“A self-conscious revolution”: An interview with Terry Pinkard on Hegel and Marxism
Platypus Review 145 | April 2022
On September 4, 2021, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an interview with Terry Pinkard, philosopher at Georgetown University, on Hegel and Marxism, as part of its East Coast Regional Conference. The interview was conducted by Omair Hussain and followed by an audience Q&A. The original recording is available online at <https://youtu.be/MqZ-KrfHOEs>.
Omair Hussain: In a YouTube video in which you answer basic questions about Hegel, you mention that when you first began your intellectual career Hegel was, to say the least, out of fashion. My attraction to Hegel as an undergrad, in 2008–2012, was initiated by the work of people like you and Robert Pippin. I can make sense of that as the expression of an exhaustion of postmodernism. That is how I understand why our emphasis in Platypus on the Hegelian dimension of Marxism is appealing to people — there is a sense in which the postmodern critique seems to have reached an impasse. But I am curious to know what initially attracted you to Hegel, especially in an environment that was hostile to Hegel.
Terry Pinkard: I went to college between 1965 and 1969 for my bachelor’s. I had some professors that were interested in Kant, who introduced me to that. I also got taken up with New Left politics, and so I got very interested in Marx. There weren’t any courses being taught at the time on Marx, and so, like a lot of people at the time, I was more or less an autodidact. Like a lot of young people at the time, I was also interested in the ferment of existentialism. In the course of all that I got curious about Hegel and backed into it. I got very interested in how different the Hegel that I was reading was from the Hegel that I had received — this weird guy who thought that the World Spirit was going to culminate in the Prussian state. First out of curiosity and surprise, I kept coming back to it. I began to see much more of a connection along that line that runs from Kant to Hegel to Marx, up to various figures in the 20th century.
OH: In Platypus we emphasize the Hegelian dimension of Marxism, and I think it comes out in Platypus’s interest in emancipatory politics: history, for Hegel, is the story of freedom or it’s nothing. There’s a sense in which freedom now, especially to the Left, means libertarianism, a kind of freedom from the state. What is the content of Hegel’s notion of freedom in history as the story of freedom? What is it about Hegel’s world that makes it reasonable to say history might be the story of freedom?
TP: Hegel doesn’t think history begins with freedom; he thinks that we developed an interest in freedom by virtue of the kinds of failures of prior attempts to achieve something else. In The Phenomenology of Spirit the first chapters of “Self-Consciousness” are called “Self-Sufficiency” and “Un-Self-Sufficiency” — or “Independence” and “Dependence.” You get a confrontation that ends in the master / slave relation. Each side starts out claiming a certain independence for itself — “I will make the decisions and my will, will be your will.” We get a conception of freedom out of the failures of mastery and servitude. Freedom has emerged as the answer that we didn’t know we needed, to a problem that we had. The dialectical breakdown of people struggling for pure independence — you might say the right to dominate others — led to a conception of freedom. What Hegel thinks we mean by freedom is therefore not given all at once but is rather itself a developing concept. We wanted independence, but we realized that we are mutually dependent and that we wanted not independence per se, but something called freedom.
The definition Hegel gives is “bei sich” — being with oneself, or being one with oneself. I take Hegel to mean that you have the experience of freedom when you experience that your actions and your emotions are at one with you. You are acting in ways that are identical with what is constitutive for you to be an agent. But that is always socially bound, because that abstract definition will not tell you what it is to be an agent. One of Hegel’s key ideas is mutual dependency. Our agency is metaphysically social, and not just in the trivial ways in which we are all socialized from birth.
One of the fundamental components of this is what looks like an insuperable opposition between the pure individual, speaking from the first-person standpoint, who first seeks pure independence, and the “we,” the plurality of all these “I”s, who have the possibility of acting together. You see this joint plurality most clearly in something like the phenomenon of language. One of the keys to reading the Phenomenology is that the problem raised in the master / slave dialectic does not come anywhere near a resolution until the last paragraph of the chapter on Spirit, where Hegel starts talking about language as the existence of Spirit — which does not exist except insofar as it is people communicating with each other, and linguistic communication is a paradigm of this.
The “I” and the “we” are already joined but there’s always a tendency to pull them apart. Genuine freedom would be when these two are consonant with each other — what it would take for a kind of social life to be able to speak of itself as both individually and communally free. Marx takes this over from Hegel — he thinks this is the right idea and that Hegel had the wrong conception of what kind of social formation would actually enable freedom. Marx thought it would only come about in a fully communist society.
OH: For Hegel this mediation of the individual and collective — and this is the contentious aspect of Hegel for later people — is the state. You emphasize the non-identity of civil society and the state — that there could be a failure of the state to adequately mediate civil society. Today the idea of civil society seems to strike people as something they haven’t come across before — perhaps because our society is so dominated by the state. What is Hegel’s conception of civil society? Is the state the adequate expression of civil society for Hegel?
TP: You have to back up not just to civil society but to the two opening sections of The Philosophy of Right, where Hegel talks about, first of all, abstract right, the Lockean triumvirate of life, liberty and property, but he is quite clear that that is an abstraction, and he doesn’t discuss, at least in the first part of the book, any of the institutional ways in which those things might have to appear.
