Dialectics: An Introduction

authored by /u/Althuraya

posted on 2020-02-20

This was posted on Reddit. It is reposted here because I find it helpful. There is minor proofreading done. The work in its original form can be found here.

I hope that this article accomplishes the aim of clarifying dialectics in a way which very few articles do. What I write here is in no way original conception or secret knowledge. Many authors have written on this topic with clarity. However, these authors are neither known in popular discourse nor are their works the first to come up in a search engine inquiry. As such I set my task here merely as a condensed exposition of dialectics for others in hopes of sparing them the necessity of the same long and still continuing road I’ve taken to reach the grasp of the subject I have now.

The so-called method

There truly is no such thing as dialectic as a method. Immanent (internal) analysis is immanent analysis, and insofar as Marx and Hegel engage in such an activity there is no difference, there is neither ‘idealist’ nor ‘materialist’ dialectical method. This is not to say there is no fundamental difference between Marxists and Hegelians, but that difference is certainly not dialectics themselves. I shall expand on this later on, but for now the focus shall be on dialectics as such.

What is often called ‘dialectical method’, I must repeat, is a method that exists neither in Marx nor in Hegel like the likewise mythical scientific method of hypothesis-experiment-conclusion. There is no formula to this ‘logic’, no set of rules to apply over and over. There is no thesis-antithesis-synthesis, no abstract-negative-concrete. What is wrong with these formulas is not so much that they are just plain wrong, but that they serve to confuse the matter for someone who does not already know the logic of immanent critique. As description of the process, the former is understandable to some degree and the latter even correct to a high degree. The issue, however, is that people generally don’t understand that these are mere descriptions and not the process itself. They conflate a processed result for the process that creates those results, and in thinking that dialectics is this description they are led to misunderstand that the form that results is the method itself.

What is often called dialectics as a method is more properly understood as immanent critique, i.e. critical analysis of concepts/objects from within. This kind of analysis does not use any conceptual resources outside of its concept/object to critique it and has no form it must fit into. By this it is meant that one basically follows the train of thought set by the concept, the relations already within it and those that it brings up of its own content; the content being investigated leads the investigation itself, and the analyst is more like an observer watching carefully for their suspect to justify or incriminate themselves. What is aimed at by such an analysis can, in simplified terms, be three things: testing coherency, testing stability, and testing for a claim to logical/material independence or, in other words, testing for a claim of being a coherent absolute.


That there is no dialectical method is not to deny that dialectics exist. Dialectics is plural for dialectic. By a dialectic it is to be understood that this must always mean a relation of inner contradiction. For clarification’s sake, let us say that a dialectic is shorthand for a dialectical relationship.

Dialectical relationships are of the kind of contradictory forces or concepts that in their meaning, or existence, necessarily presuppose and require their opposite. To have one is to have the other. To think through one leads to thinking of the other. To change one is to change the other. This is the famous unity of opposites dialectics is described as by many Marxists. Such ‘materialist’ relations are: {Worker—capitalist}, {[use value]—[exchange value]}, {material—ideal}, {base—superstructure} etc.

The worker and the boss have no meaning or existence without each other, and if you have one you know you have the other. Likewise, the distinction of use value and exchange value requires that each presuppose the other in order to mean anything. In material relations of this kind, this means that a change in one is a change in its other. For example, a change in the economic base leads to changes in the ideological superstructure and vice versa even if not immediately.

Now, you may ask how this fits in with something like a commodity being dialectical. By this all that can be meant is that the thing/concept contains a dialectic as its content. This is much like a version of Hegel’s sublation term, a concept that cancels yet preserves a contradiction by suspending and mediating it to avoid the mortal problem of immediacy, of unavoidable contradiction, a metaphor of a struggle to the death. This movement towards mediation, of avoiding contradictions, is one of the key elements in which Marx turns away from Hegel.

