Sources of Confusion


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As is the case with all my work, nothing here should be read as an attack either on Historical Materialism [HM] -- a scientific theory I fully accept --, or, indeed, on revolutionary socialism. I remain as committed to the self-emancipation of the working class and the dictatorship of the proletariat as I was when I first became a revolutionary nearly thirty years ago.


The difference between Dialectical Materialism [DM] and HM, as I see it, is explained here.




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Summary Of My Main Objections To Dialectical Materialism


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A few weeks ago, Socialist Worker published an article in their "Sources of Marxism" series, entitled "Marx and Hegel: Interpreting the world in order to change it", by Bob Fotheringham, which was full of the usual claims about Marx and Hegel (just as it was devoid of all contrary evidence, such as the fact that Marx progressively turned away from Hegel all his mature life).


Because of this, I sent a letter to that paper attempting to balance things out, and to my surprise it was printed two weeks later:


"Bob Fotheringham's article (Interpreting the world in order to change it, 3 March) failed to note that, although Karl Marx was heavily influenced by GWF Hegel at first, he moved away from him all his life. [Added later: I left his initials out in my original letter; presumably readers of this fine paper do not know who 'Hegel' is, but they do know who 'GWF Hegel' is!]


"In Capital Marx declared that the influence of Hegel on his work was confined merely to using the latter's jargon. He merely flirted with this, and only in one chapter of Capital. [Added later: In my original letter, I used the word Marx employed: 'coquetted' -- but the editors changed it to 'flirted'.]


"And no wonder. Not only was the entire 'dialectic' based on a series of logical blunders Hegel committed, it was a continuation of an ancient mystical Hermetic tradition that was hostile to materialism.


"Finally, Dialectical Marxism has not been blessed with many successes. Indeed tested in practice, it has been refuted by history. Time we ditched it in its entirety." [Links added.]


Sure enough, two DM-fans responded (and in a thoroughly predictable manner, too -- in fact, I could have written their letters for them, so many times have I seen this type of reply):


"Rosa Lichtenstein is wrong about Karl Marx and dialectics (Letters, 17 March).


"Marxism is a living political theory that explains the movement of history and our potential to change the future.


"To remove the dialectic from it creates a mechanical and lifeless system that views change as an historical inevitability.


"Such a theory was formulated by Eduard Bernstein and the theorists of the Second International at the beginning of the 20th century in an attempt to 'stick to the facts'.

"It produced paralysis, capitulation and collapse in the face of the imperialist First World War.


"Lenin, having reread GWF Hegel in 1914, was able to break with this deterministic version of Marxism.


"Some in the Stalinist tradition, such as the French Communist Louis Althusser, have sought to divide the young Hegelian Marx from his 'mature' works. However Marx's dialectical method runs throughout his work." [Links added.]


Rob Jackson


"It is true (Letters, 17 March) that Marx moved away from Hegel during his life, but that did not mean that he abandoned dialectics.


"Marx turned Hegel on his head, rejecting his idealism while recasting the dialectic by setting it in a materialist foundation.


"Marx refrained from the use of Hegelian terminology in Capital to make it more accessible, but that did not mean that dialectics was not central to this great work.


"Marx used dialectics in considering capitalism as a total system while analysing its contradictions, such as that between exploiter and exploited.


"The failure of the working class to overthrow capitalism so far does not invalidate Marxism.


"Materialist dialectics remain a vital theoretical weapon in that fight." [Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Link added.]


Tony Phillips


Of course, it is only possible to make the most superficial of points (for or against) in such letters, but these replies were quite lamentable.


Here is what I wrote in reply (which wasn't published):


"Rob Jackson studiously ignores what I said, but maintains nonetheless that the dialectic is necessary if Marxism is to be a living force and not 'mechanical' -- even though Marx himself said that he merely 'coquetted' with this moribund Hegelian system.


"Apparently Marx did not have the benefit of comrade Jackson's sound advice.


"Historical Materialism doesn't need this mystical theory; indeed, its capacity to explain anything is seriously compromised by the obscure jargon that still seems to impress far too many Marxists.


"And it is possible to show that Lenin's theory is no less deterministic than Bernstein's, except, in Lenin's case, the situation is worse, since he sees 'contradictions' everywhere, which must mean that nature argues with itself!


"Finally, comrade Jackson asserts that the dialectical method runs through Marx's work, even though Marx himself denied this (see above).


"Tony Phillips makes a better case, conceding the undeniable fact that Marx gradually abandoned the dialectic. However, he then advances the standard claim that Marx turned Hegel's system on its head. Indeed he did, and that head was crushed as a result, since Marx himself (not me) tells us that the rational core of that system in fact amounts to no more than a few jargonised expressions with which Marx merely 'coquetted', and then only in a few places in his great work.


"Conveniently, comrades ignore Marx's own words here since it is the only way they can make this hackneyed tale work.


"Finally, Tony says that the failure of the working class to overthrow capitalism does not invalidate Marxism.


"On this we agree.


"But he failed to address what I actually said: if truth is tested in practice, then the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism (not the working class) means that dialectics has been refuted by history.


"Either that, or truth isn't tested in practice.


"Take your pick..."


I will merely add two further comments:


(1) Rob Jackson finds he has to associate my ideas with those of Bernstein (and thus with the horrors of WW1) in order to put comrades off, or distract them, when his opinions own are much closer to Stalinism than mine are to Bernstein's.


Would I be so ungracious as to make such a comparison (to warn naive non-dialecticians off all Rob has to say)?


Yes, of course I would!


More details here.


(2) When I refer to "dialectics" in the above unpublished response, I of course mean "'dialectics' as this word has traditionally been interpreted by later Marxist tradition", and not as Marx himself understood this word. On that, see below.


