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Ian Birchall

WHAT’S IN A WORD: Dialectics

The whole truth

(December 1982)

From Socialist Review, 9 December 1982-12 January 1983: 1, pp.27-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Brecht said that: ‘I have never found anybody without a sense of humour who could understand dialectics.’ Ian Birchall has one, and explains this central idea of Marxism.

By concentrating on the particular ...

Between September and December 1914, the months immediately following the outbreak of the First World War and the collapse into patriotic treachery of most of the international labour movement, Lenin spent a good deal of his time in the reading hall of the library at Berne, in Switzerland. He was reading Hegel’s Science of Logic, and judged it sufficiently important to fill several school exercise-books with notes and comments. These notes take up some 160 pages of Lenin’s Collected Works (volume 38).

This episode has always puzzled Lenin’s biographers, many of whom omit it entirely (including, it must be said, Tony Cliff, who skips from August 1914 to Zimmerwald in a single page. The name Hegel does not appear in the index to any of the four volumes of Cliff’s Lenin.) And at first sight it is certainly perplexing that Lenin, the supreme organiser and man of action, should have been so fascinated by the most obscure and convoluted of all the German idealist philosophers.

Yet Lenin throughout his life insisted on the importance of Hegel and the dialectical method he initiated. He argued that it was impossible to understand Marx’s Capital without having studied the whole of Hegel’s Logic; and in his Testament notes that Bukharin has never understood the dialectic.

Lenin’s interest

The reason why it is so difficult to explain Lenin’s interest in dialectics is that in the last fifty years the whole question has got fouled up with a number of red herrings. Before any attempt to explain what dialectics is, it is necessary to clear the ground and explain what it is not.

Firstly, Stalinism transformed Marxism from a critical revolutionary theory into the ideology of the Russian ruling class. As part of this process, Stalin invented something called ‘dialectical materialism’ (snappily abbreviated to ‘Diamat’), a set of quasi-religious formulae. (Marx never used the term ‘dialectical materialism’; Stalin took it from Plekhanov.)

In the hands of a pig-ignorant bureaucrat like Stalin, dialectics was a gift for explaining away the barbarities of the new regime. In 1930 Stalin told the Sixteenth Party Congress:

‘We are for the withering away of the state, and yet we also believe in the proletarian dictatorship which represents the strongest and mightiest form of state power that has existed up to now. To keep on developing state power in order to prepare conditions for the withering away of state power – that is the Marxist formula. Is it “contradictory”? Yes, “contradictory”. But the contradiction is vital, and. wholly reflects the Marxist dialectic.’

The Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao, added his contribution to the great tradition by inventing the concept of ‘non-antagonistic contradiction’, as a nice way of saying ‘class collaboration’ (the bourgeoisie are the class-enemy, but we won’t fight them.)

The second problem that has dogged the argument is the famous debate about the ‘dialectics of nature’. Engels was fond of illustrating his account of dialectics from quantity to quality by comparing it to the boiling or freezing or water; water gets progressively warmer or colder, then at a given point turns to ice or steam.

The Stalinists eagerly latched on to this method. The French philosopher Georges Politzer tells us that when a chicken comes out of an egg, it negates the egg; but then the chicken grows into a hen and negates itself. So here we have the ‘negation of the negation’.

The trouble with all this is that it both oversimplifies and mystifies. Making a revolution is, after all, rather more complex than making a cup of tea – or even than breeding chickens. And for dialectics to claim to be rooted in the natural sciences allows it to bask in the reflected glory of ‘Science’, thus fudging the issue of what its true status is.

The question of the ‘dialectics of nature’ must be handled carefully. In his last year Engels, a keen but amateur student of natural science, wrote extensive notes on dialectics in relation to various branches of science. Since he rightly gave priority to working on Marx’s unfinished Capital, Engels never completed these notes for publication. The posthumous volume that appeared under the title Dialectics of Nature should be seen as no more and no less than the interesting but fragmentary speculations of a gifted thinker.

Since Engels’ time many notable scientists, from J.D. Bernal to the French physicist J.-P. Vigier, have claimed that the dialectical method has helped them in their work. It would be foolish to claim that dialectics has no place in the study of natural science – but equally dangerous to claim that the validity of dialectics as a method of social enquiry depends on the correctness or incorrectness of a theory about nature.

