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The Marxist Dialectic

as I ~have already said, this seems too banal
and obvious. Hopefully not that’ everything is
always changing’, since this is false. There is
stability within change. We cannot describe
change except by talking about ‘things which
change’, and to say that a thing is changing is
. to imply that within the process of change there
is sufficient permanence and continuity for us
to identify the ‘thing’ which has undergone the
change. If for example we speak of a change
from feudal to capitalist society, we are saying
that a certain identifiable society has changed
from being feudal to being capitalist, and in
that case there must be sufficient continuity for
us to be able to say that it is the same society
which has undergone the change. The only way
in which we could make plausible the claim that
everything is always changing would be in
terms of the first of the four examples which I
quoted from Engels – the example of theories
of modern physics, theories of the ultimate
constitution of matter which make use of some
basic concept such as ‘energy’. But if we accept
that ‘everything is always changing’ in this
sense, this would be perfectly compatible with
the denial of change at other levels. It would
for example be compatible with a completely
unhistorical view of human society. This cannot
be the kind of thesis we are looking for.

The empirical dialectic, then, is not to be
identified with any single general thesis which
could be either true or false. Rather, the notion
of an empirical dialectic points us to the value
of a certain kind of explanation – developmental
explanation. ‘Dialectic’ in this sense is not a
super-scientific law about the whole of reality,
but a way of looking at particular areas of
reality, a way of understanding them. It is an
immensely fruitful way of looking at things, but

how fruitful it will be in any particular case can
be determined only by examining the particular

In this paper I have been concerned to distinguish
between the’ conceptual’ dialectic and the ‘temporal’ or ’empirical’ dialectic; to give an account
of each; to show that they do not stand or fall ‘

together, but that each is valuable in its own
right. The enterprise has itself been a nondialectical one, an example of what Hegel calls
the exercise of ‘Understanding’, whose function
is to analyse and make distinctions, separating
one thing from another. That a discussion of
dialectic should itself be undialectical is not as
inappropriate as it sounds. Hegel himself recognises the need for ‘understanding’ in this sense,
describing it as ‘the most marvellous and mighty,
or rather the absolute power’. I would myself be
content with a more modest description of what
I have been doing; but, more seriously, I would
also recognise with Hegel that the role of understanding is a preparatory one. Having made the
distinctions, we then need to make the connections. I have criticised Hegel’ s· way of connecting the conceptual and the temporal dialectic,
which takes the form of identifying them. But if
this is unacceptable, we should not be content
merely to leave the matter there. We need to
work out an alternative account of the connections between the two kinds of dialectic. I shall
try to do this in a further paper, and in the process I shall take up some of the points raised
in Sean Sayers’ paper in this issue and Roy
Edgley’s paper on dialectic presented to the
Radical Philosophy Conference at Oxford.

The Mal’xisl Dialeclic
Sean Savers
“Wherever there is movement, wherever
there is life, wherever anything is carried
into effect in the actual world, there dialectic
is at work. It is also the soul of all knowledge
which is truly scientific. ”
Hegel, Logic, trans. Wallace, p148
The law of contradiction in things is the basic
prinCiple of dialectical materialism, the philosophy of Marxism. In Mao’s words:

“Marxist philosophy holds that the law of the
unity of opposites is the fundamental law of
the universe. This law operates universally,
whether in the natural world, in human society,
or in man’s thinking. Between the opposites in
a contradiction there is at once unity and
struggle, and it is this that impels things to
move and change. ”
(Mao, OCH, p91)

This doctrine, which is the fundamental basis
of Marxist thought, is easy to state and no doubt
already familiar, but it is not easy to grasp and

This difficulty is due, in part, to the inherent
difficulty of the subject-matter; for dialectical
logic sums up the laws of motion of things at
their most general level and provides the most
universal of all the principles of thought. But
there is also another difficulty to be overcome;
for the dialectical way of seeing things seems to
fly in the face of all traditional philosophy and
commonsense. The idea of contradictions existing in things seems absurd and impossible – a
metaphysical and mystical extravagance and the
very opposite of scientific and rational thought.

And thus, despite the ever-increasing influence
of :Marxism, its philosophy is frequently rejected
as violating the most elementary laws of logic
and preconditions of rational thought. The philosophy of dialectics is rejected and the attempt
is made to revise Marxism accordingly.


My purpose in this paper is to try to show that
the dia.lectical outlook is not an absurd, irrational and confused extravagance, but rather an
atte’mpt to express truths of fundamental philosophical importance; and that it is not vulnerable
to the arguments commonly brought against it
(which, I shall attempt to show, merely reveal
an ignorance and misunderstanding of the meaning of dialectics). I shall rely primarily upon
the classic presentation of dialectical materialism as it is implicit in Marx’s writings and
explicitly formulated by Engels, Lenin and Mao
Tsetung. I shall also refer often to Hegel, who
is, as Marx and Engels repeatedly acknowledge,
the source of their dialectical philosophy.

Indeed, it is difficult to understand that philosophy without going back to Hegel; fot it is only
in Hegel, and particularly in his Logica, that
the concept of contradiction is explained and
defended in detail against opposing points of view.

What then is dialectic? First of all one must
see that it is not a mere absurdity but a philosophy, a logic, a way of seeing the world. And
the opposing point of view is not simply commonsense, pure reason or logic just as such, but
rather an opposing philosophy, logic and way of
seeing things. So what we have is an argument
between two different philosophies: on the one
hand, dialectics; and on the other hand, what
Hegel and what Marxists have called the
‘metaphysical’ world-view.

The metaphysical outlook is succinctly
summarised in Bishop Butler’S saying, ‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’. A
chair is a chair, a circle is a circle, etc. – in
general A = A, and A cannot at the same time be
not- A. These seem-such obvious and evident
truths that it would be futile to deny them. And,
of course, it is true that A = A, that everything
is identical with itself; dialectics does not deny
this triviality. Hegel, for example, says:

The subsistence or substance of anything that
exists is its self-identity; for its want of
identity, or oneness with itself, would be
its dissolution. But self-identity is pure
abstraction. (Phenomenology p113)
Everything has self-identity, being-in-itself,
but the matter does not end there; for nothing is
merely self-identical and self-contained, except
what is abstract, isolated, static and unchanging.

