Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrew Pendakis reviews Emancipation After Hegel

Todd McGowan. Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 291 pp.

Review by Andrew Pendakis

Todd McGowan’s Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution is effectively two books in one: the first a general introduction to the philosophy of Hegel, the second a series of arguments about the continuing relevance of his thought to contemporary politics and theory. For better or for worse, the Hegel we are introduced to here is a near facsimile of Slavoj Žižek's, which is to say, a Hegel far closer in spirit to Lacan than Aristotle. In contrast to the idealist caricatures furnished by both poststructuralism and analytic philosophy, as well as the more nuanced accounts made by many of the most respected Hegel scholars of the century (Shlomo Avineri, Frederick Beiser, Stephen Houlgate, Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, and others), McGowan’s Hegel is, above all else, a philosopher of nonidentity or contradiction. The latter is not, as one might imagine, an error in reasoning, but rather an unsurpassable ontological condition that characterizes everything that exists. Nothing is providentially fated to be the kind of thing it is or becomes; all things come to be contradictorily through the presence of gaps, forces, limits, and conditions that forever prevent them from being fully themselves (in other words, complete, whole, or unitary).

For McGowan, the concern at the heart of Hegel’s project is not, as many have argued, the progression through history of humans toward truer, more complicated, and increasingly self-reflective accounts of the world. Rather, according to McGowan, contradiction is never overcome in Hegel’s philosophy—not in absolute knowledge, in the work of art or God, nor in the birth of the modern state—but instead functions on both the level of the subject and on the scale of society as a whole as its own interminable end. Just as in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the task is to recognize that contradiction is inescapable and that there is no private cure, theoretical system, nor political program that will save us from it. What this means is that essence, wholeness, and substance are in the end little more than metaphysical safety blankets. Individuals and societies can only truly live by perpetually sustaining rather than avoiding or trying to elude nonidentity, and it is only via this difficult path that true freedom can ever be found.

Alongside this general interpretation, McGowan makes a more specific metahistorical argument about the history and future of Hegel as a political philosopher. He argues that by neglecting the role played in Hegel’s philosophy by both Christianity and the state, Left Hegelianism inadvertently forfeited the conception of freedom at the heart of his work, and in the process contributed to the genesis of a Marxist-Leninist (later Stalinist) political practice that foreswore the complexities of contradiction for the psychospeculative temptations of essence. Christ’s death on the cross is not a guarantee of universal salvation, but rather renders clear to us that there is no “subject supposed to know,” no force or entity that can provide us with a ready-to-hand essence or meaning.[1] The universality of the modern state, meanwhile, allows us to recognize that we are not autoproductive monads (the kind imagined by neoliberalism) and that we can only ever exist in the context of others who productively constrain and inform us. If the primary error of Marxism, an error that renders it world-historically violent, is allowing itself to become transfixed by the “substantiality of the future” (the dream of a classless society in which antagonisms have been totally overcome), McGowan argues that both liberal democracy and fascism are also moved by dreams of substance that make them inimical to genuine freedom (p. 137).  

Two issues weaken the book’s impact. The first is its overreliance on the concept of contradiction. There is a certain irony in the fact that whenever McGowan attempts to explain a key Hegelian idea—whether it be reason, truth, freedom, absolute knowledge, the state, and others—contradiction arrives in the form of a deus ex machina to reduce a complexity that, in Hegel, is always determinate. Absolute knowledge, for example, cannot be defined in Hegel as simply a recognition of the inescapabilty of contradiction. It is also everything concrete that has been learned (and yes, left behind) through the dialectical process, a knowing that is self-reflexive, synoptic, and intricately organized, though never static, apodictic, or complete. Concreteness reduced to contradiction becomes its opposite—a kind of formalistic first principle of the kind Hegel was always keen to avoid.

Though McGowan is no conservative, the book at times steers into territory that will confuse those looking for progressive politics. The claim that Christianity has a unique relation to truth will strike Buddhists and Daoists as strange. What does Christianity offer that isn’t furnished by a postfoundationalist materialism of the kind constructed by a Louis Althusser, Antonio Negri, or Alain Badiou (or even the parts of Žižek that are emphatically non-Christian)? In addition to this, McGowan’s reading of Marxism comes very close to a Burkean argument about the intrinsic violence of revolutionary perfectionism. His reduction of historical communism to atrocity “without even realizing a modicum of equality” is factually one-sided, and the motives he imputes to Marxists, moved to violence by essentialist teleology, are too simple (p. 220). Thinkers like Kristin Ghodsee and Jodi Dean have complicated these cliches, showing that revolutionaries were rarely the duped zealots they’re portrayed to be, knew very well their victory was unlikely (even when they’d won), and were far more busy dealing with the complexities and contradictions of the present than they were libidinally transfixed by utopian futures. In insisting on a speculative psychoanalysis to explain the history of the twentieth century McGowan’s account becomes too neat and tidy—itself, ironically, an example of what happens to thought when it avoids precisely the kind of dynamic conjunctural specificity championed by historical materialism (think Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital [2016]).

As a popular exposition of Žižek’s Hegel, McGowan’s book is fantastic and does important work. McGowan is a brilliant writer, someone whose sentences are clear, lyrical, and often deeply entertaining. Though I agree completely with his affirmation of the state as the horizon of any possible contemporary politics, and applaud the social democratic commitments that subtend his work, the latter’s dependence on standardized anti-Marxist tropes is disappointing.



[1] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, vol. 11 of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, trans. Alan Sheridan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York, 1978), p. 37.