The second thing is morality, which has to do with both the subjective internal motivations that we have and the kind of human-rights-oriented nature of morality, because morality is inherently universalistic. Hegel says at one point in his Philosophy of History, “It is often said that Socrates was the discoverer of morality; actually, he was the inventor of morality.” The idea was that we could have ethical claims that went beyond the mere bounds of whatever community we were part of — it would include, at least in principle, everybody.
What is striking about those first two chapters is that Hegel does not discuss any institutional realization. This sets up the idea that what you have are abstractions, which are true on their own, but they have no Dasein, they have no existence, until they are institutionalized. When he gets to family, civil society, and the state, he is discussing what he takes to be the necessary ways in which morality and abstract right are going to be institutionalized. Those two things are always going to be in the background, as potential tools of critique, of whatever particular kind of family structure, civil-society structure, or state structure is going on.
In civil society we now achieve something that Hegel thinks is brand new with the modern world: the ability to have a separate sphere for oneself, where you can pursue your own career and so on — but it has to be done within a concept of citizenship. Remember, civil society in Germany is bourgeois society, bürgerliche Gesellschaft, so you perform yourself as a kind of bourgeois. You respect the rights of other people; you try to make your own particular way in the world, but you’re held in by this kind of sociality, the moral drive to a kind of decency. So civil society is a civil, decent society. It creates its own form of the state — the Notstaat, based on distress or need — to provide clean drinking water, public health facilities, etc. This is only decent. But even that isn’t going to hold things together — you need something that allows people to speak with a common voice, and civil society is always in danger of breaking up into lots of separate voices.
Spirit is not real until it has some way of putting itself into actuality, and language is the existence of Spirit in the sense that there is no Spirit until people are talking to each other. For them to talk to each other is for them to be expressing themselves as individuals in light of a particular shared medium. The shared medium is the “we.” It’s not, for example, a kind of fractious “we”; it’s not “we competitors in a particular market situation” or, for that matter, “we people in the research project of trying to read Hegel.” It’s a deeper, more constitutive sense of who we are.
Hegel thought such a sense required a certain type of institutionalization. What’s controversial is that he thought this kind of decent civil society could not work on its own; it required something like a constitutional representative government with a monarch — not a democracy, because Hegel was not a democrat. The state was the institution which was to provide for this common voice, this sense of “we”; it was the state that did that — a particular kind of governmental apparatus that in this case was the nation state emerging in Europe.
This is one of the things that Marx goes after in his critique of The Philosophy of Right — not so much the line of reasoning, but the idea that the state is the correct institutional embodiment. That leads Marx to ask why a market-based civil society and the bourgeois family would be the correct institutions. Whatever the abstract rights to life, liberty, and property are supposed to be — and the claims about morality — they are going to require a different kind of institutional set-up. Hegel just got that part wrong. Marx thought he did not get it wrong on a few empirical details, but got it philosophically wrong.
OH: How do you conceive of the relationship between Marx and Hegel? Where is there continuity, where is there critique, how is Hegel relevant to understanding Marxism?
TP: Hegel comes out of Kant, but he wants to bring Kant and Aristotle together. A lot of people are trying to do that nowadays because they are coming to see the shortcomings of a certain type of Kantian morality and liberalism. Aristotle had a good naturalistic understanding of what it was to be an agent — Marx is going to shift that over and call it “materialism,” but there is not much of a difference there. Aristotle did not have a conception of self-consciousness, therefore he did not have a good conception of how it is that Geist (Spirit) could be changing its shape over historical periods. Hegel thought Geist was its own product — it shapes itself. It therefore becomes a moving target about itself. Not holding Aristotle’s optimistic views about this common human nature cutting across all these areas and levels of history is one of the things that binds Hegel and Marx together. It was the young Marx — the Marx that is leading up to The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto — who saw that about Hegel much more clearly than anybody else; a disenchanted Aristotelian naturalism binds Hegel and Marx together.
It is often said of both Hegel and Marx that they are “philosophers of the lifeworld” — the nitty-gritty lifeworld that we take up every day. This concept has its philosophical basis in Husserlian phenomenology and to some extent early Heideggerian fundamental ontology. Neither Hegel nor Marx is a “philosopher of the lifeworld.” They are instead philosophers of what you might call “forms of life.” Lebensform is of course a famous Wittgensteinian term, and it is often thought of as equivalent to the Husserlian “lifeworld.” I don’t think this is true. For Hegel and Marx, a form of life is differentiated according to its logical structure. If the Science of Logic is, as Hegel says, “the thoughts of God before creation,” it is the form of reality; that is what the logic would give us. But the form of reality is still abstract — it won’t give us reality itself. Nonetheless what we want to see is how life emerges and the kinds of logics there are to various forms of life.
