Sunday, August 8, 2010

The dialectical structure of capitalism

That hiatus was longer than I planned, but I'm back...

So far, I have suggested that one can think of the dialectic as a structure, where a system changes as a result of the interaction of opposing tendencies it contains, a structure which, though not universal, is common, and which in particular may be characteristic of capitalism. Here, I'll examine the claim in that last clause and try to remove the hesitant "may be".

Why and how might dialectical forms be characteristic of capitalism?

Let's start with how. There are a number of phenomena in capitalism described by Marxists as "contradictions". Some of the more important:
  • Goods and services are produced socially, by the cooperation of vast numbers of people in a complex, organized division of labor, but consumed privately, without any planned allocation and according to no principle of human need. Social production gives society the infrastructure for social consumption but our rulers struggle to ensure that it is not so utilized.
  • Everything that is produced has two kinds of value, an exchange value and a use value. Exchange value requires some sort of use value. But things which people desperately need, such as medicine, sometimes do not have a high enough exchange value to be produced, while things with a high exchange value, say oil, may have a negative social use value.
  • Capitalism leads to a great increase in humanity's productive capabilities. But this creates the possibility of crises of over-production, where there are too many goods to be sold. This, in turn, halts production, and destroys productive capabilities.
  • Capital accumulation is necessary for capitalists to compete, and maintain their profits. But labor is the source of their profits. As they accumulate capital, the proportion of their investment which goes to labor decreases. In the context of competition, this ultimately decreases their profit rate.[1]
  • Capitalism increases humanity's control over our environment, with the advancement of technology and the accumulation of resources. This creates the possibility of greater material freedom. But in fact, under capitalism, society itself confronts each person as something external and impersonal, a set of "forces that arise from [our] relations with each other and which have escaped [our] control",[2] and which rule our lives.
  • Capitalism creates the modern working class, which has an objective interest in destroying the system which gave it birth; thus Marx calls the proletariat capitalism's "gravediggers".
  • The working class has a tendency, according to its own objective interests, and driven by the class struggle, towards socialist ideas and action. But it is also pushed, given the way that its members, if unorganized, compete against one another for jobs, housing, and so on, and given capitalist ownership of the means of communication, towards reactionary ideas.
  • In the realm of ideology, by developing science, by destroying feudalism and its mystified social bonds, by giving everything a calculable monetary value, capitalism encourages a materialistic view of the world, albeit a mechanistic one. But at the same time, by creating an independent intelligentsia, by putting ideological production in the hands of a distinct, privileged class, it encourages an idealistic view of the world, which sees ideas operating according to their own independent logic and driving history. (Lukacs describes these tendencies as the "antinomies of bourgeois thought".)
That's a lot of bullet points. But in fact, these aren't really separate critiques, theses which might stand and fall with complete independence. The difference between exchange value and use value requires a difference between social production and private consumption. In turn it leads to the tendency to economic crisis. The ideological struggle within the working class is predicated on its anti-capitalist class interest, which in turn is predicated on the fact that capitalism can't provide for everyone. And so on.

Nor can we say definitively that one of these points is the most fundamental, and the rest derivative. You can't define classes independently of labor and capital, or vice versa. To give any concrete content to the most general assertions about the relationship of humanity to nature, or society to production and consumption, you need to say something more specific about social relations, which means class relations.

But then how do we understand the relationship between these different theses?

The way suggested by the dialectical idea of the "moment", a way which I think is correct, is to see these points as expressing different aspects of a single system, one which can only be fully understood as a whole, and which has a single causal history, but one which can be approached from many different directions, any of which may be necessary in a given context.

From this perspective, it is in a way a mistake to ask why capitalism has a structure which we can call dialectical. There is no answer short of an analysis of its whole history and internal logic as a developing process. But it does.

So. If the Marxist analysis of capitalism is correct, we have at least a minimal validation of dialectics, within a certain field. But it is not yet a complete validation, because from what we have said, we still don't have a reason to use a dialectical method.

Why focus on the dialectical structure of capitalism, rather than other aspects? What's interesting in dialectical forms, abstracted from the context of capitalism? Why should the dialectic be an independent field of study - if it is validated by, and valid only within, its appearance in capitalism? What's the relationship between a commitment to overthrow capitalism and the use of dialectics in analysis?

[1] That's a very quick sketch. Here's a much longer version.
[2] Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, p. 14.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

May 1968 in France

(This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave for a small study group.)

1968 was a year of upheaval around the globe. In the United States, it was a high point of the antiwar movement and the Black liberation movement. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front launched the Tet Offensive. Workers and students in Prague faced Soviet tanks. There were violent struggles across the underdeveloped and colonial world and popular movements - facing sometimes violent repression - around the developed world. Masses of rebelling students were beaten in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention, and shot in Mexico City.

But in France, though things started with students battling cops, they did not end there. In France, more than anywhere else in the developed world, the fight spread to the working class and really shook the foundations of capitalism.

My talk has two parts. First I will describe the events in France that year, then I will talk a little about the lessons we can learn.

Most of this talk is drawn from Daniel Singer's fantastic book, Prelude to Revolution. There is also some good stuff written by the British socialist Ian Birchall, for example here with Tony Cliff, and a chapter of the book Revolutionary Rehearsals.

As Singer describes them, the events of May 1968 "started at Nanterre, a campus in the western suburbs of Paris."

"Because leftist students wanted to stage an anti-imperialist rally... and because fascist students threatened to attack them, the Dean chose to close the [school]. A few hundred left activists then met at the Sorbonne, in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

Since they feared an attack, they had crash helmets and sticks. The rector made the not unprecedented but very rare decision to call the police into the Sorbonne. Was there a deal that the students would be allowed to leave free? In any case, they were not. As they were leaving, the student activists were picked up by the gendarmes and thrown into Black Marias...

And then the unexpected happened. As the so-called ringleaders were arrested, students flocked to the Sorbonne from all over the Latin Quarter. They did not sign a petition. They did not write a letter to Le Monde. Chanting "free our comrades" they attacked the police.

Surprised, the latter responded with violence. But they had to deal with an adversary that was mobile, inventive, and knew its terrain. Shells, truncheons, and grenades on one side, cobblestones and... barricade[s] on the other..."

So. The first confrontation at the Sorbonne occurred on Friday, May 3. Battles interspersed with peaceful mass demonstrations continued for a week, growing each day. But by the next Friday, May 10th, the development had reached its limits as a movement of students, teachers, and intellectuals. The students controlled the Latin Quarter. But they could not take any more ground. And at 2:15am Saturday morning, the riot police moved in en masse. Singer again:

"The outcome of the confrontation was never in doubt, though it took nearly four hours to bring down all the barricades. There followed some mopping up with maddened policemen barging into private homes to beat up young men and women seeking shelter. At dawn... defeated prisoners [were] being pushed into vans by the angry victors.

