The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Marxist Theory   ~   Dialectics   ~   Alienation   ~   Class Consciousness
Ideology   ~   Class Struggle   ~   Communism   ~   Political Science (sic)
Socialist Pedagogy   ~   Radical Humor
Home Books Articles Interviews Letters
to the Editor
Class Struggle
Board Game

Printable version of this page

Search articles and book chapters

Latest book
Latest book -
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method

Reviews of Ollman's Books

Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives

Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech

Video: Marxism and Progress

Marxism (the cartoon version)

From Theory to Practice

Radical Jokes


Recommended Web Sites

NYU Course Bibliographies


ETF Site


Not To Dare
Butcher Shop




Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations

Dance of the Dialectic - Chapter 5 < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method
Chapter 5

Putting Dialectics to Work: The Process of Abstraction in Marx's Method

Parts I-IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII-VIII


The Problem: How to Think Adequately about Change and Interaction

Is there any part of Marxism that has received more abuse than his dialectical method? And I am not just thinking about enemies of Marxism and socialism, but also about scholars who are friendly to both. It is not Karl Popper, but George Sorel in his Marxist incarnation who refers to dialectics as "the art of reconciling opposites through hocus pocus," and the English socialist economist, Joan Robinson, who on reading Capital objects to the constant intrusion of "Hegel's nose" between her and Ricardo (Sorel, 1950, 171; Robinson, 1953, 23). But perhaps the classic complaint is fashioned by the American philosopher, William James, who compares reading about dialectics in Hegel—it could just as well have been Marx—to getting sucked into a whirlpool (James, 1978, 174).

Yet other thinkers have considered Marx's dialectical method among his most important contributions to socialist theory, and Lukács goes so far as to claim that orthodox Marxism relies solely upon adherence to his method (Lukács, 1971, 1). Though Lukács may be exaggerating to make his point, it is not—in my view—by very much. The reasons for such widespread disagreement on the meaning and value of dialectics are many, but what stands out is the inadequate attention given to the nature of its subject matter. What, in other words, is dialectics about? What questions does it deal with, and why are they important? Until there is more clarity, if not consensus, on its basic task, treatises on dialectics will only succeed in piling one layer of obscurity upon another. So this is where we must begin.

First and foremost, and stripped of all qualifications added by this or that dialectician, the subject of dialectics is change, all change, and interaction, all kinds and degrees of interaction. This is not to say that dialectical thinkers recognize the existence of change and interaction, while non-dialectical thinkers do not. That would be foolish. Everyone recognizes that everything in the world changes, somehow and to some degree, and that the same holds true for interaction. The problem is how to think adequately about them, how to capture them in thought. How, in other words, can we think about change and interaction so as not to miss or distort the real changes and interactions that we know, in a general way at least, are there (with all the implications this has for how to study them and to communicate what we find to others)? This is the key problem addressed by dialectics, this is what all dialectics is about, and it is in helping to resolve this problem that Marx turns to the process of abstraction.


The Solution Lies in the Process of Abstraction

In his most explicit statement on the subject, Marx claims that his method starts from the "real concrete" (the world as it presents itself to us) and proceeds through "abstraction" (the intellectual activity of breaking this whole down into the mental units with which we think about it) to the "thought concrete" (the reconstituted and now understood whole present in the mind) (Marx, 1904, 293-94). The real concrete is simply the world in which we live, in all its complexity. The thought concrete is Marx's reconstruction of that world in the theories of what has come to be called "Marxism." The royal road to understanding is said to pass from the one to the other through the process of abstraction.

In one sense, the role Marx gives to abstraction is simple recognition of the fact that all thinking about reality begins by breaking it down into manageable parts. Reality may be in one piece when lived, but to be thought about and communicated it must be parceled out. Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs. Everyone then, and not just Marx and Marxists, begins the task of trying to make sense of his or her surroundings by distinguishing certain features and focusing on and organizing them in ways deemed appropriate. "Abstract" comes from the Latin, "abstrahere", which means "to pull from." In effect, a piece has been pulled from or taken out of the whole and is temporarily perceived as standing apart.

We "see" only some of what lies in front of us, "hear" only part of the noises in our vicinity, "feel" only a small part of what our body is in contact with, and so on through the rest of our senses. In each case, a focus is established and a kind of boundary set within our perceptions distinguishing what is relevant from what is not. It should be clear that "What did you see?" (What caught your eye?) is a different question from "What did you actually see?" (What came into your line of vision?). Likewise, in thinking about any subject, we focus on only some of its qualities and relations. Much that could be included—that may in fact be included in another person's view or thought, and may on another occasion be included in our own—is left out. The mental activity involved in establishing such boundaries, whether conscious or unconscious—though it is usually an amalgam of both—is the process of abstraction.

