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Marginalia on Marx, Dialectics and Socialism [Part 1]

Marginalia on Marx, Dialectics and Socialism [Part 1]
Criterion of Truth

Lenin refers to practice (Marx : “activity”) as the ultimate criterion of truth. He writes that this criterion is sufficiently definite to give us a relatively truthful conception of Nature but sufficiently indefinite to prevent us falling into dogmatism. The conditions of what is or is not possible for human beings to know are not fixed but historically mobile and a function of the theoretical-technical stage at which scientific research has arrived. For example, we could not have elucidated the structure of DNA in the nineteenth century because our techniques and theory in the Natural Sciences had not sufficently advanced to the required stage. Engels writes of human knowledge being limited in its actuality but unlimited in its potential and disposition. Here Engels is referring, implicitly, to the fact that the conditions for the possibility of knowledge are historically posited and negatable in their specificity to higher stages of human scientific praxis.

The Conception and the “Thing-in-itself”

Lenin and Trotsky criticised Kant’s idealism. That the synthesis of the “Categories” creates the world we perceive is what Lenin critiqued Mach for in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. He wrote that Mach converged to Berkeley’s subjective idealism in such a conception. Mach was asserting that the electron was only “our idea of the electron”. Lenin (in Volume 38) wrote that the logical categories are the “shadows of the real world” but are not this world per se. But our scientifically verifiable (in practice) conceptions of the electron, for example, correspond to its real character but are not and never can be fully exhaustive of the reality of this aspect of Nature. For example, we can predict its approximate behaviour under specified conditions on the basis of our scientific conception of it. But the correspondence of its behaviour to our prediction is only approximate.

Category of Appearance

Marx wrote that if “appearance” always corresponded to the “essence of things” there would be no need for science. Appearance is a contradictory presentiment because it can serve simultaneously as both “veil” of essence and “gateway” to essence. The function of science is to go through the gateway beyond the veil and descend down into a never ending abyss of human knowledge. The asymptotic character of human knowledge is determined by the ontological nature of its objects of investigation in Nature itself. Nature is a bottomless pit as far as knowledge is concerned. Our conceptions of Nature can only appropriate it relatively with a historically alterable degree of concreteness. This must mean that these scientific conceptions are subject to their own abstract-concrete dialectic in the actual development of their conceptual content.

Hegel’s “Transition” from “Being” to “Nothing”

Hegel begins with the “logical” category of Being. This is why the beginning of the ‘Logic’ is highly problematic. He begins with Being indeterminate which is Being without any determinate content and hence pure being as the most abstract of categories which is equal to “isness”. By starting with the Being of the “Idea”, Being and Nothing are posited as absolutely identical. This means that Being is posited without any determinate content (and therefore necessary mediation) in order to take us from Being to Nothing. To make the transition from Being to Nothing. How can we move from one category to another without mediation of content? Mediation implies distinction between the posited category and the derived category in terms of animating content. But since both are absolutely identical – with no differentiating content to mediate in the first part of the ‘Logic’ – this implies that Hegel actually imports ‘Nothing’ rather than deriving it. The “mediation” between Being and Nothing is strictly formal and hence is no real mediation at all. The dialectical logic of Hegel commences with a formal logic. Studying the relevant sections of the first part of the ‘Logic’, we see that the so-called transition from Being to Nothing is simply a formalised identification which immediately posits “Becoming” (Werden) without any mediation. In a certain sense, Hegel simply starts with the whole complex because he cannot derive pure Nothing from pure Being. There is no mediating content which enables him to do so. This, of course, is because he is working within the realm of the abstract “Idea”. In other words, Hegel is with God ab initio. The god of Parmenides (Eleaticism) (Being) + the god of Buddha (Nothing) = the god of Heraclitus (Becoming). And the consummation of this indeterminate formal beginning is the realised “Absolute Idea” which is the revelation and immanence of God.

Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence

The summa summarum of the Doctrine of Essence is the concept of dialectical relation. All things are only self-related insofar as they are in relation-to-other and vice versa. Self-relatedness is simultaneously relation-to-other and vice versa but in this identity each relatedness is distinct from the other. Spinoza was influential here. For example, capital and wage labour, particle physics “symmetry”, etc. The class struggle. Opposites, each of which can only be what they are as a result of their mutual relation and negative relation to each other. In this negative relation, they posit and reaffirm each other. Reciprocality in relation is the central conception in the Doctrine of Essence. Hence relation can only be dialectical. Never formal. Interpenetration and mutually conditioning and determining opposites. i.e., the unity of conflicting opposites.

