Karl Marx and Human Self-Creation

Submitted by libcom on October 27, 2005

Karl Marx and Human Self-creation

By Cyril Smith


  1. Introduction

2.   Human Production and Divine Creation

     Divine Creation
     Plato and after
     Magic and Mysticism
     Some Christian Mystics

3. Enlightenment versus Magic
4. Schelling and Hegel
5. Feuerbach
6. Marx
    Marx's break with Feuerbach
    Marx and Revolution

     Capital and Mysticism
    Capital and Self-Creation    
7. An Inconclusive Conclusion

Background Reading

1. Introduction

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary,  an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew. (German Ideology.)

Long, long ago, when I was young, socialism was very simple. A small minority of greedy rich people exploited the mass of poor people, those who produced the wealth of the world. If we, the vast majority, got ourselves organised, we could easily take the wealth into our hands, along with the means to produce it. Then centralised planning would ensure a rising standard of living and all major problems of social life could be resolved.

Of course, there was the little problem of how the transition would begin. Some of us thought that the majority could elect their representatives and form a socialist government. Others believed that wouldn't work, because of the violent resistance of the rulers: more drastic measures would be required. It seemed self-evident that dedicated socialists like us, if we tried hard enough, could set up a new way of living for all. Other people would soon see how right we had been. Such notions have gone forever. The twentieth century tried out every possible solution to these problems, and each of them proved to be infeasible. Socialism, however we understood it, was a failure. No wonder that, especially after the collapse of the Russian Revolution, nobody thinks in such terms any more. Of course, the old words remain, but 'socialism' is nowadays little more than another name for bureaucratic state-ownership, perhaps flavoured with a bit of social welfare.

Meanwhile, the continued existence of capital entails an ever-increasing series of monstrous social crises, as the money-relationship eats away at the brain and heart of society and the state, penetrating areas of life we could not have imagined, destroying culture, nature and humanity. All this is well known, but finding a way out appears impossible. When the global 'anti-capitalist' movements erupted, they generated renewed hope. It was good to see how they firmly broke from decrepit formulae. But, so far at any rate, they have shown unbounded confusion, and sometimes seem to have made a virtue of not going too deeply into what they are aiming at. Many of these young people see the problem as the bad behaviour of 'uncontrolled' multi-national corporations. Others, struggling to avoid the alternatives of the domination of inhuman 'market forces' and a corrupt centralised bureaucratic state, try to envisage a return to a time before capital, or even before civilisation.

Some of my earliest memories are of serious arguments about how we could persuade  people to work in a collectively-organised manner. Sceptics were always asking: 'Who would look after the sewers?' (Sanitation seemed to concern them a great deal.) If there was plenty of everything for everybody, why should anyone work? We had our answer, of course: although, under present conditions, people were understandably competitive, driven to fight each other for the means to live, once we had (very kindly) provided them with a decent way of life, they would soon learn better ways. Our opponents said repeatedly - always as if they were the first to think of it - that socialism seemed a good idea 'in theory', but - human nature being what it is.... We answered with the assertion that human nature was not a constant and that we were sure we could fix it.

Such an all-embracing social engineering project needed a basis in a social physics and the only candidate for this position was called 'Marxism'. My aim is to show that, at a fundamental level, what we called 'Marxism' was not just different from the ideas of Marx but their direct opposite. The theoretical framework called 'Marxism' purported to be a doctrine, sometimes even a 'complete and integral world outlook'. When the 'Marxists' claimed to be 'scientific', they had in mind an analogy with the natural sciences. In this, we saw ourselves as inheritors of the tradition known as the Enlightenment, which in the eighteenth century fought against the old ideas of religion and superstition, laying the basis for the modern rational science of nature and for liberty, equality and fraternity. The 'Marxists' explained that those eighteenth-century thinkers were not quite able to attain a scientific view of history, but that 'Marxism' had provided that extension. They developed a 'theory of history' called 'historical materialism', an 'economic doctrine', sometimes referred to as 'Marxist economics', and a philosophical outlook, called 'dialectical materialism'. None of this was to be found in the writings of Karl Marx and when, in the 1960s, important texts of Marx were studied for the first time, the most strenuous efforts failed to reconcile them with 'Marxism'.

Marx worked to demonstrate that living humanly, in a manner 'worthy of and appropriate to our human nature' (Capital, Vol. 3), would mean a free association of human individuals, an association in which 'the free development of each individual is the condition for the free development of all'. He showed that individuals were 'alienated',  dominated by the relations between them. A truly human way of life is incompatible with private property, wage-labour, money and the state, but is actually in accord with nature, and the way that humanity, at whose heart lies free, creative, social activity, had emerged  from what appears to be the blind activity of nature.

Marx is not responsible for a 'doctrine' of any kind, neither a teaching about what the world ought to be, nor an explanation of the way the world works. He conceives of  humanity as socially self-creating, and this clashes with anything which purports to be any 'doctrine' or 'theory'. For 'doctrine' means separating the 'teacher' from the ordinary person being taught, a separation which is itself a symptom of the sick, fragmented way of life of modernity. Today, entities like money, capital and the state are crazily accepted as subjects; at the same time, we treat each other and ourselves, not as free, self-creating subjects, but as if we were things. So we are necessarily cut off from understanding ourselves.

While human freedom means that humans - all of us - consciously create their own lives under mutually-agreed relations, socialism sought the re-arrangement of a given collection of humans by a self-appointed set of re-arrangers. Marx is after something quite different: 'the alteration of men [Menschen = humans] on a mass scale'. What might this mean? Clearly, he is not talking about individuals changing themselves, one at a time, for he shows that the essence of humanity is 'the ensemble of social relations': history is the process in which we all make each other. Marx's aim is nothing less than a collective struggle by all of us to remake our world, our social relations and ourselves: self-creation. This is what he means by freedom. The notion that some people, the socialists, will remake the world, has nothing to do with Marx. Humanity, all of us, must consciously make ourselves.

Making something generally implies, among other things, that the object made will exist outside you when it is done, and will be compared with the aim which preceded the job. What can it mean to make yourself, as a consciously planned outcome? Each attempt to fulfill your aim will lead to changes in yourself, both as subject and as object. Even harder: how could this include the conscious making of social relations? But Marx, acknowledging his debt to Hegel, was attempting to express no less than this.

So this idea of self-creation is not a simple one. Perhaps it would be easier if we first thought about creation in general, say, deliberately bringing something into being which did not exist before. Aristotle gave this question some attention, but he seems to have been the last philosopher to do so for over two thousand years, and even he could not consider the creation of social relations. Since his time, it has been God's act of creation of the world, rather than human production, that has received most of the attention. So we can't avoid turning to religion to illuminate our question.

Of course, over the millennia, there have been many types of religious accounts of the world, communal attempts to understand how humans relate to nature and to each other, and the story of Creation was usually central to them. Perhaps we can distinguish two main versions. In the mainline monotheistic religions, God is the Almighty Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and human activities are strictly secondary. God made the world, and there's nothing you can do about it. But this is not the only way of thinking and might even have been a minority view, for other mystical and religious accounts give quite different answers. For varieties of Buddhism. for example, the question does not arise: the world has always existed.

But there have also been a wide variety of mystical religious standpoints, most of them heretically clashing with the established outlook, for whom a divine power was involved in creating the world which remained incomplete and needed human activity to collaborate with the divine. Such ideas give human activity a starring role, and this makes a big difference to the relation between nature and humanity. Nature is seen as an active unity, in which human purposive activity plays a part. In this category, we shall mention Jewish Cabbalists, Islamic Sufis and some Christian heretics, entwined with Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and Hermetism. For such thinkers, divine creation of the world was self-creation, God making Himself through Nature and through us.

And that will bring us to Hegel. Describing his own kind of 'speculative philosophy' as mysticism, Hegel drew on the work of that long line of mystics. After Aristotle, he seems to have been one of the few philosophers, as opposed to theologians, to look at the problem of human and divine creative process, and, through his concept of Spirit, explicitly to bring them together. Only after examining his relation to the heretics will it be possible for us to return to Marx and his critique of Hegel. Then we shall see that, grasping humanity as self-creating, Marx is opposed to every attempt to consider humanity and its destiny from inside a closed or complete intellectual system. He never forgets that he is a human being talking about human beings. That is why 'Marxism', which found this quite distasteful, was so hostile to the real ideas of Marx.

But we have missed something out of this story. Starting in the seventeenth century, and especially in eighteenth, all such questions seemed to fade away. Armed with the advances of science and technology, many thinkers opposed the oppressive political and intellectual authority of the Church. But this led them simply to dismiss as 'superstition' the ideas of thousands of years which have struggled with some of the central questions of existence. For the rational-scientific outlook, making something new meant re-arranging bits of the existing world. Freedom could mean no more than the removal of some obstacles to the will of the isolated individual. Society could be nothing but a discrete collection of such individuals, and the individuals could not be seen as more than grains of subjectivity whirling around inside a mindless, indifferent, deterministic nature-machine.

I want to show that Hegel, followed by Feuerbach and Marx, had to re-connect with those older, 'heretical' traditions to do their work, re-discovering them and giving them a modern form. This entailed breaking through the barrier of the Enlightenment and its successors, like nineteenth-century positivists. Only then can freedom and self-creation be brought to light in the conditions of modern life. Only then can Marx find out how we must struggle to make them a reality. My first task, then, is to look at a long line of thinkers, mainly religious mystics, whose work feeds into that of Hegel. (I have missed out lots of others, about whom he says nothing, while including one or two who, while they are not actually mentioned by him, directly connect with those who are.)

2. Human Production and Divine Creation


Although Aristotle's Metaphysics was one of the most influential of philosophical documents over the past two millennia, his attempt to discuss the nature of human productive activity (poesis) had no successor for most of that time. In Book Zeta, Met. VII, 7 and 8, the Philosopher explains three kinds of 'things that come to be or are generated, some by nature, others, by art; still others, “automatically”.'

It is by art that those products come whose form dwells in the mind, where by 'form' I mean what it is to be that product, its first or primary being. ... (I)t would be impossible for anything to be if nothing were present previously  ... thus, the material part is essential, since it is in process, and it is this material that comes to be something.

So we have three elements in production: agency, form and material. Aristotle has nothing to say about where the first and third of these come from, and on the second, form, he says:

(T)he form, or whatever we want to call the shape in the perceived object, is not produced; nor is there ever  any production of it; no intrinsic nature is ever made.

