Hegel Is Still an Important Thinker for the Left

In the last century, liberals claimed that Hegel had inspired fascism, and socialists accused him of having held back Marxist theory. Today the German idealist has drifted into obscurity. A new book makes the case for his contemporary relevance.

Colored etching of G. W. F. Hegel in his office. (Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis via Getty Images)

The reputation of the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel has gone through a series of positive and negative reevaluations since his death almost two centuries ago. In his heyday, Hegel was both the chief philosopher of the Prussian state and an inspiration for the nascent German left. Left-Hegelians, as the antiauthoritarian faction inspired by the idealists came to be known, viewed Hegel’s philosophy as an attack on the principles which right-Hegelians believed it celebrated: the market, the state, and God. By the time Karl Marx had begun to develop his Hegel-inspired political economy, he could observe that the great German philosopher had been cast away by posterity and treated like a “dead dog.”

World War II poured cold water on the second wave of Hegel enthusiasm, which began in the late nineteenth century. On both the Left and the Right, critics charged the author of the Phenomenology of Spirit with totalitarianism and bemoaned what they saw as his rosy-eyed belief in progress, a commitment viewed as indefensible after the horrors inflicted by two great wars.

But Hegel continued to exercise an influence on intellectuals who remained committed to diverse visions of progress. On the Left, György Lukács defended a humanist variant of Hegelianism whilst on the Right, Giovanni Gentile, the house philosopher of Italian fascism, professed his own allegiance to idealism, which he rebranded as “actualism” — a creed which sought to remodel Italian society through a volkish “geist” expressed within a palingenetic totalitarian state. The Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève provided perhaps the most ambitious and prescient synthesis, reimagining Hegel as a prophet of liberal pan-European post-national federalism.

Within the political and intellectual mainstream, however, interest in Hegel became an odd hobby. Very few people, it seemed, were at all concerned with fundamental questions about whether progress was real or the state the most rational form of social organization. Therefore, the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty, writing in our era of supposed political resolution, could triumphantly quip that left- and right-wing Hegelians had “eventually sorted out their differences at a six-month-long seminar called the Battle of Stalingrad.”

Hegel Reassessed

Yet, for many, the funeral bell for Hegel was rung too soon. Among these thinkers is the Cambridge professor of the history of political thought Richard Bourke. Bourke’s new book, Hegel’s World Revolutions (2023), sets out to push back against what he calls the “postwar anti-Hegel insurgency.” The combatants on the enemy side are, according to Bourke, postmodernism, a dominant strand of Anglo-American philosophy, which came to be known as “analytic,” and a set of anachronistic Cold War liberal theorists concerned with retrospectively diagnosing past thought as “totalitarian.”

Bourke picks up this revisionist approach in his study of Hegel, attacking preconceived notions about the German philosopher’s “utopianism” and “authoritarianism.” Bourke himself has his intellectual origins in what is sometimes referred to as the Cambridge School of historical contextualism. This approach, which insists on reading the history of political thought as responses to local, rather than timeless problems, has a tendency toward parochialism, which Bourke rejects as “antiquarianism.” Instead, he makes a limited case for Hegelianism’s contemporary political relevance.

Hegel’s World Revolutions charts the pre–nineteenth century revolutions Hegel saw as vital to progress and modernity, including the replacement of European paganism with Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, the fall of feudalism, the destruction of the Holy Roman Empire, the rise of Enlightenment thought, and the French Revolution. Yet, Bourke also studies the late nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century paradigm shifts in politics and scholarship that have attached Hegel’s reputation to both failed totalitarian projects and modernity itself.

The Anti-Hegel Insurgency

Bourke is primarily interested in deconstructing mid-twentieth-century interpretations of Hegel, such as Karl Popper’s “classical liberal” approach in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), which construed Hegelianism as protototalitarian. Hegel’s World Revolutions challenges these paranoid Cold War readings, arguing that its subject was a capacious humanist interested in human emancipation, the growth of democracy, constitutionalism, civil society, and historical progress. For Bourke, the rejection of Hegel has coincided with broader hostility to the achievements of modernity and a tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater. “Hard-won values are cast aside as instruments of coercion” and “correspondingly, universalism is condemned and rights disparaged.”

