Workers' Liberty #64


Dialectics: learning to think

Is dialectics mainly a framework that is 'naturally' present within all scientifically valid modern thought? Or is it also a set of techniques which a broad layer of working class activists could consciously use every day?

By Colin Waugh.

In the mid 19th century, Joseph Dietzgen, a German leather worker, independently of Marx and Engels, developed Hegel's dialectics in a materialist direction that was in line with the dialectics which Marx and Engels themselves were working out but to which they were never to give expression except through their economic and political writings on the one hand, and Engels' incomplete, and posthumously published, Dialectics of Nature on the other. Because of this, organisations for the collective self-education of working class activists that grew up here in the early 1900s, such as the Plebs League, the National Labour College and the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC), used Dietzgen's writings, especially 'The Nature of Human Brain Work', published as a section of his book The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, to teach philosophy.

Over roughly the same period a controversy about dialectics was going on in Russia around the ideas of Abram Deborin, which in turn had a bearing on a more important dispute which came to a head there at the end of the 1920s, namely that surrounding the approach put forward by Nikolai Bukharin in his book Historical Materialism. Bukharin, who had been criticised by Lenin in his Testament (comments on prominent Bolsheviks written as he was dying) for never having properly studied dialectics, argued that although social development is driven forward by struggle, there are long periods during which opposing forces balance one another, so as to produce a state of 'equilibrium'. Many commentators saw this as a step towards revising dialectics so that it would lose its revolutionary edge. In 1929, when Stalin moved to crush Bukharin politically (that is, when the bureaucracy set about the forced collectivisation of agriculture, which entailed attacking the better-off peasants for whom Bukharin had become a spokesperson on the right of the Communist Party) he also imposed his own definition of dialectics on the Deborinites and their adversaries, known as 'mechanists', as well. Based on a narrow interpretation of de-contextualised quotes from Marx, Engels and Lenin, this definition was binding on Communist Parties everywhere, so that other approaches, including that of Dietzgen, were no longer to be allowed a hearing.

In the UK this produced a dispute about the nature of dialectics, in which academics, including some from well-off backgrounds, and some prominent scientists (including Hyman Levy, J.D. Bernal and W.S. Haldane) who had joined or been drawn towards the CP, along with people who worked as tutors within the CP (notably T.A. Jackson and David Guest) were lined up on one side, and Plebs League/NCLC lecturers who were not in the CP, such as Edward Conze, Raymond Postgate, G.D.H. Cole and Fred Casey, were lined up on the other, a central point in dispute being whether Dietzgen's approach to philosophy was revisionist or not. Against this background Casey and Jackson, people from working class backgrounds who had made themselves real experts in this area of philosophy, wrote their books, respectively Method in Thinking and Dialectics.

Dietzgen's ideas had been challenged from a Marxist standpoint before. For example, they had been challenged by Plekhanov, and defended, with critical reservations, by Lenin. It is also true that in republishing Dietzgen's writings, his son, Eugene Dietzgen, did try to set them up in opposition to the revolutionary side of Marxism and as additional to Marx's own, coining the term 'proletarian monism' to characterise them. But for our purposes the point is not how good or bad Dietzgen's thought was in itself, but that, to a broad layer of working class activists, this thought effectively was philosophy. At the same time, Jackson who, along with George Thomson, author of The First Philosophers, was an outstanding example of a worker who had made himself into an intellectual without ceasing to be an activist, was called upon to help suppress the so-called 'cult' of 'Dietzgenism' - in other words to crush the popular tradition of working class philosophical discussion, in this case by ridicule. This, then, was part of the process by which the Stalinist leadership divided activists against one another and discredited Marxism in the eyes of working class people. And that in turn has had - and is still having - important, harmful effects on mainstream adult education, and the general education elements within employment-related further education in the UK.

If dialectics is to stop being something which only a restricted group of left-wing intellectuals really know about and become a factor in the common sense of most activists, we should study episodes like the dispute between Casey and Jackson - that is, episodes which reveal what rank and file activists and those directly responsible for teaching them have made of dialectics - and how this in turn relates to the role in working class movements of traditional intellectuals such as academics. We should also develop teaching strategies through which people without philosophical training can be made interested in learning dialectics - as interested as people are, for example, in learning self defence or how to drive. Thirdly, we should develop ways of tackling the anti-dialectical tendency of mainstream higher education, in particular as this affects students from working class backgrounds.

During the controversy with Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg made the following point about what was at stake:

When he [Bernstein] directs his keenest arrows against our dialectic system, he is really attacking the specific mode of thought employed by the conscious proletariat in its struggle for liberation. It is an attempt to break the sword that has helped the proletariat to pierce the darkness of its future. It is an attempt to shatter the intellectual arm with the aid of which the proletariat, though materially under the yoke of the bourgeoisie, is yet enabled to triumph over the bourgeoisie. For it is our dialectical system that shows to the working class the transitory character of this yoke, proving to the workers the inevitability of their victory, and is already realising a revolution in the domain of thought.

Elsewhere she was also to say that:

The workers, within the extant form of society, can only advance insofar as they can create for themselves the intellectual weapons needed in their struggle for liberation.

