Marx and Hegel: New Scholarship, Continuing Questions

Michael Williams. Science & Society, Volume 67, Issue 4. Winter 2003/2004.

A conference on the Hegel-Marx Connection was held in March 1997, at Nottingham Trent University (UK). The conference gave rise to a volume of papers with the same title. The authors provide a timely and useful intervention in a long-standing debate that is often assumed, erroneously, to have achieved closure. A series of diverse and significant arguments against neglect of Hegel’s influence on Marx’s and Marxist political economy are mounted—as to method but also as to content.

At the risk of boring readers, it is important to contextualize the arguments in the history of thought, if only to show that there is little new under the sun. The editors’ crucial historical introduction (to which readers should turn for references) argues for persistent ambiguity in Marx’s own evaluation of the influence of Hegel on his work. Marx is commonly associated with the “Young Hegelians” who identified in the master’s philosophy a radical, atheistic, “esoteric,” as opposed to a conservative, Christian “exoteric” moment supportive of the political status quo. Up to and including the Grundrisse it is clear that Marx sees the move from Hegelian general (trans-historical) to determinate (historically specific) abstraction in dialectical political economy as a process of reconstructing the real in thought, not, as with the common reading of Hegel, of the coming into being of the real. The Grundrisse is frequently seen as heavily influenced by Hegel’s dialectics, but in the famous Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Volume 1, Marx explicitly claims that his dialectical method is the opposite of Hegel’s. To claims that his realist method of inquiry in Capital sat uneasily with his idealist method of presentation, Marx riposted that this was an illusion, inevitable given that presentation involves the unfolding of conceptual abstraction in the attempt to re-construct the empirical as the concrete.

20th-century Marxist understanding of the methodological import of the Hegel-Marx connection was heavily influenced by Engels’ notion of the “inversion” of Hegel’s “idealist” metaphysics in Marx’s naturalist and materialist ontology. At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, French and Italian writers objected to the positivism, mechanistic materialism and scientism of this account. Lenin perpetuated the ambivalence of Hegel-Marx scholarship. His main published works seem heavily influenced by Engels on epistemology and dialectical materialism, but in his Notebooks on Hegel’s Logic Lenin appears to reject reflectionist epistemology, to have positive things to say about Hegel’s “intelligent idealism,” to argue that there are materialist elements at work in Hegel and, famously, to exhort the reading of Hegel’s Logic as a pre-requisite for grasping Capital.

Emancipation from Engels’ dialectical materialism is crucially marked by Lukacs’ claim that Engels did not understand dialectics, ignored the interaction between subject and object as the driver of history, erroneously extended the scope of the dialectic to “nature” and fell into economic determinism. But ambivalence remains as Lukacs continues to castigate Hegel’s mysticism, while later claiming that Hegel constituted a crucial precursor to Marx in approaching a true materialist dialectic, and emphasizing Hegel’s realism for which history is inevitably human history, with work at its core. Gramsci argued trenchantly against the crude materialism of Engels and Plekhanov, and for the unification of idealism and materialism into a philosophy of praxis that he claimed lay at the heart of Marx’s thought. Marcuse presents Hegel as the radical philosopher to Marx’s social theorist and rejects Engels’ naturalism. Hegel, he asserted, had significant materialist tendencies obscured by his persistent idealist metaphysics. Kojeve saw Marx’s emphasis on the role of labor and the proletariat as foreshadowed by Hegel’s radical emphasis on the struggle of this fundamental human activity to be free. For him, Hegel’s “reason.” is concretely embodied in developing human consciousness informing labor’s struggle to attain fully conscious selfhood, thus bridging the alleged difference between Hegel’s absolute spirit and Marx’s notion of human consciousness. Sartre rejected the scientism of dialectical materialism as well as any dialectics of nature, asserting that science cannot deal adequately with history and ahistorical nature cannot be dialectical. By the 1960s, however, the burgeoning humanist and dialectical strand in French Marxist thinking was being subjected to attack by revivals of Bernstein that argued for the purging of Hegel’s ineluctable idealism from Marxist thought.

