By now it should be obvious to anyone who has looked at Karl Marx’s entire corpus, both published and unpublished works, that the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an abiding influence on his thought. Marx certainly had no patience for those “the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones” who treated Hegel a “dead dog,” much in the same way that the Leibnizian philosopher Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza like a “dead dog.” This is amply evident both in the 1873 postface to his masterpiece, Capital, as well as in private letters written to friends and colleagues between 1866 and 1870.
In this post, I will adduce clearly that Marx still held Hegel in high regard up to and beyond the publication of his “mature” works (if one still insists, following Althusser and Colletti, upon drawing a rigid distinction between the Young Marx and Old Marx). Even further, I will show that Marx understood his own dialectical method as a critical application or “inversion” of Hegel’s. As Marx saw it, the principal difference between his own theoretical framework and that of Hegel consisted in their respective points of departure. Hegel was an idealist, after all, and started with the Idea. Marx, on the other hand, started with the real world. “With [Hegel],” Marx wrote, “[the dialectic] is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”
First, however, a couple of caveats:
- None of this should be taken to mean that Marx was still wasting his time with philosophy as he sat down to write Capital. He and Engels had settled that score back in the 1840s, with a number of searing polemics against the Young Hegelians. Philosophy was, for all intents and purposes, finished by then. Hegel had completed it, and all that was left to do was to realize what philosophy had merely declared, ideologically, at the level of the Idea. Any attempt to travel back down that road was bound to lead to a dead end. Engels himself reaffirmed in 1886 that “with Hegel philosophy comes to an end.”
Joseph Dietzgen probably came closest to providing a philosophical account of Marx’s theory; Marx and Engels affectionately called him “the philosopher of socialism.” Generally speaking, however, the notion of founding a Marxist “philosophy” is absurd — something Althusser failed to recognize. Which isn’t to say that it’s not useful to retrace the steps by which Marx and Engels took their leave of philosophy. Karl Korsch’s outstanding essay “Marxism and Philosophy” (1923), makes the strongest case for this exercise.
- My aim here is hardly to “re-mystify” Marx’s thought, or to turn him into some harmless figure whose books can be found in the philosophy section of Barnes and Noble. There’s doubtless cruel irony in the fact that Marx was overwhelmingly voted the “greatest philosopher” of all time in a 2005 BBC poll. He would doubtless have been appalled by the verdict, since he understood his vocation to be non-philosophical. Instead, my intention is to elucidate Marx’s rationalization and demystification of Hegel’s dialectic, placing it on terra firma rather than high up in the clouds.
Plenty of clues exist which verify Marx’s favorable opinion of Hegel, not just in the 1873 postface itself (though here also) but in letters Marx sent to colleagues around the same time, corroborating his annoyance with “ill-humored” anti-Hegelian boors. A proper timeline will help clear things up a great deal.
So before we take a look at his letters, let’s glance at the relevant passage from the postface again:
My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of “the Idea,” is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought.
I criticized the mystificatory side of the Hegelian dialectic nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just when I was working at the first volume of Capital, the ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles began to take pleasure in treating Hegel in the same way as the good Moses Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in Lessing’s time, namely as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even, here and there in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. (Capital, pgs. 102-103)
Clearly Marx credits Hegel as being “the first to present [the dialectic’s] general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner,” despite the mystifications it suffers at his hands. This does not render Marx’s own theoretical efforts superfluous: his task is precisely to demystify it and place it back on its feet. Its “general forms of motion” are the same, as readers from Lenin to Postone have pointed out, but its trajectory is precisely the reverse (“exactly opposite”). He places Hegel’s dialectic on solid foundations. After all, Marx says outright that “[his] dialectical method” is exactly opposite to Hegel’s “in its foundations.”
But wait, you might ask: Who were these “ill-humored, arrogant, and mediocre epigones who now talk large in educated German circles,” anyway? And when was it that Marx was provoked by their unlettered anti-Hegelianism to openly avow himself the pupil of that “great thinker” (Hegel)? Marx doesn’t provide any examples of who he’s talking about in the 1873 postface, nor does he indicate when he took such umbrage at their treatment of Hegel like a dead dog.
