‘Marx’s Discourse with Hegel’ reviewed by John Higgins

Marx’s Discourse with Hegel

Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2012. 368pp., £70 hb
ISBN 9780230293342

Reviewed by John Higgins

About the reviewer

John Higgins is a Professor in the English department at the University of Cape Town, author of the …


Marx’s Discourse with Hegel is a welcome addition to Norman Levine’s ongoing engagement and assessment of Marx’s work, which now stretches back over a period of almost forty years. Starting with The Tragic Deception (1975) and continuing through works such as Dialogue with the Dialectic (1984) and, more recently, Divergent Paths: Hegel in Marxism and Engelsism (2006), Levine’s work as a whole offers an extraordinarily detailed account of Marx’s relations with his great predecessor Hegel, as well as mentors and peers such as Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge, Ludwig Feuerbach and, of course, Marx’s brother-in-arms, Friedrich Engels. It is a resource no scholar interested in the internal development of Marx’s thought is likely to ignore.

In his new study, Levine returns to the long-vexed question of Marx’s relation to Hegel. Marx’s Discourse with Hegel is promised as the first of a two-volume account, and examines Marx’s writings between 1836 and 1848, and up to, but not including, the Communist Manifesto. It focuses on the details of Marx’s ‘absorption’ of Hegel’s thought, while the intended second part promises a discussion of its ‘implementation’ in his thought from the Communist Manifesto to Marx’s death in 1883.

The current study is made up of 5 chapters. The first of these briefly situates Levine’s analysis against competing interpretations of this period of Marx’s work, including recent ones by Stathis Kouvelakis (Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx, 2003) and David Leopold (The Young Karl Marx, 2007); and also offers some corrections to Levine’s own previous views. More importantly, it identifies the grounds of the powerful appeal of the study as a whole. This (in my view) lies in its dogged dedication to the task of answering a simple set of related questions around what Levine names as Marx’s ‘discourse with Hegel’. These questions are in the first instance simple bibliographic questions, concerning the actual availability of Hegel’s writings to Marx.

Chapter 2, ‘Marx’s Incomplete Quest’, sketches out the framework for the analysis to follow by seeking to identify just which texts of Hegel’s Marx could have read and very likely did read, and which he could have read but does not appear to have read in this initial period. In addition, Levine offers a very useful survey of those Hegelian texts Marx could not have read, but which have often enthralled later commentators, sometimes to the detriment of a properly historical understanding Marx’s own appropriation of Hegel.

Of particular interest, of course, are the works that were fully available to Marx, but which he ignored, and which together constitute what Levine calls the ‘Invisible Hegel’. Perhaps most notable among these is Hegel’s ‘On the Scientific Method of Treating Natural Law’, published across two issues of the Critical Journal of Philosophy in 1802 and 1803, where there is visible evidence of Hegel’s reading of political economy and his insistence on its relevance to modern society, the very ground of much of Marx’s own later work! Similarly, there is Marx’s curious ignoring of the work of the contemporary editor of some of Hegel’s writings which he could have read but didn’t, and the author of the first biography of Hegel (published in 1844), Karl Rosenkranz. This ignoring, writes Levine, ‘is difficult to comprehend’ as Rosenkranz was ‘a major figure in the Hegelian Centre and was widely read by the Hegelian left’, and important to figures who were very close to Marx such as Arnold Ruge and Engels (65). In addition, and important to the subtle distortions present in many accounts of the Marx-Hegel relationship, Rosenkranz’s life was a key source for much subsequent discussion, and notably for Georg Lukács’s influential The Young Hegel (Lukács 1975).

From such careful and detailed observation, Levine is able to point out just how partial the interpretation of Hegel’s work that Marx had to offer was. Marx, he writes, was ‘imprisoned … in the vision of Hegel as a Speculative philosopher’ (59). He consequently neglected and ignored the central ethical dimensions of Hegel’s idea of the state in ways that impacted significantly – and perhaps negatively (though this is an area Levine does not discuss in any detail) – on his own emerging discussions, analyses, and theorizations.

