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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

VI

Level of Generality

The second main aspect of Marx's process of abstraction, or mode in which it occurs, is the abstraction of level of generality. In his unfinished Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx's only systematic attempt to present his method, great care is taken to distinguish "production" from "production in general" (Marx, 1904, 268-74). The former takes place in a particular society, capitalism, and includes as part of what it is all the relations of this society that enable it to appear and function as it does. "Production in general," on the other hand, refers to whatever it is that work in all societies have in common—chiefly the purposive activity of human beings in transforming nature to satisfy human needs—leaving out everything that distinguishes different social forms of production from one another.

Marx makes a further distinction within capitalist production between "production as a whole," what applies to all kinds of production within capitalism, and "production as a specific branch of industry," or what applies only to production in that industry (Marx, 1904, 270). It is clear that more than a change in extension is involved in making these distinctions, especially the first one. The relations of productive activity with those who engage in it as well as with its product are internal relations in both cases, but production in capitalism is united with the distinctive capitalist forms of producers and their products, while production in general is united with them in forms that share its own quality as a lowest common denominator.

The abstraction Marx makes in moving from capitalist production to production in general then is not one of extension but one of level of generality. It is a move from a more specific understanding of production that brings into focus the whole network of equally specific qualities in which it functions (and with it the period of capitalism in which all this takes place) to a more general understanding of production that brings into focus the equally general state of those conditions in which it occurs (along with the whole of human history as the period in which these qualities are found).

Something very similar is involved in the distinction Marx makes between "production as a whole" and "production in a particular branch of industry," though the movement here is away from what is more general in the direction of what is more specific. How a particular branch of industry—car manufacturing, for example—appears and functions involves a set of conditions that fall substantially short of applying to the entire capitalist epoch. What appears superficially like a whole-part distinction is—like the earlier distinction between "capitalist production" and "production in general"—one of levels of generality. Both capitalist production (or production as a whole) and production in a particular industry are internally related to the rest of society, but each brings into focus a different period of history, the capitalist epoch in one case and what might be called "modern capitalism," or that period in which this branch of production has functioned in just this way, in the other.

In this Introduction, Marx comes out in favor of concentrating on production in its current historical forms, that is, on capitalist and modern capitalist production, and criticizes the political economists for contenting themselves with production in general when trying to analyze what is happening here and now. Then, falling for the all too common error of mistaking what is more general for what is more profound, the political economists treat the generalizations they have derived from examining different social formations as the most important truths about each particular society in turn, and even as the cause of phenomena that are peculiar to each one. In this way, for example, the general truth that production in any society makes use of material nature, the most general form of property, is offered as an explanation and even a justification for how wealth gets distributed in capitalist society, where people who own property claim a right to part of what gets produced with its help (Marx, 1904, 271-72).

While Marx's discussion of the political economists in this Introduction oscillates between modern capitalism, capitalism as such, and the human condition, much of what he says elsewhere shows that he can operate on still other levels of generality, and therefore that a more complex breakdown of what are in fact degrees of generality is required. Before offering such a breakdown, I want to make it clear that the boundary lines that follow are all suggested by Marx's own practice in abstracting, a practice that is largely determined by his aim of capturing the double movement of the capitalist mode of production. In other words, there is nothing absolute about the particular divisions I have settled on. Other maps of levels of generality could be drawn, and for other kinds of problems they could be very useful.

Keeping this in mind, there are seven major levels of generality into which Marx subdivides the world, seven plains of comprehension on which he places all the problems he investigates, seven different foci for organizing everything that is. Starting from the most specific, there is the level made up of whatever is unique about a person and situation. It's all that makes Joe Smith different from everyone else, and so too all his activities and products. It's what gets summed up in a proper name and an actual address. With this level—let's call it level one—the here and now, or however long what is unique lasts, is brought into focus.

Level two distinguishes what is general to people, their activities, and products because they exist and function within modern capitalism, understood as the last twenty to fifty years. Here, the unique qualities that justify using proper names, such as Joe Smith, are abstracted out of focus (we no longer see them), and abstracted into focus are the qualities that make us speak of an individual as an engineer or in terms of some other occupation that has emerged in modern capitalism. Bringing these slightly more general qualities into sight, we also end up considering more people—everyone to whom such qualities apply—and a longer period, the entire time during which these qualities have existed. We also bring into focus a larger area, usually one or a few countries, with whatever else has occurred there that has affected or been affected by the qualities in question during this period. Marx's abstraction of a "particular branch of production" belongs to this level.

