Hegel’s World Revolutions 
by Richard Bourke.
Princeton, 321 pp., £25, October 2023, 978 0 691 25018 2
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The​ Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle claimed he had once talked a student out of suicide by pointing out to him that the logic of ‘nothing matters’ is very different from that of, for example, ‘nothing chatters.’ For some who philosophise in this style, Hegel is not one of their tribe but an obscurantist, semi-mystical system-builder who ended up kowtowing to an autocratic Prussian state, and whose thought lies behind the totalitarianism of the 20th century. Philosophy consists in talking about certain things in a certain way; Hegel sometimes discusses the right kinds of thing (freedom, virtue, rationality), but doesn’t do so in the right kind of way. He writes about some subjects that don’t exist, such as the unity of identity and non-identity, as well as some that do (love, poverty, self-cultivation). But he wouldn’t count as philosophical at all for the likes of Ryle.

Richard Bourke is a formidably talented political historian whose Empire and Revolution (2015) was a monumental study of his namesake and compatriot Edmund Burke. He has read widely and deeply in Hegel – not for some of us the most enthralling way of passing the time – and has a daunting command of the field of modern European political thought. Currently professor of the history of political thought at Cambridge, he started as a student of literature, and an early study of Wordsworth, Romantic Discourse and Political Modernity: Wordsworth, the Intellectual and Cultural Critique (1993), already suggested something of his passion for social and political ideas.

As Bourke points out in this new book, Hegel’s reputation has been in decline since the end of the Second World War. He was a target of Karl Popper’s crude anti-communist polemics and Isaiah Berlin’s Oxfordian disdain. There has been a revival of interest in his metaphysics and theory of knowledge, but no comparable rediscovery of his political thought. From the 1960s onwards, Friedrich Nietzsche, another thinker whose credentials are in doubt for philosophers like Ryle, took over from Hegel as Europe’s philosopher-in-chief. It is Nietzsche’s spirit, shorn of his rancid politics, that lies behind the thought of post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, as well as shaping the entire postmodern landscape. A lot of postmodern types are Nietzscheans without being aware of it. In Nietzsche, Hegel’s thought meets its nemesis: truth is now a convenient fiction, the unity of the self is an illusion, power rather than reason rules human affairs, history is a chapter of gruesome accidents and the world is a scene of flux and fluidity without inherent meaning or value. All this is to be celebrated rather than lamented, and the name of the celebration, strangely enough, is tragedy.

At a popular level, among hippies and dissident students, all this helped to nourish a culture in which freedom was boundless and thus vacuous, hierarchy was suspect and the very idea of an institution smacked of repression. The political goal was to leap in one bound from a degraded present to a utopian future. In excavating Hegel’s political thought, Bourke’s never quite declared intention is to take issue with this slipshod radicalism, not least as it survives in our own time; and if rereading Hegel is an effective way of doing so, it is because Bourke takes his political thought to revolve around a series of revolutions whose outcomes were dismally at odds with their original intentions.

The first of these botched transformations is Christianity. In Hegel’s view, this audacious new creed supplanted paganism and revolutionised the principles of Judaism, but its gospel of selflessness could not prevail in a world of power and property. It duly lapsed into a history of atrocities from the Crusades to the slave trade, while at the same time withdrawing into otherworldliness. The Reformation freed Christianity from medieval superstition, but its deepening of subjectivity came at the cost of a cult of guilt and repentance. A later advance in human consciousness, the 18th-century Enlightenment, was too remote from material reality to win Hegel’s wholehearted acclaim. Philosophy, in his view, is nothing if it is not worldly.

