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Reading between the lines

The Hegel revival is an attempt to bury him as well as praise him, according to James Heartfield

History ends with a whimper

  • The struggle for recognition: the moral grammar of social conflicts,
    Axel Honneth, Polity, £12.95 pbk

  • Hegel's phenomenology: the sociality of reason,
    Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, £13.95 pbk

  • The Hegel myths and legends,
    Jon Stewart (ed), Northwestern University Press, £16.95 pbk

  • German socialist philosophy: The German Library vol 40,
    Wolfgang Schirmacher (ed), Continuum, $19.95 pbk

Two centuries ago Europe was plunged into a war between reaction, represented by capitalist England and Imperial Russia, and Revolutionary France, led by the gallant Corporal turned Emperor Napoleon. Napoleon's army marched across Europe introducing a written system of laws, and sweeping away the old regime of arbitrary rule. In every town, the invading Napoleonic army was supported by the middle classes - democrats who wanted to see a free market, constitutional democracy and an open legal system. One of those who welcomed Napoleon was the German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel's philosophy was written in the obscure language of German idealism, but its content was a distillation of that revolutionary movement across Europe.

In 1989 the division of Europe between the Stalinist East and the capitalist West came to an end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The last great social conflict between left and right appeared to have been brought to a close. US policy expert Francis Fukuyama, a fellow of the Rand Corporation, famously suggested that we were at the 'End of History'. Fukuyama's argument drew on the ideas of Hegel. According to Fukuyama, Hegel taught that once all conflicts were resolved the historical process was complete. The victory of the free market over its rivals - principally Soviet Communism - meant an end to conflict and so an end to history (see 'The end of history', National Interest, No16, 1989).

Fukuyama's thesis renewed interest in the German philosopher. The attraction was clear. Here was a set of ideas that combined the birth of democracy in Europe with its culmination in the end of the Cold War. In Fukuyama's contentious reading (challenged by long-standing Hegel scholar HS Harris in The Hegel Myths and Legends) Hegel's philosophy anticipated the triumph of the market and the end of political conflict.

There is another reason for the interest in Hegel's thinking today. For a hundred years Hegel's thought was closely identified with the revolutionary communism of Karl Marx. Marx developed his ideas, first of all, through a critique of Hegel, whose teaching was close to an official philosophy in Germany when Marx was growing up. Marx said that to be understood Hegel had to be turned on his head, or more properly, from his head onto his feet. Marx thought that there was much of worth in Hegel, if only his idealistic arguments could be reinterpreted in a more practical way. In particular Marx was drawn to the emphasis on historical progress and even revolutionary change in Hegel's work. After his death many Marxists claimed that Marx's work was the completion of the Hegelian philosophy - which was enough to make Hegel suspect in the eyes of the Cold War ideologues. The end of the Cold War has made it acceptable to reappraise Hegel's work, though not always for the best reasons.

A posthumous association with Karl Marx was not the only cross Hegel had to bear. For most of this century Hegel has been seen as an apologist for German national-ism. English and American writers were joined by the Austrian Karl Popper in denouncing Hegel's 'Prussianism' and connecting that with the worst currents of German nationalism. The veteran Israeli Hegel scholar Shlomo Avineri makes a convincing case that much of Hegel's association with German nationalism was something that his nineteenth-century defenders talked up after his death, faced with the charge that Hegel was not nationalist enough (The Hegel Myths and Legends). Nonetheless, Hegel's elevation of the rights of the state over those of the individual, seemed to many Cold War thinkers to be evidence of the common intellectual roots of the communist menace in the East and fascism in the West. Volunteered to play that part, there was little chance that Hegel's ideas could get much of a hearing.

Many of the Cold War prejudices arraigned against Hegel in the past are now in abeyance. For example, the freedom of the individual was a central principle of the Cold War ideology, albeit one that was more often honoured in the breach than the observance. Today, Hegel's more qualified support for individual rights seems closer to the 'communitarian' mood. During the Cold War the idea of a 'civil society' - a central component of Hegel's political philosophy - would have seemed a suspiciously middle-European alternative to the free market. But as middle class politics across the Western world has adopted the 'civil society' slogan raised by Eastern European dissidents, Hegel seems better suited to the times.

