Two of a Kind: Hegel, Marx, Dialectic, and Form

Ian Fraser. Capital & Class. Volume 61. Spring 1997.

How should we understand Marx’s relation to Hegel in terms of his dialectic? Marxists have responded to this question in three particular ways. One way is to see Hegel’s influence as completely negative because it imports mystical idealism into Marx’s thought. This mysticism must, therefore, be completely expunged to allow Marx to become a pure materialist (Althusser 1982; Colletti 1973). Another way, in contrast, emphasises the Hegelian links but only to stress how Hegel’s dialectic still needs to be interpreted materialistically to make it properly Marxist. A third way is to reject both of the above and instead argue for a direct link between Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectical approach. It is the latter argument that gains credence in the comparison of Hegel and Marx in this paper. Marx’s attempt to distinguish his dialectic from Hegel’s is shown to be misplaced. By subjecting Marx’s arguments to a critique the similarities between the two thinkers rather than their differences becomes readily evident.

I argue that both Hegel and Marx are concerned with analysing forms to discover their inner connection. Hegel operates with a dialectic of universal and particular concept that is paralleled in Marx’s use of general and determinate abstraction. Consequently, only by misreading Hegel’s arguments does the need to expunge or materialistically appropriate Hegel’s dialectic arise. A crucial aspect of the Hegelian basis of Marxism is the importance Hegel attaches to the subject through his notion of the Will. For Hegel, this Will represents human beings in their interaction with each other as they shape and make their world. That such an emphasis is crucial for Marxism is exemplified by the deleterious effects the abandonment of any Hegelian influence has had. Structuralism (Althusser 1969) and, more recently, the game-theoretic approach of analytical Marxism (Roemer 1989) are perhaps the most pernicious examples of this trend. The effect of both of these movements on the notion of the subject is particularly dire. In the former the subject becomes lost in, or the prisoner of, structural determinants; in the latter the subject is reduced to the very abstract and disembodied individual that is the necessary starting point for bourgeois liberal thought. Marxism is thereby reduced to either a theory of domination or a theory which is largely isolated from practice.

An Hegelian Marxism, in contrast, is a theory not of domination but of the contradictions of domination; it is a theory not separate from practice but united with the practical activities of real human beings as they create and shape their world. The dialectical movement of the subject, real living individuals, is grasped, by Hegel, through the manifestation of the Will in society. Even the materialist appropriators miss this crucial aspect of Hegel’s dialectic. Inevitably, this leads them into the error of positing Hegel as a ‘mystical idealist’ imprisoned within the realm of thought. Against such a view, I show that Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectic are not opposites, are not a supersession of one over the other, but are instead intrinsically similar, one and the same, two of a kind.

To accomplish this task, I begin by clearly outlining Hegel’s dialectic and contrasting it with previous modes of thought mainly, though not exclusively, through Hegel’s Logic. This allows the materialist basis of his dialectic to be exposed and the importance he attaches to the movement of the Will to be emphasised. Marx’s ‘own’ dialectic is then adumbrated drawing in particular on his crucial comments on method in the Grundrisse. In the final section, his criticisms of Hegel’s dialectic are shown to be particularly misconceived.

The emphasis on the Logic and the Grundrisse is important because Marx explicitly referred to Hegel’s Logic as being of ‘great service’ to him when formulating his ‘own’ method (Marx and Engels 1975: 93). An understanding of Hegel’s method in the Logic is therefore crucial for comprehending Marx’s discussion of method in the Grundrisse.

The Logic/Grundrisse interconnection is not, of course, the only route for exploring the Hegel-Marx relation. Some Marxists, following Kojeve (1969) and French Hegelianism in general, have instead profitably explored the links between Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Marx’s Early Writings (Descombes 1980). Marxists in this tradition, though, have tended to see the Logic and, in particular, the Philosophy of Right as essentially conservative texts in comparison to the radical nature of the Phenomenology (Gunn 1988a: 40). So a further benefit of my discussion is to highlight the very radical implications of Hegel’s thought even in his mature works. The Logic is my starting point as it was for those Marxists who were fully aware of the potency of this text for understanding the unity between theory and practice. ‘There is no concrete problem that I meet daily,’ declared Raya Dunayevskaya, ‘no matter how minor, that doesn’t send me scurrying to the Logic’ (Dunayevskaya 1989b: 23). We too, now, must ‘scurry’ to this work to grasp the dialectical movement of the subject in and against the very world it has created.

Hegel and Speculative Dialectics

Hegel’s dialectic has to be understood through, what he terms, his ‘Speculative Logic’ (Hegel 1892, para. 9; cf. para. 13). The latter contains all previous Logic and Metaphysics: it preserves the same forms of thought, the same laws and objects, while at the same time remodelling and expanding them with wider categories’ (ibid). So Speculative Logic builds on previous philosophy by taking over its concepts and subjecting them to a careful critique. This becomes clear when Hegel informs us of the three moments of this Logic; the Understanding, the dialectic and the Speculative (Hegel 1969: 29; & 1892, para. 79).

Thought at the level of the Understanding holds determinations in a fixed manner and sees them as being abstract and distinct from one another (ibid). Hegel refers to this phase of philosophical development as the Pre-Kantian Metaphysic. The weakness of the latter was that it remained in the realm of abstract identities. It was, therefore, unable to advance from these universal abstractions to their particular manifestations in reality.