Responding to a mixture of influences that include the material world and our experiences in it as well as to personal wishes, group interests, and other social constraints, it is the process of abstraction that establishes the specificity of the objects with which we interact. In setting boundaries, in ruling this far and no further, it is what makes something one (or two, or more) of a kind, and lets us know where that kind begins and ends. With this decision as to units, we also become committed to a particular set of relations between them—relations made possible and even necessary by the qualities that we have included in each—a register for classifying them, and a mode for explaining them.

In listening to a concert, for example, we often concentrate on a single instrument or recurring theme and then redirect our attention elsewhere. Each time this occurs, the whole music alters, new patterns emerge, each sound takes on a different value, etc. How we understand the music is largely determined by how we abstract it. The same applies to what we focus on when watching a play, whether on a person, or a combination of persons, or a section of the stage. The meaning of the play and what more is required to explore or test that meaning alters, often dramatically, with each new abstraction. In this way, too, how we abstract literature, where we draw the boundaries, determines what works and what parts of each work will be studied, with what methods, in relation to what other subjects, in what order, and even by whom. Abstracting literature to include its audience, for example, leads to a sociology of literature, while an abstraction of literature that excludes everything but its forms calls forth various structural approaches, and so on.

From what has been said so far, it is clear that "abstraction" is itself an abstraction. I have abstracted it from Marx's dialectical method, which in turn was abstracted from his broad theories, which in turn were abstracted from his life and work. The mental activities that we have collected and brought into focus as "abstraction" are more often associated with the processes of perception, conception, defining, reasoning, and even thinking. It is not surprising, therefore, if the process of abstraction strikes many people as both foreign and familiar at the same time. Each of these more familiar processes operate in part by separating out, focusing, and putting emphasis on only some aspects of that reality with which they come into contact. In "abstraction," we have simply separated out, focused and put emphasis on certain common features of these other processes. Abstracting "abstraction" in this way is neither easy nor obvious, and therefore few people have done it. Consequently, though everyone abstracts, of necessity, only a few are aware of it as such. This philosophical impoverishment is reinforced by the fact that most people are lazy abstractors, simply and uncritically accepting the mental units with which they think as part of their cultural inheritance.

A further complication in grasping "abstraction" arises from the fact that Marx uses the term in four different, though closely related, senses. First, and most important, it refers to the mental activity of subdividing the world into the mental constructs with which we think about it, which is the process that we have been describing. Second, it refers to the results of this process, the actual parts into which reality has been apportioned. That is to say, for Marx, as for Hegel before him, "abstraction" functions as a noun as well as a verb, the noun referring to what the verb has brought into being. In these senses, everyone can be said to abstract (verb) and to think with abstractions (noun). But Marx also uses "abstraction" in a third sense, where it refers to a suborder of particularly ill fitting mental constructs. Whether because they are too narrow, take in too little, focus too exclusively on appearances, or are otherwise badly composed, these constructs do not allow an adequate grasp of their subject matter.

Taken in this third sense, abstractions are the basic unit of ideology, the inescapable ideational result of living and working in alienated society. "Freedom," for example, is said to be such an abstraction whenever we remove the real individual from "the conditions of existence within which these individuals enter into contact" (Marx, 1973, 164). Omitting the conditions that make freedom possible (or impossible)—including the real alternatives available, the role of money, the socialization of the person choosing, etc.—from the meaning of "freedom" leaves a notion that can only distort and obfuscate even that part of reality it sets out to convey. A lot of Marx's criticism of ideology makes use of this sense of "abstraction".

Finally, Marx uses the term "abstraction" in a fourth still different sense where it refers to a particular organization of elements in the real world—having to do with the functioning of capitalism—that provides the objective underpinnings for most of the ideological abstractions mentioned above. Abstractions in this fourth sense exist in the world and not, as in the case with the other three, in the mind. In these abstractions, certain spatial and temporal boundaries and connections stand out, just as others are obscure even invisible, making what is in practice inseparable appear separate. It is in this way that commodities, value, money, capital, etc. are likely to be misconstrued from the start. Marx labels these objective results of capitalist functioning "real abstractions", and it is chiefly "real abstractions" that incline the people who have contact with them is referring to when he says that in capitalist society "people are governed by abstractions" (Marx, 1973, 164). Such remarks, however, must not keep us from seeing that Marx also abstracts in the first sense given above and, like everyone else, thinks with abstractions in the second sense, and that the particular way in which he does both goes a long way in accounting for the distinctive character of Marxism.

