Tuesday, 22 May 2018

From List to Weber - Workers and Capital

It is our personal misfortune that, from being raucous critics of capitalism, we are now forced to come out in its defence by the appearance on the global scene of a monster - the Chinese Dictatorship   - that the international bourgeoisie is solely responsible for creating in the first place! Given the defeatist and often treasonous chorus of voices - again from the bourgeoisie itself, keen to undermine democratic institutions -, it is almost tragic that we are impelled to sing the praises of “the market mechanism” and, specifically, its clear superiority over any kind of autocratic “command economy” such as the one that the Chinese Dictatorship and its Western saraband of traitors would like to foist upon us! Enjoy.

We saw in our previous post that List’s implicit critique of the Leninist-Marxist axiom “Politics is a concentrate of Economics” is entirely correct. List’s own work, in the tradition of the German Historical School of Economics, provides a healthy corrective to the later degeneration of economic enquiry leading to Neoclassical and Marxist economics - and particularly their erroneous and presumptuous scientistic attachment to “the Law of Value” according to which economic value is a quantifiable entity that can be priced by “free markets”. Yet, List’s work and that of his predecessors and successors in Political Economy fails to identify what Max Weber (in true neo-Kantian fashion) called “the specificity of economics”. Here we argue that Weber himself, despite taking the analysis of economics a sociological step forward from Marx’s great oeuvre, still fails to hit the mark, but with the indisputable advantage, as we are about to discover, of highlighting and uncovering essential truths and insights into the nature of modern market capitalism. Thus, we can surely affirm, contrary to Lenin, that Economics is a concentrate of Politics. But there is a sense in which Politics is a concentrate of Economics because the rise of capitalism has shown that the ability of a society to produce wealth is dependent on its focus on the satisfaction of material needs. This is the strict sense in which Lenin’s dictum has validity! 

Stricto sensu, Lenin’s facile reduction of the Political to Economics is valid for societies, such as a capitalist one, in which the satisfaction of material wants and needs has attained overriding importance. In this specific context, the centrality of work, of labour, in Judaeo-Christian societies is undeniable.  A careful revision of Weber’s insuperable work on the sociology of Western society, following Marx’s own impressive foundations, reveals at once the centrality to Western societies of what Hegel called “the system of needs”, and what Weber was later to fashion as “the iron cage”. The ubiquitous misunderstanding is that by “the iron cage” (stahlharte Gebaude) Weber meant the end-result of the Western Rationalisierung. Nothing could be further from the truth! A meticulous reading of the Protesantische Ethik quickly reveals that by “iron cage” Weber meant the evolution of the Hegelian “system of needs” in the sense of individualistic material consumption. Even in the negatives Denken, Schopenhauer’s “renunciation” (Entsagung) of the Arbeit (labour) for the Sisyphean futility of its satisfaction (Voll-endung) of human needs, for its meretricious character, for its being futile operari, does nothing else than confirm, precisely in its absolute negation of Labour, the  equally absolute centrality of it to the nascent capitalist society - a centrality that Schopenhauer’s pessimism steadfastly “renounces” with its “withdrawal from the world” (Welt-flucht) and search for the self-abnegation of Nirvana.

If, then, the Economic is precisely the study of how “the system of needs” or “the iron cage” has evolved historically and institutionally, it is to the work of Marx and Weber - not to List and others - that we must turn. Max Weber never understood the strictly economic meaning of capitalism. He figured that profit - and therefore value - was the monetary difference between investment and revenue. Unlike Marx, he never examined the nature of “value” - its dependence on the commodification of human living labour into labour-power; and therefore he never understood the nature of money in capitalism and of profits, or of what Marx called surplus value, as its essential aim. 


Weber’s “iron cage” referred specifically to the “system of needs” - which in turn required “the rational organisation of the labour force” - and that again in turn the rise of “rational socialism” as a Problematik raised peculiarly by capitalism as a specific form of social relations of production requiring an organised labour force or working class.

In a nutshell, whereas Marx focused his sharp critical gaze on the antagonism of the wage relation as the defining social and political reality of the capitalist mode of production, Weber’s vast scholarship was concerned rather with understanding (Verstehen) the institutional means from which capitalist industry derived its social and political legitimacy. Where Marx’s union of theory and practice (praxis) sought to justify scientifically the necessity of revolution as the resolution to capitalist exploitation arising from the internal contradictions of the wage relation, Weber reflected wissenschaflich (sine ira et studio!) on the reasons for the political endurance of capitalist industry and bourgeois parliamentary regimes in the face of the rising organisation of the industrial workforce into a political class represented by mass socialist parties within bourgeois parliamentary regimes. Revolution as catharsis from capitalist alienation on one side, democratisation and legitimation of bureaucratic governance to stabilise bourgeois elitist rule on the other: hence, Marxian Praxis vs. Weberian Objektivitat

Yet, because Weber followed his insuperable sociological bent, unlike Marx, he never forgot that capitalism is not at all “economics”; instead, economics is a set of social institutions concerning the social production of material wants and needs - and these invariably involve the organisation of labour. Marx identified the causes of capitalist exploitation in the “separation” (Trennung) of workers from the means of production; Weber instead took both this separation and exploitation as a given of social life - indeed, as a requirement of complex technical processes whereby experts assume control and ownership over the means of production:

Everywhere we find the same thing: the means of operation within the factory, the state administration, the army and university departments are concentrated by means of a bureaucratically structured human apparatus in the hands of the person who has command over (herrschaft) this human apparatus. This is due partly to purely technical considerations, to the nature of modem means of operation - machines, artillery and so on - bur partly simply to the greater efficiency of this kind of human cooperation: to the development of ‘discipline’, the discipline of the army office, workshop and business. In any event it is a serious mistake to think that this separation of the worker from the means of operation is something peculiar to industry, and, moreover, to private industry. The basic state of affairs remains the same when a different person becomes lord and master of this apparatus, when, say, a state president or minister controls it instead of a private manufacturer. The ‘separation' from the means of operation continues in any case. As long as there are mines, furnaces, railways, factories and machines, they will never be the property of an individual or of several individual workers in the sense in which the materials of a craft in the Middle Ages were the property of one guild-master or of a local trade cooperative or guild. That is out of the question because of the nature of present-day technology.

Weber constantly confuses technical knowledge with legal ownership - despite the fact that he ultimately conceded their profound inter-dependence in the late Munich lecture on Science (Wissenschaft als Beruf), specifically the dependence of scientific research on the industrial needs of capitalism and ultimately on “the iron cage”. It is the inevitability of the technical stratification of production, between management and workers, between intellectual and manual labour, that induces the equally inevitable necessity of profit as the unequal distribution of the social product. 

What, then, is socialism in relation to this fact? As I have already mentioned, the word has many meanings. However, what one usually thinks of as the opposite of socialism is a private economic order, that is a state of affairs in which provision for economic need is in the hands of private entrepreneurs and is so arranged that these entrepreneurs procure the material means of operation, officials and labour force by means of contracts of purchase and wage contracts, and then have the goods made and sell them on the market at their [281] own economic risk and in the expectation of personal gain. Socialist theory has applied the label ‘anarchy of production' to this private economic order because it is unconcerned whether the personal interest of the individual entrepreneurs in selling their products (the profit interest) functions in such a way as to guarantee that those who need these goods are indeed provided with them. Historically, there has been a change in the question of which of a society’s needs should be taken care of by business (that is privately) and which should be supplied not privately but socialistically in the widest sense, in other words by planned organisation.


Having identified, correctly, the specificity of economics in the production and distribution of material goods and services, Weber now seems to move much closer to the specificity of capitalist industry within the category of economics. 

What characterises our current situation is firstly the fact that the private sector of the economy in conjunction with private bureaucratic organisation and hence with the separation of the worker from the means of operation (Betriebsmitteln), dominates an area that has never exhibited these two characteristics together on such a scale at any time in history, namely the area of industrial production. Secondly there is the fact that this process coincides with the introduction of mechanical production within the factory, and thus with a local concentration of labour on one and the same premises, with the fact that the worker is tied to the machine, and with common working discipline throughout the machine-shop or pit. Above all else, it is this discipline which gives our present-day way of 'separating' the worker from the means of work (Arbeitsmitteln) its special quality. It was life lived under these conditions, this factory discipline, that gave birth to modern socialism. 

