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Problem of Evil

Draft, 26 October 2008
David MacGregor


Joe McCarney Memorial Conference
Saturday October 25, 2008,

at the London Knowledge Lab, 23-29 Emerald Street, London WC1

I am honoured to present a paper at this Memorial Conference for Joe McCarney, and I wish to thank the organizers for making this important event possible.

I met Dr. McCarney at the University of York in 1995, and we corresponded for a brief period. Regarding Joe McCarney’s untimely death, I am struck by a phrase from Susan Neiman’s profound recapitulation of Hegel’s concept of evil. “[C]ontingency is unbearable because of the number of accidents that can destroy the best efforts of reason.”1
Joe McCarney’s path breaking work on Hegel and Marx has had much influence on me, as on many others, especially his seminal articles in New Left Review that included his magnificent contribution “The True Realm of Freedom: Marxist Philosophy after Communism.”2 Though he maintained strong fealty to Marx he also offered an objective and fascinating view of Hegel. In this respect McCarney differed from most Marxist writers who tend to proffer a rather negative conception of “that mighty figure” as Marx himself called Hegel in the famous postface to the Second Edition of Capital. Indeed, unless I am mistaken, McCarney’s Hegel in History3 puts forward a remarkable view of Hegel as a radical egalitarian who embraces a powerful utopian vision of the future.
In this paper I wish to explore the problem of evil in Hegel employing, in part, Joe McCarney’s discussion of the concept in his Hegel on History. Evil is discussed at at least six times in McCarney’s book, but most prominently in Chapter 12, entitled, “The Ways of God,” which opens with a section called “Problem of Evil.” I begin the paper with a glance at this chapter in Hegel on History.
A chief concern for Hegel is an explanation for the appearance of evil in history, justification for acts of malevolence that tragically offend the record of human events. McCarney points to Hegel’s dissatisfaction with the theodicy of Leibnitz who claims that of all possible worlds, God has chosen the best one. Evil, Leibnitz contends, is only a means to achieve the good. But if deviltry is merely God’s way of achieving the good, queries Hegel, why then could He not have chosen some other means? I will return later to Hegel’s interrogation of Leibnitz’s notion of evil.
Hegel’s solution to the problem of evil begins with a program of reconciliation that does not rely on personal will, but rather, says McCarney, on a “pantheistic theodicy” which holds that good has always already established itself in the world so that evil can never stand “in equality beside it.” The secret of reconciliation is to find the affirmative in history before which the negative shrinks to a passing moment. “In his scheme, the rational and necessary are expressions of the ontological ground of the universe” (p. 197). Hegel’s program deals at once with the arbitrary and contingent aspects of evil by removing the factor of human will, and also the unpleasant necessity to explain the inscrutable actions of a personal God.
Hegel’s critics have pounced on the notion of reconciliation as an inadequate response to the problem of evil. Instead of taking evil seriously, Hegel denies the existence of human tragedy, replacing it with “the teleological comedy of the ultimate purpose of the world and the vindication of the idea” (p. 199). Hannah Arendt, to cite an illustrious example, pronounced upon the unsatisfactory character of Hegel’s solution in her Eichmann in Jerusalem. By blaming history itself, notes Susan Neiman regarding Arendt’s argument, Hegel absolved human beings of moral responsibility. “For if history was merely one anti-Semitic event after another, wasn’t he [Eichmann] even a smaller cog in a larger machine than he himself claimed?”4
Yet, as McCarney acknowledges, few writers have pronounced more eloquently, or with more sensibility, than Hegel on the existence of evil in history. Moreover, with his concept of a triune God who is truly dead, Hegel distances himself from standard Christian theology by insisting on the stain of evil even within the Trinity. Nor is there room in Hegel’s thought for any conception of an afterlife that might relieve the consequences of evil. Instead, for Hegel reconciliation of an infinite spirit can only be found in “the cycle of birth and death” within the eternal human community (p. 203).
