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Alienation Part I, Chapter 3 - The philosophy of internal relations <DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society
Chapter 3
The philosophy of internal relations


Marx's scholarly concern was with capitalism, and in studying this society he naturally operated with social Relations, his vocabulary reflecting the real social ties which he uncovered. What remains to be explained, however, is how Marx could conceive of social factors as Relations where physical objects are involved. For in his discussions, machines, the real articles produced, the worker's person, etc., are all components of one social Relation or another. We learn, for example, that "capital is, among other things, also an instrument of production, also past personal labor" (Marx, 1904, 270). According to the definition given earlier, every such component is itself a Relation. It follows from this that Marx also conceives of things as Relations. Unless this conclusion can be defended, the interpretation I have offered of social Relations will have to be drastically altered. By drawing together the relevant evidence and tracing the history of the broad philosophical position that underlies Marx's practice, I shall try in this chapter to provide such a defense.

Most modern thinkers would maintain that there cannot be relations without things just as there cannot be things without relations. Things, according to this "common sense" view, constitute the basic terms of each relation and cannot themselves be reduced to relations. However, this objection only applies to Marx if what he is doing is caricatured as trying to reduce the terms of a relation to that which is said to stand between them. But his is not an attempt to reify "between" or "together". Instead, as we saw in the previous chapter, the sense of "relation" itself has been extended to cover what is related, so that either term may be taken to express both in their peculiar connection.

No one would deny that things appear and function as they do because of their spatial-temporal ties with other things, including man as a creature with both physical and social characteristics. To conceive of things as Relations is simply to interiorize this interdependence—as we have seen Marx do with social factors—in the thing itself. Thus, the book before me expresses and therefore, on this model, relationally contains everything from the fact that there is a light on in my room to the social practices and institutions of my society which made this particular work possible. The conditions of its existence are taken to be part of what it is, and indicated by the fact that it is just this and nothing else. In the history of ideas, where every new thought is invariably an old one warmed over, this view is generally referred to as the philosophy of internal relations.1

There are four kinds of evidence for attributing a philosophy of internal relations to Marx. First, Marx makes statements which place him on the side of those who view things as Relations. He declares, for example, that "the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man" (Marx, 1959a, 103). Marx also calls man (who, after all, has a body as well as a social significance) the "ensemble [aggregate] of social relations" (Marx and Engels, 1964, 646). Elsewhere, this same creature is said to be "a natural object, a thing, although a living conscious thing" (Marx, 1958, 202). Marx can refer to man as a thing as well as an ensemble of social relations, because he conceives of each thing as a Relation, in this instance, as the ensemble of social relations. Engels' comments are often more explicit still, as when he maintains that "the atom itself is nothing more than a Relation" (Marx and Engels, 1941, 221).

To be sure, Marx also speaks—particularly when treating the fetishism of commodities—of social relations which are taken for things. However, it is not difficult to interpret these instances as attempts to make a distinction between two kinds of Relations, one of which (in conformity with ordinary usage) he calls "things". The view I am proposing does not require that Marx cease speaking of "things", only that they also be grasped as Relations. While statements indicating the existence of things can be interpreted relationally, his statements which present things as Relations cannot be interpreted as easily in a way that accords the former their customary independence.

Second, even if Marx's direct comments on the subject of things as Relations are ambiguous, his treatment of man and nature (or its material components) as Relations with internal ties to one another is not: "That man's physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself" (Marx, 1595a, 74). Likewise, when he declares that man "is nature" or that his objects "reside in the nature of his being", the ties to which our attention is drawn are clearly not external ones (Marx, 1959a, 156). Rather, the individual is held to be in some kind of union with his object; they are in fact relationally contained in one another, which requires that each be conceived of as a Relation.

The same inner tie is presented from the other side when Marx declares that he views "the evolution of the economic foundations of society" as a "process of natural history", or includes among the forces of nature "those of man's own nature" along with "those of so-called nature" (Marx, 1958, 10; Marx, 1973, 488). Unless we accord Marx a conception of things as Relations, those comments (of which I have quoted but a few) which reveal man as somehow an extension of nature, and nature as somehow an extension of man, can only be understood metaphorically or as poetic utterances.2

Third, if we take the position that Marx drew an indelible line between things and social Relations we are left with the task of explaining what kind of interaction he saw in the physical world and how the two worlds of nature and society are related. Does Marx view natural development on the model of cause and effect? He specifically states his opposition to seeking for first causes in economics and religion, where it is the relations in which the so-called first causes stand that still require explanation (Marx, 1959a, 68-9). In a rare instance where he records the connection he sees between two physical objects, his adherence to a philosophy of internal relations is evident. "The sun", he says, "is the object of the plant—an indispensable object to it confirming its life—just as the plant is an object of the sun, being an expression of the life awakening power of the sun, of the sun's objective essential power" (Marx, 1959a, 157). The sun's affect on the plant, which most of us are inclined to treat causally, is considered by Marx to be an "expression" of the sun itself, a means by which it manifests what it is and, in this way, part of it.

