Marx and Hegel Revisited

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Tony Smith

Dialectics of Labour:
Marx and His Relation to Hegel
By C.J. Arthur
New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986, $39.95.

MARX’S 1844 MANUSCRIPTS have been known in the West for over half a century and few Marxist theorists have ignored them. One might think that little new remained to be said. One would be wrong. C.J. Arthur’s major study of the Manuscripts deepens our understanding of them considerably. In doing so it also illuminates in precise terms Marx’s shifting relationship to his predecessors in the course of his early development.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one discusses Marx’s theory of alienation. Arthur carefully draws out Marx’s distinction in the Manuscripts between “productive activity” and “labor.”

Productive activity is the process whereby human beings and nature are mediated. In this process we objectify ourselves in our products, thereby developing our essential human capabilities.

Labor is a specific historical form of productive activity, characterized by the commodification of productive activity in wage labor. The objectification is alienated objectification, an estrangement.

When Marx talks about the abolition of labor in the Manuscripts, Arthur establishes that he is by no means advocating a romantic and Utopian elimination of work-even of manual work. He is calling for overcoming the estrangement of wage labor.

This point has generally been missed before because Marx later uses “labor” in a different sense; in Capital it stands for productive activity in general. Arthur brings out in detail the influence of Moses Hess and the Fourierists on Marx’s thought here.

The distinction also allows Arthur to clear up what appears to be an inconsistency in the Manuscripts. On the one hand Marx asserts that the alienation of labor is due to the subordination of labor to private property. But on the other hand he claims that private property is a consequence of alienation.

The answer to this apparent paradox is simple. Labor alienates itself in capital {the highest form of private property), to which it is then subordinated: “The worker produces and reproduces that which dominates him – capital.” (22)

From here we are only a step away from Marx’s most important insight. There is an essential antagonism in the capita/wage relation that can only be resolved through the transcendence of estrangement in the abolition of capital. As Arthur stresses, what is unique to Marx is not the theory of social conflict but the solution to that conflict: the overcoming of alienation as the practical task of the proletariat.

Consciousness and Objectivity

In part two Arthur examines Marx’s attitude toward Hegel from this perspective. Hegel is praised for having a theory of both objectification and estrangement. But in Marx’s view both are distorted by Hegel’s idealism.

The objectification of which Hegel speaks is based on the labor of “spirit,” a hypostatized super-subject, rather than the productive activity of flesh and blood men and women. The development of this spirit supposedly culminates in a stage of absolute knowledge where what appears to be its object is only itself.

Regarding the problem of estrangement, Hegel sees it as a problem of consciousness only. Hegel’s solution is not the practical transformation of estranged forms of human objectification. It is instead a “recollection” of spirit’s own activity in positing itself as objective. The estranged forms remain present after this reconciliation with them in consciousness has occurred.

In contrast, Marx’s project is to produce “a new objectivity, one free of estrangement from its producers.” (62)

In the remainder of part two Arthur develops an interesting parallel between Hegel and classical political economy. Like Hegelian social thought it too stressed the significance of labor in human development without advocating the supersession of the alienated forms within which it operates.

Arthur then turns to a detailed analysis of the sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit that influenced Marx. An interesting sidelight to this discussion is close textual argument that the Master/Slave section did not influence Marx, contrary to the almost universally held view.

Arthur presents a compelling internal critique of Hegel’s justification of wage labor. Hegel is against the entire alienation of a person’s powers through a contract on the grounds that this involves the complete subordination of the will of one person by another. But he incoherently allows a piecemeal alienation of a worker’s time that has the same result, the appropriation of one person’s entire labor time by another. Anyone who’s at all interested in the relationship between Hegel and Marx would profit from the close analysis of key texts from both thinkers throughout part two.

