Essay: Revolutionary feminism and Hegel’s notion of Life

March 15, 2016

From the March-April 2016 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: For International Women’s Day, we honor the important work of Olga Domanski (1923-2015) by presenting her essay “Revolutionary Feminism, ‘Private Enclaves,’ and Hegel’s Notion of Life,” originally printed in the March 1995 N&L and included in Explorations in Dialectical and Critical Theory.

by Olga Domanski

The concept of International Women’s Day was rooted in struggle, from its birth in 1911 as an act of solidarity with the organizing struggles of U.S. garment workers, through its convergence with an actual revolutionary moment as in Russia in 1917, to its rediscovery at the end of the 1960s by a totally new Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) which forced the Left to confront the fact that the “new society” it was fighting for had to mean totally new human relations and that means and ends could not be separated.

What makes the struggle so difficult today is that two kinds of battles must be waged at one and the same time. One is the strongest action possible against the vicious demonization of welfare mothers, the lethal attacks on abortion rights, and the alarming increase in rapes, battering, poverty and unemployment. The other is the struggle against the retrogression in thought within the WLM that is manifested in the ever-widening gap between feminist theory, inside the academy and out, and the lives of Black and working women. The crisis has become so deep, with seemingly endless rollbacks on all fronts, that everything has to be rethought anew to find a pathway forward again.

It is significant that when the retrogressive “changed world,” which has reached such an alarming point today, first appeared in the mid-1980s, Raya Dunayevskaya was impelled to call attention, in her Introduction/Overview to Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future, to the “practicality of philosophy” when objective crises are so deep that you are facing an historic point. The specific philosophic point she was asking the WLM to investigate was Hegel’s concept of “Life” in his Science of Logic.

It isn’t that other feminist theorists have not seen the importance of studying Hegel to confront the challenges facing the WLM. Yet it is almost always the relevance of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind they have debated (in particular the section on “Master and Slave,” as seen most notably in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex) while the Science of Logic has had very little discussion. It may be because Hegel’s presentation of the dialectic he discovered in 2,500 years of humanity’s struggle to be free is made in far more concrete categories in the Phenomenology than in his Logic. It has, in fact, been a matter of astonishment to many to find such a title as “Life” in so abstract a work.

Olga Domanski speaking at meeting for the centenary of Raya Dunayevskaya, Detroit, Mich., Sept. 18, 2010.

Olga Domanski speaking at meeting for the centenary of Raya Dunayevskaya, Detroit, Mich., Sept. 18, 2010.

Whether or not the very abstractness may help us to follow the dialectic more clearly, the section on “Life” Dunayevskaya was pointing to has enormous ramifications for what is facing us today. In Hegel, “Life” is key because it becomes the path to the Absolute Idea—the point he called “an absolute liberation” when he got to the final paragraph of his Science of Logic.[1] The journey to get there is so full of the contradictions from within that have to be overcome—indeed, that transcendence is the only thing that moves you forward—that, while it is important not to map Hegel to history too literally, a look into the chapter on “Life” seems to offer special insights for the WLM at this moment.


The chapter on “Life” appears, significantly, in the Doctrine of the Notion—which Hegel called “the realm of Subjectivity or Freedom” (p. 205). We have already been taken from the Doctrine of Being, through the Doctrine of Essence, to reach this final Doctrine, where Hegel develops the categories that will finally overcome the division between objectivity and subjectivity and reach “absolute liberation” in the Absolute Idea.

In the very last section of this Doctrine, “Life” is one of three chapters that comprise what Hegel calls “The Idea.” That category does not mean, Hegel stresses, what is commonly thought of as “only an idea,” which implies that it is merely an abstraction. Rather, Hegel’s Idea is the unity of Notion and reality, for “whatever is actual is only insofar as it contains and expresses the Idea.” Hegel tells any who think it strange to take up Life in so abstract a work, that it is only because they think of Logic as “empty and dead thought forms.” In his Logic, Life is a form of the Idea.

Most important of all, Hegel’s Idea is a “process.” In his Phenomenology, which Hegel had written as an “Introduction” to his Logic, he described the process he would be tracing almost poetically: “Life is the universal fluid medium, quietly, silently shaping and molding and distributing the forms in all their manifold detail, becomes by that very activity the movement of those forms, or passes into life qua Process.”[2] In the more rarified air of the Logic, he simply announces that the Idea as process has three stages: the Idea of Life, the Idea of Cognition, and the Absolute Idea—which turn out to be the titles of the three chapters of this final section. The first, on “Life,” is the one we want to investigate here to see what illumination it might give us as Women’s Liberationists.