To clarify this, Marx adds that "A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature" (Marx, 1959a, 157). Each physical object, by virtue of being a natural object, is more than whatever part of it is apparent or easier to isolate. As natural objects, the sun and the plant have their natures—as Marx puts it—outside themselves, such that the relation between them is conceived as appertaining to each, and is part of the full meaning conveyed by their respective concepts.3

It is not only the difficulty of attributing to Marx a causal explanation of physical phenomena but also—as I have indicated—the problems raised by combining a common sense view of nature with his conception of social relations that argues for his having a philosophy of internal relations. Sidney Hook offers the arresting case of a critic who makes a clean break between Marx's social relations, of which he gives one of the better accounts, and the objects of nature. Hook claims "the Marxian totality is social and limited by other totalities", and that "For Marx there are wholes not the whole" (Hook, 1962, 62). This raises the practical problem of how to explain the affect of the physical world on social phenomena. For example, how are we to interpret Marx's claim that the mode of production determines what occurs in other social sectors when the mode of production includes machines and factories (physical objects) as well as the way people use these objects and cooperate among themselves (social relations)? The former suggests a causal interpretation of this claim, for this is the kind of explanation into which physical objects generally enter; while the latter suggests one that emphasizes reciprocal action between the parts, for this is the kind of explanation into which social relations generally enter.4

In From Hegel to Marx and Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx Hook wavers between these two incompatible explanatory models. Under pressure to choose, in his most recent work, Marx and the Marxists, he has finally settled on a causal account, and Marx's conception of history is declared a "monistic theory" with the mode of production held solely responsible for all major social developments (Hook, 1955, 37, 36). In the last analysis, the division of Marxism into separate wholes simply did not allow Hook to use his own considerable insights into Marx's social relations to explain the complex interaction which he knows is there. This is not to dismiss the fact that for a variety of reasons Hook's views on Marxism have changed over the years. I have simply indicated the position taken in his early works which allowed for and even rendered likely this later development.

Fourth and last, I believe I am justified in ascribing a philosophy of internal relations to Marx because it would have required a total break with the philosophical tradition in which he was nourished for this not to be so. Hegel, Leibniz and Spinoza had all sought for the meanings of things and/or of the terms which characterize them in their relations inside the whole (variously referred to as "substance", "nature", "God", etc); and, judging by his voluminous notebooks, these are thinkers the young Marx studied with the greatest care (Marx/Engels, 1932, 99-112).

It is chiefly because the philosophy of internal relations is currently held in such disrepute that it is assumed Marx could not have accepted it, and, consequently, that the burden of proof rests upon me to show that he did. In presenting evidence from Marx's writings which places him in this tradition I have agreed to play the role of prosecutor. I should now like to suggest, however, that if Marx inherited this conception from his immediate predecessors, the burden of proof rests with those who believe he discarded it; in which case we are also entitled to know the conception of things and social factors with which he replaced it—an atomist outlook, such as is implied in the interpretation of Marxism as "economic determinism", or something completely different for which no name exists as Althusser claims, or what? In the remainder of this chapter and in the one that follows I shall briefly sketch the history of the philosophy of internal relations, and respond to some of the "devastating" criticisms which have kept writers of all persuasions from even taking seriously the possibility that Marx might have shared this view.


The philosophy of internal relations, which can be traced as far back as the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, first came into prominence in the modern period in the work of Spinoza. Spinoza's own version of this philosophy is constructed upon Aristotle's definition of "substance" as that which is capable of independent existence. Since only nature taken as a whole is capable of independent existence, it is, according to this view, the sole substance. It is such a unified nature which Spinoza labels "God". All components of this single substance, whether material things or thoughts, are conceived of as its transient forms, as its 'modes' of being and, hence, expressive of the sum of interrelations which determines their individual characters. For Spinoza, who accents the totality, the parts are strictly adjectival (Spinoza, 1925, Parts I and II).

