I’ve been intending to embark on a project to clarify the meaning of the noun dialectic and the adjective dialectical for many years because I believe that for many in the movement, these words are either obscure or misunderstood. Understanding these terms properly, is in my view at the very heart of being able to fully grasp the works of Marx and his collaborator Engels without which we cannot properly call ourselves Marxists.
My premise is this: that in the one and three quarter centuries since Karl Marx began to publish his exceptional insights into the motion of human history and then proceeded to lay bare the laws of motion of capital, the roots of this exceptional breakthrough have largely remained metaphorically in the soil and in fact more soil has been shovelled over them obscuring them further.
These theories are not mine they are there to be rediscovered by anyone who cares to trace the development of Marxism from its starting point in the mid nineteenth century, through Lenin and the Russian revolution, through the dark era of Stalinism, where much of this was lost or confined to the margins (apart from independent work by Lukacs and Gramci) until it resurfaces in French radical circles of the nineteen sixties.
First and foremost we have to consider Marx’s Philosophical and Economic manuscripts (1) which were written in 1844 but not widely published until 1959, although they were uncovered by researchers in the Soviet Union in 1932. After Marx’s death in 1883, the main custodian of Marx’s work was Engels, from whom it passed to Kautsky who’s reputation went into decline after the the outbreak of world war one. The recognised authority passed to Plekanov and then Lenin but ultimately fell under the influence of Stalin.
Without an understanding of dialectics there is a tendency for historical materialism to become a dual system (in fact a Dualist system) of crude materialism combined with idealist dogma because Marxism is thus stripped of its inner core. Events tend to be valued either according to their moral content or purely on dogmatic grounds (by idealism) or they are viewed as an endless repetition of past events. The real organic connections of living history as previously comprehended are lost without the theoretical foundations of historical materialism, as this unfolded in Marx’s early work. Furthermore without a philosophy of praxis there can be no revolutionary class consciousness and I will attempt to elaborate this.
Whereas Trotskyism had established itself as a force in opposition to Stalin, developing as it did out of the Left Opposition, the third International was still the dominant global institution in the period following the second world war. Trotsky certainly had a firm grasp of the Marxist dialectic but he can’t possibly have fully grasped Marx’s early work because it hadn’t been published during his lifetime. What he was exposed to during his imprisonment in Odessa in 1893, was the ideas of Antonio Labriola (1843 – 1904) who was one of the first to coin the phrase “philosophy of praxis” and who also influenced Gramsci.
Labriola fought relentlessly against the neo-positivist and vulgar-materialist trends that proliferated in Italian Marxism, He was one of the first to reject the economistic interpretations of Marxism by attempting to restore the dialectical concepts of totality and historical process. Labriola defended historical materialism as a self-sufficient and independent theoretical system, irreducible to other currents; he also rejected scholastic dogmatism and the cult of the textbook, insisting on the need of a critical development of Marxism. This scholastic dogmatism by the way is the root cause of the Pythonesque “Life of Brian” tradition of denouncement, very typical of small sectarian left-wing groups. Without an understanding of Marxist materialism, the works of this or that author become holy texts and any detractors cast out as sinners and heretics!
Following the death of Stalin in 1956, an uprising in Hungary was brutally crushed. This in itself was a complex historical event that I’m not going to go into except to suggest that it sent shock waves through the third International and assisted in provoking intense discussion especially among the French left, inspiring Jean Paul Sartre to write his Critique of Dialectical Reason. (2) This is an intense and difficult work to read but it singles out Engels for particular criticism with regard to his Dialectics of Nature. Dialectics in my view (and I’ll elaborate on this in due course) do not belong in material science. Engels produced many excellent works but this was published posthumously from draft notes, first going into print in 1925.
Also of notable significance is Louis Althuser who defended orthodox Marxism by correctly raising the importance of the unity of subject and object (more on that to come) but insisted that there existed an epistemological break between the early and more mature Marx. Epistemology describes the means by which we know things, how we develop our knowledge. Althuser could thus dismiss Marx’s Philosophical and Economic manuscripts as immature and irrelevant.
