IN SEARCH OF DIALECTIC
I am going to make some criticisms of dialectic as
it is presented in the two papers in :R adical
Richard Norman quotes with approval Engels’s
criticism that Hegel failed to distinguish between a
dialectic of concepts and a dialectic of the real
world. He then takes issue with Engels for rejecting
the conceptual dialectic as incompatible with materialism. He emphasises that, in saying Hegel’s dialectic is a conceptual dialectic, he is not saying that
it is about concepts as distinct from being about
things in the material world. He goes on to explain
what he does mean by reference to the distinction
between conceptual and empirical truths.
Norman considers first a standard example of a
conceptual tr’tith” namely, “All bachelors are unmarried”. He ,.says this “is a truth about actual
bachelors, in the real world – but it is true of them
in virtue of the way in which the relevant concepts
are used”. Thus he distinguishes between what a
statement, a truth, is about, and that fn virtue of
which it is true. But is there any genuine difference
here? For in what sense is the statement “All
bachelors are unmarried” about bachelors? It is,
after all, perfectly compatible with no bachelors
existing; it would then still be true, but it could
scarcely be about actual bachelors in the real world,
as Norman must have us believe. (The contingent
statement “All bachelors are young”, on the other
hand, could not, if there were no bachelors, be
properly called either true or false. ) In the sentence
“All bachelors are unmarried” the word “bachelors”
is indeed the grammatical subject. But this does not
make it about bachelors in the (logical/philosophical)
sense required. In this sense the sentence is no
more about bachelors than it is about all or are or
unmarried. It could be construed as being about one
of the words it is composed of – we might say it is
about “bachelors” or “all” – but again this is not
what Norman wants or means.
The same criticism applies to the second example
Norman gives, about one and the same thing not
being able to be both red and green all over at one
and the same time. The shortcoming only becomes
crucial, however, when he presents as an example
of conceptual dialectic the relationship between
universal and particular. (It is already established
that these two concepts are mutually dependent. We
cannot identify, and therefore we cannot talk about,
a particular unless we have a universal in terms of
which this can be done; but similarly it makes no
sense to talk of a universal independently of particular instantiations of the universal in question.
Within the orthodox view these truths are conceptual and therefore tell us nothing about the real
world; they are true in exactly the same way as are
the familiar statements about bachelors and how
objects are coloured; they are perhaps rather more
complicated because they contain more terms, .but
the nature of their truth remains the same. )
Norman argues that the conceptual dialectic represented by the relation of particular and universal
is not incompatible with materialism; (i. e. he
defends Hegel against Engels). His reasoning is
that, although the relation of particular and univer-
sal may be true in virtue of the way the concepts
are used, it is a truth about things in the real world.
This, of course, is the distinction I have just rejected. (Since I have” not yet discovered what materialism is I am unable to tell whether what remains of
the conceptual dialectic is compatible or incompatible’ with that theory. )
Norman implies that, since particul~r and universal are opposites, their necessary relation is an
example of dialectic. But particular and universal
do not contradict each other. Earlier philosophers
may have seen them as incompatible opposites; but
that was their error. It seems that, if opposite
properties are attributed to one thing, then there is
a contradiction. But, as is shown by the example of
a stone which is both hot and cold at one time
according to the skin temperature of the percipient,
this i~ not true. Furthermore, in the case of particular and universal it is not properly true that a
thing is both a particular and the opposite of a
particular, namely, a universal; for there is no
such “thing”. I think Norman recognises all this.
The question presents itself, then, whether what
remains should be called dialectic. For my part,
I think clearly not.
I now turn to Sean Sayers’ s paper “On the
Marxist Dialectic”. Sayers gives two reasons for
talking of contradiction in the world. Firstly, the
word stresses that concrete things are not indifferent to one another, but rather in interaction and
conflict with each other. Secondly, the word emphasises that this concrete opposition is essential and
Mlat follows is my understanding of the claim that
everything is in inter~ction with everything else.