Following his usual triadic structure, this chapter also has three sections: “The Living Individual,” “The Life-Process,” and “The Kind.” We soon find that what permeates each of them is the movement from the Universal, through the Particular, to the Individual, as well as the reverse. These are not only the central categories of the Notion, but illuminate Hegel’s whole “system.”


What is key to this concept is that, either way—whether the movement is from Universal through Particular to Individual or Individual-Particular-Universal—the movement from abstract to concrete through particularization necessitates a first and a second negation. Far from the common misinterpretation that Hegel considers only the “Universal” as determinate, in his philosophy the “Particular” is the mediation. The urgent question becomes when does the abstract Universal particularize itself, in order for the Individual to become the concrete Universal?

Thus, in the first section on the “Living Individual,” Hegel follows how the Individual finds the sensibility of “self-feeling,” which turns to the “power of resistance,” as the impulse to move outward and thereby discover one’s “actual Individuality.” We might say it is the kind of personhood we have all experienced as we have moved into the world. (It is surely what women experienced when they were drawn into the factories “to support the war effort” during World War II and then refused to be pushed back out again when it was over. It was the very threshold of the new WLM.) Yet, as soon as the Individual comes up against the objective world, a great “tension” arises. This is what Hegel discusses in the second section on the “Life-Process.”

The tension results from the Individual relating to “an indifferent objectivity which is Other to it,” and wanting to not lose itself but preserve itself within that relation. Hegel calls this tension between the individual and the external world an “absolute contradiction,” identifying “pain” as the existence of this contradiction in life. But he considers this pain “the privilege of living natures”—because from the pain you gain the impulse to move forward by transcending the contradiction. And here is how Hegel describes that transcendence: “In the coincidence of the Individual with its objectivity… it transcends its particularity and raises itself into universality” (pp. 412-413). The movement here from Individual through the mediation of the Particular to the Universal describes, in my view, the point at which Women’s Liberation moved from an Idea whose time had come to a Movement.

It was the point at which women refused to any longer consider the contradictions of life in a male-dominated society as only a private matter. The personal was political. We were making history and, far from any woman feeling lost in a collectivity, each “preserved herself within that relation,” to use Hegel’s terms, or felt “individualized through the historic process,” as Marx put it. Most important of all, in moving from an Idea to a Movement, where every woman felt part of the whole, a totally new subjectivity was released for our age. In reaching this great new stage, I see the WLM reaching a stage that corresponds, philosophically, to the section of “Life” that Hegel calls “Kind.”


Part of the historic August 26, 1970, Women’s Strike for Equality.

Part of the historic August 26, 1970, Women’s Strike for Equality.

Although none can deny the power of tens of thousands of women marching down Fifth Avenue in New York in 1970 to announce the birth of a new Women’s Liberation Movement for our age, “Kind” is not merely a question of numbers but the way the word is used in asking: What kind of freedom are we fighting for? What kind of organization can help us get there? It may or may not help to understand what Hegel means by this category to see that what Johnston and Struthers translate as “Kind” is translated by A.V. Miller as “Genus.”[3] Whatever the translation, what makes it clear that Hegel is not talking about either a “biological” or a quantitative question is his brief section on “Kind” in the Encyclopedia Logic, where he stresses that: “for the animal the process of Kind is the highest point of its vitality. But the animal never gets so far in its Kind as to have a being of its own; it succumbs to the power of Kind.”[4]

It appears to me that Hegel wants to again show us the “privilege” of our humanity, as we are faced with how to overcome the contradictions we face even at this high stage. The contradiction is, he continues, that “In the process of Kind the immediate living being mediates itself with itself, and thus rises above its immediacy, only however to sink back into it again. Life thus runs away, in the first instance, only into the false infinity of the progress ad infinitum.” To get out of this trap, we have to move from being only “Kind in itself” (i.e., implicitly) to become “Kind for itself.”


