All philosophers die, yet those who’s works and ideas are preserved in the material realm continue to haunt the world. George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx are amongst the most famous philosophers of the nineteenth century. Both philosophers put forth a philosophy of history. In Hegel’s view, philosophy is not a source of advice or guide for what the future holds, rather philosophy should seek to “reconcile” citizens to the world in which they live. In Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (Thesis XI), Marx writes that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point [however] is to change it.” Indeed Marx set out in life to do just that – change the world forever. In his intellectual capacity Marx gave the world a tremendous amount of wealth. It needs to be noted as well that Marx was above all a materialist and as a result developed his theory of “dialectical materialism.” Hegel however, is considered to be an idealist, meaning that he believes in dialectical clashes within the metaphysical world and not the material realm.
This paper will evaluate Hegel’s theory of dialectics alongside Karl Marx’s dialectical materialism and highlight the reasons why Marx vehemently opposed taking no action against the (social, political & economic) system and why he promoted revolutionary action over inaction. Hegel, being the idealist that he was posited that clashes of ideas in theory had impact in the material realm whereas Marx was a materialist who believed that clashes of opposing forces in the material realm led to changes in the theoretical realm – to paraphrase Marx, ‘men are but the products of their environments’.
Firstly, Hegel’s theory of dialectics shall be evaluated. Secondly, Marx’s view of dialectical materialism shall also be evaluated and contrasted to that of Hegel’s. The culmination of the paper seeks to present Marx’s reasons for being a materialist, opposing the capitalist system and why he favors proletarian revolution to better the working conditions of the many and subsequently create paradise on Earth.
Hegel’s distinctive contribution to political thought lies largely in his philosophy of history – a philosophy that opposes the rationalist view of history and insists on man’s ability to control his destiny. Hegel posits that history has a pattern which he calls the Idea. The Idea is purposeful and intelligible. Furthermore, the world has a “destiny toward which it has always moved. This destiny has been predetermined by the author of the Idea, God.” For Hegel, it is “God’s will that the world shall progress toward the fulfillment of its destiny.” The Idea for Hegel is God’s reason, and it is higher than any reason rationalists or any other thinkers place their confidence in. God’s reason cannot be understood until the final stage of history has ben reached and His purpose and plan “are so inscrutable that not even the wisest scholar of history can predict the future on the basis of what has been learned of the past.”
Thesis vs. Antithesis
According to Hegel, the unfolding of reason – the Idea of the “World Spirit” – in history results from the operation of the dialectic. For Hegel, at any point in world history, the Idea is represented by a “thesis” which is the lesser and incomplete manifestation of the totality of the ultimate truth toward which the World Spirit is progressing to. In due course, the thesis gives rise to another and contradictory idea which Hegel labels as the “antithesis.” Hegel posits that the thesis and antithesis may “survive together for awhile”, but because they stand in a relation of contradiction to one another, tensions arise that lead to conflict between them. However, he asserts neither thesis “nor antithesis is wholly destroyed; nor does either one emerge unscathed. The result of the clash of contradictory ideas is a fusion of the higher, the valid elements of both and the destruction of the invalid parts.”
The merging elements of the thesis and antithesis form what is known as the synthesis, which is always an improvement over both ideas.
Hegel’s dialectic cycle does not end here however. The synthesis becomes a new thesis, for which develops a new antithesis. These two then clash with each other to produce a new synthesis, and the cycle continues to occurs perpetually until a final phase of history designated by God is reached. For Hegel, each “synthesis is a victory for the World Spirit, a movement of reason toward the ultimate historical goal.” Conflict is the key to progress for Hegel. The conflict itself does not need to be violent, however, whether it is violent or not, conflict shall lead to progress, it is inevitable. Once again, Hegel is an idealist, for whom ideas are “far more important than material things. Ideas he believes, move the material world. Ideas have an independent existence” from man’s thinking. Moreover, ideas are not merely “manufactured” by men “for their own purposes. Material things – forces, institutions, cultures – are merely reflections of ideas or, more properly, of the Idea at a given time. But the idea must have a vehicle on which to ride.”
For Hegel, states are the material manifestations of ideas and are the earthly evidence of the World Spirit’s progress throughout history. Hegel’s strong backing of the state is arguably a result of the time period in which he and other contemporary thinkers of his age such as Johanne Fichte lived in. The French Revolution of 1789 led to a tumultuous decade of war and persecution, followed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s rapid conquest of Europe, including what is now all of modern day Germany. Following the demise of Napoleon, the French retreat and chaos that followed caused many romantic thinkers, including Hegel to fully support the state as the highest form and source of authority, morality and law. In fact one may even argue that Hegel’s work – which is arguably the apex of the Romantic movement’s literature – sowed the seeds for twentieth century fascism. To paraphrase Benito Mussolini, ‘Nothing against the state and everything for the state’ sheds light on how Hegel’s writings were used in part to justify an all powerful state apparatus. In some ways, Hegel can be considered a conservative, since he did not advocate a violent overthrow of the existing order. He also favored adjusting oneself to the way things are instead of attempting to go about changing the world into what it ought to be. From the modern international relations perspective Hegel could possibly be considered a nineteenth century realist, however this essay’s purpose is not to dive deep into international relations theory – therefore – that discussion shall be left at that.
