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Lament for Dialectical Thinking

I know I've said it before (though I can't remember where) but one of the deficiencies of the general anti-capitalist left, a population to which I belong, is its inability to think dialectically.  Even more of a problem is that, amongst marxists, this inability to think dialectically is often disguised as "dialectical"––so much so that there is a long history of one marxist group or individual calling another marxist group or individual "undialectical" for reasons that have nothing to do with dialectical logic.  And the semi-popular tendency of leftish academics calling every set of relational terms "dialectical" tends to produce all manner of confusion.

In an old post, On Dialectical Materialism, I attempted to provide a simple primer, short and to the point, of what it meant to use dialectical logic as a historical materialist.  And while it may indeed be a fact that "dialectical materialism", which has a curious history of being short-handed as "diamat", is a term that was not used by Marx or Engels––prompting some of my readers to complain, at the time that piece was written, that I was using "Stalinist" terminology––this is simply a semantic problem.  Marx and Engels spoke of doing dialectics as materialists, other writers outside of the "Stalinist" tradition (including Trotsky) used the term "materialist dialectics" and so I see no problem to relinquish the most popularized term of Marx and Engels' philosophical method.  Whatever the case, semantic quibbles aside, the main reason I wrote that piece is due to what I saw as a deficiency in some marxist critiques, as well as anti-capitalist critiques in general, of the current conjuncture.  The implicit argument hidden behind my summary of dialectical materialism was that the absence of dialectical thinking amongst broad sectors of the left demonstrated a deficiency in thought.  The fact that some marxists were wont to use the name of "dialectics" without any apparent fidelity to the concept was perfect proof of this deficiency: the logical tools behind the science of historical materialism were either being abandoned or misused.

dialectical logic is essentially the "unity of opposites"

Of course, there are trajectories of thought that want to reject dialectics altogether.  I'm not speaking of the traditionally right-wing rejection of dialectics––the snooty anti-intellectual arch-conservativism that, especially during the cold war, liked to mock dialectics (without understanding it in any real detail) as some sort of sophistic tool that communists used to escape logic––but of radically anti-capitalist theoretical tendencies.  Post-modernism saw it as a totalizing logic, a product of a modernity that was intrinsically bound up with murderous conquest and cultural imperialism.  Analytic Marxism saw it as illogical, Hegelian nonsense that Marx and Engels were better off without.  Then there are those thinkers, such as Deleuze and Guattari, who would advocate other and more eclectic methods of logic that they assumed better fit the marxist project of emancipation (i.e. the "rhizome").  Perhaps these rejections of dialectical thoughts are helped along by all of the nonsensical uses of dialectical thinking that have been the pit-falls of innumerable marxist organizations––after all, if your experience of people who claim to be dialecticians is an experience of people who defend their nonsense as "dialectical" then it makes sense to despise the concept.

Take, for example, the bizarre claim tendered by more than one marxist organization or individual that dialectical materialism (or, to escape the trap of this terminology, "materialist dialectics") is some sort of queen of the sciences.  Such a claim follows from the older claim that philosophy is the queen of the sciences: for if we agree that philosophy is, as your average Platonist would have it, the queen of the sciences, and that marxism is the pre-eminent science, then it follows that the philosophy of marxism, dialectical materialism, is the queen of the sciences.  Such an assumption, based on the faulty premise of a unifying scientific monarch, has led more than one marxist organization to imagine that they can comment with authority on all scientific disciplines and see themselves as more equipped to explain the meaning of these disciplines than those who have actually bothered to study them.  Here we have marxists believing, through the ultimate science of dialectics, that they know more about quantum physics and pure mathematics than trained physicists and mathematicians.

And though we would not like physicists and mathematicians intervening as authorities, based on their expertise in physics and mathematics, on the field of historical materialism (and indeed more than one marxist has angrily decried the attempts of liberal and conservative physicists/mathematicians to decide the truth value of our terrain), we have no problem deciding that we can be authorities in fields that we have only studied through popular textbooks.  I am thinking, here, of at least one contemporary marxist organization (that I will not name since it is not alone in this history) that has felt the need to write a book on science that, using the preeminent science of dialectics, has referred to the Einsteinian paradigm as "idealist", maintaining a retrograde Newtonian approach to reality, while simultaneously mocking people with degrees in physics just as the average reactionary mocks the "fancy degrees" of every intellectual.

