1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes, Part 1 of 3

August 30, 2014

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Raya Dunayevskaya’s May 12, 1953, letter—presented in two parts, here and in the next issue—is one of the historic-philosophic writings included in The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, which singled out her May 1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes as that philosophic moment. On the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, we consider that a new exploration of its contents is timely for our world struggling for the survival, deepening and spread of today’s revolutions, beset as they are by both counter-revolution and self-limiting ideologies.

Dear H [Grace Lee Boggs]:

I am going to take the plunge and if it turns out that I have behaved like a bull in a china shop—well, I simply have to take my chances or I will never get to sleep nights at all. There is no concrete problem that I meet daily, no matter how minor, that doesn’t send me scurrying to [Hegel’s] Logic and by now I’m so drunk with it all that I brazenly shout that in the dialectic of the Absolute Idea is the dialectic of the party and that I have just worked it out.

Just like that. I have taken the plunge. But I will restrain myself from beginning with the conclusions and the differentiation of us from Lenin and even us from 19481C.L.R. James’s Notes on Dialectics, or “Nevada Dialectics,” was written in 1948. but I will have you bear with me as I go through the whole last chapter of the Logic. However, before I do so, let me state what I am not doing: 1) I am not touching upon the mass party; the workers will do what they will do and until they do we can have only the faintest intimation of the great leap. 2) This is not 1948, but 1953; I am not concerned with spontaneity versus organization, nor with Stalinism which the workers will overcome.

I am concerned only with the dialectic of the vanguard party of that type of grouping like ours, be it large or small, and its relationship to the mass.

The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism

The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism

LET’S BEGIN WITH THE BEGINNING: “The Absolute Idea has now turned out to be the identity of the Theoretical and the Practical Idea….’’2G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Vol. II, translated by W.H. Johnston and L.G. Struthers (MacMillan, 1929), p. 466; quotations in this letter are from this edition, hereafter referred to as SLII. Page … Continue reading At this moment this means to me that the party is the identity or unity of the activity of the leadership and the activity of the ranks. “Each of these by itself is one-sided and contains the Idea itself only as a sought Beyond and an unattained goal; each consequently is a synthesis of the tendency, and both contains and does not contain the Idea…” [SLII, p. 466; SLM, p. 824]. And further down on the same page we have the warning that the Absolute Idea “contains the highest opposition within itself.”

While the staggering truth of this last phrase sinks in, I will make one more quotation from that page: “The Absolute Idea is the only object and content of philosophy. As it contains every determinateness, and its essence is to return to itself through its self-determination or particularization, it has various phases. It is the business of philosophy to recognize it in them. Nature and Spirit are different manners of presenting its existence…” [SLII, p. 466; SLM, p. 824].

Because the party is the only object and content of our philosophy here, I wish to make two jumps here. One is to contrast to the manner in which Other is explained on this page where “Notion…as person, is impenetrable and atomic subjectivity; while at the same time it is not exclusive individuality, but is, for itself, universality and cognition, and in its Other has its own objectivity for object” [SLII, p. 466; SLM, p. 824]. Here then Other is the proletariat outside. What I wish to contrast to it is the description of Other when the Notion is further developed on p. 477 where Other turns out to be, not the proletariat outside, but the party itself. Hegel says:

“The second or negative and mediated determination is at the same time the mediating determination. At first it may be taken as simple determination, but in truth it is a reference or relation; for it is negative—the negative, however, of the positive, and includes the latter. It is not therefore the Other of a term to which it is indifferent, for thus it would be neither an Other, nor a reference or relation; it is the Other in itself, the Other of an Other. It thus includes its own Other, and so is contradiction, or the posited dialectic of itself” [SLII, pp. 476-77; SLM, pp. 834-35].

