The Visible Divinity — part three

APEMANTUS (a churlish philosopher)

Flow this way! A brave fellow! he keeps his tides

well. Those healths will make thee and thy state

look ill, Timon. Here’s that which is too weak to

be a sinner, honest water, which ne’er left man i’ the mire:

This and my food are equals; there’s no odds:

Feasts are too proud to give thanks to the gods.

Apemantus’ grace.

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf;

I pray for no man but myself:

Grant I may never prove so fond,

To trust man on his oath or bond;

Or a harlot, for her weeping;

Or a dog, that seems a-sleeping:

Or a keeper with my freedom;

Or my friends, if I should need ‘em.

Amen. So fall to’t:

Rich men sin, and I eat root.

- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Timon of Athens’, Act 1, Scene 2.

Louis Anquetin, ‘Woman at the Champs-Élysées by night’, between 1889–93

Bertell Oilman, (b. 1935), political philosopher, in order to contest a widely accepted interpretation of Karl Marx’s, (1818–1883), that is to say, historical materialism that held that the socio-political and ideological superstructure are causally determined and accounted for by the economic base, took a somewhat audacious direction in contending that this cannot be the case for Marx in virtue of the fact that this model of causal explanation presupposes an ontology in which one kind of thing has effects upon another that is completely contra-distinguishable from it. Marx, on the other hand, consistently endorsed an ontology of internal relations in which any one thing is merely the totality of its relations. That is to say, no entity has defining properties that are stateable in non-relational terms. Casual analysis of the type referred to, therefore, is to be supplanted by accounts of inherently changeable and perpetually altering configurations of elements that are themselves relations. Ontologies of this particular flavour were most completely articulated by British Hegelians in the early twentieth century. Oilman held that, like them, Marx discerned such a doctrine in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), as when, for instance, he refers to the sun and plants in the 1844 ‘Manuscripts’ as mutually objects to each other. An object (Gegenstand) is for Marx that to which an entity is related in order to be what it is, and without reference to which it would have no identity conditions sufficient to posit it as existing at all:

‘Hunger is a natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an object outside itself, in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled. Hunger is an acknowledged need of my body for an object existing outside it, indispensable to its integration and to the expression of its essential being. The sun is the object of the plant — an indispensable object to it, confirming its life — just as the plant is an object of the sun, being an expression of the life-awakening power of the sun, of the sun’s objective essential power … A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object; i.e., it is not objectively related. Its being is not objective … A non-objective being is a non-being’.

Such a view has advantages in allowing us to detach Marx’s essentialism (objects have a set of attributes necessary to their identity) from the usual sense of a pre-established entelechy (realization of potentiality) which limits the development and operation of any kind of being in precise directions. It thus preserves, within a broader sense of essentialism, Marx’s insistent contention that humankind’s nature is constantly changing as the range of the objects with which the human deals, and to which he or she relates him or herself, is increased. It also helps make sense of Marx’s reiterated insistence that the individual person is not something constituted prior to or apart from his or her social relations, but comes to be an individual precisely in and through those relations. What speaks against the thesis are, first, the possibility that a doctrine of internal relations is not able to be formulated in a manner that does not depend upon an idealism which Marx incisively rejects, at the very least in his maturity. Second, any such doctrine takes upon itself the perhaps unfulfillable task of preserving a sense for individuation (the manner in which a thing is identified as distinguished from other things) which tallies with our experience.

To the first of these objections, Oilman responds by taking seriously Friedrich Engels’, (1820–1895), endeavour to work out a materialist dialectic, and Marx’s endorsement of that task. Oilman thereby makes a more positive assessment of Engels’ work than is customary among non-orthodox Marxists. As to the second objection, Oilman was of the opinion that although individuation is indeed always relative to a point of view on the ontologically constituted whole, such points of view can do justice to the manner in which we break up our experience for purposes of understanding it and dealing with it. Putting these two points together, Oilman arrived at an account in which a materialist doctrine of internal relations is seen as truly reflecting and reporting how the whole of experience coheres with and can be best explained from the perspective of human productive activity.

