Transforming Reality, Not Only Thought: Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Dialectic and of Feuerbach’s Materialism

by Andrew Kliman

We see here how thorough-going Naturalism, or Humanism, distinguishes itself both from Idealism and Materialism, and is, at the same time, the truth uniting both.—Karl Marx, 1844, “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” p. 313[1]

The three central essays of [Marx’s] 1844 Manuscripts—Alienated Labor, Private Property and Communism, Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic—marked the birth of a philosophy of human activity.—Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, p. 52.


This essay is about the relation of Karl Marx’s philosophy to that of G.W.F. Hegel, on the one hand, and to Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel, as well as Feuerbach’s own philosophy, on the other. This has long been a controversial subject and it remains so. The purpose of this essay is simply to share the current results of my thinking about these matters. It is certainly not an exhaustive treatment of them, and little if anything I will say is original. My interpretations owe a lot to the work of others. I recommend, especially, the textual analyses and commentaries provided by Raya Dunayevskaya—in Chapter 2 of her 1973 book, Philosophy and Revolution, and elsewhere—and Doğan Barış Kılınç’s 2013 doctoral dissertation on the topic, some of which I will discuss here.

In the first section, I discuss the general claim that Marx was a Feuerbachian, as well as the specific claim that Marx accepted and employed Feuerbach’s “method of inversion.” I criticize the specific claim, sketch out what I regard as Marx’s alternative to Feuerbach’s method, and contrast the political (and other) implications of the method and the alternative. The main point of the contrast is that Feuerbach’s method leaves the world as it was, prior to the inversion, while Marx’s alternative assists in the transformation of reality.

Section II discusses the claim that Marx embraced Feuerbach’s materialism in opposition to Hegel’s idealism. I argue that Marx was critical of both of these philosophies and instead developed a distinct position that Dunayevskaya called “a philosophy of human activity.” Section III then discusses Marx’s conception of human activity, focusing especially on what he said about it in the first of his “Theses on Feuerbach.”

G.W.F. Hegel

All of this is, in a sense, a prelude to the examination of Marx’s 1844 “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” that follows. That essay begins with effusive praise of Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and it basically concurs with Feuerbach’s view of Hegel’s own presentation and understanding of his dialectic. Because of this, it is easy to construe the essay as a repetition or defense of Feuerbach’s criticism of Hegel. But that is a misconstrual. Once one appreciates that Marx was a critic of Feuerbach, not a follower—as my prior argument tries to establish—it is easier to recognize that it is a misconstrual and easier to avoid rejecting out of hand two points that I try to establish in Section IV. First, in the same essay, Marx criticizes Feuerbach’s understanding and dismissal of the Hegelian dialectic; second, he sets out and embraces a new interpretation of the Hegelian dialectic (one that he knows is different from Hegel’s own interpretation).

Section V discusses differences between Hegel and Marx regarding the transcendence of alienation. These differences, as Marx argued in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” are crucial for understanding why Hegel’s philosophy “reconciles” itself with existing reality while his own philosophy does not. A brief conclusion follows in Section VI.


I. Marx’s Critique of Feuerbach’s Method:
Political and Other Implications

A. Marx as Feuerbachian: A. James Gregor’s View

Some commentators have claimed that Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” endorsed Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic in a one-sided way—that is, without also criticizing Feuerbach’s critique or defending the Hegelian dialectic against it. For example, in a 1965 Science & Society article, A. James Gregor, a right-wing political scientist who went on to become an academic of considerable renown, put forward this position in an especially stark manner.[2] According to Gregor, “Marx’s treatment … of Hegel’s method” was “consistently Feuerbachian” (pp. 71–72) during the period from 1841 to 1845. In the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” written during this period, “Marx simply outlines Feuerbach’s essential position in treating ‘the secret [Geheimnis] of the Hegelian philosophy’” (p. 73). The humanist outlook Marx expressed in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” is, in fact, “the positive anthropology of Ludwig Feuerbach,” and Marx’s “reform of the Hegelian dialectic … is equally Feuerbachian” (pp. 74–75). What Gregor meant by the final claim is that Marx re-inverted the relation between Spirit and human beings that Hegel had inverted, a procedure that emulated Feuerbach’s re-inversion of the relation between God and human beings that theology inverts.

According to Gregor, “Feuerbach’s central criticism, as Marx understood it …, was that Hegel had ‘only found the abstract, logical, speculative expression for the movement of history’” (p. 77). The passage that Gregor quotes is indeed crucial, but his reading of it is a weak misreading, as we will see. Marx was speaking for himself at that point, not summarizing Feuerbach’s criticism, and what Marx identified as Feuerbach’s central criticism of Hegel’s dialectic was different from and incompatible with what Gregor said it was: “Feuerbach regards the negation of the negation only as the contradiction of philosophy with itself” (“Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” p. 305). Thus, as Dunayevskaya argued (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 56), Marx’s statement that the negation of the negation expresses the movement of history calls attention to “Feuerbach’s philosophic deficiency” and defends the Hegelian dialectic against Feuerbach, albeit critically.

Gregor did acknowledge that Marx went on to criticize Feuerbach—but not in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic.” Marx’s first criticism of Feuerbach, Gregor suggested, is contained in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” written in the following year. More importantly, Gregor argued that Marx’s critique of Feuerbach in these theses “was not critical of his method but rather of his narrow enterprise” (p. 78, emphases added). After quoting the fourth thesis, Gregor argued that it shows that “Marx’s mature method, his inversion of the Hegelian dialectic, … remained faithful to Feuerbach’s “Umkehrungsmethode” [method of inversion,] extending its application to the secular base in its entirety” (p. 79, emphasis added). As we will see, this is another weak misreading—Marx’s criticism was indeed a criticism of Feuerbach’s method; he was proposing that the method of inversion itself be inverted—although, in fairness to Gregor, it should be noted that he was working with the version of the “Theses on Feuerbach” published by Frederick Engels after Marx’s death, which differs in significant ways from Marx’s original text.

B. Marx as Feuerbachian: Aaron Jaffe’s View

A half-century after Gregor, Aaron Jaffe made much the same argument. According to Jaffe, Marx accepted Feuerbach’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic. Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach was merely that Feuerbach was not Feuerbachian enough; because his aims were narrow and “academic,” he had failed to extend the application of his critique to the realm of real politics:

For Marx, Feuerbach’s critique was a positive step, but Feuerbach was content with attacking both young Hegelianism and state power with his theoretical humanism, which itself was just another abstract idea. … Feuerbach’s critique was indirect, academic, and its critical force was anemic. …

At this stage, Marx didn’t think Feuerbach’s critique was wrong, so much as he thought it could be weaponized in a more powerful manner. Oppressive conditions demanded opposition in a far more determinate, material register, and Marx saw quite clearly that Feuerbach’s restrained, coded position was a recipe for neutering any political power his writing itself might otherwise have.

By “at this stage,” Jaffe means 1842, but nothing he writes about Marx’s subsequent development affects his claim that Marx accepted Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel but sought also to apply it to real politics, which Feuerbach had not done. To the contrary, Jaffe introduces the qualification “at this stage” to indicate that, in 1842, “Marx was still a thinker and writer concerned with the force of ideas, as opposed to material praxis,” but that his concerns would later change. Thus, in Jaffe’s view, Marx later moved even further away from Hegel, in the (materialist) direction that Feuerbach had opened up.

