The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter 5 – The Method of Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Let us recall that the logical theoretical contradictions of Ricardo’s system are the result of his effort to express all phenomena through the category of value, to understand them from one principle only.
Where this effort is not made, no contradictions arise. The formula of vulgar science (capital – interest, land – rent, labour – wages) des not contradict either itself or the obvious empirical facts. However, precisely because of that it does not contain a single grain of theoretical comprehension of things. There are no contradictions here for the simple reason that this formula does not establish any inner connection at all between capital and interest, between labour and wages, between land and rent, also because vulgar science does not even attempt to deduce definitions of all these categories from a single principle. They are not shown to he necessary distinctions necessarily arising within a certain common substance, they are not understood as modifications of this substance. It is not surprising that there is no inner contradiction here but merely an external contradiction between different internally non-contradictory things. And that is a situation with which a metaphysician will be easily reconciled. They do not contradict each other simply because they do not stand in any internally necessary relation at all . That is why the formula of vulgar science has approximately the same theoretical value as the favourite maxims of the proverbial school teacher from a short story by Chekhov: ‘horses eat oats’ and ‘the Volga flows into the Caspian’.
Unlike vulgar economists, Ricardo tried to develop the entire system of theoretical definitions from the principles of the labour theory of value. And that is exactly why the whole reality, as he describes it, appears as a system of conflicts, antagonisms, antinomical mutually exclusive tendencies, diametrically opposed forces whose opposition creates the whole which he considers.
Logical contradictions which economists and philosophers from the bourgeois camp regarded as an indication of weakness, of lack of development of Ricardo’s theory, actually expressed quite the reverse – the strength and objectiveness of his method of theoretical expression of things. What Ricardo aimed at, first and foremost, was correspondence of theoretical propositions and conclusions to the actual state of things, and only in the second place, their correspondence to the metaphysical postulate that an object cannot contradict itself and neither can its separate theoretical definitions contradict one another.
He expressed the actual state of things in a bold (and even, as Marx put it, cynical) manner, and the actually contradictory state of things was reflected in his system as contradictions in definitions. When his pupils and followers made it their principal concern not so much theoretical expression of facts as formal coordination of already available definitions, subject to the principle forbidding contradictions in definitions as the supreme principle, from flat point on the disintegration of the labour theory of value set in.
In his analysis of the views of James Mill, Marx states: ‘What he tries to achieve is formal, logical consistency. The disintegration of the Ricardian school "therefore" (therefore! – E.I.) begins with him.’ 
In itself, the desire for justifying Ricardo’s theory in terms of the canons of formal logical sequence does not of course spring from a Platonic love for formal logic. This preoccupation is stimulated by a different motive – a desire to present the capitalist system of commodity production as an everlasting form of production eternally equal to itself, rather than as a historically emergent system that can therefore turn into another, higher system.
If a certain phenomenon, expressed and conceived in terms of the universal law of value, suddenly enters into a relation of theoretical (logical) contradiction with the formula of the universal law (determination of value by the quantity of labour time), to a bourgeois theoretician this appears as evidence of its deviation from the eternal and immutable foundations of economic being. All effort is directed at proving that the phenomenon directly corresponds to the universal law, which in itself is conceived as existing without contradiction, as an eternal and immutable form of economy.
More acutely than anything else, bourgeois economists feel the contradiction between Ricardo’s universal law of value and profit. An attempt to express the phenomena of profit in terms of the category of value, to apply the labour theory of value to profit, reveals, already in Ricardo, contradictions in the definition. Inasmuch as profit is the holy of holies of the religion of private property, economists direct their theoretical efforts at coordinating the definitions of profit with the universal law of value.
There are two ways of directly coordinating theoretical definitions of value with the theoretical definitions of profit as a specific form, as a specific modification (kind) of value.
The first way is to change the expression of profit in such a manner that it might be included without contradiction in the sphere of application of the category of value, of its universal definitions. The second way is to change the expression of value, to qualify it in such a way that definitions of profit might be included in it without contradiction.
