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Marx, Hegel and the dialectic

[An edited transcript of a talk I gave at Marxism 2011. I’ve uploaded the audio recording to SoundCloud if you’d rather listen to that; it includes contributions from the floor and my summing-up.]

hegel (1)I want to start with a famous and very short essay by Lenin. He wrote it in 1913 and it has the lovely title of “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism”.

What Lenin is trying to do in the essay is refute the idea that Marxism is some kind of weird cult that came out of nowhere. Instead Lenin insists that Marxism is a system of knowledge, an approach, that “did not arise away from the high road of the development of world civilisation, but was rather a continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism”.

Lenin is arguing here that Marxism takes off from and continues some of the higher achievements of bourgeois culture and of the culture of the 18th century. I underline that because there can be a tendency on the left to dismiss all of contemporary culture and intellectual production as some kind of nasty bourgeois ideological formation that corrupts anyone who encounters it.

Here Lenin argues very much against that view. He argues that Marx’s relationship to the thought of his time was one of critical appropriation. In particular, he mentions three things: German philosophy, English political economy, French socialism. These are three bodies of thought that Marx is inspired by but also reworks, criticises in a certain way to form what we can call Marxism.

When Lenin talks about German, English and French he is talking about the languages these are written in. There wasn’t such a place as Germany when German philosophy was written. And at least one of the major figures of English political economy was Scottish.

In fact Lenin very specifically says he means “German classical philosophy, especially Hegel’s system whose main achievement was dialectics”. He rapidly specifies what he means by “German philosophy”. He’s talking about Hegel. He’s talking about the dialectic.

Of those three things – German philosophy, English political economy, French socialism – the latter two are quite uncontroversial. Even bourgeois liberal accounts of Marx would not dispute that he was very influenced by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He picked up on the political economy of his day and twisted it: reworked the labour theory of value etc. Similarly his relationship to French socialism, to theorists like Proudhon, Fourier and Saint-Simon, is perhaps not so well known, but no one would really dispute it.

But the relationship between Marx and German philosophy, Hegel and dialectics has been the source of immense controversy from the time Marx was writing throughout the past 150 years. There have been intense debates on all sorts of sides, debates about not just the nature of the influence of Hegel on Marx – which bits did he appropriate and which did he criticise? – but also whether this was a good thing or not.

Just to give you a flavour of some of the controversies – towards the latter half of the 1800s there was a great backlash against Hegel. Engels wrote a book called Anti-Dühring in response to a philosopher called Dühring who was polemicising against Hegel. Engels defended dialectics in the face of this backlash. One of Lenin’s more curious books is one he wrote in 1908 called Materialism And Empirio-Criticism where he has a polemic against a guy called Bogdanov who was arguing against Hegel and for a return to a kind of Kantian philosophy. Both of these are examples of people from within the left or Marxist tradition falling away from Hegelian philosophy and looking elsewhere, and of people defending Hegelian philosophy in the face of that backlash.

What happened after Stalinism and after the Second World War is that Hegelian philosophy – or a certain very crude version thereof – became the state ideology of the Stalinist bloc. So in 1968 when a new period of struggle emerged, again a whole new set of debates jump up around these issues. Except this time the debates are very coloured by a critique of the Stalinist appropriation of dialectics, a critique put forward by names like Althusser and Deleuze.

Philosophy and politics

Let’s start by asking a few naïve questions. Do we actually need to bother with any of this philosophical stuff? Can’t we just leave it to academics? Is it of any interest to those who want to generate some kind of economic and social justice at the beginning of the 21st century? Why are the philosophical views of someone 200 years earlier relevant? Didn’t Marx say that philosophers have hitherto interpreted the world when the point is to change it? Doesn’t that suggest some kind of break with philosophy?

I’d say a couple of things in response to that. The first is that even if we could simply have done with philosophy and leave it aside, there’s the question of how do you separate out philosophy from Marx’s other thought. This question is anything but straightforward. As you might have gathered from the little potted history I’ve just given, the political arguments around Marxism and the philosophical arguments are thoroughly intertwined. It’s not the case that there are just two tracks running in parallel.

What complicates this even further is that at certain flashpoints in history, points of intense struggle, that intertwining and interconnection becomes even tighter. So very famously in 1914 the Marxist movement of its day, the Second International, completely folds and capitulates in the face of the First World War. Lenin is distraught by this and refounds Marxism, goes back to the Marxist texts, casts aside some of the deviations and distortions that the Second International had brought in: and he does that by going back and reading Hegel.

