13 August 2012

Explaining the dialectic

Here are my notes from a meeting I did last month at Marxism 2012. Videos of many of the meetings are online - check them out here: http://www.youtube.com/user/swpTvUk  

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that one of the themes of this meeting is going to be contradiction.

In that spirit, I’d like to begin by contradicting Lenin.

Lenin famously suggested that it is impossible to understand Marx’s Capital, and by implication it’s impossible to understand the Marxist method, without having read and fully understood all of Hegel’s Science of Logic.

Now, of course, I should point out that Lenin is making an important point in a characteristically hyperbolic way. He’s arguing that Hegel’s ideas are central to Marxism - that if we lose sight of Hegel we risk losing sight of the fundamentals of Marxism itself. He’s right.

Nonetheless, I think we should take up Lenin’s point as a kind of challenge. I think it is possible, even in the space of a short meeting like this, to grasp the dialectic, and therefore the fundamentals of the Marxist method, even if you know nothing about it at the moment.

Some of you may already have a good idea what the dialectic is all about, but I’m not going to assume any knowledge at all.

The funny thing is, even if you haven’t the faintest idea what the dialectic is, I bet you’ve used dialectical reasoning to think through a tricky argument. Conversely, you’ll have encountered people deploying very undialectical thinking - and you might have instinctively realised that they were approaching the argument the wrong way, but couldn’t necessarily put your finger on why.

Marx’s magnum opus, Capital, is often cited as the supreme application of the dialectical method. The trouble is that Marx never fully explains the methodology behind it, except in often quite cryptic asides and footnotes. The dialectical method is implicit in the whole of Capital, but it would have been easier if Marx had spelled it out more clearly. As with some many topics Marx intended to write an explanation of his dialectic method, but, rather selfishly, he died before getting around to it.

In this meeting, I’m going to try to make Marx’s method explicit. In the process, I’m going to try to make you all conscious of the kind of thought and reasoning that you might previously have applied unconsciously.

Dialogue and the dialectic

The word “dialectic” comes from the word “dialogue”. Dialogue of course simply means a conversation between two or more people.

But in ancient Greek philosophy the word acquired a more expansive meaning. The clashing of two opposed points of view was seem as the way of getting to the truth. No single viewpoint could be entirely trusted - instead the process of debate between different perspectives was thought to lead to the truth.

This is why many ancient Greek philosophers were also playwrights. Their plays used dialogue to explore philosophical arguments, while their philosophic tracts were often similarly structured as a contrived conversation between opposing points of view.

It’s a familiar idea to all of us that in a debate contradictions arise between different points of view and that - potentially - a more sophisticated understanding can result from this clash of ideas.

The dialectical method takes this notion much, much further. The dialectic, as developed by Marx and Engels, suggests that the clashing of contradictions can be observed not only in the evolution of ideas but also in social institutions like the economy and the state, and in the flow of history.

At the heart of the dialectic is motion, change, development. For a long time thinkers proceeded from the assumption that the world was made up of static objects, fixed ideas, unchanging social structures. A tree is just a tree; human beings have always fallen in love and fallen out with each other; the free market is eternal.

The dialectic reminds us that everything is in motion - everything is historical, everything has a past and has a future, both of which are different to the present. The tree was once an acorn and will one day wither and decay; the kinds of relationships human beings have with each other have changed radically in different historical situations; capitalism arose because of the action of human beings in particular historical circumstances - and could be abolished by a similar process. Understood through the dialectic, a “moment” is both a single point in time and a snapshot of a longer history.

If I had to some up the dialectic in a couple of sentences, I'd say this: the dialectic is the logic of change through contradiction. It is the theory of the processes involved in single totality ­ in other words, one system or one particular state of affairs ­ changing into another on the basis of its internal contradictions, of the opposing forces at work within it.

It is most significant as a method for understanding social change, change in human society.

If you've heard anything about dialectic you might have heard these expressions before: totality (which I've just mentioned), the unity of opposites, the negation of the negation, the change from quantity into quality,

Those phrases sounds like meaningless jargon - but don't be put off. The dialectic is not a way of sounding clever in academic seminars, nor is it an obscure dogma. Everyone can understand and apply it.