Despite several explicit remarks on the centrality of abstraction in Marx's work, the process of abstraction has received relatively little attention in the literature on Marxism. Serious work on Marx's dialectical method can usually be distinguished on the basis of which of the categories belonging to the vocabulary of dialectics is treated as pivotal. For Lukács, it was the concept of "totality" that played this role (Lukács, 1971); for Mao, it was "contradiction" (Mao, 1968); for Raya Dunayevskaya, it was the "negation of negation" (Dunayevskaya,1982); for Scott Meikle, it was "essence" (Meikle, 1985); for the Ollman of Alienation, it was "internal relations" (Ollman, 1971), and so on. Even when abstraction is discussed—and no serious work dismisses it altogether—the main emphasis is generally on what it is in the world or in capitalism that is responsible for the particular abstractions made, and not on the process of abstraction as such and on what exactly Marx does and how he does it. 1 Consequently, the implications of Marx's abstracting practice for the theories of Marxism remain clouded, and those wishing to develop these theories and where necessary revise them receive little help in their efforts to abstract in the manner of Marx. In what follows, it is just this process of abstraction, how it works and particularly how Marx works it, that serves as the centerpiece for our discussion of dialectics.


How Marx's Abstractions Differ

What, then, is distinctive about Marx's abstractions? To begin with, it should be clear that Marx's abstractions do not and cannot diverge completely from the abstractions of other thinkers both then and now. There has to be a lot of overlap. Otherwise, he would have constructed what philosophers call a "private language," and any communication between him and the rest of us would be impossible. How close Marx came to fall into this abyss and what can be done to repair some of the damage already done are questions I hope to deal with in a later work. Second, in depicting Marx's process of abstraction as a predominantly conscious and rational activity, I do not mean to deny the enormous degree to which what results accurately reflects the real world. However, the realist foundations of Marx's thinking are sufficiently (though by no means adequately) understood to be taken for granted here while we concentrate on the process of abstraction as such.2

Keeping these two qualifications clearly in mind, we can now say that what is most distinctive about Marx's abstractions, taken as a group, is that they focus on and incorporate both change and interaction (or system) in the particular forms in which these occur in the capitalist era. It is important to underline from the start that Marx's main concern was with capitalism. He sought to discover what it is and how it works, as well as how it emerged and where it is tending. We shall call the organic and historical processes involved here the double movement of the capitalist mode of production. Each movement affects the other, and how one grasps either affects one's understanding of both. But how does one study the history of a system, or the systemic functioning of evolving processes, where the main determinants of change lie within the system itself? For Marx, the first and most important step was to incorporate the general form of what he was looking for, to wit—change and interaction, into all the abstractions he constructed as part of his research. Marx's understanding of capitalism, therefore, is not restricted to the theories of Marxism, which relate the components of the capitalist system, but some large part of it is found within the very abstractions with which these theories have been constructed.

Beginning with historical movement, Marx's preoccupation with change and development is undisputed. What is less known, chiefly because it is less clear, is how he thought about change, how he abstracted it, and how he integrated these abstractions into his study of a changing world. The underlying problem is as old as philosophy itself. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, provides us with its classic statement when he asserts that a person cannot step into the same river twice. Enough water has flowed between the two occasions so that the river we step into the second time is not the same river we walked into earlier. Yet our common sense tells us that it is, and our naming practice reflects this view. The river is still called the "Hudson", or the "Rhine" or the "Ganges". Heraclitus, of course, was not interested in rivers, but in change. His point is that change goes on everywhere and all the time, but that our manner of thinking about it is sadly inadequate. The flow, the constant alteration of movement away from something and toward something else, is generally missing. Usually, where change takes place very slowly or in very small increments, its impact can be safely neglected. On the other hand, depending on the context and on our purpose in it, even such change—because it occurs outside our attention—may occasionally startle us and have grave consequences for our lives.