Unfortunately, the willingness of today's ideologues to find their own concerns reflected in Hegel's work is likely to distort what he did have to say even more than his past vilification. Hegel himself would probably not be too worried about that. Every philosophy, he said, only summarises the thinking of its age, and today's Hegel scholars are no different. What they see in his work tells us as much about them as it does about him. In particular the scholars' emphasis upon the most obscurantist parts of Hegel, his tendency to see social conflict in idealised terms of 'recognition', 'esteem' and 'honour', sheds light on the limited perspective of today. These narrowly psychological interpretations of struggle, celebrated in Axel Honneth's The Struggle for Recognition, tend to displace a more materialistic view of history, where real differences lie behind conflict.

We can also learn something about today's ideas from those parts of Hegel's thought that are an anathema to contemporary thinkers. In particular, Hegel's noblest ambition, to understand human society as historical in its very nature, is especially problematic in times when the possibilities for social change are most forcefully denied. For Hegel, human society is not eternal or unchanging, but constantly renewing itself, as man's understanding of himself and of his world progresses. This historical character of Hegel's work makes the idea that he is a champion of the End of History so one-sided.

Rather than attack Hegel's historical approach directly, Axel Honneth and Terry Pinkard both go around the houses. Honneth is a follower of the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, who pioneered a view of society modelled on communications theory. Pinkard, by contrast, is an American, more influenced by the common sense approach to social questions. Ostensibly, Honneth takes issue with Hegel's idealism rather than his historical approach, writing that 'the validity of his thoughts hinges, in part, on Idealist assumptions about reason that can no longer be maintained under conditions of post-metaphysical thinking' (p1).

Pinkard nurses a similar view, though he expresses it rather differently. Pinkard's book is a reworking of Hegel's classic The Phenomenology of Spirit, where Hegel explains history as the development of 'Spirit', manifested in the progress of human institutions, as they develop from primitive communities, such as the Ancient Greek city states, the Roman Empire and so on towards modern democracy. Hegel's point is that each new human institution gives form to Spirit, so that it can come to terms with its weaknesses and move on, giving rise to newer and higher forms of human organisation. This is of course a highly idealised version of human development as the subordinate part of the development of Spirit, or what Hegel sometimes calls the Idea.

Pinkard deals with this in an admirably commonsensical way by simply asserting that 'Spirit' is not a euphemism for God, but is rather a euphemism for society (p9, p135). Once this assumption is made, Pinkard goes on systematically to translate the metaphysical account found in the Phenomenology into a sociological one. Where Hegel's book is often painfully distorted by the abstruse logical style imposed by his idealism, Pinkard's is admirably down-to-earth. But, like the otherwise excellent The Hegel Myths and Legends, it tends to defend Hegel by turning him into a late twentieth century American liberal, often at the cost of obscuring his unique contribution.

Interestingly, Pinkard's approach has the same effect as Honneth's. Honneth objects to Hegel's idealism, and proposes to remove it. Pinkard just pretends that Hegel is not an idealist and reinterprets him accordingly. Both, in their different ways seem to be doing the same thing that Marx did when he stood Hegel on his feet, making a materialist out of an idealist. However, though they are all attacking Hegel's idealism, what they end up destroying is something very different altogether.

The difficult thing about Hegel's philosophy is that its weakness, its idealism, is very closely related to its strength, its historical approach. Hegel understands that human development implies progressive change and revolution. But he understands that development in idealist terms. It is not humanity that is making progress, but God, through the medium of humanity. Where both of these authors suffer is that they simply strip out the idealist side of Hegel's thought. In the process, they strip out the historical side too. By secularising Hegel, they are bringing him into line with the contemporary conditions of 'post-metaphysical thinking' where all Grand Narratives are rejected. But in rejecting Hegel's 'Grand Narrative' of the Spirit's passage through the world, these critics succeed in dehistoricising him.

