Alex Callinicos Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Alex Callinicos

The Secret of the Dialectic

(March 1998)

From International Socialism 2:78, March 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

John Rees
The Algebra of Revolution
New Jersey 1998

Marx on several occasions promised that, once he had finished Capital, he would write a simple explanation of ‘the dialectic’. In the event, of course, he never completed Capital, and so never got round to explaining dialectics. We have been suffering from this gap in Marxist literature ever since. Various Stalinist textbooks on what Edward Thompson called ‘diabolical and hysterical materialism’ certainly did nothing to fill it, since they treated the subject as a set of formal ‘laws’ which could be learned by rote and applied just as mechanically.

It is not true that nothing of value has been written on the subject. Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1923) is one of the classics of Marxism. But the book is a series of essays which pursues several connected themes in an often difficult philosophical language: one can learn a great deal from Lukacs, but doing so requires (as we shall see below) a labour of interpretation and criticism. Moreover, assessing the significance of History and Class Consciousness involves an engagement with the debates – provoked especially by the writings of the French Communist theorist Louis Althusser – about the relationship between Marx’s thought and that of the great German philosopher Hegel, the modern author of the dialectic.

It is no wonder, then, that anyone in the business of defending Marxism constantly encounters the plea for a simple guide for the perplexed through the obscurities of the dialectic. John Rees’s new book, The Algebra of Revolution, is therefore an answer to a prayer. Written from the standpoint of Lukacs’ ‘Hegelian Marxism’, it provides a clear and accessible account of the dialectic which succeeds in offering the reader an easy way into the subject and at the same time treats difficult and controversial issues with the depth and rigour they require.

As John stresses, the fundamental issue involved in the dialectic is not an obscure or complicated one. It is that of understanding a social world which presents itself – in the mass media, for example, and bourgeois social science – as a chaotic collection of fragments. Doing so requires, as Marx insisted, distinguishing between the surface appearance of things and their underlying reality, or essence. But this essence is precisely not a mere aggregate of unconnected happenings but a totality. ‘The true is the whole,’ Hegel wrote. [1] Things and events only become comprehensible when set in the context of the web of relationships that bind them together into a single interconnected whole.

This totality, however, is a contradictory one. The essence of dialectical thinking consists in the recognition that antagonism, conflict and struggle are not a secondary aspect of reality which can be removed through a bit of social engineering or the decision of rival classes to fall in love and become ‘partners’. ‘Contradiction is at the root of all movement and life, and it is only in so far as it contains a contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity,’ says Hegel. [2] He understood this thesis primarily in terms of the contradictions which develop within concepts: the evolution of nature and human history are an expression of this conceptual dialectic.

For Marx, however, the main contradictions do not exist in thought, but constitute the very nature of social reality. These contradictions are to be located in the tendency of the prevailing social relations of production to become fetters on the further expansion of the productive forces and in the class struggle which develops, within the framework of this conflict, between exploiters and exploited. The contradictions between the forces and relations of production and between classes are the driving forces of social transformation. Dialectical thinking thus sees reality as inherently historical, as a process of constant movement in which existing forms are destroyed by their internal flaws and replaced by new ones.

Marx summed up this view of the dialectic in his afterword to the second German edition of Capital, volume I:

In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary. [3]

The dialectic thus understood is essentially the method with which Marxism as an intellectual and political tradition seeks to analyse the social world.

One might say then: every science has its own method, so what’s so special about the dialectic? There are two reasons why the dialectic should be a special topic of philosophical reflection. First, it operates in an antithetical manner to the methods prevailing in the conventional social sciences. These, whether in the form of traditional empiricism or supposedly radical postmodernism, basically accept the fragmented appearance of the social world and its correlate within the academy, the pulling apart of theoretical understanding into specialised ‘disciplines’.

