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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


Three Modes of Abstraction: Extension

Once we recognize the crucial role abstraction plays in Marx's method, how different his own abstractions are, and how often and easily he re-abstracts, it becomes clear that Marx constructs his subject matter as much as he finds it. This is not to belittle the influence of natural and social (particularly capitalist) conditions on Marx's thinking, but rather to stress how, given this influence, the results of Marx's investigations are prescribed to a large degree by the preliminary organization of his subject matter. Nothing is made up of whole cloth, but at the same time Marx only finds what his abstractions have placed in his way. These abstractions do not substitute for the facts, but give them a form, an order, and a relative value; just as frequently changing his abstractions does not take the place of empirical research, but does determine, albeit in a weak sense, what he will look for, even see, and of course emphasize. What counts as an explanation is likewise determined by the framework of possible relationships imposed by Marx's initial abstractions.

So far we have been discussing the process of abstraction in general, our main aim being to distinguish it from other mental activities. Marx's own abstractions were said to stand out in so far as they invariably include elements of change and interaction, while his practice of abstracting was found to include more or less of each as suited his immediate purpose. Taking note of the importance Marx gave to abstractions in his critique of ideology, we proceeded to its underpinnings in the philosophy of internal relations, emphasizing that it is not a matter of this philosophy making such moves possible—since everybody abstracts—but of making them easier, and enabling Marx to acquire greater control over the process. What remains is to analyze in greater detail what actually occurs when Marx abstracts, and to trace its results and implications for some of his major theories.

The process of abstraction, which we have been treating as an undifferentiated mental act, has three main aspects or modes, which are also its functions vis vis the part abstracted on one hand and the system to which the part belongs and which it in turn helps to shape on the other. That is, the boundary setting and bringing into focus that lies at the core of this process occurs simultaneously in three different, though closely related, senses. These senses have to do with extension, level of generality, and vantage point. First, each abstraction can be said to achieve a certain extension in the part abstracted, and this applies both spatially and temporally. In abstracting boundaries in space, limits are set in the mutual interaction that occurs at a given point of time. While in abstracting boundaries in time, limits are set in the distinctive history and potential development of any part, in what it once was and is yet to become. Most of our examples of abstraction so far have been drawn from what we shall now call "abstraction of extension."

Second, at the same time that every act of abstraction establishes an extension, it also sets a boundary around and brings into focus a particular level of generality for treating not only the part but the whole system to which it belongs. The movement is from the most specific, or that which sets it apart from everything else, to its most general characteristics, or what makes it similar to other entities. Operating rather like a microscope that can be set at different degrees of magnification, this mode of abstraction enables us to see the unique qualities of any part, or the qualities associated with its function in capitalism, or the qualities that belong to it as part of the human condition (to give only the most important of these levels of generality). In abstracting capital, for example, Marx gives it an extension in both space and time as well as a level of generality such that only those qualities associated with its appearance and functioning as a phenomenon of capitalism are highlighted (i.e., its production of value, its ownership by capitalists, its exploitation of workers, etc.). The qualities a given capital may also possess as a Ford Motor Company assembly line for making cars or as a tool in general—that is, qualities that it has as a unique object or as an instance of something human beings have always used—are not brought into the picture. They are abstracted out. This aspect of the process of abstraction has received least attention not only in our own discussion but in other accounts of dialectics. In what follows, we shall refer to it as "abstraction of level of generality."

Third, at the same time that abstraction establishes an extension and a level of generality, it also sets up a vantage point or place within the relationship from which to view, think about, and piece together the other components in the relationship; meanwhile the sum of their ties (as determined by the abstraction of extension) also becomes a vantage point for comprehending the larger system to which it belongs, providing both a beginning for research and analysis and a perspective in which to carry it out. With each new perspective, there are significant differences in what can be perceived, a different ordering of the parts, and a different sense of what is important. Thus, in abstracting capital, Marx not only gives it an extension and a level of generality (that of capitalism), he also views the interrelated elements that compose it from the side of the material means of production and, simultaneously, transforms this configuration itself into a vantage point for viewing the larger system in which it is situated, providing himself with a perspective that influences how all other parts of the system will appear (one that gives to capital the central role). We shall refer to this aspect of abstraction as "abstraction of vantage point." By manipulating extension, level of generality, and vantage point, Marx puts things into and out of focus, into better focus, and into different kinds of focus, enabling himself to see more clearly, investigate more accurately, and understand more fully and more dynamically his chosen subject.