Fortunately, there are letters Marx wrote in which he used almost identical language to that which appears in the 1873 postface, many of which are still extant. Here he names names, and the letters are dated, so we can know precisely when he was expressing these opinions and who he was talking about. One might with some justice object that unpublished letters should not be accorded the same weight as published materials, but their cumulative effect should doubtless count for something, especially as they mirror, clarify, or reinforce statements made in official publications. Also, it would be unreasonable to assume that Marx would lie or be disingenuous to his correspondents, many of whom were his close intellectual compatriots throughout his life. Engels and Kugelmann especially.
Starting with a letter to Engels dated January 11, 1868 (that is, months after the release of Capital):
At the museum, where I did nothing but leaf through catalogues, I also noted that Dühring is a great philosopher. For he has written a Natürliche Dialektik against Hegel’s “un-natural” one. Hinc Mae lacrimae. The gentlemen in Germany (with the exception of theological reactionaries [i.e. Old Hegelians]) believe Hegel’s dialectic to be a “dead dog.” Feuerbach has much on his conscience in this respect.
The primary target here is the anti-Hegelian pinhead Eugen Dühring, but Marx also vaguely alludes to “gentlemen in Germany” who believe Hegel’s dialectic to be a “dead dog.” He adds that “Feuerbach has much on his conscience in this respect,” suggesting that this perceived obsolescence of Hegel is indeed unfortunate, and that Feuerbach’s contribution to this misperception should weigh on his conscience.
Marx expands on Dühring’s bumbling incomprehension of Hegel in a letter written to Ludwig Kugelmann dated March 6, 1868:
The curiously embarrassed tone used by Mr Dühring in his review is now clear to me. Usually, you see, he is a very bumptious, insolent lad, who sets himself up as a revolutionary in political economy. He has done two things. Firstly (basing himself upon Carey) he published a Kritische Grundlegung der Nationalökonomie (ABOUT 500 PAGES), and a new Natürliche Dialektik (against Hegelian dialectic). My book has buried him in both respects. He reviewed it out of hatred for Roscher, etc. Incidentally he practices deception, half intentionally and half from lack of insight. He knows full well that my method of exposition is not Hegelian, since I am a materialist, and Hegel an idealist. Hegel’s dialectic is the basic form of all dialectic, but only after being stripped of its mystical form, and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method.
Once again, Marx makes clear that Hegel’s form is “the basic form of all dialectic,” and that what distinguishes his own dialectic from the Hegelian one is that he is a materialist while Hegel is an idealist. Still, it’s unclear from these two letters who he’s specifically thinking of outside of Dühring. Let’s take a look at another letter to Kugelmann, then, this one dated June 27, 1870 (three years after the first volume of Capital was released):
[W]hat [Friedrich] Lange has to say about the Hegelian method and my application of the same is simply childish. First, he understands rien about Hegel’s method and, therefore, second, still less about my critical manner of applying it. In one respect he reminds me of Moses Mendelssohn. That prototype of a windbag once wrote to Lessing asking how he could possibly take “that dead dog Spinoza” au sérieux In the same way, Mr Lange expresses surprise that Engels, I, etc., take au sérieux the dead dog Hegel, after Büchner, Lange, Dr Dühring, Fechner, etc., had long agreed that they — POOR DEAR — had long since buried him. Lange is naïve enough to say that I “move with rare freedom” in empirical matter. He has not the slightest idea that this “free movement in matter” is nothing but a paraphrase for the method of dealing with matter — that is, the dialectical method.
