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Misadventures of the Dialectic

Misadvenlures of Ihe Dialeclic
Peter Dews
I would like to offer some kind of critical response
to the ideas on dialectic and social science which
have been developed by Roy Edgley in articles published in Radical Philosophy (‘Reason as Dialectic’

RP15) and, more recently. in Critique (‘Dialectic:

The Contradiction of Colletti’, Critique 7). As
Edgley’s target in the second of these articles is the
view of dialectic presented by Lucio C olletti in
‘Marxism and the Dialectic’ (New Left Review 93),
this response will involve a defence of some of
Colletti’s main positions, although I hope to
approach the issues involved from a slightly
different angle.

These issues are important. Throughout its history Marxist thought has struggled to come to terms
with the problematic inheritance of the dialectic.

Successive theorists from Engels onwards have
attempted to give a viable and coherent interpretation of its leading concepts, yet have diverged
radically on such fundamental problems as the relation between the dialectic of Marx and that of Hegel.

The question today remains as open andv,exed as it
has ever been, and in this context Colletti’s NLR
article must be seen as a bold attempt to cut through
the confusion and mystification which has surround~
ed the dialectic in Marxist usage. Edgley himself
acknowledges the service which C olletti has performed in pointing out how Marxists have consistently failed to distinguish between genuine contradiction and what is no more than a conflict of natural
or social forces, and hence have lost their grip on
the specifically logical nature of contradiction.

But he then goes on to offer far -reaching criticisms
of C olletti. I believe that the central core of these
criticisms is unsubstantiated. EdgIey’s two articles,
for all their good intentions, can only serve to
thicken the intellectual fog which surrounds the
problem of dialectics, and which the iconoclastic
thrust of Colletti’s ‘Enlightenment Marxism’

(Timpanaro) has already done much to dissipate.

Edgley makes much of the fact that Colletti’s
concept of contradiction as a purely logical phenomenon is in consonance with the accepted wisdom of
bourgeois philosophy of logic. Colletti accepts a
bourgeois dogma, that ‘there are no contradictions
in reality’, itself a reflection of the idealism and
anti-psychologism characteristic of the modern
development of the subject, and in so doing abandons one of the central tenets of dialectical materialism. But the reason why C olletti does this is
plain. Established SCience, the sciences of physics,
biology etc which we already have, pays no attention
whatever to dialectics. Indeed science as we know
it, or in any sense we could understand, could not
exist at all if the prinCiple of non-contradiction
were flouted, since this prinCiple merely expresses
a condition of the continued existence of any object.

In his writings on Hegel C olletti has made clear
1 Quoted ip Lucio CoUett1, ‘From Hegel to Marcuse’ in
From Lenin, London 1972, pill
2 See Lucio Collettl, art. cit., and idem., Marxism and Hegel,
London 1973
3 See Galvano della Volpe, Logica come SCienza Positiva
Messina-Fireue 1950, pp95.101
4 G. W. F. Begel, Eneyc1opeec11a gf the PbtlosOlJhica1 Sciences,
section 119, lectur. note
5 See chapter one (‘The general nature of the dialectic) of John
McTaggart, studies in the Hegelian Dialectic, Cambridge 1896,


that Hegel’s suspension of this prinCiple was intended precisely to dissolve the reality of the finite
and the material. Since, according to Hegel, ‘every
philosophy is essentially an idealism, or at least
has idealism for its principle, ‘ (1) the prinCiples
obeyed by the intellect in common sense and science
which posit the existence of a finite, independentlyexisting reality, must be transcended. Hence the
dialectic cannot be simply adapted or ‘inverted’.

It is intrinSically part of the armature of idealism (2)
This critiqu~ of Hegel was inherited by Colletti
from his philosophical mentor Galvano della Volpe,
a fellow PCI member during the fifties and founder
of an influential school within Italian Marxism.

Faced with the combination of a degenerate historicism ultimately derived from Croce with Sovietstyle dialectical materialism, the dominant philosophical mode within the PCI at that period, Della
Volpe fought a prolonged battle in defence of the
scientifiC intellect and against the predations of an
all-dissolving Hegelian Reason. As he pointed out
in his key work Logica Come Scienza Positiva, even
Hegel had to employ the principles of identity and
non-contradiction in his everyday experience.

Indeed he goes on to quote McTaggart to the effect
that for Hegel, as for everyone else, an unresolved
contradiction is a Sign of error (3).