Even today few are able to think about the changes they know to be happening in ways that don't distort—usually by underplaying—what is actually going on. From the titles of so many works in the social sciences it would appear that a good deal of effort is being directed to studying change of one kind or another. But what is actually taken as "change" in most of these works? It is not the continuous evolution and alteration that goes on in their subject matter, the social equivalent of the flowing water in Heraclitus' river. Rather, almost invariably, it is a comparison of two or more differentiated states in the development of the object or condition or group under examination. As the sociologist, James Coleman, who defends this approach, admits, "The concept of change in science is a rather special one, for it does not immediately follow from our sense impressions . . . It is based on a comparison, or difference between two sense impressions, and simultaneously a comparison of the times at which the sense impressions occurred." Why? Because, according to Coleman, "the concept of change must, as any concept, itself reflect a state of an object at a point in time" (Coleman, 1968, 429). Consequently, a study of the changes in the political thinking of the American electorate, for example, gets translated into an account of how people voted (or responded to opinion polls) in 1956, 1960, 1964, etc., and the differences found in a comparison of these static moments is what is called "change." It is not simply, and legitimately, that the one, the difference between the moments, gets taken as an indication of or evidence for the other, the process; rather, it stands in for the process itself.

In contrast to this approach, Marx set out to abstract things, in his words, "as they really are and happen," making how they happen part of what they are (Marx and Engels, 1964, 57). Hence, capital (or labor, money, etc.) is not only how capital appears and functions, but also how it develops; or rather, how it develops, its real history, is also part of what it is. It is also in this sense that Marx could deny that nature and history "are two separate things" (Marx and Engels, 1964, 57). In the view which currently dominates the social sciences, things exist and undergo change. The two are logically distinct. History is something that happens to things; it is not part of their nature. Hence, the difficulty of examining change in subjects from which it has been removed at the start. Whereas Marx, as he tells us, abstracts "every historical social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence" (My emphasis) (Marx, 1958, 20).

But history for Marx refers not only to time past but to time future. So that whatever something is becoming—whether we know what that will be or not—is in some important respects part of what it is along with what it once was. For example, capital, for Marx, is not simply the material means of production used to produce wealth, which is how it is abstracted in the work of most economists. Rather, it includes the early stages in the development of these particular means of production, or "primitive accumulation," indeed whatever has made it possible for it to produce the kind of wealth it does in just the way it does (viz. permits wealth to take the form of value, something produced not because it is useful but for purposes of exchange). Furthermore, as part of its becoming, capital incorporates the accumulation of capital that is occurring now together with its tendency toward concentration and centralization, and the effect of this tendency on both the development of a world market and an eventual transition to socialism. According to Marx, the tendency to expand surplus-value and with it production, and therefore to create a world market, is "directly given in the concept of capital itself" (Marx, 1973, 408).

That capital contains the seeds of a future socialist society is also apparent in its increasingly socialized character and in the growing separation of the material means of production from the direct control of capitalists, making the latter even more superfluous than they already are. This "history" of capital is part of capital, contained within the abstraction that Marx makes of capital, and part of what he wants to convey with its covering concept. All of Marx's main abstractions—labor, value, commodity, money, etc.—incorporate process, becoming, history in just this way. Our purpose here is not to explain Marx's political economy, but simply to use some of his claims in this area to illustrate how he integrates what most readers would take to be externally related phenomena, in this case its real past and likely future, into his abstraction of its present form.

Marx often uses the qualifying phrase "in itself" to indicate the necessary and internal ties between the future development of anything and how it presents itself at this moment. Money and commodity, for example, are referred to as "in themselves" capital (Marx, 1963, 396). Given the independent forms in which they confront the worker in capitalist society—something separate from him but something he must acquire in order to survive—money and commodity ensure the exchange of labor power and through it their own transformation into means of production used to produce new value. Capital is part of what they are becoming, part of their future, and hence part of them. Just as money and commodity are parts of what capital is, parts of its past, and hence parts of it. Elsewhere, Marx refers to money and commodity as "potential capital," as capital "only in intention, in their essence, in what they were destined to be" (Marx, 1971, 465; Marx, 1963, 399-400). Similarly, all labor is abstracted as wage-labor, and all means of production as capital, because this is the direction in which they are evolving in capitalist society (Marx, 1963, 409-10).

To consider the past and likely future development of anything as integral to what it is, to grasp this whole as a single process, does not keep Marx from abstracting out some part or instant of this process for a particular purpose and from treating it as relatively autonomous. Aware that the units into which he has subdivided reality are the results of his abstractions, Marx is able to re-abstract this reality, restricting the area brought into focus in line with the requirements of his current study. But when he does this, he often underlines its character as a temporally stable part of a larger and ongoing process by referring to it as a "moment." In this way, commodity is spoken of as a "moment in exchange," money (in its aspect as capital) as a "moment" in the process of production, and circulation in general as a "moment in the system of production" (Marx, 1973, 145, 217). Marx's naming practice here reflects the epistemological priority he gives to movement over stability, so that stability—whenever it is found—is viewed as temporary and/or only apparent, or, as he says on one occasion, as a "paralysis" of movement (Marx, 1971, 212). With stability used to qualify change rather than the reverse, Marx—unlike most modern social scientists—did not and could not study why things change (with the implication that change is external to what they are, something that happens to them). Given that change is always a part of what things are, his research problem could only be how, when, and into what they change and why they sometimes appear not to (ideology).