Leaving aside Marx’s relation to Hegel and to Feuerbach for the moment, what is wrong with what Jaffe says is that Feuerbach’s method of inversion cannot be “weaponized in a more powerful manner,” because this method is neither dialectical nor revolutionary. It is a method of “unmasking”—exposing, debunking. As Dennis Durst recently put it, Feuerbach “unmask[ed] belief in God as nothing more than human self-worship and an illusion.” Unmasking is a method of the cynic and the “I know better” critic, not the method of revolutionary transformation. After the unmasking is completed, the world remains as it was, unaffected. A critic who unmasks religion, or capitalism, or whatever expresses an attitude to the object of their criticism that diverges from the standard one, a negative attitude. But the negativity is only subjective, a matter of their attitude to the object. It is external, not internal; it does not “destabilize” the object itself. That is, it does not show the object to be internally contradictory, objectively in need of change (i.e., unstable), capable of being changed.

Jaffe wants not only a change in thinking but change in the real world as well. He thus proposes “the conjuncture of a critically-charged philosophy and informed intervention into the actual state of affairs,” and he contends that “Marx’s critique of Feuerbach is that philosophical criticism that is not rooted in such a conjuncture is not only barren, but false.” Yet since the kind of “critically-charged philosophy” he favors is merely a rejection of the status quo, but not itself a weapon of change, the “conjuncture” (combination) of it and real-world intervention is external. There is thinking and there is doing, but they sit side by side instead of forming an organic unity. The philosophy does not itself entail the need for or the possibility of revolutionary transformation, so the “informed intervention” is not the realization (actualization) of philosophy. It is merely revolutionary will, driven by a moral ideal or something similar, and “informed” by “empirical social analysis” (emphasis is Jaffe’s) and political strategizing.

In her critique of Rosa Luxemburg’s underconsumptionist theory of capitalist crisis, Dunayevskaya (Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, p. 45, emphases in original) wrote that

Luxemburg, the revolutionist, feels the abysmal gap between her theory and her revolutionary activity, and comes to the rescue of Luxemburg, the theorist. … No revolutionist doubts that the only final solution … will come in the actual class struggle[, but the] question theoretically is: does the solution come organically from your theory, or is it brought there merely by “revolutionary will”[?] …

[According to] Luxemburg, … capitalism’s downfall comes not from the organism of capitalism, but from an outside force: ‘non-capitalist strata and non-capitalist societies,’ while the revolution is dragged in by her indomitable revolutionary will. The socialist proletarian revolution, which, for Marx, is rooted in the material development of the conflicting forces of capital and labor, here becomes a wish disconnected from the increasing subordination of the laborer to, and his growing revolt from, the capitalist labor process.

What Jaffe proposes suffers from the same “abysmal gap” between thinking and doing. Accordingly, his supposed solution does not come organically from his theory, but from other factors “dragged in” from outside.

C. Marx Inverts Feuerbach’s Inversion

Let us now contrast this to Marx’s approach to the object of his criticism, in general and specifically in response to Feuerbach. In his preface to the first edition of Capital, he remarked that even “within the ruling classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing.” And in his afterword to the second German edition, he elaborated on the same idea. To adequately comprehend that the present society is “no solid crystal,” he argued, dialectical philosophy is needed:

In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary. [emphasis added]

The point about “affirmative recognition of the existing state of things” including its opposite within itself is crucial. There is no longer the object of criticism (the existing state of things) on one side and a negative attitude toward the object on the other side. The negativity is no longer just a subjective attitude that the critic brings to the object from the outside; it is objective and internal to the object.


Image Credit: Know the GMAT

Marx presses exactly this point in the fourth of his “Theses on Feuerbach” of 1845. In contrast to Gregor, I am quoting Marx’s original version:

Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a secular one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be annihilated theoretically and practically.

What Marx meant by “resolving” the religious world into its secular basis is Feuerbach’s reduction of spiritual qualities to human qualities. Four years earlier, in his book, The Essence of Christianity, Feuerbach had argued that “[t]he personality of God is … the means by which man converts the qualities of his own nature into the qualities of another being,—of a being, external to himself. The personality of God is nothing else than the projected personality of man.” Marx accepted this, but he argued that Feuerbach’s “resolving” fails to do “the chief thing.” It is insufficient, both practically and theoretically.

The practical insufficiency is, of course, the fact that the reduction of spiritual qualities to human qualities fails to revolutionize the secular realm, annihilate the institution of the family, etc. But the practical insufficiency has its roots in the argument’s theoretical insufficiencies. Marx points out two of them. First, Feuerbach’s argument does not explain why the world is “duplicated,” that is, why there is both a secular world and its external projection, a religious world. Second, it fails to explain this because the unmasking, the reduction of the religious to the secular, leaves the secular basis as it was, unaffected—not only practically, but theoretically as well.

The unmasking fails to “problematize,” call into question, the secular basis, and thus it overlooks the fact that the secular basis is no solid crystal, but something riven with “inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness.” Yet, Marx argues, this internal contradiction within the secular realm is the source of the duplication of the world; the existence of two worlds, one secular and the other religious, is only an external form of appearance of that internal contradiction. Since the Feuerbachian procedure of reducing the religious to the secular fails to problematize the secular realm, it fails to recognize the latter’s internal contradiction, and thus it also fails to identify the source of the duplication of the world into two. It is therefore unable to explain that duplication.

The insufficiency of unmasking/reduction for the realm of practice is a direct result of all this. Because it cannot explain the duplication of the world or identify its source, Feuerbach’s method is unable to say much, if anything, helpful about how the duplication can be overcome, or about the need to eliminate the source of the problem if we want to eliminate its outer form of appearance. The alternative to Feuerbach’s unmasking and reduction that Marx proposes here involves (1) starting with the secular basis in a manner that recognizes that it includes its opposite with itself, (2) employing this internal contradiction to explain the external contradiction that is its form of appearance, and (3) acting on the basis of this knowledge to revolutionize the secular world and thereby also overcome the duplication of the world into secular and religious realms.

Twenty-two years later, Marx said much the same thing, in a footnote near the start of Chapter 15 of Capital, volume 1 (note 4). The main difference is that he omitted the implications of the argument for revolutionizing and annihilating, perhaps because this time he was writing for publication and thus with the censor in mind:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely [als umgekehrt], it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised [verhimmelten; glorified, made heavenly] forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.

“Discover[ing] by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion” is clearly a reference to Feuerbach’s method, which Marx compares unfavorable to his own, “develop[ing] from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations.” He points out that the two methods are in fact the opposites of one another. One proceeds from heaven to earth, the other from earth to heaven. Furthermore, one “analyses” while the other “develops”; in other words, Feuerbach’s method reduces two things to one, while Marx’s method is to show one becoming two. The term he uses to express the opposition between these methods, umgekehrt, connotes inversion (umkehrung).

Marx frequently employed his inversion of Feuerbach’s method, and not only with respect to religion. For example, he employed it in his criticism of Proudhon and his followers, who railed against what might be called the “duplication” of commodities, in which one exalted commodity, money, stands apart from the host of the remaining, mundane, commodities. They wanted all commodities to be immediately recognized as valuable, in the way that money now is. That is, they wanted to abolish the circumstance that all commodities other than money become socially recognized as valuable only if they can be sold for money.

In his discussions of the form of value and the fetishism of the commodity, in the first chapter of Capital, volume 1, Marx answered the Proudhonists by showing that the duplication of commodities—money on the one hand, all other commodities on the other—is only an external form of appearance of a more basic contradiction that is internal to every commodity, the contradiction between use-value and value. (All commodities, including money, are both use-values and values, but, in exchange relations, it is money alone that “counts” as value while other commodities “count” as mere use-values, useful things.) The contradiction internal to every commodity, Marx shows, necessarily develops into a contradiction between money and other commodities. The idea that all commodities can simultaneously function as money is just as much of an illusion as the idea that “all Catholics can be popes together,” he puts it in a footnote (26) to the first chapter. Just as elimination of the papacy would require the elimination of Catholicism, elimination of the social ills that the Proudhonists wrongly attributed to money’s privileged status relative to other commodities requires elimination of the production and exchange of commodities.


