Lawrence Wilde (1991)
Source: The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. Terrell Carver, 1991;
Social theorists tend to be remembered for their conclusions rather than the way in which they conducted their inquiries, but if we neglect to study the latter it is quite likely that we will misunderstand or misconstrue the former. Marx complained that the method he employed in Capital was “little understood,” and although he attempted to clarify the nature of what he called his “dialectic,” the logic of his scientific endeavour has continued to be a contentious subject. To improve our understanding of his method and its significance in social science, a number of questions need to be addressed. What did Marx mean by dialectic? What did it look like in his work? What was the precise relationship between Marx’s dialectical method and formal logic? And finally, what is the relationship between Marx’s dialectic and Marxist theory?
The most direct way to get to the heart of the first three questions is to examine Marx’s use of the concept of contradiction, which played a role of vital analytical significance in his work, resulting in well-known formulations such as the “contradictions of capitalism and “class contradictions.” Dialectical philosophers claim that contradictions exist in reality and that the most appropriate way to understand the movement of that reality is to study the development of those contradictions. Formal logic denies that contradictions exist in reality, and where they are seen to exist in thought, they have to be expunged in order to arrive at the truth. This is embodied in the principle of non-contradiction, in which the presence of a contradiction in a statement or proposition invalidates its claim to truth. On the face of it, therefore, the claims of dialectical and formal logic appear to be incommensurable, and dialogue between the two systems appears to be impossible. We must therefore look carefully at Marx’s concept of contradiction and his scattered remarks on his own method.
Although Marx was a trained philosopher, he did not engage in formal analyses of philosophical categories or concepts, as he considered this approach to be sterile or “purely scholastic”. Thus we must consider other types of work, including comments that he made about his own method, critiques of other writers such as G. W F. Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, David Ricardo, and, most important, Marx’s own analyses, particularly in the field of political economy. Marx did not devote much time to discussing his own method, but there are significant statements in the first part of The German Ideology (1845-6), the 1857 introduction to the Grundrisse, the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the preface to the first edition of Capital in 1867, and the postface of 1873 to the second edition. It is frustrating that Marx did not fulfil his stated intention of writing an essay revealing what was rational in Hegel’s method, but he engaged in numerous critiques that give us valuable insights into his own. In this respect, the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) and the Theses on Feuerbach (1845) are particularly important to understanding the formation of Marx’s method. With regard to his own analyses, pride of place must go to the first volume of Capital, the only volume published in his lifetime, and the culmination of over twenty years of study. The preparatory notebooks of 1857-8, known as the Grundrisse provide an important guide to Marx’s purpose in writing Capital in the way that he did, and they also form a bridge between the philosophical perspectives of the pre-1845 writings and the detailed technical analysis of economic categories that he considered to be his most important intellectual work.
Marx’s assertions that his method was dialectical were often accompanied by a qualification to the effect that his method differed significantly from that of Hegel, whom he regarded as the architect of modern dialectics. Marx argued that Hegel’s dialectical method was idealist, whereas his own was materialist, a distinction he first drew in 1843 in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The point of difference centres on their conception of contradiction. First let us look briefly at Hegel’s attitude toward the concept of contradiction. In the Science of Logic Hegel claimed that everything was contradictory, and in the shorter Logic he maintained that “there is absolutely nothing whatever in which we cannot and must not point to contradictions “. This was an amazing claim, as formal logic from Aristotle through Immanuel Kant had been based on three laws of thought — identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle — which categorically rejected the possibility that truth was compatible with the presence of contradictions. Here is Aristotle’s presentation of the principle of non-contradiction: “For the same thing to hold good and not to hold good simultaneously of the same thing and in the same respect is impossible ... This, then, is the firmest of all principles” (Aristotle, Metaphysics). Once something had been identified (identity) it could not be something else at the same time and in the same sense (non-contradiction). The law of the excluded middle was basically an extension of the principle of non-contradiction, stating that where there were contradictory propositions, one must be true and the other must be false. Hegel’s philosophy appeared to reject these axioms.