After all, it is conservative, bourgeois thought that tries to see society as subject to the same laws as nature. We’ve all heard of the economic ‘climate’, something unchangeable, for which no-one is responsible. As Marx, quoting Vico, points out, ‘human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter.’ To derive the laws of dialectics from inanimate nature leads to denying the role of human agency in the historical process.

What, then, is dialectics? The term was first used by the Greek philosopher, Plato. For him it meant the process by which pure thought advances towards the achievement of coherent knowledge. Over two thousand years later, Hegel took up the term to refer to the movement of ideas which, for him, was the driving force of human history. For Marx and Engels, dialectics came to be the processes by which human history itself developed.

Since Marx’s day, many people have tried to codify dialectics into a set of laws. However, no two seem to agree as to what the laws are, nor even whether there are three or four of them. Dialectics is, in fact, an extraordinarily slippery subject; attempts to explain it almost always end up in either incomprehensible jargon or banal platitudes.

Nothing sacred

So why bother? It is very easy to sympathise with socialists who say they are far too busy with the struggle to spend time on philosophy, and that they will rely simply on common sense. But unfortunately socialists cannot rely on common sense.

For common sense is the ideas shared by most people. And as Marx pointed out: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ Most people trust appearances. For thousands of years it was common sense that the sun went round the earth. Today Stalinists and Free-World fanatics will agree that it is obvious that Russia and the United States have totally different social systems. Only a study in depth will reveal that both are governed by the same laws. It is the common-sense view of our society that capitalism is a fair system in which everyone is free. It is precisely our job to undermine that common sense.

Dialectics, then, is the study of how things change. The imperative underlying all dialectical thought is Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ Or, as Engels was to put it:

‘Just as the bourgeoisie by large-scale industry, competition and the world market dissolves in practice all stable time-honoured institutions, so this dialectical philosophy dissolves all conceptions of final, absolute truth and of absolute states of humanity corresponding to it. For it (dialectical philosophy) nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory character of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher.’

This implies the need for a theory of history. There are, of course, a good number of theories of history already available, both in elaborated form, and embodied in the attitudes held by most people. Basically, they can be summed up under three headings: ‘You can’t really change things’; ‘you can’t stop Progress’; and ‘things ain’t what they used to be’. All of these are fundamentally reactionary. There is nothing progressive about ‘Progress’, as should be obvious in an age when millions of people are being thrown out of their jobs by machines. So revolutionary socialism needs an alternative view of history.

Hegel’s problem

And this is where Hegel comes in. Hegel (1770-1831) was one of a group of German philosophers who lived through the period of the French Revolution. These philosophers had a problem. They were greatly inspired by the Revolution, but they lived in a country which was far less socially developed than France. They couldn’t mobilise the masses to overthrow the kings, for there were no masses to mobilise. So they made revolution inside their own heads, translating the real changes of the French Revolution into philosophical abstractions.

What Hegel tried to show was that history was not a series of accidents, but had a logic running through it. As he put it: ‘All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.’ Now as Engels pointed out, this is a double-edged formulation. On the one hand it can be used to defend the status quo; but on the other it can be used to justify the forcible overthrow of that status quo. Hence the followers of Hegel rapidly split into left and right wings. For Marx and Engels the important thing was to reintegrate Hegel’s insights into a materialist view of history. As Engels put it, Hegel’s dialectic was standing on its head, and had to be put back on its feet.

One of the key categories that Marx takes from Hegel is that of totality. As the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács wrote (in the days before he became a Stalinist hack):

‘It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel ...’

As Lukács pointed out, bourgeois thought sees the organisation of social and economic life from the standpoint of competing capitalists, and hence cannot see It as a whole. Moreover, bourgeois ideology tries to force this fragmented view on the rest oft us, precisely because it mystifies the process of change.

