From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Hegel’s call to grasp spirit of the times

July 5, 2022

From the July-August 2022 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Because nothing is more urgent in a time of such crisis than grasping and acting on the spirit of the time in a revolutionary manner, we present excerpts of a lecture given by Raya Dunayevskaya in Tokyo on Jan. 2, 1966, to a group of activists and writers from Zenshin, an anti-Stalinist organization of the Japanese New Left. As a typed transcript of a lecture, it is edited for clarity. The original is in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #9697.

The first thing I want to make very, very clear is that Hegel has a validity all his own, and I want to talk about Hegel today….

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind was a summons to grasp the spirit of the times. It was a demand that the philosophers give ear to the urgency of the times. It was a challenge to all the philosophers who came before him, and the greatest in modern times was Kant. If we are to live up to the fact that 25 years have passed since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, including the French Revolution, and that philosophy is still using their old categories, then we have to stop using the conclusions of other philosophers, right or wrong, as a pillow for our own intellectual sloth, our own laziness, our own attempt not to meet the challenge of the times. A new thing had happened in the world in a 25-year period which compelled a new stage of cognition.

And a new stage of cognition means both a summation of what has happened up to your time and a recognition of the pull that the future has on you. It is this summons which we want to see how Hegel answered, and what it has for our day.

His greatest and first total statement was in Phenomenology of Mind….Hegel, despite the abstract language, is actually dealing with 2,500 years of the development of thought, mainly but not wholly of Western civilization. But what I want to do with the whole work, since we cannot go into great detail, is to make even a worse abstraction in one sense, and follow what Marx does in Vol. II of Capital. Marx says that the only way we will see the law of motion of capitalism is if we disregard anything that interferes with just two departments of production, means of production and means of consumption. And all of the time it is just two, like two classes.

I want to take the whole 16 stages of Hegel’s development in the Phenomenology into two major stages. One will combine Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and Reason, which I consider the development from 500 BC—slave society and Aristotle as the ancient world’s greatest philosopher—until Reason, which is capitalism, the French Revolution, Lutheranism, and Kant-Hegel. The second department is all the rest: Spirit, the various forms of Alienated Spirit, and why there is still alienation even though you have reached Religion and Absolute Knowledge.

In the first department, what we have all previously emphasized, from Marx forward, is the section “Lordship and Bondage,” because we recognize that Hegel is showing that the lord could demand anything and the slave was completely negative, and yet the slave is the one who gets a mind of his own. The slave getting “a mind of his own” was one of the bases for Marx’s great development of proletarian consciousness.

The importance of that section is that the slave has gotten a mind of their own, but whether they will get to Reason and Spirit is in question. If you become Conscious, not only of the world and yourself as opposites, but of yourself as getting Self-Consciousness and going further to try and break down this division between opposites and yourself, and you are so thrilled that you have this idea that it could become, in Hegel’s words, “just a piece of cleverness, and not yet the mastery over reality.”[1] Because it could be just a piece of cleverness and not yet the mastery over reality, you can become just an alienated soul.


I want to take up one more thing in Self-Consciousness: Stoicism. Hegel shows he is opposed not only to the alienated soul who has gotten this piece of cleverness. He is opposed to what philosophers consider a great stage, Stoicism. Everybody thinks you are great if you are a Stoic, you can withstand all sorts of things. He says, don’t forget that Stoicism arises when there is universal slavery. He wants to emphasize two things. Stoicism arose because you as an individual recognized that this is a horrible society—there was universal slavery and bondage—and you couldn’t overcome it. You weren’t, so to speak, what we would call a mass movement to overcome it.

So you as an individual becoming a Stoic was actually a rationalization, developing such stupidities as “a philosopher is free even though he is in chains.” Hegel shows that everything that appears great is only a further stage of alienation. Even when he comes to Reason, that will be so.

Raya Dunayevskaya

The important thing about not stopping at “Lordship and Bondage” is that is only a beginning of getting a mind. Hegel is showing that if you are going to master reality you are going to have to get a lot further than that. Attempts to master it by such thought as Stoicism—even when they are correct either as individual integrity or in the criticism of the rest of society—nevertheless, the fact that you can use such an argument both for someone trying to be free and for the opposite, rationalizing, shows that it is absolutely insufficient for becoming the master of reality instead of this piece of cleverness.

Therefore, I am stressing that what came out after the slave got a mind of their own was a new stage of retrogression, where the intellectuals all began saying: “Oh, great, the Roman Empire is dead, but we will be Stoics, or some other form such as just behaving ourselves, we will overcome it.” And even when it moved to overcoming it, sparked by a real revolution—whether Hegel considers that to be at one time Christianity or at another time the actual French Revolution—that is still not the answer. That is why I do not want to stop at having a mind of your own. I want to stress what Hegel saw in the Alienated Soul, Stoicism, and Skepticism, which were good little paths on the way to Reason, but they were not the answer.

