Toward a critique of political economy: Hegel

Posted: 13 November 2020 in Uncategorized
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In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The next six (hereherehereherehere, and here) are for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on a previous one) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy.

The necessary disclosure: these are merely drafts of sections of the book, some rougher or more preliminary than others. Right now, I’m just trying to get them done in some form. They will all be extensively revised and rewritten in preparing the final book manuscript.


It is difficult to fully understand the Marxian critique of political economy without some understanding of Hegel. No less an authority than Lenin wrote that “it is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic.” Marx himself wrote “I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him.”

Those are the two major reasons for keeping Hegel in mind: because Marx, like many young German intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s, started with Hegel; and because, many years later, Marx’s critique of political economy was still influenced by his theoretical encounter with Hegel.*

But, of course, that makes understanding the movement toward the Marxian critique of political economy a bit difficult for contemporary readers, who generally aren’t familiar with Hegel’s writings. So, in this section, I want to present a brief summary of Hegel’s philosophy. But, I caution readers, this should not be taken to be a presentation of all aspects of Hegel’s thought. We only want to examine Hegel to the extent that it aids our comprehension of Marx’s theoretical journey and his later critique of political economy.

In his twenties, Marx, along with other young German intellectuals (including Ruge, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach), formed a loose grouping called, variously, the Young Hegelians or the Left Hegelians. In their discussions and debates, these young thinkers sought both to draw on Hegel’s philosophy and to radicalize it, aiming their attacks especially at religion and the German political system.** Later, they turned their radical critique on Hegel’s philosophy itself.

So, what was it in Hegel’s thought that was so influential for Marx and the other Young Hegelians? One area is particularly important: the theory of knowledge and, closely related, the philosophy of history.

On the first point, Hegel’s view was that the two previous traditions—of René Descartes and Immanuel Kant—got it wrong. Descartes argued that it was impossible to know things as they appear to us (phenomena) but only things as they are in themselves (noumena). Experience was deceptive. Hence, his focus on reason, which alone can provide certainty about the world. Kant posited exactly the opposite—that it was possible to know things as they appeared to us but not their essences, things as they are in themselves. Therefore, science was only capable of providing knowledge of the appearances of things, of empirical experiences and observations about nature; morality and religion operated in the unknowable realm of things in themselves.

Hegel’s great contribution was to solve the problem and affirm what both Descartes and Kant denied. For him, history was an unfolding of the mind (Absolute Spirit) coming to know itself as phenomenon, to the point of its full development, when it is aware of itself as it is, as noumenon. In other words, the consciousness of things as they appear to us leads to knowledge of the essence of things. At the end of the process, when the object has been fully “spiritualized” by successive cycles of consciousness’s experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself. That is the end of history.

How does this historical process work? How does the mind or Absolute Spirit pass through successive stages until it reaches full awareness? That’s where the dialectic comes in. According to Hegel (especially the Phenomenology of Mind), human understanding passes through a movement that is characterized by an initial thesis (e.g., being) that passes into its opposite (e.g., nothingness), which entails a contradiction that is resolved by a third moment (e.g., becoming), which is the positive result of that opposition. For Hegel, this process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (or, as it is sometimes referred to, abstract-negative-concrete) is both a logical process (the development of philosophical categories) and a chronological process (the development of society), which leads to greater understanding or universality (in both philosophy and in social institutions such as religion and politics), eventually leading to complete self-understanding—the end of history.

What Marx and the other Young Hegelians took from Hegel was a method and language that allowed them to challenge tradition and the existing order: a focus on history and a stress on flux, change, contradiction, movement, process, and so forth.

But they also turned their critical gaze on the more conservative dimensions of Hegel’s philosophy. For example, Feuerbach (in The Essence of Christianity, published in 1841) argued that Hegel’s Absolute Spirit was nothing more than deceased spirit of theology, that is, it was still an inverted world consciousness. Instead, for Feuerbach, God was the outward projection of people’s inward nature. Men and women were “alienated” from their human essence in and through religion—because they cast all their human powers onto a deity, instead of assuming them as their own. The goal, then, was to change consciousness by becoming aware of that self-alienation, through critique.

Marx, in particular, considered Feuerbach’s critique to be an important step beyond Hegel. Ultimately, however, he rejected the way Feuerbach formulated the problem (as individuals separated from their human essence, outside of society) and settled his account with the eleven “Theses on Feuerbach,” the last of which has become the most famous:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.