Only the image was deceptive. The vanquished were the real winners... Having listened to the drama overnight, France woke up overwhelmingly in favor of the battered students..."

... and the battered neighbors and passersby. Back to me.

On Monday, May 13th, there was a massive demonstration on the streets of Paris. Called by student organizations and the labor unions of France, it brought out more than million people. This made obvious a transition which had already begun, and weaknesses in the foundation of the French regime of General De Gaulle became apparent.

Charles De Gaulle had become president in 1958 amidst a crisis of French colonialism, by means a semi-coup, with support from the military and the Algerian settlers, though also with the acquiescence of most of the existing political establishment, aside from the Communists and far left. He governed semi-autocratically while allowing basic civil liberties and a weak parliament, legitimizing his policies with a series of referenda. As a war hero he was a gigantic figure, seeming politically invincible.

In the face of this, Singer writes:

"The pampered students... had just shown that one could fight back, that the mighty state could be forced to yield. The demonstrations took place all over France and the message was not wasted on the workers.

On Tuesday, May 14, young workers occupied [an] aircraft company... near Nantes. The day after it was the turn of the Renault car works in Normandy. By Thursday the labor unions were telling their members to join the movement. The biggest of the labor confederations, the Communist-dominated CGT, urged its militants to both spread the movement and keep it carefully within economic channels, to confine it to bread and butter issues.

By then the tide was spreading fast. Within a week it covered the whole of France. After the car industry, engineering, and chemicals, it was the turn of transport, of the mines, of public utilities (though on purpose they didn't cut off the gas and electricity). In the second week, it was the turn of big department stores, of small plants following the big ones. It was the turn of the professional[s]... of teachers, researchers, writers, actors, doctors, architects.

By the end of that week, with about 10 million people, half the labor force, on strike, the country was paralyzed and the mood was one of extraordinary excitement, of frenzy."

You can get a sense of this mood - my words again - by remembering some of the popular slogans. There was a sense of a sudden, dramatic opening: "Be realistic, demand the impossible." There was a sense of utopian possibility lying within everyday life, within reach if you fought for it: "Under the paving stones, the beach." Soccer players went on strike, and so did technicians at the country's main nuclear research facility. There is evidence of a mutiny on an aircraft carrier, though it was successfully kept quiet.

And yet, the general strike was essentially as far as things went. General De Gaulle fled for a day to an air force base in Germany. But government did not collapse, and no one acted to take power. The far-left organizations, anarchist, Trotskyist, and Maoist, though extremely influential within the universities, did not have a wide enough social base to even consider seizing power. On the other hand, the social democrats and even the Communist Party did not want to seize power.

France's Communist Party was the leading political force within the working class at that time. It had gained influence in the struggles of the '30s, and though already thoroughly Stalinized, it won wide respect with a heroic record of resistance to the Nazi occupation. It reached the peak of its membership after the Second World War. By the '60s, however, it was accustomed to operating primarily within the parliament and the conventional industrial union organizations, and its leadership was an entrenched bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was firmly against any attempt to convert the May crisis into a revolution, deriding revolutionaries as childish adventurists.

Now, it's probably true that France was not ripe for an immediate socialist revolution. But the conservative Gaullists had completely lost control in the face of the largest general strike in the history of the developed world. It seems very likely that the Communists could have pushed De Gaulle out and established a transitional government in coalition with the social democrats and the radical left.

But the "transitional" nature of such a government was precisely what frightened them. It might, conceivably, have been transitional to a social revolution (in that sense, like Kerensky's government in the first stage of the Russian revolution). And in such a transition the old-line Communists might have lost control to the real far left, and destabilized the world situation to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. Ultimately they preferred the stability of a return to capitalist business as usual.

So. The Communist-dominated CGT union leadership reached an agreement with De Gaulle for a substantial increase in wages and many other gains on May 25. They brought this to the striking factories – and it was immediately rejected by the strikers. The workers were feeling their power and did not want to settle for improvements to the existing system, even substantial ones. But after the "no" votes, there was no clear path forward.

(You can see here an analogy to much smaller-scale events in the United States - when New York City transit workers initially refused to end a strike with a concessionary contract in 2005, or when last year Chrysler workers voted down massive concessions. In both cases the concessions were ultimately rammed through, even though the workers were ready to fight, because there was no one in a position to organize for anything else.)

On May 30, conservative Gaullists staged their own massive demonstration in Paris, only slightly smaller than the biggest demonstration of workers and students. Their social power did not even match their inferior numbers, of course - all the centers of production in France were shut down, and a coalition dominated by the upper classes and petty businesspeople, mixing an incoherent stew of pro-American liberals, rural conservatives and "Algeria is France" fascists and anti-semites, could not end the general strike.

But the demonstration gave De Gaulle occasion to return to the country and proclaim new elections for the end of June, which the Communists and - of course everyone to their right - accepted as "victory". The strike thereafter petered out, winning wage concessions, but no structural change. And without the strike, the students had no revolutionary power.

With the achievement of an alternative society apparently proved a futile dream, a reaction against the therefore-apparently-useless chaos set in. The Gaullists won the parliamentary elections, not by a gigantic margin but decisively. Their apparent return was itself an illusion; they had obviously outlived their usefulness to the French ruling class, and within a year they were gone forever. But the survival of capitalism was not an illusion.

The Communists' influence waned over the next two decades, while the social democrats came to power but moved to the right in the '80s. France was rocked by general strikes in 1995 and again in 2005 and -6. But it has not again come so close to revolutionary change as in '68.

That's what happened. What do we learn from this?

One obvious thing is that Western capitalist democracies aren't as stable as they look, and workers in the west are not somehow irredeemably "bought off". System-shaking struggles can happen here too.

What's more, change can come fast, surprising everyone – not just consciously capitalist media like The Economist, which published an article in early '68 lauding French prosperity and the country's "pathetically weak" labor movement. Even the Socialist Register published an article around the same time, by a French Marxist, declaring that "in the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes." We shouldn't make the same mistake, of expecting that things will always continue linearly on the current path.

Another key question is the relationship between students' and workers' struggle. What are the limits of student power, and what is the role of students in organizing the working class into the kind of force that can really change society?

Many students in France in 1968 recognized the key role of the working class. They recognized the need not only to "involve" workers, to build coalitions, but to have a movement led by workers and built on their social power. On May 16 a group of students symbolically marched to a striking factory carrying a banner reading, "The workers will take from the fragile hands of the students the flag of the struggle against the anti-popular regime." On this basic idea, Maoists, Trotskyists, and anarchists were all in agreement, at least in the abstract.

