Dialectics, rival to analysis?

Submitted by Matthew on 5 October, 2011 - 10:41

By Dave Osler

A housewife knows that a certain amount of salt flavours soup agreeably, but that added salt makes the soup unpalatable. Consequently, an illiterate peasant woman guides herself in cooking soup by the Hegelian law of the transformation of quantity into quality.

That — believe it or not — is a verbatim quote from Leon Trotsky. Leaving aside the casual sexism implicit in such an analogy, it does not strike me as a particularly impressive defence of one of major postulates of Marxist philosophy.

When I first came across the notion of dialectics, I took it on board without much further thought, simply because I wanted to be a Marxist, and dialectics were what Marxists were supposed to believe in. At that time, I had no formal training in philosophy whatsoever. If I had been asked to accept L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics instead, I’d have swallowed that, too. There’s only a couple of letters’ difference, after all.

The trouble is, the more I have subsequently studied formal logic, the less satisfactory it seems to be to me that Marxism hives off its own theory of knowledge, distinct from logic as the discipline is generally taught at university level, and bases everything else on the supposed insights that ensue.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I reject the conception outright; probably there are a number of texts that I still need to study before I come to a final conclusion on the matter. But I am increasingly uneasy about all this. If dialectics is as integral to the wider system of historical materialism as most major Marxists repeatedly stress, the whole prospectus appears to be built on methodologically weak foundations.

The general form of the dialectic, as defined by John Rees’ well-regarded book The algebra of revolution, is said to constitute an internally contradictory totality in a constant process of change. That contradictions can and do exist, and that reality is in flux, should not be controversial, of course.

Where I start to lose the plot is the contention that because Marxists have mastered this supposedly superior form of thought, they are uniquely able — as Rees reiterates — to look beyond the surface appearance of society and come to a privileged appreciation of its underlying nature.

As is repeatedly demonstrated by the history of religion, any doctrine suggesting that only a select few can look at apparent reality and tell the rest of us what is really going on by means of a recondite master key is quite obviously open to misuse. In particular, dialectics can act as a cover for “revolution round the corner” perspectives.

For instance, the dialectician Rees argued in an article published online last year that the Coalition government in the UK only looks stable, comrades; the reality is that one final push by a united front against it would be sufficient to bring about its downfall. Funnily enough, that is not the way reality has panned out since then.

Dialectics has been used within the British Trotskyist movement to promote all kinds of arrant nonsense. I still have on my bookshelves a slim volume entitled Studies in Dialectical Materialism, which is the work of an author who bills himself on the cover as simply G. Healy.

“Dialectical materialists,” G. Healy tells us on the first page, “get to know the world initially through a process of cognition.” No shit, Sherlock. So does everyone else, pretty much by definition, I guess.

Nor do I see evidence of any distinctive superior dialectical technique in the day to day practice of today’s crop of Trot groups. Dialectics remains more or less a rabbit that sect gurus can pull out of their magicians’ hat when occasion demands that they have to prove that white is really black.

What is currently saving the day for me is a book first published in 1978, with which I only became acquainted a year or two back. G.A. Cohen — another author seemingly too modest to employ his first name — controversially maintains in “Karl Marx’s theory of history: a defence” that “there is no such thing as a dialectical form of reasoning that can challenge analytical reasoning. Belief in dialectic as a rival to analysis thrives only in an atmosphere of unclear thought”.

Commitment to analytical techniques, he suggests, is prior to commitment to this or that Marxist thesis, precisely because it is a commitment to reason itself, rather than irrational obscurantism. If historical materialism — which is the core of what is valuable in the Marxist method — can sustain itself without resort to mumbo jumbo, all Marxists have to be better off.

At the very least, Cohen’s position seems a damn sight more convincing than hyping a rural granny boiling up a pot of borscht in order to feed a family of 15 with a couple of beetroots as some sort of unconscious Hegelian.

I’d love to feel that at least one group of revolutionary socialists is bold enough to think through the implications of what Cohen has to say. How about it, AWL?


Submitted by martin on Sat, 08/10/2011 - 00:33

I think other comrades are writing at greater length on this.

1. If "dialectics" is set up as a rival to analytical thinking, or a sort of intellectual Swiss army knife for arriving at conclusions inaccessible to the unequipped, then it is indeed nonsense. On that I agree with Dave.

2. Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky etc. did not present dialectics that way. Trotsky's writings on dialectics in 1939 are short texts constrained by pressures of polemic, but Dave's quote is unjustifiably ripped out of context. Trotsky talks of dialectics not as a sort of super-logic, a mechanism enabling the initiated to establish truths which ordinary logic and evidence cannot reach, but rather as a generalisation from everyday things. Trotsky's point is almost the exact opposite of the interpretation which Dave gives to it.

