Theory and Practice: History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx
The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism
The owl of Minerva spreads its wings when the shades of dusk are falling. Hegel’s celebrated aphorism has often been invoked to characterize the difference between his own contemplative bent and the activism of his rebellious disciples. Philosophy (it was said) was indeed backward-looking by its very nature. Hegel had been right to emphasize this truth, but wrong to suggest that contemplation of the past was the only mode of thought proper to rational comprehension of the world. History, after all, was still going on, and its understanding could not be put off until the time had once more come to sum up the achievements of a bygone epoch. It was possible to theorize about the future, as well as about the past. More than that: the future could be shaped by conscious action guided by experience. Hegel had severed theory from practice, thought from action, reason from revolution. The task was to re-unite them. “The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in different ways. What matters is to transform it.”
Today the Promethean revolt of the Hegelian Left has in its turn become a chapter in the history of that process which Hegel sought to analyze, and which his more radical pupils tried to shape. The world has indeed been transformed, not least by those of Marx’s followers who took to heart the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach: stop interpreting the world and start changing it. But the transformation, although partly conscious and occasionally guided by true insight into the material needs of the human species, has created new and unforeseen problems to which neither classical liberalism nor classical Marxism offers a solution. Moreover, the ancient fatality has not really been shaken off: what is actually happening (the technological unification of the planet) occurs not under intelligent direction, but blindly, catastrophically, through wars, revolutions, and the turmoil of conflicting passions: national, social, racial. The half-hidden logic of the process has to be inferred from an accumulation of seemingly pointless disasters. Its human agents—not merely individuals, but entire nations—are sacrificed to aims they had not consciously willed. The “Cunning of Reason” reasserts itself. Hegel takes his revenge upon the empiricists who consigned his teachings to the dustbin of history. Science is powerless to control the instrumentarium of death it has let loose upon the world. Statecraft sinks to the level of manipulation. Alternatively, it pursues senseless or utopian aims, then stands appalled at the result. None of this would have surprised the thinker for whom world history was a “slaughterhouse.”
PROFESSOR LOBKOWICZ has devoted a huge volume (the first part, it appears, of an even larger work) to the study of Marx’s Hegelian origins, and to the notion of “revolutionary practice” generally. His book would be important for its theme alone. What makes it an intellectual event is the light it sheds (at times a trifle obliquely) upon the radical discontinuity of classical and modern thought. This History of a Concept from Aristotle to Marx is also, among other things, a defense of Aristotle against Marx (and against Kant, Fichte, and Hegel too). What we have here is a Thomist critique of Marxism—and of German Idealism as well (albeit mainly by implication). Lobkowicz stands in a tradition which is able to look back, across the gulf of nineteen centuries of Church history, to the Greek sources of Christian theology. Specifically, he draws upon the Aristotelian inspiration of Thomism, hence of the major Catholic tradition. For although in the currently fashionable climate of ecumenicism he is polite about heretical variants of the faith, the attentive reader is left in no doubt that the great adventure of German Idealism—with its unexpected culmination in Marx—is ultimately traceable to the Reformation. However, the accent falls upon the Luciferian revolt of the Young Hegelians, rather than upon Hegel’s secularized Lutheranism which even in its speculative guise still trailed transcendental clouds of glory. Lobkowicz sees Kant and Hegel as fellow-Christians gone wrong. He even affirms (with good reason) that in reacting against Kant’s phenomenalism, which denied the possibility of true insight into super-sensible reality, Hegel had executed a half-turn back to Aristotle. The question he poses to himself and to the reader is why this promising approach should in the end have yielded the dragon seed of revolutionary praxis.
The theme is pursued at two levels: the biographical (to which we shall come in a moment) and the logical. To start with the latter, Lobkowicz confronts the awkward circumstance that it was precisely Hegel’s all-embracing rationalism which made possible the world-transforming activism of his radical followers. They could do nothing with Kant, for the Kantian distinction between physics and ethics led to the conclusion that moral (and political) decisions could not be reached theoretically: What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is. Hegel did away with this distinction, and thereby opened the road to revolution! Not that he had the slightest intention of doing anything of the sort: he was an instinctive conservative long before he had become the official apologist of the Prussian State. But his grandiose metaphysical construction had implications of the most world-shaking kind, once its meaning had been grasped. For what was it that he affirmed? Simply that the Kantian ought was unnecessary, because the “noumenal” realm, the realm of absolute knowledge, was accessible to Reason after all!