It is worth looking more closely at the context of
this quotation. In his Studies in Hegelian Dialectic
McTaggart points out that the dialectic, contrary to
common supposition, does not reject the principle
of non-contradiction. In fact, it is so far from denying it that it is especially based on it. For the relation of thesis and antithesis derives its whole
meaning from the synthesis which follows them,
and in which the contradiction ceases to exist as
such. An unreconciled predication of two contrary
categories, for instance Being and not-Being, of
the same thing, would lead in the dialectic, as it
would elsewhere, to scepticism, if it was not for
the reconciliation in Becoming. Hence for Hegel:

‘C ontradiction is not the end of the matter, but
cancels itself. ‘(4) It is the synthesis alone which
has reality. But since the synthesis becomes in its
turn a new thesis, the process can only conclude
when we reach what alone is rational and real: the
Absolute Idea(5). It will be clear that this account
reinforces Colletti’s conclusion that the notion of
dialectical materialism is, in effect, aporetic.

Hegel makes the use of one category lead inexorably
to the use of its logical contrary (this is the sense
in which he does attempt to transcend the intellect)
preCisely in order to do away with materialism. If
Marx is shown to have been sympathetic to Engels’

philosophical romancing in this area (a defence of
dialectical materialism employed by Timpanaro) ,
then so much the worse, says Colletti, for Marx.

It is important to note that, despite the apparent
thrust of Edgley’s argument, and despite the smear
of collusion with bourgeois philosophy of logic,
Edgley is in fact in agreement with Colletti on the
substantive point at issue. He does not dispute the
‘bourgeois philosophical’ claim that there are no
contradictions in reality in the sense in which that
claim is intended. Indeed, Edgley’s whole conception of practical reason, and of the logico-practical
criticism of idedlogies and SCientific theories,

depends upon the principle of non-contradiction: we
criticize self-contradictory beliefs and theories
precisely because what they assert to be the case
cannot be instantiated in reality. So at least as far
as natural science is concerned the actual position
of Edgley’s texts, as opposed to what might be
termed their ‘false-consciousness’, does not stand
counter to Colletti’s aim of finally putting paid to
what he calls the ‘evening class philosophical
pastiche'(6) of Diamat. Edgley does gesture in the
Radical Philosophy article towards a theorisation of
‘crucial differences in what we might call degree of
dialecticity between the natural and the social
sciences ‘(7), but this is no more than a piece of
conventional piety. To call the natural sciences
dialectical, we are told, implies that they investigate a reality whose underlying core (‘essence’) is
composed of conflicting forces, and differs radically from its appearance. This could be made to fit
in some cases: solid chairs and tables (‘phenomenal
appearance ‘) differ radically from empty space
filled loosely with atoms (‘essence’), and atoms are
composed of ‘conflicting forces’ (protons, electrons~
But, even ignoring its readmission of conflict as a
substitute for contradiction – and Edgley is in agreement with Colletti on the illegitimacy of this – the
formulation is arbitrary and unilluminating. How
could a science such as botany be made to fit this
formula? Edgley’s final criterion fares no better.

To suggest that the natural sciences are dialectical
because they ‘develop historically through theory
change centrally involving determinate contradiction
between theories such that new theories both negate
and preserve old theories’ (8) seems to be perfectly
in accord with Popper’s suggestion, rejected only
two pages earlier by Edgley, that dialectic is most
plausible as an empirical theory about the temporal
or historical development of thought.

However, natural science is not Edgley’s main
concern. In the Critique article he is prepared to
drop the idea that the natural sciences are dialectical, except perhaps in the minimal sense that they
are ‘real human products’. Indeed the main tendency
of Edgley’s arguments is to assert a qualitative
distinction between the natural and social sciences,
based precisely on the distinctive ‘dialecticity’ of
the latter. It is in this realm, Edgley believes, that
the denial of the existence of ‘contradictions in
reality’ can lead to dangerous consequences. To
assert an absolute distinction between logic and
reality, in accordance with the accepted wisdom of
bourgeois philosophy, is to ignore the fact that propositions can be, indeed must be, concretely instantiated. Propositions can represent contradictory
beliefs which are held by a single individual, or by
different people, or by different social movements
or institutions, and so on. Thought and language
are part of reality. Yet an adherence to the prin~
ciple of non-contradiction, combined with its corollary that contradiction is purely a relation between
propositions, implies, Edgley believes, a denial of
these obvious facts.

