On Revolutionary Spirit

            We can return to the work of G. W. F. Hegel to understand our current moment and our place within history. It is quite possible to abuse Hegel, to go into the work of that eminent philosopher seeking quotable quotes, successories posters for the would-be revolutionary. But, at the same time, we should avoid turning Hegel’s writing into a museum piece, so that we dare not tread upon the hallowed ground that originated the Marxist dialectic. We must return to the sources (ad fontes), to refresh our revolutionary spirit, so that we do not become flies trapped in the amber of disaffected politics.  As Marxists, we cast aside reformist thinking, with its capitulation to “what can actually be achieved,” which amounts to settling for the present state of affairs. We seek that spirit or geist which can set hearts aflame and overcome the greed and corruption of our age. We belong to revolutionary spirit: we are its avatars or incarnations. As the will of the revolution, we awaken to our power as forces of nature itself. As we awaken to spirit, we awaken to our destiny as those who inaugurate a new era: we sweep away the old society as the hurricane sweeps away a McMansion built too close to the sea.

            Hegel writes, in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, that “sensibility has become so strongly rooted in the worldly domain, that the same violent force is needed today to rise above it” (79). Yovel writes, in his commentary, that just as “Bacon, Galilei, Locke, and others restored..empirical evidence” a corresponding counter-movement was necessary that would restore the inner life of humanity. Empirical evidence, was, to be sure, an advance upon the supernaturalism of the Middle Ages, but the life of the senses itself became overpowering in the age of reason. Empirical science cannot tell one, after all, what is true and good and right, or what is beautiful and pleasing. Hegel continues, “Spirit shows itself to be so impoverished, that like a wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple gulp of water, spirit seems to be craving to refresh itself with the meager feeling of the divine in general.” Many Marxists likely get the heebee jeebees with that word, “divine,” but we should take a step back to understand what it means.

            Hegel says here, “the divine in general,” or what he calls elsewhere the movement towards absolute spirit, the unfolding within human history of an unsettled, restless searching. We feel this same agitation today, this same thirst in the desert, for a more satisfactory common life, for the better things of human culture, for a better relationship with non-human nature, for the arts, literature, and poetry. The divine here is close to the “divine milieu” of Tielhard de Chardin, the divine as immanent within nature, with humanity as a subset of nature’s expression. Socialism, I would venture, amounts to the expression in politics of the cooperative nature of humankind. Contra Hobbes, we believe in the perfectibility of the human spirit and human relations. We believe that a better politics is possible, that the options have not been exhausted, and we give ourselves to the continual unfolding of revolutionary spirit. That spirit unfolds within history at each time and place, making itself known and transparent to others.

            “Only that which is fully determined is also exoteric, capable of conceptualization,” Hegel writes, “and of being learnt and made everyone’s possession” (87). In the course of history, we inherit stale ideas that have been passed down to us. We interpret them, repurpose them, and sometimes completely contort them so that they lose all meaning. But the movement of spirit is this taking of an esoteric idea and making it exoteric, so that it can be understood and transmitted. The work that we must do now and continually do, is to reinterpret socialism, or the unfolding of spirit, for a new generation and for new times. We make this spirit “everyone’s possession,” when we communicate the message very clearly and openly. And that message actually is pretty easy to speak in plain language. We believe that everyone should have housing, education, healthcare, and employment. These basic goods are costly to acquire, not in the Paul Ryan sense of costly, but in the sense that so much resistance must be overcome before people can have basic dignity.

            When we encounter resistance to socialist ideas, we must understand that resistance as itself taking place within the “divine milieu.” When we encounter reactionary forces and engage with them in the field of contestation, we have the opportunity to sharpen our critique, to speak more boldly, to enter into new areas of engagement. In this way, we become “antifragile” (Taleb), as each new struggle opens new territory. I am thinking here of a spiraling fractal, as revolutionary spirit encounters new domains (economic, political, social, biological, etc.). “[E]verything depends on comprehending and expressing the true not as substance, but equally as subject,” Hegel writes (95). In other words, the truth is not just a matter of getting the doctrine right, but in recognizing ourselves as subjects. We are not the zombies that consumer culture and social media would have us be. We are not just passive observers of history, nor do we simply “make history”: revolutionary spirit runs through each one of us, enlivening our awareness of discontent and making available to us its remedy. As Hegel writes, “this unrest is precisely the Self” (107).

            Revolutionary spirit offers only paradoxical consolation: we reach fulfillment as agents of change only when we reject the present state of affairs and press onward to give expression to the vision of a better tomorrow. We drag utopia down to earth from the clouds, but we cannot do without utopian imaginings. If it is to succeed, socialism must retain its restless character as that which searches the possibilities and makes them real. As a work, it is never completed, in that it reiterates itself for each generation and each situation. In this way, socialism has the quality of life itself as endless regeneration.  Reactionaries and reformists fear socialism because of its unsettled character: it is the solvent of all things old and unjust. Socialism does not rest with “what can realistically be achieved.” It does not cater to the powers that be. It constitutes itself anew with each breath of the spirit of revolution.

            Regardless of what cadres may think about the perils of “Trotskyism” (the man himself, a committed Marxist-Leninist, thought the term a misnomer), his life provides an object lesson in revolutionary ferment. He was imprisoned and exiled numerous times before the October triumph, all for the crime of writing articles in various socialist publications, many of which he edited and released himself. His writing scared the tsarist regime enough to send him to Siberia twice. Comrades, ready with fake documents, smuggled him out of Siberia and into exile in Europe. Trotsky took with him to the front a rail car armed with the most powerful weapon–a printing press. “The pen is mightier than the sword” has become a cliché: the line belongs to playwright Bulwer-Lytton, who put the saying into the mouth of Cardinal Richelieu. We use the pen, that “arch-enchanter’s wand” to prepare for a revolution we may not see, but the preparation for rebellion is itself a form of struggle.

            We think, write, and organize so that we can keep the spirit alive in a dark time, so that we can live as human beings in a time of peak alienation, in a time of overwhelming destruction. We no longer contrast “the human” with “the animal” or “Man” with “woman”: we affirm our hearts as queer, mammalian flesh, beating with the need for kinship and belonging. We belong to one another, and we belong to the struggle, which gives us some glimmer not of the empty “hope” of the reformist, Obama sort, but of a kind of grim resolve which hangs on despite outward appearances. This grim resolve is punctuated by moments of frenzied elation, as in Standing Rock and the Women’s March. We do not take the moral high ground: we reject the “shining city on a hill” as so much empty, triumphalist rhetoric with a flipside of despair. Our movement belongs to whoever would claim it as their own. The red banner belongs to the incarcerated, to sex workers, to the homeless, in short, to anyone who wants to see the present order dissolved, “by any means necessary.”

            A revolutionary never works from completely pure motives, and if we look for purity–whether of social standpoint or philosophical principle–we find only paralysis. Our movement must become dirty, hybridized. It must go to ground and find allies. We must work behind prison bars and in the streets but also in university classrooms and in electronic chat rooms. We must own lofty, intellectual spaces and internet memes as well. We can no longer afford to cede ground to reformists and reactionaries. We have seen the end game of industrial capitalism, and it looks like solitary confinement in supermax prisons and the wasteland of the Alberta tar sands. Late capitalism deals in death and dehumanization, and even a deeply flawed revolution is preferable to the status quo.

Yovel, Yirmiyahu, Ed. Trans. Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton  University Press, 2005.

Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Peter Hodgson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.


Devi Dillard-Wright

teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She writes about animal ethics and philosophy of mind and is the author of a popular series of meditation books.

Leave a Reply

Sharing is Caring