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From Primitive to Substantive Equality—via Slavery

István Mészáros is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Sussex. His books include Beyond Capital, Socialism or Barbarism, The Structural Crisis of Capital, and, most recently, The Necessity of Social Control, all published by Monthly Review Press.

This article is taken from a longer work on the state which Mészáros is now writing.

Unlike materially grounded and strictly determined primitive equality, the realization of universally shared substantive equality is feasible only at a highly developed level of social/economic advancement that must be combined with the consciously pursued non-hierarchical (and thereby non-antagonistic) regulation of a historically sustainable social reproductive metabolism. That would be a radically different social metabolism, in contrast to all phases of historical development hitherto—including of course the spontaneous primitive equality of the distant past rooted in the grave material constraints of directly imposed natural necessity and struggle for survival. For the horizon of humanity’s consciousness was drastically curtailed and hemmed in under the grave determinations of primitive equality. Historical sustainability is therefore totally inconceivable in conjunction with such determinations. “Materiality” of that kind, despite its unquestionable substantiveness, as linked to the corresponding hemmed-in “spontaneity,” is obviously not enough in order to achieve historical sustainability. Other conditions must be conquered in due course so as to be able to turn the potentiality of materially grounded substantive equality into historically viable reality.

But the requirement of materiality, in the case of the human being whose fundamental existential substratum is objectively determined nature, is essential. The seminal condition of materiality with regard to equality can be swept aside or wished out of existence—as a rule in a revealingly discriminatory and class-bound self-serving way—only by some idealist philosophical conception; one that predicates the commendability of some kind of equality (e.g., “in the eyes of God” or “before the Law”) and at the same time denies the realizability of materially embodied substantive equality, in its defense of a most iniquitous social order.

The painful truth of the matter is that the vital importance of materiality and its regulatory requirements cannot be underrated as far as the actually unfolding—and in the end either prevailing or doom-laden—historical development of humanity is concerned. The innermost determinations of all-embracing historical development on this planet are always objective, even though their carriers are particular human individuals who may well exercise their role under the distorting determinations of false consciousness. For the false consciousness in question is not individualistically fanciful/arbitrary consciousness, as characteristically misrepresented by Max Weber in his projection of the fictitious but socially most apologetic—in view of being decreed to be absolutely insuperable—”Private Demon” dominating all individuals. On the contrary, it corresponds to determinate objective interests under the conditions of materially antagonistic historical development. This is a type of historical development characteristic of all social formations in which the overall command structure of decision making is—for a great variety of identifiable reasons—alienated from the social body as a whole, and is embodied in a separate, superimposed political organ of correspondingly great variety across history, including our present time.

Antagonistic Materiality

The principal forms of antagonistically perpetuated materiality across history are:

  1. slave-owning early societies, controlled by military force;
  2. feudal serfdom in which the predetermined and even religiously sanctioned antagonistic rule continues to be imposed, wherever and whenever needed, by force;
  3. wage slavery,” (in the words of Marx), perpetuating itself by directly material/economic means under the rule of capital, no matter how “advanced,” and ultimately safeguarded by political/military force.

In all three of its fundamental articulations, slavery is structurally entrenched and peremptorily hierarchical with regard to the objective reality of the actual societal decision-making process. This is the case even at the third type of slavery, wage slavery, despite the pseudo-egalitarian pretenses of political “democracy” confined to the more or less vacuously formal/electoral level.

Naturally, in all three types of slavery the overall control of the vital materiality of the social metabolic process of reproduction remains divorced from the producers themselves. At the same time, the actual productive functions must be nonetheless performed by those who are not in overall control of the roles objectively assigned to them, while the de facto controllers of the system are of course incapable of accomplishing the necessary reproductive tasks without which society as a whole would collapse. The objective contradiction of such reproductive structure is blatantly obvious, even if it is idealized at the historical phase of wage slavery by the privileged side as the benevolent “Invisible Hand” and not perceived as an untenable contradiction by those at the receiving end.

In any case, this way of controlling the material metabolism of societal reproduction across history cannot be other than objectively antagonistic to its inner core, with its dangers of potential instability and even convulsion. In the interest of its ongoing sustainability, the structurally entrenched hierarchical overall framework of the societal complex into which the producers are inserted must be predetermined from the outset through material class determinations, and it must be politically safeguarded as such in the direction of the future. Material entrenchment itself—against which people might and do rebel—cannot provide on its own the ultimate guarantee for its successful perpetuation.

This objective hiatus carries with it the necessity of an ultimate enforcer and guarantor in the form of the given society’s overall political command structure. This command structure articulates itself in history as the “sovereign” power capable of imposing, against all recalcitrance, the potentially endangered requirements of materially exploitative structural/hierarchical entrenchment.

Significantly in this sense, even at the stage of capitalistic wage slavery—when the primary modality of surplus-labor extraction and its discriminatory expropriation as expanding surplus-value is the class-determined and in its pretenses “neutral” economic material dependency of the workers (combined with the deceitful semblance of their “political equality” and indeed “liberty”)—from time to time, in periods of major crises, forms of directly authoritarian (even extreme dictatorial) political control must be imposed on society. Naturally this is carried out by the force of arms, in the interest of securing the capitalist societal reproductive metabolism.

Accordingly, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the semi-fascist Admiral Horthy is imposed on Hungary by the capitalistically most advanced “democratic states” of the United States, Britain, and France, well before Mussolini’s “march on Rome” or Hitler’s world-adventure-oriented domination in Germany.1 We see similar developments in the U.S.-manufactured military dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile, overthrowing democratically elected President Allende (remember Henry Kissinger’s direct role in it), in tune with the most active support given to other military dictatorships by the United States in Brazil and in other parts of Latin America as a matter of course.2 Material entrenchment must therefore be complemented and safeguarded by the ultimate guarantor of even the most repressive political-military machinery, no matter how “democratic” its ideological justification. An antagonistic societal reproductive order cannot sustain itself without it. The absurdly idealized conditions of capitalist wage slavery—to which “there can be no alternative”—offer no exception to such authoritarian ultimate guarantee. This fact casts a dark shadow on the liberal projections of “controlling the excesses of the state” even when they are genuinely meant by some liberal political philosophers.