Before concluding our discussion of the place of change in Marx's abstractions, it is worth noting that thinking in terms of processes is not altogether alien to common sense. It occurs in abstractions of actions, such as eating, walking, fighting, etc., indeed whenever the gerund form of the verb is used. Likewise, event words, such as "war" and "strike", indicate that to some degree at least the processes involved have been abstracted as such. On the other hand, it is also possible to think of war and strike as a state or condition, more like a photo than a motion picture, or if the latter, then a single scene that gets shown again and again, which removes or seriously underplays whatever changes are taking place. And unfortunately, the same is true of most action verbs. They become action "things." In such cases, the real processes that go on do not get reflected—certainly not to any adequate degree—in our thinking about them. It is my impression that in the absence of any commitment to bring change itself into focus, in the manner of Marx, this is the more typical outcome.

Earlier we said that what distinguishes Marx's abstractions is that they contain not only change or history but also some portion of the system in which it occurs. Since change in anything only takes place in and through a complex interaction between closely related elements, treating change as intrinsic to what anything is requires that we treat the interaction through which it occurs in the same way. With a static notion of anything it is easy to conceive of it as also discrete, logically independent of and easily separable from its surrounding conditions. They do not enter directly into what it is. While viewing the same thing as a process makes it necessary to extend the boundaries of what it is to include at least some part of the surrounding conditions that enter into this process. In sum, as far as abstractions are concerned, change brings mutual dependence in its wake. Instead of a mere sequence of events isolated from their context, a kind of one-note development, Marx's abstractions become phases of an evolving and interactive system.

Hence, capital, which we examined earlier as a process, is also a complex Relation encompassing the interaction between the material means of production, capitalists, workers, value, commodity, money, and more—and all this over time. Marx says, "the concept of capital contains the capitalist"; he refers to workers as "variable capital" and says capital is "nothing without wage-labor, value, money, price, etc." (Marx, 1973, 512; Marx, 1958, 209; Marx, 1904, 292). Elsewhere, the "processual" character of these aspects of the capital Relation is emphasized in referring to them as "value in process" and "money in process" (Marx, 1971,137). If capital, like all other important abstractions in Marxism, is both a process and a Relation, viewing it as primarily one or the other could only be a way of emphasizing either its historical or systemic character for a particular purpose.

As in his abstractions of capital as a process, so too in his abstractions of it as a Relation, Marx can focus on but part of what capital contains. While the temporally isolated part of a process is generally referred to as a "moment", the spatially isolated aspect of a Relation is generally referred to as a "form" or "determination." With "form," Marx usually brings into focus the appearance and/or function of any Relation, that by which we recognize it, and most often it is its form that is responsible for the concept by which we know and communicate it. Hence, value (a Relation) in its exchangeable form is called "money"; while in the form in which it facilitates the production of more value, it is called "capital'; and so on. "Determination," on the other hand, enables Marx to focus on the transformational character of any relational part, on what best brings out its mutual dependence and changeability within the interactive system. Upon analysis, moments, forms, and determinations all turn out to be Relations. So that after referring to the commodity as a moment in wealth, Marx immediately proceeds to pick it apart as a Relation (Marx, 1973, 218). Elsewhere, Marx refers to interest, profit, and rent as forms which through analysis lose their "apparent independence," and are seen to be Relations (Marx, 1971, 429).

Earlier, we saw that some abstractions that contain processes could also be found in what we called common sense. The same is true of abstractions that focus on Relations. Father, which contains the relation between a man and a child, is one. Buyer, which contains the relations between a person and something sold or available for sale, is another. But compared to the number and scope of relations in the world, such relations are few and meager in their import. Within the common sense of our time and place, most social ties are thought about in abstractions that focus on the parts one at a time, separately as well as statically. Marx, however, believes that in order to adequately grasp the systemic connections that constitute such an important part of reality one has to incorporate them—along with the ways in which they change—into the very abstractions in and with which one thinks about them. All else is make-do patchwork, a one-sided, lopsided way of thinking that invites the neglect of essential connections together with the distortion of whatever influence they exert on the overall system.

