Hegel, Enlightenment, and Revolution

Hegel’s dialectical analysis of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution provides the groundwork for Marx’s theory of historical materialism.
  • Doug Enaa Greene and Harrison Fluss | 
  • July 26, 2020

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For his part Hegel hailed the French Revolution as a “world-historical” event precisely because of its engagement on behalf of man, regardless of religion or nation. Needless to say, in their time Marx and Engels fully shared this view.
— Arno Mayer, The Furies

The young Hegel likewise passionately embraced the ideals of the Revolution. The tendency of both Hegel and Hölderlin to link the Revolution “with moral and spiritual renewal,” and a future era of beauty and freedom, derived partly from their simultaneous immersion during the early 1790s in Spinozism and the texts of the great German Spinoza controversy of the 1780s.
—Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas

Why Hegel?

G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) presents us with one of the greatest critical overviews of the Enlightenment. The German philosopher Hegel wrote his magnum opus in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the legend goes that the ink on the Phenomenology manuscript was still wet when Hegel fled with it during the Battle of Jena (1806). Even amid the French occupation of Germany, Hegel saw Napoleon as the “world-spirit” on horseback and supported France’s revolutionary export of liberal institutions throughout Europe.1On October 13, 1806, Hegel wrote, “I saw the Emperor — this world-soul — riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.” Hegel: The Letters, trans. Clark Butler and Christiane Seiler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 114.

Jonathan Israel also notes Hegel’s interest in the French Revolution during the 1790s: “The ‘revolution of the mind, in short,’ could be an outwardly oriented revolution transforming law, politics, institutions, and morality, hence fomenting a new kind of individual as a consequence of political revolution and legal revolution, something the young Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin were all deeply preoccupied with through the 1790s.” Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, 755–56.
By Spirit, Hegel means the development of human activity, or the historical process of emancipation, and Hegel wrote the Phenomenology as a philosophical odyssey of human freedom. Unfortunately, while devoting some space to discuss Hegel’s political views, Jonathan Israel fails to address the Phenomenology’s engagement with the Enlightenment project, as well its implications for the French Revolution and beyond.

Hegel’s philosophy has the reputation of being notoriously difficult to understand, and the passages in the Phenomenology dealing with Enlightenment can be arduous. We need, however, to carefully explain Hegel’s analysis, since it was a crucial theoretical source for Marx’s own understanding of the Enlightenment. Like Marx, Hegel’s criticisms were never meant to repudiate the Enlightenment legacy. As a pioneer of dialectical thinking, Hegel views the European Enlightenment as a contradictory phenomenon with both positive and negative aspects. While he rejects the atomizing effects of liberalism, he recognizes that the positive contributions of the Enlightenment are here to stay. These include universal freedoms, the rule of law, the abolition of aristocratic privileges, and the development of the productive forces. On the whole, the achievements of the French Revolution were a permanent gain for humankind;2As Domenico Losurdo argues, Hegel defends the legitimacy of the modern world against romantic idealizations of the past. This includes a defense of modern industry as opposed to celebrations of ancient frugality and austerity. For a discussion of Hegel’s critique of Rousseau in favor of expanding production to satisfy human needs, see Domenico Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004),187. Thus, for Hegel, the Enlightenment was a necessary moment in world history, without which there would be no modern freedoms.

