By Bruce Robinson
Relatively little of Dave Osler’s column [Solidarity 219] suggesting 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 and the school he helped found known as Analytical Marxism (AM), which originated from a group of academics in the late 1970s 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 20th 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.