Capitalism as such constitutes level three. Here, everything that is peculiar to people, their activity, and products due to their appearance and functioning in capitalist society is brought into focus. We encountered this level earlier in our discussion of "production as a whole." The qualities that Joe Smith possesses that mark him as Joe Smith (level one) and as an engineer (level two) are equally irrelevant. Front and center now are all that makes him a typical worker in capitalism, including his relations to his boss, product, etc. His productive activity is reduced to the denominator indicated by calling it "wage-labor," and his product to the denominator indicated by calling it "commodity" and "value." Just as level two widens the area and lengthens the time span brought into focus as compared to level one, so too level three widens the focus so that it now includes everyone who partakes of capitalist relations anywhere that these relations obtain, and the entire 400 or so years of the capitalist era.

After capitalism, still moving from the specific to the general, there is the level of class society, level four. This is the period of human history during which societies have been divided up into classes based on the division of labor. Brought into focus are the qualities people, their activities, and products have in common across the five to ten thousand years of class history, or whatever capitalism, feudalism, and slavery share as versions of class society, and wherever these qualities have existed. Next—level five—is human society. It brings into focus—as we saw in the case of the political economists above—qualities people, their activities, and products have in common as part of the human condition. Here, one is considering all human beings and the entire history of the species.

To make this scheme complete, two more levels will be added, but they are not nearly as important as the first five in Marx's writings. Level six is the level of generality of the animal world, for just as we possess qualities that set us apart as human beings (level five), we have qualities (including various life functions, instincts, and energies) that are shared with other animals. Finally, there is level seven, the most general level of all, which brings into focus our qualities as a material part of nature, including weight, extension, movement, etc.

In acquiring an extension, all Marx's units of thought acquire in the same act of abstraction a level of generality. Thus, all the Relations that are constituted as such by Marx's abstractions of extension, including the various classifications and movements they make possible, are located on one or another of these levels of generality. And though each of these levels brings into focus a different time period, they are not to be thought of as "slices of time," since the whole of history is implicated in each level, including the most specific. Rather, they are ways of organizing time, placing the period relevant to the qualities brought into focus in the front and treating everything that comes before as what led up to it, as origins.

It is important, too, to underline that all the human and other qualities discussed above are present simultaneously and are equally real, but that they can only be perceived and therefore studied when the level of generality on which they fall has been brought into focus. This is similar to what occurs in the natural sciences, where phenomena are abstracted on the basis of their biological or chemical or atomic properties. All such properties exist together, but one cannot see or study them at the same time. The significance of this observation is evident when we consider that all the problems from which we suffer and everything that goes into solving them or keeping them from being solved is made up of qualities that can only be brought into focus on one or another of these different levels of generality. Unfolding as they do over time, these qualities can also be viewed as movements and pressures of one sort or another—whether organized into tendencies, metamorphoses, contradictions, etc.—that taken together pretty well determine our existence. Consequently, it is essential, in order to understand any particular problem, to abstract a level of generality that brings the characteristics chiefly responsible for this problem into focus. We have already seen Marx declare that because the classical political economists abstract production at the level of generality of the human condition (level five) they cannot grasp the character of distribution in capitalist society (level three).

A similar situation exists today with the study of power in political science. The dynamics of any power relationship lies in the historically specific conditions in which the people involved live and work. To abstract the bare relation of power from these conditions in order to arrive at conclusions about "power in general" (level five), as many political scientists and an increasing number of social movement theorists have done, ensures that every particular exercise of power will be out of focus and its distinctive features undervalued and/or misunderstood.

Given Marx's special interest in uncovering the double movement of the capitalist mode of production, most of what he writes on man and society falls on level three. Abstractions such as "capital," "value," "commodity," "labor," and "working class," whatever their extensions, bring out the qualities that these people, activities, and products possess as part of capitalism. Pre- and post-capitalist developments come into the analysis done on this level as the origins and likely futures of these capitalist qualities. What Marx refers to in his Grundrisse as "pre-capitalist economic formations" (the apt title of an English translation of some historical material taken from this longer work) are just that (Marx, 1973, 471-513). The social formations that preceded capitalism are mainly viewed and studied here as early moments of capitalism abstracted as a process, as its origins extending back before enough of its distinctive structures had emerged to justify the use of the label "capitalism."