He says – and it’s a typically hyperbolic Leninist thing to say – that nobody can understand Marx properly unless they’ve read Hegel’s Science of Logic. Thankfully that’s not literally true, but there is a point here in that Lenin’s refoundation of Marxism goes through Hegel and goes hand in hand with an interrogation of this philosophical source. Again in 1968, but in a very different way, the debates thrown up by the student movement and workers movement of that time went hand in hand with a whole series of very complicated debates around Marxist philosophy, the dialectic and so on.

Obviously you could write a thesis on any one of these issues. But what I want to look at is the prequel or prelude to all of this. I’ll give a flavour of what German idealist philosophy was all about, why it was such a big deal, and talk a bit about Hegel and his philosophy.

I also want to flag one thing up. There’s all sorts of arguments about what dialectics is exactly. There are lots of arguments about this, but one typical position is to say that the dialectic is Hegel’s method, his philosophical method. I have a slight caveat on that because Hegel constantly insists – more than perhaps any other philosopher – that your method of philosophy can’t be separated from your actual philosophy. The way you go about thinking about a problem is intimately connected with and affects the answer that you get to that problem.

For that reason I’d raise a warning here. It’s not like you can say on the hand there’s Hegel’s content and on the other hand there’s Hegel’s method, and detach one from the other. Insofar as Marx picks up on Hegel’s method and uses it in a different context, he also changes Hegel’s method – which is why there’s an argument about what he did.

I would personally characterise dialectics as a style of thought. It’s a good way to begin thinking about what the dialectic is. It’s a particular way of arguing that actually started before Hegel, with some of the other German idealists like Fichte and Schelling. But Hegel really develops it and it becomes his trademark. And once you’ve read a few of these arguments you begin to be able to spot this style. It becomes like a musical style in his approach. I hope to give a few examples of this.

The rise of German Idealism

But let’s first look at German idealism. What’s that all about? To start we should note that philosophy, like any other human cultural endeavour, has a history. And that history is not a linear one of progress followed by progress, as if every couple of years another metaphysical problem is solved so we can tick that one off the list. That’s not how things work. Philosophy’s history is uneven, characterised by fits and starts. Old philosophers are reread and come back. There are periods of stagnation and periods of intensity.

It’s also – and this is important in Hegel in particular – a history that is internalised within philosophy. If you want to study philosophy, either at university or by teaching yourself, the history of philosophy is one of the things you have to get your head around, along with the philosophical arguments about the nature of that history, and so on.

Now in this history there are certain points – call them clusters of intensity – where in a very short period of time a whole set of problems are reconfigured and philosophy is reinvented. One of those would be classical Greece, where the word “dialectic” comes from originally. Plato talks about how there is a certain higher form of philosophical thought that can access truth – he calls this dialectical thought. I’m not going to talk in any detail about Plato but the crucial thing about dialectical thought is that it emerges through a clash of different positions.

Plato, as you might know, wrote dialogues where Socrates chats to various people about the nature of courage, or love or whatever. In some of the dialogues this results in an answer to the question – dialectics wins! Others end with Socrates shrugging his shoulders and everyone’s even more confused than they were before. In its modern usage “dialectics” captures this notion that truth emerges through the interplay of different partial perspectives, and that there is a process behind that. It’s a crucial notion for Hegel and it’s one that Marx picks up on.

The other cluster of intensity I want to talk about is precisely German idealism. It took place in a very short period of time, from 1780 up to about 1830, and in an area of Europe that was pretty backwards generally. The German speaking areas of Europe had emerged from the Thirty Years War in the previous century as a patchwork of little princely states, as opposed to one big state as there was, say, in Britain. Each of these little domains had its own prince or duke or whatever and they were all competing with each other. And one of the things these princes and dukes would all do is endow universities to create a clerical apparatus – and to show off how rich they were compared to all the other princes and dukes. It was a peculiar and unusual set of circumstances.

All of this was happening towards the end of the 1700s as capitalism and the bourgeoisie were on the rise across Europe. The German states were by comparison provincial backwaters, hit by economic crises and stagnation. So you had this curious situation in the German speaking world where there were lots of sons of the middle classes who had been given a cultural education – but there weren’t enough jobs for them in the clerical state apparatuses of the time. It was a cultural hothouse full of politically frustrated young men who felt the place they lived in was holding them back. This combination of a high intellectual culture but a fragmented political culture that put a brake on things created conditions where the ideological side of capitalist culture – thinking about the world, philosophising – raced ahead of anything the political structures of the time could fulfil.

