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Hegel and Marx on Civil Society and Human Freedom Essay

On Civil Society

The concepts of civil society and freedom are interconnected. Freedom is frequently discussed as a relevant and abstract concept that is forced to fit certain frames and regulations within the civil society that is known for a system of laws ensuring the wellbeing of all the members who conform.

This paper will explore the points of view of human freedom and civil society expressed by two of the world’s most outstanding philosophers – Kerl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. First of all, the paper will divide the concepts of freedom and civil society in some of the notions that contribute to their definitions. These subnotions are desire, private property, and the idea of human freedom itself. Each of these will be presented as explained by each of the philosophers separately, and then their perspectives would be compared and contrasted.

Hegel on Desire

According to Hegel, an individual is subject to their own physical needs and caprice (16). The constant influence of these forces is viewed by the author as one of the primary principles of civil society. Further, the second principle of the civil society outlined by Hegel is the interdependence and mutual influences of the individuals on one another (179). The author emphasizes that none of the particular persons should be viewed outside of the groups and societies to which they belong and communicate.

As a result, the desires of an individual, and the norms of society inevitably go into a clash. Hegel points out what he refers to as “a complete interdependence” of the satisfaction and happiness of one person is connected to that of the society (179). Moreover, Hegel emphasizes that an individual’s happiness is defined by societal norms and rules (179). That way, only an individual who matches the requirements of the society (legal and ethical) can be happy.

Otherwise, society will limit the actions of an individual and penalize them for breaking the norms and rules based on selfish desires. Hegel explained the nature of a human being and their caprices stating that the emergence of new desires is a process that does not have an end – as soon as one need is satisfied it is immediately replaced by another one, such as the nature of humans, as explained by Hegel (180).

The author positions the relationship between a person and civil society as a clash between the singularity and the universality where the wishes of a person are mediated by the universal norms forcing an individual person to act universally in order to conform (Hegel 291). Therefore, the formation of an individual happens under a multitude of influences of a personal and societal nature merging an individual conscious with that of the civil society.

Marx on Desire

Marx also raises the issues of individual desires and needs and their manifestations with civil societies. The author employs an example of traders – each of the individual persons is interested in the maximization of their income by means of selling as many products as possible (Marx 277). Clashing with the individual desires of the other traders, they go into completion for the customers. As a result, an individual trader attempts to attract more consumers by lowering their prices (Marx 277).

Unable to withstand such competition, the other traders employ the same maneuver. Consequently, the prices become depressed at the local and state level affecting the state tendencies and revenues. That way, Marx points out the ongoing competition between the traders and their competitors, between the buyers and the sellers, and between the state and the business makers. Equating these competitions to a battle, Marx draws the conclusion that whichever side is a stronger desire (or demand) wins the battle (277).

In other words, if the customers have the desire to buy more items than there are offered by the sellers, the latter has an advantage and will alter the prices, making them higher in order to fulfill their desire to gain a better profit. However, if the buyers are reluctant to buy certain goods, the traders will adjust their prices, making them more attractive as a bargain because gaining a reduced profit is still a better option than gaining none at all.

Discussing the causes and the source of the desires, Marx states that they are inflicted by society, which makes them social and, thus, relative (281). The author also mentions that satisfaction is measured by the norms of the society but not by what it takes an individual to put their desires into practice.

Comparison and Contrast

Both of the authors notice that society plays an important part in the definition and mediation of the individual desires of its members. The difference is that Hegel points out the personal aspect as a part of the cause of a desire, while, according to Marx, society is the only source of a person’s wishes and caprices. That way, in Hegel’s opinion, civil society is the mediator of the selfish forces that drive an individual. From the perspective of Marx, the individuality of the desire is illusory and, in reality, is dictated by the universal tendencies that come from society and its primary needs. That way, even though both of the authors emphasize that an individual should only be viewed as a part of their society, Hegel allows some individuality, while Marx states that the merger of a person and the civil society is complete.

Hegel on Property

Hegel explains that some of the needs are universal (for instance, the need for food or clothing) (185). However, these needs are satisfied differently by the individuals based on their ownership of property or lack of thereof. Hegel explores needs comparing humans to animals. The author concludes that a man has less comfort that an animal (Hegel 186). Even though both of them are subject to their needs, man has many more needs than an animal and, thus, is required to satisfy them. Moreover, the intelligence of a man generates even more needs.

However, Hegel notes that the desire is not so imperious since the more objects are used by a particular individual, the lower the level of desire becomes (187). At the same time, Hegel points out that the concept of comfort is vague and limitless, so the search for satisfaction is endless (187).

Society facilitates the multiplication of needs and is the way for their satisfaction trapping the individuals in a loop of dependence. The owners of the property experience the needs just like the propertyless; however, they are less dependent and conditioned. This tendency occurs because the owners of the property are able to use the labor of the propertyless for the satisfaction of their needs.

