Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 6 – Marx’s Criticism

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 6 – Marx’s Criticism


It is useful in interpreting Marx’s commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology, both when it finds cause for praise and when it damns, to remember that it is composed under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach; it is a continuation, therefore, of a certain tradition of critical appropriation of Hegel by the Young Hegelian movement. This tradition refuses to take Hegel at face value, so to speak, and instead claims to find truth in Hegel in disguised form. In the present case the most important single influence on Marx is Feuerbach’s ‘inversion’ of the terms of Hegel’s philosophy. Of course, as with Feuerbach, Marx’s claim is that Hegel is guilty of ‘inversion’; so it is a question of putting him right side up. [1] Feuerbach, according to Marx, resolved Hegel’s ‘absolute spirit’ into ‘real man on the basis of nature‘. [2] What Marx has in mind in his own work, therefore, is the possibility of reading in the Phenomenology not a Bildungsroman of spirit but of man. Thus he says at one point that we must ‘abstract from Hegel’s abstraction . . . and talk . . . instead . . . of man’. [3] Correspondingly, spiritual activity he reads as material activity, primarily labour. Thus, although he complains that in the Phenomenology ‘man appears only in the form of spirit’, he also finds that in this form ‘it grasps the estrangement of man’. [4]

What really excited Marx was the ‘producing principle’ in Hegel’s work, He says:

The great thing in Hegel’s Phenomenology and its final result – the dialectic of negativity as the moving and producing principle – is that Hegel conceives the self-creation of man as a process, objectification {Vergegenständlichung} as loss of object {Entgegenständlichung}, as alienation {Entëusserung} and as sublation of this alienation; that he therefore grasps the nature of labour and conceives objective man as the result of his own labour. [5]

As far as the ‘producing principle’ is concerned, Marx is impressed by the dialectic of spirit’s actualization of itself through positing itself in the form of objectivity as the negative of itself and then negating this negation. Marx sees in this the philosophical reflection of the material process whereby man produces himself through his own labour. Marx amplifies his ‘humanist’ reading of Hegel as follows: ‘the real active relation of man to himself’, he says, ‘is only possible if he really employs all his species powers – which again is only possible through the cooperation of mankind and as a result of history – and treats them as objects, which is at first only possible in the form of estrangement’. [6]

Be it noted that both in Hegel and Marx ‘the producing principle’ involves the moment of estrangement and its overcoming. Nevertheless, in Hegel, a heavy price is exacted by the mystified form of his insight. Thus Marx immediately embarks on a multi-layered critique of the Phenomenology even at its strongest points, namely, the ‘producing principle’ and the acknowledgement of estrangement. His most detailed discussion is on the closing chapter, ‘Absolute Knowledge’, which, he says, ‘contains the concentrated essence of the Phenomenology, its relation to the dialectic, and Hegel’s consciousness of both and their interrelations’. [7] (We shall follow Marx in this, reserving discussion of other parts of the Phenomenology to the next chapter.)

Marx’s notes, being unrevised, are thus not organized in any way. Here we shall distinguish four threads in his criticism and discuss them separately before relating them. To give the reader advance notice, these are the four mistakes Marx finds in Hegel: (a) the reduction of man to self-consciousness and activity to spiritual labour; (b) the identification of objectivity with estrangement; (c) the claim that spirit (read ‘man’) is ‘at home in its other-being as such’; (d) the failure to go beyond ‘negation of the negation’ to the self-sustaining positive.

Labour: Material and Spiritual

Marx praises Hegel for grasping the nature of labour, and, more particularly, for conceiving man as the result of his own labour. As we have seen, Marx can say this sort of thing only by reading into the labour of spirit, at work in the Phenomenology, the work of man, that is to say, primarily material labour. We must not, therefore, take Marx’s praise too literally. The activity of Hegel’s ‘spirit’ is, naturally, primarily ideal in character, because it is the activity of consciousness and self-consciousness. [8] Consequently, Marx immediately adds to the above-mentioned praise of Hegel, for grasping the nature of labour, the qualification that he knows only ‘abstract spiritual labour’. [9] In fact, Hegel reverses the terms of the real relations within his philosophical reflection on the problem of estrangement. Consistently with his idealism, he identifies the human essence with self-consciousness, according to Marx, and this has the result that, in his work, ‘all estrangement of human nature is therefore nothing but estrangement of self-consciousness‘. Furthermore, this means that the estrangement of self-consciousness ‘is not regarded as the expression . . . of real estrangement’, but, instead, actual estrangement ‘is in its innermost essence – which philosophy first brings to light – nothing more than the appearance of the estrangement of . . . self-consciousness’. Marx finds it entirely appropriate that the science comprehending this is thus called ‘phenomenology’. [10]

Despite the wealth of content in the Phenomenology everything is treated under the form of consciousness or self-consciousness. This makes a big difference to the manner in which estrangement is to be superseded. To begin with, Marx points out that a natural being endowed with material powers works upon real objects and in its alienation produces in this process a real world of estrangement; but, he goes on, ‘ a self-consciousness, through its alienation, can posit only ‘thinghood’ {“die Dingheit“}, [11] an abstraction, a mere postulate of self-consciousness. We saw that in his final chapter Hegel declares that ‘it is the alienation of self-consciousness that posits thinghood’, but then it ‘takes it back into itself’. It is clear ‘thinghood’ has no independent being and as a postulate of self-consciousness is at the mercy of a retraction by the self-consciousness that postulated it. Hence a change in attitude abolishes the consciousness of estrangement because estrangement itself is understood only as an attitude to the world adopted by consciousness. This ‘reconciliation’, as Hegel calls it, leaves things as they are. As Lukács points out, this reverse movement of ‘Er-Innerung‘, this supersession of ‘externalization’, is ‘not an internal movement of objective reality at all, but merely something he has invented in order to bring his philosophy to a conclusion’. [12] This means that no radical critique of the real world of estrangement can be undertaken, much less a practical objective transformation.