Singer notes a funny idea in the media, which you can actually see echoed today in reporting on the struggle against budget cuts in California:

"Only the students had the right to rebel... Whenever men not in their early twenties or youngsters visibly not with an academic background were discovered in the fighting crowd, the immediate reaction was to speak of the mob and subversion. The implicit logic was that students had the right to lose heroically in splendid isolation as long as they did not upset the wider social order. Naturally, the students did not share this view."

There were major tactical disagreements, of course. In the early stages, some argued for abandoning the Sorbonne to the cops in order to march to the working-class suburbs. On Friday, May 10, the day of the biggest battle, a group of orthodox Trotskyists in a group called the FER decided to abandon the barricades. Fortunately, most socialists and other radicals did not act so mechanically.

Others argued that the key task was to organize factory committees and have them elect regional and national strike leaderships. This was good in theory but very difficult for students to put into practice.

The perspective that went furthest in being carried out was to build "action committees" uniting workers and students on a local basis for communication, propaganda, logistical organizing, and so on.

There were also larger strategic disagreements, the most important being whether or not to build a revolutionary party. Though it did not prevent tactical cooperation, this question was crucial in the larger perspective, and I'll come back to it.

In spite of all differences, there was a basic agreement among student radicals on the need to bring the working class into the struggle. But this faced its own opposition, not only from conservatives but also from the Communist Party, which felt that students were treading on its turf. Already on May 3, the party paper published an article noting that "more and more, [the students] are to be found outside factory gates or in centers of immigrant workers, distributing leaflets and other means of propaganda." But rather than praising this, the writer accused the students of "pretending to give lessons to the labor movement."

Nevertheless, workers were often receptive, especially the younger generation. The students did not only gather at the factory gates, they cooperated in all kinds of day-to-day organizing on action committees. And workers came to the "liberated" universities to find a space to learn and debate politics. The occupied Sorbonne was a place of 24-hour political ferment. Rank and file workers turned out in massive numbers for the May 13th demonstration, led by the students and initiated in response to police brutality against them. And from the demonstration, many went home to argue with their coworkers for a strike.

And all this solidarity occurred in a country with a substantially larger divide between students and workers than the US today: fewer young people went to college (only 12% of the population); many fewer of those who did worked at the same time; about half of students had a parent who was a business owner, manager, or independent professional; and a college education, though no ticket to wealth, was a better guarantee of a comfortable life than it is for people coming out of most colleges in the US today.

Students are not a class, like workers or capitalists. In general, their class has not yet been determined - they have a class background, but this is not the same thing as a class role, a relationship to the means of production. They do not have the power that workers do. However, as Cliff and Birchall write:

Being outside production is a source of weakness, but it is also a cause for quick advance, as it is so much easier for the students to move into action. If a small minority of the university community wants to act on an issue, it can go ahead and do so... The situation of a militant minority in the factory is radically different. It cannot act – by strike action or occupation of the factory – unless the overwhelming majority of all the workers employed are carried along...

Hence the temperature bringing students into combustion is incomparably lower than the one necessary to inflame the workers. But unfortunately the lifespan of their fire is also shorter.

Of course, this picture is complicated in the United States today by the large number of students who also work part-time or full-time jobs.

In any case, in France in '68, the students were the spark for the strike. They played this role mainly just by providing an example that you can fight and win, and suggesting the possibility of a better world. But they could not have served as an example without consistently taking up workers demands as their own, without reaching out in an active attempt at unity.

However, the spark was a limited role. And the limits proved crippling. The far left was isolated from the working class, with the exception of a few factories where Trotskyists had a base. They could not offer an alternative to the Communist Party & reformist line at a national level.

The official strike committees were mostly appointed by union bureaucrats, and so, though to some extent they had to represent the rank and file, they were not going to become a rival to the bureaucracy. The less formal action committees, which were open to students and non-union workers and often more radical, did not, generally, replace the strike committees – often instead forming a sort of division of labor, organizing activity outside the workplace. What's more – though relatedly – the action committees did not have any national structure, partly because of scarce time and resources, and partly because many participants extended a hostility to bureaucracy into a hostility to any kind of centralized or representative organization.

As the strike peaked at the beginning of June and production began to restart at the first workplaces, there was no one in a position to systematically spread news of the workers who were determined to continue the strike until “total victory”, as one factory resolution put it. While the union leadership bargained with the Gaullists, there was no one to put forward a coherent alternative set of demands, and no way to vote on proposed options, except in local elections, which were usually initiated by employers or bureaucrats wanting to end the strike. It was impossible for revolutionaries to put together a united front on a principled basis without some mechanism for making a decision and sticking to it in a disciplined fashion; people were left to either stick to abstract revolutionary demands that they couldn't put into practice alone, or accept whatever compromise they could obtain locally.

The basic issue was the lack of a revolutionary party containing a substantial section – a “vanguard” - of the working class. If there had been a party like the Bolsheviks in France in 1968, there might have been a revolution.

But this would have required a whole different prior history. What could have been accomplished by a left with a mostly student base?

Mistakes were made, of course. There was a current of ultra-leftism, with a hostility to organization and concrete demands. There was disunity, with revolutionaries fragmented into three major Trotskyist groups, several Maoist groups, and various anarchist formations. If these more subjective problems had been overcome, maybe the action committees would have been stronger, maybe a national strategy would have emerged. At the very least, in the absence of a revolution, a better foundation for future struggles could have been laid.

But rather than quibbling, with the benefit of hindsight, over the mistakes of people who made history despite difficult circumstances, we should remember what they showed possible – the spread of a student struggle from one university to the largest general strike in history, in a rich Western country. And we should try to make sure that, the next time such possibilities open up, socialists are in a position to prevent the struggle from ebbing away into reaction, and instead take it forward to its logical conclusion, a better world.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The dialectic as a form

Let's consider a view of the dialectic as a form, or family of forms, which processes can take.

Hegel was vehemently opposed to any categorical separation of form and content[1]. But this was one thing pushing him towards idealism, via the proposition that thought must be its own subject. So Marxists have rightly allowed some space here where Hegel saw none. John Rees quotes Lenin as favoring the "unity of knowing and being" over Hegel's "identity of knowing and being" for this reason.[2] Form is ultimately dependent on content, "in substance and in structure",[3] but it can be analytically isolated. Interpreting the dialectic as an abstract form rather than a property of the world adds a certain separation, but it does not entail any sort of dualism of substance, so I think we are still on safe ground.

