Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Opposition vs. contradiction: Lucio Coletti

Lucio Colletti

Marxism and the Dialectic

In this essay, I shall attempt to clarify somewhat a question discussed in my interview with New Left Review [1]—although one that is very difficult to deal with briefly: the problem of the difference between ‘real opposition’ (Kant’s Realopposition or Realrepugnanz) and ‘dialectical contradiction’. Both are instances of opposition, but they are radically distinct in kind. ‘Real opposition’ (or ‘contrariety’ of incompatible opposites) is an opposition ‘without contradiction’ (ohne Widerspruch). It does not violate the principles of identity and (non)-contradiction, and hence is compatible with formal logic. The second form of opposition, on the contrary, is ‘contradictory’ (durch den Widerspruch) and gives rise to a dialectical opposition. Marxists, as we shall see, have never entertained clear ideas on this subject. In the overwhelming majority of cases they have not even suspected that there were two oppositions and that they were radically different in nature. In the rare cases where this fact has been noted, its significance has been misunderstood, and ‘real opposition’ has also been considered as an example and an instance of the dialectic, even though it was a ‘non-contradictory’, and hence undialectical, opposition. A few brief words then on the structure of the two oppositions.

‘Contradictory’ or Dialectical Opposition

This is traditionally expressed by the formula ‘a not-a’. It is the instance in which one opposite cannot stand without the other and vice-versa (mutual attraction of opposites). Not-a is the negation of a. In itself and for itself it is nothing; it is the negation of the other and nothing else. Therefore if we wish to attach any significance to not-a, we must at the same time know what a is, i.e. what not-a is negating. But a, too, is negative. Just as not-a is its negation, so a is the negation of not-a. Thus since to say a is in effect equivalent to saying not-not-a, a too, if it is to have any meaning, must be referred to the element of which it is the negation. Neither of the two poles is anything in itself or for itself; each is a negative. Furthermore, each is a negative-relation. If in fact we wish to know what one extreme is, we must at the same time know what the other is, which the first element is negating. Each term therefore, to be itself, implies a relation to the other term; the result is unity (the unity of opposites). Only within this unity is each term the negation of the other.

Plato and Hegel

The origins of this dialectic go back to Plato. Both opposites are negatives, in the sense that they are un-real, non-things (Undinge)—they are ideas. ‘The notion of true dialectic’, says Hegel in reference to Plato, ‘is to demonstrate the necessary movement of pure notions, without thereby resolving these into nothing, for the result, simply expressed, is that they are this movement, and the universal is just the unity of these opposite notions’. [2]

A movement of pure notions, then, interpenetrating each other. One passes into the other, and this latter into the first. In fact each is simply the Negative of the other. In itself it is nothing. Its essence lies outside it, in its opposite. To be itself, then, and to give meaning to its own Negative, it has to be referred to the nature of the other of which it is the negation. In other words, this is an inclusive opposition. Here, in a nutshell, we have all the key-concepts of the Platonic dialectic: the symploke eidon [3], i.e. the mutual connection or implication of ideas; the koinonia ton genon, i.e. the community of supreme classes; the megista gene, or in Hegel’s terminology the ‘pure concepts’. Here, too, we have the problem of the diairesis, or division into species. [4]

We are referring, of course, to the later Plato. The way in which these positions differ from his earlier ones is well captured in this overall judgment of Cassirer’s: ‘The first conception of the Platonic doctrine of ideas separates the one from the multiple, the idea and the phenomenon assigning it to different worlds. Being and becoming, ousia and genesis, are opposed in the form of contraries simply excluding each other. But now Platonic thought is led to a quite new problematic: as a result a form of “movement”, kinesis, comes to light, a form which no longer pertains to the occurrence and existence of sensible events, but to the idea itself. If a single phenomenon must “participate” in different ideas, and if these ideas must inter-penetrate within it, such an arrangement is possible only to the extent that the ideas themselves already exist in an original “community”, by virtue of which the one determines the other and the one is changed into the other. As is demonstrated in the Sophist, in the absence of this purely ideal community, of this koinonia ton genon, there can be no knowing, no knowledge. But the way becoming encloses within itself as necessary moments both being and non-being results from the fact that non-being too is not simply unreal, but is inherent in the essence, in the pure idea itself. So now in opposition to the Eleatic doctrine of the unity and immobility of everything, which depends on the absolute opposition between “being” and “non-being”, one must maintain the proposition which states: “there is no certainty in how non-being is, and being is not”.’ [5]

Let us keep digressions to a minimum and come straight to the point. What concerns us in this section is the structure of the contradictory opposition. Since each pole of the contradiction is in itself negative, being simply the Negation of the other, and its essence lies outside itself, in its opposite, it follows that if each pole is to be itself, it must imply the relation to the other, i.e. the unity of opposites; and that only within this unity or this inclusion is each pole the negation or exclusion of the other.

The two moments of the dialectical relation in Hegel, writes Nicolai Hartmann, ‘acquire a twofold significance, and this twofold significance is essential to them: each is first one of the moments and then it is the unity of both’. [6] Hegel’s philosophy ‘demonstrated that individual ideas, taken in themselves, are abstractions; that in general they have validity only together, and in a relation of mutual value; that therefore their “community” or their “interdependence” (their “mutual interpenetration”) has primacy over individual ideas.’ [7]

We shall have something to say about the difference between Hegel and Plato further on. Here the extreme schematism of our exposition has omitted all such diversities. On the other hand it is obvious that any discussion of Plato must in this context start by referring to Hegel’s modern-dialectical position, which is the one that actually concerns us.

Now to the second type of opposition.

Real or ‘Non-Contradictory’ Opposition

Here everything is different. The formula that expresses it is ‘a and b’. Each of the opposites is real and positive. Each subsists for itself. Since, to be itself, each has no need to be referred to the other, we have here a case of a relation of mutual repulsion. This is an exclusive opposition, instead of an inclusive opposition. Thus, just as before we spoke of the attraction of opposites, here we must speak of mutual repugnance or Realrepugnanz.

Marx and Kant

There is a passage from Marx that clearly brings out the character of a ‘real opposition’ in its antithesis to a dialectical opposition. In the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right he writes: ‘Real extremes cannot be mediated, precisely because they are real extremes. Nor do they have any need for mediation, for their natures are wholly opposed. They have nothing in common with each other, they have no need for one another, they do not complement one another. The one does not bear within it a longing, a need, an anticipation of the other.’ [8]

Hence real extremes do not mediate each other. It is a waste of time (indeed it is positively damaging) to speak of a dialectic of things. In the case we considered first of contradictory opposition, we have the dialectical opposition of ‘supreme classes’, i.e. of ideas or ‘pure concepts’: mutual attraction, love and longing for the koinonia ton genon relation, unity as prius. Here on the other hand we have no need of dialectical mediation: the opposites, in so far as they are real, ‘have nothing in common with one another’. [9]

This is not the place to inquire where Marx came across this conception of real opposition, i.e. of the contrariety of incompatible opposites. It could possibly have come to him directly from Aristotle’s theory of contraries, or indirectly from Feuerbach, who on several occasions refers to it between the lines. What is certain is that the modern father of the theory of real opposition is Kant: first, in The Only Possible Ground for a Proof of the Existence of God and then at greater length in The Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Quantities into Philosophy (both 1763), and finally in The Critique of Pure Reason, in those marvellous pages of the Remark on The Amphiboly or Equivocal Nature of the Conceptions of Reflection.

