Saturday, June 28, 2008

Marx's dialectical method

I am posting an article I had originally intended for publication on the World Socialist Web Site. The article is intended to clarify long standing confusions within the Marxist movement with respect to Marx's dialectic. The article was rejected for publication on the World Socialist Web Site. I have included the article also the response from the editorial board.


Dear Mark,

The WSWS Editorial Board has reviewed your article and has decided not to publish it. A review of the history of dialectics would require a much more serious study of philosophy and the history of the Marxist movement. If you are interested in these questions, I would encourage you to make a close study of such works as Engels' Anti-Duhring, Trotsky's In Defense of Marxism, Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, and the current polemic with Steiner and Brenner.

Best regards,

Jerry White


Marx's dialectical method

By Mark Rainer

Within the Marxist movement few understand Marx's dialectic. Marx's dialectic is commonly understood as the opposite of Hegel's dialectic, yet the term dialectic is not understood, and few can point to concrete examples of Marx's dialectic. Often Marx's dialectics is associated with Hegelian concepts like, quantity into quality, negation of the negation, and the unity of opposites. While Marx makes passing reference to such Hegelian conceptions in Capital, his dialectic has a fundamentally different basis.

To understand Marx's dialectic it is helpful to be aquatinted with the earlier forms of the dialectic.The dialectic has been known at least since the times of ancient Greece, and finds a systematic exposition of its form and workings in Aristotle's Topica. In Book I of Topica Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of reasoning. Aristotle writes:

"Reasoning is a discussion in which, certain things having been laid down, something other than these things necessarily results through them. Reasoning is demonstration when it proceeds from premises which are true and primary or of such a kind that we have derived our original knowledge of the through premises which are primary and true. Reasoning is dialectical which reasons from generally accepted opinions."

Demonstration establishes new scientific knowledge by means of the syllogism. The syllogism is a rule by which a conclusion can be drawn given certain premises. The first premises or first principles, premises that are true and primary, are themselves undemonstrable. They are the base upon which all other knowledge rests and must be established by the means of induction, that is, positing a universal principle by generalizing from several particular examples. The human faculty by which induction proceeds is intuition.

Aristotle's treatise on the syllogism, the Prior Analytics, is the first systematic study available of what we know today as formal logic. Modern logic developed in the 19th century with the works of Pierce, Frege and Boole, and has seen its greatest development and growth in the 20th century. Formal logic is the foundation for mathematics and computer science, and therefore is indispensable for the natural sciences. Everywhere that computers are applied, from the internet and climate models, to all sectors of the economy, one finds the application of formal logic.

Mathematical knowledge is also based on demonstration. The concept of a mathematical proof is the same as the philosophical concept of 'demonstration'. In mathematics, theorems, or true mathematical statements, are shown to follow logically from other theorems or from axioms using rules of deduction. Axioms are the same as the 'first principles' of Aristotle's logic.

The other form of reasoning for Aristotle is dialectical reasoning. The dialectic involves at least two participants, the questioner, or dialectician, and an answerer. The dialectic proceeds from a thesis that merely expressed a commonly held view, or a view of distinguished person. Every thesis has an opposite or anti-thesis, and there is rigid dichotomy between thesis and anti-thesis, either one or the other is true, but both cannot be true.

The object of the dialectician is to obtain a concession from the answerer or opponent that the thesis does not hold and therefore the opposite of the thesis does hold. The dialectician achieves this by securing a number of premises from which a contradiction to the thesis must necessary follow. The dialectic proceeds by dialectical propositions, questions which can only be answered either yes or no.

The art of the dialectic consists of the dialectician concealing the conclusion that will follow in the process of securing necessary premises. Aristotle gives advice about how questions should be arranged and how to approach different opponents. A good questioner will make the answerer give the most paradoxical replies. A good answerer will make it seem that the paradoxical is not his or her fault, but a problem with the initial thesis, from which point the answerer may advance another thesis to correct the flaw. The new thesis, called the synthesis, is regarded as a refinement of the original thesis; it preserves the truth of thesis while canceling the error or problem.

Aristotle's treatise on dialectics, Topica, examines the different kinds of propositions that one encounters in a dialectical argument. The examination of a thesis is part of the preparation for a dialectical argument, the discovery of the necessary premises from which the thesis can be refuted. Of course, the dialectical argument, or dialogue, is not in itself necessary to show that the opposite of a thesis is true. All one needs to do is show that a contradiction to thesis must result from established facts and knowledge.

In mathematics, a proof by contradiction proceeds in exactly this way. One begins by making an assumption and shows that a contradiction must result from the given assumption, and therefore the opposite of the assumption must be true. Euclid's proof that there are an infinite number of primes is one the earliest examples of a proof by contradiction. Euclid begins by assuming the opposite, that there are only a finite number of primes, and shows that a contradiction must result from this assumption, and therefore the opposite must be true, that there are an infinite number of primes.