The dialectic helps us to unravel the most complex problems - why at certain moments, such as in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, history radically reconstitutes itself. But is also helps us to figure out more humdrum problems - how can we stop the cuts, how do we build strike action. 

This is the first meeting in the course: a rough guide to the Marxist method. 

In this meeting I’m going to mention the labour process but not fully explain Marx’s understanding of work. I’ll touch on alienation but only in passing. I’m going to highlight the significance of the dialectic for understanding history, but by no means give a full account of historical materialism.

In other words, you’ll have to stay the course if you want to get a full grounding in the Marxist method - of which this meeting is simply laying the foundations.

I think the easiest way to get to grips the dialectic is to briefly look at how it emerged so - I’m going to start by briefly explaining how the philosopher Hegel developed the dialectic in the early 19th century.

I’ll then move on to explain how Karl Marx and Freiderich Engels adopted, but also radically altered, Hegel’s method as a basis for his revolutionary critique of capitalism.

Finally, I’ll try to draw these threads together by showing why the dialectical method is the keystone for the Marxist method of grasping the contradictions of capitalist society.

In the beginning, there was Hegel

The German philosopher GWF Hegel was born at the climax of the Enlightenment movement in Europe.

Intellectuals associated with the Enlightenment championed science over superstition, toleration over tyranny, education over ignorance.

Enlightenment ideas grew from the revolutionary advances in science and technology made in the 17th and 18th centuries. Craft manufacture and trading were boosted by huge improvements in dying, metallurgy and navigation, while the increased use of the printing press enabled new ideas to be disseminated like never before.

Accompanying technological advance was the battle of ideas, as Enlightenment thinkers argued, explicitly and implicitly, against feudal authority derived from God, religion or tradition.
Hegel was perhaps the last really important inheritor of the Enlightenment tradition. He was also its most important critic, before Marx.

The French Revolution and German backwardness

The French Revolution begun in 1789 was by far the most important event in Hegel’s lifetime. It profoundly shaped his worldview.

This was one of the crucial transitions in human history. French industry, technology and science had advanced to the stage where it was probably only surpassed in England and parts of Holland. The French word for the captains of this new industry was – the bourgeoisie.

But this economic advancement was not matched by political change. The absolute monarchy of King Louis 16th, had, like his predecessors, made efforts to appease the rising bourgeoisie, but had also to contend with the formidable power of the old aristocracy. For years society continued in this way, with the bourgeoisie driving society forward but remaining evicted from political power by the entrenched feudal order. But eventually thousands of subtle changes in the economy built into a tidal wave. Revolution became the most viable way to clear the way for further capitalist development.

Before I move on I want to draw your attention to two points about the description I've just offered, because it wasn't just something I copied from Wikipedia. It's an example of a dialectical analysis.

1.     As economic forces advance, old social and political relations, that had once been quite adequate, become a fetter (or constraint) on a society's further development.

2.     A gradual build up of small changes leads to a sudden, dramatic overall transformation – a tipping point.

More on both of those points later.

So, the French Revolution swept aside the remnants of feudalism that had hampered the further development of capitalism. This was not merely the transition to a new form of class society; it was seen as the triumph of freedom and rationality. With copies of Rousseau’s books in their hands, the Jacobins were putting the ideas of the Enlightenment into practice.

Hegel was delighted by the French Revolution and never lost faith with it, even in the days of Napoleon and long after. 

But Hegel didn't live in France – he lived in what is now modern Germany, but what was then a collection of petty principalities in the centre of Europe.

The various mini-states in the Rhineland, Saxony and so on, had only puny fragments of the kind of mighty industry developing in England and France. Consequently, the bourgeoisie, the class of capitalists, was small and impotent. 

It's true, the German nobility sponsored a large number of universities, which were home to a growing class of young intellectuals and students. But though many of these thinkers had received a first rate education, they lacked the power to use these fine ideas to improve their backward countries. Instead they were forced to act as servants to feudal masters who were actually quite poor compared to their English or French cousins, and were sometimes even illiterate.

So, for Hegel and his German contemporaries, the material ability to bring about the radical change being enacted in the French Revolution was manifestly absent.

It was this state of affairs that later lead Marx famously to quip that the Germans achieved in thought what others achieved in reality.