Both of these ways led to the disintegration of the Ricardian school. Vulgar political economy preferred the second way, that of qualifying definitions of value, for the motto of empiricism has always been, ‘Bring the universal formula of a law in agreement with the empirically unquestionable state of things, with that which is identical in the facts’, in this case, with the empirical form of the existence of profit.
This philosophical position appears at first glance to be the most obvious and sensible. Its realisation, however, is impossible unless the universal theoretical propositions of the labour theory of value, the very concept of value, are sacrificed.
Let us consider in detail why and in what way this necessarily comes about.
The paradoxical relation between the theoretical definitions of value and profit is a stumbling-block for Ricardo himself. His law of value says that live labour, man’s labour, is the only source of value, while the time spent on the production of an article constitutes the only objective measure of value.
What do we observe, however, if we apply this universal law that cannot be either violated or abolished or altered (expressing as it does the universal intimate nature of any economic phenomenon) to the empirically unquestionable fact of the existence of profit?
Ricardo realised quite well ‘that profit could not be explained by the law of value alone and that the entire complexity of the structure of profit was not exhausted by this law. Ricardo took the law of the average rate of profit, the general rate of profit, as the second decisive factor whose interaction with the law of value could explain profit.
The general rate of profit is a purely empirical and therefore unquestionable fact. Its essence is this: the magnitude of profit depends exclusively on the aggregate magnitude of capital and in no way depends on the proportion in which it is divided into fixed and circulating capital, constant and variable capital, etc.
Ricardo applies this empirically universal law to the explanation of the mechanism of profit production, treating it as a factor which modifies and complicates the action of the law of value. Ricardo did not inquire into the nature of this factor, its origin, its inner relation to the universal law. He assumed its existence absolutely uncritically, as an empirically unquestionable fact.
Any more or less close analysis will reveal at once that the law of the average rate of profit directly contradicts the universal law of value, the determination of value in terms of labour time, the two laws being mutually exclusive.
’Instead of postulating this general rate of profit, Ricardo should rather have examined in how far its existence is in fact consistent with the determination of value by labour-time, and he would have found that instead of being consistent with it, prima facie, it contradicts it. ...’ 
The contradiction here is as follows: the law of the average rate of profit establishes the dependence of the magnitude of profit solely on the magnitude of capital as a whole; it stipulates that the magnitude of profit is absolutely independent from the share of capital spent on wages and transformed into the live labour of the wage worker. But the universal law of value states directly that new value can only be the product of live labour, it can by no means be the product of dead labour, for dead labour, (that is, labour earlier materialised in the form of machines, buildings, raw materials, etc.) does not create any new value, merely passively transferring its own value, bit by bit, onto the product.
Ricardo saw the difficulty himself. However, entirely in the spirit of metaphysical thinking, he expressed and interpreted it as an exception from the rule rather than a contradiction in the definitions of the law. Of course, that does not alter the situation, and Malthus points out quite correctly in this connection that, as industry develops, the rule becomes an exception and an exception the rule. 1
Thus a problem arises that is completely insoluble in metaphysical thought. From the point of view of the metaphysically thinking theoretician, a universal law can only be justified as an empirically universal rule to which all phenomena without exception are subject. In the given case it turns out, however, that something directly opposing the universal law of value, a negation of the law of value, becomes a universal empirical rule. 
A theoretically established universal law and an empirical universal rule, the empirically universal element in the facts, come here into an antinomy, an insoluble contradiction. If one continues the attempts to bring into agreement the universal law with the immediately general features abstracted from facts, a problem arises that is ‘much more difficult ... to solve than that of squaring the circle.... It is simply an attempt to present that which does not exist as in fact existing’. 
The problem of correlation of the universal and the particular, of a universal law and an empirically obvious form of its own manifestation (of the general in the facts), of theoretical and empirical abstraction, became one of the stumbling-blocks in the history of political economy that proved insurmountable to bourgeois theory.
Facts are a stubborn thing. Here, too, the fact remains: a universal law (the law of value) stands in the relation of mutually exclusive contradiction to the empirically universal form of its own manifestation, with the law of the average rate of profit. It is impossible to bring them into agreement exactly because such an agreement does not exist in the economic reality itself.
