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Raymond Plant

Hegel and Political EconomyI

In The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, Ernest Mandel writes:
Hegel had been profoundly affected in his youth by economic studies, in
particular by the work of Adam Smith; Marx saw the Hegelian system as a
veritable philosophy of labour.1 He goes on to quote from Pierre Navilles well
known study De lalination la jouissance as follows: When he [Marx] read The
Phenomenology of Mind, The Philosophy of Right, and even The Science of Logic, Marx
thus not only discovered Hegel but already through him, he was aware of that part
of classical political economy which was assimilated and translated into
philosophical terms in Hegels work; so that Marx could not have gone about his
systematic criticism of civil society and the state according to Hegel if he had not
found in the latters writings certain elements which were still live, such as the
theory of needs, the theory of appropriation, or the analysis of the division of
labour.2 It is my aim in this essay to try to retrieve Hegels views on political
economy on their own terms, as a prologomenon to understanding what Marx
may or may not have derived from them for his own economic writings. I shall try

to indicate the development of Hegels views on political economy and

his mature position on these issues. In this discussion the Science of Logic
will not figure, because however much Marx may have been influenced by
it in the development of his own analysis of capitalism, and however
much Lenin may have felt that it was necessary to understanding Capital,3
it does not itself articulate any of Hegels specific views on political
economyalthough it does provide the philosophical background in
logic and ontology within which his views on political economy,
together with his understanding of other forms of human activity, is
Hegels Ideals

In a recent book on Hegel, I argued that the latters thought was

dominated by two interrelated ideals: the restoration of wholeness and
integrity to the human personality; and the restructuring of society on a
more harmonious, reciprocating basis, restoring a sense of community.5
A crucial influence on the formation of these ideals was a romanticized
and idealized picture of the Ancient Greek and particularly the Athenian
polis. In such a society, so it was believed, a real sense of community had
been achieved. Social practices and institutions such as religion, morality
and politics were all closely interwoven. The individual citizen was able
to develop a roundedness and wholeness to his personality by being able
personally to take part in all these interwoven social activitiesan
integrity of the personality which has been denied to the modern man.
For many, and for Hegel in particular in his early years, Greece was the
model; and even when his enthusiasm for it had evaporated somewhat, he
still extrapolated from Greek political culture a deep and abiding political
conviction about the need for society to recapture some sense of the
harmony of Greecealbeit in a modified, contemporary formand to
recover something of that sense of human wholeness which had been
such a dominant part of Greek culture.
While Hegel was dominated by these ideals during the earliest period of
his writing on these topics in Tbingen from 1789 to 1793, he does not
seem to have been particularly interested in exploring the material and
economic basis which enabled this kind of society to flourish in the
ancient world, or the current material conditions of life which made such
a form of communal life difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the
modern world. On the contrary: during the period in question Hegel
seems to have seen religion as the key to the unified structure of Greek life
and religious changes to have been the cause of the baneful structure of
modern society. In Hegels view, Greek folk religion had been a unifying
institution. It appealed to all the powers of the human mind, to head and
1 London

1971, p. 11.
1957, p. 11.
Lenin, Collected Works, London and Moscow 1961, Vol. 38, p. 180.
4 At the beginning of this essay, it is only right that I should say how indebted I am to Paul
Chamleys researches in this area, particularly his articles Les Origines de la Pense
conomique de Hegel, and La Doctrine conomique et la Conception Hgelienne du
Travail in Hegel Studien, Bonn 1965, and his books conomie Politique chez Steuart et Hegel,
Paris 1963, and Documents relatifs Sir James Steuart, Paris 1965. Also to Manfred Riedels
Studien zu Hegels Rechtsphilosophie, Frankfurt 1969.
5 Hegel, London 1973.
2 Paris
3 See


