Wu Xiaoming: On the foundation of historical materialism in Marx’s political philosophy

2020-12-01 18:12:00 | Author:Wu Xiaoming | Source:Marxism and Reality, No 1, 2020

Abstract: With the unfolding of contemporary issues and the involvement of contemporary political philosophical subjects, there has been in China an unprecedented rise in interest in the study of Marx’s political philosophy. The implementation of the materialist view of history in that study, however, faces various obstacles due to the great obscurity of the ideologies of modernity and their dominant form of knowledge. The primary obstacle comes from what we will call ideological mythology, which takes as the basis for the whole theory the ideas or categories of modernity (especially “justice,” “equality,” “freedom,” etc.). On the contrary, the decisive foundation of Marx’s political philosophy is not any part or all of the world of ideas, but socio-historical reality. While critically appropriating the Hegelian concept of reality, the standpoint of the materialist view of history reveals the abstract universality based on “divine ideas” as a supra-historical illusion, i.e., “the primordial intention, the mystical tendency, the providential aim” [1]. Therefore, for the study of political philosophy in the name of Marx, the first thing is to penetrate into socio-historical reality, to demonstrate through such penetration one’s line of thought and theoretical task, and thus to actively elucidate the ownmost and profound contemporary significance of Marx’s political philosophy.

Keywords: Marx’s political philosophy; materialist view of history; ideology; historicity; social reality


In recent years, with the continuous development and thematization of Marxist philosophical research in China, as well as the involvement and influence of certain major subjects of contemporary political philosophy and political theory, there has been an unprecedented rise in interest in the study of Marx’s political philosophy, which has produced some noteworthy initial research proposals and results. Such research is often devoted to discussing Marx’s views about “freedom,” “justice,” “equality,” “fairness,” etc., and considering Marx’s accounts of the relationship between the individual and society, society and the state, etc., and attempts to make itself fit into certain subjects of contemporary political philosophy in order to form a dialog with it. Such research efforts are certainly positive and useful, but it is precisely because of a number of trends exposed in the development of such research that we need to emphasize and elaborate in depth the foundation of Marx’s political philosophy in the materialist view of history. For although it is almost universally known that the materialist view of history is the foundation of Marx’s political theory, its use in political philosophy is often severely hampered by the strong obscuring of the ideologies of modernity and their dominant form of knowledge, i.e., the knowledge of the understanding (das Wissen des Verstands), and thus many of the key points of Marx’s political philosophy are plunged into darkness. In order to free ourselves decisively from such darkness, it is necessary not only to thoroughly implement the principles of the materialist view of history in the study of political philosophy in the name of Marx, but also to set out through such implementation clear lines of thought and theoretical tasks, so that we, while forming a genuinely critical dialog with contemporary trends of thought, can actively elucidate the ownmost and profound contemporary significance of Marx’s political philosophy.


In the context of 18th- and 19th-century German philosophy, political philosophy belongs to philosophy of the state and philosophy of right. For Marx, since, in “Germany,” philosophy of the state and right is “the only German history which is al pari with the official modern reality,” and since such philosophy attains “its most consistent, richest and final formulation through Hegel,” “the most distinguished, most universal expression of” “the whole German political and legal consciousness as practiced hitherto,” “raised to the level of a science, is the speculative philosophy of right itself” [2]. If Marx’s critical analysis of Hegel’s philosophy of right in 1843 is an essentially groundbreaking intellectual event, then this event has decisively had a double theoretical consequence in its course: on the one hand, the founding of the materialist view of history, and on the other hand, the critique of ideology in general. This theoretical consequence is decisive not only because the doctrines bearing Marx’s name—including, of course, Marxian political philosophy—is based on the materialist view of history, but also because, at a fundamental philosophical level, the materialist view of history itself is most clearly and essentially antagonistic to ideology in general. For anyone versed in Marx’s doctrine and terminology, “ideology” here means nothing more than such kind of “false consciousness”: as an inverted reflection of real relations, it is nonetheless totally ignorant of real relations themselves (it blocks such knowledge and makes it impossible); since ideology fundamentally attributes the essentiality of real things to thought, consciousness, ideas, etc., Marx often uses it in philosophy as a synonym for idealism.

The fundamental standpoint of ideology is the belief that “the real world is a product of the world of ideas.” [3] If Hegel has completed modern metaphysics with absolute idealism, then his system also serves as the true philosophical backbone of German ideology. For this absolute and ultimate idealist system, while transforming the material world into the world of ideas, also transforms the whole history into the history of thought. Furthermore, “[t]here is no specific difference between German idealism and the ideology of all the other nations. The latter too regards the world as dominated by ideas, ideas and concepts as the determining principles, and certain notions as the mystery of the material world accessible to the philosophers.” [4] The gist of ideology in general thus lies in the assertion of the omnipresent dominance and rule of thought, consciousness, ideas, etc. over the real world. What, then, does the materialist view of history mean here? It means a critical disengagement from ideology in general (and its philosophical backbone), a total and radical dismantling of the dominance and rule of thought, consciousness, ideas, etc. over the real world, and also to reveal and grasp the essence of various ideologies on the basis of the real world itself, i.e., people’s real life and real relations. Since much of the content of this great philosophical revolution is well-known, it will suffice to mention a few points briefly. For Marx, the alpha and omega of the problem lies in the ontological foundation of philosophy, and his revolutionary change of this foundation is made explicit through the following proposition: “Consciousness [das Bewusstsein] can never be anything else than conscious being [das bewusste Sein], and the being of people is their actual life-process.” [5] If Hegel’s philosophy is the completion of modern metaphysics (which since Descartes has orientated itself with the basic establishment of “consciousness” or the “cogito”) and thus constitutes the philosophical pillar of the ideologies of modernity, then unless this philosophy is decisively subverted ontologically, various ideological illusions would not have gone up in smoke and the doctrine of the materialist view of history would not have been able to take its place.

When the ontological characteristics of consciousness, thought and ideas are so clarified as to be grasped as people’s real life-process, the “upside-down” imagination of ideology is fundamentally reversed: it is not the world of ideas that produces, determines and dominates people’s real life and real relations; on the contrary, the whole world of ideas is produced and develops on the basis of people’s real life, and is therefore nothing more than “the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.” [6] It is exactly here that the materialist view of history fundamentally destroys the philosophical basis on which ideology stands, namely the dominance of thought, spirit, ideas, etc. over the real world, and thus expresses decisively the sheer opposite principle or position: “Morality, religion, metaphysics, and all the rest of ideology as well as the forms of consciousness corresponding to these, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but people, while developing their material production and their material communication, alter, along with this their actual world, also their thinking and the products of their thinking.” [7]

As simple as it is, this principle is fundamental: it identifies very clearly the decisive division between the materialist view of history and all ideology; thus, this principle, albeit an initial one, must be crucial for political philosophy based on the materialist view of history. However, in many of our discussions of political philosophy in the name of Marx, especially of Marx’s views about “justice,” “fairness,” “freedom,” “equality,” etc., a number of scholars are caught up in great confusion and even ideological delirium in the face of those fascinating terms. However beautiful such terms may be, what are they in practice? They are ideas, categories. If we fail to see in such discussions how those ideas or categories emerge from particular social reality and how they change their entire content as social reality changes, then what is treated here is not Marx’s political philosophy at all, but ideological mythology, the opposite of the basis of his political philosophy—the materialist view of history. According to such mythology, Marx seems to be speaking for and carrying out the ideas or categories of “justice,” “fairness,” “freedom,” “equality,” etc.: as if Marx’s critique of the modern-capitalist world depended utterly on the idea of “justice” or “freedom,” as if the full arsenal of Marx’s political philosophy were such ideas or a system of them.