A metaphysically thinking theoretician facing this fact as a surprise or paradox, will inevitably interpret it as a result of mistakes earlier made in reasoning, in the theoretical expression of facts. For a solution of this paradox, he naturally resorts to purely formal analysis of theory, to specification of concepts and correction of expressions. The postulate that objective reality cannot be self-contradictory is for him the supreme and indisputable law for which he is ready to sacrifice anything at all.
Marx denounced the complete lack of the scientific spirit in these attitudes, their absolute incompatibility with a theoretical approach, in these terms:
’Here the contradiction between the general law and further developments in the concrete circumstances is to be resolved not by the discovery of the connecting links but by directly subordinating and immediately adapting the concrete to the abstract. This moreover is to be brought about by a verbal fiction, by changing the correct names of things. These are indeed "verbal disputes", they are "verbal", however, because real contradictions which are not resolved in a real way, are to be solved by phrases.)’ 
The law forbidding contradictions in definition triumphs, but theory perishes, degenerating into verbal disputes, into a system of semantic tricks.
Indicating contradictions in the theoretical definitions of the object does not in itself constitute a privilege of conscious dialectics. Dialectics is not merely a desire for piling up contradictions, antinomies, and paradoxes in theoretical definitions of things. Metaphysical thought is much better at this task (true, contrary to its intentions).
Contrariwise, dialectical thought emerges only at that point where metaphysical thought is hopelessly lost in a maze of contradictions with itself, in the contradictions of some of its conclusions with others.
The desire to get rid of contradictions in definitions through specifying terms and expressions is a metaphysical mode of solving contradictions in theory. As such, it results in disintegration of theory rather than in its development. Since life compels a development of theory all the same, in the end it always turns out that an attempt to construct a theory without contradictions leads to the piling up of new contradictions that are still more absurd and insoluble than those that were apparently got rid of.
To repeat: the task of theory does not consist in merely proving that the objective reality always arises before theoretical thought as a living contradiction demanding a solution, as a system of contradictions. In the 20th century, this fact does not have to be proved, and new examples add nothing. Even the most inveterate and confirmed metaphysician cannot fail to see this obvious fact.
However, the metaphysician of our times, starting, out from his efforts at justifying this fact as resulting from intrinsic defects of man’s cognitive ability, from poor development of concepts, definitions, the relative and vague character of terms, expressions, etc. Now, the metaphysician will be reconciled with the existence of contradiction – as with an inevitable subjective evil, not more. Just as in Kant’s times, he is still not prepared to admit that this fact expresses inner contradictions of things ‘in themselves’, of the objective reality itself. That is why agnosticism and subjectivism of the relativist type resort to metaphysics in these days.
Dialectics proceeds from a diametrically opposite view. Its solution of the problem is based first of all on the assumption that the objective world itself, the objective reality is a living system unfolding through emergence and resolutions of its internal contradictions. The dialectical method, dialectical logic demand that, far from fearing contradictions in the theoretical definition of the object, one must search for these contradictions in a goal-directed manner and record them precisely – to find their rational resolution, of course, not to pile up mountains of antimonies and paradoxes in theoretical definitions of things.
The only way of attaining a rational resolution of contradictions in theoretical definition is through tracing the mode in which they are resolved in the movement of the objective reality, the movement and development of the world of things ‘in themselves’.
Let us go back to political economy, to see how Marx resolves all those antinomies which were recorded by the Ricardian school despite its conscious philosophical intention.
In the first place, Marx gives up any attempts to bring directly into agreement the universal law (the law of value) with the empirical forms of its own manifestation on the surface of events, that is, with the abstract general expression of facts, with the immediately general features that may be inductively established in the facts.
Marx shows that this direct coincidence of the universal law and the empirical forms of its manifestation does not exist in the reality of economic development itself: the two are connected by the relation of mutually exclusive contradiction. The law of value contradicts in actual fact, not only and not so much in Ricardo’s head, the law of the average rate of profit.
In an attempt to prove their coincidence, ‘crass empiricism turns into false metaphysics, scholasticism, which toils painfully to deduce undeniable empirical phenomena by simple formal abstraction directly from the general law, or to show by cunning argument that they are in accordance with that law’. 