Marx complains that when ‘Hegel conceives wealth, the power of the state, etc., as entities estranged from the being of man, he conceives them only in their thought form’; with the consequence that ‘the appropriation of man’s objectified and estranged essential powers is therefore only an appropriation which takes place in consciousness, in pure thought, i.e. in abstraction’. That overcoming estrangement is achieved, for Hegel, by a change in consciousness alone is at the root of his conservatism, Marx believes. He sums up the matter thus:

In the Phenomenology, therefore, despite the thoroughly negative and critical appearance and despite the fact that its criticism is genuine and often well ahead of its time, the uncritical positivism and equally uncritical idealism of Hegel’s later works, the philosophical dissolution and restoration of the empirical world, is already to be found in latent form. [13]

In a part of the manuscript that has been damaged it is possible to reconstruct an argument whereby Marx compares a real historical solution to the problem of estrangement with the typically idealist Hegelian solution. If one wanted to overcome private property in the manner of Hegel’s Phenomenology, he apparently argues, one might be satisfied with the consciousness that private property is the estranged essence of social man and believe that thereby it is finished as a ‘conquered moment’. But in fact ‘real estrangement remains and remains all the more, the more one is conscious of it as such’; hence the abolition of estrangement requires a practical solution. Marx concludes: ‘in order to abolish the idea of private property the idea of communism is quite sufficient; it takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property.’ [14]

In Hegel, estrangement is posited as overcome, not through historical practice but through a philosophical reinterpretation of this world which can only result in the sublation of its otherness through the recognition of this otherness as spirit’s own other, and hence its reconciliation with private property, the state, religion and so forth. In Marx, revolutionary practice, not speculative reconciliation, reconstitutes reality through objective reappropriation of the estranged object, thereby producing a new objectivity free of estrangement from its producers.

Objectivity and Estrangement

According to Lukács, Marx finds two errors in Hegel’s theory of estrangement: ‘on the subjective side, there is the mistaken identification of man and self-consciousness’; while ‘on the objective side, there is the equation of estrangement {Entfremdung} and objectivity {Gegenständlichkeit} in general’. [15]

I dealt just now with the point about the reduction of the problem to the phenomenology of consciousness. What are the consequences for the status of objectivity? Marx argues that Hegel interprets the standpoint of absolute knowledge to be that the object is comprehended only as an objectified self-consciousness; that it is therefore a matter for Hegel of sublating objectivity as such in so far as the relationship to objectivity on the part of a consciousness can only be to view it as other than itself; ‘consciousness is offended not by estranged objectivity but by objectivity as such’, [16] he says. Thus, since ‘objectivity as such is seen as an estranged human relationship’, it follows that ‘the reappropriation of the objective essence of man, produced in the form of estrangement as something alien, therefore means sublating not only estrangement but also objectivity‘; [17] for it is precisely ‘its objective character which constitutes the offence and the estrangement as far as self-consciousness is concerned’, [18] Marx claims.

In illustrating this criticism, Marx relies on the passage (quoted earlier) from the beginning of the last chapter of the Phenomenology. We saw that Hegel there speaks of self-consciousness sublating ‘this alienation and objectivity too‘ (my emphasis). For Marx, objectivity as such is unproblematic; it is only an objectivity established through reification or pervaded by alienation that requires supersession; whereas, if Hegel’s ‘spirit’ requires the sublation of a relationship of estrangement between consciousness and the objectivity posited by it as its other, in effect it requires the sublation in self-consciousness of objectivity as such.

Marx then takes up the Feuerbachian theme that objectivity is an essential framework for the existence arid activity of a natural being, and, however much Hegel might go on about self-consciousness, man is a natural being; that is to say, an objective being. Such a being takes natural objects ‘as the object of his being’ and expresses his life in such objects, in acting on them. Marx brings home his polemic against Hegel by arguing, in the light of this, that without objective relationships to objects outside itself a being has no objective existence; hence to construe the surmounting of estrangement as the sublation of objectivity implies the lack of objective being of consciousness itself, and a ‘non-objective being is a non-being’. [19] As I shall argue shortly, Hegel recognizes that absolute spirit must become objective to itself if it is to actualize its idea. It is because there can be nothing outside such an absolute that there is a problem about this. Spirit requires another in which to find itself reflected, while at the same time requiring that there is nothing that is not it; that it is a self-identical totality. Hence the ambiguousness, in this absolute science, towards objectivity and objective relationships. Spirit mediates itself with itself. As we saw earlier (in the passage on substance as subject) in the movement of the Phenomenology we see spirit playing with itself, so to speak, not objective human intercourse with nature. [20]

Objectification and Alienation

The identification, within the totality of spirit, of objectivity as a problem implies that for Hegel estrangement arises from objectification as such rather than from a particular alienating mode of objectification. Marx complains of Hegel: ‘it is not that the human essence objectifies itself inhumanly, in opposition to itself, but that it objectifies itself in distinction from and in opposition to abstract thought, which constitutes [for him] the essence of estrangement’. [21]

In other words, the charge now is that Hegel identifies objectification with alienation. It is necessary to distinguish this charge from the error of identifying objectivity and estrangement. Unfortunately previous commentators have not done so – not even Lukács. It is very striking in The Young Hegel that, immediately after the paragraph quoted earlier, pointing to the equation of estrangement and objectivity, Lukács goes on to say that Marx distinguishes ‘objectification in work in general and the estrangement of subject and object in the capitalist form of work’; and, thus armed, ‘he can expose Hegel’s erroneous equation’. [22] Likewise, when he says that Marx’s theory of alienated labour implies ‘a fundamental critique of Hegel’s philosophy’ this is said to be because in Marx’s work ‘estrangement is sharply distinguished from objectivity itself, from objectification in the act of labour’ [23] (as if these were the same thing).

Lukács goes on to explain that objectification is ‘a characteristic of work in general and of the relation of human practice to the objects of the external world’, whereas estrangement is a ‘consequence of the social division of labour under capitalism’. By contrast, Hegel fails to make such distinctions: [24] he equates objectification and alienation. This is the charge Lukács brings, [25] and which he says is to be found its Marx (utilizing the passage quoted above).