Clearly something strange is happening here. No
one, least of all Colletti, would wish to deny that
people can contradict themselves and each other, or
that thought and language are in some sense ‘part of
reality’. Edgley, in fact, is making use of an ambiguity in the phrase ‘contradictions in reality’, and
this is something which he freely admits: he is proposing ‘another sense to the question'(9) of whether
6 ‘Lucio Colletti, ‘A Polltical and”PbnosoPbical Interview’,
New Left ReView 86, p1S
7 ‘Reuon as Dialectic’, p7

8 loco elt.


there can be such contradictions. This in itself
would be unobjectionable. But Edgley then goes on
to exploit this ambiguity in order to turn the tables
on C olletti by slipping from one meaning of the
phrase to the other. Once this manoeuvre has been
exposed, the basis of Edgley’s argument is removed

Contradiction and. language
In order to see how this, at first glance, convincing elision of two distinct meanings is achieved, we
must look a little more closely at what is meant by
the term ‘proposition’. In the sense that people think
thoughts, hold beliefs, speak sentences and so on,
propositions are instantiated in reality. But, and
this is the crucial point which Edgley neglects, a
proposition is not just a string of sounds or signs:

a proposition has a meaning, or, to be more precise
a proposition is the meaning of a sentence. Thus the
same propOSition can be expressed in different
idioms or languages, while the sentence in which it
is expressed – obviously – changes. If this seems to
smack of the bourgeois ‘subliming’ of logic which
Edgley denounces, it is worth noting that such is the
view of Edgley himself. In ‘Dialectic: The Contradic..

tion of Colletti’ he ~peaks of propositions as the
‘intentional objects’ of ‘psychological states, attitudes and acts’ (1 0), and intentional objects, as
Husserl emphasised, are only revealed via the
‘meaning-component’ (what he termed the ‘noematische Sinn) of a mental act. Moreover, in the penultimate paragraph of the same article, Edgley
states both that: ‘relations of logical conflict can be
instantiated not only within and between individuals,
but also within and between groups and classes of
people in their social activities, ‘ and that: ‘logical
relations are not simply truth-value relations but
hold more generally in virtue of relations of meaning'(11). In other words the types of socia). conflict
with which social science, according to Edgley,
must deal are founded in contradictory meanings.

This foundation in meaning applies even in the case
of contradictory actions, as Edgley himself makes
clear at paragraph 4.2 of his book Reason in Theory
and Practice. Opening and shutting a window are not
inherently contradictory actions. (It may be too hot
in the room at one time, too cold at another.) Only
in so far as they fall under some description which
involves the intentions of an agent – that is, have a
meaning – can actions be said to be contradictory

(12) •

The point is this: Edgley wishes to maintain, in
accordance with Diamat, that there are contradictions in ‘material reality’ (so frequently invoked,
though so rarely defined, by Marxists). But no one
has yet succeeded or even remotely looks like
succeeding in giving an account of the unavoidable
concept of meaning in ‘materialist’ terms, that is
to say in terms which are ultimately reducible to the
vocabulary of physical ob~erv~tion, if not that of
physical science. No doubt Edgley, like most other
contemporary Marxists, finds totally alien this kind
of empiricism and materialism, exemplified by
reductionist positions within analytical philosophy
(after all, he is proposing a new conception of
science itself). But if that is t,he case – and
Timpanaro’s work has raised this question in an
acute and embarrassing form – what precisely do
Marxist invocations of ‘material reality’ commit
us to?

The crucial transition in Edgley’s argument in
10 loco cit.

11 ibid., p52

12 See HO)’ Edgley, Reasoo in Theory and Pnstice LCIldao 1888,

9 ‘Dialectic: The CootradictiQl fjf Colletti’, pSO


this re:spect is to be found at the point in the
Critique article where he discusses the relation
between psychology and logic. Noting an ambiguity
in terms like ‘belief’, ‘assertion’, ‘judgment’ etc.

which seems to identifytboth ‘intentional objects’

and psychological states, he goes on to observe:

‘It is then easy, and among philosophers a standing
temptation, to identify the distinction between propositions and reality with the distinction between
ideas and the ‘material world’; so that ideas, judgements, beliefs, etc. are contrasted with reality,
are regarded as non-real. Colletti’s article exemplifies this tendency. ‘(13) But it is Edgley who is in
confusion here, for he fails to remark on the intractable problems thrown up by any attempt to give
a ‘materialist’ account (e. g. causal or dispositional)
of psychological states such as belief, hope, fear
and so on. In other words, Edgley fails to make
clear that the psychological states with which he is
concerned, and which no one would wish to deny are
real, cannot be characterised without reference to
intentional objects which are indeed ‘non-real’ (i.e.