All real, concrete things are part of the world
of interaction, motion and change; and for them
we must recognise that things are noemerely
self-subsistent, but exist essentially in relation
to other things.

Dialectical philosophy is the attempt to portray
things as concrete, and it opposes the abstract
character of metaphysics. Lenin called dialectics ‘the concrete analysis of concrete conditions’. But one must be careful to understand
the meaning of ‘concreteness’ in this context.

When one hears talk of concrete things one tends
to think of chairs, tables and other objects
immediately about one. But, according to dialectical philosophy, the objects immediately about
me – this table, that chair – considered in

themselves are abstractions. An object,
regarded on its own, by and in itself, is,
according to Hegel, abstract, in the literal
and precise sense that it has been taken out of
its context and is viewed in isolation. The
metaphysical outlook is abstract in that it
considers things merely in themselves, merely
as what they are, as self-subsistent, as isolated
and abstracted from their context. According
to dialectical thought, real, concrete things
are not abstract in this way, but embedded in
the world; essentially related to other objects
and in interaction with them. To quote Hegel

A determinate, a finite, being is one that is
in relation to an other; it is a content standing
in a necessary relation to another content, to
the whole world.(Sc. Logic p86)
Not only does the metaphYSical outlook treat
things as isolated; it also has the effect of
arresting all movement and development in
things and considering them as static. The object characterised by mere self-identity is
static. It is a mere positive existent thing, a
given fact – it just is what it is; and the world,
according to this view, is a mere collection or
diversity of such things, indifferent and inactive in relation to each other.

Again Hegel argues that such a view is
abstract. All concrete and determinate things
are in a process of movement and becoming, of
development and change. This is equally
essential to all concrete things.

We are aware that everything finite, instead
of being stable and ultimate, is rather
changeable and transient. (Enc. Log. Sec. 81)
To say that everything is in a constant process
of development and change is not, of course, to
deny that things can be relatively unchanging
and stationary. It is, however, to say that rest
is ‘conditional, temporary, transitory (and)
relative’ whereas ‘development and motion are
absolute’ (Lenin’s words, ‘On the Question of
Dialectics’, Collected Works, Vo!. 38, p360)
According to dialectic, this is a truth of
universal application and great philosophical
importance. In all spheres we find it to be true
and yet denied by influential methods of thought
which are based upon the metaphysical outlook.

It is evident, for example, that all concrete
societies are in a process of development and
change; that they are essentially historical in
character; that particular forms of society are
not eternal but come into being, develop and
eventually perish and give way to other forms.

And yet, in the non-Marxist social sciences, it
is standard to treat societies, or institutions of
society, abstractly and unhistorically. It is
standard to consider them statically and not
dynamically; merely as they are, and not in
their necessary process of becoming, development and decay.

A dialectical process of development characterises not only the human world, but also all
natural phenomena. This is perhaps not so


because the metaphysical approach is
very influential in our thinking about natural
processes. Thus we often conceive of mechanical processes as an endless repetition of the
same basic law-like processes. For exarnple,
planetary motion, or the action of a piston or
lever. However, to conceive of mechanical
processes in this way is to conceive of them
abstractly. No real, concrete mechanism is an
eternally repeating process. All real machines
were created at a certain time and place and,
as they operate, gradually wear out, decay and
cease to be. Similarly, the real motion of the
planets is not eternal. The solar system was
formed at a particular stage in the evolution
of the universe, has gone through a process of
change and development, and is destined
eventually to perish.

The metaphysical conception of mechanism
sees it as abstract and unchanging. Concrete
mechanical things are not like this. Rather,
what we are given in the metaphysical picture
is an idealisation and an abstraction.

Wittgenstein is pointing to this metaphysical
character of mechanics when he says:

We have the idea of a super-mechanism when
we talk of logical necessity, e. g. physics
tried·as an ideal to reduce things to mechanisms or something hitting something else.

We say that people condemn a man to death
and then we say the Law condemns him to
death. ‘Although the Jury can pardon him
the Law can’t. ‘ … The idea of something
super-strict, something stricter than any
Judge can be, super-rigidity …


Cf. a lever-fulcrum. The idea of superhardness. ‘The geometrical lever is harder
than any lever can be. It can’t bend. ‘ Here
you have a case of logical necessity. ‘Logic
is a mechanism made of infinitely hard
material. Logic cannot bend. ‘. .. This is
the way we arrive at a super-something.

(Lectures & Conversations pI5-16)
There can be no doubt that such idealised and
abstract pictures of mechanical processes have
been extremely useful and important tools in
the advance of science and of human knowledge
generally. Such {;tn abstracting approach becomes false, however, when it is elevated into
a philosophical system. Reality is then regarded
as abstract, unchanging and ‘super-rigid’ – that
is to say, metaphysically and not dialectically.

Again we see that dialectics is a method of
seeing things as concrete.

It is often claimed that mathematical, logical
and conceptual truths are eternal and unchanging. But according to dialectical philosophy
even this is not so; ideas have no separate,
abstract, ideal and eternal existence. Logic,
mathematics, philosophy and so on are not mere
abstract ideas, but concrete thoughts developed

by real historical men. Such ideas have consequently come into being at a certain time,
and they too have undergone development and

Stated thus, this may appear trite and obvious,
but nevertheless it is implicitly denied in one
way or another by most contemporary philosophers. For example, it is an almost universal
doctrine among contemporary philosophers that
philosophy is a conceptual and not an empirical
study; and conceptual truths are regarded as
having a timeless and eternal validity. It is
rare indeed to find philosophy treated as a form
of knowledge of concrete reality, produced by
concrete individual philosophers living in, and
responding to, specific social and historical

So far, then, I have tried to show how dialectical philosophy seeks to understand things concretely, and how it thus regards things as
essentially inter-related and essentially in a
process of motion and change. Engels says just
this when he writes:

Dialectics. .. comprehends things and their
representations in their essential connection,
concatenation, motion, origin and ending.

(Anti-DUhring p36)
This is the purpose of dialectical philosophy
and this is what it means when it says that
everything is contradictory. For contradiction
is at the root of both the identity and relationships of things, and of their development.