This is, in a strict sense, all that a dialectic can be. Whenever we are engaging in dialectics we know that we are dealing with the study of a plurality or series of dialectical relationships. The logical movement from one dialectic to another occurs by an inner analysis of these contradictory relationships, the inner development of one from the other and back again, and onwards insofar as the analysis generates more concepts to continue. Why do we move from dialectic to dialectic, contradiction to contradiction? The reason is simple: because they are contradictions. In the sphere of thought the clash of contradiction forces thought to move of its own accord, and in the sphere of materiality contradiction manifests as clashing forces which in their relation and contact inherently destabilize and may end in a sublation or dissolution after many moments of sublation.

It is said by some that dialectical thinking is best learned by observing it in action, so here are three examples of a very basic level.

Example 1

A classical Hegelian analysis is the famous {Being-Nothing}-Becoming dialectic. Pure Being is empty of content to say anything about; its content is nothing. Since Nothing is what is meant by pure Being, Nothing is treated as the concept that is absolute and the analysis moves on to Nothing. However, if Nothing is the truth and absolute, then Nothing is. Because Nothing is, our thought immediately turns back to Being. Being and Nothing are one and the same content as both are empty, and seem indistinguishable from each other; each is constantly passing from itself to the other, becoming each other, for their meaning rests on implicitly referring to the other. Nothing becomes Being, and Being becomes Nothing as each is thought through. In Becoming we have a concept which mediates the transition from Being and Nothing into each other, yet retains their clear difference. Becoming is the sublation, the cancelation and maintaining of the contradiction, of Being and Nothing as moments of itself. Becoming’s content is Being and Nothing passing into each other, and though in content they seem to be the exact same concept, their mediation through Becoming gives them a sustaining determinate difference as moments of Becoming as coming into being and ceasing to be.

Example 2

A classical Marxian analysis is the commodity-{[use value]-[exchange value]} dialectic. A commodity, as a concept, contains within it a tense contradiction between two concepts of value in the economic sphere: use value, what we desire a commodity for in use, and exchange value, what we can trade or exchange it for. How do we know that commodities contain these two concepts? Because they are necessary presuppositions for commodities to serve the actual economic role they do. These two values cannot be had at the same time. If we want the use value, we must give up the exchange value and vice versa. The consuming aspect of the market wants use value, the selling side wants exchange value.

Example 3

An example of a simple analysis of this kind is an article I wrote on the concept of free speech. A simple summary of the analysis is that free speech is contradictory in its idea and its reality, and as such it is an {ideal-material} kind of contradiction. Free speech as a right upon analysis leads us to ask what kind of speech actually enacts its condition of protection. We find it is only dissenting speech of those in minorities or outside the status quo power that actually falls under the need of such a protection of speech. Insofar as one speaks things in the acceptable range of popular or power discourse there is no need for protection. The analysis moves forward and questions why speech, mere words, should give ground for censorship at all.

One finds that speech is not mere words, hot air, but is also activity with practical purpose to convey messages, to create responses and actions. This action related aspect of speech is what censorship aims to stop. If speech were mere words nobody should ever fear speech, but speech has actual capacity to be a force that moves people to action, and action in the social sphere means real struggle for changing the dominant power and the structures of power themselves. Free speech as it is known in the West only protects dissenting speech as mere words, but it does not and cannot protect dissenting speech that aims to make action to change the status quo.

Free speech in the end does not concern itself with speech as a medium of social activity at all, only mere words spoken to the wind. This is the contradiction: {[free speech]-[empty speech]}. Free speech, when it is claimed to exist, only exists as empty speech, mere words in the wind with no power, no capacity to make movement happen. This is why being a socialist during most of the last century was grounds for censorship and even imprisonment in the US, because there was a real danger that socialist speech would be a force and spark a revolution if ignored. There is nothing more dangerous than ideas of dissent in a time where critical minds provide fertile soil to push contradictions to breaking points of action.

That free speech is contradictory as a concept is, however, not to imply that dissenters cannot leverage it to their advantage. Indeed in reality, many people successfully do so precisely because the state apparatus, though it is a tool of the ruling class, is not a conscious machine of perfect repression. An important point about this contradiction, however, is that as dissidents against capitalism we will ultimately lose this card to stay the hand of the ruling class and will have to openly fight to regain and reassert this freedom in a new society.

