Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature

John L Stanley. Science & Society. Volume 61, Issue 4. Winter 1997/1998.

Although virtually all interpreters agree on the extensive influence of Hegelian thought on Marx, hardly any of the many commentators on this relationship have paid attention to Marx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophy of nature, the second part of the Encyclopedia. The most complete work devoted to Marx and nature, Alfred Schmidt’s influential The Concept of Nature in Marx (1971), also has the most extensive reference to the Naturphilosophie, but the discussion is largely for the purpose of criticizing Engels. Even Schmidt largely fails to address the concluding section of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts which contains a specific critique of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie; and the Dissertation, which Schmidt mentions only once, echoes the substance and very phraseology of the Naturphilosophie. In fact the Thesis Notebooks contain three separate outlines of it. Why then has there been such reluctance to discuss Marx’s direct confrontations with Hegel’s least discussed text? Why has Marx, almost alone among Hegel’s commentators, taken the Naturphilosophie seriously?

It is true that Marx and Engels, as well as most Hegel interpreters, have been quite dismissive of the scientific importance of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie, and pay greater heed to the Logic and to the Phenomenology (Harris, 1949) . However, a reading of Marx’s Dissertation, where we find a virtually explicit critique of Hegelianism in the Appendix, indicates that Epicurus’ philosophy of nature is often (though not always) a stand-in for Hegel’s; that the conclusion of the Manuscripts really continues the idea of the Thesis, i.e., of placing materialism on a more solid basis by way of a critique of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie; that all this allows Marx in the Manuscripts to criticize Hegel’s failure to realize the importance of natural history as the basis of any real history.

Marx’s Dissertation praises Epicurus, as the 1844 Manuscripts praise Hegel, as a pioneer of enlightenment; but Marx also criticizes Epicurus, as he does Hegel, for deviating from enlightenment materialism in his view of free consciousness: Epicurus’ concept of the “swerve” opposes the strict causality and necessitarian “positive science” of Democritus (though the views of the two thinkers had long been held to be identical). While Epicurus’ materialistic atomism, not shared by Hegel, is lauded by Marx, Epicurus “swerves” from his own materialism and ends up, like Hegel, as a proponent of an abstract individual freedom that rises above natural constraints. In so doing Epicurus finally and fearfully turns away from nature, fails to reconcile the abstract concepts of nature with their material qualities and consoles the thinker through what Marx calls “abstract possibility” (Diss, 62, 70-72, 473).

In both works, Marx seems to anticipate his own later call to set Hegel “right side up again” (Capital, 25). Here we find an expression of the “classical inversion” thesis of the orthodox tradition in which Marx’s thought is seen as a materialist version of Hegel’s dialectics, with its stress on inevitable laws of development, including Engels’ dialectics of nature. It thus reflects Engels’ view that “the dialectic of concepts itself [is] merely the conscious reflection of the dialectical motion of the real world,” including the world of prehuman nature.

Against this view, Schmidt tends to resist the materialist current in Marx and to relegate the more forthright materialism of the Marxist tradition to Engels. Schmidt’s viewpoint is widely and approvingly cited and is the focus of this critique for two reasons: he pays direct attention to Marx’s view of nature and to Hegel’s Naturphilosophie more than any other writer; and in his downplaying of Marx’s texts that explicitly criticize that philosophy, he exemplifies the mistaken tendency of some other important interpreters to move Marx back toward a Hegelian position.

1) Schmidt appears to argue in support of Marx’s reversal of Hegel. He is careful to pay formal attention to Marx’s statements regarding “the priority of external nature and its laws,” while noting that for Hegel, the Idea, consciousness, is prior to nature. Yet along with quite a few other commentators, Schmidt places Marx in substantially the same position that he finds Hegel: for Schmidt the real pt/us for Marx is, as with Hegel, the subject’s concept of nature, rather than nature itself.

2) If nature must be conceived, then for Schmidt, Marx’s understanding of nature prior to human intervention, that is, “the traditional objects of materialist thought” are thrust into the background insofar as they do not stress the practical and modificatory aspects of man’s relation to nature. From this Schmidt concludes that Marx rejects the notion that nature exists “in itself” by attacking the very notion of a Marxist ontology of nature or indeed of an “objective world” prior to man’s intervention in it. In so doing Schmidt moves back towards the Hegelian notion of the Idea constituting nature.

3) In denying Marx’s acceptance of nature in itself, Schmidt denies that for Marx nature can be dialectical in itself. In his attempt to distance Marx from Engels’ dialectics of nature, Marx is said to have believed that “it is only the process of knowing nature which can be dialectical, not nature itself.” Yet Schmidt rightly notes that Hegel also denied the intrinsic dialectics of Nature devoid of the Idea.