All concrete things are contradictory. There
are tensions and ‘Conflicts within all things and
in the relations between things. This is the law
of contradiction, which is the most universal
expression of the philosophy of dialectics and
also the least well understood. It is important
therefore to be clear about the meaning of the
dialectical concept of contradiction. In particular, it is vital to understand that the dialectical
concept of contradiction is not the same as the
concept of contradiction in traditional formal

The dialectical contradiction is a concrete
contradiction; it is a contradiction which exists
not just between ideas or propOSitions, but in
things. When dialectical thinkers talk about
contradictions they are referring to conflicts
of opposing forces or tendencies in things.

This is the most important part of the meaning
of ‘contradiction’ in dialectical thought. We can
come to a better understanding of this view by
again contrasting it with the metaphysical

According to the metaphysical outlook, as
we have seen, things are regarded as selfcontained, positive existents, indifferent to
other things. All things, in Hume’s words, are
‘loose and separate’; or, as Hegel puts it,
according to this view,
the different diverse things are each
individually what they are, and unaffected
by the relation in which they stand to each
other. The relation is therefore external
to them. (:Enc. Log. Sec. 117)

Such 4- picture of things is abstract and untrue
according to dialectics. Concrete reality is
not a mere diversity of indifferent and externally related things – it is not a mere ‘totality
of facts’. For as well as recognizing the
positive existence of things, we must also see
in things the forces opposing and negating
them which lead to development and change.

Concrete things are not just related to each
other, they are in a constant process of
conflict and interaction, which is at the basis
of all movement and change. Dialectical
reason, says Hegel,
sharpens, so to say, the blunt difference
of diverse terms, the mere manifestations
of pictorial (i. e. metaphysical) thinking,
into essential difference, into opposition.

Only when the manifold terms have been
driven to the point of contradiction do they
become active and lively towards each
other, receiving in contradiction the
negativity which is the inherent pulsation
of self-movement and vitality.

(Sc. Log. p442)
It is this contradiction and negativity which

must be recognized in order to
things in their movement:


Contradiction is the root of all movement
and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it
moves, has an urge and activity.

(Sc. Log. p439)
The reason for talking of ‘contradiction’

here is twofold: (1) firstly, to stress that
concrete things are not indifferent to one
another, but rather in interaction and conflict
with each other. This is the very basis of the
determinateness of concrete things, as is
recognized in Spinoza’ s saying, ‘omnis
determinatio est negatio’ (all determination
is negation). A thing is determinate and has
its own identity only by maintaining itself
distinct from other things, by opposing other
things. All determinate and concrete things
are in opposition to other things.

(2) and secondly, the concept of contradiction
is required in order to stress that such concrete opposition is not external and accidental
to things, but rather essential and necessary;
it is internal to things and a part of their
nature. Contradiction is not mere accidental
conflict, but essential opposition, opposition
within a unity. The dialectical concept of
contradiction is that of a concrete unity of

Some illustrations may help to make these
ideas clearer. Marx, as is well known, analyses the relations between th”e classes of
capitalist society as a conttadictory one. The
proletariat and the bourgeoisie are essentially
related; buth are created by capitalist conditions of production, and neither could have
come into existence without the other. Furthermore, they arise together as mutually antagonistic classes. The conflict between them is


not external to their natures and accidental.

Neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie
can be properly understood unless they are
considered as the contradictory aspects of a
single totality. It is not a matter of one selfcontained class in external and merely contingent relation to another. Marx’s whole
understanding of capitalism, and of history
generally, is based on the view that class
struggle is necessary and essential to society
and the motive force of history.

The law of contradiction, however, applies to
all things and not just to society. Let us return
to the example of mechanical motion. The
basic concept of Newtonian mechanics is that
of force; and Newton’s theory of universal
gravitation maintains that all bodies attract all
other bodies with a force which varies with the
masses of the bodies involved and with their
distances apart. That is to say, everything
in a mechanical system is in necessary relation and interaction with every other thing.

Furthermore, no force can operate in a void;
a force must operate on something. And in
order to operate on something, it must meet
with some resistance, in the form of an
opposing force. Action implies reaction.

A force in and of itself is an unreal abstraction. Thus any real mechanical system is to
be understood as the action and interaction of
opposing forces. This is true whether the
result of those forces is an equilibrium (as
studied in statics) or motion (as studied in
dynamics). Thus, for example, planetary
motion is the result of the interaction of the
oppOSing forces of, on the one hand, the forces
of gravitational attraction between the planet
and the sun (the centripetal force), and on the
other hand, the inertial force of their motion
(the centrifugal force).

Such examples could be multiplied indefinitely, for, as Hegel says,
There is absolutely nothing whatever in
which we cannot and must not point to
contradictions or opposite attributes; and
the abstraction made by understanding
therefore means a forcible insistance on
a single aspect, and a real effort to obscure
and remove all consciousness of the other
attribute which is involved. (Enc. Log. sec. 89)

So far I have tried to explain the philosophy
of dialectic and the idea that there are contradictions in things which is basic to it. Now it
is time to consider some of the criticisms that
are commonly brought against it. These criticisms have been remarkably constant and we
find them repeated in essentially the same
terms time and again. Indeed, they all reduce
in the end to the re-iteration of the formal
logical principle of non-contradiction and a
dogmatic insistance that formal logic provides
the sole valid principles of reasoning. This
refusal to recognise any other valid methods
of thought than deduction and formal logic is

characteristic of metaphysics. What we find
in tbese critics is the assertion of the
metaphysical viewpoint..

Here is DUhring’s version, as quoted by

Contradiction is a category which can only
appertain to a combination of thoughts,
but not to reality. There are no contradictions in things, or to put it another
way, contradiction accepted as reality
is itself the apex of absurdity.

(quoted in Engels, A. D. p164)
The dialectical idea of contradiction in reality
is thus regarded as absurd and impossible
because it violates the ‘law of non- contradiction’. According to Popper, another such
This law says that no self-contradictory
proposition, or pair of self-contradictory
propositions, can be true, that is, can
correspond to the facts. In other words,
the law implies that a contradiction can
never occur within the facts, that facts
can never contradict. (Popper, ‘What is
Dialectic?’, Mind 1940 p419)
So when dialectical philosophy maintains that
there are contradictions in things it is dismissed as being muddled and confused. Hegel
and the Marxists are accused of making the
most elementary logical blunders. Dialectic
is caricatured as the mere acceptance of
formal contradiction and it is rejected as the
quintessence of absurdity and irrationality.

