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Dance of the Dialectic - Chapter 9 - Why Dialectics? Why Now? < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method
Chapter 9

Why Dialectics? Why Now?
or How to Study the Communist Future Inside the Capitalist Present (With an Appendix on "The Dance of the Dialectic")


"The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals a goose from off the common,
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from under the goose".
(15th century, English, Anonymous)

The commons, of course, was the land owned by everyone in the village. By the late middle-ages, feudal lords were claiming this land as their own private property. In universities today, we can discern two opposing kinds of scholarship, that which studies the people who steal a goose from off the commons ("Goose From Off the Commons Studies", or G.F.O.C. for short) and that which studies those who steal the commons from under the goose ("Commons From Under the Goose Studies", or C.F.U.G. for short). If the "mainstream" in practically every discipline consists almost entirely of the former, Marxism is our leading example of the latter.

But whereas seeing someone steal a goose from off the commons is a relatively simple matter—you only have to be there, to open your eyes, and to look—seeing someone steal the commons from under the goose is not, neither then nor now (Russia today is a possible exception). Here, the theft is accomplished only gradually; the person acting is often an agent for someone else; force is used, but so are laws and ideology. In short, to recognize a case of C.F.U.G., one has to grasp the bigger picture and the longer time that it takes for it to come together. It's not easy, but there is nothing that we study that is more important. Hence—and no matter what happened in the Soviet Union and in China—Marxism will continue to be relevant until we reclaim the commons from those who stole it from us and who go on helping themselves to it with impunity right up to this moment.

Just how difficult it is to grasp the bigger picture was recently brought home to us when a group of astronomers announced that they had discovered what they called "The Great Attractor". This is a huge structure composed of many galaxies that is exerting a strong attraction on our galaxy and therefore on our solar system and on the planet on which we live. When questioned as to why something so big was not discovered earlier, one of the astronomers replied that its very size was responsible for the delay. These scientists had focused so intently on its parts that they couldn't see what they were parts of.

Capitalism is a huge structure very similar to the Great Attractor. It, too, has a major effect on everything going on inside it, but it is so big and so omni-present that few see it. In capitalism, the system consists of a complex set of relations between all people, their activities (particularly material production) and products. But this interaction is also evolving, so the system includes the development of this inter-action over time, stretching back to its origins and forward to whatever it is becoming. The problem people have in seeing capitalism, then—and recognizing instances of G.F.O.C. Studies when they occur—comes from the difficulty of grasping such a complex set of relations that are developing in this way and on this scale.

No one will deny, of course, that everything in society is related in some way and that the whole of this is changing, again in some way and at some pace. Yet, most people try to make sense of what is going on by viewing one part of society at a time, isolating and separating it from the rest, and treating it as static. The connections between such parts, like their real history and potential for further development, are considered external to what each one really is, and therefore not essential to a full or even adequate understanding of any of them. As a result, looking for these connections and their history becomes more difficult than it has to be. They are left for last or left out completely, and important aspects of them are missed, distorted, or trivialized. It's what might be called the Humpty Dumpty problem. After the fall, it was not only extremely hard to put the pieces of poor Humpty together again, but even to see where they fit. This is what happens whenever the pieces of our everyday experience are taken as existing separate from their spatial and historical contexts, whenever the part is given an ontological status independent of the whole.


The alternative, the dialectical alternative, is to start by taking the whole as given, so that the interconnections and changes that make up the whole are viewed as inseparable from what anything is, internal to its being, and therefore essential to a full understanding of it. In the history of ideas, this has been called the "philosophy of internal relations". No new facts have been introduced. We have just recognized the complex relations and changes that everyone admits to being in the world in a way that highlights rather than dismisses or minimizes them in investigating any problem. The world of independent and essentially dead "things" has been replaced in our thinking by a world of "processes in relations of mutual dependence". This is the first step in thinking dialectically. But we still don't know anything specific about these relations.

In order to draw closer to the subject of study, the next step is to abstract out the patterns in which most change and interaction occur. A lot of the specialized vocabulary associated with dialectics—"contradiction", "quantity-quality change", "interpenetration of polar opposites", "negation of the negation", etc.—is concerned with this task. Reflecting actual patterns in the way things change and interact, these categories also serve as ways of organizing for purposes of thought and inquiry whatever it is they embrace. With their help, we can study the particular conditions, events and problems that concern us in a way that never loses sight of how the whole is present in the part, how it helps to structure the part, supplying it with a location, a sense and a direction. Later, what is learned about the part(s) is used to deepen our understanding of the whole, how it functions, how it has developed, and where it is tending. Both analysis and synthesis display this dialectical relation.