Marx on Property

According to Marx, the concept of private property is the basis of the political economy (85). The author subdivides the society into two groups – the property owners and the propertyless (Marx 85). The individuals who do not own property are forced to work for the owners. Marx makes the connection between selfish desires, private property, and the separation of land, capital, and labor (86).

The author notices that the more a worker is able to produce, the poorer they become. This tendency can be correlated with the previously discusses connections between the supply and demand in terms of competition of desires.

The appropriation of labor turns the laborers into commodities and causes the loss of reality by the individual workers. Becoming a worker, an individual has only one entity under control – the work, and it is controlled only to a certain extent because the major demands and duties are assigned by the employer (Marx 86). The loss of work is associated with the loss of everything else. Gradually, work takes over one’s life and begins to own it. That way, society seems to be built in a way that limits the freedoms of the propertyless, forcing them to be objectified as the carriers of the labor force. An employee’s physical existence is determined by their ability to perform their work.

Comparison and Contrast

Both Hegel and Marx agree that the needs are the determinants of the social behaviors, and the properties define the ability of the individuals to satisfy their constantly multiplying needs. However, in contrast to the propertyless workers, the property owners are able to gain satisfaction without losing their reality or becoming objectified. Marx describes the laborers as completely dependent on their work as the source of objects needed for survival.

That way, in Marx’s understanding of the relationship between the employers who own property and the laborers who do not can be defined as slavery where the workers are objectified for the ability to perform work. Hegel emphasizes that all individuals are under the pressure of various needs. Hegel’s explanation for the emergence of the private property is the adoption of agricultural lifestyle where owning land resulted in multiple privileges and benefits. The contemporary land ownership is industrialized. However, the basic concepts of the society are still gaining and having.

Hegel on Human Freedom

Hegel emphasizes that freedom is the need everyone experiences. However, the universality of the human freedom is rather abstract (Hegel 11). The author discusses the changes the concept of freedom has been undergoing throughout generations. Certain freedoms that are outlined as necessary today at some points in the human history were treated as the violations of the social rules and the laws of justice as the factors and behaviors endangering the collective wellbeing of the entire society (Hegel 24).

In other words, even though freedom is perceived as an entity of high value it cannot be unlimited since the desires and interests of the individuals tend to clash. In a civil society, justice is the key regulator.

That way, dealing with human freedoms, it has to take into consideration the individual desires and interests. This role is fulfilled by the law enforcement services. According to Hegel, very type of freedom is to be controlled from above so that it does not violate the personal freedoms of the individuals (217). The author uses an example of the pyramids in Egypt that were created using the slave labor. In other words, the laborers building the monument were not driven by their individual benefits or desire to build but forced to do so (Hegel 217). Differently put, the freedom of trade took over the human rights and freedoms turning people into objectified goods.

Marx on Human Freedom

Marx points out that initially, slavery was the basis of the civil society (135). Also, the author notes that limiting the freedoms of the citizens is the obligation of the state’s government (135). As a result, the nature of an individual is perceived as flawed and incapable of self-control. Marx maintains that being a slave to the civil society is viewed as the perfect form of an individual freedom that is strictly regulated from above and aligned with the norm the society perceived as appropriate (159). Civil society tends to interfere with every sphere of an individual’s life enforcing rules and implementing policies according to which one is forced to live in order.

This highly limited form of existence is perceived as freedom while it is free from insecurities and dangers. That way, the civil society recognizes the individual freedom as an ability to enjoy something without being disturbed (Marx 198). Viewing human freedom from the point of view of the free trade, Marx criticized the bourgeois society stating that it treats capital as possessing individuality while the laborers are objectified and dehumanized (257).

Comparison and Contrast

Marx and Hegel have very similar perspectives concerning the freedoms and their limitations in the civil society. Both of the authors state that the concept of an individual freedom within the civil society is relative and abstract. Besides, both philosophers employ the example of free trade as an illustration of the causes of slavery – one of the worst violations of the human freedom. However, while Hegel’s example is used to demonstrate the forms of civil society that existed centuries ago, Marx uses the same illustration for the discussion of the modern society where, according to his point of view, slavery is still in place. Security and pleasure that continue without disturbances are used as the definition of the perfect freedom employed by both authors.


To sum up, the explored notions of the human freedom, desire, and private property play significant roles within the definition of the civil society and its understanding the human freedom. The points of view of Marx and Hegel have many common perspectives such as the idea concerning the need for the limitation of an individual freedom within the civil society, the greedy nature of human beings driven by the passion to consume and accumulate, and the intelligence that multiples the needs affecting the individuals.

The philosophers disagree in their idea of the nature of the individuals’ behaviors and its causes. While Marx states that the individuals are impacted by the society, Hegel believes that there is some individuality to the people’s behavior. All in all, Hegel tends to view people as the products of nature. In contrast, Marx focuses on social behaviors as derivatives of the class system that is in place in a state. While Hegel theorizes that the society is able to regulate its development, Marx is convinced that the society is not in control of the phenomena that drive it.

Works Cited

Hegel, Wilhelm. . 1896. Web.

Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2000. Web.

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