Popper, for example, tells us that Hegel
‘Simply said that contradictions do not matter’

(p416). This is a travesty, even if a common
one; what Hegel actually says is as follows:

Whatever exists is concrete, with difference
and opposition in itself. .. Contradiction is
the very moving principle of the world; and
it is ridiculous to say that contradiction is
unthinkable. The only thing correct in that
statement is that contradiction is not the
end of the matter, but cancels itself.

(Enc. Log, Sec. 11985)
In other words, according to dialectics,
contradiction is indeed repugnant to reality,
and just because of that the contradictions in
things lead to their development and change.

But, of course, when it is said by the critics
of dialectic that contradictions are unacceptable more than this is meant. The result of
attempting to express a contradiction is
supposed to be an absolutely self-annuling
proposition, which implies anything and everything and thus asserts nothing. To quote
Popper again,
FrQm two contradictory premises, we can
logically deduce anything and its negation as
well. We therefore convey with such a
contradictory theory – nothing. A theory
which involves a contradiction is entirely
useless. because. it does not convey any

sort of information. (P410)
Dialectical philosophy is supposed to be just
such a theory.

In order to-see why it is not, it is vital to·
understand that there is a distinction between
formal contradiction and dialectical contradiction. Wh’at critics such as Popper describe
is formal tontradiction (as defined by the
formal logical law of non-contradiction),
which is indeed self-annuling. The formal
contradiction represents mere formal impossibility. Its result is mere nothingness. In
reasoning according to formal principles, to
demonstrate that a proposition or theory is
self-contradictory is to demonstrate its failure
and its nothingness. Or, if you prefer, the
result of formal contradiction is mere assertion; the assertion of anything and everything;
an absolutely indeterminate assertion. Thus
a formal contradiction is an indeterminate
assertion. Thus a formal contradiction is an
indeterminate and abstract assertion; and, as
Hegel shows at the very beginning of his Logic,
whatever has only abstract and indeterminate
Being is pure Nothingness.

Dialectical contradiction is not of this kind,
but it is a contradiction nonetheless. The
dialectical contradiction is a concrete contradiction; it is a feature of concrete and determinate things. It takes the form of a concrete
unity or conjunction of incompatible events.

Real contradictions are repugnant to reality
and therefore dissolve themselves. But,
unlike with the abstract contradictions of
formal logic, the outcome, the resolution of
a concrete contradiction is not a mere nothingness, a mere indeterminacy. The outcome of
a concrete contradition, the outcome of a real
clashing of opposites, is a result, something
determinate, a new thing, which is equally
contradictory and hence equally subject to
change and eventual dissolution.

The concrete contradictions in things thus
lead to their dissolution and negation; but this
negation is not the abstract and absolute negation of formal logic, it is rather a dialectical,
and concrete negation, which Hegel calls
‘determinate negation’. The metaphYSical
approach, he says,
always sees in the result (of contradiction)
pure nothingness, and abstracts from the
fact that this nothing is determinate, is
the nothing of that out of which it comes
as a result. Nothing, however, is only,
in fact, the true result, when taken as
the nothing of what it comes from; it is
thus a determinate nothing, and has a
content. .. When once . .. the result is
apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate
negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress
through the complete succession of forms
comes about of itself.

(Phen. Mind p137)

The~ concept of determinate negation is
central to dialectics, but apparently unknown
to those critics who can conceive of no other
sort of contradiction than formal contradiction. The result of contradictions, conflicts
in things, is indeed that they are disrupted,
negated and reduced to nothingness. But this
nothingness is not the abstract and simple
nothingness or absurdity which results from
formal contradiction. It is a concrete nothingness, the nothingness or negation of something determinate, a concrete result.

The negative which emerges as a result
of dialectic, is, because a result, at the
same time the positive; it contains what
it results from, absorbed into itself, and
made part of its own nature.

(Enc. Log. Sec. 81Ss)
This process, by which a concrete contradiction in things results in a determinate
negation of them, Hegel calls ‘aufheben’,
which in philosophical contexts is variously
translated as ‘to sublate’, ‘to overcome’,
‘to supercede’, ‘to transcend’ and so on.

However, there seems to be no English equivalent which captures the contradictoriness
of its meanings in ordinary language, which
Hegel explains as follows:

‘To sublate’ (Aufheben) has a twofold
meaning in the language: on the one hand
it means to preserve, to maintain, and
equally it also means to put an end to …

Thus what is sublated is at the same time
preserved. (Sc. Log. p107)
For example, to say that capitalism is contradictory does not mean that it is impossible
and unreal, but rather that it is an essentially
dynamic social form, and that it is ultimately
destined to perish and be negated in a new
social form, socialism, which will emerge
from it as its result. Socialism is, according
to Marx, the historical outcome of the contradictions of capitalism and the determinate
negation of capitalism. Since socialism
develops out of capitalism, it is not a mere
abstract negation, but a concrete result
which necessarily must base itself upon the
positive achievements of capitalism and which
preserves also, at least initially, many of
the negative, ones too. Marx, writing in the
Critique of the Gotha Programme of the
initial period of socialism, says,
What we have to deal with here is a
communist society, not as it has developed
on its own foundations, but, on the contrary,
just as it emerges from capitalist society;
which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still
stamped with the birthmarks of the old
society from whose womb it emerges.

Marx’s account of socialism, as well as
capitalism, is thoroughly dialectical, and an
excellent example and proof of the power of
dialectical thought. His picture of socialism

is thoroughly concrete and dialectical: it
recognises that socialism will be a contradictory and hence developing stage of history, a
transitional stage ‘between capitalism and
communism’. And this recognition is not the
result of a priori or metaphYSical speculation,
but is based upon the lessons of the fullest
possible historical experience and understanding, as Lenin emphaSises throughout State and
Revolution, and in the following characteristic

The question of the future development
of future communism (can) be dealt with
on the basis of the fact(s) that it has its
origin in capitalism, that it is the result
of the action of a social force to which
capitalism gave birth. There is no trace
of an attempt on Marx’s part to make up
a utopia, to indulge in idle guess-work
about what cannot be known… Marx
bases (his) conclusion(s) on an analysiS
of the role played by the proletariat in
modern capitalist society, on the data
concerning the development of this society,
and on the irreconcilability of the antagon- .

istic interests of the proletariat and the
bourgeoisie. (Sel. Works p324-5)
It is vital, then, to distinguish dialectical
from formal contradiction; and to see that
dialectical contradiction implies a concrete
conflict of forces with a determinate outcome, and is not just self -annulment and
abstract nothingness. When one understands
this one can see clearly that the standard
criticisms of the dialectical concept of
contradiction misunderstand it and treat it
as though it were formal contradiction.

