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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

VII

And Vantage Point

The third mode in which Marx's abstractions occur is that of vantage point. Capitalists, as we saw, are referred to as "embodiments of capital"; but capital is also said to function as it does because it is in the hands of people who use it to make profit (Marx, 1959b, 794, 857-58; Marx, 1959a, 79). The state is said to be an instrument of the ruling economic class; but Marx also treats it as a set of objective structures that respond to the requirements of the economy, as an aspect of the mode of production itself (Marx and Engels, 1945, 15; Marx, 1959a, 103). There are many similar, apparently contradictory positions taken in Marx's writings. They are the result of different abstractions, but not of extension or level of generality. They are due to different abstractions of vantage point. The same relation is being viewed from different sides, or the same process from its different moments.

In the same mental act that Marx's units of thought obtain an extension and a level of generality, they acquire a vantage point or place from which to view the elements of any particular Relation and, given its then extension, from which to reconstruct the larger system to which this Relation belongs. A vantage point sets up a perspective that colors everything which falls into it, establishing order, hierarchy, and priorities, distributing values, meanings, and degrees of relevance, and asserting a distinctive coherence between the parts. Within a given perspective, some processes and connections will appear large, some obvious, some important; others will appear small, insignificant, and irrelevant; and some will even be invisible.

In discussing Marx's conception of Relation, we saw that it was more than a simple connection. It was always a connection contained in its parts as seen from one or another side. So capital and labor, for example, were quoted as being "expressions of the same Relation, only seen from the opposite pole" (Marx, 1971, 491). Or again, Marx says, capital has one "organizational differentiation or composition" (that of fixed and circulating capital) from the point of view of circulation, and another (that of constant and variable capital) from the point of view of production (Marx, 1968, 579). Both circulation and production are part of the extended capital Relation. A criticism of the political economists is that they try to understand capital only from the point of view of circulation, but to grasp the nature of wealth in capitalism, Marx believes, the decisive vantage point is that of production (Marx, 1968, 578).

It is clear that the decisions Marx makes regarding extension and levels of generality greatly affect the kind of vantage points he abstracts, and vice versa. The amount of mutual dependence and process that is included in an abstraction of extension largely determines what can be seen and studied from this same abstraction taken as a vantage point. Giving production the extension of reproduction, or capital the extension of capital accumulation, for example, enables Marx to bring into view and organize the system of which they are part in ways that would not be possible with narrower (or shorter) abstractions. Likewise, in abstracting a level of generality, Marx brings into focus an entire range of qualities that can now serve individually or collectively (depending on the abstraction of extension) as vantage points, just as other possible vantage points, organized around qualities from other levels of generality, are excluded. Conversely, any commitment as to a particular vantage point predisposes Marx to abstract the extension and level of generality that correspond to it and enables him to make the most of it as a vantage point. In practice, these three decisions (really, three aspects of the same decision) as to extension, level of generality, and vantage point are usually made together and their effects are immediate, though on any given occasion one or another of them may appear to dominate.

In the social sciences, the notion of vantage point is most closely associated with the work of Karl Mannheim (Mannheim, 1936, Part V). But for Mannheim, a point of view is something that belongs to people, particularly as organized into classes. The conditions in which each class lives and works provides its members with a distinctive range of experiences and a distinctive point of view. Because of their separate points of view, even the few experiences that are shared by people of opposing classes are not only understood but actually perceived in quite different ways. As far as it goes, this view—which Mannheim takes over from Marx—is correct. Marx's conception of point of view goes further, however, by grounding each class' perceptions in the nature of its habitual abstractions, in order to show how starting out to make sense of society from just these mental units, within the perspectives that they establish, leads to different perceptual outcomes. In uncovering the cognitive link between class conditions and class perceptions, Marx helps us understand not only why Mannheim is right but how what he describes actually works. As part of this, point of view becomes an attribute of the abstraction as such (Marx speaks of the point of view or vantage point of accumulation, relations of production, money, etc.), and only secondarily of the person or class that adopts it (Marx, 1963, 303; Marx, 1971, 156; Marx, 1973, 201).