So there’s a curious point here: the backwardness of German political culture created the conditions for it to leap forward philosophically. That in itself is a very dialectical point – things that look one way at one level of the system can have completely the opposite effect on another level. Chris Harman was fond of pointing out – against those who claim that Western culture is somehow “superior” – that the reason capitalism broke out in the West was that the West was backwards. Merchant classes all over the world were trying to rise up, break through and overthrow their feudal rulers, but everywhere else the state apparatus was too strong. It was the weakness of the feudal state in Western Europe that made it the first place the bourgeoisie could successfully break through. What we see here is an argument based on different levels of the system and an argument based around paradox. These are both themes we see a lot in Hegel and dialectics more generally.

So what happened? How did German idealism emerge from this context? You had a rising middle class across Europe, accompanied by the Enlightenment, the new culture they brought with them. And this was challenging not just the old political order but the ideas that went along with that, its ideology, and in this case specifically the ideology of the church. These challenges to church authority came in different directions. One of them was rationalist current of philosophy. It was marked by an increased focus on human reason, on its power to come to its own conclusions and to transform the world. While human reason was typically thought of as ultimately stemming from divine inspiration, rationalists held that the ability of humans to come up with their own ideas was more powerful and more important than tradition, superstition or dogma.

The other major development of the time was modern science, Newton and empiricist philosophy. This was another challenge to church authority – its account of how the world works ain’t necessarily so. We can experiment on the world and come up with our own theories, new theories that are far more effective that the old ones.

These two currents – rationalism and empiricism – tended to be in tension with each other. The philosophy of human reason talked a lot about our freedom. We were free to think up new things and hence to go about things in a new way. The empiricist philosophy, on the other hand, was empowering in terms of our ability to manipulate the natural world – but it painted a picture of a world governed by inexorable causal laws. This tended to push freedom out of the picture. One of the abiding concerns of German idealism, and of philosophy more generally at this time, was how to reconcile these two currents, how to synthesise the empiricist understanding of the natural world with the rationalist understanding of human freedom.

The first big name that emerges here is Immanuel Kant. He’s usually seen as the founding figure of German idealism but he’s actually slightly different from the philosophers that came afterwards in a way that I’ll describe in a moment. I should also point out that Kant has a very bad reputation among Marxists. There’s a long history of dubious backsliding on the revolutionary project made in the name of a return to Kant and a rejection of Hegel. While I sympathise with this Marxist sniffiness about Kant, it is a little unfair on him and his insights. Common terms such as “objective” and “subjective” that people use quite casually and generally these days first appear in Kant.

Kant’s fundamental move to resolve this tension between rational freedom and empirical necessity – what he called his “Copernican revolution” – is to start from the activity of human subjects. When we encounter the world and develop scientific theories about it we aren’t just gawping at the world and passively absorbing it, we’re engaged in an active project. Our understanding of the world is something we actively do with our minds and the “categories” it is equipped with. (These categories are fixed in Kant, something Hegel alters later on.)

So Kant’s philosophy starts off with an acknowledgement of human agency and its potential. The fact that we can approach the world, construct it, think it, opens up the possibility of radically transforming the world. This insight is already there in Kant in the 1780s.

Hegel and the dialectic

And then something quite major happens – the French Revolution. You have a German intellectual culture that’s frustrated and hidebound by its political structures, and then all of a sudden next door in France there is a cataclysmic political transformation. Groups like the Jacobins, inspired by the most radical elements of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau, rise up, chop off the king’s head and take control. It’s an amazing change that has a huge knock-on effect in Germany. It creates an absolutely unprecedented urgency to these philosophical questions. A generation of post-Kantian philosophers take up Kant’s philosophy but also want that kind of revolutionary change in Germany (though maybe without the messy business an actual revolution involving chopping people’s heads off which all got a bit out of hand).

The first philosopher to do this is a guy called Fichte. He was a big fan of the Jacobins and was very annoyed when they lost power a few years later. Consequently he was very anti-Napoleon, seeing Napoleon as a reversion to the bad old days. Hegel, in contrast, sees Napoleon as the embodiment of the French revolutionary spirit, but moderated and made more realistic. I just point that out as an example of how all these German idealist philosophers related to the French Revolution in different ways.

I want to end by looking at certain features of Hegel’s thought, certain characteristic things he does to the German idealist philosophical system. The first concerns contradiction, which moves from being a sideline or a minor aspect of philosophy to take centre stage. Contradiction becomes a productive force in Hegel’s system. Of course Kant talks about contradiction too. There’s a section in the Critique of Pure Reason called the Transcendental Dialectic where he goes through various metaphysical arguments and shows how they contradict each other. For Kant that means we shouldn’t have gone in that metaphysical direction in the first place. But for Hegel these contradictions come from ideas being set in motion, clashing against each other – and transform themselves in the process. Ideas stop being fixed concepts and start to have internal connections, a logic, a history to them, one that knits them all together.