At the other end of this Hungarian-French connection was György Lukács writing “History and Class Consciouness” in 1925 without access to Marx’s early manuscripts but drawing remarkably similar conclusions (3). He participated in the first Soviet government of Hungary and then briefly held office in the communist revolutionary government led by Imre Nagy which opposed the Soviet Union in the 1956 uprising.
Stalin makes it up as he goes along: “We are for the withering away of the state. And yet we also believe in the proletarian dictatorship, which represents the tightest and mightiest form of state authority that has ever existed in history. To keep on strengthening state power in order to prepare the conditions for the withering away of state power – that is the Marxist formula. Is it contradictory? Yes, contradictory. But the contradiction is vital and wholly reflective of the Marxist dialectic.”
J.V. Stalin, “Address to the 16th Congress of the Russian Communist Party”
Defining the dialectical
This is what we get from the Merrian-Webster dictionary in the context of philosophy:
2a : Discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation; specifically : the Socratic techniques of exposing false beliefs and eliciting truth
2b : The Platonic, investigation of the eternal ideas
3 : The logic of appearances and of illusions : the logic of fallacy, the dialectic of Kant
4a : The Hegelian process of change in which a concept or its realization passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite; also: the critical investigation of this process
4b : Marxism, usually dialectics plural in form but singular or plural in construction : development through the stages of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis in accordance with the laws of dialectical materialism : the investigation of this process : the theoretical application of this process especially in the social sciences (authors note – I’m not sure where Merrian Webster got this from because “Thesis, antithesis, synthesis” is an expression used by Johann Fichte, not Marx).
5 : Usually dialectics plural in form but singular or plural in construction
5a : Any systematic reasoning, exposition or argument that juxtaposes opposed or contradictory ideas and usually seeks to resolve their conflict : a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to find the truth
5b : An intellectual exchange of ideas
6 : The dialectical tension or opposition between two interacting forces or elements.
So here we have multiple definitions and we are of course primarily concerned with number 4b in this list. Nevertheless most of these diverse definitions if not all are related (3, 4 and 5 especially so). Also the Socratic technique of exposing false belief (Socrates ? – 399 BC) comes into its own when we are contrasting the polemic which is fiercely one-sided with this Socratic technique which we can appropriately call dialectical. It’s also relevant to note that Kant 1724-1804 influenced Hegel 1770-1831, who in turn influenced Karl Marx 1818-1883.
But let’s start with proposition 4a above as our working definition : The Hegelian process of change in which a concept or its realisation passes over into and is preserved and fulfilled by its opposite; also: the critical investigation of this process. And let’s further simplify that, put it in plainer language:
We can define something by its quantity and it’s quality and often do but the quality can turn into a quantity (when a usefulness of a thing becomes a price) and a quantity can transform into a quality (when for example something we buy is being used for a purpose)
We can distinguish the day from the night but we observe that one turns into the other and vice versa. We cannot in fact define light without reference to darkness.
We attach importance to life and death but here again we know that everything living will die and that new life can assemble itself from that which isn’t living so long as the information exists (DNA) to instruct this assemblage
We are aware that masters can become slaves and slaves masters.
One of the essential properties of time and therefore history is the capacity (especially in human history) to turn one thing into its opposite.
Digging up Hegel to examine him
Hegels philosophy is a heavy read, especially for anyone not familiar with the various specialised terms that crop up in philosophy but anyone interested in studying dialectics further should attempt to read Hegel’s Logic (part one of his encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences 1831). (4)
Marx didn’t just take bits of Hegel (for whom he had a great deal of respect) but understood Hegel’s work in its entirety and wrote a number of critiques. Frederick Engels had this to say of him (fittingly humorous in parts) in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy (5) which is worth quoting in full but it needs to be stressed in advance that Hegel as an idealist and some say a pantheist, believes that the starting point is the Absolute spirit:
“Hegel was not simply put aside. On the contrary, a start was made from his revolutionary side, described above, from the dialectical method. But in its Hegelian form, this method was unusable. According to Hegel, dialectics is the self-development of the concept. The absolute concept does not only exist — unknown where — from eternity, it is also the actual living soul of the whole existing world. It develops into itself through all the preliminary stages which are treated at length in the Logic and which are all included in it.