Against Colletti
Such criticisms are based on the dogmatic
belief that formal contradiction is the only
possible kind of contradiction. We meet with
this dogma in various forms in the criticisms
of dialectics. On the one hand, as we have
seen, we are assured that dialectical philosophy is absurd and irrational. On the other
hand, the view that dialectic – the avowed
philosophy of such intellectual giants as Hegel,
Marx, Engels and Lenin – is just an elementary logical blunder cannot seriously be maintained. This is not to say that it is not tiresomely familiar; but nevertheless all the
more important critics have recognised that
dialectical materialism has been an extremely
fruitful method, at least in Marx’s hands.

How an ‘absurd’ and ‘irrational’ philosophy·
can at the same time be fruitful is explained
by attempting to foist this contradiction onto
Marx and dialectical materialism. Marxism
is revised. When it talks of ‘contradictions’

in things, so it is said, it does not really
mean this. The language of ‘contradiction’

is a metaphorical and confused Hegelian
extravagance; what is meant is Simply that
things are in a state of conflict and opposi-

tion;~ and such conflict has nothing to do with

Again DUhring puts it well:

The antagonism of forces measured
against each other and moving in opp Qsite
directions is in fact the basic form of all
actions in the life of the world and its
creatures. But this opposition of the
directions taken by the forces of elements
and individuals does not in the least degree
coincide with the idea of absurd contradiction. (quoted in Engels, AD p164)
And DUhring (who himself did not invent the
idea) has been followed by a whole line of
philosophers who seek to deny the dialectical
concept of contradictions in things and replace
it by the idea of non-contradictory ‘conflict’,
‘antagonism’ or ‘opposition’. Colletti is the
latest to do so. In an article in a recent
edition of New Left Review (N093), he seeks
to distinguish two types of opposition:

‘Real opposition’ (or ‘contrariety’ of
incompatible opposites) is an opposition
‘without contradiction’. 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 ‘contradiction’

and gives rise to a dialectical opposition.

(NLR 93 p3)
He then goes on to deny that dialectical
philosophy can be either materialistic or
scientific, on the basis of the following, by
now familiar, assertion:

The fundamental principle of materialism
and of science … is the principle of noncontradiction. Reality cannot contain
dialectical contradictions but only real
oppositions, conflicts between forces,
relations of contrariety. The latter are
… non-contradictory oppositions, and
not dialectical contradictions. (NLR 93 p29)
This raises the question: why do dialectical
philosophers insist on speaking of ‘contradictions’? – why don’t they, instead, talk of
‘conflicts’ and ‘oppositions’? After all, even
as they themselves explain it, dialectical
contradiction is a matter of the conflict
between the opposed aspects of things? In
order to understand why they nevertheless
insist on the language of ‘contradiction’, it
is crucial to see that dialectical contradiction is more than mere conflict and opposition; it is essential opposition; conflict within
a unity; internal conflicts – not mere external
and accidental conflict. The dialectical law
of contradiction asserts that conflict and
opposition are necessary, essential and
internal to things; whereas the pOint of arguing that only conflicts exist in nature is
precisely to deny the necessity of these

Thus, for example, Colletti characterises
‘non-contradictory opposition’ in the follow-

ing terms:

The formula that expresses it is ‘A and
B’ . Each of the opposites is real and
positive. Each subsists for itself …

To be itself, each has no need to be
referred to the other ..(NLR 93 p6)
In this formula A is merely different from
B. We are backto Bishop Butler; everything
is what it is. .. A is A and B is B. They
may be opposed, but not necessarily. Thus
the world is portrayed by Colletti, in metaphysical fashion, as an indifferent diversity
of merely positive things: A, B etc. As
we have seen, however, things which are
merely positive, which merely are what
they are, are abstract and dead. Nothing
concrete and real is merely positive.

Everything is contradictory and contains
negative as well as positive aspects within
it. The dialectical notion of contradiction
is that such conflicts between opposed
aspects are necessary and essential.

The only correct formula to express this
is ‘A and not-A’, because only in this way
canit be madeclear that the conflicts to
which dialectical philosophy refers are
inherent and within a unity. The formula
‘A and not-A’ is the formula of contradictIOn: that isto say, here we really are
talking about contradictions. Although again,
of course, we must be careful to distinguish
dialectical from formal contradiction; and
we must be aware that when a proposition
of the form ‘A and not-A’ is asserted in a
dialectical context it isconcrete and dialectical, and not merely formal and abstract,
negation and contradiction that are meant.

Not all statements in the form of a contradiction (‘A and not-A’) state merely formal
contradictions; and because of this it is
possible to express meaningful ideas in the

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form df a contradiction (as the histories of
science, mathematics, philosophy, etc,
clearly show).

The argument that things are in conflict
and not contradiction also appears in other
forms. For example, it is said that dialectic has nothing to do with logic, and that
dialectical philosophy is coilfused in ascribing logical properties – such as contradictions, negations and necessities – to nature.

These can exist only among thoughts. Then
follows the attempt to rewrite the philosophy
of dialectics, ridding it of the notions of
contradiction, necessity and so on. Here
is Popper’s version:

What dialectic is – dialectic in the sense
in which we can attach a clear meaning
to (it) – can be described in the following
manner. Dialectic … maintains that
certain developments, or certain historical processes, occur in a certain typical
way. It is, therefore, an empirical
descriptive-·theory, comparable, for
instance, with a theory which maintains
that most living organisms increase their
size during some stage of their development, then remain constant, and lastly
decrease until they die. .. Like such
theories, dialectic is not applicable
without exceptions – as long as we are
careful not to force th,e dialectical interpretation. Like those theories, dialectic
is rather vague. And like those theories,
dialectic has nothing particular to do
with logic. (p411-2)
The effect of such revisions of the philosophy
of dialectic is strikingly illustrated here.

