It is conventional for Marxists to present Marx’s conception of history as superior to Hegel‘s (which is I think true), and to present this superiority as being essentially a matter of replacing ‘idealism’ with ‘materialism’ (which I think is ambiguous). I want to argue that there are two separate oppositions that could be called ‘idealism vs. materialism’ and applied to Hegel vs. Marx, and that while one gives Marx and ‘materialism’ the advantage, the other does not.
(Obviously this isn’t about materialism in the sense of greed and desire for material things, or idealism in the sense of having high ideals)
Hegel’s philosophy can be called idealism in two ways. The more conventional philosophical way is as a metaphysical description: in Hegel’s view, everything that exists is some form or manifestation of ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, or ‘spirit’.
That’s not the sort of idealism associated with Bishop Berkely, for whom this ‘spirituality’ of all things means that, for example, the mug I drink out exists only as my idea, an image in my mind, that only exists as long as I can see or feel it. For Hegel, the mug is perfectly real and independent of me – but its nature is basically the same as mine, since we are both (in a vague sense I won’t try to pin down) ‘manifestations of spirit’.
Hegel’s view of history is thus that it is ‘a process of spirit becoming aware of itself’ – so at first spirit manifests only as rocks and space dust, then as bacteria, which are alive, then living and conscious things (higher animals), and then finally living, conscious, and self-conscious things (humans). Humans then in turn progress through various stages of illusion and ignorance, progressing, through science, art, religion, and philosophy, towards greater and greater ‘self-consciousness’.
In some versions, this process finally stops and is completed in the Prussian monarchy and Hegel’s own philosophy, but that’s a fairly ridiculous version that we shouldn’t bother too much with. The point is that the history of the universe is the history of growing self-consciousness, because existence is ‘spirit’. This is the first sense we can give to ‘idealist conception of history’.
The second sense, though, is about how and why this progression advances. To this Hegel’s answers are somewhat unimpressive. There’s a lot about ‘world-historical individuals’, the ‘great men’ who somehow push humanity forward to a new stage. There’s a lot about ‘nations’, like the German nation, as ‘carrying forward’ human thought. And there’s a lot about the inevitability of reason, and a sense that the whole course of history could be anticipated if one understood enough logic and philosophy.
It’s against this second sense of ‘idealist conception of history’ that Marx reacts so strongly. In the ‘materialist conception of history’ that he opposes to it, philosophy and logic and, in general, ideas, are set aside as driving forces, and replaced with changes in productive technology, social organisation, and class conflict. Instead of ‘ideas’ being causally important, ‘material factors’ are causally important, i.e. the concrete forces impacting on people’s everyday lives.
Now I think this change is a great improvement: it makes much more sense to imagine that millions of people will change their societies in response to changes in their everyday lives (lack of food, lack of work, new goods, new groupings, etc.) than that they will all be moved to do so simply by a new philosophical breakthrough.
The thing is, this change in attributions of causal relevance doesn’t imply anything about metaphysics. There is a tendency to assume that it implies ‘materialism’ in the philosophical sense, i.e. the belief that all that exists is (in a vague sense I won’t try to pin down) ‘matter’, and to assume that Hegel’s metaphysics and his historical theories stand or fall together.
I don’t think they do. In fact, I thinkn that, in spite of its perplexing phrasing, and the rather silly things Hegel sometimes said, ‘idealism’ makes just as much metaphysical sense, if not more, than ‘materialism’. But I won’t go too much into that here. Even defining both terms would be tricky.
I’ll simply say a few words in defence of what I identified as ‘sense 1’ of ‘idealist conception of history’: that the history of the universe is the history of growing self-consciousness. Now that may sound a bit like what a hippy would say. But it actually accords fairly well with what we know. Living things have become, over hundreds of millions of years, ‘more self-conscious’. And humans, it seems to me, for all their follies understand themselves better now than they did in the past. We can say this while remaining agnostic about what existence is ultimately made of.
It might naturally be objected that just because individual animals become more self-aware, that doesn’t mean that ‘the universe’ does. In answer to the second, I’d just point out that we can make perfect sense of saying that, e.g. “France was coming to realise the seriousness of the matter” or “the class had soon become aware of the identity of X”. That doesn’t mean that every single French person or class-member gained that awareness, but we can say such things of the whole because a good number of its members are. So what’s wrong with saying that ‘the universe’ is more self-conscious now than before there were any humans?