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Ways of Contradiction

An Introduction to the Practice of Dialectic

1. Dialectic as the movement of contradiction

In dialectical thought, definitions are often a problem. Definitions imply that terms have a single, stable meaning. Dialectical thought focuses on change, including changes in the meaning of the terms we use and the instability that makes such change possible.[1]

At the same time, preliminary definitions are clearly helpful for anyone encountering the field of dialectic for the first time. Even for those familiar with the field, definitions indicate how terms are to be understood in a specific text. So, I begin with a few basic definitions, and a warning that they serve as no more than starting points, or as points of orientation in a landscape that changes as we travel through it.

First, a dialectical process is a process characterized by the movement of contradictions—above all, the contradictions within specific system of ideas or forms of consciousness, or within specific social contexts. Such movement of contradiction can take place within a single text or argument. It is also possible to point out a central contradiction which animates an entire social system or a historical process extending over centuries or decades—the fall of the Roman Empire, for example, or South African capitalism from apartheid to democracy.

Not all processes of change are dialectical. Some take place in a gradual and linear manner, in a way that a sand dune, for example, grows larger or smaller as each new grain of sand is added or blown away, or as improved sanitation leads to a reduction in rates of infectious disease. But history is also characterized by unexpected crises and opportunities, turning points and potential turning points. These often come as a surprise to those who expect history to produce more of what has gone before and what has come to be accepted as “normal”. Dialectical thought focuses especially on such crises and turning points, in which the whole structure of normality is challenged. It seek to anticipate these moments, help bring them into being, and make the most of them.

Second, dialectical thinking (or dialectical analysis) examines historical processes in order to understand this movement and grasp the possible directions in which it could go. That is, dialectical thinking is concerned not so much with existing trends, but rather with the underlying forces that have the capacity to bring about fundamental changes within a conceptual field or historical context. It is this which led to the description of dialectic—first by Alexander Herzen, describing Russian student radicalism of the 1830s, and later by Lenin—as the algebra of revolution.[2]

Both these definitions make use of the term contradiction, and it may be helpful to say a word more about this third term as well. In its core meaning, contradiction is the logical relationship between two statements which cannot be true at the same time. Dialectical thought expands that meaning from the sphere of logic to that of history and society. But it cannot simply abandon that meaning, which remains essential to deciding whether we are talking about contradiction or about something else, such as opposing interests or conflict.

When we describe contradiction as it occurs in historical reality, we extend the idea of contradiction as a logical relationship between statements to that between beliefs (like statements, capable of being true or false) and then to actions and practices (which have underlying beliefs, intentions and reasons, capable also of being true or false) and then to social structures (which are coherent structures of human practices).[3] This should become evident in the examples given in the next section. The contradictions described there are not primarily between statements, but they are also not just conflicts or inconsistencies.

It is sometimes argued that there is a difference between contradiction in the logical sense, as discovered by Aristotle, and dialectical contradiction. Dialectical contradiction has been defined—for example, by the Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov—as “the concrete unity of mutually exclusive opposites.”[4] This formulation may be helpful in some contexts, but its idea of a separate dialectical logic is more likely than not to create confusion. It also obscures how the movement of contradiction characterizes a dialectical process, rather than a specific kind of contradiction.

These three preliminary definitions indicate an approach that I am taking to dialectic, rather than objective and universally agreed meanings. I will return to them later, and hope to do so each time in ways which expand their meaning, makes it more concrete and sometimes calls them into question. In the process, it will become possible to clarify other terms—explaining, for example, what it means to speak of dialectic as a practice, or to develop your own style of dialectical enquiry and argument.

2. How contradictions move: Historical examples, described in one dimension

The best way to clarify the field of dialectic is not by further definition, but by providing concrete examples. Let us begin with the two examples of dialectical processes I’ve already mentioned—Roman slavery until the fall of the Roman empire in the West, and South African capitalism during and after apartheid. The first example is less familiar than the second. Together, they may provide a preliminary sense of what it means to speak of the movement of contradiction.

First example: The wealth of the Roman propertied class depended on slavery, and slaves were provided mainly by conquest of new territories, which came to be incorporated into the empire. But the empire could not expand beyond the geographical limits of the areas suitable for cultivation of the crops on which its economy depended (wheat, barley, olives, grapes). Once the empire reached those limits, the supply of slaves captured in war declined. The expansion which ensured the power and wealth of the Roman Empire now undermined it.

This contradiction is most easily overcome by enabling slaves to marry, form families and bring up children, born into slavery, who will replenish the supply of slave labour. On the face of it, this solves the problem, but at the expense of exploiting slave labour less efficiently than before. Better conditions must be created for women slaves, especially while pregnant or nursing children; families must now be kept together. (This also helps to explain the rise of Christianity in a context in which its teachings match the interests of the propertied classes.) The result is that the strategy for renewing the supply of slaves contradicts the aim of exploiting them as efficiently as possible.