As against using the conclusions of other philosophers as a pillow for intellectual sloth, or as against the Alienated Soul and Stoicism, Hegel is showing a new movement of history. There was an actual revolution. It broke down everything, smashed it to smithereens and started something new. And the people who did this great thing (Robespierre and the others) recognized Reason as their deity. And yet what happened? Why did the Terror follow? Why did Napoleon follow? Why didn’t we yet get to the Millennium? Hegel comes to Reason as a very new high stage, but we will see that, instead of Spirit, which is our next department, being the answer, or having killed all the alienations of society, it just brings them to a higher stage. So Reason ends this first great department of the Phenomenology and this movement from 500 BC to the French Revolution.


Now we come to Department II, the central core. Everybody says, “Well, if you have come to Spirit, why are there still Alienated Souls?” The alienated soul, Hegel says, has moved to a higher development, an Alienated Spirit. The higher development is that someone has achieved this revolution, but they begin to identify themselves either as faction or as person with this, and from now on the State is more or less on order. There is a tremendous attack on the state—never mind that Hegel was a Prussian philosopher, he attacked it thoroughly, totally and completely—even any future state that would come between the person and their development.

There isn’t a single person on our stage today, whether you take Mao, Fidel Castro, or any other person, that you cannot find described in Alienated Spirit.[2] It is about what happens when there is a new revolution and yet somehow there is a transformation in the relationship between reality and thought in such a way that you begin to identify yourself with the state or with one single faction. You begin to have as big a Reign of Terror in thought as the revolution had[3]—a Reign of Terror in thought against the other, the new opponents, etc. And the new opponents even include religions, although Hegel was a Christian.

His criticism of what he called “the discipline of culture” is the foundation for Marx’s criticism of the superstructure. Hegel was not a proletarian revolutionary, but he criticized all culture as very good for having first fought against superstition and that sort of thing, but it now has imprisoned us by what Marx called the imprisoning in the fetishism of commodities.[4] I would go so far as to say that Hegel’s three volumes on the Philosophy of Religion are the greatest attack on the so-called vanguard party that we have ever seen. Hegel does with the church, though he is a Christian, what we want to do against the Stalinist party. He is saying, “Look at that, Christianity came in because finally we saw that, not only a few were free, like those who were great enough to be philosophers, but man as man was free. And this one little Church, the Catholic Church, said they were the only interpreters and they don’t let us have a direct contact with God.”

Whatever his excuse is, we have a lot to learn from Hegel, not merely to transcend him. Here he is supposed to be a Christian, a Lutheran that corrected such excesses both in the Catholic Church and the Terror of the French Revolution, and yet Hegel comes down and says this is not it—I have to go to philosophy. That is the basis for all the attacks on Hegel as being a hidden atheist—and, by golly, he was. But the point that we are trying to stress by now being in Department II, is that Spirit is still alienated and in the discipline of culture. Religion [the next stage after Spirit] has been perverted and man, not the Church, must decide as to what will finally evolve. It brings us to the final stage of Absolute Knowledge.


He comes to Absolute Knowledge and says: Look, this is history. This has moved in such and such stages as the phenomena of the spirit of man. Now there is also the science of this spirit, whether in religion or in actual science, and these will unite to form Absolute Knowledge. The Absolute Knowledge of science and history uniting as one becomes the transition point for the Science of Logic and the Philosophy of Mind, because everything always ends in some Absolute. One is Absolute Knowledge in the Phenomenology, then we have Absolute Idea in the Science of Logic, and then Absolute Mind in the Philosophy of Mind. But it is always moving in this direction.

Now Hegel comes to the Science of Logic and begins to talk not in stages of consciousness—as in the Phenomenology, which had just flowed out of him under the impact of the French Revolution—but in actual philosophic categories. Each category takes up a whole stage of civilization in the same manner as each stage of consciousness. Because we are hurried in time I am not going to deal with either Being or Essence. I will go directly to “The Doctrine of the Notion,” and especially its last section, “The Absolute Idea.” “The Doctrine of Notion” or of Freedom is in actuality the objective and subjective way to get to the new society.

Both Marx and Lenin, even though Lenin went further in the Absolute Idea, happened to have stopped in the Absolute. Marx said on the one hand it doesn’t mean anything because Hegel returned to a closed system of thought, but on the other hand it does mean something because Marx was always returning back to it. But as it happens [Marx’s 1844 “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic”] cuts off at a certain paragraph at the very beginning of the Philosophy of Mind, the section which begins on the Absolute. When Marx finishes his critique of the Phenomenology of Mind, he tries to take it from a different angle. He goes through Hegel’s whole system, quotes two paragraphs from the Philosophy of Nature and then goes into the Philosophy of Mind, where the manuscript breaks off. And that is the problem of our age.


