The idea for writing this article was inspired, by a wish to set out the method Karl Marx employed, in his approach to political economy. However rather than merely set out the method, I thought it might be more useful to to set it out, then attempt to employ the method to the thorny matter of gender. I thought this might be a good way to illustrate the method and also open up the possibility of using it elsewhere.
So gender , what is it? Usually I say it’s the social correlate of sex but some argue that it doesn’t exist at all, it’s a totally false ideological construct, manufactured by sociologists. There is only sex they say and some don’t even acknowledge that. When they do, they say sex is chromosomes. We might enquire, has anyone ever had an intimate physical relationship with a chromosome and the answer would certainly be no. All this stuff is exceedingly abstract.
In any exploration of anything on earth (or anywhere else, I’d suggest, for that matter) we have a totality out there in living breathing reality that needs to be converted into concepts, a knowledge of that world. We must attempt to model this as accurately as possible in our heads. The conventional way to do this purposefully and methodically, is to take ( or abstract) aspects of this totality and look for things that these abstractions have in common (look for abstract universals) in order to form a theory around them. But this was not the method adopted by Marx.
The problem is akin to constructing a jigsaw without a picture on the box, merely on the basis of the shapes and colours of the pieces. In this analogy the shapes represent agreement but importantly, the shades represent contradictions. Why is this piece blue and that red? We do not comprehend this immediately and not until we discern at least part of the picture.
The principle difficulty in the project of writing the current article is trying to ensure that I don’t tangle my own thoughts up in the problem of making a clear distinction between the world that we all inhabit as material beings and the world of concepts. There are numerous traps to fall into, as we need to switch frequently from one to the other. But I also want to take the reader with me without losing the reader in those traps. The essential paradox is that these are really not separate worlds at all, but the ten pound note in my purse is very evidently not the same, as the idea of a ten pound note my in my head.
Abstract and Concrete
OK so what’s abstract and concrete, what is this about? This took its conventional meaning in Western circles during the medieval period, when philosophy was heavily dominated by the church and reality was separated into the realms of heaven and earth. The separate notions of the corporal body and the spirit found its reflection in the dualism of Descartes and the vulgar materialists naturally followed this with a similar idea. For them the concrete was real and abstract was a separate reality of just about anything symbolic, metaphorical, supernatural or unknown. This is often understood in the realms of art, as an impression of what’s real, poorer in detail but richer in message. For example pictures which do not look at all like a photograph but convey meaning poetically and attempt to show us more of the essence of something if at the same time, less of the appearance.
This remains the dominant paradigm of the contemporary meaning of the terms. However the Shibboleth of dual realities met it’s first substantial challenge from Spinoza, an Italian philosopher and post Renaissance materialist in the 17th century. Spinoza probably represents the birth of materialist monism in the modern sense. Monism represents the single reality view that there are not two separate realms in total reality but one interconnected diverse essence. Postmodernists often seem to argue otherwise but such arguments are entirely speculative and have no known connection with the historical process, so far described. Any theory whatsoever has to be founded on facts or potentially testable hypotheses. As with the jigsaw analogy, abstract has an alternative meaning: pieces of the puzzle. Concrete means the puzzle correctly assembled.
When constructing a conceptual representation of physical reality, we cannot merely throw abstractions together on the basis of facts which simply agree with each other, we have to replicate the way in which material reality itself operates, concrete reality is something in constant motion, it has developed historically and also gives rise to contradictory concepts which are part of the total fabric.
An explanation of Marx’s method appears in The Grundrisse (1), a series of seven notebooks rough-drafted by Marx, chiefly for purposes of self-clarification, during the winter of 1857-8. Left aside by Marx in 1858, it remained unpublished until 1939. This quote is difficult to follow because it’s from notes, not from material fully prepared for publication. I’ve broken this quote up into 4 parts with my comments in between, so that the correct meaning can be fully appreciated:
1) “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception”.
The wording here is difficult to follow but what I believe Marx is saying is that in order to form a concept of reality which is concrete (a thoroughly sound representation), we cannot take component concepts as abstractions without referring back to the real world, in order to understand the connections between the abstracted part and the whole.
