Gerry Healy



The Young Marx and Hegel

News Line 26 May 1981

   In what way should we evaluate Hegel’s contribution to the dialectical materialist development of Marxism? Lenin had this to say about Hegel:

   ‘I am in general trying to read Hegel materialistically. Hegel is materialism which has been stood on its head (according to Engels) – that is to say, I cast aside for the most part god, the absolute, the pure idea etc.’ (Page 104, Volume 38, Collected Works)

   What did Lenin mean by such a statement? Later in this article we will answer the question. For the moment we are suggesting that this is where a re-study of the Economic an Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 can prove so rewarding. The Manuscripts opened the door to the possibilities of training the revolutionary cadres both for the Russian Revolution and the building of revolutionary parties today. Although it is well over a hundred years since they were written, they represent a fundamental break from Hegel’s objective idealism. Without this decisive parting of the ways, Capital would not have been written and What is to be Done might never have appeared in 1902.

  Such a fundamental break is needed more than ever between idealism and revolutionary Marxism. Only in this way can the powerful English working class be equipped scientifically so that it fulfils its historic socialist goal. To do this it must overcome its traditional anti-theory bias; and its weakening effects to the exercise of its great class strength.

Essential Hegel

   The essence of Hegel’s idealism is that the individual has a determinate being of his own. ‘The individual’, he maintains, ‘exists in and for himself. (Page 339, Phenomenology). This determinate being is his act. ‘The true being of man, on the contrary, is his Act.’ (Op. Cit. page 349)

   The Act is invoked by abstract thought. The mind projects the abstract thought (idea) on the Act which is then implemented in a way that appears external to the individual. The abstract thought image is then at one with the Act and both confront him as externalised object act and an objectified idea (thought)

   Fused together is what Hegel calls the ‘thing’ which seems to the individual to be both alienated and opposed to him. For him, the world of such objects is his ‘ideal’ world, although it appears alienated from him.

   The ‘idea’ which he originally generated as the image of the Act, has become the ‘ideal idea’. For Hegel, the real world becomes an abstract real world – the product of his own abstract thought in which, he explains, ‘the individual exists in and for himself’. This is the one-sided ‘whole’ from which he starts.

   However, individual consciousness is only a part of such a subjective ‘whole’. Almost countless numbers of similar individuals are performing their Acts and changing the objective world of nature, which is the real whole, as well as changing themselves, simultaneously and unknown to themselves. It is their collective Acts and corresponding ideas which always dominate the individual. These constitute the real ‘whole’ and not the subjectively conceived ‘whole’ of Hegel. In his Philosophy of Nature Hegel writes:

   ‘The primary or immediate determination of nature is the abstract universality of its self-externality’. (Page 223 Philosophy of Nature, Allen and Unwin edition)

   The Universal was an abstraction, so the way in which Nature appeared, (self-external), was determinated as an abstraction. This reduced man’s contact with nature to ‘finite’ or ‘relative proportions. Hegel explains this on page 195.

   ‘In the practical relationship which man establishes between himself and Nature, he treats it as something immediate and external, he is himself immediately external and therefore a sensuous individual, who is nevertheless also justified in acting as purpose in the face of natural situations. Nature viewed in the light of the relationship established, is seen from the finite teleological standpoint which is based on the correct supposition that nature does not itself contain the absolute and ultimate end.’

   With the elimination of the ‘infinite’ from nature, Hegel could only draw the following conclusion:

   ‘The importance of Nature is to be attributed to its only being able to maintain the determinations of the Notion in an abstract manner.’

   Such determinations of nature have little in common with the dialectical method of Marx. So far a Hegel was concerned these determinations were the  product of his speculative abstract thought.

   ‘The real mode of the existence of the mind’, said Marx, ‘is abstraction.’

   The mind imposes an abstract image of an act to be carried out in an external abstract world. Both abstractions become externally estranged and the man who has created the abstraction eventually starts to mentally live in this externally estranged world. He becomes dominated by the abstract thought images he himself has created in a world of ideal abstract objects. For him, Nature can only be considered as abstraction. The ‘thing’ of Hegel’s which results from the Act is an ‘abstract thing’ without any content except that which the individual wishes to provide for it, from his own exclusive thoughts and images.

   Since Hegel insisted that the individual consciousness of each separate person takes shape in his individual history, this history can only be grasped in a one sided, individual, abstract way. What is objectively given in real history as a whole is now the exclusive abstract product of each individual who interprets it as he pleases. Hegel’s objective idealism topples over into subjective idealism with the individual re-writing history as it suits himself.

   ‘The philosopher’, as Marx comments, ‘has now become an abstract estranged man, taking himself as the criterion of an estranged world.’ His negation of this alienated process must lead to the opposition of the subject to the object and of consciousness, (of its abstraction), when they should pass through transition into one another.

  By removing the infinite, (absolute), from the relative, (finite), the estranges abstract world itself in which he functions can only appear through objective moments of estrangement itself. Man’s products appear as if they were products of the mind – thought entities.

  The ‘appearance of nature in the mind as alienated or “abstract thinking”’ (Manuscripts 1844, page 138) means that the ‘returning home’ of thought images through negation back into the thinking mind simply leads to its re-affirmation of ‘abstract knowledge’. Intuition has taken over, so the idealist can fit the real world into any image he likes – in his world of the brain.

