Dialectics of Labour: Chapter 8 – Hegel on Wage-labour

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 8 – Hegel on Wage-labour


The extraordinary complexity of Marx’s verdict on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is evident if we take three statements from the same (crucial) page.

  1. Hegel grasps the nature of labour and conceives man as the result of his own labour.
  2. Hegel’s standpoint is that of political economy, namely labour (= alienation) as the essence of man.
  3. Hegel knows only abstract mental labour.

It seems almost impossible at first sight to make these consistent. It seems equally impossible to take even one of them at face value. If (3) is true, how can (1) and (2) be true? But how can (3) be fair when we know about the labour of the servant and the ‘honest consciousness’? As for political economy, Hegel never mentions it in the Phenomenology! (Somewhat bewildered, the editors of Marx’s works cite in a footnote [1] two other works of Hegel – one of them unknown to Marx! I deal with both below.)

The exhaustive exposition of Marx’s arguments so far has provided the necessary basis for endorsing all three points, properly interpreted. This interpretation requires discussion of the method at work in Marx’s criticism of Hegel. The main difficulty in understanding Marx’s critique is that he does not compare like with like. His own interest is in material production, and more especially the material labour of the wage-worker with its inherent alienation. But what he compares with his own discoveries is not what Hegel says about such labour, but Hegel’s alternative ‘producing principle’, the negating action of consciousness and self-consciousness. That this must give rise to problems becomes obvious when we recall that for Marx the contradictions of consciousness are to be subsumed under the practical ones, whereas for Hegel material labour is merely one sphere in which spirit is at work.

The procedure adopted by Marx is to evaluate Hegel by reading spiritual activity as material. This is how he can praise Hegel for grasping man as his own product, and equally how he can blame Hegel for confusing productive activity with alienating activity. Hence, in Hegel, alienating activity is taken as the essence, just as the standpoint of political economy is that of (wage-)labour. As we noted earlier, Hegel’s crucial misidentification is not the simple-minded castigation of objectification as alienating, but the more subtle endorsement of alienation because it is taken to be the only possible form of objectification. In fine, the parallelism is not one of content but of a homology of conceptual structure in the speculative philosophy of Hegel and the ideological presuppositions of political economy. This means that Marx can criticize both on the same grounds.

Once we grasp the character of Marx’s procedure in his Hegel critique, two things follow: first, that what he says about Hegel’s equation of objectification and alienation has nothing to do with anything Hegel says about material labour; second, that his failure to deal with what Hegel says about material labour, and more especially his claim that Hegel knows only abstract mental labour, might amount to an injustice to Hegel. Certainly, if anyone were to claim that Hegel thought material labour necessarily alienating, or even that he knew nothing of material labour at all, Hegelians could come flying with contrary quotations from nearly all his works. We have already mentioned the positive role labour is given in the master-servant dialectic and in the work occupying the ‘honest consciousness’. Even in the chapter on ‘self-estranged spirit’, individual labour is seen as socially constitutive in so far as each ‘in working for himself . . . is at the same time working for all and all are working for him’. [2] Indeed it would be closer to the truth to say that Hegel has a claim precedent to that of Marx to be the first to found social theory on material labour. It even has an important place in his Science of Logic. It appears in its greatest prominence in the Jena lectures of the early 1800s and then gradually diminishes in its significance in Hegel’s thought. Yet as late as 1821 Hegel speaks almost casually, in the Philosophy of Right, of ‘the moment of liberation intrinsic to work’, as if this were obvious. [3]

Nevertheless, Marx is ultimately in the right, because the interest Hegel takes in labour is to show that it exhibits in actuality moments of consciousness, determinations of the will, or even categories of logic. In spite of the fact that he has more acute things to say about labour than any other pre-Marxist philosopher, Hegel is, after all, an idealist. Instead of objective relations of production, the ultimate reality is absolute spirit in communion with itself. For Hegel, material labour has an important role in the sphere of objective spirit but this is in turn incorporated within absolute spirit. If we are to compare Marx with Hegel in terms of content then it is instructive to compare what Marx says about wage-labour with what Hegel says. This is the objective of the present chapter. Here the Phenomenology is not of much help. The treatment of ‘wealth’ in the ‘self-estranged spirit’ section does not specify the relations of production involved; and if it did they would hardly be those of modern industry, given the historical background to it.