Bernstein had argued that Marx’s socialist aspirations along with his commitment to the Hegelian dialectic led him in Capital to make scientifically falsified assertions. Delia Volpe advocated the purging of idealist Hegelian remnants from Marxist theory in favor of a kind of hypothetico-deductive method. For Colletti, contradictory idealist and materialist strands run through Hegel and his interpretation in Engels, Plekhanov and Lenin. The key scourge of “Hegelian Marxism” in the second half of the 20th century was Althusser, who rejected equally the focus on the subject stemming from Lukacs and the second International’s dialectical materialism. he famously espied an “epistemological break” between the early Hegelian humanist Marx and the later social scientific Marx.

The editors draw from this intellectual history two alternative broad interpretations of the Marx-Hegel connection. The expunging from Marx of just these idealist metaphysics that here includes Hegel’s dialectic is associated with analytical Marxism and the post-Althusserians. The editors seem to favor instead a critical (materialist) appropriation of, especially, dialectical method purged of idealist ontology that leaves intact Hegel’s “cryptomaterialist” content of the self-creating power of labor. An offshoot of this latter approach continues to address the historical problematization of the idealist/materialist dichotomy in the Hegel-Marx connection. Hegel’s social science (Realphilosophie) can, it is suggested, be read in a non-metaphysical, non-philosophical way as some kind of (historical) materialism. His Idea can be taken as just the non-mystical cognitive product of real social humans whose existence encompasses the unity of being and consciousness, theory and practice that Marx can be seen as having appropriated without need for any kind of metaphysical “inversion.”

The Contributors

We can organize the main chapters in terms of their gambits for overcoming the putative gap between Marx and Hegel.

Terrell Carver and Joseph McCarney see a common emergent project in the two thinkers. Carver argues that to eschew Hegel’s logic as a key to Marx’s political economy loses his specific immanent critique of Hegel’s philosophy and politics. We cannot adequately understand Marx’s crucial development from money to capital except as a Hegelian negation of the finite (as money faces its quantitative limitation) and subsequent negation of this negation in self-expanding capital, which grounds the immanent capitalist law of valorization and accumulation assumed in Capital. Marx’s account of capitalism irreducibly “sits … on the nexus between interlinked ideas and meaningful activities” (51). In a similar vein, McCarney perceives a common emancipatory dialectical theory. Marx himself misses the possible immanent reading of Hegel’s Idea as manifest in human social consciousness and life that Bauer had polemicized in favor of. Nevertheless, he adopts dialectics not as a methodological algorithm but as systematic, discursive thinking of the life of the theoretical object. Philosophy is just “its own time comprehended in thought” (Hegel, cited on p. 67). Socialist revolution is then “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority” (Marx & Engels, cited on p. 140). For Marx, reason is first realized in consciousness and then in the objective world.

While it is the Young Hegelians who are “progressive,” Marx’s dialectic is closer, in being anti-normative, to Hegel’s own dismissal of moral criticism as undialectical. Gary Browning, in expounding the undoubtedly Hegelian character of Marx’s doctoral discussion of Democritus and Epicurus, also claims that Marx’s preference for the holistic perspective of the latter overcomes the misleading reading of Marx’s Hegelianism as only refracted through the work of the Young Hegelians, demonstrating his debt to Hegel’s own modes of reasoning in the Logic. In the 1840s, as in post-Aristotelian Hellenic philosophy, the Hegelians were concerned with the translation of philosophy into political practice in the contemporary world. Marx, following Hegel, saw as essential the transcendence of contradictions between theory and practice. “Marx’s profound affinity for and assimilation of Hegel’s conception of the internally related and immanently determined character of concepts and human practices,” evident in his dissertation, “continues to inform [his] understanding of capitalism” (142). This chimes in with Chris Arthur’s argument (below) for a parallelism between Hegel’s “notion” as abstractly self-determining expressed by self-consciousness comprehending it, and Marx’s conception of capitalism as a system of internally related moments determined by capital that reproduces its own conditions of existence.

Closing the gap is therefore about refocusing our view of Hegel as much as about refocusing our view of Marx. McCarney argues that in some respects Hegel is less idealist and more realist than Marx. For Hegel subjects are always less than fully aware of self and of true historical meaning. The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk, to make meaningful the dark night of decay and revolutionary transition that will (hopefully) issue eventually in the new dawn of post-revolutionary society.

