Philosophic Essay: Marx’s demystified dialectic and the “new society”

December 13, 2021

by Ron Kelch

Hegel and Marx

Karl Marx’s immediate freedom Idea, a universal, human species essence that is ever open to the new, can be a beacon in our time of angst over the future of humanity and nature. Ours is a time of extremes, a time of multiple total crises–ecological, economic, political, including a genocidal scapegoating of minorities, and multitudes crossing borders everywhere, searching for freedom and survival. Ours is also a time of widespread despair and hopelessness about the future in the face of a 1930s-style, globally stalled capital accumulation with its political devolution into other-hating fascism, fomenting new forms of genocide and ever new realignments for another round of total war. Marx’s dialectic of freedom in-and-for-itself, which demystified and unchained Hegel’s dialectic of life, can help those reaching for a different future. For Raya Dunayevskaya, Marx’s lifetime of revolutionary practice, inseparable from his recreation of Hegel’s freedom Idea, helped her make explicit “the new society” as Hegel’s “self-thinking Idea”–the culmination of Hegel’s dialectic of freedom in his final syllogisms in Philosophy of Spirit.

Dunayevskaya, who had long called ours an “age of absolutes,” posed in one of her last writings (June 1, 1987) a task for each generation to recreate the revolutionary dialectic anew and meet the challenge not only from practice but from the self-development of the Idea. Looking forward, this generation of multiple new freedom movements confronts a given political-economic reality that offers no hope for a future for themselves or humanity. Looking back after a similar period that led to holocaust, WWII and the Bomb, Jean-Paul Sartre had an early, though short-lived, moment of clarity. Sartre declared that metaphysics is not about abstractions, but in our time everyone is a metaphysical writer compelled to confront that freedom and the human are the absolute.


Marx never wavered from following out the principle of the human as the embodied Idea of freedom. Unlike Hegel, Marx’s Idea of freedom is directly part of life and nature. Marx demystified Hegel, who had to extrapolate how to anchor his “pure Idea” in actual life and then nature.[1] Marx’s universal is the human capacity to make an object out of their own life activity and to freely determine it. This freedom Idea always comes up against, and never “merges” with, any given way human life activity and relations with nature are socially structured and materially limited by the level of development of productive forces. The specifically human dimension of life activity is to “produce in freedom” beyond the realm “of immediate physical need”[2] and beyond the given social necessity that mediates the individual’s “free play of their own physical and mental powers” (BF, 277) in their engagement with nature.

The Idea of humans freely determining their life activity repeatedly asserts itself, whether with respect to the environment, family relations, sexuality, an oppressed minority’s assertion that their “lives matter,” or one’s everyday work life, which under capitalism means selling one’s ability to labor as a commodity, and experiencing one’s life activity as an alienated mere means to life. Workers, who have been persistently challenging the ruling algorithms and competition with robots that reduce their working lives to something less than human, are now staging a wave of strikes and a silent but massive revolt that is wreaking havoc for the capitalist labor market. (See “Workers, from union to gig, reject rules that bosses try to reimpose,” Nov.-Dec. 2021, N&L.) The Great Resignation is a massive rejection of workplace lives of disrespect and abuse laid bare during the pandemic. There is surely no lack of Reason, coming from multiple angles, in the mass opposition to the alienating organization of life activity under capitalism.

Youth enliven all of today’s revolts. In the unfolding apocalypse of human-caused climate change, the youth certainly know the facts, the science, and theirs is a generational, international, human demand for a future for everyone. The appeal is beyond politics to a new social humanity or, as Greta Thunberg put it, “All political and economic systems have failed but humanity has not yet failed.” The absolute opposite of the ruling capitalist ideology that perpetuates humanity’s self-alienation is the Idea of humans freely determining their life activity whether with respect to the environment or one’s everyday work life. Youth Against Apocalypse’s banner, “We are the EARTH Protecting Itself,” certainly would have resonated with Marx, who wrote, “that the human’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for the human is a part of nature” (CW 3:276). Yet resonance with a particular moment of the multiple ways Marx’s Idea is determined to appear is not enough.


The unifying Idea in Marx’s philosophy of revolution can only come into full existence if, as Hegel put it, it “hears itself speak.” The Idea begins in Marx from a new embodied multi-dimensional freedom with respect to human life activity that is inseparable from nature. What Is Socialism? recounts Marx’s view that capitalist private property alienates the human laborer from “their own activity…from each other, from nature” (p. 10). Crucial for today is the universality of Marx’s absolute opposite to alienated labor, namely, humanity’s species-character, their multi-dimensional human essence as free determiners of their life activity.

In the 1844 essay “Private Property and Communism” Marx rejects unthinking communism that is still beholden to the concept of ownership when it substitutes collective ownership for private property. Marx then singles out not labor in any narrow sense, but woman/man as the relation that most clearly reveals how human a society has become, or “to what degree human essence has become [their] natural essence … to what degree another human being is needed as a human being,” namely, needed as a free determiner of their life activity.

Marx examined man/woman relation to pose the positive in the freedom Idea beyond communism’s arena of property. The positive can only be grasped as “the actual appropriation of human essence,” a unity of humanism and naturalism and a revolution deep enough to experience a new unified movement of thought and actuality. As Marx put it, the “actual appropriation of human essence” means that: “The whole movement of history is … on the one hand, its actual act of creation–the act by which its empirical being was born; on the other hand, for its thinking consciousness, it is the realized and recognized process of development” (CW 3:296-7, alt. trans.).

