G. V. Plekhanov
Original publication: marxists.org

The Meaning of Hegel (1891)

71 minutes | English | The Soviet Union

Why read Plekhanov on Hegel? After all, Plekhanov turned against the Bolsheviks and the October Revolution, and was a staunch Menshevik until his death in 1918. Moreover, in his study of major figures of movement (Revolutionary Silhouettes), Lunacharsky describes Plekhanov thus: “in his diction, his tone of voice and his whole bearing there was the ineradicable stamp of the gentry,” an “aristocratic air.” [1] As for Hegel, he’s supposedly made obsolete by Marx. So, what’s the point?

Well, Lenin believed, and insisted openly, “for the benefit of young Party members,” that “you cannot hope to become a real, intelligent Communist without making a study — and I mean study — of all of Plekhanov’s philosophical writings, because nothing better has been written on Marxism anywhere in the world.” [2] A strong endorsement!

I think this document’s balanced and knowledgeable appraisal of Hegel demonstrates very clearly how Plekhanov earned his enduring esteem among Bolsheviks. Here we present the text of the Lawrence & Wishart 1961 translation, but with the title of Raya Dunayevskaya’s earlier (and more flamboyant) 1941 translation since it’s more evocative. [3]
 — R. D.

Sixty years ago, on November 14, 1831, died a man who will indisputably and always occupy one of the very first places in the history of thought. Not one of the sciences which the French call “sciences morales et politiques” has remained unaffected by the powerful and fruitful influence of Hegel’s genius. Dialectics, logic, history, right, aesthetics, the history of philosophy and the history of religion have all assumed a new countenance thanks to the impulse received from Hegel.

Hegel’s philosophy formed and steeled the thinking of men like Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Feuerbach, Fischer, Hans, Lassalle, and finally Engels and Marx. During his life Hegel enjoyed immense, world-wide fame; after his death, in the thirties, the almost universal attraction of his philosophy became still more notable; but then came a quick reaction: Hegel began to be treated, to quote Marx, just as the honest Mendelssohn treated Spinoza in the time of Lessing, i.e., like a “dead dog.” Interest in his philosophy disappeared altogether among the “educated” sections, and in the world of science it weakened to such a degree that so far no specialist in the history of philosophy has thought of determining and pointing out the “remaining value” of Hegel’s philosophy in the various branches of science that it deals with. Below we shall see to a certain extent the explanation of this attitude towards Hegel let us now merely note that a revival of interest in his philosophy, and particularly his philosophy of history, can be expected in a near enough future. The enormous success of the working-class movement, compelling the so-called educated classes to take an interest in the theory under whose banner that movement is proceeding, will force those classes also to show interest in the historical origin of that theory.

And once they show an interest in this, they will soon come to Hegel, who will thus be transformed in their eyes from the, “philosopher of the Restoration” into the founder of the most progressive ideas of today.

That is why we can foretell that although there will be a revival of interest in Hegel among the educated classes, they will never adopt towards him the attitude of profound sympathy that he was the object of sixty years ago in the countries of German culture. On the contrary, bourgeois scientists will undertake a feverish “critical revision” of Hegel’s philosophy and many doctors’ diplomas will be obtained fighting the late professor’s “extremes” and “arbitrary logic.”

Naturally, science’s only gain from that “critical revision” will be that the learned defenders of the capitalist system will repeatedly display their theoretical worthlessness, just as they have already shown it in the field of politics. But not without reason it is said that it is always useful to “dig around the roots of truth.” The revival of interest in Hegel’s philosophy will give impartial people an opportunity to study his works independently, and this will be a very fruitful, though not easy an exercise for their minds. Those who really wish for knowledge will learn very much from Hegel.

In the present essay we wish to attempt an appraisal of the philosophico-historical views of the great German thinker. This has already been done in the main lines by the hand of a master in Engels’s articles Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy [4] which were printed in Neue Zeit and then published as a separate booklet. But we think that these views of Hegel fully deserve more detailed study.

Hegel’s importance in the social sciences is determined first and foremost by the fact that he considered all their phenomena from the standpoint of the process des Werdens (of coming into being), i.e., from the standpoint of their appearance and their disappearance. It may seem to many people that this was not a very great merit, as one cannot, apparently, consider social phenomena in any other way. But firstly, this standpoint, we shall see, is even today far from being understood by many of those who term themselves “evolutionists”; secondly, during Hegel’s time, people who studied the social sciences were still farther from that standpoint. It is sufficient to remember the socialists and the economists of those days. The socialists then considered the bourgeois system as indeed a very harmful, but nevertheless entirely accidental product of human error. The economists were enthusiastic over it and could find no words to express their praise, but they too regarded it as no more than the fruit of the accidental discovery of truth. Neither the former nor the latter got any further than this abstract counterposition of truth and error, although the teachings of the socialists contained elements of a more correct view of things.

In Hegel’s eyes this abstract counterposition of truth and error was one of those absurdities into which “rational” thought often falls. Jean Baptiste Say considered it useless to study the history of political economy because before Adam Smith all economists professed erroneous theories. For Hegel, philosophy was nothing more than the intellectual expression of its time.

Each philosophy that has been “surpassed” at a particular time was the truth for its time, and if for only that reason Hegel could not cast aside the previous philosophical systems as old and useless rubbish. On the contrary, as he himself said, “the most recent philosophy is the result of all preceding philosophies and must therefore contain the principles of them all.” Underlying such a view of the history of philosophy there was of course the purely idealist consideration that “the leader of this spiritual work” (i.e., the work of philosophical thought — G.P.) “is the single living spirit, whose thinking nature consists in coming to self-consciousness, and having attained it, to rise immediately above the stage reached and go further.” [5]

But the most consistent materialist will not refuse to admit that each particular philosophical system is no more than the intellectual expression of its time. And if, turning again to the history of political economy, we ask ourselves which standpoint we must consider it from at present, we shall immediately see how much nearer we are to Hegel than to Say. For instance, from Say’s standpoint, i.e., from the standpoint of the abstract counterposition of truth and error, the mercantile system or even the system of the physiocrats must, and indeed did, appear as no more than an absurdity which accidentally found its way into man’s head. But we now know to what extent each of the systems mentioned was the necessary product of its time.

