Hegel-by-HyperText Resources

The Historical Fate of Hegel's Doctrine

The Expurgation of Hegelianism

Once we have read what Hegel has to tell us, and found a way of understanding it, of grasping its positive content, we want to see what has been said against it, and to see how Hegel's views have fared in the world. In other words, before making up our own mind and subjecting Hegel's writings to our own criticism, we look for help from other people who have made a criticism of Hegel and most importantly, we want to see how his ideas developed as part of the real movement of human history itself, what elements proved to be enduring, which aspects led to confusion and internal contradiction, with whom his ideas found favour and who denounced him.

As it happens, the historical trajectory of Hegelianism is a truly fascinating story in itself. During Hegel's lifetime, Hegel himself personally dominated the propagation of his doctrine through his lectures to university students. Although he was still subject to censorship up till his death, it is a fact that his views did not substantially threaten the status quo and the "benign dictatorship" of Frederick Wilhelm III in fact drew considerable strength from Hegel's prestige.

The ten years after Hegel's death, from November 1831 till the death of Frederick Wilhelm in June 1840 and more specifically until December 1841, was the apogee of Hegelianism. Freed from the domination of the Master, Hegel's students took his ideas out of the confines of the University and translated his philosophy into the language of political criticism. In Engels' words:

“As we have seen, the doctrine of Hegel, taken as a whole, left plenty of room for giving shelter to the most diverse practical party views. And in the theoretical Germany of that time, two things above all were practical: religion and politics. Whoever placed the chief emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative in both spheres; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition, both in politics and religion. Hegel himself, despite the fairly frequent outbursts of revolutionary wrath in his works, seemed on the whole to be more inclined to the conservative side. Indeed, his system had cost him much more "hard mental plugging" than his method.

“Towards the end of the thirties, the cleavage in the school became more and more apparent. The Left wing, the so-called Young Hegelians, in their fight with the pietist orthodox and the feudal reactionaries, abandoned bit by bit that philosophical-genteel reserve in regard to the burning questions of the day which up to that time had secured state toleration and even protection for their teachings. And when, in 1840, orthodox pietism and absolutist feudal reaction ascended the throne with Frederick Wilhelm IV, open partisanship became unavoidable. The fight was still carried on with philosophical weapons, but no longer for abstract philosophical aims.

“It turned directly on the destruction of traditional religion and of the existing state. And while in the Deutsche Jahrbücher the practical ends were still predominantly put forward in philosophical disguise, in the Rheinische Zeitung of 1842 the Young Hegelian school revealed itself directly as the philosophy of the aspiring radical bourgeoisie and used the meagre cloak of philosophy only to deceive the censorship.

“At that time, however, politics was a very thorny field, and hence the main fight came to be directed against religion; this fight, particularly since 1840, was indirectly also political. Strauss' Life of Jesus, published in 1835, had provided the first impulse. The theory therein developed of the formation of the gospel myths was combated later by Bruno Bauer with proof that a whole series of evangelic stories had been fabricated by the authors themselves. The controversy between these two was carried out in the philosophical disguise of a battle between "self-consciousness" and "substance".

“The question whether the miracle stories of the gospels came into being through unconscious-traditional myth-creation within the bosom of the community or whether they were fabricated by the evangelists themselves was magnified into the question whether, in world history, 'substance' or 'self-consciousness' was the decisive operative force. Finally came Stirner, the prophet of contemporary anarchism - Bakunin has taken a great deal from him - and capped the sovereign 'self-consciousness' by his sovereign "ego".” [Ludwig Feuerbach & the End of Classical German Philosophy, Part I, Engels 1880]

This process of disintegration was brought to a climax in December 1841 when the newly-appointed Minister for Culture moved to "expunge the dragon's seed of Hegelian pantheism" from the minds of Prussian youth and mobilised Friedrich Schelling to come to Berlin and do the job.

Friedrich Schelling was the second, and in 1841, the only living representative of Classical German Philosophy. The former Professor of Philosopher at Jena after Fichte's dismissal for heresy, who as a youth had been a close friend of Hegel, had both encouraged Hegel and enlisted his support in his struggle against Fichte. Although pushed into the philosophical background by the great G W F Hegel, he had also out-lived Hegel. Schelling had abandoned his earlier Philosophy of Nature and now advocated what he called the Philosophy of Revelation.

‘Ask anybody in Berlin today on what field the battle for dominion over German public opinion in politics and religion, that is, over Germany itself, is being fought, and if he has any idea of the power of the mind over the world he will reply that this battlefield is the University, in particular Lecture Hall No. 6, where Schelling is giving his lectures on the Philosophy of Revelation. For at the moment all the separate oppositions which contend with Hegel's philosophy for this dominion are obscured, blurred and pushed into the background by the one opposition of Schelling; all the attackers who stand outside philosophy, Stahl, Hengstenberg, Neander, are making way for a fighter who is expected to give battle to the unconquered on his own ground. And the battle is indeed peculiar enough. Two old friends of younger days, room mates at the Tübingen theological seminary, are after forty years meeting each other again face to face as opponents; one of them ten years dead but more alive than ever in his pupils; the other, as the latter say, intellectually dead for three decades, but now suddenly claiming for himself the full power and authority of life. Anybody who is sufficiently "impartial" to profess himself equally alien to both, that is, to be no Hegelian, for surely nobody can as yet declare himself on the side of Schelling after the few words he has said - anybody then, who possesses this vaunted advantage of "impartiality" will see in the declaration of Hegel's death pronounced by Schelling's appearance in Berlin, the vengeance of the gods for the declaration of Schelling's death which Hegel himself pronounced in his time.

‘An imposing, colourful audience has assembled to witness the battle. At the front the notables of the University, the leading lights of science, men everyone of whom has created a trend of his own; for them the seats nearest to the rostrum have been reserved, and behind them, jumbled together as chance brought them to the hall, representatives of all walks of life, nations, and religious beliefs. In the midst of high-spirited youths there sits here and there a grey-breaded staff officer and next to him perhaps, quite unembarrassed, a volunteer who in any other society would not know what to do for reverence towards such a high-ranking superior. Old doctors and ecclesiastics, the jubilee of whose matriculation can soon be celebrated feel the long-forgotten student haunting their minds again and are back in college. Judaism and Islam want to see what Christian revelation is all about: German, French, English, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, modern Greek and Turkish, one can hear them all spoken together, - then the signal for silence sounds and Schelling mounts the rostrum.

‘A man of middle stature, with white hair and light-blue, bright eyes, whose expression is gay rather than imposing and, combined with a certain fullness of figure, indicates more the jovial family-man than the thinker of genius, a harsh but strong voice, Swabian-Bavarian accent, that is Schelling's outward appearance’. [Engels, Schelling on Hegel, December 1841]

The audience also included the Young Hegelian and Russian Anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, and fundamentalist Christian Søren Kierkegaard, who was to be the precursor of Existentialism. In summary, Schelling's proposition was that Hegel had confused 'essence' and 'existence', whereas what was required was a return to a philosophy of existence and further, that Hegel advocated the 'negative' standpoint of Reason, whereas what was required was the 'positive' philosophy of Revelation.

Kierkegaard, for his part, ridiculed Hegel for 'reconstructing history in retrospect', 'but history has to be lived forwards, not backwards', he said. For his part, Engels insisted that the youth and all enemies of the autocracy must rally to the defence of Hegel.