Ludwig Feuerbach


II. Marx’s Critique of Feuerbach’s Materialism

A. Sensuous Objects vs. Sensuous Human Activity

Marx’s references to technology, and especially to history, in the footnote to Chapter 15 quoted above, pertain to another aspect of his critique of Feuerbach. The “abstract materialism … that excludes history and its process” is not only that of natural science; exclusion of history and its process is a feature of Feuerbach’s materialism as well.

Feuerbach’s materialism, the primacy he accorded what he called “sensusous reality,” is bound up with his embrace of what Hegel called “sense certainty.”[3] Writing in 1839, Feuerbach rejected Hegel’s dialectic in part by rejecting his argument against sense certainty at the start of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Sense certainty—or “naïve realism,” as Kenneth Westphal calls it—is the conviction that our senses provide us with immediate, intuitive knowledge of particular objects, independently of and without the need for any concepts. Hegel sought to show that Kant was right to maintain that this conviction is incorrect, as prelude to his own argument that acquisition of real knowledge requires a dialectical process in which knowing pulls itself up by its own bootstraps, so to speak, without a foundation of immediate, nonconceptual knowledge to rely upon. Feuerbach, however, maintained that Hegel was merely playing a “verbal game.” Hegel’s dialectic, he argued, “contradict[s] sensuous reality and its understanding” from the start, but “[t]he reality of sensuous and particular being is a truth that carries the seal of our blood,” so common-sense thinking (“sensuous consciousness”) is entitled to simply reject his game-playing and its outcome. Feuerbach thus reaffirmed the standpoint of sense certainty (“sensuous reality and its understanding”) in opposition to the Hegelian dialectic. (Westphal’s paper provides a lengthy, painstaking defense of Hegel’s arguments against sense certainty.)

Marx repeatedly addressed this controversy over the allegedly foundational role of sense certainty and the objects it claims to know, in several works he wrote between 1844 and 1846—the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” and some other pieces in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the “Theses on Feuerbach,” and The German Ideology. He did not, to my knowledge, take a position on Hegel’s critique of sense certainty, but he did criticize Feuerbach’s position. Marx rejected the primacy of sensuous objects, and of allegedly immediate knowledge, as well as the idea that they constitute a secure foundation that can serve as a starting point. I will discuss the issue of primacy now, but briefly comment on the issue of the starting point only later in this article.

The first thesis on Feuerbach begins as follows:

The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism—but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.

The fifth thesis is:

Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.

The ninth thesis repeats what the fifth says and adds to it.

These theses affirm the importance of “sensuousness,” as Feuerbach had also done. But that agreement doesn’t amount to much because, as Marx explains here, Feuerbach and he mean completely different things when they embrace “sensuousness.” Feuerbach is referring to external objects and our “knowledge” of them through the senses, while Marx is referring to human activity. (What he meant by “human activity” will be discussed in Section III, below.)

B. Which is Central?

In other works written during this period, Marx argued against an understanding of sensuous reality in which nature, or external, pre-given objects generally, are given the central place. Human activity should occupy the central place, since human activity participates in the creation of external reality, and increasingly so as human beings develop themselves and technology throughout history. Abstract (ontological) materialism emphasizes the determining role of material reality, but it overlooks the role of human activity in creating material reality. This seems to be the underlying “ontological” point, and the reason Marx refers to materialism, when criticizing the blank-slate view of human beings in the third thesis on Feuerbach: “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances ….”

Earlier, the active role of human beings in creating both themselves and nature was emphasized by Marx in his 1844 essay, “Private Property and Communism”:

Just as society itself produces man as man, so it is produced by him. …

Nature, developing in human history—by that act human society was born—is the actual nature of man. …

[F]or socialist man, all of history is nothing else than the production of man through human labor, none other than the becoming of nature of man. [pp. 294, 300, 303, emphases in original]

And in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” Marx countered Feuerbach’s dismissal of Hegel’s dialectic in part by arguing that the dialectical principle of the negation of the negation (“the dialectic of negativity”) is the principle at work in human beings’ creation of ourselves, “the self-production of man”:

The greatness of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and of its final result—the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle—lies in this, that Hegel comprehends the self-production of man as a process … that he, therefore, grasps the essence of labor and conceives objective man, true, actual man as the result of his own labor. [p. 309, emphases in original]

The main body of The German Ideology, written in 1846, begins with a lengthy critique of Feuerbach. Marx and Engels focus mainly on setting out their own human activity-centered perspective in opposition to Feuerbach’s perspective. Near the start, they declare, in a famous passage,

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life. [p. 37]

The idea that human beings “indirectly produc[e] their material life” is another way of putting the central objection to “all hitherto-existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included” that was articulated in the Theses on Feuerbach.

The German Ideology also supplements the positive exposition of its authors’ perspective with a direct criticism of Feuerbach’s contrary conception of sensuous reality. Marx and Engels write that Feuerbach

does not see that the sensuous world around him is not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, [a product] in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, and modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age has it become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach. …

So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the foundation of the whole sensuous world as it now exists that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. … [N]ature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral islands of recent origin) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach either. [p. 45, p. 46; emphases in original]

The German Ideology is often regarded as the canonical statement of Marx’s “materialist conception of history.” What we see from the above passages is that the materialist conception of history includes within it a historical conception of the material, as well as a human activity-centered conception of history.

Since human activity is both manual and mental, and Marx would later call attention to the priority of the mental aspect over the manual one,[4] he was right when he commented in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” that his human activity-centered perspective is “distinct from both idealism and materialism,” notwithstanding the fact that this perspective is grounded in “sensuous reality.”


Doğan Barış Kılınç


C. Kılınç’s View, in General and on the Primacy Issue

A decade ago, Doğan Barış Kılınç published a perceptive and precise doctoral dissertation on Marx’s relation to Hegel and Feuerbach. Although I concur with a great deal of what he says, he makes one statement—“Marx, with Feuerbach, insists on the primacy of nature, sense certainty, or sensuous reality over thought” (p. 86)—that I will presently take issue with. Before doing so, however, I want to indicate important areas of agreement, partly to avoid putting undue emphasis on that one statement, and partly because, given that we agree about so much else, I am not sure that my interpretation of Kılınç’s statement is what he intended to say.

I concur with his main overall assessments of the Feuerbach-Marx relationship, including the following: “Hegel had achieved, in Marx’s eyes, much more than Feuerbach thought” (p. 69). Marx’s critique of the Hegelian dialectic “does not merely consist of repeating Feuerbach’s critiques. His main aim is not to stop [at] reading Hegel’s philosophy as the affirmation of theology,” as Feuerbach had done, “but to extract valuable elements from Hegel’s philosophy and to use them for a revolutionary thought” (p. 72). “It is clear from Marx’s praise of Hegel that Marx[, unlike Feuerbach,] has no problem with the dialectic viewpoint which characterizes the movement of Phenomenology” (p. 86). Marx’s position, in both his early and later works, “cannot be called ‘Feuerbachian’. … [E]ven in [the] 1844 Manuscripts in which his praise of Feuerbach reaches the peak[,] ‘Marx’s philosophical break from Feuerbach’ is clear, and he regards his own critique of Hegel as ‘absolutely necessary’ because such a task has never been accomplished despite Feuerbach’s critique” (p. 186). Kılınç’s last statement quotes (and concurs with) Dunayevskaya. The phrase “Marx’s philosophical break from Feuerbach” appears on p. 53 of her Philosophy and Revolution (although the adjective in the original text is “philosophic” rather than “philosophical”).