Then it “alienates” itself by changing into nature, where, unconscious of itself, disguised as a natural necessity, it goes through a new development and finally returns as man’s consciousness of himself. This self-consciousness then elaborates itself again in history in the crude form until finally the absolute concept again comes to itself completely in the Hegelian philosophy.
According to Hegel, therefore, the dialectical development apparent in nature and history — that is, the causal interconnection of the progressive movement from the lower to the higher, which asserts itself through all zigzag movements and temporary retrogression — is only a copy [Abklatsch] of the self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain. This ideological perversion had to be done away with. We again took a materialistic view of the thoughts in our heads, regarding them as images [Abbilder] of real things instead of regarding real things as images of this or that stage of the absolute concept.
Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents. Thereby the dialectic of concepts itself became merely the conscious reflex of the dialectical motion of the real world and thus the dialectic of Hegel was turned over; or rather, turned off its head, on which it was standing, and placed upon its feet”. (published 1886)
The part shown in bold type is problematic because of later conclusions that this leads to. In contrast to this Karl Marx refers to Feuerbach 1804-1872 in a much earlier text amongst the philosophical and economic manuscripts previously mentioned:
“Feuerbach is the only one who has a serious, critical attitude to the Hegelian dialectic and who has made genuine discoveries in this field. He is in fact the true conqueror of the old philosophy. The extent of his achievement, and the unpretentious simplicity with which he, Feuerbach, gives it to the world, stand in striking contrast to the opposite attitude [of the others]. (other young Hegelians)
Feuerbach’s great achievement is:
(1) The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned;
(2) The establishment of true materialism and of real science, by making the social relationship of “man to man” the basic principle of the theory;
(3) His opposing to the negation of the negation, which claims to be the absolute positive, the self-supporting positive, positively based on itself.
Feuerbach explains the Hegelian dialectic (and thereby justifies starting out from the positive facts which we know by the senses) as follows:
Hegel sets out from the estrangement of substance (in logic, from the infinite, abstractly universal) – from the absolute and fixed abstraction; which means, put popularly, that he sets out from religion and theology.
Secondly, he annuls the infinite, and posits the actual, sensuous, real, finite, particular (philosophy, annulment of religion and theology).
Thirdly, he again annuls the positive and restores the abstraction, the infinite – restoration of religion and theology. Feuerbach thus conceives the negation of the negation only as a contradiction of philosophy with itself – as the philosophy which affirms theology (the transcendent, etc.) after having denied it, and which it therefore affirms in opposition to itself.
The positive position or self-affirmation and self-confirmation contained in the negation of the negation is taken to be a position which is not yet sure of itself, which is therefore burdened with its opposite, which is doubtful of itself and therefore in need of proof, and which, therefore, is not a position demonstrating itself by its existence – not an acknowledged position; hence it is directly and immediately confronted by the position of sense-certainty based on itself. Feuerbach also defines the negation of the negation, the definite concept, as thinking surpassing itself in thinking and as thinking wanting to be directly awareness, nature, reality.
But because Hegel has conceived the negation of the negation, from the point of view of the positive relation inherent in it, as the true and only positive, and from the point of view of the negative relation inherent in it as the only true act and spontaneous activity of all being, he has only found the abstract, logical, speculative expression for the movement of history, which is not yet the real history of man as a given subject, but only the act of creation, the history of the origin of man.
So this negation of the negation, described by Marx as “a position which is not yet sure of itself, burdened by its opposite and in need of proof”, is this not the situation that human beings find themselves in whenever they develop their own practical or social understanding? Marx here is much more thorough than Engels and their are no dialectics of nature, only the transference of the abstract and imaginary being of Absolute spirit into the sensuous existence of the real human subject.
Errors in Engels
Engels begins his Dialectics of Nature (6) with an historical account of the development of material science but when we get to the section dealing with dialectics, he sets out 3 laws:
- The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
- The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
- The law of the negation of the negation.
