Marx at the Millennium by Cyril Smith
this chapter reprinted from Common Sense, April 1994
It was in the 1890s, when Karl Marx had been safely dead for a decade, that Kautsky and Plekhanov invented ‘Marxism’. This total falsification of Marx’s work incorporated a story about a couple of ‘Young Hegelians’, who extracted the ‘dialectical method’ from Hegel’s system, and transplanted it into a materialist world-view. Then - so ran the tale - they could ‘apply’ materialism to history. The inventors of ‘Marxism’ gave their mythical beast the name ‘dialectical materialism’.
This fable about Marx was bound up with another one - equally false - about Hegel. It was a stirring philosophical yarn about an ‘Idealist’, who believed that the world was made of mind-stuff of which ordinary matter was no more than a shadow. This ghost-world jerked forward in a contradictory, automated dance called ‘dialectic’. Spirit, exuding a strong religious odour, pulled the strings which kept History moving, individual humans being mere puppets, and not very life-like ones either. The state, which took charge of the workings of society, was supposedly modelled by Hegel on the authoritarian Prussian state.
Many people nowadays know that this is a caricature of the real Hegel. In this respect, he is luckier than Marx, who is still either attacked or praised as if he were indeed the figure depicted by ‘Marxism’. (Although the ‘Marxists’ swallowed the Hegel legend whole, it would be unfair to blame them for it, since it was concocted by the ‘Hegelians’.)
In order to contribute to the work of correcting these stereotypes, I want to focus on the meaning each of these two thinkers gives to the word ‘science’. I argue that to think Marx and Hegel employ the same ‘dialectical logic’ is to falsify both of them. Marx meant precisely what he said in the ‘Afterword’ to the second edition of Capital: they were ‘direct opposites’.
Hegel was no revolutionary, but neither was he the conservative of legend. He was one of those thinkers who tried to illuminate the path of reform in Germany, in response to the French Revolution. After 1819, this path was blocked by the conservative forces in Prussia, and Hegel kept his newly acquired place in the Berlin University Chair of Philosophy only with the greatest difficulty. Some of his students were still less fortunate and ended up in the prisons of the Prussian state.
Like Schiller, Goethe, Schelling, Holderlin and others in Germany at that time, Hegel tried to grasp the social developments lying in store for Europe. His study of Adam Smith, James Steuart and Adam Ferguson gave him a picture of a world governed by individual self-interest, where the mass of atomised, fragmented human beings was condemned to a life of utterly dehumanising labour. Could the fate which had already overtaken England and Scotland be avoided by their country, and, in any case, what had happened to the promise of the Enlightenment?
The backwardness of Germany gave these thinkers a distinctive angle on such questions. Like the Scots whose work they studied so carefully, they were both inside and outside the developing ‘civil society’. Vital for them all was an idealised picture of the ancient Greek polis, whose harmony was contrasted with the discord of the modern world. (Hegel saw the need for philosophy as originating in the break-up of this harmony in the fifth century BC.) They were especially. impressed by Ferguson, the Gaelic-speaking Highlander, who pointed to parallels between the polis, the Highland clans and indigenous North Americans, contrasting them favourably with ‘civil society’.
Hegel refused to evade such issues by capitulation to conservatism (like Schelling), an aesthetic and romantic search for another world (Goethe, Schiller), or poetry and madness (Holderlin). Hegel did not ignore the repulsive forms of nascent bourgeois society which were appearing throughout Europe, but, looking them in the face, tried to reconcile them with the advance of humanity towards freedom.
But how could the discordant forces which were tearing modern society apart be grasped as a united whole? Hegel struggled with this contradiction in every one of his major works. It is not hard to see this in his early writings, or in the Phenomenology of Spirit, the Philosophy of History and the Philosophy of Right. It is less easy to perceive but is nonetheless the unstated question at the heart of the Logic. Hegel believed that to answer it was the task of Science (‘Wissenschaft’).