How Marx Became Marxist

Part three concludes with a detailed reconstruction of Marx’s development from the Young Hegelian radical democrat of 1840-43, through the Feuerbachian of 1843, to the turning point in 1844 when Marx first formulated the ontology (essential characteristics) of productive activity. Arthur then shows how this ontology provides the framework for Marx’s later work as well. His argument completely sustains the closing claim: “anyone who fails to see the relevance of the 1844 Manuscripts to Capital has simply not understood Capital itself.” (144)

As a subtle and careful presentation of Marx’s views this book has few equals. However, there is also the question of the adequacy of Marx’s views to be considered, especially his views on Hegel. Arthur does grant that Marx was unfair when he claims that Hegel had no understanding of any form of labor besides mental labor. But he seems to accept the rest of Marx’s judgement on Hegel.

There are enough passages in Hegel that suggest the “spirit” is some sort of supersubject. But I also believe it is possible to read Hegel in a way that doesn’t commit him to such a bizarre metaphysical entity. But I am more interested with Hegel’s alleged eradication of objectivity and with his supposed equation of objectification with alienation.

Regarding “objectivity,” Hegel certainly says that the highest experience of objectivity is one in which consciousness recognizes that its object is only itself. Marx (and Arthur following him) seems to see “objectivity” as a univocal term. But for Hegel it is a technical term with two distinct senses.

In its first meaning, the “objective” is that which stands opposed to the ego, that is, the “manifold world in its immediate existence.” But second, “objectivity signifies that which is in and for itself – the inner nature of what is to be understood” (G.W.F. Hegel, Science of Logic, London: Allen and Unwin, 1969, 709).

Marx’s criticism takes “objectivity” in the first sense. If the word is taken in this way, then any attempt to see the object of consciousness as identical with consciousness itself would indeed count as abolishing independent existence of a material world outside of consciousness. If taken in the second sense, however, it is more complicated. I believe that Hegel felt it trivial that there is always a material “other”’ that confronts our senses and understanding. He had no interest in following Fichte’s hopeless and endless task of getting rid of this other.

Hegel is no subjective idealist. His concern is instead with establishing that reason can become united with objectivity in the second sense of the term, that a rational reconstruction of the object in thought can assimilate the objective intelligibility of the object itself. This claim – while it may or not be warranted (some theories of ideology assert that all thought is class, gender and racially biased)-does not involve eradicating objectivity in the first sense of the term by reducing it to thought.

It also must be said that Marx too defends the unity of thought and objectivity in the second sense. He clearly conceives Capital as a rational reconstruction in thought of the capitalist mode of production that assimilates the objective intelligibility (however contradictory) of that object itself.

And Arthur himself quotes the famous passage in the 1844 Manuscripts where Marx asserts that “man knows how to produce in accordance with the standards of every species and knows how to apply to each object its inherent standard.” (9) It is not clear to me that Hegel means anything different when he says that thought can recognize itself in its object.

Hegel on Freedom

Marx may also have been unfair to Hegel on the question of objectification and alienation. There are a number of profound substantive differences and a somewhat less interesting terminological difference between Hegel and Marx. But I fail to see the fundamental methodological difference that Arthur follows Marx in supposing.

Arthur writes that for Hegel “a change in attitude abolishes the consciousness of estrangement of the world adopted by consciousness.” (61) As a result “the sublation of estrangement consists in stripping the spiritual forms of their ‘external’ character, not abolishing them outright, that is to say, in recognizing them precisely as spirit’s own work.” (56)

But this implies that for Hegel any objectification of human activity that sets up an institutionalized social form is as good as any other; spirit simply has to recognize (“recollect”) its subjective activity in constituting a social form. This fundamentally misinterprets Hegel.

Hegel unequivocally rejects the adequacy of certain social forms. No ultimate reconciliation in thought is possible with Oriental Despotism or European Feudalism. These forms are objectifications of subjective activity that are inherently distorted in that they do not allow for any true harmony between the universal (the community) and individuals.

Hegel attempts to ground philosophically the necessity of “abolishing outright” these social forms. A mere change of attitude towards them is no more sufficient for Hegel than it would be for Marx, and for many of the same reasons.

