MARXIST REVIEW MAY/JUNE 2016
Marx, Lenin and Trotsky on:
Dialectics of the abstract and the concrete
By Mike Driver
'If I say: Roman Law and German Law are both law, that is obvious,' Marx pointed out at the start of the very first edition of Capital, published in German in 1867. He went on to illustrate how thinking which contents itself with the 'obvious' may sink even unwittingly into philosophical idealism: 'But if I say, on the other hand, the Law, (this abstract entity) realises itself in Roman Law and German Law, (these concrete laws), then the connection becomes mystical.' (1)
In fact Capital's original first chapter - comprising 'The Commodity' and 'The Form of Value' - had not appeared in full in English translation before they were published by the International Committee of the Fourth International in 1976. Yet they are illuminating. Marx's point above serves us as a key preparation for Capital - especially its chapter one, section four, on the 'fetishism' of commodities - in which he identified the 'mysterious' and 'fantastic' character of the commodity after subjecting it to thoroughgoing analysis.
Of course Capital's later editions, in which what is now chapter one was re-organised and extended whilst excluding the 1867 sentences above, are much more clearly phrased and presented. The second edition, improved on by Marx, was published in German in 1873; and today it is rightly the third 1883 edition, assembled by Marx and edited in three then four volumes after his death by Engels, which is-the standard version. (2)
Even so a fuller understanding of the above point and of the interconnection between the 'abstract' and the 'concrete'- elucidated by Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but presented only idealistically by Hegel - remains crucial to our reading of it today.
Above all it is the importance of Marxism's dialectical materialist recognition of the commodity as not just a thing but a social relation also - i.e., as something else at the same time - that is key to a full grasp of Capital. Or as Marx put it precisely in his
revised first chapter: 'There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical qualities and with the material relations arising from them. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.' (3)
A few pages later Marx concluded chapter one by ironically recognising an early 19th century statement of bourgeois economic theory as follows: "'Riches" (use-value) "are the attribute of men, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich ... A pearl or a diamond is valuable" as pearl or diamond. So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond. The economic discoverers of this chemical element, who by-the-by lay special claim to critical acumen, find however that the use-value of objects belongs to them independently of their material properties, while their value, on the other hand, forms a part of them as objects.' (4)
In 1939, a year after Trotsky organised the
founding of the Fourth International and at the onset of Stalin's
'non-aggression' pact with Hitler's Germany, the new International's
existence came under attack from a petty-bourgeois opposition inside the
US Trotskyist party. It argued that after the pact the
Trotsky had anticipated such a tendency in the event of a new war, and responded straight away: 'In point of fact,' he said, 'the signing of the treaty with Hitler supplies only an extra gauge with which to measure the degree of degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy, and its contempt for the international working class, including the Comintern, but it does not provide any basis whatsoever for re-evaluation of the sociological appraisal of the USSR.
'... The Fourth International long ago recognised the necessity of overthrowing the bureaucracy by means of a revolutionary uprising of the toilers. Nothing else is proposed or can be proposed by those who proclaim the bureaucracy to be an exploiting "class". The goal to be attained by the overthrow of the bureaucracy is the re-establishment of the rule of the Soviets, expelling from them the present bureaucracy.' (5)
The opposition had begun much earlier that year to declare that dialectical materialism was too 'abstract' for the analysis of 'concrete' questions. Trotsky hoped at first that the author of the claim, Max Shachtman, was merely mistaken and might realise this before long, even maybe winning over his main collaborator James Burnham. Two months later he assured both opponents, defending the dialectic as developed by both Hegel and Marxism: 'Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.
'Hegel wrote before
By early 1940 however it became necessary for him to insist categorically: 'Only upon the basis of a unified Marxist conception is it possible to correctly approach "concrete" questions.' His stance followed Shachtman's persisting view (confirmed in an open letter to Trotsky appearing in an internal party bulletin) that: 'It is impossible to deduce directly our policy towards a specific war from an abstract characterisation of the class character of the state involved in the war, more particularly, from the property forms prevailing in that state. Our policy must flow from a concrete examination of the character of the war in relation to the interests of the international socialist revolution' (7)
Trotsky responded critically: 'Why must the
analysis of the character of a state be abstract whereas the analysis of
the character of a war is concrete? Formally speaking, one can say with
equal, in fact with much more right, that our policy in relation to the
'The fundamental sophistry upon which Shachtman constructs everything else is simple enough: Inasmuch as the economic basis determines events in the superstructure not immediately; inasmuch as the mere class characterisation of the state is not enough to solve the practical tasks, therefore ... therefore we can get along without examining economics and the class nature of the state; by replacing them, as Shachtman phrases it in his journalistic jargon, with the "realities of living events".