Upon the basis of this general theory, Oilman offered an interpretation of the key Marxian concept of alienation, as it is worked out in the 1844 ‘Manuscripts’ and as it is presumed to underlie Marx’s thinking thereafter. Alienation, roughly speaking, is a condition in which human productive activity in interaction with objects is narrowed, contracted, and reduced below that which human needs, wants, and capacities are, at any given time, capable of. In such a condition, and especially under capitalism, experience becomes abstract or one-sided. Thus, in Oilman’s interpretation, Marx’s numerous attacks upon abstraction refer to a separating off of aspects from a concrete whole, as notably the separation of the commodity in capitalism from the reference of social production to social life. Such separated elements cannot adequately explain matters presumed to be separated from them, or in turn be explained by other abstractions. Thus the conventional model of historical materialism, frequently assumed to be Marx’s, is for Oilman contrary to his view.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘The Brothel’, (‘Le Lupanar’), 1888

Melvin Rader, (1903–1981), in addressing himself to the conflict between traditional interpretations of Marx and more contemporary readings which emphasize Marx’s roots in Hegel, suggested that we might distinguish between several models of historical process which Marx used heuristically and alternately. That is to say, he separated the traditional base-superstructure model, (the base being the modes of production, the superstructure being culture, institutions, religion and so on), from a more Hegelian organic totality model, for the former may take either a fundamentalist or a more sophisticated form. In its fundamentalist version, the base-superstructure model markedly filters out the various strata of social reality and attributes to the base, the lowest stratum, the stratum of forces of production, all causal and explanatory roles. The more sophisticated version, preferred by Engels, may be termed dialectical at least in the rather weak sense that it allows of causal interaction among the strata, while nevertheless insisting upon the ultimate weight of the base in the long run. The strength of the base-superstructure model generally speaking is that it maintains the characteristically Marxian emphasis upon the role of modes and forces of production in historical process. Its weakness is its proneness to reductionism, and, in the case of the fundamentalist version, to epiphenomenalism (the higher strata are caused by the base while having no causal effects upon it, they are a mere by-product of the activity of the base). Furthermore, the bases for filtering out and then relating the various strata have proven to be very troublesome to formulate and to employ with sufficient precision.

The organic totality model may well dispense with such difficulties in one fell swoop, but it does so only by entering into the whole bloatedly murky area of internal relations. Nonetheless, for Rader the model is truer on the whole to both the early and late work of Marx and he goes to great lengths to clarify Marx’s views about internal relations. First, he contends that neither in the early nor in the later writings does Marx’s theory of internal relations, relations such as constitutively obtain among parts of organisms and in social relations, stretch as far as a universal ontology committed to the view that anything and everything is logically incomplete except by its relation to everything else. Rader thereby challenges Oilman’s attributing of such a view to Marx in his account of alienation. Marx’s invoking internal relatedness centres upon the world of human activity and its situation within the wider sphere of organic activity, and even in these restricted contexts Marx is quite clear about the degree of interpenetration necessary to be postulated for explanation in particular cases. Degrees of internal relatedness are not so much a matter for a priori regulation as they are for empirical investigation.

Second, Rader is concerned to point out that there is less inherent tension between Marx’s two models than one might presuppose. In Marx’s early period, the dominant use of the organic totality model is nevertheless accompanied by factors insisted upon that utilise, or at the very least foreshadow, the base-superstructure model. For instance, in his very early critique of Hegel’s political theory Marx traces defects in Hegel’s state-construct to underlying economic and property relations. Conversely, in ‘Das Kapital’, Rader discovers much use of organic conceptualization. Indeed, it is only that model that can deliver the foundations that are not location specific for Marx’s attack on capitalist societies and his approbation of socialist ones. Without being buffered by the expressive humanism available in that model, the exclusive use of base-superstructure discourse to account for historical process might be taken as involving an economic determinism in which the stages of history unfold by purported immutable laws of social development into a socialist order whose desirability is, in this account, both beside the point and ungrounded in relevant sorts of arguments. Rader holds that Marx never conceived of the matter in such a deterministic light.

Indeed, Rader is concerned to point out that there are areas of real compatibility between the organic totality and the base-superstructure models, for there can be hierarchical dependence between the parts of organisms without undermining their internal relatedness. Some organs and functions are more basic to the preservation and functioning of a living whole than others, and thus play greater causal-explanatory roles, and so too in societies, the forces of production are basic to social functioning. Wherever this operates functionally we observe an accord among the diverse and numerous facets of social life, and between the individual and society, that can best be represented in terms of the descriptions ready to hand in the organic totality model. Wherever it is dysfunctional we may witness the social organism separate into abstract relations which can best be described and explained in terms of the base-super-structure model. The separability of the elements featured in this model describes and explains dysfunctional relations within a presumed, but defective, organic totality, and it thereby plays a significant role in explanations of periods of social revolution.