‘It will be our business to follow the course of his [Schelling's] thinking and to shield the great man's [Hegel's] grave from abuse. We are not afraid to fight. Nothing more desirable could have happened to us than for a time to be 'The Church Oppressed'. There the minds part. What is not genuine is proved in the fire, what is false we shall not miss in our ranks. The opponents must grant us that youth has never before flocked to our colours in such numbers, that the thought which dominates us has never before unfolded itself so richly, that courage, conviction, talent have never been so much on our side as now. Hence we shall rise confidently against the new enemy; in the end, one will be found among us who will prove that the sword of enthusiasm is just as good as the sword of genius.

‘Let Schelling see whether he can muster a school. Many only join him now because they are opposed to Hegel and accept with gratitude anybody who attacks him ...’ [Engels, Schelling on Hegel, December 1841]

Schelling did not, as it turned out, win much support for his position, but Kierkegaard can be seen as the founder of Existentialism, which is continued through Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre and through Heidegger particularly is a significant component of today's philosophical landscape, continuing to promote the 'primacy of Existence over Essence'.

Prior to Schelling's speech in 1841, there were however already three currents building up in opposition to Hegelianism: Feuerbach (who published Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy as early as 1839, and The Essence of Christianity earlier in 1841), Arthur Schopenhauer (who had published his The World as Will and Representation in 1819, though it was not until 1844 that he obtained any readership for his work) and the British and French Positivists, particularly Auguste Comte (whose Course in Positive Philosophy dates from 1832. John Stuart Mill who marks the predecessor of British Positivism but did not publish significant philosophical works until about 1843).

Arthur Schopenhauer had taught at the University of Berlin for 24 semesters, and had spoken regularly to an empty lecture hall, next door and at the same hour when Hegel lectured to a large and ever-growing young audience. In May 1825 he had renounced his career to live as a recluse. In 1844, an obscure Berlin bookseller accepted the manuscript of Schopenhauer's oft-rejected The World as Will and Idea without remuneration and this book - the founding work of Voluntarism, in the style of Classical German philosophy but passionately hostile to its spirit - gained Schopenhauer worldwide recognition and caused Nietzsche to speak of Schopenhauer as his "great teacher".

In Britain, John Stuart Mill and in France Auguste Comte came forward as the proponents of Positivism. Positivism is a difficult thing to characterise, because like any ideology, it is intimately connected with the fate not of any given proposition or thesis, but with the fate of a social movement and rises and falls and transforms itself according to the fate of the social movement it reflects.

Positivism is that current in epistemology which seeks to speak for science and the positive results of science; it rejects "speculation" and sees the task of philosophical knowledge as summing up and expressing the positive knowledge gathered by the sciences. In the first phase of its development, first place was given to sociology; in this it expressed a belief in the liberating power of science and the urgent need for science to replace religion and all forms of non-scientific "metaphysical" or religious speculation, and consequently the need for a scientific conception of society, based on the rational analysis of the data of the senses.

Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin had studied Hegel in Moscow but had emigrated in 1840 to join the Young Hegelians in Berlin. His later career would see Bakunin fighting in the Revolution of 1848 in Prague and Dresden, returning to Russia, exiled to Siberia, joining Marx's First International but finally expelled in 1872 and founding the Narodnik and Anarchist movements in Russia - the most extreme of bourgeois radicals, advocating immediate insurrection and the smashing of all states.

Earlier in 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach had published his Essence of Christianity: "with one blow it pulverised the contradiction, in that without circumlocutions it placed materialism on the throne again. Nature exists independently of all philosophy ... the spell was broken; the 'system' was exploded and cast aside ... one must have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general ... but a philosophy is not disposed of by the mere assertion that it is false... it had to be 'sublated' in its own sense, ... the new content which had been won through it had to be saved ..." [Engels' Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy].

In almost a moment, following the sacking of Wilhelm Fredrick's Culture Minister in 1841, sprung Existentialism, Voluntarism, Anarchism, Positivism and Materialism!

In October 1843, Engels published his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, which caught the attention of Karl Marx and the 23-year-olds struck up a correspondence. ...

By 1848, the year of publication of the Communist Manifesto, Europe was ablaze with Revolution and from 1838 to 1848, Chartist Movement had raged in Britain. For the first time, the proletariat came on to the political scene as a force for itself. The Revolution was defeated, leaving the Junkers in control in Germany and the Army in France. But throughout the following period, the working class remained the chief threat to bourgeois society. The First International was founded in 1863, with the Trades Councils in Britain and the rapid rise of the German Social Democratic Party and the Paris Commune holding state power for a short period in 1871.

The emergence of labour as a conscious social force puts a final end to the classical period of bourgeois epistemology, the period during which the bourgeoisie worked out its world-view in opposition to feudalism, in terms of a struggle over the question of the origin and validity of knowledge. The explosion of 1841 anticipated the explosion of 1848 and the irreversible sea-change which followed. "Nature" had spoken. For bourgeois philosophy prior to this time, the labouring masses (or what the postmoderns call the "sub-altern" - the "congregation" who get spoken of and to, but have themselves no voice) were like Nature, something 'beyond sensation', the unconscious. The bourgeoisie could never see the world the same again.

In this new world in which a self-conscious workers' movement had intruded on to the scene of culture and politics, bourgeois ideology began with a struggle between Positivism and various currents of irrationalism (that is to say currents which in one way or another minimised the significance and validity of knowledge in human life). The unfolding of this struggle and the development of the social relations which underlay it, is itself of great significance. However, the issue before us at the moment is the settling of accounts with Hegelianism.

On the other side, the critique of Hegel was also at the centre of the development of the workers' movement, Feuerbach's attack bringing the young Marx and Engels to his side and subsequently leading to the founding of both Marxism and Anarchism. [Positivism, which would also later exert a considerable influence within the workers' movement, did not really come out of any critique of Hegel, but rather by-passed Hegel and took its starting point from Kant]. But, in Feuerbach's critique we can see the germs of all the tendencies which later emerged from the expurgation of Hegelianism. So we should start with Feuerbach.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Feuerbach began to work out his critique of Hegel as early as 1839, but let us not try to expound his development or reasoning but go straight to the essentials of his critique:

"The secret of the Hegelian dialectic lies, in the last analysis, only in the fact that it negates theology by philosophy and then, in turn, negates philosophy by theology." [Principles of the Philosophy of the Future 21]

Feuerbach saw that the Absolute Idea, which Hegel saw as existing outside of and prior to Nature and human life, positing and manifesting itself first in Nature and then in human culture, was in fact nothing other than God under a new name. Just as Spinoza had given God the name of Nature, Hegel had given God the name of Idea. In the political and philosophical atmosphere of the time, this was a particularly spectacular claim.

Further, Feuerbach showed that Hegel's claim to have solved the problem of dualism in the thinking of Kant and his predecessors had been achieved only within thought, by eliminating Being from consideration altogether; for in Hegel's system, "Being" was only a thought determination, but, Feuerbach said, a thought could only be the thought of the brain of a living, breathing, struggling human being.

Consequently, the only way to overcome this dualism was to recognise that thinking was the activity of a material being, specifically of a human being. Feuerbach agreed with Hegel on the identity of thought and being, but whereas, Feuerbach said, Hegel had proved this only within thought, Feuerbach said that it was in the nature of sense-organs to reflect their object, and in the same way, it was the function of the brain to reflect the world in concepts. The identity of thinking and being had to be explained by biology, not philosophy.