We can now explain why Marx believes workers have a far better chance to understand the workings of capitalism than do capitalists. Their advantage does not come from the quality of their lives and only in small part from their class interests (since the capitalists have an interest in misleading even themselves about how their system works). More important, given what constitutes the lives of workers, the abstractions with which they start out to make sense of their society are likely to include "labor," "factory," "machine," especially "labor," which puts the activity that is chiefly responsible for social change at the front and center of their thinking. Within the perspective set up by this abstraction, most of what occurs in capitalism gets arranged as part of the necessary conditions and results of this activity. There is no more enlightening vantage point for making sense of what is, both as the outcome of what was and as the origins of what is coming into being. This is not to say, of course, that all workers will make these connections (there are plenty of reasons coming from their alienated lives and from the ideological barrage directed at them that militate against it), but the predisposition to do so rooted in the initial abstraction of vantage point is there.

For capitalists, just the opposite is the case. Their lives and work incline them to start making sense of their situation with the aid of "price," "competition," "profit," and other abstractions drawn from the marketplace. Trying to put together how capitalism functions within perspectives that place labor near the end of the line rather than at the start simply turns capitalist dynamics around. According to Marx, in competition, "everything always appears in inverted form, always standing on its head" (Marx, 1968, 217). What are predominantly the effects of productive activity appear here as its cause. It is demands coming from the market, itself the product of alienated labor, for example, that seem to determine what gets produced, as in the theory of "consumer sovereignty".

As with thinking in terms of processes and relations, common sense is not wholly devoid of perspectival thinking. People occasionally use expressions such as "point of view," "vantage point," and "perspective" to refer to some part of what we have been discussing, but they are generally unaware of how much their points of view affect everything they see and know and of the role played by abstractions in arriving at this result. As with their abstractions of extension and level of generality, most people simply accept as given the abstractions of vantage point that are handed down to them by their culture and particularly by their class. They examine their world again and again from the same one or few angles, while their ability to abstract new vantage points becomes atrophied. The one-sided views that result are treated as not only correct, but as natural, indeed as the only possible view.

Earlier we saw that one major variety of bourgeois ideology arises from using too narrow abstractions of extension (dismissing parts of both processes and relationships that are essential for accurately comprehending even what is included), and that a second comes from abstracting an inappropriate level of generality (inappropriate in that it leaves out of focus the main level(s) on which the qualities we need to understand are located). There is a third major form of bourgeois ideology that is associated with the abstraction of vantage point. Here, ideology results from abstracting a vantage point that either hides or seriously distorts the relations and movements that pertain to the particular problem that concerns us. Not everything we need or want to know emerges with equal clarity, or even emerges at all, from every possible vantage point.

A related form of ideology results from examining a phenomenon from only one side, no matter how crucial, when several are needed—all the while being unaware of the limits on what can be learned from this side alone. This is what Hegel had in mind when he said, to think abstractly (in the ideological sense of the term) is "to cling to one predicate" (Hegel, 1966, 118). Murderers, servants, and soldiers, who serve as Hegel's examples, are all much more than what is conveyed by viewing them from the single vantage point associated with the labels we have given them. Marx is even more explicit when, for example, he berates the economist, Ramsay, for bringing out all the factors but "one-sidedly" and "therefore incorrectly," or equates "wrong" with "one-sided" in a criticism of Ricardo (Marx, 1971, 351; Marx, 1968, 470).

What needs to be stressed is that Marx never criticizes ideology as a simple lie or claims that what it asserts is completely false. Instead, ideology is generally described as overly narrow, partial, out of focus, and/or one-sided, all of which are attributable to faulty or otherwise inappropriate abstractions of extension, level of generality, and vantage point, where neither these abstractions nor their implications are grasped for what they are. While correctly pointing to the material roots of ideology in capitalist conditions and in the conscious manipulations of capitalists, and bringing out how it functions to serve capitalist interests, most discussions of ideology completely ignore the misapplication of the process of abstraction that is responsible for its distinctive forms.

Among the major vantage points associated with bourgeois ideology, where the error is not simply one of restricting analysis to a single perspective but where the one or few that are chosen either hide or distort the essential features of capitalism, are the following: the vantage point of the isolated individual, the subjective side of any situation (what is believed, wanted, intended, etc.), the results of almost any process, anything connected with the market, and all of what falls on level five of generality, particularly human nature.