It’s important to note that this was not published during his lifetime and was unfinished but what Engels is clearly trying to do here is to take the Hegelian dialectical method and claim that this is the same process governing physical reality. It’s true that within natural science there are opposites, acid and base, metal and non-metal, prey and predator but not only do these opposites in the material world not behave dialectically, nothing useful can be obtained by attempting to apply dialectical logic to them. Jean Paul Sartre writes at length about this, remarking that even if there are some sort of dialectical laws at work in natural science, there is as yet very little information to back this up. Others including Lukacs and Gramsci were aware that this was a mistake but significantly Engels’ manuscripts were discovered and published by Soviet researchers during the Stalinist era.
This approach also appears in the section devoted to dialectics in Anti-Dühring (Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science) published 1878. Engels had ceased work on his dialectics of nature in order to write a polemic against Dühring at the request of Marx who was preoccupied with writing Capital. Clearly some of Engels’ postponed project crept into this polemic but whether or not Marx actually agreed with this approach to dialectics we may never know. Marx’s health by this time was failing and impeding his own progress.
The purpose of setting out 3 dialectical laws was to bring the Hegelian framework of dialectical reason into line with natural science which of course consisted of laws, gravity; natural selection; Newtonian motion etc. But in the block quote above taken from Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy, Engels says:
“Thus dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought — two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents”.
This is both correct and incorrect. Correct in the sense that “these laws assert themselves unconsciously (probably more like subconsciously), in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents” but incorrect in the sense that “dialectics reduced itself to the science of the general laws of motion, in the external world”. This second sentence is at odds with everything Marx has written on the subject.
Here we have a materialist dialectic in the sense that it acknowledges no boundary, no essential difference, between the dialectical reason as applied to the social world (the conceptual world of humans) and the application of the very same framework to natural science. What’s more, there’s a clear distinction between what Engels says about the negation of the negation and what Marx says in the block quote taken from his Economic and Philosophical manuscripts. In this instance Marx is philosophically a dialectician, placing the dialectic within the human cognitive, whereas Engels is philosophically a positivist, placing the dialectic in nature (as something within the fabric of external reality).
Positivism, a philosophical theory stating that certain (“positive”) knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Thus, information derived from sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. Positivism holds that valid knowledge (certitude or truth) is found only in this a posteriori knowledge. Verified data (positive facts) received from the senses are known as empirical evidence; thus positivism is based on empiricism.
Positivism does not of course represent the last word in the philosophy of science but if dialectical reason is to be applied it must be applied in the social and historical world which influences the choice of research field and how the historical and material circumstances of the observer influence the findings. Trofim Lysenko (pictured opposite) became highly prominent in Soviet agriculture for 3 decades for various reasons but his ideas which can be correctly referred to as pseudo science, had disastrous consequences. Western science was essentially correct in its adoption of Mendelian inheritance but of course in the absence of any genuine critical approach, pseudoscience (as is now often the case in the modern internet world) will form in the vacuum created by an ideological rejection of accepted facts.
With the negation of the negation rendered controversial (a controversy which continues to this day) and the transformation between quantity and quality being merely an example of a dialectical relationship, what we are left with is the interpenetration of opposites, that we can wear around our neck in a Tao symbol. Stalin’s official dialectic and thus the official Soviet philosophy and the one handed down through the entire Third International is reduced to Heraclitian (Heraclitus circa 500 BC) philosophy “everything flows”.
Marx’s authentic dialectic becomes lost in this fog because he situates it not in the abstract fantasy of an Absolute spirit (as in Hegel) and not in the general motion of matter as in Engels but in the historical journey of living human subjects in tandem with their natural and constructed environment. To situate in context and appreciate its real relevance, we need to rediscover it within the concept of historical materialism where it really applies and in order to do this, we must situate it within a philosophy of praxis.
Preface to a philosophy of praxis
First of all it’s necessary to explain that philosophy breaks down into three major branches: Ontology which concerns itself with being (both living beings and things), epistemology which concerns itself with knowledge – how we know stuff and moral philosophy which I don’t propose to go into here, although it does play a significant role in idealism. Praxis is the knowledge we obtain through practical activity, the process by which theory and practice come together.