This resistance to the dialectic finds expression within the left itself – thus the Italian philosopher Lucio Colletti, during a Marxist phase in the 1960s and 1970s, made a number of attacks on the dialectic. [4] More recently, the short lived school of analytical Marxists, who self consciously set out to rewrite Marxism to conform with the canons of mainstream social science, were similarly hostile. One of them, John Roemer, called the dialectic ‘the yoga of Marxism’. [5] Interestingly, this hostility to the dialectic helped take both Colletti and the analytical Marxists away from the classical revolutionary tradition. In the face of such resistance, it is constantly necessary to clarify the nature of the dialectical method and to defend it against attacks and distortions.

Secondly, there is the question of whether the dialectical method can be used to study the physical as well as the social world. Friedrich Engels in his posthumously published Dialectics of Nature argued emphatically that it could. Scientific breakthroughs such as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection were only intelligible against the background of a dialectical understanding of nature, according to which all processes were governed by certain universal laws (the transformation of quantity into quality, the unity and interpenetration of opposites, and the negation of the negation). Engels’ universal theory of dialectics (which had been developed with Marx’s knowledge and support) was then vulgarised in the construction of the Stalinist ideology of Marxism-Leninism and used to justify the suppression of genetic biology in the USSR during the 1940s. This led many later revolutionary Marxists influenced by Lukacs to react by rejecting the idea of a dialectic of nature altogether (though Lukacs himself never explicitly denied that nature was dialectical). But this remains an enormously controversial issue among Marxist philosophers.

John Rees negotiates the disputed territory of the dialectic with great skill and aplomb. His presentation is primarily historical. Thus John takes us through Hegel’s initial formulation of the dialectic; its transformation by Marx and Engels; the presence of dialectical themes in the great debates within the Second International involving notably Kautsky, Luxemburg and Plekhanov; the intimate relationship between Lenin’s philosophy and his political practice; the Hegelian Marxism of Lukacs and Gramsci; and Trotsky’s writings on the dialectic. The treatment of these subjects is scholarly and comprehensive, but written in straightforward prose and illustrated with examples usually taken from politics and history rather than the kind of banal and sometimes misleading physical cases (kettles boiling and acorns growing into oaks) traditional in expositions of the dialectic.

Perhaps the best thing in the book is John’s discussion of the most controversial subject of all, the relationship between the Hegelian and the Marxist dialectic, in chapter 2. Engels distinguished between Hegel’s dialectical method and his idealist system: the first could be taken over by materialists while the second was dropped. But it has never been clear to what extent method and system could be separated without the transformation of the structures of the dialectic itself. [6] John handles this difficulty sensitively. He stresses the continuities between Marx and Hegel – the former’s debt to the latter’s dialectical thinking, which was itself impregnated with all the contradictions of the epoch of the French Revolution. But he also brings out the differences between them. Hegel believes that all contradictions can ultimately be resolved in the self identity of Absolute Spirit, which knows the entirety of human history as the process of its own development. For Marx, however, contradictions cannot be dissolved in thought: they are overcome through real historical crises and struggles in which old social forms are either conserved, to the detriment of human progress, or overthrown through collective action.

John cites a key passage from Theories of Surplus Value where Marx attacks John Stuart Mill for assuming the identity of supply and demand, production and consumption, and therefore asserting the impossibility of crises. ‘Here ... the unity of these two phases, which does exist and which forcibly asserts itself in crises, must be seen as opposed to the separation and antagonism of these two phases, separation and antagonism which exist just as much, and are moreover typical of bourgeois production.’ In fact, however:

… the unity of the two phases ... is essentially just as much separation of these two phases, their becoming independent of each other. Since, however, they belong together the independence of the two correlated aspects can only show itself, forcibly, as a destructive process. It is just the crisis in which they assert their unity, the unity of different aspects. [7]

In other words, production and consumption are not immediately identical with one another, as bourgeois economists claim when they assert that supply generates its own demand. They are ‘different aspects’ of a contradictory whole. The ‘unity’ of production and consumption finds expression in their antagonism, the fact that commodity producers cannot automatically find markets for their goods, and therefore the real interdependence of production and consumption ‘forcibly asserts itself in crises’, when commodities go unsold in huge numbers.