Hegel criticised what he termed ordinary thinking because it failed to recognise the “positive side of contradiction”. This conclusion obliged him to challenge the laws of thought, which he did in his discussion of the doctrine of essence in both his Science of Logic and the shorter Logic. He considered the law of identity (symbolically A = A) to be an “empty tautology” bereft of content and leading nowhere. His first argument against the law focused not just on any object or concept that might be subject to identity claims but on the concept of identity itself. He claimed that just as the law distinguished identity from difference, identity was therefore different from difference, which meant that to be different was part of the very nature of identity. Aware that this might be dismissed as trivial wordplay, Hegel added a second argument that was more a “matter of general experience”. If the answers to questions like What is God? or What is a plant? were simply God and A plant, then the purity of the law of identity would be preserved but no new knowledge would be gained. The questions begged for something more than “simple, abstract identity”.
It followed from this critique of the law of identity that the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle were equally limited. The symbolic representation of these principles, not both A and not-A (non-contradiction) and either A or not-A (excluded middle) were emptied of meaning because Hegel argued that A had not-A, its contradiction, in its very nature. This formulation had been made before Hegel by J. G. Fichte, but Hegel was the first to construct a coherent (and encyclopedic) philosophical system from this principle. Hegel’s concept of contradiction was internal to each and every category, and his philosophy was composed of major systems (totalities) of thought that were built up by a succession of contradictory “moments,” each moment finding its true meaning only in an “organic systematic whole”.
Although Marx rejected certain aspects of this dialectical logic, he retained a great deal more than many of his followers ever understood. But before looking at what Marx retained from the Hegelian method, let us examine his point of departure. When Marx made his first lengthy criticism of Hegel in 1843, he attempted to show that Hegel’s support of the existing Prussian state stemmed from a faulty method of analysis. Hegel’s idealist approach treated concrete social relations as manifestations of relations among ideas. When these ideas appeared to be in contradiction, they were conceptually “mediated” by tendencies already present in the ideas, and in this way the contradiction was superseded. For example, the opposition of interests between the people and the monarch was expressed as the opposition between “generality” and “particularity, “ an opposition that could have been hostile but was rendered “harmonious” by the mediation of the aristocratic class of public servants, the “universal” class. Marx considered that although it was relatively easy to effect a mediation between opposed concepts, this failed to reflect the necessarily antagonistic, relations among the classes. In other words, the idealist method that Hegel used amounted to a conceptual sleight of hand.
Marx criticised Hegel for not seeing that the oppositions he pointed to in German society were not among the elements of some preordained unified essence but were really essential contradictions: “Hegel’s chief error is that he regards contradiction in the phenomenal world as unity in essence, in the Idea. There is, however, a profounder reality involved, namely an essential contradiction”. The “Idea” for Hegel was the whole, or totality, within which relations developed through the working out of contradictions. He regarded the Idea as “all truth,” and it was a sufficiently nebulous conception to embrace all the contradictions that he described in such a way that all reality was portrayed as rational. Ultimately all contradictions were reconciled in the Idea. In this way his dialectic described a neat, completed process too neat and complete, in fact, for Marx to swallow. For Marx, “real extremes cannot be mediated precisely because they are real extremes, “ nor did they require mediation because “the one does not bear within its womb a longing, a need, and anticipation of the other”. As an example of an opposition between distinct essences (“real extremes”), Marx cited human and non-human, whereas the type of opposition with which Hegel was normally dealing was internal to an essence, as with man and woman within the human essence, a relationship with a natural attraction of opposites.
Does the assertion that Hegel’s analysis misinterpreted reality because it did not recognise irreconcilable contradictions amount to a rejection of dialectic, an acknowledgment that contradictions cannot logically be mediated? This is Colletti’s suggestion (1975). Marx alleged that the idealist procedure of transforming real relations into highly abstract concepts led to a unity of opposites that simply did not “fit” the social reality as he saw it. But he left open the possibility of a dialectic in which the concepts did fit reality, but in which the system was contradictory rather than rational. It is true that Marx also left open the possibility of rejecting the dialectic completely, but this was neither stated nor implied. 1 shall return to this issue when I discuss the relationship between Marx’s dialectic and formal logic.