4) By denying Marx a dialectical dynamic as a moving force in objective nature, or his surprising minimalization of pre-human history, Schmidt minimizes the very natural history that Marx claimed as the basis of capital (43, 194). In the process of contrasting Engels’ naturalization of history with the Marxian view, Schmidt maintains that for Marx “history is first, and immediately, practice” (193). He thus returns to Hegel’s view of nature as the history of consciousness (as conscious activity) expressing itself through nature rather than as an autonomous natural historical starting point—which Hegel also denies.

Given this account, Schmidt and the many who share his views, in emphasizing the primary importance of consciousness for Marx, impose on him the very Philosophy of Mind which he appears so intent to surpass. By inadequately interpreting Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie, Schmidt has wrongly departed from the classical “inversion” thesis of Marx’s critique of Hegel. If, however, we pay closer attention to the Dissertation and the 1844 Manuscripts, we see a Marx who is closer to the classical viewpoint than Schmidt and many others would allow:

1 ) Marx’s starting point is the opposite of Hegel’s. While for both thinkers consciousness and nature mediate each other reciprocally, and while even Hegel affirms nature as necessary for mediating the progress of consciousness, Marx says that nature must be prior to consciousness. Hegel, by making consciousness the starting point, sets out from the estrangement of a Nature that must finally be realized only through the progress of consciousness which he calls “the Idea.”

2) Marx’s starting point thus presupposes the ontological reality of the objective natural universe and the primacy of matter without which pre-human nature is impossible. The concrete and plural character of the forms in which matter can first be found in nature is essential to Marx’s view of being. Man later becomes part of that plurality.

3) Being then consists in the reciprocal relationships among plural entities which are both subjects and objects of one another. Marx understands this reciprocity as the dialectics of nature, which is both prior to and inclusive of human relations and one that directly materializes some Hegelian categories.

4) Both Hegel and Marx view history as being dialectical, but by beginning dialectics with the Concept, Hegel makes natural history absurd. Marx not only directly reverses the Naturphilosophie’s denial of evolution but outlines the idea of a natural history of labor that is later affirmed in CapitaL Humans certainly transform nature, something ignored by Feuerbach; however for Marx nature still establishes necessary, residual and stabilizing boundaries, which humanity cannot overstep.

1. The Methodological Starting Point

Schmidt cites Hegel’s Naturphilosophie to the effect that while “nature comes first in time … the absolute prius is the Idea; this absolute Prius is the last thing, the true beginning, the Alpha is the Omega” (23, cit. Encyclopedia 2248; Miller, 19). Yet while admitting that Marx is critical of this beginning, Schmidt is anxious to separate Engels view or an autonomous nature from Marx for whom “material reality is from the beginning socially mediated” (35). But that mediation means that Nature is “capable of apprehension only when mediated by labor” (79), i.e., that “in the Marxist view, all natural being has been worked on economically and hence conceived” (60, italics added). For Schmidt, then, Marx like Hegel starts with a conceptual view of the whole that only subsequently becomes enriched through material development, rather than the other way round as classical Marxism would have it (cf. Carver, 1976; Duquette, 1988).

However, by his own account, Marx’s naturalistic beginning and end points are the opposite of Hegel’s. Marx had said that for him it is not the Concept, “but the material phenomenon alone [that] can serve as its starting point.” By this, Marx means that the beginning of analysis for men is sensuous animal need which “is of course determinateness by nature; subjectively and objectively” (Grundrisse, 46). As he puts it in the 1844 Manuscripts, “human sensuous essential powers can only find their self-understanding in the science of the natural world.” The beginning and end points of analysis are nature and nature transformed. “Only when science proceeds from nature—is it true science,” and “only naturalism is capable of comprehending the action of world history,” a history that is “a real part of natural history,” a history that concludes in “the social reality of nature.”

On the other hand, Marx’s Dissertation and the 1844 Manuscripts try to demonstrate that Hegel’s Naturphilosophie does not start with nature, but begins first with “the Idea” in its logical form (or “Concept”), “the absolute and fixed abstraction.” Second, it then “intuitively imposes these logical categories onto nature and thus “merely repeats the logical abstractions in a sensuous external form.” That is, it “posits” the actual, positive sensuous, real of the natural world. Third, it then “annuls” that positive stage and “resolves nature back into abstractions”; this restoration is the Idea in the form of “Spirit … thinking returned home to its point of origin” (EPM, 329, 330-31, 345) . In sum, Marx sees the natural historical equation starting from Nature, then mediated by Ideas arising from natural needs, and concluding in Nature transformed as fulfilled species needs (N-I-N’). This is inverted by Hegel as the history of the Idea: from abstract Idea (Concept), to the Mediated Idea (Nature), and returning to the Idea triumphant as Spirit (I-N-I’).

Marx’s reading of Hegel is supported by Hegel’s own text which depicts a double movement: “As the result of the drive of the Idea towards being for itself,” independent moments, such as the senses of the animal, come into objective existence like the sun, and the lunar and cometary bodies. But “when matter negates itself as untrue existence a higher existence emerges … The earlier stage is sublated” (Ency 252; Petry, 218). While this statement would make it appear that Hegel denies the existence of Nature per se, Marx does not adopt this view. For him, the whole Hegelian process is here depicted as the result of a necessity where the abstract form in which the Idea expresses itself must arrive “at an entity which is its exact opposite, at Nature.” However, “just as nature lay enclosed in the thinker in the form of the absolute Idea, in the form of a thought-entity, so too it has re-emerged in that form.” As Marx sums it, in Hegel “subject and predicate are therefore related to each other in absolute reversal” (EPM, 342).