As regards the abstraction of extension. Marx's general stand in favor of large units is evident from such statements as, "In each historical epoch, property has developed differently and under a set of entirely different social relations. Thus, to define bourgeois property is nothing else than to give an exposition of all these social relations of bourgeois production . . . To try to give a definition of property an independent relation, a category apart, an abstraction and eternal idea, can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics and jurisprudence" (Marx, n.d., 154). Obviously, large abstractions are needed to think adequately about a complex, internally related world.

The specifics of Marx's position emerge from his frequent criticisms of the political economists for offering too narrow abstractions (narrow in the double sense of including too few connections and too short a time period) of one or another economic form. Ricardo, for example, is reproached for abstracting too short a period in his notions of money and rent, and for omitting social relations in his abstraction of value (Marx, 1968, 125; Marx, 1971, 131). One of the most serious distortions is said to arise from the tendency among political economists to abstract processes solely in terms of their end results. Commodity exchange, for example, gets substituted for the whole of the process by which a product becomes a commodity and eventually available for exchange (Marx, 1973, 198). As Amiri Baraka so colorfully points out: "Hunting is not those heads on the wall" (Baraka, 1966, 1973). By thinking otherwise for the range of problems with which they are concerned, the political economists avoid seeing the contradictions in the capitalist specific processes that give rise to these results.

The same narrowing of abstractions obtains a similar ideological result in thinking about human beings. In order to maximize individual freedom, Max Stirner sought to abstract an "I" without any messy presuppositions, whether natural or social. Marx's response is that by excluding all that brought it into existence and the full context in which it acts, this "I" is not a particularly helpful abstraction for understanding anything about the individual, least of all his freedom (Marx and Engels, 1964, 477-82). Yet something like Stirner's "I", in the person of the isolated individual, has become the standard way of thinking about human nature in capitalist society. It is the preferred abstraction of extension in which bourgeois ideology treats human beings.

Granted the unusually large extensions Marx gives his abstractions, we now need to know how this practice affects his work. What do such abstractions make possible, perhaps even necessary, and what do they make impossible? Consider all that a wide-angle photograph does in giving value to what is included, to what crowds the edges as well as to what appears at the center. Notice the relations it establishes as important, or at least relevant, and even the explanations that are implicit in what is included and what is left out. Something very similar occurs through the extension given to units of thinking in the process of abstraction. It is by placing so much in his abstractions—and by altering them as often as he does—that Marx greatly facilitates his analysis of what we've called the double motion of the capitalist mode of production. In particular, Marx's practice in abstracting extension serves as the basis for his theory of identity; it underlies his criticism of existing systems of classification and their replacement by the various classificatory schemes that distinguish his theories, i.e., the class division of society, forces/relations of production, appearance/essence, etc.; and it enables him to capture in thinking the real movements that go on in both nature and society.

As regards identity, Marx claims, "It is characteristic of the entire crudeness of 'common sense,' which takes its rise from the 'full life' and does not cripple its natural features by philosophy or other studies, that where it succeeds in seeing a distinction it fails to see a unity, and where it sees a unity it fails to see a distinction. If 'common sense' establishes distinction determinations, they immediately petrify surreptitiously and it is considered the most reprehensible sophistry to rub together these conceptual blocks in such a way that they catch fire" (Marx and Engels, 1961, 339). According to the common sense approach, things are either the same (the sense in which Marx uses "unity" here) or different. A frequent criticism Marx makes of the political economists is that they see only identity or difference in the relations they examine (Marx, 1971, 168, 497, 527). Marx has it both ways—he is forever rubbing these blocks together to make fire. Most striking are his numerous references to what most people take as different subjects as identical. Such is his claim that "The social reality of nature and human natural science, or natural science about man are identical terms" (Marx, 1959a, 111). Demand and supply (and in a "wider sense" production and consumption) are also said to be identical (Marx, 1968, 505). And the list of such claims, both with and without the term identity, is very long. An example of the latter is his reference to "Bourgeoisie, i.e., capital" (Marx and Engels, 1945, 21).