It is not socialism that explains capitalism, argues Weber in his lecture on Sozialismus; to the contrary, it is capitalism that explains socialism. In this forceful riposte to Marx’s saying that “the steam engine explains the windmill”, to which he had already dedicated a long essay in honour of Werner Sombart, Weber prepotently inverts Marx’s historical-materialist dialectic: it is socialism, not capitalism, that is the weaker side in this historical and epochal confrontation. The “separation” of workers and tools has always existed and always will exist - as will the exploitation of workers on the part of the owners - in the army as in public administration as in the mediaeval fief, as in the latifunds of Antiquity. It is not the case therefore that the Sozialismus of social-democratic and communist parties, or indeed the anarcho-syndicalism of trade unions, will replace capitalist industry anytime soon! Instead, presses Weber in his harangue, it is this Sozialismus that is a temporary historical accident of capitalist industry and of parliamentary democracy. The reason for this is that the sphere of industrial production serves to satisfy individual physiological and intellectual needs - at least this regard, the labour market and the industrial process operate in a manner entirely similar to that of natural selection in biology:

Socialism of the most diverse kinds has existed everywhere at every period and in every country in the world. The unique character of modem socialism could grow only on this soil. This subjection to working discipline is felt so acutely by the production worker because, in contrast to, say, a slave plantation or enforced labour on a manorial farm,12 a modern production plant functions on the basis of an extraordinarily severe process of selection. A modern manufacturer does not employ just any worker, just because he might work for a low wage. Rather he installs the man at the machine on piece-wages and says: 'All right, now work! I shall see how much you earn.' If the man does not prove himself capable of earning a certain minimum wage he is told: 'we are sorry, but you are not suited to this occupation, we cannot use you. He is expelled because the machine is not working to capacity unless
 Weber: Political Writings
the man operating it knows how to utilise it fully. It is the same~ or similar, everywhere. In contrast to the use of slave labour in antiquity, where the lord was tied to whatever slaves he had (if one of them died, it was a capital loss for him), every modem industrial firm rests on the principle of selection (Auslese).  On the other hand this selection is driven to an extreme of intensity by competition between entrepreneurs, which ties the individual entrepreneur to certain maximum wages; the inevitability (Zwangslaufigkeit) of the workers’ earnings corresponds to the inevitability of discipline.


The Darwinian and Nietzschean roots of Weber’s theoretical paradigm are absolutely unmistakeable. It is competition between workers and capitalists and then again competition among these social classes that imposes the industrial labour discipline on which capitalism is founded! The market mechanism is a set of institutions that above all preserve the formal freedom of the labour force - even down to the point where it organises or it is allowed by the State or the bourgeoisie to organise as a political class! Not only is this crucial in terms of dictating the direction of production through the relatively free choice of consumption by workers, but it is also a powerful mechanism for mustering the productive force of workers. The market mechanism is a set of institutions that regulate social conflict around these needs. It s the continuation of politics by other means.

If the worker goes to the entrepreneur today and says, ‘We cannot live on these wages and you could pay us more', in nine out of ten cases - I mean in peacetime and in those branches of industry where there is really fierce competition - the employer is in a position to show the workers from his books that this is impossible: 'My competitor pays wages of such and such; if I pay each of you even only so much more, all the profit I could pay to the shareholders disappears from my books. I could not carry on the business, for I would get no credit from the bank.' Thereby he is often just telling the naked truth. Finally, there is the additional point that under the pressure of competition profitability depends on the elimination of human labour as far as possible by new, labour-saving machines~and especially the highest-paid type of workers who cost the business most. Hence skilled workers must be replaced by unskilled workers or workers trained directly at the machine. This is inevitable and it happens all the time.

This is a process of selection that operates as much among capitalist owners and managers as it does among workers. As Maurice Dobb showed (in his seminal Studies in the Development of Capitalism), the development of capitalism in Britain owed much to the rise of individual workers and craftsmen as capitalist employers. The working class is the real motor of capitalist development in driving productivity gains both in terms of expertise and know-how in the sphere of production, and in terms of wage antagonism in the sphere of consumption. The New Deal is - as a crisis of capitalism - very instructive in this regard. Then it was the capitalist State that had to legislate the organisation of the labour force so as to revive consumption (aggregate demand) and investment (higher productivity). This is what constitutes the Demokratisierung as a central concept in Weber’s theorisation of industrial capitalism. The other central concept, of course, if the Rationalisierung of industrial production made possible by the “exact calculation” (exakte Kalkulation) of profit in monetary terms through the discipline of the market mechanism - enabled in turn, as we saw above, by the formal freedom of workers.


Two elements, then, two ingredients characterise the specificity of capitalism: - the first is the production of social needs through the privatisation of social means of production and most important of the labour force through market forces, through private bidding. And the second is the satisfaction and determination of these needs through the mechanism of the market as well! But in both cases it is the formal freedom of workers that guarantees (a) the existence of multiple capitalists and thence the competition for workers among capitalists; (b) the free antagonism between workers and capital in the process of production; and (c) the relatively free choice of consumption by workers. The market mechanism is all here. The formal freedom of workers is the political and institutional framework that sets up the market mechanism by (i) ensuring that workers do not own means of production; (ii) workers are forced to sell their labour-power; (iii) that they do so as individuals and not in associations; (iv) that workers are paid money wages and not through barter or other arrangements with capitalist employers; (v) as a corollary, workers are free to purchase products with their wages from any owner.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

From List to Weber: Economics and Politics

Pg.109: In order duly to estimate the influence which liberty of thought and conscience has on the productive forces of nations, we need only read the history of England and then that of Spain. The publicity of the administration of justice, trial by jury, parliamentary legislation, public control of State administration, self-administration of the commonalties and municipalities, liberty of the press, liberty of association for useful purposes, impart to the citizens of constitutional states, as also to their public functionaries, a degree of energy and [110] power which can hardly be produced by other means. We can scarcely conceive of any law or any public legal decision which would not exercise a greater or smaller influence on the increase or decrease of the productive power of the nation.

With admirable prescience, Friedrich List foreshadows a most incisive and valid critique of the labour theory of value first expounded by British political economy (Smith, Ricardo, Mill) soon to be perfected by Marx, and also - as a corollary of that critique - he advances an early version of the neoclassical value theory (Goss, Menger, Jevons) that will rise out of the German negatives Denken (Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Weber). List sees quite correctly that capitalism is not about wealth but rather about “the ability to produce wealth”. And he sees also that capitalism is not about “economics” but rather about social and political institutions. In this precise regard, List is contradicting what was to become one of Marxism’s main items of faith. Lenin’s maxim that “politics is a concentrate of economics” lends itself to two possible interpretations - one false and the other quite plausible. The first interpretation sees this maxim in light of Marx’s theory of human historical social development as arising from “the law of value” whereby human history is the tale of development of social relations of production that constitute an “economic base”, a solid rock of reality upon which is erected a “political superstructure” of ideological constructs from religion to culture and the State. In this optic, the history of human society is one of conflict over the distribution of social wealth which, in turn, gives rise to different modes of production. These conflicts represent diverse forms of social antagonism that will ultimately result in the attainment of a communist republic that will see spontaneous social harmony replace the violence of the State as the cement of social life. The compression of socially necessary labour time for the reproduction of society as a result of the antagonism between capital and workers will ultimately ensure that private property and the State, which ensure the violent separation of workers from the means of production become “a miserable basis” for social existence such that they are no longer legitimate and sustainable. 

Central to this dialectical - quasi eschatological - interpretation of human history is the notion that the amount of labour time socially necessary for the reproduction of society is quantifiable for a given state of technology and, therefore, that the social needs of a specific social formation are also materially quantifiable. In this Marxian perspective, it is clear that given that social needs and the labour time socially necessary to satisfy them are both quantifiable entities, then the political superstructure becomes a function of the distribution of the available social surplus and therefore clearly deducible if not calculable from the economic base, that is to say, from “the law of value” - which is why politics cannot but be... “a concentrate of economics”.

Apart from being a non sequitur (why should political institutions be determined by the production of social wealth?), what is false in this Marxist reading of human social history is that not only are human needs unquantifiable, and therefore it is impossible to determine what labour time is “socially necessary” for the reproduction of society - and not only is “labour time” itself a concept impossible to define with any clarity - but also and above all the very definition and identification of what are “social needs” is an exquisitely political question that makes the reduction of politics to economics wholly devoid of sense, let alone truth!

List’s attack on labour theory of value is entirely valid and it relies intrepidly on challenging the erroneous reduction by the political economists (British and Marxist) of all “value” to a quantifiable entity, and then again to the conflation of intellectual and manual labour or, in other words, the reduction of skilled labour to manual labour:

Pg.110: If we consider merely bodily labour as the cause of wealth, how can we then explain why modern nations are incomparably richer, more populous, more powerful, and prosperous than the nations of ancient times? The ancient nations employed (in proportion to the whole population) infinitely more hands, the work was much harder, each individual possessed much more land, and yet the masses were much worse fed and clothed than is the case in modern nations. In order to explain these phenomena, we must refer to the progress which has been made in the course of the last thousand years in sciences and arts, domestic and public regulations, cultivation of the mind and capabilities of production. The present state of the nations is the result of the accumulation of all discoveries, inventions, improvements, perfections, and exertions of all generations which have lived before us; they form the mental capital of the present human race, and every separate nation is productive only in the proportion in which it has known how to appropriate these attainments of former generations and to increase them by its own acquirements, in which the natural capabilities of its territory, its extent and geographical position, its population and political power, have been able to develop as completely and symmetrically as possible all sources of wealth within its boundaries, and to extend its moral, intellectual, commercial, and political influence over less advanced nations and especially over the affairs of the world.

The impossibility of reducing intellectual labour to its manual labour components is merely an expression of the utter senselessness of reducing the question of value to mere quantities (the Law of Value whereby values can be reconciled with prices). Once again, this is the precise reason why politics cannot be reduced to economics:

Pg.110: The popular school of economists would have us believe that politics and political power cannot be taken into consideration in political economy. So far as it makes only values and exchange the subjects of its investigations, this may be correct; we can define the ideas of value and capital, profit, wages, and rent; we can resolve them into their elements, and speculate on what may influence their rising or falling, &c. without thereby taking into account the political circumstances of the nation. Clearly, however, these matters appertain as much to private economy as to the economy of whole nations. We have merely to consider the history of Venice, of the Hanseatic League, of Portugal, Holland, and England, in order to perceive what reciprocal influence material wealth and political power exercise on each other.


