Why Hegel’s Phenomenology now?

July 12, 2012

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Why Hegel’s Phenomenology now?

Editor’s Note: 2012 is marked by potential historic turning points and the search for new beginnings. It also marks the 25th anniversary of Raya Dunayevskaya’s last writings. We present part of her unfinished “Why Hegel’s Phenomenology? Why Now?” which was an important aspect of her work on Dialectics of Organization and Philosophy: ‘The Party’ and Forms of Organization Born out of Spontaneity. We excerpt the introduction, originally printed in the May 8, 1987, N&L together with Part I, which she described as “a study of Hegel’s first (and what Marx considered his most creative) work, Phenomenology of Mind (Geist), written as Lecture Notes for a class I gave on the Phenomenology in the 1960s.” Second are excerpts from a draft of Part II, “an essay on the Hegelian Dialectic as Marx critiqued it in his Humanist Essays in 1844 and continued to develop it throughout his life.” The full draft of Part II is in the Supplement to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, pp. 10883-10900. Footnotes are added by the editors, except as otherwise indicated.

Introduction to “Why Hegel’s Phenomenology? Why Now?”

The Spirit of the time, growing slowly and quietly ripe for the new form it is to assume, disintegrates one fragment after another of the structure of its previous world. That it is tottering to fall is indicated only by symptoms here and there. Frivolity and again ennui, which are spreading in the established order of things, the undefined foreboding of something unknown–all these betoken that there is something else approaching. This gradual crumbling to pieces, which did not alter the general look and aspect of the whole, is interrupted by the sunrise, which, in a flash and at a single stroke, brings to view the form and structure of the new world.

–Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind

The most difficult of all tasks that have confronted every generation of Marxists is to work out Marx’s Marxism for its age; the task has never been more difficult….We often like to quote that creatively great statement of Hegel about the “birth-time of History.” What is important to see is that the same paragraph that talks of the birth-time of history and a period of transition is likewise one that speaks about the period of darkness before the dawn.

That is what we all have had to suffer through–the darkness before the dawn. Hegel articulated both the darkness and the dawn in the very same paragraph lucidly enough. Yet, because this appears in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Mind, it looks as if it were written in anticipation of the book, whereas, in truth, the Preface was written after the whole work was completed; thus, we do not realize that the contradictory unity first became that translucent after the work was completed.

It never fails that, at momentous world historic turning points, it is very difficult to tell the difference between two types of twilight–whether one is first plunging into utter darkness or whether one has reached the end of a long night and is just at the moment before the dawn of a new day. In either case, the challenge to find the meaning–what Hegel called “the undefined foreboding of something unknown”–becomes a compulsion to dig for new beginnings, for a philosophy that would try to answer the question “where to begin?” This was the reason for a new revolutionary philosophy–the birth of the Hegelian dialectic–at the time the great French Revolution did not produce totally new beginnings in philosophy. It caused Hegel’s break with romanticism. His deep digging went, at one and the same time, backward to the origins of philosophy in Greece around 500 BC and forward as the French Revolution was followed by the Napoleonic era trying to dominate all of Europe.

In a word, the crucible of history shows that the forces of actual revolution producing revolutions in philosophy recur at historic turning points. Thus in the 1840s, with the rise of a totally new revolutionary class–the “wretched of the earth,” the proletariat–Marx transformed Hegel’s revolution in philosophy into a philosophy of revolution. This founding of a new continent of thought and of revolution unchained the Hegelian dialectic, which Marx called “revolution in permanence.”

Just as the shock of the simultaneity of the outbreak of World War I, and the collapse of established Marxism (the Second International) compelled Lenin to turn to Marx’s deep-rootedness in the Hegelian Dialectic, [1] so it has become imperative to find that missing link of a philosophy of revolution in the post-World War II world.

A whole new world–a Third World–has been born. Just as the East European revolutionaries rose up against Communist totalitarianism from within that orbit, so the Third World arose against Western imperialism. This movement from practice that is itself a form of theory has been digging for ways to put an end to the separation between theory and practice. It is this movement that has rediscovered Marx’s early Humanist Essays, as well as the work of his final decade where Marx predicted, in his studies of pre-capitalist societies, that a revolution could come first in a technologically backward land rather than in the technologically advanced West. It has had to struggle under the whip of counter-revolution in a nuclearly-armed world.

Nowhere has this been more onerous than in the 1980s under the Reagan retrogressionism, which has been bent on turning the clock backward–whether that be on civil rights, labor, women’s liberation, youth and education or children. At the same time that there is this ideological pollution and the revolutionary struggle against it, even some bourgeois Hegel scholars who opposed the “subversion” of Hegel by Marx and by today’s Marxist-Humanists have had to admit: “If Hegel has not literally been to the barricades of strife-ridden cities, or explosive rural focos, he has been in the thick of current ideological combat.” [2]

In its way, this, too, will help illuminate why we are publishing “Why Hegel’s Phenomenology? Why Now?”…

Why Phenomenology? Why Now? What is the Relationship either to Organization, or to Philosophy, Not Party?

