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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–14, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author welcomes e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 23 December, 2016 , © Lee Harvey 2004–14


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Marx (1843) The Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right

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Marx's critique of Hegel's (1820) Philosophy of Right is arguably the centrepiece of Marx's early assessment of Hegelian idealism. It is not simply a philosophical engagement but is one grounded in actual social relationships. Marx saw Hegel as providing a philosophical legitimation for the oppressive system of the Prussian State and his engagement with Hegel was as much a critique of prevailing social conditions as it was a philosophical counter-treatise.


The Critique consists of two parts that were (and usually still are) published separately. The first part is the critique itself, which was produced in the summer of 1843. This is directed at paragraphs 261–313 of Hegel's work. The second part is an introduction to the Critique , which was published in the German-Franco Yearbook of 1844. The Critique , and its ‘Introduction’, is important for its criticism of Hegel's idealist dialectic and it establishes the basis for the materialist methodology Marx uses in his empirical studies in the 1850's, 1860's and 1870's.

Hegel's philosophy

Unity and unification

Hegel's philosophical writings are dominated by an overarching concern with unity and unification. This is evident in his attempt at establishing the reconciliation of subjective reason and objective fact ,which had been denied by Kant. The concern with unity also structured his political writing and Hegel attempted to translate this reconciliation into the real world through the unification of the universal and particular in the form of the state and civil society. He projected the harmonious reconciliation of the individual to society. This was to be an unashamedly idealist reconciliation. For Hegel, this unification was to be attained in the realisation of the absolute as the inevitable outcome of the unfolding of the 'Idea'.

The Absolute and the Idea

The Absolute or Absolute Mind was, for Hegel, the ultimate mind. In effect it is the mind of god, belonging as it does to a transcendental spirit. Hegel takes the position that all that exists is the product of one mind, the Absolute Mind (or Absolute).

For Hegel, history is nothing but the working through of the processes of the Absolute. Any point in history is but a moment in the development of the Absolute, it is manifestation of the 'Idea' which is the project of the Absolute Mind

Hegel's dialectic

Hegel, the dialectical process was the unification of opposites in the complex relation of parts to the whole. Dialectical analysis was linked, for Hegel, to the notion of the Absolute. Dialectical thought would reveal a higher and unified truth through the resolution of opposites.

Rights and power


One of the critical questions of political philosophy concerns the problem of the relationship and reconciliation of rights to power.

Rousseau's view

Hegel was inspired by Rouseau's treatment of this issue and in particular Rousseau's notion of the 'General Will'. The 'General Will' is the transformation of a rather loose notion of the aggregate 'Will of All' from a fragmented association of individual contractual relationships into a greater overarching social imperative of 'absolute right'. The 'General Will' is thus more than the sum of the component parts of the 'Will of All'. For Rousseau, this absolute right finds its objective expression passively in the state and actively in the sovereign. Thus the state is not simply a coercive apparatus nor the monarch an autocratic will, but together they constitute the soul of the social formation. It is this notion that lies at the heart of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

Hegel's view

Hegel, however, makes an important departure from Rouseau and earlier social contract theorists for whom absolute individual autonomy, or unfettered freedom, constituted the foundation for each social contract and thus society. For Hegel the development of the state and the development of the self were symbiotic expressions of a single process of dialectical development. Hegel denies the fundamental assumption of contractarian theorists that in a 'state of nature' the human being possesses an autonomy or freedom upon which a society of contracts, freely entered into, may be based.

For Hegel autonomy is not given in a state of nature as the primitive will does not possess the self-consciousness which can express it. Freedom is acquired through a long historical process culminating in the recognition of the 'self' as a social being and of the establishment of moral law by which the individual is constrained to accept the selfhood of others. Thus by the time the individuals acquire their freedom society already exits as the expression of that freedom. Society cannot, therefore, have been established on the basis of contract because the autonomy essential to it could not have exited. This view represents a profound departure. Hegel proposed that the philosophy of state is inseparable from the philosophy of mind. Consequently, the individual is inseparable from the particular society, which is the source of autonomous being.

The consequences of this for Hegel’s understanding of the state are far-reaching. The social formation is not the product of autonomous contract. On the contrary, the basis of obligation inheres in the substance of social life itself, beginning at birth with the family and household obligation, which are not self imposed obligations. Legitimacy rests, therefore, not with the individual but beyond the individual and thus transcends individual contract. Having established this Hegel has prepared the ground for his exposition of the view of the state as an entity, the authority of which transcends anything which might have been conferred on it by Locke's tacit consent. The upshot of this is that any notion of 'natural right' (grounded in individual autonomy) is dismantled as the individual has no rights that transcend his/her obligation to the state, which determined that autonomy in the first place.

