The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete
Let us now consider the concept of man in the light of the above. What is man? At first sight, the question appears to be ridiculously simple. Each of us links up quite a definite notion with this word, easily distinguishing man from any other being or object on the basis of this notion. From the standpoint of pre-Marxian logic that means that every individual of common sense possesses the concept of man, However, no other concept, it seems, has occasioned more, acrimonious debate among philosophers than this one.
According to the metaphysical (anti-dialectical) view it is not difficult to define this concept, just as any other. For this purpose one should abstract that general element that is equally inherent in every individual representative of the human race but not in any other beings.
An attempt to carry out this recommendation, however, immediately runs into a number of difficulties of fundamental philosophical significance. It turns exit that before making such an abstraction, on(, has to decide first of all what living beings could be included in the human race and what could not. Considerations that are by no means of formal nature immediately come into play fierce. For instance, Aristotle did not take slaves into account ill working exit his famous definition of man as a ‘political being’. Slaves were included into a different ‘genus’, namely that of ‘instruments’, albeit ‘speaking’ ones. For Aristotle as an ideologue of his own class, only the activity of a free citizen was ‘genuinely human’.
Elementary analysis of the concept of man discloses at once that it is bound by a thousand ties to the existence and struggle of classes and their worldviews and to a definite interpretation of humanism that has never been non-partisan or purely academic.
The bourgeois system, asserting itself in the struggle against feudal law, proved its advantages by insisting that it was the only structure to conform to the genuine nature of man, while feudalism was based on distorted and false preconceptions of his nature. The ideologists of contemporary imperialism endeavour to prove that socialism is incompatible with ‘the demands of human nature’ only to be satisfied under the ‘free enterprise’ system.
Let us analyse in this connection the situation depicted in a novel by Vercors, a progressive French author. In a generalised, acute, and witty form, the novel outlines the typical views of man conflicting in the modern world. The plot is as follows. A community of strange creatures is discovered ill a remote part of tropical forest. According to some criteria current in modern science these are anthropoid apes, according to others, they are men. One thing is clear: it is an extraordinary previously unknown transitional form between the animal, biological world and the human, social world. The whole question is whether they have made the step across that hardly perceptible boundary that separates man from animal, or not.
That is seemingly a purely academic question with which only a specialist in biology or anthropology may be concerned. In these days, however, there are no purely academic questions, and neither can there be. The tropi (as the creatures invented by the author are called) very soon become, the centre of conflicts of diverse interests and therefore o different viewpoint. An abstract theoretical question, ‘Are these men or animals?’ demands a definite and quite concrete answer. The main protagonist of the novel consciously kills one of these beings. If tropi are men, then he is a murderer who will have to be executed. If they are animals, there is no corpus delicti. The same question torments the, old clergyman. If tropi are men, he is obliged to save their souls, to perform the rite of baptism. But supposing these are merely animals? In that case he risks a repetition of the sacrilege of St MaŽl who, being purblind, baptised penguins. Another powerful interest is that of an industrial company that sees the tropi as ideal labour force. Trained animals that know neither trade unions nor class struggle nor needs above the physiological ones – what can be better from the point of view of a capitalist?
The company on whose territory the tropi are discovered tries to prove that these are animals constituting the company’s private property. The debate about the nature of the tropi involves hundreds of men, dozens of theories and doctrines, its scope gets wider and the problem itself more and more entangled, the whole thing growing into a debate about quite different objects and values. The characters of the novel are compelled to ponder the criterion for solving the question in a rigorous and unambiguous manner. This proves to be a more difficult task than might seem at first sight.
If preference is given to a certain ‘property of man’, the tropi are included in the category of men, and if another one is preferred, they are not. Working out a series of such features does not help either, for in this case the question arises as to the number of such features, and the difficulty remains the same. By increasing the number of men’s properties, including in this number those which the tropi do not have, one automatically leaves the tropi outside the human race. By paring down the number of features, leaving only those that both the previously known men and the tropi have, one obtains a definition which includes the tropi in the family of men. The thinking gets into the rut of a vicious circle: to define the nature of the tropi, one has to have a previous definition of man. But one cannot define man unless one has decided beforehand whether one will include the tropi as a species of the homo sapiens or not.
Besides, interpretation of each of the features immediately leads to explosive debate. What is one to understand by thinking? How is one to interpret speech? How is one to define labour? And so on and so forth. In one sense of these concepts, the tropi possess both thinking and speech, while in a different sense they do not. In other words, on each attribute of man the same kind of debate flares up as regards the concept of man itself. There is no visible end to the debate, it reaches the sphere of the most general philosophical concepts only to flare up with greater force and fury.
