G V Plekhanov 1917

From Idealism to Materialism: Hegel and Left Hegelians — David Friedrich Strauss — The Brothers Bruno and Edgar Bauer — Feuerbach

Source: Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976), pp 600-43.
Transcribed: for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Moscow Editor’s Note: ‘This article was written for The History of Western Literature in the Nineteenth Century which was being prepared by Mir Publishers. The article was completed by Plekhanov at the beginning of 1915 and was published in Moscow in 1917 as the first chapter of Volume Four of The History of Western Literature in the Nineteenth Century.’

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German idealist philosophy played an extremely important role in the history of the development of science in the nineteenth century. It had an impressive impact even on natural science. But incomparably more powerful was its influence on those ‘disciplines’ which in France are called the moral and political sciences. Here the influence of German idealist philosophy must be recognised as decisive in the full meaning of the word. It raised, and to some extent solved, problems of which the solution was absolutely imperative if scientific investigation of the process of social development was to be possible. As an example, it is sufficient to refer to Schelling’s solution of the problem of the relationship of freedom to necessity (in his System des transzendentalen Idealismus, Tübingen, 1800). But Schelling was only a forerunner; German idealism found its most complete exponent in the person of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

It was quite natural that his influence should be felt most of all in his native land, Germany. But after Germany, there was no country where Hegel’s teaching had such an influence as it had in Russia. [1]

It is impossible to understand the history of West European philosophy and West European social science in the nineteenth century unless one is acquainted with the main features of the philosophies of Hegel and Feuerbach. That is self-evident. But at first glance it is much less easy to grasp the incontestable fact that it was precisely to these two non-Russian thinkers that those Russian writers had to refer who were attempting to solve what might appear to be purely Russian problems. Further consideration will show, I hope, that there was in fact nothing at all strange about that. For the moment I will confine myself to saying that the whole point is the scientific character of the philosophical systems of Hegel and Feuerbach. It is this character in particular we have to note above all, beginning, of course, with Hegel.


After the forcible removal of Chernyshevsky from the literary scene, [2] a disregard for German ‘metaphysics’ began to spread in our advanced circles, where Hegel came to be regarded as predominantly a conservative, if not reactionary, thinker. This was a grave error. It is indisputable that towards the end of his life, Hegel was very far from being what he had been earlier. As young men, he and Schelling had planted a tree of liberty in a meadow near Tübingen, and he had filled pages of his album with exclamations such as ‘Vive la liberté’, ‘Vive Jean-Jacques!’, etc. And in the sunset of his day, as he worked on his Philosophie des Rechts, he was indeed ready to preach philosophical ‘reconciliation with reality’ (Belinsky well understood Hegel as he was then). But the chief distinguishing feature of the Hegelian system is by no means that in his old age its creator drew conservative practical conclusions from his theoretical premises. That system occupies one of the first places — if not the very first — in the history of philosophical thought, not because it came to any specially valuable practical conclusions, but because it established certain theoretical principles of such outstanding importance that they must be mastered, not only by the thinker who wishes to work out for himself a correct theoretical conception of the world, but also by every practical worker consciously striving to reconstruct the social order around him. Hegel himself used to say that in philosophy the important thing is method and not results, that is to say, not some particular conclusions or others. So it is from the point of view of method that we should look first of all at his philosophy.

We know that Hegel called his method dialectical; why did he do so?

In his Phänomenologie des Geistes he compares human life with dialogue, in the sense that under the pressure of experience our views gradually change, as happens to the opinions of disputants participating in a discussion of a profound intellectual nature. Comparing the course of development of consciousness with the progress of such a discussion, Hegel designated it by the word dialectics, or dialectical motion. This word had already been used by Plato, but it was Hegel who gave it its especially profound and important meaning. To Hegel, dialectics is the soul of all scientific knowledge. It is of extraordinary importance to comprehend its nature. It is the principle of all motion, of all life, of all that occurs in reality. According to Hegel, the finite is not only limited from without, but by virtue of its own nature it negates itself and passes into its own opposite. All that exists can be taken as an example to explain the nature of dialectics. Everything is fluid, everything changes, everything passes away. Hegel compares the power of dialectics with divine omnipotence. Dialectics is that universal irresistible force which nothing can withstand. At the same time dialectics makes itself felt in each separate phenomenon of each separate sphere of life. Take motion. At a given moment, a body in motion is at a given point, but at the very same moment it is also beyond that point too, since if it remained only at the given point it would be motionless. All motion is a living contradiction; all motion is a dialectical process. But the whole life of nature is motion; so that in the study of nature it is absolutely essential to adopt the dialectical viewpoint. Hegel sharply condemns those naturalists who forget this. [3] But the main reproach he addresses to them is that in their classifications they put a wide and impassable gulf between things which in fact pass into one another in obedience to the irresistible force of the law of dialectical motion. The subsequent triumph of transformism in biology clearly demonstrated that this reproach had a quite sound theoretical basis. Exactly the same is being demonstrated by the remarkable discoveries in chemistry which are proceeding before our very eyes. However, there is no doubt that the philosophy of nature is the weakest part of Hegel’s system. He is incomparably stronger in his ‘logic’, in the ‘philosophy of history’, and in the philosophy of social life in general, as well as in the ‘philosophy of mind’. It was here especially that his influence upon the development of social thought in the nineteenth century was most fruitful.

The following, however, should be noted. Hegel’s viewpoint was that of development. But development may be understood variously. Even now there are naturalists who reiterate with an air of importance: ‘Nature does not make leaps.’ Sociologists, too, frequently say: ‘Social development is accomplished through slow, gradual changes.’ Hegel, on the contrary, affirmed that just as in nature so also in history, leaps are inevitable:

The changes of Being [he says] are in general not only a transition of one quantity into another, but also a transition from the qualitative into the quantitative, and conversely; a process of becoming other which breaks off graduality [ein Abbrechen des Allmählichen] and is qualitatively other as against the preceding determinate being. Water on being cooled does not little by little become solid... but is suddenly solid; when it has already attained freezing point it may (if it stands still) be wholly liquid, and a slight shake brings it into the state of solidity.

Development becomes comprehensible only when we regard gradual changes as a process through which a leap (or leaps) is prepared and evoked. Whoever wishes to explain the origin of a given phenomenon by slow changes alone is in fact unconsciously assuming that it is already actually there and is imperceptible only on account of its smallness. Such a supposed explanation substitutes for the concept of origin the concept of growth, of a simple change in magnitude, that is to say, it arbitrarily eliminates precisely that which required explanation. [4] We know that modern biology fully recognises the importance of ‘breaks of graduality in the process of development of animal and vegetable species’.

Hegel was an absolute idealist. He taught that the motive force of world development is, in the final analysis, the power of the absolute idea. That, of course, is quite an arbitrary and, one might say, fantastic assumption. Trendelenburg had no difficulty later in demonstrating in his Logische Untersuchungen that reference to the idea in reality has never explained anything. However, as I remarked in another place, Trendelenburg, in aiming his blows against dialectics, actually hit only its idealist basis. [5] Trendelenburg was quite right when he blamed Hegel’s dialectics for ‘asserting the spontaneous motion of pure thought constituting at the same time the self-generation of being’. But in this assertion lies not the nature of all dialectics in general, but the shortcoming of idealist dialectics. This shortcoming was eliminated by the materialist Marx, so that Trendelenburg’s objection to dialectics has now lost all importance. But Marx himself, before he became a materialist, was a follower of Hegel.


Hegel erred as an idealist, that is to say, in so far as he believed the power of the idea to be the motive force of world development. But he was right as a dialectician, that is to say, in so far as he observed all phenomena from the standpoint of their development. Whoever regards phenomena from the standpoint of their development refuses to apply to them the yardstick of this or that abstract principle. This was explained excellently by Chernyshevsky. ‘Everything depends on circumstances, on conditions of place and time’, he wrote in his Essays on the Gogol Period in Russian Literature, describing the chief distinguishing feature of the dialectical view of phenomena. This view was especially fertile in the field of journalism and in the social sciences, in which it had become the custom to pronounce judgement on phenomena proceeding from this or that abstract principle, accepted once and for all. It was no accident that the French called these sciences ‘sciences morales et politiques’. In the same Essays, Chernyshevsky wrote: ‘There is no abstract truth; truth is always concrete.’ He pointed to war, among other things, as an example:

Is war disastrous or beneficial? This cannot be answered definitely, as a general rule. One must know what kind of war is meant... For civilised peoples, war usually does more harm than good. But... the war of 1812 was a war of salvation for the Russian people. The Battle of Marathon was a most beneficial event in the history of mankind.

That is so. And if that is so, there is no point in asking which particular social and political structure must be regarded as the best; surely here, too, everything depends upon the circumstances, upon the conditions of place and lime. Thus Hegel’s philosophy mercilessly condemned utopianism. A pupil of Hegel, if he remained true to his teacher’s method, could become a socialist only if scientific investigation of the modern economic system led him to conclude that the internal laws of development of that system would bring about the formation of a socialist system. Socialism had to become a science or cease to exist. This makes it understandable why Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, came precisely from Hegel’s school.

Take another example. JB Say considered it a waste of time to study the history of political economy, on the ground that before Adam Smith, whose follower he mistakenly thought himself to be, all economists had held erroneous views. Hegel, his contemporary, viewed the history of philosophy quite differently. To Hegel, philosophy was the self-knowledge of the spirit. Since the spirit progresses, since it develops with the development of mankind, philosophy, too, does not stand still. Each, now ‘surpassed’ philosophical system was the intellectual expression of its time (seine Zeit in Gedanken erfasst), and this constitutes its relative justification. Besides, ‘the latest philosophy in point of time is the result of all preceding philosophies and consequently must embrace the principles of all of them’. [6]

Only being viewed in this way could the history of philosophy become a subject of close, scientific study. And although Hegel was accused, not without reason, of treating historical data at times with a fair amount of disrespect, arranging them to suit the needs of his philosophical system, [7] nevertheless there is no doubt at all that his Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie is still the best history of philosophy, that is, the most instructive, shedding the clearest light on the theoretical content of the various philosophical doctrines.

Hegel considered the problems of law, morality, art and religion from the selfsame dialectical viewpoint. All these ‘disciplines’ were studied by him in their mutual relationships. He taught that ‘only in connection with this particular religion, can this particular form of state exist; just as only this philosophy and this art can exist in this state’. [8] This view is interpreted sometimes very superficially; it is said that each of the myriad aspects of social life influences all the rest, and, in turn, experiences the influence of all other aspects on itself. This is the well-known theory of the interaction of social phenomena. But though Hegel accepted this theory, he maintained that we could not stop at it.

The inadequacy of the method of examining phenomena from the point of view of reciprocal action [he says] consists of this, that the relation of reciprocal action, instead of serving as the equivalent of concept, must itself be understood.

The meaning of this is: if I succeed in discovering that the state structure of a particular country influences its religion and its religion influences its state structure, my discovery will, naturally, be of a certain amount of use to me. However, it will not explain to me the origin of these interacting phenomena — the particular state structure and the particular religion. To solve this problem, I must dig deeper and, not content with the interaction of religion and state structure, try to discover the common basis upon which both religion and state structure rest. Hegel expressed this very well when he said that ‘cause not only has an effect, but in the effect, as cause, it stands related to itself’, [9] and that the interacting sides cannot be accepted just as they stand, but must be conceived as elements of a third, ‘higher’, something.

