Karl Marx on Contradictions

Matt McManus

May 1, 2022

“In the crises of the world market, the contradictions and antagonisms of bourgeois production are strikingly revealed. Instead of investigating the nature of the conflicting elements which erupt in the catastrophe, the apologists content themselves with denying the catastrophe itself and insisting, in the face of their regular and periodic recurrence, that if production were carried on according to the textbooks, crises would never occur.”

Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, (1863)


One of the more ambiguous parts of Marx’s philosophy is his dialectical method. Despite a few helpful clues peppered in works ranging from the “Theses on Feuerbach” to the three volumes of Capital, Marx never got around to writing a major piece unpacking it. While working on Capital he wrote to Engels that “in the method of treatment the fact that by mere accident I glanced through Hegel’s Logic has been of great service to me…if there should ever be time for such work again, I would greatly like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence, in two or three printer’s sheets, what is rational in the method which Hegel discovered but at the same time enveloped in mysticism.” Such a pamphlet would have made many of our lives easier, and it is a shame that this wound up being one of the many books Marx floated writing, but never got around to. This makes it incumbent on us to fill in the blanks as best we can.

Among the most misunderstood aspects of Marx’s method is his language about the development and resolution of contradictions, which is at once provocative and infuriating. Conservative critics like Ayn Rand mocked it in books like Atlas Shrugged, implying that Marxists thought it was possible to supersede basic laws of Aristotelian logic like either A, or B, but not both A and B in order to have their cake and eat it. This reflects a deep misunderstanding of Marx’s thinking on contradictions, which is both rich and insightful.

As the aforementioned letter indicates, Marx drew much of his methodological approach from the earlier German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel began his career as a committed fan of the French Revolution, before ending it as a moderately conservative reformer employed by the Prussian state. After his death in 1831 Hegel’s followers split into conservative (right) and radical (Young) Hegelian factions. The former didn’t initially produce any philosophers of interest, although there are now a number of conservative and far-right authors like the late Roger Scruton and Paul Gottfried who find inspiration in Hegel’s work. By contrast, many Young Hegelians quickly became (in)famous: Feuerbach, Engels, and of course Marx.

Hegel characterized his philosophy as a kind of ‘absolute idealism’ or “mind coming to know itself in the shape of mind” as he put it in the Phenomenology of Spirit. One of his remarkable philosophical innovations was to develop his dialectical method, which was first put on display in the Phenomenology. An extremely strange book, it can be summarized as a kind of coming-of-age story as Hegel examines the different ‘shapes’ consciousness assumes over its history on the road to reason and freedom. In the classical ‘idealist’ reading of Hegel, this is expressed in terms of the contradictions that consciousness encounters in its interactions within the external world, which it experiences