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Marx and Left Revolutionary Hegelianism

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October 25, 2012

Tags History of the Austrian School of EconomicsOther Schools of Thought

[This article is excerpted from volume 2, chapter 11 of An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (1995). An MP3 audio file of this chapter, narrated by Jeff Riggenbach, is available for download.]


Hegel's death in 1831 inevitably ushered in a new and very different era in the history of Hegelianism. Hegel was supposed to bring about the end of history, but now Hegel was dead, and history continued to march on. So if Hegel himself was not the final culmination of history, then perhaps the Prussian state of Friedrich Wilhelm III was not the final stage of history either. But if it was not the final phase of history, then mightn't the dialectic of history be getting ready for yet another twist, another Aufhebung?

So reasoned groups of radical youth, who, during the last 1830s and 1840s in Germany and elsewhere, formed the movement of Young, or Left, Hegelians. Disillusioned in the Prussian state, the Young Hegelians proclaimed the inevitable coming apocalyptic revolution to destroy and transcend that state, a revolution that would really bring about the end of history in the form of national, or world, communism.

One of the first and most influential of the Left Hegelians was a Pole, Count August Cieszkowski (1814–94) who wrote in German and published in 1838 his Prolegomena to a Historiosophy. Cieszkowski brought to Hegelianism a new dialectic of history, a new variant of the three ages of man. The first age, the age of antiquity, was, for some reason, the age of emotion, the epoch of pure feeling, of no reflective thought, of elemental immediacy and unity with nature. The "spirit" was "in itself" (an sich). The second age of mankind, the Christian era, stretching from the birth of Jesus to the death of the great Hegel, was the age of thought, of reflection, in which the "spirit" moved "toward itself," in the direction of abstraction and universality. But Christianity, the age of thought, was also an era of intolerable duality, of man separated from God, of spirit separated from matter, and thought from action. Finally, the third and culminating age, the coming age, heralded by Count Cieszkowski, was to be the age of action. In short, the third post-Hegelian age would be an age of practical action, in which the thought of both Christianity and of Hegel would be transcended and embodied into an act of will, a final revolution to overthrow and transcend existing institutions. For the term "practical action," Cieszkowski borrowed the Greek word praxis to summarize the new age, a term that would soon come to acquire virtually talismanic influence in Marxism. This final age of action would bring about, at long last, a blessed unity of thought and action, theory and praxis, spirit and matter, God and earth, and total "freedom." Along with Hegel and the mystics, Cieszkowski stressed that all past events, even those seemingly evil, were necessary to the ultimate and culminating salvation.

In a work published in French in Paris in 1844, Cieszkowski also heralded the new class destined to become the leaders of the revolutionary society: the intelligentsia, a word that had recently been coined by a German-educated Pole, B.F. Trentowski, who had published his work in Prussian-occupied Poznan.1 Cieszkowski thus heralded and glorified a development that would at least be implicit in the Marxist movement (after all, the great Marxists, including Marx, Engels, and Lenin, were all bourgeois intellectuals rather than children of the proletariat). If not in theory, this dominance of Marxist movements and governments by a "new class" of intelligentsia has certainly been the history of Marxism in "praxis." This dominance by a new class has been noted and attacked from the beginnings of Marxism unto the present day: notably by the anarcho-communist Bakunin, and by the Polish revolutionary Jan Waclaw Machajski (1866–1926), during and after the 1890s.2 It was also a similar insight into the German Social Democratic Party that prompted Robert Michels to abandon Marxism and develop his famous "iron law of oligarchy" — that all organizations, whether private, governmental, or Marxist parties, will inevitably end up being dominated by a power elite.

Cieszkowski, however, was not destined to ride the wave of the future of revolutionary socialism. For he took the Christian messianic, rather than atheistic, path to the new society. In his massive unfinished work of 1848, Our Father (Ojcze nasz), Cieszkowski maintained that the new age of revolutionary communism would be a third age, an age of the Holy Spirit (shades of Joachism!), an era that would bring a Kingdom of God on earth "as it is in heaven." Thus, the final Kingdom of God on earth would reintegrate all of "organic humanity," and would erase all national identities, with the world governed by a Central Government of All Mankind, headed by a Universal Council of the People.