Feuerbach is said to have invented a simple technique for reading Hegel: to interchange the subject and predicate in each sentence, and the young Karl Marx used this method to make a start on his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right in 1843. Later Marx summed up Feuerbach's contribution with these words:

"Feuerbach is the only one who has a serious, critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic and who has made genuine discoveries in this field. He is in fact the true conqueror of the old philosophy. The extent of his achievement, and the unpretentious simplicity with which he, Feuerbach, gives it to the world, stand in striking contrast to the opposite attitude (of the others). Feuerbach's great achievement is:

(1) The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned;

(2) The establishment of true materialism and of real science, by making the social relationship of "man to man" the basic negation of the negation, which claims to be the absolute positive, positively based on itself." [Critique of Hegel's Philosophy in General, 1844]

Thus, Feuerbach restored the human being to centre-stage. It was a human being which had sense organs and a brain, and it was human beings who created thoughts - not some Divine Absolute Idea. Feuerbach went on, in his famous Essence of Christianity, to show how the myths of the Christian religion rested on the perception of the ordinary human family as something having divine origin in a Heavenly family, whereas in fact the ordinary, Earthly, human family existed first, and human beings created the Heavenly family as a mystical explanation for its origin, in the same way that the Idea explained logical thinking and historical progress and Divine Right, the authority of Kings.

The radical import of this viewpoint is obvious. It is the standpoint ideally suited for the iconoclast. It also put the ordinary human being back in centre-stage and directed attention to positive scientific and social investigation as against the arcane disputations of theologians and philosophers. Feuerbach went on to build his Philosophy of the Future around the concept of Love, placing the most human of feelings and relationships at centre-stage.

In Getting to Know Hegel, I have all presented the categories of Hegel's system as if they were human products, abstractions from the cooperative activity of human beings. But this was not Hegel's view; for him people "are all the time the unconscious tools and organs of the world mind at work within them".

So it seems to me that up to a point, Feuerbach's critique is essentially correct, and also that it contains within it the seeds of all of the critiques of Hegel which come later, both those of the Left and those of the Right.

Kant and Positivism

Before moving to the others who made a break from Hegel, it must be mentioned that for a huge part of the philosophical world, Hegel's critique of Kant never took place. The whole development of classical German philosophy had little detectable impact on the development of "analytical" philosophy in Britain, which was obliged to make its own way in overcoming the scepticism of David Hume. The American Pragmatists appeared on the scene only later, beginning with John Sanders Peirce, and while elements of Hegel's critique can be detected in the Pragmatists' emphasis on practical activity as the criterion of truth, they begin with Kant and the British Empiricists, not Hegel.

Despite the popularity of Hegel in Germany, it was Positivism which was the dominant philosophical trend in Europe, beginning with Auguste Comte in France and later John Stuart Mill in England. It would go way beyond the scope of this article to enter into an examination of the various currents of Positivism which developed over the following decades, "But a philosophy is not disposed of by the mere assertion that it is false", as Engels famously remarked in reference to Hegel's philosophy, and the same is true of Kantianism and Positivism.

All of Hegel's philosophy can be read as a critique of Kantianism and, implicitly, Positivism. Hegel wants to include his philosophical predecssors within the unfolding of the Idea. However, Hegel did not dispose of them; the conditions of life which had given rise to these ideologies continue in existence: social production by means of private labour, a highly developed division of labour and in particular the division between mental and manual labour and the rise of natural science. From the standpoint of Positivism, the Hegelian philosophy is pure nonsense. The assertion that "Being is Nothing", for example, is (for John Sanders Peirce for example) sophistry which can only make apparent sense by skating over ambiguities in the meaning of terms.

But what is important for those of us who are less interested in philosophical debate or in the technicalities of scientific research, than in the way people live, is that bourgeois society still utilises the forms of organisation which Hegel criticised:

The irrationality of this kind of science and this system of communication and decision-making was convincingly proved by Hegel, but once the organised working class entered the scene, bourgeois society was obliged to build irrationality into the political system (a different kind of system altogether emerges when we look at the organisation of the bourgeoisie in its companies).

The only point I want to make here is that although Hegelian philosophy was apex of bourgeois speculative thinking, because of the emergence of the organised working class, and the historically reactionary need of the bourgeoisie to adopt forms of social organisation which obstructed the "logical" movement of history towards the abolition of private ownership of the social means of production and private labour, forms of organisation and thinking which were in a sense already historically outmoded were built into the social system, thus providing the social basis for them. The state could not be the expression of the will of all, but had to fashion the illusion that it was. On the other hand, the development of capital has proceeded apace and what is rational in the modern world is only the inhuman logic of capital.

Consequently, we find that the critique of Hegel took on the form of a criticism of rationality on one hand, and on the other, a critique which aimed to preserve that which was rational within Hegel philosophy while retaining the radical materialistic thrust of Feuerbach's critique.

I want now to deal very briefly with (i) the critique of Hegel which developed through Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and by way of Husserl, Heidegger and the Existentialists, and (ii) the very early criticism by Marx prior to his Theses on Feuerbach.


I think the thrust of Kierkegaard's attack on Hegelianism can be communicated by two of the points made in The Concept of Dread written in 1844.

Firstly, he says that it is absurd to consider any concept separately from its mood, which is to say with Feuerbach that any thought can only be the thought of a human being. Whereas for Feuerbach it is in the nature of the brain and sense organs to reflect their object, for Kierkegaard, a concept without its mood is comical, without the human interests, the desires, hopes and fears, thoughts are absurd. There is no such things as a thought which is not 'psychological'.

Secondly, in common with all science, Hegel left no room for Sin, which is as much as to say that science is indifferent to sin, therefore that it sanctions sin. This scientific objectivity therefore comes under the same fire that Kierkegaard was directing at the clerical establishment of his day which he regarded as corrupt and degenerate. It was not enough to explain history in retrospect, Kierkegaard demanded a passionate commitment and a struggle for what was right.


Arthur Schopenhauer was a contemporary of Hegel's and wrote in the tradition of classical German philosophy, but he had also had contact with Hinduism, and his interest in Hinduism introduced a novel element to western philosophy. At first sight, The World as Will and Representation sits alongside the systems of Kant, Fichte and Schelling, placing Will rather than Reason or Ego or Nature, at the centre of an epistemological system. The point of Schopenhauer's voluntarist system however, is the overcoming of the Will. The Will of a struggling, suffering, individual human being is the only meaning of knowledge, but true knowledge is attained in fact only by the transcendence of Will.


Nietzsche openly challenges the value of knowledge: "What really is this 'Will to Truth' in us?" [Beyond Good and Evil, 1885] and taking Schopenhauer as his teacher argues that if human beings gain an accurate picture of the world, that is only because of the survival value of knowledge, but "why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance?". Do not these also have value? "


All these currents I group together under what I will call Irrationalism, but I do mean by the use of that term to impart a pejorative "mood". This period saw the rise of science bringing in its wake the expansion of mechanisation and large-scale manufacture, the decline of religious belief, the growth of finance capital and huge cities. While Science was God for the masses at that time and above all for the Left, there would be a lot of sympathy today, when science has a "bad name" on the left, for those who first challenged the drive to knowledge. From Galileo to Hegel, the essence of bourgeois philosophy had shown itself to be the question of knowledge, but this is by no means true of pre-bourgeois philosophy and nor is the question of knowledge the central problem for the working class. What is left out of the question of knowledge is Ethics - how should we live? For the bourgeoisie, Ethics had been reduced to the science of political economy.

I take this as the essential critique of Hegel made by his critics from the Right in the late nineteenth century.

Hegel's Ethics

Up until the Expurgation of Hegelianism, thinking was not divided up into separate domains of Ethics, Epistemology, Ontology, Logic and so on, alongside the various social and natural sciences such as Politics, Economics, Physics or whatever. Rather, since the founding of these sciences in ancient Greece, they were seen as aspects of a whole, and all the great philosophers saw all these aspects as inseparable. For example, Spinoza entitled his major work Ethics, but the form of the work is that of a geometric theory and its content addressed as much to the problem of knowledge. The early political economists saw themselves as engaged in a study of ethical problems rather than as students of a branch of science called economics. Consequently, it is no surprise that Hegel's works do not contain a separate treatise on Ethics, but rather, the concept of Sittlichkeit, or 'Ethical Life', and Good unfold themselves inextricably within a philosophical system alongside Truth, Syllogism, Reason, Cognition and so on.