In contrast, Empiricism, a further moment of the Understanding, did move away from abstractions and concentrated on the ‘actual world’ (Hegel 1892, para. 38). This was an important contribution to philosophical thought because it suggested that the external world was a repository for truth (1892, para. 38R). However, even this positive aspect was outweighed by the fact that the data or assumptions it used were ‘neither accounted for or deduced’ (1892, paras. 9 & 38R). Phenomena in the world were treated in a ‘style utterly thoughtless and uncritical’ (Hegel 1892, para. 38). Moreover, Empiricism failed to relate universal and particular aspects of phenomena to each other. Instead, they were grasped only as opposed and distinct entities (1892, para. 9).

The dialectic is the recognition of the movement between these fixed determinations which ‘supersede themselves, and pass into their opposites’ (1892, para. 81). At this stage ‘reason is negative … because it resolves the determinations of the understanding into nothing’ (Hegel 1969: 28). It is Kant who Hegel credits with restoring the dialectic to its ‘post of honour’ (Hegel 1892, para. 81A) through his Antinomies or contradictions of reason (Kant 1992, A406/B433-A460/B488). Whereas the old metaphysical philosophy of the Understanding believed that the existence of contradictions resulted from an accidental mistake in argument Kant, in contrast, realised that thought necessarily brings in contradictions or Antinomies. For him, these Antinomies were concrete evidence that we had mistakenly tried to know something that was beyond our experience. He argued that this necessarily resulted in contradictions leading to a ‘dialectic of illusion’ (Kant 1992, A293/B350). In this sense, the aim of Kant’s critique of pure reason is ‘only negative’ and is meant ‘not to extend, but only to clarify our reason, and keep it free from errors’ (Kant 1992, A12/B25).

Kant’s limitation, according to Hegel, was in not realising the ‘true and positive meaning of the Antinomies’ which was ‘that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements. Consequently, to know, or in other words, to comprehend an object is equivalent to being conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations’ (Hegel 1892, para. 48a). Only with the final Speculative stage does ‘Positive Reason’ emerge as the determinations are comprehended not as fixed or simply opposites but as a ‘unity … in their opposition’ (Hegel 1892, para. 82) or as the ‘positive in the negative’ (Hegel 1969: 56). The Speculative stage for Hegel goes beyond the merely negative stage of reason in Kant. Speculative philosophy ‘rises above such oppositions as that between subjective and objective, which the understanding cannot get over, and absorbing them in itself, evinces its own concrete and all embracing nature … [Hence] in reality the subjective and objective are not merely identical but also distinct’ (Hegel 1892, para. 82A). Speculative philosophy goes beyond Kant in asserting that we can know the ‘essential nature’ of things by trying to discern the emanation of the positive in and out of the negative.

To try to get a clear understanding of this process we can consider Hegel’s discussion of being and nothing in the Logic. Hegel’s aim in the latter is to ‘begin with the subject matter itself, without preliminary reflections’ (Hegel 1969: 43). Subjective thought must not take anything for granted or assume any concepts or principles of philosophical investigation. The problem with the Understanding is that it does not contain this critical dimension. It takes concepts like being and nothing as static and separate. However, if we begin by abstracting from all presuppositions and enter indeterminacy then thought becomes ‘being, pure being, without any further determination’ (Hegel 1969: 82). The only thing that thought can be in this state is nothing because it is ‘pure indeterminateness and emptiness’ (ibid). So being, which, from the perspective of the Understanding, seemed distinct from nothing, actually contained nothing within it. Similarly, nothing is not simply nothing. To think of nothing is to think of something (i.e. nothing) and in thinking of nothing we are thinking of the indeterminate so ‘nothing is, therefore, the same determination or rather absence of determination, and thus altogether the same as, pure being’ (ibid).

An identity has occurred which equates pure being with pure nothing. The dialectical stage sees these categories as superseding themselves and turning into their opposites. It seems, though, that this identity between being and nothing leaves thought trapped and unable to escape from either being or nothing. However, it is the movement between the two that Hegel sees as important. The moment pure being is thought it thinks not only of itself but of what it is to become, its opposite, which is nothing. Nothing is similarly going to become being and this implies that ‘their truth is, therefore, this movement of the immediate vanishing of the one in the other: becoming, a movement in which both are distinguished, but by a difference which has immediately resolved itself (Hegel 1969: 83). This ‘becoming,’ the movement out of dialectical opposition into something new, is the Speculative stage of ‘positive reason.’

It is on the basis of this discussion that we can begin to discern the crucial role of the concept for Hegel. He argues that the dialectic, the negative stage of reason, is the ‘moving principle of the concept’ (Hegel 1991, para. 31R). The concept itself is ‘genuine thought’ about a thing rather than mere opinion (Hegel 1991: 14). For Hegel, ‘philosophy is a knowledge through concepts’ (Hegel 1892, para. 160A). Whereas the Understanding sees concepts as ‘dead, empty and abstract,’ Hegel sees them as the ‘principle of all life’ which possess a ‘character of thorough concreteness’ (ibid). It is through the concept that philosophers can discover scientific truth.