Quite simply, the notion of “economic value” is inseparable from that of political power: the word “value” itself (from the Latin valor, strength) has obvious political and even psychological connotations. Yet there is a specificity to the sphere of economics at least to the extent that it involves what List himself describes as “the productive power of the nation” - and that is the point where the Political can be narrowed down to the Economic. For someone who must have come across neo-Kantian thought, List fails almost completely to confront the crucial issue of what, if anything, constitutes the discrimen - the distinction - between economics and politics. It is certainly true that the Political cannot be reduced to Economics. But then, we still have to tackle the very relevant question of what precisely constitutes the specificity of what we call Economics. To do that, we will turn to the work of the great sociologist Max Weber in our next post.

Friday, 4 May 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KARL!!

On the occurrence of Karl Marx’s 200th Birthday, we are re-proposing a lengthy study on one of the crucial elements in the methodology of what to us was and still remains the greatest social theoretician in human history. Enjoy!

If we define “theory” as a series of abstract rules that connect facts in a predictive or apodictic relation by means of experiments, then it is obvious that no “theory” will ever be able to achieve such a relation by means of a “method” because each experiment is, by definition, a unique “experience” whose outcome cannot be “formalised” in isolation from the actual experience. Furthermore, for what concerns the connection of theory with facts, whether in the physical or in the social sciences, first, the selection of “facts” is itself arbitrary from a “theoretical” viewpoint in that it is the “theory” that selects the “facts”, which means that the theory itself must be “arbitrary” from an “objective theoretical” or “scientific” viewpoint”! (Cf. Windelband, “Thus, in the scientific sense, ‘fact’ is already a teleological concept,” [History and Natural Science, p.181]. We do not share, of course, the artificial dichotomy of the Marburg School of neo-Kantian philosophers between “natural sciences” [Natur-wissenschaften] and “social sciences” [Geistes-wissenschaften]). And second, no amount of theorizing will ever be able to establish any “causal links” between “facts” independently of the human interest involved in isolating a particular “chain of causality” among an infinity of other “causal chains” (the point was first established by Nietzsche from as early as Uber Wahrheit und Luge, and then elaborated by Weber [cf. his Objektivitat]). After Nietzsche, we ought to know that there is no ordo et connexio rerum et idearum; after Heidegger, we know that there is no adaequatio rei et intellectus.

So it is certainly not because of a superior “methodology of economics” that Marxian social theory presents this “chemical” fusion of fact and theory (or hypothesis) against the “mechanical” incongruence of bourgeois economic theory. But why, then, does Schumpeter believe that when it comes to the analysis of capitalist industry and society “Marx’s mixture [of facts and theory] is a chemical one” whereas that of orthodox bourgeois economics is only “mechanical”? To find out the answer, let us look at it in reverse, that is to say, let us see why it is that bourgeois economic theory has no need for “facts” to support it, and then we will be able to deduce at least negatively what we must not do if we do not wish social theory to be entirely detached from reality. 

If we take human beings as isolated individuals and we then ascribe to them “self-interests” that are insatiable and also absolutely incommunicable and incommensurable with one another, and if we then assume that they initially “possess” given “endowments” which they are only able “to exchange” with one another – then it is entirely obvious that we will be able to come up with a “science of exchange” (Walras’s equilibrium or Hayek’s catallactics or Mises’s praxeology) that will be the exact replica of Newtonian mechanics in which there is either a unique solution (Walrasian equilibrium) or else an ex post facto rationalization (Hayek, Mises) for all the possible “exchange ratios” between all such individuals and for the optimal distribution of their original endowments to maximize their individual self-interests.

In order to protect its claimed “scientific status”, bourgeois economic theory must separate itself from the social and physical environment in which it operates – all the more so because it needs to present its findings as immutable laws of human nature. The peculiarity of this “economic theory” or “economic science” is that it contains no history! No historical or sociological facts are needed for this “science” because “history” is the record of metabolic interaction of human beings not merely inter se, between themselves as individuals or groups, but also and above all with their physical environment, which is how they pro-duce their needs and in so doing create and develop new ones, while all the time they transform also their interpersonal relations in the process. 

In sharp contrast, there is no metabolic interaction between the “atomistic individuals” of orthodox bourgeois economic theory because there is no pro-duction of needs on the part of these atomistic individuals but only the simple pure “exchange” of “given” endowments – an “exchange” that “exists” only as a logico-mathematical equation and deduction and never involves any historical interaction between these individuals. There is no historical change in neoclassical economic exchange: there is no history in such pure exchange. As Lucio Colletti put it, in this type of social and economic theory,

[t]he relation between the theory and its object contracts, due to the ideal character of the latter, into a mere relation of idea to idea, an internal monologue within thought itself. The object of analysis thus slips through our fingers; it is, as Lenin pointed out [in What are ‘Friends of the People’], impossible for us to undertake any study of the facts, of social processes, precisely because we are no longer confronting a society, a real object, but only the idea of society, society in general…. in the place of concrete historical phenomena it has interpolated the idea; in the place of a concrete, determinate society it has substituted society ‘in general’? (Ideology and Society, pp3-4).

But Colletti here mixes up two separate matters: the first, which is the more relevant, is that bourgeois social theory reduces human society to abstract ideas and ceases to treat it as a “living” organism, that is to say, one that mutates and evolves physio-logically, with the emphasis on the physicality of human needs: it is this immanent materialism – this stress on the metabolic production of human needs that are ever-changing - which leads to the requirement of the “concreteness” of historical analysis. But then Colletti jumps immediately to the bourgeois dichotomy of concreteness versus generality without specifying in what way the Marxian approach is more “concrete” except to state that it studies this particular “society” – capitalism - when in fact the relevant issue is that it is the abstraction from how human needs are satisfied and pro-duced that makes the “generality” of bourgeois social theory and “science” problematic because it invariably seeks to justify the status quo and its social exploitation by hypostatising it into “human nature”. Not the “generality” of bourgeois science is the real problem: the real problem is that it turns the established order of exploitation into an eternal truth!

“History” is not merely the historia rerum gestarum (the record of personal or institutional actions) but rather it is the record of how human beings interact with one another and with their physical environment: history is the record of human metabolic pro-duction. History is the record of how human beings interact to fulfil and satisfy their changing needs by meta-bolically interacting with their physical environment. It is this “metabolic interaction” that forms the content of “history”. History is not just the record of human relations; it is the record of social relations “of pro-duction” because not just the distribution of the product but above what is pro-duced and how it is pro-duced are essential to understanding human “history”! It is this immanentism that we are seeking to expound here by way of a critique of Schumpeter’s work so as to overcome the old antinomic dualism of materialism and idealism.
But in this pro-duction of their needs, as a discrete albeit dependent aspect of it, the question arises of how human beings may organize in such a manner that some exploit others in the sense that the living activity of a section or class of human society is subordinated by another section or class. In capitalism the specific form of subordination relates to the “exchange” of dead labour with living labour, and specifically to the reality that such “exchange” can occur only through political violence because no “exchange” of living with dead labour could take place without such violence. As we shall demonstrate later in our discussion of the labour theory of value outlined by Marx in Zur Kritik, the problem with capitalism is not that the concrete living activity of human beings is reduced to or reified into abstract labour through the forced separation of workers from the means of production – because no such “reduction” or “reification” is possible given that all human activity, however violently enforced or alienated, remains living activity. The problem is instead that living activity is violently made exchangeable and therefore commensurate with dead labour, with the product of living labour, by means of that violent separation. In other words, the “exchange” has no “objective” or “market” basis except the violent institutional organization of human living activity on the part of capitalists. 

It is over this discrete, distinct reality of conflict and antagonism in the process of human metabolic production of their needs that the dialectical method can be applied to assess the validity of socio-theoretical accounts of this antagonism. The peculiarity of the dialectical method, even and especially in its pre-Socratic origins, is that it is a “negative” procedure that does not seek to establish “the truth” – as if “the truth”, as an absolute reality, ec-sisted! For if it did, there would be no need for the very concept of “truth”, as Nietzsche established as early as “Lies and Truth”. Rather, dialectics seeks to establish a “dialogue” (whence “dialectics”) between opposing sides onto a common ground (the polemos, or dispute) from which the dispute may be “resolved” or better “super-seded” (cf. Giorgio Colli, La Nascita della Filosofia). Dialectics is not a “positive” method but is rather one that applies in a negative and critical manner to aporetic concepts that hypostatise or reify human reality as well as to their underlying reality - as is evinced by Hegel’s emphasis on “the negation of the negation” instead of, as is commonly and erroneously believed, the “triadic” sequence thesis-antithesis-synthesis. (Cf. on this Norberto Bobbio’s instructive Studi Hegeliani and Theodore Adorno’s Introduction to Negative Dialectics, which is characteristically opaque but highlights this “critical” role of the Hegelian method.) 