The isolated individual, man separated from both natural and social conditions, is not only the preferred abstraction of extension in which bourgeois ideology treats human beings; it also serves as its preferred vantage point for studying society. Society becomes what social relations look like when viewed from this angle. When one adds that within each person it is such subjective qualities as beliefs, wants, intentions etc., that are bourgeois ideology's preferred vantage points for viewing the rest of the person, it should be no surprise that the objective features of any situation of which people are a part are so undervalued. In this perspective, an individual is chiefly what he believes himself to be, and society itself what many individuals operating one at a time in the absence of strong social pressures or significant material restraints have made it.

There is also an obvious link between abstracting human beings narrowly in extension, abstracting this extension on levels one and five of generality, and abstracting this extension on these levels of generality as preferred vantage points. By abstracting the isolated individual in extension, one omits the various social and other connections that would incline one to bring levels two, three, and four of generality into focus in order to learn how these connections have acquired the specific characteristics that make them important. And because the contexts associated with modern capitalism, capitalism, and class society are seldom if ever brought into focus, the qualities that fall on these levels can hardly serve as useful vantage points. To the limited extent that anything from these contexts does get examined from the vantage points associated with bourgeois ideology, the result is usually a hodgepodge of mismatched qualities from different levels of generality, with some more and some less in focus, all loosely held together by the language of external relations. Whatever integration is achieved by such studies only succeeds in breaking up and dissembling the organic unity that exists on each of these levels, making a systematic understanding of any kind that much more difficult.

Other than the isolated individual and his subjective qualities, another family of vantage points that is well represented in bourgeois ideology are the results of various social processes, especially those found in the market. Already narrowly abstracted in extension as finished products, the processes by which these results have emerged are no longer visible. Thus, capital is simply the means of production; a commodity—any good that is bought and sold; profit—something earned by capitalists; and the market itself—an over-the-counter exchange of goods and services that follows its own extra social laws. When used as vantage points for viewing the capitalist system, these dead building blocks can only construct a dead building, an unchanging system whose emergence at a certain point in history is as much a mystery as its eventual demise. The ultimate distortion occurs in what Marx calls the fetishism of commodities (or capital, or value, or money, etc.), when these results take on a life of their own and are viewed as self generating. Whenever any static and narrowly conceived of set of results are used as a vantage point for examining origins, there is a danger of substituting the end for the beginning in this way.

Still other vantage points put to heavy use in bourgeois ideology are whatever is taken to be part of the human condition, the whole of level five and especially human nature as such, or rather what is taken to be human nature. Starting out from these vantage points, phenomena whose most important qualities fall on levels one to four lose their historical specificity and are made to appear as obvious and inevitable as the flat abstractions that introduce them. In this way, approaching capitalist distribution, as the political economists are accused of doing, from the vantage point of a level five notion of production—that is, production in so far as it partakes of the human condition—makes it appear that the existing capitalist division of wealth is equally part of the human condition.

Marx, who on occasion made use of all these vantage points, favored vantage points connected with production, the objective side of any situation, historical processes generally, and social class, particularly at the level of generality of capitalist society. The reason Marx privileges such vantage points varies, as does the extension he gives them, with the level of generality on which he is operating. Beyond this, Marx's abstraction of vantage point—as indeed of extension and level of generality—can usually be traced to his theories and what they indicate is necessary to uncover some part of the organic or historical movement of the capitalist mode of production. One must be careful, here as elsewhere, not to place within Marx's method many of the judgments and decisions regarding priorities that could only come from the theories he developed with its help.

Equally characteristic of Marx's practice in abstracting vantage points is the easy facility he shows in moving from one to the other. Aware of the limitations inherent in any single vantage point, even that of production, Marx frequently alters the angle from which he examines his chosen subject matter. While whole works and sections of works can be distinguished on the basis of the vantage point that predominates, changes of vantage point can also be found on virtually every page of Marx's writings. Within the same sentence, Marx can move from viewing wages from the vantage point of the worker to viewing it from the vantage point of society as a whole (Marx, 1963, 108). Marx's analysis of the complex relations between production, distribution, exchange, and consumption, which has already come into this work on several occasions, also provides what is perhaps the best example of how often he changes his abstractions of both extension and vantage point, and how important this practice and his facility in it was for obtaining his results (Marx, 1904, 274-92).