Marxism represents a major break with the traditions of all of these branches not simply because Marx was an exceptionally talented thinker in the second half of the nineteenth century (which he undoubtedly was) but because he lived at a time when Darwin was publishing On the Origin of Species (1859). The old ideas of supernatural creation were coming under intense challenge from the materialists and scientific discovery. He also lived at a time when the proletariat as class with the potential to rule for itself was rapidly coming into being and not long after the time that revolutions had overthrown the old feudal order.
Marx proceeds from the dialectical method of Hegel but he then turns his attention to the materialism of Feuerbach which he completes – see Thesis on Feurbach (7). Whereas Hegel dispenses with the Dualism of René Descartes (1586-1650), Hegel’s Monism (a unified reality) has spirit or thought at its base. To recap, Engels tells us that the Absolute Spirit:
” Then it “alienates” itself by changing into nature, where, unconscious of itself, disguised as a natural necessity, it goes through a new development and finally returns as man’s consciousness of himself.”
Marx inverts this by basing his monism (the unified understanding of mind and matter) on living, thinking, material existence. This is the real basis of his dialectical materialism and how Marx is said to have placed Hegel back on his feet.
The confusing tendency of classical ontology to consider living beings as things and things as living beings persists into recent times. One classic comedic representation of this is John Cleese beating his car with a tree branch whilst lecturing to it. However, the commodity labour power is at one and the same time a potential owned by living breathing subjects and a thing that can be traded. Lukács adds the term reification to our vocabulary to describe the process by which the human realm is turned into things under capitalism, We’ll meet this term again further along but we also know the contemporary problem of corporations given rights as though they were individual subjects and what we therefore need to understand is the subject-object dialectic through which these transitions arise.
Although Marx never used this exact term it’s well trod good representation of what he meant when describing how human beings learn about their environment, how theory and practice come into unity with each other and how real human activity in turn changes that environment. Marx has this to say about Hegel’s idealist notion of human activity in his Critique of Hegel’s philosophy:
For Hegel the human being – man – equals self-consciousness. All estrangement of the human being is therefore nothing but estrangement of self-consciousness. The estrangement of self-consciousness is not regarded as an expression – reflected in the realm of knowledge and thought – of the real estrangement of the human being. Instead, the actual estrangement – that which appears real – is according to its innermost, hidden nature (which is only brought to light by philosophy) nothing but the manifestation of the estrangement of the real human essence, of self-consciousness. The science which comprehends this is therefore called phenomenology. All reappropriation of the estranged objective essence appears therefore, as incorporation into self-consciousness: The man who takes hold of his essential being is merely the self-consciousness which takes hold of objective essences. Return of the object into the self is therefore the reappropriation of the object. (8)
In the Marxist materialist scheme this approach is inverted. Man is not equivalent to self-consciousness (which is the cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am- of Descartes). Rather man is a sensuous being engaged in practical activity. Human awareness and knowledge of the external world arises via the senses through this practical activity, not from speculative contemplation because there is no Absolute spirit and neither the idea nor the concept precede this state of affairs.
But isn’t this what we’ve previously described as positivism? Here is where we encounter again the dialectic. In material science the experimental procedure where practical activity reaches empirical conclusions via the senses, the information gained is always what philosophers term a posteriori (we only know the observations after we’ve made them). The observations are always compared with the preceding scientific framework (a priori knowledge) but essentially the experiment must be repeatable and provide the same results. This is essentially a static process but one that works well for the material sciences because they rightly demand that experimental results ought to be repeatable under the same conditions. This doesn’t work at all well when we’re dealing with people or societies.
Furthermore cause and effect in the material sciences (with the possible exception of quantum theory) are generally central to the methodology. In the social sciences they can be hard to pin down, they can often chase each other around in circles with accusations and counter-accusations of “you started it” or spirals when apparently circular events turn out to be going somewhere in an unexpected direction. Dialectical reason best fits these sorts of phenomena.
In the world of ordinary human activity the human subject is in a dynamic relationship with her environment. She not only receives sensuous input, but her activity changes the environment in which the activity is carried out. Here the a priori conditions are not the body of scientific knowledge but the historical experience of the subject. Furthermore the essential framework is provided by the fact that the human subject is a social animal and this framework guides the historical experience of the subject. As a social animal, human beings will always have as their starting point a social a priori.
