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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Hegel and the Left

Hegel and the Left

Andy Blunden, Adrian Johnston, Henry Pickford, and Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 138 | July-August 2021

On October 17, 2020, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a virtual panel discussion with Andy Blunden (author and secretary of the Marxists Internet Archive), Adrian Johnston (University of New Mexico), Henry Pickford (Duke University), and Jensen Suther (Platypus Affiliated Society, Yale University), to address the question, How does Hegel task the Left and Marxism today? Justin Spiegel of Platypus moderated the event, the full video of which is available at  <>. What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.

Andy Blunden: Since his death in 1831, Hegel has been the intellectual inspiration behind every current of radical social criticism: Marxism, anarchism, the civil rights movement, the anti-AIDS movement, deconstruction, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, and the gender diversity movement. Not bad for an old “idealist”!

Nowadays, almost everyone who reads Hegel for the purpose of social criticism, from Walter Kaufmann or Charles Taylor to Robert Pippin, takes Hegel’s “Spirit” to be human activity. However, I think I am the only person who has been able to carry this interpretation through, consistently, with Hegel’s conception of action as elaborated in Science of Logic (1812–16) and in his philosophy of Spirit. To do this, I have appropriated the cultural psychology of Lev Vygotsky and the activity theory of his younger associate, A.N. Leontiev.

Vygotsky never read Hegel and I have no evidence that Leontiev did, though later exponents such as Ilyenkov were quite conversant with Hegel. They developed a psychology that was, in its basic conception, interdisciplinarian. In contrast to the usual ideological critique, the work of the Soviet psychologists is firmly rooted in modern experimental science and is used as a practical theory in child development, education, linguistics, and psychotherapy around the world.

How do I explain the conformity of cultural psychology with Hegelian philosophy? As ever, it is the times they lived in. This current of science was formed in the crucible of the Russian Revolution. Immersed in the revolution, Vygotsky was inspired by Marx, Engels and Lenin. He dedicated himself to the tasks of rebuilding a shattered nation in the midst of trauma. He learned Hegel secondhand, but learned well. As the revolution degenerated and Stalin tightened his grip, this current of thinking was suppressed, and only became widely influential in the 1980s, as it began to spread outside of the Soviet Union.

Let me outline some synergies. Firstly, Hegel devoted the Introduction to his Encyclopaedia (1817) to proving that the subject’s knowledge of the object is both immediate and mediated. This is presented in the form of a critique of four defining currents of modern philosophy: empiricism, rationalism, Pietism, and Kant. Vygotsky’s discovery was that this triangular relation, both immediate and mediated, can be captured in germ by what is called in psychology “double stimulation” — a subject acting on or perceiving an object, both immediately and mediated by some cultural artifact, be that a sign or a tool. By taking an artifact from the cultural environment for the subject to use to act on the object, we create a germ cell, or “concrete simple something,” which can be studied in the laboratory or observed in cultural life. Thus Vygotsky realized the Encyclopaedia as a practical scientific project. Hegel understood this, and in the “syllogism of action,” in the penultimate section of Science of Logic, he makes the point that the subject acts on and knows the world only by placing a material artifact between itself and the external world.

The expression “a concrete simple something” is used by Hegel to describe das Erste, the first, from which each of the sciences in the Encyclopaedia begins. Each science takes up some phenomenon, and by analysis determines that “concrete simple something” which is at the same time universal. He actually uses the same approach in the Logic: Being is analyzed and determined as the one (das Eins), and it is from the one that the logic of being is unfolded. Vygotsky makes this his principle, and by using it, makes a revolution in five different domains of psychology. I use this method in my social and political analysis, guided by the more precise elaboration Hegel gave to the concept.

Leontiev developed a theory of activity. This gives us a materialist or “praxis”-based understanding of what is meant by “a concept” — that is, a specific form of human practice. The theory of personality that Leontiev built on this foundation is remarkably symmetrical to Hegel’s theory of morality as outlined in the Philosophy of Right (1821). It also has the advantage that it can be interpreted as the foundation for a social theory, as can the Philosophy of Right. Leontiev failed in his attempt to develop it in that direction, but that was really impossible for him, given the conditions in which he worked in the USSR.

Regrettably, the number of Marxists who have a deep understanding of both Hegel and Vygotsky is extremely limited, even though both writers have a readership numbering in the millions. We have to be done with proving the similarity of Marx’s Capital (1867)and Hegel’s Logic, for example. Instead, let’s use this fantastic legacy to solve real social and political problems.

Henry Pickford: My remarks are based on a forthcoming article on Adorno and Marx.1 Since Andy has told us about Hegel’s legacy in Marx, I’ll pick up the story with Hegel’s and Marx’s presence in critical theory — the body of work of a group of thinkers centered around the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, including Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and others, who developed a multidisciplinary research program weaving together German idealism, Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, and political and economic theory.

The question they confronted was this: It seemed, according to Marxist analysis, that there would be a world revolution at the turn of the 20th century. It had seemed that technological advancements and the rise of an international working class would usher in a radical social transformation of the kind Marx had anticipated. Instead, we had regressive tendencies: the rise of the Soviet state-planned economy, fascism in Germany and Italy, and the curtailing of radical movements by the New Deal in the United States, with the advent of the welfare state. So critical theory set out to explain this regression. In the background to their approach, I would argue, there is still a Hegelian idea of a rationally constructed world, of a social “second nature” in which people would feel at home and could realize their freedom, individually and collectively.

I will discuss critical theory in relation to Marx in a few ways. First, there is the diagnosis of “late” or monopoly capitalism, as distinct from the liberal or free-market capitalism of the 19th century. The characteristics of this transition were outlined chiefly by the economist of the Institute, Friedrich Pollock. Industries such as railroads and power utilities became monopolies closely aligned with the state, giving rise to the “administrative class” or “administrative elite.” This led to the integration of the state and the economy and the advent of the political category of the “mass” or the “masses.” An essential agent of this integration is the “culture industry” that, replacing autonomous art that could have a social-critical function, instead “intentionally integrates its consumers from above” through standardization of content and rationalization of distribution, resulting in the passive consumption of ideological products that reinforce conformist attitudes.2 Finally, because of this integration and the asymmetry in power between the administrative elite on the one hand and the masses on the other, the idea of a proletarian or working-class consciousness seemed to be almost impossible — contrary to Georg Lukács’s theory that the proletariat — the working class — could unify politically and become the Hegelian subject–object of historical change.3

The main point I want to make, however, is that through this analysis, Adorno and Horkheimer came to see the topic of their inquiry to be not so much the economy, in a narrow sense, but the nature of domination and its relationship to self-preservation. Adorno, especially, pursues the notion of domination into the very categories of judgment that underlie political economy, both in the classical sense and in the Marxist sense. So the question becomes, how does domination manifest itself within the discourse of political economy, which is how capitalism understands and justifies itself?

Here we should turn to Adorno’s 1966 magnum opus Negative Dialectics, which can be read in part as a critique of political economy in the Marxian tradition — an immanent critique of the epistemological categories at work in capitalism, as Marx pursued in his own writings (with Hegel in the background).

For Adorno, society is constituted by the relationship of exchange, which presupposes the category of abstract equivalence. Commodities that have nothing concretely in common are nonetheless exchanged. In Capital Marx shows that the commodity and the labor represented in the commodity each have a “double-character”: the use-values, or qualitative properties, of commodities are disregarded in that their value is expressed as abstractly equivalent exchange-values. Similarly, the differences in the concrete labor that produces commodities are abstracted into units of socially necessary labor time.