“If the money and mercantile systems consider world trade and the branches of national labour which flow directly into it as the only true sources of wealth or money, we must take into account that in that epoch a very great part of the national production still moved in feudal forms and was its producers’ immediate means of subsistence. Most products were not transformed into commodities, and, therefore, did not become money, they did not enter the material circulation of social life, and therefore did not represent the embodiment of abstract labour and did not, in fact, constitute bourgeois wealth […]. In conformity with the preparatory stage of bourgeois production, these unrecognised prophets held fast to the tangible and shining form of exchange value, to its form of universal commodity in opposition to all particular commodities.” [6]

Marx explains the physiocrats’ disputes with their opponents as a dispute about which kind of labour creates surplus-value. Was not this question most “timely” for the bourgeoisie, who were then preparing to become everything?

But not only philosophy appears to Hegel as the natural and necessary product of its time; he takes the same view of religion and right. And it must also be noted that philosophy, right, religion, art, and even technology (“technische Geschicklichkeit”) are, in Hegel’s opinion, closely interrelated: “only with a particular religion can a particular form of state exist, as also in that particular state a particular philosophy and a particular art.” This again may seem somewhat trivial: who does not know that all aspects and manifestations of the people’s life are closely interlinked? Every schoolboy knows that now. But Hegel did not understand this interrelation of the different aspects and manifestations of the people’s life as many “educated” people and schoolboys still understand it now. They see this link as a simple interaction of the aspects and manifestations referred to, and at that, first, this interaction itself remains completely unexplained, and secondly, — and this is the main thing — they completely forget, that there must be one common source out of which all these aspects and manifestations that are interrelated arise. Thus, this system of interaction proves to be deprived of all foundation, to be hanging in the air; right influences religion, religion influences right, and each of them and both together influence philosophy and art, which in turn, affecting each other, also affect right, religion, and so on. That is indeed what universal wisdom tells us. Let us assume that we may be satisfied with such an exposition of the matter for each particular period. But then the question still remains: what determines the historical development of religion, philosophy, art, right, etc., down to the present epoch?

This question is usually answered by referring to the same interaction[7] which thus finally ceases to explain anything; or else some accidental causes are pointed out which influence one aspect or other of the people’s life but have nothing whatever in common; or, finally, the whole matter is reduced to subjective logic. It is said, for instance, that Fichte’s system of philosophy derived naturally from Kant’s, Schelling’s flowed naturally from Fichte’s, and Hegel’s from Schelling’s. The succession of schools in art is also “logically” explained in exactly the same way. Doubtless there is a measure of truth in this. The trouble is that it explains nothing at all. We know that in some cases the transition from one philosophical system to another or from one school in art to another takes place very rapidly, in a few years, but in other cases it requires whole centuries. How is this difference explained? The logical filiation of ideas does not explain it at all. Neither do references made by the generally known classical wisdom to interaction and accidental causes. But “educated” people are not embarrassed by this. Having uttered profound things about the interaction of various aspects of people’s life, they are satisfied with this “manifestation” of their own profoundness of thought and cease to think at the very place where strict scientific thought first comes into its own. Hegel was as far from such “profoundness of thought” as heaven from earth. He says:

“To be satisfied with considering a particular content from the standpoint of interaction […] is an extremely poor method in the sense of understanding; then one deals merely with the plain fact and the demand for mediation which is manifest when it is a question of finding the causal link remains unsatisfied. The defect of the method which consists in considering phenomena from the standpoint of interaction lies in the fact that the relation of interaction, instead of serving as an equivalent of the concept, must itself be understood; this is achieved by both interacting aspects being acknowledged as moments in some third, higher one, and not being taken as immediately given.” [8]

This means that speaking, for instance, of the various aspects of people’s life, we must not be satisfied with references to their interaction, but must see their explanation in something new, “higher,” i.e., in what determines their very existence as well as the possibility of their interaction.

Where must this new, “higher” thing be sought?

Hegel answers that it must be sought in the qualities of the people’s spirit. That is quite logical from his point of view. For him the whole of history is nothing but the “exposition and embodiment of the universal spirit.” The movement of the universal spirit is accomplished by stages.

“Each stage being different from the others, has its own definite principle. Such a principle in history is […] a special spirit of the people. The qualities of the spirit of the people are the concrete expression of all aspects of the people’s consciousness and will, of the whole of their reality; they place their imprint on the people’s religion, their political constitution, their morality, their system of right, their customs and also their science, art, and technical skill. All these particular qualities are to be explained by the universal qualities, and vice versa, the universal qualities may be explained by the particulars of the life of the people provided by history.” [9]

Nothing is easier than to make here the brilliant discovery that Hegel’s view of world history that we have quoted is imbued with the purest idealism. That immediately strikes, as Gogol says, even anybody who did not study in a seminary. In just the same way there is nothing easier than to limit one’s criticism of Hegel’s philosophy of history to scornfully shrugging one’s shoulders at its extreme idealism. This is done often enough by people who are incapable of any consistent thinking, people who are dissatisfied with the materialists because they are materialists, and with the idealists because they are idealists and are extremely satisfied with themselves because they suppose their own outlook to be free from any extremes, whereas in reality it is simply a completely undigested and completely indigestible mish-mash of idealism and materialism. In any case, Hegel’s philosophy has the undeniable merit that it does not contain a trace of eclecticism. And if its erroneous idealistic basis does really make itself felt too often, if it places too narrow limits on the movement of the great man’s genius, that very circumstance must force us to pay the utmost attention to Hegel’s philosophy; for it is precisely what makes his philosophy supremely instructive. Hegel’s idealist philosophy itself contains the very best, the most irrefutable proof of the inconsistency of idealism. But at the same time it teaches us consistency in thought, and whoever goes through its stern school with love and attention will acquire for ever a salutary repugnance for eclectic mish-mash…

If we now know that world history is not at all the “exposition and embodiment of the universal spirit,” that still does not mean that we may be satisfied with the current considerations on the theme that the political structure of every given people influences their morals, that their morals influence the constitution, and so on. We must agree with Hegel that both morals and political constitution proceed from a common source. What that source actually is we are shown by the modern materialist explanation of history, about which we shall for the present merely note that Messrs. the eclectics have just the same difficulty in understanding it as in penetrating the secret of Hegel’s idealistic views, which are diametrically opposed to it.

