In an article devoted to the Young Marxfootnote1, I have already stressed the ambiguity of the idea of ‘inverting Hegel’. It seemed to me that strictly speaking this expression suited Feuerbach perfectly; the latter did, indeed, ‘turn speculative philosophy back onto its feet’, but the only result was to arrive with implacable logic at an idealist anthropology. But the expression cannot be applied to Marx, at least not to the Marx who had grown out of this ‘anthropological’ phase. I could go further, and suggest that in the well-known passage: ‘With (Hegel) (the dialectic) is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’footnote2, this ‘turning right side up again’ is merely gestural, even metaphorical, and it raises as many questions as it answers.

How should we really understand its use in this quotation? It is no longer a matter of a general ‘inversion’ of Hegel, i.e. the inversion of speculative philosophy as such. From The German Ideology onwards we know that such an undertaking would be meaningless. Anyone who claims purely and simply to have inverted speculative philosophy (to derive, for example, materialism) can never be more than philosophy’s Proudhon, its unconscious prisoner, just as Proudhon was the prisoner of bourgeois economics. We are now concerned with the dialectic, and the dialectic alone. It might be thought that when Marx writes that we must ‘discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell’ he means that the ‘rational kernel’ is the dialectic itself, while the ‘mystical shell’ is speculative philosophy. Engels, time-honoured distinction between method and system implies precisely this.footnote3 The shell, the mystical wrapping (speculative philosophy), should be tossed aside and the precious kernel, the dialectic, retained. But in the same sentence Marx claims that this shelling of the kernel and the inversion of the dialectic are one and the same thing. How can an extraction be an inversion? Or in other words, what is ‘inverted’ during this extraction?

Let us look a little closer. As soon as the dialectic is removed from its idealistic shell, it becomes ‘the direct opposite of the Hegelian dialectic.’ Does this mean that for Marx, far from dealing with Hegel’s sublimated, inverted world, it is applied to the real world? This is certainly the sense in which Hegel was ‘the first consciously to expose its general forms of movement in depth’. We could therefore take his dialectic from him and apply it to life rather than to the Idea. The ‘inversion’ would then be an ‘inversion’ of the ‘sense’ of the dialectic. But such an inversion in sense would in fact leave the dialectic untouched.

Taking Young Marx as an example, in the article referred to above, I suggested that to take over the dialectic in rigorous Hegelian form could only expose us to dangerous ambiguities, for it is impossible, given the principles of a Marxist interpretation of any ideological phenomenon, to conceive of the place of the dialectic in Hegel’s system as that of a kernel in a nut.footnote4 It is inconceivable that the essence of the dialectic in Hegel’s work should not be contaminated by Hegelian ideology, or, since such a ‘contamination’ presupposes the fiction of a pure pre-‘contamination’ dialectic, that the Hegelian dialectic could cease to be Hegelian and become Marxist by a simple, miraculous ‘extraction’.

Even in the rapidly written lines of the postscript to the second edition of Das Kapital Marx saw this difficulty clearly. By the accumulation of metaphors, he not only hints at something more than he says, but elsewhere he puts it clearly enough, though our translators have half sneaked it away.

A close reading of the German text shows clearly enough that the mystical shell is by no means (as some of Engels’ later commentaries would lead one to think)footnote5 speculative philosophy, or its ‘world-conception’, or its ‘system’, i.e. an element we can regard as external to its method, but refers directly to the dialectic itself. Marx goes so far as to talk of ‘the mystification the dialectic suffered at Hegel’s hands’, of its ‘mystificatory side’, its ‘mystified form’ (mystificirte Form), and of the rational figure (rationelle Gestalt) of his own dialectic. It would be difficult to indicate more clearly that the mystical shell is nothing but the mystified form of the dialectic itself: that is, not a relatively external element of the dialectic (e.g. the ‘system’) but an internal element, consubstantial with the Hegelian dialectic. It is not enough, therefore, to disengage it from its first wrapping (the system) to free it. It must also be freed from a second, almost inseparable skin, Hegelian in principle. This extraction cannot be painless; in appearance an unpeeling, it is really a demystification, an operation transforming what is extracted.

To conclude, in its approximation, this metaphorical expression—the ‘inversion’ of the dialectic—does not raise the problem of the nature of the objects to which a single method should be applied (the world of the Idea for Hegel—the real world for Marx), but rather the problem of the nature of the dialectic itself, that is, the problem of its specific structures; not the problem of the inversion of the ‘sense’ of the dialectic, but that of the transformation of its structures. It is hardly worth pointing out that, in the first case, the application of a method, the exteriority of the dialectic to its possible objects poses a predialectical question, a question without any strict meaning for Marx. The second problem, on the other hand, raises a real question to which it is hardly likely that Marx and his disciples should not have given a concrete answer in theory and practice, in theory or in practice.