[Peter-Paul Rubens' The Prophet Elijah Receiving Bread and Water from an Angel]
In From Hegel to Marx, Sidney Hook traces the intellectual development of Karl Marx within the context of the dominant Hegelian philosophy of his day. While Karl Marx was indeed highly influenced by the systematic, totalizing, and absolute philosophy of Hegel, in the first part of Hook’s book (contrary to the author’s own intention) it is illustrated how it is in his critiques of and deviations from Hegel where Marx demonstrates his genius, paving the way for the potent materialistic, truly historical, and revolutionary philosophy that has come to be known as Marxism.
The first point of difference between Hegel and Marx is both thinkers’ conception of philosophy. For Hegel, philosophy is an activity of thought, a self-enclosed and self-sufficient Nachdenken (German for reflection, literally thinking-after) whose purpose is the clarification of what has happened (22-3). “To clarify an event is [for Hegel none other than] to explain it in terms of logical necessity [. . . in which the event is] fitted into some developing whole [i.e. the system],” in that process revealing its meaning, which can be no other than what it is (i.e. what has happened) (23). “The task of the philosopher is [thus] to discover that meaning [which is none other than God, or Spirit, or Mind: Geist], progressively correcting his conceptions after more and more of the web of cosmic structure [as Geist, through man, comes to know itself] has been disclosed to him” (23). Thus philosophy’s only goal is (self-)understanding, in which “the world comes to self-consciousness and man rests in God” (23).
Marx retorts that this kind of philosophy is really a retrospective rationalization of the actual, existing state of things that, contrary to how Hegel portrays it, was really conditioned by the social, which is material. In other words, Hegel’s philosophy is a teleological metaphysics that makes explanation justification and all history a theodicy (in which evil is the “counterpoint in a metaphysical harmony”) (23). Against this, Marx proposes theory as the guide to practice in which practice is the life of theory (in which, as Lukács reads it, theory is grounded in and adjusts to reality just as reality adjusts to theory as reality becomes conscious of its inherent revolutionary potentials) (24). For Marx, then, philosophy is this “unity” (this dialectical materialist relationship, Lukács would say) between theory and practice—praxis—in which philosophy is immediately (in) reality (i.e. there is no remove between virtual philosophy and actual materiality, Deleuze would say), in which philosophy, in a very real sense, is real.
Thus for Marx what the philosopher does is not contemplative evaluation (as Hegel would have it) but involved social activity contemporary with the material state of things. In fact, ironically enough, Hegel’s contemplative philosophy itself (like all contemplative philosophies), Marx points out, is not “removed from life” (25). Making current society the object of philosophy (esp. a teleological one that claims that the said state is the highest so far, necessary towards final perfection) with which philosophy does nothing but reflect about (esp. as some form of prototype or paradigmatic model, which philosophies tend to do to their objects) (esp. a philosophy that identifies “reason” with “reality” (20)) is to accept that actually existing state of things—as the State of things, the way that things absolutely are; and as something acceptable, the way that things should be—in the process (doubly) legitimizing that current state.
In contrast, for Marx, “the purpose of [. . .] social theor[y is] to provide that knowledge of social tendencies which would most effectively liberate revolutionary action” (25). Thus “philosophy is not retrospective insight into the past [but] prospective anticipation of the future [in which theory] explains why the present is what it is in order [in practice] to make it different”: i.e. (echoing Ludwig Feuerbach) not only to interpret the world (no matter how differently), but to change it—to pave the way (not just for Hegel’s freedom but) for social liberation (25).
While Hegel and Marx, then, put process at the center of their conceptions of philosophy, Marx’s conception of it was not “cramped by his system” as Hegel’s was (where change was chained to its conception as “the form in which an unchanging absolute exhibited itself” that was already arrested in the Prussian state, portrayed by Hegel as “the closest embodiment of the absolute”) since for Marx, the process was “an activity of matter, not of spirit”; hence human agents may bring it towards further development in actually existing material conditions (55). That is to say, for Marx, “the process of social development has no ends to reali[z]e which are not the ends willed by men” (58). One’s willing alone does not suffice to bring a material condition about, however. “What is willed must be continuous with a discovered situation which is not willed but accepted. When it is willed must be determined by objective possibilities in the situation” (58).