The production of, say, a bronze sphere, consists of a workman putting some bronze into the shape of the sphere. Aristotle follows this with a careful discussion of many other aspects of form, for example, how wholes and parts are related. When production is completed, something new has come into being. For Aristotle, form was the active generator, the father, while matter was the passive, the feminine, and so, quite obviously,  inferior.

In his Poetics, he discusses the production of poetry, the only kind of making that later philosophers thought elevated enough to merit philosophical interest. By defining it as 'imitation of action', he is able to include it within his general idea of poesis. Aristotle can never ask how socio-political relations are 'generated', because for him they have no history. Nor does he need to ask how the world as a whole is generated: for him, the world is eternal. His 'Unmoved Mover', the original cause of all motion, is indeed 'divine', but 'the divine' and its life are 'the activity of mind ... life unending, continuous and eternal'. (Met, XII, 7.) 

Divine Creation

Many centuries later, when Aquinas roped Aristotle into the service of the Catholic Church, he had a hard job accommodating the pagan philosopher into the Christian story of Divine Creation. How could you reconcile God creating the world from nothing (ex nihilo), the official Catholic view since Athanasius, with the principle that 'nothing  comes from nothing' (ex nihilo nihil fit), or even with Greek belief in the eternity of the world?

Humans have been trying to understand the world and their own place in it for a long time. They have generally relied on some kind of religious or mythical account, which has helped to shape the way people lived. How people thought about their lives, their origins and their destiny could not be separated from a story of the way the world got started. (While Jews and Romans, for example, have a conception of history beginning  after this starting point, Greeks didn't think much about the question of creation at all.)  In modern, more 'enlightened' times, the attempt is made to explain the world without such stories, which are dismissed as mere superstition. A phrase like 'Big Bang' will make the problem go away. But that leaves the big question unanswered: 'In what kind of world is it possible for conscious humanity to exist?' All the discussion of how the world started is really about this issue, I believe.

In some accounts of Creation, God has to work a bit like a human producer. Creation takes time and effort, for example, and each of the six days' output has to be checked to see if it was good. (It was.) In the orthodox versions of the three big monotheistic religions, Almighty God, (who is bound up with the almighty powers on Earth), produces the whole show and writes the script. If you complain about how dreadful it is, you are fobbed off with a story about free will; this is God's alibi, a Divine trick to put all the blame on us mortals. But the problem refused to disappear. What are we to make of the existence of evil-doing, disease, famine, violence, greed? Are these part of God's willful design? But if so, what chance do we have of making the world a decent place to live?  The Catholic Church in particular fought for centuries against dualist answers to this conundrum, those conceptions that saw the world as a product of both Good and Evil, 'matter' being the evil part.

Plato and After

After the Greek language had been forgotten in Western Europe, the dialogue Timaeus, one of Plato's later works, was the only part of his output to be remembered there. It was known only to Arab scholars, in Latin translation. Earlier, it had formed the basis for the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (205-70). It is also the only place where Plato considers  questions of cosmology and cosmogony. (By the way, that had nothing to do with Zeus and the other Greek Gods. Unlike the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition, the Greeks believed in Gods who were themselves created, following on from Titans and other older entities.)

Significantly, Socrates begins the dialogue by outlining his ideal society. His friend Timaeus then proceeds to explain that the cosmos must have had a beginning and a constructor, because it is perceptible by the senses, and so changeable. Its maker was the Demiurge, the divine workman, says Timaeus, was good and so 'had his eye' on an ideal and unchanging blueprint, which was a living being.

God therefore, wishing that all things should be good, and so far as possible nothing be imperfect, and finding the visible universe in a state not of rest but of inharmonious and disorderly motion, reduced it to order from disorder, as he judged that order was in every way better.

That is how he came to make the world a living being with 'reason in soul and soul in body'. Timaeus goes on to describe the construction of the physical world and the human soul. For example, it had to be spherical and 'a single complete whole'.

Accounts like this are much, much older than Plato, of course. About 2000 years earlier, the Egyptians had the story of how the ordered cosmos emerged from chaos which had always been there. Sometimes, this was the work of the Sun-god Ra, ably assisted by his secretary, the moon-god Thoth. A sort of cosmic project-manager, Thoth was not just important for setting the show up, but also for keeping it going. (We meet him again, but under the Greek name 'Hermes' and the Latin 'Mercury'.) Even before this, the Mesopotamians had a similar creation-myth, in which the demiurge has the benefit of many assistant gods and the opposition of a mass of disorderly demons. In all of these accounts, cosmic order involves the struggle of opposites and is bound up with political order.

When Plotinus (205-270) built up his highly complex world-picture on the basis of the  Timaeus, the ultimate reality was the One, an unknowable Being which was also the Good. Matter, which was Evil, was not real. Emanating from the One, as light emanates from the Sun, were the Intelligences, [nous] and from them the Soul. Individual souls were eternal, migrating from body to body [metempsychosis]. For Proclus (412-85), who systematised Neoplatonism, these individual souls were drawn to return to the One. By philosophically contemplating the One, they could get back to Square One, completing the loop.


Now we must turn to several varieties of mysticism. (We shall need them to talk about Hegel, and thus Marx.) Thomas Aquinas defined mysticism as 'the knowledge of God through experience', and many mystics, seek, not just knowledge, but 'mystical union with God'. Each variety of mysticism is characterised by the particular religious views and particular conception of God inside which it develops.

Gnosticism was a term used by the heresy-hunters in the early Church to refer to a cluster of unorthodox notions. Similar ideas were also to be found among the Jewish and Christian-Jewish sects which abounded in the first and second centuries and connections can also be made both with Neoplatonism and with Eastern religions. These trends also believed that the material world was made by a Demiurge, but they identified him with the angry God of the Old Testament, and saw that his work was evil. The true God was far above him and was unknowable. Christ was the messenger of the true God, who only appeared to take human form, so that the Crucifixion was merely apparent. The world and its history were driven by a war between Good and Evil, with angels and demons carrying out the work of the Demiurge. Only through the internal spiritual work of the individual believer, the 'pneumatic', was the Kingdom of God created. God needed the people to complete his work.

The founders of the Church tried very hard, and with true Christian brutality, to eliminate these ideas, but could never quite succeed. Until quite recently, our knowledge of these groups was only via the writings of their enemies the heresy-hunters, and only after the discovery of a cache of Coptic translations in 1945 in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt was it possible for us to read actual Gnostic writings. Medieval heretics often held Gnostic conceptions, as we know from their recorded statements to the Inquisition before they were burnt. Bogomils, Cathars (Albigensians) and Waldensians, rebelling against the orthodoxy of the Church, all espoused dualist, Gnostic ideas. Traces of these were still current in the peasant movements of the Reformation.


A Hebrew word meaning 'the tradition', Cabbala covers a long history of Jewish mystical teachings. These texts were believed to be very ancient, conveying the wisdom imparted by God to Adam, and then to Moses. In fact, they seem to have originated about two millennia ago, beginning as a mixture of Jewish Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. However, Cabbalists were always confronted with the impossible task of reconciling their ideas with the strictly monotheistic Rabbinical conceptions of God.

Two events in the history of European Jewry prompted the flourishing of Cabbala mysticism as we know it now: at the start of the second millennium, the centuries of murderous Christian barbarism known as the Crusades; and, at the end of the fifteenth century, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Each of these catastrophes brought the problem of evil into sharp relief: if God is both good and omnipotent, and if the Jews were indeed his chosen ones, how could He let such things happen to them?

From twelfth-century Provence, where the influence of Catharism might have added its contribution, Cabbalism moved into Spain. The thirteenth-century 'Sefer ha-Zohar' ('Book of Splendour') comes from the town of Gerona in Catalonia. At the time of the expulsion, the Centre moved from there to Safed in Upper Galilee. Here worked, among others, Moses Cordevero (1522-70) and his student Isaac Luria (1534-72), 'the Ari'. It is their later Cabbala with which we shall be mainly concerned.

The Rabbis had prohibited enquiry into what happened before Creation: you were not allowed to ask God for His cv. And this was precisely the enquiry in which the Cabbalists were engaged. Each aspect of the mystical account of Creation, and what went on before it, was the subject of fierce controversy, but a rough outline involves the following.  Corresponding to the Neoplatonist 'One' is Ein-Sof, the Infinite, absolute and undifferentiated perfection. This is completely unknowable, even to the mystic who engages in deep meditation, and even he can only glimpse it through its manifestation in material Creation. Ein-Sof emanates the whole of existence through a complex system of ten elements called the Sefiroth. All things come from the One, which breaks into two. Thereafter, all things yearn for reunification. But this is a cyclic process. God also yearns to create, and so Cosmogony - the origin of the universe - is at the same time theogony - the origin of God. The Divine at once conceals and reveals itself in a process of self-creation.

In the very beginning, the Sefiroth are in a state of perfect equilibrium. In the account developed by Luria and his followers, Creation is a violent crisis which disrupts this balance. Only thus does the Divine reveal itself. For example, before the crisis, Gevurah (Power) or Din (Judgement), is balanced with Tiferet (Beauty) and Hesed, (lovingkindness). But after the catastrophe of creation, the imbalance of this system turns each of them into a source of evil. Since Creation, the world has been alienated from its source, Ein Sof. In the theory of Luria, Zimzum (Contraction) was a convulsive movement in which the divine pulls itself into itself and away from the world. In its following expansion, the Divine light which is used to fill the Sefiroth as 'vessels', smashes them, causing sparks of divinity to scatter into the material world. How is this to be put right? Humans must carefully gather up these 'sparks' and re-assemble the original perfection. This Tikkun (mending), is the responsibility of the Jews, whose righteousness is essential if the world is to be redeemed. (I must reveal my own feelings here: I am immensely impressed with the struggle of Cabbalists to express very difficult notions of universal importance. At the same time, I am repelled by the narrow ethnocentricity of their work.)

Magic and Mysticism

I have so far omitted an important aspect of Cabbalism which it would be wrong to ignore. 'Practical Cabbala' or magic, not only played a vital part in its influence, but it also links it to many other mystical trends. Every culture and religious scheme has known the idea that wise men and women could find out how to predict the movements of natural forces and influence them in favour of human interests. (For all our 'enlightened' ideas, this notion is with us still!) The Cabbalist outlook is naturally favourable to the notion that, by means of prayer, incantation, interpretation of dreams and so on, those who knew the workings of reality could control it in some way. The world, being divine and, moreover, still under construction, contained angelic and demonic forces which might be commanded by people with special knowledge. In particular, since God created the world out of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, manipulating these letters and their numerical equivalents in the text of the Torah, especially the names of God, would give inside information of the divinity. If you did it right, it might grant the practitioner magical power.

