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Marx and Hegel: Interpreting the world in order to change it

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
In the first part of a new series, Bob Fotheringham looks at Karl Marx’s influences, starting with philosophy
Issue 2040
GWF Hegel

GWF Hegel

Possibly the most important intellectual influence on Karl Marx was the German philosopher GWF Hegel.

Marx first came across the ideas of Hegel in 1836 when he went to study at university in Berlin.

Initially Marx was not greatly impressed with Hegel – but once at university he fell under the influence of a number of Hegel’s followers who were interpreting Hegel’s ideas in an increasingly radical manner.

From Hegel, Marx took the concept of “dialectics”. The essence of dialectics can be summarised by the proposition that all reality is in a process of development through contradiction and conflict.

For Hegel, this reality was fundamentally mental or spiritual – in other words, he was an “idealist”.

Like many intellectuals of the time, Hegel had been influenced by the French Revolution of 1789. But by the time of his death in 1831 Hegel’s ideas had been taken up and sponsored by the Prussian state.

This was because he believed that the Prussian state had become the embodiment of reason, and that human ideas could only ultimately be understood in relation to god.

By using Hegel’s dynamic philosophy – but turning it on its head – Marx was able to develop a much more revolutionary understanding of how society worked.

A second important influence on Marx was another German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Unlike Hegel, Feuerbach was a materialist rather than an idealist. He criticised Hegel, arguing that ideas – and ultimately the idea of god – were a product of human activity and human thought, all taking place in the material world.

However, there was a problem with Feuerbach’s materialism. While he rejected god and religion, he viewed human nature as something that did not change. The purpose of philosophers – people such as himself – was merely to educate people about the dangers of religion.

While correctly rejecting Hegel’s idealism, Feuerbach had removed what was interesting and revolutionary in Hegel’s thought – the concept that society and ideas were continually changing.

In 1845 the young Marx noted down a short critique of Feuerbach. This text was first published after Marx’s death and was given the title Theses On Feuerbach.

The third thesis reads, “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.

“This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

“The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity, or self-changing, can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

By building on Hegel’s dialectic and Feuerbach’s materialism, Marx was able to develop a much greater and ultimately much more radical idea of how society developed. He called this “historical materialism”.

Humans must be able to live before they can make history, Marx argued. In other words, human society is built around the process of production.

Furthermore, human production is a collective process that, as human society develops, leads to the development of classes.

The development of class society creates a situation where there are exploiters and exploited.

Conflict is thus built into class society – contradiction and change are necessarily endemic. This brings us back to Hegel and his dialectics.

For Marx the real driving force of human history is the class struggle. To quote Marx’s famous lines from the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman – in a word, oppressor and oppressed – stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”

One final point needs to be made about the development of Marx’s ideas. While he was profoundly influenced by the German philosophical tradition, he was never simply a philosopher.

Marx fought against the poverty, exploitation and injustice that he came across throughout his life.

To quote the final, and most famous, of his theses on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world – the point is to change it.”

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