“Hegel’s political theory,” says Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, “is quite without precedent or parallel. The attempt to classify it by picking out liberal or conservative shibboleths can just lead to laughable misinterpretations.” True, Hegel’s political thought resists easy ideological classification, though many of his interpreters, particularly within the anglosphere, have tried.
While right-wing critics have attacked him for laying the philosophical groundwork for Marxism, liberal detractors have dismissed Hegel as either a reactionary apologist for the Prussian state or an enthusiast for totalitarianism. But is the predominant force of Hegel’s political thought conservative, progressive, perhaps even revolutionary? While it contains elements of all three, the problem for Hegel is that the reforming, conservative approach to politics he advances throughout the Philosophy of Right (1820) comes conjoined with the conditions for its own subversion. Indeed, being based on his own system of a teleological History governed by reason and driven by the adventure of Spirit, through the dialectic, to fashion a world more adequate to its own concept of self-conscious freedom, it could never have been otherwise. Hegel’s conservative “shibboleths,” as Taylor describes them, are ultimately vulnerable to being destabilized by the revolutionary power of the Hegelian philosophy of history out of which they grow.
The Philosophy of History
Hegel was not the first philosopher of history, but he does reserve an especially privileged place for history in his metaphysical system. Given the important Hegelian relationship between the progress of Spirit towards absolute self-awareness and the doctrine that this spiritual journey is embodied at the level of transformations in the institutional, social, and ethical life of human societies, Hegel’s progressive philosophy of history must necessarily donate some measure of progressive potential, perhaps even revolutionary power, to his political thought.
Hegel’s metaphysical system places history at the centre of philosophical reflection. His resulting philosophy of history begins from the recognition that there is a uniquely self-reflective quality to human consciousness, as compared with lower animals and inanimate nature. Mankind’s capacity for self-conscious reflection is what makes human history—as opposed to, say, mollusc history—an appropriate subject for philosophical treatment, since self-conscious reflection, driven by free rational thought, wields the conditions for its own development through time.
Kant’s Idea of A Universal History had hinted at a similar idea of mankind’s distinguishing quality, namely reason, requiring the passage of time to become most fully itself. Hegel attributed equal importance to history as the stage upon which the human subject, in its individual and collective spiritual manifestations, can advance towards the perfection of freedom and reason. Just one generation, still less one lifetime, lacks the resources for this achievement. After all, mankind’s rational capacity “does not work itself instinctively” in individuals, but requires collective cultivation and, crucially for Kant, history itself: our disposition to embrace reason, he writes, needs “a long, perhaps incalculable series of generations, each passing on its enlightenment to the next, before the germs implanted by nature in our species can be developed to that degree which corresponds to nature’s original intention.” Given this influence on Hegel, we might be tempted to view his philosophy of history as just a systematic development, or a more detailed filling-in, of Kant’s 1784 prototype. This is Francis Fukuyama’s interpretation in the early chapters of The End of History.
But this interpretation, while attractive, risks neglecting the essential fact that Hegel’s philosophy of history, despite continuities with the Kantian project, is undergirded by a new, revolutionary, metaphysical understanding of God. Indeed, in Hegel, the concept of Spirit (Geist) does not refer only to human consciousness, as the concept of reason (Vernunft) does in Kant’s preliminary sketch of a philosophy of history, but also to a larger cosmic consciousness, which Hegel often describes as ‘God,’ existing beyond the collective rational life of mankind as Kant had envisaged it. But Geist, conceived by Hegel as the underlying metaphysical reality of the universe, is not the God of classical theism. While Judeo-Christian theology has always understood God as the underlying spiritual reality, distinct from the world of matter and mankind but upon which that world depends for its existence, Hegel argued for a kind of divinity which was, so to speak, immanent in the world. He held, further, that God’s divine potential was dependent on the self-conscious life of human beings, as instantiated in the historical development of our societies, in order to complete its free and rational progress towards absolute self-knowledge. “On the stage on which we are observing it—Universal History—Spirit [Geist] displays itself in its most concrete reality,” says Hegel in the Philosophy of History lectures given at Berlin throughout the 1820s, adding that the self-consciousness of mankind involves Spirit in “an appreciation of its own nature” and accordingly empowers Spirit “to realize itself; to make itself actually that which it is potentially.”
