The Hegelian Roots of BlackLivesMatter
Can one man -- a man who died in 1831 -- be blamed for Nazism, Communism and even the uprisings in places like Milwaukee and Ferguson? Karl Popper, Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand all suggested G.W.F Hegel, the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century, contributed to the most malignant totalitarian systems in history. But his ideas shaped how many interpret recent events in Milwaukee and Ferguson, too. By describing the world as a conflict between two competing concepts, Hegel created a paradigm used by Marx, Hitler and even African-American protesters.
Hegel interpreted reality as a struggle between two competing ideas, the thesis and anti-antithesis. Like atoms, they are the most fundamental units of all visible events. After intense conflict, the struggle between these antagonistic ideas resolves with the emergence of a synthesis which adopts elements from the thesis and anti-thesis, thus creating a new level of reality. Another thesis and anti-thesis emerge from the synthesis and the process begins anew. This is the dialectic, more specifically the Idealist dialect since it’s based on conflict between ideas.
The dialectic guides history. All historical events can be reduced to a struggle between ideas. Without the dialectic, life and history have no meaning. Hegel maintained, “Without the active opposition of an antithesis working through the dialectic…periods of happiness are empty pages in history, for they are the periods of harmony, times when the antithesis is missing." And the dialectical movement of history is a never a smooth and simple process. The conflict takes places on battlefields, revolutions, torture chambers and even the streets…such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The dialectic also transcends individuals. Participants are unconscious of their role in the greater dialectical historical picture, like someone holding a small image that makes up a larger mosaic. Hegel was a holist, so he believed that individuals don’t exist in isolation, but are formed by the larger group (accordingly, both Nazis and Communists were anti-individual). In other words, the police officers in places like Milwaukee and Ferguson do not act as an individuals, but rather as part of a larger group, in this case, the white race. All of their actions are not determined by free will, but the conditions that reared them, in this case white society. For a second, let’s assume the worst and that the young black men were killed due to their race. But why can’t this be interpreted as one individual with free-will killing another? Can’t the police officers just be bad apples? Do they have to represent a bigger, deeper issue in America? For a holist, they do. As Louis Farrakhan declared, “I warn you that something terrible is about to go down, and it is a sign: A microcosm of the macrocosm.” Hegel would have agreed. The events in Milwaukee and Ferguson aren’t just one man killing another, they represents deeper struggles that African-Americans face, a struggle that is fundamental to American society.
Like the person in the montage, little details don’t matter. Whether the police officers are individually racist is a moot point. The protestors know, or think they know, because they understand the reality of American society. Is it possible that race had nothing to do with the shooting the young man? Of course it is, but for the protestors, this interpretation doesn’t conform to their reality, a reality that asserts the existence an African-American class struggling against the oppressive white race.
But none of the African Americans protesters have ever heard of, much less studied, the great Idealist philosopher? No matter. How many Americans have read the ideas of Locke? Can we deduce from this fact that Locke hasn’t shaped the minds of most Americans? We learn not just by directly reading sources, but from friends, teachers, the media and articles written by people who have read the primary sources. Locke was popularized by Thomas Jefferson while Hegel’s ideas became accessible to the masses by Karl Marx, the most influential left-wing thinker in history. Marx took Hegel’s ideas out of the hands of the academic philosophers and brought it to the streets through works like the Communist Manifesto. In this work, Marx materialized Hegel’s ideas and applied them to society. Society is characterized as a titanic struggle between material classes, sometimes even violently. Marx contends the overthrow of the existing order requires violence on the streets.
Marx also added exploitation and oppression to the Hegelian dialectic, so the fabric of social reality is more than just two antagonistic concepts. Now, one oppresses and exploits the other. In the twentieth century, prominent African-American writers like C.L.R James and George Padmore used Marx’s ideas to explain racial issues in America, emphasizing struggle and exploitation. The philosophy then spread to other prominent African-Americans, many of whom may not be formal Marxists, but still adopt parts of his paradigm, like Farrakhan and a host of academics.
Everything has a history, including metaphysical interpretations of reality. The killing of the young men can be explained in many ways, but the one driving the protesters in Milwaukee is Hegelian because it is based on inherent conflict between two concepts.