Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Comments on Critique of Hegel's Phenomenology of Right

[I'm suggesting -- or rather enacting -- the approach of putting up a post on each reading, with discussion in comments. Some substantive thoughts follow. A personal disclaimer: unlike many (most?) folks here, I am mostly reading this stuff for the first time. -JWM]


JW Mason said...

1. It's interesting how much Marx is writing specifically as a German, that is, from the perspective of a country that is relatively backward but is not simply recapitulating the development of the more "advanced" countries. It's interesting to see how central the issue of uneven development was to Marx from the beginning of his thought. This also -- though one wouldn't want to press the analogy too far -- invites comparison with the position of intellectuals in middle-income/semi-peripheral countries today. Do other people think it's possible that this is one reason Marxism originated in Germany as opposed to England?

2. I though this passage gave a very compelling account of hegemony: "What is the basis of a ... political revolution? Simply this: ... a determinate class undertakes, from its particular situation, a general emancipation of society. This class emancipates society as a whole, but only on condition that the whole of society is in the same situation as this class; for example that it possesses money or culture. No class in civil society can play this part unless it can arouse, in itself and the masses, a moment of enthusiasm in which it associates and mingles with society at large, identifies itself with it, and is felt and recognized as the general representative of this society. Its aims and interests must genuinely be the aims and interest of society itself, of which it becomes in reality the social head and heart. ... [It must have] that genius which pushes material forces to political power, that revolutionary daring which throws at its adversary the defiant phrase: I am nothing and I should be everything." This is really beautifully and succinctly put, and applies to a whole range of political situations.

Marx's frustration with the German bourgeoisie's inability to play a revolutionary role corresponds, again, it seems to me, with situations in a whole range of semi-peripheral and peripheral countries in the 20th century. But what's especially striking is the other half of the equation: "For one class to be the liberating class..., it is necessary that another class should be openly the oppressing class. The negative significance of the French nobility and clergy produced the positive significance of the bourgeoisie." This negative aspect of hegemony gets less attention, it seems to me (altho it is reminiscent of what community and labor organizers say about the importance of "polarizing".) It also seems relevant to current political questions. is part of the secret of capitalism's continued success the ability of capitalists to launder their dominance through the state rather than being "openly the oppressing class"? (Something we may be seeing even more of, as the various bailouts convert financial wealth into claims on future taxes.)

3. The starting point of the essay is the criticism of religion. Religion is the distorted mirror through which we see ourselves and our social existence, so the criticism of religion is primary because we need to look at the world directly before we can understand and transform it. What I'm wondering, though, is how easy it is to dispense with these external reflections. I don't think, writing an equivalent essay today, one would say that "the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism." Arguably it's rather a certain kind of science or scientism -- sociobiology and its offshoots -- that offers that kind of semblance of social reality today, at least among educated Americans. What I'm struck by is how many avowed atheists are attracted by sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, etc., and by science fiction, which literalizes and naturalizes social relations in the same way. My point -- maybe banal -- is just to suggest, first, the continued relevance of this essay's starting point, that our criticism of social reality has to begin with a criticism of its distorted, unacknowledged representations, and second, that that task looks quite different today than in Marx's day.

Kirsten said...

Thanks JW Mason for your thoughtful and informed comments/questions. To keep this ball rolling I will add some of mine as well. I will say from the outset that this quickly has become one of my favorite Marx reads, as we get to witness the genesis of some of his most profound arguments.
I too feel that the starting point of this essay is of continued relevance. It is interesting to see him take Feuerbach's religious alienation one step back and set philosophy a new task. He points out that Feuerbach fails to recognize why we fall into religious alienation (i.e. that it is a response to alienation in the material life) and therefore is rendered unable to point to humanity what can eliminate this alienation. For Feuerbach to eliminate religious alienation is to eliminate alienation. But as Marx says, “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers from the chain, not in order that man shall wear the chain without caprice or consolation but so that he shall cast of the chain and pluck the living flower.” While philosophy has been able to unmask alienation in its religious form, it now (ala Hegel with the Philosophy of Right) masks it in the secular form. Thus, what once was projected into heaven (our species being) is now projected into the State. Again, I do not think the continued relevance of this insight can be overstated. In The Philosophy of Right Hegel sees a dualism between individual life, or civil life, and species life, and argues that the task of the state is to integrate the individual into the community in a way that does not jeopardize subjective freedom. (As heterodox economists we recognize that this very dualism is taken up in the mainstream of economics with the market mechanism being its resolution.) Marx astutely recognizes that once again that which is fundamentally human, our species being, is now represented in the state, and is held over and above us. The modern state presupposes that egoistic civil society is the "natural" state of man, such that even with the abolition of religious alienation we are still woefully alienated from our species being. Modern constitutions are "constitutions of private property," legitimizing egoistic life and perfectly articulating the inverted logic of modern life. (The inverted logic we so readily recognize in the creation of that creature 'homoeconomicus.') Therefore, “The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form." Mason has insightfully pointed to this same pattern in scientism (and I wish I could come out this summer to discuss this with all of you!) but I would like to add to this area of discourse a discussion of the continued weight of Marx's perspective on secular alienation. Is the State in its modern form perpetuating the disunity of human beings? As instructors, if we accept Marx's notion of secular alienation and wish to unmask alienation in this form, how do we best communicate this to students while maintaining the separate concept of the important role for the State in economic life? (Assuming you have hard core free-marketeer students, upon whom all subtleties are lost, like we have out here in Utah!)
This is looking too long, so I will let this be my only point on this reading and will try to be more brief in the future.