The New God
Turning to Hegel’s political thought, this underlying metaphysics has two revolutionary consequences. First, it deifies history by regarding transformations in the shapes of socio-political arrangements as embodied manifestations of a progressive, teleological process through which God, using finite human spirits for his own purposes, actualizes his rational potential in the world. It is no accident that Hegel, towards the end of his lectures on the Philosophy of History, proclaims that history, despite its “changing scenes” and even its nightmarish moments, is the only true theodicy, the justification of God to man: “Only this insight can reconcile Spirit with the History of the World—viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not “without God,” but is essentially His Work.” Redemption is no longer seen, in the Christian sense, as a hope awaiting us in some eternal realm distinct from the world; it belongs to the world itself which, in its rational history, contains the promise of its own salvation. On the Hegelian understanding, then, history not only exhibits some measure of teleological sense, but whatever happens during history, as Taylor puts it, enjoys “the highest justification.”
The second revolutionary consequence of Hegel’s deification of history is that the rational, normative pattern represented by Spirit’s progressive movement through world history, if accepted, undermines individual responsibility towards events. This was Kierkegaard’s concern. The ends of history not only justify, but necessitate whatever means Spirit, acting through what Hegel calls mankind’s “vast congeries of volitions, interests and activities,” deems necessary “for attaining its object.” If whatever happens possesses the “highest justification,” on what grounds can one individual, or for that matter an organized group of persons, oppose demands for political reform or even the desire for all-out revolution? Provided the reforms in question are passed or a revolution is successfully undertaken, it is not possible for someone with even the most powerful mind to argue that history has, so to speak, gone completely wrong. At most, they can only argue that the complicated dynamics are yet to play out fully. There can be no doubt that, however they eventually do play out, the result, as well as its means, will be rationally justified.
Nothing could be further from the outlook adopted by some of Hegel’s philosophical contemporaries, not least Joseph de Maistre, who loathed every bit of the ‘satanic’ rupture represented by 1789. As applied to politics, therefore, Hegel’s philosophy of history deifies progressive change, providing normative justification for whatever means Spirit considers necessary for fulfilling its rational purposes in the political realm and starkly contradicting the forces of reaction. The revolutionary potential dormant within Hegel’s political philosophy, given its reliance upon his radical deification of history, is not just apparent but considerable.
Hegel’s own personal sense, however, was that his philosophy of history should have a calming, even tranquilizing, effect on the approach of philosophers to political life. His conservative “shibboleths” are apparent in this attitude, which stems from the idea that recognizing the necessity underlying historical development cannot but promote “a calmer outlook and a moderate endurance of it.” These conservative elements in Hegel take an altogether more detailed form in the Philosophy of Right which, drawing on the wider philosophy of history, held that the institutions of family, civil society, and the state, as they then existed in Prussia, were the embodied social progeny of this rational historical development. As such, they should not be condemned in the way ideologues demanded, but rather conserved, for as products of Spirit’s free, rational development throughout the world they demand the allegiance of free, rational creatures. Paradoxical though it might seem, Hegel’s revolutionary deification of history ends up justifying—or at least did so for Hegel himself—a strikingly conservative political outlook.
What did “conservatism” mean to Prussians when Hegel was at the height of his powers? Following Napoleon’s final defeat at the hands of the royal legitimist powers in 1815, conserving the status quo meant resisting the rationalist, constitutional designs of liberal reformers. Friedrich Ancillon enjoyed a considerable influence over Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm III (1797-1840), urging him to reject growing desires for more representation at a national level, since this would mean circumscribing the powers of the king. Metternich, Europe’s closest thing to a 19th century Henry Kissinger, successfully advised Prince Wittgenstein to persuade the Prussian king “never to go further than the establishment of provincial Diets.”
Under the General Law of 1823, not long after Hegel’s Philosophy of Right was released, Prussia established exactly such a set of localized, highly constrained representative bodies. They granted weighted influence to noble deputies, who had exclusive privileges to veto proposals. And while city commoners (Bürger) and peasants (Bauernschaft) enjoyed their respective places in the corporate, representational structure of the provincial diets, that mattered little when such bodies were starved, as historian Christopher Clark writes, of “legislative or revenue-approving powers.”
