Gerry Healy


From Hegel and Feuerbach to Marx
(Marxist Monthly Volume 1, March 1988)

Students of Marxism have frequently referred to the importance of the Hegelian dialectic for Marx during his work on Capital. In future issues of Marxist Monthly we shall be examining the use of dialectical logic in the writing of Capital. What is sometimes, however, overlooked is the significance of his earlier writings in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Here Marx dealt adequately and decisively with Hegelianism, especially in the chapter Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole. For the Critique of the Hegelian Dialectics undoubtedly one of the most powerful expositions of the dialectical materialist method that Marx ever wrote.

Early in the chapter on the Critique, Marx pays tribute to the “great achievement” of Feuerbach, by referring to “the proof that objective idealist philosophy is nothing but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought”.  Feuerbach, he said, established “ true materialism” by making the social relation of “man to man” the basic principle of the theory. Marx then goes on to deal with Feuerbach’s errors.  Hegel, he writes, “sets out from the absolute universal”, “from the absolute fixed abstraction”, which means, “put in a popular way he sets out from religion and theology”, (page 135, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Progress Publishers 1977 edition.)  Marx notes that Feuerbach, on the other hand, annuls the fixed abstraction of the infinite (absolute idea) and posits in his mind the actual sensuous real, finite world, thus rejecting the Hegelian abstraction of the absolute idea, which leads to “religion and theology”. Having done this, writes Marx, Feuerbach then annulled this Positive and restored it as an abstraction (the finite) to his existing abstract knowledge  - restoration of religion and theology. “Feuerbach thus conceives the negation of the negation only as a contradiction of philosophy with itself, (Op. Cit. page 136), and not as the movement from lower to the higher forms of thought reflecting the movement of the external world.”

 Feuerbach started from the sensuous positive world of nature, which is “truly materialist”. Hegel began from the abstract idea and made it equal to the world of nature.  By doing this he in fact imposed this abstract idea, (finite), upon nature, in the one-sided way in which living nature itself was transformed into an abstraction.  Feuerbach allowed his positive, sensuous beginning to transcend itself as an abstraction and then added it to his already existing storehouse of abstract finite ideas.  Although he negated these ideas Positive/Abstract at different moments of perception, he simply treated them all together in a general way, thus restoring the very absolute abstract combinations he set out to avoid – “religion and theology”.  Here, Feuerbach treats his Positive knowledge of the material world and his own abstract knowledge, not from the standpoint of resolving the difference between the two (emerging as contradiction) which could only be achieved by negating the (lower) Positive back into the infinite external world.  In the transition of the one into the other, a higher determinative conception (negation of negation) would emerge. A footnote by Marx on this page, (Op. Cit. page 136), sums it up as follows. “Feuerbach also defines the negation if the negation, the definite concept, as thinking surpassing itself in thinking, and as thinking wanting to be directly awareness, nature, reality.” From a materialist basis, but still an idealist method, Feuerbach adopted a passive approach to the movement and change in the external world around him. He confined himself to contemplating the world without trying to change it.

Hegel’s consciousness (his ideas) was not his starting point, but rather the result of assimilating the external world.  According to his Phenomenology“the individual consciousness” of each separate person appears and takes shape in his “individual history”. This is the one-sided foundation of his idealist theories.

In the German Ideology Marx and Engels emphasised:

 “In short, it is clear that developments take place and that the history of a single individual cannot possibly be separated from the history of preceding contemporary individuals but is determined by their history.” (Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, page 438)

The individual enters history as a part and his consciousness reveals only a part.  These parts (finite) contain the universal whole, (nature), which is in constant interaction within the parts. This applies both to the immediacy of the Universe negated through the external reflection and the and the Universal, which is “an open question” as Lenin explained in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism outside the immediacy given in Living Perception (Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 14, page 117).  For Hegel, the “true being of man is his act”. This means for him that before a person decides to do something, he creates an image or idea in his mind of what it is he or she wants to do. He then goes into action and creates something which appears external to him.  The “thing” in the externality of nature becomes objectified and   appears in an alienated form opposed to him. Having set out to do something, Hegel and all the idealists of today impose an abstract image incorporating their idea or ideas on Nature and what it is they have decided to take action on.  Marx explains this process as the “externality of abstract thinking … nature, as it is for this abstract thinking”.(The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, page 138).  “Nature”, he writes, “is external to it”, such abstract images which initially had their origin in the mind then return to the mind, which in turn, “affirms itself” as the source of absolute knowledge.  The “mode of existence corresponding to it is abstraction”.