Beginning particularly with John Stuart Mill, bourgeois science differentiated itself into an Ethics called Utilitarianism and a science called Economics. But the two are really opposite sides of one and the same conception, right up to today, when ethics has degenerated to become a specialised branch of mathematical decision-theory which in turn is applied in the development of the newest theories of economic science using information theory and venturing into the mathematics of complexity.

So what is Hegel's Ethics? The society described in the Philosophy of Right is not the society that actually existed in Hegel's Prussia or anywhere else. And Hegel is at pains to point out in the Preface to his Philosophy of Right:

"This treatise, in so far as it contains a political science, is nothing more than an attempt to conceive of and present the state as in itself rational. As a philosophic writing, it must be on its guard against constructing a state as it ought to be. Philosophy cannot teach the state what it should be, but only how it, the ethical universe, is to be known. ... To apprehend what is is the task of philosophy, because what is is reason."

But in the same Preface, Hegel attributes to Plato the observation that: "What is rational is real; And what is real is rational," for when Hegel talks of philosophy apprehending 'what is', he is not talking of simply of an immediately given existence, but of 'the state as in itself rational'. Further, in understanding Hegel's conception of what is Right, one must take account of Hegel's conception of what is True. Hegel's conception is not based on subjective, individual, inner thoughts and feelings, but rather on objective, social forms. And in this system, the Good and the Right are subsumed within the Idea, within the Rational. For Hegel, Knowledge is God. Hegel's ethic is the ethic of knowledge.

This is a topic which would take us too far from our theme at the moment, but this ethic of knowledge is very prevalent in our society today. And when we consider ethics not just as a subjective conviction, but rather from the standpoint of how we live, then we see that the dominant position in terms of determining how we live is occupied by money, and how, ever increasingly, the problem of knowledge in our world is resolved less and less by a subjectively organised reasoning process and is more and more out-sourced, that is to say, solved by the identification of the question of knowledge with that of the laws of economics, of capital, of value. So when Marx remarked in 1844 that "Hegel's standpoint is that of modern political Economy", this was a very profound observation, for in this sense Hegel was "ahead of his time".

The Young Marx

I want to take note of the criticism that Marx makes of Hegel in his Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, not because this critique is in any way negated by Marx's later development, but simply to facilitate the presentation of my own view, in which I want to reserve for the next part of this article the sublation of the negation of Hegel with what he has posited for us. In the 1843 Critique, Marx is working with tools largely adopted from Feuerbach, but nevertheless making his own observations, quite distinct from what Feuerbach has had to say. And it is these aspects of the Critique that I want to highlight, taking for granted, for the moment, the criticism Marx makes of Hegel's idealism.

Of the all the things Marx has to say in this document, it seems to me that the most telling, original and significant criticism is the section that I referred to earlier:

"This is a kind of mutual reconciliation society. ...

"Actual extremes cannot be mediated with each other precisely because they are actual extremes. But neither are they in need of mediation, because they are opposed in essence. They have nothing in common with one another; they neither need nor complement one another. The one does not carry in its womb the yearning, the need, the anticipation of the other. ...

"This appears to be in opposition to the principle: Les extrêmes se touchent. The North and South Poles attract each other; the female and male sexes also attract each other, and only through the union of their extreme differences does man result.

"On the other hand, each extreme is its other extreme. Abstract spiritualism is abstract materialism; abstract materialism is the abstract spiritualism of matter.

"In regard to the former, both North and South Poles are poles; their essence is identical. In the same way both female and male gender are of one species, one nature, i.e., human nature. North and South Poles are opposed determinations of one essence, the variation of one essence brought to its highest degree of development. They are the differentiated essence. They are what they are only as differentiated determinations; that is, each is this differentiated determination of the one same essence.

"Truly real extremes would be Pole and non-Pole, human and non-human gender. Difference here is one of existence, whereas there [i.e., in the case of Pole and non-Pole, etc.,] difference is one of essence, i.e., the difference between two essences. in regard to the second [i.e. where each extreme is its other extreme], the chief characteristic lies in the fact that a concept (existence, etc.) is taken abstractly, and that it does not have significance as independent but rather as an abstraction from another, and only as this abstraction. Thus, for example, spirit is only the abstraction from matter. It is evident that precisely because this form is to be the content of the concept, its real essence is rather the abstract opposite, i.e., the object from which it abstracts taken in its abstraction - in this case, abstract materialism.

"Had the difference within the existence of one essence not been confused, in part, with the abstraction given independence (an abstraction not from another, of course, but from itself) and, in part, with the actual opposition of mutually exclusive essences, then a three-fold error could have been avoided, namely:

  1. that because only the extreme is true, every abstraction and one-sidedness takes itself to be the truth, whereby a principle appears to be only an abstraction from another instead of a totality in itself;
  2. that the decisiveness of actual opposites, their formation into extremes, which is nothing other than their self-knowledge as well as their inflammation to the decision to fight, is thought to be something which should be prevented if possible, in other words, something harmful;
  3. that their mediation is attempted. For no matter how firmly both extremes appear, in their existence, to be actual and to be extremes, it still lies only in the essence of the one to be an extreme, and it does not have for the other the meaning of true actuality.

"The one infringes upon the other, but they do not occupy a common position. For example, Christianity, or religion in general, and philosophy are extremes. But in fact religion is not a true opposite to philosophy, for philosophy comprehends religion in its illusory actuality. Thus, for philosophy - in so far as it seeks to be an actuality - religion is dissolved in itself. There is no actual duality of essence. More on this later." [Marx, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1843]

Thus it was that it was Marx who first levelled against Hegel the charge of totalisation. In 1843, Marx saw the inherently reactionary import of Hegel's drive to subsume all opposites under a single essence, that the mutual reconciliation society was incompatible with the emancipation of labour; that the contradiction between free, voluntary labour and capital (i.e. wage labour) is irreconcilable; that while the property-owners could reconcile their opposing interests, and the proletarians could achieve consensus, there could be no ultimate consensus between the exploiters and the exploited.

For anyone from the Marxist tradition who has done scientific work, the drive to subsume all opposites under a single determination is very strong. It seems unscientific to conceive of the opposites within an object as foreign to one another, as Pole and non-Pole rather than North and South pole. It is the same kind of pressure that makes it difficult to be the 'odd one out' in a discussion. 'Surely we must be able to find some common ground!'

Wage labour is of course a determination of capital, and isn't after all the working class the human face of wage labour? But essentially it is not! As a class, the proletariat is born of capital and grows up and develops within it, but is unfree under capital and can only come into itself by the abolition of capital. The proletariat is defined as the class of sellers of labour power, and such a conception is meaningless outside of a society in which the division of labour is based on the transformation of all labour into the form of commodities for purchase and sale.

Consequently, a true conception of capital requires the recognition of the working class as essentially alien to capital! It reaches its truth, its freedom, only by the abolition of the system of wage labour. Such a transformation of the proletariat can only be conceived as the shedding of the form of wage labour, since the content is not wage slavery, but free, voluntary association!

Such a conception is a complete break from Hegel, a negation of the negation of positivism in the sense that Hegel's overcoming of the subject-object dualism is overcome again with the assertion of the independence of the agent of history, which is the exploited class of bourgeois society.


