May 20, 1953, letter on Absolute Mind

January 28, 2015

From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: Raya Dunayevskaya’s May 20, 1953, letter is one of the historic writings included in The Philosophic Moment of Marxist-Humanism, which singled out her May 1953 letters on Hegel’s Absolutes as that philosophic moment. Preceding issues of N&L printed its other contents here, here, and here. A new exploration of these writings is needed for our world struggling for the survival and deepening of today’s revolutions, plagued by both counter-revolution and self-limiting ideologies. All footnotes were added by the editors.

Dear Hauser [Grace Lee Boggs]:

Please do not interpret this as any prodding of you to commit yourself on my analysis of the Absolute Idea; it is only that I cannot stand still and so rushed directly to the Philosophy of Mind. I then reread the Preface, Introduction, and Absolute Knowledge in the Phenomenology of Mind, the Introduction, Three Attitudes to Objectivity, and the Absolute Idea in the Smaller Logic and the Absolute Idea in the Science of Logic. After that I read from cover to cover Lenin’s phenomenal Vol. IX [of his Selected Works] which is the Absolute Idea in action, reread Marx’s [chapters on the] accumulation of capital and the fetishism of commodities in Vol. I of Capital, the final part in Vol. III [of Capital], and The Civil War in France. All this I did on my own time, so to speak, that is to say, between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. after putting in very full days and evenings in concrete organizational activity. I note these facts only in order to show how this Absolute Idea has me coming and going. Along with keeping all these in the back of my head then as I read the Philosophy of Mind, I made up the following outline of the development of the vanguard party and its relationship to the mass movements:

  • The party as a “simple” class instrument—Communist League, the First International (reflecting 1848 class struggles and the Paris Commune)
  • The party as divider of tendencies within Marxism—Lenin’s party of 1903-17 (1905 and 1917 revolutions)
  • The party as divider of politics from economics—The German Social Democracy (trade union aristocracy of labor and 1914 betrayal)
  • The party as different social layers—1920—(in Russia, Lenin to leaders and ranks; in Germany, ranks to leaders)
  • The party as suppressor of ranks and destroyer of revolutionism—Stalinism—(Spanish Revolution, CIO, National Resistance Movements) 1923-53

Now ourselves, ‘41-’50—clarification of ideas, elaboration of theory, eyes on mass movements. ‘51-’53—life in party and third layer as source of theory. Something totally new appears—

  • 100 years becomes practically no more than mere background for listening and digging—B,[1] Woman, Youth—all come from ranks—something like the Great Beginning in Russia. What is so remarkable is that it comes not as direct result of any revolution, but rather as the accumulated experiences and feelings and social thinking when placed in the proper theoretic and climatic atmosphere of live people.

To this the paper is the climax not alone because it has never been but because it could never have been. Only one who knew it could be could go through the toil of the negative, the labor and suffering, of not a single break in the cadre of the “continuators” of Leninism. And (note the “and” rather than a “but”) only when it did appear can we have the perspectives that we have. This therefore is not just a general interpenetration of objective and subjective but one so concrete that it is impossible to say where theory leaves off and practice begins. This can be so only because the elements of the new society are everywhere in evidence.

FIRST NOW YOU ARE where I was as I read the Philosophy of Mind which, to me, is the new society. That’s what materialistic reading of the final chapters of Hegel means to me. (To say the end of Hegel is highly idealistic is to deny that the dialectical laws apply in their totality.)

I limit myself to the following sections of the Philosophy of Mind: Introduction, Free Mind, Absolute Mind.

In the Introduction Hegel states what the three stages in the development of the Mind are: 1) in the form of self-relation where “the ideal of totality of the Idea” is, it is “self-contained and free”;[2] 2) Moving from the Mind Subjective he comes to the second stage or “the form of reality” and in this objective world “freedom presents itself under the shape of necessity”; 3) From Mind Objective we reach Mind Absolute “that unity of mind as objectivity and of mind as ideality and concept, which essentially and actually is and for ever produces itself, mind in its absolute truth” [Mind, ¶385].

Hegel continues: “The two first parts of the doctrine of Mind embrace the finite mind. Mind is the infinite Idea, and finitude here means the disproportion between the concept and the reality—but with the qualification that it is a shadow cast by the mind’s own light—a show or illusion which the mind implicitly imposes as a barrier to itself, in order, by its removal, actually to realize and become conscious of freedom as its very being, i.e., to be fully manifested. The several steps of this activity, on each of which, with their semblance of being, it is the function of the finite mind to linger, and through which it has to pass, are steps in its liberation. In the full truth of that liberation is given the identification of the three stages—finding a world presupposed before us, generating a world as our own creation, and gaining freedom from it and in it. To the infinite form of this truth the show purifies itself till it becomes a consciousness of it.

