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Hegel and the French Revolution

Hegel and the French
Chris Arthur

Hegel was born in 1770 and died in 1831. Thus he lived
through the most revolutionary epoch the world had yet seen:

the overthrow of the old regime in France, the revolutionary
wars of Nepoleon, his defeat, the restorations. Even at the
time of Hegel’ s death everyting appeared still unsettled. History has still work to do on the problem of a new stabilisation,
he says in his Philosophy of History. The fact is that Hegel’s
philosophy, even at its most abstruse, is in continual dialogue
with the real historical movement. Everyone recognises this:

that in its political determination it is largely a response to the
French Revolution. What kind of response though? Is he
friend or enemy? Does he align himself with Robespierre or
Burke? There is no simple answer.

Sir Karl Popper agrees with Josef Stalin on one thing: that
Hegel represents an aristocratic reaction to the French Revolution. Indeed in 1941 (note the date) the Central Committee
of the CPSU passed a resolution against Hegel. Lukacs tells
the following story: the caretaker of his block of flats, having
attended his party cell to be educated in the contents of this
resolution, came out full of zeal and said to Lukacs ‘Ah! That
Hegel fellow! He should be hanged!’. Popper also is decidedly of that opinion. Soon afterwards (in 1945) he expressed
not dissimilar sentiments, opining that Hegel inaugurated ‘a
renaissance of tribalism’ designed to defeat the ideas of 1789.

On the other hand there are those – with whom I agree such as Ritter and Marcuse, who argue that there is no other
philosophy which is so much in its innermost impulses imbued with revolution as that of Hegel; the ideas of freedom
and reason promulgated by the Revolution appear at the very
heart of its conceptual structure. The concept of reason is
central to his philosophy and is made virtually synonymous
with freedom. He says:

When individuals and nations have once got in their
heads the abstract concept of a full-blown liberty, there
is nothing like it in its uncontrollable strength, just
because it is the very essence of mind, its very actuality
(Enc para 482).

On this view, Hegel’s dialectic is the algebra of revolution.

When the revolution first broke out Hegel was a student at
Tiibingen. The story goes that he and Schelling planted a
liberty tree in its honour. His first big book The Phenomenology of Spirit was rushed to completion at Jena in 1806 with
Napoleon at the very gates of the city. There is no doubt that
Hegel welcomed Napoleon’s extension of the revolution to
Germany. His letters of the time show this. For example:

I saw Napoleon, the soul of the world, riding through
the town …. It is a wonderful sight to see, concentrated
18 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

in a point, sitting on a horse, an individual who overruns the world and masters it.

More concretely, he expresses his hope that, through such
measures as the imposition of the Code Napoleon, Napoleon
will modernise the constitution of Germany. In the Phenomenology there is a sharp critique of the Terror, to which I will
come in a moment. But to the end of his life Hegel never failed
to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. In his
last lectures on History he is still endorses the Revolution.

Not until now had man advanced to the recognition of
the principle that thought ought to govern reality. This
was accordingly a glorious spiritual awakening. All
thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch.

Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at
that time … as if the reconciliation of heaven and earth
were now first accomplished.

For Hegel, thought is to govern reality ahd measure it by
rational standards. But whose thought? Whose reason? Mere
individual opinion has no claim to truth. Unless there are
concepts and principles that have universal validity, thought
will be impotent. Hegel believed that such objective concepts
and principles are immanent in reality and the historical
process. In our practical action we set them free and develop
their consequences. The realization of reason in human consciousness goes together with the rationalisation of reality.

These are two sides of the same legal process. The French
Revolution is caught up in this dialectic.

Absolute Freedom and Terror
In his Philosophy of History Hegel does not dissent from the
view that ‘the French Revolution resulted from philosophy’.

It appears like this because we are considering a development
in which world history has at last achieved the consciousness
that ‘thought ought to govern reality’. The established order
could offer no resistance to the demands of reason and its
practical realisation in rights and freedoms. Amongst the real
freedoms gained were freedom of property, freedom of the
person, freedom of trade and profession, free admission to all
offices of state, and equality before the law.