In respect of methodology, this demand was extremely important, because it impelled a search for the root cause which, in the last analysis, brings about the historical motion of mankind. Hegel as an idealist considered the root cause of this motion to be the universal spirit. History is nothing more than its ‘exposition and realisation’, that is, to put it simply, motion. This motion takes place in stages. Each separate stage has its own special principle, whose bearer in a particular epoch is a particular nation, constituting then something in the nature of a chosen people. This special principle determines the whole spirit of the epoch. The specific spirit of a nation, says Hegel:

... expresses in concrete form all aspects of the consciousness and will of that people, its entire reality; this specific spirit is a common hallmark of the nation’s religion, system of government, ethics, legislation, customs, and also science, art and technical skill. These special peculiarities are to be understood from the common peculiarity, a particular principle of a nation, in the same way as, on the contrary, the common in the special should be detected in the factual detail of history. [10]

References to the specific spirit of the nation are much misused in social science and by journalists. But every particular theory is subject to misuse, especially when it is already outliving its time. In itself, the doctrine that the ‘spirit’ of a particular nation is distinguished by special features at a particular stage of the nation’s development is not so mistaken as might be thought, when reading the opinions of some nationalists. There is not the slightest doubt that ‘social man’ has a particular psychology, the qualities of which determine all the ideologies he creates. This psychology of his might, if you like, be called his spirit. Of course it must always be remembered that the psychology of social man develops, that is, changes. But Hegel was well aware of this. It is also necessary to bear in mind that the psychology of social man does not explain his historical progress: it is itself explained by it. Hegel, however, put this the other way round: the ‘spirit’ of every particular nation explained its historical destiny, and indeed all its reality, that is to say, all its social life. That is a mistake, the origin of which is quite comprehensible. As an idealist, Hegel was convinced that being is conditioned by consciousness and not the other way round. Apply this general idealist view to history, and you will have social being determined by social consciousness, or, if you prefer the expression, by the national spirit. That is why Hegel contended that the spirit of each particular nation determines — note, however, only in the final analysis — not only its art, its religion, and its philosophy, that is, not only the totality of its ideologies, but also its political system and even its technology and the sum-total of its social relationships. His error was brought to light only with the discovery of the unsoundness of the general (idealist) basis of his philosophy and then by no means at once. Every stage of the development of the world spirit is represented on the historical scene by a separate nation. The present historical epoch is the epoch of German culture. According to Hegel, the nation representing the highest stage of development of the world spirit is entitled to regard other nations as mere instruments for the realisation of its historical aims. This is worth noting. If today the Germans do not stand on ceremony with the vanquished, there is in this, unfortunately, a drop of Hegelian honey.

But the Slav peoples could not willingly accept the hegemony of the Germans. Since Schelling’s time part of the intelligentsia in the Slav countries have been busily occupied with the question of which exact stage of development of the world spirit these peoples are fated to represent.

Earlier I said that Hegel had often been accused of arbitrarily arranging facts, historical and others, in the interests of his system. Now I will add that, as an idealist, he could not entirely deny himself some arbitrariness in the treatment of factual data. But he was much less guilty in this respect than other founders of idealist systems. Those who, through ignorance of Hegel’s philosophy of history, naively believe that in it Hegel never descended to concrete historical ground [11] are very much mistaken. On the contrary, he did so often, and when he did, his philosophical-historical considerations vividly illuminated many important problems of mankind’s historical development. Speaking, for instance, of the fall of Sparta, he was not content with what could be said of it from the standpoint of the ‘world spirit’, and sought its cause in the inequality of property (Ungleichheit des Besitzes). He explains the origin of the state, too, by the growth of property inequality, and this absolute ‘idealist’ believed that agriculture was the historical basis of marriage. Hegel was fond of repeating that on closer examination idealism proves to be the truth of materialism. The examples I have just mentioned — and I could easily advance many more — convincingly demonstrate that, in fact, in his own philosophy of history, it turned out that on closer examination the opposite was the case: materialism proved to be the truth of idealism. [12] This circumstance will become of no small importance to us when we recall that Marx and Engels, who subsequently founded the theory of historical materialism, were Hegelians to start with.


Whoever regards social relationships from the standpoint of their development cannot be a supporter of stagnation.

When Herzen became acquainted with Hegel’s philosophy, he called it the algebra of revolution. [13] Even though this assessment was not without a certain element of exaggeration, it is nevertheless incontestable that so long as Hegel remained true to his powerful dialectical method he was an advocate of progress. In concluding his lectures on the history of philosophy, he said that the world spirit never stands still, since forward motion is its intimate nature:

Frequently it seems that the world spirit has forgotten and lost itself. But inside it resists. Internally it continues to labour — as Hamlet said of his father’s ghost: ‘Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the ground so fast?’ — until it gathers strength, and breaks through the earth’s crust separating it from its sun, from its reason. And then the world spirit forges ahead rejuvenated with giant strides. [14]

The same can be said of the world spirit: ‘It works fast!’

Call this what you will, but it is not the philosophy of a guardian of the existing order of things!

As we know, Hegel was accused of conservatism on the grounds that he proclaimed the identity of the rational and the real. But in themselves, the words ‘what is real is rational; what is rational is real’ ('was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig; was vornünftig ist, das ist wirklich’) are not an indication of Hegel’s readiness to accept every given social order, or, for that matter, every given social institution. To be convinced of this, it will be sufficient to remember his attitude to the excessive power of the father in the Roman family. To Hegel, not everything by far that existed was real. He actually said: ‘Reality is higher than existence.’ ('Die Wirklichkeit steht höher als die Existenz.’) The real is necessary, while not all that exists is necessary. As we have seen, the world spirit does not stand still. Its eternal motion, its tireless work, little by little deprives the given social order of its essential content, transforms it into an empty form that has outlived its time and therefore makes necessary its replacement by a new order. If the real is rational, it must be remembered that the rational is real. But if the rational is real, it follows that there is not, and cannot be any authority capable of halting its progressive dialectical motion. It was not for nothing that Hegel defined dialectics as a universal irresistible force which must destroy even that which is most stable.


‘Everything is fluid, everything changes; one cannot enter the same stream twice and no one touches the fatal essence twice.’ So spoke the profound (the ‘dark’) thinker of Ephesus. [15] This same thought, but tempered in the crucible of an incomparably stricter logic, underlies Hegel’s philosophy. But if everything is fluid, if everything changes, and if the mighty force of dialectical motion does not spare even the most stable phenomena, we have no right to regard any of the latter from the viewpoint of mysticism. On the contrary, they can and must be examined only from the standpoint of science.

The reader must be aware of the celebrated contrast of the infiniteness of the Universe to moral law made by Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason:

The very first view of the infiniteness of the Universe annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature... Moral law, on the contrary, infinitely raises my value as an intelligent being owing to my personality in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of the world of beasts, and even of the entire sensible world.

Thus for Kant, as well as for Fichte, moral law was a kind of key which opened the door to the world beyond. Hegel saw it quite differently. According to his teaching morality is the inevitable product and necessary condition of social life. Hegel recalls Aristotle’s saying that the people existed before the individual man. The individual person is something dependent, and therefore must exist in unity with the whole. To be moral is to live according to the morals of one’s country. For man to be given a good upbringing, he had to be made a citizen of a well-ordered state. [16]

It would appear from this that ethics is rooted in politics. There is a strong resemblance here to the revolutionary doctrine on morality elaborated by the eighteenth-century French Enlighteners. This resemblance could, however, give rise to misunderstanding. If to be moral means to live in accordance with the morals of one’s own country, this would appear to condemn beforehand innovators, whose activity always and unavoidably places them in opposition to some of their country’s morals, that is to say, it makes them immoral, in a certain sense of the word. Aristophanes charged Socrates with immorality. And the death of Socrates demonstrates that the people of Athens found this charge grounded.

However, the contradiction may be solved easily with the aid of the dialectical method. In the Introduction to his Philosophy of History, Hegel notes:

Generally, as regards the withering, the injury and decline of religious, ethical and moral aims and conditions it must be said that, although by their inner essence these aims and conditions are infinite and eternal, their manifestation, however, may be of a limited character, they have a natural bond with each other and are subject to the command of chance. Therefore they are transient, subject to withering and injury.

There, too, Hegel expresses a thought which was developed in detail later by Lassalle in his Systeme der erworbenen Rechte: ‘The right of the world spirit is higher than all particular rights.’ ('Das Recht des Weltgeistes geht über alle besonderen Berechtigungen.’)

Great personalities, appearing in history as the bearers and defenders of ‘the right of the world spirit’, found their complete justification, in Hegel’s philosophy of history, notwithstanding the fact that their actions constituted a violation of particular rights and threatened the prevailing social order. Hegel called these personalities heroes who by their activity created a new world. He says that:

They come into collision with the old order and destroy it, they are the violators of the existing laws. Therefore they perish, but perish as individual personalities. Their punishment does not destroy the principle they represent... the principle triumphs later although in another form.

Aristophanes was not mistaken; Socrates was, in fact, destroying the old morality of his people, who could not be blamed for condemning him to death when they sensed he was a danger to their cherished social system. The Athenians were right in their own way; however, Socrates too was right, and even more than his judges, since he was the conscious spokesman of a new and higher principle.

Hegel had a positive weakness for these ‘violators of existing laws’ and poured scorn on those erudite psychologists who tried to explain the actions of great historical figures by self-interest and personal motives. He thought it was perfectly natural that, if a man is devoted to a cause, his work for this cause will bring him, among other things, personal satisfaction which may, perhaps, be decomposed into all the forms of self-love. But to think on these grounds that great historical figures were guided solely by personal motives is possible only for ‘psychological valets’ to whom no man is a hero, not because there actually are no heroes, but because these judges are only valets.


Hegel’s ethics was a great step forward by philosophy in the scientific explanation of the moral development of mankind. His aesthetics is just as great a step forward in comprehending the essence and history of art. Through Belinsky, it exerted an enormous influence on Russian criticism, and even for this reason alone its fundamental propositions deserve the greatest attention of the Russian reader.

Hegel’s aesthetics is akin to the views of his nearest philosophical predecessor, Schelling, on this question. Schelling said that beauty is the infinite expressed in a finite form. And since the poetically creative fantasy is conditioned by the epochs of world development, art is subject to law-governed and necessary development, the portrayal (Schelling called it the designing) of which is the task of aesthetics. To place such a task before aesthetics was to proclaim the necessity for scientific study of the history of art. Of course, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. It is one thing to pose a certain problem; it is quite another matter to solve it. Moreover, scientific problems are not solved by ‘designing’, and without it it was very difficult for the idealist philosophers to get along. However, Schelling did an unforgettable service in correctly posing the problem.

Besides, to define beauty as the expression of the infinite in a finite form is to show that content is not something of no consequence in a work of art, but is, on the contrary, of the greatest importance. In any case, from Schelling’s point of view, the contraposing of form to content was void of all meaning. Schelling insisted that form cannot exist without content, since form is determined by content. A work of art exists only for its own sake. In this lies the sanctity of art, that its creations arise, not for the sake of any aims alien to it — for example, sensuous enjoyment, or economic advantage, or the moral improvement of man, or his enlightenment. Art exists for art’s sake. This idea of Schelling’s was repeated with enthusiasm by all Schelling’s followers in general and our Russian ones in particular. In a certain sense they were absolutely right. However, if works of art are the finite expression of the infinite, while its evolution is determined by the evolution of the world, it is clear that the art of each particular historical epoch has as its content that which is most important to the people of that epoch.

Schelling’s basic ideas on aesthetics were still more deeply propounded and much more systematically elaborated by Hegel.

We already know that the spirit, to which Hegel is always appealing as the final authority, is not an unchangeable, immobile substance. It moves; it develops; it differs in itself; it reveals itself in nature, in the state, in universal history. The aim — it would be more exact to say the fruit — of its eternal motion is self-cognition. It is for the spirit precisely to cognise itself. This striving towards self-cognition is realised in the process of the spiritual development of humanity, expressed in art, in religion and in philosophy. The spirit freely contemplating its own essence is fine, or aesthetic, art; the spirit reverently representing this essence to itself is religion; lastly, the spirit, cognising this essence is philosophy.

The definition of art as the free contemplation by the spirit of its own essence is important because it brings out the complete independence of the domain of artistic creation and enjoyment. According to Hegel, as well as Schelling and Kant, works of art exist and must exist not for the sake of any outside aims:

Contemplation of the beautiful [says Hegel] is liberal [liberaler Art]; it treats the objects as free and infinite in themselves, without wishing to possess and utilise them as useful for finite needs and designs.

