Part Two: Hegel and Fascism

Introduction

As noted in the last blog, Hegel’s ideas, before their denunciation as features of a militarist culture, were welcomed among Liberals in Britain. This can be understood in light of the well-chronicled shift in Hegel’s thought, from an enthusiasm for French revolutionary zeal through to his employment as a university professor on the commission of the Prussian State. Those who celebrated this latter status emphasised his nationalist and conservative identity. Yet soon after his death, the ambiguity in his writing that invited contradiction and questioning, the so-called ‘critical method’, was turned upon his own work by those known as the Young Hegelians – first Feuerbach, then Stirner and Marx, leading to the emergence of Marxism. For a time, the Prussian crown was alarmed, and installed Schelling at the University of Berlin in 1841 to uproot the “dragon seed of Hegelianism”. Yet a “right-Hegelianism” was perpetuated, in Popper’s view, in the Universities and secondary schools of Germany. This tradition has often been cited as a source for the later emergence of ‘ultranationalism’. To some extent, the Hegelian logic for national providence shared motives and rhetoric with Rankean historicism, despite Hegel’s and Ranke’s apparent mutual hostility, and these traditions seem entwined in later German nationalism, for example in the work of Heinrich von Treitschke, the subject of another blog in this series.

Left and Right Wing Hegelianism

Besides the left and right-Hegelian wings, a moderate tradition, noticeable in the discipline of theology, emphasised Hegel’s Christian roots. Peter Hodgson suggests Hegel himself would have aligned himself with the “Hegelian middle”, a theological tradition represented for example by F.C. Baur. It was this liberal theological tradition that seems closest, via figures like Benjamin Jowett and T.H. Green, to the British Idealism of the later part of the 19th century. Such avenues of influence complicate the legacy Popper saw in Nazism, given Hegel’s contribution to arguments for welfarist intervention, on a logic of ‘positive liberty’ in the New Liberalism. That said, left, right and liberal progeny of Hegelianism all espoused versions of progress to a more or less immanentised telos (i.e. a divined presence or end goal). In its gradualist form, this is a component of a liberal progressivism, but as many analysts besides Popper have indicated, in its darkest form, as an imperative uncaring of human cost, this entelechy (or vital principle) was the seed for totalitarianism of both right and left. It provided a logic for a Marxism, later distorted by positivistic additions and delimitations into a ‘scientific socialism’, producing in turn Lenin’s and Stalin’s totalitarianism. As Popper puts it: “the left wing replaces the war of nations which appears in Hegel’s historicist scheme by the war of classes, the extreme right replaces it by the war of races; but both follow him more or less consciously.”

The Monarchism and Government Patronage of Hegel

These charges rest on the circumstances in which Hegel wrote as well as the content of his philosophy. Hegel wrote in line with the educational policy of his employer, Frederick William III, whose regime insisted that universities should permit academic enquiry only so far as it supported the authority of the crown. This position is often presented as having coloured Hegel’s thought from his appointment onwards. Arthur Schopenhauer’s early and savage attack, frequently quoted by Popper, attacked Hegel’s politicisation and professional ladder-climbing: “Philosophy is misused, from the side of the state as a tool, from the other side as a means of gain… Who can really believe that truth also will thereby come to light, just as a by-product?… Governments make of philosophy a means of serving their state interests, and scholars make of it a trade…”

Even among Hegel’s early supporters the knowledge of his government patronage embarrassed some commentators. Less hostile, and perhaps more penetrating for it, were the revealing comments of Hegel’s ‘admiring disciple’ Albert Schwegler, whose History of Philosophy In Epitome (1846-1847) culminates grandly with Hegel’s system, nevertheless observes that, following his recruitment by the University of Berlin in 1818, “he acquired, from his connections with the Prussian bureaucracy, political influence for himself as well as the recognition of his system as the official philosophy; not always to the advantage of the inner freedom of his philosophy, or of its moral worth.” In the book that established Hegel’s reputation in Britain, The Secret of Hegel (1865), J.H. Stirling, tried to downplay these remarks, advising that they gave the wrong impression of Hegel as a ‘state-philosopher’ – but he too drew a revealing connection between Germany’s rise as an economic power and Hegel’s influence.

Together with a recognition of great figures and the theodicy (or a vindication of divine providence) that excuses suffering came, in the Philosophy of Right, Hegel’s developed political argument for the Prussian State. The idea is persistently expressed, as Popper illustrates with a spate of quotations, although the selection may give a false impression, as we shall see:

“The Universal is to be found in the State… The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth… We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth, and consider that, if it is difficult to comprehend Nature, it is infinitely harder to grasp the Essence of the State… The State is the march of God through the world. . . The State must be comprehended as an organism… To the complete State belongs, essentially, consciousness and thought. The State knows what it wills… The State is real; and… true reality is necessary. What is real is eternally necessary… The State… exists for its own sake… The State is the actually existing, realized moral life.”

According to Hegel, therefore, the individual must sacrifice themselves to the state. In Berlin from 1818 this conveniently legitimated all aspects of national life dominated by an absolutist monarchy. As Popper put it, “Real = Reason… [so] everything that is reasonable must be real, and everything that is real must be reasonable, and that the development of reality is the same as that of reason.”

Conclusion

Before dealing with this emphasis on the state, the anticipation of Fascist thought can be seen in the deeper structures of the Hegelian idea. Probing its theorisation, Popper and others found incriminating reliance on a Romantic myth of national growth, not far removed from the narratives of national rebirth described by present day historians of fascism. The notions of history as a ‘slaughter-bench’, organised by ‘Great Men’, and a corresponding sense of periodic palingenetic rebirth, will be the subject of the next blog in this series.

Dr Henry Mead is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Research Fellow at Tallinn University. See full profile here.

© Henry Mead. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

Research for this article was supported by a European Research Council Starting Grant (TAU17149) “Between the Times: Embattled Temporalities and Political Imagination in Interwar Europe.