Hegelian pitfalls

Mike Macnair reviews Ian Fraser's 'Hegel, Marx: the concept of need', Edinburgh University Press, 1998, pp207, £16.50. pbk

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (K Marx Critique of the Gotha Programme).

This famous Marx quotation inevitably poses the question, what does Marx mean by “needs”? Ian Fraser’s book undertakes to address both this question, and the larger question of the relationship between Karl Marx’s ideas and those of the German philosopher, GWF Hegel. Fraser argues for a Marx who is more Hegelian than Marx supposed himself to be. He claims that a fully “Hegelian Marxism” leads to an understanding of ‘radical needs’, which offers a truly revolutionary alternative to social democracy and Stalinism.

Philosophers on ‘need’

The first chapter of the book addresses (some) contemporary academic philosophers’ discussion of needs - human needs as distinguished from animal needs, needs as distinguished from wants, and so on. It is a frustrating read, partly because it is so compressed as to be superficial. In addition, however, it never appears directly from Fraser’s discussion what a philosophical idea of ‘need’ is for. The unstated answer is that a claim that a person A ‘needs’ a thing X is a kind of moral or ethical claim, a claim that A ought to have X. It is for this reason that if I say, ‘I need a cigarette’, the statement is either self-satirising or plain wrong: I want a cigarette, but I need to give up smoking, and I certainly have no moral claim to be provided with cigarettes.

This moral context shows through episodically: Fraser is led to discuss cultural relativism and the philosophers’ ideas of ‘thick’ theories of the good (which include values specific to cultures, ideologies or religions) and ‘thin’ theories of the good (which purport to be applicable to all humans, irrespective of their cultures, etc). These are elements in more general academic, moral and political theories. Fraser’s decision to discuss philosophers’ moral arguments about needs in isolation from the general moral theories of which they are part makes the arguments he discusses appear more incoherent than they actually are.

Dialectic in Hegel and Marx

Chapter 2 gives us Fraser’s argument on the dialectic and the relation between Hegel and Marx. This is, in fact, the crux of the book, since it gives the argumentative method to what follows. It is generally supposed by Marxists that, as Marx said, his “dialectical method is, in its foundation, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it” (K Marx Capital Vol 1, p102 - quoted by Fraser, p23). Fraser disagrees, and undertakes to show that Hegel’s dialectic is as materialist as Marx’s. To make this case he gives us (1) an account of Hegel’s Logic; (2) an account of Marx’s method in the Grundrisse (the working papers at a certain stage of the production of Marx’s Capital); and (3) a discussion of what Fraser considers to be Marx’s misplaced criticisms of Hegel.

In Fraser’s account of Hegel’s Logic we are first treated to the standard description of the defects of the abstract understanding (analysis of the world into formal, fixed categories) and of empiricism (reliance on concrete sense perception). Subjective thought “must not take anything for granted” (p25), and, as a result, we plunge into the world of the abstractly interpenetrated phenomena of Being and Nothing, their antinomies, and through them into ‘becoming’, “movement out of dialectical opposition into something new”, and so on. All this is standard.

The pivotal element in Fraser’s argument is the role of the will as meaning “the activity of man in the widest sense” (Hegel The philosophy of history p22, cited at Fraser, p29). Hence, Fraser argues, “for Hegel, just as for Marx, theory must be in a unity with practice” (p29), and, quoting Raya Dunayevskaya, “the Idea itself is real, lives, moves, transforms reality” (p32; quote from Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and revolution New York 1989, p43). Fraser concludes that “The portrayal of Hegel as a mystical idealist is only possible, therefore, by ignoring the distinctiveness of his dialectic to previous thought, and by neglecting the role of the Will” (p32).

Since Fraser has thus made Hegel into a ‘materialist’, his treatment of the supposed Hegelianism of Marx’s method can be extremely brief. A few quotations from the Grundrisse and Capital establish that Marx insists on understanding the concrete as a combination of many determinations, on avoiding general abstractions like the “natural individual” and on grasping the internal relations between and within economic phenomena, and so on.

