Pour Hegel: Marx’s lifelong debt to Hegelian dialectics

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By now it should be obvious to anyone who has looked at Karl Marx’s entire corpus, both published and unpublished works, that the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an abiding influence on his thought.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:

  1. 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.”
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    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.
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  2. 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. Continue reading

A singular deception: Socialism and “singularity”

Michael Rectenwald
Insurgent Notes
November 2013

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By definition, a singularity is something utterly peculiar unto itself, a species of being unmatched for its “this-ness.” The term has found usage in a number of domains, most significantly in physics, where a singularity defines a condition of mass whose volume is approaching zero as a function of its density approaching infinity. Cases of singularities or near singularities include black holes and the singularity that preceded the Big Bang.

The singularity is the topic of a recent book on Marxism by Luca Basso — Marx and Singularity (2008), which is an attempt to understand Marx’s thought from the early writings through the Grundrisse in terms of the search for individual realization. Others too, such as Bruno Gullì (Labor of Fire, 2005), have worked in part to correct the errant notion that Marxism is predicated on an undifferentiated mass subject, rather than a fully articulated, fully realized (social) individual, a singularity.

But I am using “singularity” in yet another sense, to refer to the technological singularity, the hypothetical, near-future point at which machine intelligence will presumably supersede human intelligence, and when an intelligence explosion will commence. Inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil, whose books include The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), The Singularity Is Near (2005), and How to Create a Mind (2012), heralds the singularity in the technological sense.

Lebbeus Woods, Einstein's Tomb (1980)

In this singularity, a prospect predicted and also advocated by “Singulartarians” like Kurzweil, the future is as fabulous as science fiction might have it. In the short term, regular genetic check-ups to scan for “programming errors” in gene sequencing, and gene therapy, would be common, as would the merging of human brains and computer prostheses. But soon thereafter, nanorobots would clean up the environment, removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, recreating a green planet, and reversing global warming. Micro-robots would also course through the human bloodstream, removing waste (and a distasteful process), killing pathogens, eliminating cancer cells, repairing genetic codes, and reversing aging. Computer chips, implanted in the brain, would increase memory by a million-fold. By 2029, technologists will have successfully reverse-engineered the brain and replicated human intelligence in (strong) artificial intelligence (AI), while vastly increasing processing speeds of “thought.” Continue reading

Dawn and decline: Two eschatological visions in turn-of-the-century Russia

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IMAGE: 19th-century Russian
premonitions of a new “Mongolism”

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“People who witness the beginning of great and momentous events, who can obtain only very incomplete, inexact, and third-hand information of what is taking place, will not, of course, hazard a definite opinion until a timelier moment comes.  The bourgeois papers, which continue as of old to speak of revolt, rioting, and disturbances, cannot help seeing the truly national, nay, international, significance of these events.  Yet it is this significance which invests events with the character of revolution.  And those who have been writing of the last days of the rioting find themselves involuntarily referring to them as the first days of the revolution.  A turning-point in Russia’s history has been reached.”

Lenin, “What is Happening in Russia?” From Revolutionary Days, January 1905

It has often been noted by historians of the period that a distinctly apocalyptic mood prevailed throughout large sections of the Russian intelligentsia from the last decade of the nineteenth century up through the 1917 Revolution.  Even ideological tendencies that lay in great tension with one another (if not in direct antithesis) found a common outlook in this respect.  This observation certainly finds support in the writings of the major representatives of these movements.  Intellectual currents as far apart as Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism at this time both shared the sense that one age was coming to an end and another was now appearing on the horizon.  This common understanding served as the lens through which the major events of the day were interpreted, events which in turn then helped to modify the structure of these discourses.

In a strange way, many parallels existed between these two major schools of thought, Marxist materialism and religio-philosophical idealism.  These movements, which stood in starker contrast to one another than perhaps any other pair to be found amongst the Russian intelligentsia, possessed a number of similar concerns.  Each struggled to ascertain Russia’s national character, and thus grappled with questions of the country’s unique historical development and its possible role in shaping world history.  Radical political theorists like Lenin and Trotskii and religious philosophers like Vladimir Solov’ev and Sergei Bulgakov were both interested in Russia’s relation to European modernity and to its own barbaric, “Asiatic” past.  Moreover, members from these rival camps each held that Russia was to play an important part in an impending world crisis — either as the savior of European civilization from its own spiritual degeneracy or as a gateway through which revolution would spread to the most advanced industrial nations of the West.

Continue reading