So let us continue. The first thing we have to do is distinguish two meanings of "form" - form as appearance, as the guise in which something shows itself to us, and form as pattern, as a real structure that things can be found to have. The position we are considering here is that the dialectic is the latter, a pattern - but the two are related, and we will come back to form-as-appearance later.

Bertell Ollman provides a clear definition of the "negation of the negation" as an instance of this sort of pattern: "the process by which the most recent phase in a development that has gone through at least three phases will display important similarities with what existed in the phase before last."[4]

This shows a strength of this interpretation of dialectics: it is readily apparent, finally, what saying a process is an instance of a dialectical pattern, in this case the negation of the negation, does and does not imply. Compare with "positive feedback", a pattern of a similar type - an example of which is the tendency of global warming to melt snow and therefore reduce the Earth's albedo and increase the amount of sunlight it absorbs. Just as once we find a positive feedback, we can say that a system will tend towards instability, with small changes being amplified, once we find a "negation of the negation", we can say that a process will tend towards recurring cycles. For example, the tendency of capitalist accumulation to lead to a crisis of over-production, a first "negation", which will then destroy accumulated value and create the conditions for a new boom, a second "negation", leads to repeated booms and busts.

These inferences, from "positive feedback" to instability and from "negation of the negation" to cyclicity, are legitimate, but they are neither scientific laws nor alternatives to empirical study. In neither case does the conclusion give us any certainties; there may be counter-tendencies, or longer-term processes which erode the foundations of the system. But that is to be expected of a concept so general, and is acceptable, if we know what positive content it does have.

On the other hand, Ollman's definition also highlights a real weakness of the view of dialectics as a set of forms: a lack of obvious importance. The applicability of the negation of the negation so interpreted, to processes with three or more phases etc., is relatively narrow. If dialectics was a revolution in logic, in the basic tools of thought, then it would be obvious why it was worth studying. But if it is a mere collection of general patterns, what is the advantage of using or even speaking of a distinct dialectical method?

Consider the definition we have already cited of contradiction, as "the incompatible development of different elements within the same relation".[5] Or Ollman's definition of the unity of opposites (which, perhaps wrongly, he distinguishes from contradiction): "the process by which a radical change in the conditions surrounding two or more elements... produces a striking alteration... in their relations".[6]

There does not appear to be any intrinsic relationship between these concepts, considered as forms. If we find an instance of the negation of the negation, we cannot thereby deduce the existence of a contradiction in the same process, absent the "law" we have already rejected that change itself requires contradiction. And vice versa; if we find a contradiction in a system, that does not automatically mean that the system's equilibrium will fall apart of its own accord, let alone that such a negation will in turn be negated.

Moreover, in finding a pattern in some process which has a dialectical form, we are at the same time choosing a mode of appearance of that process to consider. The two meanings of "form" we discussed are bound together. Since the patterns we are looking for are abstract and apply across different domains, and so cannot be given any precise material criteria, they only appear when we describe - formulate - a process in a certain way. The material reality of any given situation can be stated without dialectical terminology, just as Earth's decreasing albedo can be described in detail without necessarily seeing it as a positive feedback in a larger process of global warming. We need a reason, if not permission, to use the concepts of dialectics.

Thus, dialectics cannot be simply a catalog of forms and remain valuable. In the absence of laws about all reality which dialectical forms express, we need something more. What's needed is a framework with which to unite these forms as a coherent object of study, to give them importance, and to assure us that they are more than mere forms of appearance, more than aesthetics.

The obvious starting point, as suggested in the previous post, is to say that dialectical patterns are characteristic of capitalism, and essential to understanding its functioning. That would fulfill all three of the requirements just listed. And unlike the idea that studies of nature and capitalism use distinct logical laws, this proposition does not require any strict separation of nature and humanity.

It does, however, leave open questions. The most fundamental is - characteristic why? What makes these forms essential to capitalism; why do we see them again and again? Upon the answer to this question depends the answer to a second question - why study the patterns, not simply the material specifics? What unique explanatory role do dialectical structures play?

[1] Science of Logic, p. 36.
[2]
Algebra of Revolution, p. 274-5.
[3] George Novack, Logic of Marxism, p. 7.
[4]
Dance of the Dialectic, p. 96.
[5] ibid., p. 17.
[6] ibid., p. 96.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The dialectics of nature and capitalism

Most of the examples I've used of processes that appear to follow the laws of dialectics are from society, and more specifically capitalism. Most of the counter-examples I've used against various interpretations of dialectics come from physics or physical processes. Marx, whose "dialectical method" we are trying to investigate, himself wrote mostly on capitalism.

So, one obvious way of responding to problems with a conception of dialectics as the "laws of motion" of all reality is to re-interpret dialectics as the "laws of motion" of history, or just of capitalism. Then we might reject Engels' "Dialectics of Nature", but stop there.

This should be a fundamentally unappealing solution to a materialist, though. It assumes an untenable absolute division between nature and society. Raymond Williams quotes Marx: "One basis for life and another for science is a priori a falsehood."[1]

Even if we wanted to violate that stricture, where would we draw the line? As Bertell Ollman points out, "People have bodies as well as minds and social roles... capital, commodities, money, and the forces of production all have material as well as social aspects."[2] How could we analyze capital and its organic composition without speaking of machinery and the development of technology, or labor and its alienation without speaking of human bodies and their limits?

There is another problem with isolating dialectics as a science of human history. It is that we do, in fact, sometimes see examples in physics, chemistry, and biology which involve no necessary human intervention but nevertheless obey certain dialectical "laws"; examples where contradictory tendencies cause change, where the accumulation of quantitative change leads to a qualitative state transition, etc. Many of Engels' examples in nature - evaporation, Darwinian evolution, the life cycles of plants - do seem to match dialectical patterns, often more clearly than most social processes. If dialectics does not truly apply to the spheres in which we find these examples, what are we to make of them?

Ollman and John Rees offer essentially the same answer to the question of the scope of dialectics: that while the dialectic takes different forms when applied to humans and to non-human nature, it remains, fundamentally, universal. Rees suggests we say that "dialectical development [is] a feature of the natural world as well as the social world without... assert[ing] that the form of the dialectic [is] the same in both cases."[3] Ollman asserts that "movements on each level of generality must be seen as expressions of laws that are specific to that level as well as versions of more general laws."[4]

A first response to this is that if we have already rejected a conception of the dialectic as a set of laws governing all reality, we need to reject it as a set of laws governing history or capitalism, in order to preserve a unity of method corresponding to the unity of the material world. That's simple enough.

But there's something more suggested by Rees' reference to different "forms" of the dialectic, and Ollman's reference to different "levels of generality". What does it mean that the dialectic is the kind of thing that can not merely be expressed differently, but take a different shape itself, in different cases? That it is the kind of thing that can only be fully defined within a given system, and not as a law identically applicable to all cases? That - if earlier posts were right - there are real things, processes and relationships about which dialectics has nothing to say?