heart, whereas modern European religion had become too deeply

rationalistic and theological, neglecting the need for religion to nourish
the emotions.6 In addition, it was a powerful force for the integration of
society generally. All practices in a society had a religious dimension and,
as such, there were close relations between them mediated by this
communal bond. In its social function Greek folk religion was very
different from modern Christianity, the practices of which have become a
rite reserved for special days of the week, involving specialized
ceremonies and liturgical forms, with the result that it has become more
and more dislocated from the ongoing life of the community. The
recapture of a sense of community, and with it the regeneration of
personal life, is thus seen by Hegel at this time very much in terms of
rediscovering something like Greek folk religion, largely by a
fundamental re-shaping of Christian beliefs and, in particular, by a
rigorous attempt to demythologize the gospels, in order to exclude all
elements of transcendence and positivity.7 There is therefore very little in
the Tbingen fragments to suggest that Hegel had a serious interest in
exploring the forms of economic relationships within which new forms
of community could grow or in discovering the material conditions of life
within which Greek community had flourished.
Hegels writings during his period as a private tutor in Berne involved a
significant shift in his opinions and interests. Christianity was now seen
against a background of the social and political changes of the later
Roman era. Far from appearing to have a determining role in the
fashioning of life and social experience, it was now seen very much as the
projection of a social malaise which has already set in. Hegel argued that
the military might of Rome had led to the formation of a governing lite,
which used military power and the riches derived from conquest to
maintain itself in power. In Hegels view, this form of economic and
political domination led to disastrous social and political consequences.
The individual began to feel estranged from the state: The picture of the
state as the product of his own energies disappeared from the citizens
soul. . . . All activity and every purpose now had a bearing on something
individualactivity was no longer for the sake of the whole or the ideal.8
These socio-economic changes had a very profound effect on religious
life. Folk religion could not adapt to this changed situation; it was based
on and mirrored a system of reciprocity and integration. With the
breakdown of this integration, folk religion had to disappear. Christianity
with its emphasis on the privacy of the individual and his personal
relationship with God, who transcended the social order, filled the gap in
social life left by the decline in the authority of folk religion.
Steuart and the Revaluation of History

This move towards a more materially-based approach to social analysis

became much more pronounced after Hegels move to Frankfurt when,
under the influence of his reading of the economic works of Sir James
Steuart, he began to reflect much more systematically upon the material

Nohl (ed.), Tbingen 1907, pp. 9 and 16.

See Hegels essay Das Leben Jesu in Nohl, op. cit., pp. 75 ff.
8 Ibid. p. 223.


and economic basis of social structures and cultural forms.9 Hegel

derived three main insights from his reading of Steuarts Inquiry into the
Principles of Political Economy. First, he developed the beginnings of a
philosophy of history, and one which enabled him to take up a far more
positive attitude towards the development of modern society. In the
second place, he arrived at the idea that the development of commercial
society leads to an increase in human autonomy and personal freedom,
but at the same time commercial society throws up its own specific forms
of integration and its own supportive community groups. Finally, from
Steuarts theory of the statesman, Hegel derived a distinctive theory
about the role of the state vis--vis commercial society. As a result of his
researches into political economy, he gradually worked his way towards
seeing in the economic life of modern society the development of new
forms of integration and community appropriate for the modern world.
These themes are clearly perceptible in his Frankfurt essay The Spirit of
Christianity and Its Destiny.10
In his Inquiry Steuart had postulated a threefold process of development
in history from pastoral nomadic, through agrarian to modern society
characterized by the exchange economy. The change from one of these to
the other he interprets as a result of the necessity to increase the food
supply, as a result of the increasing growth of population caused by the
domination of the sexual impulse in human life. Steuart also correlates
with these distinct economic formations particular kinds of social
structures with different sets of social values.11 So long as men remain
unaware that the supply of food can be increased by human labour, they
depend entirely upon the bounty of natureconsuming and passing on.
In such a pastoral, pre-agrarian society men do not labour but live in
idleness and enjoy a sense of natural liberty. This sort of social system
could not last long, in Steuarts view, because of the very definite limit it
set to the level of population, and because life could only be maintained at
the subsistence level. The pressure of population encourages labour in an
attempt to augment the food supply. This marks the transition to the
agrarian economy. The effect of agriculture is that each cultivator can
produce more food than he himself requires and this surplus allows the
population to increase. However, natural differences in physical strength
and ability means that different levels of surplus are achieved, and those
who are able to produce most eventually become the masters of those
who produce less. An agrarian economy introduces labour, but labour
introduces stratification.
The exchange economy is an advance upon the agrarian system out of
which it develops, because it replaces compulsion by inducement. If
wants are multiplied above the level of physical necessities, then once a
taste for what Steuart calls luxuries is developed a man has an
inducement to produce a surplus through his labour with which he can
procure other goods, luxuries, which go beyond the level of subsistence.
9 Hegel read Steuarts Inquiry and made a no-longer-extant commentary on it between 19
February and 16 March 1799. The main source for this information is Rosenkranz, Hegels
Leben, Berlin 1844, p. 86.
10 Nohl, op. cit., p. 243.
11 Sir James Steuart, An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, ed. Andrew Skinner,
London 1966, Vol. 1, p. 59.


