Jean van Heijenoort writing as J. Gerland

The Algebra of Revolution

“Algebra of Revolution” Fourth International, May 1940, pp.18-21, under the name “J Gerland” (2,812 words)

A receding wave drops the heaviest stones first, the pebbles next, and carries the sand a little farther. To deserters from Marxism, the heaviest stone is the heart of the doctrine itself—its method, the dialectic. That is what they abandon first. The list is long of tired revolutionaries, who, for nearly three-quarters of a century now, have denounced the hated dialectic while they still continued for a time to recognize “economic determinism” in history or even the “historic necessity” of socialism.

In an opposite rush of the current, the same phenomenon is observable. The incoming tide washes the sand along before budging the stones. A person who comes to Marxism—especially if he has passed his intellectual youth—grasps successively the different isolated and abstract aspects of it before he penetrates to its method in its entirety—not rarely stopping short of this.

Marxism is thus subjected to incessant attempts at dismemberment. The dialectic is the point of concentration of the resistance which petty-bourgeois thought opposes to Marxism.

This resistance assumes various social, political, or philosophical shadings, but expresses itself through arguments which remain within a fairly narrow scope: “Marx took over the dialectic from Hegel the idealist. It retains the mysticism of its origin and sullies Marxist thought.” To the severest critics, it is the basic defect of the edifice, a “metaphysics” which led Marx into making unfounded assertions, exaggerated affirmations, specious paradoxes, all of which obscure his “economic” work and threaten to ruin its “scientific” conclusions. To the more amiable critics, if the dialectic is not quite that detrimental it is nonetheless useless; it is claptrap inherited from the past which must be eliminated—in another century Marx would have linked his doctrine to another philosophy (pragmatism?) and the problem of the dialectic would not have arisen. The dialectic in Marxism is nothing but a historic accident. It is in accordance with the “true” spirit of the doctrine to remove this vestige of another epoch. Do not hesitate, let us cut out this useless appendix which may at any time become the seat of a new infection of mysticism.

This accusation of mysticism—the most widely propagated of all—launched against the Marxist dialectic is not encumbered with numerous proofs. It is not very easy, in fact, to produce any. To refute them it would be enough to point to all the passages where Marx counterposes his rational method to the mystical method of idealism. By uncovering the social roots of all the mystic baggage which philosophy carted for centuries, has not Marxism placed a cross over mysticism forever?

Lacking even the smallest particle of a quotation from Marx, our critics remind those who have supposedly forgotten it that Marx as a youth passed through the school of Hegelian idealism and that this “could not fail” to leave its imprint upon his mind. All that remains necessary is an explanation as to why Marx developed the most fundamental negation of idealism that mankind has yet formulated.

Mysticism demands essentially that the mind set itself free from logical categories. Impelled by the wish, the unification of subject with object is immediately accomplished, with the “fusion” taking place outside all logical discourse. The dialectic does not reject these categories but reveals their interconnections and their development. It does not deny logic but gives it in this way, with new tools, a new power. Its increased power broadens its domain and consequently narrows that of the mystic. Formal logic, only too often obliged to capitulate before reality, leaves the field open to mysticism. The dialectic is revealed as the mortal—and victorious—enemy of mysticism in the unfolding of all the power of human reason.

Before Marx, the social sciences consisted of nothing but platitudes, testifying to the impotence of contemporary logic to master a complex reality—an impotence which reflected the existing social conditions. This “science” was not rational knowledge, but the projection of desires and aspirations, that is, in great part a tendency toward mysticism. The dialectic puts an end to all this.

Another illustration. The deep-rooted aversion of the Anglo-Saxon mind for the dialectic is well known; its source lies in the historical development of English society. Empiricism and agnosticism, so well suited to this mind, led it towards the middle of the last century into profound contradictions which could be resolved only by dialectical materialism. How far from understanding this were the British professors! They swerved from the rut of empiricism by heading toward the absolute. They appropriated in particular the system of Hegel, that is, its husk, without even noticing the living kernel, and for several decades the British and American universities indulged in orgies of absolute idealism. Pragmatism was in part a reaction against these waves of mysticism but in no way a solution of the difficulties, which only the dialectic could surmount.

