Hegel, Marx, & Social Change
In a time when we desperately need social change, we must ask ourselves, how does this social change occur? Is it our thoughts or our actions that will inspire social change? Georg Hegel was a German philosopher, and an idealist. His philosophy influenced a young Karl Marx, who was trained in the Hegelian tradition. Although Marx was inspired by Hegelian philosophy, he found different applications to Hegel’s dialectical dynamic. The question remains, however, in our time of need, what will it take to change the course of our impending economic destruction? Wealth inequality is a major concern in our society, and obvious when we consider, for example, that the Walton family owns more wealth than the bottom 40% of people in our country combined.
Karl Marx was an early German sociologist whose works focused on capitalist and communist economics. Marx was trained in the Hegelian tradition, and was heavily influenced by Hegelian dialectic. The Hegelian dialectical dynamic focuses on contradictions, conflicts, processes, relations, and dynamics as they relate to human thought processes. A young Marx was intrigued by the dialectic, but instead of applying the dialectic to thought processes and ideal society, Marx applied it to material, or real, social phenomena. An example of material social phenomenon that Marx applied the dialectic to is the economy.
Generally, the dialectic focuses on natural contradiction, conflict, and resolution within society. Hegel and Marx took very different approaches to the application of the dialectic. The Hegelian dialectical dynamic focuses on our thought processes, and how understanding can bring about social change. Hegel asserts that understanding is abstract and fixed in a manner that distinguishes them as unique. Recognition of these different understandings lead to negative reasoning that resolves ones understanding to nothing. Hegel believed societal change and evolution could be accomplished through the changing thought processes and consciousness of the individual actors within society. So in terms of our current social problems, Hegel would argue that if we change the thought processes of the majority, we will achieve the social change that we desire.
Marx’s dialectical dynamic took Hegel’s abstract and idealist dialectic and applied it to the material, or real, aspects of society. Unlike Hegel’s idealistic philosophy that societal change will occur as understanding changes, Marx believed that the only way to resolve social conflict and bring about societal change would be through a very real “life and death struggle” that will ultimately bring about the change. While Marx was greatly influenced by Hegel, he felt that Hegel missed the mark with his idealistic dialectic. Marx believed that Hegel was too focused on mysticism and idealist society.
More important to Marx was what is, where Hegel was more focused on what ought to be. Hegel asserts that contradiction occurs, and change emerges from further understanding and development of new contradictions; whereas Marx argues that social problems are a direct consequence of the material aspects of society, and that contradictions can only be addressed through material means. While there are differences in how Hegel and Marx use the dialectic, they both see contradiction as central to society and societal change. Marx did not believe that the future held inevitable outcomes, but rather many different possible outcomes. Stepping away from societal determinism shows that the basic dialectic, thesis, antithesis, synthesis, is too simple for the study of sociology and social change. Since the future is not predetermined, it is not possible to simplify every contradiction and social interaction to that point.
Hegel believed that the process of social evolution happened beyond the realm of human control. Hegel asserts that society is constantly changing to reflect a better world. Being an idealist, Hegel treated social facts as mere ideas, and these ideas could be changed by changing the way people think. Hegel’s theories were largely based on abstract consciousness, thoughts, and ideas. Marx really thought that Hegel missed the mark because of this. Marx went on to combine Hegel’s dialectic with Feuerbach’s materialism into his own concept of dialectical materialism.
Marx did not believe that evolution would occur without action from individuals within a society. Marx rejected the abstract aspects of Hegelian philosophy because he thought that society would do well to focus on what is real through the advancement of material understanding and consequent actions. Marx found an appeal to the Hegelian dialectic in that it attempted to view the world through dynamic thought processes, as opposed to static thought processes; although Marx felt that these dynamic processes must be applied beyond mysticism into the material world. This raises the question in our current state of lightning fast information exchange; does “preaching to the choir” really qualify as material action to enable social change?
Studying social change, and how it occurs, is important if we are to reclaim the path of positive progress. Georg Hegel believed that our focus should remain on our understanding of contradiction through abstract thought processes, the inevitability of conflict, and the resolution of contradictions, which will lead to new contradictions. While Marx believed that contradiction fueled social change, he argued that the only way to truly change and evolve society would be through the action of the people who want change. The proletariat would have to take action against the bourgeois in order to lead society down the path of equality. Marx saw contradiction in capitalism as human nature versus forced labor and alienation.
Now more than a century after the writings of Marx and Hegel, we find ourselves living at a critical time in the history of our planet. What can we do to secure the future of equality, fairness, and happiness for future generations? Do you believe that honest conversation will be enough of a catalyst for social change, or is it time for revolution? Now is our time, let’s use it well.
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppose.”