The Influence of Hegel on Western Marxism

talk by Davie MacLean at "Legacy of Hegel" Seminar, 20 November 1998

It is no exaggeration to say that the 20th century has seen Marxism diverge - from a single body of thought into two distinct currents:

One the one hand:

Within this second current, Hegel's dialectic was seen as the key towards restoring the revolutionary content to Marxism against the passive, mechanistic and deterministic version that had formed the theoretical backdrop to the gradualist and reformist practice of the leading parties within the Second International.

Exactly who belongs to which tradition is a question very much open to debate - where Lenin fits in for example is far from clear - probably with a foot in each camp. Certainly Stalinism and its offshoot Maoism would qualify as orthodoxy, Trotskyism is more problematic, as is Trotsky himself since he wrote almost nothing exclusively on philosophical questions, but I would tend to place them both in the orthodox camp as well, for reasons that will come out this afternoon in the discussion on the Johnson-Forrest Tendency.

Western Marxism, a term defined in contrast to the official Eastern, or Soviet variety, and sometimes also referred to as Hegelian Marxism, represents the break from orthodoxy. It also, and this confuses the picture to some extent, represents the separation between theory and practice that Marxism has still to overcome. None of the thinkers usually classified as part of the Western Marxist tradition, including Gramsci even though he was General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, certainly not Lukacs, Korsch, Bloch, Adorno or the other members of the Frankfurt School, were ever in a position to integrate their theoretical insights into the practice of the workers movement to any significant degree. This practice on the other hand, in particular that of the Communist Parties, divorced as it was from the intellectual efforts of the best Marxist minds the century has produced, soon degenerated into an extension of the Foreign Ministry of the USSR, dressing up the zigzags of Soviet diplomacy in sterile formulas drawn from the language of Marxist terminology.

Since this is a school on Hegel, it is not my intention in this talk to give a summary of the main themes that defined the Western Marxist tradition, or to make an assessment of its contribution. What I intend to do is to discuss Hegel's influence on Western Marxism, more specifically:

Lukacs' turn to Hegel's dialectics was driven by the need to wrench Marxism out of the hands of revisionists such as Eduard Bernstein and restore its place as the theoretical tool of the revolutionary working class. As Lukacs put it,

'Bernstein had wished to eliminate everything reminiscent of Hegel's dialectics in the name of 'science'...for anyone wishing to return to the revolutionary traditions of Marxism the revival of the Hegelian traditions was obligatory'. [HCC xxi]

For Lukacs there were three central components of Hegel's thoughts that needed to be re-appropriated:

Marxism was therefore above all a method. Orthodox Marxism, as Lukacs understood it,

'does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the "belief" in this or that thesis, not the exegesis of a 'sacred' book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method'. [HCC xxvi]


In Lukacs' own writing, it was the concept of alienation, reworked as reification, that played a central role. On a philosophical level reification was in fact a product of the absence of dialectical thinking, although for Lukacs this was not simply a problem of philosophy but a symptom of the inhumanity of bourgeois society, of alienation.

Reification was the illusion that social relations such as capital, the market, the world economy etc were in fact things.

'Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a 'phantom-objectivity', an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature - the relation between people'. [HCC 83]

Overcoming the illusion of reification required a dialectical approach. What was this? Lukacs quoted Engels,

'Dialectics thereby reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion - both in the external world and in the thought of man - two sets of laws which are identical in substance'. [HCC 4]

This identity was absolutely vital. Lukacs wished to assert against the revisionists that dialectical thinking was somehow something that could be tacked on to the 'facts' - if one so desired - but was itself nothing to do with these facts, was something metaphysical.

This had been a key argument for the theorists of the Second International, Bernstein in particular, who had swung over to positivism. For them Marxism had nothing to do with 'the facts' but represented either an ethical standpoint or a superior form of economic theory. Lukacs' aim was to demonstrate that this concern for 'the facts' was in fact a bourgeois view, and that any science resting on such a view was in fact bourgeois science, inevitably leading to the reproduction of the reified view of the world that characterised bourgeois society.

Lukacs pointed out that the method of science was to take the phenomena of the world and isolate them so that they could be observed 'objectively', without any interference on the part of the observer, and then to reduce these observations to expressions of quantities.

