In this final instalment of CARR Senior Fellow Henry Mead’s series on Hegel and Fascism, Mead looks at Hegel’s case for a strong state and its influence on political thinkers in the UK and US – spelling a note of caution about how mainstream ideas can be weaponised for nativists, populist and authoritarian ends.
The correspondences between the Hegelian case for a strong state, and the growing interest in welfarism in European politics, are intriguing, and show again how dangerous ideas grew in the same soil as those held dear by left-liberal thinkers. Anexus of rationales for statism can be traced in the fin de siecle, as Hegel’s argument for the strong state seemed to British observers to be borne out by Bismarck’s welfarist reforms of the 1880s. The startling array of legislation presented to the Reichstag in 1881 was soon perceived as a strategic move by the chancellor to disarm the socialist movement, bind citizens more tightly under state authority, and increase industrial efficiency. Yet the German precedent in both philosophy and practice provided a model for state interventionism among the Britain’s New Liberals. In 1908, for example, Lloyd George visited Germany to see the factories, insurance organisations, and labour exchanges. Moreover, and in 1912, Lord Haldane made a similar journey to witness German developments in education and military organisation, and to seek to negotiate a resolution to the dreadnaught arms race.
For Haldane, this was both a political and an intellectual enquiry, because he was one of a number of leading British intellectuals who had imbibed Hegelian and Idealist thought in their formative years, and saw German policy as a product of this tradition. Such mid-century Christian liberals as Benjamin Jowett and J.F. Ferrier had brought Hegel’s ideas and philosophical writings into Oxford and the Scottish Universities; at Oxford, it was transmitted through the influence of T.H. Green to a number of philosophers, many of whom were liberal or social democrat by inclination. The Hegelian idea in his form dispelled a Spencerian ‘Social Darwinism’ that seemed callous and atomistic to Green’s followers. For these readers, a Christian ethic underlay their reception of Hegel – and they managed to combine this with a version of Darwinism, as we see in the work of Green’s student, D.G. Ritchie, Darwin and Hegel (1893).
Yet if one looks closely, Bismarckian welfare reforms had other motivations. The main being preparing the ground for war (i.e. a healthy, strong population within a strong state would be better equipped for a coming military contest with its European rivals). For Popper, all this is consistent with the path towards Nazism, as he demonstrates in his proposed formula first for German militarism, then for Nazism: ‘Hegel + Haeckel’. Indeed, the evolutionary theory of the biologist Ernst Haeckel is key here. A German disciple of Darwin, whom he visited several times in the 1850s, Haeckel’s influence grew in his homeland as he adapted Darwin’s evolutionary theory into a teleological form, placing humankind at the highest point of development – and suggesting a competition among modern European nations for a place at its very summit. In this logic, a strong population made for a strong state; in the Hegelian logic, all individuals were really significant only as participants in that manifestation of the absolute, which in turn was destined to fight for ascendance on the world stage.
As these theories of social evolution were set out during periods of Bismarck’s reign, and subsequently under Wilhelmine nationalism, the British liberals and social democrats were troubled, and a note of wariness in accounts of Hegel was clear. But this wariness was manifest also in a kind of emulation or competitiveness, so that the social reforms of the early 20th century might be seen as a backdrop to gradual mobilisation as well as a moral intervention to support the poorest of society. Indeed, the technocratic observations of Fabian thinkers, the Webbs, H.G. Wells, and others, were not averse to theories of ‘social hygiene’ that accompanied such logic, as is well-chronicled. While Haeckel’s thinking, informed by the even cruder biologism of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, shaped German public policy, so a surprising number of prominent British thinkers were sympathetic to Francis Galton’s new discipline of eugenics.