To compensate for the declining profitability of slave labour, the ruling class erodes the rights of poorer Roman citizens and exploits them more intensely than before. The class of small independent landholders on which the military power of the Roman empire depended is increasingly reduced to serfdom and debt bondage, without loyalty to the empire and its defence. The empire comes to depend increasingly on mercenaries instead, with their own political ambitions. Once again, we see a contradiction overcome, only to create a new one in its place. In this context, “the barbarian invasions could then finish off a social order undone from within, by its own immanent logic.”[5]

A historically remote example of this kind may be helpful, in allowing us to follow how one contradiction leads to the next, without the distraction of wanting to add to the picture or correct it. If we follow the movement of contradictions within South African capitalism during and after apartheid, a better-known period may appear in a somewhat unfamiliar light. It may be more difficult for us to recognize the process as one characterized by the movement of contradictions, because we are already inclined to see it in different terms—as a conflict of black against white, or democracy against racism, say. As we become more familiar with the techniques of dialectical thinking, however, so our knowledge of the South African context should enable us to add to the dialectical analysis outlined below, developing or revising its themes and drawing practical conclusions from them. With this in mind, let us turn to a more recent context.

Second example: Apartheid made possible the rapid accumulation of capital for a tiny minority, and some level of privilege for almost all whites. By depriving black workers of political and civil rights, it ensured that bosses could keep wages low. But once manufacturing became a major sector of the economy, partly as a way of reinvesting mining profits, this low-wage extractive economy could not develop an internal market for consumer goods. The workers who received low wages could not use the same wages to buy the goods produced in the factories. Townships with little or no electricity could not buy fridges, stoves and TVs. Cheap labour kept costs low for capitalists, but the lack of consumer demand that went with it was in conflict with capitalist profit.

To overcome this contradiction, white racist governments sought to create a black elite with the stability and buying power needed for the economy to expand. As the apartheid economy expanded, it became increasingly difficult to rely on a limited pool of skilled white labour and creating a need for increased skilled black labour. After the Soweto uprisings of 1976, in particular, capitalists were eager to create a black middle class which would have a stake in preserving property and political order. But any attempt to extend political and civic rights to them led to increased demands for the ending of apartheid. The black elite whose creation was intended to make white rule more stable could always do better for themselves without apartheid.

In the global context, similar problems occurred. The apartheid government claimed to defend Western democratic values, while their own actions contradicted this claim in the eyes of western opinion, especially after Western interests no longer depended on colonial empires. This provided space for the liberation movement to mobilize international opinion against apartheid after 1960. But as the global anti-apartheid movement gained in power, it relied increasingly on corporations and governments. For example, workers could not easily get their pension funds to disinvest, until the global banks no longer saw apartheid investments as secure sources of profit. Then the big investors began to impose their agenda on the anti-apartheid movement and through them the ANC and its allies. This combination helped to shape the negotiated settlement that led to democratic elections in 1994.

The negotiated settlement of 1994 sought to overcome racial domination on the basis of capitalism, and provide a “better life for all”—in the slogan coined by the ANC for the first democratic election. To do this, it had to address the growing crisis of black unemployment. How could this be done under capitalism, except by attracting global investors, who would create jobs, for as long as there were better profits to be made here than elsewhere in the world? How could investors be assured of high profits unless wages were kept low? And how could wages be kept low unless, for example, jobs were outsourced to labour brokers, unions were kept in line through corruption or repression, and spontaneous worker protest repressed by the police? In this way the road to Marikana was prepared, long before the day of the massacre.

After the negotiated settlement, Mandela promoted reconciliation and sought to unite the nation. In the context of capitalism, this had to be done by overcoming division within a non-racial capitalist class. To change the racial composition of South African capitalism, black economic empowerment and affirmative action were needed. This imposes additional costs on white capitalists, who need to keep costs low in order to compete. The best way for them to justify continued white preference is by claiming there are not enough suitable black candidates for management posts or for BEE deals. For black capitalists the best way to increase their share of capitalist ownership is to make accusations of racism. The resulting racial tensions spread in all directions, from Nkandla to the racial composition of sports teams. In the meanwhile, the problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment are perpetuated or made worse by the only available solution: that of creating new millionaires, alongside the old.[6]

Both of these historical examples are intended to show how political ideas and policies can be contradictory, and how attempts to resolve these contradictions can lead to new contradictions emerging in their place. It helps us to understand developments which would be anomalous or inexplicable, if we simply observed existing relations of power and projected existing trends into the future. The examples are simplified, however, in that these processes are described here as if each of them has a single driving force: the need for propertied classes—whether the aristocratic landowners of ancient Rome or major capitalists in South Africa—to maintain their wealth and expand it.

In reality, there is almost never only one such driving force at play. Although these examples are set out mainly in one dimension only—that of class exploitation—they should still make apparent how contradictions move in more directions than one. As we shall see, contradiction is not always the best way to describe the source of dialectical movement; sometimes it may be better to speak of tension and paradox, for example, or disharmony or antinomy.