Hegel’s theory of dialectics has had an immense effect on many writers since Hegel’s time, especially Marx. Hegel’s theory of history however strongly relies on the assumption that there is a God who has complete control over the destiny of the world and has an end goal planned. This is arguably a weak link in Hegel’s theory since there is no empirical proof of the existence of a God. Presupposing that an all powerful omniscient and omnipotent being exists who controls the destiny of the world does appear to be rather foolish. However, looking deeper into Hegel’s theoretical concepts, it seems almost as if he is justifying the way the world is, has been and will be based on his theory of dialectics and their relationship to God. In his theory, morals would arguably be relative, as would whatever constitutes right and wrong. Furthermore, his convictions that philosophers ought to not go about changing the world and aspiring towards a future about which they have no knowledge of is rather counterintuitive to progress.
Marx argues people, especially classes, will be the great catalysts for change, whereas Hegel posits that change will gradually come about in the metaphysical realm after history enters a new epoch towards furthering the cause of the World Spirit. Hegel exalts the leaders of the past such as Caesar for what he posits to be moral acts. For him, the deeds done by great leaders constitute morality based on the time period in which they lived in. Such a supposition has a tendency to be rather dangerous because it justifies the brutality of the past and exalts all great leaders, whether they be tyrants, democrats or any other form of leadership. However, in order to avoid anachronistic conclusions it must be kept in mind that Hegel clearly intended to oppose the rationalists of his time who viewed history as largely being dominated by oppressors who were oppressing their fellow human beings. For Hegel it is clear that man himself cannot bring about change, change is only brought about when the natural forces of history create an antithesis which then synthesizes with the existing thesis – all under the watchful eye of God. In contrast to Hegel’s dialectic theory of history stands Marx’s dialectical materialism.
Marx took from Hegel the dialectical method which posits that progress results from the conflict of opposing forces. Marx however completely reverses Hegel’s view that “conflict is in the realm of ideas and that material forces are only reflections.” For Marx, the clash is one of material forces, while ideas are merely byproducts of the society in which humans live in. Marx posits that Hegel’s theory is “standing on its head.” Most importantly, Marx argues that a materialist interpretation makes “possible a scientific study of history and society because it deals with material things, things than can be seen and understood. Hegel’s idealism on the other hand, consists of metaphysical abstractions which mean many things to many people.” Marx states that in “the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers and production.”
Marx goes on to state that the “sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” He also says that in every society “the fundamental determinant of all other developments is the forces of production” which “consist of raw materials or natural resources and the techniques (technology) by which those materials are converted into consumable goods.” Moreover, the forces of production pave the way for the rise of particular “relations of productions.” These relations are social relationships, “the most typical and significant form of which is class struggle.”
Class struggle and class warfare is indeed close to the core of Marxist doctrine and is a fundamental catalyst for change if humanity is to enter a new epoch of socialism, and eventually Communist paradise. Marx goes on to say that this relationship is invariably one of command and obedience; those who exercise command own the means of production and those who are forced to be obedient operate the means of production. It is well known that Marx considered this vicious relationship of command and obedience to be fundamentally unjust and inhuman, in which those who own the means of production expropriate the surplus value labour of the workers. Marx dubbed the class conscious exploited class who are by necessity forced to sell their labor for income, the proletariat.
The proletariat is meagerly paid and fully exploited by their employers. The proletariat as Marx observes is forced by default to live a life of servitude and meager subsistence due to their lack of ownership over the means of production – despite being the operators of those very means and the producers of the great wealth expropriated by the capitalist class – the bourgeoisie. According to Marx the “forces of production and the relations of production combine to form the economic foundation of every society.” He further states that on this very economic foundation is erected a superstructure that includes laws, moral codes, religion, art, governmental forms and the theories and philosophies designed to support” the ruling class. The two essential purposes that the superstructure serves is to furnish “the commanding class of society with the justification and rationalization of its position” on the top of the economic ladder and secondly to “employ weapons of the commanding class to maintain its own superior status and the subordinate status of the obeying class.”
Marx vs. Hegel
Marx fundamentally shifted Hegel’s dialectic which he thought was standing on its head. For Marx, the clash of material forces such as a clash of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is a key part of his dialectical materialism. Marx stated in the very first line of the first section of the Manifesto of the Communist Party that, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For Marx, this fact fundamentally constitutes his dialectical materialism. Unlike Hegel who posits that gradual social change is made possible through conflict in the metaphysical realm, Marx strongly asserts that throughout the ages it is class struggle in the material realm between the oppressor and oppressed that acts as the great historical catalyst for change. Hegel cautioned against humanity forcibly making radical changes to the existing way of things and plunging ahead into an uncertain future. In his dialectic, Hegel believes that everything had a history behind it and that everything must fully run its course until it is met with its antithesis and synthesized into a new thesis over the course of time.