Since I wish to be brief, I shall refer only to chapter I of The Attempt of 1763, an exemplary text in its simplicity and clarity. In it Kant confirms what has been said above, together with further clarifications and developments. His first statement concerns the twofold character of opposition. Opposition is: ‘either logical, involving contradiction (durch den Widerspruch), or real, i.e. devoid of contradiction (ohne Widerspruch)’. Kant adds: ‘The first opposition, the logical, is the only kind to have been considered until now.’ [10]

Then he goes on to consider the structure of real oppositions and how they radically differ from contradictory oppositions. A real opposition ‘is one in which two predicates of a thing are opposed, but not through the principle of contradiction . . . . Two forces, one imparting movement to a body in one direction, and the other imparting an equal effect in the opposite direction, do not contradict each other: they are both possible as predicates of a single body. The outcome is equilibrium, which is a thing (repraesentabile). This is an instance of true opposition. In fact the effect of one of the two tendencies, were it acting in isolation, is negated by the other, and both these tendencies are true predicates of a single thing and are attached to it simultaneously.’ [11]

So in real opposition too there is negation, annulment, but of a kind that is quite different from contradiction. Real opposites are not, as in contradiction, negatives in themselves and hence only the Negative of the other; on the contrary, they are both positive and real. In this instance, says Kant, ‘both the predicates a and b are affirmative’. [12] The negation which each exerts on the other consists only in the fact that they mutually annul their effects. Briefly, in a real opposition or relation of contrariety (Gegenverhältnis), the extremes are both positive, even when one of them is indicated as the negative contrary of the other. ‘In a real opposition’, says Kant, ‘one of the opposed determinations can never be the contradictory contrary of the other [note this well], since in such a case the contrast would be of a logical character . . . . In every real opposition the predicates both have to be positive . . . . In this way the things of which one is considered as the negative of the other are both, considered in themeselves, positive.’ [13]

What then of negative quantities—quantities that are preceded by the minus sign in mathematics? Their denomination, says Kant, is imprecise. The so-called negative quantities are, in reality, themselves positive. ‘Quantities indicated with - carry this sign only as a term of opposition, in so far as they wish to be considered together with quantities carrying the sign +; when, however, they are in relation to other quantities also carrying the sign -, there is no longer any opposition, given that this is a relation of contraries encountered only between the signs + and -. Given that subtraction is an annulment which occurs when quantities of opposite sign are considered together, it is clear that in reality the sign - is not a sign of subtraction, as is commonly believed, but that subtraction can be indicated only by a union of the two signs + and -. Consequently, -4-5=-9 is not a subtraction at all, but a perfectly normal addition and summation of homogeneous quantities. On the other hand, +9-5=4 is a subtraction, since the opposing signs indicate that one quantity subtracts from the other its own value. In the same way the sign + too, taken on its own, does not signify addition [the proof is that -9+4=5]; this occurs only when one quantity, carrying the + sign, is united with another quantity carrying explicitly, or implicitly, the same sign. When on the other hand one wishes to unite this quantity with another carrying the - sign, this can occur only through opposition; and in such a case the two signs taken in conjunction indicate a subtraction.’ [14]

Contrariety and Contradiction

In other words, in the relation of contrariety that constitutes real opposition, there is negation, it is true, but not in the sense that one of the terms has to be considered as negative in itself, i.e. as non-being. ‘To posit a particular kind of thing and call it negative’ would be, according to Kant, ‘erroneous’. In fact, ‘negative things should signify negations (negationes) in general, and this is not at all the concept we are trying to clarify.’ He proceeds: ‘It is enough for us to have explained above the relations of contrariety that go to make up this whole concept and consist in real opposition. However, in order to indicate in the terms themselves that one of the two counterposed elements is not the contradictory contrary of the other but, if the former is positive, the latter is not a mere negation of it but is counterposed to it as something itself affirmative, let us follow the method of the mathematicians, and call sunset a negative sunrise, falling a negative rising, returning a negative advancing. Here the term makes it clear at once that, e.g., falling is not distinguished from rising in the same way that not-a is distinguished from a, but is instead just as positive as rising, and contains within itself the cause of a negation only if it is united to rising itself. It is of course clear, seeing that everything is reduced to a relation of contraries, that I am just as authorised to call sunset a negative sunrise as I am to call sunrise a negative sunset; and likewise, capitals too are negative debts, just as debts are negative capitals. Commonsense, however, tells us that it is better to reserve the negative term for the occasions when one might wish to indicate a real contrary. Thus, for example, one is more justified in calling debts negative capitals than conversely, even though there is no difference within the relation of contraries itself . . . . ’ [15]

In conclusion: there do not exist things which are negative in themselves, i.e. things which are negations in general, and hence non-being, as far as their inner constitution is concerned. Whatever negates or annuls the consequences of something is itself a ‘positive cause’. So-called negative quantities are not a negation of quantity; in other words they are not non-quantity and hence non-being or absolute nothingness. Things, objects, factual data are all positive, i.e. existing and real, elements. The things which in mathematics are called negative quantities are, in themselves, positive quantities, even when they carry the minus sign. If therefore ‘the celebrated Dr Crusius had had the good manners to inform himself of the significance attached by mathematicians to this concept, he would not have judged as erroneous (nor have built upon this judgment the most amazing notions) the distinction Newton makes when he compares the force of attraction acting at a distance that is transformed gradually, as bodies come closer together, into a force of repulsion, with a series in which, where the positive quantities end, the negative ones begin. [16] Since in fact a negative quantity is not a negation of quantity, as the similarity in terminology led him to suppose, but is something which in itself is actually positive, and only counterposed to another thing.’ [17]

Let us sum up. Conflicts between forces in nature and in reality, for example attraction/repulsion in Newtonian physics, struggles between counterposed tendencies, contrasts between opposing forces—all these not only do not undermine the principle of (non)-contradiction, but on the contrary confirm it. What we are dealing with in fact is oppositions which, precisely because they are real, are ‘devoid of contradiction’ and hence have nothing to do with dialectical contradiction. The poles of these oppositions, to go back to Marx, ‘cannot mediate each other’ nor ‘do they have any need of mediation’: ‘they have nothing in common with each other, they do not need each other, nor are they integrated with each other’. Hence the old metaphysical commonplace (that still haunts the workers’ movement) which holds that without dialectics there can be no struggle or movement, but only the inertia and immobility of death, is disproved once again.

From Lenin to Luporini

I said before that Marxism, although it is constantly speaking in terms of contradictions and opposition, has no clear ideas on this subject. In the overwhelming majority of cases, Marxists have not even suspected that there are two types of opposition, and that they are radically different. Now I must prove this statement.

There is not a word on the difference between real opposition and contradictory opposition (or between contrariety and contradiction) in Engels. There is not a word in Plekhanov. There is not even one in Lukács, a professional philosopher who cooked the dialectic in every possible sauce. Finally confusion reigns in the case of Lenin.

His note in the Philosophical Notebooks, entitled On the Question of Dialectics, starts by recalling the concept of dialectic advanced by the Platonic, or ante litteram neo-Platonic theologian, Philo the Jew: ‘The splitting in two of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts (see the quotation from Philo on Heraclitus at the beginning of Section 3 “On Cognition” in Lassalle’s book on Heraclitus) is the essence . . . of dialectics. Hegel too poses the question in this manner.’ [18]

Here then the dialectic is the unity which contains the opposites and is subdivided into them. We are back with the case discussed earlier: each of the opposites implies or refers back to the unity or inclusion of the opposites and only within this unity or prius is each one the negation and exclusion of the other. In short, we are right back with the Platonic dialectic: ‘the one that divides into two’ (famous slogan of the Chinese Cultural Revolution). No harm in this: anyone has the right to be Platonic.

However, Lenin thereafter lists a number of instances of the dialectic which are all real oppositions, i.e. non-contradictory oppositions, and so have nothing to do with the dialectic. ‘In mathematics: + and -; differential and integral. In mechanics: action and reaction. In physics: positive and negative electricity. In chemistry: the combination and dissociation of atoms.’ [19]

Chairman Mao proceeds along the same lines in his famous text On Contradiction, where he repeats Lenin’s list. [20] Here too I would not like to appear disrespectful—but he is wrong. All these examples of dialectical contradictions are in reality examples of non-contradictory contrariety.

Let us now come to the second class of Marxists, i.e. to the rare breed that is aware of ‘real opposition’ and has taken note of Kant’s texts, and yet has interpreted this opposition as a dialectical ‘contradiction’.

Karl Korsch, in his text on Empiricism in Hegel’s Philosophy, writes: ‘Dialectical oppositions should be thought of not as counterposed assertions but as counterposed objects or, to use a Kantian expression, as “real repugnances”. Contrapositions of this kind are discussed not only by the dialectical philosopher Hegel but also by profound and acute thinkers like Kant and Bolzano who were certainly not motivated by any dialectical intentions . . . . A brief analysis of this concept of opposition as defined by Kant and Bolzano shows that the relations which exist between such “oppositions” and the formations which arise from the “union” of such oppositions, possess all the essential characteristics with which Hegel invested his dialectic.’ [21] Again, with all respect to Korsch, these are wild words.