It makes no sense to talk of a thing not being in
interaction with other things. If a thing existed in
isolation from other things we could have no presentiment of its existence, and therefore could not
talk about it. A thing is defined by its relations to
other things. Similarly, a concept is. only meaningful if there are some things which it does not correctly characterise. (If everything were red, and
always would be red, and always had been red, it
would have no meaning to say of a thing that it was
red.) Both in its epistemological form and as the
contrast theory of meaning this viewpOint is
But this only establishes that things are necessarily interrelat~d. Yet the word “interaction” connotes
change as well as interrelatedness. We have then
the question whether change is a necessary feature
of the world, or whether a world might not perhaps
be conceived of where there is no change. I will
here leave that question (if it is a real question)
unanswered, and proceed on the baSis of the fact
that there is change and that the nature of this fact
Let us now consider any process of change. The
essence of the change, leaving aside as we must
how the rest of the world is affected, is that something ceases to be quite what it was. That is, X is
replaced by not-X. If I have rightly understood the
matter, it is this aspect which is described in dialectical philosoPhy as a negation or contradiction.
It is so called for the obvious reason that the relation of X to not-X is one of negation or contradictiml.
From this nomencliture ~ise all those expressioIls
about contradiction in the real world that so annoy
common sense and traditional philosophers.
But does this argument really justify the dialectical way of speaking? It is a tautology to say, that,
when a change takes place, the subject of change is
succeeded by something different. That is what we
mean by the word “change”. Formal logic’ does not
deal with the relationships of statements that express change in their role of expressing change.
Thus for traditional logic the statements t.hat there
was a fire and that now there, are ashes are completely independent and indifferent to one another.
Traditional logic deals with the verb “to be” and has
nothing to say about the verb “to become”, 1. e’.
about change. Dialectic is an attempt to provide a
logic of change. Naturft.lly enough 7 it adopts the
vocabulary of traditional logic; 1. e. it uses such
words as “contradiction” and “negation”.
But this overlooks that we already have a “logic
of change”; namely, science. We ~ave always had a
“logic of change” in our ordinary, everyday concepts of causality. We distinguish between things
that are logically related and things that are causally related, and the distinction is a,ssisted by
reserving certain words for logical relationships
and others for causal relationships. The word
“logic” denotes the study of those relationships
(namely, between ideas) that are not dealt with in
science (the object of which is the relationships
between things). The phrase I used just now, “the
logic of change”, is, ‘strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms.
Sayers gives two examples of what is meant by
talk of contradiction in the world. The first of these
is the Marxist conception of capitalist society.
“Marx . .. analyses the relations between the
classes of capitalist society as a contradictory one.
The proletariat and the bourgeoisie are essentially
related; both 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 con. flict between them is not external to their natures
and accidental. ”
Here proletariat and bourgeoisie are defined in
terms of their economic-historical causes. It necessarily follows from this definition that they are antagonistic, etc. But in itself this inference is empty;
it merely repeats the given definition. The relevance
of the definition, however, is a conting~nt matter.
Unless it is historically true that certain ways of
living arose in a certain, mutually antagonistic way,
and are to be identified in actual existent societies,
the theory is just so many words. It is in any event
clear that people could conceivably live in ways that
possess certain broad features of the lives of those
groups called proletariat and bourgeoisie, and that
these life-styles would not logically presuppose each
other. (We can, for example, imagine what it would
be like for’ everyone to regularly do factory or similar kinds of work. ‘We can likewise imagine what it
would be like for everyone to lead a life of fairly idle·
luxury. ) The idea of a whole society living under cer ..
tain conditions is not self-contradictory. It may be
causally impossible; but that is another matter. And
such a society could not be called proletariat or
bourgeois in quite the same sense as are actual
existent classes; but that is by the by.
The second illustration Sayers gives is Newtonian
mechanics. “Everything in a mechanical system is
tn necessary relation and interaction with every
other thing. .. a force must operate .2!l something.
And in order to it must meet with some reSistance,
in the form of an opposing force. ”
Here it is important to realise, and it is not clear
whether Sayers does accept th1’s, that the exprel3sions “resistance” and “oppOSing force” have strictly
theoretical meanings(they do not, for example,
justify any talk of conflict or contradiction in the
real world. (Mechanical forces are not armies
which resist and oppose each other; these expressions are anthropomorphisms which our language
forces on to us; they are pictures which mislead as
soon as we forget the strictly limited purposes they
Once this point is clear it becomes very unclear
what exactly Sayers is trying to show with the example of Newtonian mechanics. The science does
demonstrate the fact that things are in interaction
with one another and that they can only be understood
within that context. But, as soon as we are on our
guard against anthropomorphisms, it proves nothing
more than that, and that is far too weak a thesis to
be called dialectic.