The Idealist World of Self-Created Images
Marx refers to what he calls the twin errors of Hegel as follows: “Wealth” and “state power” according to Hegel are “thought entities” derive from “an estrangement of pure, i.e. abstract philosophical thinking”. “The thought process”, Marx concludes, “ends with absolute knowledge …”, in the estrangement of their absolute ideas and images from the external world, idealists such as Hegel become dominated by this estrangement.  They begin to live in the world of abstract images, thus “becoming an abstract form of estranged man, taking himself as the criterion of the estranged world.” The idealist begins to live in this estranged world of his own abstract images, alienated from the real world of nature. Consequently he can only speculate about what is going on in the real world, as well as what is happening to him in the real world.  This is the hallmark of individualism because it inevitably follows that the whole world is but my idea, (p.42 Vol.14). The combination of such images is subjective idealism.

 “It is not the fact”, writes Marx (p.139) “that the human being objectifies himself inhumanly, in opposition to himself, but the fact that he objectifies himself in distinction from and in opposition to abstract thinking, that constitutes the posited essence of estrangement and the thing to be superceded.” The term “abstract thinking” reefers here to the dialectical process of Cognition. From external reflection, the unity and primacy of the objective world of Nature over and with subjective man is established through sensation.  The sensation in turn produces its own abstract image. In the process of cognition, the transition (negation) of this image/images (as quality) is negated back into the infinite external world creating the impulse for the third negation.

Hegel objectified both the human being and Nature by the imposition of his fixed image of the “absolute idea” upon them, whereas in the dialectical process of Cognition, the abstract image is the abstract image of nature and the class struggle negated into sensation.

The external infinite world in movement and change is responsible for the identity of the source of sensation, which when negated into quality establishes its finite difference. “Sensation”, wrote Lenin, “is one of the properties of matter in motion.” (Vol.14). This finite “indeterminate beginning” contains contradiction, which in turn, provides the impulse to negate the negation.  The completion of objective laws through negation of negation, starting from the original identity of the external source of sensation is already a new object, which creates the impulse for the third negation into Semblance.  Within relative limits, Semblance is objective and determinate (p 96 Vol. 38) and in turn creates a further impulse for the negation of negation of “new contents”.  These law-governed contents negated from the external world at different moments of time constitute “internal contradictions”, (moving abstractions).

It is these “moving abstractions” which the Hegelians objectify. Man opposes man’s essential powers, wrote Marx. They have become “alien” objects. This, he explains, is the source of the “secret, uncritical positivism” contained in the Hegelian method, which equates the subject with the object, within which the subject is in opposition to the object. This one-sided opposition between both excludes their initial unity, within which their opposition in the transition to contradiction must unfold.

Let us now examine how this opposition, which is nothing less than the real world itself, upsets in its own empirical way, the Hegelian positivist schema.  “Sensuous consciousness”, Marx explains, “is not an abstractly sensuous consciousness, but a humanly sensuous consciousness.” The human being can create all the abstract images he likes and mentally bounce them off the external world, to his own satisfaction, but he is still a creature of nature and part of the external natural world. He must accept the predominance of its laws and reflect them, even if in the most blurred way. Here is the source of Hegel’s reference to the “unhappy consciousness” (p. 140).  How does the “unhappy consciousness” arise? In times of crisis, like the present, the objective situation interrupts the image-making.  The crisis and change, perceived through negation, at first appear as “vanishing moments” of doubt or tension. At first, every effort is made to exclude this reality, by adding the abstract sensuous doubts to the abstract images already created out of abstract thought.

The Practice of Idealism.

   This is accomplished in the following way:

1. The image is imposed on, and not negated from the real world.

2. It then becomes an image which is part of a combination of other images imposed and alienated in the process of subjective refection. In due course, these become objectified and it turn new abstract images are negated from this objectification  - abstract though interpreting abstract thought. The “vanishing moments” are transcended and absorbed in this way, as “combinations of sensations” of  self-created, abstract images.

