Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method

Marxism, this Tale of Two Cities


Marxism, understood as the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, offers us a tale of two cities, one, which claims to have freedom but doesn't, and the other, which possesses bountiful freedom for all but few know where it is or how to get there. The first city is called "capitalism". In this city, whose institutions are widely viewed as the very embodiments of freedom, nothing is free. Everything costs, and most things cost more than those who need them can afford. For most of its citizens, what is called "freedom" is having the right to compete for things that remain just outside their grasp. But no one keeps them from competing or from thinking that one day they (or their children) may succeed.

The other city is called "communism". Here, people enjoy the freedom to develop their potential as human beings in peace and friendship with each other. Theirs is not the freedom to want what cannot be had but to do and be and become what they want. This city can't be found on a map, because until now it only exists in the shadows of the first city. It is, in effect, what capitalism could be, what it has all the means and conditions for becoming, once the inhabitants of capitalism overthrow their rulers along with the rules that organize life in their city. The rulers are the capitalist class, or those who own and control the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the principal rule by which they operate is profit maximization. The capitalists have managed to keep communism a well guarded secret by using their power over the mike—for in this society you need a microphone to be heard—to ensure that no one learns that communism is really about freedom, while endlessly repeating the canard that something called "communism" was already tried in a few underdeveloped countries and that it didn't work.

There is a lot in Marxism, of course, that cannot be captured by this tale of two cities, but it does help to bring out the singular nature of Marx's subject matter: it is not capitalism, it is not communism, it is not history. Rather, it is the internal relations between all of these. It is how communism evolves as a still unrealized potential within capitalism and the history of this evolution stretching from earliest times to a future that is still far in front of us. Unaware of what exactly Marx has set out to study, most writers on Marxism, friendly and unfriendly, have great difficulty characterizing what he finds. For example, in so far as Marx describes and explains how capitalism functions, some writers consider Marxism a science. In so far as he presents capitalism as wanting, others insist that Marxism is essentially a critique of capitalism. In so far as he discovers a potential in capitalism for communism and outlines what that might look like, still others view Marx as mainly a visionary. And in so far as Marx advocates a political strategy for moving from here to there—and Lenin's question "What is to be done?" is always lurking somewhere in his consciousness—Marxism gets treated as a doctrine on how to make the revolution.

Science, critique, vision and strategy for revolution are ordinarily understood apart from one another—some would even maintain that they are logically incompatible—and most interpreters of Marxism have emphasized only one or a couple of these themes while dismissing or trivializing the others (or, in some cases, using them as occasions to berate Marx for inconsistency). Yet, the evidence for the importance of all four currents in Marx's writings is very strong. Moreover, they are usually so intertwined and so mutually dependent that it is very difficult to separate them completely from each other. Hence, I am inclined to view Marxism as an unusual, perhaps unique, combination of all four—science, critique, vision and recipe for revolution—and Marx himself therefore as a scientist, critic, visionary and revolutionary, with each of these qualities contributing to and feeding off the others.

The problem this raises, of course, is—how is this possible? How does one mix things that don't appear to mix? What allows Marx to construct theories—for this is what I am claiming—that are at the same time scientific, critical, visionary and revolutionary? For the tale of two cities presented above, this translates as—what allows Marx to discover communism inside capitalism, and how does what he finds constitute both a criticism of capitalism and the basis of a strategy to overturn it? At the core of every science is a search for relations, especially for relations that are not immediately obvious, and in studying capitalism Marx uncovers relations between what is, what could be, what shouldn't be, and what can be done about it all. Marx finds all this, first of all, because it is there, but what permits him to find it—while most students of capitalism only come up with the appearances (mislabeled as "facts")—is his dialectical method. It is dialectics, and Marx's dialectics in particular, that not only allows him to knit together what most others consign to separate mental compartments but actually requires it.