At the same time, the definition of art as the domain in which the spirit contemplates its own essence signifies that the subject of art is identical with the subject of philosophy (and religion). This brings out the enormous value of the content of artistic productions. Philosophy has to do with truth. Art, too, has to do with truth. But whereas the philosopher cognises the truth in the concept, the artist contemplates it in the image. [17] Since we already know that the true (the ‘rational’) is real, we may say that it is precisely reality that serves as the content of art. In saying this, however, we must remember that by far not all that exists is real. Hegel remarks that it would be a mistake to think that artistic creation is the simple reproduction of a thing seen by the artist, only in an embellished form, that the artist’s ideal is related to the existing as a portrait in which the painter has flattered the original. The artistic ideal is reality freed from those elements of chance which are unavoidable in every finite existence. Art brings things — blemished, in Hegel’s expression, by the fortuities and externals of everyday existence — into harmony with their concept, casting aside all that is irrelevant.

It is by such casting aside that the artistic ideal is created. That is why Hegel says that the artistic ideal is reality in all the fullness of its power.

There were three main stages in the historical development of mankind: the Eastern world, the world of antiquity and the Christian or German world. And since to the stages of historical development there correspond stages in the development of the artistic ideal, Hegel counted three of these too.

The art of the Eastern world has a symbolic character; in it the idea is connected with the material object, but has not yet penetrated it. Besides, the idea itself remains undefined. The definiteness of the idea and its penetration of the object are achieved only in the art of the antique world, in other words, in classical art. Here the artistic ideal appears in human form. Such humanising of the ideal was subjected to condemnation, but Hegel says that, inasmuch as art has the aim of expressing spiritual content in a sensuous form, it had to resort to such humanising, since only the human body can serve as the sensuous form corresponding to the spirit. That is why classical art is the realm of beauty. ‘There is not and cannot be greater beauty’, says Hegel rapturously. But when the world of antiquity had outlived its time, a new world-outlook came to be, and with it a new artistic ideal — the romantic. The new world-outlook consisted in the spirit seeking its purpose not outside itself, but only within itself. In Romantic art, the idea began to take precedence over sensuous form. Consequently, external beauty began to play a subordinate part in it, with the main role now being played by spiritual beauty. However, because of this, art displayed a tendency to overstep its limits and enter the domain of religion.

In Hegel’s view architecture is a predominantly symbolic art, whereas sculpture is a classical art and painting, music and poetry are essentially romantic.

We can see what a close theoretical connection exists between Hegel’s aesthetics and his philosophy of history. In both there is the same method and the same point of departure: the motion of the spirit is proclaimed the basic cause of development. Hence in both domains there is one and the same defect: in order to depict the course of development as the result of the motion of the spirit, one sometimes has to resort to an arbitrary treatment of facts. But both in aesthetics and in the philosophy of history Hegel reveals a striking depth of thought. Apart from this, in aesthetics he readily descends to ‘concrete historical ground’, [18] and then his observations on the evolution of art become truly enlightening. Unfortunately, lack of space prevents me from confirming this by examples. I shall, however, mention the superb pages he devotes to the history of Dutch painting in the seventeenth century. [19]


Fine art arises because the spirit freely contemplates its own essence. Religion owes its origin to the circumstance that the spirit conceives of this essence. So taught Hegel. But can the domain of conception be separated from the domain of contemplation? If so, it is not without difficulty, since when we conceive of a particular object we at the same time contemplate it. Not without reason did Hegel himself point out that Romantic art oversteps the limits of aesthetic creation and enters the domain of religion. To understand the subsequent course of development of philosophical thought in Germany it is essential to know Hegel’s views on religion as thoroughly as possible. Therefore I invite the reader to look at the question from another angle.

According to Hegel the spirit is in a process of constant motion. The process of its motion is the process of its self-revelation. The spirit reveals itself in nature, in social life, in world history. Its self-revelation is realised in time and in space. The infinite power of the spirit is thus manifested in finite form. Do away with this finite form and you have the religious point of view. Hegel says that the person holding this view conceives of God as an absolute force and absolute substance, into which all the wealth of the natural and spiritual world returns. The spirit is revealed to the imagination as something supernatural, quite independent of the finite subject, but for all that closely bound to it. But here too it is not always revealed in the same way. The conception of the spirit as a supernatural being changes — develops — together with the historical development of man. In the East, God is conceived of as an absolute force of nature, or as substance before which man admits himself to be insignificant and unfree. At the next stage, God is conceived of as a subject. Finally, there is Christianity, which Hegel sees as the absolute religion, proclaiming the absolute unity and reconciliation of the infinite and the finite. In the centre of this religion is Christ as the redeemer of the world, as the son of God, and above all as God the Man.

That is what is meant by the phrase: religion is true content in a conceptual form. But this form is not yet an adequate expression of absolute truth. This adequate expression of truth is to be found only in philosophy. The concept preserves figurative forms and considers them essential. Religion speaks of divine wrath, of the birth of the Son of God, and so on. Hegel defended energetically the ‘inner truth’ of Christianity, but he did not find it possible to believe in the authenticity of the Bible stories presenting divine actions as historical events. He said they had to be regarded as allegorical portrayals of the truth, like the myths of Plato. [20] Hegel’s philosophy was inimical to subjective arbitrariness. From the point of view of this philosophy, the ideal of a particular personality has value only when it expresses the objective course of social development, conditioned by the motion of the world spirit. The heroes about whom Hegel speaks with such sympathy were instruments of this development. For this reason alone his philosophy left no place for Utopianism. Apart from this, his philosophy could not find common ground with Utopianism for another reason, that the firm belief in the possibility of devising a plan for the best social order, which is characteristic of Utopianism, is devoid of all meaning in the light of dialectics. If everything depends on the circumstances of time and place, if everything is relative, if everything is fluid and everything changes, then there is no doubt about one thing: the social order changes in conformity with the social relations formed in the particular country at the particular time. It is no wonder that Hegel was disliked both by the Romanticists, who were so strongly attached to subjective arbitrariness, and by the Utopians, who had no conception of the dialectical method and, as is known, had the closest affinity with the Romanticists. At first only very few representatives of the opposition in Germany understood that Hegel’s philosophy could provide the most lasting theoretical foundation for the aspirations to freedom of its age. Among these very few was Heinrich Heine. In the forties of last century, humorously describing a conversation supposedly going on between himself and Hegel, he warned the reader that the words ‘Everything existing is rational’ mean also that everything rational must exist. It is worthy of note that Heine substituted the word ‘existing’ for the word ‘real’ in Hegel’s famous formula, probably hoping to demonstrate that, even in a vulgar conception of this formula, its progressive meaning was preserved.

After all that has been said, it is hardly necessary to add that Heine was right, in so far as he was speaking of the dialectical character of Hegel’s philosophy. It should not be forgotten, however, that with the aid of the dialectical method Hegel attempted to construct a system of absolute idealism.

A system of absolute idealism is a system of absolute truth. If Hegel had constructed such a system — and he believed he had succeeded in doing so — then, reasoning from the standpoint of idealism, we have to recognise that the aim of the uninterrupted motion of the spirit had already been achieved: in the person of Hegel, the spirit had arrived at self-knowledge in its true, ‘adequate’ form, that is, in the form of concept. And once the aim of motion has been achieved, motion must cease. Thus, if prior to Hegel, philosophical thought constantly moved forward, the appearance of Hegel heralds the beginning of its stagnation. Hegel’s absolute idealism came into irreconcilable contradiction with his own dialectical method and — please note — not only in the domain of philosophical thought. If every philosophy is the intellectual expression of its time, the philosophy that represents a system of absolute truth is the intellectual expression of that historical period to which corresponds an absolute social order, that is, an order serving as the objective realisation of absolute truth. And since absolute truth is eternal truth, the social order which serves as its objective expression acquires permanent significance. Certain details may be modified in it, but it cannot be subjected to essential changes. That is why, in those very lectures on the history of philosophy in which Hegel speaks enthusiastically of the heroes of antiquity who rebelled against the established order, we come upon an edifying discourse on how, in modern society, in contrast to antiquity, philosophical activity can and must be restricted to the internal world, since the external world, the social system, has arrived at a certain rational order, has become ‘reconciled with itself’. Thus, where previously there had been motion in the sphere of social relations, too, now it must come to an end. This means that, in its teaching on the question of social relations also, Hegel’s absolute idealism came into conflict with his dialectical method.

And so Hegel’s philosophy has two sides: a progressive side (closely bound up with his method) and a conservative one (no less closely linked with his claim to possession of absolute truth). With the passing years, the conservative side increased very significantly at the expense of the progressive. This is most vividly revealed in his Philosophie des Rechts. This celebrated work is a veritable storehouse of profound thought. But at the same time, on almost every page, there stands out Hegel’s desire to remain at peace with the existing order. It is remarkable that we even meet here the expression ‘peace with reality’, so often used by Belinsky in the period of his articles on the Borodino Anniversary. [21] It follows from this that if Hegel’s idea regarding the rationality of all reality gave occasion for misunderstandings, he himself more than anyone was responsible for this, in depriving the idea of its former dialectical content and recognising dismal Russian reality as the very accomplishment of reason.

Those of Hegel’s followers who were more influenced by the dialectical element in his philosophy understood it, as Herzen did, as the algebra of revolution; those who were mostly influenced by the element of absolute idealism were inclined to perceive this philosophy as the arithmetic of stagnation. In 1838 there appeared in Leipzig a book by the Hegelian Karl Bayrhoffer (in its way a very interesting book), Die Ideen und Geschichte der Philosophie. Bayrhoffer asserted that Hegel was the peak of the world spirit, and that in him the idea of philosophy existing in-itself-and-for-itself had found its double. ('Hegel ist diese Spitze des Weltgeistes... Die an-und-für-sich-seiende Idee der Philosophie hat sich in Hegel verdoppelt.’) [22] It was impossible to go further than this in recognising the absolute character of Hegel’s philosophy. Immediately following this pronouncement, Bayrhoffer draws in this case inevitable and logical conclusion that now the absolute idea itself has become reality (’selbst Wirklichkeit geworden’), [23] and that the world has now reached its aim ('die Welt hat ihr Ziel erreicht’). [24] It is hardly necessary to enlarge upon the fact that such a conclusion favoured every kind of conservative tendency both in Germany itself and in all the other countries where the influence of German philosophy had penetrated.


Hegel’s system had its own destiny, which confirmed for the thousand-and-first time the truth that the course of development of philosophy, as of every other ideology, is determined by the course of historical development. So long as the pulse of public life in Germany was beating sluggishly, conservative conclusions, in the main, were being drawn from Hegel’s philosophical teaching. That was when it became the officially recognised Royal Prussian philosophy. But as the pulse of public life quickened, the conservative element in Hegel’s philosophy was pushed more and more into the background by its dialectical progressive element. In the second half of the 1830s, one could speak with complete justification of a split in the Hegelian camp.

In 1838, A Ruge and T Echtermeyer founded the Hallische Jahrbücher für deutsche Wissenschaft und Kunst, which, in 1841, was transferred from Halle to Leipzig, its title being changed to Deutsche Jahrbücher. [25] The journal was of a radical trend. In consequence it was not destined to have a long life in Saxony. It was banned in 1843, and Ruge then made an attempt to publish it in Paris under the title of Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. In its new form it proved to be quite short-lived: only one issue (a double one) appeared. But it is very remarkable in this respect that its publisher, in addition to Ruge, was Karl Marx, while one of its active collaborators was Frederick Engels. Left Hegelianism was gradually abandoning its own philosophical basis, and more and more acquiring a political and socialist colouring.

But prior to its appearance in politics and in socialism, the onward movement of philosophical thought inherited by the Hegelians from their teacher revealed itself in theology.

As we already know, Hegel did not admit the historical authenticity of the Bible stories and, like Schelling, regarded them as allegorical myths similar to those of Plato (see above). On the other hand, Hegel held that the task of philosophy of religion was the cognition of positive religion. In this way, religion became for the philosopher a subject of scientific cognition. But what does the cognition of religion mean? It means, among other things, to submit to scientific, critical examination the question of the origin of those narratives, those allegorical myths, through which religion conceives of truth. David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), a pupil of Hegel’s, took this task upon himself.

