Ontology and political economy – Marx reader of Hegel

Olafur Eliasson, work from the close-up series Álftavatn by


Preface to the recently released book by Wécio Araújo

Measuring Hegel's influence on Marx is a problem as classic as it is difficult in the field of Marxian studies. Marx is not always clear in relation to his theoretical debt to the former professor at the University of Berlin, although this, for any minimally attentive reader of his extensive work, is undeniable. But if determining, with some theoretical precision, the nature and extent of such influence is far from being an easy task, one cannot easily renounce such an undertaking, especially if we want to obtain a clearer and deeper understanding of the method that Marx mobilizes. to develop his critique of political economy.

The reader may, however, wonder: is there still anything new to be said about this topic? Aren’t there already countless studies that scrutinize various aspects of the intricate relationship between “Marxist dialectics” and “Hegelian dialectics”, to recall the title of a book by an eminent specialist on this issue?[I] Indeed, since Althusserian's famous denial of such an influence on Marx's mature work, establishing the controversial “epistemological cut” between the “young” and “old” Marx (Althusser, 2015), countless studies have been published in order to refute such a perspective, showing that the influence of Hegel's philosophy on the critique of capitalism developed by Marx extends at least as far as O Capital, passing mainly through floorplans. Leaving the enormous international bibliography on the subject in parentheses, it is important to recognize that here in Brazil we have had theoretical production of the highest level, starting with the work of the aforementioned Ruy Fausto, but also highlighting the contributions of José Arthur Giannotti (1975 , 1985), Marcos Lutz Müller (1982) and Jorge Grespan (2012). 

It is with great satisfaction that I can confirm, following the publication of this book by Wécio Pinheiro Araújo, Ontology and political economy: Marx reader of Hegel, that this Brazilian tradition of Hegelo-Marxian studies is more alive than ever. Satisfaction because it is not only a theoretical and academic tradition of specialists closed around a certain theme, but above all a perspective of critical social theory, in which the dialectical legacy is put at the service of renewing the critique of capitalism in contemporary times. .

But what does the contribution of this book consist of, in the midst of such a rich tradition? Firstly, I would say that this book is, unless I am mistaken, one of the first, in Brazil, to dialogue systematically with a group of authors – such as Christopher Arthur (2016), Fred Moseley and Tony Smith (2015) – linked the call New Dialectics, which aims to renew dialectical studies about Hegel's influence on Marx. In this sense, Araújo, from the introduction, adheres to this emphasis on the “systematic” dimension, as opposed to the historical dimension, of Hegelian dialectics. Therefore, instead of a dialectical logic of development that would underlie world history, based on the contradiction between productive forces and production relations, as well as the contradiction and struggle between classes, we have an emphasis on the articulation of categories designed to conceptualize a all existing concrete, in which the order of exposure of these categories does not need to coincide with the order of their appearance in history. It is this perspective that will serve to interpret The capital and its expository method in light of Science of Logic, for example.

However, beyond this affiliation, more specifically, we have the title of the present work which, to a certain extent, already indicates that the articulation between ontology and political economy is the key to understanding its central scope. But if “political economy” is easily associated with Marx’s critique of capitalism, what is the meaning of the word ontology here? To what extent does ontology play a role in the critique of political economy? It is, in reality, an ontology of the subject, that is, a rescue of the fundamental characters that outline and structure the formation of the subject, according to the Hegelian perspective.

In fact, the reading that Araújo proposes is notable for recovering, notably, the Hegelian philosophy of spirit as a kind of social ontology, which provides us with the fundamental bases from which we can understand the way in which not only Hegel, but also Marx analyzes human sociability, in general, and capitalist society in particular. That is, the central elements of such an ontology will prove to be essential for the way in which Marx will approach socio-historical formations, notably the conception of human life totalized in the social being, formed in and by work as the objective and subjective essence of the subject.