For a long time, the list of representatives who attempt to construct political philosophy out of the conceptual equipment of “justice,” “freedom,” “fairness,” etc. in order to develop a radical (or not so radical) critique of the existing world, is endless. They can be Rousseau and the “encyclopedists,” Kant and Fichte, the French utopians and Proudhon, “die Freien” in Berlin and the German “true” socialists, or Habermas and Rawls—but in no way Marx. For Marx, such critiques are certainly not fake, but their significance diminishes as history progresses; in particular, when the self-activity and dominance of the world of ideas are revealed as ideological illusions, such critiques have already become anachronistic, even though they can still be disguised as quite radical. The ideologies of modernity deprive ideas such as “justice,” “freedom,” “fairness,” etc. of all historical content in order to render them supra-historical; in particular, they conceal the social reality of the modern world on which those ideas rest in order to make it natural and eternal. In this way, ideological mystification creates “divine ideas” that are supra-historical and thus eternal. Such divine ideas are said to also govern Marx and, as the supreme principles (or hidden principles), his entire political philosophy. The absurdity and senselessness of this view is immediately apparent when one looks at The Poverty of Philosophy. For it is in this work that Marx profoundly reveals the divine idea on which Proudhon stands (that is, “equality”) and the whole mythology that political economy can be structured on the basis of that divine idea. What is the dominant and self-acting “subject” in Proudhon’s mythology? It is ideas, categories or principles. Such ideas, categories or principles are in turn made into non-historical and eternal ideas, categories or principles through what he calls “universal reason” or “human reason.” Eventually, the supreme and all-embracing divine idea is “equality”: “In short, equality is the primordial intention, the mystical tendency, the providential aim that the social genius has constantly before its eyes as it whirls in the circle of economic contradictions. Thus, Providence is the locomotive which makes the whole of M. Proudhon’s economic baggage move better than his pure and volatilised reason” [8]. It is obvious that Marx, who rests on the materialist view of history, would most resolutely refuse to drag any of his theoretical baggage, including that of political philosophy, with any “divine idea”; it is equally obvious that, in various present-day theoretical constructions, divine ideas dwelling in the bosom of “impersonal human reason” cannot but appear as “the primordial intention, the mystical tendency, the providential aim.” As to whether that divine idea is “equality” or “justice,” “freedom” or “fairness,” this question is here—where we are distinguishing political philosophy based on the materialist view of history from ideological mythology—completely irrelevant.

Although the issue here is so clear and distinct, the powerful dominance of the ideologies of modernity is still inexorably evinced by the fact that, in the face of the theory of justice of Rawls and others, and in the face of the attempt of some scholars who, being totally ignorant of Marx’s theory, are devoted to “fusing” Marx’s political thought with Rawls’s, many of our scholars begin to become completely disoriented. Having gone astray, they feel that, since Rawls has his “theory of justice,” Marx seems all the more fit to have one—they simply cannot be at peace without a divine idea to bless and safeguard them. When G.A. Cohen and I. Hunt, among others, make much of Marx’s “implicit conception of justice,” our scholars, like an echo, also speak of the “implicit approach” of moral justice. What constitute the basis for their inference here? It is because Marx states (1) that “capital comes [into the world] dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”; (2) that “[c]apital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it suck” [9]; and more importantly, Marx in the Capital and its manuscripts compares exploitation, i.e., the acquisition of surplus value by the capitalist, to “theft,” “robbery,” and the like. However, can these statements constitute valid arguments for the so-called “implicit conception of justice”? Not in the slightest. For any serious academic undertaking must always make a strict distinction between what is decisive for the substance of theory and what is expressed as mere metaphor. The metaphorical nature of (1) and (2) above is immediately obvious, since Marx there is certainly not dealing with some secretory function of the skin or particular hauntological category. But are “theft,” “robbery,” etc. mentioned in (3) also no more than metaphors? When Hunt, Cohen, and the like construct out of these words Marx’s “implicit” conception of justice and hence “imply” the injustice of capitalist exploitation, it is only logical that they should try to provide the basis for Marx’s critique of capital through Rawls’s theory of justice. But whatever the words used in the Capital and its manuscripts, for Marx “theft,” “robbery,” etc. are metaphors—they are none other than and can only be metaphorical descriptions. If descriptions such as these were not metaphors but constitute the substance of Marx’s theory, then Marx’s theory would equal Proudhon’s. It is well known that it is Proudhon who, in his book What Is Property?, most explicitly declares property to be theft, and even boasts that truths such as “property is theft” are not to be discovered every 500 years. If Marx, like Proudhon, really derived his own position of justice in contrast with the injustice of theft, then Marx would be the true defender of and apologist for private property. For any theft presupposes the actual appropriation of wealth, and where there is nothing like private property, there is no talk of theft at all. [10] There can be no doubt, therefore, that what constitutes the substance of theory for Proudhon is for Marx at best no more than metaphorical; to try to derive and forge Marx’s theory of justice from some metaphor is like identifying a real mansion in a mirage, which merely shows itself to be an illusion that is subservient to the ideologies of modernity. As Marx’s political philosophy has its own foundation, i.e., the materialist view of history, the thought of trying to provide a “foundation” for Marx’s political theory through Rawls’s or someone else’s theory of justice is, in any case, disoriented in a fundamental theoretical way. For such a thought aspires to project once again onto the top of the edifice of Marx’s political philosophy a divine idea, in this case “justice,” whose mystery the materialist view of history has long since uncovered, so that the edifice might be surrounded again by the divine and fascinating radiance of ideas, that is to say, might return to the warm embrace of the ideologies of modernity that is most comfortable to the senseless.

But can an idea like “justice” (and of course “freedom,” “fairness,” etc.) be earthly? Yes, for Marx this is exactly the case. No matter how many theories or doctrines there may be that regard such an idea as “sacred” and worship it, from the materialist view of history, it is in practice completely earthly or, in other words, secular. Moreover, “… that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself as an independent realm in the clouds can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis.” [11] Although the “independent realm” referred to here itself means the sacred world of religion, are things not equally so for the sacred world of philosophy, morality, jurisprudence—in short, of any sort of ideology? Thus, for Marx, if “justice” is nothing more than the mere jurisprudent form of the substantial content of certain society (which does not determine the content itself, but is only the expression of that content in the jurisprudent form), the core and essence of the whole problem is precisely the very substantial content of that particular society. “This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate, to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradicts that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities.” [12] This is the heart of Marx’s thinking on justice, and there is no mystery or unintelligibility here that pertains to divine ideas. It is merely a contradiction to believe that Marx’s materialist view of history can provide “realistic solutions” for changing “unjust” social systems: for the materialist view of history never proposes solutions for changing society on the basis of the idea of “justice” or “injustice,” because the solutions so conceived are illusory, i.e., ideological, solutions. The standpoint of the materialist view of history is clearest here: Marx’s critique of capitalism is in no way directed against the fact that the system is unjust, but lies in showing fundamentally how the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production will inevitably lead to its demise in the course of history; nor does Marx’s proposal of socialism rest on the fact that the system represents any divine idea of justice, but lies in showing fundamentally how it is only this new mode of production that makes it possible to actively appropriate and salvage the social productive forces that have been developed as the common wealth of humanity. If this actual historical process is indeed accompanied by a shift in the idea of “justice,” by the replacement of the old idea of justice by a new one, this situation merely confirms the following principle of the materialist view of history: what is fundamental and essential in the realm of social history is the real life of people, especially the mode of production in which that life expresses itself and is determined; the idea of justice, like that of freedom, equality, fairness, etc., is a “superstructural” derivative of a particular mode of production, i.e., a political, jurisprudent, ideological form or expression of that mode of production.