In the Shadow of the French Revolution

As Young Hegelians like Bruno Bauer pointed out, Hegel’s Phenomenology never really left the soil of the French Revolution.3The conservative critic Eric Voegelin understands Hegel’s philosophy as a culmination of revolutionary enthusiasm: “Hegel’s philosophy is not the Socratic practice of dying — it is the equivalent of death on the battlefield of the revolution.” Eric Voegelin, Published Essays, 1966–1985 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 221. See Bruno Bauer, The Trumpet of the Last Judgement against Hegel the Atheist and Antichrist: An Ultimatum (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), 133–41. The book reads like a political manifesto, filled with revolutionary enthusiasm, if not hidden rage against German reaction. When Marx read the Phenomenology in 1844, he reconstructed Hegel’s philosophical expressions in a more mundane, that is, materialist, form.4Marx stressed the importance of Hegel’s Phenomenology as follows: “There lie concealed in it all the elements of criticism, already prepared and elaborated in a manner often rising far above the Hegelian standpoint.” “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in MECW, vol. 3, 332. What Hegel called the conflict between Enlightenment and Faith was the ideological mask worn by the bourgeois revolutions. While Hegel expresses these conflicts in an idealistic vein, as a battle between different shapes of human spirit, these seemingly spectral battles have a real grounding in material class forces. But to give Hegel his due, we cannot ignore that material contradictions are fought out in the realm of consciousness, or in the realms of political and cultural superstructure.5As Marx famously said, “It is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” “Preface to a Contribution of a Critique of Political Economy,” in MECW, vol. 29, 263. Hegel’s commentary is idealistic insofar as the superstructural elements take priority. Therefore, our task as materialists is to put Hegel on his feet, or to transition from Hegel’s idealism to historical materialism.6“Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet.” Friedrich Engels, “Anti-Dühring,” in MECW, vol. 25, 89. This means moving from the Phenomenology’s idealist poetry toward the materialist prose of class struggle. In other words, in working through Hegel, we move closer to Marx.

As a precursor to historical materialism, Hegel’s philosophy demonstrates that the triumph of bourgeois Enlightenment over feudalism was a historic necessity, but not a complete victory for human freedom. Like Honoré de Balzac and Charles Fourier, Hegel was an early critic of the dehumanizing aspects of bourgeois society, calling it a “spiritual animal kingdom.” 7Gillian Rose, Hegel contra Sociology (London: Verso Books, 2009), 187. Georg Lukács, Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 400. What Hegel points to in his chapter “Absolute Freedom and Terror” was the failure of the Jacobins, one of the most radical parties of the French Revolution, to transcend the contradictions of an emerging capitalism. Hegel himself could not find a way out of this Gordian knot and condemned as utopian any revolutionary effort to overcome bourgeois inequality. 8For Hegel’s condemnation of neo-Jacobinism and “abstract” calls for equality during the time of the 1830 July Revolution, see Political Writings, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 264.

With Hegel as their foundation, Marx and Engels continued this analysis of the Enlightenment and the Jacobin terror, showing that the original promises of liberty and equality were incompatible with class society. Since the slogans of the French Revolution were coupled with the realities of capitalism, Enlightenment abstractions became concrete irrationalities. In their abstract expressions, “freedom” became the freedom to exploit labor power, while “equality” became a legal ruse that masked the unequal relationship between half-starving workers and their well-fed bosses. As the French novelist Anatole France once quipped, the laws, with their “majestic equality,” “forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under the bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”9Anatole France, The Red Lily, vol. 1 (New York: John Lane, 1910), 95. In contrast to Hegel, however, Marx and Engels located the agent to overcome bourgeois society in the working class. While the bourgeoisie in confrontation with an insurgent proletariat betrayed its own achievements, favoring military dictatorship over democracy, only the workers could carry forward what was progressive in bourgeois thought and culture. To paraphrase Engels, the proletariat is the heir to the Enlightenment.10“The German working-class movement is the heir to German classical philosophy.” “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy,” in MECW, vol. 26, 398.

At the Tübingen Stift, a theology seminary, the young Hegel and his classmates were obsessed with the French Revolution and its potential to overturn conservative religion and politics. These students were not typical Protestant seminarians training for the cloth; they keenly followed the latest intellectual fashions of French culture, including the writings of Rousseau.11Friedrich Nietzsche understood that behind Hegel’s Protestant theology hid a subversive impulse: “One has only to say the words ‘College of Tübingen’ to grasp what German philosophy is at bottom — a cunning theology. … The Swabians [e.g., Hegel, Schelling and Hölderlin] are the best liars in Germany, they lie innocently.” The Anti-Christ, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 133.

