The dialectics of the Abstract & the Concrete in Marx’s Capital
Chapter One – Dialectical & Metaphysical Conception of the Concrete

Concrete Unity as Unity of Opposites

We have thus established that thinking in concepts is directed at revealing the living real unity of things, their concrete connection of interaction rather than at defining their abstract unity, dead identity.

The analysis of the category of interaction shows directly, however, that mere sameness, simple identity of two individual things is by no means an expression of the principle of their mutual connection.

In general, interaction proves to be strong if an object finds in another object a complement of itself, something, that it is lacking as such.

‘Sameness’ is always assumed, of course, as the premise or condition under which the link of interconnection is established. But the very essence of interconnection is not realised through sameness. Two gears are locked exactly because the tooth of the pinion is placed opposite a space between two teeth of the drive gear rather than opposite the same kind of tooth.

When two chemical particles, previously apparently identical, are ‘locked’ into a molecule, the structure of each of them undergoes a certain change. Each of the two particles actually bound in the molecule has its own complement in the other one: at each moment they exchange the electrons of their outermost shell, this mutual exchange binding them into a single whole. Each of them gravitates towards the other, because at each given moment its electron (or electrons) is within the other particle, the very same electron which it lacks for this precise reason. Where such a continually arising and continually disappearing difference does not exist, no cohesion or interaction exists either; what we have is more or less accidental external contact.

If one were to take a hypothetical case, quite impossible in reality-two phenomena absolutely identical in all their characteristics-one would be hard put to it to imagine or conceive a strong bond or cohesion or interaction between them.

It is even more important to take this point into account when we are dealing with links between two (or more) developing phenomena involved in this process. Of course, two completely identical phenomena may very well coexist side by side and even come into certain contact. This contact, however, will not yield anything new at all until it elicits in each of them internal changes which will transform them into different and mutually opposed moments within a certain coherent whole.

Patriarchal subsistence households, each of which produces within itself everything that it needs, the same things that a neighbouring household produces, do not need one another. There are no strong links between them, for there is no division of labour, an organisation of labour under which one does something that someone else does not. Where differences arise between subsistence households, the possibility for mutual exchange of labour products also arises for the first time. The bond emerging..-here consolidates and further develops the difference and, along with it, the mutual connection. The development of differences between once identical (and precisely for this reason indifferently coexisting) households is the development, of mutual links between them, it is the process of their transformation into distinct and opposed elements, of a single economic whole, integral producing organism.

In general, the development of forms of labour division is at the same time the development of forms of interaction between men in the production of material life. Where there is no division of labour, not in the elementary form even, there is no society – there is only a herd bound by biological rather than social tied. Division of labour may take antagonistic class form and it may, on the other hand, take the form of comradely collaboration. Yet it always remains division of labour and can never be ‘identification’ of all forms of labour: communism assumes maximal development of each individual’s capabilities both in spiritual and material production, rather than levelling of these abilities. Each individual here becomes a personality in the full and noble meaning of this concept exactly because every other individual interacting with him is also a unique creative individuality rather than a being performing the same stereotype, standardised, abstractly identical actions or operations. Such operations are in general moved outside the scope of human activity and handed over to machines. And exactly for this reason each individual here is needed by and of interest to others much more than in the world of capitalist division of labour. The social links binding personality to personality are here much more direct, comprehensive and strong than the links in commodity production.

That is why concreteness understood as an expression of living, factual, objective bond and interaction between real individual things, cannot be expressed as an abstract identity, bare equality, or pure similarity of things under consideration. Any instance of real interaction in nature, society, or consciousness, he it ever so elementary, necessarily contains identity of the distinct, a unity of opposites, rather than mere identity. Interaction assumes that one object realises its given specific nature only through its interrelation with another object and cannot exist outside this relation as such, as ‘this one’, as a specifically definite object.

To express the individual in thought, to understand the individual in its organic links with other instances of the individual and the concrete essence of their connection, one must not look for a naked abstraction, for an identical feature abstractly common to all of them taken separately.

