Chapter 3: Influence of Hegel and Feuerbach on Marx

Encounter in Humanization: Insights for Christian-Marxist Dialogue and Cooperation
by Paulose Mar Paulose

Chapter 3: Influence of Hegel and Feuerbach on Marx

In the preceding chapter we found that in spite of his critical approach to Hegelian philosophy Marx never lost interest in Hegel, and that the problem of the continuity of Marx’s thought was bound up with his continuing interest in Hegel. Marx’s criticism of religion can only be understood against this background of Hegelian philosophy, and also of the anthropology of Feuerbach, which it extends and supersedes. Therefore, in this chapter we shall discuss to what extent Marx’ critique of religion was influenced by Hegel and Feuerbach. The great merit of Hegel’s philosophy wrote Engels, was that

for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development.1

It is impossible to give an adequate account of the ideas of so complex a thinker in so short a space. What is aimed at here is a very brief discussion of those aspects of Hegel’s thought which Marx took seriously for his own critique of religion. It is also to be kept in mind that the Hegel whom we are considering is Hegel as seen through the eyes of Marx and Engels, and hence we must place this qualification upon our reference to Hegel.

Hegel started from the belief that, as he said of the French Revolution, mans existence centres in his head, i.e., in thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality".2 In his greatest work, the Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel traces the development of mind or spirit (Geist), reintroducing historical movement into philosophy and asserting that the human mind can attain to absolute knowledge. He analyzes the development of human consciousness, from its immediate perception of the here and now, to the stage of self-consciousness, the understanding that allows man to analyze the world and order his own actions accordingly.3 Following this is the stage of reason itself, understanding of the real, after which spirit, by means of religions and art, attains the absolute knowledge, the level at which man recognizes in the world the stages of his own reason. Hegel calls these stages ‘alienation’, in so far as they are creations of the human mind yet thought of as independent and superior to the human mind. This absolute knowledge is at the same time a sort of recapitulation of the human spirit, for each successive stage retains elements of the previous ones as it goes beyond them.

Hegel also talked of "the power of the negative", thinking that there was always a tension between any present state of affairs and what it was becoming. For any present state of affairs was in the process of being negated, changed into something else. This process was what Hegel meant by dialectic.

Hegel’s views on religion played a vital role in the formation of his thought.4 Religion, together with philosophy, was for him the highest from of man’s spiritual life. Religion5 was the return of the Absolute Idea to itself. The content of religion was the same as that of philosophy, though its method of apprehending was different. For whereas philosophy employed concepts, religion used imagination. These unsatisfactory imaginings afforded only a fragmentary and imprecise knowledge of what philosophy comprehended rationally. But religion could be linked to philosophy by means of a philosophy of religion, and Hegel considered that the particular dogmatic contents of the religious imagination were necessary stages in the development of Absolute Spirit. The philosophy of religion interpreted at a higher level both naive faith and critical reason. Thus Hegel rejected the view of the eighteenth century rationalists that religion did inadequately what only science was competent to do. According to him, religion (or his philosophical interpretation of it) fulfilled man’s constant psychological need to have an image of himself and of the world by which he could orient himself.

Also for Hegel, the acceptance of a certain form of religion conditions the development of a corresponding form of political community: a people’s idea of God determines what they are, and accordingly the form of their states. Hegel said:

A peoples idea of God determines its relationship with God and its idea of itself; so a religion is also a people’s concept of itself. A people having nature for its God cannot be a free people; not until it thinks of God as a spirit above nature is itself a spirit and free.6

According to Hegel, therefore, religion forms the "basis" upon which a superstructure is raised. Only with Christianity did a free state become possible, because only then was the "unlimited right of the personality" recognized, but this potential was only fully realized in Protestantism.

Hegelian philosophy leaves a number of open questions as far as the importance, nature and position of religion in real life is concerned. One of the questions is: Has religion an independent existence -- apart from the human being and society. or is it merely the objectified form in which the union of subjective and objective spirit is seen by people at a given stage, in which they imagine, feel, or understand this union? Another question that comes out of the Hegelian treatment of the subject is: Has the religious idea any value of its own apart from "absolute knowledge", speculative wisdom, or is it only to be accepted as a temporarily unavoidable consequence of the defective philosophical education of the majority of social classes? The suggestion of an elite in Hegel’s speculative philosophy is attacked by many, especially Bruno Bauer and his friends. Hegel said: "The content of religion and philosophy is the same, but religion is the truth for all mankind."7 This distinction between an esoteric form of truth accessible to all, and an esoteric form reserved for philosophers was again contested by the radical theologians of the time.

