Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 27 February 2019


An unfinished outdoor stadium in Sandu, which missed its first payment in September, catching investors off guard.
An unfinished outdoor stadium in Sandu, which missed its first payment in September, catching investors off guard. PHOTO: CHAO DENG/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
SANHE, China—A building splurge in this impoverished pocket of rural China ended in half-finished projects and a trail of angry investors from some of the country’s wealthiest areas.
On a recent winter workday, investors and representatives from private fund companies in Shanghai and elsewhere descended on Sandu, a county in the deep south where tens of thousands of locals live on less than a dollar a day. After taxi rides from the high-speed rail station that took them past incomplete buildings and a gigantic golden statue of a man on horseback, they sat in government offices, demanding repayment.
“We sympathize with you investors,” Jian Shiwei, deputy general manager of a Sandu government-backed investment company that borrowed hundreds of millions of yuan to develop the area. “But there’s no money right now.”

Hidden Dangers

Chinese local governments are racking up debt to fund development, in part by tapping into a soaring number of privately offered funds.

*Top and bottom five plus Shanghai
Sources: Zhang Ming, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Wind (number of funds)
The standoff in Sandu is a microcosm of China’s mounting debt problem. Across the country, local governments and their more than 2,000 financing companies have run up trillions of dollars of debt to borrow and build their way to prosperity, tapping into ready financing from well-off investors chasing higher returns. Now the bills are coming due, and China’s slowing economy, curbs by Beijing on risky financing—and the massive scale of borrowing—are plaguing repayment and leaving some investors in limbo.
After the confrontation with investors and just before this month’s Lunar New Year holiday, Sandu hustled out interest payments for some overdue obligations. Still, investors and brokers estimate that the government and its companies will need to deliver two billion yuan ($297.6 million) more in payments this year, nearly three times Sandu’s annual revenue.
“Sandu has its problems, but we can’t blame it,” said Jiang Xiaqiu, a factory owner and investor who bought 1.6 million yuan of Sandu’s debt via a private fund in Beijing, with an advertised 9% annual return. “It’s the whole financial system and how poorly regulated the private fund industry has been.”
Sandu’s government debt totaled 3.73 billion yuan in 2017, according to official figures. Deputy propaganda chief Wu Maohua declined to comment on what the sum includes; some economists, analysts and experts say it doesn’t cover recent borrowings by government-backed investment companies, including off-the-book borrowing from private funds.
Mr. Wu said the county is working to resolve its debts, pointing to the overdue payments given to some investors. “You can see the government is being very diligent,” he said.
For its borrowing spree, Sandu turned to funds like the one Ms. Jiang invested in. These privately offered funds have mushroomed, with more than 74,000 of them, nearly 10 times the number five years ago. Independent brokers and wealth advisers market the funds to well-off clients. Ms. Jiang said a broker connected her with fund managers.
The proliferation of private funds and other money-raising channels for local governments makes it difficult for economists and for Beijing to track the total amount of borrowings. Official figures pegged the sum of local and central government debt at 29.95 trillion yuan ($4.457 trillion) in 2017, roughly 36% of the economy.
An unfinished horse-racing track, adjacent to an Olympic-scale sports center.
An unfinished horse-racing track, adjacent to an Olympic-scale sports center. PHOTO: CHAO DENG/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Off-balance-sheet borrowings by local governments are estimated to be nearly just as much, at 23.6 trillion yuan by 2017, according to Zhang Ming, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. When this hidden debt is factored in, he said, total government debt is about 67% of the economy. But the proportion is much higher in some places, such as less-developed areas trying to catch up, and Mr. Zhang’s estimates don’t capture all borrowings, especially those involving private funds outside banking channels.
In southern Guizhou province, where Sandu is located, infrastructure investment has risen more than 20% each year for much of the past decade, according to official data, and Mr. Zhang estimates that the debts of the local governments reached 120% of gross domestic product.
When Sandu launched ambitious plans to renovate dilapidated housing, promote tourism and boost local incomes, it turned to brokers working with private fund managers, local financial exchanges and others. One prospectus to back construction of a road from Sandu’s high-speed rail station touted Guizhou’s fast growth, pictured idyllic mountain villages and offered up to 10% annual returns. The Wall Street Journal identified seven products packaged by private firms and sold to investors or on local financial exchanges. In some cases, a Sandu investment firm borrowed on behalf of the government in 2016, after Beijing had barred such practices.
Then, Sandu’s Communist Party secretary was removed in a bribery investigation, and the costs of the massive-scale projects began to fall due. The county missed its first payment in September, catching many investors off guard.
Sandu has its problems, but we can’t blame it. It’s the whole financial system, and how poorly regulated the private fund industry has been.
—Jiang Xiaqiu, a factory owner and investor
With courts lacking the power to enforce judgments on governments or state-backed companies, Ms. Jiang and other investors knew they would have to confront Sandu officials to get repaid, and started investigating the county’s finances.
Some were shocked to find how poor Sandu is: Its revenue totaled 712.3 million yuan in 2017, a fraction of that in big cities. They were also stunned by the scale of construction in Sandu and how much lay incomplete.
On their repayment quest, some of them visited an abandoned outdoor stadium, an Olympic-scale sports center with a horse-racing track, and a building that looked like an unfinished Roman Colosseum with concentric circles of cement arches. At a sprawling hotel, amphitheater and indoor basketball complex that was collecting dirt and rain, construction workers complained about not being paid.
An unfinished Roman Colosseum-like structure; Sandu locals don’t know what the government planned to use it for.
An unfinished Roman Colosseum-like structure; Sandu locals don’t know what the government planned to use it for. PHOTO: CHAO DENG/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mr. Wu, the deputy propaganda chief, declined to comment on specific projects. He said the county of roughly 400,000 people is now focused on alleviating poverty, a national priority. Its goal by 2020 is to eliminate poverty—defined by the government as living on less than 95 cents a day—from 17% in 2017.
The investors trying to get their money back found themselves largely stymied. Officials shunted some of them into different offices, trying to reduce the numbers in a conference room where Mr. Jian, the local asset manager, was outnumbered.
“We are being trampled to death by you guys,” said an investor from the provincial capital. Another investor said: “Can’t you go hungry and just pay?” Mr. Jian chain-smoked and looked at his two mobile phones.
Liu Min, a private fund manager from Shanghai in a white overcoat carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag, had raised millions of yuan for Sandu by selling its debt to high-net-worth clients. After a futile meeting with two lower-level officials, she went to the office of Sandu’s party secretary. Getting no clear answer, she left town.
Days later, a 500,000-yuan ($74,400) transfer came through, followed by 700,000 yuan in January, making up for her overdue interest. As for 20 million yuan in principal her company is due this March, she expects to be forced into a delayed repayment plan.
“I guess they’ll want us to talk to our clients about an extension,” she said. “They really don’t have the money.”

