Excerpts from


by Herbert Marcuse


Hegel's First System


Language … makes it possible for an individual to take a conscious position against his fellows and to assert his needs and desires against those of the other individuals. The resulting antagonisms are integrated through the process of labor, which also becomes the decisive force for the development of culture. The labor process is responsible for various types of integration conditioning all the subsequent forms of community that correspond to these types: the family, civil society, and the state ….. Labor first unites individuals into the family, which appropriates as ‘family property’ the objects that. provide for its subsistence. The family, however, finds itself and its property among other property-owning families. The conflict that develops here is not between the individual and the objects of his desire, but between one group o individ­uals (a family) and other similar groups. The objects are already ‘appropriated’; they are the (actual or potential) property of individuals. The institutionalization of private property signifies, to Hegel that the ‘objects’ have finally been incorporated into the subjective world: the objects are no longer ‘dead things,’ but belong, in their totality, to the sphere of the self-realization of the subject. Man has toiled and organized them, and has thus made them part and parcel of his personality. Nature thus takes its place in the history of man, and history becomes essen­tially human history. All historical struggles become struggles between groups of property-owning individuals.

With the advent of the various property-owning family units there begins a ‘struggle for mutual recognition’ of their rights. Since property is looked upon as an essential and constitutive element of individuality, the individual has to preserve and defend his property in order to maintain himself as an individual. The consequent life-and-death struggle, Hegel says, can come to an end only if the opposed individuals are integrated into the community of the nation (Volk).


The consequence of the struggle for mutual recognition is a first real integration that gives the groups or individuals in conflict an objective common interest. The consciousness that achieves this integration is again a universal (the Volksgeist), but its unity is no longer a primitive and ‘immediate’ one. It is rather a product of self-conscious efforts to make the existing antagonisms work in the interest of the whole. Hegel calls it a mediated (vermittelte) unity. The term mediation here manifests its concrete significance. The activity of mediation is no other than the activity of labor. Through his labor, man overcomes the estrangement between the objective world and the subjective world; he transforms nature into an appropriate medium for his self-development. When objects are taken and shaped by labor, they become part of the subject who is able to recognize his needs and desires in them. Through labor, moreover, man loses that atomic existence wherein he is, as an individual, opposed to all other individuals; he becomes a member of a community. The individual, by virtue of his labor, turns into a universal; for labor is of its very nature a universal activity: its product is exchangeable among all individuals.

Hegel states, ‘the individual satisfies his needs by his labor, but not by the particular product of his labor ; the latter to fill his needs, has to become something other than it is.’ The particular object becomes a universal one in the process of labor - it becomes a commodity. The universality also transforms the subject of labor, the laborer, and his individual activity. He is forced to set aside his particular faculties and desires. Nothing counts in the distribution of the product of labor but ‘abstract and universal labor.’ ‘The labor of each is, with regard to its content, universal for the needs of all.’ Labor has ‘value’ only as such a ‘universal activity’ (allgemeine Tatigkeit) its value is determined by ‘what labor is for all, and not what it is for the individual.’

This abstract and universal labor is connected with concrete individual need through the ‘exchange relationships’ of the market. By virtue of the exchange, the prod­ucts of labor are distributed among individuals according to the value of abstract labor, Hegel, therefore, calls exchange ‘the return to concreteness’; through it the concrete needs of men in society are fulfilled.


Hegel is obviously striving for an exact understanding of the function of labor in integrating the various indi­vidual activities into a totality of exchange relationships. He touches the sphere in which Marx later resumed the analysis of modern society. The concept of labor is not peripheral in Hegel’s system but is the central notion through which he conceives the development of society. Driven by the insight that opened this dimension to him. Hegel describes the mode of integration prevailing in a commodity-producing society in terms that clearly foreshadow Marx’s critical approach.

  He emphasizes two points: the complete subordination of the individual to the demon of abstract labor and the blind and anarchic character of a society perpetuated by exchange relationships. Abstract labor cannot develop the individual’s true faculties. Mechanization, the very means that should liberate man from toil, makes him a slave of his labor. ‘The more he subjugates his labor, the more powerless he himself becomes.’ The machine reduces the necessity of toil only for the whole, not for the individual, ‘The more mechanized labor becomes, the less value it has, and the more the individual must toil.’ The value of labor decreases in the same proportion as the productivity of labor increases . . . The faculties of the individual are infinitely restricted, and the consciousness of the factory worker is degraded to the lowest level of dullness.’ While labor thus changes from the se1f-realization of the individual ­into his self-negation, the relation between the particular needs and labor, and between the needs and the labor of the whole takes the form of ‘an incalculable, blind interdependence.’ The integration of conflicting individuals through abstract labor and exchange thus establishes ‘a vast system of communality and mutual interdependence, a moving life of the dead. This system moves hither and yon in a blind and elementary way, and like a wild animal calls for strong permanent control and curbing.’