Since this “reversal” begins and ends with the abstract Idea, Marx makes the point that Nature, in Hegel’s hands, “sets out from the estrangement of substance” and is thus alienated by its very existence. As the externality of abstract thinking, it is the Idea’s “self loss” (EPM, 329, 330). Presented in this way Nature is “the Idea in the form of other being, since the Idea is, in this form, the negation of itself.” Nature is thus not just “relatively external vis-a-vis the Idea, but externality constitutes the form in which it exists as nature” (EPM, 346; cit. Ency 247; Petry, 205). Thus, in the Manuscripts, Marx says that Hegelian “consciousness takes offense not at estranged activity, but at objectivity as such” and, as the ultimate Prometheanism, becomes “nothing for man.”

Since nature in Hegel’s hands is alienated from thought, this estranged thinking can only conceptualize natural phenomena (or indeed the physical products of men) as thought entities or as mental products, i. e., as entities that have become only abstractly possible. Nature becomes the philosophy of nature, “thinking which abstracts from nature,” hence “an alienation of human thought” (EPM, 330, 332, 344). The appropriation of the alien natural objects is “only an appropriation occurring in consciousness” (EPM, 335, 331; cf. Phenomenology, 788).

How different from Hegel is Schmidt’s Marx, for whom the sciences studying nature are not only ideologically motivated but are reduced to thought? Marx, he rightly notes, depicts materialism as arising in the context of a defense of the bourgeois Enlightenment. However, Schmidt would have Marx transforming the ideological origins of materialism into an ideological critique of its scientific content by concluding that in Marx’s view, “the natural sciences, a main source of materialist assertions, provide no immediate consciousness of natural reality at all” (32).

The alienation of thought from nature is anticipated in the Dissertation, where Marx had already noted that for Epicurus (implicitly depicted as foreshadowing Hegel in this regard), the appearance of concrete things was “alienation of the essence,” hence “alienation as such” and thus intrinsically irreconcilable with concepts. Epicurus could not overcome the gulf between the two independent existences: the atoms as an abstract concept, atomoi archai whose very reduction into timeless essences means “the death of nature”; and the concrete atoma stoicheion which, endowed with qualities, “is complete and alienated from its concept.” Consequently Marx depicts Epicurus as one who “seeks to destroy the reality of nature which has become independent through an explanation according to abstract possibility” (Diss, 70-71 ).

As he had earlier depicted Epicurus, so in the Manuscripts Marx also depicts Hegel as relegating Nature to abstract possibility, i.e., as potential fulfillable only through the unfolding of consciousness, of “the Idea.” Echoing the Dissertation’s critique of Epicurus who affirms the reality of nature, but in the end, seems to be “at home” in the “abstract individual self-consciousness,” the Manuscripts interpret Hegel’s nature as being translated into the philosophy of nature, human products into mental projects. In this case, “locked up in these fixed mental forms … dwelling outside nature and thought,” the objective world, “nature has vanished” (EPM, 346; cit. Eng 381; cf. EMP, 335).

In Marx’s eyes, two consequences follow from all this: First, the thinking philosopher can only take his own estranged world as a criterion of that very estrangement; self-consciousness, which is “at home in its other being as such,” is a starting point that “becomes a confirmation of alienation” (EPM, 339, 342). Hegel, like Epicurus before him, ends with a circular argument in which what is to be proved is assumed. Hegel’s “intuition of nature is only the act of confirming his abstraction from the intuition of nature” (EPM, 345; cf. Diss, 414). Hence for Hegel, the “entire transition from logic to natural philosophy is nothing else but the transition from abstracting to intuiting.”

Second, because consciousness is self-confirming “anyone may think as he chooses to think,” as Marx said of Hegel in a youthful poem (CW 1, 576, 22). We can thus manipulate the data of nature to conform to philosophy. So too had Epicurus formulated an arbitrary “method of imaginative consciousness” in order to fulfill a philosophical purpose. In this method “only that which is really perceived or is comprehended through thinking is true.” It does not rely on the senses for our knowledge. All concrete determinations collapse in a “monotonous echo,” replaced by relations that are only imagined (Diss, 413-414) and in such away that “the Concept has become identical with itself’ (EPM, 346; cit. Ency, sec 381).