Every time Hegel undertakes to give a characteristic of any great people in history he displays versatile knowledge and enormous penetration; he gives truly brilliant and at the same time profoundly instructive characteristics, scattering as he goes a number of valuable remarks on the various aspects of history of the people in question. He carries you away, and you are prepared to forget that you are dealing with an idealist, you are ready to admit that he really “die Geschichte nimmt, wie sie ist” — that Hegel strictly follows his rule: “to remain on historical, empirical ground.” But what does Hegel need that historical, empirical ground for? To determine the quality of the spirit of the people in question. The spirit of a particular people is, as we already know, but a stage in the universal spirit’s development; and the qualities of the latter are not brought out by studying universal history; the concept of it is brought into that study as a ready-made one, a concept which is complete in all respects. Here is what arises from this: as long as history does not contradict the concept of the universal spirit, and the “laws” of the development of that spirit, it is taken “as it is.” Hegel “remains on historical, empirical grounds.” But when history, without exactly contradicting the “laws” of the development of the universal spirit, simply leaves the track of that supposed development and turns out to be something not foreseen by Hegel’s logic, it receives no attention. Such an attitude to history apparently should have saved Hegel at least from contradicting himself. In actual fact it did not. Hegel is far from being free from contradictions. Here is a sufficiently vivid example. In the following lines Hegel speaks of the religious concepts of the Indians:

“Love, heaven, in brief, everything spiritual, on the one hand, passes through the Indian’s imagination, but, on the other hand, what he thinks is just as present to his senses and he plunges […] into the natural. Thus religious objects are either horrible forms created by art, or natural things. Every bird, every ape, is the god of the present, an absolutely universal being. For the Indian is unable to grasp an object in its rational definition, since this requires reflection.”

On the basis of this characteristic, Hegel considers animal worship a natural consequence of the fact that the spirit of the Indian people is one of the lower stages in the development of the universal spirit. The ancient Persians, who deified light and also “the sun, the moon and five other heavenly bodies,” which they acknowledged to be “venerable images of Ormuzd,” are placed higher than the Indians by Hegel. But see what the same Hegel says of animal worship among the ancient Egyptians.

“The cult [of the Egyptians — G. P.] consists mainly of animal worship […]. Zoolatry is repulsive to us; we can accustom ourselves to praying to heaven, but to worship animals is alien to us […]. And yet it is certain that the peoples who worship the sun and other heavenly bodies are in no way higher than those who worship animals; on the contrary, for in the animal world the Egyptians saw the Interior and the Incomprehensible […].”

The same animal worship is given a completely different significance in Hegel’s opinion according as he is dealing with the Indians or the Egyptians. Why this? Can the Indians have worshipped animals in a different way from the Egyptians? No, it is simply that the “spirit” of the Egyptian people is a “transition” to that of the Greeks and occupies a comparatively higher stage in Hegel’s classification; that is why Hegel is reluctant to testify that it has weaknesses of which he has convicted the spirit of the Indian people, which he places at a lower stage. Similarly Hegel adopts quite a different attitude to castes according as he comes across them in India or in Egypt. The Indian castes “arise from natural differences,” and therefore the personality in India is less able to appreciate itself than in China, where there is unenviable equality of all before the despot. Of the Egyptian castes we are told that they “have not become petrified, but are in mutual struggle and mutual contact; they often disintegrate and then appear again.” But, if only from what Hegel himself says about castes in India, it is obvious that in India too there was no complete absence of struggle and contact between them. On this question, as on that of animal worship, Hegel is obliged for the sake of a rather arbitrary logical construction to attribute completely different significance to analogous phenomena of social life. But that is not all. The Achilles’ heel of idealism is bared to us particularly where Hegel is obliged to consider the transfer of the vortex of the historical movement from one people to another, or a change in the interior situation of a particular people. Naturally, in such cases there arises the question of what causes such transfers and changes, and Hegel, being an idealist, seeks the answer in the qualities of the same spirit whose embodiment, in his opinion, constitutes history. For instance, he asks himself why ancient Persia declined, whereas India and China still exist. He prefaces the answer with the following remark:

“First of all, we must put aside the prejudice that length of resistance to disintegration is something excellent: indestructible mountains are by no means superior to the ephemeral rose […].”

Of course that preliminary remark must in no case be considered as the answer. Further we have the following considerations:

“In Persia the principle of the free spirit begins in its opposition to naturalness, and this natural existence therefore fades and falls; the principle of separation from nature is to be found in the kingdom of Persia, which is therefore higher than the worlds which are plunged in the natural. Thereby the necessity of progress has come out; the spirit has revealed itself and must fulfil itself. The Chinese has significance only when he is dead, the Indian kills himself, plunges into Brahma and dies while living, in complete unconsciousness, or is god by virtue of his birth; here there is no change, no progress, for advance is possible only through the fulfilment of the independence of the spirit. With the light of the Persians begins spiritual contemplation, in which the spirit parts from nature. That is why [sic! — G. P.] we first find here […] that objectness remains free, that is, that the peoples are not oppressed, but retain their wealth, their system, their religion. This was precisely Persia’s weakness compared with Greece.”

