Review: Karl Marx and the birth of modern society

Marxist Left Review, by Darren Russo

Michael Heinrich has raised the standards of biographical writing with Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society. In content and scope, it is an unparalleled work of scholarship. It makes Marx relevant to our understanding of capitalist society, while cutting down the overgrown myths about him. It confronts those sworn enemies of Marx’s thought with the weapons of critique. It will challenge the ways avid readers of Marx think about the meaning his times, concepts and ideas have for the present.

The book’s title has a twofold meaning: Marx was a child of “modern society” with the economic and political transformations of Western Europe and North America between 1780 and 1860, and the encroaching dominance of the capitalist mode of production – but he was also the most outstanding witness of these new bourgeois social relations.

Heinrich’s first volume captures Marx’s youth, his dashed poetic hopes, legal training in Berlin, the turn to Hegel’s philosophy and friendship with Bruno Bauer, all of which led up to his doctoral dissertation on The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, and the biography is left hanging. It is not yet enough to fulfil the intellectual promise opened, but it points in the direction of genuinely new territory for Marx scholarship.

The first volume of Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society is organised into three main chapters, “Forgotten Youth”, “Awakening and First Crisis”, and “The Philosophy of Religion, the Beginnings of Young Hegelianism and Marx’s Dissertation Projects”. These chapters sit between an introduction “Why Marx?” and an appendix that summarises key themes and problems of biographical writing.

Heinrich’s attention to Marx’s theoretical work – greatly facilitated by the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, the critical edition of all of Marx’s and Engels’ publishable works which should be put together in most of our lifetimes – makes this an enduring work. In this spirit, this review will focus on theoretical and political questions Heinrich’s book raises: Hegel’s legacy, the notion of actuality and Hegel’s critique of the moral worldview, the differences between left and right Hegelians, religion and the notion of self-consciousness. These were unavoidable themes during Marx’s early years.

Heinrich contributes to our understanding of Marx’s life and work. The best existing Anglophone studies of Marx’s intellectual development and political formation have often been attempts to establish the foundations of his life and work, the better to allow a new generation of theorists and activists to think about Marx in more developed ways. This was the great merit of American socialist Hal Draper’s multi-volume study Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution. Draper unearthed a clear picture of Marx’s political thought and tried to follow its historical development as against the Stalinist and social democratic dogmas of his time, which were committed to “socialism from above” – elitist and authoritarian. He was able to unearth the role and content of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marx’s thought, thus setting to work one of the most intricate studies of the strategic and working class elements of Marx’s political writings.

Draper thus rescued much of Marx’s political thinking and commitment to working class revolution from below from obscurity and deformation. Draper’s book has remained a standard reference for many English-speaking Marxists. Auguste Cornu’s four-volume study of Marx’s early intellectual development is an essential work in the French language, and it is much to the credit of Heinrich’s biography that it critically engages with this work, which doesn’t yet exist in English translation.

Marx’s work remained a sequence of torsos. Marx’s life motto was “de omnibus dubitandum” – everything is to be doubted. Concretely, this means Marx finished little compared to his great hopes, because he applied a rigorously critical attitude to his own scientific work. This imposes on Marx’s reader the necessity of taking the profane rhythm of his life’s time, and its place within contexts, into any appreciation of his ideas.

Heinrich provides us with a biographical infrastructure to understand these ideas.

Marx’s most foundational works are unfinished, existing in the form of unpublished manuscripts. What else could we expect from a man embarked both upon revolutionising a science and the political overthrow of capitalism? Pursuing both overreached the limits of Marx’s life.

As Heinrich writes, Marx’s work “is made of a continuous string of attempts, which were interrupted, of new beginnings, which were not continued, or were so in other ways”. Heinrich pays close attention to Marx’s dead ends, his conceptual experimentation and his processing of ever-new experiences, which makes for a truly satisfying and exhilarating read. Heinrich weaves these moments of thought into a familial, historical and political fabric extensively researched, drawing on a wide range of first-hand letters and regional studies.

Readers of Marx have always been faced with a difficult task: they have to drop the sacred in favour of the profane, and read Marx “materialistically” in order to grasp the logic of the theory and the logic of the theory’s development.

Karl Korsch had pioneered this argument (Heinrich’s biography is not new on this score) in confrontation with orthodox Social Democracy and the nascent Stalinist hegemony in the labour movement that practised idealist hagiography. Orthodox Marxism, whether of a social democratic or Stalinist cast, proceeded abstractly by reading Marx ideologically and failed to grasp the living and concrete spirit of Marx’s work.

Korsch stressed that one has to make a theoretical effort to understand Marx’s thought. This is quite different from a crude application of a philosophical machine called historical materialism that understands historical change to result from a fixed set of ontological laws (Stalinist dogma excelled at this).

To understand Marx’s books and unpublished manuscripts is to know their times and conditions of birth, with whom they were concerned, their adventures into new editions and their staggered discoveries, as well as their author’s own trials and tribulations. It is imperative to quote Marx’s letters, notes and speeches with reference to time, addresses, purposes and historical settings, or else one ends up treating Marx’s statements as if they were eternal truths – such is an abstract and dogmatic, idealist and metaphysical, and ultimately thoroughly incompetent, way of approaching a theory of society.

Alternatively, an approach aspiring to a materialist comprehension is a prerequisite in order to process the concepts, their function, placement and results within the texts. As Korsch also pointed out, all this is part of the history of the theories themselves, which is why it is so wretched for bourgeois critics as well as the faithful fabricators of Marxism to pick and choose what they want to read from Marx at subjective whim, to serve their own narrow purposes without genuine interpretive effort.

An equally fatal flaw of much writing about Marx is the omission of the precise theoretical and political relation the themes and concepts in Marx’s work have to those philosophers and post-Hegelians, from Hegel to Strauss, Bauer, Stirner, Feuerbach, Ruge, Heine and Hess, as well as the Scottish political economists and French physiocrats and their first opponents, the utopian socialists. The same must be said of many other themes, especially of Marx’s own historical writings and their relation to his sources. One can conclude that it is a problem when, instead of exploring the existing ideas within which Marx carried out his own research and writing, dogmatic authors prefer to remain within his texts themselves, an inside job closed off to the other ideas swirling in and around the heads of Marx’s time.

Forgotten youth

Heinrich’s first chapter begins with what is certainly known and not known about Marx’s early life. He then moves to Trier’s particular conditions – social, historical and cultural life – to Marx’s parents, and the political conditions in wider Germany with the July Revolution (1830) as the lynchpin between the Verfassungsversprechen (constitutional promises in the early 1800s) and the Frankfurter Wachensturm (the charge of the Frankfurt guard house, 1833).

The chapter then discusses Heinrich Marx’s political attitudes, the role of Jenny’s father, Johann Ludwig von Westphalen, before presenting Marx in the Gymnasium and then Marx’s relations in youth.

Little is known about Marx’s early life, childhood and youth. The sparse material at hand means Heinrich has to reconstruct the situation in Trier and wider Germany, using letters from Friedrich Schiller’s son Ernst and from Goethe, in order to draw a picture of Trier. The Latin classes could find their living illustration in Trier’s Roman ruins, the Porta Nigra being most famous, while the landscape provided ample place for Marx to wander, with Ludwig von Westphalen, to the rhythm of Homeric verse and Shakespearean pentameter.

Trier was occupied by French troops in 1794. It overturned social life in many ways, with the introduction of French law and Napoleon’s Civil Code (1804), upsetting the privileges of the Estates and introducing equal rights for citizens before the law. Economically, Trier gained access to the French markets, supplying the French army with cloth.