Where have we arrived? Marx's abstractions are not things but processes. These processes are also, of necessity, systemic Relations in which the main processes with which Marx deals are all implicated. Consequently, each process serves as an aspect, or subordinate part, of other processes, grasped as clusters of relations, just as they do in it. In this way, Marx brings what we have called the double movement of the capitalist mode of production (its history and organic movement) together in the same abstractions, uniting in his thinking what is united in reality. And whenever he needs to focus on but part of this complex, he does so as a moment, a form or a determination.

Marx's abstractions seem to be very different, especially as regards the treatment of change and interaction, from those in which most people think about society. But if Marx's abstractions stand out as much as our evidence suggests they do, it is not enough to display them. We also need to know what gives Marx the philosophical license to abstract as he does. Whence comes his apparent facility in making and changing abstractions? And what is the relation between his abstractions and those of common sense? It is because most readers cannot see how Marx could possibly abstract as he does that they continue to deny—and perhaps not even notice-the widespread evidence of his practice. Therefore, before making a more detailed analysis of Marx's process of abstraction and its place and role in his dialectical method and broader theories, a brief detour through his philosophical presuppositions is in order.


The Philosophy of Internal Relations

According to Marx, "The economists do not conceive of capital as a Relation. They cannot do so without at the same time conceiving of it as a historical transitory, i.e., a relative—not an absolute—form of production" (Marx, 1971, 274). This is not a comment about the content of capital, about what it is, kind of thing it is—to wit, a Relation. To grasp capital, as Marx does, as a complex Relation which has at its core internal ties between the material means of production and those who own them, those who work on them, their special product, value, and the conditions in which owning and working go on is to know capital as a historical event, as something that emerged as a result of specific conditions in the lifetime of real people and that will disappear when these conditions do. Viewing such connections as external to what capital is—which, for them, is simply the material means of production or money used to buy such—the economists fall into treating capital as an ahistorical variable. Without saying so explicitly and certainly without ever explicitly defending this position, capital becomes something that has always been and will always be.

The view held by most people, scholars and others, in what we've been calling the common sense view, maintains that there are things and there are relations, and that neither can be subsumed in the other. This position is summed up in Bishop Butler's statement, which G. E. Moore adopts as a motto: "Everything is what it is, and not another thing," taken in conjunction with Hume's claim, "All events seem entirely loose and separate" (Moore, 1903, title page; Hume, 1955, 85). On this view, capital may be found to have relations with labor, value, etc., and it may even be that accounting for such relations plays an important role in explaining what capital is; but capital is one thing, and its relations quite another. Marx, on the other hand, following Hegel's lead in this matter, rejects what is, in essence, a logical dichotomy. For him, as we saw, capital is itself a Relation, in which the ties of the material means of production to labor, value, commodity, etc., are interiorized as parts of what capital is. Marx refers to "things themselves" as "their interconnections" (Marx and Engels, 1950, 488). Moreover, these relations extend backward and forward in time, so that capital's conditions of existence as they have evolved over the years and its potential for future development are also viewed as parts of what it is.

On the common sense view, any element related to capital can change without capital itself changing. Workers, for example, instead of selling their labor-power to capitalists, as occurs in capitalism, could become slaves, or serfs, or owners of their own means of production, and in every case their instruments of work would still be capital. The tie between workers and the means of production here is contingent, a matter of chance, and therefore external to what each really is. In Marx's view, a change of this sort would mean a change in the character of capital itself, in its appearance and/or functioning no matter how far extended. The tie is a necessary and essential one; it is an internal relation. Hence, where its specific relationship to workers has changed, the means of production become something else, and something that is best captured by a concept other than "capital." Every element that comes into Marx's analysis of capitalism is a Relation of this sort. It is this view that underlies and helps explain his practice of abstraction and the particular abstractions that result, along with all the theories raised on them.

It appears that the problem non-Marxists have in understanding Marx is much more profound than is ordinarily thought. It is not simply that they don't grasp what Marx is saying about capital (or labor, or value, or the state, etc.) because his account is unclear or confused, or that the evidence for his claims is weak or undeveloped. Rather, it is that the basic form, the Relation, in which Marx thinks about each of the major elements that come into his analysis is unavailable, and therefore its ideational content is necessarily misrepresented, if only a little (though usually it is much more). As an attempt to reflect the relations in capitalist society by incorporating them into its core abstractions, Marxism suffers the same distorting fate as these relations themselves.

In the history of ideas, the view that we have been developing is known as the philosophy of internal relations. Marx's immediate philosophical influences in this regard were Leibniz, Spinoza, and Hegel, particularly Hegel. What all had in common is the belief that the relations that come together to make up the whole get expressed in what are taken to be its parts. Each part is viewed as incorporating in what it is all its relations with other parts up to and including everything that comes into the whole. To be sure, each of these thinkers had a distinctive view of what the parts are. For Leibniz, it was monads; for Spinoza, modes of nature or God; and for Hegel, ideas. But the logical form in which they construed the relation between parts and the whole was the same.