The jargon here is “interpenetration of opposites” – you might have heard that phrase. If you read Hegel there are points where he’s making one argument and you’re thinking “Where is this leading?” And then all of a sudden he’s arguing the opposite, he’s showing how one mode of thinking turns into another. And then he steps back and says “Aha! Did you see what I did there?”

There’s a simple example of this at the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel is criticising people who think you don’t need this philosophy stuff, you just need to live in the here and now, the richness of the concrete present. He’s criticising German Romanticism. Hegel takes issue with the Romantic fixation on “this” and “now”. “Now” is sometimes day, sometimes night. “This” is sometimes a bench, sometimes a tree. But behind all this change, beneath all this richness of concrete circumstance, all they ever do monotonously repeat “this” and “now” at every single point. The Romantic approach that tries to grab the actuality of life in all its immediacy turns out to be the most static, to have the least purchase on things. That’s just one example of a dialectical argument in Hegel.

There’s also a specific attitude towards change you find in Hegel. He uses this German word Aufheben, which is a very common word in German but has a curious double meaning: it means both “raise up” and “cancel” or “negate”. Hegel uses this term Aufheben to talk about the move from one conceptual system to the next. On the one hand the old system is cancelled, it is wrong and we have moved on, but on the other hand its insights are taken up and reconfigured in the new system. This sophisticated way of dealing with the articulation of change is something you see a lot of in Marx when he’s talking about the different layers of the capitalist system – how something that’s going on on one level gets picked up and reconfigured on another.

The third and final point about Hegel’s system I want to mention involves this process of ideas clashing with each other and transforming. It isn’t just some higgledy-piggledy random walk – it has a direction. It reaches up to what Hegel calls the absolute, or “totality”, which is another name you often hear for it. This is the most fiercely controversial aspect of Hegel’s thought. On the one hand it’s grandly ambitious. Human reason can, by lifting itself up by its own bootstraps and engaging with the world, reach an essentially divine position of absolute. You can reach the absolute, and in fact the absolute was always already there.

On the other hand you can say that’s not ambition – it’s hubris. It’s a totalitarian move that leaves no room for scepticism or criticism. This argument was a big feature of the backlash against Hegel that occurs in the latter half of the 1800s – and I don’t think it was a coincidence that this happens after the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. Hegel is in many ways the philosopher of the bourgeoisie at their most radical, when they are surging forwards. When things change in the mid-1800s and the bourgeoisie is now trying to cover its arse against a rising proletariat, Hegel goes out of fashion.

Idealism and materialism

I’ll end with a couple of words about Marx’s relationship to Hegel. Now Marx is famously a materialist – and he started off as a materialist, his initial philosophical doctorate was on ancient Greek materialists. So it’s quite curious that he turns to German idealist philosophy. What’s going on there? Frustratingly Marx himself doesn’t say a great deal on this question. There’s the occasional remark, like in the 1873 afterword to the second edition of Capital. Marx says there that he always criticised Hegel back in the old days when everyone loved him. But now that they’re all treating Hegel like a “dead dog”, he willingly declares himself “the pupil of that mighty thinker”.

But he goes on to say that the problem in Hegel is that everything’s upside down – Hegel is standing on his head, and Marx is turning him the right way up. So the idea here is that you can have a dialectics that inverts the idealism into materialism, that one can blend dialectics and materialism together somehow. This is what Marx tries to do. It’s a difficult thing to do and there are lots of arguments about it. The one thing I’d say is that Marx’s materialism is not an old fashioned materialism of substance or matter – and that is the reason why it can be dialectical. Hegel heavily criticised such substance-based materialisms. His argument was that these materialists claimed to be talking about matter, but were actually talking about their idea of matter. So these “materialists” were actually idealists who didn’t realise it.

Marx takes on that argument. He argues that, yes, we are always arguing in a field of ideas, but that field of ideas has a deeper level of determination, and that’s called practice. He takes that original Kantian insight that it’s all about human subjectivity, human action in the world, and radicalises it. So it’s no longer about us acting and then reflecting about things, it’s about us surging forth into the world and thereby transforming it and ourselves.

For that reason I’d argue that the configuration of dialectics and materialism in Marx is intimately connected with his revolutionary practice. That’s one of the reasons for all the controversies. It’s one of the reasons why Marxist revolutionaries have traditionally stressed the importance of the dialectic despite the immense complications and intellectual difficulties involved.

At the very least this was the tradition Marx came from, and the tradition that Marxists come from. And if you want to do justice to that tradition and understand what it has to say about the world today, you have to grapple with that intellectual history and those ideas. That’s one reason why the dialectic is still a live issue today.

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This entry was posted on 30 January 2013 by in Marxism, Philosophy and tagged , , .