Also, dialectical movement is by no means uniform, in the ways that these examples might suggest. The disruptive force of contradiction can be contained or co-opted, with differing results. It can be kept in more or less stable equilibrium through repression, ideology or other means. Contradiction in one sphere can be displaced into another. Even when a contradiction is resolved in some way, aspects of it can live on, creating new dilemmas.

In a related but somewhat different way, we can analyse political texts needing to bridge internal tensions. The arguments and concepts in such a text can produce their own contradictory momentum. And we can track the movement of contradictions through the history of a specific concept, explaining how its meaning shifts in response to them. For the sake of simplicity, this essay will focus on the movement of contradiction within historical processes, rather than taking account of the differences in approach needed in each of these contexts.

3. Why should we think dialectically?

Since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, at least, Western political and social thought has tried to emulate the natural sciences—seen as providing objective norms of measurement and reliable standards of certainty. Through precise and consistent definition of terms, continued accumulation of quantifiable data about the developments described in these definable terms, and the discovery and testing of correlations shown by that data, it was hoped that the political and social world could be understood and manipulated with the same apparent success as the natural sciences had done with the physical world.

Why has this not happened? The rise and spread of the natural sciences went along with a growing consensus—among scientists, technicians and owners of the natural resources that could be more efficiently exploited by new technologies, and later among the general public—concerning the domination of nature by humankind. Older ideas of living in harmony with the natural world were pushed aside by new possibilities of transforming nature into commodity form. At the same time, an increasing range of human activities have been commodified, most readily when a new technology makes an older activity—washing clothes, preparing a meal, listening to music—more accessible. Colonial conquest and dispossession saw this process extended across the world. This has resulted in widespread consensus throughout the world today that the methods of the natural sciences provide the essential starting point for humankind’s relations with the natural resources that sustain us. In contrast, there has never been a similar level of consensus around the social sciences and humanities.

Historically, it has not been so easy to build consensus around the need for one part of humankind to dominate another and exploit it for the benefit of a property-owning minority. Part of the problem is technological; ideas and attitudes cannot be enclosed and policed as easily as land, mineral wealth or even genetic codes. Also, meaning is not so easily quantified and regulated within human society, in the way that is done to natural resources within industrial processes. It makes no difference to human capacity to exploit land, minerals, water, etc., if its intention to do so is announced in advance. But human beings resist being treated as material for the profit of others. For that reason, if you say explicitly that your only interest in them is to make sure they serve your needs as productively as possible, people are likely to resist.

This problem impacts on the social sciences and humanities. The natural sciences have often been able to establish agreement among specialists about the meaning of their central terms, and are able to exclude from the scientific community anyone who uses them differently. To some extent the social sciences have been able to do the same, developing a specialized vocabulary that disguises reality from ordinary people and lends authority to the specialists aligned with the ruling minority, in government institutions, corporations and banks, and most of the universities. But because social engineering so often depends on winning the consent of human beings, the social sciences can never entirely cut themselves off from ordinary language and everyday experience.

If the approach pioneered by the natural sciences—I’ll call this approach positivism, although the term is frequently disowned and its meaning is contested—had indeed lived up to expectations in political and social life, perhaps there would be no need for dialectical thinking. All social and political problems would have been solved by now by establishment of agreed definitions, quantification of problems and trends, application of expert findings to policy. In reality, the opposite often occurs; the more experts are called in, the worse the problem becomes.

Dialectical thinking is a way to overcome the limitations of the positivist approach to understanding the political and social world. The positivist approach can often foresee (or promote) change in specific aspects of politics and society, which are out of synch with the main thrust of historical development. But it tends to take for granted, and see as unchangeable, the basic framework of social life. Indeed, becoming part of an academic community often requires that you distance yourself from suffering and injustice. It is permissible for students and academics to study suffering and injustice, but not for them to make a collective effort to contribute to overthrowing the structures that keep it in place.[7]

In response, protest against systemic injustice often becomes moralistic or utopian—upholding abstract ideals, with no sense of how these can be achieved. We need to think dialectically, then, in order to overcome the limits of positivism without falling into the trap of moralism and utopianism; put differently, in order to discover what elements in the present provide a basis for creating a future society which matches our moral ideals.

In many contexts, positivism and moralism present themselves as if they are the only alternatives. At times, people are torn between them, wishing to uphold moral ideals but unable to resist the demand to adjust to what it described as reality—although this description often ignores the conflicts that created that reality. Dialectical thinking shares with positivism its disciplined concern with evidence, and shares with moralism its capacity to imagine a world which is fundamentally different. It provides a rigorous approach to the project of creating a society in which, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[8]

4. Marxism and the schools of dialectic

Does this mean that talk of dialectical thinking is really a coded way of talking about Marxism, or the philosophy of Marxism? My view is that Marxism has expanded the capacities of dialectical thinking in essential and important ways. And most of the dialectical ideas and arguments discussed in this essay are drawn from various currents of Marxism.

