- Marx, the Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory
In his new book on the Young Hegelians, Warren Breckman claims that the historical origins of Karl Marx's critique of "bourgeois individualism" remain obscure (4). Breckman's book is an attempt to resituate Marx's philosophy within its original context in order to better understand why Marx was so hostile to liberalism—and especially to the concept of civil society that informs much of liberal thinking on the relation of government to the individual.
As Breckman notes, concern with the idea of civil society brings one back to Hegel, who was the first philosopher to theorize this idea in depth (3). So Breckman asks: what was the intellectual path that led from the greatest theorist of civil society, Hegel, to the greatest critic of it, Marx?
Breckman's account of this historical trajectory from Hegel to Marx is divided into three stages. The first consists of the last years of Hegel's life, during which he spent much of his time in debate with other leading thinkers, such as his former friend Schelling and the conservative jurist Stahl. The second stage is that of the development of the Young Hegelians' thought after Hegel's death, especially in juxtaposition to the "Old Hegelians" and to the Christian "new right" of the day. In the third stage, Marx differentiated his own position from that of other Young Hegelians.
According to Breckman, two concerns dominated debates between the various philosophical camps in 1820s and '30s Germany. One concern was to accurately explain the nature of God. The other was to articulate the proper relation between the personal and transpersonal dimensions of experience. In the first case, all factions during Hegel's lifetime espoused some version of religious belief. The issue was whether belief in God [End Page 290] could be based on a direct, personal faith, as Schelling and the anti-Hegelians maintained, or whether belief was a rational affirmation of a divine being, as Hegel and his followers maintained (33). With the development of a critique of Christian faith by Strauss and Feuerbach, the Young Hegelians shifted their attention to how best to account for belief in God, rather than God as such.
In the second case, the role of the self became a paramount concern in "Biedermeier" Germany, where I. H. Fichte (the son of J. G. Fichte), famously declared that "everything is personal" (22). This view was anathema to the Young Hegelians, who rejected the personalism of Schelling and the religious right in arguing that it embodied, not an immediate reality that escaped the purview of reason, but an abstract egoism (95). These two philosophical concerns became increasingly political ones as well when conservative jurists such as Stahl espoused a "personalist" theory of sovereignty in which the person of the sovereign was analogized to the person of God (64).
Accordingly, the Young Hegelians linked their critique of religious personalism to a critique of political monarchism. It is at this point that the final steps to advocacy of democracy, and eventually, socialism, were made, especially by Arnold Ruge and Marx. But, according to Breckman, it is this rapid transition from the critique of religion to the critique of politics that led Marx, for instance, to a conflation of the liberal toleration of religion with the Prussian restoration's theological justification of the state (294). In the end, "radical social theory" is based on a "category mistake": liberal individualism is not the same as theological personalism (238).
Breckman's study of the Young Hegelians has many virtues. It is particularly good on the political and personal relations of philosophers of sometimes punishing abstractness, such as Hegel and Schelling. There are also illuminating portraits of some virtually forgotten thinkers—for instance, Eduard Gans, the editor of Hegel and teacher of Marx.
The problems result from the significance that Breckman claims for his study. If the title of the book is meant to describe this significance, it does not. Marx appears...