Nevertheless, Hegelian dialectics committed the evident fallacy of preserving the thesis in the antithesis and in the “synthesis” as a “positive” method of truth-seeking:

To be sure, Plato's dialectic too-even that of the Parmenides-is
in Hegel's view still not "pure" dialectic since it proceeds from assumed
propositions, which as such have not been derived from each
other according to an internal necessity. Indeed, for his methodological
ideal of philosophical demonstration Hegel must rely more heavily
upon the overall style of Socratic dialogue-that immanent formation
and self-unfolding of thought which he extols in Socrates' guidance
of discussion-and less upon the Parmenides, the "greatest masterpiece
of Ancient dialectic" (Ph 57), or one of the other late dialogues.
Without doubt, he saw correctly that the bland role which the partners
play in Socratic dialogue favors the immanent consequentiality
of the developing thought. He lauds these partners of Socrates as
truly pliable youths who are prepared to leave behind all contumacy
and flights of fancy which would disturb the progress of thought.3
To be sure, the splendid monologue of Hegel's own philosophical
dialectic realizes an ideal of self-unfolding thought with a much different 
methodological conception behind it, one which relies far more
upon the principles of the Cartesian method, on the learning of the
Catechism, and on the Bible. Thus Hegel's admiration for the Ancients
is intertwined in a curious way with his feeling that the modern truth
shaped by Christianity and its renewal in the Reformation is superior.
(Gadamer, Hegel’s Dialectic, p.7)

But this, too, Hegel believes he is able to find in ancient dialectic,
though not beJore Plato. Hegel agrees, of course, that dialectic in
Plato often has only the negative purpose of confounding preconceptions.
As such it is only a subjective variation of Zeno's dialectic. By
the use of external conceptions, it is able to refute every assertion-a
technique cultivated particularly by the Sophists and pursued without
positive results. But aside from this Hegel sees in Plato a positive, speculative
dialectic, one that leads to objective contradictions, but not
merely in order to nullify their presuppositions. Plato's speculative
dialectic also contains an insight into the contradiction and antithesis
of being and not-being, on the one hand, and of difference and nondifference,
on the other. Implied, Hegel maintains, is that Plato recognized
that these belong together and hence entail a higher unity. For
this interpretation Hegel relies above all on Plato's Parmeni'des, his
understanding of it being shaped in large part by Neoplatonism's
theological-ontological interpretation of the latter. (P.21)


Both formal logic and dialectics rely on the notion of contradiction – but the application of this notion is what distinguishes the two methods. Both formal logic and dialectics can be applied negatively to assess the validity of statements about physical events and entities - which are either true or false at a particular point in time - but not to the individual physical events or quantifiable entities themselves – which are neither true nor false at any point in time. But unlike formal logic, although it cannot be applied to scientific findings, dialectics can be applied to statements about all human activity as well as to the activity itself, including scientific inquiry, if this activity can be shown to contain antagonistic motives and interests. The “findings” of scientific activity may be disputed on the evidence but not on the “logic” of the events that are the object of scientific inquiry: events are never “contradictory”, but statements and conclusions or “findings” about them can be. To repeat, both dialectics and logic can be applied to statements about human activity and events; but dialectics applies also to human and scientific activity that may be said to be antagonistic (for example, research into a harmful product or research that is itself harmful). 

As a corollary to the first restriction or qualification – that it apply negatively to statements, just like formal logic -, the second requirement for dialectics is that it be applied negatively to assess the validity of both human activities and statements concerning human activities that contain antagonism or conflicts of interests. This does not apply to formal logic which can apply only negatively to statements - to assess their validity, not their truth! - but cannot apply to human activities themselves. 

Thus, what distinguishes dialectics from formal logic is the interpretation of the notion of “contra-diction”. To the extent that human activities and statements and concepts about them contain antagonism they may be said to be dialectically but not logically “contra-dictory”. Whereas contradiction in formal logic can apply only to statements in the sense that they are either valid or invalid, dialectical contradiction applies to statements and concepts concerning human activities as well as to the activities themselves to the extent that they are antagonistic in that their purpose or aims are harmful to some humans and that therefore this antagonism must be resolved and superseded historically because it cannot remain “eternal” or be theo-onto-logical. 

The dialectical method is founded on the practical notion that antagonism can be resolved through its elimination by the opposition or antithesis it contains, in the triple sense that it entails the antithesis, that it generates it materially and that it seeks to prevent the antagonism of the antithesis from destroying it materially! Hence, whereas the contradiction of formal logic serves simply to negate a statement that is contra-dictory but cannot resolve the contradiction historically, dialectics moves beyond contradictory statements and activities by negating the antagonism they contain, that is, by showing how this antagonism must be resolved historically by the negation (the negation of the negation) of both the source of the antagonism (the thesis) and of the opposition (the antithesis) to which it gives rise and that is contained in and by the source. Like dialectics, formal logic cannot be applied to events but only to statements; but unlike dialectics, formal logic cannot be applied to human activities and hypotheses thereof that contain antagonism because these cannot be “contradictory” in a formal sense but can be so only dialectically, that is to say, historically.

Precisely on this point, Hegel’s greatest intuition was the notion of Auf-hebung, which rests on the resolution and supersession of human antagonism and conflict rather than on their irreconcilability. Perhaps the grandest and noblest instance of the dialectical method at work is Hegel’s chapter on “Lordship and Servitude” (or “Master and Slave”) in his earliest theoretical work, the Phenomenology of Mind. The fact that Hegel was wrong about interpreting supersession as the “reconciliation” (Versohnung) of antagonism – that is to say, the “triadic” notion of the “syn-thesis” of thesis and antithesis - rather than as “the negation of the negation” of the source of antagonism, the “thesis”, is a separate matter that we shall discuss later in connection with Gramsci’s interpretation of the dialectic. 

Indeed, as Adorno has contended, the hypostatisation of dialectical concepts – their “positivity”, “immutability” or “closedness” - is a flaw that afflicts also Hegel’s “phenomenology” or “objective idealism”, despite its undoubtedly revolutionary role in inspiring the later development of the dialectical method as a critical tool by Marx:

This, then, is the model of that positive negativity: the negation of the negation as a new positive that appears in Hegelian philosophy as a new model. Incidentally, it should be pointed out that one of the very striking features of Hegel's philosophy, one whose significance has not been sufficiently appreciated, is its dynamic nature. By this I mean that it does not regard its categories as fixed, but instead thinks of them as having emerged historically and therefore as capable of change. Even so, in reality its conceptual apparatus contains much more that is immutable, incomparably more that is constant, than it lets on. And these constants come to the surface to a certain degree against the intentions of this philosophy….  (Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics, p.15)

For it is precisely this 'having something', having it as something fixed, given and unquestioned on which one can comfortably rely - it is this that thought should actually resist. And the very thing that appears as a flaw in a philosophy that does not have this quality is in truth the medium in which philosophical ideas that are worthy of the name can thrive….[Adorno, Lectures, p.25] 

Gadamer confirms this aspect of Hegelian dialectics:

This formal characteristic of the continuing determination of
thought in itself does not necessitate that it be proven ahead of time
that the contradictions themselves which emerge will unify themselves
by fusing into a new positum, into a new simple self. Properly speaking,
the new content is not deduced, but always has proven itself already
to be that which endures the severity of contradiction and
maintains itself as one therein, namely, the self of thought.

In short, there are three elements which, according to Hegel, may
be said to be essential to dialectic. First, thinking is thinking of something
in itself taken by itself. Second, as such it necessarily thinks
contradictory determinations simultaneously. Third, the unity of
contradictory determinations has, in that these are sublimated in that
unity, the proper nature of the self. Hegel is of the opinion that all
three of these elements are to be found in the dialectic of the Ancients. (Hegel’s Dialectic, P.20)


The incestuous, truly idealistic nature of Hegelian dialectics is amply exposed here. Gadamer goes to exceptional lengths to defend the indefensible in Hegel (cf. Colletti, Il Marxismo e Hegel and also Cacciari, Dialettica e Critica del Politico):

The dialectic of the Phenomenology of Mind is similar in this regard.
The movement there is a movement in which the distinction,
between knowing and truth is transcended and at the end of which"
the total mediation of this distinction emerges in the form of absolute
knowing. Nevertheless, for this dialectic too the sphere of pure
knowing, of the thinking of self in the thinking of all determinations,
is already presupposed. As is well known, Hegel defends himself -
specifically against the misunderstanding of his Phenomenology
which takes it to be a propaedeutic introduction not yet having the
12 Hegel's Dialectic
character of science. The path elevating ordinary consciousness to
philosophical consciousness in the course of which the distinction in
consciousness, the split between subject and object is eliminated, is,
on the contrary, only the object of phenomenological science. That
science itself is already at the level of science, on which this distinction
is transcended. There can be no introduction preceding science.
Thinking begins with itself, i.e., with the decision to think. (Pp.11-2)

Yet it does not. We accept Cacciari’s point contra Colletti that the negation of the negation must be the resultant of the thesis and that this process can be “conceptual” – but only as “negation”, first, and then as “negation of the negation” – only in this double “negativity” that preserves the thesis, but only in the negation of its negation, not in a “positum” and not as mere “thought” because “thought” itself must have its own “materiality”! Thinking most certainly does not begin with a “decision”, nor does it begin with “matter”: thinking and its object are indeed inseparable but as a dialectical process whereby the object of thinking is more than another thought! (See Bobbio on Gramsci’s critique of Croce’s “idealist” dialectic, and on the true antithesis, in Appendix to “Gramsci on Civil Society”.)