Finally realising the impossibility of doing so, the empiricist will in this case draw the conclusion that the formulation of the universal law is incorrect and will ‘correct’ it. Following this path, bourgeois science emasculate t e theoretical meaning of the Ricardian law of value, losing, as Marx pointed out, the concept of value itself.
This loss of the value concept occurred in the following way: to bring the law of value into agreement with that of the average rate of profit and other irrefutable phenomena of economic reality contradicting it, MacCulloch changed the concept of labour as the substance of value. Here is his definition of labour:
’Labour may properly be defined to be any sort of action or operation, whether performed my man, the lower animals, machinery, or natural agents, that tends to bring about any desirable result.’ 
By means of this definition MacCulloch ‘gets rid’ of the Ricardian contradictions.
Marx has this to say about the argument: ‘And yet some persons have had the temerity to say that the miserable Mac has taken Ricardo to extremes, he who ... abandons the very concept of labour itself!’ 
This ‘abandonment of the concept’ is inevitable given the desire to construct a system of theoretical definitions without contradictions between a universal law and the empirical form of its own manifestation.
Marx’s mode of action is different in principle. In his system, the theoretical definitions do not eliminate the contradictions which horrify the metaphysician who does not know any other logic but the formal one.
If one should take a theoretical proposition from the first volume of Capital and confront it with a theoretical proposition from the third volume, it will appear that the two are in logical contradiction with each other.
In the first volume it is shown, for instance, that surplus-value is exclusively the product of that part of capital which is expended on wages, which became the live labour of a wage worker, that is, the product of the variable part of capital and only of that part.
But a proposition from the third volume reads as follows: ‘However that may be, the outcome is that surplus-value springs simultaneously from all portions of the invested capital.’ 
The contradiction established by the Ricardian school has not thus disappeared here but is on the contrary shown to be the necessary contradiction of the very essence of production of surplus-value. That was precisely why the bourgeois economists, after the publication of the third volume of Capital, triumphantly stated that Marx had not been able to resolve the antinomies of the labour theory of value, that he had not made true the promises given in the first volume, and that the entire Capital was nothing but a speculative dialectical trickery.
The logical-philosophical basis of these reproaches was again the metaphysical conception that a universal law was proved by facts only when it could be brought into agreement without contradictions directly with the general empirical form of the phenomenon, with the general features in facts open to direct contemplation.
That is exactly what we do not find in Capital, and the vulgar economist raises a shout that the propositions of the third volume refute those of the first, insofar as they are in relations of mutually exclusive contradiction with them. In the empiricist’s eyes that is evidence of the falsity of the law of value, a proof that this law is the ‘purest mystification’ contradicting reality and having nothing in common with it.
At this point, vulgar empiricism of bourgeois economists was supported by the Kantians. For instance, Conrad Schmidt seemingly agreed with Marx’s analysis, with one reservation, however: he ‘declares the law of value within the capitalist form of production to be a pure, although theoretically necessary, fiction’. 
The reason why the Kantians regard this law as a speculative hypothesis or fiction is that it cannot be justified in terms of the immediately general in the empirically unquestionable phenomena.
The general in the phenomena – the law of the average rate of profit – is something diametrically opposed to the law of value, something that contradicts it and excludes it. In the Kantians’ view it is therefore no more than an artificially constructed hypothesis, a theoretically necessary fiction – by no means a theoretical expression of the objectively universal law to which all pertinent phenomena are subject.
The concrete thus contradicts the abstract in Marx’s Capital, and this contradiction does not disappear because of the fact that a whole chain of mediating links is established between the two but rather is proved as the necessary contradiction of economic reality itself, not as the consequence of the theoretical drawbacks of the Ricardian conception of the law of value.
The logical nature of this phenomenon may well be demonstrated by means of an easier example which does not require special knowledge in the field of political economy.
In quantitative mathematical description of certain phenomena self-contradictory systems of equations are very often obtained, in which there are more equations than unknown quantities, e. g.:
x + x = 2
50x + 50x = 103.
The logical contradiction is patently obvious here, yet the system of equations is quite real. Its reality will become apparent on condition that x here denotes one kopek, and the addition of kopeks takes place not only and not so much in the head but in the savings bank, too, which puts to an account three per cent interest per annum.