Marx also abstracts his subject matter on levels two (modern capitalism) and four (class society), though this is much less frequent. Where Marx operates on the level of generality of class society, capitalism, feudalism, and slave society are examined with a view to what they have in common. Studies in feudalism on this level of generality emphasize the division of labor and the struggle between the classes that it gives rise to, as compared to the breakdown of the conditions underlying feudal production that gets most of the attention when examining feudalism as part of the origins of capitalism, that is on level three (Marx, 1958, Part VIII).

An example of Marx operating on level two, modern capitalism, can be found in his discussion of economic crisis. After examining the various ways that the capitalist system, given what it is and how it works, could break down, that is after analyzing it on the level of capitalism as such (level three), he then shows how these possibilities got actualized in the immediate past, in what was for him modern or developed capitalism (Marx, 1968, 492-535). To explain why the last few crises occurred in just the ways they did, he has to bring into focus the qualities that apply to this particular time period and these particular places, that is recent economic, social, and political history in specific countries. This is also an example of how Marx's analysis can play off two or more different levels of generalization, treating what he finds on the more specific level as the actualization of one among several possibilities present on the more general level(s).

It is instructive to compare Marx's studies of man and society conducted on levels two, three, and four (chiefly three, capitalism) with studies in the social sciences and also with common sense thinking about these subjects, which typically operate on levels one (the unique) and five (the human condition). Where Marx usually abstracts human beings, for example, as classes (as a class on level four, as one of the main classes that emerge from capitalist relations of production—workers, capitalists, and sometimes landowners—on level three, and as one of the many classes and fragments of classes that exist in a particular country in the most recent period on level two), most non-Marxists abstract people as unique individuals, where everyone has a proper name (level one), or as a member of the human species (level five). In proceeding in their thinking directly from level one to level five, they may never even perceive, and hence have no difficulty in denying, the very existence of classes.

But the question is not which of these different abstractions is true. They all are in so far as people possess qualities that fall on each of these levels of generality. The relevant question is: which is the appropriate abstraction for dealing with a particular set of problems? For example, if social and economic inequality, exploitation, unemployment, social alienation, and imperialist wars are due in large part to conditions associated with capitalist society, then they can only be understood and dealt with through the use of abstractions that bring out their capitalist qualities. And that involves, among other things, abstracting people as capitalists and workers. Not to do so, to insist on sticking to levels one and five, leaves one blaming particular individuals (a bad boss, an evil president) or human nature as such for these problems.

To complete the picture, it must be admitted that Marx occasionally abstracts phenomena, including people, on levels one and five. There are discussions of specific individuals, such as Napoleon III and Palmerston, where he focuses on the qualities that make these people different, and some attention is given, especially in his earliest writings, to qualities that all human beings have in common, to human nature in general. But not only are such digressions an exception, more important for our purposes is that Marx seldom allows the qualities that come from these two levels to enter into his explanation of social phenomena. Thus, when G. D. H. Cole faults Marx for making classes more real than individuals, or Carol Gould says individuals enjoy an ontological priority in Marxism, or, conversely, Althusser denies the individual any theoretical space in Marxism whatsoever, they are all misconstruing the nature of a system that has places—levels of generality—for individuals, classes, and the human species (Cole, 1966, 11; Gould, 1980, 33; Althusser, 1966, 225-58). The very idea of attributing an ontological priority to either individuals, class, or the species assumes an absolute separation between them that is belied by Marx's conception of man as a Relation with qualities that fall on different levels of generality. None of these ways of thinking about human beings is more real or more fundamental than the others. If, despite this, class remains Marx's preferred abstraction for treating human beings, it is only because of its necessary ties to the kind, range, and above all levels of generality of the phenomena he seeks to explain.

