Georg Lukács. Hegel’s Aesthetics 1951

Hegel’s Aesthetics

Written: 1951;
First published: In Beiträge zur Geschichte der Ästhetik (Aufbau-Verlag, Berlin, 1954), trans. David Taffel, Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 23:2 (2002), pp. 87-124;
Translator: David Taffel.

In the area of the philosophy of art, Hegel’s Aesthetics represents the culmination of bourgeois thinking, of the bourgeois progressive traditions. The well-known positive aspects of Hegel’s thought and writing style obtain their clearest expression precisely in this work, the universality of its character, its deep and refined sense for the peculiarities and contradictions of the historical development, the dialectical connection of historical problems with theoretical and systematic questions about common, objective regularities: all these positive facets of Hegel’s philosophy appear most clearly in his Aesthetics. The classical writers of Marxism held this work in especially high regard. When Engels, in the nineties of the last century, wanted to train Conrad Schmidt to deal with Hegel thoroughly, he naturally recommended first of all the Logic. Yet he added: “For recreation I can recommend to you The Aesthetics. When you have worked your way into something there, you will be astonished.


The organic connection of historical and theoretical-systematic viewpoints produced classical German philosophy also in the area of aesthetics for the first time in the history of bourgeois philosophy. Naturally this view also had its precursor, namely Vico; however, he produced no effect on his immediate contemporaries in this regard, and his influence in the 18th century was so to say “underground”: there is no evidence that Hegel was acquainted with Vico.

The classical-philosophy-preceding attempts to produce a literature and art history were mostly of an empirical nature, and when here and there an attempt was made to give them a philosophical basis, the too abstract, “supra-temporal,” “supra-historical” conception of these thoughts prevented the concrete recording of regularities of art and history from being made to serve a purpose and prevented their application to aesthetics from being made possible. The problem itself, the connection of the aesthetic view and the historical understanding, grew out of the routine issues of literature and art. The struggle of the bourgeoisie made it necessary to defend theoretically the legitimacy of the emerging literature and art against not only the traditions of feudal art but also against the theory and practice which had expanded the classical art theory and practice of absolute monarchy. These discussions had their beginning already around the turn of the 18th century (the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns). Around the middle of the 18th century this struggle took on sharper forms. The greatest theoretical representatives of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, Lessing and Diderot, already gave the new art a well-planned and deep foundation. As a result of their whole approach, the bourgeois revolutionary ideology still manifested itself in the aesthetic deployment of bourgeois art principles as the defense of genuine art against pseudo-art, as the proclamation of “eternal” principles of aesthetics against all aberrations and misinterpretations (Lessing’s relation to Aristotle). Here the same ideological principles become important: those that in classical economics praise the capitalist system of production as the only sensible and orderly mode of production.

Naturally, in the movements of the Enlightenment toward theoretical justification, the new art historical viewpoints emerge in the interpretation of literature and art. Rousseau was very clearly conscious of the problematic and contradictory nature of the private property-based culture and especially art, and Herder undertook the attempt at a coherent historical representation of the whole of human culture, including literature and art. The very urgent and significant attempts in the area of aesthetics nonetheless did not lead to the systematic recording of history and regularity. Rousseau’s cultural pessimism, then, also periodically led to the underestimation of the whole of art, and Herder was not able to organically unite his spontaneous materialistic historical inspirations with the materialist interpretation of art. So at the time of the Enlightenment the connection of history and theory led only to significant formulations of the problem but not to a methodological-philosophical solution.

This only takes place in classical German philosophy. Marx indicated in his Theses on Feuerbach exactly that methodological moment with the help of which this turn began to take place. He pointed out that all old materialistic philosophies possess the defect that they contemplate the world only from the side of the idea and not from that of practice; that means that they neglect the subjective side of human activity. “That is why the active side develops abstractly in opposition to the materialism of idealism – which naturally does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

The philosophical elaboration of this “active side” also in the area of aesthetics is one of the most important achievements of classical German philosophy. In this regard, Kant’s major aesthetic work The Critique of Judgement signifies a turning point in the history of aesthetics. The philosophical analysis of the activity of the aesthetic individual, in its productive as well as in its aesthetically receptive attitudes, gets shifted to the center of method and system. Kant is nevertheless only the initiator of this development and not, as the bourgeois historians of aesthetics usually maintain, its perfector. Above all, Kant’s being a subjective idealist connects his new formulation of the question solely with the isolated producing or receiving individual, and in this way the social and historical role of art disappears outright from his aesthetics entirely. In this regard the Kantian aesthetics is a step backward compared with the aesthetics of Herder; the progressive moment relates purely to the questions of abstract method. (Only the consideration of this situation makes the difference between Kant and Herder comprehensible, something the bourgeois history of aesthetics could never have grasped.)

Nonetheless, within these limits the Kantian aesthetics also contains the first inkling of the new method. Kant, the subjective idealist, grasped the principle of activity such that he negated the aesthetic theory of reflection. From this follows, on the one hand, that he was able to determine the aesthetic subject matter purely formally, with the result that, in line with his theory, questions concerning content lie outside the area of genuine aesthetics. On the other hand, because Kant is a serious thinker and (as Lenin pointed out) because he vacillates between materialism and idealism, the problems of content nevertheless also necessarily emerge in his aesthetics, but he is not capable of solving them with the help of the fundamental ideas of his system and therefore is often only able to incorporate them into his aesthetics with the help of sophistical reasoning.

In spite of all these inconsistencies, the effect of the new method that Kant used in his aesthetics was remarkably great. Kant’s first great follower, Schiller, tried to go beyond him by attempting to bring the subjective element, the concrete philosophical determination of the aesthetic subject matter, into harmony with the idealistic philosophy. Naturally this attempt also could only have been of a contradictory nature, for while Schiller certainly went substantially beyond the Kantian interpretation and energetically made an effort to improve objective idealism, he nevertheless clung to Kant’s subjective idealism. Hence, contrary to the bourgeois view which simply stamps him Kant’s pupil, Schiller must be understood as a transitional figure between subjective and objective idealism. The transitional character of Schiller’s philosophy reveals itself above all in his going far beyond the unhistorical mode of the Kantian aesthetics. The new method, the analysis of the activity of the aesthetic individual, becomes explicitly an historical problem with him. In one of his most important studies, On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, he raises, for the first time from a philosophical standpoint, the question of the difference between modern and ancient art, and he attempts to demonstrate the legitimacy of the modern philosophy of art. With Schiller also this occurs largely within the categories of subjective idealism, as he proceeds from the structural changes of the aesthetic individual. Nonetheless, beyond his epistemological limitations he possesses sufficient historical sense about the connection of these subjective categories to the historical ones to at least anticipate social changes.

The effect of the Kantian aesthetics on Goethe’s theoretical writings is of a totally different nature. Goethe always had an inclination toward spontaneous materialism and in his aesthetics he never absolutely repudiated the materialist theory of reflection. Simultaneously, however, Goethe is also a spontaneous dialectician, which is why he more than once penetratingly criticizes the theory of mechanistic reflection (see his study on the aesthetic works of Diderot) and, proceeding principally from his own practice, transfers the historical distinction between modern and ancient art to the area of aesthetic theory (the collector and what belongs to him, etc.).

Kant’s methodological initiative became further developed by the Romantics in a right-from-the-beginning totally different, reactionary direction and divergent style. Already the young Friedrich Schlegel, who under Schiller’s recent influence posed the question of the philosophical-aesthetic contrast between the ancient and the more modern literature, cursed some marked features of decadence in the characteristics of modern literature. The critics, translators, etc. of Romanticism simultaneously and remarkably widen the horizon of world-literature and art. It is they who revive Dante and the literature of the Middle Ages, they carry the great treasures of Spanish literature to the public, they are pioneers as translators of Indian literature. On this foundation the young Schelling writes his first comprehensive aesthetics, wherein historical issues are treated philosophically (1805). With Schelling the transition to objective idealism is already carried out and, accordingly, the attempt to reveal philosophically the dialectic as the motive force of reality occurs. In the first periods of objective idealism there is – also in Schelling’s case – a certain vacillation between idealism and materialism. Accordingly, the reflection of objective reality plays a new role in his aesthetics. All this happens, however, in a completely mystified form: with Schelling the resumption of the theory of reflection signifies the revival of the platonic theory of ideas. In this aesthetics there exists a tendency to deduce the most important issues of the history of the development of art from the objective dialectic of reality. In the actual execution, though, the Schellingian dialectic nevertheless moves essentially between abstract analogies and submersion in an irrational mysticism. This irrational element becomes further intensified through the fact that Schelling is only able to envision the transition from the mechanistic way of thinking to the dialectical in an intuitive way, only through the so-called “intellectual intuition” (intellektuelle Anschauung). Romanticism’s most significant thinker in the area of aesthetics is Solger. With him the dialectical movement of contradictions is much livelier than with Schelling, but he is not successful in combining the movement of the contradictions in a dialectical synthesis and so his aesthetics gets bogged down in a relativistic mysticism.


Hegel’s Aesthetics is an encyclopedic, critical collection of all these tendencies. The development had brought together so much material about the history of art and art theory that it was possible for Hegel to give a comprehensive historical and philosophical overview of the evolution of art. With him, however, this development embraces the history and system of the inception, the passing away, and the alteration of aesthetic categories within the framework of the real history of humanity and the perfected system of philosophical categories.