What's called "dialectical method" might be broken down into six successive moments. There is an ontological one having to do with what the world really is (an infinite number of mutually dependent processes—with no clear or fixed boundaries—that coalesce to form a loosely structured whole or totality). There is the epistemological moment that deals with how to organize our thinking in order to understand such a world (as indicated, this involves opting for a philosophy of internal relations and abstracting out the chief patterns in which change and interaction occur as well as the main parts in and between which they are seen to occur). There is the moment of inquiry (where, based on an assumption of internal relations between all parts, one uses the categories that convey these patterns along with a set of priorities derived from Marx's theories as aids to investigation). There is the moment of intellectual reconstruction or self-clarification (where one puts together the results of such research for oneself). This is followed by the moment of exposition (where, using a strategy that takes account of how others think as well as what they know, one tries to explain this dialectical grasp of the "facts" to a particular audience). And, finally, there is the moment of praxis (where, based on whatever clarification has been reached, one consciously acts in the world, changing it and testing it and deepening one's understanding of it all at the same time).

These six moments are not traversed once and for all, but again and again, as every attempt to understand and expound dialectical truths and to act upon them improves one's ability to organize one's thinking dialectically and to inquire further and deeper into the mutually dependent processes to which we also belong. In writing about dialectics, therefore, one must be very careful not to single out any one moment —as so many thinkers do—at the expense of the others. Only in their internal relations do these six moments constitute a workable and immensely valuable dialectical method.

So—Why Dialectics? Because that's the only sensible way to study a world composed of mutually dependent processes in constant evolution, and also to interpret Marx, who is our leading investigator into this world. Dialectics is necessary just to see capitalism, given its vastness and complexity, and Marxism to help us understand it, to instruct us in how to do "Commons From Under the Goose Studies", and to help us develop a political strategy to reclaim the commons. Capitalism is completely and always dialectical, so that Marxism will always be necessary to make sense of it, and dialectics to make correct sense of Marxism.


Why Now? The current stage of capitalism is characterized by far greater complexity and much faster change and interaction than existed earlier. But if society has never been so imbued with dialectics, the efforts to keep us from grasping what is taking place have never been so systematic or so effective—all of which makes a dialectical understanding more indispensable now than ever before.

Socialism's sudden loss of credibility as a viable alternative to capitalism, however, a loss largely due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, has given Marxists still another important reason to devote more attention to dialectics. For many socialists, even some who had always been critical of the Soviet Union, have reacted to this recent turn of history by questioning whether any form of socialism is possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one result has been a kind of "future shyness" that has afflicted the writings of many on the Left today. What does a critical analysis of capitalism without any accompanying conception of socialism look like? It describes how capitalism works, shows who gets "screwed" and by how much, offers a moral condemnation of same, prescribes—faute de mieux—reformist solutions, and—because these no longer work—lapses into emotional despair and cynicism. Sound familiar?

Marx would not have been pleased, for, despite the absence of any single work on socialism/communism, there are no writings of his, no matter how small, where we are not given some indication of what such a future would be like. If Hegel's Owl of Minerva comes out and also goes back in at dusk, Marx's Owl stays around to herald the new dawn. This imaginative reconstruction of the future has been sharply attacked not only by his opponents but by many of Marx's followers, such as Edward Bernstein (Bernstein, 1961, 204-5, 209-ll) and, more recently, Eric Wright (Wright, l995), who view it as a lapse into utopianism that contaminates his otherwise scientific enterprise. But do all discussions of the future have to be "utopian"? With Rosa Luxemburg (Luxemburg, 1966, 40) and others, I do not think it is utopian to believe that a qualitatively better society is possible or to hope that it comes about. What is utopian is to construct this society out of such hopes, to believe, in other words, that such a society is possible without any other reason or evidence but that you desire it.