It is not only the abstractions in which we think about people but also how we organize our thinking within each of these abstractions that can be set apart on the basis of levels of generality. Beliefs, attitudes, and intentions, for example, are properties of the unique individuals who inhabit level one. Social relations and interests are the main qualities of the classes and fragments of classes who occupy levels two, three, and four. Powers, needs, and behavior belong to human nature as such, while instincts apply to people as part of human nature but also in their identity as animals. Though there is some movement across level boundaries in the use of these concepts—and some concepts, such as "consciousness," that apply in a somewhat different sense on several levels—their use is usually a good indication of the level of generality on which a particular study falls, and hence, too, of the kind of problems that can be addressed. An integrated conception of human nature that makes full use of all these concepts, which is to say that organically connects up the study of people coming from each of these levels of generality, remains to be done.

By focusing on different qualities of people, each level of generality also contains distinctive ways of dividing up humanity, and with that its own kinds of oppression based on these divisions. Exploitation, for example, refers to the extraction of surplus-value from workers by capitalists that is based on a level three division of society into workers and capitalists. Therefore, as a form of oppression, it is specific to capitalism. The human condition, level five, brings out what all people share as members of our species. The only kind of oppression that can exist here comes from outside the species and is directed against everyone. The destruction of the ecological conditions necessary for human life is an example of an oppression against people that falls on this level of generality. Where certain classes—such as the capitalists through their single-minded pursuit of profit—contribute to this destruction, this only signals that this particular oppression must be studied and fought on two or more levels.

Level four, which is marked by a whole series of distinctions between people that are rooted in the division between mental and manual work, enables us to see the beginning of oppressions based on class, nation, race, religion, and gender. Though racial and gender differences obviously existed before the onset of class society, it is only with the division between those who produce wealth and those who direct its production that these differences become the basis for the distinctive forms of oppression associated with racism and patriarchy. With the appearance of different relationships to the prevailing mode of production and the contradictory interests they generate, with mutual indifference replacing the mutual concern that was characteristic of an earlier time when everything was owned in common, and with the creation of a growing surplus that everyone wishes to possess (because no one has enough), all manner of oppressions based on both the existing and new divisions of society become possible and for the ruling economic class extremely useful. Racism, patriarchy, religion, nationalism, etc. become the most effective ways of rationalizing these oppressive economic practices, whose underlying conditions they help over time to reproduce. Upon frequent repetition, they also sink deep roots into people's minds and emotions and acquire a relative autonomy from the situation in which they originated, which makes it increasingly difficult for those affected to recognize the crucial economic role that these different oppressions continue to play.

To be sure, all the oppressions associated with class society also have their capitalist specific forms and intensities having to do with their place and function in capitalism as a particular form of class society, but the main relations that underlie and give force to these oppressions come from class society as such. Consequently, the abolition of capitalism will not do away with any of these oppressions, only with their capitalist forms. Ending racism, patriarchy, nationalism, etc., in all their forms and completely can only occur when class society itself is abolished, and in particular with the end of the division between mental and manual labor, a world historical change that could only occur, Marx believes, with the arrival of full communism.

If all of Marx's abstractions involve—as I have argued—a level of generality as well as an extension, if each level of generality organizes and even prescribes to some degree the analyses made with its help, that is in its terms, if Marx abstracts this many levels of generality in order to get at different, though related problems (even though his abstraction of capitalism as such, level three, is the decisive one)—then the conclusions of his studies, the theories of Marxism, are all located on one or another of these levels and must be viewed accordingly if they are to be correctly understood, evaluated, and, where necessary, revised.

Marx's labor theory of value, for example, is chiefly an attempt to explain why all the products of human productive activity in capitalist society have a price, not why a particular product costs such and such, but why it costs anything at all. That everything humans produce has a price is an extraordinary phenomenon peculiar to the capitalist era, whose social implications are even more profound because most people view it ahistorically, simply taking it for granted. Marx's entire account of this phenomenon, which includes the history of how a society in which all products have a price has evolved, takes place on the level of generality of capitalism as such, which means that he only deals with the qualities of people, their activities, and products in the forms they assume in capitalism overall. The frequent criticism one hears of this theory that it doesn't take account of competition in real marketplaces and, therefore, cannot explain actual prices is simply off the point, that is the more general point that Marx is trying to make.