In my own book, The Communist Ideal in Hegel and Marx,5 I dealt with the concept of the Trinity and its relation to the problem of evil with similar results as McCarney. The Communist Ideal notes that Hegel seized upon the dialectical character of the Triune God in Christianity as a solution to the problem of evil. On one hand, Christianity recognizes the infinite rights of the human individual, the identity of the social individual with God, and calls for the global abolition of slavery. On the other hand, Christianity accepts the importance of education and development in overcoming evil within the individual and the community. The final movement of the Triune God is a union of love and knowledge as assured in the concept of freedom, the real key to the meaning of history. These moments are recapitulated in each individual’s own personal struggle with inner wickedness and depravity.
Accordingly, in his discussion of Eden and the Fall, Hegel suggests that the human struggle within ourselves is even more important than the labour process in the creation of individuality. But note that human labour—both spiritual and bodily labour—guided by knowledge, and embodying confrontation with the external world is the very means by which evil is defeated.
Labor done in the sweat of one’s brow, or bodily work, and the labor of the spirit, which is the harder of the two, are immediately connected with the knowledge of good and evil. That humanity must make itself what it is, that it must produce and eat bread in the sweat of its brow, belongs to what is most essential and distinctive about it and coheres necessarily with the knowledge of good and evil.6
In The Communist Ideal, I proposed the notion of ideality—the transition of the idea into reality through human labour and the means of production—as the central concept in Hegel’s thought. And we see it here as the path through which spirit develops in and through knowledge of good and evil. The notion of ideality is important also in Hegel’s famous Cunning of Reason, though in this concept of Cunning we need to recognize that human knowledge and its development and realization through labour depend on chance and contingency. Humanity is not necessarily aware of the full meaning and import of its own actions, and truth itself may emerge only slowly and fitfully from this relationship.
Perhaps since I have already raised the subject, and since we are talking about evil, you may permit me this brief aside. I have no opinion on whether Marx deliberately and secretly purloined Hegel’s concept of ideality. It must have been clear enough to Marx that the pregnant sections of Teleology: The Subjective End; the Means; the Realized End in both versions of the Logic refer to the labour process—first, because Hegel explicitly said so; and second because Marx so perfectly followed the model Hegel offered in those sections. Joe McCarney traces similar difficulties for Marx in his article. “The entire mystery: Marx’s Understanding of Hegel.”7 In this fascinating piece on the young Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state, McCarney finds Marx shifting unaccountably through three contradictory philosophical perspectives in order supposedly to demonstrate Hegel’s various errors regarding the Idea and its relationship with family and civil society. McCarney concludes his essay by observing that “It is time to dispense with the disabling irony of treating as a source of clear, univocal, instantly authoritative truths what is in reality one of the richest embroglios in the history of thought.”
Concept of Concrete Evil
Susan Neiman’s philosophical contemplation of Evil in Modern Thought (pp. 86, 96) offers a profound understanding of Hegel’s concept of evil. Hegel, she notes, “was the first to give a secular formulation to the problem of evil.” Neiman points out that Leibnitz distinguished between three forms of evil. Natural evil concerns the sphere of suffering, the pain humans endure as a result of their existence on earth and through no fault of their own. Moral evil belongs to the sphere of sin, our offence against God, the human will to ignore the precepts of godliness. Finally, there is metaphysical evil, the imperfection of all living things, both animal and human, the existence of evil by virtue of their very creation. Hegel interpreted Leibnitz’s metaphysical evil to comprehend how the world, after all, is what it ought to be. “Overcoming evils is part of the process evident in history itself.”
I wish now to introduce a concept in Hegel that has received too little attention.

