August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


7 - Hegel and Feuerbach

We now make a great leap from ancient India to Marx and Engels, from the sixth century B.C., to the nineteenth century A.D., a leap of over twenty-five centuries. I should like to have dwelt at some length on the classic world-view as represented in the bourgeois revolution of the eighteenth century by the French Materialists, as well as on the more salient fact, of classical bourgeois philosophy in Germany. Unfortunately there is no space for this. I can only give a short résumé of the immediate forerunners of Marx and Engels, the German philosophers, Hegel and Feuerbach, in order to indicate the nature of the epoch-making advance which Marx and Engels achieved beyond the furthest outpost of the philosophy which preceded them.

But first I must insert some general preliminary comments, particularly on that great period that intervened between the ancient philosophy of Greece and India, and Hegel, Feuerbach and Marx. Between modern bourgeois philosophy in Europe and ancient philosophy lay the age of feudalism. Its ideological expression is the feudal world-view which dominated the whole of the Middle Ages, a period of about one thousand years from about 500 to 1500 A.D.). This period was subject to the overpowering influence of the church. The church formed the apex of the ruling feudal classes of the Middle Ages. It was at the same time the strongest ideological support of the feudal mode of production and the feudal system of authority. During the period of the church's uncontested supremacy, philosophy, and natural science as well, played no independent role. Philosophy was concerned only with the justification and elucidation of the basic doctrine of the church. Philosophy was, as it was called at the time, the handmaiden of the church. This philosophy, which occupied itself only with justifying and explaining the basic doctrine of the church, was called Scholastic philosophy. The term comes from a Latin word meaning school. Hence, this is the philosophy of the ecclesiastical colleges of the Middle Ages, of the Schools in which the lofty spirits of the church were educated.

We need not tarry with this scholastic philosophy which played no independent role and made no scientific progress worth mentioning. At the same time we must note that the development of natural science during the feudal Middle Ages was also very weak and paltry. But even during the reign of feudalism, in the very lap of feudal society, the bourgeoisie developed. We can designate the end of the fifteenth century as the critical point when the bourgeoisie began to make itself felt more strongly. The outstanding events which determine this as the critical point are the discovery of America, the inventions of printing and gunpowder, the universal application of the compass to ships, and a number of other discoveries. A particular characteristic of this transition from the Middle Ages to modern times is the expansion of world trade not only through the extension of trade to the newly discovered world, America, but also through maritime trade with the near, middle and far East which does not assume large proportions until this period. Concomitant with this development of the bourgeois mode of production a general struggle begins against the highest rank in the feudal social order, against the church. This conflict becomes sharper at the turn of the sixteenth century. You are aware that the Reformation occurred then. Luther as well as Calvin and Zwingli emerged. The Reformation is a revolt against the church, though still within the boundaries of the church and of religion.

But the most universal and radical form of ideological struggle with feudal society in general and the church in particular was bourgeois philosophy. It is very significant that bourgeois philosophy first emerged in the countries where bourgeois development was most advanced; thus, first in England, in the Netherlands, then in France in the eighteenth century, and finally in Germany. It emerged in Germany last because in comparison with France and England Germany went through a much longer bourgeois development. The men who are called the fathers of modern bourgeois philosophy are the Englishman Bacon and the Frenchman Descartes, both of whom appeared in the first half of the seventeenth century. The development of bourgeois philosophy follows on the heels of the religious struggle. These religious struggles were the prerequisite, the foundation on which philosophical development was laid. In philosophy we see the epitome of the bourgeois class struggles against the feudal world-view, as well as the most general form of the development of bourgeois class-consciousness.

The main purpose and substance of bourgeois philosophy we can describe as follows:

First: The overthrow of the basic concepts of the Christian religion in particular, and of religion in general; the extension of the authority of reason to include realms where religious belief had hitherto been master

Second: A likewise important purpose of the new philosophy was to make room for the expansion of natural science. The development of natural science is a prerequisite for the economic development of bourgeois society. Natural science, in its turn, became a sharp weapon against ecclesiastical belief, especially those natural sciences which were most highly developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - mechanics and astronomy, especially celestial mechanics. Natural science had a strong influence the development of philosophy.

The union of natural science and philosophy in the struggle against the church and against the feudal world-view in general was most vigorously expressed ineighteenth century French materialism. I will mention only the names of two men in whom this view took on especially classic form. One of these is Diderot. His is the most ingenious mind of all the French materialists. The other is Helvetius, who incorporated the materialistic world-view of the eighteenth century into a complete system. You are probably already familiar with the names of Voltaire and Rousseau. They are the most significant bourgeois literary authors of the 18th century. They likewise led the struggle against the church and against feudal institutions. But in respect to philosophy they were not as radical as Helvetius and Diderot. They were not materialists, but they advocated a religion of reason. They sought to eliminate the feudal features from Christianity. What they wanted was a bourgeois Christianity.

