Domenico Losurdo
Original publication:
Translation: Roderic Day

Marx Against Hegel? Idealism, Materialism, and History as Liberation (2010)

51 minutes | Deutsch English Italiano | Philosophy

This text was originally published in Critica marxista 5, 2010, pp. 40-49. The original title, “Hegel, Marx, and the Ontology of Social Being” (a reference to Lukács), was modified so as to better highlight the contribution it makes to the RS collection.

Losurdo examines the relationship between Marx and Hegel in order to question the categories of materialism and idealism, and to bring the two German theorists closer to each other. The human-nature relationship, as well as the theme of labour and alienation, are discussed so as to illustrate that Hegel’s philosophy of history presents a conception of “history as liberation.”

I took the editorial decision to translate the German term Sein as “reality” (in contrast to the more common “being”) so as to bring to the fore more sharply the implications of Losurdo’s (and Hegel’s) arguments.



In the conclusion to his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx summarizes his judgment of Hegel as follows: “The main point is that the object of consciousness is nothing else but self-consciousness, or that the object is only objectified self-consciousness, self-consciousness as object.” Accordingly, “The only labor Hegel knows and recognizes is abstract mental labor.” [1]

This is a reading that will undergo attenuations and modifications in the course of Marx’s subsequent evolution, even ones that we might qualify as significant, but it’s never repudiated outright. And this is a reading that, precisely in its most radical formulation, has deeply influenced the most diverse authors and currents in the Marxist tradition. Take György Lukács. Though in one of his early famous monographs (The Young Hegel) he challenged conservative readings and emphasized the centrality of the themes of necessity and labour in Hegel — necessity as the biological needs of man, labour as the transformation of physical nature required to fulfill these needs — , in 1967, four years before his death, he was without doubt: “[A]ccording to Hegel, the object, the thing, exists only as an alienation from self-consciousness […].” [2] It’s a mystery how Hegel could, despite being burdened with such delusions, remain, to quote the late Lukács again, “a philosopher with a strong and comprehensive sense of reality, with an intensive hunger for genuine reality the like of which may well have not been seen in any thinker since Aristotle.” [3]

Ernst Bloch argues similarly, despite parting from a very different starting point. On the one hand, he points out that Hegel, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, achieves an “outstanding result” whereby “the further development of self-consciousness occurs through the consciousness of the working servant.” We are again referred back to the matter of work and, by implication, the needs it is called upon to fulfill — that is, we are again referred back to both physical nature as a whole and the biological nature of man. On the other hand, Bloch also asserts that the achievement of subject-object identity by Hegel is “understood only as the complete withdrawal of externalizations (objects in general) in the subject,” and that this is in accordance with a “dialectic that is idealistic to its core, and indeed becomes increasingly rarefied.” [4] In Italy, the school of Galvano della Volpe and Lucio Colletti proceeds to advance a grotesquely “conscienscialist” reading of Hegel. [5]

While Marx, and even moreso the tradition that references him, are committed to establishing that their worldview and politics are novel and absolutely original in comparison to Hegel, Italian neo-idealists and other varied currents of thought take up the same project but with opposite intent. Especially throughout the Cold War years, they attempt to shield Hegel from any contamination resulting from his association with communist “materialism,” which is charged with disparaging and threatening the ideal values — spiritual and religious — of the West. The result of these separate and opposing projects is that the reading of Hegel as a champion of conscientiousness or panlogism ends up establishing itself as a commonplace. Given that our historical situation has radically changed, it’s time to rethink this problem in new terms.

1. Nature and Labour in Hegel

To begin with, it is worth bearing in mind that, after laying down general methodological considerations and before the start of the actual narrative, the Lectures on the Philosophy of History open by emphasizing the “geographical basis of history,” and making it clear that without taking into account geography, the “ground” where the “spirit of the people” sinks its roots, without taking into account its “natural connection,” this “essential and necessary basis,” it is not possible to understand anything of the concrete unfolding of history and politics. [6]

As we can see, nature is far from diluted. In fact, if anything, an excessive role is attributed to it. The Lectures hold that “In the Frigid and in the Torrid zone the locality of World-historical peoples cannot be found. […] [I]n the extreme zones such pressure may be said never to cease, never to be warded off; men are constantly impelled to direct attention to nature, to the glowing rays of the sun, and the icy frost.” [7] The least that can be said is that the insistence on the insurmountability of natural fact appears problematic. We can agree with Hegel that maritime civilizations generally show greater openness and resourcefulness: “land [by contrast] attaches man to the soil; it involves man in an infinite multitude of dependencies.” [8] But we cannot subscribe to the further claim that in maritime civilizations “civil freedom” goes hand in hand with “commerce and navigation.” [9] The picture drawn fails to account for the slave trade, which long featured in cities, regions, and states facing the sea, actively engaging in commerce and navigation.

