The Master-Slave Dialectic: Hegel and Fanon

Benjamin Graves '98 UTRA Fellow 1997

The inversion of the master/slave power dynamic, and the idea of a complicity between Maureen and Bam foreground what Georg Hegel describes as the conditions of the "master/slave dialectic" and the "dialectic" generally. In Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), Hegel codifies the complicated mechanisms whereby disparate, seemingly antithetical or contradictory ideas can be arranged into dialogue or conversation with each other by means of their "dialectic" juxtaposition (Selden 95). The Hegelian dialectic suggests a coherence between concrete and abstract, subject and object, part and whole-and, for our purposes, master and slave.

According to Hegel, the "master" is a "consciousness" that defines itself only in mutual relation to the slave's consciousness-a process of mediation and mutual interdependence. "The consciousness for-the-Master is not an independent but a dependent, consciousness," Hegel explains in Phenomenology of Spirit (61). "Thus he is not certain of existence-for-self as the truth; rather, his truth is the inessential consciousness and the inessential action of the latter [the slave]" (61). In other words, according to Hegel, both master and slave "recognize" their own existence only in relation or "reconciliation" of the other. Among the many implications of the master-slave dialectic, then, is the idea of there being a reciprocity or mutual dependence between master and slave rather than a blanket opposition of dominance to subordination. The slave ironically shares in the master's power because the master defines himself only in opposition to the slave; that is, the master needs the slave in order to legitimate his comparative privilege.

French philosopher Franz Fanon, on the other hand, takes issue with the problems Hegel's master-slave dialectic encounters in its translation into a post-colonial context. In the passage below from Black Skin White Masks (1967), Fanon revises the dialectic to suggest that it underestimates the white master's dominance over black slaves in Africa and Europe:

I hope I have shown that here the master differs basically from the master described by Hegel. For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work. (220)

As Dominic Head argues, Gordimer cites Marxist Georg Lukacs as her primary theoretical influence (13). Lukacs also endorsed a "dialectic" understanding of history -a model in which history advances not in terms of linear progression but a series of contradictions that manifest themselves in class struggles (Selden 77). And in many ways, if unknowingly, Gordimer's Lukacsian sympathies perhaps bear also upon her construction of the dialectical master slave relationship between the Smales and July. My point explicitly is that the novel's plot-the Smales' displacement to July's village and their subsequent reliance on him as their translator and protector-dramatizes an inversion of power that suggests a dialectical collapsing of the Smales prior position of dominance and July's prior position of subordination. In Hegel's parlance, the "thesis" of the Smales and the "antithesis" of July are merged into a "synthesis" in which both factions depend upon each other for the formation and legitimation of identity. As I suggest above, Gordimer foregrounds the notion of an "unspoken" complicity between July and Maureen, who "understood" July's passion although "she knew no word" of it. In the passage below, Gordimer demonstrates July's mutual feelings of complicity or alliance with the Smales-a complicity more compelling to him even than his racial sympathies for the black nationalist movements that necessitated their flight from Johannesburg:

For him, too, there had always been something to say: the servant's formula, attuned to catch the echo of the master's concern, to remove combat and conflict tactfully, fatalistically, in mission-classroom phrases, to the neutrality of divine will. (94-95)

Rather than seeking "combat and conflict," July has learned to "tactfully" acknowledge his position as servant (a "formula" as he puts it) and attentively "catch the echo of the master's concern" because he realizes that his own privileged status as a servant (privileged, that is, in the sense the servant occupies a position in the First World as opposed to the Third) ironically depends upon the status of the Smales.

[These materials have been adapted from a paper written for James Egan's English 160, The Invention of America, Brown University, 1997]

Gordimer OV July's People