Cultural life in Trier was wide-ranging. Johann Hugo Wyttenbach, who had met Goethe as a young tutor and later taught Marx at the Trier Gymnasium, was a founder and secretary of the Society for Beneficial Research. The Society was emblematic of the intellectual life of Trier. The teachers themselves were influenced by – and ready to convey – the progressive scientific and political trends of the time. The Trier Gymnasium hosted regular public lectures on diverse scientific themes.

Catholic Trier was handed to Prussian rule at the Congress of Vienna (1815). This had deep economic and social consequences, as it was cut off from French markets and had inadequate transportation links to the rest of the Prussian kingdom. But the Prussian regime distrusted Trier because of their sympathies with the French. The Catholic population had a good arrangement with Napoleonic rule, yet Prussian domination brought poverty to the region, as Trier’s lucrative cloth sales to the French army ended, and the porcelain and carpet factories were forced to close down.

The fate of the Mosel winegrowers provided another example of the region’s sink into poverty, a topic Marx wrote about in the Rheinische Zeitung. At first the Mosel winegrowers benefited from Prussian rule as they were granted monopoly, thus leading to the widening of cultivated vineyards, but the greater quantity of wine went hand in hand with a degraded quality. The Prussians concluded deals with Hessen and Württemberg, edging out Mosel wine from the market, and from the 1830s the Mosel winegrowers sank into distress.

Pauperism made its appearance in Trier. Early industrialisation impoverished large swathes of the population, and a whole quarter of Trier’s population was dependent upon public and private welfare. Insecure living conditions impacted about eighty percent of households.

Ludwig Gall founded one of the first socialist publications in Germany, titled What Could Help? The early socialist thinkers Robert Owen, Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon influenced Gall. Throughout Trier, furthermore, the problem of poverty remained a current issue. Among the early writers who sympathised with the poor, the fear that one day the masses could put up a violent fight against their poverty stricken fate was palpable.

What were the political events that shaped conditions in Germany?

Michael Heinrich’s sketch of the political events and conditions was a means to link the greater situation to the young Marx, via Karl’s father Heinrich. Without the necessary documentation to demonstrate the specific events and influences on the young Karl, a reconstruction of Heinrich Marx’s own political attitudes within context could provide the means to assume what could have been the case. Furthermore, Marx’s schoolteachers and most important adult acquaintances, like Ludwig von Westphalen, were liberal supporters of the Enlightenment.

Heinrich Marx was a lawyer with progressive attitudes. The most important political event in his life took place in January 1834 when he was implicated in the Trier Casino Affair, which displayed his own political convictions as an Enlightenment liberal who wanted to speak truth to those “above” in order for things to change. Karl was 16 years old.

Political developments from 1815 to 1834 shaped the background of the debates and conflicts to come. During the last years of Napoleonic rule, the French were seen as occupiers, not enlighteners. A rejection of the French took root, out of which a German national consciousness (in the sense of an imaginary community) began to develop. Many supported the anti-Napoleonic wars (1813-15) – dubbed the Liberation Wars.

King Friedrich Wilhelm III appealed to the population in a letter titled “To My People” [An mein Volk] in which he asked the Prussians and Germans to support the struggle against Napoleon. It was hoped that greater political freedoms would be won from the rulers, in return for heeding the appeal. There were promises of a constitution (Verfassungsversprechen) made in 1815, but these were effectively broken in Prussia (though other states did win constitutions).

The Vienna Congress (1815) had formed a German Confederation – a league of independent states in which princes wanted to secure their own rule. It was not at all a German nation state, but within its states a movement for national unity took shape, with the development of the German imaginary community. The politics of the student bodies were indicative of this shift, and the internal tensions and debates it entailed.

Jakob Friedrich Fries and his students led a völkisch and anti-Semitic wing of the nationalist movement, while Hegel’s student, Friedrich Wilhelm Carové, led a smaller nationalist wing. Carové argued against the exclusionary völkisch conception and for the admission of Jews into the student body.

Heinrich’s foray into the development of the nationalist movement, and the distinctions between Fries and Hegel, serve as a useful reminder of the divisions within German philosophy at the time. Hegel demolished Fries (though Fries maintained much influence on the students), in the preface to The Philosophy of Right. If Hegel’s philosophy is its time comprehended in thought, it was also a political intervention in its own right, into a specific constellation of class forces and political realities. Fries – the völkisch anti-Semite – denied the possibility of rational knowledge of ethical ideals, the state, government and constitutions. He thought instead that these principles of social organisation could be drawn from “each man’s heart” and feeling. This antagonism has of course remained alive and well within the politics of modernity.

On the one hand is a Friesian attitude that draws politics from immediate perception and random fancy, disavowing the rationality of reality (the rationality of reality is not synonymous with the immediate appearances of things). Hegel calls this “the subjectivity of arbitrary will and ignorance”, which holds “the highest mode of cognition [to be] an immediate knowledge”. This is a dogmatic attitude in which reason slumbers in slothful pause. It produces “dark conceptions incapable of utterance”, in which “anything one chooses can … be introduced”. At the time when Fries was a leading voice of the völkisch wing of the student movement, his philosophical conceptions led him to stress the “organic connection” of the different parts of the social system into a whole which depends “upon the harmony of all the clearly marked phases of public life, and the stability of every pillar, arch, and buttress of the social edifice”. In this conception, the “ethical fabric” of society is based on feeling (not reason) therefore having a tendency towards populist and demagogic irrationalities.

On the other hand, Hegel represented politics conceived as a labour of reason striving to comprehend the principles and essential characteristics structuring political reality, in order to extract an immanent ethical fabric from it. We can dissect a line from Kant to Hegel in this regard, in that Hegel is constantly looking for the conditions of possibility the concrete situation itself provides for the actualisation of thought and politics. His entire work can be read in this way, as an attempt (however failed) to conceptually understand the present situation (a Kantian inheritance with Hegelian innovation) upon which the latter sought to politically ground the distinction between how society is and how it ought to be. Marx inherits the best of this political tradition, of which Hegel’s cutting criticism of immediate and intuitive knowledge is the corollary.

By 1819 the Prussian reform policy had come to an end. Students and professors were under closer surveillance, professors with national and liberal sentiments were banished from the universities. The Prussian king’s failure to hold to his constitutional promises and the increasing authoritarian turn led to widespread disappointment among the population. Political gatherings were forbidden and dissident views were stifled in the newspapers. Oppositional thinkers paid close attention to conditions abroad, about which it was possible to speak more openly than prevailing conditions in Germany.

The July Revolution (1830) that broke out in Paris pierced through the repressive context of restoration. Between the Great French Revolution and the June insurrection of 1848, it is largely forgotten how significant the July Revolution was for contemporaries. It signalled that the bourgeoisie represented a part of the people, not the universal whole, and that in modern society there was a part with no part, leading to brutal struggles like that of the silk weavers of Lyon (1831-34).

Ludwig Börne’s Letters from Paris and Heinrich Heine’s articles in the Allgemeine Zeitung acquainted the German public with these revolutionary events. The AZ was the most important political daily in Germany at the time. Heine’s writings were too critical and thus suppressed. Heine was not just an important poet, but also a clear-sighted analyst of society, which was one reason for his theoretical influence on Marx, as Stathis Kouvelakis has elsewhere shown (not mentioned by Heinrich) in his Philosophy and Revolution: From Kant to Marx.