2) “Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought. In this way Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind”.
In one sense here, Marx is talking about the standard approach. The first path is breaking the external reality up and the second is its reconstruction in the mind. But he’s also talking about Hegel’s famous inversion, usually referred to as Marx’s inversion, rather better expressed by Marx himself, when said that he had put Hegel back on his feet!
3) “But this is by no means the process by which the concrete itself comes into being. For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one-sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole. As a category, by contrast, exchange value leads an antediluvian existence”.
Here Marx is illustrating his method with the example of exchange value as a concept which is taken as read, in order to demonstrates that it cannot exist in this ready made form. Antediluvian, here is a reference to the Biblical flood, in order to further emphasise the point that exchange value has to be understood in its real historical context, not as something which has always existed in its current form.
4) “Therefore, to the kind of consciousness – and this is characteristic of the philosophical consciousness – for which conceptual thinking is the real human being, and for which the conceptual world as such is thus the only reality, the movement of the categories appears as the real act of production – which only, unfortunately, receives a jolt from the outside – whose product is the world; and – but this is again a tautology – this is correct in so far as the concrete totality is a totality of thoughts, concrete in thought, in fact a product of thinking and comprehending; but not in any way a product of the concept which thinks and generates itself outside or above observation and conception; a product, rather, of the working-up of observation and conception into concepts. The totality as it appears in the head, as a totality of thoughts, is a product of a thinking head, which appropriates the world in the only way it can, a way different from the artistic, religious, practical and mental appropriation of this world.
The real subject retains its autonomous existence outside the head just as before; namely as long as the head’s conduct is merely speculative, merely theoretical. Hence, in the theoretical method, too, the subject, society, must always be kept in mind as the presupposition”.
Marx makes a further comparison here between the idealist and materialist outlook. He warns against treating the movement of categories as a real act of production and tells us that the thinking head must instead arrive at a totality of thoughts, not merely the self movement of concepts, detached as it were from the reality that they are part of.
But then the assimilation of facts into concepts and theory requires logic and logic has to be fit for purpose. Emanuel Kant followed Spinoza historically, and what Kant contributed above all else, was a critique of pure reason. Despite the efforts of Kant, the logic in common scientific and, more importantly in social scientific use, remains that of Aristotle and especially the Stoics who further developed it. It was articulated in the form of syllogisms. Like the American constitution, the basic rules were subject to amendments: a further set of rules defining what syllogisms were good and which were inadmissible; so the entire basis of accepted logic remained workable but incomplete.
Beyond Kant and his critique of pure reason, we meet Hegel who in complete contrast to Spinoza, opts on the side of pure idealism. However at the same time Hegel develops an entirely new system of logic. This new sort of logic is the process of concepts in flux rather than static. The process by which yes and no, as examples of binary opposites, can reflect complex concrete reality better than the ‘still photograph’ determination of either side. Thus for and against for example, can exist together in a concept of something moving through history. Being and nothing was Hegel’s actual starting point (mediated by becoming) but the system works for any opposites that can be unified in this way.
Hegel thus understood the process of thought in real human heads (though he couched this in the pure idealism of Absolute spirit). The method had to be fully understood and then reconfigured in order to be realigned with a materialist view. It also needs to be stressed that human life rarely consists of isolated thinking, an essential feature of human life is our social being and our complex systems of communication. Concepts don’t remain in heads, they escape into the world where they continue to develop through unity of opposites or what we could otherwise describe as contradiction. They return to the individual subject in the form of what has been previously established (or a priori) knowledge where they are measured against our lived experience. But it should be self-evident that social concepts are rarely unified at any moment in time, they are never static and are often transcended by synthesis.
Hegel also introduced the idea of sublation whereby a record of the original contradiction is preserved in it’s resolution. Hegel doesn’t explain how this happens but from a materialist view, this cannot be anything else other than memory, in the case of an individual, and recorded history in the case of humanity in general. Dialectical reason, or conceptual dialectics is not the same as the sort generally attributed to the dialectics of nature where it’s harder to define, gets mixed up with the philosophy of Heraclitus and becomes some sort of spooky ‘matter in motion’.