In addition to geography and physical nature, the biological nature of man also plays an essential role in Hegel. The triumph of the conquistadores in the New World is explained by a series of factors: “the want of horses and iron” and the “weakness of the human physique” of the natives. [10] There is no mention, however, of the contradictions and conflicts that ran deep through pre-Columbian societies, which probably played a more important role in the defeat inflicted by the invaders than that of the fragile physical constitution of indigenous people. [11] In conclusion, though Hegel warns against the danger of reductionism — he summarizes his point thus: “Nature should not be rated too high nor too low” [12] — if a criticism must be levelled at the philosopher, it’s not his slip towards idealism but rather towards naturalism.

Given these premises, the affirmation in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts that the labour Hegel is discussing is exclusively “abstract mental labour” can only be regarded as an expression of youthful intemperance (as for the over-emphasis on a statement contained in notes not intended for publication, that responsibility lies with twentieth-century interpreters). In reality, although nature is very present in Hegel’s philosophy of history, it’s certainly not absent from his political philosophy: “In practice, man relates to nature as if he stood before an immediate and external individual, and as if this individual had its own sensibiliites […].” [13] [14] This practical relationship expresses itself through labour; and the fact that labour is difficult presupposes that nature presents a resistance and expresses a material substance of its own: “Serious occupation is labor that has reference to some want. I or Nature must succumb; if the one is to continue, the other must fall.” [15] And it would invariably be man who would give in and succumb, if he faced nature armed only with his bare hands: “Whatever forces nature develops and unleashes against man — cold, wild beasts, water, fire — man knows remedies against them; indeed he deduces these means from nature itself, and uses them against it.” [16] Indeed, the development of technology, of productive forces, and, in the final analysis, of history itself, is man’s response to nature’s resistance to the fulfillment of his needs: “For natural objects are powerful, and offer resistance in various ways. In order to subdue them, man introduces other natural agents; thus turns Nature against itself, and invents instruments for this purpose. These human inventions belong to Spirit, and such an instrument is to be respected more than a mere natural object.” [17] Insofar as they are the permanent result of man’s struggle to secure survival and improved living conditions, instruments stand higher than the momentary fulfillment of needs that they manage to secure: “The plough is more honourable than are immediately the enjoyments procured by it, and which are its ends. The tool lasts, while the immediate enjoyments pass away and are forgotten.” [18] [19] Not surprisingly, in ancient Greece, “the honor of the Human is swallowed up in the worship of the Divine.” [20]

That said, we’re dealing with a domestication that is far from limitless. Although Hegel poses the dilemma — that in the human-nature relationship one of the two must yield — in a way that might upset the followers of the modern environmental movement, they would perhaps appreciate his observations elsewhere in the Encyclopedia. Though man achieves important victories in his struggle, they remain partial: “With regard to nature as such, nature in its totality, man can neither master it in this way, nor subordinate it to his own ends.” [21]

In Hegel nature is so ever-present that it plays an essential role in the very definition of the central categories of political discourse. Consider “freedom.” Hegel affirms that a starving person at risk of losing their life to hunger finds themselves in a situation of “loss of rights altogether”: “To refuse to allow a man in jeopardy of his life to [steal bread] for self-preservation would be to stigmatise him as without rights, and since he would be deprived of his life, his freedom would be annulled altogether.” [22] And what does slavery consist of? What is often derided as a “slavish mindset” is a reflection of real poverty. [23] We are brought back to the biological nature of man, the centrality of which is further highlighted by the statement that “Life as the sum of ends has a right against abstract right.” [24]

Even the contractually sanctioned surrendering of labour to an employer would, if it were to take up all of a worker’s concrete life, amount to enslavement. Let us read the Elements of the Philosophy of Right: “By alienating the whole of my time, as crystallised in my work, and everything I produced, I would be making into another’s property the substance of my reality, my universal activity and actuality, my personhood.” [25] [26]

Perhaps even more telling are the corresponding excerpts in subsequent lecture courses: “With alienation all my time is spent at work, which renders my universal activity and my whole reality — my personhood — the property of another.” [27] Also:

Through an alienation in which my whole concrete time is spent labouring — that is, spent in its totality in production — I am alienated in my entirety […]. My personhood is maintained only if the part of my particularity that is alienated from me is limited in time. [28]

