Hegel and the dialectics of history

Reading “Absolute Recoil” by Slavoj Zizek has been a challenge. But within all the dense philosophical detail there are some passages which have really chimed with me. I wanted to capture this this particular passage about Hegel and a properly dialectical approach to historical change in full:

“…from the historicist standpoint, every historical figure has its moment of maturity which is then followed by the period of decay. Capitalism, say, was progressive up until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it had to be supported in its struggle against pre-modern forms of life; but with the aggravation of class struggle, capitalism became an obstacle to the further progress of humanity and will have to be overcome in its turn. For a proper dialectician, there is no moment of maturity when a system functions in a non-antagonistic way: paradoxical as it may sound, capitalism was at the same time “progressive” and antagonistic, in decay, and the threat of its decay is the very motor of its “progress” (capitalism has to revolutionize itself constantly to cope with its constitutive “obstacle”). The family and the state are thus not simply the two poles of the social Whole; it is rather that society has to split itself from itself in order to become One – it is this tearing apart of the social Whole, this division itself which “brings society itself into being in the first place by articulating its first great differentiations, that of warrior versus priest.”…

…every social articulation is by definition always “inorganic”, antagonistic. The lesson of this insight is that, whenever we read a description of how an original unity gets corrupted and splits, we should remember that we are dealing with a retroactive ideological fantasy that obfuscates the fact that this original unity never existed, that it is a retroactive projection generated by the process of splitting – there never was a harmonious state whose unity was split into warriors and priests.”

This passage smoothly outlines a point that is often missed. Capitalism was antagonistic from the start. Its very ‘progressiveness’ is driven by its need to overcome its contradictions to survive.


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