After Hegel’s death differences of opinion began to occur within the Hegelian school that were to lead eventually to a split between "Right Hegelians" and "Left Hegelians". These terms were used to designate religious attitudes. The right of the school held to the slogan "the real is the rational", and saw nothing irrational in the traditional representation of religion. They considered that the major representations of religion -- the transcendental personality of God, the uniqueness of Christ, the individual immortality of the soul, etc. were part of its essential content. Thus they upheld the Hegelian doctrine of the unity of philosophy and religion. The left Hegelians could not admit this unity; they began to ask whether Hegel was not really a pantheist. Questions began to be asked about the personality of God and the immortality of the soul. Hegel’s teaching on these points was not clear, and the verbal tradition of his lectures often varied. ‘The principle that the Left Hegelians held to was that "the rational is the real". Thus the left side of the school opposed the Right’s optimism with a pessimism that set out to destroy the dogmas enshrined in religious representations that were now outdated. In Germany religion and politics were very much connected in those days. Naturally, the Left Hegelians paved the way for a movement of religious criticism which would swiftly become secularized into one of political opposition. It was as a member of this rapidly changing movement that Marx first began to work out his views on philosophy and society.

He joined a sort of Hegelian discussion group: "Through several meetings with friends in Stralow I became a member of a Doctor’s Club."8 It was here Marx got acquainted with Bruno Bauer, the leading light in the club, who had been lecturing in theology at the university since 1834.

This conversion to Hegelianism, however, did not last for long. Marx’s doctoral dissertation begun towards the end of 1838 and submitted in April 1841, reveals his growing disagreement with Hegel. The dissertation, entitled "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature", consisted of a criticism of those who had equated the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus and a catalogue of the differences between these philosophies. Marx’s choice of the subject for the dissertation was destined to throw light on the contemporary post-Hegelian situation in philosophy by the examination of a parallel period in the history of Greek philosophy.

In discussing the difference between the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus, Marx favoured the latter. He found Epicurus’ concept of the atom superior to Democritus’ more empirical view because it implied independence, freedom, and an "energizing principle" for experience. Marx begins his account of the relationship of the two philosophers with a paradox: Epicurus held all appearances to be objectively real but at the same time, since he wished to conserve freedom of the will, denied that the world was governed by immutable laws and thus in fact seemed to decry the objective reality of nature. Democritus, on the other hand, was very skeptical about the reality of appearance, but yet held the world to be governed by necessity. From this Marx concludes that Epicurus’ physics was really only a part of his moral philosophy. He did not merely copy Democritus’ physics, as was commonly thought, but introduced the idea of spontaneity into the movement of the atoms, and to the Democritus world of inanimate nature ruled by mechanical laws he added a world of animate nature in which the human will operated.9 Marx thus favours the views of Epicurus for two reasons: firstly, his emphasis on absolute autonomy of the human spirit has freed human beings from all superstitions of transcendent objects; secondly, the emphasis on "free individual self-consciousness" shows one way of going beyond the system of a "total philosophy".

In an extended note that he added to his dissertation at the end of 1841, Marx claims that Hegel inverted the traditional proofs for the existence of God and thereby refuted them. Whereas traditional theology said: "Since contingency truly exists, God exists," Hegel turned this into: "Since contingency does not exist, God or the absolute does."10 Marx, then, poses a dilemma. The first possibility is that the proofs for the existence of God are "empty tautologies," like the ontological argument which Marx stated in the form: "What I conceive for myself as actual is an actual conception for me."11 In that case any gods would have an equal reality.

The second possibility is that

The proofs for the existence of God are nothing but proofs for the existence of the essentially human self-consciousness and logical explication of it. Take the ontological argument. What existence is immediate in being thought? Self-consciousness?12

Marx claims that in this sense all proofs for the existence of God are proofs for his non-existence.

In the previous chapter we found Marx’s observation that in Hegel the dialectic stood on its head. For Hegel, the self-development of thought is the real movement and facts are only reflections of this superior reality. As for Marx, the dialectical movement is merely a reflection of the actual development of the real world. So Marx set out to put the dialectic back on its feet. Dialectical laws, he maintains, are abstracted from facts. For him, the dialectic is a matter of social relation. The moments of opposition are objective conditions independent of thought. The opposing elements are classes; moments of opposition become revolutionary phases of development.