For the young Hegel’s apprenticeship in Enlightenment thought, see H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Development: Towards The Sunlight (1770–1801) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
Before the height of the Terror, Hegel participated in a student Jacobin Club and planted a revolutionary maypole with his fellow classmates Hölderlin and Schelling. Hegel understood how class antagonism and inequality drove the French masses toward revolution. Nonetheless, he was not a Jacobin himself; his sympathies were more aligned with the Girondin. In Hegel’s letters to Schelling in 1794, we see a revulsion at the guillotine and the Robespierrist party.12Harrison Fluss, “Hegel on Bastille Day,” Jacobin, July 16, 2016.

Hegel grasps that all the events and ideas of the French Revolution necessitated one another. According to its preface, the task of the Phenomenology is to show the connection between ideas and their “external necessity,” or how they appear in history.13“The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth. To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowing — that is what I have set myself to do. The inner necessity that knowing should be Science lies in its nature, and only the systematic exposition of philosophy itself provides it. But the external necessity, so far as it is grasped in a general way, setting aside accidental matters of person and motivation, is the same as the inner, or in other words it lies in the shape in which time sets forth the sequential existence of its moments. To show that now is the time for philosophy to be raised to the status of a Science would therefore be the only true justification of any effort that has this aim, for to do so would demonstrate the necessity of the aim, would indeed at the same time be the accomplishing of it.” The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 3–4. The Jacobin phase, as much as he disliked it personally, was an inexorable outcome of the struggle for Enlightenment in France, the Terror being a necessary component of the revolution. Why the French Enlightenment was so violent compared with the German one was, according to Hegel, a result of different religious cultures. The ancien régime’s intolerance elicited an implacable and bloody response, while, thanks to Protestant culture, the German Enlightenment was a relatively peaceful one. But as Hegel implied, this apparent peace and quiet indicated not German culture’s superiority but its backwardness. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of practical reason could not actualize itself in German conditions, while Robespierre’s doctrine of virtue tore down an entire culture of French feudalism. One of Hegel’s most famous students, Heinrich Heine, jabbed that Kant as a philosopher only committed deicide, while Danton and Robespierre as revolutionaries committed regicide.14Heinrich Heine, “The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany,” in The Romantic School and Other Essays, ed. Jost Hermand and Robert C. Holub (New York: Continuum, 1985), 203–4. Marx was just as scathing as Heine about German backwardness: “In politics, the Germans thought what other nations did.”

“A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” in MECW, vol. 3, 181.

Hegel’s Dialectic of Enlightenment

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel begins his analysis of the Enlightenment as a struggle between “Pure Insight” as opposed to “Faith.” Pure Insight represents the forces of abstract criticism; these are the forces of a one-sided reason which have liberated themselves from metaphysics. It is a form of positivist reason that vacillates between two different poles: either it takes the position of empiricism, emphasizing concrete facts over universal laws; or, in taking the position of formalism, it asserts inflexible laws over concrete facts. In other words, either facts do not quite match up with their abstract concepts, or concepts do not adequately capture facts. 15Hegel’s understanding of Enlightenment reason is close to what the historian Peter Gay argues: that Enlightenment is a form of positivist reason which freed itself from the rationalist metaphysics of the 17th century, including the metaphysics of Spinoza. See Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966).

Hegel’s own relationship with Spinoza is complicated. Compared to this narrow version of Enlightenment stuck between empiricism and logical formalism, Hegel thinks Descartes and Spinoza are superior philosophers since they assert an identity between thinking and being. Dialectical reason asserts the cupola that thinking is being (or as Spinoza puts it, that the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things). In his early Jena writings, Hegel defends Spinoza as a dialectical thinker against Friedrich Jacobi. Later in his career, however, Hegel criticizes Spinoza as an abstract and formalistic thinker. Israel unfortunately has nothing to say about Hegel’s later criticisms of Spinoza. For a history of Hegel’s development on Spinoza and for a defense of Spinoza as a dialectical thinker, see Harrison Fluss, “The Specter of Spinoza: The Legacy of the Pantheism Controversy in Hegel’s Thought,” Ph.D. diss., Stony Brook University, 2016.