'The very same artifice circulated by Shachtman to justify his philosophic bloc with Burnham (dialectic materialism determines our politics not immediately, consequently ... it does not in general affect the "concrete political tasks") is repeated here word for word in relation to Marxist sociology: Inasmuch as property forms determine the policy of a state not immediately it is possible therefore to throw Marxist sociology overboard in general in determining "concrete political tasks".
'But why stop there? Since the law of labour value determines . prices not "directly" and not "immediately"; since the laws of natural selection determine not "directly" and not "immediately" the birth of a suckling pig; since the laws of gravity determine not "directly" and not "immediately" the tumble of a drunken policeman down a flight of stairs, therefore - therefore let us leave Marx, Darwin, Newton, and all the other lovers of "abstractions" to collect dust on a shelf.
'This is nothing less than the solemn burial of science for, after all, the entire course of the development of science proceeds from "direct" and "immediate" causes to the more remote and profound ones, from multiple varieties and kaleidoscopic events - to the unity of the driving forces .. .'
He stressed in conclusion: 'Shachtman obviously does not take into account the distinction between the abstract and the concrete. Striving towards concreteness, our mind operates with abstractions ... Concreteness is a relative concept and not an absolute one: what is concrete in one case turns out to be abstract in another: that is, insufficiently defined for a given purpose. In order to obtain a concept "concrete" enough for a given need it is necessary to correlate several abstractions into one - just as in reproducing a segment of life upon the screen, which is a picture in movement, it is necessary to combine a number of still photographs. The concrete is a combination of abstractions - not an arbitrary or subjective combination but one that corresponds to the laws of the movement of a given phenomenon.
"The interests of the international socialist revolution," to which Shachtman appeals against the class nature of the state, represent in this given instance the vaguest of all abstractions. After all, the question which occupies us is precisely this, in what concrete way can we further the interests of the revolution?
'Nor would it be amiss to remember, too, that the task of the socialist revolution is to create a workers' state. Before talking about the socialist revolution, it is necessary consequently to learn how to distinguish between such "abstractions" as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the capitalist state and the workers' state.' (8)
Before 1859, in notes preceding 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy', Marx had defined the term 'concrete' as 'representing the unity of diverse aspects'(9): a less specific depiction than Trotsky's above, but one identically rooted in the laws of motion of 'given' phenomena. Some five decades earlier Hegel the last in a prominent succession of German idealist thinkers - had pioneered his study of the movement of concepts without at all realising that what this expresses is the movement of matter itself.
Also in 1859 Marx had opted for the first time to begin his critique with an analysis of the commodity - which later became Capital's starting-point too. Comparably Lenin, on annotating Hegel's 'Science of Logic' in his 'Philosophical Notebooks', pointed almost immediately to the 'beautiful formula' of Hegel's 'Introduction': 'Not merely an abstract universal, but a universal which comprises in itself the wealth of the particular, the individual.' Following that Lenin commented: '(all the wealth of the particular and single!)!!' - and noted in the margin: 'cf. Capital'. (10) .
Exactly that was key to Lenin's purpose throughout his study of Hegel: to grasp every new clue as to how Capital had been able to reveal the 'particular and single' commodity as the 'cell' of bourgeois society' (11), i.e., of capital at its inception. 'Marx applied Hegel's dialectics in its rational form to political economy,' he explained, adding that this was 'where to look for the true meaning, significance and role of Hegel's 'Logic'.'(12)
There certainly was a 'non-rational' aspect to the fruits of Hegel's labours: but such an aspect had nothing at all to do with his dialectics, and everything to do with his idealism. His Logic unsuccessfully aspired, as had his first major work 'The Phenomenology of Mind', to prove logic a science. But what it did enable him to do - and what Marx did later prove the significance of - was to introduce human practice into logic with full status, for the first time. In that context he could then counterpose the concrete to the abstract - and also, for example, the more concrete 'Concept' to the merely abstract 'Notion'. But how could such a comparison or contrast be demonstrated or in any way proved without acknowledgment at the same time that only the objective world is a criterion of practical success, and the true measure of a concept's concreteness?