Marx gives this a specific kind of twist; he and Engels claim that the logic of a form of life is structured around the modes of production of a given society. This has been interpreted as if Marx is claiming some kind of materialistic causal thesis about the way consciousness functions, but I don’t think that is actually what’s going on. Marx and Hegel are suspicious because a “form of life” can simply embody the particular ideology of a particular period — both of them are concerned with trying to work out what the logic of a form of life is. When you’re working out this logic — this unites them again — you’re always caught up in the middle of this historical change. Hegel says philosophy is its own time grasped in thought — by that he means not a snapshot of where we happen to be right now, but where it came from and where it is now, what kinds of illusions it might entertain about itself and what kinds of issues are on the horizon for it to solve. We cannot actually say how we’re going to solve them or which among all possible solutions might be picked, but rather what problems our time needs to take up. For Hegel, in the wake of the revolution and the Congress of Vienna, the question was, how do we institutionalize freedom?
Marx thought that, given the rapid rise of industrial capitalism, there was a set of different problems on the horizon and that to grasp our own time in thought was to grasp what the possible ramifications of all that might be — but not to do this “lifeworld analysis” of the culture and where we are, etc.
OH: How we might understand not only postmodernism’s rejection of Hegel’s narrative of intelligibility but, at its most extreme, postmodernism’s claim that the attempt to be intelligible — to grasp the world through reason — is itself the problem? Does Hegel account for the later rejection of the claim to know as such — the rejection of German Idealism as bound up with an authoritarian capitalism — or do we need something beyond Hegel to understand his rejection in the 20th century?
TP: There is an obvious answer and a much more esoteric one, which appears in the relation between Hegel and Heidegger.
Hegel thought there was a kind of danger in his own day — he discussed it in the Phenomenology — of contemporary society devolving into a set of highly individualistic ideas, where everybody is concerned with their own inner life, their own purity. In its craziest form it collapses into a “community of beautiful souls,” none of whom think they can communicate with each other, but nonetheless go about establishing fellowships to communicate, congratulating each other on their superior virtue.
I agree with one of the quips that Terry Eagleton made about postmodernism, which is that it all sounds like a large shopping mall, like consumerism. It is just a bunch of individuals making their choices about what they need. Postmodernism came about around the time of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973) — and there was a whole group of intellectuals who were attracted by the Popperian idea that there was “the open society and its enemies”: Marxism, Hegelianism — all these things were totalitarian. Anybody who wants to get a grasp of the whole is a totalitarian, and there are only individual choices.
For a Hegelian, postmodernism is an ideological distortion of the logic of a particular form of life; it is one way of looking to take things into the future that Hegel thinks is doomed to not make sense of itself. Postmodernism, at least in one respect, as people like Eagleton write, is a form of consumer logic, an expression of a certain type of neoliberal understanding, where instead of seeing these individual consumer choices as being restricted to the economy, we extend the philosophical picture into every aspect of human life, so everything is seen as a capitalist individual transaction. You might say the theoretical grandeur and comic culmination of it is Gary Becker’s analysis of the family as a whole set of individual transactions — for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
A more esoteric way of looking at that is to go to Heidegger, who accuses Hegel — in fact almost all of the western philosophical tradition — of ignoring human finitude, of wanting to think that it can somehow escape the bonds of history and temporality, to get at a standpoint that is in the flux but not of the flux. Heidegger spent 30 or 40 years arguing with Hegel about this, in print and in his lectures, to the extent that he thought that Hegel was just assuming from the outset a way of escaping from finitude. Heidegger thought that was itself just another choice made from within a particular kind of historical flux. What would Hegel say to that? Well now it starts getting very esoteric. Hegel would say that Heidegger is right that we cannot assume that, but perhaps being is the way the flux now understands itself as flux, which is itself now a type of absolute knowing.
OH: That issue might point beyond philosophy itself. You raised whether there’s a historical dimension to Heidegger coming around in the early 20th century, saying we need to account for finitude. You characterize yourself as a Left Hegelian. What would Hegel himself have made of that distinction between Left and Right Hegelianism? How do we understand the emergence of that split?
TP: Many of Hegel’s students and friends took Hegel to be an Orthodox Christian. Many of them — such as David Strauss, the person who coined the terms Left and Right Hegelian — saw Hegel as not really that religious. One of Hegel’s friends and students, Heinrich Heine, famously commented that Hegel was basically a non-religious thinker, and was the person who laid the eggs for all the cackling little atheists in Germany at that time. Hegel himself never really resolved that. One of the questions is, did he want to finesse it? If Hegel would have been declared to be a non-religious thinker, he probably would have lost his position, he would have been banned from teaching in any German university. At one point he was even entertaining the thought of moving to Belgium, where they had offered him a position. There is some reason to think that Hegel wanted to downplay his own views on this. As a Left Hegelian, I think that Hegel did have a particular conception of Christianity; it was Johannian: Hegel says over and over in his lectures that the Gospel of John is correct: “In the beginning was the Logos.” That sounds like pantheism. Hegel knows that the charge of pantheism would make one unemployable. That was Hegel's Christianity, a very radical form of Christianity. People like Strauss later on said that it is only a tiny step away from not being Christian at all, and that's where the distinction between Left and Right Hegelianisms began.