It is true that Hegel does advocate reconciliation in thought with the structures of modem civil society, state and religion. But this is due to Hegel’s substantive interpretation of these social forms. He believes that in modem society universal and individual are harmoniously reconciled in institutional structures that allow for freedom for all.

For example, Arthur notes how for Hegel the contracting parties in contractual exchange freely constitute a universal will that reconciles their individual wills together. (98)

Of course Marx has a quite different view. For Marx the apparently free wills are in reality subjects to the commodity form, the money form, the capital form. For Marx these social forms in their own way are as inherently distorted as Oriental Despotism or feudalism. They too do not allow for a reconciliation of the universal and individuals.

But the point is that Hegel’s conservative acceptance of these social forms stemmed from his interpretation of them, and not from any imperative of his system to always and everywhere reconcile objective social forms and human subjects, no matter what the forms in question might be.

What Is Alienation?

Arthur does consider Gillian Rose’s view that for Hegel the experience of alienation is restricted to pre-bourgeois societies. (76) To this he replies that Hegel uses the two German terms for “alienation,” Entausserung and Entfremdung, throughout the Phenomenology, and not just when pre-bourgeois societies are being considered. But this only establishes a terminological difference between Hegel and Marx.

Hegel terms all objectified social forms the results of the alienation of human subjectivity, both those in which it is possible to reconcile objective social forms with subjectivity and those in which it is not possible. Marx restricts the term “alienation” to the latter only.

As far as I can see nothing of importance hinges on this different usage. But it does lead Arthur into some confusion. When he writes that Hegel “is unable to see the possibility of a historical reappropriation by man of his alienated powers” (67) he is correct if “alienation” is taken in the wide sense employed by Hegel. However, Arthur clearly means it to be taken in the narrow sense and substance used by Marx, and in this case the statement is false.

As Arthur’s discussion of Hegel’s views on contractual exchange establish, Hegel not only thinks that overcoming alienation in Marx’s sense is possible, but that it has already taken place!

Each usage has something to recommend it. Marx’s narrower usage is helpful in drawing the contrast between social forms wherein human subjectivity can flourish from those in which it cannot. Hegel makes the distinction too, but he cannot use the language of alienation in doing so. (Instead he uses the distinction between structures of Being, Essence and Notion, taken from his Logic. But that is another story.)

Hegel’s broader usage is helpful for bringing out a necessary feature of human existence. Let us assume with Marx and Arthur that the objective social forms characterize communism do allow for the harmonious reconciliation of universal and individuals, for overcoming of alienation in Marx’s sense of the term.

There is still a sense in which it is proper to say that individuals will be “alienated” from those social forms. We cannot assume that everyone is born with a fully developed consciousness of the advantages of communism. Individuals will still have to be socialized into the formal and informal rules and systems of meanings necessary for communism to function Until these rules and meaning systems are internalized they may appear “alien” to some individuals.

Likewise we cannot always assume that everybody will always get their way. An individual, for example, may very well believe strongly in a proposal to which he or she cannot get his or her fellow workers to agree in a democratically run workers’ council. The individual consciousness of that person may at first be “alienated” from the social form in which a decision he or she strongly disagrees with was made.

What is required here is an advance to a higher level of consciousness, one in which the person acknowledges the legitimacy of the institutionalized procedure (decisions made democratically by the self-organized working class are superior in principle to those imposed upon workers by either the owner/controllers of capital or by a bureaucratic elite), even if he or she rejects a specific result of that procedure.

Once again we see a parallel between Marx and Hegel’s position that both Arthur and Marx himself overlooked. Both thinkers say that social forms that do not allow full human individuality are to be overcome. And both would assert that social forms allowing this still demand that individuals move to higher levels of consciousness, leaving those social forms intact. The dispute between them is under which heading the specific social forms of capitalism are to be placed.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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