Dialectics elude straightforward definition. No doubt it is easier to say what dialectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx remarked in a letter to Engels that “Hegel never described as dialectics the subsumption of vast numbers of ‘cases’ under a general principle,” and therefore concluded that “the dialectical method is wrongly applied.”1 Vladimir Lenin likewise pointed out that Georgii Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, erred in treating dialectics as “the sum-total of examples,” a mistake from which even Engels was not fully exempt.2
Still less is dialectics reducible to an abstract formula or stereotyped procedure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. James regarded this series as “a ruinous simplification” in his 1948 Notes on Dialectics,3 while Lenin followed Hegel in considering “the ‘triplicity’ of dialectics… [as] its external, superficial side.”4 In similar fashion, the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno recalled that “Hegel expressed the most cutting objections to the claptrap triplicity of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as a methodological schema.”5 Early in his career, Lenin upbraided the populist Nikolai Mikhailovsky for his fatuous portrayal of the materialist dialectic as some sort of parlor trick which “proves” capitalism must collapse. “Marx’s dialectical method does not consist in triads at all,” explained Lenin in 1894, “but precisely in the rejection of idealism and subjectivism in sociology.”6
How can this method be retained in sociology, however, while at the same time getting rid of its idealist residues? Obviously, if the dialectic is to be anything more than a subjective addition, an arbitrary “way of thinking” about the world, its logic has to be discovered in the object (i.e., society) itself. The materialist inversion of Hegel’s dialectic can only be justified if its contours appear at the level of social reality. “Dialectical understanding is nothing but the conceptual form of a real dialectical fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 monograph Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ contemporary, the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, maintained that the method should not be applied to just any sphere of knowledge “like an ever-ready master key,” since “dialectics cannot be imposed upon facts, but must be deduced from their character and development.”8 Reflecting on his conversion to Marxism, Trotsky wrote that “the dialectical method revealed itself for the first time, not as an abstract definition, but as a living spring found in the historical process.”9
Trotsky’s metaphor of the spring recurs frequently in his articles and speeches. “Marxism without the dialectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later declared.10 Wound tightly into the shape of a spiral, the materialist dialectic simply mirrors the dynamic tension of capitalism itself. “Cycles explain a great deal,” Trotsky maintained in 1923, “forming through automatic pulsation an indispensable dialectical spring in the mechanism of capitalist society.”11 Earlier in the year he stressed that an adequate sociological account must be both strong and flexible, since “dialectical thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12
For such an account to be warranted, in other words, a dynamic tension has to operate throughout the social whole and govern its totality. Adorno went so far as to contend in his introductory lectures on sociology that “[t]he concept of ‘society’ is, and must be, inherently dialectical.” Society signifies “a mediated and mediating relationship between individuals, and not as a mere agglomerate of individuals. It is thus dialectical in the strict sense, because the mediation between these two opposed categories — individuals on one side and society on the other — is implicit in both.”13 One of the intermediate terms of this relationship is class, which structures their opposition.14 Without this broader divergence, Lukács observed, “the objective economic antagonism as expressed in the class struggle evaporates, leaving just the conflict between individual and society.”15
Vulgar Austromarxists like Max Adler were the object of Lukács’ criticism in this passage, but Trotsky had his own followers in mind when he criticized the bootstrapping ideology of American capitalism. “Nowhere has there been such rejection of class struggle as the land of ‘unlimited opportunity.’ Denial of social contradictions as the moving force of development leads to the denial of the dialectic as the logic of contradictions in the domain of theoretical thought.”16 Proletarians no longer see themselves as such, a problem which deeply troubled Adorno.17 As the great Hegelian Marxist Antonio Labriola pointed out several decades prior, however,