If in Elements personhood and personal freedom are conceived of and defined in terms of “life,” in the lectures they come to be evaluated in terms of concrete time spent labouring and living, as well as from the perspective of the whole activity and expression of man’s vital forces. Hegel’s analysis, far from restricting itself to “abstract mental labour,” clearly celebrates the historical struggle for freedom in similar terms to Capital’s celebration of the epic struggle for regulation and reduction of working hours. In Marx’s words, the worker organizes and struggles so as to not be reduced to mere labor-power “his whole life through,” so as not to suffer a further “shortening [of] his actual life-time.” [29] Capital reports and subscribes to the complaint that English workers make about the condition imposed on them: “the length of time of labour required under the present system is too great, and, far from leaving the worker time for rest and education, it plunges him into a condition of servitude but little better than slavery.” [30]

Let us now leave Marx’s Capital and Hegel’s Rights to return to his Philosophy of History. In Hegel, the history of freedom is also the history of the progressive liberation of [material] labour from the shackles of slavery and servitude. In the despotic East almost everyone is a “servant [Knechte] for the construction of works of enormous scale,” [31] whereas in Greece, where the history of freedom properly begins, “the due satisfaction of particular needs is not yet comprised in the sphere of freedom but is relegated exclusively to a class of slaves.” [32] As we know, even in the contemporary world the unemployed or disabled worker, who risks death by starvation, is in a condition of substantial slavery. The history of freedom and liberation of [material] labor is therefore not yet over.

2. Reality and Social Reality

When he comes across the aforementioned passage, where Hegel emphasizes how “Man with his requirements behaves in a practical way in relation to external nature,” Lenin explicitly juxtaposes “Hegel and Marx” and highlights “germs of historical materialism in Hegel.” [33] That said, what is historical materialism? In The German Ideology we can read: “Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious reality, and the reality of men is their actual life-process.” [34] Let us now look at the wording in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their reality, but their social reality that determines their consciousness.” [35] In light of this, we can formulate the problem as follows: Is historical materialism defined in terms of “reality” or “social reality”? There’s no question that the two are related, but studying social conflicts and historical processes demands first and foremost an analysis of social reality. Otherwise, the thesis with which the Manifesto of the Communist Party opens, that history is “the history of class struggles,” would make no sense. Moreover, only this way can we explain the reproach, in The German Ideology, against a philosopher who does not tire of professing his own materialism: “As far as Feuerbach is a materialist he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history he is not a materialist. With him materialism and history diverge completely […].” [36] In other words, although in Feuerbach the reference to nature and to natural existence is constant, the most essential thing is absent: the focus on social existence and social objectivity. Precisely because of this absence, Feuerbach’s subject always consists of “Man” instead of “real historical man” [37] — man grappling with the historically determined material conditions of his life, finding himself in social relationships and social conflicts that are themselves historically determined.

At this point one question is in order: How does Hegel stand in relation to all of this? Bloch himself, who accuses Hegel of dissolving objectivity as such, keenly notes that what characterizes the allegedly idealist philosopher is a “grandiose reversal of the [Romantic] irony of the subject into that of the object.” [38] The object spoken of here is the social object — social reality. It could be said that what punctuates the development of the Phenomenology of Spirit is the increasing and ever richer and more mature awareness of the real substance of social objectivity, from which it’s not possible and not permissible to escape, even when — or especially when — nurturing ambitious plans to transform the world. Whenever ideological consciousness claims to stand towering over and above social reality, the latter ends up getting the better of the former. This is how the “real unfolding of world events” [Weltlauf] exerts its irony on “professed virtue” [Tugend], how the actual historical process exerts its irony first on the “honest conscience” [ehrliches Bewußtsein], and then, in different ways, on the “noble conscience” [edelmütiges Bewußtsein] and, finally, on the “beautiful soul” [schône Seele]. Lukács, the critic of all of this idealism, to the very end levies such charges against Hegel, for identifying “alienation” with “objectification” and even “objectivity.” [39] If Lukács were right, in Hegel we would be dealing with a philosopher who flees from objectivity as a symptom of contamination. Yet this is precisely Hegel’s criticism of Kant and the beautiful soul! Kant’s critique is described as paralyzed by its “fear of the object” [Angst vor dem Objekt]. [40] As for the beautiful soul: “It lacks the strength to externalize itself, the strength to make itself actual and to endure reality. Consciousness lives in the anguish of staining with action and practice the splendor of its interiority; and, in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees contact with reality.” [41] According to Hegel, the Germany of his time suffers from a kind of national malaise which he terms “hypochondria.” [42] Yes, “hypochondria” is the dominant “point of view,” and it “in vanity declares itself objective, and enjoys this objectivity only in vanity.” [43] As it turns out, what Lukács ascribes to Hegel is an ailment that Hegel diagnoses and strongly denounces! [44]