Adorno emphasizes that this process of what he calls “real abstraction” is presupposed in practical acts of exchange: “One cannot arrive at relationships of exchange without a moment of conceptuality… The conceptuality in the relationship of exchange is itself a kind of facticity,” or second nature,4 as “the law of value that comes into force without men being conscious of it.”5 In “real abstraction” what appears identical in the form of abstract equivalence is “non-identity under the aspect of identity,” which is Adorno’s definition of “contradiction.”6 Categories such as the principle of exchange, abstract equivalence, and identity-thinking unfold the immanent, historically specific contradiction, the “social a priori,” underlying bourgeois political economy.

The model here is Marx’s analysis that uncovers non-identity within central concepts of political economy. With regard to the bourgeois concept of freedom, workers are formally free to sell their labor-power; yet, dispossessed of the means to live and the means of production, they have no choice but to sell themselves: the exchange of labor-power for a wage is both free and unfree. Labor-power is both the value of its reproduction as it is consumed, and the surplus value produced from its consumption that is appropriated by the capitalist: the exchange of labor-power for a wage is both just and unjust.

The general mystification of central concepts of political economy masking such non-identity Adorno calls “concept fetishism” and “identity-thinking,” for which he offers a historical materialist account: “The exchange principle, the reduction of human labor to its abstract universal concept of average labor time, has the same origin as the principle of identity. It has its social model in exchange and exchange would be nothing without identity… The spread of the principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total.”7 That is, identity-thinking in epistemology merges with the exchange principle in economic praxis through the cognitive judging of abstract equivalents.

Here Adorno is working with Kantian epistemology, according to which objectively valid knowledge claims rely on the subsumption of particular sensuous intuitions under universal concepts and categories of judgment. Predicative judgment of perception amounts to the mind’s cutting away of qualitatively particular, sensuous intuition to make it abstractly “equivalent” to the concept under which it is subsumed, in a form of cognitive domination. Once such a cognitive act of understanding has been executed, the resulting judgment is available for use in syllogistic reasoning, and this operation amounts to an abstract equivalence between the non-equivalent referents of those perceptual predications: the sensuous particulars or their intuitions.

Just as exchange-value, the abstraction of labor time exerted in producing a commodity, is not an inherent property of the thing, but rather the socially necessary form in which objects appear under capitalism, so too identity-thinking imputes the abstract identity between non-identical particulars via the universal — the concept — under which they are subsumed. Just as a commodity has a use-value, its inherent properties that potentially satisfy human needs, so too a concept has its intrinsic or “emphatic idea”: the set of properties, the situations, the objects that ideally would fulfill the concept in what Adorno calls “rational identity.”

Just as Marx does not abstractly negate the concepts of political economy but rather immanently criticizes them, to drive them beyond their present contradiction — the exchange of labor-power is both just and unjust, free and unfree — so too Adorno argues that

if comparability as a category of measure were simply annulled, the rationality that is inherent in the exchange principle — as ideology of course, but also as a promise — would give way to direct appropriation, to force, and nowadays to the naked privilege of monopolies and cliques. When we criticize the exchange principle as the identifying principle of thought, we want to realize the ideal of free and just exchange. To date, this idea is only a pretense. Its realization alone would transcend exchange. If critical theory has unmasked it for what it is — an exchange of things that are equal and yet unequal — then the critique of the inequality within equality aims also at equality… if no person were denied a part of his living labor anymore, then rational identity would be achieved, and society would have transcended identity-thinking.8

By taking the emphatic idea of a concept not only as ideology but also as an indeterminate promise, Marx and Adorno perform a two-fold immanent critique in which present conditions are shown to contradict the reigning ideology and—rather than being abstractly negated for failing to represent reality—the ideology is taken “at its word,” as an indeterminate promise of its realization.9 Such a transcendence of abstract exchange and identity-thinking might be glossed by Marx’s underdetermined particularist ideal in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875): “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”10

Similarly, transcending identity thinking would aim for “unreduced experience” via epistemic acts that non-coercively modulate between particular and universal, between intuition and concept: “Utopia would be above identity and above contradiction; it would be a togetherness in diversity.”11 To this would correspond the fulfilled promise implicit in the idea of a “just exchange” of labor-power: “To go beyond the principle of exchange means at the same time to fulfill it: no one should receive less than the equivalent of the average societal labor.”12

Adorno’s turn to epistemology and sociology is a deepening of Marx’s critique of political economy, now directed at the contradictions and domination within the objective and subjective conditions that underlie abstract equivalence and commodity exchange. By situating these concepts in their specific historical and social context, as Marx did with value, labor and private property, Adorno’s analysis is recognizably materialist (or Marxist). By not forsaking the utopian norms — the “promise” — inherent in bourgeois concepts, Adorno is recognizably idealist (or Hegelian). Adorno’s project to grasp the materialism within philosophy aligns him with the two most influential Marxist writers directly preceding him, who in 1923 investigated the role of Hegelian philosophy in Marx’s thought: Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness and Karl Korsch’s “Marxism and Philosophy,” whose epigraph quotes Lenin: “‘We must organize a systematic study of the Hegelian dialectic from a materialist standpoint.’”13

Adorno saw his project as developing Marx’s critique of political economy by criticizing its philosophical categories. As he said at the conclusion of his 1962 seminar on Marx and sociology: “The genius of Marx consisted precisely in the fact that, filled with disgust, he tackled exactly that which he found disgusting: the economy.”14

Adrian Johnston: I will discuss the Hegel-Marx link by focusing on two particular features of Hegel’s socio-political thought that are connected in subtle but significant ways. I will first speak to critical observations Hegel makes about private property, and especially modern forms of private property, and the consequences they have for our societies and for what we might speak of as our Geist (“Spirit”). Then I will speak about Hegel’s critique of the “one person, one vote” franchise. I have chosen this second topic because we are having this panel on the eve of the presidential election, and I doubt there is anything more palpably present in our collective consciousness. In relation to these two topics, I hope I can show that Hegel, reread through Marx, is interesting to us in the present day.

Hegel, like Marx, carefully read Aristotle and knew that some of what is involved in capitalism, including features that Marx zeroes in on, can already be found in Aristotle’s complaints about chrematistics in Politics. Aristotle sees chrematistics as a perversion that is not really part of the economy (the oikos). He is critical of the lust for unlimited accumulation of quantifiable wealth on the part of certain merchants or traders. What for Aristotle was a perversion becomes the central norm under capitalism. Throughout Hegel’s socio-political writings from the late 1790s onwards, he is indeed concerned with how private property becomes quantified in a manner that can be pursued in this limitless, insatiable fashion. Furthermore, he is aware that, as private property becomes central in this fashion, the concept and practices involving private property come to spread their influence well beyond the spheres of the economy or the marketplace per se.

If we take Hegel’s tripartite schema from the Philosophy of Right, of the family, civil society, and the state, we would locate the marketplace squarely at the level of civil society. However, private property exerts influence that bleeds into family structures below and state structures above. In a sense, all of our social relations are rewritten or recodified in the form of market relations. We are living in the thick of that, today, in a way that is far more pronounced than what Hegel was anxious about. But I think in Hegel there already is a kind of proto-historical materialist argument about how, once you have a form of society that is grounded on private property in this sense, it comes to exert an ever more intense and ever more extensive influence over the social structure as a whole.