Some writers on Marx have argued for a restricted form of internal relations that would apply only to society and not to the natural world (Rader, 1979, chapter 2). But reality doesn't allow such absolute distinctions. People have bodies as well as minds and social roles. Alienation, for example, affects all three, and in their alienated forms each is internally related to the others. Likewise, capital, commodities, money, and the forces of production all have material as well as social aspects. To maintain that the philosophy of internal relations does not respect the usual boundaries between nature and society does not mean that Marx cannot for certain purposes abstract units that fall primarily or even wholly on one or the other side of this divide. Whenever he speaks of "thing" or, as is more frequent, of "social relations," this is what occurs, but in every case what has been momentarily put aside is internally related to what has been brought into focus. Consequently, he is unlikely to minimize or dismiss, as many operating with external relations do, the influences of either natural or social phenomena on the other.

What is the place of such notions as "cause" and "determine" within a philosophy of internal relations? Given the mutual interaction Marx assumes between everything in reality, now and forever, there can be no cause that is logically prior to and independent of that to which it is said to give rise and no determining factor that is itself not affected by that which it is said to determine. In short, the common sense notions of "cause" and "determine" that are founded on such logical independence and absolute priority do not and cannot apply. In their stead we find frequent claims of the following kind: the propensity to exchange is the "cause or reciprocal effect" of the division of labor; and interest and rent "determine" market prices and "are determined" by it (Marx, 1959b, 134; Marx, 1971, 512). In any organic system viewed over time all the processes evolve together. Hence, no process comes first and each one can be said to determine and be determined by the others. However, it is also the case that one process often has a greater affect on others than they do on it; and Marx also uses "cause" and especially "determine" to register this asymmetry. Thus, in the interaction between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption—particularly though not exclusively in capitalism—production is held to be more determining (Marx, 1904, 274ff.). A good deal of Marx's research is devoted to locating and mapping whatever exercises a greater or special impact on other parts of the capitalist system, but, whether made explicit or not, this always takes place on a backdrop of reciprocal effect. (Another complementary sense of "cause" and "determine" will be presented later.)

Returning to the process of abstraction, it is the philosophy of internal relations that gives Marx both license and opportunity to abstract as freely as he does, to decide how far into its internal relations any particular will extend. Making him aware of the need to abstract—since boundaries are never given and when established never absolute—it also allows and even encourages re-abstraction, makes a variety of abstractions possible, and helps to develop his mental skills and flexibility in making abstractions. If "a relation," as Marx maintains, "can obtain a particular embodiment and become individualized only by means of abstraction," then learning how to abstract is the first step in learning how to think (Marx, 1973, 142).

Operating with a philosophy of external relations doesn't absolve others from the need to abstract. The units in and with which one thinks are still abstractions and products of the process of abstraction as it occurs during socialization and, particularly, in the acquisition of language. Only, in this case, one takes boundaries as given in the nature of reality as such, as if they have the same ontological stature as the qualities perceived. The role played by the process of abstraction is neither known nor appreciated. Consequently, there is no awareness that one can—and often should-re-abstract, and the ability and flexibility for doing so is never acquired. Whatever re-abstraction goes on, of necessity, as part of learning new languages or new schools of thought, or as a result of important new experiences, takes place in the dark, usually unconsciously, certainly unsystematically, and with little understanding of either assumptions or implications. Marx, on the other hand, is fully aware that he abstracts and of its assumptions and implications both for his own thinking and that of others—hence the frequent equation of ideology in those he criticizes with their inadequate abstractions.

In order to forestall possible misunderstandings it may be useful to assert that the philosophy of internal relations is not an attempt to reify "what lies between." It is simply that the particular ways in which things cohere become essential attributes of what they are. The philosophy of internal relations also does not mean—as some of its critics have charged—that investigating any problem can go on forever (to say that boundaries are artificial is not to deny them an existence, and, practically speaking, it is simply not necessary to understand everything in order to understand anything); or that the boundaries which are established are arbitrary (what actually influences the character of Marx's or anyone else's abstractions is another question); or that we cannot mark or work with some of the important objective distinctions found in reality (on the contrary, such distinctions are a major influence on the abstractions we do make); or, finally, that the vocabulary associated with the philosophy of internal relations—particularly "totality," "relation," and "identity"—cannot also be used in subsidiary senses to refer to the world that comes into being after the process of abstraction has done its work.

