Notes and talking points on Engels' "Ludwig Feuerbach"

Submitted by martin on 7 May, 2009 - 8:37 Author: Martin Thomas

Engels wrote "Ludwig Feuerbach" in 1886. The circumstances were this. In Engels' and Marx's youth, "Hegelian views... most extensively penetrated the most diversified sciences and leavened even popular literature and the daily press..." in Germany.

A philosophical writer having such influence was not a routine thing in history. It had never happened before, has never happened since.

"Throughout the long history of human thought, philosophy rarely climbed such heights as in the few decades around the year 1800. Probably only the flowering of ancient philosophy in the Athens of Plato and Aristotle would bear comparison...

"Kant's... philosophy was... widely received as a Copernican revolution. The intellectual spark set off by his philosophy ignited in many places and brought about sudden transformations in general thought..." (Rüdiger Bubner, introduction to the Penguin collection "German Idealist Philosophy").

Kant was the ground-breaker. "A remarkable intensity of intellectual exchange" followed over the next few decades. At the culmination of that debate, Hegel developed a much wider-ranging system, and in his time became more influential.

By the 1840s Hegelianism was breaking up under the strain of its contradictions and incongruities. Marx and Engels developed their early thoughts in that ferment.

By 1845 they had, as Engels put it, "settled accounts with [their] erstwhile philosophical conscience". They went on to write about economics and politics. Despite much over-reverent talk to the contrary, all or almost all Marx's references to Hegel in "Capital" are jokes, usually at Hegel's expense.

As a large movement which could be called "Marxist" developed in the 1880s, none of its people were much interested in Marx's and Engels' youthful dealings with philosophers of bygone days. Although, interestingly, Feuerbach himself joined the German Social-Democratic party in his old age, before dying in 1872, Hegelianism had withered in Germany. Philosophy as such attracted much more limited interest. The most influential writers were people like the historians Theodor Mommsen (who famously spurned Hegelian schemes with the dry promise to tell history "as it really was") and Jacob Burckhardt; the "historical school of economists" (Wilhelm Roscher and others) and its conflict with the "Austrian school" of Carl Menger and others; and scientists like Helmholtz and Ernst Häckel, the German champion of Darwinism.

Germany would give the world the world "Fachidiot", meaning a specialist in one particular field of study oblivious to all connections of it with other fields.

Of Marx's and Engels' youthful writings dealing with philosophy, about the only one in circulation was "The Holy Family". But that was not much read. As far as I can make out, it had not had a new edition since its first in 1845; it would not be translated into English until 1956, and not into French until 1969.

In 1873 Marx felt obliged to include a short counterblast, in his afterword to the 2nd German edition of Capital, to the "German reviews [of the first edition which] of course shriek out at 'Hegelian sophistics'." Engels' attention was forcibly dragged back to philosophy by the intervention into the German socialist movement of a Berlin professor, Eugen Dühring, who offered a new (quack) all-encompassing intellectual system. Engels felt obliged to respond with "Anti-Dühring" (1877-8), and in that to deal briefly with Hegelian ideas.

However, "Anti-Dühring" was at first not very successful. It had to survive a strong move at the Social-Democratic Party congress to ban further instalments of its serialised publication on the grounds that it was too complicated, too harsh, too off-putting.

Engels will have felt the need to follow up. He may have been encouraged by the fact that, as he records in the foreword to "Ludwig Feuerbach", Hegel was then enjoying a renewal of interest among British university philosophers.

Engels' job was to educate the German socialists into a considered rejection of Hegel, rather than just a "don't bother with all that stuff" attitude, and to explain further how Marx's method of investigation differed from the mere flat chronicling of facts.

"Ludwig Feuerbach" (and Marx's theses on Feuerbach, published as an appendix) had a big influence. Within a few years, the two major figures of the pre-1914 socialist movement to take a sustained and well-informed interest in philosophy, George Plekhanov and Antonio Labriola, were writing on the subject.

The train of thought from Kant to Hegel had such immense influence because it marked the first time that philosophy had (a) decisively emancipated itself from being a handmaid to religion; (b) come to terms with science; (c) linked itself to the project of reshaping society through human reason. In other words, because of its connection with the eruption of modern science and with the French Revolution.

