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We're All Hegelians Now in Alabama

GEORGE CONGER

Talk of history is all the rage these days. The “wrong side of history” has become a cliché used by everyone from President Obama to advocates of same-sex marriage, usually to condemn those who do not believe as they do.


Little is new in our world, especially ideas. In an influential 1989 article published in The National Interest entitled “The End of History?”, Francis Fukuyama argued the advent of Western liberal democracy represented the end-point of human society. He did not mean a catastrophic end, but rather the culmination or highest point in its development. History would go on, but there would be no significant change in the economic, political and intellectual bases of the world order.

Fukuyama noted the most influential proponent of this world view had been Karl Marx. At one time declaring a belief in history was tantamount to calling oneself a Communist, or in polite society, a materialist.

Later that night they talked about it again. Leamas brought it up — he asked her whether she was religious. "You've got me wrong," she said, "all wrong. I don't believe in God."

"Then what do you believe in?"

"History."

He looked at her in astonishment for a moment, then laughed.

"Oh, Liz … oh no. You're not a bloody Communist?" She nodded, blushing like a small girl at his laughter, angry and relieved that he didn't care.

From the Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963) p 37.

Fukuyama observed that the “concept of history as a dialectical process with a beginning, a middle, and an end was borrowed by Marx from his great German predecessor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.”

We are all Hegelians now, Fukuyama wrote.

For better or worse, much of Hegel's historicism has become part of our contemporary intellectual baggage. The notion that mankind has progressed through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave-owning, theocratic, and finally democratic-egalitarian societies, has become inseparable from the modern understanding of man.

Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science, insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed "natural" attributes. The mastery and transformation of man's natural environment through the application of science and technology was originally not a Marxist concept, but a Hegelian one. Unlike later historicists whose historical relativism degenerated into relativism tout court, however, Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment - a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.

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