A final case brings us to Italy: that of Cesare Luporini and his Spazio e Materia in Kant—a book, by the way, that contains much that is useful and interesting. After having justly observed that the Amphiboly of the Conceptions of Reflection is ‘the authentic leitmotif of the Critique of Pure Reason’, [22] Luporini interprets Kant’s critique of the Leibnizian principle of indiscernibles and his theory of real opposition, developed again in his Comment on the Amphiboly, as the ‘germ’ ‘of a materialist dialectic’. [23] Taking issue with Hermann Ley who had commented, rightly enough, that Realrepugnanz cannot be reduced to ‘dialectical contradiction’ (Ley is obviously correct: Realrepugnanz is Realopposition, and since this latter is devoid of contradiction, ohne Widerspruch, one fails to see how it could possibly be a dialectical contradiction), Luporini persists, in a long if somewhat breathless and confused note, in a desperate effort to reassert that in Kant’s real opposition ‘there is the germ of a materialist dialectic’. [24]

If we might be permitted an innocuous joke, we could then say that a car crash, a typical instance of a ‘real opposition’, i.e. of two opposed forces, constitutes a daily verification of dialectical materialism.

Hegel’s Dialectic

Now a few brief words on Hegel. The specific characteristic of his work is that for him, the dialectic of ideas is at the same time a dialectic of matter. While even in Plato’s later dialogues these two worlds, of ideas and of things, are kept separate, in Hegel this separation disappears.

I have no wish to repeat myself. But the key to everything is in his Comment on idealism in Book I of his Science of Logic: ‘The idealism of philosophy consists only in this, in not recognising the finite as a real being.’ [25] Lacking a reality of its own, the finite must obtain one from the Idea: ‘The proposition, that the finite is ideal, constitutes idealism’. On the other hand, because philosophy is really idealism, it is necessary that ‘the principle should in effect be realized there’ [26], i.e. the Idea should become reality.

If we examine this, we see at once that the finite/infinite and being/thought relationships follow the model of the ‘a not-a’ contradiction. Outside of each other, i.e. outside their Unity, both finite and infinite are abstract, unreal entities. [27] The finite, considered on its own, is not a real being, it is non-being; the infinite, for its part, is the void beyond, lacking any real existence. Each pole of the contradiction is in itself negative, being simply the Negation of the other, and has its essence outside itself, in its opposite.

If the problem is posed in these terms, the solution becomes apparent. If the finite on its own account or outside of thought has no true reality, it is obvious that it can only be grasped in relation to the other, i.e. in conjunction with the infinite—or in short, within the Idea or Reason. In this way everything is resolved into the unity of ‘being’ and ‘non-being’ (the megista gene of Plato’s dialectic). Where there was formerly the thing there is now the logical contradiction. There is no longer being, but only thought (the ‘acritical idealism’ of Hegel’s philosophy, in the words of Marx’s formula of 1844). On the other hand, and conversely, just as the particular or finite was resolved into logical contradiction, so in turn is logical contradiction transposed into the finite, into objectivity—in a word, it is realized, i.e. transferred from the ‘beyond’ of the Idea to the ‘here and now’ of the world, so that everything which exists now becomes its demonstration and positive expression (again in Marx’s terms of 1844: the ‘acritical positivism’ of Hegel’s philosophy).

It is a fact—that is, a fact confirmed by textual study—that the dialectic of matter, the dialectic of things (allegedly the ‘specific’ contribution of Marxism) is already wholly contained in the work of Hegel. Not in contradiction with his idealism, but as its instrument and means. Hegel himself on several occasions demonstrated that the origins of this ‘dialectic of things’ lay in the Skepticism of the ancients, in Pyrrhonism, and later, in Plato’s Parmenides (see Hegel’s text of 1801 on The Relation between Skepticism and Philosophy, in addition to the whole of his mature work).

According to Hegel, the essential relation linking Pyrrhonism and philosophy (idealism) is that the Skepticism of the ancients, with all its tropes, is directed against the commonsense belief in the existence of things, in the materiality of the world; that it is a skepsis directed against matter. By introducing the dialectic, by demonstrating that what appears to be ‘thus and thus’ both ‘is’ and ‘is not’ thus, ancient skepticism, says Hegel, upsets the commonsense certainty in the existence of objects, clears the field of materialism and thus opens the way to true philosophy. The only limitation of Pyrrhonism, says Hegel, is that after having wrought that destruction, it concludes negatively, while true philosophy, i.e. idealism, goes further: it restores the finite, which was formerly eluded and transcended, by presenting it as the objectification of the Idea, i.e. as the embodiment of Reason (the divine Logos in the world).

In contrast to the skepticism of the ancients, which is ‘philosophical’ because it is skeptical towards matter, Hegel considers the modern skepticism of Hume and Kant to be ‘non-philosophical’ (i.e. saturated with commonsense materialism), because it is still linked to a belief in the certainty of the senses. Moreover, it is a fact that while for Hegel the finite is non-being and things have no true reality, Kant on the other hand, even in the few pages we have considered, takes the contrary point of view: i.e. that there do not exist things which are in themselves negative, which are negations in general, and that so-called negative quantities are not negations of quantity, non-being or nothingness, but positive entities themselves.

Kolakowski and Paci

Now the drama of Marxism is that at a certain point (and for a series of reasons that we cannot explore now, apart from one very important one which we shall consider below) it adopted Hegel’s ‘dialectic of matter’ to the letter (as in Engels’s, Dialectics of Nature), taking it for a higher form of materialism. But it may be objected that Engels was not alone in this, that Marx was also a party to it. My reply is that, even if this is partially true, I fail to see the force of the argument. Either one demonstrates that Diamat still stands, or one must take the risk of implicating the Founding Fathers together.

I used the phrase, the ‘drama of Marxism’. There is no doubt in my mind that, at least in part, this drama is embodied today in the relation of Marxism to science, starting of course with the natural sciences. This relationship poses not only a theoretical problem; it involves strategic and political problems as well. Science is very much part of the modern world. Our assessment of it commands our appreciation of economic development, our attitude to ‘Third-worldist’ ideologies and our response to the enormous yet chaotic mass of practical and ethical problems that have emerged in world politics in the course of the last few years. What is the attitude of Marxism?

Frequently the problem is twisted so that positivism and scientism become targets of attack. This is the preferred tactic of the group of ‘young Marxists’ from Bari. But the argument is not worth a dried fig. Positivism and science are not the same thing. To level one’s fire at scientism without explaining what one thinks of science is a dangerous policy. The recent book by Kolakowski on the history of positivism, from Hume to the Vienna Circle, is an example of this. Kolakowski equates science with positivism. Science is thus reduced to ideology—an ideology to be eliminated. The title of the book in its American edition tells all: The Alienation of Reason. Science is the alienation of reason. Thus it is no accident that Bergson and Husserl, and with them of course transcendence, crop up in the conclusion to Kolakowski’s book.

Another example is Enzo Paci’s 1968 preface to Husserl’s Krisis. Paci too inveighs against ‘those sciences and technologies that transform living man into a thing, an object, a cog in the industrial machine’. Significantly, he concludes by announcing the advent of a new theology: ‘Truth lives in the world, but it belongs to no-one: it does not belong to the world, and is not of the world. This is the reason why the theology that is about to emerge will, for dialectical reasons, be understood by the poor and the humble before it is understood by the rich, the sophisticated and the academic. This theology has a very simple message: God is life, but he has no reality.’

So we are all against scientism. But the problem is how to be against scientism and positivism, and yet still maintain a serious and real relationship with science: i.e. to avoid what Lenin called Pfaffentum or ‘priestery’. Now Diamat is no use to us here. He who invokes a dialectical physics or a dialectical chemistry, or calls on Lenin to resolve the problems of theoretical physics (as does our own Ludovico Geymonat, though not without a pinch of demagogy), adopts (or provokes) a critical-negative relationship to the existing sciences that colludes objectively (why should not I too be allowed to use this fatal adverb just once?) with the exorcisms of science pronounced by the new theology promised by Paci. Diamat gave us everything it could, with Lysenko.

The East German Debate

These considerations may serve to introduce the debate—a beleagured yet important one—that occurred not too long ago among a group of Polish and East German philosophers and logicians (materialists but not ‘dialectical materialists’) who were seriously concerned by the problems of modern science.

Modern science is not familiar with and does not know what to make of the dialectic of matter. It rightly considers it to be a romantic philosophy of nature. When Engels writes that the moon is the ‘negativity’ of the Earth, [28] or that ‘just as electricity, magnetism, etc, become polarized and move in opposites, so do thoughts’, [29] or that ‘a worm, if cut in two,’ is an example of the ‘transformation of positive into negative’, [30] the modern scientist (assuming that he still comes across such literature) smiles and thinks of Schelling or Baader.

