There is a widely held view that Marx was profoundly influenced by the Master–Servant (‘Herrschaft und Knechtschaft’) dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. This view was first popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre, who refers in his Being and Nothingness (1943) to ‘the famous Master-Slave relation which so profoundly influenced Marx’.footnote1 Sartre does not explain how he knows this.footnote2 Probably this remark reflects the influence of Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel in the nineteen-thirties. Kojève presents a reading of the Phenomenology which centralizes the place of the Master–Servant dialectic in it, in a quasi-Marxist interpretation.footnote3 (Kojève may have assumed that Marx himself read it in the same way. However, it is one thing to read Marxism back into Hegel, it is another to generate it out of Hegel.) Three years after Sartre we find Jean Hyppolite again saying that the dialectic of domination and servitude is the best-known section of the Phenomenology because of ‘the influence it has had on the political and social philosophy of Hegel’s successors, especially Marx’.footnote4

As a matter of fact, despite the assertions of numerous commentators to the contrary, Sartre and Hyppolite did not attend Kojève’s lectures. The myth that they sat at the feet of the ‘unknown superior’ is now well-established, but the secondary literature concerned does not give any evidence for it.footnote5 Let us turn then to first-hand accounts. Kojève’s disciple Raymond Queneau, who was responsible for collecting and publishing Kojève’s lectures in 1947, has given a list of participants which does not include Sartre or Hyppolite.footnote6 As far as Hyppolite is concerned we have the additional testimony of Mme. Hyppolitefootnote7 that he did not attend ‘for fear of being influenced’.footnote8

However that may be, by the time Sartre and Hyppolite made their equations between Hegel and Marx a crucial document of Kojève’s was already in the public domain. In the 14 January 1939 issue of Mesures Kojève published a free translation, with interpolated glosses, of the section of the Phenomenology entitled ‘Autonomy and Dependence of Self-consciousness: Mastery and Servitude’. Still more interesting for our purposes is that Kojève includes as an epigraph the following words of Marx: ‘Hegel . . . erfasst die Arbeit als das Wesen, als das sich bewährende Wesen des Menschen’.footnote9 (‘Hegel . . . grasps labour as the essence, as the self-confirming essence of man’.) No reference is given, but in fact this is quoted from Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts, which remained unpublished until the nineteen-thirties. Kojève is the first person, therefore, to make a direct connection between this famous judgement of Marx’s on Hegel and the Master–Servant dialectic in the Phenomenology.

Today it is dogmatically asserted in numerous books that Marx was inspired by Hegel’s analysis of the labour of servitude.footnote10 This view is completely false. The present note attempts to show that this is so and to explain the real significance of Marx’s critical appropriation of the Phenomenology.

If we are to consider the influence of Hegel’s Phenomenology on Marx, the crucial text to examine has to be Marx’s manuscripts of 1844, in which he introduces his theory of alienation, and then devotes considerable space to a penetrating critique of the Phenomenology. In this latter section Marx praises Hegel for having grasped man as the result of his own labour. Nearly all commentators, innocently assuming that material labour is meant here, turn to the Phenomenology and find that there is indeed a fascinating discussion in the ‘Master–Servant’ section of the significance of material labour; in and through this the servant ‘finds himself’. Furthermore, the fact that this labour is seen by Hegel as actualized in the context of servitude, leads some commentators to make the more extravagant claim that in his theory of alienation Marx draws on this same section. Herbert Marcuse was probably the first to do so; he says in his Reason and Revolution (1941): ‘In 1844, Marx sharpened the basic concepts of his own theory through a critical analysis of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. He described the alienation of labour in the terms of Hegel’s discussion of master and servant.’footnote11

The only difficulty with these presuppositions of the secondary literature is that Marx never refers to this section of the Phenomenology—never mind giving it any importance!—when, in his 1844 manuscripts, he embarks on a ‘critique of Hegel’s dialectic’. He discusses the Phenomenology as a whole and draws attention to its last chapter especially; he singles out three other sections for praise; but not one of them is on the master–servant dialectic.footnote12 This should make us suspicious, therefore, of the claims made for the ‘master–slave’.

Before considering Marx’s assessment of the Phenomenology let us rehearse the dialectic of Herrschaft und Knechtschaft. (Incidentally, although it is popularly nominated the ‘Master–Slave’, the correct translation of Knecht is ‘servant’.footnote13) This section occurs early in the Phenomenology at the point where consciousness is to turn into self-consciousness. Hegel believes that the self can become conscious of itself only in and through the mediation of another self-consciousness. The first stable relationship that emerges in Hegel’s dialectical development of this topic is that of Lordship and Bondage. The master is acknowledged as such by his servant, and he achieves immediate satisfaction of his desires through goods and services provided by the servant’s labour. The dialectic moves forward precisely through the servant, however, because ‘through work . . . the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is’. Work forms and shapes the thing, and through this formative activity the consciousness of the servant now, in the work outside it, acquires ‘an element of permanence’; for it comes to see in the independent being of the object ‘its own independence’. ‘The shape does not become something other than himself through being made external to him,’ says Hegel, ‘for it is precisely this shape that is his pure being-for-self.’ He concludes: ‘Through this rediscovery of himself by himself, the bondsman realizes that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to live only the life of a stranger [fremder Sinn] that he acquires a sense of himself [eigner Sinn].’footnote14