As with his abstractions of extension and level of generality, Marx's abstractions of vantage point play a crucial role in the construction of all his theories. It is Marx's abstractions of vantage point that enable him to find identity in difference (and vice versa), to actually catch sight of the organic and historical movements made possible by his abstractions of extension, and to classify and reclassify the world of his perceptions into the explanatory structures bound up in what we call Marxism.

Earlier, in discussing Marx's theory of identity, we saw that abstracting an extension that is large enough to contain both identical and different qualities of two or more phenomena is what makes the coexistence of identity and difference possible, but one's ability to actually see and therefore to examine either set of qualities depends on the vantage point adopted for viewing them. Sticking with one vantage point will restrict understanding any relation to its identical or different aspects when, in fact, it contains both. Marx, on the other hand, can approach the relation of profit, rent, and interest from the vantage point of surplus-value, of their identity or what they have in common as the portion of value that is not returned to the workers who produced it, as well as from any of the vantage points located in differences arising from who holds these forms of surplus-value and how each functions in the economic system.

Abstracting vantage points that bring out the differences between two or more aspects of an interactive system also highlights the asymmetry in their reciprocal effect. Granted such reciprocal effect, production was said to play the dominant role on all five levels of generality on which Marx operates. But it is only by abstracting production as a vantage point that its special influence on other economic processes and on society as a whole on each level can be seen for what it is. As Marx says, with the level of class societies in mind, the existence of the ruling class and their functions "can only be understood from the specific historical structure of their production relations" (My emphasis) (Marx, 1963, 285).

Along with his abstractions of extension, Marx's abstractions of vantage point play an equally important role in establishing the flexible boundaries that characterize all his theories. In Marx's division of reality into objective and subjective conditions, it is by abstracting a vantage point first in one and then in the other that he uncovers the more objective aspects of what is ordinarily taken to be subjective (extending the territory of the objective accordingly), and vice versa. Together with the aforementioned theory of identity, it is changes in the abstraction of vantage point that enables Marx to actually see objective and subjective conditions as "two distinct forms of the same conditions" (Marx, 1973, 832). Likewise, it is by abstracting a particular vantage point that Marx can see aspects of nature in society, or the forces of production in the relations of production, or economic in typically non-economic structures, or the base in the superstructure, and then vice versa, adjusting the abstraction of extension for each pairing accordingly. Looking at the relations of production from the vantage point of the forces of production, for example, even the cooperative power of workers can appear as a productive force (Marx and Engels, 1964, 46).

Marx's various class divisions of society, based as we saw on different abstractions of extension for class, are also discernible only from the vantage point of the qualities (functions, opposition to other classes, consciousness, etc.) that serve as the criteria for constructing a given classification. That is, if class is a complex Relation made up of a number of different aspects, and if the composition of any particular class depends on which ones Marx includes in his abstraction of extension and brings into focus through his abstraction of level of generality, then his ability to actually distinguish people as members of this class depends on which aspect(s) he abstracts as his vantage points for viewing them. It also follows that as Marx's vantage point changes, so does his operative division of society into classes. In this way, too, the same people, viewed from the vantage points of qualities associated with different classes may actually fall into different classes. The landowner, for example, is said to be a capitalist in so far as he confronts labor as the owner of commodities, i.e., functions as a capitalist vis vis labor (rather than as a landowner vis vis capitalists), whenever he is viewed from this traditional capitalist vantage point (Marx, 1963, 51).

Viewed from the vantage point of any one of his qualities, the individual's identity is limited to what can be seen from this angle. The qualities that emerge from the use of other vantage points are ignored because for all practical purposes, at this moment in the analysis and for treating this particular problem, they simply don't exist. Hence, people abstracted as workers, for example—that is, viewed from one or more of the qualities associated with membership in this class—where the object of study is capitalist political economy, are presented as not having any gender or nation or race. People, of course, possess all these characteristics and more, and Marx—when dealing with other problems—can abstract vantage points (usually as part of non-capitalist levels of generality) that bring out these other identities.