This ahistorical approach to Hegel can be seen in Pinkard's chapter called 'Modern life's alternatives and possibilities', in which he sets out various ways of looking at the world. The comparable section of Hegel's Phenomenology is called 'Spirit'. In that section Hegel does not so much set out different possibilities, as outline an idealised development in the way that people have understood human institutions. For Hegel, the development is driven by the development of God's self-understanding, which is clearly a superstitious way of looking at it. But Pinkard's treatment is in many ways a step backwards, rather than an advance. In seeing different viewpoints simply as alternatives or possibilities, any sense of progress, human or divine is missing. Pinkard asserts that the Enlightenment is superior to Ancient Greece, but from his perspective there seems no reason why this is necessarily the case, since all ages are simply possible alternatives.

This is an approach that acknowledges change happens, but trivialises it, by removing any idea of change for the better, or progress. Pinkard seems to be more rational because he talks about societies instead of 'Spirits'. But as an American pragmatist, it is not for him to judge whether any one form of society is superior to any other. Unlike Francis Fukuyama, Pinkard does not have to assert the End of History to cut off the possibilities of radical change. Rather than defending society as it is, Pinkard concentrates on undermining the case for change, by calling the idea of progress into question.

Axel Honneth's approach is more combatative. He positively attacks the concept of an ideal development in favour of a more ethical approach, such as can be found in Hegel's earlier manuscript 'System of ethical life'. According to Honneth, Hegel's turn towards spiritual development, or what Honneth calls 'the philosophy of consciousness', in the Phenomenology is a wrong turning. 'The turn to the philosophy of consciousness', writes Honneth, 'allows Hegel to completely lose sight of the idea of an original intersubjectivity of mankind' (p30).

What Honneth means by the 'original intersubjectivity of mankind' is what he takes to be constant in human history. According to the 'communications theory' that Honneth subscribes to, the idea that society is organised around the subject is wrong, regardless of whether 'the subject' is the individual subject of classical liberalism, or the collective subject, the working class, of socialism. Privileging the subject, warn communication theorists, can only lead to megalomaniac policies as one subject tries to impose its will on all the others - like dictatorship, or 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'. Instead, it is the communication between subjects, 'intersubjectivity', that should be the basis of social organisation. This is a theory that models society on communication between subjects.

Nothing wrong in that, you might say, except that it leads to a denigration of the idea of free subjectivity, that people should be in control of their own lives. Rather than persuading people to subordinate their interests to God, or the nation, communications theory seeks to persuade them to restrain their own desires in favour of the general conditions of respectful communication, what Habermas called 'the ideal speech situation'. In plain language this is the proposition that we should all mind our p's and q's so as not to cause offence to others, or worse still a breach of the Queen's Peace. There is no 'right to be offensive' in communications theory, because we are all constrained to let other people communicate without challenging them.

Hegel's theory of civil society seems well suited to this oppressively genteel outlook, especially when it is divorced from his ideas of revolutionary change. Rejecting the economists' account of the market as a state of natural competition, Hegel emphasised the struggle for social recognition as the driving force. As people fought to have their claims recognised by others as valid, the resolution of that conflict would be the mutual recognition of each by all as competent and responsible subjects, worthy of respect.

The concept of 'civil society' was always a conservative element in Hegel's theory. As the veteran Marxist István Mészáros points out in Beyond Capital (1995), 'civil society' is simply an idealised picture of the market, from which all fundamental contradictions and problems have been removed. The concepts of 'communicative action' and 'original intersubjectivity of mankind' also smuggle an idealised version of the market into the picture as if it were a natural or necessary feature of all societies. In this way the possibility of historically superseding the market is ruled out of consideration. Honneth might not use the term End of History, indeed he allows a space for debate about the future of some social institutions. However, the boundaries of change are circumscribed by the 'original intersubjectivity of mankind', which on investigation turns out to be little more than the values of the market.