The other jump that I referred to that I wish to make is to leave the Logic for a moment and go to the last chapter in [Hegel’s] Phenomenology. In that chapter on Absolute Knowledge Hegel writes: “The object as a whole is the mediated result [the syllogism] or the passing of universality into individuality through specification, as also the reverse process from individual to universal through canceled individuality or specific determination.”3G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J.B. Baillie (Allen & Unwin, 1931), p. 790; quotations in this letter are from this edition, hereafter referred to as PhB. Page numbers are also … Continue reading

RD head in hand edited

TAKE A SECOND LOOK at the phrase, “the mediated result” and remember that our object is the party and that we are working out the triangular relationship not only politically but philosophically; that, syllogistically speaking, the party is the totality, the mediated result of the three layers4The Johnson-Forest Tendency, led by C.L.R. James, Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, developed a theory of “three layers” within organizations, roughly the intellectual leadership, experienced … Continue reading and at the same time it is what it is by its relationship to the proletariat outside, on the one hand, and to the universal of socialism, on the other hand, except that the two are now not “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” but interpenetrated.

Hegel goes on (p. 804): “Spirit is the movement of the self which empties (externalizes) itself of self and sinks itself within its own substance, and qua subject, both has gone out of that substance into itself, making its substance an object and a content, and also supersedes this distinction of objectivity and content” [PhB, p. 804; PhM, p. 490].

So Socialism too as it “externalizes” itself in parties, and in this case I mean not the vanguard grouping but the Paris Commune, the Soviets, the CIO, and so is Hegel talking of history: “The other aspect, however, in which Spirit comes into being, History, is the process of becoming in terms of knowledge, a conscious self-mediating process—Spirit externalized and emptied into Time” [PhB, p. 807; PhM, p. 492]. But he does not leave it at history (which includes historic development for us not only of the above, but the historic development of the party 1903, 1920-3, now). He ends Absolute Knowledge with:

“The goal, which is Absolute Knowledge or Spirit knowing itself as Spirit, finds its pathway in the recollection of spiritual forms (Geister) as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their spiritual kingdom. Their conservation, looked at from the side of their free existence appearing in the form of contingency, is History; looked at from the side of their intellectually comprehended organization, it is the Science of the ways in which knowledge appears. Both together, or History (intellectually) comprehended (begriffen), form at once the recollection and the Golgotha of Absolute Spirit, the reality, the truth, the certainty of its throne, without which it were lifeless, solitary, and alone” [PhB, p. 808; PhM, p. 493].

NOW THE WAY I SEE THIS connect with the Logic [SLII, p. 466; SLM, p. 824] where I left off before I began jumping around, is that where the “various phases” could have meant stages of development within the party such as 1903, 1920-23, etc., the recognition of the different manners of the existence of Absolute Idea as Nature and Spirit, or the country and something like the CIO rather than a “strict party” meant you are a fool if you cannot recognize the party in that for that is socialism just as at one time it was sufficient to define it as “electricity plus soviets.”5Lenin stated that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” (Collected Works of V.I. Lenin—hereafter referred to as LCW—Vol. 31, p. 419). The world concepts, the American roots, and us. We will come back to that, but now I wish to return to Hegel as he develops his Absolute Idea logically. On the next page (467) he writes: “Thus the logical Idea has itself as infinite form for content….As opposed to form, content appears as Other and as given….”

“The Absolute Idea itself has only this further content, that the form-determination is its own perfected totality—the pure Notion….What remains therefore to be considered here is not a content as such, but the universal element of its form—that is, the method.” [SLII, p. 467; SLM, p. 825].

In the party both as political organization and as the realization of the theory of knowledge, the “form-determinations” or form of relations between leaders and ranks, between the various layers, and within each layer tells the whole story. There is no content outside of that. Or, once again to stick close to Hegel, “The method therefore is both soul and substance, and nothing is either conceived or known in its truth except in so far as it is completely subject to the method…” [SLII, p. 468; SLM, p. 826].

HEGEL BRINGS THIS development of method to a climax by contrasting sharply what it is to inquiring cognition, where it is “in the position of a tool, of a means which stands on the subjective side, whereby the method relates itself to the object” [SLII, p. 469; SLM, p. 827] to what it is in the dialectic: “But in true cognition the method is not merely a quantity of certain determinations: it is the fact that the Notion is determined in and for itself, and is the mean only because it equally has the significance of objective, so that, in the conclusion, it does not merely achieve an external determinateness through the method, but is posited in its identity with the subjective Notion” [SLII, p. 469; SLM, p. 827].

