From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Dialectics of Liberation: The urgent need for new beginnings

March 11, 2021

From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: From the paper on “Hegel’s Absolute as New Beginning,” which Raya Dunayevskaya delivered to the Hegel Society of America conference in 1974, we present the section on the relationship of the movement from practice to philosophy, as published in the Nov. 1974 News & Letters. It critiques philosophers, including those who consider themselves Marxists, specifically Theodor Adorno and his philosophic legacy, Negative Dialectics (Continuum Publishing, 1995), in contrast to the Czech philosopher Karel Kosik’s Dialectics of the Concrete (D. Reidel Publishing, 1976).

Hegel’s Absolutes never were a series of ascending ivory towers. Revolutionary transformation is immanent in the very form of thought. As we saw from the chapter on Absolute Idea [in Hegel’s Science of Logic], the unifying force was free creative power. By the time we reach the mediated final result, Absolute Mind, the absolute negativity that was the moving force in Logic, in Nature, in Geist [meaning Spirit or Mind], where we saw them as concrete stages of human freedom, there no longer was any difference between theory and practice. This is why our age can best understand Hegel’s Absolute. It has been witness to a movement from practice for two long decades (ever since the death of Stalin lifted the incubus from the heads of the masses in East Europe).

To this writer, Hegel’s genius is lodged in the fact that his “voyage of discovery” becomes one endless process of discovery for us. The “us” includes both Marx’s new continent of thought of materialist dialectics, and Hegel scholars, as well as the movement from practice that was itself a form of theory once its spontaneity discovered the power of thought along with its physical might.

This writer has followed very closely this movement of revolt ever since June 17, 1953, and saw in it a quest for universality because she had already discerned in the dialectical movement of the three final syllogisms in Absolute Mind, a new point of departure in the Idea and in the movement from practice.[1]

Theodor Adorno. Photo:

THIS MOVEMENT FROM PRACTICE hardly had the ear of contemporary Hegelians, orthodox or Marxist, as evidenced in the erudite, Leftist director of the famous Frankfurt School, the late Theodor Adorno. His very reason for being, for thinking, for acting, was Dialectics, that is to say, for negations of what is. He entitled the summation of his life’s thought, his intellectual legacy, Negative Dialectics. This book, however, has little to do with the dialectics of negativity, and least with the concept of Subject, by which Hegel distinguished his view from all other philosophers who left the search for truth at Substance only. As “concretized” by Marx for the proletarian class, Subject is supposed to have been accepted also by Adorno, but again, Adorno keeps his distance and originality locked up in what he calls Negative Dialectics.

From the very beginning of the Preface of his work (p. xix), Adorno informs us that the positive in the negative—“the negation of the negation”—is the enemy: “This book seeks to free dialectics from such affirmative traits without reducing its determinacy.” The so-called “theoretical inadequacies of Hegel and Marx” revolve around what he sees as the all-encompassing evil, the concept, that “subsuming cover,” its “autarchy” [pp. 11-12, 144, 408].

Naturally, Adorno keeps his distance from “positivists” and the vulgarisms of the knighted Karl Popper and his infamous “Hegel and Fascism” school. Nevertheless, Adorno, almost out of nothing, suddenly brings in Auschwitz and introduces some sort of kinship between it and absolute negativity. He writes: “Genocide is the absolute integration….Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death….Absolute negativity is in plain sight and has ceased to surprise anyone” [p. 362].[2]

BY “ALMOST OUT OF NOTHING,” I naturally do not mean that Auschwitz was not the reality of Fascism, nor do I mean only the suddenness and shock of introducing such subject matter in the climax of a book called “Meditations on Metaphysics.” Rather, I mean it is wrong. That is to say, it is totally illogical and non-dialectical, considering that Adorno devoted an adult lifetime to fighting fascist ideology as the very opposite of Hegelian dialectics and had seen the very death of dialectics in Nazi Germany. Perhaps a better word than “wrong” would be Adorno’s own curse-word “naive.”

I mean that as late as 1957, in his Aspects of the Hegelian Dialectic, he almost defended a subject-object identity.

“Subject-object cannot be dismissed as mere extravagance of logical absolutism….In seeing through the latter as mere subjectivity, we have already passed beyond the Speculative idealism….Cognition, if it is genuine, and more than simple duplication of the subjective, must be the subject’s objectivity.”[3] And, indeed, in his Negative Dialectics, he reiterates the same idea when he writes that, despite the fact that Hegel “deifies” subjectivity, “he accomplishes the opposite as well: an insight into the subject as a self-manifesting objectivity” [p. 350].