‘L’Attente’, 1880, Jean Béraud

Which is all very well, but Hegel was concerned to develop a philosophy based upon freedom within a wider philosophical system. How does Marx fare in that respect and what does he even mean by freedom? Not so very well in Bertrand Russell’s, (1870–1970), estimation, as we can discern in his explanation of why he was not a communist:

‘The theoretical doctrines of Communism are for the most part derived from Marx. My objections to Marx are of two sorts: one, that he was muddle-headed; and the other, that his thinking was almost entirely inspired by hatred. The doctrine of surplus value, which is supposed to demonstrate the exploitation of wage-earners under capitalism, is arrived at: (a) by surreptitiously accepting Malthus’s doctrine of population, which Marx and all his disciples explicitly repudiate; (b) by applying Ricardo’s theory of value to wages, but not to the prices of manufactured articles. He is entirely satisfied with the result, not because it is in accordance with the facts or because it is logically coherent, but because it is calculated to rouse fury in wage-earners. Marx’s doctrine that all historical events have been motivated by class conflicts is a rash and untrue extension to world history of certain features prominent in England and France a hundred years ago. His belief that there is a cosmic force called Dialectical Materialism which governs human history independently of human volitions, is mere mythology’.

Mere mythology? Marxist political theory is supposedly based upon scientific principles. In ‘The German Ideology’, a polemic against Hegel and his adherents, the Young Hegelians, Marx gives a spirited and expressive description of what was for him unfreedom, (division of labour is the separation of a work process into a number of tasks, each task carried out by a separate person or group of persons):

‘And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now’.

With the division of labour one is no longer free but enslaved, by one’s position in the division of labour, and a precondition for its abolition, according to Marx, whose prophetic skills were on a par with Our Lord’s, is the superabundance of wealth that capitalism is historically destined to create. The Marxist ideal is therefore freedom (as shallowly as Marxist’s define it as opposed to the Hegelian richer conception but I will get to that) and not equality, and the condition for the free development of each person is the free development of all. In his theory of science Marx was an objectivist, that is to say, there are forces operating in history, this is the the materialist conception of history, a mythology as Russell calls it, such forces shaping the way that history unfolds, for history has a direction, it is moving through a variety of phases each of which has internal contradictions and the way they play themselves out will determine what transpires. The tension in a feudal society between the peasants and the lords will determines the way in which conflict in that society occurs leading to the emergence of a bourgeois class leading to capitalism leading to a working class and then those conflicts play themselves out until eventually we arrive at communism. This is very much a reductionist theory, for everything is determined by economic interests.

David Ricardo, (1772–1823), political economist, mentioned by Russell, presented a labour theory of value that was taken up by Marx: ‘The value of a commodity, or the quantity of any other commodity for which it will exchange, depends on the relative quantity of labour which is necessary for its production, and not on the greater or less compensation which is paid for that labour’. In ‘Das Kapital’ Marx defined surplus value as basically the unpaid value of the labour of the worker that creates a surplus product of which the capitalist business person becomes the owner. From which originates the essence of exploitation or capitalist accumulation, and the higher the surplus value the higher the net income, and this it is that aids the government to determine the standard of living experienced by its citizens. Marx contends that the concept of surplus value is not only inevitable under a capitalistic system but it is also the heart and soul of a capitalistic economy. It is the surplus produced over and above what is required to survive, and which is translated into profit in capitalism. And given that the capitalist pays a labourer for his or her labour, the capitalist claims to own the means of production, the worker’s labour-power, and even the product that is thus produced. The capitalist thereby purchases a product, that is, labour-power, which is then turned into commodities, which he or she then sells at a profit on the market. Rather than exchange a commodity for money in order to purchase another commodity of use to the consumer, selling in order to purchase, the capitalist purchases something in order to sell at a profit margin. The capitalist is thus driven by profit-making in and of itself, without regard to use-value or the adversities experienced by the labourer.

Labour-power is the only source of fresh exchange value, for Marx. All commodities produced in a market economy are products of human work and the capacity to work is a commodity like any other and what people are paid is determined just like the value of any other commodity. The value of a book its determined by the amount of labour-power necessary to produce that book. The value of a plumber is determined by the amount of labour-power necessary to produce that plumber. The worker is a commodity in the same sense that a book is a commodity and wages are determined by the cost of producing the worker. A philosopher should therefore be paid more than a manual labourer because it costs more to produce a philosopher, all that training and education that goes into producing a philosopher that makes him or her to be of greater value. A philosopher’s wages are not to be explained by the value of what the philosopher produces. A philosopher’s wages are to be explained by the cost of producing the philosopher. Why it is in the actual world under capitalism that a plumber may earn a good deal more than a philosopher is for Marxist theorists to explain.