The dialectic of the concrete and the abstract is not something I’ve seen explored in detail anywhere other than by E V Ilyenkov (2). This is however entirely consistent with dialectical reason. If the abstract is a part and the concrete the whole, then it’s perfectly reasonable to study their relationship in this way. Hegel even devises the concept of a concrete universal abstraction but buries it, not in The Logic, instead in his Philosophy of Right. Marx takes this up when considering how to present a critique of political economy. Nether Marx nor Hegel understood the abstract and the concrete in the same framework, as previously described and as in the contemporary paradigm.
Abstraction is firmly established by Marx as the removal and study of the parts. Concreteness for Marx was the diversity of interrelated aspects which made up the whole. Thus in complete distinction to the standard empirical approach, the diversity and internal relations with their apparent contradictions, were more important and more representative than the points of general uniformity.
When modern science investigates the human body, it doesn’t read palms or map out the shape of a skull. it takes x-rays and conducts blood tests in order to find the concrete universal concept of the illness. Medical diagnosis employs dialectics in the sense that it doesn’t just look for connected systems but also searches for differences which rule out alternative conditions. So we can conclude at this point that rising from the abstract to the concrete, presents possibilities and that concrete means what’s real and complex in material reality. We are always attempting to model this in our heads but this necessitates that we know what we’re doing with our abstractions.
Briefly I should mention Althusser who clearly considers that the Marxist dialectic has been lost. This is very obvious in his preamble to his thesis (3). He seems to engage in an earnest search for it in Marx’s Capital but he doesn’t approach the problem as a dialectician (somebody who practices dialectics). He follows formal reason and neologisms (new strategies of formal reason). He constructs (as would seem reasonable for a structuralist) an argument of explanation, entirely novel in Marxist literature.
Ilyenkov explains the method without recourse to novel constructs and does so not only with greater clarity, but also within the framework of established Marxist paradigms. The important point here is that dialectics is not a shibboleth, it’s a method. It’s a different logical framework which needs to take its place alongside formal reason and for example, Boolean computer logic. It’s an extra spanner in the toolbox and one that’s particularly useful when grasping the social being of a decision making species of a social animal such as ourselves with its linguistically articulated, cognitive and historical framework.
Ilyenkov tells us something very important when he says:
“The general (concretely universal) stands opposed to the sensuously given variety of separate individuals primarily not as a mental abstraction but as their own substance, as a concrete form of their interaction. As such it also embodies or includes the whole wealth of the particular and individual in its concrete determinateness and that not simply as the possibility of development but as its necessity”. (2)
Before I make an assertion about Marx’s method a further quote may help substantiate it. This is from the Preface to the First German Edition of Capital 1867 (4), Marx here is drawing on the analogy between the study of animal biology as it is built from the concrete concept of the cell :
“In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both. But in bourgeois society, the commodity-form of the product of labour — or value-form of the commodity — is the economic cell-form. To the superficial observer, the analysis of these forms seems to turn upon minutiae. It does in fact deal with minutiae, but they are of the same order as those dealt with in microscopic anatomy”.
So let’s briefly illustrate this. The concrete universal in Capital is the commodity. It’s an abstraction, in the sense that it doesn’t immediately tell us all there is to know about capitalism, but it unlocks the whole mystery inductively, employing both dialectics and formal reason. It’s not an abstract universal because it deals with essence not merely appearance, not what things look like but what they are. It’s also concrete because it contains diversity of aspects and the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist system, need as against exchange.
The commodity is examined in its various forms and in terms of specific examples. Marx uses the coat and the linen required to make the coat. But a commodity must in general have both use value and exchange value, sometimes one sometimes the other. The special commodity money, is the one that realises the equivalence. The equivalence of commodities in exchange is essentially the socially necessary labour time, but the transformation of quality into quantity (measure) is performed by money.