In important respects, this conservative preoccupation to protect inherited privileges and reconstruct the traditional estate representations of the ancien régime would not have been admired by Hegel, who had maintained in the Philosophy of Right that for the state to be rational, it needs to reflect the particular interests of civil society as they exist in a modern context, rather than ignoring the emergence of new interests out of hostile, simple-minded prejudice. Of course, this was contradicted by the reactionary, constraining remits of the provincial diets established by leading conservative Prussian statesmen in the early 19th century. This disparity between Hegel’s seemingly “conservative” vision and what “conservatism” amounted to within the 19th century Prussian context reinforces Taylor’s opinion of Hegel as a thinker who defies conventional classification on the Left-Right spectrum.
Hegel’s Communitarian Spirit
Nevertheless, the political thrust of Hegel is far from revolutionary. His deification of the historical process as a teleological, indeed salvific force translates not, at the level of his political thought, into an appetite for violent rupture or revolution, but rather into deep admiration for the state, provided it serves as a rational embodiment of the universal: “It is God’s way in the world that the state should exist.” Often translated as “the state is the march of God throughout the world,” the original German (Es ist der Gang Gottes in der Welt, daß der Staat ist) conveys the more modest, less incipiently tyrannical idea that the state is a necessary condition for freedom, rather than a totally sufficient one. After all, it instantly follows this: “In considering freedom, the starting-point must be not individuality, the individual self-consciousness, but only the essence of self-consciousness; for whether people know it or not, this essence realizes itself as a self-subsistent power in which single individuals are only moments.”
In other words, by belonging to the rational state, individuals can escape the false ideal of freedom in isolation. Thanks to Hegel’s historically evolved state, they are plugged into a larger, collective spiritual life where, as free and rational creatures living in a state formed ultimately by the free and rational development of Spirit in human history, “on earth and consciously realizing itself there,” the individual is now able to recognize his own distinguishing essences—in this case, freedom and rationality—reflected in his social surroundings.
Alienation, that feeling of profound unease which creeps in when people cannot faithfully identify with the public norms enshrined by the society in which they live, is accordingly dispelled. Bertrand Russell mocked Hegel’s political thought as amounting to an absurd, reactionary demand that people celebrate their freedom “to obey the law.” There is some truth to this polemic, but Russell’s negative understanding of freedom (the absence of external constraint) prevents him from appreciating how, in Hegel’s philosophy, there is nothing external about the constraints imposed by the rational state, whether in the form of laws or social customs. For considered under the philosophy of history, the rational state is the culmination of self-conscious freedom; it is therefore not something other than us, asserting itself arbitrarily against our independence as individuals, but something identical to and expressive of our essence as free, rational beings.
Nevertheless, while Russell’s liberal critique of Hegel relies upon a somewhat cartoonish misrepresentation of the German philosopher’s intended meaning, he is right to argue that obedience to the state, not revolution against it, is the logical consequence of the political doctrines advanced in the Philosophy of Right. What follows is not a right to engage in revolution, but a communitarian conservatism which, despite the many ways in which the Prussian constitutional set-up at the time did not perfectly harmonize with Hegel’s own political vision, still maintains, as Hegel famously put it, that “the supreme duty” of the individual is to be “a member of the state.”
Hegel’s Conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France
This conservative Hegel on display in the Philosophy of Right really grows out of his retrospective appraisal of the French Revolution—an event which had galvanized him as a student at Tübingen and which, in many ways, he continued to appreciate into maturity, toasting the Fall of the Bastille every July 14th until his death in 1831. It was against the backdrop of 1789, after all, that Hegel and his contemporaries—among them figures as illustrious as Fichte, Schelling, and Hölderlin—understood the term Revolution. Hegel in particular came to develop serious doubts about the potential of the Enlightenment (or the Aufklärung, as Immanuel Kant had put it) to make its virtuous mark on the world through revolutionary fervour.
Kant defined the Enlightenment as “the age of criticism.” And “to criticism everything must submit,” he wrote; “Religion through its sanctity, and the state through its majesty, may seek to exempt themselves from it. But then they arouse suspicion against themselves, and cannot claim the sincere respect which reason gives only to that which sustains the test of free and open examination.” To be enlightened, then, was to recognize reason as the measure of all things, regardless of religious tradition or conventional wisdom. Hegel later defined it, in characteristically cryptic terms, as “pure insight, what is universal in and for itself.”
