Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism

Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism

by David MacGregor

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The collapse of the Soviet Empire led many to think that communism and perhaps socialism were no longer relevant to the modern world. Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism presents a balanced discussion of the validity of the arguments of two of the most important political philosophers of all time, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx.


The collapse of the Soviet Empire led many to think that communism and perhaps socialism were no longer relevant to the modern world. Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism presents a balanced discussion of the validity of the arguments of two of the most important political philosophers of all time, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. David MacGregor reinterprets Hegel and Marx’s philosophies, setting out key events in their lives against a backdrop of global historical events. In a new afterword, MacGregor brings his study up to date, examining Russia’s revival as a world power under Vladimir Putin as well as China’s ambitious development efforts.

Editorial Reviews

Political Studies

“MacGregor illustrates the continuing relevance of Marx and, even more importantly, Hegel, for comprehending and combating a rapacious free market global capitalism. . . . Scholarly exegesis is excitingly combined with biography and a critical assessment of debates, both in Hegel’s and Marx’s time and since. . . . This is an accessible, thought-provoking account that will serve as an excellent introduction for students and demand a response from Hegel-Marx scholars.”

Joe Hermer

“David MacGregor challenges us to re-think the place we have given to Hegel and Marx in the social theory of a so-called 'post-communist' world. In a jolting and lucid argument, MacGregor re-casts the relationship between these two thinkers within a framework that is deeply committed to a critique of everyday forms of domination. In doing so, MacGregor reveals Hegel and Marx to be superbly relevant and profound for an analysis of the practices of the ‘new economy.’”

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Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism

By David MacGregor

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 1998 David MacGregor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-072-3


Marx's Relationship with Hegel


This chapter will look at the ways Marx's relationship with Hegel has been characterized, starting with Marx's own assessment. We shall also learn how antagonism toward Hegel has affected the presentation of Marx's connection with him.

First, I survey Marx's own version of his relationship with Hegel, and then examine the distrust and hostility of many writers, including contemporary Marxists, toward Hegel. Two of the most influential accounts of the Hegel–Marx relationship – those provided by Georg Lukács and Friedrich Engels – are discussed. We shall discover that the presumed disparity between Hegel's writings as a young man and his mature work has created difficulties for commentators. The young Hegel is seen virtually as a proto-Marx; while the mature philosopher is viewed as a betrayer of the principles of his youth and a supporter of the Restoration. By contrast, Marx's lifelong partner, Friedrich Engels, did not regard Hegel as a toady of the Prussian state. Although its argument has been widely disputed, Engels's Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy remains a classic statement on the Marx–Hegel problem. His piece offers a valuable viewpoint on some substantive areas in Hegelian theory.

The second half of this chapter applies Hegel's dialectic of history, as interpreted by Engels, to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. I use the beginning of the nuclear era with the bombing of Japan to illustrate Engels's (flawed) rendering of Hegel's concept of truth. My key argument throughout this chapter is that the differences between Hegel and Marx have been exaggerated – not least by Marx and Engels. I hope to show that a reconstruction of the relationship between Hegel and Marx can shed light on the world-shaking events after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Unlikely testimony

The problem of Marx's relationship with Hegel has sparked extensive debate. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that we have the testimony of only one of the persons involved. Marx was just thirteen years old when Hegel died in 1831. In a sense Marx's entire intellectual life was spent in the shadow cast by Hegel, perhaps the greatest member of the German idealist tradition, one of history's most challenging philosophical dynasties.

Marx's unsuccessful struggle to escape the mesmerizing influence of Hegel forms part of the puzzling legacy he left to his followers. During the crucial years following the outbreak of the First World War, V. I. Lenin, the founder of Soviet communism, also fell under Hegel's spell. While building the communist movement that would capture power in the 1917 October Revolution, Lenin secretly grappled with the nature of the Hegelian heritage to Marxism. As Kevin Anderson points out, 'Lenin was the first Marxist leader or theorist since Marx to undertake the type of serious Hegel studies exemplified in the work he did on Hegel's Science of Logic from September to December 1914, studies he expanded in 1915 to include other works of Hegel.'

Most interpreters have taken at face value Marx's legendary gloss on his connection with Hegel, which appears in the 1873 Postface to the second edition of volume 1 of Capital. Phrases from this famous three-paragraph assessment, written when Marx was fifty-four years old, appear again and again in every commentary on the Hegel–Marx problem. It is worth looking at these paragraphs in detail, keeping in mind the context within which they were written.

In the 1873 Postface Marx was seeking to deflect criticism – including his own self-criticism – that he relied too heavily on Hegelian methodology. The ruling empiricism of the mid-nineteenth century put under a cloud any social investigator foolish enough to make a direct appeal to idealist forms of thought. Fourteen years earlier in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy – where he talked about his intellectual growth – Marx concealed his massive late 1850s return to Hegel in the Grundrisse, a work left unpublished in his lifetime that provided the foundations for Capital. As Marx's biographer, Jerrold Seigel, points out, the three-paragraph account in the 1873 Postface also contains 'strange and unrealistic' testimony.