Among the “defects” of the dialectic, the charge that it is metaphysics alternates with the accusation that it is mysticism. The contention itself is not easy to formulate. Metaphysics originally was the search for “First Causes.” Hegel used the term in a different and well-defined sense to characterize the anti-dialectical thought of the 18th century, above all, French rationalism. It is in this sense that the founders of scientific socialism introduced it into the Marxist vocabulary. In commonly accepted thought the term “metaphysical” depreciated throughout the 19th century and to each critic it seemed sufficient merely to hurl it at his adversary. Finally, following the positivism of Comte, the scientists labelled as metaphysical everything that went beyond their thinly sliced morsel of science and in particular anything that brought up the obligation, so distasteful to bourgeois scientists, of choosing between materialism and idealism.

The critics of the dialectic apply the sufficiently compromised label of metaphysical upon it without so much as taking the trouble to indicate what they mean by it. Why bother over a mere relic! The Marxist dialectic, we confess, is “metaphysical,” in the sense that it participates boldly in the struggle of materialism against idealism. In this respect materialism itself is metaphysical in the sense that it transcends one or more immediate experiences and that it is impossible to demonstrate it like a simple theorem of geometry. It is hardly correct to say even that materialism is proved by the state of science in a given epoch. It finds its truth in the general development of science, in the movement which unceasingly increases the power of reason, in the ever-broadening possibility of going beyond the hypothesis of a god.

It would be far too compromising for the critics to reject materialism as metaphysical. They have not as a rule yet reached this stage when we occupy ourselves with them. Hence, they limit themselves to the dialectic and their principal argument in qualifying it as metaphysical consists in the fact that they can live very well and act without it and that the dialectic, moreover, is not subject to verification. In its most outspoken form, the argument is converted into a denial, pure and simple, of the dialectic: “It is nothing but a myth, a fiction—nobody knows exactly what it is.” Or some view it as a mere literary ornament with which Marx decorated his too arid dissertations and from which he extracted brilliant metaphors. “But all this has nothing to do with science. Moreover, no Marxist has ever systematically formulated the laws of the dialectic.” That, it appears, is what the critics mean by metaphysics.

Marxism, it must be recognized, lacks a perfected treatise on the dialectic. Marx on various occasions indicated (in letters to Engels, Kugelmann, Dietzgen) his intention of writing a brief theoretical exposition of his method. He died while still working on “Capital.” Engels, after his “Anti-Dühring,” undertook systematic research on the dialectic, especially in relation to the natural sciences. He soon had to abandon it in order to take up the arduous task of deciphering and publishing the second and third volumes of “Capital.” Lenin, in the isolation of the first months of the war, annotated Hegel and Aristotle preliminary to a study upon the dialectic, but the whirlwind of events decided otherwise.

It is doubtful that Marxism will ever have, before the advent of socialism, a manual of the dialectic. The more the workers’ movement develops, all the more do political, strategic, and tactical questions take first place. And that is fortunate—it is the sign that problems are reaching a solution in deeds. To those who may lament this, we can only say that one no more chooses his epoch than he does his parents. The methodological study of the dialectic, which will also be the preparation for its replacement by still more powerful methods of thought, is one of the tasks for the socialist society. This study will be part of the general inventory which the new society will take of the heritage received from the preceding generations.

The situation as regards the dialectic is not so very different from that of culture in general. Just as it is not possible to envisage a “proletarian” culture, so it is impossible to envisage a systematically developed proletarian philosophy. The truth is that the dialectic does not pretend to be more than a method, the expression of the movement of thought that seeks to transcend immediate experience. With Marx it found its practical application in the domain to which scientific knowledge was most foreign: sociology. In any society divided into classes, the “sciences of man” lag considerably behind the natural sciences—the possessing class has no interest whatever in revealing the mechanism of its domination. The bourgeois epoch constitutes the most striking illustration of this fact. But a method is an instrument for arriving at the truth, and where the social brakes are the tightest, a method far more powerful than the relativism of the natural sciences is required. The dialectic coincides with the revolutionary role of Marxism: the object imposed its method and, at the same time, could not be realized through anything else.

The most authentic product so far of the dialectic method, consciously applied, is “Capital.” The great themes of Hegelian logic are there directly transposed—the mode of exposition itself with its movement from the abstract to the concrete, the development of the categories, the opposition of profound reality to immediate existence, the notion of concrete totality, etc., ideas all of them foreign equally to Cartesian rationalism and Anglo-Saxon empiricism. To those who clamor for a manual of the dialectic, we can boldly reply: Take “Capital” by Karl Marx.