Marx sums up the methodological difference between himself and Mill thus: ‘Where the economic relation – and therefore the categories expressing it – includes contradictions, opposites and likewise the unity of opposites, he emphasises the aspect of the unity of the contradictions and denies the contradictions. He transforms the unity of opposites into the direct identity of opposites’. [8] One might then say that Hegel’s idealism, for all the depth of the specific analyses he offers and the suggestive character of many of his general formulations, finds expression in a tendency to resolve contradictions into ‘the direct identity of opposites’. He has quite a realistic insight into the social conflict and economic instability inherent in modern ‘civil society’, but he thinks that they can be harmonised, in the first instance through the structures of the liberal state, but ultimately in the self knowledge of Absolute Spirit. For Marx, however, the opposites are different from each other, even if they are caught up together, and indeed defined by their conflictual unity. Capital and labour are not the same, even if neither could exist without the other: their contradictory relationship can only be overcome through a social transformation whose tendency is to abolish this relationship, not to transfigure it intellectually.

The difference between Marx’s and Hegel’s dialectics is brought out by their approaches to a key dialectical category, the negation of the negation. For Hegel the negation of the negation is the culmination of every dialectical process, the point at which contradictions are cancelled and differences resumed into the harmony of the Absolute. This outcome is inherent in the process from the start: Hegel repeatedly says that the dialectic describes a circle, since its conclusion develops from and justifies its beginning. In this sense his philosophy is teleological: the meaning of individual stages in the dialectical process ultimately derives from their contribution to achieving its goal, which has been present from the beginning (telos is the Greek for goal). Thus human action through what Hegel calls ‘the cunning of reason’ serves unconsciously to bring about the purpose implicit in all history of bringing Absolute Spirit to self consciousness.

John brings out very well how Marx’s use of the negation of the negation, for example in the famous chapter on The Historical Tendency of Capital Accumulation in Capital, volume I, differs from Hegel’s:

This conception of the negation of the negation needs to be handled carefully, because it is one of the concepts that underwent a complete transformation in its passage from Hegel’s system to Marx’s. In Hegel, it was the mechanism for reconciling thought with existing reality, for restoring reality unchanged at the end of the dialectical process ... Marx’s dialectic opens up the possibility of real material change, a real alteration in the mode of production. And although a crisis in society and the emergence of a class that can resolve it may arise ‘with the inexorability of a natural law’, the successful resolution of that crisis is not predetermined. Precisely because real social progress is at stake, precisely because this involves real classes fighting for the leadership of society, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion, not an inevitability. [9]

The same chapter also contains an excellent discussion of Marx’s method in Capital. Lenin writes in his Philosophical Notebooks, ‘If Marx did not leave behind him a “Logic” (with a capital letter), he did leave the logic of Capital, and this ought to be utilised to the full in this question’. [10] Capital is indeed the richest source that we have for seeing the dialectical method at work but, like any complex theoretical text, it is open to misinterpretation. John takes on the ideas of certain ultra-Hegelian Marxists who argue that Marx deduced the concrete structure of the capitalist mode of production from the concept of capital itself. Thus he cites Tony Smith’s claim: ‘If reasoning can establish a systematic connection between two categories, say “capital” and “exploitation”, this is equivalent to showing that one sort of structure (that captured by the category “capital”) is necessarily connected with another (that captured by the category “exploitation”)’. [11] There are other examples of this kind of approach – for example, the German ‘capital-logic’ school. At worst this substitutes dialectical wordplay and scholastic commentary for the analysis of concrete social formations; at best it has a tendency to reduce Marx’s method to a purely conceptual dialectic.