A clear and strong philosophical doctrine is
~ndered into a banal and ludicrous generalisation.

The philosophy of dialectic does claim to
provide a logic. It says not just that things
generally arur10r the most part are related
to and in conflict with other things, but that
this is the essential and necessary character of concrete things. Dialectical philosophy is a logic in the sense that it describes
the necessary laws of things at the most
general level, and thus gives a method of
thinking about the world which is of universal
application. It is a logic in the sense that it
specifies the laws of thought which must be
adhered to if reality is to be grasped

Dialectical logic is not, however, a merely
formal logic. It is a logic of the concrete a logic of content. It is an attempt to specify
the logic of reality. Mao writes,
The law of contradiction in things, that
is, the law of the unity of opposites, is
the fundamental law of nature and of
society and therefore also the fundamental law of thought.

(On Contradiction p71)
Dialectic has, therefore s an empirical and


prax IS

A Journal of Radical Perspectives on the Arts

The Images of Power in
American PolitiQl C.noons
RIchMd F/~1d
The literature of Revolution
DlIVid Cnlit/ MId Mlcn.I EflM’

American Po_r and American Painting:

The Development of Vanguard Painting in
the United States Since 1945
John T,W
A Note on Revolutionary Art
Willi, Truitt and Sheil, M. MHh.n
Leavis and English literary Criticism
Andraw Miln.

Lunacharsky: The Paradoxes
of Art and Revolution
Ado/to sincl/ez Vuqu~z
On Art and Revolution
The “Pre·established Affinities”
of Poe and Baudelaire
Lucien Goldmann and the Sociology of Culture
Fr.”k G,/assi
The Acquisitive Sense in American Draml
The Role of Filmmakers in
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Laonard M. Henny
.lHn Cassou
Understanding and Misunderstanding Culture
On the Marxist Criticism of the Contemporary
Novel in the United States: A Re-evaluation
of Saul Bellow
C.J. Bullock
The Ankles of Juan: The Worker as Mythic Hero
D,vid Kunzle
Th. Ankles of JIml Itranslatioa of Chilean comic book)
literary Fashions: The Superman Thief
Umberto Eco
Political Painting: New Perspectives on
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Fr.dric JamelOn
Suun WiIIi,
Should We Recycle !IIIarx?

Theory and Praetice:

RecP’1t Ma ..cist Criticism in English
ArtIIIS H. K,v,nagh
Repon fro;r, Venice: Cinema and Ideology
NlIOmi Greenll
Chri,rer Themptander
Thorn,: McGr,th, Don Gordon, M,nna Perpelitt,
John 1Iftechttr. Lenore Weiss, James Scully ,nd Waiter Lo_nfels






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descriptive content; for it attempts to
describe the behaviour of things in their
most universal and general aspects.

However, dialectical philosophy is not a
mere empirical generalisation in Popper’s
sense; it is not an empirical as opposed to
a logical theory. It is a logical theory in
the sense that it puts forward the law of
contradiction as a logical law; as a universally valid principle which describes the
necessary and essential character of
concrete reality.

To talk of necessity in nature and of logical relations between things at first seems
outrageous to anyone brought up in the atmosphere of contemporary British thought.

For at present there is no philosophical
theory more widely accepted or more celebrated than Hume’ s view that there are no
necessary connecj;ions between things. He
All events seem entirely loose and
separate. One event follows another,
but we never can observe any tie
between them. They seem COnjl:ined,
but never connected. (Enquiry h. 7)
This doctrine is not the bland commonsense
it is portrayed to be by many contemp{)rary

philosophers. On the contrary, as Hume
himself was well aware, it is a radical
scepticism that contradicts the fundamental
aim of SCience, which is: to discover the
causes of things; to find out why things
must happen as they do; in other words, to
know the necessity in things. It is vital to
see that causaIitY is the notion of necessary



conn~ction in things. If A causes B, then
B must happen given A. For example, the
iaw of gravity states that an unsupported
object must fall to the ground. It cannot do
otherwise. And furthermore, this law
specifies how its rate of fall is necessarily
dependent on the masses of the bodies involved and the distance between them. To
say that there is necessity in nature is to
say that things develop and change according
to laws, and this is a fundamental presupposition of all science. Including, of
course, socialscience. When Marx says
that the interests of the proletariat and the
bourgeoisie are in contradiction in capitalist society he means that this class struggle
is necessary to capitalism; that is, that it
is a law of capitalism. So far from being
an abomination to science, as the critics
state, it is the concept of contradiction,
and the attempt to determine the necessary
and essential features and forces of bourgeois society, which gives Marxism its
scientific character.

To say that there is necessity in nature is
not necessarily to say that this necessity
can be known a priori: The particular
sciences seek to discover the necessities
in things – the laws of nature and of society
– on the basis of experience and experirnent,
and not a priori. Dialectic, however, just
because it claims to be a logical doctrine.

is frequently accused of ascribing necessity
to things in an a priori fashion. That this
is true of Hegel cannot be doubted; indeed,
he proclaims it as his aim:

The whole progress of philosophising
in every case, if it be methodical,
that is to say a necessary progress,
merely renders explicit what is
implicit in a notion.

(Enc. Log. Sec. 88)
And in his system he attempts to deduce all
the essential categories of reality, starting
from the concept of mere abstract Being.

