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Book Reviews

Reviewed by Ion Craib

This is a difficult book to review; it is short, compact and densely argued with commitment and passion. It is some time since I read a work of political philosophy written in such a style by an academic working in Britain. I finished the book feeling that it does not quite hang together as a text, but that is not important. What is important is the attempt to read classical thinkers in a way that can produce something new. Fine quotes Calvino's suggestion that if we allow ourselves the space to read the classics in a non-utilitarian way, for the pleasure of reading, we can find something surprising. His aim is to reread Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx's Capital, and Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism in a way that can make them relevant to the contemporary world.

For Fine, politics is a part of the modem world, not the whole of modernity, and its relationship to the social world is something which must be constantly questioned and understood; his aim is `to reach towards a form of political thought whose task is to understand the world as something external to itself and on this basis make space for reflective judgement and wilful action.' He suggests that even if we cannot now envisage a radical break with the past, we should not abandon the idea of revolution `which provides the only possibility of escape from injustice and despair! Rather we should `explore the dynamics of our disillusionment' and root our politics in an understanding of the world we live in. He searches his chosen texts for a way of thinking through the failures of revolution.

Fine turns first to a text which has often been thought of as one Hegel's most conservative: The Philosophy of Right. He argues convincingly against those who saw Hegel as asserting the absolute right of the State over the individual and against the `new orthodoxy' that has interpreted him as a defender of a sophisticated liberalism. Both are equally one-sided interpretations. The latter in particular misses the dialectic of civilisation and barbarism which is present in Hegel. He goes on to defend Hegel against the critical theorists who saw him as descending into a conservative old age, and also against Habermas whom Fine accuses of being blinded by his own inheritance of the natural law tradition. Against all these Fine claims that Hegel's achievement is exactly what Hegel claimed to be achieving: moving away from a philosophy of the State based on prescription to one based on understanding. Hegel's vision of the world is that it is a world of suffering and the philosopher must find the reason in that suffering. This does not involve building some abstract ideal which would involve a terroristic forcing of the real into the ideal, but finding out first what is real and rational and then carefully arguing from what is to what ought to be through a developing dialectic-a dialectic which seeks a reconciliation of the particular-- individual, subjective freedom, for Hegel the great triumph of the modern state-and the universal, the state itself.

This is a crude summary of Fine's argument, which is full of intriguing and provoking insights. He has an enviable grasp of Hegel's dialectical reasoning, how each element is dependent upon and entails the other, how, for example, there is a connection between the moral point of view and a destructive impulse: the terrorism that tries to force moral ideal onto a recalcitrant reality. In a complex discussion of Kant and Hegel, Fine traces Hegel's conception of the personality-involving the subjective experience of oneself as subject and as object-of love, the family and morality and ethical life and then moves on to Marx, Rousseau and the State.

According to Fine, Marx did not understand his relationship to Hegel-- he did not invert Hegel but misread him; Hegel was not trying to `philosophise away terror' which followed the French Revolution but to look terror in the face. Before Marx did, Hegel understood that to oppose `true democracy' to the representative democracy of the state, as did the Young Marx, risks the possibility that opposition to the power of the State `may not only mimic the forms of domination, mystification and abstraction which it most opposes, but may do so in irrational and destructive ways', (P.75). If this is right, then it follows that Marx had only a limited understanding of political modernity.

There was however an affinity of method-historical and dialectical-- between Marx and Hegel. Marx's theory was not an economistic one but a critique of a society dominated by economics. The dominant image (here Fine draws on the Grundrisse) was not base and superstructure but form and content-economic form and social content. In true Hegelian fashion he suggests that the economic forms of capitalism might themselves be historically specific. Marx is a materialist because he concentrates on the material forms of capitalist modernity, the forms taken by things. Hegel is an idealist because he concentrates on the ideal forms of subjectivity, ranging from abstract right and personality through to international relations. Both forms must be taken together, yet from these positions we have two traditions of social theory, the Hegelian referring to present conditions as 'modernity' the Marxist as 'capitalist':

Each sphere gives rise to its own abstract forms of domination: in one case law and the state; in the other, money and capital. Hegel's concern was with processes of personification and the fetishism of the subject characteristic of the former; Marx's concern was with processes of reification and the fetishism of the commodity (p.98).

In the final chapters of the book, Fine turns to the work of Hannah Arendt, particularly her essay On Totalitarianism. I think there is a shift here that I do not quite understand but he argues that Arendt offers a realistic critique of the notion of revolution. Arendt rethinks the notion of revolution not as an ideal but as something that suffers from the contradictions that can be found whenever we discuss systems of right. The value of Arendt, not dissimilar to the value of Hegel, is her insistence on the importance of understanding totalitarianism and the Holocaust and he draws out from Hegel through to Arendt the notion of the cosmopolitan as a way to think through some of these difficulties. For Hegel the cosmopolitan was the universal human being-my humanity being more important than my religion, my nation, or race or gender. Fine argues that this idea is a sublation of previous divisions and so carries with it the violence which has attended them. Arendt's writings on the Holocaust affirm not a cosmopolitan ideal which would reproduce violence, but rather a worldliness which involves holding on to the human in an everyday reality which threatens it-holding on, presumably, through the attempt to understand the real. At first I found these chapters disrupted my earlier sense of Fine's argument despite their insights, and I am not now really sure that I have understood them, but what is clear from the whole text is Fine's endorsement of a continuing dialectic which must be rooted in an understanding of the real rather than an ideal and which contains horrors and disasters as well as triumph and liberation.