Both the dialectic and proof by contradiction rest of the principle of excluded middle. This principle states that for any proposition either the proposition is true, or its negation or opposite is true. There is, in fact, a third possibility - that the proposition in question is paradoxical in which case it must examined and shown to be paradoxical.

A paradoxical proposition is one in which assuming the proposition is true leads to the conclusion the opposite proposition is true, and vice versa. The classic example of a paradox is called the liars paradox, which considers the following question: "A man says that he is lying. Is what he says true or false?" Suppose that the man is lying, then his admittance that he is lying is a true statement and therefore he is telling the truth. Conversely, supposing that he is telling truth, his statement that he is lying is a lie, therefore he is lying.

The dialectic was popular in ancient Greek philosophy. Plato's philosophy was presented as series of dialogues between Socrates and various distinguished opponents, with Socrates playing the role of the dialectician. As the dialogue progresses the knowledge of the subject for the participants becomes expanded and refined. Generally the dialectic accurately reflects the way that knowledge develops, through contradiction and refinement.

The dialectic resurfaced in German philosophy in the works Kant, Fitche, Schelling and Hegel. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had demonstrated that for certain metaphysical propositions, both the proposition and its opposite are equally valid, he called these opposed propositions antimonies. Kant gives the example of four such propositions in the field of cosmology, he gives a proof of each and their opposite using proof by contradiction. However the existence of such proofs implies the original proposition is self-contradictory, or paradoxical. Kant's solution, and his application of the dialectical method, was to show problems with underlying conceptions employed, and to reject both the proposition and its opposite as false.

The antinomies of Kant made a deep impression on Hegel. Hegel felt that "the Antinomies are not confined to the four special objects taken from Cosmology: they appear in all objects of every kind, in all conceptions, notions, and Ideas." In other words, every concept is self-contradictory, every concept considered valid gives rise to its opposite considered equally valid, the contradiction that results requires a new concept or synthesis; this is the generating principle in Hegel's Logic.

Among Hegel’s criticisms of Kant was that his categories of pure thought were not deduced. Hegel felt that philosophy must be a system, Hegel wrote: "Unless it is a system, a philosophy is not a scientific production. Unsystematic philosophizing can only be expected to give expression to personal peculiarities of mind, and has no principle for the regulation of its contents."

Hegel believed that philosophy as a branch of science required its own method different from that of the empirical sciences and mathematics. In philosophy nothing should be presupposed, every concept should be deduced and shown to be necessary, and further, philosophy should show the connections between concepts. For Hegel the dialectical method was the scientific means for elaborating the system of philosophy.

Every logical entity or category in Hegel's Logic has three sides or 'moments': " [a] the Abstract side, or that of understanding; [b] the Dialectical, or that of negative reason; [c] the Speculative, or that of positive reason."

Hegel's Logic proceeds from lower to higher, with the lowest category being the simplest and most the abstract and highest category the most complex and concrete. Hegel begins with the simplest conception of reality Being. From the concept of Being he deduces the concept of Nothing. The incompatibility of Being and Nothing gives rise to Becoming which represents the passage from Being into Nothing, and from Nothing into Being. The final category in the Logic is the Absolute which fully comprehends reality and completes the Logic.

Comparing Hegel’s dialectic with that of ancient Greece the first two moments can be regarded as the thesis and antithesis respectively, and the third moment as the synthesis which reconciles and incorporates the first and second moments. The synthesis preserves the truth of the prior categories, and in this way categories assume a more concrete form or rather they acquire more content than the prior categories. With very few exceptions, Hegel's entire system is developed using this triadic form, with each synthesis giving rise to its own opposite which in turn needs to be reconciled.

Hegel believed that his philosophy incorporated and preserved every other prior philosophy as moments in his Logic. He believed that the "same evolution of thought which is exhibited in the history of philosophy is presented in the System of Philosophy itself". Hegel's philosophy therefore has been aptly called a logic of philosophy, showing the necessary development of philosophic thought.

It has been commonly thought that Hegel denied the principle of non-contradiction. In fact, Hegel's dialectics like every other form dialectics deserving of the name rests on the principle of non-contradiction. If it were not the case, the third moment, or synthesis, which reconciles the first and second logical moments would not be a required step in Hegel's Logic.

It should be mentioned however that, considering only the dialectical principle of construction, Hegel's Logic is not without fault. In his book “What Is Living And What Is Dead Of The Philosophy of Hegel”, Benedetto Croce shows that Hegel made fundamental philosophical errors in his application of the dialectic method. Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the founders of modern logic and an admirer of Hegel wrote: "But never was there seen such an example of a long chain of reasoning, – shall I say with a flaw in every link? – no, with every link a handful of sand, squeezed into shape in a dream."