The reason why we have gone to such lengths to discuss the idea of “justice” here is that it seems to have become the most indigestible “lump” in the theoretical bowels of today’s political philosophy, and it even seems that without this divine and eternal idea, no subject of political philosophy can function. For Marx, however, the true subjects of political philosophy are not set by eternal ideas at all, but rather are driven by socio-historical reality, which reflects its own content in the ideologies of jurisprudence or morality with respect to which various subjects of “justice” are set. Although the idea of “justice” (or other ideas) plays a very important role in political activities or human affairs, the content and essence of such ideas are deeply rooted in socio-historical reality. If the idea of “justice” had to form the substantial basis for Marx’s political philosophy, then the theoretical foundation of that political philosophy would not be the materialist view of history but ideological mythology. In fact, Engels is already clear enough about the idea of justice: “If for the impending overthrow of the present mode of distribution of the products of labour… we had no better guarantee than the consciousness that this mode of distribution is unjust, and that justice must eventually triumph, we should be in a pretty bad way, and we might have a long time to wait. The mystics of the Middle Ages who dreamed of the coming millennium were already conscious of the injustice of class antagonisms. On the threshold of modern history, three hundred and fifty years ago, Thomas Münzer proclaimed it to the world.” [13] However, the confidence in the inevitable triumph of modern socialism is grounded not in the “idea of justice or injustice” of some bibliophilic scholar but in the “material facts” that are etched in proletarians’ minds with irresistible necessity., Engels also writes at another place that “[l]ike every other social advance, it [i.e., the appropriation by society of all the means of production] becomes practicable, not by people understanding that the existence of classes is in contradiction to justice, equality, etc., not by the mere willingness to abolish these classes, but by virtue of certain new economic conditions.” [14]

The reason why these statements, as clear and explicit as they are, are still unable to prevent some from basing Marx’s political philosophy on empty talks or sermons about “justice” is simply that the ideologies of modernity want to subjugate even Marx’s theories to its omnipresent domination; this also shows how those scholars cannot help falling into this ideological illusion. In order to free oneself from the confusion and contradiction thus caused, some try to distinguish between justice as a concept of right and justice as a concept of morality, as if Marx, while assessing in the light of “rightful justice” the exploitation of capitalists, could at the same time conceive by means of the moral sense and moral position “another dimension” of the theory of justice in order to critique and condemn capitalism in terms of moral justice. However, this approach is utterly unhelpful. For justice as a concept of morality belongs to the world of ideas to the same extent—if not more so—as justice as a concept of right does, and if it is up to this domain of ideas to constitute the substantial “dimension” of Marx’s political philosophy, the result can only be a fabrication to the same degree—or even a higher degree. In this sense, the following question by Althusser is indeed worth pondering: “This is the great scandal of the whole of contemporary intellectual history: everyone talks about Marx, almost everyone in the human or social sciences says he is more or less a Marxist. But who has taken the trouble to read Marx closely, to understand his novelty and take the theoretical consequences?” [15]


If ideology is the belief that the real world is a product of the world of ideas, then, in contrast, the basic position of the materialist view of history suggests that the world of ideas is a product of the real world and is governed and determined by the content of the real world itself. However, the materialist view of history is not merely satisfied with this simple principle. Only if it, respecting the totality of theory, orients the essentiality of the world of ideas—and therefore the essentiality of human activities or human affairs that appear to be dominated and driven by the world of ideas—back to socio-historical reality, can it carry out its principle to the end and lay the foundations for the whole “historical science” that it allows to open up. The decisive foundation of Marx’s political philosophy is not any part or all of the world of ideas, but socio-historical reality. The fundamental task of this political philosophy is therefore to penetrate into socio-historical reality, to disclose on this basis the political, jurisprudent, or ideological expressions of that reality, and thus to grasp its essence.

For a long time, however, socio-historical reality has been completely absent from the general horizon of philosophical theory, and thus has never really formed the theoretical basis for political philosophy. The road to such reality is not only extremely difficult, but also, till this day, arguably only set foot on by few. This is evidenced by the fact that, even in Kant’s and Fichte’s philosophy, we do not observe that socio-historical reality plays any role at all in the spheres of theoretical and practical reason; to be more precise, such concept of reality has not taken shape at all. Nor in Feuerbach’s philosophy do we see the role of socio-historical reality in the entire constitution of his theory; to be more precise, the concept of reality, which has been put forward in a certain way, is lost again in Feuerbach’s hands. We are immediately aware that the concept of socio-historical reality is linked, first of all, to Hegel’s philosophy: before Hegel, such concept of reality is yet to be constituted; it is in Hegel that the concept of reality, which is decisive for philosophy as a whole—and hence for political philosophy—is established in a speculative and absolute-idealist manner. If political philosophy on the basis of the materialist view of history grasps the essence of politics, jurisprudence, or ideology exclusively in the light of socio-historical reality, the materialist view of history has to have a most essential connection with Hegel’s philosophy, whether this connection appears as proximity or critical detachment. It is precisely for this reason that Hegel’s philosophy, which constitutes the ultimate philosophical backbone of ideology in general and is critiqued decisively by the materialist view of history, is nonetheless inherited as a great legacy. It is in this sense that Engels calls Hegel’s “monumental conception of history” an “epoch-making conception of history”, and clearly understands it as “the direct theoretical precondition of the new materialist outlook.” [16]

The theoretical precondition means what is theoretically indispensable for the materialist view of history; the direct theoretical precondition means that there is no separation that needs intermediation between the two theories. What, then, is the “Hegelian factor” that needs no intermediation and is indispensable in the theory of the materialist view of history? Most briefly, it is “socio-historical reality,” although the concept of reality only acquires in Hegel a speculative idealist articulation. Although it is not possible to discuss that articulation in detail here, a concise and more or less polemical elaboration of its gist is necessary because of the immense richness of this concept, which is first fully demonstrated in Hegel’s philosophy, and because of its significance and role as a keystone for the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it.

