What is Marxist dialectical thinking?

Submitted by Matthew on 26 October, 2011 - 1:16

Vasilis Grollios contributes to the discussion opened by Dave Osler in Solidarity 219

The core of socialist-Marxist thinking is its methodology, dialectical materialism. But the term was not systematically analysed by Marx or Engels. One has to synthesise its meaning from thousands of pages of their collected works.

Thinking in terms of dialectical materialism means trying to identify the essence of the thing under consideration, to understand what the thing is in itself. It means that we try to bring to light the real content of each social form, whatever this might be – state, representative democracy in its bourgeois form, value as money.

The real content of each form is nothing other than the way in which the most important of human relations, labour, is constructed. All social forms are the expression of class struggle, of exploitation. Dialectical materialism reveals that social forms are products of the perverted form of our doing, of our everyday activity.

Since the antagonism between capital and labour is in the essence of the social form, contradiction is also in the essence of the social form and permeates our existence. The logic of the topsy-turvy world is dialectical since contradiction is in the essence of the inverted social forms.

As “personifications of economic categories”, we live under the domination of these inverted, distorted forms that express the perverted form — abstract labour — that our doing must take in order to continuously beget money from money.

Materialism’s “ad hominem critique” helps us understand that in the capitalist system, our doing is restricted due to the bonds of abstract labour. The transformation of doing in our everyday lives into abstract labour and into money comprises the content of different fetishes, the content of the aforementioned different social forms.

Although economic categories and social forms appear to have a life of their own, they are in fact just manifestations of our doing.

The dialectical element within the Marxian notion of dialectical materialism is the negation of the subordination of our everyday activity in this totality. Negative dialectics are the “dialectics of our misfitting”, “the negative restlessness of misfitting”, unfolding in “the power of No” (as John Holloway puts it).

Our misfitting is the fact that we cannot fit our daily activity into the logic of capital, into the logic of transforming our activity into abstract labour, into money.

In the Marxian method, theory can be realised in a people only insofar as it is the realisation of the needs of that people.

“We are not to philosophise about concrete things; we are to philosophise, rather, out of these things” as “...dialectical logic respects that which is to be thought the object”.

In the negative dialectics approach, the potential does not come from outside social reality but only from inside it. The untruth of identity is revealed because “...the concept does not exhaust the thing”. A remainder always remains. This is the potential we must focus on.

It is the development and enforcement of the still undeveloped power of labour that can change the essence of the society and thus also its form. That is why dialectics in its Marxian version embraces historical development, meaning the social forms take their content by the advancement of the class struggle.

Maybe the most important concept of dialectics is “non-identity”. Forms such as the state, value as money, the bourgeois form of democracy, appear as fetishes, as natural phenomena, as if they have always existed.

It seems that we cannot liberate ourselves from them. It seems that we cannot stop being obliged to act as “personifications of economic categories”, to act according to our class position, by taking roles that we have to, that we did not choose to take.

Identity identifies the notion under consideration with its present appearance, its form. It sees only the form-fetish in its appearance. It cannot penetrate this appearance and bring to the fore its essence. It cannot reveal the fact that it is a historically created form, according to how people came in contact to each other and to nature in order to satisfy their most basic needs.

Thus by thinking in non-identity terms we think in terms of a dialectic between form and essence and of a dialectic between how the form-fetish appears and what it really is when we see its historical creation and development. When we do this we demystify that form-fetish and we defetishise it.

By defetishising the form we realise that if we change the essence, the most important relation in society, how we come in contact with each other and with nature in order to satisfy our most basic needs, then that means that we will no longer produce under privately owned means of production in order to accumulate wealth, and the form will also change.

State, value as money and the representative system under the bourgeois form of democracy are the forms that correspond to a specific constant-essence, that of capital. Defetishisation entails class struggle.

Further reading:

• From Marx, best read the introduction to the Grundrisse. For me, the classical text in the 20th century is Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. Maybe one should read first his Lectures on Negative Dialectics. Also:

• Werner Bonefeld’s article Social form, Critique and Human Dignity.

• John Holloway’s latest book, Crack Capitalism.

• My own article: “Marx and Engels’s critique of democracy: the materialist character of their concept of autonomy”, Critique, v. 39, n. 1, 2011.


Submitted by stuartjordan on Wed, 02/11/2011 - 11:44

Let me check I've got this clear...

Capitalist wage relations mean that I am working-class and have to work for a living. When I go to work I produce profit for my boss and by filling their coffers I increase their power to control me and my fellow workers. I have sell my time and skills to my boss because I need cash to buy stuff to survive. But the cash is also just a token form of people's work, its a representation of the minutes and hours that people, like myself, have spent working for their bosses - abstract labour. So by doing work, we are all producing not only useful things, but also abstract labour which then operates like a power that controls our lives - forcing us to work for our bosses, dictating what we can and can't buy. Marx said, wouldn't it be better if we got rid of wages, prices and profit, and just worked as a matter of personal fulfillment and committment to rest of the community, and took what we needed from the collective pool of social wealth? This would be a much more rational way of doing things and would probably make everyone a lot happier.

Although this seems like a nice idea, everyone has to understand it before it can happen. They have to understand their real relationship to one another and to the things they require for life. At the moment these relationships are hidden by all the money, wage relations, the state etc. The problem is that everyone believes that these things - wage-labour, the state, bourgeois democracy - are all unchangeable and we will never be able to get rid of them. But actually all these things are not things at all - they are just stuff that we do. for example, money is not a thing like an apple or a CD player, it is something that we all agree to believe in. Similarly the state is not a thing, it is just something that people do for a living (e.g. police, judges, social workers) and the rest of us believe in. People believe in wage labour and the state, a bit like they used to believe in god.

But capitalism will inevitably move workers into class struggle, and when we see a bit of class struggle people will begin to question these old beliefs.

Is that about it? And if so, how does it answer the question "What is Marxist dialectical thinking?"

Submitted by Greg (not verified) on Sat, 08/06/2019 - 08:46

In reply to by stuartjordan

Yes and no. The contradictions drive the conflict that defines the dialectic...however Marx was a man of action, he wanted results in the real ie material world, hence the material dialectic was more important to him than the theory of dialectics in general ie Hegelian dialectics.

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