To account for the fact that a given pair of shoes costs exactly fifty dollars, for example, one has to abstract in qualities of both modern capitalism (level two) and the here and now (level one) in a way that takes us well beyond Marx's initial project. In Capital, volume III, Marx makes some effort to re-abstract the phenomena that enter into his labor theory of value on the level of modern capitalism, and here he does discuss the role of competition among both buyers and sellers in affecting actual prices. Still, the confusion from which innumerable economists have suffered over what has been labeled the "transformation problem" (the transformation of values into prices) disappears once we recognize that it is a matter of relating analyses from two different levels of generality and that Marx gives overriding attention to the first, capitalism, and relatively little attention to the second, which unfortunately is the only level that interests most non-Marxist economists.

The theory of alienation offers another striking example of the need to locate Marx's theories on particular levels of generality if they are not to be distorted. Marx's description of the severed connections between man and his productive activity, products, other people, and the species that lies at the core of this theory falls on two different levels of generality: capitalism (level three) and class society (level four). In his earliest writings, this drama of separation is generally played out in terms of "division of labor" and "private property" (level four). It is clear even from this more general account that alienation reaches its zenith in capitalist society, but the focus is on the class context to which capitalism belongs and not on capitalism as such. Here, capitalism is not so much "it" as the outstanding example of "it." (Incidentally, this conclusion calls for a modification in the subtitle of my earlier work Alienation, which has as its subtitle Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society.)

In later writings, as Marx's concern shifts increasingly to uncovering the double motion of the capitalist mode of production, the theory of alienation gets raised to the level of generality of capitalism (level three). The focus now is on productive activity and its products in their capitalist specific forms, i.e., on labor, commodity, and value; and the mystification that has accompanied private property throughout class history gets upgraded to the fetishism of commodities (and values). The broader theory of alienation remains in force. The context of class society in which capitalism is situated has not changed its spots, but now Marx has developed a version of the theory that can be better integrated into his analysis of capitalist dynamics. With the introduction of this notion of levels of generality, some of the major disputes regarding Marx's theory of alienation—whether it is mainly concerned with class history or with capitalism, and how and to what degree Marx used this theory in his later writings—are easily resolved.

But it is not just Marx's theories that must be placed on particular levels of generality to be correctly understood. The same applies to virtually all of his statements. For example, what is the relation between the claim we have already met in another context that "All history [later qualified to class history] is the history of class struggle" and the claim that "class is the product of the bourgeoisie" (Marx and Engels, 1945, 12; Marx and Engels, 1964, 77)? If "class" in both instances refers to qualities on the same level of generality, then only one of these claims can be true, that is, either class has existed over the past five to ten thousand years of human history or it only came into existence with capitalism, four to five hundred years ago. However, if we understand Marx as focusing on the qualities common to all classes in the last five to ten thousand years (on level four) in the first claim, and on the distinctive qualities classes have acquired in the capitalist epoch (on level three) in the second (that which makes them more fully classes, involving mainly development in organization, communication, alienation and consciousness), then the two claims are compatible. Because so many of Marx's concepts—"class" and "production" being perhaps the outstanding examples—are used to convey abstractions on more than one level of generality, the kind of confusion generated by such apparent contradictions is all too common.

Marx's remarks on history are especially vulnerable to being misunderstood unless they are placed on one or another of these levels of generality. The role Marx attributes to production and economics generally, for example, differs somewhat, depending on whether the focus is on capitalism (including its distinctive origins), modern capitalism (the same), class societies (the same), or human societies(the same). Starting with human societies, the special importance Marx accords to production is based on the fact that one has to do what is necessary in order to survive before attempting anything else, that production limits the range of material choices available just as, over time, it helps to transform them, and that production is the major activity which gives expression to and helps to develop our peculiarly human powers and needs (Marx, 1958, 183-84; Marx and Engels, 1964, 117; Ollman, 1976, 98-101). In class society, production plays its decisive role primarily through "the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct division of labor that comes into being in this period and producers" (Marx, 1959b, 772). It is also on this level that the interaction between the forces and class based relations of production come into focus. In capitalism, the special role of production is shared by everything that goes into the process of capital accumulation (Marx, 1958, Part VIII). In modern capitalism, it is usually what has happened recently in a particular sector of capitalist production in a given country (like the development of railroads in India during Marx's time) that is treated as decisive (Marx and Engels, n.d., 79).

