Society, totality, and history

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.

6 thoughts on “Society, totality, and history

  1. Excellent post. In reading the compendium of Adorno’s lectures known as “Introduction to Dialectics” it seems that Adorno makes, or at least strongly implies, a very helpful point: that the engine of dialectical thought involves a confrontation with anti-dialectical, reifying thought, primarily grounded in the suppression of awareness of social contradiction. What this suggests is that the mysterious-sounding guideline for dialectics of conforming to the real, contradictory development of social reality or somesuch is not simply some kind of better awareness of it, but also a simultaneous critical engagement with readings that assume social reality’s stability and permanence because it is presumed to be free of contradiction.

    The confrontation with reified thought provides an anchor point for dialectics, but without readily defined conclusions. The problem, as is obvious, then becomes one of gauging whether thought is “adequately” or sufficiently dialectical. Perhaps a good, or archetypal, example of this quesiton would be the controversies among socialists in the run-up to October. Socialists were all agreed that, contrary to the claims of its apologists, capitalism could be superseded, but Lenin argued that the situation held a potential to greatly accelerate the transition, that a bourgeois period of social organization was not necessary.

  2. Why are you still pushing this failed ‘theory’/’method’, Ross, when Marx himself had abandoned it by the time he came to write ‘Das Kapital’, just as we waved ‘goodbye’ to Philosophy in the second half of the 1840s? [Proof supplied on request.]

  3. That should read:

    “Why are you still pushing this failed ‘theory’/’method’, Ross, when Marx himself had abandoned it by the time he came to write ‘Das Kapital’, just as he waved ‘goodbye’ to Philosophy in the second half of the 1840s? [Proof supplied on request.]”

  4. For example, you quote, and seem to accept, without subjecting the following to a moment’s critical thought:

    (1) “Everything true is concrete”, and

    (2) “Dialectical logic holds that ‘truth is always concrete, never abstract,’ as the late Plekhan­ov liked to say after Hegel.”

    So, is (2) itself true? If it is, then, since it abstract, it must be false (since (2) tells us that truth is “never abstract”). If so, we can ignore it.

    On the other hand, if it is false, can ignore it anyway

    Either way we can ignore it.

    We might also ask: How did Hegel know that (1) was indeed the case? He offered no proof — which, had he done so it would have been abstract and hence subject to Lenin’s “truth…is never abstract”, which he, too, failed to substantiate.

    Are you in the habit of excepting the veracity of something on the say-so of a Christian and Hermetic Mystic, Ross? Seems Lenin was.

    You need to start exercising that highly educated mind of yours, Ross, and, like Marx, begin doubting a few things you hitherto seem only too willing to accept uncritically, without proof.

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