Under the criticism of Feuerbach, a German materialist philosopher, Hegel’s dialectic had lost its legitimacy among left circles in Europe. Marx wrote his “Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844” that: “Feuerbach both in his “Thesen” in the Anekdota and, in detail, in the Philosophie der Zukunft has in principle overthrown the old dialectic and philosophy.” Marx wrote in the Holy Family that the speculative construction of Hegel's philosophy was sophistry, but felt that Hegel often managed to give a real presentation of the subject matter despite the false construction.

Marx was socialist revolutionary and a materialist, and was strongly influenced by French materialism. Marx wrote in the Holy Family: “There is no need for any great penetration to see from the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of experience, habit and education, and the influence of environment on man, the great significance of industry, the justification of enjoyment, etc., how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc., from the world of the senses and the experience gained in it, then what has to be done is to arrange the empirical world in such a way that man experiences and becomes accustomed to what is truly human in it and that he becomes aware of himself as man.”

For Marx, however, all materialism, including Feuerbach’s, was one sided. Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerebach: “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”

The existing materialism neglected the role of human consciousness in actively changing human circumstances. Likewise, Hegel’s idealism neglected the role played by material circumstances in the development of thought. Marx’s great advance was to recognize that both are incomplete parts of whole in determining the course of society. For Marx, as a revolutionary, theory went hand in hand with practice. To change society one must become conscious of society as a law governed process. For Marx, the development of this theoretical work, including his economic works was a necessary consequence of his work as a revolutionary.

In the German Ideology, Marx together with Engels came to develop what they called the materialist conception of history, as opposed to post-Hegelian idealist view of history that came to be prominent in Germany. In contrast to Hegel, who had shown that there was historical and necessary development of ideas, Marx and Engels intended to show that it was the necessary economic development of society which gave rise to the ideas of each epoch. The German Ideology is the first fully developed account of the materialist conception of history and gives crucial insight to Marx's methodology and general approach.

Summarizing the materialist conception of history, Marx wrote: "This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; and to show it in its action as State, to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. and trace their origins and growth from that basis; by which means, of course, the whole thing can be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various sides on one another)."

In the German Ideology Marx demonstrates his basic method and approach by explaining the development of the division of labor and forms of property (tribal, ancient, feudal). Marx emphasizes the empirical nature of his method in contrast to the idealist speculative method of the post-Hegelians, he writes: "In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises."

In explaining the how society develops, Marx offers a dialectical theory of development. For Marx, the problems in society, or the irrational conditions in which people live, represent contradictions in society. The rational side of human beings can not tolerate those contradictions and demands that they be solved. Again, Marx recognizes the active role of human consciousness in the development of society through the recognition and solving of societal contradictions.

Marx explains that social contradictions are the result of the contradictions between the development of the productive forces and the relations of production. Through the development of the productive forces, the relations of production become irrational and hinder the further development of the productive forces. The contradiction that develops demands a solution, or rather a new form of intercourse.

Marx writes: "These various conditions, which appear first as conditions of self-activity, later as fetters upon it, form in the whole evolution of history a coherent series of forms of intercourse, the coherence of which consists in this: in the place of an earlier form of intercourse, which has become a fetter, a new one is put, corresponding to the more developed productive forces and, hence, to the advanced mode of the self-activity of individuals - a form which in its turn becomes a fetter and is then replaced by another. Since these conditions correspond at every stage to the simultaneous development of the productive forces, their history is at the same time the history of the evolving productive forces taken over by each new generation, and is, therefore, the history of the development of the forces of the individuals themselves."

Of course contained in Marx’s conception of development is not just an evolutionary conception of economic development but also a revolutionary one. Marx writes: “In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.”

While Marx had already outlined his dialectical theory of societal development in the German Ideology, it was only later that Marx adopted an explicitly dialectical method in the presentation of history. Frederick Engels writes in his review of Marx's Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), that: "Marx was and is the only one who could undertake the work of extracting from the Hegelian logic the nucleus containing Hegel's real discoveries in this field, and of establishing the dialectical method, divested of its idealist wrappings, in the simple form in which it becomes the only correct mode of conceptual evolution. The working out of the method which underlies Marx's critique of political economy is, we think, a result hardly less significant than the basic materialist conception."

