Hegel and anarchist communism.

Author:Jun, Nathan
Position:Critical essay


The most fundamental questions of political philosophy are those which concern the nature and scope of state authority; for example: What is the State and how does it come into being? Does the State possess a 'right' to rule which implies a correlative 'obligation' to obey? If so, how, and to what extent? The aim of this paper is to explore Hegel's views on these and other questions pertaining to the State and its authority--questions of obvious importance to Hegel given the sheer volume of exacting and comprehensive analysis he devotes to them. The difficulty, of course, comes in interpreting Hegel's answers to these questions, which is a famously daunting task.

Among modern philosophers, Hegel is arguably one of the most resistant to synopsis and circumscription. This explains the proliferation of rival and mutually exclusive interpretations of Hegel's political philosophy following his death in 1831. (1) As Shlomo Avineri points out, '[A]lmost every shade of political philosophy has had protagonists claiming to state its case in what they considered to be a legitimate interpretation or derivative of Hegelianism.' (2) An early example of this phenomenon is the conflict between the so-called 'Left' (or 'Young') Hegelians and the 'Right' (or 'Old') Hegelians in the 1840s. Whereas the latter group generally regarded Hegel as an orthodox Christian and a loyal Prussian patriot, the former tended to view him as a bourgeois reactionary. (3)

Modern and contemporary discussions of Hegel's theory are in many respects mere continuations of the earlier conflict mentioned above. In the middle of the twentieth century, for example, some commentators, following the Right Hegelians, viewed Hegel as a monarchist, authoritarian, and/or crypto-fascist who believed, among other things, that Prussia in the 1830s was the actualisation of the Ideal State. (4) More recent commentators, following Left Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer, have tended to see Hegel as a 'philosopher of freedom' whose system, if not altogether radical in its own right, nonetheless laid the groundwork for the radical philosophical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (5)

Perhaps such disagreements are simply a consequence of the 'difficulty' of interpreting Hegel. But there are other possibilities as well. It is possible, for example, to interpret Hegel as having developed a series of distinct and (more or less) incongruous theories of the State rather than a single, uniform theory. Hegel's mature political philosophy is developed almost entirely in his later writings, most notably --and in some cases exclusively--in the Philosophy of Right, and it is possible that these later writings diverge significantly from some or all of the ideas outlined in earlier works, such as the Phenomenology of Spirit. Another possibility is that Hegel intended to develop a single, uniform theory of the State--such that all the ideas contained in his earlier works are, by his own lights at least, consistent with those of later works--but failed because the theory is somehow internally inconsistent or self-contradictory.

In my view there is little doubt that Hegel himself viewed the later writings as an extension of or elaboration upon the earlier writings. Nevertheless, as I shall argue, it is possible to distinguish between two more or less distinct theories of the State in Hegel. The first, and better known, is developed in the Philosophy of Right, wherein Hegel endorses the notion of a coercive, centralised, and hierarchical 'Ideal State'. This is precisely the theory which certain radical Hegelians of the nineteenth century, like Marx and Bakunin, viewed with such deep suspicion. (I will examine some of Marx's and Bakunin's criticisms below.) The second, which has generally received less attention, appears in the Phenomenology and other early writings. (6) In this paper, I argue that (a) the problematic developed in the final chapters of the Phenomenology is not solved by Hegel's later theory of the State; and (b) the Phenomenology provides a philosophical context for the anarchist communist vision of post-Revolutionary society articulated by Bakunin (i.e., a stateless, classless society in which property is owned and managed collectively). My goal is not to claim that Hegel himself was an anarchist communist--a deeply problematic assertion that is belied by the philosophical and historical evidence. Rather, and more modestly, I want to show that there are elements of creative tension within his political theory which allow us to rethink the Phenomenology in important ways--specifically, as a mode of understanding Bakunin's anarchist model of full communism.