The events of 1830 in France sent fear down the hulls of European monarchs and hope into the sails of the opposition. Heinrich draws out the young dramatist Georg Büchner for particular discussion (which he will continue in his following volumes in more detail). The reason is twofold: to demonstrate what it was possible to think at a given time, about the condition of the poor in political terms, while also demonstrating Büchner’s critical grasp of the problems of revolution at hand. Büchner’s Hessische Landbote (1834) was a harsh polemic against social injustice.

Heinrich writes that the document was “the first and, until the Communist Manifesto of 1848, the most significant manifesto of social revolution in Germany”. But Büchner also articulated the need for enlightenment and critique as a preparatory work for revolution, while expecting nothing from the liberals, writing in a letter that “the relation between the poor and the rich is the only revolutionary factor in the world”.

Though Marx probably never read the Hessische Landbote, I think this is a good example of Heinrich’s method of demonstrating the conditions of possibility for discourse and thought, in context, in order to precisely clarify the reasons why Marx’s ideas constituted a novelty within history. This is one of Heinrich’s basic principles of biographical writing: he tries to reconstruct the existing conditions, reference points and practices of discourse at a given time to understand what was typical of a period as opposed to reading the past merely from our present knowledge, opinions and conceptions. Only the former orientation can measure Marx’s intellectual and political novelty.

Awakening and the first crisis

Heinrich’s second chapter is occupied with Marx’s studies in Bonn (1835-6) and Berlin (1837) where he studied law and also followed his literary pursuits, working on poetry and a novella. The chapter builds toward Marx’s deep emotional and intellectual crisis that began in the summer of 1837. Marx began to question his own former literary conceptions. In early 1838 his father’s health worsened and he passed away. The death of the father represented a rupture in Marx’s life. “At the same time, he finds the basis for a new intellectual orientation in Hegel’s philosophy.”

While the chapter extensively discusses student life in the early nineteenth century, the particularities of Bonn’s university, Marx’s literary circles, pub life and the alleged duel, Jenny von Westphalen’s upbringing and marriage to Karl as well as the latter’s first year in Berlin, I will focus on Heinrich’s discussion of the place and role of Hegel in Marx’s first intellectual crisis.

The reason for focusing on Heinrich’s discussion of Marx’s transition to Hegel is straightforward: Heinrich is building the strongest Hegel possible on the basis of the most recent Hegel scholarship in German and English.

There is a twofold intersection going on.

Along one axis there is an intersection of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe and Hegel’s Collected Writings, which make it possible to judge Marx’s criticisms of Hegel more adequately. At the time Marx was writing, he had no access to Hegel’s letters or early writings. When Marx turned to political economy, Hegel already had a wider range of knowledge in the field. Hegel was already on top of much Scottish political economy, which had been translated into German and already discussed in the periodicals. Throughout Marx’s (and Engels’) lives, they return to a certain Hegel, for certain reasons, producing a certain critique.

The relation must be concretely established and theoretically comprehended – a precise relation of Marx’s responses to Hegel’s solutions to the objective problems of modernity sheds clarifying light upon the issues at stake of Marx’s own theoretical works and political conflicts.

Along the other axis, the renewed reading of Capital that took place in Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s produced a Hegelianising interpretation. Heinrich’s The Science of Value, published much later, can be read as an intervention with an Althusserian twist, placing emphasis upon the specificity of Marx’s theoretical forms and content with respect to Hegel. Heinrich doesn’t explain the role the science of value plays in his most recent book, but I think it is a necessary background for understanding why Heinrich was to gain as precise an understanding as possible of the Hegel-Marx polarity.

There is also an internal relation in the matter at hand itself: Heinrich claims that (as opposed to Mehring’s explanation) Marx’s early attempts at literature were an important first orientation, but that Marx had set them aside not because of dissatisfaction with his own capabilities, but for other reasons, chief among them his transition to Hegel’s philosophy. Marx’s shift to Hegel’s philosophy is an alternative orientation to reality. The grounds for Marx giving up of his literary pursuits provide the key to the much wider problem of Marx’s intellectual development.

Karl Altenstein received Hegel to teach at the Berlin University (1818), providing Hegel with a forum from which to intervene into the philosophical debates of his time. Altenstein saw philosophy as forming part of the progressive Prussian reform process. Hegel and Altenstein endowed philosophy with a particular role. For Hegel, philosophy was supposed to be at the centre of intellectual education. Hegel explained his own understanding of this relation in his inaugural address to the university.

Often Hegel is presented as a philosophical imperialist who imposed an already worked out formal philosophy onto the things and facts of the world. While he did try to bring different branches of scientific knowledge into philosophy, this was not an imposition of formalistic schemes derived from the outside to be forced onto a specific content.

Heinrich, perhaps with an eye to Hegel’s own statement in the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, but without directly referencing it, saw that a scientific form is immanent to a matter at hand. Hegel tried to elucidate and dissect the structuring principles of the things themselves, their own forms. The task of Hegel’s philosophy was to comprehend [Begreifen] reality and his Logic derives the most basic forms of reality; those forms that determine the structure and significance of any possible object of experience. Hegel reflected on the historical conditions of his own philosophy; for instance, how was it possible to present what he thought to a public? Hegel consciously situated his philosophy within a context when revolution was lodged and expressed as if in the very form of their thought.

There is philosophy and the effects of a philosophy. Concrete effects judge a philosophy; they are its afterlife. A Hegelian school took shape in Berlin upon Hegel’s death in 1831. Hegel’s students and friends quickly organised his work into print, with previously unpublished lectures on the Philosophy of History, Aesthetics, History of Philosophy and Religion appearing in the 1830s.

Marx was but one effect of this Hegelian philosophy. When he arrived in Berlin in 1836, Hegelian philosophy was most influential. Berlin was its centre.

Heinrich stresses that Marx never settled his accounts with Hegel once and for all (this goes for Engels too), but that he read different parts of Hegel’s work at different times of his life, formulating criticisms that cannot be summarised in one single position. This imposes two requirements, one for Heinrich’s biography, and the other for our own thinking about Hegel and Marx (it is well-nigh impossible for Marx to be understood without Hegel). Throughout the volumes, Heinrich does not present an exhaustive picture of Hegel. He deals with specific aspects of Hegel’s thought when it is necessary to follow Marx’s own or the debates raging at the time.

Heinrich shows how the term “German idealism” is a retrospective and misleading construction. Heinrich does this by relying on his reading of philosophical dictionaries of the 1840s and Walter Jaeschke’s genealogy of the concept. Though Marx and Engels used the term imprecisely in The Holy Family, it was the neo-Kantians like Friedrich Albert Lange (1866) and Wilhelm Windelband (from 1880s onwards) who invested the term with a concrete and specific meaning. Lange did so to demarcate “idealism” from “materialism” and Windelband had tied “German idealism” to the construction of the German nation state. The concept doesn’t do justice to the wealth of complexity involved in post-Kantian philosophy. Hegel – according to his own contemporaries – was not a philosophical idealist. And in English, the term idealism usually refers to Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialism, quite at odds with Hegel’s project.

Hegel was a theorist of reality, not a Berkeleyian idealist of German stripe, and he should not be treated as such. Idealism may be a familiar term, but it is rarely understood and more often causes confusion. What is familiar, because it is well known, is generally not known. Hegel was correct to say that the “most common deception in matters of knowledge, a deception of oneself and of others, is to presuppose something as well-known and let it placate us”.