As opposed to this utopian approach, Marx insisted that communism lies "concealed" inside capitalism, and that he is able to uncover it by means of his analysis (Marx, l973, l59). And elsewhere, he says, "we wish to find the new world through the critique of the old" (Marx, l967, 212). Rather than a moral condemnation, Marx's "critique of the old" shows that capitalism is having increasing difficulty in reproducing the conditions necessary for its own existence, that it is becoming impossible, while at the same time—and through the same developments—creating the conditions for the new society that will follow. The new world exists within the old in the form of a vast and untapped potential. Marx analyses capitalism in a way that makes this unfolding potential for turning into its opposite (communism) stand out. As part of this, he is not averse to describing, if only in a general way, what the realization of this potential would look like.1

The central place of potential in dialectical thinking has been noted by a variety of thinkers. C.L.R. James refered to the internal relation between actuality and potentiality as "the entire secret" of Hegel's dialectics (meaning Marx's as well) (James, 1992, 129). Marcuse claimed to find an insoluble bond between the present and the future in the very meanings of the concepts with which Marx analyses the present (Marcuse, 1964, 295-6). Maximilien Rubel made a similar point when he suggested, half seriously, that Marx invented a new grammatical form, the "anticipative-indicative", where every effort to point at something in front of him foreshadows something else that is not yet there (Rubel, 1987, 25). But this still doesn't explain how Marx does it. Where exactly is the future concealed in the present? And how does Marx's dialectical method help him to uncover it?

In brief: most of the evidence for the possibility of socialism/communism surrounds us on all sides, and can be seen by everyone. It lies in conditions that don't seem to have anything particularly socialist about them, such as our developed industries, enormous material wealth, high levels of science, occupational skills, organizational structures, education, and culture; and also in conditions that already have a socialist edge to them, such as workers and consumers cooperatives, public education, municipal hospitals, political democracy, and—in our day —nationalized enterprises. Evidence for socialism can also be found in some of capitalism's worst problems, such as unemployment and worsening inequality. For Marx and his followers, it is clear that it is the capitalist context in which all these conditions are embedded that keeps them from fulfilling their potential and contributing to a truly human existence. Abstracting from this context, Marxists have no difficulty in looking at our enormous wealth and ability to produce more and seeing an end to material want, or looking at our limited and malfunctioning political democracy and seeing everyone democratically running all of society, or looking at rising unemployment and seeing the possibility of people sharing whatever work is to be done, working fewer hours and enjoying more free time, and so on. Unfortunately, most others who encounter the same evidence don't see this potential, not even in the parts that have a socialist edge to them. And it is important to consider why they can't.

Investigating potential is taking the longer view, not only forward to what something can develop into but also backward to how it has developed up to now. This longer view, however, must be preceded by taking a broader view, since nothing and no one changes on its or his own but only in close relationship with other people and things, that is as part of an interactive system. Hence, however limited the immediate object of interest, investigating its potential requires that we project the evolution of the complex and integrated whole to which it belongs. The notion of potential is mystified whenever it is applied to a part that is separated from its encompassing system or that system is separated from its origins. When that happens, "potential" can only refer to possibility in the sense of chance, for all the necessity derived from the relational and processual character of reality has been removed, and there is no more reason to expect one outcome rather than another.

The crux of the problem most people have in seeing evidence for socialism inside capitalism, then, is that they operate with a conception of the present that is effectively sealed off from the future, at least any notion of the future that grows organically out of the present. There is no sense of the present as a moment through which life, and the rest of reality as the conditions of life, passes from somewhere on its way to somewhere. When someone is completely lost in the past or the future, we have little difficulty recognizing this as a mental illness. Yet, the present completely walled off from either the past or the future (or both) can also serve as a prison for thinking, though "alienation" is a more accurate label for this condition than "neurosis". Here, people simply take how something appears now for what it really is, what it is in full, and what it could only be. With the exception of the gadgetry found in science fiction, what they call the "future" is filled with social objects that are only slightly modified from how they appear and function in the present.

With this mind-set, there is no felt need to trace the relations any thing has with other things as part of a system—even while admitting that such a system exists—for, supposedly, there is nothing essential to be learned about it by doing so. Likewise, operating with narrow, independent parts that are also static, there is no difficulty in admitting that there was a past and will be a future while ignoring both when trying to understand anything in the present. If people can't see the evidence for socialism that exists all around them, therefore, it is not mainly because of an inability to abstract elements from capitalism and imaginatively project how they might function elsewhere. Rather, and more fundamentally, the conditions they see about them do not seem to belong to any social system at all, so there is no system to take them out of and, equally, no system to insert them into. The systemic and historical characters of both capitalism and socialism that would allow for such projections are simply missing.