*Even though I insist on the idea that a basic understanding of Hegel is necessary for understanding Marx’s theoretical journey, it is also possible to overstate the case. Marx’s method is neither a straightforward application nor a simple reversal of the Hegelian dialectic. But the time he wrote Capital, Marx had criticized and moved far beyond Hegel’s philosophy.

**At the time (beginning in 1840), Germany was governed by a new king, Frederick William IV, who undermined his promise of political reform by curtailing political freedom and religious tolerance. For the Young Hegelians, this was a real step backward in terms of following the rest of Europe (especially Britain and France) in modernizing political institutions and expanding the realm of freedom. And it was key to their eventual break from Hegel, since according to Hegel’s philosophy the Prussian state represented the fulfillment of history. (The contemporary equivalent is Francis Fukuyama’s famous book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he argued that “not just. . .the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

  1. mjlovas says:

    You write: ” Descartes argued that it was impossible to know things as they appear to us (phenomena) but only things as they are in themselves (noumena). Experience was deceptive. Hence, his focus on reason, which alone can provide certainty about the world.”
    “things as they are in themselves (noumena)” is Kant’s language, not Descartes’s. So, this sentence suffers from anachronism.
    If you look at the example Descartes gives at the end of Meditation Two, you will see that his claims about the power of the mind are not quite what you suppose. You’ve got him going FROM appearances (senses) give no certainty TO ergo reason lets us have knowledge, certainty. To be sure, in the Meditations, D. cared about certainty; but if you read what he says about the wax, his thought is more complicated. The content of what we think when we think about the piece of wax is not possibly something we get from sense-perception because what our senses tell us changes, as the wax can change—if melted, or undergoes one of countless changes. Yet we think we know it’s the same wax. So, it’s the very idea of Identity that does not come to us from our senses.
    In fact, what Descartes says is that it is the “faculty of imagination” at work here. (Cottingham’s translation AT31) In his summary of the argument Gary Hatfield(in the Routledge Gudebook to Descartes’ Meditations) puts the point by saying that “a judging mind or intellect is required, beyond the bare image.”–in order to have thoughts about identity or sameness, the identity or sameness/difference of a piece of wax.
    I am not a Descartes scholar, and it would be folly to represent Descartes’ thought only on the basis of this one book, but I think your presentation could be more accurate. The argument I sketched above has similarities to Chomsky’s claim that behaviorism cannot account for language learning. So, I suppose Descartes’ thinking is more plausible than you give him credit for.

    When I read what you’ve written, it is totally opaque why anyone would think Hegel had solved the epistemological problems his predecessors raised. How exactly does Spirit and History manage to let us know real things? You can stipulate or declare that we know reality through the appearances. But that’s just a hollow assertion, not a claim that has been explained or justified. In the end, we’re being asked to believe it because you said so—but what exactly we are believing is something at a vague level.

    One way to turn these general bold claims (the ones you find in Hegel) into something comprehensible might be to give a more specific or detailed example. (Gesturing at “philosophical categories”, “the development of society”, etc. is not enough. It’s precisely too abstract and too general to aid genuine understanding.)

    You go on to write: “In other words, the consciousness of things as they appear to us leads to knowledge of the essence of things.'” But that just bypasses the details I’ve supplied above. That just ignores Descartes’ actual thought. How can knowledge of the wax’s appearance lead us to know its essence? You have not said. You have only boldy and without argument asserted that it has. So, you’ve given us no reason to think Hegel made progress–apart from the fact that y o u (or HEGEL) say so.

    You write: “What Marx and the other Young Hegelians took from Hegel was a method and language that allowed them to challenge tradition and the existing order: a focus on history and a stress on flux, change, contradiction, movement, process, and so forth.”
    Did Marx really need Hegelian metaphysics to do that? In any case, merely a stress on flux and change won’t get progress! And surely what Marx wanted was a better condition for human beings–not merely a changed one. (Or, are you going to tell me that a change is good if we all think it is?)

    I would have thought that what allows people to challenge an existing order is the conviction that it is not just. Now, perhaps you mean that the stress upon history and change, makes the existing order seems less fixed and permanent, and so, it’s possible to change it. (You might want to add some sentences like that into your revised version.)