Generally speaking we don’t exchange what we need for something that we don’t need. This is why barter has been replaced by money but it transpires that money doesn’t completely remove the contradiction between use and exchange (this actually reappears in capitalist crisis). The contradiction is (in the Hegelian sense) sublated. The movement from the commodity as a concrete universal, sits at the core of capitalist production and the conceptual model of the totality is dialectically constructed from this seed. Marx rises from the abstract to the concrete, progressing from commodity exchange in section one, volume one of Capital, to the circulation of capital in the money form in section two, thereafter so on and so forth. He corrects Ricardo’s mistakes and vindicates the labour theory of value but he does this because his methodology is the only appropriate one.
Hence to an experimental excursion into the contemporary minefield of gender. But before I do so, I think it’s important to emphasise once again, the difference in the standard concepts which distinguish materialism from idealism. In appearance, thought and substance seem irreconcilable and so the default position is generally the ghost in the machine. This belief is prevalent and culturally hegemonic. In essence however, this antinomy is irreconcilable and unsubstantiated because it really doesn’t exist.
The Marxist view is that spirit emerges from matter and thinking is the physical activity of organic nervous systems. The means to establish this proposition is beyond the bounds of formal reason and belongs in dialectics. This is why I suspect that dogmatists who operate on the surface appearance of Marxism, fail to grasp its essence. Many of them are Dualists and unaware that they are as such, when they offer vulgar materialism on the one hand, yet idealist dogmatism on the other.
First and foremost it has to be made abundantly clear that when I deal with the issue of gender in any shape or form in this article, I do not mean gender stereotypes!
So in what sense is gender concrete? Well to be concrete in the Marxist sense, it has to be a diversity of interconnected aspects. No concept would be concrete on the basis of being a simple fact or list of facts. Biological sex for example cannot be concrete under this scheme of things. As an abstraction (something removed and examined) it’s a simple dichotomy which hasn’t moved or transformed on a monumental geological time scale. Here we need to remind ourselves that dialectics is the logic of concepts undergoing historical change.
Gender on the other hand, is a social construct but a real one. It’s not (as many argue) something imposed by class system, religion, private property or the family. It precedes these things, is ubiquitous throughout recorded history and arises out of necessity. This is because it brings together the facts of biology, which in antiquity was in any case poorly understood, and places those facts in the development of real social relations in material existence.
Simple gender concept:
Social organisation around sexual dichotomy with the following dialectics:
1) Gestation and non gestation, corresponding strategies: male and female dichotomy of concepts; the sharing of mutual concepts within the dichotomous conceptual framework, masculine and feminine theoretical models. These are social, so not merely dichotomous according to biological sex. They undergo real historical changes with consequences for material reality. They do this whilst biological sex remains constant.
2) Testosterone or Oestrogen, both present in either sex but acting in tandem and deferentially balanced between sexes. These hormones have powerful effects not just on body structure but also on body chemistry in general. The effects include behavioural responses which are key components of praxis (the combination of what beings think and what they do). There’s a large body of empirical data to support this assertion. Here again the emergent concepts are not individual but social. (5)
3) Parenthood. This emerges from the first dialectic but at a higher stage. It’s biologically important but not immediately of political significance. It reaches maturity only when private property emerges and male dominance has been established. This cannot be otherwise, since there is no alternative explanation of patriarchy from a scientific perspective, given the evidence that both gender equal and matriarchal societies existed in antiquity. At a certain stage, male humans shared the common concern or anxiety about paternity. Evidence of this is abundant in the religious belief systems of the iron age, which accorded divine superiority conferred on human males.
4) The dialectic of sexual orientation. Gay or straight. Our distant ancestors or cousins, the Bonobos don’t seem to share the same anxiety about this. Reverse back several hundred million years in the course of evolution and we encounter animals which probably don’t conceptualise life much at all. They conduct their affairs very much by instinct. Intelligence is something that has developed over some 3.5 billion years or so, a vast span of time, and social intelligence doesn’t really take form until the first mammals.