Living with the consequences of nineteenth-century natural science as we do, we can easily misunderstand the term ‘science’, as it was used by Hegel. The modern scientist is taught to think of himself or herself as an individual operator, living by their privately owned wits and studying objects in an external nature. ‘Scientific objectivity’ is taken to mean that the thinkers themselves are excluded from the object of study. (I don’t have in mind here the ideas of natural scientists themselves, so much as what the philosophers of science tell them they ought to think.)
The procedure known as the ‘scientific method’ restricts itself from the start by accepting its presuppositions and methods as a matter of faith. To follow it guarantees that you can question neither the meaning of what you are doing, nor the validity of your methods of doing it. Indeed, meaning itself can only be thought of as something external to science, imported subjectively – thus illegally – into the world. Why test that particular hypothesis? Why should failure of a test destroy its truth? What is truth, anyway? Such questions are banned from science and referred to another department.
During the last century, these impoverished forms of thought became widely accepted as the model for all thinking. They show their bankruptcy most plainly when people try to imitate these procedures and attitudes of the natural sciences in those pseudo-sciences called ‘social’. ‘Marxism’, hearing about the transformation of socialism into a science, assumed Marx was some kind of ‘social scientist’.
The conceptions of science held by Marx and Hegel, while opposed to each other, are united in rejecting all of this. Hegel spent his life searching for ways to show how, seen correctly, the antagonistic particles which make up modem society could be understood as parts of a whole. But how could he harmonise the cacophonous clash of weapons on ‘the battlefield of private interest’? He set himself- and philosophy – a tremendous task. In a world of disunity and oppression, he wanted a science which could grasp human society as organically developing towards unity and freedom. Reflecting on the outcome of the French Revolution, he decided that to be self-determined was only possible in the realm of systematic thought.
Hegel saw science as essentially a communal activity and knowledge as a historical process. To engage in scientific work was to participate in the purposive activity of Spirit, the entire movement of History. Only through it could the isolated individual, the inhabitant of ‘civil society’, get hold of the picture as a whole.
The task of leading the individual from his uneducated standpoint to knowledge had to be seen in its universal sense, just as it was the universal individual, self-conscious Spirit, whose formative education had to be studied.... The single individual is incomplete Spirit, a concrete shape in whose whole existence one determinatedness predominates.
Reason was the unifying power in knowledge, described by Hegel as ‘purposive activity’. It was not the activity or purpose of any individual thinker which did this work, but the action of Spirit, the subjectivity of an entire social organism. This is what Hegel means when he says: ‘Everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.’
Such knowledge could not base itself on individual opinions, as Hegel explained in his very first lecture in Berlin: ‘An opinion [Meinung] is mine, it is not an inherently universal absolute.... Philosophy is an objective science of truth, a science of its necessity, of conceptual knowing; it is no opining and no web-spinning of opinions.’ Philosophical science was not spun out of the heads of great thinkers, but was rooted in all the life and work of the whole of humanity.
The possession of self-conscious rationality, a possession belonging to us, to our contemporary world, has not been gained suddenly.... It is essentially an inheritance and . . . the result of labour, the labour of all the preceding generations of the human race. The arts of the externals of our life, the mass of means and skills, the arrangements and customs of social and political associations, all these are the result of the reflection, invention, needs, misery and misfortune, the will and achievement of the history which has preceded our life of today.
What science must achieve is not just knowledge of something outside us, but self-knowledge, where ‘self’ refers to the entire spiritual collective. It was at once a subjective and an objective activity, tracing the path taken by the past movement of Spirit, but only the past. The method of this science, logic, was itself a science, and thus a part of History. It revealed the pattern of inner connections which bind reason into a unity. Reason was not a set of external rules to be followed by correct thinking, nor was logic a kind of calculus, merely pointing to the formal links between the forms of objects. The forms were inseparable from their content. The logical structure of Hegel’s science had to demonstrate how its objects were necessarily connected. ‘Logic being the science of the absolute form, this formal science, in order to be true, must possess in its own self a content adequate to its form.’
