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Marxism, Hegel and the Philosophical Foundations of Social Revolution

Is Hegel really necessary? This is a question of which Hegel himself was acutely aware. Other philosophers before him, from Greek antiquity to the French Revolution, had tried to describe the human condition and the ways in which we understand it. Hegel was the first to argue that the attempt itself was mistaken, as it presupposed a point outside the human condition from which that condition might be described.[i]

Against this, he insisted on the need constantly to locate all thought, including his own, within the context of the historical development of the condition it seeks to understand. The unprecedented task which he set himself was to describe reality and our experience of it in such a way that the inner necessity of its historical development could demonstrate the necessity of his own description.

But that conclusive demonstration of the necessity of his own account of human reality was to elude Hegel. For he could not provide a properly historical account of the relationship between his own thought and the concrete conditions in which it occurred. Instead, he sought to provide a philosophical account of historical reality as essentially constituted by the human mind. This Hegelian synthesis could not account for ongoing historical events, and began to crumble soon after his death. In the form in which he presented it, it is doubtful whether anyone would take it seriously today, as the comprehensive account of reality which it claims to be. The task of providing an account of history which could itself consistently be located within the real conditions of that history, showing which historical forces could generate such an account, and which could act upon it - was taken up by Karl Marx, who "openly avowed himself a pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel]." [ii]

Is Hegel really necessary? The question appears in a different light to us today: is Hegel really necessary in our own time and place, and in the struggles to which they summon us? Is it really necessary, in other words, that the efforts of even a small part of the liberation movement in South Africa should be directed towards understanding the failed project of an early nineteenth-century German philosopher—a crucial influence on the major thinkers of the Marxist tradition, but notorious for the impenetrable complexity and obscurity of his thought? Can we not envisage liberation taking place without that expenditure of costly intellectual effort? Can we not imagine that effort being devoted to more essential tasks in the struggle for liberation?

It is a question which we can pose quite concretely within the context of our own situation at the University of the Western Cape. It has frequently been revolutionaries, rather than academics, who have devoted years of their life to mastering the resources of Hegel's thought and using them creatively in the struggles of their own time: the young Marx and Engels, Lenin in Zurich after 1914, Trotsky in exile in France after 1933, and such figures as Lukacs, Gramsci and C.L.R. James. But this is less likely to happen in a context such as that of contemporary South Africa in which explicit use of philosophical resources in political argument is much less common.

In a context such as our own, it is more likely that the study of Hegel will be pursued in the universities, if at all. And in the context of a university which draws its students from oppressed communities, disadvantaged by bad schooling and faced with the need to earn a living in an economic order based on racial domination, we need to ask: is it necessary for, let us say, dozens of students each year to be expected to wrestle with the frustrations of this most difficult of philosophers, when they could be dealing with material far easier to assimilate and far more immediately related to the struggles of their time?

Within the tradition of Marxism, from its inception to the present, there has been a range of replies to this question. Not all have been as emphatic as Lenin's comment: "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. Consequently half a century later, none of the Marxists understood Marx."[iii] The authority of the classical authors has been sufficient to ensure a ritual acknowledgement of the importance of the ongoing study of Hegel for the vitality of Marxist theory and practice. But the classical authors of Marxism set out their views in contexts in which the centrality of philosophical debate for the Marxist tradition was firmly established.

As far as I know, no systematic attempt has yet been made to deal with this question in the context of Marxism in the Third World—a context in which philosophical debate is less conspicuous than in the advanced capitalist countries in which the classical texts of Marxism were written. The purpose of this paper is to pose more clearly the question of the relationship of Marxism and Hegel within the context of a post-colonial society such as South Africa, and more generally, to pose the question of the tasks of philosophy in building the resources of Marxism in our own context.


The bulk of this paper is a reconstruction of Hegel's contribution to establishing the philosophical foundations on which a theory of revolutionary class-struggle, such as Marxism, could be built. In order to assess this contribution, however, we need to draw upon a background which is not always familiar to those debating Marxism in contemporary South Africa. In particular, we need to consider the background of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, against which Hegel's work was done. And it becomes more important to take note of this background, not less, if we want to understand the development of Marxism in a context, such as South Africa, where the bourgeoisie had no "enlightened" or revolutionary phase.

It is important to remember that the idea of revolution—of consciously transforming the basic historical conditions of human life—was a product of the emergent bourgeoisie in Western Europe in the eighteenth century. The bourgeoisie itself soon retreated from its revolutionary goals, and has not proved to be a revolutionary class in other historical contexts. But I try to show how the original revolutionary aspirations of the European bourgeoisie were taken over by Marxism, and how Hegel's actual critique of the individualist premises of bourgeois social theory—and not just the method which he developed in this critique—was an essential precondition for the development of any coherent theory of proletarian revolution.

The question of the relationship of Marxism and Hegel cannot be left there, however. It is necessary also to trace the ways in which the legacy of Hegel has been assessed within the Marxist tradition. In this paper, I have isolated only one aspect of this complex legacy, by trying to show how the idea of dialectical materialism emerged within Marxism: the idea, that is, that the dialectical method taken from Hegel can be coherently separated from historical enquiry in such a way as to produce a set of principles—those of dialectical materialism—on the basis of which we can gain knowledge of historical reality. For it is this idea which most frequently dominates our understanding of the relationship of Marxism and Hegel—often at the expense of historical accuracy and conceptual coherence!

Against this background, I then argue that Hegel's work is not simply of historical interest, as it might appear to be from the perspective of dialectical materialism. Rather, for as long as bourgeois social relations obtain in society, the continued study of Hegel is necessary if Marxism is not to be based either on fundamentally bourgeois conceptions of freedom— even if the bourgeoisie no longer has the courage to declare them—or on the abstract negation of those conceptions. Our understanding of Marxism's past, as I hope to demonstrate, plays a vital role in developing our capacity to use its resources in the struggle for a socialist future.