The dialectic enters this picture as Marx's way of systematizing and historicizing all the conditions of capitalism, so that they become internally related elements of an organic whole, which is itself but the most visible moment in how its components got that way and what they may yet become. With this move, the present ceases to be a prison for thinking, and, like the past and the future, becomes a stage in a temporal process with necessary and discoverable relations to the rest of the process. It is by analyzing a present conceived in this way that Marx believes he can discern the broad outlines of the socialist and communist societies that lie ahead.

The dialectical method with which Marx studies this future inside the capitalist present consists of four main steps. l) He looks for relations between the main capitalist features of our society at this moment in time. 2) He tries to find the necessary pre-conditions of just these relations—viewing them now as mutually dependent processes—in the past, treating the pre-conditions he uncovers as the start of an unfolding movement that led to the present. 3) He then projects these interrelated processes, reformulated as contradictions, from the past, through the present, and into the future. These projections move from the immediate future, to the probable resolution of these contradictions in an intermediate future, and on to the type of society that is likely to follow in the more distant future. 4) Marx then reverses himself, and uses the socialist and communist stages of the future at which he has arrived as vantage points for reexamining the present extended back in time to include its own past, now viewed as the sum of the necessary preconditions for such a future.

Before elaborating on these steps, there are two qualifications and one clarification that need to be made. First, it should be clear that explaining how to study the future is not the same as actually making such a study. In the former, which is the case here, the details brought forward are meant to illustrate the approach and should not be taken as the results of an already completed study, though I have taken care to use only realistic examples. The second qualification has to do with Aristotle's warning that in undertaking any study we should not expect more precision than the nature of our subject permits. The potential within capitalism for socialism is real enough, but it is often unclear and always imprecise, both as regards the exact forms that will develop and as regards timing or the moment at which the expected changes will occur. In short, in investigating the future within the present, we must be careful not to insist on a standard for knowledge that can never be met.

The clarification has to do with the fact that the future that Marx uncovers by projecting the outcome of society's contradictions is not all of one piece. Marx's varied projections make it necessary to divide the future into four different stages, communism being but the last. Through his analysis of capitalism, as a system in the present that emerges out of its preconditions in the past, Marx also projects its immediate future (or its development over the next few years), the near future (or the coming of the crisis that results in a socialist revolution), a middle future or transition between capitalism and communism that we call "socialism", and, finally, the far future or communism. How Marx uses his dialectical method for inquiring into what lies ahead varies somewhat depending on the stage of the future he is concerned with. While our interest here is limited to what I've called the "middle" and "far" futures, Marx's treatment of the "immediate" and especially the "near" futures cannot be wholly ignored, since the outcomes he projects for them enter into his expectations for socialism and communism.


Keeping these qualifications and this clarification clearly in mind, we can return to the four steps by which Marx sought to steal the secret of the future from its hiding place in the present. The first step, as I said, was to trace the main lines of the organic interaction that characterizes capitalist society—particularly as regards the accumulation of capital and the class struggle—at this moment of time. In order to focus on what is distinctively capitalist in our situation, Marx has to abstract out (omit) those qualities—equally real, and, for different kinds of problems, equally important—that belong to our society as part of other systems, such as human society (which takes in the whole history of the species), or class society (which takes in the entire period of class history), or modern capitalist society (which only takes in the most recent stage of capitalism), or the unique society that exists at this time in this place (which only takes in what is here and now). Every society and everything in them are composed of qualities that fall on these different levels of generality. Taken together—which is how most people approach them—they constitute a confusing patchwork of ill fitting pieces that makes the systemic connections that exist on any single level very difficult to perceive. By starting with the decision to exclude all non-capitalist levels of generality from his awareness, to focus provisionally on the capitalist character of the people, activities, and products before him, Marx avoids tripping on what human society or class history or the other levels mentioned have placed in his way in carrying out his work as our leading systematizer of capitalism.

The widespread view of capitalism as the sum of everything in our society rather than the capitalist "slice" of it has been responsible for repeated complaints, most recently from post-modernists and social movement theorists, that Marx ignores the role of race, gender, nation, and religion. He ignores them, at least in his systematic writings, because they all predate capitalism, and consequently cannot be part of what is distinctive about capitalism. Though all of these conditions take on capitalist forms to go along with their forms as part of class society or the life of the species, their most important qualities fall on the latter levels of generality, and it is there (and on us in so far as we are subject to these levels) that they have their greatest impact. Uncovering the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production, however, which was the major goal of Marx's investigative effort, simply required a more restricted focus.