The first is the concept of “reality (Wirklichkeit).” For Hegel, “reality” is the unity of essence and existence (Existenz), or of inner and outer. [17] On the one hand, “reality” is decisively different from mere “facts” because the latter simply “exist,” i.e., are what can be given to us immediately through perception. Since “reality” means the existence of essence, this concept appears not in the “Doctrine of Being” but in the “Doctrine of Essence” in the Logic. On the other hand, however, since the concept of “reality” means the essence that resides in existence, this concept elevates for the first time in history the present world or empirical content to the philosophical, essential level. Philosophy’s “agreement with reality and experience is a necessity. Indeed, this agreement may be regarded as at least an external measure of the truth of a philosophy” [18]. Hegel is indeed recasting the concept of reality here comprehensively and for the first time in history; just as mere existence is not worthy of the name “reality,” true reality is the essence that exists—that is, thought that is consistent with experience, reason that is reconciled with reality. If, in earlier idealist philosophy, ideas or the Idea as essentiality are often still only constituted in subjectivity and thus, while they are most distantly estranged from the empirical content of the present world, take it to be simply determined “material” or “manifold,” then the Idea as essentiality in Hegel’s absolute idealism is never contained or enclosed in subjectivity, but on the contrary, such Idea is not only superior but also powerful, realizing and unfolding itself in the present world, in empirical content. Therefore, the empirical content of this world is also elevated to the philosophical or essential level—Hegel calls it “immanent content,” i.e., substantial content. [19] We can see that such content emerges everywhere in Hegel’s philosophy on a variety of subjects. Substantial content is not merely passive material or manifold, not something that subjective concepts of the understanding or formalist reasoning can freely mobilize and arbitrarily dominate, but rather things as they are.

Substantial content, or things as they are, is what self-acts, or the unfolding process that acts according to its own nature. Therefore, for Hegel, reality is not only the essentiality of existence, but also the necessity of the unfolding process. [20] In this way, Hegel, in developing his unique concept of “reality,” grasps reality itself as history or historical in an unprecedented way. Differences of understanding notwithstanding, Marx and Engels, Croce, and Dilthey all consider the historical sense or principle of historicity to be Hegel’s most important and enduring philosophical contribution. Just as Marx grasps Hegel’s dialectic as the conceptual, logical, and speculative expression of “historical movement,” Engels distinguishes between reality and existence through the “necessity of the unfolding process,” thus revealing the critical and revolutionary implications of Hegel’s dialectic-historical principle. [21] Herein lies Hegel’s greatness: since he grasps reality as the necessity of the unfolding process, reality as such is fundamentally understood as historical. Reality is—and cannot but be—historical in any case, and this does not indicate a demarcation line of a particular field but is an ontological determination of reality as it is. Historicity has since been decisively put into philosophy (and science), into genuine philosophical thinking; any theoretical conception that rejects or forgets this cannot but be an anachronism by falling back to the realm of non-historical, abstract ideas.

Hegel’s fundamental contribution for political philosophy in the broad sense is not merely to reveal historical reality, but to bring forward the spheres of reality in which social content is concretized. This is most prominently and intensively done in the Outlines of the Philosophy of Right. The Philosophy of Right is divided into three parts: (1) abstract, or external, right; (2) morality, or subjective right; and (3) ethics, or right of reality—a sphere that is in turn divided into the family, civil society, and the state. One principle that is thus elaborated is that right is a whole, an organic whole, in which each and every link is intrinsically and inseparably connected with the others, so that, for example, a part or all of abstract right, unless it is adapted to a particular moral condition and ethical reality, is neither true nor of actual validity. Moreover, a more important and decisive principle is that neither abstract right nor subjective right (morality) has its own reality and cannot “exist for itself,” but is deeply rooted in the foundations of “ethics,” that is, in the sphere in which the family, civil society, and the state operate—the sphere that, broadly speaking, can be called the sphere of the substantial content of social life, or the sphere of social reality. Thus, we see that, in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the social sphere that has substantial content emerges as essentially important; although there are still major confusions that remain to be clarified, abstract right and subjective right are fundamentally resettled on the basis of ethical reality. If, in Kant’s moral philosophy, essentiality still lies only in abstract “postulates” or empty “oughts,” and such “postulates” or “oughts” are still completely separated and isolated from the content of social reality, Hegel requires that morality or subjective right be rooted and thus fully concretized in the sphere of reality that has substantial content. For this reason, when compared with Hegel here, Feuerbach only exhibits “astonishing poverty” [22] (Engels) or, in Löwith’s words, “a barbarization of thought.” [23]

Such “astonishing poverty” or “barbarization of thought” by comparison emerges after Hegel because, since Hegel has already forcefully established the concept of socio-historical reality in a philosophical way (albeit in a speculative idealist manner), to abandon this significant conceptual achievement has to appear as a serious theoretically degenerative deficit. Criticism of this deficit, though directed at Feuerbach, says effectively “De te fabula narratur!” insofar as socio-historical reality is again absent or excluded from the horizon of political philosophy or philosophy of right. Avineri highlights very much Marx’s “immanent critique” of Hegel’s philosophy of right. [24] This is true when so-called immanent critique means that the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it has a direct connection with Hegel’s philosophy; but it is especially true when it also means that the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it presuppose a critical appropriation of Hegel’s principle of socio-historical reality. Thus, unlike the critiques that merely attack Hegel’s philosophy from outside, the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it must rescue Hegel’s view about socio-historical reality, just as it must at the same time critically correct that view.

This is why Hegel’s “monumental conception of history” is called an “epoch-making conception of history” and can become “the direct theoretical precondition” of the materialist view of history. In terms of the basic theoretical framework, what does the position of socio-historical reality exactly mean, and why is it therefore “epoch-making”? It means that, for political or moral philosophy, and for philosophy and social sciences in general, the single essential dimension is “reality” or socio-historical reality as substantial content; because such reality is fully concretized in the socio-historical warp and weft, it cannot be imprisoned by abstract ideas at all, cannot remain within the confines of the “knowledge of the understanding” that people are so used to. What is the basic establishment and modus operandi of the knowledge of the understanding? It is the application of abstract universals and of the external reflection of such universals, the latter meaning the application of abstract universals to—or their a priori imposition on—whatever content. Thus, for Hegel, the socio-historical position entails a demand to grasp and go beyond the limits of the knowledge of the understanding, to reveal the nature of this kind of knowledge itself as subjectivist (in so far as it fails to reach for “things as they are”) and formalist (in so far as it does not involve any substantial content), and to decisively terminate in all fields of scientific knowledge the dominance of abstract universals and their external reflection. Hegel’s speculative idealism, as Gadamer insightfully points out, is characterized by a persistent critique of the “philosophy of reflection,” which is the obverse of the great discovery of socio-historical reality: “by subjecting the standpoint of subjective consciousness to an explicit critique, Hegel’s philosophy opened up a way to understand the human social reality in which we still find ourselves today.” [25]

