The Marx-Hegel Relationship: Revisionist Interpretations?

Robert Fine. Capital & Class. Volume 75. Autumn 2001.

Marx’s Doppelganger

The ghost of Hegel haunts Marx’s writings. He at once praises Hegel for discovering the ‘correct laws of the dialectic’ and criticises him for presenting the dialectic in an idealistic and mystifying form. He writes to Engels in 1858 that Hegel’s Logic assisted him greatly in his method of analysing capital, but that Hegel had also mystified the dialectic (Marx and Engels 1983: 50). In 1868 he writes to Kugelman that his own method of argument is not Hegelian, inasmuch as he is a materialist and Hegel an idealist, but that Hegel’s dialectic must remain the basis of all dialectics once its ‘mystical form’ is disposed of (Marx and Engels 1983: 126). In his 1873 ‘Postface’ to Capital Marx avows himself the pupil of that ‘mighty thinker’ and comments that ‘the mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner,’ but that with him it is ‘standing on its head’ and must be ‘inverted in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’ Marx emphasises that his dialectic method is not only different from Hegel’s but opposite. He represents Hegel’s Philosophy of Right as essentially a philosophy of the state which serves to ‘glorify what exists.’ He presents his own ‘rational form of the dialectic’ as ‘a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie… because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction’ (Marx 1990:102-3). Yet Marx also thunders against the ‘pompous, pseudo-scientific professors’ and ‘ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones’ who understand nothing of Hegel’s method and treat him as a ‘dead dog’ no longer to be taken seriously (Marx and Engels 1983: 167-8). Marx’s own judgement of Hegel was probably at its most hostile in his early writings, especially in his 1843 critique of Hegel’s ‘doctrine of the state’ in the Philosophy of Right, but it never fundamentally altered (Colletti 1972, 1973, 1992). The ghost of Hegel was omnipresent, a troublesome doppelganger (Warminski 1998).

Most Marxist discussions have followed Marx’s own presentation of his relation to Hegel (Arthur 1986). Lenin’s daunting observation that ‘it is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital… without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic,’ has been echoed in less exacting form by contemporary commentators-especially since the republication of the Grundrisse, the ‘Rough Draft’ of Capital. Roman Rosdolsky, for example, writes that ‘If Hegel’s influence on Marx’s Capital can be seen explicitly in only a few footnotes, the Rough Draft must be designated as a massive reference to Hegel, in particular to his Logic… The publication of the Grundrisse means that the academic critics of Marx will no longer be able to write without first having studied his method and its relation to Hegel’ (Rosdolsky 1980: xiii). David McLellan adds that ‘The most striking passage of the Grundrisse in this respect is the draft plan for Marx’s Economics which is couched in language (such as the distinction between essence and appearance) that might have come straight out of Hegel’s Logic’ (McLellan 1980: 13).Yet few Marxist commentators have challenged Marx’s view that Hegel’s idealism hangs a ‘shroud of mysticism over the leaping soul of his dialectic’ or that it casts ‘absolutist benedictions on the state’ (Nicolaus in Marx 1973: 33). Rosdolsky introduces a more sceptical note when he emphasises Marx’s debt to Hegel ‘irrespectively of how radically and materialistically Hegel was inverted!,’ but he regretted that he could only touch upon ‘the most important and theoretically interesting problem presented by the ‘Rough Draft’-that of the relation of Marx’s work to Hegel, in particular to the Logic’ (Rosdolsky 1980: xiii).

Recently some Marxist scholars within and without the pages of Capital & Class have began to challenge Marx’s account of his relation to Hegel. David MacGregor writes of ‘the myth of Hegel as the idealist who had everything upside down’ (MacGregor 1984:3 and MacGregor 1998: 2-4). Ian Fraser comments that ‘Marx may not have seen this but his “own” dialectic clearly parallels that of Hegel … the dialectic of Hegel is the dialectic of Marx’ (Fraser 1997:103; Fraser 1998:34). From another vantage point Allen Wood acknowledges that ‘there is a greater affinity between the Hegelian and Marxian theories of history than Marx usually acknowledges’ (Wood 1993: 433).These revisionist accounts of the Hegel-Marx relation indicate a mounting intuition that Marx may have been wrong about Hegel and that Hegel’s dialectic may not have been quite as mystical, confused and conservative as Marx thought.