I think the correct conclusion to draw here - though neither Rees nor Ollman explicitly draws it, and Rees, at least, would deny it - is that "law" is the wrong concept. When we look at examples of dialectics in action, we do not really see reality obeying a common set of rules or logic. Rather, we see change taking a certain structure, a form which shares a sort of family resemblance with the forms we see change take in many other places. So perhaps the dialectic is not analogous to the theory of relativity, but to the notion of an unstable equilibrium or that of the positive feedback loop, recurring patterns that we see again and again in different fields.

A conception of the dialectic as a family of forms allows us to make sense of the "unity in difference" of human society and non-human nature: a common basic structure which may take different shapes, or be more or less common, depending on the process. And as above, I think it is hard to deny that we see many real phenomena which have some dialectical aspect, so-defined. But this still leaves open questions.

One set of questions revolves around why we see these forms - and why we should care. In rejecting the dialectic-as-law, we have rejected the idea that change is necessarily structured along these lines. But perhaps these forms are characteristic of capitalism? If so, why? Is there a worthwhile approach to inquiry that should lead us to pay special attention to these forms? Or is dialectics good for nothing more than constructing a rather eccentric and abstract catalogue?

Another set of questions starts from an even more skeptical position. Is there really anything substantial in common among all the forms that are grouped together under the name "dialectics"? If we see some dialectical aspects of a situation, does that give us the right to conclude anything further that we do not already know? Or does "the dialectic" not describe any single coherent thing - at least not if interpreted as a structure of change?

Future posts will take up these questions - starting with the latter set.

[1] Marxism and Literature, p. 63.
[2] Dance of the Dialectic, p. 70.
[3] Algebra of Revolution, p. 75.
[4] Dance of the Dialectic, p. 97.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Change and contradiction

When reading about dialectics, one repeatedly hears that change and contradiction are intimately and necessarily connected, even for the simplest forms of change.

For example, Engels writes that "Motion itself is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of position can only come about through a body being at one and the same moment of time both... in one and the same place and also not in it."[1] I don't want to examine this particular physical case too closely, because it is entangled with quantum mechanics (via the quantization of space and time), and this is a whole question in itself.[2] But Engels' statement is nevertheless interesting.

Engels' claim relies on the obviousness of one kind of "contradiction" - that which results from change. A body is in one place; later it is not in that place but in another place. Thus a statement which was once true is no longer true, and we have two true but incompatible statements - a "material contradiction", perhaps? Trotsky finds the same kind of "contradiction" in a pound of sugar: "All bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves."[3]

But this kind of contradiction is trivial and uninteresting. Any change involves an entity or process moving from one state to a different state. We have already rejected the idea that literally everything changes, and Trotsky concedes that even when things do change, if the changes are "negligible for the task at hand", we can ignore them, and speak of coherent, "self-identical" entities.[4] So if this is all there is to the relationship between contradiction and change, talk of "contradiction" adds nothing, and we are left with nothing more than an admonition not to assume that things are static when it is not safe to do so.

Engels' non-trivial claim is that change "can only come about through" a contradiction which already exists, embedded in reality at a given instant. Bertell Ollman puts the same point clearly: "Dialectical thinkers attribute the main responsibility for all change to the inner contradictions of the system or systems in which it occurs."[5] This claim, that change necessarily results from contradiction, is the one that seems like it might have really interesting implications.

To evaluate it, we first need to define "contradiction", or material contradiction specifically, more precisely.

One approach would be to start with the relatively clear definition of a logical contradiction - "a proposition, statement, or phrase that asserts or implies both the truth and falsity of something"[6] - and say that a material contradiction is simply a logical contradiction which is true. This is not promising, for two reasons.

The first is that for any of the examples we have used so far, one can disentangle them so that there is no actual logical contradiction. "Capitalism has both an inherent drive to expand and an inherent tendency to crisis which restricts expansion." "Capitalism both empowers its bourgeois rulers and, ultimately, leaves them helpless before their natural enemies, the working class." We are not actually asserting simultaneously the truth and falsity of any proposition in these rhetorical oppositions - we are merely looking at different aspects of the situation.

The second reason not to claim that logical contradictions can be true is the principle of explosion: from a true contradiction, one can derive anything. (And not in a useful way, contra XKCD.)

For example, say that a pound of sugar is itself, and it is not itself. Then it is itself - that is one half of what we have just asserted. Then either the pound of sugar is itself, or Santa Claus exists - to any true statement, one can add "or [whatever]", and the whole, the disjunction, will remain true. But then let us remember the second half of the original contradiction: the pound of sugar is not itself. With this, we can reject the first half of our disjunction. And since we have shown that the disjunction as a whole is true, that means the second half must be true. In other words, we have just proven that Santa Claus exists.

Suspect a trick? Of course, this reasoning isn't valid. But that's because the premise wasn't valid. Each step thereafter used a rule of propositional logic which we rely on all the time and would be very difficult to do without.[7]

So let's abandon the idea of true logical contradictions and look for another definition of a material contradiction.

We could try to retreat a little, without changing direction, and say that material contradictions occur whenever two statements which are somehow contrary or in tension, without being strictly contradictory, are both true. This, however, is almost as bad an option, because there is no good way to define this kind of propositional tension - it will likely come down in each case to rhetoric, whether English offers a way to phrase the two statements so that they sound contradictory.

A more promising approach, I think, is to view a material contradiction as the existence of opposing forces or tendencies. Ollman gives a good definition of a contradiction along these lines: "The incompatible development of different elements within the same relation."[8] Ollman's phrase "incompatible development" is nice because on the one hand we can use the strict sense of "contradiction" - the outcomes towards which various forces tend are genuinely incompatible, that is, they could not occur simultaneously without logical contradiction - and on the other hand we do not have to claim that a logical contradiction is ever actually true, but rather that contradictory forces must result in a change in the system before the state of logical contradiction is reached.

Let us provisionally accept this definition, then, and go back to our original question: does all change result from this kind of contradiction?

Our definition of contradiction excludes one semi-intuitive rationale for the "change requires contradiction" thesis - the notion that change requires some sort of "lack", or imperfection, in what exists.[9] The idea is that a truly complete and self-consistent reality would necessarily be static - from perfection can flow only constant perfection. But given the idea of contradiction as the existence of incompatible tendencies, there is no need to try to explore and clarify this rationale - a "lack" is not by itself a contradiction.

Losing one possible rationale, however, is not necessarily a problem for the original thesis. So let's consider what it implies.

