Posts Tagged ‘dialectics’

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The next six (hereherehereherehere, and here) are for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on a previous one) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy.

The necessary disclosure: these are merely drafts of sections of the book, some rougher or more preliminary than others. Right now, I’m just trying to get them done in some form. They will all be extensively revised and rewritten in preparing the final book manuscript.


It is difficult to fully understand the Marxian critique of political economy without some understanding of Hegel. No less an authority than Lenin wrote that “it is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic.” Marx himself wrote “I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him.”

Those are the two major reasons for keeping Hegel in mind: because Marx, like many young German intellectuals in the 1830s and 1840s, started with Hegel; and because, many years later, Marx’s critique of political economy was still influenced by his theoretical encounter with Hegel.*

But, of course, that makes understanding the movement toward the Marxian critique of political economy a bit difficult for contemporary readers, who generally aren’t familiar with Hegel’s writings. So, in this section, I want to present a brief summary of Hegel’s philosophy. But, I caution readers, this should not be taken to be a presentation of all aspects of Hegel’s thought. We only want to examine Hegel to the extent that it aids our comprehension of Marx’s theoretical journey and his later critique of political economy.

In his twenties, Marx, along with other young German intellectuals (including Ruge, Bruno Bauer, and Ludwig Feuerbach), formed a loose grouping called, variously, the Young Hegelians or the Left Hegelians. In their discussions and debates, these young thinkers sought both to draw on Hegel’s philosophy and to radicalize it, aiming their attacks especially at religion and the German political system.** Later, they turned their radical critique on Hegel’s philosophy itself.

So, what was it in Hegel’s thought that was so influential for Marx and the other Young Hegelians? One area is particularly important: the theory of knowledge and, closely related, the philosophy of history.

On the first point, Hegel’s view was that the two previous traditions—of René Descartes and Immanuel Kant—got it wrong. Descartes argued that it was impossible to know things as they appear to us (phenomena) but only things as they are in themselves (noumena). Experience was deceptive. Hence, his focus on reason, which alone can provide certainty about the world. Kant posited exactly the opposite—that it was possible to know things as they appeared to us but not their essences, things as they are in themselves. Therefore, science was only capable of providing knowledge of the appearances of things, of empirical experiences and observations about nature; morality and religion operated in the unknowable realm of things in themselves.

Hegel’s great contribution was to solve the problem and affirm what both Descartes and Kant denied. For him, history was an unfolding of the mind (Absolute Spirit) coming to know itself as phenomenon, to the point of its full development, when it is aware of itself as it is, as noumenon. In other words, the consciousness of things as they appear to us leads to knowledge of the essence of things. At the end of the process, when the object has been fully “spiritualized” by successive cycles of consciousness’s experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself. That is the end of history.

How does this historical process work? How does the mind or Absolute Spirit pass through successive stages until it reaches full awareness? That’s where the dialectic comes in. According to Hegel (especially the Phenomenology of Mind), human understanding passes through a movement that is characterized by an initial thesis (e.g., being) that passes into its opposite (e.g., nothingness), which entails a contradiction that is resolved by a third moment (e.g., becoming), which is the positive result of that opposition. For Hegel, this process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (or, as it is sometimes referred to, abstract-negative-concrete) is both a logical process (the development of philosophical categories) and a chronological process (the development of society), which leads to greater understanding or universality (in both philosophy and in social institutions such as religion and politics), eventually leading to complete self-understanding—the end of history.

What Marx and the other Young Hegelians took from Hegel was a method and language that allowed them to challenge tradition and the existing order: a focus on history and a stress on flux, change, contradiction, movement, process, and so forth.

But they also turned their critical gaze on the more conservative dimensions of Hegel’s philosophy. For example, Feuerbach (in The Essence of Christianity, published in 1841) argued that Hegel’s Absolute Spirit was nothing more than deceased spirit of theology, that is, it was still an inverted world consciousness. Instead, for Feuerbach, God was the outward projection of people’s inward nature. Men and women were “alienated” from their human essence in and through religion—because they cast all their human powers onto a deity, instead of assuming them as their own. The goal, then, was to change consciousness by becoming aware of that self-alienation, through critique.

Marx, in particular, considered Feuerbach’s critique to be an important step beyond Hegel. Ultimately, however, he rejected the way Feuerbach formulated the problem (as individuals separated from their human essence, outside of society) and settled his account with the eleven “Theses on Feuerbach,” the last of which has become the most famous:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.


*Even though I insist on the idea that a basic understanding of Hegel is necessary for understanding Marx’s theoretical journey, it is also possible to overstate the case. Marx’s method is neither a straightforward application nor a simple reversal of the Hegelian dialectic. But the time he wrote Capital, Marx had criticized and moved far beyond Hegel’s philosophy.