Marx considered that Hegel’s idealist approach denied class antagonisms their full consequence, and he resolved to understand their origins by studying the way in which society produced and reproduced its material life. This is the field of political economy. His first work in this area, the 1844 Paris writings, marked the beginning of his quest to elucidate the contradictory nature of the system of production, and it was conducted from a philosophical perspective that claimed that the worker was “alienated “ or “estranged.” But alienated from what? Among other things, the workers were alienated from their “human essence,” which Marx understood to be the ability to produce according to a plan, that is, creative activity. This distinguished people from animals, a point made in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and later in the first volume of Capital. This conception of the human essence is an important premise of Marxs later, more technical analyses. When Marx began to unravel the contradictions of the system, he did so on the understanding that capitalism negated our human essence and so had to be abolished if the human essence was to be realisd. Only then could humanity win control over its own destiny rather than being controlled by the system of production. Marx’s intellectual project was therefore not value free, for he did not propose that the investigator could stand in some sort of mythical neutrality from the object of investigation. He regarded the question of whether objective truth could be attributed to human thinking not as a theoretical question but as a practical question, insisting that “man must prove the truth”.
By late 1845 Marx had worked out his general theoretical framework for studying the capitalist mode of production and its political and social processes. At its heart was the relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production, to use the terminology of the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. The relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production was couched in a general way. The forces are usually taken to mean such things as natural resources, the level of technology, and the skills of labour, whereas the relations refer to the positions of power or powerlessness in the production process that accrue to the various classes. At some stage the relations were deemed to be appropriate to the further development of the forces, but at a “highly developed” stage of “large-scale industry” they entered into contradiction. At the time of The German Ideology Marx had not explained why the forces of production would contradict the relations of production. As the general theory applied to all history, it must be assumed that when feudal relations of production became contradictory to the forces of production, the new capitalist relations that replaced them would be initially in harmony with them. Marx therefore had to explain how this contradiction was developing in the capitalist mode of production.
Where should we begin? The premises were stressed in The German Ideology, in which Marx wrote that “the premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation or fixity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions”. If we are to understand Marx’s endeavour, it is necessary to keep in mind those humanistic premises and to remember that he was concerned with social relations when studying political economy. Humanistic premises do not, however, in themselves suggest a starting point for his analysis. As Marx noted in the preface to the first edition of Capital, “Beginnings are always difficult in all sciences,” and he gave careful consideration to this problem before electing to start with an analysis of the value form of the commodity. He confronted the issue in the Introduction to the Grundrisse, in which he claimed that the “correct scientific method” for studying political economy was to move from the “abstract” to the “ concrete, “ examining the development of simple economic categories through to the stage where he arrived at the real world of production and distribution as the “synthesis of many determinations”. This sounds very much like a Hegelian procedure, but Marx insisted that the difference lay in the nature of the selected abstractions. Marx claimed that his abstractions, in contrast with Hegel’s, were not mere constructions of the mind but were taken from the uncomprehended concrete reality that confronted him, that is, capitalism. He could not begin with landed property or rent, therefore, because they had achieved economic prominence before capitalism. The category of labour was a possible starting point, but the essence of labour-power in capitalist society was that it was sold for money as was any other commodity, so the value form of the commodity assumed analytical priority. Money itself did not originate with capitalism, but it achieved its importance with the emergence of the new system. Marx conceded that this procedure would give his analysis the appearance of an a priori construction, but it is important to remember that his abstractions were carefully selected from the concrete and that they were premised on the human deprivation that he witnessed.
Marx began by analysing the commodity and claiming that there was a contradiction inherent in it between its exchange value and its use value, a contradiction both manifested and partially resolved by money. Earlier, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he had argued that the distinguishing qualities of use value and exchange value were mutually exclusive and at the same time had to be realised in the exchange relationship if they were to exist at all. Use value appeared to be independent, based on the satisfaction of needs and considered entirely in qualitative terms, but use values could be exchanged only through a process in which the use value of a product lost its independence, a process in which its qualitative nature was irrelevant to the seller, who was interested only in the quantity of materialised labour time represented by the product. Exchange value appeared to be a purely quantitative thing, concerned only with reducing all products to their calculable equivalence, but the products could not be exchanged at all unless they had use value. Marx considered that the commodity was based on a “whole complex of contradictory premises, since the fulfilment of one condition depends directly upon the fulfilment of its opposite.” He concluded that “the exchange process must comprise both the evolution and the solution of these contradictions” and that money achieved this.