Hegel also critiques the “one person, one vote” system. In his 1831 text on the English Reform Bill, he harshly criticizes the kind of voting model that was at stake in the bill itself, and that is also central to what we either have done by mail, already, or will be doing between now and November 3. In addition to all of his other objections apropos the institution of voting, I think there is a subtle but significant link between Hegel’s criticism of the “one person, one vote” system and his worries about private property and the broader social consequences it has. The link has to do with the manner in which private property becomes a model for how we think about ourselves, in terms of the ideology of individualism: We are the owners of ourselves. There are links that we could establish between these subtle points in Hegel and what Marx talks about in terms of the consequences of commodified labor power. Henry mentioned the young Lukács, who does quite a bit to show just how insidiously our private mindset, right down to the level of what we would take to be our own self-consciousness, our sense of individuality, has been subjected to commodification, reification.

For Hegel, “one person, one vote” is not just democratically ineffective, but may even be democratically deleterious. Apart from issues having to do with the content of the choices that are offered to voters or the outcomes of the voting process, there’s a deeper issue for Hegel: The very form of the ritual of voting links democracy to a kind of “hyper-individualism.” It is all a matter of me, as the possessor of my private opinions. It is about my choice, in terms of my individual vote, all the way down to the character of the ritual itself.

Before the pandemic, on the one hand, voting involved this minimal social experience: I go to a public place, and I stand in line with a group of people. There’s also the almost religious sense of hushed awe and reverence, as one enters the private sanctum of the voting booth. Of course there are arguments for why that has to be kept private, but there’s also the manner in which I’m made to experience myself as this isolated monad who will tick off the boxes or pull the levers for certain choices offered to me. With the pandemic, it has become even more private. I voted by mail recently; I didn't even have to stand in line with fellow citizens. I could just sit in the solipsistic privacy of my own study, fill in the bubbles, and drop it in the mailbox, without ever having to interact with a single soul.

I think Hegel would warn us about the form of the ritual of voting, itself. Hegel and Marx, taken together, don’t necessarily offer us a concrete program for addressing these difficulties. But, at a minimum, they do warn us not to expect that any election conducted in this way will be able to deliver us from the economic, political, and ideological crises of capitalism. They would offer a cautionary note to adjust your expectations. Even if Trump is voted out and there is a peaceful transfer of power, we should not expect that to solve the conundrums that we faced before Trump came to power.

That’s my stab at discussing, in a timely way, some of the material in Hegel that is not as well trodden as, for example, Hegel’s writing on the topic of wealth inequality. That’s important too, of course, but I think that even people who defend Hegel are wary of discussing his critique of voting, as it seems to reinforce the caricature of him as a totalitarian thinker.

Jensen Suther: Hegel was a white man born in late 18th century Prussia who believed that European — and specifically Germanic — culture was the culminating achievement of human history. Hegel believed in the primacy of the West over the East, affirmed that inequality in modern society was a necessary evil, held views about differences among the races that would widely be considered racist today, and celebrated the Prussian monarchy as the highest form of civil association. Things get even worse: Hegel believed that history has a teleological shape, that the direction of its development has been necessary, and that the motor driving the process of history is the ideal of freedom — not equality, diversity, or even democracy, but freedom — an ideal now largely associated with the libertarian wing of the Right. This process, moreover, is the result, for Hegel, of the activity of a collective form called Geist, or “Spirit,” which does its work behind our backs and uses our own desires and aspirations as means for its own end of forcing us to be free.

Voltaire, in questioning the theodicy of Leibniz, who also believed that history follows a necessary path, raised the Lisbon earthquake as counterproof of Leibnizian providence: How could such an unmitigated disaster, which killed tens of thousands of people, serve any rational purpose? Given the ongoing global pandemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the United States alone and, unlike the Lisbon earthquake, was at least in part a result of human activity, how can we possibly follow Hegel in affirming the “actual as the rational”? Even Robert Pippin, arguably Hegel’s greatest living proponent, has recently implied that Trump’s election cast serious doubt on the existence of even any traces of reason in the world.

Such claims are nothing new and, after even the briefest glance at the major events of the 20th century, can seem a bit hysterical. As Adorno pointed out 70 years ago, Auschwitz already appeared to give the lie to Hegelian metaphysics, proving beyond a doubt that the rationality of history could no longer be taken for granted. Otherwise, we would be forced to say that the Holocaust was unavoidable, a requisite learning lesson and necessary sacrifice for spirit on the road to higher freedom.

What are we to make of a thinker like Hegel in the present? What “purpose” can Hegel possibly serve? Our sensibilities today — re-habituated by mandatory diversity and sensitivity training via the academy, social media, and traditional news organizations like the “failing New York Times,” in the immortal words of Trump — are scandalized by Hegel, perhaps the whitest and the deadest of the dead white men. Following the postmodernists, the Left has, for the most part, relegated Hegel to the dustbin of history. Hegel seems to persist as an object of inquiry only for the most specialized of the specialists: professional analytic philosophers (and the occasional continental heretic). What, if anything, can Hegel teach the contemporary Left?

This year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Hegel’s birth, just six years shy of the semiquincentennial of the United States, whose revolutionary founding has itself in recent years been deeply contested, with the year 1619 proposed by the newspaper of record as an alternative founding date. The abandonment of Hegel and the abandonment of the American founding are not unrelated: They both reflect a more fundamental referendum on the bourgeois revolution itself, for which Hegel functioned as the greatest philosophical cheerleader and spokesman. So the question concerning what Hegel has to teach the Left is inseparably bound up with the question of whether and how the bourgeois revolution might continue to task Leftism.

I sketched above the caricature of Hegel that has circulated among his detractors for many decades. This “official” Hegel, however, has little to do with the historical thinker, who must be “rescued,” as Adorno points out. What the Left is actually giving up is not the bad racist teleological metaphysician but the most rigorous thinker of the logic of emancipation the world has ever known — and that includes Marx, who is not Hegel’s practice-oriented antithesis, but his greatest student.

What exactly does Adorno mean by saying that Hegel must be rescued, and does Adorno’s model of Rettung (rescuing) remain adequate to the task of redeeming Hegel for Leftism, today?

Adorno begins his short book on Hegel with an admonition: Instead of asking what is “dead or alive” in Hegel and cherry-picking concepts based on current interests, we must rather ask what the present means in the face of Hegel; whether perhaps the reason one imagines one has attained since Hegel’s absolute reason has not in fact long since regressed behind the latter and accommodated to what merely exists.15 We must take Hegel at his word and take as our starting point his own claim that, in modernity, the system of reason has been realized. Does the present historical situation vindicate Hegel’s thought? Does Hegel’s system — as an aspect of bourgeois reality — live up to its own claims to coherence, rationality, and absoluteness? As Adorno argues, not only does late capitalist society fall below Hegel’s pronouncement that the concept of right has been adequately realized in the modern family, civil society, and the state; Hegel’s attempt to articulate realized right philosophically also manifests the contradictions internal to bourgeois society under capitalism.