For Kant, “practical” philosophy had been a matter of the individual conscience. Its true ground could not be met anywhere in actual experience, and hence took on the character of an “ideal,” of something that ought to be but is not. Hegel demolished this barrier, along with the Kantian thing-in-itself and the cautious agnosticism that flowed from it. Not that Kant lacked self-confidence his ethics (by implication at least) did away with the idea of a supersensible deity. But the notion that there is absolutely nothing beyond the reach of human thought belongs to Hegel. Once this faith had sunk in, it did not take his bolder followers long to conclude that the material world can be (and therefore must be) transformed, so as to turn it into a creation of the human spirit (itself consubstantial with the divinity).
But how could the link between Reason and Revolution be forged by men who thought of themselves as interpreters of the Master? No group of theorists ever detonated a greater explosion than the Hegelians—the thunder is still rolling around the globe; by comparison with it, all the noise made by modern technology, nuclear fission included, is trivial—yet none were less aware of the practical consequences of what they were doing. Hegel’s nature thought rivaled Aristotle’s in its attempt to interpret the universe as a mundus intelligibilis, satisfying both to the minds and to the hearts of men. What he demanded of his readers (as Lobkowicz puts it) was “an ascent to the standpoint from which it becomes obvious that reality is exactly as it ought to be, namely ‘rational.”’ The real world having thus been transfigured into an Absolute, how could “theory” turn into “practice”? Lobkowicz lets the cat out of the bag (somewhat reluctantly, it seems to this reviewer, but then the Aristotelian in him probably cannot help sympathizing with Hegel) in a passage which deserves to be quoted:
We are using the expression “transfiguration” in order to indicate the point at which most of the problems of Hegel’s disciples will arise: instead of either predicting that the world will become perfect through and through, or trying to transform the world in order to make it perfect, Hegel simply describes it as perfect. His disciples soon will discover that Hegel overcame the ought only at the level of speculative thought, leaving reality itself unchanged; and the romantic philosophy of Sollen will re-emerge, though in a quite different form [pp. 149-50].
The urge to make the real truly rational could be read into the system because Hegel had affirmed that world history is nothing other than “the gradual emergence and the eventual definite break-through of reason” (p. 155). As if this were not enough, the first decisive step away from contemplation toward revolution was taken by a conservative aristocrat, who for good measure was a Catholic mystic: the Polish nobleman and Hegelian philosopher August von Cieszkowski.
THIS IS NOT an altogether new discovery. There is a small literature on Cieszkowski (as the reader of Professor Martin Malia’s biography of Alexander Herzen can discover for himself in a somewhat different context). Perhaps by way of reaction against the conventional emphasis upon better-known figures, such as Strauss and Feuerbach, Lobkowicz (it seems to me) makes a bit too much of Hegel’s Polish pupil. He is, however, quite right in saying that Cieszkowski is rarely mentioned in Anglo-American writing. This is unfortunate, for his Prolegomena zur Historiosophie (1838) is an important link between Hegel and Marx (and more particularly between Hegel and Bakunin). There is no evidence that Marx (who in the 1840s was personally acquainted with Cieszkowski and thought him a long-winded bore) ever read the Prolegomena. But we know that Moses Hess did, and Hess for three critical years (1842-45) was Marx’s teacher. We also know that it was Cieszkowski’s book which launched Bakunin on the road to revolutionary anarchism—an outcome that must have appalled the Polish aristocrat. Bakunin was then in Germany studying Hegel’s philosophy, and his radical interpretation of Cieszkowski’s mystical doctrine that the future can be known was soon to ferment in the heads of Russian students. In far-away Vladimir, the youthful Alexander Herzen—exiled from Moscow for having toyed with the notion of aristocratic conspiracy against the Tsar—read the Prolegomena soon after their appearance, and drew from them the assurance that mankind’s future could be known and shaped.
A faithful Catholic—his God and the Palingenesis (1842) was devoted to the defense of orthodox Christianity against its detractors among the left-wing Hegelians—Cieszkowski nonetheless had taken the first decisive step from theory to practice, from philosophy as contemplative understanding of the past, to philosophy as speculative construction and practical determination of the future. For the coming age could be molded (thanks to Hegel) by “post-theoretical practice”: that was Cieszkowski’s great discovery. Absolute knowledge having been attained, “humanity has become mature enough to make its own determinations perfectly identical with the Divine Plan of Providence.” Hegel’s universal system was the beginning of the end. “Philosophy has now reached so classical a point that it must transcend itself and yield up the universal empire to another.” This “other” could only be “practical, social life.” Being and thought “must perish in action, art and philosophy in social life, in order to re-emerge and to unfold in the ultimate form of social existence.” For his own part, Cieszkowski remained a philosopher, and a Catholic philosopher at that (even though he toyed with the utopian socialism of Fourier). He had nonetheless set the avalanche in motion. Within three years of the Prolegomena, the message of prolitical revolution was sounded by Moses Hess (from whom Marx inherited it) in another important and neglected piece of writing, the Europaeische Triarchie (1841).