However, the key problem is that of decision – who is to
govern? Are these rights handed down from on high or secured through the will and power of the citizens themselves?

This is where the trouble starts. What we are talking about,
phenomenologically speaking, is the striving of the will for
autonomy, to make itself a power in the world, answerable
only to itself. Hegel analyses the results in his Phenomenol-

ogy in the section titled’ Absolute Freedom and Terror’ (see
also PH).

When the undivided substance of absolute freedom puts
itself on the throne of the world, without any power being able
to offer effectual resistance, all separate spheres of authority
and status are negated, and each individual consciousness elevates itself to the destiny of a totalising project. But in so far
as this will to establish free conditions has merely an abstractly universal essence, it can achieve nothing positive. For
the latter would imply differentiation of role and purpose, the
crystallisation of separate stable centres of power – for example legislature, judiciary, and executive. The government,
uniting all power in itself, is supposed to embody the general
will. But insofar as it excludes itself from the mass it becomes
empirically particular and violates its own principle; it becomes just the temporarily victorious faction, h~nce contestable. Likewise, all citizens are supposed to conSIder only the
public good. But there is no guarantee that the wills in q~es­
tion have the right disposition. The ‘virtue’ of the commIttee
men must stand in for ‘the people’s cause’, in opposition to
those who may be corrupt or misled – hence, ‘the law of suspects, by which everyone’s intentions are lia~le to i~terroga­
tion, and being suspected has the effect of beIng guIlty:

It follows that the realisation of universal freedom III the
shape of immediate exercise of power by the whole people
necessarily issues in ‘the fury of destruction’. It is a purely
negative freedom constituted by abstraction from every determinacy, since determinacy is always interpreted. ~s a restrction. ‘Of course, it imagines it is willing some poSItIve state of
affairs, such as universal equiality’ (PR para 5). But it can
never positively actualise it, because actuality means order
which allows for particularisation, hence difference; whereas
such differentiation is precisely the objective determination
to be negated. There emerges a division of abstract extremes
– the universalising project and the atomistic individuals. Devoid of concrete mediations, this relation can only subsist in
the pure un mediated negating of everything individual existent in the universal. Hegel concludes:

The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death … a deed, moreover, with no more significance than cleaving the head of a cabbage …. Absolute
freedom becomes objective to itself as abstract selfconsciousness which destroys all distinction within it
… the Terror is the direct expression of this its negative
character (Phen).

Out of this negativity must again arise the positive, in the
form of definite organisation which assigns the masses to
particular spheres of life. Thus Napoleon’s empire is born.

The View from Germany
In truth, Hegel simply cannot solve these contradicti~ns of
modem political conditions. With a hasty remark that hIstory
must work out a solution in future, he sidesteps adroitly to the
thesis that the march of thought towards freedom is taken up
by the Germans in ‘tranquil theory’, it is internalised i~ new
ethical systems, Protestant religious views, and the phIlosophy of the Absolute (PH and P hen). In his History of P hilosophy he celebrates the affinities concerned:

In this great epoch of the world’s history … two nations
only have played a part, the German and the French,
and this in spite of their absolute opposition, or rather
because they are so opposite… In Germany this principle has burst forth as thought, spirit, notion, in

France, in the form of actuality (Vol. Ill, p. 409).

Marx, of course, says in an early article that the Germans
thought what other nations did (CW3 18). This ,,:as becau~e
German economic development lagged far behInd that In
France and England. Bourgeois intellectuals were taken wif:h
the idea of revolution; but that was all they could take. TheIr
class was too weak to take power. Hence, on the one hand, the
displacement of attention from eco?omics and politics. to
philosophy, and, on the other, Hegel s hopes for refor~ 1I1~­
posed by the French Emperor. But Napol.eon’s empire h9Uldated the radical tendencies of the revolutIon at the same tIme
as it consolidated its results in modern forms of law and state.