Labour-power is thus the abstraction of human labour into something that can be exchanged for money. The relation of labour-power to the actual labour of a private individual is analogous the relation of exchange-value to use-value. The system of labour-power relies on the belief that the labourer chooses freely to enter into a contractual relationship with an employer, who purchases that worker’s labour-power as a commodity and then owns the goods produced by that worker. However, the worker is exploited insofar as he or she has no other option, for the capitalist owns all the means of production. Also, the capitalist seeks to achieve the highest possible rate of surplus-value, which ‘depends, in the first place, on the degree of exploitation of labour-power’. The capitalist seeks to provide the labourer only enough money to subsist and to produce more labourers, through the bearing of children, more commodities.

There is thus a distinction to be made between the use-value and the exchange-value of a commodity, the usefulness of a commodity as against the exchange equivalent by which the commodity is compared to other objects on the market. Use-value is inextricably tied to the physical properties of the commodity, that is to say, the material uses to which the object can actually be put, the human needs it fulfills. In the exchange of goods on the capitalist market, however, exchange-value dominates, for two commodities can be exchanged on the open market because they are always being compared to a third term that functions as their universal equivalent, an object that is the measure by which all commodities are compared and exchanged on the market. In capitalism, this function is eventually taken over by money, initially precious metals and subsequently paper money. Exchange-value must always be distinguished from use-value because ‘the exchange relation of commodities is characterized precisely by its abstraction from their use-values’. In capital, money takes the form of that equivalence. In point of fact, however, money our visible divinity actually conceals the real equivalent behind the exchange, that is to say, labour. The more labour it takes to produce a product, the greater its value. Marx therefore concludes that: ‘As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time’.

Money or the money-form is the commodity chosen to function as the universal equivalent for all other commodities, whereas the actual form of money is a ‘matter of accident’, Marx explains, for in the development of society: ‘The money-form comes to be attached either to the most important articles of exchange from outside, which are in fact the primitive and spontaneous forms of manifestation of the exchange-value of local products, or to the object of utility which forms the chief element of indigenous alienable wealth, for example cattle’. Capitalist society turned to gold and silver because precious metals fulfill the necessary functions of the universal equivalent: ‘Only a material whose every sample possesses the same uniform quality can be an adequate form of appearance of value, that is a material embodiment of abstract and therefore equal human labour’. Also, ‘the money commodity must be capable of purely quantitative differentiation’,; it ‘must therefore be divisible at will, and it must also be possible to assemble it again from its component parts. Gold and silver possess these properties by nature’. Upon gold and silver take on the role of money-form they are then separated from their real use-value, for instance as filling in teeth or as raw material in luxury goods, and function almost exclusively as exchange-value. It becomes an ideal value, which is why it is so easy for this function to be taken over by paper money, though paper is, in and of itself, useless. Money performs a similar function on all things exchanged for it: ‘Money is the absolutely alienable commodity, because it is all other commodities divested of their shape, the product of their universal alienation’. That is to say, money is the means by which material use-values are transubstantiated, as Marx sometimes put it, into exchange-value, thereby alienating all commodities from the labour that really gives value to commodities. Which brings us to the matter of commodity fetishism.

‘La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge’, 1892, Toulouse Lautrec

Marx directed his attention towards fetishism to unravel the mystery of the seemingly magical quality of the commodity: ‘A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’. In anthropology fetishism appertains to the primitive belief that godly powers can inhere in inanimate things, for instance in totems. Marx helps himself to the concept to make sense of what he terms commodity fetishism, for as he explains the commodity remains simple as long as it is tied to its use-value, just as a piece of wood is turned into a table through human labour its use-value is clear enough and as product, the table remains tied to its material use. But once the table ‘emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness’. The connection to the actual hands of the labourer is sundered once the table is connected to money as the universal equivalent for exchange. And those in a capitalist society thereby start to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labour expended to produce the object. As Marx explains: ‘The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things’. What is in actuality a social relation between people, between capitalists and exploited labourers, instead assumes ‘the fantastic form of a relation between things’.

Such an effect is caused by the fact that, in capitalist society, the real producers of commodities remain largely invisible, one only approaches their products ‘through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products’. One accesses the products of the proletariat through the exchange of money with those institutions that glean profit from the labour of the proletariat, and in virtue of the fact that we only ever relate to those products through the exchange of money, we forget the ‘secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities’, that is, labour: ‘It is… precisely this finished form of the world of commodities — the money form — which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly’. In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become ‘the direct incarnation of all human labour’, much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process: ‘Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action’. Albeit that value ultimately accumulates owing to human labour, those in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that seemingly exist independently of any individual person.