Although Kant epoch-makingly demolished all the traditional arguments for the existence of God, he nevertheless professed belief in a sort of God. Hegel insisted that philosophy could show Protestant Christianity to be the true religion. Although both Kant and Hegel were strong supporters of the French Revolution, politically both were liberals, not revolutionary democrats. Hegel often adduced "freedom" as a great aim, and this fact is used by the advocates of "Hegelian-Marxism", fairly common in recent decades in the anti-Stalinist socialist movement, to claim a high degree of continuity between Hegel and Marx. However, Hegel is quite explicit that for him "freedom" means a strong state, relatively liberal but decidedly not democratic or egalitarian, with a strong social hierarchy and a strong established Protestant Christian church.

In part, this can be put down to personal prudence (not wanting to lose their university jobs). But some of the half-and-halfness was built into their system. Marx insisted that with Hegel "the lie is the lie of his principle"; and there are good reasons for developing a similar argument about Kant. Thus, there were explosive tensions within the Hegelian system.

The text consists of four sections.

1. An account of what was new in German philosophy after Kant, and particularly in Hegel, compared to previous philosophy, and why Hegel's thought, the culmination of that school, was nevertheless "a colossal miscarriage".

2. An account of idealism and materialism; of 18th century French materialism ("mechanical materialism"), and an indication of Feuerbach's reservations about that materialism.

3. A critique of Feuerbach's doctrine (which could be called a sort of humanist materialism) and his cult of love.

4. A summary of the approach which Marx and Engels developed in distinction from both Hegel and Feuerbach.


ONE: In his "Letters on Germany", Heinrich Heine wrote: "Once, when I broke out impatiently at him [Hegel] saying, 'All that is real is rational', he smiled strangely and remarked: 'It might also be said that all that is rational must become real!' He looked round hurriedly; but was at once at ease. Only Henry Beer had heard him..."
Heine continues:
"Not till later did I understand such expressions. Then I understood why in his 'Philosophy of History' he had declared that Christianity was a progress because it taught a god who died, while the heathen gods had known no death. What a step forward it is, therefore, if God has never existed at all!"
Engels refers to the exchange between Heine and Hegel in the first pages of "Ludwig Feuerbach". What does it tell us both about the strength of Hegel's system and the tensions within it?

TWO: What does Hegel mean by contrasting dialectical thought to "metaphysical" thought?

THREE: From "Ludwig Feuerbach" it is possible to get the impression that Engels thought of dialectics as some special mental scheme invented by Hegel. Other writings of Engels make clear that this is not so. Dialectics goes back at least to ancient Greek philosophy. In the general sense of developing thought through puzzling out contradictions, Kant's writings are full of dialectics. Why does Engels regard Hegel's philosophy as a more developed form of dialectics? Remember, Engels defines dialectics succinctly as follows: "Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending". Remember, also, that the idea that Hegel said that everything was a matter of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" is pure myth. He did not use that scheme at all.

FOUR: Engels' formula that Hegel had a revolutionary method but a conservative system can be confusing. Marx had said flatly of Hegel that "the lie is the lie of his principle" (in his 1844 "Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic"). For Hegel, the dialectical method and system-building were the same thing. Truth could exist only as a system. Dialectics was the means to develop thought into a comprehensive system. In his 1873 Afterword Marx says that his method is "the direct opposite" of Hegel's. How can we resolve this? What was wrong with Hegel's dialectical method?

FIVE: How do you think Hegel remained a supporter of religion, despite his insistence on the supremacy of reason and his recognition that reason evolves dialectically?

SIX: How does Engels explain religion?

SEVEN: What does Engels mean by "idealism" and "materialism"?

EIGHT: There were prominent atheists before Kant and Hegel, notably in 18th century France (Diderot, for example). What does Engels find deficient about 18th century materialism?

NINE: What does he mean by saying that Hegel's philosophy - which its author proudly called "Absolute Idealism" - was in fact a materialism turned upside down?

TEN: What did Feuerbach say about Hegel?

ELEVEN: What does Engels see as deficient in Feuerbach's philosophy?

TWELVE: What does Engels mean by saying that the German working class in the heir of classical German philosophy? And yet that there is now an end to philosophy as such?