As long as political philosophy (and social sciences in general) recognizes that reality itself is always social and historical, abstract universals would not be able to maintain their dominance in scientific knowledge; as long as scientific knowledge proposes the theoretical task of grasping the substantial content of society-history, the external reflection of abstract universals would lose completely its footing and practical validity. Abstract universals are non-social and non-historical, contain no substantial content (whether they are named “categorical imperatives” or a “higher, philosophical, perception” [26]), and are said to be appropriate to all society and history and can be applied to any content precisely because they transcend any society and history and have no content. Such abstract universals and their external reflection have been so devastated by the first appearance of socio-historical reality in Hegel’s philosophy that the positions that remain senselessly stagnant in such abstract dispositif cannot but be characterized as “astonishing poverty” or “a barbarization of thought.” If the ideas of “justice,” “freedom,” “fairness,” etc. that we talk about today in academia are still abstract universals, still proclaim its ability to determine any socio-historical phenomenon without having any socio-historical determinations, what do such fascinating universals that claim to preside over all the “past and present” and the “six directions” [27] amount to, except for showing themselves to be nothing more than formalism and subjectivism? If the knowing subject invokes merely static forms (abstract universals) on existing things, if the progression of the Idea is but the uniform repetition of the same formula, then, as Hegel points out, what appears here is only a monotonous formalism. Furthermore, to take abstract universals as absolute is not only formalist but also subjectivist; for such universals, although they in fact only arise from the abstracting function of the intellect, try to compel the real world with “oughts” or “imperatives”: “But the severance of reality from the Idea is popular particularly with that kind of understanding which takes the dreams of its abstractions for something true, and which insists pretentiously on the ‘ought’ which it likes to prescribe especially in the sphere of politics—as if the world had been waiting for this to learn how it ought to be, but is not.” [28] If boasting with imperative “oughts” is clearly subjectivism, why is it that people like to prescribe “oughts” especially in the field of politics? For, in this very field, which has extremely intricate substantial content and therefore requires a high degree of concretization, indulging in dreams of abstract intellect is of course the least laborious and most brainless way to go: one need only toy here with abstract universals such as “justice,” “freedom,” and “fairness”, and be satisfied with imposing them through external reflection on any content, without any need to penetrate into particular reality or to grasp the substantial content of society-history as it is. Owing to this fundamental theoretical flaw, Hegel quite rightly understands the external reflection of abstract universals as sophistry in its modern form, as a pathological manifestation of the weak nature of Romanticism, and calls those who know only external reflection “laymen.” (Marx, incidentally, attacks “die Freien” in Berlin on similar grounds in the period at the Rheinische Zeitung.)

When Hegel establishes the objective spirit as the truth of the subjective spirit, the substantial content of socio-historical reality demands that it be incorporated into philosophical thinking in an essentially important way; here it is the position of socio-historical reality that demands the sublation of abstract universals and their external reflection, that is, the sublation of the position of subjective consciousness. If the position that can be briefly summarized as the discovery of socio-historical reality represents the epoch-making contribution of Hegel’s political philosophy, philosophy of right, etc. (in short, the realm of the objective spirit), it is this contribution that also constitutes the essentially important theoretical precondition of Marx’s materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it. It means that, without this precondition, or if one tries to withdraw it, the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it would be utterly inconceivable. In this sense, it can be said that Hegel’s position of socio-historical reality is the “entrance” to understanding and grasping Marx’s political philosophy, which cannot be truly understood without reading Hegel’s Phenomenology and Philosophy of Right. However, it must be equally emphasized that the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it is simply impossible unless Hegel’s conception of reality is completely straightened out on the ontological level, unless it is decisively corrected in its foundational orientation, in other words, unless Marx is able to be critically detached from Hegel’s conception of reality. The point of disagreement that is of most importance here is the very concept of “reality,” a subject on which Marx, as Lukács, Löwith, and so on have repeatedly argued, parts company with Hegel.

For Marx, “reality” is of course not mere “existence,” but also the essence that exists and the necessity of its unfolding process, and therefore also involves substantial content and a historical process; but what constitutes essentiality or necessity, however, is very different from what Hegel calls the same name. In Hegel, although “reality” reconciles the Idea with the empirical content of the present world, in effect the essence that exists is the Idea, just as the necessity of the unfolding process is the necessity of the self-activity of the Idea. What, ontologically speaking, is this Idea? It is the Idea as the absolute, as God that is the One and the All, as the “substance-subject” that self-differentiates through self-activity. Although such Idea is not an abstract idea, not an idea that has its ultimate basis in subjective thinking, it is nonetheless still an idea: it is an idea that has sublated abstract ideas and become speculative and concrete; it is an idea that has sublated subjective consciousness and become objective and ultimately absolute (the objective spirit finds its ultimate philosophical justification in the absolute spirit). It is only on such an ontological basis that Hegel can assert that the true, and the only, reality is in the final analysis the absolute Idea, God, speculative thinking that is developed in a pure way in the Logic. Thus, just as the entire world-history is ultimately “theodicy” in the Philosophy of History, Hegel’s “whole Philosophy of Right is only a parenthesis to the Logic.” [29] It is at this fundamental point, against the recognition of “reality” as the absolute Idea, that Marx develops his decisive ontological critique of Hegel’s philosophy—thus of his conception of socio-historical reality. The gist of this critique is that, while Hegel rightly grasps the limits of subjective consciousness as well as the knowledge of the understanding, and demands in the process of sublating them to reach for the substantial content of things as they are, such sublation ultimately mystifies the essence, the necessity, and the universals in reality. “Therefore, the mystical substance becomes the real subject, and the real subject appears as another, as a moment of the mystical substance.” [30] Such mystical substance is substance as the absolute subject, the absolute Idea or absolute spirit, and German Idealism thus shifts from subjective, transcendental idealism to absolute, speculative idealism. If Marx here, like Feuerbach, recognizes Hegel’s mystical idealism and logical pantheism as “the ‘deceased spirit’ of theology” and as “the last rational mainstay of theology,” [31] then Marx’s theory of history and political philosophy do indeed begin with an ontological critique of Hegel’s philosophy, and are always oriented fundamentally to that critique. However, what is equally important—perhaps even more so—is that Marx’s critique recognizes at the same time from the mystified absolute the true significance of Hegel’s speculative conception of socio-historical reality; as is known to many, while Feuerbach understands the dialectical negation of negation only as “a contradiction of philosophy with itself,” [32] Marx critically identifies the speculative expression of historical movement in it. Only in this way can we understand why Hegel’s philosophy, which serves as the backbone of ideology in general, can at the same time be the direct theoretical precondition of the materialist view of history; and only in this way can we fully realize why Marx’s critique of speculative idealism in no way implies the abolition of the position of socio-historical reality, and therefore in no way implies a catastrophic relapse into abstract universals and their external reflection. Heidegger has hinted at the distinctive nature of Hegel’s philosophy with a terse comment: “The unusual fruitfulness of Hegel’s standpoint and principle and at the same time the complete boringness of the same;—that nothing further happens and that nothing further can happen.” [33] If Hegel’s unusual philosophical fruitfulness and complete boringness both stem from absolute, speculative idealism, it is no longer possible because an event of great significance has taken place—Marx calls it “the putrescence of the absolute spirit,” [34] while Nietzsche’s expression is “God is dead” (which means that the supra-sensible world has rotten, collapsed, and is no longer binding).


The beginning of the construction of the materialist view of history (and political philosophy based on it) is Marx’s critical analysis of Hegel’s philosophy of right. Reviewing that critique later, Marx writes: “My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human spirit, but that, on the contrary, they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel embraces within the term ‘civil society,’ following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy.” [35] In order to be able to properly understand and discuss Marx’s political philosophy, we must first follow this thread to disclose the conception of social-historical reality established by Marx, to elucidate the connections and distinctions between this conception and the Hegelian speculative conception of reality, and to grasp the theoretical consequences that follow from it.