Nevertheless, the objective tendency of historical development toward instituting a viable social metabolic order of—materially grounded—substantive equality cannot be denied. The demand for it made itself felt on the historical stage in a most dramatic form at the time of the French Revolution and it had to be acknowledged even by the defenders of the bourgeois order at least in a partial form, as the “equality before the Law.” But of course the demand for equality in a harshly contested way goes back in history to countless centuries earlier ages. As great a philosopher as Aristotle himself had to dismiss such demand with scathing remarks. Indeed, despite his philosophical genius, he could make pronouncements on the domain of social equality in the most grotesque way, by calling the slaves of his time talking tools. Obviously, then, class interest can produce staggering irrationality even in the case of the greatest philosophical genius.

The Historical Realization of Substantive Equality

The historical realization of consciously pursued substantive equality is of course dependent on the actual production of its material conditions in the most comprehensive sense. The advocacy of the realization of such a monumental historical achievement could be only a wishful “ought-to-be” if its conditions would have to be postulated in the form of “Divine Grace” or the deed of some mysterious “World Spirit,” as we find so much of historical development projected in the idealist philosophical conceptions of the past.

But in actuality this is not the case with regard the question of substantive equality. For the human natural ground of the unfolding historical process toward the realization of substantive equality is itself material precisely in the most comprehensive sense in which all human beings objectively share the communality of their fundamental natural substratum, with its most varied creative potentiality. Only the human-made iniquitous metabolic regulatory conditions, arising from self-perpetuating vested interests, can pervert that shared fundamental natural equity into socially discriminatory institutionalized reality, matching the predetermined exploitative requirements of the established hierarchical structural entrenchment, and thereupon outrageously conceptualized in terms of the members of the subordinate class even as the subhuman condition of “talking tools.” Indeed, due to the same vested class interests, the socially repressed class of people could be conceptualized in the form of the most absurd racism also at a much later stage than Aristotle’s ancient Greece, when the great rational dialectical philosopher Hegel could contradict his own truly path-breaking epistemological democratism by talking about what he called “the African character,” with reference to the slaves of his time.3

In contrast to Aristotle, in Hegel we find a much more sophisticated justification of the unjustifiable. This is well understandable not only because with the French Revolution the demand for equality—in the case of Babeuf and his “Society of Equals” even for materially substantive equality—erupted with great force on the historical stage, but also because Hegel himself passionately supported its anti-feudal constituents. However, given his own class horizon, consciously shared in a positive sense with the work of Adam Smith, Hegel could not contemplate any form of social and political order that might be contrary to the emerging and in the post-revolutionary period consolidating bourgeois class exploitative substance. His discourse therefore centered on the idea of world-historically unfolding Freedom, relegating the problem of Equality to the domain of what he described with undisguised contempt and summary negativity as “the folly of the Understanding,” setting it in sharp contrast to the idealized domain of Reason itself.4

In that way, socially most problematical and indeed antagonistic materiality could recede from what Hegel considered the proper philosophical horizon. The underlying problem and dilemma had to be transfigured into the unquestionable ideality of historically climaxing and in the Hegelian scheme of things forever inseparable Reason and Freedom, thanks to the postulated good services of Subject/Object identity. At the same time the structurally prevailing forms of material antagonism—both the internal, socially exploitative, and the international, necessarily warring—could be organically incorporated into his monumental account of world historical development, characterized by Hegel as “the ways of God,” the World Spirit’s Theodicaea.5

To be sure, Hegel did not deny at least the potentiality of social antagonism, as depicted already in Adam Smith’s great work. But he pushed aside in his Philosophy of Right the explosive dangers that might arise from the admittedly harsh predicament of the needy “surplus population” with the fantasy-solution of idealized Europe’s colonial expansion overseas wishfully projected to go on forever in the future. Moreover, also the dimension of international antagonism appeared in Hegel’s conception from the time of his earliest writings onwards, and remained always predicated in an equally unproblematical way. It took the form of firmly asserting not only the de facto necessity of wars but simultaneously also their positive commendability, advocated by him for the sake of avoiding moral stagnation. Accordingly, in a passage of five lines from the youthful work on Natural Law, repeated by Hegel word for word in the much later Philosophy of Right, we learn that thanks to the necessity of purifying war “the ethical health of the peoples is preserved.”6

In this sense Hegel was well aware of both of the fundamental dimensions of material antagonism inseparable from structurally entrenched substantive inequality. But—given his class horizon—he had to proclaim their full consonance with the spirit of the World Spirit whose fully realized work in this world could be questioned in his view only by the impatient and “immature Youth” but not by the “mature Man.”7 This is why in Hegel’s grandiose historical conception—spelled out in terms of the World Spirit’s “Cunning of Reason” (List der Vernunft) using the world historical individuals, like Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, Luther, and Napoleon, as mere tools for its own hidden purposes—the idea of freedom had to take over the space of materially substantive equality.

World historical tools of that kind, in the hands of the World Spirit, could be certainly called “talking tools,” and indeed eloquently talking tools of the noblest kind. Aristotle would be astounded by such change of meaning, seeing his own pupil, the great Alexander, so defined. Yet thanks to Hegel’s overall design in the name of the “Absolutely Cunning World Spirit” (his expression), the newly established iniquitous bourgeois order could acquire its ideal stamp of approval, with no one to be taken to account for its contradictions; not even for the partially acknowledged suffering of the needy.8 For who would dare to call for taking the wisdom of the World Spirit itself to task at the peak of its fully accomplished Theodicea? That would be the greatest of all conceivable philosophical contradictions.