The following then are the main criticisms of Hegel made in the early 1840s:

  1. That with the Absolute Idea, Hegel restored theology; ideas are human products, not the other way around. (Feuerbach)
  2. That much as Hegel expressed the relations of bourgeois society in his Logic, bourgeois society itself (through its ideological leaders, scientists, politicians, etc.) rejected his system and in the main has stayed with Kant and Positivism.
  3. That while bourgeois philosophy has deified Knowledge, the real question for humanity is not Knowledge but Ethics (the Irrationalists);
  4. That some contradictions, specifically that between labour and capital, are irreconcilable and cannot be subsumed under a single essence. (Marx)

Marx's 1844 Critique

In Getting to Know Hegel we have pointed out the enormous value of Hegel's philosophy which becomes comprehensible if we lay to the side Hegel's conception of a 'World Mind', existing outside of Nature and humanity, but expressing itself in human affairs, and understand Hegel's work instead as a description of the products of human practice. Such an interpretation allows us to see the way forward to the creative development of his work.

Further, in the course of that consideration, we noted in passing some weaknesses of Hegel's conceptions which, by and large, flowed from the limitations of his social position and his times, and were the subject of criticism in the early 1840s. The chief outstanding problem that remains to be dealt with is Hegel's conception of the objectification of human powers in the labour process. Hegel observes the way in which the labour process within bourgeois society generates poverty and dehumanises those who labour in its factories, but he is unable to resolve or rationalise this problem. It is to his credit, in fact, that he leaves this as an unsolved problem. It was left to Karl Marx to solve the problem of understanding why bourgeois society is unable to resolve the crisis of humanity, with his conceptions of alienation and the fetishism of commodities, which are first elaborated in his 1844 Manuscripts.

I will not pretend to be able to give you a comprehensive and authoritative exposition of the development of Karl Marx's criticism of Hegel, a subject on which so much has been written. The reader should remember however that the 1844 Manuscripts were only deciphered in 1930 and translated into English in 1959 and the Grundrisse (which showed how Marx came to the ideas set out in Capital) was only translated into English in 1973. So it is only very recently that we have had the evidence for the importance of Hegel in the development of Marx's ideas.

Every time I return to these questions I only become more conscious of the limitations of what I had previously believed, and all I can do now is to bring forward for some observations which may hopefully shed a little more light on this important historical question, but more importantly, will contribute a little to understanding how we can proceed to understand and do something about the inhuman way we live today.

Marx's Break from Feuerbach

Although Marx began his work on the critique of Hegel as a Feuerbachian, he was soon subjecting both Feuerbach and Hegel to critique and the characteristic approach which we identify with Karl Marx emerged in the course of 1844 making a sharp break with both of them.

We are fortunate that Engels was able to publish after Marx's death the famous Theses on Feuerbach which sum up the outcome of Marx's critique of Feuerbach in hardly more than a page. It is manifest that there is a sense in which Marx is re-asserting an element of Hegelianism in his negation of Feuerbach's negation of Hegel. The Theses are already so condensed it would seem unwarranted laziness to subject them to summary, but what is important for us at the moment is to grasp the sense in which Marx is reaffirming Hegel against Feuerbach and anyone can return to read the Theses for themselves in their entirety.

In the first thesis, Marx says that Feuerbach, in common with all earlier materialists has conceived of things as only in the form of objects of contemplation, and that the idealists, i.e. including Hegel, had developed the active side.

This problem is one that remains with us today. The ordinary working person is spontaneously materialist. That is to say, she regards the objects confronting her in the world as objectively existing things, and is inclined to regard the products of history and society with the same respect given to the objects of nature. On the other hand, the person who is born to rule, in common with the intellectual, is easily persuaded to the view that all these things are in fact the products of thought. The ordinary person reacts with anger and contempt at such a view which contradicts common sense. However, it will become apparent that an uncritical view, a view that accepts the world as it is given to the senses, and as it is conceived by common sense, is all at sea when circumstances change and what appeared yesterday to be an undeniable truth is called into question, even appears ridiculous. For example, it may have appeared obvious a hundred years ago that the female was the weaker sex, but we know now that such a state of affairs was entirely a social construct. Equally, it once appeared obvious that the three angles of a triangle must add to 180 degrees, but since 1905 we know that this too is a social construct.

Marx sums up this limitation of Feuerbachian materialism by saying that "he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity" and that "he does not grasp the significance of 'revolutionary', of 'practical-critical', activity." Here Marx makes a new and important merger of philosophical materialism and idealism: not 'thought-objects', but the products of human practice, which are created and changed not of course by theory, but by practice.

In the third Thesis, Marx takes this a step further. Liberalism understood that better people could be made by producing better conditions of life, that people were products of their environment. This was after all the basis of socialist Utopianism and all progressive social reformism. But this must, Marx says, "divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society", and Hegel had already shown in his Philosophy of Right that such an approach was bound only to make matters worse. By "revolutionary practice" Marx understood the self-emancipation of the oppressed, as opposed to the good works of the well-meaning social reformer who can do no better than teach the oppressed how to be "well-adjusted".

Further, in the fourth Thesis, Marx criticises Feuerbach for having correctly demystified religion and philosophy by showing that ideologies are the reflections of earthly relations. But, to leave it at that is like believing that telling someone the name of the illness from which they suffer is tantamount to a cure. Why is the Earthly family transformed into an image of the Holy Family? And what good does it do to prove it so, and who will give up their belief in the Virgin Mary because you have asserted it to be an image of the Earthly woman? The real problem (the Earthly family) still remains to be understood, let alone resolved in practice.

Marx also criticises Feuerbach for having abandoned the important gains of Hegel's philosophy - the historical conception of things and the concrete universal notion, as a result of which he capitulates to the dominant consciousness of Kantian and positivistic thinking based on the formal, abstract and atomised conception of people and the world in general.

And finally, the famous Thesis Eleven: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it," which could reasonably be taken as a summary of Marx's standpoint but has, alas, also been much misunderstood.

The only genuinely critical 'interpretation' that can be made of a given situation is that which destroys the ideological, mystical reflection of that situation by actually transforming the world. However, such a work of transforming is impossible unless we are also able to see why the world appears in the way it does and can conceive of just how we can live differently. Freeing ourselves from the thrall of the ideas of the world we live in is, by all means, a practical task. But the greatest barrier to achievement of our ends is our own conception of them.

In the last of his 1844 Manuscripts, Marx sums up Hegel as follows:

“The philosopher — who is himself an abstract form of estranged man — takes himself as the criterion of the estranged world. The whole history of the alienation process and the whole process of the retraction of the alienation is therefore nothing but the history of the production of abstract (i.e., absolute) thought — of logical, speculative thought. The estrangement, which therefore forms the real interest of the transcendence of this alienation, is the opposition of in itself and for itself, of consciousness and self-consciousness, of object and subject — .... All other oppositions and movements of these oppositions are but the semblance, the cloak, the exoteric shape of these oppositions which alone matter, and which constitute the meaning of these other, profane oppositions. ... The appropriation of man's essential powers, which have become objects — indeed, alien objects — is thus in the first place only an appropriation occurring in consciousness, in pure thought, i.e., in abstraction: it is the appropriation of these objects as thoughts and as movement of thought. Consequently, despite its thoroughly negative and critical appearance and despite the genuine criticism contained in it, which often anticipates far later development, there is already latent in the Phenomenology as a germ, a potentiality, a secret, the uncritical positivism and the equally uncritical idealism of Hegel's later works — that philosophic dissolution and restoration of the existing empirical world. ...

“The human character of nature and of the nature created by history — man's products — appears in the form that they are products of abstract mind and as such, therefore, phases of mind — thought-entities. ...

