Once More on Contradiction
May 10, 2022
Was Marx’s dialectical method ambiguous and therefore difficult to understand, as Matt McManus claimed in his recent article [Karl Marx on Contradictions]? Marx didn’t think so.
In his 1873 Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Volume 1, Marx lamented, “That the method employed in Das Kapital has been little understood is shown by the various conceptions, contradictory one to another, that have been formed of it.” But Marx attributes these misunderstandings not to the obscurity of his work, but to the vulgarity of certain prominent readers, specifically the “learned and unlearned spokesmen of the German [and French] bourgeoisie” who “tried at first to kill Das Kapital by silence,” but soon “found that these tactics no longer fitted in with the conditions of the time,” and instead “under the pretence of criticizing my book [wrote] prescriptions ‘for the tranquillization of the bourgeois mind.’”
Marx reflected that “the great capacity for theory, which used to be considered a hereditary German possession, had almost completely disappeared amongst the so-called educated classes in Germany.” Even before this disappearance, political economy, which had emerged in England and France, was a “foreign science” in Germany, in relation to which German professors “remained schoolboys,” due to the comparative lack of “modern economic conditions.” In their hands, "the theoretical expression of a foreign reality was turned. . . into a collection of dogmas, interpreted by them in terms of the petty trading world around them, and therefore misinterpreted.” Yet, after 1848, even as “capitalist production developed rapidly in Germany,” it became altogether impossible for these conditions to be “really and impartially investigated within the bounds of the bourgeois horizon.”
The original emergence of political economy in England and France “belongs to a period in which the class struggle was as yet undeveloped,” when bourgeois social relations could be analyzed on their own terms, not yet facing a crisis that threatened the possibility of their perpetuation. This classical period of political economy came to an end once such a crisis began to mount. As “its last great representative, Ricardo. . . consciously [made] the antagonism of class interests. . . the starting point of his investigations.” With this crisis, “the science of bourgeois economy had reached the limits beyond which it could not pass.” There subsequently opened a brief period “from 1820 to 1830. . . notable in England for scientific activity in the domain of Political Economy”—namely, the critique of “bourgeois” political economy by the “Ricardian socialists.” Like Ricardo, they registered the growing antagonism between the newly emerging classes born along with “modern industry” (“itself. . . only just emerging from the age of childhood”)—industrial “proletarians,” workers bound for life to be “propertyless,” unable to employ themselves, hence bound to seek employment as wage laborers, and “capitalists,” who owned the means of industrial production (“capital”) and thus of employment for wage laborers.
Yet this incipient class struggle was at the time “forced into the background” by the still incomplete struggle of “the popular masses, led by the bourgeoisie” against the lingering power of the feudal aristocracy. Hence, the socialist critique of bourgeois political economy, and of the social relations reflected therein, remained “unprejudiced,” concerned with mitigating the developing crisis through the reconciliation of the diverging classes. This period came to an end with the 1830 “July Revolution” in France and the 1832 Reform Act in Britain, through which “the bourgeoisie had conquered political power.” Subsequently, the class struggle of the proletariat obtained independent expression, no longer yoked to bourgeois political leadership. It “took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms.”
From then on, “bourgeois political economy” ceased to be scientific and became “vulgar,” tainted by “the evil intent of apologetic,” no longer concerned with the truth of its claims but with whether they were “useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not.” This was further compounded after the Revolution of 1848, during which the French proletariat broke with the bourgeois-revolutionary provisional government it had helped raise to power. It did so in order to defend its independent class interests, only to be violently suppressed by that government, leading to a wave of demoralization and retreat throughout Europe and the ultimate victory of the counterrevolution across the continent. The “sophists and sycophants of the ruling classes” were subsequently opposed by “men who still claimed some scientific standing,” and sought harmony between capital and “the claims, no longer to be ignored, of the proletariat.” Yet, for Marx, political economists of the latter stripe, exemplified by John Stuart Mill, were equally vulgar in attempting to “reconcile irreconcilables.”
