We are interested in Marx the philosopher. We are not interested in Marxism nor in the history of communism. To understand Marx as a philosopher we have to go back to his philosophical roots. This means going back to Kant’s ethics and to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethics. To understand Marx as a philosopher, we have to understand why he went further than Hegel and why, in the end, he rejected Hegel’s defence of the state as the ultimate guarantee of freedom because it was not sufficiently concrete.
Freedom, as Kant argued, is not a real property of things. I can see that the table is brown and the chair is blue, but I cannot ‘see’ freedom in that way. Freedom, on the contrary, is an ‘idea’. It is a necessary human invention that is an expression of what it means to be a rational animal. It is a necessary invention, because without it, we cannot even understand what it means to be a rational being, and therefore what it means to be human. We are not rational and then free, rather to be rational means to be free. Rationality and freedom are one and the same thing.
Kant’s ethics starts from this intuition. To be moral means to be responsible for your actions. No one thinks that a non-rational being is responsible for what they do. Thus I do not think that my dog is morally responsible for peeing on the kitchen floor, even though I might find this inconvenient. Likewise, I do not take a young child to be morally responsible for soiling their diapers. I think that they do not know any better, so I do not judge them. However, I do think that you, as a morally responsible adult, are to be judged for your actions. For you are capable of deliberating about them. If not, then I do not judge you. Kant is making the point that if we did not think that human beings, as rational animals, were not responsible for their actions, then there would be no morality as such, and if there were no morality, then there would be no society. Freedom, responsibility, and ethics all go together, and one follows necessarily from the other.
To act morally is to act from principle. The grocer does not adulterate his products not because he will gain more customers from being honest, but that he knows in principle it is wrong to be dishonest (Kant, 1956, p. 65). Of course, from the outside it is impossible to know whether the grocer is acting from principle or not, since both a selfish and selfless action appear the same: the grocer does not adulterate his flour. It is only from within the subject’s intentions that an action is moral or not. This is the function and purpose of the categorical imperative. As a process of deliberation it tells me whether my actions are moral or not. If I can universalise my subjective maxims, then I go know with certainty whether they are coherent and consistent. Thus stealing is not wrong because others have told me so, but because it is incoherent to both wish it and universalise it at the same time, since to steal is dependent on this existence of property that it contradicts in its application.
Freedom can only be preserved through the consistency and coherence of rules that are universal. Freedom is not a fact of nature, it is a fact of reason. If we wish to live as free beings, then we have to follow the moral law, otherwise my freedom would be the limitation of others. It is only because we all follow the same moral law as rational beings that we can all equally be free. In the end, for Kant, reason is only important because it allows us to be moral beings, to rationalise and be responsible for our actions. There is no empirical proof of freedom, it is normative. Kant is arguing that if you want to live in a word of free beings, then the only way to do so is to act morally in a coherent and consistent way. If you don’t want to be free, then give up morality, but are you sure that you do really wish to live in a world like that?
For Hegel Kant’s practical philosophy has two important weakness. First, the formalism of the moral law means that it doesn’t give us sufficient content in order to apply it in a given situation without additional material. Second, even if the moral law did work as Kant describes it, it is not sufficient to motivate us to act morally (Sedgwick, 2012, p. 2). As every undergraduate knows, it might seem quite right not to tell lies, but surely it would be absurd to tell a Nazi that I am hiding my Jewish neighbour in my cellar if he were so to ask me. As Hegel argues in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, it is no contradiction to steal if no property existed, so property has to exist as a real social fact, rather than a universal formal law, for theft to be seen as violating morality (Hegel, 1991, pp. 162–3). Moreover, if morality does not benefit me as a particular individual (rather than some abstraction like ‘humanity in general’), then it would hardly motivate me to act at all. Why would I act from duty, if doing so did not make me a better person?
For Kant, the self is thought abstractly through reason. For Hegel, it is thought concretely through society. There is freedom because we mutually respect each other, first of all in terms of our physical existence, since slavery is the belief that we can own another human being, like any other commodity, and secondly through our respect of the other’s possession, which in are in reality an extension of their own subjectivity. The fundamental opposition for Hegel is between morality (Moralität) and ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). In Kant’s conception of morality, every individual lives in their own private world, and the agreement with others is accidental. But the fact, Hegel would argue, that we can live as free individuals without being molested by others, is that are real social institutions that protect our freedom. Freedom is a social reality before it is a ‘fact of reason’.