The situation was markedly different in feudal society wherein ‘we find everyone dependent — serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clerics’. Because ‘relations of personal dependence form the given social foundation, there is no need for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind’. Transactions in feudal society involve the particularity of labour rather than the abstract universal equivalent necessary for commodity production. Marx therefore concludes that : ‘Whatever we may think… of the different roles in which men confront each other in such a society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised as social relations between things, between the products of labour’.

‘Scène de fête au Moulin Rouge’, c. 1889, Giovanni Boldini

So what were Marx’s views on what is to be done? Why is anything needed or having to change in order for capitalism to be transcended given that it is apparently the laws of capitalism that drive politics and not the other way around? What is wrong with fetishism? Marx’s work has been subjected to much re-examination in this modern age and two principle strains of thought have emerged seeking to get a grip upon the contemporary relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism. One strain contends that Marx’s most significant contribution lies in his understanding of capital as an autonomous force that takes on a life of its own, totally subsuming the will and actions of the human subject. Within such a perspective, Marx analyzes capital as a peculiar object of knowledge invested with characteristics that correspond to Hegel’s detailing of the logic of the concept in the ‘Science of Logic’. Those who subscribe to such a tack hold that capital, like Hegel’s doctrine of the concept, possesses the distinct ontological property of complete indifference to anything that lies outside its logic of self-movement, and thus they see capital not only as the subject of Marx’s theoretical work but also as the subject of modern society. This is objectivist Marxism in virtue of their contention that Marx’s critique of capital is best understood as an analysis of objective forms that assume complete self-determination and automaticity, and its adherents include philosophers that owe a debt to the Frankfurt School, Hans-Georg Backhaus, (1929 — ), for instance, or the proponents of Systematic Dialectics in the U.S. and Western Europe, such as Christopher J. Arthur, (1940 — ), and Geert Reuten (1946 — ).

The alternate strain is radically different with its contention that Marx’s most significant contribution rather rests with his understanding of the subjective human forces that struggle against and strive to annul capital’s drive for hegemony, and what they stress is not the self-determining and automatic character of capital but the limits and barriers that it repeatedly encounters. This is subjectivist Marxism in virtue of the emphasis being upon the subjective human forces that seek to subvert and contain the logic of capital. Subjectivist Marxists primarily include autonomist Marxists such as Antonio Negri, (b. 1933 — ), who shine a light upon the task of unearthing Marx’s concept of the transcendence of capitalist value production.

Objectivist Marxism holds that Marx analyzed capitalism as a self-contained logical system, and the logic of capital is something different from historically existing capitalism given that the subsumption of actual economic life by the commodity-economy is never perfect or absolute, and there is no direct homology or functional similarity between capitalism as it historically exists and the logic of capital. The latter is the real object of Marx’s critique, for Marx endeavoured to demonstrate that generalized commodity production is defined by a dehumanizing logic, which, as soon as it has caught on, it suffuses throughout the world until much of direct human contact or community is annihilated. Commodity-economic logics appear to have a particular automaticity and expansiveness that can only be properly understood by determining its abstract universal laws, and capital is best understood from the vantage point of the logic of capital rather than from the proletariat, non-commodified social relations, or pre-capitalist modes of production. When capital is viewed, from without, as, for instance, from the point of view of the revolutionary proletariat, one finishes up making absolute truth claims based upon a limited, subjective standpoint while disregarding alternate and limited subjective standpoints that may well have equal claims to truth. In the dialectic of capital the teller of the tale, the subject, is capital itself, and not human beings.

What is accomplished by focusing upon the pure, abstract logic of capital? Perhaps an object lesson in how capitalism approaches an ideal excellence the more value production overcomes restrictions imposed by use-values, and the more efficient capital is in accomplishing this, the higher the rate of profit. The drive for profit is the absolute idea of capital, it the quest for an infinite surpassing of all limits, and once the rate of profit becomes the subjective notion, in the Hegelian sense, of capital, every individual company strives for a maximum rate of profit, by the mercantile practice of buying cheap and selling dear. And before one can even begin to envision a future free of capitalism one must first come to grips with the logic or the internal law of motion of capitalism. If the notion of capital persists in murkiness then the understanding of its transcendence will be slapdash and random and thus we should take Marx’s lead as he forgets about outlining in detail what is to come and focusses instead upon economics.