The Hegelian relationship of spirit and the world become the Marxian notion of the relationship of man to his social being. Marx says that Hegel only takes account of man’s mental activities, i.e., of his ideas, and that these, though important, are by themselves insufficient to explain social and cultural change.

As Sydney Hook has pointed out,

If for Hegel history is a progressive realization of freedom, for Marx it is a progressive development toward the socialisation of the means of life. Without such socialisation, freedom is a fetish -- an empty, formal right which cannot be exercised.13

To sum up how Marx differed from Hegel: Hegel wanted to provide an idealist (spiritual) philosophy of all reality. This philosophy was intended to comprehend reality as it was, i.e., as it had become. So Hegel took the world into his political philosophy and made of it an object of thought. Hegel thought then became a confirmation of the world, because in it the world was justified as and for what it was. Against this materialism of descent Marx posited human self-consciousness as the determinant of the form of government. Marx wanted to comprehend reality as it already, and of itself, pointed to the future; he looked in the present reality for the seeds of the reality to come. History could not stay put in the present state of affairs, but had always to move on in the direction of future rationality. Rationality lay in the future as that which ought to be pursued, and was in striking contrast to present reality. Thus the path which history must follow is a dialectical one.

Whereas Hegel’s dialectic was one of concepts, Marx’s dialectic was one of social forces. While Hegel remained in a world of abstract ideas, Marx turned back to concrete reality. It is to be noted here that though Marx reacted against Hegel’s idealism, his reaction was not one of materialism. It is true that Marx used the term materialism for his own thought, but even in his later writings Marx didn’t use it in the formal sense of the word. Marx’s materialism is concerned not with matter in the physical and chemical sense, but with the human being who influences nature through the work process. He wanted to eliminate the opposition between a supernatural and a natural reality. The supernatural reality could be one of God, or of ideas, or of religion, or of metaphysics -- and it is this ideal reality which was rejected by Marx. The spirit which does exist is the human spirit, bodily spirit; and according to Marx, there is no other. From the beginning to the end of his thinking and writing Marx made use of Hegel’s dialectical method, and he continued to urge his followers to study Hegel. However, we should keep it in mind that he accepted only Hegel’s method but rejected the content of Hegel’s philosophy. He regarded Hegel as standing outside reality. Marx looked for the reality in man --man as he actually is, set in this world, equipped with all his needs and desires. The human being had to change the circumstances of life; and to make the world a human world. Marx rejected the philosophy which was only contemplation, but retained the philosophy which actually intervened in the world.

It is against this background that Marx’s enthusiastic reception of Feuerbach’s philosophy is to be understood. Marx’s profound interest in Feuerbach can be found in a short note that he wrote in 1842 entitled, "Luther as Arbiter between Strauss and Feuerbach". In this note he cited at length a passage from Luther to support Feuerbach’s humanist interpretation of miracles as against the transcendent view of Strauss.

Marx depended very much on Feuerbach for his own criticism of Hegelian philosophy. Every page of the critique of Hegel’s political philosophy that Marx elaborated during the summer of 1843 shows the influence of Feuerbach’s method. In his "Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole"14, Marx discusses the various attitudes of the Young Hegelians to Hegel, and singles out Feuerbach as the only constructive thinker. Feuerbach was the only one of Hegel’s disciples who had been able to come to terms with Hegel’s dialectic. Marx said:

Feuerbach is the only one who has a serious, critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic and who has made genuine discoveries in this field. He is in fact the true conqueror of the old philosophy. The extent of his achievement, and the unpretentious simplicity with which he, Feuerbach, gives it to the world, stand in striking contrast to the opposite attitude of the others.15

Engels also shared this view. Reminiscing in later years about Feuerbach’s magnum opus, The Essence of Christianity, Engels remarked:

Then came Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity. With one blow it pulverized the contradiction in that without circumlocutions it placed materialism on the throne again... One must oneself have experienced the liberating effects of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became Feuerbachians. 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.16

What was this great message of Feuerbach which had such a significant influence on Marx and Engels? Feuerbach abolishes the "theological essence" of religion in favour of its anthropological essence, reducing it precisely to the non-spiritual form which Hegel attacked as being mere "feeling". As Karl Lowith argues,

Feuerbach’s ‘essence’ of Christianity is not a critical destruction of Christian theology and Christianity, but an attempt to preserve the essential part of Christianity, specifically in the form of a religious ‘anthropology’.17

The axiom of Feuerbach’s criticism of religion is that anthropology is the mystery of Christian theology: "Man is the God of Christianity, Anthropology the mystery of