One of the central points in the Absolute Idea, just before Hegel reaches what we call the “second subjectivity,” is a sentence which reads, “The self-determination in which alone the Idea is, is to hear itself speak.”[5] The self-determination of ideas also has various stages of development and breaks into two.

There is a movement from practice—that is where I get my [category of] movement from practice, which is to hear itself speak. It comes, so to speak, elementally in the proletariat, as instinctive. And there is a movement from theory which doesn’t come so elementally and may have many pitfalls. At this point, where the theoreticians have to listen to the masses…the question is how will the two unite?

This self-determination [is manifested] when Hegel begins to laugh at Syllogism, because everybody says that he is supposed to stand for a Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis—and that is a lot of nonsense. He doesn’t stand for any such formal triad….Since every beginning is a result of some other mediation, he says, “The answer is in Subjectivity. I have shown you the Doctrine of Objectivity, and of Subjectivity, and I am talking of the unity of the theoretical and the practical idea.” He says in essence that the unity occurs in subjectivity alone, therefore it isn’t really your first negation of the thing, but the second negation [that is decisive]. In Philosophy and Revolution, I am going to develop two kinds of subjectivity: the petty bourgeois kind like Mao and the real kind that comes from the proletariat. The new, the greatness, the problem for our age is to solve this little second subjectivity. How does this unity resolve itself in this second subjectivity?

Herbert Marcuse’s, and the other academic Marxists’, approach at this stage is to give up, run away, and I will show you the basis that they run away from. They think they are great materialists when they do it, but they are not. They say the Absolute Idea is the result of the fact that mental and manual labor were so far separated, and it was a pre-technological age that Hegel (and Marx even) lived in.

I completely and totally disagree with that, because Hegel ran back to what he was before on the state, not on the Absolute Idea. Marcuse, because he considers himself a Marxist (and academically he is one) is trying to say: 1) The Absolute Idea is pre-technology. 2) We have to forget that part and take reality. And to him reality is that the proletariat is impotent and has not made the revolution for him, as Marx had predicted. 3) He does recognize the second subjectivity, but he interprets it as the intellectual who will do it and bring you to the new stage. Against these three serious arguments, I want to show what I feel is the problem of the Absolute Idea.

I want to discuss it all within what we call “the historic barrier.” In other words, you come to all you can say because history does not present you with new problems.

On the other hand, why is it that certain people who are not as great as Marx or Lenin, but, by living in a different historic age, are compelled to deal with these problems? The truth is that [before Marxist-Humanism] the intellectual, including the Marxist intellectual, had not been able to break down either the humanism of Marx or the fact that [Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts] broke off at the Absolute Idea. The new stage for the few of us who were trying to do it came from the masses. It was the miners’ strike, it was all the upheaval in World War II.[6]


Hegel has a word for it. He says that it is only the concrete—when he talks about the compulsion of thought to proceed to these concrete truths—that demands a new stage in philosophic cognition. The compulsion comes only when your philosophic categories just don’t answer what has come from below. Hegel, the idealist, recognizes that fact, while these so-called materialist Marxists, including the highest of them, Marcuse, do not.

So I want to end on what I began—to give ear to the urgency of the times and the summons to recognize the spirit of the age by recognizing that this second subjectivity must again be broken into two: 1) What the proletariat is going to do. They are going to do it anyway; we better begin listening. 2) The other is what theoreticians must do. Their task isn’t ended because the impulse comes from below. They have to first begin to work it out, and not just to satisfy with quick political answers.

And the working out of that subjectivity of the theory of our age of the Absolute Idea, in the concrete form of philosophy, theory and politics, means that we are just beginning. There is no point in saying anything about realizing philosophy if we haven’t done that. That is our age and that is why that is going to be the central point of Philosophy and Revolution.

[1].  Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind (Allen & Unwin, 1931), p. 240; Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 116.

[2].  “Spirit in Self-Estrangement: The Discipline of Culture and Civilization” (pp. 507-610/281-347) is the second main subdivision of the section on Spirit.

[3].  A reference to the Jacobin terror during the French Revolution.

[4].  For further discussion see Dunayevskaya’s Nov. 21, 1963, letter to Erich Fromm in News & Letters, Feb.-March 2008.

[5].  Hegel, Science of Logic (MacMillan, 1929), Vol. II, p. 467; Hegel, Science of Logic (Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 736.

[6].  This refers to the 1949-50 coal miners’ strike and its part in the birth of Marxist-Humanism. See Phillips and Dunayevskaya, The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. That strike was preceded by a coal strike of 500,000 miners in 1943, one of thousands of strikes that year in the midst of World War II.

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