Marx is famous for theorizing capital’s contradictions and putting forth the theory of its downfall as the ground for the greater society to follow. Hegel famously did no such thing to critique his society, something for which the Young Hegelians endlessly critiqued him. Hegel, it is said, was all too happy to theorize what is without putting forth a critique that would tell us what it should be. Hegel’s philosophy, interestingly, was recognized by Marx as inherently “revolutionary” due to the automatically critical nature of the immanent critique of his method, which tore down all appearance of stability and absolute being in all concepts. Hegel’s own theory of society, the theory found in the Philosophy of Right, does not match the existing state of Prussia in his time, and it is in some ways more progressive than the reality it supposedly was to describe. How, then, did Hegel fail to generate the revolutionary philosophy which his method itself seems to generate? Well, part of the question has to do with what revolution is, what it is about, and what is implied in all of this for a possible theory about such a thing in the first place.
What Counts as Revolutionary Theory?
In order to ponder the question, we must first ponder what a revolutionary theory is, and before that what a revolution even is. I’m not going to get academic with this, I’d just like to ruminate on the topic from a lay point of view and sort out what I can from a basic position of ignorance no better than the commoner. Why? I have found that in the zeal to overcome the common with the scientifically theoretical, theory often makes mistakes in overlooking what is commonly understood.
A revolution, as Leftists understand it, is a fundamental change in the very structures of society. We often think revolutions are progressive, but by this notion they can also be regressive. A revolution is a rupture with the past, a whole new beginning, a new system. On the Left, we wish to have a revolution that moves us towards the ideal of a humanized society, and we recognize the elements of current society which in some manner must be carried on and improved in future society.
To have a revolutionary theory, then, is to have a theory which aims to fundamentally change society. But what is this theory? It cannot merely be a positing of some ideal moral aims that say that in a perfect world those are what should be, for plenty of people have such moral ideals which have no impact on the social reality. A revolutionary theory must not simply have a posited ethical aim, but must also theorize a way to get from where we are to where we want to go—it must be practical. Such theory, historically, finds itself to be highly localized to its place and time; it does not rise to a general revolutionary theory. Conditions change regarding the practicalities of combat within the physical terrain, the character of a people changes, the breaking moment of the spark of movement is different. The revolutionary theory of the Bolsheviks and the Chinese communists is neither the revolutionary theory for modern Germany, nor is it the revolutionary theory for Venezuela, or even India. Though certain countries still exist which have a character that seems immanently similar to the conditions of older revolutions, there is unquestionably a difference in overall inner and external state conditions.
The most important element of such a theory, the theory of the subjective masses, is not merely the most difficult, but it is impossible. None know to what limit people are willing to stand even the most seemingly unbearable position in the present, and all that can be done is to constantly prod in the hopes that perhaps an idea will spark the right individuals and spread through to a group. The theory of the revolutionary subject has always been the holy grail of Leftists, and to this end, its intellectuals endlessly search and research, think and rethink in every period of moving history. Who is the subject? What are their immediate problems? What issues are most pressing and likely to spark an explosive action? What language do they speak? What are the concepts of their self-identified and diagnosed condition? In short: who is the revolutionary subject, what is their problem, and what can we say or do to move them towards revolutionary action following a theoretical framework? The last point is the holy grail—finding the key to activating masses towards revolutionary movement.
Marxists, particularly the more unsophisticated ones, not only try to have a general revolutionary theory, but try to have a general theory of revolution. This general theory of revolution is the oft-cited theory of materialist history which in our time predicts yet another coming revolution based on materialist factors and class struggle. Such a theory is, alas, not much of a theory. The first theoretical formulation in the early Marx with the evolutionary dialectic between the forces and relations of production provides to a basic and strangely anti-humanist formulation of revolution, reducing it to technological progress and the structuring of necessary subsistence labor in relation to such technology. Between both, the human subject is caught as implicitly connecting and mediating them, yet apparently merely the pawn of its own seemingly autonomous creations. While for the humanist Marxists the true impetus which shatters prior social forms “in the final analysis” is the drive of labor to be free and find its adequate external expression as a social form—this is the engine of immanently determined and necessary eventuality of revolution—the anti-humanists can in truth find no such immanent impetus which does not implicitly rely on the social subject for its movement even while it denies any ultimate power and agency to such subject.
For the anti-humanists in the age of capitalism, this general theory is transformed into the more specific contradiction of capital and labor, particularly in the form of the immiseration thesis which has been empirically falsified and the crisis thesis which likewise has been falsified. Upon such a basis are raised the theories of automatic revolution which posit that the subjective condition of revolution only follows from the proper material conditions which shall engage revolutionary consciousness and activity. However, we already know from history that such material conditions do not in fact cause such revolutionary consciousness on their own. From the struggle of labor and capital does not come the natural conclusion of communism in the subject; this idea and the concept of class struggle itself as the explanation of the conditions of oppression must be in circulation and find a place to catch in the mind of subjects in order to lead to the revolutionary conclusion. The question is then how to make this idea circulate among the masses and how to make it grasp hold of their minds in order to become a material force. It is this question of the subject, however, that makes the theory of revolution lose its grip as a true theory and a historical necessity.
If the subject of revolution is indeed a free subject, then there can be no theory that finds any practice that guarantees the injection of the idea and its consequent generation of motion in the subject. If the subject is truly essentially free, then we are faced with an impossibility in finding any assured cause-effect practice in engaging revolutionary consciousness in the subject. Now, even if there was such a cause-effect practice that could be found, we would have no reason to celebrate. Such a discovery would in fact work horrendously to doom us just as much to the status quo than ever before, and indeed such discoveries are precisely what the status quo dominant powers of current capitalism have thought they have discovered over and over again in history—this is their obsession in ‘naturalizing’ man as a mere biological machine. Mass psychology, propaganda, narrative control, game theory, et cetera have all been used by the powers that be with great efficacy to generate specific results from a ‘scientific’ practice based on a theory of the subject as a behavioral machine of basic desires and cognitive forms.
Were these theories to truly have pinned down the subject in its essential truth, then the question of revolution would be forever impossible except through a long con usurping the machine of control aimed in a new direction. Such a machine, however, would then be subject to just as easy a turn around towards any other position of oppression—after all, the subject just needs the right structural prodding in order to act as desired. However, were these theories true… how in the world would one gain the consciousness which can escape the dominant ideology? There is something about the subject which escapes even the most perfect ideological machine. The anti-humanist wants to explain it on the basis of supremely fine differences in total material circumstances impinging on the individual, which if theorized as exactly the same should produce the exact same individual. However, this is subject to the question of where this critique and counter-action comes from: From what source if not the natural impulse of the subject to be free from what it sees as arbitrary limits? To say that hegemonic ideology generates its own antithesis would require us to theorize the subject and what in it would process the material conditions through it and produce a desire to be free.
Whichever way we spin it, the freedom of the subject and its element of essential contingent desires and arbitrary whims puts a limit to theorizing revolutions before the fact. Only in the aftermath are we ever able to truly see what was necessary and essential to the revolution’s success; prior to that, however, we are forced to admit that we can only guess and act on seemingly reasonable probable strategies or blind hope. While Hegel did not advance any revolutionary theory, we can hardly blame him, for no one actually can. Revolutions are born from reason on one side, unreason on the other, and in between are a mangled mess of contingent events and personalities whose specificity can only be managed with attention to their immediate historical context. Marx’s theory of revolution is, against Marxists’ beliefs, no more capable of predicting and controlling anything than Hegel’s theory of history’s march toward absolute freedom: we have been heading there, but fuck if anyone knows quite how we’ll actually make it.