The whole of history is the coming to be of human essence as “empirical” fact. However, as “empirical” fact this ongoing emergence is “incomplete” without it being thinking consciousness’s self-recognized process of development. Marx’s Idea cannot be confined to communism as goal, but, rather, it is the ongoing self-actualization of the embodied freedom Idea, which is the movement of the fact that is equally the act of cognition. In this way “nature is linked to itself, for the human is a part of nature.”


Marx notes approvingly that Hegel has to turn to nature at the end of the Logic to overcome Hegel’s abstract self-separation from nature. Karen Ng (see ftnt. 1) doesn’t discuss this moment of Hegel’s development of the freedom Idea as Life. Hegel’s Idea becoming nature has been as great a source of mystery and controversy among Hegelians and Marxists as Hegel’s introduction of life as the immediate Idea. Dunayevskaya dismisses any reduction that Hegel “‘deduced’ Nature from the Idea” or that it represents, according to Marx’s overused metaphor, “that Hegel is standing on his head.”[3] Marx noted that Hegelians got “such terrible headaches” at this point because here Hegel finally “abandon[s] abstraction and …arrives at an entity which is its exact opposite—at nature” (CW 3:343-4).

True essence, which for Marx is the freedom Idea that is directly part of life and nature and which is the absolute opposite of alienated human life activity, is the perspective from which Dunayevskaya approached Hegel’s suggestion that the Idea’s full self-liberation would only come in his Philosophy of Spirit, where, indeed, Hegel returns to nature in his conclusion.


Raya Dunayevskaya

The living movement of Hegel’s naturalism is in the syllogisms of the Idea’s self-movement or “the self-thinking Idea,” occurring at the end of Philosophy of Spirit. Dunayevskaya saw Hegel’s “three final syllogisms in Absolute Mind as a new point of departure in the Idea and in the movement from practice” (HSA, 172). Here (§575) Hegel begins a syllogistic sequence with where he ended the Logic, with Nature as mediation, the whole between its presupposition Logic which it couples with Mind (Geist, Spirit, the social-individual). The Idea appearing as Nature still has “the external form of transition,” a sequential, transitional moment which is “implicitly the Idea.” Nature manifesting the drive to be free is, in Marx’s terms, the irrepressible drive for “human essence” to appear. Marx calls such an empirical manifestation of the Idea “incomplete” because it still seeks immediate “historical justification by seizing on the particular moments of the process of development” like communism’s opposition to private property (CW 3:297, alt. trans.).

The maturity of our age has repeatedly revealed that the movement from practice is itself a form of theory manifesting itself in Nature “as implicitly the Idea.” The implicit Idea appears in multiple dimensions as human essence manifests itself as Nature. Human essence is unchanging but there are ever “new passions and forces” (BF, 928) demanding recognition of their humanity as they confront societal barriers to freely determine their own life activity. However, our age has also revealed the “incompleteness” of immediate historical justifications, without the Idea’s self-determination, “the process of development” standing on its own and “hearing itself speak,” so that the Idea isn’t forgotten as merely part of another transition.

In the second syllogism (§576) Mind presupposes Nature, and is the whole uniting Nature and Logic as it “reflects on itself in the Idea” and “philosophy appears as a subjective cognition, of which liberty is the aim, and which is itself the way to produce it.” Marx’s human essence, or freedom with respect to life activity that is directly part of nature, becomes for “thinking consciousness…the realized and recognized process of development.”

In Hegel’s final syllogism (§577) the whole is not Logic but the Idea on its own, dividing itself into Mind and Nature. Dunayevskaya called this not the sequential “but the consequential Self-Thinking Idea,” which, as Hegel puts it “is the nature of the fact, the concept, which causes the movement and development, yet this same movement is equally the action of cognition” (HSA, 171). In 1953 Dunayevskaya concluded “we have entered the new society” (Power of Negativity, p. 30). Likewise, Marx’s refusal to confine his Idea to communism or any historical moment that immediately justifies itself through its opposition to the old anticipates entering the new society as ongoing self-actualization of the embodied freedom Idea as the movement of the fact that is equally the act of cognition.

The true positive in the negation of the old (negation of the negation) can never accept any immediate historical justification like communism as “the goal of human development, the form of human society” (CW 3: 306). The true positive is the self-recognized movement of the Idea, which Marx called “positive humanism beginning from itself” (CW 3:342, alt. trans.). Our time can appreciate that the Idea itself pulls to a different future, whether in Hegel scholars discovering Hegel’s naturalism or multiple revolts from below challenging capitalism’s statist politics and ideological delusions driving humanity over the abyss.

[1] Karen Ng’s Hegel’s Concept of Life: Self-consciousness, Freedom, Logic (Oxford UP, 2020) shows how much Marx owed to Hegel’s “mysterious” anchoring his “pure” freedom Idea in Life. My review-essay “New focus on Hegel’s ‘naturalism’ impels another look at Marx” is a more thorough take on the continuity/discontinuity in the dialectic in Hegel, Marx and Dunayevskaya.

[2]Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (International Publishers: New York) vol. 3, p. 276, further referenced as “CW” with the volume number and page number in the text, except for the commonly used Ben Fowkes translation of Capital, which is referenced with “BF.”

[3] See “Hegel’s Absolute as New Beginning,” Dunayevskaya’s October 1974 paper delivered to the Hegel Society of America reproduced in Art and Logic in Hegel’s Philosophy, eds. Warren E. Steinkraus and Kenneth L. Schmitz (Humanities Press, 1980). p. 170. Further referenced as HSA. This remarkable 1974 conference collection includes Murray Greene’s “Hegel’s Concept of Logical Life” that anticipated the new focus on Hegel’s “naturalism.”

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