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

From Philosophy to Social Theory

THE transition from philosophy to the domain of state and society had been an intrinsic part of Hegel’s system. His basic philosophic ideas had fulfilled themselves in the specific historical form that state and society had assumed, and the latter became central to a new theoretical interest. Philosophy had in this way devolved upon social theory. To understand the impact of Hegel’s philosophy on subsequent social theory, we must deviate from the usual explanation.

The traditional account of the post-history of Hegelian philosophy begins by pointing to the fact that the Hegelian school after Hegel’s death split into a right and a left wing. The right wing, consisting of Michelet, Göschel, Johann Eduard Erdmann, Gabler, and Rosenkranz, to name only the most representative thinkers of this group, took up and elaborated the conservative trends in the Hegelian system, particularly in the Logic, Metaphysic and the Philosophies of Right and of Religion. The left wing, made up of David Friedrich Strauss, Edgar and Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach, and Ciszkowski, among others, developed the critical tendencies in Hegel, beginning this with a historical interpretation of religion. This latter group came into greater and greater social and political conflict with the Restoration and ended either in out-and-out socialism and anarchism, or in a liberalism of the petty-bourgeois stamp.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the influence of Hegelianism was almost dead. It got its rebirth in the last decades of the century in British Hegelianism (Green, Bradley, Bosanquet) and, later still, gained a new political impetus in Italy, where the interpretation of Hegel was used as a preparation for Fascism.

In a totally different form, the Hegelian dialectic also became an integral part of Marxian theory and its Leninist interpretation. Apart from these main lines, certain of Hegel’s concepts found employment in sociology (in Lorenz von Stein’s work, for example), in jurisprudence (the historical school; Lasalle) and in the field of history (Droysen, Ranke).

Such an account as this, though formally accurate, is a little too schematic, and obliterates certain important distinctions. The historical heritage of Hegel’s philosophy, for instance, did not pass to the ‘Hegelians’ (neither of the right nor of the left) – they were not the ones who kept alive the true content of this philosophy. The critical tendencies of the Hegelian philosophy, rather, were taken over by, and continued in, the Marxian social theory, while, in all other aspects, the history of Hegelianism became the history of a struggle against Hegel in which he was used as a symbol for all that the new intellectual (and to a considerable extent even the practical political) efforts opposed.

Hegel’s system brings to a close the entire epoch in modern philosophy that had begun with Descartes and had embodied the basic ideas of modern society. Hegel was the last to interpret the world as reason, subjecting nature and history alike to the standards of thought and freedom. At the same time, he recognised the social and political order men had achieved as the basis on which reason had to be realised. His system brought philosophy to the threshold of its negation and thus constituted the sole link between the old and the new form of critical theory, between philosophy and social theory.

Before we attempt to show how the inner workings of Western philosophy necessitated the transition to the critical theory of society, we must indicate the way in which the historical efforts that distinguish the modern era entered into and shaped the philosophic interest. The social forces at work in this historical surge used philosophy in its predominantly rationalistic form, and the idea of reason might well serve again as the starting point for our discussion.

Beginning with the seventeenth century, philosophy had quite definitely absorbed the principles of the rising middle class. Reason was the critical slogan of this class, with which it fought all who hampered its political and economic development. The term saw service in the war of science and philosophy against the Church, in the attack of the French Enlightenment on absolutism, and in the debate between liberalism and mercantilism. No clear-cut definition of reason, and no single meaning for it, ran through these periods. Its meaning changed with the changing position of the middle class. We shall try to gather up its essential elements and evaluate its varying historical impact.

The idea of reason is not necessarily anti-religious. Reason allows the possibility that the world might be the creature of God and that its order might be divine and purposive, but this should not exclude man’s right to mould it in accordance with his needs and knowledge. The meaning of the world as rational implied, first, that it could be comprehended and changed by man’s knowingful action. Nature was regarded as rational in its very structure, with subject and object meeting in the medium of reason.

Secondly, human reason, it was explained, is not once and for all restricted to a pre-established order, whether social or otherwise. The multitude of talents that man possesses all originate and develop in history, and he may employ them in many ways for the best possible satisfaction of his desires. Satisfaction itself will depend on the extent of his control over nature and society. The standard of reason was ultimate in this wide range of control. That is to say, nature and society alike were to be organised so that existing subjective and objective endowments freely unfolded. Bad organisation in society was to a considerable extent held responsible for the harmful and iniquitous forms that institutions had assumed. With the advance towards a rational social order, these, it was held, would lose their vitiating character. Man would by education become a rational being in a rational world. The completion of the process would see the laws of his individual and social life all derived from his own autonomous judgment. The realisation of reason thus implied an end to all external authority such as set man’s existence at odds with the standards of free thought.

Thirdly, reason involves universality. For, the emphasis on reason declares that man’s acts are those of a thinking subject guided by conceptual knowledge. With concepts as his instruments, the thinking subject can penetrate the contingencies and recondite devices of the world and reach universal and necessary laws that govern and order the infinitude of individual objects. He thus discovers potentialities that are common to multitudes of particulars, potentialities that will explain the changing forms of things and dictate the range and direction of their course. Universal concepts will become the organon of a practice that alters the world. They might arise only through this practice and their content might change with its progress, but they will not depend on chance. Genuine abstraction is not arbitrary, nor is it the product of free imagination; it is strictly determined by the objective structure of reality.

The universal is as real as the particular; it only exists in a different form, namely, as force, dynamis, potentiality.

Fourthly, thought unites the manifold not only of the natural but of the socio-historical world. The subject of thought, the source of conceptual universality, is one and the same in all men. The specific contents of universal concepts and their connotations may vary, but the thinking ego that is their source is a totality of pure acts, uniform in all thinking subjects. To say, then, that the rationality of the thinking subject is the ultimate basis for the rational organisation of society is, in the last analysis, to recognise the essential equality of all men. Moreover, the thinking subject, as the creator of universal concepts, is necessarily free, and its freedom is the very essence of subjectivity. The mark of this essential freedom is the fact that the thinking subject is not chained to the immediately given forms of being, but is capable of transcending them and changing them in line with his concepts. The freedom of the thinking subject, in turn, involves his moral and practical freedom. For, the truth he envisions is not an object for passive contemplation, but an objective potentiality calling for realisation. The idea of reason implies the freedom to act according to reason.

Fifthly, this freedom to act according to reason was regarded as exercised in the practice of natural science. A mastery of nature and of its recently unearthed resources and dimensions was a requisite of the new process of production that strove to transform the world into a huge commodity market. The idea of reason came under the sway of technical progress, and the experimental method was seen as the model of rational activity, that is, as a procedure that alters the world so that its inherent potencies become free and actual. Modern rationalism, as a result, had a tendency to pattern individual as well as social life on the model of nature. We point, for instance, to Descartes’s mechanistic philosophy, Hobbes’s materialist political thought, Spinoza’s mathematical ethics, and Leibniz’s monadology. The human world was presented as governed by objective laws, analogous or even identical with the laws of nature, and society was set forth as an objective entity more or less unyielding to subjective desires and goals. Men believed their relations to each other to result from objective laws that operate with the necessity of physical laws, and their freedom to consist in adapting their private existence to this necessity. A strikingly conformist scepticism thus accompanied the development of modern rationalism. The more reason triumphed in technology and natural science, the more reluctantly did it call for freedom in man’s social life. Under the pressure of this process, the critical and ideal elements slowly vanished and took refuge in heretical and oppositional doctrines (for example, in atheistic materialism during the French Enlightenment). The representative philosophers of the middle class (particularly Leibniz, Kant, and Fichte) reconciled their philosophical rationalism with the flagrant irrationality of the prevailing social relations, and inverted human reason and freedom so that they became ramparts of the isolated soul or mind, internal phenomena quite compatible with external realities, even if these contradicted reason and freedom.

We have already indicated the motives that prompted Hegel to break with the tendency of introversion and to proclaim the realisation of reason in and through given social and political institutions. We have stressed the role of the dialectic in the process that brought philosophy to grips with social reality. It resulted in the dissolution of the harmonious world of fixed objects posited by common sense and in the recognition that the truth philosophy sought was a totality of pervasive contradictions. Philosophical concepts now came to reflect the actual movement of reality, but since they were themselves patterned on its social content, they stopped where the content stopped, that is, in the state that governed civil society, while the ideas and values that pointed beyond this social system were stowed away in the realm of the absolute mind, in the system of dialectical philosophy.

The method, however, that operated in this system reached farther than the concepts that brought it to a conclusion. Through the dialectic, history had been made part of the very content of reason. Hegel had demonstrated that the material and intellectual powers of mankind had developed far enough to call upon man’s social and political practice to realise reason. Philosophy itself thus made direct application to social theory and practice, not as to some external force but as to its legitimate heir. If there was to be any progress beyond this philosophy, it had to be an advance beyond philosophy itself and, at the same time, beyond the social and political order to which philosophy had tied its fate.

This is the intrinsic connection that compels us to abandon chronological order and to discuss the foundations of Marxian theory before dealing with the early French and German sociology. The impact of the Hegelian philosophy upon social theory, and the specific function of modern social theory cannot be understood except from the fully unfolded form of Hegel’s philosophy and its critical tendencies, as they went over to Marxian theory.


1. The Negation of Philosophy
2. Kierkegaard