The Old Hegelian Dialectic and the New Materialistic Science – Karl Korsch


International Council Correspondence, Vol. III (1937), No 9-10 (October)

On the meaning and import of the explanations furnished by Marx and Engels concerning the relation between their new materialistic science and the traditional hegelian dialectic, even among the Marxists themselves there still, today, prevails a large degree of unclarity. Not infrequently we find one and the same Marxist at different times and on different occasions taking a quite different position. “Marx and Engels themselves understood by the dialectical method – in contrast to the metaphysical – nothing other than the scientific method in sociology; a method consisting in this, that society is regarded as a living orgnaism in constant process of development and the study of which requires an objective analysis of the productive relations in which a determinate social formation is embodied and investigation of the laws of its functioning and development.”

Such are the definits words in which, for example, the youthful Lenin – who, in his later period, on the question of the hegelian dialectic and its materialistic application at the hands of Marx and Engels, had a much more affirmative attitude – expressed himself on the relation of Marx and Engels to the philosophical dialectic of Hegel, in a recently unearthed pamphlet dating from the year 1894. He has expressly added that the occasionally noticeable adherence in Marx and Engels to the dialectic “represents nothing more than a vestige of that Hegelianism from which scientific socialism has sprung; a vestige of its manner of expression”, that the examples occurring in Marx and Engels of “dialectical” processes represent merely a reference to the origin of the doctrine, nothing more, and that it is “senseless to accuse Marxism of employing the hegelian dialectic.”

In reality – as I have set forth more fully in the introduction to my new edition of “Capital” – the method employed by Marx in “Capital” stands in a much closer relation, if not to the philosophically mystified hull, certainly to the rational kernel of the dialectical method of the philosopher Hegel. In however strictly empirical fashion of the scientific investigator Marx has taken up the full concrete reality of the economico-social and historical circumstances, no less schematically abstract and unreal appear at first glance, to the reader who has not yet passed thru the stringent school of marxian science, those extremely simple concepts: commodity, value, value form, in which the full concrete reality of the whole being and becoming – rise, development and decline – of the whole present-day mode of production and social order is supposed to be contained in germinal form from the very beginning and actually is so contained, tho for ordinary eyes hardly or not at all recognizable.

This is particularly true of the concept of “value”. As is well known, this concept and expression were not invented by Marx; he found them ready to hand in the classical bourgeois economics, especially in Smith and Ricardo. Marx has criticized the concept and applied it in incomparably more realistic mannerthan did the classical economists to the acutally given and developing reality. To a far greater degree even than in Ricardo, precisely in Marx is the acutal historico-social reality of those relations which he expresses with this concept an indubitable, palpable fact. “The poor fellow fails to see”, writes Marx in a letter dating from 1868 with regard to a critic of his concept of value, “that even if my book contained not a single chapter on value, the analysis I give of the actual relations would contain the proof and the demonstration of the real value relation. The twaddle about the necessity of proving the value concept rests only upon the most complete ignorance both of the matter in question and of the method of science. That any nation which ceases to work, I will not say for a year, but for a few weeks, would dis of hunger, is known to every child. He also knows that the masses of products corresponding to the different needs demand different quantitatively determinate masses of the total social labor. That this necessity for the division of social labor in determinate proportions can absolutely not be done away with by reason of the determinate form of social production, but can only change its manner of appearance is obvious. Natural laws cannot be done away with at all. What can be changed in historically different conditions is only the form in which these laws operate. And the form in which this proportional division of labor operates, in a state of society in which the coherence of social labor asserts itself as private exchange of the individual labor products, is nothing other than the exchange value of those products.”

But now compare with what the first three chapters of “Capital” as they present themselves to one who still knows nothing of all these realistic “backgrounds” of the author. Here we have at first, to be sure, a few concepts actually taken up out of the “phenomenal world”; that is, out of the experiential facts of the capitalist mode of production; among others, the quantitative relation appearing in the exchange of various kinds of “use values”, or the “exchange value”. This accidental exchange relation between use values, which here still bears a trace of empiricism, is then, however, forthwith replaced by a new something, won thru abstraction from the use values of the commodities and which only appears in this “exchange relation” of the commodities or in their exchange value. It is this “imminent” or inner “value”, won thru disregard of the phenomenal world, that then form the conceptual starting-point for all the succeeding deductions of “Capital”.

The very first basic clarification of the connection between “value” and “labor” takes place only upon this concept of “imminent value”. It is not until we follow the further course of the investigation that we are led back to “exchange value”, now defined as “value form”; and it is not until the reader has worked his way thru Marx’s masterly development of the value form of the commodity to the money form that he is permitted, in that resplendent discourse on the “fetishistic character of the commodity“, to get a glimpse of the unveiled secret and to learn what in reality is concealed behind “exchange value” and the accompanying “value”. He learns that this “value” of the commodity does not, like the body of the commodity and the bodies of the commodity owners, express something physically real, nor, like use value, a mere relation between a present or produced object and a human need, but rather reveals itself as a “relation between persons which is concealed beneath a material casing“, a relation which belongs to a determinate historical mode of production and social formation, but to all earlier historical periods, modes of production and social formations was completely unknows in this “materially disguised” form, and for future modes of production and social organizations, no longer resting upon commodity production, will once more become quite superfluous. Like Robinson Crusoe on his island, so also the future free socialist society “will not need to express the simple fact that 100 square yards of cloth have required, say, 1000 hours of labor for their production in the squint-eyed and senseless manner to the effect that they are worth 1000 hours of labor. To be sure, then also society will have to know how much labor each useful object required for its production. It will have to establish the production plan in accordance with the means of production, to which belong in particular also the labor powers. The useful effects of the different use objects, balanced among each other and with respect to the quantities of labor required for this manufacture, will finally be determining for the plan. The producers will manage everything very simply, without the intervention of the much celebrated “value”. These statements of Friedrich Engels, formulated later in popular and illuminating manner on the scientific basis of Marx’s “Capital”, contain the whole secret of value form, of exchange value and of “value”.