“A rigid application of the category of finitude by the abstract logician is chiefly seen in dealing with Mind and reason: it is held not a mere matter of strict logic, but treated also as a moral and religious concern, to adhere to the point of view of finitude, and the wish to go further is reckoned a mark of audacity, if not of insanity, of thought” [Mind, ¶386].

(Remember “soviets in the sky”?)[3]

If we go from this audacious thinking directly to the Free Mind or end of Section 1 of Mind Subjective, we will meet with free will in a new social order: “Actual free will is the unity of theoretical and practical mind: a free will, which realizes its own freedom of will, now that the formalism, fortuitousness, and contractedness of the practical content up to this point have been superseded. By superseding the adjustments of means therein contained, the will is the immediate individuality self-instituted—an individuality, however, also purified of all that interferes with its universalism, i.e. with freedom itself” [Mind, ¶481].

IN A WORD, NOT THE FREE WILL of the Ego, the unhappy consciousness, but the free will of the social individual, “an individuality … purified of all that interferes … with freedom itself” [Mind, ¶481].

To get to the “will to liberty (which) is no longer an impulse which demands its satisfaction, but the permanent character—the spiritual consciousness grown into a non-impulsive nature” [Mind, ¶482], Hegel cannot avoid history, the concrete development:

“When individuals and nations have once got in their heads the abstract concept of full-blown liberty, there is nothing like it in its uncontrollable strength, just because it is the very essence of mind, and that as its very actuality. Whole continents, Africa and the East, have never had this Idea, and are without it still. The Greeks and Romans, Plato and Aristotle, even the Stoics, did not have it. On the contrary, they saw that it is only by birth (as, for example, an Athenian or Spartan citizen), or by strength of character, education, or philosophy (—the sage is free even as a slave and in chains) that the human being is actually free. It was through Christianity that this Idea came into the world” [Mind, ¶482].

(I’ll be d—d if for us I will need to stop to give the materialistic explanation here. I’m not fighting Hegel’s idealism but trying to absorb his dialectics. Anyone who can’t think of the Industrial and French Revolutions as the beginnings of modern society, or know that when will to liberty is no longer mere impulse but “permanent character,” “spiritual consciousness” it means and can mean only the proletariat that has absorbed all of science in his person, that person better not try to grapple with Hegel.)

Then a rejection of property, the “have” of possession, and directly to the is of the new society: “If to be aware of the idea—to be aware, i.e., that men are aware of freedom as their essence, aim, and object—is matter of speculation, still this very idea itself is the actuality of men—not something which they have, as men, but which they are” [Mind, ¶482].

Artist’s rendering of armed women of the Paris Commune, 1871, fighting against the bourgeoisie. Illustration from the London Penny, June 17, 1871.

WE ARE READY FOR the Absolute Mind. I will limit myself to the concluding four paragraphs, 574-577.

Hegel begins his conclusions about philosophy which “is the self-thinking Idea, the truth aware of itself” by referring us to the Absolute Idea in the Smaller Logic, and there Hegel issued a warning: “It is certainly possible to indulge in a vast amount of senseless declamation about the idea absolute. But its true content is only the whole system of which we have been hitherto examining the development” [Hegel’s Smaller Logic, ¶237].

Back to ¶574: “This notion of philosophy is the self-thinking Idea, the truth aware of itself—the logical system, but with the signification that it is universality approved and certified in concrete content as in its actuality.”

I’m here reminded of that total Introduction to the Smaller Logic (or perhaps it is time to begin calling it by its right name, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, since the Smaller Logic is Part I of it and the Philosophy of Mind that concerns me now Part III) where he says “the Idea is not so feeble as merely to have a right or an obligation to exist without actually existing” [Smaller Logic, ¶6]. And most certainly Socialism “is not so feeble as merely to have a right or obligation to exist without actually existing.” Quite the contrary, the new society is evident everywhere, appears within the old.

Let us return to Hegel, still ¶574: “In this way the science has gone back to its beginning: its result is the logical system but as a spiritual principle: out of the presupposing judgment, in which the notion was only implicit and the beginning an immediate—and thus out of the appearance which it had there—it has risen into its pure principle and thus also into its proper medium.”