It is directly after this that Hegel discloses to me the secret of something that I have been chewing over like a dog does a bone, for many a moon—the intuition of the leader which he calls “internal intuition.’’ First, let’s watch the process of arriving at internal intuition: 1) method only has to have a beginning and so that is where we must begin; 2) but this beginning (and he warns later that “neither in actuality nor in thought” is there any beginning “so simple and abstract as is commonly imagined”) is not “the immediate of sensuous intuition” which “is manifold and individual”; 3) no, this beginning is “internal intuition” [SLII, pp. 470-71; SLM, pp. 827-29].

Secondly, note the contrast between “the immediate of sensuous intuition” and which comes from that which is, from the way, we would say, the third layer lives, and “the internal intuition” of the leader which comes from the way he thinks.

Jam these two opposites together, and you will first understand a sentence back on p. 467: “The self-determination therefore in which alone the Idea is, is to hear itself speak…” [SLII, p. 467; SLM, p. 825]. In a word, the self-development of socialism, objectively and subjectively, gives off impulses which come one way to the leader, another way to the class as a whole, but what is important is that it is determined to appear “to hear itself speak.” And the beautiful part about the “internal intuition” is that this “beginning must be inherently defective and must be endowed with the impulse of self-development” [SLII, p. 471; SLM, p. 829].

So that, finally, we reach Hegel’s conclusion that nothing in life or in thought has a beginning so simple as is imagined but that “every beginning must be made from the Absolute, while every progress is merely the exhibition of the Absolute….The progress is therefore not a kind of overflow, which it would be if in truth that which begins were already the Absolute; rather the progress consists in this, that the universal determines itself and is the universal for itself, that is, is equally also individual and subject. It is the Absolute only in its completion” [SLII, pp. 471-72; SLM, p. 829].

SO ALTHOUGH WE BEGAN WITH the universal of socialism and although we have seen socialism in the various phases of the Commune, the Soviets, the CIO, it is not yet IT for it can be it “only in its completion.” The new society will not be until it is; now we see only intimations, approximations, but it is nevertheless all around us, in the lives of the workers and in the theory of the party, so until the solution of the conflict and the abolition of the division [between mental and manual labor], we are back to stages of development: “cause is the highest stage in which the concrete Notion as beginning has an immediate existence in the sphere of necessity; but it is not yet a subject which, as such, preserves itself also in its actual realization” [SLII, p. 472; SLM, p. 830].

Here I wish you to remember that in this page and in the next is where Lenin made his own 16-point definition of the dialectic, the essence of which was three-fold [LCW 38, pp. 220-22]: 1) the transformation of anything into its opposite (collapse of Second International); 2) the absolute in every relative which is the transition to something else (Monopoly as eve of socialist revolution); and 3) thought reflects reality (objective world connections). That we can fit Lenin in too here historically can now be seen from the fact that in the previous section on “The Idea of Cognition” Lenin had gone further, saying that “Man’s cognition not only reflects the objective world but creates [it]” [LCW 38, p. 212], but when he reached the Absolute Idea it was not the creativity that he developed but the objective world connections because to him in 1915 the Idea as “objective truth” [LCW 38, p. 217] of necessity predominated over any actual reconstruction of society, or the 1917 “socialism looking at us through all windows” [LCW 25, p. 363].