irreal in the Husserlian sense). For this is the
whole puzzle of intentionality – that a content which
masquerades as a separable object, and which can
frequently only be described in terms of some imaginary or even impossible state of affairs, is that
alone which makes a psychological state the kind of
state it is. So the situations of ‘logical conflict’

between individuals~ social institutions and so on,
which Edgley consiaers to be instantiations of
‘contradictions in reality’, only involve such contradiction by virtue of a logical conflict between
those ‘meanings’ through which the intentional object of a state of belief etc is constituted. These are
Husserl’s noematische Sinne which, it has been argued, must all ultimately be expressible as verbal
meanings (14), and which must necessarily be employed to characterise the psychological states
involved. To put it briefly: even when it entails
material conflict between persons or institutions,
‘logical conflict’ is only such conflict by virtue of
irreconcilable meanings which are not themselves
part of ‘material’ or any other kind of reality. Indeed Edgley is caught in a double-bind. For if it
were possible to give an account of intentional psychological states (e. g. of the difference between fear
of embarrassment and fear of a grizzly bear) in
terms of the schemas of natural science, there
would be no more question of contradiction or ‘logical conflict’. Meaning would have disappeared,
since, as Edgley himself admits, there cannot be
contradictions between processes in nature.

It will be seen that Edgley’ s argument is based on
a false equation between the instantiation of contradictory states of affairs in reality (which he admits
to be impossible – why else would self -contradictory
theories be open to criticism?), and the instantiation of contradictory propositions in mental acts of
belief, hope, judgement etc. This latter possibility
in no way breaks down an invidious ‘bourgeois’

distinction between logic and reality. Edgley only
manages to create the illusion that it does by
oscillating between the proposition as object of a
metadi~course, and hence as part of the ‘world’,
and the proposition as constitutive of that discourse
in which the world is revealed; the discourse which,
in phenomenological terms, we at any given moment
‘inhabit’. This is how he makes the transition:

‘A judgement” or belief may not b.e part of the reality
13 ‘Dialectic: The COIltradictiOl of Colletti’, p51
14 See Rooald McIntyre and Dand Smlth, ‘RusBer!’.IdentiflcatlOl
of Meaning and Noema’, The Mc:mlst, Vol. 59, No.1
15 ‘Dialectic: The CcdradictiCll of ColletU’, p51


it is about, part of what it is true or false of. But
reality is bigger ~d more complex than that'(15).

Reality certainly is; but then no one would dream of
denying it. Certainly not the anti-Diamatiker in the
‘East German Debate’. (It could be noted in passing
that, if Colletti has sided with the bourgeoisie by
virtue of his position, then any form of support for
dialectical materialism, the ossified philosophical
ideology of the bureaucracies, must be seen as
equally suspect.) The pOint of the rebel East
Germans’, and Colletti’s, claim that contradictions
are to be found only in thought and language, and not
in reality, is not to deny the reality of thought and
language. It is that propositions, thought or expressed, are only contradictory by virtue of their logically irreconcilable assertions about a reality of
which they are not themselves part. The contradictions are in thought and language, rather than what
the thought on language is about. It is only by shifting to a metadiscourse about contradictory propositions themselves that Edgley succeeds in conjuring
up ‘contradictions in reality i, but even then he does
so in a novel (and misleading) sense which has
nothing to do with what the whole dialectical tradition has understood by that phrase. It is this which
constitutes what I have termed the ‘false-consciOUSness’ of Edgley’s texts. Their semantic slidings
attempt to obscure the fact that, in using language
to talk about language, there must always be an
ultimate metadiscourse in which meaning ‘opens up’

the world, rather than forming an ‘object’ within it.

This discourse, to be comprehensible, must obey
the fundamental prinCiples of logic, and it is this
which lies behind the distinction between ‘logic’

(or the thought and language which it governs) and
‘reality’. Even a naturalistic view of language presupposes language for its formulation; even the
nature of the dialectic has to be expounded in a discourse which obeys the principles of identity and
non -contradicti on.

Science and Marxism
We must now take a closer look at how Edgley
conceives the superiority of a ‘dialectical’ social
science, and at what relation his ideas bear to the
traditions of Marxism. He opens ‘Reason as
Dialectic’ with a characterisation of what he considers to be the current crisis in philosophy of
science (the split between an ahistorical empiricism
and an opposing tendency towards acritical relativism), which he follows with a brief account of the
fact/value dichotomy and of the form in which he
sees this dichotomy as having haunted Marxism scientific theory of society versus ethical or utopian socialism. Dialectic, Edgley believes, holds
the key to the overcoming of this dichotomy. But
his account of dialectic, even if it were immune to

‘”I1tE1l. cAN IioE NO ~o~AL-Io;.M


….. ~~’A1ioN …

the criticisms outlined above~ would fail to deliver
the goods in a number of ways.