In one place, Marx says by "identity" he means a "different expression of the same fact" (Marx, 1968, 410). This appears straightforward enough, but in Marx's case, this "fact" is relational, composed of a system of mutually dependent parts. Viewing this mutual dependence within each of the interacting parts, viewing the parts as necessary aspects of each other, they become identical in expressing the same extended whole. Consequently, Marx can claim that labor and capital are "expressions of the same relation, only seen from opposite poles" (Marx, 1971, 491). Underlying all such claims are abstractions of extension that are large enough to contain whatever is held to be identical.

Marx's theory of identity also helps us understand the pivotal role he gives to the notion of form. A form, we will recall, is that aspect of a relation, centering either on appearance or function, from which its covering concept is usually drawn. But "form" is also Marx's chief way of telling us that he has found an identity in difference, as when he says rent, profit, and interest, which are obviously different in many respects, are identical as forms of surplus-value (Marx and Engels, 1941, 106). What is called "Marxism" is largely an investigation of the different forms human productive activity takes in capitalist society, the changes these forms undergo, how such changes are misunderstood, and the power acquired by these changed and misunderstood forms over the very people whose productive activity brought them into existence in the first place. Value, commodity, capital, money, etc., could only be grasped as forms of labor (and, eventually, of each other) and investigated as such because Marx abstracts each of these units large enough to contain all these elements in their distinctive relations. Marx's theories of alienation and of the metamorphosis of value, in particular, offer many examples of this practice. Abstracted more narrowly, as typically occurs in bourgeois ideology, the identity of such elements gives way to similarity and other vague kinds of connection, with the result that some part of the effect and/or influence brought into focus by Marx's encompassing abstractions is lost or seriously distorted.

In adhering to a philosophy of internal relations, the commitment to view parts as identical exists even before they have been abstracted from the whole, so that one can say that, in a sense, identity precedes difference, which only appears with the abstraction of parts based on some appreciation of their distinctiveness. Such differences, when found, do nothing to contradict the initial assumption of identity, that each part through internal relations can express the same whole. Hence, the coexistence of identity and difference.

It was noted earlier that Marx. used "totality" and "relation" in two senses, a logical sense having to do with how he viewed all reality and a reconstructed or emergent sense that applied to particular kinds of ties uncovered in his research between parts that had already been abstracted as separate parts. "Identity," as we have been using it so far, belongs to this logical vocabulary and "difference" to the reconstructed one. However, "identity," like "totality" and "relation," is sometimes used in this second, subsidiary sense to highlight closely related aspects of parts whose different appearances or functions have already led to their abstraction as separate parts. In which case, one can also speak of things as being more or less identical.

Besides its effect on the relation of identity, Marx's practice in abstracting extension also has major implications, as I have indicated, for the various classificatory schemes that frame his theories. Every school of thought stands out in large measure by the distinctions it makes and doesn't make, and by those it singles out as being in some respect the most important. Marxism is no exception. Among the better-known classifications found in Marx's work are the juxtapositions of forces and relations of production, base and superstructure, materialism and idealism, nature and society, objective and subjective conditions, essence and appearance, the periodization of history based on different modes of production, and the class division of society (particularly the split between workers and capitalists).