Science cannot operate with the three general laws of the dialectic. It makes use of the principle of (non)-contradiction. This is the very principle that the ‘dialectical materialists’ see as the principle of metaphysics, but which every scientist knows to be the principle of material determinacy, in addition to being at the same time the principle of coherent discourse. (For that matter, let it be said in parentheses, there is no cause for fear or scandal in this: Lenin’s theory of ‘reflection’, if seriously argued, goes back to the classical theory of ‘correspondence’, a theory that differs so little from modern science as to be called to his aid by Tarski himself: ‘We should like our definition to do justice to those intuitions which are associated with the classical Aristotelian conception of truth.’) [31]

What then can scientists, and philosophers concerned with science, do to maintain a viable relationship with Marxism? This problem was the background to the contribution made to the long (and otherwise largely futile) discussion, Ueber Fragen der Logik, published in the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie from 1953 to 1955, by a tiny minority who were soon drowned and deafened by the chaotic vociferations of official spokesmen, but which nonetheless left its imprint in a few books. [32]

What form did this contribution take? That of a return to Kant’s Realopposition. Not however, as in the case of Luporini, to demonstrate the undemonstrable: i.e. that even in Kant’s real opposition there exists a ‘germ of a materialist dialectic’. But to maintain, with much greater justification, that what ‘dialectical materialists’ describe as contradictions in nature are, in fact, contrarieties, oppositions that are ohne Widerspruch; and that therefore Marxism can certainly go on speaking of conflicts and of objective oppositions, without thereby being forced to declare war on the principle of (non)-contradiction and so break with science.

Wolfgang Harich (who was subsequently given a ten-year prison sentence for political reasons) began by emphasizing that ‘ever since the time of Hegel the term “contradiction” (Widerspruch) has been burdened, with misunderstandings, which are directly linked to the idealist character of the Hegelian dialectic . . . . If one takes the word “contradiction” in its scientific literal sense—and logic attaches no other sense to the word—then contradictions belong exclusively to the realm of judgment (Sache des Urteils), and recur only in the thought and language’ of those who contradict each other. ‘If on the other hand what is meant by “contradiction” is something different from the pure and simple meaning of the term, viz. the conflict (Widerstreit) or struggle between opposites, between the old and the new, the opposition between two sides of a thing’, then the reference is actually to a Realrepugnanz. [33]

In support of Harich (but also to correct a few confusions and uncertainties in his work that were due, no doubt, to political prudence), Paul Linke from Jena then intervened in the discussion, with an article that was as brief as it was resolute and coherent. First, he stressed the objective and materialist import of the principle of non-contradiction (‘ . . . the logical harmony of everything that exists, the impossibility of contradictions in reality—since in the final analysis logical laws are ontic laws . . . ’), then he went on to take issue with ‘the superficial opinion, that is as widespread in the East as it is in the West, that there are contradictions in reality’ [34]—which if true would mean that a ‘special dialectical logic’, ‘superior to common and “formal” logic’, would be necessary. Finally Linke too concluded by referring to Kant. Commenting that ‘Hegel loaded the term “contradiction” with grave ambiguities that leave their mark to this very day’, Linke concluded that ‘this word should no longer be used in situations where in fact something quite different is being implied, viz. the struggle between opposites or, in fact, what Kant called Realrepugnanz, a concept that has nothing to do with logical contradiction’. [35]

We cannot pause here over the other hints, all considerable in their implications, given by Linke towards the close of his article. In strict connection with the problems touched on above, he gave a rapid survey of the history of the ontological argument, to recall how it had been restored and revived by modern philosophy: ‘Descartes, Spinoza and to a certain extent Leibniz himself are in this respect the important names.’ On the other hand, ‘Hume was the first modern philosopher who renewed the battle against it or who at least furnished the materials for an effective campaign. It was Kant who accomplished the essential work in this struggle, but on the basis of theories which were so controversial that his successors were able to rehabilitate this peculiar doctrine in a more or less disguised form—until with Hegel it was restored in a completely open and explicit fashion.’ [36]

The Contribution of Ajdukiewicz

We can now consider the position adopted by the eminent Polish materialist logician, K. Ajdukiewicz (who also intervened in the discussion in the German review), in his own book, Abriss der Logik. ‘The principle of non-contradiction’, he writes, ‘excludes the possibility that two opposed and contradictory propositions can simultaneously be true. In this way the principle excludes the possibility that there may exist in reality contradictory factual data (Sachverhalte), hence that something may be thus and thus and at the same time not thus.’ Ajdukiewicz goes on, ‘This certainly does not mean that the principle of (non)-contradiction denies that contradictions may exist in reality, provided that by “contradictions” one means antagonistic tendencies or forces operating in a counterposed manner. The action/reaction or effect/counter-effect relation is not the same thing as the relation between the being and non-being of a factual situation or thing. A reaction is not the same as the non-being of an action, and a counter-effect is not the same as the non-being of an effect—quite the contrary. If the action or the effect is a force, then the reaction or counter-effect is also a force—it is not simply the non-being of that force. Interpreted in this way, the so-called “fourth principle of the dialectic”, the principle of the unity and struggle of opposites (which states that all objects and phenomena possess their own internal “contradictions” and that the struggle between these contradictions is the principal driving force behind their progress and development) is not in conflict with the principle of (non)-contradiction. These “internal contradictions” are not in fact logical contradictions, but opposed forces, forces operating in opposite directions. The fourth principle of the dialectic, in other words, attaches a different significance to the word “contradiction” than that normally supposed by the principle of non-contradiction.’ [37]

I ask to be forgiven for the length of this quotation but I feel the attentive reader will have gathered its importance. Here, over and above a continuation of the theme of the discussion in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, there emerges a new element of a political order—one that is no less important for that. In the kernel of his article, Ajdukiewicz confirms what Harich, and later and better Linke, had already said. The Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction does not exclude the existence of contradictions in reality . . . ‘provided that by “contradictions” one means antagonistic tendencies’, i.e. provided that by ‘contradiction’ one means not contradiction but contrariety, non-contradiction, Kant’s ‘real opposition’. Indeed so true is this that everything the able Ajdukiewicz has to say on action/reaction and effect/counter-effect reproduces to the letter Kant’s discussion of rising/falling, sunrise/sunset and, in general, so-called negative quantities. ‘Falling is not distinguished from rising’, said Kant, ‘in the way that not-a is distinguished from a, but rather it is just as positive as rising. Negative quantities are not negations of quantity’, i.e. non-quantity, and hence non-being or nothingness, but are themselves positive quantities.

Here everything is in order and no problem arises. The problem does arise when what I called the ‘political’ element comes to the fore, i.e. when Ajdukiewicz, having just said what he said, then claims that his ideas are compatible with what he oddly calls the fourth principle of the dialectic (as is well known, Engels lists only three), i.e. the dialectical principle of the struggle and the unity of opposites. Even taking into account the fact that Ajdukiewicz concludes by stating that ‘contradiction’ should here be interpreted in a metaphorical sense (in other words not as a contradiction at all, but as non-contradictory contrariety), it is clear that the man is too rigorous and intelligent for this not to be the ‘intrusion’ of a political concession, whether freely offered or extorted we do not know.

One thing remains to be considered, and that is an echo of the discussion in the German philosophical review that appeared in a book by Georg Klaus, Einführung in die formale Logik; here we will be very brief. The most important or significant statements in it to do with our problem are these:

(a) reaffirmation of the objective, ontic (or, as Klaus says, ‘ontological’) application of the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction. ‘Underlying this principle’, says Klaus, ‘there is a fundamental law of reality and this is reflected in our mind as the principle of the exclusion of contradiction (von ausgeschlossenen Widerspruch)’; [38]

(b) repetition of the accusation that Hegel burdened the term ‘contradiction’ with ambiguities by confounding it with the term ‘contrariety’ (although in the succeeding pages Klaus spreads confusion on this score by taking issue with the book by M. Aebi, Pouvoir de l’Esprit sur le Réel); [39]

(c) the political-metaphoric use of the term ‘contradiction’, as in the case of Ajdukiewicz above.

The Work of Della Volpe

I have dwelt at such length on the body of work that emerged in the course of the discussion in the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie because it coincides in certain fundamental ways with the ideas expressed by Galvano Della Volpe in Logic as a Positive Science—a book published some years before the German discussion, and one which was the culmination of a lengthy, original and controversial experience in Italy. Apart from one minor divergence that need not detain us, viz. Della Volpe’s claim that dialectical contradiction can be a rational instrument for thinking objective or real oppositions, the convergence between his positions and those of the Polish and East German logicians is striking.