Leibniz, on the other hand, puts his emphasis on the parts and devotes little attention to the whole he sees reflected in each. Not one, but an infinite number of substances exist for him. By asserting that these substances, which he calls "monads", have individual qualities but no extension, Leibniz is refusing to treat what we ordinarily take to be things as the basic units of reality. However we understand the queer mental construct that is Leibniz's monad, what stands out clearly from his account is the relational tie that exists between each one and the universe. Hence, he can claim, "there is no term so absolute or so detached that it doesn't enclose relations and the perfect analysis of which doesn't lead to other things and even to everything else, so that one could say that relative terms mark expressly the configuration which they contain" (Leibniz, 1966, 195).5

Coming a century later, Hegel was perhaps the first to work through the main implications of the philosophy of internal relations and to construct in some detail the total system which it implied. In this he was aided—as is often the case in philosophy—by the character of the impasse bequeathed to him by his immediate predecessor, Kant. The latter had convincingly demonstrated that things are no more than the qualities by which we know them, but found such a conclusion unacceptable. Determined to believe that what appears is something more than (really, for him, something behind) what actually strikes our senses, Kant invented the nebulous "thing in itself", which remains the same through all changes in the entity.

Hegel exhibited less timidity before Kant's first conclusion, that things dissolve upon inspection into their qualities, but considered that the decisive task is to show how this conclusion must be understood. Setting aside for the moment the idealistic content of Hegel's philosophy, his main contribution consists of providing the context of the whole, or "Absolute", in which to place both Kant's problem and answer. Thus, for Hegel, the thing under examination is not just the sum of its qualities but, through the links these qualities (individually or together in the thing) have with the rest of nature, it is also a particular expression of the whole. To a great extent, the distinctiveness of Hegel's system lies in the various means used to maintain our awareness of the whole while he sets about distinguishing between its parts. His formidable vocabulary receives most of its character from this task. For example, when Hegel refers to things as "determinations", "moments" or "phenomena", he means to suggest something partial and unfinished, something whose full analysis requires that it be conceived of as including far more (both in space and through time) than is immediately apparent.

In establishing the identity of each thing in its relation to the whole, as a mode of expression of the Absolute, Hegel altered the notion of identity used by Kant and of truth itself. Mathematical equality (1=1) is replaced as the model for comprehending identity by what may be called "relational equality", where the entity in question is considered identical with the whole that it relationally expresses. For Hegel, "Self-relation in essence is the form of identity", where "essence" refers to just such extended relations (Hegel, 1965, 211). However, identity in this sense is clearly a matter of degree; small, simple things possess less identity with the whole than large, complex ones. For most modern philosophers, this proposition is manifestly absurd, but Hegel not only embraces it but uses it as a central thesis on which to construct other notions.

Thus, he maintains that truth "is the whole" (Hegel, 1964, 81). If things are more or less identical with the whole that they express, then what can be said about them is more or less true, depending on how much of what can be truly said of the whole is said about them. Each thing being relationally identical with the whole, all that is true of the latter is its entire truth; and everything short of that—which means all that we say about particular things (determinations, moments, etc.)—is partial truth. Hegel himself registers the practical effect of this interpretation for his phenomenological undertaking when he declares that knowledge "can only be set forth fully . . . in the form of system" (Hegel, 1964, 85).6 To state what is known about any one thing is to describe the system in which it exists; it is to present, as Hegel invariably did, each part as a facet of the whole. Returning to Kant's dilemma, Hegel, while denying the existence of a "thing in itself" behind observed reality, affirms that through their interrelations things are much more than they appear.

Is this the aspect of Hegel's philosophy which Marx disparaged as idealist? I think not. Hegel constructed the framework described here in order to treat ideas, characterizing what I have called the "whole" as "Absolute Idea" or "Reason". Marx's criticism is always directed against how Hegel chose to apply this framework and his preferred subject matter, and never against the relational quality of his units or the fact of system which this entails.7 Essentially, his complaint is that having produced the category of "Absolute Idea" from the real world by generalizing from the thinking of living men, Hegel produces the real world, the actual thoughts of men, out of this category. Individual ideas are given a mystical significance by representing them as moments in the life of a generalization which they themselves have given rise to.

After reversing the real relation between ideas and their concept, Hegel is led to reverse the real relation between ideas and nature—it is impossible for nature to effect the immanent unfolding of what is absolute. There is nothing left for the material world to be but an externalization and profanation of what people think about it. Without ever stating explicitly that ideas create matter (there has been considerable confusion over this point), by presenting real developments as following upon and reflecting what occurs in the realm of ideas, this is the general impression that Hegel conveys. Marx pinpoints his error as that of "considering the real as the result of self-coordinating, self-absorbed, and spontaneously operating thought" (Marx, 1904, 293). There is, in short, no contradiction between opposing the role Hegel gives to ideas and their concept and accepting the relational framework that houses these views. Feuerbach—from whom Marx derived much of his criticism of Hegel—did just this.8 And, indeed, Marx's silence on Hegel's relational conception, while criticizing so much of what he wrote, speaks eloquently in favor of this interpretation.9

Marx's philosophical rebellion began with his refusal to accept the independent development of ideas, a refusal in which he was by no means unique. In his case, this led to study which showed that social change generally preceded Hegel's vaunted history of ideas. He concluded that it was just these "material" relations, relegated by Hegel to the backside facets of an all pervasive thesis, which required the closest investigation in order to comprehend both ideas and the real world. What has been insufficiently recognized, however, is that in stressing social factors Marx does not dispense with the broad philosophy of internal relations in which he was initially introduced to them. Naturally, a new focus of interest as well as the real ties he uncovers in research required the adoption of some fresh concepts, but they too were incorporated into this relational scheme.