In terms of human emancipation the demand for equality is inextricably combined with material substantiveness. Formal equality in the field of the political domain without structurally equivalent material decision making substantiveness—even if in comparative historical terms it can be considered meaningful in contrast to the feudal or ancient slave-owning past—would be rather vacuous and nullifiable; as indeed it happens to be in its actual operation, and also in its own limited terms of reference. Thomas Hobbes did not hesitate to call substantiveness without materiality a contradiction in terms. This is how he had put it: “Substance and Body, signify the same thing; and therefore Substance incorporeall are words, which when they are joined together, destroy one another, as if a man should say, an Incorporeall body.”9

In this sense, any claim as to having realized the workers’ equality in the domain of social and political emancipation by granting them some formal rights, while actually denying them—on the ground of the structurally prejudged and secured monopoly of the means of production to be vested in the personifications of capital—the material substance of controlling the social reproductive metabolism, is exactly like talking about “Incorporeall body“; that is, a contradiction in terms.

Idealism and the Problem of Materiality

It goes without saying, no one should accuse Hegel of committing such crude logical inconsistency, with the most deplorable and grotesquely racist exception of his talk about the “African character.” In Hegel’s case the problems lie elsewhere, with far-reaching consequences for his historical conception as a whole. For by shifting the problem of historical advancement from the materially tangible and substantive issue of Equality, with its objective determinations of potential and real historical advancement, to the ideal postulate of Freedom, as the mysteriously preordained self-objectifying purpose, Hegel is compelled to look for a correspondingly ideal supra-human agency in relation to which the actual human beings—no matter how great in terms of the described Hegelian World-historical process—can only appear as mere tools and cunningly used instruments. This is how the unfolding dynamism of historical development is turned into the mysterious World Spirit’s Absolute List der Vernunft (Absolute Cunning of Reason explicitly admitted to be such by Hegel himself), making thereby the two fundamental concepts of Reason and Freedom by decree organically combined in the monumental idealist architectonic of the Hegelian philosophy.10

In one of Hegel’s early philosophical works, Jenaer Realphilosophie, the dilemma of the “pauper’s inequality” appears for a fleeting moment, and receives a logically consistent but totally unreal solution. He describes the pauper in his miserable alienated existence (Hegel’s words) as entering the cathedral, and envisages for him a—purely imaginary—”second alienation” from his actual alienated existence. And thus, young Hegel proclaims, thanks to the postulated second alienation, whereby the depicted pauper makes in his mind his real existence disappear as a speck of cloud on the distant horizon, and so in his cathedral-consciousness he “is the equal to the Prince” (er ist dem Fürsten gleich). But of course the actual life-conditions of the pauper did not change in the slightest. Later in his life, “mature Man Hegel” does not offer such—curiously compassionate but utterly imaginary—scenarios and solutions. In their stead, as mentioned before, he dismisses with logical consistency the demand for social equality as “the folly of the understanding”—namely, the kind of folly rightfully condemned in terms of the Hegelian categorial framework on account of emanating from the lower faculty of human reasoning.

The actual historical unfolding of the conditions of real human equality has its identifiable “body” and its “substance” in the Hobbesian sense. Its self-evident agency or subject is the actually existent human being across history. Consequently, historical development assumes a tangible form, irrespective of how antagonistic might be the actual tendency toward the realization of its objective potentialities. By contrast, projecting historical development in terms of “Freedom as such,” divorced from its necessary connection with materially substantive human equality, is inevitably idealistic/mystifying. Its claimed self-objectifying conceptuality needs not only a mysterious Newtonian “Prime Mover” but also one who in Hegel’s case continues to move it all the way to the final accomplishment of “the ways of God,” his Theodicaea. Thus the envisaged historical progression can be depicted in the broad outlines of Hegel’s Philosophy of History only as a kind of logical/conceptual progression, even if presented with rich—but speculatively selective and idealistically preordained as well as prejudged—historical illustrative material.

Accordingly we are offered by Hegel the three principal stages of historical advancement like this:

  1. in the oriental world only one—the ruler/despot—is free;
  2. in classical Greek antiquity some men are free;
  3. in the modern era, corresponding to “Europe as absolutely the end of history,” “man as man,” or “man as such” is free.11

As to the explanatory ground of such historical development from “one” through “some” to the logico-generic “man as such,” the self-evident Hegelian answer is: the World Spirit itself. But of course the idea that “man as such” is free does not mean in the least that “all men are free.” Far from it. Structural dependency and subordination must be maintained as the regulators of the societal order. Thus the projected “universality” of “man as such” devoid of substantively identifiable human historical content is a pseudo-universality. As indeed it cannot be other than that in the philosophical conceptualizations envisioned from capital’s social metabolic order, when the fetishism of universal commodification—the only practicable, perverse, all-invading “universality”—calls for a merely formal equalization of self-expanding exchange-value, subduing use-value and human need.

It is by no means surprising, therefore, that the greatest thinkers of the bourgeoisie had to struggle in vain with the concept of “universalizability,” from Kant to Hegel. In their innermost philosophical conception they could only envisage it in a separate, other-worldly domain, with its proclaimed ideal moral substance. In Kant’s case this view was spelled out in his Critique of Practical Reason as the realm of the mysterious “intelligible world,” to which human beings were said to also belong, making them thereby free and morally responsible for their motivations and actions. And Kant clearly stated that in the architectonic of his overall philosophical conception “the primacy of practical reason” occupied the overwhelmingly important grounding place. Yet both Kant and Hegel tried to identify in some way the conceived moral other-worldliness with their ideal postulate on this earth. In Kant’s case with the “ought-to-be” beneficial work of the “moral politician,” set in sharp contrast to the rejected “political moralist,” and in Hegel’s case with the solemnly proclaimed but totally unrealizable class-preserving antagonistic “ethical state.” Thus, similarly to Kant, in Hegel’s overall conception—from the earliest phase of his talk about “ethical urge” and “ethical totality” to the final summation of his ideas in his Philosophy of Right and in his Philosophy of History—an ethically idealized political reason occupied the architectonic grounding place. This constituted his own version of the “primacy of practical reason.”

The Circular Identification of Freedom and Reason

In its fundamental meaning the historical advancement of freedom claimed by Hegel concerned the principal state formations across history as highlighted in his relevant philosophical work. And in that sense the ultimate state formation of “the Germanic world“—corresponding by no means simply to Germany but to the dominant nation states of Europe in general—fully matched the postulated final destination of the “ways of God.” He said so explicitly in his Philosophy of History as well as in his Philosophy of Right.