But was this not exactly what happened throughout bourgeois society, in everyday life? Was this not simply the operation of the law of value as applied in a scientific context - a point Adorno was also to make much of. Was it not the same as reducing all the qualities of real, living, concrete labour to a single common quantity, a quantity of abstract labour expressed through money?

The problem with this approach was that it lent itself to the illusion that isolated facts were subject to fixed and timeless laws:

In response to this, dialectical thinking involved two processes:

In fact, any acceptance of the 'facts' as given was an illusion, a nonsense, since it was precisely the difference between essence and appearance, between how a fact appeared and what it really was, that made science necessary in the first place. For Lukacs this difference boiled down to the way things appeared when seen in isolation - either from their historical origins or else from the concrete totality of which they formed a part.

For Lukacs this standpoint of the totality stood at the heart of his thought. It allowed him to explain what he saw as the fundamental feature of capitalist society - its partial or limited rationality.

That is, he saw a parallel between the way the positive sciences worked and the operation of capital as a whole. The division of these sciences into various disciplines and fields, all standing in splendid isolation from one another and operating strictly in accordance with the 'facts' of their chosen sphere, could also be seen in the strict rationality encountered within an individual capitalist enterprise, in contrast with the irrationality of the market seen from viewpoint of society as a whole.

So therefore sciences could express the facts in their field with rigorous logic and in full accordance with observation, and yet between the various branches of science a completely contradictory situation could arise, such as the famous and as yet unresolved incompatibility between quantum mechanics and current theories of cosmology.

It was this contradiction that was codified in bourgeois science and philosophy, and it was this contradiction that dialectical thinking served to expose - understanding that the goal was not to overcome this contradiction in thought, but precisely to think it, to contain it in contradictory - or dialectical - thinking, and to see therefore the necessity for changing it in practice - through revolution.

It was therefore only from the standpoint of the totality that individual objects could be understood for what they were, how they had come into being and where they belonged within the wider scheme of things. It was only from this standpoint that reality could be understood as a process, of historically emerging phenomena within a concrete totality, only in this way that reified thinking could be overcome and movement [that is life itself] understood as self-movement through living contradiction and antagonisms rather than as an isolated individual, the helpless victim of timeless, external forces.

The Identical Subject/Object

Lukacs's thought resembled Hegel's in one further, crucial aspect. Reality was to be understood not only as 'substance, but as subject'. [HCC 39]

In this context, Lukacs attacked Engels' famous exposition of the '3 Laws' of dialectics - the unity of opposites, the transformation of quantity into quality, and the negation of the negation. For Lukacs this left out the most important element,

'He does not mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process...Yet without this factor dialectics ceases to be revolutionary...thought remains contemplative and fails to become practical'. [HCC 3]

Contemplative thought was precisely the problem for Lukacs, a reflection of the alienated world we live in, a world capable of being studied as something foreign to us, governed by its own laws. It was Hegel who had first understood the limits of any kind of knowledge gained in such manner. For Hegel, 'truth is not to treat objects as alien'. [HCC 204]

'As long as man concentrates his interest contemplatively upon the past or future, both ossify into an alien existence...Man must be able to comprehend the present as a becoming. He can do this by seeing in it the tendencies out of whose dialectical opposition he can MAKE the future'. [HCC 204]

The goal of knowledge therefore was not simply to understand the 'facts' of the world, but to understand both the world, one's place within it, and what possibilities the future might hold - in order to realise them in an active manner. Real knowledge was also self-knowledge. This was the crucial overlap between Hegel's philosophy and Marx's

'The deep affinities between historical materialism and Hegel's philosophy are clearly manifested here, for both conceive of theory as the SELF-KNOWLEDGE OF REALITY'. [HCC 16]

It was here that Lukacs determined the unique and decisive role of the proletariat. The proletariat alone, in order to understand its own position within society and struggle against it, needed to grasp the totality of social relations. The bourgeois, on the other hand, could not do this, blinded as they were by the reification that underpinned their class rule.

But by understanding this totality, the proletariat therefore also understood its own historic role which was to overcome this totality, to overthrow bourgeois society. The class conscious proletariat therefore understood itself not only as the object of history, but as its subject.

At the same time, it was only through this self-knowledge, this class consciousness, that the proletariat was able to become the subject history had created objectively - consciousness, subjectivity and objectivity were all therefore elegantly combined in Lukacs' system, drawing heavily on Hegel's categories.