Adorno’s Introduction to Negative Dialectics superbly describes the need for the dialectical method to embrace “the object” materially, as history, as physis, not as “matter” or “nature” – in other words, to include that metabolic interaction that is our focus in this work. This is a point that Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and the rest of his work – cf. the English collection The Merleau-Ponty Reader – highlights masterfully. Heidegger elaborates punctiliously the notion of “physis” in “The Concept and Essence of ‘Physis’ in Aristotle”, reprinted in Pathmarks. His vice, as always, is that, unlike Nietzsche and Marx, his emphasis is on the physio-logical rather than on the physio-logical – on transcendence rather than immanence. For a critique, see chapter on “The Ontological Need” in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. See also our discussion of Colletti just below and our “The Philosophy of the Flesh” on scribd.com.) 


Colletti on Kant’s distinction between “Real Opposition” and “Dialectical Contradiction”

For the sake of illustrating our interpretation of the dialectical method, let us turn to an interesting and compendious review of “Marxism and the Dialectic” by the illustrious and erudite Italian philosopher Lucio Colletti.

I shall attempt to clarify somewhat a question…although one that is very difficult to deal with briefly: the problem of the difference between ‘real opposition’ (Kant’s Realopposition or Realrepugnanz) and ‘dialectical contradiction’. Both are instances of opposition, but they are radically distinct in kind. ‘Real opposition’ (or ‘contrariety’ of incompatible opposites) is an opposition ‘without contradiction’ (ohne Widerspruch). It does not violate the principles of identity and (non)- contradiction, and hence is compatible with formal logic. The second form of opposition, on the contrary, is ‘contradictory’ (durch den Widerspruch) and gives rise to a dialectical opposition. Marxists, as we shall see, have never entertained clear ideas on this subject. In the overwhelming majority of cases they have not even suspected that there were two oppositions and that they were radically different in nature. In the rare cases where this fact has been noted, its significance has been misunderstood, and ‘real opposition’ has also been considered as [4] an example and an instance of the dialectic, even though it was a ‘noncontradictory’, and hence undialectical, opposition. (“Marxism and the Dialectic”, pp.3-4)

We agree that “contradiction” in dialectics cannot apply to all real events simply on the basis that they display some form of conflict or “real opposition”, as Colletti calls it. In the case of two opposing forces, for instance, or colliding objects, it is quite absurd to speak of “contradiction” because neither the forces nor the objects are “saying” or “meaning” anything. Therefore, for such “contrarieties”, as Colletti also defines them, neither formal logic (which applies only to statements in any case, something Colletti totally overlooks above) nor dialectics (which applies to “contra-dictions” in the broader antagonistic sense) can even remotely apply. The problem with Colletti’s erudite analysis of the dialectic, however, arises when he tries to define what kind of events or entities or activities qualify for “real opposition”, to which the dialectic does not apply. Here is Colletti again:

Let us sum up. Conflicts between forces in nature and in reality, for example attraction/repulsion in Newtonian physics, struggles between counterposed tendencies, contrasts between opposing forces—all these not only do not undermine the principle of (non)-contradiction, but on the contrary confirm it. What we are dealing with in fact is oppositions which, precisely because they are real, are ‘devoid of contradiction’ and hence have nothing to do with dialectical contradiction. The poles of these oppositions, to go back to Marx, ‘cannot mediate each other’ nor ‘do they have any need of mediation’: ‘they have nothing in common with each other, they do not need each other, nor are they integrated with each other’, (ibidem, p.9).

It is very simple to find the fatal flaw in Colletti’s argument here – quite surprising, really, in a thinker of his depth and breadth. The flaw is in equating “forces in nature” (what we call physical events and quantifiable entities) and “conflicts in reality” which can include social antagonism. It is to this social antagonism that the notion of “dialectical contradiction” applies, as we have explained above. Colletti makes the unbelievable mistake of equating “opposing forces” in the physical sense and “social conflict” in the antagonistic sense under the common banner of “real opposition” or “conflicts between forces in nature and in reality”. But the “real opposition” of social conflict is not the same as the “real opposition” of physical collision between forces and objects! (Colletti is confusing political “opposition” with physical “opposition”, conflict with contrast.) We agree with Colletti that dialectical contradictions most assuredly do not apply to the latter – and formal logical contradiction applies to neither because it applies only to statements: but there can be no doubt that dialectical contradiction does apply to the former, to social conflict and antagonism, because that is the real valid meaning of “dialectical contradiction”! As we explained above, social conflict and antagonism is “dialectically contra-dictory” because it cannot be eternal or ontological and must be capable of resolution and supersession.

When Colletti asserts – directly quoting Marx from the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, but quite ferociously out of context - that the “opposing forces” in social conflict “have nothing in common with each other, they do not need each other, nor are they integrated with each other”, he cannot be in his right mind – because if conflicting human interests had “nothing in common with each other” – well then there would be no conflict between them! If they did not “need each other” or were not “integrated with each other”, then as sure as night follows day the master would not need the slave and the capitalist would not need the worker! Once again, these lapses are quite unworthy of Colletti – a Marxist theoretician whom we are fond of quoting and citing – and we are using them purely for illustrative purposes.

2

Care must be taken, then, to remember that the dialectical method may be applied only to historically antagonistic relations: - only to concepts that apply to historical realities that contain antagonism that explodes the concepts, which cannot be contained by them although it is contained in them, and that leads to the supersession of the historical reality described by the concepts. The dialectical method does apply to concepts as concepts if they define an object whose practical implementation entails exploitation and generates social antagonism. For example, the notion of “competition”, as we discussed earlier in our study, contains the notion of monopoly (the aim of competition is to eliminate all other competitors) and therefore social antagonism. This means that the extrinsication of competition – its practical historical unfolding – will lead to its negation – monopoly. But “monopoly” still contains in itself the historical antagonism that brought about the original state of “competition”. It is not until this original state of competition is entirely destroyed and obliterated by the negation of the negation that competition is finally abolished or superseded. But this supersession of competition is not a reality that “must” occur because it somehow “contains” a dialectical contradiction! All it may be said is that it contains “antagonism”: but whether or not this antagonism results in a specific historical development is something that no “dialectical method” can “positively” predict!

Adorno uses the example of “concept” and “object” which – like those of “nature” and “society”, “nature” and “history”, “body” and “mind” - are not dialectical but are ontological and subject only either to formalism (antinomies, apories as in Kant) or to “reciprocal action” (organic totality). These concepts give rise either to formalism (Platonic, Kantian, with its chorismos) or to the notion of “organic totality” (a methexis seen only as ahistorical “organic totality”) both of which are hypostases, static and immutable concepts, and are therefore amenable to dialectical critique which unmasks their “separation”, their chorismos, and reminds us that the two “opposites” are so only because they are not applied metabolically and historically and therefore immanently – we could say, “concretely” - and are instead exasperated as antinomic dichotomies. Seen formalistically or reciprocally there appears to be no dialectical relation between them; but once we examine the content of each concept and seek to apply it historically we find its opposite is already contained in it. Only when these concepts are applied historically and metabolically can they contain actual antagonism and in this sense contain also a contra-diction amenable to dialectical critique. So long as we consider the concepts of economics and sociology, of nature and society or of body and mind, there is no contradiction except for the fact that they are hypostatic and aporetic – they are antinomic. It is only once we apply them to historical situations that they become antagonistic in their “use”, as a matter of praxis, and then their contra-diction comes to the fore. 

This is what Adorno hints at in this passage in which the historical metabolic dimension is specified by reference to “the confrontation of concepts with objects”:

Instead, the negativity I am speaking about contains a pointer to what Hegel calls determinate negation. In other words, negativity of this kind is made concrete [historical and metabolic] and goes beyond mere standpoint philosophy [formalism, organicism] by confronting concepts with their [historical] objects and, conversely, objects with their concepts, (Adorno, Lectures, p.25).

The obvious danger in treating dialectics as a “positive method” for predicting “scientifically” the course of history and even of “nature” is that it will then be mistaken for a “positive science” that can explain events as occurring in accordance with its own “logic” or “laws” in the way that Engels did in the Anti-Duhring and in The Dialectics of Nature. The danger is that the dialectical method is abused to lay claim to a view of human praxis, of “history”, and of human “society” as if it represented a “totality”, “one indivisible whole” or an “organism” whereby the behaviour of individual members of this “organic totality” may be predicted by reference to the “organic totality”. This is a pitfall that tempted not just Hegel with his notion that “the whole is greater than its parts”, but also Marx in his insistence on regarding the capitalist process of production “as a whole” (see the title to Volume 3 of Capital) in an effort to reconcile individual labour values with market prices (a flaw exposed by Bohm-Bawerk in “Karl Marx and the ‘Close’ of His System”). If an entity is defined in terms of a “totality”, it is clear that the interaction of the entities making up that “totality” will have to be in “harmony” with it – which can never prove the consistency of the definition because it only serves to expose the tautology of this “closed” system.


The notion of “totality” will play the most prominent role in all social theory around the turn of the century as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy or separation of Subject and Object formalised for modern metaphysics by Descartes with his distinction of res cogitans (soul) and res extensa (body). Of course, in our classification, this is a “reciprocal action” whose comprehension leads to the notion of “organic totality”. The way out of this seemingly insuperable opposition – antinomy, apory, dichotomy – between Subject and Object is quite obviously through its “historicisation”, in the manner indicated by Hegel and then Lukacs, that is, through the category of “labour” which is the “action” that intervenes to mediate and historicise the “fixedness” of Subject an Object. But this “history” cannot be comprehended ideally or conceptually by means of “the dialectical method” – which is the delusion that Lukacs fell into in HCC. As we have seen, the dialectical method is not a positive tool for predicting the future or guiding praxis, but it is instead a purely negative critical tool. Lukacs’s Hegelian privileging of the proletariat as “the identical subject-object of history” has three sources: Schopenhauer’s critique of Kant, Hegel’s dialectical idealism, and Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (especially the first, see p.186ff of HCC where Feuerbach’s materialism is discussed explicitly in this context.

