From A Notebook on Dialectics (Part Two)

From A Notebook on Dialectics (Part Two)  [extra to text]

Every Marxist today would benefit politically as a result of a close but critical study of Hegel’s Logic. The question of such a study is not a philosophical consideration but primarily a political one. This was foremost in Lenin’s mind when he took up a study of Hegel in Switzerland during the first imperialist world war and before he returned to Russia from exile. In a certain sense, Lenin was trying to follow the same path which Marx cut when he studied and critiqued Hegel as a theoretical source of his own method. Marx superseded Hegel and Hegelianism as a whole but that does not mean that we cannot still learn from a critical, strictly non-apotheosised, reading of Hegel. To find for ourselves the “rational kernel in the mystical shell”. Such a study of Hegel serves to deepen our understanding of Marx and of the crisis of the capital system which confronts us today.

Marx was a lifelong student of Hegel (for example, see his letter to Engels, dated January 16, 1858. Hegel, of course, has to be read critically from the vantage point of what Marx and others subsequently have already achieved. And Marx has to be read likewise. But they also must be read historically which is not separate from such a critique. It is approximately 200 years since the publication of the Science of Logic. We critically study this work within the unfolding conditions which are mediating the crisis of the capital system today. Any critique is not “free-floating”, anonymous, independent of the social conditions within which it takes place. It would, in my opinion, be erroneous [1] to approach any thinker ideologically, that is, divorced from the historical conditions within which they worked and produced, and [2] to critique the work of such a thinker independently of the conditions mediating the crisis of capital today i.e. once again to approach their work ideologically. If we truly wish to grasp the content and significance of their work, I think it is important to embrace both considerations here. We must seek to avoid the ideological apotheosis.

A grasp of the origination and development of Hegel’s thinking, for example, cannot simply be attained by mere reference to his philosophical predecessors or contemporaries. We must not and cannot neglect the historical experience of Hegel himself, student, 19 years of age when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 and all the unfolding events in the course of and subsequent to this revolution. The French Revolution had a very deep and profound philosophical and political influence on Hegel.

Marx critiqued Hegel and Feuerbach as a means towards developing his materialist conception. Marx also noted the contradictory character of Hegel’s whole system. He revealed that it contained structured within itself the conflict between his radical dialectical method and the conservative edifice of the philosophical system which Hegel erected. That he used a dialectical method to erect such a finished philosophical system is itself the positing of a contradiction. Regardless of this, Hegel writes – in the Preface to the first edition of the Encyclopaedia (p.iv) – that he is endeavouring to set forth ‘a new treatment of philosophy on a method which will, as I hope, yet be recognised as the only genuine method identical with the content’. This, of course, is central for Hegel as idealist in elaborating his categories but if we invert it and ‘place it on its feet’ it has a resonating significance for Marx’s materialism. And even for the evolution of scientific thought in general.

If Nature is immanently dialectical – independently of the thinking subject – then the heuristic integration of dialectics into scientific method will undoubtedly serve to give us a deeper and more profound understanding of Nature. Even in the natural sciences, therefore, dialectics (compared to the empiricism and positivism that currently pervades it) would be more fruitful as a heuristic guide in research. The ’empirical’ is, of course, indispensable in observation in politics as in the natural sciences. But Positivism is a different question. In my opinion, summa summarum, Positivism is the Pentobarbital of the critical faculties of any revolutionary.

We only have to consider the questions and problems of today’s Physics to see the potential of dialectical approaches, e.g., in Quantum Mechanics, Particle Physics, Cosmology, etc, not to mention other areas of science such as Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, etc.

Nature does not require the presence of human beings to be dialectical. Nature preceded humanity and the latter as such only arises out of Nature on the ground and presuppositions of the dialectics of its pre-human evolution. Nature does not require our permission to be dialectical.

If we sit down and write a piece of work on contemporary events and questions, then what sort of method animates our approach to events? We could deploy “common sense”, “positivism” or “pragmatism” in method but where does that lead us in a world which is a paradox of paradoxes, a complex of complexes and not simply a mechanical assemblage of the “ready made” ?

I am currently studying Trotsky’s notebooks, 1933-35 on ‘Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism’ (Columbia University Press, 1985). The text contains references to Trotsky’s dispute with Max Eastman on the question of dialectics. Eastman’s position leads to the question of the “practical use” of the dialectic implying that it contradicted “common sense”, “science”, “everyday experience”, etc. Eastman sought to subsume the dialectic into the traditions of American pragmatism, Dewey, James, etc. Later he became a right-wing reactionary. Pragmatism is the ideal doctrine for the ‘Men who built America’. The reactionary doctrine ideally suited to the class interests of the American bourgeoisie and to its global realpolitik today. In his philosophical exchange with Max Eastman (influenced by the Pragmatism of Dewey and James), Trotsky asserted that those who reject dialectics have never maintained a consistently revolutionary outlook. Now that was indeed “prophetic”.

