In classical philosophy, the dialectic was a method of interrogating truth in its full complexity. Rather than collapse questions into a stark binary resolution of propositions into true or false, we would take a more nuanced view. The Socratic dialogues by Plato popularised the idea that we could obtain a closer understanding of reality through a discursive method, exploring and teasing out meaning from reasoned discussion. The method was very flexible and allowed for the shades of complexity that were inherent to problems in philosophy.
In modern scientific disciplines, the dialectic has largely been purged, along with another principle of classical provenance, teleology. However, it has not merely been removed as a tool in investigations of the sciences, but it has also acquired such a damaged reputation that this has extended out into philosophy itself.
Despite this, the philosophical notion has endured, even in areas such as modern legal philosophy. For instance, the complexities of free speech are often illustrated with the example of a person shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. The question of what constitutes an infringement of other protected rights is here dialectical even if the problem is not put explicitly in such terms.
The dialectic is generally known in modern times in association with various circles of Marxist thought. Marx was among a group, known as the young Hegelians, who had borrowed tools from German philosophy in an attempt to construct a new philosophical orientation. One of the tools was Hegel’s interpretation of dialectic. This particular dialectical method is relatively idiosyncratic. However it provided Marx and Engels with various tools that they felt were critical to providing a scientific account of history, which was one of their core projects.
There are many reasons for the damaged reputation of dialectics, not all of which are a result of shortcomings of dialectics as a method of reasoning. One of these is precisely the fact that it is associated with Marxists, and as it was insisted by many that this gave Marxism a more sophisticated understanding of science while simultaneously being rejected by the scientific establishment, it became associated as a peculiarity of socialists.
Worse is that dialectics have historically been used to argue for utter nonsense. The flexibility of its application allows enough room that people can literally claim that understanding something dialectically means we should do the opposite of what makes sense.
Kautsky, in his seminal work “The Material Conception of History”1 pointed out:
As a scheme to characterise some processes, but not as a general law, the dialectical negation of the negation in the Hegelian sense can, under certain circumstances, be quite appropriate. I have myself repeatedly applied it in this way but have become very cautious in doing so, because it is easily subject to a certain arbitrariness.
Dialectics was used within the state apparatus to justify sharp turns in policy, for instance the institution of capital interest rates in the USSR in the late 60s was defended on the basis of dialectics. Similarly, various communist parties, especially Trotskyist, have theorised their zig-zags by imploring those who saw the inconsistency to understand dialectics. The general impression of many has been that dialectics is simply a nonsense.
Simply abandoning what rational kernel existed within dialectics however would be an immense mistake. We may not use the same methods as Socrates and the classical philosophers to develop science today, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon what wisdom can be learned from them entirely.
Similarly there is a wide body of very important historiographic research in the form of historical materialism that forms a useful basis for developing a critical approach to politics today, but which nevertheless can not be understood without making use of dialectics.
The Rational Kernel
There are enormous arguments in the literature of what constitutes the Hegelian dialectic, but for the purposes of understanding historical materialism, the specific meanings or methods of Hegel are not important. What is important is to understand why Marx, Engels, Plekhanov, Kautsky and others felt it was important to use dialectics in their works of historical materialism, and likewise it is important to know what they mean when they make use of dialectics.
Marx and Engels in formulating their ideas of a scientific approach to history, a very ambitious idea which is expressed in the German Ideology 2:
We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it. Ideology is itself only one of the aspects of this history.
There are several features that Marx and Engels needed in order to make a scientific account of history. Since Marx and Engels were specifically interested in a transformative political project, their approach to history was specifically concerned with posibilities for change. As such they wanted to break with concepts which cast the social order as static. Therefore, they wanted a dynamical logic which could incorporate changes of categories and of qualities. The required a notion of objects which could have complex relationships with each-other which were not merely causal, but mutually dependent. Notions of co-production or co-evolution were critically important. Further, they wanted to be able to imagine aggregation at various levels. Throughout historical materialism you see abstractions introduced which take aggregates and treat them as units of analysis. This is in stark contrast to the methodological individualism of modern economic approaches.
As it stands, classical methods of logic generally do not easily account for changes of quality, especially not when these change from one thing to another by degree. Further, the idea of the change of quantity into quality is alien. Even today logics are generally poor at displaying these features.
These features are also not simply ideological diversion. It turns out that modern science also required many of the same features that Marx and Engels were groping towards. It is instructive to look briefly out how physics has coped with these.