“Hegel's standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man — as man's essence which stands the test: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour. Labour is man's coming-to-be for himself within alienation, or as alienated man. The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour. Therefore, that which constitutes the essence of philosophy — the alienation of man who knows himself, or alienated science thinking itself - Hegel grasps as its essence; ...

“For Hegel the human being — man — equals self-consciousness.”


Let us return for a moment to Hegel's development of Consciousness in the Subjective Spirit and of property relations in the early part of the Philosophy of Right.

In the Subjective Spirit, Hegel shows how a person becomes aware of themselves precisely by recognising objects around her as objects for her, as objects which potentially meet her needs, sees the world around her as the negative of her needs, her self. Thus a person find in the outer world her needs, but also the means, and these means, which are equally her own powers, come to be seen as objects. Subjectivity grows precisely through the conception and making of objectivity. Engels elaborated this thought at length in his famous essay The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

But so long as she remains simply an object for others, she is not yet fully human. To be free and human, it is not enough to make an object of those around her; she must also be recognised by others as a human being. Such a relation can come about only through cooperative labour, meeting each others' needs and common needs cooperatively.

Hegel develops this theme in the Objective Spirit:

"The truth, however, of the particular aim of the will, of the particularity which is just as much determinate as suspended, and of the abstract individuality, of choice, which yields just as much of a content in such a purpose as it does not yield, is the unity in which both are only a moment; the absolute individuality of the will, its pure freedom, which determines itself for itself in and for itself. The spirit in this truth of self-determination, which is itself the goal as the pure reflection into itself is thus, as general, objective will, the objective spirit." [last paragraph of the Subjective Spirit]

The recognition of personality, begins with the recognition of a person's property, and takes the form of human relations recognised through the mediation of external objects: social relations which seem to have an external existence - words, concepts, institutions and laws as well as tools (no tool was ever the product of a single person any more than the need fulfilled by a tool), writing and products which meet the needs of people other than the producer.

The marvel of the market (which Hegel calls the System of Needs) is that the production of things which are useless to the producer except for the fact that they are useful to someone else, and thereby meet the needs of the producer, is achieved without any requirement of altruism on the part of the producer. On the contrary, the needs of all are met by means of universal egoism.

So for Hegel, the market is the culmination of the process of human development. There can be no greater expression of the human essence than a person's labour becoming an object in the world, an object which is recognised by others as something for them. All that remains is for people to recognise this work of the Objective Spirit.

But all this creative and productive activity is equally 'conjuring', the manufacture of illusions and ghosts. When I tickle your fancy, you know that I am tickling your fancy. But when you buy my chocolate from the corner shop you attribute the tickling of your fancy to an object as if it were Nature itself that was tickling your fancy - but it was me. All human activity more developed than immediate physical contact involves the placing of human powers into objects and pure thought forms such as words, laws, theories, rumours and so on.

Where can you draw a line between the tribesperson who believes the fire-spirit enters the camp fire to make it burn, the eighteenth century chemist who believes that a negative-weight substance called phlogiston enters the wood to cause fire and the nineteenth century chemist who believes that combustion is due to combination with oxygen: which is illusion and which is science? Surely the only basis for comparison is the history in which each of these conceptions has its place?

When the priest advises his flock on the surest way through the gates of Heaven is he offering less useful advice than the psychologist who tells us how to become well-adjusted. Now none of this is problematic for Hegel and nor should it be for us. Each successive form of society expresses itself in a universe of objects which are no better or worse than the society taken as a whole, which in its turn can only be understood as part of the whole unfolding of the human essence.

Thus when a community invests its values in the form of a currency and thereby allows each and every member of the community to measure their own value and express their own worth in terms of the universal equivalence of their labour with the abstract universal labour, where does cognition end and mysticism begin? Hegel knew he had a problem. The dehumanisation and immiseration which he knew inevitably flowed from the dynamics of the market deeply worried him, but it remained for Hegel an unsolved problem that could perhaps be solved by the export of excess population to colonies.

Let's see what Marx did with this.

Marx & Alienation

Before beginning work on the famous 1844 Manuscripts, Marx wrote a note on the economist James Mill, and I reproduce it below, reduced by 50% so that the line of argument stands out more clearly:

"The essence of money is not, in the first place, that property is alienated in it, but that the mediating activity or movement, the human, social act by which man's products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man. Since man alienates this mediating activity itself, he is active here only as a man who has lost himself and is dehumanised; the relation itself between things, man's operation with them, becomes the operation of an entity outside man and above man. Owing to this alien mediator - instead of man himself being the mediator for man — man regards his will, his activity and his relation to other men as a power independent of him and them. His slavery, therefore, reaches its peak. It is clear that this mediator now becomes a real God, for the mediator is the real power over what it mediates to me. Its cult becomes an end in itself. ... All the qualities which arise in the course of this activity are, therefore, transferred to this mediator. Hence man becomes the poorer as man, i.e., separated from this mediator, the richer this mediator becomes. ...

"The mediating process between men engaged in exchange is not a social or human process, not human relationship; it is the abstract relationship of private property to private property, and the expression of this abstract relationship is value, whose actual existence as value constitutes money. Since men engaged in exchange do not relate to each other as men, things lose the significance of human, personal property. ...

"Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. Hence this true community does not come into being through reflection, it appears owing to the need and egoism of individuals, i.e., it is produced directly by their life activity itself. It does not depend on man whether this community exists or not; but as long as man does not recognise himself as man, and therefore has not organised the world in a human way, this community appears in the form of estrangement, because its subject, man, is a being estranged from himself. Men, not as an abstraction, but as real, living, particular individuals, are this entity. Hence, as they are, so is this entity itself. To say that man is estranged from himself, therefore, is the same thing as saying that the society of this estranged man is a caricature of his real community, of his true species-life, that his activity therefore appears to him as a torment, his own creation as an alien power, his wealth as poverty, the essential bond linking him with other men as an unessential bond, and separation from his fellow men, on the other hand, as his true mode of existence, his life as a sacrifice of his life, the realisation of his nature as making his life unreal, his production as the production of his nullity, his power over an object as the power of the object over him, and he himself, the lord of his creation, as the servant of this creation. ...

"If I give up my private property to someone else, it ceases to be mine; it becomes something independent of me, lying outside my sphere, a thing external to me. Hence I alienate my private property. With regard to me, therefore, I turn it into alienated private property. But I only turn it into an alienated thing in general, I abolish only my personal relation to it, I give it back to the elementary powers of nature if I alienate it only with regard to myself. It becomes alienated private property only if, while ceasing to be my private property, it on that account does not cease to be private property as such, that is to say, if it enters into the same relation to another man, apart from me, as that which it had to myself; in short, if it becomes the private property of another man. ... what causes me to alienate my private property to another man? ... necessity, need. The other man is also a property owner, but he is the owner of another thing, which I lack and cannot and will not do without, which seems to me a necessity for the completion of my existence and the realisation of my nature.

"The bond which connects the two property owners with each other is the specific kind of object that constitutes the substance of their private property. ... both property owners are impelled to give up their private property, but to do so in such a way that at the same time they confirm private ownership, or to give up the private property within the relationship of private ownership. Each therefore alienates a part of his private property to the other.

"The social connection or social relationship between the two property owners is therefore that of reciprocity in alienation, positing the relationship of alienation on both sides, or alienation as the relationship of both property owners, whereas in simple private property, alienation occurs only in relation to oneself, one-sidedly.

"Exchange or barter is therefore the social act, the species-act, the community, the social intercourse and integration of men within private ownership, and therefore the external, alienated species-act. ...