The debate becomes particularly acute when it touches on the subject of which of the modes of life activity should be regarded as ‘genuinely human’, what organisation of life ‘conforms with man’s nature’, and wherein lies this ‘nature’?
All attempts to establish that ‘general and essential feature’ that would permit to distinguish strictly between man and non-man, again and again run into an ancient difficulty. Such a feature may only be defined if a boundary between man and his nearest animal forebears is previously drawn; but how is one to draw this boundary line unless one has in one’s head that very ‘general feature’ which has to be determined? It is not difficult to tell very cold water from very hot; bait what about warm water? One stone does not make a heap, and neither do two stones. How many stones does one need to make a heap? Where is the point at which a balding man becomes bald? Does such a clear-cut boundary exist at all? Isn’t it simply an arbitrary imaginary line drawn for the sake of convenience of classification only? In that case, where should it lie? It will be drawn where the powers that be will want to draw it-that is the conviction to which the hero of the novel comes. Indeed, the subjective idealist doctrines (pragmatism, instrumentalism, etc.) hand over the solution of this question to the powers that be. ]’heir voice becomes the criterion of truth; everything is made dependent on their will and caprice. All the misfortunes of this world stem from the fact that men have not grasped yet what man is, and they have not agreed about what they would like him to be-that is the way the protagonist of the novel philosophises.
Having found from practical experience that the general and essential feature of man is not so easy to discover as might appear at first sight, the heroes of the novel are compelled to look for a solution in philosophical and sociological conceptions. But where is one to find the criterion of the truth of the latter? Here it all begins from the beginning. Vercors and his heroes are familiar with Marxist answer to this question. Yet it appears ‘one-sided’ to them. Vercors believes that a conception proceeding from ‘the real relations of men in material production’ ignores ‘other forms of human solidarity’, first of all ‘ritual philosophy’: ‘there are many tribes in the world whose human solidarity is built on hunting, wars, or fetishist rituals rather than on material production’; ‘the strongest tie now binding 300 million Hindus is their ritual philosophy rather than their backward agriculture’. The heroes of the novel vacillate, at the author’s will, between the Marxist and the idealist Christian definition of the general and essential criterion of the human being, daring to accept neither. They are looking for a third one, that would reconcile dialectical materialism and Christianity.
‘Each man is a man first and foremost, and only then is he a follower of Plato, Christ, or Marx,’ wrote Vercors in the afterward to the Russian edition of the book. ‘In my view it is much more important to show the way in which points of contact may be found between Marxism and Christianity proceeding from such a criterion, than to emphasise as such regardless of their differences.’ The essence of man the ideological differences, does not lie in adherence to some doctrine or other. But wherein does it lie? In the fact that ,man is first and foremost ... man’. That is the only answer that Vercors was able to oppose to the ‘one-sided’ view of dialectical materialism. But this kind of ‘answer’ takes us back to the starting point – to a simple name unendowed with any definite content. To move away from the tautology, one will have to take up the line of reasoning from the very beginning.
The position so vividly and wittily outlined by Vercors expresses very well the attitudes of those sections of Western intellectuals who struggle agonisingly with the burning issues of our times yet have not solved so far the problem for themselves – where lie the ways of redeeming the noble ideals of humanism? They see clearly that capitalism is innately hostile to these ideals. Yet they do not dare to take up communism for fear of losing in it ‘independence of thinking’, the sham ‘privileges of the thinking part of mankind’. While this part of mankind agonises over the choice between these two real poles of the modern world, any uncomplicated theoretical question grows out of any proportion into a most intricate and completely insoluble problem, while attempts to solve it with the aid of the most sophisticated instruments of formal logic ultimately lead to a tautology: A = A, man is man. Nothing else can result from a search for a definition of man through establishing the abstractly identical property which each individual representative of present-day mankind possesses. Logic based on this kind of axiom is absolutely powerless to do anything here. The essence of man to be expressed in the universal definition is by no means an abstraction inherent in each individual, it is not the identical feature which each individual representative of the human race taken separately possesses. A universal definition of man cannot be obtained on this path. here one needs a different kind of logic, a logic based on the dialectical materialist conception of the relationship between the universal and the individual. This essence is impossible to discover in a series of abstract features inherent in every individual. The universal cannot be found here however hard one might look for it. The search along this path is fruitless also in the case when it is assisted by most sophisticated logic. An excellent illustration of this point is to be found in Dialectic, by Gustav E. Mueller, an American philosopher. Judging from the book, the author has learnt something from Hegel. He even assimilated the Hegelian propositions oil the interpenetration of opposites, on the role of contradictions in the development of scientific theses, on the relation of consciousness to self-consciousness, and many other things. However, all this formal dialectical erudition runs idle, resulting in vacuity.