John rightly insists, ‘We cannot treat the book [Capital] as if it were simply a progression of self generating categories’. [12] Marx does indeed develop a complex set of concepts, but his aim is to reconstruct in thought the actual historical processes and structural tendencies through which capitalist societies were formed and continue to reproduce themselves. The starting point of his analysis is capitalist society as a concrete historical reality. This is, he says, ‘the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception’. It is true that, because of the complexity of the capitalist mode of production and the manner in which the surface appearance of bourgeois society conceals its underlying structure, a set of abstract concepts – value, use value, surplus value, etc. – have to be formulated in order to identify the nature of this structure. Hence Marx adopts what he calls ‘the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete’ – of making these abstract concepts the starting point of his attempt to reconstruct the dynamic of the capitalist mode in all its complexity. He nevertheless insists that this method is ‘only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind’. [13]

Interpretations of Capital which treat it as a series of conceptual deductions often draw support from passages in the Grundrisse, the first rough draft of that work, where Marx does indeed sometimes seem to argue that this or that feature of the capitalist economy is somehow contained in the concept of capital. But the Grundrisse represents precisely the first of a series of manuscripts written in the decade 1857–1867 during which Marx developed and refined his theory of capitalism. One of the main changes he makes in the course of this process comes in the text known as the 1861–3 Manuscript (from which Theories of Surplus Value is drawn). Here he argues that the abstract concepts by means of which he identifies the basic features of the capitalist mode of production – the theory of value and surplus value outlined in the first two parts of Capital, volume I – have to be connected to concrete descriptions of actual economies ‘through a number of intermediary stages’. [14] This account of his method is incompatible with the idea – central to Hegel’s idealism – that concepts can somehow generate their own content. As John puts it, ‘Marx and Engels rely on a constant interaction between the dialectic of categories, which does develop according to different principles from the dialectical development of society, but which takes the latter as their constant and unavoidable points of reference’. [15]

There are many other valuable discussions in The Algebra of Revolution. But, rather than spend too long summarising what readers should discover for themselves, let me, before concluding, make two more critical points. First of all, as I have already mentioned, the book presents dialectics through a discussion of major thinkers in chronological order. Particular themes are treated in depth in the context of a particular individual’s thought. This generally works well, with one major exception, namely that of the dialectic of nature. John only treats this topic very briefly in the course of his discussion of Trotsky’s Philosophical Notebooks in chapter 6. Here he offers some good reasons for accepting that there is a dialectic of nature, but he doesn’t really explore the matter in much depth. This is a pity, since this is such a large and controversial topic as to require quite extensive discussion in a book that claims (except in this case, with justification) to be offering a comprehensive treatment of the dialectic.

An example of the kind of issue such a treatment would have to address is the status of Engels’ famous laws of the dialectic. One of Trotsky’s most intriguing suggestions is that ‘the fundamental law of dialectics is the conversion of quantity into quality, for it gives [us] the general formula of all evolutionary processes – of nature as well as of society’. He goes on to argue, ‘The principle of the transition of quantity into quality has universal significance, in so far as we view the entire universe – without any exception – as a product of formation and transformation and not as the fruit of conscious creation’. [16] This claim has much to be said for it. A number of developments in the physical sciences – for example, the emergence of chaos theory, which seeks to identify the patterns at work in the apparently random behaviour of complex systems – have lent support to a conception of nature as a historically evolving whole driven by a series of qualitative transformations operative at different levels. [17]

But in what sense is the principle of the transformation of quantity into quality a law? Scientific laws typically explain specific phenomena in the world by identifying the real mechanisms responsible for them. [18] Thus Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is a theory of the mechanism underlying capitalist crises. But the transformation of quantity into quality isn’t a mechanism in this sense. It rather generalises the features common to physical and social processes which are produced by a wide variety of different mechanisms. This line of thought suggests that we should see the dialectic of nature as a broad philosophical conception of nature rather than a set of general laws from which more specific ones applicable to particular aspects of the world can be deduced. This way of thinking about the dialectic of nature has the advantage that it rules out the kind of dogmatic dictation to working scientists which gave the idea a bad name under Stalinism, but it implies a fairly loose and open relationship between dialectical philosophy and scientific research which ought to be explicitly recognised.