In truth, the young Hegel was a radical critic of modern industrial production. This is especially so in his writings from the Jena period (1801-6). In a manuscript known as Hegel’s First Philosophy of Spirit (1803-4) Hegel points out that the subjugation of nature in modem industry increases the individual’s dependence on outside forces because the division of labour ties the individual to a particular task (he cites Smith’s account of a pin factory); that the labour becomes deadening mechanical work; and that ‘the coherence of the singular kind of labour with the whole infinite mass of needs is quite unsurveyable . . . so that some far-off operation often suddenly cuts off the labour of a whole class of men . . . and makes it superfluous and useless’. Hegel adds that ‘need and labour’, elevated into the universality of money, create a ‘monstrous system’ of mutual dependence in society, ‘a self-propelling life of the dead, ebbing and flowing blindly’, which ‘requires . . . taming like a wild beast’. [4]

Such striking passages were unknown to Marx because they remained unpublished for many years (a curious parallel to Marx’s own 1844 Manuscripts!)

Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

In Hegel’s mature published work, wage-labour is given its place within his system in The Philosophy of Right (1821). When Marx speaks in his 1844 Manuscripts of the conservatism of Hegel’s later work, this text is foremost in his mind. Here Hegel endorses private property and wage-labour. He claims that the subsequent socio-economic contradictions can be reconciled within the framework of a suitably constituted modern state. We shall see that Hegel’s apology for wage-labour is effected through his idealist method. [5]

The central organizing idea of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is freedom; the book is designed to show that it is actualized in the institutions of the modern state. The first part introduces the notions of personality and property. According to Hegel, the person actualizes his inherent freedom through embodying his will in an external thing, immediately different from him, thereby making it his. Property, on this account, is a substantive end in virtue of its role in giving personality objectivity. It is necessary to emphasize mediatedness in the development of this idea. It should not be thought, for example, that Hegel’s conceptual distinction between persons endowed with purposes of their own, on the one hand, and appropriable things, on the other, immediately coincides with the distinction between humanity and the rest of nature. A human being has to become a person through the development of physical and mental powers whereby its naturally given basis is sublated; and the realm of nature becomes man’s object through various processes of appropriation. For Hegel, it is absurd to suppose that man is free in the immediacy of his natural existence, within which he is tied to nature, however romanticized the presentation of this so-called ‘state of nature’ in which the satisfaction of everyone’s simple necessities is supposed to be adequately assured:

to be confined to mere physical needs as such and their direct satisfaction would simply be the condition in which the mental is plunged in the natural and so would be one of savagery and unfreedom, while freedom itself is to be found only in the reflection of mind into itself, in mind’s distinction from nature, and in the reflex of mind in nature. [6]

For Hegel, as later for Marx, it is not a question of locating the concept of freedom in a given pre-ordained place of man in relation to nature; rather it is to be grounded on a developing subject – object problematic. In order to play a part in the actualization of human freedom, Hegel claims, natural objects have to be given a new determinateness in serving human ends as property. Natural objects as such are not property – they are reduced to immediacy for free-will in so far as they are posited as ‘without ends of their own’, but free-will proves its ownership only by embodying itself in them through some mediation (such as ‘forming’, ‘marking’ and so on). On this account, Joachim Ritter stresses the historical dimension of this process and says that ‘the freedom of the person and the determination of nature as object of the will belong inextricably together’. [7] However, he tends to pick up only the material moments in Hegel’s discussion (as if Hegel were Marx). In fact, we shall see that there is a slippage in Hegel whereby the recalcitrance of the natural object to the person’s material efforts to ‘prove its lack of self-subsistence’ is ‘overcome’ by mind’s ‘reflection back from nature into itself’, its assertion of its universality in distinction from the particularity of the object world.

