Hegel and Marx

First published: October 1998

The philosophical works of Hegel were central to the development of Marx’s thought. A consideration of this philosophical background illuminates why Marx was concerned with some particular problems and why Hegel had such an influence on his thought.

The immediate political background to the development of Hegel’s thought was the French revolution – the founding work of Hegel’s philosophy, the Phenomenology of Mind, was written in Jena, site of the battle between Napoleon and the feudal German monarchies. This context led Hegel to be particularly concerned with the question of change!

The more general background was the revival of the German bourgeoisie from the middle of the 18th century. The first attempt at a bourgeois revolution in Germany in the 16th century, which culminated in the Peasants’ War of 1525–26 and had its ideological expression in the Reformation, was premature. Its failure was followed by partition into a myriad of tiny states subject to successive invasions by their more powerful neighbours.

The revival of the German bourgeoisie after 1750 was a period of an extraordinary flowering of bourgeois thought in every field. It was the golden age of literature, as represented by Goethe and Schiller, of German music, represented by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and of German philosophical thought, represented particularly by Kant and Hegel.

The later betrayal of the German bourgeoisie in the 1848 revolution – when instead of mobilising the peasants and the proletariat to smash feudalism, the bourgeoisie, out of fear of the proletariat, compromised with feudalism and aborted the revolution – had its philosophical precursor in the earlier division of German bourgeois thought between supporters and opponents of the French revolution.

The bourgeois revolutionary wing, which included figures like Beethoven, leaned to the progressive element of German culture. This wing became very isolated.

The other wing, that which basically compromised with feudalism, was represented by Goethe, Schiller and Hegel. Within this current Hegel had a peculiar position. He remained in sympathy with the bourgeois revolution and had no sympathy with feudalism, but he had wanted a bourgeois revolution carried out from above, in order to avoid popular disorder.

Hegel addresses a question which goes back to the origins of western philosophical thought – the relationship between the particular and general or the relationship between concepts and the real world. Or to put it another way: what right does one have to use a concept like ‘cup’, for example, when any selection of cups one actually considers will have manifestly different characteristics? What is the relation of the concept ‘cup’ to any of the actual cups which exist?

Plato, the founder of idealism, had answered the question through the fable of the man in the cave. He said that the real world was the equivalent of someone looking at the back of a cave, in which sunlight was coming into the cave. Various objects stood at the mouth of the cave and their shadows could be seen at the back. In this view, for example, all the horses in the world were imperfect shadow reflections of the real concept of horses which existed somewhere. He believed in the real existence of concepts – somewhere there existed the real essence of horse, the concept horse, but the actual horses one observed were pale, imperfect manifestations of this ideal concept.

Hegel confronted an under-developed bourgeois culture which continued to be dominated by idealism.

The main philosophical alternative to idealism at this time, empiricism, argued that on the contrary there are no general concepts, there are only the actual existing horses.

Empiricism developed earliest in Britain, where the rapid development of the bourgeoisie had stimulated a break with religious superstition. Empiricism’s most important final expression was framed by Hume. Hume argued that because individual things – all cups, for example – are different, there are no general concepts, just a sea of individual things.

The logical outcome of this is that it is impossible to tell what the relationship is between one thing and another. That is, Hume was led to deny, for example, cause and effect. His logic means that although all known examples of when one drops something show that it proceeds downwards, actually this is only a very high probability.

It is this problem of the relationship between the general and particular or the idea and the specific object that Hegel is concerned with in his Phenomenology of Mind. Here he shows that each of the existing ideas of empiricism and idealism were internally contradictory. Empiricism is internally incoherent because, while claiming everything to be unique, in fact it describes everything in universal terms. For example, if one says ‘the cup is white’ both ‘cup’ and ‘white’ are universals. Therefore the very language in which Hume explains the uniqueness of every individual entity is universal and general. Rationalism on the other hand, says Hegel, remains at the level of general ideas and, as a result, fails to grasp the uniqueness of every individual thing.

Hegel transcends the limitations of the ability of both empiricism and all prior schools of idealism to grasp the relation between the general and the particular in the following way. He saw every single object as a unique combination of universal elements. Any specific cup is made up of universals – colours, shapes, mineral content, sizes and so on – all of which are combined in a totally unique way.

Hegel applies this view, for example, in his philosophy of aesthetics. He argues that if you remain at the level of the universal you are not at the level of the real which is, by its very nature, extremely specific. He asks what makes a great work of art? A great work of art, he argues, cannot merely represent a fundamental idea. It is the concrete working out of an idea that makes a work of art great or not – that is the synthesis between the perfect working out of the idea and the idea itself. For example, the Greek statues’ perfection of the human body embodies a certain view of the freedom of the human spirit, but it constitutes great art because of the way in which this idea is made manifest.