It is hardly remarkable (though seldom remarked upon) that whenever any system-owning attribute of a factor is at question, Marx generally relies on Hegel's vocabulary. "Identity", "abstract", "essence" and "concrete", for example, are all used by Marx, as they were by Hegel, to mark some aspect of the whole in the part. These terms which appear in rich profusion throughout Marx's writings—late as well as early—cannot he consistently interpreted in any other way. Likewise, it is clear that the unusual approach to meaning which was attributed earlier to both these thinkers is a necessary result of the relational conception they shared.

One of the more significant effects of Marx's refusal to countenance the independent development of ideas is that the concept of the whole, which in the form of Absolute Idea served Hegel as the source of its particular expressions, no longer has the central role to play in the system it represents. It remains the sum of all relations and that which is expressed in each, but offers little help, as a distinct concept, in elucidating any one of them. The real world is too complex, diffuse and unclear in its detail serve as an adequate explanation for any of the events that go on inside it. One result is that whereas Hegel offers a large assortment of terms in which he attempts to capture the whole—"Absolute Idea", "Spirit", "God", "Universal", "Truth"—Marx does not offer any (unless we choose to consider "capitalist mode of production" or "history", meaning class history, in this light). It is likely that this difference is at least partly responsible for the belief that Marx did not hold a philosophy of internal relations. However, what essentially characterizes this view is the internal nature of the tie between the parts (whatever parts), and not the function of the whole qua whole in clarifying these ties. In this same tradition, some thinkers, such as Spinoza and Hegel, devote considerable attention to what they take to be the totality, and others, such as Leibniz and Marx, do not.

Naturally the conception of change and development embedded in Marx's "materialistic" philosophy of internal relations differs significantly from its counterpart in Hegel's philosophy. The reconciliation that Hegel foresaw as the eventual outcome of history was the World Spirit becoming conscious of itself. In this context, development could only be the self-discovery of the greater ideational form of whatever is developing. The individual himself is reduced to passivity, except in so far as he partakes in his thoughts of the understanding that properly belongs to the World Spirit.

Even before Marx, the school of Young Hegelians led by Bruno Bauer replaced Hegel's World Spirit as subject with man. In the early works of this group, reconciliation was understood, however imprecisely, in terms of revolutionary activity. Disappointed by the failure of the radical movement of their day, they adopted by 1843 the pose of "Critical Criticism" for which they are better known, holding that reconciliation occurs through "right interpretation", through people coming to understand the world.10 Marx, who was a close friend of Bauer's during his student days in Berlin, developed the Young Hegelians' early perspective: if man is the subject, the way to reconcile himself with the world, now understood as his object (actual or potential), is actively to change it. Change becomes a matter of man transforming his existence. From being a passive observer of development, as in Hegel, the individual has become the actor whose daily life brings it about.

Even from this brief outline, it is apparent that Marx's Hegelian heritage is too complex to allow simple characterization. Hegel never ceased being important for Marx, as Lenin, for example, perceived when he wrote in his notebook in 1914, "It is impossible completely to understand Marx's Capital, and especially its first chapters, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx" (Lenin, 1961, 180).11 To those who argue that Marx made his break with Hegel in 1842, 1844 or 1848, my reply is that there was no such break. This does not mean that I would like to join the ranks of critics who maintain that Marx was a Hegelian, with its connotations of idealist bias, foreshadowed behavior and metaphysical posturing. In my opinion, the choice offered by these two positions is not the real one. If by "theory" we mean—as I think we should—an explanation in general terms of particular events or conditions, it is doubtful whether Marx in any period of his life, going back to university days, ever agreed with any of Hegel's theories, which gave to the World Spirit and ideas generally a role that he found unacceptable.12 However, as regards the epistemological decision concerning the form in which any and all subject matter is considered, Marx never wavered from the relational conception bequeathed to him by Hegel.

Of what then does Marx's movement away from Hegel, which practically all writers on this subject have noted, consist? If we rule out Hegel's concrete theories (which Marx always rejected) and the philosophy of internal relations (which he always accepted), this development could only involve the meaning of the concepts Marx borrowed as well as those new ones he introduced. By transferring his attention to the real world Marx instills the concepts taken from Hegel with fresh meaning while removing their idealistic content. This upheaval was not accomplished in a moment; it had to be worked out, and this took time.