1. Vindication of the Aristotelian principle of determination, i.e. of the ‘punctual’ or non-contradictory character of the subjectum or material content of judgment.

2. Criticism of the processes of Hegelian hypostasization, i.e. the speculative exchange between reason and matter, and hence of Hegel’s confusion over the distinction between logical contradiction and material contrariety, or between inclusive and exclusive opposition (in the sense of contrariety of incompatible opposites). Hegel’s exchange, as we have already seen, consists in reducing, on the one hand, material differences to differences within the bounds of Reason, i.e. to a moment of logico-dialectical contradiction, and then in surreptitiously restoring material non-contradiction, i.e. real oppositions, which had formerly been transcended, and presenting them as manifestations or modes of existence of their opposite, i.e. of contradiction or dialectical Reason embodied in this form.

3. Vindication of the elements of Kant’s anti-speculative, anti-metaphysical critique and, in particular, of his capital critique of Leibniz—a vindication, let it be said for prudes, that even today often provokes a disconcerted and shocked reaction. Yet already in his Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Lenin—though he had not read the Critique of Pure Reason—had intuitively commented that in certain aspects, ‘Kant is a materialist’ or, at least, ‘leans towards materialism’ (see his whole chapter on ‘The criticism of Kantianism from left and right’).

For love of country (besides, it is now water under the bridge), I shall refrain from recalling the arrogance and complacency, the murmured jeers and laments with which Della Volpe’s research was greeted by the foolish virgins of Crocean Marxism in Italy (Solons who had learnt nothing more nor less from Marxism than that ideas must have ‘hands and feet’). Here suffice it to say that even Togliatti himself rolled up his sleeves in the cause and, ex abrupto, got down to the study (which he later abandoned, fortunately for himself) of the relation of Marx to Hegel.

What is striking is that it occurred to virtually no one at the time that behind what appeared to be the efforts of an eccentric philosopher riveted on the past (just imagine: digging up Kant and Aristotle!) there was a problem of great urgency and of vital importance at stake—in other words, the relationship between Marxism and science. In this connection the restoration of the principle of non-contradiction was the vital step. Since to rehabilitate that principle it was necessary to free the term ‘contradiction’ of the grave ambiguities with which Hegel had burdened it, and to square accounts with the idealist dialectic, Della Volpe set himself this task and accomplished it. He thereby paved the way for getting rid altogether of the antiquated and fossilized legacy of Diamat—and since this was Italy and not East Germany, others took care that the job was carried through to the very end.

What was the result of this operation? For a start, a large part of Engels’s philosophical work was liquidated, not through parti pris but because it had been the source of Diamat, i.e. of that metaphysical cosmogony, that veritable ‘philosophical romance’ to which Marxism had been reduced (from the time of the Third International onwards) while at the same time it was paralysed as historical materialism—that is, a politico-economic analysis of society and of the modern world. If we leave to one side the few and isolated statements where Marx appears to ratify the ‘dialectic of matter’, we must on the other hand take into account the impressive and incontrovertible fact that he left behind him Capital, the Grundrisse, the Theories of Surplus Value—in other words, not a cosmogony but an analysis of modern capitalism.

Della Volpe’s whole discussion on the dialectic, and on contraposition and contrariety, which appeared so abstruse and cerebral at the time, had a very precise aim. What the Diamatiker described and describe as contradictions in the real world were in effect contrarieties, i.e. real oppositions and hence non-contradictions. Consequently Marxism, while continuing to speak of conflicts and of objective oppositions in reality, no longer had to claim for itself (and worse, seek to impose on science) a special logic of its own—the dialectic—that was at variance with and opposed to the logic followed by the existing sciences. Further: Marxism could henceforth continue to speak of struggles and of objective conflicts in nature and in society, making use of the non-contradictory logic of science; and better yet, it would henceforth be a science and practise science itself.

The Prospect of a Materialist Sociology

These were the considerations that lay behind Della Volpe’s formula that defined Marx as the ‘Galileo of the moral world’ (a suggestive and stupendous formula . . . if only it had been true). Here, in modern language and with a wealth of historical-philosophical references, was revived an old and profound aspiration of Marxism, one that had already been enunciated by Engels over the tomb of Marx, by Lenin in Friends of the People, by Hilferding in Finance Capital, and after them by thousands of others: the aspiration of Marxism to constitute itself as the foundation of the social sciences, i.e. as the science of society—and science not just in the metaphorical sense, but in the serious sense of the word, i.e. a science on the same footing (albeit using different techniques) as the natural sciences.

Hegel seemed to have no connection whatever with Capital. The conflict between capital and wage-labour was nothing other than a Realopposition, i.e. a clash of forces not dissimilar, in principle, to those analysed by Galileo and Newton: a sharp and radical clash it is true, though (or rather, hence) not to be confused with a dialectical contradiction. In this interpretation, there was now a renewed emphasis on what Labriola in his time (without being branded a positivist) had called the ‘naturalization’ of history by Marxism. The concept of ‘socio-economic formation’ re-emerged. Marx became the scientist who had analysed, or paved the way to the analysis of, those particular species—characterized as ‘artificial’ or historical—which constitute the various types of society that have succeeded one another in the course of human endeavour. Thus, ‘just as the idea of transformism, which has been proved in relation to quite a large number of facts, is extended to the whole realm of biology, even though it has not yet been possible to establish with precision the fact of their transformation for certain species of animals and plants’; and ‘just as transformism does not at all claim to explain the “whole” history of the formation of species, but only to place the methods of this explanation on a scientific basis, so materialism in history has never claimed to explain everything, but merely to indicate the “only scientific”, to use Marx’s expression (Capital), method of explaining history.’ [40]

Together with all this, the idea of Marxism as a materialist sociology brought to the fore the notions of scientific generalization and reiterability in history. (Luporini himself wrote an essay on this topic which can still be read with profit today.) In short, our aim at that time was a mutual conjugation of sociology and history, of the very sort formulated by E. H. Carr some years later when he wrote in his book, What is History? that ‘it is nonsense to say that generalization is foreign to history: history thrives on generalizations’, and that ‘the more sociological history becomes, and the more historical sociology becomes, the better for both’. [41]

In this way our theoretical instrument was (or seemed to be) restored and repaired: it was ready to serve a movement which just at that time (it was after the death of Stalin and the ‘Secret Report’) appeared, if at the cost of deep divisions and lacerations, to be on the eve of a radical renovation, and hence the recovery of a new vitality. It seemed to be springtime the world over. In reality, and more modestly, it was so only for a few of us.

The Problem of Fetishism

The problem on which the whole discussion, however, was now due to enter into crisis slowly emerged. On reading and re-reading Capital, especially the first sections which on Marx’s own admission are the most difficult (if not in some parts downright esoteric), it began to dawn on me that the theory of value was entirely at one with the theory of alienation and fetishism. ‘Abstract labour’, or that creating ‘value’, was alienated labour itself. [42] Thus an intuition of mine many years earlier reasserted itself—an intuition I mentioned at the beginning of chapter 6 of my Introduction to Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, but one which, for as long as I remained within the Della Volpean frame of reference, I was unable to develop and expand: viz. that the processes of hypostasization, the substantification of the abstract, the inversion of subject and predicate, far from being in Marx’s eyes modes of Hegel’s logic that were defective in reflecting reality, were in fact processes that he located (or thought he located—the difference is unimportant for the moment) in the structure and mode of functioning of capitalist society itself.

That there is some truth in this notion seems to me to be undeniable. Della Volpe never succeeded in accounting for the theory of fetishism in Marx. This was obviously not because he had no wish to do so, but because this theory could find no niche in the schema of his argument. Yet (despite its horrible name, which if I could I would willingly change) this theory is an essential component of Marx’s economic argument. It is a constituent part—as is demonstrated, to take but one example, in Part III of Theories of Surplus Value (beginning with the first addendum, and the paragraph entitled ‘Transformation of the Relations of the Capitalist Mode of Production into a Fetish’)—of the theory of capital, of profit, of interest, and of ground rent.