As Brecht put it, ‘the decisions about the meat that is lacking in the kitchen are not taken in the kitchen.’ The bourgeois social sciences will encourage us to spend our lives making the most rigorous, objective, detailed study of the kitchen – and as a result we shall never find what we are looking for, Raoul Vaneigem, a Situationist leader, in the sixties, neatly summed up this pressure to fragmentation when he wrote that the prevailing ideology

‘... insists that everyone be for or against the Rolling Stones ... the Mini-van, Chinese food, LSD, short skirts, the United Nations, pop art, nationalisation, thermonuclear war and hitch-hiking. Everyone is asked their opinion of every detail to stop them having one of the totality.’

So, rather than the whole being a simple sum of its parts, the parts can be understood only in the context of the whole. As Lenin points out, a hand is only really a hand if it is part of a body. Likewise, the working class is not produced by simply adding up individual workers. A worker is a worker only if she or he is part of the working class. (Hence the bourgeois enthusiasm for secret ballots, which add up individuals rather than taking the class as a collective.)

Similarly, failure to see every process as part of a totality leads to political errors in the movement. Trade union struggle is important, but if we fail to see it as part of the totality, we lapse into ‘economism’: Building the party is vital, but detached from the totality leads to sectarianism; and so on.


Now, if human society is perceived as a whole, the agency of change must be inside that whole. It cannot be something ‘outside’, like God, or a benevolent elite seen as standing outside society.

For once, an analogy with the natural sciences may be permissible. For many centuries it was assumed that the natural state of matter was immobility. This left an enormous problem – what made things move? One of the most intelligent thinkers of European Middle Ages, Dante, could find no other explanation of how the sun, moon and stars moved than to assume that they were being pushed by angels. But once it is understood that motion is the natural state of matter, then the problem is transformed.

It was this question that Marx confronted in his Third Thesis on Feuerbach, one of the most profound passages he ever wrote:

‘The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society.’

In other words, if we see society as a single whole, the dynamic for change must be contradictions within that single whole. The shortest, but probably the most accurate definition of dialectics I know is Raya Dunayevskaya’s ‘development through contradiction’.

Thus Hegel insists that ‘Contradiction is the very moving principle of the world’. The English poet Blake, writing at roughly the same tone, declared that ‘without Contraries is no progression’. (Hegel and Blake almost certainly knew nothing of each other; but both were deeply influenced by the French Revolution.)

Of course, to identify contradiction as the dynamic of change is only the beginning of the problem. Marx went on to spend the remaining thirty-eight years of his life studying the specific contradictions of capitalist society – capital and labour, use value and exchange value, and so on.

This argument also enables us to avoid another stumbling-block of bourgeois philosophy, the relation of ‘is’ and ‘ought’. Bourgeois philosophy denies that we can ever get logically from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, from statements of fact to statements of value. But if society is transformed by contradictions internal to it, then it is no use

looking for change unless that change can be identified with an agency already present in the social system. Likewise, it is no good trying to prefigure socialism on the basis of moral ideas. Capitalism will be destroyed only by the existing working class, with all its flaws and weaknesses. In Lenin’s words: ‘We have to build socialism with people who have been thoroughly spoiled by capitalism.’


As a result, in Engels’ words, the dialectical approach means that ‘the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes. This is crucial for an understanding of the historical role of classes. In looking at any class’s place in history, we have to consider it, not in terms of its actual state at a given moment in time, but in terms of its potential for development. In Marx’s words:

‘The question is not what goal is envisaged for the time being by this or that member of the proletariat, or even by the proletariat as a whole. The question is what is the proletariat and what course of action will it be forced historically to take in conformity with its own nature.’

It was on this basis that Georg Lukács developed the concept of ‘imputed consciousness’, that is, the consciousness that a class is historically capable of achieving. Thus, for example, it is obvious to anyone operating in terms of common sense that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are far more united than the members of the NUR and ASLEF. It is only when we understand that class is not a thing but a process that we can continue to insist that working-class unity is a real possibility.

To take another example, it is clear that, in the light of what has been said so far, Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution is one of the supreme examples of the application of the dialectical method. Firstly, Trostky stresses that we must see the world as a single totality, and not as a collection of separate nation-states, each with its own history of class development.

Secondly, in looking at the role of the working class, in the coming Russian Revolution, Trotsky argues that we must go beyond the facts, such as the small size of the working class (smaller than in many Third World countries today) and its low level of organisation compared with Western Europe, and focus instead on the potential historical role of the class.

