Hegel and Marx – Correspondence to the Editorial Committee

In a letter to the June SOCIALIST STANDARD a correspondent who signs himself “History Sixth” puts forward the view that “Marx’s philosophy is not more materialistic than Hegel’s, and his theory of history not more materialistic than any attempt to account for the historical process by the means of empirical science.” He concludes from this that Marxism is logically compatible with metaphysical or religious beliefs.

Because of another opinion he offers; i.e., it is a mistake to call Marx’s theory the materialist conception of history, his remarks, quoted above, are ambiguously confusing. Surely to be consistent with such a view he should say not that Marx’s philosophy is not more materialistic than Hegel’s, but that it is not less metaphysical than Hegel’s. Again, when he says Marx’s theory of history is not more materialistic than the means of empirical science, we are given no clue as to what he means by the term materialistic as used in the context.

The view that Marx’s philosophy is no more materialistic than Hegel’s has been put by G. D. H. Cole and others, but I would suggest to “History Sixth” that such a view shows a complete misunderstanding of both Marx and Hegel, and it was certainly not a view shared by Marx himself. Thus, in the second preface to Vol. I of Capital, Marx says: “My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but its direct opposite.” He adds: “Hegel transforms the life-process of the human brain under the name of the idea into an independent subject.” He concludes: “With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought.”

Even on the question of philosophy, Marx and Hegel never spoke the same language. For Hegel the subject matter of philosophy was to discover a prime mover or first principle in the cosmic process. This first principle was a self-creating self-activating thought process; i.e., God, which proceeded on a higher spiral plane to achieve absolute self-consciousness. Thus, for Hegel, nature, ideas, and that includes the means of empirical science, were but aspects of an underlying and essentially religious reality. Hegel viewed philosophy then as a means of finding out what had happened in terms of a teleological necessity and to show that what has happened could only be what must happen. Men were then but the instruments of a dialectic process. The task of philosophy was not to change the world but to understand its appointed end. Hegel denied that, his philosophy afforded any clues as to how the world could be changed. He said: “Philosophy comes too late to teach the world what it should be … The owl of Minerva begins its flight when the shades of twilight have already fallen.” Hegel’s philosophy by its very nature excluded any empirical directive principle as to how the world should be changed.

Marx’s views were utterly opposed to such conceptions. He said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, our job is to change it.” Indeed, Marx’s philosophy was not a philosophy in the accepted sense as was Hegel’s. Marx was not interested in trying to discover ultimate truth. For him truths were always historical and relative. Metaphysical idealists and religionists hold and must hold that thought is creative. On the other hand, Marx, in line with his own theory, said thought was selective and the manner and scope of its selection was moulded by the material conditions of life. Metaphysical and theological concepts can then have no place in the Marxist scheme.

If Marx had a philosophy it could be best described in his own words as critical materialism as opposed to mechanistic materialism. He believed with Feuerbach that critical materialism would mean the end of metaphysics and religion. Again, Marx regarded materialism as the only valid expression of scientific method. Thus, in a footnote on Page 368, Vol. I of Capital, he refers to a particular method as the only materialistic and, therefore, the only scientific method.

Marx took the world that is man and his relations with nature as they are. Marx then embraced a thoroughgoing naturalism as opposed to the super-naturalism of Hegel and other religious thinkers. He believed that facts are not more real than they are found to be, and do not express some deeper underlying truth. It was because Marx collected his facts and organised the knowledge gained from them on the presupposition that he was dealing with a material world, that his theory can be empirically demonstrated. Because Hegel began with metaphysical as opposed to materialistic assumptions he could offer no empirical guide as to the course of history. He could only assure us that a cosmic self-consciousness would come to pass, but how it would do so he is silent. Even in a brief and sketchy analysis of Marx and Hegel, it can be shown that in outlook and method they were worlds apart.

On the question of religion itself, Marx denied that there was some religious essence in man. Religion itself is a product of social life and it only arises when society has reached a certain stage of development in the division of labour. Like all other forms of culture, it can be critically analysed in a specific social situation, and like all other forms of activity it can be shown to change under the impact of changing conditions. While religion had historic justification in the productive rituals of the past, it serves no useful social purpose today.

Marx also denied that man was endowed with a natural religious sentiment, any more than he is naturally endowed with any other aspect of culture. A religious sense is not the outcome of a timeless abstraction, but the product of social consciousness and bound up with a certain stage of social development. To suppose then that any element of supernaturalism could find a place in Marxism is to invalidate the most basic assumptions of historical materialism. For that reason a belief in super-naturalism is incompatible with Marxism. I trust that these remarks might stimulate History Sixth into a reassessment of Marxism.

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