The following is a discussion from the Lastsuperpower site in 2003 about the philosophical basis of pseudo-leftism. The two contributors are ‘Albert’ and ‘Keza’. It stands up very well ten years on, and had a big impact on me at the time. – c21styork
Revolutionaries are historical optimists who stress the inevitability of progress. Pseudo-Leftists are reactionaries who merely denounce how bad things are and actively reinforce the idea that they cannot be changed. But when revolutionaries reject the irrational obscurantism and moralistic posturing of pseudo-Leftists and line up together with the ruling class against them, by asserting that “all that is real is rational”, they are also implicitly saying “all that exists deserves to perish”
Date : Jun 15, 2003 4:48 am
“All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real”
Hegel’s remark “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” is central to understanding the philosophical outlook of communism.
It’s worth carefully studying Engel’s explanation of this seemingly paradoxical position, as it sheds a lot of light on some aspects of the problems with pseudo-Leftists and other reactionaries conservatives.
Fundamental to the genuine left is this concept:
“Just as knowledge is unable to reach a complete conclusion in a perfect, ideal condition of humanity, so is history unable to do so; a perfect society, a perfect “state”, are things which can only exist in imagination. On the contrary, all successive historical systems are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society from the lower to the higher. Each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin. But in the face of new, higher conditions which gradually develop in its own womb, it loses vitality and justification. It must give way to a higher stage which will also in its turn decay and perish.”
One aspect of that is the idea that “each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin”. Pseudo-Leftists assert the opposite. They are able to present themselves as more “militantly opposed” to the status quo than revolutionaries because they refuse to “understand” current reality as “necessary” and “therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin”. Instead they simply denounce it from an ahistorical perspective as contrary to some absolute morality.
Anyone critical of the status quo is bound to highlight its negative features and denounce them as intolerable. But by denying that those negative features had their own rational basis the pseudo-Left obscures the rational necessity for inevitable change to the status quo arising from new circumstances that obsolete the justification for the old reality and necessitate a new reality.
Revolutionaries are historical optimists who stress the inevitability of progress. Pseudo-Leftists are reactionaries who merely denounce how bad things are and actively reinforce the idea that they cannot be changed. But when revolutionaries reject the irrational obscurantism and moralistic posturing of pseudo-Leftists and line up together with the ruling class against them, by asserting that “all that is real is rational”, they are also implicitly saying “all that exists deserves to perish” as explained by Engels:
“And so, in the course of development, all that was previously real becomes unreal, loses it necessity, its right of existence, its rationality. And in the place of moribund reality comes a new, viable reality — peacefully if the old has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus the Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history, becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality, and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.”
Hegel and the pseudo-left
Date : Jun 21, 2003 3:00 am
After reading Albert’s Hegel message I got a bit interested in Hegel and tried to find out what he was on about. The following message results from that. It’s not really finished but I’ve had enough of it for now…
In his Australian article ‘Not in Your Name Indeed’, Barry York described the politics of the pseudo-Left as a “mish-mash” , a “jumble of prejudices”, “more akin to a sub-culture than a political movement”.
I think these words captured something very important about the pseudo-left – in particular its atheoretical and ahistorical nature. Pseudo-left ideology lends itself well to bulleted lists of things to oppose and things to support. At the same time, events in the world are classified according to surface appearance rather than in terms of what underlies them. The pseudo-left may talk of the “underlying reasons” for something like the war in Iraq but this talk is always of “hidden agendas”, “secret motives” and is quite different from studying such events in light of the underlying flow of history.
Hegel’s statement: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real” asserts that history makes sense: “the phantom of a world whose events are an incoherent concourse of fortuitous circumstances, utterly vanishes”.
In contrast, pseudo-left ideology attributes only the most superficial rationality to what happens in the world.
Indeed it seems to me that the pseudo-left has an essentially folk-loric version of how the world works. There is evil and there is good. (Or there is God and there is Satan). Being “good” means being pure and true and perfect and this comes down to opposing the dark forces of evil. It’s an abstract, ideal position which is capable of generating protests but has no serious orientation toward actually changing the world. The feel-good slogan “Not in My Name” captures its nature rather well.
The Hegelian conception of history exerted an enormous influence on both Marx and Engels. Although Hegel was an idealist, his view of history was one in which humans were seen as becoming progressively more capable of controlling their own destiny. He saw history as always progressing in the direction of greater freedom – driven by the dialectical opposition between what is actual and what is potential.
Hegel was an idealist because of his adherence to the idea of the supremacy of “Spirit” (akin to mind) over matter (which he saw as inert – “its essence outside itself’.:
“Spirit knows itself. It involves an appreciation of its own nature, as also an energy enabling it to realise itself; to make itself actually that which it is potentially. According to this abstract definition it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History.”