Freedom and the state

On the face of it, this appears as a philosophical justification for absolute tyranny, and indeed the attack on Hegel by the young Hegelians reflected this view. However, for Hegel, the whole philosophical edifice rested on his formulation of the nature of human freedom. For him, freedom is only attained in the journey of self-discovery and defined by the institutions that mark its course. He begins with family and private household obligations that are non-contractual. Contractual relationships arise as the result of the contexualisation of the family by the fabric of civil society into which it is woven. Civil society, however, is fragile as its contractual basis is always vulnerable to the tyranny of individual will which has not yet grasped the truth of the social object: an understanding which may only be attained in the realisation of the limits of individual action. It is the state that performs the function of protecting civil society and thus the very identity of the individual whose autonomy derives from the realisation of the self in the institution, which place limits on rights. Thus the state is the embodiment of freedom at its highest level and not the instrument of tyranny.

In short, for Hegel, human autonomy is predicted by the recognition of the selfhood of others and of the constraints on social action. This autonomy finds its highest expression in the existing state. Contradictions and dissonance in a given state are to be reconciled in the dialectical process. For Hegel the contemporary Prussian state represented in objective fact the philosophical expression of the 'absolute'. For Hegel, in the contempo
rary Prussian State the juridicial, political, and social institutions represent the ultimate expression of the unfolding "Idea" and therefore, given his philosophy of mind and state, the objectification of human consciousness. Hegel perceived in the Prussian state a harmony that sprang from the social morality present in the successive groups of the family, civil society, and the state. Individual rights and universal reason were consequently united in the state, which was the highest form of social organisation.

Marx's critique


Marx, unlike other radical young Hegelian critics (such as Ruge) does not simply develop a political critique of Hegel's thesis. His analysis is not directed at the reconciliation of rights and power per se but involves a more fundamental analysis of freedom grounded in the realities of the Prussian State. In order to do this Marx initiates an alternative conceptual framework which weds epistemological and social concerns. Marx's critique, then, does not take the form of a political attack on Hegel but fastens onto the internal logic of Hegel's philosophy.

History, humanity and the Idea

Marx (at this time) broadly accepted Hegel's concept of the dialectical process as a way of thinking. However, it was the application of it that Marx fundamentally objected to in his critique. Marx is clear that the contemporary Prussian State is not the harmonious formation of Hegel's imagination. For Marx the central logical misconception at the heart of Hegel's system is the notion that the dialectical process, and thus history, is the expression of some metaphysical Idea. Marx claimed to have turned Hegel the right way up in extracting the 'rational kernel from Hegel's system' by attempting to show that the driving force behind history is the humanity itself rather than some metaphysical Idea. The dialectical process is thus one of the resolving the historical tensions and contradictions that have distorted the true harmony of human existence and resulted in constituting humans as alienated beings. For Marx, these contractions were obvious in the existing social formation and he took upon himself the task of demonstrating this unity.

The methodology

The Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right was published in two parts in 1843 and 1844 and its specific aims are twofold. First, it aims to provide a critique of Hegel's treatment of constitutional monarchy. Second, it questions the logical foundation of Hegel's philosophy.

The method that Marx employs in this enterprise is critique, an approach which was much in vogue amongst the radical Hegelian's (McLellean 1976). This involves the reflecting on, and working over, the ideas of others. Thus, Marx proceeds by copying out a paragraph from Hegel's Philosophy of Right and then adding a critical paragraph of his own.

Marx deals in turn with the components of the empirical (Prussian) state and shows that Hegel's supposed harmony achieved in each case is false.