Why cannot this charge be reduced to the one treated in the previous section above, namely that Hegel equates objectivity and estrangement? The answer is that the latter equation is simply a mistake, from Marx’s point of view. It can never be the case that estrangement is due to the presence of objectivity (albeit that for Marx estrangement is objectively present in our experience). The former equation, the identification of objectification with alienation, is not such a simple error and requires a much more demanding analysis to identify exactly what goes wrong, as we shall see.

To begin with, let us note that Marx begins by praising Hegel for grasping objectification as ‘alienation and sublation of this alienation’! As we saw in the passage quoted above, this is part of ‘the great thing’ in Hegel’s work. Why should Marx say this? There are two reasons for it. One is that Hegel reflects the historical experience of humanity here. It has really been the case that up to now the process of objectification has resulted in estrangement. Thus Marx says that the Phenomenology ‘grasps the estrangement of man’, and that ‘all the elements of criticism are concealed within it’: it contains ‘the critical elements – but still in estranged form – of entire spheres, such as religion, the state, bourgeois life and so forth’.[26]

As matter of fact, it is quite difficult to find a statement by Marx saying that Hegel wrongly sees in objectification nothing but alienation. What Marx does say is that Hegel quite rightly sees that alienation has the positive significance of objectification. [27] This is the second reason for his praise. It will be recalled that Hegel in his Preface emphasizes that within spirit’s self-mediation there remains the moment of ‘the labour of the negative’.

This means, as Marx understands, that Hegel is not opposed to objectification on the grounds that it leads to estrangement. He certainly thinks that it does lead to estrangement; but this does not mean that he thinks spirit should rest content in itself and avoid the misfortune of estrangement from itself in its objectification, because he sees it as necessary to spirit’s actualization of itself that it embark on the ‘labour of the negative’.

This is what Marx seizes on as ‘the positive moment of the Hegelian dialectic’. This insight of Hegel’s ‘into the appropriation of objective being through the supersession of its estrangement’ is important because, though in mystified form, it models ‘the real objectification of man . . . the real appropriation of his objective essence through the annihilation of the estranged character of the objective world’. In this way ‘Hegel grasps man’s self-estrangement . . . as self-discovery, objectification and realization’, concludes Marx. [28]

The difference between these thinkers, and the necessity for Marx to criticize Hegel on alienation, lies in their diagnoses and prognoses. Marx, rooting his understanding of the problematic of alienation in wage-labour, envisages a historical stage beyond estrangement. Hegel sublates estrangement by declaring it nothing other than spirit’s interior diremption; it is necessary that this moment of estrangement be preserved as such because spirit does not inhabit an objective world; thus to become objective it must posit itself as such on its own account, which can be done only in and through its self-alienation. In order to know itself as what it is spirit must express itself in a medium other than itself hence it must posit itself in the form of otherness. This negation of itself is subsequently negated in its turn, when spirit recognizes itself in these objective shapes, but this cycle of negations is eternally necessary. Spirit can come to itself only as the negation of the negation. Hegel, therefore, has no solution to offer other than this pseudo-movement which preserves the realm of estrangement as a moment. As he puts it, spirit is ‘at home with itself in its otherness as such’. Simultaneously, spirit overcomes its estrangement from its world through knowing it as its own work, while preserving that world of estrangement in all the immediacy of its otherness.

Marx is pretty bitter about this neat trick: ‘so reason is at home in unreason as unreason’, he says. It seems that man ‘leads his true human life in this alienated life as such’. Therefore, Marx concludes, this amounts to a substantial compromise on Hegel’s part with religion, the state and so forth. [29] In Hegel, estrangement is posited as overcome, not through historical practice, but through a philosophical reinterpretation of this world, which can only result in the sublation of its otherness through the recognition of this otherness as spirit’s own other, and its reconciliation with private property, the state and religion.

Nowadays it is commonplace to assert that Hegel equates alienation and objectification. [30] Accepting that Marx’s commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology revolves around these concepts, as we have seen, we none the less find ourselves with a problem: despite Herbert Marcuse, and others, speaking of ‘Hegel’s category of objectification’, [31] in not one line of one page of the Phenomenology does Hegel use the term ‘objectification’ [32] (Vergegenständlichung). What we do find in a central place in the text, as we have seen, is the term ‘Entäusserung‘. To say that objectification is conceived by Hegel only as alienation is to point to the absence of Marx’s category of ‘objectification’ (in the affirmative sense of the establishment by an objective being of its essential relationships in, and through, labour upon the objective world) and its replacement in Hegel’s problematic by a significantly different term, Entäusserung. This, like Vergegenständlichung, has connotations of ‘positing as objective’ but also carries a sense of relinquishment, renunciation, of what is manifested, thus constituting the latter’s actualization as an alienation. As Marx says, ‘estrangement {Entfremdung} constitutes the real interest of this alienation/externalization {Entäusserung}’.[33]

If we do not find the term ‘objectification’, we do find the term ‘objectivity’ (Gegenständlichkeit), Now Hegel cannot conceive of objectivity as such except as estrangement; hence the replacement of the category of ‘objectification’ with that of ‘alienation’, Moreover, this identification (of objectivity with estrangement) allows Hegel to interpret actual estrangement as arising exclusively from objectification in general and not a particular historically conditioned mode of objectification. Consequently, instead of real historical solutions Hegel displaces the problem into general philosophical reflection issuing in a solution posed exclusively within philosophy, as we saw earlier.

For Marx the realization of the human essence involves objective appropriation of the ‘other’, namely the object of labour, through working it up and making it part of a humanized world. This dialectic of objectification passes through a phase of alienation, but Marx’s analysis culminates in the call for the practical overthrow of estrangement and the reappropriation of the estranged essence.