‘Down and Out’, 1882, Félicien Rops

But what of the Marxian notion of freedom itself? Or of right? Of morality? Hegel developed a philosophy grounded upon freedom within a wider philosophical system which thereby informed his views upon topics ranging from property and punishment to morality and the state. The ‘Philosophy of Right’ moves from basic building blocks that have a somewhat pure nature not yet grounded in reality to their negation and then brought together in a higher, concrete reality, it is primarily a work concerned with freedom, covering Abstract Right, primarily property and punishment, followed by an opposite in Morality, primarily issues of conscience and moral responsibility, all of which finally becomes unified in a Ethical Life delivering a more concrete reality that analyses the family, civil society, law, the state and ending with war and international relations. ‘The subject-matter of the philosophical science of right is the Idea of right — the concept of right [Recht] and its actualization’. It’s objective is to provide a philosophical account of right and its realization in the world, and Hegel himself concedes that the existence of right is presupposed from his philosophical system, and he summarises the dialectical argument for the free will whereby one’s will ‘determines itself’. And the challenge is to determine whether or not its content is a product of freedom or mere arbitrariness, for one must be able to discern the naked pursuit of being a slave to our passions, like the animal world from the rational world of human beings. The ‘Philosophy of Right’ is an inquiry into how ‘the free will which wills the free will’ can be known in form and content, and right is indeed defined as the existence of the free will in the world. The philosophy of right is of necessity a philosophy of freedom that seeks to comprehend freedom actualized in how one relates to one another and constructs social and political institutions.

The method is of course dialectical in its approach to the development of the comprehension of right through the stages of Abstract Right, Morality and Ethical Life. Progress is undergone from one stage to the next in a distinctive way whereby seeming contradictions that arise in each stage are dissolved through the attainment of a higher stage, whereby this cycle is repeated and progress made since the beginning remains present where what was abstract and opaque at first becomes more concrete as advancement proceeds to the end of the work, such a multi-layered, dialectical nature of the argument endowing this philosophical work an extra complexity and a richness demanding close study. The first substantive stage is Abstract Right with sections entitled ‘Property’, ‘Contract’ and ‘Wrong’ but the discussion here is not about actual possession of property, its sale or punishment for breach of contract, for common terminology is employed in uncommon ways, and the central objective of the work is to understand how the free will wills the free will, and not mere arbitrariness, and this requires the finding of some ground for assisting in the decision as to when the free will wills freely as against when it does not.

With regard to taking possession of property the account is directed at using property possession as a first step towards finding this ground rather than for building an economic system. For instance, Hegel contends that ‘what and how much I possess is…purely contingent as far as right is concerned’, and this is because he has no intention to develop a full theory of property yet, but rather to locate a ground for the free will’s freedom, and the significance of property at this stage is its development of our self-consciousness. I grant my free will an external existence that others can engage with, and my ownership of property is not determined by me alone, but something determined ‘within the context of a common will’ shared between two persons. Such mutual recognition between two persons about property ownership is termed a contract, but this is no ordinary contract for the context in Abstract Right is a hypothetical space of two persons and there is no money or sale of goods nor is the contract is a written agreement. Common terminology is given different usages, and the principal point is that only the free will of an individual can ground the free will of another. Something is mine when mutually recognized as my possession by another, and this is the first appearance of right where the activity of my free will in taking possession is free, and not mere arbitrariness. It is this agreement between two individuals forming a kind of contract which is of such significance, for mutual recognition becomes a vehicle for how we can develop further a more concrete understanding of freedom as right in the world, and were such recognition under threat it would unsettle how we can ground our free will in a free will of another.

The principal point concerning an Hegelian theory of morality is that it is redefined in an unusual way whereby the moral point of view is a purely abstract and hypothetical exercise that is logically prior and separate to how morality is related to the world. The focus is upon the individual’s power of choice, and to this end, Hegel is a champion, not an enemy, of individual liberty as he is clear that there must be space for subjective freedom. Marx, it has been claimed, is against individualism, thinking as he does about things in terms of classes and class struggle conflict, whereas his defenders will claim that that is a superficial reading of Marx. For instance, Jon Elster, (1940 -), philosopher and political theorist, has argued that Marx is an individualist because he defines classes by reference to the way in which individuals relate to the means of production, and what makes you working class as opposed to a member of the capitalist class is whether or not you have to sell your labour power to somebody else in order to live. I have to sell my labour, and so I am working class. If I think otherwise, because of my libertinism and bourgeois lifestyle Marx would respond by pointing out that I only think that I am not working class because I fail to understand my objective position in the division of labour. I am working class whether I see myself as such or not. And here Marx takes something else from Hegel and puts his materialistic spin upon it, the distinction between the in-itself and for-itself.