What Marx Discovered in Hegel

   We have seen how the estranged man functions. Now let us take a look at a living man. ‘Sense perception’ (see Feuerbach), wrote Marx, ‘must be the basis of all science. Only when it proceeds from sense perception in the two-fold form of sensuous consciousness and sensuous need – that is, only when science proceeds from nature – is it true science.’ (Page 105, Manuscripts 1844)

   Nature is and must be the first object for sensuous man. His sense perception only exists through another man sensuously present for him. In other words, Man is nature present for him. The real existence of man and nature becomes evident in practice through sense experience. The source of all sensuousness in the external world of Nature and not in thought as such. The mind in which thought images emerge is the product of the brain in contact through sensation with the external world through the five senses.

   The ‘estranged philosopher’ with his ‘alienated’ abstract thoughts, sometimes runs into difficulties when dealing with sensuous Nature. If Nature is to be perceived as an abstraction, as Hegel does, then what is the opposite of an abstract thought if not another abstract thought?

   Marx, however, was quick to point out: ‘It is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction.’  (Holy Family, page 79).

   He also supplies the answer to the Hegelian abstraction dilemma. ‘Thought’, says Marx, ‘imagines itself to be directly the other of itself’, (page 150 Manuscripts 1844), ‘to be sensuous reality’. And, ‘thought takes its own action for sensuous real action, which leaves its object in existence in the real world, believes that it has really overcome it … Because the object has now become for it a moment of thought, thought takes it in its reality to be self-confirmation of itself – of self-consciousness, of abstraction.’ (Page150, Manuscripts 1844) ‘Hegel posits man as the equivalent of self-consciousness’ (Op. Cit. page 153)

   It was at this point Marx demonstrated his powerful insight into the dialectical method, a summary of which is as follows: An alienated abstract ‘thing’ is in reality an ‘empty abstraction’. When it is negated it takes the form of a concept, (Semblance). In reality it is a conceptual ‘thought entity’ without content.  The movement manifested through negation of negation contains two thought processes, each without content.  These are as follows:

a) The abstract thought entity, ‘thing’, (Marx calls this unphilosophic thinking) has been superseded through negation as an emerging outer form (semblance) which is in fact non-existent in the real world.


b) Its content is a thought which believes it has grasped the real world because it mistakenly equates itself as thought with the sensuousness of the real world. Only the real world is sensuous. Thought which is derived from the real word is not sensuous.

   A living man, who is part of the sensuous world will now find himself in a contradiction both with the ‘unphilosophic thing’ and the empty estranged ‘real thing’ which it has for content. As a living man he ‘contradicts their conventional conceptions’ (Page 153). He finds himself in a position which is untenable, having been posited by Hegel as the equivalent of abstraction (self-consciousness).

   He is an ‘estranged reality’ in an ‘estranged essential reality’ of a man, in which the estrangement is abstractly reflected in the ‘empty and unreal expression – negation. The superseding of his alienated thought form is both empty supersession of an ‘empty abstraction’ – the negation of negation. [Wording exactly as original – Ed]

   On page 153 of the Manuscript, Marx explains the process which then opens up:  ‘The rich, living, sensuous, concrete activity of self-objectification, (objective unity of Man and Nature derived by sensation is therefore reduced to its mere abstraction , absolute negativity, an abstraction which is again fixed as such and considered as an independent activity – as sheer activity.

   ‘Because this so-called activity is nothing but the abstract, empty form of the real, living act, its concept can consequently  can be merely a formal content produces by abstractions from all content. As a result, therefore, one gets general, abstract forms of abstractions  pertaining to every content and on that account indifferent to and, consequently, valid for, all content – the thought forms of logical categories torn from real mind and from real nature.

   ‘Hegel’s positive achievements here’, Marx concludes, ‘in his speculative logic, is that the definite concepts, the universal fixed thought forms in their independence vis-à-vis nature and mind are a necessary result of the general estrangement of the human being and therefore also of human thought, and that Hegel has therefore brought these together and presented them as moments of the abstraction process …’ (page 153)

   The movement of the moments of the abstraction process are hidden in their actual existence. In the act of superseding, ‘denial and preservation, ie, affirmation, are bound together’. (page 149)

   Marx explains the process in the following way:

   ‘Superseding being is essential, superseding essence is concept,, concept superseded is the absolute idea.  (page 153) The contradiction of abstraction comprehending itself as abstraction  knows itself to be nothing’ – therefore ‘it must abandon abstraction …’ and so, Marx continues, ‘it arrives at an entity which is its exact opposite – at Nature, for Abstract thought is nothing for itself, that only Nature is something.’ (page 154)

   ‘The abstract idea’ then decides to go freely from itself as Nature. ‘The mystical feeling’, says Marx, ‘which drives the philosopher forward is boredom – the longing for a content’.

    It was in his recognition of the positive side of Hegel’s development of concepts that Marx revealed sensuous nature as distinct from empty abstraction which was  the real content for Hegel’s concepts. It was here that he stood Hegel on his feet.

   Almost 70 years later Lenin, with two years to go before the Russian Revolution, paid his tribute to Hegelian concepts in the following passage from Volume 38, (page 110 collected Works). We can now answer the question about Lenin’s attitude to Hegel raised earlier in this article:

    ‘Shrewd and clever’, wrote Lenin, ‘Hegel analyses concepts that usually appear to be dead and shows that there is movement in them. Finite? That means moving to an end! Something? – means not that which is Other. Being in general? Means such indeterminateness  that being = not Being. All-sided, universal flexibility reaching to the identity of opposites – that is the essence of the matter.

   ‘This flexibility applied subjectively = eclecticism and sophistry. Flexibility applied objectively, ie, reflecting the all-sidedness of the material process and its unity, is dialectics, is the correct reflection of the eternal development of the world.’ (page 110, Volume 38, Philosophical Notebooks.)