When modern Marxists ask how theory relates to reality, they always meet with Hegel’s smile, as he raises his wine glass in welcome. Glass in hand, Hegel simply says (this is out of the purview of Heinrich’s biography): my dear friends, when you think, all of your concepts are abstractions – be as empiricist as you wish, and bang on ad nauseam about the most materialist ideas like “matter”, but in the end you are labouring under a delusion unless you know how to set concepts concretely to work in their relationship to historical and political reality. Don’t delude yourself about this. Objective truth exists independently of the thinking subject, yet its truths – being relative and absolute – can only be reached through language and its abstractions. Aware of this, Marx strove to produce a genuine thought-concrete [Gedankenkonkretum]. But throughout his life he always polemicised against those idealist banalities that reduce the materiality of the world and its objective truths to language and thought simply because these material truths cannot be communicated in any other way than by speaking and writing and other gesticulation.

Marx learnt from Hegel how theoretical presentation could express the inner connection of categories, and that this theoretical labour was necessary to appropriate reality. But Marx also knew it was necessary to liberate historical, scientific and political research from the religious stranglehold of the Hegelian concept, without which a dialectical presentation is nonsense (every neo-Hegelian trend stupidly thinks that once they have leafed through Hegel’s Encyclopaedia they can dispense with the study of all other science, historical or otherwise).

Ultimately, Hegel is idealist because he is a philosopher of identity, while Marx came to see that theory and the real world are non-identical – this was a liberating move that Marx constantly stressed from his first critique of Hegel (1843) onwards

Heinrich also questions the persistent, yet wrong headed, idea that Hegel had philosophically legitimised the Prussian monarchy, and the restoration, in his Philosophy of Right. This idea is yet another anachronism, forcefully put forward by liberals like Karl von Rotteck and Carl Theodor Welcker, as well as Rudolf Haym, who in his 1857 biography claimed Hegel was a philosopher of the restoration. This view influenced much of the Hegel scholarship and many Marxists.

Heinrich shows that Marx violently disagreed with this view of Hegel, even late in life. When Wilhelm Liebknecht spoke of Hegel in this way, Marx ridiculed him, saying he should shut his mouth instead of trying to revive the “old Rotteck-Welcker muck” (the liberals who wrote about Hegel as a restorationist). Hegel’s statement that “What is rational is real; And what is real is rational” has been the source of persistent confusion. Many write that this was a claim made by Hegel towards the end of his career, signifying his restorationist accommodation to princely power and conservatism.

Those who judge Hegel a restorationist cannot even be applauded for their pedagogic intent. It fails to teach because it does no justice to the logic of Hegel’s argument. It suffers from one great fault: whoever earnestly discards Hegel’s dictum that the actual is rational leads thought and politics to a cul-de-sac. On this, leading revolutionaries like Antonio Gramsci and Lenin agreed. In failing to confront the difficulties of a philosophy of praxis, it provides no signposts to think through the consequences that the contrast between ideals and the real world pose for it.

Hegel thinks about politics in a modern way, though Heinrich didn’t draw this out fully. If one were to look for forerunners to Hegel’s dictum that the actual is rational, one should go no further than Machiavelli, for he really represented a new science of materialist politics.

What did he aim for?

To go into the effectual truth of the matter at hand.

This simple phrase is very profound (it is why politics and history eventually displace philosophical discourse). The matter at hand [Sache] is not just an aggregation of empirical facts. A social logic structures and moves these facts. The facts may be transient but they are organised by a specific social logic. Translated into modern communist language, it means politics must concern itself with the empirical relations of class struggles, distinguish between the deepest conflicts of a period and its superficial appearances based in a world dominated by abstract labour and the value-form. Under the capitalist mode of production, these deeper conflicts are structured by the logic of the system itself. By making a distinction between the superficial and the grounds for the superficial (what a politician is saying about her/himself and why she/he is saying it), political thought can discern the deeper class structures from the illusory ways in which people think their own history, making it possible to seize the real possibilities of revolutionary transformation and avoid impressionism. This opens the way for comprehensive revolutionary critique. If interventionist political thought grasps the totality of the social relations that make up a historical moment, it is able to grasp a concrete situation. If it is able to concretely articulate an adequate relation of how these things are and what they could be, in order to navigate the necessary mediations between the two, it can know history in order to transform it. In short, revolutionary politics is the opposite of an imaginary and deluded politics.

Again, going beyond Heinrich, it could be said that Hegel’s real as rational expresses the Machiavellian effectual truth. It would be fascinating to unearth the historical and linguistic similarities of the two dictums, because Machiavelli’s effectuale is much closer in meaning to Hegel’s wirklich, because what is real is also effective and powerful. Wirklich is not a reactionary, but possibly a revolutionary formula.

Actuality, as a term, was not a “late” invention of Hegel’s. It was a fundamental category of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia, containing the Shorter Logic (1817) making it possible for Hegel to answer his critics in the second edition (1827). Philosophy’s content was “no other than actuality” and Hegel stressed that his “critics would have done well to consider the sense in which I employ it”. Actuality is distinguished from appearances at their face value.

What is actual – the revolutionary spirit of the times – is distinguished from what merely appears to be the case, i.e. bureaucratic and repressive governments and their reigning stability. As explained above, Hegel believes the world to be intelligible beyond what we see before our own eyes. It is necessary to explain the reasons why what is, is the way it is. This is a dynamic process, a wager on history’s intelligibility and it allows us to grasp why, and how, the status quo may possibly develop into something else. This is a key problem for communist strategy because history does nothing. It is but the outcome of struggles over the possibilities that take shape within it.

Engels understood this nuance very well. He said that those who took the dictum to be proof of conservatism were the narrow-minded liberals, because in actuality, beneath the immediate conservative appearance of the phrase is a revolutionary content that spells the downfall of reactionary governments. As Goethe wrote (Engels used this), “all that exists deserves to perish”.

I believe Marx drew on this logic in his letters to Arnold Ruge in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher (1843). Taking the problem beyond Heinrich’s book, forward in time to the German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto, the need to grasp the effectual truth, the rationality at work within reality lay at the bottom of Marx’s own conception of politics, history and theory, because communism is nothing more than a real movement [wirkliche Bewegung] that abolishes the present state of things. Marx, as Isabelle Garo has elsewhere written, confers a new place to political intervention which “goes hand in hand with the setting to work of an unprecedented comprehension of history, breaking with every kind of philosophy of history and which leads him to forge an arsenal of innovative concepts, but also and above all, a conception of the relation of theory and practice that has no forerunner”. It will be most interesting to see how Heinrich deals with this question in his coming volumes.

Marx’s transition to Hegel

Marx’s letter to his father dated 1837 showed two things. First, that he had given up his literary pursuits, and second, that he had begun to seriously read Hegel. Heinrich claims that these two facts aren’t really explained by most biographies, instead they are taken as being facts that explain themselves. The facile explanation that Marx simply lacked the talent is invoked. But this is lazy and restricts the space in which one can think about Marx.

Marx had decided in favour of Hegelian philosophy before joining the young Hegelian Doctors’ Club. This was a key turn of Marx’s intellectual and political life. Without the turn to Hegel it is possible that Marx would have remained attached to idealism, in the manner I explain below. Heinrich is therefore one of the few biographers – alongside Auguste Cornu – who have actually tried to understand and explain this vital turn to Hegelian philosophy.

If the Doctors’ Club didn’t effect Marx’s turn to Hegelian philosophy, but only reinforced it, what did? The only hint we have to work with is Marx’s comments about his 1836 poetry to Jenny. Marx characterises his own work as pure idealism. Heinrich sees Marx’s poems to Jenny as being influenced by Romantic subjectivism. In this context pure idealism could have had a specific meaning: idealism is the idea that the world and humanity could be improved with an art form that counterposes a deficient being with a better ought. Marx may have just come to the limits of a Romantic critique of society.