Even on the specific issue of nature, or “sensuous reality,” Kılınç’s understanding of Marx’s critique of Feuerbach and of Marx’s own position is in accord with what I have said above:

According to Marx, Feuerbach remains on the level of “perception” and “sensation”; in other words, he does not conceive the world as a result of human practice. … [Feuerbach] regards human essentially as a passive being and does not understand “the active side” of … human practice which does not leave the world as it is, but makes it into a human world. Unlike Feuerbach, Marx regards the world as a product of human history and thus as the result of human practice …. From Marx’s point of view, although Feuerbach rightly points out sensuous reality he nevertheless conceives it only as object and he is not able to see that nothing in the human world is directly given but a product of human practical activity. In this sense, there is no nature independent of man. … As a result of human history, nature emerges as a human nature, and human makes herself by developing her essential capacities. Therefore, both nature and human herself are historical products. [pp. 133–135]

Given all this, I find it difficult to understand how Marx can nonetheless be said to follow Feuerbach in “insist[ing] on the primacy of nature … or sensuous reality over thought.”[5] Marx argues that nature, or sensuous reality, is (mainly and increasingly) not directly given but is produced by human activity. How, then, can it be primary?

To be sure, Marx was not insisting on the primacy of disembodied thought (thought considered in separation from human activity), either in the usual ontological-idealist sense, or in the sense in which Hegel made it primary, as the active Subject that drives the dialectical development. But that doesn’t compel Marx to land in the camp of “hitherto-existing materialism,” for which nature is primary, since there is a third alternative: human (mental/manual) activity is primary—that is, the most important factor.

It seems to me, largely on the basis of points that Kılınç and I agree on, that it is this third alternative that Marx works out and embraces, first in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” and then in his “Theses on Feuerbach” and The German Ideology. As Dunayevskaya (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 52) put it, the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” (together with two other of Marx’s 1844 essays, “Alienated Labor” and “Private Property and Communism”) “marked the birth of a philosophy of human activity.”

Thus, Marx does not take sides in the controversy between Hegel and Feuerbach over the primacy of sensuous reality vs. the primacy of thought. As Kılınç himself writes at a later point in his dissertation, “Marx thus has nothing to do with a ‘metaphysical’ problem as to whether being or thought is first” (p. 192). He rejects both positions by putting forward a humanist alternative, which “distinguishes itself both from Idealism and Materialism,” but which is “the truth uniting both,” in the sense that the human activity that Marx makes centrally important is both physical and mental.

Yet perhaps Kılınç simply meant that both Marx and Feuerbach rejected the primacy of disembodied thought and that each of them accorded primacy (in whatever sense) to something sensuous. Given the other things Kılınç says, this is a plausible interpretation. And if this is what he meant, then we are in agreement (though the pregiven and static “sensuous reality” to which Feuerbach referred, and the human-created and historical “sensuous reality” to which Marx referred, are so different that I find the term misleading and unhelpful).


III. Marx’s Conception of the “Active Side”

A. Analysis of the First Thesis on Feuerbach

I commented above on one aspect of Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach. Here I want to explore it further, by inquiring into what Marx meant when he referred in this thesis to “human activity” and called it “objective activity.” Again, the thesis begins as follows:

The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism—but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.

I suppose that it is possible to construe “human activity” here as “people do stuff,” and “objective activity” as “they really do stuff, not just seem to do stuff.” But this is pretty banal, and it is unlikely that Feuerbach or anyone else needed to be told this. I think the thesis is dealing with more profound issues, above all the idea that human activity—including and especially human cognition—not only reflects the objective world but creates it (as V.I. Lenin later put it in his conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic).

The thesis seems, among other things, to side with German idealism against materialism, and perhaps, within German idealism, to side with Hegel against Kant. What Kant called his “Copernican revolution” in philosophy is about the active, constructive role of the human mind in forming knowledge of reality. This view stands in opposition to empiricism, which holds that knowledge of reality is basically a matter of external reality acting on the senses and the mind more or less passively reflecting sensory data. As Michael Rohlf has recently explained,

Kant’s revolutionary position in the Critique is that we can have a priori knowledge about the general structure of the sensible world because it is not entirely independent of the human mind. The sensible world, or the world of appearances, is constructed by the human mind from a combination of sensory matter that we receive passively and a priori forms that are supplied by our cognitive faculties. [emphases added]

In other words, thought does not just take in, but molds, what the senses experience. This seems to be what Marx refers to when he writes that “the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism.”

Yet Kant held that this active role of the mind in the process of knowing is limited to knowing “the world of appearances,” reality as we experience it, on the basis of our senses and our cognitive faculties and categories of thought. We do not know things as they are “in themselves.” Kant held that they are unknowable in principle. Thus, the knowledge we obtain is only subjective, not objective. And thus, the activity of the mind in the knowledge-gaining process is likewise only subjective, not objective. It does not co-construct objective knowledge, knowledge of objective reality, but only subjective knowledge, knowledge of reality “for us.”

Hegel (and other German idealists) rejected Kant’s claim that there is a realm of reality “in itself” separate from the world of appearances. (If it is unknowable, how do you know it exists?) Once that claim is rejected, the idea that a thing “in itself” is unknowable in principle goes away along with it. So does the idea that human knowledge is only subjective, not objective. And so does the idea that what the activity of the mind co-constructs is only subjective knowledge, not objective knowledge.

The points above are just the background context of the first thesis, since it is a thesis about materialism and its “main defect,” not about Kant or Hegel per se. Marx is saying that Feuerbach’s materialism fails to absorb Kant’s breakthrough that human thought co-constructs knowledge of reality. And Marx extends that breakthrough here—as he did in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” and other 1844 manuscripts—to human activity as a whole and its co-construction of reality as a whole: human activity co-constructs reality. In contrast, Feuerbach does not regard human thought, much less the whole of human activity, as “active” in the sense of being co-constructive of reality. Instead, the mind contemplates what is already there, pregiven.

Marx is also saying that Feuerbach does not regard human activity as something that co-constructs the objective world. In this respect, Feuerbach’s position is like Kant’s, although he ends up in the same place as Kant for a different reason. In Feuerbach’s case, the issue is not that a “thing in itself” is unknowable, but that his materialism accords primacy to a “sensuous reality” that is pregiven and nonhuman. Thus, he considers human thought, and human activity generally, to be determined by objective reality, not co-constructive of it. Marx’s statement that Feuerbach “does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity” is another way of putting the same point.

The third thesis on Feuerbach provides evidence that supports the idea that Marx thought that deterministic character of Feuerbach’s materialism was involved in his failure or refusal to “conceive human activity itself as objective activity.” Marx writes that “[t]he materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.” He is saying that the materialist doctrine regards human beings as determined by circumstances and upbringing, and that this doctrine regards the determination as a one-way,  not two-way, process. It “forgets” that “men … change circumstances,” i.e., that human beings determine circumstances.

B. The “Essence of Labor”

In the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” Marx says that “Hegel … therefore grasps the essence of labor and conceives objective man, true, actual man as the result of his own labor” (p. 309, emphases in original). However, he also makes several statements in the same essay that might seem to contradict that judgment. For example, Marx writes that “Hegel regards human essence, Man, as equal to self-consciousness,” that “human essence itself is regarded [by Hegel] only as an abstract thinking essence, as self-consciousness,” and that “Hegel supposes man to be the same as self-consciousness” (p. 311, p. 320, p. 321; emphases in original). How can Hegel possibly grasp the essence of labor if he reduces human beings to self-consciousness?

