The Hegelian Basis
The philosophical bases of Marx's thought were laid early and remained unchanged throughout his life. As a student, Marx accepted the philosophy of Hegel as the only sound and adequate explanation of the universe. According to this philosophy, "the only immutable thing is the abstraction of movement." The one universal phenomenon is change, and the only universal form of this phenomenon is its complete abstraction. Thus, Hegel accepted as real only that which existed in the mind. Objective phenomena and events were of no consequence; only the conceptions of them possessed by human minds were real. Ideas, not objects, were the stuff of which the universe was made. The universe and all events therein existed and took place only in the mind, and any change was a change in ideas. Therefore, to account for these changes in ideas was to account for change in the universe.
In the Hegelian philosophy no idea could exist without an opposite. Thus, the idea of light could not exist unless there were an idea of darkness, nor truth without falsity, nor high without low. If an idea were labeled a thesis, its opposite would be its antithesis. Consequently, in this realm of the mind within which the universe had its only real existence, innumerable theses and antitheses existed. Struggle or conflict was the en-evitable fact in such a universe—conflict of the thesis with its antithesis. In this struggle thesis and antithesis acted and reacted on each other, and a new phenomenon—synthesis—was created. All action or change occurring in the universe was, under the Hegelian philosophy, the product of thesis, antithesis, and resulting synthesis—all in the realm of ideas, since objective reality could exist only in that sphere. Since this process was universal and never ending, it offered a complete explanation of the causal processes creating all phenomena within the universe.
Modification of Hegelian Philosophy by Marx
The fundamental idea of change occurring as a synthesis of opposing forces Marx accepted as the germ of the universal truth that he, as a philosopher, sought. However, he found unacceptable the Hegelian assumption that these conflicting opposites had realistic existence only in the mind of man. Marx consequently accepted one portion of Hegel's philosophy and rejected the other.
To Marx the thing the mind perceived was realty in itself. Objective existence was exterior to the mind of man, and ideas were the reflections of those exterior phenomena. The phenomena to be explained were therefore the objective events in the universe and not the ideas of those events residing within the mind. It might be said that Marx rejected Hegel's idealism and substituted for it realism. The thesis and antithesis became to Marx actual opposing forces existing in the universe, with synthesis the resulting objective phenomenon that, becoming in its turn thesis or antithesis, played its part in the creation of a new synthetic phenomenon. That this realism constituted a vital modification of the Hegelian system is attested by the numerous clashes Marx had with the followers of the more purely idealistic Hegel. Whereas the latter never departed from the realm of mental images, Marx set out to study the operation of this (to him) universal truth in the everyday events of the world of human affairs. Thus Marx adopted what is usually referred to as the "Marxian dialectic" as the most useful tool wherewith to gain an understanding of the universe.
Limitations of Hegelian Philosophy by Marx
The Marxian dialectic is a universal explanation in two senses. First, it constitutes a philosophical explanation of all categories of realistic phenomena. It could be applied to physical, chemical, astronomical, mathematical, geological, and all other phenomena as a universal explanation of what exists and is occurring in the universe. Second, it includes the mind of man as a part of the universe within which change through thesis, antithesis, and synthesis constitutes the never-ending creative process. Nothing within the dialectic itself excludes any category of phenomena from its scope, nor does anything in it give special place to any particular type of phenomena as occupying a more creative or deterministic position than any other.
Marx placed two limitations on the dialectic as he came to apply it in his studies. First, while admitting that it constituted a universal explanation of all phenomena, he had no interest in applying it outside the field of social institutions and processes. Indeed, it would be impossible for any student to apply a philosophical concept intensively to any but a limited field of phenomena.
Moreover, within the scope of social institutions and processes, Marx contended that one species of phenomena had incomparably greater creative potentalities than any other. These were the economic phenomena, or, to use a Marxian term, the mode of production. According to Marx it was within this economic realm that the basic theses, antitheses, and syntheses existed, and all social institutions were the offshoots of economic forces. Since the basic philosophical assumption from which Marx starts does not include any corollary that makes economic forces superior to any other, this aspect of the Marxian approach must be examined further.