Let us then look at the material content Hegel attributes to the moments of private property he describes. The positive moment is signified by ‘taking possession’ of the thing immediately whereby one becomes objective to oneself in a particular piece of property. This sinking into the particular inadequately realizes the universality of the will. Thus Hegel moves to the moment of negativity whereby the will distinguishes itself, through the use of the thing for its own ends, from the thing itself. Yet, lest we should be tempted to look here for a material content, Hegel reminds us that use is merely a moment in the development of the will’s relation to the thing. For example, squatting is rejected thus:

The fact that property is realized and actualized only in use floats before the minds of those who look on property as derelict and ownerless if it is not being put to any use, and who excuse its unlawful occupancy on the ground that it has not been used by its owner. But the owner’s will, in accordance with which the thing is his, is the primary substantive basis of property; use is a further modification of property, secondary to that universal basis, and is only its manifestation and particular mode. [8]

In the relation of use the will is still debased by its involvement with the particularity of the things and their use-value. Hence the will must be asserted absolutely and not in connection with the particularity of its objects. This is realized in alienation. In the dialectic of the will’s relation to the thing as property, the moment of alienation, rather than posing any problem for Hegel, is seen as the most complete actualization of ownership. It is in distinguishing myself as an owner rigorously from any particular content to this proprietorship that I become a real proprietor! Possession and use are limited, finite relations of the will to property in which its movement runs aground; but through treating things merely as exchangeable objects, in the endless cycle of acquisition and alienation, the will is reflected into its own self, without getting bogged down in the natural features of the alienated objects; in this way the dialectic progresses to contract where the will is dealing with its own other. ‘This relation of will to will is the true and proper ground in which freedom is existent.’ [9]

Raymond Plant points our that this is a particular case of a general pattern in Hegel’s thought. [10] An advance in self-consciousness (in this case the institution of private property) requires the descent into particularity (in this case the things held as property); yet institutions allowing this differentiation develop their own pattern of integration of the particulars within an ideal totality. The form in which it is achieved in this case is that, when the autonomous persons holding various objects as private property align their wills through contractual arrangements, this means that ‘one identical will can persist within the absolute difference between independent property owners’ [11] Thereby universal freedom is made possible. In sum: the overriding moment in the ‘mastery of things exhibited by free-will’ is that which is most removed from their useful material character, namely the process of their alienation; this pushes forward the actualization of the will to the form of contract whereby it achieves recognition in another person. Only as a proprietor among proprietors am I free!

The Alienation of Labour

Hegel considers that the relation between persons and their labour-power is one of property, and also that, as such, labour is alienable. He recognizes that there is a problem in accounting for, and justifying, such alienation because he sees that labour-power is not ‘immediately external’ in the sense that other alienable things are. Before taking up the question of labour’s alienation then, we must review Hegel’s account of bodily power. Hegel considers that men, while free ‘in their concept’, are not free in their immediate natural existence. Thus he speaks of ‘the possession of our body and mind which we achieve through education, study, habit, etc., and which exists as an inward property of mind’. [12] Immediately, a bodily organism is merely ‘out there’ without exhibiting specifically human behaviour. ‘It is only through the development of his own body and mind . . . that he takes possession of himself and becomes his own property and no-one else’s’. [13] Thus one is to own oneself and one’s bodily and mental powers. Even though the actuality of men is freedom, ‘not something which they have, as men, but which they are‘, [14] the actualization of this idea depends upon an objective development whereby man becomes what he is implicitly in accordance with his concept.