Heinrich shows his reader that he is making an assumption: we don’t know the real extent of Marx’s appropriation of the early romantic theorists of art and its place in social critique, yet it is plausible that Marx was influenced by them – owing to his interest in the aesthetics of Schlegel and Novalis.

What is not in doubt is the fact that Marx’s criticism of the opposition of what is and what ought to be demolishes the idea that art has a transformative power when it is understood in this moralistic-dualistic sense. Something therefore changed for Marx, i.e. he had adopted a different conception of reality and the possibilities of its critique.

Heinrich innovates when he asks why Marx gave up this moralistic-dualistic conception midway through 1837. The likely answer is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and its criticism of the “beautiful soul” in particular. Now Heinrich’s stress upon the Phenomenology is not new. Jean Hyppolite, the French translator of Hegel’s Phenomenology, had already pointed towards the pivotal place it likely had for Marx, when he wrote “the allusion to Hegel’s Phenomenology is clear”.

But Heinrich’s emphasis upon the figure of the beautiful soul is new. Marx’s criticism of the confrontation between actuality and an abstract ought repeated one of the central motifs of Hegel’s criticism of the Romantic worldview and its constituent commitment to Irony. It is not clear whether Marx had actually read the Phenomenology at this time, but it is probable that he had and had paid particular interest to the passages dedicated to Hegel’s foundational criticism of the beautiful soul. Hegel immanently dissected the impasses and contradictions of the beautiful soul’s subjective standpoint.

Heinrich distinguishes between an implicit critique of Romanticism in the Phenomenology and an explicit critique of it in Hegel’s introductory lectures on aesthetics. The beautiful soul wants to synchronise reality with their moral worldview. A universal claim to morality becomes detached from reality and takes flight into feeling.

Hegel wrote extensively about politics and was a remarkably attentive observer of current affairs: in his notebooks you find passages about workplace accidents (excerpted from The Morning Chronicle) and the state of agricultural labourers on the rice fields in then Ceylon (from Bertolacci’s A View of the Agricultural, Commercial, and Financial Interests of Ceylon).

The beautiful soul is unable to confront and wrestle with this kind of reality, because the beautiful soul is self-obsessed. Hegel argues, in his introductory lectures on aesthetics, that the discontent of the beautiful soul’s feebleness and quiescence, “which does not like to act or to touch anything for fear of surrendering its inward harmony, and, for all its craving after the absolute, remains none the less unreal and empty, even though pure in itself – is the source of morbid saintliness and yearning”. True character is a reality and acts; the beautiful soul craves objectivity and truth but is empty, it is not filled with substantial value. It lacks strength and cannot be involved in the transformation of reality.

Heinrich claims that Marx was sent into a crisis as a result of Hegel’s criticism of the beautiful soul. This rests upon the assumption that Marx was a self-conscious intellectual capable of recognising his own limits and would change accordingly, an undoubtedly true grasp of Marx’s character. By so doing, Heinrich presents one of the strongest cases to account for why and how Marx tried to overcome the rigid dualism of what is [Sein] and what ought to be [Sollen]. Hegelian philosophy overturned his paradigm, even if he tried initially to resist it. If earlier I showed that the critique of Hegel’s dictum that the real is rational had liberal roots, I must now draw another consequence that arises from the rejection of this dictum: moralism of the beautiful soul in politics (the modern argument of the beautiful soul is John Holloway’s popular “Change the World Without Taking Power”).

Heinrich’s innovative answer to this part of Marx’s early development should allow revolutionaries to further reflect on the unfinished, yet inescapable, relations of the moral worldview and to the world itself, in the domains of theory and politics. In the real world of power and politics, all beautiful souls reach a limit point and a crisis on account that they stand empty before this reality. They counterpose their own abstractions to reality. This necessarily collapses in time. For example, Holloway’s principle of anti-power will always fail to meet the challenges of real revolutionary struggles. Beautiful souls want the world to stop before their own beautiful ideals. It never does.

Heinrich doesn’t draw out the further implications of Marx’s criticism of the abstract ought and the moral worldview. But I believe it was a fundamental part of Marx’s orientation towards revolutionary politics. The criticism of the moral worldview has political stakes, or at least it points in the direction of revolutionary politics. For instance, the young Hegelians went into crisis when it became clear that the road to reform was no longer possible. What was to be done? Marx retreated to Kreuznach, to come to terms with Hegel’s conception of the state and the legacy of the French Revolution, i.e. the meaning and limits these had for the new period. Marx criticised the previously hoped for German road of reform. He set the criticism of the abstract ought to work. In his letter to Arnold Ruge (September 1843) he wrote, “We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle”. The solution to the crisis of the reformist road could only be found by taking up the new forms and conditions of political struggle, of which the Silesian weavers’ revolt (1844) was a watershed event.

The rejection of Hegel’s dictum of the actual and rational is endemic to – even constitutive of – liberal moralism and the beautiful soul. Both fall short of truly revolutionary affect.

The Marxist tradition, from the Second and Third Internationals to Stalinism, has often opposed Hegelian idealism to Marxist materialism, without putting much thought into the relations of Marxism to philosophy. Heinrich challenges this, and it fits hand in glove with his explanation as to why Marx turned to Hegelian philosophy in the first place.

Hegel’s rejection of the dualism between how things are and how they ought to be was inseparable from his own criticism of moralistic idealism. He rejected the notion that ideas occupy an absolutely separate compartment from reality; ideas and reality aren’t separate entities, they are related to each other immanently. In the preface to his book, The Philosophy of Right, he criticised theorists who set up ideal political constitutions to rectify the unfavourable historical conditions they have before them, which they (often rightly) are morally discontented with. This is idealist because the individual political thinker in question demands that historical and political reality should conform to his or her own arbitrarily drawn moral imperatives (the perfect state), rather than from the requirements immanently unfolding within that reality. Hegel could be read (Heinrich doesn’t do this) as a thinker who strove to overcome political and theoretical idealism. Idealism was a modern problem:

At no time so much as in our own, have such general principles [freedom and equality – D.R.] and notions been advanced, or with greater assurance. If in days gone by, history seems to present itself as a struggle of passions; in our time, though displays of passion are not wanting, it exhibits partly a predominance of the struggle of notions assuming the authority of principles; partly that of passions and interests essentially subjective, but under the mask of such higher sanctions. [D.R. italics]

This has a direct bearing upon Heinrich’s reason for writing about Marx in the first place. Hegel here recognises the dominance of abstract notions like reason, justice and liberty, and wants to see behind their superficial appearance history’s essential character and dynamic. Heinrich claims that Marx’s Capital was an investigation into the structure, social relations and dynamics of class struggle, a presentation of “the inner organisation of the capitalist mode of production, in its ideal average”.

I’d like to tie this to Hegel’s passage above, because it shows that Marx was invested in overcoming Hegel’s own problem: Marx’s work was a means to understand the passions and notions at work within history and the capitalist mode of production, while also being driven by the quest for human emancipation. Human emancipation is often fought for under the banner of freedom and equality, and so it is necessary to situate these notions within the structures the capitalist mode of production, lest one reproduce another form of political idealism. This is why Marx explained that Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham, the very Eden of the innate rights of man, legally rule over the purchase and sale of workers’ labour power. They are fully compatible with exploitation.

The philosophy of religion, the beginnings of Young Hegelianism and Marx’s dissertation projects

Not much is known about Marx’s life between 1838-1841. Most biographies therefore skip from Marx’s 1837 letter to his doctoral dissertation (1841). Yet the years 1837-1841 were important for Marx’s intellectual development. Heinrich brings something new to a representation of Marx in this third chapter because he explores these years. Why were they important, according to Heinrich?