In the Manuscripts, Marx concludes his critique with a short demonstration of how Hegel performs this self-reflective manipulation: Hegel makes the Naturphilosophie have, as its starting point, a strained and fictional replication of the starting point of the lesser Logic: Nature begins with Space which, as its most “completely abstract” aspect, “remains the foundation of nature,” and which corresponds to the beginning point of the Logic, “absolute nothingness” (Ency, sec 254; cf. Logic, sec 87). Marx implicitly criticizes this portrayal of nature’s origin as a non-beginning. Hegel’s self-confirming circulation of thought returning to thought does not start with nature but with “a nothing proving itself to be nothing … an externality that has to be annulled” (EPM, 346; cit. Ency, sec 254; Petry, 223, 225).

Indeed, Hegel says that it is “inadmissible to speak of spatial points as if they constituted the positive element in space, because … space is merely the possibility of juxtaposition, not the positedness” (Ency, sec 254, 256; Petry, 223, 226) . And precisely because it begins with only “abstract possibility,” the founding of nature on space was criticized in Marx’s Dissertation (45, 72) as inadequate. Why should we begin with space when “the eternity of matter” is the necessary (if not sufficient) basis for overcoming this chasm, as Marx implies in his notes (Diss, 440-41)? Despite Epicurus’ failure, like Hegel’s, to bridge the gap between form and content, for Epicurus this failure at least was treated in terms of atomic theory, the relation between the atomoi as concept and atoma as material reality. While Hegel specifically rejects the atomic theory (Ency, sec 98), Epicurus in his better moments depicts it as real, “the immediate negation of abstract space, hence [as] a spatial point.” In this case, the point is not only “determined only by space” as it is for Hegel, but is also a “material existence.” If it were not, if it were pure abstraction or form determination, then it would be impossible for “any mode of being [to be] determined by another being.” It is Epicurus’ own failure to resolve the tension between abstract and concrete that Marx criticizes in his thesis (Diss, 48, 51).

Marx clearly wishes to overcome the adverse consequences of these Hegelian starting points, both to restore the sensuous animal laborens displaced by Hegel’s non-objective being as well as to restore nature to its proper stabilizing force in human understanding. This means that in order to overcome “the estrangement of substance” or “the nullity of the object” on which Hegel’s method is based, Marx must affirm the ontological reality of substance, “the eternity of matter,” the sensuous world as such.

2. The Ontology of Objective Nature

Schmidt cites Hegel’s Naturphilosophie to the effect that “since the internal essence of nature is nothing other than the general, when we have thoughts we are at home with ourselves in this internal essence of nature” (Ency, 2246: Miller, 13). For Hegel “in nature concept speaks to concept, and the true concept which lies behind the fragmentation … will reveal itself in Nature” (Schmidt, 1971, 184, cit. Miller, 445) . Here, Schmidt rightly interprets Hegel to mean that to comprehend nature rationally, we must comprehend it as “reason submerged in materiality.” However, he moves towards this same position by saying that Marx did not understand nature ontologically in the sense of unmediated objectivism. For Marx, “there is no fundamental matter, no fundamental ground of being.” Thus “it was not Marx’s intention simply to replace the ontology of Hegel’s World Spirit with a material World Substance,” an equally metaphysical principle. Although Marx “occasionally” used the concept of matter alongside that of nature, it was for practical reasons.

Schmidt cites the Second Thesis on Feuerbach to support the view that for Marx the reality of natural being as such is “a purely scholastic question” because it is isolated from praxis. However, the Second Thesis addresses the reality of thinking, not of material being, as Schmidt (60-61) implies. All one can show is that Marx’s ontology had practical motives. Indeed, in his very definition of men’s practical laboring activities, Marx affirms the ontological primacy of matter. This point is made clearly in the Holy Family: “Man has not created matter itself. And he cannot create any productive capacity if the matter does not exist beforehand.” Furthermore, man “can only work as nature does, by changing the form of matter” (CW:4, 46; Capital, 50). In any case, Schmidt and those who share his views, do not explain why the author of a dissertation criticizing Epicurus because he “tends to negate all objective reality of nature” should be so hostile to materialist ontology.

Schmidt minimizes Marx’s inversion of Hegel while stressing the proximity of the two figures by insisting that Marx does not see Hegel as simply replacing Nature with Spirit or reducing Nature to pure Concept. As we have noted, Marx’s Hegel does not simply replace or idealize To be sure, in the hurriedly composed 1844 Manuscripts, Marx does sometimes appear to see Hegel as the kind of idealist who denies the ontological reality of nature – as when he refers to Hegel’s subject as “a pure incessant revolving within itself”; and sometimes Hegel himself invited this interpretation when he called nature “untrue existence” (Cf, EPM, 343; Ency, 2252; Petry, 218).

However, Marx’s point here is that Hegel’s mistaken concept of externality as a “loss of the object” nevertheless affirms the object’s existence, and relies on Hegel’s acceptance of nature as estranged externality. Rather than merely reducing matter to the Idea, “Hegel’s positive achievement,” in Marx’s view, was the realization that “the entire Logic is the demonstration that abstract thought is nothing in itself; that the absolute idea is nothing for itself; that only nature is something” (EPM, 343), a necessary vehicle for the Idea’s realization.

