Dialectics 2: Relations
“History is the true natural history of man (on which more later).”
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 1844
In the Preface to the first German edition of Capital, Marx explains that his standpoint makes “the evolution of the economic formation of society … a process of natural history…” In the same Preface he claims that “the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and constantly changing.”1 Since organisms don’t generally generate spontaneously, we can safely conclude that all societies past, present and future are organisms capable of change. References to humanity and human society (they are the same thing) as a particular outgrowth or aspect of nature are not difficult to find in Marx.
In his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General” in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx claims that “man” – by which, unfortunately, Marx means humanity in general – “is directly a natural being,” “at bottom he is nature,” moreover our needs are “natural need[s]” which “therefore [need] a nature outside of [themselves] … to be stilled.” Still more significantly, the common sense distinction between nature and human activity is entirely dismissed; this allows Marx to speak of “the human character of nature and of the nature created by history – man’s products.”2 According to Paul Sweezy, Marx’s materialism “holds that … humanity and society are integral parts of a nature that existed before there was (terrestrial) life, including human life, and will continue to exist after [humanity] has become extinct.”3
Of course, Marx’s view of nature differs drastically from the ideological view in which nature (a separate entity from humanity) is a system of delicate, unchanging balance and equipoise, moving only when we interfere with it. Rather, Marx’s ‘nature’ is closer to that of Darwin of whom Marx and Engels were such critical admirers. As Gould points out:
Darwin grasped with great clarity what most of his contemporaries never understood at all – that the question of agency, or levels of selection, lies at the heart of evolutionary causation. And he provided … a forthright answer that overturned a conceptual world – natural selection works on organisms engaged in a struggle for personal success, as assessed by the differential production of surviving offspring. 4
The theory of evolution by natural selection overturns the idea of a static nature and replaces it with a complex system of agents and factors engaged in a struggle to reproduce themselves and changing in the course of reproduction. Organisms, environments, indeed whole ecosystems, exist as relations of dependence, cooperation, antagonism – and development is precisely the result of the changes that they undergo as the contradictions arising from these relations get worked out over time.5
All this will perhaps be helpful to keep in mind when we read Engels’ claim that “economics is not concerned with things but with relations between persons … these relations however are always bound to things and appear as things.”6 It suggests that social and economic relations are particular kinds of ecological relations – they arise in the strict sense of ‘naturally’ discussed above within a continuous history of development in our interaction with our ‘natural’ world; this is true at the level of the individual, of the population of the species as a whole (since society is itself ‘an organism’) and at the level of subgroups within the population of the species.
Marx frequently writes of these relations that they are so deeply interconnected as to necessarily imply or entail one another.
For example, the simplest economic category, say e.g. exchange value, presupposes population, moreover a population producing in specific relations; as well as a certain kind of family, or commune, or state, etc. It can never exist other than as an abstract, one sided relation within an already given, concrete, living whole.7
So exchange value, as a single relation, is a part that already implies an entire concrete whole.
Moreover, exchange itself is only a moment in an entire political-economic process in which “mutual interaction takes place between the different moments. This is the case with every organic whole.”8 As Bertell Ollman correctly observes, this mutual interaction is precisely “only possible because it occurs within an organic body.”9 Once again, ecology, with its complex economy of material and energy appropriation and exchange is a useful model. No single process simply goes about its business unimpinged by other processes or without therefore impinging upon others as well. In this respect, climate change is giving us a practical lesson in dialectics.
Ollman notes that ‘Verhӓltnis,’ the German word for ‘relation,’ “probably occurs more frequently than any other expression in Marx’s writing”10 this is precisely because Marx takes the relation to be the basic mode of existence for all real things. As Marx writes, somewhat obscurely:
A being which does not have its nature outside itself is not a natural being, and plays no part in the system of nature. A being which has no object outside itself is not an objective being. A being which is not itself an object for some [other] being has no being for its object; i.e., it is not objectively related. Its being is not objective.
A non-objective being is a non-being.
… non-objective being is an unreal, non-sensuous thing – a product of mere thought (i.e., of mere imagination) – an abstraction. To be sensuous, that is, to be really existing, means to … have sensuous objects outside oneself.11
For real (sensuous) things, the extension into the world, the appropriation of it, and the being appropriated by it – this lack of self-sufficiency – is precisely what it means to be.
And so, relations are the basic units of the “organic whole” which Marx believes society is. As Ollman puts it
The relation is the irreducible minimum for all units in Marx’s conception of social reality … Capital, labor, value, commodity, etc., are all grasped as relations, containing in themselves, as integral elements of what they are, those parts with which we tend to see them externally tied… This view does not rule out the existence of a core notion for each factor, but treats this core notion itself as a cluster of relations.12
Marx himself explicitly mocks the idea that, “the properties of a thing are not the result of its relations to other things, but only manifest themselves in such relations”.13 John Rees gets at much the same point when he writes that, “In a dialectical system, the entire nature of the part is determined by its relationship with the other parts and so with the whole.”14 These relations therefore are not external to the nature of a thing, they actually constitute it; they are “internal relations”.