Furthermore the practical activity of the ordinary human subject is not the search for knowledge as an abstract cause, not the mission of science or philosophy but is directed towards the fulfilment of real physical needs. In essence this practical activity is real living labour directed towards material ends, to human artefacts that are useful. What Marx reveals here is not Hegel’s alienated self-consciousness at all, it’s the real alienation of living subjects under an economic system that deprives the human subject of their creative freedom and deprives them of the satisfaction in recognising the products of their toil. It’s the derivation of labour as the original foundation of use value which is alienated and reified (turned into a thing) under capitalist property relations.
For the sake of further clarification, the cogito ergo sum of Descartes is both epistemological and ontological (it concerns both how we know stuff and the nature of being). It is of course an important a priori in the development of philosophical thought but Marx challenges it (as it appears in Hegel) on ontological grounds.
This can be further illustrated by reference to the work of the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, (1891 – 1976).The main themes in Macmurray’s philosophy are the primacy in human life of action over theory, and the essentially relational nature of human beings. These themes are the basis for his Gifford Lectures delivered in 1953 and 1954 at the University of Glasgow, and entitled “The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation respectively”.
Macmurray summed up his philosophy as follows: “The simplest expression that I can find for the thesis I have tried to maintain is this: All meaningful knowledge is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action for the sake of friendship”. In dismissing the Cogito (the principle establishing the existence of a being from the fact of its thinking or awareness) and its legacy of the primacy of thought over action, Macmurray saw himself as breaking with the western philosophical tradition. However, he acknowledged the influence of Kant and Marx on his thinking.
The Marxist influence here is undoubtedly a philosophy of praxis, it cannot be anything else. The substantive point here is that Marx was himself breaking with Western philosophical tradition in his critique of Hegel. This is in fact the deeper meaning in the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach! I use an exclamation mark here for the benefit of those already familiar with it but we’ll elaborate on this in the next section.
György Lukács and the subject/object dialectic
Lukács takes as his starting point, Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it“ . He’s familiar with Anti-Duhring but rather than meeting Engels head on, he points to the omission of any reference to the subject/object relationship and has this to say:
“Dialectics, he (Engels) argues, is a continuous process of transition from one definition into the other. In consequence a one-sided and rigid causality must be replaced by interaction. But he does not even mention the most vital interaction, namely the dialectical relation between subject and object in the historical process, let alone give it the prominence it deserves. Yet without this factor dialectics ceases to be revolutionary, despite attempts (illusory in the last analysis) to retain ‘fluid’ concepts. For it implies a failure to recognise that in all metaphysics the object remains untouched and unaltered so that thought remains contemplative and fails to become practical; while for the dialectical method the central problem is to change reality.(Yet) without this factor dialectics ceases to be revolutionary, despite attempts (illusory in the last analysis) to retain ‘fluid’ concepts. For it implies a failure to recognise that in all metaphysics the object remains untouched and unaltered so that thought remains contemplative and fails to become practical; while for the dialectical method the central problem is to change reality (9). What is Orthodox Marxism.
What he means by this is that the human subject who thinks and makes decisions, must come into contact with material objects and modify them, This is the deeper meaning in the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach referred to earlier. It’s not merely a call to action, it’s also telling us much more than that. . The subject here is not only acting on the object but learning how to do this and improving her method by trial and error (the object is also changing her, the subject). This is the true site of the materialist dialectic, the material side of which is in the object and the dialectical side is facilitated by the cognitive processes of the subject.
In Hegel (in The Logic) the Absolute spirit does the dialectics, it goes through Notion (idea, object, subject), through Essence (actuality, appearance, reflection) to Being (quality, quantity, measure). To make this a materialist dialectic, it suffices to transfer this scheme of Hegel’s from the absolute spirit to the human subject. To do anything else returns it to mysticism or makes it entirely redundant. In fact both these things happen, the dogmatist whilst professing orthodox Marxism often precedes without considering any dialectics at all, or might confine dialectics to the antagonisms of competing classes and nothing else. If you ask where else the dialectic might be found this is often met with head shaking obfiscation. To which it might be tempting to answer in the words of Engels: “self-movement of the concept going on from eternity, no one knows where, but at all events independently of any thinking human brain” (perhaps)?