I want to add my voice to those who say that if there is one way we should not read the relation between Hegel and Marx, it is through Marx’s own account of it! But in putting to rest old adages about Hegel’s philosophical idealism and political conservatism, we should avoid the opposite tendency to treat Hegel as a Marxist avant le nom, as if Marx’s only mistake lay in his failure to see that Hegel’s dialectic was the same as his own and as if no other more substantial consequences flowed. My argument is that reading Hegel and Marx together, as a unity rather than as an opposition of idealism to materialism, enables us to understand better both of these writers and their respective contributions to the critique of bourgeois society. I want to argue first for the congruency between Marx’s critique of political economy and Hegel’s philosophy of right; then for the utility of reading Hegel and Marx together as far as our comprehension of capitalism is concerned; and finally for the continuing significance of ‘returning to Hegel’ to recover what is true in Marx.

Unity of Method

In discussing his method of political economy in the Grundrisse, Marx presents himself as overcoming Hegel’s confusion of the real and thought about the real. He claims to distinguish, in a way that Hegel did not, between the process by which the concrete comes into being and the way in which thought appropriates the concrete. He writes:

Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of the thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of ascending from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the spiritually concrete. But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being (Marx 1973:101).

In his Notes on Adolph Wagner Marx contrasts his own historical methodology to the conceptual character of Hegel’s dialectic:

I do not start out from ‘concepts,’ hence I do not start out from ‘the concept of value’ and do not have to ‘divide’ these in any way. What I start out from is the simplest social form in which the labour-product is presented in contemporary society, and this is the ‘commodity.’ I analyse it and right from the beginning, in the form in which it appears (Marx 1975:198).

Hegel is accused of confusing the development of the moments of the notion with the development of the concrete itself. Against Hegel’s alleged mysticism, Marx affirms that the dialectic is not a self-affirming movement from one logical category to another but a real historical movement from one form to another-from the commodity form to the money form and onto capital. Hegel, according to Marx, assumes that the presupposition and the results of the dialectic continue indefinitely to form a logical circuit (Uchida 1988). Marx, according to Marx, recognises that bourgeois society is a transitory formation based upon historical presuppositions, torn asunder by struggle and open to revolutionary overcoming.

This is Marx’s formulation of Hegel and his relation to Hegel, but it conceals how far his critique of political economy mirrors Hegel’s science of right. In the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx points out that it may seem to be correct to begin with the ‘real and the concrete, with the real precondition, thus to begin in economics with e.g. the population.’ But on closer examination this proves false because the latter is ‘the concentration of many determinations.’ Population presupposes classes; classes presuppose wage labour and capital; wage labour and capital presuppose money; money presupposes exchange value and the commodity form. These are the elements which make up the whole. Marx concludes:

If I were to begin with population, I would then … move analytically toward ever more simple concepts <Begriff> from the imagined concrete toward ever thinner abstractions until I had arrived at the simplest determinations. From there the journey would have to be retraced until I had finally arrived at the population again, but this time not as the chaotic conception of the whole but as a rich totality of many determinations (Marx 1973: 100).

Marx identifies the analytic path with economics at the time of its origins and the dialectical path with economic systems which ascend from simple relations (value, exchange value, etc.) to the level of the concrete totality (the state, exchange between nations, the world market, etc.). The latter, Marx adds, ‘is obviously the scientifically correct method.’ Marx asks:

do not these simpler categories also have an independent historical or natural existence predating the more concrete ones? That depends. Hegel, for example, correctly begins the Philosophy of Right with possession, this being the subject’s simplest juridical relation’(Marx 1973: 102).

Marx was not quite right. Hegel did not begin his Philosophy of Right with the idea of possession but with abstract right. Marx in fact echoed Hegel’s argument when he observed that historically there are families in which there is possession but no private property but that the modern family must be understood in relation to private property. The key point, however, that Marx drew from Hegel was to recognise that the simpler category (say private property) may have an historical existence before the more concrete category (say the family), in which case the path of abstract thought, rising from the simple to the complex, would correspond with the real historical process, but not to let the economic categories follow one another in the same sequence as that in which they were historically decisive. (Fine 1985: 95-121)

Their sequence is determined, rather, by their relation to one another in modern bourgeois society…The point is not the historic position of the economic relations in the succession of different forms of society…Rather, their order within modern bourgeois society (Marx 1973: 107).