Finally, Fraser critiques Marx’s criticisms of Hegel. The core point is Fraser’s response to the Grundrisse. Marx argued that Hegel “fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself” (Grundrisse p101, cited by Fraser, p35). Since this is precisely the method of argument of both Hegel’s Logic and his earlier Phenomenology of spirit, it might seem Fraser can have no answer. But we return to the pivotal role of the Will:

“Again, this is a clear misinterpretation of Hegel’s argument. We have seen him say that thought is ‘powerless’ without the Will to actualise it. Thought arises from, and is actualised by, the ‘real’ in dialectical unity - the unity of theory and practice. Thought does not unfold out of itself but is manifest in the dialectical movement of the Will as the ‘activity and labour’ of real human beings” (p35).

Fraser’s mistake

Fraser’s argument in this chapter is clearly open to the point made by Merold Westphal, that “A careful examination of Hegel’s usage will turn up more than enough evidence to make him into Marx or Weber, but only so long as the contradictory evidence is ignored” (History and truth in Hegel’s phenomenology Bloomington, 1998, p42). Westphal is also helpful in understanding where Fraser’s error lies - that is, at the point of the claim that “subjective thought must not take anything for granted”.

At the very outset of his book, Westphal explains that as a graduate student he was warned by his teacher, Paul Weiss: “As we began the opening chapter on sense certainty, he warned us most solemnly to be careful. If Hegel got us there he had us and there was no escaping” (p ix). Later, in chapter 3, Westphal outlines Hegel’s critique of sense certainty (believing what our senses tell us) in the context of the evolution of the theory of knowledge since John Locke’s An essay concerning human understanding (written in the 1670s). Hegel’s critique of sense certainty builds on the prior critiques of Locke offered by Berkeley, Hume and Kant. Hegel was in turn criticised by the materialist Feuerbach, who insisted that it makes a difference whether I have before me a concrete, sensuous loaf of bread, or the “concept of bread”. And here is Marx, in the first thesis of the Theses on Feuerbach:

“The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object, actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as human, sensuous activity, practice, 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” (Cyril Smith’s translation).

In the light of this quotation we can see the very elementary difference between Marx and Hegel. Marx, like Feuerbach, rejects Hegel’s critique of sense certainty. He departs from Feuerbach not in the direction of Hegel, but in the direction of a theory of knowledge which is more reliant on concrete sensuous activity. This is reflected in the character of volume 1 of Capital, which Marx saw through the press. Marx does not simply move from the concrete to the abstract and return from the abstract to the concrete as a combination of abstract determinations. Rather, at each stage the ‘abstractions’ or theoretical categories he uses are themselves supported by concrete empirical evidence and examples.

Was Marx wrong?

Was Marx wrong to take this, from a Hegelian point of view, ‘empiricist’ line? There are two reasons to suppose he was right, one of which has important political implications.

The first is rather elementary. All the time we are awake we rely on the immediate reliability of our concrete sense-perceptions. For example, I am writing this on a desktop computer. When I stretch, I automatically avoid putting my hand through the screen. I assume that my eyes (and my fingers if I touch the screen) are truly telling me that the screen is there. To suspend this reliance and belief, as Berkeley and Hume (and hence Kant and Hegel) recommended, is unlikely to produce deeper insight: to do so we would have to be brain-damaged, insane or intoxicated. Concrete sensuous activity is not the end-point of understanding the world in order to change it, but it is the unavoidable starting point.

The second is political. Locke’s Essay was originally written as part of a polemic round the issue of freedom of religion (see Ashcraft, Revolutionary politics & Locke's Two treatises of government Chapter 2 and 3). Put very simply, advocates of state control of religion had argued that true knowledge rests on authority and is unavailable to the unwashed masses, who ought not to claim free choice of beliefs. Locke’s argument that knowledge rests ultimately on sense-perception undermines the claims of authority to determine truth. Now it is transparent that bishop Berkeley criticised Locke’s claims for sense-perception in order to restore the claims of authority to determine truth. It is less obvious in the case of the ‘radical sceptic’ Hume, but still true. Hume’s argument leads to the conclusion that we can know nothing ... and should thus leave it to constituted authority to get on with the management of political affairs: we should “always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse” (Belloc). This political line is reflected in his History of England.