Let me specify more closely why it is necessary to understand Marxism's origins. What distinguishes Marxism from earlier forms of socialism is its capacity to explain how a political programme based on the interests of the working-class could solve not only the problems of the working-class, but the fundamental problems of society as a whole. It is this which makes Marxism a revolutionary tradition, rather than one which is aimed at partial social change aimed at furthering sectional interests. To this day, any form of socialism which falls short of this universality is in this respect pre-Marxist—no matter how regularly it invokes the name of Marx, Lenin or anyone else.

Although this universality distinguished Marxism from other forms of socialism, this is not to say that Marx was the first to seek a framework for the solution of the problems of society as a whole. We need not trace this aspiration back to its origins. What is relevant for our purposes is that in the capitalist societies of modern Europe, it was upheld with unprecedented clarity and vigour by various forms of bourgeois social theory above all, the social contract theory first elaborated by Hobbes and Locke, and most fully developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These theories sought to derive the necessary form of the state and the limits of political authority from an analysis of the needs and interests of the bourgeois individual, which they saw as the definitive needs and interest of any possible human being.

From the outset, Marx's work took up this aspiration to establish a comprehensive framework for solving the problems of society as a whole, rather than seeking to solve the problems of one part of society at the expense of another. But it was the philosophical work of Hegel which allowed Marx to do this. For the way in which he took over this aspiration was defined by the dialectical idea of universality which he took over from Hegel—an idea, that is, of the need for universal interests or aspirations to manifest themselves in concrete and particular forms, which developed historically through encountering and overcoming their own inherent contradictions—and by the dialectical method of interpreting concrete historical developments. It is in this context that Marxists have asserted, beginning with Marx, that there is an integral connection between the dialectical method of Marxism, on the one hand, and its revolutionary purpose, on the other.

The problem of defining this relationship is an ongoing one. Marx took over a fundamental aspiration of bourgeois social theory; but he could not have used it for the purposes he did, if its meaning had not been substantially transformed by Hegel's dialectical method. But how had Hegel come to transform the aspirations of bourgeois social theory? Can his dialectical method simply be taken over in societies such as South Africa in which the bourgeoisie has never played a revolutionary role, has never aspired to formulate and address the problems of society as a whole? If Hegel's dialectical method is bound up with his critique of the premises of bourgeois social theory, how will it be assimilated into Marxist theory in societies where naked repression makes that Hegelian critique appear superfluous? It is in this context that we need to consider Hegel's critique of bourgeois social theory. In particular, we need to consider Hegel's critique of the specific forms of bourgeois social theory developed in the Enlightenment of eighteenth-century Western Europe.


The Enlightenment was the name given to the period of European intellectual life roughly from the 1680s to the 1780s. As the name indicates, it was a period in which educated people came to believe that they were liberating themselves, and ultimately all humankind, from the "darkness" of superstition, dogma and tyranny. Its intellectual heroes—Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France; Pope, Sterne, Hume, Smith and Gibbon in Britain; Lessing, Goethe, Kant and Mozart in Germany—differed on many issues, but agreed in the fundamental belief of the age: that the human condition could be improved, and all could live happier and better lives, if people would live according to the norms of reason, as nature had intended. [iv]

These interlinked ideas of progress, reason and nature stood in sharp contrast with the dominant ideas of feudal ideology in medieval and early modern Europe. The feudal social order depended on preserving unquestioned the authority of tradition and hierarchy. In intellectual matters, the authority of the Bible—as interpreted by the Church—was decisive. Far from encouraging people to base their beliefs on the evidence of observation and experiment, feudal ideology saw such efforts to test belief as sinful defiance of God's revelation by a being whose puny powers could only lead him or her astray. Suffering was seen as an irremediable part of the human condition; relief from it was to be found only in the life hereafter. For most of human history—not only in Europe, but in pre-capitalist societies throughout the world—this belief in that the basic character of social existence could not be altered significantly by conscious human effort was inescapable.

As Marx and Engels point out with such graphic force in the Communist Manifesto, it was the rising bourgeoisie of western Europe which cast aside the thousand-year-old authority of custom, tradition and scripture, as it transformed the social relations on which that authority was based: "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash-payment. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”[v]

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century expressed the original confidence of this class in its capacity to create a better world. It took place after the feudal world-view had effectively been demolished at an intellectual level by the scientific revolution: Newton's Principia was published in 1687; Voltaire's popularisation of Newton’s discoveries in 1738 signalled the onset of the Enlightenment in earnest. But it took place before the bourgeoisie had yet been confronted with the consequences of their rule: the French revolution of 1789 and the industrial revolution which got underway in the 1790s put an end to it; the mobilisation of the popular classes, and the upheavals of early industrialization made clear that the removal of feudal absolutism would not issue in the rationalist utopias of Enlightenment social theory.

The peculiar conditions which made Enlightenment possible in eighteenth-century Europe were, on the one hand, an intelligentsia capable of aligning itself with the rising bourgeoisie rather than the feudal order, on the basis of its unprecedented sense of the potential of human knowledge ensured by the scientific revolution; but, on the other, a bourgeoisie not yet forewarned of the scale of the upheaval and conflict which its rule would bring in its train. It was in these conditions that the view of the world was formed which has come to dominate the modern world.

To focus on a historical process that took place in Europe is not to accept the standpoint of Eurocentrism. If we are to understand the assimilation of Marxism in South Africa and its relationship to Hegel, then we must understand that these peculiar conditions could never again be repeated in any other part of the world: elsewhere, scientific revolutions would follow after the transformation of traditional social relations and industrialization introduced by the European colonial conquest, which was expanding across the entire globe.