But the implications of the subject/object dialectic go beyond this. If we accept the premise argued in detail that a philosophy of praxis is a necessary component of Marxism and that the subject engaged in some sort of practical activity must have an object of that practical activity. Here we rediscover the social category of labour, the proletariat, not as matter of taste or ideological preference but in the materialist version of Hegel’s logic. Here we must of course recall this is the everyday practical activity of living sensuous social human beings, not philosophers or the privileged elite.
Lukács goes on to say that the materialist dialectic is a revolutionary dialectic and reinforces what we’ve already covered. I’ll return to this point in summarising but his quotations from Marx are very pertinent. The issue turns on the question of theory and practice not merely in the sense given it by Marx when he says in his first critique of Hegel that “theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses.” Lukács adds this:
“Even more to the point is the need to discover those features and definitions both of the theory and the ways of gripping the masses which convert the theory, the dialectical method, into a vehicle of revolution. We must extract the practical essence of the theory from the method and its relation to its object. If this is not done that ‘gripping the masses’ could well turn out to be a will o’ the wisp. It might turn out that the masses were in the grip of quite different forces, that they were in pursuit of quite different ends. In that event, there would be no necessary connection between the theory and their activity, it would be a form that enables the masses to become conscious of their socially necessary or fortuitous actions, without ensuring a genuine and necessary bond between consciousness and action”. (9)
The part in bold type is relevant when we are trying to fully understand the basis upon which sections of the working class are making political decisions. It’s not sufficient to imagine that workers always move in a way which serves their interests as a class merely on the basis that they are workers and I’ll return to this in the next section but this would be an error inherent in what I referred to in my introduction as “scholastic dogmatism and the cult of the textbook”.
Before moving on to the next section, In his History and Class Consciousness, (9) Lukács offers the following quotes from Marx: “It is not enough that thought should seek to realise itself; reality must also strive towards thought.”(10) This a brilliant and profound insight from Marx and distinguishes his materialism from Hegel’s pure idealism. He’s saying that we have to understand how to change the world through practical activity in order that it might better conform to how we imagine things ought to be. This is reinforced by the second quote; “It will then be realised that the world has long since possessed something in the form of a dream which it need only take possession of consciously, in order to possess it in reality.” (11)
Lukács interprets this as follows:
“Only when consciousness stands in such a relation to reality can theory and practice be united. But for this to happen the emergence of consciousness must become the decisive step which the historical process must take towards its proper end (an end constituted by the wills of men, but neither dependent on human whim, nor the product of human invention). The historical function of theory is to make this step a practical possibility. Only when a historical situation has arisen in which a class must understand society if it is to assert itself; only when the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and the object of knowledge; in short, only when these conditions are all satisfied will the unity of theory and practice, the precondition of the revolutionary function of the theory, become possible” (9).
The Epistemology of Class Consciousness
Epistemology as previously explained, is study of how we know stuff. There are those who imagine that proletarian class consciousness is a given, not necessarily innate, but something that inevitably arises from material conditions . This is dogmatic, unsubstantiated and unexplained. If this were true then there would have been global socialist revolution more than a hundred years ago.
Here we must return to the Kantian terms a priori and a posteriori. Some things we are told; the things we learn from parents, teachers, the newspapers, books, television, people we meet. The list is extensive. some things, the a posteriori variety we find out for ourselves through our senses, our eyes, ears touch etc. We subject both sources of knowledge to dialectical scrutiny both consciously but often subconsciously (what we’ve previously referred to as “a position which is not yet sure of itself, burdened by its opposite and in need of proof”). New knowledge is compared with what we’ve learned before by either method.
Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937 (also a proponent of philosophy of praxis) is fairly well known for coining the phrase “Cultural Hegemony”, though this isn’t entirely original. Gramsci derives this from Marx writing in the German Ideology 1845 (12).
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for mastery and where, therefore, mastery is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an “eternal law””.