Primates, as far as we know, are the only animals (less is known about whales and dolphins) who are both wilfully intelligent and social to an extent beyond, for example dogs (wolves) or the individual problem solving capacity of a crow. It’s reasonable to conclude therefore that the anxiety about a diversity of sexual orientation emerges not immediately from nature, of which our social intelligence is a part, but because this is a development of the dialectics, point 3) above.
The concept of sexual orientation therefore only arises when sexual encounters become regulated. Gender has now become significant in the inheritance of private property, an inheritance which is patrilineal but the same development is not seen everywhere across different cultures at the same time. Ancestor worship seems to be fairly common place in great antiquity but a strict patriarchy doesn’t come into being until the development of monotheism. Here the concept of father figure is ideologically transformed into the belief in a super-natural all powerful entity, personified as a male human.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Judaism (which later branched out into global religions, Christianity and Islam) did not develop until well into the iron age by which time patriarchy was well established. The dialectic of parenthood, particularly in a relatively small and emerging tribal culture, surrounded by much larger and more powerful neighbours, may have made progeny more crucially important. It would make sense therefore and provide a materialist basis for an ideology which proscribed same sex (particularly male same sex) relationships. Of course property would by this stage have developed into a class structure but as in modern times, the dominant ideology is always that of the ruling class.
The dialectics of the bisexual
Here we move from the simple opposition between gay and straight, through a process of bifurcation. Once the dialectical concept of straight and gay emerges, the possibility exists for a new contradiction, that of the middle to the one side, and the middle to the other. It’s important to remember however that the real sexuality of bisexual people precedes any development of the concepts. At a certain stage in modernity, the bisexual was perceived as a threat to both camps in the ideological battle between heterosexual orthodoxy and the emerging struggle of gay liberation. Bisexual people gained their acceptance but only after a further struggle.
But the interesting question raised about bisexuality, is that if a person is attracted at one time to a person of the same sex and then at another time, to a person of the opposite sex, what then is the basis of that attraction? Clearly it is not the cold abstract biological category of sex but something more complex, something more concrete.
Earlier we saw that the Marxist definition of concrete was that it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It’s again gender, not sex, which fits this description. Gender contains not just the social and cultural correlates of sex but also all its individuated diversity: the shape of the face, the behavioural traits, the apparent size of the eyes, the fullness or thinness of lips. In sum every conceivable diversity which can be found immediately attractive or unattractive (fancied) in the other. All the various complexity of the feminine or the masculine both biologically and sociologically determined.
The dialectic of identity
Here matters become more difficult and perhaps that is why we can build more easily to the point of LGB with a general consensus in terms of the outcomes. There’s a bourgeois liberal consensus of concept here of course but that flows from an ideology which promotes the individual and is hence suspect. Marxism in a distorted and dogmatised form cannot comprehend this and treats it accordingly, as a bourgeois aberration.
There is no problem here in terms of dialectical reason, once we understand that dialectics is a form of logic and not something far more mysterious, ‘matter in motion’ and all those speculative, metaphysical articles of faith. Marx did not just apply dialectics to the real world but he was thoroughly critical in his approach, expressing material existence in concepts but not leaving any metaphysical and mystical residue in his wake.
Identity isn’t something invented by sophists or by bourgeois ideologues, it is a fundamental reality of nature in higher organisms. Reality of course precedes the concept but any biological entity with any sort of means to react to its environment, acts in accordance with the principle that this is me and that is you.
In dialectics, this is the opposition and unity between the general and the particular. In bourgeois ideology, individualism is fetishised and worshipped with the result that the left wing dogmatist cum vulgar materialist, who places themselves in ideological opposition, denies its existence completely. This relationship between the person and the people is dialectical, precisely because we are profoundly social as a species. We actually identify ourselves, not in isolation but in relation to others. For example a French person has a French identity because they see themselves as belonging to the sub set of people who are French. A lover of sci-fi may see themselves belonging to a sub set of people who like sci-fi, the possible examples are almost infinite.