Notice that I did not bother here to seek a third concept for free speech to be sublated under, I merely wanted to point out the contradiction. If one was to take a guess for what mediates free speech into tolerable contradiction it would most likely be some concept of the state apparatus that finds its place here. Marx remarked that the ideas of ‘bourgeois right’ would continue on into communism until the economy could reach a point of such abundance that the material basis of rights, scarcity and the necessary dependence of humans to each other, would disappear. Until then, like it or not, rights are in some form useful for mediating our troubles and differences regardless of their inherent contradictory nature.

The actual meaning and difference of dialectical idealism/materialism

In the realm of reason we cannot abide contradiction as being the final truth. Not even Hegel found contradictions acceptable, Thus, he saw Reason moving from concept to concept to find ways to accommodate these seemingly irresolvable affronts to reason by way of mediating concepts that sublated contradictions and in that way ‘reconciled’ the contradicting terms. For Hegel, reality cannot and must not be accepted as being ultimately a pure contradiction, irrational or irreconcilable. Contradictions are momentary hiccups, misunderstandings, problems whose solutions are only one mediating step away; they always arise, but they also always resolve in mediation. For Hegel all contradictions are resolved in the Absolute Idea which mediates the entirety of the contradictions of his Logic as well as mediating itself.

For Marx there is no final mediation that can stave off every contradiction, some contradictions are fated to end in death, complete cancellation with no sublation nor remainder. This is perhaps the central difference in the “method” of dialectics as alluded to by Marx in the afterword to the second edition of Capital where he claims his dialectics are the direct opposite of Hegel’s. The central difference does not directly make sense understood as standard views of idealism or materialism as the primacy of the mental or the physical even though this is what Marx seems to allude to when mentioning Hegel’s inversion of the world as resulting from thought, the world merely being the external form of the Idea.

Hegel’s idealism is not a metaphysical idealism of the kind in which everything is mental, but rather an idealism of the kind of which the typical centrist liberal suffers from: the world is going on the right path, there are problems but there is no fundamental problem (contradiction) to halt our progress. Hegel acknowledged private property as the root of modern society, capitalism, and its successes and problems. Hegel believed that private property, being the ground of the concept of rights, was the necessary progression of the realization of freedom in the world. What Hegel failed to see, but that Marx did, is that in the end a society grounded on private property could not actualize freedom and was actually a new form of slavery.

What contradiction told Hegel and Marx was something different and directly discernible as their irreconcilable difference. For Hegel contradiction is a signal of incompleteness of understanding, of pieces of the puzzle of the world not fitting properly due to a missing piece. For Marx contradiction signaled that the puzzle was defective from its conception. This is the true difference of Hegel’s idealism and Marx’s materialism. Marx, wrongly or rightly, asserted that there was indeed a knowable and known human nature (contrary to most socialists' foolish denial and regurgitation of the claim that there isn’t) that is unchanging. What kind of nature? A social nature, and it is this nature that is the ground and justification for the claim that communism is the ‘true’ societal form of humanity. Communism alone is the form of life which is in harmony with human nature, the world in which humanity is fully aware of itself and consciously, rationally, and freely develops its powers and accomplishes its desired aims with no appeal to anything outside of its agency.

Why do dialectics matter?

So if dialectics is not a formal method that is applied, and a dialectic is only an internal relation of contradicting concepts or forces, what exactly is useful about it? Why do many socialists value this kind of thinking? Well, first it must be said that dialectics as a term is so vague to most who use it that it is basically meaningless. The good reputation of dialectics on the socialist left comes mainly from the Marxist tradition due to Marx’s vast use of them, particularly the claim that Capital as a scientific economic theory would be impossible without them.

What exactly is the great achievement of the four volume long theory of Capital? There are books upon books written about this topic. An unbelievable voluminous literature exists to dissect and critique it. What Marx achieved were many insights, but three really important discoveries are the logical origin of capitalism in the commodity, the crisis prone nature of capitalism, and the peculiar concept of the working class (proletariat) as a class whose victory over the capitalists was not just its own nullification as a class, but the nullification of class as a social relation entirely.

