Hegel certainly provided plenty of material for his right-wing followers, especially concerning the state:

The state consists in the march of God in the world, and its basis is the power of reason actualizing itself as will. In considering the Idea of the state, we must not have any particular states or particular institutions in mind; instead, we should consider the Idea, this actual God, in its own right [für sich]. Any state, even if we pronounce it bad in the light of our own principles, and even if we discover this or that defect in it, invariably has the essential moments of its existence [Existenz] within itself (provided it is one of the more advanced states of our time). (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p. 279)

Needless to say, the caveat is crucial for this dreadfully Euro-elitist moment in Hegel’s text. Then again, to give Hegel credit, he does identify the fundamental alienation at the heart of civil society (which we now like to call the ‘public sphere’), even if he fearfully and desperately offers lame ways to overcome it.

Our friend, GWF, has a knack of turning out some juicy observations. Take this one from The Philosophy of Right (319), on freedom of the press:

To define freedom of the press as freedom to say and write whatever one pleases is equivalent to declaring that freedom in general means freedom to do whatever one pleases. – Such talk is the product of completely uneducated, crude, and superficial thinking [Vorstellens].

As part of my research concerning the alienated nature of the public sphere (which is normally assumed to be the domain of ‘democratic freedom’), I have been reading Hegel’s The Philosophy of Right. As I do so, I keep coming across all manner of other enlightened observations. For instance, on women:

Man therefore has his actual substantial life in the state, in learning, etc., and otherwise in work and struggle with the external world and with himself, so that it is only through his division that he fights his way to self-sufficient unity with himself … Woman, however, has her substantial vocation in the family, and her ethical disposition consists in this piety (§ 166).

In other words:

Women may well be educated, but they are not made for the higher sciences, for philosophy and certain artistic productions which require a universal element. Women may have insights, taste, and delicacy, but they do not possess the ideal … When women are in charge of government, the state is in danger, for their actions are based not on the demands of universality but on contingent inclination and opinion (§ 166).

As for barbarians:

The barbarian is lazy and differs from the educated man in his dull and solitary brooding, for practical education consists precisely in the need and habit of being occupied (§ 198).

Barbarians are governed by drives, customs and feelings, but they have no consciousness of these (§ 211).

That is, ‘uncivilised’ people simply cannot act rationally. I hear that still today in some parts, concerning Greenlanders or Australian Aborigines.

For the enlightened Hegel, barbarians and indeed women are much like the planets:

The sun and the planets also have their laws, but they are unaware of them (§ 211).

Too often do we neglect the fact that Hegel was German through and through. Every now and then it shows through with one of those sentences that brings you up short. In the midst of his long and rather unoriginal ramble on the question of evil, he writes:

For to err is human and who has not been mistaken about this or that circumstance, about whether there was cabbage or sauerkraut with yesterday’s lunch, and about countless matters of greater and lesser importance? (Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 140(e))

The other day I suddenly realised that this is the first time in four years that I have been home for a full spring and summer. I’m thoroughly enjoying it: the days have that almost indescribable feel of the first heat of summer; the beaches are some of the best in the world in an unpretentious working town; swimming every day in the ocean; and reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s critique. What more could you possibly want? There’s no other place quite like it.

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Some more pictures from our hike yesterday on a section of the Great North Walk – the last part that runs along some of the beaches around here.

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‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.

‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.

‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.

‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.

I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.

We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.

Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.

So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?

Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.

A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.

Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.

So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.

Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process.[1] It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.

In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.

Part of the ongoing debate in Western bourgeois states is the role and status of the public sphere. All the recent commentators I have been able to check attempt to widen the public sphere by including those that have been excluded in some fashion. Most recently this involves religion. The problem is that the public sphere is built on what Tim dubbed the other day as the ‘myth of secular inclusion’. That is, it’s an exclusive universal, gate-keeping who counts as part of that universal. It is simply unable to include all. Ultimately, the identification of this problem goes back to Hegel, who identified the basic alienation of the bourgeois state in the rupture between the state and civil society (the realm of social, economic, religious activity, etc). So if the public sphere is constituted by civil society, then it is built on a structural alienation. The zone that is supposed to foster debate, ‘freedom’ of the press, new thoughts and political directions, even ‘democracy’, is actually a warped and twisted space. All of which shows up in the myth of secular exclusion.

As a result, I have been fascinated by what Tien Chenshan calls ‘focus-field’ in Chinese communism, in which civil society or the public sphere is rather meaningless. I wonder whether this limited description by Edgar Snow captures some of this, when he writes of  the Red government of northwest China in the 1930s:

The structure of representative government was built up from the village soviet, as the smallest unit: above it were the district soviet, the county soviet, the provincial and central soviets. Each village elected its delegates to the higher soviets clear up to the delegates elected for the Soviet Congress. Suffrage was universal over the age of sixteen, but it was not equal [favouring tenant peasants, handicraft worker, and rural workers].

Various committees were established under each of the district soviets. An all-powerful committee, usually elected in a mass meeting shortly after the occupation of a district by the Red Army, and preceded by an intensified propaganda campaign, was the revolutionary committee. It called for elections or re-elections, and closely cooperated with the Communist Party. Under the district soviet, and appointed by it, were committees for education, cooperatives, military training, political training, land, public health, partisan training, revolutionary defense, enlargement of the Red Army, agrarian mutual aid, Red Army land tilling, and others. Such committees were found in every branch organ of the soviets, right up to the Central Government, where policies were coordinated and state decisions made.

Organization did not stop with the government itself. The Communist Party had an extensive membership among farmers and workers, in the towns and villages. In addition there were the Young Communists … organization for women … adult farmers … partisan brigades … The work of all these organizations was coordinated by the Central Soviet Government, the Communist Party, and the Red Army. Here we need not enter into statistical detail to explain the organic connections of these groups, but it can be said in general that they were all skilfully interwoven, each directly under the guidance of some Communist, though decisions of organization, membership, and work seemed to be carried out in a democratic way by the peasants themselves.