Leftist intellectuals — Marx, Luxemburg, Mao, Senghor, and many others — have been insisting for generations (going back at least to the 1830s, in some places) that Hegel, if approached in a suitably critical and selective way, can be an important resource and reference point for anti-systemic theorizing.
But given the relatively inaccessible writing style in which Hegel expresses himself, which creates a daunting barrier to engagement with his ideas, the point might need reinforcing. This is especially so in a time when Hegel is often dismissed as racist (which indeed he was, although racist themes co-exist in his work with anti- or counter-racist themes) and obscurantist, among other things. No doubt, some people interested in leftist theory are tempted to skip over Hegel, in spite of his formidable reputation among many generations of radical intellectuals.
To see why reading Hegel is important (for those interested in reading leftist theory), we first have to grasp the gist of Hegel’s “big idea.”
Hegel took as his point of departure Immanuel Kant’s pioneering insight that the mind does not simply register facts by means of observation, as empiricism had long held, but instead actively constructs facts by pre-organizing and shaping in advance the forms in which our experience could be made intelligible. Hegel and his co-thinkers, the post-Kantian “German Idealists,” thought that Kant had drawn back from acknowledging the radical implications of his own conclusions. They insisted that objectivity had to be understood as an achievement of subjective activity, a world of human constructs. But this quasi-Fichtean theme was well and truly radicalized by Hegel, who extended it well beyond the intellectual horizons of the so-called “philosophy of consciousness.”
As Hegel saw it, the world that we inhabit — with its intellectual, natural, and social dimensions — is not a discovered but a constructed world, which human activity continually produces and reproduces. This applies, he suggests, to the ideal objectivity explored in logic and mathematics (“the science of logic”), the epistemic objectivity explored in the natural sciences (“the philosophy of nature”), and the social objectivity of institutions and cultural systems like language and the arts (“the philosophy of spirit”). We do not discover them; we make them, although certainly we do “discover” the contours of our constructs as we engage with them in the form of various practical and intellectual learning processes, unfolding both within the life-histories of individuals and in the world-history of the species.
Moreover, Hegel insisted that this productivity is not accomplished individually, by solitary persons, but collectively, by the common action of communities: “the I that is we and the we that is I,” as he put it. In some cases, as he well understood, there are those who participate in these community learning processes only in the manner of barriers to be overcome, or antagonists to be resisted; but even this is a way of being drawn into a “dialectical” learning process that is ultimately and in the long run an expansively human one — a complicated and conflict-ridden journey of the human Geist or spirit, as he would say, toward more comprehensive forms of insight into the universal scope of its own achievements.
The understanding, so indispensable to Left politics, that all of the wonders of human society and culture, including science, technology, and the arts, are the product of the coordinated creativity and effort of working people — whose achievement is continually misappropriated and misdirected by parasitic elites who fetter human development — is derived in large part from this Hegelian conception of human society. Perhaps the most concise summary of Hegel’s big idea can be found in the song, “Solidarity Forever”:
“It is we who ploughed the prairies;
Built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops,
Endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving
Amid the wonders we have made…
“All the world that’s owned by idle drones
Is ours and ours alone.
We have laid the wide foundations;
Built it skyward stone by stone.
It is ours, not to slave in,
But to master and to own.
“They have taken untold millions
That they never toiled to earn,
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power,
Gain our freedom when we learn…
“In our hands is placed a power
Greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies,
Multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world
From the ashes of the old….”
The politics of this “syndicalist” song, written by Ralph Chaplin in 915, have deep roots in the intellectual tradition (most famously including Marx) that tried to work out a “materialist” counterpart to Hegel’s learning-fixated account of human self-production. The materialist post-Hegelian tradition tried reinterpreted human social development in terms of human work and the social relations of production. Whether the influence of Hegel on Chaplin was direct or indirect (via Marx and others), I do not know. (It should be said, too, that Marx was influenced not only by Hegel but also by the 19th century workers’ movement, with its “productivist” critique of parasitism, and his materialist reinterpretation of Hegel was in part mediated by the self-understanding of organized leftist workers.) But there can be no denying that Chaplin’s analysis is informed by some of the leading ideas of Hegel’s philosophy.
Chaplin’s song touches on a second theme in Hegel’s work, beyond the point about culture, science and technology as achievements of the creativity, coordination and cooperation of working people (continually expropriated by a class whose parasitism serves as a fetter on human development). Chaplin also underlines the fact — central to Hegel’s thought — that we tend systematically to be oblivious to our own achievements. “In our hands is placed a power” — yes, but why then our do we “stand outcast and starving”? According to Hegel, it is because we do not yet know — we have yet to “learn,” as Chaplin puts it — that the power of the structures and institutions that we inhabit is rooted wholly in our ongoing activity to produce and reproduce those institutions and structures.
The rich and powerful have “hoarded gold,” sure, but “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.” This liberating insight could “break their haughty power,” a process of simultaneous learning and empowerment that Hegel calls (oddly enough) “philosophy.” Philosophy, in the long run, gravitates toward ideology-critique: the learning process of discovering that the root of all the structures and institutions that oppress us as human beings is our own coordinated activity: “it is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade, dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railway laid.” As we gradually work our way through the learning process of “de-reification” (tracing the structures of the world back to their basis in our own collective activity), we unmask the false appearance of exteriority that makes our own achievement appear to us as an alien power that we cannot control. Its estrangement from us, the producers who produce and reproduce it, can be dissolved by exposing its basis in our own collective action.
Of course, Hegel, being an idealist, believed that the mere insight into our capacities generated, in a quasi-automatic way, a dawning of universal freedom. Hegel seemed to assert in a literal sense what Chaplin affirms in a poetic mode: we can “gain our freedom when we learn….” Modern philosophy, Hegel thought, increasingly grasped that “alle Menschen an sich, das heißt der Mensch als Mensch sei frei….” — “Every human being, as such, that is to say, the human being as human being, is free….” And this insight at the level of intellectual activity was bound to be expressed in events like the French Revolution and other political upheavals which he saw as symptoms of the learning process of de-reification.
Today, we are perhaps less convinced that ideology-critique of the type that Chaplin and Hegel undertook to encourage yields any automatic political victories. Even seeing the point, that “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn,” we still have to find ways to organize ourselves with enough potency and coordination that the systems and structures that dominate us can be overturned. On this point, Chaplin takes an important step beyond Hegel: “The union makes us strong,” he insists. That is, our capacity for combative self-organization within resilient structures of coordinated struggle can turn the insight in to our potential power into the reality of de facto empowerment. On that basis, “we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.”
Still, what needs to be acknowledged is not that Hegel (or indeed those, like Chaplin, who draw directly or indirectly on Hegel’s insights) has somehow already said everything that needs saying. Obviously not. The point, rather, is to recognize that the intellectual achievement of Hegel is important, that there are insights in his thought that retain their luminous and penetrating character even today — in an age when people still delude themselves that “Steve Jobs,” that semi-fictional character, somehow “created the ipad and the ipod,” and so forth. Readers of Hegel will, of course, scoff at such fantasies. Thus, we can still today learn from engaging with him, and also from pushing past his mistakes and failings: treating Hegel neither as a “genius” nor a fool, but instead as someone who, like all of us, tried at times to think hard about important things.