Never again would there be a moment in which the intellectual spokespersons of the bourgeoisie could put its tasks as representatives of the general interests of society before its own particular interests. But that moment of Enlightenment critique provided the essential starting point for revolutionary struggles against capitalism throughout the world. Becoming conscious of the process which transformed that critique remains essential for those struggles


This, then, was the social basis of the universality of bourgeois social theory in the age of Enlightenment. Three essential philosophical conceptions articulated and ensured that universality. These were: (i) a conception of consciousness as autonomous; (ii) a conception of freedom as the absence of external constraint; (iii) a conception of inequality as the contingent rather than necessary condition of humankind, and by implication a conception of equality as the natural condition of humankind. We need only give the briefest account of these three conceptions in order to see how fundamental they are to the world-view of capitalist society, and how fundamental Hegel's critique of these conceptions is to the overcoming of the limitations of capitalism.

For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the autonomy of consciousness was the basis of human progress. Feudal ideology had denied the possibility of human progress by affirming that the human mind was essentially dependent on revelation, and incapable of fathoming for itself the ways of its Creator. Consciousness and knowledge was seen by the Enlightenment in close connection with human practice; but always in a one-sided relationship. Insofar as consciousness was autonomous, and gave itself its own laws and values, it might depend on the experience of the particular individual, but its content could not be determined by the condition of society as a whole. In contrast, though, the enlightened consciousness could give direction to society as a whole.

Lucien Goldmann sums up: "The thinkers of the Enlightenment in general lack all sense of the dialectical relation between knowledge and action, between seIf-awareness and practice."[vi] Without that one-sidedness, it is hard to imagine how the Enlightenment thinkers would have been able to cast aside feudal ideology as confidently as they did.

This conception of the autonomy of consciousness underpinned the bourgeois conception of freedom as the absence of constraint. Without such autonomy, the absence of constraint would yield no gain at all. And once we assume that consciousness has that autonomy, constraint becomes a violation of the essential character of consciousness. In these terms, the essential freedom of the autonomous subject in bourgeois social theory consists in not being forced to accept anything as valid unless his or her conscience, will and reason have given their consent to it. Again, feudal ideology could deny the possibility of such freedom by affirming that each of God's creatures had its appointed place in His creation, and that for them to consent to it would be meaningless. Enlightenment thinkers could assert this conception of freedom, however, as capitalism—unlike feudalism—offered the formal freedom for all to give or withhold their consent from any transfer of goods or labour­ power.

The third conception essential to the world-view formed by the Enlightenment was that of inequality as merely contingent or accidental, and by implication of equality as the natural condition of humankind. Within feudal ideology, inequality was unproblematic; indeed, inequality was the precondition of any social, political or moral order. Only by knowing one's place in the social hierarchy could one tell what obligations one owed and to whom.

Capitalism had established formal freedom for all to exchange their goods and labour-power as they saw fit. In doing so, it had also established the formal equality before the law of the contracting parties. This did not mean that inequality ceased to exist under capitalism. On the contrary, the law before which all were formally equal was designed to protect property, and for property to be profitable there had to be people without property, who could survive only be selling their labour.

But it did mean that inequality became essentially problematic for the thinkers of the Enlightenment. It was necessary to explain how inequality had come about at all, and how it had happened that some had acquired property and not others. A range of explanations were forthcoming; and of course it did not take the owners of property long to discern the hand of God in their own good fortune. But within the framework of Enlightenment thought and capitalist social relations, no consistent justification for the necessity of inequality was possible on these grounds.

Perhaps it was even essential for the inner coherence of Enlightenment thought that the problem of inequality remained impenetrable. If inequality is predestined in some way, as is asserted in a vast range of pre-capitalist ideologies, then it imposes no obligation on its beneficiaries to change it. But if it is merely accidental, as asserted by the Enlightenment, then there is no reason why those who benefit from it should not use their advantages to "uplift" the rest of humanity. Indeed, having benefited from the "accident" of wealth, property and education, it might well be argued that they should use these benefits to the advantage of others.

In this sense, the contingent character of inequality was the cornerstone of the Enlightenment theory of social change: if human consciousness was autonomous, then those who had achieved the greatest possible autonomy, through education, independent exercise of their faculties and the like, should lead humanity away from superstition, prejudice and parochial custom; if freedom was the absence of constraint, then those who were least constrained by material or moral circumstance should lead humanity to the enjoyment of freedom; but this was only possible if those who had the benefit of education, wealth and the like had no essential interest in preserving this inequality.

The Enlightenment provided an account of how the problems of humankind might be solved—through progress, reason and nature. But this universality was gained at a price: the bourgeoisie and the enlightened aristocracy were to lead humanity on its gradual path to realization of its capacities. This fundamental limit of the social thought of the Enlightenment was particularly clearly revealed in the dependence on the power of the "enlightened despot" in backward social formations—most obviously, Catherine II of Russia.[vii]

Such conceptions of consciousness, freedom and equality made possible the universality of bourgeois social theory—above all, in the form of the theories of social contract proposed by Hobbes and Locke in the seventeenth century, and integrated into the world-view of the Enlightenment by Rousseau. Rousseau's Social Contract, written in 1762, made use more or less explicitly of these three conceptions in order to argue for democratic self-government, based on the will of the people. This account of the Enlightenment can be concluded with a brief exposition of his argument.

Rousseau begins by expressing his puzzlement at the problem of domination and inequality: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer." The problem must be addressed, Rousseau argues, on the basis of the inherent freedom of every human person: "To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties... Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts." Having established this idea of freedom as essential for the coherent exercise of human will, he then formulates what he sees as the central question of social theory: "The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, will still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before."[viii] It is in response to this problem that Rousseau argues for the formation of a people capable of democratic self-government, formed by each individual submitting his will to that of the people as a whole. It is an argument which still echoes to this day!

