by O’Shay Muir
The relationship between Marxism and Hegel has always been peculiar. On the one hand we have Marxism. A materialist philosophy and revolutionary movement that seeks to create a classless and stateless world. On the other hand we have Hegel the ultimate idealist and firm believer in the idea that the right kind of state (constitutional monarchy) can mediate between the various social contradictions that arise under capitalism. In other words a reformist. This divide or opposition between the two is our first clue into their peculiar relationship. This is a relationship that expresses the very heart of both; dialectics.
Since Marxism, through the ideas of Marx and Engels, was originally born out of a critique of Hegel and others influenced by him during Marx’s time, then the relationship between them involves a unity of opposites. Any serious study of Marxism brings one into contact with Hegel and anyone seeking to understand Hegel today will most likely have prior knowledge of Marx and his relationship to Hegel. Due to this relationship, Hegel for us should not simply be a name in a book, but a theoretical point of reference that allows us to understand Marx better and advance Marxist theory.
The question now becomes how do we approach and understand Hegel as Marxists? Firstly through cultural-historical lenses by trying to understand the world in which Hegel lived. Secondly through a materialist interpretation of his overall philosophy and thirdly using Marx to understand the limits of Hegel.
During Hegel’s time (1770 – 1831) Germany was a collection of princelets. Disunited, Germany was economically backward and forced to sit on the sidelines of history as other Western European nations like Britain and France were changing the course of history through their economic and political revolutions. Not wanting Germany to miss out on shaping the future of Europe, German philosophers proposed that they could offer Europe a philosophical revolution. This philosophical revolution was to become known as German Idealism.
One of the most important features of German Idealism was its continuation of the Enlightenment value of immanent critique. This value argues that all social ideals and institutions should only exist if they can stand up to criticism. In other words their worthiness should be judged by reason alone. Out of this critical tradition grew Hegel’s own philosophy.
What separates Hegel’s method of immanent critique from other German Idealists is its cultural-historical approach. While other German Idealists such as Kant viewed reason as an ahistorical structure within the minds of all, Hegel viewed reason as socially constructed networks of concepts, social practises and institutions in which ideals or ‘truths’ could be established or abolished. In their totality these networks formed what Hegel referred to as Spirit.
Hegel’s concept of Spirit seems to be controversial to Marxists due to its idealist tone and the quasi-mystical form that it took in Hegel’s later writings. But behind Hegel’s esoteric rhetoric there is a rational kernel within Spirit. This rational kernel is to be found with early Hegel’s conception of Spirit. Here Spirit is simply understood as people in mass or the totality of material culture. This totality includes language, cultural ideals and objects, social practises, institutions, and the state.
Since we are a part of Spirit our consciousness is a reflection of it. Hegel refers to this reflection as Gestalt. Gestalt refers to formations of consciousness based upon Spirit’s form. Hegel argues that Gestalts try to make a fixed representation of reality. Due to the fluidity of reality and the complexity of concepts, Hegel argues that these formations of consciousness tend to be one-sided leading them to come into contradiction with each other while at the same time being internally contradictory.
As Spirit is people en masse the play of these contradictions shape Spirit. Hegel refers to this play of contradictions that shape Spirit as the Cunning of Reason. One of the most important features of the Cunning of Reason and consciousness in general for Hegel is the fact that our representations of reality are shaped by both how reality actually is and how we wish it could be based on its actuality.. Hegel refers to this as the dialectic of Actuality and Ideal. This process of imagination allows us to critique all social ideals, practises and institutions since we can measure them up against how we believe society should be.
Hegel argues that this process of imagining a better world is born out of the Object-Subject relation within consciousness. Criticising the Kantian position that our subjective consciousness is always separate from objective reality (The-Thing-In-Itself), Hegel argues that through social practices (labour and language) we make objective reality our own.
In order to overcome our alienation from objective reality we have to understand it in order to use it to our benefit. The ways in which we try to understand (Reason) objective reality is shaped by Spirit. If the networks that form Spirit are unable to survive critique or make room for new ideals and ‘truths’, then a new system of networks would take its place and we would have a new form of reason.
Since reason is socially-constructed, then the advance of reason is connected to the advance of society. For Hegel this social advance was a part of history’s movement towards freedom. Hegel viewed freedom as the ability of society to balance individualism with communitarianism. The ideal society being one in which the individual is able to achieve their full potential through consciously working towards the social good. This progression of self-consciousness and society in turn leads to the progression of reason.
Marx(ism) and Hegel
So what does all this mean for us as Marxists? Well, from an Hegelian standpoint, Marxism is a part of the advance of reason and freedom. Marx himself went beyond other critics of capitalism by showing that through its own logic, capitalism undermines itself and the social stability it needs to function. In other words capitalism is irrational. In such an irrational system marked by inequality and instability most individuals are not free to realise their full potential. True freedom and therefore the advance of reason is dependent on the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with a more egalitarian economic system (socialism).
But doesn’t Marx reject such notions like reason and freedom? Yes and no. Marx rejects Hegel’s esoteric style, that makes it seem that historical change is the result of philosophical contemplation. But while criticising Hegel’s idealist descriptions, Marx does recognise the implicit materialist undertones in Hegel; the rational kernel. For Marx this rational kernel is Hegel focus on consciousness being a reflection of society and society at its most basic level being a division of labour.
While describing consciousness and society in this way, Hegel fails to systematically connect the antagonism of ideals and its role in shaping social change with the antagonism between classes. Hegel’s inability to adequately connect the two leads him to develop an inadequate conception of the state. The state for Hegel is a mediator between classes and as such stands outside or above ordinary society.
Marx is able to overcome this gap between the ideal and the material by having a more thought out theory of the relation between economics and politics, in which the state is an instrument of class power. . In the process of doing so Marx creates a systematic, materialist understanding of historical change based on class conflict. When historical change is seen in this light we discover that Reason is not neutral, but geared towards the reproduction of this class power. Nonetheless through our engagement with this reproduction we can come to realise its inadequacies and on this basis we can fight for a better future. We can fight for our freedom!
(Side note: One of the best and most easily accessible Hegel scholars today is Andy Blunden. Here is one of his introductions to Hegel, “Getting to Know Hegel”).