Most accounts of Marxism try very hard to establish where one element in each of these classifications ends and the next one begins, to define neatly and permanently the boundaries that subdivide the structures into which Marx organizes human existence. However, given what has just been said about Marx's practice of abstracting extension and his philosophy of internal relations, it should be clear that this is a fruitless exercise. It is only because they assume that Marx is operating with a philosophy of external relations in which the boundaries between things are taken to be of the same order as their other sense-perceptible qualities (hence determined and discoverable once and for all) that these critics can so consistently dismiss the overwhelming evidence of Marx's practice. Not only does Marx often redraw the boundaries of each of these units, but with every classification there are instances where his abstractions are large enough to contain most or even all of the qualities that seemed to fall into other contrasting units.

Marx's materialist conception of history, for example, is characterized by a set of overlapping contrasts between mode of production and "social, political, and intellectual life processes," base and superstructure, forces and relations of production, economic structures (or foundations) and the rest of society, and material and social existence (Marx, 1904, 11-12). Since Marx did not take much care to distinguish these different formulations, there is a lot of dispute over which one to stress in giving an account of his views, but on two points there is widespread agreement: (1) that the first term in each pairing is in some sense determinant of the latter, and (2) that the boundaries between the terms in each case are more or less set and relatively easy to establish. But how clear cut can such boundaries be if Marx can refer to "religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art, etc." as "particular modes of production," community and the "revolutionary class" as forces of production (which also has "the qualities of individuals" as its subjective side), theory "in so far as it gets a hold of people" as a "material force," and can treat laws regarding private property (which would seem to be part of the superstructure) as part of the base, and class struggle (which would seem to be part of political life) as part of the economic structure (Marx, 1959a, 103; Marx, 1973, 495; Marx, n.d., 196; Marx, 1970, 137; Acton, 1962, 164)? It is worth noting, too, that Engels could even refer to race as an economic factor (Marx and Engels, 1951, 517).

To be sure, these are not the main uses to which Marx put these categories, but they do indicate something of their elasticity, something about how encompassing he could make his abstractions if he wanted to. And it does show how futile it is to try to interpret the sense in which one half of each of these dichotomies is said to determine the other before coming to grips with the practice that rearranges the boundaries between them.

A similar problem awaits any reader of Marx who insists on looking for a single fixed boundary between essence and appearance. As Marx's investigation into capitalism is largely a study of essential connections, the importance of this distinction is not in doubt. The abstraction of appearance is relatively easy to determine. It is simply what strikes us when we look; it is what's on the surface, what's obvious. Essence is more problematical. It includes appearance, but goes beyond it to take in whatever gives any appearance its special character and importance. As such, essence generally introduces systemic and historical connections (including where something seems to be heading as well as where it has come from) as parts of what it is. It brings into focus an extended set of internal relations. But what gives appearances their special importance on any occasion is tied to the particular problem Marx is working on. Hence, what he calls the essence of anything varies somewhat with his purpose. So it is that the essence of man, for example, is said to be, in turn, his activity, his social relations, and the part of nature that he appropriates (Marx, 1959a, 75; Marx and Engels, 1964, 198; 1959a, 106). The answer that it is all these in their interconnection, an answer that would secure a fixed, if not necessarily permanent, essence for human beings, misses the point that it is with "essence" that Marx wishes to single out one set of connections as crucial.

In the present discussion, what needs to be stressed is that an approach that focuses on appearances and constructs its explanations on this same plane is based on abstractions of extension composed only of appearances. Relevance ends at the horizon marked off by our sense perceptions. The rest, if not unreal, is trivialized as unnecessary for understanding or dismissed as mystical. A major ideological result of the single-minded attention to appearances is an imaginary reversal of real relations, as what strikes us immediately gets taken as responsible for the more or less hidden processes that have given rise to it. Marx refers to mistaking appearance for essence as "fetishism," and sees it operating throughout society, its best-known example being the fetishism of commodities, where the price of things (something everyone can observe in the market) gets substituted for the relations between the people who made them (something that can only be grasped through analysis).