Saturday, 23 February 2019

The Dialectics of Nature - Marx and Darwin (Part I: Marx)

There is however one thing of fundamental importance for the methodology of economics which he [Marx] actually achieved. Economists always have either themselves done work in economic history or else used the historical work of others. But the facts of economic history were assigned to a separate compartment. They entered theory, if at all, merely in the role of illustrations, or possibly of verifications of results. They mixed with it only mechanically. Now Marx’s mixture is a chemical one; that is to say, he introduced them into the very argument that produces the results. He was the first economist of top rank to see and to teach systematically how economic theory may be turned into historical analysis and how the historical narrative may be turned into histoire raisonnee. (J. Schumpeter, CS&D, p.44)

The reason why Marx is able “to introduce the facts of economic history into the very argument that produces the results” cannot be due to any “methodology of economics” because there is no such thing as a “methodology of economics” just as there is no “methodology of science”. What characterizes scientific studies is not an identifiable “methodology” but rather a human praxis that first identifies a desirable outcome and then sets out to apply existing knowledge to achieve it and, in the practical process of doing so, may or may not come out with that desirable outcome or other serendipitous outcomes. Each particular scientific experiment is sui generis – it is an “experience” - and there is no way of abstracting from individual experiments to a broader “methodology” for the simple reason that no “method” will ever be capable of being scientifically or logically connected to the predictable (rather than “causal”) relation that is ultimately found between events.

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.)


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 – the condition 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 extend 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]


(Adorno’s Introduction to Negative Dialectics superbly describes the need for the dialectical method to embrace “the object” materially, as history, as physis – 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



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 gargantuan fallacy 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.




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).

In the face of two contrasting entities, the method of com-[256] penetration of opposites, or better of reciprocal action, leads to maintain both terms of the contrast and to consider them as conditions to each other; Conversely, the negation method leads to considering the first one eliminated at first by the second, and the second eliminated at a later time by a third term. The first method is applied to simultaneous events, the second, to events unfolding over time: Therefore the latter is a method for understanding the history (either of the history of nature, or of the history of man), (pp. 255-6)...

The instrument of this unitary understanding was [261] the dialectic as detection of oppositions and their resolution. Only that the concrete unit in the study of the historical unfolding had appeared to him [Marx] as the result of the synthesis of opposites (negation of the negation), whence the category of the historical course of mankind is the becoming; whereas in the scientific study of reality, the concrete unit appeared to him as the result of an interrelation of the entities that the abstract intellect wrongly isolated from each other (reciprocal action), whence the unitary category of the organic totality. As the becoming is composed of different moments in opposition, so the whole organic is composed of different entities in opposition. The dialectic, as a method of resolving the oppositions, presents itself there as a synthesis of opposite, here as reciprocal action. The becoming, in other words, is the result of successive negations, or if one wants of a continuous overcoming (the third term); instead, the organic totality is the result of the intertwining of the reciprocal relations of the entities, or, if one wishes, of an integration (which does not solve the two terms in a third), (From Hobbes to 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 a “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:


El intento de Engels, de interpretar el dominio de la naturaleza prehumana y extrahumana en el sentido de una dialectica puramente objetiva, debe llevar de hecho a la incompatilidad de dialectica y materialismo en la que insisten algunos criticos. Si la materia se concibe como dialecticamente estructurada en si’, deja de ser materia en el sentido de la ciencia exacta natural, sobre la cual Engels y sus seguidores rusos creen poder basar su posicion.