Nonetheless, Hegel claims naive empiricism has its advantages. In The Philosophy of History, he writes that it is “of incalculable importance that the multiform complex of things should be reduced to its simplest conditions, and brought into the form of Universality.”16The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 442. Pure Insight is what Hegel calls the Understanding, which comprises categories that grasp finite things and static relations. In contrast to what Hegel calls dialectical Reason, where truth is the whole, the Understanding can never fully grasp reality in all its concrete existence and development. To be clear, when Hegel criticizes the Understanding, it is not because the Understanding is “rational,” but because it is one-sided, and not rational enough. The Understanding, either as empiricism or logical formalism, cannot grasp the complexity of the whole, or what Hegelian-Marxists like Georg Lukács called totality. 17“It is not the predominance of economic motives in the interpretation of society which is decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science, but rather the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-round, determining domination of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and, in an original manner, transformed into the basis of an entirely new science.” Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 27. Pure Insight also implies a dualistic understanding of social relations, in which people are seen as either isolated private consumers, or as equal citizens before the law with no reference to class. Hence, insofar as this form of Enlightenment cannot overcome its own philosophical contradictions, these epistemological limits have political consequences. As Hegel puts it, this Enlightenment still needs more Enlightenment.18This is a paraphrase of Hegel: “Enlightenment itself, however, which reminds faith of the opposite aspect of its separated moments, is just as little enlightened about itself.” Phenomenology, 344. See also Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 64.

Pure Insight breaks with the scala naturae of the medievals, who saw things as part of a Great Chain of Being, or a hierarchy of set relations with God. In opposition to Pure Insight, but similar to it, the position of Faith holds onto its abstract certainty in God. Faith, however, cannot demonstrate its certainty in the divine rationally. Hegel puts this contradiction between Pure Insight and Faith speculatively: “Pure insight has, therefore, in the first instance, no content of its own, because it is negative being-for-itself; to faith, on the other hand, there belongs a content, but without insight.”19Phenomenology, 324. On the one hand, Pure Insight is a form of rational criticism, but without any stable content of its own; it is, in this way, purely negative. On the other hand, Faith is simple belief, but it lacks any rational justification for its belief in God.

Hegel compares the spread of Enlightenment to a virus, which inadvertently infects the advocates of Faith when they try to oppose Pure Insight with arguments. The more Pure Insight is fought by religion, the more it spreads, until it is too late and the virus has infected the entire culture:

“Rather, being now an invisible and imperceptible Spirit, it [Enlightenment] infiltrates the noble parts through and through and soon has taken complete possession of all the vitals and members of the unconscious idol; then ‘one fine morning it gives its comrade a shove with the elbow, and bang! crash! the idol lies on the floor.’”20Ibid., 332.

In characterizing Enlightenment as shoving superstition down to the floor, Hegel is quoting from Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew. Diderot’s satirical dialogue exhibits the disintegrating consciousness of French culture, in which the noble and pure turns into its vulgar and dirty opposite. The force of Enlightenment criticism reveals that the edifice of feudalism is rotten and tottering, and deserves to perish. Feudal sentimentality and aristocratic mores are outmoded in light of the new relations of bourgeois civil society. To put it bluntly, money is what rules, and virtue is not its own reward. We do not know if it is rewarded up in heaven, but it definitely is not down here on earth.