What, then, does it mean to “rescue” Hegel, for Adorno? Towards the end of the second essay in his Hegel book, Adorno puts it like this: “Rescuing Hegel — and only rescue, not revival, is appropriate for him — means facing up to his philosophy where it is most painful and wresting truth from it where its untruth is obvious”.16 For Adorno, facing up to such painful moments of untruth means tracing those instances where Hegel’s own commitment to reason and universal freedom falters. For example, what Adorno refers to as the “logical stringency” of Hegel’s system and its pretensions to total integration are “untrue in the face of the Kantian discontinuities.” That is, Adorno upholds Kant’s assertion of the “non-identity” of the categories of thought with things-in-themselves, arguing that such non-identity holds open what Hegel’s “identity thesis” shuts down, namely, the possibility that things might be otherwise. By the same token, the untruth of Hegel’s system is “true” as a testament to the untruth of the administered “system” of capitalist reality. “This is the truth in Hegel’s untruth,” Adorno writes. “The force of the whole, which it mobilizes, is not a mere fantasy on the part of spirit; it is the force of the real web of illusion in which all existence remains trapped”.17 Rescuing Hegel, on Adorno’s view, is thus a complex operation that enables us to measure both Hegel and — through him — bourgeois society against themselves.

But there is another, less pronounced dimension of Adorno’s account that gestures towards a different way of undertaking a Rettung of Hegel. This other dimension is implicit in what is perhaps Adorno’s most famous rejoinder to Hegel, from Minima Moralia (1951): “The whole is the untrue.” Teasing out the implications of this aphorism in his Hegel book, Adorno writes, in a passage worth quoting in full, “by specifying, in opposition to Hegel, the negativity of the whole, philosophy satisfies, for the last time, the postulate of determinate negation, which is a positing. The ray of light that reveals the whole to be untrue in all its moments is none other than utopia, the utopia of the whole truth, which is still to be realized”.18 This is an astonishing moment in Adorno. First, he notes that “for the last time,” philosophy satisfies the postulate of determinate negation. Why for the last time? Because, he goes on to write, the ray of light that reveals the whole to be untrue “is none other than [that of] the whole truth.” This would imply that the claim that “the whole is the untrue” has as its necessary correlate the original Hegelian dictum that “the true is the whole,” since it is only in light of what, finally, “ought to be,” Adorno’s utopia, that the untruth of the whole of capitalist bourgeois society is intelligible.

But if this is so, then we are recalled to Hegel, at a higher level, since his own ideal of the realized totality — an integral form of life, a utopia that coheres — remains indispensable. As Adorno himself demonstrates, there is a deep sense in which any politics of emancipation must keep faith with Hegel’s own, indispensable, notions of reason, freedom, and totality.

As Lukács pointed out long ago, without the Hegelian notion of totality, Marxism becomes moralism, criticizing society from the outside. The category of totality enables us to grasp both why history as a whole has unfolded in the way that it has, why that society has that form of art, that form of religion, and that form of politics and how such developments can be understood as developments, as ways of responding to the inadequacies of prior historical practices. The Hegelian category of totality gives us a way to understand the content of society and history in its determinacy, but also a way to measure society against itself.

As Hegel tells us, the rational is the actual and the actual is the rational. Every historical totality is governed by constitutive standards that determine what ought to be done and believed. What Adorno’s invocation of Hegel’s notion of the whole reveals is how deeply dependent Marxism remains at its core on the Hegelian logic, the ultimate aim of which is to grasp the “actuality” of things, what things are “in truth,” as when we ask whether a machine with artificial intelligence is “actually” thinking, or whether a philosopher is just a sophist or is “actually” doing philosophy. Hegel’s “logic of actuality” enables us to grasp things in light of their inner dynamism and to measure them against their own truth.

Hegel argues that the notion of freedom is the “truth” of history. All past forms of life are failed attempts — however deeply implicitly — to actualize human freedom. Reason comes into its own, fulfills itself as reason, only once it is free, which for Hegel means this: We recognize neither God nor nature as the source of the authority of the laws that bind us, but only ourselves. Such mutual recognition of our responsibility for and authority over the life that we share must be embodied in our most fundamental institutions, from the family to the state. And as the unavoidability of the category of “the whole” suggests, Marxism must ask whether freedom in bourgeois society is actuallyfreedom — whether something further might be required to realize the value of freedom we have come to recognize in modernity.

Without Hegel’s rational historicism, we have no way to hold society to account for its historical irrationalism. Even the task of criticizing Hegel, of holding Hegel to account for his own socially conformist apologetics, requires that we measure his thought against the standard of universal freedom Hegel himself brought to consciousness. To recognize capitalism as the profound dysfunction of the bourgeois organism is to recognize the bourgeois principle of individual freedom and collective self-determination as lodestars for any possible quest for social emancipation.


AB: Henry, I can understand why Adorno and his colleagues were interested in explaining political and cultural regression and in understanding domination. But might it be more useful now to focus on understanding solidarity and collaboration? In founding the International Workingmen's Association, Marx said that the failure of socialism so far was due to a lack of solidarity.

Adrian, you are speaking from America. Maybe a little bit more of the “one person, one vote” system, rather than less, would solve a lot of your problems! I find it a strange moment to be arguing against the idea of everyone having an equal vote. On private property, large-scale manufacture was a problem in Hegel’s view. He did not defend the right of factory owners to own the tools of somebody else’s trade. Private right to private property is the right to own tools, for Hegel, and I think that is a good value, though obviously it presents some problems in a large-scale, post-industrial and globalized society.

Jensen, it is hard sometimes to know what your own view is, because you will cite Adorno or Pippin to make a point. Do you agree with Pippin that the existence of rationality in the world is open to question? Several times, when you posed the question of the rational, you did exactly what Hegel asked us not to do: You brought in a concept of the rational that is external to the world, and then compared the world with it. Maybe you don’t agree with Pippin, or with Adorno. But I think if that’s the case, you need to make it clear that there is no rationality other than in the unfolding of human activity. The point is to understand it.

AJ: If what you are concerned with is the short-term outcome of getting Trump out of office, at all costs, then yes, increased enfranchisement of voters would be the priority. But Hegel and Marx are stepping back and looking at this from a different perspective. Every few years people go to the polls and vote based on what Hegel would call matters of Dasein, merely “being there” — the contingencies of the moment. That means leaving the “ought” up to chance. Hegel would also point out that we are hoping for “one person, one vote” to deliver us from the very mess that “one person, one vote” got us into.

For Hegel, the greater sickness that afflicts societies in the modern era is hyper-individualism, which is bound up with conceptions of property ownership, private-mindedness, and so on. This malaise is going to be reinforced rather than ameliorated by the “one person, one vote” model. His alternative is to plead, time and again, for the greater organic unity of what he sometimes calls estates, and then in the Philosophy of Right calls corporations, by which he means associations that would be closer to, in the context of the labor movement, things like unions or even soviets. Of course, we can’t expect reforms to usher in a new legislative body composed of delegates from such associations. That sort of change would require a revolution, or else would be forced by the collapse of the existing state of affairs. But both Hegel and Marx would advise us not to expect that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, nor anyone else will remedy what ails us.

JS: I agree that the sort of rationality at issue is not external. For Hegel, rationality is a matter of constitutive standards: They are the standards to which we bind ourselves. It is not a matter of an external principle against which we are falling short.