We might say that Rousseau took bourgeois social theory to its limits. His theory remained essentially bourgeois insofar as it sought the protection of "the person and goods of each associate", without questioning the fact that this would involve protecting the ownership by some of the means of production and by others of nothing more than their labour-power. There is a sense also in which Rousseau's problem forced him beyond the limits of bourgeois social theory. For, without any clear conception of the historical significance of social classes, his theory ends up incapable of explaining how the formation of the people is to take place. But if we wish to understand how Rousseau's cry that "the people shall govern" developed into Marx's theory of proletarian revolution, then we must turn to Hegel's critique of the basic conceptions of the Enlightenment.


Against the three conceptions of the Enlightenment outlined above, Hegel asserts: (i) a conception of consciousness as the product of historical struggle; (ii) a conception of freedom as necessarily located within community, and not an individual attribute; (iii) a conception of inequality as an essential moment in human liberation, and of its victims as those who necessarily lead the struggle for liberation.

These conceptions are present already in Hegel's first mature work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, published in 1807, although some aspects of them are made more explicit in his later writings. For the purposes of this brief exposition, I shall refer mainly to his analysis of the dialectic of master and slave (in Miller's recent translation, the dialectic of lordship and bondage), as set out in chapter four of the Phenomenology.[ix]

Hegel does not deal directly with the Enlightenment in this passage. Indeed, there is a section of chapter six of the Phenomenology which does deal with the Enlightenment, but it does not serve as well to show how fundamentally Hegel transformed its legacy.

This account of the dialectic of master and slave provides the starting point for the communism of the young Marx, who took from it his conception of work as an essential moment in forming the consciousness which can undertake the struggle for human liberation.[x] It is also the passage whose interpretation by Alexander Kojeve, in the series of lectures on Hegel which he delivered in Paris from 1933 to 1939, played a formative part in the development of post-war Marxism in France, and in Western Marxism more broadly.[xi]

Let us begin with Hegel's critique of the Enlightenment conception of consciousness. There is a sense in which the whole of Hegel's Phenomenology—perhaps even the whole body of his philosophical work—constitutes an implicit critique of Enlightenment, insofar as it demonstrates the historical character of consciousness, constantly tracing the forms it takes in specific circumstances, revealing its inner contradictions, and its efforts to resolve them. But nowhere in Hegel's writings is this critique more sharply expressed that in his analysis of the emergence of self­consciousness in the dialectic of master and slave.

For the Enlightenment, it was in self-consciousness, above all, that the autonomy of the human mind was demonstrated and expressed. Indeed, self-consciousness was the distinctively human form of consciousness, as consciousness of objects outside the self could be shared by other animal species as well. For Hegel, this foundation-stone of modern philosophy is no more than an imaginary construction. "Self­consciousness exists in and for itself," he argues, "when, and by the fact that, it so exists or another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged."[xii]

Put differently, we are able to form and carry out conscious purposes of our own insofar as we are able to get others to recognize those purposes as our own—in other words, as products of an independent self, conscious of itself not just in passing contrast with a world outside, but as something existing in its own right ("for itself") and extending over time. It is only our interaction with others that forces us to check our instinctive desires, and prevents us from remaining caught up in a changing flux of desires for objects outside ourselves. Only once the immediacy of instinct is held in check by that interaction are we able to come to any clear realization of our capacity to adhere to values, which give us a consistent orientation towards the objects which we encounter outside ourselves. The supposedly autonomous self-consciousness from which Enlightenment had deduced the forms of social interaction—which it saw as taking place according to the values which each such self-consciousness had decreed for itself—was itself the product of social interaction, and only through that interaction could values emerge at all.

But if the Enlightenment conception of consciousness proves untenable, what becomes of its conception of freedom? It is then no longer feasible to say that freedom consists in the unconstrained consent of the autonomous consciousness, once the original autonomy of consciousness has been called into question. Rather, freedom requires a context in which mutual acknowledgement of self-consciousness—of purposes and values which are deliberately held—takes place.

But how does such acknowledgement come about? For Hegel, self-consciousness is always the result of a process of struggle; in fact, of a struggle which has the character of a struggle to the death: "Thus the relationship of the two self-conscious individuals is such that they prove themselves and each other through a life-and-death struggle. They must engage in this struggle, for they must raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth, both in the case of the other and in their own case. And it is only through staking one's life that freedom is won; only thus is it proved that for self-consciousness, its essential being is not [just] being, not the immediate form in which it appears, not its submergence in the expanse of life, but rather that there is nothing present in it which could not be regarded as a vanishing moment, that it is only pure being-for-self. The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self­consciousness.”[xiii]

Freedom does not consist in being left alone, then; it consists in having your purposes in the world recognized for what they are, by those whose capacity to hold such purposes you recognize as well. And such recognition can only be the outcome of a struggle in which we distinguish ourselves from the "immediate form" of being, submerged "in the expanse of life," by showing that we have independent purposes and values which are more important to us—that is, more important to us than life itself. It is no mere moral exhortation, in this context, to say that "it is only through staking one's life that freedom is won". Rather, it is a simple consequence of any definition of freedom which recognizes the social character of human consciousness.

This does not mean that each of us must individually stake our lives in an instant demonstration that we are willing to die for freedom! But we must be willing to sacrifice dependence on whatever seems to satisfy our immediate needs—above all, dependence on a person whose purposes we might simply carry out—if we are to form purposes of our own. In Enlightenment social thought, freedom was no more than the removal of oppression; it would come about, in Voltaire's famous phrase, when "the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest." In contrast, Hegel shows how freedom can never simply be delivered; its basic character is such that it must always be earned in struggle.