Is there then a dialectic for “theory” and a different one for “praxis” determined by positivistic and pragmatic paradigms? The realpolitik of the global representatives of capital is based on such paradigms. And this can be clearly seen with current events in the Ukraine. But this realpolitik is very clearly rooted in and articulates the interests of global capital; this is the “bottom line” so to speak.

If the world is living contradiction, then clearly we cannot understand this world without a conception of contradiction – no matter how “concrete” we think we are in our “common sense”,”pragmatism”, “empiricism”, etc – and this must orientate us in our “practical” work. This, of course, is not to deny the determinate character of the world. But to approach the world as if it is all “determinacy” without “indeterminacy” is the line which divides dialectics from the formalisms of positivism, empiricism and pragmatism. Positivism accuses Marx of “metaphysics” and “speculative abstraction”

But what is the relationship between the concrete and abstract in Marx? And not only in Marx. Write down any sentence on a page and within that sentence are to be found the dialectics of the abstract and the concrete. Every conception is a relationship between different degrees of abstraction and concreteness. Whether that conception is commodity and capital, I and thou, Positivism and Postpositivism, etc.

If we approach the abstract as if it is a question of the universal simply being “abstracted” from the “phenomenon” and “applied concretely” according to situation and context, then I think that is alien to Marx’s method. I think it is the wrong way to proceed. For Marx, the universal is concrete. If we adopt this former approach then I am certain we will struggle with the question of contradiction in method. Because the universal is simply “abstracted” and stripped of all determination without having any objectively real concrete character independently of thought. Without us looking at the given universal’s actual historical origination and development.

The universal itself – although sundry ‘postmoderns’ would dispute this – has a concrete, objective character. When Marx begins Capital with ‘the commodity’ he is starting with a concrete universal. He is not developing his conception “abstractly” in isolation from “concreteness”.

In my opinion, for communists to adequately address any question of any contemporary problem facing the proletariat, it is undoubtedly necessary to use a dialectical method of approach to such questions. How do we articulate the conception of contradiction and change so that it can be brought forward in method to address such questions? In order to do this we must first start (Anschauung) with real unfolding events and not with some imposed template of method. But as Communists, as a method of approach to the questions of the day, our approach must be revolutionary critical and, accordingly, inseparable from praxis which is revolutionary.

The essence or the focus of the dialectical approach is the disclosure of the inner contradictions within a “complex” (its internally and dynamically active paradoxes) which enable us to not only grasp the origins of the “complex” but also its ‘impulse’, ‘vitality’, ‘life’; to grasp its inherent tendencies of development. Contradiction (Paradox) is the most fundamental, animating category of dialectics and in the dialectical method of approach. If we do not grasp the internal contradictory relations of a “complex” – and especially the implicit tendencies of development which result from a grasp of them – then how can we orientate ourselves in revolutionary practice? Our conception, surely, is to inform what we actually do. It is not an academic or fatalistic conception. It is not a question of waiting for the apple to drop from the tree in order to pick it up but rather a question of actually shaking the tree in order to do so. If the conception does not focus on the paradoxical life and tendencies of the object then how can it comprehensively and concretely inform our revolutionary activity?

Thinking which appropriates the world by means of dialectically-related and articulated categories is itself a product of human history. And, accordingly, “dialectical method” actually arises and develops historically under and when certain historical conditions are posited which render it possible and necessary. Implicitly, the only scientifically valid and viable (and non-ideological) way to grasp this origination and evolution – as with all forms of thinking – of dialectical forms of thinking is by a study of their origins and development within the unfolding of the historical process itself. We find sundry ‘postmodernists’ approaching the question rationalistically which, perhaps incidentally, is a dominant tradition in French philosophy from Descartes, etc, onwards.

A comprehensive understanding of dialectical thinking is not rooted ideologically and rationalistically in thought itself but in the evolution of Nature and History as a process of development. More specifically, in humanity’s activity in the transformation of Nature to meet its requirements, as expressed in the development and application of the different forms of human knowledge. Dialectical forms of thinking cannot grasp themselves independently of this process but can only be characterised and evolve in relation to it. It is ideological to think otherwise. This is what it means, in my opinion, to grasp “dialectics through dialectics” which is the understanding of dialectical thought on the grounds of, and arising out of, man’s activity and his reflection of this activity in the course of the unfolding of the historical process itself. In this sense, it is an “identity” (or rather “unity”) but not a tautology. It only becomes tautological if we seek to explain dialectical thinking exclusively within the conceptualisations of its own thought-realm. Such an explanation becomes, in my opinion, sooner or later, an ideological ‘adventure in the dialectic’.