This is not to say that there is no place for marxists to intervene when it comes to other scientists, but only that this place should be properly understood as one presented by the science of historical materialism––intervention when and where another science oversteps its bounds and, like the "dialectician" that imagines s/he can tell the physicist what is what with hir paradigm, is able to point out how this science is suddenly making decisions that have nothing to do with its theoretical boundaries.  For example: when the biologist becomes a racial theorist and attempts to explain culture, which is outside of hir scientific boundaries, according to biological imperatives––as was done in the nineteenth century with physiognomy and phrenology which are now understood, thanks to successive interventions, as pseudo-science.  Another example: when Lenin attacked the declarations about human nature and reality made by physicists, based on wild philosophical extrapolations of their work that were disguised as scientific, in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

In any case, we need to understand that dialectics is not a science in and of itself, let alone the "queen" of philosophy and thus the "queen" of the sciences: it is a logic behind a method that is also part of every great scientific endeavour, even if it is not recognized as such.  The greatest physicists were also instinctive dialecticians in that their work was often a unity of opposites––simultaneously a continuity and a break with the tradition in which they laboured––which did not have to be imposed from outside.   The greatest historical materialists––that is, the greatest marxist theoreticians––also use dialectical logic in their scientific field: society and history.  And we are in the process of abandoning this tradition by abandoning, even if we pretend not to, dialectical thought.

There is, in fact, a general inability to grasp nuance that I feel is a result of this deficiency in thinking.  I am not arguing something as asinine as nuance-is-dialectics but only that the fields of nuance and dialectics overlap: dialectical logic is always nuanced; not all nuanced thinking is dialectical.  More accurately: dialectical logic is nuanced to the extent that is also, at the same time, unnuanced… which places it outside of counter-logical approaches, such as Deleuze and Guattari's "rhizomatic" thought, that ultimately imply nuance bordering on incoherence.

Of course, the statement that dialectics is always nuanced except when it is unnuanced, and that this in itself is nuance, could be accused of being incoherent by the average logician.  Let's back up a little and begin with the simple logical reductions that I used in my afore-cited post on dialectics.  Whereas formal logic claims that something cannot be one thing and its opposite at the same time dialectical logic hinges on the acceptance of this unity of opposites.  To simplify, formal logic begins by assuming that something is either one thing or its opposite (A v ~A), whereas dialectical logic begins by assuming that one thing can also be its opposite (A & ~A), and the former method of logic would argue that the latter is logically incoherent (that is, according to formal logic, A & ~A is non-sensical––it cannot be raining and not raining at the same time).  To be fair, we would be in error if were to assume that the unity of opposites that defines dialectical thought is always the case and so we must, in some sense, accept the root claim of formal logic: on a certain level things definitely cannot be one thing and the opposite, although on another level we have to believe that this is the case.

For example, someone cannot be alive and dead and dead at the same time; they have to be one or the other.  Fair enough… and yet, if we examine the problematic of living and dying in a more complex manner we are forced to admit that people are living and dying at the same time since to live means to approach death (because we are aging and are cells are alive insofar as they are also dying).  Well that's all in good, says the formal logician, let us simply rephrase our initial supposition: one cannot be mortal and immortal at the same time, and obviously the either of "mortal" is accorded more logical weight than "immortal".  This is a correct argument, and we can all admit that all humans are mortal and thus cannot be their inversion, immortals, but only on a certain level: for humans can indeed achieve, while still being mortal, an "immortality" by being remembered and not forgotten due to their establishment of themselves as historical subjects (Badiou, I believe, has discussed this possibility in his Ethics).  The point here, even if it appears to have reached a level of absurdity, is that dialectical logic is not simply A & ~A but, as I indicated in the previously linked post, (A v ~A) & (A & ~A) which can also be written in reverse.  And when it comes to dialectical materialism, this is more important than one might think.

For if we return to the problematic of a nuance that simultaneously admits the absence of nuance we are indeed dealing with the equation (A v ~A) & (A & ~A), the most sophisticated unity of opposites.  A political situation is nuanced except when it is not and this is also nuance.  This is because, in the political arena, while reality is so complex as to be ultimately a space of nuance, it also collapses to moments where nuance is foreclosed.  For example, things fall apart into the categories of proletariat and bourgeoisie while at the same still being deployed along multiple determinations.  How do we understand these multiple determinations?  By reference to the either-or of the bourgeoisie and proletariat.  How do we understand this either-or of the bourgeoisie and proletariat?  By reference to multiple determinations.