In the philosophy of internal relations, "totality" is a logical construct that refers to the way the whole is present through internal relations in each of its parts. Totality, in this sense, is always there, and adjectives like "more" and "less" don't apply. But Marx's work also contains constructed or emergent totalities, which are of a historical nature, and great care must be taken not to confuse the two. In the latter case, a totality, or whole, or system is built up gradually as its elements emerge, cohere, and develop over time. "The circumstances under which a relation occurs for the first time," Marx says, "by no means shows us that relation either in its purity or in its totality" (Marx, 1971, 205). Here, too, unlike logical totalities, some systems can be said to be more or less complete than others, or than itself at an earlier stage. There is nothing in the philosophy of internal relations that interferes with the recognition of such totalities. All that is required is that at every stage in its emergence each part be viewable as a relational microcosm of the whole, including its real history and potential for future development.

The advantages of using any relational part as a starting point for reconstructing the interconnections of the whole, of treating it as a logical totality, will increase, of course, as its social role grows and its ties with other parts become more complex, as it becomes in other words more of an emergent totality. One would not expect the commodity, for example, to serve as a particularly useful starting place from which to reconstruct slave society or feudalism, where it exists but only on the fringes (to the extent that there is some wage-labor and/or some trade between different communities), but it offers an ideal starting place from which to reconstruct the capitalist system in which it plays a central role (Marx, 1971, 102-3).

A somewhat similar problem exists with the concept of "relation." Perhaps no word appears more frequently in Marx's writings than "Verhaltnis" ("relation"). The crucial role played by "Verhaltnis" in Marx's thinking is somewhat lost to non-German-language readers of his works as a result of translations that often substitute "condition", "system", and "structure" for "relation". "Verhaltnis" is usually used by Marx in the sense given to it by the philosophy of internal relations, where parts such as capital, labor, etc., are said to be Relations containing within themselves the very interactions to which they belong. But Marx also uses "Verhaltnis" as a synonym of "Beziehung" ("connection"), as a way of referring to ties between parts that are momentarily viewed as separate. Taken in this sense, two parts can be more or less closely related, have different relations at different times, and have their relations distorted or even broken. These are, of course, all important distinctions, and it should be obvious that none of them are foreign to Marx's writings. Yet, if the parts are themselves Relations, in the sense of internal relations, possessing the same logical character no matter what changes they undergo, it would seem that such distinctions could not be made. And, indeed, this belief lays behind a lot of the criticism directed at the philosophy of internal relations.

The two different senses of "relation" found in Marx's writings, however, simply reflect two different orders of relation in his understanding. The first comes out of his philosophy of internal relations and applies to how he views anything. The second is of a practical, empirical sort, and applies to what is actually found between two or more elements (each also Relations in the first sense) that are presently viewed as separate. How Marx separates out parts that are conceived of as logically internal to one another is, of course, the work of the process of abstraction. Once abstracted, all manner of relations between these parts can be noted and are in fact noted whenever relevant. Refusing to take the boundaries that organize our world as given and natural, the philosophy of internal relations admits a practice of abstraction that allows for an even greater variety of second-order relations than exists on the common sense view.

  1. Possible exceptions to this relative neglect of abstraction in discussions of Marx's method include E. V. Ilyenkov (1982), where the emphasis is on the relation of abstract to concrete in Capital; Alfred Sohn-Rethel (1978), which shows how commodity exchange produces certain ideological abstractions; Derek Sayers (1987), which stresses the role of the process of abstraction in producing ideology; Leszek Nowak (1980), which presents a neo-Weberian reconstruction of some aspects of this process; Roy Bhaskar (1993), which treats most of what occurs in abstraction under conceptualization; and Paul Sweezy (1956) (still the best short introduction to our subject), which stresses the role of abstraction in isolating the essentials of any problem. Insightful, though limited, treatments of abstraction can also be found in articles by Andrew Sayers (1981), John Allen (1983), and Jan Horvath and Kenneth Gibson (1984). An early philosophical account of abstraction, which Marx himself had a chance to read and admire, is found in the work of Joseph Dietzgen (1928). Dietzgen's contribution to our subject is described briefly in chapter 3 above.

  2. The school of Critical Realism, associated with the work of Roy Bhaskar, made just the opposite assumption, particularly in its earliest publications. See, for example, Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science (1975). In recent works, such as Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom (1993), Bhaskar has given the process of abstraction a much higher profile in his system. For my critical appreciation of this particular version of dialectical thinking, see chapter 10 of this volume.

    Parts I-IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII-VIII