The Basic Conservatism of Hegel

The final message of Hegelianism, therefore, is not the opposition
between Reason and an unreasonable world, but contemplation of the
world as a priori reasonable. We do not know what parts of the
existing world are or are not true instruments of Mind: we cannot be
sure, for example, that it has ceased to use criminals for its
purposes. The individual has no rules of morality which he can oppose
to the supremacy of the historical process. In Hegel’s system,
rebellion against the existing world may be justified in a
particular case, but we have no means of telling whether it is or not
until its destiny is accomplished. If it proves successful, this shows
that it was historically right; if crushed, it will evidently have
been only a sterile reaction of ‘what ought to have been.’ The
vanquished are always wrong.

Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism (p. 66 in the new ed.)

As the saying goes,
The Nation is read by people who think the country should be
run by the powerless.” This is, I guess, the liberal position that
gets attacked so much by aggressive leftists who believe that simply
negating political power is no recipe for a revolution.

But I don’t believe that Hegel’s position merely provides
tautological ex post facto justification for whatever has happened. It
would be were it constrained merely to a despondent fatalism, as with
Schopenhauer, but since Hegel is after far bigger game, he must
fundamentally reify the whole of history up to the present day and
present it as all the ingredients in his in-progress stew for a
perfect, complete world. Yet even if some dialectical process negates
the current state of affairs and declares it to be lousy (which, to be
sure, Hegel doesn’t really seem to anticipate), it can only negate it
as an end and not as a processual step. The revolutionary can never be
purely revolutionary, because the
revolutionary is still acting out within the confines of a historical

This sounds to me like Burke; no matter what you do, you are
building on the work of the generations before you. To believe in this
paradigm and see one’s self as part of a historical consciousness is
to be fundamentally conservative. Hegel is capable of justifying the
French Revolution where Burke would not because he’s more progressive,
but because the conservative ideology is more flexible. It leaves no
room for those fundamental tenets of genuine revolutionary movements:
(colloquial) idealism and the probable futility of it all. Hegel
demands praxis because there simply can be nothing else;
History reigns supreme.

Kierkegaard, who proposes an unincorporable personal otherness, and
especially the antifoundationalist Max Stirner, don’t offer a Hegelian
progression so much as tearing up the whole framework. (The
alternative interpretation, which is that every little detail, no
matter how inconsequential and futile, is somehow important to
History’s progress, is tenable but pretty lame.)


  1. meika
    15 February 2007

    Conservatives believe people are crap and thus that maintainance is the primary purpose of any social system, radicals believe people are good and should be granted the powers of deities.

    Both are true but problems arise when one applies one set of beliefs to the wrong crowd.

    The result being that crap people are crap gods, and these are the ones maintained in power.

    Witness neo-con fucktardry.

  2. baikonur
    17 February 2007

    Kierkegaard, though he critiqued historical thinking in his Concluding Unscientific Postscripts, was nonetheless politically conservative, a strong supporter of the Danish monarch. And why not include among your post-Hegelians the example of Marx, who espoused a historical dialectic but was decidedly non-conservative? I don’t think there is much basis for your absolute determination that historical consciousness is always conservative.

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