For Marx, the basic lesson of these events was already clear on the eve of 1848, as was spelled out in the Communist Manifesto. The industrial revolution and, with it, the emergence of the industrial proletariat, was a fundamental crisis for bourgeois society. The very existence of a class of “propertyless workers” was a scandal from the bourgeois-revolutionary standpoint. After all, the bourgeois revolution had sought to re-found society on labor—on the right of the laborer to property in the product of his labor—as the highest value, displacing the antiquated values of the Church (divine right) and the aristocracy (the right of conquest). This is why the early socialists and later liberals like Mill sought to redress the proletarianization of labor from within the bourgeois horizon. Yet, for Marx, this was disingenuous: the proletarianization of labor was the terminal crisis into which bourgeois society had entered—by virtue of its maturation, through the full development of the capacities of labor, the “forces of production.” The proletariat thus embodied the potential, and necessity, of a further revolutionary transformation of society—beyond the horizon of bourgeois social relations and, hence, beyond labor.
The productivity of labor rapidly increased with the rise of large-scale industry. The labor of individual workers became secondary (a mere “appendage”) to the increasingly socialized production process, characterized by large-scale cooperation (production “set in motion” by “the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort, only by the united action of all members of society” [Manifesto]), the detailed division of labor, and, ultimately, the reorganization of production on the basis of massive, automated machine systems. This rendered the labor of proletarian workers increasingly superfluous relative to the capital of their employers, as evinced in the growth of the “industrial reserve army,” of unemployed workers ready to be marshaled back into service during an economic upturn or to replace their employed counterparts should they become unruly, and left to vegetate and degenerate otherwise. It also became increasingly difficult to escape the proletarian condition of dependence on wage labor through self-employment, as small proprietorship became untenable in industries dominated by large capitalist enterprises with which the former could not hope to compete. Hence, even employed proletarians became ever more vulnerable to the threat of unemployment, and thus, subject to the dictates of their employers, intensifying the downward pressure on their wages, conditions of employment, and free time.
The proletarian condition of being condemned for life to wage labor, unable to acquire property (capital), was thus symptomatic of the industrial revolution as the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations: the society of labor, in its mature development, undermined the value of labor precisely by developing the capacities of labor, its productivity, through the socialization of the labor process. Capital, as the means of social production, embodied this developing productivity, and hence, the self-undermining dynamic of labor. Rather than resulting in the emancipation of humanity from the burden of labor in favor of free time beyond the material necessity, beyond the compulsion to toil to secure the means of life, capital represented the privation of this potential freedom from workers, its transformation into an alien force dominating them, in relation to which they were increasingly dispensable and therefore subordinate. Capital and the proletariat were two sides of the same contradictory condition, of a potential for freedom divided against itself, realized in a negative, distorted manner.
Yet because capital depended upon proletarian wage labor to function, because it required “the united action of many members, nay, in the last resort. . . the united action of all members of society” to “set [it] in motion,” the proletarians were not without recourse to stem their deteriorating condition. They could, despite their dependence upon capital as individuals, exploit the dependence of capital on their labor as a class by organizing as a class and bringing their demands upon their employers to bear collectively. The primitive form of such organization, in which specific groups of proletarians organized to negotiate with specific employers, or in specific industries or localities, succeeded up to a point, but always reached limits insofar as there were fresh proletarians to exploit elsewhere and insofar as the power of the state could be used to compel their acquiescence. This drove the labor movement to strive to organize the entire proletariat, across all industries and geographical boundaries and to conquer political power for themselves.
This dynamic pointed to the ultimate necessity, that the proletariat as a class take responsibility for the production process through which they were employed and thus for the capital that was constituted by and embodied the capacity of, their collective labor. The proletariat itself had to administer the social production process as such, on the scale of society as a whole, rather on the fragmented basis of the ostensible “private” property of individual capitalist firms in distinct countries competing with one another. Capital was already, de facto, social property, the means of social production, and was only treated, and hence accumulated, as the private property of individuals because society had yet to recognize the necessity of overcoming the bourgeois social relations that industrial production had effectively, though not yet consciously, superseded. The political task of the proletariat, once it conquered state power, would be to officially recognize the already social and collective character of industrial production, of capital, and thus to realize the potential of capitalism that manifested negatively in the self-contradiction of the bourgeois social relations of labor.