Marx, on the other hand, was aided in his investigation of essences by his practice of abstracting units large enough to contain them. For him the absolute division of reality into appearance and essence does not exist, since his main units of analysis include both appearance and essence. Thus, according to Marx, "only when labor is grasped as the essence of private property can the economic process as such be penetrated in its actual concreteness" (Marx, 1959a, 129). Labor, by which Marx means the particular kind of productive activity that goes on in capitalism, not only brings private property into existence but gives it its most distinctive qualities, and hence is essential to what it is. It is only by going beyond the apparent thing like qualities of private property, only by seizing its essence in labor (which, again, is dependent on constructing an abstraction that is large enough to contain both in their internal relation), that we can truly grasp private property and the capitalist mode of production in which it plays such a crucial part.

Perhaps the classification that has suffered the greatest misunderstanding as a result of readers' efforts to arrive at permanent boundaries is Marx's class division of society. Marx's abstraction of extension for class brings together many people but not everything about them. Its main focus is on whatever it is that both enables and requires them to perform a particular function in the prevailing mode of production. Hence, Marx's frequent reference to capitalists as the "personification" (or "embodiment") of capital, grasped as the function of wealth to expand through the exploitation of wage-labor (Marx, 1958,10, 85, 592). As a complex relation, however, class contains other aspects, such as distinguishing social and economic conditions (ones that generally accompany its position in the mode of production), a group's opposition to other similarly constituted groups, its cultural level, its state of mind (encompassing both ideology and degree of consciousness of itself as a class), and forms of inner-class communication and of inter-class political struggle. But how many of these aspects Marx actually includes in abstracting the extension of class or of any one of the classes into which he divides a society varies with his problem and purpose at the time. Likewise, since all of these aspects in their peculiar configuration have evolved over time, there is also a decision to make regarding temporal extension, over how much of this evolution to abstract in. How much Marx's decisions in these matters may differ can be seen from such apparently contradictory claims as "All history is the history of class struggle" (where class contains a bare minimum of its aspects) and "Class is the product of the bourgeoisie" (where class is abstracted as a sum of all these aspects) (Marx and Engels, 1945, 11; Marx and Engels, 1964, 93).

What class any person belongs to and even the number of classes in society are also affected by where exactly Marx draws his boundaries. Thus, "working class," for example, can refer to everyone who is employed by capitalists and the institutions that serve them, such as the state, or to all the people who work for capitalists but also produce value (a smaller group), or to all the people who not only work for capitalists and produce value but are also organized politically as a class (a smaller group still). As regards temporal extension, Marx can also abstract a particular group to include where they seem to be heading, together with the new set of relations that await them but which they have not yet fully acquired. In the case of peasants who are rapidly losing their land and of small businessmen who are being driven into bankruptcy, this translates into becoming wage-laborers (Marx and Engels, 1945, 16). Hence, the class of workers is sometimes abstracted broadly enough to include them as well, that is, people in the process of becoming workers along with those who function as workers at this moment. Marx's well-known reference to capitalism as a two-class society is based on his abstracting all groups into either workers or capitalists depending on where they seem to be heading, the landlords being the major group that is moving toward becoming capitalists. Abstracting such large spatial and temporal extensions for class is considered helpful for analyzing a society that is rapidly developing toward a situation where everyone either buys labor-power or sells it.

At the same time, Marx could abstract much more restricted extensions, which allowed him to refer to a variety of classes (and fragments of classes) based on as many social and economic differences between these groups. In this way, bankers, who are usually treated as a fragment of the capitalist class, are sometimes abstracted as a separate moneyed or financial class (Marx, 1968, 123). This helps explain why Marx occasionally speaks of "ruling classes" (plural), a designation that also usually includes landlords, narrowly abstracted (Marx and Engels, 1964, 39).