This is the concept of “concrete evil,” that Hegel mentions in the Philosophy of History.8 Hegel reconstructed Leibnitz’s notion of metaphysical evil, the universal aspect of spiritual life, and called it, concrete evil. Although it is itself made up of contingencies and accidents, concrete evil is a universal aspect of human life, a fixed function in the unfolding of human history. For Hegel, concrete evil is a social and historical phenomenon intimately related to the progress of human spirit in history. Let me provide the full quote from Philosophy of History:

Philosophy’s role, says Hegel, is to assist in comprehending “all the ills of the world, including the existence of evil so that the thinking spirit may be reconciled with the negative aspects of existence, and it is in world history that we encounter the sum total of concrete evil.”9
Unlike Kant, Hegel is not primarily concerned with evil as a result of immorality on the part of individuals—the sphere of morality. “The destinies of nations, the convulsions of states and their interests, predicaments and involvements are of a different order than morality.”10 Instead, he is concerned with negative forces in human history that privilege dominant minorities and harm or destroy whole societies. As Hegel says, “passions, private interests, and the satisfaction of selfish impulses are the most potent force. What makes them powerful is that they do not heed any of the constraints that justice or morality impose upon them, and the elemental power of passion has a more immediate hold over man than the artificial and laboriously acquired discipline of order and moderation, justice and morality.” Thus, concrete evil is not a matter of faceless, structural forces operating almost as a power resembling Leibnitz’s natural evil—overwhelming a particular society or human group. Concrete evil refers to intentional human deviltry that harnesses institutions of state and civil society in the service of malevolence.
The word “concrete” for Hegel has a peculiar meaning, also highlighted in

Marx’s writings.11 The term refers to a unity of diverse characteristics that must be encountered conceptually before the whole can be understood. Concrete evil is not solely a property of subjective consciousness but a complex characteristic of the social world.

Accordingly, Hegel12 subscribes to a definition of “concrete

reality” or “concrete external existence” resembling Marx’s discussions of the

material world confronted by the human individual. Concrete, on this reading,

includes the natural environment within which human action occurs; the mode

of production and distribution characteristic of a particular society, and “the

actual world of spiritual [social – DM] relations ... the different modes of

command and obedience, of family, relatives, possession, country and town life,

religious worship, the waging of war, civil and political conditions, sociability,

in short the whole variety of customs and usages in all situations and actions.”
The concept of concrete evil implies a condensation of evil, the appearance and massing of evil at significant points, a dialectical leap or transformation manifested in an evil occurrence, or a corrupt social arrangement. At certain times in history evil is kept at bay, even though the world is saturated with the existence of evil.
Capitalist society provides a pure model for the Hegelian-Marxist concept of

malevolence, insofar as it combines unlimited potential for self-understanding

with a reign of hazard and contingency. “Evil is nothing but the incompatibility

between what is and what ought to be,”13 Hegel wrote. And capital

has little respect for what ought to be. The structure of capitalism itself, the basic relationships of property, derive from arbitrariness and injustice. The core of Hegel’s concept of concrete evil in the modern era lies in the wage contract, outlined in two critical paragraphs (§§62, 195) in the Philosophy of Right14. Hegel argued that the flawed deal between capitalist and worker enriched the former while leaving the worker without a recognized claim to property.
The theory of concrete evil describes a dialectic opposed to the more familiar and optimistic ascent associated with Hegel and Marx. History can move in

such a way that conditions become much worse, not as a stage towards some-

thing better, but as an unfolding of sheer malevolence. There are periods when

social forces coalesce to create a point of transformation toward an era of social

advance. Equally, there are disjunctions where irrationality coalesces to create

a qualitative leap to a new form of evil. I will suggest in the conclusion of this paper that we are presently witnessing emergence of novel forms of evil that resemble corrosive episodes of malevolence in the first half of the twentieth century.