In this long disquisition only the very last lines, giving the internal organisation of the kingdom of Persia as the cause of the weakness which it manifested in its clashes with Greece — only these last lines can be termed an attempt to explain the historical fact of Persia’s fall. But this attempt at an explanation has little in common with the idealist explanation of history which Hegel adhered to: the weakness of Persia’s internal organisation has but a very doubtful connection with the “light of the Persians.” But where Hegel remains true to idealism, the best he does is to wrap in an idealist cover the fact requiring an explanation. His idealism comes to grief in the same way everywhere. Take, for instance, Greece’s internal decay. Greece’s world, according to Hegel, was a world of beauty and “splendid moral morality.” The Greeks were excellent people, profoundly devoted to the country and capable of all kinds of self-sacrifice. But they accomplished great feats entirely “without reflection.”

For the Greek, his nation was a necessity without which he could not live. Only later did the sophists introduce principles; there appeared subjective reflection, moral self-consciousness, the teaching that each must act according to his conviction. Then it was that the internal decay of the “splendid moral morality” of the Greeks mentioned above began; the “self-liberation of the interior world” led to the decline of Greece. One of the aspects of this interior world was thought. Consequently we here find the interesting and historic phenomenon that the forces of thought act, incidentally, as “principles of decay.” This view deserves attention if only because it is much more profound than the rectilinear views of the Enlighteners, for whom success in thought in any people must unconditionally and directly lead to “progress.” Nevertheless, the question of where this “self-liberation of the interior world” came from still remains open. Hegel’s idealist philosophy answers that “the spirit could only for a short time remain on the standpoint of splendid moral morality.” But this, of course, is still not an answer, it is only a translation of the question into the philosophical language of Hegel’s idealism. Hegel himself seems to feel this, and that is why he hastily adds that “the principle of decay revealed itself first of all in external political development, both in the wars of the Greek states among themselves and in the struggle of the different factions within the cities.” Here we already stand on concrete historical ground. The struggle of the “factions” within the cities, in Hegel’s own words, was the product of Greece’s economic development, i.e., in other words, the struggle between the political parties was but the expression of the economic contradictions which had arisen in the Greek cities. But if we remember that the Peloponnesian War, too, was, as we see from Thucydides, nothing but a class struggle that spread to the whole of Greece, we shall conclude without any difficulty that the causes of the decline of Greece are to be found in her economic history. Thus, Hegel puts us on the way to the materialist conception of history, although to him the class struggle in Greece appears only as a manifestation of the “principle of decay.” Expressing it in the terms used by Hegel, we can say that materialism is the truth of idealism. And we constantly meet with such unexpected things in Hegel’s philosophy of history. This greatest of idealists seems to have set himself the task of clearing the road for materialism. When he speaks about the cities of the Middle Ages he pays tribute to idealism, but considers their history, on the one hand, as the struggle of the burghers against the nobility and the clergy, and, on the other, as a struggle between different sections of citizens — “the rich citizens and the common people.” When he speaks about the Reformation, he again first reveals to us the secrets of the “universal spirit” and then passes the following remark, which is completely unexpected on the lips of an idealist, about the spread of protestantism:

“In Austria, in Bavaria and in Bohemia, the Reformation had already achieved great success, and although it is said: when truth has once permeated minds it can never be torn away from them, it was nevertheless suppressed here by force of arms, by cunning or persuasion. The Slav nations were agrarian peoples. [Hegel’s italics. — G. P.] But this condition carries with it the relationship of master and slave. In agriculture the impulse of nature is overwhelming, human industry and subjective activity are less to be found in this work. That is why the Slavs were slower and had greater difficulty in arriving at the basic feeling of the subjective ego, to consciousness of what is universal, […] and they were unable to take part in the rising freedom.”

By these words Hegel tells us outright that the explanation of the religious views and all the emancipation movements that arise among a particular people must be sought in that people’s economic activity. But even that is not enough. The state which, according to Hegel’s idealist explanation, is “the embodiment of the moral idea, is the moral spirit, as the obvious will, clear and substantial to itself, which thinks itself and knows itself and fulfils itself insofar as it thinks and knows itself …,” in Hegel the state itself is nothing more than the product of economic development.

“A real state and a real state government appear only when there is already a difference between the estates, when wealth and poverty become very great and there sets in a condition in which a great majority can no longer satisfy their needs as they are accustomed to.”

In exactly the same way, the historical origin of marriage in Hegel is closely connected with the economic history of mankind.

“The true beginning, and the first institution, of the state have correctly been attributed to the introduction of agriculture and also of marriage, since the principle gives rise to exclusive private ownership, and the wandering life of the savage seeking subsistence in that wandering is led back to the tranquillity of private right and the guaranteed satisfaction of requirements, with which is linked the restriction of sexual love to matrimony, and hence the extension of this union to a lasting, in itself universal, union, of the craving for care of the family and for the possession of family property.” [10]

We could quote many more examples of this kind, but as space does not allow this, we shall confine ourselves to pointing out the significance attributed by Hegel to the “geographical basis of world history.” [11]

Much was written both before and after Hegel about the significance of the geographical environment in man’s historical development. But after him, as well as before him, scientists often made the mistake of bearing in mind only the psychological or even the physiological influence of surrounding nature on man, completely forgetting its influence on the condition of the social productive forces and through them on all the social relations between people in general, with all their ideological superstructures. (Montesquieu in his Espirit des lois [12] not infrequently dwelt on the influence of nature on man’ physiology. He tries to explain many historical phenomena by such influence.) Hegel avoided this enormous error, if not in details at least in the general setting of the question. According to him there are three typical varieties of geographical environment:

  1. a waterless high plateau, with great steppes and plains;
  2. low lands intersected by great rivers;
  3. coastal lands having direct communication with the sea.

Cattle-rearing is dominant in the first, agriculture in the second, trade and the crafts in the third. The social relations of the inhabitants assume various characters according to these basic differences. The people inhabiting the high plateaux, the Mongols, for instance, lead a patriarchal nomadic life and have no history in the proper sense of the word. Only occasionally, assembling in great numbers, they swoop like a storm on the civilised countries leaving desolation and destruction in their wake. Cultural life begins in the lowlands, which owe their fertility to the rivers.