This difference in conception of philosophy roots from a difference in political orientation. Although in identifying reason (Vernunft) with reality (Wirklichkeit) Hegel did in a later work distinguish reality from the existent (i.e. that which is in existence: the actual, to use Deleuzian terminology) and clarified that “not all existence was real” (since the “truly real [is] the perfectly ideal, the logically complete, the norm”), this was self-defeating since the implication that “the existing state was reasonable only in so far as it was real [and not all that was existing was]” was tainted by the fact of Hegel working as the official state philosopher of Prussia, which in other places he had lauded as the next, more perfect stage (even the epitome) of human history, revealing what particular state he thought of as “real” (as opposed to merely existent) and the criteria of reason (which, contrary to his pronouncements, here proves not universal) to which he subscribed (i.e. Prussian reasoning that “reasonably” legitimized the Prussian state) (20).
On top of this, there are of course Hegel’s pronouncements on sovereignty as (in Marx’s paraphrase) the “absolute self-determination of the will”—hence, sovereignty’s exaltation as the highest value—specifically, sovereignty that “must be individuali[z]ed” wherein “only a subject, i.e. what has mind, can be a true individual”—in which Hegel argues that “in this world that which is both a subject and an individual must be a ‘person,’ [. . . which, Hegel continues, is none other than] der Monarch”—specifically, the enlightened Prussian monarch (21). It is not only, as Marx points out, that “with the will of the monarch lies the final decision” (21). Rather, for Hegel, “the final decision of will is—the monarch” (21). This is really but an expression of Hegel’s conception of individuality as “an articulation of both the logic and the ethics of the whole,” in which “the higher the system [is,] the truer the individual” (hence “the family is more of an individual than its members, the community more of an individual than the family, etc.” and hence “the only completely ‘real’ individuality is the Absolute”) (42). In the process, Hegel is able to portray as the highest expression of freedom (so far), thereby legitimizing, the state in which he happened to be the official philosopher.
More directly, Marx complains that what Hegel does is to transform a material, empirical fact (the actual existence of the monarch) into a metaphysical axiom taken as ontological truth (the monarch as the real—hence reasonable, hence justified—manifestation of the will). From this logically follows, Marx points out, Hegel’s definition of the state as “the reali[z]ation of moral principles and concrete freedom, [. . .] logically primary to society, the condition of all social life” (21). Hegel claimed this because he saw the state (in the specific form of the Prussian constitutional monarchy) as the site or moment in which subjective freedom comes under the domain of the law, thereby (through the Constitution) guaranteeing freedom for everyone, making of freedom at the same time universal (not just freedom for some, but of all) and objective (freedom not as product of individual will but as a collective constitution based on reason).
Marx nonetheless insists on the empirical. Thus he inverts Hegel’s definition and asserts that “there are societies without states,” intimating that the state, far from being the logically and historically prior condition, is in fact a product, a historic outgrowth (not even a necessary one at that), of society, which does not create but simply provides society with some kind of organization (21). Moreover, the state, Marx argues, far from being necessary, arises “only when the organic nature of society threatens to be disrupted by social antagonisms [in this regard paying more attention to antagonisms than Hegel], [. . . antagonisms that express themselves in class struggles in which the state] functions as an instrumental agency in preserving those antagonisms and yet preventing social disruption” (21). The state is thus but “one of the means by which th[e class] war is fought, [functioning not even as an umpire and not even] bring[ing] reconciliation between classes but [. . . simply] reconcile[s] subject classes to their lot,” organizes relationships so as to put groups in their respective positions (22). (See Althusser’s elaboration of the Marxist definition of the state.)