Actually Existing Concrete Evil
In the context of measuring the empirical adequacy of Hegel’s concept of evil, McCarney proposes a thought experiment: How would Hegel have reacted to the Holocaust? Did this terrible evil defeat the notion of progress that underlies Hegel’s concept of reason in history? McCarney ventures an exceedingly brave answer in the face of the politics that surround this question. He points out that the Nazi attempt to destroy the Jews of Europe and the Romany people ended in failure. Moreover, the Third Reich’s ambition to enslave the world for a millennium faltered after only 12 years. “[I]t would be a most serious matter for Hegel is such a regime were to succeed in establishing itself indefinitely in the country that gave birth to the Reformation, experienced the Enlightenment and was exposed to the full impact of modernity, as well as being, of course, the cradle of his own thought” (p. 211-212).
I want to raise a question not unlike McCarney’s. How would Hegel have reacted to unresolved, unacknowledged concrete evil visited upon his own Germany during and after the Second World War? Or perhaps I should ask whether it is time for us finally to recognize and repent the vast concrete evil perpetrated on Germany and other countries during and after the Second World War by the US/UK imperialist colossus? This is not simply an acknowledgement of past misdeeds, but also a lesson, a warning to avoid committing such evil in the future.
Nietzsche said that we don’t know what evil is. He meant that we tend to embrace a one-dimensional notion of evil, a concept of malevolence as something always done by the other side. Let us look again at McCarney’s example of Germany, the country that ‘gave birth to the Reformation, experienced the Enlightenment and was exposed to the full impact of modernity.” The Thousand Year Reich was never to be, of course. But how does the total destruction of Germany during and after the Second World War fit into Hegel’s scheme of the realization of freedom in history? What place would he give the real consequences of the so-called Good War of 1939-1945 in the annals of concrete evil? What if Guido Preparata’s path breaking 2005 book Conjuring Hitler15 is correct, that Hitler acted as a pawn within a three decade-long Anglo-American plot to crush Germany?16 Preparata’s is an extreme argument, of course, but it fits with recent revelations that Hitler’s Germany was eagerly supported by US capitalism even after Munich; IBM provided the punch cards that made possible efficient identification of the Jewish population; Ford and other US manufacturers were key to the German industrial war effort. Nicholson Baker’s 2008 pacifist manifesto Human Smoke (though unaware of Preparata’s intervention) provides powerful evidence for a long-planned US/UK decision to destroy Germany regardless of the cost.
While claims of conspiracy to overcome Germany as a challenger of Anglo-American dominance may seem unlikely, they jibe in a macabre way with sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel’s musings as World War I came to a close. Simmel may be the twentieth century thinker most influenced by Hegel, though influence may not be the correct term. Especially in his later writings, Simmel’s work is mostly indifferent to Hegel because it so completely adopts a Hegelian viewpoint.
By 1915 Simmel saw the War as a plot to bleed Europe, to kill Germany and assure US world domination.17 The US would sell its arms to Europe in exchange for Europe’s wealth. And Europe, Simmel predicted, would use American weaponry to tear itself apart. Like Greece for the Romans in the ancient world, Europe would become a playtime ruin for American tourists.
What if we paid attention to A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, which notes the ironic casting of the Nuremburg trials amidst the grimmest destruction of any nation in history (save, possibly, the American obliteration of Japan)—the aerial bombing of Germany that wiped out most of its cities, killing or maiming a huge proportion of the population and scattering the rest across the ruins of a tortured nation? Or to Alfred-Maurice de Zayas’s A Terrible Revenge documenting the deliberate, half-decade long, post-war starvation of Germany and the ethnic cleansing that mostly emptied the former Prussia of ethnic Germans who had lived there for centuries?
I am tempted here to mention the newly published English translation of Hegel on Hamann, a wonderful discussion that shows more than anything else the deep humanity of both the reviewer Hegel and the author, Hamann. Hegel writes about German philosophical centres peripheral and remote from the ruling orthodoxy in Berlin: “Toward the northeast, in Konigsberg,” he writes, “we have Kant, Hippel, Hamman.” Let us consider the northeast of Germany, after 1941, bombed, decimated, emptied of most of the ethnic German inhabitants who had populated East Prussia for centuries—all in favour of a strategically enlarged mono-ethnic Poland.
What if we read Jorg Friedrich’s The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 along with Hegel’s Letters? Every place that Hegel lived, every town in which he taught, every human habitation that he visited, reduced to cinders in World War II, the bodies of children, women and men, or what remained of them, stacked row upon row. This was not ordinary war-time destruction. This was Carthage crushed by the Romans in the Third Punic war; the Germanic heritage wiped from the face of the earth.
What is past is prologue, and Germany’s fate was later to be shared (with varying degrees of intensity) by a host of victims of US imperialism, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Panama, Yugoslavia, and now Afganistan and Iraq.
Published in the year 2000, McCarney’s Hegel on History is innocent of 9/11 and its (then) unimaginable consequences of torture, secret imprisonment, ethnic hatred toward Muslims. The American dream turned in upon itself. These horrific events, in my opinion, confirm Hegel’s concept of concrete evil, the notion that evil is always ready to reappear in new shapes, eternally prepared to inflict itself upon the unfolding of spirit in history. The latest irruption of evil centers on Iraq, the unfortunate victim of a savage US occupation since the 2003 invasion by so-called Coalition Forces.
Perhaps no other country in modern times besides Germany has endured the full force of US/UK imperialism suffered by Iraq. Indeed, the destruction and occupation of Iraq offers strange similarities with what happened to Germany—especially the pattern of two wars (World War I, Gulf War; World War II, Iraq War), bloodshed between two historic rivals (Germany and Russia; Iran and Iraq) enthusiastically encouraged by the US/UK; parallels between the de-Nazification program of American occupiers and the US administered de-Ba’athification program in Iraq. Both efforts aimed not just at political cleansing but served as disguised regimes of total cultural makeover. Perhaps it is not for nothing that George W. Bush said in 1990 that Saddam Hussein was “worse than Hitler.”
Recently I had an opportunity to review for contrarian British journal, Lobster,18 a book called The Trial of Saddam Hussein, by Abdul-Haq Al-Ani, published in the US by Clarity Press. Saddam Hussein’s daughter asked Al-Ani to help arrange the Iraqi president’s defense against charges of genocide. Al-Ani and an international team of human rights lawyers subsequently abandoned the effort as the case against Hussein rapidly evolved into a farcical American-run show trial with puppet Iraqi judges and prosecutors. At least in the 1930s show trials of Bukharin, Zinoviev and the rest, the Russians did it on their own. In the case of Saddam’s trial and horrific execution, the Iraq puppet regime merely performed on the public stage while American controllers pulled the strings behind an ingenious curtain of duplicity.
Does the recent erasure of trillions of dollars from stock markets, the abject humiliation of world capitalism, the global financial havoc, have anything to do with the costly prostration of Iraq and Afghanistan by US/UK imperialism? Whatever the answer, can we find a rational Hegelian silver lining, a reversal or possible diminution of concrete evil, in the burgeoning grey clouds that threaten now to terminate an epoch in human history? A start would be to acknowledge evil perpetrated by our own side, to reconcile ourselves to the fantastic quotient of concrete evil visited upon Germany (and Afghanistan and Iraq) by US/UK imperialism.