Marx characterizes his 'dialectical method' as 'not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it'. Hegel, says Marx, believes that the 'process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of "the Idea",' creates the world, 'and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea'. For Marx, on the other hand, 'the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought'.

Omitted in this passage is an account of how the material world itself is constructed. Marx seems to be subscribing to a pre-Kantian description of the mind as a passive receptor of sense impressions, a view he decisively rejects elsewhere. Marx must have known that calling his method the 'opposite' of Hegel's led him onto treacherous ground. Dialectic is all about the interaction and union and supersession of opposites.

Marx wants to make it clear that he has escaped the clutches of Hegel's idealism. 'I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion.' Marx finds much to appreciate in Hegel, whose reputation, he points out, was being slandered in Germany during the period that 'I was working at the first volume of Capital'. Marx claims that his outrage at 'the ill-humoured, arrogant and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles', and who treated Hegel 'as a "dead dog,"' led him to 'openly avow[] myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there ... [to] coquette[] with the mode of expression peculiar to him'.

At the very least this is an odd reason to adopt the views of a thinker: because everyone else rejects him. Moreover, as many observers have noted, Marx does more than 'coquette' with Hegelianism in Capital. In the past twenty-five years scholars have mined a whole new area on the Hegelian resonances in Marx's magnum opus. Even a casual glance through volume 1 of Capital confirms that Hegel is indeed a presence. There are allusions to, and direct quotations from, Hegel's mature writings, including the Encyclopaedia Logic, the Philosophy of Right, and the Science of Logic. Remarkably, all of the references are in a positive, even laudatory vein; none mention a quarrel with Hegel's idealism. Except for one or two on dialectic method, and another on natural science, the quotations concern relations of property, social class and the labour process. These selections from the corpus of Hegel's work are of great significance for our study. I want to show that Hegel's influence on Marx rests precisely on the more solid, materialist relations of property, class and labour.

In his 1873 confessional, Marx contrasts the 'mystified form' of Hegel's dialectic, 'which seemed to disfigure and glorify what exists', with the 'rational form' it takes in Marx's own hands. Nevertheless, he blames the 'mystified' use of dialectic more on followers of philosophical 'fashion in Germany' than on Hegel himself. Hegel is 'the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him, it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.' Obviously for Marx something akin to his own rational dialectic was practised as well by Hegel. 'In its rational form', says Marx,

[i]t is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspects as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.

The view that I will develop in this book is that Hegel's method is very much the same as Marx's 'rational dialectic'. By approaching the two thinkers in this way we can better understand our own situation after the fall of Soviet communism, and maybe peer into the future.

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Resolving the complex relationship between Hegel and Marx is certainly made difficult by the unreliable character of Marx's own statements on the subject. Another obstacle is the distrust and hostility of many toward Hegelian thought. The great German writer Goethe liked to have guests over without informing his family of their identity. One day in 1827 he invited the famous philosopher Hegel to dine. After Hegel's departure Goethe asked the sister of his daughter-in-law what she thought of the mystery guest. 'Strange,' she replied. 'I cannot tell whether he is brilliant or mad. He seems to me to be an unclear thinker.'

She was not alone in her negative opinion. After Hegel's death, the philosopher Schopenhauer – who taught along with Hegel at the University of Berlin in the 1820s – accused him of 'the greatest effrontery in serving up sheer nonsense, in scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses'. Hegel's philosophy, fumed Schopenhauer, 'became the instrument of the most ponderous and general mystification that has ever existed, with a result that will seem incredible to posterity, and be a lasting monument of German stupidity'.

Countless writers have shared Schopenhauer's opinion, from the noted English philosopher Bertrand Russell to the logical positivist, Karl Popper. The Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno put it this way:

In the realm of great philosophy, Hegel is no doubt the only one with whom at times one literally does not know and cannot conclusively determine what is being talked about, and with whom there is no guarantee that such a judgement is even possible.

Among the majority of Marx's followers today feelings about Hegel range from incomprehension to outright rejection. Terrell Carver complains that 'the analytical character of Marx's thought was derived from German idealism, a philosophical tradition alien to most English readers and arguably to the English language itself'. For the analytical Marxist school, 'the idea that [Hegel's] dialectics constitutes a sound way of reasoning, superior to formal logic for purposes of elaborating social theory, is ... false and pernicious'. In the opening essay of a recent collection on the future of Marxism Douglas Kellner argues that Hegel is Soviet totalitarianism's 'spiritual ancestor'. Like Stalin, Hegel believes 'that the overcoming of alienation requires total submission to the community, whereby individuals gain their liberty'. Kellner submits that 'For Hegel, the state was the incarnation of reason and freedom, and it was the citizen's duty to recognize this and to submit to the dictates of the state.'