It is worth noting that the Hegelian irony of the object is strongly appreciated and deeply assimilated by Marx and Engels. They use it to mock those who, especially after the defeat of a revolution, instead of engaging in the analysis of the objective contradictions, ideological weaknesses and political errors that led to that outcome, prefer to provide assurances of the goodness and purity of their own intentions in contrast to the general vulgarity and wickedness of the surrounding reality and the world at large. In condemning this “historical idealism” as politically impotent and morally narcissistic, Marx and Engels make explicit and repeated reference to the figures from the aforementioned Phenomenology of Spirit. Having finally come to realize, through defeat, “with what little wisdom the world is governed,” [45] Arnold Ruge and other “revolutionaries” of his type cannot help but profess their “beautiful souls” and “noble consciousness.” [46] In Germany as in France, the years following 1848 saw the boastful complaining of “beautiful souls” who felt “misrecognized” and misunderstood by secular humanity. [47] Already, however, “according to Hegel, the consciousness that is noble becomes transmuted necessarily into a consciousness that is base”; and upon closer inspection the beautiful soul soon loses its pretended immaculacy. [48]

If Marx judges that Feuerbach’s failure to pay attention to social objectivity goes hand in hand with a view of history in which there is no place for “real historical man” — man situated within well-defined social and class relations — , the opposite is the case in Hegel: He places a very strong focus on social conflict and its concrete configuration, both in ancient as well as in modern and contemporary history. I’ll limit myself to one example: studying Poland’s system, whose elective monarchy comparatively weakened the power of the crown against a rebellious nobility, Hegel wrote that “Freedom in Poland was but the freedom of barons against the monarch, a freedom for the sake of which the whole nation was submitted to absolute slavery.” Consequently, “the people shared the king’s interest in fighting the barons, and in fact it was by crushing the barons that they regained their freedom throughout the country.” [49] The aristocracy perceives its loss of privileges, which, for example, made it the sole arbiter of the administration of justice, “as undue violence, as the repression of freedom, and as despotism.” [50] But — observes Hegel — “When we speak of freedom, we must always consider whether what we are dealing with are in fact private interests.” [51] Hegel’s position could, and perhaps still can, generate shocked responses in liberal circles, but it meets the approval of Lenin, who again sees in it the “germs of historical materialism,” thanks to the dutiful attention Hegel pays to “class relations.” [52]

3. Historical Idealism as Attenuation or Negation of Social Reality

Once again, this time in Lenin’s view, historical materialism primarily refers back to social reality. The decisive battleground of the political-ideological struggle is social reality. It’s a vision of history and society in which man’s life is placed on “artificial ground” (as Labriola put it), on a second nature; although it should then be added that social reality is itself conditioned by natural reality. [53] A “materialistic” view of the first nature — namely, the assertion of the priority of the object over the subject, of nature over consciousness — can also be found in the sphere of religions, but this has not prevented them from configuring themselves for millennia as the instrument of idealistic consecration and transfiguration of existing socio-political relations. And the “materialistic” view of the first nature obviously characterizes Feuerbach, but this does not prevent him from falling into historical idealism. From Marx’s (and Engels’s) point of view, a similar criticism can perhaps be levelled at Hegel, who we have seen limit to temperate zones the domain from which world-historical peoples can emerge, as well as attribute considerable weight to the fragile constitution of indigenous Americans to explain the catastrophe inflicted on them by the conquistadores. Such idealism, however, is by no means synonymous with conscientialism. [54] But then why is the conscientialist interpretation so widespread? The late Lukács can perhaps help us answer this question, with his observation, after emphasizing Hegel’s own extraordinary “sense of reality,” that “simultaneously with the appropriation of the facts themselves it was their categorical constitution that formed the focal point of his attention.” Just imagine one can cleanly separate “constitution” from “appropriation” and you’re done!