His book Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet was published in 1835. It was the first great theoretical event in the process of disintegration of the Hegelian school. Strauss was at no time disposed to political radicalism. In the revolutionary period of 1848-49, he showed himself to be an out-and-out opportunist. However, in the theological literature of Germany, the appearance of his book was a truly revolutionary epoch-making event. T Ziegler thinks that hardly any other book had so much influence in the nineteenth century as Strauss’ Life of Jesus.

Strauss considered the miracles as the strongest proof of the very meagre historical authenticity of the Gospel stories.

In the theological literature of Germany at that time there was a twofold attitude to miracles. The ‘Supernaturalists’ acknowledged them as real, whereas the rationalists denied them and strove to find a natural explanation of the alleged miracles. Strauss disagreed with both these viewpoints. He not only refused to believe in the miracles, but said that the very events which were presented by the Evangelists as miracles, and which the resourceful rationalists were explaining by natural causes, were themselves unauthentic. He declared that the time was ripe to put an end to unscientific attempts to ‘make the improbable probable, to make historically conceivable that which had not occurred in history’. Following Schelling and Hegel, he expressed the opinion that the Gospel stories had to be taken not as accounts of real happenings, but only as myths that had sprung up within the Christian communities and reflected the Messianic ideas of the time. Here is how he himself subsequently expounded his views on the origin of these myths:

It would be of no avail, I said, to want to make intelligible as natural processes, for example, the tales about the star appearing to the wise men, about the transfiguration, the miraculous feeding, etc. But since it is equally impossible to imagine unnatural things as having actually occurred, all such tales are to be regarded as inventions. If it was asked how, at the time when the Gospels came into being, such tales about Jesus came to be invented I replied, first of all, by pointing to the then prevailing expectation of the Messiah. I said that after first a few, and then an ever growing number of people came to recognise Jesus as the Messiah; they believed that everything must have been fulfilled in him which they expected of the Messiah, in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies and prefigures and their widespread interpretations. No matter how well known it was that Jesus was born in Nazareth, as the Messiah and the Son of David he had none the less to be born in Bethlehem, because this had been prophesied by Micah. The so severe reproaches addressed by Jesus to his fellow-countrymen for their passion for miracles could be preserved in tradition, but since the first liberator of the people, Moses, had performed miracles, so also had the last liberator, the Messiah, that is, Jesus, to perform them. Isaiah had prophesied that when the Messiah appeared, the eyes of the blind would be opened, the deaf would hear, the lame would run like deer and the tongue-tied would speak fluently. Thus, it was known exactly even in detail which particular miracles must have been performed by Jesus, since he was the Messiah. So it was that the first Christian communities not only could but had to invent tales about Jesus, without realising, however, that they were inventing them... This view puts the origin of the early Christian myths on the same footing with the origin of those we meet in the history of the appearance of other religions. This is just what constitutes the latest successes of science in the sphere of mythology — its understanding of how myths arise, in their original shape representing, not the conscious and deliberate invention of a single person, but the product of the collective consciousness of a whole people or a religious group, expressed, perhaps originally by a single individual, but believed precisely because thereby he is but the mouthpiece of the general conviction. It was not the shell into which a wise man put an idea conceived by him for the pious use of the ignorant crowd, but in the tale, and in the form of the tale which he related he became conscious of the idea which purely as such he himself could not yet have grasped. [26]


There is no doubt that only such a way of posing the question may be considered scientific. In the person of Strauss, the school of Hegel did in fact approach religion — or, at least, some fruits of religious creation — wielding the surgical knife of scientific research. However, the correct posing of a problem is not equivalent to its correct solution. Strauss’ book excited much comment and objection. Thus, for example, Weisse (Die evangelische Geschichte kritisch und philosophisch bearbeitet, 1838) asserted that at the time when our first three Gospels were written, no tradition ‘of a definite type’ had yet taken shape in the Christian communities. Consequently, the content of these Gospels could not be explained by tradition. Weisse, who considered that the Gospel according to St Mark was the first in point of time of our Gospels, sought to prove that this first Gospel had provided the basis for the narrations of St Matthew and St Luke. But if one Evangelist, borrowed his material from another, there was nothing to stop him from rewriting it. This shows that in the Gospels we are probably dealing not only with myths, but also with the products of the Evangelists’ personal creation. Finally, the opinion was expressed that, in the period preceding the appearance of Christ and the formation of the Christian communities, the notion of the Messiah was not so widespread in the Jewish world as Strauss thought.

The most resolute of all Strauss’ critics was Bruno Bauer (1809-1882).

In replying to his critics, Strauss noted that there were now three shades of opinion in the Hegelian school: the centre had two wings, a right and a left. [27] Bruno Bauer, also a former pupil of Hegel’s, belonged at the start to the right wing. But at the end of the thirties, he became one of the most extreme on the left wing. In 1840, he published his Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte des Johannes, and in 1841-42, Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker und des Johannes. These works, especially the latter, created a great stir. The orthodox were so irritated with Bauer that they succeeded in having him deprived of his post as university lecturer. [28]

According to Bauer, Strauss’ lasting merit lay in the fact that he had made a final break with orthodoxy. But in doing so, he had taken only the first step towards a proper understanding of the Gospel story. His theory of myths would not stand up to criticism; it itself suffered from mysticism. In saying that the Gospel story had its source in tradition Strauss explained very little, since the task is precisely to investigate the process which gives rise to tradition. [29] The Gospel story was not the mysterious and unconscious creation of the Christian community, it was the quite conscious creation of individual persons pursuing definite religious aims. This is most obvious from a reading of the fourth Gospel, but is noticeable also in the others. The so-called St Luke refashioned in his own way the Gospel of the so-called St Mark, and the so-called St Matthew recarved both of these, endeavouring to adapt their stories to the ideas and spiritual needs of his own time. He tried to get them to agree with one another, but himself became entangled in many contradictions.

Strauss had already come to the conclusion that there were insufficient data at our disposal to permit us to form a definite impression of the personality of Jesus. Bruno Bauer utterly rejected Jesus’ existence in history. It is understandable what indignation he must have aroused among the immense majority of his readers. And, of course, it should not be forgotten that Bauer had nevertheless posed the question much more correctly than Strauss had done. The investigators who supported Bauer’s views had in any case to regard Christianity, not as the fruit that had finally ripened in the soil of Jewish Messianic expectations, but as the spiritual outcome of the development of Greco-Roman culture. Bauer insisted that Christianity was the product of specific social relations. True, he began to talk in this way only much later, in the seventies of last century. At the time of his controversy with Strauss, he himself in his comprehension of Christianity was a thoroughgoing idealist, and this brought him some years later the reproach from Marx that, according to Bauer, the Gospels were dictated not by the Holy Ghost but by infinite self-consciousness. [30]

To grasp the philosophical meaning of this reproach and thus elucidate the role of Bauer in the history of German Hegelianism after Hegel, it is necessary to take into account the significance Bauer himself attached to his dispute with Strauss.


In his view, this dispute was one about substance on the one hand and self-consciousness on the other. Strauss, in his explanation that the Gospels were the unconscious creation of the Christian community, adhered to the point of view of substance. Rejecting this viewpoint and proving that the evangelical narratives had been consciously invented by the Evangelists, Bruno Bauer proclaimed himself a representative of self-consciousness.

The question upon which he had entered into controversy with Strauss was in fact much wider than that of the origin of the Gospel stories. It was the great philosophical and historical question of how the law-governed course of history in general, and the history of thought in particular, is related to the conscious activity of individual persons. This question finds its complete answer in the proposition that the law-governed course of history is determined by the aggregate of the actions of individuals and that, in consequence, it must in no case be considered in contrast to law-governed historical motion. True, the concept of conformity to law coincides with the concept of necessity, whereas the conscious activity of individual persons seems to them not to be governed by necessity, or, to use an expression more common in such cases, to be free. But it seems so to them because, being conscious of themselves as the cause of certain social happenings, they are not conscious of themselves as the consequence of that social situation in which their desire to act in a particular way and not in some other way was born. To act freely means to realise one’s aims, and not to be the instrument for the achievement of the aims of others — that and no more. Freedom is the opposite of compulsion, and not at all of necessity. The conscious activity of great men in every particular historical period was free in the sense that they were achieving their own and not somebody else’s ideals, and at the same time it was necessary, because their decision to serve these ideals was conditioned by all the previous course of social development. Furthermore, even the most free and fruitful activity of individuals always arouses, by the way, consequences which they themselves had not foreseen at all. It is clear from even the first, superficial glance that these consequences can find their explanation only in a certain necessary law-governed connection between social phenomena. But no matter how clear all this may be, the free activity of individual persons all the same very often and — for certain psychological motives — very willingly is contrasted to the law-governed general course of development. Although Hegel’s philosophy explained all the futility of such an antinomy, even the most gifted Hegelians, which Strauss and Bruno Bauer were without any doubt, could not always cope with it. Strauss, in asserting that the Gospel story arose from tradition, and in not admitting, at least at the beginning, that there was any room for the elaboration of tradition by the creative effort of individual persons, leaned to one side of the antinomy. In his own Hegelian language Bauer expressed this by saying that Strauss adhered to the point of view of substance. Citing Hegel, Bauer averred that such an attitude on Strauss’ part was a great sin against philosophy — of course, Hegelian philosophy — which required progress from substance to self-consciousness. He was prepared, perhaps, to admit the right of substance, but demanded that self-consciousness, too, be accorded its right. ‘Strauss’ error’, he said, ‘consists not in having brought into motion that common force, but in compelling it to act directly from its community.’ [31] This was said truly superbly. However, Bauer showed too much zeal in his defence of the right of ‘self-consciousness’. He defended it with such enthusiasm that the ‘common force’ proved to be completely outside his view as well. In other words, he leaned to the other side of the antinomy: he so reconciled ‘substance’ with ‘self-consciousness’, that self-consciousness became all to him, and substance nothing. It was this that led Marx to make the mocking remark we quoted above, one that was equivalent to reproaching him with extreme historical idealism.

The differences between Strauss and Bauer were differences based on Hegelian speculation. But as we have seen, each of them leaned to one of the opposing sides of the antinomy between the law-governed course of history and the free activity of individuals. To the same extent that they were guilty of this one-sidedness, they differed from their teacher. Bauer’s difference with Hegel involved rejection of the Hegelian philosophy of history and a return to the views of the French eighteenth-century Enlighteners, according to whom the ‘world is governed by opinion’ ('c'est l'opinion qui gouverne le monde’).

But this return was a step back, a retrograde movement in the understanding of the historical process. No one denies that ‘opinion’ influences the course of social development. The question is, however, must we not recognise that the process of the formation and development of ‘opinion’ has its own conformity to law, that is to say, necessity? Helvétius, one of the most brilliant and courageous representatives of French Enlightenment philosophy of the eighteenth century, already suspected that such necessity exists. He said that the development of knowledge (and consequently of ‘opinion’ generally) is subject to certain laws and that there are unknown causes by which that development is determined. In saying this, he put before the philosophy of history — or, if you like, before social science — the new and extremely important task of discovering the unknown causes determining the course of development of ‘opinion’. The great Hegel grasped the vast importance of this task, although maybe he was not aware of who had formulated it. He touched upon it in his lectures on the history of philosophy while making an assessment of Anaxagoras. The latter said that the world is moved by reason. Hegel fully approved of this idea. But in applying it to the explanation of the historical process, he remarked that reason guides history only in the sense in which it guides the motion of the celestial bodies, that is to say, in the sense of conformity to law. The historical progress of humanity is subject to certain laws. This does not mean, however, that its course is guided by men’s opinions. Minerva’s owl flies only by night. Men start to ponder over their own social relations only when these are tending to decay and are preparing to give way to a new system. But how do social relations arise? We already know that, in Hegel’s view, the ultimate cause of historical development is the motion of the world spirit. We know too that at times Hegel himself seemed to feel the futility of referring to the world spirit, and then this ‘absolute idealist’ made unexpected excursions into the domain of the materialist explanation of history. Bruno Bauer and those who held similar views to his, among whom a prominent role was played by his brother Edgar, were even less satisfied than Hegel with references to the world spirit, absolute reason and so forth. Edgar Bauer wrote that contemplative (that is, Hegel’s) philosophy was much in error in speaking of reason as of an abstract absolute force. There is no absolute reason, [32] he argued; and, of course, he was right. But although the Hegelian reference to the world spirit or, what is the same thing, to absolute reason, was unsound, nevertheless it signified acknowledgement of that incontestable truth that the progressive development of ‘opinion’ is not the ultimate cause of historical development, since it itself depends upon some unknown and hidden causes. In rejecting reference to absolute reason, it was necessary either to forget altogether the existence of these causes — and thus overlook the most important task of the scientific explanation of the historical process — or to continue to search for them in the same direction in which Hegel at times sought them, that is to say, in the direction of historical materialism. There could be no third road. However, Bruno Bauer and his associates attached absolutely no value to Hegel’s excursions into the domain of the materialist explanation of history: they simply did not notice them. Therefore they could only go back, return to the superficial historical idealism of the eighteenth century. This they did, when they recognised ‘opinion’ as the motive force of world history. [33]

The historical idealism of the French Enlighteners did not prevent their doing great revolutionary work. Although their own ‘opinion’, like all others, was the natural outcome of social development, yet once formed, it became a mighty lever of the further development of society. Bruno Bauer and his associates also considered themselves to be great revolutionaries. Edgar Bauer believed that our times are above all distinguished by their revolutionary character. [34] Neither he nor anyone else among the extreme representatives of ‘criticism’ ever suspected that, at the stage of development reached by West European society in the forties of last century, the idealist viewpoint was incompatible with a revolutionary mode of thought in the field of social and political theory. Here I have in mind, of course, a consistently revolutionary mode of thought, since the inconsistent adapts itself with great facility to every point of departure.