Then there began to be splits about social and political philosophy; Left Hegelianism became part of this progressive strain that goes on. It starts with Eduard Gans and runs all the way up to the founding of the Social Democratic Party by a bunch of young Hegelians, as not merely a Left religious position but also a Left political position, which grew out of that. Gans was one of Hegel’s closest friends. He was a republican, Jewish, and a cynical convert to Christianity to get his position as a professor. Hegel was aware of all this, and I think Hegel probably thought he had finessed it well enough in his philosophy of religion by saying that what we mean by God is the Logos. Hegel’s God is more like Aristotle’s God, which thinks about itself all the time, now reinterpreted in a way to make it compatible with at least some forms of state Christianity.
OH: Shifting to the Frankfurt School, it seems that Theodor Adorno presents a strange point to consider Hegel through, because, on the one hand he could be accused of a postmodern suspicion about the Enlightenment, on the other hand he could be viewed as a kind of dogmatic Hegelian. How do you understand the relationship between the Frankfurt School and Hegel? Is it different from Marx’s?
TP: Remember that the Frankfurt School is now a large school and it is no longer in Frankfurt necessarily! Frankfurt critical theory, if you just counted up the number of adherents, is probably the largest school of philosophy in the world right now. The Frankfurt School started out wanting to use Marx, but not to be necessarily Marxist. They wanted to do with Marx what Marx did with Hegel, which is to go one step further and see what we need to do in a changed world, different from the world Marx had operated in. They were very conversant with Hegel, especially the early Max Horkheimer. Especially in the 1960s and 70s in Germany, people wanted to see if there was any way of re-engaging with the dialectic as a way of engaging in critical theory. This is what Adorno was taken up with, to see if Hegel has any insights that will allow us to out-Marx Marx himself, to do things with a culture critique and a way of understanding the wrongness of contemporary life without actually trying to turn Marx back into Hegel. Jürgen Habermas wants to replace the dialectic with a theory of communicating freedom. There are other ways of grappling with Adorno’s understanding of all this. Adorno is also taken up with a Heideggerian suspicion that Hegel is simply not dealing with finitude, and that a truly finitude-based philosophy would perhaps still be dialectical, but would not be dialectical in a way that either Hegel, or for that matter Marx per se, would have taken it.
OH: In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx poses the question, how do we now stand as regards the Hegelian dialectic? One of the great things about your or Robert Pippin’s work is that it tries to show the applicability, the rationality, the swallowability of Hegel. Yet in my questions about the rejection of Hegel, I wanted to get at the ways Hegel might be inapplicable, and yet still critical and radical precisely because he’s inapplicable. Have we fallen below Hegel? Has history regressed from Hegel? In what ways does Hegel seem readily applicable, and how does he seem outmoded and potentially superseded or undermined?
TP: Hegel is still a conversation partner who is actively engaged with us, unlike other things that have just vanished. Hegel is still in the thick of things; we are still trying to understand the tensions and contradictions that go on in various types of abstract philosophy, like understanding agency in general — Hegel has good things to say about that. There appear to be insuperable oppositions that make sense or are comprehensible when they are put into a larger organic framework or whole that is comprehensible — what Hegel would call the idea, the unity of these opposites, the unity of concept and objectivity.
Unlike a large stream of philosophy that is not consciously engaged with its own historical time, Hegel is very conscious that we are always in the middle of things. We are always our own time grasped in thoughts. We therefore have to reflect on what it is about our time that leads us to pose things in a certain way. To understand postmodernism as its own time grasped in thought is to understand what it is about our time — especially the 1990s, a time when neoliberalism was really in the ascendency — would make it seem like an appropriate, new, exciting way to approach things, and maybe even appear emancipatory, when in fact it was leading us further into a type of neoliberal bondage. This does not mean that Hegel has the answer to everything. Hegel, by being the self-conscious historicist that he is, is more applicable than many other thinkers — outside of Marx.
One form of vulgar Marxism is the claim that history has nothing to do with what anybody thinks, but rather has to do with certain types of material forces. That can be given a very conservative twist: the final analysis is climate, geography, and the facts of human life about birth, death, and diseases; the ideas that people have are interesting but they are not the drivers of things. Hegel thinks that there is a give and take between material conditions and our ideas, but it is not that one determines the other. Ideas always occur in a very concrete social and material context, which is not completely determinative of the ideas that we have. In this respect, his views are also consistent with his views about history being the consciousness of the progress of freedom.
On the one hand you spoke of “life worlds” and ‘forms of life,” and you mentioned that for Hegel these looked like a social formation that would guarantee freedom and for Marx it was another. You said that Marx thought that Hegel had formulated something wrong philosophically. On the other hand, you mentioned that with Marx there are new problems in the industrial era, new tasks to be figured out that Hegel didn't live to see, and that may not be a problem in thought, but a new reality and something that Hegel could not address. At what level was Marx addressing Hegel, as a philosophical thinker or as a problem in reality?
TP: Hegel’s conception of civil society still is very much one of an early artisanal conception of capitalism. Hegel never got a chance to visit Britain, which was rapidly industrializing itself, although the Prussia he was living in was self-consciously trying to copy the British example. Hegel had a conception of there being factories, with artisanal workers, each one of them breaking themselves up into producing various parts. All this could be done so that one could produce products at a greater number and a lower price. What he did not see was the massive use of fossilized fuels, and how these small artisanal capitalist firms were going to become these giant smoke-belching firms, leading to an industrial proletariat. Hegel had already gotten the idea that there was a problem with day workers, but that was still something that the mechanisms of civil society and the need-based state could overcome with redistribution. Hegel did not believe that the market would naturally right itself and therefore there was always going to be a need for intervention.