Hegel indicates that the concept has three moments: the universal, particular and the individual (Hegel 1969: 600-601; Hegel 1892, paras. 163-165). These moments must be understood not as distinct or separate but as ‘simply one and the same concept’ (Hegel 1969: 613). The universal concept, for instance, has to be distinguished from the ‘abstract generality’ used by the Understanding. The latter wrongly sees the universal concept as simply those features that are common to specific phenomena whilst the ‘particular … enjoys an existence of its own’ (Hegel 1892, para. 163A). The Understanding abstracts from the particular holding it distinct and separate. The universal concept, however, contains the particular and universal within itself (Hegel 1892, para. 164). To separate these moments as the Understanding does is to operate with ‘hollow and empty concepts’ which are ‘mere phantoms and shadows’ (Hegel 1892, para. 163A). Instead, the universal concept is ‘self-particularising or self-specifying, and with undimmed clearness finds itself at home in its antithesis’ (ibid). A concept such as man, for instance, cannot be understood simply as an abstraction but must also be understood in his mode of existence, in his actual interaction with the world.

So the universal, particular and individual are all interrelated and when we concentrate on one we do so in the knowledge that we include the other moments also. They are contradictions that must be understood as a unity otherwise we fall into the trap of positing empty abstractions, as in the old metaphysic, or, at the other extreme, remaining simply within the concrete sphere, as in Empiricism.

The universal concept contains these moments and must also pass through them. Take Marxism as an example. As a universal concept, as an abstraction, it contains many general characteristics. In its particular manifestation it takes many forms. Stalinism was one such form. The particular manifestation of Marxism emerges in an individual, Stalin. Universal moves through the particular and the individual. Yet this is not a one way process. There is a back and forth movement between these moments. The individual existence of Marxism in Stalin itself becomes a universal, or at least it did in terms of the former east European states. This is reflected back into the universal concept of Marxism which, conveniently, becomes indistinguishable from its Stalinist mode of existence. Universal, particular and individual are therefore distinct yet in a unity in that they are all contained within the universal concept which is actualised through these moments.

Having indicated the important moments of the universal concept, Hegel continues to trace the dialectical development of the concept right up to the Idea. The latter is defined as the concept and its actualisation (Hegel 1991, para. 1; 1892, para. 213; 1969: 755-756). What Hegel means by this is that the universal concept manifests itself into society. The concept of property, for instance, has to be comprehended not just as a concept, i.e. the universal term property, but how that concept is realised in the real world as laws of property (Hegel 1892, para. 160A; cf. Westphal 1980). When the objective reality of property corresponds with the universal concept of property then the Idea of property is realised as reason and truth (Hegel 1969: 757) When they are not in correspondence then the result is untruth or ‘mere Appearance’ (Hegel 1969: 756). It is not enough, therefore, simply to have a concept as an abstraction from actuality as this is ‘one-sided and lacking in truth’ (Hegel 1991, para. IR). What also needs to be focused on is the ‘shape which the concept assumes in actualization’ because this is ‘different from its form of being purely as a concept’ (ibid).

This relationship between the concept and its actualisation is very important because if it is wrongly understood Hegel can too easily be seen as a ‘mystical idealist’ in contrast to the materialist Marx. For instance, Paul Mattick, JR. asserts that Hegel is pre-occupied with the ‘self-development of concepts’ whereas Marx is more concerned with explaining ‘the development of concepts by the ‘real individuals’ whose activity constitutes the history of society’ (Mattick 1993: 132). Similarly, Tony Smith, despite making a decisive contribution to showing the similarities between the dialectic of Hegel and Marx, states that Hegel’s ‘idealistic theory of verification … never leaves the sphere of ideas’ (Smith 1990: 40). In contrast, he contends, Marx emphasises the importance of realising such theory in practice (ibid). Hegel is accused, therefore, of remaining at the level of theory, distinct from practice, and of ignoring man’s self-activity in creating the world. Such criticisms can be refuted, however, in two important ways.

Firstly, if Hegel remained at the level of ideas, in theory as distinct from practice, then he would actually be contradicting what is distinctive about his own method compared to the PreKantian Metaphysic. The latter, as we have seen, remained in the realm of abstraction and understood the universal apart from the particular. Hegel, in contrast, wants to understand the universal and particular not as separate, not as distinct phenomena but in a contradictory unity. He wants to unite theory and practice by understanding the dialectical relationship between the concept, not just as an abstraction, but in its actualisation.

Secondly, the concepts themselves cannot be abstract propositions thought up by Hegel separate from reality. This would suggest that we could pre-suppose concepts and magically conjure them up from thin air. Hegel is adamant that this is not a legitimate method of enquiry. This is why he stresses the importance of beginning an enquiry without any pre-suppositions. Instead, the concepts must be seen as arising from reality itself, from human beings in their interaction with each other in the world. Concepts do not ‘self-develop,’ they are tied to the development of, what Hegel calls, the Will, which, as we shall now see, represents the very ‘real individuals’ that critics such as Mattick speak of.

Hegel refers to the Will as ‘the activity of man in the widest sense’ (Hegel 1956: 22) and suggests that: it is only by this activity that the Idea as well as abstract characteristics generally, are realized, actualized; for of themselves they are powerless. The motive power that puts them in operation, and gives them determinate existence, is the need, instinct, inclination, and passion of man (ibid).