Bourke charges a cast of European philosophers with influencing and leading the “postwar anti-Hegel insurgency.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault are the main culprits. For Bourke, the last three of these figures wished to recast human emancipation in individual terms as personal self-actualization — escaping a “disenchanted” present without engaging in what Hegel would have called the “labor of the negative.”

In turn, Nietzsche and the Nazi philosopher Heidegger embraced a nostalgic return to the brutal ancient aristocratic slave civilizations of Greece and Rome. For Bourke, the most vital part of Hegel’s thought is the rejection of both our ability to turn back the clock or wish away the legacy of what has already happened. Instead, politics and philosophy must look unapologetically forward and find what Hegel described in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821) as the “rose in the cross of the present.”

Revolutions in Actuality

What makes Hegel so valuable as a thinker for both the Left and the Right is his rejection of nostalgia and ahistorical utopianism and his embrace of what he referred to as “actuality” or Wirklichkeit. For Hegel’s critics, this realism — summed up in the infamous phrase “what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational” found in Hegel’s preface to Elements of the Philosophy of Right — was one of the main problems with the idealist’s thought. These worries were not motivated by simple naïve romanticism. They expressed serious concerns about the suffering ignored by dogged belief in progress. How, for instance, could the unrelenting cruelty of the last century, not to mention the wars that plague the world in the present, be seen as rational?

Hegel, of course, was not in any way ignorant of the suffering endemic to history, which he referred to as a “slaughter bench.” But this cold realism inspired the most radical critique of the modernity it sought to understand. Marx and his followers would build on this double rejection, critiquing both nostalgic and utopian forms of socialism throughout the Communist Manifesto (1848) while advancing a politics concerned with mobilizing the political classes existing at present and understanding the forces they could marshal to transform the world.

Idealistic Beginnings

Hegel grew up in a fragmented and disparate Germany, situated in a European continent that was in the midst of a profound transition between feudalism and capitalism, the Enlightenment and the Romantic epoch. He was born in 1770, in the southern German Duchy of Württemberg, to a family of “meritocratic” middle-class civil servants or Bildungsbürgertum. These educated commoners, in a comparatively underdeveloped Central Europe, were the most modern and forward-looking segment of society before the rise of Marx’s industrial proletariat.

In his mature work, especially Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel valorizes this class for its break with the aristocratic ideals. Bourke makes the point that this corrosion of the old order was unleashed by the rise of a more personal model of human subjectivity. This changed the way that people thought about work, no longer as a profession into which one was born, but as something chosen. The leaders of this new world ruled by human freedom were, according to Bourke “a university-trained bureaucratic elite” that became central to the functioning of the modern state, which was run according to norms of “public duty” rather than “arbitrary authority.” For Hegel, a succession of events, over thousands of years, had allowed subjectivity and its power to pass from the control of one (monarchy), to the few (aristocracy), and now to the many (democracy).

Key to this growth of subjectivity was the rise of Protestant Christianity in Europe. Hegel’s family sent him to a strict orthodox Lutheran seminary, the Tübinger Stift. There, alongside other luminaries of German idealism like the poet Friedrich Hölderlin and the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, he would rail against, while also imbibing, the stifling dogma of the church. Bourke, in a short essay for the New Statesman, has noted that “[Hegel] soon came under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, and before long he was extending the implications of their thought . . . he rejected the idea of a transcendent deity along with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.”

Indeed, Hegel would prefigure secularizing German thinkers, such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Marx, by suggesting that God and religion were, ultimately, expressions of contingent human value. Thus, Protestantism, despite its hypocrisies and failures, revealed a deeper human desire for agency. According to Bourke, Hegel saw the Lutheran reformation as a necessary, unfinished, revolution that “introduced a whole new temporal horizon” through the liberation of the individual from arbitrary church authority. This liberation would presage the opening up of other potential escapes from arbitrary social, political, and economic power.