Such an encyclopedic treatment of aesthetic problems matured, of course, even with Hegel only slowly, only step by step. It is true that already in his early youth he occupies himself thoroughly with literature and art, but it is only relatively late that aesthetics as an independent science obtains a role in the whole of his thought.

In his early writings from Bern and Frankfurt (until 1800), he treats the problems of art exclusively in historical or socio-philosophical contexts. Hegel was a republican in his youth, and in spite of the fact that he opposed the Jacobin worldview, he declared himself an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. As such, he became fascinated by the art of antiquity, and he often and emphatically pointed out its internal connection with the democratic living conditions of the ancient city-states. Under the influence of Georg Forster, who, as an immigrant in Paris, was the dying leader of the Mainz Jacobin rebellion, Hegel dismissed in the name of antiquity, and in the severest way, the revival of the revolution he had anticipated, the art of Christianity, and with it the entirety of modern art.

In Frankfurt, after the conclusion of the French Revolution, a turn took place in Hegel’s philosophy: the setting aside of the revolutionary aspirations of his youth from which he had expected – in accordance with the ideology of the French Revolution – the revival of the democratic culture of antiquity.

In connection with this turn Hegel studies the classic authors of economics (Steuart, Adam Smith) as well as English economic life with great urgency. Gradually, in the course of these studies, certain contradictions of capitalist society and at the same time the necessity of capitalism becomes ever clearer to him. This insight moves him to get rid of the youthful illusions that had misled him and that, with the help of the revolution, had enabled him to revive the culture of antiquity. The first consequence that this conception of history brings to him is the insight that antiquity is no ideal to be revived; it cannot be viewed as the measure of all cultures but, rather, only as the culture of an irrevocably gone, irrevocably past time. As a result of the same insight, Hegel now no longer assesses the medieval and modern development simply as a pure decline, as a breakdown, but rather as the real route of the social development whose laws it is the duty of philosophy, of aesthetics, to identify. This development led, for Hegel, to capitalist society. The culture and the art of the till now prominent tendencies are thus necessary. As a result of this insight, Hegel’s approach to Christianity, and therewith to the culture and art of the Middle Ages, changed radically. Here, of course, we cannot pursue Hegel’s development at every step; we restrict ourselves to the most important turning points. In his Jena period, of which The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is the greatest and concluding work, Hegel treats art as a part of the religious development, as the transition from the pure nature-religion to “revealed” religion, Christianity. Already this division shows us that at the time, in spite of the change in his historico-philosophical standpoint, Hegel, as always, viewed only the art of antiquity as real art: even though he treated it then as an already past, obsolete period of the development of “Spirit.” For today’s reader it is perhaps not superfluous to mention that the treatment of art as a part of the religious development is connected with the backwardness of German philosophy of this time period. (We remember that even forty years later the materialist Feuerbach sees the main distinguishing feature of the historical development in the alteration of the religious consciousness. On the other hand, it must be taken into consideration that, although Hegel’s philosophy, due to its idealism, is crammed with elements of mystification, he nevertheless poses the question of the religious consciousness much more socially and historically than Feuerbach.)

As we have already noted, this conception from The Phenomenology of Spirit preserves much from Hegel’s youthful viewpoint, according to which the art of antiquity alone can be viewed as genuine. The aesthetic chapter of the Phenomenology advances many brilliant and deep analyses of Greek sculpture, the Homeric epics, the Antigone of Sophocles, Greek comedy. The analyses also thereby advance something of great significance: that in the aesthetic analysis of the great works of art, Hegel connects the development of genres, their reciprocal supersession, disappearance, etc., with the development of Greek society. For him the comedy of antiquity appears as the genre of the dissolving Greek city-state. Thus, in this early work of Hegel’s, the foundation for the historical dialectic of the aesthetic categories is laid down. The process of dissolution of ancient Greek art signifies, in this period of Hegel’s thought, the end of the development of art. No new genre follows after the comedy of antiquity but, rather, art becomes superseded by the categories of the “state of law” (Rechtszustands) as the adequate expression of this stage of development of Spirit. For Hegel, Rome’s domination in the place of Greek hegemony signifies also the supersession of art by law. That is why in this work of Hegel’s the aesthetic problems of the Middle Ages and modernity are not treated. (Certainly Hegel thoroughly analyzes Diderot’s masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew; this comprehensive analysis, however, treats exclusively questions of social morality, and Diderot figures here as a representative of the French Revolution-prepared Enlightenment; no word is heard concerning the fact that Diderot, precisely with this work of his, was also a great artist.)

We still find the same conception in the first edition of The Encyclopedia (1817). The only difference is that in this work “Absolute Spirit” appears in Hegel’s terminology for the first time. Aesthetics occupies the first chapter with the title “Religion of Art,” the treatment of religion and philosophy follow this; in this connection the tripartite division that came to full development in the Hegelian system later also appears here already. The treatment here of art itself still corresponds in full measure to the spirit of the Phenomenology. Here, also, ancient Greek art receives a serious characterization.

This method of treatment changes for the first time in the second edition of the Encyclopedia (1827) and, indeed, radically. Already the title itself is changed, merely the word “Art” survives. This title change is the reflection of a fundamental, substantive, and methodological change. Here we already discover the fundamental periodization of Hegelian aesthetics: the differentiation and analysis of the symbolic (oriental), classical, and Romantic (medieval and modern) art periods.

Today we are unable to follow in its particular phases the process in which the final methodological form of Hegel’s Aesthetics emerged. And indeed for this reason not: because those manuscripts which Hegel’s pupil Hotho had available for the first printing must today in their greatest part be looked upon as lost. Hegel held aesthetics lecture courses twice in Heidelberg (1817 and 1819) and four times in Berlin (1820-21, 1823, 1826, 1828-29). Many lecture notebooks of listeners, mainly from the years 1823 and 1826, were available to Hotho, in addition to Hegel’s own notes. Of these notes Hotho observes that the oldest had been written in Heidelberg in the year 1817 and that Hegel thoroughly revised them in the year 1820. In the later years, Hotho suggests, there were no fundamental changes of note, merely supplementations. From this it is to be gathered that the real turning point in the construction of Hegel’s Aesthetics occurs at around the Heidelberg year and the first Berlin years of the 1820s. The pupils of Hegel who prepared his works for printing, however, handled the works Hegel left behind very carelessly, and so the main part of these notes has been lost.

Hotho did not focus his attention primarily on the genesis of Hegel’s Aesthetics. For him the only thing of importance was to assemble a polished, readable, unified book out of Hegel’s lectures. This was also successfully done. The most important documents with regard to the development of Hegel’s Aesthetics have nevertheless been lost. Lasson, who not long ago published a new edition of The Aesthetics, was able to achieve only this much: he succeeded in differentiating between Hegel’s original text and little Hotho’s editions; he also called attention to several differences in arrangement between the 1823 and the 1826 lectures – all this relates solely to the first part of The Aesthetics. Thus the decisive developmental phase of Hegelian aesthetics remains an open question.

It is clear already from this brief sketch that the transformation of Hegel’s Aesthetics is connected primarily with the method and execution of the periodization; this produces the historico-systematic foundation of the aesthetics. It would be very superficial to think that the incorporation of the modern artistic development in the aesthetics is related to this only, for Hegel has appropriated the entire concrete subject matter of this art. Naturally Hegel appropriated his great, multi-faceted knowledge only step by step. Already in Jena, though, where he was in close contact with Goethe, Schiller, Schelling, and several Romantics, he had ample opportunity to become familiar with prominent works of modern art. (We have seen, for example, that he impressively treated the work of Diderot which had just recently been published in Goethe’s translation.) In the year 1805, when Hegel conferred with distinguished poet and Homer translator Voß about his (Hegel’s) Heidelberg appointment, he indicated that he was prepared to hold lectures on aesthetics. And in his Philosophical Propaedeutic (1809-11) he examines two fundamental artistic styles, the ancient and the modern; the former he characterizes as the plastic, the objective, the latter as the Romantic, the subjective. It is still characteristic that in subsequent analyses Hegel treats only the ancient style with urgency. All of this we must see in the context that in Hegel’s Aesthetics antiquity is regarded as the only real and genuine art period. In the introductory passage on Romantic art he looks back at antiquity once more and says “something more beautiful cannot be or become.”


It is therefore apparent that the construction and modification of Hegelian aesthetics concentrates on the question of how the artistic development that begins with antiquity and follows therefrom is to be historically and dialectically grasped. This means that in the development of art Hegel wants historically and dialectically to concretize the aesthetic character and value of those previous periods which, in his opinion, do not correspond to the pure aesthetic concept of art, in which art is not the adequate form of appearance of Spirit at the given stage of development, in which the development of Spirit has not yet attained the philosophical degree of development of aesthetics or, respectively, has already gone beyond it, the basic character of which therefore contradicts the essence of aesthetics. The profound elaboration of those curious dialectical contradictions that characterizes this period is one of the greatest merits of Hegel’s Aesthetics. In contrast to Romanticism – which idolized uncritically, unhistorically, and beyond all measure the art of the Middle Ages and, later, Oriental art; abstractly opposed these kinds of art to the great artistic works of antiquity and the renaissance; and, in a distortion of the basic principles of aesthetics, elevated the former well above the latter – Hegel works out the trend of historical development that gives the foundation, or at least the starting point, for the correct historical and aesthetic estimation of the particular phenomena in nearly all questions of artistic development. The depth and broadmindedness of this historical conception are revealed especially in the art of the present, in the treatment of which Hegel on the one hand perceptively shows how unfavorable capitalist society is for the development of art and on the other hand expresses a deep sense for the artistic significance of the great forms of this period – especially those of Goethe.