Thus Marx’s reversal of Hegel occurs in another way: it does not concern the issue of the ontological reality of nature per se, which is affirmed by both thinkers; the reversal concerns Marx’s stress on nature’s priority to consciousness. As we have seen, Marx’s starting point is an independent nature opposing the Hegelian view of nature’s dependence on thought.

In minimizing this reversal, Schmidt suggests that Marx was not even concerned with discussing questions directed at pre-human nature, and cites the 1844 Manuscripts “as soon as you ask questions, your abstraction from the existence of nature and man becomes meaningless” (EPM, 305). From this statement, which is really directed against the idea of God as creator, Schmidt concludes that “questions directed to the pre-human and pre-social existence of nature should not be posed abstractly”; that is to say, posed without relating them to men’s practical existence. Hence in Schmidt’s view, “Marx attacked the notion that nature exists `in itself’ prior to human mediation” (31) . Yet the Thesis criticizes Epicurus for pursuing tranquility at the expense of “knowledge of nature in and for itself,” a knowledge that includes “investigating the real causes of objects” (Diss, 45). In Schmidt’s view, it would appear that the objectification of nature per se is alienated as it is for Hegel and for Marx’s Epicurus.

But in viewing sensuous labor as the essence of man, as opposed to the abstractly mental labor of Hegel, Marx is not arguing that a distinctly human (in the sense of purposively rational) labor is the basis of nature but only of a later human nature that constitutes a later development of natural history. In Capital Marx distinguished two stages of the laboring process that situates man’s relations with nature: The first stage exists in the primitive extractive industries where the objects of labor (Arbeitsgegenstande) are “provided immediately by nature, such as hunting, fishing,” etc. in which “the soil (including water) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with the necessities … exists without his agency [ohne sein Zutun] (Capital 198-199; Das Kapital, 192-93).

This is not to say that Marx does not regard human history ws unique, and he criticizes Feuerbach for his naturalism partly on these grounds. But only at a second stage, “at a higher stage of development,” do the materials already filtered by human labor provide the predominant physical bounds of activity (Capital, 562).

Man is unique in that his history is a known history, but for Marx self-consciousness does not constitute nature or even human nature. “Self-consciousness,” he says, “is a quality of human nature, of the human eye, etc. It is not human nature that is a quality of selfconsciousness” (EPM, 334) as it is for Hegel. Marx’s view of rationality as an attribute or quality of man’s nature is here listed along with his animal organs, “his eye and ear.” Indeed, he characterizes Bauer’s transformation of self-consciousness “from an attribute of man into a self-existing subject” as a “metaphysical-theological caricature of man in his severance from nature” (CW4, 138). Marx may not be “simply” replacing a materialist substratum for Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, but he posits nature’s ontological priority as preceding consciousness. That is, conscious historical awareness is only apparent through historical development itself, and that historical development is itself a later chapter of natural history—its highest stage.

We shall return to the subject of natural history below. Suffice it to say at this point that, in emphasizing its importance, Marx cannot help but insist that external objects, the very conditions of externality, are indispensable to the essential powers of every being, not just humans. Since plurality is the very core of nature itself, Marx reverses Hegel’s concept of alienation: if every being is a material being and in this sense a natural being, then every being needs externality and is external to something else: “a being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being and plays no part in the system of nature” (EPM, 337). How then can Marx be said to ignore ontology, as Schmidt argues, if he says that “a being that has no object outside itself is not an objective being,” and that “a non-objective being is a non-being” (EPM, 337)?

This is not to say that man is only an object. If, as Marx says, man creates objects out of nature, “the activity of exhaling and inhaling all the forces of nature … is the subjectivity of objective essential powers” (EPM, 336). On the other hand man is certainly not always the subject. Since the “material of labor” includes nature as object, both subject and object are the starting points of our enquiry. “Man is the immediate object of natural science … But nature is the immediate object of the science of man: the first object of man – man – is nature, sensuousness” (EPM, 298, 304-5). Even advanced man as subject is also an object. In his activities, he “unifies subject and object by exercising his objective essential powers,” and he “creates or posits objects because he is posited by objects.” And since he is both a creator and result of objective forces, “at bottom he is nature … his activity [is] the activity of an objective, natural being” (EPM, 336). He is at the same time external to nature and internal to it. In short, while Marx’s stress on the prior importance of nature means that although man cannot initiate nature’s self-mediation, his very natural objectivity makes him part and parcel of it. This is the natural basis of Marx’s view of the dialectical unity of subject and object, to which we now turn.

3. The Dialectics of the Other

Schmidt rightly interprets the Naturphilosophie in respect to nature’s impotence, which consists in its externality and its consequent “unreconciled contradiction,” as showing that in Hegel the true dialectics starts only when the Idea infuses itself into nature. Natural processes take place at an inferior level and thus “he did not allow them a constitutive role in the movement of the Concept” (Schmidt, 184-5; cit. Ency, 2247, 248; Miller, 14, 17). Yet, as opposed to Engels who interpreted the results of modern natural science as lying already at hand in finished form, Marx “allowed the dialectically presented science to emerge first from the criticism of its present state” and therefore “at no point detached the materialist dialectic from the content of political economy.” For Marx, nature itself “is devoid of negativity. Negativity only emerges in nature with the working Subject.”