It is at least plausible that all change requires some sort of pre-existing tendency, or else it would be uncaused. The only counter-example I can think of is if there is true randomness, as in some interpretations of quantum mechanics, but even there we might describe the probability distribution which governs the quantum state as an existing tendency, and so preserve our claim.

It is also plausible that all change occurs within some system. Now, certainly all change within any given system does not necessarily stem from a cause internal to that particular system. If the geologists are right, Earth's ecology in the era of the dinosaurs was transformed from the outside in about as dramatic a way as might be imagined - by the impact of a gigantic meteor. And there are many other similar examples, phenomena for which I like the term "Excession", following Iain Banks. But there is always a larger, enveloping system, to which any given cause of change is internal, up to the scale of the universe.

In any case, that still leaves one more step before we have a positive answer to our question - does all change, that is caused within a system, stem from multiple, contradictory tendencies or developments? Or, equivalently, since we have admitted a necessary connection between tendency and change - is every tendency in reality matched by one or more opposing tendencies within the same process?

I think not. Take Engels' simple object in motion - for it to travel in a straight line, there need be no tendency other than its inertia. Or at a more abstract and social level, take the tendency for scientific knowledge and technology to advance. Certainly that does not have only positive effects, or even necessarily advance the average person's knowledge. But is there a counter-tendency for technology to regress?

For any example I can name, I am sure someone can come up with some contrary tendency somewhere. But remember that we are not merely seeking a contrary tendency, we are seeking one within the same system, the same process of change. That, I do not think it is always possible to provide.

One more example: a computer running a sort algorithm on a list of numbers in its memory, say merge sort. There is a tendency, as this process runs, for the list to become sorted - a tendency which is in fact mathematically provable, and can be quantified in various ways (for example, we can find the number of comparisons which must be done in the worst case for a list of any given length). Here we have a well-defined process - in fact, "process" could be a technical term here as well as a philosophical one - which not only contains a well-defined development, but apparently excludes any possibility of a counter-development.

Remember also the dilemma posed in the previous post - in relating dialectics to science, we want to avoid either Lysenkoism or mere mysticism. Now that we have made the question of whether change always stems from contradiction more concrete, we can see that the same dilemma applies here. Either dialectics commands scientists to find opposing tendencies in every system, or it asserts their existence without allowing any concrete conclusions to be derived from this assertion. Neither option is satisfactory.

At best, then, if a conception of dialectics as a set of laws or facts about the world is defensible, its defense requires losing content. We cannot sustain at the same time two universal propositions; that change is always caused by tendencies which are 1) united and internal to a single process, and 2) contradictory. To make either proposition universal we must abandon the other, and doing so would leave dialectics with little to say.

Can this problem be solved by narrowing dialectics' domain? Perhaps we can retain the idea of dialectics as a set of truths about the world, if we speak only of a part of the world - human history, or capitalism. Or do we have to abandon dialectics' claim to describe reality, in favor of a conception of dialectics as method, or form, or critique? These questions still have to be answered.

[1] Anti-Duhring, chapter 10.
[2] One can certainly view something like Schroedinger's cat as a case of a material contradiction. But I think it is more useful to view it as an indication that we should not try to think of quantum mechanical particle as analogous to macro-scale objects like cats.
[3] "
The ABC of Materialist Dialectics", in A Petty Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers' Party.
[4] ibid.
[5] Dance of the Dialectic, p. 18.
[6] Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. (Yeah.)
[7] A few mathematicians have tried to develop logics which allow contradiction while avoiding explosion, most commonly logics which take more values than "true" and "false". But if consistent, they tend to end up adding complexity without having any actual advantages in terms of conceptual power. Timothy Williamson's book Vagueness has a persuasive section on this.
[8] Dance of the Dialectic, p. 17.
[9] Hegel uses the term "deficiency": "Internal self-movement proper... is nothing else but the fact that something is, in one and the same respect, self-contained and deficient, the negative of itself." Cited in Rees, Algebra of Revolution, p. 51.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dialectics as a "general science"

In Marxist writing about dialectics, one often finds very general assertions. "The various seemingly separate elements of which the world is composed are in fact related to one another."[1] "The whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is... a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development."[2] "All reality is constantly changing."[3] "As soon as we consider things in their motion, their change, their life, their reciprocal influence on one another... we immediately become involved in contradictions."[4] "Real change must result from any contradictory system."[5]

If we take statements like these literally, the implications are very strong.

Take the claim that "all reality is constantly changing." Does that mean that the value of pi changes? Perhaps we should exclude it from the proposition, since we cannot really even conceive of what it would mean for pi to change. (Or at least I can't; maybe some mathematician has.)

But what about a more material number, the fine structure constant - which is related, among other things, to the speed of light? Physicists know more or less what it would mean for it to change, but from what I understand, most believe it doesn't. Or take protons. Does dialectics imply that they decay, rather than existing indefinitely? Some physical theories predict proton decay, but there is no experimental evidence for it.

Lastly, what about the laws of physics themselves? Rees quotes the biologists Levin and Lewontin to the effect that one of dialectics' key insights is that "the laws of transformation themselves change" - for example, the laws which govern economic dynamics under capitalism will themselves be different in another historical epoch.[6] Does dialectics then imply that, say, if the equations of general relativity are valid today, they were not yesterday and will not be tomorrow?

I am not taking dialectics anywhere new by asking these questions. Engels' writing on dialectics is full of examples from biology, chemistry, and math. But his examples appear mostly intended to illustrate, and are picked to be easy. If you look instead for hard cases like these, where change, contradiction, etc., are at the very least non-obvious, dilemmas begin to arise.

I can see four ways of approaching the question of what dialectics might say about proton decay.

The first approach is the most straightforward - to embrace the scientific implications. Yes, one might say, protons must somehow transform themselves under the impulse of their own internal contradictions;[7] even if dialectics cannot by itself give us a complete physical theory, it can give us certain assertions, like the inevitability of change, as a starting point.

I find this implausible on its face; it would imply a much closer relationship between physics and philosophy than we usually see in real life. One can list plenty more physical examples which at least seem to contradict dialectics in this interpretation - and in the best case, the theory could be no more certain than its contrarian implications for physics. Experiments which extend what we know about the minimum lifespan of the proton would, in challenging one premise of dialectics, thereby challenge even dialectical arguments about capitalism.

A second approach would be to re-describe the propositions of dialectics as tendencies rather than absolute laws. So, one could say, while we should expect everything to change, including elementary particles, we must allow for exceptions when evidence or reason requires them.

