Skip to main content

Marx 200 Marx in context: the beginnings of a critical theory

IN THE 1950s, when the French geographer and political scientist André Siegfried gave a series of lectures on the history of England at the Sorbonne in Paris, he began every lecture with the same words, “Ladies and gentlemen, England is an island.”

Naturally, Siegfried’s point was not the banal assertion that England is, indeed, situated on an island. Rather, his point was that it makes a great difference whether or not one understands the country’s history in light of these given geographical conditions or not.

Karl Marx was a German philosopher

In the same vein, we must always remember that Karl Marx was a German philosopher and we must therefore keep the conditions given by what it meant to be a German philosopher in mind when we read his work.

In 1818, the year of Marx’s birth, the philosopher GWF Hegel had been summoned by the Prussian king to the chair in philosophy at the university in Berlin.

Over the course of the next 15 years, even though the rumours of his reverence for the Prussian state are highly exaggerated, the Prussian authorities used Hegel’s philosophy as a state-legitimising ideology.

They promoted Hegel and his students at the Prussian universities, and soon Hegelites were working all over Germany.As such, Hegel’s philosophy was, in Marx’s day, an inescapable part of what it meant to be a German philosopher.

Two camps

After Hegel’s death in 1831, however, the Hegelians split in two, the Left and Right Hegelians. In the beginning, it was mainly their conception of the relationship between philosophy and religion that divided them and especially the critical theologian DF Strauss’s book The Life of Jesus (1835) fired up the debate.

Over the next decade the divide expanded further as the critique of Christian religion by the left only became the more radical the more the right defended it. The final and most radical break, however, was political in its nature. In 1840, the Prussian king died and in his stead his son Friedrich Wilhelm IV rose to the throne.

The Left Hegelians had had high hopes of the young crown prince, but he turned out to be a deeply religious, romantic, and politically reactionary king.

There was no freedom of the press, no free speech, no free constitution, and absolutely no more Hegelianism to be had.

Spring is in the air

This general mood of deep reaction dominated the entire European continent and it erupted in flames in 1848 in what has come to be known as the European “Springtime of the Peoples.”

Left Hegelians especially, who since the shift of power in 1840 had been viciously attacking the regime, sensed a possibility for change. They engaged boldly with the revolutionary struggles, both on the barricades and in the freely elected parliament in Frankfurt.

However, the revolution was defeated, reaction was strengthened and the last remnants of organised Hegelianism died out. The Right Hegelians withered away in their conservatism and the left either moved bitterly onto other things or emigrated, especially to Paris and London.

It is in the context of this historical development that we must understand Karl Marx.

The law student

Marx began his university studies as a law student in Bonn. In 1838, he moved to the university in Berlin and began studying philosophy and defended his dissertation in 1840 at the university in Jena.

Marx’s dissertation, however, was not simply a neutral piece of research. Instead, it was a piece of philosophical reasoning in itself which related to the philosophical environment and the development of philosophical thinking in Marx’s time.

The dissertation, therefore, is filled with rhetorical attacks on organised religion and wordy proclamations on the realisation of self-consciousness in history. Not so strange, when one takes into account that Marx’s supervisor was the leading Left Hegelian of the day, Bruno Bauer, whose philosophy centred on precisely these issues.

These were also classic Left Hegelian themes. Apart from some specific theological questions, the fight between Left and Right Hegelianism was primarily about whether Hegel’s philosophy should be understood in a conservative or in a revolutionary way.

Revolutionary from the start

Almost from the beginning, Marx placed himself squarely in the revolutionary camp. He saw Hegel’s philosophy as the story of the realisation of human freedom in history. Through a series of historical epochs, humanity had become more and more free and now the last task was to make the final push and establish the realm of freedom.

But, if history is indeed such a progress of freedom, then there has to be a something or someone in history making this progress — a main character of sorts. In this period, Marx tested different theoretical and philosophical ideas about who this main character might be.

To begin with, he favoured Bruno Bauer’s idea of a “self-consciousness.” Later, inspired by Ludwig Feuerbach, he spoke of a “species-essence” that became “alienated,” but, no matter what theoretical prism he used, the fundamental problem for Marx remained the same. How can humans become free?

The embarrassment …

In 1843, Marx, as the editor of the radical democratic newspaper Rheinische Zeitung first found himself, in his own words, “in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests.”  Recognising his own deficiency in this regard, he began studying the political economy of his time.

It was precisely in this period, around 1844, that Marx took over Feuerbach’s ideas about species-being and alienation, which he then transposed into the area of economy, talking about “alienated labour.”

But soon this was not enough for Marx. Together with Friedrich Engels, he developed a gradually more radical materialist standpoint and as early as 1845-46 he rejected Feuerbach’s notion of a species-being in exchange for a concept of alienation bound to material and economic conditions. The new historical actor thus alienated was the proletariat.

Moses Hess

Marx got this new character from the French socialists he had met during his stays in Paris in the 1840s, and by whom he was strongly inspired. So was another Left Hegelian thinker, with whom Marx and Engels now entered into alliance, Moses Hess.

Today, Hess is primarily known as one of the intellectual predecessors of zionism, but he was mainly known in his youth as a socialist thinker. To him, it was not simply a question of the removal of some kind of abstract alienation — a social revolution was needed instead. Marx and Engels got the concept of the proletariat as history’s main character from the French, but it was Hess who gave them the name for this historical movement itself, Communism.

The real movement

“Communism,” write Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, “is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Thus, a massive critical project emanated from Marx in this period, which focused on the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” — only through Communism understood as a destructive movement could the old society be abolished and human freedom be realised, Marx believed, having every opportunity to test this theory during the 1848 revolution.

After the defeat of the revolution, however, Marx’s focus shifted from political reforms and philosophy to economic criticism and class struggle, but Marx’s critical view remained intact throughout. The purpose was not to predict the future but to find the new world through criticism of the old one. For the same reason, Capital is primarily, as the subtitle says, a critique of political economy.

That is Marx’s lasting contribution, not only to the labour movement but to the history of Western ideas. A critical research programme which begins in his youth but continues all the way through the mature economic criticism, which does not profess blueprints and utopian ideas but which gives us the critical apparatus to understand the world in our time and to change it.

Magnus Møller Ziegler is a PhD Fellow in Philosophy at the Aarhus University, Denmark. He holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in the History of Philosophy. His work is mainly focused on German 19th century philosophy, and his doctoral research centres on the relationship between Young Hegelianism and Marx’s Capital.



We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 5,527
We need:£ 12,473
20 Days remaining
Donate today