Marx came to believe that with the rise of industrial capitalism and the vast wealth that it was demonstrating and the kind of ruthlessly competitive nature that it fostered — to quote one of the most famous lines, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life” — which is not that of small artisanal production. Hegel assumed that there is a way for the good part of capitalism — the vast amount of wealth it creates, the way it is changing life forever, probably for the better — to be tamed sufficiently by the small-scale interventions of the institutions that make up the state based on need. Hegel really goes wrong, and Marx points it out, by thinking that all of this can be amply regulated by the state. The state is populated by educated technocrats from the best universities, who studied with the best professors, who have the good of the whole in their mind; they will be the universal class, they will do only what is best for the whole, but Marx pointed out this also cannot work in this new environment. The old bourgeoisie, which was already fairly wealthy, was now staggeringly wealthy, and they control almost everything, in a way that Hegel himself simply could not have foreseen.
One way of reading Marx’s critique is to take Hegel’s logic but follow it out in light of actuality. The idea is the unity of concept and reality for Hegel, but the concept and reality have come apart: reality is no longer measuring up to its own concept of itself as a universal, egalitarian, freedom-based idea, and therefore requires of itself something different. The great split between the Marxists and the Social Democrats came to be whether we needed a full-scale transformation of capitalism into something different, or if we could effectively tame capitalism with some regulatory mechanisms. That split continues to this day. Marx is not saying that Hegel got his facts wrong, but rather that the facts began to change rapidly after Hegel's death, so much so that by 1844 the world suddenly looked very different.
There is an analogy in our own day. The internet has changed everything in a very short period of time. It is hard to believe that the iPhone was only introduced in 2007, and now it seems like most of the world has an iPhone. My own way of looking at this is to say Marx took Hegel’s logic forward. He rejected the Right-Hegelian view of this as a kind of large spiritual process. Marx is seeing the Aristotelian heartbeat of the Hegelian system, and how once you introduce self-consciousness; the system is now very different from a pure Aristotelian system. That's what Marx is after in his later works, Capital and Theories of Surplus Value.
Orthodox Marxism of the late 19th and early 20th century had an idea that the capitalist state would be smashed and replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, which would then wither away slowly into a free society. What is Hegel's conception of the state and how is it different? What is the appeal of Hegel after the failure of the Marxist attempt at revolution and that way of thinking about the state, society, and the problems of our time? Amid the rise of the administrative state of the 20th century, why is there a resurgence of interest in Hegel, and is there something you or others believe that one ought to learn from Hegel's view of philosophy and the state that was different from the debates within the Left around Marxism, liberalism around the state?
TP: Marxists thought that the state would wither away, that what we really needed to do was smash the bourgeois state, replace it with something else. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is a term that Marx uses. This will be analogous to the way the ancien régime was smashed and was replaced by a bourgeois state. Now we must smash that and replace it with a socialist workers’ state. The constitutional legal basis of the state is different in all three cases. In many ways this is also the way Lenin originally thought of it, but in the heat of events he was forced to make choices that he did not want to have to make. There is still a Hegelian understanding of what transformation in history really is. The fundamental model that Hegel has of revolutionary transformations in history is that a form of life simply breaks down. It can break down all at once, like in the French Revolution, or it can break down over long and agonizing centuries, as happened in the transition from the ancient to the modern world. In these conditions of breakdown, people find themselves living in the rubble. They pick up the parts that still work and toss the rest aside to build something new out. There is a more complicated historical story, but this is what Lenin was trying to do with the New Economic Policy of the 1920s; but Lenin suffered a stroke and died, and so Stalin interrupted that. Lenin had a conception that we live in the rubble of the authoritarian quasi-capitalist state of modern Europe, and we have to pick up the parts that work. We must be experimental about that, and go on from there.
This goes on in the contemporary relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and society in China. The Party sees itself as finding the pieces that work while nevertheless maintaining ideally a certain type of socialist legal control. There are lots of problems with how the Chinese Communists are doing this, but at least that is an implication of this. In that respect, there is nothing that would surprise Hegel: revolutions have always taken place through breakdown and rebuilding. Given the failure of what happened in the Soviet Union and given the success of what has happened in China — at least in one sense — how are we to conceptualize things on the agenda for us and what kind of possible solutions are there? We cannot keep thinking in terms of “capitalism versus socialism,” “China is socialist, and if you’re a Republican that is terrible,” etc. We must rethink these things. Something like the Hegelian dialectic is as good a place to start as any. It is a dialectic of dynamic tension, of what happens in breakdown, about always being in the middle of things and not assuming you have a long-term solution, about not drifting off into nostalgia for the past. In Hegel’s time there was nostalgia for ancient Greek democracy, which he thought was misplaced because Greece broke down for essential, not accidental, reasons. Nor is the dialectic utopian. Hegel didn't say, “This is the way things ought to be, and this is how we will reform things from the ground-up immediately.” Hegel was reality-based, and in the New Economic Policy, so was Lenin.