The real criticism of society is society itself, which by the antithetic conditions upon which it rests engenders from itself — within itself — the contradiction over which it finally triumphs by passing into a new form. But the solution of existing antitheses is the proletariat, whether proletarians themselves know this or not. Even as their misery has become the condition of present society, so in their misery resides the justification of the new proletarian revolution. It is in this passage from the criticism of subjective thought, which examines things from the outside and imagines it can correct them all at once, to an understanding of the self-criticism exercised by society over itself in the immanence of its own processus. It is in this alone that the dialectic of history consists, which Marx and Engels, insofar as they remained materialists, drew from the idealism of Hegel.18
Labriola thereby introduces a conditio sine qua non of dialectical thought, “the immanence of its own process.” Hegel once defined dialectics as “the immanent process of transcendence [dies immanente Hinausgehen]” of finite judgments issued by the intellect,19 a definition later borrowed by Lukács.20 According to Hegel, thinking is nothing other than “the resolution of contradictions from its own resources [aus sich].”21
This is what Marx meant in 1859 when he transposed the forms of social consciousness onto the solid ground of social being, reversing their sequence. “Social formations are never destroyed until the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new relations of production never replace older ones before the prerequisites for their existence have matured within the womb of the old society,” Marx wrote. “Humanity thus exclusively sets itself such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present, or at least in the course of formation.”22 More than a decade later, he yet again confirmed that the working class has “no ideals to realize, but to set free those elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”23 Communist society, once it finally makes its entrance upon the world stage, will “still be stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges,” as Marx indicated in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program.24 Each successive stage must be “overcome dialectically,” as Hegel put it, “i.e., through itself, carrying all its previous determinations sublated within itself.”25
It was Marx, after all, for whom “the dialectic of negativity as the moving and generating principle” represented “the outstanding achievement of Hegel’s Phänomenologie and its final outcome: the self-creation of man as a process.”26 Engels later commented that if Hegel had demonstrated the transitory character of everything and in everything — “the uninterrupted process of becoming and passing away” — then “dialectical philosophy is nothing other than the reflection of this process in the thinking brain.”27 Quoting Goethe’s Faust, he proclaimed: “All that exists deserves to perish.”28 Though the systemic side of Hegelianism tended to be more conservative than its method, it nevertheless contained the explosive dynamism of an unprecedented social form.29 (Moishe Postone has even proposed to read the presentation of Marx’s argument in Capital as a “metacommentary on Hegel,” since the real process that his philosophy reflects belongs to capitalism).30 Within capitalist society there can already be found abundant negativity, but it is a fecund negativity; to paraphrase Nietzsche, the present suffers from “a sickness…, but a sickness rather like pregnancy.”31
Given this prevailing societal negativity, a “negation of the negation” would be necessary to deliver the future from the womb of the present.32 “As a consequence of the production process,” wrote Marx, “the possibilities resting in living labor’s own womb exist outside it as realities — but as realities alien to it, which form wealth in opposition to it.”33 Negating such alien realities requires force, or a materialization of this idealized Hegelian negative dialectic.34 “Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one,” claimed Marx in Capital.35 Sociohistoric immanence, which he sought to convey through this literary trope of pregnancy, is embodied by the proletariat. Wage labor gestates inside the social nexus of expanded reproduction, growing in exact proportion to the increase of capital. Proletarians are “the firstborn sons of modern industry.”36
Rolf Hosfeld thus astutely comments in his recent intellectual biography of Marx that “he wanted to develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles, through the method of an immanent critique of the world.”37 Hosfeld’s passing comment has been worked out in greater detail by Postone, even if the latter rejects labor as the standpoint of critique:
The notion that the structures, or underlying relations, of modern society are contradictory provides the theoretical basis for an immanent historical critique, which allows it to elucidate an historical dynamic intrinsic to the social formation — a dialectic pointing beyond itself, to that realizable “ought” which is immanent to what already “is” and serves as the standpoint of its critique. According to this approach, social contradiction is the precondition of both an intrinsic historical dynamic and the existence of a social critique itself.38