By replacing the constraint of physical necessity as the motivation for

labour by the inducement of the consumption of luxuries, the exchange
economy develops freedom. Not only this, but the exchange economy
unites men into relations of functional dependence. One group of men,
the farmers, concentrate upon producing a surplus of foodstuffs; another
group, the free hands, a surplus of luxury goods; and each group
exchanges with the other. Thus society is divided into two mutually
dependent groups having recognized wants; and the exchange economy
produces a system of mutual dependence as well as developing a sense of
personal freedom. As Skinner argues: Members of commercial society
are bound together by a cycle of activities and functions, the creation and
expenditure of incomes; the production and consumption of
commodities.12 The development of a modern exchange economy with
its different groups producing different kinds of goods which are
exchanged in the market is therefore seen by Steuart as a rational
progressive development. As Chamley says: L Inquiry est avant tout une
thorie de lvolution.13
This typology of social change and development is implicit in Hegels
discussion of Jewish history in The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. In the
essay, Hegel describes the development of Jewish history as der
bergang vom Hirtenleben zum Staate (the transition from pastoral
society to a politically ordered state).14 For Hegel, Abraham is the crucial
figure in Jewish history, because he was both the progenitor of the Jewish
people, and at the same time attempted to reverse the progressive trend in
history. Abraham left an urban society, however primitive, in Ur of the
Chaldees, and reverted to a nomadic type of existence, trying to free
himself from social ties. Throughout his wanderings, in his attempt to
reassert the values of a pastoral societyin particular, personal
independenceAbraham scorned social ties: He struggled against his
fate which would have offered him a stationary communal life with
others.15 A stationary life, which of course involves the idea of labour
and social ties, is seen by Hegel to be part of the fate of modern man. In a
sense, history might be said to have taken its revenge on Abraham when,
in the time of Jacob, the famine showed that a simple nomadic existence
could not maintain itself. Jacob and his sons were forced to buy grain
from Egypt, which had a highly developed agrarian system. At this point
in Jewish history, Hegel argues: To the fate against which Abraham and
hitherto Jacob also had struggled, that is to say the possession of an
abiding dwelling place and attachment to a nation, Jacob finally
succumbed. The spirit which led them out of this slavery and then
organised them into an independent nation works and is matured from
this point onward in more situations than those in which it appeared.16
The development of urban life, labour, mutual dependence, and the state
are thus seen by Hegel to be part of the progressive trend in history.

Ibid. p. 88.
Politique chez Steuart et Hegel, op. cit., p. 59.
14 Nohl, op. cit., p. 370. This is discussed most fully in the passage beginning Zu Abrahams
Zeiten, which is not printed in Nohl. On these MSS, see G. Schuler, Zur Chronologie Von
Hegels Jugendschriften in Hegel Studien, 1963.
15 Nohl, op. cit., p. 246.
16 Ibid. p. 245.
13 conomie


Abraham sought independence and, as Steuart had argued,

independencea system of natural libertyis characteristic of preagrarian society, which is precisely the sort of society which Abraham
sought. However, although Abraham may have been independent in the
sense of divorced from social ties, he was not free in Hegels view just
because of the pressure of physical need and more importantly because of
the absence of labour: With the Jews, the state of independence was a
state of total passivity and total ugliness. Because their independence
secured them only food and drink, an indigent existence, it followed that
with this independence, with this little, all was lost or jeopardized. There
was no life left over which they could have enjoyed. This animal existence
was not compatible with the more beautiful form of life which freedom
would have given them.17
This is a very important passage for seeing the seeds of the theory of
labour which Hegel was to develop in Jena during the following few
years. He linked the kind of life which Abraham had with animal life
because, as he was later to argue explicitly, an animal with a need for food
merely passively consumes an object confronting it. A man, though,
comes to a sense of self-consciousness and freedom not by merely
consuming what is already present to hand, but by transforming it
through labour, by imposing his will on it. In so doing, he comes to know
more about the world of objects which confronts him, but
simultaneously utilizes that knowledge to humanize the objective world.
Labour, self-consciousness and freedom go together in Hegels mind; at
the same time, the transformation of natural objects by labour increases
the range of objects of human desire. Through labour, a man develops
beyond an indigent existence, tied as that is to the pressure for
subsistence. Abraham, who did not labour, was not free although he may
have been independent; this had very severe consequences for his
conception of the world. Because he had no sense of himself as a free selfconscious agent, he formed a view of God and his own relationship to
God which cast him in the role of a slave to an omnipotent being,18 the
infinite lord of the universe. Because he did not labour and transform the
natural world to his will and thus humanize it, he regarded the natural
world as alien.19 The role of labour is crucial; it inaugurates human
history, the record of mans transformation of his environment, and
distinguishes man from animal and the evolution of merely natural forms.
From this time, Hegel began to hark back far less to Greece and the
homogeneity of Greek culture and personal relationships. These
communities were, as Colletti argues, cohesive but confining;20 confining
because they did not know free labour, particularly in the case of Athens
which was the major object of Hegels admiration. In Athens the work
was done by slaves. Instead Hegel concentrated his attention far more
upon the modern world, in an attempt to describe the way in which the
social, political and economic order of modern society is able to realize in
its own way both personal autonomy and some sense of communal
significance. In this view, there is a rose to be discerned within the cross of
17 Ibid.

