Friday, June 16, 2006

Book Previews: The House of War & The Future of Hegel

Book Round Up #17
by Thomas Riggins
15th June 2006

Here is another of our book previews (reviews of reviews) of new books of interest to the progressive community. The previous 16 book round ups are archived on Political Affairs’ website. Any readers interested in writing a full review of one of these books should contact me at

HOUSE OF WAR: THE PENTAGON AND THE DISASTROUS RISE OF AMERICAN POWER by James Carroll, Illustrated, 657 pages Houghton Mifflin, reviewed by William Grimes in The New York Times, Wednesday, June 7, 2006.

Grimes, a loyal supporter of the bourgeoisie, doesn’t really like this book. He calls it a "tendentious, morally incoherent account of how the United States has become, in [Carroll’s] words, ‘a garrison state,’ in thrall to the machinery of war and the doomsday thinking of paranoid generals and twisted defense intellectuals." Already this sounds like a good book!

The book covers the history of the Pentagon from its opening in 1943 until the present. What gets Grimes’ goat is that Carroll portrays the U.S. as basically warlike and an enemy of, or at least the major threat, to world peace. "Always," Grimes writes, "the Soviet Union is seen as a willing partner for peace, driven into a corner and forced to react defensively by an American government bent on gaining nuclear superiority. (Eastern Europe was acquired, in Mr. Carroll’s view, by accident, not design.)" Carroll is right about that. The Soviet Union didn’t start WW2 after all, nor the cold war for that matter.

Grimes doesn’t seem to like Carroll’s view that basically all U.S. foreign policy and arms control policies are "duplicitous." The author doesn’t consider Iran to be a serious threat. "When it comes to nuclear danger," he writes, "Washington is by far the graver problem." This seems pretty obvious. Who has the most atomic weapons, refuses to take a no first strike position, and wants to make a whole new generation of updated weapons? Iran hasn’t even got one atomic weapon yet!

This is enough to give you the tone of both the review and the book. Here is Grimes’ ending, putting the author down for basically blaming the U.S. for the "cold war." Grimes writes, "The cold war was a dreadful time but perhaps not as dreadful as the years 1914 to 1918 or 1939 to 1945. If you don’t like it cold, try it hot." What a false dichotomy! It was hot enough for the Koreans, the Vietnamese, and hundreds of thousands of murdered Central Americans, as well as thousands of disappeared and killed Chileans, Argentines and other South Americans— not to mention the 100,000 plus Iraqi civilians wiped out courtesy of Uncle Sam.

THE FUTURE OF HEGEL: PLASTICITY, TEMPORALITY AND DIALECTIC by Catherine Malabou, Routledge, 2004 reviewed by Peter Benson in Philosophy Now, February/March 2006.

While not an "intro" to Hegel, the reviewer thinks this book "offers brilliant clarifications of some of the more opaque aspects of Hegel’s thought." Good, people reading Hegel need all the help they can get! Let’s look at some of these clarifications. Hegel called his philosophy "speculative" but did not mean that it was just "speculation." Benson points out that Hegel distinguished two types of propositions: "predicative"— "in which predicates are externally attached to a fixed subject" and "speculative"— "in which predicates are gradually unfolded from the concept of the sentence’s subject." Attentive readers, by the way, will recognize this as the method used by Karl Marx in developing the notion of capitalism in his masterwork Capital. "This gradual unfolding," Benson says, "is the essence of Hegel’s philosophical method."

Hegel thought that we could find in language the preserved forms of previous thought which we needed to understand and pass through to arrive at the truth. His most famous word was "Aufheben" which means both to overcome and abolish something and yet at the same time preserve and develop it. There is no word for this in English. "The movement it names," Benson writes, "(each stage of thought both retained and transcended) is that of the Hegelian dialectic." It is also the basis of the Marxist dialectic. Socialism both abolishes capitalism as a system yet preserves the productive capacities and scientific advances that it created. This also allows us to understand how profoundly disastrous and un-Marxist the Chinese "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" was in attempting to destroy all vestiges of China’s cultural history as "feudal" and "bourgeois."

Malabou also stresses another word she found Hegel using a lot. This is the word "Plastiche" or, in English, "plastic" in German the word has two meanings, as Malabou points out, according to Benson, namely "capable of shaping" and "capable of being shaped." Benson says the key to Malabou’s interpretation of Hegel is to be found in how she relates the concept of plasticity to his thought.

Hegel, according to Benson, considered Greek sculpture the highest form of the plastic arts by its perfect molding of the human form. He also liked Aristotle’s ethics of "molding one’s character, as a sculptor shapes stone, by the deliberate adoption of habits which thereby become a second nature." He then gives a quote from the book: "Human characteristics are not a given, they emerge as the result of a process of formation of which art is the paradigm." Marxists would consider the labor process as the paradigm.

At this point the review begins to morph into theology as Malabou discusses Hegel’s ideas about ’God" and why Christian theologians reject them. The role of "God" in Hegel’s system is very complicated but I think it is safe to say Hegel’s "God" is very unlike anything normally religious people would recognize. In fact we can leave "God" out of Hegel’s system and thus avoid a lot of theological twaddle.

The review then discusses Hegel’s views of history and compares Hegel’s real opinions with those of Alexandre Kojeve who in the 1930s "inaugurated French Hegelianism" and who thought that history ended with Napoleon and also with those of Francis Fukuyama who thinks history ended with Ronald Reagan. Needless to say, history still seems to be clunking along.

Malabou, however, endorses " the view that ’history is over.’" She also thinks, as a consequence, that the major problem facing humanity in our time is that we have too much "free time" due to "technological simplification." Maybe the French do have too many vacation days! Benson says, "Perhaps only a highly-paid professor of philosophy at a prestigious French university (i.e., Malabou) could possibly imagine that the major problem facing most of the world’s population today is how to fill their endless free time!" No comment necessary.

Benson also faults the book for neglecting politics and Hegel’s views on this subject. Despite these criticisms he gives the book an overall positive evaluation— an "otherwise excellent book."

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can reached at

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