The treatment of the history of art stands, with Hegel, in the closest connection to the working out of the aesthetic categories. As an objective idealist, Hegel struggles very energetically – against Kant, against the empiricists – for the recognition of the objective, absolute truth of the aesthetic categories. As a dialectician, however, Hegel connects this absolute essence of the categories with the historical, relative character of their concrete appearance; above all he tries to penetrate the dialectical connection of absolute and relative – and moreover concretely – in
conjunction with the course of the historical process of development. From its beginning with the aesthetic ideal, on through to the theory of particular art-genres, Hegel’s Aesthetics attempts throughout to bring to bear this inseparable dialectical interconnection of absolute and relative.

This connection of systematic and historical categories of aesthetics in Hegel’s Aesthetics represents throughout, not the supplementation of abstract determinations with historical “examples” (as is the case with his followers, who pose all questions much more abstractly), but rather the tight continuity for Hegel of the dialectical construction of all fundamental issues in the whole of aesthetics. In Hegel’s eyes all of aesthetics is only one part of the great historical development of the world from nature through to “Absolute Spirit.” In this development aesthetics represents the lowest stage of appearance of “Absolute Spirit,” the stage of “intuition” (Anschauung). The next higher stage is that of “imagination” (Vorstellung): religion; the highest level is that of the “concept” (Begriff): philosophy.

With this historical and dialectical structure of his whole system, and of aesthetics within it, Hegel comes to entirely new formulations of numerous fundamental questions of aesthetics. (We will concern ourselves later with the distorted consequences that Hegel’s idealism has for his dialectics of aesthetics and especially for his system of aesthetics.) Above all, Hegelian aesthetics overcomes the Kantian subjective idealism, the false dualism of which ostensibly placed the content outside of the realm of aesthetics and the aesthetic categories of which always abstractly and subjectively grasped the content as absolutely alien in contrast to the aesthetically characterized form. Hegelian aesthetics always begins with the content; and from the concrete, historical, and dialectical analysis of the content Hegel derives the fundamental aesthetic categories (the beautiful, the ideal) and the particular, concrete, artistic forms (the art-genres). In accordance with the sense of Hegel’s objective idealism, however, this content does not originate purely from the individual activity of the aesthetic subject or from the activity of the artist or the receiver. On the contrary, the individual obtains this content from the objective social and historical reality that exists independent from him – and moreover concretely: as the concrete content of the prevailing phase of development.

With that, Hegel does not obliterate the active role of the aesthetic subject; this activity can, however, come into play solely under the just delineated concrete conditions. The content that is the concern of the discourse here is thus the prevailing developmental condition of the society and of history (“state of the world,” Weltzustand) that the active aesthetic subject contemplates and elaborates from the standpoint of intuition. For the activity of the aesthetic subject follows also the necessity, the task, to artistically reproduce this and only this content, to appropriate it, to express it with the art’s own materials. Whereby art’s own specific materials (forms) grow out of this content without exception in Hegelian aesthetics. Hegelian aesthetics is based for that reason on the dialectic, on the dialectical interaction of content and form, and indeed – in the Aesthetics still much more decisively than in the Logic – on the priority of the content.

For Hegel, however, the historical concretization of content never signifies a historical relativism. On the contrary, according to Hegel’s Aesthetics only such a concretization of content can lead to the determination of the aesthetic criteria, the standards. This is above all the case with the aesthetic appraisal of particular artworks, where the criterion for great artworks consists in their completely, deeply, and vividly (that means not purely with help from the “reflections of understanding” [verstandsreflektionen]) bringing to expression the entire inexhaustible wealth of the prevailing content. The content in addition provides the measure for whether the artists express themselves in a living or a nonliving form (formalistic, epigonous) within the particular art genres; that means the standard for the correct or incorrect choice of genre is likewise the prevailing historical content. The forms of art-genres are not arbitrary. On the contrary, they grow out of the concrete determination of the prevailing social and historical condition. Their character, their particularity, becomes determined through their capacity, insofar as they are capable, to bring to expression the essential feature of the given socio-historical phase. Therefore, the different genres originate in determinate levels of development of history, they change their character radically (from the epic comes the novel), they eventually disappear entirely, eventually in the course of history they emerge anew with certain modifications. Since with Hegel’s conception, however, this development is objectively necessary and regular, it follows that its recognition leads not to a relativism but, rather, to the dialectically founded and concretized objectivity of the aesthetic categories. Finally, in this way Hegel works out those criteria which enable us to evaluate entire style-periods of art-development. Hegel does not think that every phase of development of art is capable of producing equally valuable things, that, as decadent bourgeois relativism maintains, the historical necessity of the emergence of certain styles in certain periods could obliterate the aesthetic value and status differences that exist across the particular periods and styles. He thinks, in contrast, that it follows from the essence of art that one determinate content is more appropriate to artistic expression than another, that certain levels of development of humanity are either not yet or no longer appropriate for the creation of art.

The special situation that Hegel attributes to classical Greek art acquires in this connection a universal aesthetical and, over and above that, a universal philosophical significance. Thus the whole of aesthetics becomes a large scale manifestation of humanistic principles: an expression of all-round developed, undistorted, not-dismembered-through-the-unfavorable-division-of-labor mankind, of harmonious mankind, in which physical and psychical qualities, individual and social traits, form an inseparable organic whole. To fashion this mankind is, in the eyes of Hegel, the great objective task of art. Naturally this ideal of humanity forms the absolute criterion for the assessment of every artistic style, every art-genre, and each particular work.

This humanistic essence of art determines the aesthetic categories for Hegel. The young Marx pointed out “that Hegel grasps the self-creation of humanity as a process ... that he also grasps the essence of work and preserves concrete humanity, because he understands actual humanity to be the result of its own work.[1]

The social viewpoint of Hegelian philosophy which is based on this conception is reflected in the whole of his aesthetics. We can understand the dismissal of natural beauty – the view that the beautiful as a category is inseparably connected with human social activity – only from this overall conception. (The idealist character of this conception of course also determines the problematic distortions manifested in it.)

Thus Hegel’s Aesthetics is the first – and last – comprehensive theoretical and historical synthesis of art-philosophy that bourgeois philosophy was able to achieve.

Certainly this grand system must carry with it all the defects and limits of bourgeois thought. Hegelian objective idealism is sufficient to uncover and overcome the mistakes of Kantian subjective idealism; Hegel, as the conscious master of objective idealism, was able to go farther even than the inspired, spontaneous dialectician, Goethe. As a progressive thinker who resolved the whole of Social Being into a process in development, Hegel successfully fought against the reactionary tendencies of Romanticism and successfully went beyond Schelling and Solger. All this could nevertheless occur only within the limits of objective idealism. All those mistakes, defects, distortions, rigidities, abstract constructions, and violations of reality that Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin uncovered and inexorably criticized in Hegel’s idealist dialectics are also present in his aesthetics. The Aesthetics – precisely as with Hegel’s Logic – is a foundational document for the developmental history of the dialectical method. In each of its problems The Aesthetics contains, so to say, fruitful formulations of questions, moreover, in certain cases correct solutions. Even these, however, if they are really to be successfully used, must be transformed in the materialist style; even Hegel’s correct solutions must be turned from standing on their head to their feet.

This materialist inversion of Hegelian idealist dialectics is the common problem of Hegel’s entire philosophy, of which the philosophy of art is merely a part. Accordingly, the materialist modification of the Aesthetics is largely a function of the universal, logical, epistemological, etc. transformation of the problems of dialectics conducted in the spirit of materialism. The classical Marxists, Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, have basically accomplished this. An introduction like this cannot, of course, pose for itself the task even of only briefly recapitulating all of this. We must restrict ourselves to the raising of those important issues which have a profound effect on the decisive questions of aesthetics, those which shape the origins of distinctively idealist mistakes and distortions of problems in Hegel’s Aesthetics.

The first of these issues is the problem of reflection. Hegelian idealism is an objective idealism that begins with the claim that the objective reality that is independent of human consciousness is recognizable and is expressed in intellectual, rational, dialectical form. In that regard, the dialectical theory of reflection is the exclusive, consistent, scientific method; this grasps in full measure the objective reality existing independent from us that the objective dialectic recognizes directly and that the subjective dialectic (appearing in our consciousness) grasps as the closest possible approximate reflection of the objective dialectical process. Hegel’s concept of objectivity is, however, an idealistic one; that means its essence is of an intellectual in-accordance-with-consciousness character. The fundamental concept of Hegel’s dialectics is also completely internally contradictory – a “wooden iron-ring,” as the Hungarians would say: it is consciousness but not the consciousness of the subject, of the human being, and in order to be able to provide a carrier for it Hegel must contrive the Spirit, the world-Spirit, as a principle. The intellectual in-accordance-with-consciousness character, however, at the same time exists independent of each subjective human consciousness; it is, moreover, the producer, the creator, of this human consciousness. This mystification has the result that the Hegelian philosophy, which begins by claiming to grasp objective reality in its real essence, loses itself in a religious mysticism.