As Araújo explains, when producing material content, work also produces rationality as a subjective form of this content to be experienced by the producing subjects in society. And, in this sense, the Hegelian concept of formation (Education) allows us to understand that work does not only refer to the production of objects in a material sense, but above all to the production of rationality according to relationships that socially form and educate the individual, thus establishing a true social ontology as an ontology of the subject that has its central assumption in the social fact that “work forms”. In this sense, the Spirit (Mind/Spirit) can be understood as a reason immanent to the objective conscious activity that is expressed in the work process and its results. In other words, the spirit is, ultimately, the general form of the intentional action of the concept in the form of immanent rationality produced in the work process as objective conscious activity (praxis). The Spirit represents the unity between subjectivity and objectivity that is established as a Whole, beyond the individual will, but resulting from the social relationships established by individuals in society.

Therefore, in the human world, material things produced by work are “endowed with spirit” as an immanent reason that becomes real as it is experienced by the producing individuals themselves, to the extent that such individuals are subjects in the experience of life in society. No other species on the planet puts immanent rationality into the world in its reality based on a conscious and objective active process that is also carried out subjectively, that is, being said and, therefore, conveyed by language. In this sense, only the human being produces – in a strict sense – reality in the world, because only he puts “spirit” (read: rationality) in the things he produces and in the way of experiencing them subjectively in historical experience.

From this socio-ontological core about the subject, not only Hegel, but also Marx can both describe and criticize capitalist society. This is because such a conceptual basis provides criteria for evaluating the extent to which such a subject, who, at the same time, forms and externalizes himself in the objects he produces, recognizes and reconciles himself with this production, articulating objectivity and subjectivity. And Marx's answer in this regard is surprising: in this type of society, it is not the human being who appears as a subject or spirit in this process of production of life and society, but rather capital itself. In other words, as the dominant social relationship in modern society, capital acquires the ontological stature of Spirit as it acts as an autonomous and negative Subject of work substantiated in the form of value, while individuals find themselves alienated from their own essence of being. social endowed with free activity.

The use of the verb appear is not gratuitous here and, once again, Marx shows himself indebted to Hegelian ontology by showing that the capitalist mode of production is essentially permeated by a dialectic between essence and appearance, in which the second hides and deforms the first . We then have a critique of appearance (bill) in the search for what happens beyond it, that is, in a mediated sphere of reality that Hegel determines as effectiveness (Reality) and essence (Essence). This Marxian reference carries the meaning of Hegelian effectiveness, which concerns the most concrete not because it is the sensitive or the tangible (rich in sensations), but, on the contrary and in a dialectical sense, because it is the essence (Essence) and, therefore, that sphere of reality that, although poor in sensations, reveals itself to be rich in mediations established between what appears and what the thing is beyond its appearance.

Subjects (workers) do not recognize themselves in their own world, whether in the objects resulting from their work or in other individuals with whom they establish relationships, precisely because wealth appears in capitalist society in the fetishistic forms of merchandise, money and of capital and never as socialized human labor. However, according to Araújo's reading, if the substance of capital is produced by work, Marx realizes that value refers to the historically determined and socially conditioned essence that is “behind” the basic phenomenal form through which wealth appears in society. capitalist society: the commodity form. This itinerary demonstrates how Marx's attention increasingly turned to the value form as an immanent rationality in the products of work in the capitalist mode of production. That is, work developed under the capitalist conditions of private property (de)forms individuals, to the extent that it alienates them from their own activity, projected as the property of Capital, this “automatic subject” of the production process. Wed valorization process.  

Thus, according to Araújo's reading, Marx's contribution brings an important inflection in the Hegelian elaboration on the Spirit, apparently so “abstract”. In effect, Marx highlights that between the universal pole of the work process in general and the singular pole of the individual worker, we see the particular pole of capital inserted in the modern world, which is the result of a historically specific way of socializing the work. In other words, what in Hegel we can identify as the objective spirit of capitalist modernity, in Marx refers precisely to the social logic of the commodity as an envelope for the production of more value, which assumes the central place around which all social relations are organized. experienced by individuals in the experience of life in society. As a social form that determines human reality, assuming the position that only work in general had as a concrete universal, the value form becomes the essence of a society “in which wealth appears as an enormous collection of commodities” – to remember the beginning of Capital.