In beginning with the commodity form, Marx acknowledges that this starting point may correspond to some historical event (e.g. a barter between communities prior to all money relations), but its significance lies not in this event but in its being the simplest economic form of the capitalist age. Marx adds a revealing comment on the illusion which may derive from this mode of presentation:

Of course, the mode of presentation must differ in form from that of inquiry. The latter has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development and to track down their inner connection. Only after this work has been done, can the real movement be appropriately presented. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject matter is now reflected in the ideas, then it may appear as if we have before us an a priori construction (Marx 1990: 102).

Marx acknowledged that the scientific critique of value will appear as an a priori construction, but he will not accept that this is equally true of Hegel’s philosophy of right which he continues to represent as an a priori construction.

Marx in fact closely followed the methodological presuppositions of Hegel’s philosophy of right in his own approach to the critique of political economy. The science of right, as Hegel put it in the Philosophy of Right, must observe ‘the proper immanent development of the thing itself’ (Hegel 1991 2). Its subject matter is the idea of right, which includes both the concept and its actualisation. It is not confined to mere concepts, but on the contrary shows that they are ‘one-sided and lacking in truth.’ The concept and its actualisation are like ‘soul and body…A soul without a body would not be a living thing, and vice versa’ (Hegel 1991). Hegel analyses the forms and shapes of right as a progression, starting from the simplest and the most abstract and moving step by step to the more complex and concrete. He begins with abstract right and its internal division into personality, property, contract and wrong. He moves from abstract right to morality (Moralitat) and its internal division into responsibility, welfare and conscience. He moves from morality to the forms of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) which include the family, civil society, the state and relations between states.The ‘higher dialectic’ is the movement of right through its various concepts and shapes. It is not an ‘external activity of subjective thought… but the very soul of the content which puts forth its branches and fruit organically’ and which thought merely observes (Hegel 1991 31). Hegel’s philosophy of right foregoes the purely historical task of viewing ‘the emergence and development of determinations of right as they appear in time’ (Hegel 1991 53R), for the development from the most abstract to the most concrete is a conceptual sequence which may or may not coincide with the temporal sequence of their actual appearance. Hegel characterises his methodology thus:

We merely wish to observe how the concept determines itself, and we force ourselves not to add anything of our own thought and opinions. What we obtain in this way, however, is a series of thoughts and another series of existent shapes, in which it may happen that the temporal sequence of their actual appearance is to some extent different from the conceptual sequence. Thus we cannot say, for example, that property existed before the family, although property is nevertheless dealt with first. One might accordingly ask at this point why we do not begin with the highest instance, that is, with the concretely true. The answer will be that we wish to see the truth precisely in the form of a result, and it is essential for this purpose that we should first comprehend the abstract concept itself. What is actual, the shape which the concept assumes, is therefore from our point of view only the subsequent and further stage, even if it should come first itself in actuality.The course we follow is that whereby the abstract forms reveal themselves not as existing for themselves, but as untrue (Hegel 1991 32A).

Hegel provided the model for Marx. Marx too started from the simplest and most abstract elements of contemporary society and worked upwards toward the more complex and concrete. It is only their subject matter that is different and marks them apart.

The Case for Reading Hegel and Marx Together

In the Philosophy of Right Hegel explores the forms of right which constitute political modernity while in Capital Marx explores the forms of value which constitute economic modernity. Another way of putting this is to say that the subject matter of the Philosophy of Right comprises the forms taken by subjects in the modern age, that is, the people who bring their commodities to market (including their own capacity for labour and intellectual ideas) and sell them in exchange for money or other goods. The subject matter of Capital comprises the forms taken by things in modern capitalist society; that is, by the products of human labour. We should not make any a priori assumption that one subject matter is more essential than the other.With Hegel we address the ideal forms of modernity, with Marx its material forms. But their work is complementary in that Hegel’s analysis is concerned with the forms of right which constitute modern political life, while Marx’s analysis is concerned with the forms of value which constitute modern economic life. Read together, they offer a more ‘rounded’ image of modernity as a whole than each can offer in isolation.