When Christian scholars found the way to read the Hebrew texts of Cabbala, it was often this aspect which attracted and excited them. Even before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 brought these texts to the attention of Latin and other translators, Giovanni Pico  della Mirandola (1463-94) had read some of the Zohar and connected it with his humanist and Neoplatonist ideas, and especially with his work on magic. This great Renaissance thinker wanted to integrate the whole of religion and philosophy, linking Islamic, Jewish and Christian sources, and this got him into trouble, both with the Church and with the Cabbalists.

His famous defence, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, begins like this:

Most esteemed Fathers, I have read in the ancient writings of the Arabians that Abdala the Saracen on being asked what, on this stage, so to say, of the world, seemed to him most evocative of wonder, replied that there was nothing to be seen more marvelous than man. And that celebrated exclamation of Hermes Trismegistus, ``What a great miracle is man, Asclepius'' confirms this opinion.

This Hermes Trismegistus ('Thrice Great') plays an important part in Renaissance attempts to bring Jewish, Christian and Islamic ideas together. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, translation of Greek authors, preserved until then only by Islamic scholars, opened up new ways of thought. The writings attributed to Hermes were widely studied as a body of work whose roots are extremely ancient. The manuscripts are now known to be Gnostic texts of the second century. Together with Cabbala, they had for centuries formed the basis for alchemy, astrology and natural magic, but now, and for the next three centuries or more, they were the background to the thinking of the leading figures in European thought in the run-up to modernity. It was this intellectual world that actually saw the birth of modern science. Lorenzo di Medici set Pico's colleague Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) to work translating these writings, as well as the Zohar, even giving this job priority over the translation of Plato.

As a scientific picture of the world, many of the results obtained by the alchemists and magicians look somewhat bizarre today. But the undoubted triumphs of modern scientific rationalism can blind us to what is important in the world outlook of the Hermeticists. First of all, they saw that the contrasts and oppositions between the divine and the human,  like those between spirit and nature, were not unbridgeable. The cosmos was a whole, united by a series of internal relations, correspondences and 'sympathies' between its parts. In the most important of these, the connection between humanity and nature, the human individual was a microcosm whose physical and mental structure corresponded to that of the macrocosm, so that each individual included the whole world within itself. 'As above, so below', as the first words of the Corpus Hermeticum puts it. This was an active connection: when God created the world, he had not completed the job, and to rectify the remaining imperfections required human subjective activity. Indeed, the question: 'why did God create the world?' could only be answered in terms of His need for humanity to do this work.

Through his own personality and imagination, the Magus called down cosmic forces, which his knowledge enabled him to direct. Thus the Magus himself participated in the Great Work of Creation, and so identified himself with the world, even with God. (You had to be careful: in the wrong hands, this knowledge could bring demons instead of angels into the picture: big trouble. So to become an 'adept' required a long  apprenticeship, in which false ideas were purged. This is what Goethe's poem, the Sorcerers Apprentice, is about.) So whatever the oddities of the results of particular experiments, they were founded on a pattern of activity of mind, hand and matter.

Some Christian Mystics

Now let's look very briefly at some individual figures who played a part in developing these ideas. This list is unified by actually forming a connected sequence which is crucial for Hegel's thought. 

   (a) Eriugena (= 'born in Ireland'), (810-877), also known as John the Scot (not to be confused with the Englishman Duns Scotus), was a scholar studying Greek texts before the 'Dark Ages' had come to an end. He believed that God does not create the world in one go, but eternally, through 'primordial causes'. Everything finite is contained within his infinite nature and returns to it. Nature is an active process, 'natura naturata'. Eriugena had much in common with the Greek church, and seems to have been familiar with some Islamic mysticism (Sufism), and maybe some earlier forms of Cabbala. For him, God could not be known except via the symbols given in the Bible. As an example of the subterranean connections which keep being thrown up in this field, he was important for the Spaniard Ramon Lull (1235-1316), who was already aware of Cabbalist writings. Eriugena's book, On the Division of Nature, was condemned by various Church bodies, but, despite this, continued to be read surreptitiously over the later centuries.

    (b) Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) was an abbot in Calabria. His account of the unity of truth and ignorance and his conception of Divine Knowledge anticipates Hegel in many ways. Joachim believes that God is knowing and self-revelatory. Joachimite identification of the structure of the Trinity with three stages of divine history formed the basis for centuries of social struggles. The third of these stages, identified with the Holy Spirit, was about to begin at any time now, when the ending of the corruption of the Church would usher in a thousand-year Utopia. For centuries after his death, rebels against the feudal order were describing themselves as 'Joachimites'. Indeed, we know of them largely because the Inquisition recorded the trial statements of these millenarians  before it burnt them. Some of their ideas are still echoed in the writings of Diggers and other groups in seventeenth-century England.

     (c) Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), a German Dominican monk, was the first to develop the terminology of philosophy in German, translating and adapting Latin terms. For him, God becomes conscious of himself only within his creation, which took place through the 'creative ideas' in his Son. So he knew Eriugena's book, despite the ban. Eckhart also argues that Divine Knowledge is 'the negation of negation'. As with other mystics, Eckhart's aim was the unification of the soul with God. Christ is continually born within each believing soul. Each soul derives its essence from God and so is not merely finite. 'The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see Him; my eye and His eye are the same... If He did not exist, nor would I; if I did not exist, nor would He.' It turns out that this startling statement, which Hegel picked up half a millennium later, was actually a Sufi saying, a Hadith.

    (d) Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) (Cusanus) was a pillar of the Church, a Cardinal, no less. But he annoyed many of his fellow-Catholics when he argued that God was united with his creation. Nicolas seems to have been the first to use the word 'absolute' to refer to God as unconditioned by anything else. His famous book, Of Learned Ignorance, contains direct references to Eriugena's banned work, defending his ninth-century predecessor against the charge that he associated with Cathars and other dangerous people. The universe, including the human being, must be divine, and therefore infinite, says Nicolas, with its circumference nowhere and its centre everywhere. This 'coincidence of opposites' preceded Copernicus (1473-1543) by a century. He had cautiously published his rather scaled-down version of Nicolas's idea only on his death-bed. (By the way, Copernicus also referred to the authority of Hermes in his major work.) 

    (e) Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) was a German nobleman who was educated in Italy. He aimed to unify the knowledge of his time as a combination of Christian Cabbala, Neoplatonism and Hermeticism. He held up publication of his main work, The Occult Philosophy, for over twenty years, rightly fearing the attacks which it would attract from the Church. His version of Aristotelean physics includes the influence of 'occult virtues' from the World Soul, which enable us to move objects as desired. Cabbala would make it possible to gain power over demons and angels by means of operations on letters and numbers. He always insisted, however, that this was in co-operation with God and His Angels, and had nothing to do with demons at all.

    (f) Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), known as Paracelsus is often referred to as the founder of modern medicine and chemistry, and he did indeed aggressively pioneer the rejection of the old Aristotelean ideas which still held those fields in an iron grip. He opened up the use of herbal and chemical substances in the cure of many illnesses and was the first to study an occupational disease, in his work on the ailments of miners. Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote him a letter, thanking him for his successful medical advice.

But he was also an alchemist and Hermeticist, keenly interested in magic. In his medical work, Paracelsus took very seriously the Hermetic formula 'as above, so below': the human had the same structure as the cosmos.

What else could fortune [Glück] be than living in conformity to nature's wisdom? If nature goes well, that is fortune; if it does not, that is misfortune. For our essence is ordained in nature.

He saw the work of the physician as a practical activity which drew from his own imagination to tune in to the physical problems of the patient. Intuition, not logical reasoning was the heart of medical science. For Paracelsus, astrology was mistaken only in that it concentrated on the influence of the stars on the human individual, and ignored the reverse influence of the magus and his imagination on the stars. Imagination for Paracelsus is not a passive depiction of the world, but an active power to change it. Pathological symptoms exhibit the 'signatures' of an out-of-balance in nature and the magus has to correct this by his art.

An opponent of both the Church hierarchy and of Luther, whose oppression of the peasants offended him deeply, he was a firm Neoplatonist and student of Cabbala. So his  world is an emanation of the One, produced by the 'separation' of the elements from 'Prime Matter', and this individuation is a 'fall' of nature and of man. The purpose of human activity is to perfect an imperfect world, and this is the role of alchemy and magic. 
From the stars to the human individual and from angels and demons to the mind, the world is a unity which has become divided. Everywhere, Paracelsus shows us a loop from the One to the multiplicity and back, with human conscious activity bringing about the return journey.

No-one sees what is hidden in him [the human being], but only what his works reveal. Therefore man should work continually to discover what God has given him

    (g) Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a strong advocate of the ideas of Copernicus, but was not influenced by his caution. He openly flaunted the most heretical implications  of Nicolas's ideas and took them as far as they would go. Born at Nola, near Naples, Bruno had joined the Dominican Order, but soon quarreled with it, and spent the rest of his life as a wandering scholar, annoying the established authorities wherever he went.  Eventually, he was arrested by the Inquisition and burnt after several years of torture. (The Holy Fathers of the Inquisition were worried about completing this job: they took Bruno's burnt bones out of the fire and smashed them up with hammers.) If you go to the Piazza Campo dei Fiori in Rome, the place where he was burnt, you will see his statue, erected in the 1860s to celebrate his importance as a martyr for modern science. In fact, this idea of him was not correct, for Bruno was a magician and mystic.

It is true that he was strongly against the Aristotelean stranglehold on cosmological ideas, and that his development of the Copernican cosmology led him to some very modern ideas about the universe. He influenced people like Kepler (a fellow-Neoplatonist) and perhaps Galileo. He was ahead of them in his rejection of the necessity of circular planetary orbits, for example, and anticipated many of Galileo's arguments for the movement of the Earth. But his outlook combined Hermeticism and Neoplatonism with ideas derived from the Zohar. Although he seems not to have known Hebrew, he studied several of the Cabbalist texts, which were by his time causing great excitement among Renaissance scholars.

But we should not include him under the heading of Christian Cabbalism, because it not clear that was a Christian. His overt religious views actually hid the fact that he was much more an adherent of what he thought was the ancient Egyptian religion. He thought he had found this in the Hermetic manuscripts, and from this source he knew that the Earth was alive and moved itself round the Sun. In general, matter was permeated with life and form, continually transforming itself.

Above all, his studies continually strove to probe the deepest relationships between humanity and the movements of the material world.