After all the holy idols are smashed, Enlightenment criticism spares only the critics themselves. The critic confronts the vanity of what Hegel calls the “spiritual animal kingdom” of bourgeois self-interest.21“Genius, talent, special capacities generally, belong to the world of actuality, in so far as this world still contains the aspect of being a spiritual animal kingdom in which individuals, amid confusion and mutual violence, cheat and struggle over the essence of the actual world.” Ibid. Both Hegel and Marx appreciated Diderot as a brilliant exemplar of social criticism and as a dialectician in his own right.22“Marx to Engels. 15 April 1869,” in MECW, vol. 3, 263–64. The social dialectic of Diderot discloses how the civilized grace of French society converts into its hypocritical opposite; that behind the respectable facade of noblesse oblige was so much repressed vanity and greed.

Hegel welcomes the Enlightenment’s liquidation of the past, including aristocratic sentimentalism and the degrading veneration of nobility. There emerges in this dialectic of Enlightenment a positive gain in the development of Spirit. The positive gain is the Enlightenment concept of utility. After Pure Insight defeats Faith, nothing stops Pure Insight from treating the entire world as useful for itself. Everything becomes useful for the individual ego, and even Faith is found to have its uses as well. As it opens up the world to humanity’s use, utility is not all bad for Hegel; in utility “pure insight achieves its realization and has itself for its object, an object which it now no longer repudiates and which, too, no longer has for it the value of a void or the pure beyond.”23Phenomenology, 353. Thus, utility has a positive content. It is not just a simple negation of feudalism. Rather, it is a form of reason that enables humanity to reshape the world according to its material needs.

The Truth of Enlightenment

In translating Hegel materialistically, we can say that the “truth” of Enlightenment is the actuality of bourgeois society. According to Lukács, “Hegel depicts the relations between men in capitalism showing it to be … the most progressive form of human development and the form best adapted to the spirit.”24Young Hegel, 499–500. Under capitalism, at least in this stage of history, human beings can maintain themselves socially while seemingly “pursuing their own selfish interests” in harmony.25Ibid., 500. Neil Davidson points out in various works the profound connections among the Scottish Enlightenment, Hegel, and Marxism, particularly when it comes to the theories of civil society elaborated by Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Unfortunately, we do not have the space to discuss the Scottish Enlightenment at great length, but Davidson highlights its progressive role for radical thought here:

Lukács once wrote of the Enlightenment hope that ‘democratic bourgeois freedom and the supremacy of economics would one day lead to the salvation of all mankind.’ As we know only too well, it did not. I think that the more perceptive of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers — Smith himself, Adam Ferguson, John Millar — were aware of this and that awareness is responsible for their studied ambiguity towards ‘actually existing capitalism’ as it emerged towards the end of the 18th century. To paraphrase William Morris, the thing that they fought for turned out to be not what they meant, and other people have since had to fight for what they meant under another name.

We Cannot Escape History: States and Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 55. Further, Lukács argues that what Hegel means by the usefulness of objects (i.e., their utility) is the idealist expression of what Marx will later call commodity-relations.

A commodity has the dual character of use value and exchange value. On the one hand, use value is how an object concretely satisfies human need. On the other hand, exchange value is the quantitative portion for which a commodity is exchanged. To quote the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel, the commodity “may be produced for exchange on the market place, for the purpose of being sold, rather than for direct consumption by the producers or by wealthy classes.”26 Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Pathfinder Books, 1970), 10.

While Hegel says Pure Insight has found a world useful to itself, it has not understood the “contradictions” of utility or, more specifically, the antithetical nature of the commodity form. What Hegel hints at as dehumanizing — that utility can reduce human beings to useful objects too — is what Marx will call alienation.27For Marx on alienation, see “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in MECW, vol. 3, 274. Since capitalism cannot decouple use value from exchange value, it cannot fully satisfy human need. The reign of utility thus means the reign of bourgeois alienation. To put it crudely and without the Hegelese, under capitalism, profit rules over people. Up to now, capitalism has been the most progressive, yet most alienated, form of human civilization.

