Exploring Friedrich Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy: Part 1 – Hegel By: Thomas RigginsRead Now
* Notes and comments by Thomas Riggins, PhD: Chief Editorial Counselor, Midwestern Marx Institute, former Associate Editor, Political Affairs magazine
In the middle of the 1880s Friedrich Engels was asked by the editors of Die Neue Zeit, the theoretical journal of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to write a reply to the Danish philosopher C. N. Starcke’s book, Ludwig Feuerbach (1885). This book was originally Starcke’s (1858-1926) PhD dissertation in philosophy. Besides the book read by Engels, he also wrote Baruch de Spinoza. Interestingly, he was also interested, as was Engels, in the work of Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) who published Ancient Society (1877). This work, as we know, inspired Engels to write The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
Starcke’s book on the family came out in 1888— Die primitive Familie in ihrer Entstehung und Entwickelung (The Origin and Development of the Primitive Family). He mentions Engels critically in passing. He was not a socialist but a left leaning liberal. He founded the Justice Party in Denmark in 1919, which still exists, on the principles of Henry George (1839-1897).
At any rate, it is this book on Feuerbach which set off some nostalgic memories in Engels of The Way We Were kind to the world of Engels’ and Marx’s youth, the revolutionary era of forty years previously when the 1848 Revolution convulsed Europe. All that happened in Germany since then, Engels remarks, “has been merely a continuation of 1848, merely an execution of the testament of the revolution.”
Part One “Hegel”
1848 was the foster child of 1789 and both the French and German revolutions (1848 was pan European but greatly affected Germany) and were preceded by new movements in philosophy — the Enlightenment in France, and in Germany, Hegelianism.
Engels focuses on one sentence of Hegel (one of the most misunderstood of many), namely, the infamous “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” The reactionaries of the world and the ultra-rights have loved this sentence, and have treated it as “the philosophical benediction upon despotism.” In recent times prominent philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper took this as Hegel’s meaning and denounced him as a pro-fascist.
Engels, however, is going to defend Hegel and explain what he really means — this sentence needs to be seen in its proper context in Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel’s actual sentence was “What is real is rational and what is rational is real” (The Philosophy of Right). “Was vernünftig (reasonable, rational) ist, das ist wirklich (real, actual) und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig.”
Engel points out a major qualification of this sentence and that is, in Hegel’s words, “In the course of its development reality proves to be necessary.” On the surface this doesn’t seem very helpful. The Trump administration was ‘actual,’ but was it ‘rational’? It was ‘real’ but was it ‘necessary’? Well, it was necessary according to the US constitution and was actual and rational in that respect, but it lost its necessity in 2020 by that same constitution and became irrational and lost actuality. But was it necessary that Trump, not Ms. Clinton, be president? That depends on what you think the amerikanische Geist is.
What this means is that reality is in constant flux (you can’t step into the same river twice as new waters are ever flowing) determined by the laws of dialectics. In human history, this means institutions which once were necessary for society to function and were considered rational become, with the further development of knowledge and science, irrational and non-functioning. Engels says nothing is real without qualification, its reality is contextual, and this context determines its rationality (reality) and a change of context can make it lose its rationality, its raison d'être and it eventually ceases to exist— it is no longer vernünftig.
This is Hegel’s view according to Engels: “All that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the course of time….everything that is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality.” This view constitutes the revolutionary essence of Hegel’s philosophy. Truth, “the business of philosophy,” is no longer a system of “dogmatic statements” (think of the creeds of religions — the Nicene or the 39 articles of the Anglicans).
Truth is relative to the historical development of human understanding and science “which ascends from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching” the end point of “absolute knowledge”. Dialectical philosophy is the “reflection” of this process in the human brain. And we, dear reader, will understand both Hegel and Marxism-Leninism when this process is reflected in our own brain, and we no longer need prayer beads or unscientific religious dogmas to deal with reality (assuming this is not already the case).
Now, Engels says, this view he gives of Hegel’s philosophy are the logical consequences of Hegel’s ideas, but Hegel himself does not explicitly draw them. The dialectic is an endless project and the Absolute Idea, which harmonizes all reality, could never be reached, but Hegel, against his own dialectic, nevertheless reaches it, and it turns out to be Hegel’s philosophy itself. Nevertheless, even though Hegel’s system per se cannot be accepted, there was no field in philosophy, religion, history, ethics, or aesthetics that Hegel did not comprehend and make intellectual contributions that still astound us (and not only in Engels’ day).
Hegel’s system ends up being used by both conservatives and radicals as the Absolute Idea seems to have so far become embodied in existing social striations of the more advanced developed parts of the world— or at least on the road to that end. But the dialectical method which negates whatever is to bring about new realities has no end point. In Hegel’s day religion and politics were the most serious concerns of the educated classes and practical plans and programs were looked for in these two spheres of thought and action. “Whoever placed the emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative in both spheres; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition, both in religion and politics.”
In the 1840s in Germany the conservative elements, for king, church, and country, justified their positions with the conservative tendencies in Hegel’s thought, while the group of young radicals who were known as the “young Hegelians” waged philosophical war on traditional religion and the Prussian state. Engels says the Hegelian “school” decomposed into several right and left factions arguing with each other.
Although Engels goes over the most important ideas of some of these 1840s thinkers, we will concentrate on the most important philosopher by far of the radical thinkers of this period, the one whose philosophy was transitional between Hegelianism and Marxism.
This is, of course, the title character of the essay, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). In The Essence of Christianity (1841) he wrote: “Nature exists independently of all philosophy.” Here was the book that finally established Materialism as the basic doctrine of any scientific outlook or philosophy. “Nothing exists outside nature and man, and the higher beings our religious fantasies have created are only the fantastic reflection of our own essence.”
Although this was stated before Marx and Engels created what has become Dialectical Materialism, and much of Feuerbach’s philosophy has been sublated by later developments, at least these two views of Feuerbach’s form the basis of Marxism-Leninism and the political and social praxis of all Communist Parties, not only in the United States, but throughout the world (except for those who have fallen into revisionism á la Bernstein and/or have incorporated various mistaken ideas derived from opportunism and Euro-Communism into their programs and dogmatically adhere to them).
This book, Engels says, gave its readers a feeling of liberation from the old dogmas and the spell cast by Idealism. He wrote, “How enthusiastically Marx greeted the new conception and how much — in spite of all critical reservations— he was influenced by it— one may read in The Holy Family.” [Book by Marx and Engels published in 1845]
Engels ends Part One (of four) of his work by remarking that the Revolution of 1848 eclipsed all of these philosophical disputes and not only the Young Hegelian’s, but both Hegel and Feuerbach themselves, were pushed aside in the ongoing political eruptions occasioned by the revolutionary activity of the masses.
Part II “Materialism” will appear sometime in February.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.