WE, HOWEVER, CAN GO FURTHER, and not only further than Lenin but further than we ourselves did in 1948, when the Nevada Dialectics so profoundly held forth on the positive in the negative. But holding fast to the positive in the negative then meant only the general development of socialism through overcoming Stalinism, whereas now we can be more concrete, at least in relation to our own organization where the mediating determination is a negative but the negative “of the positive and includes the latter” [SLII, p. 477; SLM, p. 835]. Now you can see why some 11 pages back I called attention to this further determination of Other as “its own Other…the posited dialectic of itself”: “The first or immediate term is the Notion in itself, and therefore is the negative only in itself; the dialectic moment with it therefore consists in this, that the distinction which it implicitly contains is posited in it. The second term on the other hand is itself the determinate entity, distinction or relation; hence with it the dialectic moment consists in the positing of the unity which is contained in it” [SLII, p. 477; SLM, p. 835].

We have reached the turning point despite the unity or the party as a totality, since “The negativity which has just been considered is the turning point of the movement of the Notion. It is the simple point of negative self-relation, the innermost source of all activity, of living and spiritual self-movement, the dialectic soul which all truth has in it and through which it alone is truth; for the transcendence of the opposition between the Notion and Reality, and that unity which is the truth, rest upon this subjectivity alone. The second negative, the negative of the negative which we have reached, is this transcendence of the contradiction, but is no more the activity of an external reflection than the contradiction is: it is the innermost and most objective moment of Life and Spirit, by virtue of which a subject is personal and free” [SLII, pp. 477-78; SLM, p. 835].


To be continued next issue


1 C.L.R. James’s Notes on Dialectics, or “Nevada Dialectics,” was written in 1948.
2 G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Vol. II, translated by W.H. Johnston and L.G. Struthers (MacMillan, 1929), p. 466; quotations in this letter are from this edition, hereafter referred to as SLII. Page numbers are also given for the translation by A.V. Miller (Humanities Press, 1969), hereafter referred to as SLM, in this instance p. 824.
3 G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J.B. Baillie (Allen & Unwin, 1931), p. 790; quotations in this letter are from this edition, hereafter referred to as PhB. Page numbers are also given for the translation by A.V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1979), hereafter referred to as PhM, in this instance p. 480.
4 The Johnson-Forest Tendency, led by C.L.R. James, Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, developed a theory of “three layers” within organizations, roughly the intellectual leadership, experienced activists, and rank and file. Dunayevskaya’s May 1953 letters heralded a new concept of the relationship between the “movement from theory” and the “movement from practice that is itself a form of theory.”
5 Lenin stated that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” (Collected Works of V.I. Lenin—hereafter referred to as LCW—Vol. 31, p. 419).

0 thoughts on “1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes, Part 1 of 3

  1. Hegel is a very tough nut to crack, especially for those of us without formal education in philosophy. I am reading the “short” Logic right now and the section on dialectics, when combined with what Lenin wrote in 1915, is making the whole relationship between the dialectic and revolution clear to me. But what I really appreciate is how Dunayevskaya can so eloquently relate the very hard to understand idea of the Absolute or Absolutes of Hegel with the very real concrete tasks of building a revolutionary organization. History is the process of becoming. Hegel said that Being and Nothing are abstractions, whereas Becoming is everything. To say that something IS says nothing. To say that something is BECOMING is to open the door to the dynamic notion of history and social life. The static vs. the dynamic is the central issue of our time. Revolutionaries do not accept the way things are, the static conception of reality. We push on to the way things should be, the future that we see unfolding, as Dunayevskaya put it, which is the dynamic conception of reality. It is these ideas of Hegel that are so profoundly revolutionary. I do not believe that philosophy should be reduced to some sort of auxiliary to revolutionary action, but rather as its comrade in struggle, and this is what I get from Dunayevskaya: reading Hegel deepens our awareness of what Hegel called the need to unite the theoretical and the practical. One thing I like about News and Letters Committees is that it does unite both, whereas other groups are “practical” but their theory is just a watered down version of 1902 Leninism or 1967 Maoism. I was speaking with a self-professed Marxist one day and I reminded him that Lenin had said that one must read the whole of Hegel’s Logic in order to understand the first chapter of Marx’s Capital and he responded by saying “well, I guess I’m not a Marxist then.” I hope News and Letters newspaper always continues to help activists find the philosophical ground for their work and to help philosophers, as Marx put it, change the world.

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