The mode of thought of the Bauer brothers was very radical in the field of theology. This need not be surprising. According to the theory of their teacher Hegel, in religion the spirit conceives of its own essence. However, the Bauer brothers had come to the conclusion that the spirit generally did not exist as something independent of human consciousness. It is clear that they could no longer look at religion through Hegel’s eyes. They argued that not spirit but man conceives of his essence in religion. But the religious conception of the essence of man is a mistaken one, and as such should be eliminated. The Bauers took this viewpoint of religion from Ludwig Feuerbach, and we shall deal with it when we come to speak of Feuerbach. Here it is only necessary to note that in their view of religion — although it was not an independent one — the Bauers were significantly in advance of Strauss, who for a fairly long time stuck fast in the space separating Feuerbach from Hegel. With the Bauers there was no question of peace between religion and philosophy. When one of the supporters of such a peace said that the thinker who rebelled against one religion was duty bound to put another religion in its place, Bruno Bauer objected sharply, saying that when we try to pull someone out of one blunder we are not obliged to push him into another: and if we wish to expiate one crime it does not follow that we must commit a new one. [35]

The ‘critics’ desired to put philosophy in the place of religion. However, in their eyes philosophy too was not an aim in itself. The triumph of philosophy was to clear the path for the reconstruction of society on rational foundations and for the further forward movement of humanity. This would seem to be a fully progressive programme. But it was here that it was revealed how difficult it was, in the middle of the nineteenth century, to get agreement between consistent revolutionary thinking and idealism.

The programme of Bruno Bauer and his associates remained progressive only so long as it kept the form of an algebraic formula. But when it became necessary to replace the algebraic symbols with definite arithmetical figures, it acquired a dubious and even a directly conservative character. The Bauer brothers were unable to link up the abstract radicalism of their thinking with the social aspirations of their time. Proud of their ‘critical spirit’, they looked scornfully on the ‘mass’, alien, as they thought, to all criticism, and considered harmful any contact with it. They uttered the strange view that all previous great historical actions had had no decisive success because they had interested and attracted the masses, or, in other words, because the idea in the name of which they were being accomplished had to appeal to the masses. In this regard, Marx made the very valid point that the ‘idea’ suffered shameful defeat every time it separated itself from ‘interest’, that is to say, did not express the needs of society as a whole or of a particular class. [36] The sublime contempt of idealist ‘criticism’ for the material interests of the mass prevented it from understanding the meaning of the proletarian emancipation movement, and even brought it into opposition to this movement. In this respect, Feuerbach showed much greater understanding of the movement; but the remarkable thing is that in his person German philosophy was breaking with idealism and becoming materialist.


In order to grasp how this happened and why it had to happen, we have to recall in broad outline the progress of thought that brought German philosophy to the absolute idealism of Hegel.

It was correctly said that the fundamental question of philosophy, especially the philosophy of modern times, is the question of the relationship of consciousness to nature, of the subject to the object. Around this question, German philosophical thought of the nineteenth century revolved as around its axis.

In the philosophy of Kant, the world of phenomena was sharply contrasted to the world of noumena, man to nature, the subject to the object. This is dualism; but philosophy, if it is not to mark time, cannot be content with dualism. It strives towards monism. It is easy to understand why: because only monism, explaining the world by means of one principle, has the right to claim a (more or less correct) solution of the question of the relationship of subject to object. Dualism does not solve this question; it either declares it to be insoluble or appeals to a miracle, that is to say, to the intervention of an omnipotent being standing above both subject and object. But the supreme being is one: so that the appeal to it is itself an attempt to solve — true, by means of a phantom — the fundamental question of philosophy in a monistic sense. [37]

Fichte wished to eliminate Kant’s dualism by declaring it a mistake to see in the non-ego (in the object, in nature) something independent of the ego (of the subject, of self-consciousness) and separated from it by an impassable gulf. In reality the ‘ego’ contrasts itself to itself, and thereby posits the non-'ego’. Thus all that exists does so in the ‘ego’ and through the ‘ego’. In other words, nature owes its existence to the creative activity of consciousness, and exists only in it. This solution of the problem of the relationship of subject to object had two advantages in the eyes of his contemporaries; it was, first of all, monistic, and, secondly, monistic in an idealist sense. The celebrated Romanticist, Novalis, called Fichte the new Newton who had discovered the law of the inner system of the worlds. [38] Schelling at first also came out as Fichte’s pupil. However, the Romanticists soon found that they were able to ‘Fichticise’ better than Fichte ('besser fichtisieren als Fichte’). They proclaimed that the world was a dream, and the dream was the world, becoming addicts of ‘magical’ idealism. The same Novalis asserted that nature was a fantasy which had been transformed into a machine, and that physics was the doctrine of fantasy. [39] It was probably such extravagances of the Romanticists that obliged Schelling to review critically the question of what in Fichte’s teaching is the ‘ego’ which ‘positsnature. He came to the conclusion that, in Fichte’s opinion, nature is created by the finite human ego, the subject, possessing consciousness and will. To proclaim such an ego the creator of nature was an absurdity to which no serious thinker could reconcile himself. Schelling hastened to finish with it, and to see nature as the fruit of the activity, not of a finite human ego, but of an infinite subject, the absolute ego. It must be added here that the activity of the absolute ego creating nature was, in Schelling’s view, unconscious activity. Schelling’s philosophy of nature was engendered by the effort to penetrate into the meaning of this unconscious activity of the absolute ego. Some historians of philosophy contend that in elaborating his philosophy of nature, Schelling indeed went further than Fichte, but in the same direction. There is much truth in this; of course, Fichte could not consider that nature is created by the finite human ego. But, on the other hand, he never managed to cope with the question of the relationship of the finite ‘ego’ to the infinite, or, in other words, of human self-consciousness to that infinite subject whose unconscious activity creates nature. Schelling analysed the problem much more deeply.

To him the finite ego is also created by the activity of the infinite ego, just as is nature. Nature is the necessary product of the infinite ‘ego’ or — because, strictly speaking, it is not, but originates thanks to the activity of the absolute ego — nature has to be understood as the unconscious development of this ego. But the activity of this ego is not confined to the unconscious creation of nature. Among natural phenomena there is also man — the finite subject in whom the infinite ‘ego’ comes to self-consciousness. Thus the subject has its beginning at the same point as the object: in the infinite subject, in the absolute ‘ego’.

And precisely because both subject and object have their beginning in the absolute ‘ego’, the latter is neither subject nor object, neither consciousness nor being; it is subject-object, that is to say, the unity, the identity of thinking and being.

Hegel’s system was but the further elaboration of Schelling’s philosophy of identity. Justice demands an unqualified acknowledgement of the fact that Hegel gave this philosophy an incomparably more systematic form. Thus, for instance, for the history of philosophical theory it is of great significance that Hegel noted and eliminated the element of dualism which had crept unnoticed into the system of identity and which consisted in the absolute ‘ego’, the spirit, or simply the absolute, being placed by Schelling outside nature and outside human consciousness. According to Hegel, the world is not only rooted in the absolute, but is within it. The world is the totality of nature and spirit. The development of the world is the development of the absolute, its revelation. Such a conception of the world process saved the philosophy of identity from the risk of coming into contradiction with itself and ending in dualism. You will agree, though, that it put a barrier in the way of the reconciliation of philosophy with religion, to which Hegel was sincerely striving. The conception of God as a power beyond the world proved to be incompatible with the true character of the world process. The Hegelians who wished to defend this conception — the right wing of the Hegelian school: Göschel, Marheineke — were moving away from their teacher. Even the left Hegelians were closer to him — Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach, both of whom had broken with religion; and still closer to Hegel were those who composed the centre of the school: Rosenkranz, Michelet and Strauss who inclined towards pantheism. [40] That is why there came from the Hegelian school the criticism of the Gospel story in particular and criticism of religion in general, whereas Schelling’s philosophical thought inclined subsequently to theosophy.

The most remarkable and most important circumstance for the further history of philosophy was that idealist monism, which had received its most orderly expression in Hegel’s system, disclosed in the latter more clearly than in any other, its extremely one-sided nature.

The absolute is the subject-object, the identity of thinking and being. So taught Schelling; so taught Hegel. But at the same time, the absolute is the ego, the infinite subject of the spirit. Schelling and Hegel both insisted strongly on this conception. Both condemned Spinoza, who, in their words, could not rise from the concept of substance to the concept of self-consciousness. However, Spinoza’s substance, which had two attributes — thinking and extension — had the advantage, that it was in fact the subject-object, the unity of thinking and being. To ‘rise’ from substance to self-consciousness, that is to say, to conceive of substance in the manner demanded by Schelling and Hegel, as the absolute ego, as spirit, would have meant reducing it to one of its attributes, namely to thinking. He who reduces everything to thinking is, of course, a monist. But his monism does not solve the problem of the relation of subject to object, of thinking to being: it evades its solution, quite arbitrarily deleting one of the conditions of the problem. Feuerbach, at the beginning an enthusiastic pupil of Hegel’s, later on noticed this weak side of idealist monism, and then he became a materialist.


The idealist theory that nature owes its existence to the creative activity of the infinite subject, or, as Hegel described it, is but the other being of spirit, was conceived by Feuerbach simply as the translation into the language of philosophy of the theological doctrine of God having created the world. ‘Our philosophers’, he said, ‘till now have been nothing more than mediatised theologians.’ [41] Hegel’s philosophy — that last stage in the development of German idealism — is the last refuge, the last rational basis of theology. He who does not reject Hegelian philosophy, does not reject theology. [42]

Idealism commits a grave error in taking the doctrine of ego as its starting point. Philosophy has to find a new point of departure — the doctrine of ego and tu. [43] I do not only see, but I am also seen by others. The real ego is only that ego to which is opposed tu and which, in turn, becomes tu, that is, an object for another ego. I am a subject for myself and an object for others. Therefore, I am simultaneously both subject and object, or, briefly, a subject-object. Whoever regards consciousness as being independent of men — or, as Fichte would have said, independent of the plurality of individuals — severs all connection between consciousness and the world. Yet the world is the necessary prerequisite of consciousness. Our ego is by no means that abstract being which is the plaything of the idealist philosophers. I am a real being. To my essence belongs also my body. More than that, my body, seen in its totality, is my true essence; it is what composes my ego. The process of thinking takes place not in some abstract being, but precisely in my, thy, his body. Thinking, consciousness, is but a predicate of the real being, a property of being. Being precedes thinking ('das Sein geht dem Denken vorher’). And it is not thinking that determines being; it is being that determines thinking.