Let us now take a more complex and at the same time more striking example. Wherein lies, for instance, the actual, living, concrete and objective bond between the capitalist and the wage workers, that ‘general element’ which each of these individual economic characters has in comparison with others? The fact that both of them are men, both of them need food, clothing, etc., both of them are capable of reasoning, talking, working? Undoubtedly they have all of these features. Moreover, all of this even constitutes the necessary premise of their bond as capitalist and wage worker, yet it in no wise constitutes the very essence of their relation as capitalist and wage worker. Their actual bond is founded on the fact that each of them has an economic trait that the other lacks, that their economic definitions are diametrically opposed. The point is that one of them possesses a feature that the other lacks, and he possesses it exactly because the other does not have it. Each mutually needs the other because of the diametrical opposition of their economic definitions. And that is exactly what makes them the necessary poles of an identical relation binding them stronger than anything they might have in common (‘their sameness’).

One individual thing is as it is, and not the other thing, exactly because the other is diametrically opposed to it in all characteristics. That is exactly why it cannot exist as such without the other, outside its connection with its own opposite. As long as a capitalist remains a capitalist and a wage worker, a wage worker, each of them necessarily reproduces in the other a diametrically opposed economic definiteness. One of them appears as a wage worker because the other is a capitalist vis--vis the former, the two economic figures having diametrically opposed traits.

That means that the essence of their bond within the given concrete relationship is based precisely on complete absence of a definition abstractly common to both.

A capitalist cannot, within this bond, have any traits that a wage worker possesses, and vice versa. And that means that none of them possesses an economic definition that would be simultaneously inherent in the other, that would be common to both. It is precisely this community that is lacking in their concrete economic bond.

It is a well-known fact that the banal apologists castigated by Marx insisted on looking for the basis of the mutual links between capitalist and worker in the community of their economic characteristics. From Marx’s viewpoint, the really concrete unity of two or more interacting individual, Particular things (phenomena, processes, men, etc.) always appears as the unity of mutually exclusive opposites. Between them, between aspects of this concrete interaction there is nothing abstractly identical or abstractly general and neither can there be.

In this case, the common as concretely general is exactly that very mutual bond between the elements of interaction as polar, mutually complementary, and mutually presupposing opposites. Each of the concretely interacting sides is what it is, that is, what it is in the context of a given concrete link, only through its relation to its own opposite.

The term ‘common’ does not coincide here in its meaning with ‘identical’ or ‘the same’. Yet this usage, characteristic of dialectical logic, is by no means alien to the common usage and is based on a shade of meaning present in the word ‘common’. Thus, in all languages an object in joint or collective possession is called ‘common’: e.g., one speaks of a ‘common field’, a ‘common ancestor’, and so on. The dialectical approach has always been based on this etymologic-al shade of meaning. Here ‘common’ has the meaning of bond which by no means coincides in its content with the identical features of different correlated objects, men, and so on. The essence of the concrete bond between men .jointly possessing a field is by no means contained in those identical traits they may have in common. Mat is common to them here is that particular object which each of them has outside them, confronting them, that object through relation to which the relation between them is established. The essence of their mutual bond is thereby given by a more general system of conditions, a system of interaction, within which they can play most diverse roles.

What does a reader have in common with the book which he reads, what is the essence of their mutual relation? Certainly the community does not lie in that both reader and book are three-dimensional, that both of them belong to spatially defined objects, that both consist of identical atoms, molecules, chemical elements, etc. That which is common to them does not consist in the identical properties of both. Quite the contrary: the reader is the reader exactly because he is confronted, as a condition without which he is not a reader, by that which is read, the reader’s concrete opposite.

One exists as such, as a given concretely defined object, exactly because and only because it is confronted by something different as concretely different from it – an object whose definitions are all diametrically opposed to those of the former object. Definitions of one are inverted definitions of the other. That is the only way in which concrete unity of opposites, concrete community, is expressed in a concept.