“Such a lowland we find in China, India, […] Babylon, […] and Egypt. Great empires arise in these lands and great states are formed there. For agriculture, which is dominant here as the first source of subsistence for individuals, is bound by the regularity of the seasons, by the regular occupations corresponding to them; here landed property and the relationships of right corresponding to them have their beginning. But the agricultural peoples who live in the lowlands are distinguished by greater sluggishness, immobility and segregation; they are unable to use for their mutual relationships the means that nature places at their disposal. This defect does not exist in peoples in a coastal country. The sea does not separate peoples, it unites them. That is why precisely in the coastal countries culture, and with it the development of human consciousness, reaches its highest development. There is no need to look far for examples, it is sufficient to point to ancient Greece.” [13]

Perhaps the reader knows L. Mechnikov’s book La civilisation et les grands geuves historiques, which appeared in 1889. The author has undeniable deviations towards idealism, but in general he adheres to the materialist standpoint. Well? This materialist’s view of the historical significance of the geographical environment agrees almost entirely with that of the idealist Hegel, although Mechnikov would probably be very surprised to hear of such a resemblance.

Hegel also explains, in part, the rise of inequality among the more or less primitive societies by the influence of geographical environment. Thus, he pointed out that in the Attica of before Solon’s time, the differences between estates [by estates he means the various more or less well-to-do sections of the population: the inhabitants of the plains, those of the mountains, and those of the coastal areas — G. P.] were based on differences in the localities. [14] And there is no doubt that local differences and the occupations which varied with them must have had great influence on the economic development of primitive societies. Unfortunately, this aspect of the matter is far from being always taken into consideration by modern investigators.

It is improbable that Hegel busied himself much with political economy, but here, too, as in many other fields, his genius helped him to grasp the most characteristic and essential aspect of phenomena. Hegel understood more clearly than all economists of his time, not excepting even Ricardo, that in a society which is based on private property, the growth of wealth, on the one hand, is inevitably accompanied by the growth of poverty, on the other. He says this expressly in his Philosophy of Right. To use his words, this dialectics, meaning a lowering of the living standard of the majority of the population as a result of which they can no longer satisfy their requirements correctly, and which concentrates wealth in comparatively few hands, must necessarily lead to a situation in which civil society, despite the surplus of wealth, is not rich enough, i.e., has no sufficient means to do away with the excess of poverty and the dregs of the population (des Pobels). [15]

The result is that civil society finds itself forced to emerge from its own limits and to seek new markets, to turn to world trade and colonisation. Of all Hegel’s contemporaries only Fourier distinguished himself by a similar clarity of views and good understanding of the dialectics of bourgeois economic relations.

The reader has probably noted that to Hegel the proletariat is no more than the Pobel, incapable of using the “spiritual advantages” of civil society. Hegel did not suspect to what degree the modern proletariat differed from the proletariat of the ancient world, say, at any rate, from the Roman proletariat; he did not know that in modern society the yoke weighing down the working class infallibly gives rise to counteraction from that class, and that in modern society the proletariat is destined considerably to outstrip the bourgeoisie intellectually. Neither, of course, did the utopian socialists know this; for them too the proletariat was no more than the “Pobel,” worthy of all kinds of sympathy but incapable of any initiative. Only scientific socialism was able to understand the great historical significance of the modern proletariat.

Let us resume what we have said. As an idealist, Hegel could not regard history otherwise than from the idealist standpoint; he made use of all the powers of his genius, all the gigantic resources of his dialectics, to give at least some scientific character to the idealistic conception of history. His attempt proved vain. He himself seemed dissatisfied with the results he had achieved and he was often obliged to come down from the misty heights of idealism to the concrete ground of economic relationships. Every time he turned to it, economics freed him from the shallows into which his idealism had led him. Economic development turned out to be the premise determining the whole course of history.

This determined the subsequent orientation of science. The transition to materialism which took place after Hegel’s death could not be a simple return to the naive metaphysical materialism of the eighteenth century. In the sphere which interests us here, i.e., in the explanation of history, materialism had to turn first and foremost to economics. To act otherwise would have meant not progress, but retrogression compared with Hegel’s philosophy of history.

The materialist conception of nature is still not the materialist conception of history. The materialists of the last century saw history with the eyes of idealists and very naive idealists at that. Insofar as they dealt with the history of human societies, they tried to explain it by the history of thought. For them the remarkable proposition of Anaxagoras that “reason (nous) governs the world” was reduced to the proposition that human judgement governs history. The sad pages in human history they put down to mistakes of judgement. If the population of a certain country patiently suffers the yoke of despotism, this is only because it has not yet understood the advantages of freedom. If it is superstitious it is because it is deceived by the priests who thought out religion for their own advantages. If humanity suffers from wars the reason is that it is not yet able to understand how detrimental they are. And so for everything. “The progress of ideas depends on the progress of things,” said the remarkable thinker, G. B. Vico, at the beginning of the last century. The materialists thought just the opposite: the progress of things in society is determined by the progress of ideas and the latter is determined by… well, say, the rules of formal logic and accumulation of knowledge.

Hegel’s absolute idealism was very far from the naive idealism of the thinkers of the Enlightenment. When Hegel repeated with Anaxagoras that reason governs the world, on his lips that did not at all mean that the world is governed by the thought of man. [16] Nature is a system of reason, but that does not mean that nature is endowed with consciousness.

“The movement of the solar system takes place according to immutable laws; these laws are the reason of that system, but neither the sun nor the planets which gravitate around it according to these laws have any consciousness of doing so.”

Man is endowed with consciousness; he sets a definite purpose for his actions; but it does not follow from this that history proceeds as people wish it to. The result of every act of man always has an unforeseen side and it is precisely this side that often, or more correctly nearly always, constitutes the most substantial acquisition of history, and it is this side that leads to the realisation of the universal spirit.

“In world history man’s actions result in something quite different from what he purposes or intends”; he fulfils his own interests but thereby something more is brought into being, which is, admittedly, contained therein, but was not in his consciousness or his intention. States, peoples and individuals pursue their own private interests, their particular aims.

