Marx and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right


The philosophic science of right has as its object the idea of right, i.e., the conception of right and the realisation of the conception. In order to gain a proper perspective of Hegel’s place in the history of philosophy, it might be useful to focus on one key concept which has evolved significantly in meaning, from the time of Hegel. Marx and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right In the famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx notes that the first task he undertook was a critical reexamination of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Hence it will be useful to say something about; I believe that Marx’s theories, including his theory of modern industrial society, should be regarded as his own considered reaction to Hegel’s theory of the political formation brought into existence by the industrial revolution, which led to modern capitalism. It will be appropriate, as a way into Marx’s theories to summarize some main aspects of Hegel’s treatise. This will allow showing that Marx’s own theory of capitalism arises on the basis of his extension of certain Hegelian themes in the Philosophy of Right. Hegel is the author of only four books: the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), the Science of Logic (1812, 1816), the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1817, 1827, 1831), and the Philosophy of Right (1821). Marx in his early years was a member of the “Young Hegelian” movement, and retained a respect and admiration for Hegel throughout his career. In fact, as an old man he confided to a friend that he had always wanted to write a book explaining the philosophy of Hegel to the common man in simple language.

The Phenomenology, which is Hegel’s first and perhaps greatest book, and which presents both the introduction and the first part of the system, contains what he calls the science of the experience of consciousness. The Logic, like the Phenomenology, is a very dark work. It is concerned, not with the old Aristotelian logic which so impressed Immanuel Kant that he considered it a closed topic, nor with the new mathematical logic which arose in the late nineteenth century in the writings of the German philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) and his colleagues. Rather, it is concerned with what Hegel calls the conscious concept for which there is no distinction between concept and content. The Encyclopedia, which is often regarded as the official source of the well-known system of philosophy, is no more than a collection of different assertions which taken together provide indications of the shape of the system but not the system itself.

The Philosophy of Right, Hegel’s last book, was, like the Encyclopedia written as a handbook for Hegel’s students in a series of numbered paragraphs, and appeared during Hegel’s Berlin period, from 1818 until his unexpected death in 1831, when he was at the peak of his fame as the single most important living philosopher in Germany and in the world. The Philosophy of Right, his ending work, is the further development of the discussion begun in his earlier writings on objective spirit. This is the domain in which spirit becomes concrete within the relations of law, morality, ethical life, and on the levels of the family, civil society, and the state. In the Encyclopedia Hegel accords several pages to this theme that receives a more detailed analysis in the Philosophy of Right. The discussion of right, of morality, of ethical life, as well as of the family, is found, to begin with, in the Phenomenology, before being taken up again in less historical but more systematic fashion in the Encyclopedia. Hegel’s fourth great work is composed of 360 numbered paragraphs, often accompanied by oral comments, whose authenticity is sometimes doubtful. The book includes a preface, an introduction, and three parts concerning “Abstract Right,” “Morality,” and “Ethical Life.” The two latter parts again take up themes addressed earlier in the Phenomenology where Hegel criticizes Kant’s abstract view of morality and expounds his own rival view of ethics. This theme concerns the three levels of the family, civil society, and the state. The approach followed in the Philosophy of Right is described in a passage in the Encyclopedia as a progression from the abstract to the concrete. It proceeds from the concept of the will; hence from a conception of the human being as active within a social context, through its realization on the level of formal right, to morality and ethical life, it’s most concrete form, which brings together formal right and morality. Then the discussion begins again on the level of the family, the most natural and least developed of the manifest forms of right, to take up its exteriorization, or concrete manifestation, on the further levels of civil society and, finally, on the level of the state. The word “right” (German, Recht), which Hegel employs in a legal sense, has several meanings. Normally, it is taken to mean “the totality of rules governing the relations between members of the same society.” In his treatise, Hegel understands the term “right” in a manner intrinsic to his theory. In an addition, or oral commentary, he distinguishes his concept of right (Latin, ius) from civil right, regarded as formal. In his own sense of the term, right takes on a broader meaning including civil right, that aspect of the concept most closely linked to legal considerations, as well as morality, ethical life, and even world history. In most general terms, the Hegelian concept of right concerns free will and its realization, which requires a transition to practice? Hegel, who follows Aristotle’s view that all action aims at the good, holds it is not sufficient to think the good within consciousness. It must also be realized through the transition from subjective desire to external existence so that the good does not only take shape within our mind but also and above all in our lives. Like Aristotle before him and Marx after him, Hegel is concerned that and how our ideas are realized in our lives. For Hegel, if philosophy is the exploration of the rational, then the various levels of the social context, which culminates in the state, provide the practical locus for the realization of the rational element in history. In depicting the state as rational, Hegel suggests that every state represents a stage in the realization of reason, or the rose in the cross of the present. But no particular state fully realizes reason. The frequent objection that the mature Hegel simply identifies with the Prussian state of his time as the culmination of the historical quest reflects a serious misunderstanding of his view. The problem of the Philosophy of Right, as Hegel points out as early as the first page, is not only the idea of right but its realization, which he also expresses in the development of the idea, or rational element of any object of study in what he calls “the immanent development of the thing itself.”

In other words, Hegel is interested here in the extent to which, through a system of right, through the existence of the modern state, the realm of freedom of which Kant dreamed in his idea of the kingdom of ends has in fact been realized, or in Hegelian language the degree to which the world of mind has been brought forth out of itself like a second nature. The moments of Hegel’s treatise are keyed to the logical moments of the development of the absolutely free will as immediate in the form of abstract or formal right, then as subjective individuality featuring the idea of morality which stands over and opposes the community, and finally in ethical life where the social good is not only apprehended but also realized on the three levels of the family, civil society, and the state. It is central to Hegel’s vision that social good cannot be realized through abstract morality and can only be realized in concrete fashion in the diverse institutions characterizing the modern state.

Finally, we might note that Hegel’s attempt to synthesize all of reality into a complete system of knowledge was perhaps the least original idea of all. This is not to say that Hegel was not original, but only to reiterate one of Hegel’s own observations: that every man is the product of his age. What we refer to as uniqueness very often consists in simply giving a new direction to currents that have already been set in motion. Indeed, German history prides itself on having travelled a road which no other nation in the whole of history has ever travelled before, or ever will again. We have shared the restorations of modern nations without ever having shared their revolutions. We have been restored, firstly, because other nations dared to make revolutions, and, secondly, because other nations suffered counter-revolutions; open the one hand, because our masters were afraid, and, on the other, because they were not afraid. With our shepherds to the fore, we only once kept company with freedom, on the day of its internment. Yet he has proved himself to be a great mind because the very principle and central distinguishing feature of his idea is the pivot upon which the world-wide revolution then in process turned:

What is rational is real; And what is real is rational.

I Pravat Ranjan Sethi completed my studies from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, at present teaching at Amity University, Jaipur. My area of interest is Modern History especially Nationalism, Political History, Critical Theory and Gender Studies.


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