Dialectics : Hegelian And Marxian Debate

Debashree Mukherjee explores the Marxian and the Hegelian approaches to Dialectics and the various aspects attached to such schools of thought.
He also comments as to how both the approaches have created a division among philosophers due to their relevance in a dimension or the other, even after being poles apart in their essence on a comparative level.


Dialectics is one of the oldest of all philosophic concepts. Its earliest appearance is in very Greek ancient thought, more than five hundred years before Socrates. Later, close to the time of Socrates, Heraclitus wrote that all is strife and everything changes into its opposite. Socrates himself meant by dialectics the use of argument in order to make the opponent contradict himself with an objective to move to a true definition of the concept. In the Republic, Plato meant by dialectics, the highest level of knowledge, a stage in which opposition or contradiction has been overcome.

Hegel is, however, the master of Dialectics. He enunciates his very own theory of dialectics by incorporating Socrates, Heraclitus and Plato. But what does Hegel mean by dialectics? Hegel had shown that everything in the world was changing. Everything in the idealistic world was a result of a constant strife between concepts. Hegel’s concept of the dynamism of conflict is called dialectics and he asserted that this dynamism, opposition, polarity, conflict or contradiction characterizes all human thought.
Hegel starts with the assumption that the universe is a coherent whole. He calls this coherent whole the Reason or Spirit or Idea. Everything, including matter and the external world is the creation of this Reason. At the beginning of the world process Reason or Spirit, indeed, knows nothing. But gradually in the course of historical development and evolution of the world, it begins to know more and more until it reaches a stage where it attains a perfect knowledge of everything about the true form of reality. At this stage, Hegel argues, reason or spirit becomes self-conscious for now it knows that it alone is the sovereign of itself and of the external world it confronts and knows. Thus for it now reality is nothing but knowing itself. This self-consciousness which indicates an awareness of self-determination, according to Hegel, signifies the state of freedom. History is the process by which the Spirit passes from knowing nothing to full knowledge of itself, is the increasing revelation of the purposes of the Rational Mind. The Spirit on the way to its goal makes many experiments. Everything is, as if was, a mask which it tries on, which proves useful to it for the time being, and which it ultimately discards. But then, how does reason transform the empirical reality or the so-called world of objects into a metaphysical reality or the world of ideas? It is here that Hegel brings in his famous principle of dialectics. According to Hegel, as we have seen, the essence of a thing is very much different from its mere appearance. It is this essence that represents whatever permanent there is in the thing and, therefore, reality consists alone in this essence. Thus to know what a thing really is one has to start with the conviction that there is a basic contradiction between the essence and apparent existence of an object, or in other words, that every object is self-contradictory.

By means of this argument, Hegel lays the foundation of his dialectic by establishing that the reality of a thing- denoting its wholeness, unity and universality- emerges out of a contradiction or negation. That is to say, everything is to be understood not only by what it is but also by what it is not. For instance, an object’s given state of existence signifies what it apparently is and this is what constitutes the first stage, the thesis. Negation or anti-thesis represents the next stage that indicates the otherness of the given object. Following the stage of anti-thesis there is the process of synthesis which achieves an identity of the opposites not, however, by simply connecting and combining the opposites, but by transforming them in such a way so that they cease to exist as opposites and exist instead as a reconciliation between the best possible elements of both thesis and anti-thesis. For this reason, Hegel’s theory of dialectics is called Triadic. It is through this dialectical process that Reason or Spirit recreates reality. It is the rhythm of reality for Hegel. Absolute mind, which is the totality of these concepts, is thus itself a process, revealing its truth to us dialectically, unfolding them stage by stage, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, to our finite minds.

Production, by nature, is a social activity for it is impossible for an individual to produce by his singular efforts the necessities of life. Means of life are produced only by the collective efforts of individuals.

Hence, the mode of production must always be viewed in its social aspect. When this social aspect is probed the mode of production is found to have two basic components.

These are – first, the forces of production, and second, the relations of production.
In order to produce, various means of production like tools, machines, raw materials, land, buildings etc. are needed. Production is made possible only when the means of production are used and utilised by people on the basis of their knowledge, skill and experience. Further, except in primitive society, in all hitherto existing societies, according to Marx, the relations of production have always appeared as a relation of domination among the social classes. For, as things are, one class, by virtue of their ownership of the means of production, lives on the fruit of the labour of the other class who do not own the means of production. As a result, the relations between the exploiters and the exploited cannot be anything but antagonistic. Thus, according to Marx, all hitherto existing societies have been marked by class conflicts and, therefore, their history must always be taken to be a history of class struggles.

Given the inherent differences between the kernel of the two ideologies as propounded by Hegel and Marx, scholars of western political thought are also divided into schools of thought, namely the idealist tradition as established by Hegel and the materialist tradition as founded by Marx.

Despite being well worked out and exemplary in its efficacy to solve the riddles of the evolution of society, both the theories suffer from certain loopholes. The critics of both schools of thought have lashed out on these limitations, and debates are still on between the two traditions regarding the suitability of the ideologies in the modern time.

As to the nature of the debate, the very terms Idealist and Materialist are the key to the question.


Marx’s view of the world grows on the basis of a total rejection of the western idealist philosophical tradition initiated by Plato and brought into its bloom by Hegel. The idealists, on the contrary, look at the world of objective reality as a product of the mind, spirit or idea. To them, mind is more important than matter as, in the absence of a creative act on the part of the former, the latter amounts to a blank nullity.

Again, the working of the mind, as the idealist assumes, is so much shrouded in mystery that it is not fully amenable to human comprehension. Thus the idealist not merely extols the non-material spiritual world but also reveals in his discovery that quite a large part of this world is unknowable. Hence the idealist takes the world as it is and regards every attempt to change it as impossible and unnecessary.

To materialists, on the contrary, matter is primary and it exists outside and independent of our mind. Thinking or consciousness is not the source of matter; actually the very opposite is the case. All our thinking or thought is only a reflection on matter as it exists on its own.

The Marxists therefore, regard the world to be strictly material, where mind, spirit or idea is only a derivative of matter. Since the origin and working of this world is never rooted in the mysterious movement of the mind or the metaphysical, there is nothing in the world that is unknowable. Indeed, the nature of this world and the laws of its development are fully knowable, as the materialists hold.

The idealists, thereafter, counter argue that it is not the matter, but the Spirit which is real, and that whatever the Spirit needs is right. They further assert that it is only the ideal state that is rational whereas existing states are all irrational. The materialists lash out by holding that a doctrine which teaches that everything is as it ought to be and which idealises the actual has strongly marked conservative tendencies.


Debates between the two schools of thought are perhaps to continue forever. While both the doctrines are revolutionary and dynamic in their respective ways, it may be concluded that while idealism of Hegel constitute a thesis, materialism of Marx constitutes it’s very anti-thesis.

Leave a Reply