From this standpoint they are undeniably conscious, thinking agents. But, consciously pursuing their own private aims (which generally are also permeated with definite universal aspirations to what is good and right), they unconsciously accomplish the aims of the universal spirit.

Caesar aimed at autocracy in Rome, that was his personal aim; but autocracy was at the same time a historical necessity; hence, in accomplishing his personal aim, Caesar served the universal spirit. In this sense we can say that historical figures, and also whole peoples are blind instruments of the spirit. It forces them to work for it by holding out to them the bait of their private aims and urging them on with the spur of passion, without which nothing great is done in history.

In relation to people there is here no mysticism of the “unconscious.” People’s actions are necessarily reflected in their heads, but it is not this reflection that determines the movement of history. The progress of things is not determined by the progress of ideas but by something outside and independent of man’s will and hidden from human consciousness.

The accident of human arbitrariness and human prudence gives place to conformity to law, i.e., consequently, to necessity. In this lies the unquestionable superiority of “absolute idealism” compared with the naive idealism of the French thinkers of the Enlightenment. Absolute idealism is to this latter idealism what monotheism is to fetishism and magic. Magic leaves no room in nature for conformity to law; it assumes that the “progress of things” can be disrupted at any moment by the intervention of a magician. Monotheism attributes to God the establishment of the laws of nature, but it acknowledges (at least at the higher stage of its development when it ceases to be reconciled with miracles) that the progress of things is determined by these once-and-for-all-established laws. In so doing it gives science a large place. In just the same way absolute idealism, seeking the explanation of the movement of history in something which is independent of human arbitrariness, sets science the task of explaining the phenomena of history in conformity with laws, and the fulfilment of this task does away with any necessity for the hypothesis of the spirit which was quite worthless as far as this explanation was concerned.

If the view of the French materialists of the last century on the progress of history came to the proposition that human judgement governs history, their expectations from the future could be expressed by saying: from now on everything will be arranged and put in order by enlightened reason, philosophy. It is remarkable that Hegel, the absolute idealist, reserved philosophy a far more modest role.

“To speak once more on the precept of how the world must be, here philosophy always arrives too late,” we read in the preface to Philosophy of Right. “As the world thought, it appeared first at the time when reality had accomplished the process of its formation and was all complete […]. When philosophy paints its grey things grey, it is a form of life already grown old, and can no longer be rejuvenated but only known; the owl of Minerva only flies out as twilight sets in.”

Beyond doubt, Hegel goes too far here. Completely agreeing that “philosophy” cannot revive a decrepit, obsolete social system, one may all the same ask Hegel what then prevents it from showing us — of course only roughly — the character of the new social system which is coming to take the place of the old. “Philosophy” considers phenomena in the process of their appearance. But this process has two sides: appearance and disappearance. These two sides can be considered as separate in time. But, both in nature and especially in history the process of appearing is, at every particular time, a double process: the old is destroyed and at the same time the new arises out of its ruins. Must this process of the appearance of the new always remain a mystery for “philosophy”? “Philosophy” takes cognizance of what is, and not what should be according to this or that person’s opinion. But what is at each particular time? Precisely the obsolescence of the old and the birth of the new. If philosophy takes cognisance only of the obsolescent old, its cognisance is one-sided, and philosophy is unable to fulfil the task of knowing what is. But this contradicts Hegel’s assurance of the omnipotence of cognisant reason.

Modern materialism knows not such extreme. On the basis of what is and is becoming obsolete it can judge of what is coming into being. But we must not forget that our conception of what is coming into being differs essentially from the conception of being to be (sein sollenden), against which Hegel directed the words we have quoted from him on the owl of Minerva. For us, what is coming into being is the necessary result of what is becoming obsolete. If we know that such a thing, and no other is coming into being, we are indebted for this to the objective process of social development, which prepares us to know what is coming into being. We do not oppose our thought to the being around us.

But those whom Hegel argued with did not consider the matter that way. They imagined that thought could change the natural course of development of being as it wished. Therefore they did not find it necessary to study its course or take it into consideration. Their idea of what was to be was based not on the study of reality around them but on their reasoning about the just and normal social system they had at a particular time. This reasoning was prompted by nothing but the reality around them (chiefly its negative side). To rely on such reasoning meant in essence to be governed by the directions of that same reality but accepted indiscriminately without any attempts at checking them by studying the reality which prompted them. It was like trying to get to know a thing by looking not straight at it, but at its reflection in a convex mirror. Mistakes and disappointments were inevitable. And the more people forgot that their ideas of “what was to be” originated in the reality surrounding them the more they believed that, equipped with these ideas, they could treat reality as it occurred to them, the greater was the distance separating what they aspired to and what they attained. How far modern bourgeois society is from the Kingdom of Reason which the French thinkers of the Enlightenment dreamed of! Ignoring reality, people could not free themselves from the operation of its laws; they only deprived themselves of the possibility to foresee the working of those laws and to use them for their own aims. That was precisely why their aims were unattainable. To adopt the standpoint of the thinkers of the Enlightenment meant to go no farther than the abstract opposition between freedom and necessity.

It seems at first sight that if necessity predominates in history there is no room in it for the free activity of man. This enormous mistake was corrected by German idealist philosophy. Schelling had already pointed out that in the correct view of the matter freedom is necessity, necessity is freedom. Hegel finally solved the antinomy between freedom and necessity. He proved that we are free only insofar as we know the laws of nature and socio-historical development and insofar as we, submitting to them, rely upon them. This was a tremendous gain in the field of philosophy and also in that of social science — again which, however, only modern, dialectical materialism has exploited to the full.

