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Karl Marx's philosophical and critical education – Michael Henrich Interview with Boitempo

The Young Hegelians

Now we come to the question of the Young Hegelians. In most of the literature, it is taken for granted that the Hegelian school in the 1830s had a split into the so-called “Old Hegelians” (who were rather conservative) and the “Young Hegelians” (rather progressive) and that Marx, together with the persons from the Doctor Club became a Young Hegelian.

In my book, in this 1st volume, I articulate questions as to both assumptions. I think the assumption that there was a clear split of the Hegelian school into two sub-schools is an exaggeration. There was a differentiation in the school in the 1830s, but it didn’t really produce two new schools. The so-called “Old Hegelians” are not at all uniform. In the literature it is reflected that there is no consensus on the matter of who really belonged to the Old Hegelians. There are 2 or 3 guys, extremely conservative, who you can find in every list. But beyond these 2 or 3 guys sometimes they [authors writing on the subject] add persons to the Old Hegelians that other authors consider to be YoungHegelians. So, it is not very clear what this term “Old Hegelians” actually denotes.

With the Young Hegelians, it is a little bit clearer because the term “Young Hegelian” was first used in a negative sense against certain authors and then very quickly, they turned this around, and used the term for themselves as a positive name. But there is also the problem: what is the content of Young Hegelianism? In these times, the opinions and the concepts changed very quicky. So, in one study they distinguish 5 periods of Young Hegelian thinking, but these 5 periods cover only 2 or 3 years! So, each period is less than one year. Then, they differentiate in so many directions that it makes little sense to speak of them as one group.

So, I would say the Old Hegelians were not really a school. The Young Hegelians started to be a school – they had in common a certain critique of Hegelian philosophy – but before they could really form a school, they had so many differences that there could not be a school. So, in the book, I don’t take for granted the notion of Old Hegelians and Young Hegelians. First, I try to criticize these notions. And because I am critical of these notions, I cannot really say, “Marx became a Young Hegelian.” I think that things are much more complicated than this.

Marx studied Hegel at a time when Hegel’s philosophy was criticized on the one hand, by right-wing authors who criticized Hegel for being a critic of the state and demolishing religion. They believed that his philosophy was very dangerous. On the other hand, Hegel was criticized by young authors (some former pupils of his) for being too accommodating and too conservative. They believed that Hegelian philosophy had to be developed along new roads. So, Marx developed his own ideas in the middle of these two, very different, critiques of philosophy. This is reflected in his PhD thesis where he criticizes both treatments of Hegel’s philosophy. But the result was not that Marx said, “I am the real Hegelian and I’ll tell you what Hegelian philosophy really is.” This time had finished. He came too late to become an orthodox Hegelian. On the shoulders of these two, different, critics, he himself developed his own critique of Hegel’s philosophy that is only delivered to us in an indirect way through the manner in which he used Hegelian notions in his PhD thesis.

For a certain time, he really had planned to write something criticizing Hegel’s philosophy (not a fundamental critique, but more a critique also in the line of the philosophy) but he did not do this. Very early, as I try to show in my book, Marx had his own approach to Hegel’s philosophy. Many interpretations of the late Marx say, “Yes, Marx applied Hegelian dialectics to this or that field of knowledge.” This is nonsense! Already, the very young Marx had an understanding of Hegel that a simple application (taking a method from one place and using it in another a place) sounds like nonsense. This is because in Hegel you cannot so easily separate the method from the content which is treated by the method.

Thus, I try to show in the book, not only that the traditional notions of Old Hegelians and Young Hegelians are misleading, but also this very easy way of saying, “Yes, Marx was a young Hegelian,” is a very big simplification.

Then, we have this famous Doctor’s Club which was mentioned to Marx in his letters from his father. Every biography mentions this Doctor’s Club, sometimes bringing a lot of details. But the only two sources we have for this Doctor’s Club is the letter Marx wrote to his father in November 37’ and the letter Bruno Bauer wrote to Karl Marx in the year 39’. The many details you can find in several biographies are not really related to Marx’s Doctor’s Club, but rather, to other clubs. It was very usual at this time that students or young doctors met in small groups discussing contemporary philosophy and politics. And because Hegel was the most important philosopher, they, of course, discussed Hegel’s philosophy. Many biographers just put together all these reports we can find about such discussion circles and say, “This is the Doctor’s Club!” But this in nonsense, because we know in some cases, it definitely cannot be the Doctor’s Club of Marx. The reports related to later years when, for example, Bruno Bauer was no longer in Berlin or the fact that we know that Marx didn’t know certain members of other clubs. The only members we can know for sure to be in this Doctor’s Club besides Marx were:

Althaus – who had studied philosophy, was now teaching at the Berlin University and later became a professor.

Adolf Rutenberg – who, in very early, times was a close friend of Marx and also worked at the Rheinian newspaper later. Much later he became a national, liberal, more right-wing guy.

And then the 2 main persons for Marx were:

Bruno Bauer – I already mentioned.

Karl Friedrich Köppen – who, in the years of Berlin, was maybe the closest personal friend of Marx. He was a historian and Bruno Bauer a theologian.

All these guys were influence by Hegel. And what Marx wrote in the letter to his father was not (as it’s very often interpreted) that they convinced him of Hegel philosophy. He wrote to his father that he himself came close to Hegel’s philosophy by writing his dialogue Cleanthes and then after he was already familiar with Hegel’s philosophy, he met these people from the Doctor’s Club and the discussions he had there confirmed his prior convictions and he was pulled over even more towards Hegel’s philosophy – but these discussions were not the origin of his encounters with Hegel. Therefore, one has to ask: what was the origin of his encounters with Hegel’s philosophy?

The answer I try to provide in my book is that it was Hegel’s critique of the aesthetic ideas that Marx was following. The critique was so convincing that Marx didn’t see an escape from it, and he had to accept that Hegel’s philosophy was much better than his own theory. I think this passage through the critique of romanticism was the important step to start with Hegel. Then, the Doctor’s Club, and especially Bruno Bauer, played the role of confirming Marx’s passage to Hegelian philosophy.

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