Each of these interpretations of the predominant role of production applies only to the level of generality that it brings into focus. No single interpretation comes close to accounting for all that Marx believes needs to be explained, which is probably why, on one occasion, Marx denies that he has any theory of history whatsoever (Marx and Engels, 1952, 278). It might be more accurate, however, to say that he has four complementary theories of history, one for history as abstracted on each of these four levels of generality. The effort by most of Marx's followers and virtually all of his critics to encapsulate the materialist conception of history into a single generalization regarding the role of production (or economics) has never succeeded, therefore, because it could not succeed.

Finally, the various movements Marx investigates, some of which were discussed under abstraction of extension, are also located on particular levels of generality. That is, like everything else, these movements are composed of qualities that are unique, or special to modern capitalism, or to capitalism, etc., so that they only take shape as movements when the relevant level of generality is brought into focus. Until then, whatever force they exercise must remain mysterious, and our ability to use or affect them virtually nil. The movement of the metamorphosis of value, for example, dependent as it is on the workings of the capitalist marketplace, operates chiefly on the levels of generality of capitalism (level three) and modern capitalism (level two). Viewing the products of work on the levels of generality of class society (level four) or the human condition (level five), or concentrating on its unique qualities (level one)—the range of most non-Marxist thinking on this subject—does not keep the metamorphosis of value from taking place, just us from perceiving it. Likewise, if, "in capitalism," as Marx says, "everything seems and in fact is contradictory", it is only by abstracting the levels of generality of capitalism and modern capitalism (granted appropriate abstractions of extension) that we can perceive them (Marx, 1963, 218).

What are called the "laws of the dialectic" are those movements that can be found in one or another recognizable form on every level of generality, that is, in the relations between the qualities that fall on each of these levels, including that of inanimate nature. The transformation of quantity to quality and development through contradiction, which were discussed above, are such dialectical laws. Two other dialectical laws that play important roles in Marx's work are the interpenetration of polar opposites (the process by which a radical change in the conditions surrounding two or more elements or in the conditions of the person viewing them produces a striking alteration, even a complete turn about, in their relations), and the negation of the negation (the process by which the most recent phase in a development that has gone through at least three phases will display important similarities with what existed in the phase before last).

Naturally, the particular form taken by a dialectical law will vary somewhat, depending on its subject and on the level of generality on which this subject falls. The mutually supporting and undermining movements that lie at the core of contradiction, for example, appear very different when applied to the forces of inanimate nature than they do when applied to specifically capitalist phenomena. Striking differences such as these have led a growing band of critics and some followers of Marx to restrict the laws of dialectic to social phenomena and to reject as "un-Marxist" what they label "Engels' dialectics of nature." Their error, however, is to confuse a particular statement of these laws, usually one appropriate to levels of generality where human consciousness is present, for all possible statements. This error is abetted by the widespread practice—one I also have adopted for purposes of simplification and brevity—of allowing the most general statement of these laws to stand in for the others. Quantity/ quality changes, contradictions, etc., that occur among the unique qualities of our existence (level one), or in the qualities we possess as workers and capitalists (levels two and three), or in those we possess as members of a class and human beings (levels four and five), however, are not simply illustrations for and the working out of still more general dialectical laws. To be adequately apprehended, the movements of quantity/quality change, contradiction, etc., on each level of generality must be seen as expressions of laws that are specific to that level as well versions as of more general laws. Most of the work of drafting such multi-level statements of the laws of the dialectic remains to be done.

The importance of the laws of the dialectic for grasping the pressures at work on different levels of generality will also vary. We have just seen Marx claim that capitalism in particular is full of contradictions. Thus, viewing conditions and events in terms of contradictions is far more important for understanding their capitalist character than it is for understanding their qualities as human, or natural, or unique conditions and events. Given Marx's goal to explain the double movement of the capitalist mode of production, no other dialectical law receives the attention given to the law of development through contradiction. Together with the relatively minor role contradiction plays in the changes that occur in nature (level seven), this may also help account for the mistaken belief that dialectical laws are found only in society.

What stands out from the above is that the laws of the dialectic do not in themselves explain, or prove, or predict anything, or cause anything to happen. Rather, they are ways of organizing the most common forms of change and interaction that exist on any level of generality both for purposes of study and intervention into the world of which they are part. With their help, Marx was able to uncover many other tendencies and patterns, also often referred to as laws, that are peculiar to the levels of generality with which he was concerned. Such laws have no more force than what comes out of the processes from which they are derived, balanced by whatever counter-tendencies there are within the system. And like all the other movements Marx investigates, the laws of the dialectic and the level specific laws they help him uncover are provided with extensions that are large enough to encompass the relevant interactions during the entire period of their unfolding.