At the same time, I believe that the value of dialectical thinking is by no means limited to Marxism, or reducible to it. Marxists are not the only dialectical thinkers; Marxists have much to learn from other schools of dialectical thought; and there is much in the history of Marxist dialectic which, I believe, is crude and dogmatic, and serves as an obstacle to the development of dialectical thinking.

Some authors emphasize the difference between what they see as incompatible schools of dialectical thought: Socratic dialectic, for example, which follows the movement of contradiction in thought in order to establish the truth on a specific issue; Hegelian dialectic, which follows the movement of contradiction in history, but focuses mainly on the history of consciousness, rather than modes of production; Marxist dialectic, which is similarly concerned with historical development, but treats the relations of production, and the class struggles that arise from them, as crucial for understanding historical development.

These categories are sometimes useful, but not as useful as we think. At various times, both Marx and Engels tried to clarify their relationship to the work of Hegel, with Marx avowing himself the pupil of “that mighty thinker”.[9] Marxists differ among themselves about whether dialectic is an essential part of Marxism. A whole movement, known as analytical Marxism, emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, aiming to eliminate the idea of dialectic from Marxism, or at least make Marxism compatible with mainstream social science. Among dialectical Marxists there are widely differing conceptions of dialectic, often dogmatically held. We could add to these categories and find dialectical thinkers who still don’t fit neatly into any of them.

This approach to dialectic also has difficulty in taking account of bodies of thought with a strong focus on the contradictions of human behaviour and their effects, but which never describe themselves as dialectical. These include Asian traditions such as Taoism and Buddhism, for example, and many great works of literature, depicting the inner conflicts of real or fictional characters, or the conflict between their real and imagined situations. These sources mostly have no need for the term dialectic, initially coined in ancient Greece. But creative dialectical thought can certainly learn from them, even if we do not share their aims.

Once we go down the road of dialectical classification, we may find it never ends. But the main reason not to go down this road, as I see it, is that subscribing to one or other conception of dialectic is not the same as having a gift for dialectical analysis. The belief that there is one unchanging “correct line” is an essential component of dogmatism; and dogma is the enemy of dialectical thought.

Dogmatism has its own contradictions. It is an efficient means of creating widespread and uniform belief. It inspired the huge number of dialectical hymn books produced initially in the Soviet Union under Stalin, aimed at ensuring that there is only one authorized version of the so-called laws of dialectic that everyone can be taught as rapidly as possible. Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism—a booklet of 32 small pages, published in 1938 with an initial print run of more than 40 million copies—is the most far-reaching attempt to carry this idea to its logical conclusion. Its authority was enforced by Stalin’s massive purges of Bolshevik leaders, ordinary communists and Russian workers.

Stalin’s booklet was widely translated and reprinted, and widely read in the liberation movement in South Africa. When the security police raided Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia in 1963, they found extracts from Stalin’s text in the handwriting of Nelson Mandela. The South African Communist Party later published its own slightly adapted version, entitled Philosophy and Class Struggle, around 1976. It was based on Jack Simons’ lectures given in the MK camps in Angola in the 1970s and revised by a British academic, John Hoffman, writing under the pseudonym Dialego.

After Mozambique became independent in 1975, and Frelimo adopted Marxism-Leninism as its official philosophy, Dialectical and Historical Materialism became a compulsory subject for every student at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, regardless of their field of study. When it ceased to be compulsory, not even a single student took the course again.[10] And the smallest Trotskyist sects will often produce their own ABC of Dialectical Materialism, with similar themes but examples that show the correctness of their own policies rather than those of the Soviet-aligned communists.

Is the problem that no-one has yet managed to produce the right text, or that not enough people have read it or understood it correctly? Or is the problem that you cannot produce the resources through which to create a free society by telling everyone what to think and how to think? It may be clear by now how I would answer this question. My view is that the very idea of laws of dialectic, dialectical materialism, or an official philosophy of Marxism, are mistaken.[11]

It is not too much to say that Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism as the official philosophy of the Soviet Union and the world communist movement established a global meaning for dialectic, where it had previously been a specialized and somewhat fragmented philosophical term. At the same time, this legacy of Stalinism has caused massive damage to the living practice of dialectic. Dialectical materialism has functioned mainly as a pseudo-scientific guarantee of the authority of the party and its leadership. We can see how to avoid this trap once we see how each of us use the skills of dialectic in our own way, and find our own way of making it intelligible to others through our arguments and actions.

Indeed, the whole project of trying to create widespread and uniform belief seems to me mistaken. The development of dialectic is central to the question of how to bring about the radical change that would make possible a truly human society; it is vital to the future of all humankind. At the same time, however, each of us learns to think dialectically in different ways, and finds a different style of integrating dialectical thought and action. Dialectic is of universal importance, but it does not and cannot have a universal format. It has different meanings at different times, and it will be subtly or starkly different for each of us, and perhaps in each context in which we draw on it.