Likewise, by progressively shifting his main area of concern from philosophy to politics and then to economics, the information and ties Marx uncovered became parts—and sometimes the major part—of the sense conveyed by these same concepts. I have already noted that the meanings of Marx's concepts were extended through his research, and that their particular denotations were determined by what was relevant to the problem under consideration. But Marx's research never ceased, and new problems were constantly arising out of actual events and his study of them. It is in the developing meanings of Marx's concepts, which reacted upon his system but left its relational features intact, that we can best observe his growing estrangement from Hegel. The character of this evolution, which began when Marx the student read Hegel and registered his first uncertainties, is seriously distorted by any talk of "breaks" and even of "stages" and "periods".


Marx never dealt with the special problems raised by the materialist content he gave to the philosophy of internal relations. No doubt this would have been part of the work he wanted to do on Hegel, but the pressing claims of his social and economic studies and of political activity never allowed him to begin. Provided that he could successfully operate with his relational view, he gave low priority to its elaboration and defense. This task was undertaken to some degree by Engels, particularly in his writings on the physical sciences, but more directly by the German tanner, Joseph Dietzgen. "Here is our philosopher," Marx said on introducing Dietzgen to the Hague Congress of the First International (Dietzgen, 1928, 15).13 Yet, despite further eulogies by Engels, Dietzgen's work remains relatively little known.14 However, Dietzgen's views provide a necessary supplement to Marx's own. The relationship between these two thinkers is clearly set out by Anton Pannekoeck, who claims that Marx demonstrated how ideas "are produced by the surrounding world", while Dietzgen showed "how the impressions of the surrounding world are transformed into ideas" (Pannekoeck, 1948, 24).15

Mindful of the dangers of using what one thinker says to support an interpretation of another, I shall limit my comments to features which Marx could not have missed in praising Dietzgen's work. Like Hegel, Dietzgen affirms that the existence of any thing is manifested through qualities which are its relations to other things. Hence, "Any thing that is torn out of its contextual relations ceases to exist" (Dietzgen, 1928, 96). So, too, Dietzgen declares—in almost the same words as Hegel-"The universal is the truth," meaning that the full truth about any one thing includes (because of its internal relations) the truth about everything (Dietzgen, 1928, 110).16 But unlike Hegel—and Marx too—who proceeds from these foundations to an investigation of the whole in each part, Dietzgen's inquiry is directed toward how such parts get established in the first place. For Hegel's and Marx's approach suggests that the preliminary problem of deciding which units of the whole to treat as parts has already been solved. Yet, it may legitimately be asked whether the unity posited by this conception does not preclude the very existence of those separate structures in which they claim to have caught sight of this unity. This is essentially the problem of individuation, or "abstraction", and it constitutes a major stumbling block for any philosophy of internal relations.

Dietzgen's contribution to the solution of this problem is his account of what can occur in individuation and what does occur. He asks, "Where do we find any practical unit outside of our abstract conceptions? Two halves, four fourths, eight eighths, or an infinite number of separate parts form the material out of which the mind fashions the mathematical unit. This book, its leaves, its letters, or their parts—are they units? Where do I begin and where do I stop?" (Dietzgen, 1928, 103). His answer is that the real world is composed of an infinite number of sense perceptible qualities whose interdependence makes them a single whole. If we began by applying the relational conception to social factors and then to things, we see now that it can also apply to qualities. Because the process of linking up qualities may be stopped at any point between the individual quality and the whole, the ways of dividing up the latter into distinct parts called "things" is endless. One result is that what appears as a thing here may be taken as an attribute of some other thing there. Every quality can be conceived of as a thing, and every thing as a quality; it all depends where the line is drawn. So much for what is possible.17

What actually occurs, that is the construction of units of a particular size and kind out of the "formless multiplicity" presented to our senses, is the work of the human mind. In Dietzgen's words, "the absolutely relative and transient forms of the sensual world serve as raw material for our brain activity, in order through abstraction of the general or like characteristics, to become systematized, classified or ordered for our consciousness" (Dietzgen, 1928, 103). The forms in which the world appears to our senses are "relative" and "transient", but they are also said to possess the "like characteristics" which allow us to generalize from them. "The world of the mind", we learn, finds "its material, its premise, its proof, its beginning, and its boundary, in sensual reality" (Dietzgen, 1928, 119). In this reality, like qualities give rise to a single conception because they are, in fact, alike. This is responsible, too, for the wide agreement in the use of concepts, particularly of those which refer to physical objects. Yet, it is only when we supply these similar qualities with a concept that they become a distinct entity, and can be considered separately from the vast interconnection in which they reside.