The ways in which I disagree with Pippin and Adorno are different. In Pippin’s case, I take him to be claiming that bourgeois society has fallen so far below its own principles that there’s no real way in which it can even be said to believe in them anymore. The claim is not that there is some external mode of rationality that bourgeois society is failing to fulfill; rather, he sees something like Trump’s election as the ultimate abandonment of bourgeois society’s own original promise, or something like that. I do not agree with Pippin on this at all; I see it as simply an expression of a distinct kind of historical despair on his part.

With respect to Adorno, the issue is different. Adorno holds to the idea that immanent critique is the only possible model. Where I would depart from Adorno has to do with some of the details of his criticism of Hegel, in particular where he suggests that Kant’s model of rationality in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) is in some way more adequate to our historical situation than Hegel’s. Adorno holds that there is an honesty to Kant’s belief in the ultimate unknowability of things as they are, which is violated by the “arrogance” of Hegelian philosophy. I think that is a slightly different issue than what you were asking about, but that is the point at which I would disagree with Adorno. I think I have completely followed Hegel, in that the only relevant standards are the ones that we give to ourselves, and that is the standpoint from which critique has to be undertaken.

HP: Andy, I found your comments interesting. I’m coming at them from a position of ignorance, in the sense I haven't read Leontiev. Regarding Vygotsky, you said that there was no evidence that he had directly read Hegel, but I'm wondering whether he had read Aristotle, and if that might be a point of triangulation between Vygotsky and Hegel regarding activity and cultural psychology.

Adrian, you put your finger on something, and I wonder if we could generalize it to talk about the evacuation of the civic in modernity. Not only does voting become this sort of artificial ritual, but the activities that elevate individuals above civil society, into the realm of the state, are becoming fewer and more etiolated. Paying taxes and military conscription are about it. Regarding the latter, I have had interesting conversations with people in the military. If you ask someone why they are serving, there are two contradictory explanations you will usually get. The first is, “I am serving my country,” which is the old pro patria mori that Hegel would fully embrace. The other is that it is an investment in oneself — precisely this individualistic management of one’s own assets, in the hopes of getting a college degree or training. Those two explanations often clash in the same person, in the same discourse.

Regarding Jensen’s remarks, there is this inheritance of concepts that have a normative function from German idealism that Adorno still wants to actuate in some sense, with freedom being one of them. On the other hand, in Minima Moralia, one of his claims is that the concept of individuality itself is waning under contemporary late capitalism. I wonder whether some further differentiation has to be made. It is not clear to me that Adorno is calling for individualism, for example, to remain a normative concept, given the societal situation we are in. Also, if I understood you correctly, you were implying that Adorno, when he is talking about the whole as the untruth, has to presuppose a concept of what the true whole would be. I’m not sure about that. Adorno’s understanding of determinate negation is not that it necessarily yields a determinate positive, but that it yields what might be called a “differential better” — something that’s not the negative, but not necessarily an explicit positive. This brings to mind the conclusion of Minima Moralia, where he talks again about utopia as an illuminating ray of light. But all of that is “in the face of despair,” as he puts it, which indicates that the cognitive move might be fulfilling a non-cognitive function. That is, perhaps it’s meant to seduce us into continuing to resist, or into continuing to take a negative attitude towards the actual that is, rather than having a positive picture of what the utopian standpoint would be, such that we can criticize the present.

Q & A

It seems to me that Hegel’s writing met a certain political task of his time: to further the revolution of society, to further the bourgeois revolution. In the presentations today, different ideas of a political task in the present have come up. How might we think about the political task of the present, of capitalism, in relation to the one that Hegel was meeting? How is it similar or different? This raises Marx, who in observing the revolution of 1848, remarked on how the revolution of the people for self-determination and freedom became self-contradictory, which was objectified in the class struggle. That’s just one example of how Marx, even though he took up Hegel, seems to be pointing to a changed political task. What is that task, in the present?

AB: What is the task? We need to have a real subject in mind when we ask that question. I don’t think you can say that the political task of the present epoch is this or that. I’ll have to answer it as best I can, in terms of the question, What is the task of the Left? Now, the Left barely rates as a subject today. I understand that’s something Platypus tries to deal with. But, in terms of understanding the present task, as socialist, I would approach it this way.

Like Hegel, I look at the abstraction, socialism, and I try and understand it through analysis to its “concrete simple something,” which is the relation of solidarity. Solidarity is a relationship formed when a subject places itself under the direction of another in order to support them, as opposed to making a deal, or trying to take them over or lead them. Solidarity means, What can I do to help you? This is sorely lacking.

Now, in the conversation so far, there has been a strongly American flavor to the way the current epoch has been talked about — which bodes ill for the rest of the world, because what is America today is often the rest of the world, tomorrow. Is the need for solidarity going to be more obvious in America? Taking that abstraction and reducing it to that concrete simple something, of a relationship between two subjects, that’s something I get from Hegel. I proceed accordingly to build and proliferate relationships and solidarity. If solidarity was universal, we would have socialism — never mind the institutions.

JS: Despite the emphasis on solidarity as concrete, it strikes me as quite an abstract ideal. Andy, earlier you asked, “Why don’t we focus on solidarity instead of regression?” That seems insensitive to the particulars of the historical situation. If there are real obstacles that prevent the formation of solidarity, whatever that might mean, we can’t just say, “Let’s push for solidarity instead of analysis of regression.” It’s very difficult to formulate a concrete political task precisely because of these blocks, which is what forces Adorno back on the language of utopia. In Hegel’s moment, he understood his project as retrospective and justificatory. Hegel did see real problems with the institutions of his moment, but he basically saw those institutions as rational and necessary. Philosophy was to play the role of rational comprehension, of actually understanding why we have the institutions we do and justifying why these institutions are the ones that we must have. Obviously, after Marx, that line of thought is called into question. There was a possibility of a real formulation of the political task and concrete forms of solidarity in the years shortly after Hegel’s death, in the 1840s and the 1850s. Today it is difficult to formulate a political task, but for that very reason I think we have to be careful about projecting abstractions like solidarity, which can actually blind us to real obstacles to the formation of solidarity.

HP: Marx, in his comments on Mill, gives a very abstract model for what he calls social production, which is producing for use rather than producing for exchange, and I wonder whether that isn’t a model for the type of solidarity that Andy is talking about. If so, then I would be a little more optimistic and say that there are, in the American context, places where that has happened. For instance, we could think about the achievements of gay marriage in the past decades, which involves a kind of recognitional solidarity, if we can call it that. In Marx’s account, the model of reciprocal production for use confers a status of recognition. This is a very Hegelian moment in Marx. Looking for ways, even locally, to generate cooperative and collaborative activity that confers status upon the participants, is how we might build solidarity. I would not want to privilege production, the way Marx does. In the wake of Trump’s election, the marches that happened around the midterm elections are examples of those types of recognitional activities, in my view. Now that runs against some of the obstacles that Jensen may be referring to, things like dark money, gerrymandering, and all sorts of structural impediments to translating grassroots, solidaristic activities into institutional effect. But I think that might be where some energy could be devoted.