‘The form of revenue and the sources of revenue are the most fetishistic expression of the relations of capitalist production. It is their form of existence as it appears on the surface, divorced from the hidden connections and the intermediate connecting links. Thus the land becomes the source of rent, capital the source of profit, and labour the source of wages.’ This is not said with regard to the way in which the economists interpret the world in an upside-down fashion, but in regard to the mode of existence of reality itself. Indeed Marx adds at once: ‘The distorted form in which the real inversion is expressed is naturally reproduced in the views of the agents of this mode of production.’ [43] ‘While interest is simply a part of the profit established under a special name, it appears here as the surplus-value specifically created by capital as such, separated from the production process, and consequently due only to the mere ownership of capital, the ownership of money and commodities, separated from the relations which give rise to the contradiction between this property and labour, thus turning it into capitalist property.’ [44] Even here the argument is not in reference to the way in which Vulgarökonomie expresses things, but the way in which capitalist reality itself is expressed. ‘The complete objectification [Versachlichung: better rendered by reification], inversion and derangement of capital as interest-bearing capital’, [45] is here attributed by Marx—however embarrassing this viewpoint may be—to the reality of capital itself, not to the concept of it formulated by the economists. His thesis, in a word, is that ‘everything in this mode of production appears to be upside-down’. [46]

The Reality of Marx

This way of viewing things, which is at the root of the very concept of value, of money, of capital, naturally enough has nothing to do with the economics of Smith or Ricardo. Money for Ricardo is a numéraire. But to understand how Marx conceives money, one must read the chapter on money in the Grundrisse. While for Ricardo money is a measure, for Marx it is a product of alienation (the ‘God of commodities’): an alienation structured in a comparable way to Feuerbach’s, which in turn is structured in a comparable way (if upside-down) to Hegel’s alienation. The whole argument started by Bortkiewicz and concluded by Sraffa is, from this vantage-point, irrelevant: Bortkiewicz assumes that Marx’s ‘money’ is the same thing as Ricardo’s ‘money’. From the point of view of the economist it is perhaps necessary to do so; from the point of view of Marx’s project, it makes no sense at all.

I have no wish to prolong the argument. The sense of what I am saying is that there are two Marxes. On the one hand, there is the Marx of the prefaces to Capital, who puts himself forward as the man who has developed and completed as a science the political economy founded by Smith and Ricardo. On the other hand, there is the Marx who is a critic of political economy (not of bourgeois political economy, but of political economy tout court), the man who has intertwined (and overturned) the arguments of Smith and Ricardo with a theory of alienation of which the economists know nothing. In the first case, his scientificeconomic argument is directed at a reality which is viewed in the same positive way that every science views it. In the second case, the reality which is the subject of discussion is upside-down, ‘stood on its head’: it is not reality sic et simpliciter, but the realization of alienation. It is not a positive reality, but one to be overthrown and negated.

One hardly needs to emphasize how profound this divergence is. Political Economy, qua science, investigates and uncovers objective economic laws (the famous ‘economic laws of motion of modern society’) which are wholly analogous to the laws of nature and which Marx himself calls, in the preface to Capital, Naturgesetze (‘Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results.’) From one point of view, in short, political economy proceeds in the same way as the natural sciences themselves: ‘The economic laws discussed by classical political economy’, writes Dobb, ‘were objective laws that as it were constrained men—whatever may have been their conscious designs—in an “invisible hand”, in a rule of law within the social domain similar to that of the determinism which science was at that time discovering in the domain of nature. These laws, these objective tendencies, either exist or they do not exist: in the latter case, political economy as traditionally conceived is purely an illusion.’ [47]

From the other point of view these laws, which appear to have a material or objective character, are nothing other than the fetishistic objectification of human social relations which are beyond the control of men themselves. They do not represent natural objectivities, but alienation. So much so that Marx could write that Ricardo’s discussion of the falling rate of profit was a demonstration, ‘in a purely economic way—i.e. from the bourgeois point of view, within the limits of capitalist understanding, from the standpoint of capitalist production itself—that it has its barrier, that it is relative, that it is not an absolute.’ [48]

The Limits of Della Volpe

It may be observed that these very considerations absolve Della Volpe of the criticism I made of him earlier. In his interpretation of Marx the theory of fetishism had no place precisely because he held Marx strictly to be a ‘scientist’. In other words, a constant theme in the history of the interpretation of Marx, evident in the works of Kautsky, Hilferding, Lenin and Bukharin, was now repeated in the case of Della Volpe: if Marx was to be extolled as a scientist, it was impossible to attach equal importance to that other aspect of his work (yet one so profoundly rooted in the work of his maturity)—the theory of alienation and fetishism. It was no accident then that Althusser, who regards this theory as a Feuerbachian and juvenile throwback, as he came across it not only in the 1844 Manuscripts but in the whole of Marx’s subsequent work, was forced to shift the date of his ‘break’ further and further forward until he was able to save, out of the whole of Marx’s work, only those few pages written before Marx died that go under the title of Notes on Wagner. (The converse verification of this state of affairs is only too well known: Lukács in History and Class Consciousness, Korsch in Marxism and Philosophy, and in their wake the whole of the Frankfurt School, by concentrating exclusively on the theory of fetishism and on the interpretation of Marx as a ‘critic of political economy’, all had to break utterly with the thesis of Marxism as science.)

But returning now to the case of Della Volpe, the limits, both theoretical and philological, of his reading of Marx are obvious. Not being able to grasp the two aspects of Marx’s work (opposed and contrary aspects but, from another point of view, aspects which were indispensable to each other, and whose twofold character came to form a problematic, though it was not easy to see how to reconcile them), he remained within the terms of reference of the aporia that marks the history of these interpretations. Where Marxism is a scientific theory of social development, it is for the most part a ‘theory of collapse’, but not a theory of revolution; where, on the other hand, it is a theory of the revolution, i.e. is exclusively a ‘critique of political economy’, it runs the risk of becoming a utopian subjectivism. In more circumspect terms, this aporia reverberates within Della Volpe’s work in the form of a radical uncertainty over the nature of Marxism as a social science. Indeed, while his book Logic as a Positive Science concludes with the thesis that the natural and social sciences are identical (in terms of logic, if not technique), in subsequent writings this thesis was abandoned (see, for example, the 1962 text On the Dialectic), with the result that the author finally felt compelled to alter the title of his major work, which became Logic as a Historical Science.

Crisis and Contradiction in Marx’s Theory

Let us take up once more the central theme of the argument. The contradictions of capitalism—from the contradiction between capital and wage-labour to all the others—are not, for Marx, ‘real oppositions’ (as I too, following Della Volpe, believed until yesterday), i.e. objective but ‘non-contradictory’ oppositions, but are dialectical contradictions in the full sense of the word. What I still have to do then, is first of all prove this statement. After which, in the light of everything which has been said above, I shall attempt to sum up the argument.

The texts I shall draw on here are a few statements deduced from one of the major discussions that Marx has left us of his theory of capitalist crisis (a theory which remained incomplete, as is well known), in chapter 17 of Part II of Theories of Surplus-Value. The question concerns, in particular, the concept of the (abstract) possibility of crisis, which Marx opposes to Mill’s and Say’s Law that denies this possibility. [49] On the other hand, as is well known, this ‘possibility’ arises, for Marx, simply through the separation of commodity (c) and money (m). No sooner has money made its appearance, than purchase and sale, which coincided in the era of barter, come to be separated in time and in space: so that the seller is not constrained to repurchase at once, nor (assuming that he should wish to do so) to repurchase in the same market in which he appeared as a seller. Now this division between purchase and sale—constituting as it does the circulation or metamorphosis of commodities (c-m-c)—is what creates for Marx the initial abstract possibility of crisis. Abstract, in the sense that the categories of commodity and money, which have existed in all pre-capitalist societies, are certainly not adequate to explain the typically modern phenomenon of an economic crisis; and on the other hand, possibility in the sense that, although the separation between purchase and sale and between commodity and money is certainly not a sufficient condition, it is nevertheless a necessary condition for the appearance of crises.