We need to understand the dynamics of the 20th century and what is open to us in the 21st century. There are questions about how much the internet has changed things. It may be that in 30 years we will say that the internet did not actually make much of a difference, it just accelerated certain capitalist processes. There is also the desire to escape, you might say, which Marx highlights in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where writes that the deeds of the dead weigh upon the brains of the living, such that we want to go back and find a solution in the past. Many think we could go back to Hegel or to Marx per se to find exactly the right solution for what is to be done right now.
I think how the Chinese are developing their market economy with a surveillance state is antithetical to how a socialist economy should be developed, but they are doing a great job generating wealth, and now they are trying to distribute that wealth more in an egalitarian fashion. Can one be done without the other? These are real debates, and nobody has a definitive answer.
Marx's critique of Hegel is much more a critique of the contemporary Young Hegelians' views. At times it seems like Marx is even giving a Rousseauvian critique and saying, “Don't forget about civil society.” How do you see Marx’s critique as an intervention in the Left / Right Hegelian split?
TP: Part of Marx’s critique of the state is that the state is not and cannot be the universal institution that Hegel takes it to be, that the universal class is not in fact a universal class. It is a class with its own particular interests necessarily, and given the way capitalism works in the industrial world, the state will always be in the possession of the capitalists as an instrument of class oppression. The state functions as an instrument of class oppression precisely by trying to mitigate the harshest forms of class oppression so that it prevents the proletariat from actually revolting. It looks as though what Hegel says about civil society ameliorating these things is transferred to the state, and the state does in fact do that, but it does so because it wants to continue the existing relations of ownership, oppression, exploitation.
Marx claims that we need to decentralize this stuff. When you look at the way he discusses the Paris Commune, he says, “Gentlemen, this is communism.” Communism means democratic institutions where levels of authority are assigned by people with no permanent offices and positions are circulating. Marx is very much describing the way Hegel describes the Greek democratic polis. Marx thinks of communism as Athens without the slaves and without the oppression of women. But Athens without those things could not have been Athens. However, given the technological advancements since then, we have the possibility of creating communism as small units around the world that will not be competing with each other for resources through constant warfare but will be in tune with sharing. Hegel thought that there could be a sufficient conception of a “we” that could be established at the nation-state level, and that was a mistake. The logic was right: we need the idea of there being a coherent voice, where the status of the individual is not denigrated nor is the polis reduced to an aggregate of individuals. The institutions of this arrangement would be very much like what Marx thought he saw in the Paris Commune. It was a good historical example of what the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat would look like. Why didn’t it work? It didn’t get a chance to work; it was brutally suppressed by an alliance of German and French armies, who had just been at war but united to suppress the Communards. The event passed into revolutionary martyrdom and revolutionary history.
Marx is by and large right in saying that Hegel assumed there could be a universal established viewpoint in a modern industrial society. For Hegel thought the way to do that was not through democracy but to have the whole thing run by technocrats, in effect. Hegel thought we could not rely on what Habermas called a “community of freedom,” or a free flowing, quasi-anarchic process.
Philosophically, the issue is between the “I” and “we.” The latter requires a certain institutional structure to be made real. Marx thought the Paris Commune gave us an idea of what the institutional structure would look like, and that if we had lots of Paris Communes, we would be in good shape. Philosophically Marx is not rejecting all of Hegel’s dialectic. Rather, he is taking Hegel one step further. We need to take both Hegel and Marx one step further ourselves. This is one thing that Frankfurt School-style critical theory tried to do. They did not try to be dogmatic Hegelians or Marxists. They did not assume Marx solved everything in the year 1848. They knew we need to keep building on this work.
You mentioned as a point of continuity between Hegel and Marx a kind of Aristotelianism, albeit rendered self-conscious. What is the distinction between traditional and critical philosophy?
TP: Hegel takes up Kant’s notion of critical philosophy. Kant re-describes the way philosophy has gone on in the past. Kant shifts from merely doing metaphysics or ontology, or just repeating natural science, towards making sense of how we make sense. The traditional tool for this was logic. Whatever violates the laws of logic is senseless. Kant’s critical method questions the limitations of making sense. There are limits that allow us to move past the border to see what is on the other side and then there are limits of sense when you are just talking nonsense. Hegel takes this one step further by asking, historically how are we making sense of making sense? This is what it means to have a science of logic as opposed to a philosophical psychology. There is a big difference between traditional philosophy and critical philosophy. Critical philosophy is self-conscious of what philosophy has been doing without philosophy having ever formulated it that way before. Having formulated philosophy critically, we can look at various forms in the past and say they were still trying to do the same kind of thing. But Aristotle is not historical i.e., he is not sufficiently self-conscious of where he stands. There appears to be an opposition between a historicist way of doing things and a traditional, logical way of doing things. Hegel tries to bring those two together.
You mentioned Marx’s critique of idealism, but his theses on Feuerbach make up only one half. Marx also has a critique of materialism. The impression I have is that Hegelianism has been split into opposing determinations; on the one hand, there is Feuerbach, and on the other hand, there are the more theological followers. What does this split express for Marx?