AB: Jensen, solidarity may be an abstraction to you. Certainly, it starts out that way. But, to follow Hegel, we don’t leave it as an abstraction. Through analysis you determine it as that “concrete simple something.” I explained that when I say solidarity, I mean one subject offering its services to another, to work under their direction. You are of course right that there are barriers to solidarity — that’s my whole point. If someone is blocked from participation in political life, the principle and the duty of solidarity is to offer yourself to work under their direction, to say “I have these resources, how would you like to use them?” It’s a specific meaning. It’s a relation between two subjects. It’s not an abstraction. If Hegel is to offer anything to the Left, it’s to show you how to break down these abstractions, to analyze them to a point where you’re able to make a dialectical reconstruction, the way Marx did in his critique of political economy. But it doesn’t have to be confined to political economy; it can approach any question. Intersectionality, for example, is being approached in that concrete way by young people on the Left.

AJ: One often encounters a kind of ideological blackmail, in which leftists are told, “Well, if you don’t have any concrete policy proposals or realistic alternatives, you should shut up.” We should resist that. Certain kinds of classical historical materialism laid claim, however loosely, to quasi-scientific predictive powers and an ability to forecast the future of social history. We are in a different situation now; we are more like Hegel’s figure of the owl of Minerva, at the end of the justly celebrated Preface to 1821’s Philosophy of Right. We can survey the past as it leads up to our present, but we are powerless to see into the future and make predictions.

Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), has this figure of the angel of history, which is a kind of 20th-century redeployment of Hegel’s owl of Minerva. Benjamin emphasizes that, as historical materialists, we have to operate without the Enlightenment notion that there is a certain arc of history that, when interpreted properly, gives us predictive power. Rather, we are being pushed into the future, with our backs turned towards it. In this respect, Hegel and Benjamin differ from a certain kind of classical Marxism, which I do think that Marx himself sometimes subscribed to, as a child of the Enlightenment, though it is even more so associated with Engels’s codification of Marx’s historical materialism, and with a number of Marxist orientations seen as crude and vulgar by Marx himself. We have the right to criticize the internal inconsistencies, the contradictions, the self-destructive tendencies and dynamics of the status quo, even if we aren’t able to say exactly what we should do to resolve these, or what steps or particular measures can be taken to move beyond these impasses.

How do all of the panelists understand the terms materialism and idealism, and the classical opposition of Marx as a materialist against Hegel as an idealist? Do you see that as a vulgar opposition? In terms of the question of political goals, Hegel would have been, let us say, a conservative liberal, whereas Marx was a revolutionary socialist. Is the goal of revolutionary socialism, in a classical Marxist sense, one that is still on the table? In general, I don’t want to hear only about the continuity between Marx and Hegel, but also potential discontinuity and opposition.

AB: There is more than one axis along which this distinction between idealism and materialism is being made. For example, Hegel introduced the idea that knowledge is socially determined. Modern materialists regard that as materialism, whereas idealists think that ideas come out of the head. But when Hegel defined idealism, it was to introduce the idea that knowledge is a social product. I’ve written an article on this exact question, which identifies about half a dozen different axes on which this distinction between idealism and materialism has to be viewed.19

JS: Hegel is most famous for saying that philosophy is its own time grasped in thought. What he meant by that is precisely that philosophy is the self-comprehension of a form of life that has real economic, civil-social and institutional forms. In that sense, Hegel is already a materialist. In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel says that life itself, the activity of living beings, is an objective idealism. Hegel’s own sense of idealism is that concepts are constitutive of reality, which is different from saying that concepts produce reality. Hegel is making the Aristotelian point that objects have a purposive dynamic in light of their form. The point of discontinuity with Marx is not really on the side of metaphysics, or logic, or how Hegel understands reality. Contrary even to what Marx at times said on this subject, I think there are actually very few metaphysical disagreements between him and Hegel. Rather, the discontinuity is in how they understand the task of theory and philosophy. Hegel understands philosophy primarily as a retrospective, justificatory task. Philosophy may comprehend the world, but cannot change it. Hegel sees this self-comprehension as a necessary aspect of any social reality, so philosophy does play an integral role, but he didn’t think philosophy had any real prospective power, any material or practical force. By contrast, Marx understands philosophy as articulating real possibilities intrinsic to present political reality — that’s what is truly distinctive about Marx’s model. That’s what is really at stake in the distinction between materialism and idealism.

AJ: There is a notion that there is a fundamental conflict between materialism and idealism, and this represents the primary contradiction of the history of Western philosophy, as per the classical Engelsian thesis, which then gets taken up by Lenin and the Soviets in the 20th century. We have to be very careful how we construe that. The word “idealism” is often used in reference to psychological or subjective idealism, according to which the mind is the exclusive reality, or at least has priority as the ultimate determinate of what counts as real and knowable. Hegel was a staunch opponent of that kind of idealism; in his criticism of Kant and Fichte he spells out the differences among transcendental varieties of subjective idealism, his and Schelling’s objective idealism, and his own absolute idealism. I would draw attention to Hegel’s criticism of Schelling’s followers, if not of Schelling himself, in the Preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), in which Hegel famously talks about the need to think substance also as subject. There’s an interesting subterranean link between what is involved in that observation by Hegel and what shows up in Marx’s 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach.” Usually we think of the eleventh and final thesis, about comprehending versus changing the world. But in the first thesis, he spells out the difference between what he calls contemplative materialism, which for Marx covers everything from the ancient Greek atomists up to Feuerbach himself, versus this new form of materialism that Marx is trying to bring into the picture, which would contain within itself the category of subjective practice or activity, and thus move beyond an inert objectivity that can only give rise to a contemplative standpoint. In other words, there are many problems with the view that Hegel represents “idealism,” in diametrical opposition to “materialism.” We should remember that Hegel authored the second volume of the Encyclopedia, the Philosophy of Nature — he indeed had a Naturphilosophie, contrary to what a lot of commentary would lead you to believe. Hegel has a certain naturalism, however qualified, that we often lose sight of. It provides a number of openings that Marx was clearly aware of, and which Engels and some of the Soviets capitalized on.20

As for the practical-political differences between Hegel and Marx, there are a good number of these. At the level of Hegel’s political preferences, for instance how he reacted to developments in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France, there are various things that one could latch onto and say that Hegel was a center-left sort of bourgeois thinker. When talking about the Critique of Judgment (1790), Hegel says that Kant is most interesting at those moments when he reaches beyond himself. Likewise, there is much in Hegel that reaches beyond, and some of which anticipates Marx. There’s a lot you can do with Hegel that closes that gap between the two of them. But, in the interest of honest intellectual history, I think one would have to say that closing the gap between Marx and Hegel does involve playing some moments in Hegel off against others, and downplaying some of Hegel’s own personal political convictions. At the same time, any true picture of Hegel will be complicated. Certainly, he is not fully assimilable to a standard bourgeois sensibility with a non-revolutionary, centrist political outlook.

HP: I’m going to take a micro-view instead of Adrian’s maximalist view. In terms of Hegel and Marx, maybe “second nature” is a good point to discuss. If you think about objective idealism for Hegel, that implies a kind of second nature. We build these institutions that hopefully we feel at home in, so much so that we almost forget we built them. When Marx writes Capital, he talks about those structures and he says they are nature-like, or they grow like nature. This second nature that we produce and actively reproduce appears to us as material nature, confronting us and alienating us. So, Lukács says that you have to raise the consciousness of the working class, or the proletariat. If you ask, “What are you producing?”, most workers will say, “I’m making a widget,” or “I’m earning my daily wage.” If they have read Marx, they might say, “I’m reproducing capital. I’m re-creating precisely the natural world that I’ve been born into, but which oppresses me, and within which I feel alienated.” This is idealistic in the sense that we are resurrecting Hegel’s idea that we produce objective idealism collectively, by the institutions we create, but these then confront us as reified, petrified things, rather than the totality of the processes that we are performing every day. If we can understand that we are all collective agents in this production and reproduction, it could be the start of something that leads to political change. So, that is an example of tying together some idealism and some materialism.