(Sayers says a little earlier that “concrete things
… are in a constant proc~ss of conflict and interaction”. Does he really mean both? If saying that
things are in conflict is just a picturesque way of
repeating that they are in interaction, then why not
say that things are in love with each other? Seeing
that Newtonian bodies attract one another, this
would seem a more appropriate word. Furt.hermore,
the word “love” perhaps comes nearer to expressing
that internal and essential connection between
things. But clearly, these words are superfluous;
things neither love nor hate, but are perfectly indifferent to one another – and themselves. )
Sayers maintains that in Newtonian mechanics we
see things not only to be in interaction but to be in
necessary interaction. His point is perhaps that the
interaction is both causally and conceptually necessary; that is, we find the traditional distinction
being called in question. Certainly – though Sayers
does not say this – it is not immediately clear how a
law such as “To every action there is an equal and
opposite reaction” is to be understood; but this may
be due to the complexity of the subject rather than
to any deficiency in the orthodox necessary/contingent distinction. (For my own part, I think that,
helpful though the distinction is, it does eventually
break down; not because it is in itself wrong, but
because the idea of a “statement” has limitations of
its own. ) Anyway, Sayers fails to say exactly how
the distinction is called into question. Instead, he
stresses key words such as “necessary” and “must”,
and hopes apparently that we will thereby feel causal
connections to be as strong as, and so synonymous
with, conceptual connections.
Conclusion: I have pointed to what are, in my
opinion, crucial weaknesses in the arguments for
dialectic. What remains, and ~here is a great deal
of it, has no special claim to the title and vocabulary
of dialectic. That said, I hope this has not been a
purely negative negation.
SEAN SAYERS ON THE MARXIST DIALECTIC
Sean Sayers’ s strenuous attempt (Radical Philosophy
14) to defend the coherence and viability of the Marxist dialectic is slipshod and obscurantist at nearly
all its crucial points – it is an unfortunate example
of the mystification which characteristically envelopes the topic and alienates potential sympathizers.
I should like first briefly to i’solate and criticise
what I take to be its most obvious defects.
(i) Sayers claims (p11) that ‘it is an almost universal
doctrine among contemporary philosophers that
philosophy is a conceptual and not an empirical
study; and c9nceptual truths are regarded as having
a timeless and eternal validity.’ Whatever we may
‘think about the truth of this claim, we should note
that Sayers himself believes that the Marxist
dialectic has a timeless and eternal validity (‘ Conflict and contradiction are inevitable’ (p19)) thus
placing himself inconsistently beyond the s cope of
his own criticism.
(ii) Sayers claims (p12) that ‘A thing is determinate
and has its own identity only” by maintaining itself
distinct from other things, by opposing other things. ti
That this is obfuscating, anthropomorphic gibberish
can be swiftly shown. My desk is not the Kremlin;
it does not ‘maintain itself distinct from’ the
Kremlin; it is not opposed to the Kremlin either.
My desk doesn’t do anything tb or about the Kremlin
for it has no will and can make no effort, but it is
different from the Kremlin – anyone who tries to
turn that timeless, eternal, obvious and innocuous
truth into a high-sounding discovery of dialectics
is grinding an axe with an addled mind.
(Hi) Although Sayers is at pains to stress that a
dialectical contradiction is not a formal contradiction, he goes to great lengths to defend the use of
the term against philosophers like Colletti who,
rightly it seems to me, have argued against its
propriety. In’so doing, he emerges, absurdly, with
a formula for a dialectical contradiction (‘A and
not-A ‘) and 10, in spite of the disclaimer, he has
returned to the formula of a formal contradiction.