However, even in his Thesis Marx attributed a dialectical movement to the atom itself because the Epicurean notion of the free swerve only makes sense when seen as a specifically physical unity with the falling motion synthesized through a third motion of repulsion (Diss, 52; cf. Stanley, 1995, 148). If, as we have seen, plurality as simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity exists in nature prior to human consciousness or alienation, then what Marx called Hegel’s “outstanding achievement,” “the dialectic of negativity as a moving and generating principle” (EPM, 332), would seem to exist for him in nature prior to conscious human intervention. For Marx sees this plurality as a state in which “everything is itself something different from itself- that my activity is something else” (EPM, 314, Marx’s italics).

Even if “everything” is interpreted to exclude every activity that is not specifically human, this dialectical “activity” is not depicted as being necessarily rational. In this context man is a creature of passion, defined as “the essential power of man energetically bent on its object” (EPM, 337). Here too Marx understands man’s active metabolic powers exerting their domination over nature, as a natural history that can be accompanied by a “consciousness” defined in terms of animal instinct rather than rationality:

[Man] is, on the one hand, endowed with natural powers, vital powers he is an active natural being. These forces exist in him as tendencies and abilities—as instincts. On the other hand, as a natural, corporeal, sensuous objective being he is a suffering conditioned and limited creature, like animals and plants. That is to say, the objects of his instincts exist outside him … Yet these are objects that he needs. (EPM, 336.)

If passions and “instincts” are sufficient for the active subject to be cognizant of his need for external objects and to confirm a creature’s essential powers, then mere plurality itself or at least “loss” in the mere biological sense of hunger or organic metabolism—of processes of natural history prior to rational consciousness—entails dialectical relationships.

Hunger is a natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an object outside itself; in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled. Hunger is an acknowledged need of my body for an object existing outside it, indispensable to its integration and to the expression of its essential being.

Furthermore, for the starving man “it would be impossible to say wherein this feeding activity differs from that of animals” (EPM, 336, 302).

But Marx does more than apply dialectical relationships to animal needs; he extends them to the botanical and cosmological worlds in which there is no mediation by any animal sensibility whatever: The sun is the object of the plant—an indispensable object to it, confirming its life—just as the plant is an object of the sun, being an expression of the life-awakening power of the sun, of the sun’s objective essential power. (EPM, 336-37.)

It might be argued that this relationship is not dialectical but a simple mechanistic or reciprocal model that in itself stands on the threshold of Hegel’s concept and is really pre-dialectical. Yet Schmidt (190) makes precisely this accusation against Engels and cites Habermas to the effect that in Engels there is a “mechanical pseudo-dialectic of quantitative increase” that is closer to Schelling than to Hegel.

On the other hand, Schmidt (59) rightly argues that many of the categories of Engels’ dialectics of nature, such as quantitative increase, quality, measure, continuity, discreteness, etc., are all taken from the first part of Hegel’s Logic. From this he concludes that if the dialectic owes its origins to the self-realizing concept, without the human bearers of those concepts, “there can be no question of a dialectic of external nature independent of men, because all the essential moments of a dialectic would in that case be absent.” As with Hegel, Marx’s dialectics supposedly entails the consciousness which Engels’ version lacks.

However, in Capital Marx also borrows Hegel’s logical categories and applies them to non-human Nature. There, Marx discusses the transformation of the small handicraftsman into the capitalist:

Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel, in his Logic, that at a certain point merely quantitative differences pass over by inversion into qualitative changes … The molecular theory of chemistry … rests on no other law.

Let us explain this statement by one of apparently only two alternatives:

a) If, on the one hand, by invoking the Logic here, Marx is starting with conceptual analysis as Schmidt claims he is, then that conceptual starting point would open Marx to the very thing of which he accuses Hegel and of which Schmidt seems most horrified: imposing dialectical categories from Logic onto nature, thus replicating Hegel’s Naturphilosophie. Indeed it was only Engels, despite his specific denial of its validity, who nonetheless supposedly performed this imposition when he compared the development of the organism from the cell to the development of the Idea from the Hegelian “thing in itself.”

b) The other, and more plausible, explanation for the statement from Capital would seem to be that Marx is doing what Schmidt also blames Engels, and Engels alone, for doing: converting the dialectic of Concepts into a reflection of the prior dialectical motion of the real world, a dialectics of nature that would, in Schmidt’s terms, remain external to its subject matter (52). As Marx himself says, Hegel’s Idea, “the demiurgos of the real world,” is to be transformed into “its exact opposite” in which “the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind” (Capital, 25, italics added).

However, this second alternative is equally rejected by Schmidt, who claims that the autonomous motion of a purely objective dialectic leads to an incompatibility between materialism and the dialectic. If matter is dialectically structured within itself it ceases to be matter in the sense required by the exact natural sciences (59). It is itself metaphysics, an idealism unaware of its own nature, in Colletti’s expression (101 & n).