In its drive to overcome alienation, Enlightenment transitions toward what Hegel calls Absolute Freedom. The Enlightened self confronts the world outside itself as unreal, and it wants to abolish that world in favor of the self’s own pure freedom. In this transition, the positive content of utility, or human need, is sacrificed for the pure will, which knows nothing but its own reality. This is a disturbing development for Hegel, insofar as Absolute Freedom rids itself of anything concrete or material as an impediment to its will. It is abstract voluntarism acting without concrete knowledge. Yet, insofar as Absolute Freedom in the “fury of its destruction” eradicates all vestiges of feudal culture, it is a bloody but necessary moment in the development of Spirit. This is how Hegel understands the Terror, where Jacobinism is not an aberration of the French Enlightenment, but the unavoidable result in the struggle against feudalism.

Absolute Freedom reveals itself as an uncompromising, unitary will. Historically, Absolute Freedom is equivalent to Rousseau’s General Will. This General Will is suspicious of anyone who opposes it, and so Absolute Freedom becomes terroristic. Here, Hegel isolates the voluntaristic aspects of Rousseau and his Jacobin disciples, who champion political virtue for its own sake, regardless of specific conditions. The Jacobin project was ultimately utopian, insofar as they could not overcome the alienating aspects of bourgeois society by mere political fiat. The attempt to go back to a more pristine Spartan Republic and morality conflicted with the needs of utility. As we will see with Marx, bourgeois interest proved too strong even for the guillotine.

Hegel and the Jacobins

Nevertheless, Hegel does credit Robespierre and Saint-Just with laying the foundations for a new political state with “pure, frightening domination.”28 Hegel and the Human Spirit: A Translation of the Jena Lectures on the Philosophy of Spirit (1805-6) with Commentary, trans. Leo Rauch (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1983), 155. He even compares Robespierre to Theseus as a world-historical hero and identifies his necessary tyranny as godlike.29“Tyranny is overthrown by the people because it is abhorrent, vile, etc — but in actuality it is overthrown only because it is superfluous. The memory of the tyrant is abhorred. Yet in that very fact, he is also this spirit certain of itself — who, like God, acts only in and for himself, and expects only ingratitude from his people. If he were wise, however, he would himself cast off his tyranny when it is superfluous. In this way, however, his divinity is nothing more than the divinity of the animal, the blind necessity, which thus deserves to be abhorred as evil. Robespierre acted in this way — his power left him because necessity had left him, and thus he was overthrown by force. The necessary happens — but every portion of necessity is usually allotted only to individuals. The one is accuser and defender, the other a judge, the third a hangman — but all are necessary.” Ibid., 157. But while the Jacobins pursued a negative agenda of destroying the old culture, they could not create a Republic of Virtue. Terror, or a political will that asserts itself in defiance of material necessity, cannot create anything lasting, but can only pile up corpses. To quote Victor Hugo, “The guillotine is a virgin Amazon: she exterminates; she does not give birth.”30 Ninety-Three (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1874), 118. Hegel acknowledges that the Jacobins served their negative purpose well but could not erect any stable bourgeois institutions, much less overcome the social contradictions of their time. As Robespiere put it in a final speech on 8 Thermidor, “The counterrevolution is in all parts of the political economy.”31Maximilien Robespierre, “Extracts from Speech of 8 Thermidor Year II,” Virtue and Terror, ed. Jean Ducange (London: Verso, 2007), 136. The 19th century of capitalism had finally arrived, using Robespierre as its disposable instrument. Once necessity left Robespierre, it was time for him to exit the historical stage, and he in turn was guillotined.