This is why, for Marx, communism was “in no way based on ideas or principles. . . invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer”: Everything the communists were reproached for demanding, including the abolition of private property, was already being accomplished by capitalism. The goal of the communists was to lead the proletariat to take responsibility for this already-unfolding process, to direct it consciously, and thus to drive it beyond the limited bourgeois horizon, rather than allowing the conflict between this process and the bourgeois social form to continuously culminate in destructive crises, only to be abated through the reconstitution of bourgeois social relations in ever more grotesque, degenerate iterations.
The self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations was not, as McManus asserts, obscured by ideology, whether unconsciously or deliberately. Rather, the self-consciousness of bourgeois society had become ideological because the social form itself had become self-contradictory. The realm of ideal appearances began to possess a logic of its own, disconnected from its “material” foundation, because the material capacities for change, the “forces of production,” could no longer be adequately mediated within the prevailing forms of social life, and hence, of consciousness, but instead came into conflict with these forms, casting them into crisis. The contradiction was precisely not hidden behind an ideological veil, but manifest in the incoherence of the self-consciousness of society, which was thereby debased into mere “ideology”: no longer a “scientific” grasp of the necessity of change, the means for society to realize that change consciously, as its freedom to go beyond inherited forms of life, but rather a vulgar ignorance or denial of that necessity, and apologetic for the impossible persistence of the status quo. The status quo of bourgeois society could not be preserved but was transformed under capitalism into a monstrous caricature of itself.
The task of the communists, for Marx, was not to dispel the ideological “lies” by which the proletariat was duped. The proletariat already embodied the conflict between the forces of production (the potential and necessity for social transformation) and the bourgeois social relations through which these were mediated. It was already fighting out this conflict within the “ideological forms” of bourgeois social self-consciousness. The communists were tasked with clarifying “the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement” [Manifesto]. The class struggle of the proletariat was itself the contradiction of bourgeois social relations as manifest within the ideological forms of bourgeois society. Marx sought to aid this struggle by clarifying the basis and ultimate consequences of the contradiction, in raising the necessity of the conquest of political power by the proletariat as the means of transcending the bourgeois horizon, of overcoming the recrudescence of class divisions by overcoming the basis of class society in the necessity of labor. The proletariat’s conquest of political power would render tractable and, ultimately, transcendable bourgeois social relations, which appeared in capitalism as the imposition of compulsory labor on one part of the population by another part empowered to rule over them.
Marx was bemused by the cold reception Das Kapital received among the “vulgar” bourgeois professors. But he considered “the appreciation” his work had “rapidly gained in wide circles of the German working class” to be “the best reward of [his] labors.” The disparity confirmed to him that the “great capacity for theory” had been lost by “the so-called educated classes,” who had succumbed to vulgarity, even as it “was celebrating its revival” among the workers. Bourgeois intellectuals, attached to and dependent upon the prevailing social order, could not grasp the contradiction of society as manifest in the crisis with which the proletarian class struggle contended, but sought either to deny that crisis altogether or to contain it while preserving that order. This is why “the method employed in Das Kapital has been little understood” by bourgeois intellectuals. Indeed, the book was denounced, albeit in contradictory ways, sometimes by the very same critic. Vulgar bourgeois intellectuals denied the contradictory character of the prevailing social order and, in the process, exhibited contradictory ways of thinking, unconcerned with their own incoherence.
The “obscurity” of the dialectical method was not due to its philosophical or rhetorical abstruseness, but the blindness of intellectuals to the necessity of social transformation, their attachment to the social order upon which they depended. The proletariat also depended upon that social order, but their dependence was fraught: proletarians at once depended upon, and were unable to depend upon, bourgeois social relations. In participating in the society of labor, the proletariat undermined the value of its own labor. This self-undermining dynamic was symptomatic of the fact that the proletariat collectively constituted a capacity for social transformation, capital, that they could not master so long as they were divided against one another, as mere individual commodity dealers competing to sell their labor power. The proletariat was hence driven by the bourgeois desire to realize the value of their labor to confront the self-contradictory character of that labor, as labor that rendered itself superfluous. They had to work through this contradiction by asserting control over the labor process and realizing the emancipatory potential of this self-contradiction in the overcoming of labor, and hence, of its own existence as a class and the very basis of “class society” altogether.
If Marx’s treatment of contradiction is “among the most misunderstood aspects of [his] method,” this says less about Marx than it does about his contemporary audience, who, like 19th-century German professors of political economy, turn “the theoretical expression of a foreign reality. . . into a collection of dogmas” and interpret (and hence, misinterpret) them according to circumstances to which they only superficially seem to apply.
