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

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Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing

Daniel Lopez

[Daniel Lopez’s essay on “Alienation in Karl Marx’s early writing” was recently republished on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. In my opinion, it’s an excellent and fairly self-explanatory piece. As such, it doesn’t require much commentary on my end. Still, I’d like to note just a few things about the essay as well as the subject it concerns, not only to personalize it for my blog, but to set it in broader context. These won’t be included here, however, but will have to wait for a subsequent post. Just one thing, really: I find the notion of a Marxist “ontology,” like an “epistemology,” quite problematic, and characteristic of the later Lukács, and not the early one.

Please do, if you’re interested, check out Bertell Ollman’s classic Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971). Long before he started announcing every economic upheaval as “the terminal crisis of capitalism,” and talking about robotization, Ollman wrote what was probably the definitive text on the subject of alienation.]

As Karl Korsch noted in Marxism and Philosophy, the philosophical foundation of Marx’s works has often been neglected. The Second International had, in Korsch’s view, pushed aside philosophy as an ideology, preferring “science.” This, he charged, tended to reduce Marxism to a positivistic sociology, and in so doing, it internalized and replicated the theoretical logic of capitalism. [1] In place of this, Korsch called for a revitalization of Marxism that would view philosophy not simply as false consciousness but as a necessary part of the social totality.[2]

Following Marx, we should understand that philosophy could be, at best, its own period comprehended in thought, and that “philosophy cannot be abolished without being realised”.[3] Korsch was not alone in this. Georg Lukács’ major work, History and Class Consciousness, appeared almost simultaneously. Lukács, too, sought to lead a renewal of Marxism via a return to its philosophical roots, specifically in Hegel.[4] Unknown to them at the time, there was a greater basis for this in Marx’s writing than they could have imagined. In 1927, Marx’s The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was released; this was followed in 1932 by The German Ideology. These two texts joined other works by Marx, including The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), On the Jewish Question (1843), The Holy Family (1845, co-authored with Engels), Theses on Feuerbach (1845) and The Poverty of Philosophy(1847). Together, these illustrate a vast and penetrating critical engagement with Hegelian philosophy.

This essay will engage with this body of work in order to shed light on Marx’s early period and specifically, the concept of alienation.[5] The central contention here is that alienation is vital to the ontological bedrock of Marx’s early viewpoint. This will help to elucidate a number of related issues. Specifically, his concept of labor as species-being, his argument that material reality is always formed by and through social relations and his application of alienation to the critique of philosophy and history will be explored. In order to do this, this essay will be divided into four subsections which deal with the concept of alienation as Marx developed it. It will begin with his Hegelian inheritance and will then move to his political critique of Hegel. Following the development of Marx’s thought, the essay will discuss the economic production of alienation. Marx’s theory of the overcoming of alienation will then be considered, with reference to the Young Hegelian movement, against which he formulated his views. This will necessitate a short discussion of alienation in history and Marx’s theory of revolution. It is hoped that out of this, an understanding of Marx’s early period will be reached that emphasizes his radical humanism and his basic affinity with thinkers like Korsch, Lukács, and Rubin. Finally, this essay seeks to present a Marx who is simultaneously deeply indebted to and critical of Hegel.


German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1772-1831)

Marx’s Hegelian roots

Alienation is a theme fundamental to Hegel’s thought. To give an in-depth account of this would be a vast undertaking. This essay will therefore limit itself to one clear example — the emergence of Reason out of Self-Consciousness in Section B of The Phenomenology of Spirit.[6] Continue reading