For Hegel the human essence is self-consciousness and Marx argues that, since something comes to exist for consciousness in so far as it knows that something, its only objective relationship is knowing. What absolute knowing realizes is that its ‘other’ is posited as such only through self-alienation, and is reappropriated through an inwardizing movement of thought, which is forced, in so far as consciousness must have an object, to preserve estrangement as a moment of consciousness (and, of course, the consciousness of estrangement is all this problematic knows!). In the middle part of the Phenomenology masses of concrete historical material, involving actual estranged spheres of existence, are brought within this framework, and the practical problems are provided with a pseudo-solution when philosophy reconciles itself, both with objectivity in general and with historically created objective estrangement in particular. Hegel appears as a radical critic of all objectivity, charging it with being estrangement; but he ends by accepting uncritically both the genuine and reified objectivities, in so far as their character as objective is granted the necessity of a moment in spirit’s self-positing movement in its other as its estranged self. To the extent that Hegel accepts the necessity for such alienating objectification he becomes uncritical of the sphere of estrangement brought to life within spirit’s self-actualization. In this way the positive achievement of history hidden within estrangement is equated with that estrangement itself. Objectification and alienation are one. Marx speaks, therefore, of ‘Hegel’s false positivism’ or ‘his merely apparent criticism’.[34]

Hegel’s greatness as a philosopher is that he is sensitive to the complexities of the system of alienation in which we live, and, although in a mystified way, he understands that it must be the result of the manner in which human self-objectification has been actualized. His misfortune is that he is unable to see the possibility of a historical reappropriation by man of his alienated powers. Instead, the historically conditioned problem is interpreted by him as a general ontological problem of existence. Hence, to posit the possibility of a solution the fatal option of idealism was taken up, whereby the world of real objective estrangement was grasped only from the point of view of the consciousness of it as other than consciousness, that is objectivity, and thus a solution could be posited at that level in so far as reason could penetrate objectivity. Historically, Hegel cannot see beyond the horizon of capitalism. What happens, therefore, is that real alienation is conceptualized in such a thinned-out manner that this ‘Entäusserung‘ can be overcome in the recollection of its origins. He is too realistic to opt for utopianism in his social theory. But, in the words of Lukács, ‘the idealist dialectic transforms the entire history of man into a great philosophical utopia; into the philosophical dream that “alienation” can be overcome in the subject, that substance can be transformed into subject’. [35]

Hegel’s tragedy is that, though objectification and alienation are conceptually distinct, and are distinguished brilliantly by Marx, Hegel cannot grasp this possibility, for it depends upon a historical potential beyond the limits of his bourgeois standpoint. Thus he collapses them together so that the necessity of spirit’s odyssey of self-objectification becomes at the same time its self-estrangement, and scientific criticism is powerless to do more than point to the content hidden behind the forms of estrangement and pass off this insight as their sublation. But as Marx mercilessly demonstrates, this still leaves real objective estrangement intact.

The Standpoint of Political Economy

As we know, Marx is interested in seeing how far Hegel’s category of alienating objectification models his own category of labour. We saw that he finds the great thing in the Phenomenology to be precisely that Hegel conceives man as the result of his own labour. Nevertheless, Marx immediately goes on to say that Hegel’s account is ‘one-sided’ and ‘limited’. Before devoting himself to detailed analysis of the closing chapter of the Phenomenology to demonstrate this, Marx makes two preliminary general points. These stand right next to each other, without the least transition, in the same paragraph.

For the moment, let us say this much in advance: Hegel adopts the standpoint of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence, as the self-confirming essence, of man; he sees only the positive side of labour, not its negative side. Labour is man’s coming to be for himself within alienation or as alienated man. The only labour Hegel knows and recognizes is abstract mental labour. [36]

What should be noticed particularly is that the first three sentences constitute a criticism of Hegel parallel to Marx’s diagnosis of the failings of political economy. Then Marx switches abruptly to a different criticism to do with Hegel’s idealism (which we have already covered). In truth, these criticisms are related; but the reader must not be tempted to seize gratefully on the second criticism recognizing in it the familiar battle between materialism and idealism, and neglecting thereby the first criticism. The first criticism qualifies the previous paragraph in praise of Hegel in just as important a way as the more obvious second criticism does. What Marx says here is that Hegel, when he sees ‘man’ (‘spirit’ in Hegel) as the result of his own labour, shares in this perspective the limited one-sided view of political economy: he sees only the positive and not the negative side of labour. Just as spirit comes to know its own power in the shapes of its substance, so modern political economy has seen through the reified world of mercantilism and understood the enormous productive power of labour, truly the source of ‘the wealth of nations’. What political economy avoids is ‘the negative side of labour’. As Marx earlier pointedly remarks: ‘political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour by ignoring the immediate relationship between the worker (labour) and production‘. The truth is, he claims, that ‘labour produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker; it produces palaces, but hovels for the worker; it produces beauty, but deformity for the worker’. And so on. Machinery does not lighten labour but turns the workers themselves into cogs in the machine. There is intelligence in machines, but cretinism in labour. [37]

So the man who results from his own labour is the victim of his own self-estrangement, the wealth he creates stands over against him as an alien power. ‘Labour is man’s coming to be for himself within alienation or as alienated man’, Marx reminds us. Thus to attribute to Hegel the standpoint of political economy is a damaging criticism indeed. It is to charge Hegel with concealing the estrangement inherent in ‘labour’ and identifying this alienating mediator with productive activity itself.

This seems unfair because, after all, Hegel is rightly credited by Marx with having understood that man objectifies himself in and through ‘alienation and the supersession of alienation’. But we have also seen that, just because Hegel follows the labour of spirit in this dialectic, reappropriation takes place only within self-consciousness. We have argued that this leaves real objective estrangement intact. If such labour is posited as the essence, then, just as with political economy, the estrangement inherent in labour is overlooked or even endorsed as ontologically necessary to human existence.