Firstly, Edgley seems confused as to whether his
formulations are descriptive or prescriptive, and,
if the former, as to what they are descriptive of.

Social sCience, he claims, is dialectical because it
deals with contradictions and other logical relations
as instantiated in the beliefs and behaviour of persons, groups, and social institutions. Even if this
were accepted as true, it would be inconsequential.

It tells us nothing about the specificity of Marxism,
since many currents in social science have an interest in the conflict of belief -systems or norms of
action. In fact, according to Edgley’s definition, all
social science is al way s already ‘dialectical’ simply
by virtue of its object. The term appears to have
lost all determinate meaning, especially since it is
plainly false that we require a special kind of Marxist ‘dialectic as logic’ in order to grasp historical
events such as the clash between Galileo and the
Church, one of Edgley’s favoured examples. It may
be true, as Edgley claims, that this kind of clash
illustrates how ‘logical conflicts’ can have psychologically normative and practico-critical implications which bourgeois moral philosophy has difficulty in dealing with, but there is no reason why this
kind of moral problem should create any special
difficulty for the practising historian or SOCiologist.

Edgley is certainly guilty here of that same lack of
attention to the actual history of research which he
criticizes in empiricist philosophy of science. A
glance at any of the classics of Marxist sociopolitical analysis – Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire,
Lenin’s Imperialism, Trotsky’s The Revolution
Betrayed – would have made clear that Marxism
possesses no special ‘logic’ of instantiated contradictions which lies beyond the grasp of bourgeois
social science. What does distinguish Marxism is
a particular system of concepts (forces of production, relations of production, ideology, etc) which
for the first time sets the analysis of social formations on a scientific basis.

This brings us to the second of Edgley’s claims:

that his conception of a dialectical social science
can heal the rift between scientific theory and socialist practice. Much of Edgley’s animus against
Colletti is aroused by the latter’s assertion of a
split between Marx the scientist and Marx the philosopher, and echo of many previous divisions between
a ‘mechanistic’ science and a ‘moralistic’ critique
of capitalist society. In Edgley’s account this split
is overcome through the manner in which Marxism,
in criticizing ideologies, simultaneously criticizes
the ‘contradictory’ social reality which produces
those ideologies. This is true as far as it goes, but
fails to touch the deeper problem, since it shows
that Edgley, rather than effecting a dialectical reso1ution’ has already aligned himself on the side of the
Ideologiekritiker in the long standing debate between
Marxism as critique and Marxism as science(16).

This is an alignment which he cannot, however, ack
nowledge within his account of the theoretical divisions of Marxism, since this account is fundamental ..

ly comused. Edgley represents ‘Marxism as a programme of revolutionary action’ as having been
‘squeezed out of the pidure of coherent possibilities’

by an historical division between the Stalinist emphasis
on laws of inevitable social change and an ‘ethical socialism’ which he associates with the Marxism of the
Second International (17). But there was never
16 On this debate see AlVin Gouldner, ‘The Two Marxisms’. in
For SOCiology, Harmoodsworth 1976. The followtng argument
owes a lot to this article.

17 See ‘Reason as Dialectic’, p3

any such division. Determinism and ethicalism do
not stand opposed, but are complementary aspects
of a single unity. Thus Stalinism did not stand in
contrast to ‘ethical socialism’ – it was ethical
socialism. As Althusser has argued, in its combination of economism and humanism, Stalinism represented a continuation of, and not a reaction to,
the politics of the Second International(18).

The real historical division within Marxism,
which Edgley fails to put his finger on, is somewhat
different. It is the division, already indicated, between ‘critical ‘/Hegelian and ‘scientific ‘/antiHegelian versions of Marxism. Far from representing an ‘ethical socialism’ counterposed to SCience,
it is precisely the first of these two currents which
has been most suspicious of Kantianism and most
contemptuous of the distinction between fact and
value, seeking in Hegelian style to achieve its disso·
lution. Edgley clearly belongs, if somewhat eccentrically, within this camp, and it is this which
accounts for his conception of a Marxist social
science as critique of ideology, and thereby of its
‘object’ – the capitalist society which that ideology
‘reflects’. But there is a problem here.

