The onset of marxism took place in the 1840’s as the tide of the Hegelian school receded and the onset of positivism created the climate of vulgar materialism that came to haunt the work of Marx and Engels who nonetheless looked backward wistfully at the legacy of German Classical philosophy, one of the greatest moments in the history of philosophy, but one that is not easily understood by starting with Hegel.
With Zizek we confront a natural impulse to try and find a way out but the result is too timid: he will not challenge the canon of dialectical materialism which made the plight of vulgar materialism even worse and tries to found the subject in a dubious attempted exit from the Kantian realm with its indeed complex take on the categories. There were two routes exiting from Kant: Hegel and Schopenhauer. The latter produced a brilliant simplification of Kant, while Hegel went in a different direction. Schopenhauer spent many years denouncing Hegel, in the process warning of the damage done to students of philosophy by the onset of Hegelian gibberish. I have often been critical of Hegel, but have come to see the value there but must acknowledge the rightness of Schopenhauer’s warning.
Without rejecting Zizek’s corpus, I would nonetheless recycle Schopenhauer’s warning here: the mental disease of Hegelian bullshit syndrome based on hopelessly confused thinking using dialectic has almost destroyed marxism. Zizek’s version of this genre, let us call it passable, nonetheless simply extends the round of endless muddle in Hegel interpretation. I think a new and simplified study of Hegel is needed, with the full complement of the history of German classical philosophy to see the way Hegel’s critique of Kant suddenly moves into a new and complex realm of metaphysics.
It is not surprising that Marx and Engels (who was very young at the point of the dissolution of Hegel’s school, without any training there) joined the exit from Hegel disneyland, but somehow marxists have turned backward and reentered that realm without any of the precautions or good starting assumptions that could make that study useful. It is here that Zizek plants his flag: the critique of Kantian idealism, leading to Hegel, thence… (that may be an oversimplification).
The left marixsts need to retreat here, temporarily, and use a simple introductory and mostly historical account of German Classical philosophy that leaves the issues raised by Kant and their Hegelian succession and critique an historical saga, thence correcting the revulsion at all this in the reaction of vulgar materialism with a broad historical gaze that can survey the whole without choice. To attack Kant’s admittedly difficult take on perception, categories and the noumenal and make that the foundation, via Hegel, of a new materialism was always a recipe for failure. Marxists seem unaware of the way that Schopenhauer’s frantic warning came true in the philosophy without good foundation that came about in the wake of Hegel.
At this point the significance of Hegel can be better taken as an historical drama in summary, with a careful set of warnings about the misuse of dialectic. A careful summary of transcendental idealism, absolute idealism, and the variants of materialism would do better than the confused attempt to renounce idealism but purloin the dialectic of Hegel.
In any case, the left needs a new construct on basic reality questions, and these can best be taken via an architectural summary of the passage from (Rousseau/) Kant to Schelling/Hegel and the closure of a strange triad with Schopenhauer. Modernity hasn’t yet digested all of this and the status of classic marxism doesn’t really deal with the core issues.
In the nonce the attempted defense or refoundation of dialectical materialism by Zizek is more likely to be simply left behind as potentially obscurantist. We don’t easily accept anymore knowledge claims based on dialectic in the age of quantum mechanics, and the theory of relativity.
The real study of Hegel is not easily achieved and the confusions of his study are not often resolved even by standard scholarship. The riddle of the Kantian starting point remains.