Ideas & philosophy

1903-2003 - Deciding history's future

Paying the price for opportunism

The theory and practice of the SWP

Understanding contradictions in reality

Muslims and the West after September 11

Contradiction, reflection and cognition: three articles on philosophy

Taking power from the global corporations

Philosophy and revolution go hand in hand

The SWP - a history of left reformism

Matter, God and the New Physics

Facing up to our alienation from nature

Marx's ecology - materialism and nature

The role of concepts
in cognition

A theory for revolutionary change

Images cannot hide reality

From critical realism to materialist dialectics

Ideological Principles for the Fifth International

The significance of the Communist Manifesto

Ilyenkov - a philosopher under suspicion

E-mail to hear about site changes, placing 'update' in body of message



Understanding contradictions in reality

The development of dialectical categories is an expression of the crucial ideological struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class.

By Phil Sharpe

A materialist dialectical approach - in contrast to Hegelian dialectics - tries to develop dialectical categories from material reality, rather than impose them onto material reality. In this context we can show that the process of globalisation represents the historical necessity for communism - the overcoming of alienated labour - but this process is not inevitable.

To suggest inevitability is to argue that dialectical categories move from the lower to the higher in terms of a logical process of sequence - just as Hegel formulated the process of the realisation of the absolute spirit, or how Plekhanov conceived freedom being realised out of necessity.

In contrast, necessity shows that there is a potential direction and progress within history, but that this is a contradictory process in which regression is as possible as advancement. Communism represents the historical necessity of economic processes, but this necessity is concretely expressed and consciously striven for in terms of overcoming political and ideological problems and obstacles that seek to negate the possibility for communism.

For example, the ruling class has carried out an ideological offensive since the fall of the USSR based upon TINA - there is no alternative to capitalism. But this static and fetishised thinking is in contradiction with the dynamic and objective content of globalisation, which is to express the historical necessity for communism.

Hence the ruling class cannot express dialectical thinking because they have to deny the objective, material and historical content of socio-economic processes, which is represented by the necessity for communism within capitalism. However, the growing socialisation, internationalisation, and expansion of the productive forces, cannot be historically realised as some type of mechanical and automatic process.

Instead it is crucial that the working class grasp the ontological importance of necessity - the explanatory capacity of necessity to explain reality - if the terrible contradiction between the potential of being and the present limitations of consciousness are to be overcome. This contradiction is represented by the objective possibilities of necessity being partially negated by the present hegemony of bourgeois ideology.

Opportunism tries to overcome this contradiction by organisational measures, such as establishing the Socialist Alliance, which regroups the 'Left' on the most minimal theoretical basis, and so the contradiction between necessity and the vulgar empiricism and postmodernism of bourgeois ideology remains intact. What is necessary to challenge this contradiction is to develop dialectical theory in a manner which can start to enrich the objective possibilities for overcoming the dichotomy between necessity and the present hegemony of bourgeois ideology.

On the one hand this requires understanding of how the working class is starting to challenge this contradiction in relation to its objective mass strength, as in Argentina. On the other hand, it is crucial to enrich the dialectical content of necessity, to show its formidable ontological presence within reality, and how this expresses the possibility for the historical future of communism.

The development of dialectical categories is an expression of the crucial ideological struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Hence, scepticism about the importance of dialectical categories such as essence is an expression of hostility towards the possibility of revolutionary change, a change which is based upon a striving to understand the relation between essence and appearance and opposition in relation to contemplative acceptance of the dominant appearances of capitalism.

For the vulgar and empirical acceptance of these appearances, such as accommodation to the strength of Social Democracy and Stalinism, have led to opportunism within the post-war history of the Fourth International. However, it is also necessary to be critical of a Marxist form of essentialism - as in the philosophical work of Scott Meikle - which reduces essence to the unfolding of an automatic and mechanical process.

This standpoint cannot dialectically establish how the contradictions of reality are fluid, complex, and require a conscious process of realisation in terms of the possibility of transforming the balance of class forces. Dialectical theory is not just about acknowledging the social processes of reality, but is primarily concerned with how we turn dialectical theory into a material force of revolutionary change. In this manner we establish the relation between alienated and fetishised appearances and the essence of necessity, change, and the possibilities for developing revolutionary consciousness.

Hence it is not the unfolding of dialectical categories as an essential process which represents revolutionary change, but rather that humans consciously grasp that dialectical categories express the material potential for revolutionary transformation. In other words, the objective cannot be understood without the role of the subjective, and so the capacity for humans to consciously recognise what dialectical categories represent is what makes dialectical categories a revolutionary and material expression of reality.