With the distinctive qualities of capitalism in focus, Marx proceeds to examine the most important interactions in the present from different vantage points, though economic processes, particularly in production, are privileged, both as vantage points and as material to be studied. To avoid the overemphasis and trivialization that marks most one sided studies, the relation between labor and capital is examined from each side in turn, and the same applies to all the major relations that Marx treats. Of equal significance is the fact that internal relations are taken to exist between all objective and subjective factors, so that conditions never come into Marx's study without umbilical ties to the people who affect and are affected by them, and the same applies to people—they are always grasped in context, with the essentials of this context taken as part of who and what they are. Capital, as Marx says, "is at the same time the capitalist" (Marx, l973)

After reconstituting the capitalist present in this manner, the second step Marx takes in his quest to unlock the future is to examine the preconditions of this present in the past. If the dialectical study of the present treats its subject matter as so many Relations, a dialectical study of the past requires that we view these Relations as also processes. History comes to mean the constant, if uneven, evolution of mutually dependent conditions. The past, of course, takes place before the present, and in retelling the story one usually begins at the beginning and moves forward. But the correct order in inquiry is present first, and it is what Marx uncovers in his reconstruction of the present that guides him in his search into the past, helping him decide what to look for as well as how far back to go in looking for it. The question posed is what had to happen in the past for the present to become what it did? This is not to suggest that what occurred was preordained (though there may have been good reasons for it); only that it did in fact take place, and that it had these results. It is in following this approach that Marx is led to late feudalism as the period when most of the important preconditions for capitalism are first laid down.


After reconstructing the organic interaction of the capitalist present and establishing its origins in the past, Marx is ready to project the main tendencies that he finds there into one or another stage of the future. As part of this third step in his method, Marx re-abstracts (reorganizes, rethinks) these tendencies as "contradictions", which emphasizes their interaction as processes that are simultaneously mutually supporting and mutually undermining one another. Over time, it is the undermining activities that prevail. The fundamental assumption that underlies Marx's practise here is that reality is an internally related whole with temporal as well as spatial dimensions. Things that are separate and independent (if this is how one conceives them) cannot be in contradiction, since contradiction implies that an important change in any part will produce changes of a comparable magnitude throughout the system. Just as things that are static (again, if this is how one conceives them) cannot be in a contradiction, since contradiction implies there is a collision up ahead. The use of "contradiction" in formal logic and to refer to some relations between the categories of capitalist political economy (the province of systematic Dialectics—see chapter 11), rather than true exceptions, offer instances of Marx's willingness—evident throughout his writings—to use a concept to convey only part of all that it can mean for him. Finally, based on what has already been achieved in examining the present and the past, Marx's contradictions also contain both objective and subjective aspects as well as a high degree of economic content.

Marx's contradictions organize the present state of affairs in capitalism, including the people involved in them, in a way that brings out how this cluster of relations has developed, the pressures that are undermining their existing equilibrium, and the likely changes up ahead. With contradictions, the present comes to contain both its real past and likely future in a manner that allows each historical stage to cast a helpful light upon the others. Early in his career, Marx compared problems in society with those in algebra, where the solution is given once a problem receives its proper formulation (Marx, l967, l06). The solution to capitalism's problems, he believed, would also become clear once they were reformulated in terms of contradictions. It is chiefly by projecting such contradictions forward to the point of their resolution and beyond, where the character of the resolution gives shape to the elements of what follows, that Marx is able to catch a glimpse of both socialism and communism. The resolution of a contradiction can be partial and temporary or complete and permanent. In the former, as exemplified in the typical capitalist crisis, the elements involved are simply reordered in a way that puts off the arrival of the latter. Our concern here is with the kind of resolution that completely and permanently transforms all of capitalism's major contradictions.

Marx sees capitalism as full of intersecting and overlapping contradictions (Marx, l963, 218). Among the more important of these are the contradictions between use-value and exchange-value, between capital and labor in the production process (and between capitalists and workers in the class struggle), between capitalist forces and capitalist relations of production, between competition and cooperation, between science and ideology, between political democracy and economic servitude, and—perhaps most decisively—between social production and private appropriation (or what some have recast as the "logic of production vs. the logic of consumption"). In all of these contradictions, what I referred to earlier as the "evidence for socialism" inside capitalism can be found reorganized as so many mutually dependent tendencies evolving over time. Viewed as parts of capitalism's major contradictions, their current forms can only represent a passing moment in the unfolding of a larger potential.