Like Lukacs, Adorno also sees a connection between the problems encountered by enlightenment philosophy and the reality of bourgeois society. For Adorno the very abstractness of much philosophical thought is directly related to our experience of life under late capitalism.

As a result Adorno's work represents an engagement with enlightenment philosophy, above all Kant and Hegel - but it represents in many ways an attempt to reverse their legacy, to negate them, to expose their limitations and the connection between these and the reality of 20th century life.

So that when Adorno describes the basis of Hegel's Logic as the 'identity of identity and non-identity', Adorno's desire is to demonstrate the exact opposite - the non-identity of identity and non-identity. For Adorno therefore the key categories are not:

but rather

It is important to understand from the outset that the target of Adorno's criticism is neither the Enlightenment nor rationality. Just the opposite, for what Adorno wishes to show is that rationality has as yet not gone far enough, it still remains entangled with myth.

'Positivistic and rationalistic conceptions of enlightenment are not enlightened enough. They present us with an idea of reason which is actually mythical, rather than fully rational, because it suppresses, rather than reflecting on, its own myth and tradition'. [J 22]

In fact Adorno sees myth as a kind of rationality and rationality - at least the rationality of the enlightenment - as a kind of myth. This is because Adorno sees the predominant form of rationality developed by enlightenment as instrumental reason - that is as a rationality whose purpose is to control nature, to assure the survival of human beings.

But mythology also performs this role in ancient civilisations, albeit in a less sophisticated manner. Instrumental reason has not therefore escaped its mythical origins.

Adorno is highly critical of instrumental rationality, although not for one minute does he refuse to accept its necessity. However in Adorno's eyes the drive for the mastery and domination of nature is also responsible for the suppression of instinct within human beings, and for the domination of human beings by other human beings - in other words for many of the features of modern life under late capitalism.

Among other things, this leads to the continual sacrifice of the present for the sake of the future [if anyone has seen the film ANTZ they will recognise this in a speech made by the general to the ant colony to persuade them to go back to work]

In Adorno's words,

'The will to life finds itself dependent on the denial of the will to live ; self-preservation annuls all life'. [J 71]

This is because instrumental reason, in order to control nature, robs it of its organic, its living character, reducing it to an object to be manipulated. In a thought-provoking comparison, Adorno likens the rise of this form of reason to the domination of fixed capital to variable capital, of plant and machinery and the automated production processes of modern industry over the worker, or borrowing Marx's phrase 'of dead labour over the living' that marks capitalist relations of production.

But for Adorno it is supremely ironic that this form of highly developed reason remains trapped within its natural origins - it is natural not human, for so long as it continues to be ruled by self-preservation alone.

'The suppression of nature for human ends is a mere natural relationship, which is why the supremacy of nature-controlling reason and its principle is a delusion...This how animal species like the dinosaur Triceratops or the rhinoceros drag their protective armour with them...The imprisonment of rhinoceroses in their survival mechanism may explain the special ferocity of rhinoceroses'...[ND 179-80]

but for Adorno it is precisely the promise of human reason to break out of this prison, to escape this natural relationship of domination driven by self-preservation.

And it is to dialectical thinking that Adorno assigns this task.

Adorno's turn to dialectics echoes Hegel in a number of important respects. Like Hegel Adorno sees dialectical thinking as the key to resolving the difficulties enlightenment thought had become submerged in, in particular the antinomies that Kant had attempted to address, the collapse of idealism into scepticism, the insuperable barrier between subject and object.

However Adorno's dialectic stands in direct opposition to Hegel's in that its goal is not to arrive at positive truth through a Logic, but rather to negate all such attempts, to expose the element of untruth in all conceptual thinking so long as such thinking remains imprisoned in the limited form of instrumental rationality that marks enlightened civilisation - it is a negative dialectic.

Adorno's negative dialectic can only be understood in terms of what it is not - this is an essential part of its negative character. Adorno's dialectic stands opposed to what he calls 'identity' thinking.

'Dialectical thinking wants to say what something is, whilst identity thinking says what something falls under, of what it is an example of or a representative and what it therefore is not itself' [J 165]

Identity looks to determine all the classes to which an object belongs. For Adorno this reduces an object to a series of concepts. But an object is more than this.

