The Meaning of Dialectics: Bertell Ollman

Marx’s dialectical method is a way of viewing the world. Dialectics is a way of thinking that brings into focus the full range of changes and interactions that occur in the world.

Reality is more than appearances. Too much focus on appearance may lead to misleading conclusions. Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of “thing” with notions of “process” and “relation”.

Dialectical research begins from the whole then proceeds to an examination of the part, leading to fuller understanding of the whole from which one has begun. Dialectical research is directed to finding and tracing four kind of relations which are explained below:

Identity/Difference: In what Marx calls the common sense approach, also found in formal logic, things are either the same/identical or different, not both. On this model, comparisons generally stop after taking note of the way(s) any two entities are either identical or different, but for Marx this is only the first step. Unlike the political economists, for example, who stop after describing the obvious differences between profit, rent and interest, Marx goes on to bring out their identity as forms of surplus-value (that is, wealth created by workers that is not returned to them in the form of wages). As relations, they all have this quality, this aspect that touches upon their origins, in common. The interest Marx takes in delineating the special features of production and of the working class without neglecting all they have in common with other economic processes and other classes respectively are good examples of his approaching identity and difference from the side of identity. The relations that stand in for things in Marx’s dialectical conception of reality are sufficiently large and complex to possess qualities that—when compared to the qualities of other similarly constituted relations—appear to be identical and others that appear to be different. In investigating what these are and, especially, in paying extra attention to whichever half of this pairing is currently most neglected, Marx can arrive at detailed descriptions of specific phenomena without getting lost in one-sidedness.

Interpretation of opposites: While the relation of identity/difference treats the various qualities that are examined with its help as given, the interpretation of opposites is based on the recognition that to a very large degree how anything appears and functions is due to its surrounding conditions. These conditioning factors apply to both objects and the persons perceiving them. As regards the former, for example, it is only because a machine is owned by capitalists that it is used to exploit workers. In the hands of a consumer or of a self-employed operator, that is, conditioned by another set of factors, operating under different imperatives, it would not function in this way. As regards the latter, when someone conditioned as a capitalist looks at a machine, he sees a commodity he has bought on the market, perhaps even the price he has paid for it, and something that is going to make him a profit. When someone conditioned as a worker, on the other hand, looks at the same machine he only sees an instrument that will determine his movements in the production process.

The perspectival element- recognizing that things appear very different depending on who is looking at them- plays a very important role in dialectical thought. This doesn’t mean that the truths that emerge from viewing reality from different vantage points are of equal value. Involved as they are in the work of transforming nature, workers enjoy a privileged position from which to view and make sense out of the developmental character of the system, and with his interest in the evolution of capitalism this is the vantage point that Marx most often adopts for himself.

The notion of the interpenetration of opposites helps Marx to understand that nothing- no event, institution, person or process- is simply and solely what it seems to be at a particular place and time, that is situated within a certain set of conditions. Viewed in another way, or by other people or viewing them under drastically changed conditions may produce not only a different but the exact opposite conclusion or effect. Hence, the interpenetration of opposites. A losing strike in one context may serve as the start of a revolution in another; an election that is a farce because one party, the Republicrats, has all the money and the workers’ parties none could, with an equalization of the conditions of struggle, offer a democratic choice; workers who believe that capitalism is an ideal system when they have a good job may begin to question this when they become unemployed. Looking for where and how such changes have already occurred and under what set of still-developing conditions new effects are likely to occur helps Marx gauge both the complexity of the part under examination and its dependence on the evolution of the system overall.

Quantity/Quality: What is called quantity/quality is a relation between two temporally differentiated moments within the same process. Every process contains moments of before and after, encompassing both buildup (and builddown) and what that leads to. Initially, movement within any process takes the form of quantitative change. One or more of its aspects—each process being also a relation composed of aspects—increases or decreases in size or number. Then, at a certain point—which is different for each process studied—a qualitative transformation takes place, indicated by a change in its appearance and/or function. It has become something else while, in terms of its main constituting relationships, remaining essentially the same. This qualitative change is often, though not always, marked by the introduction of a new concept to designate what the process has become.

Only when money reaches a certain amount, Marx says, does it become capital, that is, can it function to buy labor-power and produce value (Marx, 1958, 307-8). Likewise, the cooperation of many people becomes a new productive power that is not only more but qualitatively different than the sum of individual powers that compose it (Engels, 1934, 142). Looking for quantity/quality change is Marx’s way of bringing into single focus the before and after aspects in a development that most non-dialectical approaches treat separately and even causally. It is a way of uniting in thought the past and probable future of any ongoing process at the expense (temporary expense) of its relations in the broader system. And it is a way of sensitizing oneself to the inevitability of change, both quantitative and qualitative, even before research has helped us to discover what it is. While the notion of quantity/quality is in no sense a formula for predicting the future, it does encourage research into patterns and trends of a kind that enables one to project the likely future, and it does offer a framework for integrating such projections into one’s understanding of the present and the past.

Contradiction: Of the four major relations Marx investigated in his effort to make dialectical sense out of capitalist reality, contradiction is undoubtedly the most important. According to Marx, “in capitalism everything seems and in fact is contradictory” (Marx, 1963, 218). He also believes it is the “contradictory socially determined features of its elements” that is “the predominant characteristic of the capitalist mode of production” (Marx, 1973, 491). Contradiction is understood here as the incompatible development of different elements within the same relation, which is to say between elements that are also dependent on one another. What is remarked as differences are based, as we saw, on certain conditions, and these conditions are constantly changing. Hence, differences are changing; and given how each difference serves as part of the appearance and/or functioning of others, grasped as relations, how one changes affects all. Consequently, their paths of development do not only intersect in mutually supportive ways, but are constantly blocking, undermining, otherwise interfering with and in due course transforming one another. Contradiction offers the optimal means for bringing such change and interaction as regards both present and future into a single focus. The future finds its way into this focus as the likely and possible outcomes of the interaction of these opposing tendencies in the present, as their real potential. It is contradiction more than any other notion that enables Marx to avoid stasis and one-sidedness in thinking about the organic and historical movements of the capitalist mode of production, about how they affect each other and develop together from their origins in feudalism to whatever lies just over our horizon.

Dialectical thinkers attribute the main responsibility for all change to the inner contradictions of the system or systems in which it occurs. Capitalism’s fate, in other words, is sealed by its own problems, problems that are internal manifestations of what it is and how it works, and are often parts of the very achievements of capitalism, worsening as these achievements grow and spread. Capitalism’s extraordinary success in increasing production, for example, stands in contradiction to the decreasing ability of the workers to consume these goods. For Marx, contradiction belongs to things in their quality as processes within an organic and developing system. It arises from within, from the very character of these processes (it is “innate in their subject matter”), and is an expression of the state of the system (Marx, 1973, 137).

On the basis of what he uncovers in his study of identity/difference, the interpenetration of opposites, quantity/quality, and contradiction- a study that starts with the whole and proceeds inward to the part, and which conceives of all parts as processes in relations of mutual dependence- Marx reconstructed the working of capitalist society. Organizing reality in this way, he was able to capture both the organic and historical movements of capitalism in their specific interconnections. The still unfinished results of this reconstruction are the particular laws and theories we know as Marxism.*

Courtesy: Bertell Ollman, The Meaning of Dialectics in Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method, (Chapter 1). You can read the original text HERE.


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Heigrujam Premkumar

I love to read. I love to write. On all things I am passionate about. Tweet me at @heigrujampk

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