Dialectical materialism diverges from
Hegelian dialectic at this point. Marx’s
dialectic is not an a priori deduction, but
a summary of human knowledge. ‘Nature
is the proof of dialectics’ (AD p36) according to Engels. Colletti, Popper and company
do not understand this. Their constant
refrain is that dialectics is an a priori
dogma. Colletti, for example, writes:

For dialectical materialism, contradiction is a precondition of any possible
reality. Its cardinal principle is the
series of propositions enunciated by
Hegel. .. ‘All things are contradictory
in themselves’ (etc) . … From these
premises, dialectical materialism
deduces … that ‘reality’ and ‘dialectical
contradiction’ are the same thing. .. In
a word: from the perspective of dialectical materialism, one can main):ain with

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axiomatic certainty and prior to any
analysis of one’s own, that within every
object in the universe there must be
inner contradictions. (NLR 93 p26)
No doubt dialectical materialism can be
used as a set of dogmatic principles from
which to deduce things. But Marxists have
been at pains to stress that dialectical
materialism is not a universal formula
which may be applied to generate significant conclusions a priori. Marx, for
instance, contrasting his own use of the
dialectical method with that of Proudhon,
says of the latter,
As a philosopher who has a magic
formula at his elbows, he thought he
could dispense with going into purely
economic details. (Pov. Phil. p110)
And Mao makes this point in the following

We study Marxism-Leninism not for
display, nor because there is any
mystery about it, but solely because
it is the science which leads the revolutionary cause of the proletariat to
victory. Even now there are not a few
people who still regard the odd quotation
from Marxist-Leninist works as a readymade panacea which, once acquired, can
easily cure all maladies. .. It is precisely such ignorant people who take


Marxism-Leninism as a religious
dogma. To them we should say bluntly,
‘Your dogma is worthless’. (‘Rectify
the Party’s Style of Work’, Sel. H p219)
And, even more bluntly, he has said,
‘dogma is less useful than cowdung’.

Not a Dogma
Correctly understood, dialectical materis not a dogma. Indeed, it is rather
Popper, Colletti and other such critics of
dialectics who show themselves to be dogmatic by the terms of their criticism. For
they merely assert their pilosophy, embodied in the principles of formal logic,
and when confronted with the dialectical
concept of contradiction, reject it as
‘absurd’ and ‘irrational’ for failing to conform to formal logic.

Philosophy and logic can never replace
the need for a detailed investigation of the
concrete and particular conditions under
study. They can never replace the need for
the fulle-st possible practical experience;
and no philosophy makes this point more
forcibly than dialectical materialism.

According to it, philosophy is not a body
of merely conceptual, logical or a priori
truths. Philosophy “has a twofold character: it summarises, at the most general
level, the results of human knowledge and
experience; and it functions as a guide to
further thought and action.

-There is no question here of using the
principles of dialectics as ‘axioms’ from
which to ‘deduce’ any concrete results. If
anything, the process works the other way
around, and philosophies are based upon
results in the particular sciences. Such is
the dialectical materialist account of the
nature and history of philosophy. In his
Ludwig Feuerbach … , EngelE brilliantly
shows how the development of philosophy
is closely linked to the development of
science. In describing the history of
materialism, for example, he writes,

The materialism of the last century
was predominantly mechanical, because
at that time, of all natural sciences, only
mechanics. .. had come to a definite
close. Chemistry at that time existed
only in its infantile, phlogistic form.

Biology still lay in swaddling clothes;
vegetable and animal organisms had
been only roughly examined and were
explained as the result of purely mechanical causes. .. This exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to
processes of a chemical and organic
nature – in which processes the laws
of mechanics are, indeed, also valid,
but are pushed into the background by
other higher laws – constitutes the first
specific but at that time inevitable limitation of classical French materialism.


The second specific limitation of this
materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as
matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development. This was in accordance
with the level of the natural science of
that time, and with the metaphysical,
that is anti-dialectical, manner of
philosophising associated with it.

(LF p37-8)
These same limitations persisted into the
19th century and, argues Engels, typify
Feuerbach’s materialism; and, indeed, they
are familiar still today. Dialectical material·
ism, by contrast, bases itself upon, and
summarises, the results not only of the
natural sciences but also of the social
sciences, and in particular, of course, of
Marxism. For this reason it is a higher
and more developed form of materialism
than that based purely on the natural sciences and the metaphysical outlook.

Dialectical materialism, then, is no set
of axioms, but as Engels says ‘the science
of the general laws of motion and development of na~re, human society, and thought. ‘

(AD p194). It is not a dogma, but a vital and
useful theory. It cannot be known a priori rather it is a summary of human practical
knowledge. Nor is it a collection of principles from which results can be deduced it is a guide to thought and action. It is an
essential part of Marxism. ‘This materialist dialectic, ‘ writes Engels (referring to
both Marx and himself), ‘has been our best
working tool and our sharpest weapon’ (LF
p64). Lenin called it one of the ‘three component parts of Marxism’; and he recognised
classical German philosophy – and particularly Hegel – as one of the three basic
sources of Marx’s ideas. Indeed, Marx and
Engels themselves repeatedly acknowledge
their debt to Hegel.

Attempts to revise Marxism by rejecting
the philosophy of dialectics, and the corresponding wish to write Hegel out of the history
of Marxism, reject a central and vital aspe”ct
of Marxism. The philosophy of dialectical
materialism is dismissed as ‘absurd’ and
‘irrational’. But in the end it is not dialectics which is ‘absurd’ and ‘irrational’ but its
critics. For all the metaphysical objections
in the end amount only to a horror of contradictions and to a desire to keep the world
free of contradiction at all costs. Thus,
when such critics are at last forced to admit
that there is opposition in things, they still
refuse to recognise it as essential, necessary
and therefore inevitable opposition – that is,
they refuse to recognise it as contradiction but hold to the view that such conflict, in
Hegel’s words, ‘ranks in general as a contingency, a kind of abnormality and a paSSing
paroxysm of sickness’ (Se. Log. p440).

Dialectical materialism, by contrast, is a
philosophy of struggle and of conflict.

NotIJing comes into being except through
stru’ggle; struggle is involved in the development of all things; and it is through struggle
that things are negated and pass away. Conflict and contradiction are inevitable.

Dialectical materialism does not regard
struggle and contradiction with horror.

Conflict for it is not merely nullifying.

Struggle, and the negativity involved in it,
are not merely destructive, but also productive. Struggle is a good thing not a bad thing.

Mao expresses this idea in the following

Marxists should not be afraid of criticism
from any quarter. Quite the contrary,
they need to temper and develop themselves and win new positions in the teeth
of criticism and in the storm and stress
of struggle. Fighting against wrong ideas
is like being vaccinated – a nlan develops
greater immunity from disease as a
result of vaccination. Plants raised in
hot-houses are unlikely to be healthy.

(OCR p117)
Re has also said that Marxism can be
summed up as the view that ‘rebellion is
justified’ .