According to Dietzgen, therefore, the whole is revealed in certain standard parts (in which some thinkers have sought to reestablish the relations of the whole), because these are the parts in which human beings through conceptualization have actually fragmented the whole. The theoretical problem of individuation is successfully resolved by people in their daily practice. The fact that they do not see what they are doing as individuating parts from an interconnected whole is, of course, another question, and one with which Dietzgen does not concern himself. He is content to make the point that, operating with real sense material, it is the conceptualizing activity of people that gives the world the particular "things" which these same people see in it. Even mind, we learn, results from abstracting certain common qualities out of real experiences of thinking; they become something apart when we consider them as "Mind" (Dietzgen, 1928, 120).18

Dietzgen's practical answer to the problem of individuation suggests how structures can exist within a philosophy of internal relations, something which Althusser for one has declared impossible.19 Yet, if individuation is not an arbitrary act but one governed by broad similarities existing in nature itself, there is a necessary, if vague, correlation between such natural similarities and the structures conveyed by our concepts. This is how the study of any conceptual scheme, whether based on a philosophy of internal relations or not, teaches us something about the real world (unfortunately, this cannot be pressed—as many insist on doing—beyond what is common to all conceptual schemes). That Marx, through his study of capitalism, came to stress certain social relations as more important does not in any way conflict with his conception of each part as relationally containing its ties of dependence to everything else. The fact that some ties are preferred and may, for certain purposes, be viewed as forming a structure is no more surprising than any other act of individuation (conceptualization) based on real similarities.

The significant service Dietzgen renders Marx is to show how a proper balance can be reached on a relational view between accepting the reality of the external world (including, too, the general trustworthiness of sense perception) and holding that the conceptual activity of human thought is responsible for the precise forms in which we grasp the world. Marx's support for Dietzgen and, more so, his own practice in conceptualizing new social units show clearly that he accepted such a balance. Yet, by stressing the first part (in criticism of his idealist opponents) and neglecting to develop the second, he left his epistemology open to misinterpretation as a kind of "naive realism"; and it is this belief that lies behind the widespread, mistaken use of ordinary language criteria to understand Marx's concepts.20


The line of reasoning which I have followed so far in this work may be summarized as follows: either Marx means what he seems to (what common sense and ordinary language strongly suggest he means) or he does not. If he does, many of his claims appear very one-sided and are easy to falsify. Furthermore, he frequently wrote sentences which are utter nonsense, and was wise enough to avoid his own theories when describing any concrete situation. The attempt by some "vulgar" Marxists to defend the master while accepting the interpretation of Marxism popularly referred to as "economic determinism" is vulnerable at every point.

If Marx did not mean what we ordinarily mean in using the same terms, it is incumbent upon those who take this view to offer not only an alternative interpretation but also another basis for their interpretation than common sense. It is not enough to claim that words in Marxism have unusual meanings (no matter what we take them to be) without making clear how Marx could use words in this way. In undertaking the latter task, I followed a thread leading from Marx's actual use of concepts to the way in which he referred to concepts, his view of them as social components, his treatment of social components as Relations, his use of Relations as meanings and, finally, to his belief in a philosophy of internal relations which served as the necessary framework for these practices.

Besides placing Marx in this tradition, I have also tried to make the point that the relational conception shared by such thinkers as Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel and Marx cannot be rejected out of hand. Yet, holding that it can be defended is not quite the same as defending it. This is an important distinction, and it is one readers should bear in mind. Only after examining the main criticisms directed against this relational conception (chapters 4 and 5), seeing how it is connected to other aspects of Marx's method, and in particular to the process of abstraction (chapters 5-9), and then seeing how Marx applies this method to problems in the real world (chapters 6, 8, 9, and 12) will it be possible to make a fair evaluation of its worth.