Two major questions relating to this mode of abstraction remain. One is—how do the qualities located on each level of generality affect those on the others? And second—what is the influence of the decision made regarding abstraction of extension on the level of generality that is abstracted, and vice versa? The affect of qualities from each level on those from others, moving from the most general (level seven) to the most specific (level one), is that of a context on what it contains. That is, each level, beginning with seven, establishes a range of possibilities for what can occur on the more specific levels that follow. The actualization of some of these possibilities on each level limits in turn what can come about on the levels next in line, all the way up to level one, that of the unique.

Each more general level, in virtue of what it is and contains, also makes one or a few of the many (though not infinite) alternative developments that it makes possible on less general levels more likely of actualization. Capitalism, in other words, was not only a possible development out of class society, but made likely by the character of the latter, by the very dynamics inherent in the division of labor once it got under way. The same might be said of the relation between capitalism as such and the "modern" English capitalism in which Marx lived, and the relation between the latter and the unique character of the events Marx experienced.


It is within this framework, too, that the relation Marx sees between freedom and determinism can best be understood. Whatever the level of abstraction—whether we are talking about what is unique to any individual, a group in modern capitalism, workers throughout the capitalist era, any class, or human beings as such—there is always a choice to be made and some ability to make it. Hence, there is always some kind and some degree of freedom. On each level of generality, however, the alternatives between which people must choose are severely limited by the nature of their overlapping contexts, which also make one or one set of alternatives more feasible and/or attractive, just as these contexts condition the very personal, class, and human qualities brought into play in making any choice. Hence, there is also a considerable degree of determinism. It is this relationship between freedom and determinism that Marx wishes to bring out when he says that it is people who make history but not in conditions of their own choosing (Marx and Engels, 1951a, 225). What seems like a relatively straightforward claim is complicated by the fact that both the people and the conditions referred to exist on various levels of generality, and depending on the level that is brought into focus, the sense of this claim—though true in each instance—will vary.

The view of determinism offered here is different from, but not in contradiction with, the view presented in our discussion of the philosophy of internal relations, where determinism was equated first with the reciprocal effect found in any organic system and then with the greater or special influence of any one process on the others. To this we can now add a third, complementary sense of determinism that comes from the limiting and prescribing affects of overlapping contexts on all the phenomena that fall within them. Marx's success in displaying how the latter two kinds of determinism operate in the capitalist mode of production accounts for most of the explanatory power that one finds (and feels) in his writings.

Affects of events on their larger contexts, that is, of qualities found on more specific levels on those that fall on more general ones, can also be discerned. Whenever Marx speaks of people reproducing the conditions of their existence, the reference is to how activities whose main qualities fall on one level of generality help to construct the various contexts, including those on other levels of generality, that make the continuation of these same activities both possible and highly likely. Such effects, however, can also be detrimental. In our time, for example, the unregulated growth of harmful features associated with modern capitalist production (level two) have begun to threaten the ecological balance necessary not only for the continuation of capitalism (level three) but for the life of our species (level five).

As for the relation between the choice of extension and that of level of generality, there would seem to be a rough correspondence between narrow abstractions of extension and abstracting very low and very high levels of generality. Once the complex social relations in which a particular phenomenon is situated are put aside through a narrow abstraction of extension, there is little reason to bring these relations into better focus by abstracting the level of generality on which they fall. Thus, abstracting an extension that sets individuals apart from their social conditions is usually accompanied by an abstraction of level of generality that focuses on what is unique about each (level one). With the social qualities that were abstracted from individuals in extension now attached to the groups to which they belong (viewed as externally related to their members), efforts at generalizing tend to bypass the levels on which these social qualities would be brought into focus (modern capitalism, capitalism, and class society) and move directly to the level of the human condition (level five). So it is that for bourgeois ideology people are either all different (level one) or all the same (level five). While for Marx, whose abstractions of extension usually include a significant number of social relations, choosing the levels of generality of capitalism, modern capitalism, and class society was both easy and obvious; just as privileging these levels led to abstractions of extension that enabled him to take in at one sweep most of the connections that attention to these attention to levels bring into focus.


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