Hegel’s view was that everything is in a process of constant change, or as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, you cannot get into the same river twice – because a river constantly flows and, therefore, is in a process of constant change.

For Hegel, change flows inevitably from the fact that the universal elements which constitute any particular thing are in contradiction. These contradictions between the universal elements result in the disintegration of their unity – a new combination, and therefore, a new entity, is the result.

In other words, as Lenin put it in his lengthy notes of his study of Hegel during the First World War, the specific unity of the universal elements which constitute any particular thing is relative, their contradiction is absolute. No matter how imperceptible that inner disintegration may at first appear, it will sooner or later manifest itself. Lenin summarised this view of dialectics as the motor of change with characteristic brevity: ‘The unity (coincidence, identity, equal action) of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute.’ (Collected Works, Vol 38)

Thus for Hegel the driving force of change is the inevitable unfolding of the internal contradictions between the elements which constitute any particular thing. In an 1873 postface to Capital, where he ‘avowed’ himself ‘the pupil of that mighty thinker’, Marx commented: ‘In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary’ (Capital Vol 1).

Thus Marx explained his debt to Hegel: ‘The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’ (ibid).

If we apply Hegel’s view that the driving force of change is the process of unfolding of an object’s internal contradictions to society, we can see why it remains ‘an abomination’ to the bourgeoisie. Capitalist society comprises different classes, notably the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are in contradiction. But for the bourgeoisie, who wish this society to last for ever, and for the philosophers of social democracy, for example, those contradictions are merely relative within the absolute unity of British society. Hence, for the Labour leadership, for example, national unity was absolute and class contradictions relative at the time of the Gulf war. Marxism, and reality, however, states that the unity of bourgeois society is relative and its class contradictions absolute – so that the unity of the classes within that society is continually undermined and will ultimately be disintegrated into something different.

Some Marxists, following Althusser, have tried to posit a break between the young Marx influenced by Hegel and the later ‘scientific’ author of Capital. Similarly, in his introduction to Verso’s 150th anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto, the renegade former Marxist, Eric Hobsbawm, claims that, whereas Marx’s theory of capitalism has been proven astonishingly prescient, his theory of the revolutionary role of the working class in history was merely a ‘hope’ of the young Marx looking for ‘the social force needed to realise the aims of German Philosophy’.

But such a sundering of the development of his thought, and particularly the centrality of Hegel’s dialectic to it, had, as we have already seen, no relation to Marx’s own views.

This can be seen in his greatest work – Capital. Marx, following Hegel, held that a great work of knowledge is distinguished not simply by the power of its fundamental ideas but by the precise and specific working out of these to explain why the surface appearance of events is how it is and how its underlying driving forces will lead it to change.

This was necessary because ‘if the appearance and the essence of things directly coincided’ then ‘all science would be superfluous.’ Therefore, as Roman Rosdolsky put it: ‘scientific investigation must proceed from the “surface appearances” to the “inner essence”, to discover the “law of appearances”, and to understand that this appearance itself is necessary’ (The Making of Marx’s Capital).

Capital was actually written in the exact reverse order to that in which it was published. Marx originally proceeded from the real world to the more and more abstract. Marx started from specifics – a particular English factory, the British conquest of India, the rise of bourgeois production in Germany – but was led from considering these specific things to more and more abstract questions. Capital as it is printed, on the other hand, starts with the most abstract, a discussion of the commodity and the distinction between use value and exchange value and proceeds to build up a more and more concrete conceptual picture of the actual workings of the capitalist economy reaching, by Volume III, capitalist competition, the stock exchange, interest, profit, rent and other workings through of the basic laws of capitalism to the surface appearance of events.

This method is radically different (as we shall discuss in future issues of this magazine) from even the most serious bourgeois schools of economic thought, such as Keynesianism or monetarism. These make serious studies of the ‘surface appearance of events’ in the capitalist economy, and significant discoveries. But they fail to discover the underlying driving forces of the capitalist economy. In this regard, Marx gives the example of the law of supply and demand. This is indeed correct, he says. But in order to understand the economy it is necessary to go beyond it to ask, what determines the supply and what determines the demand, or, following the classical economists, what determines value when supply and demand are in balance.

On the other hand, Marx also differs from what we might call ‘Marxist fundamentalism’ which simply repeats some fundamental, and correct, essential features of capitalism, but fails to explain how these work through to what actually happens in the real economy – and therefore also fail to provide answers as to what the working class should do about them.

For Marx, following Hegel, the criterion for the scientific validity of any particular theory is how far it explains the development of its object of study, how far it described its ‘law of motion’. Thus he approvingly quoted the following review of Capital: ‘The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the illumination of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another, higher one. And in fact this is the value of Marx’s book.’ Marx comments: ‘What else is he depicting but the dialectical method.’