But this book is not solely a treatise on logic. It reveals the movement of a reality singularly difficult to penetrate—modern capitalist society—and does so with astonishing accuracy. Here the method is judged by its own results. We had to wait for the Anglo-Saxon critics to hear this surprising demand: that the Marxists say what test[1] can be made to verify the dialectic. This is nothing but a “modern” version of the accusation of metaphysics. To these also the answer must be made: Take “Capital.” If one can speak of a “test” in such a domain, here is a real and crucial test. Can our critics cite a single book-I shall not say in sociology alone, it would be no risk, but in any science—which has for seventy-five years retained equal timeliness and validity? Does the method mean nothing in this respect? It would be crediting “mysticism” and “metaphysics” with strange power to believe them capable of such prowess.

The first question to pose to those who deny the scientific character of the dialectic is to ask them what they mean by scientific method. They generally forget to define this detail. What the manuals repeat on this subject is more often ethical rules rather than methodological principles. The scientists themselves do not begin dissertating on their methods until they hope to depreciate the value of science by showing its relativity. This movement has been observable for some forty years. If the work of these same scientists is examined, one can say that it is compounded of a melange of common sense, that is, formal logic converted into small change, and the dialectic in a fragmentary and unconscious form. The practice of the dialectic begins precisely where thought truly progresses, and imposes itself more each time the mind goes beyond the immediate data. The great unifying theories—the electro-magnetic theory of light, to take one example—are beautiful works of the dialectic. But the act of eating is far removed from the formulation of the laws of digestion. As an epigraph on all the works of Marx, one could well inscribe: “More consciousness!” The dialectic is situated precisely in this movement. It enunciates and seeks to systematize the modes of thinking that follow intelligence at its various levels from the time intelligence begins to exercise its rights, that is, to transcend what is presented immediately before it, and in those cases where the mind does not turn upon itself (as in formal logic) but moves forward.

A particularly resistant reality, the development of society, required the conscious use of the most powerful processes of thought; hence the appearance of precisely the materialist dialectic. Thus sociology at once acquired, under penalty of extinction, the most highly perfected method so far developed for the human intelligence, and in this sense it blazes the way for the other sciences. Need it be added that the latter, making conscious use of the dialectic, will sharpen and enrich it? Carried by the whole current of human knowledge, the dialectic itself will be surpassed. But that, as we have seen, is the task of the coming epoch.

* * *

The physicist Henri Poincaré once observed that you cannot experiment with war. This is still more true of the politics of the proletariat. Just as medicine is based on physiology, Marxist politics rests on sociology. But the latter, unfortunately, has no laboratories at its disposal. The Marxist party can carry out experiments only on an extremely restricted scale: to “test” such and such a partial slogan in a factory, a city, before launching it on a national scale. In the decisive questions, it does not have the right to enter into experimentation. Because of this, observation becomes of singularly important value. Marxists scrupulously study the past, above all the traditions of their class and its struggles.

It is from this that the accusation of conservatism is derived, often repeated by the innovators of the hour against the doctrine of scientific socialism. Hundreds and thousands of artistic, literary, philosophic, and sometimes political parlor-pink circles flourish unceasingly among the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia. They grasp in flight this or that idea, build a “theory” out of it and live off it for a few years or months. The Marxists have nothing in common with these “adventurers of thought.” The revolutionary Socialists are at the apex of an entire historic class, the proletariat. They know the value of a dearly won tradition.

So far as the dialectic is concerned, this tradition speaks with a voice singularly clear and strong. To the extent that they gave theoretical expression to their headlong plunge—one obviously cannot speak of the Millerands and Briands—virtually all the renegades from the revolution preluded their denial of the social and economic and political tenets of socialism by rejecting the dialectic. At the beginning of this century, the German social democrat Bernstein published a book against Marxism which can be regarded as the classic expression of reformism. The same chapter in which the author attempts to demolish the dialectic as mystic and anti-scientific ends with the affirmation that the politics of Marx is nothing but Blanquism.... These are the lessons that no revolutionary socialist dare forget.

The Russian revolutionist Hertzen called the dialectic the “algebra of revolution.” It is really much more than that and its value extends to all of human knowledge, of society, of nature. But it is at least that. All of scientific socialism demands it. If Marx had not found in Hegel the essential forms of the dialectic, he would have produced them, more or less completely, just as the working class movement, if Marx had not lived, would have produced a scientific socialism basically identical with Marxism, although undoubtedly much inferior to it in form. To try now to disconnect the dialectic from Marxism is a task as reactionary as to want to “purify” the working class movement of Marxism. In attempting one or the other, the critics will break their necks and succeed only in bringing judgment upon themselves. February 18, 1940.

[1] James Burnham, “A Belated Dialectician,” Partisan Review, Spring 1939