In truth, Hegel’s equation of objectification and alienation makes him uncritical of the estrangement brought to life in spirit’s self-actualization. Hegel, in common with modern political economy, grasps labour (spiritual labour in his case) as the essence of human achievement; he even grasps it as alienating activity; but if (like Hegel and Smith) one is unable to identify a genuine historical supersession of estrangement, the existing conditions become the horizon that blocks off access to a critically adopted standpoint of labour. It is rather the case that these conditions that twist and distort the objectification of man in and through productive activity are endorsed as the necessary framework within which the becoming of man for himself must occur. Thus Marx can conclude that ‘Hegel sees . . . self-objectification in the form of self-alienation and self-estrangement as the absolute, and hence final, expression of human life, which . . . has attained its own essential nature’. [38]

The standpoint of Hegel is that of modern political economy, namely, the uncritically adopted standpoint of labour, labour that is a determination of the private property system, an alienating mediator, falsely absolutized.

An important parallel here is that Hegel’s account of subjectivity, thrown back into itself in the face of alien objectivity, maps philosophically the experience of labour-power as a subjectivity thrown back into itself in the face of the determination of its object as alien private property. Furthermore, the activity of Hegel’s spirit, in overcoming the dichotomy in such a manner that it takes objectivity (= estrangement) back into itself while yet preserving its otherness, maps the standpoint of political economy when it proves that productive labour is the source of wealth, but ‘gives everything to private property’ (in Marx’s words). In both cases an alienating mediator reproduces the totality, preserving rather than abolishing the estrangement of subject and object.

The Dialectic of Negativity

We have seen that Hegel’s mediator is the negating action of consciousness. We found that Marx praises ‘the great thing’ in Hegel’s book, namely, ‘the dialectic of negativity as the moving and producing principle’. But there are certain problems with Hegel’s dialectic: it is abstract; it is conservative; and it is stuck at the stage of negation of negation.

In presenting the activity of spirit as pure negativity Hegel abstracts from all determinate content. Real alienation is subsumed in the logical category of ‘the negative’ and its supersession is naturally another logical operation, ‘the negation of the negation’. Marx complains that ‘the inexhaustible, vital, sensuous, concrete activity of self-objectification is therefore reduced to its mere abstraction, absolute negativity, an abstraction which is then given permanent form as such and conceived as . . . activity itself’. [39]

Furthermore, the incorporation of the problematic of estrangement within the conceptual framework of absolute negativity means that Hegel’s critical apparatus is unable to identify the specific historical origins of alienation, or the concrete historical conditions of its supersession. In effect, he endorses the moment of estrangement as an ontological necessity, instead of grasping it as brought about through specific material processes in the history of mankind’s emergence, and as subject to radical abolition, through a revolution which is the outcome of changed historical conditions.

So, while Marx allows that ‘in grasping the positive significance of the negation which has reference to itself’ [40] Hegel grasps self-alienation as self-objectification, at the same time, ‘since this negation of the negation is itself still trapped in estrangement, what this amounts to is a fibre to move beyond the final stage, the stage of self-reference in alienation’. [41] Spirit knows itself in its negation, but posits itself only in the negation of the negation. Thus, this negation of the negation does not give rise, in a practical transformation of the entire structure of labour, to the ‘self-sustaining positive’. As we have seen, for Marx communism is the positive supersession of private property as human self-estrangement. We have seen also that he characterizes communist revolution (because of its character as the negation of the negation, as the reappropriation of the human essence through the negation of private property) ‘as being not yet the true, self-originating position but rather a position originating from private property’. [42] He concludes that ‘only when we have superseded this mediation – which, however, is a necessary precondition – will positive humanism, positively originating in itself, come into being’. [43]

This is the crucial difference between Hegel and Marx: Hegel stays within the circle of circles of his absolute, while Marx wants to open out a new historical perspective subsequent to the supersession of alienation. Marx sums up the relation of Hegel’s philosophy to real history in two propositions: (a) ‘Hegel has merely discovered the abstract, logical, speculative expression of the movement of history’; (b) ‘This movement of history is not yet the real history of man . . . it is simply the process of his creation, the history of his emergence‘. [44]

The first point is that the abstract expression of the process of man’s creation of himself, through labour and its alienation, is given in Hegel under the concept of ‘absolute negativity’, an abstract speculative version of activity which is empty of content and can be supplied with any content accordingly. The other point is that in the cycle of negation, and the negation of the negation, Hegel states as an absolute what is in real history relative only to the process of emergence which culminates in communist revolution; but ‘communism as such is not the goal of human development’. The point here is that, though Hegel’s treatment of positing through double negation is abstract, this abstraction is taken from real history, namely the genesis of objective powers of production in the shape of estrangement from the immediate producer, and the potential to reappropriate this estranged essence. But in Hegel, precisely because of his ambivalent attitude to objectivity in the dialectic of spirit, the abstract treatment is subject to the further limitation that self-recognition in estrangement is preserved as a moment within the absolute. A radical transcendence, a positive supersession, of estranged objectivity cannot be thought.


For an idealist to take offence at objective reality and to deny its independence would not in itself have any interest. What strikes Marx as very interesting, and serves as the point of departure for both his praise and his criticism of Hegel, is that Hegel’s definition of alienation has a positive connotation just in so far as it posits objectivity. Hegel clearly distinguishes his position from that of subjective idealism in so far as the moment of objectivity is granted its necessity; consciousness must be conscious of something. At the same time, the identification of objectivity with estrangement poses a problem. Again, unlike Stoicism for example, Hegel’s philosophy does not attempt a solution through a retreat into the inner life and a denial of the effectivity of objective reality in the subject’s freedom of thought. Rather, Hegel insists that estrangement can be overcome precisely when self-consciousness appropriates objectivity and finds itself at home in this its other. This is achieved when spirit understands that the object is nothing but its own self-alienation.