Marx's dialectic corresponds to a real historical process, however, in practice Marx abstracts from the historical process and presents history in a simplified form to show only the most essential moments in the historical process. Engels calls this mode of presentation 'logical' in contrast to 'historical'. As Engels explains in his review: "Even after the determination of the method, the critique of economics could still be arranged in two ways — historically or logically. Since in the course of history, as in its literary reflection, the evolution proceeds by and large from the simplest to the more complex relations, the historical development of political economy constituted a natural clue, which the critique could take as a point of departure, and then the economic categories would appear on the whole in the same order as in the logical exposition. This form seems to have the advantage of greater lucidity, for it traces the actual development, but in fact it would thus become, at most, more popular. History moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line, and as this would have to be followed throughout, it would mean not only that a considerable amount of material of slight importance would have to be included, but also that the train of thought would frequently have to be interrupted; it would, moreover, be impossible to write the history of economy without that of bourgeois society, and the task would thus become immense, because of the absence of all preliminary studies. The logical method of approach was therefore the only suitable one. This, however, is indeed nothing but the historical method, only stripped of the historical form and diverting chance occurrences."

Marx's dialectic method of presentation can be seen in practice in his exposition on the value-form in the first chapter of Capital. Marx uses the dialectic to show the development of the relations of production in response to the development of the productive forces. Development is shown in it logical moments, each representing a stage in the development of a social relation. Contradictions which result in a particular moment of the relation necessitate the advancement to the next more complex moment of the relation.

Unlike Hegel, Marx abandoned the triadic form. There is no logical moment representing the opposite of a social relation. Each moment, except for the first, can be understood a synthesis which arises from the contradiction of the prior moment, where contradiction is understood in the sense explained by Marx in the German Ideology. In form and not content, Marx’s dialectic bears a closer resemblance to the dialectic of ancient Greece where the thesis develops through contradiction and refinement into the synthesis.

Marx considered commodities as having two essential properties a use value, and an exchange value. Products of labor that have utility are commodities only if they are produced for exchange for others to consume as use values. The value-form, or value relation, is a social relation that arises and develops out of the process of producing and exchanging commodities. Marx shows that the most elementary relation of value gives rise to money, where money is a commodity for which every other commodity can find an expression of its value.

The first moment in Marx's dialectic of the value-form is the Elementary or Accidental form of value. This relation arises out a barter or exchange of quantities of just two different commodities; Marx gives the example of the exchange of 20 yards of linen for one coat. By analysis, Marx's shows that in the equality or identity established in the barter, each commodity plays a different role: "The linen expresses its value in the coat; the coat serves as the material in which that value is expressed. The former plays an active, the latter a passive, part. The value of the linen is represented as relative value, or appears in relative form. The coat officiates as equivalent, or appears in equivalent form."

When a commodity like the linen is increasingly exchanged for different commodities besides coats, the first form of value becomes inadequate expression of value. A contradiction results between the old relation and material practice that necessitates an advance of the value form. This is the first transition in the dialectic; a transition to what Marx calls the Total or Expanded form of value. Instead of single relative expression of value in terms of coats, the linen finds its value expressed in several different commodities.

In Marx's example the 20 yards of linen is now expressed as 1 coat, or 10 lbs. of coffee, or 1 quarter of corn, or 2 ounces of gold or 1/2 a ton of iron etc. Instead of speaking of the value of the linen in terms of coats, we can also speak of the linen's coffee-value, corn-value, gold-value, iron-value, etc. Such a state of affairs is undesirable, since the linen no longer has uniform expression of its value. The problem, or contradiction, can be remedied by changing the roles of commodities, to make the linen play the role of the equivalent for which every other commodity finds and expression of its value.

Logically this leads to the next moment, what Marx calls the General form of value. The value of every other commodity is now expressed in terms of the linen, and the linen becomes the universal equivalent form of value. However, a universal equivalent is really the same as money. Through a process of exclusion a single commodity takes its place as the universal equivalent, and becomes socially recognized for its special role in relation to every other commodity. In Marx's exposition, gold takes the place of linen as the universal equivalent, and realizes its place as money.

Of course, Marx's exposition on commodities and the development of the value form is far richer than I have presented here. Marx shows that the labor theory of value is implied through the act of exchange, how the relative form of value can fluctuate in response to changes in conditions of production, and that labor as a general abstract concept arises only when exchange of commodities has developed to a high degree. I have omitted much of the detail, so as to lay bare the essence of Marx's dialectic, to show its basic form, and to show the logical transition between different moments and how contradictions arise.

In understanding Marx's dialectic It is important to recognize the original contributions of Marx, that he didn't simply invert the dialectics of Hegel to obtain his materialist dialectic. The development of Marx's dialectic is intimately bound with the materialist conception of history. I have given an overview of Marx's approach, I would suggest for a more thorough study to read the Theses on Feuerbach, the first chapter of the German Ideology, the Grundrisee (The method of political economy), and the first chapter of Capital.