Men give the reality to the concepts. On their own, simply as abstractions, such concepts are meaningless. They become concrete through the will and actions of human beings. Whereas ‘intelligence merely proposes to take the world as it is, Will takes steps to make the world what it ought to be’ (Hegel 1892, para. 234A). Intelligence only comprehends the world, the Will actually changes it. The Will does this by ‘cancelling the contradiction between subjectivity and objectivity and in translating its ends from their subjective determination into an objective one’ (Hegel 1991, para. 28). Hegel captures this process through the Will’s universal and particular moments. He argues that the Will is universal when it is in a pure state of indeterminacy (Hegel 1991, para. 5), and particular when it becomes concrete (Hegel 1991, para. 6). By abstracting from the ‘real’ world the Will can make itself universal. In its moment of particularity, however, no such abstraction takes place and the Will is forced to posit itself in this ‘real’ world. As a particular Will it looks after the interests of itself, not of others. However, a two way process takes place. The individual Will interacts with other Wills to create institutions which themselves act to universalise the individual Will. It is through such institutions that the particular Will develops into a universal one. The Will, which in its immediate stage achieves universality by abstracting from the particular, becomes particular as it actualises itself in the real world. This particularity of the Will is eventually negated, however, by the universal which embodies the rational aspect of this real world and thereby becomes an individual Will (Hegel 1991, para. 24).

Just in case we are in any doubt Hegel affirms that the Will’s ‘activity is the essential development of the substantial content of the Idea, a development in which the concept determines the Idea, which is itself at first abstract, to [produce] the totality of its system’ (ibid). The Will moves out of abstraction into society and creates that society itself through ‘its activity and labour’ thereby realising the Idea (Hegel 1956: 22). Hence, for Hegel, just as for Marx, theory has to be united with practice.

As C.L.R. James rightly argued nearly fifty years ago:

we will forget … at our peril, that [for Hegel] categories, the forms of logic, are in Desire, Will, etc., human feelings and actions. We abstract them to think about them. But they come from there … [Hence] the key to the Hegelian dialectic and therefore to marxist thinking … [is that] thought is not an instrument you apply to a content. The content moves, develops, changes and creates new categories of thought, and gives them direction (James 1980:29 & 15).

Concepts do not ‘self-develop’ in the realm of thought separate from practice. Certainly, the ambiguity of Hegel’s comments may at times suggest otherwise but to argue as such would be to commit the same errors of the Pre-Kantian metaphysic. The latter, as we have seen, stayed simply within the realm of thought separating the abstract form the concrete. Hegel, however, explicitly repudiates such a dichotomy and instead roots his analysis in the concrete activity of real, human beings uniting abstract and concrete in a contradictory unity. The dialectic, then, is the ‘moving principle of the concept.’ The concept is the Will. So the dialectic is the moving principle of the Will in and between its particular and universal aspects. Hegel argues that the driving force of the dialectic, and ultimately the concept or Will itself, comes from the positive overcoming the negative (Hegel 1991, para. 1 R). It is out of this dialectical movement of the Will that the Speculative stage of ‘positive reason’ can emerge. Out of the opposition of particular and universal in and against each other reason begins to manifest itself. It is in this sense that ‘what is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational’ (Hegel 1991: 20). This does not mean that what currently exists is rational in its observable form and that Hegel is therefore justifying existing institutions and conditions. It is rather that the rational is present even within an imperfect world and the Speculative philosopher’s task is to comprehend this rationality (cf. Sayers 1987). Such comprehension has to take place amidst an observable disunity between the particular and universal aspects of the Will. Yet it is through such a division that reason can be discerned. Out of the dislocations between the particular and universal, the very ‘slaughter bench’ (Hegel 1956: 21) of historical development, a ‘positive content’ emerges. It is the ‘positive in the negative’ that Speculative philosophy is attempting to grasp. Through the non-identity of the particular and universal the identity between them can begin to be understood (Rose 1981: 49). This identity is the Idea itself and occurs when the concept corresponds with its actuality, when universality and particularity are in a unity. When the concept does not correspond to actuality then the latter is ‘mere Appearance’ and untruth (Hegel 1969: 756). What is rational in ‘external existence … emerges in an infinite wealth of forms, appearances and shapes … which only the concept can penetrate in order to find the inner pulse, and detect its continued beat’ (Hegel 1991: 21). The rational takes these forms because there are contradictions between the concept and actualisation through the movement of the Will. If we take the example of labour, for instance, there is an obvious dislocation between the concept of labour and its actualisation in society. Hegel sees labour as liberating but it is not liberating for all people in the form it takes within society. This is because there is a disjunction between the universal and particular. The mediation between the Will and the organisation of society has taken an alien shape contrary to the fulfilling nature of labour. Speculative philosophy’s task is to unearth the rational aspect of this non-identity and make labour liberating and therefore congruent with its concept.

The notion of form, therefore, is crucial to a proper understanding of Hegel’s dialectic. Consequently, it is important to be aware of the ways in which Hegel uses the term. For instance, when the concept is ‘universal’ Hegel refers to this as ‘form as totality’ which is the ‘immeasurable abbreviation of the multitudes of particular things’ (Hegel 1969: 39). When the concept becomes determinate he refers to it as taking a ‘specific form’ (Hegel 1969: 39). So the concept has a universal form, ‘form as totality,’ and a ‘specific’ or particular form.

This can be further grasped through Hegel’s discussion of essence and appearance. He declares that, ‘essence has a form and determinations of the form’ (Hegel 1969: 448). So essence has a universal form and, in its determination, a particular form. For Hegel, the particular form essence takes is appearance (Hegel 1892, para. 131). However, he takes care to note that essence in this form ‘is not something beyond or behind appearance, but just because it is the essence which exists-the existence is Appearance’ (Hegel 1892, para. 131).

