MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Old Mole

Shakespeare uses the “Old Mole” to represent the ghost of Hamlet’s father who keeps speaking from under the stage, despite Hamlet and Horatio shifting their ground seeking a secret place to swear their oath.

The ghost says again: “Swear by his sword” and
Hamlet says: “Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast? A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends!”
(Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5).

Hegel uses the ghost of Hamlet's father, a.k.a. Old Mole, as a metaphor for Spirit in the Philosophy of History. Reviewing the entirety of history up to the present time, he says:

“All this time was required to produce the philosophy of our day; so tardily and slowly did the World-spirit work to reach this goal. What we pass in rapid review when we recall it, stretched itself out in reality to this great length of time. For in this lengthened period, the Notion of Spirit, invested with its entire concrete development, its external subsistence, its wealth, is striving to bring spirit to perfection, to make progress itself and to develop from spirit. It goes ever on and on, because spirit is progress alone. Spirit often seems to have forgotten and lost itself, but inwardly opposed to itself, it is inwardly working ever forward (as when Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, “Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the ground so fast?”) until grown strong in itself it bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun, its Notion, so that the earth crumbles away.” (Philosophy of History. Conclusion).

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx continues the metaphor:

“But the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still traveling through purgatory. It does its work methodically. By December 2, 1851, it had completed half of its preparatory work; now it is completing the other half. It first completed the parliamentary power in order to be able to overthrow it. Now that it has achieved this, it completes the executive power, reduces it to its purest expression, isolates it, sets it up against itself as the sole target, in order to concentrate all its forces of destruction against it. And when it has accomplished this second half of its preliminary work, Europe will leap from its seat and exult: Well burrowed, old mole!” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. VII)

Lenin cites this passage in State and Revolution, to show how Marx took the state in historical context, rather than as some historically invariant formation. Rosa Luxemburg also uses the metaphor in Old Mole.