The Concrete and the Abstract: Beyond the Matter/Idea Dichotomy

Katarina Kolozova

June 9, 2022

The following article is based on part of the manuscript for a forthcoming book on materialism - co-authored by Katarina Kolozova, Paul Cockshott, and Greg Michaelson.

After more than a century of Marxism and the centrality of the notion of dialectical materialism (or the dogma of Diamat),[1] it is quite a challenge to demonstrate that the compound notion of dialectics and materialism was not the cornerstone of Marxism in its original, i.e., Marx’s, form, and that he viewed dialectics and materialism as distinct categories not necessarily and unavoidably constituting a unity. His method of moving away from an abstraction, which is in fact a vague philosophical generalization, to arrive at the concrete only to extrapolate another and new form of abstraction (determined by the concrete), would not allow for a mixture and an amphibology of method and a claim about an ontological foundation of reality, i.e., of dialectics and method respectively. Much of what followed in this strange detour from, what we argue, was Marx’ original intention is probably indebted to the legacy of Diamat (dialectical materialism), as consolidated by the Comintern, and as the official party doctrine of USSR consolidated after the death of Lenin.

In Materialism and Empirio-criticism,[2] Lenin praises Joseph Dietzgen for coining the notion of “dialectical materialism,” thus having produced a proper materialism, one practiced by way of the method of dialectics, or as materialist dialectics, to be considered as an important addition to Marx’s and Engel’s original doctrine/s.[3] In this treatise penned by Lenin, we see one thing very clearly – Marx is not presented as the thinker who developed dialectical materialism but rather as the one that offered grounds for it to be developed by Dietzgen. However, Lenin’s use of the method of “dialectical materialism” is not centered on constituting an ontology of the classical, Stalinist Diamat type, but rather serves to refute subjectivism, as inherently idealist, and proffer a defense of Marxism as uncompromising materialism. The triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and thus reconciliation of materialism and idealism is neither Lenin’s object of interest nor his objective in the title at issue:

A red thread that runs through all the writings of all the Machists is the stupid claim to have “risen above” materialism and idealism, to have transcended this “obsolete” antithesis; but in fact this whole fraternity is continually sliding into idealism and it conducts a steady and incessant struggle against materialism.[4]

Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-criticism is a stark defense of materialism first and foremost, and hardly one – if at all – of that, then still novel, notion, never really accepted by Marx and his immediate circle, called “dialectical materialism.”

Evald Iliyenkov’s reading of both Marx and Lenin proves that the kernel of Marx’s – and, for that matter, Lenin’s – materialism is the creation of an episteme allowing for thinking in terms of the concrete and constituting thought of objectivity.

The most important aspect of Marx’s definition of the concrete is that the concrete is treated first of all as an objective characteristic of a thing considered quite independently from any evolutions that may take place in the cognising subject. […] Concreteness is not created in the process of reflection of the object by the subject either at