The tone and pathos of the descriptions point strikingly to Marx’s Capital. It is not surprising to note that Hegel’s manuscript breaks off with this picture, as if he was terrified by what his analysis of the commodity-producing society disclosed. The last sentence, however, finds him formulating a possible way out. He elaborates this in the Realphilosophie of 1804-5. The wild animal must be curbed and such a process requires the organization of a strong state.


The Doctrine of



Within the Science of Logic, it is the Doctrine of Essence  that provides the basic concepts that emancipate dialectical logic from the mathematical method. Hegel undertakes a philosophic critique of mathematical method before he introduces the Doctrine of Essence—in his discussion of quantity. Quantity is only a very external charac­teristic of being, a realm in which the real content of things gets lost. The mathematical sciences that operate with quantity operate with a contentless form that can be measured and counted and expressed by indifferent numbers and symbols. But the process of reality cannot be so treated. It defies formalization and stabilization, because it is the very negation of every stable form. The facts and relations that appear in this process change their nature at every phase of the development. ‘Our knowledge would be in a very awkward predicament if such objects as freedom, law, morality, or even God himself, because they cannot be measured and calculated! or expressed in a mathematical formula, were to be reckoned beyond the reach of exact knowledge, and we had to put up with a vague generalized image of them.‘ Since it is not only philosophy but every other true field of inquiry that aims at knowledge of such contents, the reduction of science to mathematics means the final surrender of truth:

‘The Doctrine of Essence seeks to liberate knowledge from the worship of ‘observable facts’ and from the scientific common sense that imposes this worship. Mathematical formalism  abandons and prevents any critical understanding and use of facts. ... The real field of knowledge is not the given fact about things as they are, but the critical evaluation of them as a prelude to passing beyond their given form. Knowledge deals with appearances in order to get beyond them, ‘Everything, it is said, has an Essence, that is, things really are not what they  immediately show themselves.  There is, therefore, something more to he done than merely move from one quality to another and merely to advance from qualitative to quantitative, and vice versa; There is a permanent in things, and that permanent is in the first instance their Essence.’


 The knowledge that the appearance and essence do not jibe is the beginning of truth. The mark of dialectical thinking is the ability to distinguish the essential from the apparent process of reality and to grasp their relation.

Essence denotes the unity of being, its identity throughout change. Precisely what is this unity or identity’? It is not a permanent and fixed substratum, but a process wherein everything copes with its inherent contradictions and unfolds itself as a result. Conceived in this way, identity contains its opposite, difference, and involves a self-differentiation and an ensuing unification. Every existence precipitate itself into negativity and remains what it is only by negating this negativity. It splits up into a diversity of states and relations to other things, which are originally foreign to it, but which become part of its proper self when they are brought under the working influence of its essence. Identity is thus the same as the ‘negative totality,’ which was shown to be the structure of reality; it is ‘the same as Essence.’

Thus conceived, the essence describes the actual process of reality. ‘The contemplation of everything that is shows, in itself, that in its self-identity it is self-contradictory and self-different, and in its variety or contradiction, self-identical; it is in itself this movement of transition of one of these determinations into the other, just because each in itself is its own opposite.’

 By virtue of the inherent negativity in them, all things become self-contradictory, opposed to themselves, and their being consists in that ‘force which can both comprehend and endure Contradiction.’ All things are contradictory in themselves” – this proposition, which so sharply differs from the traditional laws of identity and contradiction, expresses for Hegel ‘the truth and essence of things.’ ‘Contradiction is the root of all movement and life,’ all reality is self-contradictory. Motion especially, external movement as well as self-movement, is nothing but ‘existing contradiction.’


The Doctrine of Essence thus establishes the general laws of thought as laws of destruction—destruction for the sake of the truth. Thought is herewith installed as the tribunal that contradicts the apparent forms of reality in the name of their true content. The essence, ‘the truth of Being,’ is held by thoughts which, in turn, is contra­diction.

According to Hegel, however, the contradiction is not the end. The essence, which is the locus of the contradiction, must perish and ‘the contradiction resolve itself.’  It is resolved in so far as the essence becomes the ground of existence. The essence, in becoming the ground of things, passes into existence. The ground of a thing, for Hegel. is nothing other than the totality of its essence, materialized in the concrete conditions and circumstances of existence. The essence is thus as much historical as ontological. The essential potentialities of things realize themselves in the same comprehensive process that estab­lishes their existence. The essence can ‘achieve’ its existence when the potentialities of things have ripened in and through the conditions of reality, Hegel describes this process as the transition to actuality.


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