Appearance is the mode of existence of essence. Essence is not something ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ appearance and therefore unknowable, as Kant suggested, but appearance itself (Hegel 1892, para. 131A; Kant 1991, A30/B45). In contrast to Kant, Hegel argues that essence can be known because it is manifested, and exists in, the form of appearance. This is typical of all Hegel’s categories. As we have seen, being and nothing, for instance, are modes of existence of each other. Hegel’s quantity/quality distinction is another classic example in that ‘quality is implicitly quality … and quantity is implicitly quality’ and in their dialectical development they ‘pass into each other’ (Hegel 1892, para. 11lA). Quality’s mode of existence is quantity and quantity’s mode of existence is quality. Phenomena, then, can be the mode of existence of each other and thereby take particular forms in their existence. Being can exist as nothing, quantity as quality, universal as particular and so on. It is the analysis of these forms that is Speculative philosophy’s task to discover their ‘innermost nature … and their necessary connection’ (Hegel 1971: 50).

A number of crucial aspects of Hegel’s dialectic have been discovered in the preceding analysis and we will soon see how they are replicated in Marx’s ‘own’ dialectic. Hegel is concerned to examine the forms of particular phenomena to establish their connections with each other and to highlight the positive in the negative. These very forms arise from the conflicts between the universal and particular moments of the Will. We grasp this dialectical movement through Speculative philosophy. We begin with the form, the complex concrete, and subject it to careful critique. We note the distinction between the universal aspect of the phenomena under question whilst also recognising its determinate, particular, mode of existence. The Understanding, in contrast, keeps universal and particular separate instead of recognising them as a contradictory unity. They must, therefore, be grasped not as either abstract or concrete but as a back and forth movement between the two. Consequently, ‘Hegel’s categories are saturated with reali and the Idea itself is real, lives, moves, transforms reality’ (Dunayevskaya 1989a: 43).

The portrayal of Hegel as a ‘mystical idealist,’ therefore, is particularly mistaken when the distinctiveness of his dialectic to previous thought is considered and the importance of the Will emphasised. Marx’s own criticism along these lines will be shown to be as unfounded as Marxists such as Mattick and even Smith. Now, however, we need to explicate Marx’s ‘own’ dialectic.

Categories and Method in Marx

In the Grundrisse, which contains Marx’s clearest attempt to outline his method, he makes a distinction between general and determinate abstractions. General abstraction refers to the abstraction from concrete social circumstances which allows a common element amongst phenomena to be focused on (Marx 1973: 85). An example of this, for Marx, is ‘production in general’ which is an abstraction from the differences which arise in production in particular social periods.

Determinate abstraction is a movement from the general to the particular or concrete. For Marx, the ‘scientifically correct method’ is the ascent from ‘the simple relations, such as labour, division of labour, need, exchange value, to the level of the state, exchange between nations and the world market’ (Marx 1973: 100-101). Hence, determinate abstraction involves understanding the concrete as a ‘concentration of many determinations’ (Marx 1973: 101) The world market is thus a concentration of determinate abstractions that go all the way back to labour.

It is on this basis that Marx distinguishes his method from the method of classical political economy. Marx praised all the economists since the time of William Petty for investigating ‘the real internal framework of bourgeois relations of production’ in contrast to the ‘vulgar economists who only flounder around within the apparent framework of those relations … proclaiming for everlasting truths, the banal and complacent notions held by the bourgeois agents of production about their own world, which is to them the best possible one’ (Marx 1988: 175-176, n.34). Previous classical political economy made a real contribution because it did try to analyse the internal framework of phenomena. Its ‘best representatives,’ Smith and Ricardo, attempted to analyse capital scientifically by investigating the commodity and its value. (Marx 1988: 174, n.34) Their chief failing, however, was in not asking the important question ‘why this content has assumed that particular form’ (Marx 1988: 174).

Vulgar and classical political economists, however, do share a common weakness. Both confuse determinate with general abstractions. They posit what is particular to capitalist society as true for all societies. Inevitably, then, bourgeois political economists are unaware that their categories are ahistorical and have ‘grown in the soil of capitalist society.’ This implies that they, as bourgeois theorists, have become ‘imprisoned in the modes of thought created by capitalism’ (Lukacs 1990: 8). The form labour or production takes in capital is seen by them as always being this way, an ‘everlasting truth.’ They fail to realise that labour and production take the form that they do specific to the historical mode of production that they are in. In this sense political economy stopped being a scientific enquiry and simply became an apology for capital itself (Marx 1988: 97).

Smith and Ricardo, for instance, make the mistake of having a concept of an individual as a general abstraction, the ‘isolated hunter and fisherman,’ which they then ‘project into the past’ as a ‘natural individual’ (Marx 1973: 83). The general abstraction of the individual is made into the determinate abstraction not as an individual necessarily was in that particular historical circumstance but as Ricardo and Smith suppose him to be based on their own ‘notion of human nature’ (ibid). Only by recognising these abstractions as distinct, and in a unity, can this type of problem be overcome.