Nevertheless it would be over-hasty, merely because of these at first glance superfluous circumstantialities of the dialectical manner of presentation, completely to throw away the whole marxist dialectical method as a mere artifice and, say, as was once done a number of years ago by Trotsky, to bring up the ticklish question as to whether in the end-it would not have been better if “the creator of the theory of surplus value had not been the unviersally educated doctor of philosophy Marx, but the turner Bebel who, ascetically economical in living and in thinking, with his understanding as sharp as a knife, would have clothed it in a simpler, more popular and more one-sided form?”

The real difference between the dialectical method of “Capital” and the other methods prevailing in economic science down to the present time does not by any means lie, as that question seems to presuppose, exclusively or mainly in the field of the scientific (or artistic) form of the thought development and presentation. The dialectical method employed by Marx is rather also in its contentual outcome most highly in keeping with a science directed not to the maintenance and further development, but to the militant undermining and revolutionary overthrow of the present capitalistic economic and social order. It does not permit the reader of “Capital” to relax for a single moment in contemplation of the directly manifest realities and connections between them, but points everywhere to the inner unrest in everything existing. In short, it reveals itself with respect to all other methods of historical and social investigation extremely superior in the fact that “while supplying a positive understanding of the existing state of things, it furnishes at the same time and understanding of its negation, of its necessary decline; regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, as transient; and let nothing overawe it, but is in its very nature critical and revolutionary”.

It is precisely upon this stringent method, never deviating from the once chosen basis, and assuming nothing untested in advance from the superficial and prejudiceladen universal “experience”, that the whole formal superiority of the marxian science rests. Once this feature is quite struck out of “Capital”, one arrives in actuality at the standpoint, quite divested of scientificality, of that “vulgar economics” so bitterly ridiculed by Marx and which, in matters of theory, continually “relies upon appearances as against the law of their manifestation”, and practically in the end merely defends the interests of that class which in the momentary directly given reality, as it is, feels safe and satisfied without knowing or caring to know that to this reality there also belongs, as a deeper-lying, harder to grasp but no less real datum, its continuous alteration, rise and development, the decline of its present forms and the transition to future new forms of existence, and the law of all these changes and developments.

All this is not to assert, however, that such real, comprehensive and profound scientific recognition as has resulted for Marx from his genial application of the dialectic taken over from Hegel is possible still today and for all future time only thru and unmodified preservation of this “dialectical” method. By the side of the great advantages which it presents and which have just been indicated, the dialectic reveals, not only in its hegelian “mystified” form (as so-called “idealist dialectic!”), but also equally in its marxistically “rational” transformation (as so-called “materialistically turned-right-side-up dialectic!”), certain other features which are not wholly in harmony with revolutionarily progressive, anti-metaphysical and strictly experimental-scientific main tendencies of marxian investigation. Consider, especially, the peculiar manner in which Marx thruout “Capital”, as also in his other workds, make use of the “dialectical” concept of “contradiction“; hence, say, the rather frequently occurring remark that any “contradiction” which turns up in connection with and expounded concept or law or formula – for example, the concept of “variable capital” – in reality is no argument against the use of this concept, but rather is merely an expression of “a contradiction inherent in capitalist production”. In very many cases, however, a closer analysis shows – and it has been stated also by Marx himself in connection with this very example of “variable capital” – that the alleged contradiction is in fact non-existent, but is merely made to appear as such by way of a symbolically abbreviated, or for other reasons, unintelligible manner of expression. In those cases, however, where such a simple setting aside of the contradiction is not possible, anyone who objects to this talk of contradiction in a conceptual deductive sequence presenting itself as strictly scientific will have to comfort himself for the moment, with respect to such features of the marxian dialectical method, with Goethe’s sentiment regarding similes (already brought to mind by Mehring in his interesting study of Marx’s style), which the poet justifies on the ground that he could not otherwise explain himself:

“Gleichnisse duerft ihr nicht verwehren,
Ich wuesste mich sonst nicht zu erklaeren.”

In point of fact, the “dialectical” artifice employed by Marx in many important passages of his work, and by which the contrasts between actual social being and the consciousness of its carriers, the relation between a deeper-lying main tendency of an historical development and the counter-tendencies by which it is at first compensated or even over-compensated, and even the actual conflicts of the mutually contending social classes are represented as so many “contradictions” – that artifice has in all cases the character and the value of a simile, and certainly not a banal simile but one by which profound relationships are illuminated.

Quite the same thing holds of the other (occurring in “Capital” less frequently, but at decisively important places) dialectical conept of the “conversion” of quantity into quality, or of a concept, a thing or a relation into its (dialectical) opposite. The logically and empirically unobjectionable clarification, sharpening and further development of these and a great many other concepts employed in the dialectic to the present time without being thoroly tested and frequently only as slogans is and indispensable condition that the contemporary socialist theory stemming from Marx shall not degenerate to an unclear mixture of backward pseudo-science, mythology and in the last analysis reactionary ideology, but shall remain as well equipped in the future for fulfilling its great progressive task in the revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat as it actually was in the times of Marx and Engels thru forming a critical connection with the then highest achievements of bourgeois philosophy and science.

All transcriptions were done by Felipe Andrade. Did you find any mistakes? Suggestions? Send e-mail to:
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