To recognise the unity of form and matter in all things, is what reason is striving to attain to. But in order to penetrate to this unity, in order to investigate all the secrets of Nature, we must search into the opposed and contradictory extremes of things, the maximum and the minimum.

   (h) Jakob Böhme (1585-1696) was a shoemaker of Goerlitz, a town between Silesia and Bohemia. He had only an elementary education, but in 1600 he began to write a huge mystical manuscript, which he only finished twelve years later, and continued to write for the rest of his life. Amid the troubles of Europe at the beginning of the Thirty-Years War, he struggles to reconcile the ordered cosmos with freedom. He brings into this work that combination of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Cabbala and Hermeticism we have found in  earlier writers. He uses the language of alchemy to express his human-centred conceptions of the world, which, as with those of Paracelsus, link God, Nature and individual psychology.

The book in which all secrets lie hidden is man himself; he himself is the Book of the Essence of all Essences. ...He is like unto God. ...Why do you seek God in the depths or beyond the stars? ...Seek him in your heart, in the centre of your life's origin. There shall you find Him.

Hegel devotes 30 pages of his 'Lectures on the History of Philosophy' to Böhme - John Locke gets about half as much! - and this is not surprising when you read passages like this one:

Nothing can be revealed to itself without opposition: For if there is nothing that opposes it, then it always goes out of itself and never returns to itself again. If it does not return into itself, as into that from which it originated, then it knows nothing of its origin. {Böhme, 'The Way to Christ'. Quoted by Hegel, op cit,  Volume 3, p 203.)

Böhme is also an inspiration for many other writers, notably for the poet Blake. Many of Böhme's notions, often expressed with great obscurity, may also be linked with  the Islamic mystical, the Sufis. All three, Christian, Jewish and Islamic heresies, maintained a centuries-long collaboration and dispute. 'Nature is God's body', writes Böhme: Creation is not ex nihilo, from nothing, but ex Deo, from God. That is how God reveals Himself. Only with great difficulty does he avoid saying outright that God must therefore be the source of evil.

For all life is steeped in poison and the light alone withstands the poison, and yet is also a cause that the poison lives and does not languish.


Now, some remarks on this list as a whole:

1. Nearly all of the people on it are mentioned with approval by Hegel. He does not seem to have encountered Eriugena, nor does he seem to be aware of Nicolas of Cusa. However, these names belong here because of their importance for each of the others.

2. Another character ought to appear on our cast-list, but doesn't. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is the most famous name in the history of Hermeticism, but Hegel, like most of us until quite recently, did not know this. Newton kept completely secret the facts that he spent much of his working life as an alchemist, had the largest collection of Hermetic literature in his library, and translated some key manuscripts in the Corpus Hermeticum. His life-long studies of the Book of Daniel and the dimensions of the Great Pyramid seemed to be unconnected eccentricities. Only towards the end of the twentieth century has the real story been uncovered, in the work of Betty-Jo Dobbs. Meanwhile, learned authorities still insist on gibbering about 'the Newtonian mechanical universe'.

3. What all of these people have in common is a conception of Creation as self-creation. For them, God, in bringing the world into being including humanity as a special part, also brings Himself into being, and conscious human productive activity has the starring role.  Moreover, God puts Himself into his work, so that Nature and humanity are aspects of the divine. That is why these people were certain that knowledge of nature and humanity were possible only to those who achieve mystical union with God.

3. Enlightenment versus Magic

The word 'enlightenment' usually refers to the thought of the second half of the eighteenth century. However, while the differences among the thinkers of two centuries 1600-1800 are, of course, very significant, the term does capture that fundamental shift in thinking which took place as modern bourgeois society was taking shape, say, from Descartes to Kant. What is obvious is that the scientific, rational ideas which came to predominate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, tended to brush aside all the questions we have been dicussing.

In his 1784 essay What is enlightenment? Kant sees the essence of the new way of looking at the world lying in the freedom of individual thought.

Enlightenment is man's leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one's intelligence without the guidance of another. ... Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own intelligence is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Thus advanced thought took for its standpoint 'the single individual in civil society'. With an exhilarating declaration of independence it challenged all authority of Church and State.  But already, Kant, Rousseau and others begin to explore, the problems this raises. There is no doubt that thinking is indeed inseparable from the activity of the individual brain. But it is at the same time completely social, involving categories of thought which are products of society and history, as is language. Moreover, no thinker can separate his intellect from emotion and will, which are at once individual and social in nature. And so the excellent exhortation to 'think for yourself' can be a misleading one,

From the point of view of each social atom, the natural world and society look like collections of discrete bits and pieces, machines made up of smaller machines. When the 'single individual' thinks about this mechanical world, he sees himself as yet another machine, quite unchanged by interaction with the other machines. In trying to think about these assemblies of atoms, many problems arise, and the best way to answer these is to isolate each one and break it into separate, smaller sub-problems.

The individual gets his knowledge of the world by logically decoding the messages conveyed to him through his senses. (Who is doing the de-coding, though?) Otherwise, the knowing subject and the object of knowledge are utterly different and separate from each other, as are Nature and humanity. Freedom, which for this outlook means the removal of 'external' restrictions on the individual, is not to be found in nature, where all  movement is rigidly determined. To be 'objective' you have to expunge everything subjective, like feeling, will or free, creative activity. This is how reason, the equipment of each individual human, worked in opposition to all kinds of superstition.

This outlook made possible modern natural science, and the earlier history of science, which was inseparable from magic and alchemy, was expunged from the record. The fact that it had been the Hermeticists who had borne the brunt of the fight against  scholasticism was forgotten. rationalism falsely claimed the credit for it all. Although the power of the Churches was courageously challenged by the Enlighteners, atheism was actually rare. The predominant belief was in a benevolent Deity, who didn't interfere with the workings of the material world. That great upholder of Jacobinism, Immanuel Kant, got into a lot of trouble for his 1793 Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, but he concludes that courageous work with his aim of an 'ethical commonwealth', whose concept was that of 'a people of God under ethical laws'. A rational conception of God took the place of earlier ideas of the Lord of the World. Miracles were rationally explained away, and the laws of matter came to be assumed as paramount. God was demoted, just an affair of 'the heart', a matter for the individual conscience.

And what did the rationalists have to say about human society? For them, humanity was part of this blind rushing about. Whether humans were put here by an absent Deity, or got here by chance, their social relations could only be understood as external to their  subjectivity. Political economy, and later, sociology, studied a social machine, made up of atoms driven by self-interest, while the social order and its history were governed by laws as fixed as those which ruled the solar system. This outlook encouraged its devotees to attempt to remake social relations to bring them into line with what was self-evidently rational. This was how American rebels who drafted their 'Declaration of Independence' in 1777, and soon after them the Frenchmen with their 'Rights of Man', came to see their work. When the outcome of the French revolution could be discerned a little more clearly, the idea of extending such ways of thinking to transcend the rights of private property gave rise to various socialist schemes.

Deep inside all these sets of ideas was the separation of people from each other, from society as a whole and from the world of nature. Rational thought and emotions were not just separate but totally opposed to each other. Creation was inexplicable and self-creation inconceivable for such a world outlook. Most important, it could not explain  itself.

4. Schelling and Hegel

While in all of his work, GWF Hegel (1770-1831) takes account of the advances of the Enlightenment, he stands in fundamental opposition to its basic conceptions. What is often played down is that, while the philosophes either attempted to rationalise religion, or to disregard it entirely, Hegel places theology at the centre of all his work. After his grappling with Christianity in his student years in the Tübingen Theological Seminary, his turn to philosophy or 'Science' [= Wissenschaft] is inseparable from his peculiar views on God. It is not only 'Marxists' for whom this poses a problem. Even when some of them bring themselves to peep into Hegel's system, they just can't handle Hegel's religion. It is particularly comical to see Lenin's superstitious panic, in his Notebooks on Hegel's Science of Logic, every time Hegel mentions God. For Georgi Lukacs, who knew a rather more about the matter, Hegel's religious views are a shameful secret.

The fragmentation of eighteenth-century social and intellectual life in a world increasingly dominated by money and capital is the key to the ideas I have called 'the Enlightenment'. Although in Germany such changes spread much more slowly than in Britain and France, by the end of the century, many German intellectuals were reading with alarm about the effect that commercialisation and industrialisation were having in England, Scotland and France.  Comparing their not very brave new world with the idealised picture they had of ancient Greece, people like Goethe, Schiller and Herder   looked for ways for Germany to bypass such developments. Hölderlin's poetry and his novel Hyperion combined his yearning for the harmony of the Greek ideal with a romantic pantheism. Eventually, Hölderlin's  disappointment with the failure of his dreams led to his life-long madness.

The young Hegel, together with his fellow students Hölderlin and Schelling, the French revolution welcomed the French Revolution with enthusiasm, for it  seemed at first to offer an alternative to the fragmentation of modernity. Then the dream faded. Together, the three adopted as their slogan the motto 'hen kai pan', 'One and All', which they saw as summing up their opposition to the Enlightenment.

Of these three young men, the leader is undoubtedly the youngest. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) is just fifteen when he is admitted to the Tübingen Seminary and eighteen when he begins to produce his massive output of books and articles. At twenty-three, Schelling is a professor in Jena. Throughout his life, his work expresses a series of outlooks which continually strive to discover the fundamental unity of reality. Where Enlightenment thinkers separated Nature and humanity from Reason, Schelling strives to deduce them from Reason. Nature is Mind or Self in the process of becoming. Art unites the poles of consciousness and unconsciouness, and the universe itself is a work of art. He has a deep relationship with his contemporaries the romantics, for example, with the pantheism of Wordsworth.

In his 1804 dialogue Bruno, Schelling makes Giordano the protagonist for his own views. By now he has studied enough of Böhme to decide that the world originates from God by a non-rational leap. Nature is sin and unreason, while history is Nature striving to return to reason. All of these ideas are clearly relate to the tradition of Böhme and Cabbala. Schelling's God is 'not a System, but a Life'. In his Philosophy and Religion (1809), he is able to write that:

History is an epic composed in the mind of God. Its two main parts are, first, that which depicts the departure of mankind from its centre, up to its farther point of alienation, and second, that which depicts the return. The first is the Odyssey of History, the second, its Iliad. In the first, the movement is centrifugal, in the second it is centripetal.

Schelling's Absolute, the unconditioned, is the One from which the world begins. At the creation, it  falls into the Many, and, from then on, strives to get back to the One..

By the time, in 1841, towards the end of his life, Schelling is called to occupy that Berlin chair which had been Hegel's ten years earlier, he has drawn the most reactionary conclusions. Now a defender of religious  orthodoxy, he has become the Prussian establishment's answer to that dangerous 'atheism' caused by the pernicious influence of Hegel.