Christian theology."18 The task of anthropology is to awaken human being to the truth of religion and to eliminate its falsity: to show that the consciousness of God is the consciousness of the species, and that what the human being adores is self. The true view of the human being is the reverse of the religious view, since

That which in religion holds the first place-namely, God is, ... in itself and according to truth, the second, for it is only the nature of man regarded objectively; and that which to religion is second -- namely, man -- must therefore be constituted and declared the first.19

This means that the essence of religion is the essence of the human being. Religion is an ‘objectification’ of human being’s primitive essential needs; it has no particular content of its own. Properly understood, the knowledge of God is man’s knowledge of himself, but knowledge which is as yet unaware of its own nature. "Religion is man’s earliest and also indirect form of self-knowledge,"20 a detour taken by man on the way to finding himself.

According to Feuerbach, both religion and Hegelian philosophy have deprived the human being of natural absoluteness. Actually, Hegelianism is only religion brought to reason. Claiming that God is different from man and, accordingly, that man’s divinity is something to be achieved, both religion and Hegelian philosophy have alienated man from his very essence. They ascribe human being’s own highest perfection to a being different from the human being, to someone who does not even so much as exist. Therefore the more they exalt the ‘absolute’, the more they degrade the human being. That is why Feuerbach said: "The more empty life Is, the fuller, the more concrete is God. The impoverishing of the real world and the enriching of God is one act. Only the poor man has a rich God."21

The intention of Feuerbach’s critical philosophy is to break down both theology and speculative philosophy into anthropology. Not only religious consciousness, but also its sublimated philosophical form, Hegelian speculation, must be exposed as false consciousness. In contrast, actual material human being is taken as the positive starting point, and the "I-Thou" relationship and love as the fundamental social aspect. Positivism is chosen as the methodical principle.

This is the precise opposite of the formula in which Hegel’s speculative philosophy had expressed the relationship between God’s self-knowledge and man’s consciousness of God.

In the Essence of Christianity there is another indication of a theory of the origins of religion. Feuerbach says:

Nature listens not to the plaints of man, it is callous to his sorrows. Hence man turns away from Nature, from all visible objects. He turns within, that here, sheltered and hidden from the inexorable powers, he may find audience for his griefs. Here he utters his oppressive secrets; here he gives vent to his stifled sighs. This open-air of the heart, this outspoken secret, this uttered sorrow of the soul, is God. God is a tear of love, shed in the deepest concealment over human misery. "God is an unutterable sigh, lying in the depths of the heart."22

Later we will find that some of the comments Marx makes on religion and God are reminiscent of this statement of Feuerbach.

In short we have two sources from which religious concepts spring according to Feuerbach. First, there is the intellectual side, which consists of the inability of the individual to attribute to oneself the human qualities of the endlessly self-perfecting species. Then there is the emotional side, which consists of the inability to comfort oneself in any other way in the pain and sorrow which are an integral part of human existence.

Feuerbach believes that Christianity is opposed to the entire situation of the modern world. Christianity is negated even by those who continue to believe firmly in it. It is denied in life and in science, in art and in industry. If, in practice, the individual and work have replaced the Christian and prayer, theoretically the essence of the human being must replace the divine. Christianity has been reduced to a Sunday affair, it has vanished out of the everyday life of the human being, because

it is nothing more than a fixed idea, in flagrant contradiction with our fire and life assurance companies, our railroads and steam carriages, our picture and sculpture galleries, our military and industrial schools, our theaters and scientific museums.23

For Feuerbach the criticism of religion is justified, because in divesting God of the good qualities of the human species falsely attributed to God, it enriches and liberates humankind. Like all rationalist philosophers of the time, Feuerbach tends to believe that the act of liberation can be brought about through a simple reformation of people’s consciousness.

To sum up Feuerbach’s critique of religion: The real world, the world which counts, is found right here in the material things available to our senses and passions. Man has a certain distinctive reality of his own, in this sensuous world. He is able to communicate, and to engage in common projects. Man has a community type of existence due to the sharing of aims and passions. In this community he develops certain ideals. He wants to protect those ideals when they are under attack from bad social conditions. Therefore, he projects them, separates them from himself, or, in terms of Hegel’s dialectic, he alienates them from his everyday existence. He puts his moral ideals at a great distance from himself and regards them as a separate reality, or as God. Therefore, the content and substance of religion are entirely human. The key to the mystery of the divine being is the human being, the secret of theology is anthropology. In religion man projects his own nature or nature itself into something superhuman and supernatural Feuerbach reverses the biblical statement "God created man in his own image"24 into man created God in his own image. He says: "Man first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this God consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image".25 What we have to do, says Feuerbach, is to recover the purely human meaning of religion. We have to bring religion back to its proper proportions as an expression of human moral aspirations.