3. Trotsky was mistaken in thinking that "Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability". The very thought of establishing such a series of "laws" was alien to Hegel. (Nor, by the way, did he propound a scheme of thesis-antithesis-synthesis). There is much to criticise about Hegel's argument in his Logic. Studying the book has convinced me that I am not a "Hegelian" Marxist, and that most of Marx's references to Hegel in Capital, the ones quoted with such solemnity today, are jokes. However, Hegel was as distant from the "Swiss knife" conception of dialectics (as a specialised tool enabling the owner to do what ordinarily-equipped people can't) as Marxists are.

4. Anti-Duhring contains the most questionable of Engels' statements on dialectics (and in my view, on mathematics anyway, quite a few things which are plain wrong). But in that same book Engels explains repeatedly and very clearly, in dispute with Duhring, that Marx never cited an alleged "law" of dialectics as the factor establishing the truth of a proposition.

5. Dialectics did not start with Hegel. It goes back to Socrates and Plato at least. Marx and Engels never regarded dialectics as some magic key invented by Hegel.

6. Whatever else can be criticised in Trotsky's hurried polemics on dialectics in 1939, they also included a straightforward and not at all mystical explanation: "Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change... Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say 'a succulence' which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena". Whether he was right in his application of those generalisations to the USSR at the time is another matter.

7. Modern (by which I mean, post-Frege) studies in logic have actually produced quite a few results which seem "dialectical" in the broad sense (as opposed to the pseudo-Marxist, pseudo-Hegelian "Swiss army knife" sense): for example Godel's incompleteness theorems.

Martin Thomas

Submitted by david kirk on Sun, 09/10/2011 - 09:03

Dave Osler's article in the last issue of solidarity attacked the
theory of Dialectics (both Hegelian and Marxist) and posed "analysis"
as the proper way to understand the world. Dave also says "probably
there are a number of texts that I still need to
study before I come to a final conclusion on the matter", in this
spirit I say there are even more texts that I need to study before I
can come to a final conclusion, However to pose a un-explained "analysis" against dialectics
is a false foundation for any reasoned debate on the subject and it
does not take a great many years of study to see this.

Marxist dialectics are first and formost a way of analysing the world,
not some mystical and esoteric knowledge held by marxist popes and
cardinals. It is simply the realisation that the fundamental nature of
things, ideas, organisations and systems cannot be properly decerned
outside their relation to other things, their own history and their
own potential. The relationships between things and ideas both
internally and externally is often played out through contradiction.
Dave's "rational analysis" is empiricist analysis, empiricism seeks to
understand things and ideas in isolation and outside of history. As
society, ideas and things are in a constant state of agitation and in
perpetual motion, empiricism is the equivalent of a polaroid of anyone
moment in time. Rather then acknowledging this weekeness empiricists
often misjudge the current surface nature of something for a universal

Whilst for marxists its important to understand the balance of forces
and the lay of the land at anyone one time, understanding the current
material conditions is not the same thing as empiricism. Marxists have
used emiricist reasoning, but often with dire consequences. Edward Bernstein used
an empirical analysis of Germany in the early 1900s to lay the
theoretical foundations for reformism. He took the seemingly stable
capitalist system, the reforms wrested from the Prussian Junkers who ran the State and the
electoral successes of the German Social Democrat Party (SPD) as permanent trends. From this
he argued capitalist crisis's were over, capitalism could be reformed
away and the final triumph of the SPD via parliament was inevitable. On
the other side of the marxist coin ultra-leftists and anarchists often
seem to understand the nature of class organisation and conscousness
in a isolated and ahistorical way. Trade unions are weak, defensive
organisations run by bureaucrats, the Labour Party is stifiling class
struggle and colonised by bourgois idealogy. From this they shun work
in both organisations and are often actively hostile. It is because we
understand the contradictions in these organisations and their
relation to the working class in general that we fight in the unions
and the Labour Party for independent working class politics and to
make the working class see their own potential stregnth. Dialectical
analysis allows us not be paralysed by the surface appearance of

Submitted by Bruce on Mon, 10/10/2011 - 23:48

Relatively little of Dave Osler's article advocating that Marxists should abandon dialectics deals with the substance of the issue – what dialectics is and why it is wrong. Instead we are treated to a collection of admittedly bad examples of how it has been used on the left 'to promote arrant nonsense' and assertions that it is 'mumbo jumbo' and 'methodologically weak'. He instead states that Marxists should adopt formal logic and follow G.A. Cohen's version of Analytical Marxism. I'll try to give a brief introduction to why dialectics shouldn't be dumped and the problems with the alternative Dave proposes.