The materialist explanation of history presupposes the dialectical method of thought. Dialectics was known before Hegel. But Hegel succeeded in making use of it as none of his predecessors had. In the hands of this idealist of genius, dialectics became a most powerful weapon for the cognition of everything which exists. “Therefore,” Hegel says, “the dialectical constitutes … the motive soul of the scientific process and is the principle by which alone the content of science acquires immanent connection and necessity.” [17] “Diversion from abstract rational definitions seems to our ordinary consciousness a profession of simple prudence according to the rule: live and let live, whereby everything seems equally good. But the essence of the matter is that what is definite is not only limited from without, but is bound to be destroyed and to pass over into its opposite by virtue of its own inherent nature.” [18] As long as Hegel remains true to the dialectical method, he is a highly progressive thinker. “We say that all things (i.e., all that is finite as such) must be submitted to the judgement of dialectics and by the very fact we define it as a universal, invincible force, which must destroy everything, no matter how lasting it may seem.” Therefore Hegel is perfectly right when he says that serious mastery and clear comprehension of dialectics is a matter of extraordinary importance. The dialectical method is the most powerful scientific weapon bequeathed by German idealism to its successor, modern materialism.

However, materialism could not make use of dialectics in its idealist form. It had first of all to be freed from its mystic wrappings.

The greatest of all materialists, a man who was in no way inferior to Hegel by his genius, the true successor of the great philosopher, Karl Marx, said quite rightly of himself that his method is the complete opposite of Hegel’s method.

“To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the idea’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, the phenomenal form of ‘the idea.’ With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” [19]

Thanks to Marx, materialist philosophy has been elevated to an integrate, harmonious and consistent world outlook. We already know that the materialists of the last century remained naive idealists in the field of history. But Marx drove that idealism out of its last refuge. Like Hegel, he saw human history as a process conforming to laws and independent of man’s arbitrariness; like Hegel, he considered all phenomena in the process of their appearance and their disappearance; like Hegel, he was not satisfied with barren metaphysical explanation of historical phenomena, and lastly, like Hegel, he endeavoured to trace to a universal and single source all the acting and interacting forces of social life. But he found that source, not in the absolute spirit, but in the same economic development to which, as we saw above, Hegel too was forced to have recourse when idealism, even in his powerful and skilful hands, was a powerless and useless instrument. But what in Hegel is accidental, a guess of greater or lesser genius, becomes in Marx a rigorous, scientific investigation.

Modern dialectical materialism has made clear to itself incomparably better than idealism the truth that people make history unconsciously: from its standpoint the course of history is determined in the final account not by man’s will, but by the development of the material productive forces. Materialism also knows when the “owl of Minerva” starts its flight, but it sees nothing mysterious in the flight of this bird, any more than in anything else. It has succeeded in applying to history the relation between freedom and necessity discovered by idealism. People made and had to make their history unconsciously as long as the motive forces of historical development worked behind their backs, independently of their consciousness. Once those forces have been discovered, once the laws by which they work have been studied, people will be able to take them in their own hands and submit them to their own reason. The service rendered by Marx consists in having discovered those laws and made a rigorous scientific study of their working. Modern dialectical materialism, which, in the opinion of philistines, must turn man into an automaton, in actual fact opens for the first time in history the road to the kingdom of freedom and conscious activity. But it is possible to enter that kingdom only by means of a radical change in the present social activity. The philistines realise, or at least have a foreboding of this. That is why the materialist explanation of history causes them such vexation and grief; and for that reason too not a single philistine is able or willing to understand or grasp Marx’s theory in all its fullness. Hegel saw the proletariat as a mob. For Marx and the Marxists the proletariat is a majestic force, the bearer of the future. Only the proletariat is capable of mastering the teaching of Marx (we are not speaking of exceptions) and we see how it is in fact becoming more and more permeated with its content.

Philistines in all countries are raising a hue and cry about there not being a single important work in the whole of the writings of Marxism besides Capital. But first, that is not true, and secondly, even if it were, it would prove nothing. Can one speak of stagnation of thought at a time when thought daily subjugates masses of followers, when it opens new and broad perspectives for a whole class of society?

Hegel is enthusiastic when he speaks of the people of Athens in whose presence the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles were played, to whom Pericles addressed his speeches, and from among whom “emerged personalities who became classical characters for all ages.” We can understand Hegel’s enthusiasm. Nevertheless it must be noted that the Atheneans were a people of slave-owners. It was not the slaves that Pericles addressed himself to, nor was it for them that the great works of art were intended. In our time science addresses itself to the working people, and we are fully entitled to be enthusiastic when we consider the modern working class, to whom the profoundest thinkers address themselves and before whom the most talented authors make their speeches. Only now has a close and unseverable union between science and the working people at last been established, a union which will lay the foundations of a great and fruitful epoch in world history.

It is sometimes said that the standpoint of dialectics is identical with that of evolution. There can be no doubt that these two methods have points of contact. Nevertheless between them there is a profound and important difference which, it must be admitted, is far from favouring the teaching of evolution. Modern evolutionists introduce a considerable admixture of conservatism into their teaching. They want to prove that there are no leaps either in nature or in history. Dialectics, on the other hand, knows full well that in nature and also in human thought and history leaps are inevitable. But it does not overlook the undeniable fact that the same uninterrupted process is at work in all phases of change. It only endeavours to make clear to itself the series of conditions under which gradual change must necessarily lead to a leap.

From Hegel’s standpoint utopias have a symptomatic importance in history: they display contradictions characteristic of the epoch in question. Dialectical materialism gives the same appraisal of them. It is not the utopian plans of various reformers, but the laws of production and exchange which determine the now continually growing working-class movement. That is why, contrary to what happened in past centuries, not the reformers are at present utopians, but all those public figures who want to stop the wheel of history. And the most characteristic feature of our epoch is that not the reformers, but their opponents, resort to utopias. The utopian champions of the present unsightly reality want to convince themselves and others that of itself this reality has all perfections, and that therefore all that is necessary is to remove from it certain abuses that have accumulated. In this connection we cannot help remembering what Hegel said about the Reformation.