Although the focus here is on political philosophy, the ontological position of Marx’s critique of absolute idealism must in all cases be borne in mind, since this position functions as a premise and a fundamental orientation in the subject matter of political philosophy. One of the particularly important themes of political philosophy is that of the relations between civil society and the state. It is Hegel’s great achievement, as already mentioned, to establish the essence of abstract right and subjective right (morality) in the sphere of “ethics,” that is, in the sphere in which the family, civil society, and the state operate. Although, for Hegel, this sphere can be roughly called the sphere of social reality, for Marx, unless the relations between civil society and the state are decisively clarified, there is no social reality proper to speak of at all. What Hegel correctly grasps is that, in the modern world, civil society is decisively separated from the political state; and in such separation, civil society is the place where material interests clash with each other, where various subjectivities fight with each other, where self-interested individuals jostle with each other, and, in a phrase, “the battlefield where everyone’s individual private interest meets everyone else’s.” [36] In order to overcome this condition, Hegel resorts to the state; for the state, in contrast to the principle of arbitrariness or subjectivity in civil society, represents the principle of true substantiality (whereby Hegel also interprets Plato’s Republic). Thus, in terms of political philosophy, only the political state can overcome the state of war in civil society, can establish the reconciliation of substantiality and subjectivity, and can posit itself as the sublation of the family and civil society—in Hegel’s terms: the state is the truth of the family and civil society. And in terms of the ontological basis of his political philosophy, the essentiality of civil society lies in the state, and yet the essentiality of the state lies in the Idea of the state and, ultimately, in the absolute Idea. “The state is rational in and for itself inasmuch as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness that has been raised to its universality. This substantial unity is an absolute unmoved end in itself, in which freedom comes into its supreme right.” [37] Therefore, for Hegel, it is the state that, in true reality, i.e., in the Idea, serves as “what is first” [38] and the true foundation; just as the Idea of the state divides itself into the two moments of the family and civil society, only in the state does the family develop into civil society.

Therefore, when Hegel subjects abstract right and subjective right (morality) to the sphere of ethics, what constitutes the highest reality in the sphere of ethics is the state that has sublated the family and civil society, that is, the state as an Idea. It is exactly here that Marx firmly captures the “logical, pantheistic mysticism” of absolute idealism and demands to invert it decisively: “The idea is made the subject and the actual relation of family and civil society to the state is conceived as its internal imaginary activity. Family and civil society are the premises of the state; they are the genuinely active elements, but in speculative philosophy things are inverted.” [39] Therefore, for Marx’s political philosophy, the problem is not simply to invert the relations between civil society and the state as proposed by Hegel, but the necessity to reformulate the position of socio-historical reality on the ontological basis of the abolition of absolute idealism—and thus all idealism. This process of reformulation unfolds in a critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right, the result of which is the materialist conception of history.

When Hegel grasps the separation between civil society and the political state in the modern world, he not only understands such separation quite deeply as a contradiction, but also describes faithfully the internal conflict in civil society and its conflict with the political state. If Hegel’s political vision is that “civil life and political life should not be separated” (and yet the Middle Ages are the peak of such non-separation), then his political-philosophical thrust is that the “universal in and for itself,” that is, the political state, should determine civil society in order to overcome (“sublate”) the internal conflict in civil society and its conflict with the political State. This way of overcoming conflict and sublating opposition adheres to the logic of speculative idealism and is called “mediation” or the “syllogism of reason,” by which opposing and contradictory concepts are overcome, reconciled, and sublated in a higher concept, which then appears to be the truth of the once opposing concepts. However, when Marx overturns absolute idealism on the ontological level, his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right, while directing the essentiality of the political state back to civil society, demands the thorough rejection of what Marx calls “speculative mystery” [40] of mediation or the syllogism of reason. Since the essentiality of the political state lies in civil society, the contradiction of, say, the legislative power itself is “merely the contradiction of the political state” and in the final analysis “of civil society within itself.” [41] Since the essentiality of the political state lies in civil society, the political state is “an abstraction from civil society”, so that the abstract and therefore spurious substantiality of the political state cannot reconcile or overcome the conflict and contradiction in civil society at all—on the contrary, the “abstract political state” [42] is nothing more than the political form or political expression of such conflict and contradiction. Since the elementary and essential field is civil society, the opposition, conflict or contradiction that arises there is essential and is called the “essential contradiction” by Marx. The essential contradiction consists of “real extremes” that cannot be mediated or sublated by the speculative mediating syllogism at all: “Real extremes cannot be mediated precisely because they are real extremes. Nor do they require mediation, for they are opposed in essence.” [43] The speculative syllogism can only apparently sublate and in truth conceal the opposition in essence, just as the abstract political state can only apparently overcome and thus conceal the “essential contradiction” in civil society. Thus, “Hegel’s chief error is to conceive the contradiction of appearances as unity in essence, in the idea, while in fact it has something more profound for its essence, namely, an essential contradiction” [44].

With the subversion of absolute idealism, with the essentiality of the political state being directed back to civil society, with the conflict and opposition in civil society being grasped as “essential contradiction,” Marx is able to reformulate the position of socio-historical reality and thus prepare for the materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it. Such preparations involve, first of all, the opening up of an elementary and essential field, and this significant field is known as “civil society.” Civil society first means bourgeois society, but at the same time it means the entire field of material relations of life. The double meaning of the term is due to the fact that “only the separation of the civil and political estates expresses the true relationship of modern civil and political society.” [45] It is historical development that has created such separation in the modern world, so that the term “civil society” can be used to denote the sum of entirely material (i.e., apolitical) relations of life, thus rendering the issue of the relations between civil society and the state a basic one in the fields of philosophy, political theory, and historical theory. Here, respecting the orientation of the understanding of socio-historical reality, Marx places the essential and necessary dimension of “reality” firmly on the basis of civil society (i.e., material relations of life). If, in Hegel’s concept of ethical reality, the state is the truth of civil society, and the Idea of the state as the highest reality is able to reconcile and overcome various sorts of contradiction and conflict in civil society, then for Marx, it is precisely civil society as the essential field that forms the real basis for the state, so that the contradiction in civil society as the essential contradiction is exactly not what can be traversed or sublated by riding a splendid steed [46] that is the Idea (the speculative mediating syllogism). In the essential field of civil society, what does the “essential contradiction” mean? In terms that later become famous, it means class antagonism and class struggle, the system of social powers, the domination and rule of some people over others (in the modern world, the domination and rule of capital over labor). The state, far from being able to go beyond these material relations of life and possess its own reality, is in fact no more than the abstract political form or statist form that these material relations of life—real opposition and struggle, domination and rule—take. Likewise, any idea or Idea, no matter how grandiose or ethereal it may seem, whether political or jurisprudent, philosophical or religious, is nothing more than the ideational expression or the form of consciousness of such material relations of life, and therefore also cannot reconcile and sublate any kind of “essential contradiction” merely on its own and by its mysterious tricks.