In conformity with all this, Feuerbach establishes his categorical imperative: ‘Think not as a thinker, but as a living, real being, in which capacity you breast the waves of the world sea.’

Feuerbach affirmed that only his theory of ego and tu resolves that antinomy of spirit and matter with which neither Schelling nor Hegel could cope. ‘What for me, or subjectively, is a purely spiritual, non-material, non-sensuous act, is in itself, objectively, a material, sensuous act.’ Neither side of the antinomy is eliminated here; and here is revealed the true unity of these sides. [44]

Unity, but not by any means identity. Identity was proclaimed by idealist philosophy, which reduced everything to spirit.

The idealist monism of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel arose out of opposition to Spinoza, who with his doctrine of the substance allegedly ‘abolished’ the freedom of man. Feuerbach, with his materialist monism, returned to the viewpoint of Spinoza. In general he valued Spinoza very highly, and called him the ‘Moses of modern freethinkers and materialists’.

This may appear strange, since Spinozism is usually interpreted nowadays in an idealist sense. But Feuerbach looked at Spinoza’s teaching through quite different spectacles. To a question put by himself: ‘What actually is, on close examination, that which Spinoza logically or metaphysically calls substance, and theologically God?’ he replied: ‘Nothing else but Nature.’ In Spinoza’s teaching there was, however, the shortcoming that nature in it appeared as an abstract, metaphysical being. The actions of nature are presented as the actions of God. Spinozism is materialism clad in theological garb. And this garb has to be stripped from the essentially correct philosophical theory of Spinoza. ‘Not Deus sive Natura but aut Deus, aut Natura [45] is the watchword of truth’, exclaims Feuerbach.

Since Lange’s time, Feuerbach’s philosophy has often been referred to as ‘humanism’. To justify this, Feuerbach has been quoted — again following Lange’s example — in his famous sentence: ‘God was my first thought, Reason my second, Man my third and last thought.’ Unfortunately, Feuerbach’s ‘third and last thought’ was understood very badly at that. Actually, this sentence, characterising in abridged form the course of his philosophical development, means only that in the end he changed from a theologian into a materialist. We are already aware that to him ‘man’ as a real, material being was contrasted to the abstract ego of the idealists. Anyone who is not clear about the philosophical meaning of this contrast should recall the following observation of Feuerbach:

In the dispute between materialism and spiritualism... the question at issue is the human mind... Once we know the matter of which the brain is composed, we shall quickly reach a clear understanding concerning all other matter, concerning matter in general. [46]

Now it is quite easy to grasp the sense in which man was Feuerbach’s last thought: the study of man had to help fashion a correct conception of matter and its relation to ‘spirit’, to consciousness.

Developing his ‘third and last thought’, Feuerbach asserted that man is part of nature, part of being, and this assures him the possibility of knowing the world. As the object is, so also is the subject ('wie Objekt, so Subjekt’). There can be no contradiction between being and thinking. Space and time are forms of my contemplation, as Kant taught. But they are also forms of being. And they can be forms of my contemplation only because I myself am part of being, am a being living in time and space. Generally, the laws of being are at the same time the laws of thinking. This proposition of Feuerbach’s is reminiscent of Spinoza’s well-known dictum: ordo et connexio idearum idem est ac ordo et connexio rerum (the order and connection of ideas are the same as the order and connection of things).

The opponents of materialism object that consciousness cannot be explained by material phenomena. The preceding exposition of Feuerbach’s views has shown the reader, I trust, that this objection does not in any way affect the basis of Feuerbach’s materialist doctrine, which consists in the proposition that the world of subjective phenomena is but the other side of the world of objective phenomena. Anyone who would wish to explain the subjective world by means of the objective world, to deduce the first from the second, would thereby demonstrate that he has understood nothing whatsoever of Feuerbach’s materialism. This doctrine, like that of Spinoza, does not deduce one side from the other, but simply establishes that they are two sides of the one whole. By the way, in this respect, other major varieties of materialism, at least of present-day materialism, do not differ in any way from Feuerbach’s.

Efforts are sometimes made at present to bring Feuerbach’s teaching closer to monistic doctrines of the Machian type, according to which matter is ‘a complex of sensations’. But Feuerbach would have described such monism as the restoration of idealism, solving the antinomy of being and thinking by abstracting one side to the benefit of the other; being to the benefit of thinking, or (in the present case) of sensation. Feuerbach did not take to be as meaning to exist only in thinking or in sensation. ‘To prove that something exists is to prove that it exists not only in thought’, he said, having the idealists of his time in mind. If he could only have foreseen the coming of the idealist, or, if you will, the sensualist, monism of Mach, he would have said that to exist means to exist not only in sensation.


We are now well enough acquainted with Feuerbach’s philosophy to understand the conclusions drawn from it by him in application to religion, ethics and social life, and by some of his pupils in application to aesthetics.

As has been said above, the Bauer brothers, by affirming that in religion it is not spirit but man that contemplates his own essence, were following Feuerbach. No other view of religion could be held by any thinker who, before returning to the Anglo-French materialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had passed through that school of idealism which, in the person of Hegel, made it obligatory for philosophers to study phenomena in their process of development. The French Enlighteners in general and in particular the French materialists, who were the advance guard of the army of the Enlighteners, regarded religion as the product of priests or legislators, who had devised certain beliefs as a means of influencing the simple-minded mass of the people, for the purpose of exploiting or educating them. Remember Voltaire’s tragedy Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète. In the nineteenth century, it became obvious to Hegel’s followers that this conception of religion was untenable, being reduced to the belief that ‘opinion’ not only rules the world, but also creates and refashions itself to suit the practical aims of its chief representatives. Hegel’s dialectical method paved the way for a view of religion, and indeed of every other ideology, as being the natural outcome of the law-governed development of social consciousness. The main distinguishing feature of this process is that its participants, conscious of themselves as the cause of subsequent events, very rarely rise to the height of seeing themselves as the consequence of foregoing events. To put it differently, the process of the development of social consciousness is itself, in a certain sense, an unconscious process. According to Feuerbach, religion is the result of this process in its unconscious aspect. Religion is the unconscious deifying of essence — not of spirit, of course, because spirit itself exists only thanks to the abstract activity of philosophical thought — but of man. Therefore, Feuerbach says religion is the unconscious consciousness of man. The essence of God is the essence of man, but an essence freed from the limitedness of the individual, that is, the essence of the given social whole, or, as Feuerbach expresses it, of the species.

Thinking in this fashion, Feuerbach laid the theoretical foundations for the conception of religion as a product of social development. He himself said that the properties of God change in accordance with changes in the essence of (social) man.

In religion, man is not conscious that he is deifying himself. He is giving his own essence objectivity, conceiving of and revering it as another being distinct from himself and stronger than himself. He is dividing and devastating himself, attributing to a higher being his own (social man’s) best properties. This gives rise to a series of contradictions.

When man says ‘God is Love’, he means that love transcends everything on this earth. But in his consciousness, love is degraded to the level of the property of a being independent of man. Consequently, belief in God becomes for him a necessary condition of love for his neighbours. He hates the atheist in the name of the selfsame love he preaches. Religion damns in the name of salvation, commits cruelties in the name of felicity. Reason which has grown to self-consciousness rejects religion. It turns inside out the relations which religion has created. Since these relations are themselves the result of the turning inside out of true relationships, reason restores the latter, realising its aim by turning inside out that which had been turned inside out. Virtue, which has a great social significance, but which in religion has become a means of acquiring happiness beyond the grave, must become an aim. ‘Justice, truth, good, have their sacred justification in themselves, in their own quality. For man there is no being higher than man.’ This is why Feuerbach proclaims, using the old terminology, that man to man is God.

Terminology of this kind had its great inconveniences. To pronounce God to be an illusion, and then to say that man is God is really tantamount to transforming man himself into an illusion. At this point Feuerbach himself got involved in a contradiction. In declaring ‘Meine Religion — keine Religion’ [47] — ‘My religion is no religion’ — he recollected that the word ‘religion’ is derived from the verb ‘religare’, and at first meant ‘bond’. From this he deduced that every bond between people is a religion. Engels remarked that ‘such etymological tricks are the last resort of idealist philosophy’. [48] That is certainly right. [49] However, the historical significance of the book Das Wesen des Christentums which was published in 1841 and was the first printed exposition of the Feuerbachian philosophy of religion, is shown by the testimony of the same Engels.

In relating the difficulties experienced by the extreme left-wing Hegelians in reconciling their attraction to Anglo-French materialism with Hegel’s idealist teaching that nature is but the other being of spirit, he went on:

Then came Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity. With one blow it pulverised the contradiction, in that without circumlocutions it placed materialism on the throne again... Nothing exists outside nature and man, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence... One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians. [50]


Having defined the essence of religion in the manner just expounded, Feuerbach naturally could not agree with those who said: ‘There is no morality without faith.’ To him, this was just the same as if we had said: there is no education without barbarism, or there is no love without hatred. The morality that results from religion is only the alms which the church or theology throw from their treasuries to poor, destitute humanity. Morality must have a totally different basis. Materialism alone can be its solid basis: ‘Der Materialismus ist die einzige solide Grundlage der Moral.[51]

By this, Feuerbach means that moral precepts must be based on interest. In contrast to the Bauer brothers, he did not consider it possible to disregard interest. A note has been preserved among his papers containing the following excerpt from a speech by Emilio Castelar, the renowned Spanish Republican: ‘The history of mankind is a constant struggle between ideas and interests. For a time the latter win, in the long run, ideas are victorious.’

In the same note, Feuerbach objects:

What a contradiction! Are ideas then not also interests? Are they not general interests of humanity, though for a time misunderstood, despised, persecuted, not yet come into reality, unrecognised by law, contradicting the particular interests of individual, now dominant estates or classes, and as yet existing only in the idea? Is not justice a general interest, [52] an interest of those who are treated unjustly though naturally not of those who practise this injustice, the interests of the estates and classes who find their interests only in privileges? In short, the struggle between ideas and interests is only the struggle between the old and the new. [53]

It must be admitted that here the true essence of the matter is brought out astonishingly well, even better than in the remark we quoted above, which Marx addressed to ‘the Holy Family’ of the Bauers, that the idea suffered shameful defeat wherever it diverged from interest.

What the moral rules of this terrible man were, who from his earliest years did not believe in the immortality of the soul and based his morality upon a materialist foundation, may be seen, incidentally, from the following moral rule of his:

In relation to oneself, one cannot be idealist enough making idealist demands of the will, ‘categorical imperatives’, but in relation to others, with the exception of certain cases which are extremely difficult to define, one cannot be materialist enough; in relation to oneself, one cannot be a stoic enough, in relation to others — Epicurean enough. [54]

These golden words embody the whole secret of the morality upheld by our ‘people of the sixties’, [55] who firmly kept to Feuerbach’s rules: read through Chernyshevsky’s letters from Siberia, and you will see that he was, indeed, harsh — I almost wrote cruel — in relation to himself, and a mild Epicurean in relation to others. On the soil of Feuerbach’s materialist morality grew the luxuriant blooms of moral selflessness (an idealist would say by force of habit: idealism).

How could this be? Is there not some contradiction here? Not the slightest! The seeming contradiction disappears as soon as we take into consideration Feuerbach’s teaching on ego and tu, which is at the root of his theory of cognition.

In accordance with this theory, the ego from which idealist philosophy starts off in its attempt to understand the world, is an ‘idealist chimera’, a mere fiction. Feuerbach held that his ego is just as much a chimera, a mere fiction in the doctrine of morality.

Where outside ego there is no tu, no other person, there can be no talk of morality. Only social man is man. I am I only through Thee and with Thee. I am conscious of myself only because Thou art contrasted to my consciousness as a visible and tangible ego, as another person... One may speak of morality only where there is relationship of man to man, one to the other, ego to tu.