  1. Outside Marx's peculiar conception of things as Relations, there is nothing so unusual in viewing the whole as bound up in some sense in each of its parts. Writing in 1880, William James says, "it is a common platitude that a complete acquaintance with any one thing, however small, would require a knowledge of the entire universe. Not a sparrow falls to the ground but some of the remote conditions of his fall are to be found in the milky way, in our federal constitution or in the early history of Europe" (James, 1956, 216). I remain unconvinced, however, that what James calls a "platitude" ever really was so common, or that if it was it is now, or that if it was and is now that it has ever been more than an unintegrated hypothesis for most of the thinkers concerned. Marx's philosophy of internal relations goes further by conceptualizing these ties in each part and is—as I hope to show—thoroughly integrated in his work.
  2. Kamenka has noted that Marx sometimes incorporates nature in man, but he treats this as an unfortunate metaphysical departure and an occasion for criticism (Kamenka, 1962, 97-9).
  3. Engels, whose extensive studies in the physical sciences were well known to Marx, never offers what we ordinarily take to be a causal explanation. Instead, his position is that "natural science confirms what Hegel has said . . .that reciprocal action is the true causa finalis of things. We cannot go back further than to knowledge of this reciprocal action, for the very reason that there is nothing behind to know" (Engels, 1954, 307). And this mutual effect does not occur between conceptually distinct parts, for as Engels tells us, "What Hegel calls reciprocal action is the organic body" (Engels, 1954, 406). To explain change in the physical world by referring to the reciprocal action of its parts is said to be the same thing as presenting the world as an organic body.
  4. We come across a similar problem within the mode of production itself in trying to grasp the tie Marx posits between the distribution of the means of production and the distribution of the working population that corresponds to it. Unless the physical means of production are conceived of as internally related to the people who work on them, the distribution of the two cannot be part of an organic union, allowing for full reciprocal effect. In this case, there will be a strong temptation to interpret this relation causally, to find that the distribution of the means of production determines the distribution of population. Whereas Marx himself refers to the latter's tie to the former as a "further determination of the same Relation" ("eine weitere Bestimmung desselben Verhältnisses") (Marx, 1953, 17). This has been mistranslated in the English version as "what is practically another wording of the same fact" (Marx, 1904, 286). It is in this manner that the interpretation I am offering is often hidden by translators who do not know quite what sense to make of "Verhältnis".
  5. For the clearest statement of Leibniz's views on this subject, see his Monadologie.
  6. Truth which can only be presented in the form of system can only be evaluated by the criterion of coherence. On one occasion, Hegel goes so far as to equate truth with consistency (Hegel, 1965, 52). Such an approach to truth sets as the number one problem of logic to "examine the forms of thought touching their ability to hold truth", that is, roughly, how much of the system which is the whole truth is actually conceptualized (brought to the fore and made an object of consciousness) in each of our concepts (Hegel, 1965, 52).
  7. Typical of statements which indicate this distinction is Marx's claim that "The Phenomenology is, therefore, an occult critique... but inasmuch as it keeps steadily in view man's estrangement, even though man appears only in the shape of mind, there lie concealed in it all the elements of criticism, already prepared and elaborated in a manner often rising far above the Hegelian standpoint" (Marx's emphasis) (Marx, 1959a, 150).
  8. Of Hegel's philosophy, Feuerbach had said, "We only have to make of the predicate a subject, and of this subject the object and principle, we only have therefore to invert speculative philosophy in order to have the revealed truth, pure and naked truth" (Feuerbach, 1959, 224). In the inversion performed by Feuerbach, the philosophy of internal relations remains unaltered.
  9. Marx's critique of Hegel (which includes as well, it must be noted, his favorable remarks) is to be found throughout his writings. The most important discussions of Hegel occur in the 1844 Manuscripts, 142-71; and in the "Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right'" and "A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's 'Philosophy of Right' Introduction" in Marx, 1970, 1-127 and 128-142. I would also add, since it is perhaps the clearest treatment of Hegel's central philosophical fault, Marx's attack on the "Mystery of Speculative Construction" in The Holy Family, 78-83. Despite all the pages devoted to Hegel, however, Marx's position is nowhere fully worked out. On the whole, because most of what he wrote on this subject came early in life and was more often than not directed against thinkers who had accepted the worst of Hegel, Marx's attitude appears more negative than it really is. Later on, he often mentioned in letters to friends (Engels, Kugelmann, Dietzgen) that he would like to write something on the positive value of Hegel's method, but he never had the opportunity to do so. My own sketchy and one-sided treatment of the Marx-Hegel link can be supplemented by reading Marcuse's Reason and Revolution and Shlomo Avineri's The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx.
  10. The widespread impression that the Young Hegelians were always Critical Critics, an impression due mainly to Marx's attack on them in The Holy Family and Hook's popular study, From Hegel to Marx, has recently been corrected in David McLellan's The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx.
  11. It is interesting to speculate what revisions this late enthusiasm for Hegel would have caused in Lenin's major philosophical effort, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), written at a time when—according to Lenin—"none of the Marxists understood Marx".