In this way Marx embarks upon a critical refutation of Hegel's attempt at bridging a unity between the state and civil society: the unification of the universal and the particular. In the first pages Marx establishes his argument by commenting upon paragraph 261 as follows:

'Thus Hegel presents us with an unresolved antinomy. On the one hand external necessity, on the other immanent end. The unity of the universal end and aim of the state and the particular interests of individuals lies in the supposed identity of their duties towards the state and their rights as members of it' (Cited in Colletti, 1974, p. 60)

Marx then quotes paragraph 261 in full which reads as follows:

'The real Idea is mind, which, in sundering itself into the two ideal spheres of its concept, family and civil society, enters upon its finite phase, but does so only in order to rise above its ideality and become explicit as infinite real mind. It is therefore to these ideal spheres that the real Idea assigns the material of this its finite reality, viz human beings as a mass, in such a way that the function assigned to any given individual is visibly mediated by circumstances, his caprice and his personal choice of his station in life'. (cited in Colletti, 1974, p. 61)

The analysis of this paragraph is crucial to any understanding of Marx's work. It reads as follows:

'The real relationship is 'that the assignment of the material of the state to any given individual is mediated by circumstances, his caprice and his personal choice of his station in life' This fact, this real relationship is described by speculative philosophy as appearance, as phenomenon. These circumstances, this caprice and this personal choice of a station in life, this real mediation, are merely the appearance of a mediation which the real Idea performs on itself and which takes place behind the scenes. Reality is not deemed to be itself but another reality instead. The ordinary empirical world is not governed by its own mind but by a mind alien to it; by contrast the existence corresponding to the real Idea is not a reality generated out of itself, but is just the ordinary empirical world. The Idea is subjectivised and the real relationship of the family and civil society to the state is conceived as their inner, imaginary activity. The family and civil society are the preconditions of the state; they are the true agents; but in speculative philosophy it is the reverse. When the Idea is subjectivised the real subjects - civil society, the family, 'circumstances, caprice, etc' - are all transformed into unreal, objective moments of the Idea referring to different things.' (cited in Colletti, 1974, p. 62)

This critique of Hegel's idealist philosophy where the rational is real frames all of Marx's work Marx employs the method of critique in order to reveal the internal misconception of Hegel's logic which has resulted in the elevation of the Prussian State to the pinnacle of rational human existence. In particular he attempts to demonstrate that Hegel's idealism leads to a mystification of the historical process by assigning to abstraction qualities that should properly be assigned to human beings.

The critique of constitutional monarchy

Marx argues that, according to Hegel, the people are constituted as an appendage to the political constitution. Marx contrasts constitutional monarchy with democracy in which, he maintains, the constitution is the self-expression of the people. The examination of the monarchy is followed by a consideration of executive power. Hegel conceives of the state as an interactive formation with bureaucracy representing public interests and state unity while being prevented from being arbitrary by pressure from the monarch above and the corporations, which represented individual, private interest, below. Such mediation, Marx argues, simply represents an attempt to mask historically determined oppositions. Marx finally considers legislative power. He focuses on the Prussian Estates which, according to Hegel, acts as a buffer between government on the one hand and the people on the other, and thus represents a synthesis of the state and civil society. Marx argues that Hegel's assertions presuppose a separation of the state and civil society which gives rise to the fundamental contradiction of the separation of the political citizen from civil society, of a person from his/her own empirical existence. This is the separation of the individual in terms of what the individual is and what the individual does

The critique of Hegel's logic

Marx proceeds to demonstrate that Hegel reverses the correct relation of subjects and predicates. That is, just as Feuerbach had argued that religious beliefs were projections of human inner needs as opposed to expressions of divine inspiration, Marx argues that Hegel fails to escape theological mystification by advancing a philosophy that both begins and ends with the infinite thus constituting human beings (the finite) as just one moment in the unfolding of a universal spirit: human rationality is a particular instance in the expression of the unfolding of absolute rationality thus human beings, who are essentially rational are predicates of the absolute.

Through an examination of the actual political institutions Marx aims to show that Hegel's conception of the relationship of ideas to reality, which constitutes reality as the unfolding of the idea, is fundamentally mistaken. For Marx, thought arises from beings, and not beings from thought. At the same time, in undermining Hegel's treatment of the empirical (Prussian) states, Marx is also able to engage the Prussian state in a revolutionary polemic. Marx directs his criticism towards Hegel's belief in the identity of being and thought: that is the empirical as the expression of unfolding rationality, which follows from Hegel's assertion of the primacy of the 'Idea' of which empirical forms are phenomenal manifestations. From Hegel's work the Prussian state emerges not as a historical form but as a reflection of the 'Idea' or the divine spirit: a reflection of god's self-realisation in the world.

Hegel treats existing institutions as predicates of the abstract 'Idea'. As a consequence of this Marx accuses Hegel of both an uncritical idealism: as he denies the empirical and locates true reality in the 'Idea': and also of an uncritical positivism as Hegel must nevertheless return to the empirical world in an uncritical and unargued way in order to substantiate his assertions. Hegel's arguement is circular as verification of his assertions about the nature of the state are, at the same time, derived from the state. Thus, for instance, the monarch appears not as an empirical (historical) person, but as unfolding rationality (the empirical expression of the absolute) personified, by virtue only of the fact that he is the monarch. This leads Hegel into a confusion of the subjective with the objective.