Labor is not only manual, but mental as well. Once this is recognized, the apparent self-contradiction disappears. Achieving self-consciousness involves mental labor, and self-consciousness is the product (result) of that mental labor.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel was preoccupied with the mental labor of philosophical cognition, and he limited (or tried to limit) the operation of the negation of the negation to the process of thinking. Thus, in his presentation, the products of labor are thoughts and concepts, and labor is “the self-productive act of man” (“Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” p. 320) in the sense that labor’s ultimate result (product) is self-consciousness. We come to know the world by means of our thoughts and concepts, and we come to know that they are our thoughts and concepts. And thus, we come to know ourselves; we achieve self-consciousness.

Marx basically argues in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” that Hegel’s understanding of the process is right, but that the process is operative in all forms of labor, not just philosophizing. When “labor” is understood more broadly, as the totality of the activity of “actual corporeal Man, standing on firm and well rounded earth” (p. 313), what it produces is not limited to thoughts and self-consciousness. Now, labor results in an “objective product [that] confirms its objective activity, its activity as an activity of an objective natural essence” (ibid.). Just as in the process of achieving self-consciousness, the objects that the subject produces “confirm” its activity; the object is external to the subject, and “other,” but it is the subject’s own other.


IV. Feuerbach and Marx on Hegel’s Dialectic of Negativity:
Agreements and Disagreements

A. Marx’s Attitude toward Feuerbach’s Critique

The “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” discusses both Feuerbach’s understanding and Marx’s own understanding of the Hegelian principle of the “negation of the negation” (p. 305 and passim), also called the “dialectic of negativity” (p. 309). References to “transcendence” in this text are generally also about the negation of the negation.

Early in the essay, Marx praises Feuerbach effusively. In addition to praising “[t]he greatness of his accomplishment” in general, Marx specifically lauds (1) Feuerbach’s view that philosophy is religion translated into thought, (2) the fact that Feuerbach makes human social relations the “basic principle of theory”; and (3) Feuerbach’s affirmation of the actual positive (which Feuerbach holds to be sense certainty) in opposition to the negation of the negation (p. 304).

Marx then proceeds to summarize and praise Feuerbach’s understanding of the negation of the negation as it appears in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In Feuerbach’s view, Marx says, Hegel “proceeds from the alienation of substance (logically: the infinite …) … his point of departure is Religion and Theology.” Hegel then transcends this starting point, putting the real, sensuous particular in its place (philosophy instead of religion and theology). He then transcends this transcendence (negates the negation), by replacing the particular with the infinite, i.e., by reintroducing religion and theology (pp. 304–5).

Feuerbach thus thought that, by means of the negation of the negation, Hegel had reaffirmed theology after having denied it (p. 305). Accordingly, Feuerbach considered the negation of the negation to be self-contradictory—and only self-contradictory (“only … the contradiction of philosophy with itself”) (ibid.) He attributed Hegel’s reaffirmation of theology to the inability of the negation of the negation to actually transcend its starting point, i.e., to lead to a positive result that stands on its own, independently of its starting point (at least, this is what Marx seems to mean by “in need to proof, … incapable of proving itself through its own existence”) (ibid.).

Against this, Feuerbach made sense certainty his own starting point (point of departure). He regarded sense certainty as the real and immediate positive, and as absolute, not in need of anything outside it. It “rests on itself and is positively grounded in itself”; it is “positive affirmation which is based on itself” (p. 304, p. 305; the quoted phrases are basically definitions of the term absolute).

Now, in the operation of the negation of the negation, the absolute is a result. It is the positive that emerges through the process of negation, not the initial positive with which the process starts. For Feuerbach, in contrast, the starting point, the immediate positive, is already absolute, so there is no need for a process of negation.

Thus far, Feuerbach and Marx are in agreement regarding Hegel’s dialectic. In addition, when speaking for himself rather than summarizing Feuerbach later in the essay, Marx clearly echoes Feuerbach’s characterization of the negation of the negation as it appears in Hegel’s Phenomenology, referring to it as the “positing, negating, and the restoring of religion or theology” (p. 317). (However, Marx also says at this point that the restoration-after-negation—which he calls Hegel’s “false positivism” and “the lie of his principle”—needs to be understood “more generally”; it is not just an issue of reaffirming the starting point in the particular case of theology.)

Yet the same essay also contains criticism of Feuerbach’s position and a (critical) endorsement and appropriation of the Hegelian dialectic of negativity, as we will see. Moreover, the about-face begins almost immediately, the moment Marx is done with his praise and summary of Feuerbach’s position. What are we to make of this apparent self-contradiction?

The only plausible explanation, I think,[6] is that the contradiction is merely apparent, not real, because there are two different Hegelian dialectics discussed in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic”—HD1, the Hegelian dialectic as presented and understood by Hegel, and HD2, the Hegelian dialectic itself. Feuerbach’s critique pertains to HD1. In general, Marx agreed with Feuerbach’s understanding and criticisms of HD1. But when Marx criticizes Feuerbach’s position, he argues that it does not get HD2 right (or even recognize its existence). And the Hegelian dialectic that Marx critically endorses and appropriates is HD2.

Marx himself alluded to this distinction in the essay. Near the start, he commented that “the form of this movement” (i.e., the process of negation of the negation) “is still uncritical in Hegel,” but that there is a “critical form” as well (p. 305). At a later point, referring to Hegel’s Phenomenology, he wrote that “all elements of criticism lie hidden in it and are often already prepared and worked out in a manner extending far beyond the Hegelian standpoint” (p. 309, emphases altered). Just as a work of art can “get away from” an artist, a work of philosophy can “get away from” a philosopher. Marx was arguing here that the negation of the negation “got away from” Hegel.

Thus, after completing his very approving summary of Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic, Marx immediately added this qualification:

But inasmuch as Hegel comprehends the negation of the negation … as the only truly positive, and … as the only true act, an act of self-manifestation of all being, to that extent he has discovered only the abstract, logical, and speculative expression for the movement of history. [p. 305]

The word “but” qualifies or negates what has preceded it. Here, it is the first word of the paragraph, so it qualifies or negates something said in previous paragraphs. The previous two paragraphs summarized Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel’s dialectic (HD1), according to which the negation of the negation is “only … the contradiction of philosophy with itself,” and Feuerbach’s position that sense certainty is the true positive. Thus, Marx is arguing, first, that the negation of the negation is not only something self-contradictory. That is what it is in Hegel’s hands (HD1), but the negation of the negation itself (HD2) is the actual “movement of history,” though expressed in an abstract, logical manner. And second, Marx argues here that the true positive is the negation of the negation, not sense certainty.

In connection with this last point, a comment on the essay’s reference to “positive Humanism, beginning from itself” (p. 320) is appropriate. The positive that begins from itself here is not the positive of Feuerbach, the immediate positive, based on sense certainty, that functions as the starting point. It is a negation of the negation, a result. Communism transcends private property, but positive Humanism arises only by means of the transcendence of communism—the transcendence of the transcendence (pp. 319–20).

After introducing HD2 in the paragraph in which he says that the negation of the negation is the “abstract, logical, and speculative expression for the movement of history,” Marx says very little about Feuerbach. The remainder of the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” instead attempts to disentangle what the negation of the negation is in Hegel’s hands from what the negation of the negation itself actually is, and from what it becomes when the subject of the dialectical movement is no longer disembodied thought but “actual corporeal Man” existing in and acting on the real world (p. 313).

