Marx’s Hegel

For the past year or so I have been exploring the “Hegel” of the mature Karl Marx, the Marx of Capital. Identifying this Hegel has seemed critical to me because Marx described the central contradiction within capitalism using categories clearly drawn from Hegel’s Phenomenology. Where Hegel described the historical elaboration and materialization of the spirit — the spirit’s coming into its fullness — Marx described the historical elaboration and coming into its own of the value form of capital.

Further, the living Substance is being which is in truth Subject, or, what is the same, is in truth actual only in so far as it is the movement of positing itself, or is the mediation of its self-othering with itself. This Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity, and is for this very reason the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its antithesis [the immediate simplicity]. Only this self-restoring Same-ness, or this reflection in otherness within itself — not an original or immediate unity as such — is the True. It is the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as its beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual. Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative.

GWF Hegel Phenomenology §§18-19.

It is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. . . . But now, in the circulation M-C-M´, value suddenly presents itself as a self-moving substance which passes through a process of its own, and for which commodities and money are both mere forms. But there is more to come: instead of simply representing the relations of commodities, it now enters into a private relationship with itself, as it were.

K Marx, Capital, vol. 1, I.iv

Whether we want to differentiate sharply between Hegel’s spirit and Marx’s value form depends on how we understand Hegel’s spirit and Marx’s value. So, for example, we might justifiably credit Hegel with intending a discussion not of universal history, but, more specifically, of modern history, in which case his spirit might easily be taken as homologous with Marx’s value. Similarly, many interpreters of Marx credit him with investing value with transhistorical, universal, validity, such that the apotheosis he imagines lay hidden since the foundation of the world.

The value of interpreting Marx in this way is that it reconciles what I am calling the mature Marx of Capital with Marx’s earlier and earliest writings, such as German Ideology, the Communist Manifesto, and his posthumously published 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In that case, however, Marx’s discussion of value in Capital is rendered virtually incoherent, since Marx’s explicit aim is to show how the formation and quasi-personal autonomy of value, the agency of value, rests on the social and historical validity of the production of commodities. In that case, however, we are presented with a different problem: why or how can Hegel occupy so central a position in Marx’s thinking, both early and late, both during his early humanist phase and during his later neoclassical phase? Why Hegel?

One entirely valid way to answer this question is to notice the central position Hegel occupied in critical reflection in Germany both prior to and after the revolutions of 1848-49. Hegel was everywhere. But this exaggerates Hegel’s importance. Hegel was not everywhere in England. He was not everywhere in France.

Nevertheless, Hegel told a compelling story about the progressive, inevitable, historically embedded universalization of freedom; the spirit coming into its own. Conservative German thinkers could and did interpret this as a commentary on and endorsement of the universal spirit expressed in the universal state. Marx offers a thumb nail sketch of what this meant in his earlier critiques of Hegel. In its fully elaborated form, however, as in Gustav von Schmöller’s Economics, it could prove very dense and detailed. Progressively, throughout history, an ever broader, ever deeper, ever more diverse representation of humanity has found its place in the universal. Schmöller even notes, near the end of his multi-volume Economics, that even Friedrich Engels had abandoned the bloody revolution in favor of the evolutionary principle.

Has not von Schmöller and, indirectly, the mature Engels, proved correct? And has not the young revolutionary Marx and Engels been proven wrong?

If, on the other hand, Marx was critical of the developmental logic implicit in commodity production and exchange; if, as seems clear, he credited this developmental logic to capitalism, then it would be very odd for him to then fault this logic for not being fast enough. Is that the essence of Marx’s critique? Hurry up?

My research suggests an alternative understanding of Marx’s Hegel. Hegel grasped capitalism. But Hegel mistakenly granted its logic universal validity. Marx’s mature critique of Hegel credits Hegel with grasping the logic of capitalism, but not the logic of history. For the mature Marx, the logic of history ends when capitalism ends; which is different than saying that Hegel’s end is Marx’s end. Hegel ends with the fully integrated, fully elaborated, universal logic of capital. Marx ends with the destruction of this fully integrated, fully elaborated, universal logic. The end of capitalism arises when value is no longer determined by abstract time and labor; where the social logic therefore falls apart.

Or, at least, this is the result of my preliminary research. I could be wrong. So I am continuing to work through the material. Of one thing, however, I am very certain. The humanist Marx celebrated in the 1940s and 1950s, and through Marcuse and others fueled the 1960s, bears absolutely no relationship to the Marx of capital. That was a very different, non-Marxian, critique; valid in its own way, but lacking in critical historical and social depth and rigor. The Marx of the 1860s was no longer there. He had moved on.

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