Whatever necessity (best grasped as likelihood) is found in Marx's projection of a socialist revolution in what I referred to as the near future is the result of his demonstrating that the conditions underlying capitalism have become more and more difficult to reproduce while the conditions that make socialism possible have developed apace. All this is contained in capitalism's main contradictions. According to Marx's analysis, these contradictions display capitalism as becoming increasingly destructive, inefficient, irrational, and eventually impossible, while at the same time socialism is presented as becoming increasingly practical, rational, conceivable, necessary, and even obvious—notwithstanding all the alienated life conditions and the enormous consciousness industry that work to distort such facts. Consequently, for Marx, it is only a matter of time and opportunity before the then organization, consciousness and tactics of the rising class brings about the expected transformation.


Marx's vision of what happens after the revolution is derived mainly from projecting the forms that the resolution of capitalism's major contradictions are likely to take in the hands of a new ruling class, the workers, who have already been significantly changed by their participation in a successful revolution, and who are guided primarily by their class interests in making all major decisions. And the most important of these interests is to abolish their exploitation as a class along with all the conditions that underpin it. How quickly they could accomplish this, of course, is another matter. The question, then, is not "Why would the workers do this?" but "Why—given their interests—when they come to power would they do anything else?".

For class interests to bear the weight put on them by this account of future prospects, we need to place the relations between different classes in earlier times, including their interests, inside the main contradictions that link the present with the past and the future. Only by understanding how capitalist class interests determine the forms and functions of what I called the "evidence for socialism" inside capitalism (step one), and how, in response to these same interests, all this has evolved over time (step two), can we begin to grasp how quickly these forms and functions would change in response to the demands of a new ruling class with different interests (step three). In other words, when the capitalists (and the feudal aristocracy and slave owners before them) acquired the power to shape society according to their class interests, they did so, and the workers will do likewise. If the workers' assumption of power together with the material conditions bequeathed by capitalism provide us with the possibility for socialism, it is the workers' peculiar class interests together with the removal of whatever interfered with the recognition of them under capitalism that supplies us with most of its necessity.

While Marx's vision of socialism (or the middle future) is derived mainly from the contradictions of capitalism, his vision of communism (or the far future) is derived not only from these contradictions (that is, from projecting the resolution of these contradictions beyond the attainment of socialism), but also from the contradictions Marx sees in class history and even in socialism itself, in so far as it is a distinctive class formation. After socialism has developed to a certain point—in particular, when everyone becomes a worker, all means of production are socialized, and democracy is extended to all walks of life—the contradictions that have existed since the very beginning of classes (having to do with the general form of the division of labor, private property, the state, etc.) come gradually to resolution. At the same time, and through the same processes, the contradictions that socialism still possesses as a class society (having to do with its own forms of the division of labor, private property and the state, which Marx sums up under "dictatorship of the proletariat") are also resolved. It is the resolution of the contradictions from all these overlapping periods—capitalism, class society and socialism—together with the forms of alienation associated with them that marks the qualitative leap from socialism to communism, and which makes the latter so hard for most people today to conceive.

To summarize: Marx begins to study the future by tracing the main organic interconnections in the capitalist present. He then looks for their preconditions in the past; and he concludes by projecting the chief tendencies found in both, abstracted now as contradictions, to their resolution and beyond for the stage of the future with which he is concerned. The order of the moves is—present, past, future (unlike most futurological attempts to peer ahead that move from the present directly to the future or, as in many utopian efforts, that go directly to the future, dispensing with the present altogether).


Marx's method for studying the future is still not complete. In a fourth and final step, Marx reverses himself and uses the socialist and communist stages of the future at which he has arrived as vantage points for reexamining the present, now viewed (together with its own past) as the necessary preconditions for such a future. This last, though little understood, is the indispensable means by which Marx provides the "finishing" touches to his analysis of capitalism. It is also part of his method for studying the future since the process I have described is an ongoing one. Building on what he learns from going through one series of steps, Marx begins the dance—the dance of the dialectic—all over again. For the work of reconstructing the present, finding its preconditions in the past, projecting its likely future, and seeking out the preconditions of this future in the present, now conceived of as an extension of the past, is never truly finished.