Historically the Marxist notion of critique represents a development of the mode of understanding
which informed the Left -Hegelian critique of
religion. Fundamental for the Left Hegelians was
the idea of religion as possessing a certain rational
dimension. Religion is not merely fantasy, but can
be deciphered as a projection of the alienated being
of real men and women. Correspondingly, in the
Marxist conception, a critique seeks not merely to
show a theory to be formally or empirically in
error. Its aim is to read in an ideology, and even
in ‘objectivist’ forms of SCience, the distorted trace
of mankind’s real historical potentialities, enchained by the ‘irrationality’ of an oppressive (Le.

class) organisation of society. The difficulty with
this conception, and no less with Edgley’s version
of it, is that the concrete complexity of the social
formation ceases to be in any meaningful sense the
object of an analytical and explanatory understanding. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man is a classic
example of this kind of ‘critical’ Marxism, in its
concern for wholesale unmasking of the dominant
rationality, and its neglect of the more mundane
questions of economics and social structure. But
revolutionary movements cannot live by criticism
alone, at least not if they wish to avoid the kind of
anarchic subjectivism characteristic of much of the
New Left which Marcuse inspired. They need concrete analyses of political, economic and social
structures; theories of class-consciousness, state
power, imperialism… It is not so much an alternative ‘dialectical’ conception of scientific knowledge
which revolutionaries need – it is rather that scientific knowledge itself.

It is here that Edgley’s theorising, despite his
proclaimed concern for ‘Marxism as a programme
of revolutionary action’, falls down. His idea of
(Marxist) social science as dialectical by virtue of
its concern with an object, social reality, which
contains ‘contradictions and other logical relations’,
implies not a SIngle concrete methodological recommendation for any arena of Marxist research.

Does a socialist science simply describe these
logical relations, or try to explain them causally,
or perhaps attempt some form of hermeneutic understanding? We are never told. Despite the promise
of an alternative model of scienc~. Ed~ley offers no
18 See LOUis Althusser, ‘Reply to John Lewis’,” in ESMYII tn Self_
CrttiCism. LoDdcn 1976. Also the introduction to the same

volume by Grahame Lock


counter-proposals to ‘bourgeois’ standards of explanation and validation. ‘Dialecticity’ appears to be
simply a question of subject -matter, rather than

Viewed in this light, and in the light of his obvious orientation towards the ‘critical’ version of
Marxism, Edgley’s claim to have achieved a theoretical resolution of science and socialism, and his
consequent reproaches to Colletti, must be treated
with scepticism. The problem with the ‘critical’

version of Marxism is that the kind of social science
which it does produce tends to consist of speculative
generalisations about the nature of advanced industrial society, often open – the two are complementary – to reformist or ultra-leftist interpretations
(cf. the contrary conclusions drawn by Habermas
and Marcuse from the Frankfurt School thesis of
the disappearance of the revolutionary proletariat).

It is left to those on the ‘other side’, notably at present the Althusserians, to produce a working knowledge of capitalist society for the use of revolutionaries. This is a kind of !’Marxist social science’

which resists assimilation into Hegelian categories,
and Colletti at least has the merit of recognising
that there is a genuine dilemma here. He does not,
like Edgley, attribute the split down the middle of
Marxism, as if it were some kind of bourgeois infection’ to ‘the almost inexhaustible capacity of the
status quo to protect itself under threat ‘(19). Such
a gesture would be ‘metaphysical’ in the sense
Derrida gives to that term: the homogeneity of
theory is secured by banishing into a false exteriority that which both founds and disrupts its discourse.

C olletti, on the contrary, appreciates that such a
chronic fissure within Marxist thought can only be
the result of profound tensions in the work of Marx
himself. After all Marx, in the postface to the
second edition of Capital, did quote approvingly
from the Russian reviewer of the first edition who
wrote: ‘Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only
independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but, rather, on the contrary determining
that will, consciousness and intelligence ‘(20).

Accusations of ‘mechanism’, for those addicted to
them, could well begin here. On the other hand, the
subtitle of Capital does announce it to be a ‘Critique ”
and it is clear from the Grundrisse, the rough draft
for Capital, that ‘alienation’ and other central concepts of critique continued to play a leading role in
Marx’s later thought.

Ironically, the opposition between Edgley, with
his commitment to the distinction between social and
natural SCience, and Colletti, with his insistence on
the ‘unity of science’, can be seen as one more manifestation of this rent in the very fabric of Marxism.

