Marx and Hegel: The Premise Not Taken


The essential divergence between Hegel and Marx stems not from any fundamental disagreement about the internal logic of historical dialectics, but rather whether spirit or material is the dominant force that turns the wheel of history. This has significant implications for their very different theories on the state and class system.

(Written November 12, 2007 and submitted to Dr. Stella Gaon for her course on Theories of the State. This essay won an academic writing award for being the best Arts upper-level paper of fall 2007, and was nominated by the St. Mary’s University Political Science Department for the Larry Collins Prize in 2008. It has been adapted from its original format.)


“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” So begins The Road Not Taken, one of the most popular poems of the twentieth century. It tells the story of a traveler who found that he must choose one path or the other, and reflects how this choice transformed his future and himself as a result. Political theory can take a lesson from Robert Frost. All theorizing begins with fundamental premises. The assumptions we choose to make will ultimately decide our conclusions.

Marx’s critique of Hegel begins with premises, directly addressing the assumptions of Hegel’s philosophy. It is not from any disagreement with Hegel’s logical or systematic approach that leads Marx to critique the Philosophy of Right, but rather the very foundations upon which that logic rested. A clear and pressing example is that of the role of the state and estates. While Hegel understands the existence of poverty as being compatible with an ethical and functioning state, Marx argues that the proletariat must rise up in order to emancipate all of humanity through political revolution. These conclusions, although radically different, operate within similar conceptual frameworks. The fundamental divergence takes place with the question of dominance within the dialectical divide.

Part I

It must first be understood that Marx openly operates within a Hegelian framework. Both Marx and Hegel employ dialectics as a driving force in their theories: an interplay between geist and materialism that proceeds like a rolling wheel through history. Marx is indeed a Hegelian, who operates with Hegelian tools, within Hegelian dialectics and the broader realm of humanism. The relationship between spirit and materialism is rooted deep within the Introduction, and Marx repeatedly makes use of the relationship between the material and immaterial. When Marx acknowledges that the criticism of German philosophy of right and the state was given “its most logical, profound, and complete expression by Hegel” (Marx 63), he is giving a nod to the systematic precision of his intellectual predecessor. He finds that he cannot disagree with Hegel’s analysis itself, but rather the roots of that analysis.

The fork in the road occurs when Marx argues that materialism, rather than geist, is the engine and the driving force of history. For Hegel, geist is the dominant half of the human dialectic, containing an essential core of rationality that has been, is, and will continue to be drawn out and actualized in an evolutionary fashion. He argues that the truth concerning right, ethics, and the state first emerges from “its exposition and promulgation in public laws and in public morality and religion” (Hegel 11). Therefore, the truth first comes into existence with the existence of a political community; the task of philosophy and of man is to comprehend this truth, “so that the content which is rational in itself may also gain a rational form and thereby appear justified to free thinking” (Hegel 11). Hegel further argues that philosophy provides us with the “insight that nothing is actual except the Idea. […] For since the rational, which is synonymous with the Idea, becomes actual by entering into external existence [Existenz], it emerges in an infinite wealth of forms” (Hegel 20-21). Thus the role of the engine of history is placed squarely on the shoulders of reason manifested through geist, as the truth concerning right, ethics, and the state enters into existence along with politics itself.

Marx disagrees, arguing that it is materialism, rather than geist, that drives history and mankind. He begins by drawing a parallel between the critique of religion and the critique of politics. The understanding that “man makes religion” (Marx 58), and that the death of religion as the false happiness of the people “is a demand for their true happiness” (Marx 58), calls for the criticism and subsequent obliteration of secular illusions. The idea becomes secondary to, and a product of, the material conditions of mankind, as man must recognize himself as the centre of action and meaning, and “revolve about himself as his own true sun” (Marx 58). This perspective is where Marx separates from Hegel, as Marx shifts the focus from reason and geist, to man and his material conditions. While still operating under the umbrella of humanism, and retaining a place for rationality and geist, this shift nevertheless radically transforms the conclusions that must be drawn.