But Enlightenment is not just a revolution in the mind; reason, with its newly discovered powers, feels a deep yearning to remake the political world. As Hegel explains, “being a conscious act, [pure insight] must give its moments a definite manifest existence and must appear on the scene as a sheer uproar and a violent struggle with its antithesis.” The problem is that this negativity, as epitomized by the “violent struggle” of the French revolutionaries against their irrational antithesis, the ancien régime, cannot produce anything enduringly positive. Submitting everything, as Kant recommends, to the court of universal reason is a formal injunction, containing no concrete content. On the Enlightenment “right of self-consciousness,” the most essential freedom in Kant’s community of rational creatures, the individual becomes an isolated being, thinking in the void, such that any potential for community, rational or otherwise, is foreclosed. There is nothing positive upon which individuals can collectively converge at a social level: “two equal rights of Spirit,” Hegel elaborates in one of those rare bursts of eloquence which he tended to hoard like some philosophical skinflint, “could be left confronting each other, neither being capable of satisfying the other.”
For Hegel, this was why our links to cosmic reason, not merely human reason, must be discovered. The Enlightenment celebrated reason for furnishing mankind with a critical apparatus against which the institutions of religion, state, and society should be measured. Meanwhile, Hegel argued that in coming to recognize our rational self-consciousness as vehicles of a greater cosmic Spirit, we are no longer forced to regard reason as singularly against the world, as something which “isolates the actual world as an entity forsaken by Spirit.” Reason is now regarded instead as the motor of a dialectical, spiritual struggle immanent in the world, our own rational designs, even our irrational passions, being only “moments” in this larger plan.
The French Revolution served this plan. It could never have been the plan itself, for the revolutionaries were driven by a desire for absolute freedom—the kind which permits only furious conflict, as opposed to rational harmony, with whatever social conditions prevail. Absolute freedom, moreover, cannot stop at demolition of the ancien régime; seeing pure autonomy as the ultimate value in political life, explains Taylor, it destroys not only “the existing articulations” of social order, but also “any new ones which threaten to arise.” Absolute freedom, argues Hegel, thus “cannot achieve anything positive, either universal works of language or of reality, either of laws and general institutions of conscious freedom, or of deeds and works of a freedom that wills them.”
Here, Hegel’s distinction between Moralität (morality) and Sittlichkeit (ethical life) is important. Everything listed by Hegel above, the positive content of laws and institutions, belongs to the realm of Sittlichkeit—the varied set of customs and practices that properly ground the ethical duties of citizens in a real, rationally evolved order with which they can freely identify. Moralität, meanwhile, resembles Kantian ethics: noble, but ultimately abstracted from the particular social circumstances which, by making a spiritual claim on individuals rather than just trusting them to think for themselves in a non-social vacuum, actually give emotional force to the dictates of “practical reason” (Kant’s term for universal morality) on a communal scale.
Conceiving freedom in purely negative terms, Hegel argues, leaves room only for formal Moralität: “what negative freedom intends to will can never be anything but some abstract idea.” The Enlightenment faith in “pure insight” enhanced the French revolutionaries’ confidence in their power to reason towards a system of ends which everyone, “the self-conscious essence of each and every personality,” can accept. The pre-existing norms of Sittlichkeit stood in the way of this sublime revolutionary vision, so were abolished as an offence against the absolute freedom of “pure insight” to re-shape society, violently if necessary, according to its own image. The problem was that different factions proposed different images, yet had eliminated the very structures which would have helped them to collaborate socially towards a shared, lasting settlement. And so government, says Hegel, became “merely the victorious faction,” totalitarian violence serving as the only recourse against rival claimants—be they Girondins, Jacobins, or Hébertists—to the throne of enlightened progress. The brutality of the Terror was a consequence of the many factions, having abolished the customary practices that had formerly expressed France’s Sittlichkeit, suddenly relating to each other in a state of “wholly unmediated negation.” Absent shared customs and conventions in place to manage political disagreement, might was bound to replace monarchy as the absolute sovereign, and it duly did. Hegel’s deeply conservative attachment to intermediary structures in the Philosophy of Right was based upon the understanding that, without them, the Enlightenment can only take a despotic, terrorizing constitutional form.
In Part II, we will consider how it was that such a formidable critic of violent utopianism managed to inspire a younger generation of alienated spirits bent on world revolution.