A logical judgement – ‘the rose is red’, ‘Socrates is a man’ – appears to be an assertion that the subject and object are judged by us to have some relationship. But, Hegel believed, in his account of Being and Essence he had demonstrated they belonged together essentially. The judgement necessarily gives rise to the syllogism, which itself, through the development of its ‘figures’, shows how it embodies truth.
The criterion for truth, insisted Hegel, could not be external to systematic knowledge. It was not a matter of showing that the assertions of science were ‘correct’, by holding them up against some image of a reality external to them, or testing them by applying a rule for correctness. Truth had to be found in the very categories of thought, developed within the system itself.
Hitherto, the Notion of logic has rested on the separation . . . of the content of cognition and its form, or of truth and certainty.... [l]t is assumed that the material of knowing is present on its own account as a ready-made world apart from thought, that thinking on its own is empty and comes as an external form to the said material, fills itself with it and only thus acquires a content and so becomes real knowing.
To do the job Hegel set it, science had to be organically unified, a living system, which contained its own presuppositions and its own method of development within itself It did not try to answer questions which were posed from outside, but only those questions which were generated by its own workings. It had to include itself in its conception of the world. And it had to be dynamic, self-developing through continual self-criticism, grasping the contradictions, not just between itself and something outside it, but within its own body. When it encounters such contradictions,
[t]hinking will not give up, but remains faithful to itself even in this loss of its being at home with itself, ‘so that it may overcome’, and may accomplish in thinking itself the resolution of its own contradictions.
So Hegel’s dialectic cannot be a set of formulae or rules to be detached and ‘applied’ elsewhere. Dialectic means grasping that the contradictions which confront us at every turn are contradictions of the finite, which science is driven to transcend.
That is what everything finite is: its own sublation [Aufhebung]. Hence, the dialectical constitutes the moving soul of scientific progression, and it is the principle through which alone immanent coherence and necessity enter into the content of science, just as all genuine, non-external elevation above the finite is to be found in this principle.
At his most optimistic, in 1816, Hegel told his Heidelberg students:
The courage of truth, faith in the power of the spirit, is the first condition of philosophising. Because man is spirit he should and must deem himself worthy of the highest; he cannot think highly enough of the greatness and power of his spirit. For a man of this faith nothing is so inflexible and refractory as not to disclose itself to him. The original hidden and reserved essence of the universe has no force which could withstand the courage of knowing [Erkennens]; it must expose itself to that courage, bring its wealth and depths to light for our enjoyment.
Was Hegel an idealist? Does this question refer to a belief that the world was a product of an individual mind, like Berkeley; or that the way we got to know it had to begin with the certainty of the individual ‘I’, like Descartes; or that we constructed our picture of it by means of individually-possessed categories (Kant)? Then the answer is a decided no! That kind of idealism, said Hegel, was ‘a pure assertion which does not comprehend its own self, nor can it make itself comprehensible to others’.
Hegel claims, however, that his kind of idealism is shared by any real philosophy. It is basically the idea that truth cannot be found in isolated bits and pieces, but belongs only to the whole picture.
The proposition that the finite is ideal [ideel] constitutes idealism. The idealism of philosophy consists in nothing else than in recognising that the finite has no veritable being. Every philosophy is essentially an idealism, or at least has idealism for its principle.... Consequently, the opposition of idealism and realistic philosophy has no significance.
This ideality of the finite is the most important proposition of philosophy, and for that reason every genuine philosophy is Idealism.
However ‘mystical’ it is made to appear in many standard accounts, the shape of Hegel’s system is the direct and precise expression of the tack he set philosophy to perform. He is convinced that systematic thinking is the only way that the unity and development of the world can be grasped. The demand that his science be absolute, that is, independent of anything external to it, determines Hegel’s conception of Nature, and its relation to Spirit.
Estranged from the Idea, Nature is only the corpse of the Understanding.