Because Marx had begun to work on Hegel at a time when Hegel’s work was reaching a high point of success. On the one hand, Hegel’s philosophy was criticised by liberals as being too conservative, while on the other hand conservatives criticised him for being too liberal and too hostile to Christianity. There was also a split in Hegelian ranks. Hegelianism in the singular did not exist. Marx could not have accepted Hegelianism or rejected it.

These years are important for yet another reason, which is generally ignored: Marx began an intensive study after 1837 of the philosophy of religion, which was highly politicised in the late 1830s. The split within the Hegelian School itself began with controversies over the philosophy of religion. Marx’s friendship with Bruno Bauer stands at the background of these shifts, for it was a consequential relation. Precisely because of the lack of existing materials documenting Marx’s life at this time, Heinrich divides the chapter into six sections: Marx’s life in Berlin, the critique of religion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Hegel’s philosophy of religion and the debates in the 1830s, the beginnings of the so-called Young Hegelianism, Bauer and Marx, and lastly, Marx’s doctoral dissertation itself.

Unlike most writers of Marx, Heinrich stresses Marx’s legal training. It would be hard to imagine that Marx’s writings in the Rheinische Zeitung, the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and even Capital, would have taken the same shape without his training in legal science. Beyond this, Heinrich’s introductory section describes Marx’s friends in the Doctors’ Club – Rutenburg, Koeppen and Bauer. This was a friendship circle teeming with high-level philosophical discussion.

It is not possible to understand Marx’s early years (perhaps also his late writings too) without seeing the function the criticism of religion had in his time. This is particularly relevant to contemporary writers who are struggling to come to terms with the relation Marx’s theoretical efforts have to God and the Absolute. This is not a new problem for those thinking about Marx, for it has remained a subterranean, if repressed, theme of Marxist theory.

Heinrich has tried to clarify the relation politics had to religion in Prussia in order to understand the controversies over the philosophy of religion in the late 1830s and the Hegelian School, because the controversy ended up involving the state and politics, as well as a radicalisation of the Young Hegelians.

Prussia was a Christian state, i.e. Protestantism was a foundation of the state. If the debates over theology and Protestantism had an immediate political relevance, the debates themselves weren’t a bare subterfuge for political criticism. Heinrich takes the reader through the changes Christianity and Protestantism experienced in the late eighteenth century. This permits him to move on to the theoretical results of these developments in the theological realm. These theoretical results played a key role in the first half of the nineteenth century. Heinrich sketches this development: from natural religion, Spinoza’s revolutionary deconstruction of a transcendent God, and the criticism of revelation and miracles, the fight for religious tolerance (Lessing’s Nathan the Wise), Kant’s separation of faith and knowledge, finally unto Schleiermacher’s theology of religious feeling.

This sketch demonstrates the weakness of supernaturalism and theological rationalism on the philosophical level. Heinrich moves to a discussion of Hegel’s philosophy of religion and the debates of the 1830s, focusing on David Strauss’ The Life of Jesus (1835).

How does Heinrich conceive of the relation of religion and philosophy in Hegel? Hegel, we are told, saw that religion is tied to feeling, yet feeling says nothing of the truth content of philosophy. Hegel strove to overcome the separation of faith and knowledge, a separation pioneered by Kant: we cannot prove God’s existence through reason, so God must be a “regulative idea” that serves to orient us in the world. Hegel, on the other hand, had attempted to overcome the separation between a faith requiring a “regulative idea” and knowledge. Heinrich writes, “Hegel’s philosophical system not only integrated the knowledge of God in a certain way, it was the highest goal of his philosophy”. We have a constitutive ambiguity in Hegel’s philosophy, for orthodox theologians saw Hegel as a critic of religion while others saw him as having adapted to religion. Whatever the ambiguity, Hegel had a great influence on the next generation of radical critics of religion – Strauss, Bauer and Feuerbach.

Heinrich outlines the relation of religion to philosophy from a reading of the Encyclopaedia and the lectures on the philosophy of religion; but he supplements this presentation with insights from Hegel’s Science of Logic. Hegel saw Spirit as an active entity whose essence is freedom. Heinrich explains this very clearly. He says that Hegel distinguishes between subjective spirit and objective spirit. On the one hand subjective spirit is a form of inwardness, it is consciousness or will of individual persons; on the other hand is objective spirit, objective social reality comprised of law, ethical life [Sittlichkeit], of which the family, bourgeois society and the state form part. Spirit relates to itself in three distinct ways, as sense perception [sinnliche Anschauung] of single objects, as representation [Vorstellung] in space and time, and lastly as concept [Begriff]. For each of these three relations Hegel identifies a specific field: for sense perception there is art, religion for representation and philosophy for the conceptual. Heinrich is interested in the relation of the last two.

Here is where the greatest difficulties arise because of Hegel’s stress that religion and philosophy have the same content, yet are different forms of this content. Religion represents this content with pictures thought; philosophy with concepts. Heinrich is identifying an ambiguity of the relationship between form and content here. Hegel thinks God can only be grasped with concepts; religion is a step on the way to this, but it is not philosophical thought itself.

Things are not so esoteric as they first meet the eye. The Hegel expert Walter Jaeschke claimed that Hegel developed a “speculative theology” (he says this in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia but dropped it in the later editions, even if it remains in content). The end goal of Hegelian philosophy is speculative theology. This is why Hegel says that “It can therefore be said that this content is the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and of a finite spirit”.

Heinrich criticises the widely held assumption that Hegel took the categories of the logic to be the thoughts of God before the creation of the world. Instead Hegel gave a nod to the Christians by saying the logic was the “eternal essence” of God, and so if Hegel presented himself as the better theologian, it was because he was able to hold onto what the other theologians had already given up, while also running against the grain of his contemporaries, whether they were partisans of Enlightenment natural theology, Romantic conceptions or Pietistic.

Hegel’s philosophy of religion was condemned in the late 1820s when the period of Prussian reform was at its end. Hegel had reversed the theological problem by saying that Christianity ought to be grounded by the philosophical concept; this was too critical for the conservative thinkers and explains why his philosophy of religion had such a profound influence on the next generation of the critics of religion.

David Friedrich Strauss’ book The Life of Jesus was a rupture within nineteenth century theology. He claimed that the gospels were myths that took shape within early Christianity; they did not represent real historical events. Strauss’ work, however, distinguished between the eternal truths of Christ and the historicity of Jesus’ life. He took this distinction from Hegel’s differentiation between religious conceptions and conceptual reconstruction. Only conceptual reconstruction could provide grounds for the truth of religion, as opposed to the idea that historical conditions could validate or invalidate the truth content of religion. This meant that for Hegel, and the theologians oriented to his work, the distinction between representational thinking and conceptual thinking had meant their disinterest in the historical criticism of religion. Yet the controversy over Strauss’ book split the Hegelian School into a Right, Centre and a Left. Straus was criticised as an example of one who drew unholy consequences from Hegel’s philosophy and thus those Hegelians who wanted to complement the philosophy with Protestantism had to ensure that Straus couldn’t speak in Hegel’s name.

Heinrich’s detailed discussion of the split within Hegelianism is valuable.

The content of the disputes was of an extremely high formal philosophical level. Again, we are dealing with an old problem in new guise. The split within Hegelianism was not a simple collapse. Such a view doesn’t explain anything. A great merit of Heinrich’s biography is his reconstruction of these conflicts, thus following two complementary lines, the immanent development of the disputes and discussion in time while also explaining their theoretical meaning.