Whereas, however, with the help of the theory of reflection, the materialist dialectic is precisely and scientifically able to determine epistemologically the connection of the objective world in itself to the subjective consciousness, the Hegelian idealist dialectic must resort to the mystical theory of the identical subject-object. The subjective consciousness of the human being is, for Hegel, the product of a process even the motive power of which is the world-Spirit, the manifestation in-accordance-with-consciousness of which is the consciousness developing historically in humanity. The process of recognition therefore goes not in the direction of the always perfecting reconciliation with the reality existing independently of our consciousness but rather in the direction of the complete unification of subject and object, toward the development of the identical subject-object. The objectivity of the objective reality is for that reason not a necessary feature of it but rather the mere form of its appearance, indicating that the world-spirit has not yet completely obtained itself, the identical subject-object has not yet realized itself. The accomplished recognition would therefore, consistent with the conclusion of the Hegelian philosophy, be the obliteration of all objectivity, the complete melting-down of all objectivity in the identical subject-object: an accomplished mysticism.

It is clear that this extreme conclusion completely contradicts the progressive direction of the dialectical method that constituted a powerful weapon in the service of the most perfect possible recognition of objective reality. Closely connected with this is also the insoluble contradiction that Engels in particular pointed out as the contradiction of Hegel’s system and his method. Naturally Hegel himself was too serious a thinker and his encyclopedic knowledge of reality too great and comprehensive for him to have wanted to crown his philosophy with such a piece of nonsense, with the taking back of all objectivity into the subject. That he did not, however, do this was only an evasion of the ultimate epistemological consequence of his system. And this contradiction between method and system is perceptible in every single one of his analyses. Therefore it is not possible, as some imagine, with regard to the materialist inversion of the Hegelian philosophy, simply to appropriate the concrete explanations of Hegel and just put materialism in the place of idealism, replace the identical subject-object through the theory of reflection, etc. On the contrary, we must see clearly that this fundamental contradiction of Hegel’s idealist dialectic, the contradiction of system and method, influences every single one of his concrete analyses. We must also then and also there, wherever and whenever Hegel deeply and correctly grasps certain concrete connections, read his particular discussions with the greatest criticism, because the fundamental contradiction of method and system penetrates also into these. The duty of the materialist inversion and of the critical investigation of the idealistic dialectic must also extend to every single detail of The Aesthetics. With his analysis of Hegel’s Logic, Lenin gave the Marxists a methodological model for how this materialist inversion is to be undertaken. With reference to the totality and the details of The Aesthetics this task still stands before us.

From this fundamental contradiction of the idealist dialectic it follows that Hegel cannot concretely and consistently determine the place of aesthetics in the philosophical sciences. For the materialist dialectic there is no insurmountable methodological difficulty here; for it (the materialist dialectic), the aesthetic reflection is a specific case of universal reflection. It is the task of Marxist aesthetics to recognize, to formulate precisely, the categories of aesthetics, to determine scientifically their place in the general theory of reflection. The articles of Stalin on linguistics have also provided an important methodological preparation for this question.

The problem for the Hegelian idealist dialectic stands completely otherwise. In his polemic against Kant, Hegel very correctly settles accounts with the formal and, in regard to aesthetic evaluations, agnostic, subjective idealist principles. He was also right in that he – also as opposed to Kant – sharply turns against the ridged bifurcation of form and content, against that Kantian conception which declares that it is exclusively in the form that the elements of the aesthetic are to be found. Already Hegel’s Logic poses a thorough interaction, a reciprocal, continuous turnover of form and content into one another. This is a great step forward in comparison to Kant; Hegel’s idealist Logic is nevertheless unable consistently to specify the priority of the element of content. In his Aesthetics, and especially in his concrete discussions, Hegel goes much farther than in the abstract determinations of the Logic: he often very clearly recognizes, and in his concrete analysis also utilizes the recognition, that in each aesthetic appearance the concrete content determines the concrete aesthetic form. In the history of aesthetics this is an even greater achievement, because here Hegel always grasps the content historically, as the necessary content of a determinate historical period or phase of development. Indeed, he gives more than one explanation in which the sociological character of this historicity emerges more or less clearly, so that we could find in numerous analyses of Hegel’s Aesthetics the concrete dialectic of social content and aesthetic form. This is undoubtedly a progressive, forward-pointing moment of the Hegelian dialectical method.

In this manner, in the center of Hegelian aesthetics stands not the form but rather the content. This methodological determination stands in close connection with Hegel’s attempt to obliterate the essential duality of recognition of truth and artistically represented world – the greatest weakness, the reactionary side, of all formalistic aesthetics, above all that of Kant. Kant was, moreover, unusually anxious in his aesthetics to avoid these extreme consequences and to bring aesthetics into organic connection with other areas of human activity (of morality); nonetheless, the general tendency of his method hampered him in carrying this out with success. And despite the completely differently ordered approach of Kant, the Neo-Kantians who leaned on him carried on the isolation of aesthetics in support of the principle of l'art pour l'art. Hegel’s substantive aesthetics breaks, as we saw, radically with this viewpoint. Hegel, in this connection, parallels the representatives of the Enlightenment who wanted to declare their thorough disagreement with the idea that it is possible to construe some exclusive contradiction between truth and beauty. And by historically and even socially concretizing the primary interpreted content, Hegel extended the aesthetics of the Enlightenment in this point and enriched it with the approach of the historical dialectic.

For neither the Enlightenment nor Hegel was it possible, however, to solve consistently the question of the connection between truth and beauty. Only the materialist dialectic of reflection is capable of that. In the philosophy of the Enlightenment the connection between truth and beauty and their recent unification became commonly represented as though the aesthetic, the beautiful, were merely a primitive, subordinate form, merely a preliminary stage of the scientific, philosophical recognition of truth. With that, though, no matter how much the great thinkers of the Enlightenment aspired to the contrary, aesthetics and the entire area of art loses its independence, its distinctive value.

Pre-Marxist philosophy cannot thoroughly resolve this issue. We have seen here the necessary development of both false extremes: the one is the independence of aesthetics, the Kantian subjectivistic formalistic basis, the second, the dissolution of aesthetics in general epistemology as a certainly necessary, however only preliminary, phase of philosophical knowledge.

Hegel makes great strides toward the overcoming of this contradiction. That he places the historical content in the center signifies, in this connection, already a certain step forward. Here Hegel realizes the triumph of his general methodology, his logic, namely that it sets up a dialectical relation between appearance and essence, that it sublates the rigid opposition of appearance and essence that is characteristic of every metaphysically disposed philosophy and thus also of the old materialism. Hegel sees the peculiarity of aesthetics only in this, that the essence appears adequately to itself in the appearance, that in aesthetics this relation is not given a conceptual character, but rather is immediately given to our senses, that through the appearance, to use Hegel’s expression, the essence “shines through” (durchscheint). Thereby Hegel anticipated very important aspects of the peculiarities of aesthetics. To consistently deepen these, to reveal them as peculiarities of aesthetic reflection, however, would only be possible through the materialist dialectical method of reflection.

We have seen, however, that Hegel has put in place of reflection that idealistic, mystified, dialectical process which in his opinion must end in the identical subject-object. Naturally he built into his system that very fruitful observation that he made about the peculiarities of aesthetics. Here, then, aesthetics becomes one stage of development in the identical subject-object’s process of self-seeking and self-finding. This self-finding occurs in the Hegelian philosophy at that stage at which the highest standard of consciousness is obtained, in Hegelian terminology: the level of Absolute Spirit. Hegel differentiates here three levels within the Absolute Spirit: art, religion, and philosophy. Hegel links these, as the historical stages of development of Spirit, with the stages of organization of his Logic – with intuition, imagination, and the concept – whereby the aesthetic signifies the appearance of Absolute Spirit on the level of intuition, religion on that of imagination, philosophy on that of the concept. (We have already spoken of the contradiction between Hegel’s method and his system that emerges with the culmination of his philosophy.)

Hegel wants, then, to link this logical artifice with the historical construction of his system to such a degree that he ties every single period of appearance of Spirit together with certain historical periods, thereby making the development of Spirit from intuition to concept both a philosophical and an historical process. Thus the period of Greek art signifies, for Hegel, the appearance of Spirit on the level of intuition where, accordingly, art represents the adequate form of the phase of development of Spirit of that time. Exactly thus stands the matter between imagination and Christian religion in the Middle Ages, exactly thus between the concept and philosophy in Hegel’s time. This brilliant but overall artificial construction escapes the – for the Hegelian philosophy, insoluble – problem, for this philosophy ought to explain the existence and the character of art before and after the properly “aesthetic period” (the Greek). Thus Hegel explains oriental art as one in which the Spirit has not yet achieved the level of intuition, middle age and modern art as ones in which it has already passed beyond intuition. In isolated analyses Hegel here makes outstanding contributions to the social, therefore substantive, therefore problematic-formal nature of oriental and especially of modern art. The individually striking analyses could not, however, sublate the artificiality and contradictoriness which shatter this whole system.

