Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx are two prominent 19th-century German philosophers who are often mentioned together. That’s mainly because Hegel had a widely recognized influence on Marx. Both philosophers theorized about the underlying dynamics of human history. It’s fair to say that Karl Marx was some sort of a Hegelian during his early intellectual period; but it’s also frequently said that Marx’s philosophy is the opposite of Hegel’s. Dialectics stands out as the key concept to fully understanding the relationship between Hegel and Marx.
Hegel and Marx: Two Sides of a Coin?
Most people who have studied Marxism have probably come across the popular phrase: “Marx turned Hegel’s philosophy right side up.” This conclusion is derived from a rather shallow depiction of Marx’s materialist reconstruction of Hegel’s idealist philosophy. It is hard to argue against this phrase, as it is based on an actual quote by Marx from Capital: Volume I.
Although an extreme over-simplification, this basic idea holds some truth. Marx was a follower of Hegel, at least when he was one of the Young Hegelians. Then he built his own thought through an interpretation and critique of Hegel’s philosophy. But did Marx really turn Hegel’s philosophy right side up? Why did he perceive Hegel’s philosophy as upside down? Was Marx’s criticism of Hegel sound? Are there Hegelian traces in Marx’s philosophy? These are some of the questions this article will attempt to answer.
If Marx turned Hegel’s philosophy right side up, this implies that he did not simply reject Hegel’s philosophy. Marx made use of Hegel’s ideas but in a reversed method. After all, the ultimate goal in both philosophers’ theories was human freedom, though they believed it would be reached in different ways. Similarities can be seen even through an overview of the outlines of the two philosophies. Both philosophers examined patterns of development in human history, by which they attempted to understand modern society. Marx went further and produced a theory in accordance with these patterns of history to figure out what needs to be done for societies to progress. On the other hand, Hegel believes that we cannot rationally aim for an ideal like Marx’s communism, as historical progress happens naturally, by itself. The inverse dialectical methods they use are reflected in the roles they give to philosophy.
Hegel and Marx on the Role of Philosophy
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An overarching topic on which Marx confronted Hegel is a meta-discussion about philosophy. Their opposing views on the role of philosophy allow us to see the big picture and trace this contrast down to the details of their various theories.
“Philosophy is its own time comprehended in thoughts.”
(Hegel, 2003, p.21)
This is a phrase by Hegel found in a paragraph from the preface to Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Before this statement, Hegel argues that individuals cannot escape from their own time. This means that the way we think is ultimately shaped by our history: we can’t escape from our epoch and look at the world from a so-called objective perspective. Therefore, philosophy is trapped in its own time just like individuals.
What we can do, according to Hegel, is to study history to understand the underlying concepts of our time. However, this will not enable us to predict the future. This idea has its roots in Hegel’s theory of the object-subject relationship, which will become clearer in the next chapters.
On the other hand, the role Marx gives to philosophy is in direct conflict with Hegel’s;
“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Marx’s famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach shouldn’t be understood as a simple call for action. It is rather a reminder to philosophers that social problems stem from material conditions. For Marx, philosophy should seek ways of understanding and changing these real-life conditions, such as exploitation.
The main reason Marx opposed Hegel’s passive attitude is that Marx thought our ideas are shaped by material circumstances. According to Marx, the economic base – the relations of production – predominantly influences the superstructure – culture, science, ideology, religion, politics, etc. – of a society. Therefore, he believed that we cannot simply expect people to change minds without changing the world first.
Hegelian Dialectics: The Speculative Method
Understanding dialectics is the key to grasping why the two thinkers went in different directions despite using essentially very similar methods. What is dialectics? In its classical form, the dialectical method goes back to Plato’s Socratic dialogues such as Euthyphro. These texts involve back-and-forth dialogues, usually between Socrates and an opponent, which aim to clarify definitions or resolve contradictions.
Hegelian dialectics, or the speculative method in Hegelian terminology, is a conceptual/logical process rather than a dialogue between subjects. It differs in that it follows a triadic scheme that resolves the inner contradictions of a concept. Popularly, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis scheme has been incorrectly attributed to Hegel, although he never used these concepts. This formula was introduced by Hegel’s predecessor Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
Hegel instead used a scheme of abstract-negative-concrete. That’s because the scheme thesis-antithesis-synthesis doesn’t help us understand the logic of the dialectical process. The formula does not explain the characteristics of the thesis and how the antithesis should logically follow; it’s open to arbitrariness. Hegel’s formula, on the other hand, suggests that initially there is a flaw in any thesis. In the first moment, the thesis is too abstract that needs to pass through the negative experience of trial and error. Only then, the final synthesis – concrete – can reach completion by grasping the positive aspects of abstract and negative to form a unity.
A relevant example is found in social contract theory, which also relates to Hegel’s philosophy of history. In simple terms, the theory begins with a state of nature; a state of lawlessness in which everyone is free to act as they want. Then, people agree to form an authoritative government to secure themselves from interference. We can add a final stage to the social contract theory, where people realize that the state has become a power that dominates them and reform it. That’s the formation of the modern state in oversimplified terms.