Some of the great dialectical narratives or analyses have been produced by authors who in practice simply ignore the dialectical conceptions they uphold elsewhere (Trotsky, for example) or who improvise without taking much account of scholarly disputes (Brecht) or who develop ideas and arguments from which dialectic has much to learn without any concern for its history (Lao Tzu, from whom Brecht drew inspiration). If our interest is in thinking dialectically ourselves, rather than deciding the right way for everyone to think, then our main focus should be on the practice of dialectic.

5. Philosophical premises of dialectical thinking

Does a focus on the practice of dialectic mean that we can ignore philosophical questions about dialectic? The aim of this outline is to avoid reducing dialectic to a philosophical outlook. At the same time, thinking dialectically requires you to adopt a specific perspective on the issues at hand, and to think consciously and self-critically about that perspective. In that sense, at least, dialectical thinking is a philosophical activity.

Positivist social science is compatible with taking the main features of the contemporary world at face value. Moralism is compatible with treating the moral standards of the day as self-evident. Both positivism and moralism can be informed by a philosophical perspective, but they need not be. If they are, that perspective need not be developed or tested in any way in making use of it.

Thinking dialectically, in contrast, requires you to see the world and its moral values as moments in a larger historical process that continues to be subject to contestation and change. But there is considerable disagreement about the extent to which the practice of dialectic is tied up with a specific conception of history—put differently, with one or other dialectical philosophy. It can easily happen that philosophical argument can take the place of developing the practical skills of dialectic, to the detriment of both. One can learn to think dialectically without having resolved the whole range of philosophical questions related to dialectic. But it is helpful, at least, and sometimes necessary to be aware of philosophical questions related to dialectic and to have given thought to them.

It seems to me that the basic philosophical premises of dialectical thinking can essentially be reduced to a handful. Here is my attempt to set out three, interconnected ideas that seem to me essential to the task:

—Historical phenomena are the result of historical change, and are themselves subject to change. Some are more ephemeral, and others more lasting. But insofar as they are the result of conscious human thought and action, they can be changed by human thought and action and probably will be.

—Areas of human life are interconnected. What happens in one area impacts on others, sometimes more directly and significantly and sometimes less. Put differently, human thought has a certain potential for consistency, so that a norm established in one field (or region) has some capacity to be transferred into another.

—Underlying these principles is a degree of instability which characterizes human thought and action. “The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy,” as Adorno puts it.[12] Even the most rigorous definition cannot absorb the entire life of that which it defines. For this reason, the way we conceptualize the world, and hence how we act in it, is always capable of change and interconnection, and indeed of surprising us.

Without these premises, it will be difficult to recognize a dialectical process. To the extent that we make practical use of them in analysing historical processes, texts or arguments, we expand their range of application and our own capacity for insight and explanation.

At the same time, these premises are capable of being expanded and developed philosophically on a massive scale. A major philosophical literature on dialectics has emerged, from Plato’s time until our own, which has given rise in turn to related work in the social sciences and other fields. This literature can provide many insights, but it can also be confusing, especially for the beginner in this field, precisely because of its diversity of outlook.

That literature is more readily accessible, I believe, if we take account of a distinction between conceptions of dialectic which assume that there is one single dialectical process running through all human history and those which allow for multiple dialectical processes to be understood, each in their own right, and linked with others as the need for that link arises.

The major thinkers in the dialectical tradition—with the exception of Socrates, as his dialectic is recounted in the early works of Plato—have often been interpreted as exponents of a single process, which comes to be called the dialectic (with the definite article and sometimes a capital D). If, however, we accept that there are multiple local dialectics, “this plurality,” as Fredric Jameson says, “cancels the claim of the dialectic to articulate the laws of a universe governed by some unified field theory or ‘theory of everything’.”[13] We can then rely on the somewhat minimal philosophical premises outlined above. At the same time, we can learn from the work of Hegel and Marx, for example, without having to follow them in what may be seen as their quest for a single universal dialectic.

Like having God on your side, so having the Dialectic on your side—in its guise as a “theory of everything”—has sometimes provided inspiration and justification for the repression and slaughter of vast numbers of people. Dialectic, in its more modest incarnations, should enable large numbers of people to contribute their insight and imagination freely, in all their differences, to a collective process of understanding and a collective effort to change the world.

6. Varieties of dialectical thinking

Learning to think dialectically is also learning to develop your own distinctive style of thought. I do not mean by this that anyone should aim to develop a distinctive style of thought; rather, that as you become more familiar with dialectical analysis, so you will unavoidably find that your analyses focus on some issues rather than others, select your own emphases in developing them, and discover your own ways of moving from the philosophical premises of dialectic to the concrete issues you wish to clarify. Some examples may give a sense of how different these styles can be.