Obviously, for Marx, arriving at a clear-cut, once-and-for-all classification of capitalist society into classes is not the aim, which is not to deny that one such classification (that of capitalists/landlords/workers) enjoys a larger role in his work or that one criterion for determining class (a group's relationship to the prevailing mode of production) is more important. Much to the annoyance of his critics, Marx never defines "class" or provides a full account of the classes in capitalist society. Capital, volume III, contains a few pages where Marx appears to have begun such an account, but it was never completed (Marx, 1959b, 862-3). In my view, had he finished these pages, most of the problems raised by his theory of class would remain, for the evidence of his flexibility in abstracting class is clear and unambiguous. Thus, rather than looking for what class a person or group belongs to or how many classes Marx sees in capitalist society—the obsession of most critics and of not a few of his followers—the relevant question is: "Do we know on any given occasion when Marx uses 'class', or the label associated with any particular class, who he is referring to and why he refers to them in this way?" Only then can the discussion of class advance our understanding, not of everything, but of what it is Marx is trying to explain. It cannot be repeated too often that Marx is chiefly concerned with the double movement of the capitalist mode of production, and arranging people into classes based on different though interrelated criteria is a major means for uncovering this movement. Rather than simply a way of registering social stratification as part of a flat description or as a prelude to rendering a moral judgment (things Marx never does), which would require a stable unit, class helps Marx to analyze a changing situation in which it is itself an integral and changing part (Ollman, 1978, chapter 2).

Besides making possible his theory of identity and the various classifications that mark his theories, Marx's practice of abstracting broad extensions for his units also enables him to capture in thought the various real movements that he sets out to investigate. In order to grasp things "as they really are and happen," Marx's stated aim, in order to trace their happening accurately and give it its due weight in the system(s) to which it belongs, Marx extends his abstractions—as we saw—to include how things happen as part of what they are (Marx and Engels, 1964, 57). Until now, change has been dealt with in a very general way. What I have labeled the double movement (organic and historical) of the capitalist mode of production, however, can only be fully understood by breaking it down into a number of sub-movements, the most important of which are quantity/quality, metamorphosis and contradiction.3 These are some of the main ways in which things move or happen; they are forms of change. Organizing becoming and time itself into recognizable sequences, they are some of the pathways that bring order to the flow of events. As such, they help structure all of Marx's theories, and are indispensable to his account of how capitalism works, how it developed, and where it is tending.

Quantity/quality change is a historical movement encompassing both buildup and what it leads to. One or more of the aspects that constitute any process-cum-Relation gets larger (or smaller), increases (or decreases) in number, etc. Then, with the attainment of a critical mass—which is different for each entity studied—a qualitative transformation occurs, understood as a change in appearance and/or function. In this way, Marx notes, money becomes capital, i.e., acquires the ability to buy labor-power and produce value only when it reaches a certain amount (Marx, 1958, 307-8). In order for such change to appear as an instance of the transformation of quantity into quality, Marx's abstractions have to contain the main aspects whose quantitative change is destined to trigger off the coming qualitative change as well as the new appearances and/or functions embodied in the latter, and all this for the time it takes for this to occur. Abstracting anything less runs the risk of first dismissing and then missing the coming qualitative change and/or misconstruing it when it happens, three frequent errors associated with bourgeois ideology.

Metamorphosis is an organic movement of interaction within a system in which qualities (occasionally appearances but usually functions) of one part get transferred to other parts so that the latter can be referred to as forms of the former. In the key distinguishing movement in Marx's labor theory of value, value—through its production by alienated labor and entry into the market—gets metamorphosed into commodity, money, capital, wages, profit, rent, and interest. The metamorphosis of value takes place in two circuits. What Marx calls the "real metamorphosis" occurs in the production process proper, where commodities are transformed into capital and means of subsistence, both forms of value, which are then used to make more commodities. A second circuit, or "formal metamorphosis," occurs where the commodity is exchanged for money, another form of value; and, on one occasion, Marx goes so far as to equate "metamorphosed into" and "exchanged for" (Marx, 1973, 168). The value over and above what gets returned to the workers as wages, or what Marx calls "surplus-value," undergoes a parallel metamorphosis as it gets transferred to groups with various claims on it, appearing as rent, interest, and profit. In both real and formal metamorphosis, new forms are signaled by a change in who possesses the value and in how it appears and functions for them, i.e., as a means of subsistence, a means of producing more value, a means of buying commodities, etc.