In short, Luxemburg, employed as a teacher in the German socialist party's school for activists, saw dialectics as a mode of thinking - a means of intellectual production - which rank and file activists could acquire, use for themselves, and develop further by their own efforts. This conception of dialectics, which is in line with the famous points made by Marx about the progressive side of Hegel's dialectic - that, for example, 'it lets nothing impose on it' - implies that everybody with a long term commitment to activism needs to learn dialectics.

Can this learning be spontaneous, or must it be supported by teaching, and, if so, how should this be organised? This in turn involves considering how dialectical thinking is related to other types of thinking that people commonly engage in.

Dialectical thinking cannot be understood in isolation from thinking based on traditional, syllogistic logic, which operates on the basis of the principle of identity (A is A), the principle of contradiction (A is not not A, or A is not B) and the principle of the excluded middle (A is either A or not A). It starts from this form of logic and then goes beyond it, not by rejecting it but by including it within a less mechanistic, more dynamic, reasoning process that is more in line with modern science and technology. But it can only do this because it also incorporates within itself pre-logical modes of thinking - that is, ways of thinking which develop in individuals before logical thought does, and which also precede logic in the history of human culture - that are rejected by traditional logic.

For example, a common reasoning process is that of differentiating a category of objects from within a broader field. Thus if I refer to 'working class people', I draw a line around a section of the population in such a way as to differentiate them from the remainder of that population. Every human, as a baby, learns to perform an operation of this type when, for example, he or she comes to recognise that some parts of his or her environment are to be eaten and others not.

The limitation of traditional logic shows itself when a further assumption is made, namely that all items not enclosed within the category thus picked out are of the same type as one another. For example, someone may think and say that society is composed of only two types of people, working class people and the others, those who are the opposite of working class - in other words, those who do not work, those who live off the work done by those who are working class. (Such a situation arose when Ferdinand Lassalle characterised the non-working class sections of the German population as 'one reactionary mass'.)

In fact there is also another section of the population, namely those who are both working class and not working class, those who own enough of the means of production to exploit their own labour power - that is, the petty bourgeoisie (for example, lawyers living from fees, freelance journalists, small shopkeepers, drivers who own their own lorries). To adopt a model that prevents you from taking account of this is to stop yourself understanding the real situation and hence to stop yourself from being able to act effectively on behalf of the working class. You must be able to suspend the logical principle that A is A; in other words, you must be able to move back to a stage of thinking where this principle had not been fully worked out.

But - and this is the crucial point - you must be able to operate with both at the same time. It is not a question of simply being able to think in a pre-logical fashion, something everybody does everyday, but rather a question of being able to think in a pre-logical fashion after you have been trained to think logically, after you have thought logically about a given issue, and in conjunction with that logical thinking, not separately from it.

Yes, there are two fundamental classes; yes, the struggle and the irreconcilable contradiction between these is the motor of development; but at the same time as there are two classes, there is also a third class, because there are people who are both working class and capitalists, people who embody the class struggle in their own persons, people who are both A and not A. To be unable to see this is to saddle yourself with a conception of society as a thing, thus preventing yourself from seeing it as a process.

This example implies: first, that everybody has the capacity for dialectical thought within them, because everybody uses pre-logical thought processes; secondly, that what's necessary is for people also to be able to use pre-logical processes to get beyond the limitations of logic; and thirdly, that they need to do this, not by abandoning logical procedures, but by becoming proficient enough in them to be able to synthesise them with pre-logical ones. What does this imply, then, for the question as to whether dialectical thought can be learnt spontaneously or whether it must be taught?

Dialectics needs to be taught, not because it is something remote from people's everyday thinking processes, but because the bulk of what people are required to learn, especially via schools, colleges, universities, newspapers, TV programmes and the like, is structured by, and tends to restrict them to, conventional logic.

John Rees' recent book, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, is, despite the criticisms of Jon Pike (WL61), a valuable book. It is addressed primarily to activists - people who already know something about the ideas discussed, and who want to learn more or to spread this knowledge amongst other activists; in short, to members of left groups rather than to academic readers.

The book, which contains chapters on Hegel; on Marx and Engels; on the discussion of dialectics across the Second International set off by Bernstein's revisionism, involving Kautsky, Plekhanov and Luxemburg; on Lenin; on Lukacs; and on Trotsky. An introduction gives reasons why dialectics is important now, and a closing section focuses on E.P. Thompson's criticisms of Althusser.

We need an up-to-date synthesis on dialectics, and this book goes a long way towards providing one. And although it does include, for example in discussion of Luxemburg and Lenin, assumptions which groups other than the SWP do not share, it is not shaped so exclusively by the SWP's distinctive conceptions as to stop it being useful for other people. Its main weakness is that John Rees leaves out certain areas of the history of dialectics, in particular the development of dialectical philosophies in ancient Greece (for example by Heraclitus of Ephesus, about whom the important 19th century German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle wrote a book), the ideas and influence of Joseph Dietzgen, and the controversy about dialectics amongst socialist intellectuals such as T.A. Jackson and Fred Casey in the UK in the 1930s.

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