The stage at which the historical process has arrived in the course of its development also conditions and limits our knowledge. Engels writes that our knowledge is ‘limited in its actuality but unlimited in its disposition and potential’. Engels asserted that dialectical thinking is merely the expression of the forms of motion of the natural and social world reflected and articulated in the human mind. A truth simply put but, nevertheless, very concretely so. Without all the unnecessary sophistry of rationalisms and metaphysics.

How do we actually address and develop these questions in the unfolding of a revolutionary critique i.e. in revolutionary practice? How do we meet the proletariat where it is today (i.e. constitute ourselves as an intrinsic part of the class movement), with all the historically-imposed limits of its organisation and consciousness and how do we struggle to move that forward as the structural crisis of capital deepens?

When Marx wrote about the events of his time – for example, the revolutions of 1848 or the Paris Commune of 1871 – was he simply giving an “objective” “journalistic” or “empirical” account of these events? How did he approach an analysis of these events? These questions are not rhetorical. I truly think that these are legitimate questions to raise because in a study of these writings we will find an understanding of Marx’s method of approach and that will help us in our approach to current events, in the Ukraine and Bosnia, for example. 2014 is not 1848, of course, but it would undoubtedly be helpful to study Marx’s approach in his day. The method of approach will be actually found in the way Marx develops the content in these works as a class-conscious political articulation of the unfolding events of the times. Marx himself intended to write a “few pages” on the “rational kernel” in Hegel as opposed to its “mystical form” (Ideenmystik). But for Marx, his critique of events was always a revolutionary critique and not the critical critique which he critiqued in the 1840s.

Nonetheless, despite all this, if we cannot make ourselves understood to millions then revolutionaries collectively will be treated like an arcane and esoteric priesthood. We need to be as clear and lucid as possible within the limitations which are actually imposed by the terminology. For example, what other expression can we use for “surplus value”? The meaning of the term ‘surplus value’ is the basis of, but is not just another word for, ‘profit’. And, again, surplus labour is not necessarily surplus value whereas the contrary always applies. In order to grasp the distinction within the identity (and thus get to the value roots of ‘exploitation’) we have to study Marx, of course. There is no alternative. We have to be very careful not to vulgarise Marx in the very act of seeking to simplify. If we are not careful, we would end up with a sort of Mickey Mouse “theory”. Marxists can come across as an intellectual elite who do not appear to have cultivated the ability to articulate their conceptions in forms which the “man in the street” can readily understand. I think we have to be honest about that. But the “man in the street” can understand it all if he studies it. We are all “people of the street”. But this does not mean that ease of understanding, lucidity and clarity must not be important for all of us.

If we acknowledge the real existence of contradiction in its different forms – which is found in Hegel and in Marx – then we will be able to find it in any of their analyses of the events of their time. All forms of existence are subject to its dynamic. For example, The Eighteenth Brumaire, Class Struggles in France or The Civil War in France. Moreover, any dialectical approach to current events would incorporate it as part of its method.

Marx uses it in the elaboration of his conception in Capital where it animates his method and the form of presentation in Capital. If we accept that method is valid without the conception of contradiction, then are we not forced, by implication, to deny the universality of contradiction and simply acknowledge it as an ‘impractical foible of the imagination of the madman or an overactive mind’? This is the approach of many natural scientists. When they encounter contradictions in the outcomes of their researches, usually they do not consider that such outcomes may actually reflect the contradictory nature of the object itself. Usually they put it down to a defect in method or even in the physical apparatus which they are using. Which isn’t to assert that such defects may not be possible. But the method of approach is overwhelmingly formalistic.

Formal logic itself is a subsumed moment in dialectical logic which means that the latter does not deny the determinate or the determinacy of the existent (determinate being, Dasein). But to focus on it at the expense of dialectics (without acknowledging the indeterminate within and as the determinate and vice versa) is what Hegel would have referred to as being in the grip of Verstand whose principle is that of ‘undifferentiated identity’. The determinate is the determinate because it is always returning to itself out of its own ‘negativity’, out of negation of negation in order to reaffirm itself in its repositing but at a higher stage of its determinate existence. This is why ‘things’ which we observe in daily life appear not to change, retain their stability. Everyday I observe the bronze statue on my desk and everyday it seems to be unaltered, it presents itself to be so. But alteration is inherent within it as it retains its stability and retains this in its alteration. If I view it formalistically then I am focussing on this stability without seeing the possibility for its opposite as a result of the unperceived accumulation of changes. I wake up one morning and I notice that an arm has fallen off the statue. The dialectic laughs at me : you didn’t see that coming, did you? You looked at her last night before you went to bed and the right arm was still attached. And now it is on the floor in front of you. Dialectic as trickster, as prankster, as practical joker. My beloved bronze statuette, armless.