For Hegel the in-itself is mere potential or implicitness, something is in-itself when it is considered separately from other things, and, in the case of a form of consciousness, when it is unreflective. Hence it is mere potentiality, for actuality requires determination, negation, relations with other things. Furthermore, a thing may be in-itself for us when considered as separate from other things. The for-itself on the other hand is completely developed, both at home with itself, and finding itself in the other. It contrasts with mere being in itself and being for itself. Marx distinguished between a class in itself and a class for itself. A class in itself is simply a ‘social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production’, and a social group only fully becomes a class when it becomes a ‘class for itself’. I am not working class in a class for itself sense if I do not see myself as working class but I am working class in an in itself sense, and it is the objective definition of class, the in itself, that matters for history, the objective logic and not the subjective logic of what people think is their position in the social division of labour. And for Marx, who was such a Utopian thinker, that which distinguishes communist revolution from all others is the in-itself and for-itself becoming synonymous for the first time in history, the working class for itself will see itself as in itself and we will understand our objective position in the division of labour and self-consciously create a new world order, whereas in previous modes of production people did not really understand this, in the objective scheme of things orders are seen rather as by-products of their intended activities and not as products of their intentional design.

Interestingly in the Hegelian system the in-and-for-itself is a complete development, both at home with itself, and finding itself in the other, as against mere being in itself and being for itself. Being in-and-for-itself is the condition of the Absolute, God, Spirit actualised. Perhaps Marx’s distinction is the nearer he gets to any suggestion of a false consciousness though it was Engels who used that term to address the scenario whereby a subordinate class willfully embodies the ideology of the ruling class, that is to say, it asserts itself towards goals that do not benefit it. This has been picked up by Marxist theorists to describe ways in which material, ideological and institutional processes are said to mislead members of the proletariat within capitalist societies concealing the exploitation intrinsic to the social relations between classes, which is not a good move for the theorist to make as they lay themselves open to charge of what makes them so smart as to be able to see through to that that which is concealed from us mere proles? Consciousness in this context reflecting a class’s ability to politically identify and assert its will, a subordinate class being conscious and being able to assert its will due to being sufficiently unified in ideas and action, in-itself-for-itself is a somewhat crude and incoherent take upon Hegel’s free will willing itself freely, for in what sense can a class be conscious and free thereby?

However, it is a problem with our individual power of choice that we may well be mistaken about what we choose. Recalling our separateness from others in Morality, Hegel contends that we may intend good but our only guide is our individual conception of the good. A more substantive guide awaits reflecting about ourselves acting in relation to others concretely in Ethical Life. Otherwise, the danger arising from such pure, inward abstraction is that morality is an ‘abstract universality … without content’. That is to say, moral philosophy of any kind, for Hegel, is by its nature empty.

‘The Gate of Memory’, c. 1854 Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti

On the matter of a Marxist theory of morality, there isn’t one, according to Marx himself, as he explains in ‘The German Ideology’:

‘Communists on selfishness and selflessness: Communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically either in its sentimental or in its high flown ideological form; they rather demonstrate its material source, with which it disappears of itself. The Communists do not preach morality at all. They do not put to people the moral demand: love one another, do not be egoists, etc.; on the contrary, they are very well aware that egoism, just as much selflessness, is in definite circumstances a necessary form of the self-assertion of individuals. Hence, the Communists by no means want to do away with the ‘private individual’ for the sake of the ‘general’, selfless man. That is a statement of the imagination … Communist theoreticians, the only Communists who have time to devote to the study of history, are distinguished precisely by the fact that they alone have discovered that throughout history the ‘general interest’ is created by individuals who are defined as ‘private persons’. They know that this contradiction is only a seeming one because one side of it, what is called the ‘general interest’, is constantly being produced by the other side, private interest, and in relation to the latter is by no means an independent force with an independent history — so that this contradiction is in practice constantly destroyed and reproduced. Hence it is not a question of the Hegelian ‘negative unity’ of two sides of the contradiction, but of the materially determined destruction of the preceding materially determined mode of life of individuals, with the disappearance of which this contradiction together with its unity also disappears’.

Immiseration is a Marxist term designating economic impoverishment, Marx’s claim being that capitalism would immiserate workers, by which he meant that labour would be exploited, not just in a purely ethical sense, but in a narrower economic one, that real wages would fall, and working conditions would deteriorate. It certainly appears that Marxism, at least as far as ‘exploitation’ goes, is taking an ethical stance:

‘Ever since the dissolution of the primaeval communal ownership of land, all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes’.

- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 1848.