But this subsumption of work under capital, a sign of modern times, rests on an insoluble contradiction: work becomes just a moment in the broader development of capital, as if the latter were self-subsistent and did not have work as its source. live from your valorization process. That is, despite relegating work to a moment in the development of its accumulation process, capital continues to be the result of the historical development of the work process itself. The specific character of capitalism lies precisely in this: despite being the movement that creates value – the substance of accumulation and the essence of capitalist social relations – work ceases to be, ultimately, the determining process of social relations in this society, becoming be subjugated and determined by the forms that their own products take (value, merchandise, money, capital, etc.).

The solution to this contradiction lies, as we know, in the revolution of capitalist conditions of production, with the elimination of private property and the establishment of a communist society. But, from an ontological-dialectical point of view, what does this mean? Once again, Araújo is careful to reread Marx's theses in the light of Hegelian grammar, so that communism will appear as an attempt to reconcile the world of production with the true subject of the productive process (the worker), that is, the Spirit with its own consciousness located in the worker as the central subject of this society that subjugates and alienates him. This is because the human being, who is free in his essence, must establish conditions in society to produce a world truly in harmony with this essence, that is, a truly free world, or even, in Marxian language, the passage from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. Without a doubt, this formulation is based on the Hegelian logical operation of reconciling the concept with objectivity.

Therefore, Araújo asks, what would the communist political project be if not the reconciliation of the Spirit with itself, with its own essence? For the simple fact that, for Marx, the Spirit finds itself estranged from itself in the form that the objective externalization of consciousness acquires in estranged/alienated work. In this sense, we can state by analogy that just as in Hegel the Spirit becomes estranged from itself in culture, in the Marxian ontology of social being, the rationality immanent in social relations produced from the work process becomes estranged from itself through situation in which work is within the social relationship that defines the modern subject as concretely alienated, namely: the social relationship of exploitation established between capital and work.

But if until now we have insisted a lot on the way in which Araújo brings Marx and Hegel together, pointing out how much the first owes to the ontology of the second, what can we do with Marx's repeated criticisms of Hegel, in which he tries to show his differences and specificities in relation to the author of Science of Logic? It is here that we can see the other side of this book's contribution, which runs parallel to the first throughout the entire book, so that we can say that we have not just one, but a double objective that runs through it: In addition to, to a certain extent, radicalizing the readings that already pointed to the weight and extent of Hegel's influence on the Marxian critique of political economy, this work shows us how Hegel himself was surprisingly close to such critique.

In fact, the main thesis here is that, if the difference between Hegel and Marx is not exactly in the method, since Marx appropriates the Hegelian dialectical ontology, then what separates them is, above all, the historical context in which each one lived and reflected. Nothing more dialectical than this: if, in this tradition, truth has a temporal and historical core, and the task of philosophy is to think about its own time, then both fulfilled their roles perfectly.

In this sense, despite Marx's reproaches against Hegel, it is fair to recognize that, firstly, Hegel experienced a time in which the capitalist was still a minor figure, that is, a time of transition to the successive phases of factory organization that later they would lead to the consolidation of the industrial system, when capital would become the Spirit and universal reason, and the capitalist the most powerful figure. Therefore, it would not be possible for Hegel to carry out an ontological critique of work in industrialized modernity as carried out by Marx.

Of course, this is not a question of mere “contextualism”, but of something deeper, as Araújo himself reminds us from the introduction: it is the very constitution of each person's object of study, with the resulting understanding of political action, which is in question. In this context, very different from Hegel who pointed to the search to correct the contradiction immanent to the modern subject established between social reality and political life through the political and rational State, Marx was convinced that only revolutionary action could lead to a a truly free and truly human society, even beyond the political State.