Under these concrete, and quite real, conditions, the addition of kopeks is quite precisely expressed by the above ‘contradictory’ system of equations. Contradiction is here a direct expression of the fact that in reality it is not speculative pure quantities that are added (or subtracted, or divided, or raised to a power, etc.) but qualitatively definite magnitudes, and that the purely quantitative addition of these magnitudes produces at some point a qualitative leap disrupting the ideal quantitative process and resulting in a paradox in the theoretical expression.
Any science runs into this problem at every step. Let us take an elementary example. It was established that as the temperature of a gas decreases by one degree, its volume diminishes by 1/273; within certain limits the behaviour of gases is strictly consistent with this law. At very low temperatures, however, the figures are quite different. The contradiction (‘lack of agreement’) between the basic law and the mathematical expression of its action at very low temperatures is evidence of the fact that at some point a new factor emerges, caused by the same lowering of the temperature, which effects the proportion; it does not prove at all that the contradictory numerical expressions are wrong. Science has long learnt a way to treat these contradictions properly. Unwillingness or inability consciously to apply dialectics here results, however, in the view of mathematics as a ‘theoretically necessary fiction’, a purely artificial instrument of the intellect.
Modern positivists speak of mathematics, which runs into these paradoxes at every step, exactly in the same manner in which Conrad Schmidt discussed value. They justify pure mathematics also in an entirely pragmatic, instrumentalist way – only as an artificially invented mode of the subject’s spiritual activity which for some (unknown) reason yields the desired result. The grounds for this attitude to mathematics are the real circumstance that direct application of mathematical formulas to the real quantitative-qualitative development of phenomena, to real concreteness, invariably and inevitably loads to a paradox, to a logical contradiction in mathematical expression.
In this case, however (just as in political economy), the contradiction is not at all a result of errors made by thought in the theoretical expression of the phenomenon. It is a direct expression of the dialectics of the phenomena themselves. A real resolution of this contradiction may only consist in further analysis of all the concrete conditions and circumstances in which the phenomenon is realised, and in revealing the qualitative parameters which disrupt the purely quantitative series at a certain point. The contradiction does not in this case demonstrate falsity of the mathematical expression or its erroneousness but something quite different: the falsity of the view that the given expression defines the phenomenon in an exhaustive manner.
The equations x + x = 2, 50x + 50x = 103 express quite precisely the quantitative aspect of the underlying fact, and seem absurd only until the concrete objective meaning of the unknown quantity is established and the concrete conditions are specified in which addition of these unknown quantities takes place.
One can certainly envisage a case where contradiction in equations of the illustrated type will be an indication and a form of manifestation of imprecision or errors made by the subject. Assume that the real value of x, for instance, equals 1.0286 – objectively, independently of the subject performing the measurement, of the scale of measurement and of the resolution of the measuring device; assume also that no qualitative change occurs as a result of addition of the x’s. In this case the logical contradiction in the mathematical expression will be quite different from the above in origin and objective meaning: it will merely be evidence of error or imprecision in measurement, of insufficient resolution power of the measuring device, crude scale, etc. The contradiction is here to be blamed on the subject and only on the subject who, in measuring the sum of two x’s, was unable to notice and express the difference between 2 and 2.056, and in measuring the sum of a hundred such x’s obtained a result in which the difference manifested itself quite clearly. This logical contradiction is naturally solved in quite a different manner from the first case.
However, it is quite impossible to conclude from the formal mathematical structure of the equations alone with which particular case we are dealing and in what way the contradiction must be resolved. Both cases require additional concrete analysis of the reality in the expression of which the contradiction was manifested.
The difference between dialectics and metaphysics on this score does not at all lie in the fact that metaphysics immediately declares any contradiction in the definitions of the object an intolerable evil while dialectics regards it as virtue and truth. That is only true of metaphysical logic, but dialectics does not at all consist in asserting the opposite. That would not be dialectics but merely inverted metaphysics, that is, sophistry.