For Marx, “the historic mission of every subject class is to seize power and establish its own state as an engine of social consolidation” (22). Hence, in contrast to Hegel’s political accommodation that leads him to portray the state as “represent[ing] the principle of absolute reason and spiritual power which bestows upon man whatever value he has,” Marx’s conception of the state as “both the expression and the proof of the irreconcilablity of class egoism” leads him to a philosophy/politics of social revolution. If Hegel sees “what men theoretically have in common by closing his eyes tight to what practically separates them,” Marx (at least in this part of his philosophy; in contrast to his positing of the universal proletariat) stays in the practical field of conflict and irreducible difference (22).
To compensate for his abstract theorizing, Hegel asserts that “the clarification of ideas is a method of deducing the very existence of those things,” implying that thinking is tantamount to creating, that ideas can create things (30). He also differentiates from abstractions (which “give only partial knowledge”) the system, where the “true idea is one which systematizes all abstractions into a patterned unity which is the concrete,” in this way able to argue that there is something concrete—the system, the whole—in his philosophy (30). This notion of the whole as concrete is, of course, related to Hegel’s conception of the social, which, in contrast with social atomism, to Hegel is logically and historically prior the individual (which are irreducible to fragments), in which rational willing is only possible if it is “informed by the structure of the whole” (42). Marx follows Hegel’s theorizing of the social. The whole is not, however, unlike in Hegel the only thing that is “concrete” in Marx’s philosophy. He is first and foremost already in the realm of concrete practice.
These political orientations and conceptions of philosophy inform and cohere with the philosophies that Hegel and Marx developed, including the method with which they set about to do philosophy. Briefly, Hegel developed a philosophical system that traces/illustrates the process by which spirit/mind—through matter/nature/man—comes to know itself in its perfection (or in which it becomes aware of its perfection, hence perfecting itself that way?), a process exhibited or which manifests itself in the succeeding stages of human history in which freedom—through reason—comes to its full development. Thus in a parallel development, spirit/mind (a subject) comes to know itself fully/perfectly as (already spiritualized) matter/nature (an organic unity that’s alive) becomes spiritualized, in which, in the end, man (culminating into Hegel) arises to complete the process to (knowing) clarity / (physical) perfection such that spirit is fully reflected in matter. This process (dialectics) is characterized by a partial starting point (the thesis) that, since it is not able (even though it pretends) to constitute/represent the whole, encounters its limit (the antithesis) (with which it is able to negatively identify itself), upon which a structural contradiction becomes apparent, causing further movement (development). Out of this dialectical dynamic is brought about a new configuration of things (the synthesis) in which the two opposites are abolished at the same time as they are elevated (aufheben).
Hegel’s philosophy is thus “the exposition of God as He is in His eternal essence before the creation of the world and man” (29). Marx complains of this that “everything which makes that [i.e. Hegel’s] exposition intelligible is derived from the nature of the world and man as already exhibited in actual experience” (29).
Marx’s critique of Hegel here has many levels. In Hook’s explanation:
Secretly starting from “what is,” [Hegel’s philosophy] proceeds to a demonstration that “what is,” is, because it “must be.” This becomes possible only when the last fruits of what has developed in time are illegitimately converted into the first principles of what subsists in logic. The forms which experience has shown to be conditioned by nature and human activity, Hegel declares to be conditions of both nature and human activity. The consciousness of real subjects which appears in history as an effect of natural causes, Hegel has transformed into an “absolute subject” which is the cause and ground of those natural causes. The interaction which takes place between the human mind and its external environment, Hegel interprets as a continuous process of diremption and progress on the part of logical categories. (29-30)
In other words, Marx complains that in Hegel, “what should be a point of departure [i.e. familiar everyday experience] becomes a mystical result [i.e. the material world set apart] and what should be a rational result [i.e. the logical categories involved in everyday experience] becomes a mystical point of departure [i.e. simple and necessary but ghostly logical/spiritual truths/ideas manifesting from the Absolute Mind/Spirit]” (30). Hegel, in other words, “attempt[s] to deduce the historical succession of things in time from the immanent [?] development of ideas out of time” (31).