The essence of concrete links (concrete community, concrete unity) is therefore determined not by looking for the identical traits abstractly inherent in each of the elements of such a community but by other means.

Analysis is in this case directed at the concrete system of conditions within which two elements, objects, phenomena, etc., emerge which simultaneously both mutually exclude one another and mutually assume one another. To establish the opposites whose mutual relations give existence to the interaction system in question, a given, concrete community, means to solve the task. Analysis of dialectical community therefore proves to be the study of the process that creates the two elements of interaction (e.g., capitalist and wage worker or reader and book) each of which cannot exist without the other because it has a characteristic which the other does not possess, and vice versa.

In this case, in each of the two interacting objects a definition will be discovered which is inherent in it as a member of the given, uniquely specific, concrete mode of interaction. Only in this case in each of the two related objects that aspect will be discovered (and singled out through abstraction) which makes this object into an element of the given concrete whole.

Concrete identity, identity of opposites – these are the dialectical formulas: identity of the different, the concrete unity of mutually excluding and therefore mutually assuming definitions. A thing has to be conceived as an element, as an individual expression of a universal (concrete universal) substance. That is the task of cognition.

This point of view explains, for instance, the difficulties which prevented Aristotle from discovering the essence, the substance of the exchange relation, the mystery of the equality of one house and five beds. The great dialectician of antiquity here, too, tried to find an internal unity of the two things rather than their abstract identity. Nothing could be easier than to find the latter, while discovering the former is quite hard.

In considering the exchange relation between a house and a bed, Aristotle came up against a task that was insoluble at the time, though not because he could not see anything that the two had in common. A brain much less sophisticated in logic will find abstract features common to both house and bed; Aristotle had plenty of words at his disposal to express something that a house and a bed had in common. Both house and bed are equally objects of everyday life, part of man’s household environment, both are sensually perceived things existing in time and space, both have weight, form, hardness, etc., ad infinitum. It should be assumed that Aristotle would not have been too much surprised if someone drew his attention to the fact that both house and bed were equally made by the hands of man (or slave), that both were products of human labour.

So Aristotle’s difficulty did not at all lie in finding an abstract general property common to both house and bed or in including both in a ‘common genus’ but rather in revealing the real substance in which they are equated irrespective of the will of the subject, of the abstraction-making head and of the purely artificial devices man invented for purposes of practical convenience. Aristotle gives up further analysis not because he cannot find anything that a house and a bed will have in common but rather because he cannot find an entity which necessarily requires the fact of mutual exchange, of mutual substitution of two different objects for its realisation or manifestation. Aristotle’s inability to find something in common between two so different things reveals the dialectical strength and profundity of his thinking rather than a weakness of his logical abilities or lack of observation. Not satisfied by the abstract general, he attempts to discover the deeper roots of the fact. He is not interested merely in the proximate genus in which both may be included, if one so desires, but in the real genus, of which he has a much more meaningful conception than that for which the school tradition in logic has made him responsible.

Aristotle wants to find a reality that is only implemented as a property of a bed and a house due to the exchange relation between them, something general that requires exchange for its manifestation. However, all those common properties that he observes in them also exist when they have no reference to exchange and consequently do not form the specific essence of exchange. Aristotle thus towers head and shoulders above those theoreticians who, two thousands years after, saw the essence and substance of the value qualities of a thing in its utility. The utility of a thing is not at all necessarily connected with exchange, it does not obligatorily require exchange to be revealed.

In other words, Aristotle wants to find an essence which manifests itself only through exchange and is in no way manifested outside exchange though it constitutes the ‘latent nature’ of the thing. Marx showed clearly what precluded Aristotle’s comprehending the essence of the exchange relation: the absence of the value concept. Aristotle could not understand or reveal the real essence, the real substance of the exchange properties of things as this substance is in fact social labour. The whole point is that the concepts of value and labour did not exist. Let us point out at the same time that a general abstract notion of both did exist at his time. ‘Labour seems to be a very simple category. The notion of labour in this universal form, as labour in general, is also extremely old’, [Critique of Political Economy] and Aristotle was certainly aware of it. Including both house and bed in the abstract notion of ‘products of labour in general’ would not have been an overly complicated and still less insoluble logical task for Aristotle.