Nature exhibits no freedom in its existence, but only necessity and contingency.
Nature, even at the highest point of its elevation over finitude, always falls back into it again and in this way exhibits a perpetual cycle.
Most striking is Hegel’s inability to conceive of anything like historical development in Nature, including the evolution of organisms.
Now let us briefly illustrate Hegel’s approach to social problems with a couple of examples of the way that his dialectic copes with them.
The problem of crime and punishment is one to which he gave considerable attention. He defines crime as ‘the initial use of coercion, as force employed by a free agent in such a way as to infringe the existence of freedom in its concrete sense – ie to infringe right as right’. In his attitude to the punishment of a criminal act, Hegel is quite liberal. For example, he is for only limited use of the death penalty. While he believes strongly in capital punishment for murder, he is critical of its imposition in England at that time for theft. The idea of punishment as revenge, as a preventative, as a deterrent or corrective, all leave him cold.
Crime is an infringement of ‘right as right’, and punishment is the ‘cancellation’ of this infringement. What matters to Hegel is neither the injury to the victim nor the distortion of the criminal, but the contradiction between the crime and the logical whole. Crime has the logical status of the ‘negative infinite judgement’, like saying ‘a lion is not a table’ – correct but pointless. It affirms the total incommensurability of subject and predicate.
Someone who commits a crime – for argument’s sake a theft – does not merely deny the particular right of someone else to this particular thing (as in a suit about civil rights); instead, he denies the rights of that person completely; therefore he is not merely obliged to return the thing he stole, but is punished as well, because he has violated right as such, ie right in general.
Hegel is quite aware that the prevalence of crime is to be attributed to the conditions of life to which millions of people are condemned He even had an inkling that there might be a connection between this phenomenon and the rise of ‘civil society’. For him, all of this is quite Irrelevant. He is concerned only with the relation of crime to the logical structure of society. He can have no conception that the collision between the criminal and his victim’s property rights reflects only one aspect of the inhuman character of private property itself.
Hegel is certain that poverty as a modem phenomenon is the necessary consequence of civil society and is inseparable from the heaping up of wealth at the other pole. He also admits that he knows no solution to this ‘problem’ which has deplorable results.
[C]ivil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and misery as well as of the ethical corruption common to both.
When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living – which automatically regulates itself at the level necessary for a member of the society in question, that feeling of right, integrity and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble [Pöbel], which in turn makes it much easier for wealth to be concentrated in a few hands....
. . . Poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble- a rabble is created only by the disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, the government, etc.... This in turn gives rise to the evil that the rabble do not have sufficient honour to gain their livelihood through their own work, yet claim they have a right to receive their livelihood.... The important question of how poverty can be remedied is one which agitates and torments modern societies.
There is no doubt that Professor Hegel was genuinely sorry for poor people. But he could not allow this to determine his philosophical consideration of the problem. As he says, it is not poverty ‘in itself that causes trouble, but the effect it has on the feelings about society of both poor and rich. Hegel refuses to ignore the problem of ‘the rabble’, or to avoid the awkward way this uncivil entity threatens the equilibrium of civil society. But his attention has to be focussed sternly on the ability of dialectic to accommodate poverty within the overall conception of the movement of History towards freedom. The state sublated the difficulties of civil society, and this was a logical result.
Hegel’s project is quite magnificent, and, if you want to make sense of the world of civil society, it is indeed absolutely necessary. It also happens to be utterly impossible to achieve. For to complete it would mean to show how the forms of bourgeois society are compatible with freedom- and they are not. By 1831, when Hegel died, these social forms could already be seen to be forms of oppression. However, what had begun to bring this home to many people in Europe was not some new philosophical argument, but the revolt of the new ‘slaves’ themselves.
In 1839, when Karl Marx was beginning work on his doctoral dissertation, he recognised Hegel as ‘our great teacher’. Thirty-four years later he could still ‘avow’ himself ‘a pupil of that mighty thinker’. But as a postgraduate student, he could already see that the Hegelian School was breaking up.
