To bring revolution "down to earth"

Submitted by AWL on 4 March, 2020 - 9:07 Author: Eduardo Tovar
GWF Hegel (1770-1831)

The socialist activist and scholar Robert Fine, who passed away on 9 June 2018 at the age of 72, was a long-time sympathiser and sometime activist with Workers’ Liberty.

Our series of book reviews to commemorate Fine continues with Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt (Routledge 2001).

Karl Marx (1818-83) was the first writer to integrate socialist politics with comprehensive and well-documented theories of economics and history. Most working-class socialists since his time have regarded themselves as Marxists to one degree or another, and by now most of us vehemently reject the idea that the so-called "Marxism" of the Stalinist states had anything to do with Marx's real legacy.

G W F Hegel (1770-1831) was the most influential philosopher of the tradition which developed, starting with Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), on the basis of the Enlightenment and the rise of science and of liberal politics. Marx in the early 1840s was part of a group known as the "young Hegelians".

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a political philosopher who spent her youth in Germany but wrote most of her best-known books after fleeing from the Nazis to the USA. She was broadly associated with the left and with Zionism, but a dissident and maverick in both contexts.

Fine argues that reading Hegel, Marx, and Arendt together offers insights into “the common concerns they confront - the spectres of both freedom and barbarism by which the modern world is haunted” (p. 2). To Fine, this approach “allows us to see the relation between the subjective forms of right and the objective forms of the commodity as two sides of a single social order” (p. 4).

Although Fine pays considerable respect to both Hegel and Marx, he gives additional praise to Arendt because, in Fine’s view, “no one has more subtly elaborated both the potentiality for barbarism and the possibilities of freedom that arise out of modern political life”, thereby “[picking] up the mantle of Hegel and Marx far more than is currently recognised”. (p. 4)

In my view, Political Investigations represents a further exploration of several themes on Marxism, Stalinism, and anti-Stalinism he discussed in his Workers’ Liberty article The Poverty of Anti-Stalinism.

In that 1990 article, Fine raised several related concerns. Firstly, he was concerned about his fellow anti-Stalinist Marxists making shallow criticisms of Stalinism simply for being insufficiently anti-capitalist (such as in its “right” turns towards class-collaborationist Popular Fronts) rather than recognising how Stalinism could be militantly anti-capitalist in its own right while still being deeply reactionary. Secondly, he was concerned about simply counterposing Stalinism to either the abstract idea of socialism or its ideal realisation rather than positively reformulating our understanding of socialism in light of our critique of Stalinism. In Fine’s words:

“Marxism cannot be defined negatively; it is neither simply the negation of bourgeois forms of social life nor is it simply the negation of Stalinism. The slogan of ‘anti-capitalism, anti-Stalinism' may be a useful starting point for socialists, but is no substitute for the positive reformulation of Marxism.” (Fine 1990: 155)

Fine’s point here about Marxism being more than simply the negation of bourgeois forms of social life also suggests a deeper thematic continuity between Political Investigations, The Poverty of Anti-Stalinism, and his previous writings on Democracy and the Rule of Law: Marx’s Critique of the Legal Form (Blackburn Press 2002 [1984]). In the latter book, Fine sought to combat two “equally mistaken” characterisations of what Marx thought about law: one in which Marxism appears as little more than an extension of liberalism and another in which Marxism appears as little more than a negation of liberalism.

Fine did this by trying to understand Marx in relation to previous political and legal thinkers, including Hegel. This also reflects Fine’s broader interest in bringing questions of normativity back into the academic discipline of sociology, which often views itself as exclusively concerned with narrowly defined empirical research.

Trying to gain a more complete perspective on Marx by going back to Hegel is not itself anything new. Perhaps the most famous Marxist writer on the methodological significance of Hegelian dialectics is G.V. Plekhanov, who in 1891 observed that “Hegel’s importance in the social sciences is determined first and foremost by the fact that he considered all their phenomena from the standpoint of the process...of coming into being... i.e., from the standpoint of their appearance and their disappearance”.

Similarly, much is often made of Lenin’s 1915 aphorism that “[i]t is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic.” György Lukács, the Frankfurt School, Raya Dunayevskaya, C L R James, and other “Hegelian Marxists” have made varied attempts reconceptualise Marxism by drawing on Hegel’s writings. There have also been attempts to bring Hegel back into the foreground of social theory in general, perhaps most notably Gillian Rose’s seminal book Hegel Contra Sociology (1983).