Study of the way Hegel’s own thinking developed in the
same historical period as the Revolution itself throws up some
interesting shifts. It seems clear that Hegel’ s ~nitial enth~si­
asm was based on a reading of the events recallIng the anCIent
Greeks. He welcomed not so much the rights of man (implicitly against society – as with a Popper) as rights o~ citizenship, replaying ancient glories. But soon Hegel re~Ised such
going back is not possible under modem condItIons. The
excesses of the Terror certainly gave him pause and led him to

take a more pessimistic view of the Revolution. His enthusiasm for Napoleon shows that, for Hegel, the codification of
law was more important than popular government.

Above all it was his recognition of the immense strength
of what he later called ‘civil society’ that emerged for him as
the problematic legacy of the Revolution. How could the sovereignty claimed by the individual of civil society over ~is
own destiny be reconciled with the necessary over-archIng
unity of the State? These abstract extremes had to be mediated
somehow if freedom was to be actualised in stable form. The
cautious proposals eventually put forward in his Philosophy
of Right do not provide a plausible solution.

Burke and Hegel
Although Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France of
1790 was translated into German in 1793, Hegel never expressly mentions it. His critique of the Te~or echoe~ themes
in Burke’ s criticism of the original revolutIon, and thIS has led
to the claim that Burke and Hegel work from a common
organic perspective (as against liberal individualism) (Suter).

I side, however, with those (Pelczynski) who contrast Hegel’ s
and Burke’ s reactions. For the term ‘organic’ covers two quite
different things here: a naturalism and traditionalism in
Burke; but the complex articulation of a rational totality in
Hegel. Burke sees a natural order in the state, embodied in the
customs and manners of a tradition, against which a revolution of principles would be a disaster. Hegel regards it as a
product of human reason and to be measured accordingly.

We have Hegel’s characterisation of the English condi-

Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989 19

tions celebrated by Burke. They are based on ‘the principle of
positivity’, he explains.

It is true that every right and its corresponding law is in
form something positive, ordained, and instituted by
the supreme power in the State, something to which
obedience must be given just because it is a statute.

But he insists that one must also ask: ‘whether they are also
inherently right and rational’. The English system or law
‘rests entirely on particular rights, freedoms, privileges conferred, sold, presented by or extorted from kings and Parliament on special occasions’.

This inherently disconnected aggregate of positive provisions needs scientific remodelling on the basis of general
principles systematically particularised (HPW 299-301).

Reason and Reality
But Hegel was by no means an abstract rationalist, opposing
himself to a meaningless reality, and imposing his ideas on it.

On the contrary, he had great respect for history and its
inexorable immanent development. He goes so far as to say
that all that is real is rational and all that is rational is real.

According to Popper this simply means that might is right; but
it can equally be read as saying that reason is mighty. Indeed,
according to Heine, Hegel himself said it amounted to the
belief that everything rational must come to be.

Engels’ well-known interpretation is very convincing. He

In 1789 the French monarchy had become so unreal,
that is to say so devoid of all necessity, so irrational,
that it had to be destroyed …. In this case, therefore, the
monarchy was the unreal, and the revolution the real.

In general, Engels argues,
Dialectical philosophy … recognises that definite
stages of knowledge and society are justified for their
time and circumstances; but only so far. The conservatism of this outlook is relative, its revolutionary character is absolute-the only absolute that dialectical
philosophy admits.

As Engels also concedes, however, in The Philosophy of
Right Hegel’s social programme is based in cautious reform.

It is founded in the hopes Frederick Wilhelm Ill’s subjects
had for a certain liberalisation: a limited, moderate, indirect
rule of the possessing classes, suited to the petty-bourgeois
conditions of the time.

Lukacs points out that in Hegel’s Jena period the French
Revolution and its supersession by Napoleon was seen as the
decisive turning point in history, but that in the Berlin period
we find that it is the Reformation that is decisive. This spiritual development within Germany was obviously much better
adapted to German conditions and trust in the liberal sentiments of a Protestant monarchy (see PH in particular).