Given Marx's flexibility in abstracting extension, he can also consider people from vantage points that play down their human qualities altogether in order to highlight some special relation. Such is the case when Marx refers to the buyer as a "representative of money confronting commodities"—that is, views him from the vantage point of money inside an abstraction of extension that includes money, commodities, and people (Marx, 1963, 404). The outstanding example of this practice is Marx's frequent reference to capitalists as "embodiments" or "personifications" of capital, where living human beings are considered from the vantage point of their economic function (Marx, 1958, 10, 85, 592). The school of structuralist Marxism has performed an important service in recovering such claims from the memory hole to which an older, more class struggle-oriented Marxism had consigned them. However useful decentering human nature in this manner is for grasping some of the role-determined behavior that Marx wanted to stress, there is much that is volunteerist in his theories that requires the adoption of distinctively human vantage points, and only a dialectical Marxism that possesses sufficient flexibility in changing abstractions—of vantage point as of extension and level of generality—can make the frequent adjustments that are called for.

If Marx's abstractions of extension are large enough to encompass how things happen as part of what they are, if such abstractions of extension also allow him to grasp the various organic and historical movements uncovered by his research as essential movements, then it is his abstractions of vantage point that make what is there—what his abstractions of extension have "placed" there—visible. The movement of the transformation of quantity into quality, for example, is made possible as an essential movement by an abstraction of extension that includes both quantitative changes and the qualitative change that eventually occurs. But this transformative process is not equally clear or even visible from each of its moments. In this case, the preferred vantage point—not the only one possible, but simply the ideal—is one that bridges the end of quantitative changes and the start of the qualitative one. Viewing the cooperation among workers, for example, from the vantage point of where its transformation into a qualitatively new productive power begins provides the clearest indication of where this change has come from as well as where the process that brought it about was heading.

The movement of metamorphosis, we will recall, is an organic movement in which qualities associated with one part of a system get transferred to its other parts. In the case of the metamorphosis of value, the main instance of this movement in Marx's writings, some of the central relationships that constitute value get taken up by commodity, capital, wage-labor, etc. Only an abstraction of extension that is large enough to include its different phases as internally related aspects of a single system allows us to conceive of metamorphosis as an internal movement and of its subsequent stages as forms of what it starts out as. But to observe this metamorphosis and, therefore too, to study it in any detail, we must accompany this abstraction of extension with an abstraction of vantage point in the part whose qualities are being transferred. Thus, the metamorphosis of value into and through its various forms is only observable as a metamorphosis from the vantage point of value.

As regards contradiction, Marx says, as we saw, "in capitalism everything seems and in fact is contradictory" (Marx, 1963, 218). It is so—in reality, and with the help of Marx's broad abstractions of extension, which organize the parts as mutually dependent processes. But it seems so only from certain vantage points. From others, the incompatible development of the parts would be missed, or misconstrued, or, at a minimum, seriously underestimated. The vantage point from which Marx usually observes contradictions is the intersection between the two or more processes said to be in contradiction. It is a composite vantage point made up of elements from all these processes. Of course, if one has not abstracted differences as processes and such processes as mutually dependent, there is no point of intersection to serve as a vantage point.

What we've called the double movement of the capitalist mode of production can be approached—that is, viewed and studied—from any of the major contradictions that compose it, and in each case—given internal relations—the elements that are not directly involved enter into the contradiction as part of its extended conditions and results. In this way, the vantage point that is adopted organizes not only the immediate contradiction, but establishes a perspective in which other parts of the system acquire their order and importance. In the contradiction between exchange and use-value, for example, the relations between capitalists and workers are part of the necessary conditions for this contradiction to take its present form and develop as it does, just as one result of this contradiction is the reproduction of the ties between capitalists and workers. Given the internal relations Marx posits between all elements in the system, this makes capitalists and workers subordinate aspects of the contradiction between exchange and use-value. The whole process can be turned around: adopting the vantage point of the contradiction between capitalists and workers transforms the relations between exchange and use-value into its subordinate aspects, again as both necessary preconditions and results. The actual links in each case, of course, need to be carefully worked out. Hence, contradictions can be said to overlap; they cover much the same ground, but this ground is broken up in various ways, along a variety of axes, based on as many different foci.