Karl Marx

B. Marx’s View of the Hegelian Dialectic of Negativity Itself

Several pages into the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” Marx wrote,

The greatness of Hegel’s Phenomenology, and of its final result—the dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle—lies in this, that Hegel comprehends the self-production of man as a process, regards objectification as contra-position, as externalization, and as the transcendence of this externalization; that he, therefore, grasps the essence of labor and conceives objective man, true, actual man, as the result of his own labor. [p. 309 emphases in original]

This statement declares that the dialectic of negativity—that is, the negation of the negation—is great. Marx says that this dialectic is “the moving and creating principle,” which basically reiterates his previous comment that it is “abstract, logical, and speculative expression for the movement of history.” Now, however, he is more concrete about what this moving and creating principle is.

Marx argues that the principle pertains to “the self-production of man,” and that it comprehends this self-production as a process. The process is a negation of the negation—it is a process of objectification by means of externalization and then the transcendence of the externalization. The terminology here is quite abstract but, based on what Marx writes elsewhere, in this and other works, I think he is saying that human beings establish themselves as objective beings by producing. Their production of objects gives their subjectivity an external, objective form, in the sense that the objects that result from production are the realization of the producers’ aims, plans, and so forth. (In the Phenomenology, the producer is the thinker, the productive activity is thinking, especially philosophizing, and the produced objects are concepts, philosophical theories, etc. Marx extends this to producers, production, and the results of production in general.)

This externalization is then itself transcended. That is the second negation here, the negation of the negation. What the transcendence of externalization means depends on whether we are referring to Hegel’s meaning or Marx’s meaning, as I will discuss below. For Hegel, as least Hegel as Marx interpreted him, it means the transcendence of objectivity; for Marx, it means the transcendence of alienation.

In any case, Marx then comments that Hegel’s articulation of this process, by means of the principle of the negation of the negation, “grasps the essence of labor” and conceives of “objective man” as having become objective as “the result of his own labor.” As I noted above, this statement affirms the active role of human beings in creating both themselves and “nature.” Yet the statement has further significance as well. It is the point at which Marx extends the range of applicability of the principle of the negation of the negation, from the mental labor that Hegel had in mind to labor in general. Marx is not arguing that Hegel grasped labor in general; he focused narrowly on one kind of labor. Yet since, in Marx’s view, the process that Hegel conceptualized pertains to labor generally, not just the self-development of philosophical thought, Hegel did grasp the essence of labor—that is, this process of negation of negation.

Various other passages in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” restate or elaborate on the points above.

In addition, the text contains a discussion in which Marx attempts to “grasp the positive moments of the Hegelian dialectic” (p. 319, emphasis added)—those aspects of it that he critically endorses and seeks to appropriate. Since the statement I have just analyzed is certainly about a positive moment of the Hegelian dialectic, or several such moments, what Marx presumably hoped to do at this later point was to gather the various positive moments together and possibly to treat them more systematically and/or discuss them more fully.

The first positive moment Marx singled out was “[t]rancendence … as objective movement” (p. 319, emphasis in original). He says that this is the insight, expressed in an alienated way, that objective essence is appropriated by transcending alienation—human beings appropriate their objective essence “through the destruction of the alienated determination of the objective world” (ibid., emphasis in original). By calling this movement “objective,” Marx is alluding to the disagreement between Kant and Hegel regarding the objectivity of human knowledge of reality. Yet Marx goes on immediately to describe positive humanism as the transcendence of communism. This indicates that he regards the negation of the negation as a process that is operative generally, not only with respect to knowledge. Thus the meaning of the statement that transcendence is objective movement seems to be that it takes place in the real world; it is not only transcendence in thought. (I will comment further on this passage in the next section.)

After this, Marx seems to single out just one additional positive moment of the Hegelian dialectic. But at this point, the text becomes rather obscure, at least to me. Instead of succinctly identifying a second positive moment, Marx goes into a rather lengthy discussion. The positive moment embedded in that discussion seems to be that the Hegelian dialectic is “a formal and abstract conception of the human act of self-production[,] or the act of self-objectification of man” (p. 321, emphases in original). “Self-objectification” apparently means that a subject makes itself objective by treating itself as an object and acting on that object (i.e., itself), transforming it in accordance with the subject’s purposes.

The two positive moments (if indeed two are singled out) can be understood as aspects of the “self-production of man as a process” that Marx had praised earlier in the essay. The point about transcendence pertains to the positive result of that self-production, while the point about self-objectification seems to be about the internal differentiation of the self (self as subject and self as object) that leads to this result.


V. Marx vs. Hegel on the Transcendence of Alienation

Much of the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic” is about alienation, externalization, and objectification, and the transcendence of (one or more of) them. Marx sharply criticizes Hegel’s treatment of these matters and articulates his own, very different position. What is at issue in these discussions is whether the transformation of existing reality is a matter of thinking differently about it or whether dialectical thought needs to ground itself in the possibility, and the necessity, of changing the real world. As Marx famously wrote in the following year, in his final thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” (emphases in original).

According to Marx, Hegel regarded anything external to pure thought as alienation. “It is precisely abstract thinking from which these objects”—”Wealth, State, Power, etc.”—“are alienated and to which they stand opposed with their pretension of reality” (“Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” p. 307). Marx’s own view, however, was that “the essence of alienation, which is posed and to be transcended, is … the fact that human essence materializes itself in an inhuman manner in opposition to itself,” not “the fact that it materializes itself from, and in opposition to abstract thinking” (p. 308, emphases in original).

Marx also argued that, because Hegel fused together what is alienated with what is external, in his work “the reappropriation of the objective essence of man … serves not only to transcend alienation, but also to transcend objectivity” (pp. 310–11, emphases in original). He comments that the whole idea of transcending objectivity implies that “man is … an un-objective, spiritual essence” (p. 311, emphasis in original; cf. pp. 315–6). Marx totally opposes the idea of transcending objectivity, writing that “Man is directly a natural being,” “[a] being which has no object outside of itself is not an objective being,” “[a] non-objective being is a monstrous being,” and so forth (p. 313, p. 314, emphases added).

Marx interprets Hegel as having argued that “consciousness” transcends objectivity as such by “withdraw[ing it] into itself” (p. 316). This seems to mean that consciousness makes objectivity its own, and comes to be “at home” with it.  Marx seems to regard this as Hegel’s greatest error. The external world as such cannot actually be transcended, so a “consciousness” that maintains otherwise is only pretending. It is actually “adapting” itself to the existing external world, restoring the “reality” (as distinct from the mere existence) of the existing world and reconciling itself with it. Marx argues that this pretend transcendence of objectivity is the source of “Hegel’s adaptation to religion, the state, etc.” His “lie is the lie of his principle” (p. 317). In other words, Hegel did not reconcile himself with existing state power because of any subjective character defect. He did so because the “lie” that his philosophy transcends existing state power—even as the latter remains in existence, unaffected—is a feature of his philosophy itself. It is what the principle that consciousness withdraws objectivity into itself implies.

Although Marx does not say so explicitly, his own standpoint is radically different, because alienation, as distinct from objectivity—“the fact that human essence materializes itself in an inhuman manner in opposition to itself”—can indeed be transcended. There is thus no longer a need to reconcile with existing reality.

Shortly thereafter, however, Marx says that “[t]ranscendence, as objective movement, withdrawing externalization into itself” (p. 319, emphases in original) is a positive moment of the Hegelian dialectic. But it is exactly what he had criticized, just a couple of pages earlier, as an illusion and as the source of Hegel’s adaptation to existing reality! Yet Marx is not criticizing and praising one and the same thing. What he is praising is what “withdrawing externalization into itself” becomes in a radically different interpretation that he now provides: “[t]his is the … alienated insight into the actual objectification of man, into the actual appropriation of his objective essence through the destruction of the alienated determination of the objective world, through its transcendence [of] its alienated existence” (p. 319, emphasis in original).