"Through the reciprocal alienation or estrangement of private property, private property itself falls into the category of alienated private property. For, in the first place, it has ceased to be the product of the labour of its owner, his exclusive, distinctive personality. For he has alienated it, it has moved away from the owner whose product it was and has acquired a personal significance for someone whose product it is not. It has lost its personal significance for the owner. Secondly, it has been brought into relation with another private property, and placed on a par with the latter. Its place has been taken by a private property of a different kind, just as it itself takes the place of a private property of a different kind. On both sides, therefore, private property appears as the representative of a different kind of private property, as the equivalent of a different natural product, and both sides are related to each other in such a way that each represents the mode of existence of the other, and both relate to each other as substitutes for themselves and the other. Hence the mode of existence of private property as such has become that of a substitute, of an equivalent. ...

"The relationship of exchange being presupposed, labour becomes directly labour to earn a living. This relationship of alienated labour reaches its highest point only when 1) on one side labour to earn a living and the product of the worker have no direct relation to his need or his function as worker, but both aspects are determined by social combinations alien to the worker; 2) he who buys the product is not himself a producer, but gives in exchange what someone else has produced. ... The product is produced as value, as exchange-value, as an equivalent, and no longer because of its direct, personal relation to the producer. The more diverse production becomes, and therefore the more diverse the needs become, on the one hand, and the more one-sided the activities of the producer become, on the other hand, the more does his labour fall into the category of labour to earn a living, ...

"Labour to earn a living involves: 1) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the subject who labours; 2) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the object of labour; 3) that the worker's role is determined by social needs which, however, are alien to him and a compulsion to which he submits out of egoistic need and necessity, and which have for him only the significance of a means of satisfying his dire need, just as for them he exists only as a slave of their needs; 4) that to the worker the maintenance of his individual existence appears to be the purpose of his activity and what he actually does is regarded by him only as a means; that he carries on his life's activity in order to earn means of subsistence. Hence the greater and the more developed the social power appears to be within the private property relationship, the more egoistic, asocial and estranged from his own nature does man become.

"Just as the mutual exchange of the products of human activity appears as barter, as trade, so the mutual completion and exchange of the activity itself appears as division of labour, which turns man as far as possible into an abstract being, a machine tool, etc., and transforms him into a spiritual and physical monster.

"It is precisely the unity of human labour that is regarded merely as division of labour, because social nature only comes into existence as its opposite, in the form of estrangement. Division of labour increases with civilisation.

"Within the presupposition of division of labour, the product, the material of private property, acquires for the individual more and more the significance of an equivalent, and as he no longer exchanges only his surplus, and the object of his production can be simply a matter of indifference to him, so too he no longer exchanges his product for something directly needed by him. The equivalent comes into existence as an equivalent in money, which is now the immediate result of labour to gain a living and the medium of exchange.

"The complete domination of the estranged thing over man has become evident in money, which is completely indifferent both to the nature of the material, i.e., to the specific nature of the private property, and to the personality of the property owner. What was the domination of person over person is now the general domination of the thing over the person, of the product over the producer. just as the concept of the equivalent, the value, already implied the alienation of private property, so money is the sensuous, even objective existence of this alienation. ...

"I have produced for myself and not for you, just as you have produced for yourself and not for me. In itself, the result of my production has as little connection with you as the result of your production has directly with me. That is to say, our production is not man's production for man as a man, i.e., it is not social production. Neither of us, therefore, as a man stands in a relation of enjoyment to the other's product. As men, we do not exist as far as our respective products are concerned. Hence our exchange, too, cannot be the mediating process by which it is confirmed that my product is [for] you, because it is an objectification of your own nature, your need. For it is not man's nature that forms the link between the products we make for one another. Exchange can only set in motion, only confirm, the character of the relation which each of us has in regard to his own product, and therefore to the product of the other. Each of us sees in his product only the objectification of his own selfish need, and therefore in the product of the other the objectification of a different selfish need, independent of him and alien to him.

"As a man you have, of course, a human relation to my product: you have need of my product. Hence it exists for you as an object of your desire and your will. But your need, your desire, your will, are powerless as regards my product. That means, therefore, that your human nature, which accordingly is bound to stand in intimate relation to my human production, is not your power over this production, your possession of it, for it is not the specific character, not the power, of man's nature that is recognised in my production. They [your need, your desire, etc.] constitute rather the tie which makes you dependent on me, because they put you in a position of dependence on my product. Far from being the means which would give you power over my production, they are instead the means for giving me power over you.

"When I produce more of an object than I myself can directly use, my surplus production is cunningly calculated for your need. It is only in appearance that I produce a surplus of this object. In reality I produce a different object, the object of your production, which I intend to exchange against this surplus, an exchange which in my mind I have already completed. The social relation in which I stand to you, my labour for your need, is therefore also a mere semblance, and our complementing each other is likewise a mere semblance, the basis of which is mutual plundering. The intention of plundering, of deception, is necessarily present in the background, for since our exchange is a selfish one, on your side as on mine, and since the selfishness of each seeks to get the better of that of the other, we necessarily seek to deceive each other. It is true though, that the power which I attribute to my object over yours requires your recognition in order to become a real power. Our mutual recognition of the respective powers of our objects, however, is a struggle, and in a struggle the victor is the one who has more energy, force, insight, or adroitness. If I have sufficient physical force, I plunder you directly. If physical force cannot be used, we try to impose on each other by bluff, and the more adroit overreaches the other. For the totality of the relationship, it is a matter of chance who overreaches whom. The ideal, intended overreaching takes place on both sides, i.e., each in his own judgment has overreached the other.

"On both sides, therefore, exchange is necessarily mediated by the object which each side produces and possesses. The ideal relationship to the respective objects of our production is, of course, our mutual need. But the real, true relationship, which actually occurs and takes effect, is only the mutually exclusive possession of our respective products. What gives your need of my article its value, worth and effect for me is solely your object, the equivalent of my object. Our respective products, therefore, are the means, the mediator, the instrument, the acknowledged power of our mutual needs. Your demand and the equivalent of your possession, therefore, are for me terms that are equal in significance and validity, and your demand only acquires a meaning, owing to having an effect, when it has meaning and effect in relation to me. As a mere human being without this instrument your demand is an unsatisfied aspiration on your part and an idea that does not exist for me. As a human being, therefore, you stand in no relationship to my object, because I myself have no human relationship to it. But the means is the true power over an object and therefore we mutually regard our products as the power of each of us over the other and over himself. That is to say, our own product has risen up against us; it seemed to be our property, but in fact we are its property. ...

"Although in your eyes your product is an instrument, a means, for taking possession of my product and thus for satisfying your need; yet in my eyes it is the purpose of our exchange. For me, you are rather the means and instrument for producing this object that is my aim, just as conversely you stand in the same relationship to my object. But 1) each of us actually behaves in the way he is regarded by the other. You have actually made yourself the means, the instrument, the producer of your own object in order to gain possession of mine; 2) your own object is for you only the sensuously perceptible covering, the hidden shape, of my object; for its production signifies and seeks to express the acquisition of my object. In fact, therefore, you have become for yourself a means, an instrument of your object, of which your desire is the servant, and you have performed menial services in order that the object shall never again do a favour to your desire. If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship.

"Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual objects. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value." [Comments on James Mill, Marx 1844]

Marx has thus shown that the self-consciousness and immediate natural relation of a person to the world around them which characterises labour carried out within traditional kinship relationships is transformed into its opposite when the market intervenes. The labourer does not at all produce for the needs of the community! She produces for her own needs, and the community is not at all a human community, but rather an instrument for earning a living. And her labour is not the expression of her own essence, but of an abstract, external object, value, and as the division of labour becomes more and more abstract, and the nature and product of her labour more and more remote from her own needs, and more and more dominating and alien.