Until his thirties, Hegel follows his brilliant younger friend. But then the gap between  them widens, as Hegel's vast system matures inside his head. Only in 1807, when he is nearing his fortieth year, does his first book appear, the Phenomenology of Spirit. His  conception of Spirit or Mind, Geist, central to all his work, is his attempt to counter the atomisation which bedevils Enlightenment thinking at every level. Thus the Phenomenology expounds the autobiography of Spirit, and the 1830 edition of the Philosophy of Spirit (Mind), the third and final part of his Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, is  among his last publications.

Geist has a wide range of meanings for Hegel. He wants it to unite individual psychology -  'subjective Spirit' - with Nature, history and the State. But above all Geist has religious connotations as the Holy Ghost (der heiliger Geist), the third Person of the Christian Trinity, which reconciles the opposition of Father and Son, Creator and Created. The Phenomenology aims to recount the many shapes through which the experience of cultural, social, intellectual, artistic and religious life have passed, summarised in the last chapter, 'Absolute Knowing'. Each of these shapes both shows humanity as a whole and reveals its inadequacy to express the whole story. Each is a result of past human actions, and yet confronts individuals as something given, a task to be carried out, an obstacle to be overcome, a problem to be solved.

The sequence continues until philosophical science makes possible absolute - unconditioned - knowing, the whole process, the approach to freedom. You could think of it like this: we can observe the self-development of Spirit, through all its shapes, until we discover that our observation is itself part of the movement. Spirit is us. Hegel is then ready to describe his entire system, Logic, Nature and Mind, which ends with 'Philosophy', the last Section of the Philosophy of Spirit. Thus Hegel's Absolute, in opposition to that of Schelling, is both a result, the outcome of the entire experience of history and the development of culture, as well as the implicit string-point.

Kant - both as Enlightener and as a critic of the Enlightenment - had attempted to overcome the fragments of society in a unity of social and intellectual life which transcends experience. But Hegel tries to show how Spirit, which is immanent in the world, moves itself, from sensation all the way to religion and 'Absolute Knowing'. We, the readers, 'look on' at this self-development. Each whole differentiates itself into many forms, which then exhibit their essential reconciliation, returning to the whole. Thus Geist, under its own steam, develops itself into higher and more comprehensive forms. Spirit makes itself from within itself. We are not forbidden to know the whole of truth, but nor can we know it immediately. It reveals itself only through the entire contradictory historical process. Enlightenment thinking thought each rational individual had only to clear superstition and mysticism away to be able to get a clear view of the truth. Hegel shows that knowing  [Wissenschaft] unfolds itself in what is simultaneously the education of the individual, the contradictory movement of history, and the logical development of nature. The truth reveals itself through mystery.

That is why Hegel must be taken as a whole. Any tendency to pick out odd bits which look interesting, episodes from his rich texture, misses the point. In particular, his last years in Berlin, 1819-31, are crucial for what we need from him. This includes his work (a) on the State (1821); (b) on the history of philosophy; (c) on Aesthetics; (d) on the philosophy of religion; (e) on the philosophy of history. In each of these fields, as with each of his earlier works, Hegel stresses the centrality of God. So, when Hegel frequently professes his Lutheran convictions, this is not, as some Young Hegelians supposed, just an attempt to stay within the bounds of respectability and keep his job.

Hegel does not conceive of the Christian Trinity as belonging to particular events in history. God the Father, the Creator, does his work all the time, putting Himself into His Creation. He is also identified with Logic, 'logos', 'the Word' of the Fourth Gospel.

The world is something produced by God, and so the divine idea always forms the foundation of what the world as a whole is'. (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion).

God creates the world and humanity within it, not out of free choice, but because he has to. He needs his creation: without it 'God is not God' and without our conscious activity,   God is not self-conscious. This is how Hegel regards Christ, who is also Nature. Only through the world of the Son does God become conscious of Himself. The Holy Spirit is this process of ascent to self-knowledge, taken as a whole. Hegel agrees that the Trinity is a mystery, and identifies his own 'speculative philosophy' as 'mysticism'. But this does not imply that its truth is hidden: on the contrary, God reveals himself through it. So Hegel sees his own system as the self-thinking Idea which is at the same time the self-consciousness of God.

Hegel faces the problem of evil in a manner which entirely separates him from orthodoxy, while resembling closely the heretical ideas of the alchemists and mystics. For Hegel, Evil is a part of God's creation. Indeed, the contradiction between Good and Evil is the driving force of all movement and development, and without it, there is no humanity. (Compare this view with the ideas of Hegel's fellow-Böhmian and contemporary, William Blake (1757-1827).) Thus Hegel's account of the Fall, which resembles some Gnostic versions of the Mosaic Story, tears Genesis apart. As he explains:
The myth does not conclude with the expulsion from paradise. It says further, 'God said: Behold, Adam is become as one of us, to know good and evil.' [Genesis, 3:22.] Cognition is now something divine, and not, as earlier, what ought not to be. So in this story there lies also the refutation of the idle chatter about how philosophy belongs only to the finitude of spirit; philosophy is cognition, and the original calling of man, to be an image of God, can be realised only through cognition. (Encyclopaedia, para. 24, Addition 2.)

Hegel's entire system is penetrated by this view of religion, which places him close to the Hermetic tradition and in opposition to the Enlightenment.. For example, look again at the triadic divisions which abound throughout the system:

Subjective Mind, Objective Mind, Absolute Mind;
Logic, Nature, Mind;
Universal, Particular, Individual;
Being, Essence, Concept;
Abstract Right, Morality, Ethical Life;
Family, Civil Society, State.

Each element of each triad is itself a triad. But each of these is an expression of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the relationships among the members of each triad cannot be properly appreciated unless this is grasped. At every level, Hegel is showing how these three 'Persons' actively create and determine each other. Finally, Hegel sees God creating and being created by humanity, in the religious community. (The picture by MC Escher called 'Drawing Hands', in which each of two hands draws and is drawn by the other, might be a helpful illustration here.) In each triad, the third term both reconciles the opposition between the first two, and contains and preserves it. (See, for instance, the last paragraphs of the Encyclopedia Philosophy of Mind, including the final quotation from Aristotle's Metaphysics. Compare Hegel's concluding three syllogisms, relating Universal, Particular and Individual, with the syllogisms of the holy Trinity, a few paragraphs earlier.)

Thus Hegel turns both the Enlightenment conception of Reason and its religious opposite inside out. Hegel's Reason, is identified with divine wisdom. It does not merely exist passively in human history, but that history expresses itself as 'purposive activity'.

In our knowledge, we aim for the insight that whatever was intended by the Eternal Wisdom has come to fulfillment - as in the realm of nature, so in the realm of spirit that is active and actual in the world. (Reason in History, p 19.)

But in Hegel the 'Eternal Wisdom' is not a divine script which humanity is forced to perform, for the Spirit 'that is active and actual in the world' is the individual and social activity of humanity. History is the coming to be of freedom But the consciousness of an individual human ('finite spirit') is no more than a fragment of the whole story, which is only found in the Self-consciousness of Spirit. This is an alias for the Self-consciousness of God, worked out only through human history as a whole. (By the way, Hegel has no use for the immortality of an individual soul, 'finite spirit'. Only the Infinite, the World Spirit, is eternal.)

Spirit is self-developing, simultaneously consciousness and self-consciousness: it is its own history.

(T)his development of the spirit, considered historically, is the history of philosophy. It is a history of all the self-developments of the spirit, an exhibition of these decisive moments and stages as they have followed one another in the course of time. ... Consequently, the history of philosophy is identical with the system of philosophy. (Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy.)

Hegel's account of the development of history must include itself. In making itself, Spirit is at the same time writing its autobiography. That is one reason to support the contention of Magee, in his remarkable book Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, that Hegel is not a philosopher, externally explaining a world external to him, but a part of the Hermetic tradition.

One last comment on Hegel's triads will prepare us for the way that his work was criticised by the next generation. He requires the third member of each triad to reconcile  the other two, for example, Spirit reconciles Father and Son. Hegel's last book, the Philosophy of Right, reaches its climax in the State, which brings together in this way family and civil society, despite, or, rather, through, the contradictions he finds in them. Thus he highlights the conflicting relations between people in a world of private property and money. (In the Phenomenology, he savages this world as 'the Animal Kingdom of Spirit'.) But in the development of the concept of State, he finds the way these battles can be overcome. So Marx will put his finger on Hegel's chief weakness: his inability to criticise political economy, and this involves him in a critique of Hegel's entire notion of the State and his dialectic as a whole.

5. Feuerbach

Our aim is to enquire into the importance of Hegel's Hermetism for Marx and his Hegel-critique. To do this, we must bring Feuerbach into the story.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) is perhaps the most important of Hegel's immediate followers. In 1824, he abandons his theological studies and decides - against parental disapproval - in favour of philosophy under the Master in Berlin. Soon, at the end of the 1830s, the Hegelian school starts to disintegrate. After writing some Hegelian books on the history of philosophy, Feuerbach begin to break away from the Hegelian system, and is soon the leader of the 'Left' or 'Young' Hegelians. In 1841, he publishes his chief work, The Essence of Christianity, followed by Preliminary Theses for the Reform of Philosophy and Foundations of the Philosophy of the Future.

Like the other Left Hegelians, Feuerbach is first of all concerned with religion. Unlike some of his fellow-rebels, however, he does not merely denounce religion, which he describes as 'the first and indirect self-consciousness of man'. Where his teacher Hegel had made human self-consciousness the way that God is conscious of Himself, Feuerbach sees 'what man knows of God' as an upside-down form of 'what man knows of himself'. Religion takes what is best of humanity, 'the human essence', human feeling, willing, thinking, love, and projects it on to something which appears as other than human, the product of imagination [Phantasie]. But this is the root of human enslavement.

Man - this is the mystery of religion - projects his essence into objectivity and then makes himself the image of this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject, a person; he thinks of himself as an object to himself, but as the object of an object, of another being than himself. (Essence)

Feuerbach sees the demystification of this process as the way to freedom: 'What in religion is a predicate we must make into a subject'. Describing Hegel's 'theological idealism', he says that 'man's consciousness of God is the self-consciousness of God. ... Thus does absolute philosophy externalise from man his own essence and activity.' (Principles) Theology, not religion, is Feuerbach's target. When it formalises the study of God, theology becomes 'the worst enemy of the awakened spirit'. In his earlier writing, Feuerbach had quoted Böhme's personal understanding of God with approval. Now, he praises Böhme for understanding that God has His material body in nature. But his aim is to get behind all forms of mystification. In Essence he devotes Chapter VIII, to the mystery of Divine Creation and Chapter IX, 'Of the Mystery of Mysticism, or of Nature in God', to Jakob Böhme.