For Marx, it is through tracing the internal relation between phenomena that we can discover the antagonistic relationship between capital and labour. This antagonistic relationship always expresses itself in fetishised forms, such as the stateform, value-form, etc. It is through dissolving these forms that the social relation they deny can be unearthed. Then a relation which appears to be between things can actually be seen as a social relation between people. Why, though, do these social relations take fetishised forms? A key comment from Marx should help elucidate:

The specific economic form, in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form (Marx 1984: 791).

A basic antagonism exists at the heart of society which involves the exploitation of one group by another. Class struggle, the struggle over the extraction of this surplus (de Ste. Croix 1983, Ch. 2), is the basis of this conflict on which forms are realised. The fact that capitalism operates in a way that denies workers control over what is produced means that commodities themselves begin to take on a form which seems devoid of social content. Hence, a ‘definite social relation between men … assumes … the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (Marx 1988: 165). The social relations of production, the conflict over the extraction of surplus, ‘exists in the mode of being denied’ (Gunn 1992: 14). Capitalism appears as the ‘realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham’ (Marx 1988: 280) but it is based on exploitation and conflict. As Holloway notes, capitalism ‘is a fragmented world, in which the interconnections between people are hidden from sight’ (Holloway 1992: 152). It is through determinate abstraction, the understanding of concrete forms as a contradictory unity which need to be analysed to discover their inner connection, that this social basis can be exposed.

It should be stressed that for Marx, just as for Hegel, these forms are not appearances that have to be penetrated to discover ‘true reality.’ They are instead mediations or modes of existence of the class antagonism within capitalist society. This is evident in Marx’s comment that for producers, ‘the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things’ (Marx 1988: 166) This comment can only be made intelligible if appearance is understood as a mediation of the social relation of these producers otherwise Marx would be endorsing a fetishised perspective and contradicting his whole argument (Gunn 1987). Moreover, the importance of recognising forms in this way also rules out any dualistic understanding of phenomena. If the latter exist as modes of existence of each other, then they must be comprehended as contradictions in a unity and not as distinct and separate.

The foregoing analyses of both Hegel and Marx’s dialectic can now serve as a basis for undermining Marx’s criticisms of Hegel. This is exemplified in the points of contact between the two thinkers. Both are concerned with the need to analyse forms in society to discover their inner connection. Both recognise that phenomena must be understood not separately or distinct but as contradictions in a unity. Both operate their enquiries with similar abstractions. Hegel’s universal concept is Marx’s general abstraction. Marx’s determinate abstraction is Hegel’s concept in its particularity through the manifestation in society of the Will. On this basis it is very difficult to see how Marx can distinguish his own dialectic from Hegel’s. Just how difficult will now become clear as Marx’s quibbles are put to the test.

Marx’s Misplaced Criticisms

On most, if not all, the occasions Marx refers to Hegel it is to praise him on the one hand while bemoaning his deficiencies on the other. A typical example is Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right, written in 1843, in which he asserts that Hegel’s method is enveloped in mysticism and trapped within the realms of thought. Marx argues that:

The family and civil society are real parts of the state, real spiritual manifestations of will, they are the state’s forms of existence; the family and civil society make themselves into the state. They are the driving force … [Hence] the state evolves from the mass existing as members of families and civil society; speculative philosophy, [however], explains this fact as the act of the Idea, not as the Idea of the mass, but as the act of a subjective Idea (Marx 1992: 62-63).

Marx is suggesting that Hegel’s speculative philosophy understands the formation of the state only theoretically, abstractly, not practically. As we have seen, however, Hegel makes no such contention. For Hegel, the ‘Idea of the mass’ is the Will actualising itself in the world, the very ‘real spiritual manifestation’ that Marx is so keen on. Hegel’s point is precisely that the state is created by human beings, the mass. This is how the concept of state becomes actualised. Marx is interpreting Hegel’s Idea as something mental but it is in fact the very ‘Idea of the mass’ that Marx himself is eager to support.

Further misinterpretations of Hegel’s dialectic are committed by Marx in the Grundrisse where, as we have seen, Marx has most clearly set out his ‘own’ dialectical method. He argues that Hegel ‘fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself’ (Marx 1973: 101). He suggests that Hegel errs in supposing that thinking itself can cause changes in the ‘real.’

Again this is a clear misinterpretation of Hegel’s argument. We have seen him say that thought is ‘powerless’ (Hegel 1956: 22) without the Will to actualise it. Thought arises from and is actualised by the ‘real’ in a dialectical unity, the unity of theory and practice. Thought does not unfold itself out of itself but is manifest in the dialectical movement of the Will, the ‘activity and labour’ of real human beings.

Even ten years before his death, Marx, while declaring Hegel a ‘mighty thinker,’ was still trying to divorce his own dialectical method from the ‘mystical’ dialectic of Hegel. This is in response to a review of Capital by the Russian economist Kaufmann. He criticises Marx for having a philosophically ‘idealist’ method of presentation and a ‘realistic’ method of enquiry (Marx 1988: 100). Marx attempts to use the actual review by Kaufmann to refute such a contention.

Kaufmann notes how Marx is concerned to find the laws of phenomena which have a ‘definite form and mutual connection within a given historical period’ (ibid). Even more importantly, he realises that Marx wants to understand phenomena in ‘their transition from one form into another, from one series of connections into a different one’ (ibid). Immediately, we are presented with the importance of form and dialectical transition. Phenomena need to be understood as forms and as having inner connections with each other, contradictions in a unity. ‘What else,’ asks Marx, ‘is [Kaufmann] depicting but the dialectical method?’ (Marx 1988: 102). What else, of course! That such a method is the same as Hegel’s, however, is neither recognised nor acknowledged by Marx.

