People are objecting to my saying that you should not study Hegel with variants of the retort that ‘Marx did’. Well yes. He could also read Greek and Latin and studied the Atomists in the original, so should we make a reading ability in these languages a precondition for understanding Marxism. 

No, we are willing to accept that a modern study course is not the same as one for a person schooled in the 1830s. 

Geografie / Europa / Deutschland / Orte / Berlin / Allgemeine Stadtansichten / 19. Jh. / Gemälde, Grafik

Marx went to study in Berlin, where, in those years, Hegelian philosophy was dominant. But this does not mean we have to do likewise.


Had he studied in Dublin or Paris, he would have had a different starting point. It is just a contingent fact that he had the particular tertiary education he had.


It is then said, that even if Marx rejected Hegel in the German Ideology  there remain Hegelian influences in Capital. This is true enough. But there are even more influences from Adam Smith, David Ricardo and arguably as much from Charles Babbage. Why should marxists be expected to read Hegel rather than Political Economy of Machinery, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, or the Theory of Moral Sentiments. We are not told that any understanding of Marx is impossible unless you have read this stuff. Only a few Marxists like Braverman or Dogan Göçmen  have investigated these predecessors. 


But to return to the undoubted Hegelian structure of presentation in the first chapters of Capital. I deal with this point in more detail in my review of Althusser’s Philosophy of the Encounter, here


But it is perhaps worth quoting the full passage relating to the point:

Althusser has an interesting discussion of why Marx structured Capital the way he did with an progression from the abstract to the concrete – starting with the the commodity and value and then progressing via surplus value etc. He goes into the the isssue of the contrast between the Hegelian mode of exposition of these chapters 5 and the concrete historical accounts of the process of primitive accumulation. His basic point is that the actual generation of capitalism is something contingent, something produced by an actual material history described in the chapters on primitive accumulation. This, Althusser says is a rather different approach from that presented in the chapter on the commodity. Althusser asks why Marx does more than just flirt with Hegelian modes of expression, but presents his entire initial argument with a Hegelian structure. The mere fact that Bakunin had recently given him a copy of Hegel’s Logic may be relevant but is not an adequate explanation.



 The first section (the section containing the ’flirt’ with Hegel) was rewritten a good dozen times, because Marx felt the need for a ’scientific’ beginning, and had a ’certain’ idea as to what such a beginning should look like. It was a rather unhappy idea, unhappily for us, unless we have the courage and also the means to say that this Idea of the beginning is untenable, and even prevents Capital from producing all the effects it might be expected to.( [1], page 31) the same idealism haunts Capital itself, in an infinitely more subtle form. … Marx believed that he was duty-bound, as a good ’semi-Hegelian’ – that is to say, a Hegelian ’inverted’ into the materialist he was – to broach, in a discipline of a scientific nature, the purely philosophical problem of the beginning of a philosophical work. A misconception of this sort is understandable. It is no accident that Marx rewrote Book I, Section I, the beginning of Capital, a dozen times or more; that he was determined to begin with that which was ’simplest’ and with the ’abstract’, namely, the commodity, and therefore with value; that he therefore set himself the task of beginning with the abstraction of value, something that lent his demonstrations impressive force, but, at the same time, situated them in the ’framework’ of a theoretical field that proved problematic as soon as it was a question of ’deducing’ money, capitalist exploitation, and the rest. Not to mention that which is presupposed by the abstraction of value, ’abstract labour’, 6 namely, the existence of a homogeneous field ruled by – because it has already triumphed – the equivalence of socially necessary labour-times in any equation of value whatsoever (x commodity A = y commodity B). For this equivalence is in reality merely tendential, whereas, in order to reason in the rigorous form that he adopted, or had to adopt, Marx sets out from it as if it were a given: not the result of a terribly complicated historical process, but, as it were, the ’simplest’ original state.( [1], page 39) (Althusser Philosophy of the Encounter)



 Here we have the same sort of presentation process that occurs in the Logic, with its deduction of being from nothingness, and becoming from the contradiction between the two. At the begining in Hegel this has a certain plausibility but as the argument proceeds, as he gets to the derivation of ’ought’. I for one felt, reading Hegel as an undergraduate, that this was all a conjuring trick. He was sneaking already formed presuppositions and concepts into the argument rather than deriving them. 


This essentially is what Althusser says of Marx’s form of presentation. It only works to the extent that he brings in real historical forms which have their own material history, their own information content, into the argument. Althusser contrasts this form of presentation at the start with the chapters on the working day and primitive accumulation which present the real histories of the forms being discussed. 


If we look at the history of mathematics, and if any domain would seem suited to the logical self development of ideas it is mathematics, we can see how a method analogous to that of Hegel came to grief. The formalist project of Russell and Hilbert came to grief first in set theory and then in Turing’s paper on the decision problem. The project had aimed to found mathematics on logic and Hilbert had asked for a mechanical procedure by which the truth or falsity of a mathematical theorem could be determined. If a theorem could be proven true, then you demonstrate that it can be derived from axioms using valid rules of inference. So if you could discover such a mechanical method for checking arbitrary theorems, you would have demonstrated that all of mathematics could be logically deduced from a collection of founding axioms. Turing showed that no such proof decision process can exist. He did it by taking the term ’mechanical procedure’ and designing a general purpose ’universal’ computer that could perform any calculation that a human mathematician could do. He then demonstrated that the assumption that such a mechanical proof procedure could exist  would lead to a contradiction analogous to Russell’s paradox. It thus follows that even in mathematics, the project of a complete and logical development of the system falls down.


 The basic reason is that you can not get more out of an axiomatic system than you put in: Chaitin’s aphorism: ’You can not get two kilos of results from one kilo of axioms’. Advocates of ’dialectical logic’ may say that this is just a restriction of formal logic, dialectical logic does allow you to derive more than you start out with. Well the reason why formal logic is different is that it is specified precisely enough to allow machine checking. A human dialectician is free to engage in all sorts of rhetorical slights of hand, importing hidden assumptions without needing to give any justification for them. The great advantage of a mechanisable formalism is that it excludes such verbal conjuring tricks.


The Hegelian influenced Marxists have produced nothing of use in the last 50 years because of their idealist approach. They either devote their time and effort to ‘interpreting’ Marx or at best to trying to promote the self development of the idea from the commodity via self expansion of value etc. Marx may have done that in his mode of presentation, but at least he, as Althusser points out, actually investigates factory production, primitive accumulation etc. This fills in information that could never be derived dialectically. 

But the Hegelian Marxists do none of this. Where is their equivalent of Lenin’s Development of Capitalism in Russia?

Where are their conjunctural analyses?

Having got to the point that a contradiction is implied by the existing assumptions, the Hegelian waves a magic wand called the dialectic and simply asserts what he believes to be a solution. 

They do not do statistics, and scarcely do history.

But without statistical and historical analysis there is no chance of understanding either the past or the present and you descend into hermeneutics.