Hegel and Marx – Mystic and Materialist: On Civil Society

The bases of Hegel’s and Marx’s theorising on civil society were diametrically opposed – Hegel’s was that of the spiritual progress of a ‘rationalised’, universal and mystical Geist which functions in nature and history and is manifested in consciousness, Marx’s was the material world. Yet there are several points of commonality between the two, particularly since the theorising of the former was fundamental to that of the latter.

Where Hegel’s view of society was tripartite and concentric, Marx’s was essentially dualist and antithetical. Hegel’s model comprised the family which was contained within civil society which in turn was contained by the centralised bureaucratic state which he regarded as the highest form of ethical life, the most stable expression of Geist. Marx rejected Hegel’s notion of a spiritual unfolding and saw in its stead a struggle between a dominant and exploitative bourgeoisie and the proletariat and a division between the state and civil society. He thought that rather than being the institutional and philosophical expression of ‘reason’, Hegel’s argument was ideological – the bourgeois view of the world, that Hegel’s view was contemplative and impotent – it did not seek to change the world by identifying and guiding the concrete participants who are going to do this.

Hegel’s model of civil society was a balanced and interdependent system of the needs of individuals and their satisfaction, informed by the individual’s contractual and legal rights and obligations based on market mechanisms. Through the individual’s interaction with others, the progress of the universal finds its expression in the developing consciousness of their own universality – from individual to citizen: ‘through its reference to others, the particular end takes on the form of universality, and gains satisfaction by simultaneously satisfying the welfare of others.’1 Hegel’s civil society functioned in a ‘rational’ inter-relationship between the family, civil society and state such that the dynamism of the modern world could be given expression and yet the society would be able to bear a degree of conflict as normal.

For Marx, as with Hegel, civil society was where the productive forces and social relations functioned but he focused on the forces of production as a base on which all else socially was built and argued that the tension in how those forces operated and were controlled by the bourgeoisie impacted in a profoundly negative way on civil society which represented, through ideology, the interests of the bourgeoisie – those interests maintained by the state.2 Where Hegel argued for fundamentally harmonious ‘rational’ relations in civil society, all knowing their place, and that his model embodied ‘the end of history’, Marx argued that this could never be, due to the class relations – the proletariat, exploited for their potential for surplus value, were excluded from the benefits of bourgeois society that they had produced and denied their humanity. Where Hegel held a contradictory position regarding the family – that it was the basis and first ethical power of the state even as it had been pulled apart and replaced by the corporation,3 Marx also argued that normal ties such as family were being eroded by the dynamics of capitalism, leaving the workers only their collective solidarity. This, Marx argued, could only be overcome by the overthrow of bourgeois property relations by the proletariat as the key stage for socialism.

Hegel, with his interest in political economy,4 recognised the division of labour and its impact on workers, the increasingly mechanical nature of work, that exploitation was essential to capitalism and that the capitalist economy produces great disparities in wealth – his writing on this echoes the force of Marx’s writing.5 But, contrary to Marx, he not only thought that these problems could be ameliorated by the welfare provided by the police and the corporation (he was the first philosopher to theorise on a version of the welfare state – which welfare state did not concern Marx) or regulated (in order to avoid ‘dangerous convulsions’6), that there was no lasting solution to them – his theorising on civil society was a justification for capitalism. Where Hegel believed the dependence and reciprocity of work and the satisfaction of needs was a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of all, Marx saw them as the satisfaction of the needs only of the bourgeoisie, at the great expense of the proletariat. Likewise, Hegel believed that through interdependence the individual multiplies his needs and means of satisfying them – for Marx, this only applied to the bourgeois who is a self-interested maximiser of their needs.