On the basis of the foregoing it is possible to see how the dialectical method can enable us to overcome some of the dilemmas of bourgeois thought.

Firstly, the false alternative which bourgeois critics of Marxism often throw up: is Marxism a ‘science’ or a moral critique of society. As Lukács points out in his essay on The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg, this is a problem only if we see society as something outside ourselves, like the weather.

Ends and means

If we do, then there are two alternatives: either we look for technical means of manipulating immutable laws, or we can take a purely inward-directed moral attitude. Thus if we can’t stop it raining, we can either respond technically (by using an umbrella) or morally (by deciding rain is good for us). But if we see society as a totality, then the false dichotomy evaporates; the historical process is not governed by immutable laws independent of us, but our actions are precisely part of that process. In the words of the old Sixties slogan: ‘If you’re not part of the problem, you must be part of the solution.’

Secondly, the relation between knowledge and action. Hegel tells the story of a philosopher who made the ‘wise resolution ... not to venture into the water until he had learned to swim’. Once again, the dialectical approach sees this as a false dichotomy. The working class, in particular, is deprived of knowledge by capitalist society. It cannot educate itself before fighting for power. Even the cadre of the revolutionary party cannot be educated in advance of the struggle. Knowledge is achieved only in the course of participation in revolutionary practice.

Thirdly, there is the age-old problem of ends and means. Once again, the way the question is normally posed (‘Does the end justify the means?’) suggests that the two can be separated and balanced against each other.

Discussing this question in Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky quotes a passage from a play by Ferdinand Lassalle:

‘Show not the goal
But show also the path. So closely interwoven
Are path and goal that each with other
Ever changes, and other paths forthwith
Another goal set up.

Ends and means cannot be separated, for both are part of the same process. Thus, for example, the ultimate reason why there can be no parliamentary road to socialism is that socialism is, by definition, the self-emancipation of working people, and one cannot delegate one’s own emancipation to a parliamentary representative.

Finally, a few words on two of the famous laws of dialectics.

The famous laws

Firstly, the transition from quantity to quality. It was argued above that boiling kettles don’t have much to do with revolution. None the less, the distinction between quantitative and qualitative change is an important one for understanding the process of historical development. Just because history is driven along by contradictions, its progress is not smooth and in a straight line, but rather through sudden jolts and upheavals. Just because society is a totality, it can’t be changed bit by bit. As R.H. Tawney pointed out, you can’t skin a tiger claw by claw; you must do it in one go, or you will be the victim.

The same thing applies to the progress of revolutionary organisations. These too do not grow in a smooth upward ascent. On the contrary, they stagnate or even decline for years, and then at a moment of crisis expand rapidly. But it is no good simply waiting for the qualitative leap. It is slow quantitative growth that decides whether the qualitative leap will be possible. Thus, at the beginning of 1968, the International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) had some 450 members. During the massive upheavals of that year we grew to one thousand. But if we had had only two hundred at the start of the year, it is quite probable we should have been too thinly spread to intervene anywhere, and we might have come out of the year no bigger than we began it. (In that case Britain would probably have seen the flowering of ‘soft’ Maoism in the German or Italian style).

Secondly, the negation of the negation. In chapter XXXII of the first volume of Capital, Marx describes how the growth of capitalist property destroys individual private property, and replaces it by a more developed form of co-operative labour. But at the same time capitalist exploitation produces a discontented working class which will eventually destroy the whole system.

‘The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But, capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era; i.e. on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.’

Human activity

To this Marx might have added another dialectical twist. For when the working class destroys capitalism, the source of its exploitation, it also negates itself. The aim of socialist revolution is not the triumph of the working class, but its abolition.

This, incidentally, is an easily comprehensible proposition to most workers, who didn’t choose to be members of the working class, and would be quite happy to change their status. It is, however, quite incomprehensible to the bureaucracy of the Labour movement whose whole status as mediators depends on the continued existence of an exploited class and hence of exploitation.

To conclude: dialectics is not a set of ‘laws’ independent of human will. It is simply a means of describing how human beings make their own history. In Marx’s words:

‘History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is mean, real living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not “history” which uses men as a means of achieving – as if it were an individual person – its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends.’

... bourgeois thought fails to see the totality

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Last updated: 26 March 2010