In his own re-evaluation of Hegel, Fine focuses on Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821: the title could also be translated as "philosophy of law"). Fine begins by outlining the different orthodoxies in interpreting Hegel. There was an old orthodoxy which started with Rudolf Haym in the mid-19th century, became popular with English-language writers during the World Wars, and was further pushed by Karl Popper after 1945. That saw Hegel as a forerunner of totalitarian ideology, someone who “elevates the state into an object of divine worship and debases the individual into a superfluous and expendable ‘moment’ of the state” (p. 5).

A newer orthodoxy (Fine cites Allen Wood and Shlomo Avineri: more recently, for example, Terry Pinkard) stresses how embedded in the liberal tradition many elements of Hegel’s “rational state” are. These elements include “individual rights, the rule of law, trial by jury, a written constitution, a relatively autonomous civil society, the separation of church and state, etc.” (p. 8).

Nevertheless, the new orthodoxy slides into its own problems of reading Philosophy of Right one-sidedly. It often downplays Hegel’s more disconcerting propositions about the state’s “divinity” and indifference to individuals, as well as the archaic nature of several of the institutions Hegel includes in his “rational state”, such as the monarchy.

More fundamentally, both orthodoxies “treat liberalism itself as the standard against which the text must be judged”; “[f]rom the misplaced outrage of the old orthodoxy to the increasingly uncritical pronouncements of the new, liberalism itself remains strangely unquestioned” (p. 15).

In contrast, critical theorists, such as those of the Frankfurt School, “accepted that in his youth Hegel was revolutionary in both political and philosophical terms, and that he was profoundly inspired by the French Revolution”. (of 1789-94: p. 19) Nonetheless, they lapsed into “stereotypical views of a movement from the radicalism of youth to the conservatism of old age” at the cost of seeing the deeper connections between Hegel’s earlier and later writings (p. 20).

To Fine, a recurring problem across these different prominent readings of Philosophy of Right is a misunderstanding of Hegel’s project. It is “not to prescribe ‘what ought to be’ but rather to understand ‘what is’” (p. 24). In doing so, Hegel sets out to study “the idea of right as it is conceived and actualised in the modern age”; “i[t] is an investigation into the dynamics of subjectivity - not in abstract but as it is made concrete and real in our own social and political lives” (p. 24).

Rather than isolating and privileging one particular form of right [law] over another, as tends to occur when thinking about “right” in the abstract, Hegel comes to understand the idea of right in a diverse range of determinations in human life, situating it:

“...historically as the achievement of the modern age, socially as a determinate form of subjectivity, dynamically as a movement from one form and shape to another without a given end, holistically as a system of intrinsic connections and critically as a system rent by its own contradictions.” (p. 28)

By embedding the idea of right in the empirical world, Hegel broke with the natural law tradition that had dominated political philosophy. ("Natural law" meant law deduced by pure reason from eternal facts of human nature or of God). He allowed political thought to escape “the presumption that philosophy can deduce ‘what ought to be’ from a priori conceptions of right or from transcendental principles of history, morality and language, and then impose this sollen [moral duty] on the rest of us” (p. 27).

Hegel “does not abandon the struggle to bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be, but he addresses this gap in a way that is designed to forestall the use of violence, terror and annihilation to bring the ‘is’ in line with the ‘ought’” (p. 27). In doing so, he “preserves the space which separates our understanding of political life from the practicalities of political action and leaves us free to make our own political choices” (p. 27).

In this explication of Hegel’s approach, the main contrast Fine draws is with Kant, the chief figure in German philosophical discussion before Hegel. In Fine’s words, “if Kant turns individuals as they appear in our own society into an a priori condition of political cohesion, Hegel begins with individuals as they are found within our society in order to denature their form of existence and unpack what is distinctive about the modern subject” (p. 48). This is because Kant, unlike Hegel, is not able to distinguish between morality and ethical life.

This not to say simply that “Kant concentrates only on inner-directed feelings of morality at the expense of any orientation toward the social and political institutions of the community” (p. 53-54). Rather, the difference is that Kant viewed institutions of ethical life such as civil society, the state, and the family “as actual or potential emanations of our will”, whereas Hegel viewed them as objective and necessary relations that impose binding duties on subjects (p. 54).

