Young Hegelians

views updated


The Young or Left Hegelians were the radical disciples of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who formed a rather amorphous school in Germany between the late 1830s and the mid-1840s. They flourished in the middle of the period between the (successful) Revolution of 1830 in France, when the reactionary Charles X (r. 1824–1830) was deposed, and the (unsuccessful) wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848. The Young Hegelians were thus both the product and the producers of the potent mixture of religion, philosophy, and politics that fermented in Germany during that seminal period. Their leading members were David Friedrich Strauss, Arnold Ruge, Bruno and Edgar Bauer, August Cieszkowski, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner (Johann Kaspar Schmidt), Moses Hess, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels.

It is impossible to speak of a "movement" before about 1840, when the increasingly radical position of the Hallische Jahrbücher, their principal organ, provided a rallying point. They were at the beginning exclusively preoccupied with religious questions, and, as Ruge later remarked, the extent to which the origins of the Hegelian School were theological can be measured by the fact that it was the purely theological Das Leben Jesu (1835; Life of Jesus) by Strauss that had the most influence on its development. Apart from art and literature, religion was the only field where different alignments and relatively free debate were possible. Because of the censorship almost all newspapers were merely pale reflections of the government's views. Genuinely political arguments among the Young Hegelians did not appear before about 1840, when the accession of Frederick William IV (r. 1840–1861) and the attendant relaxation of press censorship opened the newspapers for a short time to their propaganda.

The focal point of the Young Hegelians was the University of Berlin. Almost all of them—Bruno and Edgar Bauer, Cieszkowski, Feuerbach, Stirner, Marx, and Engels—had studied philosophy in Berlin. Hess and Ruge were the only important exceptions. Several of them—Bruno and Edgar Bauer, Feuerbach, Ruge—had followed the example of Hegel in beginning their studies with theology, only later switching to philosophy. All came from well-to-do, middle-class families, such as could afford to send their sons to a university. For the Young Hegelians were an extremely intellectual group for which a university education was essential, Hess being the only self-educated member. Apart from Hess and Engels—both to some extent autodidacts in philosophy since their fathers wished them to go into the family business—all the Young Hegelians wished to go on to teach in some form or another, most of them in universities, though Stirner taught in a high school. Their misfortune was that, owing to their unorthodox ideas, the universities were gradually closed to them and they found themselves without jobs and cut off from society.

With this background it is not surprising that the Young Hegelians should put such emphasis on the role of ideas and theory. They were essentially a philosophical school and their approach to religion and politics was always intellectual. Their philosophy is best called a speculative rationalism; for to their romantic and idealist elements they added the sharp critical tendencies of the Aufklärung (Enlightenment) and an admiration for the principles of the French Revolution. The second half of Feuerbach's Das Wesen des Christenthums (1841; Essence of Christianity) was full of the old Aufklärung arguments against religion; Bruno and Edgar Bauer made long historical studies of the French Revolution, as did Marx also; and the Young Hegelians in general were very fond of comparing themselves either to the "mountain" or to individual revolutionaries of that time. They believed in reason as a continually unfolding process and conceived it their task to be its heralds. They radicalized still further Hegel's conception of religion as a prelude to philosophy by denying the possibility of any supernatural revelation.

Like Hegel, they believed that this process would achieve an ultimate unity, but they tended—especially Bruno Bauer—to believe that it would be immediately preceded by an ultimate division. This meant that some of their writings had an apocalyptic ring, for they thought it their duty by their criticism to force divisions to a final rupture and thus to their complete resolution.

The sometimes fantastic views of the Young Hegelians, views that Marx was later led to call mockingly "pregnant with world revolution," were helped, firstly, by their impression that they lived in an age of transition and at the dawn of a completely new era. Their apocalyptic tendencies were increased by their position as jobless intellectuals on the margin of society. Having no roots in the society that they were criticizing, they could allow their ideas to range at will. Second, the Young Hegelians placed great faith in the power of ideas; here again Bauer was the most outstanding example. The German poet and critic Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) had already said that thought preceded action as lightning did thunder. It was precisely in this "trailblazing" that the Young Hegelians were engaged. Marx echoed this thought in his first piece of serious writing, the doctoral dissertation of 1841, when he wrote, following Bruno Bauer, that even the practice of philosophy was itself theoretical. Even when some of the Young Hegelians began to express their ideas in purely political terms, this idea of the independence and primacy of theory still held sway. Their watchword was "critique"—of religion, philosophy, and politics. They echoed the famous declaration of the young Mikhail Bakunin, at the time himself in contact with several of the Young Hegelians, that "the joy of destruction in itself is a creative joy." This implacably critical impulse led through a rejection of any form of Christianity and an idealized aspiration toward democracy to the solipsistic anarchy of Max Stirner.

Although the Young Hegelians had ceased to exist as a coherent force by 1844, they acted as a matrix in which several of the most important elements of European thought gestated. Strauss and Bruno Bauer began a radical critique of the New Testament that continues to this day in biblical studies, as does Feuerbach's humanist reading of religion in contemporary "death of God" theologies. Stirner's ne plus ultra of egoism in his book Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (1844; The ego and its own) has been seen as one of the founding documents of anarchism and a precursor of, and possible influence on, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900). And, of course, in the evolution of Marx's ideas, a radical interpretation of Hegel was an essential addition to French socialism and English economics. Thus the influence of the Young Hegelian secularization of Christian eschatology has proved more influential and lasting than many at the time would have expected.

See alsoBakunin, Mikhail; Berlin; Engels, Friedrich; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Revolutions of 1848.


Brazill, William J. The Young Hegelians. New Haven, Conn., 1970.

McLellan, David. The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx. London, 1969.

Stepelevich, Lawrence S., ed. The Young Hegelians: An Anthology. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

David McLellan