Marx still has to respond to Kaufmann’s criticism concerning the idealistic presentation and the realistic form of enquiry. In doing so he again unwittingly displays the similarity of his own dialectical method with Hegel’s. Marx argues that presentation and enquiry must indeed differ. The method of inquiry ‘has to appropriate the material in detail, to analyse its different forms of development and to track down their inner connection’ (ibid). The method of enquiry is therefore nothing other than the analysing of forms. The phenomena under consideration are subject to a critique which attempts to find their inner relation. The phenomena are thereby understood as forms, modes of existence, which should not be considered distinct and separate from one another but intrinsically linked in a dialectical unity, unity in difference. Once this process has been accomplished the ‘real movement’ can then be presented. Then the ‘life of the subject matter is reflected back into the ideas.’ Marx realises that this can give the impression of an ‘a priori construction’ and this is what Kaufmann has mistakenly taken for the ‘idealistic’ method of presentation (ibid).

What Marx is saying here is that when we carry out any particular investigation of phenomena we begin by a concrete analysis of phenomena, understood as forms. When this has been done and the investigation is ready for presentation it is presented not as beginning with the concrete but with the abstract. The method of inquiry moves from concrete to abstract but the method of presentation moves from abstract to concrete. As Marx pointed out in the Grundrisse:

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception (Marx 1973:101).

Any investigation of phenomena is faced with the concrete which itself is complex. If we were to examine the concept of money, for instance, we would see that it takes many different forms in society. In its concrete manifestation it is a complex phenomenon. To thought this concrete appears as a ‘result,’ an end point, not a starting point; ‘This is money. This is how money manifests itself in society.’ Money appears to thought in this way but in reality this appearance is not an end point but the ‘point of departure.’ For ‘observation and conception’ we actually begin with the result, the concrete form money takes in society. The method of inquiry must therefore begin with the forms phenomena take in society and subject them to a critique to find their inner connection. When this has been accomplished, the method of presentation is from the abstract to the concrete, from general to determinate abstraction. Marx, just like Hegel, realises that to begin an enquiry with a general abstraction would presuppose what was trying to be proved. Instead, a dialectical approach must begin with phenomena in actuality, with what is given in its appearance. This is mirrored in Hegel’s own method.

The general abstraction Marx refers to is reflected in Hegel’s concept as universal. The particularisation takes place in the concrete through the movement of the Will in society. Thought, therefore, begins with the concrete appearance of the concept in the real world; i.e. the form it takes in its manifestation within society. It is not changes in thought that change the ‘real,’ as Marx implies, for Hegel but the Will actualising itself in the world.

This similarity between Hegel and Marx becomes even clearer when Marx, in his discussion of the concept of labour, mentions how ‘the abstraction of the category ‘labour,’ ‘labour as such,’ labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice’ (Marx 1973: 105). In capitalist society, labour as an abstraction in thought becomes determinate, i.e. manifests itself in concrete reality. The concept has become actualised and the form it takes in capitalist society is itself abstract (Marx 1973: 104). The link with Hegel is clear. Marx is talking about the concept and its actualisation just as Hegel is despite Marx’s attempt to confine Hegel’s dialectic to the realm of thought.

Despite Marx’s assertions here, it has been noted that he does not follow the edicts of his own method in Capital. Carver argues that Marx’s starting point with the commodity is not a matter of ascending from the abstract to the concrete or simple to complex. However, he does suggest that the overall structure of Capital conforms to such a method in the movement from the commodity, to money, to capital, accumulation and circulation of capital and the ‘process as a whole’ (Carver 1975: 135). In contrast to Carver, Murray argues that Marx does begin Capital by moving from the abstract to the concrete as set out in the Grundrisse. Murray points out that the general abstraction Marx makes here is the use value of the commodity whereas the determinate abstraction is the exchange value of the commodity (Murray 1990:141). Both arguments, however, are very problematic. Murray, in arguing that use value is the general abstraction, and Carver, in arguing that Marx starts with the concrete commodity, have both missed Marx’s first move which is not the commodity but the general abstraction of wealth. As Marx states:

The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form. Our investigation begins therefore with the commodity (Marx 1988: 125).

Wealth, the general abstraction, takes the ‘form’ of the commodity. The commodity is itself a determinate abstraction with further determinate abstractions in terms of use value and exchange value. The commodity has to be analysed because that is the ‘elementary form’ wealth takes in society. This process develops through further determinate abstractions as value manifests itself in the circulatory sphere in the form of prices, interests, etc. Eventually we reach the contradictory unity of the concrete itself with all the different forms wealth can take. So Marx is moving from the abstract to the concrete, simple to complex, in Capital, contrary to Carver’s assertion, and from the general abstraction of wealth not use value, contrary to Murray’s. Ironically, Murray does eventually identify wealth as a general abstraction (Murray 1990: 147). How this general abstraction relates to his supposed general abstraction of use value, however, is not made clear.

