Author’s Note: This article is an edited version of a January, 2019 talk to Marxist-Humanist Initiative, on Chapter 1 of Raya Dunayevskaya’s 1973 book, Philosophy and Revolution.
If you had trouble with chapter 1 of Philosophy and Revolution, you’re not alone. When I first tried to read it, back in the mid-1980s, I found it next to impossible. I understood almost nothing. There were dozens of undefined terms that I didn’t know, and lots of synonyms that I didn’t realize were synonyms, and a lot of incompletely explained references and responses to what others have written about the nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel … and so on. I was reading the chapter as part of a study group, and even though one person in the group had a much better grasp of the material, we would typically get through only one or two or three paragraphs of the chapter per session. If I recall correctly, we didn’t manage to complete the chapter.
And I still find it hard. Re-reading the chapter for this presentation, I was struck by several paragraphs that seemed to veer wildly—where, suddenly, in the middle of the paragraph, it starts to discuss something that I can’t see is connected to the first part of the paragraph. And there’s still a lot of background context relevant to what Dunayevskaya is arguing––prior interpretations of Hegel by Marxists and non-Marxist philosophers, and prior philosophers whose ideas Hegel was engaging––and that I’m insufficiently aware of.
But I find it much less hard than I did originally. Even something as soft as water can wear down hard rock if it drips and drips and keeps dripping. Little by little.
The Specific Dialectic Involved in Transforming Reality
Part One of Philosophy and Revolution is entitled “Why Hegel? Why Now?” Dunayevskaya’s answer to these questions isn’t something as simple and general as “dialectics is important, and Hegel’s dialectic is the source of all dialectic, including Marx’s.” Instead of focusing on dialectics in general or Hegel in general, she ceaselessly hammers on one particular nail: the dialectic of the absolute. What she thinks we need to grasp, and appreciate, is two things. First, that Hegel’s Absolutes are not syntheses that close a “system”; instead, they too are dialectical. They express self-movement that never ceases. Following Hegel, she calls this ceaseless self-movement “absolute negativity” or the process of “negation of the negation.”
And second, this ceaseless self-movement isn’t just ceaseless movement in general. In “self-movement,” what moves is the self. The self does not “remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming,” as Karl Marx put it in the Grundrisse. I think “absolute movement of becoming” is an adequate rendering of “absolute negativity”—if we keep firmly in mind that the “movement of becoming” here is negative. It isn’t some seamless and linear progress. It involves negativity, a “negative relation to self,” as Hegel called it, or “striv[ing] not to remain something he has become,” in Marx’s words.
But this negativity isn’t merely negative. It would be merely negative if, when the self strives not to remain something he has become, he becomes nothing. But here the negativity has a positive (though not final) result: the self becomes something new, something that it wasn’t before. Or, in Dunayevskaya’s formulation, absolute negativity results in a new beginning.
But “why now?” What’s the purpose of exploring all this at this moment?
Dunayevskaya’s answer, it seems to me, is that grasping and appreciating ceaseless negative self-movement has great significance for revolutionary thought and revolutionary activity when the “self” in question isn’t just an individual self, but a social class, a movement, a political-philosophic tendency, etc. In such cases, ceaseless, negative self-movement is important for theorizing and practicing the transformation of reality. From the very first sentence of the book, in the Introduction, she puts forward the claim that the transformation of reality is “central to the Hegelian dialectic.” And as she put it in the book’s next-to-last paragraph, on p. 292:
The reality is stifling. The transformation of reality has a dialectic all its own. It demands a unity of the struggles for freedom with a philosophy of liberation. Only then does the elemental revolt release new sensibilities, new passions, and new forces – a whole new human dimension.
“The transformation of reality has a dialectic all its own.” Again, Dunayevskaya’s point of concentration isn’t “dialectics” in general, but the dialectic of the absolute—that is, the specific dialectic involved in transforming reality. And of key significance to the transformation of reality is the absolute self-movement of becoming, which is what “release[s] new sensibilities, new passions, and new forces.”