The difference has to do with objectivity versus alienation. Consciousness cannot withdraw externalization into itself in the sense of transcending objective reality as such. But “actual corporeal Man” (p. 313) can indeed withdraw externalization into himself in the sense of destroying the alienated and inhuman form of objective reality that currently exists and turning the world into a human one. Apropos of this, Dunayevskaya asked (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 31), “Is it just ontological idealism’s ‘delusion’ (to use an expression of Marx[’s]) that thinks it can ‘absorb’ the objective world into itself, or is it the ideal toward which man aims, and can it be both?”


Raya Dunayevskaya


VI. Conclusion

In many respects, the philosophies of Feuerbach and Hegel are diametrically opposed. Yet there is an important way in which “the lie of [Hegel’s] principle” is similar to Feuerbach’s method of inversion. For Hegel, the State and other institutions are “really” not things outside us, but extensions of us, external expressions of what we are. Similarly, for Feuerbach, the religious world is “really” the external projection of the human world. But saying that the inhuman is “really” the human doesn’t make it so. The inhuman does not become something other than what it is. The world remains as it was. You can’t change things just by thinking about them differently. Yet Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s philosophies provide no more than that; the ways in which they think differently about the status quo do not challenge its existence. Thus, both philosophies reconcile themselves to the status quo.

In other words (Marx’s words), Hegel and Feuerbach “only interpreted the world,” while “the point is to change it.” Their philosophies do not provide an adequate philosophical basis for changing it. This is the foremost reason why, despite his appreciation of both Hegel and Feuerbach, Marx did not side uncritically with either of them, but put forward a new philosophy of human activity that can indeed assist in the actual transformation of existing reality.

You can’t change things just by thinking about them differently, but this does not mean that they can be changed without thinking differently about them, by means of mindless activism, political wheeling and dealing, and the like. Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach is not a rejection of philosophy or of interpretation. It is a rejection of philosophies that only interpret, but do not help to change the real world. Marx hewed out a different kind of philosophy, oriented specifically to real-world social transformation.


[1] Here and below, I quote from Raya Dunayevskaya’s translation of the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic,” published in an appendix to the out-of-print first edition of her 1958 book, Marxism and Freedom. Several other translations of it are readily available, online and in print. I use Dunayevskaya’s translation because I am most familiar with it, not because I think different translations affect the meaning of the text substantially.

[2] Prior to the publication of that article, Gregor and Dunayevskaya debated Marx’s relation to Hegel and to Feuerbach in private correspondence. The supplement to her archives includes his June 7, 1963 letter, her June 25, 1963 reply, and her Jan. 19, 1964 letter.

[3] Differences between materialists and idealists regarding the relation between being and thought, and the relation between sense perception and thought, have frequently been characterized as different views about the “primacy” of one or the other pole. I will use that term here, even though it is quite ambiguous—there are several, very different, senses in which something can be “primary” (most important, temporally prior, not logically or materially dependent on something else, etc.), as well as different contexts in which it is or isn’t “primary.” Thus, although I will argue that thought, “sensuous reality,” and human activity were primary to Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx, respectively, I am not saying that what was accorded primacy was primary in the same sense or in the same context. I do not think it was. In my view, Marx’s outlook was incommensurable in significant ways from Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s; the issues he addressed and the questions he answered are often different from theirs. Thus, even though Marx provides different answers to questions about primacy, his answers do not necessarily contradict theirs, because he is answering somewhat different questions. As his final thesis on Feuerbach suggests, Marx mostly disregarded many questions that preoccupy philosophies, like Hegel’s and Feuerbach’s, that are oriented toward “interpreting” the world, because he regarded changing the world as “the point” and human activity as the primary (most important) factor that changes it. This differs from accepting sensuous reality or thought as primary in general but carving out an exception—i.e.,  declaring that human activity is primary in some limited aspect of reality. It is a dismissal of the debate between the other positions as somewhat “off-point.” Does this mean that human activity is primary (most important) merely from Marx’s particular perspective or relative to his particular interests? I suspect that he would have responded that it is primary because changing ourselves and the world is the quintessentially human endeavor.

[4] Near the start of chapter 7 of Capital, vol. 1, Marx wrote that “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to [i.e., determines] his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will.”

[5] I omit “sense certainty” here because, although Kılınç seems to use this term as a synonym for nature or sensuous reality, both Hegel and Feuerbach were referring to something different—the conviction that the senses provide knowledge of particular objects, without the need for concepts—and Marx took no position on that matter, as far as I am aware. His praise of idealism, in the first thesis on Feuerbach, for having developed the “active side” in opposition to materialism, might seem to suggest that Marx rejected sense certainty, since the controversy surrounding it is precisely about whether the senses by themselves provide knowledge of particular objects or whether the activity of the human mind (concept formation, etc.) is also needed for such knowledge. However, Marx then immediately dismissed, as abstract, the manner in which idealism developed the “active side.” I thus think it is safest to say that he did not take a position on sense certainty because he had little or no interest in the question.

[6] I do not regard “Marx simply contradicted himself” or “he abruptly changed his mind” as plausible explanations.



  1. The following comment is best understood as my “reading notes” to Andrew’s article. It does not address every aspect of Andrew’s argument and does not address at all the arguments of the theorists Andrew mentioned. Instead, it demonstrates my process of realizing I was mistaken about what distinguishes Hegel and Marx’s conception of alienation until I read this article. It concludes by stating what I now think of Marx’s conception of alienation, and, thus, revolutionary activity.

    Before jumping into my notes, I want to say that I think this type of first-hand interpretation of Marx is of the utmost importance for theoretical elaboration in reviving the Marxist tradition. I don’t think it is ever easy to understand Marx’s writing, especially when he is writing to himself about other particularly challenging philosophers. This article makes Marx’s discussion in the CHD very clear. Challenging still, yes, but clear. If the workers are ever to “inherit” the Hegelian dialectic, as Marx hoped, articles like this must proliferate!

    1. After reading the entire text, it is clear from the introduction that there are two Hegelian dialectics. There is the Hegelian dialectic as Hegel conceived of it. This is the dialectic that Feuerbach criticizes. Marx agrees with this criticism. Then there is the Hegelian dialectic, freed from Hegel’s own conception. Marx says this is what Feuerbach does not understand. And it is this Hegelian dialectic that Marx elaborates on.
    There are then multiple movements in Marx’s “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic.”

    1. Marx’s appreciation of Feuerbach’s criticism of the Hegelian dialectic as Hegel conceives of it.
    2. Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach’s materialism through his appreciation of Hegel’s dialectic of negativity.
    3. Marx’s criticism of Hegel’s understanding of transcendence and alienation.

    In my reading of the source material and Andrew’s article, it is the dialectic of negativity that Marx “flips right side up” by making living human beings, rather than abstract thought, the Subject of the dialectic (Feuerbach does this, but in doing so eliminates the “active side,” the dialectic of negativity). The consequence is that Marx reveals that externalizations (social forms, institutions, etc.) do not necessarily have to be alienated. In Marx’s view, developing human social relations, forms, and institutions is possible—by destroying the alienated ones and building new ones on humanist grounds. Therefore, we need not accommodate ourselves to “forms of estrangement” like the State, Capital, etc.

    2. Marx’s understanding of the power of dialectical philosophy is “recognizing the existing state of things,” including its opposite. This means that the negation of the existing state of things exists inside that state of things. Negativity is internal to the objective world, society, history, etc.

    Marx’s example is that the secular world “lifts off from itself.” Why did it do this, or put another way, what about the secular world compelled its own self-duplication? Without understanding this, all we have done is say, “this is actually this.” Nothing in the objective world changes. Nothing changes theoretically, either. The reason the self-duplication is still obscure.