Hegel’s argument similarly does not lead immediately to the claims of authority. But since the true knowledge which is, for Hegel, available to us, is only knowledge of the totality in all its contradictions and mediations, the only possible subject of knowledge is the human totality - ie, the society as a whole ... which, as becomes clear in the Philosophy of right, is expressed in the state. Hegel’s statism is thus implicit in the nature of the knowledge he thinks humans can attain and in his original starting point of refusing to ‘take for granted’ our unavoidable reliance on sense-perception in our concrete sensuous activity.

Hegelian versions of Marxism in their classical forms - for example, Georg Lukács’ History and class consciousness - share Hegel’s starting point. As a result, as for Hegel, knowledge becomes knowledge of the totality, and the knowing Subject necessarily a collective Subject. But something has to be substituted for Hegel’s state as collective knowing Subject. At first level it is the proletariat as the universal class, and then at second level the party as the representative of the general interests of the proletariat. In this species of thought, political dissent becomes a reflection of failure to attain knowledge due to inadequate totalisation, which reflects inadequate integration into the party. Only the party can understand the world. The authority to determine truth, which Locke denied the church possessed, has been re-vested in the politburo.

Marx, in contrast, says to the workers: this theory is grounded in your concrete, sensuous experience. Here’s the evidence for it. You can understand it, use it, test it and correct it. This understanding, if you use it, can set you free. To be sure, the theory implies that you need a party: but this party is to be your creation, your instrument, not a Hegelian knowing Subject in which you submerge yourselves.

Dialectic in Marx-Engels

Marx, then, was not a Hegelian. And yet, we know, Marx and Engels did make use of dialectical reason and of substantial elements of Hegel’s Logic. There is, however, a profound difference. For Hegel, dialectical reason is logically, transcendentally or immanently necessary. Hegel’s proof of the dialectic starts with the abstract, allegedly necessary features of thought and, to tell the truth, remains abstract. In contrast, Marx and Engels clearly think that basic dialectical ideas like the interpenetration of opposites, the transition from quantity to quality, and the negation of the negation are claims about the material world, of which evidence can be given (by the same token, their validity could be refuted by evidence). That is the point of Marx’s references to these concepts in Capital, which Dühring criticised and which Marx and Engels supported in the Anti-Dühring. It is the point of Engels’s Dialectics of nature. This material dialectic is in the last analysis about time and change.

The ‘analytical Marxists’ rejected these uses wholesale as being incompatible with the doctrines of the physical sciences. But, even as they were doing so, computer scientists were reinventing the interpenetration of opposites as “fuzzy logic”, and complexity theorists reinventing the transition from quantity to quality in a variety of forms. The ‘analytical Marxists’, moreover, made fools of themselves by insisting on a static or gradualist view of the world which was immediately successively refuted by the fall of the Stalinist regimes, the non-emergence of a law-based ‘new world order’, the actual regression of many third world economies and the continued, albeit slower, tendency for welfare states to be undermined and politics to be destabilised in western Europe. The result is that their work already looks more time-bound and dated than ... Capital.

The materialist, evidence-grounded dialectics of the Marx-Engels ‘firm’ thus looks as timely and useful as ever. But what about the Hegelian Marxism offered by (among others) Fraser? His original claim was that Hegelian Marxism offered a superior account of “need”. Does it?

Hegel and Marx on needs

Chapters 3-7 - the larger part of Fraser’s book - consist of exegeses of Hegel and Marx in Fraserian terms. We discover what Hegel said about needs in his early System of ethical life, in his later Philosophy of right and in his Aesthetics, and what Marx said (in passing!) about needs in various sources, and about “higher needs”. Along the way Fraser offers a fair amount of critique of rival accounts of Hegel’s, and of Marx’s arguments. He also makes these arguments engage with the modern academic need theorists discussed in chapter 1.

This last activity is not very helpful. As in chapter 1, isolated points are taken in abstraction from general theories. The result is that Fraser’s ‘Hegel’ and Fraser’s ‘Marx’ are talking at cross-purposes with the modern moral philosophers. Reading chapters 3-5 for the second time, I was struck by the fact that passages on “need” are torn from the context of Hegel’s general theory of history, which then obtrudes itself back in the form of mini-descriptions to contextualise them. These phenomena cast into doubt the reliability of Fraser’s underlying exegeses. If he does this much visible violence to the arguments of Hegel and of the modern needs theorists, how much other violence am I missing?