The relationship of Hegel's thought to that of Marx and other radical Hegelians is famously complicated. (7) As Burns and Fraser note, 'There is an ambivalence about Marx's attitude to Hegel which is present throughout Marx's life and which can be clearly discerned in even his early writings.' (8) Because any attempt to disentangle this relationship, however cursory, would far exceed the aim and scope of this paper, I will present a few of Marx's and Bakunin's critiques in an abbreviated and general form.

Hegel construes the history of Spirit (the whole or totality of human consciousness) as a series of dialectic stages or moments, each of which is marked by a distinctive conflict between the positive content (thesis) of Spirit's previous moments and its coming to see itself as alienated from, or in contradiction with, that content (antithesis). Spirit's reflective recognition of the collision of thesis and antithesis results in a synthetic reconciliation (aufheben) which comes to be contradicted in turn. The process continues until we reach a point of maximal consistency. In political life, this point is achieved through the institution of the rational state, which resolves the contradictions inherent in the ethical life of civil (or bourgeois) society--especially those stemming from familial and class relations--and in this sense is necessary for the expression and sustenance of freedom. The state, as 'the actuality of concrete freedom', negotiates the 'battlefield of private interest'.

In his Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State (1843) and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), Marx formulates a critique of those sections of the Philosophy of Right and the Phenomenology which pertain to the State. (9) In his view, Hegel needlessly mystifies the dialectic by inverting the relationship between 'actual existents' or 'real subjects' and 'predicates of universal determination'. (10) In other words, he treats individual subjects and institutions, including the state, as 'vehicles' or 'manifestations of the "mystical Idea"', and not the other way around. (11) Moreover, although Hegel recognises the process of human 'self-creation' whereby human beings construct themselves through labour within 'forms of estrangement', the labour in question is only 'abstract, mental labour' that produces mere 'entities of thought'. (12) Thus, although Hegel agrees with Marx that civil society is contradictory, 'estranged from man' and 'alien to a truly human life', the recognition of this estrangement and alienation only comes about for him in 'abstract, philosophical thought'. (13) For Marx, of course, it is material labour rather than the movement of Spirit that is fundamental in explaining history. And this critique, which is arguably the most central, is not unique to Marx. Bakunin, too, was a thoroughgoing materialist who vociferously insists that 'facts come before ideas ... [that] the ideal, as Proudhon said, is but a flower, the roots of which lie in the material conditions of existence ... [and that] the whole history of humanity. is but the reflection of its economic history.' (14)

It should be noted that these critiques are specifically directed against the whole of Hegel's idealism and not just his political philosophy. But my purpose here is not to defend idealism, since, on the contrary, I accept Marx's materialism and endorse his critiques as general objections to Hegel's ontology. (15) Rather, my aim is to argue that the Phenomenology offers a way of philosophically understanding and justifying the stateless and classless society which Bakunin and other anarchist communists envisage. The fact that this groundwork is laid along idealist rather than materialist lines is, I contend, largely irrelevant to my thesis. We ought to focus, therefore, on critiques of Hegel's theory which proceed from premises internal to it. One such critique is that the state itself, and not just bourgeois civil society, is a form of estrangement, rather than a vehicle through which to overcome estrangement. This can be understood in two ways: first, that the state fails to fulfill, or even counteracts, the role Hegel imparts to it; and second, that the state is unnecessary to fulfilling this role. Putting aside the fact that, for Marx and Bakunin, political structures originate in civil society and civil society originates in the economic relations of production, both agree with Hegel that civil society is contradictory. Yet the state is not without its own contradictions. As Bakunin notes:

The metaphysicians and the learned jurists tell us that the State is a public affair: it represents the collective well-being and the rights of all as opposed to the disintegrating action of the egoistic interests and passions of the individual ... But if the metaphysicians affirm that men, especially those who believe in the immortality of the soul, stand outside of the society of free beings, we inevitably arrive at the conclusion that men can unite in a society only at the cost of their own liberty, their natural independence, and by sacrificing first their personal and then their local interests ... Thus the State appears as an inevitable negation and annihilation of all liberty, and of all individual and...

To continue reading