Let us note, however, that, since the immediacy of human existence need not compel recognition of personality, slavery is feasible. According to Hegel, slavery is based on a class of un-persons being taken as ‘things’ suitable for holding as property, in virtue of a view of man as a ‘natural entity’ [15] like any other. Marx, by the way, draws our attention to the fact that, ‘under slavery, according to the striking expression employed in antiquity, the worker is distinguished only as instrumentum vocale from an animal, which is instrumentum semi-vocale, and from a lifeless implement, which is instrumentum mutum‘. [16] In truth, we find in Hegel a certain confusion. First it is said that, in virtue of their being my ‘substantive characteristics’ rather than ‘external by nature’, ‘my personality as such, my universal freedom of will, my ethical life, my religion’ are ‘inalienable’; but then it is allowed that, inherent in ‘this concept of mind as that which is what it is only through its own free causality, . . . lies the possibility of the alienation of personality and its substantive being, whether this alienation occurs unconsciously or intentionally’. Hegel’s examples of the alienation of personality are slavery, serfdom, disqualification from holding property, and so forth. He also mentions ‘alienation of intelligence and rationality . . . in ceding to someone else full power and authority to fix and prescribe what actions are to be done . . . or what duties are binding on one’s conscience or what religious truth is, etc.’. It is not clear whether Hegel thinks that such practices are merely offensive to ‘the idea of freedom’, or whether, in view of ‘the contradiction in supposing that . . . I am giving up what, so soon as I possess it, exists in essence as mine alone, and not as something external’, only a pseudo-alienation would be formally effected: for example, in the case of alienation of conscience; in so far as I am a genuine moral agent I remain responsible for accepting authority in general, and for having chosen a particular source of direction. [17]

Hegel is even prepared to say that, from the standpoint of ‘man’s absolute freedom’, ‘if a man is a slave, his own will is responsible for his slavery’. In fact, Hegel believes that the progress of history has now made explicit, and irrevocably established, the knowledge of ‘man’s absolute unfitness for slavery’. [18] However, although Hegel finds outright slavery repugnant, he allows the alienation of personal powers in more modern forms. He recognizes that it seems unsatisfactory to speak merely of juridical ownership and alienation of such possessions for ‘there is something inward’ involved. But he attempts to rationalize the situation as follows:

Attainments, erudition, talents, and so forth, are, of course, owned by free mind and are something internal and not external to it, but even so, by expressing them it may embody them in something external and alienate {veräussern} them … and in this way they are put into the category of ‘things‘. Therefore they are not immediate at the start but only acquire this character through the mediation of mind which reduces its inner possessions to immediacy and externality. [19]

As he notes in the margin with respect to the term ‘alienation’ here, to alienate is to hand over a possession that is already external, and this leaves aside the question of how it became external in the first place. [20] Thus it has to be shown how one’s ‘inner possessions’ acquire the mode of externality, and whether or not this is contrary to their concept.

Leaving aside any problems that might arise with a person’s products, what of alienation of personal powers themselves? The alienation of such powers ought to pose difficulties for Hegel because if I possess my labour-power only in making my body my own in such a way that its powers only exist as powers developed by my will, Hegel should find it problematic that my abilities could yet be posited through alienation as the object of another’s will. As we saw, Hegel regards slavery as incompatible with the idea of freedom, but he makes an ingenious distinction between wage-labour and slavery whereby the former may be endorsed as free: I can give someone ‘the use of my abilities for a restricted period, because, on the strength of this restriction, my abilities acquire an external relation to the totality and universality of my being’. He allows that ‘by alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced, I would be making into another’s property the substance of my being, my universal activity and actuality, my personality’. As he explains, ‘it is only when use is restricted that a distinction arises between use and substance’; so here, ‘the use of my powers differs from my powers and therefore from myself, only in so far as it is quantitatively restricted’, It seems then that Hegel admits that my labour-power is part of the substance of my personality, an essentially inward property in so far as I am in possession of myself. However, as he notes, it might be possible that in manifesting my powers I reduce them ‘through a mediation of mind’ to ‘immediacy and externality’. Here, the mediation required is identified with the time limit that posits a distinction between use and substance, even though the substance of my power is nothing but ‘the totality of its manifestations’. ‘On the strength of this restriction’, the wage-labourer remains a free agent, so to speak. [21]

The trouble with Hegel’s distinction between entire alienation and alienation piece by piece – a distinction supposed to guarantee the independence of the worker’s personality – is that it breaks down when one considers the possibility (which is effectively realized in the case of modern wage-labour) that, through successive piecemeal alienations of the worker’s time, his entire labour time is appropriated by others. What is a ‘thing’ in pieces is all of a piece a ‘thing’. It is only Hegel’s instinct for the non-legal essence of possession of one’s powers that prevents him from reifying them wholesale, but he capitulates to piecemeal reification. If the worker’s entire labouring time is thus alienated, then his distinction from a slave is surely reduced to his legal status, while materially he is in slavery to capital.