p. 253.
p. 246.
was a stranger on earth, a stranger to soil and men alike. Ibid. p. 246.
20 Marxism and Hegel, London 1973, chapter 12.
18 Ibid.
19 He


the present; modern society comes to embody within itself communal

values and a sense of solidarity without the surrender of personal
autonomy. Economic categories, particularly labour, play a major part in
the kind of revaluation of history to be found in Hegels writings of this
period. Bourgeois life was not seen as a decline from the way of life of the
Greeks, whom he had regarded as the happy people of history; rather,
he saw within bourgeois life the development of a sense of personal
autonomy and forms of social interaction not as immediate, but certainly
as rich as those achieved in the Greek polis.21 This developing conviction
emerged, in a somewhat abstract form, in an essay of this period On Love.
In it, Hegel clearly showed a far more positive attitude towards plurality
and differentiation, which in his earlier essays he had regarded as baneful
diremptive features of modern life.22 Forms of social solidarity were now
seen to be generated in partial and specific ways, around specific
constellations of interest and need.
Finally, at this point in the argument, something should be said about
Steuarts conception of statesman and its influence on Hegel. By
statesman, Steuart means the form of government. In his Inquiry, he
argues that all economic activity requires overseeing by a statesman; in
particular in the modern commercial economy, the statesman or
government will be able to mitigate some of the more baneful aspects of
the growth of commercial relationships, by a policy which oversees the
pace of economic development.23 This conception of public intervention
and control of the pace of economic development favoured by Steuart
was, broadly speaking, foreign to the laissez-faire views of Adam Smith;
indeed his views were very critically received here in Britain on precisely
this issue. It does seem that Steuart was influenced by the German
Cameralist tradition and in particular by writings of Justi.24 As we shall
see, it is possible to interpret Hegels writings on the topic of Public
Authority, from the Jena period right through to The Philosophy of Right,
partly in the light of Steuarts understanding of the role of the statesman
and partly in the light of what has already been said about Hegels views
on how the modern world decisively embodies a principle of personal
No longer was Hegel convinced that the redemption of modern society
was to be found in the recapture of something like Greek folk religion; on
the contrary, modern bourgeois society, correctly understood, contained
within itself the seeds of its own redemption. But it was a matter of correct
understanding. The development of the modern world and the modern
economy had outstripped mans capacity to grasp it in its true nature. The
bifurcations of modern life were, in large part, due to faulty concepts
which did not provide men with a view of the totality of social experience,
but rather with sectional and mutually discordant accounts.
21 See The German Constitution in Political Writings, translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford
1964, pp. 1901; The Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford 1942, paragraph
22 Nohl, op. cit., pp. 3223.
23 Steuart. op. cit., p. 122.
24 The Inquiry was written in Tbingen, where as a Jacobite Steuart was exiled after the
1745 rebellion.


