Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 4 – Marx and Hegel

Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel
by C. J. Arthur
first published, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986
PART TWO: The Critique of Hegel

Chapter 4 – Marx and Hegel


The 1844 Manuscripts is intended by Marx as a work in the field of political economy, taking its object critically, from a socialist point of view. This is explained in the Preface; but then, abruptly, Marx states that he considers it ‘absolutely necessary’ to include ‘a critical discussion of Hegelian dialectic and philosophy as a whole’. [1] This seems an odd ambition for a critical work on economics; certainly he does not explain why he considers it necessary to undertake this here. One is left to suppose that he thought it necessary to engage with the methodological concerns of his contemporaries, the Young Hegelians, who thought their philosophical inheritance allowed them to criticize anything under the sun without knowing anything about it. Marx observes pointedly that his is ‘a wholly empirical analysis based on a conscientious critical study of political economy’. [2] Nevertheless, Marx had very good reason to give an important place to ‘discussion of Hegelian dialectic’. We can understand why if we trace the course of his thought in the manuscripts themselves. In fart, the unhelpful ‘Preface’ was one of the last passages to be written; it was drafted after all the material on Hegel.

Why Hegel?

If we look at the manuscripts in their original order of composition, it becomes obvious that initially Marx had no intention of bringing in Hegel. There is no mention of him in the first two manuscripts. It is only in the third manuscript, in which Marx embarks on a series of discrete reflections on the topic of communism, that ‘point six’ begins with the remark that ‘this is perhaps the place to offer, by way of explanation and justification, some considerations on Hegelian dialectic generally and especially its exposition in the Phenomenology and Logic, and also, lastly, the relation [to it] of the modern critical movement’. [3]

At first it seems there will just be a short digression, but in the remaining pages he returns twice to the question, linking the passages with his own cross-references, so that in the end we have a substantial set of notes. At this point he decides that he will pull all this material together in a ‘concluding chapter’ and, as we saw, he announces this when he goes on to write the Preface. [4]

The crucial question to investigate is this: what forced Marx to feel under an obligation to offer ‘by way of explanation and justification’ his critical discussion of Hegelian dialectic under the original sixth point? Not surprisingly, the problem is solved as soon as we refer to the last paragraph of the fifth point. [5] This begins with an important statement of Marx’s view of genesis: ‘since for socialist man the whole of so-called world history is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so has he palpable, incontrovertible proof of his birth through himself, of his genesis.’ [6]

Several problems of interpretation arise from this remarkable statement (even if one neglects Marx’s belief that he therewith disposes of the religious theory of creation). It is fairly clear that Marx is not saying that man creates himself entire out of nothing. On the contrary, we have seen earlier that Marx stresses that human activity requires an object, and that labour cannot create anything, not even man himself, without nature. What Marx is summarizing here is the process whereby man, originally nothing but a part of nature, takes himself and nature as his object. At first he is ‘at one’ with nature, but then nature becomes ‘for‘ man, something he can work with, and transform. At first again this must appear as a dependence on natural conditions, but in so far as these conditions of his existence pass more and more under his own control, with the development of his productive powers, so in his existence he depends more and more on himself and his productive activity. He becomes his own product, so to speak.

Speaking thus, we inevitably recall Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, in which absolute spirit grasps itself as its own product. Its being is self-mediated. In his Preface Hegel emphasizes that spirit mediates itself with itself only through ‘the labour of the negative’, in alienation and transcendence of alienation. [7] This refers us back to Marx again; for the paragraph under discussion concludes (in an argument we considered earlier) with a definition of communism as the phase of ‘negation of the negation’, ushering in ‘socialism as socialism’, ‘real life . . . no longer mediated through the abolition of private property, through communism’. [8] We can understand now that Marx ‘by way of explanation and justification’ has to undertake a discussion of Hegel, because friends and enemies of Hegel alike could not fail to notice these parallels and interpret the text accordingly, probably with unfortunate consequences. For example, Marx needs to show how his ‘positive supersession of private property’ differs from Hegelian positing through negativity.