Yet the implications of this insight prove much more far-reaching, extending beyond theory. “Immanent critique also has a practical moment,” Postone goes on to state, “contributing to social and political transformation.” Since it “rejects positions which affirm the given order as well as utopian critiques of that order,” the orientation of criticism is neither apologetic nor unrealistic.39 Marx long ago pronounced that “in its rational form, [the dialectic] includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.”40 Lenin similarly stressed many years later that capitalism could only be overcome by “a long and persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism itself.”41
Epistemologically, Rosa Luxemburg understood that Marxism was itself a product of the immanent critique of French revolutionary socialism, German idealist philosophy, and British political economy: “Marxian theory is a child of bourgeois science, but the birth of this child has cost the mother her life.”42 One of the basic precepts of dialectical thinking, then, or one of its rules of thumb, is “the judgment of works by immanent criteria [immanenten Kriterien],” to quote the Marxist literary critic Walter Benjamin.43 “Dialectic is not a standpoint,” argued his colleague Adorno a few decades later, “but rather the attempt, by means of an immanent critique, to develop philosophical standpoints beyond themselves and beyond the despotism of a thinking based on standpoints.”44 When Lukács, following Marx and Engels, invoked the “standpoint of the proletariat,”45 this was not as some sort of Archimedean point outside of the world. Rather, it was as a point inside the capitalist mode of production from which the social totality could be glimpsed.46
Proudhon’s 1840 treatise What is Property? was appreciated by Marx and Engels for just this reason, for undertaking “a criticism of political economy from the standpoint of political economy.” Even if it treated historically-evolved impasses as immutable, they acknowledged that “the first criticism of any science is necessarily influenced by the premises of the science it is fighting against.”47 Some twenty years following this initial encounter, Marx recalled that Proudhon “imitated Kant’s treatment of the antinomies.”48 If later on “Proudhon attempted to present the system of economic categories dialectically,” namely by introducing “Hegelian ‘contradictions’ in place of Kant’s insoluble ‘antinomies’ as means of development,” for Marx this was an infelicitous turn.49 Granted, “Proudhon had a natural inclination for dialectics. But as he never grasped truly scientific dialectics, he never got further than sophistry.”50 Of course Hegel distinguished sharply between dialectics and sophistry, “the essence of which consists precisely in upholding one-sided and abstract determinations in isolation from one another, depending on the individual’s respective interests and particular situation.” 51 Lenin used this distinction in his own work:
The great Hegelian dialectics that Marxism made its own, having first turned it right side up, must never be confused with the vulgar trick of justifying the zigzags of those politicians who swing over from the revolutionary to the opportunist wing of the party, with the vulgar habit of lumping together particular statements and developmental factors belonging to different stages of a single process. Genuine dialectics does not justify the errors of individuals… but studies the inevitable turns, proving that they were inevitable through a detailed study of the process of development in all its concreteness. One of the core principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth; truth is always concrete.52
Here Lenin was simply quoting Hegel,53 a line first brought to light by Plekhanov. “Dialectical logic demands we go further,” Lenin stated elsewhere. “To really know an object, one must grasp and investigate all of its sides, all of its interconnections and ‘mediations’.”54 (Adorno’s warning is well taken, however: “Only if [truth] is present can the much-misused saying that ‘the truth is concrete’ properly come into its own, compelling philosophy to crack open the minutiae of thought. We must philosophize not about concrete details but from within them, by assembling concepts around them”).55 In the meantime, however, Lenin accused Kautsky, Plekhanov, and Vandervelde of “substituting eclecticism and sophistry for dialectics.”56 Such eclecticism and sophistry has hardly gone away since Lenin wrote these lines; one need only glance at any number of recent titles for proof.
1 Karl Marx. “Letter to Friedrich Engels of December 9, 1861.” Translated by Peter and Betty Ross. Collected Works, Volume 41. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1985). Pg. 333.
2 Vladimir Lenin. “On the Question of Dialectics.” Translated by Clemens Dutt. Collected Works, Volume 38: Philosophical Notebooks. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1976). Pg. 357.
3 C.L.R. James. Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin. (Lawrence Hill Publishers. Westport, CT: 2005). Pg. 170.