Elsewhere, particularly in the Philosophy of Right, Hegel sets out the implications of this critique of the Enlightenment conception of freedom for his conception of community. For it is in the context of community that freedom must be sustained. Hegel discusses Rousseau's views on the state, which he considered as the highest and most complete form of community: "The merit of Rousseau's contribution to the search for this concept [the state] is that, by adducing the will as the principle of the state, he is adducing a principle that has thought both for its form and its content, a principle indeed which is thinking itself, not a principle, like gregarious instinct, for instance, or divine authority, which has thought as its form only. Unfortunately, however, ... he takes the will only in a determinate form as the individual will, and he regards the universal will not as the absolutely rational element in the will, but only as a 'general' will which proceeds out of this individual will as out of a conscious will. The result is that he reduces the union of individuals in the state to a contract and therefore to something based on their arbitrary wills, their opinion, and therefore their capriciously given express consent."[xiv]

As a recent commentator on Hegel's political writings puts it, "Rousseau confused the truth that there could be no freedom without the consent of one's mind and will with the very different proposition that such consent constituted freedom. Without an external, objective, rational principle to guide our will, it becomes arbitrary and amoral."[xv] In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel shows what becomes of the concept of freedom once political theory is based on the assumption of the autonomy of consciousness: freedom and arbitrariness are confused. "The idea which people most commonly have of freedom," he writes, "is that it is arbitrariness—the mean, chosen by abstract reflection, between the will wholly determined by natural impulses, and the will free absolutely. If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is the ability to do what we please, such an idea can only be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought... The content [of such a will] comes to it from outside, although 'outside' in this case means impulses, ideas, or, in general, consciousness so filled in one way or another that its content is not intrinsic to its self­determining activity as such." [xvi]

Once we accept that the will is formed in a social context, then the question of freedom becomes a question that concerns the extent to which the social context makes it possible for independent self­consciousness to develop. It is only once common purposes have been formed collectively by free individuals, who acknowledge each other as such, that the dialectic of master and slave is realized. Freedom is the outcome of this dialectical process, not its avoidance.

For Hegel, then, the struggle for freedom is always a struggle to build a community capable of freedom, for it is only in that context that freedom has a coherent meaning. Indeed, for Hegel, a community only comes to exist insofar as it comes to be conscious of itself as part of that struggle for freedom. Hegel was himself never able to see beyond the limits of the bourgeois, constitutional state of his time, which he saw as the highest form of political community. In spite of its limitations, his writings on the topic remain a rich source of insights for the present. Hegel shows that the existence of communities cannot be taken as a starting-point in political struggle, as communities must themselves grow out of such struggle, contain such struggle within themselves, and seek to provide recognition for the most fundamental purposes underlying that struggle.

But Hegel's most dramatic and fundamental critique of Enlightenment thought is to be found in his account of how that struggle is waged, and by whom. The Enlightenment had taken it for granted that it is the task of the masters to free the slaves, and that of the philosophers to persuade the masters to take on this task. Hegel, in contrast, argues that it is the slaves—the oppressed and exploited—who must liberate humankind; indeed, that no-one else can fully understand what freedom is. It is not difficult to see how important this element of Hegel's dialectic of master and slave was for the young Marx.

To clarify this argument, let us consider briefly how the struggle to the death for recognition is to be resolved. Two self­consciousnesses are forced into a struggle to the death for recognition, in order to “raise their certainty of being for themselves to truth.”[xvii] But it would defeat the purpose for either to kill the other. By dying, you might prove that you place your independence above your merely animal desires; but you cannot enjoy the self-consciousness for which you made the sacrifice, once you are dead. Similarly, by killing the other, you gain a victory; but the other whom you have put to death cannot recognize you as an independent self-consciousness. The struggle for recognition leads necessarily to inequality, as one gains mastery rather than killing the other, and the other accepts slavery rather than sacrificing life. The struggle can only be resolved by the slave, who thus preserves his life by recognizing the purposes of the master, while the master recognizes only his own purposes.

Inequality is thus an essential outcome of the development of human self-consciousness, in Hegel's argument. But this does not mean that it is an enduring moment; it is soon torn apart by its own contradictions. For the master cannot receive the recognition he needs from the slave, precisely insofar as, by making him a slave, he does not constitute the slave as an independent self-consciousness. Nor can the master be recognized by his fellows, except as a fellow owner of a slave. And insofar as the master's desires are carried out by the slave, those desires remain fleeting and impermanent.

The slave, on the other hand, who appears to have lost the struggle for recognition, is forced to hold in check his own desires in order to serve those of the master: "Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is," writes Hegel. "Work is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing. It is precisely for the worker that the object has independence. This formative activity is at the same time the individuality or pure being-for-self of consciousness which now, in the work outside of it, acquires an element of permanence. It is in this way, therefore, that consciousness, qua worker, comes to see in the independent being [of the object] its own independence." [xviii]

Here is Kojeve's commentary on these few lines: "The Master can never detach himself from the World in which he lives, and if this World perishes, he perishes with it. Only the Slave can transcend the given World (which is subjugated by the Master) and not perish. Only the Slave can transform the World that forms him and fixes him in slavery and create a World that he has formed in which he will be free. And the Slave achieves this only through forced and terrified work carried out in the Master's service. To be sure, this work by itself does not free him. But in transforming the World by this work, the slave transforms himself, too, and thus creates the new objective conditions that permit him to take up once more the liberating Fight for recognition that he refused in the beginning for fear of death. And thus in the long run, all slavish work realizes not the Master's will, but the will—at first unconscious—of the Slave, who—finally—succeeds where the Master—necessarily—fails. Therefore, it is indeed the originally dependent, serving, and slavish Consciousness that in the end realizes and reveals the ideal of autonomous Self-Consciousness and is thus its 'truth' ."[xix]

At every stage of this dialectic, we see that consciousness is forced to confront contradiction and overcome it. The Enlightenment conceptions which Hegel criticizes are not rejected from a standpoint outside their own path of development. Rather, by following that path tom its logical conclusion, these conceptions are shown to be partial and one­sided, and take their place as essential moments in the progressive unfolding of truth. In his Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel declares: "We learn by experience that we meant something other than we meant to mean; and this correction of our meaning compels our knowing to go back to the proposition, and understand it in some other way."[xx]

This dialectical process takes Hegel beyond the static conceptions of bourgeois social theory, reveals them as moments in an ongoing process, while still maintaining its aspirations for solving the fundamental problems of society as a whole. In taking over that dialectical method, then, Marx was also basing himself on the substantive results of Hegel's use of it.


