13 March 2012

Prussian Progressivism: Hegel to Marx

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007),
Kindle Locs. 8160-96, 8229-40 (pp. 431-434):
The one institution that all Prussians had in common was the state. It is no coincidence that this period witnessed an unprecedented discursive escalation around the idea of the state. Its majesty resonated more compellingly than ever before, at least within the milieu of academia and senior officialdom. No individual did more to promulgate the dignity of the Prussian state after 1815 than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the Swabian philosopher who took up Fichte’s vacant chair at the new University of Berlin in 1818. The state, Hegel argued, was an organism possessing will, rationality and purpose. Its destiny – like that of any living thing – was to change, grow and progressively develop. The state was ‘the power of reason actualising itself as will’; it was a transcendent domain in which the alienated, competitive ‘particular interests’ of civil society merged into coherence and identity. There was a theological core to Hegel’s reflections on the state: the state had a quasi-divine purpose; it was ‘God’s march through the world’; in Hegel’s hands it became the quasi-divine apparatus by which the multitude of subjects who constituted civil society was redeemed into universality.

In adopting this approach, Hegel broke with the view prevalent among Prussian political theorists since Pufendorf and Wolff that the state was no more than a machine engineered to meet the external and internal security needs of the society that fashioned it. Hegel vehemently rejected the metaphorical machine-state favoured by theorists of the high enlightenment, on the grounds that it treated ‘free human beings’ as if they were mere cogs in its mechanism. The Hegelian state was not an imposed construct, but the highest expression of the ethical substance of a people, the unfolding of a transcendent and rational order, the ‘actualization of freedom’. From this it followed that the relationship between civil society and the state was not antagonistic, but reciprocal. It was the state that enabled civil society to order itself in a rational way, and the vitality of the state depended in turn upon each of the particular interests that constituted civil society being ‘active in its particular function – equipping itself for its particular sphere and thereby promoting the universal’.

Hegel’s was not a liberal vision – he was not a champion of unitary national legislatures, having seen what they were capable of in Jacobin France. But the progressive orientation of his vision was undeniable. For all his misgivings about the Jacobin experiment, Hegel celebrated the French Revolution as a ‘splendid dawn’ that had been greeted with joy by ‘all thinking people’. Hegel’s Berlin students were told that the Revolution represented an ‘irreversible achievement of the world spirit’ whose consequences were still unfolding. The centrality of reason and a sense of forward momentum suffuse his reflections on the state at every point. There was no place in the Hegelian polity for privileged castes and private jurisdictions. And by elevating the state above the plane of partisan strife, Hegel brought into view the exhilarating possibility that progress – in the sense of a beneficent rationalization of the political and social order – might simply be a property of the unfolding of history, as embodied in the Prussian state.

It is difficult, from a present-day standpoint, to appreciate the intoxicating effect of Hegel’s thought on a generation of educated Prussians. It was not a question of Hegel’s pedagogical charisma – he was notorious for standing hunched over the lectern reading out his text in a halting and scarcely audible mumble. According to an account by his student Hotho, who attended Hegel’s lectures at the University of Berlin, ‘his features hung pale and loose upon him as if he were already dead.’‘He sat there morosely with his head wearily bowed down in front of him, constantly leafing back and forth through his compendious notes, even as he continued to speak.’ Another student, the future Hegel-biographer Karl Rosenkranz, recalled laborious paragraphs punctuated by constant coughing and snuff-taking.

It was the ideas themselves and the peculiar language Hegel invented to articulate them that colonized the minds of disciples across the kingdom. Part of the explanation lies in the context. Hegel’s appointment was the work of the sometime Hardenberg protégé, enlightened reformer and Minister of Education Karl von Altenstein. The philosopher’s writings provided an exalted legitimation for the Prussian bureaucracy, whose expanding power within the executive during the reform era demanded justification.


Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the ‘Prussian school’ of history would remain overwhelmingly focused on the state as the vehicle and agent of historical change.

After the philosopher’s death during the cholera epidemic of 1831, Hegelianism disintegrated into warring schools and passed through swift ideological mutations. Among the raucous ‘Young Hegelians’ who coalesced in Berlin in the late 1830s was the youthful Karl Marx, a new Prussian from the Rhineland and the son of a Jewish convert to Christianity, who had moved to Berlin in 1836 to continue his studies in jurisprudence and political economy. For Marx, the first true encounter with Hegel’s thought was a revelatory shock akin to a religious conversion. ‘For some days’, he told his father in November 1837, his excitement made him ‘quite incapable of thinking’; he ‘ran about madly in the garden by the dirty water of the Spree’, even joined his landlord on a hunting excursion, and found himself overpowered by the desire to embrace every street corner loafer in Berlin. Marx would later reject Hegel’s understanding of the state bureaucracy as the ‘general estate’, but it stayed with him none the less. For what else was Marx’s idealization of the proletariat as the ‘pure embodiment of the general interest’ than the materialist inversion of the Hegelian concept? Marxism, too, was made in Prussia.

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