Actual and Possible

The mediated totality is the unity of the possible and the actual in which each is continuously becoming transformed into the other. Actuality (its conditions) is the ground of possibility and possibility consumes these conditions in its becoming actual and therefore positing a higher actuality. A higher actuality becomes posited out of the consumption of the conditions of actuality. This is the transformation of the possibility into actuality on the consumption of the conditioning grounds of its own existence as the possible. Thus Hegel : “when all the necessary conditions are actually present, the thing enters into existence”. i.e. the possible becomes actual.

Mediation, Contradiction and Return

The posited passes beyond itself into its other (absolute negativity) and in this other abides in itself and this other is contained within itself i.e. abides within the originally posited (intermediation). But this relation is contradiction per se in which one is simultaneously other and not other and other is simultaneously the posited one and not the posited one. In their contradictory relation each is simultaneously posited and the negative of the posited other (+/- = -/+). But as determinate point of departure, the aboriginally posited returns into itself out of negation (negated negation) as return to the old yet irreversible advance beyond the old at the same time. Accordingly, the contradiction is resolved at a higher stage of existence whilst aspects of what is resolved are preserved (sublated) into this higher form of determinate being. Determinate things always return into themselves as long as the conditions are operative for this return. Their internal contradictions operate and unfold within the constraining conditions of the actual existence of the thing. This is why “things” appear not to fundamentally alter because they are always in process of returning into themselves. When these conditions alter beyond certain limits, dissolution sets in and the thing starts to perish. To enter its period of decay and transformation.
“The power of the negative” is the contradictory source of the posited always returning to itself and reasserting itself. However, this same power mediates as “portent” (Hegel : “The portentous power of the negative”) i.e. as announcing beforehand the imminent dissolution of the seemingly eternal positive. The negative never sleeps and must, sooner or later, ominously presage (foreshadows) the downfall of its ground and therefore of itself as “negative” of this determinate ground. (Latin : portendere = to stretch beyond oneself, itself, etc). Beyond a certain point or limit, the negative creates the conditions within the formation for its dissolution and transformation. [Hegel’s category of Measure : quantity and quality, transformation.] Why does the bubble burst? Why does the bridge suddenly collapse? Why does the elastic band snap when stretched beyond a certain point or tension? Transgression of the conditions for its existence as bubble, bridge or band. Beyond the “nodal point”.

Hegel’s ‘Logic’ and Development as Concentration of History (Enrichment)

In Hegel’s ‘Logic’, each succeeding category is more concrete than the preceding one because it contains the wealth of all the antecedent development sublated within itself. There is always abolition but the resulting positive content is always richer because it contains this entire history dialectically superseded within itself. The river at its mouth is always richer than the river at its source. Development ‘concentrates’ its own history so all development is a process of self-enrichment.

The Significance of the “Concept” in Hegel for Dialectics in General

The Concept (Begriff) in Hegel as Being which, in process of passing beyond itself into its opposite, is only passing into itself. In the positing of this its opposite, the aboriginally posited does not become anything distinctly different in isolation from it but rather remains, in this opposition, completely identical with itself. This is a return of this Being to itself. The one, in engendering and determining its other, is simultaneously self-determining. And the other likewise in its reciprocal relation to the one. They mutually interpenetrate. But since the one has given rise to its other out of itself, it is in identity with this other and returns into itself out of the otherness of this negation with the negation of this otherness. It reaffirms itself as the aboriginally posited. This posited ab initio abides within itself whilst simultaneously going beyond itself. It returns to itself as rejuvenated old which is therefore yet an advance beyond this old. Accordingly, the “concept” is the forever recurring and forever animating structure (relationship) of all forms of development in Nature, society or thought, etc. For Marx, it is not a pantheistically posited ghost or “spirit” (Geist) but rather absolutely identical to the real, given, specific forms of development. This is Marx’s dialectical monism. In Hegel, this takes the idealist form of the concept unfolding itself in the multiplicity of its otherness in order to concentrate itself by returning into itself as unity out of this multiplicity and knowing itself to be so in Self-Consciousness. But in Hegel – because the “Concept” is identical to Nature in its difference from it – a theological teleology animates his whole doctrine.