Of course, this is just the point where Hegels version of philosophical

idealism is important. In his essay The Difference between Fichtes and
Schellings System of Philosophy, Hegel argued that Bifurcation is the source
of the need for philosophy.25 It was his conviction that a total philosophically reflective view of the forces at work in society would transfigure
mans understanding of social experience and lead to a fundamental
change in his orientation towards the social world. In The Philosophy of
Right he argued: I am at home in the world when I know it, still more so
when I have a conceptual grasp of it.26 A conceptual grasp of mans
economic activity in modern societyhis ownership of property, his
labour, his interaction with others in the system of needs as a consequence
of his labour, the role and character of social classes, the function of
corporations within civil society and the role of public authority or the
external state in the regulation of economic activitywould have exactly
this result. But, of course, this enterprisewhich would involve on the
one hand securing an account of political economy which transcends the
hard and fast bifurcating character of accounts of this sphere from the
level of the understanding, and on the other hand supplying a
reconciling, dialectical account in conformity with reasonwould be
only one part of a total enterprise encompassing not only the
redescription and transfiguration of the socio-economic/political realm,
but also the realms of art, religion and philosophy itself.
Property and the Normative Order

The discussion of Hegels account of the sphere of political economy will

fall into two parts. The first will be concerned with property, its
ownership and consequences, which Hegel did not actually place within
the sphere of political economy proper. The second will consider the
system of needs, which Hegel saw as the locus of political economyor
more properly its object. Property, even though it technically fell outside
the sphere of political economy as Hegel conceived it, is important: partly
because property and the character of its ownership can hardly be
divorced from questions about production, wealth and the social
relations engendered thereby; partly because of the fact that, although
property belongs to the sphere of Abstract Right rather than the System
of Needs in The Philosophy of Right, the latterbeing a dialectical advance
on the formerrenders the former aufgehoben, i.e. not only overcome or
transcended but also preserved. That is to say, Hegels autonomous man
seeking to satisfy his needs within the system of needsthe sphere of
political economy properwas regarded as owning property on the
terms as defined by Hegel and with the social and juridical consequences
as envisaged by him. Human labour within the system of needs thus
presupposed the entitlement to property ownership already established
earlier in the development of the dialectical redescription of the social
order, and this fact could not be without consequences in the system of
Property, in Hegels view, is very closely bound up with issues mentioned
earlier: the development of self-consciousness, individuality and personal

In H. Glockner (ed.), G. W. F. Hegel, Samtliche Werke, Stuttgart 192730, Vol. 1, p. 44.

The Philosophy of Right, op. cit., p. 226 (translation amended).


freedom. The ownership of property is the way in which the content of a

persons will is made objective.27 Conceived in this way, property may be
regarded as a decisive differentiating institution in society. It is a way in
which a man becomes self-conscious through imposing his will on
material objects, being confronted not by an alien world but a humanized
one, one which he can use for his own purposes. Property is thus a chief
source of individuality; and certainly the liberal tradition of political
thought, particularly in the work of Locke and more recently in Nozick,
had tended to see the appropriation of property as an act of individual
self-assertion. In Hegels remarks on the relationship between property
and personality, he was attempting to take account of this interpretation
of the role of property in human life. Indeed, because he linked property
so closely with personality and personal use of it, he completely refused to
countenance any role at all for communally owned property.28 In this
way, therefore, property ownership could be regarded as a powerful
differentiating force in human society, developing a sense of selfconsciousness and independence in property owners. However, there
occurred a powerful dialectical reversal in this argument, which had the
result of crediting property with an equally important social dimension.
Possession and appropriation are for Hegel necessary but not sufficient
conditions of property ownership. Property as a right has to be
recognized. If property is not recognized by others, then although an
object may have been appropriated, entitlement to it has not been
vindicated. Property embodies a claim to entitlement which transcends
the mere power of appropriation, and this claim can only be vindicated
within a nexus of mutually recognized rights and obligations.29 State of
nature theories of property were inadequate for Hegel. They might be
able to explain appropriation as a power, but they could not explain
property as a right, granting that rights presuppose a mutually
recognized normative order.30
For Hegel, property may originate in the appropriation of natural objects
by human beings and as such leads to a development in self-consciousness
and individuality; but at the same time a presupposition of property is not
just individuals with natural powers of appropriation, but a mutually
recognized system of rights within which the concept of entitlement
central to property ownership can make sense. This is typical of Hegels
arguments in the field of social and political philosophy: a seemingly
individualistic activity or institution is shown to presuppose an integral,
necessary social dimension. The liberal tradition was correct for him in
linking property with mans liberty and self-consciousness, but it had
gone wrong in the conception of society which has been derived from this
assumption. A deeper understanding of property showed that its
acceptance did not entail the individualistic account of the social order
characteristic of liberal political thought, but made it necessary to situate
property within a sphere of mutually recognized obligations and rights.
In addition to this, property relationships led, in Hegels view, to more
concrete forms of social and juridical relationships. A man must be able to
27 Ibid.