In fact, already completely estranged from conscientialism, Hegel is mostly far from historical idealism as well. To rend account, a single example will suffice. In the late 18th century as well as in the early decades of the 19th century, Western culture and political philosophy are forced to grapple with a mystery: How can we explain the different developmental trajectory of France compared with that of England and the United States? In the first country, revolution was followed by counterrevolution, which in turn paved the way for further revolution. Political regimes followed one another: absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, Jacobin terror, military dictatorship, Empire, democratic republic, Bonapartism… and there was no glimpse in sight of an end to the crisis or stabilization. This contrasted clamorously with the gradual and constructive evolution of the other two countries! Well then, how do we explain this radical contrast? Important authors such as Alexis de Tocqueville and J. S. Mill celebrate the robust moral and practical sense, and the love of individual autonomy and freedom, that allegedly characterizes Anglo-Americans; it is through such virtues that they, as opposed to the wretched French, are able to avoid the horror of civil war and safeguard freedom. In the case of Tocqueville, this explanation is offered while the institution of slavery is thriving and central to the functioning of the United States, a mere few years before the Civil War triggered by Southern Separatists causes a bloodbath in American soil, and only two decades before, with the advent of the Third Republic, France sees the emergence of a solid parliamentary democracy no less advanced than that of England and America.

Let us now look at Hegel’s reading. The Lectures in the Philosophy of History highlight two essential points:

  1. “The North American Federation have no neighboring State (towards which they occupy a relation similar to that of European States to each other), one which they regard with mistrust, and against which they must keep up a standing army.”
  2. “[T]he outlet of colonization” allows the North American republic to defuse social conflict to a considerable extent. In the final analysis: “Had the woods of Germany been in existence, the French Revolution would not have occurred,” or it would have manifested in a less radical and less troubled way. [55]

Not unlike Hegel argues Engels, who points out that in “North America […] class conflicts are only incompletely developed; class collisions are from time to time disguised through the emigration to the West of proletarian overpopulation.” [56]

The two explanations are materialistic. But the one provided by the first is richer: it refers to the element of geopolitical location, which is absent in the second. At least in Hegel’s view, geopolitical location — the advantage enjoyed by the United States in not having major powers tending towards rivalry on its borders — is a fact not merely natural but mediated by history. In other words, we’re dealing with a sophisticated articulation of social reality.

Historical idealism resides in Tocqueville and Mill’s counterposition of French and Anglo-Saxon stereotypes, in their obliviousness towards social reality and in the invention of non-existent natural beings. The same observation could be made in regards to other currents of thought that, in an even more pronounced way, abandon social reality for the sake of a natural being of supposedly anthropological and racial origin.

4. The Ontology of Social Reality and the Critique of Idealism

Treasuring the lesson of Marx and Engels, it is possible to reproach Hegel for lapses into historical idealism. But are those who first engaged in the the systematic theoretical articulation of historical materialism immune from such lapses?

In the communist society that Marx and Engels advocate for, along with class divisions, the market, the nation, religion, the state and perhaps even legal norms as such all vanish, made superfluous by a development of productive forces so prodigious as to permit the free gratification of every need and thus the overcoming of the difficult task of resource distribution. Does such a vision live up to historical materialism? In engaging, in the vein of the Marxist tradition, in the construction of an ontology of social reality, the older Lukács rightly warns against a double danger of historical idealism: “social reality was not distinguished from reality in general, or if it was, it was considered something so radically different that it hardly possessed the character of reality in a meaningful sense.” [57] With its insistence on practice and the transformation of the world, revolutionary thought risks falling into the second type of historical idealism. One thinks of Fiche establishing parallels between his Foundations of the Science of Knowledge and the energetic ongoings of Revolutionary France: “Just as that nation gives Man freedom from external chains, so my system frees him from the constraints of things in themselves, from external influences.” [58] But the young Lukács is no more sober than Fichte when he, in 1922, under the influence of the revolution that was shaking the world, writes: “Only when the core of reality stands revealed as a social process can reality be seen as the product, albeit the hitherto unconscious product, of human activity. This activity will be seen in its turn as the element crucial for the transformation of reality.” [59] What might be called the idealism of practice is also manifest here.

Marx and Engels’s formative years were those where, on the one hand, the echoes of the French Revolution still reverberated strongly, and where, on the other hand, the premonitory signs of the gigantic revolutionary wave of 1848 were already being felt. The two young revolutionaries harbored hopes that this upcoming revolution would challenge not only the remnants of old feudal relations, but also the incipient bourgeis ruling order. It’s well understood that, in their vision of communism, the market, the nation, religion, and the state all tend to lose — to use the language of the more mature Lukács — “the character of being.”

The reality of social reality can be attenuated or negated in one of two different ways. One way to achieve this result is to take up a schematic view of historicity; one which, moreover, is unable to distinguish between short and long duration: that nations and national languages are historically contingent is beyond question, but from there on to foresee their extinction, even in light of a radical revolution, is to either deny the dimension of time or to have a distorted understanding of what reality and being entail. Such a historicity is configured as a homogeneous reality governed by a homogeneous historical tempo, whereas in reality planes of social existence as heterogeneous as fashions, political institutions, and national languages develop at radically different velocities; they are characterized by ontological depths that differ from one another.