My second and more substantive reservation concerns John’s defence of History and Class Consciousness in chapter 5. His aim here is in particular to address criticisms of Lukacs from an Althusserian standpoint, notably in a well known article by Gareth Stedman Jones. [19] Lukacs conceives historical materialism as essentially the self consciousness of the working class. It is because the transformation of labour power into a commodity is the basis of capitalist society that only from workers’ standpoint is it possible to develop an objective understanding of that society. Lukacs calls the proletariat the ‘absolute subject-object of history’: in the process of struggling to defend its interests, the working class is able increasingly both to comprehend and take hold of history. Stedman Jones argues that by equating Marxism with class consciousness Lukacs reduces historical materialism to a theory of class subjectivity, dissolving the objective structures (the forces and relations of production) within which class struggles unfold.

John vigorously rebuts this argument, making many very effective points. It is worth noting, however, that this defence relies on a reconstruction of what Lukacs says. History and Class Consciousness is a collection of essays composed over a period of several years, some of which were redrafted. They reflect the absorption and reinterpretation of the classical Marxist tradition by someone who was already a mature philosopher with a substantial body of work (notably The Theory of the Novel) before he became a Marxist. Lukacs later described his pre-Marxist position as that of ‘Romantic anti-capitalism’. Heavily influenced by the sociologists Max Weber and Georg Simmel, he saw the position of humankind as a tragic one, caught up in a fragmented and meaningless modern world from which any sense of understanding things as a whole had been lost. His astonishing rapid conversion to revolutionary Marxism in 1918 led Lukacs to see the proletariat as the source of this missing totality. Initially this led him into what Michael Löwy calls a kind of revolutionary ‘messianism’, in which the proletariat functions as a kind of seventh cavalry. [20] This meant that, in 1918–1921, he often took up quite ultra-left positions within the Communist International.

Gradually, as a result in particular of Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism (1920) and the debates at the Third Congress of the Comintern (1921), Lukacs moved towards a much more mature understanding of revolutionary Marxism. History and Class Consciousness records this process. Thus, the great essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat which dominates the book, is a series of brilliant discussions of both Marx’s texts and bourgeois classical philosophy conducted at a high level of theoretical abstraction. While it is clear that he does not, as his critics claim, simply equate Marxist theory with what workers actually think at any given time and that he sees the development of revolutionary consciousness as a process rather than an instantaneous act, the essay contains a number of problematic formulations, as do some of the others composed earlier. Thus John himself points out that Lukacs’ claim that Marxist orthodoxy consists solely in its method and his equation of this method with the concept of totality carries with it definite idealist dangers. [21]

The last two essays in the book, a defence of the Bolsheviks from Luxemburg’s criticisms and Towards a Methodological of the Problem of Organisation reflect the full impact on Lukacs of the debates in 1920–1921. Along with the essay on Lenin written very shortly afterwards, they in some ways offer a corrective to the ambiguities and hostages to fortune that occur elsewhere in the book. What John does in defending Lukacs is to draw on these essays and to highlight relatively brief remarks in the Reification essay in order to provide a rebuttal to the critics; he also brings in Gramsci’s discussion of ‘contradictory consciousness’, which provides a concrete historical framework for understanding the development of class consciousness quite absent in Lukacs. At one level, this is fair enough, but it involves constructing a kind of ideal type of History and Class Consciousness which fails to capture the unevennesses in the essays and the process of development they record.