And this week we find the following:


"Bob Fotheringham (Interpreting the world in order to change it, 3 March) and Tony Phillips (Letters, 24 March) both state that Karl Marx 'turned Hegel on his head'.


"But Marx did not do any such thing, nor did he ever claim to. In fact Marx writes that it is Hegel who is 'standing on his head', and that he 'must be turned right side up again'.


"This isn't mere literary pedantry. If Marx had written about 'turning Hegel on his head', it would suggest he was fundamentally antagonistic to the philosopher and wished to overturn him.


"'Turning Hegel the right side up again', in contrast, suggests correcting a mistake in Hegel in order to activate the radical potential of the dialectic." [Quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site. Links added.]


Jiben Kumar


Of course, what Marx actually said was this:


"The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell."


[The Penguin version has "inverted" in place of "right side up again".]


Without wanting to intrude too much into this private spat, I think comrade Kumar is a little too severe on the original article, and on comrade Phillips, for to turn something on its head in English does not necessarily mean to rotate it so that it now rests on its head, but merely to spin it through 180 degrees, whatever its posture had previously been.


However, those already convinced of the correctness of this mystical creed, upside down or the 'right way up', will no doubt also fail to see anything negative in what Marx said. But, the fact is that in the same paragraph Marx also declared:


"The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just as I was working at the first volume of 'Das Kapital,' it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre Epigonoi who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing's time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a 'dead dog.' I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him."


In that context, it is worth noting that Marx put his allegiance to Hegel in the past tense. Moreover, one can describe someone else as a "mighty thinker" even if one totally disagrees with him or her. For example, I consider Plato a "mighty thinker", but I agree with little of what he wrote.


Marx then qualified the influence this mystic had on his work, by saying:


"...and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him."


Thus, an altogether different interpretation emerges, for Marx (not me, not Bernstein, not Peter Struve, not Max Eastman, not James Burnham), but Marx himself, pointedly limited this famed "rational kernel" to a few jargonised Hegelian expressions, and even then, he confined this influence to a few places, "here and there", in Das Kapital. Hardly a ringing endorsement. [More details here.]


And, in a passage that appeared almost immediately before the above, Marx described "his method" in these terms:


"After a quotation from the preface to my 'Criticism of Political Economy,' Berlin, 1859, pp. IV-VII, where I discuss the materialistic basis of my method, the writer goes on:


'The one thing which is of moment to Marx, is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of moment to him, which governs these phenomena, in so far as they have a definite form and mutual connexion within a given historical period. Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connexions into a different one. This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life. Consequently, Marx only troubles himself about one thing: to show, by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social conditions, and to establish, as impartially as possible, the facts that serve him for fundamental starting-points. For this it is quite enough, if he proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over; and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence. ... If in the history of civilisation the conscious element plays a part so subordinate, then it is self-evident that a critical inquiry whose subject-matter is civilisation, can, less than anything else, have for its basis any form of, or any result of, consciousness. That is to say, that not the idea, but the material phenomenon alone can serve as its starting-point. Such an inquiry will confine itself to the confrontation and the comparison of a fact, not with ideas, but with another fact. For this inquiry, the one thing of moment is, that both facts be investigated as accurately as possible, and that they actually form, each with respect to the other, different momenta of an evolution; but most important of all is the rigid analysis of the series of successions, of the sequences and concatenations in which the different stages of such an evolution present themselves. But it will be said, the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. This Marx directly denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist. On the contrary, in his opinion every historical period has laws of its own.... As soon as society has outlived a given period of development, and is passing over from one given stage to another, it begins to be subject also to other laws. In a word, economic life offers us a phenomenon analogous to the history of evolution in other branches of biology. The old economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they likened them to the laws of physics and chemistry. A more thorough analysis of phenomena shows that social organisms differ among themselves as fundamentally as plants or animals. Nay, one and the same phenomenon falls under quite different laws in consequence of the different structure of those organisms as a whole, of the variations of their individual organs, of the different conditions in which those organs function, &c. Marx, e.g., denies that the law of population is the same at all times and in all places. He asserts, on the contrary, that every stage of development has its own law of population. ... With the varying degree of development of productive power, social conditions and the laws governing them vary too. Whilst Marx sets himself the task of following and explaining from this point of view the economic system established by the sway of capital, he is only formulating, in a strictly scientific manner, the aim that every accurate investigation into economic life must have. The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the disclosing of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development, death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher one. And it is this value that, in point of fact, Marx's book has.'


"Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?" [Marx (1976), pp.101-02. Italic emphases added; quotation marks altered to conform to the conventions adopted at this site.]


In the passage quoted by Marx (which is the only summary of 'the dialectic method' Marx published and endorsed in his entire life), not one single Hegelian concept is to be found (no "contradictions", no change of "quantity into quality", no "negation of the negation", no "unity and identity of opposites", no "Totality"), and yet Marx still calls this both the "dialectic method" and "my method". So, Marx's "method" has had Hegel completely excised --, except for the odd phrase or two with which he merely "coquetted", here and there. This is, of course, the version of HM I have advocated in my Essays -- Marx clearly understood "the dialectic method" in a completely different way to subsequent dialecticians.


It is thus pleasing to see Marx and Rosa are in total agreement, at least here.


Naturally, DM-fans won't like this, but they should pick a fight with Marx for destroying their illusions, not me.


So, this isn't so much as turning Hegel 'on his head' as decapitating him...


[The above argument is greatly expanded upon here, where I have responded to several obvious, and a few not so obvious, objections.]


Updated: 27/01/20


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