Alternatively, the reality of social reality may be attenuated or negated when we lose sight of just how much natural existence continues to express itself in the historical and political plane: however developed a society may be, the individuals in it continue to be natural entities subject to biological fragility, and this fragility manifests itself not only in illness and death but also in their passions. This makes impossible the immediate identification between individual and class often dreamed of by the more messianic currents of the communist movement. The possibility of conflict between different individuals continues to be present even in a society liberated from class division and antagonism. What does it really mean, then, to speak of the withering away of the state, or even of the withering of the legal system as such?

The two processes whereby the reality of social reality is attenuated or negated can also intertwine: this occurs, for example, when the disappearance of religion is expected to result from the overcoming of class oppression. On the one hand, such a prediction does not take into account nature irrupting into social reality: the fear of death is inherent to the precarity of individual existence. On the other hand, the link between national identity and religious identity has historically refused to “wither”: rather than being exclusively an expression of class struggle, religion is anchored to a social reality (the nation) that though certainly historical and not natural, neverthelesss expresses a temporality of very long duration.

The history of “really existing socialism” also is the history of the painful discovery of the objectivity of social reality. Less than two years after the outbreak of the October Revolution, Gramsci observed: only the Bolsheviks were able to stand before “the dark abyss of misery, barbarism, anarchy, and dismemberment” summoned “by a long and disastrous war,” and put an end to it; they therefore constituted “an aristocracy of statesmen,” and Lenin was to be regarded as the “greatest statesman of contemporary Europe.” One can well understand the outraged reaction of an anarchist reader of L’Ordine Nuovo who pointed out that the Soviet Constitution itself expressed a commitment to establishing a new order within which “there will be no more class divisions, no more state power.” The Russian state was saved by proponents of state extinction! And that certainly wouldn’t be the only paradox in the history of really existing socialism.

The October Revolution was meant to set in motion a self-conscious process that aimed not only at the abolition of state borders, but also at the dissolution of all identities and nationalities. In March 1929, however, Stalin had to reckon with the “colossal stability of nations.” This paradox also expresses itself in another analogous sense: By giving a powerful impetus to the national liberation movements of colonized peoples, the communist movement undoubtedly contributed to the strengthening and multiplication of national identities. The same can be said about languages. According to a view widely embraced in Marxist circles, shared by Karl Kautsky among others, languages would sooner or later dissolve into a universal language of unified mankind. [60] But that’s not all: In backward and semi-feudal societies, the development of the economy and productive forces promoted by the communists who came to power also brought with it the development of market relations, and usually the emergence of a sovereign national market. In conclusion, the real exercise of government brought into crisis the theoretical platform with which, especially in Russia, the communists had come to power. Of course, attempts to counter this drifting apart have not been lacking. Hans Kelsen, a well-known jurist, noted that the theory of the withering away of the state was effectively abandoned by Stalin in 1939. Thus he came to distance himself, with caution, from the final confluence of nations and national languages, as well as from the view that “market-oriented production” is synonymous with “capitalism.” [61]

We also observe the following: The moment the Soviet Union is invaded by the Third Reich, Stalin successfully appeals to the Orthodox Church to support and nourish the movement of national resistance. Unfortunately, the (partial) religious tolerance only lasted for a short period. And yet, if we think of the Third World, the historical movement invoking Marx promoted the revolt of colonized peoples and thus, through various stages of mediation, also reinforced the strengthening of religious identities and religious rebirth in many regions.

On the whole, efforts towards having theory reckon with practice have been late, partial, and riddled with contradictions. Meanwhile, the damage done by historical idealism (and messianism) has been enormous. The appeal to a permanent state of emergency has made the establishment of democratic constitutional states very difficult, but it’s also been counter-productive from the perspective of the dissolution of the state. Moreover, when conflict broke out between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and then between the Soviet Union and China, these socialist countries, sharing a theory that insisted national conflicts ought to disappear with the advent of socialism, accused each other of treason. Each of them argued with conviction, in the spirit of historical materialism, that the behaviour they criticized in the opposing country had class roots — that it was a symptom of the return of capitalism. But this was in reality a manifestation of historical idealism: they lost sight of the ontological variety of national realities and particularities, of the fact that different interests and potential grounds for conflict persist even after the establishment of socialism.