'The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder'. [ND 5]

In Adorno's eyes this was the only acceptable position for a materialist, and Adorno's aim was to develop a materialist philosophy. For him this meant that some separation between thought and its object must be maintained. This materialist view separated him from Hegel. For Adorno,

'It is the matter, not the organising drive of thought [not Hegel's Logic in other words] that brings us to dialectics...But such dialectics is no longer reconcilable with is suspicious of all identity, its logic is one of disintegration'. [ND 145]

Adorno was not seeking to abolish identity thinking. This would be absurd, since this would abolish thinking itself:

'The appearance of identity is inherent in thought itself, in its pure form. To think is to identify'. [ND 5]

Reality, as we all know, contains contradictions. All motion involves a contradiction for example. Hegel sought to integrate this aspect of reality in his dialectic, by introducing contradiction into his Logic. this was his great achievement. But Adorno's position is far more radical - unlike Hegel his goal is not to restore identity to an object by determining its contradictory nature, by grasping this aspect of its nature in thought. Adorno instead wants to highlight the contradiction between thought itself and its object - A THOUGHT THAT CAN NEVER BE RECONCILED BY THOUGHT ALONE. This is the crucial difference between his negative dialectic and Hegel's dialectic.

Adorno's dialectic is negative therefore because it has no positive content - it is simply the negation of all positive thinking - it thinks 'the remainder', what is left of the object that can not be contained in conceptual thinking. It attempts to conceive what it is that can not be conceived - something that can only be done negatively.

Adorno gives an example of his dialectic in a discussion of Kant's definition of freedom. For Kant freedom is founded on the categorical imperative, on his moral law - it is COMMANDED by this law. In other words it contains an element of repression, of unfreedom - Kant's freedom turns out not to be free at all.

It is just this kind of antinomy Adorno wishes to address. For Adorno wants to make two points about Kant's difficulty:

In fact Adorno shows effectively how Kant's conception of freedom is rooted in the bourgeois values of universality and equality so prominent in for example the French Revolution. The repressive, or contradictory character of his conception of freedom reflects something real about these values - that the principles of the universal rights of man, of equality before the law co-exist in reality alongside real inequality, injustice and unfreedom.

But its meaning is entirely negative. There is no freedom we can point to or explain successfully in conceptual terms, as Kant's failure to do so testifies, and yet we understand that there is such a thing as freedom because we EXPERIENCE ITS ABSENCE. This experience is something REAL, in spite of the fact that we can not define it in terms of concepts with a positive content.

Adorno's negative dialectic is, therefore, in no way an act of pure speculation or contemplation. Just the opposite, like Lukacs Adorno had no time for thought as pure contemplation, such thought was an expression of reification and alienation just as it was to Lukacs. Instead Adorno, inspired in this respect by Ernst Bloch's 'Spirit Of Utopia', saw dialectical thinking as an active striving towards a utopian future - a future we could not conceive of, but could yet experience negatively by being aware of the distance between our present lives and such a utopia.

Art was to play a similar role. For Adorno art contained not only an aesthetic content, but a cognitive one - a truth content. However this truth content was not something that could be conceived positively, but rather only negatively by holding out the possibility of new experiences, of a different way of living.

The truth content of Beethoven's 9th symphony could not be understood in terms of shedding light on the social reality of Beethoven's time, or something about the human essence or any such notion. Rather, for Adorno, who wrote a great deal on music, its truth content lay in the experience listening to this piece evoked in US, the listener, in the way it makes us aware of the kind of experiences our everyday lives otherwise exclude, experiences we could have access to and even give a positive conceptual content to - if we could first change our present social reality.

Adorno's theory was therefore related to practice in this sense, as was Lukacs'. However Adorno differed fundamentally from Lukacs in two ways:

for, just as the object could not be collapsed into the subject, so theory should not be dissolved into practice, it had to remain independent, critical, so that IT COULD CHANGE THAT PRACTICE.

This was the function of theory, an essentially critical or negative one, an unceasing effort to conceive the unconceivable, to expose the irrationality of all human rationality thus far. In exactly the same way that the use value of a commodity for you or me can never be reduced to its exchange value no matter to what extent market relations dominate all human affairs as they do in this world today - its particularly individual character can never be expressed purely in money terms - so the world will never be subsumed by identity thinking, something will always remain, and it is this something, this remainder that holds the key to the future.

References to -

HCC - G. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin, 1971
ND - T. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Routledge, 1973
J- S. Jarvis, Adorno, a Critical Introduction, 1998