As Marx points out, as Hegel's self appointed task is to reveal the expression of the 'Idea' rather than 'to discover the truth of empirical existence of truth, it is very easy to fasten on what lies nearest to hand and prove that it is an ‘actual’ moment of the idea' (Marx, 1843, p. 98).

Hegel transforms thought into an independent subject labelled the "Idea" and constitutes the empirical world, the true subject, as a phenomenal manifestation, as a predicate of Hegel's 'entified predicate'. (Colletti, 1974, p. 22). This has the effect of depriving a thing of its own independent nature by transforming this nature into an emanation of an imaginary entity. It is in his refutation of this 'mysticism' that Marx undertakes his inversion of Hegel, by showing that Hegel succeeds only in mystifying the historical process which, in Marx's view must be understood as the development of humanity itself through the evolution of essential human rationality, and formulates his alternative materialist underpinning of the dialectic.

Materialism and idealism in the

While it is clear that the foundation for Marx's materialist conception of history is laid in the Critique, the realtionship of materialism to idealism is still a complex one. Marx developed a forceful critique of Hegel's epistemology but he was not able completely to escape the idealist mesh (Colletti, 1974). Barblet [reference lost], for example, argues that an epistemological position can be discerned in Marx's analysis of 'true democracy'.

In his discussion of the state Marx makes the important distinction between 'existence' and 'reality', which corresponds, in this instance, to that between 'formal' and 'real' democracy. The distinction is between the political state (a merely legal existence in which humans are seperated from their true essence) and true democracy a fully human existence. Hegel sanctions this estrangement in his assertion of the rationality (the unity of the particular and the universal) of the existing (political) state. Marx is in agreement that the state is a rational organism but for him the existing (political) state is not an expression of this. For Marx, the rationality of the state is measured by the degree to which it approximates 'true democracy': the self-conscious will of the people and expression of essential sociality. It is through this concept that Marx attempts to succeed where Hegel failed.

Incipient idealism is evident in Marx's characterisation of democracy. '..democracy is the essence of all political constitutions, socialised man as a particular political constitution; it is related to all other forms of constitution as a genus to its various species, only here the genus itself comes into existence and hence manifests itself as a particular species in relation to the other species whose existence does not correspond to the generic essence. Democracy relates all other forms of state as its Old Testament. In democracy, man does not exist for the sake of law, but law exists for the sake of man, it is human existence, whereas in other political systems man is a legal existence. This is the fundamental distinguishing feature of democracy. Every other political formation is a definite, determinate particular form of state. In democracy the formal principle is identical with the substantive principle. For this reason it is the first true unity of the particular and the universal.' (Marx, 1843, p. 88)

The democratic element is thus the rational and the real element of the state and so a state may have existence without being real and existing democracy may be less than true. Existence is always empirical but not rational. The political state is an expression of formal but not true democracy. Hegelian idealism, on the other hand, conceives of the existing state as the rational universal expression the absolute spirit, 'Hegel proceeds from the state and conceives of man as the subjectivised state; democracy proceeds from man and conceives of the state as objectified man' (Marx, 1843, p. 87).

Marx's existence-reality dualism is not in itself evidence of an idealist ontology. Reality is not the unattainable derivated of the "Idea" as for Plato, nor is it the expression of the "Idea" in the world as for Hegel. It is the moment when existence, which is always empirical, becomes rational in the unity of the particular and the universal when the dialectical contradictions of the state and civil society are resolved in "true democracy". Thus, for Marx, reality is immanent in existence: historical traits temporarily overdetermine generic traits but nevertheless the human capacity for reality persists as an unrealised determinant. Existence and reality are not, therefore, the opposites of the concrete and the ideal but specific parts of a single process of the development of essential humanity. Ontologically, then, Marx rejected idealism as he rejected the ultimate determination of the 'Idea'. On the contrary, Marx saw democracy as grounded essentially in human existence and created by human action. But although Marx was able to break with idealism on an ontological level he was not able to do so on an epistemological one. On the epistemological front, the distinction between "existence" and "reality" means that knowledge of reality cannot be obtained through experience of existence, as existence may be both unreal and untrue. It is here that the concept of "true democracy" reveals itself as an epistemological device (as well as a revolutionary one).