But whereas Colletti believes that it is vital for us
to admit the problem – ‘It is one we must take seriously. It is not to be solved by any verbal subterfuge. ‘(21) – Edgley is convinced that the important
thing is, by a ‘dialectical’ conception of SCience, to
resolve it. Yet, in the very process of attempting
such a resolution, he places himself firmly on one
of the contending sides. This could be seen as an
example of that other characteristically Derridean
movement .in which the attempt to effect dialectical
mastery of a difference ends by falling victim to its
play. Marx expressed a similarly sceptical view of
the power of theory in his 1844 Manuscript critique
of Begel’s dialectic: ‘And because thought imagines
1 g ‘Reason as Dialectic t, p3
20 Karl Man, Capital, Volume One, Harmondsworth 1976 plOl
21 ‘Marxism And the Dialectic t, p29


itself to be the direct opposite of itself, i. e. sensuous reality. and therefore regards its own activity
as sensuous, real activity, this supersession in
thought, which leaves its object in existence in real …

ity, thinks it has overcome it. ‘(22) Perhaps the
conclusion to be drawn from this is that the sciencecritique dilemma will only be resolved – if at all,
and if ‘resolved’ is the right expression here – in
the course of a Marxist revolutionary practice.

Certainly no theoretical Aufhebung will do.

This raises one final, and more general, point
about the relation between Marxism in philosophy
and in politics. Perry Anderson has recently
suggested that the history of Western Marxism may
be seen as a kind of immense detour, a turning
away, occasioned by historic defeats of the working
class in Western Europe, from substantive issues
in economic and social theory into the more abstruse realms of philosophy and methodology (23) •
Although requiring a good deal of qualification, for
instance with regard to its crude counterposing of
philosophy _land the ‘concrete world’, there is a
certain core of truth in this theory. Many people
today seem to consider Marxism as merely one
more ‘philosophical system’, to be set alongside and judged in the same terms as – phenomenology,
say, or structuralism. This trivilisation is to a
large extent the fault of Marxist philosophers themselves, in their self-imposed isolation from the substantive problems of Marxist theory and political
practice. Edgley’s conception of a ‘dialectica’

lVlarxist social science clearly illustrates this situation. Devoid even of the legitimacy of continuity
with previous Marxist conceptions of the dialectic,
it represents merely one more attempt to give the
concepts of the dialectic some kind of acceptable
content. Yet, if intended as, it bears no
relation to Marxist social science as it· has historically been practised, and, if intended as normative,
it nevertheless contains no discernible methodological recommendations. This is undoubtedly the
result of the estrangement indicated above, a forgetfulness of the fact that the most fruitful debates on
method are usually inspired by practical of theoretical problems encountered by the researcher and in the case of Marxism – activist. The conclusion to
be drawn is that the time for apriorism and the
theoretical ‘resolution’ of practical problems is
gone. Marxism in philosophy, yes, but not a
‘Marxist Philosophy’: the distinction is important.

A reference to some remarks of Althusser may help
to make it clearer.

In his essay ‘Elements of Self -Criticism’

Althusser sketches some important amplifications ~f
22 Karl Marx, Early Writings, Harmondsworth 1975 p394
23 See Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism,
London 1976


his ‘revised’ theory of philosophy as the ‘class
struggle in theory’. Since it is a discourse without
an object, there can never be an epistemological
break which would constitute philosophy as ‘theory’

in a sense parallel to that of scientific theory. Thus
Althusser has conceded the point made against him
by Desanti in the sixties, that it is precisely the
function of ideology to prevent the splintering of
scientific discourse by cloSing it off from ‘thirdlevel’, Le. ‘philosophical’, conflict (24) . According
to the new Althusser, philosophy must remain a
constantly-shifting field of forces in which there can
be no absolutely ‘correct’ position, since correctness and incorrectness do not depend on correspondence to an object, but are determined by a conjuncture which is largely ‘outside’ philosophy and which
– although philosophy does not like to think so constitutes philosophical discourse as such(25).

This means that the task for those attempting to be
both Marxists and philosophers (it would be mistaken to believe that there is any easy or readymade conjunction of the two) must be one of intervention rather than construction. For any attempted
Marxist philosophical edifice will find its foundations
sinking into sand as the balance of class forces in

On ‘On P ..aclice’continued
reflecting things immediately and not in their
essence’. The debt to Plato’s Theaetetus is no less
certain for being indirect, as it almost undoubtedly
was. But we can search in vain for any trace of that
Kantian insight, that the very possibility of senseperception is dependent on, and hence not prior to
the forms of subjective apprehension, which lies
behind the modern dialectical tradition in philosophy
(That insight was of course to be much modified and
transformed through consideration of the historical
and collective nature of human subjectivity, the
central issue treated in the historical materialism
of Marx and Engels. But such notions could be
nothing but ‘idealism’ for the idealism of Mao.)
Knowledge and practice are ‘united’ for Mao, then,
only through being inter -dependent, as all good
empiricists have always maintained. They are not
united, because in the last analysis knowledge is not
entirely active, since it depends on a ‘given’, and
since also, in transforming that ‘given’, knowledge
is active as a free non-material subjectivity, little
resembling the physical practices of production.