Now let us see how far Marx agreed with Feuerbach and in which sense he may be said to have differed from Feuerbach. Marx repudiated Feuerbach because the latter took as the basis of his philosophy an abstract human being , i.e., human being apart from his world. According to Marx, Feuerbach’s only uncontested merit was his reduction of the absolute spirit to human terms. By his definition of human nature as a naturalistic generic entity, Feuerbach "pushed Hegel aside" without "overcoming him critically". He constructed a human being whose reality reflects only the life of the bourgeois private individual.

Marx agreed with Feuerbach’s claim that both religion and speculative philosophy are forms of the "alienations of man’s essence", but he disagreed with Feuerbach’s claim that the human nature underlying this alienation is fully developed, untainted and divine. On the other hand, though rejecting Hegel’s idealism, Marx agreed with Hegel that history had not yet become the "real history of man -- of man as a given subject, but only man’s actor of creation -- the story of man’s origin."26 In short, the divinity, or rather the humanity, of the human being is something still to be achieved and always to be the result of an achievement. Hence Marx wrote in 1844:

For Germany the criticism of religion is in the main complete, and criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism. The only practically possible liberation of Germany is liberation from the standpoint of the theory which proclaims man to be the highest essence of man.27

In the same year he again wrote:

Since for the socialist man the entire so-called history of the world is nothing but the creation of man through human labour, nothing but the emergence of nature for man, so he has the visible, irrefutable proof of his birth through himself, of the process of his creation.28

Therefore, it is legitimate to say, as Nicholas Lobkowicz points out, that Marx’s philosophy of man is a materialist interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology rather than a pendant of Feuerbach’s anthropotheistic materialism.29

Marx’s most significant criticism of Feuerbach is that the latter interpreted reality, but did not change it. In other words, his thought stayed at a theoretical level, and never became praxis. As a result Feuerbach remained stuck in the individualism of bourgeois society. Though he saw religion as a projection, he was unable to explain it in terms of the needs of humanity alienated from itself by the social structure. Hence Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach:

The standpoint of the old materialism is ‘civil’ society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or socialized humanity. The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.30

With this philosophical background, Marx started his own critique of religion which he hoped would pave the way for changing the world.



1. Engels, "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," Marx & Engels: Selected Works, op. cit., p. 413.

2. Philosophy of History. Trans by J. Sibree (New York, P.F. Collier & Son, MCMI)

3. cf. The Phenomenologv of Mind, p. 147 ff p. 215 ff.

4. See especially, Lectures of the philosophy of Religion, Vol. I, op.cit., p.6-48.

5. By religion Hegel meant Protestant Christianity, which he considered the highest and final form of religion. He remained a Lutheran all his life.

6. Cited by Iring Fetscher, "Developments in the Marxist Critique of Religion". Councilium, Vol. 16, ed. by Johannes Metz (New York: Paulist Press. 1966), p.133

7. Ibid., p. 135.

8. Writings of Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, trans. and ed. by Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat (New York: Doubleday & Co. 1967).

9. Cf. David McLellan, Marx before Marxism. op. cit. p.52 ff

10. Easton & Guddat, op. cit., p. 65.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid., p. 65f.

13. Sydeny Hook, op. cit., p. 40.

14. Cf. Manuscripts, op. cit., p. 170 ff.

15. Ibid., p. 172.

16. "Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy," On Religion, op. cit., p. 224.

17. From Hegel to Nietzsche, trans. by Davis E. Green (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1967).

18. The Essence of Christianity, trans. by George Eliot (New York: Hoper & Raw, 1957), p. 336.

19. Ibid., p. 270 f.

20. Ibid., p. 13.

21. Ibid., p. 73.

22. Ibid., p. 121 f.

23. Ibid., p. xliv

24. Genesis 1:27.

25. Essence of Christianity, op. cit., p. 118.

26. Manuscripts, op.,cit., p.173.

27. "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction on Religion, op.cit., p. 4l-58.

28. Manuscripts, op.cit.. p.145

29. cf. "Karl Marx’s Attitude Toward Religion", The Review of Politics, Vol.26, No.3, 1964, p.319

30. On Religion, op.cit., p.72