Part II

Hegel translates the primacy of geist into an understanding of the state as a universal entity that transcends individual interests. If everything has a core of rationality to it, and the state is a collective endeavour that transcends material economic interests, then the state becomes rational and universal. Hegel’s attempt to “comprehend and portray the state as an inherently rational entity” (Hegel 21) flows directly from this understanding of the primacy of rationality and geist. He believes that the state, as a universal entity, contains a core of rationality that needs to be understood and actualized: “The ethical world […], the state, or reason as it actualizes itself in the element of self-consciousness, is not supposed to be happy in the knowledge that it is reason itself which has in fact gained power and authority [Gervalt] within this element, and which asserts itself there and remains inherent within it” (Hegel 13).

This understanding of the state as a universal entity translates into advocacy of the status quo of the estates, which act as intermediaries between the universalism of the state and the atomism of the individual. If the state is rational and universal, it must be understood as “a system of integration aimed at overcoming the atomistic individualism of the economic sphere” (Avineri 99). However, due to the nature of collectivized labour, “life has reached a stage where economic interests do play a crucial role and have to be legitimized” (Avineri 85). Hegel understands that “it is through belonging in an estate that a person achieves his ties with other persons” (Avineri 105). When Avineri says that “the old virtus [of the polis] cannot be revived” (85), he is reflecting on the fact that the state and the individual cannot be so solidly connected in modern society as they were in Athens. The estates are therefore a kind of necessary evil, because only they can bridge the gap between the modern state and the modern individual.

If the estates must prevail, then they can be useful tools. If there is to be a recognized link between the state and the market, then the state can take positive action within the market. “The state is shown as a force regulating and integrating economic activity, transcending by its very universality the centrifugal forces of the market” (Avineri 99); through its impartiality, it can act as an arbitrator and protector of the weak (Avineri 100-101). Furthermore, civil society organizes the population into modes of consciousness that can feed into the state. Avineri argues that each estate “stands for a different mode of consciousness” (105), which are fractured and incomplete by themselves, but which assemble into a complete picture under the universalism of the state. It is this line of reasoning, which we can trace from the primacy of geist, through the power and universalism of the state, to the estates as useful tools within the material world, that brings us to understand how Hegel ultimately reaches his conclusion.

Part III

No! cries Marx, whose materialist line of reasoning follows a radically different path. He argues that “the critique of religion ends in the doctrine that man is the supreme being for man; thus it ends with the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions in which man is a debased, enslaved, neglected, contemptible being” (64). With geist as the driving force, man’s material conditions are incidental, and change only at the behest of the immaterial forces that drag them along. However, if materialism is the engine of history, then the state can only reflect the material conditions of the time; if man is the centre, the onus moves from supporting the state as a manifestation of rational geist, to undermining and uprooting the state as a preserver of unjust and dysfunctional material conditions. For Marx, the state cannot address the fundamental injustice of society, because it is merely a reflection of that society.

Theory comes into play as a force that can direct and focus humans in an attempt to discern the solution to this state of affairs. When Marx says that the “weapon of criticism certainly cannot replace the criticism of weapons; material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory, too, becomes a material force when it seizes the masses” (64), he recognizes that philosophy can directly address these conditions, and that geist can be useful when it provides a compass. It is interesting to note here that geist has a role to play in Marx’s theatre, unlike materialism in Hegel’s theory, which has been relegated to a stage prop to be picked up and set down by immaterial actors. Marx’s dialecticism is not as one-sided as Hegel’s, which reflects the fact that Marx’s history, unlike Hegel’s, is not speedily approaching rational absolutism. While Hegel sees progress, Marx sees a problem that must be overcome; this problem must be attacked by both sides of the dialectic.

