Todd McGowan


On his book Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution

Cover Interview of November 27, 2019


The final two chapters of the book deal with the political implications of Hegel’s thought. This is the part of the book that goes beyond any interpretation of Hegel’s thought and envisions how this thought might impact our thinking about politics. I don’t think that Hegel has all the answers for us politically—he’s not a magic eight ball—but he does provide an approach that has dramatic implications for how we orient ourselves with regard to political problems.

Even though Hegel died when Marx was in his teens, Hegel’s philosophy nonetheless offers a political corrective to Marxism that can be valuable for us today, as Marxism has again arisen as an alternative to ubiquitous capitalism. We all know that Marxist attempts at restructuring society in the twentieth century went horribly awry. I think Hegel’s philosophy points to a theoretical reason why that was so, which is what makes taking stock of him so important in our times.

Hegel doesn’t really have much to offer as a critic of capitalism, although he does make the point that massive increases in wealth will necessarily correspond to widespread poverty. I think Hegel basically must defer to Marx’s critique of capitalism and his revelation of capitalism’s fundamental contradictions. What Hegel adds, however, is the insight that our political response to capitalism cannot aim at eliminating contradiction altogether, as it is for Marx. If our response tries to do this, something akin to the gulag or the killing fields will inevitably develop. In our theorizing about politics and in our political practice, the attempt to sustain contradiction must remain in the foreground. I see this as Hegel’s fundamental political lesson and one that retains its importance in the contemporary world.

Furthermore, Hegel’s philosophy of contradiction has important implications for how we think about identity, one of the key political questions today. He sees that every assertion of identity involves itself in non-identity. There is no pure identity. As identity movements rage throughout the world, it is important to consider how fraught the question of identity is. Identity only becomes what it is through a differentiation that relies on what it excludes. It needs what it rejects in order to be what it is. Thus, all identity claims involve a disavowal of what they negate in order to create an identity.

What Hegel offers in the place of identity is universality. He is a firm believer in universal political struggle. He grounds universal values such as freedom and equality not in some vision of human essence or in natural law but rather in contradiction itself. Because of the contradiction that undoes every identity, we are all free. Because of the contradiction that undermines the highest authority, we are all equal. Hegel provides a way of thinking about universality that removes it from dominance and imperialism. Universality connects us through what we aren’t, not what we are. Hegel holds up universality as the only way to combat the retreat into the isolated trap of identity.