Marx did not realise how closely his method followed that developed by Hegel in the Philosophy of Right. Both start with the simplest and most abstract form of their subject matter and progress to more complex and concrete forms. In relation to the political forms of the modem age Hegel argues that the simplest and most abstract element is abstract right and analyses its self-division into ‘person’ and ‘thing.’ In relation to the economic forms of the modern age Marx contends that the simplest and most abstract element is the commodity and analyses its self-division into value and use value. For Hegel, the movement is from abstract right through contract and law to the state. For Marx, it is from value through exchange value and money to capital. They both begin with simple forms which permit them to explain more developed forms and order their presentation according to the increasing complexity of these forms, so that at every level the theory can be formulated in terms of concepts elaborated at the previous level. In neither case are we presented with the ‘empirically existent,’ for both the forms of the state and the forms of capital abstract from all the contingencies, accidents and differences which they possess in actual political and economic systems, but in neither case are we given an a priori construction. Their objects of investigation are different but their approach to scientific investigation is the same.

Capital and the Philosophy of Right also supplement one another by overcoming the other’s potential limitations. In the case of the Philosophy of Right, what is overcome is the idealism which flows from identifying modernity exclusively with the ideal forms of legal and political life. In the case of Capital what is overcome is the materialism which flows from identifying modernity equally exclusively with the material forms of economic life. In fact, Hegel was an idealist only to the extent that he focused on the ideal forms of subjectivity which mark the modern age at the expense of the material forms taken by products of human labour; and Marx was a materialist only to the extent that he focused on the economic forms taken by the products of labour at the expense of the ideal forms of the modern subject. Both Hegel’s idealism and Marx’s materialism are wrong only to the extent that they are one-sided, but in their own spheres of investigation they are equally valid. Such tendencies to one-sidedness as are present in Hegel and Marx may have been accentuated, however, in two traditions of social theory derived from them: one drawn from Hegel, fixes on the forms of freedom and discipline which mark the modem age and uses the concept of modernity to convey this focus; the other drawn from Marx, concentrates on the commodification of social life and uses the term capitalism. (Fine 2001: ch.5)

Recognition of the unity of Hegel and Marx allows us to keep in mind that the dichotomies of the modern agesubject and object, person and thing, freedom and determination, politics and economics, right and value-are social rather than merely cognitive and historically grounded rather than reducible to general considerations of an abstract theoretical type. It means that we start from the substance of the social order rather than proceed atomistically and end up in the juxtaposition of separate spheres. It makes it possible to comprehend the twin illusions of the modern age, political freedom as well as economic determination, the fetishism of the subject as well as the fetishism of the commodity, rather than oscillate from side to side. If Hegel’s concern was with personification and the fetishism of the subject, and Marx’s with reification and the fetishism of the commodity, it is when we draw these abstract forms of domination together that we can see a) that the modern age creates and recreates these divisions and oppositions, b) that the achievement of the modern age is to contain and support such contradictions, and c) that the greatest danger arises when subject and object are cast adrift from and lose touch with one another.

One manifestation of this separation is to be found in the phenomenon of totalitarianism, and one substantial ‘payoff of this intellectual reconstruction of the Hegel-Marx relation lies in our refreshed ability to grasp a phenomenon with which Marx never got to grips and on which Marxism has all too often foundered. Hegel’s philosophy of right embraces the right of subjective freedom as a supreme achievement of the modern age, but it also stands in opposition to subjectivism (or the fetishism of the subject) which converts the subject into an absolute and fixes on this moment in its ‘difference from and opposition to the universal’ (Hegel 1991 Sec124R). Hegel’s insistence that the goal of a free mind is to ‘make freedom objective’ indicates both that the right of subjective freedom has to be actualised in the world as something substantial and politically real, and that the metamorphosis of the subject into a supreme power, unrestricted by any spiritual or material constraint, is not the goal of a free mind. For Hegel, the distinction between subjectivity and subjectivism is crucial. If the former is the achievement of the modern age, the latter constitutes its pathology. For the subject becomes like a God. Its will appears absolute. It demands to be worshipped. What starts life as a principle of critical thought becomes in the course of its own development a source of modern superstition and subjection. Nowhere is this critique more sharply drawn out than in Hegel’s analysis of the subjectivism of the modern state. The state presents itself as an earthly God. It assumes its own divinity. It demands to be worshipped. It equates itself to the power of reason itself. It does not appear as a form of right relative to all other forms, but as the Absolute. The concept of the modern state is itself irrational, one-sided, untrue. The contradiction at the heart of the modern state, as Hegel presents it, does not lie in the difference between its concept and the grubby empirical existence of actual states but in the concept itself. The pretension of the modern state to be absolute is dangerous enough without political philosophy demanding that all obstacles to the realisation of this pretension be overcome.