What is most noteworthy about the split itself was Strauss’ criterion for the Left, Centre and Right: the attitude to the historicity of the gospels was the defining criterion. The Right saw historical fact in the gospels, and so wanted to maintain the union of philosophy and religion Hegel established. They wanted to assimilate religion to philosophy. The Left carried out a reversal, and they relied on Strauss’ book for their purposes: instead of assimilating or equalising religion to philosophy, religion itself ought be subject to the critical analysis of philosophy and science. There was a fight over which register should dominate discourse.

The Left argued more radically for philosophy’s right to autonomous existence and critique. For the Left Hegelians, the gospels had no historical truth in part or whole.

Heinrich has undertaken to trace out the main lines of debate from Strauss’ Life of Jesus until 1840-41, the time when Marx was preparing his doctoral dissertation. The discussions formed the intellectual and political background within and against which Marx operated.

In the last parts of Heinrich’s section titled “The beginnings of ‘Young Hegelianism’” three major issues are uncorked: Arnold Ruge and the problem of the state, Feuerbach’s nail in the coffin of religion’s place within philosophy, and lastly, the problem of Young Hegelianism as a concept.

Ruge was the founder of the Hallische Jahrbücher, the most infamous oppositional publication. Ruge’s ambiguous attitude to the state illustrates the spectrum of political positions available to the dissident intellectuals.

Ruge had argued (1838) that the task of science and his publications were to discover and know how things – the state and religion – had come to be, not how they should be; at this time he also saw no necessity and no possibility for a revolution in Prussia. He saw the Prussian state as being committed to enlightenment, “even if this was not the line of the then current government”. Ruge also developed an idea of the practical becoming of philosophy along such reformist lines. The new practice, he argued, was a new system, an absolute fervour after the action of liberated Spirit, the reforming zeal “that grips the world around us”, which has no need for “Hegelian tranquillity”.

But Ruge underwent a shift of perspective towards the end of 1839. In his review of Karl Streckfuss’ pamphlet titled On the Guarantees of the Present State of Affairs in Prussia (Streckfuss was a senior civil servant at the time) he criticised Prussia’s state institutions. It had become clear that the old picture of Prussia – a state committed to freedom and enlightenment – no longer held. He demanded democratic conditions.

Sharpening his demands for democracy (in a review of Wilhelm Heinse’s book) he wrote that the consequence of Heinse’s conception of the state was a “state of humans who are worth of the title, perfect for each and all, [which] must always essentially be a democracy”, in other words, constitutional self-government. This was not yet a full rupture with the praxis-inclined German road of reform – the hope for an enlightened reformism from above remained a strong leitmotiv of the post-Hegelian intelligentsia until Marx’s break with it in his Kreuznach manuscripts.

This enlightened reformism was, however, in the process of breaking down and Ruge arrived at a thoroughgoing criticism of Hegel’s conception of the state towards the end of 1840. It wasn’t as radical as Feuerbach’s (which I’ll come to next) but it had clear political consequences, i.e. Ruge argued that Hegel confused the historical existence of the state with its rational actuality. He thought Hegel had accommodated to outmoded British institutions (not the existing Prussian state, hence it’s not the same charge made by the liberals who saw in Hegel a legitimation of the Prussian restoration). In any case, only a few months later Marx criticised Ruge’s argument as inadequate.

If Ruge’s innovations concerned politics and the state, Feuerbach’s owed their force to his demolition of religion. Feuerbach’s writings were not apolitical, as is commonly thought. His place is also fundamental to an understanding of Marx’s criticism of Hegel and the modern representative state. Feuerbach pushed the conflict between science and religion to the forefront of his polemics, beyond any threshold reached earlier, in order to finally deconstruct the idea that science and religion could be comparable – science owes itself to thought, religion to feeling and fantasy. This took him to a frontal collision with Hegel’s philosophy of religion. Contrary to the Hegelian assumption, Feuerbach argued that philosophy and religion don’t have the same content, thus the very question of the supersession of religion into philosophy had become historically obsolete. If the difference between philosophy and religion was one of form, then “the inessential is made into the essential and the essential into the inessential”.

Feuerbach didn’t end his critique with religion, but throughout 1839 had criticised Hegel’s philosophy as a whole in his Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy. Heinrich draws out the core aspects of Feuerbach’s criticism. Feuerbach attacked an idea held by Hegel’s disciples, namely that the Hegelian philosophy is the absolute realisation of philosophy’s idea. And he also demolished the notion that Hegel’s Logic was an immanent unfolding of concepts built upon a presuppositionless foundation.

Feuerbach made two remarkable moves for the time. Though Heinrich doesn’t develop the point, Feuerbach’s moves lived on in four places of Marx’s work: his critique of the Hegelian incarnation of the concept, his stress upon the limits of dialectical presentation, his argument that Hegel produces a “rational mysticism” and lastly, the ambiguity between temporal and theoretical development, which results in a Hegelian form of immobility. It is necessary to explore this problem in further detail, but this is not the place to do so.

Bauer and Marx

Bruno Bauer occupies good space in Heinrich’s biography, for he and Marx were the closest of friends for five years. Bauer made the trip from the right wing of Hegelianism to the left within a few years. The shift was remarkable: between 1834 and 1839, he was an orthodox Hegelian in matters of religious philosophy, and he defended the historicity of the gospels during the Strauss debates. But between 1839 and 1841, he radicalised in the direction of hard atheism. Not only did he see the gospels as literary products of their authors after the events, he became more radical politically. Most biographers have cared little for the cross influences of Marx and Bauer; Heinrich shows that it is likely that Marx influenced Bauer in the direction of atheism instead of the other way around.

Heinrich’s work on this section is another necessary foundational part of his narrative that will become useful for later volumes, especially when he discusses Marx’s polemic against Bauer in On the Jewish Question and The Holy Family.

Bauer had initially led the charge against Strauss in the name of a “speculative theology” (the term Hegel had used to describe his own philosophy in the first edition of the Encyclopaedia). Bauer used Hegelian philosophy as a foundation for the defence of Biblical tradition.

Hegelian thought was but a means to legitimise the historical accuracy of the gospels, by which the Idea was supposed to appear in historical form. This was Hegel’s great achievement, to have grasped divine Spirit in appearance. God must appear in historical form and development. God was to reveal himself in history – this revelation took place through the medium of the sensuous as well as religious conceptions. The revealing was historical. Scripture was an expression of the different stages of this contradictory process. This historical process of revealing may be contradictory, but any contradiction between an infinite God and finite historical appearance should be seen as a necessary step towards full religious knowledge. Bauer’s conservative brand of Hegelian theology was present in his writings for the Journal for Speculative Theology, which he founded in 1836. Bauer remained within this conservative frame until autumn 1839.

Yet between 1839 and 1841 Bauer underwent an extraordinary shift. Excluded from a professorship in Berlin, he was counselled by Altenstein to teach in Bonn, where there were no Hegelians in the theological faculty. A turning point was his Die evangelische Landeskirche Preussens und die Wissenschaft (1840) when he grasped a foundational conflict between the Church hierarchy and science.

Heinrich points out that, if the opposition between religion and philosophy was key to Feuerbach’s critique, then the opposition between science and the Church hierarchy became Bauer’s critical point of manoeuvre. Bauer rejected the earlier idea of unity of the Idea and immediate reality; he moves to Left Hegelian positions, the Young Hegelians welcome his new writings, Ruge praises them in his Hallische Jahrbücher, Ruge and Bauer establish contact. Bauer turned to history, moving away from theology, criticised faith and became an atheist.