What Aristotle lacked was the concept of value. The word, the name that contained the simple abstraction of value did exist in his time, of course, as in his time, too, there existed merchants who regarded all things from the abstract viewpoint of buying and selling.

But the concept of labour did not exist in that epoch. That merely shows, once again, that in Marx’s terminology a concept is something different from an abstract general notion fixed in a term. What is it then?

The concept of labour (as distinct from and opposed to of it) assumes a realisation of the role of labour in the overall process of human life. In Aristotle’s epoch, labour was not seen a substance of all phenomena of social life, as the ‘real essence’ of all that was human, as the real source of all human qualities without exception.

The concept of a phenomenon exists, in general, only where this phenomenon is understood not abstractly (that is, not as a recurring phenomenon) but concretely, that is, in regard to its position and role in a definite system of interacting phenomena, in a system forming a certain coherent whole. A concept exists where the particular and the individual are realised as more than merely the individual and the particular (though recurrent) – they are realised through their mutual links, through the universal construed as an expression of the principle of these links.

Aristotle did not have such a conception of labour, for mankind had not yet worked out at that epoch any clear realisation of the role and place of labour in the system of social life. Moreover, Aristotle’s contemporaries did not believe labour to be a form of life activity that might be included in the sphere of human life proper. He did not conceive labour as the real substance of all forms and modes of human life. Not surprisingly, he failed to understand it as the substance of the exchange properties of a thing. In Marx’s terminology, that means precisely this, that he did not have a concept of labour and value but only an abstract notion of them. This abstract notion could not serve as the key to understanding the essence of commodity exchange.

The classic representatives of bourgeois economy were the first to perceive labour as the real substance of all forms of economic life including, first and foremost, such a form as commodity exchange. That means that they were the first to form a concept of that reality of which Aristotle had only an abstract notion. The reason for that is not, of course, that English economists proved to be greater logicians than the Stagirite. The reason is that the economists studied this reality within a better developed social environment.

Marx showed clearly what was involved here: the object of study itself, in this case human society, matured to the degree that it was necessary and possible to study it in terms of concepts expressing the concrete substance of all its manifestations.

Labour as the universal substance, as an ‘active form’ appeared here, not only in consciousness but also in reality, as that ‘proximate real genus’ which Aristotle failed to see. The reduction of all phenomena to ‘labour in general’, to labour devoid of all qualitative differences, for the first time took place here in the reality of economic relations itself rather than in the abstract-making heads of theoreticians. Value became that goal for the sake of which each thing was realised in labour; it became an ‘active form’, a concrete universal law governing the destinies of each separate thing and each separate individual.

The point is that reduction to labour devoid of all differences appears here as an abstraction, but as a real abstraction, ‘which is made every day in the social process of production’. [Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy] As Marx puts it, this reduction is no more and no less of an abstraction than resolution of organic bodies into air. ‘Labour, thus measured by time, does not seem, indeed, to be the labour of different persons, but on the contrary the different working individuals seem to be mere organs of this labour. [ibid.]

Here labour in general, labour as such appears as a concrete universal substance, and a single individual and the single product of his labour, as manifestations of this universal essence.

The concept of labour expresses something greater than merely the identical elements that can be abstracted from the labour activities of individual persons. It is a real universal law which dominates the individual and the particular, determines their destinies, controls them, makes them into its organs, forcing them to perform the given functions and not some others.

The particular and individual itself is formed in accordance with the requirements contained in this real universal, and the impression is that the individual in its particularity appears as the individual embodiment of the really universal. Distinctions between individuals themselves prove to be a form of manifestation of the universal rather than something standing side by side with the universal and having no relation to it.