One advantage of highlighting the evolving and incomplete character of Lukacs’ essays is that it draws attention to what is at once perhaps the most exciting and most tragic moment in the entire history of classical Marxism. The impact of the First World War and the October Revolution won many gifted intellectuals to revolutionary Marxism – chief among them Lukacs and Gramsci. When they came to the Communist movement they were marked by their intellectual background (in the case of both Lukacs and Gramsci it was one dominated by different forms of idealism) and by the weaknesses of the left in their native countries. Between the end of the First World War and the mid-1920s we see them grappling with the twin problem of renewing a Marxist tradition corrupted by the Second International and building mass revolutionary parties in complex and rapidly changing conditions. As a result of this experience, and of the leadership offered to the Third International by Lenin and Trotsky, we see these very gifted revolutionaries mature as Marxists in the mid-1920s – a process reflected in the later essays of History and Class Consciousness and in Lukacs’ Lenin, and in Gramsci’s 1926 Lyons Theses. Revolutionary Marxism thus seems on the verge of a quantum leap forward, both politically and intellectually.

And then this process is brutally cut short by history – by the defeat of the German Revolution, the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the victory of fascism in Italy and Germany. Lukacs and Gramsci are both in different ways victims of this series of terrible reversals – Gramsci most directly as a prisoner of Mussolini, Lukacs through his efforts to find a way of surviving within an increasingly Stalinised Communist movement. Neither stops thinking and writing, but the thought of both is scarred by the fact that historical conditions have turned dramatically against revolutionaries. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are full of brilliant insights and analyses, but expressed through concepts whose often ambiguous and metaphorical character has too often allowed their exploitation by reformists and worse. Lukacs’ later writings are those of an exceptionally gifted thinker, but they are pervaded by a fatalism that reflects his ‘right-Hegelian’ reconciliation with a historical reality dominated by Stalinism and fascism. It is left to Trotsky to carry on the classical Marxist tradition in its full vigour, but in extremely unfavourable conditions which confine his influence to the margins of the workers’ movement.

Hence the significance of The Algebra of Revolution. It recaptures the philosophical thread that runs through classical Marxism, and restates and extends this dialectical thought with great clarity and force. It is a work that seeks to restore the continuity of the revolutionary tradition that was broken by Stalin and Hitler, and to make available some of its most creative ideas to a new generation who can apply and develop in the most favourable conditions to have confronted the Marxist tradition since that fatal turning point in the mid-1920s.


1. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford 1977), §20, p. 11.

2. G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic (2 vols., London 1966), II, p. 67.

3. K. Marx, Capital, vol. I (Harmondsworth 1976), p. 103.

4. For example, L. Colletti, Marxism and Hegel (London 1973), and Marxism and the Dialectic, New Left Review 93 (1975).

5. J. Roemer, “Rational Choice” Marxism, in id., ed., Analytical Marxism (Cambridge 1986), p. 191.

6. See, for example, M. Rosen, Hegel’s Dialectic and its Criticism (Cambridge 1982).

7. J. Rees, The Algebra of Revolution (New Jersey 1998), p. 106.

8. Ibid., p. 107.

9. Ibid., p. 103.

10. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works (50 vols., Moscow 1972), XXXVIII, p. 319.

11. J. Rees, op. cit., p. 109.

12. Ibid., p. 110.

13. K. Marx, Grundrisse (Harmondsworth 1973), p. 101.

14. K. Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (3 vols., Moscow 1963–72), II, p. 174. For discussions of the development of Marx’s concepts in successive economic manuscripts, see V.C. Vygodski, The Story of a Great Discovery (Tunbridge Wells 1974), and J. Bidet, Que faire du Capital? (Paris 1985).

15. J. Rees, op. cit., p. 112.

16. P. Pomper (ed.), Trotsky’s Notebooks 1933–1935 (New York 1986), pp. 88–89.

17. See P. McGarr, Order Out of Chaos, International Socialism 2:48 (1990), and Engels and Natural Science, ibid., 2:65 (1994).

18. R. Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science (Hassocks 1978).

19. G. Stedman Jones, The Marxism of the Early Lukacs, New Left Review 70 (1971).

20. M. Löwy, Georg Lukacs – From Romanticism to Bolshevism (London 1979), p. 165.

21. J. Rees, op. cit., pp. 247–248.

Alex Callinicos Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 21.4.2012