PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday March 31, 2003

Karl Marx


[1.] Background.

·         1818-1883

·         German

·         influential in philosophy, economics, sociology

·         doctorate (in philosophy) from University of Jena

·         failed to get a university teaching position, went into journalism

·         moved to Paris in 1843, where he met Friedrich Engels -- they became friends and wrote together until Marx's death

·         returned to Germany shortly after the Manifesto was published, but soon after was exiled from there and went to London, where he lived the rest of his life

·         [more biographical information is in the introduction to the Marx section of your textbook, written by Richard Miller, pp.827-831]


We're reading:

·         "Estranged Labor" (one of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, first published in 1927)

·         The Manifesto of the Communist Party (a.k.a. The Communist Manifesto), 1848 -- also co-authored with Engels


Communist Manifesto available online:



[2.] The Influence of Hegel.


To understand Marx's political philosophy, we first need to understand ideas he inherited from his primary philosophical influence, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).


[2.1.] Phenomenology of Mind.


Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (a.k.a. Phenomenology of Mind, a.k.a. die Phänomenologie des Geistes) is an account of the progressive development or evolution of something Hegel calls "Geist," which is translated as either mind or spirit.


A first approximation of what Hegel means by "Geist" is that he means consciousness:

·         the evolution of Geist is the progressive development of consciousness from its simplest and most primitive form to its most complex and sophisticated form.

·         ultimately, Geist is a universal phenomenon; i.e. in some sense, there is a universal mind, and all individual minds/consciousnesses are limited parts, aspects or manifestations of the universal Geist. (this reflects Hegel's idealism: everything there is, is mind (or thought; or mental).

·         the evolution of mind/spirit begins with simple sensory awareness ("sense-certainty"), a primitive stage at which mind is neither self-conscious nor free

·         it then evolves through a number of distinct stages to the point at which it becomes fully self-conscious and free -- part of what this means is that it has become aware of itself as universal

·         this evolution is in some strange way both historical and logical -- it actually does occur in history, but it occurs according to necessary logical steps -- it's almost as if there is a single process that is both logically necessary and historical, that mind has to go through in order to become fully developed

·         this evolution culminates in the Phenomenology of Spirit itself -- it's with Hegel's own philosophy that consciousness becomes aware of itself as universal and thus becomes free!

·         This might all sound ridiculous, but…

·         in Prussia in the decades following Hegel's death in 1831, it was taken very seriously

·         it's possible to reinterpret Hegel in a less spiritual, less metaphysical way, so that the Phenomenology becomes much more plausible:


…we can make sense of much of the Phenomenology even if we reject the notion of a universal Mind as the ultimate reality of all things. We can treat 'Universal Mind' as a collective term for all human minds. We can then rewrite the Phenomenology in terms of the path to human liberation. The saga of Mind then becomes the saga of the human spirit. (Peter Singer, Marx: A Very Short Introduction, 1980, reissued 2000, p.20)


There are two specific aspects of Hegel's story upon which Marx's political philosophy draws:

  1. alienation, especially as it is exhibited in master/slave consciousness
  2. the dialectical structure of the progression of history



[2.2.] Alienation and Master/Slave Consciousness.


Why does Geist evolve at all? Geist must change because, from the very beginning, it's in a state of alienation from itself:


Alienation: a situation in which something which is either ourselves or part of ourselves seems unfriendly, hostile, alien.


The evolution of mind is an attempt to overcome alienation, and this happens only when mind becomes fully self-conscious of itself as universal.


One example of a stage in the development of consciousness that illustrates Hegel's concept of alienation is the stage of master/slave consciousness:

·         this stage begins with two individual consciousnesses

·         each consciousness recognizes himself in the other, i.e., he recognizes that the other is the same as himself (but neither recognizes that he is part of a single universal consciousness -- at this stage, consciousness is still alienated -- it experiences other aspects of itself as if they were totally different, separate, alien)

·         each demands that the other recognize him as being the same and not treat him merely as a thing

·         each will fight the other if the other will not accord him recognition, so a life and death struggle for recognition ensues

·         one emerges victorious, but rather than killing the other, he enslaves him.