On the road to discovery of a whole new continent of thought and revolution, in 1843-44, Marx, without any conscious concrete reach for any such Promethean vision, was nevertheless posing in his Doctoral Thesis the question of where to begin. As a Hegelian, he found himself in disagreement with his master (Hegel), not just on the analysis of the different views of Epicurus and Democritus on the philosophy of nature. Rather, he saw the grandiose system of Hegel failing to achieve a unity of reason and reality in the present (1840) period of crisis. Instead, there seemed to be a total diremption of two separate totalities; reason and reality confronted each other with hostility….

Marx’s answer was to turn to the dialectical method, stressing that “the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It is thecritique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea.” [3] And that meant that the answer could only be found through a new beginning, in a totally new element. Marx found it in revolution, the very specific revolution which had both inspired and mystified Hegel–the great French Revolution–but he extended his hearing of the self-determination of the Idea to the sans-culottes.

Soon after the Doctoral Dissertation, Marx moved to break with capitalism as well as with the Young Hegelians, and on to the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” in 1844.

The very way Marx abbreviates the contents page of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind shows a reorganization which, far from “subverting” Hegel, actually brings greater order into the work than that magnificent, elemental, seemingly chaotic bursting forth of all the profundities on Spirit–in such spontaneity that Hegel didn’t even have subheadings for it, whereas Marx raised Absolute Knowledge, which was just a chapter in Hegel, into a Part unto itself.

Secondly, Marx wasn’t only critiquing Hegel, but the materialist Feuerbach, whom he had “followed” but who he now says was deficient, having not understood the greatest creative contribution of Hegel of all, and that was “the negation of the negation” as the most creative, not mysterious, but actual movement of history, which he tried to shroud with abstractions by “dehumanizing,” that is to say, turning man into the abstraction of “self-consciousness.”

“The greatness of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and its final result–the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle–lies in this: that Hegel comprehends the self-production of man as a process…grasps the essence of labor and conceives of objective man, true actual man, as the result of his own labor.” [4]

But since it was in alienated form, it had to, just when it reached its highest point, Absolute Knowledge, undergo the Golgotha of the Spirit and perish….

Historic transcendence.

What is exciting about transcendence is that Marx credits Hegel with seeing it as what made him grasp objectivity and because he does that, though Hegel lives in an alienated world (and as a philosopher is the most alienated of all individuals) and uses the philosopher as the yardstick, nevertheless Hegel does not take the last step–boredom–but “arrives at an essence which is its very opposite, i.e., Nature.”

Stop. Do you realize how great that is? What a leap? It was not only for Marx clearing his road, his totally new continent of thought and of revolution, but ours? Well, just consider how far in advance it is even of Lenin. Nature is not Practice. And Nature is not Sartrean exteriority. Nature, says Marx, is true essence because you can’t separate Nature from Human Nature. And that is why he uses, not as a naturalist, “thoroughgoing Naturalism or Humanism” which would first alone grasp the act of world history” and therefore have undergone the transcendence both of religion and thinghood, i.e., mediated by atheism and communism as the abolition of private property, and only then would there start “positive Humanism, beginning from itself.”

The fact that we cannot give an answer, a blueprint, does not absolve us from the task. It only makes it more difficult. What we are trying to do with this book-to-be is to make this task historically and philosophically so deeply-rooted that both we and all whom we can reach on the outside will be glad to journey these uncharted roads….



1. See “Lenin and the Dialectic: A Mind in Action” and “The Irish Revolution and the Dialectic of History” in Part IV–“World War I and the Great Divide in Marxism”–of my Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 until Today.–RD

2. See George Armstrong Kelly’s Hegel’s Retreat from Eleusis [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978], p. 224, and my answer to his critique of my Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre and from Marx to Mao in the new Introduction I wrote for the 1982 edition.–RD

3. From Marx’s Doctoral Dissertation, “The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature,” as published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 1 (International Publishers, 1975), p. 85.

4. From “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” in Marx’s 1844 Humanist Essays, as translated by Dunayevskaya in the 1958 edition of her book Marxism and Freedom, p. 309.

On the 25th anniversary of the Raya Dunayevskaya Memorial Fund

To assure that Dunayevskaya’s work remains available to all those searching for a philosophy of revolution and to continue expanding her archives, in July 1987 her colleagues established the Raya Dunayevskaya Memorial Fund dedicated to:

  • Assuring that Dunayevskaya’s published writings remain in print.
  • Preserving, organizing and presenting her library and documents to the Wayne State University Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, which houses the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection.
  • Supporting continued research into the body of ideas called Marxist-Humanism founded by Dunayevskaya.

Over the past 25 years, in conjunction with News and Letters Committees, the RDMF has organized and donated three supplementary volumes to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection.

The RDMF has organized and donated books from Dunayevskaya’s personal library, with important marginalia, and an Audio-Visual Tape Collection. It has created guides to these donations and to the supplementary volumes. It has assembled, arranged and catalogued the John Dwyer Collection and the Harry McShane Collection.

Together with News and Letters Committees, it has arranged new editions of Dunayevskaya’s books and has published new collections of her writings. (See literature ad, p. 7, for listing of these books.)

Current projects include the publication of a new collection of Dunayevskaya’s writings on Marx, and making available on the worldwide web searchable pdf files of the documents in the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection and the Supplement to the Collection, and of all the issues of News & Letters dating back to its beginning in 1955.

Please lend your assistance.

Or send contributions to:

Raya Dunayevskaya Memorial Fund
228 S. Wabash, Room 230
Chicago, IL 60604

Why Hegel’s Phenomenology now?

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