MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Absolute and Relative

Absolute and Relative are philosophical terms concerning the mutual interdependence of things, processes and knowledge. ‘Absolute’ means independent, permanent and not subject to qualification. ‘Relative’ means partial or transient, dependent on circumstances or point-of-view. For dialectics, the Absolute is only the whole movement through various relative stages of understanding, but the progress of knowledge never comes to an end, so the absolute is relative. However, even a relative truth may nevertheless contain some grain of the whole absolute truth, so there is an absolute within the relative. Perception is relative to the observer, but the existence of an objective world is absolute.

Hegel used the various ‘definitions of the Absolute’ to characterise the successive philosophical standpoints shown to be in fact relative in the development of the Absolute Idea.

Further Reading: Hegel: "in Being everything is immediate, in Essence everything is relative" and Absolute and Relative. Einstein: Special and General Theory of Relativity.


Absolute Idea

The “Absolute Idea” is both the apex and foundation of the philosophical system of Hegel. It includes all the stages of the Logic leading up to it; it is the process of development with all its stages and transitions. The Absolute Idea, or “World Spirit”, plays the same kind of role for Hegel as a deity “History is the Idea clothing itself with the form of events” (Philosophy of Right, § 346), and Marx rejects the need for any such concept since history is the product of people, not the other way around. Like “Absolute truth” knowledge of the Absolute Idea is an unattainable ideal, representing the whole of Nature which has developed to the point where it is conscious of itself, or the concept of Nature developed to such a degree of concreteness that it has “returned to itself” - an absolutely comprehensive, practical and concrete concept of the world.

Hegel defines the Absolute Idea as the “unity of the Theoretical Idea and the Practical Idea.” The Theoretical Idea is the completed Notion or concrete concept of the world or object; the Practical Idea is the activity expressing this concept (practice); the unity of the two means fully “conscious practice”, people acting in true accord with their own nature.

Further Reading: Hegel’s exposition in the Shorter Logic or in the Science of Logic, or Lenin’s annotations on the Science of Logic. See also the Philosophy of Right and Marx’s comments on Absolute Knowledge in his Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic.

Absolute and Relative Surplus Value

Absolute surplus value is the surplus value generated by increasing the length of the Working day, thus increasing the surplus labour time.

Relative surplus value is the surplus value generated by cutting wages or reducing the cost of living, thus reducing workers’ Necessary labour time in proportion to the surplus value extracted.


Absolute Truth

A terms always used in a derogatory context, as there can be no Absolute truth capable of finite expression. See Absolute & Relative. See also dogmatism, relativism and scepticism.


Abstract and Concrete

Abstract and Concrete are philosophical concepts concerned with the development of conceptual knowledge. An understanding of what is meant by “abstract” and “concrete” is vital to making sense of dialectics. For Hegel and for Marx, the contrast between abstract and concrete does NOT mean the contrast between an idea and reality. Rather ‘A concrete concept is the combination of many abstractions’. A concept, such as a number or a definition, is very abstract because it indicates just one of millions of the aspects that a concrete thing has, or a brand new idea which has not yet accrued nuances and associations. Concepts are the more concrete the more connections they have. If we say “The British working class are those who work for a wage and live in the UK,” then we've made a very abstract concept. To make it more concrete is to show the many aspects of it; showing the historical circumstances of its rise and development, the state of the world it developed in, etc.

See Marx on the The Method of Political Economy, Geoff Pilling's explanation of method, Hegel on Immediate or Intuitive Knowledge on the “Abstract Universal” and Knowledge proceeds from the abstract to the concrete.

See Hegel on The Notion and on abstract generality and Immediate or Intuitive Knowledge.


Abstract Right

Abstract Right is the first chapter of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: the “inherently single will of a subject” confronting an external world. “Hence the imperative of right is: 'Be a person and respect others as persons.'” thus Hegel explains that having rights is at the very root of being a person; a “thing, as something devoid of will, has no rights against the subjectivity of intelligence and volition

The most fundamental expression of right, according to Hegel, is the giving of particularity to right in the form of a thing, i.e. in the form of Property and possession.

Further Reading: Philosophy of Right and Objective Spirit.