The Dialectic Itself vs. Hegel’s Intentions
Dunayevskaya’s interpretation of Hegel’s absolutes is very different from the interpretations of others—even, or maybe especially—from the interpretations of other Marxists. I’ll get to the differences in a few minutes. But first, I want to try to help clarify what she is not arguing. She knew full well that Hegel wasn’t a proponent of social revolution, and she knew full well that when he referred to freedom, his primary focus was on the free movement of philosophical thought rather than political and social freedom. But that wasn’t decisive for her, it wasn’t a reason to reject or avoid Hegel’s philosophy, because, in her view, the method of development that Hegel made perspicuous—negation of the negation—is not confined to thought. As she wrote on p. 13 of Philosophy and Revolution, it isn’t something Hegel “imposed” on his subject matter. “It is the nature of development. It is a fact of life.”
Furthermore, Dunayevskaya was well aware that her interpretation of Hegel, especially her interpretation of the culmination of his “system” in Absolute Mind, was sometimes not what he intended. On p. 6, she argues that “[n]o matter what Hegel’s own intentions” were, he couldn’t stop the ceaseless motion of the dialectic just by coming to the end of Absolute Mind. And she makes clear that her discussion won’t be about his intentions, but about “Hegelian philosophy as is, its movement”—“as is,” not as Hegel himself wished it were. In other words, as she says on the same page, she is subjecting Hegel’s absolutes to his method, testing the logic of his absolutes. And later in the same chapter, when she gets to Absolute Mind, she re-emphasizes this. She writes, on pp. 37–8,
No doubt Hegel would have opposed viewing his construct as if it arose ‘from below.’ The point at issue, however, is not Hegel’s own consciousness, but the logic of absolute activity …. Even Hegel’s … reconciliation … with … the state [in other words, his acceptance of the existing monarchical state in which he lived] … could not, in the strictly philosophic development, put brakes on the self-movement as method, that is, the dialectic.
And on p. 39, she emphasizes once again that her concern is with “the self-movement of thought” at the end of Absolute Mind, not with “the consciousness of the author.” At this point, there is an endnote to a statement by D. H. Lawrence: “An artist is usually a damned liar, but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth of his day.” I don’t think her point was to claim that Hegel was a liar, but to emphasize that, just as a work of art can “get away from” an artist, a work of philosophy can “get away from” a philosopher.
I think all this is extremely important. It goes to the question of how to evaluate Dunayevskaya’s argument. Which criticisms of it are legitimate and relevant and which are not? Here’s a simple and rather trivial example. On p. 13, she refers to “negation of the negation” as “a veritable continuous revolution,” i.e., permanent revolution. If she were trying to reproduce Hegel’s own understanding of what he wrote, it would be legitimate and relevant to argue that this is extremely tendentious, if not outright distortion. But since she was not trying to reproduce Hegel’s own understanding of what he wrote, the allegation of distortion could be sustained only if it could be shown that this isn’t what negation of the negation itself actually is. That it isn’t what Hegel intended is true, but neither here nor there.
In addition, the fact that Dunayevskaya’s argument is about the logic of Hegel’s philosophy, rather than his own understanding of it, implies that her interpretation of Hegel does not necessarily contradict some other interpretations that are extremely different. For example, as I’ll discuss in a moment, Frederick Engels—like many others—argued that Hegel’s philosophy is a system that comes to an end. At the end of the system, Absolute Mind, all movement stops. This is, clearly, extremely different from Dunayevskaya’s interpretation, on which the ceaseless self-movement of the dialectic continues, on the basis of the new unification of Mind and Nature in the self-thinking Idea.
Extremely different––but not necessarily contradictory. If Engels was referring, not to Hegel’s system itself, but to Hegel’s own understanding of his system—I don’t know whether that’s what he was referring to or not, but if it was––then even though his interpretation and Dunayevskaya’s are extremely different, they don’t contradict one another.