It was not a matter of some errors in the argument. What was wrong was that
philosophy has sealed itself off to form a consummate, total world. .. . The world confronting a philosophy total in itself is ... a world tom apart. This philosophy’s activity therefore also appears tom apart and contradictory.
In his dissertation itself, in 1841, Marx analysed the positions of the two wings of this school – and accepted neither. The problem for Marx, then and always, was how the knowledge gained in philosophical work could ‘tum outwards to the world’.
In 1843, spurred on by the work of Feuerbach, but already going far beyond it, Marx began his first assault on the edifice of the Hegelian system, his Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law. He had no quarrel with Hegel’s description of the modem state, which was in any case not a justification of Prussian authoritarianism, as the legend has it, but an account of what a rationally reformed Prussia might look like: ‘Hegel is not to be blamed for depicting the nature of the modem state as it is, but for presenting that which is as the nature of the state.’ Marx objects to Hegel’s logical approach, the false relation he assumes between his scientific exposition and the world it is supposed to be illuminating.
The concrete content, the actual definition, appears as something formal; the wholly abstract formal definition appears as the concrete content. The essence of the definitions of the state is not that they are definitions of the state, but that in their most abstract form they can be regarded as logical metaphysical definitions. Not the philosophy of law but logic is the real centre of interest. Philosophical work does not consist in embodying thinking in political definitions, but in evaporating the existing political definitions into abstract thoughts. Not the logic of the matter, but the matter of logic is the philosophical element. The logic does not serve to prove the state, but the state to prove the logic.
Hegel has turned upside-down the relation between philosophy and the world, says Marx. Hegel’s method reflects the upside-down, inhuman, irrational way that people live, and in so doing attempts to make it appear as the embodiment of reason.
Marx’s theoretical and practical work over the next four decades unfolded the implications of this ‘inversion’ of the relationship of science to the world. By the start of 1844, in the Introduction to the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law- the only part he ever completed – Marx had begun to see that he was looking for the way to ‘actualise philosophy’, and that this demanded a social power of a special kind.
As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapons in philosophy. And once the lightning of thought has struck this ingenuous soil of the people, the emancipation of the Germans into human beings will take place.
Both his study of political economy and his conception of communist revolution, which engaged Marx’s attention for the rest of his life, began from there. He saw the three great achievements of bourgeois thought as being political economy, Hegel’s dialectic and utopian socialism. These three took the attempt of individual thinkers to grasp the atomised modern world as a totality as far as it could go. In his scientific critique of them, Marx showed that all three of them unconsciously expressed the inhumanity of the world they studied.
Where Hegel’s science strove to reconcile the conflicting forces of the modem world, Marx’s science set out from the necessity to actualise those very conflicts and bring them to fruition. For instance, if science showed that the state expressed the contradictions of ‘civil society’ founded on private property, this told us that both private property and the state were unfit for human life, and had to be abolished.
Hegel’s dialectic had locked up all the disintegrating forces of modem life into a system of concepts, while Marx’s science struggled to unlock them. Obviously, then, the latter could never be a closed system. It was in principle incomplete, open. Marx’s science could only do its job when it went beyond the bounds of science as such. Its problems could neither be posed nor solved on the level of knowledge.
The key category of Marx’s theoretical work was the one which ‘Marxism’ sought to evade: the idea of ‘humanness’. Without it, notions like ‘capital’, ‘proletariat’ and ‘surplus value’ have no meaning. His standpoint, that of ‘human society or socialised humanity’ (Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis 10), enabled Marx to understand that certain forms of human life were beneath the dignity of homo sapiens, not ‘worthy and appropriate for their human nature’.
But hidden inside these very forms was a human content, which science had to discover. Within the framework of individualism, inside which men and women had to fight each other to live, they retained, perhaps only in odd corners of their beings, their potential for self-determination, self-creation, self-consciousness and social solidarity. Indeed, it was only because there was a mismatch between this humanity and its inhuman forms, and because people had to struggle to ‘fight out’ this discrepancy, that it was possible to know which way up the world should go.