  12. In a poem written in 1837, when Marx was only nineteen years old, Kant's and Fichte's preoccupation with the world of thought is contrasted with his own concern for the everyday life of man. (Marx/Engels, 1932, 42) It is in this context that Marx's oft quoted letter to his father, written in the same year, in which he speaks of moving "closer" to the Hegelian view of the world, must be understood (Marx, 1962, 15).
  13. Marx's enthusiasm for Dietzgen was not unqualified. To Kugelmann, he writes of a "certain confusion and... too frequent repetition" in a manuscript that Dietzgen had sent him, but makes it clear that despite this the work "contains much that is excellent" (Marx, 1941, 80). Since these comments were directed to the manuscript of Dietzgen's work and forwarded to him, it is not unlikely that they affected the published version.
  14. Engels writes, "And this materialist dialectic, which for years has been our best working tool and our sharpest weapon, was, remarkably enough, discovered not only by us, but also, independently of us and even of Hegel, by Joseph Dietzgen" (Marx and Engels, 1951, 350-1). Engels too was not altogether unambiguous in his estimation of Dietzgen, whose work he, like Marx, first saw in manuscript form. Writing to Marx, Engels complains that Dietzgen's use of the dialectic appears "more in flashes than as a connected whole". On the other hand, "the account of the thing-in-itself as a thing made of thought" is scored as "brilliant" (Marx and Engels, 1941, 252).
  15. This is the nature of their relationship; whether one accepts the claims made by Pannekoeck is something else again.
  16. This approach to truth is accompanied, as in the case of Hegel, by a use of "identity" to express what I have called "relational equality" (Dietzgen, 1928, 111).
  17. Dietzgen asks further, "Is not every thing a part, is not every part a thing? Is the color of a leaf less of a thing than that leaf itself?... Color is only the sum of reactions of the leaf, light, and eye, and so is all the rest of the matter of a leaf an aggregate of different interactions. In the same way in which our faculty of thought deprives a leaf of its color attribute and sets it apart as a 'thing itself', may we continue to deprive that leaf of all its other attributes, and so doing we finally take away everything that makes the leaf. Color is according to its quality no less a substance than the leaf, and the leaf is no less an attribute than its color. As the color is an attribute of the leaf, so the leaf is an attribute of the tree, the tree an attribute of the earth, the earth an attribute of the universe. The universe is the substance, substance in general, and all other substances are in relation to it only particular substances or attributes. But by this world-substance is revealed the fact, that the essence of the thing-in-itself, as distinguished from its manifestations, is only a concept of the mind or mental thing" (Dietzgen's emphasis) (Dietzgen, 1928, 103-4). It should be recalled that it is Dietzgen's account of the "thing-in-itself as a thing made of thought" which Engels said was "brilliant".
  18. Though Dietzgen makes a determined assault on the empiricist dogma that perception is passive and that our mind merely registers the effect produced upon it by external reality, his account of the conceptualization process remains partial. The link with language is underdeveloped, and the affect of physical needs and of various social and economic structures on conceptualization requires elucidation. Much of the relevant work on these subjects, of course, was unavailable in Dietzgen's time, but what was available—such as Marx's own writings—was not always put to the best use.
  19. It is because of the supposed inability of this relational view to house structures that Althusser rejects the conclusion to which so much of his work points. Instead, after clearly demonstrating the impossibility of isolating social factors in Marxism, he argues that Marx instigates a revolution in philosophy by making the "structure of the whole" (a previously untried concept) ultimately responsible for the character and development of any part (Althusser, 1965, 166). On my view, in attempting to reconstruct the whole from each major vantage point, Marx is erecting—if we insist on this expression—as many structures of the whole as there are major units in his analysis. The whole grasped as the interrelated conditions necessary for the existence of capital has a somewhat different structure from this same whole grasped as the interrelated conditions necessary for the alienation of workers, and so on. The difference in where we begin leads to a difference in perspective, in the size and importance of other factors, and in the relevance of the various ties between them. Althusser's fundamental error lies in misusing the concept of structure in much the same way that Hegel misused the concept of idea; that is, a generalization based on examining many particular instances (in this case, various particular structures of the whole) is treated as an independent entity, which is then said to determine the very parts that gave rise to it. Althusser has in fact confused structure with complexity, so that when Marx speaks of the social whole as an "already given concrete and living aggregate" ("schon gegebnen konkreten, lebendigen Ganzen") (Marx, 1953, 22), Althusser paraphrases this as a "complex, structured, already given whole" ("un tout complexe structure déjà donnée") (Althusser, 1966, 198). The transition, apparently slight but possessing serious ramifications, from the idea of complexity to that of structure has no basis in Marx's text.
  20. After Dietzgen, the philosophy of internal relations has been largely ignored by Marx's followers and critics alike. Though a number of writers have alluded to relational elements in Marx's thought, I am not aware of a single full-scale study of the philosophy in which they are embedded, with the possible exception of Hyman Levy's A Philosophy for a Modern Man (1938). As a result, it was left to thinkers as far removed from the Marxist tradition as F.H. Bradley and Alfred North Whitehead (to mention only the major figures) to continue wrestling with the problems posed by this relational conception. See, for example, Bradley's, Appearance and Reality, 25-34 and 572-85, where there is a particularly good discussion of the concept "relation". Though burdened with a cumbersome jargon, Whitehead's is (along with Levy's book) the most noteworthy attempt to work out a relational view of physical nature. See, especially, his The Concept of Nature and Process and Reality.