We can see this clearly in Marx's earliest socialist text, his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right', written in 1843. It is worth quoting its account of the world-historical role of the proletariat, in order to make clear its continuities with the Hegelian conceptions we have been discussing and its dependence on Hegel's dialectical method. “It is not a radical revolution, universal human emancipation, that is a utopian dream for Germany,” Marx writes, "but rather a partial, merely political revolution, a revolution that leaves the pillars of the edifice standing." But "in Germany, no class of civil society has the need and the capacity for universal emancipation until it is forced to it by its immediate situation, material necessity and its very chains."

Marx asks: "Where then is the positive possibility of German emancipation?", and the terms of his answer are clearly drawn from Hegel. "Our answer: in the formation of a class with radical chains, a class in civil society that is not of civil society, a class that is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere of society having a universal character because of its universal suffering and claiming no particular right because no particular wrong but unqualified wrong is perpetrated upon it; a sphere that can claim no traditional title but only a human title; a sphere that does not stand partially opposed to the consequences, but totally opposed to the premises of the German political system; a sphere, finally, that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, thereby emancipating them; a sphere, in short, that is the complete loss of humanity and can only redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society existing as a particular class is the proletariat."[xxi]

Marx's Introduction of 1843 is an advance beyond the idealism of Hegel, insofar as it is able to consider the social classes which can embody one or other form of consciousness. At the same time, however, it falls behind Hegel in its failure to specify the concrete mediations through which this consciousness develops. Marx's dialectic is still abstract and ahistorical. In this sense, we might say that Marx depends more on the results of Hegel's dialectic than on his own use of that dialectic. He has essentially taken over the Hegelian historical schema, substituting the proletariat for the Hegelian idea as the subject of the historical process. A few more years were to pass before he was to begin the work—which was to occupy him for the rest of his life—of mapping the contradictory processes of class formation and class conflict within the capitalist mode of production.

In the meanwhile, in 1843, Marx depended on the Hegelian schema and its dialectical contradictions (the complete loss of humanity is to redeem humanity, etc.), but could not yet say how these contradictions developed historically. He could not yet say how the proletariat comes to be aware of its tasks and carries them out. Indeed, it is not only that Marx offers no account of these processes ; he turns explicitly to philosophy for a resolution of the conflicts he has identified as having their sources in the contradictions of material life: "The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be actualized without the abolition of the proletariat; the proletariat cannot be abolished without the actualization of philosophy." [xxii] All that this invocation achieves is to add an ahistorical conception of philosophy to a historically unspecified conception of the tasks of the proletariat.

In the decades after 1843, Marx and Engels were to explore the class dynamics of the capitalist mode of production with an unparalleled concreteness and wealth of detail. But neither of them found time to reconsider their relation to Hegel until the publication of the second edition of Capital in 1873. And when Marx did return to the subject in 1873, he once again separated the results of Hegel's dialectic from the dialectical method itself. It seems that he remained unconscious of the extent to which he had taken not only a method from Hegel, but also the philosophical foundations of his own revolutionary commitment. "My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it," Marx wrote. "For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of the 'Idea', is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me, the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought ... The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell."[xxiii]

This brief passage from Marx has echoed mightily within the subsequent history of Marxism, and has frequently been seen as the key to a Marxist dialectic. In the process it has frequently been forgotten that a theory of proletarian revolution could not first arise, and then afterwards equip itself with some or other method of analysis, without that method already having served to make the theory possible. What we need to examine briefly is how Hegel's contribution to establishing the philosophical foundations for Marxism came to be obscured within the context of Marxism itself.

It was within the context of a discussion of method that Marx broached the question of his relationship to Hegel. In Engels' short text, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, written in 1886 after Marx's death, Marx's emphasis is removed from that context, and the contrast between the reactionary content of Hegel's work and its revolutionary method is given its definitive expression[xxiv]. It is this emphasis that has been most influential within the subsequent history of Marxism.

Engels attempted to distil a revolutionary method from Hegel's work in his Anti-Duhring, in which he first set out what he described as the "laws of dialectics." This idea of dialectical laws—comparable to the laws of nature—was developed further by Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism. It was Plekhanov who first coined the term "dialectical materialism"—a term unknown to Marx and Engels.

The idea that Marxism had a comprehensive philosophy, including general laws applicable to reality as a whole—whether it was known as dialectical materialism or not—had a minor but persistent role within the Marxism of the Second International. It served to convey to workers a sense that ineluctable laws of history were bringing socialism nearer, providing a kind of substitute for religious fatalism. In the context of backward Russia and the debates with the populist Narodnik movement, Plekhanov had greater need of such laws than any other figure in the Second International. Scientific socialists, he wrote, strive for socialism not because it is desirable, but because it is the next stage in the "magnificent and irresistible forward march of History"; "Social Democracy swims with the tide of History", and the causes of historical development "have nothing to do with human will or consciousness." [xxv]

After the October Revolution had created a workers' state in backward Russia, however, and particularly after the isolation of that revolution and the rise of Stalin under the banner of "socialism in one country," the idea of dialectical materialism became dominant within the Marxist tradition. It was never universally accepted. But in the Soviet Union it took on the exalted status of an official "philosophy of state"—similar in some respects to state religion, or the status which Engels had attributed to Hegel’s more conservative doctrines in Prussia 100 year before!