    3. The sentence struck me, “the materialist conception of history includes within it a historical conception of the material as well as a human activity-centered conception of history.” It is common to refer to Marx’s philosophical innovation as “historical materialism,” but this is only one aspect that Andrew identifies above.
    The other aspect could be called “humanist historicism.” These two aspects cannot be separated from each other. The object, or material reality, is produced and mediated through human history, while human history is mediated by its own production, material reality. Material reality and history are human productions, while humanity is produced by material reality and history. Man is self-producing as an expression of nature and a product of history. Nature, in the form of man and as a product of history, is self-producing, etc.
    Not only is this an expression of the dialectic of negativity, the process of self-development, but it also resembles the tripartite syllogisms at the end of the Science of Logic: universal, particular, and individual.

    4. Self-consciousness is the product of mental labour. The significance of this is that self-consciousness is not synonymous with thoughts. It is the product of thoughts. You can have thoughts without being self-conscious. That is, you could perceive the external world and “mould” that information in your mind without knowing that you are an objective being doing so. Potentially, very young children are an example of this. This is consciousness, not yet self-consciousness.

    But I think self-consciousness is not just the product of mental labour or thinking. It is also the product of manual labour. For example, when a human makes something, they “see themselves in their product.” Say I made a chair, and I am proud of it. That pride is an expression of knowing myself in that chair. By making the chair then, I realized my objectivity: objective in the sense that my human energies are part of the chair, but also in the sense that those powers were able to mould the objective world. This process of moulding the world gives consciousness its objective character. Self-consciousness is not mere thought but the experience of recognizing one’s objectivity. This experience comes from thinking and doing. As much is said in the article.

    5. This article helped me understand the difference between Hegel’s and Marx’s conception of alienation and transcendence. Andrew writes, “For Hegel, as Marx interpreted him, [transcendence] means transcendence of objectivity; for Marx, it means the transcendence of alienation.” Before reading this article, I thought that Marx’s whole problem with Hegel was that transcendence only took place in thought, thus leaving the world intact. The transcendence in thought was nothing other than accommodation to reality. For example, once we know the State is man-made, we see it is not alien, it is an expression of humanity. I didn’t understand why Marx could say certain externalities were alien and others were not.

    I was missing a crucial aspect: Marx’s problem with Hegel conflating alienation with externalization, objectivity. Because Hegel’s dialectic concerns the self-development of abstract thought and not living human beings, it makes sense that he saw everything that was not abstract thought as alien. But if the dialectic of negativity concerns the self-development of living human beings, what is alienated is what is opposed to the self-development of humans. Man-made externalities (social relations, forms, institutions) become alienated only when they hinder the self-development of humanity.

    I agree with Andrew that you cannot overcome alienation just by thinking about things differently. To overcome alienation, we must destroy all externalities that oppose human self-development and create new externalities that propel human self-development. This can only be done by comprehending the conditions (economics) and process of the self-development of humanity (history), envisioning what forms of social relations, forms, and institutions would serve the goal of humanity’s self-development (philosophy), and working together to build those relations, forms, institutions (social cooperation).

    Given this interpretation, I think I am safe to say that Marx’s conception of revolutionary activity (activity that strives to overcome alienation) is a conception of the practical activity of the masses that has, embodied within it, man’s self-comprehension of his objective situation, historical development, and a philosophical vision of a new world. The significance is that revolutionary activity NEEDS a philosophy of liberation based on human activity. Practice NEEDS theory.

  2. It took me quite a while to digest the article, I was ok up until section V where I get lost.

    1) Transcending the objective world — the meaning of “transcendence”.
    The external world as such cannot actually be transcended, so a “consciousness” that maintains otherwise is only pretending. It is actually “adapting” itself to the existing external world, restoring the “reality” (as distinct from the mere existence) of the existing world and reconciling itself with it.
    Is this Marx’s critique of Hegel? And what does “transcendence” mean? If it is Marx’s critique, then “transcendence” cannot mean changing the objective world as it is now, right? I always thought his philosophy is about changing the objective world.

    But then we have this:
    Marx’s own view, however, was that “the essence of alienation, which is posed and to be transcended, is … the fact that human essence materializes itself in an inhuman manner in opposition to itself,” not “the fact that it materializes itself from, and in opposition to abstract thinking” (p. 308, emphases in original).
    Is the essence of alienation to part of the objective world, so that alienation can be transcended? Again, I am confused about the meaning of “transcendence”.

    2) The following is almost indecipherable by itself and needed some elaboration.
    Marx argues that this pretend transcendence of objectivity is the source of “Hegel’s adaptation to religion, the state, etc.” His “lie is the lie of his principle” (p. 317). In other words, Hegel did not reconcile himself with existing state power because of any subjective character defect. He did so because the “lie” that his philosophy transcends existing state power—even as the latter remains in existence, unaffected—is a feature of his philosophy itself. It is what the principle that consciousness withdraws objectivity into itself implies.

    • On point 1: yes, this is my summary/interpretation of what Marx writes on pp. 316-17. “Transcendence” is a translation of “Aufhebung.” It’s the outcome of the process of negation of the negation. The relation of the initial positive and the immediate (first) negative is negated, but not merely abolished. The content that was present in that relation is preserved, but on a new basis, one that overcomes the opposition between the initial positive and the immediate negative.

      Yes, Marx wanted to change the objective world. But he didn’t think that the *external world as such*–everything that’s outside of pure thought–could be transcended. He interpreted Hegel as having maintained that thought can and does transcend the external world as such.

      On Marx’s interpretation of Hegel, everything that’s outside of pure thought is alien to it, and the task was for philosophy to overcome (transcend) this situation, by withdrawing (absorbing) the external world into itself, making the external world its own. Marx totally opposes this in the “Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic.” He argues that (a) human beings are natural beings, not just thought, and so the existence of a world external to thought is not, *as such*, alien to human beings. (b) What may be alien to us (and is, now) is the *particular form* of the relation between external reality and human beings: “human essence materializes itself in an inhuman manner in opposition to itself” (external reality is the “materialization” of human being (or essence) here).

      On point 2: Recall that, on Marx’s interpretation of Hegel, everything that’s outside of pure thought is alien to it, and the task was for philosophy to overcome (transcend) this situation, by withdrawing (absorbing) the external world into itself, making the external world its own. How does it do so? By thinking about the external world differently, recognizing that it is our creation (i.e., something human cognition co-constructs–see my section III(A)), and recognizing ourselves in it, i.e., understanding it to be an extension and expression of what we are. As I put it in my Conclusion, “For Hegel, the State and other institutions are ‘really’ not things outside us, but extensions of us, external expressions of what we are.”

      But, Marx charges, this “transcendence” of the external world is just pretend transcendence. It doesn’t change anything about the external world. It just makes peace with it, accepts it, reconciles itself to it. As I put it in my Conclusion, “saying that the inhuman is ‘really’ the human doesn’t make it so. The inhuman does not become something other than what it is. The world remains as it was. You can’t change things just by thinking about them differently.”

      Since, in Marx’s view, the kind of “transcendence” that Hegel articulated (or he interpreted Hegel as having articulated) is not real transcendence, but pretend transcendence, it is a “lie” to refer to it as transcendence. It is actually acceptance of external reality as it is and reconciling oneself to it.

      But, Marx argues (against the Young Hegelians), Hegel wasn’t lying because of a character defect–e.g. because he was afraid of the power of the regime or because he wanted a comfortable academic post and easy life. He was lying because his “principle”–that disembodied thought transcends external reality by thinking about it differently–IS that lie. This is a “principle” because it’s bound up with Hegel’s overall philosophy and it’s something that results from that overall philosophy. It’s not just a random statement he happened to make, and it’s not something at variance with his philosophy that he put forward to make his life easier.

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