Marx’s objections to Hegel’s idealist construction he sums up for himself at the beginning of a notebook started in November 1844 (the 1844 Manuscripts themselves are dated April to August). He makes the following four points. First: Hegel puts ‘self-consciousness instead of man’; second: ‘the differences of things are unimportant, because substance is conceived as self-distinction’, although it is granted that Hegel makes distinctions that ‘grasp the vital point’; third: ‘abolition of estrangement is identified with abolition of objectivity‘; fourth: supersession of ‘the object as object of consciousness is identified with real abolition’ of alienation. [45]

These points are connected in the following way: given that Hegel expounds the phenomenology of knowing subjectivity, all human relations are brought within this framework; distinctions between man and the objects of his activity are hence rendered as self-distinctions produced in the negating action of consciousness; objectivity equals estrangement for such a subjectivity until the estrangement is overcome in the final revolution of spirit’s progressive self-realization as a self-identical totality; this is confused with real objective abolition because of the treatment of objects as objects of consciousness simply.

It might be objected that to say nothing is really changed when absolute knowledge recollects and recognizes the determinations of substance as spirit’s self-determination fails to notice that this itself counts as a change given the framework of Hegel’s speculative problematic. A new shape of consciousness is born.

The answer to this would be that, although earlier stages of self-development of spirit are associated by Hegel with objective historical transformations, the development after the culmination of this in the stage of ‘self-estranged spirit’ leaves the ground of objective social relationships and moves in increasingly interiorized shapes of spirit: art, revealed religion and philosophy. In this way philosophy reconciles itself with the forms of social objectivity (the economy, the state) previously experienced as alienated. Marx can legitimately complain that the underlying objective relationships remain untransformed and preserve their effectivity in everyday experience. After all, the mass of people cannot become Hegelian dialecticians! In any case, it is not that his philosophy abolishes estrangement – it merely abstracts from it.

It is interesting that in the November summary there is no praise of Hegel’s ‘dialectic of negativity as the producing principle’. Perhaps Marx by this time had decided that the abstract character of this negativity rendered it so vacuous that there was no point in discussing it. None the less, it was precisely on that issue that Marx earlier felt it necessary to comment in order to distinguish his own position on ‘communism as the negation of the negation’ from any confusion with Hegelian positing through double negation. In spite of the work already produced by Feuerbach in criticism of this Hegelian dialectic – work extravagantly praised by Marx – he found when working through his critique that it would be necessary to put together a special chapter on Hegel in which the ‘positive moments’ (clearly stimulating Marx’s own thought) could be noted along with the reproduction of the Feuerbachian critique. This, in turn, raises questions about Marx’s relation to Feuerbach at this date. Such a discussion is postponed in this book to Part Three, until after we have completed our study of the relationship of Marx and Hegel by looking at some especially significant sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology.

The Appendix to this chapter is concerned with relevant recent secondary literature on the reading of Hegel.


Although Marx criticizes Hegel for reducing man to self-consciousness and activity to spiritual labour, he nevertheless finds that in this guise Hegel ‘grasps the nature of labour’ and sees man ‘as the result of his own labour’. Yet Hegel shares with political economy the uncritically adopted standpoint of labour, in conflating objectification and alienation, hence absolutizing estrangement. Marx protests against Hegel’s claim that spirit is at home in its otherness once it recollects that the latter is its own alienating objectification. Marx accepts that the negation of the negation is the pattern of human genesis through alienation and its supersession. But where Hegel idealizes and absolutizes ‘the labour of the negative’, Marx looks to a radical objective supersession of estrangement through practical, material, and historical, revolution.


Is Marx Fair to Hegel?

My concern with Hegel in this book is primarily with Hegel as the dialectically surpassed predecessor of Marx. From this point of view what is important is Marx’s reading of Hegel; what he saw, or thought he saw, that was useful to him, and what he saw, or thought he saw, a need to depart from. It would be possible to challenge that reading of course, This has indeed happened. [46] I do not intend here to defend Marx’s reading of Hegel. I believe that its general thrust is correct, despite the fact that Hegel is somewhat caricatured on occasion in the heat of the polemic.

At this point, nevertheless, for the benefit of those interested, I indicate the most interesting possible criticism. Gillian Rose, in her novel reading of Hegel, complains in passing that the Phenomenology has ‘frequently been misread in Fichtean terms according to which the “experience” of consciousness is . . . understood . . . as a change in perspective which sees the non-ego as the ego’s own alienated exteriorization, recaptures it by an act of will, and becomes absolute’. [47] Marx, and the Marxist tradition, are cited in this connection. Likewise, later on she complains that ‘Marx produces a Fichtean reading of Hegel’s system as the unconditioned absolute idea which pours forth nature, which does not recognize but creates determination’. [48]

If we turn to Marx’s own account of Hegel’s relation to his predecessors we find that he sees three elements in Hegel: Spinoza’s substance; Fichte’s self-consciousness; ‘and Hegel’s necessarily antagonistic unity of the two, the Absolute Spirit‘. [49] This view of Hegel sees him trying to have it both ways. Spirit both recognizes and creates determination. An interpreter of Hegel as sympathetic as Richard Norman concedes that absolute spirit looks pretty much like God, as traditionally conceived, in certain passages, particularly in the Preface. (Then again, one should bear in mind that Hegel later remarked that in the Preface the abstract absolute dominates.) [50] M. Rosen goes so far as to say that the way the self-movement of the notion produces its content out of itself corresponds to the theological problematic of creatio ex nihilo. [51] As for Marx: he finds in Hegel ‘a mystical subject – object’. [52]

A curious feature of Rose’s subsequent argument is the use she makes of the following statement by Marx:

For this third object I am thus an other actuality than it, that is, its object. To assume a being which is not the object of another is thus to suppose that no objective being exists. [53]

This is said by Rose to be a place where Marx’s thought does not rely on abstract dichotomies, but ‘captures what Hegel means by actuality or spirit’. [54] The curious thing about this is that Marx’s intention in the passage at issue is to criticize Hegel’s absolute spirit. It forms part of a discussion of Hegel’s statement that it is the alienation of self-consciousness which posits thinghood. At the same time, leaving aside Marx’s intention, it could be argued that when he says that a being with no object would exist ‘solitary and alone’ (‘einsam und allein‘) [55] this reminds us immediately of the end of the Phenomenology where comprehended history is the actuality of absolute spirit without which it would be ‘lifeless and alone’ (‘das leblose Einsam‘ in Hegel’s curious phrase). [56]