‘Man could not know what man is, could he not identity man with himself; yet equally man could have no experience of man, if he could not differentiate himself from what he experiences of himself.’  A series of ‘identifications’ and ‘differentiations’ which Mueller’s man carries out within himself according to the rules of formal dialectical schemes bring him to constructions so unintelligible and involved that their creator cannot untangle them himself. The end result of this pseudo-dialectical logic is as follows: man is so complicated and contradictory a being that the more you study him, the less you can hope to understand him. The only ‘general feature’ that Mueller manages to isolate in the intricate complexity of interacting individuals ultimately proves to be the ‘power of reflection’ and ‘love for reflection’. ‘His true humanity lies in this power of reflection... And the better the self thus knows itself, the more questionable and uncertain it appears. To embrace in the questionable individual the absolute, is what Plato calls Eros, love. Man’s true self is Love.’ [ibid.]
One would be hard put to it to discern here the ‘power of reflection’. Powerlessness is much more in evidence. Man’s essence certainly has nothing to do with this. What is expressed here is merely the essence of a philosopher and his love for contemplating the way he contemplates. Reproaching Mueller himself for all this is both unkind and useless. The impotence of his thought is first of all to be blamed on the conditions that create such a one-sided and abstract psychology-the psychology of an intellectual completely divorced from the real life and struggle of the masses, the psychology of the man who contemplates only the manner in which he contemplates. If Mueller sees this contemplation of contemplation as ‘true humanity’, it is easy to appreciate his position: after all, one must have some consolation. However, real humanity, the working and fighting humanity, will hardly agree to its essence being identified with the individuality of a personalist philosopher nurturing in solitude his love for impotent contemplation and contemplation about this impotent love.
The essence of modern humanity, and thereby a universal definition of man, is of course a subject-matter worthy of the closest attention of a philosopher. A clear view of the world is the first and necessary premise for approaching this problem correctly. But one also needs a more developed logic than that which suggests that the solution lies in searching for the ‘general and essential property’ inherent in all the individual representatives of modern mankind taken separately and reducing the universal to the merely identical. Such logic cannot yield anything but empty tautologies. Besides, the abstract motto, ‘Look for the general, and thou shalt find the knowledge of the essence’, gives a free hand to arbitrariness and subjectivism in delimiting the range of facts from which the general is abstracted.
All of this is evidence of the fact that the links between logic and worldview are integral ones, just as those between the operations of generalisation and a definite party position in life and philosophy. A most sophisticated system of formal rules for generalisation will not ensure true generalisation unless it is combined with a clear and progressive worldview principle.
And another thing is no less true. A progressive worldview cannot be mechanically combined with a logic that posits its neutrality with regard to any worldview as a virtue, restricting itself to working out such abstract rules as may be employed this way and that, depending on the irrationally emotional bias for some worldview or other.
The Marxist-Leninist world-view is based on a scientifically worked out conception of facts rather than on ethical postulates. It is logical through and through. However, the logic with the aid of which this worldview has been worked out also contains within itself, in its own propositions, rather than somewhere outside, a certain worldview principle. The warmest emotional attachment to the working class and communist ideals will not redeem a theoretician if he employs the ancient purely formal logic with its claim to ‘non-partisanship’. Such a theoretician will never arrive at correct conclusions and generalisations.
In his theses on Feuerbach Marx opposed his dialectical materialist conception of the essence of man to all previous attempts to define this much talked-of essence, saying that ‘the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual’. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. [Theses on Feuerbach]. This expresses not only a world-view, sociological truth but also a profound logical tenet or principle, one of the most important propositions of dialectical logic. It is easy to see that this proposition assumes a conception of the categories of the abstract, the concrete, the universal, and the individual quite different from the one on which old, non-dialectical logic was based. Translated into the language of logic, this proposition means: it is useless to look for universal definitions of the essence of a genus through abstraction of the identical property possessed by each individual representative of this genus.
An expression of the essence of a genus is not to be found in a series of ‘abstractions’, hard as one might try, for it is not contained in this series.
The essence of human nature in general, and thereby the genuine human nature of each man, can only be revealed through quite a concrete study of the ‘ensemble of the social relations’, through a concrete analysis of those laws which govern the birth and development of human society as a whole and of each human individual.
Human society is a most typical case of concrete community, and the relation of a human individual to society is a characteristic instance of the relation of the individual to the universal. The dialectical nature of this relation appears here in sharp relief, while the question of the relation of the abstract to the concrete is closely interwoven with the problem of the relation of the universal to the particular and the individual.
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