The formulations advanced here are evident in a particularly complex passage in Volume I of Capital, which for the moment we shall merely reproduce, save for certain clarifications. ‘No one can sell unless someone else purchases. But no one is forthwith bound to purchase, because he had just sold. Circulation bursts through all restrictions as to time, place, and individuals, imposed by direct barter, and this it effects by splitting up, into the antithesis of a sale and a purchase, the direct identity that in barter does exist between the alienation of one’s own and the acquisition of some other man’s product. To say that these two independent and antithetical acts have an intrinsic unity, are essentially one, is the same as to say that this intrinsic oneness expresses itself in an external antithesis. If the interval in time between the two complementary phases of the complete metamorphosis of a commodity become too great, if the split between the sale and the purchase become too pronounced, the intimate connection between them, their oneness, asserts itself by producing—a crisis. The antithesis, use-value and value; the contradictions that private labour is bound to manifest itself as direct social labour, that a particularized concrete kind of labour has to pass for abstract human labour; the contradiction between the personification of objects and the representation of persons by things [Versachlichung: reification]; all these antitheses and contradictions, which are immanent in commodities, assert themselves, and develop their modes of motion, in the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of a commodity. These modes therefore imply the possibility, and no more than the possibility, of crises. The conversion of this mere possibility into a reality is the result of a long series of relations, that, from our present standpoint of simple circulation, have as yet no existence.’ [50]

In Marx’s view, all the contradictions of capitalism are the outcome of the contradiction within the commodity between use-value and value, between useful or private labour and abstract social labour. The internal contradiction within the commodity is externalized as the contradiction between the commodity and money. The contradiction between the commodity and money develops in turn into the contradiction between capital and wage-labour, that is between the owner of money and the owner of that particular commodity, viz. labour-power, whose use-value has the property of being the source of exchange-value and hence of capital itself.

Now, since the extremes, the poles, of the opposition through which the ‘possibility’ of crisis develops are commodities and money, i.e. entities have a real existence and exist independently of each other, it is obvious that, should we apply the argument used by Marx in his 1843 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, we would be bound to conclude that, since it is a question of real extremes, commodities and money not only ‘cannot be mediated’ but ‘nor do they have any need for mediation, for their natures are wholly opposed, they have nothing in common with each other, they do not complement one another’. This is more or less the conclusion that I myself, following Della Volpe, had always drawn till now with respect to the nature of capitalist oppositions. But, as the texts on crisis (which we shall see below) demonstrate ad abundantiam, this conclusion is obviously mistaken. In fact, on the very page of Capital I have quoted from, we are told that, if it is true that as regards commodities and money—the ‘two complementary phases of the complete metamorphosis of a commodity’—‘the split between the sale and the purchase become too pronounced’, then it must be true that ‘the intimate connection between them, their oneness, asserts itself by producing—a crisis’.

I suppose the ‘dialectical materialists’ are rubbing their hands together at this point. But I fear that once again they have failed to understand the situation. If in fact it is true that, for Marx, the separation between commodity and money is a dialectical contradiction between complementary opposites, and if it is also true that this contradiction is developed between real, i.e. independent, opposites (which seems to undermine everything we have maintained until now), nevertheless it is true that the reality of these extremes is in this instance of a very special kind. In Part II of Theories of Surplus Value, Marx explains that ‘the possibility of crisis’ is ‘the possibility that elements which are correlated, which are inseparable (die untrennbar sind), are separated (sich zertrennen) and consequently are forcibly reunited, their coherence is violently asserted against their mutual independence (wechselseitigen)’. [51]

Note, the poles of the contradiction in this instance are independent and separated, it is true—and yet they are inseparable, untrennbar. In so far as they are separated, they have taken on a real aspect; but in so far as they are inseparable, they have become real and independent and yet not truly so. They have been made as real as things, while still not being things: they are, in short, a product of alienation, they are entities which are unreal in themselves and yet have been reified.

This is the common thread running through all these pages on the subject of crisis. We read in Theories of Surplus Value, Part II: ‘But in so far as exchange did take place, its phases would not be separated’; and hence ‘the possibility of crisis’ is ‘the possibility of the rupture and separation of essentially complementary phases (wesentlich sich ergänzender Momente)’. [52]

The Specificity of Capitalism

Note again: a crisis occurs when the phases of exchange (commodity and money, purchase and sale)—while they are ‘essentially’ connected and complementary phases and do not exist outside each other—are separated and appear to stand alone, i.e. are given an independent reality: it is then that their ‘unity’ asserts itself violently and expresses, through the crisis, the non-separability of these split phases.

I shall spare the reader commentary on the other passages that are always repeated, with irreproachable clarity, by those who discuss this question. Here I am concerned only with showing briefly why the ‘dialectical materialist’, who believes he finds in the Marxian theory of capitalist contradictions the confirmation of his own theses, is much mistaken. For dialectical materialism, contradiction is a precondition for any possible reality. Its cardinal principle is the series of propositions enunciated by Hegel in Book II of his Science of Logic: ‘All things are contradictory in themselves’; [53] ‘something therefore has life only in so far as it contains contradiction, and is that force which can comprehend and endure contradiction’. [54] From these premisses, dialectical materialism deduces, as I said above, that ‘reality’ and ‘dialectical contradiction’ are the same thing—that is, interchangeable terms and concepts. In its view, everything is contradiction: mechanical motion, the cell, action and reaction in physics, as well as the relation between capital and wage-labour: there is no thing or reality devoid of inner contradiction.

In the case of Marx’s argument, which we have considered above, the situation is quite different. In his view the contradictions of capitalism do not derive from the fact that capitalism too is a ‘reality’. [55] On the contrary: in Marx’s view, capitalism is contradictory because it is a reality that is upside-down, that is ‘stood on its head’. In a word: from the perspective of dialectical materialism, one can maintain with axiomatic certainty and prior to any analysis of one’s own, that within every object in the universe there must be inner contradictions; while from Marx’s perspective, contradiction is the specific feature of capitalism, the characteristic or quality which singles it out not only with respect to all other forms of society, but with respect to all other cosmic phenomena.

‘Separation’, writes Marx, ‘appears as the normal relation in this society. Where, therefore, it does not in fact apply, it is presumed and, as has just been shown, so far correctly; for (as distinct for example from conditions in Ancient Rome or Norway or the North West of the United States of America) in this society unity appears as accidental, and separation as normal; and consequently separation is maintained as the relation even when one person unites the separate functions.’ [56]

Again: the Trennung, the division or separation of what is inseparable (untrennbar), or in other words, ‘phases which essentially complement each other’ yet are independent. What is the outcome of this separation (Trennung or Zertrennung)? An upside-down, inverted situation, in which what is essential (the unity) becomes accidental, and what is accidental becomes the norm. The theory of fetishism or of capitalist alienation here draws very close to the theory of contradiction: they reveal themselves as simply two different ways of saying the same thing. Indeed we saw this on the very page we quoted from Capital at the beginning of this section, where the contradiction which arose from the fact that, in a crisis, ‘the two phases which internally are complementary’ are counterposed externally as ‘independent’, was linked to the inversion of fetishism that resulted in ‘the object being personified’ and ‘the person being objectified or reified’.

Alienation and Contradiction

So the theory of alienation and the theory of contradiction are now seen as a single theory—one which (we may now add) embraces and encompasses within itself the theory of value. For the fundamental contradiction (see again the page from Capital) which takes pride of place is the separation which is immanent in commodities between ‘use-value and value’, between private labour and direct social labour, between a particularized concrete kind of labour and abstract human labour.

In a word, the contradiction arises from the fact that the private and social aspects of labour, which are ‘intimately connected’ (since they are aspects of the labour that the individual accomplishes in society), are given a separate representation and existence: the private or concrete aspect in the commodity’s ‘use-value’, and on the other hand the social aspect, with another existence of its own—separated, and hence abstracted from the former—as the commodity’s ‘value’.

The contradiction is determined, in short, by the very nature of this society. For this is a society in which, while individuals live together they are not only divided and competitive with each other, but precisely because they are separated from each other, they come to be separated from the society itself, i.e. from the complex of relations between them. It is a society in which, since everyone is independent, their mutual relations too become independent of everyone. So that the network of social relations (the society) takes on a separate existence of its own in money and capital—and since its existence is independent, it lies beyond the control of the very men it relates. It is, in a word, the contradiction between individual and class, between nature and culture, the contradiction which had been exposed by all the major analysts of eighteenth century bourgeois ‘civil society’, from Rousseau to Kant to Hegel, and which entered (albeit with profound changes) into the work of Marx himself. Modern society is a society characterized by division (alienation, contradiction). What was at one time united, has now been split and separated. The ‘original unity’ of man with nature and of man with man has been broken. For the very reason that this unity was the original, and hence ‘given’ state of mankind, it is not social links, in Marx’s view, that need to be explained, but the division or separation that occurs with the appearance in history of capitalism and ‘civil society’. ‘It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which demands explanation, or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage-labour and capital.’ [57] ‘Human beings’, Marx adds, ‘become individuals only through the process of history. He appears originally as a speciebeing, clan-being, herd animal . . . . Exchange itself is a chief means of this individuation. It makes the herd-like existence superfluous and dissolves it.’ [58] Marx concludes: ‘The historic process was the divorce of elements which up until then were bound together; its result is therefore not that one of the elements disappears, but that each of them appears in a negative relation to the other—the (potentially) free worker on the one side, capital (potentially) on the other. The separation of the objective conditions from the classes which have become transformed into free workers necessarily also appears at the same time as the achievement of independence by these same conditions at the opposite pole.’ [59]

In the beginning there was a oneness, succeeded by an era of rupture and separation, destined to culminate in capitalism; then, on the basis of these newly-emerged, superior conditions, an eventual reconciliation of the contradiction between individual and class, a supersession of the separation of man from man, and man from nature, becomes possible. If somewhat modified, the schema of Hegel’s philosophy of history blooms again. Therewith is revealed the second face of Marx, alongside that of the scientist, the naturalist and observer.