Interestingly, those philosophers for whom there is an unbridgeable hiatus or “separation” (Plato’s chorismos) between (good) ideal and (bad) reality (or mere appearances [bad] and the real world [good]) are those who seek the social synthesis – the methexis – but purely as an “ideal”; whereas those who identify reality and appearance (take the good with the bad) are those who stress the impossibility of “ideals” and the ineluctable divergence of human needs, the inevitability and inexorability of antagonism – existence as it is, esse est percipi. (Cf. Adorno, “Essence and Appearance”, Negative Dialectics, p.166, on Nietzsche. Of course, the classic statement against the “idealists” or “rationalists” from Plato to Hegel and Marx is in K. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies.)


Dialectics cannot be used as a positive method to determine or to predict human historical events: it can only be used negatively as a critical tool to assess the historical validity of a given socio-theoretical hypothesis in terms of the tendency of a given antagonistic historical reality or human activity. In a nutshell, the dialectical method may be dissected into three principles, as Engels did in Dialectics of Nature and in Anti-Duhring. The first principle, which says that quantitative increments lead to qualitative change, is a banality when it is not a tautology (incidentally, Schumpeter uses this approach at pp.220ff of Business Cycles to describe “innovations”, although he too points out the simplicity of this distinction). 

The second is the principle of “reciprocal action” – which means that when two factors are in opposition, they interact with each other. Hence, it is incorrect to say that “nature” is what conditions “human beings”, or the opposite, because clearly the two must interact – indeed it is not possible to conceive of human beings without “nature” and even vice versa because the concept of “nature” implies a “non-nature” which is clearly human being. This principle is analytically valid because it serves to distinguish for analytical purposes between different factors of human reality, but it is historically inapplicable if it is considered purely from the standpoint of ontological analysis, because then its conceptual framework becomes thoroughly ahistorical and indeed as banal as the first component of the dialectical method! Any historical and socio-theoretical analysis that identifies conflicts that cannot be resolved turns quite evidently into an ahistorical hypostasis; in other words, it turns a problem of human agency into an ontological entity. 

This is why only the third principle of the Hegelian-Marxian dialectical method, the principle of “the negation of the negation”, is valid both for analytical and historical purposes – because it reminds us that all analyses of antithetical and conflicting historical concepts must include at the very least the possibility of the historical resolution, of the over-coming and the super-session of any antagonism and conflict that may be the object of that historical or socio-theoretical analysis. The problem with interpreting the dialectic in the sequence thesis-antithesis-synthesis is quite simply that here the “syn-thesis” is meant to preserve both the thesis and the anti-thesis. Yet, as Gramsci vehemently argued, the antithesis does not preserve but rather it first negates and then dissolves (Auf-heben) the thesis – which is why Hegel and Marx preferred to speak of “the negation of the negation” (in which no part of the thesis is preserved, precisely because it is “negated” by the anti-thesis) as the supersession of the conflict between thesis and antithesis. Here the moment of antithesis, the antagonism as negation, must contain (hold and refrain at the same time, see Cacciari, Il Potere che Frena on this notion of catechon, “containment”) the moment of supersession of the antagonism – the negation of the negation.

Bobbio on Marxian dialectics:

Di fronte a due enti in contrasto, il metodo della com-[256]
penetrazione degli opposti, o meglio dell'azione reciproca,
conduce a mantenere entrambi i termini del contrasto e a
considerarli come condizionantisi a vicenda; al contrario, il
metodo della negazione della negazione conduce a considerare
il primo eliminato in un primo tempo dal secondo, e il
secondo eliminato in un secondo momento da un terzo termine.
Il primo metodo viene applicato a eventi simultanei, il
secondo, a eventi che si dispiegano nel tempo: perciò quest'ultimo
è un metodo per la comprensione della storia (vuoi della
storia della natura, vuoi della storia dell'uomo), (pp.255-6)
Lo strumento di questa comprensione unitaria era la [261]
dialettica come rilevazione delle opposizioni e loro risoluzione.
Solo che la unità concreta nello studio dello svolgimento
storico gli era apparsa come il risultato della sintesi
degli opposti (negazione della negazione), donde la categoria
del corso storico dell'umanità è il divenire; nello studio
scientifico della realtà, l'unità concreta gli apparve come il
risultato di una interrelazione degli enti che l'intelletto
astratto ha erroneamente isolati gli uni dagli altri ( azione
reciproca ) , donde la categoria unitaria della totalità organica.
Come il divenire è composto di diversi momenti in opposizione,
così la totalità organica è composta di diversi enti
in opposizione. La dialettica, come metodo di risoluzione
delle opposizioni, si presenta là come sintesi degli opposti,
qua come azione reciproca. Il divenire, in altre parole, è il
risultato di successive negazioni, o se si vuole di un continuo
superamento ( il terzo termine ) ; la totalità organica è il
risultato di un intrecciarsi delle reciproche relazioni degli
enti, o, se si vuole, di una integrazione ( che non risolve i
due termini in un terzo ), (Da Hobbes a Marx, pp.260-1).

Notice how in the quotation above Bobbio makes two mis-statements. The first is when he says that the negation of the negation contains two moments whereby in the first moment the negation eliminates the thesis, and in the second moment the negation of the negation eliminates the negation. This is entirely misleading because “the negation of the negation” is, yes, a separate moment from the negation, and the negation is in turn a distinct moment of the thesis. But these “moments” are separate and distinct only as “dialectical moments”, only as “aspects” of the antagonism, certainly not as “chronological moments”! This means that the negation of the negation is a necessary dia-logical moment of the negation and the negation is a moment of the thesis: – but these are not chrono-logical moments that are separate in time! What is chrono-logical is only the necessary extrinsication of the antagonism contained in the thesis in historical time. But the thesis, its negation and the negation of the negation are dialectical aspects of the one antagonism whose “resolution” (as Bobbio calls it; we prefer the term “supersession”) must take place historically if the antagonism in question is indeed historical and not “ontological”: they are not “moments” in a chrono-logical sense as Bobbio’s explication would lead us to believe. 

The second error is that whereby Bobbio confuses “the synthesis of opposites” with “the negation of the negation”. As we saw above, and as Bobbio himself noted in a later review of Gramsci’s use of the dialectic (cf. “Nota sulla dialettica in Gramsci”, in Gramsci e la Concezione della Societa’ Civile) with the analytical acuity that was always his great attribute as a thinker, this identification of synthesis and negation of the negation is quite incorrect because, although both involve a form of historical becoming (Italian, divenire), only the latter – the negation of the negation – specifies that the thesis is not preserved by the antithesis but that both are entirely superseded! The notion of “syn-thesis” instead, as the very name suggests, involves the preservation of the thesis in the antithesis as “syn-chronic” and therefore ahistorical or “ana-lytical” moments. This is a point to which Gramsci held fast (cf. the Quaderni on “Il Materialismo Storico”) – and it is in relation to Gramsci’s interpretation of the dialectical method that Bobbio finally hits the mark on this account where earlier (in Da Hobbes a Marx) he had failed to do so.

As Adorno most adroitly insists (in Lectures 1. pp6-7), the antithesis and its negation are already contained in the thesis – this is why the thesis contains its antagonism -, but are not contained by it because they explode the thesis – which is what is meant by “contra-diction” intended historically as the “ex-plosion” of the thesis or the historical extrinsication of the antithesis contained in the thesis and its resolution and supersession in its negation, that is, the supersession of both thesis and the antithesis contained in it. This is not a “triadic” movement of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. There is no “syn-thesis” because the antagonism contained in the thesis (which is a concept that contains an object that in turn contains real antagonism), which generates the antithesis, does not preserve the thesis and the antithesis (as the syncretism of “synthesis” implies) but rather “explodes” both (the thesis can no longer contain in itself the antagonism contained by itself) and is resolved in the negation of the negation. 

Nevertheless, what I intend to present to you as negative dialectics possesses something quite crucially related to the concept of dialectics [6] in general - and this is something I wish to clarify at the outset. It is that the concept of contradiction will play a central role here, more particularly, the contradiction in things themselves, contradiction in the concept, not contradiction between concepts. (Lectures, pp.5-6)

Adorno should specify that there is “contradiction in the concept, not contradiction between concepts” only because there is “antagonism in the object and therefore contradiction in social relations themselves”. This is so because “the concept” cannot be isolated from its “object”: the contradiction that negative dialectics addresses is in “the concept”; but this is only because, most importantly, there is antagonism in “the object” or the historical reality that the con-cept seeks to grasp (Latin, con-cepere, to grasp, to capture). 

Moreover, there is no synthesis because the negation of the negation is not a “positive” – it is not a Hegelian “reconciliation” but a real obliteration, overcoming and supersession of the antagonism implicit in the thesis both as concept (ideology) and as real object (antagonism).