Even when the shift in vantage points appears to be slight, the difference in the perspective opened up can be considerable. For example, take the contradiction between capital and wage-labor on one hand and that between capitalists and workers on the other. The vantage point for viewing the former is the intersection of two objective functions, while the preferred vantage point for viewing the latter is where the activities and interests of the two classes who perform these functions intersect. Each of these contradictions contains the other as major dependent aspects (neither capital nor capitalists could appear and function as they do without the other, and the same holds for wage-labor and workers). Yet, though both contradictions can be said to cover more or less the same ground, the different perspectives established by these contrasting vantage points allows Marx to distinguish how people create their conditions from how they are created by them, and to trace out the implications of each position without dismissing or undervaluing the other—all the while presenting both contradictions as undergoing similar pressures and in the process of a similar transformation.

Marx's laws offer still another illustration of the crucial role played by the abstraction of vantage point. As was pointed out earlier, all of Marx's laws are tendencies arising from the very nature of whatever it is that is said to have them. In every case, it is Marx's abstraction of extension that brings the various organic and historical movements together under the same rubric, making how things happen a part of what they are, but it is his abstraction of vantage point that enables him (and us) to actually catch sight of them as a single tendency.

The law of the falling rate of profit, for example, is a tendency inherent in the relation of profit to the "organic composition" of capital, which Marx understands as the ratio of constant to variable capital (or the investment put into the material means of production as compared to that put into buying labor power). With the proportion of investment going to constant capital because of technological development always on the rise, less and less of any given investment goes to buy variable capital. But only labor power creates value, and therefore surplus-value. With a constantly decreasing proportion of investment involved in producing surplus-value, therefore, the rate of profit as a percentage of total investment must also go down (Marx, 1959b, Part 3).

Like all tendencies in Marx's work, this one too is subject to counter-tendencies, both on the same and on the other levels of generality (state subsidies, inflation, devaluation of existing capital, etc.), which are often strong enough to keep the tendency for the falling rate of profit from appearing in the balance sheet of businessmen at the end of the year. To observe this tendency, therefore, and be in a position to study the constant pressure it exerts on the concentration of capital (another law) and through it on the entire capitalist system, one must follow Marx in abstracting an extension for profit that includes its relation over time to the organic composition of capital, and view this Relation from the vantage point of this composition (granted, of course, the capitalist level of generality on which both of these are found). Without such abstractions of extension, level of generality and vantage point, one simply cannot see, let alone grasp, what Marx is talking about. With them, one can see the law despite all the sand thrown up by counter-tendencies. Hence, the irrelevance of various attempts by Marx's critics and followers alike to evaluate the law of the falling rate of profit based on analyses made from the vantage point of one of its possible results (the actual profits of real businessmen), or from capitalist competition, or some other vantage point located in the marketplace. All the laws in Marxism can be described, studied, and evaluated only inside the perspectives associated with the particular vantage points from which Marx both discovered and constructed them.

VIII
The Role of Abstractions in the Debates over Marxism

It will have become evident by now that it is largely differences of vantage point that lay behind many of the great debates in the history of Marxist scholarship. In the New Left Review debate between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas on the character of the capitalist state, for example, the former viewed the state chiefly from the vantage point of the ruling economic class, while the latter viewed what are essentially the same set of relations from the vantage point of the socio-economic structures that establish both the limits and the requirements for a community's political functions (Poulantzas, 1969; Miliband 1970).4 As a result, Miliband is better able to account for the traditional role of the state in serving ruling class interests, while Poulantzas has an easier time explaining the relative autonomy of the state, and why the capitalist state continues to serve the ruling class when the latter is not directly in control of state institutions.

The debate over whether capitalist economic crisis is caused by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall or arises from difficulties in the realization of value, where one side views the capitalist economy from the vantage point of the accumulation process and the other from the vantage point of market contradictions, is of the same sort (Mattick, 1969; Baran and Sweezy, 1966).5 A somewhat related dispute over the centrality of the capitalist mode of production as compared to the international division of labor (the position of World System Theory) for charting the history and future of capitalism is likewise rooted in a difference of preferred vantage points (Brenner, 1977; Wallerstein, 1974). So, too, is the debate over whether bourgeois ideology is mainly a reflection of alienated life and reified structures or the product of the capitalist consciousness industry, where one side views the construction of ideology from the vantage point of the material and social conditions out of which it arises and the other from that of the role played by the capitalist class in promoting it (Mepham, 1979; Marcuse, 1965).