·         the master comes to treat the slave simply as a thing to be used, while the slave recognizes the master as being like himself, i.e., a center of consciousness

·         the master compels the slave to labor, and what the slave produces the master takes and enjoys

·         through his labor, the slave imposes form upon the object of his labor, actualizing himself in the things that he makes and thereby developing his capacities and abilities

·         the master, on the other hand, produces nothing; he simply consumes, enjoys, compels the slave to produce through fear, and does not become actualized

·         the slave comes to know himself more fully than the master does, since what a person is, is determined to some extent by what he does and what he produces. [Hegel's point might be that, in order to know what you are, you must know what you can do, what your potentialities are. But you can only come to know this if you work to develop those potentialities, and what is produced in the process is the best expression or evidence of what you are in actuality. It is a permanent embodiment of what you are. Someone who doesn't work, and thus produces nothing, leaves no such embodiment of what he distinctively is.]

·         so ultimately the slave overcomes his alienation, and the original conflict between the two individuals is resolved

·         but this does not overcome the general alienation of consciousness -- it just helps move consciousness along to the next stage in its development


[2.3.] The Dialectic.


The various stages through which mind/spirit/consciousness evolves occur in a specific, recurring pattern called the dialectic -- it consists of three stages:

·         thesis

·         antithesis

·         synthesis


An original state (the thesis) turns out to be inadequate and is replaced with its denial or opposite, its antithesis, which in turn also is revealed to be inadequate. Both the thesis and the antithesis turn out to be one-sided -- each on its own is inadequate. They are "sublimated" (aufgehoben[1]) to form a new and different state, their synthesis -- both thesis and antithesis are, in some sense, preserved within the synthesis, but the synthesis lacks the flaws stemming from the one-sidedness of the earlier stages.


Hegel applied these concepts, not only in his description of the actual progress of human society, but in other areas of his philosophical system:



Philosophy of History -- stages of history

Phenomenology of Spirit -- stages of consciousness

Science of Logic -- abstract categories with which humans think


ancient Greece, a harmonious society based on customary morality, individuals identify with the polis and don't think of opposing it



is shown to be inadequate

Socrates' questioning -- independent thought, which undermines customary morality




individual freedom, which develops under Christianity and flourishes in the Reformation



is shown to be inadequate

freedom is too abstract to serve as a foundation for society -- put into practice, it culminates in the Terror of the French Revolution




an organic (and thus harmonious) community, organized in a rational manner -- viz. the Prussian state of Hegel's day


[this dialectical progression stops]





[keeps going (eventually reaches master-slave consciousness); this synthesis serves as a thesis for a new dialectical triad]





[keeps going; this synthesis serves as a thesis for a new dialectical triad]


[2.4.] What Marx Takes from Hegel.


When he was young, Marx was a left Hegelian (a.k.a. young Hegelian; as opposed to the right Hegelians). He thought that Hegel had not followed through to discover the real, and radical, implications of his philosophical doctrines; Hegel had come to be satisfied with the Prussian state and with the Christian church -- he held that the Prussian state itself was the ultimate culmination of historical progress.


Marx took over all of the following ideas from Hegel:

1.       Reality is an historical process.

2.       The structure of this process is dialectical: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

3.       This process, or series of changes, has a specific goal.

4.       That goal is a society that has a sort of freedom.

5.       Until we reach that goal, humans will remain in a state of alienation.

Two important changes:

1.       Marx replaced Hegel's idealism with materialism (without argument; he just accepted materialism as an obvious fact).

2.       On Marx's view, the freedom towards which we are progressing is freedom from economic forces.


[1] Aufhebung.  [n. Aufhebung;  adj. aufgehoben;  v. aufheben.]  This word is usually translated either as supersede, sublate or sublimate. In ordinary German it means “to pick something up”; in the dialectic of the Phenomenology it means to move on, but keeping or preserving what has come before it. But in addition to the moving on and preserving the essential content, "Aufhebung" also has the implication of an improvement, an elevation of the original into something better.

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