The fact that an individual may identify as one gender, another gender (or none for that matter) is as important to that individual as anything else which defines their personhood, often decisively. Even though we can employ dialectical reason to the development of a concept of transgender identities and we can employ gender as a concrete universal in developing that concept, clearly there are different issues involved. because the concrete universal in this instance is itself undergoing a dialectical transition. This cannot be a problem for the logic, since the commodity, as the concrete universal of capitalist political economy, undergoes such a transition.
We also need to be clear that in advocating dialectical reason, we are not dismissing science based on empiricism, rather we are supplementing it. In this context transgender individuals clinically present with a condition described as gender dysphoria. This is an accepted medical diagnosis, widely recognised. An explanation of the condition is beyond the scope of this article. However what it isn’t is a patriarchal conspiracy hatched by medical professionals (as suggested by Janice Raymond in her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire).
Whatever the causes of gender dysphoria, it could be described as conflicted and deep rooted contradiction between sex assigned at birth. Here I mean sex not gender, though the brain of the new born, cannot be considered to be a blank slate, the individual at this stage in life has genetic traits and perhaps some experience of its gestation but has not yet developed fully human conceptual frameworks or experienced the real impact of a social existence.
As the child develops she will form a sense of her own gender, This academic paper by Eleanor E. Maccoby of Stanford University takes a similar approach to mine in terms of the way that dialectics play out in the setting of groups. From the age of 3, gender identity seems to be well established and the choices made by children, given a free option of how they associate, demonstrates clearly distinct and different strategies between boys and girls. (6)
Those who present with gender dysphoria are conventionally subject to a lengthy process of psychological and psychiatric assessment before embarking on gender reassignment. None of this is trivial and is designed to filter out the most effective and appropriate treatment. Those that are considered to be likely to benefit from gender reassignment are subsequently given hormone treatment and expected to live their lives in the reassigned gender role before any reconstructive surgery is considered.
Though this approach is far from perfect what it does at the preoperative stage is to emerge the subject in the real world dialectic of the person and the social group, the particular and the general. This is important because it is how real identity works. As social animals we need others to confirm who we are.
Here we’ve explored human sexuality and gender identity from a dialectical and historical perspective. But this was also an exercise in the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, as practiced by Marx and dealt with in depth by the Soviet philosopher E V Ilyenkov. I would highly recommend his work for further reading.
Of course first I needed to set out what the concepts of abstract and concrete mean. I’ve attempted to show that the meanings are not obvious and that the conventional meanings correspond to a large extent with the Dualist philosophy of René Descartes. I then turned to Marx’s monist view and suggested that dialectical logic is the method to be used when dealing with the total reality of a social species moving through its own history.
Thought is a product of matter and there are no known and proven examples which suggest otherwise. When the practical activity of human beings is included with material existence, social being and concepts, we have the entire essence of dialectical and historical materialism. I’ve tried to give a succinct outline of dialectical reason which I think needs to be understood as a form of logic and needs to be stripped of its mystery, especially that of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.
Using the method described in the first part of the article, I have applied this to the development of LGBT theory using gender as the concrete universal. I have not taken this analysis further since I’m a materialist and I leave the developing ideology for others to comment upon. Trans exclusion is certainly a hot topic and I’ve listened to both sides of this argument. I think there needs to be more reasoned dialogue and less intolerance. The personal identity, I’ve placed in a dialectical relationship with the social, which I think is both correct and in many ways revealing. A critique of identity politics from a Marxist perspective, is a project for a future article but what we should not try to do is throw it out in its entirety. To do so would risk aligning ourselves with right wing bigots.
(1) The Grundrisse, Karl Marx, 1857–61.
(2) The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital, E V Ilyenkov, 1960
(3) Louis Althusser, On the Materialist Dialectic, On the Unevenness of Origins, 1963 https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1963/unevenness.htm
(4) Capital Volume1, The Preface to the first German edition, Karl Marx, 1867
(5) The Sex Hormone Secrets Sherry Baker 2007
(6) Gender and Group Process: A Developmental Perspective Eleanor E Maccoby 2002