Vol. XLII No. 20 May 20, 2018

Doctor of Philosophy

Peoples' Democracy will run a series of fortnightly articles on the life and work of Karl Marx on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth anniversary. As a part of it, we reproduce below an article on Karl Marx that was published in the People’s Democracy (March 13, 1983) on the occasion of his death centenary.

MARX’S first acquaintance with the philosophy of Hegel was rather fragmentary, and its “grotesque and rough-hewn melody” did not please him at all. But during a bout of illness, he studied it from beginning to end and became a pupil of Hegel. At the age of 19, the young student had already discovered the essence of the philosophy of the master: the dialectical method. He described his conversion to Hegel as a turning point in his life. An astonishing decision! – because this conversion, in fact, was to be the starting point for the development of scientific communism.


It was his passionate grappling with problems of politics and a world outlook that primarily led Marx to Hegel. No one else in the history of human thought had attempted, like Hegel, in such a thorough and deep-going manner, to demonstrate an inner connection and an inevitable development in history.

True, Hegel operated as an idealist and saw the basis of all occurrences in the development of ideas – or, as he called it, the “Absolute Idea”. He considered the material world, by contrast, to be only a form of reflex of this Idea. But Hegel was an objective idealist; his premise was the existence of an “objective” spiritual origin of the world, independent of man’s consciousness. According to his view, the spirit, the Idea, moved and drove history forward, in a never ending process, from the lowest to the highest, gradually and by sudden leaps, from stage to stage. Historically outmoded interim stages of the Idea, and their working out in human history, lost their right to existence and fell away; then a new, visible reality succeeded them, confirmed by the Idea as reasonable and, therefore, necessary.

This process of constant development and transformation, called dialectics, finally found its expression and end, according to Hegel, in the stage where the Idea merges with consciousness, and as a result, also with the system in which the Idea becomes conscious of itself – which, of course, meant, with Hegel and with the period in which he lived.

At that time, Hegelian philosophy was regarded as the Prussian State philosophy. Hegel glorified the State as the reality of the moral idea, as the absolute reason and the absolute aim in itself, and therefore as the highest right as against the individual, whose paramount duty it was to be a member of the State. Hegel’s political development explains why he regarded the monarchical form embracing the best efforts of all the servants of the State as the most ideal State form. At the utmost, he considered it necessary that the dominant classes should enjoy a certain indirect share in the government, but even that share must be limited in a corporative fashion. He was no more prepared to consider a general representation of the people in the modern constitutional sense than the Prussian king.


The Hegelian philosophy was also rich in contradictions. The system which Hegel had worked out for himself was in irreconcilable antagonism to the dialectical method which he adopted as a philosopher. The dialectical method recognized no pause no absolute truth and the arbitrarily announced end in the development of the Idea which Hegel foresaw in his system and with which he also justified the then Prussian State.

Hegel’s philosophy was in its conception not only idealistic, it was also conservative – and that, despite the fact that his dialectical method was revolutionary.

On the basis of its contradictions, Hegel’s teaching gave the supporters of differing political and philosophical viewpoints the opportunity to claim it as support. Those who put the main emphasis on Hegel’s legitimation of the Prussian State as “the realization of the Absolute Idea” could remain conservative, and be reactionary in their political aims. On the other hand, those who saw Hegel’s dialectic as the main thing could, and had to, take their place in opposition to feudal ideology, religion and contemporary political reality.

At the end of the 1830s, the antagonisms between those who called themselves Hegel’s disciples came into the open. Vehement controversies broke out between the so-called old Hegelians, the dogmatic reactionary wing, and the Young Hegelians, the revolutionary thinkers among Hegel’s disciples and the heirs to his dialectic.


Karl Marx aligned himself with the Young Hegelians and was able to liberate himself from subjective idealism with precisely Hegel’s method. Marx was hardly twenty years old when he joined the club of Young Hegelians, but as so often happened in later years when he entered a new circle, he soon became its centre. Among the members of the club were Bruno Bauer, Karl Friedrich Koppen, Adolf Rutenberg and others, all of them much older than Marx. In passionate debates, they developed their theoretical, philosophical, political and ideological viewpoints, and this circle provided progressive newspapers and magazines with intellectual weapons. Marx belonged to this club till the end of his university career in Berlin in 1841.