These quantitative considerations may be left at this point; for there is a deeper, qualitative, incoherence in Hegel’s endorsement of wage-slavery. Since the worker’s power only exists in so far as he is ‘in possession of himself’ and he has developed it as essentially inward property, it is not a ‘thing external by nature’ but is itself ‘will-with-thing’, so to speak. In developing his powers they become his inward possessions. The mediation through which his labour-power is yielded to the will of another, even by hire rather than outright sale, cannot consist therefore in his withdrawing his will from his body, leaving behind only an ’empty will’ [22] marking his right to recover his powers. The powers of his brains, nerves and muscles only exist in so far as he is present exercising them. If they are alienated their use requires, none the less, not the exclusion of his will, but his own use of his powers, however grudgingly exercised. To exercise them in the service of another requires, therefore, the subordination of his will to the other.

There are two problems with labour’s alienation that arise from this fact. One is a problem for the purchaser. How is he to appropriate the use-value of the worker’s labour if it involves the subordination of the worker’s will? After hiring the worker the capitalist must find ways of getting the work out of him with the desired quality and maximum quantity. This requires the effective subordination of the worker to the dictates of the capitalist labour process so that surplus labour can – in Marx’s graphic phrase – ‘be pumped out of him’.

The other problem arises for Hegel’s apologetics. There is a contradiction implicit in his view of personal powers as, on the one hand, inward property of a free being, and, on the other hand, potentially alienable property held mediatedly as a ‘thing’. If this second relation is realized in the alienation of labour, the will exists in contradiction with itself; for, in Hegel’s general theory, the moment of alienation establishes the will as will through its reflection from the thing back into itself; in the contractual relation with another will, symmetrically mediated in the thing, it becomes identical with its other and both equally achieve objective recognition; but, since the thing here itself embodies the will, as we have seen, the alienating mediation presupposes an asymmetrical relationship at the same time, in which one will bends to the other, being thus ‘refracted’ rather than reflected, so to speak, in this alienation. [23] This is nothing less than self-estrangement.

It is to be noted that this contradiction between the symmetry of the wage-contract effected between autonomous, juridically equal, persons, and the asymmetry of the employee’s relationship during the working day to his ‘hands’ (to employ the striking vernacular of capital), finds its way into Hegel from reality. This reality disguises the relations of personal dominance inherent in wage-slavery by reifying the personal powers of the labourer so that they become a ‘factor of production’ like any other, to be sold or hired on the market.


We have shown that Hegel thinks private property is necessary for human freedom and that he manages to justify wage-slavery at the same time. What is it about his method that allows this? The procedure is in fact stunningly simple. Instead of making the historical judgement that in this society freedom means freedom of property, he makes the philosophical judgement that the concept of freedom actualizes itself in the private property system. Hegel says of his method that in philosophical science ‘the concept develops out of itself, and in a purely immanent process engenders its determinations. It does not advance ‘by the application of the universal to extraneous material . . . culled from elsewhere’. [24] Not withstanding this assertion, Hegel does in fact ‘apply universals’ to extraneous material, namely the existing property system.