WHY, THEN, SUCH A VULGAR REDUCTION of absolute negativity? Therein is the real tragedy of Adorno (and the Frankfurt School). It is the tragedy of a one-dimensionality of thought which results when you give up Subject, when one does not listen to the voices from below—and they were loud, clear, and demanding between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s. It is a tragedy once one returns to the ivory tower and reduces his purpose to “the purpose of discussing key concepts of philosophical disciplines and centrally intervening in those disciplines” (p. xx). The next step was irresistible, the substitution of a permanent critique not alone for absolute negativity, but also for “permanent revolution” itself.

Now, whether the enduring relevance of Hegel has stood the test of time because of the devotion and analytical rigor of Hegel scholars, or because a movement of freedom surged up from below and was followed by new cognition studies, there is no doubt that because Absolute Negativity signifies transformation of reality—the dialectic of contradiction and totality of crises, the dialectic of liberation—Hegel’s thought comes to life at critical points of history, called by him “birth-times of history.”

Karel Kosik

In addition, there were Marxist scholars, revolutionary dissidents, who built on new ground. While a scholar from the West, like Reinhart Maurer, was preoccupied with Hegel’s concept of where to end, the Czechoslovakian philosopher, Karel Kosík, was preoccupied with where to begin anew. Of the Eastern European studies that accompanied the revolts, and revolved around Marx’s Humanism, especially Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” one of the most rigorous studies was Karel Kosík’s Dialectics of the Concrete.

Nor were these serious studies limited to the “East.” As Frantz Fanon saw it, the African struggle for freedom was “not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute.” There is no doubt, of course, that once action supersedes the subjectivity of purpose, the unity of theory and practice is the form of life out of which emerge totally new dimensions. To this writer, this is only the “proof” of the ending of the Science of Logic, the absolute as new beginning, the self-bringing forth of liberty….

IF PHILOSOPHERS LEARN TO ESCHEW ELITISMS, then the unity of theory and practice, of absolute as new beginning, will not remain an abstract desire, or mere will, but philosophy itself will become action.

In his Hegel: A Reexamination, Professor J.N. Findlay was right when he stated that Hegel’s exegeses can seem “arid and false to those who see nothing mysterious and god-like in the facts of human thought.” But is it not equally true that philosophers who stand only in terror before revolution not only do not “comprehend” it, they cannot fully comprehend the revolution in thought? And Hegel did revolutionize philosophy.

Absolute Idea as new beginning can become a new “subjectivity” for realizing Hegel’s principle, that “the transcendence of the opposition between Notion and Reality, and that unity which is truth, rest upon this subjectivity alone.” This is not exactly a summons to the barricades, but Hegel is asking us to have our ears as well as our categories so attuned to the “Spirit’s urgency” that we rise to the challenge of working out, through “patience, seriousness, suffering and the labor of the negative” a totally new relationship of philosophy to actuality and action as befits a “birth-time of history.” This is what makes Hegel a contemporary.

[1] See Dunayevskaya’s May 1953 “Letters on Hegel’s Absolutes,” N&L, Sept.-Oct. 2014, Nov.-Dec. 2014, and Jan.-Feb. 2015.

[2] Contrast Adorno’s accusation of “conceptual fetishism” against Marx’s famous “Fetishism of Commodities” as “truly a piece from the heritage of classic German philosophy” (pp. 189-90) to Karel Kosik’s analysis of the very same section: it “can be characterized in Hegelian terms as the unity of being and non-being, of the differentiated and the undifferentiated, of identity and non-identity. All other determinations are but richer definitions and concretizations of this ‘absolute’ of the capitalist society. The dialectics of the exposition or of the explication may not overshadow the central problem: how does science arrive at the necessary origin of the presentation….Dialectics is not a method of reduction, but the method of spiritual and intellectual reproduction of society” [Dialectics of the Concrete, pp. 16-17]. See also Ch. 2, “Marx’s Historical Materialism,” esp. pp. 76-94, in Philosophy and Revolution.—RD

[3] Adorno, “Aspects of Hegel’s Philosophy” (original German edition 1957), in Hegel: Three Studies, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (MIT Press, 1993), pp. 5-6.

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