Here I can only emphasize two central moments. The first is that Hegel is periodically compelled to come to the consequence that Spirit has already passed beyond art, that art has lost its philosophical significance. Or, if we think these thoughts consistently through to the end, the period of art is over. Fortunately for Hegel’s Aesthetics, Hegel has not consistently implemented this standpoint in the observations of concrete appearances or in their aesthetic evaluation. The second moment, to which we must here draw attention, is the fact that Hegel did not really manage to establish the independence of aesthetic philosophy. For if we examine the development of Spirit in Hegel’s sense, then art is also for him only a preparatory stage of the adequate cognition of reality, of philosophical recognition, of the emergence of the identical subject-object. Here, therefore, aesthetics also cannot overcome that contradiction that already appeared with Leibniz, namely that art is a preparatory stage of cognition, an inadequate form of appearance, and not an independent mode of appropriate reflection of reality, that means that it is an imperfect form of cognition. This cannot be reconciled with the apparent – relative – independence of the world of art in the sphere of human activity. And although Hegel goes far beyond his predecessors in the determination of aesthetics, the determination of particular aesthetic categories, and in the analysis of aesthetics, in the decisive question he cannot overcome the contradiction which was insoluble also for them.

From these fundamental contradictions follow all the not consistently thought through, rigidly constructed details of Hegel’s Aesthetics. With the help of his great knowledge and his extraordinary power of observation, Hegel sees more clearly than his predecessors the necessity in the historical alteration of all aesthetic appearances. Naturally this historical alteration was also observed by others before him. Excepting Vico, however, and several thinkers who succeeded Kant, these alterations were merely empirically observed and no attempt was made to bring them into an organic philosophical relation with the regularity of the historical development. One of the greatest achievements of Hegel’s Aesthetics consists in its attempt at historicizing the fundamental categories of aesthetics. On the one hand Hegel recognizes that in every style – behind which, for him, stands the structure that originates in the social content – the essence and not the exteriority is in accordance with history. Therefore he is able to give profound, and in many regards correct, analyses of fundamental structural and substantive problems of Greek, Roman, Oriental, Medieval, etc. styles. On the other hand Hegel also recognizes that the art-genres are not simply empirical abstractions, also not intellectual differentiations of some platonic Idea, but rather, as the most adequate expressions of some life-sentiment that grew out of concrete, social, historical situations, they bring forth the historical process. Therefrom it follows further that although it is possible, even theoretically necessary, to create a system of different arts and art-genres, these arts and art-genres nevertheless appear differently not only in different periods, but also each period possesses a dominant art-genre or dominant art-genres, dominant art-types, that correspond to one of its historical circumstances. Hegel even comes so far as to see and to identify the historically determined qualitative changes within the art-genres which periodically reach such a level that they call forth the being of a new art-genre.

In this connection, Hegel was the first who on the one hand recognized the new genre-properties of the modern novel, its relation to the peculiarities of bourgeois society and on the other hand, however, also recognized that this new art-genre is essentially nothing other than the revival of the old epic under the fundamentally changed conditions of bourgeois society. With similar depth Hegel analyzes the fundamental unity and qualitative difference of ancient Greek and Shakespearean dramas. With such observations Hegel’s Aesthetics actually lays the ground for a scientific aesthetics which is simultaneously and inseparably theoretical and historical.

As a result of the above explained contradictions of method and system, however, Hegel is unable consistently to carry out these inspired thoughts, to clothe them in a conceptual form corresponding to the facts of art history, but rather is frequently compelled, because of his system, to fabricate constructions and, indeed, not infrequently empty and rigid constructions. It is one such construction, for example, that Hegel sets forth the oriental art period as the genuine period of architecture, from which follows an extensive theoretical underestimation of the development of architecture from the Greeks to the present. When further on Hegel views sculpture as the dominant form of Greek art, and painting and music on the other hand as those of Romantic art (under “Romantic” he grasps the development of art of the Middle Ages and of the modern era together) he thus expresses a deep and true thought which has become extraordinarily fruitful for later aesthetics – however, as he has carried it out in his aesthetics it is full of schematic and misleading constructions. Thus Hegel’s judgement that the period of satire is that of late-Romantic literature contains, likewise, certain correct elements of observation. He carries this idea too far, however, in that he yields to the architectonic requirements of his fabricated system and therefore neglects the great achievements of modern satire completely.

Finally, one more problem of art must be emphasized: its relation to nature, the question of so-called natural beauty. Both mechanistic materialism and subjective idealism are not able to solve this question, because they rigidly oppose to one another as completely mutually exclusive the nature that is completely independent from humanity and the subjectively grasped artistic activity of humanity. Thus insurmountable difficulties arise. When aestheticians are of the opinion that nature by all means stands higher aesthetically than its human artistic reproduction (Diderot) or that art, the beautiful, is exclusively the product of the subject, of consciousness (Kant), in either case the problem of the connection remains insoluble. In Hegel’s Aesthetics the considerably decisive idea appears that that nature which figures as the object of aesthetics, in which natural beauty can appear, is a region of interaction between society and nature. Hegel is, however, as a result of his idealistic approach, unable dialectically to think these fruitful thoughts through to the end; he frequently relapses into that contempt for nature peculiar to idealism, and thus this important problem remains, in spite of a few brilliant insights, also unsolved with him. Only Marxism is really able to solve this problem. Insofar as Marx recognized and scientifically concretized the metabolic interaction of society and nature, he lifted the whole problematic out of the sphere of mere insights and made its scientific treatment possible also for aesthetics. This question receives one definitive solution in Stalin’s articles on linguistics with the help of the observation that the superstructure (thus also art) is not immediately tied to production, and thus to nature, but rather is exclusively mediated by the base, the modes of production. Here that scientific principle receives the clear expression that makes possible the scientific solution of this basic problem of aesthetics that since its inception has continually re-emerged.


Only Marx and Engels could carry out the materialist inversion of aesthetics. The followers of Hegel, insofar as they were idealists, merely exaggerated the mistakes of his system, turned his objective idealism back into a subjective one, or diluted and coarsened the contradictions of his method and system. And while Feuerbach exercised a frequently correct critique of Hegel, he still did it from the epistemological standpoint of the old mechanistic materialism and thus was not able really concretely to carry out the corrections, really to solve the contradictions. That for which Engels reproaches the Feuerbachian philosophy counts in full measure also with regard to Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics and especially to his attempt to further develop it.

When we recognize in this manner that the dissolution of Hegelianism – regardless of whether it concerns the idealist disciples and critics of Hegel or his mechanistic materialist opponents – was not able to sublate the fundamental errors of Hegel’s Aesthetics, this by no means signifies that the dissolution of Hegelianism in this area would be a completely meaningless gesture. On the contrary, in the 1830s and 40s in Germany, and especially with the Russian revolutionary democrats, with Belinsky, Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov, the critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics and the exploitation of its fruitful and forward-looking elements played an important role.

In Germany, the greatest poet of this period, Heine, occupied himself extensively with the critique, reevaluation, and further development of Hegel’s Aesthetics. For Heine the most important thing was to go beyond Hegel’s view that the development of the art of the whole world had terminated in the present, that it had reached its conclusion here. That period which for Hegel contained the last, the art-development crowning period – the period of Goethe – Heine termed the “Art Period” (Kunstperiode), and he saw the historical development in this: that the “Art Period” (indeed as a result of historical events, in particular the revolutionary development sparked by the July Revolution) had reached its conclusion; this, however, was something that in his eyes by no means signified the conclusion of the development of art but, rather, the beginning of a new period, of the period of revolutionary art. (Contemporaneous with Heine, Belinsky conceptualized the development of Russian literature very similarly in that for him Pushkin concluded one period, while in Gogol he saw the start of the new period of new critical realism. Belinsky stands above Heine with regard to the clearer recognition of things, as he places socio-critical realism in the center of the aesthetics of this period, something that Heine, as a result of the backwardness of the German conditions, saw less clearly.)

In Germany, the left critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics reached its peak in the activity Bruno Bauer; at this time Bauer stands in close friendship and to some extent in collaboration with the young Marx, who was at that time still philosophically an idealist. The young Bruno Bauer, as the most extreme representative of the then left wing of Hegelianism, had endeavored to work out the progressive aspects of the Hegelian philosophy. These, however, he incorrectly held to be Hegel’s own, though hidden and secret, “esoteric” philosophy, while he saw in Hegel’s reactionary side a merely superficial adjustment to the conditions of the time. (Shortly thereafter, in 1843, Marx came to a position sharply opposed to this interpretation of Hegel.) Bruno Bauer saw Hegel as an atheist, as an enemy of Christianity, as an admirer of and propagandist for the French Revolution. In the area of aesthetics he used Hegel’s sharp comments against the reactionary Romanticism of his time and published a collection of those remarks of Hegel’s that point in this direction in a brochure. The young Marx then supported Bauer’s activity in this connection. From this period of Marx’s development there remain, unfortunately, merely plans of his own works of an aesthetic character (“On Religious Art,” “On Romanticism,” 1841-42); numerous observations that he wrote concerning aesthetics books and art histories show how seriously he concerned himself with these plans.

The Russian revolutionary democrats raised their struggle over the revitalization of aesthetics to a significantly higher level than Heine and especially than Bauer. Here it is not possible for us to explain in detail the positive direction of their philosophy and the limits arising from the undeveloped nature of the revolutionary movement of their period. We must point out only this much, that they have traversed the path from idealism to materialism and in the philosophical conceptualization of materialism, in terms of the revolutionary consequences and the approach to dialectics, have very often gone far beyond Feuerbach. Certainly this going beyond reveals itself more decisively and concretely in the individual aesthetical explanations of these great thinkers than in the working out of the general principles of aesthetics. In the latter area, they naturally still stand closer to the old materialism, as with all thinkers before Marx.