And like theories of morality in general it is empty, and given the connection between freedom and morality Marxism has an impoverished view of freedom. it amounts to little more than freedom from the division of labour so that we then have the freedom to .. what? Read Shakespeare, pursue or cultural interests, engage in philosophical discourse with our neighbour .. generally flourish as human beings leading much richer, more fulfilling lives.

Would we though?

DVLA staff ‘boasted of watching Netflix on full pay’ during Covid pandemic | The Independent

In what way is a theory of morality empty? Hegel levels the charge of emptiness against Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), accusing him of offering no more than an empty formula of duty for duty’s sake whereby our task is to avoid contradicting a set formula, the Kantian formula of a universal law stating that we should ‘act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can use at the same time will that it become a universal law’. Indeed, Kant clearly stated that: ‘All I need for morality is that freedom does not contradict itself and hence can at least be thought; I do not need to have any further insight into it’, A morality concerned with following a formula and little else, though it may be objected that Kant purposefully offers multiple versions of his formula to help draw our considerations of morality away from a purely rationalist exercise and bring it nearer to feeling, for our anthropology matters for Kant and he does not see our living ethically in merely living without contradiction. Be it so, Hegel’s emptiness charge sticks against moral philosophy given his redefinition of morality as a purely hypothetical armchair exercise that by itself is without content regardless of whether or not Kant et al conceive of morality in this way, though we must bear in mind that Hegel uses his own redefinition of morality to critique how others understand the same term defined differently.

Historical materialism is a set of scientific principles, which is in fact economic determinism, and within such a framework, the individual human being loses its position on values, falling in control of the proletarian class and its world outlook. Marx spurned the fact that there is an appeal to morality in his thought, and objected to deducing socialism from ethical principles, but Eduard Bernstein, (1850–1932), Marxist theorist and politician, found that Marx’s theoretical anti-moralism to be inconsistent with its practical application, because in Marx’s works, there are many expressions concerning moral judgments, especially when Marx talks about the ruthless exploitation in a capitalist society. Accordingly, Bernstein propounds a scheme to revise Marxist theories, proposing that, since the economic pre-conditions of socialism are not ready, other forces would be needed to support the belief of socialism. Bernstein thereby grafted a Kantian humanism into socialism, namely, he renewed the appearance of Marxism by applying Kant’s categorical imperative to the sphere of political economy. And so an empty formula becomes attached to an already empty moral philosophy.

Hegel’s final section of ‘Ethical Life’ is the state. The love for others based upon feeling in the family and then upon the satisfaction of needs in civil society is transformed to a patriotic love for fellow citizens in support of a shared community, embodied by the modern state. Moreover, the individual pursuit of the satisfaction of needs leads to the development of the state,and it is only in the state that the family develops into civil society and where civil society gains greater actuality. The state is where our concrete freedom is realized as we conceive of ourselves in our full social and political reality, it is here alone that the individual is conceived at once as a member of a family, as a part of civil society and as a citizen of a state. While the stage where our freedom is realized most concretely, it is not the case that individual freedom is somehow a problem, our individual freedom has greatest actuality when mutually recognized by others in law. Hegel reflects that ‘it has often been said that the end of the state is the happiness of its citizens. This is certainly true, for if their welfare is deficient, if their subjective ends are not satisfied, and if they do not find that the state as such is the means to this satisfaction, the state itself stands on an insecure footing’.

Unlike Marx, Hegel was not a Utopian thinker. As we know well enough from history, deluded and fanciful dreams about ideal political communities that pay scant regard to human nature, be it Plato’s, (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), ‘Republic’, or Sir Thomas More’s, (1478–1535), ‘Utopia’, or Marx’s communist paradise the ideal of which, recall, is freedom (the Marxist idea of freedom) and not equality, describe worlds in which it would be truly awful to have to live, and when such Utopian dreams gain the opportunity to be realised what emerges is rather a dystopian nightmare. The Hegelian state, on the other hand, grounded upon a much more profound understanding of what human freedom means, is a community where individuals and their individuality flourish.


What a god’s gold,

That he is worshipp’d in a baser temple

Than where swine feed!

’Tis thou that rigg’st the bark and plough’st the foam,

Settlest admired reverence in a slave:

To thee be worship! and thy saints for aye

Be crown’d with plagues that thee alone obey!


Hence, pack! there’s gold; you came for gold, ye slaves:

To Painter

You have work’d for me; there’s payment for you: hence!

To Poet

You are an alchemist; make gold of that.

Out, rascal dogs!

Beats them out, and then retires to his cave

- William Shakespeare, ‘Timon of Athens’, Act 5, Scene 1.


‘Thoughts of the Past’, 1859, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.