    But what I get from what I’ve read from you in the past is that you’ve got no substantive argument about progress. You take the easy way out and go for some sort of relativism.

    I shall speculate now that your neglect to these substantive details are the stuff of which your interpretation of Marx is built. IE, these are substantive philosophical matters which you’ve ignored, and therein lies my inability to accept in toto your view of Marx. I do believe you’ve made mistakes in your thinking about Marx because you’ve never gotten clear on fundamental epistemological questions. I rather suspect you’ve jumped away from Reason (as you see it) because you’ve been horrified (and rightly so) of the mainstream Economists notion of reason, but you’ve jumped too far in a certain direction. (And, please don’t tell me (again) to go read Rorty! If you learned something substantive from Rorty, then you can say it in your own words. If you cannot say it in your own words, then maybe Rorty isn’t so good.)

    All speculative at the end. It’s not much work to read the end of Meditation Two where Descartes talks about a piece of was, and if you read it carefully, I think you will see that what I say is true. And I am not a Descartes scholar, so it’s not as if I am asking for very much.

    • David F. Ruccio says:

      I make no claim to progress with respect to Hegel. I’m just trying to present some basic ideas—of where his ideas came from (in response to, among many others, Descartes and Kant), what they were, and where they led (for Marx and the other Young Hegelians—so that readers of the book will have some sense of the theoretical context within which Marx’s work emerged and developed. Nothing more, and nothing less. When I get on to Marx’s critique of political economy itself, I’ll have more to say about the idea of progress.

      • mjlovas says:

        Your version of the ideas is so watered down as to be incomprehensible. You’ve introduced huge abstract ideas in a way that makes them unintelligible words. You do not have to be a Hegel scholar or a Descartes scholar to do better. But it would take more work, apparently, than you are willilng to make.
        Moreover, your comment on progress ignores my substantive point. Why would Marx launch himself on his project after reading Hegel? Because, according to you (and it is plausible) the emphasis upon history and change in H. made it seem possible for their to be change. You say that you do not introduce the idea of improvement. I am saying that is a mistake. It is a mistake because no one is going to make a change just because it is a change. No one–not Marx and not any sane person–wants change for its own sake, surely not revolutionary change. Your account is incoherent, or incomplete at this point.
        I note with perverse pleasure that you have ignored my remarks about Descartes. That indicates to me that you never understood Rorty in the first place because I do recall that Descartes figured large in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Furthermore, I must say that you give history a bad name in what you have written. You make philosophers sound more obscure than they are. Descartes was a scientist as well as a philosopher, and you do not do him justice. It’s no good saying you are just giving a little “background”. What you are giving is UNINTELLIGIBLE. You are just repeating key words, key phrases, with no understanding. That is not scholarship or education. I can’t say what it is. I don’t know the word in the English language.
        The thing is: If you were really doing “background” you would explain how Marx’s ideas arose from Hegel, and the connection of Hegel to predcessors. Evidently, you do not know and cannot say. You’ve only repeated certain key words and phrase, so that it just becomes one damn thing after another. And you don’t even understand the criticism I am making. I don’t think I’ll be buying your book.

      • mjlovas says:

        Let’s be perfectly clear. The point of my comments about Descartes is that you have not given an accurate summary or thumbnail sketch. On the contrary, you’ve given an inaccurate and misleading picture of what Descartes was doing. Your summary makes Descartes look like a worse thinker than he really was. And, there is no excuse for that. What you are writing is not “background”. It is distortion and misrepresentation
        of history.

  2. Magpie says:

    Prof. Ruccio,

    Glad to see you posting on this again. Unfortunately, I am sadly unqualified to contribute with anything but some general proofreading.

    And I think I found a couple of typos.

    Typo #1: “One are is particularly important: the theory of knowledge and, closely related, the philosophy of history.

    It’s area.

    Typo #2: “But they also turned their critical graze>/b>”

    You mean gaze, I think.

  3. mjlovas says:

    The most honest thing you could do is simply drop your discussion of Descartes and Kant, and simply acknowledge that while Hegel had predecessors, and he, naturally, was responding to them, it would distract from your (“our”) main object to get involved with their dialectic.

  4. […] mjlovas on Toward a critique of political economy: Hegel […]

  5. […] Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on three previous ones, here, here, and here) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political […]

  6. […] Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on four previous ones, here, here, here, and here) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political […]

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