The concept of ‘core relations’ suggests that the key relations which define a part are themselves limited. A similar point is made by Chris Arthur in his critical review of Ollman’s Dance of The Dialectic:
a mind, a society, a solar system, are different realms of being with the ‘parts’ having differing status in relation to the whole. With an all-embracing philosophy of Ollman’s kind there is a double danger: first, of ‘thinning’ out the concept of internal relation such that it can indeed cover ‘everything,’ at the cost of being uninformative; second, of overextending the range of a ‘thick’ concept to cases where it does not really apply, at the cost of mysticism. I do not doubt that much of Marx’s work, especially Capital, treats with great sophistication totalities characterized by internal relations. But in my opinion this derives … from the peculiar character of his object.15
The preliminary task, then, for any dialectical investigation is determining that the phenomenon being studied really does constitute an ‘organic whole’ – Marx’s own example, e.g. exchange value, demonstrates that this is often simply a matter of extension. Exchange value could not constitute an organic whole because it is itself merely part of a larger organism (a concrete society). On the other hand, it would not be very useful to say that the exchange relations present in contemporary capitalism are organically related to any of the social relations that may exist right now among species in other star systems. Conceivably, they might establish relations if we ever encounter extra-terrestrial life in the future, but they would be historical relations. They would become related to the new society formed by contact only because our future develops from the present.
This caveat is important because contingency plays a key role in development. Europeans and Native Americans had nothing to do with each others’ development until Europe’s period of expansion and colonization – since then, however, they have been inextricably linked, each being a major determinant in each other’s history.
Once the work of delimiting the boundaries of the system has been done (although of course, they may be redrawn in response to new discoveries) and the key relations determined, we can assume that the general rules of dialectics hold between them. The most significant of these is that the nature of a phenomenon is determined by its relations. This assumption has important implications for Marx’s understanding of development. In the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Marx quotes a commentator who had fairly well captured this aspect of his method:
economic life offers us a phenomenon analogous to the history of evolution in other branches of biology. … [A] thorough analysis of phenomena shows that social organisms differ among themselves as fundamentally as plants or animals. … one and the same phenomenon falls under quite different laws in consequence of the different structure of those organisms as a whole, of the variations of their individual organs, of the different conditions in which those organs function, etc.16
Dialectics therefore banishes certain ideas from the bounds of thought. Greed for example, can no longer be easily generalized into an eternal aspect of humanity; instead, it becomes necessary to examine the context in which the desire for things becomes greed as we understand it today – and also, in what contexts it would fail to be greed. Humans are necessarily needy (sensuous) beings, but it still must be asked: what forms do these needs take in any given concrete society, how are they met – is this neediness always necessarily greed? (And if so, what are the immutable relations that constitute greed?)
It must be emphasized that in their real life processes, all the relations of the whole are in a constant movement of shaping and reshaping each other, forcing their fellows to accommodate their needs, and being forced in return. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that all relations are not identical.
It may be true that “exchange value … presupposes a certain kind of family, or commune, or state” but that does not mean it presupposes the family, or commune, or state as such. It presupposes particular forms of them (ones which allows exchange value to exist). Similarly, exchange implies surplus available for exchange – but the existence of exchangeable surplus does not guarantee that exchange will take place.
On the other hand, Marx calls exchange a ‘moment’ of the entire economic process – this kind of relation is clearly different from the one that exists between exchange value and ‘a certain kind of family, etc.’ Exchange, in this respect, is contained as an aspect of a wider process. But more than that, according to Marx, these moments ‘mediate’ each other. Consumption, for example, which is a relation between consumers and products is ‘mediated’ by production, a relation between producers and the means of production and vice-versa, meaning they structure each others’ expression:
Production … furnishes the material and the object for consumption… therefore, in this respect, production creates, produces consumption… But the object is not the only thing which production creates for consumption… the object is not an object in general, but a specific object which must be consumed in a specific manner, to be mediated in its turn by production itself. Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth. Production thus produces not only the object but also the manner of consumption… Production thus creates the consumer … Production not only supplies a material for the need, but it also supplies a need for the material. As soon as consumption emerges from its initial state of natural crudity and immediacy … it becomes itself mediated as a drive by the object… Production thus not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object. Thus production produces consumption (1) by creating the material for it; (2) by determining the manner of consumption; and (3) by creating the products, initially posited by it as objects, in the form of a need felt by the consumer. It thus produces the object of consumption, the manner of consumption and the motive of consumption. Consumption likewise produces the producer’s inclination by beckoning to him as an aim-determining need.