Hegel’s distinction between morality and ethical life allowed him to distinguish between state and civil society in the modern sense as “the stage of difference between the family and the state” (p. 58). This sets up Hegel’s understanding of political representation. As Hegel presents it, “[t]he real function of political to admit the private interests of civil society into the organism of the state as one of its several elements...and to serve as a middle term between civil society and the state” (p. 65).

This intermediary function of political representation entails many exclusions. Its dual role is “to embody the ‘subjective moment in universal freedom’ in order to prevent the isolation of government which might otherwise be an arbitrary tyranny, and to prevent the isolation of civil society which might otherwise crystallise into a bloc in opposition to the state” (p. 65). In other words, Hegel departed from liberal philosophers’ view of the state as the actual “united will of all”.

This brings us to the aspect of Hegel’s writings that Fine wishes to bring out more in relation to subsequent thinkers: “the critique of the critique of representation”. In other words, whilst Hegel critiques political representation, he is wary of turning this critique into a demand to abolish representation as such or to make representation wholly active and unrestrictive.

This is because, “[a]lthough Hegel recognised that the demand that everyone should participate in the business of state arises naturally in opposition to the many formal and substantial exclusions established by representative government”, he was troubled by how “it issues the instruction that everyone ‘must participate in this business’” (p. 67).

Similarly, Hegel was deeply concerned that “a ‘pure’ form of representation, one in which citizens appear only as an atomised mass of individuals and the state is treated as the only legitimate association, would turn the state into a slave to public opinion”, thereby undermining the independence needed for critical thought. (p. 67)

Whilst Hegel accepted the value of the people’s empirical consciousness, he nevertheless thought that public opinion deserves to be “respected as well as despised”, since by its nature public opinion is a repository of not only “true needs” and “substantial principles of justice”, but also of “false information”, “errors of judgement”, and other such “contingencies of opinion” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §317).

This is why, although Hegel never abandoned his enthusiastic support for the French Revolution of 1789-94, he believed that much of the Terror of 1793-4 occurred because the Revolution “replaced the indeterminate ‘I’ of the bourgeois property owner with the equally indeterminate 'we' of the people as if the world were a void waiting only to be filled with its soul, but when it discovered that the world was not a void, it could express its frustrated sense that ‘everything was possible’ only in a fury of destruction” (p. 73).

In short, Hegel warned of how overcoming power using only abstractions of freedom (for example, the idea of “true democracy”) could prevent the establishment of concrete freedom and, in irrational and destructive ways, mimic the very forms of domination and mystification one seeks to overcome in the first place (p. 75).

All this sets up Fine’s reassessment of the connection between Hegel and Marx. To Fine, it is a mistake to take at face value Marx’s own view of his relationship to Hegel, especially Marx’s remark in the 1873 postface to the second German edition of his most famous book, Capital, about having “inverted” Hegel’s dialectic “in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell”.

Instead, reading Philosophy of Right together with Capital helps us notice the structural similarities between their analyses. As a matter of method, both works analyse modern society by starting with its most abstract and simple elements, and then work their way “upwards” to these elements’ more concrete and complex manifestations.

The main difference is that Marx addresses modernity’s material or economic forms, whereas Hegel addresses its ideal or political forms, which makes their analyses complement each other. Moreover, the works supplement each other because Philosophy of Right and Capital identify modernity itself with the ideal forms of political life and the material forms of economic life respectively.

Read together, Hegel and Marx “offer a more complete image of modernity, one which includes both the social forms of the subject and the social forms of the object, than each offers in isolation from each other”; “we are forced to concede that the modern age cannot be reduced either to its ideal or its material aspects” (p. 97).

In doing so, we can keep the modern age’s real dichotomies in mind and “start from the substance of the social order rather than...proceed atomistically and end up only in the juxtaposition of these separate spheres” (p. 98). The political and economic spheres each give rise to their own illusions and abstract forms of domination. In the political sphere, there are the illusions of free will and the domination of law and the state; in the economic sphere, there are the illusions of determination and the domination of money and capital (p. 98).