His critique of Hegel is that the formal reasoning of the Hegelian system is actually  disguised theology which excludes the personal. But in this, Feuerbach is criticising the whole of philosophy, philosophy as such. That is what he means by 'the new philosophy'.

Just as theology transforms the determinations of man into divine determinations - through depriving them of their own determination by which they are what they are - so also in precisely the same way does philosophy deprive them. ... So does absolute philosophy externalise and alienate from man his own essence and activity. Hence the violence and torture that it inflicts on our minds. (Principles)

The new philosophy makes man - with the inclusion of nature as the foundation of man - the unique, universal and highest object of philosophy. (Principles)

As he famously explained himself: 'My religion is - no religion. My philosophy - no philosophy.'

Does Feuerbach represent a step backwards from Hegel towards the Enlightenment? Yes and no. Perhaps it is more of a sideways move. While he does not ignore Hegel's critical attitude to Kant and his predecessors, he still denies its religious implications and effectively re-establishes the Enlightenment's view of the human as an isolated individual. The only social relation Feuerbach knows is the 'love' (what kind is unspecified!) between two characters called 'I' and 'thou'.

To illustrate this double attitude to Hegel, it might be helpful to sketch briefly their respective receptions of Anselm's so-called 'ontological proof of God's existence. Tidied up by Descartes, this says that, since God is the most perfect being we can conceive, and since perfection must surely include existence... . Kant famously and unceremoniously knocked this on the head: if I think I have 100 talers in my pocket, that is not the same as actually having them!

Hegel is not impressed with this wisecrack. 'When we speak of “God”, we are referring to an object of quite a different kind than one hundred talers'. 'The true cognition of God begins with our knowing that things in their immediate being have no truth.' Feuerbach (Principles, para 25), however, wants to re-establish Kant's argument against Hegel's mockery.

6. Marx

When, in 1837, Karl Marx (1818-1883) transferred to Berlin University, it was with the intention of continuing his study of law. But, despite his best intentions, he was inexorably drawn into the study of philosophy in general and the Hegelian philosophical system in particular. A decade earlier, this would have meant adhering to the unified outlook which had come to dominate thought in Prussia. But by the late 1830s, that outlook was in a state of decomposition. So the young Marx was inevitably embroiled in the vehement, noisy and highly alcoholic arguments among the 'Young Hegelians', focussed largely on what they saw as the radical political and religious implications of Hegel's work.

Many of these students affected an abstract 'atheism. They wanted to show that Hegel also was really an atheist, whose open religious ideas were little more than a pretence, accommodation to the establishment. Marx had little patience with such attitudes. As he explained in a letter to Arnold Ruge (November 30, 1842):

I desired that there be less trifling with the label 'atheism', (which reminds one of children, assuring everyone who is ready to listen to them that they are not afraid of the bogy man), and that instead the content of philosophy should be brought to the people. (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 1, p 395.)

Marx's chief interest at that time was the history of Greek philosophy, particularly the period after Aristotle. He saw the appearance of schools like Stoicism, Scepticism and Epicureanism as analogous to the situation in German philosophy after Hegel. He took as the topic for his Doctoral Dissertation the relation between the philosophies of nature of the atomists Democritus and Epicurus. Hegel had regarded the work of Epicurus as containing little new, but Marx respectfully disagrees. While the atoms of Democritus fell in straight lines in the void, those of Epicurus swerved from the rectilinear. In this 'declination', thinks Marx, Epicurus and his Roman disciple Lucretius were approaching an understanding of human freedom. 'Repulsion is the first form of self-consciousness.'

In his Notebooks to prepare for the Dissertation, Marx writes:

The modern rational outlook on nature must first raise itself to the point from which the ancient Ionian philosophy, in principle at least, begins - the point of seeing the Divine, the Idea, embodied in nature.  (ibid. pp 423-4.)

Marx is seeking ways of understanding nature which will grasp its unity with human life. He thinks that Epicurus, for all his limitations, gets closer to this than Democritus, and that Hegel had overlooked this advance. This leads him to see more clearly the significance of philosophy and its attitude to the world in his own time. Philosophy and the world condition each other. Hegel's philosophy had 'sealed itself off to form a consummate, total world'. Meanwhile,

The determination of this totality is conditioned by the general development of this philosophy, just as the development of this philosophy is the condition of the form in which philosophy turns into a practical relationship towards reality. ... The world confronting a philosophy total in itself is thus a world torn apart.

(ibid. p 491.)

So, from an incidental disagreement with Hegel over an episode in the history of ancient  Greek philosophy, the twenty-one-year-old Marx arrives at the necessity for the practical activity of philosophy in healing the divisions in a world 'torn apart'. Dr. Marx then realises that he will never find an academic job, becomes the editor of a newspaper, gets into a running battle with the Prussian Censorship over the freedom of the press, and finds himself unemployed - and married - at the age of twenty-five. In this situation, (in the house of his mother-in-law), he begins to write a detailed critique of one part of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, the section on the State.

But he is able to embark on this work, in 1843, only because he has been convinced by  Feuerbach's criticisms of Hegel. Although his enthusiasm for Feuerbach only lasts a couple of years, it opens up a new attitude to Hegel, increasing the confidence with which he declares his independence from his 'great teacher'. As he recalls sixteen years later, in the famous 1859 Preface to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy:

The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law. ... My enquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of the so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term 'civil society'; that the anatomy of this society, however, is to be sought in political economy.

So from the critique of religion, which Marx found in Feuerbach, Marx moves to the critique of the State and thence to the critique of political economy. This progression, from God to State to economy, is a movement deeper into the nature of humanity and its mystification, especially the mystification of human productive activity.

It is important to bear in mind the meaning which Marx gives to the word 'critique' by this point in his development. I used to place Marx's critiques of political economy and Utopia on the same level as the critique of Hegelian dialectic, but I now want to place this third critical operation on a separate plane, for it includes and underlies each of the other two. Occurring in the titles of almost all his works, it does not mean rejection of - and certainly not mere disagreement with - secondary features. Critique implies demystification, not by rejecting mystery, but by tracing its origins to the reality of social life.

Marx seeks to probe the connections of each object to the essence of humanity. His critique uncovers the inhuman ways that humans deny their humanity  inside the very forms of life which they themselves have made. Shut inside these forms, they struggle to think about themselves, both  truly and falsely. In the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, Marx charges Hegel with mystification on several occasions, even of 'logical pantheistic mysticism' (p 7). But as he moves steadily through Hegel's sometimes apologetic analysis of the State, he shows how Hegel has succeeded in reflecting  mysterious, hidden aspects of political life.

This is most clearly expressed in the only part of this Critique which Marx published, the Introduction. In its most famous - and most misquoted - passage, Marx clarifies what he means by 'critique'.

The basis of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is the self- consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet found himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being encamped outside the world. Man is the world of men, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopedic point d'honeur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence, because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma. Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Ibid. Vol. 3, p 175.)

Marx does not throw away religion, or denounce it, or deny its mystery: his task is to find out why religion exists, to trace the roots of mystery in humanity's inhuman way of life. So, from religion, the Introduction proceeds to examine with great savagery the contemporary position of Germany.

If the speculative philosophy of law, that abstract extravagant thinking on the modern state, the reality remains a thing of the beyond, if only beyond the Rhine, was possible only in Germany, inversely the German thought-image of the modern state which disregards real man was possible only because and insofar as the modern state itself disregards real man or satisfies the whole of man only in imagination. (p 181)

Now, for the first time, Marx can speak about the proletariat as the most important emancipatory force, 'a class with radical chains'. (p 186). 'As philosophy finds its material weapons in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapons in philosophy.' (p 187)
Spurred on by Engels' brilliant 1843 essay Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, Marx now embarks on his life's work. Somehow, he still imagines himself a follower of Feuerbach, and remains so for almost a year longer. But already in reality he has gone far beyond that much cruder form of 'critique'. From the mystery of religion, via the mystery of the state, Marx now confronts the central mystery of modernity, what he would later call the secret, 'fetish' character of commodities and commodity-relationships.

Now an exile in Paris, Marx reads a French translation of James Mill's Elements of Political Economy. Commenting on Mill's banal characterisation of money as 'the medium of exchange', Marx brings to bear everything he has learned on this disciple of Ricardo.

The human social act by which man's products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man. Since man alienates this mediating activity itself, he is active here only as a man who has lost himself and is dehumanised. ... His slavery therefore reaches its peak. It is clear that this mediator becomes a real God. (p 212)

As soon as he has begun this critique of what appears to be the most mundane of topics, Marx has begun to uncover nothing less than the nature of humanity.

Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting the nature men create, produce, the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the single individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth. (p 217)

Now, Marx can begin to ask what it would be like to live in a truly human world, in which we 'carried out production as human beings'. Free of private property and money, 'my work would be a free manifestation of life.' (p 228) Marx has discovered his own conception of communism.

The content of these few scribbled pages is so rich that its elaboration occupies Marx for the rest of his life, with many ideas left untouched. Soon he is at work on those pages, given by their Moscow Editors the most misleading title: Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts. Through an investigation of some economists, Marx gets to the heart of the nature of labour in its alienated form, in the production of commodities for sale, and thus to the nature of human creative activity as such and of human sociality.

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. ... Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. ... An animal's product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. ... In degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labour makes man's species-life a means to his physical existence. ... Estranged labour turns thus man's species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means for his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect. (pp 276-7)

So, through his analysis of alienated, estranged labour, Marx is able to discover the way in which to be human means making humanity, the human social-historical and even the  natural world. Only this is hidden and imprisoned within estrangement by this very act of making.

The last of these Paris Manuscripts, 'Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole', begins with some of Marx's most fulsome praise of Feuerbach. And yet the ideas Marx begins to develop here leave Feuerbach far behind. Marx enters into a detailed critical discussion of the last chapter of Hegel's Phenomenology, 'Absolute Knowing'. Philosophy transcends 'Revealed Religion', which, Hegel says, is defective only in that it has not made 'its actual self-consciousness the object of its consciousness'. Having learned from Feuerbach that Hegel makes the human being 'the same as self-consciousness', Marx is able to transform Hegel's upside-down picture into an understanding of man as a 'human natural being', not an isolated individual, but a social being.