Hegel was aware, however, from reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, that there was a great difference between modern societies and ancient ones. Kant too recognised the danger of the market. It would undermine the respect we would have for each of other as an end in itself, but for Hegel it was insufficient to think that the alienation of economic relations could be overcome by morality. It required the state to intervene to balance the excesses of market where individuals were reduced to commodities. The state preserves society so as to promote autonomy. It is not the state that destroys the freedom of the individual, since in its true form it should be the expression of the individual’s freedom, but the market, which if left unchecked leads to alienation and exploitation, a universal slavery of another form, wage slavery.
Has the world turned out as Hegel thought it would? Perhaps the answer to this question is ‘no’. In Hegel’s mind, the state would replace the social bonds that were being destroyed by the market in civil society, but what in fact happened is that the state identified itself with the market. Government is nothing but economic self-management and all social relations have been sacrificed to market ones. Hegel, then, completely underestimated the power of capital to destroy all societies that have existed and to replace them in their own form, as Marx and Engel’s famously wrote at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is a last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind (Marx and Engels, 2002, p. 223).
The reason that Hegel’s philosophy failed is the same as Kant’s. It sought the solution to alienation and exploitation in thought rather than in real lives of individuals. If Hegel did argue that the foundation of morality was society, then this society a concept rather than the real social existence of individuals. The individual, the self, the subject, is something that is thought by Hegel. It is the individual as thought, the self as thought, the subject as thought. It is not the individual who lives, the self who lives, the subject who lives. It is because Hegel’s solution to the alienation and exploitation of the market was a solution of thought alone that in the end his philosophy made no difference to reality at all for those who suffered and were exploited and who suddenly found themselves ‘unfree’ in the a so called free society.
Human beings, for Marx, are first of all living, breathing suffering beings, before they are thinking beings, and what they suffer from are not merely the thoughts of suffering and pain, but real suffering and pain. The world is real. It can engulf me. It is not merely the projection of my mind and imagination. Take the example of hunger, Marx writes in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (Marx, 1992, p. 390). Hunger is a natural need, therefore, the object that corresponds to it is something real and objective, not merely a postulate of thought. I cannot overcome my hunger merely by thinking about it. I must eat something or in the end I will die of hunger. I must eat in order to live. It is only by transforming the real world through real activity that I will solve this problem of hunger and not through the idea of hunger.
This does not mean that Hegel’s philosophy does not contain the truth of criticism, but it exists in a doubly alienated form, where the object is only the thought entity, and the subject is only consciousness. The solution to alienation for Hegel, therefore, is a solution that is internal to the mind. The separation of consciousness from the world, which finds its highest expression in religion, is separation which it discovers internally in its mind. The solution to this separation is therefore only mental. I only have to think this alienation as end and it magically it is ended. But it is ended in thought alone Marx will reply. I think that I am no longer alienated but really I am still alienated, for as a philosopher I have alienated myself from my own natural existence, as a human being, as Marx writes in a footnote, ‘with eyes, ears, etc., living in society, in the world and in nature’ (Marx, 1992, p. 398). You cannot think your way out of alienation; rather you have to find the solution in life. All the solutions of Hegelianism are false solutions.
What is true about Hegel’s philosophy is the meaning of humanity is one of movement and process. Humanity is not given, rather it has to create and make itself. It does so by overcoming its alienation, by destroying the separated character of the world. But this superseding of alienation must be a real superseding at the level of existence and not merely at the level of thought, a real act of living self-creation, and not merely the thought of such an act, and human beings will only become truly free when capital is for the sake of life, rather than life for the sake of capital. This would require a fundamental transformation of democracy where the state would exist for the majority of the people, rather than a small minority who believed they already knew what the interests of the majority were.
Beiser, F.C. (Ed.), 1993. The Cambridge companion to Hegel. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.
Hegel, G.W.F., 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge [England]; New York.
Kant, I., 1956. The moral law: Kant’s groundwork on the metaphysic of morals : a new translation with analysis and notes. Hutchinson, London.
Marx, K., 1992. Early writings. Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York.
Marx, K., Engels, F., 2002. The communist manifesto. Penguin Books, London; New York.
Musil, R., 2011. The man without qualities. Picador, London.
Sedgwick, S., 2012. Hegel’s critique of Kant. OUP Oxford.
 If we were to argue that no-one is responsible for their actions, thus that genes or their upbringing were, then we would have no right to punish them. We punish others as a mark of our respect for them as autonomous free individuals. This is one theme of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man without Qualities. If the murderer and rapist Moosbrugger commits his crimes because of physical causes, then how can he be blamed for them, since no one accuses the rock that falls on someone head of committing a crime (Musil, 2011).
 For an excellent account of Hegel’s ethics see ‘Hegel’s Ethics’ by Allen. W. Wood (Beiser, 1993, pp. 211–33).