This reassessment of the Hegel-Marx relationship sets the stage for Arendt. Here the work Fine stresses most is The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Recounting “the failure of liberalism to live up to its own ideals and its inability to resist the rise of totalitarian movements”, Arendt argues that “when liberalism presents totalitarianism as the Other of itself, it understands neither totalitarianism nor itself, for although totalitarianism reaches fruition only at limited times and in particular times and in particular places, it has deep roots in the modern system of right” (p. 107-08).

To Arendt, “the ‘spiritless radicalism’ whose hostility to the whole rational architectonic of right, law, nation, and state proved so violent and destructive, was itself the product of the system of right broken down under the weight of its own contradictions and partial reconfigurations” (p. 119).

Arendt means this in multiple senses. Most obviously, totalitarian movements such as Nazism and Stalinism found their mass appeal in people’s justified disgust at representative institutions’ real deficiencies and “channelled this contempt for representative institutions into a doctrine of ‘movements’ which obscured the very distinction between the inner-party elites and the people with whom they claimed identity” (p. 115). One practical consequence of this was that “all forms of representation were suppressed except that of the totalitarian movement itself: representation was not overcome, it was monopolised” (p. 115).

Additionally, “equivocations and perplexities inherent in the idea of right” themselves manifested in totalitarianism (p. 118). For instance, since “the modern idea of right was from the eighteenth century attached to the nation state as its author, provider, and enforcer”, “[w]hen certain groups were denied the right to have rights by virtue of their statelessness, it was a small step to attribute to such people certain natural characteristics (such as their ‘Jewishness’) to account for and justify the expropriation of their rights” (p. 118).

To Fine, this sensitivity to the fundamental contradictions within modernity itself – to both its light side and dark side – places Arendt in deeper continuity with both Hegel and Marx than she herself realised. One sees this in her explication of the inherent tension in the revolutionary constitution of freedom, which is thought to establish an absolute beginning through the act of foundation.

The inherent tension in question is between, on the one hand, freedom as a ground for authority on which lasting institutions can be built following the revolution and, on the other hand, freedom as a repeatable event that extends beyond simply augmenting the constitution established by the revolution. This is why, in Arendt’s view, “we have to stop thinking that the concept of revolution can be actualised in some ideal form” (p. 130)

This informs Arendt’s turn to a “critical cosmopolitanism” in the spirit of Hegel’s ethical philosophy. That is, Arendt looks for a politics based on the idea that all human beings can or should be citizens in one community, but does so in a way that “refuses to make any leap of faith – be it faith in the state or faith in the cosmopolis; it refuses to stop time by predetermining the structure of what has not yet come into being” (p. 148).

All this follows the intellectual agenda of both Hegel and Marx. This is “an agenda that confronts the central perplexity of modern political life: that the critique of representation cannot rest content until it links hands with the critique of the critique of representation” (p. 162). This agenda faces up to perplexity but seeks neither to “resolve it with premature judgements and conclusions”, nor to “use it as an excuse for inaction in the face of injustice” (p. 162).

I shall leave the question of how solidly Fine’s interpretation of Hegel is based on Hegel's actual writings to readers more familiar with them. For now, I shall say that, whilst I think Fine overstates the matter when he speaks of a “unity” of Hegel and Marx, I find his joint reading of the two theorists highly thought-provoking.

This is especially true in respect of how Fine’s reading grounds the often-perplexing Hegelian notion of simultaneously preserving and changing contradictory elements that interact.

One sees this in how attempts to overcome the forms of domination, mystification, and alienation that arise from the contradictions of modernity, such as marginalisation from political representation, can end up replicating these forms in terrifying manners.

As for Arendt, I admit that, unlike Fine, I do not place Origins of Totalitarianism especially high among her writings. I am much more partial to The Human Condition (1958). I also admit that my intellectual connection to Arendt has always been something of a love-hate relationship.

On the one hand, I often find Arendt’s observations illuminating and intellectually stimulating, such as her observations about the shift of meaning in the term “revolution” from an act of restoration to an act of fundamental rupture with the past and her critical treatment of sociology’s reliance on historically familiar categories when analysing qualitatively new phenomena, which in her view inhibits proper understanding of their novelty and significance.

On the other hand, to the extent that her writings can be read as attempts to offer causal explanations for social movements, Arendt often comes across as unduly dismissive of material factors like poverty or even viscerally emotional factors like fear, focussing instead on a kind of existential psychology or mass pathology of people atomised and dislocated by modern society.