This is not very satisfying. It makes dialectics something much less useful than Engels' "science", Rees' "algebra", or Novack's "logic". It is basically impossible to disprove, since there is no way of quantifying the proportion of exceptions across physics, biology, philosophy, and history. And, it would make it strange to even speak of a coherent subject called "dialectics". If dialectics is a mere set of rules-of-thumb - "don't expect things to be static", "look for connections between parts and larger wholes", "look for internal causes of change" - what makes these tendencies special? There doesn't seem to be anything to distinguish these, as rules-of-thumb, from others, like one I once heard from a professor: "If a statement is true for the first three random, non-trival examples you check, it's probably always true."[8]

A third approach to the problem would be to say that in expecting protons to decay, one would be drawing too specific an implication, and looking for the wrong kind of change. Dialectics tells us - one might argue - that everything in the world is in some way involved in a process of change, without telling us that any individual part of the world must change in any particular way. So - the argument might go - protons do change: they move in space and time, they gain and lose energy, they join and leave nuclei. Thus they accord with the predictions of dialectics. Why ask more?

The problem here is subtler, but equally fatal for the original claim of universality. It is that we no longer know exactly what dialectics does imply or even suggest about any particular question; if things must change only in some aspect or in relation to some given system, this does not tell us anything much in practice. And it is not merely a question of needing to use a materialist method, to always apply dialectics to concrete reality. If we say that dialectics only applies to some aspect of any given entity, situation, process, or structure, and we cannot in advance tell which, that is functionally equivalent to admitting that dialectics only applies sometimes, and we cannot in advance tell when.

The third approach thus collapses into the fourth and last approach, which is to admit that dialectics does not give us laws which really apply to everything, even as tendencies, and in particular that it has nothing to tell us about proton decay.

Can the collapse be avoided? I can think of one more distinction which an advocate of the third approach might try to make. That is to say that, while not every true way of describing something must be dialectical, the dialectical way of approaching something will always be more fruitful, getting at a dynamic which is somehow more crucial. So, while dialectics might not tell us whether or not a proton will ever decay, that inapplicability itself tells us that understanding proton decay is not the best way to begin understanding particle physics. Decay is a particular prediction, not the heart of the theory.

That argument may be plausible for the example we have been using, but it does not hold up in general. Take another case: gravitational orbit, e.g. the orbit of the Earth around the Sun.

One way to describe an orbit is to say that it is the result of two balanced opposing forces. Gravity pulls the Earth inward, while centrifugal force pulls the Earth outwards, so in the end it travels in an ellipse. This seems like a classical dialectical triad - two contradictory forces impelling motion in a new, third direction. But in fact, centrifugal force isn't real in the same way that gravity is, even in Newtonian physics. The Earth is not pulled outwards; rather, absent any external force, it would travel in an inertial straight line, and gravity merely bends its path. Inertia is not really a force. Moreover, according to the theory of relativity, even gravity is not really a force. Instead, space-time itself is bent. So the first "dialectical" view is accurate on the surface, but misleading from the perspective of a deeper theory.

I have focused so far on just one universal claim that dialectics might make, the claim that everything changes. There are other claims available to the theory. But without discussing them individually, let's note what's already been established, if, like me, one finds the modest fourth approach the most plausible.

A defensible version of dialectics will be a theory not about everything in the universe, but at most about processes of change, where we have already established that they exist. This isn't necessarily that much of a retreat, and it gives us a handy, non-circular definition of a dialectical "totality": not merely any arbitrary collection of nouns, but a coherent process of motion, development, or transformation - in the maximalist interpretation, any such process. The key question then becomes the concept of "contradiction", and its relationship to change and causality.

That question is worth its own post. But already in this one, we have not just slightly narrowed the territory dialectics might claim. We have also noted a dilemma that any conception of dialectics will have to face. Does the dialectic have specific implications for scientific theory, in any field, or not? Either answer is problematic; on the one hand, we risk an idealistic if not Lysenkoist attempt to make science answer to a 19th-century philosophical theory, and on the other hand, we risk reducing dialectics to a vague and insubstantial mysticism. As we explore what might be valuable in the dialectic, we will have to chart a course between these twin rocks.

[1] Rees, Algebra of Revolution, p. 5
[2] Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, chapter 2. More specifically, Engels says that it is the "great merit" of Hegel that he "represents" the world in this way.
[3] Novack, Logic of Marxism, p. 66. See also Marx's slightly different formulation: "The dialectic... regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion" (cited in Rees, p. 100-1).
[4] Engels, Anti-Duhring, chapter 10.
[5] Rees, p. 118.
[6] ibid., p. 78.
[7] Protons are, after all, internally differentiated totalities; they are made up of quarks.
[8] Applied to statements about the natural numbers in a class on discrete math.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dialectics and formal logic

In exploring the dialectic, I plan to examine conceptions of it one by one, and consider whether they can be sustained. The goal is to move more or less from the broadest to the narrowest, until we find a core that is true.

So, let's start with a very broad conception of dialectics: as a successor to mathematical formal logic, which "arose out of the criticism of formal logic, overthrew and replaced it as its revolutionary opponent, successor and superior," in the words of George Novack.[1] The idea is that dialectics has a relationship to conventional logic which is analogous to the relationship between the theories of Einstein and of Newton, or between an obsolescent tool and a state-of-the-art one.[2]

This is so immediately problematic that I do not even know how to present it more fully before abandoning neutrality.

Mathematical logic allows the mechanical deduction of results - one can start with an expression like "(A OR B) AND (NOT A OR C) AND (B OR NOT C)" in terms of Boolean (true or false) variables A, B, and C, and then use a computer to determine, given values for the variables, whether the expression is true or false. Or one can even use a computer to check whether the expression is valid - whether it is true for all possible values of A, B, and C - or satisfiable - whether it is ever true given any values of A, B, and C - using an algorithm like resolution which does not require plugging in any specific values for the variables at all.[3]

One cannot do anything like this for dialectics. As Rees writes, dialectics is "not a calculator into which it is possible to punch the problem and allow it to compute the solution."[4] But calculability is precisely what distinguishes logic as logic. It is not an incidental benefit. The reason we can use mathematical logic in a calculator is that mathematical logic, given whatever premises, can tell us unambiguous conclusions which follow necessarily. If the "laws" of dialectics were laws in the same sense that commutativity is a law of Boolean logic, we could tell computers how to obey them, and so use them in programs. We can't.

Logic enables us to go from one or more true statements to another equivalent true statement without the need for additional empirical verification. If I see, say, one protest result in a victory, I know that it is not the case that all protests are defeated, without having to check any additional protests, thanks to a basic equivalence in first-order logic. And when we go beyond single-step deductions, very often logic will take us to non-obvious conclusions.