Shaun May

September 2014

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On the Human Psyche as a Synthesis of the Social and the Biological

On the Human Psyche as a Synthesis of the Social and the Biological

Consciousness is not simply a passive reflection of social relations but is a most active element in the development of these relations. Vygotsky remarks that…

Any function in the child’s cultural development appears on the stage twice, on two planes, first on the social plane and then on the psychological; first between people as an interpsychological category, and then inside the child, as an intrapsychological. This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory and to the formation of concepts. The actual relations between human individuals underlie all the higher functions. [1]

He proposes that the ‘inner dialogues’ of consciousness are intrapsychological transpositions of the dialogues and social interactions between individuals. These interactions become psychologically internalised in the form of ‘inner dialogues’ thereby reflecting the social structure and content of the actual relations between human individuals. Implicit in this conception is that social relationships and psychological processes mediate each other i.e. the whole process can be described by the term psychosocial. The inner dialogues of consciousness are an intrinsic part of this whole process and do not exist in separation from it but only in relation with and to it.

In the psychological internalisation of social relations, not only does consciousness arise in the individual but it also develops the ability to consciously monitor itself. In this self-relation of consciousness, that which is being monitored constitutes an organic dialectical unity with that which is monitoring: both constitute different sides of the same process of conscious thought.

This ‘monitor’ is an elevated function of conscious awareness. In this self-monitoring capacity of consciousness, humans possess the ability to reflect upon the process and progress of their own inner thought content. The individual becomes aware of his or her own thinking and feeling, involving the ability of humans to reflect upon the conceptual content and development of their own thoughts and feelings. This self-monitoring activity of consciousness constitutes what might be referred to as the internal eye of consciousness itself whose operation mediates the internal dialogues of consciousness.  This internal eye is the means by and through which consciousness monitors itself; consciousness elevating itself into its reflective mode whilst remaining itself in this monitoring ‘otherness’.  Hegel had this process of reflection in mind when he postulated that….

Mind, in spite of its simplicity, is distinguished within itself; for the ‘I’ sets itself over against itself, makes itself its own object and returns from difference…….. into unity with itself [2]

On a psychological plane, the origination and historical development of humanity is the enduring, unfolding process of an aware yet non-conscious natural being (the pre-human, animal primate ancestor) becoming a conscious social being, conscious of Nature and of itself (self-consciousness) as being in and a part of Nature.

Thought consciously monitoring the unfolding of its own conceptual content is an exclusive property of the human mind not found in animals or in higher primates. Animals are aware, are sentient, but ‘non-conscious’ natural beings and do not possess this capacity to reflect. For example, when an animal encounters its image in a mirror it merely sees, if at all, the image of its physicality, itself as an object.  When a human being looks into a mirror it observes not only a physicality but also the ‘me’ or ‘I’.  For the animal there is no ‘I’ to which this physicality is intrinsic.  ‘I-ness’ (ego) is a function of the reflective capacities of conscious beings.  Consciousness itself, as distinguished from the simple, non-conscious awareness of animals, is a specifically human form of awareness embracing and incorporating within itself an awareness of the ‘self’ involving the capacity to reflect.

The mind functions as a singularity. Each aspect does not operate in isolation from the others but only in unity with and relation to the others. Each side or aspect is only distinct and has its own particular functioning in its connection and relationship to the movement of the mind as a whole. Thus Hegel remarks that….

our own sense of the mind’s living unity naturally protests against any attempt to break it up into different faculties, forces or, what comes to the same thing, activities conceived as independent of each other [3]

We can recognise this when we consider the relationship between thinking and feeling. They constitute different sides of one single psychological relation. Thinking is both a conceptual source of feeling and a medium for its articulation and expression. Specific forms of thinking are related to specific emotions. The conceptual content, meaning and mode of thinking conditions the emotional life of the individual.  The origination and socio-historical development of consciousness brings with it all those emotions which are specifically human.

Therefore, thought and emotion, in their dialectical relation, mutually condition and determine each other and, in so doing, are simultaneously self-determining. They are, in their relation with each other, both simultaneously determining each other and self-determining. Thought becomes expressed in emotion whilst thought, in its movement, simultaneously expresses the emotions which it has itself engendered. The movement of this contradiction is continuously passing into new forms in the unfolding of the psychological processes in each individual.