Dialectics does not at all negate the fact that purely subjective contradictions may and very often do figure in cognition, contradictions that have to be got rid of as soon as possible. However, it is quite impossible to conclude from the external (formal mathematical or verbal syntactical) form of an equation or proposition with what contradiction we are dealing in each particular case. Since metaphysical logic in any case regards contradiction in definitions as a purely subjective evil, as a result of errors and inaccuracies made earlier by thought, contradictions in the way of movement of thought become insurmountable difficulties for it. If a contradiction arises in this framework, metaphysical logic forbids further development of thought, recommending to go back and to find at any cost the mistake in previous reasoning which resulted in contradiction. Until contradiction is shown to be the subject’s error, there is a ban on the advance of thought.
Dialectics does not at all negate a certain usefulness of checking and double-checking the previous course of reasoning, neither does it negate that in some cases the checks may reveal the contradiction to be a result of error or inaccuracy.
What dialectics does reject is something different, namely ion that a formula may be worked out that would permit to recognise logical (that is, subjective) contradictions resulting from inaccuracy or carelessness without recourse to analysis of knowledge in its real objective content. That is the underlying claim of both classical formulations of ‘exclusion of contradictions’ – the Aristotelian and the Leibniz-Kantian. According to the first, any proposition is forbidden which expresses a contradiction of the object to itself ‘at one and the same time and in one and the same relation’. According to the second, any proposition or utterance is forbidden which ascribes to a concept a predicate (or attribute) contradicting it.
The ban in its Aristotelian formulation applies, as has long been established, to the proposition expressing the famous paradox of Zone concerning the flying arrow. That is why all logicians endeavouring to raise the Aristotelian ban to an absolute, have for two thousand years made attempts, as persistent as they have been unsuccessful, to present this paradox as the result of errors in the expression of facts. They run the risk of spending another two thousand years of vain effort, for Zeno expressed in the only possible (and therefore the only correct) form an extremely typical case of the dialectical contradiction contained in any fact of transition, motion, change, or transformation.
On the other hand, the Leibniz-Kantian formula will absolutely forbid a proposition like this: the ideal is the material transplanted into the human head and transformed in it. This proposition also expresses a transition of the opposites into each other. It therefore naturally defines the subject,
through a predicate that cannot he immediately connected with it. The ideal as such is not material, it is non-material, and vice versa.
Any utterance expressing the very moment, the very act of transition (and not the result of this transition only)’ inevitably contains an explicit or implicit contradiction, and a contradiction ‘at one and the same time’ (that is, during transition, at the moment of transition) and ‘in one and the same relation’ (precisely with regard to the transition of the opposites into each other).
That is exactly why any attempt to formulate the ban on contradiction as an absolutely unquestionable formal rule (that is, a rule formulated irrespective of the concrete content of the utterances) is doomed . to failure. This rule will. either forbid, along with ‘logical contradictory’ propositions, all propositions expressing the contradictions of real change, of real transition of opposites, or else it will permit the former along with the latter. That is quite inevitable, for the two cannot in general be distinguished in the form of expression in speech, in the utterance. As often as not, objective reality contains an internal contradiction ‘at one and the same time and in one and the same relation’, and the utterance expressing this situation is regarded in dialectical logic as quite correct, despite the loud protestations of metaphysicians.
Thus, if a contradiction in definitions of a thing necessarily emerged as a result of the movement of thought by the logic of facts characterising the movement, change of development of the thing, the transition of its different elements into each other, that is not a logical contradiction, though it might have all the formal indications of such, but a quite correct expression of an objective dialectical contradiction.
Contradiction is not in this case an insurmountable barrier in the way of the movement of the investigating thought but, on the contrary, a springboard for a decisive leap forward in a concrete investigation, in further processing of empirical data into concepts.
But this leap, characteristic of the dialectical development of concepts, only becomes possible because contradiction appears in reasoning always as a real problem, the solution of which is attained through further concrete analysis of concrete facts, through finding those real mediating links through which the contradiction is resolved in reality. The really serious problems in science have always been solved in this way.