This is the section we are most in need of working out, because 25 years after reaching such a great stage we are facing deeper contradictions and tensions within the WLM than feminists have perhaps ever before confronted, a contradiction that is seen the most sharply in the persistent separation between “theory” and “practice.” The ground-breaking questioning of the “kind” of society we are fighting for is still only “in itself’—i.e., implicit. The task is hardly over just because of a “sensibility” to the need for totally new human relations. Without explicitly and concretely working out what “no separation of means and ends” entails, the movement runs the risk of “sinking back” into “immediacy”—or what Dunayevskaya called “private enclaves,” in the same Introduction/Overview in which she challenged the WLM to grasp the “practicality of philosophy” to confront the contradictions today.

The expression “private enclaves” resonates with what Adrienne Rich critiqued as the “tendencies in feminism toward a kind of ‘inner emigration’” which she spelled out as including “not just lesbian separatism” but the kind of thinking where “women-only space, often a strategic necessity, becomes an end in itself.” It may also be what Patricia Altenbernd Johnson, in relating Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind to the problems of the WLM in the 1990s, called the point where “we are generating a world of our own creation, but do not yet have freedom from and in this world.” Gila Hayim, in an article on the Phenomenology that looked at what happens after we have gained a “mind of our own” put the problem this way: “this self…can posit itself as something beyond reach, enigmatic and unspeakable, or hide in a subjective land of its own making, detaching itself completely from the world, or emerge in the form of the preaching philosopher or cynical critic.” Each of us surely knows some theoretical or activist tendency that fits one or another of these descriptions.[5]

When Dunayevskaya looked at this section of Hegel’s Logic, she was not limiting the problem of “private enclaves” to the WLM alone. She was speaking to any attempt to escape from “Absolute Method,” whether on practical, theoretical or organizational questions. Absolute Method is the method of “absolute negativity,” the simultaneously subjective-objective, continuous process of becoming that Hegel had discovered, which made his philosophy so revolutionary. Absolute Method is not discussed by Hegel until the very last chapter of the Science of Logic on the Absolute Idea, but we have been seeing Hegel working toward it in this section on “Life.” Indeed, the critical nature of Hegel’s chapter on “Life” is that it becomes the transition to the Idea of Cognition, in the process of dialectically working out our way to Freedom.

Hegel says that this transition is achieved once we grasp the Idea as totality, through what he calls “Intro-Reflection.” I would call it taking a hard look in the historic mirror and asking ourselves what are the totally new relations we need, between woman and man, woman and woman, and most of all between the movement from practice and the movement from theory, to achieve a new integrality between the Idea and the lived experience of each and all of us.


What still remains for us to investigate in the chapter on “Life” is what we can make of Hegel’s discussion of “the living generations” at the very end of the chapter. This question of “the living generations” appears to be closely connected with his concept of “absolute negativity,” which Hegel implies has to permeate every facet of our lives, as individuals and as a movement, to ensure a forward movement to Freedom. Whatever else it means, I want to suggest it means that for the dialectic to live it has to be constantly re-created by every new age. Marx re-created the Hegelian dialectic as “revolution in permanence.” Standing on that ground, Dunayevskaya recreated it as Marxist-Humanism and, returning to Hegel for a new age, saw “absolute negativity as new beginning.”

If we do not take responsibility for continuing that revolutionary dialectic for today, if we think “philosophy” is not our job but for someone else, if we don’t see there is no “organizational answer” for women’s liberation or any other question that doesn’t begin with a profound organization—or a re-organization—of our thought, we will not yet have escaped the “private enclave” that prevents us from finding the way out of the deadly retrogression that threatens to destroy us today.

[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, Vol. II, trans. Johnston and Struthers (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 485. All quotations are from this edition, and hereafter page references will be cited in the text.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B. Baillie (London: Macmillan, 1931), p. 223.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, trans. A.V. Miller (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1989), p. 772.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, The Logic of Hegel, trans. William Wallace (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), para. 214. This is commonly referred to as either the Smaller Logic or the Encyclopedia Logic.

[5] See “Living the Revolution,” by Adrienne Rich in The Women’s Review of Books, September 1986; Patricia A. Johnson’s discussion of Dunayevskaya’s work on Hegel’s Absolutes in Quarterly Journal of Ideology, Vol. 13, Number 4, 1989 (excerpted in October 1990 News & Letters on page 5); Gila Hayim’s “Hegel’s Critical Theory and Feminist Concerns,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 16, 1 (1990).

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