The resolution of one form of contradiction between thought and emotion is, at the same time, the positing of a new contradiction between them which then develops towards its resolution. The relationships of human society are the ultimate source of these contradictions in the psyche which only possesses a certain degree of autonomy in so far as it is engendered and exists in relation to these established social relations. This does not deny, of course, that psychological processes are simultaneously a product of the human brain itself. But they are its social product.

In the process of thinking itself, an identity exists between thought as a socio-historical phenomenon and thought as a neurophysiological phenomenon. Thought as a socio-historical phenomenon (conceptual content) is, however, simultaneously distinct from the neurophysiology of the brain. It is a socio-historical product of the neurophysiology of the brain and therefore must become constituted in an identity relation with it.  This paradox of the human mind makes it a product of both the socio-historical and the neurological and therefore a synthesis of both. It constitutes a qualitatively distinct, human form or mode of existence. It incorporates within its development both the social and the biological whilst sublating and synthesising them into the psychological.

The conceptual content of human thought is socio-historical in origin. But thought is also a product of the neurological movement of matter in the brain. The neurophysiology of thinking links its animating conceptual content to the general physiology of the human body as a whole. This becomes manifest in the effects of emotional states on human physiology.

Neurologically, the brain is linked to the rest of the body through the nervous system, the cardio-vascular system and the endocrine system which is regulated and controlled by hormonal systems. The linkage between neurological processes and the general physiology of the body as a whole forms the material basis through which psychological states can alter the physiological state of the body. For example, studies in the area of psychoneuroimmunology has demonstrated the effects of mental states on the human immune system. In this relatively recent medical area of psychoneuroimmunology, the source of such modulations in physiology (for example, reduced blood counts of leucocytes) can be traced to the formation of mental states animated by specific forms of the conceptual content of thought and thus, implicitly involving the character of social relations conditioning the life of the individual. Scientists working in this area have shown, for example, a connection between anxiety levels and lowered resistance to infection as a result of the anxiety-mediated depletion of white blood cells.

The prevailing character of established social relations conditions the mental states and emotional life of human beings and, in so doing, contributes to the physiological modulations and state of the human body itself. Human thought – whilst being a social product of the brain – is simultaneously a neurological process which can, as a consequence of this relation between the social and the neurological, mediate and modulate the physiological state of the human body. Without an acknowledgement of this fundamental proposition, the scientific investigation of the impact of social relations on human physiology would possess no rational foundation and could not be conducted. Likewise, the study of the effects of psychotropic drugs on human perception, which is conceptually mediated, demonstrates – or must imply at least – that there is a connecting physiological mediation between neurological states of the brain and states of consciousness.

Specific forms of thinking are intrinsically related to certain emotional states which engender corresponding neurological states in the brain. These neurological states along with endocrinological responses to these states can then activate physiological changes in the body as a whole.  All these interrelated processes are monitored and regulated by the brain via the nervous system.  Out of the different forms of thought derive the specifically different human emotions.

The implication here is that a continuously changing conceptual content of the thinking processes in the individual is continuously altering – no matter how subtlely, discretely or indiscernably – the physiological state of the nervous system as expressed and registered subjectively in the alteration of feeling states or emotions. The individual subjectively registers these states as ‘feeling’. The socio-historical basis of the existence of conceptually-mediated feeling is revealed in the connection between the character of the dominant social relations, on the one hand, and the character of the individual’s relationships with others, on the other, during any given phase in the evolutionary history of society. The mind reflects the character of the prevailing social relations and human feeling expresses their general character in the life of the mind as registered subjectively in the life of the individual.

How does thinking influence mood and how is this, in its turn, capable of modulating the physiological state itself, of the CNS and human body? Must there not be some form of neurological mediation between thinking and altered states of mood and physiology? Thinking itself must have neurological correlates for this to happen. If my mood alters as a result of thinking about, .e.g., an emotionally “painful” experience, and this starts to make me feel anxious or depressed then there has to be a real neurological mediation in operation. Do not states of mood or “feeling” have to be neurologically correlated in order to be subjectively registered? In this way, does not the actual conceptual content of thinking processes actually influence, mediatively, “matter”, i.e. living matter. We cannot think without the active neurology of the brain and yet thinking itself – being linked to or associated/correlated with this neurology – must be capable of influencing this neurology. In other words, there is a dialectical relationship between neurology and psychology in operation which does not, at the same time, deny the essentially social character of the conceptual content of consciousness. This, to me, seems like an adequate synthesis of the social and the neurological as expressed in the psychological.