Another problem of interpretation arising from Marx’s account of human genesis is the use of the term ‘labour’ in ‘the creation of man through human labour’. Remembering that we earlier distinguished two possible connotations of the term in the 1844 Manuscripts, which interpretation should be adopted here? In truth, both interpretations are possible. This could well be a case where Marx draws attention to the ultimate consequences of the (first-order) mediatory activity constituting man for himself, and nature for man; thus ‘labour’ would here refer to that (ontologically fundamental) productive activity in and through which man becomes who he is. However, this does not exclude a narrower reading of ‘labour’ as ‘alienated activity’ along the lines of the interpretation offered earlier, if it is accepted that, in history to the present, productive activity has been identical with ‘labour’ defined in terms of the determinations of the ruling property systems. This means that human genesis proceeds by way of alienated activity. This is undoubtedly what Marx believed, and it constitutes an almost exact parallel with Hegel’s view. Marx indeed gives Hegel credit for this: ‘the great thing in Hegel’s Phenomenology‘, he says, ‘is that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as . . . alienation and as transcendence of this alienation, that he thus grasps the essence of labour and comprehends objective man . . . as the result of his own labour‘. [9] He goes on to repeat the point – this time critically noting a direct connection between Hegel’s Phenomenology and political economy. He claims that ‘Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy’. This is because he ‘grasps labour as the essence . . .’ In his work, just as in political economy, ‘labour is man’s coming-to-be-for-himself {Fürsichwerden} within alienation or as alienated man’, [10] (This last statement makes particularly clear the sense of ‘labour’ employed.)

Marx also give notice (in his first passage on Hegel) that he will show that Hegel’s standpoint does not go beyond that of ‘negation of the negation’ and that this ‘is not yet the real history of man as a previously posited subject, but simply the act of creation, the history of the genesis, of man’. [11]

The above remarks and quotations are enough to show that a number of questions arise about Mare’s understanding of his relationship to Hegel. The answers will help us at the same time to judge the significance of the claims he advances in his theory of alienation.

The problems to be investigated in the following chapters are as follows:

  1. How could Marx find in Hegel’s idealist philosophy an account of man’s genesis in his own labour?
  2. What are the similarities and differences in Marx’s and Hegel’s concepts of alienation?
  3. What is Marx’s opinion of Hegel’s dialectic and why is it said to be relevant, if at all, only to the question of genesis but not to the real history of man?
  4. Why does Marx equate the standpoint of Hegel’s Phenomenology with that of modern political economy?


In evolving his theory of alienation, Marx realizes that, since the pattern whereby labour grasps its other (private property) as its own self, estranged from itself, and negates this negation, has obvious parallels with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, he must explain and justify his position in relation to Hegel’s dialectic. He finds both strengths and weaknesses in it, as we shall see.

1 Werke Eb., 468; C.W.3, 232.

2 Werke Eb., 467; C.W.3, 231.

3 Werke Eb., 568; C.W.3, 326; E.W., 379.

4 Werke Eb., 468; C.W.3, 232. Following Marx’s intentions therefore, most editions of the 1844 Manuscripts bring together at the end the reflections on Hegel.

5 New MEGA 1, 2, 275, shows the transition mid-way down p. XI of the notebook. The Hegel material is on XI-XIII, XVII-XVIII, XXII-XXXIV. The Preface is on XXXIX-XL. (C.W.3, 602, misprints then as XXIX-XL).

6 Werke Eb., 546; C.W.3, 305; E.W., 357. E.W. gives ‘his self-mediated birth’ for ‘seiner Geburt durch sich selbst‘: this rendering (and a similar one on the previous page) is over free.

7 Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V, Miller, Oxford, 1977, para. 19.

8 Werke Eb., 546; C.W.3, 306.

9 Werke Eb., 574; C.W.3, 332-3.

10 Werke Eb, 574; C.W.3, 333.

11 Werke Eb., 570; C.W.3, 329; E.W., 382.

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