Dialectics is a way of understanding the world, which focuses centrally on the concepts of change, interconnection, contradiction and on breaking reality down into chunks which incorporate the essential relationships which define them. The term contradiction is not to be understood in its everyday sense of the relationship between two irreconcilable opposites but the tension and conflict that occurs within and between the different components of reality as they develop. Contradiction is thus the motive force of change in dialectics.

As Trotsky puts it ”Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say 'a succulence' which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena.” It enables us to grasp human and natural phenomena in their context, development and interconnections rather than as isolated and static elements to which larger units should be reduced. (This is the technical meaning of the term 'analysis' as used in Dave's article.) It is thus distinct both from the common sense reasoning we take for granted in our daily lives and from the formalised reasoning found in mathematics and symbolic logic, though, despite the claims of wilder Marxists, it does not and cannot imply a complete rejection of either.

I would go one step further than this and say that the reason dialectical forms of thought give a richer picture is because the real world of nature and society is dialectical and that dialectics is therefore more than a system of thought, a research method or a mode of presentation. (I recognise this is just an assertion but there isn’t space to give examples.) This is a view much argued about even by Marxists who do accept dialectics but is, I think, both necessary for the coherence of the argument that it gives a better picture of reality and is in line with Marx's remark that “the ideal [i.e. the world of ideas] is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man and translated into forms of thought.”

Which brings us to a major problem Dave does not confront in his article, namely that his real opponent is not John Rees or Gerry Healy but Karl Marx, who remained convinced of the principles of dialectics as a basis for his own work, though he sadly never managed to carry out his offer to set down its principles simply and systematically in six folio pages. There are clear evidence for this though, both in 'Capital' and in remarks made throughout his career.

I have no reason to think Dave wishes to abandon basic Marxist ideas such as the labour theory of value. Yet he thinks “they appear to be built on methodologically weak foundations”. The challenge for him then is to demonstrate that one can arrive at the same conclusions by a different method.

Enter G.A. Cohen (another Gerry or was it Jerry?) and the school he helped found known as 'Analytical Marxism' (AM), which originated from a group of academics in the late 70s and 80s, though it now seems to have pretty much disappeared. AM argues that Marxism doesn't need its own method but needs instead to use the methods of Analytical Philosophy - the mainstream of Anglo-American philosophy in the 2oth century - and of mainstream positivist social science.

One of its adherents Philippe van Parijs says that AM “consists in... using conventional conceptual analysis, formal logic and mathematics, econometric methods and the other tools of statistical and historical research — in order to tackle the broad range of positive and normative issues broached in Marx’s work... Formal models resting on assumption of individually rational behaviour, as instantiated by neo-classical economic theory and the theory of strategic games, can be used to understand the economic and political dynamics of capitalist societies”

The focus on rational individual behaviour follows from the need of analytic philosophy to find a secure elementary starting point that can be described in terms that approximate to the rigour of formal logic. The problem for the project is that this methodological basis leads to substantive conclusions that cannot be reconciled with Marx’s theories. AM has held to its methods and successively ditched or redefined more and more Marxist concepts and categories so that both friends and critics question whether the ethical commitment to justice many adherents arrived at is distinctly Marxist. Van Parijs candidly states that its development “has arguably brought analytical Marxism considerably closer to left liberal social thought than to the bulk of explicitly Marxist thought.”

Is this relevant to Dave’s criticism of dialectics? I think it is in two ways. It shows that the conceptual and methodological tools we choose to understand the world are not neutral in relation to what we are trying to understand. They tend to make us look at the world in particular ways which may or may not be appropriate. It also makes me think that Marx’s commitment to dialectical thinking was not an aberration or something that can be detached from the rest of his ideas.

Submitted by Peter burton on Tue, 18/10/2011 - 20:28

In relation to the issue of other texts can i recommend an old book" Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx"
by Scott Meikle which the Glasgow branch of SO had a dayschool on in the mid-eigthies with the author speaking.
It argues against methodology that sees history as a series of accidental events taking on Althusser,Weber and G A Cohen
in the process ,historical materialism being the essential tool that led Marx beyond Ricardo.

Categories such as nature, laws,contradiction,form,necessity and accident are part of a tradition going back to Aristotle
and Marx's working knowledge of these concepts was essential to his analysis of the nature of Capitalism.

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