Though Marx could, and did, learn from his older friends, his thinking moved on to other paths. While his friends used the Hegelian dialectic primarily in the field of intellectual speculation, in the first place in the critique of religion without concrete reference to any reality, there grew in Marx the urge to apply philosophy to the real world. But Marx in no way underestimated the significance of the critique of religion. As he himself wrote several years later, “The critique of religion is the prerequisite for all criticism... is therefore the germ of the critique of this Vale of Sorrows, of which religion is the halo.”

At this time, the decision ripened in him to prepare himself not for a legal but an academic career, preferably as a professor of philosophy. His father, in the end, gave into this wish with a heavy heart.

Heinrich Marx died on May 10, 1838, after a long illness at the age of 61. Karl Marx had felt a warm bond to his father. To the end of his life, he carried with him a portrait of his father.


The death of his father worsened Marx’s financial situation. He, therefore, made an effort to finish with his studies as quickly as possible. But his ruthless self-criticism prevented him from terminating his studies prematurely. It was characteristic of Marx, and it remained so until the end of his days, that his insatiable urge to knowledge permitted him to master difficult problems quickly, whilst his merciless self-criticism prevented him from having done with them equally quickly.

Marx had been exempted from military service because of “weakness in the chest” and apparently, an eye ailment. At the beginning of 1839, he began his work on his doctoral dissertation on the theme of, “The differences between the Democritean and the Epicurean natural philosophy.” With great thoroughness, he examined the teachings of the Greek philosophers, Democritus and Epicurus, who represented a materialist conception of the world. He especially defended the atheism of Epicurus. Marx’s identification with atheism was indirectly a declaration of war against the “Christian” Prussian State and the feudal system.

At the same time, Marx began a critical evaluation in his work of the contemporary Hegelian philosophy – a project that several years later he set forth in his essay, “Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Law.” Although he still expressed the Hegelian, and therefore idealist, viewpoint in his dissertation, he was nevertheless no blind adherent of Hegel. Despite his high opinion of Hegel’s idealist-dialectical method, the Hegelian philosophy for him was not the end-stage of philosophical development, but a point of departure, a basis for its further development. He was drawn to those ideas of Hegel that brought science forward. He threw out what did not serve this aim.


While most of the other Young Hegelians upheld liberal ideas, identifying themselves with the bourgeoisie and bourgeois property, Marx had already come to a democratic outlook through his philosophical studies and first political experiences. He wanted to do battle, not for the class interests of the bourgeoisie, but for the interests of the entire people.

He completed his dissertation in the spring of 1841. He considered it to be beneath his dignity to defend it at the Berlin University, because the professional ideologists of reaction had in the meantime taken over the university.

Marx, therefore, submitted his theses to the Jena University. The examining professor had great praise for his work which showed, he said, “just as much intellect and insight as learning.”

Marx returned to Trier from Berlin in mid-April. His comrades-in-arms anticipated great things from him and strengthened him in his intention of seeking a lecturer’s post in Bonn. One of the Young Hegelians, the publicist Moses Hess, wrote to a friend in the summer of 1841: “You can prepare yourself to make the acquaintance of the greatest, perhaps the only now living true philosopher who, soon, wherever he may appear (in print or on the lecture platform), will draw the eyes of Germany upon himself. Dr Marx is still a very young man (perhaps 24 years old at the most) who will deliver the last blow to the religion and politics of the Middle Ages. He combines the sharpest wit with the deepest philosophical earnestness. Think of Rousseau, Voltaire, Holbach, Lessing, Heine and Hegel united in one person: I say united, not thrown together – and there you have Dr Marx.”

History has given complete approval to this. But nothing came of the lecturer’s post in Bonn.

The young Doctor of Philosophy was hardly back in Trier when he hastened with all the pride of a loving youth to the Westphalen home, which “sheltered his finest treasure”, as the mature Marx was to write 20 years later to his wife. Marx had dedicated his dissertation to Jenny Von Westphalen’s father and now brought it personally to his “dear fatherly friend”.

After the long years of separation, Jenny and Marx wanted to be united at last. But a doctoral thesis was not yet a livelihood. They had to wait for still more time.