Or as Engels put it more scientifically and succinctly in his 'Dialectics of Nature': 'The general law of the change of form of motion is much more concrete than any single "concrete" example of it.'(13) Lenin later added to this in his 'Notebooks': 'The laws of logic are the reflections of the objective in the subjective consciousness of man.' (14)
Equally it was in recognition of that shortcoming in Hegel that Lenin qualified with italics the first word of what was otherwise fulsome praise: 'Essentially Hegel is completely right as opposed to Kant. Thought proceeding from the concrete to the abstract - provided it is correct (NB) (and Kant, like all philosophers, speaks of correct thought) - does not get away from the truth but comes closer to it. The abstraction of matter, of a law of nature, the abstraction of value, etc., in short all scientific (correct, serious, not absurd) abstractions reflect nature more deeply, truly and completely.
'From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, - such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.' (15)
A few pages later he added: 'The formation of (abstract) notions already includes idea, conviction, consciousness of the law-governed, character of the objective connection of the world. To distinguish causality from this connection is stupid. To deny the objectivity of notions, the objectivity of the universal in the individual and in the particular is impossible ... Just as the simple form of value, the individual act of exchange of one given commodity for another, already includes in an undeveloped form all the main contradictions of capitalism, - so the simplest generalisation, the first and simplest formation of notions, (judgments, syllogisms, etc.) already denotes man's ever deeper cognition of the objective connection of the world.' (16)
Then after annotating the whole 'Science of Logic', and after remarking that 'the sum-total, the last word and essence of Hegel's logic is the dialectical method', that 'in this most idealistic of Hegel's works there is the least idealism'(17) - as well as stressing that it is in the 'deepening' of such a progression that 'the richest is found to be the most concrete'(18) - Lenin returned once again to Hegel to develop his understanding of Capital.
In a Notebook dated several months later he suggested the recognition of this 'deepening' as a 'double analysis' - i.e., a logic revealing the abstract as not at all the origin or source of the concrete, and one in which 'the history of thought must, by and large, coincide with the laws of thinking' - as follows: 'The concept (cognition) reveals the essence (the law of causality, identity, difference, etc.) in Being (in immediate phenomena) - such is actually the general course of all human cognition (of all science) in general .. .'
He summarised this 'First of all impressions flash by, then Something emerges, - afterwards the concepts of quality (the determination of the thing or phenomenon) and quantity are developed. After that study and reflection direct thought to cognition of identity - of difference - of Ground - of the Essence versus the Phenomenon - of causality, etc.
'All these moments (steps, stages, processes) of cognition move in the direction from the subject to the object, being tested in practice and arriving through this test at truth (= the Absolute Idea).'
Finally he added, in the same note, the following illustrative summary of Marx's Capital as a whole: 'Commodity - money - capital ? The history of capitalism and the analysis of the concepts summing it up.
The beginning - the most simple, ordinary mass, immediate "Being": the single commodity ("Sein" [Being-MD] in political economy). The analysis of it as a social relation. A double analysis, deductive and inductive - logical and historical (forms of value).
Testing by facts or by practice respectively, is to be found here in each step of the analysis.' (19)
(1) Value: Studies by Marx, (pp 56-7) New Park Publications, 1976
(2) Capital, Vol 1, Trans. Moore/Aveling, Lawrence & Wishart
(3) ibid p77
(4) ibid p87
(5) In Defence of Marxism,
(6) ibid pp70-71
(7) ibid pp152 &154-5 (8) ibid pp155-7
(9) A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress, p206
(10) Lenin Collected Works: Volume 38,p99
(11) ibid p361 (12) ibid, p178
(13) Engels, Dialectics of Nature: Progress p222
(14) Lenin, Collected Works: Vol 38, p183
(15) ibid p171 (16) ibid pp178-9 (17) ibid p234 (18) ibid p232
(19) ibid pp318-20