1 Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 93.

2 New Left Review, I/189, September-October 1991

3 London: Routledge, 2000.

4 Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 261.

5 Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

6 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, One-Volume Edition, The Lectures of 1827, Peter C. Hodgson, editor, University of California Press, 1988.


8 I first discussed the concept of concrete evil in “The Deep Politics of September 11: Political Economy of Concrete Evil.” Pp. 3-60 in Confronting 9-11, Ideologies of Race, and Eminent Economists. Research in Political Economy, Volume 20, ed. Paul Zarembka, Copyright ©2002 by Elsevier Science Ltd.

9 Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. Introduction: Reason in History. Trans. H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

10 Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 21.

11 Communist Ideal, pp. 15–16, 138–139, 186–187.

12 Hegel’s Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, Volume 1, p. 245.

13 Encyclopaedia Logic, 1971, p. 232.

14 David MacGregor, Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism, University of Wales Press, 1998, pp. 157-168.

15 London: Pluto Press.

16 For an assessment of Preparata’s argument, see: David MacGregor, “Anglo-America and the Third Reich,” Lobster, Issue 52: Summer 2006/7.

17 “Europe and America in World History,” trans. Austin Harrington, European Journal of Social Theory 8(1): 69-72.

18 Forthcoming, Lobster, Issue 56, Winter, 2008.

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