Marx fundamentally opposed Hegel’s dialectic because to him, it was a theory of history “standing on its head.” Furthermore, Marx strongly argued that throughout history clashes between opposing forces in the material and not the metaphysical realm shape reality. Thirdly, Marx was a man who deeply believed in not interpreting the world, but changing it, whereas Hegel believed in understanding and conforming to the way things are. Marx sought to fight for a world that ought to be, whereas Hegel strived to do the best he could to promote order and tolerance for the existing way of things. Marx was fundamentally opposed to capitalism – a system that designates and promotes the exploitation of man by man.
Marx was appalled by the capitalist system, which degraded an individual from being an autonomous being, to a simple tool in the industrial workplace. For Marx, the capitalist “production transforms the relations of individuals into qualities of things themselves, and this transformation constitutes the nature of the commodity in capitalist production.” He states that it “cannot be otherwise in a mode of production in which the laborer exists to satisfy the need of self-expansion of existing values, instead of on the contrary, material wealth existing to satisfy the needs of development on the part of the laborer.” According to Marx, every “self-alienation of man, from himself and from nature, appears in the relation which he postulates, between other men and himself and nature. Thus religious self-alienation is necessarily exemplified in the relation between laity and priest… or laity and a mediator.” In the real world however, the medium by which alienation occurs is very practical. Alienation of humans occurs through “alienated labor, therefore, man not only produces his relation to the object and to the process of production as to alien and hostile men; he also produces the relation of other men to his production and his product, and the relation between himself and other men.” Moreover, if a worker’s product of labor does not belong to him, “but confronts him as an alien power, this can only be because it belongs to a man other than the worker. If his activity is a torment to him it must be a source of enjoyment and pleasure to another.”
Marx was also against the outcome of the capitalist system of labor since it “produces marvels for the rich… privations for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labor by machinery, but it casts some… workers back into a barbarous kind of work and turns others into machines.” Marx fundamentally opposed the alienation of man by the product he helped to produce. For Marx, life for the individual human being ought to have greater meaning, rather than just being stranded in a monotonous workplace where all one commits to is tedious repetitive tasks that alienate him from the final product of his labor. Furthermore, the pleasure a man’s labor produces, does not explicitly go to the laborer. Rather, it goes to largely, the wealthy class who have the capital to afford what the laborer is producing at a degrading wage.
The proletarian is paid only enough to subsist, to eat enough and to survive, merely to come back the next day for another brutal workday in which the surplus value of his labour – as Marx posits – is expropriated by the capitalist. Not only is the proletariat a slave to the system, so is the capitalist as Marx points out in his writings. For if the capitalist decides to increase the wages of his laborers and provide them a life more than just that of subsistence, he takes the risk of being killed – in an economic sense – by other capitalist competition. As capitalists face off against their workers, they also viciously compete against each other, as the unjust system of capitalism dictates. Marx saw the capitalist system as being corrupt, inherently flawed and riddled with contradictions and would eventually bring about its own demise. For these very reasons, Marx vehemently opposed standing by, doing nothing and waiting for the forces of history to gradually make changes – changes which in his mind would never better the lives of the proletariat since the bourgeoisie and its allies virtually had a political monopoly in all states.
For the very reasons described above, Karl Marx favored radical revolutionary action and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In a sense the dictatorship would technically be democratic, since the majority of people, who during his time did fall into the proletarian class would hold political power. The oppressed creature would become the oppressor while the oppressor becomes the oppressed. Marx however did not favor perpetual oppression. His dream was for society to revolutionize itself and establish a system in which everyone would eventually constitute into one class – in effect no class at all – since everyone would be equal.
Marx’s dialectical materialism seeks to reverse Hegel’s theory of dialectics and for a radical transformation of society. Both theories hold weight, and both have their flaws. The fact of the matter is that both Hegel and Marx were writing in different time periods. Hegel wrote his great works following the turmoil of the French Revolution and Napoleonoic Wars and subsequently favored keeping the system as it is and wait for the antithesis to eventually change the system.
Marx wrote his great works when the industrial revolution was in rapid development and exploitation was at its peak. The working conditions that Marx saw were deplorable and the expropriation of wealth by the bourgeoisie seemed completely unjust to him. For Marx, revolutionary action seemed the only rational way to attain power for the proletarian since the ruling classes would not simply hand over the reigns of power and the means of production. As long as the unjust capitalist system continues to live – so will a Marxist opposition towards it.
Bottomore, Roy T.B. Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 1961.
Cahn, Stephen ed. Political Philosophy The Essential Texts. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Fischer, Ernst & Marek, Franz. Marx in His Own Words. Translated by Anna Bostock. London: Penguin Press, 1970.
Harmon, M. Judd. POLITICAL THOUGHT: From Plato to the Present. Lahore: Al-Kitab Printers, 1984.
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin Books, 2002.
Marxists.org. “Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One, p. 13 – 15” Publisher: Progress Publishers, Moscow, USSR, 1969. Marxists.org http://www.marxists.org/archive/ marx/ works/1845/theses/theses.pdf