By Steve Dobbs
Nowadays there is, in the first place, little knowledge of Hegelian philosophy, without which it is difficult to learn Marx’s method … (Plekhanov 1907).
Understanding the method of Marx has been the bane of the revolutionary socialist movement for over a century. Many adherents to Marx will know the famous line that Marx turned Hegel upside down, i.e. that Marx’s method was an inversion, or ‘the direct opposite’, of Hegel’s method (Marx 1873).
But this is not much use unless you know Hegel’s method in the first place. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the ‘revolutionary parties’ active today in Britain make barely any effort to educate their membership. Yet I would argue this is a necessary prerequisite in order to even begin to fully understand Marx’s critique of political economy (e.g. Capital). In turn, this is necessary to formulate a clear understanding of the situation we are in today, free of bourgeois ideological conceptions, and ultimately use this as a foundation to construct a programme and strategy for revolution.
The Holy Family
One of the most obscure and oft ignored books Marx & Engels wrote is The Holy Family. This is partly justified. Published in 1845, the book consists primarily of polemics against the other Young Hegelians who Marx & Engels broke with. 95% of the contents can be ignored as historically irrelevant, but 5% of it is pure gold from the standpoint of today’s Marxists. I want to focus on one of these parts and use it to illustrate the fundamental difference between the way Marx and Hegel (the ‘speculative philosophers’) apply and treat logical concepts.
In Chapter five under the heading ‘the mystery of speculative construction’, Marx outlines his methodical differences using the example of fruit:
If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea “Fruit”, if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea “Fruit”, derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then in the language of speculative philosophy — I am declaring that “Fruit” is the “Substance” of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc.
Here, we start from the premise that pears, apples and almonds all exist. We then find a common property between them: they are all parts of seed-bearing plants that contain the fertilised seeds capable of generating new plants. In other words, they are all fruit.
Terms such as pear, apple etc are all concepts. In fact, basically every word is some sort of concept (something that has a meaning). Fruit is also a concept, but it is more abstract, since every fruit that exists must be a specific fruit. The concept ‘fruit’ cannot exist in reality – what exists is always a real fruit of some kind, a specific fruit e.g. apple, orange. Marx goes on:
I am saying, therefore, that to be a pear is not essential to the pear, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea — “Fruit”. I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of “Fruit” My finite understanding supported by my senses does of course distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely “Fruit”. Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is “the substance” — “Fruit”.
Having created this more abstract, more general concept of fruit, Marx warns of the dangers of then using this generalised term in a blanket fashion when it comes to reasoning. Taken to its logical conclusion, the use of an abstraction actually destroys the various differences we want to investigate. Marx highlights this absurdity with a brief detour:
By this method one attains no particular wealth of definition. The mineralogist whose whole science was limited to the statement that all minerals are really “the Mineral” would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says “the Mineral”, and his science is reduced to repeating this word as many times as there are real minerals.
Marx goes back to the main example of fruit:
Having reduced the different real fruits to the one “fruit” of abstraction — “the Fruit”, speculation must, in order to attain some semblance of real content, try somehow to find its way back from “the Fruit”, from the Substance to the diverse, ordinary real fruits, the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. It is as hard to produce real fruits from the abstract idea “the Fruit” as it is easy to produce this abstract idea from real fruits. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at the opposite of an abstraction without relinquishing the abstraction.
The speculative philosopher therefore relinquishes the abstraction “the Fruit”, but in a speculative, mystical fashion — with the appearance of not relinquishing it.
[The speculative philosopher says:] The different ordinary fruits are different manifestations of the life of the “one Fruit”; they are crystallisations of “the Fruit” itself.
So having abstracted the concept of fruit (fruit in general, fruit as such), the Hegelian then turns this abstraction (idea) into the thing that becomes the main essence, the substance, of fruit.
What this means is that, for the Hegelian, the idea or abstract concept of fruit existed first, and then out of this idea the ‘concretisations’ of fruit were created: apples, pears etc. Applied to real life, this is nothing short of intelligent design.
Intelligent design is the religious belief that everything that exists was consciously designed and created by an all-seeing, all-knowing God. Unfortunately this notion still has some traction because, on the surface, it does appear that every living organism was perfectly built for its own living conditions. [This, however, is only possible if we ignore the historical origins of all living organisms, but more on this shortly].
How might an intelligent being (e.g. God) populate the world? A modern analogy would be object-oriented computer programming, such as in the Java programming language. In Java, you typically first define what is called a ‘class’, which is an abstract concept of an object. You then create multiple concrete instances of this class, called ‘objects’. For example, you may first create a class called animal, which would have properties such as colour, species and sex. You would then create instances of animal such as black male cat, or brown female dog.
The relation between class and object, between animal and ‘black male cat’ above, is the relation between the abstract and the concrete. The Hegelians assert that the abstract existed first, and then the concrete came into existence containing the abstract as their essence, much like Intelligent Design or a Java programmer would set out.
Yet in the real world we know life was not ‘designed’ as it exists today, but it evolved over the course of millions of years. The concrete came first, and then humans created conceptual abstractions from them. These abstractions, such as ‘animals’ or ‘fruit’ are useful in some scenarios. The problem occurs when we turn these mental abstractions into eternal categories and the creators of real things.
Bourgeois political economy
So why is this all important? We must remember the task that Marx was attempting to achieve in Capital: a critique of the [meaning and application of the] concepts created by bourgeois political economy, personified primarily by Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
Having created the abstractions such as capital, profit, rent etc, bourgeois political economy took them as eternal categories; the economics equivalent of intelligent design. But all this could do was justify the existing state of things. Intelligent design claims every living thing was created to suit its surroundings, and bourgeois political economy says that everything that exists is natural and the capitalist market knows best.
Just as Darwin’s evolution showed that all species had an origin and changed over a period of time, Marx’s critique also showed that the economic mode of production had an origin and changed over time. By creating a theory of human social-economic development over time, Marx’s method became dialectical – it recognised that historical changes and movement in real life had to be reflected in abstract concepts that moved and changed in order to derive truthful, accurate concepts – to really understand the world as it is, not as it appears.
For example, Adam Smith believed the three types of revenue (wages, profit and rent) were simply derived from the labour performed and the value generated respectively by the worker, the capitalist and the landlord. The method he used to reach this conclusion was the same as the speculative philosophers that Marx criticised in The Holy Family: wages, profit and rent were all abstracted, generalised, as revenues with no fundamental differences – they were all treated as self-generated value the different classes were entitled to.
On the other hand, Marx identified the historical and logical origin of capital, and discovered surplus value was created only in capitalist production. In Capital Marx revealed the truth and ‘movement’ of bourgeois society. Profit, interest and rent were the aliquot parts of surplus value collectively extracted from the unpaid labour of the working class in production.
Thanks to Marx we know that capitalists, landlords and bankers are parasites who collectively live off the backs of the exploited working class. Marx showed that, as capitalism develops and the organic composition of capital rises, it creates its own grave diggers – the propertyless proletariat. The overthrow of such a society is thus not only entirely justified but is historically inevitable based on the very motion of capital itself.
Marx. 1845. The Holy Family, chapter five. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/ch05.htm
Marx. 1873. Capital Volume I, Afterword to the Second German Edition. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p3.htm
Plekhanov. 1907. Fundamental Problems of Marxism. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1907/fundamental-problems.htm