Both Hegel and Marx were very positive about the dynamism of capitalism but Marx, while recognising its historically progressive role, argued that this dynamism is ultimately self-defeating in its irrationality and dehumanising effect. Again, both Hegel and Marx following him positively recognised the creativity in civil society. Hegel believed that in satisfying needs we are continually transforming the world, continually creating ourselves morally and socially through both practical and theoretical activity – in transforming nature we transform ourselves. Marx’s focus was on the proletariat as creators, on their transcendence of capitalism, not only so that they can regain control of their collective creation but that they can liberate all human creativity.

Even though he recognised the importance in the growth of trade and commerce, Hegel’s limit of social organisation was the nation-state. Marx, because capitalism functions trans-nationally, believed that the proletarians all over the world would recognise their collective interest in struggle against it. He believed that the struggle against capitalism could only have an international solution.

Marx’s analysis is clearly the most adequate – it is built on a study of objective reality not mysticism. Yet Hegel was a ‘keen observer’ of the world and like Marx, recognised the dynamic power and potential of capitalism. What for Marx had to be overcome, for Hegel was, in the nation state, the highest and end-point. It is very interesting that for such a profound and brilliant materialist as Marx, his theorising, which he derived substantially from that of Hegel, seems also to arrive at an end-point – in socialism. It is as if in their theorising they both had attained their telos and ideal.

Many, in their criticisms of Marx point to what he ‘failed’ to do – that he failed to address the complexity of modernity, that he failed to account for democracy, that he failed to account for nationalism, that he failed to see that the proletarians would soon begin to get a cut of the cake, binding them to capitalism. One such criticism is that Hegel’s analysis was more modulated, enabling him to recognise what was to become an enormous element of the bourgeois state – welfare, to recognise the part that ‘freedom’ and the satisfaction of the needs of all plays in the modern economy.

Such criticisms carry limited weight. Marx’s life’s work was a superb analysis of the commodity and its economic implications. His focus was not on the continuation for a period of time, of capitalism and its ideology (the reflection in consciousness of the objective world), it was on a far better, more humane society beyond it and the contradictions within capitalism that would, at some stage, present and drive the potential for its achievement.

Hegel’s theorising on civil society is premised on a positive understanding of the basic trends of bourgeois society and is bounded by the nation state. He failed to see the true potential and implications of global trade as did Marx. Where Hegel thought of the state and civil society working together, the latter happily under the domination of the former, Marx saw a split between them which could only be joined by the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Civil society since the time of Hegel and Marx rapidly became central to capitalism – and the relevance of the term has broadened substantially to incorporate a wide range of organisations and institutions – if anything, increasingly under the sway of the bourgeois state and capitalist ideology



1. G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Ed., Allen W. Wood, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 220, #182.

2. In an essay with strong racist elements the young Marx wrote that only under Christianity ‘which objectifies all national, natural, moral and theoretical relationships, could civil society separate itself completely from the life of the state, sever all the species-bonds of man, establish egoism and selfish need in their place, and dissolve the human world into a world of atomistic, antagonistic individuals.’ K. Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’, 1843. For Marx, while the system of need satisfaction increases the level of social interdependence necessary in the economy, the potential proletarian solidarity remains latent until the struggle against individual atomisation assumes a collective form. At this point, capitalism begins to produce its own ‘grave-diggers’.

3. ‘civil society tears the individual away from family ties, alienates the members of the family from one another, and recognises them as self-sufficient persons. …(it) subjects the existence of the whole family itself to dependence on civil society and to contingency.’ Hegel op. cit., p. 263, #238.

4. Marx also believed that political economy was a science, but that it was a bourgeois science, tainted by its commitment to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

5. ‘the emancipation of slaves is of the greatest advantage to the master.’ Hegel op. cit., p. 269, #248, ‘When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living…that feeling of right, integrity and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble, which in turn makes it much easier for disproportionate wealth to be concentrated in a few hands.’ Hegel op. cit., p. 266, #244.

6. Hegel op. cit., p. 262, #236. Where Hegel rejected democracy, fearing the ‘uneducated masses’, Marx showed little interest in it, believing it to be a front for political domination by the bourgeoisie – his focus was on revolution.