Once the essential field is identified, the whole question and the key to it lie in grasping this field that is called “civil society,” or the field of material relations of life. If the system of right is the jurisprudent embodiment of the power to dominate and rule [47], if the power of the state is the political form of part of social powers in class struggle and class conflict, and if people’s all kinds of ideas and ideologies are deeply rooted in their material relations of life, then, unless this field of material relations of life is firmly grasped, unless the relations in this field are analyzed deeply and critically, the essence of jurisprudence, politics, ideology, etc. can never be truly understood at all, just as their substantial content can never be truly revealed at all. It is in this way that Marx reformulates the position of socio-historical reality that is orientated to “civil society” or to the material relations of life. If Hegel’s speculative standpoint ultimately reduces reality to an Idea, and the development of the Idea finds its ultimate philosophical foundation in the Elysium of the Logic, then Marx’s position of socio-historical reality requires a critical analysis (or so-called “dissection”) of civil society that has recourse to political economy, because political economy is a science indigenous to civil society both in its nature and its content. What follows is the basic conclusion of the materialist view of history: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of people that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” [48]

The entirety of Marx’s political philosophy rests on this conclusion, or in other words, on the basis of the materialist view of history. Anyone who forgets or talks of Marx’s political philosophy without this basis goes astray from the outset. A great many vulgar interpretations not only misinterpret Marx completely, but even fail to scratch the very surface of Hegel. What can be naiver and more absurd than to think that the collapse of absolute idealism has burnt to ashes the position of socio-historical reality, so that one can revert to the theoretical dispositif of abstract universals and their external reflection, congratulating each other happily and feeling at ease and justified? When such view—in whatever way—is imposed on Marx’s political philosophy, is it not the application of abstract universals and their external reflection that is resurrected there? Whether such abstract universal is “justice” or “freedom,” jurisprudent or moral, as long as it is used as a universal in an external reflective way, it can only be a non-social, non-historical idea, an abstract idea pertaining to subjective thinking. In this case, Marx’s political philosophy, while freed from Hegel’s absolute idealism, cannot but retreat catastrophically to a certain cruder and more naive idealism, i.e., subjectivist and formalist idealism. It can thus be asserted that, unless the absolute idealist conception of social-historical reality can be critically rescued and appropriated, what comes to the fore is not the materialist view of history, but pre-Hegelian idealism.

We can thus briefly summarize Marx’s conception of socio-historical reality. First, for Marx’s political philosophy, the position of “reality” is primary and fundamental. Since legal relations, political forms, and so on cannot be “comprehended… by themselves,” they are deeply rooted in certain reality, in the relations of material life; and since the essential dimension of “reality” cannot, à la Hegel, be ascribed to “the self-acting Idea” or to the “general development of the human spirit,” the essential dimension of the material relations of life, which are the real basis for legal relations and political forms, are revealed by Marx as “the mode of production of material life.” It is not an abstract idea or speculative Idea but the mode of production or the structure thereof that marks the crux of Marx’s concept of reality. This essential dimension is always necessary for Marx’s concept of “reality”; otherwise, his theory of history or political philosophy would immediately be reduced to positivism or abstract empiricism. Heidegger perceives this very clearly when he says: “Because Marx by experiencing alienation attains an essential dimension of history, the Marxist view of history is superior to that of other historical accounts. But since neither Husserl nor—so far as I have seen till now—Sartre discerns the essential importance of the historical in being, neither phenomenology nor existentialism enters that dimension within which a productive dialogue with Marxism first becomes possible.” [49]

Second, such reality and its essentiality are also historical, and so Marx’s political philosophy grounds legal relations and political forms not only in the structure of the mode of production, but in the structure of the historical changes in the mode of production. It is due to the significance of historicity that the position of the materialist view of history shows that, people, while developing their material production and material communication that are their reality, alter their thinking and the products of their thinking, as well as the legal relations and political forms in which they live. So long as Marx’s position of reality is fundamentally and truly historical, any kind of dispositif of abstract universals and their external reflection is groundless, and such dispositif, so long as it appears in Marx’s political philosophy, is an outright forgery. Marx is clear enough about this in The Poverty of Philosophy: people institute appropriate social relations according to their mode of production, and create appropriate principles, ideas and categories according to those social relations; “Thus these ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.” [50] Just as the principle of authority appears in the 11th century, the principle of individualism appears in the 18th century—the secrets of both principles are hidden in “the real, profane history,” [51] in the structure of historical changes in the mode of production. It is precisely by rejecting historicity and historical movement that Proudhon makes “equality” “the primordial intention, the mystical tendency, the providential aim,” just as economists, forgetting historical differences, makes existing relations (i.e., bourgeois relations of production) “natural laws” or “eternal laws.” Such things can indeed be made into non-historical, abstract universals, but such universals are only theoretically adequate for the application of external reflection, just as they, on the ideological level, always call for the immortality of existing things. If today’s scholars continue to make “justice,” “freedom,” “fairness,” and so on into the “the primordial intention, the mystical tendency, the providential aim” of political philosophy, and to impose on Marx’s political philosophy such “sacred regalia,” what can we think about this?

Third, for Marx’s materialist view of history and political philosophy based on it, what is the most essential in the concept of reality is social determinacy: just as the mode of production or the mode of life as reality is essentially social, the substantial content on which jurisprudence, the political state, ideology, etc. rest is itself social, too. If with the separation of the political state from civil society occurs also the separation of political life from social life, of public life from private life, and consequently the major question of the individual’s relations to society, then for Marx all this, including the question of the individual’s relations to society itself, is—and can only be—the result of the inner strife of a particular kind of society, namely modern society, and the theoretical or ideational expression of such inner strife. Thus, what is fundamental and essential here is—and can only be—society. From this emerges another major theme of political philosophy: is it society, or the individual, that is the point of departure or foothold? What exactly are the relations between society and the individual? Surprisingly, when it comes to Marx’s thought, many scholars are once again disoriented and astray. These days, there is a classification method according to the two extremes of “individuality” and “sociality”: it is alleged that, across the very broad theoretical “spectrum” between them, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Rawls, and others lean toward sociality, while Locke, Smith, Bentham, Mill, Hayek, and others lean toward individuality. Leaving aside the incoherence of such classification, the very method is itself puzzling and palliative. Does the so-called leaning or preference indicate different proportions of sugar and coffee? Is political disposition involved here, or is it the substantial basis of theory? If one looks at the substantial basis of political philosophy, Hegel is explicit: “Ethical life is not abstract like the good, but is intensely real. Spirit has reality, and individuals are accidents of this reality. Thus, in dealing with ethical life, only two views are possible: either we start from the substantiality of the ethical order, or else we proceed atomistically and build on the basis of individuality. This second point of view excludes spirit because it leads only to an aggregation, whereas spirit is not something individual, but is the unity of the individual and the universal.” [52]

Hegel’s error does not lie in his demand to determine the individual in terms of what is substantial, but in his attribution of genuine substantiality in the sphere of ethics to the state and ultimately to the self-acting Idea, that is, the absolute as the “substance-subject”. Hegel is rather perfectly right in directing the essentiality of the individual to the larger social body in which it lives. Thus, in speaking of a certain man, he quotes an Arabic phrase—“A son of the stem of Koresh,” [53] thus indicating that, in the eyes of those who use this phrase, a particular man is not an individual person but a member of a tribe. Hegel here follows Aristotle with awareness: “Full realization of freedom requires a society for the Aristotelian reason that a society is the minimum self-sufficient human reality.” [54] On this basis, Hegel decisively discerns the entire theoretical mistake stemming from the atomistic individual and destroys once and for all the false premise on which all kinds of “contractarian theory” rest. It is true that such a theoretical error (e.g., contractarian theory) can be something very real in history (the atomistic individual emerges and is represented as a premise of “civil society”), but this can never be used to justify the theoretical error.