The Unfinished Christian Revolution

Bourke spends a large part of Hegel’s World Revolutions focusing on Hegel’s comparatively understudied attitudes to the transitions between paganism and Christianity and Catholicism and Protestantism in his early work. Bourke contends that for Hegel both transitions were necessary, but not sufficient, world-historical revolutions.

Despite its emancipatory potential, Hegel, according to Bourke, would interpret Christianity as a failed, or unfinished, revolution in human consciousness that had descended into corruption: “Jesus had been an advocate for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Yet, as the Christian transformation proceeded, each of these aspirations was undone. The freedom of moral self-legislation gave way to the jurisdiction of confessors and prelates.”

Bourke, like many previous interpreters, suggests that, after his early work in theology, Hegel turned to history and human moral development to try to diagnose Christianity’s failure, drawing deeply on his philosophical predecessor Immanuel Kant. Both men believed, according to Bourke, that Christianity “ended in failure.” However, Hegel differed from Kant in that he thought that a historical, and not purely philosophical, explanation was needed for this inadequacy.

Future Revolutions?

Bourke informs us that: “The history of political thought is diagnostic rather than prescriptive. It helps us understand political structures as products of earlier constellations of forces.” Consequently, Hegel’s embrace of “actuality” manifested itself as a very early, albeit unique, analysis of the social structures and institutions that had developed within the nineteenth century: the state, civil society, and a modern market economy. Hegel, in Bourke’s hands, becomes a practitioner of a kind of descriptive sociology. This approach effectively salts the earth against hostile and anachronistic readings, while leaving us with a thinker exorcised of the kind of metaphysical extravagance and crypto-theology with which he is usually associated.

Within these narrow historicist constraints, Bourke still manages to generate insights, but the lessons he offers are not new. Hegel, limited by his context, had a comparably flat and conservative conception of politics and society. At its core was the family unit, commercial guilds, larger corporate bodies, and the constitutional state headed by a monarch. There is little in this historical “diagnostic” Hegel that speaks to the rise, and consequent fall, of mass class politics in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Europe. The main reason for this is the limitations of the outlook of Hegel himself, who wrote as modern classes were coming into existence, but before they had created institutions to protect their interests.

Of course, Hegel takes a stab at thinking about these issues. At a glance, the organizations that Hegel calls corporations, which are guild-like institutions for workers, could be seen as protounions, and the Polizei, responsible for the administration of municipal space and the care of the poor, are clearly precursors to the modern welfare state.

But the radical movements that brought these two institutions into prominence were not even conceived of by Hegel as worthy objects of analysis. The closest he came to a discussion of the sections of society left behind by modernity were in a few remarks about what he calls the “rabble.” Instead, after the failure of the rationalistic and utopian French Revolution, Hegel saw Northern European Protestant constitutional monarchies and republics like Britain, the Nordics, Germany, and the Netherlands as capable of achieving human liberation through more concrete and considered “practical” means. “The Revolution had ended in failure. The way forward, Hegel concluded, lay in Protestant Europe.”

Hegel’s World Revolutions suggests not only that we view Hegel as a “practical” philosopher, but also as someone driven by this pragmatism toward a nascent version of social democracy. Indeed, Bourke notes that “[some] saw his influence behind the rise of the social democratic movement under the leadership of Ferdinand Lassalle.” For Bourke, Hegel’s ultimate importance seems to reside in his ability to recognize that a “system of needs, emerg[ing] in modern civil society, proved compatible with constitutional liberty. Since necessity and freedom were not antithetical in Hegel, they could be dialectically reconciled.” Put more prosaically, Hegel recognized that human freedom required collective institutions in order to be protected and that these need not be thought of as impediments to self-actualization.

At some level of abstraction, these lofty ideals overlap with the dominant ideology across almost all of Europe, even in countries ruled by conservatives. But closer inspection gives us reason to doubt the value of thinking at this level of practical detachment. What made the redistribution ushered in by social democracy possible was the mass organization of workers, who mobilized through distinctly modern institutions: the political party, the trade union, and the free press. A serious discussion of these pillars is absent in Hegel — a sign, perhaps, that despite the depth of his insights, he remains a distinctly premodern thinker.