Hegel does not merely invert the order of things, however. In positing Geist (as creative, absolute, self-understanding subject), Marx points out that “instead of treating self-consciousness as the self-consciousness of real mean, living in a real, objective world and conditioned by it, Hegel [moreover] transforms man into a [mere] attribute of self-consciousness” in which “the process of thinking, [. . .] under the name of the Idea, [. . . is] transform[ed] into an independent subject [and as] the demiurgus of the real world, [in which] the real world is only its external appearance” (32).
In other words, Hegel, Marx points out, performs these perverse logical operations in which he inverts the order of priority of things (logical over material), treats effect (thinking) as cause (Idea), and from that derived cause posits an absolute entity (Spirit/Mind, God) that Hegel then argues directs the definitive movement of that from which it was derived (the material/natural world). That is to say, Hegel denies the historical/logical priority/primacy of the material world, but then takes what has come out of that world and its processes (Ideas) as the ontological presuppositions of that world—rationalizations that are then presented as the rational principles of the very material out of which it comes (which, Marx implies, precedes it)—where this rationalization is interpreted as the development towards self-consciousness of the absolute, teleological Spirit that creates the world: God.
Against these (all too) logical moves, Marx argues that “the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought” and that “all thought is human, not absolute; it transforms [the material world] but does not create” (32). As opposed to Hegel, then, that took the whole material of history as his object (attempting to explain everything in the world by virtue of the creative hand of Geist), for Marx, “the subject matter of philosophy is not ‘the whole universe indivisible’ but specific problems of man, history and culture” in which “answers to [. . .] problems may be recogni[z]ed as [. . .] true [only] in so far as it enables us to settle the concrete difficulties out of which those problems have arisen,” a process that may be transformed by man, but not created by him (24).
Despite this fundamental difference of priority, both thinkers do agree that history plays a central role and as such is accorded a central place in both philosophies. Following the fundamental difference in methodology, however, is the fundamental opposition between the philosophies of history developed. For Hegel, “history is the march of the spirit toward freedom, [which] can be found only in self-consciousness, [in which, Hegel argues,] absolute self-consciousness is God” (36). “History [for Hegel is thus] the autobiography of God,” in which freedom—through reason—is (progressively) established in the material world (as Spirit comes to know itself), in human history (as its end) (36). This freedom, Hegel points out, is not merely (inter-)subjective but, true to the definition of history he offers, is “read [. . .] in the ‘objective mind’ of the community, in its traditions, laws, ethical use and wont” (36). Thus “instead of trying to reform or revolutioni[z]e things [rooted as these are in critical, one-sided, subjective desires] we shall [Hegel argues] devote our lives to understanding them, [. . . which] consists in catching the vision of the reasonable already embodied in the real,” i.e. catching a vision of God (36).
Marx retorts that Hegel’s philosophy is not really a philosophy of history since history is merely “added as an afterthought” to the philosophy that, however history goes, is confirmed (37). That is to say, “instead of taking as point of departure the activities of human beings in pursuit of their workaday aims and the conditions under which they are formulated, [Hegel] begins with the ideas and thoughts which men offer as an explanation of those ends,” which, since they have been taken from it, can then easily explain those material conditions with amazing predictability (37). What Hegel does, however, is to turn “a temporal existent into an ontological pre-existent” (a “pernicious habit,” really), transforming what was rationalization into Idea/Reason, by which he then claims to explain history and everything in it, proclaiming the absolute, totalizing system that he calls his philosophy (37).