Let us now summarize our whole argument.

1. The fundamental principle of materialism and of science, as we have seen, is the principle of non-contradiction. Reality cannot contain dialectical contradictions but only real oppositions, conflicts between forces, relations of contrariety. The latter are ohne Widerspruch, i.e. non-contradictory oppositions, and not dialectical contradictions.

These assertions must be sustained, because they constitute the principles of science itself. Now science is the only means of apprehending reality, the only means of gaining knowledge of the world. There cannot be two (qualitatively different) forms of knowledge. A philosophy which claims a status for itself superior to that of science, is an edifying philosophy—that is, a scarcely disguised religion.

2. On the other hand, capitalist oppositions are, for Marx, dialectical contradictions and not real oppositions.

We have seen that this does not justify a rehabilitation of Diamat. For Marx, capitalism is contradictory not because it is a reality and all realities are contradictory, but because it is an upside-down, inverted reality (alienation, fetishism).

3. All the same, if it is true that this does not rehabilitate Diamat, it is nonetheless true that it confirms the existence of two aspects in Marx: that of the scientist and that of the philosopher.

I will confine myself for the moment to registering this fact. I do not attribute any conclusive significance to it. The social sciences have not yet found a true foundation of their own. Hence I do not know whether the existence of these two aspects is fatal or advantageous. What is not at issue is the fact that our task now is to find out whether and how they can be reconciled. It is one we must take seriously. It is not to be solved with any verbal subterfuge.

Translated by John Matthews


Colletti’s article was published as ‘Marxismo e dialettica’ together with the Italian translation of his nlr interview, Intervista politico-filosofica, Laterza 1974.

[1] ‘A Political and Philosophical Interview’, nlr 86, July/August 1974.

[2] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, translated by E. S. Haldane and F. H. Simson, London 1892, reprinted 1955, vol. 2, p. 49.

[3] cf. W. G. Runciman, Plato’s Later Epistemology, Cambridge 1962, pp. 111ff.

[4] Concerning this there is still much useful material in the old book by A. Diès, Autour de Platon, Paris 1926, vol. 2, pp. 470–522, in addition to the fundamental work by J. Stenzel, Studien zur Entwicklung der Platonischen Dialektik von Sokrates zu Aristoteles, Stuttgart 1931 and now Darmstadt 1974, pp. 71ff. See also W. C. Neale and M. Kneale, Storia della logica, Turin 1972, pp. 28–9.

[5] E. Cassirer, Storia della filosofia moderna, Turin 1955, vol. 3, p. 389.

[6] N. Hartmann, La filosofia dell’ idealismo tedesco, Milan 1972, p. 427.

[7] Ibid., p. 381.

[8] Karl Marx, Early Writings, introduced by Lucio Colletti, Penguin/nlr 1975, p. 155.

[9] R. Kroner, Von Kant bis Hegel, Tübingen 1924, vol. 2, p. 352, note 1, in his discussion of empirical oppositions, makes some enlightening comments; he stresses how empirical opposites exclude each other, do not complement one another, and so on.

[10] I. Kant, Scritti precritici, Bari 1953, p. 263.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 264.

[13] Ibid., p. 268.

[14] Ibid., p. 255.

[15] Ibid., p. 267–8.


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[17] Ibid., p. 261. The treatment given by Kant’s interpreters to his distinction between logical and real oppositions is generally most inadequate, not only in relation to his pre-critical writings, but to the Critique of Pure Reason as well. See, for example, N. Kemp Smith, A Commentary to Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, 2nd edition, New York 1962, pp. 421–3. On the other hand there are some useful comments to be found in Cassirer, Kants Leben und Lehre, Berlin 1918 and now Darmstadt 1972, p. 77–8.

[18] V. I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, in Collected Works, vol. 38. Moscow 1958, pp. 357.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Mao Tse-tung, Selected Works, Peking 1967, vol. 1, p. 317.

[21] K. Korsch, Dialettica e scienza nel marxismo, Bari 1974, pp. 31–2.

[22] C. Luporini, Spazio e materia in Kant, Florence 1961, p. 59.

[23] Ibid., p. 74.

[24] Ibid., p. 116.

[25] Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812, English translation by W. H. Johnstone and L. G. Struthers, Science of Logic, London 1929. vol. 1, p. 168.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Kroner, Von Kant bis Hegel, op. cit., vol. II, p. 360.

[28] F. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, London 1940.

[29] Ibid., p. 160.

[30] Ibid., p. 227.

[31] A. Tarski, ‘The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages’, in Tarski, Logic, Semantics and Meta-Mathematics, Oxford 1956, p. 152.

[32] There are copious references to this discussion in N. Merker, Le origini della logica hegeliana, Milan 1961, pp. 120, 358–60, and passim.

[33] W. Harich in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 1953, no. 1, p. 205.

[34] Paul F. Linke in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 1953, no. 2, p. 358. The statement that reality is non-contradictory and, therefore, that there do not exist contradictions in reality, is accompanied of course by the acknowledgment that in reality there do exist conflicts and real oppositions.

[35] Ibid., p. 359.

[36] Ibid.

[37] K. Ajdukiewicz, Abriss der Logik, Berlin 1958, pp. 79–80.

[38] G. Klaus, Einführung in die formale Logik, Berlin 1959, p. 50.

[39] Ibid., pp. 52–3.

[40] Lenin, ‘What the “Friends of the People” are’, Collected Works, vol. 1, p. 146.

[41] E. H. Carr. What is History?, London 1961, pp. 58, 60.

[42] This aspect of my research has been taken up and developed by C. Napoleoni in his introduction to the 1970 Turin edition of P. M. Sweezy, The Theory of capitalist Development, London 1946, as well as in his important Lezioni sul capitolo sesto inedito di Marx (‘Lectures on Marx’s Unpublished Sixth Chapter’), Turin 1972. A complete exposition of this whole theoretical domain is contained in the introduction by Cristina Pennavaja to C. Napoleoni, Ricardo und Marx, Frankfurt 1974, pp. 20–6.

[43] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, London 1972, Part III, p. 453.

[44] Ibid., p. 461.

[45] Ibid., p. 456.

[46] Ibid., p. 476.

[47] M. H. Dobb, in an Italian anthology of Dobb, Lange, Lerner, Teoria economica e economia socialista, Milan 1972, pp. 49–50.

[48] Karl Marx, Capital, London 1972, vol. 3, Part III, p. 259.

[49] Ricardo, quoted by Marx in Theories of Surplus-Value, Part II, p. 493: ‘M. Say has . . . most satisfactorily shewn, that there is no amount of capital which may not be employed in a country, because demand is only limited by production. No man produces, but with a view to consume or sell, and he never sells, but with an intention to purchase some other commodity . . . . By producing, then, he necessarily becomes either the consumer of his own goods, or the purchaser and consumer of the goods of some other person.’ (Translator’s note.)

[50] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, p. 115.

[51] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part II, p. 509.

[52] Ibid., p. 508.

[53] Hegel, Science of Logic, vol. 2, ‘Observation on Contradiction’, p. 66.

[54] Ibid., p. 66.

[55] But they do in Lenin’s view. See Philosophical Notebooks, where he calmly states that ‘the dialectic of bourgeois society is in Marx’s view only a particular case of the dialectic in general’.

[56] Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, Part I, p. 409.

[57] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin/nlr, London 1973, p. 489.

[58] Ibid., p. 496.

[59] Ibid., p. 503.

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