Schmidt is entirely right here. A notion of dialectics that applied as a universal method to which both history and nature are subject would separate history from nature and be rendered “incompatible” with the scientific understanding and exploration of this separate “nature”. Yet, whilst he does chastise the Engelsian abuse of dialectics as “a cosmic positive principle” (p.53), we cannot agree with Schmidt’s 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 whose resolution or supersession invites dialectical analysis, but it does not contain “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 it to “pre-human and extra-human nature” (p.55):



Si el concepto absoluto que se realiza a si mismo desaparece como motor de las contradicciones y solo quedan como portadores del espiritu hombres condicionados historicamente, ya no solo se puede hablar tampoco de una dialectica autonoma de la naturaleza exterior a los hombres. Faltan en este caso todos los momentos esenciales para la dialectica. Esto lo ha senalado criticamente por primera vez un estudioso de Marx, Gyorgy Lukacs, en Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein:


Los malentendidos que surgen de la exposicion de la dialectica por Engels, estriban esencialmente en el hecho de que este – siguiendo el falso ejemplo de Hegel – extiende el metodo dialectico incluso al conocimiento de la naturaleza. Sin embargo, las determinaciones decisivas de la dialectica: accion reciproca de sujeto y objeto, unidad de teoria y praxis, modificacion historica del sustrato de las categorias como fundamento de su modificacion en el pensamiento, etc., no estan presentes en el conocimiento de la naturaleza. [HCC, p.24, fn.6]


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”. Like Lukacs, Schmidt misconstrues the Marxian 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 referring to human “history” as something to which “reciprocal action” applies – which is also false in our view – and certainly not to “nature”. This is confirmed by Lukacs’s concluding sentence to this footnote alerting to the need to canvass the relation of history and nature in a separate study.


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:


La naturaleza que precede la sociedad humana solo lleva a polaridades y oposiciones de momentos exteriores unos a otros, y en el major de los casos a la accion reciproca, pero no a la contradiccion dialectica. El “sistema de la naturaleza” de Engels es, como el de Holbach, un sistema de meras acciones reciprocas:…




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 pre-human and extra-human nature”, but he 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:


Las observaciones criticas aqui formuladas a la concepcion de la naturaleza de Engels, no significan sin embargo que deba rechazarse directamente el concepto de una dialectica de la naturaleza. Su proposito es mas bien demonstrar que la teoria Marxista misma contiene ya la dialectica de la naturaleza con la cual Engels cree deber completarla.


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!


Ya que las relaciones de los hombres entre si’, la dialectica del proceso laboral como proceso natural se amplia a la dialectica de la historia humana en general. (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).







Todas las relaciones sociales estan mediadas por cosas naturales, y viceversa. Son siempre relaciones de los hombres “entre si’” y con la naturaleza.

Asi’ como la naturaleza no se puede resolver en los momentos de el “espiritu” concebido metafisicamente, tampoco se disuelve en los modos historicos de su apropriacion practica. En esta falsa perspectiva cae Lukacs en su escrito entitulado Historia y conciencia de clase, que por lo demas es importante para la historia de la interpretacion de Marx. En vinculacion con su detallado analisis de los aspectos filosoficos del fetichismo de las mercancias, Lukacs llega a hablar tambien del concepto de la naturaleza en Marx:


La naturaleza es una categoria social, es decir lo que en un determinado estadio del desarrollo social vale como naturaleza, el modo en que [78] ocurre la relacion entre esta naturaleza y el hombre y la forma en que se produce el ajuste entre este y aquella y, por lo tanto, lo que la naturaleza tiene que significar en lo que respecta a su forma y contenido, su alcance y su objetividad, esta siempre socialmente condicionado.


Lukacs senala con razon que toda conciencia de la naturaleza, asi’ como la naturaleza fenomenica misma, estan condicionadas sociohistoricamente. Sin embargo, para Marx la naturaleza no es solo una categoria social. De ninguna manera se la puede dissolver sin residuo segun la forma, el contenido, el alcance y la objetividad, en los procesos historicos de su apropriacion. [pp.77-8]


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 indivisible 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.


Perhaps the biggest problem posed by this fictitious antithesis is that human beings come to see “nature” as an inimical force, an evil, that must be vanquished. See Simone Weil’s “Critique du Marxisme” in Reflexions.


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 he 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).