Quantity into Quality
The Nobel prize winning physicist Phil Anderson wrote a very influential paper called More is different 3. This paper deals with the concept of quantity into quality in Physics as well as the problems of reductionism. In it Anderson makes a powerful appeal for analysis at levels of abstraction commensurate with the problem at hand. This is especially important in an era in which economists are likely to insist on a reduction to micro-foundations, a result of the philosophical adherence to methodological individualism.
There are many cases in which aggregates become elements in their own right in physics. Physicists routinely treat protons as particles despite the fact that they are foundationally the result of quark-gluon interactions. Similarly in condensed matter one often deals with phonons, which are quasi-particles that describe collective excitations. There are many examples of such aggregates being treated as fundamental for a particular analysis.
In biology it is strikingly obvious that multi-cell beings can be usefully treated as an aggregate, with their own properties. One would not insist on a methodological individualism of cells, even if at times it may be important to treat things at the cellular level. Instead the system is generally treated as a metabolic totality.
An aggregate however, might only exist in a regime. Categories might only be historically contingent factors. In the same way that the aristocracy ceases to have the same meaning in advanced capitalism, phonons cease to have meaning when the material in question becomes a gas.
Which leads us to the question of how the qualities of a system can be described dynamically. During the pre-WWI period of social democracy, historical materialists would write scathingly about the essentialism of many of their intellectual adversaries. This is the period in which we see the use of “naive empiricism” and “positivism” as slurs to attack those who presented schemas in which the social order was fixed.
Science has advanced considerably at describing dynamics over the last two centuries. During the same period as the rise of Social Democracy, mathematics was already developing sophisticated means of dealing with differential equations, differential geometry and the variational calculus.
In order to get an idea of how these tools are used we can imagine them as being composed of two component parts. One part is the invariant, the other is the activity.
Differential equations are an example of such a mathematical object. The equations themselves represent invariants. The variables are allowed to vary according to the invariants given. Differential equations allow us to describe the complex relationships which can hold between interacting and co-evolving or co-productive parts.
This is perhaps best illustrated by what is known in physics as the Hamiltonian. The Hamiltonian describes the invariant within which activity takes place – encoding where a system can place its energy given a certain amount of energy. It does not restrict itself to absolute qualities of the various observables under study, but instead talks about the constraints under which they can change. It allows us to talk about the trajectories available to the system as it evolves.
They are also used to encode the idea of contradictions. The classic Lotka–Volterra equations, otherwise known as the predator-prey equations show how a relationship between two dependent populations can co-evolve. In this model, as the population of rabbits increases, the number of wolves which feed on them increases until a point at which the over-production of wolves leads to a collapse in the rabbit population, the wolves starve, and go down to a point at which the rabbit population can recover and begin to grow again. Neither population can be said to causally be prior to the other. Instead they are locked in a dialectical embrace.
Now, when describing an invariant it is true that the invariant itself might be contingent on a given regime. The Lotka-Volterra equations have nothing to say about meteors or even the introduction of plague. This contingency of invariants is in some sense true, but the end outcome of this fact should not be an equivocation abandoning the search for invariants. Further, that some invariants are contingent on a given environment should not give one cause to assume that all invariants must necessarily be.
Do we need dialectics?
The programme of historical materialism was one of the most ambitious scientific programmes in history. From the point of view of those interested in progressive change it was also one of the most important. The question of how to change the world necessarily entails interrogating how the world works.
While there have been important contributions during the entire course of the last century, the programme has never again reached the level of enthusiastic development by such a large number of intellectuals that it saw in the pre-WWI period.
I do not believe that the reason for this is that the problems have largely been solved. There are a large number of investigations which would be fruitful but have yet to be undertaken, some of which concern the trajectory of the last half century itself.
The programme deteriorated in strength for other reasons than the degeneration of the programme itself. In the intervening years, the utility of direct appeal to dialectics has both waned in popularity, but also in importance. We now have better tools to deal with some of the same problems, though much of the philosophical orientation should be retained.
In order to recover the vitality of the programme, it is important that we be able to read the materials that were being generated at that time, and for this reason some basic understanding of dialectics is important, as is a bounded defence of dialectics.
However, we saw from Kautsky’s rumination on the application of the dialectical method that he was wary of a too wanton application. Indeed it is unlikely that Marx himself would have been happy about such an approach as one can surmise by the fact that dialectics are only mentioned about three times in Capital itself.
We should read the past socialists with some humility given the high level of theoretical sophistication which was employed. However, we must march forward making full use of the analytical tools which we now have at our disposal. Just as Marx started by making use of the tools most advanced bourgeois economists of the day, so should we confidently appropriate into our arsenal the most advanced methods of science available today.