The vitalising power of ideas

As with so many of Marx's aphorisms, it is an even more accurate a description than you might at first imagine.

For the German speaking middle classes, with very little prospect of taking control of the material infrastructure of their society, it must have been very attractive to think that society could be transformed purely by the power of powerful ideas.

This is exactly what they came to believe. And none of them expressed this idealism more powerfully than Hegel.

In April 1795 Hegel wrote a letter to his friend and fellow philosopher Schelling. The letter is worth quoting at length, because it drives to heart of Hegel’s outlook. It makes explicit the connection between the revolution in ideas and the revolution in society:

I believe that there is no better sign of the times than the fact that mankind as such is being represented with so much reverence, it is proof that the halo which has surrounded the heads of the oppressors and gods of the earth has disappeared. The philosophers demonstrate this dignity [of man]; the people will learn to feel it and will not merely demand their rights, which have been trampled in the dust, but will themselves take and appropriate them...With the spreading of the ideas about how things should be, there will disappear the indolence of those who always sit tight and take everything as it is. The vitalizing power of ideas even if they still have some limitation...will raise the spirits.

This passage conveys one of the enduring themes of Hegel’s philosophy.

If you wanted to start a political party based on Hegel's philosophy at this time – the “New Young Hegelians” perhaps – you ought to take as your main slogan these words: “the vitalizing power of ideas”.

Hegel, then, was an idealist.

But he didn't just have his head in the clouds. In this passage, Hegel is arguing that there is a relationship between the real world and ideas.
But, in opposition to Kant, Hegel nevertheless insists on that there is a real world that thought can know. He sees thought and reality as opposites (a unity of opposites), he does not dissolve one into the other.
Hegel’s method: the Master-Slave dialectic

What crystallises from Hegel’s writing is a new philosophical method - the dialectic. This method is perhaps most succinctly described in a well known section in his book, Phenomenology of Spirit, called the dialectic of lordship and bondage - better known as the Master-Slave dialectic.

In this section, Hegel shows how the condition of servitude contains within it the latent possibility of liberation.

Hegel introduces the bondsman simply as one who “lives in fear of the lord.”

The lord and the bondsman are “two unequal and opposed...shapes of consciousness.”

The lord is the independent consciousness who exists for himself. The bondsman only exists to fulfil the needs of the lord.

But while the lord only gains a “fleeting” satisfaction from consuming the fruits of another’s labour, the bondsman, by contrast, achieves a growing consciousness of his own powers through the work that he does for the lord.

Hegel’s description prefigures Marx’s conception of the significance of work:

...in fashioning the thing, he becomes aware that...he himself exists essentially and actually in his own right...the bondsman realises that it is precisely in his work wherein he seemed to have only an alienated existence that he acquires a mind of his own.

Although the bondsman was originally bound to perform alienated labour for the lord, through the process of performing that work he discovers a “mind of his own”, realising a higher form of consciousness.

The different stages of the process conform to the classic Hegelian triad: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The first stage is the lord’s dominance over the bondsman. The second is the bondman's labour on the object. The conflict between these two terms leads to the emergence of a new consciousness in the bondsman.

Or, to put it another way, the bondsman and lord form a contradictory totality, a unity of opposites.

The final part – the new consciousness of the bondsman – is the part referred to in dialectics as “the negation of the negation.” Don't be put off by that phrase if you're not familiar with it. It's still very simple: the bondsman's work on the object negated the lord’s domination over him; the new consciousness he then achieves is the negation of that negation.

It's just like in a conversation or a dialogue – the first person puts an argument, the second negates it with a contrary argument; the first person doesn't simply repeat themselves (in an ideal scenario), they develop their argument in relation to what the second person: the negation must be negated.

The Master-Slave dialectic confirms both the revolutionary implications of Hegel’s approach and its idealism.

Hegel sees the road to human development running through work. He also depicts the advance of consciousness going through the mind of the servant, not the master.

But we should note: only the bondsman's consciousness has been transformed, not his actual relation to the lord.

If any of you have ever tried this yourselves, you'll know the limits. Saying to your tyrannical boss: I've gone home and had a really good think, and it strikes me that the relation is irrational and unfair...well you're unlikely to effect a transformation in the social relations in society, although you might liberate yourself from that particular job.