Even if we waive this tortuous and unremunerative
misery-go-round, it is clear that none of the examples of a dialectical contradiction which Sayers
cites actually fits that formula, painfully clear in the
case of Marx’s analySiS of class antagonisms in
capitalist society, for there is no way of stating the
relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeo~sie in propositions of the form ‘A and not-A’. In
producing this formula of a dialectical contradiction
Sayers is unnecessarily playing into the hands of the
likes of Popper who has, I admit, wilfully distorted
Marx’s ideas – Popper’s Marx is a straw Marx and
I don’t like to see genuine Marxists like Sayers
trying to patch up the straw. Sayers’s efforts in this
respect are doubly lamentable in the light of the fact
that there are pressing problems for Marxist dialecticians even when they have. explicated their dialectic coherently_ I’ll try now to say something useful about two of these problems.
The first, and less urgent, concerns the concepts
used to describe the so-called dialectics of nature.
My belief is that nothing but confusion and justified
irritation is bred by the insistent use
(a) of anthropomorphic or animate terms to describe
the movements of inanimate nature (stones do not
(b) of the vocabulary of struggle and conflict to
describe all states of affairs, animate or inanimate.
In respectOf (b) consider the state of being hungry.
It makes sense enough to say that the emaciated
street mongrel scavenging without regular luck
around urban dustbins is indeed struggling to satisfy
his hunger, but it wo~uld be plain nonsense to describe the hunger of the sleek,. and happy retriever
whose steak is ready every day at the same timp. as
involving the hound in any struggle. In so far as it
is useful to distinguish between such casp.s, the
vocabulary of struggle is muddy.
The second problem is generated by attempts to
apply the general principles of dialectical materialism. The general dialectical materialist principle
that all things are in a dynamic state of conflict
(struggle, opposition, tension) does not, in itself,
tell us where to locate the supposed conflict in any
given case – that is a separate operation of discovery. So far as society is concerned Marx’s most
original and seminal contribution is his location of
the conflict in the class struggle. If we dig this far
with Marx, we shall, if honest, soon come up with
a spitful of interconnected problems which may
make us feel that the terl’ain is undiggable or that
the spade is all wrong or both. I should like to conclude with a few remarks about this cluster of problems.
It is the hope and belief lof Marxists that society
will eventually end up classless, or, more specifically, that ownership of the means of production will
become social. Should this occur, then it will be
impossible to analyze any such conflict or struggle
that arises in terms of class, yet, if the principles
of dialectical materialism are valid there must be
conflict. What account of this future supposedly inevitable conflict can a Marxist give? So far as I can
see, there is no specifically Marxist answer to this
looming dilemma, for, given the concepts in terms
of which he sees social change, the Marxist is neceSsarily doomed to silence about conflict in a classless society – if he argues that there will be no conflict in a classless society he ceases to be a dialectical materialist; if he argues that conflict in a classless society will not have a class character he
ceases to be a Marxist.
On the whole, Marxists have peen able to dodge
these issues by a near steadfast refusal to character·
ize communist society, and this is miserable tactics
– why should anyone fight for a communist society if
none of the committed can tell him what it would be
like? If a communist society really is worth fighting
for, the Marxist ~ have, on pain of irrationality,
a conception of that future state (a) which is more
comprehehsive and clear than Marx’s own vague
gestural nineteenth century sketches and (b) which
clearly demonstrates that comm11 nist society would
not involVe conflicts which are as bad or worse than
those which have afflicted class society. Until (a)
and (b) are realized, Marxists are pulling triggers
in the dark.
,t …. ~J:”‘.’:~.~’;’.”. f’~’.·’.”.’. ~.’.” f.:~~.;~
),.,.,~i "l ik":i'!.,,~./oI
A JOURNAL OF SOVIET SlUDIES
CONTENTS OF No, 6 (now on .lle):
Surviving as a Satirist in the Soviet Union: The MlIster and Mllrg”rir.
by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Falling Rate of Profit, Unemployment and Crisis
From the Great Logic of Hcgcl to the Finland.Station in Petrograd
The Contradictions of Soviet Society and Professor Bettlchllim
Dialectics and Cognition: A Reply 10 D.H. Ruben
An Open Letter to Vasily Bilak
Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag: A Reply from Eastern Europe
Moves Against the Left in West Germany; China Sine’e the Cultural
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