Dialectics, in one form or another, has existed for as long as there have been human beings on this planet. This is because our lives have always involved important elements of change and interaction; our environment, taken as a whole, has always had a decisive limiting and determining effect on whatever went on inside it; and "today," whenever it occurred, always emerged out of what existed yesterday, including the possibilities contained therein, and always led (and will lead), in the very same ways that it has, to what can and will take place tomorrow. In order to maximize the positive effects of these developments on their lives (and to reduce their negative effects), people have always tried to construct concepts and ways of thinking that capture—to the extent that they can understand it (and to the extent that the ruling elites have allowed it)—what is actually going on in their world, especially as regards the pervasiveness of change and interaction, the effect of any system on its component parts (including each of us as both a system with parts and as a part of other systems), and the interlocking nature of past, present and future. The many ways our species has performed this task has given rise to a rich and varied tradition of dialectical thought, the full measure of which has yet to be taken.

Marx's version of dialectics was derived from his encounters on the philosophical plane with such giants as Epicurus, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz and especially Hegel, and through his lived experience with a capitalism that had just recently come to maturity. Capitalism, it is important to note, stands out from earlier class societies in the degree to which it has integrated all major (and, increasingly, most minor) life functions into a single organic system dominated by the law of value and the accompanying power of money, but also in the degree to which it hides and seeks to deny this singular achievement. The fragmentation of existence together with the partial and one-sided character of socialization under capitalism have inclined people to focus on the particulars that enter their lives—an individual, a job, a place, etc.—but to ignore the ways they are related, and thus to miss the patterns—class, class struggle, and others—that emerge from these relations. More recently, the social sciences have reinforced this tendency by breaking up the whole of human knowledge into the specialized learning of competing disciplines, each with its own distinctive language, and then by studying almost exclusively those bits that permit statistical manipulation. In the process, capitalism, the biggest pattern of all and one whose effect on people's lives is constantly growing, has become virtually invisible.

I am painfully aware that many of those who reject Marx's analysis of capitalism don't simply disagree with it. That would make political discussions relatively easy. Instead, the typical reaction is to treat the capitalism Marx is speaking about as if it isn't there. I'm reminded of the movie, "Harvey," in which Jimmy Stuart often converses with his friend, Harvey, a 6 foot, 2 inch invisible white rabbit. Except he is the only one who sees Harvey. Those around him see only an empty chair. Similarly, when Marx and Marxists refer to capitalism, the eyes of most of their readers glaze over. Well, capitalism is not an invisible rabbit, but neither is it something that is immediately apparent. For it to be noticed, let alone understood, people's attention has to be drawn to certain relations the elements of which are not always obvious. But if most of its inhabitants don't even see capitalism, the system, any effort to explain how it works must be accompanied by an equally strenuous effort at displaying it, simply showing that it exists and what kind of entity it is. Widely ignored in the literature on Marx, revelation, therefore, is as crucial to Marxism as explanation, and indeed the latter is impossible without the former.

By allowing Marx to focus on the interconnections that constitute the key patterns in capitalism, the dialectic brings the capitalist system itself, as a pattern of patterns, into "sight," and makes it something real that requires its own explanation. In a world made up of mutually dependent processes, however, the interconnections between things includes their ties to their own preconditions and future possibilities as well as to whatever is effecting them (and whatever they are effecting) right now. Consequently, the patterns that emerge and require explanation includes material that will extend Marx's explanation, when it comes, into the hitherto separate realms of criticism, vision, and revolution. Consider once again the spread of relations unearthed in Marx's tale of two cities. The whole panoply of otherwise confusing dialectical categories, such as "contradiction," "abstraction," "totality," "metamorphosis," etc. serve to avoid static, partial, one-sided and one-dimensional (temporally speaking) understandings by making some part of these interconnections easier to think about and to deal with. All of Marx's theories have been shaped by his dialectical outlook and its accompanying categories, and it is only by grasping dialectics that these theories can be properly understood, evaluated, and put to use.


