Georg Hegel

Georg Hegel

“The finest metaphysician of past or present times”

Georg Hegel (1770-1831) was a highly influential philosopher whose holistic vision was based on the organic unity of humankind, nature and the cosmos.

His thinking represented, in many ways, a reformulation of the perennial philosophy of wholeness, expressed in the rationalist language of his times.

Politically, it is hard to disentangle his position from the specific historical period in which he lived – the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic empire and the Prussian Reform Movement.

Hegel’s attempts to transcend the polarity between individual and collective self-interest have been taken in various directions by his many disciples.

But it is significant that the left-wing thinkers influenced by his thought include not just Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but also Max Stirner, Guy Debord and Mikhail Bakunin, who described him as “the finest metaphysician of past or present times”. (1)

universe3Hegel’s famous dialectic was essentially the statement that everything is contained within the universe as a whole: there is a general Zusammenhang or framing context. Thus all differences can be transcended at a higher level – ultimately that of the absolute itself.

Jacques d’Hondt writes that the Hegelian dialectic is “a logic of universal interdependence, of the inseparability and unity of opposites, of going beyond ruptures, a logic of becoming”. (2)

Frederick Beiser describes it as arising from Hegel’s nature-based thinking and “its triadic schema of organic development, according to which organic growth consists in three moments: unity, difference and unity-in-difference”. (3)

As a student, Hegel shared a room with the nature-philosopher Friedrich Schelling and the Romantic philosopher-poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the thinking of all three men grew from the same intellectual soil.

naturphilosophieBeiser says that Hegel’s Naturphilosophie “is crucial for his whole philosophy, especially his attempt to justify the organic concept of the world”. (4)

He explains: “We can formulate the highest good of Hegel and the young romantic generation in a single phrase, one they would often use and constantly imply: unity of life (Einheit des Lebens).

“The highest good, the end of life, consists in achieving unity, wholeness or harmony in all aspects of our being. This unity holds on three levels: with oneself, with others and with nature.

“The main threat to such unity consists in division (Entzweiung) or alienation (Entfremdung). Though the self should live in unity with itself, others and nature it finds itself divided from itself and from them.

“Its goal is to overcome these divisions and achieve unity, so that it is again ‘at home in the world’ (in die Welt zu Hause)”. (5)

neoplatonist artThis holistic metaphysics could be traced back to classic philosophers such as Aristotle or Plato, and had survived into the Middle Ages, but had no place in the fragmented and mechanistic world view which had developed as the philosophical wing of industrial capitalism.

Beiser writes: “It was the great achievement of Hegel and the romantic generation to have reaffirmed the classical ideal of unity against the modern worldview”. (6)

According to Hegel’s holistic thinking, says d’Hondt, “objects of scientific, historical or logical study no longer appear as effectively-isolated things, definitively definable, absolutely independent of each other, but rather as stages in a story, phases of a development, elements abstractly detached from the totality or the Whole to which they organically belong and which constitute their superior unity, which is more concrete than any one of them”. (7)

Hegel believed in the existence of universals but, with Aristotle and against Plato, insisted that they did not “exist” in an abstract state but only became real when they were enshrined in the physical reality they informed.

The same logic of interdependence lay behind his view of individuality. Individuals were part of the Whole, but the Whole only became real and self-aware through individuals.

sun woodcut2The freedom of individuals was important to the Whole, indeed its entire purpose, because it was also the freedom of the Whole, fulfilled through individuals.

Behind individuals’ desires and actions, although they might well not be conscious of this, was a sense of purpose coming from the Whole, whose general development was not arbitrary or meaningless, but which arose from a teleological process of becoming and becoming free.

This purpose showed itself through what Hegel termed “passion”, which seems to be similar to Otto Gross’s concept of the self-realising life spirit surging forth from within the individual in the face of external social constraints.

Hegel wrote: “The natural force of passion has a more immediate hold over man than that artificial and laboriously acquired discipline of order and moderation, justice and morality… Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion”. (8)

Politically, Hegel certainly had radical tendencies even if, with the benefit of hindsight, he placed too much trust in the feeling of inevitably-unfolding social advancement that had been spread by the French Revolution.

storming of the bastille

“Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin celebrated the events across the Rhine as the dawn of a new era. They read French newspapers, sang the Marseillaise and formed a political club to discuss the events and read revolutionary literature,” writes Beiser.