Thus essence is not reduced to the unfolding of the potential of the law of value in a manner which is abstracted from human agency, but rather it is the epistemological capacity of humans to grasp the importance of dialectical categories for understanding reality which enables these categories to challenge the often alienating relation between appearance and essence. However this is not a spontaneous process, because it often requires the mediating role of a revolutionary party, enriched by the dialectical method, to facilitate a transformation in consciousness, and bring about a non-alienating understanding of the relation between essence and appearance.

In other words, overcoming the dichotomy between essence and appearance is not an inexorable and inevitable process, but is rather a process of contradictory change, which requires the development of human consciousness. It is quite conceivable that this consciousness will not develop for many reasons, and so the alienating relation between essence and appearance will remain. The present hegemony of the Socialist Alliance is an expression of this alienating relation, but objective changes within reality, combined with a conscious enrichment of the dialectical method, will show that dialectical categories represent material reality in a manner that is at odds with the shallow reformism of the Socialist Alliance.

Consequently, the struggle against opportunism - as Lenin and Healy showed - is an important aspect of how human consciousness develops, and of how we enrich dialectical categories. To understand the contradictory nature of reality cannot be abstracted from the significance of how we attempt to challenge the contradictions at the level of consciousness which obstruct our ontological and epistemological capacity to utilise dialectical categories in the most ambitious manner. This is why Healy pointed out that reluctance to recognise the importance of the dialectical category of semblance is connected to an approach that ultimately upholds opportunism and alienated thinking.

Thus to try to resolve a contradiction at the level of being, or reality, is connected to the attempted resolution of a contradiction at the level of thought. Hence challenging the alienated aspects of the relation between essence and appearance is connected to the development of the materialist dialectical approach, which recognises both the complexity of these contradictory relations and the importance of challenging its alienating connections. In contrast, those who reject dialectics, remain content with alienated relations in being and thought, and this means they cannot develop a revolutionary theory to facilitate a revolutionary practice. The result is opportunism, which has to be challenged by the revolutionary and sibilities of the materialist dialectical approach.


Globalisation and dialectics

There are two non-dialectical views of the economic crisis. Firstly, that it will essentially be a repetition of the inter-imperialist crisis and trade war of before world war two. Secondly, that globalisation has overcome crisis. In contrast, we have to understand crisis in relation to globalisation, and the increased development of the productive forces of modern times.

This has altered the relation between the nation state and economic development, so that the contradiction between the nation state and the international level of the productive forces is at its highest level. This situation is increasing the possibilities for revolutionary developments. In Argentina, the requirements of the IMF for economic restructuring was based upon the calculated impoverishment of the people. The national bourgeois politicians had no alternative to this policy, and the result was a massive spontaneous revolt by the working class and middle class. This revolt has gradually declined because of the lack of an alternative strategic approach, but the economic problems remain.

This situation will probably be the basis for developments in the foreseeable future: of national revolts against the effects of globalisation, but the ultimate failure of these revolts because what is increasingly required is international action against capitalism in the era of globalisation. In other words the objective situation shows the socialisation and internationalisation of production are at the highest levels that are possible under capitalist social relations of production, but the consciousness is not yet developed in order to realise the promise of this objective situation, the necessity of international revolution.

In Britain and America there have been dramatic slumps in the stock exchange, but this still seems to be the result of episodic problems rather than the failure of important structural mechanisms. In other words, globalisation is still occurring on the basis of capitalist social relations. But the overall historical contradiction between the limits of the social relations of the capitalist mode of production and the objective material requirements of further economic development is still apparent. Primarily the capitalist mode of production cannot globally met human material needs. Abundance is created, and yet the requirements of the profit system mean that exploitation is connected to the inability to reproduce the conditions for the realisation of material wants. In this sense capitalism is a barbaric system, and objective historical necessity demands another and better mode of production in order to met human material wants. This is not to say that the productive forces are stagnating under capitalism, rather that the productive forces are being developed, but the exploitative, alienating, and barbaric nature of capitalism shows a contradiction between the generation of economic wealth and the inability to met human material needs.

Non-dialectical thinkers connect the development of the productive forces with a lack of crisis within capitalism. On the contrary, the development of the productive forces has become the form of the crisis of capitalism, in that economic expansion goes alongside the reproduction of the inability to met human material needs. This is expressed in crisis of overproduction and the particular crisis of the overproduction of capital. However, this crisis does not mean that capitalism can be automatically transformed and a higher mode of production created, rather that is the generation of the consciousness of the need for a global transformation of capital - facilitated by the development of the anti-capitalist movement - which is required for the creation of the conditions for transition to communism.