The higheststage of bourgeois philosophy was reached in Germany. Germany, as I have already said, took longer to develop economically and politically than France and England. It thus came about that the bourgeois revolution occurred there under generally more advanced conditions, with a more highly developed ideology, than in both the other countries. We select from this development only the two end-products, the philosophies of Hegel and of Feuerbach, because two are directly connected with and immediately precede dialectical materialism. They are the forerunners of Marx and Engels. In this development Hegel and Feuerbach play entirely different roles. Hegel is the positive consummator of bourgeois philosophy and of philosophy in general. Feuerbach is its negative consummator. Through him religion as well as philosophy was destroyed by criticism.

Hegel during the period of his greatest achievement was professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin. His first great work he completed in the year 1806, the same year that Napoleon indicted a severe defeat upon feudal Germany at the battle of Jena, when he overthrew Prussia and split Germany into two parts, North and South. Hegel died in 1830, the year of the July revolution in France and just before the Reform Bill in England. In Hegel all bourgeois philosophy is comprehended. And more than that, in him ancient philosophy is joined with modern, so that he summarized the intellectual development of two and a half thousand years and carried it to its conclusion. Hegel was one of the most profound and at the same time one of the most universal minds that has ever lived. Hegel was a pioneer of the bourgeois revolution in Germany which broke out in 1848, although he himself was not a political revolutionary.

I will now briefly present the substance of Hegelian philosophy. Most important and revolutionary was the dialectical method. Hegel discovered dialectics anew, so to speak. He was the first to elaborate it systematically and put it on a much higher plane than it had previously been. This was a revolutionary act of the highest order. Dialectics was an extremely revolutionary method. Dialectics teaches that no individual thing, whether in the external world or in thought, remains static, but that it constantly changes, that every single thing, every single institution must have a beginning and therefore necessarily an end, a rising and a declining phase of development. Dialectics teaches that every thing, every institution, every thought disappears because it is transformed into its opposite. Dialectics halts for nothing. Nothing is sacred to it, nothing is inviolable. This destructive power of dialectics is, in the Hegelian view, the strongest force of historical progress, or as Goethe, who lived in the time of Hegel, said, "All that exists has this much value, that it perishes." What this verse poetically expresses is conceptually developed in the dialectical method. Dialectics is the most universal formula of revolution.

The second basic feature of the Hegelian philosophy is that it is idealistic; in fact, it is idealism of an extreme form. According to Hegel, the motion of thought - by which he means universal thought, universal concepts, ideas, as he calls them - is autonomous, independent. Thought, the Idea, is for him the mover and creator of material reality, of nature, and of history. Intellectual motion, to put it concisely, is the creator of cosmic motion. Thought is the creator of reality. I will give you an example of Hegel's approach to history. According to our approach, Christianity in the Middle Ages is a doctrine which grew out of feudal relations of production and social class relations. The relations of production of the Middle Ages are fundamental, primary; and from them are derived the ideas of the Middle Ages whose most universal expression is Christianity According to Hegel's conception, the reverse is the case. In his view, medieval Christianity is fundamental. From that emerges the feudal mode of production, the class order of the feudal Middle Ages, its political forms and so forth. Thus, according to Hegel, the world and its development are posited literally in the mind, in thought. In this way Hegel demonstrates the pervasive interconnection of all parts of the social whole, of its spiritual and material structure. He further shows - and this marked an advance over all his predecessors - that social types form an historical progression, a developmental series which advances through contradictions. And he recognizes that the inner contradictions contained in every social form are the moving forces which supplant one historical period with another. Since he is an idealist however, he does not expose these contradictions in the material forces but looks for them in the most universal spiritual expression of the period in question. Hegel made the greatest and most profound discoveries in the realm of history, in which he revealed, in his own way, the inner connections of historical life. Although the form is here placed in the mind, the content signifies tremendous scientific progress.

Another feature of Hegelian philosophy, and a deficiency in it, is that Hegel recognized a temporal development in history, but not in nature. According to the Hegelian conception, nature moves eternally in the same grooves. In this respect, Hegel reverts to the philosopher, Kant, who sought to interpret the emergence of our planetary system by means of a mechanistic theory.