The modern reader interested in economics may well be puzzled by Marx’s lengthy and highly abstract treatment of the properties of the commodity. Not only had Marx written many thousands of words in a similar vein in the Grundrisse two years before, but he patiently repeated this apparently esoteric argument in the first volume of Capital. Clearly it was of great importance to him because it established the theoretical origin of human deprivation in the capitalist system. That is, it was the establishment of production for profit rather than production for use. The modern reader interested in philosophy might be equally puzzled by Marx’s insistence that the exchange process contained contradictions rather than simple distinctions. In the Grundrisse he talked about the dual existence of the commodity as something with specific natural properties and also something with the general social property of exchange value, and he stated that this difference between the specific and the general, between its qualitative and quantitative nature, led to opposition and then developed into contradiction. The difference was oppositional because it involved the loss of control over their products by the producers themselves; production for profit rather than production for use necessitated the division between those with property and those without. In the developed money system of capitalism, labour power itself became a commodity. Individual labourers were legally free, and at the same time their labour power belonged to the capitalist. Commodity production “proclaims gain to be its end and aim” and yet necessitates the degradation of the producers. It was a contradiction in a dialectical sense because the opposition was internal to the commodity and was part of a developing system of production. It also was a contradiction in the specifically Marxian dialectical sense because although the contradiction between use value and exchange value was mediated through the use of money, this mediation was temporary: The contradiction would not be abolished until capitalist production itself was abolished.
What ought to become apparent is that Marx’s discussion of contradictions within the very foundations of capitalism is concerned with the loss of human control; the contradictions described are not simply between abstract concepts disembodied from their social authors. What we have in these discussions is the reappearance of the alienation theme that figures so importantly in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, but this time it takes the form of a technical analysis of the commodity form and the exchange process. In Capital Marx termed as commodity fetishism this process in which the producers lost control over their products. “It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumed here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things”. Having established a contradiction in the simplest category of the capitalist production process, Marx proceeded to show how the apparent resolution of this contradiction in the development of the money system in fact produced more contradictions that would eventually become visible in crises, those “great thunderstorms “ in the mode of production.
In the Grundrisse Marx described the antithesis between exchange value and use value as the first contradiction in the money form. The second contradiction is the separation of purchase and sale, and this argument formed the basis of his work on crises. Marx rejected the idea that capitalist production was in equilibrium by ridiculing the then widely accepted Say’s law (named after the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say). This law asserts that every purchase is a sale and that supply creates its own demand, or in Marx’s own formulations, a nation’s “production is its consumption” and “products are exchanged against products”. In other words, a glut of products (overproduction) is theoretically impossible. Marx initially rejected this law in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, arguing that a nation could not consume all that it produced, as it needed to provide for the means of production. He contended that the supply-equals-demand formula failed to take into account the separation of sale and purchase in space and time through the mediation of money. It was this separation that Marx regarded as a necessary condition for the possibility of crises.
In Theories of Surplus Value Marx found fault with the logic of political economists such as Ricardo and James Mill when dealing with the theoretical possibility of crises. Marx characterised purchase and sale as the “metamorphosis of commodities” and commented on these two aspects of the process: First, they formed a single process comprising opposed phases, and so they could be understood as the essential “unity” of the phases. Every commodity that was sold by someone was also bought by someone else. Second, the movement was also the separation of these phases, as goods were bought by manufacturers or merchants and were not sold immediately, or were bought on credit. Because the phases “belong” together, their independence was shown only forcibly, as a “destructive process.” It was the crisis that asserted the unity of the two different aspects of purchase and sale, and so the independence was then forcibly destroyed:
Thus the crisis manifests the unity of the two phases which have become independent of each other. There would be no crisis without this inner unity of factors that are apparently indifferent to each other. But no, say the apologetic economists. Because there is this unity, there can be no crises. Which in turn means nothing but that the unity of contradictory forces excludes contradiction.
The independence of purchase and sale took place when payments were deferred, credit was extended, liquid capital was hoarded, or goods were stored in warehouses to force up prices. This independence was of no great concern so long as the system was expanding and confidence was high, for in times of prosperity “the rigmarole of Say and others” was used. The real separation of purchase and sale became obvious only at the onset of the crisis when firms could not sell their produce and creditors were not paid, and then a movement began toward the reunification of purchase and sale as cash payments were demanded and debts were called in. In arguing that there could be no crises because of the unity of purchase and sale, the political economists were effectively denying all the specific principles and features of the capitalist mode of production.
Marx accused James Mill of evading the theoretical likelihood of the instability of the whole productive system. If there was opposition in an economic relationship, as was implied by the separation of purchase and sale, Mill always treated it as a “unity” and thereby eliminated the “ contradictions “. Marx was equally hard on Ricardo for attempting to “reason away” the contradictions of capitalism, an error that stemmed from neglecting to analyse the essence of commodity production, the relationship between use value and exchange value and between the commodity and money.
