Here at the Security Studies Group we occasionally get letters. By permission, we are publishing this inquiry and the response of our Executive Vice President, Brad Patty.
This morning while following up on an article about the effects of antifa, I came across Security Studies Group, and this is an answer to prayer. It is getting more and more difficult to find groups, like SSG, to learn what has, and is, actually happening, as readers so often mistake strong opinions for action. I am often left wondering what actually happened to prompt articles, some of which are very good.
What has confounded me so often is how a true thread runs through over a hundred years of violent attack groups, like antifa. There is a sameness about the groups, the Nazis being a good example. When reading European history, a hobby, I kept coming across a thread of influence, which actually seemed to come from Fredrich George Hegel. Can you tell me what you think about this? There seems to be such a degree of conformity to am invisible set of rules that I wonder where where the rules came from. His philosophy of there being no wrong and chaos being the norm seems to be to be a “truth” a tenet of the overall philosophy of the groups that seek to destroy republics.
Thank you, in advance, for reading this.
Dear Ms. Willis,
What an interesting question to receive. In fact I can explain the relationship of Hegel to revolutionary movements (including the Nazis, but more especially the communist revolutionaries). It’s a bit dense, but I’ll try to work through it in a few strokes. If you are interested, you can certainly use that as the basis for beginning your own research. If you are interested in the philosophy, the first few paragraphs are about that. If you are only interested in the revolutionary link, skip to the paragraph beginning with “Marx.”
Hegel himself lived in the 18th century. His basic idea was not political but universal: he thought he had uncovered the logic by which reality itself develops. Essentially all things exist as ideas in the mind of God, except that those ideas are themselves conscious. Originally this sort of consciousness is very limited, but each idea proceeds ‘upwards’ as it were, becoming more and more conscious. Eventually these conscious ideas ‘think’ that they are turtles or hawks, later human beings; eventually they discover, having worked out each step along the way, that they are part of the mind of God (and thus return to the Divine).
The process by which this works Hegel calls ‘the dialectic.’ Now the dialectic had existed all the way back to Ancient Greece; Aristotle writes about it, and Plato, and others. Hegel’s particular application of it was original. The way the dialectic usually works is that you have an idea (the Greeks called this the ‘thesis’), and someone else has an opposing idea (the Greeks called this the ‘antithesis’). At first these two ideas seem so opposed that you can do nothing but argue about which one is right. Eventually, however, you discover a way to proceed that incorporates good aspects of both ideas. This is called the ‘synthesis.’
Hegel thought that these conscious ideas proceed back toward the Divine by working out synthesis positions between apparent contradictions. His argument for exactly how this works is some of the densest philosophy ever constructed; if you are interested in following the argument it will take some years of study. However, the basic move is always the same. The idea arrives at a concept that is new to it by overcoming a contradiction between two previous concepts. This new concept (say, ‘using symbols to represent ideas’) produces its own problems, which leads to a contradiction (say, that others might interpret the symbols differently, thus not understanding you). The conscious idea struggles with this until it develops a new synthesis position that lets it move on to the next conflict (say, using symbols like stop signs that have fixed meanings, so everyone knows what is meant). This allows the conscious idea to proceed upwards, but only to find a new conflict. These conflicts are good, though, because each one is a step back towards reuniting with God. You can see how there’s a sense in which none of these conflicts could really be wrong, because each one leads us closer to God.
Marx was greatly influenced by Hegel, and adopted the dialectic from Hegel’s writings. However, Marx wasn’t interested in finding a path to God. Marx wanted to create material progress, not spiritual progress. He thought he could use the dialectic that way. Marx’s writings sketch a new philosophy called ‘dialectical materialism,’ which apply the tools of the dialectic to economic and political problems.
The basic idea Marx adopted from Hegel was that reality evolves along a set path, which is pre-determined because its evolution is logical. In other words, since each step follows logically, each step has to happen and will happen in a certain way. Thus, Marx believed he could predict the future (at least a few steps out) by understanding the logic at work. He also believed that he and his followers could bring about this future by understanding the process and working towards making the next step come true.
That is the basic connection with revolutionary politics. Later Communists were trying to bring about revolution because they believed that capitalism (the ‘thesis’) would fall into revolutionary conflict as it impoverished most people to enrich only some (the ‘antithesis’). The synthesis position, which they called ‘Socialism,’ was something they were working to bring about. Since the violent revolution was a necessary logical step between capitalism and socialism, it was to be pursued ardently. (The Nazis, of course, are “National Socialists,” different from Communists but possessed of the same basic idea about how to proceed).
Now, the important thing is that Marx was wrong (and Hegel probably was too). It turns out that history and economics don’t follow pre-set, logically-determined paths. Countries like the UK and the US adopted different approaches to synthesizing the goods of capitalism with the harms that can follow from it. Other countries found other ways still. It turns out that it is not true that very smart people can ‘see’ the future, and thus it is unlikely that rushing into revolutionary wars is wise because you can’t really be sure of how well they will turn out.
However, you can see how attractive is the idea that smart people could ‘see’ the future and bring about wonderful changes through their brilliance and courage. For more than a century now, people who thought themselves smarter than most others around them have been enamored of the idea. Communism especially continues to draw many people of above-average intelligence, who find in it not just hope for the future but a system of thought that flatters them and people like them. Even today, very many people of above-average intelligence continue to be sucked in by this combination of flattery and pretense to secret knowledge about the inner workings of history.
Since the 1990s, in fact, there has been a movement called ‘accelerationism’ that originated on the Left. They were basically Marxists, but decided that not only could they predict history, they could hurry it up. Some of these thinkers are peaceful, and want to repurpose capitalism and its technology for what they think are better ends. Others are still wedded to the idea that revolution is a necessary middle step. Antifa and other revolutionary leftist groups are essentially working to ‘heighten the contraditions’ (i.e., between thesis and antithesis) in order to hurry up the revolutionary synthesis that they are sure will follow.
(Aside #1: They should have realized that this wouldn’t work, because it had already been tried and failed even by people exercising very complete power. Lenin and Stalin tried to ‘accelerate’ Marxism by starting it in an agricultural economy rather than a capitalist one. The USSR suffered vast famines as a result. Mao tried to do the same thing in his ‘Great Leap Forward,’ which resulted in the starvation of tens of millions of people. The models can’t be ‘revved up’ because the models don’t really work in the first place; the basic idea that history runs on pre-determined tracks is wrong.)
(Aside #2: Right-wing accelerationists have developed more recently, except that they don’t have an underlying dialectical theory about us all moving through pre-determined steps of history. The peaceful ones think rushing capitalism along will bring about a gigantic step in technical progress that will make things better for everyone. The violent ones just want to hurry up and get to the part where they’re allowed to kill their enemies so that the conflict can be resolved.)
That is a basic sketch of the connection you were asking about. I hope you find it helpful. If you are interested in further reading, I suggest the following accelerationist manifesto. It will let you encounter the ideas as presented by their advocates, one of which I am obviously not.