We can also recognise this relationship between the social and the emotional in the arts. For example, consider the capacity of music to evoke certain emotions and thoughts. The tentative question I would like to pose : does music evoke specific emotions because the experience of listening to a piece of music reproduces neurological states in the brain that are usually associated with the emotion or ‘mood’ which the piece of music is conveying?  For example, a melancholic symphony can engender neurological states which are associated with the emotion of sadness or despair. Human emotions and ‘mood’ become associated with corresponding neurological states. And these moods and emotions can be conceptually-mediated.

Psychologically, thinking and emotion intermediate each other’s movement and this dialectical process, in itself, can serve to alter and modulate mental states which actually affect the physiology of the human body. This is most apparent in the human response to threat or danger. The biochemical systems that are active in fear are necessary for human survival. They are evolutionary legacies of our animal ancestors stretching back millions of years. However, the overactivity of these mechanisms can exert detrimental physiological effects which serve to encourage the onset of, and aggravate existing, medical conditions and diseases. Hence existent social relations which are a real source of stress, anxiety and fear detrimentally affect the physiological functions of the human body.

Attempts to alter individual perceptions of these social relations does not, in itself, change their real existential character as stress-producing and illness-producing social relations. It merely acknowledges their real existence independently of the individual who is him/herself a product of these same social relations. This is why to alter the fundamental character of humanity it is the character of these social relations which must be revolutionised.

Herein lies the basic flaw and limitation  –  the Achilles Heel  –  of all forms of psychotherapy which may present in secular form but are essentially theological in their methods of approach. The different schools and branches of psychotherapy arise from the same epistemological stock and are fed and watered by the same concealed theological roots. Psychotherapy locates the individual in the ‘ideological form’ (Marx) and espouses and practices an alteration of thinking about self and others in order to transcend the psychological effects of social relations. This approach is, implicitly, a negative recognition of the real character of social relations rather than an effective attempt to transcend them in practice.

The collectively-practiced, psychotherapeutic precept acknowledges and asserts that it is possible for the suffering alienated human individual to transcend or, at least, resolve to the point of personal acceptance or ‘comfort’, the psychological effects of the prevailing socio-historical conditions of existence by means of shifts in consciousness or mental adjustment. It fails, in its self-preoccupation, to see the proverbial ‘wood for the trees’ in that any such shift or adjustment to a supposedly more ‘comforting’ or ‘enlightened’ state is, in this apparent negation, merely a reaffirmation of those historical conditions which form the individual and through which he or she actively lives life replete with problems and contradictions in the age of the reign of global capital. All psychotherapy therefore, whatever its character, is both an expression and implicit acknowlegement that alienation and estrangement continues to prevail in social relations and that a psychotherapeutic sticking plaster is utterly and completely inadequate for patching up the wounds which these relations daily inflict on the lives of human individuals. The psychotherapist is, usually unconsciously, the latter-day priest of the secularised mind.

Those biological mechanisms (mediated by the animal’s acquired learning and awareness of its surroundings) which enabled the animal ancestors of humans to respond to the immediate danger of threat became incorporated into the human organism in the course of its origination. In the life of ancestral primates, they were necessary in order to prime them to respond accordingly in threatening situations. The activation of such responses in situations of real imminent danger is therefore a necessary survival mechanism in the primate and hominoid ancestors of humanity. Implicitly, as long as the violent and aggressive character of human relations continues to exist, the operation of this incorporated survival mechanism will also continue to be expressed in the violence and aggression of these social relationships.

In the actual operation of this mechanism, where an immediate response is necessitated to imminent danger or threat, the processing of incoming stimuli by means of reflection would tend to hinder the survival of the individual in the face of such threat because it would require time to think and hence disadvantage the individual in responding to threat.Those biological mechanisms in ancestral primates which are mobilised in threatening situations are those which have become sublatively incorporated into the human mind as it originated and are active in anxiety and fear in humans.