Abstraction from the existing (e.g. the political state) cannot reveal knowledge of the real (truly democratic) state. Empirical form provides evidence of reality but does not comprehend it. Existing institutions are evidence of the essential human sociality as they are modes of social existence but abstraction from existence cannot reveal knowledge of the rational content of sociality as this is only apparent in 'true democracy'. Marx, therefore, projects from human social essence as reflected, albeit imperfectly, in empirical form. Thus, although Marx rejected idealism on an ontological level—the state is not an expression of the absolute idea but of human essence—he embraced it on an epistemological one as his knowledge of human rationality in the real state and his knowledge of its absence in the existing state is derived from the self abstracting concept of 'true democracy', a concept that has no empirical referent and that aquires meaning from a conception of the real state, which exists immediately only as an idea.

Note, however, that his epistemological idealism derives not from Hegel but, arguably, owes more to Platonic influence and shares certain facets of Plato's Doctrine of Ideas in which he asserts that empirical expression of its real essential nature: appearances may only ever approximate reality. However, Marx's position may be distinguished from Plato's in that whereas for Plato essential reality may never be attained in empirical form, which is always to some degree unreal, for Marx, essential reality is potentially realisable when 'true democracy' comes into being as the empirical realisation of human sociality (which is only approximated in the existing political state). In democracy, the constitution is in appearance what is in reality: the free creation of man.(Marx, 1843, p. 87).

Although Marx develops a materialist ontology, his use of the self-abstracting concept of 'true democracy' as an epistemological device constrained him from establishing the basis for a fully materialist epistemology at this point.

Essentialism in Marx's work

Marx departs from Hegel to the extent that he rejects the reality and rationality of all existing forms. He goes further (and departs from Plato) and asserts the possibility of the actual expression of essential reality in existence. This essentialism represents a clear continuity in Marx's work. The explicit intention in Capital is to get beneath surface appearances. But the way in which Marx derives knowledge of essence is quite different in the Critique where the distinction between reality and concepts is not made. In the critique the crucial concept of 'true democracy' is simultaneously reality and proof of reality. Truth cannot be empirical as phenomenal form relates to existence and not to reality and so there is no point in abstracting from empirical form as it provides knowledge only of existence, which may be both less than real and less than true. Thus truth must be deduced from existence by way of self-abstracting concepts.

This rejection of empiricism is also central to Marx's later works, but his understanding of essence, and the process of deriving knowledge of it, is very different. In the Critique. Marx rejects Hegel's conception of the state as non-historical (for Marx the Prussian state is a historical formation) but he does not defer to history for his knowledge of it. Later, in Capital, reality is not to be found in static abstract concepts like 'true democracy'; they become historical. Reality and knowledge of it loses its tautological aspect. Knowledge is now the product of reason: through the reproduction of the concrete situation in concrete mental categories. Knowledge, then, is not the product of passive sensual reception nor is it a process of deduction from existence. It is the incorporation, through reason, of the historical essence which is not available to direct sensation. Knowledge is an active process which proceeds not from the abstract but from the empirical which is mediated by reason in order to apprehend historical essence. Marx, in later work, accomplishes a fully materialist epistemology in that he argues that reality is material and that knowledge of reality is a product of material existence.

Themes that go on to later work

Marx's work, as has been suggested, is characterised throughout by his critique of the idealist notion that the rational is real. In the afterword to the second German edition of Capital written in the 1870's he writes as follows: 'My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of the Idea, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of the Idea....With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought' (cited in Caute, D., p. 33)

Essentially Marx's method is a materialist dialectic in which the social elements of the material world represent contradictions that are transcended, hence resolved, in the form of society.

Source: Harvey 1986 reworking of an unpublished paper by Neil Staunton (January 1986) that analysed the Critique.


related areas

See also




Caute, D., see Marx, K., 1967.

Colletti, L., 1974, Marxism and Hegel. London: New Left Books.

Hegel, G.W.F., 1820, Philosophy of Right, First Published: by G Bell, London, 1896. Translated: by S W Dyde, 1896, available at, accessed 19 May 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Marx, K., [1843–4] 1970, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Translated: Joseph O'Malley, Oxford, Oxford University Press, available at, accessed 19 May 2013, still available 22 December 2016.

Marx, K., 1967, Essential Writings of Karl Marx, edited by D. Caute. London: Panther

McLellean, D., 1976, Karl Marx, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–14

A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


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