This approach to materialist dialectics is all the more decisively revealed in the area of concrete aesthetical analyses. What Engels said about Diderot applies to these thinkers in a heightened degree. In this sense they criticize Hegel’s Aesthetics and especially Hegel’s right liberalism and the decaying followers of subjective idealism (Chernyshevsky’s critique of Vischer). Their dialectical acuity is made most apparent, though, in the posing of concrete literary problems and in their solution. There was already talk of Belinsky’s important new periodization. The Russian revolutionary democrats were the first to work out the fundamental principles of critical realism and thereby lay down the theoretical foundation for the correct assessment of literature and art in the 18th-19th century; this is their great theoretical significance. Thereby they went not only far beyond Hegel, who hardly saw this problem, but also beyond Feuerbach, who as a result of his abstract critique of Hegel was not able to take the new problems of the time adequately into consideration and to formulate them theoretically.

Naturally these revolutionary democrats were merely the left wing of those thinkers who stood immediately or mediately under the theoretical influence of Hegel. The majority of those aestheticians who philosophically followed Hegel and wanted to further develop his teachings in an idealist sense stood in the camp of liberalism (F. Th. Vischer, Rosenkranz, Ruge, Rötscher, Hotho, etc.). So long as the central question in Germany before 1848 was the ideological preparation of the bourgeois revolution, these philosophies, although on numerous questions they developed Hegel’s Aesthetics backward rather than forward, nevertheless in certain questions represented a relatively progressive direction. They tried – to be sure in liberally precarious and dazzling ways – to reveal philosophically the distinguishing characteristic of modern bourgeois art and to formulate new aesthetic categories. (The aesthetics of ugliness with Ruge, Rosenkranz, etc.)

Subsequently, however, the bourgeoisie of 1848 betrayed its own bourgeois revolution; the reactionary tendencies of the aesthetics of the Hegelians were revealed. The dialectic of the historical development sank to a superficial positivism, the epistemological substantiation of aesthetics retreated from Hegel to Kant, to subjective idealism, indeed even beyond this: in the direction of irrational mysticism. This development is to be seen most clearly with the famous representative of this tendency, Vischer, who began his career as a so called orthodox Hegelian and in his final stage of development became the predecessor of modern irrationalist “experience aesthetics” (Erlebnis-Ästhetik).

The philosophy following 1848 was characterized by the way that Hegel was completely pushed into the background, that one, to use Marx’s words, treated Hegel “as a dead dog.” Kant and Schopenhauer dominated philosophy and, accordingly, also aesthetics. The subsequently mobilized movement to revive Hegel, first in England, Italy, etc. and later in the imperialist period in Germany, was already of a decidedly reactionary style. It is sufficient with regard to such familiar aestheticians as Taine and most importantly Benedetto Croce to point out that they stand decidedly under Hegel’s influence. The Hegelianism of the imperialist period brings these reactionary tendencies still more distinctly to expression. Glockner, who within this trend occupied himself the most with aesthetics, wanted to suppress Hegelian aesthetics at that most reactionary level of the irrationalist Vischer, who had become an admirer of Bismarck.


Only through the materialist critique and inversion could the living, fruitful kernel of Hegel’s Aesthetics be preserved and what is of a progressive nature for the science of aesthetics thus be utilized. Marx and Engels thoroughly occupied themselves throughout their whole lives with the problems of literature and art, yet they never had the time systematically to assemble their views on this subject or to write a comprehensive critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics. (It is well known that Marx wanted to write a book about Balzac; this remained, however, only a plan and was not even set down in the form of notes.) In spite of this, the fundamental principles of the materialist inversion stand perfectly clearly before us in the form of the remarks Marx and Engels made about specific concrete questions.

Marx and Engels, of course, carry out the critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics in connection with the critique of the whole Hegelian philosophy. Already in the critique of the Phenomenology of Spirit, the young Marx argues with the twofold basic errors of Hegel: the “uncritical idealism” and the “uncritical positivism.” In the same examinations Marx stresses, as we saw, the achievement of Hegel: that he discovered in human labor the basis of the self-creation of humanity, of its human development. Simultaneously, he clearly sees and sharply criticizes the idealist limits of this viewpoint and the distortions that originate in it. He says: “The only labor that Hegel cognizes and recognizes is abstract spiritual (labor).[2] Accordingly, with Hegel, even when he ingeniously anticipates the right thing, every relation appears placed on its head. Hegel endeavored more energetically than all previous aestheticians to substantiate philosophically the objectivity of the aesthetic categories. His theory about the priority of the content remains, despite this, the self-admiration of the Absolute Spirit and is not the reflection in the consciousness of historically changing humanity of the objective reality that exists independent of our consciousness. Thereby Hegel distorts into a mere appearance both the objective reality and the historical process. Marx says: “As the Absolute Spirit comes to consciousness only post festum in philosophers as creative world-spirit, so its fabrication of history exists only in consciousness, in the opinion and imagination of philosophers, only in the speculative imagination.[3] Only the materialist dialectic, which makes not – as with Hegel – the abstract spiritual labor but rather the actual material labor into the basis of human-becoming and the development of humanity, is able also in aesthetic questions to correctly, scientifically define reality. Only in this philosophy is it possible to grasp correctly the social objectivity of the prevailing state of the world, the role of the social activity of humans in the genesis and development of art, without rigidly and incorrectly separating the relation of humanity to nature from human social activity. Only the Marxist conception of labor can provide a materialist solution to the insurmountable difficulties that emerge more than once with Hegel in connection with his brilliant insights. It can successfully do this because the Marxist conception of labor expresses the metabolic interrelation of society and nature and thus expresses both the connection of the category of labor with its natural preconditions and the alteration of these preconditions with the social development of labor.

Due to the fact that Marx grasps art dialectically as the reflection of objective reality, all specious problems and mystifications based in Hegel’s idealism are solved. The relation of the aesthetic categories to historical reality, the dialectic of absolute and relative that comes into play here, becomes real, concrete, and living with Marx and rejects all rigidity and artificiality. We present only one example: the dialectical conception of the predominant art or art-genre of a (any) period. We have seen that in this question Hegel more than once reaches an impasse, that he relates the phenomenon rigidly and artificially to one period and thus does violence to the wealth of the historical world, for example, when he views architecture as the typical form of oriental art or when he represents the novel as the predominant art-genre of the modern bourgeois period. Hegel’s system compels him to allow the predominant art-genre to figure exclusively in the period that gave rise to it and in which it was predominant. This occurs also, then, when Hegel sees precisely in the novel the modern parallel of the ancient epic, the product of the medieval knight epics. Marx and Engels see also, however, how concretely and how socially necessary it is that imperfect predecessors of the novel appear in different ages and that they nonetheless, as a result of social necessity, could not successfully be perfect appearances of the art-genre. Thus Engels writes about the novels of later antiquity in which idyllic love could only take place on the periphery of official society, the heroes of which were exclusively slaves and hence could not participate in the life of free citizens, in social life. Thereby Engels shows, on the one hand, that on the periphery of ancient society, from its disintegrating appearances, the seeds of the novel shoot forth; on the other hand, however, he also recognizes that here only its seeds could emerge. Observations of this kind, which dialectical materialism made possible, go beyond the idealist rigidity of Hegel’s historical art theory. Thereby, however, Engels also refutes in advance the modern vulgar-sociological theories of genres that, in an abstract formalistic way, place first signs of this kind on the same level with the classical forms of appearance of such an art-genre and thus end up in a historical relativism. The social and historical theory of Marxism nonetheless concretizes the relation of art to its social base and its changes. While with Hegel one could speak here only of an occasional, sometimes brilliant insight into the correct relations, Marx and Engels could already explain them with a scientifically based theory.

Hegel’s idealist conception of history is not only poorer, abstracter, and more rigid than reality even in those cases in which he glimpses the real relations, but it also very often leads to the distortion of reality, and this distortion occurs always precisely in a reactionary direction. We want to cite only an example that is as simple as possible. Hegel saw in humanity’s free possibility for acting, as it existed particularly in early antiquity, a social phenomenon favorable for art. As a result of the idealistic exaggeration of this thought, however, he sees in such belated figures as Götz von Berlichigen or Franz von Sickinger similar “heroes,” and this causes him to praise the young Goethe for his propitious choice of theme. Marx is also of the opinion that Goethe’s choice of theme was correct, and he defended it against Lassalle’s rigid, abstract, ostensible endorsement of progress. He naturally sees in Götz von Berlichigen, however, not a “hero” but rather a miserable guy, the representative of a class condemned to decline; Hegel’s and Lassalle’s judgements regarding knighthood are equally idealistically one-sided and inflexible, although Hegel’s historical insight stands far above Lassalle’s. The materialist dialectician Marx, however, first grasps the complicated determinacy of historical development; for him there is no question that Götz von Berlichigen, precisely as a result of his inferiority in an important historical situation, becomes the typical representative of his class and that Goethe – although he himself was not clear about the historical relation – brilliantly depicts this.

Such relations helplessly confront the idealist dialectic. Since for Hegel the development of art gets advanced through the internal dialectic of the movement of Spirit, it is natural that with him the outstanding artists must necessarily immediately and adequately express the sense of this development. The materialist dialectic of Marx and Engels sees in art a particular form of reflection of objective reality. This reflection can therefore, as we have seen with Goethe, proceed in other ways, attain other, more distant, and higher goals than any that existed immediately in the imagination of the artist himself. We think of Engels’ excellent definition of Balzac’s art:

“That Balzac was compelled to act against his own class sympathies and political prejudices, that he saw the necessity of the decline of his beloved nobility and portrayed them as human beings who deserved no better fate, and that he saw the real humanity of the future there where, in that time, it was alone to be found – I view this as one of the greatest triumphs and as one of the most magnificent features of the old Balzac.”

