The Master, the Slave, and the Left

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, looking slightly anxious somehow

Hegel’s master-slave dialectic was hugely influential on Marxist thinking. In it, Hegel tells a kind of myth to illustrate how a consciousness comes to self-consciousness through a dialectical process. Here’s how it goes in short:

Two people meet each other in a world where they both had previously been alone. They both desire to be recognised by the other as free. A fight to the death ensues, and the winner becomes the Master and the loser the Slave. The Slave is forced to labour for the Master, realising his desires. Soon however, the Master realises that, although he is formally free — being recognised by the Slave as such — he is not actually free, since he depends on the Slave’s labour to impose his will, his dominance over nature. The Slave has the opposite realisation: he realises that through his labour he transforms nature, shaping the world around him, making him actually free, but he’s still not formally free because he lacks recognition as such from the Master.

How is the problem solved? The Marxist left draws a quick conclusion here: the Slave has only to see that he actually has all the power, that the Master depends on him. Then he can simply overthrow the Master. But that’s not Hegel’s solution at all. The synthesis of the dialectic is not a simple reversal of power, it is the creation of a higher objective Spirit that can recognise both master and slave as free entities. For Hegel, this higher objective spirit is expressed in the State and rule of law.

In a Hegelian dialectic, the previous moments of the dialectic must be somehow preserved in the synthesis. The State is both master and slave, since it rules over the people, but also serves the people. Then the people also have it both: they are recognised as free individuals by the state, on condition that they follow its laws. So in both cases there is a voluntary subjugation to a law that expresses a general will, and insofar as the law holds for all, it recognises all as free individuals.

The left needs to move away from a feeling of resentment and revenge against the Master, towards a higher authority that can recognise both master and slave as free. Feudalism ended when nobility and serfs were sublated into citizens.

Today, maybe all we need is an addendum to the Human Rights that were handed down to us from the French Revolution: a right of citizens to prosper, and a responsibility of the State to guarantee this prosperity, through whatever means. Because if you don’t have money in a market-based economy, you are not truly free.

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