The great difficulty in this respect is that underneath the idealistically transfigured solutions of other-worldliness just mentioned, as offered by the great classical philosophers of the bourgeoisie, we find very real, in fact burning and agonizingly hurtful determinations, amenable to very different solutions. Humanity’s oppressive and in our time most menacing state antagonisms are not curable by even the noblest appeal to the Kantian other-worldly “intelligible realm,” nor by the advocacy of the ideal postulates of some imaginary “ethical state.” For they arise from the insuperable contradictions of the self-imposing this-worldliness of antagonistic politics itself, embodied in the separate organ of the alienating, structurally entrenched overall controlling power of the state in its historical reality. This real-historical state is necessarily the enemy of substantive equality as a matter of its innermost objective structural/hierarchical determination. No appeal to the ideal of some “moral politician,” with his pure “ought-to-be” of Kantian “perpetual peace” in a real world of interminable destructive and self-destructive wars, nor to the even more wishful projection of the “realization of the ways of God on earth” in and through the Hegelian “ethical state” can alter that.

From his earliest writings to his latest Hegel was always intensely concerned with the problems of politics. His conception as a whole would be quite unimaginable without that, even if in the 1840s the “young Hegelians”—for reasons of their own, as also Lukács almost a century later in one of his greatest works, The Young Hegel, written in defense of dialectics against sectarian dogmatism—tried to stress the more radical potentialities of the old master’s work.12

As a young philosopher Hegel projected in support of his vision the benevolent Monster Briareus, connecting him with his own ideas about the advocated “ethical totality,” and “ethical urge” for the realization of a rather mythical outcome to be brought about by something like “the Nation’s God.” And even if later Briareus disappeared from his writing, and “the Nation’s God” was transmuted into the “World Spirit,” Hegel’s vision of some kind of ethical solution to the very real—indeed patently antagonistic—problems of the world always remained in evidence. Given his categorical rejection of materially grounded substantive equality, he could offer only an idealistic ethically justified state conception. And that could only be spelled out in terms of a circular identification of Freedom and Reason, because the universally valid demand for equality—whose formal dimension, at least, was even incorporated in the French Revolution’s decree of the “Universal Rights of Man and Citizen,” when some clearly identifiable radical social forces were pressing for much more—had to be swept aside by Hegel’s class as absolutely inadmissible.

The identification of Freedom and Reason had to be circular because they had to cover and “supersede” (in the Hegelian threefold sense of “Aufhebung“) the ground of their socially unmentionable antagonistic determinations. In reality “Freedom as such” cannot have a meaning in its own self-enclosed terms of reference. It must be freedom for doing or realizing something in order to acquire a humanly meaningful content. And that must be linked to some tangibly contested condition of human equality or inequality. Even the one-sidedly limited conception of “freedom from” must be defined in terms of something that promotes or constrains human equality.

However, in Hegel’s philosophical development we find the class-determined absence of the historically advancing and materially identifiable—even if in reality itself sharply contested and by the dominant powers “overruled”—equality in comparison to the more distant past. Yet, the objectively unfolding trend is evidenced not only by the writings of some great pre-revolutionary thinkers pointing in the direction of the erupting demand for equality, like Rousseau well known to Hegel, but also by the actual confrontations of the French Revolution itself, despite the class-determined limitations of their outcome. As Marx had forcefully underlined it, the class determinations embodied in the emergent bourgeois state started to assume a repressive legal form against the workers already at a very early stage of the French revolution. Thus, most significantly in this respect

During the very first storms of the revolution the French bourgeoisie dared to take away from the workers the right of association but just acquired. By a decree of June 14, 1791, they declared all coalition of the workers as “an attempt against liberty and the declaration of the rights of man,” punishable by a fine of 500 livres, together with deprivation of the rights of an active citizen for one year. This law which, by means of State compulsion, confined the struggle between capital and labor within limits comfortable for capital, has outlived revolutions and changes of dynasties. Even the Reign of Terror left it untouched. It was but quite recently struck out of the Penal Code.13

Under such unfolding developments Hegel could of course happily acknowledge the anti-feudal constituents of the emerging transformations; but absolutely not the objectively implied necessity of equality in terms of socially/materially superseding the new type of class domination.

Accordingly, Hegel could only assert that the “triumph of Freedom” consisted in the emergence of the Germanic State as corresponding to the ideality of the World Spirit’s “ethical state,” proclaimed on the ground that such state is at long last “organized rationally.” And when he had to prove that in the World Spirit’s now realized modern world “man as such is free,” he could only do it—again, due to the necessary absence of commendable materially tangible equality from his thought—by claiming that the rationally organized Germanic ethical state is free with full adequacy because “it is rationally founded on the principle of freedom.” Thus in terms of the freedom of “man as such” and the fully realized freedom of the state as such the defining determination of “organized rationally” and “being founded rationally on the principle of freedom” had to coincide and constitute the “circle of circles,” eloquently commended by Hegel in that way not only in his massive Science of Logic but also in one of his greatest works, The Phenomenology of Mind, or—as the same masterpiece is rendered in another English translation—The Phenomenology of Spirit.

The Hegelian Circle of Circles

Paradoxically, this circle of circles was not a logical failure but the greatest philosophical achievement conceivable from capital’s societal reproductive standpoint. For while leaving the class-determined socially unmentionable unmentioned, it made possible the elaboration of a profound dialectical conception even if in a most abstract form, due to its necessarily missing correlated terms of reference. In truth it can be argued that Reason and Freedom not fallaciously but truly stand for the same thing in historical development, provided that we complement them with their real ground of objectively unfolding materiality of ultimately irrepressible human equality. In that way there is no need for any separate and mysterious supra-human Mover.

To be sure, from capital’s social metabolic standpoint this could not be admitted. This is why a logico-metaphysical dialectic—as if floating on purified air, by moving from the earlier mentioned “one” of the stipulated speculatively self-realizing world history, through the intermediary category of the logically consistent “some,” to the abstract philosophical finality of “man as such” and “Freedom as such“—had to take the place of historically identifiable materiality and real advancement, thereby transfiguring some inconvenient class relations into idealistic yet morally nonetheless meaningful terms, thanks to the logico-skeletal validity of the projected dialectical progresssion.

