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Potemkin wrote

This is a very interesting question that I think radicals of all stripes should discuss.

The way I see it, to oversimplify a bit:

In the West at least, materialism and idealism are the two basic categories into which everything known and unknown, actually existing or abstract and conceptual, falls.

Philosophically, and particularly for western radical thought, all roads lead to Hegel. In fact, western philosophy as such is either an attempt to further Hegel's work or to refute it. For our concern, Hegel was an idealist of a kind that he termed "absolute idealism," which was a way to establish a kind of "concrete" idealism versus otherwise abstract idealism. Hegel's work emphasizes spirit and carries a lot of mystical/spiritual/religious connotations. Hegel's work was dialectical in its method of inquiry (more on that in a moment).

Enter Marx and the Young Hegelians--these were students of Hegel's thought out of which several smaller branches developed. Marx, of course, wanted to take Hegel's dialectical methods and observations and strip them of the mystical and idealist notions altogether, famously stating that he had turned Hegel on his head. Meaning that, instead of coming from an idealist base, Marx took Hegel's dialectical method and some of his thought and gave it a materialist outlook. (As a side note, there were some conservative/authoritarian interpretations of Hegel that developed his religious thoughts and were later known as the Right Hegelians.)

This act of turning Hegel on his head is also the origin of so-called "scientific" versus "utopian" socialism. This is in reference to the materialist/idealist divide. Marx claimed his Dialectical Materialism was scientific exclusively due to the materialist nature of his thought (Marx became more materialist over time, with his early Economic and Philosophic manuscripts being more humanist in orientation). I always found this claim a bit ironic, as for Marxists, something was "scientific" to the degree in which it aligned with a Dialectical Materialist outlook.

Yet, the so-called "utopian" socialists--which start from ethical conceptions about how society should be organized--were often highly regarded scientists. This included the anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus. This doesn't mean that, because of their idealism, they ignored material information or tried to make reality fit some abstract ideal. It just meant that the beginning of their thought and action are rooted in ethical notions about how society should be organized.

It should also be pointed out that Stirner, the father of Egoism, was a Young Hegelian and would be considered an idealist, as his thought stems from the supremacy of the individual "ego." It's an abstract concept which places it on the idealist side of the divide. This is not meant to be attacking in any way, this is just how most of western philosophy views Stirner's ideas.

Bakunin was, though more peripherally, a part of the Young Hegelian group.

So, through Hegel's idealism and his dialectical method, and through Marx's use of this method and his emphasis on materialism, is where we get the historic divide within radical political philosophy. So-called "utopian" socialists, which for the most part are libertarian socialists and anarchists, would be considered idealists. Marxist socialists would be known as "scientific" socialists. However, "scientific" socialism was a term propagated and used exclusively to identify with Marxism---any other socialist therefore automatically became "utopian" in a pejorative sense.

Now, I believe that a dialectical method of investigation, as a way to understand the dynamic processes of both thought and reality, is helpful and powerful. Dialectics emphases the processural (though not linear) nature of things, that things can be what they are not and not what they are, that opposition and relation are both important elements of things under investigation.

Dialectically, materialism and idealism are simultaneously distinct and inseparable. I don't think one can be only a materialist or only an idealist without running into concrete absurdities.

That being said, however, I proudly identify my thought (which is anarchist-communist and social ecological) as part of the idealistic and utopian tradition. This does not mean an exclusive reliance on idealism or dismissal of the material. What this means for me, simply, is that the beginning of my intellectual framework starts from an idealist orientation, from which material issues and analysis can fit within it.

Some may take the opposing view. But this is the dialectical interplay of forces. For me, I am a humanist concerned with ethical notions about how society should be organized, and that is my starting place, which would make me an idealist.

However, like Hegel, I think we should differentiate between abstract idealism and something only slightly different from Hegel's "absolute" idealism. People dismiss as "utopian" good ideas that they believe could never exist in reality. But there are different types of conceptions. We can imagine fire-breathing dragons, for instance, and know that these creatures could never exist in reality. This is MUCH different than envisioning a rational society that has no material barriers to prevent its existence. So often these two types of idealist thought are conflated and "utopian" becomes an abstract pejorative.

Anyway, I hope this helped a bit. I'd be interested to know others' opinions.


Fossidarity wrote

Wow that's very interesting. The first thing that popped in my mind when I read about Materialism vs Idealism in this thread was Materialism. Now I feel like both are equally valuable.

Off topic: as someone who has no western-philosophical background whatsoever, what are some good books to get into this? Can you recommend me something from Hegel or something how his ideas influenced other philosophers, preferably anarchists.


Potemkin wrote

(All links go to Wikipedia for reference)

Yes, I think that both idealism and materialism are equally important and basically two sides of the same coin.