So, Hegel’s contradiction is resolved only at the level of ideas. There has been a revolution in thought, but not a revolution in social relations. Hegel’s dialectic begins with the bondsman’s subservient consciousness to the lord and ends with his consciousness being transformed. Material reality – the bondsman’s labour on the object – is relegated to the mediating middle term.

Despite his radical youth, Hegel ended up supported the Prussian state and its monarchy. This was partly because in Hegel’s dialectic material reality was merely the stage through which thought travelled on it’s path to greater understanding. The “resolution” was not any real change, but merely the recognition that two contradictory aspects of a concept could be reconciled into a fuller understanding.

Thus Hegel argued that there was no real contradiction between monarchy and civil society (i.e. the bourgeoisie and the free market), as long as they were mediated through a legislature, some form of parliament.

Ultimately, Hegel's idealist approach posed no threat to a reactionary state. Hegel’s dialectic had a conservative outcome in which reality remains unchanged.

Marx and Engels’ dialectic

This is where we're going to leave Hegel, and see how the dialectic was transformed by Marx.

Marx did with Hegel's dialectic exactly what you would expect him to do:  he inverted it.

Instead of beginning and ending the dialectic with consciousness, Marx's dialectic begins and ends with material reality.

Marx realised that Hegel’s was a pseudo-dialectic. He realised that the material conditions of class society – and especially of capitalism – gave rise to real material contradictions that could not be resolved at the level of ideas.

Marx and Engels praised Hegel for recognising the importance of work – the way human beings create and recreate their own world through their labour. But where Hegel saw this as exclusively timeless intellectual labour, Marx and Engels understood it is material and historically-specific human labour.

A second important influence on Marx's thinking was another German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach.

Feuerbach was a materialist. He criticised Hegel, arguing that ideas – including the idea of god – were a product of human activity taking place in the material world.

But there was a problem with Feuerbach’s materialism. While he rejected god and religion, he viewed human nature as something that did not change.

This is an argument that we regularly encounter today – that people are just product of circumstances.

So, although he correctly rejected Hegel’s idealism, Feuerbach had removed what was revolutionary in Hegel’s thought – the concept that society and ideas were continually changing.

Marx agreed with Feuerbach’s materialism, but was determined to preserve what was revolutionary in Hegel's system.

Marx and Engels didn’t simply substitute material reality for ideas - they think ideas are very important! Changing ideas is the crucial middle term of the dialectic - that’s why we’re here at Marxism. It’s crucial that material struggle is connected to a transformation of ideas.

Importantly, Marx recognised that humans don’t have a fixed nature.

Our nature is to labour on the natural world to meet our needs, and because, unlike in animals, this is done through conscious reflection, humans are capable of learning, experimenting, and developing. At a certain point this development gives rise to the production of a surplus and class divisions. We have a history driven by culture, not just by biology.

From their dialectical materialist standpoint, Marx and Engels argued that class society was driven forward by class conflict.

Marx and Engels adapted 3 key parts of the dialectic from Hegel:

1. the world is in a constant process of change
2. the world is a totality
3. that totality is internally contradictory

1. Motion (and quantity and quality)

I began the meeting by saying that the dialectic treats everything as being in motion.

In mainstream thinking we are encouraged to see everything as static - but in reality everything is constantly changing. Some things change over a long period of time, other rapidly.

From the standpoint of human experience, the climate of the earth seems basically stable. The sun rises and sets, the seasons come and go. These sequences seem to be circular - but are in fact more like a spiral: the sun slowly ages, the climactic conditions are slowly evolving. Every breath you take feels just the same as the one before, but in reality you're one step closer to death.

But in truth climate change under the influence of capitalism is likely to reach a tipping point. All the individual emissions of CO2 will gradually build up until, all of sudden, there will be a qualitative shift in our environment - runaway climate change.

This is another aspect of the dialectic - the relationship between quantity and quality.

If you blow up a balloon, puff by puff you increase the quantity of air inside. Then all at once it bursts. If you heat water one degree at a time, it will stay as water right up to 100 degrees Celsius - when it suddenly transforms into steam. Quantitative changes build up to a qualitative shift.