Hasan said...

I would like to add a few questions about this reading..
In this essay, Marx several times discusses the role\relationship of\between philosophy and proletariat.
For example,
Marx states that:
"Today, when theology itself has come to grief, the most unfree fact of German history, our status qua, will be shattered against philosophy"...

"As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy"

"The head of this emancipation is philosophy its heart the proletariat"
In this sense,
I wonder what people think about the Marx's formulation concerning the role\relationship of\between philosophy and proletariat? According to Lowy (related chapters in the reading list), in this writing, the formulation can be seen the proofs of the fact that Marx did not still break his ties with young-Hegels. Is this a sensible approach?

One of the arguments of Lowy based on the quotation that "For revolutions requires passive element, a material base. Theory is fulfilled in a people only insofar as it is the fulfillment of the needs of that people". Can this and similar passages like "The head of this emancipation is philosophy its heart the proletariat"
be understood in a way that Marx,in this essay, prioritize philosophy over proletariat (or he sees proletariat as a passive base). Can there be another interpretation?

Al Campbell said...

OK, I am way behind in posting. So I will post some things for a few days on Hegel's Philosophy of Right, then move on. The points are mostly general to Marx and all his work, they just happen to be here. I have lots of things to mostly note here, and we can discuss at the summer meeting. But I also want to respond to some comments (very briefly) of J.W. and Kirsten.
Anyway, today I will post two notes. One just says to think about and watch for how Marx uses FREEDOM AND NECESSITY, the other to think about and watch for what he says about THE STATE AND PRIVATE PROPERTY.

N1: FREEDOM AND NECESSITY. To flag one issue that ones sees various places in this reading (as one example among MANY, see p 64), the relation of freedom and necessity for Marx. Marx uses each word a particular way, somewhat different from what the words first suggest to us (though certainly not entirely different!), that one only really gets from reading a lot of Marx. So we can talk about how he uses the words in the reading we do. But I will throw out that I see Marx over and over talking about freedom (or more specifically, a process of expanding freedom) as the goal of human existence, for an individual and for the species. Humans are limited by nature, by our biology, and by our social structures, they all put limits on our freedom as Marx would call it, and he sees human development as a continual process of relaxing all these limitations on our freedom. So there are biological necessities, and there are present social necessities, and as just said they serve to limit the expansion of freedom, so I see that as relatively straightforward. But consider the following. Marx definitely believes that to more fully develop our human potential (again, as an individual and as a species), we need recognize our species-nature. That means we will collectively decide on all issues that impact our lives. Then from the viewpoint of an individual, isn't that subjecting one’s individual freedom to this necessity (for optimal human development) of collective decision making? Isn’t that contradictory? – to optimally develop one’s freedom one needs subordinate one’s individual freedom to the necessity of collective decision making of events impacting your existence? The suggestion I am making here is to try and see what Marx says about this as we read his stuff, be on the lookout for how he uses the ideas of human freedom and necessity.

N2. THE STATE AND PRIVATE PROPERTY. Overall we see in this article that Marx argues that the state (class based, that is, as an instrument of enforcing class interests by force, not the residual function of administering social decisions that should be made democratically/collectively by the social collective) impinges on human freedom. He also argues the origin of the state is closely linked to the rise of private property. Now we all know just from hearing about it that Marx’s goal is the “withering away of the state” (again, not its collective book keeping and accounting functions, but its nature as an instrument of class rule). So what does that say about private property? All property, like my toothbrush? While there is a standard response to that (which I have always given), the really interesting Marxist scholar Bertell Olman has something different to say in xxxxxxxxxxxx. I am pretty sure we can get Bertell to come give a talk on this to us in the continuation of this group at subsequent winter or summer schools (to be discussed later). The point here is to again be on the lookout for what Marx has to say about private property. This is also a living debate in China and in Venezuela, and at a different level in Cuba, so it's a very living revolutionary question today, and therefore particularly important to see what Marx had to say on it (then of course we can agree or disagree with Marx).