Similarly, as Gertrude Ezorsky’s critical review of Arendt’s famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) in New Politics (vol. 2, no. 4, 1963) illustrates, Arendt was often guilty of ignoring available evidence that contradicted her controversial claims that Adolf Eichmann was an entirely “normal” man who did not hate Jews fanatically and that Jewish leaders and organisations cooperated with the Nazis to a “truly extraordinary degree”.

Arendt also seemed excessively pessimistic about ordinary people’s ability to change their conditions through collective organising, as seen from her Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution (1958). Although she identified the councils that emerged in these struggles as spaces of freedom and as foundations for a new form of government laid from below, she still remarked that the stature of the 1956 revolution “will not depend upon victory or defeat; its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted”.

She further remarked that it would be “rather unwise to expect from the Russian people, after forty years of tyranny and thirty years of totalitarianism, the same spirit and the same political productivity which the Hungarian people showed in their most glorious hour”, despite the fact that she herself had never expected the Hungarian Revolution and other anti-Stalinist uprisings in the Eastern Bloc to happen in the first place.

So there are broader problems with Arendt, and Fine does relatively little to deal with them in his interpretation of her writings. Is there still value in reading Arendt alongside Hegel and Marx? I would say there is.

Although the phrase “the banality of evil” is often misidentified with becoming a mindless instrument of evil, such as a pen-pushing bureaucrat, the phrase actually denotes how otherwise perfectly ordinary human beings can very consciously commit horrific deeds for the most petty and selfish of reasons. What Arendt found chilling in her view of Eichmann was how he appeared entirely willing to oversee genocide for the sake of his own career advancement. Whilst Arendt might have misidentified Eichmann himself as a representative figure of this “banality of evil”, we are certainly no strangers to the phenomenon of people putting aside their moral and political judgement for careerist reasons and the dark paths down which such careerism can lead.

As such, Fine is justified in paying such attention to Arendt’s thoughts on “the banality of evil” in his closing chapter and locating its significance within her development of a critical, cosmopolitan perspective. Whilst I shall have to save the topic for another time, I also agree with Fine that there is a case for reading Arendt and Trotsky together. This is because both Arendt and Trotsky were unafraid to liken the barbarism of Stalin’s USSR to that of Hitler’s Germany and both attempted to understand the significance of the two regimes’ similarities whilst acknowledging their differences.

Additionally, Fine’s analysis provides relevant perspectives to bring to recent debates in the pages of Solidarity on the question of morality and revolution. This is because Fine asks us to confront and comprehend the terror that can come in the wake of a revolution, even when the revolution itself was justified.

One should understand Fine’s engagement with Hegel, Marx, and Arendt in the context of his long-running effort to combat the way that many of us on the left treat our idea of true democracy, by which we usually mean a system of directly democratic communal councils, as something that will itself resolve the contradictions that the critique of political representation highlights without any risk of reproducing those contradictions.

By this point, it is hopefully clearer how the themes of Political Investigations connect to Fine’s earlier criticisms of forms of left-wing anti-Stalinism which fail to comprehend that Stalinism is deeply hostile to capitalism and working-class liberation alike, that we cannot simply counterpose Stalinism to an abstract idea of what we think socialism or how we think it has been realised ideally, and that we cannot treat Marxism as only the negation of liberalism and bourgeois society.

Despite its more guarded perspective on revolution and what it can unleash, one should avoid the temptation to read Political Investigations as a renouncement of revolutionary politics. In Fine’s own words:

“This is not to abandon or to reject the idea of revolution, which is our only resource against the continuation of injustice, but rather to bring it down to earth, to recognise its mystique and acknowledge that it is not above the equivocations of political life.” (p. 130)

“The proclivity of revolution to reproduce, sometimes in more irrational form, the power it overturns is not a reason for us to throw up our hands in despair, but rather to face up to the burden of events, whatever message it delivers, to explore the dynamics of our own disillusionment, and see the notion of ‘absolute beginning’ for what it is: merely the conceptual aspect of political life divorced from its actuality.” (p. 4)

In the end, Fine calls on us to reject finding something within human nature that guarantees opposition to totalitarianism. Instead, he centres our own agency in the world and the freedom and responsibility that agency entails: “Everything depends on us – on what we do, how we act, whether we find an adequate political response. None of this can be predetermined.” (p. 162)

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