Marx, on the other hand, had become an atheist by March 1841, yet it is unclear exactly when. This may not seem important at first glance, but it seems that Marx’s first plans for books – one on Hermesianismus – and publications had concerned the philosophy of religion. Between the beginning of 1840 and early 1842, Marx had planned at least five publications connected with the debates on religion. None really came to fruition with the exception of a short piece defending Bauer. Heinrich reasonably speculates that this period left its traces throughout Marx’s later work, for instance in Capital, which has a good deal of religious reference. Rather than being a symptom of a high level of culture, the religious themes in the late Marx could owe themselves to this intense period of religious studies carried out between 1838 and 1842.

Bauer and Marx shared five years of close friendship during which they had plans to publish together and bring out a journal. Though they never ended up doing so, and posterity would remember a caricature of Bauer owing to Marx’s own pen, in these early years Bauer wanted to win Marx for the coming revolutionary struggles. During this process, perhaps Bauer taught Marx something worthwhile about critique. The existing regime in Prussia was becoming more and more despotic; criticism had to be ruthless, but also courageous, unfearing of where it would lead. Bruno Bauer was a partisan of the ruthless criticism of all things existing; Marx held to this imperative throughout his life as theorist and revolutionary.

Marx’s dissertation and its plans

Heinrich’s first foray into Marx’s theoretical writings concerns Marx’s doctoral dissertation On the Difference between Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy. The fragmented dissertation and the notebooks Marx left over give the reader a glimpse of the philosophical positions Marx had reached since his turn to Hegel in 1837; given the dissertation was submitted April 1841, it seems Marx was working on religious themes as well as his doctorate.

Heinrich divides his discussion into six parts: Marx’s studies of the history of philosophy and his first dissertation project, the dissertation manuscript itself, themes such as the atom and self-consciousness and God and immortality, political and philosophical positions and lastly, the reasons why Marx submitted his manuscript to the Jena faculty of philosophy.

Marx began preparing his excerpts at the beginning of 1839 and by 1840 he had accumulated seven notebooks of material; at the end of 1838, he chose Epicurus’ philosophy as the main theme. Marx doesn’t say exactly why he chose Epicurus, yet Heinrich reconstructs a narrative that makes it unsurprising that he was chosen. Epicurus was seen as an Enlightenment figure of antiquity. Orthodox religious persons and conservatives of his time hated him.

It was Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy (appearing in 1833-36) that Marx had first worked on. Historically writing philosophy was a science tasked with showing “the different Stages and moments in development in time, in manner of occurrence, in particular places, in particular people or political circumstances, the complications arising thus, and, in short, it shows us the empirical form”. Hegel took philosophy to be an act, a conceptual labour, of the present time; the present holds the conceptual keys to an interpretation of the past. It alone was able to draw out the necessary elements contained in the past historical shapes of philosophy. That is why philosophy’s sequence in the time of History and the succession of concepts in the order of ideas formed a differentiated unity.

It is unlikely Marx began with the idea of comparing Epicurus and Democritus. In his notebook seven, Marx doesn’t even mention the foundational differences between the two philosophers. Instead, Marx was reconstructing Epicurean philosophy from the fragments that survived in the writings of Diogenes Laertius; but he also drew upon Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. Marx underestimated Lucretius’ interpretation at first, but soon changed his mind. The notion of the atom’s swerve would become an important theme in the doctoral dissertation. Marx’s notes show that he paid good attention to Lucretius’ arguments. The Latin poet saw in the atom’s swerve a tremendous consequence for freedom against determinism.

Heinrich convincingly argues that Marx had initially wanted to compare Epicurean philosophy with the Aristotelian. He based this section of the presentation on the Ernst Guenther Schmidt’s study of the notebooks for the doctorate, where he argued that the comparison of Aristotle to Epicurus was not just a factor remaining in the background, but actually stood at the origin of the final doctoral theme itself. This should be unsurprising as Marx had a robust knowledge of Aristotle’s foundational writings and a comparison of Epicurus and Aristotle would have also been a way to define a philosophical position vis-à-vis Hegel within the Young Hegelian milieu.

Marx made no attempt to define his positions as a confrontation between idealism and materialism in this dissertation, yet he did intervene into the conflicts about Hegel’s philosophy at the time. Marx distanced himself from the different trends of Hegel criticism, for instance Arnold Ruge, who argued that Hegel accommodated to the outmoded British institutions, and Marx saw this as a moralistic criticism unable to “establish a genuinely critical relationship to the Hegelian system”.

Marx’s appreciation of Epicurus was a departure from Hegel’s lukewarm attitude towards him. Two aspects of the dissertation, the relation of essence to appearance, and the notion of self-consciousness, have afterlives in Marx’s work as well as in subsequent debates within left theory throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Heinrich’s service is to trace these concepts, their use and, in the case of essence and appearance, their afterlives in Marx’s work.

Marx’s use of the categories of appearance and essence owe to Hegel’s Science of Logic and play a fundamental role in his mature critique of political economy and the notion of commodity fetishism. Heinrich points to the difference between a purely conceptual use of these categories (being, essence, appearance and actuality) as Hegel works with them, and Marx’s own use of the categories to understand the inner logic of Epicurus’ understanding of the atom. Marx never replays the sequence of Hegelian categories for its own sake; nor could he, because I believe in Hegel the conflict of categories was a means to the immanent development of thought, whereas in Marx, the categories always functioned within a given subject matter that was not thought alone – in this case the relation of Epicurean and Democritean philosophy, and later, they arose of his intensive study of political economy. But it remained the case that behind Marx’s use of Hegelian categories stood an intensive labour on Hegel’s Logic. Heinrich writes, “what we do find in the dissertation, however, is not Marx’s own theory of the relation of essence and appearance, but the reconstruction of the inner logic of another foreign theory, with Hegelian categories as the means of doing so”.

Heinrich’s emphasis on “self-consciousness” [Selbstbewusstsein] is important for political and theoretical reasons. Self-consciousness is an emancipatory concept, inseparable from human freedom.

Marx pitted “self-consciousness” against religious servility, and this had political reasons and consequences. He wrote that the “confession of Prometheus is [philosophy’s] own confession, its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity”.

The term “self-consciousness” is a key to Marx. Marx excerpted passages related to this concept from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1844) and his so-called economic-philosophical manuscripts from that year wrestle with it. A state of self-consciousness featured in Capital, where communist freedom is depicted as a self-conscious union of associated producers. And the term became the lynchpin of the twentieth century’s greatest intervention into Marxist philosophy, namely George Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness. Lukács argued, and his whole project collapses without it, that “the self-consciousness of the commodity … [is] the self-knowledge … of the capitalist society founded upon the production and exchange of commodities” and it is a necessary element of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order.

I think Heinrich’s foray into “self-consciousness” is both a window into Marx’s own development, and a springboard from which one can think through many debates of twentieth century Marxist theory and beyond.


There is no doubt Heinrich has produced a rich biography; if he finishes the project he has set out to accomplish, there is no reason his labour won’t set a new standard for Marx biography for much time to come. The challenge is as immense as it is necessary. The young and critical generation coming to Marx’s ideas today will probably live to see the full edition of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (The Marx and Engels Complete Works) published during their working lives, for the first time in history. Biographies sympathetic to Marx that also have an eye to the history of Marxian debates traversing the twentieth century and beyond will be much needed in this context.

Heinrich has just delivered us the first part of such a biography. It is essential that a new generation of activists read and devour this indispensable book.


Garo, Isabelle 2012, Marx et l’invention historique, Éditions Syllepse.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 1994, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, translated Bernard Bosanquet, Penguin Classics.

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