These denunciations bear a striking resemblance to Marx’s castigation of Hegel for not recognising essential contradictions. For Marx, the possibility of crises lay in this relationship, which, as we saw earlier, he regarded as a contradiction. However, explaining the possibility of crises was not the same as explaining why crises broke out when they did. Marx’s description of crises and the problem of maintaining rates of profit is fragmentary and can be found in writings that he did not prepare for publication, but the conclusions of these analyses contain most of Marx’s general statements on the contradictory nature of the system as a whole. As such they are particularly interesting if we are to understand what he meant by contradiction and whether or not these formulations are compatible with the principles of formal logic.
Marx characterised the contradictory nature of the capitalist mode of production as an automatic barrier. The expansionist dynamic of the system meant that the pursuit of profit was unrelenting and unavoidable, but the tendency to produce in an unlimited fashion ran up against the fact that the basis on which the production took place ensured that demand would never be sufficient (in terms of ability to purchase) to realise the tendency. In the Grundrisse Marx wrote that the “fundamental contradiction of developed capital “ was uncovered when it was demonstrated that capital contained a particular restriction of production that “contradicts its general tendency to drive beyond every barrier to production”. A similar formulation appeared in Theories of Surplus Value, again emphasising the internal and therefore ineluctable nature of the systemic dilemma:
The fact that bourgeois production is compelled by its own immanent laws, on the one hand, to develop the productive forces as if production did not take place on a narrow, restricted social foundation, while, on the other hand, it can develop these forces only within these narrow limits, is the deepest and most hidden cause of crises, of the crying contradictions within which bourgeois production is carried on and which, even at a cursory glance, reveal it only as a transitional, historical form.
The failure to realise surplus value consistently manifested itself in crises, which Marx described as the collective eruption of “all the contradictions of bourgeois production”.
But crises were not the end of the story. Marx saw them not simply as a manifestation of contradictions but also as a reconciliation of them “by the violent fusion of disconnected factors”. In the Grundrisse he wrote that the crises violently led capitalism back to the point that it could fully employ its productive powers “without committing suicide”. Capitalism might intensify the exploitation of existing markets and extend its exploitation into new ones, even at great social cost, as the recent international crisis has witnessed. There is no theory of the automatic breakdown of the system: Its abolition would have to be a conscious sociopolitical process. The important thing here is that the technical contradictions that Marx pointed out were social contradictions stemming from a loss of control suffered by the mass of workers and that the process of gaining control would have to be a conscious emancipatory act.
Having sketched out Marx’s method of analysing capitalism, we now have to consider whether what we have is an orthodox approach dressed in a colourful and combative rhetoric or whether this method represents a radical alternative to social scientific methods based on the principles of formal logic. According to the principle of non-contradiction, contradictions do not exist in reality but only in thought, and when they exist in thought they signify an error. Marx is clearly claiming that contradictions exist in capitalist reality, a claim that raises two questions. Did Marx’s use of dialectical contradictions itself contradict his earlier espousal of essential contradictions in his 1843 criticism of Hegel? Do these dialectical contradictions entail a repudiation of formal logic?