My own encounter with dialectics began when I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation, later published as Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971). Marx's writings were decidedly not one-sided; nor did he seem to have much trouble presenting a world in constant motion where mutual interaction and interpenetration of temporal dimensions were the rule and even large scale transformations a frequent occurrence. That much was clear. What was less clear, especially to a young student steeped in analytical philosophy, were the concepts he used to present such a picture. Despite the absence of definitions—for Marx never offered any—it was not hard to know, in a general way at least, what Marx was talking about, but whenever I pressed a point the precision and clarity I had been trained to look for eluded me. And when I sought to construct my own definitions from the way Marx used his key concepts in his writings, I was shocked to discover that their apparent meanings varied with the context, often considerably. I was not the first, of course, to note or to be bothered by the elastic quality of Marx's meanings. Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian sociologist, provided the classic statement of this problem long ago when he said, "Marx's words are like bats. One can see in them both birds and mice" (Pareto, 1902, 332).

But once we recognize this problem, what are our choices? 1) We could ignore it. 2) We could treat what Marx means (or seems to) on most occasions, or on what we take to be the most important occasion, as what Marx really means by a particular concept. 3) We could use this inconsistency as a club with which to beat Marx for being hopelessly confused, or sloppy, or even dishonest. Or 4) we could seek for an explanation of Marx's usage in his view of the world and the place that language and meaning have in that view. I had spent too much time puzzling over Marx's linguistic practice to ignore what I had found, and while it is possible to single out one main meaning for some of Marx's concepts, this left too many other meanings unaccounted for. On the other hand, even with this difficulty, I was already learning too much from Marx to dismiss him as irredeemingly confused or careless. That left an investigation into his view of the world that may have allowed and even required just such a use of language.

Taking the latter path, I soon arrived at the philosophy of internal relations, a carryover from Marx's apprenticeship with Hegel, which treats the relations in which anything stands as essential parts of what it is, so that a significant change in any of these relations registers as a qualitative change in the system of which it is a part. With relations rather than things the fundamental building blocks of reality, a concept may vary somewhat in its meaning depending on how much of a particular relation it is intended to convey. Could this be the answer to the paradox stated so eloquently by Pareto? As it turned out, the philosophy of internal relations had received relatively little attention in the already extensive literature on Marx's dialectic. And while several major interpreters of Marx, such as Lukács, Sartre, Lefebvre, Kosik, Goldmann and Marcuse, appeared to recognize that Marx's rejection of Hegel's idealism did not include his philosophy of internal relations, none saw fit to build their interpretation of dialectics around it nor to use it as a basis for explaining Marx's unusual use of language. I did.

However, in what became Alienation my chief aim in reconstructing Marx's dialectic was to understand what he said about human nature and alienation. What served to explain a particular theory, though, was not enough to account for how he arrived at this theory nor to help people study other aspects of society in the manner of Marx. The philosophy of internal relations, after all, is only a philosophy. It underlies and makes possible a certain method for inquiring into the world and organizing and expounding what one finds, but an adequate grasp of this method requires that equal attention be paid to other elements of the dialectic, and especially to the "process of abstraction". The philosophy of internal relations bans finite parts from Marx's ontology. The world, it would have us believe, is not like that. Then, through the mental process of abstraction, Marx draws a set of provisional boundaries in this relational world to arrive at parts that are better suited—chiefly through the inclusion of significant elements of change and interaction—to the particular investigation he has in mind. The resulting findings, incapsulated in the theories of Marxism, all bear the imprint of these initial abstractions. Consequently, in my next major work on Marxism, Dialectical Investigations (1993), the philosophy of internal relations cedes its position at the center of my account to Marx's process of abstraction. Together—and, despite the evidence of my earliest writings, they must be used together—the philosophy of internal relations and the process of abstraction offer the greater part of what is distinctive about my approach to dialectics, an approach meant to advance current efforts to study capitalism (or any part thereof) as well as to help us grasp and make better use of Marx's own achievements.

