German philosophy’s main contribution to Marxism was Hegel’s dialectic, most of which Marx and Engels assumed as their own after transforming it, “setting it back on its feet.”
The origin of dialectics is quite ancient. It is visible at the very dawn of philosophical inquiry, notably in the works of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (“everything changes,” “everything moves;” in Greek: “panta rei”) and several Chinese thinkers like Kung-sun Lung and Tai-Chen. It was subsequently developed by the Judeo-Dutch philosopher Spinoza (17th century). German classical philosophy, incarnated by Hegel, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, brought it to its pinnacle.
The main advances of dialectical thought were:
This general methodology of effective, scientific thought, of thought advancing through successive approximations towards understanding the whole of reality, constitutes an enormous step forward by comparison with the purely analytical method of fragmentary knowledge, with its excessive specialisation, based mainly on partial experimentation and formal logic.
Dialectics does not reject partial experimentation and formal logic. It incorporates them. But it also grasps their limits. It thus opens the way to inter-disciplinary advances of knowledge such as Marxism has achieved notably in the field of history and economics, whose object is society as a whole, and which it will, sooner or later, extend to all sciences having humankind as their object.
Hegel’s thought, stimulated by his experience of the French revolution (in his youth, the great German philosopher had even belonged to a pre-Jacobin revolutionary group), advanced to the verge of a “qualitative leap” in several key areas: notably that of the key, role of social labour in human history. But the victory of the political counter-revolution in France and Europe and the immature nature of bourgeois society and the proletarian class struggle in the first two decades of the 19th century, did not allow this great genius to go beyond certain limits of his thought. It thus remained flawed by the following weaknesses:
(a) He conceived dialectics essentially in the realm of ideas. For him, the movement of thought was fundamental in relation to the movement of material reality. In fact he often identified the real with the ideal. In the last analysis, he reduced the dialectics of history to the dialectics of the “absolute idea.” For him, the realisation of freedom, conceived as the finality of history – a conception Hegel shared with the Enlightenment –, that is with the project of human emancipation that underpinned the entire struggle of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, was above all the realisation of spiritual freedom: “A slave whose spirit is free can be freer than his master.”
(b) The philosophy of history that emanated from this idealistic conception of dialectics was marked by an excessively abstract quasi-metaphysical quality. It was not concrete men and women, as they lived, worked, were exploited and suffered at the same time as they thought and experienced “their inner soul” and “moods,” who were the protagonists of history, the object of research and the subject of the emancipation movement. Too often, he assigned that role to “spiritual beings,” that is ideas, ideologies, including religions.
But this metaphysical flaw in Hegel’s philosophy of history was tempered by several brilliant, intuitions into the relations between labour (production), the organisation of material life, and the state (the social structure), intuitions which led the German philosopher to the very edge of a genuinely materialist analysis of many historical phenomena.
(c) An idealist philosophy of history based on an idealist conception of dialectics, could easily degenerate into an apologetic view of social reality, particularly of the state (the Prussian state) in which the philosopher was inserted.
Hegel’s famous formula: “All that is real is rational; all that is rational is real,” is not automatically apologetic, provided the verb “to be” is conceived dialectically as the equivalent of “to become, to be transformed, to grow, then to decline and disappear.” It can mean: “All that is real survives only insofar as this reality corresponds to a necessity and, in that respect, to its own rationality. Insofar as this rationality declines and decomposes, insofar as its contradictions sharpen and become more and more explosive, this reality becomes more and more ‘unreal’, that is begins to decompose and therefore to disappear, to make way for a new, more rational, reality.” Likewise: “All that is rational, even though not yet fully realised, even though still merely potential, embryonic, will become more and more real, will gradually be realised in its entirety.”
But the same, potentially revolutionary, formula can also be interpreted in a thoroughly conservative way. It then becomes: “All reality is rational (otherwise it would not exist), that is to say necessary (the inevitable result of the processes that produced it). It must therefore not be challenged. All that is rational and necessary has already been realised. What has not been realised is neither (or not yet) rational, nor necessary; otherwise it would already have been realised.”
In fact, both these parallel interpretations were present in Hegel’s own thought. The former predominated in the works of his youth. The latter in the works of his old age. They gave birth to two schools, two lineages of disciples. The latter was characteristic of the “Old Hegelians,” who supported the Prussian monarchy, religion and the state, which, they claimed, embodied “virtue” (as in Plato and Aristotle) and the “common good”, as opposed to “civil society” in which economic and social selfishness prevailed. The former brought forth the “Young Hegelians”; these were radical, anti-establishment, rebellious, atheistic (particularly Feuerbach) philosophers whom Marx joined in his youth, and whose merciless philosophical, historical, social, economic and political critique he would continue.
In one of his least known youthful works, Der Geist des Christentums (The Spirit of Christianity), Hegel even dared to write: “Only what has freedom as its object is the Idea. The state must therefore be superseded! For all states are called upon to treat free human beings as if they were dealing with the cogs of a machine (Räderwerk). And that ought not to be. It (the state) must therefore cease ... At the same time, I wish to establish here the principles of the history of humanity, that this the whole miserable human labour of the state, the constitution, government and legislation – and bare it to the skin!” (G.W.F. Hegel, Der Geist des Christentums, Ullstein, 1978, p, 341. From French trans. by E.M. Translator’s note.)
(d) Removed from material reality, idealist dialectics risks standing beyond the reach of any epistemological criterion, any ultimate instrument of verification. By the same token, it risks locking itself into a circular line of reasoning, and even falling into solipsism. It risks adopting a dogmatic bent in which the internal consistency of the reasoning alone serves as the ultimate justification of the system of thought, the final proof of its degree of truth, its veracity.
Marx and Engels tried to correct these weaknesses of idealist dialectics by “setting it back on its feet” (implying Hegel had set it on its head, that is upside down). By the same token, they transformed idealist dialectics into materialist dialectics. The latter is based on the following observations:
The spiritual freedom of slaves is probably essential for the their survival. But the fight for their material liberation, that is for the abolition of slavery as a social institution, and of the entire social structure that underpins it, is even more important in the long run. At any rate, history produced a real movement of the slaves themselves for their material emancipation. The programme which Marx and Engels set for themselves in their youth and to which they remained faithful their entire life, was to fight all the institutions and all the conditions in which the human being is a miserable, exploited, oppressed, alienated, and therefore mutilated, being, incapable of realising all his or her human potential. This was a radical break with any form of apologetic use of dialectics.
The fusion of materialist dialectics with the main discoveries of French sociological historiography, enriched by the main insight of English political economy – the centrality of social labour in human existence – enabled Marx and Engels to elaborate their theory of the social evolution of humanity in a coherent fashion. Thus emerged the theory of historical materialism, also called “the materialist interpretation of history.”
Last updated on 22.7.2004