Far from acting on the basis of some magical unexplained necessity of just being working class or just living in unpleasant conditions, workers carry around in their brains all sorts of notions, some of which they’ve learned, some of which they’ve figured out for themselves (here we should recall “It might turn out that the masses were in the grip of quite different forces” but to figure our something for themselves, which is to any extent free of the dominant bourgeois ideology, this has to arise from sensuous lived experience. It has to be a posterio knowledge. Yes they can learn some of sense of class consciousness from others but for this has to be powerful enough to break the cultural hegemony.
Yes of course working class culture exists in the sense that the environment they occupy is not Knightsbridge or Chelsea and they have much more limited budgets than the bourgeoisie but that doesn’t explain the existence of the working class Tory, Tressel’s “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, the pictures of the Queen and the vulnerability to xenophobic scape-goating.
Class consciousness starts in the workplace, in the realisation of collective interests against private profit and it’s forged in struggle, the most practical of any means to learn through the senses, lived experience and active social participation in forms that are alien to bourgeois cultural hegemony. This is a philosophy of praxis.
We’ve looked at the historical development of Marxism since the death of this exceptional revolutionary thinker in 1883. We’ve observed the Cartesian concept of Dualism ( the separate categories of mind and matter disconnected from each other). These categories persist into the present in narratives and persist in their disconnection through the coexistence of pure idealism with vulgar materialism, even in the brains of those who call themselves Marxists. We’ve drawn attention to scholastic textbook, quasi-religious interpretations which persist in a circular 3 dimensional version of history where history continuously repeats itself.
We’ve traced the process by which Marx’s magnificent insights were, both deliberately and accidentally buried and identified his real connection with Hegel and Feuerbach. We’ve dug up Hegel to examine him and hopefully learned that Hegel’s dialectic was not wrong, rather it was wrongly situated in the idealist framework in which he constructed it. We’ve understood, with greater clarity, how Marx put Hegel back on his feet.
Hopefully we’ve demystified the dialectic and the dialectical. Not laws of motion belonging to material science, there are no equivalent dialectics of nature. There are processes happening in human brains and because we are social animals, with complexity of communication, also in human society (the hive brain). We are actually creatures of dialectical reason and with that conclusion, dialectics is demystified but must be added to our awareness and materialised.
It’s not sufficient to know this and place it on the bookshelf. Theory informs action and action informs theory. This is implicit in a philosophy of praxis, the missing piece of the jigsaw. Human history is organic in the sense that it it doesn’t just happen by a totalisation of mechanical events. It is recalled, considered, processed and consciously directed up to a point, but here again we meet the restriction imposed by Kant’s a priori.
As Marx suggested in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, “The ghosts of long dead generations weigh heavily on the brains of the living”(13). This is the Kantian a priori in a dialectical struggle with his a posteriori, as Marx himself informs us this is: “a position which is not yet sure of itself, burdened by its opposite and in need of proof”. A truth which is now, is tomorrow’s chip paper. All knowledge is provisional. We’ve distinguished between certain ideas of Engels and their Superior expression though Marx, whilst he was alive
What is exceptional in terms of Marx’s contribution to the sum totality of human knowledge and self awareness, is his solution, via Hegel and Feuerbach, to the mystery of mind and body. Scholars are only vaguely aware of his dialectical approach to political economy but they are aware and this awareness persists because it’s accurate. Those that are acutely aware and call themselves Marxists, need to rediscover Marx’s dialectic which has as an essential component, a philosophy of praxis, the only possible interface of mind and matter. This is how Hegel’s metaphysical and mysterious dialectic is materialised and de-mystified. These enormous insights need to be removed from dusty shelves and restored.
Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it!
(1) Philosophical and Economic manuscripts https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm
(2) Critique of Dialectical Reason https://libcom.org/files/jean-paul-sartre-critique-of-dialectical-reason-volume-1.compressed.pdf
(3) History and Class Consciouness https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/
(4) Hegel’s Logic https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hl/hlconten.htm
(5) Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/
(6) Dialectics of Nature https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch01.htm
(7) Thesis on Feurbach https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm
(8)Critique of Hegel’s philosophy in general https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/hegel.htm
(9) What is orthodox Marxism https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/orthodox.htm
(10) A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
(11) Marx to Ruge, Kreuznach, September 1843 https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm
(12) The German Ideology https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm
(13 The Eighteenth Brumaire Of Louis Napolean https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm