Paper by Cyril Smith for Hegel seminar 18th June 1999.

Marx's Critique of Hegel

As Hegel was the first to know, ‘every philosophy ... belongs to its own time and is caught in that time’s restriction’. But that raises a question: how can a philosophical outlook stay alive after its ‘time’ has passed? The answer to this question takes us beyond philosophical argumentation to a deeper penetration of ‘its own time’ and ours. That is why the key to what is alive in Hegel’s thought lies in Marx’s critique of it.

First, let’s say what Marx meant by ‘critique’. It was closely bound up with Hegel’s idea of ‘sublation’ [aufheben]: to negate, and thereby to preserve the inner truth of something. It is similar to Marx’s attitude to religion: it was not a matter of rejecting religious sentiment because it was ‘untrue’, without foundation, and then devising a new religious form. Rather, we have to uncover those aspects of a way of life which gave rise to religion – and then revolutionise those aspects. Religion was ‘the heart of a heartless world’, so the issue was to establish a world with heart. Instead of an illusory solution, we must, in practice, find a real one.

Hegel’s philosophical work was an attempt to summarise the essence of the entire history of philosophy, and for him that meant an entire history. So Marx’s critique of Hegel was a critique of philosophical science as such. He concluded that philosophy cannot answer the questions that philosophy has brought to the surface. In the end, those questions are not philosophical but practical. When Marx claimed that his work was scientific [wissenschaftlich], this did not mean that he was elaborating a set of doctrines, of ‘theories’, but that, by tracing the contradictions of existing science to their roots in the inhuman way in which humans lived, he could bring to light the necessity to revolutionise that way of life, to move from contemplation to ‘practical-critical’, revolutionary solutions.

This has little to do with the old story about Hegel the idealist and Marx the materialist, about Marx’s transition from ‘idealism’ and ‘democracy’ to ‘materialism’ and communism, or about Marx dropping Hegel’s conservative system, to preserve his revolutionary method. If you accept the collection of prejudices that used to be called ‘Marxism’, you are prevented from even beginning to answer our initial question. (And that’s a small part of your troubles.)

Throughout his life, Marx continually returned to Hegel, each time deepening both his differences and his agreement. Marx began his critique of Hegel with the history of Greek philosophy, in his Doctoral Thesis. He went on to a critical examination of Hegel’s summary of the history of political philosophy, the Philosophy of Right. After showing that Hegel’s conception of the modern state was based upon bourgeois economic relations, Marx could identify Hegel’s standpoint with that of political economy. Now he could begin his critique of the achievements of bourgeois economic thought, as the highest expression of the inhumanity of bourgeois society. At each stage of this work, Marx used his study of Hegel to penetrate to the essential connection between the philosophical attitude to the world and the oppressive, exploitative, inhuman nature of alienated social forms.

Marx’s Doctoral Thesis, which he worked on between 1839 and 1841, was on ‘The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophies of Nature’. His way of dealing with these two Greek atomists contradicted the opinions of Hegel – and almost everybody else – in that it emphasised the originality of Epicurus. Marx declares that his aim is to find the source of human self-consciousness and ideas in material reality. The other is his contention that philosophy must ‘turn outwards to the world’. Finding that existence does not measure up to essence, it must become practical, and ‘turn its will against the world of appearance’. (I: 85.) Moreover, ‘the world confronting a philosophy total in itself, is ... a world torn apart’. (I: 491) This gives the direction of Marx’s critique of religion. In opposition to Kant, Marx contends that religious belief is not just an illusion.

All gods, the pagan as well as the Christian ones, have possessed a real existence. Did not the ancient Moloch reign? Was not the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks? (I: 104)

In 1843, Marx began work on a line-by-line analysis of those sections of the Philosophy of Right dealing with the State. This is the summit of Hegel’s last work, in which he sought to show how the modern state power, rationally understood, reconciled the contradictions of ‘civil society’, that is, bourgeois society. Where civil society is ‘the battlefield of private interest’, philosophy showed how the state expressed the unity of a nation’s life. It was ‘the actuality of concrete freedom’. Marx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state allowed him to see that both civil society and the state were alien to a truly human life, which at that time he called ‘true democracy’.

Soon after he abandoned his work on the state, Marx made three moves forward, which changed his life: he saw the revolutionary importance of the proletariat; he discovered that what he meant by ‘true democracy’ was related to what others were calling ‘communism’; and he realised that he had to make a critical study of political economy. Hegel saw ‘spirit’ advancing like this: at each stage of its unfolding, spirit – the totality of human life and activity – finds itself in contradiction with what it has itself produced, which now confronts it as something alien. Philosophy reflects on this alienation, and overcomes it through this reflection, and this, argued Hegel, was how spirit created itself. The relation of the state to civil society was a prime example of this movement. In 1844, Marx’s critique of both philosophy and political economy reached the stage where he could find in Hegel’s categories an expression of something else: humanity certainly created itself – this was Hegel’s great discovery – but it was not the action of spirit which was fundamental, nor the work of philosophy, but material labour.

Thus Marx’s critique of Hegel had moved from the history of ancient philosophy, to the conception of the state. Then it emerged that ‘political forms originate in civil society and that the anatomy of civil society was to be found in political economy’. It was the critique of political economy which Marx concentrated upon for the rest of his life, but this can be misunderstood. Marx was not engaged in a ‘critique of capitalism’, as we often hear. That would be to fall into the utopian trap. His task was to study the highest theoretical expression of bourgeois relations, and show how these theories conceal the way that these relations deny what is essentially human. The relationships of the exchange of private property, presented by the Enlightenment as the basis for liberty, equality and fraternity, are actually ‘the opposite of the social relation’. Money and capital join people together, but only by separating them. Because society is fragmented, bourgeois social relations hold power over the individuals they relate. People treat each other – and themselves – as things, while capital becomes the real subject governing their lives.

Hegel had striven to express the way that freedom developed only at the level of the whole of society, what he called ‘Spirit’. Marx, who had gone beyond the traditional aims of philosophy, sought to uncover the possibility of the social individual, whose free development was the condition, without which ‘the free development of all’ could not come about.