In the treatment of art, great art, the materialist dialectic alone can penetrate so deeply into the grasping of reality. It is able to do that because the Marxist theory of class struggle is simultaneously the dialectical theory of the contradiction-full development of humanity. Although Hegel’s method correctly places the contradiction in the center of all philosophical analyses, although his genius is sometimes successful, he was still not able to see the real relations of development, to grasp their correct dialectic. As a result of this, however, one of the most important and greatest problems of the development of art remained insoluble for him. We present only one example. The analysis of Dutch painting of the seventeenth century in Hegel’s Aesthetics is highly esteemed by many, above all by Plekhanov, with justification, as a socio-historically correct explanation of important and new stylistic characteristics. Concerning the limits of Hegel’s Aesthetics, it is nonetheless characteristic that he is only able to understand and evaluate aesthetically those painters who directly and unproblematically expressed this powerful, economic, political, and cultural progress within the bourgeoisie. The same social relations brought forth, however, as a tragic figure, the greatest painter of Holland, Rembrandt, and precisely these social circumstances were the basis of the tragic character of Rembrandt’s paintings. The Hegelian idealist dialectic was not able to understand this and also could not have been.

This methodological and socio-substantive transformation of all concrete problems of Hegel’s Aesthetics is apparent also where Marx is more or less in agreement with Hegel’s formulation of the issue and his historical assessment. The art of antiquity, especially the epic poetry of Homer, is also for Marx, to use his own words: “the norm and the unattainable model.” Only, however, because Marx and Engels discovered the laws of Gentile-society and its dissolution, does Greek art assume its real historical place as an expression of “normal childhood” in the development of humanity. Marx and Engels likewise see that this period ultimately belongs to the past. From that follows, however, not a pessimism with regard to the art of the present and the future, as with Hegel. Still less from that follows the empty formalistic and academic imitation of the art of antiquity, as with the majority of Hegel’s idealist followers, and least of all is art to be judged in terms of deviation from these norms, as occurs in the aesthetic theory and artistic practice of the declining bourgeoisie. The socialist perspective on the development of humanity, the recognition that the class struggle must inevitably lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, correctly illuminates for the first time the perspectives of the past, of the present, and of the future of art-development.

The correct evaluation of the great old art of antiquity, Shakespeare, etc., is most closely connected with the correct evaluation of the present. We have seen that Hegel had deep insight into the problematic of modern bourgeois art. Marx emphasized still more energetically this problematic tendency and gave it a historical and materialist explanation: “For example, the capitalist production is hostile to certain spiritual branches of production such as art and poetry.”

With Hegel, however, from this assessment, from the recognition of the problematic, it only follows that the Spirit has already overstepped the level of aesthetics, that therefore any real blossoming of art has finally become impossible. Whereas Marx clearly sees that the overthrow of capitalism must confer to the whole of human culture a powerful new stimulus. The new socialist perspective on the future also allows the bourgeois art period to appear in a new light. Marx is even generally in agreement with Hegel’s evaluation of Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Goethe; simultaneously, however, he energetically shifts the socio-critical realism of the bourgeois period, in particular Fielding, Balzac, and the art of the Russian realists, to the center – for Hegel’s Aesthetics that direction did not, as it were, exist at all.

Likewise, the talk here is theoretically about much more than the correct evaluation of specific prominent artists. The real sense of the Marxian conception lies in Marx’s recognition of the revolutionary significance of progressive art in the contradiction full, forward movement of capitalist society. Hegel’s view of the art of this period could necessarily only be one of resignation, only the glorification of such resigned tendencies as appear in the art of the old Goethe. When Marx and Engels energetically shift the significance of the great realists of the 18th-19th century to the foreground, when they see in the great realism of Shakespeare a modern example of how one must artistically fashion the people’s revolution, then behind this viewpoint is the theoretical question of how the Hegelian conception of the “end of history” – which constitutes the foundation also of his system – can be sublated with the help of the materialist dialectic.

This critique, however, also contains the materialist overhaul of the Hegelian genre theory, the breaking up of its narrow idealist limits. With Hegel, for example, the typical tragic hero is a man who defends the old social order against the principles of the forward storming new society. Marx and Engels do not deny the existence of such a tragic type; however, in their debate with Lassalle they point out that in addition to this a new type of tragic hero exists, the tragedy of the socially necessary heroic illusions of the revolutionaries of the past: the tragedy of Thomas Münzer, the tragedy of the revolutionaries who arrived too soon. With Hegel, as we have already pointed out, satire is exclusively the art-genre of fallen antiquity. Marx and Engels show that this satirical critique of contradictions, of lies and hypocrisy in the capitalist society of Balzac, Heine and Shchedrin is remarkably characteristic precisely of modern bourgeois literature, etc., etc. Here, likewise, we can see that a concrete evaluative – or genre – issue necessarily follows from the idealist and, respectively, from the dialectical-materialist conception of social development: the materialist modification of Hegel’s Aesthetics cannot confine itself to the materialist critique of a few foundational principles but rather must include all of Hegel’s concrete analyses that relate to certain styles, art-genres, or artists.

Here we can merely indicate, rather than fully characterize, the materialist inversion of Hegelian idealist aesthetics in their main tendencies. A necessarily quickly composed introduction cannot qualify for the actual characterization. Moreover, such a foundational study would necessarily be like Lenin’s critique of Hegel’s Logic. Such studies are unfortunately still not numerously available in Marxist-Leninist theory, although Lenin produced the methodological basis for this and although Engels clearly pointed out how Hegel is not to be criticized if we want to make that hidden fruitful kernel in him useful for the future. Engels wrote the following to Conrad Schmidt:

“In no case, however, are you allowed to read Hegel as Herr Barth has read him, namely to reveal the paralogisms and foul tricks which served him as levers of construction. This is purely the work of school children. It is much more important to discover beneath the incorrect form and in the affected relation what is correct and ingenious. Indeed, the transitions from one category or one opposition to another are nearly always arbitrary ... to think much about that is a waste of time.”

Engels’ negative and Lenin’s positive instructions could assist in great measure the study of Hegel’s Aesthetics in the correct, Marxist spirit.


If the Marxist writings on aesthetics, especially those that concern themselves with Marx’s relation to Hegel’s Aesthetics, are so paltry, this is by no means an accident. The traditions in the period of the Second International were most detrimental in this area. For the theoreticians of the Second International Hegel was really a “dead dog.” Even the important, aesthetically educated, and well versed in the literature Marxist, Franz Mehring – although he periodically lets drop an insignificant complement about Hegel’s universal knowledge – sees in Kant’s aesthetics the foundational theoretical work of this area. Plekhanov deals much more exhaustively and deeply with Hegel’s Aesthetics. His analyses also do not raise the fundamental questions of the materialist critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics and its applications; he does not touch on the concrete methodological and theoretical consequences of these principles. That which Lenin, who frequently recognizes Plekhanov’s merits, critically remarks about him, namely that he thoroughly concerned himself with many questions of Hegelian philosophy but did not enter into the decisive problems, holds true in full measure also for Plekhanov’s relation to Hegel’s Aesthetics.

Only the sharp critique that Lenin and Stalin performed on the entire theory of the Second International, the ingenuity with which they applied the principles of Marxism to the imperialist period of the world wars and the proletarian revolution, made possible the further development of Marxism also in the area of aesthetics. From this great complex of questions we can naturally only mention those particular questions that are closely associated with Hegel’s Aesthetics.

The first question is the dialectical conception of the reflection of objective reality. Lenin pointed out that whereas in Marx’s time of establishing and developing dialectical materialism the dialectic stands in the foreground, in the period of imperialism the accent must be shifted to the materialist side of the theory and method. In his devastating critique of the reactionary idealism of the imperialist period, Lenin thoroughly explained the theory of reflection and raised it to a higher level. The idealist philosophy could only thus be dealt the death blow that would simultaneously sharply work out the difference between the old mechanistic theory of reflection and that of dialectical materialism. Lenin explicated this question primarily in terms of epistemology and logic. His foundational observations are nonetheless of decisive importance for the further development of aesthetics in the materialist sense. In this manner, precisely in connection with the critique of Hegel’s Logic, Lenin clearly calls attention to the fact that the relatively consistent, recurring through millennia, abstract forms of logic, especially the concluding forms, are abstract modes of reflection of reality. The application of this observation of Lenin’s to the relatively constant forms of art, the genre-forms, for example, gives aesthetic theory its first actual materialist foundation.

In the area of aesthetics Lenin applied this insight to the analysis of concrete appearances. In this way, he wrote foundational studies about Tolstoy. Here he assumes – without possibly having been familiar with the analysis of Engels’ that we have quoted (these writings first appear after Lenin’s death) – principally the same standpoint of Engels in regard to Balzac; however, as Lenin analyzes an author under more developed conditions of class struggle, he concretizes this Engelsian application of Marxism and further develops it.