para. 39.
para. 46.
29 Jenenser Realphilosophie, ed. Hoffmeister, Leipzig 1932, Vol. 1, p. 240.
30 The Philosophy of Right, op. cit., para 71.
28 Ibid.


alienate his property, otherwise he would be tied to the particularity of

nature.31 Certainly a man needs property to objectify his will, but he does
not need this property as opposed to that. The capacity to alienate ones
property, because it means transferring entitlement, not just the
relinquishing of something appropriated, requires contractual
relationships and a legal system. Property, and the normative and
juridical relations which flow from it, are not in Hegels view strictly
within the sphere of political economy, which is pre-eminently the sphere
of needs. Nevertheless, men acting within the sphere of needs, or within
the system of production and exchange, are also owners of property.
However, property ownership is not just a feature of the modern world
and is consistent with a range of socio-economic orders, whereas political
economy is: . . . one of the sciences which have arisen out of the
conditions of the modern world.32
The Constitution of the System of Needs

The sphere of needs, characterized by labour in the production of

commodities for more than subsistence, exchange, money, the division of
labour, classesall of these are the object of study by political economy.
In The Philosophy of Right, Hegel makes this point in an entirely
unambiguous way: Political economy is the science which starts from
this view of needs and labour but has the task of explaining mass
relationships and mass movements in their complexity and in their
qualitative and quantitative manner . . . Its development affords the
interesting spectacle (as in Smith, Say and Ricardo) of thought working
on the endless mass of details which confront it at the outset and
extracting therefrom the simple principles of the thing.33 Yet again: To
discover the necessary element here is the object of political economy, a
science which is a credit to thought because it finds laws for a mass of
accidents.34 The system of needs is the sphere upon which the science of
political economy is operative. However, it took Hegel a good deal of
intellectual effort, right up to his composition of The Philosophy of Right, to
constitute the system of needs as the appropriate object for political
Throughout the writings of the Jena period (System der Sittlichkeit,
Jenenser Realphilosophie, 1 and 11). Hegel did not manage to distinguish
clearly the system of needs as the system of production and exchange
characteristic of the modern world. In these works, particularly in System
der Sittlichkeit extremely acute comments are made by Hegel on the
character of labour, the division of labour, and human needs and desires
and how they relate to the productive system; but these remarks are
situated alongside his further assessments of the Greek polis and other
discussions of pre-commercial social systems. This interesting feature of
Hegels development has been particularly remarked upon by Manfred
Riedel: The young Hegel puts the rock hard features of the modern
world, labour, machinery, money and the commodity, wealth and
poverty, almost untrimmed (unbehauen) beside the overwhelmingly
31 Ibid.

para. 72.
para. 189.
para. 189.
Ibid. addition to para. 189.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid.


gripping and vital cultural tradition of antiquity without examining these

in themselves or even being able to join them up systematically in relation
to one another.35 By this time, Hegel had read not only Steuart but also
Smith, and he was struggling to try to provide an account of those
features of modern society to which political economists addressed
themselves. But his earlier preoccupations with Hellenism stood in the
way of his ability to see clearly the main lines of the system of needs as an
autonomous and modern form of human interaction. In The Philosophy of
Right, however, the system of needs was constituted firmly within an
account of the modern world, and all the complications produced by the
authors earlier preoccupations receded into the background.
In Reading Capital, Althusser argues that Hegels recognition and
characterization of the system of needs as the object of political economy
was very important to the theoretical coherence of the science, and
thereby it is implicitly the object of Marxs critique: . . . Classical
Economics can only think economic facts as belonging to the
homogeneous space of their positivity and measurability on condition
that it accepts a naive anthropology which founds all the acts involved
in the production, distribution, reception and consumption of economic
objects on the economic subjects and their needs. Hegel provided the
philosophical concept of the unity of this naive anthropology with the
economic phenomena in his famous expression the sphere of needs or
civil society, as distinct from political society. In the concept of the
sphere of needs, economic facts are thought as based in their economic
essence on human subjects who are a prey to need: on the homo
oeconomicus, who is a (visible, observable) given, too.36 Althusser argues
that there are two features of the system of needs: a world of given,
measurable phenomenaeconomic facts; and what he calls an
ideological anthropology which bases the economic character of the
phenomena and its space on man as the subject of needsproductive
subjects in the division of labour who produce objects of consumption
destined to satisfy these same subjects of needs. On this view, while Smith
and Ricardo may have produced a kind of phenomenological description
of the surface character of production, exchange and consumption, it is
Hegel who eventually, and after a struggle, as we have seen, produces the
philosophical concept of the object of political economy, namely the
sphere of needs.
It may be true that Hegels specification of the system of needs is
important for classical political economy as Althusser suggests, although
not all economists would share this view.37 But Althussers account of the
general characteristics of Hegels conception of the system of needs is
seriously defective. In the passage cited above, he seems to equate the
sphere of needs with civil society, whereas in fact the sphere of needs is
just a part of civil society or Brgerliche Gesellschaft. Indeed, Hegels
discussion of the relationship between the sphere of needs and civil
society generally was designed just to show how restricted and thereby
inadequate an account of modern economic activity a view based entirely
35 Studien

