In the fourth part of CARR Senior Fellow, Dr Henry Mead’s, series on Hegel and Fascism, the author takes a look at how echoes of the idea of the fall circulated beyond Hegel – showing inspiration in fascism as well as religious and secular theories.
The Myth of the Fall within Hegelian Thought
As noted previously in this series on Hegel and Fascism, Hegel saw the actions of “Great Men” in history as the product of a larger pattern of forces – the product of “the cunning of reason”. This determinism, what Popper attacked as “historicism”, is of course compatible with recent attempts to define fascism, in a flexible ‘ideal type’, as a form of “palingenetic ultranationalism”.
This theory of history is anticipated to some degree in Hegel’s Phenomenology, which at times seems to connect its account of the emergence of a specific consciousness with historical events in a kind of cosmic bildungsroman. The connections are not sustained or explicit, however. Moreover, the analogy between the spirit’s progress and world-historical time was not drawn fully until the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, published from student notes posthumously in 1835. This tells the story of human civilisation as a correlation to the emergence of the world-spirit. The stage of divided consciousness that sets Hegel’s dialectic moving in his first major work is replicated in the ‘system of falls’ that mark history. Yet, as Cyril O’Regan notes, the fall motif is not just a grand, framing pattern in history, but recurs several times in various historical stages. There are multiple movements from unity into disunity, as required by the dialectic’s move from proposition to contradiction – before resolution in a higher unity. These disruptions could be hurtful, savage, causing long spans of pain and suffering before achieving their resolution. The expulsions of the Jews, the deterioration of the middle ages, and the religious wars of the Reformation, were all – in Hegel’s mind – explicable as necessary stages in a developmental growth. As he notes in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History:
“The History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom… That the History of the World… is the realization of Spirit, this is the true Theodicy, the justification of God in History… What has happened and is happening… is essentially His Work…”
Fascism & the Hegelian Form of Order
Although Popper’s work has long been treated as a polemical distortion of Hegel’s main assertions, more recent accounts of an ‘ideal type’ of Fascism certainly match the Hegelian form. In his major study of the Marxist tradition, Leszek Kolakowski traced the dialectic’s descent from Neoplatonic patterns and its return into more recent manifestations. Moreover, a long-standing tradition of scholarship on ‘political religion’ has made the same point, most notably in works by Eric Voegelin, Emilio Gentile, Michael Burleigh, and John Gray among others.
The pattern was, to use Roger Griffin’s phrase, essentially palingenetic; it involved a narrative of birth, degeneration, and rebirth; or, alternatively, of wholeness, division, and a higher wholeness. The dialectic itself exemplifies a deeper three-beat rhythm that runs through Romantic literature, and is paradigmatic of Fascist and Nazi imagery of pre-modern unity, civilizational rise (also a corruption), and then a final formation into a renewed, and purged unity. Yet it was not exclusively a fascist form. Hegel’s philosophy became a touchstone for liberals and socialists too from the 1880s through to the interwar period.
The Influence of the Hegelian Form of Order & Other Modern Writers
Hegel, as Karl Löwith and many others has shown, was one of many modern writers to propose a pattern in human history. German Enlightenment and Romantic writing was full of echoes of an essentially Neoplatonic myth of fall and return. In a classic study, M.H. Abrams offers an exhaustive survey of such motifs in a mass of literary and philosophical works. The shape of the argument – the explanation of man’s divided nature, both socially and psychologically, and the path back to re-unity – comes to the fore in Gotthold Lessing’s ‘The Education of the Human Race’ (1780). Herder developed the idea, and Friedrich Schiller (in his 1795 ‘Letters on Aesthetic Education’) refined the idea of the necessary fall: “It was civilization itself… which inflicted this wound upon modern man”; but the “fragmentary specialization of human powers” through which “individuals … suffer under the curse of this cosmic purpose” was necessary. This was a felix divisio, as Abrams puts it (p. 211), for as “little as individuals might benefit from this fragmentation of their being, there was no other way in which the species as a whole could have progressed.” (Schiller, p. 39; quoted in Abrams, p. 211). The works of Jakob Böhme, the Lutheran mystic who stressed the necessity of the fall in the movement towards heaven, were also important to Schelling, Holderlin, and Hegel, whose conversations at the Tübingen seminary produced the first Idealist system. Within the pattern of the bildungsroman there lies a version of Christian eschatology which, some historians argue, can be traced back to much earlier texts on one hand, and forward into Marxism and other secular political philosophies on the other.
Marx and Hegel
Indeed, the historical pattern Hyndman attributed to Hegel was an ancient one. As the Marxist scholar, G.A. Cohen, puts it: “This rhythm of primitive whole, fragmentation, and reunification asserts itself widely in Western thought. It beats not only in Hegel and… in Marx, but in much religious doctrine, in the Christian triad of innocence, fall, and redemption, in Aristophanes’ account of love in Plato’s Symposium, in some psycho-analytic narrations of the genesis of the person, and—seminally for German philosophy of history— throughout Schiller”. (Karl Marx’s Theory of History (1978), , p. 21). Referring to this sequence in intimate relations, Hegel wrote in his fragment ‘On Love’ that “the process is: unity, separated opposites, reunion.” Later in the Phenomenology, he describes the movement as “sensuous consciousness”, “understanding”, and “Reason”. The “Hegelian generalisation of the evolution from unity to disintegration back again to unity on a higher plane”, would be inherited by Marx, in “a dialectical progression from a state of undifferentiated unity, through a stage of differentiation without unity to a stage of differentiated unity”. The motif of rebirth in fascism involves, as Griffin puts it, the loss and the recovery of a sense of transcendence. To achieve this, there will be sacrifices on a grand scale; something to which the annals of world history can attest.
 For details of Lessing’s and Herder’s texts, see M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971) pp. 203-4. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Elizabeth Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p.33.
 David Leopold, The Young Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 18.
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’.