In this way so much of speculatively transfigured objective truth could be spelled out in different domains of human experience, from Logic and Aesthetics to an encyclopaedic historical knowledge and to the strictly legal dimension of state-legitimatory ideas and practices in the more or less remote past. Even Hegel’s absolute insistence on the necessary ethical determination of the advocated state has its relative validity, provided that it is strongly qualified with reference to the material ground of actually existing society. For historically sustainable human societal interchange is inconceivable without the fully shared acceptance of some vitally important and morally commendable comprehensive regulatory determinations. But of course the required normative determinations can and must be set not by some supra-human World Spirit but by the substantively equal members of humanity, on the ground of their radically different modality of non-antagonistic social metabolic reproduction, beyond the separate, structurally super-imposed political/military states constituted in history.

Hegel was absolutely right in stressing that to be able to talk about historical development one needed some measure in terms of which advancement toward a rationally sustainable condition in history could be expressed. In his case that measure, for the already mentioned reasons of state-idealization, could not be other than Freedom itself. The trouble is, though, that “Freedom as such” needs some measure in terms of which it can be properly applied to the advancement, or, on the contrary, the retrogression of actual societal development.

No one can deny for a moment the importance of freedom for the realization of human potentialities. But this requirement can only mean in the case of the human being—whose fundamental existential substratum is nature, as discussed earlier—the objective satisfaction of the conditions of humanity’s self-realization, including of course the cultural/intellectual conditions appropriate to the unfolding materially secured and emancipatory historical conditions themselves. Consequently, advancement in history cannot be measured abstractly in the generality of “Freedom as such” or “Freedom itself,” no matter how fully consistent that might be with the likewise generic determination of “rationality as such.”

The vital issue in terms of human emancipation and advancement in relation to the admittedly necessary requirement of Freedom is not the inseparability of Freedom and Reason, irrespective of how much we might agree with their inseparability without being trapped by the Hegelian circle. Rather, the crucial issue is the actual advancement in the substantiveness of freedom. Only that can provide the appropriate measure of the emancipatory process. In other words, the advancement in the substantiveness of freedom means the historically identifiable advancement in the objective conditions of its realization, which is equivalent to the historically unfolding realization of humanity’s substantive equality.

The State and the “Cunning of Reason”

The Hegelian dual “circle of circles”—that is, humanity as such is free when the state is rationally founded on the principle of Freedom, and the state is ethically realized in tune with the wisdom of the World Spirit’s “Cunning of Reason” when it is constituted on the combined rational ground of Freedom and Reason—has no longer any pre-revolutionary bourgeois utopian illusion attached to it. Hegel has no sympathy whatsoever for Rousseau’s radical democratic ideas of political decision making through the “General Will.” Also, in the post-revolutionary period, coupled with the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, he can only refer in sarcastic terms to Kant’s noble postulate of the “Perpetual Peace.” In some way Hegel even perceives the ironical circumstance that the militarily warring sides are in actual social terms on the same bourgeois side, despite their armed confrontations. In this sense, although he praises Napoleon in a most glowing way as one of the greatest World Historical Individuals chosen by the World Spirit as the tool for its own purposes, Hegel has no difficulty to include also the prominently “colonizing British”—Napoleon’s arch enemy, called by him perfidious Albion—under the idealized Germanic ethical state.

Of course these are not philosophically corrigible personal misconceptions but the contradictions of a particularly contradictory historical period, even if by no means confined to that period only, given their long prehistory as well as their subsequent historical development up to our time in much the same spirit. As we have seen above, taking the World Spirit to task for the contradictions and failures of its proclaimed insuperable order, instituted through the instrumentality of its World Historical human tools, would be quite outrageous in Hegel’s view. And that is far from being as arbitrary as it might appear. For the Hegelian World Spirit’s “Grand Design” truly corresponds to a really existing order. A social metabolic order of institutionalized irresponsibility in the contradictory sense in which responsibility can—and also must—be made in such an order strictly partial, limited to the centrifugally operated microcosms of the system. But there can be no overall responsibility, as a matter of the fundamental structural determination of capital’s social metabolic order.

Hegel is not the only great bourgeois thinker who idealizes that insuperable systemic condition and contradiction. We should remember in this respect Adam Smith’s striking projection of the same necessary absence of overall responsibility in his postulate of the—likewise mythical—”Invisible Hand” which is supposed to benevolently sort out everything in the end. The big difference is that Adam Smith sharply rejected the idea of any political interference in the—by its innermost natural determination ideal—operation of the Invisible Hand, calling that spontaneous social/economic reproductive order “the natural system of perfect liberty and justice.”14

By contrast, Hegel situated history in his own way firmly above “nature” and had to find the politically reassuring supra-human Subject for his conception of World History. Accordingly, he could not exclude the State and its functionaries from his scheme of things in a historical period of great revolutionary crisis and the collapse of the old reproductive order. For that collapse—deeply implicating the corresponding, far from rationally “on the principle of Freedom constituted” state—was followed by extreme political and military collisions, worsened by the perceived danger that the radical social and political forces, oriented toward materially anchored equality, might even prevail.