The discrepancy between Marx’s historical moment and our own is due not to some fundamental change, but to the collapse of the proletarian class struggle following the failure of the world socialist revolution at the outset of the 20th century, and, consequently, the apologetic adaptation of socialists, communists, and Marxists to the consequences of this failure: the counterrevolutionary world order in which “communist countries” as well as “social democratic” and “liberal” welfare states, “communist” and “social democratic” parties, and vulgarized “Marxist theory,” all became political instruments of global capitalism.
Since that time, the proletariat has not even approached the level of conscious and organized struggle it had obtained in the early 19th century, let alone by the turn of the 20th. The self-contradiction of society that once manifested in an increasingly conscious and mature form in the proletarian class struggle has, arguably, not disappeared, but is imperceptible to the mass of workers whose only apparent recourse to overcome their continuously deteriorating condition is to compete with each other in the labor market, or, at best, to hope against hope and beg for aid from the capitalist state—through the capitalist parties and, in some cases, through their auxiliaries in the bureaucratically-degenerated trade unions, whose interventions at best serve, a la Mill, only to suppress the threat of class struggle from within the framework of class society by ameliorating the discontents of the workers.
If contemporary socialists are as mystified by Marx’s dialectical method as the bourgeois intellectuals of his day (if not more so), it is because they have proven themselves unable to digest the history of the 20th century, which is to say, the causes and consequences of the failure and collapse of the proletarian socialist movement. This leads to the kind of confusion exhibited by McManus, whose only example of Marx’s treatment of contradiction in his article on that subject is a supposed contradiction between private property and the state. Yet, for Marx, contradiction was not a matter of conflict between two opposed or antagonistic phenomena. Even the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie is only the form of appearance of the self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations in capitalism, the self-contradictory character of proletarian labor. Capital itself is merely the manifestation of the self-contradictory activity of the working class in undermining the value of the labor on which it remains dependent and thus, rendering itself superfluous, realizing the potential for emancipation from labor negatively, as mass unemployment, and the consequent degradation of the conditions of employment.
For Marx, the state, or rather, the recrudescence of state power—which the bourgeois revolution had sought to subordinate to society—under capitalism, was the highest expression of the self-contradiction of bourgeois private property, which is to say, the property produced by free labor. Any apparent antagonism between the state and the private property of the capitalists was merely a means of suppressing the self-contradiction of society embodied in the proletarian class struggle and, hence, of preserving the domination of the proletariat by capital (which is to say, the self-domination of the proletariat by its own inability to exercise power over the capital it constitutes). This is not “contradiction” in Marx’s sense, but quite the opposite: the negative expression of an underlying contradiction in its attenuation. It represents an attempt to render the self-contradiction of society tolerable, to paper it over.
The difficulty of understanding Marx is a symptom of such attenuation, which successfully abated the crisis produced by the mature development of a worldwide revolutionary party of the proletariat for socialism, the Second International—not only from without, in the cunning counterrevolutionary maneuvers of capitalist states, but from within, in the willingness of the leadership of both Social Democracy and Stalinist Communism to make peace with global capitalism and abandon the task of world revolution. The demoralization and disintegration of the proletarian socialist movement was the result of the betrayal and capitulation of its supposedly revolutionary leadership. That difficulty will not be overcome by yet another round of simplified glosses on Marxist theory, which were produced in abundance over the last century and served only to further distort and obscure the real problem. Rather, to understand Marx’s theory, we must understand the historical conditions from which it emerged and through which it became obscure and “foreign” to us: the growth, crisis, collapse, and disintegration of the class struggle of the proletariat, which is to say, the struggle of the working class to realize the potential of capitalism in socialism.
The historic betrayal of the aspirations of the proletariat by its socialist, communist, indeed, Marxist leadership, continues to impede the resurrection of the class struggle by rendering this entire history obscure, if not downright taboo—not only for the proletariat, but also for avowed socialists, who today have far more in common with Mill than Marx (and that is really doing injustice to Mill, who was far clearer on the problems of his day). Contemporary socialists ought to be concerned with clarifying this history for themselves. So long as they fail to do so, they will continue to embody, and reinforce, the obscurity of socialism.