Bolshevism had not always been sympathetic to the idea of dialectical materialism. Lenin had been Plekhanov's pupil, and adopted many of his theoretical usages, but was not consistent in this. Lenin’s early text, What the ‘Friends of the People' Are (1894) downplays the role of dialectic in Marxism, describing it as "nothing but a relic of Hegelianism out of which scientific socialism has grown."[xxvi] Even in his later works, when he had begun to use the term "dialectical materialism," Lenin still asserted that "the philosophy of Marxism is materialism" and explained it within mention of dialectic.[xxvii]

In his Philosophical Notebooks of 1914, written after the break-up of the Second International, Lenin came to a dramatically different estimate of Hegel. There Lenin only used the term “materialism” once, and then to criticize Plekhanov for vulgar materialism! Far from proclaiming inviolable laws of dialectical materialism, Lenin repudiated dependence on such laws, stressing dialectical intelligence instead: "Intelligent idealism is nearer to intelligent materialism than is stupid materialism," he wrote, and then corrected himself: "dialectical idealism instead of intelligent; metaphysical, undeveloped, dead, vulgar, static, instead of stupid." [xxviii]

Lenin's apparent overstatement was borne out by events. The doctrine of dialectical materialism was given its authoritative form by Joseph Stalin in his short text, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, written in 1938, and destined to become perhaps the most widely-read philosophical text of all time. (It was compulsory study material for members of the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and China. It was adapted for many other contexts, including South Africa.) Stalin's text opens with the statement that "dialectical materialism is the world outlook of the Marxist-Leninist party."[xxix] It goes on to provide a philosophical framework that supposedly guarantees the historical correctness of judgements derived from that philosophical framework.

Stalin sets out "the principal features of the Marxist dialectical method," in the form of four tenets of dialectical materialism: that nature is a connected whole; that nature is not static, but always developing; that not only quantitative but also qualitative change takes place in the process of development; and that contradiction is at the basis of development.

It is a bland enough set of formulae, and it stops short of any examination of the character of those contradictions and their role in development, in order to show "how immensely important is the application of these principles to the history of society and to the practical activities of the party of the proletariat." From each principle, one application is provided: "hence the capitalist system can be replaced by the Socialist system"; "hence, in order not to err in policy, one must look forward, not backward"; "hence, in order not to err in policy, one must be a revolutionary not a reformist"; "hence, in order not to err in policy, one must pursue an uncompromising proletarian class policy, not a reformist policy of harmony f the interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie."[xxx]

The crucial characteristic of these principles is that at no stage would it be possible for a Marxist to make use of them to resolve any real, historical problem. It is hardly even possible to debate their meaning and application. In what conditions can capitalism be replaced? How far forward should one look, and what conclusions can be drawn from what you see there? What is the revolutionary course in a given situation? What kind of revolution is at stake? When are proletarian class interests being compromised by a particular policy? Every answer is justified and none. Put differently, the crucial feature of these principles is that they require a party and a leader for their interpretation; they provide that party and its leader with an air of infallibility; and do precisely nothing to demonstrate the need for such a party itself. The principles of dialectical materialism are portrayed as standing above history, descending only to guide his rightful heirs within it.

Indeed, the philosophy of dialectical materialism served as a justification in advance for whatever arbitrary direction was taken by Stalinist power. Stalin's text was written at the height of the Great Purge Trials, which resulted in more than a million executions in 1936-38, a forced labour camp population in 1938 of over 8 million, and millions of deaths in the camps. By 1939 Stalin had executed 110 of the 140 members of Central Committee of the CPSU elected in 1934. By then, 1,108 of the 1,827 rank and file delegates to the 1934 Party Congress had been arrested as counter­-revolutionaries. [xxxi]

The advent of dialectical materialism saw the removal of the dialectical method from its original realm: the analysis of philosophical conceptions within the historical process. It remains necessary, in using the dialectical method within the context of a materialist analysis of society, always to examine what specific contradictions occur, how they are resolved, etc., rather than deducing them from a general set of laws covering all nature and history. The dialectical method does not free Marxists from necessity for careful study of the facts; on the contrary, it makes that task all the more important.

The dialectical method, if it is not to degenerate into a justification of party leadership, must always be a method of explaining concrete historical processes. The principles of that method must themselves always be seen as part of the historical process they seek to understand. The method cannot be severed from its historical context and still remain dialectical; insofar as it is dialectical, it must reflect continually on the historical conditions of its own occurrence in whichever context it is used. Such reflection must necessarily return to the context in which Hegel's dialectic established the philosophical foundations of the theory of proletarian revolution.


In conclusion, let us return to the question with which this paper began: Is Hegel really necessary? Is it really necessary, I asked, for the efforts of even a small part of the liberation movement in South Africa to be devoted to understanding his philosophical work? Put differently, can such work be recognized as contributing anything to the broader movement for liberation?

We should now be in a position to give a more definite answer to this question. In this paper, I have tried to set out the contribution made by Hegel's critique of the bourgeois social theory of the Enlightenment to establishing the philosophical foundations of Marxism. If it has been shown that Hegel’s work played an essential role in making possible a theory of proletarian revolution, then the original question would have to be reformulated: Is it necessary, we would have to ask, to ensure that the theory and practice of Marxism is built on one set of philosophical foundations rather than another? And to answer these questions, we would need to know: how do the philosophical resources the stock of theories, concepts and presuppositions - on which we have to draw in the course of our activities come to be established? Why do they take the specific form they do? How are their limits set?

Philosophical concepts are always in part an articulation of the social relations of the historical context in which they occur, and in part they serve also to constitute those social relations. The social relations of feudalism would not be possible without the concepts of duty, hierarchy, honour and the like. Capitalist social relations depend similarly on producing viable concepts of a fair deal, say, or value for money, of individual rights, the sovereignty of law and the like. Philosophical concepts are embodied in social relations and must be assimilated in their context.

