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  • What Hegel's Master/Slave Dialectic Really Means
  • Andrew Cole

The Hegelian modern

Theodor Adorno had confessed that "[i]n the realm of great philosophy Hegel is no doubt the only one with whom at times one literally does not know, and cannot conclusively determine, what is being talked about, and with whom there is no guarantee that such a judgment is even possible."1 That, however, should not keep us from trying to explain Hegel right at a time when he tends to be overexplained, often maligned, and always taken for granted. Rather, we might try to say something altogether new about the philosopher in a way that heeds Marx's advisable critique in the German Ideology: "It has not occurred to any one of these philosophers to inquire into the connection of German philosophy with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own material surroundings."2 I would like to explore this "connection" in trying to understand the "Marxist premodern" within, paradoxically, Hegel's thinking. At the outset, it must be recognized that what most everyone counts as premodernity Hegel counts as modernity. For Hegel, modernity is medieval. It begins, basically, in the Middle Ages, or what he calls the Romantic period, and involves both Christianity and feudalism. Why feudalism? There may be a number of answers to this question, but the most obvious one, and the one most relevant to a reinvigorated sense of the "Marxist premodern," is that Hegel, as if by historical accident, stood in a privileged place from which to philosophize about feudalism, responding as he did to contemporary relations of lordship and domination—Herrschaft (lordship) or Grundherrschaft (landed lordship)—practiced in Germany.3

That Hegel's was a feudal Germany is not subject to dispute. James J. Sheehan's magisterial German History, 1770-1866, which ranges across Hegel's own lifetime (1770-1831), finely documents Germany's feudal agricultural structure well into the eighteenth century and beyond. In the most broad terms, this late feudalism is marked by its peasant/lord relations: [End Page 577]

Freeholders and some lessors were legally free, even if the latter were often caught in a web of servile obligations because of the way they held their land. But many, and probably most, German peasants were personally subject to one or more lords; they lived in Erbuntertänigkeit, hereditary subjection, which limited their rights to move, marry, and do certain kinds of work.

These are feudal arrangements.5 Now, this is not to say that Hegel should be read as a sociologist reporting the facts of the feudal matter; rather, I wish to point out some connections between Hegel and the Middle Ages, connections that, again, Marx himself appreciated when he wrote in the Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" that "the peak of the Hegelian identity, as Hegel himself admits, was the Middle Ages."6

Marx's point is that the Hegelian identity and Hegelianism itself work best, as it were, in the Middle Ages, exhausting their explanatory potential in modernity or capitalism. Judging, however, by the work of contemporary critics, this is not at all true. The master/slave dialectic of the Phenomenology of Spirit has to be Hegel's most well-known contribution to critical theory, finding a place in Marxism, psychoanalysis, and postcolonial studies to name but a few disciplines—fundamentally in any critical discourse that wrestles with some idea of the "other" as that against which you define yourself. So while there is as yet no peak in sight for this Hegelian figure of the modern self, there are plenty of ways in which it can be further explained. In his narrative of master and slave relations, Hegel, I will suggest, as he explored the feudal political conditions of agrarian Germany, came to a crowning theoretical statement about feudalism itself: that the struggle between possession and ownership of land ultimately characterizes the personal relations of domination in Herrschaft. As if in pursuit of this thesis, Adorno remarks that this "chapter of the Phenomenology historically conjures up feudalism."7 But how does it conjure up feudalism? And why does this matter? I will answer these questions by reviewing versions of the...


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