TP: In the first thesis, Marx talks about the failure of existing materialism being that it does not take self-consciousness into consideration; it doesn't take the thinking part seriously. But the failure of idealism is that it does not understand the material basis of everything. There is a slightly anti-Semitic slur Marx throws in there about the Judaic nature of this, but if you bleep that out, the first thesis is what I have been arguing for. We must have an idea of our place in the natural world as the self-conscious beings that we are and of the difference that this self-consciousness makes. Hegel says, in The Lectures on the History of Philosophy, that when you introduce self-consciousness into things, the content does not change but everything else does. This is the hinge point on which all of history turns — when we become self-interpreting animals, as Charles Taylor would call us. We become shapeshifters, our own products, as we move throughout time and the breakdowns of history. I do not see much of an antithesis to this idea in the Theses on Feuerbach. There is the last thesis: philosophers have only interpreted the world but the point, however, is to change it. Hegel would say, “Yes, of course you want to change the world, but you cannot change the world until you have interpreted it.” Philosophy does not necessarily change the world, but the people who want to change the world will not be able to unless they are informed by philosophical interventions into their own time provided by critical philosophy.
Does Marxism take us to a new philosophy or beyond philosophy?
TP: It depends on what you mean by “philosophy.” One feature of philosophy is to wonder if such and such is or is not philosophy. Some philosophers think there really is an essence to philosophy; they say things like, “Hegel isn't a philosopher. Maybe he is a religious thinker or sociologist, but he is not doing philosophy.” They think philosophy is what Bertrand Russell did. I have a non-essentialist view, that philosophy is in a process of becoming, like everything else. Philosophy is a place where you are forever driven back to ground zero, and it is always reinterpreting what it itself should be doing. You might think the distinction between traditional and critical philosophy is rather the distinction between philosophy and something that is not philosophy. Various internet pages sometimes introduce Habermas as a “great 20th century sociologist” and sometimes as “a great philosopher.” Habermas thinks of himself as a critical philosopher who is tied into empirical work that is not accidental to his own thought. Are we going beyond philosophy or into a new philosophy? It is an interesting debate, but it takes us away from what we should be talking about. We should ask, “what should we be thinking about?’ We should not worry about which academic department we would put Marx in. Who cares?! Just hire him and get him teaching courses. I think Marx is showing another way in which philosophy was taking shape, as its own time grasped in thought.
What reason do we have to believe that when Heidegger talks about historicism and when Hegel talks about history, that they are speaking of the same thing? Is it possible that these are not the same?
TP: They might not be talking about the same thing. Heidegger himself, especially the 1928 lectures on German Idealism, sees Hegel in a way that he did not in Being and Time (1927), as being much more of a challenge to himself. Heidegger says, “I’m realizing this Hegelian position has a lot more going on for it than I had given it credit for originally. What do I now have to say about this?” He is clear that it has to do with the Hegelian conception of the infinite. That kind of infinite cannot be maintained by the kind of entity Heidegger calls Dasein, the “being there.” Hegel fundamentally rejects the concept of historicity in favor of the view of the philosophy of history. But a Heideggerian would say, “we are fundamentally caught up in historicity, in finitude; the great mistake of the West is to think that there is some way out of it. Hegel might be the sublime expression of this, but he’s still part of it because he thinks that we need to have this conception of thought as infinite.” There’s a good historical question to be asked here. The way philosophy has developed in the 20th or early 21st century, Heidegger won. Everybody’s a finitist in philosophy, “We’re all fallibilists now!” We’ve given up on Cartesian certainty, on a lot of ideas of necessity. All we really can do is just reformulate our intuitions and put them into a reflective equilibrium that we are caught in the middle of. To many, the Hegelian view — to think that there’s an absolute way of thinking about these things — now just seems preposterous.
Marx, even as a young man before the revolutions of 1848 and certainly after, tends not to address Hegel critically so much as to address the Young Hegelians. In fact, there are a lot of gestures early on where he’s saying they have fallen below the threshold of Hegel, and of course famously, in the afterword of Capital, he says he is a student of the great master Hegel — he’s going to defend him against his critics. It seems that part of that is Marx’s insistence that we view Hegel in his time, as a bourgeois thinker. I want to address that in relation to Hegel’s understanding of the state. If we take Hegel as a kind of statist, then we really take him out of a larger liberal tradition. In other words, we could view the educated top students from the universities manning the state as a great revolution of meritocracy, an expression of the subordination of the state to society, rather than the way that we will think about that in terms of technocracy. Is Hegel arguing for the subordination of the state to society, and in some sense the government of public reason? Similarly, doesn’t Marx mean by the state something that really emerges after Hegel’s time? If you view Hegel as a liberal, or we say that Hegel was affirmative of the Prussian state, are those really slurs or are those part of a much wider liberal project of subordination of the state to society, which Marx thinks really has entered into crisis under conditions of capital and transformed the state?