A similar issue arises in the exegesis of Marx in chapter 6, which takes the form primarily of a critique of the earlier work of Agnes Heller, The theory of need in Marx (London 1976). Both Heller and Fraser struggle to find single determinate analytical ‘meanings’ for Marx’s rather varied uses of the German Bedürfnis in a variety of contexts in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts, the Grundrisse and Capital. But to give real meanings to these uses it is unsatisfactory to lump them all together as statements about “need”: we need to ask what work the individual statement is doing in its context (usually but not always some aspect of economic analysis). In several of the cases cited it is clear that Bedürfnis could find a translation other than “need” without obscuring Marx’s meaning.

Fraser’s conclusions

The work of chapters 3-7 is “cashed” in chapters 8 and 9. Chapter 8 summarises Fraser’s analysis of - as he sees it - the common position of Hegel and Marx. It has to be said that the result is considerably more obscure than Marx’s published work. Just to give one example: “Both thinkers understand the determinate abstraction and the particularisation to be forms: that is, the mode of existence of the general abstraction or universal concept in society” (p165).

Broadly, Fraser’s argument is that for Hegel and Marx alike, humans start with “natural needs” (food, etc). Satisfaction of these needs moves antagonistically through “mediations” - labour, tools, money and so on. This activity leads to surplus, which posits “higher needs” or “social needs”, and in turn “spiritual needs” or “human needs”, and at last to “radical needs”, needs which challenge the existing order of society. All these levels are dialectically interpenetrated forms. When Fraser then returns to modern academic need theory, he argues that both the distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ made by the academics, and that between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ theories of need, turn out to be undialectical, failing to recognise their unity-in-opposition.

In chapter 9 Fraser draws out some political implications. He considers first “Soviet communism”, which he considers broadly from the perspective of Hillel Ticktin’s Origins of the crisis in the USSR (1992), though eclectically drawing on a variety of other writers. The struggles of workers, and of the nationalities, intellectuals, youth movements and feminists, were for Fraser “moments of ‘radical needs’” (p181) and “offered the possibility of rupture and transcendence in and against the Soviet system” (p180). What is striking about this analysis is the complete disappearance from it of problems of political strategy.

He continues with a brief critique of the disputes between liberals and communitarians as failing to grasp “the importance of mediation between the general and the particular”. The final section attacks the social democratic arguments of Len Doyal’s and Ian Gough’s A theory of human need (1991), which offers a reworking of the liberal Rawls’s Theory of justice to give priority to a right to satisfaction of ‘basic needs’. Fraser’s response is to assert, so briefly as to be merely dogmatic, the Marxist claims that the state is a capitalist state, and that within the global capitalist economy even Sweden (the model of Doyal and Gough) has been forced to attack the working class.

A better account of need?

Some of Fraser’s conclusions are stunningly banal. For example, as society develops, needs develop: an electricity supply was a luxury in 1903, but is a necessity now. So too resistance to the capitalists, or to the Stalinist bureaucracy, from below offers the idea that this was not the only way to live - but absolutely no idea of how to get rid of these bastards. Others commit the classical Hegelian error of ‘resolving’ real contradictions in thought. Thus, the disputes between liberalism and communitarianism, or over ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ theories of the good, in the academy are in reality not merely thought-disputes which are “resolved into a higher unity” by a dialectical understanding. They represent (in a form mediated by rarefied academic air) opposed political trends in the real world, which kill each other (fundamentalists and secularists), rig elections (US Republicans and Democrats) and so on. Yet others - as in the critique of Doyal and Gough - simply fail to follow from Fraser’s limited discussion.

More fundamentally, Fraser’s series of forms - from natural needs as a “fundamental general abstraction”, through “social needs”, to “human needs” and “radical needs” - rather misses the point, that for most of the world’s population “natural needs” are not merely a “fundamental general abstraction”, but the object of an immediate struggle for survival. This is reflected in his failure to note that the restoration of capitalism in the USSR and eastern Europe - which resulted from the spontaneous struggles without a strategy he applauds - resulted in real impoverishment of the working class in these countries. Fraser thus remains within the world of ideology described by István Mészáros in his The power of ideology (1990): he cannot see beyond the life-world of the metropolitan countries.

Thus, far from offering a superior concept of need, Fraser’s ‘Hegelian Marxist’ ‘dialectical method’ degrades all concepts and produces useless conclusions.