Finally, let us consider the relation of Hegel's philosophy to religion. With Hegel there is as yet no sharp contradiction between religion and philosophy. Hegelian philosophy undermines religion from within. All the basic concepts of religion contain, for Hegel, a purely philosophic meaning. They were put on the same plane with the basic concepts of logic or of dialectics, so that actually the fundamental concepts of religion retain nothing distinctive. But Hegel left their external form untouched. This was consistent with the level of the class struggle in Germany, where organization and propaganda for the bourgeois revolution were just being prepared, and open attack on the church and on absolutism was not yet propitious. It is pertinent that the founder of this philosophy, Hegel, was a professor at the most important university of the Prussian State, of precisely the absolutistic State against which the bourgeois revolution was directed. This was possible only because this philosophy was so extremely obscure and abstract that it was accessible to a restricted number of men schooled in philosophic thought. The Prussian Guardians of Absolutism not recognize that this obscure and abstract philosophy which Hegel propounded at the university of Berlin was something extremely revolutionary. Even today it remains true that no one without a very thorough preparation in the history of philosophy and logic, as well as abstract thought in general, can make any headway in the study of Hegel's philosophy. Without this preparation most of it will remain incomprehensible.

The revolutionary character of Hegel's philosophy stands out in sharper relief in some of his students than it does in Hegel himself. These students directly attacked Christianity, which was then the state religion. Attack on the Christian religion was thus a political attack on the existing state. The most important and the most radical of these students of Hegel was Ludwig Feuerbach. Though it was still possible for Hegel to be a regular professor at the University, his student Feuerbach had a different fate in store for him. For some time Feuerbach tried to teach at the university in the role of Privatdozent (unsalaried lecturer). But he could not make any progress and he finally had to retreat as a private teacher to a small village, where he wrote his principal works. In Feuerbach's hands philosophy became so revolutionary that it could no longer be tolerated in the learned chairs of absolutist Prussia.

Feuerbach accomplished the open break with religion which Hegel had not achieved, and it is precisely in this respect that his book, The Essence of Christianity, was epoch-making. Moreover, with Feuerbach a further break was made not only with religion, but also with philosophy as a special science, since in Feuerbach's view philosophy was the last form of religion. Feuerbach achieved the transition from idealism to materialism. For Feuerbach the substance of religion lies in one or another form of belief in a super-sensual, fantastic, spiritual Being as the creator and mover of the world. Philosophy teaches the same thing in a different form. Cosmic reason, which for Hegel is the world-mover, is only another form of the Christian concept of God. The secret which is hidden behind this infinite spirit and will, and which men represent as in another world beyond their perception, is human understanding and will. Man is the real secret of religion and of philosophy. To put it very simply, the Christian, and the Jewish religion as well, maintained that God created man in his own image. Feuerbach maintains the reverse: God has not created man in his own image, but man has created God in his own image. This thought is similar to that of an ancient Greek philosopher who said: "If oxen made a God, he would be an ox; if a Negro made a God, he would have a flat nose and thick lips." Feuerbach univerzalised this. He also applied it to philosophy. Philosophy to him is only a refined form of religion, of belief in God.

According to Feuerbach, real knowledge is possible only as knowledge of the material, of the sentient. There is no supersensual knowledge, as religion and philosophy maintain - no knowledge which comes without sense perception or transcends the perceivable world. What is passed off as supersensual knowledge is nothing but a fantastic transformation of sense know ledge. Accordingly, there is no special philosophy, no special philosophic method by which one can construe the world out of one's own head. Knowledge of the world is possible only on the basis of sense experience. One cannot construct the world merely out of one's head as philosophy assumes. Any philosophic method which assumes that it can build the world out of mere thoughts must be rejected. Thought is not separable from matter.

The epoch-making aspect of Feuerbach's theory consists, first, in the destruction of philosophy as a special form in the general field of science; secondly, in the destruction of idealism, the transition to materialism. But the position which Feuerbach reached was in part only negative. What Feuerbach lacked, in contrast with Hegel, was dialectics. In the second place, Feuerbach lacked a materialistic key, a materialistic comprehension of history. His position permitted him to think materialistically only about nature. He was unable to give a materialistic interpretation of history. Feuerbachian materialism was thus natural-science materialism, and in the historical realm this natural-science materialism approached idealism. Thus, it was an incomplete and a defective materialism. This incompleteness provided one of the impulses which sent Marx and Engels beyond Feuerbach to dialectical materialism.

Feuerbach, as the advocate of the radical bourgeoisie in Germany, made an advance over Hegel. In contemporary Chinese politics he would be the equivalent of a left member of the Kuomintang.