As for introductory texts regarding some of these topics, I would start with the small book titled, Hegel, as part of the Past Masters series from Oxford University Press. It's written by Peter Singer, perhaps the foremost Utilitarian philosopher living. I would pair this with another book in the same series, Marx, also written by Singer.

Hegel's work is known to be dense, obscure, and difficult. I was in a group with three others to read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. It was very slow going, but felt profound. It was laced with frustration, but once understanding was reached about what he was trying to say, it was very rewarding. To help us, we paired it with Alexander Kojeve's Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. The Phenomenology is seen as Hegel's largest work in terms of impact.

As for other work, I don't have specific titles, but I would try to find books or discussion about the Young Hegelians generally, and the ideas they explored.

Anarchism owes a bit less to Hegel and his dialectic than does Marxism. Indeed, many anarchists I find aren't keen on dialectical methods of investigation. Anarchists such as Peter Kropotkin rejected dialectics as pseudo-scientific. However, Mikhail Bakunin, whose ideas won Kropotkin over to anarchism, was at least peripherally a Young Hegelian and would've had a dialectical orientation. And some of the most interesting anarchists today utilize a dialectical understanding, it's just less prevalent. It should be noted that there are also Marxists that reject dialectics, making them "analytical Marxists," I guess. I find it all very interesting, as I'm interested in radical thought and philosophy generally.

In western philosophy, Hegel basically created a split. Philosophy that rejects dialectical notions and Hegel's work is typically considered "analytic" philosophy, practiced primarily in the United States and the UK. However, Hegel still is a prominent figure in so-called "continental" philosophy, or philosophy practiced on the continent--Germany, France, etc. These distinctions weren't made clear to me at first, and caused a great deal of confusion for me.

For more information on the dialectical method generally, which will probably always include discussion of Hegel, I would look at the work of philosopher John P. Clark from Loyola University. He has posted almost all of his work for free to

I would also look into the Frankfurt School, which were a group of German unorthodox Marxists with a heavy interest in philosophy. Martin Jay wrote a great overview and history of the Frankfurt School titled, The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923-1950.

Pretty much anything involving early Marx, such as his Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts of 1844 most acutely show the intersection of Hegel and radical political theory, so that would be a good focus, as well.


PerfectSociety wrote

I'm still contemplating much of what you wrote. I do have a question for you at this time, however:

It should also be pointed out that Stirner, the father of Egoism, was a Young Hegelian and would be considered an idealist, as his thought stems from the supremacy of the individual "ego." It's an abstract concept which places it on the idealist side of the divide. This is not meant to be attacking in any way, this is just how most of western philosophy views Stirner's ideas.

But do you consider Stirner's Egoism to have anything to do with metaphysics? If not, I have trouble seeing how it is necessarily Idealist. My understanding is that Idealism and Materialism are each metaphysical positions to take. If we had to classify Stirner's Egoism, we could classify it under metaethics. But I don't quite see how it has anything to do with metaphysics. Stirner does not seem to be saying that the Ego produces Reality. Rather, he says that there is such a thing as the Ego and that we should allow our Egos to be free and unburdened by notions like morality, religion, the nation, the law, etc... Whether the Ego is a product of Reality or vice versa does not seem to be something that Stirner takes an explicit position on.


Potemkin wrote

Due to the nature of Stirner's thought and argumentation style, he can be difficult to place. Indeed, John Clark and others have seen Stirner's work as "a process of egoistic enjoyment for the author." Yet, Stirner does at times make metaphysical claims that can open themselves to discussion and critique.

If you're interested in this sort of discussion on Stirner, I would highly recommend John P. Clark's essay from the 1970s called "Max Stirner's Egoism." It is a critique, but NOT a polemic, of Stirner's work.

In searching for a link for that essay, I also found an article by Jason McQuinn reviewing Clark's critique of Stirner. I haven't read this second work yet--I didn't know it existed until a moment ago-- but I think that would give you a pretty good view of both sides of the philosophical debate surrounding Stirner.

Lastly, I would argue that, as metaphysics is "the branch of philosophy which deals with the ultimate nature of things and seeks to formulate the most basic categories of explanation" (from Clark's essay), that nothing would ultimately fall outside of the metaphysical. Though Stirner may be primarily concerned with the aesthetic and the pleasurable, "being" and "nothing," material and immaterial, materialist and idealist are the basic, fundamental contradictions into which all thought falls. To me, as Stirner's thought, and the conception of ego itself, are inherently abstract, I would consider Stirner to be within the broad container category of "idealism." But this is just my understanding. I'm certainly no expert, and certainly not regarding Stirner. I always thought he had interesting things to say, though!