According to Marx, "The anatomy of the human being is the key to the anatomy of the ape" (Marx, l904, 300). The same applies to the relations between later and earlier stages of society, and in the same way that our present provides the key for understanding the past, the future (that is, the likely future, in so far as we can determine it) provides the key for understanding the present. It is Marx's grasp of communism, as unfinished as it is, for example, that helps him to see capitalism as the gateway to human history rather than its end, and makes it easier to distinguish the capitalist specific qualities of current society (those that serve as the preconditions of socialism) from the qualities it possesses as an instance of class and human societies. Communism also provides Marx with a standard by which the greater part of what exists today is found wanting as well as criteria for determining priorities for research and politics, distinguishing between the kind of changes capitalism can absorb from those that set transitional forces into motion.

The transparently class character of socialist society, epitomized in the notion of "the dictatorship of the proletariat", also makes it easier to grasp the more hidden class character of capitalism. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, that insisting that the capitalist state, whatever its democratic pretensions, is a dictatorship of the capitalist class is the most effective way to innoculate people against the dangers of reformist politics (hence the theoretical loss incurred when the French and other communist parties removed all references to the dictatorship of the proletariat from their programs).

But above and beyond all this, revisiting the present from the vantage point of its likely future concretizes and hence makes visible the potential that exists throughout the present for just such a future. To William Faulkner's supposed remark, "The past is not dead—it is not even in the past", Marx could have added, "And the future is not unborn—it is not even in the future". Potential is the form in which the future exists inside the present, but until now it has been a form without a particular content just because it was open to every conceivable content. Now, everywhere one looks, one sees not only what is but what could be, what really could be, not simply because one desires it but because the aforementioned analysis has shown it to be so. Seeing the "facts" of capitalism as "evidence" of socialism becomes so many arguments for socialism. While, informing workers of and sensitizing them to the extraordinary possibilities that lie hidden inside their oppressive daily existence greatly increases their power to act politically by indicating how and with whom to act (all those who would benefit immediately from the enactment of these possibilities), just as it enhances their self-confidence that they can succeed. In sum, by enriching capitalism with the addition of communism, Marx's dialectical analysis "liberates" potential to play its indispensable role in helping to liberate us.

Taken altogether, the future proves to be as important in understanding the present and past as they are in understanding the future. And always, the return to the present from the future instigates another series of steps from the present to the past to the future, using what has just been learned to broaden and deepen the analysis at every stage.


Before concluding, it needs to be stressed that the projections of the future obtained through the use of the method outlined here are only highly probable, and even then the pace and exact forms through which such change occurs owes too much to the specificity of a particular place, the vagaries of class struggle, and also to accident to be fully knowable beforehand. Marx, himself, as we know, recognized "barbarism" as a possible successor to capitalism, though he thought it very unlikely and devoted much less attention to this possibility that we need to after the blood curdling events of the past century.

To avoid other possible misunderstandings of what I have tried to do in this essay, I would like to add that my account of Marx's method is not meant to be either complete or final, but rather—in keeping with Marx's own approach to exposition—a first approximation to its subject matter. Further, I do not believe that Marx's use of contradiction to project existing potential is the only means he uses to uncover the socialist/communist future inside the capitalist present; it is simply the main one. Also, this approach to studying the future is not to be confused with Marx's strategies for presenting what he found, and hence with what he actually published, which always involved a certain amount of reordering that took the character of his audience into account. Nor am I maintaining that this is how Marx became a communist. That is a complex story in which Hegel's dialectic and Marx's unique appropriation of it are but part.

Once Marx constructed the chief elements of what came to be called "Marxism", however, projecting capitalism's main contradictions forward became his preferred approach for studying the future, providing that future with just the degree of clarity and necessity needed for him to use it in elaborating his analysis of the present (in doing his version of "Commons From Under the Goose Studies"). It is also the best way that we today can learn about a socialist future that is more than wishful thinking. Only then, too, can the vision of socialism, which has been so battered by recent events, fulfill its own potential as one of our most effective weapons in the class struggle. Putting this weapon in the hands of workers and other oppressed peoples, teaching them how to use it—to do this, to do this against all the pressures of the age—is largely why we need dialectics, and, with the world that capitalism has made teetering on the brink, why we need dialectics now more than ever.

1. For an attempt to reconstruct Marx's vision of socialism and communism from his scattered comments on this subject, see my book Social and Sexual Revolution (1979), chap. 3.

The Dance of the Dialectic