JS: Even if it has been falsified in some sense under capitalism, that idea in Hegel of being at home in one’s institutions still has to remain the normative standard by which we would judge what would be a truly adequate form of institutionality. In that sense, what you were calling Hegel’s objective idealism cannot be counterposed to materialism, because even for an emancipated society, that Hegelian notion would still have to be in play. This relates to Adorno’s remark, “the whole is the untrue.” Adorno says, “the ray of light that reveals the whole to be untrue in all its moments is none other than utopia, the utopia of the whole truth, which is still to be realized.”21 The “utopia of the whole truth” remains a normative standard inasmuch as we are not just asking, “What might contingently happento count as emancipation, for us moderns?” But rather, “What would it mean to achieve freedom?” That’s part of what we inherit from the bourgeois revolution — the task of bourgeois society. The Hegelian ideal of freedom and totality has to persist for Adorno’s own critical criteria to make sense. In judging bourgeois society against itself, part of what we are asking is, What would constitute an actually coherent totality? What would constitute an actually free society? Adorno has to use the term “utopia” because the possibility of concretely envisioning those institutions has been blocked. But if utopia is a placeholder concept, it is a placeholder concept for this idea of realized freedom.

I do think that Adorno’s identification of domination with identity thinking and with conceptuality, predication, and judgement, runs into some problems. Hegel operates with a different conception of conceptuality. He makes a distinction between deductive reasoning and the conceptuality proper to Vernunft (Reason). For Hegel, when we want to know about concrete universality, we ask what it would mean for a living being to meet its own standards, for it to live up to its own concept. That’s a very different notion of conceptuality than what Adorno takes aim at. There’s a tendency in Adorno to conflate these two conceptions of conceptuality. Hegel would have no problem agreeing with Adorno’s critique with respect to instrumental reasoning or deductive rationality. But Hegel moves in the other direction of showing that we therefore have to be committed to this higher conception of what constitutes rationality, which cannot be reduced to instrumental reasoning. Adorno doesn’t abide by this distinction. To me, that seems to create some problems for how he is to ground the idea of conceptuality that he would assume in his own account of, say, the constitutive standards employed in his immanent critique of an artwork or of society.

HP: The lifecycle of an organism is described by how it moves, how it feeds, how it reproduces, and so on. You find all those metaphors in Marx’s Capital — he treats capital as an organism that reproduces without natural limit. If you think about how one comes to understand the lifecycle or the natural history of any lifeform, empirically, you need to find the right nutrition or the right temperature or the right migration patterns for travel. You don’t know those ahead of time; you learn them by removing obstacles to the organism. In doing so, you flesh out an idealized version of its lifecycle. I think that’s the model of rationality at work in Adorno — he’s identifying obstacles to human flourishing, without defining exactly what human flourishing is. He proceeds on the basis of these bourgeois concepts that are not fully realized, that encounter obstacles. But Adorno is agnostic about what things would look like when those concepts are fully realized.

JS: To my mind, that’s very close to Hegel, who was clear that there is no blueprint available in advance for realized rationality; it is something that has to be constructed precisely through the historical attempt to realize freedom. Only then, retrospectively, can we understand why it was necessary that things happened as they did, why certain forms of social organization failed, and so on. But even those faltering attempts at realization turn out to be a part of what will have constituted the content of true freedom. Likewise, I don’t think that there is an external ideal or an external set of criteria to which we can appeal in trying to give an account of our moment’s political goals. I think rather that bourgeois society itself has set the task. It has established what those criteria are, and if we are not to beg questions, then those are the criteria that we have to examine. You mentioned the category of individuality or individual freedom, and whether that is a criterion to be realized in Adorno’s case. But I take it, not as an external criterion, but that we have actually come to be committed to the idea that everyone should have the right to lead a free life. That is already understood in bourgeois society; it’s inseparably bound up with the bourgeois conception of property. But we also see that this same conception of freedom is inimical to the very ideal that it wants to realize — individual freedom is actually undermined by industrial production, as well as post-industrial capitalist production. This requires us to revise what a true realization of the notion of individual freedom would mean. It’s not that we have a static, formal standard that can be realized under different conditions; rather, the ideal itself requires revision, or reformulation, in order to be realized.

First, Marx makes a distinction between value, a production relation, and exchange value, a market relation. Marxists often conflate these categories. Is Adorno guilty of such a conflation? Second, what are the political implications for the overcoming of the exchange principle, or bourgeois equality, upon its own terms?

AB: Regarding the second part, I think the important thing is to try and build perspectives on the basis of concrete relations. A simple relation which encapsulates the tasks of socialism has to be realized in a real historical process, which is why famously Marx had to wait for the Paris Commune before amending the Communist Manifesto in terms of what the working class would do if it took state power. He didn’t speculate on that. So I think the approach is to understand this very simple person-to-person relation of solidarity and to look for where that is realized, where it is at least partially exemplified in some institutions, where there are existing examples that are worth defending — even in the context of this horrible, capitalist society. Any relation which is to overcome capitalism has to be able to survive within it. That might serve as a guide, I would say, to trying to overcome a society based on commodity exchange. You can build on a real, genuinely human relationship that may be capable of transcending relationships based on the accumulation of wealth.

HP: The first question asks about whether there is a conflation between value in the sphere of production, which I take it means something like the law of value or the labor theory of value, versus exchange value in the sphere of circulation or exchange, and whether Adorno conflates those. That’s a tough question. I’d have to look at specific passages. But I think Adorno’s target is different: What kind of thought processes have to go into the principle of exchange, in the first place, which makes incommensurables commensurable? Adorno returns to that sort of Aristotelian problem, which Marx thought he had solved. The person who really deeply considered these types of questions, I think, is Alfred Sohn-Rethel, from whom Adorno borrowed (or stole). The phrase “real abstraction” comes from Sohn-Rethel. Adorno then takes up this idea that value is something abstract that allows for things that are concretely incommensurable in any dimension to be exchanged. This is what Adorno sees as the real problem. In terms of overcoming exchange inequity, Adorno is going to point to what is being overlooked, what is incommensurable or non-identical. He accepts an identity relation but finds the fulcrum, as it were, by which it can be criticized and made differentially better. You think these two things are equal or exchangeable, but you are forgetting this dimension in which they are unequal. It is a perpetual correction on any kind of equivalence relation that drives what he calls a negative dialectic.

AJ: I would like to address the possible transformation of value and how it functions in its various guises, and what we might hope for further down the road of social history. There is a very helpful observation from Žižek on the topic of utopia. What we often understand by this term, which has its roots in things like the Kallipolis of Plato’s Republic, is that a “utopia” comes from armchair speculation, when we allow ourselves to daydream and construct ideal models in the heavens, which may or may not be brought down to earth. Any utopia of that kind, at least from a Hegelian or a Marxian standpoint, is not worth thinking about. But there is another sense of utopia that Žižek highlights: the idea that we may actually end up at utopia, in terms of a radical transformation of our circumstances, because crises and catastrophes have backed us into a corner. Dire circumstances might compel us to take a radical leap in a direction that had seemed improbable or unfeasible. We might have to radically reinvent our way of life just to survive.