4 Vladimir Lenin. “Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic.” Translated by Clemens Dutt. Collected Works, Volume 38. Pg. 229.
5 Theodor W. Adorno. Hegel: Three Studies. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholson. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1993). Pg. 75.
6 Vladimir Lenin. What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social Democrats. Translator not listed. Collected Works, Volume 1: 1893-1894. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1960). Pgs. 183-184.
7 Georg Lukács. Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought. Translated by Nicholas Jacobs. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 2009). Pg. 21. Translation amended.
8 Leon Trotsky. “Culture and Socialism.” Translated by Brian Pearce. Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1973). Pg. 233.
9 Leon Trotsky. My Life: An Attempt at Autobiography. Translated by Joseph Hansen. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1970). Pg. 122.
10 Leon Trotsky. “The ABC of Dialectical Materialism.” Translated by John G. Wright. Problems of Everyday Life. Pg. 323. Chris Arthur similarly says of the Soviet economy that “if the law of value enforced through capitalist competition is no longer operative we have a clock without a spring.” The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital. (Brill Academic Publishers. Boston, MA: 2004) Pg. 222.
11 Leon Trotsky. “The Curve of Capitalist Development.” Translator unlisted. The Challenge of the Left Opposition Selected Writings and Speeches, 1923-1925. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 275.
12 Leon Trotsky, “Problems of Civil War.” Translated by A.L. Preston. Challenge of the Left Opposition. Pg. 198.
13 Theodor W. Adorno. Introduction to Sociology. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. (Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA: 2000). Pg. 38.
14 Adorno defines society as it presently exists as “an antagonistic, divided, class society in which the interests of groups are essentially, objectively in conflict.” Ibid., pg. 66.
15 Georg Lukács. “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Translated by Rodney Livingstone. History and Class Consciousness. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1971). Pg. 11.
16 Trotsky, “The ABC of Dialectical Materialism.” Pg. 323.
17 “If there really is a gradual process whereby those who are objectively defined as proletarians, according to some threshold, are no longer conscious of themselves as such or emphatically reject this consciousness, then no proletarian will finally be left knowing he is a proletarian.” Adorno, Introduction to Sociology. Pg. 23.
18 Antonio Labriola. Essays on the Materialist Conception of History. Translated by Charles H. Kerr. (Charles H. Kerr & Company. Chicago, IL: 1908). Pgs. 169-170.
19 G.W.F. Hegel. Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline, Part 1: The Science of Logic. Translated by Klaus Brinkmann and Daniel Dahlstrom. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2010). Pg. 129.
20 Georg Lukács, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” History and Class Consciousness. Pg. 177.
21 Hegel, Encyclopedia, Part 1. Pg. 39. Translation modified.
22 Karl Marx. “Preface to Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy.” Translated by Yuri Sdobnikov. Collected Writings, Volume 29: 1857-1861. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1987). Pg. 263. Translation modified.
23 Karl Marx. The Civil War in France. Collected Works, Volume 22: 1870-1871. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1986). Pg. 335.
24 Karl Marx. Critique of the Gotha Program. Translated by Peter and Betty Ross. Collected Works, Volume 24. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1986). Pg. 85.
25 Hegel, Encyclopedia, Part 1. Pg. 233. Translation amended.
26 Karl Marx. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Translated by Martin Milligan and Dirk J. Struik. Collected Works, Volume 3: 1843-1844. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 332.
27 Friedrich Engels. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy. Translator unlisted. Collected Works, Volume 26: Engels, 1882-1889. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1990). Pg. 360.
28 Ibid., pg. 359.
29 “Whoever placed the emphasis on the Hegelian system could be fairly conservative in both [religion and politics]; whoever regarded the dialectical method as the main thing could belong to the most extreme opposition [in both spheres].” Ibid., pg. 363.