Let us begin with Heinrich Gustav Hotho’s description of his experience as a student of Hegel. When one had grasped a proposition, according to Hotho, and expected a further advance to be made, “the thought, instead of advancing, kept turning with similar words, again and again, round the same point.” Through such analysis, “a thought had been made to limit itself so as to show its one-sidedness, had been broken up into differences and entangled in contradictions, the solution of which suddenly brought what seemed most opposed to higher reunion.” This the exposure and overcoming of contradictions, “the wonderful stream of thought flowed on, twisting and struggling with itself, now isolating and now uniting, now delaying and now springing forward with a leap.”[14]

Although contradiction has an important place in this description, many other logical and material relationships are described here: thought limiting itself; showing its one-sidedness; differences becoming apparent; oppositions being reconciled; thought struggling with itself, etc. Perhaps the dominant theme of Hotho’s description, and of Hegel’s dialectic, is the idea of an argument being developed not so much by the author or animated by a specific point of view, but rather moving forward of its own volition. This sense of an argument emerging from the material itself was surely part of the reason why those listening to Hegel, even when following “with full insight and intelligence”—as Hotho puts it—were “thrown into the most strange tension and agony of mind”.[15]

Although Hotho gives no indication of Hegel’s topic, we may suppose from his account that he has in mind a somewhat abstract treatment of philosophical concepts. For a more concrete context of dialectical analysis, let us consider Trotsky’s account of the relatively spontaneous uprising which led to the overthrow of the Russian Tsar in February 1917. Trotsky’s main account of the February revolution is developed over four chapters of his epic History of the Russian Revolution and cannot be recounted here.[16] But we can take note of his way of posing the problem, his style of explanation, the guiding metaphors through which his dialectic unfolds.

Trotsky traces the emergence of revolutionary consciousness among the masses at different levels. At the most general level, he describes the paradoxes of Russian historical development, forced to industrialize by Western pressures, yet unable to create a modern secular order while dependent on suppression of an impoverished and rightless peasantry. In the specific context of World War, he points out the contradictory results of recruitment of millions of workers and peasants into an ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-treated army, with family and other ties to the workers, themselves recently drawn into wage labour from the peasantry, they are ordered to put down. At the most immediate level, he reconstructs the “molecular process” by which the revolution is prepared.[17]

The February revolution began with a demonstration in Petrograd, called by women textile workers to mark International Women’s Day. There were food shortages throughout the city, and workers called for bread. When soldiers were sent to disperse demonstrators, they respond in different ways, with some of them shooting demonstrators and others openly showing their sympathy with worker demands. In this context, “a new relation of forces was mysteriously implanting itself in the consciousness of the workers and soldiers” (135). They did not yet know how much power they potentially had, and Trotsky traces the process through which they discover it.

In the confrontation between soldiers and workers, each side recognizes themselves in the other. “The more the soldiers in their mass are convinced that the rebels are really rebelling—that this is not a demonstration after which they will have to go back to the barracks and report, that this is a struggle to the death, that the people may win if they join them, and that this winning will not only guarantee impunity, but alleviate the lot of all—the more they realize this, the more willing they are to turn aside their bayonets, or go over with them to the people. In other words, the revolutionists can create a break in the soldiers’ mood only if they themselves are actually ready to seize the victory at any price whatever, even the price of blood” (141).

There is more to this passage than immediately meets the eye. For example, the workers confronting the soldiers do not necessarily enter that confrontation as “revolutionists.” It is to some extent the confrontation with the soldiers itself, including the risk of death that it entails, which brings them to the commitment to revolution. Even those who start off with such a commitment can make it concrete to themselves and others only by attempting to win soldiers to that cause.

The call for workers to join in the armed overthrow of the state was never made by any political organization, but “had grown irresistibly out of events” (138). Interpreters of events were to be found “in every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer station, even in the depopulated villages”; “though they did not think all their ideas through to the end, nevertheless their thought ceaselessly and stubbornly worked its way in a single direction”; the process is a conscious one, even though it is collective, and no single individual stands on a platform to announce its conclusion (169).

A revolutionary crisis, according to Trotsky, is characterized by a “sharp contradiction between the present consciousness and the old forms of social relationship” (185). Trotsky does not often use the language of contradiction explicitly; his narrative sweeps us along without calling attention to its analytical framework. But we see in concrete detail how the contradictions within the situation of workers, peasants, government officials and even the family of the Czar are pushed to breaking point. Workers believe they can demand justice from a fundamentally unjust system, until they reach a point where they can no longer reconcile these two beliefs.

At that point, everything changes. Soldiers recruited from the peasantry can follow orders to shoot down workers from a similar background, until they reach a point where their instinctive solidarity with the masses prevents them from continuing, and “in the unbearable fear, the choking hatred of those who are imposing on them the executioner’s role, there ring out in the barrack room the first voices of open indignation, and in those voices—to be forever nameless—the whole army with relief and rapture recognizes itself” (143). This process of self-recognition—that is, recognizing that your self has been transformed in collective action—is the driving force of Trotsky’s dialectic.