None the less, Marx’s point is that where the absolute is concerned, the relation to the object is grasped by Hegel ultimately as not a really objective relation. Likewise, in his Logic, Hegel defines being determinate as being for another; but again, in parallel with the Phenomenology, the absolute idea absorbs all available content, it ‘contemplates its contents as its own self’. [57]

In truth, Marx’s argument at this point does bear traces of the presence of Fichte. Thinghood (Dingheit) is said by Marx to be something posited by the Hegelian self-consciousness. ‘And what is posited, instead of confirming itself, is but the confirmation of the act of positing which for a moment fixes its energy as the product, and gives it the semblance – but only for a moment – of an independent, real substance.’ Marx goes on to argue against this that man ‘creates or posits objects’ because he is himself objectively posited. ‘In the act of positing, therefore, this objective being does not fall from his state of “pure activity” into a creating of the object; on the contrary, his objective product only confirms his objective activity.’ [58] (This is equally so in alienating objectification of course.)

Hegel, however, does not talk of ‘pure activity’ on the relevant pages, but this phrase is very reminiscent of Fichte. [59] In Fichte’s Science of Knowledge (1794), it is argued that ‘the pure activity of the self’ is presupposed by ‘objective activity’; it is a ‘condition of any activity that posits an object’ even though ‘pure activity originally relates to no object at all’. [60] (Earlier, where ‘the act of positing’ is shown to entail ‘the activity of alienation’, there is also a nice definition of the object created: ‘the activity of alienation’, he says, ‘must have a passivity opposed to it; and such there is, indeed, in that a portion of absolute totality is alienated; is posited as not posited.’ [61])

A related point brought forward by Rose is the role of alienation in Hegel’s Phenomenology. She argues that the Phenomenology is not ‘the experience of consciousness recapturing its alienated existence’ and that the experience of alienation is restricted to a historically specific period, namely pre-bourgeois society. [62] As we earlier said, there are two German terms used by Hegel that translate as ‘alienation’, namely ‘Entäusserung‘ and ‘Entfremdung‘. There is no doubt at all that the former plays the role attributed to it by Marx at the level of the upshot of the whole Phenomenology. This may be confirmed by examining the last chapter. [63] Rose’s reference to a historically specific period (i.e. the period covered in ‘Der sich Entfremdete Geist‘), suggests that she may wish to restrict the reference to the term ‘Entfremdung‘, However, Hegel’s Preface employs this expression in several places: for example, the experience of consciousness is said to be a movement ‘in which the immediate, the unexperienced, i.e. the abstract, whether it be of sensuous being, or only thought of as simple becomes alienated {entfremdet} from itself and then returns to itself from this alienation {Entfremdung} . . .’ [64]

1 The Holy Family: C.W.4, 192. As is well known, this theme recurs in Marx’s Afterward to the 2nd edition of Capital.

2 Ibid; C.W.4. 139.

3 Werke Eb., 580; C.W.3, 339; E.W., 392.

4 Werke Eb., 573; C.W.3, 332; E.W., 385.

5 Werke Eb., 574; C.W.3, 332-3; E.W. 385-6.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 The role of material labour as such in Hegel’s Phenomenology is discussed in chapter 7.

9 Whether this is fair to Hegel is discussed in the following chapters.

10 Werke Eb., 575-6; C.W.3, 334; E.W., 387.

11 Werke Eb., 577; C.W.3, 305; E.W., 389.

12 The Young Hegel, trans. Rodney Livingstone, London, 1975, p. 516.

13 Werke Eb., 573; C.W.3, 332; E.W., 384-5. For a brief discussion of Hegel’s later work, see chapter 8.

14 Werke Eb., 553; C.W.3, 313; E.W., 365.

15 Werke 8, 673-4; Young Hegel, p. 551. Livingstone’s translation gives ‘alienation and objectification in general’. This appears to be a mistake. For ‘objectification’ see the discussion below. Note that although Lukács’ chapter heading refers to ‘Entäusserung’, this point is made with reference to ‘Entfremdung’. For a Hegelian response to Lukács see Errol Harris’s 1978 discussion ‘Marxist interpretations of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit‘, in Method and Speculation in Hegel’s Phenomenology ed. M. Westphal, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, and Brighton, 1982.

16 Werke Eb., 580; C.W.3, 339; E.W., 392.

17 Werke Eb., 575; C.W.3, 333-4; E.W., 386-7.

18 Werke Eb., 580; C.W.3, 338; E.W., 391.

19 Werke Eb., 577-8; C.W.3, 336-7; E.W., 389-90.

20 See also the Appendix to this chapter.

21 Werke Eb., 572; C.W.3, 331; E.W., 384.

22 Young Hegel, pp. 551-2.

23 Werke 8, 671; Young Hegel, p. 549. Livingstone gives ‘alienation is sharply distinguished from objective reality … ‘, allowing the impression that alienation might be unreal.

24 For a defence of Hegel’s equation of objectification and alienation see Hyppolite’s review of Lukács’ The Young Hegel in Jean Hyppolite, Studies on Marx and Hegel, trans. J. O’Neill, New York, 1955, pp. 87 ff. For a counter-attack on Hyppolite, see István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, London, 1970. pp. 244-5.

25 Besides The Young Hegel compare Lukács’ 1967 Preface to Volume 2 of his collected works, pp. 24-6, reprinted in the English translation of History and Class-Consciousness (1923), trans. Rodney Livingstone, London, 1971, pp. xxii-xxiv. Livingstone translates both ‘Entfremdung‘ and ‘Entäusserung‘ here as ‘alienation’ – in truth, Lukács seems to equate them.