The dialectic of {[use value]—[exchange value]} is the ultimate source, the gene, of the entire logical edifice of capitalism. This discovery by Marx is monumental in that it really did provide the scientific ground for putting forth a truly anti-capitalist economic mode and social formation. This is the radicalism of scientific socialism, it strikes at the very root of the system and openly and emphatically denies that economic and political revolution can be anything other than the complete eradication of this dialectic. The proper scientific conclusion of socialist economics is that commodity production must be completely rejected.

Something that is often forgotten when the value dialectic is in focus is that there are multiple dialectics in which this particular dialectic is nested in. In the background of the dialectic of value are the {[forces of production (FoP)]—[relations of production (RoP)]} dialectic and the class dialectic. While the dialectic of value and class are an unfortunately necessary mistake that ends in its own negation, the {FoP—RoP} dialectic is no such deadly dialectic. The historical contradiction between these two does have a resolution: communism. The reason why is quite simple: the whole contradiction happens only because of the class dialectic happening. It is in communism that the contradiction of a fettering of technologic progress by social relations of class interest disappears. Science in this social mode can proceed unimpeded by problems of destroying jobs, of killing the golden goose of labor which lays the golden eggs of profit, as well as being unchained from servitude to develop for capital’s ends instead of human ends.

Moving on to the dialectic of class it should be well noted that the dialectic of value occurs in class. Class is embodied in the different forms of class society: patriarch and wife, master and slave, lord and serf, capitalist and worker. Class continues to exist from class society to class society, each merely shifting about the problem of the oppressing leech and the oppressed host according to some new justification either by nature, gods, or denial that it is a relationship of class at all. The working class, according to Marx, was a new and unique class whose destiny is to eliminate the dialectic of class. Why is the victory of the working class the end of class? The answer is simple and a bit complex.

First, the working class is the universal class in the dialectic of class. In the {capitalist—worker} dialectic it is really the case of the 1% and the 99%. The working class, in liberating itself, has no other to subjugate in the 1% for they cannot be leeched off for the working class to live better or easier. The working class can only ‘subjugate’ itself, otherwise understood as being its own master. Class as a relation requires two classes, and since it is the case that there is no second class to the working class upon its victory, then it follows that class as an existing socio-economic category is negated with no remainder to sublate.

Let’s take a small detour here and ask something that is in the background of all of these analyses, and that is the question of why some contradictions are fully negated and others are not. Why are class and value unable to resolve in mediated harmony unlike the contradiction between the forces and relations of production dialectic? The answer to that is, though I must say this is only tentative, that the former are dialectics of ideal alienation and the latter is a dialectic of material alienation. The reason class and value must self-destruct is because they are ideological delusions with no basis in the material reality of humanity as human. One could say that the reason these dialectics are fundamentally contradictory at all is because they contradict the material basis of social life and cannot stabilize or realize themselves in it, i.e. the problem of the dialectic of class is that it is, quite literally and philosophically, unreal. A delusion cannot be made to cohere with reality no matter how many ways one twists it, and that is exactly what these dialectics are: delusions of alienated human agency and power.

The dialectic of forces and relations of production take place in and through class, a set of misunderstandings and obfuscations of what has always been the case: that humans have all along had all the power that they thought was in some metaphysical other such as gods, the market, or even nature. Why can’t we say then, if this is the case, that the forces/relations of production dialectic also ends in pure negation with no remainder like class?

The {FoP—RoP} dialectic is grounded in labor and form the content of a mode of production, i.e. forms of society. It is because of labor that we enter into RoP and develop the FoP. The contradiction between these two aspects of human social labor, however, are almost single handedly generated by the dialectic of class. That is not to say, however, that primitive communism had a non-contradictory relation between the FoP and RoP. It is, after all, the development of the FoP into agriculture which destabilizes primitive communism’s nature imposed egalitarianism, and enables the possibility of class relations and surplus extraction.