Decades ago the militants of the Chinese Revolution made much ado about "one splitting into two" which they saw as the great law of materialist dialectics.  This is precisely what is meant by the above equation regarding dialectics; it is the moment of either-or, determined by the unity of opposites, that tells us something of class struggle.  In Theory of the Subject Badiou, who was then still an anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist devoted to dialectical materialism, argues for an understanding of the "dialectical matrix whose operator is scission, and whose theme is that there is no unity that is not [at the same time] a split."  The unity with the future of humanity must, at the same time, demand a split between humans––class struggle.

The point I am trying to make is that dialectical logic admits to the complexity of reality while, at the same time, claiming that this complexity can be reduced to moments of simplistic contradiction.  In order to make sense of what might appear to be non-sense, it is worth applying this logic to a contemporary political situation.  Take, for example, the situation of Syria: on the one hand there are those "cruise missile socialists" who argue, on the supposed behalf of the Syrian people, that the Free Syrian Army and NATO intervention is justified because Assad is an enemy of the people; on the other hand, there are those leftists who argue, against this obvious imperialism, that Assad is a "socialist" and that we must support his regime against imperialist intervention.  Is there not a dialectical space, then, to argue that both NATO and Assad's regime should be opposed, just as we opposed both the regime of Saddam and the imperialist intervention in Iraq, and our politics should not simply reduce to this simplistic either-or?  And yet, at the same time, we need to be aware that the "both sides are wrong" narrative is the hallmark of liberal thought and that we cannot simply declare a "pox on both houses" and wash our hands of the whole affair, allowing imperialism and the Assad regime to fight it out without any political critique.  Here we are forced to assert, at the same time, our own either-or that is simultaneous and in unity with our assertion that both NATO an the Assad regime should be opposed: imperialism or anti-imperialism.  To be despicably formal let's name this nuanced nuance according to logical categories: both NATO and Assad are enemies of the people at the same time (A & ~A) AND AT THE SAME TIME we must be either imperialist or anti-imperialist (A v ~A).  This equation should make us realize that even those who erroneously side completely with Assad against the forces of reaction are more correct than those who have chosen to align themselves with the forces mobilized by NATO––the dialectical side of the scission, where the contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed masses is determinant, reduces a nuanced situation into a moment of non-nuance.

And yet dialectical thinking is not always as clear-cut as the Syrian example (which is not even clear-cut for some, as evinced by those "socialists" who have sided with the forces of reaction), and is often difficult to employ and/or recognize.  We are all trained to think according to positivist either-or categories which are intrinsically part of capitalist logic: either you are this, or this, or this; either reality is this, or this, or this; either we are liberal humans or illiberal barbarians; either capitalism or savagery.  Indeed, many of the complaints of some of those posts where I have attempted, and not always properly, to be more dialectical have been met with contempt by those who desire the simplicity of a singular either-or understanding, or those who desire an anything goes liberalism.  This is not to say that I have done the best job I could have done with dialectical logic, but only that the my attempt to do so has been met with derision on the part of those who refuse any nuance (i.e. the complaints of my small piece on Identity Politics that demonstrated an incapability of understanding that my critique of this politics was also contingent on what I thought was worthwhile in its emergence) or those who desire the kind of nuance that is liberally unnuanced (i.e. the complaints about my polemic on free speech).  This derision is evidence of the poverty of thought that results from an inability to think dialectically, a poverty of thought that effects even my own attempts to think through problems dialectically.  We need to overcome this deficiency.


  1. I've been trying to put together a reading list on dialectical materialism that can provide me with a comprehensive understanding of it- could you recommend anything?
    This seems like a good place to start... I've also heard good things about Dietzgen and Ilyenkov. Thanks in advance.

    1. Sorry, I've been pretty busy lately and haven't paid attention to my comments.

      Yes to Ilyenkov. Dietzgen does have a dialectical world view but you have to remember that he was someone who Marx and Engels used as an example for dialectical thought in the sciences, not someone who worked out what that meant. Here are some other recommendations, but not an exhaustive list:

      1) Lenin's conspectus on Hegel's *Logic*. I believe it is available on the Marxist Internet Archive.
      2) Louis Althusser's work on the meaning of "dialectical materialism"––he wrote a variety of articles on this. Although many of his conclusions will run counter to Ilyenkov's, for example, the points of intersection are valuable.
      3) Bertell Ollman's *Dance of the Dialectic*.


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