Varieties of dialectics

Submitted by Matthew on 1 December, 2011 - 12:43

By Martin Thomas

In one of the crazy autobiographical fragments he wrote in his last years, the famous French Stalinist philosopher Louis Althusser claimed that his father, a bank manager, ran his branch on the following lines:

“It was his custom not to say anything, or to make absolutely unintelligible remarks. His subordinates dared not admit they had understood nothing, but went off and usually managed very well on their own, though they still wondered if they might not be mistaken and this kept them on their toes”.

“Karl Marx, the philosopher” is presented by many exegetists as posthumously running the Marxist movement in the same way as Althusser senior ran the bank. Marx himself explicitly said that he had moved on from philosophy, and scarcely ever made “philosophical” statements: yet, according to the exegetists, a philosophy which can somehow be cooked up from scattered and often cryptic remarks by Marx is the basic stuff of Marxism.

Marx made two, and only two, considered statements, polished and prepared for publication, on his “method of work”. The major one is in the postface to the second edition of Capital.

Marx noted that various reviewers had criticised the book for “metaphysics” and “Hegelian sophistry”. He countered that by citing other reviewers who (more accurately, in Marx’s view) saw him as using “deductive method” and “analytical” reasoning, and being “severely realistic”.

To describe his own “dialectical method”, Marx quoted a Russian reviewer, who saw these main features:

• a focus on “the law of variation... transition from one form into another, from one series of connections into a different one”;

• the priority being “that the facts be investigated as accurately as possible”, in order to enable “a precise analysis of the series of successions, of the sequences and links within which the different stages of development present themselves”;

• to prove “both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over”.

Marx also cited his own preface to his 1859 book which had been a forerunner to Capital. There he had argued that “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life”.

That mode of production, however, changes from one historical epoch to another, and each of the modes of production in history is torn and spurred on by “antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence”.

Further (in the Capital postface) Marx claimed that “the dialectic”, as he used it, “includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction... regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well... [is] in its very essence critical and revolutionary”.

Marx is analysing society with a view to the antagonisms within it, and the flux both of society as a whole and of elements within it. He is challenging naive or common-sense views which take the elements of present-day society as fixed and as given by nature rather than by history. The contrast with orthodox bourgeois economics, which starts from a calculus of given individual preferences, takes the market framework in which they interact as given, and focuses on investigating the conditions for general equilibrium and harmony, is also clear.

Despite Marx’s loose use of the term “the dialectic”, his text makes clear that there is no such thing as “the” dialectic. “My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it”.

The point here is not, and cannot be, as cod-Marxists have it, that Hegel invented a whizz-bang method, called “the dialectic”, but stupidly applied it only to the progressive development of “the Idea”, so that the world had to wait for Marx to apply it to material reality. Dialectical methods go back at least to Socrates, 2,200 years before Hegel; and Hegel was not stupid.

The special thing about Hegel’s dialectics is that for him dialectics was idealism, idealism was dialectics, and idealism and dialectics were science.

“By Dialectic is meant the indwelling tendency outwards by which the one-sidedness and limitation of the predicates of understanding is seen in its true light, and shown to be the negation of them. For anything to be finite is just to suppress itself and put itself aside. Thus understood the Dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress, the dynamic which alone gives immanent connection and necessity to the body of science; and, in a word, is seen to constitute the real and true, as opposed to the external, exaltation above the finite”.

“The real and true, as opposed to the external”; “exaltation above the finite”; a method which produced real truth, i.e. “the exposition of God as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of nature and a finite mind” — that was dialectics for Hegel.

The dialectical dialogue was between the Idea and itself; and that dialogue, the self-development of the Idea, was not just “about” reality. It was reality; it was truth, as opposed to the flim-flam of ephemeral fact.

Ludwig Feuerbach, as Marx would recognise, showed that Hegel’s philosophy was “nothing but religion conceptualised and rationally developed”.

He proposed a different dialectical dialogue. Feuerbach: “The true dialectic is not a monologue of the solitary thinker with himself [notionally of the Idea with itself; in fact of the philosopher with himself]. It is a dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘You’.” It is therefore a process of constant approximation and reconsideration, not a once-and-for-all revelation.

Marx recognised that “Feuerbach’s dialectic” had “overcome” “the Hegelian dialectic” and showed that Hegelian dialectic to be a system of reconciliation and apologetics in which “reason finds itself at home in unreason as such”, a “false positivism or merely apparent criticism”.

It was not that Hegel had compromised a radical philosophy in order to keep his academic post. The “falsehood is the falsehood of his very principle”.

Marx proposed yet a new dialectical dialogue, experimental, practical, and revolutionary, in place of Hegel and of Feuerbach’s more contemplative model.

“Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, wants contemplation; but... Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”.

In Marx’s early writings, “Hegelian” is an adjective of condemnation. (“It is Hegelian trash, it is not history”, he exclaims against Proudhon’s account of times past). Later, when Marx wrote his postface to Capital, he seems to have become more “Hegelian”. He denounces those who dismiss Hegel as a “dead dog”: “I openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker”.

He is hostile to the myopic empiricism of writers like Leopold von Ranke (“merely tell how it really was”). But pupils can and do move on from their teachers.

Marx was scrupulous about acknowledging every idea which he took from another writer. Many writers appear in the footnotes of Capital. Hegel, too, sometimes; but never as source of a serious argument.

Many of the footnoted references to Hegel are obviously jokes. I would argue that all of them are literary flourishes.

As Engels emphasises again and again in Anti-Dühring (a polemic against a writer, Dühring, who had developed his own version of dialectics), Marx never in Capital cites a Hegelian trope as a substantive argument for a conclusion. Marx only invokes phrases from Hegel (and Hegel was a brilliant author of mind-jolting phrases) to decorate conclusions derived from sober factual reasoning.

Dave Osler (Solidarity 219) is wrong to dismiss dialectics out of hand on the basis of the work of the cod-Marxists (and a perversely unfriendly reading of Trotsky). I also think Bruce Robinson (Solidarity 220) is wrong when he claims that “the real world of nature and society is dialectical”, and thus claims “being dialectical” as a known-in-advance property of all things whether physical or social. If Bruce means only that we should look out for the fluidity, changeability, and conflictedness of much in physical reality as well as in society, I have no argument. But he claims more.

He claims a sort of knowledge before the knowledge, a method that lets us know straight off that any object in a black box, whether it be an electron, a bowl of soup, a parallelogram, or a capitalist society, is “dialectical”, whereas investigating inside the box is necessary to know its other traits.

I could easily “prove” that a parallelogram is “dialectical”. (Opposite angles are equal! Unity of opposites! What did I tell you?)

But since, by definition, being “dialectical” does not differentiate the parallelogram from an electron, a bowl of soup, or a capitalist society, the talk about it being dialectical tells you only about my glibness, not about reality.

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