Even so, there was one figure at the heart of that intellectual upheaval who was in Hegel’s eyes a full-blooded revolutionary. It seems an odd word to use of the retiring, eminently respectable Immanuel Kant, a man whose habits were so punctilious that his fellow citizens were said to set their watches by them, and who abhorred political revolutions. For the macho Nietzsche, Kant is a shrivelled life-denier with vinegar in his veins; but there were others who saw that his work had shaken the world of ideas to its roots. Kant thought so too. In fact, he himself was a fervent political revolutionary, though he didn’t know it. The turbulent events in France were, he believed, the most auspicious episode in the history of civilisation since the coming of Christ; but he saw this turmoil as a constitutional affair rather than as a violent overturning of the state, and so could preserve his hostility to revolutions at the same time as he cheered this one on. For Hegel, Kant’s moral thought and the French Revolution are products of the same historical forces. Just as that cataclysm renewed a sense of human agency, so Kant’s breakthrough was to treat the human mind as actively constructing reality. In the end, though, Hegel found something of the same retreat from history in Kant’s appeal to purity of heart as he did in Christianity. Kant, too, failed to achieve the marriage of thought and actuality that Hegel cherished.

Bourke expounds this tale of failed revolutions in lucid, erudite prose, if not with stylistic elegance. It’s easier to be lucid about Hegel if you are dealing with his political thought rather than, say, his theory of knowledge, and excluding these more problematic subjects also makes it easier to commend his work as wholeheartedly as Bourke does. The problem is that the book sacrifices argument to exposition, and doesn’t keep a sufficiently vigilant eye on its overall case. It fails to make explicit that Hegel’s dissatisfaction with the revolutions he surveys comes down in almost every instance to their otherworldliness or estrangement from reality, whether we are speaking of Jesus or Robespierre, ancient Athenian philosophers or modern Kantians.

This goes to the heart of Hegel’s vision of things. For him, the actual contains the possible, so that you can plunge into it with no fear of losing sight of a desirable alternative. You don’t need to tack some arbitrary utopian dimension onto what exists, since what exists already secretes within itself the seeds of what ought to be. There is no need to be strung out between the everyday world and political fantasy. The only viable future is one with its roots in the present, not one that is parachuted into it by dreams or diktats. You can only grasp the essence of a thing by grasping what it is in the act of becoming. A table is just a snapshot of a process that began with a sapling and will end in a pile of dust.

There is, of course, one mighty transformation that loomed over Hegel’s age. Bourke argues that the man himself was by no means the unmitigated enthusiast for the French Revolution that some scholars have claimed. Though the revolutionary ferment in France pervaded his sensibility, he disapproved of most of what was happening there. Dreams and diktats had ousted sober actuality, as the Jacobins pursued a fantasy of absolute freedom that unhinged them from the world and became self-devouring. Such freedom is empty, since abolishing everything for fear it might constrain freedom leaves behind a vacuum in which we can find no reason we should act in one way rather than another. An absolute will is bound to be an arbitrary one, since it would cease to be absolute if it respected laws and moral imperatives. The mere existence of something other than itself poses a mortal threat to it, and it ends up crushing everything that moves. Hegel sees the revolution as a flight into a void, so that it fails in much the same way as the other innovations he investigates.

Bourke regards freedom as Hegel’s central concern, but this surely needs qualifying. More pressing is the conflict between individual freedom and being grounded in some more corporate existence, a conflict Hegel thought he had resolved. Self-determination can’t happen in a void. Besides, what distinguishes him from thinkers in the liberal tradition is his belief that freedom must be reciprocal – that my freedom can flourish only in and through that of others. In the hands of Karl Marx, this will become communism, as the development of each becomes the condition of the development of all. Yet Marx is notable in this book for his comparative absence. Of the few comments made about him, at least one is highly questionable. He and Kierkegaard, we are told, are ‘unintelligible in their own terms’. If this means there’s nothing in either of these thinkers but their reaction to Hegel, it is a spectacularly wrong-headed judgment. How is this true of Capital, or The Sickness unto Death? Some entries on Marx in the index turn out to be discussions of Georg Lukács or the Frankfurt School. An account of Hegel’s legacy focuses on the 20th century, long after the work of his most famous legatee.