As everything natural has to come into being, man too has his act of origin - history - which, however, is for him a known history, and hence as an act of origin, is a conscious self-transcending act of origin.

Within his inverted philosophical picture,

Hegel conceives labour as man's act of self-genesis - conceives man's relation to himself as an alien being and the manifestation of himself as an alien being to be the emergence of species-consciousness and species-life. (p 333)

So instead of Aristotle's self-thinking Idea, or Hegel's self-creating Spirit, Marx places the self-developing creative powers of the total social human being, what he sometimes called 'productive forces'. The misunderstanding of Marx by 'Marxism' is epitomised in its insistent identification of this phrase with machinery, confronting alienated labour.

Towards the end of 1844, Marx worked with Engels on a book, the Holy Family, which attacked the positions of some of the 'Left-Hegelians', especially Bruno Bauer. It clarifies a number of ideas, in particular the character of Marx's communism and his conception of the proletariat.

Since in the fully-formed proletariat the abstraction of all humanity, even of the semblance of humanity, is practically complete; since the conditions of life of the proletariat sum up all the conditions of life of society today in their most inhuman form; since man has lost himself in the proletariat, yet at the same time has found not only theoretical consciousness of that loss, but through urgent, no longer removable, no longer disguisable, absolutely imperative need - the practical expression of necessity - is driven to revolt against this inhumanity, it follows that the proletariat can and must emancipate itself. But it cannot emancipate itself without abolishing the conditions of its own life. It cannot abolish the conditions of its own life without abolishing all the inhuman conditions of life which are summed up in its own situation. ... It is not a question of this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. (Ibid. Vol. 4, p 37)

'Marxists', including for example Georgi Lukacs, took this to imply that those privileged to know about this historical necessity, while the ordinary proletarians do not, will be obliged to act on their behalf. As we have seen, this is not what Marx was saying at all.

Marx's Break with Feuerbach

By the beginning of 1845, Marx could no longer avoid the conclusion that his critique of Hegel was quite different from Feuerbach's. As part of his preparation for the joint work with Engels called The German Ideology, the first part of which is entitled 'Feuerbach', Marx, now expelled from Paris to Brussels, scribbled the famous eleven points known as the 'Theses on Feuerbach'. I want to briefly analyse some of the ideas contained in these.

The last of the Theses are among the best-known of Marx's aphorisms: 'Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it'. It is engraved on the statue which surmounts his tomb in Highgate Cemetery. (The word 'but' or 'however' which often appears between its two phrases is an editorial insertion by Engels and should be disregarded.)

But the meaning of this neat pairing should not be taken for granted. Interpretation and  change must both be inside 'the world' and must be connected in some way. Engels' addition has, only too often, suggested that Marx wants us to change the world instead of interpreting it. And how are we to change the world? By what means and according to what criteria?

One remark might be worth making at the start: in every one of Theses 1-10, Marx only ever attacks one philosophical 'interpretation': materialism. The old story about Marx the materialist is just one of the ways that people have been misdirected before they even  begin to read Marx. Thesis 3 is a good example.

3. The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice.

This clear rejection of anything like Utopianism was often praised by 'Marxists', who failed to recognise that it was aimed precisely at them! They thought that 'revolutionising practice' referred to their own limited forms of political work. It is important to see how, instead, it is rooted firmly in Marx's basic conception of self-emancipation.  He never had any time for transformation brought about by people at the top, well-meaning chaps who could be trusted to look after the interests of the little people. But for Marx, 'human activity' means 'self-change' [Selbstveränderung]. They are synonyms. An activity which is not self-changing is not human. (By the way, this crucial word, 'self-change', is missing from Engels' edited version.)

These 4, 6 and 7 all deal with religion and Feuerbach's attempt to understand it.

4. Feuerbach starts off from the fact of religious self-estrangement, of the duplication of the world into a religious, imaginary world, and a real one. His work consists in resolving the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular basis lifts off from itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm can only be explained by the inner strife and intrinsic contradictoriness of this secular basis. The latter must itself be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised. Thus, for instance, once the earthly family is discovered to be the secret of the holy family, the former must itself be criticised in theory and transformed in practice.

This is an elaboration of Marx's earlier hostility to 'abstract atheism', an attitude which leaves untouched the real problems expressed by religious belief.

6. Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man [menschliche Wesen = 'human nature']. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations. Feuerbach, who does not enter upon a criticism of this real essence is hence obliged: 

  1. To abstract from the historical process and to define the religious  sentiment regarded by itself, and to presuppose an abstract - isolated - human individual.

2.  The essence therefore can by him only be regarded as 'species', as an inner 

'dumb' generality which unites many individuals only in a natural way.

7. Feuerbach consequently does not see that the 'religious sentiment' is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual that he analyses belongs in reality to a particular social form.

Here Marx pits his - and Hegel's - understanding of the social nature of humanity against Feuerbach's incomplete break from Enlightenment individualism.

The word 'practice' ('praxis') occurs in nearly all the Theses. It does not just mean 'activity', but carries a two-sided reference both to the human relation with nature and to human relations within society.

2. The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, ie the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

5. Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants sensuous contemplation ['Anschauung']; but he does not conceive sensuousness as practical, human-sensuous activity.

8. All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

Marx's conception of practice, meaning human life-activity which is self-change, is central to his world-outlook. As his discussion of materialism makes clear, he is not concerned with 'epistemology', a 'theory of knowledge' standing outside his conception of humanity. Such a 'theory' is the highest symptom of the alienated way of life of the modern world.
9. The highest point reached by contemplative (anschauende) materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is the contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.

It is 'civil society', Hegel's 'battlefield of private interest', which is expressed in the fragmented outlook of isolated individuals.

10. The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity.

But the sharpest opposition between Marx and 'Marxism', 'dialectical materialism', 'historical materialism', and the rest, is displayed right at the start of Marx's summary:

1. The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object [der Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekts], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism - but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, differentiated from thought-objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity. In Das Wesen des Christenthums, he therefore regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is conceived and defined only in its dirty-Jewish form of appearance. Hence he does not grasp the significance of 'revolutionary', of practical-critical, activity.

'Marxism', including its inventor, Plekhanov and his eminent pupil, VI Lenin, could make neither head nor tail of this Thesis - so they wisely just ignored it. Its praise of idealism and down-grading of materialism just didn't fit their understanding of Marx. But look at it in the light of our brief view of Marx's development. Marx criticises materialism as it had grown up in the eighteenth century, with its passive attitude to reality, and lumps Ludwig Feuerbach's materialism together with it. The defect of this outlook, Marx explains, is that it is able to grasp knowledge only in opposition to both the object of knowledge and the knowing subject. It could not understand the activity of knowing the world in terms of the rest of human social and individual activity, the social process of self-change. It was German idealism - not just Hegel's work but that of Fichte and Schelling too - which 'developed the active side'.  We have been discussing the long tradition of religious and magical thought associated with this achievement.

As individuals and as a social whole, we are trying to get hold of the world, as ourselves  parts of the world. The objects we find in it must be grasped as aspects of our subjective striving, not as mere obstacles for it overcome. Our subjectivity and our objective drive to change the conditions in which we live are two aspects of the same world.  'Theory', when it views things in the world as separate from us and from each other, is the direct  opposite. Material productive activity is only part of this 'active side'. It also includes the transformation of the social relations and conditions within which production takes place.  Marx has by now discovered that freedom has to include the creation and continual transformation by humans themselves of the relations between them.

A world in which individuals exist as free subjects must be one where each part of the world belongs with and changes all other parts and itself. Changing the world implies knowing about it in the process of changing it, and change implies self-change and self-consciousness. In the estranged world, where humans are hostile to each other, to their own life-activity and to themselves, all this is hidden from them. All they can do is to 'interpret' it in various ways, powerless to alter the course of its movement. Have we met anything like this attitude before? Certainly! It is the outlook of the Enlightenment.  Opposed to it is the outlook of those Hermetics and mystics. In demystifying mysticism without rejecting it, Marx shows how humanity can bring about its own emancipation.

Marx and Revolution

Marx considers himself a communist from 1844 and all his work from then on is a contribution to the communist revolution, which he thinks of as imminent in Europe. But the history of 'Marxism', which over much of its history modeled its notion of revolution on the Russian events following October 1917, makes it necessary to reconsider just what this means.

Clearly, Marx does not consider revolution as a sudden overnight transformation, resulting from some kind of coup d'état, however violent it might be. He refers to the situation following a prolonged historical transition, when 'in the course of development class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation.' [Communist Manifesto. Ibid. Volume 6, p 504.] Then, he anticipates, 'the public power will lose its political character'. The proletariat will have 'abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.' [Ibid. p 506.] Marx believes that the first step is 'to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class, to win the battle of democracy', and identifies the resulting state with 'the proletariat organised as the ruling class'. [Ibid. p 504.] This is in clear contrast with all previous such social overturns.

All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other mode of appropriation. ... The proletariat cannot raise itself up without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. [Ibid. p 495.]

The idea that the revolution is basically a transformation of 'economic conditions' is quite different from Marx's conception of the abolition of private property.

Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it. ... In the place of all physical and mental senses there has come therefore the sheer estrangement of all these senses, the sense of having. ... The abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities. [Ibid. Vol. 3, p 300.]

Thus this emancipation, spearheaded by the subjective action of the proletariat, the 'universal class', implies far more than can be summed up as 'the overthrow of capitalism', merely fixing up a new economic and political system. It means a new way of living, in which individual and universal no longer collide. He sees this revolution as marking a major epoch in human history, which displays three main stages.

Relationships of personal dependence (which originally arise quite spontaneously) are the first forms of society . ... Personal independence based upon dependence mediated by things is the second great form, and only in it is a system of general social exchange of matter, a system of universal relations, universal requirements and universal capacities formed. Free individuality, based on the universal development of the individuals and the subordination of their communal, social productivity, which is the social possession, is the third stage. (Grundrisse. Ibid  Vol. 28, p 95.)

Capital and Mysticism

Most of Marx's life was devoted to a single, never-completed work, Capital. Looking again at Volume One, the only part he was able to publish, we are struck by the number of times it speaks of 'mystery', 'secrecy', the 'non-material'. Here are just a few examples from the Prefaces and the first chapter:

...and it is the ultimate aim of this work to reveal  [enthüllen] the law of motion of modern society. (p. 92, Preface to the First Edition.)

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen. (p. 103, Postface to the Second Edition.)

Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities; in this it is the opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. (p. 138.)