30 “Marx did not ‘apply’ Hegel to classical political economy, but contextualized Hegel’s concepts in terms of the social forms of capitalist society. The mature critique of Hegel is implicit in the unfolding of the categories in Capital — which, by paralleling the way Hegel unfolds these concepts, suggests the determinate sociohistorical context of which they are expressions. In terms of Marx’s analysis, Hegel’s concepts express fundamental aspects of capitalist reality but do not adequately grasp them.” Moishe Postone. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1993). Pg. 81.
31 Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. Translated by Carol Diethe. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 2006). Pg. 60.
32 Friedrich Engels. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. Translated by Emile Burns. Collected Works, Volume 25: Engels. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1987). Pg. 124.
33 Karl Marx. Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1973). Pg. 454.
34 “Capitalist production… begets its own negation… the negation of the negation.” Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1976). Pg. 929.
35 Ibid., pg. 916.
36 Karl Marx. “Speech at the Anniversary of the People’s Paper.” Collected Works, Volume 14: 1855-1856. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1980). Pg. 656.
37 Rolf Hosfeld. Karl Marx: An Intellectual Biography. Translated by Bernard Heise. (Berghahn Books. New York, NY: 2013). Pg. 29.
38 Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination. Pg. 88.
39 “As an immanent critique, the Marxian analysis claims to be dialectical because it shows its object to be so.” Ibid., pg. 142.
40 Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 103.
41 Vladimir Lenin. “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Translated by Julius Katzer. Collected Works, Volume 31. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1966). Pg. 56.
42 „Die Marxsche Lehre ist ein Kind der bürgerlichen Wissenschaft, aber die Geburt dieses Kindes hat der Mutter das Leben gekostet“. Rosa Luxemburg. „Karl Marx“. Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 1, 2. S. 369-377.
43 Walter Benjamin. “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism.” Translated by David Lachterman, Howard Eiland, and Ian Balfour. Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1996. Pg. 155.
44 Theodor W. Adorno. “Why Still Philosophy?” Translated by Henry W. Pickford. Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 2005). Pg. 12.
45 Individuals are revolutionary insofar as they “abandon their own standpoint in order to adopt that of the proletariat [so verlassen sie ihren eigenen Standpunkt, um sich auf den des Proletariats zu stellen].” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Translated by Samuel Moore and Friedrich Engels. Collected Works, Volume 6: 1848. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1976). Pg. 494.
46 See the section on “the standpoint of the proletariat” in Lukács, History and Class Consciousness. Pg. 149.
47 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism: Against Bruno Bauer and Company. Translated by Richard Dixon and Clemens Dutt. Collected Works, Volume 5: 1844-1845. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 31.
48 Karl Marx. “On Proudhon.” Translator unlisted. Collected Works, Volume 20: 1864-1868. (International Publishers. New York, NY: 1985). Pg. 27.
49 Ibid., pg. 29. Marx even accepted responsibility for this: “During my stay in Paris in 1844, I came into personal contact with Proudhon. I mention this here because to a certain extent I am also to blame for his sophistication, as the English call the adulteration of commercial goods. In the course of lengthy debates often lasting all night, I infected him very much to his detriment with Hegelianism, which, owing to his lack of German, he could not study properly.” Ibid., pg. 28.
50 Ibid., pg. 33.
51 Hegel, Encyclopedia Logic. Pg. 129.
52 Vladimir Lenin. One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. Translated by Abraham Fineberg. Collected Works, Volume 7: September 1903-December 1904. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1961). Pg. 409.
53 “Everything true is concrete.” G.W.F. Hegel. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1991). Pg. 41.
54 “Dialectical logic holds that ‘truth is always concrete, never abstract,’ as the late Plekhanov liked to say after Hegel.” Vladimir Lenin. “Once Again on the Trade Unions.” Translated by Yuri Sdobnikov. Collected Work, Volume 32: December 1920-August 1921. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1965). Pg. 94.
55 Theodor Adorno. Lectures on Negative Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. (Polity Press. Malden, MA: 2008). Pg. 198.
56 Vladimir Lenin. The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Translated by Jim Riordan. Collected Works, Volume 28: July 1918-March 1919. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1965). Pgs. 229-230, 233-234, 323, 325.