What Hegel does in his philosophy is to find methodological resources that allow him to pass off the facts about wage-labour as rational, as the actualization of freedom. With regard to private property itself, its various determinations are organized in a hierarchy that makes freedom appear less real in concrete work with, and use of, one’s property, but more fully actualized in relations that abstract from the determinate content involved. He does not attend to the evil consequences of the commodification of labour. Whilst acknowledging that personal powers are not ‘external by nature’, Hegel manages to assimilate them to property in external things (and hence properly alienable within the limit specified and criticized above) through abstracting from the specific difference involved in order to pass off the alienation of labour as free activity.


ln the 1844 Manuscripts Marx compares his theory of alienated labour with Hegel’s negating action of spirit. Hence, as far as content is concerned, it might be said that he does not compare like with like. In fact Hegel has a lot to say about material labour. It is in the Philosophy of Right that his fullest account of wage-labour is found. He is uncritical of it, reconciling it with property, and both with freedom.

1 C.W.3, 604-5.

2 Phenomenology of Spirit trans. A.V. Miller, Oxford, 1977, para. 494.

3 P.R., para. 194. On the background see Manfred Riedel, Between Tradition and Revolution (1969), Cambridge, 1984, ch. 1.

4 Jenaer Systementwürfe I (1803-4): Gesammelte Werke Band 6, Hamburg, 1975, pp. 329-4; System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit, trans. H.S. Harris, Albany, NY, 1979, pp. 248-9. For the background to Hegel’s thinking at this time see Bernard Cullen, Hegel’s Social and Political Thought, Dublin, 1979, pp. 70-2.

5 Some of the argument below is condensed from my paper ‘Personality and the dialectic of labour and property – Locke, Hegel, Marx’ in Radical Philosophy Reader, ed. R. Edgley and R. Osborne, London, 1985.

6 P.R., para. 194.

7 ‘Person and property’ (1961), in Hegel and the French Revolution, trans. R.D. Winfield, Cambridge, Mass., 1982, p. 135.

8 P.R., para. 59.

9 Ibid., para. 71.

10 Raymond Plant, Hegel: an Introduction, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1983, p. 155.

11 P.R., para. 74.

12 Ibid., para. 43.

13 Ibid., para. 57.

14 Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, trans. W. Wallace, Oxford, 1971, para. 482.

15 P.R., para. 57.

16 C.1 (Penguin), 303, n.18.

17 P.R., para. 66.

18 Ibid., para. 57 & Addition.

19 Ibid., para. 43.

20 ‘Hegels eigenhändigen Randbemerkungen’ in Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, ed. J. Hoffmeister, Hamburg, 1955, p. 330.

21 P.R., para. 67. Ernest Mandel says that for Hegel material labour is alienating ‘because labour is, by its nature, the externalizing (Veräusserung) of a human capacity, which means that man loses something that previously belonged to him’: The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, London, 1971, p. 155. Mandel seems to have in mind this paragraph of the Philosophy of Right, which deals with the Veräusserung (=alienation in the sense of sale) of human powers. If so, this is a misrepresentation of it. It is clear that Hegel does not say labour ‘by its nature‘ as ‘externalizing’ is alienating; rather, he says complex social mediations achieve alienation through setting labour in an (artificial) external relation to the person.

22 ‘If the whole and entire use of a thing were mine, while the abstract ownership was supposed to be someone else’s, then the thing as mine would be penetrated through and through by my will and at the same time there would remain in the thing something impenetrable by me, namely the will, the empty will, of another’ (P.R., para, 62).

23 For Marx private property in general is an alien mediator estranging man from man. What is shown here is that even if one accepts Hegel’s defence of private property it implies that capitalist property relations are contradictory. It is utterly absurd, however, to speak of ‘Hegel’s devastating critique of capitalist private property’ and to equate him with Marx, as does David MacGregor, The Communist Ideal in Hegel and Marx, London, 1984, 189 et passim. Hegel’s intentions are manifestly apologetic. Even when he recognizes that material to meet wants is barred to the needy because it consists of external objects held as private property by others, and hence ‘its recalcitrance is absolute’ (P.R., para. 195), he seems to assume at this point that the problem is overcome through universal exchange. Later, when he concedes that modern society in fact creates ‘a rabble of paupers’ (P.R. para. 244), he speculates on a solution through imperialism (P.R., para. 246).

24 P.R., para. 31.

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