The first moment, i..e the state of nature, is the abstract stage in the Hegelian sense. It provided positive freedom for action but lacked negative freedom from interference. The second moment of an authoritative state is the negative stage: It challenges the first moment by attempting to overcome its inner contradictions. But it is also incomplete as people are dominated by state authority; they experience a different kind of unfreedom. The final stage, the modern state, forms a unity of the previous stages by attaining the good aspects of both: freedom to act, and freedom from interference.
Marxian Dialectics: A Materialist Conception of History
While not rejecting Hegel’s broad understanding of dialectics, Marx thought that the dialectical method had to deal with the material world. Hence he stated that with Hegel, dialectics was “…standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again…” (Marx, 2015) Hegel’s dialectics dealt with contradictions in ideas; even when applied to historical cases, it began as a conceptual process. Marx, on the contrary, sought to use dialectics to analyze history through material changes, as he believed that material circumstances ultimately shaped human thought.
Marxian dialectics is embodied in Marx’s materialist conception of history, which is most simply summarized in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx explains how individuals find themselves in certain social relations that are conditioned by the economic structure of their society. The mode and relations of production in that structure ultimately shape the consciousness of that society. The economic structure eventually changes through a revolution ignited by the emerging contradictions between social classes;
“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
We can use historical narratives to present Marx’s theory more simply. The dialectic involves the transformation of primitive societies into slave states, slave states into feudal societies, and feudal societies into capitalist states. The contradictions in these societies are resolved through class conflicts, which change the organization of economic relations. As Marx declared, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (The Communist Manifesto, 1848). Therefore, when it came to the society he lived in, he believed that the working class would eventually overthrow the capitalist state and create the conditions for communism in the final stage.
Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Idealism
In the afterword to Capital: Volume I, Marx discusses the differences between his dialectical method and Hegel’s:
“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.”
In this paragraph, Marx attributes an interesting type of idealism to Hegel. Marx’s description of the Hegelian method gives the impression that Hegel believed that mysterious immaterial things called ideas generated the material world we experience. It’s as if Hegel holds a Cartesian view of knowledge, that there are mental and material substances, fundamentally different from each other. Marx then criticizes Hegel for believing that mental substance determines the material substance. Many scholars have blamed Marx for misinterpretation here, as he doesn’t provide a very accurate description of Hegel’s idealism.
In philosophy, the word substance simply means the first material from which everything else is made. In Pre-Socratic philosophy, substance was water for Thales and fire for Heraclitus. In Descartes’ dualism, there were two substances: mind and body (subject and object). Hegel, however, doesn’t think that the subject and the object are separate substances. Hegel, in his examination of human knowledge, concluded that subject is always part of the substance object during perception. Hegel stresses the social character of knowledge. Marx’s seeming mistake was to assume that Hegel was making a causal explanation of the universe and that the main cause was ideal. Instead, Hegel’s theory is a normative one: An attempt to show the correct form of reasoning, and that knowledge always involves a social process.
History and the Obstacles to Human Freedom
Hegel considered history as an intelligible process toward human freedom. With each step, the underlying concepts of our societies, as Hegel argues, become more rational through resolving their contradictions. That’s how we can make sense of historical leaps such as the French Revolution, by using our contemporary conception of freedom.
Hegel didn’t consider philosophy to be the task of seeking what ought to be, but of understanding what is through concepts. Hence in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel attempts to show that we can only be free by participating in the social life of the modern state. This roughly includes family life, moral responsibilities, property relations, the economy, and the legal system.
It seems that the obstacles to freedom for Hegel are subjective. The main issue for him is understanding social life and our role in it, rather than changing the world. This doesn’t mean that Hegel considered the modern state of his time to be the ultimate form of state. He did believe that the 19th-century modern state in a perfected form could provide freedom. In any case, Hegel thought that through the dialectics of history, we would slowly create the conditions of absolute freedom anyway. Therefore, the individual’s task is to understand the necessity of the modern social order and participate in it.
On the other hand, Marx believed the obstacles to freedom to be purely objective. The material conditions of the world had to change, according to Marx, to make freedom possible. As the social, cultural, and ideological concepts of society were determined by the relations of production, Marx deemed a revolutionary movement necessary. That’s the reason why Marx went one step further than Hegel and assigned a revolutionary mission to his philosophy. For Hegel, we cannot possibly know the next stage of our history or if history will ever come to an end. Marx instead argued that socialism and communism would be our next two destinations if we prepared the preconditions, drawing on past historical patterns.
Reconciling Hegel and Marx in Dialectics
It is clear as day that Hegel has strongly influenced Marx’s method of analysis. We can find numerous examples from their writings that fit the same dialectical scheme. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel also describes the three stages of dialectics as “…unity, separated opposites, reunion.” (Hegel, 2017) At first, two things are in unity in a primitive or unconscious manner. In the second moment, they separate from each other. In the final stage, they unite again while respecting the distinction drawn in the second moment.
This scheme can be seen in Marx’s description of how workers differ in relation to their own labor in primitive societies, capitalism, and communism. In another example, the individual in Hegel’s modern state theory experiences the same processes through the three spheres of ethical life: family, civil society, and state.
It is still remarkable, however, how much Marx’s philosophy shook the world by placing Hegel’s method on materialistic grounds. The two philosophers also differed in their impact on the world, as in their methods. Hegel’s influence, befitting his idealism, remained in the intellectual realm. Marx’s materialist philosophy, on the other hand, shaped the entire course of history, albeit controversially.