Bourke’s study is so offhand about Marxism because it threatens to dismantle the opposition Bourke sets up between a respect for the actual, on the one hand, and a retreat into revolutionary fantasies on the other. Marx clung to the practical and material, scorned utopianism and set his face against all forms of idealism, yet was a revolutionary. Like Hegel, he practises a form of immanent critique, a term this book hardly uses. Rather than bring some abstract ideal to bear on the present, such a critique embeds itself in the world as it is, but seeks out certain conflicts and contradictions within it – conflicts that, once unlocked, might lead to a transformed future. In this sense, it is neither wedded to what exists like the conservative, nor pointlessly otherworldly like the armchair anarchist. The only antidote to disaffection, Bourke remarks, lies in values actually to hand, and it is here that Hegel has the edge over the idle dreamers and traders in abstract principles. But the same can be said of Marx, who lavishes praise on existing liberal values and has no set of alternative moral precepts up his sleeve. He simply inquires why these values can never be adequately realised in practice, and how one might succeed in doing so.

This book is both a scholarly account of Hegel on revolution and an implicit critique of the idea of revolution. Politics, Bourke remarks, must be more than a set of ‘ideal arrangements justified in abstraction from practical affairs’, a proposition that it is far too easy to assent to. He also assumes that attending to practical matters will curtail idealism, but what if those matters contain undreamed-of possibilities within themselves? It seems to be the political left that Bourke has in his sights here, but in what sense was the South African overthrow of apartheid lost in fanatical zeal or self-consuming abstraction? That Greta Thunberg is detached from reality is the opinion of Donald Trump, not of any sane observer. Has the Terror been the destiny of all radical political change? It was in this context that the word ‘terrorism’ emerged, but it was the state that was dispensing the terror, not a band of insurgents. Terrorism today is less an aspect of revolution than a strike by citizens of sorely oppressed states against those they see as responsible for their plight. It is a desperate substitute for genuine political change, not an inevitable feature of it.

Those who urge us to respect distinctions ought not to give the impression that there is little to choose between Jacobins and militant 1960s students, or the guillotine and the teach-in, when it comes to the forces of change. Bourke approvingly quotes a piece by the historian J.G.A. Pocock on the student protests of the 1960s, in which he warns that the lurch towards absolute freedom results in terror. It is hard to see student demands for revamped syllabuses leading to heads in baskets.

In any case, the contemporary world isn’t bursting at the seams with zealous revolutionaries who need to be refuted by a backward glance at Hegel. And Hegel may not be as easy to put to this use as one might think. Bourke recognises that, despite prizing the modern constitutional state above all others, Hegel was keenly aware of the defects of the society over which that state stood guard. There was the struggle between rich and poor, for example, which in Bourke’s words ‘had to be moderated and conducted toward the common good’. This bland utterance understates Hegel’s misgivings about early industrial capitalism, some of which strikingly anticipate those of Marx. Along with excessive wealth, he argues, there is the plunging of the masses into spiritual and material deprivation, reducing them to ‘bestiality’ and subjecting them to an alien power that is as blind as fate. Outraged by this injustice, the common people grow ‘elemental, barbarous, irrational and terrifying’, forever threatening insurrection. Hegel was very fearful of the populace, which isn’t the best reason for not being a radical. If he looks to the state to rectify the people’s plight, Marx sees the state rather more realistically as the power that sustains it. It isn’t easy to see what Bourke calls liberal values as being up to the job of humanising this kind of capitalism.

Etymologically speaking, revolutions return things to where they were. This is not the creed of conservatives, for whom they make things a great deal worse. The revolution that Hegel sees as entirely successful comes full circle. The ‘world spirit’ attains its goal when it curves back on itself, becoming conscious of its own evolution and that everything in its steady advance had to happen exactly as it did. It must find a human mind in which this can take place and, in its unfathomable wisdom, it has chosen the consciousness of G.W.F. Hegel as a mirror in which to contemplate itself, rather as the Almighty chose a young Jew in an obscure corner of Palestine, probably the son of a stonemason, for much the same purpose.

Hegel’s World Revolutions displays a knowledge of its protagonist’s thought which may well be unequalled in Britain. Its mountain of secondary sources is just as impressive. The ingredient it lacks is criticism. In nearly three hundred pages, scarcely a single negative judgment is allowed to besmirch the good name of the master. This suggests that something rather more is going on here than an anatomy of Hegel’s political thought. Lurking beneath this account is a political animus that never really speaks its name. It would be good if it came out into the open.

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