At this point in the Phenomenology, Spirit acknowledges Absolute Freedom as impotent and unable to effectively transform the world. Horrified by Robespierre’s Terror, Spirit retreats into itself, exchanging the realm of politics for the realm of the mind. Spirit, shocked by its own defeat, crosses the Rhine, and the rowdiness of French freedom turns into humble and law-abiding German morality. The revolution becomes philistine, and the bourgeoisie now contents itself hypocritically with being “pure” in spirit, seemingly free from worldliness. But the more it upholds its transcendental purity, the more it leaves untouched its petit bourgeois interests. Revolutionary politics are forsaken, and Rousseau’s General Will turns into its gentrified version, Kant’s categorical imperative.32During Hegel’s time, Kant’s philosophy was considered by revolutionaries and conservatives alike as a halfway house between Jacobinism and conservatism. Indeed, while Marx and Engels criticized Kant, they typically criticized him from the Left; Engels himself placed Kant in the revolutionary pantheon of precursors to modern socialism: “We German socialists are proud that we trace our descent not only from Saint Simon, Fourier and Owen, but also from Kant, Fichte and Hegel.” “Preface to the First German Edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” in MECW, vol. 24, 459. In acknowledging that Kant’s practical philosophy is a “gentrified” version of Rousseau, we can still see a glimmer of Kant’s own French Enlightenment radicalism. This was particularly apparent to the Abbé Barruel in his Memoirs of Jacobinism, in which Barruel uncannily predicts how a seemingly innocuous university Kantianism paves the way for a revolutionary philosophy of the future. He did not know the name for this philosophy, but it almost seems as if the conspiratorial-minded Jesuit predicted the arrival of young Hegelianism:

[Kant’s] colleagues in the universities do not teach his principles with his coolness; the disciples become violent; the Jacobins smile; and as the system spreads, the offspring of both these teachers unite and form alliances in their tenebrous abodes. We must now turn our attention to a new species of Jacobins who are making an amazing progress in Germany. These are the disciples of Doctor Kant, who, rising from darkness, and from the chaos of his Categories, proceeds to reveal the mysteries of his Cosmopolitanism.

Abbé Barruel, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, part 3, vol. 3: The Antisocial Conspiracy (New York: Isaac Collins, 1799), 318. What Hegel says speculatively, Marx explains materialistically: “Hence the German petty bourgeois recoiled in horror from the practice of this energetic bourgeois liberalism [i.e., Jacobinism] as soon as this practice showed itself.”33“The German Ideology,” in MECW, vol. 5, 195.

According to Hegel, the French differed from the Germans in their philosophical need to reshape their political world; the Jacobin Convention, however flawed it was, tried to subject their world to reason. Whatever criticisms Hegel had of the abstract character of the Rights of Man, he never rejected them as did Burke and Maistre. These rights were abstract, but they were not fictions; they gave expression to real human needs. Hegel even praised French atheism, or those currents of the Radical Enlightenment, as having a “deep and rebellious feeling … opposed [to] the meaningless hypotheses and assumptions of positive religion.”34Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. 3, trans. E. S. Haldane (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955), 384. Indeed, the French philosophers “were rising up against immorality. These courageous men fought, with splendid genius, spirit, warmth, and fire for the great right of mankind to subjective realization, insight, and conviction.”35Ibid., 390.

In contrast to Israel, Hegel could even praise Robespierre, since “with him the principle of virtue was presented as the highest principle, and it may be said that with this man Virtue was an earnest matter.”36Philosophy of History, 480. In his last essay on the English Reform Bill, Hegel acknowledged that the Jacobin constitution of 1793 was the most democratic of the times, even if it was impossible to implement.37Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, 87. Hence his judgment of French philosophy and the French Revolution is not moralistic but dialectical. He does not condemn the Jacobins as mere authoritarians, but sees them as a necessary stage in Enlightenment. Without the Jacobins, the gains of the Enlightenment — what is progressive in bourgeois culture — would have succumbed to throne and altar. It is this critical appreciation of the Enlightenment and its Jacobin phase that Marx and Engels start with.

Part IV of this series on the Enlightenment will appear next Sunday.


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Doug Enaa Greene

Doug Enaa Greene

Doug is an independent communist historian, who is the author of Communist Insurgent: Blanqui's Politics of Revolution and a forthcoming biography of DSA founder Michael Harrington.
Harrison Fluss

Harrison Fluss

Harrison is a philosophy professor who lives in Manhattan



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