The move to rethink theory rather than merely retouch it only begins to happen with the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. Those who reject an attitude à la Ruge — the “beautiful soul,” the “honest consciousness,” and the “noble consciousness” derided by Hegel and then by Marx and Engels — direct their attention to articulating the necessity of an ontology of social reality, though their approaches and terminology vary. This task is undertaken on the basis of experience in government and philosophical reflection. In 1991, Fidel Castro stated: “We socialists made a mistake in underestimating the strength of nationalism and religion.” [62] Thousands of miles away, Deng Xiaoping was breaking with the Cultural Revolution, which had sometimes been hailed by the radical left in the West as the beginning, or possible beginning, of the withering away of the state. Already towards the end of the 1970s Deng had been advocating the expansion and improvement of the “legal system,” the establishment of the “rule of law” in the Party and “throughout society” as prerequisites for a real development of “democracy.” [63] As little as socialism provoked the withering away of the state, it did similarly little to bring about the disappearance of the market and the coming together of the countries engaged in the construction of the new order in a community without tensions and conflicts. In a conversation with Gorbachev in the spring of 1989, the Chinese leader expressed that the deterioration of Soviet-Chinese relations was based less on ideological divergence and more on the fact that “the Chinese were not treated as equals and felt humiliated.” Thanks to a new, hard-won awareness, it was now possible to turn a new page. [64] Unfortunately, it was too late, at least for the Soviet Union; and even for China the situation was not without danger as the “incident” in Tiananmen Square would show. [65]

The self-critical balance-sheets of Fidel Castro and Deng Xiaoping must be reformulated and generalized. All that was destined to disappear — the state, the nation, language, religion, the market — was underestimated insofar as it was treated as mere artifact of idealism. Thus, we can see that Marxism needs an ontology of social reality. Late Lukács formulated this problem clearly at the philosophical level, even if his book devoted to the subject largely fails to live up to its claims. Marxism still requires a proper ontological study of the state, the nation, religion, the diversity of civilizations, the market, and other manifestations of social reality. We should ask ourselves whether, in approaching this task, Hegel’s analyses of these subjects would not be of great use. The problem is only briefly touched upon here. However, the author of these lines is convinced that in solving the task of reconstructing and reformulating historical materialism, the thought of a philosopher who has been persistently and superficially accused of idealism can make a significant contribution.

[1] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). [web] 

[2] György Lukács, 1968 preface to History and Class Consciousness (1923). [web] 

[3] György Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being (1960). [web] 

[4] Ernst Bloch, Subjekt-Objekt. Erläuterungen zu Hegel (1962), Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a. M., pp. 71 and 69. 

[5] The reference is to “Dellavolpism.” [web] — R. D. 

[6] G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History (1822, 1828, 1830). [web] 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] The reference is to pre-existing social rifts that led some indigenous peoples to side with Spanish colonizers against the ancient empires of the Americas. [web] — R. D. 

[12] Ibid. 

[13] “Praktisch verhält sich der Mensch zu der Natur als zu einem Unmittelbaren und äußerlichen selbst als ein unmittelbar äußerliches und damit sinnliches Individuum […].” — G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline [Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse], § 245. [web] 

[14] Translations vary. See also: II.I., 251

[15] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Part II: The Greek World. [web] 

[16] “Welche Kräfte die Natur auch gegen den Menschen entwickelt und losläßt — Kälte, wilde Tiere, Wasser, Feuer — er weiß Mittel gegen sie, und zwar nimmt er diese Mittel aus ihr, gebraucht sie gegen sie selbst; […].” — G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline [Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse], § 245. [web] 

[17] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Part II: The Greek World. [web] 

[18] G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, § 1615. [web] 

[19] The yellow highlight in the Marxists Internet Archive version of this text indicates that V. I. Lenin underlined those sections of his copy. — R. D. 

[20] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Part II: The Greek World. [web] 

[21] “Aber der Natur selbst, des Allgemeinen derselben, kann er auf diese Weise nicht sich bemeistern, noch es zu seinen Zwecken abrichten.” — G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline [Encyclopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse], § 245. [web] 

[22] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 127. [web] 

[23] “In dieser Entstehung der Armut kommt die Macht des Besonderen gegen die Realität des Freien zum Dasein. […] Wie nun auf der einen Seite die ‘Armut’ zum Grunde liegt zur ‘Pöbelhaftigkeit’, der Nichtanerkennung des Rechts, so tritt auf der andern Seite in dem Reichtum ebenso die Gesinnung der Pöbelhaftigkeit auf. […] Die Gesinnung des Herrn über den Sklaven ist dieselbe wie die des Sklaven. Der Herr weiß sich als die Macht, so wie der Sklave sich weiß als die Verwirklichung der Freiheit, der Idee. […] Es ist hier das schlechte Gewissen nicht nur als innerliches, sondern als eine Wirklichkeit, die anerkannt ist.” — G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts. Die Vorlesung von 1819/20, p. 196. 