However, we must also consider the proposition that with the historical emergence of humanity as a distinct species, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response found in ancestral primates also became integrated with – and subject to activation by – the mere movement of the conceptual content of the human mind itself, even in the absence of any real, immediate threat. This relation, for example, is operative in the different forms of anxiety. This specifically human form of the activation of this response (anxiety) is distinguished from the fear of the animal as a response to direct threat from predators, etc. Anxiety itself is a social property of the human psyche; a function of social relations at a particular stage in their historical development. Even in its ‘autonomy’, mind is, therefore, essentially a social creation and is the finest, most perfect, mirror of history, arising and evolving as a product and function of it.

The fear in the animal in Nature is always a response to real or possible threat based on the immediacy of its conditions of its life, arising out of its direct awareness of the immediacy of its environmental situation. But the experience and psychological internalisation of violent, oppressive and exploitative social relations both helps to form and condition the conceptual content of the mind at any given point in the historical development of society.

The general character of social relations constitutes the basis upon and within which the human personality is formed and develops. Where such relations are mediated by malevolent forms of social control, violence and aggression, oppression and exploitation, the psychological corollary of these relations is inevitably a human personality characterised by fear and anxiety. These attributes accordingly come to arise in and mediate interpersonal relationships under such conditions. This is the characterisation of human individuality as the ensemble of social relations (Marx) in that..

human beings become individuals only through the process of history [4]

Each human being individually expresses the essential and universal characteristics of the historically dominant social relations of the period.  Each individual typifies the prevailing social relations and, in this sense, is a representation of the universal character of those relations. However, each unique individual expresses, in a particular way, the general character of humanity at a definite stage in its socio-historical development. These ‘particular ways’ – which give the individual uniqueness – are an outcome of the conditions and relationships of the individual’s personal history. These ‘conditions and relationships’ are an intrinsic part of the ‘life’ of society as a whole. Accordingly, individual human behaviour expresses the nature of social relations.

The individual is always, to a certain degree, self-directing, but only within the parameters and direction of the wider current of development of a given society. Thus, whilst the individual is self-directing, he or she remains a social creation in their self-direction and is accordingly both ‘directed’ and conditioned as such in their ‘self-directedness’. Freely-willed human behaviour is always determined, always conditioned. Individual behaviour always takes place within the historical context, conditions and parameters of society as a whole.


[1] Vygotsky, L.S. Development of Higher Mental Functions.  Psychological Research in the U.S.S.R. (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966) pp.44-45.

[2] Hegel.  Philosophy of Mind. (Clarendon, Oxford, 1971) Zusatze, p.11.

[3] Hegel.  Ibid. p.4.

[4] Marx. Grundrisse : Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993)p.496. Notebook V.

Shaun May

revised June 2014





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From A Notebook on Dialectics : Part Three

From A Notebook on Dialectics : Part Three

All mathematical equations are formalised statements of dialectical relations.

For example, take Newton’s Law, F = ma

This equation expresses an identity between distinct variables or a distinction between variables in their identity as represented by the ‘=’ sign.

Force is identified as the product of mass and acceleration. But mass and/or acceleration are not force. It is only in their relation that they constitute force. The fact that different variables (representing real entities) appear on opposite sides of the equal sign itself implies identification of distinct variables.

The very existence of the equation itself denotes the distinctions within the identity and articulates the dialectics of the relation but articulated in a formalised mathematical expression. If there were no distinction and opposition in the identity, there would be no need for the equation itself. Force is the product of mass and acceleration and yet it is more than simply this product.

To assert that Force is absolutely identical with the product of mass and acceleration is akin to asserting that the whole is absolutely identical to the sum and product of its component parts without the distinction in which the whole is also greater than the summation and product of its parts. In other words, for practical purposes, the equation is only a formal approximation which does not fully embrace the dialectics of the relation but, in spite of this, it does remain an approximated and formalised expression of the dialectics of the variables representing real entities.

The ‘formal logician’ sees all identity and no distinction or all distinction and no identity. He always misses the distinction within the identity and vice versa. In other words, the positivist, empiricist, pragmatist, etc, would deny this latter principle (call it “illogical” or “contradictory of logic”, etc) but the dialectician would acknowledge its existence in thought as an intrinsic part and expression of all forms of development and would recognise it expressed in the workings and equations of Physics and Mathematics. Christopher Zeeman’s and Rene Thom’s work on Catastrophe Theory, for example, is a demonstration of dialectics in higher mathematics as Darwin’s work was in Biology.