Even so, Hegel appropriated the political economy already developed in his time and outlined an analysis that still approaches some of the main theoretical developments present in the critique of Marxian political economy. In fact, Araújo, quite boldly, even states that Hegel would have anticipated the foundations for an ontological-dialectic critique of political economy, within its historical limits and possibilities. To support the controversial statement, he mentions the examples of the background allusion to the existence of an “industrial class” that obtains its “means” from the work of others and a proto-distinction between use value and exchange value – as we can read in Philosophy of law. However, it is in Royal philosophy, written by Hegel at the time of Jena, that Araújo seeks the bases to support this interpretative thesis, not without counting on the help of commentators such as Christopher Arthur. In this work, Hegel had already perceived the centrality of the form of money, associated with the figure of what Marx would call abstract labor, to articulate and mediate the different products and, with that, the different individualized works in a typically capitalist process of socialization of work. This means that Hegel already anticipates what will later be an important topic for Marx: the insecurity and the somewhat irrational character that marks a mode of production based on private property that is only socialized indirectly, post fest, through the market. In this sense, this Hegel of Jena had already realized that the possibility of the worker preserving his existence is subordinated to the network of opportunities that is entangled in the social whole structured in this way. Thus, a vast number of people are condemned to absolutely brutal, unhealthy and uncertain work in factories, mills and mines. Hegel would then have been the first to philosophically elaborate the question of how the product of work, as a process that provides the needs of everyone in bourgeois society, is subjected to the commodity form and to the exchange of commodities mediated by money. 

Thus, according to the reading proposed by Araújo, in both Hegel and Marx we see the indissoluble articulation between ontology and political economy, in which work is preserved as the universal and, therefore, ontological foundation of the human being. They are interested, each in their own time and according to their political inclinations, in the dialectical development of the particularities that influence the historical process, renewing the concrete universality situated in the work. For Hegel, this spirit refers to the rational State as an objective moral Idea necessary for the realization of the ethical life of a people, while for Marx it is about communism as overcoming capital as an alienating social relationship and responsible for all estrangement situated in the form of practical life. of modernity. 

To conclude this brief preface to this thought-provoking book, I will take the liberty of posing a question that lies, so to speak, in the background of this work, insofar as it animates it and points beyond it: If among the theoretical undertakings of Hegel and Marx should not establish a distinction of nature, but of historical context, since both thought about their own time and defined their objects of study through a dialectical ontology, what would it mean to do the same today? What could it mean to think about our own time through this legacy that they both left us? To begin with, we need only think that we remain trapped in the capitalist system of production and consumption, which continues to impose on us a way of life that repeatedly leads us to experience crises, asymmetries and social pathologies. In other words, to a certain extent, the present time is not so different from the reality that Hegel and, above all, Marx, had before their eyes. In this sense, we can agree with Habermas when he states that “we remain contemporaries of the Young Hegelians” (Habermas, 2001, p. 67).

On the other hand, evidently, many elements of capitalism have transformed over this time. Today's world seems to maintain a strange coexistence between crisis and realism. On the one hand, it is undeniable that we are witnessing an important set of crises at different levels: economic, political, social, but also and above all ecological. On the other hand, we experience difficulty in envisioning and imagine other forms of life and social organization. Everything seems very complex and difficult to change at a deeper level, despite the evident problems intrinsically linked to the predominant social and institutional models. Given this scenario, any critical theory endeavor needs, at the same time, to be able to diagnose not only contemporary crises, but the recalcitrant robustness of current regimes of social organization and domination.   

From this perspective, Araújo shows us, without completely developing it (which is certainly a task for another book), a promising path, already in the book's conclusions. This involves returning to an element that is very present in the ontological analyzes of Hegel and Marx: the articulation between objectivity and subjectivity. With this, we seek to analyze the tensions and contradictions that mark the process of subject formation, that is, the way in which the modern subject experiences the content of social relations in the form of ideology. It seems to me quite pertinent to reinvest the problem of subjectivation processes in contemporary times, in their articulation between the “automatic” mechanisms of fetishism and deliberately ideological productions – which, in fact, our author makes a point of not confusing, in order to account for of the complexity of the movement of alienation typical of capitalist societies.

Understanding and rethinking the intricate relationship between these three central concepts in Marx – alienation, fetishism and ideology – can in fact be a crucial path for a critical theory that intends to return to the Hegelo-Marxian ontology of the subject in order to understand its present time, in which the subjects concerned, despite the countless crises and the ecological catastrophe that is approaching, seem to find themselves stubbornly entangled in the “strange objectivity of value”.

*Leonardo da Hora is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).


Wécio Araújo. Ontology and political economy: Marx reader of Hegel. São Paulo, Editora Dialética, 2024, 156 pages. [https://amzn.to/3La8amr]


[I] This is the book by Ruy Fausto (2007).

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