People talk of duties towards oneself. But for these duties to have meaning one condition is essential: indirectly they must also be duties towards others. I have duties towards myself only because I have duties towards the family, the community, the people, the country. The good and morality are one and the same thing. But the good can be acknowledged as such only if it is good in respect to others. [56]

The moral upbringing of people consists precisely in inculcating into each one the consciousness of his duties towards all the others. Nature herself assures us of the possibility of such upbringing, for it has provided man with a twofold striving for happiness: the first, that which is satisfied by assuring the exclusive interests of the given person; the second, that which requires for its satisfaction at least two persons (man and woman, mother and child, etc). Already from his earliest years man is taught to use the good things of life in common with other people. He who assimilates this lesson badly is punished by the dissatisfaction of his neighbours, which finds the most varied expressions — from verbal reproach to blows. Conscience is not something inborn in man; he has to acquire it by education, in which example has its part to play. ‘A man does with an easy conscience that which he sees others do and approve’, said Feuerbach, ‘his parents, those of his age and estate, his countrymen.’ [57] In some the motion of conscience is confined to fear of what others will say. But a deeper education leads to the creation in man of an imperative need to conduct himself thus, and not otherwise.

Law, like morality, must not be opposed to interest. It is founded upon interest: of course, not personal interest, but social interest. [58]

This is exactly that very doctrine of morality and law which was preached by the French materialists of the eighteenth century. Feuerbach, however, made a better analysis of the process of the development of altruistic aspirations out of the egotistical. This is not surprising, since Feuerbach learned dialectics from Hegel; but the following is of particular interest.

In Hegel’s system, morality and law already had a purely social origin. Feuerbach, as we have seen, also deduces them from social relations. In this, he is true to his teacher. But living in a different historical period, he is in a different frame of mind. In his ethics one feels the approach of 1848. The social origin of morality and law provides him in the first place with a reason to link his theory concerning them with the materialist basis of his theory of cognition. Besides, and this is the main point, the materialist philosophy of morality and law leads him to the very same revolutionary conclusions at which the French materialists of the eighteenth century had arrived earlier.

Man aspires to happiness. This aspiration cannot and should not be taken from him. It becomes harmful only when it becomes ‘exclusive’, egotistical, that is to say, when the happiness of some is achieved by the unhappiness of others. When the whole people, and not only a part of it, aspires to happiness, this aspiration will coincide with the aspiration to justice. That is why Feuerbach says: ‘Happiness? No, justice.’ ('Glückseligkeit? Nein, Gerechtigkeit, la justice.’) In his doctrine, justice is nothing else but reciprocal, mutual happiness as opposed to the exclusive, egotistical happiness of the old world ('der einseitigen, egoistischen oder parteiischen Glückseligkeit der alten Welt’).

When society is so organised that its members cannot satisfy their natural aspirations to happiness except by encroaching upon the interests of other members, they will certainly do so.

People are people only where this conforms to their interests, or where their interests do not prevent them from being people. [Feuerbach affirmed] But where they can become people only by sacrificing their interests, they prefer to become beasts [Bestien]. Therefore, in order that they should become people, a social structure corresponding to justice, that is to say, to the interests of the whole people, is essential. [59]

Accordingly, Feuerbach was strongly radical in politics and sympathised warmly with the emancipation movement of his time. Just a few years before his death, in a letter to L Kapp, he said that the terrorism practised during the Great French Revolution was still necessary for Germany. He is known to have become a Social-Democrat towards the end of his life.

In this respect there was an immeasurable difference between him and Bruno Bauer, who ended his life in the ranks of reaction.


As in morals, so also in politics, as well as in the social field, Feuerbach quite consciously linked his radicalism with his materialism. He wrote:

I do not understand how the idealist or the spiritualist, at least one who is consistent, can make external political freedom the aim of his practical activity. Spiritual freedom is enough for the spiritualist... From the spiritualist point of view, political freedom is materialism in the field of politics... For the spiritualist, freedom in thought is sufficient. [Dem Spiritualisten genügt die gedachte Freiheit.] [60]

In his Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, Schelling accepted as proved the proposition that the concept of freedom is incompatible with Spinozism, that is to say, in effect, with materialism. The further course of development of philosophical thought in Germany demonstrated the utter groundlessness of this proposition, which, incidentally, Schelling assimilated quite ‘dogmatically’.

If the idealist Fichte in his sympathy with the Great French Revolution even went as far as to justify extreme revolutionary actions, German idealism in its development moved gradually but very far away from such views: while in the person of Schelling (in his latest style) it completely hid the concept of freedom under its night-cap. It was only in Feuerbach’s materialist philosophy that the freedom-loving aspirations of the noble Fichte were revived and further developed, on an incomparably more reliable theoretical basis.

Feuerbach did not want to be a philosopher in the sense in which this word had always been understood in Germany. Hence his remark: ‘Meine Philosophie — keine Philosophie.’ [61] Philosophy must not move away from life. On the contrary, it must approach closer to life. This is essential even for theory.

Marx wrote:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, that is the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. [62]

We find the same idea in the writings of Feuerbach, who said that the cardinal defect of idealism was that ‘it examined the problem of objectivity or subjectivity, the reality or the unreality of the world, exclusively from the point of view of theory, whereas the world became a subject of debate only because first of all it became a subject of desire’. [63] True, Feuerbach wrote this some twenty years after Marx had penned the above lines. But chronology hardly counts for anything in this case, since the idea of the destructive influence on philosophical theory of its rupture with practical activity corresponds fully with the spirit of Feuerbachian philosophy. [64] Not without reason did he write that philosophy in comparison with practice is but a ‘necessary evil’ ('em notwendiges Uebel’).

Marx was wrong when he reproached Feuerbach for not comprehending ‘practical-critical’ activity’. [65] Feuerbach did understand it. But Marx was right in saying that Feuerbach’s concept of the ‘essence of man’, which he used in his explanation of the ‘essence of religion’, suffered from abstractness. This was inevitable. Feuerbach could have eliminated this defect in his teaching only by attaining the materialist explanation of history. But that he did not manage to reach, although he did feel a vague but fairly strong theoretical need for it.

In his Nachgelassene Aphorismen there is a passage which has been a source of error to many historians. Here it is:

To me materialism is the foundation of the edifice of the human essence and knowledge; but for me it is not what it is for the physiologists, the natural scientists in the narrower sense, for example, Moleschott. For them it is not the foundation of the edifice, but the edifice itself. Going backwards from this point, I fully agree with the materialists, but going forwards, I disagree with them. [66]

In referring to this passage, it is frequently said: ‘There you are, you can see for yourself that Feuerbach admits to being only half a materialist.’ However, those who say this forget to ask themselves precisely what materialism is meant here. It will do no harm to clear this up.

In his Theogony, Feuerbach denounces those who want ‘to draw from one and the same source both natural laws and human laws’. Of course, indirectly — inasmuch as man himself is a part of nature — human laws are also rooted in nature. But it does not follow from this that (to use a picturesque phrase of Feuerbach’s) the Ten Commandments are written by the same hand that sends the peals of thunder. In the final analysis, paper is a product of the vegetable world. However, it would be highly ridiculous for anyone to claim that nature was a paper manufacturer. [67]

It was precisely with those materialists who did not see anything ridiculous in this that Feuerbach found it impossible to go forward. It was quite clear to Feuerbach that to regard nature as a manufacturer of paper was the surest way to commit numerous gross errors both in economic theory and in economic practice (politics). To accept this proposition would be equal to reducing sociology to natural science. Later, Marx described short-sighted materialism of this type as natural-scientific materialism. Feuerbach was not satisfied with a materialism that was incapable of distinguishing between man as the object of biology and the man of social science. It is obvious from this, however, not that he was only partly a materialist; on the contrary, it is perfectly plain that he felt the need for a consistent materialist world-outlook. For in fact, natural-scientific materialism is inconsistent. When those who uphold this view discuss the phenomena of social life, they show themselves to be idealists. It would be hard to find more persistent adherents of the idealist interpretation of history than these materialists. [68] None the less, Feuerbach did not succeed in correcting the defect of the materialism of the ‘physiologists’ by working out a materialist conception of history. He, who felt so strongly the limitations of Moleschott’s materialist view, nevertheless made great and quite impermissible concessions to Moleschott from the standpoint of correct theory. [69] It is quite obvious that in making these concessions, he himself voiced idealist views on social life. The materialist explanation of history must be acknowledged as one of the most important theoretical services rendered by Marx and Engels. But we already know that for some time Marx and Engels themselves were followers of Feuerbach. Moreover, until the end of their days they remained such followers as regards the general philosophical view of the relation of subject to object. [70]

The dialectical view of phenomena presupposes the conviction that they conform to law, that is, are necessary. Historical idealism does not concur with this conviction, since it sees the conscious (free) activity of man as the mainspring of historical progress. Feuerbach, who had not reached a complete understanding of historical materialism, could not work out either a dialectical view of social life. Dialectics again came into its own only with Marx and Engels, who first placed it on a materialist foundation.

We are entitled to say that Feuerbach’s starting point in his theory of cognition — not ego, but ego and tu — was also the starting point of some (in their own way interesting) trends of German social thought. On the basis of the Utopian application of this doctrine to questions of the social system there arose, in the person of Karl Grün and others, ‘German’ or ‘truesocialism. [71] The individualist rejection of the doctrine in the domain of morals — that is, once again ego, not tu and ego — led to the appearance of an original German anarchism, as represented by Max Stirner (pseudonym of Kaspar Schmidt) who in 1845 published a work, fairly well known at one time, entitled Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum. [72]

However, it should not be thought that Feuerbach’s influence was confined to the extreme trends of social thinking. It extended partly even to natural science. Moleschott, sincerely though one-sidedly attracted by Feuerbach, was a prominent naturalist. Feuerbach’s influence was at its strongest, as could be expected, in philosophy. But here his influence was more negative than positive. True, that was not his fault.

If Marx and Engels always remained, generally speaking, of the same mind as Feuerbach on question of philosophy, strictly so called, the majority of those Germans who were interested in philosophy did not find it possible to accept his philosophical views. They were frightened both of Feuerbach’s materialism and his socialism which was closely associated with his philosophical views. [73] The reaction which followed the failure of the revolutionary movement of 1848-49 gradually brought German philosophy back into the fold of idealism. And it is self-evident that the imperialist Germany of modern times could not recognise Feuerbach as its ideologist. It required philosophers of quite another brand...


Feuerbach himself rarely and only in passing touched upon art. But his philosophy did not remain without a very considerable impact on literature and aesthetics.

In the first place, his sober world-outlook, alien to all mysticism, linked with his radicalism, facilitated the liberation of the advanced German artists of the ‘pre-March’, that is, the pre-revolutionary period, from some of their Romanticist conceptions. It is probable that Heine wrote his ‘New Song’ under the influence of Feuerbach:

Ein neues Lied, ein besseres Lied,
O Freunde, will ich euch dichten:
Wir wollen hier auf Erden schon
Das Himmelreich errichten [etc]. [74]

That is the real echo of Feuerbach! Herwegh, and for some time too Richard Wagner, were conscious followers of Feuerbach. [75] In German Switzerland, the now famous Gottfried Keller was his pupil.

From the standpoint of the new philosophy, the ‘philosophy of the future’ (Philosophie der Zukunft), art could not be regarded as a domain where the infinite spirit creates its own essence. The new philosophy broke with Hegel’s infinite spirit. Art, like religion, was looked upon as expressing the essence of man. But religion proved to be the sphere in which man could not express his own essence otherwise than by self-deception. Consequently, only in art does this essence find an expression in images free from self-deception. All the more reason why it should be valued.

Furthermore, for the artist who holds the viewpoint of the new philosophy, there is no being higher than man. But in man nature recognises itself. The human spirit is the self-consciousness of nature. Therefore the idealist opposing of nature to spirit is utterly unfounded, and must cease in art no less than in philosophy.

Feuerbach’s pupils were ready to reproach ‘speculative aesthetics’ for not triumphantly enough proclaiming the independence of art. So highly did they value that independence! However, they themselves gave a more vivid and exact formulation of the idea they had inherited from speculative aesthetics, that form is determined by content. In the article ‘Gegen die spekulative Aesthetik’, Hermann Hettner — subsequently the author of a well-known history of literature in the eighteenth century — strove to demonstrate that no matter how important form may be in works of art, it lives only because of its content and without this it dies, becomes formal and abstract. [76]

In addition to Hettner I shall mention Ludwig Pfau, poet and literary critic, who like Hettner was a personal friend of Feuerbach’s. He took part in the Baden rebellion, and up to 1865 lived in emigration, chiefly in Belgium and France, where he wrote his critical articles. In 1865-66 a collection of his articles was published in German, evoking a warm response from Feuerbach. This collection can now too be recommended to readers who have not as yet relinquished the completely erroneous idea that art owes its existence to religion, and cannot flourish without it. [77]


Notes are by Plekhanov, except those by the Moscow editors of this edition of the work, which are noted ‘Editor’.