Starting from a rejection of Hegel's idealism, Honneth ends up rejecting historical change and idealising the market as 'intersubjectivity'. This is not just any idealisation of the market, though, but one whose features are particularly well suited to the ascendance of an essentially middle class version of what is acceptable in polite society. Describing social conflict in terms of psychological drives, like the need for recognition, is a way of minimising the more prosaic claims of economic interest. Honneth berates the Marxists for failing to understand that what the working class was really struggling for was social recognition, not higher wages.

Of course Marx never accepted that the goal of socialism should be restricted to claims for higher wages, but rather ought to be to reorganise society as a whole, so that people were not dependent on wage labour to live. But setting that aside, the idea that real social conflicts can be resolved at the level of 'recognition' is clearly a lot cheaper than paying proper wages. Having started out trying to make Hegel less spiritual and more secular, Honneth only succeeds in elevating spiritual satisfaction over the secular needs. This is the End of History, not with a bang but with a whimper.

While both Pinkard and Honneth fail to secularise Hegel without turning him into an apologist for the status quo, the latest volume of the German Library reproduces the solution worked out by Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, under the title German Socialist Philosophy. This is particularly welcome for the chance to see Feuerbach's original criticisms of Hegel that inspired the young Marx.

According to Feuerbach, Hegel's error is not that he has arbitrarily introduced God into the picture. On the contrary, he says, Hegel mistakes man for God. The attributes of Spirit - human development, self-understanding - are in fact the attributes of man. What goes under the name of God in Hegel is man himself. This seems close to Pinkard's solution of taking Spirit to be a euphemism for society. However, the point of Feuerbach's critique is that you have to do more than just ignore the development of Spirit in Hegel, you have to reattribute that development to man himself.

The contemporary mood of disenchantment is quite different from Feuerbach's critique of religion. Today's postmodernists downgrade belief in order to downgrade humanity. Even reason and progress are today denounced as 'religious beliefs', by which is meant that they aspire to too much. By contrast Feuerbach knocked God off of his pedestal to elevate mankind.

Taking up Feuerbach's materialism, Marx also criticised him for not going far enough, in his 'Theses on Feuerbach', reproduced in German Socialist Philosophy. There Marx argues that the mystification of human society was not inevitable, but a product of a society that was itself out of control. 'The latter', he wrote, 'must be both understood in its contradiction and revolutionised in practice'. More prosaically he added 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'.

Read On

  • As If
    Blake Morrison, Granta, £14.99 hbk

Why did two 10-year-old boys batter James Bulger to death in 1993? Part-biography, part-autobiography, Blake Morrison's As If is a fascinating, frustrating, sometimes repulsive, but entirely gripping attempt to answer this question. Morrison spends much of the book relaying aspects of his own life - what it is to be a child, a parent. It is an attempt to understand the 'why' through self-exploration.

At first Morrison appears to go along with much of the media attitude of the time, that the boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, were evil, 'dwarf killers' and deserving of all the punishment society can dish out. He compares Venables and Thomspon to the feral boys in William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies - childhood at its most barbaric. But Morrison has his doubts about the public baying for blood, too.

The most fascinating part of the story is an account of the boys' interrogation and trial. Much of this moves the reader to reach his own answer to the 'why' - the boys' 'normality' immediately after the killing, their fear more of their mothers finding out what they had done than the murder itself. Morrison's view, that Venables and Thompson are too young either to understand the consequences of their actions or to pay the 'adult' price for murder, is refreshing in comparison to the ongoing campaign to keep the boys in prison for life. Yet Morrison is committed to the idea that society has something to learn from this horrific, but isolated event. He concludes that it must be our own sick society, which created the 'monsters', which should be held to account. In the end he, too, is baying for blood, demanding that blame be apportioned. In his reluctance to blame the children, Morrison (self-confessed 'Bulgerite') blames the rest of us for allowing what he sees as the 'death of childhood', for the destruction of the idea of childhood innocence.

Irene Miller

Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997



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