A concept is a theoretical expression of this universal. Through a concept, every particular and individual element is apprehended precisely in those aspects which belong to the given whole, is an expression of the given concrete substance and is comprehended as an emerging and disappearing element of the movement of the concrete specific system of interaction. The substance itself, the concrete system of interacting phenomena is understood as a system that was historically formed.

A concept (as distinct from a general notion expressed in a word) does not merely equate one thing (object, phenomenon, event, fact, etc.) to another in the proximate genus, extinguishing in it all its specific differences, abstracting from them. Something quite different takes place in the concept: the individual object is reflected in its particular features which make it a necessary element of some whole, an individual (one-sided) expression of a concrete whole. Each separate element of any dialectically divided whole expresses, one-sidedly, the universal nature of this whole precisely in its difference from other elements rather than through abstract affinity to them.

The concept (in its strict and precise sense) is not therefore a monopoly of scientific theoretical thought. Every man has a concept, rather than a general notion expressed in a term, about such things as table or chair, knife or matches. Everybody understands quite well both the role of these things in our lives and the specific features owing to which they play a given role rather than some other one and occupy a given position, rather than some other one, in the system of conditions of social life in which they were made, in which the emerged. In this case the concept is present in the fullness of its definition, and every man consciously handles things in accordance with their concept, proving thereby that he has this concept.

Things like the atom or art are quite a different matter. Not every artist has a well-developed concept of art, by any means, although he may create magnificent works of art. The present author is not ashamed to admit that he has a rather vague notion of the atom, as compared to a physicist. But it is not every physicist that has a concept of the concept. A physicist who shuns philosophy is not likely to acquire it.

To avoid misunderstandings, we shall have to make the following qualification. In the present work thought is taken to mean first of all scientific theoretical thought, that is, thought operating in scientific theoretical study of the world. This restriction on the scope of the work does not at all mean that the so-called everyday thinking is not worthy of logic as science or that it develops according to different laws. The whole point is that scientific theoretical thought is the best developed form of thought. Its analysis therefore permits to establish, with greater facility, the laws which operate in thought in general. On the other hand, thought as it is practiced everyday does not so easily lend itself to the discovery of these universal laws and forms of thought: they are always hidden from view by a mass of complications, of various factors and circumstances. The process of thinking is here often interrupted by interferences due to pure association or purely individual emotional motives; very often a number of links in the chain of reasoning is simply omitted, the gap being filled with an argument based on purely individual experiences crossing one’s mind; no less frequently man orients himself in a situation, in his relation to another man or event with the aid of well-developed aesthetic taste and perception, while reasoning in the strict sense plays an accessory or auxiliary role, etc., etc. For all these reasons everyday thinking is a very inconvenient object of logical analysis, a study aimed at establishing universal laws of thought in general. These laws operate here permanently, but it is much more difficult to study them in isolation from the effect of complicating circumstances than in the analysis of the scientific theoretical process. In the latter, the universal forms and laws of thought generally appear in much ‘purer’ aspect; here as everywhere the more developed form enables us to understand the less developed one in its genuine essence, the more so that the possibilities and prospects of development towards a higher and more advanced form can be taken into account.

Scientific theoretical thought is exactly in this kind of relation to everyday thinking: anatomy of man offers a key to the anatomy of ape, not vice versa, and ‘rudiments of more advanced forms’ may only be correctly understood when these more advanced forms are known by themselves. Proceeding from this general methodological assumption, we consider the laws and forms of thought in general mostly in regard to the way they appear in scientific theoretical thought. We thereby obtain the key to comprehending all other forms and applications of thought that are in a certain sense more complicated than scientific thought, than application of the ability to think to the solution of scientific theoretical, problems, of clearly and strictly delineated problems. It stands to reason that the universal laws of thought are the same both in the scientific and so-called everyday thinking. But they are easier to discern in scientific thought for the same reason for which the universal laws of the development of the capitalist formation could be easier established, in mid-19th century, by the analysis of English capitalism rather than Russian or Italian.