So, when we discuss with someone whether Hegel’s absolutes are or aren’t new beginnings, we want to make sure that the discussion isn’t two ships passing in the night, where one of us is talking about the absolutes themselves while the other is talking about Hegel’s understanding of them. And if the other person insists that Hegel’s understanding is all that matters, either because he somehow “owns” his dialectic or because it is inoperative outside of the particular ways in which it appears in Hegel’s work, then it seems to me that these claims need to become the new ground of the discussion, the issues the discussion focuses on. Dunayevskaya takes issue, strongly, with both such claims.
Post-Marx Marxist Interpretations of Hegel’s Dialectic
I want to turn now to some interpretations of Hegel’s system by Marxists who preceded Dunayevskaya, which her text responds to, implicitly or explicitly. The purpose of this comparison isn’t just to know what they said, but also to allow us to better appreciate some of the background context of the arguments of chapter 1 of Philosophy and Revolution, and better understand what it’s arguing against.
Engel’s interpretation, especially the distinction it draws between Hegel’s method and Hegel’s system, has been very influential within post-Marx Marxism. In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels argued that, on the one hand, Hegel’s “dialectical method … dissolves all dogmatism”; it reduces “absolute truth” to “the logical, or, the historical, process itself.” On the other hand, Hegel was forced to supply the logical or historical process with an end point; according to Engels, he was forced into this because he was a traditional, system-building, philosopher, and a system needs to “terminat[e] at some point or another.” This is the opposite of Dunayevskaya’s claim that the absolutes are new beginnings, not endings, and thus that the self-movement of absolute negativity does not cease.
Actually, though, Engels partly, but only partly, agrees with what Dunayevskaya later argued. He goes on to say,
In his Logic, [Hegel] can make this end a beginning again, since here the point of the conclusion, the absolute idea[,] … transforms … itself into nature and comes to itself again later in the mind, that is, in thought and in history.
But once Hegel reaches the conclusion of the whole system, Absolute Mind––then, Engels argues, the end must finally be a genuine end. Absolute Mind presents us with the “end of history,” in the dual form of “mankind arriv[ing] at the cognition of the self-same absolute idea” and Hegel’s philosophy, which he declared to be the “cognition of the absolute idea.”
Thus, Engels continues,
the whole dogmatic content of the Hegelian system is declared to be absolute truth, in contradiction to his dialectical method … . the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side.
And in Hegel’s political philosophy, the same triumph of the ending over the process takes the pernicious form of Hegel’s endorsement of an idealized version of the existing Prussian state of his time––limited monarchy “based on social estates,” i.e., social classes.
Shortly thereafter, Engels returns to the contrast between system and method, noting that in the post-Hegel intellectual environment of his younger days in Germany,
[w]hoever placed the chief emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative [with regard to politics and religion]; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition … .
It is interesting how much Engels stressed the political implications of Hegelian philosophy as he interprets it. In opposing the Hegelian system, he wasn’t only fighting God; he was fighting right-wing Hegelians who declared that history had come to an end and that the existing order was as good as it gets. One such right-wing Hegelian, Francis Fukuyama, dusted-off that thesis when the Stalinist empire began to crumble 20 years ago, in a famous essay entitled “The End of History?”
In contrast to the system, Engels argues, Hegel’s dialectical method is revolutionary—but only after it is pulled out of his total system. This has since become a very popular formula in post-Marx Marxism. But it is too facile; it begs the question of whether the dialectical method can in fact be separated so neatly from the so-called system. If, in fact, Hegel was right that the Hegelian system is the “unfolding” of the dialectic, the series of results produced by dialectical self-movement, then you can’t have the method without the system it generates; just like you can’t drive a car without going somewhere.
Continuing chronologically, I’ll now come to Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin. He, too, recognized that the conclusion of Hegel’s Science of Logic was not actually an ending, since the Idea goes on to externalize itself in nature. He wrote, “The transition of the logical idea to nature. It brings one within a hand’s grasp of materialism.” But Lenin went no further. He was not concerned to explore the implications of what comes after the Philosophy of Nature in Hegel’s work, namely the Philosophy of Mind. Immediately after the sentence that Lenin picked up on, about the Idea externalizing itself in nature, Hegel ended the Science of Logic with two paragraphs on what would come next, in the Philosophy of Nature and, finally, in the Philosophy of Mind. He referred to “absolute liberation” and the Idea “freely releas[ing] itself” and “complet[ing] its self-liberation in the science of spirit,” i.e., the Philosophy of Mind. But Lenin dismissed these two paragraphs as “unimportant.”