But at the time, the path of Christian messianism was not clearly destined to be a loser in the intra-socialist debate. Thus, Alexander Ivanovich Herzen (1812–70), a founder of the Russian revolutionary tradition, was entranced by Cieszkowski's brand of Left Hegelianism, writing that "the future society is to be the work not of the heart, but of the concrete. Hegel is the new Christ bringing the word of truth to men."3 And soon, Bruno Bauer, friend and mentor of Karl Marx and the leader of the Doktorklub of Young Hegelians at the University of Berlin, hailed the new philosophy of action in late 1841 as "The Trumpet Call of the Last Judgment."4

But the winning strand in the European socialist movement, as we have indicated, was eventually to be Karl Marx's atheism. If Hegel had pantheized and elaborated the dialectic of Christian messianics, Marx now "stood Hegel on his head" by atheizing the dialectic, and resting it, not on mysticism or religion or "spirit" or the absolute idea or the world-mind, but on the supposedly solid and "scientific" foundation of philosophical materialism. Marx adopted his materialism from the Left Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach, particularly his work on The Essence of Christianity (1843). In contrast to the Hegelian emphasis on "spirit," Marx would study the allegedly scientific laws of matter in some way operating through history. Marx, in short, took the dialectic and made it what we can call a "materialist dialectic of history."

A lot of unnecessary pother has been made about terminology here. Many Marxist apologists have fiercely maintained that Marx himself never used the term "dialectical materialism" — as if mere non-use of the terms lets Marx off the hook — and also that the concept only appeared in such later works of Engels as the Anti-Dühring. But the Anti-Dühring, published before Marx's death, was, like all other such writings of Engels, cleared with Marx first, and so we have to assume that Marx approved.5

The fuss stems from the fact that the term "dialectical materialism" was widely stressed by the Marxist-Leninist movement of the 1930s and 1940s, these days generally discredited. The concept was applied by Engels, who of the two founders was particularly interested in the natural sciences, to biology. Applied to biology, as Engels did in the Anti-Dühring, dialectical materialism has an unmistakably crazy air. In an ultra-Hegelian manner, logic and logical contradictions, or "negations," are hopelessly confused with the processes of reality. Thus: butterflies "come into existence from the egg through negation [or transcendence] of the egg … they are negated again as they die." And "the barley corn.… is negated and is supplanted by the barley plant, the negation of the corn … The plant grows … is fructified and produces again barleycorns and as soon as these are ripe, the ear withers away, is negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have gained the original barley corn … in a quantity ten, twenty, or thirty times larger."6

Furthermore, Marx himself, and not only Engels, was also very interested in Darwin and in biological science. Marx wrote to Engels that Darwin's work "serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history" and that "this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view."7

By recasting the dialectic in materialist and atheist terms, however, Marx gave up the powerful motor of the dialectic as it operated throughout history: either Christian messianism or providence or the growing self-consciousness of the world spirit. How could Marx find a "scientific" materialist replacement, newly grounded in the ineluctable "laws of history" that would explain the inevitability of the imminent apocalyptic transformation of the world into communism? It is one thing to base the prediction of a forthcoming Armageddon upon the Bible; it is quite another to deduce this event from allegedly scientific laws. Setting forth the specifics of this engine of history was to occupy Karl Marx for the rest of his life.

Although Marx found Feuerbach indispensable for adopting a thoroughgoing atheist and materialist positions, Marx soon found that Feuerbach had not gone nearly far enough. Even though Feuerbach was a philosophical communist, he basically believed that if man forswore religion, then his alienation from his self would be over. To Marx, religion was only one of the problems. The entire world of man (the Menschenwelt) was alienating, and had to be radically overthrown, root and branch. Only apocalyptic destruction of this world of man would permit true human nature to be realized. Only then would the existing "un-man" (Unmensch) truly become man (Mensch). As Marx thundered in the fourth of his "theses on Feuerbach," "one must proceed to destroy [the] "earthly family" [as it is] "both in theory and in practice."8