The second important question to which we must direct our attention is the role of the activity of the subject. As we have seen, the old materialism neglected this question; subjective idealism even posed it such, as a result of the formalism that accompanies subjective idealism, that the real social role of the individual was omitted from the concept of activity and with it any social content of art. It is no accident that Kant associates the concept of the beautiful with disinterestedness. Hegel’s objective idealism even places the social and historical content of art in the center of its discussions; it stops short, however, with the objective representation of the content; the activity is nearly exclusively limited to the process of artistic creation; the social, active role of the artwork – the social role of art – is either extinguished or, in the best cases, it remains far beneath reality. As we have seen, Marx and Engels recognize and criticize the idealist limits of Hegelian dialectics also in this connection. Engels’ analysis of “Tendenzdichtung” already lays the foundation for the organically inseparable unity of artistry and social activity.

In this question Lenin goes far beyond the observations of Engels, and insofar as he thereby further develops Marxism, he also gives this question its real scientific foundation. The young Lenin specifies in his polemic against the bourgeois objectivist, Struve, exactly the social partisanship of any correct philosophical manifestation of a materialist: “On the other hand, materialism includes in itself the element of party insofar as it is obliged, with any evaluation of an event, to rise directly and publicly to the standpoint of a certain social group.” Simultaneously, however, the comprehensive approach of Lenin does not allow one to extract subjective consequences from this public and well-specified subjective position. In the same polemic Lenin calls attention to the fact that bourgeois objectivism, also in its striving for objectivity, is vague, abstract, and imperfect. If, then, dialectical materialism requires partisanship, it simultaneously represents the more perfect, more objective reflection as absolutely necessary: “In this way the materialist is, on the one hand, more consistent than the objectivist and his objectivism more deeply and continuously carried out. He is not content with an indication of the necessity of the process, but rather gets clear which socio-economic formation gives precisely this process its content, which class determines precisely this necessity.” Lenin, in this polemic, does not refer directly to aesthetics, yet it is undoubtedly certain that these basic theoretical stipulations first make it possible to criticize and solve in a dialectical materialist sense all questions of aesthetics, of Hegel’s Aesthetics.


Stalin carried further and concretized these teachings of Lenin for the great problems of our time. Here we can also only point out a few fundamental theoretical aspects, acquaintance with which is indispensable if we want correctly and successfully to study and criticize Hegel’s Aesthetics in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism and make its rational kernel useful for the future. Above all, Stalin’s fundamental discussions of the struggle of the ancient and modern are to be emphasized as exemplary of the primary laws of every dialectical development. It is especially important to point out that for Stalin the modern, the self-developed itself, is even more important than the ancient, the necrotic, even if in a given moment it is also still weaker and less developed than this. With the help of this principle, the art-development, the struggle of aesthetic theories, can be organically interpolated into the totality of the social development; one can see the alteration not merely where enormous qualitative differences became manifest (antiquity and the Shakespearean drama for Hegel) but rather in every segment of everyday literature and art. The development of style, of art-genres, in this way loses its static, so to speak, “museum-like,” purely comparative character and stands before us much more as the contradictory, struggling appearance of human society. And it is therewith connected that we observe this development not by looking back in the past, as Hegel did, but rather as a process that is to be summoned to realize the future of art. These basic principles were already clearly developed by Marx and Engels, but the presentations of Stalin concerning the struggle of the ancient and the modern concretize and also further develop the aesthetic theory of Marxism-Leninism.

Stalin’s works on the questions of linguistics are also of such epochal significance. Here, in the spirit of Marxism, he defines literature and art as superstructure with undeniable clarity and scientifically determines their place in the totality of human activity. Stalin, here also, however, is not content with the identification of the correct connection but rather concretizes this identification with extraordinary energy. From the viewpoint of the further scientific development of aesthetic theory it is of great importance that Stalin inseparably links the reflection of objective reality with the active character of the superstructure such that it belongs to its essence to contribute to securing the new base, to tearing down the old respectively. Through this activity that moment that we could have attended through the whole modern history of aesthetics obtains its highest scientific formulation. We have previously indicated those important observations of Lenin’s that link the question of objectivity necessarily with the problem of partisanship. This further development of Marxism obtains with Stalin a still more comprehensive expression. Stalin extracts all the consequences of the connection of reflection and activity and sees in this activity the superstructure-character of the superstructure; in our case that means: the criterion of the art-character of art. “The superstructure needs to give up its serving role, the superstructure needs only to go from the position of active defense of its base over to the position of an indifferent attitude toward it, to the position of an undifferentiated attitude to the classes, and it loses its distinctive character and quits being the superstructure.[4]

The second fundamental observation in Stalin’s linguistics articles, which are of decisive importance for all questions of art, states that the superstructure is connected with production itself only mediately through the base, the relations of production. “The superstructure is not immediately connected with production, with the productive activity of humanity. It is only indirectly connected with production through the economy, through the base. Therefore the superstructure reflects the changes in the level of development of the productive forces not immediately and directly but, rather, following the changes in the base, whereas the changes in production have found their reflection in the changes in the base.[5]

Marxist aesthetics has still not drawn out all the consequences of this significant observation. It is nonetheless clear that the problems of aesthetics, much discussed and never solved prior to the appearance of Marxism, could only be solved definitively and scientifically on the basis of such observations. Thus, for example, a question like that of natural beauty can only obtain a serious scientific solution on the basis of this observation of Stalin’s. It penetrates deeply into all the problems of aesthetics: the how of the whole artistic representation, the relation of the artist to nature, to content, to theme, to the world of objects to be represented can only now be correctly grasped. Of course, the great artists and great authors have instinctively represented the reality of this connection adequately; the humanism of the great authors and great artists came to expression precisely in these instinctively correct positions. The scientific explanations of literature and art, aesthetics, and critique lagged behind this actual development; they were not able to disclose scientifically the principles of art being realized in practice. This observation of Stalin’s first makes possible, therefore, the correct scientific interpretation of the hitherto existing and futuristic artistic practice of humanity.

Finally, we must still briefly indicate one further issue, the problem of socialist realism. It is clear that even the most sketchy explanation of this issue lies outside the limits of a preface. Here we must only briefly point out the methodological relations of this question, because only the practice and theory of socialism can give a real scientific foundation to the question of the historical construction of aesthetics – to have systematically gotten this going is one of the greatest merits of Hegel’s Aesthetics; the mere existence of socialist realism, then, provides not only a new perspective on the development of art but also, inseparably therefrom, gives the actual history of art (of styles, genres, etc.) a methodological basis for the scientific renovation of progressive traditions.

We already mentioned how Marx and Engels criticized Hegel’s view of the artistic possibilities of the present and how this view of theirs had an effect on the entire conception of history, the periodization of art, and the working out of the historical and aesthetic significance of realism. However, as a result of the historical situation in which Marx and Engels wrote their works, it necessarily followed that the art of future socialism could only be living to them in terms of a general perspective on art-development. Many of their explanations distinctly show that they clearly saw the necessity of this development. Nevertheless, since it still could not have been a current problem in their time, it is clear that it could not have concretely affected their conception of art. In Lenin’s time the revolutionary workers movement had progressed so far that the literary founder of socialist realism, its first classic author, appeared in the person of Maxim Gorky. Lenin was clear from the first moment on about the significance of Gorky and also drew out the consequences of the novelty of the situation in his general theory. At the time of the proletarian dictatorship, Lenin also gives practical evidence of his theoretical acuity as he sharply opposes the false sectarian tendencies in the modern proletariat art (Proletkult) and very clearly raises the issue of the progressive traditions, of their significance for the development of socialist art. And yet a higher stage of socialist development must first supervene so that socialist realism, as the new form of appearance of art in the modern period, may become the concrete and positive central problem of literature and art. Stalin raised this issue, and the representatives of Soviet art theory have further extended his teachings to the whole area of artistic activity. Thereby the theoretical and historical analysis obtained a new point of view with the help of which we can correctly evaluate the progressive traditions in art as well as in the art theory of aesthetics. This relates, in our case, to the critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics, to the laying bare of the fruitful kernel which it conceals within itself.


Thus Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin have produced the principal foundations for the materialist critique of Hegel’s Aesthetics, have made it possible for us to appropriate it as an inheritance to be critically examined and utilized in our work. As brief as our characterizations of the activity of Marx and Engels in this area have been, so also sketchy were our representations of how Lenin and Stalin further developed the aesthetics of Marxism; in spite of this we hope that the reader has still obtained those viewpoints with the help of which Hegel’s Aesthetics is serviceable as an inheritance to be critically treated for our theoretical work. I hold it to be necessary, however, still once more to emphasize that in this issue one is allowed to take neither the standpoint that Hegel is an idealist and thus nothing he maintains can be right nor that Hegel was actually right in every essential question and the idealist sign needs only to be exchanged for a materialist one. In this connection I want to point out again the correct critical method that Engels wrote about – how one is not allowed to criticize Hegel’s Aesthetics. Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin have shown us the method of the correct critique; together and inseparably from one another they give the concrete critique of those theoretical and historical distortions which idealist philosophy necessarily brings with it, but simultaneously they lay bare, with the help of the same method in every single case, the correct, often brilliant glimpses of truth with which Hegel’s Aesthetics is so rich.


1. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, chapter “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General,” 1844.

2. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, chapter “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General,” 1844.

3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter VI, 1844.

4. J. V. Stalin, Marxism and Questions of Linguistics, 1950.

5. J. V. Stalin, Marxism and Questions of Linguistics, 1950.