This process can be observed in human society.

I want to add an important caveat at this point - there is a crucial difference between dialectics of nature of human society - human consciousness and human agency. Once water in a kettle reaches 100 degrees it is certain that it will transform into steam. If dozen workers in a workplace are threatened with the sack it is not certain either that their colleagues will go on strike of that they will acquiesce - the outcome will be shaped by the conscious activity of those involved.

But with this important qualification the transformation of quantity into quality can be observed in human society. Mark Duggan was hardly the first black man to die in police custody - but his death proved to be the last straw, the last in a huge series of police provocations that sparked last summer’s riots.  

In Egypt the revolution seemed to come out of nowhere - but look deeper into that society and you could see that thousands of specific provocations from the dictatorship, the rising price of food on the world market and the growing strike waves had built to fuel the revolution.

A revolution seems impossible until it actually happens, because small, discreet pressures in society build and then suddenly explode.

2. Totality

Mainstream thought encourages us to ignore the way that individual things are connected with the rest of society.

For postmodernists in universities and neoliberal politicians and economists, society is composes of separate individuals, concepts and points of view, points of light in the dark, which are only coincidentally connected and can't be understood in the round. 

Let’s return to the example of last summer’s riots: the media tried to insist it was merely an expression of “mindless criminality”, it couldn’t be explained. Infact there were a whole series of interlocking causes - the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance, increases in tuition fees, high youth unemployment, and the alienation that flows from all of these. Specific causes are anchored in the totality of capitalist society at any given moment.

If the ruling class does offer an explanation of problems in society, they typically imply the problem is external. Alfred Marshall, a key founder “neoclassical” economics suggested economic problems were caused by “sun spots” - something so external to capitalism that it wasn’t even on planet earth.

The current crisis is often characterised as being caused by overbearing state intervention - or conversely by a lack intervention in the market to stop the recklessness of bankers. In other words, whatever problems are indentified they must lie outside the free market, extrinsic to capitalism.

For Marxists the causes of crisis are intrinsic to capitalism.

3. The unity of opposites

The dynamism of capitalism, as a totality is, then, a result of it being a contradictory totality.

At the heart of capitalism’s morass of contradictions lies the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Bosses and workers form a unity of opposites. The bourgeoisie bring the proletariat into existence - the proletariat is the negation of the bourgeoisie. The workers’ dissolution of capitalism is the negation of the negation, because the working class abolishes itself, ultimately dissolving itself and the ruling class into a classless society. This is the equivalent of Hegel’s synthesis - but the contradiction is resolved in the material world, not merely in the mind.

As literary critic Terry Eagleton argued at Marxism last year, the bourgeoisie is like a tragic hero, full of boundless energy, but riven by internal flaws and contradictions that lead to its own downfall.


None of this means that abolishing of capitalism is easy or inevitable, because history of made by human beings. As Marx famously put it, “Men [which we should edit to say “humans”] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”, they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing.

Capitalism creates the conditions for its own abolition, and the class capable of carrying it out - but that doesn’t make the death of capitalism inevitable. It takes the conscious action of human beings to make it a reality.

History turning on its heel

It is received wisdom to imagine that change happens gradually and in a broadly linear fashion. Disruptive events like revolutions are just that - disruptions to the otherwise tranquil onward march of history.

This view, which is in part a vulgarisation of Enlightenment ideas, is not true. You don’t need to have read Hegel’s Science of Logic or even any of Marx to know it’s not true. Whether it’s the chaos of the eurozone crisis or the drama of the Egyptian Revolution, real life is constantly providing examples of rapid shifts in reality, dizzying reversals, history turning on its heel.

Rosa Luxemburg once wrote:

...the vital core, the quintessence, of the entire Marxist doctrine is the dialectical materialist method of social inquiry, a method for which no phenomena, or principles, are fixed and unchanging, for which there is no dogma, for which Mephistopheles’ comment, “reason turns to madness, kindness to torment,” stands as a motto over the affairs of human Society; and for which every historical “truth” is subject to a perpetual and remorseless criticism by actual historical developments.

The dialectic gives us the tools to explain the ceaseless movements of history - in order to change its course.