It has been argued that Marx jettisoned the dialectic when he turned his back on Hegelian idealism in 1843, before rediscovering it after re-reading Hegel’s Logic in 1857. This interpretation was originally made by Henri Lefebvre in Dialectical Materialism, first published in 1940, in which he contended that “the dialectical method was rediscovered and rehabilitated by Marx at the time when he was beginning work on A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Capital. The chief problem with this argument is that it fails to appreciate the dialectical nature of the general theory of historical development. Although Marx’s early critique of Hegel’s idealism was similar in most respects to Ludwig Feuerbach’s earlier critiques, it was quickly followed by a trenchant critique of Feuerbach’s philosophy in the Theses on Feuerbach and The German Ideology. Marx rejected Feuerbach’s static, contemplative materialism in favor of a new materialist method that required analyses of the historical dynamics of changing relationships among people and between people and nature. Marx rejected Feuerbach precisely because he lacked a dialectical approach. In his next major work, the criticism of Proudhon that he published in I S47 under the title The Poverty of Philosophy, he ridiculed Proudhon not because he used dialectics but because he completely misused dialectics, a point he confirmed years later when he summarised his book as showing “how little he has penetrated into the secret of scientific dialectics”. A strong argument could also be made that The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte of 1852 is a dialectical analysis of the political contradictions of the Second French Republic. Above all, the argument that Marx underwent such a fundamental redirection in his method in the late 1850s receives no support at all from his own account of his intellectual development contained in the 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
In the 1843 Critique of Hegel, Marx complained that Hegel had failed to identify essential contradictions, contradictions between elements that did not need each other and could not be mediated. Marx needed this conception of contradiction to represent the real antagonisms in modern society, but as we indicated, he did not say in the Critique or anywhere else that dialectical contradictions were an irrelevant piece of Hegelian sophism. Marx, like Hegel, conceived of the movement of modern society as a dialectical process, but his totality was the mode of production rather than the “Idea.” At the most general level he identified contradictions in the mode of production, contradictions that required each other and were inconceivable in isolation, such as capital and labour, and the forces and relations of production. More specifically he identified contradictions within the commodity and within the exchange process, as we earlier described. But the mediations that occurred in the development of the system of production did not lead to completeness or harmony because, Marx argued, they did in Hegel’s system. This is where the essential contradiction came in, the contradiction that could not be mediated, the one that could be resolved only by a life-and-death struggle. To understand this we have to take a literal view of the word essential, for Marx conceived of capitalism as the total negation of the human essence. In Hegel’s system, the negativity of the dialectical contradictions was ultimately turned into a positive force through their unity in the mystical “Idea,” whereas for Marx his category of essential contradiction enabled him to reaffirm his negative view of capitalism. The human essence of creative social activity could not possibly be reconciled with a system that contained its negation. This message is couched in general and philosophical terms in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and it is also at the very foundation of the technical analysis of the capitalist system, in the Grundrisse and in Capital.
We now come to the question of the relationship between Marx’s dialectic and formal logic. There can be no doubt that dialectical contradictions are different from the contradictions referred to in formal logic, and I would argue that they augment and qualify the laws of thought, as opposed to rejecting them. Marx searched relentlessly for inconsistencies in the arguments of the writers of his day. He accused Hegel of contradicting himself, and he contemptuously dismissed John Stuart Mill by stating that “he is as much at home with absurd and flat contradictions as he is at sea with the Hegelian ‘contradiction,’ which is the source of all dialectics”. If there are two types of contradiction, how can both be used without causing intellectual chaos? One supporter of the superiority of dialectical thinking, Sean Sayers, observed that “in a proof or in a deductive argument, for example, a contradiction is a fault and an indication that the argument, as an argument, is invalid”. In arguments at a certain level of formal abstraction, formal logic is acceptable to dialecticians, and it would be impossible to engage in rational discourse if this were not accepted. But in Lefebvre’s words, “formal logic is the logic of the instant: the logic of a simplified world”. Dialecticians insist that contradictions in the formal logic sense fix their categories temporally, which is often inadequate to apprehend the real world, a world in constant motion that cannot and should not be reduced to categories frozen in time.
In his attempt to condemn the dialectical method, Karl Popper shows that if we accept two contradictory statements, we must accept any statement whatever. To illustrate his argument he presents two contradictory statements, “The sun is shining now” and “The sun is not shining now.” Fixing the time by using the word now is necessary if a contradiction is to be said to exist, and although it is clear that such frozen moments of time do not exist in the reality in which time flows, it is unquestionably a useful abstraction. Another condition for the contradiction to exist is that he is using “The sun is shining” in the same sense, and it can be assumed that this is, in fact, the case. What we have, then, is the kind of formal contradiction that Marx identified in writers such as Hegel and John Stuart Mill and that he would have no difficulty in rejecting as an error. But the qualification that the contradiction be a formal abstraction is important. It assumes a fixed time, whereas the world in reality is constantly moving through time. It is when considering the moving world that Marx uses dialectical contradictions, to denote opposing tendencies in the system. Not only are these contradictions in a constant state of development, but they also involve qualitative factors that cannot be reduced to a simple either/or. Use value and exchange value represent an example. Marx identified a contradiction in the commodity between its use value, which can be gauged only in relation to specific goods and needs, and its exchange value, which is completely indifferent to specific qualities. Marx saw the contradiction in terms of specific, as opposed to non-specific, unquantifiable as opposed to quantitative, but his example is very different from Popper’s example of the sun. As we have seen, Marx termed the relationship contradictory because of the web of social antagonisms that it entailed: It can be understood as a contradiction only as a part of the totality of the social relations in the system. It is easy to spot from the context when Marx is using dialectical contradictions, but he rarely uses the noun contradiction (Widerspruch) to refer to inconsistencies, instead preferring the verb.