To regard contradictions with horror and
to refuse to recognise them is to condemn
oneself to being, in Mao’s words, ‘handicapped and passive’ (OCR 4 E p92) in the
face of them. Indeed, the denial of contradiction is ultimately a philosophy of reconciliation and of acquiescence to things as they
are. The denial of contradiction is the

philosophical basis of reVISIonism; for to
abandon Marx’s dialectic is to abandon the
critical and revolutionary foundation of his
thought, as Marx himself states in a famous
passage from Capital, with which I shall end:

In its rational form (dialectic) is a scandal

and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its
doctrinaire professors because it includes
in its comprehension and affirmative
recognition of the existing state of things,
at the same time also, the recognition of
the negation of that state, of its inevitable
breaking up; because it regards every
historically developed social form as in
fluid movement, and therefore takes into
account its transient nature not less than
its momentary existence; because it lets
nothing impose upon it, and is in its
essence critical and revolutionary.

(Capital Vol 1; Afterword to 2nd German
ed. p20)
Bibliography of works referred to in the text

The LO[!ic of lIegel (Enc. Log.). trans W. Wallace, 2nd edition. Oxiord
The Science of Logic (Sci. Log.). trans A. V. Miller, London, 1969
(esp. sections on ‘Being, Nothing, Becoming’ and ‘Identity, diversity,
The Phenomenolo~ of Mind (Phen. Mind.), trans J. B. Baillie, 2nd
edition, London, 1931 (esp. Preface and Introduction)

Anti-DUhring (AD)
LudwIg Feuerbach and the End of ClaSSical German Philosophy (LF)
Mao Tsetung:

‘On Contradiction’ (On Contra. ) and ‘On the Correct Handling of
Contradictions among the People’ (OCH), both in Four Essays on
Philosophy, Peking, 1966
Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
L. Wittgenstein, LectureS and Conversations on Aesthetics,
Psychology and Religious Belie>f, C.J.Darrett (ed. ), Oxford 1966
Mao Tsetung: iHectify the Party’s Style of Work, Selected Readings,

DIALECTIC -a basic and very selective bibliography
The most accessible source for Hegel’s ideas on dialectic is the
‘Shorter Logic’, published in Endish translation as
The Logic of ]Iegel, translated f~om the Encyclopaedia of the
Philosophical Sciences bv W. Wallace
Chapter VI (‘Logic Further Defined and Divided’) is Hegelis clearest
statement of wh:lt he means by ‘dialectic’, and other valu:lble sections
are those on: Deinr:. Nothing and Decominr: (paras 84-88); Determinate
Being (paras 89-95); Measure (the relation of Quality and Quantity paras 107-111); Identity and Difference (paras 112-120); Appearance
(paras 131-141).

Hegel’s ‘Larger Logic’ is published, in the most recent English
transl:ltion, as
The Science of Logic, trans A. V. Miller (London, 1969)
ThiS is a fuller treatment of the same material. but is more difficult
and obscurc, and is best uscd in conjunction with the Shorter Lor:ic.

The most useful sections arc those on Beinr:. Nothing and Becoming,
and on Identity. nifference and Contradiction.

All Hegel’ s othcr mature works contain discussior.s of dialectic.

A difficult but important text is the Preface to the Phenomenolo~
of Mind. and the Introduction is also relevant. A more p<lpular
discussion is the Introduction to the Lectures on the Historv of
Philosophy. convenientlY available in
On Art, Hcli~ion. Philn;ophy. J. Glenn Gray (ed. ) New York 1970
Two clear secondary accounts of l!egel's dialectic are:

,W. T. Stace, The Philos’_’phy of He;.:el. section on ‘The Dialectic:l1
Method’; and J. McT:lp.:art, t>tudies in the Hegeli:ln Dialectic. ch.1
A very different account. emphasising the continuities between the
Hegelian and !larxist dialectic, is in
H. Marcuse, Rc-aso;; and Revolution (see under ‘Dialectic’ in index)

Marx: virtually all his wO!!: is relpvant, as illustrating his use of
dialectic, but see especially
Capital, Vol. I (esp. Afterward to 2nd German ed, ch. 1 etc)
The Poverty of Philosophy

AnU-DUhring, Prefaces, chs. I, 9. 12,13
Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Rhilosophy
Socialism Utopi:l11 and Scientific, esp. ch. 2
Dialectics of Nat’Jre


‘On the Question of Dialectics’ and ‘Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of
Logic’, both in Collected Works Vol. 38


Dialectical and Historical Materialism
Mao Tsetung:

‘On Contradiction’ and ‘On the Correct Handling of Contradictions
among the People’, both in Four Essays on Philosophy
Mao Unrehearsed, S. Schram (ed.) Pelican 1974, chs. 4(b), 11, 14
The view t~at dialectic applies to society rather than to nature finds
a classic formulation in:

Lukacs: ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ in History and Class Consciousness
1flils Is also Sartre’s view of dialectic, to be found in
Critique de la Raison Dialectique, esp. Introduction, Section A
(‘Dialectique Dogmatique et Dialectique Critique’)
No English translation h:ls yet been published, uut apparently New Left
Books are hoping to bring one out before the end of the year. Meanwhile
essentially the same ideas, though stated in more negative terms, are
in: Sartre, ‘Materialism and Revolution’ in Literary and Philosopbical
Essays. Sartre, The Problem of Method (Methuen) is a short, selIcontamed introduction to the themes of the critique
An attempt to strrte the relation between formal logic and dialectical
logic can be found in
H. Lefebvre, Dialectical Materialism Part I
Aristotle, Metaphysics Bk. Gamma (the classic defence of the Law of
Bertrand Russell, Our Knowled!-!e of the External World (a founding
text of the modern analvtical tradition in British philusuphy, counterposing it to the Hegelian tradition. Chs. 5-7 are also relevant insofar
as they are concerned with Zeno’s pandoxes and the problem of
motion. )
J.Anderson, ‘Marxist PhilOSOphy’ in Studies in Empirical Philosophy,
Sydney 1962
K. R. Popper, ‘What is Di:-.lectic?’, Mind 1940 (reprinted in Conjectures
and Refutations)

It B. Acton,

The JIlusion of the Epoch, London, 1962, ch. 2
L. Colletti, ‘Marxism and the Dialectic’. New Left Review No. 93, 1975
T. W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (esp. Introduction & Part Two)
London 1973
Gcorges Gurvitch, Dialectique et Sociologie, Paris 1962


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