monarchy seems to have been modelled on Britain and his account of civil society was inspired by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith. Nothing like a modern capitalist economy existed at the time in Prussia. Again, rather than defending the status quo (or the existing Prussian state), Hegel appears to have anticipated a future society, more rational and developed than that of his own present. As Karatani suggests, Hegel in fact anticipated a society very much like our own - a society characterized by a symbiosis between state, capitalism and nation where the three constituent parts of this "triad" mutually stabilize each other. Hence Hegel is more relevant than ever, especially for a critical theory that aims at overcoming and breaking out of the triad.

To most people today, the very idea of reason or spirit unfolding through history until culminating at a stage where no further development is possible appears quaint and laughable. To state that this end has already arrived and become embodied in the state seems ridiculous to say the least. However, Hegel does not fit in with this stereotypical image. As Robert Fine writes:
Hegel makes no claim to bird’s-eye wisdom, let alone to absolute knowledge. ‘The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk’ [...], he wrote, but he was writing at the dawn of the modern state. (Fine 2001:27)
While sparing no sarcasm in dissecting and criticizing Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the tendencies in Hegel's later writings which led him to betray the critical potential of his own philosophy, Marcuse argues strongly that this critical potential itself mustn't be jettisoned - especially not by a critical theory guided by the ideal of resurrecting a sense of history, of humankind being able to shape society through its own imagination and its own activities rather than accepting the given social order as fate or as nature.

On the whole, it's impossible not to like Marcuse's book. It might not be as dazzlingly original as some other works of critical theory written around the same time (think The Dialectic of Enlightenment) and it sometimes becomes a bit predictable (I think here above all of Marcuse's yardsticks for evaluating Hegel), but I admire its clarity, erudition and firm grip of its subject.


Avineri, Shlomo (1972) Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (ch 5).

Fine, Robert (2001) Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt, London: Routledge.

Hegel. G. W. F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right (ed. Allen W. Wood, tr. H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Honneth, Axel (2014) Freedom's Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life, Cambridge: Polity.

Karatani, Kôjin (2014) Teikoku no kôzô - Chûshin, shûhen, ashûhen, Tokyo: Seidosha.

Losurdo, Domenico (2004) Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns, Durham: Duke University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1969) Essay on Liberation,

Marcuse, Herbert (1999) Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Amhearst: Humanity Books.

Waszek, Norbert (1988) The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of ’Civil Society’, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.