[24] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 127. [web] 

[25] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 67. [web] 

[26] I modified “personality” to “personhood” for the sake of clarity. — R. D. 

[27] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts II, § 36. TBD. 

[28] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts III, p. 254. TBD. 

[29] Karl Marx, Capital, Chapter Ten: The Working-Day, Section 5: The Struggle for a Normal Working Day. [web] 

[30] Karl Marx, Capital, Chapter Ten: The Working-Day, footnote 161. [web] 

[31] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right I, § 167 A. TBD. 

[32] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 356. [web] 

[33] V. I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks (1915), 251. [web] 

[34] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845), A. Idealism and Materialism. [web] 

[35] Karl Marx, “Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy[web] 

[36] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845), B. The Illusion of the Epoch. [web] 

[37] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1845), B. The Illusion of the Epoch. [web] 

[38] Ernst Bloch, Karl Marx, Death, and The Apocalypse [Karl Marx, der Tod und die Apokalypse], in Legacy of Religion [Religion im Erbe] edited by J. Moltmann, Siebenstern Taschenbuch, München und Hamburg 1967, p. 24. 

[39] György Lukács, The Ontology of Social Being (1960). [web] 

[40] “Die kritische Philosophie machte zwar bereits die Metaphysik zur Logik, aber sie wie der spätere Idealismus gab, wie vorhin erinnert worden, aus Angst vor dem Objekt den logischen Bestimmungen eine wesentliche subjektive Bedeutung; dadurch blieben sie zugleich mit dem Objekte, das sie flohen, behaftet, und ein Ding-an-sich, ein unendlicher Anstoß, blieb als ein Jenseits an ihnen übrig.” — G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, General Classification of Logic. [web] 

[41] W, III, p. 483. 

[42] Hypochondria — The conviction that one is or is likely to become ill, often involving symptoms when illness is neither present nor likely, and persisting despite reassurance and medical evidence to the contrary. — R. D. 

[43] Domenico Losurdo, Hypochondria of Antipolitics: Hegel’s Critique Then and Now (2001) [untranslated], Milella, Lecce 2001, ch. IV, § 3. 

[44] We might also recall here Hegel’s aphorism: “Wickedness also resides in the gaze that perceives itself as innocent and surrounded by wickedness.” — R. D. 

[45] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Heroes of the Exile (1852), VIII. Arnold. [web] 

[46] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Heroes of the Exile (1852), XIII. The Great War between the Frogs and the Mice. [web] 

[47] Friedrich Engels, correspondence with Paul Ernst (1890). [web] The English translation at Marxists Internet Archive does not include following fragment from the latter part of the letter: “Wieder die verkannte schöne Seele, der die böse Welt allerlei Schandtaten andichtet.” [web] 

[48] Karl Marx, “The Knight of Noble Consciousness” (1853). [web] 

[49] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

[50] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right

[51] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit

[52] V. I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks (1915), 429. [web] 

[53] This phrase illustrates why I prefer to use term “reality” over “being” in translation: it brings attention to how “reality” is so tightly and unconsciously biased towards “nature” that the concept of “natural reality” seems excessive, whereas “natural being” and “social being” are so comfortably complementary that they basically bury the philosophical controversy that Losurdo is emphasizing. — R. D. 

[54] Conscientialism is a pejorative and ridiculing way to interpret Hegel, whereby a supernatural “World Consciousness” finds expression, like a spooky puppeteer, in historical events. — R. D. 

[55] G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History (1822, 1828, 1830). [web] 

[56] Unavailable in English? TBD. 

[57] G. Lukács, Ontologia dell’essere sociale, cit., p. 3. 

[58] D. Losurdo, Hegel e la Germania. Filosofia e questione nazionale tra rivoluzione e reazione, Guerini e Associati, Milano 1997, cap. IV, S1. 

[59] György Lukács, 1968 preface to History and Class Consciousness (1923). [web] 

[60] For a linguistic exploration of what factors work against this outcome, see “Where do mama/papa words come from?” (2004). [web] — R. D. 

[61] For Gramsci and Stalin, see Domenico Losurdo’s Stalin: History and Critique of a Black Legend (2007). 

[62] Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr, “Four Days with Fidel: A Havana Diary” (26 March 1992), The New York Review of Books. [web] 

[63] Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works, Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 1992-1995, vol. 2, p. 196; vol. 3, p. 166f. 

[64] Deng Xiaoping, “Let us put the past behind us and open up a new era” (16 May 1989). [web] 

[65] See: “Another View of Tiananmen” (2021). [web] — R. D.