zu Hegels Rechtsphilosophie, op. cit., p. 152.

Capital, London 1970, p. 162.
See the famous comment made by Joan Robinson: What business has Hegel putting his
nose between me and Ricardo?, On Re-Reading Marx, Cambridge 1953, pp. 223.

36 Reading


on the sphere of needs would be. The system of needs has to be seen also
in the context of the administration of justice and law, Public Authority
and Corporations. Indeed, as will be seen, the role of the latter two was
central precisely because Hegel moved on from the conception of man
within the system of needs, which he regarded as inadequate for a full
understanding of mens economic and commercial life.
In addition, Althusser implies that Hegel saw the system of needs as an
autonomous sphere of human interaction, with certain given
phenomenaeconomic activitiescharacterizing it. Certainly it is true
that if the reader focuses his attention on the section on the sphere of
needs in The Philosophy of Right, he could derive this impression.
However, this impression would be fundamentally mistaken for two
reasons. In the first place, the section on the system of needs occurs in the
third part of The Philosophy of Right. The previous two parts are Abstract
Right (which deals with man as a property owner) and Morality (in
which Hegel considers man as an autonomous moral agent). Both of
these facets of human life and activity are presupposed in the
characterization of the system of needs. This is so because of the very
nature of the dialectic, in which standpoints are transcended but what is
true within them is preserved at the transcended level. Hegel, in fact,
refers to the way in which a mans opportunities for sharing in the general
productive resources of his society are conditioned by his ownership of
permanent capital, by which he means possessions specifically
determined as permanent and secure.38 The system of needs is not an
autonomous sphere of interaction: other aspects of human life are taken
up and presupposed by it.
The second reason why this is so is concerned with a deeper philosophical
issue, which can be no more than touched on in the present context. In the
Science of Logic, Hegel was critical of what he called the thought of the
Understanding (Verstand ), because the Understanding is that attitude of
mind which takes everything as given, with completely demarcated
boundariesas what it is and not another thing.39 The Understanding
seeks to explain phenomena which it tries to render determinate in an
abstracted way, independently of other phenomena. In The Science Of
Logic, in the section of Determinate Being, Hegel argued that this is
impossible. In this view, following Spinoza, all determination and
identification presupposes negation. That is to say, if a phenomenon is
characterized in terms of quality x, then x is meaningful only against a
background of other qualities which it rules out. We can grasp the
phenomenon as x only in so far as we grasp it as not Y, not z, etc. The
qualities which something does not have are non-contingently required
for our understanding of the quality or qualities which it has.40
Something determinate exists, therefore, in Hegels view only within a
nexus of relationships of inclusion and exclusion and this applies equally
well to the economic sphere. The sphere of the economic, or the system of
needs, can be determined only in relation to other modes of social
38 The

Philosophy of Right, op. cit., p. 170.

The Science of Logic, translated by A. V. Miller, London 1969, p. 45. In The Philosophy of
Right, the economic sphere is described as a relative totality: para. 184.
Cf. Jenenser Logik, ed. Hoffmeister, Leipzig 1923, p. 4. See Raymond Plant, Hegel, London
1973, p. 100, and C. Taylor, Hegel, Cambridge 1975, pp. 2334.