The emulation of German public policy, coinciding significantly with a well-publicised arms race, ended in the Great War. This brings us back to the opening instalment of this blog, which recounts the pattern of hostility to Hegel in the early part of the century. Particularly notable was the position of Leonard Hobhouse, for example, in The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918), his attack on Bernard Bosanquet’s The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899; 4th edition 1923). Hobhouse was a graduate of Oxford where he had been influenced by T.H. Green’s ethos of collectivism, but his intellectual work had since moved away from Idealism towards a theory of ‘mind in evolution’, eschewing spiritual abstractions to connect biological and social growth. Going further than his friend Ritchie, Hobhouse placed greater emphasis on psychological development to the exclusion of the Green-Hegelian influence. By 1917, this had a political overtone, as he took Bosanquet, the most faithful Hegelian of the British Idealists, to task. Most vividly in his preface in which he records, while reading Hegel, seeing German bombs falling on Highgate and associating the text and the event as “the product of an evil philosophy”. Hobhouse acknowledging how in Green’s work “the Hegelian theory was for a time transmuted into a philosophy of social idealism… [with] a value of its own and… distinguished living disciples”; however, it had to his eye reverted to type, “as a fashionable… philosophy” revived and the doctrine of the state as an incarnation of the Absolute, a super personality which absorbs the real living personality of men and women”, which had, “in many quarters achieved the position of an academic orthodoxy”. So Hobhouse distinguishes between Green’s ‘Hegelianism-and-water’ and Bosanquet’s headier ‘spirits’.
Indeed in the Philosophy of the Right, Hegel writes that “individuals… do not live as private persons for their own ends alone, but in the very act of willing these they will the universal for the sake of the universal, and their activity is consciously aimed at the universal end”, and, later in relation to warfare, “Sacrifice on behalf of the individuality is the substantial relation of all its members and so is a universal duty”. One can see how Hobhouse distinguishes between Green’s and Hegel’s attitudes: the contrast lies between the idea of the social organism permitting the self-realisation of the individual, as opposed to the self-realisation of the individual being defined by the ways it helps manifest the state.
More modern interpreters have sought to absolve Hegel of these criticisms. Stephen Houlgate, for example, offers a clear defence of The Philosophy of Right as an account of how freedom requires participation in the social necessities of its own licence. Freedom to choose to do as one pleases, and the freedom to depart from that choice, is not sufficient in itself; a further crucial dimension of freedom is the participation in the community. It is often overlooked that Hegel’s account of Sittlichkeit moves through phases of Family, Civil Society, and State worship, involves a key phase of corporatism, in which individuals are joined together in a social unity. The details of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right may not then be as totalitarian as they seem. Notably, Hegel emphasises the role of corporations in the development of civil society – although wary of democracy, with an eye on the tyranny of the masses (‘the rabble’), a wariness shared by Mill and Carlyle in England, he expands on the possibilities of freedom for the individual. Hegel then presents a multifaceted font of modern ideology – on one hand, in Popper’s savage caricature, the fountainhead of fascism; on the other, the source of an idea of positive freedom borne out in modern liberalism; even, one might dare say, touched by pluralism.
Intriguingly, as Richard Rorty has noted, Hegel did not merely end his chronicle of the Absolute with the local status quo; he was also admiring of America in the last stages of his Philosophy of Right, and his vision of the new state forming across the Atlantic seems to be presented as a stage manifesting the Absolute beyond the Prussian status quo. It was this passage that leapt out perhaps to Walt Whitman, who wrote two essays enthusiastically about the vision of the many united as one in Hegel’s writings. Whitman wrote as a poet, surprisingly finding fuel in the dry language of the German’s metaphysics, but he saw something in it that resonated with his deeply Romantic vision – and unsurprisingly, since lines of descent through Whitman to Emerson to Carlyle run back to the German Romantics who inspired Hegel himself, and the narrative of unity, division, and reunification that runs through all these writers. Hegel, like Whitman, therefore contains multitudes, and contrarieties. Another Romantic, William Blake wrote that “without contrarieties there is no progression”. Whether there is in fact progression is another question; perhaps, however, liberal critics of Hegel in 1945 might have conceded half the point: there are contrarieties, which vary and change over time, but are never resolved – “crooked timber” which, it seems, we can only make do. The uses to which Hegel can be put, from a liberal agonism to totalitarian fascism, show how mainstream ideas can be weaponised for nativist, populist and authoritarian ends.
 Leonard Hobhouse, The Metaphysical Theory of the State (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1918), p. 24.
 The terms are Stefan Collini’s, in Liberalism and Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), p. 45.
 G.W.F. Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of the Right, trans. Knox (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 260 (p. 235) and 325 (p. 308)
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’.