Marx did not repudiate the principle of non-contradiction, but he clearly felt that it had limited usefulness when studying a system in motion. As A. Anthony Smith pointed out, in dialectics “the same thing is not both affirmed and denied of the same object at the same time and in the same respect,” and the dialectical method ‘/goes beyond, while including, the principle of identity and non-contradiction”. This interpretation is accurate, and it also resolves the dilemma that Colletti articulated. He recognised that Marx used dialectical contradictions but considered that they were incompatible with the principle of non-contradiction. As Colletti considers that the principle was the foundation of science, it appears that Marx had made a “break with science.” Colletti’s “rescue” of Marx’s position rests on the view that the centrality of the alienation theme renders the capitalism of Marx’s analysis an unreal world, and he claims that “capitalism is contradictory not because it is a reality and all realities are contradictory, but because it is an upside-down, inverted reality”. Although this argument rightly draws attention to the importance of alienation in Marx’s dialectic, it results in an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion. Marx insisted that the alienated system was “prosaically real, and by no means imaginary”. Colletti would not have had to deny the reality of capitalism if he had understood that the dialectic augmented rather than rejected the principle of non-contradiction.
My interpretation of Marx’s method would not be accepted by all who call themselves Marxists, and the history of Marxism in the century since Marx’s death has incorporated a preponderance of alternative interpretations that have quietly ditched the revolutionary-critical dialectic. It would be impossible to discuss in a few pages the economic and political conditions underpinning the development of Marxism as a method, but it might be helpful to sketch some of the most important intellectual tendencies.
The first tendency is the Engelsian dialectic, or dialectical materialism, an expression not used by Marx or Engels but popularised by the Russian philosopher G. V Plekhanov. Engels collaborated with Marx in their early criticisms of German philosophy and also in political writings, but Marx’s major lifetime work of analysng capitalism was done alone while Engels concentrated on political matters and historical studies, as well as, increasingly, natural science. In writings published after Marx’s death in 1883, Engels extended the dialectical method to encompass nature and in so doing transformed the dialectic into a set of three “laws.” This work had nothing to do with Marx’s own dialectic, which, as we have seen, was quintessentially a social scientific method. Nevertheless, Engels claimed that Marx had approved his work before he died, and the dialectic came to be associated with the confident certainty of positive science. A number of factors contributed to the widespread adoption by the Marxist movement of a dialectic that stressed the interrelationship of objective forces rather than the subject-object relationship central to Marx’s own method. These factors include Engels’s lifelong friendship with Marx, his towering status in the European socialist movement, the absence of an explicit tract on dialectical method from Marx himself, and the unavailability (until the 1920 and 1930s) of many of the early writings and, above all, the Grundrisse. The attraction of such an approach lay in the confidence that it instilled in its adherents, and there were plenty of teleological rhetorical flourishes from arx himself to sustain the view that the victory of socialism was historically inevitable.
The process of the dogmatistion of Marxist philosophy was continued throughout the official Communist movement once Stalin achieved power in the late I 920S. Lenin, however, had perceived the buried Hegelian heritage when he studied Hegel in the early years of the First World War, and he recognisd the widespread misreading of Marx that had taken place:
It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!
Lenin’s discovery of the dialectical nature of Marx’s thought represented a major shift from his earlier Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which was assuredly non-ialectical. However, the shift did not go so far as to question the contribution of Engels to the misunderstanding of Marx, and it was not until 1923 that the first suggestions came from the Marxist movement that the dialectical methods of Marx and Engels were incompatible. Georg Lukacs, in History and Class Consciousness, argued that the significance of Marx’s dialectic was to be found in the interrelationship of theory and practice, subject and object, and that of necessity this concerns only the social world. Karl Korsch, in Marxism and Philosophy, criticised Engels for the “incorrect and undialectical” approach displayed in his later works. There was an almost hysterical reaction to these works in the official international Communist movement (Third International). By the end of the 1920s Lukacs had been excluded from all political work and Korsch had been expelled from the German Communist party. Korsch shared Lenin’s frustration with the failure of Marxists to understand the Marxian dialectic:
Just as all the particular critical, activistic, and revolutionary aspects of Marxism have been overlooked by most Marxists, so it has been with the whole character of the Marxian materialistic dialectic. Even the best among them have only partially restored its critical and revolutionary principle.