The bulk of the book is taken up (rather awkwardly I think) by Chapter Three. This contains some two hundred of the book’s 350-odd pages, and throws off the balance of the book as a whole. For this reader at least, ‘The Works of Hegel that Marx Knew’ is somewhat over-elaborately divided into six phases, each of which illustrate a shift of some kind in Marx’s relation to Hegel, with this relation in turn being sub-divided into a bewildering array of topics, treated sometimes for a page or two, sometimes only for a paragraph or two. Somehow (quantity becomes quality?) Levine’s very desire to clarify itself becomes the source of confusion, and it would perhaps have been more reader-friendly to divide this over-long chapter into three, examining Marx’s writings from 1836 to 1843; the crucial period of 1843 to 1844; and from 1845 to 1848. Nonetheless, there is plenty of fascinating detail and argument here, in-depth scholarly and textual work of a rare order that enables Levine to describe the different phases of what he describes as ‘Marx’s delinking from Hegel’ (180).

Given the bulk and detail of Chapter 3 (which is far too rich in insight and argument to attempt to summarize here), and Levine’s many anticipations of his conclusions in Chapters 1 and 2, it is hardly surprising that Chapters 4 and 5 seem somewhat fatigued and repetitive. For sure, ‘Marx’s Mis-Reading of Hegel’ (Chapter 4, 20 pages) does add a little more detail and substance to Levine’s central claim that while Marx ‘was familiar with Hegel’s thinking on … problems relating to practical philosophy and ethics’, he ‘made the decision to ignore them and limit his interpretation to the question of the state’ (292). But somehow, with each repetition of Levine’s key assertions – ‘whereas Marx negated the System he appropriated the Method (278)’; ‘Although Marx appropriated Hegelian methodology he evaded the theme of subjective activity’ (278); ‘Marx’s totally ignored the role of the ethical in Hegel and therefore distorted his presentation of ‘The Master’’ (292) – Levine’s formulations begin to appear to be too neat, and the paraphrases on which they are based too tidy to capture the creative confusion of Marx’s active thinking.

Similarly, Chapter 5 ‘Marx’s Method’ also appears extremely abrupt. This appearance is perhaps generated in part by the inevitable comparison between the 200 pages of Chapter 3 and the 15 pages of Chapter 5, but, more seriously and more interestingly it stems, I think, from deeper tensions that exist in the explanatory fabric of the study. These are the inevitable tensions between argument and assertion, particularly sharpened in this case by the underlying opposition between the different though related modes of reading which we may loosely refer to as paraphrase and interpretation. While paraphrase relies on a match between intention and meaning, interpretation thrives on their disjuncture.

Much is gained – but something is also lost – in the extremely patient and detailed mode of paraphrase deployed by Levine in this reading of Marx, Hegel, and their contemporaries. Perhaps something of my sense of what is lost in this nonetheless valuable study may be illustrated by attention to a single small slice of it, Levine’s reading of Marx’s doctoral Dissertation, On the difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature.

In Levine’s confident paraphrase and summary of the Dissertation, there are no doubts or hesitations; the intention and the meaning of the Dissertation come together and are easily summed up: ‘Marx counterposed Democritus and Epicurus and judged Democritus as deficient in comparison to Epicurus. The failures of Democritus were the failures of empiricism vis-à-vis free self-consciousness.’ (123); Marx sided with Epicurus against Democritus because the former ‘affirmed the superiority of free self-consciousness’ (ibid.).

But here the price of Levine’s in many ways salutary immersion in Marx’s intertextual relations with his contemporaries becomes apparent. This immersion is made possible by a certain marginalizing or ignoring of recent secondary literature, to the detriment of the explanatory authority of the account as a whole. For a whole range of more recent scholarship has come to complicate the univocal reading of Marx’s intentions in the Dissertation, and to differentiate between Marx’s admiration for Epicurus for his placing of philosophy outside the sway of the gods, and his equally firm criticism of the Epicurean theory of the subject, one in which an absolutely unconditioned freedom is held to be possible.