Leaving aside the positivism of these very arguments, Schmidt claims that while Hegel based his view of the impotence of nature on its externality—its unreconciled contradiction vis-a-vis the Concept—Engels no longer had this Hegelian retreat (Schmidt, 185-86, cit. Ency 247, 248). Engels was thus “forced” to present nature itself in the form of “Darwinian” covering laws concerning the material unity of the world. But Engels is doing what Marx is doing, i.e., presenting nature on the basis of a dialectical natural history.

4. Natural History

When Marx depicts nature dialectically, he depicts his natural starting point in the form of natural history. If Hegel says that everything begins with the Idea, then by definition there can be no dialectics prior to the Idea; there can be no dialectics of nature per se, hence no natural history. This position would be perfectly applicable to Marx as well as to Hegel if a distinctly human consciousness of the “loss” of externality were Marx’s starting point as it is for Hegel. But Hegel, in linking history to Concept, explicitly condemns the idea of evolutionary natural history as “empty” and “inept.” Indeed, Schmidt’s most extensive citations of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie are from the latter’s condemnation of natural history:

Thinking consideration must reject such nebulous and basically sensuous conceptions as for example the so-called emergence of … the more highly developed animal organizations out of the lower … Nature must be regarded as a system of stages, of which one necessarily proceeds from the other … not however in the sense that one is naturally created out of the other, but rather the internal idea, which constitutes the ground of nature … It was a crude notion of the older (and also more recent) philosophy of nature … that the transition from one natural form to a higher one … was seen as a case of external, real production, located in the darkness of the past.

Conversely, and rightly, Schmidt notes that Marx treats human history as “a real part of natural history” (cf. Capital, 15, 23) while for Hegel, strictly speaking, “there is no natural history” (43). In light of this, how can Schmidt (191) condemn Engels for his “naturalization of human history”? Schmidt again returns to a viewpoint that is closer to Hegel than to Marx: “Nature only appears on the horizon of history, for history can emphatically only refer to men” (193, italics added) . Or in Hyppolite’s words (1969, 98), for Marx “there does not exist a nature, without human significance, and then man.”

However, natural history, for Marx, does begin in primeval geological formations whose development forms the basis in nature [Naturbasis] for later human developments ( CW:42, 305; CW28, 400; Capital, 564n) and as we have noted, for Marx, labor begins as a strictly animal metabolism between man and nature. Man’s “exclusively human” labors are separated by “an immeasurable interval of time” from “the savage in his cave—a natural element which freely offers itself for his use and protection—[who] feels himself no more a stranger, or rather feels as much at home as a fish in water” (cf. Capital,198; EPM, 314). Thus, for Marx, everything, including nature, has a history because “everything natural has to come into being.” This “act of origin” he calls “history,” of which man’s “known history,” the “true natural history of man,” is, as we have also noted, “a real part of natural history—of nature developing into man” (EPM, 303-304, 337).

Engels’ critique of Hegel’s philosophy of nature is the same as Marx’s. As Engels puts it, partly by ascribing historical evolution only to the Spirit, Hegel’s philosophy “erred because it did not concede to nature any development in time, any `succession,’ but only ‘coexistence.”‘ In modern jargon, Hegel’s Naturphilosophie was “synchronic” rather than “diachronic.” In their ahistoricity “the natural philosophers stand in the same relation to consciously dialectical natural science as the utopians to modern communism” (Engels, 1959, 18-19 and n).

In Marx’s view Hegel’s Naturphilosophie manifests what we might dub an anti-diachronic diachrony, in his timeless view of time itself. For Marx, Hegel’s view of time echoes that of Epicurus for whom time as time is reduced to a kind of Platonic ideality (Diss, 439-40). That is, despite its greater ambiguity, Epicurus’ view of time resembles that of Hegel, for whom “the Concept of time is free from the power of time, but is neither within time, nor something temporal” (Ency, 258, remark; Petry, 231).

While, as we have seen, Space for Hegel is self-externality referred to itself (corresponding to the absolute nothingness of the Logic), “time as the negative unity of self-externality is also purely abstract and of an ideal nature,” or “negativity relating itself to itself” as Marx paraphrases it in the Manuscripts; and, as Marx specifically notes, such a concept is tailored to replicate the very next stage of the Logic (888), “becoming,” the unity of being and nothing ( CW:3, 345; cit. Ency, 258 & remark; Petry, 229-30).