This is why Hegel insisted that “The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on Earth.”15 He also made it clear that “The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning,” asserting at the same time his perversely “universal” claim regarding the absolute validity of the ultimate Germanic colonizing State formation in the most unashamed sense.16 Accordingly he wrote that “It is the necessary fate of Asiatic Empires to be subjected to Europeans; and China will, some day or other, be obliged to submit to this fate.”17

Thus internally and internationally antagonistic and exploitative partiality had to prevail forever in the World Spirit’s divinely instituted and sanctioned order as the unalterable universality of the fully accomplished Germanic State, preordained in that way from the very beginning by the Absolute Spirit’s eternalized circular temporality. For in Hegel’s view,

The principles of the successive phases of Spirit that animate the Nations in a necessitated gradation, are themselves only steps in the development of the one universal Spirit, which through them elevates and completes itself to a self-comprehending totality.… Spirit is immortal; with it there is no past, no future, but an essential now.… The life of the ever present Spirit is a circle of progressive embodiments.… The grades which Spirit seems to have left behind it, it still possesses in the depth of its present.18

Monopoly and Competition as a Vicious (Global) Circle

It is inconceivable to find a solution to these materially constituted and sustained objective contradictions within the antagonistic framework of the capital system. For neither dimension of its twofold structural antagonisms—that is, neither the internal, class-oppressive, nor the international, interminably warring—is capable of being superseded on its own, without overcoming at the same time the other. The idea commended by Hegel that wars must be pursued because in that way “the ethical health of the peoples is preserved” is an apologetic ideological rationalization dressed up in a wishful ethical attire. Wars are actually pursued because no limits are admissible to the expansion-oriented capital system, making thereby the structural imperative of international antagonism systemically insuperable despite its ultimate dangers. Similarly, the internal antagonism of class-exploitation is insuperable because the fundamental structural determinations of capital’s social metabolic order are constituted in such a way that the control of the societal reproductive process—thanks to the monopoly of the means of production vested in the personifications of capital—is radically alienated from and superimposed on the producers themselves, for the sake of ever-expanding exchange-value.

Since the two systemic dimensions of internal and international antagonism stand or fall together, in order to find a historically sustainable solution to such ultimately destructive structural antagonisms it is necessary to overcome the overall structural framework of the capital system itself. When, however, the dominant vested interests of the system are shared by its thinkers of no matter how great a stature, their envisaged solutions—whether consciously sustaining or just bypassing the insuperable antagonisms in question—can result even in the best of cases only in utterly wishful deus ex machina remedies to the missing overall responsibility in the operation of the given social metabolic order. Hence their postulated remedies must be attributed to something like the “Invisible Hand,” or the supra-human “Cunning of Reason.”

In capital’s social reproductive order, monopoly is by its nature destructive, and ultimately even all-destructive. For such monopoly arises from the antagonistic self-expansionist centrifugality of the capital system. The internal dimension of monopoly over the means of production—in its origin assigned through the blood-soaked “primitive accumulation” to the privileged class of the personifications of capital—is the necessary primary condition for the operation of such a system. Consequently, it must be maintained at all cost, even by the most aggressive dictatorial force of arms by the state, whenever that primary condition is threatened. And since the antagonistic self-expansionary centrifugality of capital’s systemic microcosms has no inherently limiting objective constituents, the necessary internal exploitative condition must rely for its promoting complementary dimension on the likewise necessary international systemic drive toward all-engulfing monopolistic domination—even on the mad design of global domination, and not only by Hitler—through the political/military agency of the capital state.

It is therefore by no means accidental that the climax of capital’s historical development assumed the form of monopolistic imperialism, responsible for two devastating World Wars in the twentieth century, and equally responsible for countless more or less camouflaged “proxy wars” ever since, restrained in that way only because of the fear of humanity’s total self-annihilation through the weapons of mass destruction. In this type of social-economic and political development, contradictorily and dangerously, we find the unholy congruence of monopoly and competition.

Competition, in contrast to monopoly, happened to be one of the most dynamic and in more ways than one very positive constituents of the capital system in its history. In principle its positive potentiality is applicable also in a non-antagonistic way in the future. However, in capitalist ideology competition tends to be idolized without the necessary qualifications. Yet the severe problem in this respect is that in our time, due to the activation of some absolute systemic limits of capital’s social metabolic order, the antagonistic structural determinations are articulated in the form of the perverse reciprocity of monopoly and competition.19 Perverse because in view of the underlying antagonistic centrifugality on an ever enlarging scale—due to the increasing concentration and centralization of capital—competition and monopoly constitute a vicious circle. Consequently—in a far from benevolent idolizable form—the irrepressible drive toward monopoly produces ever more aggressive competition, and in its turn intensified competition produces the imperative of unlimitable monopoly, with its all-destructive dangers.

Moreover, also very far from the idyllic projections of benevolent globalization, the more globally interconnected capital’s material reproductive system becomes, the more dangerous is this vicious circle, in view of the necessary absence of a controllable global state. For without the now existing, and in their limited setting to some extent corrective nation states the perverse reciprocity of monopoly and competition would produce total uncontrollability even in the particular capitalist countries. And, thanks to the perverse systemic reciprocity of monopoly and competition, the “cut-throat competition” on our horizon for the planet’s strategic material resources—imposing also mindless ecological devastation on nature—can only make that danger much worse.

Capital’s Insuperable Inter-State Antagonisms

One of the most intractable problems of the historically constituted state formations is their insuperable inter-state antagonism that carries with it in our time the staggering waste of resources through uncontrollable military expenditure everywhere, in a world of great misery for countless millions.

In Britain alone a major issue of political dispute concerns the planned renewal of the Polaris Nuclear Submarines, costing dozens of billions of pounds already, before they multiply, as a rule, in the course of construction. And of course they are combined with massive cuts—through the parliamentary reform of the Welfare State’s social security system—to the living standard of 7 million workers. And the Polaris Submarines, with their nuclear weapons, are only one item of the ubiquitous wasteful military expenditure. Once the squander on armaments is calculated in global terms, it amounts annually to not far from two trillion dollars, when hundreds of millions of people must survive on less than 2 dollars per day. And to underline the mind-boggling irrationality of the established social reproductive order—claimed to be the ideal system of “rational calculation” by Weber and many others—the cynically veiled fact is that all of the major capitalist states are hopelessly bankrupt (the United States itself to the tune of nearly $20 trillion), yet continue to subject their population to such economic and political dictates. Moreover, if we add to all this the official justification for the near-astronomic magnitude of military expenditure—a “justification” spelled out by asserting that in our “dangerously uncertain world” the truly MAD “balance of Mutually Assured Destruction” provides the “security” and “guarantee of survival”: a cynical rationalization in place of trying to remove the causes of the deep-seated antagonisms—the materially and politically determined irrationality of capital’s ruling order bears no comparison.