Recent years have witnessed a modest renaissance of interest in dialectics as a growing number of Marxist writers have adopted it as a privileged vantage point from which to examine Marx's other theories. The latest stage of capitalism, what some have dubbed "globalization," and the collapse of the Soviet Union have also sent many of these same scholars back to the moment of method for help in explaining these phenomena. The result is that dialectical method is one of the liveliest areas of Marxist research and debate today, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world. Among the more important contributors to this debate are David Harvey, Richard Lewin, Richard Lewontin, Frederick Jameson, Istvan Mézsáros, Enrique Dussell, Michael Löwi, Lucien Sčve, Jindrich Zelen?, Tom Sekine, Derek Sayer, Erwin Marquit, Sean Sayers, Joachim Israel, Chris Arthur, Tony Smith, Roy Bhaskar, Terrell Carver, Rob Beamish, Roslyn Bologh, Rob Albritton, John Rees, Carol Gould, Ira Gollobin, Howard Sherman, Nancy Hartsock, Patrick Murray, Fred Mosely, Kevin Anderson, Michael Lebowitz, Stephen Resnick, Richard Wolff, Ronald Horwath, Kenneth Gibson, Paul Paolucci, and Bill Livant. And there are others. Word of this development is just beginning to reach the broader academy. Is it too much to hope that a serious exchange of views with at least some mainstream scholars may yet replace the benign (and not so benign) neglect and worse to which Marxist dialectics has traditionally been subjected by non-Marxist thinkers? My work on dialectics has also always been shaped, in part, by my strong desire to help make such an exchange possible.

In the pages that follow, my fullest treatment of the philosophy of internal relations can be found in Chapters 2, 3 and 4. Chapter 1 gives an introductory overview of our entire subject. Chapter 5, which is the longest and probably most important chapter in the book, details Marx's process of abstraction and shows its organic tie to the philosophy of internal relations. Chapter 6 explains how Marx's used his method to study the past in its internal relation to the present. Chapter 7 presents the kind of inquiry and exposition that follows from Marx's adherence to a philosophy of internal relations. Chapter 8 expands on the work of the previous chapter to include all the different moments of Marx's method and shows how it helped him arrive at his understanding of the capitalist state. Chapter 9 explains how dialectical method is used to study the communist future in its internal relation to the present, and provides the best summary of the earlier chapters. Here, one will also find most of the scaffolding with which Marx constructed his Tale of Two Cities). In chapters 10 and 11, my interpretation of Marx's method is contrasted with that of two increasingly popular schools of dialectical thinking, Critical Realism and Systematic Dialectics. Finally, Chapter 12 offers a case study in the use of some elements in Marx's dialectical method to analyze the more peculiar features of the Japanese state.

The essays and chapters (many considerably revised) from earlier books brought together in this volume span thirty years and represent the best of my life's work on dialectics. If they often seem as if they were written as consecutive chapters for this book, it is because the project of which they are all a part was formulated at the time of Alienation (l971) and my fundamental views on dialectics have changed relatively little since then. This also accounts for the modest amount of repetition in some of the middle and later chapters as I try once again to link whatever is new to the philosophy of internal relations. Given the lack of familiarity of most readers with this philosophy and the difficulty they are likely to have in applying it, the frequent return to internal relations and the practice of abstracting that it requires (and makes possible) also serves an important pedagogical function. For, learning how to use Marx's dialectical method, especially becoming good at it, also requires a radical transformation in the way one thinks about anything, and the philosophy of internal relations—as we shall see—is the crucial enabling step in this process.

A final word on the role of Frederick Engels. The extraordinary and even unique intellectual partnership that Marx enjoyed with Engels led practically everyone for a century and more to treat Engels as co-equal spokesman along with Marx for the doctrines of Marxism. In recent decades, however, there is a growing body of scholarship that argues for important differences in the thinking of these two men, particularly in the area of dialectics. I do not share this position for reasons that were already given in some detail in Alienation, but that does not mean that I devote as much attention to Engels writings on dialectics as I do to Marx's (Ollman, 1976, 52-3). For the elements of dialectics with which I have been most concerned, chiefly the philosophy of internal relations and the process of abstraction, it is Marx who has provided the bulk of my raw materials. Yet I have not hesitated to use Engels' comments in arriving at my own interpretation of Marxism, including Marxist dialectics, whenever they seemed particularly helpful, and I have no problem encouraging readers to do the same.