The equation presents an identification of different variables in a specific relationship with each other which reflects the real character of a relationship in Nature. Accordingly, even in the mathematical formulae of Physics, etc, the humble dialectic rears its ubiquitous head and haunts the enunciations of formal logic, regardless of its current forms or lineage. They cannot escape its universality. Hence, formal logic as a limiting case of dialectical logic. Every mathematical equation is a formalised statement of dialectics, however well disguised those relations may be within the formula itself.

Needless to say, if ‘formal logic’ is beginning, in today’s forms, Frege, Kripke, etc, to articulate the dialectics of the world, then it is in process of ceasing to be ‘formal’ and indeed becoming dialectical. This is the dialectics of the evolution of logic itself and an implicit recognition of the dialectical character of the cosmos. Why else would it be compelled to move in such a direction?

Moreover, relative to this, if we recognise dialectics as having a heuristic function then this, once again, is an implicit acknowledgement of this dialectical character of the cosmos. If we are using dialectics as a means of investigation and discovery then it would be absurd to use it if the world itself were not dialectical in its actual relations. It would be counter-productive as well as counter-intuitive, revealing an absence of insight. The empiricist protests and directs us to ‘evidence’ alone

Philosophically, if we proceeded on the basis of ‘evidence’ alone – which is the hallmark of the empiricist – the whole of the Marx’s project would not have come into being. One of the sources for Marx was, of course, the ’empirical’ but the source of Marx’s theory as a whole was not ‘evidence’ alone. But for the empiricist, ‘evidence’ is the gold standard of knowledge.

In the end, the whole question of dialectics is not as complex as some think. The dry, dense and impenetrable language and terminology of Hegel is a problem and ‘turn off’ for many. However, in the finality of the question, there are two fundamental bifurcations on the whole journey. One : either the cosmos (embracing Nature, Humanity, Mind) is in a constant state of development, of evolution, arising and vanishing determinations and negations or it is not. If you think it is not, you will tend to walk down the road of formalistics which, sooner or later, leads to political conservatism and/or reaction. Two : once we have accepted the proposition that the cosmos is in constant development we reach another fork in this road : either, (a) all this evolution, this life and vitality, is producing and produced by conflicts and contradictions i.e. the cosmos, including Man’s relations to it, is inherently dialectical without the need for gods, ghosts or ghouls. This is the first step onto the revolutionary road. Or (b) we fall into the loving embrace of the Heavenly Father and accept that the ultimate cause behind all this evolution is divine impulse and intervention. As with Newton the Unitarian. And as with Hegel the Theist, the high tide of historical development of Idealism. We then embrace the religious, theistic, call it what you like. This is the road to the monastery, to mysticism or to the theosophical seminary. Or for intellectuals and postmoderns who wish to throw the paper darts of philosophy at each other and egoistically pleasure and congratulate themselves on making a “hit”

If you reject materialist dialectics, you also reject the philosophical basis of Marx’s theory. You may use all manner of subtlety, conceptual evasion and sophistry to reject it. All the back alleys, shortcuts, refuges and hiding places of the philosophical fugitive, Kantianism being the usual one. But there are others, of course. Including Hegel’s sophisticated form of transfigured theology. But by rejecting Marx’s materialism, you automatically reject Marx’s theory and the tradition which has arisen therefrom. No matter how “dialectical” and sophisticated you may appear to be in your elaboration of the “concept”, etc. You cannot reject the underlying method and then claim to be in accord with its results and findings. It is as simple as that. There is nothing ‘complex’ about it. You may reject materialist dialectics as a comprehensive outlook in one breath then refer to yourself as a “Marxist” in the next breath. Sorry. Logically impermissible. Cannot be a whitewasher and chimney sweep simultaneously. Sophistics. Useless for the coming revolution.


Shaun May

June 2014








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From A Notebook on Dialectics (Part Two)

From A Notebook on Dialectics (Part Two)

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. http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1858/letters/58_01_16.htm). 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 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.

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.

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?

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.

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 are not 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.

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 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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