It is most important to remind ourselves here that capital’s ultimate sanction in the past was war if the rules of competition could not produce by economic means the results befitting the changing historical conditions in accordance with the advancing monopolistic trends. Just like the idea of the “free market,” the projection of the “sovereignty of the states” (large or small) was always a fiction. Hegel was honest enough to declare, together with a presumed justification, that “Minor states have their existence and tranquillity secured to them more or less by their neighbors; they are therefore, properly speaking, not independent, and have not the fiery trial of war to endure.”20 Indeed, he could even admit that the wars pursued had, in his view, the welcome effect of strengthening the state’s internal dominating function. He did this by praising that “successful wars have checked domestic unrest and consolidated the power of the state at home.”21

Later on the illusions of universal state sovereignty had to be, of course, unceremoniously brushed aside—even in the form of openly decreeing the virtues of “gunboat diplomacy”—by the ruthless assertion of the actual power relations, making a mere handful of big states—as a matter of Right (i.e., de jure, not only de facto)—dominate all of the others. In this sense, the trajectory of monopolistic imperialism could not be made intelligible at all without the antagonistic inter-determinations of the expansion-oriented capital system. Imperialist domination and its apologetic rationalization could go very well together. The British Empire ended its long history only a few decades ago, after happily co-existing with liberal political theories for two hundred years; and the other way round in the case of thoroughly obliging liberal political theorists.

However, the thorny question in our time is: what happens to the historical viability of the capital system when it loses its ultimate sanction of fighting out, on the required scale, its self-expansionary imperatives through the now suicidal danger of another global war, exposing thereby also the fictional character of equitable state sovereignty that could be made acceptable in the past by the “arguments” of materially imposed force?

To be sure, the concept of equality is inapplicable not only to “state sovereignty” but altogether to the state in general. To envisage as equitable an overall command system of social metabolic control that must be structurally entrenched and hierarchical by its innermost determination could only be a contradiction in terms. Much like the “Substance incorporeall” and the “Incorporeall body” sharply dismissed by Hobbes.

The blind overruling of equality enters the picture in our time with all the greater force. For even if the antagonistic inter-state relations could be envisaged equitable—for which it would be necessary to rule out of order the objectively prevailing dynamic force of capital’s competitively/monopolistically self-expansionary reproductive order—even in that case the hierarchical/structural rationale of the state command system as historically constituted internally would be diametrically opposed to any idea of substantive equality. And that determination calls into question the global reality of the state itself, with its insuperable internal and inter-state antagonisms that arise from the fundamental structural requirements inseparable from the earlier discussed perverse reciprocity between monopoly and competition in the capital system.

Thus, by no means surprisingly, we find in the still dominant modality of overall political decision making that the advocacy of capital’s ultimate sanction of “fighting out” its self-expansionary imperatives by war cannot be given up. Not even when the most elementary rationality must foreshadow quite catastrophic consequences in its pursuit. But ignoring that, the insane idea of “guaranteeing security by Mutually Assured Destruction”—not only with nuclear but also with chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction—is elevated to the pinnacle of “strategic thinking.” And who can really guarantee that the “proxy wars” pursued in the last few decades will not be turned into an all-destructive global war sometime in the future? For the relatively limited wars engaged in at the present time are not only not rewarding enough to match the requirements of capital’s missing “ultimate sanction.” Rather, they may well turn out to be counter-productive by not only failing to fulfil their original role—the brutal readjustment of the relations of power in tune with the changing historical conditions—but even on account of their directly ecological and wastefully resource-hungry destructive impact on nature.

If even the danger of humanity’s destruction can be ignored by the contemporary state in that way, what are the prospects for a sustainable outcome? Liberalism and social democracy at some point in their history tried to introduce some significant changes into the overall political decision-making process—social democracy by promising even the realization of “evolutionary socialism“—but both failed in their efforts. The prosaic reality of solemn liberalism turned out to be aggressive neoliberalism, and social democracy turned its back, without shame, to its erstwhile creed, siding in most countries with utterly retrograde neoliberalism. Thus the once projected structural reformability of the state proved to be a hopeless illusion.

In actuality, the big problem is that the state is compatible only with those types of reform which strengthen its overall structural framework, and counters with great effectiveness whatever might interfere with the fundamental self-expansionary imperatives of capital’s social metabolic order. Formal legislative improvements are perfectly acceptable, provided that they do not carry the danger of structural societal change. Already Kant had phrased it very clearly: “The general equality of men as subjects in a state coexists quite readily with the greatest inequality in degrees of the possessions men have…. Hence the general equality of men also coexists with great inequality of specific rights of which there may be many.”22

The “specific rights” in question are of course laid down in protection of private property. For defending the structural framework of the existing order at all cost is the primary function of the state. Adam Smith had put it equally clearly, and he put it in terms that would sound most embarrassing today: “Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth and to defend the rich from the poor.”23

Moreover, the difficulty of significant change is further intensified by the global character of the problem itself. For capital’s self-expansionary imperative, together with the perverse reciprocity of monopoly and competition, is not confined to some particular country in which it could be remedied. It characterizes the whole of the ruling social metabolic order of capital and its state formations, requiring global solutions to the inherent systemic antagonisms. The capital system is erected on three supporting pillars: capital, labor, and the state. The three of them are not only deeply connected among themselves in particular countries, but also quite unimaginable in our time without their far-reaching global interconnections. And that calls for the socialist alternative as a global transformation.

Another fundamental issue that highlights the global character of the necessary alternative concerns the limitations of introducing major social and political change within the limited framework of any particular revolutionary state or states while the surrounding states of capital’s social order can exercise their subversive power against the particular states in question, as happened in the past. Not only the Russian and the Chinese Revolutions have been subjected to the savage subversive armed interventions of the hostile capitalist states but already the Paris Commune of 1871 had to suffer the devastating consequences of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s class solidarity with the counter-revolutionary French Government when he released the French prisoners of war captured by the German army in order to defeat the common class enemy. Indeed, bourgeois class solidarity had been even formally institutionalised in October 1873 through the “Three Emperors League” of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, explicitly designed against any future “European Disturbance” caused by the working class.