“Hegel was known as one of the most ardent spokesmen for liberty and equality. His sympathy for the Revolution lasted his entire life. Even in his final years he toasted Bastille Day, admired Napoleon and condemned the Restoration”. (9)

In his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821), Hegel wrote: “A human being counts as such because he is a human being, not because he is a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, German, Italian etc. This consciousness, which is the aim of thought, is of infinite importance”. (10)

Like subsequent organic radicals such as William Morris, Ferdinand Tönnies, Peter Kropotkin and Herbert Read, Hegel drew inspiration from the social structures, the guild socialism, of the Middle Ages.

medieval town2From a blinkered modernist vantage point, this makes him a “reactionary”, but Beiser explains: “Hegel and other romantics valued aspects of the medieval constitution as a safeguard of liberty and a bulwark against tyranny… Hegel believed that the medieval world was the source of all the ideas about liberty that shook the modern world”. (11)

Hegel was opposed to any drift towards totalitarianism and his organic conception of society was intended to avoid the “machine state” of Prussian absolutism or French Jacobinism, “where everything is controlled from above, leaving no room for local self-government”. (12)

As a young man Hegel saw himself as a Volklehrer, a teacher of the people, who aimed to fight superstition, oppression and despotism.

He certainly enlightened many during his lifetime, but his most noteworthy political influence was to be on a fellow German who was still only 13 years old when Hegel died.

Karl Marx constantly insisted on his debt to Hegel and termed himself “a disciple of this great thinker”. (13)

Lenin later declared: “You cannot perfectly understand Marx’s Capital, particularly its first chapter, without have properly studied and understood all of Hegel’s Logic. Therefore, fifty years after Marx there was no single Marxist who understood him”. (14)

However, d’Hondt says that Marx’s use of Hegel’s dialectic amounted to “an extraordinary reversal” (15) of his philosophy, turning extreme idealism into out-and-out materialism.

Karl Marx (1818-1883), philosopher and German poliMarx himself wrote: “My method of development is not Hegelian, since I am a materialist and Hegel is an idealist. Hegel’s dialectic is the basic form of all dialectics, but only after it has been stripped of its mystified form, and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method”. (16)

Of course, in stripping away the “mystified form” of Hegel’s thought, in other words his metaphysics, Marx was undermining its whole basis.

If Marx’s own dialectic had been less materialist, if it had retained Hegel’s holistic sense of humankind’s belonging to nature and the cosmos, maybe Marxism would not have so abjectly failed to challenge the cancer of industrialism.

Perhaps also, a left-wing Volksgeist able to embrace a metaphysical and organic dimension would not have left the political field wide open for the fake-organic rhetoric later used by genocidal far-right industrial capitalists to seize power in Hegel and Marx’s native land.

A 21st-century reincorporation of Hegelian metaphysics into the broader anti-capitalist worldview is something that would be most welcome from an organic radical perspective.

Video link: Hegel v Marx (2 mins)

Georg Hegel2

1. Mikhael Bakunin, Federalism, Socialism and Anti-Theologism, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, ed. by G.P. Maximoff (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), p. 74.
2. Jacques d’Hondt, Hegel et l’hégélianisme (Paris: Que sais-je, Presses Universitaires de France, 1991), p. 56.
3. Frederick Beiser, Hegel (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), p. 81.
4. Beiser, p. xii.
5. Beiser, p. 37.
6. Beiser, p. 38.
7. D’Hondt, p. 21.
8. Georg Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 68, 73, cit. Beiser p. 268.
9. Beiser, pp. 9-10.
10. Georg Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen Wood, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), par. 209, cit. Beiser, p. 229.
11. Beiser, p. 242.
12. Beiser, p. 243.
13. D’Hondt, p. 57.
14. Vladimir Lenin, Cahiers philosophiques (Paris: 1955), p. 149, cit. d’Hondt, p. 57.
15. D’Hondt, p. 56.
16. Karl Marx, Letter to Dr Kugelmann, March 6, 1868, cit. d’Hondt, p. 62.




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