Further support for such an argument is evident in the Grundrisse itself. In his foreword to this work, Nicolaus (1973: 37) correctly notes how, in the last page of the seventh notebook on value, Marx employs almost the same opening sentence that he will use for volume one of Capital. Marx himself says that ‘this section is to be brought forward’ (Marx 1973: 881). So at the end of the Grundrisse, which is, after all, Marx’s method in action, he reaches a conclusion that must be presented at the beginning. The method is therefore concrete to abstract but the presentation has to be abstract to concrete which confirms what we have just outlined. This becomes even clearer in Marx’s ‘Notes on Adolph Wagner’ where he states:

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).

Although Nicolaus recognises this fact, he falls into the same trap as Carver in seeing the commodity as Marx’s ‘concrete’ starting point in Capital. Yet as the above quotation suggests Marx is obviously referring to his method of inquiry, beginning with the form, rather than the method of presentation.

Marx’s method of enquiry, concrete to abstract, and presentation, abstract to concrete, finds a direct correspondence in Hegel’s own approach. In terms of the method of enquiry, Hegel begins with forms, appearances, in the complex concrete which arise through the dialectical development of the Will. To properly understand these forms we abstract from them in terms of a universal concept. We then examine and identify the positive and negative moments between the universal concept and its particular manifestation. When this is presented the starting point is the abstract universal not the complex forms of the concrete. Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right, for instance, moves from Abstract Right to Morality to Ethical Life, following the development of the Will. Yet his method of enquiry begins with ‘what is,’ the complex concrete of ‘forms, appearances and shapes (Hegel 1991: 21). These forms have to be investigated to uncover their positive moments, their interconnections and their innermost nature (Hegel 1971: 50). These forms are grasped in thought through the universal concept. The investigation then traces the dialectical movement between these universal and particular, abstract and concrete, moments.

It should be clear, then, that Marx’s method of enquiry, the analysing of forms, is reflected in Hegel’s own method. Both thinkers move from the concrete forms to the abstract, particular to universal. In their method of presentation they move from the abstract to the concrete, universal to particular.

This discussion should make us sceptical, therefore, concerning Marx’s most famous, or rather infamous, comment on the relationship of Hegel’s dialectic with his own. Marx argues that for Hegel the dialectic is standing on its head so it must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell (Marx 1988: 103). In trying to account for this statement, Carver has noted how Hegelian and Marxian definitions of the dialectic are couched in strikingly similar terms’ in that they both involve an ‘account which specifie[s] the contradictory—e.g., positive and negative—aspects of whatever [ils under scrutiny’ (Carver 1976: 66). Carver interprets the latter as being the ‘rational kernel’ Marx refers to. The ‘mystical shell’ relates to ‘Hegel’s confusion between what Marx called…”the conceived world” (or “the movement of categories”) and actuality’ (Carver 1976: 67).

Carver may be giving an adequate account of the way Marx thought he was superseding Hegel’s dialectic but that does not mean that Marx was correct. Indeed, our preceding argument shows the fallacy of Marx’s argument here. Hegel’s dialectic does not need inverting because it is not encased in a mystical shell. Hegel does not confuse the movement of categories with movement in the world because the categories are made real by the activity of the Will. As MacGregor has rightly noted, in misinterpreting Hegel in this way Marx ‘helped create the myth of Hegel the idealist who had everything upside down’ (MacGregor 1984: 3. See also, Shamsavari 1991, Ch. 4.). Yet the only thing that was upside down was Marx’s reading of Hegel itself. Consequently, much of Marxist scholarship in this area has been far too content to see Hegel through Marx’s eyes instead of subjecting Marx’s own comments to a careful critique; a typically unMarxist approach to take.


Marx’s criticisms of Hegel serve only to reveal the basic similarities in their dialectical method. Marx operates with general and determinate abstractions. For Hegel, the general abstraction is the universal concept whilst the determinate abstraction is the actualisation of the concept in its particularity. The determinate abstraction and the particularisation are understood by both thinkers to be forms, i.e. the mode of existence of the general abstraction or universal concept in society. In their method of enquiry, both begin by analysing these forms to discover their inner connection. In terms of presentation, both begin with the abstract and move to the concrete.

Marx’s method emphasises the importance of understanding the forms class struggle takes in capital. This means that the very categories Marx uses need to be understood as ‘categories of antagonism’ as ‘fundamental forms in which the antagonistic social relations present themselves’ (Holloway 1992: 151). This is why the concept of ‘becoming,’ inherited from Hegel’s discussion of being and nothing in the Logic, is so important. Marx mistakenly interprets Hegel as simply seeing concepts ‘move’ outside of the real movement of history (See Carver 1976: 67) but as I have shown this is not the case. For Hegel, concepts are also involved in a process of ‘becoming,’ a process of motion. The concept and its actualisation, the movement of the concept through the movement of the Will in and between its universal and particular moments, are the forms that have to be subject to scrutiny for Hegel. Both Hegel and Marx are at one, therefore, on the importance of analysing forms to discover their inner connection. They both focus on the contradictory movement of human beings, real subjects, in the shaping and making of their world.

It follows, then, that no materialist appropriation or rejection of Hegel’s dialectic is needed for Marxists. On the contrary, Hegel ‘is the most rigid of materialists’ who ‘practised and taught a very materialistic form of dialectic’ (James 1980: 57). Marx may not have seen this but his ‘own’ dialectic clearly parallels that of Hegel’s. General abstraction is universal concept; determinate abstraction is particular concept; the dialectic of Hegel is the dialectic of Marx.