Part IV

We have followed Marx’s line of reasoning, from materialism, through a rejection of the idea of the state as universal, to the necessity of radical transformation. The final brick to be laid is the emancipatory role of the proletariat. It may first be useful to understand why this fundamental change cannot emerge from conventional civil society. Marx argues that no class can play the role of universal emancipator “unless it arouses in itself and in the masses a moment of enthusiasm, a moment in which it associates, fuses, and identifies itself with society in general, and is felt and recognised to be society’s general representative” (67).

He further articulates this position by arguing that no social class in Germany can accomplish this task, as each sphere of German society “begins to be aware of itself and to establish itself with its particular claims beside the others, not as soon as it is oppressed, but as soon as circumstances independent of its actions create a lower social stratum against which it can in turn exert pressure” (68). All of the classes are thus in conflict with each other (Marx 68), and none of them seem likely to become the universal emancipator. Furthermore, Marx argues that, unlike the French, emancipation must be all-or-nothing for the Germans: “In Germany universal emancipation is the conditio sine qua non for any partial emancipation” (68). Marx’s conclusion is that “no class of civil society has the need and capacity for universal emancipation until it is forced to by its immediate situation, its material necessity, and its very chains” (68). We thus reach an impasse, as German society is too divided, too invested in the state, and too needy of absolutes to accomplish the task of emancipation. Enter the proletariat.

Part V

The proletariat is the social class that is capable of overthrowing the injustice of contemporary material conditions, due to the fact that it is the class that has suffered every wrong, and which has no interest in maintaining those conditions. At this juncture, it is worth quoting Marx at length:

[What is needed for German emancipation is] a class with radical chains, a class in civil society that is not of civil society, an estate that is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere of society having a universal character because of its universal suffering and claiming no particular right because no particular wrong but unqualified wrong is perpetrated on it; a sphere that can claim no historical title but only a human title; [a sphere] that cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all the other spheres of society, thereby emancipating them; a sphere, in short, that is the complete loss of humanity and can only redeem itself through the total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat. (69)

There are two themes in this argument that need to be identified and brought forward. The first is that of the proletariat’s universal character; as the proletariat has suffered from every wrong wrought against it by the existing system, it is the class that can evoke the most empathy and that has the highest claim to moral legitimacy. Having suffered every wrong, it has the right and the responsibility for shattering the system that perpetrated and perpetrates those wrongs.

The second is that the proletariat, by emancipating itself, emancipates all other classes. A world without classes is a world without slavery; therefore the proletarian revolution would break not only its own yoke, but the yokes of all. The proletarian revolution, through its justice and universal character, has the potential to transform humanity’s material conditions. The transformation of the material is, of course, the aim of Marx’s materialist philosophy. Thus we see how Marx’s philosophy traces a path from materialism, through a rejection of the state and of the estates, to the proletariat as the source of salvation from mankind, and how this path has been so radically different from Hegel’s deification of geist and the state.


It is both strange and refreshing to reflect on how these two paths have diverged so radically, from a simple shift in perspective and premise. It is strange because Marx and Hegel are so similar, in so many ways. Avineri briefly reflects on this in Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, and with good reason; Hegel’s theories on labour alienation predate Marx by a magnitude of decades. These theories were discarded, or at least set aside, when Hegel realized that they were largely irrelevant to a dialectical theory where geist is king. We can only wonder how Marx’s pen would have reacted if those dusty manuscripts had ever met Marx’s eyes. It is refreshing, of course, because we may revel and rejoice in the infinite wealth of forms, appearances, and shapes that not only form, but also philosophy, can take. There are always roads less traveled by, and new places for us to explore. Frost is right when he says that the choice between going one way, instead of the other, “made all the difference.” It means that political theory will continue to remain lively and spirited, so long as we can reexamine old roads while also blazing new ones.

Works Cited

Avineri, Shlomo. Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Hegel, G. W. F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Ed. Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction.” In Marx: Early Political Writings. Ed. Joseph O’Malley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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