Throughout these vivid descriptions, Trotsky’s dialectic is straining to discover new possibilities for the masses to intervene in the making of history, almost as he must have done as a leader of the revolution. He recognizes the paradox that a backward country was the first to place the working class in power; but he does not yet grasp the impending tragedy of that new power—isolated by the failure of revolution in the West—being usurped by a tyranny, under Stalin, that would crush the freedoms won by the revolution.

But dialectic does not always have the activist and optimistic temper that characterizes Trotsky’s celebration of the revolution. Let us consider a different register of dialectical analysis, evident in a third example: Adorno’s analysis of the emergence of tact—that is, the ability to make others feel comfortable in potentially awkward situations, and avoid giving offence—in Western bourgeois society.

Adorno’s Minima Moralia is a collection of extended, often elegant aphorisms on historical and philosophical topics, written from 1944 to 1947, during his exile in the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany. His short discussion of the “dialectic of tact” brings out an analytical move that is not made explicit by Trotsky, and which lends a different mood to Adorno’s thought.

Adorno begins by locating the practice of tact—according to an online dictionary, being sensitive to what is appropriate in dealing with others, including the possibility of causing offence—in the historical context that gave rise to it. Tact, like other virtues, “has its precise historical hour. It was the hour when the bourgeois individual rids himself of absolutist compulsion. Free and solitary, he answers for himself, while the forms of hierarchical respect and consideration developed by absolutism, divested of their economic basis and their menacing power, are still just sufficiently present to make living together within privileged groups bearable. . . . The precondition of tact is convention no longer intact yet still present.”[18]

This is what we can speak of as the moment of tact—the fragile conditions which make the practice of tact possible and necessary. Adorno’s dialectic shows how a practice that emerges in a specific moment is debased by the passing of those conditions—that is, by the coming of consumer society, in which the delicate balance between traditional norms of respect and capitalist norms of formal equality has dissolved. In this context, Adorno argues that tact has become a parody of itself. Silence on sensitive subjects, for example, becomes ‘empty indifference, as soon as there is no rule to indicate what is and what is not to be discussed.” Certain kinds of politeness then gives people “less the feeling of being addressed as human beings, than an inkling of their inhuman conditions, and the polite run the risk of seeming impolite by continuing to exercise politeness, as a superseded privilege. In the end, emancipated, purely individual tact becomes mere lying.”[19]

Writing in the 1940s, Adorno would have known of the newspaper advice column, styles of socializing when social activity has become a source of profit, the pretended concern and even intimacy of the advertising industry or the supporters of the same sports team, and perhaps the polite formality of the lawyer’s letter of final demand. In our own time, we can add other examples of the industrialization of tact: the call centre reminding us that “your call is important to us”; the automated birthday greeting from your cellphone provider; the profitable business of salvation of your eternal soul.

The Marxist playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, an older contemporary of Adorno, represents yet another style of dialectical thinking. Like Adorno, Brecht had a gift of identifying and revealing the larger meaning of an apparently insignificant aspect of social life. Where Adorno’s pessimistic temperament was reflected in his dialectic, Brecht’s activist mind was always searching out the possibilities for insight, resistance and popular power. As a playwright, he needed to make these possibilities visible and concrete to working-class audiences, enabling them to feel that the making of world history was within their reach. Brecht’s task was to enable them to see the dialectical movement of revolutionary consciousness taking place before their collective eyes, and entertaining them at the same time.

There is no space for an account of how this is done in a specific play. But a younger member of Brecht’s theatre company, Manfred Wekwerth, has described Brecht at work on a specific scene of his last play, Days of the Commune, how the resistance of the working class of Paris to German invasion in 1871 is converted into class struggle against the French ruling class, when it becomes apparent that the French and German ruling classes share an interest in crushing working-class rule. Wekwerth describes Brecht revising the play, while its production was being discussed, in order to make concrete how the transition from national struggle to class struggle takes place.

By changing the actors’ lines slightly, Brecht creates a debate among women in a queue, waiting for bread distributed by the government. Some are in favour of taking the government’s bread and others are opposed to everything done by a government that belongs to the rich. The debate ends when the women discover that the free bread is a trick to enable the government to remove the cannon placed in the working-class district as part of the defence of Paris against the German army. The workers of the district then unites against the government. “When they go into action against the soldiers [stealing the cannon] the women have the white bread in their arms. ‘Once again we see,’ Brecht said as he put away his ballpoint, “the dialectical solution is always more lively, more diverse, more naïve’.”[20]

It would be possible to expand this tiny sample from the vast range of dialectical voices that speak to us from a literature that extends across many centuries. But even if we were to catalogue the differences between all of them—their distinctive ways of defining a topic or framing a question, their specific use of evidence or example, their pace of exposition, the peculiar temperament of their work, and the like—this would still not exempt each of us from the task of finding and developing our own specific voice within the larger dialectical conversation.