3. The idealist now starts to live in the world of is brain shuttling images backwards and forwards between himself and the real world under conditions in which they are estranged  both from him as well as from the real world. He is both dominated by an imaginary world and lives in an estranged world. His explanation as we have already seen as to what is really happening to him amounts to sceptical speculation only, which is the source of all brands of revisionism, especially the advocates  
of subjective idealist “anti-theory”.

4. In spite of the alienation and estrangement of the idealist in his abstract thoughts, the positing of the real world nevertheless takes place through negation of negation as the act of a living person. Here the real world appears as “vanishing moments”, which in turn are negated into the abstract world of the mind. In the course of negation, the abstract image created in the mind transcends the impact of the “vanishing moments” in which the real world is reflected. It thus transforms the “world of the mind” into the world of the “absolute mind”, in which all things could be decided by “the will of some god”.

Now, through negation of negation, the abstract world of the “absolute mind” into which man has estranged himself, confronts once again the external world of nature.  At this point, Marx explains, (p 154), the problems of “abstraction(i.e. the abstract thinker), which, made wise by experience and enlightened concerning its truth, resolves under various (false and themselves still abstract) conditions to abandon itself and to replace its self-absorption, nothingness, generality and indeterminateness by its other being, the particular, and the determinate; resolves to let nature, which it held hidden in itself only as an abstract, as a thought entity, go forth freely from itself: that is to say, this idea resolves to forsake abstraction and to have a look at nature free of abstraction” (p 154). Our Hegelian idealist then proceeds to throw overboard his wearisome process of abstract image-making with its speculative idealist method and goes directly over to intuiting the real world. This mystical feeling which drives the philosopher forward, writes Marx, “is boredom – the longing for content” (p. 154)

From Self-Created Images to “Intuition.”

This abandonment of abstract thought in favour of intuition which recognises “nature as the essential thing” amounts to letting nature emerge from itself.  By doing this, he really has let emerge only this abstract nature ... as a thought entity – by now with this significance that is the other being of thought, (p. 155), that is the  abstract of an abstraction which again “revolves in its own circle”. They “ are nothing else but abstraction from characterisations  of Nature (vanishing moments).” (p. 156)

   For Marx and the dialectical materialist method which guide his practice, Nature through negation provides the form of the subjective idea.  In Hegel’s idealism, the subjective idea provides the forms into which Nature must fit.  Hegel saw Nature as a defective Nature. This positing of Nature in the world of the mind cannot but lead to what Hegel describes as: the “identity as absolute negativity, for whereas in Nature the concept has its perfect external objectivity, this its alienation has been superceded and in this alienation the concept has become identical with itself.  But it is this identity, therefore, only in being a return out of Nature.” (Marx quotes here from Hegel, p. 157 Critique.)

   External nature is equated with the world of the mind.  Instead of Nature predomination and being the form in which the revelations of the mind are manifested, it is replaced by a presupposed word existing independently of it. (Nature) “revelation in conception”, Marx concludes, “is the creation of minds in which the mind procures the affirmation and the truth of its freedom”.  “The absolute here is mind”. (See end of footnote p. 157).  From the creation of abstract images in the mind to be imposed on what is falsely conceived as an abstract world to the alienation of these images which in turn become objectified as a body of equally false conceptions of the real world, the idealist is trapped within his own falsely-created external world images.  With the pressure of class forces building up in the objectively real world, he feels tense and bored when he proceeds from this false world of images shuttling back and forth in his head.  This does not lead him toward the dialectical process of Cognition, but to even greater confusion.  He cuts loose from speculation about the credibility of his images and through the glimpses of “certain characteristics of nature” perceived as vanishing moments, he transcends all of them by transforming his mind into the “absolute mind”, which Marx insists is the “highest definition of the absolute”. From there on he intuits a world of abstraction created by and subordinated to his own absolute mind.  Such individualism ids always revealed, as Lenin explained, through “the naked abstract I”. (p. 43, Vol. 14)

It is here he inevitably pays the bitter price of his confusion.  Through negation the problems of on the real world invariably become more urgent for him.  However, since the real world is a passive world, this process changes the “absolute mind” into a passively “absolute mind”.  The idealist in such a predicament is unable to judge the urgency of the changes in the real world and develop revolutionary practices accordingly.  He glides blindly from one disaster to another.

Here is the real explanation for the bankruptcy and reactionary nature of idealist revisionism which today can only lead to paralysis and defeat of the working class.

NOTE: All quotations from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are taken from the Progress Publishers 1977 edition.