Any account of any part of Marx’s work which does not centre on this conception – and that includes 90 per cent of the huge volume of writings on the subject – must be utterly false. It seems to me that the supreme task today, and not an easy one, is to disinter Marx’s fundamental insight, and to find ways to articulate it in as accessible a form that we can, free of all academic mystification. Only then can it become the foundation for practical action. It was his conception of ‘humanness’ which gave Marx his criterion for truth. For example:
The mediating process between men engaged in exchange is not a social or human process, not human relationship; it is the abstract relationship of private property to private property.... Since men engaged in exchange do not relate to each other as men, things lose the significance of human personal property.
To identify Hegel’s dialectic with the method of Marx is to deny such a view. For Hegel’s conception of science left no room for such a critical judgement – indeed, it was designed especially to preclude it. Humanity, identified as Spirit, just was, and there was nothing more to be said about it. Hegel believed that science had to comprehend the forms taken by human life and consciousness, not to ask ‘should they be’, but only to show the necessary place of each as a part of the whole picture. This is what Marx meant when he referred to
the kind of consciousness – and philosophical consciousness is precisely of this kind – which regards the comprehending consciousness [begrefende Denken] as the real man, and the comprehended world as such as the real world.
That is why Hegel could consider neither the state nor political economy as subjects for critique. He could only pay tribute to the scientific work of Smith, Say and Ricardo. Marx was also an admirer of these great thinkers. But he saw that when they viewed human society as a collection of individuals inspired by self-interest, they were accurately reflecting the real relations of bourgeois society, and making them appear as if this were the ‘natural’ way to live.
The understanding of what is and what is not human permeates Marx’s conception of science. Consider two well-known remarks from Volume 3 of Capital: ‘[A]ll science would be superfluous if the form of appearance [Erscheinungsform] of things and their essence [Wesen] directly coincided.’ And earlier, discussing ‘prices of production’:
In competition, therefore, everything appears upside-down. The finished configuration [Gestalt] of economic relations, as these are visible on the surface, in their actual existence [realen Existenz], and therefore also in the notions [Vorstellungen] with which the bearers and agents of these relations seek to gain an understanding of them, is very different from the configuration of their inner core, which is essential [wesentlichen] but concealed [verhullten], and the concept [Begriff] corresponding to it. It is in fact the very reverse and antithesis of this.
Here, the parallels between Marx’s method and Hegel’s are plain to see. But only in Marx’s case is a further question immediately raised (although rarely by ‘Marxists’): why are appearance and essence opposed? Why can’t we live in such a way that they do coincide? His struggle to answer such questions is the heart and soul of Marx’s critique of political economy, of his conception of history and of his notions of the communist revolution and communist society.
When ‘Marxism’ thought that Marx had produced a set of ‘economic doctrines’, a ‘Marxist political economy’, and when it identified ‘Marx’s dialectic’ with Hegel’s dialectic, it was denying Marx’s central insight. In presenting the most developed form of his work on the critique of political economy, in the 1873 edition of Capital, Marx explained quite clearly that ‘my dialectic is not only different from that of Hegel, but its direct opposite’. Unfortunately, nobody was listening. Right at the start of his study of political economy, Marx wrote:
The community of men, or the manifestation of the nature of men, their mutual complementing the result of which is species-life, truly human life – this community is conceived by political economy in the form of exchange and trade.... It is seen that political economy defines the estranged form of social intercourse as the essential and original form corresponding to man’s nature.
In opposition to this, Marx knew that
since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce, the human community the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth.
As he put it nearly thirty years later:
The categories of bourgeois political economy ... are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production....
These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.
Marx’s critique of political economy cannot be separated from his critique of the Hegelian dialectic. He showed how Hegel’s logic expressed most profoundly the logic of money and capital, and was bound up with the distortion, inversion and inhumanity of the forms of consciousness through which money operated. For Hegel, as for Ricardo, money simply functioned as a ‘universal means of exchange’, promoting justice and equality.