**At the time (beginning in 1840), Germany was governed by a new king, Frederick William IV, who undermined his promise of political reform by curtailing political freedom and religious tolerance. For the Young Hegelians, this was a real step backward in terms of following the rest of Europe (especially Britain and France) in modernizing political institutions and expanding the realm of freedom. And it was key to their eventual break from Hegel, since according to Hegel’s philosophy the Prussian state represented the fulfillment of history. (The contemporary equivalent is Francis Fukuyama’s famous book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he argued that “not just. . .the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”


As Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, sticks his head into the mouth of the neoliberal euro lion, we’re learning all kinds of things about him, from his preferred mode of dress (no tie, untucked shirt. . .) and transportation (“muscular Yamaha motorcycle”) to his academic training (as a mathematician) and curriculum vitae (including teaching stints at various British universities, the University of Sydney, the University of Athens, and most recently the LBJ Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin).

We’re also now learning about how Varoufakis became an “erratic Marxist.”

The entire piece is worth a read but I was intrigued by a few key ideas: First, Varoufakis mentions the importance of Marx’s dialectical perspective, “where everything is pregnant with its opposite, and the eager eye with which Marx discerned the potential for change in what seemed to be the most unchanging of social structures.” That idea, which runs directly counter to mainstream economists’ focus on stasis, equilibrium, and the transhistorical nature of the “economic problem” of scarcity, is crucial for carrying out a critique of political economy and keeping alive the idea that another economic and social system is possible.

The second idea is the contradiction inherent in the capitalist commodification of labor. Unlike other commodities, such as oranges, labor is both treated as a homogeneous quantity (as labor power, the ability to work) that is available for sale (after a long historical process, and with a great deal of ongoing social effort) and comes at a price (the value of labor power) and, at the same time, resists commodification (because, as the value-creating activity of human beings, it can never be quantified in advance).

If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish. This is an insight without which capitalism’s tendency to generate crises can never be fully grasped and, also, an insight that no one has access to without some exposure to Marx’s thought.

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

When Marx was writing that labour is the living, form-giving fire; the transitoriness of things; their temporality; he was making the greatest contribution any economist has ever made to our understanding of the acute contradiction buried inside capitalism’s DNA. When he portrayed capital as a “… force we must submit to … it develops a cosmopolitan, universal energy which breaks through every limit and every bond and posts itself as the only policy, the only universality the only limit and the only bond”, he was highlighting the reality that labour can be purchased by liquid capital (ie money), in its commodity form, but that it will always carry with it a will hostile to the capitalist buyer. But Marx was not just making a psychological, philosophical or political statement. He was, rather, supplying a remarkable analysis of why the moment that labour (as an unquantifiable activity) sheds this hostility, it becomes sterile, incapable of producing value.

At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself. That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp. “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery”, wrote Marx “how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”

The third idea is the irony that it has fallen to the Left to save capitalism from itself and to build a modern state. The existing European elites (and, in my view, the elite in the United States) have failed to stem the tide and have allowed capitalism, in its ongoing crises and lopsided recoveries, to undermine democracy and the project of a unified Europe (and an inclusive United States)—although, of course, the Left cannot stop there. If it is going to play that role, it also needs to put additional issues on the table, such as the creation of economic democracy.

Europe’s elites are behaving today as if they understand neither the nature of the crisis that they are presiding over, nor its implications for the future of European civilisation. Atavistically, they are choosing to plunder the diminishing stocks of the weak and the dispossessed in order to plug the gaping holes of the financial sector, refusing to come to terms with the unsustainability of the task.

Yet with Europe’s elites deep in denial and disarray, the left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system. Our task should then be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe – for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, reinforces only the bigots.

Let me now conclude with two confessions. First, while I am happy to defend as genuinely radical the pursuit of a modest agenda for stabilising a system that I criticise, I shall not pretend to be enthusiastic about it. This may be what we must do, under the present circumstances, but I am sad that I shall probably not be around to see a more radical agenda being adopted.

All of those are important ideas, which have inspired Varoufakis and which the Left needs to discuss and debate. But, to my mind, the most intriguing idea is his mention—without a great deal of additional elaboration—of the fact that Marx was the “the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics.” Theoretically, the idea of radical indeterminacy (or what others have called “overdetermination” and “aleatory materialism”) means resisting the temptation to formulate general laws and to focus instead on teasing out the contradictions of mainstream economics, carrying out conjunctural analyses, and establishing the basis of indeterminate outcomes. It also carries political implications: of arriving at provisional conclusions, making conditional pronouncements, and engaging—both sympathetically and critically—with other political forces on the Left.

Varoufakis likes to call himself an “erratic Marxist.” For me, those ideas are central to a tradition that can proudly call itself Marxist today.