In her May 12, 1953 letter on Hegel’s Absolute Idea, the first text in which she began to work out her unique interpretation of Hegel’s absolutes, Dunayevskaya directly took issue with that dismissal:
But, my dear Vladimir Ilyitch, it is not true; the end of that page is important; we of 1953, we who have lived three decades after you and tried to absorb all you have left us, we can tell you that. …
You see, Vladimir Ilyitch, you didn’t have Stalinism to overcome, when transitions, revolutions seemed sufficient to bring the new society. Now everyone looks at the totalitarian one-party state, that is the new that must be overcome by a totally new revolt in which everyone experiences “absolute liberation.” So we build with you from 1920-23 and include the experience of three decades.
Now let me talk about Herbert Marcuse’s interpretation of Hegel, in his 1941 work Reason and Revolution. At the time, Dunayevskaya and the other leaders of the Johnson-Forest Tendency were greatly impressed by that book. They kept talking about writing to Marcuse and discussing what they would say to him. It was only much, much later that Dunayevskaya concluded that she and Marcuse had all along been in different worlds, not only politically but also philosophically.
Marcuse has a lot of insightful things, and many extremely appreciative things, to say about Hegel’s philosophy. But some of what he wrote is extremely different from—again, without necessarily contradicting—Dunayevskaya’s interpretation.
Whereas Dunayevskaya interpreted the conclusion of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a new beginning—the Golgotha, or crucifixion, of Absolute Knowledge––Marcuse contended that
pure thought again seems to swallow up living freedom: the realm of ‘absolute knowledge’ is enthroned above the historical struggle that closed when the French Revolution was liquidated. The self-certainty of philosophy comprehending the world triumphs over the practice that changes it. [Reason and Revolution, p. 120]
Dunayevskaya interpreted the conclusion of Hegel’s Science of Logic, Absolute Idea, as a new beginning, because it does not annul the opposed terms, theory and practice, in the process of synthesizing them into a new result. Instead, it contains them. She stressed Hegel’s statement that the Absolute Idea “contains the highest opposition within itself.” (That’s rather remarkable—instead of a synthesis, the absolute is the highest opposition!) The two sides remain, together in one relationship, but distinct, and thus the self-movement of each side can continue, in relation to the other. In contrast, Marcuse held that
a historical conception is kept alive in Hegel’s philosophy, but it is constantly overwhelmed by the ontological conceptions of absolute idealism. It is ultimately the latter in which the Science of Logic terminates. [Reason and Revolution, p. 161]
On Dunayevskaya’s interpretation, the conclusion of Hegel’s so-called “system”––Absolute Mind, the final category in his Philosophy of Mind––is likewise not a synthesis or any other sort of ending. Specifically, it doesn’t end by returning to where it began, with Logic. Logic is replaced by something new, the self-thinking Idea. And the self-thinking Idea is not something that integrates the two sides, Nature and Mind. On the contrary, to quote Hegel, it “divides itself into Mind and Nature” (§ 577, emphasis added). So, once again, as in the Logic, the absolute ends with opposite sides in a relation with one another, and the ceaseless self-movement of the dialectic continues, even at the end of the system. As Dunayevskaya puts in on p. 42 of Philosophy and Revolution,
Hegel as the philosopher of absolute negativity never … lets us forget divisions of the ‘One,’ not even where that is the Idea, the “absolutely universal.”
On Marcuse’s interpretation, in contrast,
Hegel makes the claim that the unity of subject and object [Mind and Nature] has already been consummated and the process of reification overcome. The antagonisms of civil society are set at rest in his monarchic state, and all contradictions are finally reconciled in the realm of thought or the absolute mind. [Reason and Revolution, p. 260]
And Marcuse’s overall view of Hegel’s system is that it presents “[t]he process of reality [a]s a ‘circle,’ showing the same absolute form in all its moments, namely, the return of being to itself through the negation of its otherness. Hegel’s system thus even cancels the idea of creation; all negativity is overcome by the inherent dynamic of reality” (Reason and Revolution, p. 167). Dunayevskaya’s view was quite the opposite. Self-movement, self-development, and self-liberation are “ever-present”; immanence is “inseparable” from transcendence; and Lenin was right to sum up the Absolute Idea as “Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world, but creates it” (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 33).