But deduction of this kind is not available with dialectics. Rees concedes that "once we are sure we have made an accurate abstraction", that does not mean "we can also be sure that any further categories that emerge as a result of contradictions which we find in our concept will necessarily be matched by contradictions in the real capitalist world. This... is only a safe assumption on the basis of constant empirical verification."[5]

So dialectics' non-calculability is not merely a question of a missing formalization. Logic is a mathematical way of examining a process that is essential to reasoning, where we place our knowledge and beliefs into relationship with one another in order to draw conclusions and form a coherent whole, without any necessary mediation by new or additional experience. Dialectics, whatever it is, is a different kind of beast.

Engels writes, "Even formal logic is primarily a method of arriving at new results, of advancing from the known to the unknown — and dialectics is the same, only much more eminently so."[6] But if we are to set dialectics up against formal logic, as an alternate method of deduction, then if it is more "eminent", that is only in the sense that the Pope is more eminent than a subway conductor. The latter does practical work herself, while his eminence has subordinates for that.

Of course, why should one set dialectics up as a rival to logic as studied by mathematicians and computer scientists? Why disparage formal logic with dishonest word games - like Novack's attempt to slide from "A = A", to "A always equals A", to "A cannot be non-A", to "a man cannot be inhuman, democracy cannot be undemocratic", without the reader noticing a non-equivalence, in order to cast doubt on the "law of identity"?[7]

This kind of rhetorical trick has nothing in common with science, but is necessary if dialectics needs to conquer logic's territory in order to have living space. So why not abandon the attempt?

We should. The only problem is that if you do not view dialectics as a logic like Boolean logic or first-order logic, you do not get universality for free. Engels describes dialectics as "the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought."[8] But if dialectics cannot take over logic's universal applicability, and if it cannot be formalized and studied in isolation independent of topical content, there is no clear reason why we should assume it is so general. We will have to reconsider how universally its principles really apply.

[1] Logic of Marxism, p. 28.
[2] The Einstein/Newton analogy is used by John Rees, Algebra of Revolution, p. 271. Of course, he says in the same place that dialectics is not an "alternative" to formal logic, but this seems to be just a confused retreat from the full implications of the original idea. Einstein's theory was, of course, an alternative to Newton's, which is a mere low-energy approximation.
[3] Of course, for general expressions checking satisfiability is NP-complete, and so infeasible in practice, but that's off topic.
[4]
Algebra of Revolution, p. 271.
[5]
ibid., p. 110.
[6]
Anti-Duhring, chapter 11.
[7]
Logic of Marxism, p. 18. This is a truly awful passage, which stands out even in a very bad book. On top of the idiotic hackery of the claim that "man cannot be inhuman" follows from the law of non-contradiction, Novack asserts that this law follows "logically and inevitably" from the law of identity, and in turn "flows logically" to the law of the excluded middle. Of course, not only are these three axioms not derivable from one another (or they would not be axioms), there are in fact consistent logical systems which deny the law of the excluded middle, used in constructivist math. And then there's the fact that the three laws Novack discusses are archaic and do not constitute the complete axioms of any modern logical system...
[8]
Anti-Duhring, chapter 11.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The dialectic

I plan to write a series of posts on the Marxist notion of "dialectics" or "the dialectic", with the goal of answering the following questions: What is the dialectic? What is it good for? Is it defensible, or ultimately just mysticism?

I'm no expert - I haven't read Hegel's Logic, nor, except for bits, even Engels' Anti-Duhring. I am not qualified to write a history of ideas - what did Marx himself really think? - nor do I find that question very interesting. But I do think I have read and heard enough arguments on the topic to begin to judge their substance.

John Rees* gives the following definition of the "essentials" of the dialectic:
  1. The world is a constant process of change;
  2. The world is a totality; and
  3. This totality is internally contradictory.
The idea is that the dynamics of change in the world should be examined by seeing it as composed of parts which are in tension with one another but which which are nevertheless united in a systematic way, and that this tension is what propels the system as a whole.

Per Rees, the triadic "thesis"/"antithesis"/"synthesis" pattern which is commonly associated with the dialectic, where the contradictory existence or validity of thesis and antithesis results in a new state or idea, the synthesis, which subsumes and transforms both, is then simply one form taken by such dynamic, contradictory totalities. The phrase "unity of opposites", also associated with dialectics and sometimes called a "law", describes the relationship between thesis and antithesis in this kind of triad. The "negation of the negation", another "law", is a yet more specific version of the triad, in which the thesis comes first, then is apparently defeated or subordinated by the antithesis, which finally is defeated or subordinated by a new synthesis that contains elements of the original thesis. The last common "law", the "transformation of quantity into quality", is, on the other hand, a characteristic of how dialectical transformations more broadly take place: a contradictory set of forces will push a system in one direction without fundamentally changing its character for some time, but eventually the changes will add up to a new and fundamentally different configuration.

Some more-concrete examples of dialectically contradictory totalities, in Marxist theory: The interdependent relationship between the economic "base" of society and the political and cultural "superstructure". The class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat under capitalism and the possibility of socialism as its result. The relationship between productive forces and the mode of production, where capitalism at first advances production and then begins to weight it down through crises. The role of a revolutionary party as both an element of working class consciousness and an actor upon it.

According to a dialectical interpretation, each of these systems is a totality in that its parts are inseparable from one other and can have no independent existence, but are rather aspects or "moments" of one coherent whole, abstracted and treated as separate only in thought, as a means of systemic analysis. (There can be no base without a superstructure, no party without a class.) Each system is contradictory, either containing some kind of struggle, or described by multiple propositions which are somehow opposite but are simultaneously true. (The bourgeoisie and proletariat are at war, the party both acts and is acted upon by the class.) Finally, the contradictions are what propel the system forward - if not for the contradictions, the system would be static, but they give it the possibility of becoming something new. (Capitalism may become socialism not because someone had an idea which wins out in a side-by-side comparison but because it creates its own gravediggers.)

I do think there is something to these examples - their "dialectical" aspects as just described are real and important. But that leaves many questions unanswered.

The key terms, "totality"/system/process, "contradiction"/opposition, and change/motion/transformation, have not been defined. How broadly does the dialectic apply - to nature, to society, or merely to elements of capitalism? Are its laws akin to those of logic and math, to those of physics, or to the more-or-less approximate generalizations of, say, biology - or are they simply rules-of-thumb, useful pointers? Is the dialectic a set of connected theses, propositions about the world as a whole, or is it a structure which things may take, which implies certain properties, or is it a grab-bag of fundamentally unrelated adjectives which sometimes apply together but only coincidentally?

I want to try to answer these questions, at least to my own satisfaction, in following posts.

* The Algebra of Revolution, p. 114. This is an interesting and useful survey of Marxist thinking about dialectics despite Rees' tendency to elide hard questions.