Dialectics and historical reality

Dialectics is not some sort of thought-trick or rhetorical sleight-of-hand, let alone the so-called “epistemological magic-key to revolutionary tactics or theory.” Of course, I don’t doubt that more than a handful of people (ab)use dialectics in this way. But this is true of practically every discourse, some more than others. There’s literally almost no end to jargon and the obfuscatory use of concepts. But where a feeble mind like Eugen Dühring dismissed Marx as someone “deeply bitten with the Hegelian pestilence,” seeing his dialectics as mere “verbal jugglery,” closer inspection would have revealed an actual content to what Marx was saying. More attention still would have disclosed a rationale as well behind his way of saying it.

Honestly, I’m not even sure something like epistemology is useful to politics, since arguably we’re only able to know the world insofar as we’re able to change it. Joseph Dietzgen, Theodor Adorno, and Alfred Sohn-Rethel critiqued epistemology along precisely these lines. Marx’s own Theses on Feuerbach (1845) set out to articulate this peculiar epistemological quandary and the conditions for its historical supersession. Turning prior materialist philosophies on their head, Marx wrote:

I. The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism — that of Feuerbach included — is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism — which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.

II. The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.

This provides the basis for Marxism’s dialectical methodology. “Truth” is not a matter of passive consumption, whether intuited sensuously or conceptualized contemplatively. Rather, objective truth can only be attained only through humanity’s active participation in its own self-transformation. Or in other words, by immanently transcending its origin in class or “civil society” and thereby arriving at a more universal, “social humanity” (per thesis ten, “[t]he standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity”). Subject and object can only become identical in and through history — or, what is the same, in and through capital (“civilization”) — as the result of self-conscious and self-critical praxis. “To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter,” Marx already recognized in his 1843 critique of Hegel. “But, for man, the root is man himself.” Man is to be both the subject and object of historical transformation. But the two remain antithetical to one another until humanity is able to self-consciously lay hold of the conditions it has brought into being over time and knowingly make history, rather than be made by history. As this analysis suggests, it can only do so as subject by rationally objectifying its own social content.

Illustration from A Journal of Civilization (June 1, 1901)

Illustration from A Journal of Civilization (June 1, 1901)

In terms of actually grasping or conceptualizing the world, dialectical analysis is only, and can only be, true insofar as society itself is really dialectical — that is, founded upon historically-developed antagonisms that determine struggles in the present. Were these antagonisms not real, it would be pointless to attempt to approach them dialectically at the level of ideas. The concept would be inadequate to its object. Otherwise it would be mere conceptual cleverness, an attempt to outsmart the reality of a given social situation. Occasionally, however, it is the object that must become adequate to its concept. Thus one can say that while capitalism first arose under a specific set of historical circumstances, in a given “locale” or location — some of the more prosperous commercial Italian city-states, for example, then in Amsterdam and Holland after the Dutch Revolt, and ultimately in England after primitive accumulation through enclosure — it was from the outset a global phenomenon. It may have been empirically just a local affair, slowly spreading outward from its core to the peripheral fringe, but already it was global in concept. Hence the classical division between “history” and “logic,” which parallel one another (though the former unfolds with a great deal of accidence and unevenness).

Even these spatial disequilibria or temporal nonsynchronicities already imply a contradictory state of affairs, a society that has developed with a great deal of internal dynamism riven by antagonisms. This is why Adorno maintained in his Introduction to Sociology that “the concept of society is, and must be, inherently dialectical.” He specifies that “society” does not indicate the sum-total or aggregate of individuals, but rather constitutes the form of relationship that mediates their interaction. Adorno continues:

If one wanted to characterize the concept of society itself, then the notion of the system, of an order imposed in a somewhat abstract way, would be far more adequate than the notion of organic wholeness. This should be qualified, however, by adding that in talking of the system of society we are referring not to a systematization carried out by the observer but to a systemic character located within the society itself.

That is to say, society’s “systematicity” should not be thought of as arbitrarily imposed on it from without, as just another way of conceptualizing a complex phenomenon. If this were so, sociology would just be a fantastic mental construct grafted onto an underlying, uncomprehended reality, without any real or necessary relationship between the two. Any correspondence that might occur between concept and object would be wholly incidental to random periodic convergences between disparate and disconnected paths of development. If “society” is presently at odds with itself, composed of a set of mutually contradictory and antagonistic relationships, it follows that these real tensions and imbalances can only be understood by employing a method that mirrors the volatility and upheaval of their unfolding. The name for this method — dialectics.

A corollary of this insight is that if these antagonisms are historically specific, they might be historically overcome. Perhaps even antagonism as such might someday be abolished (though at this point, any such assertion is bound to be highly speculative). If this is the case, then dialectical thinking would only be necessary to the understanding of modern capitalist or class society. History itself might render dialectics obsolete, not through the invention of newfangled concepts or extravagant modes of thought, but by the extirpation of the contradictions that constitute the capitalist social formation. This is what Adorno meant when he wrote in Negative Dialectics (1966) that “dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” Should a form of association ever be reached in which these contradictions no longer obtained, dialectics would not be necessary to think through them. It would be contrived and artificial, not to mention wholly superfluous, to insist upon a dialectical framework beyond such a point.

5 thoughts on “Dialectics and historical reality

  1. Pingback: Dialectics and historical reality | Research Material

  2. This is an excellent article! Contradictions have been with us throughout societal history. As you note, it doesn’t follow from this assertion that they always will be with us. The dialectical analysis of history is given great credence by the fact that the dialectic has been recognized as mode of thinking and dialoging since ancient history. It can be traced back in early form in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. I do not think it is accidental that this occurred. I think this was an organic result of perceptions based on observations and intuitions about material conditions.

  3. Adorno certainly wouldn’t agree with the claim that we would grasp the social relations (the ‘object’) immediately in a post-capitalist society, or that the separation of subject and object – which, in Marginalien zu Theorie und Praxis, he argues has been infinitely progressive – would be overcome. Such immediacy would be barbarism.

    • Certainly the historical separation of subject and object from their original, naïve unity has been vastly progressive. To call for a return to immediacy, the primitive identity of subject and object, would be romanticism. Prior to humanity’s historical “awakening to consciousness,” subject and object are more or less identical because unconscious. There’s some understanding of a disconnect between the actual outcome of men’s actions and their intended effect, but the problem of their disunity is only recognized as such with the dawn of bourgeois society and freedom.

      Also, simply acting as if the gulf that divides subject from object, like that which divides theory from praxis, is unreal, only perpetuates their real non-identity:

      Just as the division of subject and object cannot be revoked immediately by a decree of thought, so too an immediate unity of theory and praxis is hardly possible: it would imitate the false identity of subject and object and would perpetuate the principle of domination that posits identity and that a true praxis must oppose.

      Still, it seems to me that the goal of a socialist revolution would be to make a self-conscious, universal subject (the proletariat) equal to its object, the alienated social relations of capital. By seizing the forces of production and mastering the form of its own social organization, social humanity would thus be able to objectify its own content in redirecting the means of production to realize rational ends. This would be similar to the kind of immanent teleology implied by Engels toward the end of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, where the outcome of men’s actions more and more approximates their intended effects. This would, I think, entail a kind of disalienation, but would require more, not less, conscious mediation.

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