The extent to which Marx’s theory of history and political philosophy agrees to Hegel’s view of society can be clearly grasped from Marx’s following assertion: “The further back we go in history, the more does the individual, and accordingly also the producing individual, appear to be dependent and belonging to a larger whole. … It is not until the 18th century, in “bourgeois society,” that the various forms of the social connections confront the individual as merely a means towards its private ends, as external necessity. However, the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is precisely the epoch of the hitherto most highly developed social (according to this standpoint, universal) relations. Man is a ζῶον πολιτικόν in the most literal sense: he is not only a social animal, but an animal that can isolate itself only within society.” [55] Thus, the isolated hunter and fisherman that Smith, Ricardo, etc. take as their starting point are “one of the unimaginative fantasies of the 18th century” following Robinson, and the “social contract” by which Rousseau attempts to establish ties between naturally independent individuals is also an “aesthetic illusion” in relation to robinsonades. Such fiction or illusion is nothing more than a theoretical or ideological reflex and echo of particular social reality. For the materialist view of history, and thus for Marx’s political philosophy, the only reality that forms the basis for jurisprudence, politics, the state, morality, etc. is social reality; being also historical, it can be called socio-historical reality. If such reality is demonstrated through the self-development of the absolute Idea as the “substance-subject” in Hegel’s philosophy, then for Marx, only in certain society does socio-historical reality exist, and thus only through the study of the self-activity of such “certain society” can it be truly revealed. Hence, Marx calls such certain society “the real subject” or simply “subject”: “The real subject (die reale Subjekt) remains outside the mind and independent of it—that is to say, so long as the mind adopts a purely speculative, purely theoretical attitude. Therefore, the subject, society, must always be envisaged as the premise of conception even when the theoretical method is employed.” [56] What does this mean? This means that Marx’s political philosophy puts the essentiality of jurisprudence, the state, morality, etc. on the basis of socio-historical reality; if such reality remains totally outside the horizon of abstract universals and their external reflection, if it is fundamentally distorted in speculative idealism, then political philosophy based on the materialist view of history involves setting itself the following theoretical task: to make particular socio-historical reality come across us in its revealed form through a close study of particular society—e.g., Greek society in the time of Socrates, Germanic society at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, modern bourgeois society, Chinese society since the 1840s, etc.—and thus, on this basis, to grasp and clarify the substantial content of particular jurisprudent, political, and moral phenomena. This deeper and more concrete subject will require another essay to be devoted to it.

This paper was first published in Marxism and Reality, No 1, 2020 in Beijing, China.

[1] Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, Chap. 2 Sect. 1, “Sixth Observation”.

[2] Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844.

[3] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846, “Preface”, footnote.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846, Chap. 1, “Feuerbach” (in popular English translations of Marx, the word “people/Menschen” is often rendered as “men”).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, Chap. 2 Sect. 1, “Sixth Observation”.

[9] Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1867, Chap. 31, “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” & Chap. 10, “The Working Day”.

[10] Cf. Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877, Pt. 1 Chap 9, “Morality and Law. Eternal Truths”: “From the moment when private ownership of movable property developed, all societies in which this private ownership existed had to have this moral injunction in common: Thou shalt not steal. Does this injunction thereby become an eternal moral injunction? By no means. In a society in which all motives for stealing have been done away with, … how the preacher of morals would be laughed at who tried solemnly to proclaim the eternal truth: Thou shalt not steal!”

[11] Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1845, “Thesis 4”.

[12] Marx, Capital Vol. 3, 1894, Chap. 21, “Interest-bearing Capital”.

[13] Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877, Pt. 2 Chap 1, “Subject Matter and Method”.

[14] Ibid., Pt. 3 Chap. 2, “Theoretical”.

[15] Althusser, Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx, trans. by Ben Brewster, New Left Books 1972, pp. 167–68.

[16] Engels, Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, Sect. 2.

[17] Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, 1830, Sect. 142.

[18] Ibid., Sect. 6.

[19] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807, “Preface”.

[20] Cf. The Encyclopedia Logic, 1830, Sect. 143 “Zusatz”: “Whether something is possible or impossible depends upon the content, i.e. the totality of the moments of the actuality, which in the unfolding of those moments proves itself to be the necessity.”

[21] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886, Sect. 1 (citing Hegel).

[22] Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886, Sect. 3

[23] Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche, trans. by David E. Green, Columbia University Press 1991, p. 82.

[24] Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press 1968.

[25] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, California University Press 2008, p. 111.

[26] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846, Chap. 1, “Feuerbach”.

[27] In ancient Chinese, the “past and present” refers, in a way that might be counter-intuitive to moderns, to the entirety of time (because it is presupposed that there is strong continuity between the past and present, so that such continuity is implicitly supposed to extend to the future), and thesix directions (liuhe)” refers to, literally, north, south, east, west, up, and down, and figuratively, the whole cosmos.

[28] Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, 1830, Sect. 6.

[29] Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843, Sect. 270.

[30] Ibid., Sect. 279.

[31] Feuerbach, “Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy”, in The Fiery Brook, trans. by Zawar Hanfi, Verso 2012, pp. 156, 168.

[32] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole”.

[33] Heidegger, Hegel, trans. by Joseph Arel and Niels Feuerhahn, Indiana University Press 2015, p. 43.

[34] Marx & Engels, The German Ideology, 1846, Chap. 1, “Feuerbach”.

[35] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, “Preface”.

[36] Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, 1821, Sect. 289 “Anmerkung”.

[37] Ibid., Sect. 258.

[38] Ibid., Sect. 256 “Anmerkung”.

[39] Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843, Sect. 262.

[40] Ibid., Sect. 304.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., Sect. 306.

[43] Ibid., Sect. 304.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., Sect. 303.

[46] This is an allusion to Hegel’s depiction of Napoleon as the world-soul riding a horse.

[47] It is a coincidence in modern Chinese that “right” and “power” share the same pronunciation (quanli), which is often played upon by Marxists to show how an idealist concept has to be sustained by a materialist one.

[48] Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, “Preface”.

[49] Heidegger, Pathmarks, ed. by William McNeill, Cambridge University Press 1998, p. 259. At another place, Heidegger states: “… ‘philosophy’ today is satisfied with running behind science, in misrecognition of the two sole realities of this age: the development of business and the armament that this requires. Marxism knows of these realities…” (Four Seminars, trans. by Andrew Mitchell and François Raffoul, Indiana University Press 2012, p. 52).

[50] Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, Chap. 2 Sect. 1, “Second Observation”.

[51] Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, Chap. 2 Sect. 1, “Fifth Observation”.

[52] Hegel, Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, 1821, Sect. 156 “Zusatz”.

[53] Hegel, Early Theological Writings, trans. by T.M. Knox, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971, p. 260; Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, California University Press 2008, p. 113 (the man referred to here is clearly the prophet Muhammad).

[54] Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge University Press 2015, p. 82.

[55] Marx, Grundrisse, 1857–58, “Introduction”.

[56] Ibid. Cf. ibid.: “Just as generally in the case of any historical, social science, so also in examining the development of economic categories it is always necessary to remember that the subject, in this context modern bourgeois society, is given, both in reality and in the mind, and that therefore the categories express forms of being, determinations of existence—and sometimes only individual aspects—of this particular society, of this subject…”