Earlier, in what is perhaps the most divisive dispute of all, we saw that those who argue for a strict determinism emanating from one or another version of the economic factor (whether simple or structured) and those who emphasize the role of human agency (whether individual or class) can also be distinguished on the basis of the vantage points they have chosen for investigating the necessary interaction between the two (Althusser, 1965; Sartre, 1963). To be sure, each of these positions, here as in the other debates, is also marked by somewhat different abstractions of extension for shared phenomena based in part on what is known and considered worth knowing, but even these distinguishing features come into prominence mainly as a result of the vantage point that is treated as privileged.

The different levels of generality on which Marx operates is also responsible for its share of debates among interpreters of his ideas, the main one being over the subject of the materialist conception of history: is it all history, or all of class history, or the period of capitalism (in which earlier times are conceived of as pre-capitalist) (Kautsky, 1988; Korsch, 1970)? Depending on the answer, the sense in which production is held to be primary will vary as will the abstractions of extension and vantage point used to bring this out.

Finally, the various abstractions of extension of such central notions as mode or production, class, state, etc., have also led to serious disagreements among Marx's followers and critics alike, with most schools seeking to treat the boundaries they consider decisive as permanent. However, as evidenced by the quotations that practically every side in these disputes can draw upon, Marx is capable of pursuing his analysis not only on all social levels of generality and from various vantage points but with units of differing extension, only giving greater weight to the abstractions that his theories indicate are most useful in revealing the particular dynamic he is investigating. The many apparently contradictory claims that emerge from his study are in fact complementary, and all are required to "reflect" the complex double movement (historical—including probable future—and organic) of the capitalist mode of production. Without an adequate grasp of the role of abstraction in dialectical method, and without sufficient flexibility in making the needed abstractions of extension, level of generality, and vantage point, most interpreters of Marx (Marxists and non-Marxists alike) have constructed versions of his theories that suffer in their very form from the same rigidity, inappropriate focus, and one-sidedness that Marx saw in bourgeois ideology.

In an often quoted though little analyzed remark in the Introduction to Capital, Marx says that value, as compared to larger, more complex notions, has proved so difficult to grasp because "the body, as an organic whole, is more easy to study than are the cells of that body." To make such a study, he adds, one must use the "force of abstraction" (Marx, 1958, 8). Using the force of abstraction, as I have tried to show, is Marx's way of putting dialectics to work. It is the living dialectic, its process of becoming, the engine that sets other parts of his method into motion. In relation to this emphasis on the force of abstraction, every other approach to studying dialectics stands on the outside looking in. The relations of contradiction, identity, law, etc., that they study have all been constructed, made visible, ordered, and brought into focus through prior abstractions. Consequently, while other approaches may help us to understand what dialectics is and to recognize it when we see it, only an account that puts the process of abstraction at the center enables us to think adequately about change and interaction, which is to say—to think dialectically, and to do research and engage in political struggle in a thoroughly dialectical manner.6





  1. Both thinkers seriously modified the views expressed in these articles in later works (Miliband, 1977; Poulantzas, 1978), and these revisions too can be explained in large part through changes in their abstractions of vantage point.

  2. There are still other Marxist interpretations of capitalist crises (as, indeed, of the state) that are also largely dependent on the vantage point adopted. Here, as in the other debates mentioned, it was enough to refer to a single major cleavage to illustrate my claim regarding the role of abstractions.

  3. Not all of the important questions associated with dialectics have been dealt with in this essay. Missing or barely touched on are the place and/or role within dialectical method of reflection, perception, emotion, memory, conceptualization (language), appropriation, moral evaluation, verification, wisdom, will and activity, particularly in production. I am painfully aware of their absence, but my purpose here was not to provide a complete overview of dialectics but to make it possible for people to begin to put it to work by deconstructing the much-neglected process of abstraction, which, along with the philosophy of internal relations, I take to be at the core of this method. My next volume on dialectics, which focuses on the process of appropriation as Marx's preferred abstraction for knowing, being, and doing in their interaction with one another, will try to make up for these lapses. It will also contain a more systematic treatment of the moments of inquiry and exposition, as forms of activity under appropriation, as well as a critical survey of some important contributions to dialectical method that have been passed over in the present work.

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