For instance, the philosophy of dialectical materialism, for the first time in history, was able to formulate and solve the problem of consciousness exactly because it approached this problem with a dialectical conception of contradiction. The old metaphysical materialism ran at this point into an obvious contradiction. On the one hand, the proposition advocated by any kind of materialism asserts that matter (objective reality) is primary, whereas consciousness is a reflection of this reality, that is, it is secondary. But, if one takes abstractly a single isolated fact of man’s goal-directed activity, the relation between consciousness and objectiveness is the reverse. The architect first builds a house in his consciousness and then brings objective reality (with the workers’ hands) in agreement with the ideal plan he has worked out. If one were to express this situation in philosophical categories, it would apparently contradict the general proposition of materialism, be in ‘logical contradiction’ to it. What is primary here is consciousness, the ideal plan of activity, while the sensual objective implementation of this plan is something secondary or derivative.
Materialists of the pre-Marxian epoch in philosophy could not, as we know, cope with this contradiction. As far as theoretical consciousness was concerned, they advocated the point of view of reflection, the proposition that being is primary and consciousness secondary. But, as soon as the debate switched to man’s goal-directed activity, metaphysical materialism was unable to make head or tail of the situation. It is not accidental that all materialists before Marx were pure idealists in the conception of the history of society. Here they accepted the diametrically opposed principle of explanation in no way connected with the principle of reflection. In the theories of the French Enlighteners, two unreconciled antimonic principles of explanation of human cognition and activity coexisted peacefully.
Marx and Engels showed that metaphysical materialism continually lapsed into this contradiction because it failed to see the real mediating link between objective reality and consciousness – it failed to grasp the role of practice. By discovering this mediating link between thing and consciousness, dialectical materialism solved the problem concretely, explaining the subject’s very activity from a single universal principle and thereby fully implementing the principle of materialism in the conception of history. The contradiction was in this way removed, concretely resolved, and explained as necessarily appearing.
This contradiction is eliminated in metaphysical materialism through abstract reduction of definitions of consciousness to definitions of matter. This ‘solution’, however, leaves the real problem untouched. The facts that were not included directly and abstractly into the sphere of application of the proposition on the primacy of matter (facts of man’s conscious activity) were not, of course, thereby eliminated from reality. They were merely eliminated from the consciousness of the materialist. As a result, materialism could not put an end to idealism even within its own theory.
For this reason, metaphysical materialism did not liquidate the real grounds on which, again and again, idealist conceptions of the relationship between matter and spirit emerged.
Only the dialectical materialism of Marx, Engels, and Lenin proved capable of solving this contradiction, retaining the basic promise of any materialism but implementing this premise concretely in the understanding of the birth of consciousness from the practical sensual activity changing things.
In this way, contradiction was shown to be a necessary expression of a real fact in its origin, rather than eliminated or declared to be false and invented. Idealism was thereby dislodged from its most solid shelter – speculation on facts concerning the subject’s activity in practice and cognition.
Such is in general the way for solving theoretical contradictions in dialectics. They are not rejected or eliminated but concretely resolved in a new and more profound conception of these facts, in tracing out the entire chain of mediating links which connects the mutually exclusive abstract propositions.
The metaphysician always tries to choose one of the two abstract theses, leaving it as abstract as it was before the choice: that is the meaning of the ‘either ... or’ formula.
Dialectics imposes the requirement of reasoning according to the ‘both ... and’ formula, yet it does not at all orientate thought at eclectic reconciliation of two mutually exclusive propositions, as metaphysicians often impute in the heat of the debate. It orientates’ thought at a more concrete
study of the facts in the expression of which the contradiction arose. That is where dialectics seeks a solution of the contradiction – in a concrete study of facts, in tracing out the entire chain of mediating links between the actually contradictory aspects of reality.
In the process, each of the previously abstract propositions is transformed into a moment in a concrete understanding of facts and is explained as a one-sided expression of the real contradictory concreteness of the object, and moreover a concreteness in its development. In development, there is always a point where new reality appears which, though evolving on the basis of previous forms, nevertheless rejects these forms and possesses characteristics contradicting the characteristics of the less developed reality.
Contents | next section
3. Theories of Surplus Value III
4. Theories of Surplus Value II
6. Theories of Surplus Value III
8. Theories of Surplus Value I
11. Capital Vol. III