A major idea in the work of G.W.F. Hegel is best translated as the dialectic of master and slave. In this parable of social existence, the relationship between social superiors and inferiors is dialectical in the sense that both learn from and develop out of the relationship with each other. But the slaves are shown to understand their condition better than their masters in a way that leads them to overthrow the masters and establish a more adequate social order. The dialectic of master and slave is an idea central to Hegel’s entire work. In turn it provided the major inspiration for the work of Karl Marx.
Every sentence in the previous paragraph is false. But I’ve heard some variant of all of these sentences over the years, from people trying to get a layman’s understanding of Hegel – and, insofar as they are thinking in the above terms, not succeeding.
The idea being discussed here comes from a section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel’s most famous work, entitled “Herrschaft und Knechtshaft” in the original German. The German already shows us the first misinterpretation here: Knecht in German does not mean “slave” but “serf” or “vassal”. (“Bondsman”, as many translations have it, will also do.) A knecht is a feudal subject, cognate to English “knight”: a person bound by traditional, customary and legal ties to service to a feudal lord, but not owned as the lord’s property. An Herr cannot sell a Knecht. “Slave” in German is the different word Sklave, which Hegel does not use in this context. Herrschaft und Knechtshaft is lordship and serfdom; any dialectic at issue here is not between master and slave, but between lord and serf.
Moreover, it’s not entirely clear that the relationship even is a dialectical one. The word “dialectic” does not appear in Hegel’s own title for the section, or indeed in the text of the section itself – even though the word is prominent in the following section on Skepticism, and through much of the rest of the text. And the relationship between lord and serf is not dialectical if we take “dialectical” in the common sense of involving a back-and-forth mutuality. The lord one-sidedly uses the serf’s work for his enjoyment, and learns nothing in the process. It is only the serf who learns and develops in the process, because being forced to work causes him to relate to the world in a new and clearer way.
More generally, “Herrschaft und Knechtshaft” takes up about 5-10 pages of the Phenomenology, depending on the edition and translation – and the Phenomenology is several hundred pages long. Hegel doesn’t refer to it much elsewhere in the Phenomenology or in any of his other published or unpublished works. It is not that important to him. It is one step, and only one step, of the multitude of steps taken in the Phenomenology’s dialectical path to “absolute knowledge”. It occurs in the middle; it is not given pride of place over any of the others.
And Marx? Well, as Chris Arthur rightly notes, Marx’s main discussion of the Phenomenology is in the 1844 Paris manuscripts – and in that discussion he makes not one single reference to the “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” passage. He refers at length to the work’s closing section on absolute knowledge, but “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” doesn’t get a mention. Arthur shows how Marx’s interpretations in the Paris manuscripts are not based on that section even implicitly: Marx complains there that “the only labour Hegel knows and recognizes is abstract mental labour”, even though this passage is explicitly about material labour.
And there is a reason why Marx pays the passage little heed: the passage is explicitly not revolutionary in its text or its intent. The serf understands his situation better than the lord understands his – and remains in that situation. As is so often the case for Hegel, a true understanding is an understanding of the world as it is; contra Marx, the point for Hegel is not to change it. It is in the “discipline of service and obedience” that the serf “acquires a mind of his own”, which the lord never does. The dialectic progresses from here not to any sort of social change, but to Stoicism, which allows itself a freedom in its own mind, set against an outer world it is powerless to affect.
So where does the prevailing misinterpretation of Hegel come from? That part is easy. Alexandre Kojève, in his Introduction à la lecture de Hegel, wrote a French commentary on “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” in the style of a Sanskrit bhāṣya, quoting the entire original and glossing it. He didn’t quote or comment on anything else Hegel wrote – because he had decided that this one passage was the most important part of Hegel’s work. Kojève’s own Marxist sympathies led him to read a Marxist revolutionary slant into this passage in a way that Marx himself had not. And Kojève referred to the participants as maître and esclave – so that “master and slave” make the ideal English translation of Kojève’s French, just not of Hegel’s German. Kojève’s view then inspired, in various ways, several major figures in mid-century political philosophy: Leo Strauss, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Simone de Beauvoir.
Why does all this matter? Well, I’ve written forty or more posts addressing Hegel on this blog over the years, and not a single one of them has had to do with “the master-slave dialectic” until this one. (Nor have my 30+ posts on Marx.) The passage is certainly an interesting one, but there is so much more to Hegel – and for that matter to Hegel’s influence on Marx. Hegel’s method of dialectical supersession through transcending and including, his linking of universal truth with historical particularity, his diachronic understanding of contradictions – I find all of these aspects of Hegel’s thought far more rewarding. Which is perhaps simply to say that we can learn a lot more from Hegel himself than from Kojève portraying himself as Hegel.