“The life of a people ripens a certain fruit; its activity aims at the complete manifestation of the principle which it embodies. But this fruit does not fall back into the bosom of the people that produced and matured it; on the contrary, it becomes a poison-draught to it. That poison-draught it cannot let alone, for it has an insatiable thirst for it: the taste of the draught is its annihilation., though at the same time the rise of a new principle.”
Engels pointed out that “according to Hegel certainly not everything that exists is also real, without further qualification. For Hegel the attribute of reality belongs only to that which at the same time is necessary: “In the course of its development reality proves to be necessity.” “.
This qualification is important, otherwise Hegel’s statement could be taken as no more than the assertion that the status quo (being “real”) is always rational and therefore justified. Such an interpretation would contradict his view of history as a process of progressive change in which what is actual loses its necessity and gives way to its own potential: “It certainly makes war upon itself — consumes its own existence; but in this very destruction it works up with existence into a new form, and each successive phase becomes in its turn a material, working on which it exalts itself to a new grade.”
Getting back to the pseudo-left …it seems to me that their political outlook is characterized by a denial/ignorance of both necessity and rationality (and therefore of reality). Opposition to US imperialism turns out to be an unchallengeable, immutable, stand-alone principle of some sort. The idea that Bush et al could intend to democratize the Middle East – that their old policy is no longer rational (ie that in the current world situation it has lost its necessity) is seen as strange and nonsensical. How could it be possible for US imperialism to do such a thing?
It’s easy to appear as very revolutionary and militant if your stance does not include any appreciation of current reality and necessity. And the opposite is also true – it’s easy to attack those who are being (correctly) radical and militant. Basically you don’t have to feel responsible for anything that happens because such a stance does not involve actually trying to change the world.
In “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”, Engels said this about Hegel:
“This new German philosophy culminated in the Hegelian system. In this system — and herein is its great merit — for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development. From this point of view, the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner law running through all its apparently accidental phenomena.”
Pseudo left ideology does not encourage people to use their intellects to grasp the nature of what is happening in the world . On the contrary it propagates the idea that the truth can be hidden – (and sometimes) that there’s really no such thing as truth, that intuition and “gut feeling” are superior to logic, that the people who rule the world are stupid/irrational enough to “let things get out of control” and so on.
Anyway I’m getting tired of writing this ….
(by albert on 06/20/2003)
Thanks for the excellent article!
I’m getting inspired to read up on Hegel again too (also philosophy generally and have started reading Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurus to shed some light on why he wrote his doctoral thesis on atomic physics 😉
One point I’d stress is that it isn’t just the pseudo-Left which suffers from the various problems described. What distinguishes the pseudo-Left is often merely that it dresses up conventional ruling class ideas in a “militant”, “radical”, “leftist” but essentially a “pseudo” guise.
The basic idea that Engels finds appealing in Hegel is “the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development”. That dialectical emphasis on a process of progress and development is especially problematic to a decaying, moribund, parasitic ruling class.
Although some sections of the bourgeoisie still sing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and present themselves as at least complacent, if not progressive or revolutionary, the dominant mood is full of doom and gloom – literally terrified of what the future might bring (with a corresponding emphasis on “terrorists” as only one aspect of that).
As Marx pointed out, in any class society the ideas of the ruling class are of course the ruling ideas. That can easily be said glibly but it stands in direct opposition to such views as Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”.
The ruling ideas, those that dominate education, culture etc, are thoroughly pessimistic and stress the hopelessness of any struggle for change. That is especially the case for state sponsored education (“post-modern” university departments of doom and gloom) and culture (national broadcasters such as the British BBC and Australian ABC bringing daily sermons that everything is going from bad to worse).
The pseudo-Left has been let off the hook because it has been challenged only by the complacent right, which accepts the pseudos self-image as something “radical”, “militant” etc (by denouncing them on that basis, in support of the status quo).
Instead the pseudo-Left must be exposed as a direct reflection of ruling class ideology delivering exactly the official line – that nothing positive can be done to challenge the ruling class since even though they are obviously hopeless, no better alternative is possible.
That is what strips away the “radical” veneer. For example when faced with the usual diatribes against “consumerism” from greenies, these should just be treated as obviously a proposal to reduce real wages and discussed seriously on that basis. “Ok, so you want people to consume less. That’s easy – simply reduce their incomes. So I guess what you would need would be more unemployment – both to reduce incomes directly and to add to the pressure for reducing wages indirectly. That would explain a lot of green policies. I guess if we used less technology that would pretty well guarantee a sharp reduction in productivity and therefore in incomes and consumption. Hmm, interesting approach. Must be appealing to governments and corporations so they would give you a lot of funding. But aren’t you up against History – isn’t there something unstoppable about people’s desire to live better than before?”