TP: This is a really interesting way of putting it. The big question, “is the state being subordinated to society?,” is a way of asking whether the state is always an instrument in the hands of the ruling class. Jean-Francois Kervegan has argued that Hegel is a standard, slightly authoritarian, liberal of the 19th century. Remember, liberalism doesn’t come to terms with democracy really until the mid-20th century. Liberals on the whole have never been democrats — they are forced into coming to terms with democracy by virtue of the workers’ movement. Early American Progressives, the so-called Progressive Movement of the 1920s, was very much a kind of technocracy of merit. The very best would do things and there would be various mechanisms that would be setup so that people’s votes didn’t affect how well the state ran, and the state would run in the interests of people in a way that these people could not comprehend. In that respect Hegel belongs to that kind of tradition. He is very suspicious of democracy. On the other hand, Hegel has a clear idea that the state has to be responsive to the needs, desires, and aspirations of the people in society, but without being a democracy. Hegel is not a statist in the sense that a perfectly reactionary statist, a bourgeois statist, might say, “we know best; we’ll do best for you; now shut up and go back to work.” Hegel thinks that there needs to be input from people: from the estates, the corporations, etc.
Was Hegel glorifying the Prussian state? No. If you look at the arrangement of the Prussian state and that of the Philosophy of Right, there is no correspondence. Hegel is talking about a modern European state, which is going to take over what he thinks of as the best that is coming out of the post-Napoleonic settlement. Shortly after Hegel’s death, his friend von Hagen said a lot of people in Prussia thought that Hegel was a great friend of the Prussian state, but they didn’t realize just how English Hegel really was, that he wanted a very limited monarchy, he wanted a society with a lot more rights for ordinary people. But still, Hegel did not think that any kind of universal suffrage was a workable option, and therefore the contemporary world did need this rule by the meritocratic. They are technocrats, but it is important to note that Hegel also thought that they had to be people of cultural formation, what the Germans called a Gebildete person. They have to be appropriately cultured to develop the right sense of judgement and taste.
Hegel is not a defender of the Prussian state per se. He thinks the German bureaucracy is efficient and capable of going beyond some interests; he has faith in it as if it were an English monarch with a German bureaucracy underpinning it, accompanied by a French civil service. But that does not correspond to the Prussian state as it was. Hegel was being overly optimistic in the sense that he thought that the Prussian state would take this kind of form. One of the ways in which he got his predictions about the future wrong was that he thought, given the rationality of things, it is now impossible for European states to go to war with each other. He couldn’t have been more wrong. He was right about the sheer irrationality of it all.
You discussed how Hegel saw the dialectic of historical progress playing out through the breakdown of previous modes of existence or modes of life, and you contrasted a process that would be extremely drawn out, like the breakdown of the ancient world transitioning into modernity, with something that is very discreet or immediate, such as revolution. It is clear that Hegel was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution. Does Hegel have a concept of what conditions whether the change in history happens in a drawn-out or a discreet manner?
TP: That depends on the particular kinds of conditions. Hegel thought that the French Revolution was a great moment. Prior to the French Revolution he thought the same of the Dutch overthrow of the Spanish monarchy. The French Revolution, though, was much more self-conscious. In comparison with the way the ancient world gradually fell apart and faded away over a series of centuries, the French Revolution was still a compact affair even though it included what for many people was an entire lifetime between 1789 and 1815.
Part of what accounts for it is how rotten the foundations were, but a large part of it was the way in which the French Revolution, for the first time, was a self-conscious revolution. The idea of conscious theoretical collapse is important. This is something Marx and Lenin take up, that one of the big differences about a Marxist revolution is that it is going to be a self-conscious revolution. This has been a focus of criticism of course, of Marx and Lenin — that they were too conscious. If the historical dialectic works, why bother to have a party leading the revolution? Why not just let capitalism collapse on its own? It may take a couple centuries to do that, but maybe that’s what will happen. Hegel was much more of the view that we have to do things self-consciously.
In Platypus we ask how American radicalism and British radicalism were important for Marxism later on. Hegel himself says that “America is [...] the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.” What still tasks us about Hegel regarding that revolutionary tradition?
TP: My own view about that is a little more cynical. Right after the Philosophy of Right (1820) was published, many people, including Heinrich Paulus and Wilhelm Traugott Krug, pointed to the American Revolution, and they say there’s no discussion of it in the Philosophy of Right. Edward Gans — Hegel’s closest friend and the person lecturing on the Philosophy of Right at the same time in Berlin with Hegel’s approval — claims that the North Americans had shown that you don’t need a monarch, that a republic would be just as adequate if not a better expression of the Hegelian view of freedom than any kind of English monarchical system. Hegel said that you cannot draw any real conclusions from the Americans — it’s a backwater compared to Europe. My cynical translation is this: “I don’t want to talk about America, and I’ll get around it by calling it the land of the future. Maybe the burden of World History perhaps will fall on its shoulders. Maybe, maybe not. I want to deal with the situations on the continent and Britain, which is where all the action is.” That’s a little bit of parochialism on Hegel’s part, but that is probably what is going on there. It is slightly Romantic to think otherwise.
Christian Weisse, one of Hegel’s students, wrote a letter to Hegel about a conversation they had, in which Hegel said, “of course in the future they are going to be shapes of Spirit that are going to be completely different from what we have now; and of course it does not and cannot stop here at this particular time.” |P
Transcribed by Solomon Barcomb, Desmund Hui, Thom Hutchinson, and Ethan Linehan.