Against this, Marx argues that “history [. . .] is made by men” (38). More precisely:
[History] is not the product of the automatic operation of impersonal forces whether they be spirit, nature, the mode of economic production or what not. Human effort is the mode by which the historically determined comes to pass. [ . . .] History does nothing; it ‘possesses no colossal riches’; it ‘fights no fight.’ It is rather man—real, living man—who acts, possesses and fights in everything. It is by no means ‘History’ which uses man as a means to carry out its ends as if it were a person apart; rather History is nothing but the activity of man in pursuit of his ends. (38)
In contrast, then, to Hegel explaining things in terms of a “causal insight in the ideas men carry in their heads and the slogans with which they march into battle,” Marx “seeks a causal explanation of historical activity [. . .] in their concrete needs and in the conditions out of which those needs arose. [. . .] Need gives man his problems and the strength to conquer them. [. . .] History, then, can be explained rationally but it is not made by reason” (39).
This is not to say, however, that individual men make history. Rather, “man, generically, makes [. . .] history” (39). A history that is social—characterized as the social is by class struggles, which are determined by “the development of the mode of economic production” (40). In Hook’s elaboration:
Human history is social history. [And] society since primitive times is class society. History, therefore, is the record of the rise, fall and struggle of classes. The succession and struggle of classes—now rapid and violent, now slow and peaceful—cent[er]s ultimately around the possession of property and the power which that possession gives. Not that individuals as such are necessarily motivated by economic considerations, but that no matter what their motives as individuals are, the resultant effects of their common activity differ from the outcomes they had severally anticipated. (39)
Man is continually improving the quality of the tools he uses in earning his living. The possession of the new productive forces and the invention of new methods give a natural advantage over those who still live by the old. The class which has title to the new forces of production has economic power—a power, however, which is hampered by the legal and political property relationships which express the earlier forms of material production. When the opposition is acute, a social revolution takes place. Unless society is destroyed in such a conflict, victory comes to those who fight for a form of social organi[z]ation which corresponds to the changes in the mode of economic production thereby permitting the liberation and expansion of the productive forces. Political power is transferred to that organi[z]ed class which has economic power. The development in the mode of economic production is continuous and irreversible. Consequently, with the passage of time, there is an ever-narrowing range of possibilities of social organi[z]ation. The development of human society shows a direction, by no means linear, but which is none the less empirically observable. It is a direction which points from a crude, primitive communism, through the various forms of private property in the instruments of production—slavery, feudalism and capitalism—to a complex industrial communism in which “the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each.” (40)
More concretely, against Hegel’s teleological movement of spirit, Marx asserts that the movement of history is determined by human needs, needs that are not abstract as in Feuerbach but “the primary needs of production, reproduction, communication” (277). Hook explains:
The gratification of [current human] needs requires the discovery of instruments which are partly the cause and partly the result of an increasingly pervasive division of labor in social life. But the very processes of gratifying old needs give rise to new needs—technological, psychological, and spiritual. The movement of history is not imposed from without by the creative fiat of an Absolute Mind nor is it the result of a dynamic urge within matter. It develops out of the redirective activity of human beings trying to meet their natural and social needs. Human history may be viewed as a process in which new needs are created as a result of material changes instituted to fulfil[l] the old. According to Marx, the whole of theoretical culture, including science, arises either directly or indirectly as an answer to some social want or lack. The change in the character and quality of human needs, including the means of gratifying them, is the keynote not merely to historical change but to the changes of human nature. (277-8)
(See further elaboration in delineations of the base and the superstructure.)
Thus, “if for Hegel history is a progressive reali[z]ation of freedom, for Marx it is a progressive development toward the sociali[z]ation of the means of life. Without such sociali[z]ation, freedom is a fetish—an empty, formal right which cannot be exercised” (40). This is the way in which, even as there are certain strands of Hegel’s philosophy that are comparable to his own, Marx (by materializing him) deploys a pointed critique of Hegel—thereby producing a school of thought whose (political) consequences are sharply different from those of the dominant predecessor.
Hook, Sidney. From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the Intellectual Development of Karl Marx. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1950.