And this is why I would say in general… that the thesis that the negation of the negation is positive, an affirmation, cannot be sustained. The negation of the negation does not result in a positive, or not automatically, (Adorno, Lectures, p.17)


The later chapter in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics on “Concept and Categories” discusses the importance of the “negative” use of dialectics. On Marx’s naturalism see A. Schmidt, Marx’s Concept of Nature, and C. Luporini, Dialettica e Materialismo. Marx’s insistence on “method” and particularly on “organic totality” as a conciliation of the nature/society dichotomy is noted by Schmidt (pp.40ff) but without pointing out its defects – “positivity” as against “negativity” of the dialectic which then cannot be seen as “method” but at most as a critical tool. Schmidt correctly distinguishes between Marx’s emphasis on the historical development of science as reflecting human interests and needs and Engels’s quite erroneous application of “the dialectical method” to the development of “nature” itself (!) as in the case of the cell as the “being-in-itself of the organism”. It is one thing to apply the dialectical method negatively, it is another to apply it “positively” – as often does Marx with the “reciprocal action” – to claim a superior “com-prehension” of historical development as “organic totality”. And then it is quite another thing to transfer, as Engels does, this dialectical analysis and critique to the very internal development – not of the “science of nature” – but of “nature” itself! It is one thing to claim that human science (of nature or of history) develops dialectically, and quite another to opine that nature itself (whatever that is!) obeys dialectical laws!

Schmidt distinguishes between the Marxian application of dialectics to a unified natural-historical realm whereby the two condition each other and the Engelsian application of the dialectical method to nature and history as “separate” spheres such that the dialectical method is abstracted from them and acquires a life of its own (pp.50ff). At p.54, Schmidt concludes:

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Schmidt is entirely right here. Yet, whilst he does chastise the Engelsian abuse of dialectics as “a cosmic positive principle” (p.53), we cannot agree with his attempt to minimise or obfuscate Marx’s own mistaken use of reciprocal action as a “positive” method of understanding reality – even in the Marxian distinction between “investigation” and “presentation”. Dialectics may be used only “negatively”, to sift out hypostases in historical explanations – including “scientific methods” as objective procedures to find out “scientific laws”. Schmidt believes that “dialectical contradictions” arise in human history – which is right so long as we see these “contradictions” as “dia-logic” tools to guide our “praxis” in a negative sense with regard to the interpretation of history – that is, to correct hypostases and eliminate antinomies and apories (as applied to “concepts and categories”, says Adorno) -, but not as intrinsic to human history except in the sense of “antagonism”. History contains antagonisms, but not “dialectical contradictions”. 

This is a point that applies most eminently to Lukacs’s own conception of “the dialectical method”. And in fact, Schmidt does not fail to advert to Lukacs in his own “historical” interpretation of this “positive” dialectical method, in direct contrast to Engels’s “extension” of the “dialectical method” to “pre-human and extra-human nature” (p.55):

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In the passage cited by Schmidt above Lukacs specifically refers to “the reciprocal action of subject and object” – which means that he was referring to “historical” reality, which was the only reality possible for Lukacs and his “identical subject-object” in HCC, (“an attempt to out-Hegel Hegel”, p.xxiii) and not also to “pre-human and extra-human nature” as Schmidt believes, because such an a-historical notion is inadmissible to Lukacs! Schmidt misconstrues the Lukacsian interpretation of the dialectic in that he seems to believe that whilst the third “law” (contradiction) cannot be applied to “nature”, at least the second “law” – “the law of reciprocal action” - can be so applied: but Lukacs is identifying “nature” with its human construct, “history”. 

Again, Schmidt clearly maintains that there is such a thing as a “dialectics of nature”, as well as a “pre-human and extra-human nature” that does obey the second “law of dialectics” – that of “reciprocal action” – which is nonsense, whereas “human history” or “society” is subject to all three “laws”. This Manichaean view of the “law of reciprocal action” as a “method” to which “nature” is subjected is revealed unequivocally by Schmidt in this statement at p.55:
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In other words, only “the law of reciprocal action” may be applied to “nature-in-itself”, whereas the law of negation of the negation can be applied only to human society. Note that Schmidt seems to object to the interpretation of the dialectic as a “purely objective domain of prehuman and extrahuman nature”, but has no objection to Engels’s presentation of the dialectical method as “laws”, presumably because he approves of Marx’s use of these “laws” to the “unified” (reciprocal action) field of nature and history. At p.56:

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Although the Marxian premise of a “unity” or “organic totality” of the interaction of nature and society serves to minimise the damage of the “positive” use of dialectics whether in its investigative or explicatory role, the fact remains that dialectics cannot be used either to investigate or to explain anything at all! It is not a “positive method” full stop!

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At p.57. Clearly here Schmidt elevates what can only be a negative use of dialectics, its dia-logic character, to an actual positive role as a process that determines “human history in general” – something that is quite inadmissible because it hypostatizes human history into a “fixed” or “reified” or at least “determinable” process.



Lukacs denies that any principles of dialectics can be applied to a “nature” that is anything other than a human construct: thus, he insists on the (equally Manichaean) dichotomy of “history” and “nature” in Marx whereby “nature” is a human construct not just conceptually but also as the product of human objectification –  a Hegelian subversion of Marx to which Schmidt rightly objects (at pp.77-8). 

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This problem of, as Schmidt puts it, “the relation of human beings inter se and with nature” is the problem of metabolic interaction or production that we have been exploring thus far in our study of Schumpeter at the level of human beings, or society, and the physical environment. It is time to move now to the more specific aspect of how this metabolism takes place – the question of human objectification and labour. Schmidt’s work was published before Lukacs’s 1967 Preface where he seems to reply almost directly to Schmidt’s criticism (and Colletti’s, outlined in the Preface to the Italian edition of Schmidt’s work), and fully accepts it. What neither Schmidt nor Colletti or Lukacs do is allow for the category of human needs that are meta-bolic in that they are the pro-duct of human objectification as metabolic interaction between humans and their physical environment (avoid the term “nature” which separates the environment from humans rather than uniting the two immanently so that the two are distinct but not “opposing”). There is no antagonism and therefore no dialectic between humans and their physical environment: but antagonism is mediated nevertheless by human needs that involve the environment (Um-welt, surrounding world).

All great Marxist theoreticians incorrectly pinpoint this immanent identification of human beings with their physical environment through the notion of human needs as well as labour as living activity or objectification precisely because they insist on this equivocal word “nature” with its “ontological” overtones. (This is something that Heidegger wisely avoids, preferring “physis”, Pathmarks, p.183.)

This mistaken dichotomy of “nature” and “society” which then gives rise to the view of “nature” as an “ontological” category – as something “objectively separate” from human being –and therefore to the translation of human praxis from its immanence to a transcendental relation, is due in great part to the use of the word “nature” to describe what is really “the surrounding environment” (Um-welt) of human beings and their metabolic interaction with it. Lukacs provides a clear example of this misapprehension:

It is true that the attempt is made to explain all ideological phenomena by reference to their basis in economics but, despite this, the purview of economics is narrowed down because its basic Marxist category, labor as the mediator of the metabolic interaction between society and nature, is missing… 
It is self-evident that this means the disappearance of the ontological objectivity of nature upon which this process of change is based, (HCC, p.xvii).

Here we can see most clearly how easily “metabolic interaction” between human beings and their environment (Um-welt) is confused with “the ontological objectivity of nature”, which then again can be “unified” or “synthesised” with “society” through the dialectic of “reciprocal action” leading to a static “organic totality” – something that Lucio Colletti punctually does in the Preface to the Italian edition of Schmidt’s work where he praises the author’s insistence on the phrase “dialectical materialism” (in opposition to the Engelsian, then Stalinist, Diamat). (We will discuss Colletti shortly.) 
Indeed it is this notion of “totality” that Lukacs defends as the still valid most important contribution of HCC

“It is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of HCC to have reinstated the category of totality in the central position it had occupied throughout Marx’s works,” (HCC, p.xx). 

And this despite the fact that Lukacs acknowledges, by citing his earlier summation in the book, how his privileging of the notion of “totality” had been at the expense of “economics”: -

 “It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois science, but the point of view of totality”.

Lukacs does not consider how these theoretical errors may have resulted from his abuse of “the dialectical method”, which he had always identified as the “scientific” way of reaching “the point of view of totality”, re-affirming instead its validity and its lasting centrality to “orthodox Marxism” (at p.xx, HCC).




[Colletti on “unity” of Marxian method.] But alas these are flaws that have afflicted theoretical Marxism as well. As an illustration, we can allude to Lucio Colletti’s remarks in Ideologia e Societa’ (at p.16ff) where he discusses Schumpeter’s quotation above concerning Marx’s ability to combine economic facts and theory in one indissolubly unified synthesis. At first, Colletti agrees with us that this “chemical mixture” is due precisely to the strict connection in Marxian economic theory between the interpersonal human side and the relation of human beings as a species to their physical environment, in such a way that economics is never seen as a question of mere (universal, eternal) “exchange” but is indeed treated as a theorisation of the satisfaction and creation of physiological human needs in which “pro-duction” – not “exchange”! – is the essential aspect. It is from the perspective of the production of human needs that any distinction between “theory” and “fact”, between “economics” and “sociology”, “nature” and “history” and – most important for Marxist theory – “structure” and “superstructure” becomes illusory. 