Naturally, we could witness ever since that time, in the last century and a half, countless instances of counter-revolutionary subversion by imperialist powers all over the world against socialist attempts to change society. Nor should we expect anything other than the intensification of such efforts as capital’s systemic crisis deepens. However, the unavoidable hostility and subversion by capitalist states carries also the danger of adopting ultimately self-defeating strategies by socialists, like the uncritical strengthening of state power that creates its own vicious circle of internally exercised state repression, as it happened under Stalinism. Lenin forcefully and prophetically stressed that any country that represses another country cannot be free. Thus he advocated for the national minorities “the right of autonomy to the point of secession,” sharply criticising Stalin—who degraded them to “border regions required for maintaining the might of Russia”—as a “Great-Russian bully.” The tragic consequences, also for internal repression, are well known.

The state in all of its forms as constituted in history is part of the problem, not its solution on its own, in view of the necessarily intertwined operation of its internal and international self-assertive determinations. There can be no “socialism in one country” also on that score. The crucial issue is the transfer of all powers of decision making, including those exercised by the state, to the social body. The capital system’s internal and inter-state antagonisms can be overcome only together. This is why Marx stressed from a very early period of formulating his revolutionary conception that the state must “wither away.” And he remained faithful to that conception to the very end.

The Necessary Materiality of Substantive Equality

After the shock of the French Revolution and the ensuing wars, early nineteenth century developments had brought with them the stabilization of the bourgeois order. Naturally, the pre-revolutionary bourgeois utopian illusions had to be cast aside. But even so, befitting the circumstances of the immediate post-revolutionary antagonisms, the idea of equality remained in some way “in the air.” It could even assume a most baffling form by the proclamation of the highest military honour in Germany in the form of the “socially equitable” Iron Cross, maintained as such ever since 1813 to our own day.

In its own economically most powerful (and in due course also by far the most wasteful) historical specificity, the socially most iniquitous bourgeois order succeeded in steadying itself early enough in the nineteenth century. There could be no question of granting real equality to the subordinate class of the former “Third Estate” that played a vital role in the relative success of the French Revolution itself. Only in the formal political domain, fully in tune with the material requirements of the bourgeois societal reproductive metabolism, was some form of equality acceptable, thanks to the limited reforming efforts of its leading liberal advocates, from Jeremy Bentham to John Stuart Mill and others. Even the English victor over Napoleon and for some time the Tory prime minister of Britain, the Duke of Wellington, could agree to that, as indeed he had to be asked to do so at the time of the very limited 1831-32 English Parliamentary Reform Bill. For the structurally entrenched order of class inequality, together with its likewise class exploitative state-enforcement, was not significantly changed by such legal adjustments.

Nevertheless, we have seen some advancement in the direction of real equality, even if punctuated by grave antagonisms and disheartening reversals. As a result, there could be no longer any form of open justification for the political/military enforcement of slavery. The blatant contradiction of finding it compatible with the aims of the 1776 American Revolution the slave-ownership of its “Founding Fathers” has been eventually rectified in the American Civil War, and also serfdom was abolished all over the world. And that was by no means the end of the story. Pressure for revolutionary transformations continued in 1848-49 and 1871, and later on breaking even the “chain of imperialism” in several places not only through the Russian and the Chinese Revolutions but also by putting an end to the traditional colonial domination in India and South East Asia, as well as in Africa.

To be sure, the most powerful form of slavery instituted in all history—capital’s wage slavery—remains in force. But it must camouflage its rule as being in full consonance with the fundamental requirements of Freedom and Reason. How long can such mystification prevail? That is the difficult question. It used to be genuinely asserted and believed in the most radical social movements of the twentieth century that proper political/ideological enlightenment can sweep away the justification and power of wage slavery. The problems, however, are much more difficult than that. For the real historical stakes are defined in our time as the necessary transformation of the existing social metabolic order of substantive inequality into a radically different one of substantive equality. No social and political change in the past could be even remotely compared to the monumentality of that task. For it requires the total reconstitution of the mode of controlling the material and cultural reproduction of our conditions of existence, from the smallest constitutive cells and microcosms of productive activity to the consciously planned non-hierarchical regulation of the most comprehensive global interdependencies.

As mentioned before, the truth is that freedom was parasitic in all history on the objectively available more or less limited real ground and potential of equality of its time. We should remember that already Cyrus the Great granted the relative emancipatory rights of his “Commoners” for fully participating in the undertaken military campaigns by stressing their real equality—saying with amazing force that his consideration of their equality applied also to their souls—with the privileged warrior “Peers.” And that happened nearly two and a half Millennia before the time of Hegel.

The great challenge for our time is to turn the historically sustainable new potentialities of substantive equality into humanly self-realizing reality. Inevitably, however, that calls for the total eradication of the state known in history—constituted as the structurally entrenched, necessarily hierarchical enemy of substantive equality—from our increasingly destructive social metabolic order.


  1. See Leo Valiani, Memorie di un patriota: Mihály Károlyi (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1958) on the president of the Hungarian Republic after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. See also Valiani’s seminal book The End of Austria-Hungary (New York: Knopf, 1973).
  2. See on this subject Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2002).
  3. See István Mészáros, Social Structure and Forms of Consciousness, vol. 2, The Dialectic of Structure and History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 241–95.
  4. See G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), 130.
  5. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York: Dover, 1956), 457.
  6. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, § 324, 210.
  7. See the discussion of this problem in G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).
  8. G. W. F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), 284; The Science of Logic (New York: Humanity, 1969), 746.
  9. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London: Penguin, 1982), 429. Italics in original.
  10. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic, 284.
  11. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 104. Own translation.
  12. Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1975).
  13. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 741.
  14. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1863), 273.
  15. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 39.
  16. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 103.
  17. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 142-143.
  18. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 78-79.
  19. See István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), chapter 5, “The Activation of Capital’s Absolute Limits,” 142–280.
  20. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 456.
  21. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, 210.
  22. Immanuel Kant, Moral and Political Writings (New York: Random House, 1949), 418.
  23. Adam Smith, Moral and Political Philosophy (New York: Hafner, 1948), 291.
2016, Volume 68, Issue 04 (September)
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