In particular, declared Marx, true man, as Feuerbach had argued, is a "communal being" (Gemeinwesen) or "species being" (Gattungswesen). Although the state as it exists must be negated or transcended, man's participation in the state operates as such a communal being. The main problem comes in the private sphere, the market, or "civil society," in which un-man acts as an egoist, as a private person, treating others as means, and not collectively as masters of their fate. And in existing society, unfortunately, civil society is primary, while the state, or "political community," is secondary. What must be done to realize the full nature of mankind is to transcend the state and civil society by politicizing all of life, by making all of man's actions collective. Then real individual man will become a true and full "species being."9

But only a revolution, an orgy of destruction, can accomplish this task. And here, Marx harkened back to the call for total destruction that had animated his vision of the world in poems of his youth. Indeed, in a speech in London in 1856, Marx was to give graphic and loving expression to this goal of his "praxis." He mentioned that in Germany in the Middle Ages there existed a secret tribunal called the Vehmgericht. He then explained: "If a red cross was seen marked on a house, people knew that its owner was doomed by the Vehm. All the houses of Europe are now marked with the mysterious red cross. History is the judge — its executioner the proletarian."10

Marx, in fact, was not satisfied with the philosophical communism to which he and Engels had separately been converted by the slightly older Left Hegelian Moses Hess (1812–75) in the early 1840s. To Hess's communism, Marx, by the end of 1843, added the crucial emphasis on the proletariat, not simply as an economic class, but as destined to become the "universal class" when communism was achieved. As we have indicated above, Marx actually acquired his vision of the proletariat as the key to the communist revolution from the 1842 work of Lorenz von Stein, an enemy of socialism, who interpreted the socialist and communist movements as rationalizations of the class interests of the proletariat. Marx discovered in Stein's attack the "scientific" engine for the inevitable coming of the communist revolution. The proletariat, the most "alienated" and allegedly "propertyless" class, would be the key.

Marx had now worked out the outline of his secular messianic vision: a material dialectic of history, with the final apocalyptic revolution to be achieved by the proletariat. But how specifically was this to be accomplished? Vision was not enough. What scientific laws of history could bring about this cherished goal? Fortunately, Marx had a crucial ingredient for his attempted solution close at hand: in the Saint-Simonian concept of human history as driven by an inherent struggle among economic classes. The class struggle along with historical materialism was to be an essential ingredient for the Marxian material dialectic.

  • 1. B.F. Trentowski, The Relationship of Philosophy to Cybernetics (Poznan, 1843), in which the author also coined the word "cybernetics" for the new, emerging form of rational social technology which would transform mankind. See James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), p. 231.
  • 2. On Machajski, see Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 102–6. Machajski's preferred solution to the problem of domination by the intellectuals was scarcely convincing. Machajski called for a secret organization of revolutionary workers, The Workers' Conspiracy, presumably headed by himself, which would lead the proletarian revolution, and establish a "classless" society shorn of the evil distinctions between mental and manual labor.
  • 3. Billington, op. cit, note 20, p. 225.
  • 4. It is to Bauer that the world owes the terms "critical" and "criticism," which Marxists have long employed as endlessly repeated slogans ever since; e.g., "Critique of Critical Theory," "Critical Legal Studies," etc.
  • 5. According to Schumpeter, moreover, Marx was virtually a co-author of the Anti-Dühring. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Bros., 1942), p. 39n.
  • 6. Engels, Anti-Dühring, cited in Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (3rd ed., Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1985), p. 105. Also see the sardonic commentary on this passage by Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition (London: Longmans, Green, 1946), p. 300n. Gray also notes Marx's summary of the dialectic in the Poverty of Philosophy, which he comments is "not without entertainment value": "The yes becomes no, the no becomes yes, the yes becomes at the same time yes and no, the no becomes at the same time no and yes, the contraries balance, neutralize, and paralyze each other." (My own translation from Gray's French quote.)
  • 7. Marx to Engels, 16 Jan. 1861 and 19 Dec. 1860. See Gary North, Marx's Religion of Revolution: Regeneration Through Chaos (2nd ed., Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), pp. 89n-90n.
  • 8. Tucker, op. cit., note 3, p. 101.
  • 9. Ibid., p. 105.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 15.


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