Discuss the following statement by Karl Marx with reference to Hegel
This essay will discuss the following statement from Karl Marx (1818-1883) with reference to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.' It will be shown how Hegel and Marx differed substantially on this subject and that Hegel would have said that it is education and not the mode of production which shapes consciousness.
Although Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel, having been one of the Young Hegelians in his youth, there were actually many differences between Hegel and Marx’s philosophies. Their main difference centred around their views on history. Hegel’s version of history was dialectic idealism. Hegel’s dialectic can be understood as a series of contradictions, or two sides of the same coin, which then become fused together to form the synthesis. This synthesis necessarily also has a contradiction or negation, which is then transformed into a further synthesis. This process is how Hegel described the development of an argument, or further still, the philosophical development of an individual or indeed of the whole world. This idea has been further expanded upon during recent times by Dawkins, who termed ideas as memes, evolving and mutating, in much the same way as DNA. Marx, on the other hand, saw history in terms of the ‘antagonism [between the] oppressing and oppressed classes'. And he termed this view ‘historical materialism'.
Hegel actually predicted the view of historical materialism due to his emphasis on work, albeit fused with the fear of death and subjugation of the slave as providing the impetus for self-development. Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel’s Lordship and Bondage idea of self-consciousness. For Hegel, something knows what it is, simply by knowing what it is not. In his master-slave theory, he asserted that the slave had more self-awareness than the master. Since the slave was aware of the master as ‘the other’, yet the master was not aware of the slave, but simply took him for granted, and perhaps even saw him as sub-human, the master did not have the level of insight as the slave. And yet Hegel contradicts himself by also saying that reason is not possible without freedom. Nevertheless if one’s body is enslaved yet their mind is free, this assertion still stands. The author proposes that Marx used this idea to develop his theory of ‘class consciousness’ and as his reason for believing that the proletariat were capable of dictatorship – the first step on the road to a socialism.
Marx saw history as a class struggle between the proletariat (workers, non-owners of property) and the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production and property). Hegel would have seen this as original history and too simplistic a way to describe the complexities of the history of the world. Hegel saw the writers of this type of history as skewing the past in order to fit their own agendas; that their sole purpose was to pass on their own experience or mind image to the reader and not the actual reality, i.e. they were not objective. Hegel would also undoubtedly have accused Marx of being a reflexive historian in that he contravened the best established facts of history by ‘putting subjective fancies in place of historical data'. He would have said that the simplicity of Marx’s work was the essence of its appeal; that even the most uneducated could understand the concept. Wilson protested at ‘the crudity of the psychological motivation which underlies the world view of Marx'. During his own lifetime, Marx was accused of being an Hegelian stoic, a charge to which he happily conceded. The author would say that Marx’s work was merely a parody of Hegel’s.
For Hegel, the truth was the whole. The end result as well as the process. Therefore abstracted parts were not in themselves the truth. The knowledge of Absolute truth would be attained once all contradictions had ceased. And Hegel’s ultimate negation was death, at which point the self would no longer be trying to find itself. For Marx, the end of contradictions would be at the end of the state, the end of politics, communism’s ultimate goal. Ironically, Fukuyama declared ‘the End of History’ with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The reason he said this was that communism was, according to Marx, a progression from capitalism, and also that Hegel saw the world as constantly evolving. By returning to capitalism both of these hypotheses were negated.
In the earlier part of his life, Marx was a strong Hegelian supporter, but broke away in his later years, developing his own philosophy. Even so, differences can be seen from Marx’s youth in their approach. He declared in an essay in 1835 that, ‘The chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection… It should not be thought that these two interests could be in conflict'. But they are in conflict because by perfecting one’s own discipline, e.g. medicine, one is providing an invaluable service to mankind. Marx is also saying here that one has a choice over their working life and in so doing contradicts his later statement of which this essay is the subject. In 1840, Friedrich Wilhelm IV was acceded to the throne in Germany and he promptly extinguished academic freedom and began highly censoring the press. This had a huge impact on Marx and provided one of the reasons why he felt that the mode of production had such an influence on one’s life. Marx criticised Hegel’s work and others by exclaiming that, ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.' Whereas the mature Hegel became less revolutionary when he decided that it was more agreeable to deal with the world as one finds it; Marx’s revolutionary fervour increased with age. While Marx believed in man’s power or duty to change the world, the mature Hegel believed that man only thinks he is making decisions but is in fact subconsciously carrying out the will of Geist. When speaking of the ‘cunning of reason’ Hegel meant that man’s ability to reason is simply an illusion.