And to make the position perfectly clear, Marx goes on to contrast this state of affairs with what Marx characterises as genuinely human production:

"Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

"Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature. This relationship would moreover be reciprocal; what occurs on my side has also to occur on yours.

"Let us review the various factors as seen in our supposition:

"My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life. Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.

"Secondly, the specific nature of my individuality, therefore, would be affirmed in my labour, since the latter would be an affirmation of my individual life. Labour therefore would be true, active property. Presupposing private property, my individuality is alienated to such a degree that this activity is instead hateful to me, a torment, and rather the semblance of an activity. Hence, too, it is only a forced activity and one imposed on me only through an external fortuitous need, not through an inner, essential one.

"My labour can appear in my object only as what it is. It cannot appear as something which by its nature it is not. Hence it appears only as the expression of my loss of self and of my powerlessness that is objective, sensuously perceptible, obvious and therefore put beyond all doubt". [Comments on James Mill, Marx 1844]

This genuinely human production Marx describes is a society in which a person produces, not in order to earn a living, but voluntarily, in order to meet the needs of other people. Under such conditions the situation conceived of by Hegel in the Subjective Spirit, in which a person finds their essence outside of themselves and in turn expresses their own nature in the production of external things, is reinstated, but in this case not in the form of immediate subsistence production, but as a genuinely human, social existence.

Let us briefly return to the conundrum I introduced earlier, in which the various thought-objects which people produce to express their relationships and activity together, but which are given the appearance of being objective, natural objects, turn out to be chimeras, illusions and superstitions, or 'mistaken theories'. And yet, Hegel shows, these are all indispensable steps in the development of human culture, and their truth, only the onward progress of World History.

Before the rise of the bourgeoisie, social labour was organised according to traditional systems of obligation and occupation, overseen by a ruling class which exercised the right to command the lower orders. In order to transcend this hide-bound system, it was necessary to open up the possibility for free, private labour in which people worked as and when they so desired. This was possible only through the abrogation of the responsibility for organising the sum of social labour to "the market".

However, when the situation comes about that a person produces that which is not their own essence, when their labour is not an expression of their own nature, then a relative truth has become a lie.

Also, it is abundantly clear that this situation can not be rectified by persuasion or 'exposure'. Critique of the fetishism of money means nothing more nor less than living differently, of re-establishing the relation of person to person, of people working to meet the needs of someone else, of re-appropriating the organisation of the sum of social labour as the expression of the needs of the community.

Marx and Political Economy

It is well known that beginning in 1844 Marx devoted the majority of his theoretical work to the critique of political economy, with Capital being by far the most significant of his few finished publications. Apart from Capital, the main thing he left behind him was a world-wide socialist movement firmly embedded in the organised working class. It is inescapable that this direction of his work flowed from the conclusions he drew in his 1844 Manuscripts. Let us follow where the conception of alienation, of estranged labour, led him.

Marx says: "Political economy proceeds from the fact of private property. It does not explain it." [Estranged Labour] That is to say, like Hegel, the political economists take the 'laws of political economy' as givens (just like the subject of Hegel's Logic) and seek to reduce them to abstractions which exist independently of the human will. Now, political economy is manifestly concerned with social relations, and particularly with the specific relations which are characteristic of bourgeois society through which people discover and satisfy their needs. The fragmentation of life has led to a situation where human activity has been broken up and reified into a whole range of distinct sciences, some concerned with the inner life of human beings, some concerned with specific activity directed at Nature, some which concern human activity which in themselves, have no necessary connection with money. But all are aspects of the social activity of human beings. Consequently, political economy, the explicit alienation of the social relations between people into supposedly objectively existing laws, must be at the very centre of the problem of the mystification of the human condition. It is itself the purest and most direct expression of the lie which blocks the path to a genuinely human life.

Further, if we accept that the whole range of abstractions which rule our lives are abstractions from the relations actually pertaining between people, then it is clear that our attention needs to be directed towards the actual relations pertaining between people and the emerging tendencies and potentialities within them, how abstractions are created in the course of this activity and why. Political economy is a body of abstractions which, to the extent they are at all true and scientific, express these human relations in particularly sharp outline, the only proviso being that we should all the time understand that if people live just so, still, they don't have to.

We know that in earlier times, the laws of political economy did not exist. Such laws can only come into existence on the basis of private property and exchange. Nevertheless, it could be said that political economy expressed (in Hegel's terminology) the truth of pre-bourgeois social relations. Equally, if we are able to demonstrate how the laws of political economy create conditions under which they are no longer necessary, then we can show that the truth of political economy is ultimately its own abolition. The abolition of political economy, that is the alienation of human life, is aim of a critique of political economy. In Marx's words:

"We now have to grasp the essential connection between private property, greed, the separation of labour, capital and landed property, exchange and competition, value and the devaluation of man, monopoly, and competition, etc. — the connection between this entire system of estrangement and the money system."


"We must avoid repeating the mistake of the political economist, who bases his explanations on some imaginary primordial condition. Such a primordial condition explains nothing. It simply pushes the question into the grey and nebulous distance. It assumes as facts and events what it is supposed to deduce"

Sketching the growing poverty and immiseration of the working class, Marx states:

"All these consequences are contained in this characteristic, that the worker is related to the product of labour as to an alien object."

So I think it becomes abundantly clear from here why it was that Marx's theoretical work was, for the rest of life, concerned not with the study of "philosophy", but of the actual, cooperative and productive relations between people, how we create abstractions and allow them to govern us, and how we could live without such abstractions. Certainly Marx was concerned with others ways in which people manufacture abstractions and place them outside of and above human life, and this includes Utopian socialism which creates castles in the sky for workers to aspire to and philosophers who fight abstractions with more abstractions, but the importance of the critique of political economy was that in this work Marx could advance the study of the real essential development of Communism:

"Communism is the riddle of history solved, and knows itself to be this solution. The entire movement of history, as communism's actual act of genesis ... is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness, the comprehended and known process of its becoming." [Private Property and Communism]

When we are talking about Marx's work on political economy, then what we have seen in his early writing tells us that for Marx:

  1. "political economy" is falsely presented as a separate branch of science, purporting to study the "social relations between things", which must however be exposed as a mystification of social relations between people;
  2. value and the other objects dealt with by political economy are nothing other than abstractions from human labour;
  3. life is not something distinct from work or vice versa, but rather the separation of labour from life is a product of the system of wage-labour which must be overcome. Wage labour is therefore an inhuman form of existence;
  4. human beings are not to be conceived of as composed of various abstract attributes that define them according to their otherness, be that social class, gender, race or whatever, only one of which is the subject of political economy, but rather it is bourgeois society that fragments people into parts and sets up a multiplicity of theories to rationalise this fragmentation;
  5. political economy did not need to be improved or made scientific, but overcome.

Being a communist Marx was interested in how people could lead a genuinely human life, and for that reason he was concerned with the real relations created by people in their lives, that is to say the relation of person to person, not that of being an appendage or an attribute of a thing.

Instead of doing like the philosopher Hegel, and overcoming abstraction, alienation, within alienation, within abstraction, he was concerned with real human relations;

But in bourgeois society, these relations are presented as if they were external things, and in the so-called science of political economy, we see in clear, universal form these real relations, much more clearly than if we were to approach them as an positivist social scientist who takes opinion polls, counts people into income groups, statistics, mathematical models and so on, and generally takes a different theoretically barren set of abstractions and deals with them as if they were material, natural given things. But it remains to strip these insights from their mystical shell.


Andy Blunden