“The Reformation arose out of the corruption of the Church. The corruption of the Church is not accidental, not only abuse of power and authority. Abuse is usually regarded as the cause of corruption; it is presumed that the base is good, the thing in itself irreproachable, but passions and in general subjective interests, the accidental will of men, use that good as a means for themselves and that all that is needed is to remove these accidental things […]. With such an idea the thing is saved and the evil considered as only extraneous to it. But accidental abuse of a thing is only a particular case; it is quite another matter in the case of a general and great evil in such a great and general thing as the Church.”

It is not surprising that Hegel gets so little sympathy from those who like to appeal to “accidental” rents where it is really a matter of radical change in the “thing” itself. They are horrified by the audacious, radical spirit that permeates Hegel’s philosophy.

There was a time when those who more or less belonged to the innovators’ camp rose against Hegel. What shocked them in his doctrine was his philistine attitude to the contemporary Prussian situation. These opponents of Hegel were gravely mistaken: underneath the reactionary husk they did not notice the innovatory kernel in his system. But however that may be, these people’s antipathy for the great thinker proceeded from noble motives, worthy of all respect. Now Hegel is condemned by scientists representing the bourgeoisie, and they condemn him because they understand or at least feel instinctively the innovatory spirit of his philosophy. For the same reason people now like to pass over Hegel’s merits in silence; they willingly oppose him to Kant and nearly every assistant professor considers it his calling to extol the system of “the Konigsberg thinker.” We willingly give Kant his due and do not dispute his merits. But it seems very suspicious to us that the bourgeois scientists’ tendency to criticism is called forth not by his strong sides but his weak ones. It is the dualism characteristic of this system that attracts bourgeois ideologists most. And dualism is a particularly convenient thing in the field of “morality.” With its help the most attractive ideals can be built up, the most daring expeditions into a “better world” can be undertaken without any thought of embodying those “ideals” in reality. What could be better? In the ideal one can, for example, completely destroy the existence of classes, abolish the exploitation of one class by another, and at the same time defend the class state, etc., in reality. Hegel saw the current assertion that an ideal cannot be implemented in reality as a terrible insult to human reason. “All that is rational is real, all that is real is rational.” This proposition, we know, perplexed many people, not in Germany alone, but abroad, especially in Russia. The reason for this perplexity must be sought in the lack of clear understanding of the meaning which Hegel gave to the words “reason” and “reality.” It would seem that even if one gives these words their usual vulgar interpretation, one is bound, all the same, to be struck by the innovatory content of the first half of this proposition: “all that is rational is real.” Applied to history these words can mean nothing else than the unshakeable conviction that everything rational, far from remaining something “of the beyond,” must become reality. Without such promising conviction innovatory thought would lose all practical significance. According to Hegel, history is the manifestation and realisation in time of the universal spirit (i.e., reason). How can the continual superseding of social forms be explained from this standpoint? It can be explained only if one considers that in the process of historical development “reason becomes madness and blessing an evil.” One must not, according to Hegel, be ceremonious with reason which has gone over into its opposite, i.e., which has become madness. When Caesar seized state power he violated the Roman constitution. Such a violation was obviously a heinous crime. Apparently Caesar’s opponents were fully justified in considering themselves as champions of right because they stood on legal ground. But the right which they championed “was formal right, void of any living spirit and abandoned by the Gods.” The violation of that right was thus only formally a crime and therefore there is nothing easier than to justify Julius Caesar, the violator of the Roman constitution.

Hegel gave the following opinion of the fate of Socrates, condemned as the enemy of the prevailing morality:

“Socrates was a hero because he consciously acknowledged the higher principle of the spirit and gave voice to it. The right of this higher spirit absolute. […] Such is the position adopted by heroes in world history in general; it is through them that the new world dawns. The new principle is in contradiction with the one that has so far existed; it seems destructive; therefore heroes appear as men of violence who break the laws. As individuals, they are doomed, but the principle itself forges on, even if in another person, and undermines what already exists.”

These words are sufficiently clear in themselves. But the matter will become still clearer if we pay attention to the fact that according to Hegel not only heroes appear on the scene of world history, not only individual personalities, but whole peoples too, inasmuch as they are vehicles of the new historical principle. In such cases the field of activity to which the rights of the people extend is extraordinarily vast.

“Against this its absolute right to be the vehicle of the present stage of development of the universal spirit, the spirits of the other peoples have no right and are as those whose epoch is past, they do not count any more in the history of the world.”

We know that at the present time the vehicle of the new principle of world history is not any single people, but a definite social class. But we shall still be faithful to the spirit of Hegel’s philosophy if we say that all other social classes will go into world history in the degree in which they will be able to give support to this class.

The irresistible striving to the great historical goal, a striving which nothing can stop — such is the legacy of the great German idealist philosophy.

[1] Anatoly Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes (1923). [web] 

[2] V. I. Lenin, “Once Again On The Trade Unions, the Current Situation, and the Mistakes of Trotsky and Bukharin” (1921). [web] 

[3] G. V. Plekhanov, “The Meaning of Hegel” (1891), translated by Raya Dunayevskaya. [web] 

[4] Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886). [web] 

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences. [web] 

[6] Karl Marx, “Theories of the Medium of Circulation and of Money” in Critique of Political Economy (1859). [web] 

[7] Reciprocity and Interaction at the Marxists Internet Archive Glossary. [web] 

[8] G. W. F. Hegel, “Second Subdivision: Essence (Actuality)” in Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences: The Logic, Part I. [web] 

[9] G. W. F. Hegel, “The Principle of a People” in General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. [web] 

[10] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §203. [web] 

[11] G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, §548. [web] 

[12] Charles de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws (1752). [web] 

[13] G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to The Philosophy of History. [web] 

[14] G. W. F. Hegel, “The Greek World” in The Philosophy of History. [web] 

[15] G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §243. [web] 

[16] See the RS translation of an excerpt from Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “Reason Governs the World.” [web] — R. D. 

[17] G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences: The Logic, §81. [web] 

[18] G. W. F. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences: The Logic, Note to §81. [web] 

[19] Karl Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital (1873). [web]