Neither Hegel nor Marx were monotheists. Nevertheless, Marx was an atheist, and saw religion as the reason behind many wars and civil unrest. However, Hegel, who had studied Theology, believed in a cosmic force, or Geist, that flowed through all living things. This Geist was the underlying force behind all advancement. It is for this reason that he has been accused of being pantheistic. Yet for Hegel, Geist flows through life but is not life itself. They therefore shared the conviction that reason, and not an outside force, i.e. God, influenced the vagaries of man. They were both anti-dualists. Marx once famously accused religion of being ‘the opiate of the masses', and therefore a suppressant of political and intellectual curiosity. The fact that Marx recognised the impact religion has on thought; despite for him it being a negative one, still contradicts his statement regarding the mode of production being the sole influence upon one’s social, political and intellectual life.
Hegel saw religion as a force that greatly shaped peoples’ consciousnesses. In participating in religion, people are voluntarily subjecting themselves to a superior power. Hegel felt that in Rome, Christianity had arisen so greatly due to a lack of political community, that Christianity was not the cause of this. In giving oneself to this greater influence one’s reason is being given away along with one’s freedom. Of course, during the communist era, Christianity along with other beliefs was replaced by the parties’ central dogmas. So for Hegel, religion as well as state doctrine is a powerful shaper of opinion. Hegel also perceived war as a means to setting people’s minds on the universal. As an example, it has long been held that the First World War was a decisive factor in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Whilst Marx and Engels said that the theory of the Communists can be summed up in one sentence: ‘the abolition of private property', Hegel saw property as the outward extension of one’s inner being, or personality. Hegel said that when someone takes ownership of something, it is an imposition of will. Not in the Lockean sense, where one mixes one’s labour with the thing, but rather his belief is on the same wavelength as Plato – that the material world is simply the physical representation of the human consciousness. Hegel would therefore have disagreed with Marx’s statement as he believed that thought preceded matter. In this he was influenced by Descartes who said ‘I think therefore I am'.
In Marx’s theory of dialectic materialism he used a metaphor of base and superstructure to describe the relationship between the material conditions (the base) and the political, legal and intellectual institutions of the state (the superstructure). He claimed that the superstructure was dependent upon the base, but also that this was not just a one way process. Meanwhile, being a dialectic idealist, Hegel would have said that any changes that come about in economic life are ultimately as the result of Geist under the guise of the ideas of men. These ideas come both from members within state institutions as well as from revolutionaries. Whether their motives are idealistic or purely monetary, they still create the mode of production of material life.
The fundamental reason why Marx’s supposition cannot be true is for the plain fact that not everybody from the same background has the same social, political and intellectual views. Marx himself came from bourgeois parentage and was financially healthy when he began his quest to help the working class. Though in later life, he was to suffer economically. He addressed this anomaly by saying that when the time is ripe for the proletariat to rise up, a portion of the bourgeoisie who have comprehended the world’s history correctly will align themselves with the proletariat, just as at the end of feudalism a few members of the nobility moved over to the bourgeoisie. However, for Hegel, each person views the world through their own individual lens created by personal experiences, even if they are presently subject to the same environmental conditions.
Hegel’s dialectic shows the history of the world as an ever continuing organic process with its states, societies, laws, etc. reflecting the character and tradition of its peoples. An example of this can be seen during the Russian Revolution with the struggle of the Muslim population forming their own Musavat Party in 1911, having been marginalised by the main Bolshevik party The Russian Revolution was not primarily about workers rights for everyone concerned, it was also about rectifying the mistreatment and inequality of certain social groups. Marx would answer this by saying that with property and the mode of production being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, civilisations with separate languages, customs, laws, etc. are ‘lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier and one customs tariff'. Because hitherto non-capitalist societies were taking on capitalist modes of production, their social, political and intellectual lives were also transformed. Here he was undoubtedly referring to the US and also perhaps to Russia, but this was an uncanny prediction of the modern European Union. But could it be that these new civilisations were just being exposed to new ideals and evolving their consciousnesses rather than this being simply the product of their working life?
With property, modes of production and thus power being held by the few, it was, and still is, the case that the owners of the press tailor their contents to their respective target audiences. And it is certainly true that people of particular professions tend to read similar types of publications, although not exclusively so. And what of the illiterate? How could they possibly hope to grapple with ideas such as Hegel’s and the Ancient Greeks without the ability to read? The level of education of the worker influences heavily his choice, or lack of, profession. Hegel would have said that although it may appear to be the mode of production that influences the mind, in fact it goes back further, to one’s education. Hegel placed great emphasis on self-development and despised those who would not seek to raise themselves to a higher level of intellectual maturity. But Marx would argue that with the labourers only being given just enough money to subsist on, with what could they advance themselves?
This essay has shown how Marx differed greatly from Hegel and also how Hegel’s ideas were in the author’s view, superior. Yet in order to agree with Hegel, one must also agree with Marx, because in failing to do so would be to dispute Hegel’s version of philosophical history. For Hegel, each generation is more intellectually evolved than the previous, even though it may seem otherwise. Marxism cannot therefore be seen as a glitch in human history but as a necessary point on mankind’s road to the Absolute truth.
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