Several contributions focus on convincing cases in which some at least of the content (not just the “method”) of Marx’s arguments is prefigured in Hegel. Ian Fraser points to Marx’s dialectical development from natural need to the monstrous form of its satisfaction under capitalism, mediated through labor, surplus, exchange, money and concomitant forms of domination. He argues that Hegel’s materially grounded political economy of the “wild beast” of need and labor anticipates Marx’s “monster,” capital “animated” by living labor-power (146). Both Hegel and Marx are concerned with how universai need-satisfaction is pursued in particular forms that determine the specific social relations that dominate individuals. The necessity of the famous distinction between (inalienable) labor and (alienated) labor-power is also to be found in Hegel. David Boucher takes on the orthodoxy that would distinguish Hegel’s “communitarian” ethical relativism on international relations from Marx’s “cosmopolitanism.” he argues for congruencies that enable us to classify both as historicists for whom universal ethical principles have only particular manifestation and development within specific socio-historical epochs. Both Hegel and Marx see particularity manifest in stages of the development of universal freedom. For both there is an ideal of human natural capacity to attain freedom, though its (inadequate) manifestations are constituted by succeeding historical conditions. Both see morality (including that of international relations) as necessarily grounded in social and political life (not merely in cognitive abstraction) and as being explicable not by origins but by conditions of reproduction and emendation. Both understand international relations, morality, justice and human nature (individual subjectivity) as developing through history, from primitive dependency (communal labor) through class antagonism (initially from conquest) to mutual independence (through monetary exchange)—first inter-communal, then internal. Hence, natural domination gives way to class domination (appearing as impersonal structural domination), and apparent universal community is revealed as that of atomistic agents, related only externally by money rather than any universal morality.

Howard Williams explicitly questions the orthodox reading of a materialist vs. idealist metaphysical chasm between Marx and Hegel by elaborating on the similarities in their writings on (the end of) history. Certainly there are different dramatis personne: Does Geist denote the Christian God, a secular social mind (human collective consciousness), or their unity? For Hegel the end of history is equated to the end of philosophy in the actualization of the consciousness of freedom in (Cermanic) Europe. For Marx, the (putative) end of history is to be communism, characterized by the self-conscious re-appropriation of humanity by humankind. But in both cases “the riddle of history is knowingly solved,” and the move from one to the other requires only the transcendence of the romantic association of property and freedom that enmeshed Hegel. True, the overcoming of bourgeois freedom in freedom from economic constraint seems no less mystical than Hegel’s spirit, but even the latter is plausible as a teleological (objective, purposive) “end” pro lemps, if not necessarily as the completion of history (Fukuyama).

Andrew Chitty implicitly transcends any dichotomy between method and content, providing further evidence of commonality in both between Hegel and Marx. he seeks to rescue Marx from the causal circularity that would arise if social relations of production are reduced to their (superstructural) legal and political expression as property relations. he argues instead that they are analogous to the relations of mutually constituting recognition of self-conscious subjects to be found in Hegel’s account of Right. Hegel’s Right entails a development from abstract right (to be a person by claiming property rights over part of nature and respecting others’ corresponding claims via contract), on through moral subject, family member, civil society member (bourgeois), and citizen (of the nation-state). Hegel historicizes his account of the development of right as successive Volkgeist, as interactive relations of recognition/assertion come to be instantiated in the form of economic relations. Abstract right is mutual recognition of persons possessing, working with, contracting to exchange—goods. For Marx, then, these already determined (economic) social relations of production are the drivers of history of which relations of cognitive and practical recognition are derivative. The movement from recognition to right is then one from tacit de facto acceptance of ownership (implicit in entering into exchange rather than forcible seizure) to its de jure recognition by contract. This is at the same time a movement from social relations of production as relations of factual recognition/assertion to those of legal recognition of property rights, perhaps via the emergence of cognitive recognition of existing practices and so practical recognition, together constituting social recognition and class structure. On this account, “social relations of production” are similar to Hegel’s historical relations of recognition and assertion. They remain within the base, legitimately conditioning their legal expression in the superstructure.