Marx here expresses his disdain for Lange’s “childish” attitude toward Hegel, his total incomprehension of Hegel’s method, nor Marx’s “application of the same.” He calls Lange a “windbag” for treating Hegel like a “dead dog.” So the past tense Marx uses in the 1873 postface, in which he “openly avowed [him]self the pupil of that mighty thinker” and defended Hegel against Lange’s dismissal of the philosopher as a “dead dog,” was June 1870. That means he still considered himself Hegel’s pupil well after the first volume of Capital had been published, since Marx was still defending him three years on.
Who were the “ill-humored” boors to which Marx referred in the 1873 postface, then? Easy: “Büchner, Lange, Dr Dühring, Fechner, etc.” — the names he listed in 1870.
Marx obviously didn’t think that Hegel wasn’t a “dead dog” if he was defending him against dismissive gestures made against him in 1868 and 1870. There would be no reason for Marx to heap scorn upon these “gentlemen” for treating Hegel like a “dead dog,” of course, if he in fact agreed with them that Hegel deserved such treatment.
Finally, let’s take a look at a letter that Marx wrote to Dietzgen in 1868, but which Marx approved for publication on January 9, 1876, even after the 1873 postface:
When I have cast off the burden of political economy, I shall write a “Dialectic.” The true laws of dialectics are already contained in Hegel, though in a mystical form. What is needed is to strip away this form.
Here you have it yet again. Marx explicitly states that “the true laws of dialectics are already contained in Hegel, though in mystical form.” This reinforces what Marx wrote in the 1873 preface: “The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner.” So the true laws of dialectics, its general forms of motion, are already there in Hegel, albeit in mystified form.
This is further confirmed by a note Marx prepared for the second volume of Capital during the 1870s:
In a review of the first volume of Capital, Mr. Dühring notes that, in my zealous devotion to the schema of Hegelian Logic, I even discovered the Hegelian forms of the syllogism in the process of circulation. My relationship with Hegel is very simple. I am a disciple of Hegel, and the presumptuous chattering of the epigones who think they have buried this great thinker appear frankly ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I have taken the liberty of adopting towards my master a critical attitude, disencumbering his dialectic of its mysticism and thus putting it through a profound change, etc.
Yes, a profound change to be sure. Marx placed Hegel’s dialectic on solid footing by grounding it in a materialist foundation. But it’s obvious to anyone who has eyes to see that Marx was and remained a “disciple” of Hegel, by his own admission, despite his criticisms. It would be prima facie ridiculous to claim otherwise, or to suggest that he would call himself the “pupil” or “disciple” of a thinker only to excise any trace of that thinker’s thought.
Let’s finish off the 1873 postface by comparing what Marx wrote to Engels’ elucidation of it in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy:
In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it 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 aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.
Here’s the Engels:
[T]he Hegelian proposition [that the real is the rational] turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history, becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality, and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.
Furthermore, there are instances in Capital itself where Marx does not at all “coquet” with Hegel’s distinct phraseology, but makes clear and emphatic statements regarding the general validity of the old philosopher’s insights. And without a hint of irony. Marx writes:
[T]he possessor of money or commodities actually turns into a capitalist only where the minimum sum advanced for production greatly exceeds the known medieval maximum. Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel, in his Logic, that at a certain point merely quantitative differences pass over by a dialectical inversion into qualitative distinctions. (Capital, pg. 423)
In the footnote attached to the end of this sentence, Marx adds: “The molecular theory of modem chemistry, first scientifically worked out by Laurent and Gerhardt, rests on no other law.”
As if this weren’t enough on its own, Marx further explains what he meant by this in a letter to Engels dated June 22 1867:
Incidentally, you will see from the conclusion to my Chapter III, where I outline the transformation of the master of a trade into a capitalist — as a result of purely quantitative changes — that in the text there I quote Hegel’s discovery of the law of the transformation of a merely quantitative change into a qualitative one as being attested by history and natural science alike. In the note to the text (I was as it happened attending Hofmann’s lectures at that time) I mention the molecular theory, but not Hofmann, who has discovered nothing in the matter except contributing general direction; instead I do mention Laurent, Gerhardt, and Wurtz, the latter being the real man.
What further proof is needed?