This appearance “gives the motive of the further development” [Mind, ¶575]. So, like all rational thinkers, we are back at the form of the syllogism: “The first appearance is formed by the syllogism, which is based on the Logical system as starting-point, with Nature for the middle term which couples the Mind with it. The Logical principle turns to Nature and Nature to Mind” [Mind, ¶575].

THE MOVEMENT IS FROM the logical principle or theory to nature or practice and from practice not alone to theory but to the new society which is its essence (note scrupulously how this development, this practice, sunders itself):

“Nature, standing between the Mind and its essence, sunders itself, not indeed to extremes of finite abstraction, nor itself to something away from them and independent—which, as other than they, only serves as a link between them: for the syllogism is in the Idea and Nature is essentially defined as a transition-point and negative factor, and as implicitly the Idea” [Mind, ¶575].

Thus the sundering of practice has been neither to mount the “extremes of finite abstraction” nor as mere link between practice and theory, for the triangular development here means that practice itself is “implicitly the Idea.”

“Still,” continues Hegel, “the mediation of the notion has the external form of transition, and the science of Nature presents itself as the course of necessity, so that it is only in the one extreme that the liberty of the notion is explicit as a self-amalgamation” [Mind, ¶575].

BY ALL MEANS LET’S FOLLOW HEGEL and hold back from skipping a single link. But also let us not forget that this is only the first syllogism, while “In the second syllogism this appearance is so far superseded, that that syllogism is the standpoint of the Mind itself, which—as the mediating agent in the process—presupposes Nature and couples it with the Logical principle. It is the syllogism where Mind reflects on itself in the Idea: philosophy appears as a subjective cognition, of which liberty is the aim, and which is itself the way to produce it” [Mind, ¶576].

Here then Mind itself is “the mediating agent in the process.” I cannot help but think of Marx concluding that the Commune is “the form at last discovered to work out the economic emancipation of the proletariat,”[4] and of Lenin in Vol. IX[5] saying that the workers and peasants “must understand that the whole thing now is practice, that the historical moment has arrived when theory is being transformed into practice, is vitalized by practice, corrected by practice, tested by practice,” and on the same page: “The Paris Commune gave a great example of how to combine initiative, independence, freedom of action and vigor from below with voluntary centralism free from stereotyped forms.”[6] And so I repeat Mind itself, the new society, is “the mediating agent in the process.”[7]

This is where Hegel arrives at Absolute Mind, the third syllogism: “The third syllogism is the Idea of philosophy, which has self-knowing reason, the absolutely-universal, for its middle term: a middle, which divides itself into Mind and Nature, making the former its presupposition, as process of the Idea’s subjective activity, and the latter its universal extreme, as process of the objectively and implicitly existing Idea” [Mind, ¶577].

No wonder I was so struck, when working out the layers of the party, with the Syllogism which disclosed that either the Universal or the Particular or the Individual could be the middle term. Note carefully that the “middle which divides itself” is nothing less than the absolute universal itself and that, in dividing itself into Mind and Nature, it makes Mind the presupposition “as process of the Idea’s subjective activity” and Nature “as process of the objectively and implicitly existing Idea.”

Here, much as I try not once again to jolt you by sounding as if I were exhorting, I’m too excited not to rejoice at what this means for us. But I’ll stick close to Hegel and not go off for visits with Lenin and Marx. Hegel says that the two appearances of the Idea (Socialism in the form of the Commune and the Soviets) characterize both [as] its manifestation and in it precisely is “A unification of the two aspects”:

“The self-judging of the Idea into its two appearances [¶575, 576] characterizes both as its (the self-knowing reason’s) manifestations: and in it there is a unification of the two aspects:—it is the nature of the fact, the notion, which causes the movement and development, yet this same movement is equally the action of cognition. The eternal Idea, in full fruition of its essence, eternally sets itself to work, engenders and enjoys itself as absolute Mind” [Mind, ¶577].

We have entered the new society.

W. [Raya Dunayevskaya]

[1] “B” refers to Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart, first published in 1952. A greatly expanded book was published in 1978 as Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal (Boston: South End Press); a new edition was published in 1989 by Wayne State University Press

[2] Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), ¶385. Hereafter referred to as Mind.

[3] Irving Howe, then a Trotskyist, attacked the Johnson-Forest Tendency for supposedly romanticizing American workers, charging them with creating “soviets in the skies.”

[4] Marx, The Civil War in France.

[5] This refers to Vol. IX of Lenin’s Selected Works.

[6] See Lenin’s “How to Organize Competition,” in Selected Works, Vol. IX, p. 420.

[7] In the 1974 edition this paragraph has vertical double lines drawn alongside it.

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