In metamorphosis, a process is abstracted that is large enough to include both what is changing and what it is changing into, making the transformation of one into the other an internal movement. Thus, when value metamorphoses into commodity or money, for example, the latter assume some of the alienated relationships embodied in value—somewhat altered due to their new location—as their own, and this is seen as a later stage in the development of value itself. Otherwise, operating with smaller abstractions, commodity or money could never actually become value, and speaking of them as "forms" of value could only be understood metaphorically.

The essentially synchronic character of metamorphosis, no matter the number of steps involved, is also dependent on the size of the abstraction used. To some it may appear that the various phases in the metamorphosis of value occur one after another, serially, but this is to assume a brief duration for each phase. When, however, all the phases of this metamorphosis are abstracted as ongoing, as Marx does in the case of value—usually as aspects of production abstracted as reproduction—then all phases of the cycle are seen as occurring simultaneously (Marx, 1971, 279-80). Events occur simultaneously or in sequence depending on the temporal extension of the units involved. When Marx refers to all the production that goes on in the same year as simultaneous production, all its causes and effects are viewed as taking place at the same time, as parts of a single interaction (Marx, 1968, 471). To grasp any organic movement as such, it is simply that one must allow enough time for the interactions involved to work themselves out. Stopping too soon, which means abstracting too short a period for each phase, leaves one with an incompleted piece of the interaction, and inclines one to mistake what is an organic tie for a causal one.

In sum, metamorphosis, as Marx understands it, is only possible on the basis of an abstraction of extension that is sufficiently large to encompass the transfer of qualities from one element in an interaction to others over time, which assumes a particular theory of forms (movement is registered through elements becoming forms of one another), which assumes in turn a particular theory of identity (each form is both identical to and different from the others), that is itself a necessary corollary of the philosophy of internal relations (the basic unit of reality is not a thing but a relation).

If quantity/quality is essentially a historical movement and metamorphosis an organic one, then contradiction has elements of both. As a union of two or more processes that are simultaneously supporting and undermining one another, a contradiction combines five distinct though closely intertwined movements. But before detailing what they are, it is worth stressing once again the crucial role played by Marx's philosophy of internal relations. As regards contradictions, Engels says, "So long as we consider things as static and lifeless, each one by itself, alongside of and after each other, it is true that we do not run up against any contradiction in them. We find certain qualities which are partly common to, partly diverse from, and even contradictory to each other, but which in this case are distributed among different objects and therefore contain no contradiction . . . But the position is quite different as soon as we consider things in their motion, their change, their life, their reciprocal influence on one another. Then we immediately become involved in contradictions" (My emphasis) (Engels, 1934, 135). Elsewhere, referring to the bourgeois economists' treatment of rent, profit, and wages, Marx asserts where there is "no inner connection," there can be no "hostile connection," no "contradiction" (Marx, 1971, 503). Only when apparently different elements are grasped as aspects of the same unit as it evolves over time can certain of their features be abstracted as a contradiction.

Of the five movements found in contradiction, the two most important ones are the movements of mutual support and mutual undermining. Pulling in opposite directions, each of these movements exercises a constant, if not even or always evident, pressure on events. The uneasy equilibrium that results lasts until one or the other of these movements predominates.

In the contradiction between capital and labor, for example, capital, being what it is, helps bring into existence labor of a very special kind, that is alienated labor, that will best serve its needs as capital. While labor, as the production of goods intended for the market, helps fashion capital in a form that enables it to continue its exploitation of labor. However, capital and labor also possess qualities that exert pressure in the opposite direction. With its unquenchable thirst for surplus-value, capital would drive labor to exhaustion. While labor, with its inherent tendencies toward working less hours, in better conditions, etc., would render capital unprofitable. To avoid the temptation of misrepresenting contradiction as a simple opposition, tension, or dysfunction (common ideological errors), it is essential that the chief movements that reproduce the existing equilibrium as well as those that tend to undermine it be brought into the same overarching abstraction.