A Formal logical approach therefore stands as a less precise, less concrete and more abstract approach to Nature but that, in itself, does not invalidate it as a limiting case in our approach. For pragmatic technological purposes, at the present stage, we can use formal logic to design the present generation of computers but will that apply to the nth generation, etc? Formal logic (rooted in the Aristotelian logic) – as a method to organise our work as communists – remains a limiting case of a higher form of logic which has incorporated it.

But in the comprehensiveness of our understanding, the dynamics of social change and revolution actually demand dialectics. To exclusively employ Formal logic would cripple us. However, there is no denial of its scientific legitimacy and validity under certain conditions and parameters, but only under specific conditions which involve the formalised approximation of the objects of investigation. In my opinion, if we win through to socialism, and with later developments, dialectics will eventually be incorporated into scientific method.

Even now, Nature is calling out – in various areas of the natural sciences – for a dialectical conception and appreciation of her relations and properties, etc. I dare say that readers will know some of these areas better than I do. There are still Physicists who argue about whether light is a wave or particulate. And sometimes they answer that it can be wave or particulate but only as a function of the experimental conditions which we impose. Most scientists think paradox is a fault in reasoning, a foible in scientific method which is used in trying to understand Nature (devoid of contradiction of course) and that the contradictions being encountered in advanced Maths and Physics, for example, do not actually indicate that contradiction is indwelling and gives the physical world its movement and energy. But even the simplest and the most advanced mathematical equations and formulae are only formalised expressions of dialectical relations in Nature.

I am not conversant in the mathematics and logic of computer science and technology which is used in the design and development of computing technology. But here is a prediction from an computing amateur like me : it will not be long before computer scientists attempting to design the future generations of computers will come up against theoretical barriers and technical limits which compel them to go beyond a formal logical approach. They will be compelled to enter the sphere of dialectics in order to design more advanced computers. The more the technology evolves, the more it will demand dialectical theoretical solutions to the problems which are will undoubtedly emerge. If we acknowledge that the world of Nature and Man and their interrelation is dialectical, then we have no other route to follow, eventually and ultimately, but a heuristic one which incorporates dialectical thinking into the work of the natural sciences and it would be a more fruitful approach. The denial of the dialectic has its historically-posited scientific and technical limits beyond which the dialectic becomes necessary.

There are those (Positivism, Empiricism, etc) who state that thought can only be “scientific” if it is “predictive”. Predictive? Well, I think it depends what we mean by ‘predictive’. Physics is predictive in the sense that we can predict the approximate degree of force with which a projectile hits a surface if we know its mass and acceleration. In Chemistry, we can predict the properties of the next undiscovered or unsynthesised member in a homologous series of organic compounds. In the work done on the Periodic Table, we accurately predicted the properties of elements before they were actually discovered. We predicted their existence as well as their properties. In Biology, in Homeostasis we can predict how a living system will behave if subjected to certain constraints and in Chemistry we can use the Le Chatelier Principle to predict the tendency of development of a system in equilibrium if we disturb that equilibrium with given constraints like temperature, quantity of reactants, pressure, etc.

I do not think materialist dialectics is like this (scientistic) – which we find in the natural sciences – because in the method of approach of materialist dialectics there are sublated elements of both fatalism and scepticism preserved (not absolutely annihilated). In what sense? In so far as fatalism reflects a certain recognition of the general trend of development which a formation must necessarily follow once its general principles of development have been discovered. And in scepticism is reflected the conception that how this trend of development will turn out in all its concrete, specific particularity and detail expression cannot be fully known. So this type of thinking is, in a certain sense, both predictive and not predictive at the same time. We can provide a general prognosis of development but it would be impossible to provide what will happen in all the specific detail. Whereas if we study a chemical reaction in equilibrium using Le Chatelier’s Principle, we can pinpoint to a high degree of accuracy what the system will do (how it will behave) if we alter one or more of its parameters.

We cannot fully know how the unfolding crisis of the capital order will turn out in all its detail and particularity but we know that this crisis will unfold globally, based on our studies in Marx, Meszaros, etc. It will broaden, deepen, worsen, become more intense, become increasingly more global and this must have profound implications for the life of humanity and all the living creatures of Nature’s creation on the planet. This is not “predictive” as it is in the Natural Sciences but nevertheless it is predictive in the broad dialectical conception of the term. This, of course, serves to orientate us in our theoretical and practical work i.e. in the intrinsic unity between them, ‘revolutionary practice’ [Marx, Theses on Feuerbach].
Shaun May

May 2014

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