26 Werke Eb., 573; C.W.3, 332; E.W., 385.

27 Joachim Ritter, in Hegel und die französische Revolution, Köln and Opladen, 1957, says that Hegel’s treatment of the dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity (the central problem of Hegelian philosophy) is now treated, under the influence of Marx, as a problem of estrangement. He adds (p. 61): ‘what is important . . . is that one does not lose sight of the positive meaning of the dichotomy presupposed in estrangement’ (Hegel and the French Revolution, trans. RD. Winfield, Cambridge. Mass., 1982, p. 118). Dupré says that in 1844 Marx, for the first time, realized on re-reading Hegel that alienation is ‘highly positive’: it is ‘the forward march of self creation’ (The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism, New York, 1966, p. 122). Nathan Rotenstreich says ‘Hegel set a positive value on alienation … ‘ (Basic Principles of Marx’s Philosophy, Indianapolis, 1965, p. 156). Rotenstreich’s chapter ‘Concept of alienation and its metamorphoses’ is interesting on the changing senses of ‘alienation’ in the history of thought. Unfortunately, there is a slip on p.158 arising from a misreading of a critical gloss by Marx on Hegel as Marx’s own view. Rotenstreich says: ‘Having asserted that to abolish alienation is ipso facto to abolish the status of the object qua object, Marx said, in a marginal comment, that this follows from Feuerbach’s line of reasoning. What Feuerbach sought to abolish was obviously not . . . objectivity (Gegenständlichkeit) but the fictitious status of pseudo-objects. Purporting to be based on Feuerbach’s premises, Marx’s conclusion – at least with regard to the existence of products of labour – is that the status of object qua object itself is to be abolished, since latent in its very existence is not the enrichment but the distortion of the creative subject.’ The reference is not clear but it is probably the following passage: ‘Abolition of estrangement is identified with abolition of objectivity (an aspect evolved by Feuerbach in particular)’ (.C.W.4, 665). This occurs under the head ‘Hegel’s Construction of the Phenomenology.’. It is meant as a criticism of Hegel, first made by Feuerbach, and endorsed by Marx. The present discussion shows how absurd it would be to say that Marx wants to abolish the object ‘qua object’. (It would be equally absurd in Feuerbach’s case). Marx wants to abolish the object qua alienated. Rotenstreich rightly goes on to a discussion of Capital‘s characterization of the commodity form of the produce of labour as a fetish; but this refers to its status, not as a natural object, but as a value (which ‘has a purely social reality’ and ‘contains not an atom of matter’). It is interesting that in his 1844 notes on James Mill Marx says that ‘value is an alienated designation of [the product] itself, different from its immediate existence, external to its specific nature, a merely relative mode of existence of this’ (C.W.3, 219).

28 Werke Eb., 583-4; C.W.3, 341-2; E.W., 395.

29 Werke Eb., 581; C.W.3, 339; E.W., 393.

30 For example: Jean-Paul Sartre, The Problem of Method (1960), London, 1963, p. 13; Mészáros, Theory of Alienation, p. 84.

31 ‘The foundation of historical materialism’ (1932), in Herbert Marcuse, From Luther to Popper, essays trans. Joris de Bres, London, 1983, pp. 13, 45.

32 ‘Vergegenständlichung’ is absent from J. Gauvin’s Wortindex zu Hegels Phänomenologie des Geistes, Bonn, 1977. (P. Slater drew my attention to this point.) It is tear that J.B. Baillie’s translation (Phenomenology of Mind, London, 1949) uses the term, once (p. 86) in the Preface (but he is excessively free in his translation at that point) and again (p. 790) at the beginning of the last chapter (but this is a mistake for ‘objectivity’ – Gegenständlichkeit).

33 Werke Eb., 572; C.W.3, 331; E.W., 384.

34 Werke Eb., 581; C.W.3, 339; E.W., 393.

35 Werke 8, 415-16; Young Hegel, p. 333.

36 Werke Eb., 574; C.W.3, 333; E.W., 386.

37 Werke Eb., 513; C.W.3, 273; E.W., 325.

38 Werke Eb., 584; C.W.3, 342; E.W., 396.

39 Ibid.

40 Werke Eb., 583; C.W.3, 342; E.W., 395.

41 Werke Eb., 586; C.W.3, 344; E.W., 398.

42 Werke Eb., 553; C.W.3, 313; E.W., 365.

43 Werke Eb., 583; C.W.3, 341-2; E.W., 395.

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

45 C.W.4, 665.

46 e.g. J. Maguire, Marx’s Paris Writings: an Analysis, Dublin, 1972, thinks Marx’s account of Hegel less than fair.

47 Rose G., Hegel Contra Sociology, London, 1981, p. 150.

48 Ibid., p. 214.

49 The Holy Family: C.W.4, 139.

50 Richard Norman, Hegel’s Phenomenology, Brighton, 1976, pp. 112-15. Hegel’s admission is quoted in J.N. Findlay’s Foreword to Hegel’s Logic, trans. W. Wallace, 3rd ed., 1975, p. vii.

51 Rosen M., Hegel’s Dialectic and its Criticism, Cambridge. 1982. p. 81.

52 Werke Eb., 584; C.W.3, 342.

53 Werke Eb., 578; C.W.3, 337; E.W., 390.

54 Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, p. 215.

55 Werke Eb., 571; C.W.3, 337.

56G.W.9, 765.

57 Hegel’s Logic, para. 237. See Henri Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism (1939), London, 1968, pp. 48-58.

58Werke Eb., 577; C.W.3, 336.

59 For a vigorous, assertion of Hegel’s difference from Fichte, and the claim that he is not ‘idealist’ but ‘realist’, see Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (1947), ed. A. Bloom, trans. J.H. Nicols, New York, 1969, pp. 150-4.

60 J.G. Fichte, Science of Knowledge (1794), trans. P. Heath and J. Lachs, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 231-2.

61 Ibid., p. 154.

62 Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, pp. 152, 219.

63 For example: Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford, 1977, paras. 788, 803-8.

64 Ibid., para. 36.

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