Colletti perceives the essential role of production, of metabolic interaction, to the theorisation of capitalism. But then he immediately falls victim to the confusion of dialectical “synthesis” – that is to say, the interpretation of Marxian dialectics as the synthesis of thesis and antithesis, instead of as “the negation of the negation” - with the notion of “organic totality”, of “unity”, of “the whole” – which is a trap into which much of what we call theoretical Marxism has fallen in the past. 

We can now understand how this unity of economics and sociology [14]
of nature and history in Marx does not signify an identity between the
terms. It involves neither a reduction of society to nature, nor of nature
to society; it does not reduce human society to an ant-hill, nor human life
to philosophical life. But we can also understand, conversely, how the
avoidance of these two unilateral antitheses on Marx’s part is due pre-
cisely to their organic composition, i.e. to their unification in a ‘whole’.
This whole is a totality, but a determinate totality; it is a synthesis of
distinct elements, it is a unity, but a unity of heterogeneous parts. From this
vantage point, it is easy to see (if in foreshortened form) both Marx's
debt to Hegel and the real distance that separates them. (pp.13-4)


Here Colletti confuses both the notion of “negation”, which he wrongly substitutes with “synthesis”; and he confuses also the last two aspects of Marxian dialectics - one valid and the other invalid, which, as we emphasised above - must be kept separate. He is quite correct in insisting on the primacy of the process of pro-duction in the sense of metabolic interaction that we have outlined in this work as the locus of political antagonism in capitalism. This is essential to the notion of metabolic interaction or production as a “becoming” (Bobbio’s divenire), that is, as a historical process of human objectification that can be accompanied by historical forms of antagonism. But then, as we are arguing, Colletti hypostatises this historical antagonism by insisting on the separate antithetical analytical categories or “entities” of “nature” and “history” and their “reunification” or “synthesis” only from the theoretical perspective of an “organic totality” or “whole” – just like Schumpeter’s vision of “the social process as one individible whole” or Lukacs’s notion of “totality”. 

The problem with this notion of “totality”, as Bobbio splendidly explains, is that it depends on a static antithetical opposition (economics/sociology, society/nature, nature/history) that “does not resolve the two [opposing] terms [thesis and antithesis] into a third”, that is, into “the negation of the negation” which is the supersession of this antithetical antagonism through its historical extrinsication. Consequently, any theory that represents social reality as an “organic totality”, as a “fixed” or “positive” entity, is not “dialectical” in that it does not allow for the supersession (Hegel’s Aufhebung) of the social antagonism it seeks to theorise. To refer to a dualism of “society” and “nature”, for instance, is to posit an antithesis that cannot be superseded for the simple reason that neither “society” nor “nature” as concepts will ever be able to be “negated”. In reality, the two terms are not antithetical at all because there is no antagonism, no contra-diction within them that can be resolved historically. 

In expounding his argument, Colletti relies on Dobb, Political Economy and Capitalism, who also focuses on the limitation of neoclassical theory to the sphere of exchange as a reason for the disjunction in bourgeois economic theory between its logico-mathematical schemata and empirical analysis. Unlike Colletti, however, Dobb does not see the metabolic side of capitalist production, and refers instead to the emargination by bourgeois theory of all “institutional and historical factors” – that is, its restriction of economic theory to “inter-personal relations” and not to “political elements” or “superstructural” ones. Because Dobb was a firm believer in the labour theory of value, to his mind the central antagonism of capitalism lies in the unequal distribution of income which is due to “superstructural” institutional factors, for it cannot possibly centre on antagonism in the process of production because ultimately the value extracted from this process (that of valorisation, as Marx calls it) is fixed! This is a flaw common to all theories, including Marx’s, that share the labour theory of value – as we shall see shortly. 

It is obvious how the labour theory of value, by insisting on the existence of a Law of Value that determines prices “scientifically”, removes the focus from the sphere of metabolic production – whence is derived its artificial separation of what it sees as the superstructural aspects of capitalism from its presumably strictly economic or structural aspects. The same applies to Lenin’s remarks (in the Philosophical Notebooks; see ch.1 in Colletti’s Ideology and Society but researched in great detail in his Il Marxismo e Hegel in turn discussed by K.Anderson in Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism, pp223ff ) about how Marxian analysis provides a “skeleton” that moves in lockstep, as it were, with “flesh-and-blood” factual analysis. 

(See also discussion in Schmidt’s chapter 2 on “Historical Mediation of Nature”.) The problematic relationship of Marx’s labour theory of value (“the structure”) and the politico-economic institutions of capitalism (“the superstructure”) will be examined next through a close study of Marx’s seminal text A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Zur Kritik).


And then especially Lukacs in HCC – an excessively Hegelian derivation of his thought that he did not “recant” even in the 1967 Preface. Lukacs thought that it was his confusion of alienation with objectification that turned the notion of “totality” into an eschatology, when in fact his very theorisation of alienation and reification as “the inability to see the totality” as against the “fragmented” and “reified” form of alienated labour, and therefore the turning of dialectics into a “method” (cf. p.xxvi), was the real culprit. Just as regrettable is the tendency to isolate this “method” from political praxis which turns the real phenomena of alienation and reification – Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” - from specific historical forms of political violence into “necessary illusions” (Lukacs) that arise directly from the mere “rationalization” of the social relations of production – as if indeed this “rationalization” could be based on any objective “rationality” independent of what Weber styled as “the rational organisation of free labour under the rigid discipline of the factory”. Again, Weber uses “rational” to describe “the rigid discipline of the factory over free labour”. Yet, as we argued in our Weberbuch, “rationality” consists of this “rigid discipline of the factory over free labour” and therefore it is superfluous or pleonastic to describe this as “rational”. But if this were so, then it is impossible to see how we can dispel an “illusion” that is “necessary” or how we can defeat a “necessity” that is “illusory”! The whole question of “structure and superstructure” – which Bobbio defined as the crucial concept in Marxism (in Gramsci) - turns thus into the obscurest of veils and into the most impenetrable enigma – one that threatens to justify the mystique of “the leadership of the proletariat” charged with applying the “dialectical method” to political reality so as to decipher its “totality”.



Lukacs rejects “the species” as an abstraction equal to that of “the individual”, see HCC, p193: 

“The individual can never become the measure of all things. For when the individual confronts reality he is faced by a complex of ready-made and unalterable objects…Only the class can react to the whole of reality in a practical revolutionary way. (The ‘species’ cannot do this as it is no more than an individual that has been stylised and mythologised in a spirit of contemplation.) And the class, too, can only manage it when it can see through the reified objectivity of the given world to the process that is also its own fate.”



Heidegger’s more circumscribed phenomenological version is limited to the “authentic” (eigentlich) perception of everyday reality by the Da-sein as Zuhandenheit, as against its reified obverse, Vorhandenheit. In each case, the historical subject capable of perceiving reality, whether sociological (Lukacs) or ontological (Jaspers’s Um-greifende or “all-encompassing”) or phenomenological (Heidegger), in its Totalitat is exalted against the “partial”, “fragmented”, “inauthentic”, “reified” experience of “the mass” or “the petty bourgeoisie” or “the mob” in the “everyday life” imposed by capitalism and its “technology” (Tecknik). The confusion of “technology” as a pro-duct with the ob-ject is featured in Heidegger’s discussion of Aristotle (Pathmarks, p211). For Heidegger, only those who accept the being of physis and physis as being go beyond the domination of subjectivity by technical means – Pathmarks, pp201-2; see also the blatant elitism of the Einfuhrung discussed by Goldmann. At a political level, the “inauthentic” perception of “reified” social reality leads to what Lukacs called “the false consciousness of the proletariat” which therefore requires leadership by the Leninist Party to be guided back into “totality”. Of course, Lukacs’s Leninist vision of totality suffers the same elitist fate!]


This “totality”, and not the univocality of inputs and outputs, that is, the “inevitability or apodicticity of outcomes” (“whenever x, then y”), is what constitutes the “closedness” of Schumpeter’s methodology. The confusion of “totality” and “inevitability” or apodicticity is the central error in Lawson’s and Moura’s critiques of this kind of methodology. But the most important failure in their critiques of neoclassical economic analysis as “closed systems” is that they do not see the categorical imperative of this kind of bourgeois analysis: - to be able to reduce economic analysis to “pure exchange” of “given resources” or “endowments” between “atomistic individuals”, and thereby to hide the antagonism in the capitalist mode of production, instead of confronting the actual metabolic production of fresh resources and human needs by a living organic community! This flaw is shared by the classification of “closed” and “open” theories adopted by Langlois and Loasby although their approach, relying more on “evolutionary change” than on “apodicticity”, is much closer to our own outlined here. Strangely, Schumpeter did not heed the criticism of his mentor Bohm-Bawerk against the “closedness” (Ab-schluss) of Marx’s schema of capitalist reproduction (cf. Bohm-Bawerk, “Karl Marx and the ‘Close’ of His Theory”) and apply it to his own Theorie. It was Marx’s view of human society and of its “reproduction” as a “totality” that degenerates into an “eschatology” or a “prophetic destiny”, and ultimately into a simple tautology (“it will be because it has to be; it has to be because it is in its definition” – thus, a simple “equation”, a definition A=B, is translated into an aetiology, A causes B, and then into a historical evolution, A becomes B) as Bohm-Bawerk intuited and Bobbio has explained (cf. Da Hobbes a Marx).