From: cyrilsmith- at

Dialectics and nature.

Dear Andy,
Flora's cry of anguish led me to put the following ideas together. I hope they will stir things up a bit.


I shudder when I recall the hundreds of hours I have spent trying to answer the question: 'Is there a dialectic in nature?' Sometimes I have answered 'Yes', sometimes 'No', and sometimes 'I don't know'. (The last was at least true.) As I should have guessed, this merely signified that the question was not properly thought out. In line with my present refusal to consider philosophical or logical questions outside their socio-historical setting, I see the issue like this.

Plato's Socrates had a dialectic. This ironic method aimed to persuade his listeners through discussion to question all the assumptions of their ordinary thinking. This was how to reach the Truth, independent of all opinions, and all assumptions. This had the effect of achieving a unification between the ideas of citizens.

Kant also had a dialectic. He believed that reason would inevitably run into contradiction whenever you tried to answer questions which went beyond the bounds of understanding, such questions allowing two opposing but equally valid answers. Hegel welcomed this concept with open arms. But, for him, contradiction did not bring the process of thought to a close. It was rather the sign that those objects of thought which Kant prohibited, were actually contradictory in themselves.

Hegel wanted to see contradiction, and its resolution, as the source of movement, the movement of both the object and of our thought about it. Unlike either Greeks or Kant, he knew that philosophy had a history, the history of Spirit. Truth was not a fixed goal, outside the world of ordinary things, nor was it something unattainable for understanding. It was the movement through which the world itself, and scientific thought about the world, constructed themselves. This movement was Spirit, the substance which is also Subject. The categories of Logic were at the same time categories of Being. They had to unfold themselves, without any presuppositions, which would have to be dogmatic. Thus, scientific (ie philosophical) thought was a unified system, as opposed to the bits-and-pieces character of opinion. Indeed, philosophy was the only way that unity could be achieved in a social order riven by clashing private interests.

Marx's 1844 Manuscript, the one called 'Critique of Hegel's Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole', is the source of all wisdom on this question. (MECW 3:326- ){By the way, the somewhat ambiguous title refers to German philosophy as a whole, not just Hegel's, as you can see on 3:233.) Marx saw Hegel's dialectic as a symptom of alienation, 'the fact that the human being objectifies himself inhumanly, in opposition to himself.' Here, for Marx was the meaning of the disunity of bourgeois society, to be overcome by communism, the 'real movement' abolishing private property. Hegel's contribution had been a great advance, but he had looked at it the wrong way up. For Hegel, the source of the trouble was that the human being 'objectifies himself in opposition to abstract thinking'. Hegel's great achievement was to have seen history as the self-production, the self-creation of humanity; his error was to see this as the movement of thought, Spirit. 'For Hegel, the human being - man - equals self-consciousness. All estrangement of the human being is therefore nothing but estrangement of self-consciousness.' (p334)

I don't believe that Marx ever went back on his ideas of 1844. (You know, he kept the Manuscripts with him while he was writing Capital. Engels, however, does not seem to have read them, ever, nor did he read Grundrisse.) As far as I know, whenever Marx published anything about 'dialectic', he meant Hegel's dialectic. There is only one exception: the Afterword to the Second Edition of Capital, 1873, where he explains that 'My dialectic is the direct opposite of that of Hegel'. Throughout his life, he was elaborating this 'critique of Hegel's dialectic', which was at the same time the critique of political economy, and the foundation of his idea of communism, while 'Hegel's standpoint is that of modern political economy'.

What is the connection between dialectic and economics? Hegel, despite everything, stayed trapped inside the categories of bourgeois thought, dominated by the modern form of private property. He could not see that human self-creation, which for him meant primarily a spiritual process, was actually the expression of the alienated character of labour. His idea of the self-creating labour of Spirit was the opposite of the work of 'a free association of producers'. (It would be nice to try to find out how Hegel saw his own labour, that of the philosopher. He thought it was just to tell the world what Spirit had been up to since the French Revolution, not to create something new by his own labour. He was wrong!!!)

Don't forget: 'critique', for Marx, does not mean rejecting some scientific results, denouncing them as 'incorrect'. It means tracing the contradictions contained in the categories of the science to their source in the most fundamental contradiction: the inhuman way that humans live. A free life, communism, means the real movement to abolish these contradictions (not just to 'resolve them').

Now, where does Nature come in? It never went away, but it has nothing to do with a few parallels displayed by modern scientific discoveries. Or 'laws of dialectics', which we can 'apply' to anything and everything.!. Or a 'dialectic', like a little dynamo of contradiction, driving the development of 'matter'. Marx knows that 'man is a natural being', 'real, corporeal man, man with his feet firmly on the solid ground'. Trapped inside private property and wage-labour, our self-consciousness is indeed estranged, and we do not know who we are. But this is a consequence of the estrangement of labour, our 'metabolism' with nature, which thus implies our estrangement from nature, and from our own nature.

Hegel, who is the incarnation of the alienated thinker, 'thought revolving within itself', shows this most clearly when he talks about nature as 'the other-being of Spirit'. Although he has a lot to say about nature, which he knows is the presupposition of Mind, it is really the idea of nature with which he is concerned. Hegel's nature moves in fixed cycles, like Aristotle's, without development, ie without the emergence of newness. Thus, the great dialectician is very hostile to any suggestion of evolution in nature. Development belongs solely to history. (He read everything of his time, including Lamark. See Philosophy of Nature, especially paras 249 and 339, which should worry the pants off 'dialectical materialists').

That nature develops, evolves, is now established, of course, and we ourselves are the product of such development. To those whose thinking is bounded by our present alienated form of life, this is incomprehensible, even to a genius like Hegel. (Intellectual midgets like socio-biologists, etc. don't stand a chance.) Marx's conception of labour - human self-creation as a part of nature, but denied and falsified today by the power of capital - opens up all these questions. Sartre and Lukacs, who say that dialectic works only in history, have missed the point - that history is made inhumanly through alienated labour - as much as the 'dialectical materialists'. Marx's communism has something vital to say about nature. It knows that nature must be such that it contains the potential for human freedom, and that this is hidden by bourgeois fetishised social forms. Humanity emerges from nature, as 'human nature', through social production, which is natural and human-natural.

That, I believe, is the way we should see the relevance of Marx's outlook to nature.

Sorry, I've gone on too long.

Best wishes,


[See "Marx at the Millenium"]