How, then, have philosophical concepts served to constitute the dominant social relations of contemporary South Africa? To what extent has the philosophical legacy of bourgeois Enlightenment and the Hegelian critique of Enlightenment come to be assimilated in the conditions of our intellectual and material life? To what extent, in other words, does our history provide us with the foundations on which a Marxist tradition can be built which is neither dogmatic nor eclectic, both rational and militant?

Capitalist social relations have been established in South Africa on the basis of conquest and dispossession. At no stage in its history was it necessary for the ruling class to come forward as the representative of the interests of all who live in South Africa - until after it has become too late for it to do so! The peculiarity of South African history is that here capitalism has escaped the cycle of underdevelopment which has characterized most post-colonial societies, but it has done so without incorporating the bulk of the working-class into the state indeed, while specifically excluding them from the institutions of the state on grounds of race.

The ideology which has guided this contradictory effort, Afrikaner nationalism, has drawn in large measure from the anti-Enlightenment currents of European thought. It has succeeded nonetheless, for the moment, in assimilating the technocratic legacy of Enlightenment, while denying its emancipatory impulses. In this context, the bourgeoisie could not succeed in taking over even the colonial variant of Hegelianism, put forward by the philosophical spokespersons of British imperialism at the turn of the century in order to accommodate colonial societies within its world-historical teleology.

The result has been a pattern of capitalist development in which the development of a revolutionary critique of capitalism is faced with peculiar difficulties. It has never been necessary—and equally it has never been possible—for Marxism in South Africa to distinguish itself practically from the emancipatory impulses of bourgeois Enlightenment, as these have never been assimilated in our historical context. But at the same time, the extent of bourgeois development in South Africa continues to hold out the promise of bourgeois emancipation. It has never been possible for Marxism in South Africa to distinguish itself practically from Hegelianism, nor to draw from it in any productive way. Unlike the Marxism of any of the advanced capitalist countries, Marxism in South Africa is faced with the task of consciously establishing its own philosophical foundations.

If Marxism is seen not just as a revolutionary sociology or a doctrine of left-wing managerialism, but as a framework for the fullest possible emancipation of humankind, then it stands in need of all its capacities. "There is nothing resembling 'sectarianism' in Marxism," Lenin wrote, "in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the highroad of the developmen of world civilization. On the contrary, the genius of Marx consists precisely in his having furnished answers to questions already presented by the foremost minds of mankind. His doctrine emerged as the continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism."[xxxii] Without conscious effort being made to master the resources of Hegel's philosophical work in the context of our struggle in South Africa and to use them creatively, a Marxist tradition capable of living up to these aspirations will not be built.


[i] Paper presented to Marxist Theory Seminar, University of the Western Cape, 14 October 1988. In revising typographical errors that occurred in the conversion from PDF to MS-Word of the original typescript, I have taken the liberty of changing or removing a few brief passages which, almost thirty years after writing them, are no longer clear to me. [ii] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth, 1976), p. 103. [iii] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (Moscow, 1972), vol. 38, p. 180. [iv] In writing this paper, I have not attempted to locate its argument in the context of the existing literature on the topics which it discusses. Lucien Goldmann's brief work, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (London, 1973) is one of the few serious studies of this period written from a Marxist perspective. [v] D. McLennan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p. 223. [vi] Goldmann, Philosophy of the Enlightenment, p. 2. [vii] A fascinating study of the "enlightened" despot in the context of a backward social formation is provided by Arthur Wilson, "Diderot in Russia, 1773-4" in J.G. Garrard, ed., The Eighteenth Century in Russia (Oxford, 1973), pp. 166-97; cf. A. Walicki, A History of Russian Thought (Oxford, 1980), pp. 2-8. [viii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G.D.H. Cole (London, 1968), pp. 3, 8, 12. [ix] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford, 1977), pp. 111-119. [x] Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (New York, 1964), p. 177. [xi] Alexander Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (New York, 1969), especially pp. 3-30; cf. M. Kelly, Modern French Marxism (Baltimore, 1982), pp. 65-68 et passim. [xii] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 111. [xiii] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 114. [xiv] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (London, 1952), pp. 156-57. [xv] Z.A. Pelczynski, "Political Community and Individual Freedom in Hegel's Philosophy of State," in Z.A. PeJczynski, ed., The State and Civil Society: Studies in Hegel's Political Philosophy (Cambridge, 1984), p. 59. [xvi] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, p. 27. [xvii] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 114. [xviii] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 118. [xix] Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, pp. 29-30; cf. J. M. Bernstein, "From Self-consciousness to Community: Act and Recognition in the Master-Slave Relationship,” in Pelczynski, ed., State and Civil Society, pp. 21-25 [xx] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 39. [xxi] Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right,’ ed. by J. O'Malley (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 139, 141-2 [xxii] Marx, Critique of Hegel's ' Philosophy of Right', p. 142. [xxiii] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, pp. 102-3. [xxiv] F. Engels, "Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy," in Marx and Engels, Selected Works in Three Volumes, vol. 3, pp. 337-43. [xxv] Plekhanov, quoted in Walicki, A History of Russian Thought, p. 417. [xxvi] V.I. Lenin, "What the 'Friends of the People' Are," in Collected Works (Moscow, 1960), vol. 1, p. 164. [xxvii] V.I. Lenin, "The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism," in Selected Works in Three Volumes, vol. 1, p. 45; the text is dated March 1913. [xxviii] V. I. Lenin, "Abstract of Hegel's Science of Logic," in R. Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom (New York, 1958), Appendix B, pp. 340, 354: on Trotsky's attitude to dialectical materialism, cf. P. Pamper, ed., Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-35: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism (New York, 1986), especially pp. 92-98. [xxix] Bruce Franklin, ed., The Essential Stalin: Major Theoretical Writings, 1905-52 (London, 1973), p. 300. [xxx] Franklin, The Essential Stalin, pp. 306-308. [xxxi] Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics of Disaster (London, 1983), pp. 70, 127.


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