Herbert Marcuse
Reason & Revolution. Part II, The Rise of Social Theory

I The Foundations of the Dialectical Theory of Society

1. The Negation of Philosophy

THE transition from Hegel to Marx is, in all respects, a transition to an essentially different order of truth, not to be interpreted in terms of philosophy. We shall see that all the philosophical concepts of Marxian theory are social and economic categories, whereas Hegel’s social and economic categories are all philosophical concepts. Even Marx’s early writings are not philosophical. They express the negation of philosophy, though they still do so in philosophical language. To be sure, several of Hegel’s fundamental concepts crop up in the development from Hegel to Feuerbach to Marx, but the approach to Marxian theory cannot be made by showing the metamorphosis of old philosophical categories. Every single concept in the Marxian theory has a materially different foundation, just as the new theory has a new conceptual structure and framework that cannot be derived from preceding theories.

As a first approach to the problem, we may say that in Hegel’s system all categories terminate in the existing order, while in Marx’s they refer to the negation of this order. They aim at a new form of society even when describing its current form. Essentially they address themselves to a truth to be had only through the abolition of civil society. Marx’s theory is a ‘critique’ in the sense that all concepts are an indictment of the totality of the existing order.

Marx considered Hegel’s philosophy to be the most advanced and comprehensive statement of bourgeois principles. The German middle class of Hegel’s day had not yet reached the level of economic and political power held by the middle classes of the western European nations. Hegel’s system therefore unfolded and completed ‘in thought’ all those bourgeois principles (completed ‘in reality’ in other Western nations) that were not yet part of social reality. It made reason the sole universal standard of society; it recognised the role of abstract labor in integrating divergent individual interests into a unified ‘system of wants’; it discovered the revolutionary implications of the liberalist ideas of freedom and equality; it described the history of civil society as the history of the irreconcilable antagonisms inherent in this social order.

Marx lays particular stress on the decisive contributions of Hegel’s concept of labor. Hegel had said that the division of labor and the general interdependence of individual labor in the system of wants alike determine the system of state and society. Moreover, the process of labor likewise determines the development of consciousness. The ‘life and death struggle’ between master and servant opens the path to self-conscious freedom.

Furthermore, we must recall that Hegel’s philosophy rests upon a specific interpretation of the subject-object relation. The traditional epistemological antagonism between subject (consciousness) and object, Hegel makes into a reflection of a definite historical antagonism. The object first appears as an object of desire, something to be worked up and appropriated in order to satisfy a human want. In the course of the appropriation, the object becomes manifest as ‘the otherness’ of man. Man is not ‘with himself’ when he deals with the objects of his desire and labor, but is dependent on an external power. He has to cope with nature, chance, and the interests of other proprietors. Development beyond this point of the relation between consciousness and the objective world is a social process. It leads first to the total ‘estrangement’ of consciousness; man is overpowered by things he has himself made. The realisation of reason therefore implies the overcoming of this estrangement, the establishment of a condition in which the subject knows and possesses itself in all its objects.

This demonstration of the role of labor, and of the process of reification and its abolition, is, Marx declares, the greatest achievement of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. But the weight of the demonstration is lost. For, Hegel makes the claim that the unity of subject and object has already been consummated and the process of reification overcome. The antagonisms of civil society are set at rest in his monarchic state, and all contradictions are finally reconciled in the realm of thought or the absolute mind.

Did ‘the truth’ actually coincide with the given social and political order? Had history, then, discharged theory from any need to transcend the given system of life in society? Hegel’s affirmative answer rested on the assumption that social and political forms had become adequate to the principles of reason, so that the highest potentialities of man could be developed through a development of existing social forms. His conclusion implied a decisive change in the relation between reality and theory: reality was held to coincide with theory. In the form Hegel finally gave it, theory, the adequate repository of the truth, seemed to give welcome to the facts as they were and hailed them as conforming to reason.

The truth, Hegel maintained, is a whole that must be present in every single element, so that if one material element or fact cannot be connected with the process of reason, the truth of the whole is destroyed. Marx said there was such an element – the proletariat. The existence of the proletariat contradicts the alleged reality of reason, for it sets before us an entire class that gives proof of the very negation of reason. The lot of the proletariat is no fulfilment of human potentialities, but the reverse. If property constitutes the first endowment of a free person, the proletarian is neither free nor a person, for he possesses no property. If the exercises of the absolute mind, art, religion, and philosophy, constitute man’s essence, the proletarian is forever severed from his essence, for his existence permits him no time to indulge in these activities.

Furthermore, the existence of the proletariat vitiates more than just the rational society of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; it vitiates the whole of bourgeois society. The proletariat originates in the labor process and is the actual performer or subject of labor in this society. Labor, however, as Hegel himself showed, determines the essence of man and the social form it takes. If the existence of the proletariat, then, bears witness to ‘the complete loss of man’, and this loss results from the mode of labor on which civil society is founded, the society is vicious in its entirety and the proletariat expresses a total negativity: ‘universal suffering’ and ‘universal injustice’. The reality of reason, right, and freedom then turns into the reality of falsehood, injustice and bondage.

The existence of the proletariat thus gives living witness to the fact that the truth has not been realised. History and social reality themselves thus ‘negate’ philosophy. The critique of society cannot be carried through by philosophical doctrine, but becomes the task of socio-historical practice.

Before we outline the development of Marxian theory, we have to distinguish it from the other contemporary forms that were built on ‘the negation of philosophy’. The deep surge of conviction that philosophy had come to an end colored the first decades after Hegel’s death. The assurance spread that the history of thought had reached a decisive turn and that there was only one medium left in which ‘the truth’ could be found and put into operation, namely, man’s concrete material existence. Philosophical structures had hitherto domiciled ‘the truth,’ setting it apart from the historical struggle of men, in the form of a complex of abstract, transcendental principles. Now, however, man’s emancipation could become man’s own work, the goal of his self-conscious practice. The true-being, reason, and the free subject could now be transformed into historical realities. Hegel’s successors accordingly exalted the ‘negation of philosophy’ as ‘the realisation of God’ through the deification of man (Feuerbach), as ‘the realisation of philosophy’ (Feuerbach, Marx), and as the fulfilment of the ‘universal essence’ of man (Feuerbach, Marx).

2. Kierkegaard

Who and what will fulfil the essence of man? Who will realise philosophy? The different answers to these questions exhaust the trends of post-Hegelian philosophy. Two general types may be distinguished. The first, represented by Feuerbach and Kierkegaard, seizes upon the isolated individual; the second, represented by Marx, penetrates to the origins of the individual in the process of social labor and shows how the latter process is the basis of man’s liberation.

Hegel had demonstrated that the fullest existence of the individual is consummated in his social life. Critical employment of the dialectical method tended to disclose that individual freedom presupposes a free society, and that the true liberation of the individual therefore requires the liberation of society. Fixation on the individual alone would thus amount to adopting an abstract approach, such as Hegel himself set aside. Feuerbach’s materialism and Kierkegaard’s existentialism, though they embody many traits of a deep-rooted social theory, do not get beyond earlier philosophical and religious approaches to the problem. The Marxian theory, on the other hand, focuses down as a critical theory of society and breaks with the traditional formulations and trends.

Kierkegaard’s individualistic interpretation of ‘the negation of philosophy’ inevitably developed a fierce opposition to Western rationalism. Rationalism was essentially universalistic, as we have shown, with reason resident in the thinking ego and in the objective mind. The truth was lodged either in the universal ‘pure reason’, which was untouched by the circumstances of individual life, or in the universal mind, which could flourish though individuals might suffer and die. Man’s material happiness was deserted in both cases, by the introversion of reason as well as by its premature adequation to the world as it is.

Rationalist philosophy, the individualists contended, was not concerned with man’s actual needs and longings. Though it claimed to respond to his true interests, it gave no answer to his simple quest for happiness. It could not help him in the concrete decisions he constantly had to make. If, as the rationalists maintained, the real unique existence of the individual (which could never be reduced to a universal) was not the primary subject matter of philosophy, and the truth could not be found in or related to this unique existence, all philosophical efforts were superfluous, nay, dangerous. ...

The anti-rationalist attack on universals becomes increasingly important in the subsequent development of European thought. The assault upon the universal reason was easily swung to an attack on the positive social implications of this universal. We have already indicated that the concept of reason was connected with advanced ideas, like the essential equality of men, the rule of law, the standard of rationality in state and society, and that Western rationalism was thus definitely linked with the fundamental institutions of liberalist society. In the ideological field, the struggle against this liberalism began with the attack on rationalism. The position called ‘existentialism’ played an important part in this attack. First, it denied the dignity and reality of the universal. This led to a rejection of any universally valid rational norms for state and society. Later, it was claimed that no bond joins individuals, states, and nations into a whole of mankind, that the particular existential conditions of each cannot be submitted to the general judgment of reason. Laws, it was held, are not based upon any universal qualities of man in whom a reason resides; they rather express the needs of individual people whose lives they regulate in accordance with their existential requirements. This demotion of reason made it possible to exalt certain particularities (such as the race or the folk) to the rank of the highest values.