Right now, we are in the middle of a global health crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in over 100 years. Even those on the Right are being forced to contemplate measures that previously they would have utterly rejected — including things that at least point in the direction of a universal basic income and various Keynesian measures. As a University of Chicago economist observed a decade ago, right after the Great Recession, we’re all Keynesians in the foxhole. Out of sheer desperation, we may end up doing things on Bernie Sanders’s policy wish-list. If we are to hope for radical restructuring, it is only going to be thanks to severe crises or catastrophes that capitalism brings about. We will be forced to be practically utopian, to reinvent things, in utter desperation. To the extent that I am hopeful that there will be a major transformation in how we think about earning a living, what entitles one to a decent standard of living, and so on, the one glimmer of hope for me is that the crises we are already in, and further ones that I think we can expect to face, will continue to push even the most reluctant to reinvent things, just to survive.

How has Hegel been misused and abused by the Left — perhaps even on this panel?

AB: I don’t know that Hegel’s been misused on the Left. It’s more that he is not used enough. I would like to say that I am fed up with the reliance on the Phenomenology, which has gotten so much attention from the mid-20th century onwards thanks to the French Left. That’s fine, but we really need to look at the Logic and the Encyclopaedia. If the general public or the Left thinks that Hegel is just about the master–slave dialectic, it will basically guarantee that a generation of leftists will be turned off Hegel for life. The other thing is that we need to help people study Hegel. It is not enough to publish a good book. Actually help people read Hegel, line-by-line, so they can appropriate their own understanding of Hegel.

HP: Andy, you brought back a traumatic memory. I first started reading Hegel when I was an exchange student in Tübingen, and there was a course where they would read one chapter per semester. They were on the seventh year of reading through the Phenomenology. There were people my grandfather’s age in the seminar who had stuck with it through the whole iteration. It was an amazing pedagogical experience, so I want to second that kind of project. How has Hegel been misused? I don’t know about misused. One way to describe how Adorno reads Hegel is that he asks the question, When you are thinking as Hegel thinks, where does it hurt? Where is there suffering? Where is there harm? That indicates where the dialectic is maybe skipping over something, often a materialist moment, that it should take into account.

AJ: It’s funny, Henry’s traumatic memory then triggered one of my own, which was very similar. When I was studying in Wuppertal, I joined a reading group on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that had been running for six years, and we were only at the very beginning of the Transcendental Deduction. It was indeed sentence-by-sentence; the professor who was then presiding over it, Manfred Baum, one of the editors of Kant-Studien at the time, would take a question like, “Why does Kant use ‘of’ rather than ‘from,’ here?”, and would tell a story that would start with the pre-Socratics and go all the way up to that moment in the Critique of Pure Reason. Apropos the question, I would limit myself to saying that, despite the sympathy that many leftists, especially in the Marxist tradition, have towards Hegel, it is also the case that there are various caricatures and real abuses of Hegel. You can find examples of this even within Marxism and especially, in 20th-century Western Marxism. There are people who really buy into the story of Hegel as the sell-out conservative thinker, an apologist for Prussian reaction, or a totalitarian thinker, or some sort of delusional, grandiose metaphysician. You have all of these different things that we might call the “Hegel of myths and legends,” and I think these egregious abuses or mistreatments of Hegel do not involve actually reading him, but rather accepting as accurate enemy propaganda spread by Karl Popper and the like.

JS: I would agree with Andy and with Adrian that Hegel isn’t used enough, and yet there’s a persistent problem of Hegel caricatures. I don’t think that is an accident, but a function of what we might call the socially necessary form of appearance of Hegel’s thought. There are determinate reasons that Hegel appears as he does at different historical points. Right now, a lot of the more promising work on Hegel is coming out of analytic philosophy. That fact itself speaks to a certain contemplativeness of the Hegel that we have today. At the same time, as the dialectic usually works, this contemplativeness has been fruitful in other ways, as in the work of someone like Robert Pippin, who is self-avowedly an anti-Marxist thinker and believes basically that capitalism is the final economic form of human life. Nonetheless, I think that there are resources in Pippin’s work for articulating a truly radical understanding of what Hegel is trying to do, contrary to all of the worst caricatures and presuppositions about Hegel. In the time of the death of the Left, it makes sense that Hegel would become an object of analytic contemplation. |P

Transcribed by Mike Atkinson, Kevin G.D., Justin Spiegel, and Dane Thomas.

Edited by Daniel Jacobs and Nathan L. Smith.

[1] Henry Pickford’s article, “Theodor W. Adorno,” appeared in The Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism, eds. Alex Callinicos, Stathis Kouvelakis, and Lucia Pradella (Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2020). Mr. Pickford wishes to acknowledge and thank Alex Callinicos and Iain Macdonald, who provided helpful comments on a previous draft of that article, on which these opening remarks are based.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (New York: Routledge, 1991).

[3] See Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” in History and Class Consciousness, originally published in 1923. Available online at <>.

[4] Adorno, “Marx and the Basic Concepts of Sociological Theory: From a Seminar Transcript in the Summer Semester of 1962,” Historical Materialism 26(1), 1–11.

[5] Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York and London: Routledge, 1973), 300; see also 316.

[6] Ibid., 5.

[7] Ibid., 152.

[8] Ibid., 146–7; translation modified.

[9] Indeterminate because the concept’s fulfillment will vary with historical-material conditions. An example from the positivism dispute: “The concept of society, which is specifically bourgeois and anti-feudal, implies the notion of an association of free and independent human subjects for the sake of the possibility of a better life and, consequently, the critique of natural societal relations. The hardening of bourgeois society into something impenetrably and inevitably natural is its immanent regression.” Adorno, Introduction to The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, ed. Adorno et al. (New York: Harper, 1976), 25.

[10] Adorno also identifies certain virtues, including generosity, pity, and gratitude, “in which one gives more than one receives,” contrary to the rational principle of exchange and anticipating an abundance of goods to be achieved by the forces of production. See Adorno, Philosophische Terminologie, ed. Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2016), 575–6. On the other hand, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno criticizes Marx’s account of the emancipatory role of technology: “The unleashing of the forces of production, a feat of spirit mastering nature, has an affinity to the violent domination of nature” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 306; translation modified).

[11] Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 154.

[12] Adorno, “Zur Spezifikation der kritischen Theorie,” in Adorno. Eine Bildmonographie, ed. Theodor W. Adorno Archiv (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1969), 290–92.

[13] Karl Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy,” originally published in 1923. Available online at <>.

[14] Adorno, “Marx and the Basic Concepts of Sociological Theory,” 11.

[15] Adorno, Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 1.

[16] Ibid., 83.

[17] Ibid., 87.

[18] Ibid., 87–88.

[19] Andy Blunden, “In What Sense Was Hegel an Idealist?” Available online at <>.

[20] For a more detailed account of Hegel’s “quasi-naturalist materialism,” see Adrian Johnston’s A Weak Nature Alone, the second volume of his Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2019).

[21] Theodor W. Adorno, “The Experiential Content of Hegel’s Philosophy,” in Hegel: Three Studies, 88.