7. Learning to think dialectically

Dialectical thinking may begin instinctively, through a sharp eye for the differences between rhetoric and reality, for example. But the skills and resources of dialectical thought are developed only through practice and systematic reflection. An essential part in this process is played by encounters with the great works of dialectical analysis, often written by those caught up in processes of fundamental social change. Specific conceptual resources and analytical skills emerge in response to the needs of such historical crises, and we learn by seeing how they come into existence.

You cannot learn to think dialectically just by following a set of prescribed steps. Dialectic is more an art than a science. At some points, it may be useful for a learner to copy the style of a specific thinker, in much the same way that it may be useful for an aspiring pianist to play scales. But the aspiring dialectician has to decide constantly what use to make of dialectical insights. The process of learning is often one of trial-and-error, and is almost certain to include its share of frustration.

Thinking dialectically requires acknowledgement of history and our own debt to the history we share with others. At the same time, it is inescapably linked to developing a style of thought of your own. In this sense, learning to think dialectically is a process of selection rather than accumulation. Indeed, once you have truly assimilated the dialectical legacy, it often becomes unnecessary to speak of dialectic any longer. Instead, you simply describe a process in ways which convey the movement of contradiction without specifying the exact contradictions at work or explaining exactly how it is overcome or displaced. You can limit your use of this explicit vocabulary largely to the contexts in which you need to show others how you’ve argued or explain why you’ve taken the approach you have. At the same time, you will learn to recognize when people are using the language of dialectic as way of showing off or trying to sound authoritative, rather than to give you a more exact account of the process and its future possibilities.

What I have said about learning how to think dialectically surely applies to teaching as well. A teacher can try to make the resources of dialectic accessible and meaningful, and to bring to light specific patterns in its history. But the teacher cannot tell in advance what use students should make of these resources and this history. Dialectic is a collective undertaking, which is never completed once and for all.

In that context, the active participation and guidance of students becomes doubly necessary. Without that effort, they may acquire a superficial grasp of its terminology but will be unlikely to make it their own. By making that effort, they learn how to develop an independent mind, in touch with the real movement of politics and history, rather than seeing them through the blurred lens of academic preconception.

8 February 2014–28 September 2016


[1] This essay began as a short introduction to a postgraduate course at the University of Cape Town offered during the first semester of 2014. It became too long to be included in the course outline. I’ve revised and expanded it a few times since then.

[2] Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts (London: Chatto & Windus, 1924), vol. 2, p. 121; V.I. Lenin, “In Memory of Herzen,” in Collected Works (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1963), vol. 18, p. 26.

[3] This formulation draws on Joseph McCarney, Social Theory and the Crisis of Marxism (London: Verso, 198X), pp.

[4] Evald Ilyenkov, Dialectical Logic (1977), available online at /essays/essay10.htm . Although the idea of a dialectical logic is mostly associated with Soviet Marxism, it is often uncritically adopted by more empirically-minded Marxists—as in David Harvey’s recent book Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2014), p. 4.

[5] Perry Anderson, A Zone of Engagement (London: Verso, 1992), p. 12. The account given in these three paragraphs is based largely on Anderson’s review of Geoffrey de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London: Duckworth, 1981).

[6] Cf. Andrew Nash, “The Contradictions of the New South Africa,” paper for Marxist Theory Seminar, University of the Western Cape, February 1995.

[7] Cf. John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power (London: Pluto Press, 2010), pp. 1-10.

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Marx-Engels: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), p. 53.

[9] Karl Marx, Capital volume one (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 103.

[10] This episode is described in the writings of John Saul, who taught at Eduardo Mondlane in those years.

[11] Neither Marx nor Engels ever used the phrase dialectical materialism. Engels’ later writings provide some of the materials from which Plekhanov, Lenin and others to construct this supposed philosophy of Marxism. Cf. Z.A. Jordan, The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism (London: Macmillan, 1967). For a critique of the idea that Marxism has its own philosophy, see Etienne Balbar, The Philosophy of Marx (London: Verso, 1995), pp.

[12] T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 5.

[13] Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2010), p. 15.

[14] Edward Caird, Hegel (Edinburgh: William Blackwood & sons, 1883), p. 99.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936), chapters VII to X. Two chapters are available on the course website. The whole book is available online at

[17] There are brief explications of this idea of a “molecular process of revolutionary thought” in two passages dealing with the February revolution; cf. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 140-41, 169-70. Further page references to this work are given in brackets in the text.

[18] T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (London: NLB, 1974), p. 36.

[19] Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 37.

[20] Manfred Wekwerth, “Discovering an Aesthetic Category,” in Hubert Witt, ed., Brecht as They Knew Him (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1974), p. 145.


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