The day after Hegel's surprise appearance at Goethe's household, he was invited again for tea. The celebrated philosopher entertained his host with an attractively simple explanation of dialectic as the 'methodically cultivated spirit of contradiction which lies within everyone as an innate gift and which is especially valuable for discerning truth from falsehood'. Anticipating analytical Marxism, Goethe worried that such expertise might actually be used to 'turn falsehood into truth and truth into falsehood'. Hegel, however, always contended that his method was only common sense. 'Genuine common sense', he had remarked thirty years before, 'is not peasant coarseness, but something in the educated world which freely and forcefully confronts the fetishes of culture with the truth.'

As we have seen, Marx's own attitude to Hegel actually grew from intense doubt about Hegel's version of dialectic. Such distrust characterized the radical German intellectual environment of his youth. While Hegel was alive, competing factions retailed entirely different versions of his philosophy. These solidified into Old Hegelians and Young Hegelians a few years after Hegel's death. Old Hegelians saw Hegel's ideas as a form of theology; Young Hegelians pursued the radical elements they thought they found in his philosophy. By the 1840s, however, a new form of Young Hegelianism emerged that rejected the teachings of the master.

This new Young Hegelian movement originated the idea that Hegel had to be stood on his head 'in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell', as Marx put it three decades later. Marx eagerly embraced the new movement's leading thinker, Ludwig Feuerbach. Once a student and ardent disciple of Hegel, Feuerbach reacted against the master in the late 1830s. He produced a series of works in the 1840s that badly damaged Hegel's reputation among intellectuals of the period. According to Feuerbach, the only way to find truth in Hegel's philosophy was to invert subject and predicate. The idea did not create the world, the material world created the idea.

Hegel as a 'Young Hegelian'

A troubling complication in the job of untangling the Hegel–Marx connection is the change many writers have traced in Hegel's own development. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's influential Hegel claims that around 1800, when he was thirty years old, Hegel shifted his emphasis from the human individual to a cosmic Geist or Spirit. He switched from primarily human-centred concerns to ones that were clearly idealist. This transformation in Hegel's thinking was especially significant because his pre-1800 work was deeply reminiscent of the humanist writings of Feuerbach and the early Marx. For Marx and the other Young Hegelians, what Hegel called Geist is identical with the human individual. 'If I am right,' Taylor speculates, 'the young Hegel had some affinities with the later Young Hegelians, which the mature Hegel had shed.'

Taylor argues that before 1800 Hegel believed in transforming the world through social and political action. By the turn of the century, however, Hegel was presenting a view in which women and men had no real active part in history. Their function comes to be seen by Hegel as merely carrying out the purposes of Geist. The enigmatic ends of Geist that human beings unconsciously carry out can only be truly comprehended by philosophy (namely Hegel's), and then only long after these purposes have been achieved.

Taylor's account of Hegel's intellectual turn is now part of the conventional wisdom. It conforms in large part to the much earlier, and equally influential, assessments of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. However, Lukács and Marcuse placed Hegel's transformation later than 1800, for they saw the themes of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (published in 1806–7) as more or less consistent with his youthful writings.

How was it, though, that Marx in the 1840s, using only the Phenomenology and Hegel's later texts, was able to reproduce with astonishing accuracy (though without wilful intention) some of the key patterns in Hegel's writings before 1800? As we shall see later, the pre-1800 Hegel is very close to the young Marx in his elaboration of the concepts of love, property, labour, religion and the state – concepts which are often only implicit in Hegel's mature writings. Yet Marx was wholly unaware of Hegel's early writings, which were not published until the twentieth century. Had they been available, these writings might have convinced the young Marx that he was actually the rightful heir to the Hegelian legacy.

This is the main theme of Georg Lukács's The Young Hegel, written in 1938 and published after the Second World War. In his 1923 work, History and Class Consciousness, Lukács – a Hungarian communist who died in 1971 at the age of eighty-six – had 'elevat[ed] Hegel for the first time to an absolutely dominant position in the pre-history of Marx's thought'. Lukács's return to Hegel in History and Class Consciousness had an important influence on the Frankfurt School's critique of the culture of capitalism, and on other forms of neo-Marxism that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Arguably, however, The Young Hegel may be Lukács's most significant contribution to an understanding of the relationship between Marx and Hegel. Lukács, says his biographer, 'utilized ... Hegelian ideas in order to legitimate Marxism by discovering its radical continuity with, rather than its reversal of, Hegelianism'. Working in 1930s Moscow, with its rich collection of Marx's writings, Lukács was among the first to appreciate the importance of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, published in 1932. Reading the young Marx together with the young Hegel sparked Lukács's entirely original reassessment of Hegel's development.


Excerpted from Hegel and Marx After the Fall of Communism by David MacGregor. Copyright © 1998 David MacGregor. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David MacGregor is professor of political thought at King’s University College, an affiliate of the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

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