For Marx, Epicurus’s central commitment in his analysis of the empirical natural world is to a certain abstract kind of freedom, one which, when transposed into the empirical social world, threatens to leave existing social and political structures intact. As Marx puts it, in Epicurus, ‘there is no interest in investigating the real causes of objects. All that matters is the tranquillity of the explaining subject’ (Marx and Engels Collected Works 1: 45); his ‘method of explaining aims only at the ataraxy of self-consciousness, not at knowledge of nature in and for itself’ (45), and the ‘purpose of action is to be found therefore in abstracting, swerving away from pain and confusion, in ataraxy. Hence the good is the flight from evil, pleasure the swerving away from suffering’ (51).

What this amounts to, in the end, is a particularly futile conception of philosophy as a withdrawal into contemplation, one which, in the end, makes a nonsense of philosophical and scientific investigation of both natural and (by an implication that comes to interest Marx enormously) social worlds. The contrast with Democritus is surely intended to be damning when Marx writes that according to Democritus, ‘human beings like to create for themselves the illusion of chance – a manifestation of their own perplexity, since chance is incompatible with sound thinking’ (42).

In other words, the opposition between Democritus and Epicurus looks very different when placed against the critique of the contemplative tendency realized in the later Theses on Feuerbach. Arguably at least, Marx’s criticisms of Feuerbach’s essentially theoretical and contemplative attitude towards society are anticipated by the doctoral Dissertation’s discussion of the atomic structure of the natural world. I mention the possibility of such an interpretation (which would of course require much more detailing than is possible here) simply to suggest that Marx’s intentions in the doctoral Dissertation may be more complex and ambivalent than Levine admits. The Dissertation is contradictory in ways that Levine’s confident paraphrase does not and cannot allow for, and the thought in turmoil engaged by or embodied in the writing of the doctoral Dissertation is somehow tranquillized in this study where the urge for the achieved clarity of paraphrase betrays the (productive) turmoil of the text.

In the end, my suspicion is – paradoxically enough – that this study may be weakest where it thinks it is strongest and that Levine’s confident claim that it is ‘now possible to draw closer to the true intent of Marx’s theory than at any other time’ (313) may only work with a somewhat reduced and impoverished sense of that ‘true intent’. Here – in line with Levine’s open affiliation to what he refers to as the ‘School of Systematic Dialectic’ associated with works such as C.J. Arthur’s The Dialectic of Labour (1986) and The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital (2004) – that ‘true intent’ is understood above all through the figuring of Marx as a ‘social scientist’, one who ‘described the relationship between the means and mode of production’ (203), one who ‘transformed Liberal Hegelianism into Marxist critique’ (235).

But if all that happens in Marx’s thinking is that he ‘discontinued the Hegelian System, but continued the Hegelian methodology’ (298), why was it so tortuously difficult for him to do so? Or, if the ‘essence of Das Kapital ‘ was not ‘the prognosis of the ultimate decline of capitalism, but rather the exhibition of his new methodology of the social sciences’, as Levine claims (313), why did Marx never complete that ‘exhibition’, why did he leave Capital unfinished?

Marx was always more than just a social scientist, or at least more than the twentieth and twenty-first century figuring of a social scientist as someone who might provide a ‘theory of explanation in the social sciences’ (18). He was a journalist, a political activist, and a compulsive polemicist as well as an insatiably curious and relentless researcher, one of the greatest public intellectuals of his period. That these roles and activities sometimes jostled each other uncomfortably, and resulted in doubtless many specific points and sites of contradiction, is undoubtedly correct. But that these same contradictions were also crucial to powering the work as a whole is surely also true in ways in which this account prefers to ignore for the sake of its own consistency.

1 April 2013

One comment

  1. This is one of the most unphilosophical and untheoretical commentaries on philosophical matters I’ve ever read in my life. Just a bunch of loose quotes from letters and poems, mere biographical material, that is supposed to sustain incredibly arbitrary interpretations of some alleged philosophical rupture between Marx and Engels (or rather, between their own personal interpretations of Hegel). What about real philosophical argumentation? I found none. This is just what Hegel used to call in his time, in a prejorative fashion, “Popular Philosophy”: based on popular polemics and catchy sound bites, but with no philosophical reflection whatsoever.

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