...in the expression of the value of the linen, the coat represents a supra-natural property: their value, which is something purely social.

The table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. ... The mystical character of the commodity does not therefore arise from its use-value. ... The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social character of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves. (pp. 163-5.)

And so on, in many other places.

Marx does not merely point to this secret, mysterious nature of the social forms which underlie the whole of modern social life. He also reveals this secret. The noun Hülle, sometimes translated as 'integument', and the verb enthüllen, reveal, are very important throughout this book. The integument is a film which covers the embryo, up to the time of birth. So the secret, the concealment, is not externally-imposed; it grows out of the organism itself, and is actually an essential part of its coming into being. No more than religion is it a 'mistake', a wrong way of thinking. Likewise, the revelation which 'un-conceals' what was hidden, is not the result of a trick being exposed by a clever 'theorist', but is itself an aspect of organic  development.

This is strikingly seen when Marx considers briefly another social form, showing us

an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force. (p. 171.)

Contrasted with this is 'a society of commodity producers', for which

Christianity, with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, ie in Protestantism, Deism, etc, is the most fitting form of religion. (p. 172.)

Both in discussing religious and social forms, Marx does not see the secret side as something to be got rid of, something which ought not to be, a 'mistake'. The rational can appear only through the mystery.

The religious reflections of the real world can, in any case, vanish only when the practical relations of everyday life between man and man, and between man and nature, generally present themselves to him in a transparent form. The veil is not removed from the countenance of the social life-process until it becomes production by freely associated men, and stands under there conscious and planned control. This, however, requires that society possess a material foundation, which in turn is the natural and spontaneous product of a long and tormented historical development. (p.173.)

Marx's task is to see how modern forms of private property like money, wage-labour and capital, both conceal and reveal the truth about themselves. When, in Chapter 7, he examines the labour-process in general, he sees that 'in changing nature, men change their own nature'.

But, when the products of labour are exchanged on the market, and when even our capacity to produce, our very life-activity as humans, itself is reduced to a commodity, this process of self-creation is perverted and hidden. In the 'Results of the Immediate Process of Production', (the planned Part 7 of Volume which Marx decided not to include), Marx writes:

...Hence the rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, of dead labour over the living, of the product over the producer. For the commodities that become the instruments of rule over the workers (merely as the instruments of capital itself) are mere consequences of the process of production; they are its products. Thus at the level of material production, of the life-process in the realm of the social - for that is what the process of production is - we find the same situation that we find in religion at the ideological level, namely, the inversion of subject into object and vice versa. Viewed historically this inversion is the indispensable transition without which wealth as such, ie the relentless productive forces of social labour, which alone form the material base of a free human society, could not possible be created by force at the expense of the majority. This antagonistic stage cannot be avoided, any more than it is possible for man to avoid the stage in which his spiritual energies are given a religious definition as powers independent of himself. What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. (Pelican Edition, p 990.)

Capital and Self-Creation

We have seen how humans make themselves by simultaneously creating not only  the  physical conditions of their own life, but also the social forms within which this occurs.  Hitherto, these forms have grown up unconsciously. In the early sections of Capital, the Hegelian phrase 'behind their backs' occurs more than once. In Hegel, it refers to the rise of consciousness, behind the back of self-consciousness. In Capital, Marx uses it when he describes the transformation of the division of labour from commodities to money to capital.

But the division of labour is an organisation of production which has grown up naturally, a web which has been  and continues to be woven behind the backs of the producers of commodities. (p. 201.)

The misunderstanding of this aspect has been intensified by Engels' mis-titling of the English translation of Volume One. Where Marx called his Volume 'The Production-Process of Capital', Engels allowed the translation to give 'The Process of Capitalist Production', giving us the impression that Marx was describing a system of production of goods under the conditions of 'capitalism'. Not only did he never use the term 'capitalism', but his subject-matter is, in fact, something quite different: the way that the social relation capital produces and reproduces itself.

Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital itself is produced. The secret of profit-making must at last be laid bare [enthüllen].

In a well-known passage in Chapter 1, Marx expresses more generally the problem raised by his aim of criticising political economy:

Reflection on the forms of human life, hence also scientific analysis of these forms, takes a course directly opposite to their real development. Reflection begins post festum, and therefore with the results of the process of development ready to hand. The forms which stamp products as commodities, and which are therefore the preliminary requirements for the circulation of commodities, already possess the fixed quality of natural forms of social life before men seek to give an account, not of their historical character, for in their eyes they are immutable, but of their content and meaning. (p. 168.)

Those old mystics had probed the contradictory structure of self-creation, but only in its heretical-religious form. How could they do anything more under the conditions of their time? Hegel took this much further, attempting to systematise that knowledge. Marx, living in the last stage of alienation, is able, in his critiques of religion, the state, philosophy and political economy, to pose the problem in the form in which its practical solution can be discerned: the communist revolution. Instead of the mystical loop, 'God making humanity making God', Marx must express an even more sharply contradictory movement, that of 'human activity or self-change': humans make their own conditions of life, which in turn make humanity what it is. In its estranged shape, labour produces capital, which in turn enslaves labour.

The method of Capital had to express this contradictory movement. The succeeding categories in which Marx couches his critique of political economy, in which money negates and preserves commodity, capital negates and preserves money, and so on, demand a logical movement which

includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well. (Postface to the Second Edition of Capital.)

In a 'doctrine', an indoctrinator sets out what is  'correct', before his admiring - if somewhat obtuse - disciples. Marx's approach is the polar opposite, for he shows the actual development of a living process revealing itself.

6. An Inconclusive Conclusion

The contrast between Hermetism and what I have called 'Enlightenment thinking' centres on their opposing ways of regarding the relation of humanity and nature. For the scientific-rationalist, the material world and the world of human history are quite independent of each other. Once humans have appeared, human reason, with which those beings are conveniently equipped, takes over and history can begin. As I have suggested, this view is not so far distant from that of the orthodox monotheist religions: if the natural and human worlds were freely created by God, there was no reason for these two aspects to fit together.

Socialism, including 'Marxism', had a similar angle on this question, sometimes seeing    the natural world in terms of mechanically interacting particles of matter and humanity as a collection of individuals. Rather badly organised at present, humans might, if they think very hard, find a better way to set up their mutual relationships. Relying heavily on the works of Engels, the 'Marxists' attempted to formulate an account of nature and natural science which they called 'dialectical materialism', and tried with great difficulty to make Marx fit into its patterns. In its Stalinist form, this was dogmatised into a kind of state religion. When, in the wake of the study of the early writings of Marx, some people began to pay attention to his humanism, there was a tendency to keep this 'Young Marx' rigidly separate from the 'mature' or 'scientific' Marx. The barrier between 'man' and 'nature' was left intact.

For the mystics, Hermetics and magicians, it was quite the contrary: the human is only an aspect of the natural and vice versa. 'As above, so below', they read in Hermes. We have seen that Hegel takes the side of the magicians on this issue: the movements of nature, history and psychology all express the unfolding of Spirit. But what about Marx? Does human self-emancipation, a task for humans to tackle in practice, require any specific conception of the universe?

In the inhuman shell of private property, money, capital and the state, Marx uncovers the source of the mystery of self-creation. Once that 'integument has burst asunder', relations within a free association of producers, truly human relations, will be transparent and thus  so will the relationship between nature and humanity as a whole.

But, living inside alienated society, this can only be dimly perceived and with great difficulty. Finding the path to the emancipation of humanity from the inhuman shell in which it has imprisoned itself is hidden from us. That is why tearing aside the veil which conceals it is only possible through a series of false steps, each of which negates its predecessor, while preserving its truth. Of course, a century and a half after Marx began this work, it is deeply frustrating to see ourselves apparently back at square one, but how could it be otherwise? As Marx put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written when the years of revolution 1848-9 seemed to have passed without leaving a trace:

Proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupting themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order tha he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic than before, recoil ever and anon from the indefinte prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is the rose, here dance!

Each phase in the process of self-creation reveals new sides of the task of self-emancipation and poses it anew. The scientific - in Marx's sense of this word - aspect of this process cannot be a complete, finished 'theoretical system', which can then be 'applied'. 'Revolutionary-critical activity' demands open and critical thinking, and is the direct opposite of all dogma.

Of course, that implies that Marx, too must be seen as incomplete. Those who say that Marx did not completely understand Hegel  - usually meaning to downgrade him by this remark - are, of course, absolutely correct. Every great thinker must yield a mass of ideas which transcend, not only his own time, but any particular reading of his work. That is why Marx continually returned to Hegel to win yet further insights and to criticise him anew. Naturally, similar considerations apply to any reading of Marx. Writing in the century before last, he could not have imagined the monstrous history of the twentieth century, or the depth of corruption of our time. I would only add that all future development must begin with his work. Taking it as the last word meant falsifying it.

I began by saying how socialism used to be easy to understand. Now I hope we can see that Marx's conceptions - for instance, the universal human emancipation or the free association of individuals - are not complex, but go far beyond than any particular account of them. Simply describing a world without private property or money, however important these might be, misses the point. We are facing instead the practical and scientific tasks of human self-creation, and these are necessarily unbounded and undefined.

'Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.'
(Vol. 3, pp 296-7.)

Background Reading

Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy. (Pennsylvania, 1983.)
Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. (Yale, 1993.)

Loren Goldner, Vanguard of Retrogression: Postmodern Fictions as Ideology in the Era of  Fictitious Capital. (Queequeg Publications, PO Box 672355, New York, NY 10467).
Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment: an evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values. (Penguin, 1968.)
John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. (Pluto, 2002.)
Karen Sylvia de Leon-Jones, Giordano Bruno and the Kabbalah: Prophets, Magicians and Rabbis. (Yale, 1997.)

Glenn Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. (Cornell 2001).
Walter Pagel, Paracelsus: an Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of Renaissance'. (S. Karger, Basel, 1958).
Antoinette Mann Preston, The Infinite Worlds of Giordano Bruno. Springfield, 1958.
Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. (NewYork, 1974.)

______________ , Kabbalah. (Jerusalem, 1974.)
Shimon Shokek, Kabbalah and the Art of Being. (London, 2001.)
Cyril Smith, Marx at the Millennium. (Pluto, 1996.)
_________, Marx and the Future of the Human. www.cix.co.uk/~cyrilsmith/. 2002.

Andrew Weeks, Böhme: an Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth-Century Philosopher and Mystic. (SUNY Press, 1991).
Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age. (London 1999.)
___________, Lull and Bruno, Collected Essays, Volume 1. (London, 1982.)
___________, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. (London, )