Chris Arthur also explains method in terms of the nature of the content—capitalist economy. he argues that Marx’s presentation in Capital I uses Hegelian categories from the Logic and that the Marxist critique of economic categories is the same as its critique of Hegel’s. The general formula of capital is a Hegelian Concept whose false ontology is actualized in the inverted world in which value claims priority over its material bearers and the logic of capital is imposed on humanity. It is Hegel’s social science, not his dialectical method, that is inadequate. he logically reconstructs reality in a categorical presentation from abstract to concrete, just as Marx’s Capilalis a logical reconstruction of capitalism. The dialectical principle that Marx got from Hegel is that form is predicated of being, not just of thought. Exchange dialectic drives a form-determined economic system, in which exchange thus drives production that is thus susceptible to identification of the logic that ensures its tendential reproduction. Production is then formdetermined—albeit always resisted by labor’s recalcitrance and nature’s susceptibility to despoliation and exhaustion. just as the doubt about Hegel’s philosophy is as to whether the Concept creates reality, or merely appropriates it in thought, we may ask whether capital creates wealth or merely expropriates that created by labor under its own (value) form.

Tony Burns would, pace Arthur, confine a valid dialectic to conceptual development. he points out that Marxist, like other, economic thought followed Ricardo’s germinal systematic theory of political economy, relying on models derived by abstraction and deduction and developed by “successive approximation” to empirical reality. But with respect to the status of the starting point of his presentation, Marx seems, in a realist gambit, to want his basic statements to be both definitions and statements with empirical import. The (realist) function of science is the establishment of adequate essential definition of the concept referring to the object: analytical truths arrived at a posteriori by empirical science (so that Capital is an extended definition of capital). For this “non-metaphysical” (analytical/rational choice) view Marx is a realist and his dialectic is purely conceptual; confined to presentation. Burns concludes Platonically that dialectic means no more than logical-deductive method. It has no ontological implication and is in no substantive sense particularly “Hegelian.”


The papers throw into the ring a plethora of argument and evidence that indicates the dangers of any simple “expunging” oi’Hegelian influences from Marxist work. The closest to this purgative approach is Tony Burns’ argument for confining the dialectic to cognition and thus seeing its modern manifestation in something like the standard logical-deductive method of science. I found Browning’s arguments particularly thin and unsubstantiated, and Carver makes strong assertions about German philosophy not always grounded in adequate evidence. Williams’ argument is weakened by its listing of very general commonalities in an attempt to thicken the Hegel-Marx connection. To be interesting, aspects of commonality must go beyond notions that are ubiquitous to the general philosophical/logical atmosphere and code of our—post-Enlightenment—times, such as an epochal division of human history, moving geographically from east to west, exhibiting material, cultural and moral progression towards the necessary teleological goal of freedom, culminating in a dynamic endpoint of Germanic Protestantism (Hegel), or “communism” (Marx). To merely list such links is just to classify both thinkers as post-Enlightenment “modernists,” sharing ideas common to a much wider group of 19th-century thinkers.

Arthur and McCarney, on the other hand, are particularly cogent in leading the attack on any simple dichotomy between Hegel’s mystical idealism and Marx’s materialist rectification by indicating apparent idealism in Marx and materialism in Hegel. Marx and Hegel can be usefully read as sharing a common emancipatory theory of human social history, tempering any putative epistemological break between them and facilitating a productive Marxist Aufhebung of the Hegelian system. Marx’s dialectic is closer, in being anti-normative, to Hegel than is the discourse of the Young Hegelians, and Hegel may in some ways be less idealistic and more realistic than Marx. Hegel’s logic is a key to Marx’s specific immanent critique of his philosophy and politics and to his method and particular aspects of his political economy. Much of Hegel’s materially grounded political economy prefigures Marx’s. The irreducible and non-vicious circularity that obtains between “ideas, individuals, and action” (Carver, 52) ensures that no cleansing of alleged Hegelian residues can justify a positivist reading of Marx with respect to social causality or the ontological status of theoretical entities. Although Marx may have accepted the characterization of his method of presentation as “English deductive,” he criticizes Ricardo not only on substance but also on method. Any “economic modeling” is in Marx crucially “saturated with complex, rich social-economic content taken from reality and elucidated by the power of abstract thought” (Rubin, cited on p. 84). If we accept (whether as an interpretation or a rectification of Hegel and/or Marx) that Zeitgeist exhausts Geist (McCarney) then much ontological incongruence between Marx and Hegel can be resolved.

Neither this collection (nor my review of it) is for those who can conceive of no overlap between conception and perception or category and object, even in the domain of social science, for those who have settled comfortably on a post-Ricardian deductive method for political economy entirely separated from the theory-neutral empirical data by which it is to be tested, or for those for whom the legitimate imperative to parsimony of ontological commitment has degenerated into a simplistic view of the relation between concept and object. For the rest of us the book contains much food for productive thought.