Production, which is structured by the other moments, thus also structures them and, in fact, for Marx, in some sense predominates over them:
production and consumption … appear in any case as moments of one process, in which production is the real point of departure and hence also the predominant moment. Consumption as urgency, as need, is itself an intrinsic moment of productive activity. But the latter is the point of departure for realization and hence also its predominant moment; it is the act through which the whole process again runs its course. The individual produces an object and, by consuming it, returns to himself, but returns as a productive and self-reproducing individual. Consumption thus appears as a moment of production. 17
So for Marx it is possible to speak of hierarchies of relations, both of scale (the production process ‘contains’ the consumption process) and weight (although they all mediate each other, production is, in general, more determining than the other moments).
Finally, there is the relation between ‘polar opposites’. These are different from mediations in a total process, and different again from conditions of possibility. Polar opposites require each other by definition, in exactly the same way that the South pole of a magnet already implies the North, or the way that one side of a coin requires the other. There are no hosts without guests, there are no rulers without ruled, and, most importantly for Marx, there is no bourgeoisie without wage-labor.
All of this puts us in a slightly better position to understand contradiction. If the nature of every thing is defined by its relation to everything else then two things follow: (1) everything with which a thing is related is collectively the condition of possibility for that thing (2) they are also a limit on it. No relation can follow the course of its own development without running up against the relations on which it depends but which also stunt, divert or suppress its development. These contradictions must find resolution.
Resolutions which change the balance of the contradictions without actually ending them – partial resolutions – are obviously inherently unstable. Furthermore, by allowing both sides to continue developing alongside of each other, they lay the basis for deeper struggle with more developed forces in the future. Over time, elements relatively marginal to the system are more thoroughly assimilated into it. A system consolidates and comes into itself, it gathers up those relations which it inherits from its history of development or finds in its expansion; it either simply annihilates these marginal or retrograde relations or else it transforms them and subordinates them to its logic. It becomes itself, only more so. Capitalist expansion in South Asia, for example, has not destroyed the peasant class or the caste system, but it has – sometimes more, sometimes less successfully – colonized them and forced them to accommodate to its needs. The same could be said of women’s oppression or of the family. In this way, the contradictions of capitalism become the over-arching contradictions of the entire world.
The complete resolution of contradictions, on the other hand, necessarily abolishes both sides. More precisely, the successful side of the contradiction abolishes those relations which put a fetter on it and it abolishes itself – or rather, that form of itself which was enmeshed in the contradictions – and so pushes the entire system into a new form. It follows that, even in systems characterized by some degree of gradualism, change is not simply a matter of smooth transitions: sudden, dramatic transformations are part of the basic pattern of development. However, it does not follow that a contradiction may be resolved in favor of just any side of the relation. More often, only one side is capable of following its course of development in a way that productively transforms the entire system – the alternative is often regression or even the destruction of the system. Marx does not see the ruling class as capable of resolving the contradictions of capitalism in their favor: “Private property, as wealth, is compelled to maintain itself, and thereby its opposite, the proletariat, in existence. That is the positive side of the antithesis, self-satisfied private property.”18
The resolution of the contradictions of capital (on which more later) is a task for the proletariat, who can carry out their task because:
One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialized labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolize all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organized by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.19
Failure can only mean the “mutual ruin of the contending classes.”20
1Karl Marx, “Preface” to the first German edition of Capital, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1890, pp. 21
3Paul Sweezy, “Dialectics and Metaphysics” in Four Lecture on Marxism, Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1981, pp. 16 (my emphasis)
4Stephen J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 126
5For good discussions of these concepts see Steven Rose, Lifelines, Oxford University Press, New York 1997 and Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1985
7Karl Marx, “Introduction” to Grundrisse. Marxist Internet Archive 2000, pp. 31. (my emphasis)
8Ibid. pp. 30
9Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society, Cambridge University Press, London, 1973. pp. 17
10Ibid. pp. 16
11Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts
12Ibid. pp. 15
13Marx, Capital pp. 63
14John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution, Routledge, London and New York, 1998. pp. 5
15Chris Arthur, “Fetishism is Real” Review of The Dance of the Dialectic by Bertell Ollman in Radical Philosophy March/April 2004. This is an excellent review, and Arthur’s objections should be kept in mind when reading Ollman’s work (which remain, in general, brilliant introductions to dialectics), but I disagree with Arthur’s interpretation that capital is so very peculiar as a dialectical object – capital is dialectical, but so are developing systems generally, even if the particular patterns of the dialectic have to be investigated concretely in respect to different systems.
16Quoted in Marx, Capital pp. 28
17Karl Marx, “Introduction” to Grundrisse. Marxist Internet Archive 2000, pp. 25-26 and
19Marx, Capital pp. 714-715
20Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, International Publishers, New York, 2004, pp. 9