In sum, though Marcuse seems to have been far more knowledgeable than Engels about Hegel’s system, his conclusions are rather similar. System ultimately triumphs over method; negativity is overcome; all contradictions are reconciled. In other words, the absolutes signify the end of history.
Permanent Revolution vs. Permanent Critique
Because the end of history is definitely something that we as revolutionaries don’t want to embrace, the following question arises. Imagine that Dunayevskaya is wrong and the others are right––the absolutes do indeed signify the end of history, not ceaseless self-movement. What then? Is there anything left in the dialectic for us?
Earlier, I discussed Engels’ idea of extricating the revolutionary dialectic from Hegel’s allegedly conservative and dogmatic system. This sounds good, but I raised the question of whether that’s possible, or whether, on the contrary, method and system are actually inextricable.
Theodor Adorno seems to have thought that they were indeed inextricable, and thus he undertook the task of building a new system of dialectical thought, so-called “Negative Dialectics,” that did away with what he regarded as the element of the Hegelian method that produced what he found objectionable in the Hegelian system. For Adorno, the objectionable element of the method was none other than absolute negativity, the negation of the negation. In the first paragraph of his book Negative Dialectics (p. xix, emphasis added), he wrote,
As early as Plato, dialectics meant to achieve something positive by means of negation; the thought figure of a ‘negation of negation’ later became the succinct term. This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy.
What seems to have troubled Adorno about the achievement of “something positive,” an “affirmative trait[ ],” is the same thing that troubled Engels and Marcuse: closure, a process that terminates at a fixed point or in a fixed manner. In the Guardian in 2013, Peter Thompson wrote that the paragraph from Adorno that I just quoted is asking us “to reject the idea that the outcome of the dialectic will always be positive but … without leaving the dialectic behind as an explanatory model. We simply have to make it an open rather than a closed process.” Supposedly, in Hegel, all process leads to the “automatic and inevitable fulfilment of a preordained path”; “existence as a whole constitutes a unity of all opposites … the tension between these opposites gradually resolves itself into pre-existing whole” (emphases added).
Now, in the Absolute Idea chapter of the Science of Logic, Hegel writes, in paragraph 1787, that
every beginning must be made with the absolute, just as all advance is merely the exposition of it, … but the advance is not a kind of superfluity [i.e., not something superfluous]; this it would be if that with which the beginning is made were in truth already the absolute …. Only in its consummation is it the absolute.
That seems to me to weigh rather strongly against this idea that there’s no genuine self-movement in Hegel, that the path is pre-ordained and that the end point of the path is pre-existing.
In any case, what is the character of Adorno’s new dialectic that is free from “affirmative traits” like absolute negativity? In Dunayevskaya’s view, he substitutes a permanent critique, not only for absolute negativity, but also for permanent revolution itself. She wrote this in a paper she delivered to the Hegel Society of America the year after Philosophy and Revolution was published.
I myself don’t know enough about Adorno’s work to say, but this substitution of permanent critique for absolute negativity and permanent revolution does seem to be a danger. If the dialectic lacks “affirmative traits,” then how can it be revolutionary? How can it be the transcendence of that which now exists, or even point toward such transcendence? And without that moment of transcendence, opposition to that which exists seems to be no more than bare opposition––constant resistance, but with no way out, no way forward. And it seems to me that this is precisely where post-modernism and similar intellectual tendencies, sometimes directly influenced by Adorno, have led us. So I think it’s definitely worth exploring whether there is a concept of transcendence in which the path isn’t pre-ordained and the end point is not a closure, much less something that pre-exists and living reality just grows into. And it’s definitely worth exploring whether Dunayevskaya was right when she argued that such a concept of transcendence is already there, in Hegel’s “system” itself––irrespective of what his personal intentions may have been.
“Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis” Signifies the End of History
I want to conclude my opening remarks to today’s discussion by talking about the triadic formula “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” and what that has to do with closure, with the “end of history” notion. In Dunayevskaya’s view––and the view of many others––the Hegelian dialectic is not a synthesis of a thesis and antithesis. On p. 13 of Philosophy and Revolution, she discusses the movement of the syllogism, from the universal through the particular to the individual, or vice-versa, and argues that “[i]t is crucial to grasp” this “as a self-movement, and not to view it as if it adheres to some sort of static triadic form.” The thesis-antithesis-synthesis triad has been “misread as an expression of the Hegelian dialectic” (emphasis added). On p. 28, she writes that “[t]he development of what the dialectic method is[,] is as far removed from the mechanical triplicities of thesis, antithesis, synthesis … as earth is from heaven.” And these are just two of her many dismissals of the triadic formula.
Now, this dismissal runs into a wee bit of a textual problem, but one that I think is easily resolved. The problem is this. In the Absolute Idea chapter, when Hegel discusses absolute method, he says that it is not just analytic, but also synthetic. “This no less synthetic than analytic moment of judgment, by which the universal of the beginning of its own accord determines itself as the other of itself, is to be named the dialectical moment” (Science of Logic, § 1791). But this is not an ordinary synthesis, that is, not a synthesis of two self-subsisting and externally related entities, like the synthesis of hydrogen and oxygen into water. Note that Hegel writes that the universal that stands at the starting point of the movement “determines itself as the other of itself” (emphases added). The first thing and the second thing that are joined together are the same thing, though in its self-movement it does not “remain what it had become.” Some new facet has emerged and is being integrated into the self.
Hegel’s use of the term “synthesis” here is thus much like Kant’s, when Kant argued that the statement “7 + 5 = 12” is a synthetic judgement even though it is a priori (Critique of Pure Reason, p. 144). Two things are being joined together, 7 + 5 and 12, but they are really the same thing––they’re equal, and necessarily so. But the 12 isn’t there at the beginning; it’s the result of a process; in this case, the process of addition.
Also, in the preceding paragraph, Hegel writes,
The method of absolute cognition is … synthetic, since its subject matter … exhibits itself as an other. This relation of differential elements which the subject matter thus is within itself, is however no longer the same thing as is meant by synthesis in finite cognition …. [Science of Logic, § 1790]
But my main reason for discussing thesis-antithesis-synthesis is the following. Earlier, I kind of suggested that a synthesis is a form of closure, an ending. Once we have a synthesis, the movement comes to an end. That’s it.
Now, if that’s actually the case, then a dialectic that’s resolved in a synthesis isn’t a revolutionary dialectic. But is it indeed the case?
Why can’t there be one process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, after which the synthesis is the new thesis which is then is opposed by a new antithesis, resulting in a second synthesis, and so on and so forth? That’s a kind of continuous movement, isn’t it?
But the problem is that, although this might properly characterize some processes, it can’t possibly properly characterize the relations between huge all-encompassing totalities that Hegel is discussing in his Absolutes. Consider the Absolute Idea, which is the relation between theory and practice. Say that these are synthesized into some theory-practice unity, whatever that might mean. What could possibly then come along as the opposite to this theory-practice unity? Chopped liver? No, chopped liver isn’t even the same type of thing. Theory and practice are forms of human activity, and together they comprise the whole of human activity; all human activity is theoretical or practical, or theoretical in some senses but practical in others. There is no human activity outside of the theory/practice relation. Thus, if the dialectic of theory and practice ends up in a synthesis, that’s it. End of history. Nothing new can come along that might set things in motion again.
Or consider Absolute Mind, which is the relation between objective and subjective. Say that these are synthesized into some objective-subjective unity. What could possibly then come along as the opposite to this? Umm … I’ve got it: something that’s neither objective nor subjective. … Like what, exactly?
So the only options are, on the one hand, a synthesis that’s an absolute ending, or, on the other hand, a process that continues to move––precisely because there’s no synthesis.