But never mind. So long as both one’s social practice and one’s free theorising, or ‘conscious redness’, are ‘pure’ and ‘revolutionary’, there is no
need to enquire too closely into how they are possible. And this retention of an empiricist distinction
between knowledge and practice underpinned the
allocation to the cadres/intellectuals of the status
of a ‘class’ within the united ‘people’, though this
was not coupled with any too close examination into
their actual relationship to the productive practices
of the ‘masses’. Nevertheless, if joined with the admission in the 1949 Constitution, that the People’s
Republic of China was a state capitalist society,
this was a complacent anticipation of almost all that
Marxist critics of the Chinese Communists later
tried to prove against them.

The rejection of ‘dogmatism’, on the other hand,
was also aimed at relieving the Chinese ‘people’

(more or less) of the necessity for anything so
characteristic of the Western barbarians as their
shameless propensity for all-out military ~ war-

other instances of the social formation alters, and
this can only be avoided if the Marxist in philosophy
is distinguished by his or her awareness of what
Althusser terms ‘the primacy of the practical function over the theoretical in philosophy itself ‘(26) .

The need for this awareness was surely what Marx
was pointing to when he levelled the following accusation at the thought of the Left Hegelians: ‘(it)
has proclaimed itself the pure, resolute, absolute
Criticism which has achieved self-clarity, and in
its spiritual pride has reduced the whole process of
history to the relation between the rest of the world,
which comes into the category of the ‘masses’, and
itself ‘(27) . It is perhaps in terms of this criticism
that the problematic Marxist notion of the ‘end of
philosophy’ can best be understood. Certainly, as
the ‘disembodied’ nature of Edgley’s position
illustrates, Marx’s reminder of the inherent limitations of philosophy – of its obligation to refer itself to social and political practices – has lost none
of its relevance for Marxists concerned with
philosophy today.

24 See Jean-Toussaint Desanti, ‘MaterialismejEpistemologie’,
Tel Quel 58
25 See Louis Althusser, op. cit. pp142-50
26 ibid. p143
27 Karl Marx, Early Writings op. cit. p381

fare within one ‘nation’. In the 1930s and 1940s it
was vital to assure intellectuals, officials and businessmen that there was no thought in Communist
heads of actually fighting the war against Japan by
means of a full-scale social revolution of workers
and peasants. On the contrary, winning the war of
national liberation before and instead of the Nationalists was supposed to count as winning the class
struggle also. It was peace and land reform, but
not socialism, which dissolved the armies of Chiang
Kai -shek.

Some kind of neutral or objective observational
basis for knowledge is always claimed by theories
of ‘national unity’ or ‘national interest’, whether of
the Right or of the ‘Left’. Only on such an assumption could both the democratic visitors and their Red
Army hosts ‘see’ the validity of the United Front
policy; perish the divisive thought that one class
might be inherently bound (and not just by its different experiences, but by what it was) to see things
differently than another. As for human activity,
when our own European empiricism could no longer
credit its earlier theological account of the nature
and goals of human action, it fell back upon categorical assertions of national will and personal subjectivity, in the movement known as Romanticism.

In the same way, Mao both postulated and came to
identify himself with a free subject, ‘China’, to
which all class divisions were irrelevant, and in
which all might share, if they chose, including the
working people of Brixton or C olumbus, Ohio.

In 1949 Mao won a battle that was lost in Europe
in 1848. The European defeats set revolutionaries
the task of working out a theoretically improved
practice. Mao’s victory inhibited such progress in
China for a time. But later setbacks, in the Great
Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution, were to prove more fruitful. From
them, not Mao but the Chinese proletariat began to
take its first hesitant but decisive steps forward,
almost, since the bitter defeats of the 1920s and
1930s. To do so was at the same time to abandon
the rubbishy theoretical equipment with which they
had been brow-beaten for thirty years, during the
forging for China’s new rulers of their very own
empiriCist version of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’.


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