A third movement present in contradictions is the immanent unfolding of the processes that make up the "legs" of any contradiction. In this way, a contradiction becomes bigger, sharper, more explosive; both supporting and undermining movements become more intense, though not necessarily to the same degree. According to Marx, the capitalist contradictions "of use-value and exchange-value, commodity and money, capital and wage-labor, etc., assume ever greater dimensions as productive power develops" (Marx, 1971, 55). The very growth of the system that contains these contradictions leads to their own growth.

A fourth movement found in contradictions is the change in overall form that many undergo through their interaction with other processes in the larger system of which they are part. Of the contradiction between use and exchange-value, Marx says it "develops further, presents itself and manifests itself in the duplication of the commodity into commodity and money. This duplication appears as a process in the metamorphosis of commodity in which selling and buying are different aspects of a single process and each act of this process simultaneously includes its opposite" (Marx, 1971, 88). The same contradictions seem to undergo still another metamorphosis: the contradictions in commodity and money, which develop in circulation, are said "to reproduce themselves" in capital (Marx, 1968, 512). The contradiction between use and exchange-value with which we began has moved, been transferred, into the relation between commodity and money, and from there into capital. This movement is similar to what occurs in the metamorphosis of value—the systemic interactions are the same. Except here it is an entire contradiction that gets metamorphosed.

The fifth and final movement contained in contradiction occurs in its resolution when one side overwhelms what has hitherto been holding it in check, transforming both itself and all its relationships in the process. The resolution of a contradiction can be of two sorts, either temporary and partial or permanent and total. An economic crisis is an example of the first. Marx refers to crises as "essential outbursts . . . of the immanent contradictions" (Marx, 1971, 55). The preexisting equilibrium has broken down, and a new one composed of recognizably similar elements, usually with the addition of some new elements, is in the process of replacing it. A partial resolution of a contradiction is more in the order of a readjustment, for it can also be said here that the old contradiction has been raised to a new and higher stage. In the case of simple economic crises, where economic breakdown is followed sooner or later by a renewed burst of accumulation, the initial contradictions are expanded to include more things, a larger area of the globe, more people, and a more highly developed technology. Essentially, the stakes have been raised for the next time around.

A permanent and total resolution occurs when the elements in contradiction undergo major qualitative change, transforming all their relations to one another as well as the larger system of which they are a part. An economic crisis that gives rise to a political and social revolution is an example of this. Here, the initial contradictions have moved well beyond what they once were, and are often so different that it may be difficult to reconstruct their earlier forms. What determines whether the resolution of a contradiction will be partial or total, of course, is not its dialectical form, the fact that differences get abstracted as contradictions, but its real content. However, such content is unlikely to reveal its secret to anyone who cannot read it as a contradiction. By including the undermining interaction of mutually dependent processes in the same unit, by expanding this unit to take in how such interaction has developed and where it is tending (its metamorphosis through different forms and eventual resolution), it is Marx's broad abstractions of extension that make it possible to grasp these varied movements as internal and necessary elements of a single contradiction.

Finally, Marx's large abstractions of extension also account for how the same factor, as indicated by its proper name, can contain two or more contradictions. Commodity, for example, is said to embody the contradiction between use and exchange-value as well as the contradiction between private and social labor. To contain both contradictions, commodity must be given a large enough extension to include the interaction between the two aspects of value as well as the interaction between the two aspects of labor, and both of them as they develop over time (Marx, 1971, 130).

  1. Other important dialectical movements are mediation, interpenetration of polar opposites, negation of the negation, precondition and result, and unity and separation. Except for "pre-condition and result," the main subject of the next chapter, these movements will receive fuller treatment in my next book on dialectics. For now, it is sufficient to point out that the role that abstraction plays in constructing and helping to make visible the movements of quantity/quality change, metamorphosis, and contradiction applies equally to them.

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