Marx, by analysis of the categories of the political economists themselves, showed how this relation’s impersonal power arose necessarily out of the nature of the commodity and enslaved the whole of society, both rich and poor. The substance, ‘value’, transformed itself into the active subject, ‘capital’, and this was what Hegel unconsciously depicted as ‘Spirit’. Where Hegel sees Spirit as the product of human social activity which controls our lives, Marx sees capital.
When Marx unfolds the forms of value, their necessary development into the money-form and the development of money into capital, he deliberately refers to Hegel’s exposition of the Judgement and the Syllogism. Hegel’s account shows no way out of the inexorable forward march of the Idea. Marx points to the inhumanity and craziness (Verucktheit) of these forms, whose apparent ‘inevitability’ and ‘naturalness’ he shows to arise from within this inhuman social formation itself.
So these parallel logical processes actually move in opposite directions. Hegel purports to demonstrate that thought can find a place for all kinds of phenomena of the modern world. Anything, indeed, that is to be discovered existing there has to be shown to be there of necessity. However miserable people may be in such situations, they will be consoled when they hear how it is all for the best ‘in the end’. The dialectic moves on past their misery, majestically carrying ‘us’ – ‘we who look on’ – to the heights of the Absolute.
In Marx, on the contrary, the forms demonstrate in their movement the way the dialectical trick works. They show us, step by step, how the inhuman relations inside which we live our lives disguise themselves as ‘natural’. This is the direct opposite of his ‘great master’. Hegel locks the gates of our inhuman prison, fixing to them the sign ‘Freedom’. Marx wants to show us, not just that we are imprisoned, certainly not a utopian picture of what lies beyond the walls, but how we locked ourselves in and thus how to get out, that is, to live as humans.
Was Karl Marx a materialist? If this word is used to mean something about ‘matter being given to us through our senses’, or thinking being a ‘reflection of matter’, certainly not. Such materialism, said Marx, took the standpoint of ‘the isolated individual in civil society’ (Theses on Feuerbach, Thesis 10). When he called himself a materialist, he wanted to stress how scientific thinking reflected ‘the real movement’: ‘Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct production process of his life.’ But bourgeois society turned technology and natural science into instruments for the inhuman exploitation of both Nature and labour-power. This is the root cause of the weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process’.
By liberating society from fetishised forms, the communist revolution would make it possible for humanity to see its true relationship with Nature. Productive activity was revealed as ‘a process between man and nature’, in which the human being ‘confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature’. When a human being ‘acts upon nature and changes it ... he simultaneously changes his own nature’ and ‘develops the potentialities slumbering within nature’. That is why Marx’s science – in direct opposition to Hegel’s – could see the potentially human role of the natural sciences:
History itself is a real part of natural history – of nature developing into man. Natural science will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science .. . The social reality of nature, and human natural science, or the natural science of man, are identical terms.
Marx could not have done his job without Hegel. By exhibiting the workings of his dialectic in such detail and so comprehensively, Marx’s ‘great teacher’ had given us a faithful map of our jail. All that Marx needed to do was to turn the map upside-down and reverse the arrows on the signposts. That is why critique, in the special meaning Marx gave that term, was so important for Marx’s work. Through gaps and internal contradictions in Hegel’s system, Marx could glimpse possible routes for our escape tunnel.
Of course, just as Hegel’s task could never be completed, Marx’s was also one that could never have an end. In any case, he only had time to begin the study of one particular item on his agenda. If we refuse to be bound by the false notion of ‘Marxism’, the idea that it possessed the patent on a ‘complete, integral world-outlook’, then we stand a chance of following Marx’s lead and continuing his work into the uncharted terrain of the twenty-first century.
Uchida on Grundrisse |
Ilyenkov on Feuerbach
Pilling on Concepts of Capital | German Ideology | Theses on Feuerbach