George Walford: Hegel the Anarchist

Harold Walsby (originator of systematic ideology) once spoke of Hegel as the supreme anarchist. At the time I would have said that an anarchist was the one thing Hegel was most emphatically not, but the conversation moved on and I never did ask Walsby what he had meant. For many years the remark has been germinating, and recently a plausible explanation of it has begun to emerge.

George William Frederick Hegel (1770 1831) stands at the beginning of modern revolutionary thought as a major influence upon Karl Marx. He also appears, in some accounts, as a progenitor of Nazism. This suggests complexities, and they turn out to be well worth investigation.

Hegel’s work centres around dialectic. Used by the ancient Greeks for the cut and thrust of debate, this term later came to indicate the interplay of opposites in a more general sense. Hegel elevated dialectic to the status of a universal principle, and the feature of his conception which interests us here can be indicated in a few words. Everything real has (at least) two sides. Each of these being what the other is not, they depend upon each other for their existence, and this unity-in-opposition constitutes the object.

Consider the individual and the community, which in their articulated relationships constitute society. We commonly treat these as independent of each other, saying that some function would be better performed either, by the individual or by the community. Yet any attempt to grasp one of them by itself reveals the presence of the other; individuals make up the community and the community forms individuals. Disregarding individuals we fix upon the pure community, to find that we know it only by the features which distinguish it from (and thereby inextricably link it with) the individual. Conversely, any attempt to arrive at pure individuality, stripping away everything the concrete individual has in common with others, leads towards an individual possessing no features, one which cannot be distinguished from any other and disappears into the community. (Wittgenstein ridiculed those who try to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves). Individual and community depend on each other for their existence, neither can survive without the other. This explains a feature which often puzzles students of anarchism, that while insisting on the importance of the individual, anarchists also stress the value of the community.

Hegel speaks rather of state than of community, and he did not exclude from the term the reality of the state in his time and place, speaking of it in connection with law and government. He also seems to have intended it to include, however, something much like the anarchist conception of community. Consider this:

The state-power is the simple spiritual substance, as well as the achievement of all, the absolutely accomplished fact, wherein individuals find their essential nature expressed, and where their particular existence is simply and solely a consciousness of their own universality. It is likewise the achievement and simple result from which the sense of its having been their doing has vanished; it stands as the absolute basis of all their actions. [1]

A social entity achieved by all individuals together, expressing their esssential nature, and within which they are conscious only of their universality (which does not exclude awareness of their particularity in other connections), taken for granted without any feeling of effort in its construction. This goes a long way to meet the anarchist conception of the community.

In an anarchist society individuals would attend to their own reconciliation with the community, without need of compulsion by law, government or coercion. The anarchist community would indeed be ‘the absolutely accomplished fact, wherein individuals find their essential nature expressed.’ It seems to have been Hegel’s position as foremost expositor, if not originator, of this conception that led Walsby to accord him the title of supreme anarchist.

Hegel remained content to theorise, while anarchists frequently claim to be working to realise the society they envisage. But their distinctively anarchist contribution, too, remains almost wholly theoretical; instead of moving towards a society restricted to the particular freedoms that anarchists value, social development tends rather towards a condition displaying, in principle if not in every detail, the full range. of possible freedoms and limitations. The people we bump against in the street are neither the featureless ghosts of Hegelian philosophy, serving as hardly more than a background for the world-historical figures, nor the all-loving, all-caring, spontaneous sensitives of anarchist mythology. They have distinct features and set ideas, their own assumptions about relations between individual, community, state and society. They have, in short, their own ideologies, and these affect their political behaviour. At one end of the range, unthinking acceptance of conditions as they are; at the other, repudiation of society and the state as they are in favour of a society, described as stateless, which turns out on examination to be one in which the object ascribed by Hegel to the state shall have been fully achieved.

We cannot usefully think about five thousand million individual ideologies, each of them separately, but by ‘chunking’ themselves into a small number of great ideological groups people bring a grasp of the main ideological relations within the scope of practical understanding. This brings us back where we started, with IC trying to develop this understanding, now with clearer ideas (provided further reflection confirms what has been said above) about Hegel and anarchism.

[1] Hegel (G. W. F.) 1977 (1910) The Phenomenology of Mind Translated by J.B.Baillie London: George Allen & Unwin 519-520.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.