How could Hegel have been led to such an accommodation with the existing state of things? In truth, he represented
paradigmatic ally the culmination of bourgeois ideology,
which had to be both a philosophy of revolution and of
restoration. The gains of 1789 had to be defended, while any
new attempt to take the path of liberty had to be guarded

Thus Hegel welcomes in Napoleon both the conquerer
of the French Revolution and the protector of the revolutionary order, the general who is actually victorious

20 Radical Philosophy 52, Summer 1989

over Robespierre and the patron of the new bourgeois
code of law (Habermas).

Theory and Practice
The key question for any philosophy is that of theory and
practice. How are they mediated? Or are reason and reality
two separate spheres? With Hegel there is a marked shift in

The young enthusiast of revolution thought theory itself
could be immediately practical by demonstrating the lack of
actuality of the existent. ‘When the world of ideas is revolutionised,’ he said, ‘reality itself cannot hold out.’ But then the
objective moment came to the fore of his thought. In the
Phenomenology, philosophy does not remake the world, it
simply acts as herald of a new beginning which the world is
about to make out of its own labours. Finally, with the Philosophy ofRight, Hegel abjured any other role for theory other
than that of the recollection of a life already lived, the reconciliation with a social order already crystallised. He shows the
historical necessity of the Revolution but he is suspicious of
the revolutionaries themselves, blaming them for a terroristic
application of rigid principles. By making a philosophy of
revolution he can mount a critique of the real revolution.

Yet Hegel still wants to legitimate the consequences of the
Revolution as a product of reason – not of blind nature. Thus,
he invokes a power acting behind our backs: ‘the cunning of
reason’ which ensures the immediate agents of world history
realise its purposes indirectly. This is the activity of the World
Spirit which will unify reason and reality.

Hegel- with the wisdom of philosophy at his disposalknows this. But Napoleon is the World Spirit on horseback as
it were. The meaning of history is realised in subjective form
in the thought of Hegel, in substantial form in Napoleon. But
where are the mediations? Displaced up into the fiction of a
World Spirit.

Habermas comments:

The world spirit has accomplished the revolution, reason has already become practical, before … philosophy
recognises the reality of its reasonableness…. Only
after the spirit has revolutionised reality practically
and has made reason actual, can philosophy attain
consciousness of the revolutionised world, the world
become reasonable.

Grasping the dialectic of revolution in only abstract form
(‘absolute negativity’), and unable (for class-political and
socio-historical reasons) to orientate to what Marx called ‘the
class that holds the future in its hands’, Hegel resorts to an
external unifier of opposites.

Hegel’s philosophy of revolution goes as far as it was possible for philosophy to go. After him comes Marx. But Marx
in his Capital reminds us of what he owed to Hegel’s dialectic:

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion
in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and
an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire
spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of
its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in
fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient
aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be
impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary (103).






Engels, F., ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Philosophy’, in Selected Works of Marx and Engels, Vol. 2.

Habermas, I., ‘Hegel’s Critique of the French Revolution’ in his
Theory and Practice, trans. Viertel, London, 1954.

Lukacs, G., The Young Hegel, trans. Livingstone, London, 1975.

Marcuse, H., Reason and Revolution, London, 1954.

Marx, K., Collected Works, Vol. 3.

Marx, K., Capital, Vol. 1, Penguin/New Left Books.

Popper, K., The Open Society, Vol. 2, London, 3rd edition, 1957.

Ritter, I., Hegel and the French Revolution, trans. Winfield,
Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Suter, I.-F., ‘Burke, Hegel, and the French Revolution’ in Hegel’s
Political Philosophy, ed. Z. Pelczynski, Cambridge, 1971.

Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Ill: Philosophy of Mind, trans.

Wallace and Miller, Oxford, 1971.

History of Philosophy, trans. Haldane and Simson, London, 1892.

Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Miller, Oxford, 1977.

Philosophy of History, trans. Sibree, New York, 1956.

Philosophy of Right, trans. Knox, Oxford, 1952.

Hegel’s Political Writings, trans. with Introduction by Z.

Pelczysnki, Oxford, 1964.

Hegel: The Letters, trans. Butler and Seiler, Bloornington, 1984.

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