8 September 2011

Hegel and Marxism

CU Course on Hegel, 01

Hegel and Marxism

G W F Hegel refused to make anything easy. Towards the end of his Introduction to the Encyclopaedia (1830) he wrote:

“As the whole science, and only the whole, can exhibit what the Idea or system of reason is, it is impossible to give in a preliminary way a general impression of a philosophy. Nor can a division of philosophy into its parts be intelligible, except in connection with the system.”

This could mean: Until you know it, you can’t know it. This is not helpful!

But in practice, even Hegel fails to be completely impossible. The same “Introduction to the Encyclopaedia” is actually one text of Hegel’s that can be read relatively normally. We will come to it later in this first part of our course on Hegel.

We will begin with a return to Marx. Why? Well, to start with, the Communist University does not “learn” any text, as if in preparation for writing an examination. All we do is to present something that can stimulate a dialogue.

Further than that we can now, with our twelve courses, say: We as Communist University should be able to touch down at any point on the political and/or historical map and have a good dialogue about it - including about Hegel. We will have that map, and we will be able to have the dialogue, but we are not going to “learn Hegel” in its entirety in ten weeks, or at all. We are looking for the salient points – the ones that stick out, so that we can have some dialogue about them. That’s all.

We are particularly looking at the relation of Hegel to Marx, and so we may as well allow Karl Marx to explain that. Marx got his doctorate in 1841 with a dissertation on the Philosophy of Epicurus, possibly his only overt work on philosophy, and then immediately got involved with the Rheinische Zeitung magazine project, soon becoming the editor. Marx then wrote a lot, including sometimes about Hegel, until 1845 when, as we have argued elsewhere, he and Engels become for the first time “Marxists” in full, coinciding with their joint writing of the “Theses on Feuerbach” and “The German Ideology” (the latter book being left to the “gnawing criticism of the mice” until long after their deaths).

Perhaps Marx was never a “Marxist”. He himself is supposed to have denied it. So to call him a “Marxist” critic of Hegel, in 1844, is certainly an anachronism. Nevertheless Marx was probably the best in-general critic of Hegel alive at that moment, among many of them who had sprung up from the official Prussian 1841 Expurgation of Hegel onwards.

We take Marx’s famous “Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” first (download linked below). The full book, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, can also be found on the Marxists Internet Archive. In the Introduction, the pre-Marxist Karl Marx writes:

“The criticism of the German philosophy of state and right, which attained its most consistent, richest, and last formulation through Hegel, is both a critical analysis of the modern state and of the reality connected with it, and the resolute negation of the whole manner of the German consciousness in politics and right as practiced hereto, the most distinguished, most universal expression of which, raised to the level of science, is the speculative philosophy of right itself.”

Marx’s “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General”, also, like the Critique of the Philosophy of Right, never published in his lifetime, is given here primarily (download linked below) because it moves around Hegel’s works in a way that may assist readers to begin to mark out some of the salient points. Marx knew his way around Hegel’s work, as well as, or better than, anyone else. For example, Marx writes;

There is a double error in Hegel. The first emerges most clearly in the Phänomenologie, the birth-place of the Hegelian philosophy.”

“The outstanding achievement of Hegel’s Phänomenologie and of its final outcome, the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle, is thus first that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as a process, conceives objectification as loss of the object, as alienation and as transcendence of this alienation; that he thus grasps the essence of labour and comprehends objective man – true, because real man – as the outcome of man’s own labour.

“We shall now demonstrate in detail Hegel’s one-sidedness and limitations as they are displayed in the final chapter of the Phänomenologie, “Absolute Knowledge” – a chapter which contains the condensed spirit of the Phänomenologie, the relationship of the Phänomenologie to speculative dialectic, and also Hegel’s consciousness concerning both and their relationship to one another.

In that case one could read the whole of this passage of Marx’s, and then read the final chapter of the Phenomenology, and then one would have appreciated some of the strength and the weakness of Hegel, at least as Marx saw it. And that is important, because it is through Marx as much as through anyone, that the legacy of Hegel stands so large in the world today.

Finally, in this long introduction, but to put the matter fully in Karl Marx’s own hands, let us quote from his, Afterword to the 2nd German edition of “Capital” Volume 1 (1873). Here Marx “openly avows himself the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel]”, and briefly explains why:

“My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

“The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just as I was working at the first volume of “Das Kapital,” it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre Epigonoi [Epigones – Büchner, Dühring and others] who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

“In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

Please download and read these texts via these links:

Further reading:


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