1. The consistent influence of Hegel and Feuerbach on Belinsky and of Feuerbach on Chernyshevsky, who said that as a youth he could recite whole pages of Feuerbach by heart, is generally known.

2. The reference is to Chernyshevsky’s arrest by the tsarist government in 1862 after which he was sentenced to penal servitude and exile to Siberia for life — Editor.

3. Actually in Hegel’s time almost all of them forgot this.

4. Wissenschaft der Logik (Nürnberg), pp 313-14.

5. See the preface to my translation of Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach. [See Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1976), pp 64-83 — Editor.]

6. Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, p 13.

7. We shall see later what led him to commit this sin.

8. Philosophie der Geschichte, third edition, Introduction, p 66.

9. Wissenschaft der Logik, Volume 2, Part 3: ‘Die Wechselwirkung’.

10. Philosophie der Geschichte, Introduction, p 79. See also Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, paragraphs 344 and 352.

11. His own words.

12. For more details concerning this, see my brochure; A Critique of Our Critics (St Petersburg, 1906) and the article: ‘For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death’. [See Georgi Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Volume 1 (Moscow, 1974), pp 401-26 — Editor.]

13. A Herzen, My Life and Thoughts; see Herzen’s Collected Works, Volume 9 (Russian edition, 1956), p 23 — Editor.

14. Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, Volume 3, p 685.

15. The reference is to Heraclitus — Editor.

16. Rechtsphilosophie, p 153, Note.

17. Accordingly, Hegel calls the beautiful the sensuous manifestation of the idea.

18. His own expression.

19. See his Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik, Part 1, pp 217-18 and Part 2, pp 217-33. It would be instructive to compare what Hegel says there with what Fromentin says of the character and origin of the Dutch school in his famous book Les maîtres d'autrefois. Fromentin’s basic idea is that Dutch painting was a portrayal of the Dutch bourgeoisie at a certain stage of its development, and this fully coincides with Hegel’s view.

20. The view of the Bible stories as myths had been expressed already by Schelling: ‘Christ’, he said, ‘is an historical personality whose biography had already been written before he was born.’ (Cuno Fischer, Schelling (St Petersburg), p 768)

21. It was Hegel who said that man, having discovered the intellect hidden in reality, does not rebel against reality, but makes peace with it and rejoices in it.

22. Karl Bayrhoffer, Die Ideen und Geschichte der Philosophie (Leipzig, 1838), pp 423-24.

23. Ibid, p 424.

24. Ibid, p 425.

25. The full title of this journal was Deutsche Jahrbücher für Wissenschaft und Kunst — Editor.

26. See Das Leben Jesu, für das deutsche Volk bearbeitet von David-Friedrich Strauss, Third Edition, pp 150-54. There is a Russian translation by M Sinyavsky, edited by NM Nikolsky, in two volumes (Moscow, 1907).

27. See his interesting article ‘Verschiedene Richtungen innerhalb der Hegel’schen Schule in Betreff der Christologie’ in the collection Streitschriften zur Verteidigung meiner Schrift über das Leben Jesu und zur Charakteristik der gegenwärtigen Theologie [’the Various Trends in the Hegelian School in Relation to Christ’ in the collection Polemical Works Dedicated to the Defence of My Life of Jesus and the Characterisation of Contemporary Theology].

28. He was then an assistant professor at Bonn.

29. Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker, Second Edition (Leipzig, 1846), Volume 1, Preface, p vii.

30. Plekhanov refers here to Marx’s criticism of Bruno Bauer in The Holy Family. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 4 (Moscow, 1975), pp 39-40 et seq — Editor.

31. Die gute Sache der Freiheit und meine eigene Angelegenheit (Zürich).

32. Der Streit der Kritik mit Kirche und Staat (Berne, 1844), p 184.

33. See ibid, p 185; also his work Bruno Bauer und seine Gegner (Berlin, 1842), pp 89-90.

34. 'Der Charakter unserer Zeit ist die Revolution’, see Bruno Bauer und seine Gegner, op cit, p 5.

35. Die gute Sache..., p 201.

36. See Die heilige Familie, oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik. Gegen Bruno Bauer und Konsorten. [Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 4 (Moscow, 1975), p 81 — Editor.]

37. Science also strives towards monism. One of the most brilliant representatives of science in modern times, Newton, was attracted to it.

38. Haym, The Romantic School, Russian translation by I Nevedomsky (Moscow, 1891), p 317.

39. Novalis’ phrase; see E Spenlé, Novalis (Paris, 1904), p 133, also Haym, op cit, p 324.

40. Later Strauss became a materialist, and did not hesitate to express his new views in the work Der alte und der neue Glaube. Ein Bekenntnis. It had an immense success. But this occurred much later: the book just mentioned appeared in October 1872.

41. Feuerbach’s Nachgelassene Aphorismen, Werke, Volume 10 (new edition, Stuttgart, 1911), p 318.

42. 'Vorläufige Thesen zur Reform der Philosophie’, Werke, Volume 2 (the same edition), p 239.

43. Nicht Ich, nein! Ich und Du, Subjekt und Objekt, unterschieden und doch unzertrennlich verbunden, ist das wahre Princip des Denkens und Lebens, der Philosophie und der Physiologie (Über Spiritualismus und Materialismus, Feuerbach’s Werke, Volume 10, new edition). ['Not I, no! I and Thou, subject and object, distinct yet indissolubly connected — this is the true principle of thinking and life, of philosophy and physiology.']

44. 'Das Objekt ist... für uns nicht nur Gegenstand der Empfindung, es ist auch die Grundlage, die Bedingung, die Voraussetzung der Empfindung; wir haben in [nerhalb] der Haut eine objektive Welt, und nur diese ist der Grund, dass wir eine ihr entsprechende ausser unsere Haut hinaussetzen.’ (Feuerbach’s Werke, Volume 10, p 220) (’the object for us is not only an object of sensation; it is also the basis, the condition, the prerequisite of sensation; we have an objective world inside our skin and that alone is the reason why we presuppose one corresponding to it outside our skin.']

45. Not God or nature, but either God or nature — Editor.

46. It is interesting to note that Feuerbach’s contemporaries had no hesitation in listing him among the materialists. This was the case with AS Khomyakov in our philosophical literature (see his article ‘Contemporary Phenomena in the Domain of Philosophy’, letter to YF Samarin).

47. Feuerbach’s actual words are: ‘Keine Religion — ist meine Religion’ (Sämmtliche Werke, Volume 2, 1846, p 414) — Editor.

48. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1973), p 354 — Editor.

49. As confirmation of this, one may quote Feuerbach’s own truly excellent remark: ‘Every religious or theological sanctification is simply a phantom. That which has foundation and truth can stand by itself, without being proclaimed holy.’ ('Was Grund und Wahrheit hat, behauptet sich durch sich selbst, ohne heilig gesprochen zu werden.’)

50. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, p 10 of the foreign edition of my Russian translation of this pamphlet. [Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Volume 3 (Moscow, 1973), p 344 — Editor.] In Germany, many of Feuerbach’s admirers shared his views on religion, but did not follow him into accepting the materialist basis of these views. This was the case originally with Herzen too (see my article ‘The Philosophical Views of AI Herzen’ in Contemporary World, 1912, Books 3 and 4).

51. Werke, Volume 10, p 151.

52. Italics in the original.

53. Werke, Volume 10, pp 315-16. Again the italics are in the original.

54. Werke, Volume 10, p 291.

55. The self-sacrificing young men and women of the Russian educated classes who in those years, seeing the misery of the peasantry following the end of serfdom in 1861, began the movement known as ‘going to the people’ — Editor.

56. Werke, Volume 10, pp 269-70.

57. ’theogonie’, Feuerbach’s Werke, Volume 9, p 169 (I have only the 1857 edition of this volume by me at the moment).

58. Werke, Volume 10, pp 269-70.

59. L Feuerbach’s Briefwechsel und Nachlass, Volume 2, p 317. This argument of Feuerbach’s is almost word for word repeated in Chernyshevsky’s article ‘The Anthropological Principle’ mentioned above and in his novel What Is To Be Done?.

60. Briefwechsel und Nachlass, Volume 2, p 328.

61. Feuerbach’s actual words are ‘Keine Philosophie! — meine Philosophie’ (Sämmtliche Werke, Volume 2, 1846, p 414) — Editor.

62. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 5 (Moscow, 1976), p 3 — Editor.

63. See the chapter ‘Kritik des Idealismus’ in the work Spiritualismus und Materialismus.

64. I think it my duty to say that in my pamphlet Fundamental Problems of Marxism the relationship between Marx and Feuerbach is presented not quite like this as far as the question of method is concerned. I think I have now explained this relationship more correctly.

65. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 5 (Moscow, 1976), p 3 — Editor.

66. L Feuerbach’s Briefwechsel und Nachlass, Volume 2, p 308. [Compare the passage in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Volume 2 (Moscow, 1958), p 376 — Editor.]

67. Theogonie, pp 280-81. Feuerbach makes there the striking remark that as distinct from man, nature does not know the difference between ‘können und müssen’ ['can and must'].

68. Perhaps an even more vivid expression of Feuerbach’s true attitude to the natural-scientific materialism is his letter to G Bäuerle of 31 May 1867 (Nachlass, Volume 2, pp 187-88). Feuerbach says there: ‘For me, as for you, man is a being of nature, originating in nature; but the main subject of my investigations are those ideas and fantastic beings originating in man which in the opinions and traditions of mankind are accepted as real beings.’ It goes without saying that Feuerbach could not have studied this subject while confining himself to the point of view of biology.

69. For example, in the article ‘Naturwissenschaft und die Revolution’ written in connection with the publication of Moleschott’s book Die Lehre der Nahrungsmittel. Für das Volk (Erlangen, 1850).

70. It is interesting that Chernyshevsky, the Russian student of Feuerbach, also declared his disagreement with Moleschott; but neither did he reach historical materialism.

71. ’true socialism’ — a trend which existed among the German petty bourgeoisie in the 1840s. They called for a rejection of political activity and of the struggle for democracy and proclaimed the cult of love for next-of-kin and abstract ‘humaneness’. For criticism of this trend see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘The German Ideology’, Collected Works, Volume 5 — Editor.

72. There is a Russian translation. Marx and Engels sharply criticised Stirner’s teaching in the article: ‘Sankt Max’ [see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘The German Ideology’, Collected Works, Volume 5 (Moscow, 1976), pp 117-450 — Editor], which appeared recently in Dokumente des Sozialismus, published by Ed Bernstein, July and August 1903, and May, June, July, August and September 1904. I should like also to point out that there is a chapter on Max Stirner in my pamphlet on anarchism and socialism (a Russian translation has been published by Mme Malykh).

73. Granted, not all ‘true’ German socialists, though accepting Feuerbach’s teaching, were reconciled to his materialism. But more of this in another article.

74. A song, friends, that’s new, and a better one, too, / Shall be now for your benefit given! / Our object is, that here on earth / We may mount to the realms of heaven.

75. Regarding Feuerbach’s influence upon Herwegh and R Wagner see the work of Albert Levy, La philosophie de Feuerbach (Paris, 1904), Part 2, Chapter 8 (Herwegh) and Chapter 9 (R Wagner).

76. See his Kleine Schriften (Braunschweig, 1884), p 205. The article ‘Gegen die spekulative Aesthetik’ appeared first in 1845 in Wigand’s Quarterly (Wigand’s Vierteljahrschrift).

77. See Freie Studien: Die Kunst im Staat (third edition, Stuttgart, 1888). See also another article by Pfau, ‘Proudhon und die Franzosen’, in the sixth volume of his Aesthetischen Schriften (Stuttgart, 1888).