experience and practice which its determinacy rules out. The thought of
the Understanding ignores all this, and takes types of social activities as
given in a discrete way.
Consequently, when Hegel argues that an explanation is characteristic of
the Understanding, he implied by this that it is basically inadequate. It is
an explanation of an abstracted form of phenomenon which is not seen in
its non-contingent, dialectical relationships with other phenomena; and
gross errors are made when such explanations are taken as absolute,
rather than provisional and capable of transcendence. Throughout his
description of the system of needs as the object of political economy,
Hegel presupposed two things. First, that the phenomena so constituted,
the system of needs, is an abstraction. Secondly, that the explanation of
this from the standpoint of political economy is itself abstract and
capable of transcendence. He said of political economy in this context:
Its (political economy) development affords the interesting spectacle (as
in Smith, Say, Ricardo) of thought working upon the endless mass of
details which confront it at the outset and extracting therefrom the simple
principles of the thing, the Understanding effective in the thing and
directing it.41 The sphere of political economy was not given for Hegel in
the way in which it might be for a positivist. It was constituted within a
nexus of relations with other aspects of human social life, and was
intelligible only within this set of relationships. Any attempt to make
political economy the master social science, or to use it as a basis for an
overall philosophical position as to some extent the utilitarians did,
would for Hegel have been a colossal misunderstanding of both the
abstracted nature of the phenomena to be explained and the provisional
inadequate explanations offered in political economy.
The same misunderstanding is characteristic of Althussers discussion of
what he calls Hegels ideological anthropology, which he sees as central
to the specification of the system of needthat is, that human beings are
prey to need, or subjects of need. In Althussers view, the sphere of the
economic is somehow given or generated by this conception of human
nature. The economic sphere is the sphere in which men act to satisfy the
needs to which they are subject. The structures of consumption,
exchange and production are derivable from hypotheses about man as
subject to need. Again, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this
assumption is based upon a fundamental mis-reading of Hegel. Hegel did
not see men as subject to need or prey to need. Rather, he saw these as
features of animal life. The animal is trapped within the sphere of
instinctual needs and the demand to satisfy these; human beings, on the
other hand, while of course being prey to or subject to subsistence needs,
are able to transcend this level through labour. They thus develop new
needs or desires, based not on their purely biological requirements, but
on free choice, which accompanies the consciousness-liberating
dimension of labour: An animals needs and its way and means of
satisfying them are both alike restricted in scope. Though man is subject
to this restriction too, yet at the same time he evinces his transcendence of
it and his universality.42
41 The

Philosophy of Right, op. cit., p. 189.

para. 190.

42 Ibid.


Human needs are not absolute biological givens, nor is man prey to them.
He develops his needs on the basis of his growing self-consciousness,
connected as that is with the growth of labour and mans transformative
relation to natural objects. In what sense, then, do we find that in
Althussers terms: Anthropologys theoretical pretensions have been
shattered by Marxs analysis. Not only does Marx define these needs as
historical and not as absolute givens (The Poverty of Philosophy, pp 412;
Capital, Vol. I, pp. 174, 228; Vol. II, pp. 171, 232; Vol. Ill, p. 837, etc.),
but also and above all he recognizes them as needs in their economic
function, on condition that they are effective (Capital, Vol. III, pp. 178,
189).43 Hegel held exactly the same views. The passage cited above
shows that he did not see needs as absolute givens. They clearly have a
history, relating to the growth of self-consciousness, and the point is
made very directly in paragraph 194 of The Philosophy of Right. Hegel there
argues explicitly that any theory which sees mens needs as absolute and
fixed by nature takes no account of the moment of liberation intrinsic to
work, and in the previous paragraph he refers to social need. If Marxs
analysis has shattered any pretensions, they are not Hegels.
This is equally true of the final part of the quotation from Althusser.
Hegel would have agreed that the economic sphere is not just a reflection
of pre-existent needs and the struggle to satisfy them. He recognized a
complex interaction between the character of needs and economic
structures: social conditions tend to multiply and subdivide needs,
means and enjoyments indefinitely.44 The sphere of needs is not a given
fixed order, which is the unshakeable object of political economy. Both
are rather abstractions which have to be resituated in a wider context of
social explanation. The conception of human nature which Hegel brings
to bear on the characterization of the sphere of need is not one in which
man is the prey to need, or subject to need; rather, man is if anything the
sovereign of need, developing needs as a result of the growth of his own
Within the description of the system of needs in The Philosophy of Right,
Hegel is concerned with three main features: labour, need, and the
complex forms of social organization generated through the division of
labour. In each of these cases, Hegel is concerned to relate the discussion
to his account of the development of human self-consciousness and
autonomy, which he sees as characteristic of modern society; and at the
same time to try to show that even within the system of needs, where
private self-seeking is given full rein, there are developed very complex
and important forms of social relationships.
To be continued.


Reading Capital, op. cit., p. 166.

The Philosophy of Right, op. cit., para. 195.