Marx’s paraphrase of Hegel is virtually identical to his earlier depiction of Epicurus’ view of time as the “the finite, negative unity with itself.” Like Hegel, Epicurus’ inability to resolve the gap between concept and concrete reality means that time, on the one hand, means the arising and passing away of sensuous things. On the other hand as an abstraction of externality, as Concept, the freely existing identity with itself, time is set apart from Nature. For both Hegel and Epicurus, this contradiction is resolved in favor of the Concept. For Marx’s Epicurus, time assumes an ideal conceptual form as “the absolute form of appearance,” the “abstract form of sensation.” For Epicurus as for Hegel time itself, as opposed to what is natural, is (so to speak) timeless and becomes, in Marx’s terms, “a counterimage of the nature of essence,” the “real form” of appearance. Thus time takes on the qualities of an immutable Concept in reverse, “eternally consuming appearance and stamping it with nonessence.” For Marx on the other hand material beings “are generating time out of themselves.” For Marx, “time by itself does not exist,” and is inseparable from things and from sensuous perception (Diss, 65, 70, 96n3).

For Hegel, and to some extent for Epicurus, time is the becoming of the Idea, a Geist which conceives nature rather than conceiving of nature. The idea of a pre-human natural history sits badly with this kind of thinking, but it is well-suited to Hegel’s opposition to the idea of evolution, that is of real natural history. Both Hegel in his day and Epicurus in his feel uncomfortable with nature as such and wish to escape from it by stamping subjectivity onto it.

Concluding Remarks on Nature as Idea

I am not saying that Marx relies on some absolute Feuerbachian nature or that he does not argue that men change nature and themselves. Indeed the literature of classical Marxism had as its focus the idea of praxis, whereby theory was validated by revolutionary action. And certainly Marx excoriated the false naturalism of the classical economists who failed to realize the historicity of their theory. But “false” is the operative word here. For little is left in Marx without an appeal to a more genuine naturalism that the concept of “alienation from species essence” entails. This naturalism gives stabilizing force to our praxis, our interference with nature (hence Marx’s view that the “catastrophic effects” of deforestation are unavoidable unless “natural growth” is conscientiously managed); in particular, the exploitation of laboring man in his “metabolism” with the world (which meets with “natural obstacles that cannot be overstepped”) (CW:42, 559; Capital, 514).

What is “false” about the naturalism of both the political economists and Hegel is that while the political economists’ pseudo-naturalism—the view that a benign hand governs the world—ends in the fetishism of commodities (for economists, the fetishism of the market itself), Hegel’s pseudo-naturalism—the view that an unseen Geist governs the world—leads to the fetishism of the earth as the center of the universe in the form of the Idea of Earth, the place where consciousness reigns.

“Earth,” as the final stage of the Hegelian Mechanics, is outlined by Marx in both the Dissertation and in the Manuscripts. In the latter work Marx refers to Hegel’s Lesser Logic where the antithesis between positive and negative stages in logic is resolved in “Ground.” Marx notes that the logic closely determines the Naturphilosophie, where “the Earth is the natural form of the logical Ground … the negative unity of the antithesis” (EPM, 345; cf. Ency 2280; Petry, II, 30; Logic, 121).

What is extraordinary is that Hegel’s own presentation of an ideal nature ends with an Earth-centered universe: planets are now the subject for whom “the bodies of the solar system are no longer independent but are predicates” (Ency, 2281; Petry, II, 33-34):

The planet is the veritable prius, the subjectivity in which these differences are merely moments of an ideal nature, and in which life first has its determinate being. The Sun is subservient to the planets,just as the Sun, Moon, comets, and stars in general, are merely aspects of the Earth. (Eng, 280; Petry, II, 31.)

Here Hegel draws a direct analogy between the human subject and the planet: “Just as the ego, although it is not yet spirit, finds its truth within spirit, so light finds its truth in the concrete being of the planet” (Ency, 2280) . If nature is ideal, then the place where conscious life is located can only mean that “if there is any pride of place, it must be this our Earth which we regard as supreme” (Eng, 280).

In the thesis Marx criticized Hegel via his critique of Epicurus: both philosophers regard the solar system as alienated by virtue of its very permanence and its immunity from conscious interference: When [Epicurus] comes upon the reality of his nature … when he comes upon independent, indestructible matter in the heavenly bodies whose eternity and unchangeability were proved … then his one and only desire is to pull it down into earthly transience … This is his most glaring contradiction. (Diss, 71.)

Just as Marx criticizes Hegel’s Philosophy of Right for its positing of a German-centered universe, so he implicitly criticizes Hegel’s philosophy of nature for its ideal of an earth-centered universe. By minimizing the latter critique, Schmidt and others replace what might aptly be called Hegel’s fetishism of the Germanic with the more abstract fetishism of politics through which, in pulling nature down to “earthly transience,” the conscious agent becomes the center of the universe.

In fact, Marx does not define freedom simply as the freely acting consciousness of the subject-either in the form of what Hegel thinks he is doing to nature in the philosophical realm; of what capitalists think they are doing in their Promethean domination of the material world; or of what Schmidt thinks he is doing for the conscious social actor. Rightly or wrongly, Marx is shown, in both the 1844 Manuscripts and in the Dissertation, as defining freedom as Engels does: freedom is knowledge of necessity—both the necessity of the prehuman natural world and the necessity of the artificial world that is still rooted in man’s metabolism with nature.