Korsch and Lukacs did have some influence among independent Marxists in the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, and the dialectical method was kept alive as “critical theory” by writers such as Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm. Marcuse did much to publicise the significance of the first publication of Marx’s early writings and to reclaim the Hegelian heritage. The dialectical method was extended to such areas as the sociology of art and music, the social psychology of totalitarianism, and the critique of ideology. This extension, with an emphasis on the subjective elements of the subject-object dialectic, took place at the expense of close study in political economy and also declared a disbelief in the transformative potential of the traditional politics of labour movements. From the 1960s until his death, Marcuse played an important part in winning theoretical support for a politics of new social movements.
In France, the fusing of existentialism with Marxism in the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre extolled the humanist dialectic and had considerable intellectual and popular impact. Throughout the West the translation of the early writings and the Grundrisse in the late 1950s and 1960s excited great interest, and there was a significant expansion in the scholarly study of Marx’s works, including the Hegel-Marx connection. In Eastern Europe many writers began to reaffirm the dialectical and humanist nature of Marx’s method and its relevance to the problems of today. In Hungary former pupils of Lukacs, collectively known as the Budapest school, took up his mantle (e.g., Heller, 1976), although they met with official hostility, and in Yugoslavia the Praxis group affirmed the centrality of the humanist dialectic and the de-alienation project (e.g., Markovic).
Marxism of the undialectical variety has not been limited to the textbooks of Soviet communism. In the 1960s and 1970s the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser (1969), Althusser and Etienne Balibar (1977), and Maurice Godelier (1972) rejected the Hegelian influence on Marx and portrayed Marx’s method as a positive science. In recent years there have been several attempts to join the logical procedures of analytical philosophy with the central concepts of Marx’s work. John Roemer has done this with Marx’s theory of exploitation, G. A. Cohen (1978) has provided a “defence” of Marx’s theory of history in terms of “functional explanation,” and Jon Elster (1985) has presented a reformulation of Marx’s entire enterprise in terms of rational-choice theory. Roemer has edited a collection of articles entitled Analytical Marxism (1986), and although these works help bring Marxism as a method out of its self-imposed separation from bourgeois thought, the obliteration of the dialectical method destroys Marx’s humanist philosophy and blunts the critical-revolutionary edge of his approach.
The dialectical method that Marx introduced into social science was revolutionary in every sense. In his intellectual battles he was conscious that points of difference did not revolve simply around the content of certain issues but, rather, around wider questions: What constituted the issues in the first place, and what approaches could be used to examine them? He devoted years to debating the important problems in social philosophy of the day before moving on to a study of political economy, also encompassing the study of social conditions in many countries. Marx was also a political analyst sensitive to particular political factors at work, rather than reducing them to a hazy notion of economic determination as so many of his followers have done. The “totality” that he studied he always regarded as an international phenomenon, and as its internationalism is increasing by leaps and bounds, it seems appropriate that modern applications of the Marxian dialectic begin with this fact. Perhaps the most encouraging development in recent years is the “world system” theory of Immanuel Wallerstein and others, which has given priority to the global dimension in a way that combines a number of disciplines and discusses the implications for socialist strategy in a hostile environment. The search for counter-systemic tendencies, for the possibility of transformative action, is wholly in keeping with Marx’s enterprise.
Marx insisted that his method by itself offered no guarantees. In The German Ideology he was at pains to point out the limitations of his theory of history and to emphasise that it was no more than a guide to indicate fruitful areas of careful and exhaustive research. He derided Proudhon’s attempt to apply the dialectical method to political economy, because it evaded major problems rather than resolved them; he warned that Ferdinand Lassalle (a German labour organiser) would come to grief if he attempted to expound political economy in the manner of Hegel by trying to apply “an abstract, readymade system of logic”; and he made a similar dismissal of the social critic Lorenz von Stein. Clearly, Marx did not regard the adoption of dialectical logic as a magical solution for problems without having recourse to the thoroughness and rigour that he displayed in his own work. But in that work the dialectic became a “scandal and abomination to the bourgeoisie” because it denied all claims that the capitalist system was in equilibrium and postulated instead its ultimate demise.